The story of a dishwasher, older than ten, younger than fifteen, in Condus, the year 472 A.E.
Soft as kashmir, the woolen name kept him warm in winter’s chill and kindled the summer’s fire.
He closed his eyes and tucked himself into her name, a name as dark as the night’s conspiracies to dream.
Her name, thick with the heavy aroma of guttering liquid light, rose and fell with his breath, unlocked his shackles and untied his wings. His stomach fluttered. Lifting him in her soft petaled hands, she carried him, his chest expanding, across vast expanses of desert, past waves rooted in the depths rising like flowers. Far she carried him over the vast Sea of Luminous Pearls bursting with the light of sapphire buds. Far she carried him, breathless, to the place where the sky emerged from the deep sea. Gone, gone, far beyond the shore, her name, a soft distracted song, cradled him under the infinite blue.
The name within whose eyelashes he took refuge so he might gaze upon the diamond in the midnight of her new moon eyes, the very same eyes upon which shimmering rays of sun glided and guided the bloom of spring.
All the flowers in the world could not produce a honey as sweet and succulent as that which dripped from her name. Bees and butterflies sought her name, her scent—the name of that special honey from which countless tongues spilled.
Cupped in her jasmine hands, he drifted past cheeks flawless as the gazelle’s oceanic eyes and eddied around agate lips before he crested her gentle chin; he paused to gaze across her prone resplendent body and watch the tides of breath wax and wane in this—this moment of sailing under a million stars expanding, weaving—
—weaving him within their dreams to rid—
–to rid him of his history and his name. And there, in that place where the sea and sky embraced one another, he closed his eyes, puckered his lips, and leaned forward—
“Rahim ibn Rahman al-Asra!”
The voice unraveled the stars and rent the sea from the sky. Took hold of the thread and yanked him back. The kiss, the long awaited kiss, dead and gone. His name doused his rising fire and in pulling the wool from his eyes, scattered the ashes of her name across the kitchen floor, tied his wings, and locked the shackles in this, a charred and calcified night.
Jerked from the starlit sky he watched through the grilled kitchen window, the dilatory Rahim hurried to dry the already dry dish. The evening’s heat alone could have dried the plate, but just like every single evening, Rahim had a job to do.
The old man cleared his throat and crossed his arms.
“—I mean Shayk.”
“You should have been done long ago,” said the sharp-nosed, bald old man. He inspected the plates (always stacked in fours), bowls (always stacked in threes), and the cups. About the latter, he, his soft tone bordering on the exasperated, complained, “These rows are not straight…You’ll need to take care of that. What have you been doing in here? Rahim? He-llo?” He waved a hand through Rahim’s line of sight. “Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, long ago.” Rahim slunked his shoulders. “I heard.”
“Are you dreaming again?”
The Shayk rubbed his brow the way he did when he said he had a headache. “You know your day of obligation soon approaches Rahim. You need to get your head out of the clouds. It’s for you own good.” His mouth opened to say something more, but he stopped short and took in a deep breath. “Oh, I almost forgot. I have good news for you. Tomorrow you start as Bread Maker. Remember, straighten up.” He withdrew down the hallway to his cell.
“Yes Shayk.” His heavy voice fell to the floor where it would pool before seeping into the cracks and mingle with his sighs. Straighten up. Always straighten up. Sweep, wash, dry, straighten up. Always according to the Shayk’s insistence on everything being clean and in absolute and perfect harmony. His plan, his way—the right way.
But hey, at least tomorrow would be something different. He rallied a smile and whistled while he worked. Baking bread could be nice. It will be nice. Bread Maker. He straightened his back and smiled, went back to drying his dishes, lined the cups, whistling all the while, and, satisfied with a job well done, dusted his hands.
Hanging still over the compound’s wall and domed palaces to the east, a full moon underhanded silver light into the kitchen. The iron window grille, wrought into interlacing bars, wove spider web shadows into the kitchen’s brick walls. He whispered her name a final time, dropped his head and sighed. He washed dishes for more than a year, but less than five and chances were he’d do the same with baking bread.
He extinguished the all the oil lamps save one, exited the kitchen, trudged along the festering hallway, and traced the fishy brick walls on the way to his cell.
He drudged past twelve doors, turned left toward his cell, fashioned from the very same leprous and gangrenous brick, eight doors down. A gift when he first arrived, Rahim’s uncle offered the boy his larger cell in exchange for a smaller cell simply because “a small cell is no place for a boy.” Rahim enjoyed his cell—large enough for him to sleep comfortably, tend a few plants of his own, and a diwan on which he could recharge from the daily routine and, most important, grow bored and go out looking for her.
Setting the lamp atop a window sill, Rahim plopped atop his mattress and again, Layla tiptoed out from parched lips. He shoved her from his thoughts and, his hands under his head, set his mind upon his new position. Wriggling his backside, he nestled into his mattress, took a long slow breath, and smiled. It was an honorable position. And a step up.
Maybe, he thought, if I work hard, if I made real good bread, maybe Shayk would promote me to Sherbet Maker. Then I can start cooking. His heart hied. I’ll go into the markets and ask the bread makers for some recipes. Then I’ll come up with my own. I’ll show Shayk what I can do. They’re not bad cooks, he thought, just…just…lacking in imagination. Bland. Not enough spice, not enough…his face flushed, his heart jumped. He’d learn how to bake more than bread. On his own time. Bake things with sugar in them, lots of sugar. He licked and smacked his cracked lips. He’d make things toothsome.
Thoughts of kneading dough mixed with thoughts of Layla…He flipped to his left…Thoughts of his father…That camel braving the Red Dunes in the middle of a sandstorm. He flopped to his right. It’s just another title, said a weltering voice. No it’s not, he argued, it’s a step up. I’m telling you, it’s just a title. The moths that night long ago had been so lovely. No title will bring you closer to her. He brought his knees to his chest and flipped the pillow to bury his face in the cool side. It’s the responsible thing to do and I am responsible. I am. I really am. The voice flipped its hand at Rahim and turned its disgusted face. What was the name of that poem about the grape wise in absolute logic his mother used to read to him?
Wishing his mind would just shut up, he reached under his thin mattress for the only book he ever read (the one by which he learned to read): The Rules of the Order. He skimmed its pages and read just a few words at a time: “Service, not companionship…patience, good manners, and sympathy…avoid…avoid…avoid.”
That taxing voice looked over Rahim’s shoulder. “Brick after brick after brick.”
Now there was something Rahim could agree with. More than a year ago but less than five the world lay open for Rahim. Now it enclosed him in brick. Even when he left the compound for the city, the bricks followed him everywhere in a world where the law regulated each and every action. Sure, the most brilliant mosaics emblazoned the grandest buildings, but underlying them all? Nothing but the same depraved brick. So too did the bricks cover dead eyes, eyes with which old men, dependent on their staffs, stared at the ground searching the dust for jewels.
More than a year ago bust less than five Rahim could not contain his enthusiasm for the world. He would spend feckless hours in the city of his birth losing himself in the sights and the smells and the sounds of the marketplaces, relish in the carelessness of being a child. He could sit amongst the rushes and the reeds, make up stories about the marbled ducks, the spoonbills, stilts and the reed warblers.
And just what do you have to look forward to now?
Rahim sighed. Baking bread.
Day in, day out.
His uncle had told him how not too many years ago all the cities in Ki envied Condus. People from all over left their country homes for life in the big city. But what became of them? Where did they go? The city, Rahim believed, turned them into mules and camels loaded with goods strapped to their backs. The city clipped their wings and their songs. Crabs, shrimp, and prawns scuttling to and fro, scavenging; mosquitoes, flies, and wasps darting from one place to the next, waiting for a place to land. Everyone, always seeking…seeking that idiotic dirham, following it where the wind blew its raised sails.
Kicking his one summer sheet to the floor, he shoved the floppy leather-bound book under his mattress page-side first and shambled to the window. Arms across the sill, he rested his chin upon his hands and looked to the moon draped in her yellow head covering, her thousand eyes deep with the history of some long dream. The sky, robed in great white, soaked the courtyard in silver shade. Flowers lit their incense; he breathed deep the rose.
Won’t you, can’t you stretch out your garment and unfold my longing?
Waiting for an answer, that all too familiar lump in his throat. Don’t you know you are the pearl, the pearl in the crown of my memories? Surely you must, but why, why do my dreams always have to end? His fingers twitched; he curled an arm over his head, and reached through the window grille with the other. His palm and fingers paled about his stretched hand and he asked her with a shaky voice, “Don’t you have time for me anymore? Do I bore you now?”
Like the leaves of a neglected plant, his fingers curled and, scratching his inner elbow on the iron bars, and withdrew his arm. He collapsed face first into his pillow and hammered his mattress.
Then the cicadas awoke in their shadows and broke the impalpable night’s silence. Rahim itched his shoulder. His neck. His arms. His legs. His arms again. Those bugs, their dark nocturnal visions dipping and cresting in wave after breaking wave. Hot, searing bugs. Something in their sharp stridulating trills. Their “song” scratched his sere skin. They, those big-eyed bugs who knew no boundaries. They gave him the recent rashes on his arms and legs. They burrowed under his flesh and sucked, sucked, sucked away. Rotten with disconsolable curses, the cacophony swarmed through the window, flew around his room, and buried itself deep into his mind where he saw them clear as day: bodies the size of thumbs, long spindly legs, broad flat wings and big red eyes. Wriggling. Fidgeting. Fighting their way into his brain.
He slammed the base of his palms into his eyes and pushed, tried to squeeze the life out of those vile monstrosities. But their eyes only grew and he saw nothing but red.
Writhing and kicking, he pleaded with them. Leave me alone. Please, oh please, just leave me alone. Get out of my head, get out of my room. Just leave me alone for one more night. But they didn’t. Those bugs, those tenacious bugs, their hooks deep in his mind, wrapped themselves tight, snug in its folds and laid their eggs.
Over and over and over again he said her name. He asked her why, if everything she did was full of bouquets and wealthy with earth did she pour her fire, her tended, affectionate fire, over his life’s brittle leaves.
Twisting his head back and to the side, he looked to the window. She did care, she did still love him: the moon, her delightful eyes lit, shook her diamond blaze brighter than a thousand red summer suns, silenced the cicadas, and forgave him. And in that perfect crystal gaze did he forget all his sorrows and desiccated years. She did come to see him and his yearning. She did hear him. And in hearing him, she assured him he stood as her beginning and her end. But she stood, tall and firm, and alerted him to his poor excuses for excluding himself from life—for excluding anything from life—and allowing them to slip from the places in which they found shelter. She leaned forward; he lifted his chin. She brushed his eyelids closed, tucked him into slumber’s warm blanket, and reminded him, before she pulled away without a kiss, of his responsibility.
But I have been being responsible.
To your dreams, Rahim, to your dreams.