I can’t tell her age to any degree, her face is only a little lined and her hair is deep stringy tar black, but the mass, the sheer volume of things in the room suggests she’s ancient, impossibly old. Her voice is a little raspy, as though she’s unused to talking, though I can’t imagine how that could be considering her occupation.
My Arabic is worse than my French, so we speak to each other in French. She asks how long I’ve been in Morocco and it occurs to me I don’t remember. I ask her was she born here and she smiles, says no, and I feel a little stupid for asking. Not because it’s a stupid question but because her expression makes me feel like I should have known.
She has nervous, flitting black eyes lined with smudged kohl. They’re a little red and I wonder if she sleeps. At one point that evening, when we are discussing the odd physical quirks of the objects themselves, she will point at my feet.
“That rug, for instance. Safavid. It’s five hundred years old and still in perfect condition. But it brings on nightmares. I sleep on it every night. I’d be mad by now if that thing”—she gestures carelessly at a glass cabinet to her right full of curios, alabaster table lighters, ugly ceramic spaniels. I have no idea what thing she’s pointing at—“didn’t steal my dreams.”
She flits around the room like a bowerbird, presenting me with curiosities, though she stops my hand when I move to pick up an opal necklace, set in delicate scrolled silver. “I must remember to put that behind glass.”
And there are other, more innocuous items than the necklace and the rug, merely inconvenient. She bustles around the room—I’ve ceased thinking of it as a shop—tidying, making tea, as she tells me about them. She seems pleased at the interest I take in the things she’s collected, she hands them to me freely.
“He who eats from this karahi will end up hungrier than when he began.”
She hands it to me. It’s got cigarette ash in it, or maybe incense. The whole place smells like musk. I look around for somewhere to put it and nestle it on a cabinet behind me, between a cat skull and a little cornflower colored box with silver corners. The lid of this is translucent and I can see something narrow, oblong, resting inside. I wonder if the cat used to be hers. She seems the type. Or maybe not, because there is also a nervous-looking little finch, dusty brown, hopping silently around a silver cage.
“That bird is over a hundred years old. I’ve never taken it out of that cage.”
She seems almost disappointed when the tea is brewed and the biscuit tin unearthed and we finally sit down to discuss business. I tell her about it though, of course—the curse, the prophecy, all of it—because my life depends on it. She sits cross-legged on the rug facing me, her knees flat against the floor. She watches me so intently I feel like I’m being bored into, and after I tell her I feel a little empty, a little hopeful, as though I’ve been hollowed out so that something new can fill me. She’s the first person I’ve ever really explained the whole thing to. I told her more than I needed to but she made it so easy.
“So you must have been the first boy-child.” She uses the phrase boy-child like it says in the prophecy. It rolls off her tongue like she’s said it before. “In…”
“Cent quatre-vingts ans,” I pronounce carefully. In French I feel insulated from it, from the weight of the numbers. Small comfort.
“And how old are you now?”
My voice catches in my throat and I have to repeat myself.
“So you’re living on borrowed time, eh?”
I nod, dumbly. She’s right. She’s been taking notes this whole time in a little brown leather book and I realize she’s using a reed pen, dipping the nib in a little soapstone inkpot by her knee.
“And how did your, great-great-great uncle, was it? How did he die?”
“And before him?”
“His father fell down a cliff. His father died at Kastania. He was twenty nine and a half.”
She dips her pen again. “And why did it take you so long to find me?”
There’s reproach in her voice, and I look at the floor, guilty, even though it’s not my fault. I’ve been searching since I was twenty, I would have given anything, done anything, to find someone like her in all that time. It really did take ten years to get here. Ten years of ships and planes and food poisoning and sunburn and dead ends and false leads and charlatan diviners and well-meaning ineffectual witches and day-labor and hope and despair and exhaustion.
“And have you entertained the possibility,” she says showing for the first time a hint of trepidation, a hint of the pity I know she must be feeling, “that finding your book will not solve your problem?”
“Of course I have.” I almost get up and leave right then. “I think about that every day. But what the fuck else am I supposed to do?”
She lays a conciliatory hand on my arm and I relax.
* * *
I go back to her several times that month. She contacts me in my hotel, always when I’m in bed, lying awake or dozing; I’ll hear footsteps in the hall, slow, measured. In a hotel this is normal, but then a single knock comes and a ssh as something slides under the door. I scramble out of bed and to the door and look out but there’s no one there. Just a little folded piece of paper with some writing on it. I’m fairly sure she knows I can’t read Arabic.
I ask the desk manager to read it to me and he gives me a funny look. Come after the evening call to prayer. Bring a live chicken.
I bring the bird, clucking calmly in a covered basket under my arm. I try not to think about what’s going to happen to it. I find her place easily this time, and I feel as though I’ve been inducted into something. I can come and go freely. It’s night now and there are a couple of lamps lit, the light is yellow and it makes it difficult to see things in detail. She makes me strip down to my underwear for this part, though I’m not entirely sure this is necessary.
What happens to the chicken is exactly what I was expecting. I’ve been a vegetarian for a long time, just for good measure in the karmic sense, and I have to look away when she cuts off its head. She makes me put my hands into its chest cavity, pull out its guts and drop them—no, like this, with more force—onto a silver plate. They’re still hot and the smell of blood makes me gag. She hovers over them, her nose an inch from the plate, she even closes her eyes at one point and breathes in deeply. But when she opens them she looks disappointed. She shakes her head,
“I am sorry. But we will try again,” she says with an encouraging smile. I force myself to smile back and then wander home. She doesn’t charge me for the day’s session.
* * *
The next time I see her she is locking her front door. She takes my hand and leads me away, toward the street.
“We will try something new today, something my great grandmother taught me.”
We go deeper into the medina, to a bazaar, thick with people. The air is smoky and fragrant. The noise is cacophonous, men and women are haggling, shouting, laughing with each other across the aisles and yelling at the two of us, trying to sell us things. She leads me through it as if we were alone, walking slowly, her eyes unfocused, head cocked to one side. I start to say something but she shushes me.
“Listen, Milos. Let them speak to you. Listen to the air.”
I try, but like I said, my Arabic is not good.
* * *
Gradually, over the course of these visits, my hope turns back into that familiar disappointment, mingled with fear, though lately the latter is beginning to overshadow the former. She doesn’t have my book, and she doesn’t know how to find it. I’ve been thinking of it as mine, anyway. It’s supposed to be in Ancient Macedonian, though, so I probably couldn’t read it even if I found it. I haven’t thought that far ahead.
I feel a thrill of resentment at my relatives, my ancestors, for not finding it over the years; at countless generations of mothers so relieved to have borne daughters not to care much about the needs of a hypothetical boy, nothing more than a bogeyman for a future generation to deal with. A willful ignorance that lasted for two hundred happy years after the death of my great-great-great uncle Adrastos. But how could I blame them all, really? In their position I think I’d be happier without me too.
I break down a little when our final session yields no results. I feel stupid for having pinned so much hope on it, embarrassed—even after all this time—for crying in front of another person. She lets the pendulum fall onto the map between us and puts a hand on one of my hands. I think I’ll miss her. She’s done a lot for me and hasn’t asked for any money. And more importantly she’s been kind to me, in her quiet, twitchy way.
* * *
I think of going home, feel the pull of the beach and afternoons dangling my feet off the pier and the comforts of home—decent olive oil, my mother’s ryzogalo. But I don’t want to be in a place where people know me, and I don’t think I can face my mother, her offers of money, her tears, and her apologies. By now they are a meaningless reflex; I’m sorry you were born. So I go to Skopelos and lie on the beach and get drunk for a week. It’s almost a ritual by now, which in recent years has taken on more finality, more heft.
I’ve still got some money left at this point, and I’m feeling a little more hopeful. I go to Thessaly to get a passage translated from Aeolic by a professor at the university there. I’ve got a black book full of these less-promising leads, names, dates, locations, collected but not acted on over the years. I’ve gone back to them before when the trail goes cold and now I do so again, but my list is growing thin; my despair has turned into a compulsive kind of hope and I keep searching. My moods are up and down like a rollercoaster these days.
The translation is unhelpful. I’d hoped it was about one of my maternal ancestors, but it’s a different person with the same name. Dr. Sanna can’t help me, but is sympathetic to my plight (I’ve told him I’m writing a history of my family) and enthusiastic about the mystery and we go out to dinner to discuss it. I have too much to drink and I think he catches on to how desperate I am, though for what he seems to misinterpret. We have sex in my hotel room and when I wake up in the morning we have breakfast together, and I pack up and leave without saying goodbye.
* * *
I find myself back in Morocco, the last place my searching bore any fruit. The sun rises on the day of my thirty-first birthday. I haven’t slept. I stand on my hotel room’s balcony, watching the sunrise pink and blue on Marrakech.
I was born at night. I itch, deep in my body. I’m restless and I wonder if I should go in search of a drink, or something stronger, to pass the time until evening. But no, if this is my last day I want to see it, to feel it. I try to think what to do but I’m paralyzed by indecision. I leave the hotel. I can’t meet anyone’s eye as I walk downstairs.
I go into the first teahouse I find, and I order coffee. I want to be awake. When I can think again I pick up a brochure booklet and look through it, but nothing strikes me and anyway I don’t think I can bear to talk to anyone today. I want to go to the sea but it’s too far. I don’t want to get in a car, talk to a cab driver. I should have gone to Casablanca for my last week. I decide to walk instead. I get lost for a while and every time a car passes me too close, every dark alley I walk down, I think, Is this it? But I’m still alive.
* * *
I do get a little drunk in the evening. I eat at Palais Soleiman and buy a bottle of Domaine du Comte Liger-Belair and drink it by myself. Part of me screams I’m spending the paltry rest of my savings, how will I get home, how will I pay for the hotel, but another part knows I won’t go home, I won’t return to the hotel. The wine is very good. I have it with rice and dates and a really nice lamb shoulder. Fuck karma.
As I linger over the last of the wine in my glass, that restlessness comes back again, bubbling up like bile in my throat. My hands shake a little and I tap two fingers on the table, a rhythmless staccato. I catch the waiter’s eye and he rushes over, looking a little relieved. My clothes are not nice and I think he’s been worried I’m not going to pay.
As I walk out into the evening, it’s cooling. A little breeze comes from where I think the sea must be and cools my face, which feels very hot and red. Something shifts in my head and I know why I’m here. I need to see her one more time.
It takes me a while to find her place. I have to wander around the medina for a while until I spot a landmark I know and my feet start to carry me in the right direction, following old pathways. I almost give up, but then there’s the door, squat and dark painted through a clay-colored peaked archway. The blue nazar above the door glints blackly in the shade. I remember with a little jolt that she’s not Moroccan. I don’t know where she’s from. I don’t know anything about her.
No one answers my knock. I think of leaving but the late hour and the wine make me bold and I turn the knob and push the door open. The place is a little messy. I heard someone reciting Salat al Asr as I was turning the corner before her door. The quavering voice finishes as I cross the threshold.
It’s empty. I’ve never been able to get in before without her being there, never been able to find the door. The place is so cluttered it’s hard to tell at first, but I’ve been here so many times I know where things are supposed to be, and there’s something off in the arrangement, an imbalance that rubs me the wrong way.
The light is wrong, too. One of the cloths that used to hang over the window has been ripped down. The setting sun, shining through the hanging fabric, catches red in something glittering. A silver birdcage, dented and lying open. I step closer and my shoe crunches delicately on something. With a shiver of revulsion I crouch and peer in the gloom. A little brown form, a tiny beaked skeleton strung with shriveled flesh, lies half crushed into the Safavid rug.
Eris Young is a transgender writer from Southern California, currently living in Edinburgh. Eris’ fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories and Esoterica magazines.
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Photo by Max Brown