Sunday, 10 February 2013

In Which Saeed Returns Joshua's Bag

To the right of his view Saeed could see something very unusual. A great rock pillar that seemed to grow from nothing in the centre of the garden. Atop the pillar was a mishapen formation of rock that reminded Saeed of a skull.

We must always remember that some people do not enjoy the best start in life. We should also remember that some people make bad choices. This is a story about a young man who falls into both these categories, his name was Saeed.

Saeed was born in the city of Afsana, the capital of Old Araby, some time ago. It is difficult to say exactly when for a variety of reasons. Yesha, the old washerwoman who had been the midwife at his birth raised him from infancy. The back alleys behind the bazaars of Afsana are not the ideal place to birth a child. Saeed's birth mother had been sick and weak.

Yesha had saved Saeed at the mother's request, but in the process the woman had died. Yesha took Saeed in and taught him the value of honour and the importance of having a code to live by. The two loved each other very much. Yesha hid nothing and told Saeed that his real mother had died. The boy didn't care and called the old woman mother anyway.

As he grew to become a smart and strong little boy so Yesha also aged. Towards the final days of her life Yesha could not rise from her bed. She could no longer wash laundry or do the dozen other little tasks that had brought food to their table.

Saeed tried his best to take over what he considered to be the family business. He found nobody would pay much attention to the little boy that had followed the washerwoman around for the past few years. Now he was old enough to be a bother they called him thief and threw stones to get rid of him. The streets of Afsana taught Saeed how cruel people can be when they are allowed the liberty to be so.

Yesha, the only mother he had ever known, grew sick with hunger and age. Saeed burned with anger that the only person who had ever shown him love and kindness should be the victim of such neglect. His fury grew as he considered all she had done for the people around her.

"If thief they call me," he said to himself. "Then thief I shall be."

At first the fact that nobody noticed him helped enormously in his thieving endeavours. His only regret about his new path was that Yesha believed that he was providing for them both with honest work.

The longer the new life continued the more Saeed felt that he should be truthful with his mother about the source of the food on their table. The longer it went the sicker she became; Saeed's shame at the lies he was telling grew. The more he stole the harder it became to come clean. One day, Saeed returned from the souk to find a dark figure stood over the washerwoman's bed.

"Who are you?" Saeed asked the cloaked figure.

The figure turned, pulling back the hood that covered its head. Underneath the cowl the figure was revealed to be a young woman of extreme beauty. Her skin and hair were silver-white, her eyes shone like rainbow coloured diamonds. Saeed had never seen anyone like this before.

"I have come to free your mother from her pain and suffering," the woman said. "I offered her a bargain so that she could continue the good works that she performed in life."

"I know that mother would appreciate such a chance," Saeed said.

"She did indeed. I did not know she had a son. She has gone already."

Saeed was puzzled, he looked over to the bed.

"I can still see her, underneath the covers," he said.

"That is her body, Saeed," the young woman said. "I liberated her soul."

When Saeed heard these words he knew who the young woman was. Sadness and anger welled up in his chest. He cried out as a terrible pain gripped his heart. He ran to the bedside and kneeled beside it, but it was too late, his mother's hand was cold.

"Saeed, do not weep," the young woman said. "Your mother was a good woman and she has been given a new chance to do good work. All of the love she gave to this world will multiply and spread throughout a thousand realms. There is no need to mourn."

"I never told her," Saeed said, as tears rolled over his cheeks. "I never told her what I had become. Now I never will." The young woman said nothing. Saeed bit at his cheeks trying to drown out his sadness with pain. When his tears were under control he said: "I am nothing but a dirty little street thief. Mother believed I provided food for us with hard work. I would have, but that nobody would give me a job, and mother was so ill. I meant to tell her. It was never the right time."

The young woman touched Saeed's shoulder, the skin tingled where her fingers made contact.

"You can find her, Saeed, so that you may make your peace," she said. "But the path will not be easy."

"Anything," Saeed replied. "I must make amends with her. I cannot live with this shame."

"Then the first thing you must do," the young woman said. "Is to gain entry to the caliph's treasure store, within the grand palace. There, in the central vault, is a sapphire that the caliph has named 'The Shooting Star' because it is so bright and clear. Within the jewel is a magical garden, that is where your journey will begin."

"How can a sapphire contain a garden?" Saeed asked, too puzzled to be sad for a moment. The tingle on his skin had stopped, the young woman was gone. Saeed had asked that last question to the empty air.

There was now only one way that Saeed could get an answer to his question, he had to go to the palace treasure vault and find the magic sapphire. Saeed had never been inside the palace walls before, but now that he was alone in the world he had no fear of being caught.

Even so, at sunset, standing before the shining white palace walls, Saeed paused. He bowed his head, not in prayer, but so that he could concentrate upon his words.

"Mother," he said. "I lied to you, and that is shame that I must bear. I swear to you now, wherever you may be, that no more lies shall ever pass across my tongue. Though I may have to take things that do not belong to me in order to survive, I must never deny my nature to any one ever again."

With the feeling that he had made as much peace as he was able to for the moment, he began to scale the palace wall.

The ascent was the most difficult that Saeed had ever attempted. The palace walls were the smoothest in the whole of Old Araby. Fortunately they were also among the longest, and hence impossible to keep entirely free of blemishes. After no more than two tolls of the night bell Saeed had reached the summit.

Once within the bounds of the palace Saeed benefitted  from the fact that nobody expected him to be there. Ironically it appeared that stealing from the souk, where there were many thieves was hard work. There was competition in the souk and not much worth stealing. Here he was alone and within five hundred paces of an enormous treasure vault.

Saeed was acutely aware that if he were discovered here he would immediately be put to death. All the other thieves in Afsana were aware of this also, as were the palace guards. This meant that the guards patrolling within the walls did so without much in the way of concentration or vigilance. Saeed evaded them easily and found his way towards the treasure rooms.

The grand palace was an enormous structure but its design was simple and elegant. Saeed followed patrolling guards and, one by one, each guard route took him deeper and deeper into the palace. Saeed, like most thieves, knew how to tell the rank of a guard by his attire. The more important a guard was the more careful you were not to offend them out on the streets.

Inside the palace the rule appeared to be that the more important the guard the closer to the centre of the palace they patrolled. Even with this obvious pattern of duty Saeed made a couple of wrong turns. Once nearly walking into the caliph's private chambers. once more cutting close to the private bath house and on the final, hair-raising, occasion Saeed nearly found himself in the guard house.

Saeed was concerned that it would soon be morning when he finally found the grand colonnade that lead the way into the treasure vaults. As he walked along the shining marble floors towards the vast halls that contained all of the caliph's most treasured possessions Saeed felt humbled at the scale and magnificence of the building.

Saeed had heard tell that the architects of the grand palace had been blinded after building the impressive structure. He was not surprised at this, the streets of the bazaar had told him everything he needed about pointless selfishness and cruelty.

"All of this grandeur, mother," he said to himself. "And none of it compares to the lullabies you sung me to send me off to sleep."

Saeed was surprised to find, as he entered the vault and walked among the heaped piles of treasure, that the obvious wealth and power of the caliph did not impress him, nor did it really make him angry. This palace and these treasures existed and the caliph chose to believe that they belonged to him. Saeed understood that all things were at the whim of fortune, a caliph could become a pauper in a day at fortune's hand, so what was any of it worth?

In the centre of the treasure vault was a small covered room with a single doorway. Inside the room were a number of pedestals, mounted on each pedestal was one of the caliph's most remarkable possessions. In the very centre of the room, resting on a velvet cushion, was the largest sapphire Saeed had ever seen.

Saeed approached the sapphire agape with wonder at the jewel's size, clarity and brilliance. He had to use both hands to pick it up.

"I still don't know," he said. "How there can be a garden inside a sapphire."

He brought the shining surface of the jewel close to his face and as he did so he believed he could see something inside the facets of the sapphire, bounded by the smooth cold walls of the cut gem. As he peered into the heart of the stone, concentrating harder on the object he believed he had noticed, the surface of the jewel seemed to shift, to become fluid.

Saeed could hear water and the call of birds, he could smell vegetation and feel warm sun in the cool treasure vault. The surface of the stone turned to a curtain of clear running water, Saeed stepped through it and fell head over heels.

In panic he wheeled his hands, thrashing and twisting as he hit the surface of a cold, clear pool of water beneath a waterfall. Saeed had grown up his entire life in the bazaar, he did not know how to swim.

Thankfully, the water of the pool was not deep. Saeed's instinct to survive helped him to gain his feet. Once he was standing, waist deep in water, he looked about the place that he had landed.

The air was warm but not hot like the bazaar in the dry season, just pleasant, like the shade of the rooms near the entrance to the souk. Saeed had never seen so much green, the pool had rock shelves, covered in moss, to either side of the waterfall. On the far side a grassy bank stretched from one edge of the pool to the other. Beyond the bank tall trees crowned with broad glossy leaves reached up to the sky.

Saeed checked the waterfall but it appeared that there was nothing behind the curtain of falling water. It was as if he had stepped from a wall of solid rock. Saeed did not question, this had been the intended effect. At least he no longer had to worry about escaping from the Grand Palace.

Saeed left the water. The warm air was already drying his skin and clothes. He found a solid tree and climbed up to the top to get a better view of this garden. At the top of the tree he could see that the forest went on for many miles in every direction, there were some small hills and a place where he believed there was a river. Looking back at the pool he could see that the water from the waterfall exited via a small stream which could feed into the river about three miles hence.

To the right of his view Saeed could see something very unusual. A great rock pillar that seemed to grow from nothing in the centre of the garden. Atop the pillar was a mishapen formation of rock that reminded Saeed of a skull.

Lacking any better plan Saeed slid back down to the ground and set off for the pillar. As he walked he started to feel tired, he had been awake since the previous sunset, he had a feeling that in Afsana it was coming on for dawn. He did not know what time it was in the garden but the day appeared to be growing warmer, so he guessed that it was not yet noon.

The day became hot and still as Saeed walked towards the rock. As he approached a clearing that surrounded the base of the pillar he found evidence that someone had been here before him. Nestled in the grass was a small square of yellow metal, an intricate and regular design engraved into its surface.

Saeed bent and picked up the object. Upon examining it he found that there was a hinge at one end and a catch at the other. Saeed worked the catch and the object sprang open. Inside the metal frame was a small compact mirror. Saeed blinked, surprised by his own reflection.

"This is a strange object to find in a garden," Saeed said. "I wonder who it belongs to."

With those words the image in the mirror warped and shifted. The face lost colour from its skin, aged, a dark beard sprouted from the chin, the eyes shifted from nut brown to ice blue.

"What a stroke of luck!" said the reflection in the mirror. "That is, the mirror is mine. While I have your attention I wonder if I could beg of you a little favour. I was the victim of poor circumstance, not to mention, ah, a small explosion... Suffice it to say that I had to leave that area in something of a hurry. I left a bag of supplies in the cave on top of the skull pillar. I wonder if you could see your way clear to returning it into my possession."

With those words the image in the
mirror warped and shifted. 
Saeed was tired and had already seen several strange things in the last day alone. He did not have much surpise left that a strange bearded man should appear inside the mirror's surface.

"Who are you?" Saeed asked the man.

"My name is Joshua," the man replied. "Listen, you're probably going to want to get my bag back to me before nightfall, Poliocephalus Giganticus will awake at dusk. I think he mostly eats things about the size of a small dog but he may view you as a competitor for hunting rights. I think he could get... aggressive."

"Poli-what... ?" Saeed didn't understand half of what the man had said, but it did not sound good.

"Uh, a bat," Joshua said. "A giant bat. You will need to be careful when retrieving my bag, our nocturnal friend is sleeping now but he will be roused by noise close by. Do you think you can be quiet?"

"Oh yes, sir, I think I can manage that," Saeed replied.

"Good boy," Joshua said. "That's the spirit. How far are you from the skull pillar?"

"Not far," Saeed said. "I can see it through the trees." He paused for a moment, preparing his next statement in his mind. "Sir, I am happy to help, but you must understand my position. My name is Saeed Ibn Abihi, the great weave has determined that my station in life should be as a humble thief in the streets of the bazaar in Afsana. I have little in the way of possessions, save for the clothes on my back and the sense in my head. If you treat me fairly then I will return the courtesy. If you do not, I feel it only right to inform you that I shall take from you what I can, and I will feel no remorse for the act."

"An honest thief indeed!" Joshua said. "Despite the worrying implications of your tale. Bring me my bag Saeed and I promise I will treat you fairly."

"I will trust you to be a man of your word, sir," Saeed answered. "I shall retrieve your bag and contact you again."

Saeed closed the mirror and made his way over to the pillar. Compared to the palace wall scaling this rock face was simple. The cave in the left eye socket of the skull rock smelled of animal droppings, it was very warm and appeared to wind a long way back into the cranial vault. Saeed could hear the sigh of the giant bat nestled in the darkest shadows.

Sure enough Joshua's bag lay on its side, near to the cave entrance. There was a large soot mark on the floor where something had exploded. Saeed did not stop to consider this, he retrieved the bag and climbed back down the pillar.

Back in the shade of the trees Saeed opened the mirror again.

"I have the bag, Mister Joshua, now how do I get it back to you?" he asked.

"Open the bag, you'll find two vials of liquid tucked into the hood, one will be green, the other will be blue. Drink the green, then the blue. Fly away from the skull in the direction that it is looking."

Saeed knew that he had been awake a long time, but he did not believe he had misheard. Even so, he had to check:

"Sorry Mister Joshua," he said. "Did you say.. fly?"

"Indeed, and be quick about it, you'll have to fly about four hours to get to me, and one hour you'll be within the bat's hunting range. Sundown isn't for another two hours, but still."

"You are a very strange man, Mister Joshua," Saeed said. "But I shall do as you ask."

"Excellent," Joshua said. "I shall brew some tea."

Saeed closed the mirror and undid the buckle on Joshua's bag. He slipped the mirror inside amongst the jumble of boxes and envelopes that Joshua wanted returned to him. Sure enough, tucked into two holding straps in the flap of the bag were the two vials that Joshua had described.

Saeed unstoppered the bottle of green liquid and swallowed it, making a face because its taste was intensely unpleasant. He took the second vial and swallowed that too, it tasted no better.

Saeed did not have time to dwell on the unpleasant taste of the concoction because the second he had swallowed the blue liquid he felt something rise up in his belly. It was a sensation like he was about to do an enormous burp but the strange tingling pressure continued to rise up past his mouth, through his nose and up to the tip of his head.

The sensation also worked its way down, through his guts, down his legs to the tips of his toes. Tingling from head to toe Saeed began to rise into the air, slowly. Panicking he tried to reach for the ground, his ascent stopped and he spun round his middle head over heels.

After a couple of minutes he managed to get himself upright again, then he twisted to pick up Joshua's bag. He found that all he needed to do to rise above the tree line was to desire to fly up to that height.

Whooping with joy Saeed did a huge loop in the air, swooping so low over the upper leaves of the trees that he could touch them. After a couple more aerial acrobatics he pointed himself in the direction of the skull's gaze and flew in a straight line, as fast as he could.

It turned out that 'as fast as he could' was very fast indeed. He sped over the garden until the trees became a blur and kept going out over meadows and fields, over rolling hills and past small towns, never stopping, never slowing.

By evening he found that he was drifting closer and closer to the ground, the odd giddy sensation of flight had died down. As the moon began to rise Saeed found himself outside of a small farm house in the middle of more rolling green meadows.

The door of the farmhouse opened and Joshua appeared, a tall, thin man, dressed in a manner that Saeed had never before seen.

"My bag!" Joshua exclaimed. "I bid you greetings young Saeed. As promised I have brewed tea, and, as you are my guest, I have had my wife bake some cakes to go with. Shall we go inside and share our stories with one another?"

"Of course, Mister Joshua," Saeed replied. "I will tell you of the vow that I made to my mother, for I have a feeling you will have some ideas about where I should go next."

So Saeed and Joshua went inside to enjoy their tea and to share their stories, but the tale of what happened after will not be told today.

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