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Authors: Tananarive Due,Sofia Samatar,Ken Liu,Victor LaValle,Nnedi Okorafor,Sabrina Vourvoulias,Thoraiya Dyer

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History (3 page)

BOOK: Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History
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12. Rakakabe

Rakakabe, how beautiful he is, Rakakabe! A Malagasy demon, he has been sighted as far north as Kismaayo. He skims the waves, he eats mosquitoes, his face gleams, his hair gleams. His favorite question is: “Are you sleeping?”

Rakakabe of the gleaming tail! No, we are wide awake.

[This morning we depart on our expedition. My employer sings – "Green grow the rushes, o!" – but we, his servants, are even more cheerful. We are prepared to meet the ogres.

We catch one another's eyes and smile. All of us sport necklaces of red thread: signs that we belong to the party of the ogres, that we are prepared to hide and fight and die with those who live in the forest, those who are dirty and crooked and resolute. "Tell my brother his house is waiting for him," Mary whispered to me at the end – such an honor, to be the one to deliver her message! While she continues walking, meeting others, passing into other hands the blood-red necklaces by which the ogres are known.

There will be no end to this catalogue. The ogres are everywhere. Number thirteen: Alibhai M. Moosajee of Mombasa.

The porters lift their loads with unaccustomed verve. They set off, singing. "See, Alibhai!" my employer exclaims in delight. "They're made for it! Natural workers!"

"O, yes sir! Indeed, sir!"

The sky is tranquil, the dust saturated with light. Everything conspires to make me glad.

Soon, I believe, I shall enter into the mansion of the ogres, and stretch my limbs on the doorstep of Rakakabe.]

Art by Janet Chui
The Oud
by Thoraiya Dyer

1633
The Shouf, Ottoman Empire

My dead husband’s demons are seeking to sink into my daughter’s bones.

Inside our stone hut, Ghalya is yet to wake. Outside it, the pine forest also. Sunrise catches dewdrops hanging from dark needles. Gazelles slip through shadows and wildcats settle silently in tree forks to sleep.

But pebbles roll where there are no feet, human or animal, to disturb them. Cracked shapes shift, breaking free of their concealment against scale-patterned bark.

The morning steals the feeling from my fingers as I pluck the strings of my oud with a risha of smooth bone. The music of grief emerges, keeping the demons at bay. Legend says that the ribcage-like shape of the instrument was inspired by the bleached, hanging bones of a grandson of Adam. The dead boy’s father constructed the wooden skeleton of the oud in imitation of the terrible source of his mourning.

I have not worn mourning colours, for the Christian villagers must not know that my husband has died. They would send another family to take my place in this part of the wood. That family would collect the unopened cones of the wild pines, extracting the nuts when the dried cones open, cutting the dead wood to keep the forest healthy. It is food, it is income, it is safety for a larger family than mine – now just Ghalya and me – but they do not know of the dozen others I must feed and keep hidden.

They do not know that the secret cave where a Druze leader died is now a refuge for his defeated son.

At last, the demons lie still. Rays of light touch the tree bark and it is only bark, again. I hold the instrument in the moment of quiet before the birds swoop in, to quarrel and to sing, now that the sense of unease that warns them of demons is lifted from their thin, feathery skins.

I can keep no tame fowl in the forest. The goats, in contrast, never shrink from looking a demon in the eye. I pack the oud away in its leather case and sling it across my shoulder as I move to unlatch the gate of the goat pen. As time goes by, as my grief fades, the song becomes less powerful. Sometime soon, maybe even now, it will not last a full day.

The oud must be within arm’s reach when that time comes.

Inside the hut, bags of straining yoghurt make the same milky
drip, drip, drip
as the limestone daggers of the cave. It makes me shiver in foreboding but I cannot falter. I pack my hand cart with flat loaves of bread, pastries stuffed with goat meat and pine nuts, soft cheeses, cucumbers, sesame seeds, and olive oil.

When the Janissaries raid the village, they take great casks of wine. Those elite infantrymen serve the Ottoman Sultan, Murad IV. I do not take wine with me, to the place where I am going.

“Time to wake, little squirrel,” I whisper into the soap-soft scent of my sleeping child. Ghalya frowns and tries to turn her back, but I shake her shoulder until she’s awake enough to ride on my back without falling, her five-year-old fingers knotted around my neck.

We set off with the goats trailing after us. If any early risers from the village of Bkassin see us, they will think we go to the base of the terrible north-facing cliff to fill waterskins from the mineral waters. Or to let the goats find what nourishment they can from the mosses growing in the southern end of the valley. It is perpetually in the shadow of the mountain, pounded by waterfalls in spring when the snow melts.

When we reach it, I pay no attention to the goats as they scatter. They know how to find their way home. A thin spray of water from the stream, which winds its way through the village of Jezzine and then falls off the edge into emptiness, seeds my shawl fringe with diamonds and rouses Ghalya.

“Are we there?” she murmurs. “I don’t like the men. They smell bad. I don’t like the dark.”

I wish I could leave her at the base of the falls. I wish I could trust in the song. If the demons come when I am not with her, they will sap the strength of her muscles, as they did with Hisham, so that he could not rise from his bed.

They will take her mind, as they took Hisham’s, so that he could not recognise anyone. He screamed Satanic songs until his eyes bulged and his lips turned blue.

Ghalya is heavy. Healthy. Strong. But her legs aren’t long enough to cross the broken gaps in the mountain path. I hitch her up higher; I must carry her, despite the ache in my back and the burning in my thighs. The cart I hide in its usual place behind the bushes.

“Not yet, little squirrel. Hold on tight. Don’t let go until I say.”

Only I can see the firebirds, with their great hooked beaks and flames for feathers. Each one is ten times the height of a man. The pair are petrified, part of the cliff face, one on either side of the waterfall. They are the guardians of Jezzine. Mother warned me they could be woken by my sorrow.

The song I am giving to you
, she said sharply.
You must never sing it near the firebirds. It is for holding back the stone demons. The bone demons. Not for holding back the Ottomans. Not for setting the firebirds against the Sultan. You understand?

What did I care about Ottomans? I had cradled the oud as if it was Hisham’s sweating brow, and cried and cried under the critical, dry eyes of my mother. Her face was framed by the fall of the black veil from the inscribed silver tower of her tantoura and her robes were belted with silver, too. She had risen far in the ranks of the Knowledgeable since I had disobeyed her and fled the foothills to marry a Maronite Christian.

If this can keep the demons away
, I sobbed,
why didn’t you bring it while Hisham was alive?

He was not my blood.
She shrugged.
He was not mine to save. In a dream, I saw my hands putting the instrument into your hands. Your father taught you how to play. You haven’t forgotten. All you need is the right risha with which to pluck the strings.

You didn’t have a dream! Admit it. You wanted him to die because he was not a Druze. You sent the demons!

Silence!
Her voice was an avalanche.
Your false baptism was blasphemy enough without such accusations. And do not let me hear this word, Druze, pass your lips again. We are the Muwahhidun. Ad-Darazi was a heretic. Do not call us after him. He interpreted the Koran poorly. We do not need the sword to spread the faith.

No
, I whispered.
Only to cut off your hands and feet when they do not obey you.

You cut yourself off, Zahara. From me and from God. For now, your grief will keep Ghalya safe, but when you finally forget your husband – and you will forget him, forget his smile, forget the sound of his voice, forget the shape of his face – then you must come home to us, to forge a new sorrow with which to fight.

I do not wish to forge any new sorrows. I have had enough of them. Instead, I will borrow the sorrow of others. I am not as ignorant as Mother thinks. It is not because I care, as Fakr-ad-Din does, about my country becoming united – Sunni Muslim, Christian, and Druze – that I feed the fugitives in the cave. Nor do I feed them in order to defy the Ottoman Sultan, nor the Pasha from Damascus who rules with the Sultan’s authority.

No. I feed them because Fakr-ad-Din’s son has been recently killed. His grief is raw. His grief is new.

Hisham’s demons are old. They were his mother’s. I don’t know how long they have been in his family and I don’t know any way in which they can be destroyed. All I know for sure is that my song of grief has lasted almost three years and is beginning to fade. Might the song of a prince, even a prince defeated and in hiding, not last for thirty years, or more?

God loves Fakr-ad-Din
, I think,
or he could not have been the prince. He could not have conquered from Palmyra to the sea, built mighty castles, or beaten the armies of Damascus.

“It is the woman,” calls a low voice from the mouth of the grotto.

“Weapons away,” another voice murmurs. “It is only the woman. Come. We will go down to the valley and unload the cart.”

I hesitate at the cave mouth. Inside, it is cold. Wet. Dark. A screen for the bloody shadow-puppet show of my unexorcised memories. Hisham died in a cave like this one. The Jesuits chained him to the wall. In the Cave of the Mad, they said, the healing powers of the saint would save him.

The saint did not save him.

“The beautiful Zahara,” says the man who can only be Prince Fakr-ad-Din. Each time I have come before, it has been full dark, and the prince has been engaged in secret meetings, but his supporters do not dare visit in daylight.

He takes my hand, kisses it. Christian women permit such things. My mother would have clawed out his eyes.

The prince has a woman’s height. He has a curling white moustache and a waist-length beard that obscures the thread-of-gold embroidery decorating his silks. He carries a lantern in his left hand. A scimitar hangs at his waist. “It is a gift of heaven to meet you at last,” he says. “My nephew told me the story of how he shot one of your goats. Instead of bringing the Janissaries, you vowed to keep us from starving, and here you are, true to your vow. Is your husband in good health?”

God loves Fakr-ad-Din.

“My husband is blessed with excellent health,” I say by rote.

See me, God. I give bread and cheese to the one that you love. Will you give me some crumb in return? Or has my baptism truly cleaved me from you? Can you truly be turned aside by water?

“And your children?”

“My daughter is also blessed, your Highness. Is your royal family well?”

There it is. The mouth slackened by distress. The tic in one eye. The breath in his lungs that is suddenly not enough. Finally, he wets his lips and speaks.

“My… my nephew is well. Nephew!”

The middle-aged cavalryman who killed my goat comes out of a side-passage. He carries a Turkish bow and a musket. It has been three months since I first saw him and though he still wears the same brown tunic, baggy black trousers, and knee-high boots as he did on that morning, his neat black beard is no longer neat.

He quirks an eyebrow that is sliced in half by an old scimitar scar.

“Yes, Uncle?”

“You did not tell me that the talented Zahara is also a musician. You did not tell me she carries an oud.”

“Do you think music is prudent in this place, Uncle?”

“She will play for me in the inner chamber. My soul is weary.”

“As you wish, Uncle.”

If Fakr-ad-Din fears his father’s demons, it does not show. He leads me deeper and deeper into the cave. My foot slips on uneven ground and the jostling wakes Ghalya fully. Though soldiers cannot, in general, be trusted, I have no fear that these will harm her. They depend on me.

“I don’t like the dark,” she says in a frightened voice by my ear.

“Hush, little squirrel,” I say, struggling wearily to find my balance. “I will play some soothing music, soon.”

“But Aunty Rafqa says–”

When we reach the inner chamber, I let Ghalya slip down to the carpet. She stretches, but stays hiding behind me, peeping around me as I unsling the oud case and sit with my legs crossed beneath my many-layered skirts. White beards frighten her.

“What would you hear, your highness?” I ask.

“You hold your head tilted back,” Fakr-ad-Din observes lightly. “You wore a tantoura when you learned to play.”

“Conversion is permitted, O Prince of the Druze.”

“This Prince of the Druze only wonders if the talented Zahara knows any verses of the Koran.”

“Yes. Of course.”

I begin to play, with the risha I made from my husband’s breastbone, and to sing, with a voice that the Sunnis would say is heretical. To them, the voice of a woman is the voice of temptation. And not just to them; Hisham’s sister Rafqa is Christian, but she never passes up a chance to declare to me that my singing is a sin and a scandal.

BOOK: Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History
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