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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Special!! Online Story from the Clockwork Phoenix 2 Anthology, edited by Mike Allen: Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela by Saladin Ahmed

INTRODUCTION: Clockwork Phoenix 2, (Order HERE) edited by Mike Allen, is the second in an annual anthology series from Norilana Books that collects fantasy and cross-genre “tales of beauty and strangeness.”

The book has garnered critical acclaim, with Publishers Weekly declaring in a starred review, “Each story fits neatly alongside the next, and the diversity of topics, perspectives and authors makes this cosmopolitan anthology a winner.”

Library Journal said that these “15 original tales by some of fantasy's most imaginative voices” each display “unique perspective and stylistic grace,”

and SF Site called it a “frequently astonishing collection” that showcases “sixteen unique voices that manage nevertheless to harmonize into a sort of choir of the uncanny …. The whole of Clockwork Phoenix 2 -- like the mechanical raptor featured in the title and introduction -- is very much more than the sum of its parts.”

Saladin Ahmed’s “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela” has been cited by several reviewers as one of the book’s high points.

About the Story Author: Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. His fiction appears or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

His poems appear or are forthcoming in over a dozen journals and anthologies, including
Callaloo, The Brooklyn Review, Big City Lit, and Inclined To Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry (University of Arkansas Press).
He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, the songwriter Hayley Thompson.


Saladin Ahmed

As soon as I arrive in the village of Beit Zujaaj I begin to hear the mutters about Abdel Jameela, a strange old man supposedly unconnected to any of the local families. Two days into my stay the villagers fall over one another to share with me the rumors that Abdel Jameela is in fact distantly related to the esteemed Assad clan. By my third day in Beit Zujaaj, several of the Assads, omniscient as "important" families always are in these piles of cottages, have accosted me to deny the malicious whispers. No doubt they are worried about the bad impression such an association might make on me, favorite physicker of the Caliph's own son.

The latest denial comes from Hajjar al-Assad himself, the middle-aged head of the clan and the sort of half-literate lout that passes for a Shaykh in these parts. Desperate for the approval of the young courtier whom he no doubt privately condemns as an overschooled sodomite, bristle-bearded Shaykh Hajjar has cornered me in the village's only café—if the sitting room of a qat-chewing old woman can be called a café by anyone other than bumpkins.

I should not be so hard on Beit Zujaaj and its bumpkins. But when I look at the gray rock-heap houses, the withered gray vegetable-yards, and the stuporous gray lives that fill this village, I want to weep for the lost color of Baghdad.

Instead I sit and listen to the Shaykh.

"Abdel Jameela is not of Assad blood, O learned Professor. My grandfather took mercy, as God tells us we must, on the old man's mother. Seventy-and-some years ago she showed up in Beit Zujaaj, half-dead from traveling and big with child, telling tales—God alone knows if they were true—of her Assad-clan husband, supposedly slain by highwaymen. Abdel Jameela was birthed and raised here, but he has never been of this village." Shaykh Hajjar scowls. "For decades now—since I was a boy—he has lived up on the hilltop rather than among us. More of a hermit than a villager. And not of Assad blood," he says again.

I stand up. I can take no more of the man's unctuous voice and, praise God, I don't have to.

"Of course, O Shaykh, of course. I understand. Now, if you will excuse me?"

Shaykh Hajjar blinks. He wishes to say more but doesn't dare. For I have come from the Caliph's court.

"Yes, Professor. Peace be upon you." His voice is like a snuffed candle.

"And upon you, peace." I head for the door as I speak.

The villagers would be less deferential if they knew of my current position at court—or rather, lack of one. The Caliph has sent me to Beit Zujaaj as an insult. I am here as a reminder that the well-read young physicker with the clever wit and impressive skill, whose company the Commander of the Faithful's own bookish son enjoys, is worth less than the droppings of the Caliph's favorite falcon. At least when gold and a Persian noble's beautiful daughter are involved.

For God's viceroy the Caliph has seen fit to promise my Shireen to another, despite her love for me. Her husband-to-be is older than her father—too ill, the last I heard, to even sign the marriage contract. But as soon as his palsied, liver-spotted hand is hale enough to raise a pen . . . Things would have gone differently were I a wealthy man. Shireen's father would have heard my proposal happily enough if I'd been able to provide the grand dowry he sought. The Caliph's son, fond of his brilliant physicker, even asked that Shireen be wedded to me. But the boy's fondness could only get me so far. The Commander of the Faithful saw no reason to impose a raggedy scholar of a son-in-law on the Persian when a rich old vulture would please the man more. I am, in the Caliph's eyes, an amusing companion to his son, but one whom the boy will lose like a doll once he grows to love killing and gold-getting more than learning. Certainly I am nothing worth upsetting Shireen's coin-crazed courtier father over.

For a man is not merely who he is, but what he has. Had I land or caravans I would be a different man—the sort who could compete for Shireen's hand. But I have only books and instruments and a tiny inheritance, and thus that is all that I am. A man made of books and pittances would be a fool to protest when the Commander of the Faithful told him that his love would soon wed another.

I am a fool.

My outburst in court did not quite cost me my head, but I was sent to Beit Zujaaj "for a time, only, to minister to the villagers as a representative of Our beneficent concern for Our subjects." And my fiery, tree-climbing Shireen was locked away to await her half-dead suitor's recovery.

"O Professor! Looks like you might get a chance to see Abdel Jameela for yourself!" Just outside the café, the gravelly voice of Umm Hikma the café-keeper pierces the cool morning air and pulls me out of my reverie. I like old Umm Hikma, with her qat-chewer's irascibility and her blacksmithish arms. Beside her is a broad-shouldered man I don't know. He scuffs the dusty ground with his sandal and speaks to me in a worried stutter.

"P-peace be upon you, O learned Professor. We haven't yet met. I'm Yousef, the porter."

"And upon you, peace, O Yousef. A pleasure to meet you."

"The pleasure's mine, O Professor. But I am here on behalf of another. To bring you a message. From Abdel Jameela."

For the first time since arriving in Beit Zujaaj, I am surprised. "A message? For me?"

"Yes, Professor. I am just returned from the old hermit's hovel, a half-day's walk from here, on the hilltop. Five, six times a year I bring things to Abdel Jameela, you see. In exchange he gives a few coins, praise God."

"And where does he get these coins, up there on the hill?" Shaykh Hajjar's voice spits out the words from the café doorway behind me. I glare and he falls silent.

I turn back to the porter. "What message do you bear, O Yousef? And how does this graybeard know of me?"

Broad-shouldered Yousef looks terrified. The power of the court. "Forgive me, O learned Professor! Abdel Jameela asked what news from the village and I . . . I told him that a court physicker was in Beit Zujaaj. He grew excited and told me to beg upon his behalf for your aid. He said his wife was horribly ill. He fears she will lose her legs, and perhaps her life."

"His wife?" I've never heard of a married hermit.

Umm Hikma raises her charcoaled eyebrows, chews her qat, and says nothing.

Shaykh Hajjar is more vocal. "No one save God knows where she came from, or how many years she's been up there. The people have had glimpses only. She doesn't wear the head scarf that our women wear. She is wrapped all in black cloth from head to toe and mesh-masked like a foreigner. She has spoken to no one. Do you know, O Professor, what the old rascal said to me years ago when I asked why his wife never comes down to the village? He said, 'She is very religious'! The old dog! Where is it written that a woman can't speak to other women? Other women who are good Muslims? The old son of a whore! What should his wife fear here? The truth of the matter is—"

"The truth, O Shaykh, is that in this village only your poor wife need live in fear!" Umm Hikma lets out a rockslide chuckle and gives me a conspiratorial wink. Before the Shaykh can sputter out his offended reply, I turn to Yousef again.

"On this visit, did you see Abdel Jameela's wife?" If he can describe the sick woman, I may be able to make some guesses about her condition. But the porter frowns.

"He does not ask me into his home, O Professor. No one has been asked into his home for thirty years."

Except for the gifted young physicker from the Caliph's court. Well, it may prove more interesting than what I've seen of Beit Zujaaj thus far. I do have a fondness for hermits. Or, rather, for the idea of hermits. I can't say that I have ever met one. But as a student I always fantasized that I would one day be a hermit, alone with God and my many books in the barren hills.

That was before I met Shireen.

"There is one thing more," Yousef says, his broad face looking even more nervous. "He asked that you come alone."

My heartbeat quickens, though there is no good reason for fear. Surely this is just an old hater-of-men's surly whim. A physicker deals with such temperamental oddities as often as maladies of the liver or lungs. Still . . . "Why does he ask this?"

"He says that his wife is very modest and that in her state the frightening presence of men might worsen her illness."

Shaykh Hajjar erupts at this. "Bah! Illness! More likely they've done something shameful they don't want the village to know of. Almighty God forbid, maybe they—"

Whatever malicious thing the Shaykh is going to say, I silence it with another glare borrowed from the Commander of the Faithful. "If the woman is ill, it is my duty as a Muslim and a physicker to help her, whatever her husband's oddities."

Shaykh Hajjar's scowl is soul-deep. "Forgive me, O Professor, but this is not a matter of oddities. You could be in danger. We know why Abdel Jameela's wife hides away, though some here fear to speak of such things."

Umm Hikma spits her qat into the road, folds her powerful arms and frowns. "In the name of God! Don't you believe, Professor, that Abdel Jameela, who couldn't kill an ant, means you any harm." She jerks her chin at Shaykh Hajjar. "And you, O Shaykh, by God, please don't start telling your old lady stories again!"

The Shaykh wags a finger at her. "Yes, I will tell him, woman! And may Almighty God forgive you for mocking your Shaykh!" Shaykh Hajjar turns to me with a grim look. "O learned Professor, I will say it plainly: Abdel Jameela's wife is a witch."

"A witch?" The last drops of my patience with Beit Zujaaj have dripped through the water clock. It is time to be away from these people. "Why would you say such a thing, O Shaykh?"

The Shaykh shrugs. "Only God knows for certain," he says. His tone belies his words.

"May God protect us all from slanderous ill-wishers," I say.

He scowls. But I have come from the Caliph's court, so his tone is venomously polite. "It is no slander, O Professor. Abdel Jameela's wife consorts with ghouls. Travelers have heard strange noises coming from the hilltop. And hoofprints have been seen on the hill-path. Cloven hoofprints, O Professor, where there are neither sheep nor goats."

"No! Not cloven hoofprints!" I say.

But the Shaykh pretends not to notice my sarcasm. He just nods. "There is no strength and no safety but with God."

"God is great," I say in vague, obligatory acknowledgment. I have heard enough rumor and nonsense. And a sick woman needs my help. "I will leave as soon as I gather my things. This Abdel Jameela lives up the road, yes? On a hill? If I walk, how long will it take me?"

"If you do not stop to rest, you will see the hill in the distance by noontime prayer," says Umm Hikma, who has a new bit of qat going in her cheek.

"I will bring you some food for your trip, Professor, and the stream runs alongside the road much of the way, so you'll have no need of water." Yousef seems relieved that I'm not angry with him, though I don't quite know why I would be. I thank him then speak to the group.

"Peace be upon you all."

"And upon you, peace," they say in near-unison.

In my room, I gather scalpel, saw, and drugs into my pack—the kid-leather pack that my beloved gifted to me. I say more farewells to the villagers, firmly discourage their company, and set off alone on the road. As I walk rumors of witches and wife-beaters are crowded out of my thoughts by the sweet remembered sweat-and-ambergris scent of my Shireen.

After an hour on the rock-strewn road, the late-morning air warms. The sound of the stream beside the road almost calms me.

Time passes and the sun climbs high in the sky. I take off my turban and caftan, make ablution by the stream and say my noon prayers. Not long after I begin walking again, I can make out what must be Beit Zujaaj hill off in the distance. In another hour or so I am at its foot.

It is not much of a hill, actually. There are buildings in Baghdad that are taller. A relief, as I am not much of a hill-climber. The rocky path is not too steep, and green sprays of grass and thyme dot it—a pleasant enough walk, really. The sun sinks a bit in the sky and I break halfway up the hill for afternoon prayers and a bit of bread and green apple. I try to keep my soul from sinking as I recall Shireen, her skirts tied up scandalously, knocking apples down to me from the high branches of the Caliph's orchard-trees.

The rest of the path proves steeper and I am sweating through my galabeya when I finally reach the hilltop. As I stand there huffing and puffing my eyes land on a small structure thirty yards away.

If Beit Zujaaj hill is not much of a hill, at least the hermit's hovel can be called nothing but a hovel. Stones piled on stones until they have taken the vague shape of a dwelling. Two sickly chickens scratching in the dirt. As soon as I have caught my breath a man comes walking out to meet me. Abdel Jameela.

He is shriveled with a long gray beard and a ragged kaffiyeh, and I can tell he will smell unpleasant even before he reaches me. How does he already know I'm here? I don't have much time to wonder, as the old man moves quickly despite clearly gouty legs.

"You are the physicker, yes? From the Caliph's court?"

No 'peace be upon you,' no 'how is your health,' no 'pleased to meet you.' Life on a hilltop apparently wears away one's manners. As if reading my thoughts, the old man bows his head in supplication.

"Ah. Forgive my abruptness, O learned Professor. I am Abdel Jameela. Thank you. Thank you a thousand times for coming." I am right about his stink, and I thank God he does not try to embrace me. With no further ceremony I am led into the hovel.

There are a few stained and tattered carpets layered on the packed-dirt floor. A straw mat, an old cushion and a battered tea tray are the only furnishings. Except for the screen. Directly opposite the door is a tall, incongruously fine cedar-and-pearl latticed folding screen, behind which I can make out only a vague shape. It is a more expensive piece of furniture than any of the villagers could afford, I'm sure. And behind it, no doubt, sits Abdel Jameela's wife.

The old man makes tea hurriedly, clattering the cups but saying nothing the whole while. The scent of the seeping mint leaves drifts up, covering his sour smell. Abdel Jameela sets my tea before me, places a cup beside the screen, and sits down. A hand reaches out from behind the screen to take the tea. It is brown and graceful. Beautiful, if I am to speak truly. I realize I am staring and tear my gaze away.

The old man doesn't seem to notice. "I don't spend my time among men, Professor. I can't talk like a courtier. All I can say is that we need your help."

"Yousef the porter has told me that your wife is ill, O Uncle. Something to do with her legs, yes? I will do whatever I can to cure her, Almighty God willing."

For some reason, Abdel Jameela grimaces at this. Then he rubs his hands together and gives me an even more pained expression. "O Professor, I must show you a sight that will shock you. My wife . . . Well, words are not the way."

With a grunt the old man stands and walks halfway behind the screen. He gestures for me to follow then bids me stop a few feet away. I hear rustling behind the screen, and I can see a woman's form moving, but still Abdel Jameela's wife is silent.

"Prepare yourself, Professor. Please show him, O beautiful wife of mine." The shape behind the screen shifts. There is a scraping noise. And a woman's leg ending in a cloven hoof stretches out from behind the screen.

I take a deep breath. "God is Great," I say aloud. This, then, is the source of Shaykh Hajjar's fanciful grumbling. But such grotesqueries are not unheard of to an educated man. Only last year another physicker at court showed me a child— born to a healthy, pious man and his modest wife—all covered in fur. This same physicker told me of another child he'd seen born with scaly skin. I take another deep breath. If a hoofed woman can be born and live, is it so strange that she might find a mad old man to care for her?

"O my sweetheart!" Abdel Jameela's whisper is indecent as he holds his wife's hoof.

And for a moment I see what mad Abdel Jameela sees. The hoof's glossy black beauty, as smoldering as a woman's eye. It is entrancing . . .

"O, my wife," the old man goes on, and runs his crooked old finger over the hoof-cleft slowly and lovingly. "O, my beautiful wife . . . " The leg flexes, but still no sound comes from behind the screen.

This is wrong. I take a step back from the screen without meaning to. "In the name of God! Have you no shame, old man?"

Abdel Jameela turns from the screen and faces me with an apologetic smile. "I am sorry to say that I have little shame left," he says.

I've never heard words spoken with such weariness. I remind myself that charity and mercy are our duty to God, and I soften my tone. "Is this why you sent for me, Uncle? What would you have me do? Give her feet she was not born with? My heart bleeds for you, truly. But such a thing only God can do."

Another wrinkled grimace. "O Professor, I am afraid that I must beg your forgiveness. For I have lied to you. And for that I am sorry. For it is not my wife that needs your help, but I."

"But her—pardon me, uncle—her hoof."

"Yes! Its curve! Like a jet-black half-moon!" The old hermit's voice quivers and he struggles to keep his gaze on me. Away from his wife's hoof. "Her hoof is breathtaking, Professor. No, it is I that need your help, for I am not the creature I need to be."

"I don't understand, Uncle." Exasperation burns away my sympathy. I've walked for hours and climbed a hill, small though it was. I am in no mood for a hermit's games. Abdel Jameela winces at the anger in my eyes and says, "My . . . my wife will explain."

I will try, my husband.

The voice is like song and there is the strong scent of sweet flowers. Then she steps from behind the screen and I lose all my words. I scream. I call on God, and I scream.

Abdel Jameela's wife is no creature of God. Her head is a goat's and her mouth a wolf's muzzle. Fish-scales and jackal-hair cover her. A scorpion's tail curls behind her. I look into a woman's eyes set in a demon's face and I stagger backward, calling on God and my dead mother.

Please, learned one, be calm.

"What . . . what . . . " I can't form the words. I look to the floor. I try to bury my sight in the dirty carpets and hard-packed earth. Her voice is more beautiful than any woman's. And there is the powerful smell of jasmine and clove. A nightingale sings perfumed words at me while my mind's eye burns with horrors that would make the Almighty turn away.

If fear did not hold your tongue, you would ask what I am. Men have called my people by many names—ghoul, demon. Does a word matter so very much? What I am, learned one, is Abdel Jameela's wife.

For long moments I don't speak. If I don't speak this nightmare will end. I will wake in Baghdad, or Beit Zujaaj. But I don't wake.

She speaks again, and I cover my ears, though the sound is beauty itself.

The words you hear come not from my mouth, and you do not hear them with your ears. I ask you to listen with your mind and your heart. We will die, my husband and I, if you will not lend us your skill. Have you, learned one, never needed to be something other that what you are?

Cinnamon scent and the sound of an oasis wind come to me. I cannot speak to this demon. My heart will stop if I do, I am certain. I want to run, but fear has fixed my feet. I turn to Abdel Jameela, who stands there wringing his hands.

"Why am I here, Uncle? God damn you, why did you call me here? There is no sick woman here! God protect me, I know nothing of . . . of ghouls, or—" A horrible thought comes to me. "You . . . you are not hoping to make her into a woman? Only God can . . . "

The old hermit casts his eyes downward. "Please . . . you must listen to my wife. I beg you." He falls silent and his wife, behind the screen again, goes on.

My husband and I have been on this hilltop too long, learned one. My body cannot stand so much time away from my people. I smell yellow roses and hear bumblebees droning beneath her voice. If we stay in this place one more season, I will die.

And without me to care for him and keep age's scourge from him, my sweet Abdel Jameela will die too. But across the desert there is a life for us. My father was a prince among our people. Long ago I left. For many reasons. But I never forsook my birthright. My father is dying now, I have word. He has left no sons and so his lands are mine. Mine, and my handsome husband's.

In her voice is a chorus of wind-chimes. Despite myself, I lift my eyes. She steps from behind the screen, clad now in a black abaya and a mask. Behind the mask's mesh is the glint of wolf-teeth. I look again to the floor, focusing on a faded blue spiral in the carpet and the kindness in that voice.

But my people do not love men. I cannot claim my lands unless things change. Unless my husband shows my people that he can change.

Somehow I force myself to speak. "What . . . what do you mean, change?"

There is a cymbal-shimmer in her voice and sandalwood incense fills my nostrils. O learned one, you will help me to make these my Abdel Jameela's.

She extends her slender brown hands, ablaze with henna. In each she holds a length of golden sculpture—goat-like legs ending in shining, cloven hooves. A thick braid of gold thread dances at the end of each statue-leg, alive.

Madness, and I must say so though this creature may kill me for it. "I have not the skill to do this! No man alive does!"

You will not do this through your skill alone. Just as I cannot do it through my sorcery alone. My art will guide yours as your hands work. She takes a step toward me and my shoulders clench at the sound of her hooves hitting the earth.

"No! No . . . I cannot do this thing."

"Please!" I jump at Abdel Jameela's voice, nearly having forgotten him. There are tears in the old man's eyes as he pulls at my galabeya, and his stink gets in my nostrils. "Please listen! We need your help. And we know what has brought you to Beit Zujaaj." The old man falls to his knees before me. "Please! Would not your Shireen aid us?"

With those words he knocks the wind from my lungs. How can he know that name? The Shaykh hadn't lied—there is witchcraft at work here, and I should run from it.

But, Almighty God help me, Abdel Jameela is right. Fierce as she is, Shireen still has her dreamy Persian notions —that love is more important than money or duty or religion. If I turn this old man away . . .

My throat is dry and cracked. "How do you know of Shireen?" Each word burns.

His eyes dart away. "She has . . . ways, my wife."

"All protection comes from God." I feel foul even as I steel myself with the old words. Is this forbidden? Am I walking the path of those who displease the Almighty? God forgive me, it is hard to know or to care when my beloved is gone. "If I were a good Muslim I would run down to the village now and . . . and . . . "

And what, learned one? Spread word of what you have seen? Bring men with spears and arrows? Why would you do this? Vanilla beans and the sound of rain give way to something else. Clanging steel and clean-burning fire. I will not let you harm my husband. What we ask is not disallowed to you. Can you tell me, learned one, that it is in your book of what is blessed and what is forbidden not to give a man golden legs?

It is not. Not in so many words. But this thing can't be acceptable in God's eyes. Can it? "Has this ever been done before?"

There are old stories. But it has been centuries. Each of her words spreads perfume and music and she asks Please, learned one, will you help us? And then one scent rises above the others.

Almighty God protect me, it is the sweat-and-ambergris smell of my beloved. Shireen of the ribbing remark, who in quiet moments confessed her love of my learning. She would help them.

Have I any choice after that? This, then, the fruit of my study. And this my reward for wishing to be more than what I am. A twisted, unnatural path.

"Very well." I reach for my small saw and try not to hear Abdel Jameela's weird whimpers as I sharpen it.

I give him poppy and hemlock, but as I work Abdel Jameela still screams, nearly loud enough to make my heart cease beating. His old body is going through things it should not be surviving. And I am the one putting him through these things, with knives and fire and bone-breaking clamps. I wad cotton and stuff it in my ears to block out the hermit's screams.

But I feel half-asleep as I do so, hardly aware of my own hands. Somehow the demon's magic is keeping Abdel Jameela alive and guiding me through this grisly task. It is painful, like having two minds crammed inside my skull and shadow-puppet poles lashed to my arms. I am burning up, and I can barely trace my thoughts. Slowly I become aware of the she-ghoul's voice in my head and the scent of apricots.

Cut there. Now the mercury powder. The cautering iron is hot. Put a rag in his mouth so he does not bite his tongue. I flay and cauterize and lose track of time. A fever cooks my mind away. I work through the evening prayer, then the night prayer. I feel withered inside.

In each step Abdel Jameela's wife guides me. With her magic she rifles my mind for the knowledge she needs and steers my skilled fingers. For a long while there is only her voice in my head and the feeling of bloody instruments in my hands, which move with a life of their own.

Then I am holding a man's loose tendons in my right hand and thick golden threads in my left. There are shameful smells in the air and Abdel Jameela shouts and begs me to stop even though he is half-asleep with the great pot of drugs I have forced down his throat.

Something is wrong! The she-ghoul screams in my skull and Abdel Jameela passes out. My hands no longer dance magically. The shining threads shrivel in my fist. We have failed, though I know not exactly how.

No! No! Our skill! Our sorcery! But his body refuses! There are funeral wails in the air and the smell of houses burning. My husband! Do something, physicker!

The golden legs turn to dust in my hands. With my ears I hear Abdel Jameela's wife growl a wordless death-threat.

I deserve death! Almighty God, what have I done? An old man lies dying on my blanket. I have sawed off his legs at a she-ghoul's bidding. There is no strength save in God! I bow my head.

Then I see them. Just above where I've amputated Abdel Jameela's legs are the swollen bulges that I'd thought came from gout. But it is not gout that has made these. There is something buried beneath the skin of each leg. I take hold of my scalpel and flay each thin thigh. The old man moans with what little life he has left.

What are you doing? Abdel Jameela's wife asks the walls of my skull. I ignore her, pulling at a flap of the old man's thigh-flesh, revealing a corrupted sort of miracle.

Beneath Abdel Jameela's skin, tucked between muscles, are tiny legs. Thin as spindles and hairless. Each folded little leg ends in a minuscule hoof.

Unbidden, a memory comes to me—Shireen and I in the Caliph's orchards. A baby bird had fallen from its nest. I'd sighed and bit my lip and my Shireen—a dreamer, but not a soft one—had laughed and clapped at my tender-heartedness.

I slide each wet gray leg out from under the flayed skin and gently unbend them. As I flex the little joints, the she-ghoul's voice returns.

What . . . what is this, learned one? Tell me!

For a long moment I am mute. Then I force words out, my throat still cracked. "I . . . I do not know. They are—they look like—the legs of a kid or a ewe still in the womb."

It is as if she nods inside my mind. Or the legs of one of my people. I have long wondered how a mere man could captivate me so.

"All knowledge and understanding lies with God," I say. "Perhaps your husband always had these within him. The villagers say he is of uncertain parentage. Or perhaps . . . Perhaps his love for you . . . The crippled beggars of Cairo are the most grotesque—and the best—in the world. It is said that they wish so fiercely to make money begging that their souls reshape their bodies from the inside out. Yesterday I saw such stories as nonsense. But yesterday I'd have named you a villager's fantasy, too." As I speak I continue to work the little legs carefully, to help their circulation. The she-ghoul's sorcery no longer guides my hands, but a physicker's nurturing routines are nearly as compelling. There is weakness here and I do what I can to help it find strength.

The tiny legs twitch and kick in my hands.

Abdel Jameela's wife howls in my head. They are drawing on my magic. Something pulls at—The voice falls silent.

I let go of the legs and, before my eyes, they begin to grow. As they grow, they fill with color, as if blood flowed into them. Then fur starts to sprout upon them.

"There is no strength or safety but in God!" I try to close my eyes and focus on the words I speak but I can't. My head swims and my body swoons.

The spell that I cast on my poor husband to preserve him —these hidden hooves of his nurse on it! O, my surprising, wonderful husband! I hear loud lute music and smell lemongrass and then everything around me goes black.

When I wake I am on my back, looking up at a purple sky. An early morning sky. I am lying on a blanket outside the hovel. I sit up and Abdel Jameela hunches over me with his sour smell. Further away, near the hill-path, I see the black shape of his wife.

"Professor, you are awake! Good!" the hermit says. "We were about to leave."

But we are glad to have the chance to thank you.

My heart skips and my stomach clenches as I hear that voice in my head again. Kitten purrs and a crushed cardamom scent linger beneath the demon's words. I look at Abdel Jameela's legs.

They are sleek and covered in fur the color of almonds. And each leg ends in a perfect cloven hoof. He walks on them with a surprising grace.

Yes, learned one, my beloved husband lives and stands on two hooves. It would not be so if we hadn't had your help. You have our gratitude.

Dazedly clambering to my feet, I nod in the she-ghoul's direction. Abdel Jameela claps me on the back wordlessly and takes a few goat-strides toward the hill-path. His wife makes a slight bow to me. With my people, learned one, gratitude is more than a word. Look toward the hovel.

I turn and look. And my breath catches.

A hoard right out of the stories. Gold and spices. Jewels and musks. Silver and silks. Porcelain and punks of aloe.

It is probably ten times the dowry Shireen's father seeks.

We leave you this and wish you well. I have purged the signs of our work in the hovel. And in the language of the donkeys, I have called two wild asses to carry your goods. No troubles left to bother our brave friend!

I manage to smile gratefully with my head high for one long moment. Blood and bits of the old man's bone still stain my hands. But as I look on Abdel Jameela and his wife in the light of the sunrise, all my thoughts are not grim or grisly.

As they set off on the hill-path the she-ghoul takes Abdel Jameela's arm, and the hooves of husband and wife scrabble against the pebbles of Beit Zujaaj hill. I stand stock-still, watching them walk toward the land of the ghouls.

They cross a bend in the path and disappear behind the hill. And a faint voice, full of mischievous laughter and smelling of early morning love in perfumed sheets, whispers in my head. No troubles at all, learned one. For last night your Shireen's husband-to-be lost his battle with the destroyer of delights.

Can it really be so? The old vulture dead? And me a rich man? I should laugh and dance. Instead I am brought to my knees by the heavy memory of blood-spattered golden hooves. I wonder whether Shireen's suitor died from his illness, or from malicious magic meant to reward me. I fear for my soul. For a long while I kneel there and cry.

But after a while I can cry no longer. Tears give way to hopes I'd thought dead. I stand and thank Beneficent God, hoping it is not wrong to do so. Then I begin to put together an acceptable story about a secretly-wealthy hermit who has rewarded me for saving his wife's life. And I wonder what Shireen and her father will think of the man I have become.


Rebecca Stefoff said...

Great story and beautifully written. I look forward to reading more tales from Ahmed.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful!! Thanks so very much for sharing it. It was just great. Loved the synesthesia that went with the ghoul-wife's speech.

Diana L. Paxson said...

Yes, the synesthesia impressed me too. Most of us don't do nearly enough with scent imagery.

Jean Marie Ward said...

Gorgeous! Thanks so much for sharing this!

Christin said...

Very nice story! It's from 2009 but still nice to read!

Ondrej from Good Reading said...

Entertaining story.


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