She was buying an elixir
in a city
of bygone times
yet we should think of her
now when shoulders are as white
and wrists as fine
flesh as sweet
Oh, vertiginous life!
Czeslaw Milosz, A Book of Luminous Things Page 160.
This poem is the whole inspiration for the story below.
A week later I caught the outline of crumbling walls, half fallen towers, and temples that appeared to pop in and out of existence like a mirage in the half light of the setting sun. I rode my camel towards it, hoping to arrive before too many hours had passed. Yet after undulating on the back of my beast until the moon had passed halfway through the night sky, I could not tell if I had come any closer.
For three days this cycle would repeat itself, until, in the end, I thought myself mad with the heat. But then, as if some kind of trick was being played, I found myself under the walls almost as if I had run into them by mistake. It was already late in the day, and I could feel the silence pressing in on me as water might a submarine or whale at a great depth. It was not just that it was crushing, but it was cold, and for a moment I fancied I could see my breath in the middle of the desert heat.
That night the silence was broken by the wind, which hurled grains of sand as if they were daggers. I covered my mouth and nose with a sash and put on a pair of goggles. I then turned to my camels. I pulled on their lead ropes, trying to drag them into the city to find shelter but the beasts refused to rise. The storm worsened and the sand thickened until it began to push its way through the weave of the fabric in my sash. I tried again and again to move the two animals, but in the end I could do nothing except retreat to find shelter among the crumbling ruins, while the sand consumed my mounts.
The next morning I went to where my camels had fallen and dug. Eventually I found my saddles and my supplies. There was enough food and, thankfully, water to last for about two weeks or more; however, the wastelands that I had traversed to find this place stretched far and away. Too far. I did not find even the bones of my camels.
In the light of day and without the sand blasting my face, I took stock of the place I had slept the night before. It looked to be a guardhouse, and yet that made little sense, for it was on the inside of the wall. Unless there had been a gate where the crumbling hole in the wall now existed, there seemed to be nothing for it to guard. Puzzled by this, I nevertheless pushed further into the ruins.
I dragged my food, water, tent, and ammunition for the .45 revolver I had in a shoulder holster behind me, leaving a trail in the dust I could follow. I could not say what I was looking for other than perhaps a source of fresh water and a building that was mostly sand free. Consequently, it was several hours later that I finally found what appeared to be the central market, which was not a square, but a circle. Imposing buildings that had once had porticoes and elaborate facades that had long since crumbled crouched around the circumference of the circle. Elsewhere magnificent statues that looked to be over a hundred feet tall had fallen over, with some landing in the middle of the market, while others smashed through walls of nearby buildings. Here and there large plinths loomed out of the sandy waste, but whatever had once stood on them had long since tumbled down.
One building in particular caught my eye. It was located, as far as I could tell, on the north side of the circle, and in front of it was the only fountain I had seen in the whole city. The fountain was massive and had a huge basin set in the ground to act as a pool. I could tell that it had once been tiled; although, it was impossible to tell where the tile had originated from. In the center of the pool was a statue that was missing its head. The form was that of a woman, and the left arm was raised in such a way as to suggest she had been pouring water on herself. Overall, the effects of this dilapidation held a splendid melancholy that I thought could not be match elsewhere.
The building behind the fountain was obviously a temple, and unlike the other buildings in the area, it seemed to be free of sand. I approached the entrance, still dragging my supplies behind me. As I got near to it, I could see that the entrance was taller than some of the buildings that surrounded it and had once held double doors. Now though, one of the doors was missing. At first I thought that it had fallen into the building, but as I peered into the darkness beyond where I stood, I could not see it.
I did not pause to think on this, as I wanted to find the water that fed the fountain outside. But as soon as I tried to pass under the lintel and into the building, a shrieking wind roared through the building. It knocked me over, and it blew what little sand was nearby far from the building. The wind continued on in this way for several minutes, and when it was finished the silence that followed again seemed malevolent.
I should have turned around. I had not actually been inside the building at that point. I had water and food and a gun. I could have tried to find my way out, but I had to know. What was this place? What had happened? Instinctively, I knew it was the heart of this temple that held the answer to those questions. It was this that drove me to penetrate the black depths of that place.
I walked inside, still dragging my things behind me. This time there was no tempest to bar my way. I pulled out a flashlight and let the bright, white beam cut through the interior of the building. Overhead I could see a roof that was covered in plaster, but here and there chunks of it had fallen off, revealing some kind of mosaic lurking underneath.
The floor below where the plaster fell seemed undamaged. There were no plaster shards. No dust. Nothing. I found that odd, yet everywhere I went I was in awe of the sheer size of the place. In several places there were support pillars that were at least thirty feet in diameter. Further, the walls were at least three feet thick, which made the inside cool, and these colossal feats of engineering overpowered my unease at the sight of so little damage as compared to the rest of the city.
I pressed on into the dark, until I nearly reached the back wall. About fifty feet before I reached it, I found that the floor suddenly turned into stairs. I walked down them and found another huge basin. This one was also tiled, but unlike the one outside, it was full.
I pointed my light at the surface of liquid, but it only sparkled and defused off an opaque surface that was still. I rummaged through my things until I found a collapsible cup. I opened it and dipped it into the pool in front of me. I brought the cup up to my nose and sniffed and I didn't detect anything. Still, the cup felt wrong. Too heavy.
I walked outside with the cup. In the light of the low hanging sun I could see that it was filled with a silvery substance. I threw it out onto the stones and watched as it formed hundreds of perfect little spheres. I squatted down and nudged one sphere with the lip of the cup into another, and watched as they joined. I cursed then because I knew what I was looking at: mercury.
I walked back into the temple, retracing my way back to my supplies, but when I returned to the edge of the mercury pool they were gone. I screamed, but when it echoed in that placed it sounded like laughter. My blood froze in my veins, and all I could think was "I haven't had enough time in here to get mercury poisoning." For a few seconds, I did nothing, but then I began moving. First, I walked the full width of the building by the pool, looking for any hint of my gear. But there was nothing. Not even any dust from where I had dragged it about.
Next I went to the spot where I had collected my cupful of the liquid metal, and even though I knew it was unhealthy, I began walking down the steps. I watched as the metal flowed around my shoes. I saw it creep up past my ankles. And still I walked, dragging my feet. Hoping that I would trip over supplies. Soon I was up to my waist, and even though I knew I should breathe as little as possible, I still laughed as I felt the metal slosh inside my bellybutton. I stopped laughing when it reached the base of my neck. Still my feet hit nothing. Then, finally, thankfully, I was walking up stairs again. The quicksilver began getting lower on my body, but it clung to my clothing.
I finally reached the opposite side of the pool. Already the world was spinning and I felt light headed. I knew I had to shed my clothing because the silver drops clung to it with the tenacity of a tiger holding onto its prey. I kicked off my shoes and took off my gun holster. Next I ripped off my shirt and trousers, and finally my underwear. I fell to my hands and knees, dizzy. It felt like I was flying and I wished that I could. Wished that I could soar over the endless sands and far from this accursed place. Instead I watched as my revolver spun on the floor, though if that was because I was sick or if it was actually spinning I could not say.
I could not tell you how long I was on that floor, but I can tell you I was sick at least two times and probably passed out once. My skin itched and became raw, but otherwise I was outwardly fine. Still, I wondered what damaged I had done on the inside. Particularly as it was only when I woke up that she began coming to me.
Samira hustled through the bustling market marveling at the towering statues that stood like sentinels. They looked taller somehow than she remembered. She pictured herself standing on top of one of their heads, looking down at the people below as a normal person might look at an ant or a beetle. Even as she thought this, Samira pulled her head covering more tightly. Most women did not wear them, but then every other woman that Samira had ever seen had brown or black hair. Her hair, though, was the color of beaten copper and shone like the sun as it broke over the horizon at dawn. Samira thought it beautiful, but others claimed her mother had laid with a devil.
When she was a child she had run home to her mother many times, crying when the other children had said she was evil. But she did not understand how she could be evil. She had never thrown a stone at another child. She had never pushed someone from behind so that they'd fall down the stairs. She'd never spit on someone. Or stolen someone's sandals while they were in the temple.
She had, however, watched as her mother screamed and flailed at Najwa when the older girl had sent her tumbling down those stone steps. Watched as the police laughed at a mother's rage when other people who had not even been nearby when Najwa acted claimed that she had actually been trying to prevent Samira from falling down the steps by grabbing her clothes. A light had left her mother's eyes that day. A light that Samira vowed to rekindle.
After that Samira never left the house. She cooked and cleaned and always ate less than she wanted so that she would not be a burden to her mother, and for a few years she was not exactly happy, but she was not afraid. And every night, when her mother came back from sweeping the temple, Samira would kiss both her hands and her forehead and say, "Truly you are the most wonderful person God has ever made." When she started doing this, her mother had told her not to blaspheme. Yet in this one thing only did Samira ignore her mother, and as time passed and still she persisted, the light gradually returned to her mother's eyes.
A few days ago her mother came to her after work, and again Samira said, "Truly you are the most wonderful person God has ever made," and her mother hugged her. Samira remembered the smell of jasmine oil in the old woman's hair, which was now streaked with grey. When had that happened? And her skin had felt thin and papery, but Samira remembered when it was thick and smooth. That same night Samira found her mother in her bedroom, coughing up blood.
The old woman said nothing and the next day she left the house early. There were many other old women in the city. Some made fine cloth. Others kept an eye on children. Still others washed clothing. But there was one who lived near the wall. One that was only spoken of in whispers and then only as a warning. A woman the elders had sentenced to death by starving. They had walled her up in her home and built a guardhouse facing the building.
Samira's mother found the house. It was still under guard, but she did not even bother to hide herself. She found the guard asleep, as she knew she would. She had overheard the priests in the temple complaining that the guards here were always drunk because they no longer feared the woman and there was nothing else to watch in that part of the city. She passed by the guard and approached the house. As she did a wind that seemed to shriek blew up the street but then was gone.
She looked at the door, and was just trying to figure out how she was going to get inside when the stones parted as if they were no more than a veil of silk. She knew it was wrong. Knew that she would be killed if anyone found out, but the words echoed in her ear, "truly you are the most wonderful person God has ever made," and before she could let herself think of the consequences, she walked inside. The wall closed behind her.
She found herself in a room unlike any she had seen before. It looked a bit like an apothecary as the far wall was covered in shelves that held jar after jar. Some were clear and had bright powders in them. But others were made of metal and glowed white hot or had ice on the rim. A few were made of clay and she could tell nothing about them; although one of them was moving ever so slightly. Aside from the jars, there were plants. There was sage, cactus of all types, and a Joshua Tree along with hundreds of other desert plants that she could identify in one part of the room. Then right next to them were orchids, fly traps, and a riot of fungi and mushrooms that she could not identify. It went on and on, and all that she could tell was that most of these plants lived in places that were both far away and that she had never even dreamed about.
In the middle of all the plants sat the woman that she had come to see. But this woman was not what she was expecting. For one thing, she was fat. "Hello," Samira's mother said. "My name is..."
But the woman held up her hand and she fell silent. "I know who you are, and I know why you are here. My name is Deyanira. Welcome to my home." When the woman remained silent Deyanira continued, "You have come because of your daughter. You are dying and want her to live a full life. A happy life when you are gone. Correct."
The fat woman nodded. “This can be done, but like anything you buy, there is a price. I can change the color of your daughters hair in an instance, but her face will still be known. Her past will follow her like a loadstone when you are gone. Thus what you are asking for, in essence, is for her to have no past. Only a future. Am I correct?”
Samira's mother knew instinctively that this was the moment at which she could leave and avoid whatever was coming. There had been mention of a price, but nothing had exchanged hands. There had been a summary of interest, but not an agreement. She closed her eyes and tried to picture a way for Samira to be happy when she was gone, but the only thing that came to mind was a small girl crying at the bottom of stone steps. Confused. Hurt. Alone. Then, almost without knowing it, she said, “I will do what I must.”
Deyanira only nodded and waved her hand. One of the bottles flew off the shelf. It was made of what looked to be black glass and every edge on it was honed to a razor’s edge. Into this went several plants and other powders that zoomed from their places and disappeared into the depths of the black bottle. Samira’s mother noticed that Deyanira never touched it herself; she only directed the ingredients to fall in it. Once she was satisfied, she reached down and pulled out a normal looking blue-glass bottle, which she set on her table. She then mimed picking up and pouring the black bottle, and as she did so, the wicked looking container rose of its own accord and poured out.
When she was done Deyanira picked up a plain cork stopper and plugged the blue bottle. “Place this under your daughter’s bed tonight. In the morning, before it is light, wake her and send her to get fresh milk. While she is gone, make her favorite dish and pour this into it. She will taste nothing out of the ordinary, and you will go about your day as normal. Do you understand?”
The old woman nodded, and Deyanira nodded. She passed the bottle over and for just the briefest of moments the fat woman’s flesh touched the older woman’s skin; in that instant a chill entered the older woman’s bones. She ignored it though and instead focused on the woman who had given her the elixir. “You have not told me what I am to pay.”
Deyanira smiled and said, “You have given me all that I need, and I have accepted your payment. Go now.” Again, the old woman looked at the fat woman, but then she quickly turned away. It was only with the greatest of effort that she did not flee in terror, though Deyanira had never moved from her place, nor had she done anything but act as a proper merchant should. But as she got to the stone wall, which again opened as if it was made of silk, all her concerns fell away. She smiled as she exited the house, and again saw the guard passed out.
She tucked the bottle deep inside her robes and went to the temple. She spent her day, as always, cleaning. By midday her back ached and her hands hurt. She stood up and was shocked to find that everyone looked different. Each person retained their normal features, but it was as if their skin had become translucent to allow her to see who they truly were on the inside. Some of those who walked around were radiant, and looked like a garden made of light; other people looked like storm clouds, to include brilliant flashes of light that would arc back and forth, like lightning in a cloud; and still others looked like they were being eaten from the inside by maggots and flies. It was overwhelming, and just as the old woman began to scream, everyone seemed to flicker and go back to their normal appearance.
Everyone stopped to look at her, and she quickly bowed her head and got back to work. It was not long however, before a young priest came hurrying over and hissed, “What is wrong with you woman?”
She did not dare look at him, as she was scared of what she would see, so instead she said to the floor, “My apologies. It was my back. It felt as if I was falling and that the muscles had given out.” She felt the man look at her, considering.
“Perhaps you should go for the day then. Rest, and come back when you feel better.”
The old woman nodded and mumbled her thanks, but the priest had already turned his back and was walking away.
The old woman left then, and for the first time in years simply walked through the city. Every street, every path, she noted until eventually, she found herself outside her home. She opened the door and found the house smelled of the dumplings she had been craving for weeks and there was a small piece of lamb on a spit over the fire. As she breathed deeply of these smells, Samira came and kissed both her hands and her forehead and said, "Truly you are the most wonderful person God has ever made."
That night they were both happy, and spoke as they had not been able to in years. The old woman told Samira how much she loved her, and Samira spoke to her mother of the gratitude she felt for her. They had coffee together, which was rare, as it upset the old woman’s stomach. Neither of them wished the night to end. Eventually though, the old woman stood up and said, “I am going to bed. This night was the perfect gift. Thank you daughter.”
Samira looked back at the old woman, again wondering how the grey hair had crept on her, and said, “I love you.”
The old woman smiled, saying, “I know,” and then she turned and went to bed. But while Samira cleaned up the coffee she snuck into her daughter’s room and placed the blue bottle under her bed. The next morning, she got up, and as instructed began preparing Samira’s favorite meal. She then woke Samira and sent her to get milk, and while she was out in the darkness, she retrieved the blue bottle from under the bed.
She poured the elixir into the bread dough and finished making the meal. Eventually Samira returned, but she found only the meal and a note that said, “My Daughter Samira, know that I pray for your happiness every time I enter the temple.”
The sun had not even reached noonday before there was a frantic knock on Samira’s door. It was a young priest, who said, “Cover yourself and come with me. Your mother. There is something wrong.”
Instantly Samira demanded to know what, but the man would not tell her, and rather than waste time she ran into the house and tucked her coppery hair under her wrap. Soon she was following him through the city and into the market. As she reached the main market, she pulled her head wrap tighter, and pictured herself on top of the massive statues. But it was difficult to keep up with the priest, who was marching like an ant back to its nest.
They reached the temple and Samira instantly spotted her mother. A knot of people were gathered around where she was laying on the steps that lead down to the cleansing pool. Samira usually marveled at how the water in the pool stayed clear, even though so many came here to wash themselves of their transgressions. Today, however, she focused on the woman next to the pool.
Kneeling down, she picked up one of her mother’s hands, to kiss to it, as she did every night. But as soon as her lips touched the papery skin, something happened. The world lurched. Suddenly she could see into people. See the things that they did when the doors were closed and they thought themselves alone. She could also see her mother, who was now crying. However, they were not normal tears. Silver droplets streamed from the old woman's eyes and ran like a child’s ball over the floor and into the cleansing pool of the temple. The water began to change, and Samira could hear the people in it begin to scream.
It was then that her mother began to scream as well. Suddenly, it was no longer her mother there. Samira could see through her as she could everyone else. Her mother shone brightly at her core, but there was a blackness that surrounded this light, and it seemed to be growing. Again the world lurched, and Samira’s lips left her mother’s hand. She looked about and detected screams coming from outside the temple. Strands of blackness descended on Samira’s mother until she was consumed, and Samira could see that it was only the people who looked to be made of darkness that were screaming. There were being drained and what was in them was pouring into her mother. Samira had no time to think. Had no time to try and counter what was happening, and suddenly her mother’s light was consumed. The old woman exploded, but instead of blood, a hot wind ripped through the temple, shrieking as it went. It blasted through the city, going through every street and path, until it reached the place were a guardhouse stood facing a bricked up house. Here it was as if the wind coalesced into a giant fist and blasted apart the wall.
In the temple, Samira’s head wrap fell off. In the city all those who had been drained blew away: sand in a shrieking wind. But there were those left behind. They were also drained. Not of their essence, but of their will to live in that place. Yet they could not bring themselves to leave. Why this was they could not say. Time passed, and no children were born. The woman with the red hair walked among those who were left, and with them, she grew old. If asked they could not have said where that person came from, but everyone agreed she was not from the city. She was too nice.
As the people aged they saw that nobody went to the temple anymore, but from time to time a wind came out of there. The mural that showed the holy water healing was covered. Who did the work or when, those left behind could not say.
One day Samira woke and found that there was nobody left. Her hair was no longer coppery, but had turned a silver. The next day she walked through the hole in the wall where the guardhouse stood. The bricked up house that it used to watch had long since vanished. When others had walked the city they said it turned to sand. Others said it crumbled in on itself. Still others said that the wind that had blown out the wall also destroyed the house. Nobody knew. But it seemed unimportant. A thing from the past that had no relevance. Either way, Samira walked for weeks until she reached Kubla Khan. The men there wore their clothing for weeks without washing, until the seams rotted and the stench was such that her eyes watered. But they fed her and called her wise, and took her into their circles. They asked no questions and in their midst she watched as her skin turned papery.
I saw her when the vertigo passed. She was old and had papery skin. There was something bittersweet in her eyes, like the darkest of chocolate. It beckoned to me in a way that tugged at my very soul, though I could not say why. I put my gun back on my shoulder, but left my clothing.
Behind the pool there was a door that I had not seen before. My light hit it, and as it did I saw that she was there again. She had what looked to be a dumpling in her hand, and the smell of it enticed me. I followed, feeling the floor tilt and spin underneath my feet. How was it that she was so fast?
The door lead to a set of spiral stairs that I half walked, half tumbled down. At the bottom of the stairs I found rooms full of tarnished gold plates, vases that looked like they would fall apart if you tried to move them, and boxes stained from old spices and oils that had long ago disappeared. Through the endless warrens I wandered, chasing the elusive woman. I would see her holding her dumpling. Her wrist was thin and white, almost translucent. But I could not be sure as she was there and then gone.
Finally, I stumbled down a hall that ended in a room like none I had ever seen before. There were plants from all over the world here, and I saw pots and jars on a the far wall. Some of these were made of metal that looked white hot or had ice on the rim. Another looked to be made of basaltic glass and had edges that would slit a man’s throat in an instant. And there in the middle of the room was a woman, but it wasn’t the woman with the dumpling. Instead she was fat.
“Please I said,” I’m dying. I need help.”
But the woman did not move. She did not offer me anything. Instead she said, “You are from the outside. No one from the outside has been here in...well, I cannot even recall when that was.”
“Please. I need food. And I’m sick. The mercury. I walked through it. It was stupid to do, but I have no supplies left.”
“How long has it been since you last ate?” the fat woman asked.
“I don’t know. A day. Maybe two. But I’ve not had water in at least two days. Please I’m so thirsty.”
The fat woman laughed. “Oh my. Two days? You must be dry as the desert.” I winced. The woman had a voice like a broken bottle being dragged over the hood of a new Ferrari. “You, my pathetic little man, do not know the meaning of hunger. You do not know what it is to lust after it. I should have been fed for centuries, but I have suffered,” and from somewhere far off I thought I heard the wind shriek and I swore I smelled dumplings. “I should be free of this place. Free to visit all those wonderful cities that have surely grown and sprouted in my absence. But am I?”
The room was growing cold. My flashlight started to go out and the horrible, crushing silence came back, trying to crush me. I knew I had to leave, yet I was rooted. At the same time, the fat woman was moving, but the gait was wrong. She was suddenly much taller than I was, and I could see that she had the body of a snake. It had been coiled underneath the table, and now she wrapped her coils around me with such speed, I was sure I had imagined it. But she did a clumsy job of it. One of my arms was free, and I could feel my shoulder holster pressing into my ribs. I grabbed at my revolver but missed. It was then that I felt her rip the flesh out of my shoulder. Again, I moved to get my firearm but missed. She bit me a second time, and as another piece of my flesh was torn free, I heard the thing say, “so sweet.” Then, finally, with a scream of rage, I managed to reach my gun. I did not even bother to pull it out of the holster. I simply pulled the trigger and heard the muffled bang, as the gun discharged.
There was a scream and the coils loosened enough for me to pull my gun out. I felt several thick coils wrapped around my front, so I put the gun barrel down on the topmost coil and fired. I felt the bullet rip though at least two different circles of the thing’s body, and now she was bellowing in rage, the coils beginning to go slack. I pointed the gun to where the sound was coming from and pulled the trigger. In the muzzle flash I saw the face of the thing attacking me. It was neither a woman nor a snake now, but looked like the face of a tick. It had a needle like-appendage surrounded by two barbed structures, which looked to be what had ripped my flesh. I could see a thin, black substance, which might have been blood, but somehow looked wrong dripping from the needle like appendage.
Suddenly, the screaming stopped. The coils around me went slack and heat returned to the room.
I felt sick again. The world spun, and I passed out. How much time went by while I lay in that foul place, I cannot say, but when I awoke I found that my flashlight was working again. I left and made my way back though the labyrinth of corridors until I found the door that had taken me into that dark pit.
I stumbled out into the temple and found that all the plaster had fallen from the roof, and I could see a mosaic that seemed to speak of cleanliness and purification. I marveled at it for a long time. But I finally turned away, wondering what to do next. I had no food. No water. I was a dead man. Perhaps it would have been best to let that...thing...have its meal and save myself some pain.
I sat down and looked towards the door that I knew I would never reach, and then my eye saw it. On the far side of the pool were all my supplies, including my clothes. I cried out in joy and ran forward but then stopped and looked at the pool. I could not make that hellish trek again. Yet this time I could see the bottom of the pool. The tiles were there, clear and pristine, and as I rushed in I yelled in excitement. Up to my neck the water came, until I let myself slip under the cool surface. I felt the grime, blood, and whatever had driven me to ignore the words of warning, float away then.
After I was clean, I drank my fill and got out. I found my clothing in a neat pile. Boots with the socks stuffed in them on top of the underwear, which was on top of the shirt, which was on top of the pants. I quickly put on my underwear and shirt, and then I lifted my trousers. Underneath my trousers were two dumplings. One had a coppery hair tied around it, and the other a silvery hair.
These I kept, and after I finished dressing I took the two hairs and twisted them together. I wrapped them around my finger, like a ring. It was an odd thing to do, and if pressed as to why I did it, I could not say. I then ate one of the dumplings and put the other in my pocket.
The next day I left the city the same way I entered. I was not dragging my supplies with me. Instead I carried only the dumpling in my pocket and a canteen full of the water from the temple. I was not sure it would be enough, but they, along with the hairs on my finger, were the only burdens I could bear to carry from that place.