“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik is a fantasy novella about a disenchanted young Pakistani professor who grew up and lives in the United States, but is haunted by the magical, mystical tales his grandfather told him of a princess and a Jinn who lived in Lahore when the grandfather was a boy.
This novella was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
“When the Spirit World appears in a sensory Form, the Human Eye confines it. The Spiritual Entity cannot abandon that Form as long as Man continues to look at it in this special way. To escape, the Spiritual Entity manifests an Image it adopts for him, like a veil. It pretends the Image is moving in a certain direction so the Eye will follow it. At which point the Spiritual Entity escapes its confinement and disappears.
Whoever knows this and wishes to maintain perception of the Spiritual, must not let his Eye follow this illusion.
This is one of the Divine Secrets.”
The Meccan Revelations by Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi
For fifteen years my grandfather lived next door to the Mughal princess Zeenat Begum. The princess ran a tea stall outside the walled city of Old Lahore in the shade of an ancient eucalyptus. Dozens of children from Bhati Model School rushed screaming down muddy lanes to gather at her shop, which was really just a roadside counter with a tin roof and a smattering of chairs and a table. On winter afternoons it was her steaming cardamom-and-honey tea the kids wanted; in summer it was the chilled Rooh Afza.
As Gramps talked, he smacked his lips and licked his fingers, remembering the sweet rosewater sharbat. He told me that the princess was so poor she had to recycle tea leaves and sharbat residue. Not from customers, of course, but from her own boiling pans—although who really knew, he said, and winked.
I didn’t believe a word of it.
“Where was her kingdom?” I said.
“Gone. Lost. Fallen to the British a hundred years ago,” Gramps said. “She never begged, though. Never asked anyone’s help, see?”
I was ten. We were sitting on the steps of our mobile home in Florida. It was a wet summer afternoon and rain hissed like diamondbacks in the grass and crackled in the gutters of the trailer park.
“And her family?”
“Dead. Her great-great-great grandfather, the exiled King Bahadur Shah Zafar, died in Rangoon and is buried there. Burmese Muslims make pilgrimages to his shrine and honor him as a saint.”
“Why was he buried there? Why couldn’t he go home?”
“He had no home anymore.”
For a while I stared, then surprised both him and myself by bursting into tears. Bewildered, Gramps took me in his arms and whispered comforting things, and gradually I quieted, letting his voice and the rain sounds lull me to sleep, the loamy smell of him and grass and damp earth becoming one in my sniffling nostrils.
I remember the night Gramps told me the rest of the story. I was twelve or thirteen. We were at this desi party in Windermere thrown by Baba’s friend Hanif Uncle, a posh affair with Italian leather sofas, crystal cutlery, and marble-topped tables. Someone broached a discussion about the pauper princess. Another person guffawed. The Mughal princess was an urban legend, this aunty said. Yes, yes, she too had heard stories about this so-called princess, but they were a hoax. The descendants of the Mughals left India and Pakistan decades ago. They are settled in London and Paris and Manhattan now, living postcolonial, extravagant lives after selling their estates in their native land.
Gramps disagreed vehemently. Not only was the princess real, she had given him free tea. She had told him stories of her forebears.
The desi aunty laughed. “Senility is known to create stories,” she said, tapping her manicured fingers on her wineglass.
Gramps bristled. A long heated argument followed and we ended up leaving the party early.
“Rafiq, tell your father to calm down,” Hanif Uncle said to my baba at the door. “He takes things too seriously.”
“He might be old and set in his ways, Doctor sahib,” Baba said, “but he’s sharp as a tack. Pardon my boldness but some of your friends in there . . .” Without looking at Hanif Uncle, Baba waved a palm at the open door from which blue light and Bollywood music spilled onto the driveway.
Hanif Uncle smiled. He was a gentle and quiet man who sometimes invited us over to his fancy parties where rich expatriates from the Indian subcontinent opined about politics, stocks, cricket, religious fundamentalism, and their successful Ivy League–attending progeny. The shyer the man the louder his feasts, Gramps was fond of saying.
“They’re a piece of work all right,” Hanif Uncle said. “Listen, bring your family over some weekend. I’d love to listen to that Mughal girl’s story.”
“Sure, Doctor sahib. Thank you.”
The three of us squatted into our listing truck and Baba yanked the gearshift forward, beginning the drive home.
“Abba-ji,” he said to Gramps. “You need to rein in your temper. You can’t pick a fight with these people. The doctor’s been very kind to me, but word of mouth’s how I get work and it’s exactly how I can lose it.”
“But that woman is wrong, Rafiq,” Gramps protested. “What she’s heard are rumors. I told them the truth. I lived in the time of the pauper princess. I lived through the horrors of the eucalyptus jinn.”
“Abba-ji, listen to what you’re saying! Please, I beg you, keep these stories to yourself. Last thing I want is people whispering the handyman has a crazy, quarrelsome father.” Baba wiped his forehead and rubbed his perpetually blistered thumb and index finger together.
Gramps stared at him, then whipped his face to the window and began to chew a candy wrapper (he was diabetic and wasn’t allowed sweets). We sat in hot, thorny silence the rest of the ride and when we got home Gramps marched straight to his room like a prisoner returning to his cell.
I followed him and plopped on his bed.
“Tell me about the princess and the jinn,” I said in Urdu.
Gramps grunted out of his compression stockings and kneaded his legs. They occasionally swelled with fluid. He needed water pills but they made him incontinent and smell like piss and he hated them. “The last time I told you her story you started crying. I don’t want your parents yelling at me. Especially tonight.”
“Oh, come on, they don’t yell at you. Plus I won’t tell them. Look, Gramps, think about it this way: I could write a story in my school paper about the princess. This could be my junior project.” I snuggled into his bedsheets. They smelled of sweat and medicine, but I didn’t mind.
“All right, but if your mother comes in here, complaining—”
He arched his back and shuffled to the armchair by the window. It was ten at night. Cicadas chirped their intermittent static outside, but I doubt Gramps heard them. He wore hearing aids and the ones we could afford crackled in his ears, so he refused to wear them at home.
Gramps opened his mouth, pinched the lower denture, and rocked it. Back and forth, back and forth. Loosening it from the socket. Pop! He removed the upper one similarly and dropped both in a bowl of warm water on the table by the armchair.
I slid off the bed. I went to him and sat on the floor by his spidery, white-haired feet. “Can you tell me the story, Gramps?”
Night stole in through the window blinds and settled around us, soft and warm. Gramps curled his toes and pressed them against the wooden leg of his armchair. His eyes drifted to the painting hanging above the door, a picture of a young woman turned ageless by the artist’s hand. Soft muddy eyes, a knowing smile, an orange dopatta framing her black hair. She sat on a brilliantly colored rug and held a silver goblet in an outstretched hand, as if offering it to the viewer.
The painting had hung in Gramps’s room for so long I’d stopped seeing it. When I was younger I’d once asked him if the woman was Grandma, and he’d looked at me. Grandma died when Baba was young, he said.
The cicadas burst into an electric row and I rapped the floorboards with my knuckles, fascinated by how I could keep time with their piping.
“I bet the pauper princess,” said Gramps quietly, “would be happy to have her story told.”
“She would’ve wanted everyone to know how the greatest dynasty in history came to a ruinous end.”
Gramps scooped up a two-sided brush and a bottle of cleaning solution from the table. Carefully, he began to brush his dentures. As he scrubbed, he talked, his deep-set watery eyes slowly brightening until it seemed he glowed with memory. I listened, and at one point Mama came to the door, peered in, and whispered something we both ignored. It was Saturday night so she left us alone, and Gramps and I sat there for the longest time I would ever spend with him.
This is how, that night, my gramps ended up telling me the story of the Pauper Princess and the Eucalyptus Jinn.
The princess, Gramps said, was a woman in her twenties with a touch of silver in her hair. She was lean as a sorghum broomstick, face dark and plain, but her eyes glittered as she hummed the Qaseeda Burdah Shareef and swept the wooden counter in her tea shop with a dustcloth. She had a gold nose stud that, she told her customers, was a family heirloom. Each evening after she was done serving she folded her aluminum chairs, upended the stools on the plywood table, and took a break. She’d sit down by the trunk of the towering eucalyptus outside Bhati Gate, pluck out the stud, and shine it with a mint-water-soaked rag until it gleamed like an eye.
It was tradition, she said.
“If it’s an heirloom, why do you wear it every day? What if you break it? What if someone sees it and decides to rob you?” Gramps asked her. He was about fourteen then and just that morning had gotten Juma pocket money and was feeling rich. He whistled as he sat sipping tea in the tree’s shade and watched steel workers, potters, calligraphers, and laborers carry their work outside their foundries and shops, grateful for the winter-softened sky.
Princess Zeenat smiled and her teeth shone at him. “Nah ji. No one can steal from us. My family is protected by a jinn, you know.”
This was something Gramps had heard before. A jinn protected the princess and her two sisters, a duty imposed by Akbar the Great five hundred years back. Guard and defend Mughal honor. Not a clichéd horned jinn, you understand, but a daunting, invisible entity that defied the laws of physics: it could slip in and out of time, could swap its senses, hear out of its nostrils, smell with its eyes. It could even fly like the tales of yore said.
Mostly amused but occasionally uneasy, Gramps laughed when the princess told these stories. He had never really questioned the reality of her existence; lots of nawabs and princes of pre-Partition India had offspring languishing in poverty these days. An impoverished Mughal princess was conceivable.
A custodian jinn, not so much.
Unconvinced thus, Gramps said:
“Where does he live?”
“What does he eat?”
And, “If he’s invisible, how does one know he’s real?”
The princess’s answers came back practiced and surreal:
The jinn lived in the eucalyptus tree above the tea stall.
He ate angel-bread.
He was as real as jasmine-touched breeze, as shifting temperatures, as the many spells of weather that alternately lull and shake humans in their variegated fists.
“Have you seen him?” Gramps fired.
“Such questions.” The Princess shook her head and laughed, her thick, long hair squirming out from under her chador. “Hai Allah, these kids.” Still tittering, she sauntered off to her counter, leaving a disgruntled Gramps scratching his head.
The existential ramifications of such a creature’s presence unsettled Gramps, but what could he do? Arguing about it was as useful as arguing about the wind jouncing the eucalyptus boughs. Especially when the neighborhood kids began to tell disturbing tales as well.
Of a gnarled bat-like creature that hung upside down from the warped branches, its shadow twined around the wicker chairs and table fronting the counter. If you looked up, you saw a bird nest—just another huddle of zoysia grass and bird feathers—but then you dropped your gaze and the creature’s malignant reflection juddered and swam in the tea inside the chipped china.
“Foul face,” said one boy. “Dark and ugly and wrinkled like a fruit.”
“Sharp, crooked fangs,” said another.
“No, no, he has razor blades planted in his jaws,” said the first one quickly. “My cousin told me. That’s how he flays the skin off little kids.”
The description of the eucalyptus jinn varied seasonally. In summertime, his cheeks were scorched, his eyes red rimmed like the midday sun. Come winter, his lips were blue and his eyes misty, his touch cold like damp roots. On one thing everyone agreed: if he laid eyes on you, you were a goner.
The lean, mean older kids nodded and shook their heads wisely.
The mystery continued this way, deliciously gossiped and fervently argued, until one summer day a child of ten with wild eyes and a snot-covered chin rushed into the tea stall, gabbling and crying, blood trickling from the gash in his temple. Despite several attempts by the princess and her customers, he wouldn’t be induced to tell who or what had hurt him, but his older brother, who had followed the boy inside, face scrunched with delight, declared he had last been seen pissing at the bottom of the eucalyptus.
“The jinn. The jinn,” all the kids cried in unison. “A victim of the jinn’s malice.”
“No. He fell out of the tree,” a grownup said firmly. “The gash is from the fall.”
“The boy’s incurred the jinn’s wrath,” said the kids happily. “The jinn will flense the meat off his bones and crunch his marrow.”
“Oh shut up,” said Princess Zeenat, feeling the boy’s cheeks, “the eucalyptus jinn doesn’t harm innocents. He’s a defender of honor and dignity,” while all the time she fretted over the boy, dabbed at his forehead with a wet cloth, and poured him a hot cup of tea.
The princess’s sisters emerged from the doorway of their two-room shack twenty paces from the tea stall. They peered in, two teenage girls in flour-caked dopattas and rose-printed shalwar kameez, and the younger one stifled a cry when the boy turned to her, eyes shiny and vacuous with delirium, and whispered, “He says the lightning trees are dying.”
The princess gasped. The customers pressed in, awed and murmuring. An elderly man with betel-juice-stained teeth gripped the front of his own shirt with palsied hands and fanned his chest with it. “The jinn has overcome the child,” he said, looking profoundly at the sky beyond the stall, and chomped his tobacco paan faster.
The boy shuddered. He closed his eyes, breathed erratically, and behind him the shadow of the tree fell long and clawing at the ground.
The lightning trees are dying. The lightning trees are dying.
So spread the nonsensical words through the neighborhood. Zipping from bamboo door-to-door; blazing through dark lovers’ alleys; hopping from one beggar’s gleeful tongue to another’s, the prophecy became a proverb and the proverb a song.
A starving calligrapher-poet licked his reed quill and wrote an elegy for the lightning trees.
A courtesan from the Diamond Market sang it from her rooftop on a moonlit night.
Thus the walled city heard the story of the possessed boy and his curious proclamation and shivered with this message from realms unknown. Arthritic grandmothers and lithe young men rocked in their courtyards and lawns, nodding dreamily at the stars above, allowing themselves to remember secrets from childhood they hadn’t dared remember before.
Meanwhile word reached local families that a child had gotten hurt climbing the eucalyptus. Angry fathers, most of them laborers and shopkeepers with kids who rarely went home before nightfall, came barging into the Municipality’s lean-to, fists hammering on the sad-looking officer’s table, demanding that the tree be chopped down.
“It’s a menace,” they said.
“It’s hollow. Worm eaten.”
“Look, its gum’s flammable and therefore a fire hazard,” offered one versed in horticulture, “and the tree’s a pest. What’s a eucalyptus doing in the middle of a street anyway?”
So they argued and thundered until the officer came knocking at the princess’s door. “The tree,” said the sad-looking officer, twisting his squirrel-tail mustache, “needs to go.”
“Over my dead body,” said the princess. She threw down her polish rag and glared at the officer. “It was planted by my forefathers. It’s a relic, it’s history.”
“It’s a public menace. Look, bibi, we can do this the easy way or the hard way, but I’m telling you—”
“Try it. You just try it,” cried the princess. “I will take this matter to the highest authorities. I’ll go to the Supreme Court. That tree”—she jabbed a quivering finger at the monstrous thing—“gives us shade. A fakir told my grandfather never to move his business elsewhere. It’s blessed, he said.”
The sad-faced officer rolled up his sleeves. The princess eyed him with apprehension as he yanked one of her chairs back and lowered himself into it.
“Bibi,” he said not unkindly, “let me tell you something. The eucalyptus was brought here by the British to cure India’s salinity and flooding problems. Gora sahib hardly cared about our ecology.” His mustache drooped from his thin lips. The strawberry mole on his chin quivered. “It’s not indigenous, it’s a pest. It’s not a blessing, it repels other flora and fauna and guzzles groundwater by the tons. It’s not ours,” the officer said, not looking at the princess. “It’s alien.”
It was early afternoon and school hadn’t broken yet. The truant Gramps sat in a corner sucking on a cigarette he’d found in the trash can outside his school and watched the princess. Why wasn’t she telling the officer about the jinn? That the tree was its home? Her cheeks were puffed from clenching her jaws, the hollows under her eyes deeper and darker as she clapped a hand to her forehead.
“Look,” she said, her voice rising and falling like the wind stirring the tear-shaped eucalyptus leaves, “you take the tree, you take our good luck. My shop is all I have. The tree protects it. It protects us. It’s family.”
“Nothing I can do.” The officer scratched his birthmark. “Had there been no complaint . . . but now I have no choice. The Lahore Development Authority has been planning to remove the poplars and the eucalyptus for a while anyway. They want to bring back trees of Old Lahore. Neem, pipal, sukhchain, mulberry, mango. This foreigner”—he looked with distaste at the eucalyptus—“steals water from our land. It needs to go.”
Shaking his head, the officer left. The princess lurched to her stall and began to prepare Rooh Afza. She poured a glittering parabola of sharbat into a mug with trembling hands, staggered to the tree, and flung the liquid at its hoary, clawing roots.
“There,” she cried, her eyes reddened. “I can’t save you. You must go.”
Was she talking to the jinn? To the tree? Gramps felt his spine run cold as the blood-red libation sank into the ground, muddying the earth around the eucalyptus roots. Somewhere in the branches, a bird whistled.
The princess toed the roots for a moment longer, then trudged back to her counter.
Gramps left his teacup half-empty and went to the tree. He tilted his head to look at its top. It was so high. The branches squirmed and fled from the main trunk, reaching restlessly for the hot white clouds. A plump chukar with a crimson beak sat on a branch swaying gently. It stared back at Gramps, but no creature with razor-blade jaws and hollow dust-filled cheeks dangled from the tree.
As Gramps left, the shadows of the canopies and awnings of shops in the alley stretched toward the tree accusatorially.
That night Gramps dreamed of the eucalyptus jinn.
It was a red-snouted shape hurtling toward the heavens, its slipstream body glittering and dancing in the dark. Space and freedom rotated above it, but as it accelerated showers of golden meteors came bursting from the stars and slammed into it. The creature thinned and elongated until it looked like a reed pen trying to scribble a cryptic message between the stars, but the meteors wouldn’t stop.
Drop back, you blasphemer, whispered the heavens. You absconder, you vermin. The old world is gone. No place for your kind here now. Fall back and do your duty.
And eventually the jinn gave up and let go.
It plummeted: a fluttering, helpless, enflamed ball shooting to the earth. It shrieked as it dove, flickering rapidly in and out of space and time but bound by their quantum fetters. It wanted to rage but couldn’t. It wanted to save the lightning trees, to upchuck their tremulous shimmering roots and plant them somewhere the son of man wouldn’t find them. Instead it was imprisoned, captured by prehuman magic and trapped to do time for a sin so old it had forgotten what it was.
So now it tumbled and plunged, hated and hating. It changed colors like a fiendish rainbow: mid-flame blue, muscle red, terror green, until the force of its fall bleached all its hues away and it became a pale scorching bolt of fire.
Thus the eucalyptus jinn fell to its inevitable dissolution, even as Gramps woke up, his heart pounding, eyes fogged and aching from the dream. He groped in the dark, found the lantern, and lit it. He was still shaking. He got up, went to his narrow window that looked out at the moon-drenched Bhati Gate a hundred yards away. The eight arches of the Mughal structure were black and lonely above the central arch. Gramps listened. Someone was moving in the shack next door. In the princess’s home. He gazed at the mosque of Ghulam Rasool—a legendary mystic known as the Master of Cats—on its left.
And he looked at the eucalyptus tree.
It soared higher than the gate, its wild armature pawing at the night, the oily scent of its leaves potent even at this distance. Gramps shivered, although heat was swelling from the ground from the first patter of raindrops. More smells crept into the room: dust, trash, verdure.
He backed away from the window, slipped his sandals on, dashed out of the house. He ran toward the tea stall but, before he could as much as cross the chicken yard up front, lightning unzipped the dark and the sky roared.
The blast of its fall could be heard for miles.
The eucalyptus exploded into a thousand pieces, the burning limbs crackling and sputtering in the thunderstorm that followed. More lightning splintered the night sky. Children shrieked, dreaming of twisted corridors with shadows wending past one another. Adults moaned as timeless gulfs shrank and pulsed behind their eyelids. The walled city thrashed in sweat-soaked sheets until the mullah climbed the minaret and screamed his predawn call.
In the morning the smell of ash and eucalyptol hung around the crisped boughs. The princess sobbed as she gazed at her buckled tin roof and smashed stall. Shards of china, plywood, clay, and charred wicker twigs lay everywhere.
The laborers and steel workers rubbed their chins.
“Well, good riddance,” said Alamdin electrician, father of the injured boy whose possession had ultimately proved fleeting. Alamdin fingered a hole in his string vest. “Although I’m sorry for your loss, bibi. Perhaps the government will give you a monthly pension, being that you’re royal descent and all.”
Princess Zeenat’s nose stud looked dull in the gray after-storm light. Her shirt was torn at the back, where a fragment of wood had bitten her as she scoured the wreckage.
“He was supposed to protect us,” she murmured to the tree’s remains: a black stump that poked from the earth like a singed umbilicus, and the roots lapping madly at her feet. “To give us shade and blessed sanctuary.” Her grimed finger went for the nose stud and wrenched it out. “Instead—” She backpedaled and slumped at the foot of her shack’s door. “Oh, my sisters. My sisters.”
Tutting uncomfortably, the men drifted away, abandoning the pauper princess and her Mughal siblings. The women huddled together, a bevy of chukars stunned by a blood moon. Their shop was gone, the tree was gone. Princess Zeenat hugged her sisters and with a fierce light in her eyes whispered to them.
Over the next few days Gramps stood at Bhati Gate, watching the girls salvage timber, china, and clay. They washed and scrubbed their copper pots. Heaved out the tin sheet from the debris and dragged it to the foundries. Looped the remaining wicker into small bundles and sold it to basket weavers inside the walled city.
Gramps and a few past patrons offered to help. The Mughal women declined politely.
“But I can help, I really can,” Gramps said, but the princess merely knitted her eyebrows, cocked her head, and stared at Gramps until he turned and fled.
The Municipality officer tapped at their door one Friday after Juma prayers.
“Condolences, bibi,” he said. “My countless apologies. We should’ve cut it down before this happened.”
“It’s all right.” The princess rolled the gold stud tied in a hemp necklace around her neck between two fingers. Her face was tired but tranquil. “It was going to happen one way or the other.”
The officer picked at his red birthmark. “I meant your shop.”
“We had good times here”—she nodded—“but my family’s long overdue for a migration. We’re going to go live with my cousin. He has an orange-and-fig farm in Mansehra. We’ll find plenty to do.”
The man ran his fingernail down the edge of her door. For the first time Gramps saw how his eyes never stayed on the princess. They drifted toward her face, then darted away as if the flush of her skin would sear them if they lingered. Warmth slipped around Gramps’s neck, up his scalp, and across his face until his own flesh burned.
“Of course,” the officer said. “Of course,” and he turned and trudged to the skeletal stump. Already crows had marked the area with their pecking, busily creating a roost of the fallen tree. Soon they would be protected from horned owls and other birds of prey, they thought. But Gramps and Princess Zeenat knew better.
There was no protection here.
The officer cast one long look at the Mughal family, stepped around the stump, and walked away.
Later, the princess called to Gramps. He was sitting on the mosque’s steps, shaking a brass bowl, pretending to be a beggar. He ran over, the coins jingling in his pocket.
“I know you saw something,” she said once they were seated on the hemp charpoy in her shack. “I could see it in your face when you offered your help.”
Gramps stared at her.
“That night,” she persisted, “when the lightning hit the tree.” She leaned forward, her fragrance of tea leaves and ash and cardamom filling his nostrils. “What did you see?”
“Nothing,” he said and began to get up.
She grabbed his wrist. “Sit,” she said. Her left hand shot out and pressed something into his palm. Gramps leapt off the charpoy. There was an electric sensation in his flesh; his hair crackled. He opened his fist and looked at the object.
It was her nose stud. The freshly polished gold shimmered in the dingy shack.
Gramps touched the stud with his other hand and withdrew it. “It’s so cold.”
The princess smiled, a bright thing that lit up the shack. Full of love, sorrow, and relief. But relief at what? Gramps sat back down, gripped the charpoy’s posts, and tugged its torn hemp strands nervously.
“My family will be gone by tonight,” the princess said.
And even though he’d been expecting this for days, it still came as a shock to Gramps. The imminence of her departure took his breath away. All he could do was wobble his head.
“Once we’ve left, the city might come to uproot that stump.” The princess glanced over her shoulder toward the back of the room where shadows lingered. “If they try, do you promise you’ll dig under it?” She rose and peered into the dimness, her eyes gleaming like jewels.
“Dig under the tree? Why?”
“Something lies there which, if you dig it up, you’ll keep to yourself.” Princess Zeenat swiveled on her heels. “Which you will hide in a safe place and never tell a soul about.”
“Because that’s what the fakir told my grandfather. Something old and secret rests under that tree and it’s not for human eyes.” She turned and walked to the door.
Gramps said, “Did you ever dig under it?”
She shook her head without looking back. “I didn’t need to. As long as the tree stood, there was no need for me to excavate secrets not meant for me.”
“And the gold stud? Why’re you giving it away?”
“It comes with the burden.”
“What burden? What is under that tree?”
The princess half turned. She stood in a nimbus of midday light, her long muscled arms hanging loosely, fingers playing with the place in the hemp necklace where once her family heirloom had been; and despite the worry lines and the callused hands and her uneven, grimy fingernails, she was beautiful.
Somewhere close, a brick truck unloaded its cargo and in its sudden thunder what the princess said was muffled and nearly inaudible. Gramps thought later it might have been, “The map to the memory of heaven.”
But that of course couldn’t be right.
“The princess and her family left Lahore that night,” said Gramps. “This was in the fifties and the country was too busy recovering from Partition and picking up its own pieces to worry about a Mughal princess disappearing from the pages of history. So no one cared. Except me.”
He sank back into the armchair and began to rock.
“She or her sisters ever come back?” I said, pushing myself off the floor with my knuckles. “What happened to them?”
Gramps shrugged. “What happens to all girls. Married their cousins in the north, I suppose. Had large families. They never returned to Lahore, see?”
“And the jinn?”
Gramps bent and poked his ankle with a finger. It left a shallow dimple. “I guess he died or flew away once the lightning felled the tree.”
“What was under the stump?”
“How should I know?”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t dig it up. No one came to remove the stump, so I never got a chance to take out whatever was there. Anyway, bache, you really should be going. It’s late.”
I glanced at my Star Wars watch. Luke’s saber shone fluorescent across the Roman numeral two. I was impressed Mama hadn’t returned to scold me to bed. I arched my back to ease the stiffness and looked at him with one eye closed. “You’re seriously telling me you didn’t dig up the secret?”
“I was scared,” said Gramps, and gummed a fiber bar. “Look, I was told not to remove it if I didn’t have to, so I didn’t. Those days we listened to our elders, see?” He grinned, delighted with this unexpected opportunity to rebuke.
“But that’s cheating,” I cried. “The gold stud. The jinn’s disappearance. You’ve explained nothing. That . . . that’s not a good story at all. It just leaves more questions.”
“All good stories leave questions. Now go on, get out of here. Before your mother yells at us both.”
He rose and waved me toward the door, grimacing and rubbing his belly—heartburn from Hanif Uncle’s party food? I slipped out and shut the door behind me. Already ghazal music was drifting out: Ranjish hi sahih dil hi dukhanay ke liye aa. Let it be heartbreak; come if just to hurt me again. I knew the song well. Gramps had worn out so many cassettes that Apna Bazaar ordered them in bulk just for him, Mama joked.
I went to my room, undressed, and for a long time tossed in the sheets, watching the moon outside my window. It was a supermoon kids at school had talked about, a magical golden egg floating near the horizon, and I wondered how many Mughal princes and princesses had gazed at it through the ages, holding hands with their lovers.
This is how the story of the Pauper Princess and the Eucalyptus Jinn comes to an end, I thought. In utter, infuriating oblivion.
I was wrong, of course.
In September 2013, Gramps had a sudden onset of chest pain and became short of breath. 911 was called, but by the time the medics came his heart had stopped and his extremities were mottled. Still they shocked him and injected him with epi-and-atropine and sped him to the hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
Gramps had really needed those water pills he’d refused until the end.
I was at Tufts teaching a course in comparative mythology when Baba called. It was a difficult year. I’d been refused tenure and a close friend had been fired over department politics. But when Baba asked me if I could come, I said of course. Gramps and I hadn’t talked in years after I graduated from Florida State and moved to Massachusetts, but it didn’t matter. There would be a funeral and a burial and a reception for the smattering of relatives who lived within drivable distance. I, the only grandchild, must be there.
Sara wanted to go with me. It would be a good gesture, she said.
“No,” I said. “It would be a terrible gesture. Baba might not say anything, but the last person he’d want at Gramps’s funeral is my white girlfriend. Trust me.”
Sara didn’t let go of my hand. Her fingers weren’t dainty like some women’s— you’re afraid to squeeze them lest they shatter like glass—but they were soft and curled easily around mine. “You’ll come back soon, won’t you?”
“Of course. Why’d you ask?” I looked at her.
“Because,” she said kindly, “you’re going home.” Her other hand plucked at a hair on my knuckle. She smiled, but there was a ghost of worry pinching the corner of her lips. “Because sometimes I can’t read you.”
We stood in the kitchenette facing each other. I touched Sara’s chin. In the last few months there had been moments when things had been a bit hesitant, but nothing that jeopardized what we had.
“I’ll be back,” I said.
We hugged and kissed and whispered things I don’t remember now. Eventually we parted and I flew to Florida, watching the morning landscape tilt through the plane windows. Below, the Charles gleamed like steel, then fell away until it was a silver twig in a hard land; and I thought, The lightning trees are dying.
Then we were past the waters and up and away, and the thought receded like the river.
We buried Gramps in Orlando Memorial Gardens under a row of pines. He was pale and stiff limbed, nostrils stuffed with cotton, the white shroud rippling in the breeze. I wished, like all fools rattled by late epiphanies, that I’d had more time with him. I said as much to Baba, who nodded.
“He would have liked that,” Baba said. He stared at the gravestone with the epitaph I have glimpsed the truth of the Great Unseen that Gramps had insisted be written below his name. A verse from Rumi. “He would have liked that very much.”
We stood in silence and I thought of Gramps and the stories he took with him that would stay untold forever. There’s a funny thing about teaching myth and history: you realize in the deep of your bones that you’d be lucky to become a mote of dust, a speck on the bookshelf of human existence. The more tales you preserve, the more claims to immortality you can make.
After the burial we went home and Mama made us chicken karahi and basmati rice. It had been ages since I’d had home-cooked Pakistani food and the spice and garlicky taste knocked me back a bit. I downed half a bowl of fiery gravy and fled to Gramps’s room where I’d been put up. Where smells of his cologne and musty clothes and his comings and goings still hung like a memory of old days.
In the following week Baba and I talked. More than we had in ages. He asked me about Sara with a glint in his eyes. I said we were still together. He grunted.
“Thousands of suitable Pakistani girls,” he began to murmur, and Mama shushed him.
In Urdu half-butchered from years of disuse I told them about Tufts and New England. Boston Commons, the Freedom Trail with its dozen cemeteries and royal burial grounds, the extremities of weather; how fall spun gold and rubies and amethyst from its foliage. Baba listened, occasionally wincing, as he worked on a broken power drill from his toolbox. It had been six years since I’d seen him and Mama, and the reality of their aging was like a gut punch. Mama’s hair was silver, but at least her skin retained a youthful glow. Baba’s fistful of beard was completely white, the hollows of his eyes deeper and darker. His fingers were swollen from rheumatoid arthritis he’d let fester for years because he couldn’t afford insurance.
“You really need to see a doctor,” I said.
“I have one. I go to the community health center in Leesburg, you know.”
“Not a free clinic. You need to see a specialist.”
“I’m fifty-nine. Six more years and then.” He pressed the power button on the drill and it roared to life. “Things will change,” he said cheerfully.
I didn’t know what to say. I had offered to pay his bills before. The handyman’s son wasn’t exactly rich, but he was grown up now and could help his family out.
Baba would have none of it. I didn’t like it, but what could I do? He had pushed me away for years. Get out of here while you can, he’d say. He marched me to college the same way he would march me to Sunday classes at Clermont Islamic Center. Go on, he said outside the mosque, as I clutched the siparas to my chest. Memorize the Quran. If you don’t, who will?
Was that why I hadn’t returned home until Gramps’s death? Even then I knew there was more. Home was a morass where I would sink. I had tried one or two family holidays midway through college. They depressed me, my parents’ stagnation, their world where nothing changed. The trailer park, its tired residents, the dead-leaf-strewn grounds that always seemed to get muddy and wet and never clean. A strange lethargy would settle on me here, a leaden feeling that left me cold and shaken. Visiting home became an ordeal filled with guilt at my indifference. I was new to the cutthroat world of academia then and bouncing from one adjunct position to another was taking up all my time anyway.
I stopped going back. It was easier to call, make promises, talk about how bright my prospects were in the big cities. And with Gramps even phone talk was useless. He couldn’t hear me, and he wouldn’t put on those damn hearing aids.
So now I was living thousands of miles away with a girl Baba had never met.
I suppose I must’ve been hurt at his refusal of my help. The next few days were a blur between helping Mama with cleaning out Gramps’s room and keeping up with the assignments my undergrads were emailing me even though I was on leave. A trickle of relatives and friends came, but to my relief Baba took over the hosting duties and let me sort through the piles of journals and tomes Gramps had amassed.
It was an impressive collection. Dozens of Sufi texts and religious treatises in different languages: Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Punjabi, Turkish. Margins covered with Gramps’s neat handwriting. I didn’t remember seeing so many books in his room when I used to live here.
I asked Baba. He nodded.
“Gramps collected most of these after you left.” He smiled. “I suppose he missed you.”
I showed him the books. “Didn’t you say he was having memory trouble? I remember Mama being worried about him getting dementia last time I talked. How could he learn new languages?”
“I didn’t know he knew half these languages. Urdu and Punjabi he spoke and read fluently, but the others—” He shrugged.
Curious, I went through a few line notes. Thoughtful speculation on ontological and existential questions posed by the mystic texts. These were not the ramblings of a senile mind. Was Gramps’s forgetfulness mere aging? Or had he written most of these before he began losing his marbles?
“Well, he did have a few mini strokes,” Mama said when I asked. “Sometimes he’d forget where he was. Talk about Lahore, and oddly, Mansehra. It’s a small city in Northern Pakistan,” she added when I raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps he had friends there when he was young.”
I looked at the books, ran my finger along their spines. It would be fun, nostalgic, to go through them at leisure, read Rumi’s couplets and Hafiz’s Diwan. I resolved to take the books with me. Just rent a car and drive up north with my trunk rattling with a cardboard box full of Gramps’s manuscripts.
Then one drizzling morning I found a yellowed, dog-eared notebook under an old rug in his closet. Gramps’s journal.
Before I left Florida I went to Baba. He was crouched below the kitchen sink, twisting a long wrench back and forth between the pipes, grunting. I waited until he was done, looked him in the eye, and said, “Did Gramps ever mention a woman named Zeenat Begum?”
Baba tossed the wrench into the toolbox. “Isn’t that the woman in the fairy tale he used to tell? The pauper Mughal princess?”
“Sure he mentioned her. About a million times.”
“But not as someone you might have known in real life?”
Across the kitchen I watched the door of Gramps’s room. It was firmly closed. Within hung the portrait of the brown-eyed woman in the orange dopatta with her knowing half smile. She had gazed down at my family for decades, offering us that mysterious silver cup. There was a lump in my throat but I couldn’t tell if it was anger or sorrow.
Baba was watching me, his swollen fingers tapping at the corner of his mouth. “Are you all right?”
I smiled, feeling the artifice of it stretch my skin like a mask. “Have you ever been to Turkey?”
“Turkey?” He laughed. “Sure. Right after I won the lottery and took that magical tour in the Caribbean.”
I ignored the jest. “Does the phrase ‘Courtesan of the Mughals’ mean anything to you?”
He seemed startled. A smile of such beauty lit up his face that he looked ten years younger. “Ya Allah, I haven’t heard that in forty years. Where’d you read it?”
“It’s Lahore. My city. That’s what they called it in those books I read as a kid. Because it went through so many royal hands.” He laughed, eyes gleaming with delight and mischief, and lowered his voice. “My friend Habib used to call it La-whore. The Mughal hooker. Now for Allah’s sake, don’t go telling your mother on me.” His gaze turned inward. “Habib. God, I haven’t thought of him in ages.”
“Baba.” I gripped the edge of the kitchen table. “Why don’t you ever go back to Pakistan?”
His smile disappeared. He turned around, slammed the lid of his toolbox, and hefted it up. “Don’t have time.”
“You spent your teenage years there, didn’t you? You obviously have some attachment to the city. Why didn’t you take us back for a visit?”
“What would we go back to? We have no family there. My old friends are probably dead.” He carried the toolbox out into the October sun, sweat gleaming on his forearms. He placed it in the back of his battered truck and climbed into the driver’s seat. “I’ll see you later.”
I looked at him turn the keys in the ignition with fingers that shook. He was off to hammer sparkling new shelves in other people’s garages, replace squirrel-rent screens on their lanais, plant magnolias and palms in their golfing communities, and I could say nothing. I thought I understood why he didn’t want to visit the town where he grew up.
I thought about Mansehra and Turkey. If Baba really didn’t know and Gramps had perfected the deception by concealing the truth within a lie, there was nothing I could do that wouldn’t change, and possibly wreck, my family.
All good stories leave questions, Gramps had said to me.
You bastard, I thought.
“Sure,” I said and watched my baba pull out and drive away, leaving a plumage of dust in his wake.
I called Sara when I got home. “Can I see you?” I said as soon as she picked up.
She smiled. I could hear her smile. “That bad, huh?”
“No, it was all right. I just really want to see you.”
“It’s one in the afternoon. I’m on campus.” She paused. In the background birds chittered along with students. Probably the courtyard. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Yes. Maybe.” I upended the cardboard box on the carpet. The tower of books stood tall and uneven like a dwarf tree. “Come soon as you can, okay?”
“Sure. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
We hung up. I went to the bathroom and washed my face. I rubbed my eyes and stared at my reflection. It bared its teeth.
“Shut up,” I whispered. “He was senile. Must have been completely insane. I don’t believe a word of it.”
But when Sara came that evening, her red hair streaming like fall leaves, her freckled cheeks dimpling when she saw me, I told her I believed, I really did. She sat and listened and stroked the back of my hand when it trembled as I lay in her lap and told her about Gramps and his journal.
It was an assortment of sketches and scribbling. A talented hand had drawn pastures, mountaintops, a walled city shown as a semicircle with half a dozen doors and hundreds of people bustling within, a farmhouse, and rows of fig and orange trees. Some of these were miniatures: images drawn as scenes witnessed by an omniscient eye above the landscape. Others were more conventional. All had one feature in common: a man and woman present in the center of the scenery going about the mundanities of their lives.
In one scene the man sat in a mosque’s courtyard, performing ablution by the wudu tap. He wore a kurta and shalwar and Peshawari sandals. He was in his early twenties, lean, thickly bearded, with deep-set eyes that watched you impassively. In his hands he held a squalling baby whose tiny wrinkled fist was clenched around a stream of water from the tap. In the background a female face, familiar but older than I remembered, loomed over the courtyard wall, smiling at the pair.
The man was unmistakably Gramps, and the woman . . .
“Are you kidding me?” Sara leaned over and stared at the picture. “That’s the woman in the portrait hanging in his room?”
“He lied to me. To us all. She was my grandma.”
“Who is she?”
“Princess Zeenat Begum,” I said quietly.
Gramps had narrated the story of his life in a series of sketches and notes. The writing was in third person, but it was clear that the protagonist was he.
I imagined him going about the daily rituals of his life in Lahore after Princess Zeenat left. Dropping out of school, going to his father’s shop in the Niche of Calligraphers near Bhati Gate, learning the art of khattati, painting billboards in red and yellow, fusing the ancient art with new slogans and advertisements. Now he’s a lanky brown teenager wetting the tip of his brush, pausing to look up into the sky with its sweeping blue secrets. Now he’s a tall man, yanking bird feathers and cobwebs away from a eucalyptus stump, digging under it in the deep of the night with a flashlight in his hand.
And now—he’s wiping his tears, filling his knapsack with necessaries, burying his newly discovered treasure under a scatter of clothes, hitching the bag up his shoulders, and heading out into the vast unseen. All this time, there’s only one image in his head and one desire.
“He was smitten with her. Probably had been for a long time without knowing it,” I said. “Ruthlessly marked. His youth never had a chance against the siren call of history.”
“Hold on a sec. What was under the tree again?” Sara said.
I shook my head. “He doesn’t say.”
“So he lied again? About not digging it up?”
“Who was he looking for?”
I looked at her. “My grandmother and her sisters.”
We read his notes and envisioned Gramps’s journey. Abandoning his own family, wandering his way into the mountains, asking everyone he met about a fig-and-orange farm on a quiet fir-covered peak in the heart of Mansehra. He was magnetized to the displaced Mughal family not because of their royalty, but the lack thereof.
And eventually he found them.
“He stayed with them for years, helping the pauper princess’s uncle with farm work. In the summer he calligraphed Quranic verses on the minarets of local mosques. In wintertime he drew portraits for tourists and painted road signs. As years passed, he married Zeenat Begum—whose portrait one summer evening he drew and painted, carried with him, and lied about—and became one of them.”
I looked up at Sara, into her gentle green eyes glittering above me. She bent and kissed my nose.
“They were happy for a while, he and his new family,” I said, “but then, like in so many lives, tragedy came knocking at their door.”
Eyes closed, I pictured the fire: a glowering creature clawing at their windows and door, crisping their apples, billowing flames across the barn to set their hay bales ablaze. The whinnying of the horses, the frantic braying of cattle and, buried in the din, human screams.
“All three Mughal women died that night,” I murmured. “Gramps and his two-year-old son were the only survivors of the brushfire. Broken and bereft, Gramps left Mansehra with the infant and went to Karachi. There he boarded a freighter that took them to Iran, then Turkey, where a sympathetic shopkeeper hired him in his rug shop. Gramps and his son stayed there for four years.”
What a strange life, I thought. I hadn’t known my father had spent part of his childhood in Turkey and apparently neither had he. He remembered nothing. How old was he when they moved back? As I thought this, my heart constricted in my chest, filling my brain with the hum of my blood.
Sara’s face was unreadable when I opened my eyes. “Quite a story, eh?” I said uneasily.
She scratched the groove above her lips with a pink fingernail. “So he digs up whatever was under the tree and it decides him. He leaves everything and goes off to marry a stranger. This is romantic bullshit. You know that, right?”
“I don’t know anything.”
“Left everything,” she repeated. Her mouth was parted with wonder. “You think whatever he found under the stump survived the fire?”
“Presumably. But where he took it—who can say? Eventually, though, they returned home. To Lahore, when Gramps had recovered enough sanity, I guess. Where his father, now old, had closed shop. Gramps helped him reopen. Together they ran that design stall for years.”
It must have been a strange time for Gramps, I thought. He loved his parents, but he hated Bhati. Even as he dipped his pen in ink and drew spirals and curlicues, his thoughts drew phantom pictures of those he had lost. Over the years, he came to loathe this art that unlocked so many memories inside him. And after his parents died he had neither heart nor imperative to keep going.
“He was done with the place, the shop, and Lahore. So when a friend offered to help him and his teenage son move to the States, Gramps agreed.”
I turned my head and burrowed into Sara’s lap. Her smell filled my brain: apple blossom, lipstick, and Sara.
She nuzzled my neck. The tip of her nose was cold. “He never talked to you about it? Never said what happened?”
“And you and your family had no idea about this artistic side of him? How’s that possible?”
“Don’t know,” I said. “He worked at a 7-Eleven in Houston when he and Baba first came here. Never did any painting or calligraphy, commissioned or otherwise. Maybe he just left all his talent, all his dreams in his hometown. Here, look at this.”
I showed her the phrase that spiraled across the edges of a couple dozen pages: My killer, my deceiver, the Courtesan of the Mughals. “It’s Lahore. He’s talking about the city betraying him.”
“How weird,” Sara said. “Interesting how broken up his story is. As if he’s trying to piece together his own life.”
“Maybe that’s what he was doing. Maybe he forced himself to forget the most painful parts.”
“Lightning trees. Odd thing to say.” She looked at me thoughtfully and put the journal away. “So, you’re the last of the Mughals, huh?” She smiled to show she wasn’t laughing.
I chortled for her. “Seems like it. The Pauper Prince of New England.”
“Wow. You come with a certificate of authenticity?” She nudged her foot at the book tower. “Is it in there somewhere?”
It was getting late. Sara tugged at my shirt, and I got up and carried her to bed, where we celebrated my return with zest. Her face was beautiful in the snow shadows that crept in through the window.
“I love you, I love you,” we murmured, enchanted with each other, drunk with belief in some form of eternity. The dark lay quietly beside us, and, smoldering in its heart, a rotating image.
A dim idea of what was to come.
I went through Gramps’s notes. Many were in old Urdu, raikhta, which I wasn’t proficient in. But I got the gist: discourses and rumination on the otherworldly.
Gramps was especially obsessed with Ibn Arabi’s treatise on jinns in The Meccan Revelations. The Lofty Master Arabi says, wrote Gramps, that the meaning of the lexical root J-N-N in Arabic is ‘concealed.’ Jinn isn’t just another created being ontologically placed between man and angel; it is the entirety of the hidden world.
“Isn’t that fucking crazy?” I said to Sara. We were watching a rerun of Finding Neverland, my knuckles caked with butter and flakes of popcorn. On the screen J. M Barrie’s wife was beginning to be upset by the attention he lavished upon the children’s mother, Sylvia. “It kills the traditional narrative of jinns in A Thousand and One Nights. If one were to pursue this train of thought, it would mean relearning the symbolism in this text and virtually all others.”
Sara nodded, her gaze fixed on the TV. “Uh huh.”
“Consider this passage: ‘A thousand years before Darwin, Sufis described the evolution of man as rising from the inorganic state through plant and animal to human. But the mineral consciousness of man, that dim memory of being buried in the great stone mother, lives on.’”
Sara popped a handful of popcorn into her mouth. Munched.
I rubbed my hands together. “‘Jinns are carriers of that concealed memory, much like a firefly carries a memory of the primordial fire.’ It’s the oddest interpretation of jinns I’ve seen.”
“Yeah, it’s great.” Sara shifted on the couch. “But can we please watch the movie?”
I stared at the TV. Gramps thought jinns weren’t devil-horned creatures bound to a lamp or, for that matter, a tree.
They were flickers of cosmic consciousness.
I couldn’t get that image out of my head. Why was Gramps obsessed with this? How was this related to his life in Lahore? Something to do with the eucalyptus secret?
The next morning I went to Widener Library and dug up all I could about Arabi’s and Ibn Taymeeyah’s treatment of jinns. I read and pondered, went back to Gramps’s notebooks, underlined passages in The Meccan Revelations, and walked the campus with my hands in my pockets and my heart in a world long dissipated.
“Arabi’s cosmovision is staggering,” I told Sara. We were sitting in a coffee shop downtown during lunch break. It was drizzling, just a gentle stutter of gray upon gray outside the window, but it made the brick buildings blush.
Sara sipped her mocha and glanced at her watch. She had to leave soon for her class.
“Consider life as a spark of consciousness. In Islamic cosmology the jinn’s intrinsic nature is that of wind and fire. Adam’s—read, man’s—nature is water and clay, which are more resistant than fire to cold and dryness. As the universe changes, so do the requirements for life’s vehicle. Now it needs creatures more resistant and better adapted. Therefore, from the needs of sentient matter rose the invention that is us.”
I clenched my hand into a fist. “This interpretation is pretty fucking genius. I mean, is it possible Gramps was doing real academic work? For example, had he discovered something in those textbooks that could potentially produce a whole new ideology of creation? Why, it could be the scholarly discovery of the century.”
“Yes, it’s great.” She rapped her spoon against the edge of the table. Glanced at me, looked away.
“Nothing. Listen, I gotta run, okay?” She gave me a quick peck on the cheek and slid out of her seat. At the door she hesitated, turned, and stood tapping her shoes, a waiting look in her eyes.
I dabbed pastry crumbs off my lips with a napkin. “Are you okay?”
Annoyance flashed in her face and vanished. “Never better.” She pulled her jacket’s hood over her head, yanked the door open, and strode out into the rain.
It wasn’t until later that evening, when I was finalizing the spring calendar for my freshman class, that I realized I had forgotten our first-date anniversary.
Sara hadn’t. There was a heart-shaped box with a pink bow sitting on the bed when I returned home. Inside was a note laying atop a box of Godiva Chocolates:
Happy Anniversary. May our next one be like your grandfather’s fairy tales.
My eyes burned with lack of sleep. It was one in the morning and I’d had a long day at the university. Also, the hour-long apology to Sara had drained me. She had shaken her head and tried to laugh it off, but I took my time, deeming it a wise investment for the future.
I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of ice water. Kicked off my slippers, returned to the desk, and continued reading.
I hadn’t lied to Sara. The implications of this new jinn mythology were tremendous. A new origin myth, a bastardized version of the Abrahamic creationist lore. Trouble was these conclusions were tenuous. Gramps had speculated more than logically derived them. Arabi himself had touched on these themes in an abstract manner. To produce a viable theory of this alternate history of the universe, I needed more details, more sources.
Suppose there were other papers, hidden manuscripts. Was it possible that the treasure Gramps had found under the eucalyptus stump was truly ‘the map to the memory of heaven’? Ancient papers of cosmological importance never discovered?
“Shit, Gramps. Where’d you hide them?” I murmured.
His journal said he’d spent quite a bit of time in different places: Mansehra, Iran. Turkey, where he spent four years in a rug shop. The papers could really be anywhere.
My eyes were drawn to the phrase again: the Courtesan of the Mughals. I admired how beautiful the form and composition of the calligraphy was. Gramps had shaped the Urdu alphabet carefully into a flat design so that the conjoined words Mughal and Courtesan turned into an ornate rug. A calligram. The curves of the meem and ghain letters became the tassels and borders of the rug, the laam’s seductive curvature its rippling belly.
Such artistry. One shape discloses another. A secret, symbolic relationship.
There, I thought. The secret hides in the city. The clues to the riddle of the eucalyptus treasure are in Lahore.
I spent the next few days sorting out my finances. Once I was satisfied that the trip was feasible, I began to make arrangements.
Sara stared at me when I told her. “Lahore? You’re going to Lahore?”
“To look for something your grandpa may or may not have left there fifty-some years ago?”
“You’re crazy. I mean it’s one thing to talk about a journal.”
“I know. I still need to go.”
“So you’re telling me, not asking. Why? Why are you so fixed on this? You know that country isn’t safe these days. What if something happens?” She crossed her arms, lifted her feet off the floor, and tucked them under her on the couch. She was shivering a little.
“Nothing’s gonna happen. Look, whatever he left in Lahore, he wanted me to see it. Why else write about it and leave it in his journal which he knew would be found one day? Don’t you see? He was really writing to me.”
“Well, that sounds self-important. Why not your dad? Also, why drop hints then? Why not just tell you straight up what it is?”
“I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Maybe he didn’t want other people to find out.”
“Or maybe he was senile. Look, I’m sorry, but this is crazy. You can’t just fly off to the end of the world on a whim to look for a relic.” She rubbed her legs. “It could take you weeks. Months. How much vacation time do you have left?”
“I’ll take unpaid leave if I have to. Don’t you see? I need to do this.”
She opened her mouth, closed it. “Is this something you plan to keep doing?” she said quietly. “Run off each time anything bothers you.”
“What?” I quirked my eyebrows. “Nothing’s bothering me.”
“No?” She jumped up from the couch and glared at me. “You’ve met my mother and Fanny, but I’ve never met your parents. You didn’t take me to your grandfather’s funeral. And since your return you don’t seem interested in what we have, or once had. Are you trying to avoid talking about us? Are we still in love, Sal, or are we just getting by? Are we really together?”
“Of course we’re together. Don’t be ridiculous,” I mumbled, but there was a constriction in my stomach. It wouldn’t let me meet her eyes.
“Don’t patronize me. You’re obsessed with your own little world. Look, I have no problem with you giving time to your folks. Or your gramps’s work. But we’ve been together for three years and you still find excuses to steer me away from your family. This cultural thing that you claim to resent, you seem almost proud of it. Do you see what I mean?”
“No.” I was beginning to get a bit angry. “And I’m not sure you do either.”
“You’re lying. You know what I’m talking about.”
“Do I? Okay, lemme try to explain what my problem is. Look at me, Sara. What do you see?”
She stared at me, shook her head. “I see a man who doesn’t know he’s lost.”
“Wrong. You see a twenty-eight-year-old brown man living in a shitty apartment, doing a shitty job that doesn’t pay much and has no hope of tenure. You see a man who can’t fend for himself, let alone a wife and kids—”
“No one’s asking you to—”
“—if he doesn’t do something better with his life. But you go on believing all will be well if we trade families? Open your damn eyes.” I leaned against the TV cabinet, suddenly tired. “All my life I was prudent. I planned and planned and gave up one thing for another. Moved here. Never looked back. Did whatever I could to be what I thought I needed to be. The archetypal fucking immigrant in the land of opportunities. But after Gramps died . . .” I closed my eyes, breathed, opened them. “I realize some things are worth more than that. Some things are worth going after.”
“Some things, huh?” Sara half smiled, a trembling flicker that took me aback more than her words did. “Didn’t your grandfather give up everything—his life, his family, his country—for love? And you’re giving up . . . love for . . . what exactly? Shame? Guilt? Identity? A fucking manventure in a foreign land?”
“You’re wrong,” I said. “I’m not—”
But she wasn’t listening. Her chest hitched. Sara turned, walked into the bedroom, and gently closed the door, leaving me standing alone.
I stomped down Highland Avenue. It was mid-October and the oaks and silver maples were burning with fall. They blazed yellow and crimson. They made me feel sadder and angrier and more confused.
Had our life together always been this fragile? I wondered if I had missed clues that Sara felt this way. She always was more aware of bumps in our relationship. I recalled watching her seated at the desk marking student papers once, her beautiful, freckled face scrunched in a frown, and thinking she would never really be welcome in my parents’ house. Mama would smile nervously if I brought her home and retreat into the kitchen. Baba wouldn’t say a word and somehow that would be worse than an outraged rejection. And what would Gramps have done? I didn’t know. My head was messed up. It had been since his death.
It was dusk when I returned home, the lights in our neighborhood floating dreamily like gold sequins in black velvet.
Sara wasn’t there.
The bed was made, the empty hangers in the closet pushed neatly together. On the coffee table in the living room under a Valentine mug was yet another note. She had become adept at writing me love letters.
I made myself a sandwich, sat in the dark, and picked at the bread. When I had mustered enough courage, I retrieved the note and began to read:
I wrote tried to write this several times and each time my hand shook and made me write things I didn’t want to. It sucks that we’re such damn weaklings, the both of us. I’m stuck in love with you and you are with me. At least I hope so. At least that’s the way I feel read you. But then I think about my mother and my heart begins racing.
You’ve met my family. Mom likes you. Fanny too. They think you’re good for me. But you’ve never met my dad. You don’t know why we never don’t talk about him anymore.
He left Mom when Fanny and I were young. I don’t remember him, although sometimes I think I can. When I close my eyes, I see this big, bulky shadow overwhelm the doorway of my room. There’s this bittersweet smell, gin and sweat and tobacco. I remember not feeling afraid of him, for which I’m grateful.
But Dad left us Mom and he broke her. In especially bitter moments she would say it was another woman, but I don’t think so. At least I never saw any proof of that in my mother’s eyes when she talked about him. (In the beginning she talked a LOT about him.) I think he left her because he wanted more from life and Mom didn’t understand pick that up. I think she didn’t read his unhappiness in time. That’s the vibe I get.
Does that excuse what he did? I don’t think so. My mother’s spent all her life trying to put us back together and she’s done okay, but there are pieces of herself she wasn’t able to find. In either me, or Fanny, or in anyone else.
I don’t want that to happen to me.I don’t want to end up like my mother. That’s pretty much it. If you didn’t love me, I’d understand. I’d be hurt, but I could live with it. But living with this uncertainty, never knowing when you might get that wanderlust I’ve seen in your eyes lately, is impossible for me. There’s so much I want to say to you. Things you need to know if we’re to have a future together. But the last thing I want to do is force you.
So I’m leaving. I’m going to stay at Fanny’s. Think things through. It will be good for both of us. It will help me get my head straight and will let you do whatever you want to get your fucking demons out. So fly free. Go to Pakistan. Follow your goddamn heart or whatever. Just remember I won’t wait all my life.
You know where to find me.
I put down the letter and stared out the window. Night rain drummed on the glass. I tapped my finger to its tune, fascinated by how difficult it was to keep time with it. A weight had settled on my chest and I couldn’t push it off.
If an asshole weeps in the forest and no one is around to witness, is he still an asshole?
Nobody was there to answer.
For most of the fifteen-hour flight from New York to Lahore I was out. I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I slumped into the economy seat and woke up half-dazed when the flight attendant gently shook my shoulder.
“Lahore, sir.” She smiled when I continued to stare at her. The lipstick smudge on her teeth glistened. “Allama Iqbal International Airport.”
“Yes,” I said, struggling up and out. The plane was empty, the seats gaping. “How’s the weather?”
“Cold. Bit misty. Fog bank’s coming, they said. Early this year.”
That didn’t sound promising. I thanked her and hurried out, my carry-on clattering against the aisle armrests.
I exited the airport into the arms of a mid-November day and the air was fresh but full of teeth. The pale sea-glass sky seemed to wrap around the airport. I hailed a cab and asked for Bhati Gate. As we sped out of the terminal, whiteness seethed on the runway and blanketed the horizon. The flight attendant was right. Fog was on the way.
At a busy traffic signal the cabbie took a right. Past army barracks, the redbrick Aitchison College, and colonial-era Jinnah Gardens we went, until the roads narrowed and we hiccuped through a sea of motorbikes, rickshaws, cars, and pedestrians. TERRORISTS ARE ENEMIES OF PEACE, said a large black placard on a wall that jutted out left of a fifty-foot high stone gate. The looming structure had a massive central arch with eight small arches above it. It had a painting of the Kaaba on the right and Prophet Muhammad’s shrine on the left with vermilion roses embossed in the middle. Another sign hung near it: WELCOME TO OLD LAHORE BY THE GRACE OF ALLAH.
We were at Bhati Gate.
The cab rolled to a stop in front of Kashi Manzil. A tall, narrow historical-home-turned-hotel with a facade made of ochre and azure faience tiles. A wide terrace ran around the second floor and a small black copper pot hung from a nail on the edge of the doorway awning.
I recognized the superstition. Black to ward off black. Protection against the evil eye.
Welcome to Gramps’s world, I thought.
I looked down the street. Roadside bakeries, paan-and-cigarette shops, pirated DVD stalls, a girls’ school with peeling walls, and dust, dust everywhere; but my gaze of course went to Bhati and its double row of arches.
This was the place my grandfather had once gazed at, lived by, walked through. Somewhere around here used to be a tea stall run by a Mughal princess. Someplace close had been a eucalyptus from which a kid had fallen and gashed his head. A secret that had traveled the globe had come here with Gramps and awaited me in some dingy old alcove.
That stupid wanderlust in your eyes.
Sara’s voice in my brain was a gentle rebuke.
Later, I thought fiercely. Later.
The next day I began my search.
I had planned to start with the tea stalls. Places like this have long memories. Old Lahore was more or less the city’s ancient downtown and people here wouldn’t forget much. Least of all a Mughal princess who ran a tea shop. Gramps’s journal didn’t much touch on his life in the walled city. I certainly couldn’t discern any clues about the location of the eucalyptus treasure.
Where did you hide it, old man? Your shack? A friend’s place? Under that fucking tree stump?
If Gramps was correct and the tree had fallen half a century ago, that landmark was probably irretrievable. Gramps’s house seemed the next logical place. Trouble was I didn’t know where Gramps had lived. Before I left, I’d called Baba and asked him. He wasn’t helpful.
“It’s been a long time, son. Fifty years. Don’t tax an old man’s memory. You’ll make me senile.”
When I pressed, he reluctantly gave me the street where they used to live and his childhood friend Habib’s last name.
“I don’t remember our address, but I remember the street. Ask anyone in Hakiman Bazaar for Khajoor Gali. They’ll know it.”
Encircled by a wall raised by Akbar the Great, Old Lahore was bustling and dense. Two hundred thousand people lived in an area less than one square mile. Breezes drunk with the odor of cardamom, grease, and tobacco. The place boggled my mind as I strolled around taking in the niche pharmacies, foundries, rug shops, kite shops, and baked mud eateries.
I talked to everyone I encountered. The tea stall owner who poured Peshawari kahva in my clay cup. The fruit seller who handed me sliced oranges and guavas and frowned when I mentioned the pauper princess. Rug merchants, cigarette vendors, knife sellers. No one had heard of Zeenat Begum. Nobody knew of a young man named Sharif or his father who ran a calligraphy-and-design stall.
“Not around my shop, sahib.” They shook their heads and turned away.
I located Khajoor Gali—a winding narrow alley once dotted by palm trees (or so the locals claimed) now home to dusty ramshackle buildings hunched behind open manholes—and went door to door, asking. No luck. An aged man with henna-dyed hair and a shishamwood cane stared at me when I mentioned Baba’s friend Habib Ataywala, and said, “Habib. Ah, he and his family moved to Karachi several years ago. No one knows where.”
“How about a eucalyptus tree?” I asked. “An ancient eucalyptus that used to stand next to Bhati Gate?”
Listlessly I wandered, gazing at the mist lifting off the edges of the streets and billowing toward me. On the third day it was like slicing through a hundred rippling white shrouds. As night fell and fairy lights blinked on the minarets of Lahore’s patron saint Data Sahib’s shrine across the road from Bhati, I felt displaced. Depersonalized. I was a mote drifting in a slat of light surrounded by endless dark. Gramps was correct. Old Lahore had betrayed him. It was as if the city had deliberately rescinded all memory or trace of his family and the princess’s. Sara was right. Coming here was a mistake. My life since Gramps’s death was a mistake. Seeing this world as it was rather than through the fabular lens of Gramps’s stories was fucking enlightening.
In this fog, the city’s fresh anemia, I thought of things I hadn’t thought about in years. The time Gramps taught me to perform the salat. The first time he brought my palms together to form the supplicant’s cup. Be the beggar at Allah’s door, he told me gently. He loves humility. It’s in the mendicant’s bowl that the secrets of Self are revealed. In the tashahuud position Gramps’s index finger would shoot from a clenched fist and flutter up and down.
“This is how we beat the devil on the head,” he said.
But what devil was I trying to beat? I’d been following a ghost and hoping for recognition from the living.
By the fifth day I’d made up my mind. I sat shivering on a wooden bench and watched my breath flute its way across Khajoor Gali as my finger tapped my cell phone and thousands of miles away Sara’s phone rang.
She picked up almost immediately. Her voice was wary. “Sal?”
“Are you all right?”
A pause. “You didn’t call before you left.”
“I thought you didn’t want me to.”
“I was worried sick. One call after you landed would’ve been nice.”
I was surprised but pleased. After so much disappointment, her concern was welcome. “Sorry.”
“Jesus. I was . . .” She trailed off, her breath harsh and rapid in my ear. “Find the magic treasure yet?”
“Pity.” She seemed distracted now. In the background water was running. “How long will you stay there?”
“I honest to God don’t know, but I’ll tell you this. I’m fucking exhausted.”
“I’m sorry.” She didn’t sound sorry. I smiled a little.
“Must be around five in the morning there. Why’re you up?” I said.
“I was . . . worried, I guess. Couldn’t sleep. Bad dreams.” She sighed. I imagined her rubbing her neck, her long fingers curling around the muscles, kneading them, and I wanted to touch her.
“I miss you,” I said.
Pause. “Yeah. Me too. It’s a mystery how much I’m used to you being around. And now that . . .” She stopped and exhaled. “Never mind.”
“Nothing.” She grunted. “This damn weather. I think I’m coming down with something. Been headachy all day.”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. It’ll go away. Listen, I’m gonna go take a shower. You have fun.”
Was that reproach? “Yeah, you too. Be safe.”
“Sure.” She sounded as if she were pondering. “Hey, I discovered something. Been meaning to tell you, but . . . you know.”
“I’m all ears.”
“Remember what your gramps said in the story. Lightning trees?”
“Well, lemme text it to you. I mentioned the term to a friend at school and turned out he recognized it too. From a lecture we both attended at MIT years ago about fractal similarities and diffusion-limited aggregation.”
“Fractal what?” My phone beeped. I removed it from my ear and looked at the screen. A high-definition picture of a man with what looked like a tree-shaped henna tattoo on his left shoulder branching all the way down his arm. Pretty.
I put her on speakerphone. “Why’re you sending me pictures of henna tattoos?”
She was quiet, then started laughing. “That didn’t even occur to me, but, yeah, it does look like henna art.”
“Nope. What you’re seeing is a Lichtenberg figure created when branching electrical charges run through insulating material. Glass, resin, human skin—you name it. This man was hit by lightning and survived with this stamped on his flesh.”
“Yup. It can be created in any modern lab using nonconducting plates. Called electric treeing. Or lightning trees.”
The lightning trees are dying.
“Holy shit,” I said softly.
I tapped the touch screen to zoom in for a closer look. “How could Gramps know about this? If he made up the stories, how the fuck would he know something like this?”
“No idea. Maybe he knew someone who had this happen to them.”
“But what does it mean?”
“The heck should I know. Anyways, I gotta go. Figured it might help you with whatever you’re looking for.”
She hung up. I stared at the pattern on the man’s arm. It was reddish, fernlike, and quite detailed. The illusion was so perfect I could even see buds and leaves. A breathtaking electric foliage. A map of lightning.
A memory of heaven.
I went to sleep early that night.
At five in the morning the Fajar call to prayer woke me up. I lay in bed watching fog drift through the skylight window, listening to the mullah’s sonorous azaan, and suddenly I jolted upright.
The mosque of Ghulam Rasool, the Master of Cats.
Wasn’t that what Gramps had told me a million years ago? That there was a mosque near Bhati Gate that faced his house?
I hadn’t seen any mosques around.
I slipped on clothes and ran outside.
The morning smelled like burnished metal. The light was soft, the shape of early risers gentle in the mist-draped streets. A rooster crowed in the next alley. It had drizzled the night before and the ground was muddy. I half slipped, half leapt my way toward the mullah’s voice rising and falling like an ocean heard in one’s dream.
Wisps of white drifted around me like twilit angels. The azaan had stopped. I stared at the narrow doorway next to a rug merchant’s shop ten feet away. Its entrance nearly hidden by an apple tree growing in the middle of the sidewalk, the place was tucked well away from traffic. Green light spilled from it. Tiny replicas of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and Rumi’s shrine in Turkey were painted above the door.
Who would put Rumi here when Data Sahib’s shrine was just across the road?
I took off my shoes and entered the mosque.
A tiny room with a low ceiling set with zero-watt green bulbs. On reed mats the congregation stood shoulder to shoulder in two rows behind a smallish man in shalwar kameez and a turban. The Imam sahib clicked the mute button on the standing microphone in front, touched his earlobes, and Fajar began.
Feeling oddly guilty, I sat down in a corner. Looked around the room. Ninety-nine names of Allah and Muhammad, prayers and Quranic verses belching from the corners, twisting and pirouetting across the walls. Calligrams in the shape of a mynah bird, a charging lion, a man prostrate in sajdah, his hands out before him shaping a beggar’s bowl filled with alphabet vapors. Gorgeous work.
Salat was over. The namazis began to leave. Imam sahib turned. In his hands he held a tally counter for tasbih. Click click! Murmuring prayers, he rose and hobbled toward me.
“Assalam-o-alaikum. May I help you, son?” he said in Urdu.
“Wa Laikum Assalam. Yes,” I said. “Is this Masjid Ghulam Rasool?”
He shook his head. He was in his seventies at least, long noorani beard, white hair sticking out of his ears. His paunch bulged through the striped-flannel kameez flowing past his ankles. “No. That mosque was closed and martyred in the nineties. Sectarian attacks. Left a dozen men dead. Shia mosque, you know. Used to stand in Khajoor Gali, I believe.”
“Oh.” I told myself I’d been expecting this, but my voice was heavy with disappointment. “I’m sorry to bother you then. I’ll leave you to finish up.”
“You’re not local, son. Your salam has an accent,” he said. “Amreekan, I think. You look troubled. How can I help you?” He looked at me, took his turban off. He had a pale scar near his left temple shaped like a climbing vine.
I watched him. His hair was silver. His sharp eyes were blue, submerged in a sea of wrinkles. “I was looking for a house. My late grandfather’s. He lived close to the mosque, next door to a lady named Zeenat Begum. She used to run a tea stall.”
“Zeenat Begum.” His eyes narrowed, the blues receding into shadow. “And your grandfather’s name?” he asked, watching the last of the worshippers rise to his feet.
“Sharif. Muhammad Sharif.”
The oddest feeling, a sort of déjà vu, came over me. Something had changed in the air of the room. Even the last namazi felt it and glanced over his shoulder on his way out.
“Who did you say you were again?” Imam sahib said quietly.
“Salman Ali Zaidi.”
“I see. Yes, I do believe I can help you out. This way.”
He turned around, limping, and beckoned me to follow. We exited the mosque. He padlocked it, parted the bead curtain in the doorway of the rug shop next door, stepped in.
When I hesitated, he paused, the tasbih counter clicking in his hands. “Come in, son. My place is your place.”
I studied the rug shop. It was located between the mosque and a souvenir stall. The awning above the arched doorway was gray, the brick voussoirs and keystone of the arch faded and peeling. The plaque by the entrance said Karavan Kilim.
Kilim is a kind of Turkish carpet. What was a kilim shop doing in Old Lahore?
He led me through a narrow well-lit corridor into a hardwood-floored showroom. Mounds of neatly folded rugs sat next to walls covered in rectangles of rich tapestries, carpets, and pottery-filled shelves. Stunning illustrations and calligraphy swirled across the high wooden ceiling. Here an entranced dervish whirled in blue, one palm toward the sky and one to the ground. There a crowd haloed with golden light held out dozens of drinking goblets, an Urdu inscription spiraling into a vast cloud above their heads: They hear his hidden hand pour truth in the heavens.
A bald middle-aged man dressed in a checkered brown half-sleeve shirt sat behind a desk. Imam Sahib nodded at him. “My nephew Khalid.”
Khalid and I exchanged pleasantries. Imam sahib placed the tasbih counter and his turban on the desk. I gazed around me. “Imam sahib,” I said. “This is a Turkish carpet shop. You run an imported rug business in your spare time?”
“Turkish design, yes, but not imported. My apprentices make them right here in the walled city.” Without looking back, he began walking. “You can call me Bashir.”
We went to the back of the shop, weaving our way through rug piles into a storeroom lit by sunlight from a narrow window. Filled to the ceiling with mountains of fabric rolls and broken looms, the room smelled of damp, rotten wood, and tobacco. In a corner was a large box covered with a bedsheet. Bashir yanked the sheet away and a puff of dust bloomed and clouded the air.
“Sharif,” said the merchant Imam. “He’s dead, huh?”
“You knew him?”
“Of course. He was friends with the Mughal princess. The lady who used to give us tea.”
“How do you know that?” I stared at him. “Who are you?”
His eyes hung like sapphires in the dimness, gaze fixed on me, one hand resting atop the embossed six-foot-long metal trunk that had emerged. He tilted his head so the feeble light fell on his left temple. The twisted pale scar gleamed.
“The boy who fell from the eucalyptus tree,” I whispered. “He gashed his head and the princess bandaged it for him. You’re him.”
The old man smiled. “Who I am is not important, son. What’s important is this room where your grandfather worked for years.”
Speechless, I gaped at him. After days of frustration and disappointment, I was standing in the room Gramps had occupied decades ago, this dingy store with its decaying inhabitants. I looked around as if at any moment Gramps might step out from the shadows.
“He was the best teacher I ever had,” Bashir said. “We used to call him the Calligrapher Prince.”
He flashed a smile. It brightened Bashir the merchant’s tired, old face like a flame.
I watched this man with his wispy moonlight hair and that coiled scar who had kept my grandfather’s secret for half a century. We sat around a low circular table, dipping cake rusk into mugs of milk chai sweetened with brown sugar. It was eight in the morning.
Bashir gripped his cup with both hands and frowned into it.
“My father was an electrician,” he said. “By the time he was fifty he’d saved enough to buy a carpet shop. With lots of construction going on, he was able to get this shop dirt cheap.
“Rugs were an easy trade back in the seventies. You hired weavers, most of ’em immigrants from up north, and managed the product. We didn’t have good relations with neighboring countries, so high demand existed for local rugs and tapestries without us worrying about competition. After the dictator Zia came, all that changed. Our shop didn’t do well, what with rugs being imported cheap from the Middle East and Afghanistan. We began to get desperate.
“Right about then a stranger came to us.”
It began, Bashir said, the evening someone knocked on their door with a rosy-cheeked child by his side and told Bashir’s father he was looking for work. Bashir, then in his late teens, stood behind his baba, watching the visitor. Wary, the rug merchant asked where they hailed from. The man lifted his head and his face shone with the strangest light Bashir had seen on a human countenance.
“It swept across his cheeks, it flared in his eyes, it illuminated the cuts and angles of his bones,” said Bashir, mesmerized by memory. “It was as if he had been touched by an angel or a demon. I’ll never forget it.”
“From thousands of miles away,” said the man quietly. “From many years away.”
It was Gramps, of course.
Bashir’s father didn’t recognize him, but he knew the man’s family. Their only son, Muhammad Sharif, had been abroad for years, he’d heard. Lived in Iran, Turkey, Allah knew where else. Sharif’s aged father still lived on Khajoor Gali in Old Lahore, but he’d shut down his design stall in the Niche of Calligraphers years ago.
“Sharif had been back for a few months and he and his son were living with his father. Now they needed money to reopen their shop.” Bashir smiled. “Turned out your grandfather was an expert rug weaver. He said he learned it in Turkey near Maulana Rumi’s shrine. My father offered him a job and he accepted. He worked with us for three years while he taught kilim weaving to our apprentices.
“He was young, hardly a few years older than I, but when he showed me his notebook, I knew he was no ordinary artist. He had drawn mystical poetry in animal shapes. Taken the quill and created dazzling worlds. Later, when my father put him before the loom, Sharif produced wonders such as we’d never seen.”
Merchant Bashir got up and plodded to a pile of rugs. He grabbed a kilim and unrolled it across the floor. A mosaic of black, yellow, and maroon geometries glimmered.
“He taught me rug weaving. It’s a nomadic art, he said. Pattern making carries the past into the future.” Bashir pointed to a recurrent cross motif that ran down the kilim’s center. “The four corners of the cross are the four corners of the universe. The scorpion here”—he toed a many-legged symmetric creature woven in yellow—“represents freedom. Sharif taught me this and more. He was a natural at symbols. I asked him why he went to Turkey. He looked at me and said, ‘To learn to weave the best kilim in the world.’”
I cocked my head, rapt. I had believed it was grief that banished Gramps from Pakistan and love that bade him return. Now this man was telling me Gramps went to Turkey purposefully. How many other secrets had my grandfather left out?
“I didn’t know he was a rug weaver,” I said.
“Certainly was. One of the best we ever saw. He knew what silk on silk warping was. Don’t weave on a poor warp. Never work on a loom out of alignment. He knew all this. Yet, he didn’t consider himself a weaver. He learned the craft to carry out a duty, he said. His passion was calligraphy. All this you see”—Bashir waved a hand at the brilliant kilims and tapestries around us, at the twists and curlicues of the verses on the walls, the wondrous illustrations—“is his genius manifested. The Ottoman Turkish script, those calligrams in our mosque, the paintings. It’s all him and his obsession with the Turkish masters.”
“He ever say why he left Pakistan or why he returned?”
Bashir shrugged. “We never asked. As long as it wasn’t criminal, we didn’t care.”
“Why’d you call him the Calligrapher Prince?”
The old man laughed. “It was a nickname the apprentices gave him and it stuck. Seemed so fitting.” Bashir lifted his cup and swallowed the last mouthful of tea along with the grounds. I winced. “Sharif was courteous and diligent. Hardly went home before midnight and he helped the business run more smoothly than it had in years, but I knew he was waiting for something. His eyes were always restless. Inward.”
In the evenings when the shop had closed Sharif drew and carved keenly. For hours he engraved, his cotton swabs with lacquer thinner in one hand, his burin and flat gravers in the other. What he was making was no secret. Bashir watched the process and the product: a large brass trunk with a complex inlay in its lid. A labyrinthine repoussé network gouged into the metal, spiraling into itself. Such fine work it took one’s breath away.
“Never, never, never,” said Bashir, “have I seen such a thing of beauty evolve in a craftsman’s hand again.”
Sharif’s concentration was diabolical, his hands careful as nature’s might have been as it designed the ornate shells of certain mollusks or the divine geometry of certain leaves.
“What are you making and why?” Bashir had asked his master.
Sharif shrugged. “A nest for ages,” he said, and the rug merchant’s son had to be content with the baffling reply.
Two years passed. One evening Bashir’s father got drenched in a downpour and caught pneumonia, which turned aggressive. Despite rapid treatment, he passed away. Bashir took over the shop. In his father’s name, he turned their old house into a small Quran center (which would eventually become Bhati’s only mosque). He ran the rug shop honestly and with Sharif’s help was able to maintain business the way it had been.
At the end of his third year Sharif came to Bashir.
“My friend,” he said. “I came here for a purpose. Something precious was given to me that is not mine to keep. It must wait here in the protection of the tree, even as I go help my father reopen his calligraphy stall.”
The young rug merchant was not surprised. He had glimpsed his master’s departure in his face the night he arrived. But what was that about a tree?
Sharif saw his student’s face and smiled. “You don’t remember, do you? Where your shop is now the eucalyptus tree used to stand.”
Bashir was stunned. He had forgotten all about the tree and the incident with the jinn. It was as if a firm hand had descended and swept all memory of the incident from his brain, like a sand picture.
He waited for Sharif to go on, but the Calligrapher Prince rose, grasped Bashir’s hand, and thrust two heavy envelopes into it.
“The first one is for you. Enough money to rent space for my trunk.”
“You’re not taking it with you?” Bashir was dumbfounded. The trunk with its elaborate design was worth hundreds, maybe thousands of rupees.
“No. It must stay here.” Sharif looked his student in the eye. “And it must not be opened till a particular someone comes.”
“Who?” said Bashir, and wished he hadn’t. These were curious things and they made his spine tingle and his legs shake. A strange thought entered his head: A burden the mountains couldn’t bear settles on me tonight. It vanished quick as it had come.
Sharif’s voice was dry like swiftly turning thread when he said, “Look at the name on the second envelope.”
And his heart full of misgivings, fears, and wonder—most of all, wonder—Bashir did.
I give myself credit: I was calm. My hands were steady. I didn’t bat an eye when I took the yellowed envelope from Merchant Bashir’s hands.
“It is yours,” said Bashir. “The envelope, the secret, the burden.” He wiped his face with the hem of his kameez. “Fifty years I carried it. Allah be praised, today it’s passed on to you.”
A burden the mountains couldn’t bear settles on me tonight.
I shivered a little.
“It’s cold,” Bashir said. “I will turn the heat on and leave you to peruse the contents of the envelope alone. I’ll be in the tea stall two shops down. Take as long as you wish.”
“You kept your word,” I said softly. “You didn’t open the envelope.”
Bashir nodded. “I asked Sharif how in God’s name he could trust me with it when I didn’t trust myself. A secret is like a disease, I said. It begins with an itch in a corner of your flesh, then spreads like cancer, until you’re overcome and give in. He just smiled and said he knew I wouldn’t open it.” The rug weaver dabbed a kerchief at his grimy cheeks. “Maybe because he had such faith in me, it helped keep wicked desire at bay.”
Or maybe he knew you wouldn’t, I thought, holding the envelope, feeling my pulse beat in my fingertips. Just like he knew the name of the rightful owner decades before he was born.
Through the back window I watched Bashir tromp down the street. The mist had thickened and the alley was submerged in blue-white. A steady whine of wind and the occasional thump as pedestrians walked into trash cans and bicycle stands. A whorl of fog shimmered around the streetlight on the far corner.
I turned and went to the counter. Picked up the envelope. Sliced it open. Inside was a sheaf of blank papers. I pulled them out and a small object swept out and fell on the floor. I reached down and picked it up, its radiance casting a twitching halo on my palm.
It was a silver key with a grooved golden stud for a blade, dangling from a rusted hoop.
My gaze was riveted on the golden stud. It took a considerable amount of effort to force my eyes away, to pocket the key, rise, and shamble to the storeroom.
It was dark. Fog had weakened the daylight. Broken looms with their limp warp strings and tipping beams gaped. I crossed the room and stood in front of the brass trunk. The padlock was tarnished. Round keyhole. I retrieved the key and stared at it, this centuries-old gold stud—if one were to believe Gramps—fused to a silver handle.
The instruction was clear.
I brushed the dust away from the lid. A floral design was carved into it, wreathed with grime but still visible: a medallion motif in a gilt finish with a Quranic verse running through its heart like an artery.
“Those who believe in the Great Unseen,” I whispered. In my head Baba smiled and a row of pine trees cast a long shadow across Gramps’s tombstone where I had last read a similar epitaph.
I inserted the Mughal key into the padlock, turned it twice, and opened the trunk.
A rug. A rolled-up kilim, judging by its thinness.
I stared at it, at the lavish weave of its edges that shone from light within the rolled layers. Was there a flashlight inside? Ridiculous idea. I leaned in.
The kilim smelled of sunshine. Of leaves and earth and fresh rainfall. Scents that filled my nostrils and tapped my taste buds, flooded my mouth with a sweet tang, not unlike cardamom tea.
My palms were sweating despite the cold. I tugged at the fat end of the rug and it fell to the floor, unspooling. It was seven by five feet, its borders perfectly even, and as it raced across the room, the storeroom was inundated with colors: primrose yellow, iris white, smoke blue. A bright scarlet sparked in the air that reminded me of the sharbat Mama used to make during Ramadan.
I fell back. Awestruck, I watched this display of lights surging from the kilim. Thrashing and gusting and slamming into one another, spinning faster and faster until they became a dancing shadow with many rainbow arms, each pointing earthward to their source—the carpet.
The shadow pirouetted once more and began to sink. The myriad images in the carpet flashed as it dissolved into them, and within moments the room was dark. The only evidence of the specter’s presence was the afterglow on my retina.
I breathed. My knees were weak, the base of my spine thrummed with charge. A smell like burning refuse lingered in my nostrils.
What was that?
A miracle, Gramps spoke in my head softly.
I went to the carpet. It was gorgeous. Multitudes of figures ran in every shape around its edges. Flora and fauna. Grotesques and arabesques. They seethed over nomadic symbols. I traced my finger across the surface. Cabalistic squares, hexagrams, eight-pointed stars, a barb-tailed scorpion. A concoction of emblems swirled together by the artisan’s finger until it seemed the carpet crawled with arcana I’d seen in ancient texts used mostly for one purpose.
Traps, I thought. For what?
I peered closer. The central figures eddied to form the armature of a tower with four jagged limbs shot into the corners of the rug where they were pinned down with pieces of glass. Four curved symmetric pieces, clear with the slightest tinge of purple. Together these four quarter-circles stuck out from the corners of the kilim as if they had once belonged to a cup.
“What are you,” I whispered. The carpet and the embedded glass said nothing. I hesitated, the soles of my feet tingling, then bent and looked inside the upper right shard.
A man looked back at me, his face expressionless, young, and not mine.
“Salam, beta,” Gramps said in Urdu, still smiling. “Welcome.”
The age of wonders shivered and died when the world changed.
In the summer of 1963, however, an eighteen-year-old boy named Sharif discovered a miracle as he panted and dug and heaved an earthen pot out from under a rotten eucalyptus stump.
It was night, there were no streetlamps, and, by all laws holy, the dark should have been supreme. Except a light emanated from the pot.
Sharif wiped his forehead and removed the pot’s lid. Inside was a purple glass chalice glowing with brightness he couldn’t look upon. He had to carry it home and put on dark shades before he could peer in.
The chalice was empty and the light came from the glass itself.
Trembling with excitement, the boy wrapped it in a blanket and hid it under the bed. The next day when his parents were gone, he poured water into it and watched the liquid’s meniscus bubble and seethe on the kitchen table. The water was the light and the light all liquid.
The fakir had warned the Mughal princess that the secret was not for human eyes, but since that fateful night when the boy had first glimpsed the eucalyptus jinn, saw his fetters stretch from sky to earth, his dreams had been transformed. He saw nightscapes that he shouldn’t see. Found himself in places that shouldn’t exist. And now here was an enchanted cup frothing with liquid light on his kitchen table.
The boy looked at the chalice again. The churning motion of its contents hypnotized him. He raised it, and drank the light.
Such was how unfortunate, young Sharif discovered the secrets of Jaam-e-Jam.
The Cup of Heaven.
Legends of the Jaam have been passed down for generations in the Islamic world. Jamshed, the Zoroastrian emperor of Persia, was said to have possessed a seven-ringed scrying cup that revealed the mysteries of heaven to him. Persian mythmakers ascribed the centuries-long success of the empire to the magic of the Cup of Heaven.
And now it was in Sharif’s hand.
The Mother of Revelations. It swept across the boy’s body like a fever. It seeped inside his skin, blanched the marrow of his bones, until every last bit of him understood. He knew what he had to do next, and if he could he would destroy the cup, but that wasn’t his choice anymore. The cup gave him much, including foreknowledge with all the knots that weave the future. Everything from that moment on he remembered already.
And now he needed to conceal it.
So Sharif left for the rest of his life. He went to Mansehra. Found the Mughal princess. Married her. He made her very happy for the rest of her brief life, and on a sunny Friday afternoon he took his goggling, squalling son with him to pray Juma in a mosque in the mountains, where he would stay the night for worship and meditation.
Even though he knew it was the day appointed for his wife’s death.
There was no thought, no coercion, no struggle. Just the wisdom of extinction, the doggedness of destiny that steered his way. He and his son would return to find their family incinerated. Sharif and the villagers would carry out their charred corpses and he would weep; he was allowed that much.
After, he took his son to Turkey.
For years he learned rug weaving at a master weaver’s atelier. His newfound knowledge demanded he rein in the Cup of Heaven’s contents till the time for their disclosure returned. For that he must learn to prepare a special trap.
It took his fingers time to learn the trick even if his brain knew it. Years of mistakes and practice. Eventually he mastered the most sublime ways of weaving. He could apply them to create a trap so elegant, so fast and wise that nothing would escape it.
Sharif had learned how to weave the fabric of light itself.
Now he could return to his hometown, seek out the shadow of the eucalyptus tree, and prepare the device for imprisoning the cup.
First, he designed a kilim with the holy names of reality woven into it. Carefully, with a diamond-tipped glasscutter, he took the Jaam-e-Jam apart into four pieces and set them into the kilim. Next, he snared waves of light that fell in through the workshop window. He looped the peaks and troughs and braided them into a net. He stretched the net over the glass shards and warped them into place. He constructed a brass trunk and etched binding symbols on its lid, then rolled up the kilim and placed it inside.
Last, a special key was prepared. This part took some sorting out—he had to fetch certain particles farther along in time—but he succeeded; and finally he had the key. It was designed to talk to the blood-light in one person only, one descended from Sharif’s line and the Mughal princess’s.
Incredulous, I gazed at my dead grandfather as he told me his last story.
His cheeks glowed with youth, his eyes sharp and filled with truth. His hair was black, parted on the left. Maybe the glass shone, or his eyes, but the effect was the same: an incredible halo of light, near holy in its alienness, surrounded him. When he shook his head, the halo wobbled. When he spoke, the carpet’s fringe threads stirred as if a breeze moved them, but the voice was sourceless and everywhere.
“Today is the sixteenth of November, 2013,” he had said before launching into narration like a machine. “You’re twenty-eight. The woman you love will be twenty-five in three months. As for me”—he smiled—“I’m dead.”
He was telling me the future. Prescience, it seemed, had been his forte.
And now I knew how. The Cup of Heaven.
“Is it really you?” I said when he was done, my voice full of awe.
Gramps nodded. “More a portion of my punishment than me.”
“What does that mean? What other secrets were in the cup? Tell me everything, Gramps,” I said, “before I go crazy.”
“All good stories leave questions. Isn’t that what I will say?” He watched me, serious. “You should understand that I’m sorry. For bringing you here. For passing this on to you. I wish I’d never dug under that tree. But it is the way it is. I was handed a responsibility. I suppose we all get our burdens.”
The air in the room was thick and musty. Our eyes were locked together. He lured me here, I thought. My hands were shaking and this time it was with anger. Rage at being manipulated. All those stories of princesses and paupers, those lies he told for years while all the time he knew exactly what he was doing and how he was preparing me for this burden, whatever it was.
Gramps’s spirit, or whoever he was in this current state, watched me with eyes that had no room for empathy or guilt. Didn’t he care at all?
“I do, son,” he said gently. He was reading my mind or already knew it—I wasn’t clear which—and that angered me more. “I haven’t gotten to the most important part of the story.”
“I don’t care,” I said in a low voice. “Just tell me what was in the cup.”
“You need to know this.” His tone was mechanical, not my gramps’s voice. The person I knew and loved was not here. “The Jaam gave me much. Visions, power, perfect knowledge, but it cost me too. Quite a bit. You can’t stare into the heart of the Unseen and not have it stare back at you.”
He swept a hand around himself. For the first time I noticed the halo wasn’t just hovering behind his head; it was a luminescent ring blooming from his shoulders, encircling his neck, wrapping around his body.
“It wasn’t for me to decide the cup’s fate, so I hid it away. But because the Unseen’s presence ran like a torrent from it I paid more than a man should ever have to pay for a mistake. I was told to dig up the secret and hide it, not to gaze at its wonders or partake of its mysteries. My punishment hence was remembering the future and being powerless to prevent it. I would lose everything I remembered about the love of my life. Starting from the moment I dug under the eucalyptus, I would forget ever having been with your grandmother. My lovely, luckless Zeenat.
“Once the task was complete and I handed over the trunk to Bashir, my memories began to go. With time, my mind confabulated details to fill in the gaps and I told myself and everyone who’d ask that I had married a woman who died during childbirth. By the time we moved to America, all I remembered was this nostalgia and longing to discover a secret I thought I’d never pursued: the pauper princess and her magical jinn.”
When he stopped, the outline of his face wavered. It was the halo blazing. “What you see before you”—with a manicured finger Gramps made a circle around his face—“is an impression of those lost years. My love’s memory wrenched from me.”
He closed his eyes, letting me study the absence of age on his face. If he were telling the truth, he was a figment of his own imagination, and I . . . I was crazy to believe any of this. This room was a delusion and I was complicit in it, solidifying it.
Maybe that was why he forgot. Maybe the human mind couldn’t marry such unrealities and live with them.
“What about the journal? If you forgot everything, how could you draw? How could you write down details of your life?”
Gramps, his apparition, opened his eyes. “Senility. When my organic memory dissolved, fragments of my other life came seeping back in dreams.”
So he wrote the journal entries like someone else’s story. He had visions and dreams, but didn’t know whose life was flooding his head, filling it with devastating images, maybe even ushering in his death earlier than it otherwise might have come.
I leaned back and watched the threads of the carpet twist. The woven tower shot into the sky with hundreds of creatures gathered around it, looking at its top disappear into the heavens.
“I want to see the cup.” My voice rose like a razor in the dark, cutting through the awkwardness between us. “I want to see the contents.”
“I know.” He nodded. “Even such a warning as you see before you wouldn’t deter you.”
“If the cup’s real, I will take it with me to the States, where historians and mythologists will validate its authenticity and . . .”
And what? Truly believe it was a magical cup and place it in the Smithsonian? The cup’s secret isn’t for human eyes, Gramps had said. But what else are secrets for if not discovery? That is their nature. Only time stands between a mystery and its rightful master.
Gramps’s fingers played with the halo, twisting strands of luminosity like hair between his fingers. “You will have the secret, but before you drink from it, I want you to do something for me.”
He snapped his fingers and threads of light sprang from the halo, brightening as they came apart. Quickly he noosed them until he had a complicated knot with a glowing center and a string dangling at the end.
He offered it to me. “Pull.”
Warily, I looked at the phosphorescent string. “Why?”
“Before you gaze inside the cup, you will have a taste of my memories. After that you decide your own demons.”
I reached out a hand to the glass shard, withdrew, extended it again. When my fingers touched it, I flinched. It was warm. Slowly, I pushed my hand into the glass. It was like forcing it through tangles of leaves hot from the sun.
The string reddened. Its end whipped back and forth. I pinched it, pulled, and the light string rocketed toward me, the brilliant corpuscle at its center thrashing and unraveling into reality.
I gasped. A fat worm of peacock colors was climbing my hand, wrapping itself around my wrist.
“Gramps! What is this?” I shouted, twisting my arm, but the creature was already squirming its way up my arm, its grooves hot against my flesh, leaving shadows of crimson, mauve, azure, muddy green, and yellow on my skin. I could smell its colors. Farm odors. Damp foliage. Herbal teas. Baba’s truck with its ancient vomit-stained upholstery and greasy wheel covers. My mother’s hair. Sara’s embrace.
I shuddered. The worm’s body was taut across the bridge of my nose, its two ends poised like metal filings in front of my eyes.
“These,” Gramps said, “are the stingers of memory.”
The worm’s barbs were like boulders in my vision. As I watched them, terrified, they vibrated once.
Then plunged into my eyes.
In the cup was everything, Gramps said. He meant it.
What the teenage boy saw went back all the way until he was destroyed and remade from the complete memory of the universe. From the moment of its birth until the end. Free of space, time, and their building blocks, the boy experienced all at once: a mausoleum of reality that wrapped around him, plunged into which he floated through the Unseen.
And I, a blinking, tumbling speck, followed.
Gramps watched the concussion of first particles reverberate through infinity. He watched instantaneous being bloom from one edge of existence to the other; watched the triumph of fire and ejective forces that shook creation in their fists. He observed these phenomena and knew all the realms of the hidden by heart.
Matter has always been conscious. That was the secret. Sentience is as much its property as gravity and it is always striving toward a new form with better accommodation.
From the needs of sentient matter rose the invention that humans are.
Gramps gripped the darkness of prebeing and billowed inside the cracks of matter. When I tried to go after him, an awful black defied me. To me belonged just a fraction of his immersion.
I sat on a molten petal of creation as it solidified, and watched serpentine fractals of revelation slither toward me. Jinns are carrier particles of sentience, they murmured. Of the universe’s memory of the Great Migration.
My prehuman flesh sang on hearing these words. Truths it had once known made music in my body, even if I didn’t quite remember them.
The Great Migration?
The first fires and winds created many primordials, the fractals said.
You mean jinns?
Beings unfettered by the young principles of matter and energy. As the world began to cool, new rules kicked in. The primordials became obsolete. Now the selfish sentience needed resistant clay-and-water creatures to thrive upon. For humans to exist, the primordials had to migrate.
They dug tunnels into space-time and left our corner of existence so it could evolve on its own. Before they departed, however, they caged the memory of their being here, for if such a memory were unleashed upon the world, matter would rescind its newest form and return to the essence. Things as we know them would cease to exist.
So they made the cup, I said. To imprison the memories of a bygone age.
Before they passed into shadow, whispered the fractals, they made sure the old ways would be available. In case the new ones proved fleeting.
An image came to me then: a dazzling array of fantastical creatures—made of light, shadow, earth, inferno, metal, space, and time—traveling across a brimming gray land, their plethora of heads bowed. As they plodded, revolved, and flew, the dimensions of the universe changed around them to accommodate this pilgrimage of the phantastique. Matter erupted into iridescent light. Flames and flagella bloomed and dissolved. Their chiaroscuric anatomies shuttered as the primordials made their way into the breath of the unknown.
The flimsy speck that was I trembled. I was witnessing a colossal sacrifice. A mother of migrations. What should a vehicle of sentience do except bow before its ageless saviors?
In the distance, over the cusp of the planets, a primordial paused, its mammoth body shimmering itself into perception. As I watched it, a dreadful certainty gripped me: this was how Gramps was trapped. If I didn’t look away immediately, I would be punished too, for when have human eyes glimpsed divinity without forsaking every sight they hold dear?
But I was rooted, stilled by the primordial’s composition. Strange minerals gleamed in its haunches. From head to tail, it was decorated with black-and-white orbs like eyes. They twitched like muscles and revolved around its flesh until their center, a gush of flame riding bony gears, was visible to me. Mirages and reveries danced in it, constellations of knowledge ripe for the taking. Twisted ropes of fire shot outward, probing for surface, oscillating up and down.
My gaze went to a peculiar vision bubbling inside the fiery center. I watched it churn inside the primordial, and in the briefest of instants I knew what I knew.
As if sensing my study, the creature began to turn. Fear whipped me forward, a reverential awe goading me closer to these wonders undiluted by human genes, unpolluted by flesh, unmade by sentience.
Sentience is everything, sentience the mystery and the master, I sighed as I drifted closer.
But then came a shock wave that pulsed in my ears like a million crickets chirping. I rode the blast force, grief stricken by this separation, spinning and flickering through string-shaped fractures in reality, like gigantic cracks in the surface of a frozen lake. Somewhere matter bellowed like a swamp gator and the wave rushed at the sound. Tassels of light stirred in the emptiness, sputtering and branching like gargantuan towers—
Lightning trees, I thought.
—and suddenly I was veering toward them, pitched up, tossed down, slung across them until there was a whipping sound like the breaking of a sound barrier, and I was slipping, sliding, and falling through.
My eyes felt raw and swollen. I was choking.
I gagged and squirmed up from the carpet as the light worm crawled up my throat and out my left nostril. It rushed out, its segments instantly melting and fading to roseate vapors. The vapors wafted in the darkness like Chinese lanterns, lighting up discarded looms and moth-eaten rug rolls before dissipating into nothing.
I stared around, fell back, and lay spread-eagled on the carpet. The nostril through which the worm had exited was bleeding. A heavy weight had settled on my chest.
A memory came to me. Of being young and very small, standing at the classroom door, nose pressed against the glass, waiting for Mama. She was running late and the terror in me was so powerful, so huge, that all I could do was cry. Only it wasn’t just terror, it was feeling abandoned, feeling insignificant, and knowing there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
Footsteps. I forced myself through the lethargy to turn on my side. Bashir the rug merchant stood outlined against the rectangle of light beyond the doorway. His face was in shadow. The blue of his eyes glinted.
“You all right, son?”
My heart pounded so violently I could feel it in every inch of my body. As if I were a leather-taut drum with a kid hammering inside and screaming.
“I don’t know.” I tottered upright, breathed, and glanced at the carpet. The light was gone and it was ordinary. Gramps was gone too. The cup’s pieces in the corners were dull and empty.
I looked at Bashir. “I saw my grandfather.”
“Yes.” The rug merchant’s shadow was long and alien on the carpet. “What will you do now that he’s gone?”
I stared at him. His bright sapphire eyes, not old but ancient, watched me. He was so still. Not a hair stirred on his head. I wiped my mouth and finally understood.
“You’re not the boy who fell,” I said quietly. “The eucalyptus jinn. That’s you.”
He said nothing but his gaze followed me as I stepped away from the carpet, from this magical rectangle woven a half century ago. How long had he guarded the secret? Not the carpet, but the cup? How long since Bashir the rug merchant had died and the eucalyptus jinn had taken his form?
“A very long time,” Bashir said in a voice that gave away nothing.
Our eyes met and at last I knew burden. Left behind by the primordial titans, here was a messenger of times past, the last of his kind, who had kept this unwanted vigil for millennia. Carrying the responsibility of the cup, silently waiting for the end of days. Was there place in this new world for him or that damned chalice? Could there be a fate worse than death?
I stood before the caged shards of the Jaam. Gramps might have traversed the seven layers of heaven, but during my brief visit into the Unseen I’d seen enough to understand the pricelessness of this vehicle. Whatever magic the cup was, it transcended human logic. Were it destroyed, the last vestige of cosmic memory would vanish from our world.
“Whatever you decide,” the jinn said, “remember what you saw in the ideograms of the Eternum.”
For a moment I didn’t understand, then the vision returned to me. The mammoth primordial with its flaming core and the glimpse of what churned between its bonelike gears. My heartbeat quickened.
If what I saw was true, I’d do anything to protect it, even if it meant destroying the most glorious artifact the world would ever know.
The jinn’s face was kind. He knew what I was thinking.
“What about the shop?” I asked, my eyes on the damaged looms, the dead insects, the obsolete designs no one needed.
“Will go to my assistant,” he said. “Bashir’s nephew.”
I looked at him. In his eyes, blue as the deepest ocean’s memory, was a lifetime of waiting. No, several lifetimes.
Oblivion. The eucalyptus jinn courted oblivion. And I would give it to him.
“Thank you,” he said, smiling, and his voice was so full of warmth I wanted to cry.
“You miss the princess. You protected their family?”
“I protected only the cup. The Mughal lineage just happened to be the secret’s bearer,” said the eucalyptus jinn, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes.
Which was why he couldn’t follow them when they left, until Gramps went after them with the cup. Which was also why he couldn’t save them from the fire that killed them. Gramps knew it too, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to change the future.
Was Gramps’s then the worst burden of all? It made my heart ache to think of it.
We looked at each other. I stepped toward the brass trunk and retrieved the key with the gold stud from the padlock. Without looking at the jinn, I nodded.
He bowed his head, and left to fetch me the instruments of his destruction.
The city breathed fog when I left the rug shop. Clouds of white heaved from the ground, silencing the traffic and the streets. Men and women plodded in the alleys, their shadows quivering on dirt roads. I raised my head and imagined stars pricking the night sky, their light so puny, so distant, it made one wistful. Was it my imagination or could I smell them?
The odd notion refused to dissipate even after I returned to the inn and packed for the airport. The colors of the world were flimsy. Things skittered in the corners of my eyes. They vanished in the murmuring fog when I looked at them. Whatever this new state was, it wasn’t disconcerting. I felt warmer than I had in years.
The plane bucked as it lifted, startling the passengers. They looked at one another and laughed. They’d been worried about being grounded because of weather. I stared at the ground falling away, away, the white layers of Lahore undulating atop one another, like a pile of rugs.
My chin was scratchy, my flesh crept, as I brought the hammer down and smashed the pieces of the cup.
I leaned against the plane window. My forehead was hot. Was I coming down with something? Bereavement, PTSD, post-party blues? But I had been through hell. I should expect strange, melancholic moods.
The flame twitched in my hand. The smell of gasoline strong in my nose. At my feet the carpet lay limp like a terrified animal.
“Coffee, sir?” said the stewardess. She was young and had an angular face like a chalice. She smiled at me, flashing teeth that would look wonderful dangling from a hemp string.
“No,” I said, horrified by the idea, and my voice was harsher than I’d intended. Startled, she stepped back. I tried to smile, but she turned and hurried away.
I wiped my sweaty face with a paper napkin and breathed. Weird images, but I felt more in control, and the feeling that the world was losing shape had diminished. I unzipped my carry-on and pulled out Gramps’s journal. So strange he’d left without saying goodbye.
That ghost in the glass was just a fragment of Gramps’s memories, I told myself. It wasn’t him.
Wasn’t it? We are our memories. This mist that falls so vast and brooding can erase so much, but not the man. Will I remember Gramps? Will I remember me and what befell me in this strange land midway between the Old World and the New?
That is a question more difficult to answer, for, you see, about ten hours ago, when I changed planes in Manchester, I realized I am beginning to forget. Bits and pieces, but they are disappearing irrevocably. I have already forgotten the name of the street where Gramps and the princess once lived. I’ve even forgotten what the rug shop looked like. What was its name?
Karavan Kilim! An appropriate name, that. The word is the etymologic root for caravan. A convoy, or a party of pilgrims.
At first, it was terrifying, losing memories like that. But as I pondered the phenomenon, it occurred to me that the erasure of my journey to Old Lahore is so important the rest of my life likely depends on it. I have come to believe that the colorlessness of the world, the canting of things, the jagged movements of shadows is the peeling of the onionskin which separates men from the worlds of jinn. An unfractured reality from the Great Unseen. If the osmosis persisted, it would drive me mad, see?
That was when I decided I would write my testament while I could. I have been writing in this notebook for hours now and my fingers are hurting. The process has been cathartic. I feel more anchored to our world. Soon, I will stop writing and put a reminder in the notebook telling myself to seal it in an envelope along with Gramps’s journal when I get home. I will place them in a deposit box at my bank. I will also prepare a set of instructions for my lawyer that, upon my death, the envelope and its contents be delivered to my grandson who should then read it and decide accordingly.
Decide what? You might say. There’s no more choice to make. Didn’t I destroy the carpet and the cup and the jinn with my own hands? Those are about the few memories left in my head from this experience. I remember destroying the rug and its contents. So vivid those memories, as if someone painted them inside my head. I remember my conversation with the jinn; he was delighted to be banished forever.
This is making me think of the vision I had in—what did the jinn call it?—the Eternum.
The root J-N-N has so many derivatives. Jannah, paradise, is the hidden garden. Majnoon is a crazy person whose intellect has been hidden. My favorite, though, is janin.
The embryo hidden inside the mother.
The jinn are not gone from our world, you see. They’ve just donned new clothes.
My beloved Terry, I saw your face printed in a primordial’s flesh. I know you, my grandson, before you will know yourself. I also saw your father, my son, in his mother’s womb. He is so beautiful. Sara doesn’t know yet, but Neil will be tall and black-haired like me. Even now, his peanut-sized mass is drinking his mother’s fluids. She will get migraines throughout the pregnancy, but that’s him borrowing from his mom. He will return the kindness when he’s all grown up. Sara’s kidneys will fail and my fine boy will give his mother one, smiling and saying she’ll never be able to tell him to piss off again because her piss will be formed through his gift.
My Mughal children, my pauper princes, you and your mother are why I made my decision. The Old World is gone, let it rest. The primordials and other denizens of the Unseen are obsolete. If memory of their days threatens the world, if mere mention of it upsets the order of creation, it’s too dangerous to be left to chance. For another to find.
So I destroyed it.
The historian and the bookkeeper in me wept, but I’d do it a thousand times again if it means the survival of our species. Our children. No use mourning what’s passed. We need to preserve our future.
Soon, I will land in the US of A. I will embrace the love of my life, kiss her, take her to meet my family. They’re wary, but such is the nature of love. It protects us from what is unseen. I will teach my parents to love my wife. They will come to know what I already know. That the new world is not hostile, just different. My parents are afraid and that is okay. Someday I too will despise your girlfriends (and fear them), for that’s how the song goes, doesn’t it?
Meanwhile, I’m grateful. I was witness to the passing of the Great Unseen. I saw the anatomy of the phantastique. I saw the pilgrimage of the primordials. Some of their magic still lingers in the corners of our lives, wrapped in breathless shadow, and that is enough. We shall glimpse it in our dreams, taste it in the occasional startling vision, hear it in a night bird’s song. And we will believe for a moment, even if we dismiss these fancies in the morning.
We will believe. And, just like this timeless gold stud that will soon adorn my wife’s nose, the glamour of such belief will endure forever.
“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” copyright © 2015 by Usman T. Malik
Art copyright © 2015 by Victo Ngai