The Girl, the Ghul and the Gift-Keeper
By Rhea Daniel
There is only one way to kill a ghul. One hard blow, delivered with the force of a thousand armies, but if it is not done hard enough, it returns with renewed strength. Many people have tried, and that is why the ghul is so hard to kill. The one that follows me is an errant one, far from the guidance of its brothers, and therefore the most dangerous.
A master of disguise, you might think it a good trickster, but it lacks the wiles of one. It has passed through the centuries, its tricks have worked so many times that it can’t think ahead of them, falling into a pattern of stalking, giving chase… consuming. And that is why I have angered it so, enough for it forget its calling and dedicate itself to the sole pursuit of me. I see it in my dreams, I see it when I wake, a flicker of smoke at the corner of my eye to warn of its coming and the coldest chill on the silver mark it has left on my shoulder.
I am richer now than I ever wanted to be; you have no idea what kings and princes are willing to pay to learn their future. I could have been richer, but the silver mark keeps me from tampering too much with the fates of men. Sometimes I give consul in gilded halls, in robes fit for royals, sometimes on a makeshift pedestal made of wooden crates. They call me Mother Seer, Virgin Oracle, silly names concocted to assure themselves of my use, my purity.
I know too much, more than I’d care to know. They whisper things behind my back, “What does she mean, ‘What will be will be’? Have I traveled miles to hear this? ‘All things will sort themselves out in the end’? How will that help me?”
There are many futures, so I am careful with my words, what else is one to do if one has the power to crush countries? I see them all, and I have learned to sift through the multitudes of strands marking their paths, the ifs, the may be’s, but I know most of them are slaves: so predictable, so stodgy, so intent on suffering! Rarely, there are sparks. It could be a prince, a widow, a beggar, or a convict. I save my most colourful predictions for them.
Kings and emperors touch my feet in reverence, but life is lackluster. History repeats itself, but so does the future. People bore me now, no lover holds thrall for me. I only anticipate the ghul’s next move. Sometimes I crave it, for it keeps my heart skipping. Oftentimes, I seek comfort in the past, when things were simpler, when I had a family, and from the hell I have seen in my visions, a passably good one.
I open a window in my mind and dare rest for a few minutes.
I see a tall, heavy woman leading a little girl through a crowded marketplace. She holds her hand tightly so the girl doesn’t stray, but the girl is curious, peering at the wares, smiling the smile of a child who held a fascination for the unseen. I am inside that little girl again, I’m holding my mother’s hand, eager, fearless, a fool for the unknown.
She fretted only when I was with her, making a great show of being a good mother. She had no qualms about sending me out alone to buy medicines or groceries when the need arose. I had a brother too, who was a liar. He acted out the part of protective older brother, like the time when the street urchins threw stones at me and I returned home with a cut on my forehead, and he railed loudly about how he would kill them with his bare hands until the neighbours came out to hear. I didn’t call him to task because I knew the urchins would make a worse job of him than they did me. He also pretended that he hated girls and frequently called them stupid, but I knew that he secretly liked them because he was often tongue-tied in their presence.
I had decided at early age that people were full of conflict and it made them weak.
My Father too, lived in conflict, but he wasn’t a liar like the others. He loved new and foreign things, his eyes settling longingly on the curves of silver amphoras and ivory horns, taking in the smells wafting from the foreign tenements whenever we walked hand in hand through the marketplace. Back in the day he had been a young sailor unencumbered with the burden of a family, but his job as a notary had dulled his senses, much like my Aunt Jaffina who embroidered kerchiefs all day because her husband couldn’t pleasure her.
Father complained that salt made his heart drum like “a buzzard’s wing around a carcass”, but couldn’t resist an extra pinch in his food. The rush of blood in his ears was the roar of waves and the drumming of his heart were the feet pounding the deck of a ship, the taste of salt on his lips was the spray of seawater from a howling storm. As much as he longed for his old life again, reminders of it made him uncomfortable, because he had turned Householder now and there was nought he could do about it.
I knew all this then, though I did not speak of it because people don’t like hearing the Truth. Also, does anyone take the words of a twelve-year-old girl and not call them childish fancies?
I licked my lips, tasting the grittiness of the dust kicked up by the carts and mules, savouring its chalky taste. Vendors tried to attract me with ice-lollies and painted dolls, but I refused to be distracted. I found my treasure when I passed the old seller of souls, bottles arranged like live jewels on a mat in the hot sun. It was the hour I chose my future.
“Come, come little one! Come see!”
He held up a tiny bottle with the flicker of purple light inside it and grinned a toothless grin at me. I knew that he smiled from a place of desperation, trying to entice passers by, so I humoured him and smiled back.
“No!” shouted my mother as she pulled me away, “Don’t look at that!”
She covered my eyes.
“God knows where these fakirs land up from! Parasites! Immigrants will ruin this city!”
She turned me around and shook me by the shoulders.
“Must you stare at everyone so? You’ll attract the wrong sort of attention! If anything happens to you—tauba tauba—” She slapped her cheeks and crushed me against her bulk, “—I’ll just die!”
My mother had a flair for drama. I allowed her to drag me all the way home, crushed to her side, where she promptly forgot about me and began preparing dinner with Aunty Jaff. They considered me a disaster in the kitchen and worried about my future husband, but I took any freedom that was given me because I had more important things to do. I had plans: I would grow up, leave, make my own living and eat my own cooking.
“It’s nothing, just electricity,” explained my brother, “It’s a trick, souls can’t be trapped inside a bottle.”
“But how can it be electricity if it’s not connected to anything?”
“I don’t know, but it’s definitely an illusion,” he said knowledgeably, “I saw something like that at a fair once, lightning inside a glass ball, and when we touched the glass the lightning followed our touch, because our bodies are conductors of electricity. It’s why Uncle Kadi was paralyzed during the lightening storm when he opened the tap. It’s a science trick and the rest is superstition.”
Nevertheless, I was eager to visit the old man and his odd shop. I sensed there was much Truth to learn there. I would miss school, but it seemed worth it. I prepared carefully for my outing, covering every track so that no one would sense anything amiss.
“Come! Come little one!” he exclaimed when he saw me, as if he had been waiting for me all this time.
“Don’t call me ‘little’ because I’m not.”
I certainly wasn’t. I had been a woman for more than a year now, too early in my mother’s opinion. Her wails had been worthy of a funeral.
“All right,” he said, “What do I call you then?”
“My name is of no importance.”
“Oh very well, I see!” he exclaimed, nodding vigorously and humouring me, “So why does the young lady visit my shop?”
I took a deep breath to calm my nerves and met his glazed old eyes steadily.
“I want you to answer my questions about your craft, and if a customer arrives I want to watch from behind the curtain.”
He lost his glee and became serious all of a sudden.
“An unusual request,” he mused, “Young people usually come to make a purchase.”
“If I am satisfied I will pay you for your trouble, and if you deny me—” I made my voice harder— “I know that you are a seller of souls and the king frowns on such things.”
He laughed with the same desperation he pitched his goods.
“What’s the difference?”
“I take the essence of the bearer that has been denied, the sorrow of people who lie to themselves, the love of gifts that were not allowed to bloom!”
He was a flowery man, my teacher, his arms as expressive as his words.
“How can anyone find that of any use?”
“It is of use if you have none yourself, and if you are young then you can make an unused gift your own.”
“So…” I said, trying hard to grasp what he was saying, “You sell the talents of dead people?”
He sighed as if deeply disappointed.
“No, I protect them, and pass them on to new bearers.”
“Some people would say that you exploit sentiments.”
“My customers come to me of their own volition.”
I went quiet, observing him for a long moment. He had no reason to put up with my brashness.
“You’d better come inside,” he said, “It’s hot and dusty and it’s time for my coffee.”
“I will, but I want you to know that I am expected home in a few hours and I left a note on my bed of my whereabouts, and they will come straight here if I don’t come home on time. Moreover, my Father is an eminent notary and since the queen loves children, she will have you executed if anything happens to me.”
“Good God,” he said, scratching his head under his turban, “Children these days, really. Come in, or wait outside, it’s your wish.”
He disappeared behind the ratty old curtain. I waited outside a moment more before removing my shoes and stepping in.
Inside, it was darker and cooler. A large carpet that had seen better days covered the floor and the furniture was low and ornate. I stared at the hookah bubbling in the corner and the comfortable divan, the tray of fruit on a stand belying the appearance of poverty from outside. His space was small, but at least he had good possessions. I felt less sorry for him.
“Here,” he said handing me a small cup.
The pleasant aroma of coffee touched my nostrils.
“No thank you,” I said, to remind him that I hadn’t lowered my suspicions.
“More for me then,” he said and sat down crossed-legged on the divan.
“Now,” he said, taking a sip and laying the cup on a tray, “What is it that you want to know?”
“Everything,” I said, settling down on the carpet, “I want to know how you do your work. How do you extract an essence, how do you store it? Why do they glow inside the bottles? Is it….?”
His face took on an almost wicked look as I trailed away.
“Magic?” he finished for me, wiggling his fingers like a conjurer at a fair.
“No, of course not. I was going to say trickery.”
“Why have you come here if you don’t believe?”
“Seeing is believing.”
“Well,” he said under his breath, “I’ll just have to show you then won’t I?”
He rose and uncovered an nondescript cabinet against the wall of his shack. Inside, the shelves were lined with little bottles of uneven sizes. Some had more than one colour inside them. From inside, they looked drabber than the passing glimpse I had made outside.
“This one,” he said raising a bottle in the dim light with faint sparks inside it, “A girl so beautiful that her parents raised her only to give her away, little by little, but there was so much more to her than that. Pity.”
He shook his head sadly and kept it back.
“What do you mean, did they sell her?”
He stood silent and still for a moment and then said, “Yes, to the highest bidder, over and over again.”
“This one,” he said raising another one to the light, “A boy with such a colourful character that the people around him attributed it to madness. His teachers dragged him down and his father wished he had never been born. He could make his fellow students laugh for hours on end.”
“But why didn’t they like him?”
He looked at me and shrugged, “Too different, too much life.”
“You could call him that. He had more gifts than he knew what to do with.”
He put that back as well as I watched him curiously.
“This, hmm,” he said, raising another bottle flickering red, “A talented dancer, given to bouts of rage because of her unfaithful husband. She ended her life to teach him a lesson, but he moved on.”
He sighed again.
“Did they all kill themselves?”
“Were some of them murdered?”
“I don’t take those, they can have an inordinate effect on the bearer.”
“Did you steal it from any live ones?”
“No, that’s very difficult. The body has to give it up.”
“Have you tried any of them for yourself?”
“No, I fear my skill will cease if I do.”
“So how do you do it.”
“How do I do it? I wait for the right moment, and then I take it.”
“Did someone teach you how?”
“No, it came to me naturally…much like your own talent.”
He looked at me keenly and I blushed.
“I merely ask the right questions,” I said, refusing to be charmed.
“You are modest, little lady! You know I’m not short of talents myself? I used to be a great dancer in my day!”
He rose and began dancing impishly around the floor, spinning his skinny arms and legs about like monkey. I burst into helpless laughter.
“Customer!” he he shouted suddenly and went out.
I heard whispers and then the voice of an older woman practically wailing outside.
“I don’t know what to do with him! He lies around all day smoking hashish, or he’s off with his no-good friends. He begs me for money and if I tell him to get a job he calls me names—his own mother! What am I to do? He is heading down the same path as his father! Ai, ai, ai! I wish the ghilan on him!”
I heard her thump her breast in distress and the old man shushing her loudly.
“Don’t call on the name of Death-Takers unless you want them to pay you a visit! And do not despair, men have done worse things!”
He came inside and I watched him as he opened his cabinet again and searched busily through his bottles. He found what he wanted and went back outside, acting as if he had forgotten about me.
“Here, keep it under his nose tonight as he lies in a stupor, and tomorrow, I promise you, he will wake up a different man. But remember—”
He paused as if to make sure she was listening.
“This is a mere spark, it is up to him to nurture it, and up to you to make sure that he does. If he doesn’t it will fade and soon he will be back to his old ways. So don’t come crying to me again, for I don’t waste my elixirs on sluggards.”
I heard some sniffing and saw the shadow of her head nodding vigorously. The old man came inside looking very pleased.
“So you do exploit sentiments.”
He caught sight of me and sighed.
“Little one…I mean ‘nameless young lady’, if you feel I take advantage of these people, then don’t you think I would charge them in gold? They have lost all hope to come to me, and there was time when they came more often. Times have changed, but my prices have not.”
“Very well,” I agreed reluctantly, “But you might as well sell nothing in a bottle, name it ‘HOPE’ and then charge money for it.”
“Oh I see, I seeee…” he said sarcastically, rolling his eyes this way and that, “Fancy yourself a great philosopher do you? Do you know children fetch a pretty price in the market by the docks, and your parents won’t come to know of it until you’re off to…” he dropped down on his knees and wagged a finger at me threateningly, “… an island so far away that it drops off the edge of the ocean, where they stitch your lips together and make you work in a quarry all day! And no will hear you because you can’t scream!”
I stared at him, speechless and horrified.
He drew back, looking apologetic.
“There, there…but even I have reached the end of my patience.”
I swallowed nervously but stayed put.
“I have an hour left and I will wait for your next customer.”
“Suit yourself, but hide inside the bedroom, some people are not comfortable sharing their private matters, and if they see you it’s bad for business.”
“I’ll stay here until your customer comes, and then I’ll go inside if it suits me.”
“I see, and what do I expect in payment from this my most fussy client?”
I removed the coins I had collected from my forgetful father’s trousers over the past few months and showed it to him.
“Child, I don’t even want to know how you got hold of that much money.”
“It’s mine,” I insisted.
“A good truth-seeker but a bad liar.”
“But my father won’t miss it.”
“How do you know that, especially with such a large sum? I don’t want anyone accusing me of taking money from a gullible child.”
“I’m not gullible! I’m wiser than my age!”
“All right, O Wise One, what have you seen till now? How many people have you met in your short life?”
“Enough to know Truth when I see it.”
“And have you found me out too, then?”
“Well,” I said, for I had already made my assessment, “A person’s soul is essentially his self, so I don’t believe you can harness a person’s essence without taking something from their soul, if you can do it at all. And if you have, then you have committed a grievous sin against the gods.”
He laughed the same desperate laugh.
“I have not taken anything they didn’t want to give,” he said, “Those are the Death-Takers.”
“You mean ghilan?”
He shushed me fearfully.
“Tauba, tauba,” he whispered, touching his cheeks and glaring at me, “Don’t call on their name lightly, child, it’s precisely what draws them!”
I laughed at his alarm.
“Those are bedtimes stories told to children so that they do what they’re told,” I said.
“What is wrong with your generation, don’t they believe in anything?”
“I believe what I see,” I reiterated.
“Mortal eyes cannot perceive everything,” he said, brushing my cheek with a dry, stubby finger, “Now go home. One customer a day is enough for me, and quite frankly you’ve exhausted me.”
I slumped with disappointment, then rose to my feet.
“I’m coming back tomorrow,” I said before leaving.
“Suit yourself,” he said, and waved me away.
I heard him humming a tune as I stepped out of his shop.
I walked slowly back home so that I would meet my fellow students on the way and blend into a group, then copy their notes when I reached home. I worked so diligently at my deception that I got extra pudding that night.
“Show me how you do it.”
“No, child, my bones are too old to carry me around, hunting for lost gifts.”
“So you traveled widely when you were young.”
“Yes, I traveled great distances, and I came across many gifted people.”
“Did you have a wife?”
“I did, I did, for a time,” he paused to suck on the pipe of his hookah, “She possessed the most terrible gift of all.”
My ears sharpened and I leaned forward.
“What, what gift is that?”
“A gift no one in their right mind would want: the gift of foretelling.”
My mouth fell open.
“But that’s a wonderful gift!” I squeaked in indignation, “I would love to have it! I would be rich, I would live in my own palace! I would–”
I rose to my knees, envisioning a great future for myself.
“I would provide for my parents, my brother would envy me! I’d get my aunt a new husband! I’d be honoured by the king. I’d be friends with the queen!”
“Would you love to know when and how your loved ones would die? Would you like to see bloody wars played out in your mind? Oh no, child, don’t you know what happens to real foretellers, not those charlatans in the market, real ones?”
“If you know everything that is about to happen, then how could anything go wrong?”
“Now, you aren’t clever as you think. To know everything is to know every event that could possibly take place, every little action strikes a different path of every individual, sometimes it has little effect on those around them, sometimes it has an inordinate effect. The ambitions of a single man can effect the lives of millions, the conception of a single child can alter the course of future generations. It’s large, enormous—”
He spread his arms.
“–And can you imagine a single person owning the knowledge to everything that is to come, all the possibilities of every choice, every accident, every miracle? How does one, lacking other foretellers to teach them how, channel such a gift? It can drive a person mad! And there are those inevitable things, things you can’t change. My wife knew the way she would die, in every future, in every scenario. Death put the fear of the devil in her. Her own death, the deaths she’d seen in her visions. It’s dangerous, because if what falls out of your mouth comes true, people will think you caused those things.”
He shook his head as I sat back down.
“No child, it is not as simple as it seems. When I met my wife she was ostracized by her community, left to beg on the street, howling bitterly at strangers. Hey baker, don’t you know there will be a war in five years and your shop will be nothing but a black hole? Might as well throw some bread my way! She was close to getting herself lynched, but I think she wanted someone to kill her.”
“I did. I had to. Under all that dirt and abuse she was a jewel, a shining star, her essence so strong it could have blinded me.”
He paused, closing his eyes and letting out a shaky breath.
“I took her with me, taught her to live in the present, to calm her fears, and soon the visions in her head dimmed. She worried about some things though, like her fears for my life, and the recurring dream of her death at childbirth. We refrained from touching each other, but sometimes we gave in, and then the inevitable happened.”
“Yes. She had begged me to take her essence, and she warned me of the future, of every possible danger I would face because of my trade. She did it out of love, of course, but it made me run, as if chased by demons, becoming as mad and as paranoid as she had been. And then as I grew older, my legs could not carry me as far. And soon, I came here and learned to accept the present too. I do not think of death anymore.”
“What did you run from Uncle, the ghilan?”
He opened his mouth in mock consternation and tapped the bridge of my nose.
“Thrice the devil! Well I suppose I can’t control what a child says, and to answer your question, I only run from women!”
“Beautiful women, to be precise.”
“Did your wife tell you to do so?”
“I insisted to her that I didn’t want to know how I would die, of what use is such information? But she warned me about deception and demons.”
He rose to go to his precious cabinet.
“I would not wish this on anyone,” he said, raising the bottle with the black cloud inside it.
“Show me,” I asked curiously. I peered at the contents through the glass in excitement though I found it difficult believe that any of this was possible. It was more of a game to me.
“What if someone gets hold of it?”
“True, true, she had that fear as well.”
He sighed deeply.
“It’s easy to use this for evil, and that goes for any power, but surely this can do more damage than others.”
“We shall bury it,” I said, clutching the bottle to my chest, “Bury it in a spot that only you and I know.”
He got caught up with my excitement. We removed a tile from the floor of his shop and dug a hole deep enough to fit my arm. Once this was done, I returned home and got the scolding of my life, but not because of the dirt on my clothes.
I had been undone by my brother who had become suspicious about my whereabouts and wheedled the truth out of my friends. Of course it had been him, he couldn’t wait for an opportunity to ingratiate himself to our parents at my expense. I wondered furiously if he would ever grow a spine. I itched to go back to the old man’s shop.
Much to his delight, my brother was now my watchdog. He went beyond the extent of his authority and soon I was ironing his shirts and polishing his shoes as well. I held back my annoyance and waited patiently for him to slip up, but the fool was a model son.
Soon I decided to use my powers to maximum capacity and leave my principles in the dust.
I took the help of a friend, of course. It took a week but she managed to distract him with meaningful looks and half-smiles. I paid her well for her pains, caring little for the predetermined end to the charade which would leave his oily little heart trampled.
And I managed to get away, greeting the Gift-Keeper with an equally enthusiastic smile.
“Little One, how long has it been? A month? A year? Come, sit, have some coffee!”
I did not have coffee but we chatted away wildly like we were old friends. I returned once a week for the next month, my plans working out satisfactorily with my brother on his way to heartbreak.
I watched as the Gift-Keeper charged his poor clients only as much as they could afford, and swindled the rich with the skills of a moneylender. I learned the secret longings of the old and young behind the black curtain of his bedroom, gathering my knowledge of people like a treasure chest of human failings.
I began to think in earnest about my future–what would I grow up to be? A lawyer perhaps, or a minister, an advisor to the king himself?
One day a shadow halted in front of the curtain and the smell of sweet, cool perfume wafted inside. I slipped inside out of habit, hiding behind the curtain that would give me a clear view both the client and my friend.
“Come, come young sir, come in.”
Our new client was rich, or Uncle wouldn’t have invited him in so quickly. When he stepped inside, my heart stopped momentarily.
His features were so elegant: a linear nose, softly curved at the nostrils, a childlike mouth with lips curled like the petals of a rosebud. His mustache was precise as the arch of a bow, groomed so it could have been painted…and his hands–so graceful, like bejeweled reeds bending in the wind! His turban was a kingly turquoise and purple silk, trimmed with gold, matching his exquisitely embroidered tunic. I gazed at him with the ardor of an inexperienced child.
He looked around Uncle’s little shop with his darkly outlined eyes, a small smile playing on his lips and I thought I could have fallen in love from the way he moved his head. I held my breath, waiting for him to speak, hoping the sound of his voice would complete this near perfect vision.
“Uncle, I have a favour to ask.”
He spoke plaintively and softly, and I wanted to embrace him and tell him that everything would be alright.
“Tell me, my son.”
“I have a fear that has plagued me from birth. Sometimes it cripples me so I cannot get up from bed. I feel as if the strength is being squeezed from me. My doctors cannot help me, so I thought perhaps it is not an ailment of the body. I came here hoping for a cure.”
“My son, I cannot help you unless you explain in detail what ails you.”
The young man sighed, his mouth drooping at the corners.
“It’s a long story, Uncle.”
“You will find me a patient listener, my son.”
“My family has unjustly been cheated out of its inheritance by many swindlers. They roam the earth making themselves richer on the spoils that were owed my family since…well many many years. My father and brothers have hidden this fact from me because they do not want me to waste my life searching out what they consider mere pilferage.”
He looked up, a frown lining his forehead, his eyes searching Uncle’s face.
“This angered me greatly because I consider this a serious loss, however small. Wouldn’t you admit that a single diamond is worth searching out in a cave? When you add up the years it is tantamount to an astronomical theft! I’ve searched the world for these thieves, but there is one more talented than the others who evades my grasp. So you see, I am upset, I feel ill, I cannot sleep when I think of the injustice that my family has suffered. It was promised to us! After all, Uncle, would you accept half the amount for a job fully done?”
Uncle Gift-Keeper was silent, and when I turned to look he was sitting still and stiff, his eyes staring off to somewhere over the young man’s shoulder. He opened and closed his mouth, then said in the saddest possible way, “My son, I cannot tell you any more than you already know.”
I looked to the young man, whose eyes were narrowed. The smile had returned, but with the narrowed eyes it did not have the same effect on me as it did earlier. I sensed something was terribly wrong. The man reached out and coiled his beautiful hands around Uncle’s neck, and I watched in fascination and horror as his fingers turned to smoke when they touched his skin.
The Gift Keeper began taking deep, gasping breaths, his expression stricken as if he had seen something frightening. My heart began to pound with nervousness and sweat broke out on my back.
“I know what you are, vulture, eater of the dead.”
“How dare you overstep your mortal bounds?”
The ghul’s disguise began to melt away, and its voice, enough to tempt me into revealing myself earlier, now scraped at my ears and made my blood run cold. Uncle made a gurgling noise as if the air were blocked in his throat and tried to push the ghul’s hands away, but he only succeeded in a making a waving motion as his hands cleared through the ghul’s form, as if it were made of air.
“Where is it? Where are you hiding what’s rightfully mine?”
Its face changed, joining the formlessness, clothes and jewels disappearing with the rest of the illusion, turning into a curving mound of undulating black waves. It peeled Uncle’s lips back with its curling black fingers, peering inside, its form dripping into the orifice of Uncle’s widening mouth. I watched as he struggled uselessly, emitting a staccato of grunts and squeaks until one intelligible word made its way through:
I jumped from my hiding place and running past the ghul, headed clumsily with waving arms into the open marketplace outside. The bright light of the sun blinded me I skidded for a moment, blinking and confused as to what direction to take. Then I ran towards home as if wild dogs were chasing me, kicking up dust with my bare feet. I turned a corner of a shop and leaned against the wooden wall, my breath burning and panting as if I’d run a mile. I forced myself to be calm and turning my head, peered back at the Gift-Keeper’s shop to confirm what I had just seen.
At first there was nothing, then the ghul stepped out from behind the curtain on long, stilt-like legs, its insides glowing through its belly like a fragmenting log of wood within a fire. It turned its head, with the same grace of the young man, glancing about as if looking for something, the sockets of its eyes grey and empty. I was sickened at the thought that few moments ago I was ready to fall in love with this creature. The Gift-Keeper had been right, I didn’t know as much as I thought!
A man walked past the ghul with a cart as if he didn’t see it as did everyone else on the street. And then, to my horror, it bent down and peered curiously at my shoes, lying haphazardly on the ground where I had left them earlier. It picked one up with its fingers and sniffed at it, then turned half its body around in the most knowing manner.
I ran again, terror taking hold of my body, jumping into alleyways and taking a winding route home, trying, unconsciously, to throw the creature off my scent, cutting my feet on debris and stones.
At home I wept deeply and loudly. I developed a fever and for the next few days I lay shivering in bed until my mother thought I had caught the plague. My body broke out into red blotches and the doctor was called. It took me a few attempts to calm myself but still I felt utterly alone and exposed. To add to that I was berated with questions about my missing shoes. The street urchins came as a good excuse and I was allowed to miss a few more days of school. My fever settled and I clung to my mother, her stifling bulk now a comfort to me. She was pleased at first but in a few days she grew tired.
“Must you cling to me so? What’s the matter with you? Leave me be!”
I turned for comfort to my father, who I thought would surely understand.
“Father,” I told him seriously, “There is a beast that pursues me, and he takes the form of a very handsome man. I’m quite sure that he intends to do me harm.”
Father listened intently until I reached the end of my sentence, then reached out and patted my cheek, which I took for reassurance.
“Oh, what silly stories you turn up with, my Little One.”
And he walked away dreamily.
I remember the deep sense of betrayal I had felt in that moment and I wondered if I had indeed imagined everything. I recollected each detail of the event, but then, it was true that no one saw the ghul in its naked form but me, and as a consequence, only I could believe what had happened.
I returned to school, clinging to my friends, who noticed my squirrelly behaviour. I walked in the middle, shielded by a girl on either side, protecting my self by trying to disappear, that I could be jumped on at any moment.
And then, as my self-possession began to return, I realized that no one could help me. Not my silly mother, not my flaky father, not my cowardly brother. I had asked enough of my friends already. It was time for me to swallow my fear and act on my own. I did not want my soul to be taken by the ghul, too be locked in some infernal prison and watch the torture of punished souls.
I returned to the shop. Taking one fearful step at a time, my head down, an ostrich with its head stuck in the sand—if I could not see the ghul then it could not see me.
I reached The Gift Keeper’s shack—bare, an empty hole. I stood before it silently until a woman’s voice spoke in my ear. It was the mother of the wayward son.
“Oh you should have seen it, I’ve never seen anything so horrible in my life. It was like his body had been turned in side out!”
She shook her head and made a sign to ward off the devil.
“Keep away dear one, this shop will lay unclaimed until the evil has passed.”
I waited until she had gone then looked around and seeing that no one else noticed me, I entered, my fear overcome by urgency. Bottles lay strewn over the ground and the cabinet was empty, the carpet marked by a large brown patch. I shivered, but only for moment. Retrieving the wife’s gift was of utmost importance.
I watch myself from the window of the past, clawing at the dirt with my hands and fingers, my uniform covered with dust, taking the only path I knew to take. Too late to turn back. I had been heading this way the day I had chosen to enter his shop.
I have cursed myself several times, if only I had never gone there, may be if I had listened to my parents, but no, I recognize the same spark that lit my heart as a little girl, the same one that lights the heart of all troublemakers and heroes. I was no hero, of course, I had been a troublemaker who had thought she was something special. I felt an inexplicable burning in my heart as I watched the girl uncover the bottle and swallow the dark cloud inside it.
I had waited for days, then the feelings began. I told the grocer to be careful, but I didn’t know why. My dear friend, my helper, my playmate, I could hear her screams in my dreams as she died, from what I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t look her in the eye after that. My brother? He would live a happy life, or at least he would convince himself of that. My parents would die in mourning.
It was testing me, poking the walls of my sanity. Visions joined with presentiments, some unclear, some accurate, but there could be no denying them. They did not drive me mad, as they had the Gift-Keeper’s wife, because she did not know what I knew. The cold clear sting of reality didn’t bring the same damning despair on me as it did in her. Perhaps I was made of sterner stuff. I accepted the subjects of my visions as much as I accepted the visions. I accepted evil. Besides, if one’s closest relationships disappoint you, how can anyone else hurt you more? My power, melded with the Gift-Keeper’s Wife’s, forged a bond that was hard to crack.
My talent bloomed and I made away with it, seizing my fate and leaving my father and mother to lie waiting for my return. I used my powers wisely and learned to hone my words, making them neutral enough to save me from blame. The tragic mistakes of the Gift-Keeper’s wife taught me all I needed to know.
My timing was fortuitous, people were disillusioned with modern life and were looking to the old ways for guidance. I traveled far and wide, attracting young and old, poor and rich. More over, I came in the form of a young virginal girl. What more convincing did they need?
Word spread of my powers, many kingdoms conspired to kidnap or bribe me, but I was always two steps ahead of them. Ordinary people followed me, venerating me, offering protection and payment. I grew to have loyal followers, ready to die for me. Full with the glory of my triumph I forgot the two most important things in my life, the ghul and my parents.
They came to seek answers about the whereabouts of their lost daughter. Ten years had passed, they did not recognize me under my veil. They had aged, shrunk with the misery of loss, and yet I found it hard to forgive them. Should I ease their burden, cast off my veil and reveal myself?
They had looked at each other in a searching manner. My father patted my mother’s hand with a sad smile and they left to make place for the next customer. I felt sharp barbs in my heart, and yet I was relieved that they had left without more questions.
It was the same day that I had felt the piercing chill of the ghul’s touch on my shoulder. It had disguised itself as one my worshippers. I escaped death by climbing onto the pedestal that they had raised for me, surrounded by the smoke of incense and holy signs. Someone smeared my face with spices and showered me with rose petals, an unworthy goddess, interfering, playing with the lives of innocents. I wonder how much I had angered the gods in heaven.
It was then I began to think earnestly of how to put an end to the ghul. I grew more cautious with my foretelling. I ceased to receive customers and instead, dropped in unannounced. This somehow made them revere me more. I was always one step ahead of the ghul, constantly reading my future, searching amongst the multiple strands for a way out. I dreamt often of a bright, blinding light and deafening silence. My future was calling to me, but how was I to get there?
I did not have to wait long. A young king came to me; handsome, a great general, intent on expanding his kingdom. He had been misguided by the retinue of advisors behind him and had now bitten off more than he could chew. I drank in the sight of his form, proud, the unconscious stance of a warrior, a perfect specimen of a man, and yet the face betrayed a boyish softness. A few years ago I would have taken him to my bed, for I had no fear of recognition when it came to my lovers. My face, revealed to them like some glorious celestial entity, would be replaced in their minds and memories by something that they thought I was.
“What do you mean, flee?” he demanded, like so many dissatisfied customers before him, “A king does not tell his people to run.”
“Then there will only be death.”
He frowned, looking both perplexed and angry.
“A war to end all wars, there is nothing you can do but run,” I explained, “You have caused a great deal of trouble in trying times, and woken a great beast to battle.”
A follower of mine cleared her throat as warning to accept what was given and leave. He bowed, a vertical line still creasing his forehead, then turned and walked away shaking his head angrily. No, he would not listen to me, like I have never listened to anyone.
And thus the ghul would play right into my hands.
Three nations, leaving destruction in their wake, set on conquering the world at the risk of annihilation. I saw the white blinding light over and over in my dreams, I floated above it with invisible wings, feeling an incredible lightness, an unburdening that has eluded me ever since I had taken of the gift. I longed for this future more than anything, I longed to cast away the gift that had given me everything I wanted.
I made my way alone in the night to the land of the young king. His armies unaware of the destruction to come, sleeping peacefully, people going about their business before the crack of dawn. Should I save them? If I told them what was to come, would they believe me? Would human nature surprise me?
If I had learned anything in the past fifteen years, then it was this, that the truth was oftentimes unbearable. That is why, when I had begun, I avoided tragedies and only foretold happiness. It was why I was alive.They would call me mad if I told them the the truth.
They were indifferent to me, I was invisible unless I stood on a pedestal, surrounded by worshippers.
Sheep, slaves, I spat at them as they passed by in their carts and vehicles, the rich still asleep in their beds and the poor thinking that there was an end to this day.
I chose the spot where I would stand carefully, affecting stealthiness, where I would take the full force of the eye of light that would turn everything to dust. And then I waited.
My ghul came, as I expected it to, each hoof-step leaving a hiss not twenty paces behind me, gurgling gluttonously now that its most prized catch was within reach.
I dared not turn now, or my courage might fail. Instead, I turned my head just so, so half my face were visible.
The fool animal did not listen, its form at the corner of my eyes, the orange embers glowing inside its body, grey waves flickering and pulling at its corners as if it were made of ashes and smoke.
“I should thank you,” I said to it, “For showing me how to live.”
The creature paused, its desperation suddenly measured. Then it resumed its pursuit.
“Sorceress, witch, liar!”
The flicker of rainbow colours before the blast of white, my signal to turn so I would see the creature die with my own eyes. I smiled as I saw its face for the second time in my life, teeth bared, grey empty eyes, reaching out with its hands, clawed and black, thin and graceful, rabid and desperate.
There is only one way to kill a ghul. One hard blow.
~ The End ~