Read The Exile Kiss Online

Authors: George Alec Effinger

Tags: #Fiction, #Cyberpunk, #Genetic Engineering, #Action & Adventure, #General, #Science Fiction

The Exile Kiss (8 page)

BOOK: The Exile Kiss
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1 was now clear on the events between the kidnapping and our rescue by the Bani Salim. The days after that, however, were probably lost forever in a fog of delirium. Shaykh Hassanein had sedated me, and then pulled free the daddies. My mind and body had im-mediately been overwhelmed by a ravaging flood of ag-ony. I was grateful to Hassanein for keeping me knocked out with Sonneine until I'd begun to recover.

Noora was awake and watchful when I sat up and stretched in the morning. It took me a few seconds to recall where I was. The front and back flaps of the goat-hair tent had been thrown open, and a fresh, warm breeze passed through. I bowed my head and prayed, "Oh, that this day may be fortunate; give Thou that we see not the evil!"

"Blessings of Allah be on you, O Shaykh," said Noora. She came nearer, carrying a bowl of camel's milk and a plate of bread and
a paste made of chick-peas and olive oil.
"Bismittah," I
murmured, tearing off a piece of bread. "May your day be pleasant, Noora." I began wolfing down the breakfast.
"It's good to see that your appetite is back. Would you like some more?"
My mouth was crammed full, so I just nodded. Noora went out of the tent to fetch a second helping. I took a few deep breaths and experimented with moving my limbs. There was still a deep soreness in my muscles, but I felt that I could get up soon. I remembered what Hassanein had told me, that the Bani Salim would need to find new grazing for their animals very soon. I wasn't thrilled by the prospect of walking a couple of hundred miles with them, so it was probably time that I learned how to ride a camel.
Noora returned with another plate of bread and
and I attacked it hungrily. "The old shaykh will visit you when you're finished eating," she said.
I was glad to hear that. I wanted to see how well Friedlander Bey had survived our ordeal. It wasn't over by any means, though. We still had a long distance to travel, and the conditions would be just as harsh. The lifesaving difference was that we'd be traveling with the Bani Salim, and they knew where all the wells were. "Papa and I have much to talk over," I said.
"You must plan your vengeance."
"What do you know of that?" I asked.
She smiled. I realized that she was no longer holding her head scarf over her face. "You've told me many times about the amir and the qadi and the imam and Shaykh Reda. Most of the time, you just babbled; but I under-stood enough of what you were saying, and the old shaykh told me much the same story."
I raised my eyebrows and mopped up the last dollop of
with a chunk of bread. "What do you think we should do?"
Her expression turned solemn. "The Bedu insist on revenge. We practically make it a necessary part of our religion. If you didn't return to your city and slay those who plotted against you, the Bani Salim wouldn't be your friends when you returned to us."
I almost laughed when I heard her speak of my re-turning to the Rub al-Khali. "Even though the man re-sponsible is a revered imam? Even though he's beloved by
the fellahin
of the city? Even though he's known for his goodness and generosity?"
"Then he is an imam of two faces," said Noora. "To some, he may be wise in the worship of Allah, and kind to his brothers in Islam. Yet he did this evil to you, so his true nature is corrupt. He takes the coins of your enemy, and unjustly sentences innocent men to an exile that is almost surely death. The second face renders the first false, and is an abomination in the eyes of God. It's your duty to repay his treachery with the penalty accorded by tradition."
I was startled by her vehemence. I wondered why this matter between Papa and me, on the one side, and Dr. Abd ar-Razzaq, on the other, disturbed her so much. She saw me studying her, and she blushed and covered her face with her head cloth.
"The tradition of the Bedu may not be legal in the city," I said.
Her eyes flashed. "What is legal'? There's only right and wrong. There's a story the Bedu women tell their children, about the evil imam in the well."
- "Noora, if it had been an accountant who'd done us harm, this story would be about the evil accountant in the well, right?"
"I don't even know what an accountant is," she said. "Listen, then. Maybe there was, and maybe there wasn't an evil imam of Ash-Sham, which you call Damascus, when Ash-Sham was the only city in the world. The Bedu have no need of imams, because every member of the tribe prays to God as an equal and defers to no other. The weak city folk needed an imam to help them, because they'd forgotten what it was to find their own water and make their own food, and they'd come to depend on other people to supply these things. So, too, had they come to depend on an imam to lead the way to Allah.
"Now, many of the people of Ash-Shfim still thought the evil imam was wise and good, because he made sure everyone who heard him preach gave money to their needy brothers. The imam himself never gave any of his own money, because he'd grown very fond of it. He loved gold so much that he sold his influence to one of Ash-Sham's most corrupt and ambitious citizens,
"When Allah realized that the imam's heart had turned black, He sent one of His angels down to earth. The angel's instructions were to take the imam away into the desert, and imprison him so that he might never lead any of the people of Ash-Sham astray. The angel found the imam in his secret treasury, stacking up his piles of gold and silver coins, and cast a spell over the imam that made him fall into a deep sleep.
"The angel picked up the evil imam and carried him in the palm of his hand, and brought him to the very heart of the Rub al-Khali. The imam knew nothing of this, be-cause he was still fast asleep. The angel built a deep, deep well, and put the imam down at the very bottom, where there was only the most bitter and foul water. Then the angel caused the imam to awaken.
" Tea
cried the evil imam. 'Where am I, and how did I come to this place?'
" 'It is too late to call on God, O Son of Adam,' said the angel. His stern voice cracked like thunder in the air, and the walls of the well shook around the imam.
" 'Let me out,' said the imam fearfully, 'and I promise to change my ways! Have mercy on irie!'
" The angel shook his head, and his eyes loosed terri-ble flashes of lightning. 'It is for me neither to judge nor to have mercy. The One Judge has already condemned you to this place. Think on your deeds and repair your soul, for you have still to meet your God on the Last Day.' Then the angel departed, and left the evil imam all alone.
"A day came when the evil imam's successor, whose name was Salim and who was the founder of our tribe, came upon the well in his travels. Salim had never known the evil imam, and he was as different from him as the sun and the moon. This young man was truly kind and generous, and well beloved of all the people of Ash-Sham, who had appointed him to be their imam in recognition of his virtues.
"As Salim bent forward to peer into the well, he was startled to see that a number of creatures had fallen into it and were trapped with the evil imam. The animals begged him to release them from the deep well. Salim felt so sorry for the animals that he unwound his
and lowered it into the dark hole.
"The first animal to climb up the cloth ladder to free-dom was a lizard, the one the Bedu call 'Abu Qurush,' or Father of Coins, because the end of this lizard's tail is flat and round. Abu Qurush was so grateful to be rescued that he shed a piece of his skin and gave it to Salim, saying, 'If ever you need help in a desperate situation, burn this piece of skin and I will come to you.' He began to run away across the hot sands, but he called back to Salim, 'Beware the Son of Adam who is in the well! He is an evil man, and you should leave him down there!'
"The next creature Salim pulled out was a she-wolf. The wolf was just as overjoyed as the lizard had been. She pulled out two of her whiskers and gave them to Salim, saying, 'If you should be in such a difficult place as that from which you rescued me, burn these and I will come to you.' She bounded away, but she too called back to him, 'Know, O Man, that the Son of Adam in the well is most evil.'
"Salim finished pulling out all the rest of the animals, and he listened to their warnings. Then he began to wrap his
around his head once more. His countryman, the evil imam, shouted up to him in a heartbreaking voice. 'How can you save all those creatures, yet leave me to face my death in this pit of darkness? Are we not brothers according to the holy words of the Prophet, may the bless-ings of Allah be on him and peace?'
"Salim was torn between the warnings of the animals and his own good nature. He decided that he shared a bond of humanity with the unseen prisoner, and he once again lowered his
down into the well. When he'd freed the evil imam, he took up his journey again, and many weeks later returned to Ash-Sham."
"This is a great story, Noora," I said, yawning, "but it sounds like it's going to go on forever, and I remember your uncle telling me that the Bani Salim needed to move on to the next well soon. Surely, you don't want your camels and goats to die of starvation while you spin out this wonderful Bedu folklore for me."
Noora sighed. "I will finish it quickly," she said. I could see that she really loved telling stories. Maybe it was unkind of me to cut her off, but I had the feeling she was trying to make some special point. If she had some wis-dom to impart, she could do it just as well in fifty words as five thousand.
I knew, of course, that in the story Salim represented me, and the evil imam must be Dr. Abd ar-Razzaq. I thought I
could guess what was going to happen. "So Salim gets in some kind of trouble, and it's the evil imam's fault, and he
calls the lizard and the wolf."
"Actually," she said, trying to stay ahead of me, "Salim didn't get into trouble at first. He burned the lizard's skin, and Abu Qurush appeared before him before the last lick of gray smoke faded in the air. What do you wish?' asked the lizard.
" Td like to be as rich as a king,' said Salim.
" 'The solution to that is simple. You must do as I tell you. Take the basket your servant uses to fetch bread, and leave it outside the city gates tonight. Then you must get up before the sun and bring it home again.' Salim did just as he was instructed, and he left the empty basket against the walls of the king's palace, and when he went to get it in the morning, it was filled with gold."
"Is that how Salim gets in trouble?" I asked.
Noora patted the air impatiently. "Wait, wait. So for a few days, Salim lived well. He ate the best food in the city, he bought himself a new wardrobe, he enjoyed all the pleasures of Ash-Sham that Allah did not forbid. After a time, however, the king noticed that a part of his trea-sury was missing. He was outraged and furious, and he put out a decree: 'Whoever finds the robber of the king's gold shall have the king's beautiful daughter in marriage, and half the kingdom besides!'
"With that reward being offered, many wise and clever men came to examine the king's vaults. All were bewildered, and without exception they told the king that no man could have entered the treasury and stolen the gold. Finally, the cleverest of all asked that many arm-loads of dry palm fronds be put in the treasury. The king asked no questions, but did as the clever man said. Then the clever man set fire to the palm fronds and led the king and his courtiers outside the building. In a few minutes, all could see a black ribbon of smoke rising from a slender breach in the foundation of the palace wall. The clever man stepped closer and examined the ground itself, where he saw tiny footprints in the dust. 'Behold, your majesty!' he said. 'The thief was no man, but a lizard!'
"The king, who had little patience with clever men, thought this one was trying to make a fool of him, and so he ordered the clever man to be taken away and be-headed. And that was the end of the clever man."
"Is there supposed to be a moral in that for me?" I asked.
Noora smiled. "No, the story isn't even finished. The clever man wasn't important at all. I didn't even give him a name. Anyway, word of all this ran through the city of Ash-Sham, until it reached the ears of the evil imam. The evil imam realized that the hand of the king's daughter and half the kingdom could be his, because he'd heard the words of Abu Qurush at the well. He ran to the king's audience chamber and cried, Tour thief is your own imam, Salim!'
"Well, the king doubted this was true, but he sent his soldiers to Salim's house, where they found the rest of the gold. They arrested Salim and brought him in chains to the king's deepest, foulest dungeon. Salim knew who'd betrayed him, and he cursed his foolishness in ignoring the warnings of the animals and setting the evil imam free.
"Salim languished in his gloomy cell for a day and a night, and a day and a night, and then he remembered the words of the she-wolf. He took out the wolfs whiskers and burned them. In the blink of an eye, the she-wolf stood before him. "What do you want of me?' she asked.
" 'Only for you to get me out of this dreadful prison, just as I released you from the well,' said Salim.
" 'Tonight you will be free,' said the wolf, and she squeezed beneath the door of his cell and was gone.
"Many hours passed, until it was the darkest watch of the night. Suddenly, there came screams of terror from the bedchamber of the king's young son and heir. The king ran into the room and saw the wolf with the boy's head gripped between her long, sharp teeth. Whenever the king or one of his soldiers or advisers tried to ap-proach, the wolf let loose a loud, fierce growl. No one could do anything to save the young prince.
"Eventually, the news spread throughout the palace. The dungeon guards discussed it loudly, and Salim over-heard them. 'Take me to the king,' he called, 'and I will save the life of the prince.'
"The guards laughed at him, saying the bravest of their number could do nothing, so what could this mere preacher hope to accomplish? At last, Salim persuaded the guards to bring him before the king. They hurried up to the prince's chamber. As soon as Salim entered, the wolf began wagging her tail and making sounds like a dog pleased to see its master. 'The she-wolf will depart with-out harming the boy,' said Salim, 'but only if you offer it the heart of the former imam of Ash-Sham.'
"The king commanded his soldiers to hurry, and they ran out into the city and found the evil imam. They ar-rested him and dragged him back to the palace and cut off his head. Then they hacked open his chest, cut out his heart, and put it in a golden bowl. Salim placed the golden bowl before the she-wolf. The animal licked his hand, took the heart of the evil imam in her mouth, and ran from the palace to freedom.
"The king was so pleased that he pardoned Salim, and then gave him his daughter's hand in marriage!"
I waited a moment to be sure the story was finally over. "I'm supposed to cut Dr. Sadiq Abd ar-Razzaq's heart out?"
I said.
"Yes, and feed it to a dog," said Noora fiercely.
"Even though we don't do that kind of thing in the city anymore? I mean, we're talking about a theologian here. Not Hitler or Xarghis Khan."

BOOK: The Exile Kiss
3.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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