The Visit

Zahreddine

From The Story of Sister Sarah Shamlan, The Stranger
The Flower of Asour series

When we finally made it back from the Mourning Period, there was a feeling of relief in the air. Those first few days, we all wanted company after the month of silence. We spent the evenings sitting around a fire in the temple courtyard, amongst the moss and stone, or in the back gardens of the society house, and we sat under the blinking stars to play cards and to speak, at first in hushed tones, eventually in rising conversation. People from around the island joined us on some nights, those who had been taken into the Ayoub tribe. The men paired themselves against the women, hoping to increase their odds of winning ,winning the game or the attention a woman.  But so many of the women were tired of the men in their lives. And so, they entertained them as guests of the house, but they refused to accept their advances. Most of the boys and men were farmers and laborers in the nearby markets. Few were migrants, and most were natives. They were fun to be around, and it was one of the first things I noticed, that people native to Asour did not take themselves too seriously. The men even less so than the women, who felt this was their time to achieve and to accomplish something.

It was like this with the men and like this with the women. It was fun for us to stay around the courtyard and the interiors all night, even staying up sometimes until dawn, taking breakfast on the terrace, watching the descent of the moons and the rising of Ra before going to sleep. I often thought of my family in these times, and how we used to stay up and play cards in the first days of the war, when there was still a lot of waiting. Sister Galad was always pulling tricks to catch the attention of a suitor. She squeezed my arm, Watch me, she said, Watch how it’s done. I thought there was something sad in her smile. I’ll tell you everything later, she finished with a wink. That night, the courtyard was lively with people in from the port, and a folk musician was trying to teach her how to play the flute. She looked awkward, puckering her lips, blowing into the holes in the windpipe. She was more interested in the charming musician’s attention than the instrument, of course. What she wanted more than anything was to find a man. A woman like Galad is made for men. She knows how to please them without compromising herself. With me, the women always asked, Why are you so shy? With Galad, we always asked her, How can you be so forward?

She had taken herself to a spot around the fire farthest from us. The musician from the port, Jawad, had his arm wrapped around her, and they were talking and laughing, heads bent toward each other as he pointed out each note. She acted interested, playing determinedly, laughing out loud, patting her hands against his chest, his shoulders, lifting her eyes to linger on his. Taking her flirtations in stride, he was sweet and light, singing the notes out loud, making mistakes on purpose. I watched while he tried patiently to teach Sister Galad how to play his songs note by note and measure by measure. The instrument held up to her mouth, she pursed her lips and blew into the holes, and then burst into laughter.

At some point in the night, half the crowd turned drunk while the other half were happy to enjoy themselves without wine or whiskey or the effervescent effects of the Father’s favorite, a cold tincture of red anise poured over ice. At one point late into the evening, some guests left, only to return masked. I huddled close to Shaza and Shad, who sat talking by the fire. We listened to the drummers as they led the masked guests in dance. The people in the masks came forward, pulling us up in the hope that we would join their dance. I did not join, but I was interested in watching. Six or seven of the dancers collected around the fire and began to dance in sync, moving their hips excessively.

In Korban, we were prohibited to wear masks. Women were obliged to show their eyes, their faces, and to cover their heads with bold headscarves. We did not revere the icons of the mystics. On the island it was different. At least to the natives. They courted the characters of the night, telling their stories, embracing their lives. When the elders decide to pass the stories to the next generation, a history is brought to life. In Korban, they had stopped passing the stories of the night.

Despite the relief after mourning, and the festive mood, there was a feeling of emptiness in the skies, a desolation that ushered in the sound of ocean waves, crashing into the rocks. The evening was turning to night, and the rising of the third moon coinciding in fourths, splitting the moons in quarters, came as a fog of red incense burning from the depths of the fire. The revelers were given to their dancing, moving like they were wading through torrents.

When we spoke of the moons, we spoke of Ka, the satyr. Ka is the satyr, the child of Qa’arun, the keeper of illusions. Hiding in the shadows of our advances, the illusions loom, entering our perspective and causing ripples in the stillness, mutating in me.

I left the dancers in the courtyard and started walking to my room. Shooting stars, pent in their frustrations, zipped through the uplifted sky. I turned to watch the revelers from afar. The scene set alight a feeling I could not pin down, an equal share of disquiet and excitement. I retreated to the temple quarters, dreaming in a long, cascading womb of archways transformed into rooms. Fresh roses bloomed in on trellises wound around the concrete columns, and the courtyard garden generously spread its perfumes. In my bed in the yet-empty dorm, I listened to water trickling along the polished stone of the fountain, and the rising and falling of voices in laughter and conversation wove into my consciousness. I lay there, counting footsteps, nearing and receding. I lay awake in a faint reminiscing until I fell into a fitful sleep.

I fell into specters and songs woven in dream visions of what I had experienced. We were at the cusp of a great beginning, and I was a part of it, even if only the smallest part. I felt a shallow resting in my body, like I was drifting through the waters on an island much like ours, much like ours but in a state of devastation. Lush, fertile fields vanished in a milky fog as winds of death and morbid fires burned all life and all sense, and I could feel the tugging of my eyelids as I lay asleep and erect in a world without color. And in a calm expanse as I passed vectors of darkness, I was again in my place, in my bed, in a plane of touches awoken, aroused by the sound of grunting, a scent of musk and earth. Sweat hung heavy in the air, and I felt a warmth, a heat emanating toward one side of my bed, blending with the cool breeze from the open window. And I searched in the stillness for the sound of the fountain, to know if I was dreaming. And I heard the trickle of the fountain outside. It took a moment to sense that there was in fact a presence that was moving towards where I lay in the bed. A terror seized me and my eyes flew open. But the rest of my body would not listen, I could not turn my head, and I could not feel my arms or my legs. I felt as if my mind had separated from its vessel, and my body could not receive the signals I was sending. But I heard my own heart beating, loud and hard in my chest, beating over the grunting and smacking. My eyelids were frozen open, stuck as though they were pinned by tacks, my eyeballs shivering in their sockets. And I held my breath, and I heard the sound of footsteps approaching. The steps were hollow and hard on the marble floor, and as the sounds got closer, I pleaded with my body to listen, to come to action, to awaken, and to flee from the presence coming upon me in my sleep. The hollow sound of the steps ceased as a shadow fell over me.

The vision I saw has never left me. The creature had materialized, standing over my paralyzed body, a broad chest and shoulders covered in dark, dampened and wiry fur. In his eyes he held the unmistakable desire of a man, but larger, more virile and wild, his wanting a tangible object between us, more solid than the horns that curled from his great head. His nostrils flared and his lips smacked as he bent closer, the weight of his shadow oppressive, suffocating. And he was groaning and snarling, his teeth yellow and large like a horse. And he looked into my eyes and I saw a bottomless wanting, and as our eyes locked I gasped, drawing in my breath, and he drank my gasp and it was as though his breath joined mine, as though we were breathing as one being, and I felt a rising deep in my gut as my body finally reacted, tensing and clenching and releasing and suddenly the bed between my legs was wet.

     I jolted upright with a silent scream, my entire body trembling violently, as though I were convulsing, and through my terror I felt the shadow move, lifting into nothing.

     My body heaved and gulped, stuttered with overlapping sobs. I stood, but my knees buckled. Suddenly the girls were around me, first Galad, and then the others.

     “What did you see?”

     “Is he still here?”

     “You’ve been dreaming, it’s just a dream.”

     “Why didn’t you scream?”

     “There’s nothing, there’s no one here.”

I was handed a glass of water and the girls lit some sage to clear the air, making fragrant circles over my bed. Some were gentle and concerned, while others rolled their eyes, muttered, and returned to sleep, pulling the covers over their heads. I welcomed the consolations, nodding and consenting to assurances that the vision was only a nightmare. But behind their hurried faces, behind the veil of white lace curtains, in a flash I saw the creature again, his long, slender fingers poured over the windowsill, his eyes a menace of blood-red dots. Watching, as though he wanted me to know that he was watching. But I squeezed my eyes shut and when I looked again he was gone. I could not tell if I was seeing things, if perhaps I was still shaken and still half in a dream. I thought better than to say anything, wanting to believe the sisters’ persistent assurances. But later, Galad admitted she had smelled it too—a lingering musky animal scent in the room.