Aliya Whiteley
Witchcraft in the Harem


On the plane, drinking a quarter-bottle of white, I retrieved my address book from my crocodile bag, tore out a page at a time, and turned each one into a snowflake with a few painless tears. The man sitting next to me, tall with a clean suit and pale skin, brushed away the white shreds that fell on his lap with the back of his hand, and I resolved to be more like him. He didnít look anywhere but straight ahead.

ĎIím Bobbie,  I said. And then I thought about the Stuff.

The Stuff was gone. Destroyed. There was no place on Earth where Becky and The Designer would not find me.

Last time I saw Becky, she was on the catwalk, left breast bared and painted yellow, skirt of razor blades clacking against her thighs. She gave her three-quarter turn and clocked me in the back row. Her eyes took in my newly shorn hair, but I couldnít tell what she thought of it from her somnambulistic stare. Then she flicked back up the catwalk and was gone.

Two hours later I had boarded this flight.

ĎIím in serious trouble here,  I said to the pale man. ĎGive me some words of wisdom.í

He didnít say anything. Not too surprising, considering he was being confronted by a six feet two ex-model in a red micro-mini and a see-through blouse.

ĎCat got your tongue?  I asked.

He tilted his head towards me and opened his mouth, so wide that at first I thought he was going to attempt to swallow me. But he stayed like that, and behind the yellowing row of his bottom teeth was a writhing stump, like a blind worm in the darkness: all that remained of a tongue.

I had nothing and nowhere, and I needed to plant a seed. I put my hand on the back of his neck and pulled him towards me so I could kiss his open mouth; those pale soft lips were as refreshing as water on my foundation caked face. ĎTake me home with you  I said, and I thought he didnít understand, but he made no comment when I followed him through the airport after we landed. I boarded the small black jet that waited for him and smiled at him throughout the seven hour flight to destination safe haven.

The plane landed on a white runway that was the only strip of land jutting out into a large green bay. I had found no place on Earth. Even I didnít know where I was.

He had a harem, of course. I was the first white woman. Nobody spoke my language, but that was fine; Iíve never really got on with women anyway, not even Becky. You would think being twin sisters would be enough to form a bond, but she was raised with my mother and I went to my father after the divorce. We didnít meet again for years, and when I tracked her down in Paris she introduced me to the Designer and the Stuff, and asked me to live with them, I suppose because she liked the novelty of having a double. Every manís fantasy, so they say. So sharing a man was not a new thing for me, and I was comfortable in the communal room, even if I ignored the women and they ignored me.

I would have liked a fountain, though. Iíve seen films with scenes in harems and there were always fountains in the centre of the room. Our room was more like a large sitting room. Lots of sofas, comfortable chairs and cushions, and a tiny kitchenette hidden behind a glass brick wall, with a microwave and a coffee machine. Food was always provided, but occasionally the girls would make strong, syrupy coffee which couldnít have done them any good. I stuck to water.

The bell was the summons to the man with no tongue. It was a brass circle with a clapper attached by a small rod, fixed above the only door. It reminded me of the bell above the blackboard that I used to watch during those long, boring afternoons in the classroom, the teacher droning on and the other pupils flicking pencils at my head; Iíve never been popular in group situations.

There was a code to the rings, and every woman knew their code. The others had demonstrated my code to me upon my arrival; I was three long and two short. It rang for me perhaps twice a week. I think I was too vocal for him. A Western habit I couldnít shake off.

There were windows, but not much of a view. A perfect blue sea seemed to be only yards away, and stretch on forever. The sky was always cloudless. Sometimes I wondered if we were on a huge boat, but I felt no movement. Maybe it was a tiny island, uncharted, hidden like a sequin that nestles in the ruffled bodice of a blue silk dress; a place of secrecy and beauty.

A place where laws did not exist. A place where magic and murder could bleed together.

The flavour of the moment was Fasheema. She had wedding-dress white hair and was maybe five feet tall on tiptoe. All the women walked everywhere on tiptoe, their arms swinging backwards and forwards in languid movements timed precisely to match their steps, trying so hard to look as if they werenít trying to be relaxed. It was always a competition, and Fasheema was winning it hands down. Every day, at about midday I would guess by the position of the sun through the window, she was summoned by the man with no tongue with two short rings of the bell. She would sway her way out of the harem with the languid swaying of an anemone in an undisturbed rockpool; she knew she was invincible.

Putting all those women together in one place was asking for trouble.

I knew what the looks meant, and I wasnít surprised when they gathered in the kitchen one day after Fasheema had gone forth to do her duty. I was ignored, of course, but that made it easy to watch them from my position in the far corner amongst a nest of silk cushions.

Some lifted their long skirts and from under them produced twisted papers that contained pinches of bright powder, or spindly black roots. Others slid delicate orange and yellow flowers from between their breasts, cupping their hands under the petals as if they had drawn forth their hearts for inspection. One woman with enormous hips opened her mouth and extended her tongue to allow the iridescent purple beetle upon it to be captured. It was then squashed into a smear and added to the white china bowl was used to hold the precious possessions.

The women stroked the bowl, one at a time, as it was passed between them. Each one said something, or maybe crooned would be a better word; it was more like a song that they all seemed to know, but it wasnít so much a tune as a random series of notes that filled my brain with waking dreams. I reclined on the fluffy cushions and only kept my eyes open for long enough to see them place the bowl in the microwave and set it turning on that little glass disc for a total of five of your Earth minutes.

Thatís something the Designer used to say. Just five of your Earth minutes, Bobbie and Becky, to try on this teaspoon hat and this Rizla blouse, and we would come down from our private cloud to let ourselves be adorned with his creations. Then, as a reward, he would give us a taste of Stuff from the drawer in his Victorian mahogany cabinet, unlocking it with that key he always kept on a ruby encrusted chain around his neck.
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