Witchcraft in the Harem continued
I never thought he’d sleep deeply enough for me to be able to take that chain from him. But it turns out that we all fall into unwakeable sleep sometimes, just as I did on those silk cushions that afternoon. I had an intense vision, filled with flowers that tickled my feet, and beetles that crawled across my face, and Becky was there, groaning in rapture, carpeted in black roots that grew over her statuesque body and into her hair. She looked as natural as a tree.
When I came around no time at all could have passed. The microwave door was open and the women were sitting on the floor in a circle a few feet away, their long skirts arranged behind them like the petals of some enormous carnivorous flower.
The china bowl was in the centre of their circle. Inside it was a mustard yellow powder, flecked with tiny green crystals. I never thought I’d see that powder again.
‘Stuff! I said.
The women raised their heads as one and stared at me. The one with the large hips flicked her hands in what I took to be a gesture of warning.
‘Is this where all the Stuff gets made, then? I asked. ‘Do you make all the Stuff in the world? Is that why the man with no tongue is so rich? Who comes here to pick it up? Is it the Designer? But, of course, they didn’t understand me and I couldn’t have understood their replies if they had deigned to give one.
It seemed this wasn’t the last place on Earth after all.
They crowded closer together, closing in on themselves, and I could no longer see the bowl. There was nothing I could do but lie back once more, and only a few minutes later Fasheema returned from her daily appointment, swinging her arms to her private internal melody. She looked as smug as ever.
I knew what was going to happen as soon as they brought that cup of coffee to her.
They passed it to her on a silver tray, and she accepted it with an incline of her head, as if they had finally noticed how superior she was and it was her right to be served in such a manner.
It took only one swallow to do its job.
As I watched her go through the transformation that comes from overdose, I felt the pull of the Stuff upon me. I wondered how I could ever have found the willpower to destroy it, and try to escape it. As Fasheema went through the soundless transformation which leads to death, I could see the absolute ecstasy of freedom on her face, and I wanted to feel it too, even if it meant the cracking of my bones and the contortion of my skin.
By the time her heart gave out she was unrecognisable. Patches of fur vied with protruding growths of reptile skin, and around what had once been her neck was a ruff of soft pink feathers. There weren’t arms and legs any more; instead there were yellowed spidering roots. Her body looked like a tuber that had just been dug up and left on the floor for weeks. The only thing that was unchanged was her hair; startling white against the mess that she had become, it splayed out on the floor like a skein of silk that had been thrown away.
The women cut the hair and stuffed it into one of the silk cushions. They diced the remains of Fasheema and threw her of the window into the waiting sea, to be taken away by the tide. They did it quickly and with no fuss. It looked as if they had done it before.
The next day, the bell went for Fasheema. Nobody moved, or even glanced at the bell. They sat as still as sculptures, practising their attitudes of blamelessness until the man with no tongue arrived and looked over them with a blank expression. He didn’t seem to really see them at all, so they stopped posturing and went back to their quiet conversations in their strange language.
‘Hard luck, Buster, I said. ‘She’s gone. Out of the window. Away on the tide.’
Everyone stared at me. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it was nice to be the centre of attention again, if only for a moment. I’ve always been the woman everyone looks twice at, right from when I first sprouted breasts and legs of magnifique proportions. I’m not saying it won me many friends, but it did make me special. I hadn’t realised how much I missed that.
The man with no tongue smiled. Then he made a gesture that I understood. He raised one hand, extended his index finger, and waggled it back and forth. You’re a naughty minx, but I like you.
The waggle changed to a beckon, and I followed him out of the harem.
After that the bell rang three long and two short every day, and I knew I was in trouble.
It took the women three weeks of my summonings to decide they’d had enough. I returned from the man with no tongue late one afternoon, the red sunlight just crawling through the bottom corner of the window, to find them gathered in their circle, eyes cast down as if in pious contemplation. In the centre of the gathering was the silver tray, and placed upon that was one cup of syrupy black coffee.
I stepped into the circle, knelt down, and took the cup in both hands. The warmth of the coffee was soothing. I looked into the faces of the women surrounding me and felt the chill of their stares chase away that comfort.
The last hint of daylight faded. I turned my head to the window and locked eyes with two shadows.
‘We found you, Becky said. Her hair was loose and her smile was real. She was wearing a necklace of razor blades that had the Designer’s touch about it, for sure. I’d never seen her look so happy.
‘Isn’t she beautiful? the Designer said. ‘So beautiful it hurts. He craned his neck to see further into the room. ‘You could be this beautiful if you’re prepared to give up this dump and come with us.’
‘I am so bloody sorry, I said. ‘About the Stuff. About everything.’
He shrugged. ‘We got more. It set us free. Free to that place inside us. Now we’re staying
forever. Will you come too?’
I thought about it. There really didn’t seem to be anything worth staying for: not the man who would never speak to me, or the women who wanted me gone.
‘Okay, I said. I picked up the coffee cup, drained it, and floated out through the window.
And now I really have found no place on Earth.
There are others floating nearby; I think I saw Fasheema once, curled up in a pink cloud like a well-fed cat in a padded basket. But we do not talk to the others. We don’t need them. We are together.
We three who sleep amongst the stars and swim in the eternal sea. My twin, the Designer, and me.