“We’re not history; we’re not even myth. We’re apocryphal.”
The Palestinians… The archives are emptied of her people. The university library has a lived-in sort of smell that makes itself so ubiquitous that it hardly registers as a smell anymore. Miri walks alone through the stacks, row after row of portals to worlds more wondrous than her own, searching for the one that will take her home. Somewhere among these spines there must be a key. There’s plenty of the Brothers Grimm, Andrew Lang, La Fontaine, and W.B. Yeats. There’re books on the morphology of magic, of the tale dissected and categorized.
A large, old book catches her eye; the Arabian Nights looks back at her. She knows what is written near the opening of that book: “The older daughter, Shahrazad, had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by heart, had studied historical reports, and was acquainted with the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined. She had read and learned.” Miri lets an elegant hand rest on the spine where Burton is stamped in gold on red book cloth. She shakes her head, glossy black curls freeing themselves from her jacket. Wrong translation.
The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night is a chimera but she can get no closer; colonialism has done such a thorough job of erasing them all. All that remains are fragments. A name, transposed memories from a ten-year-old’s brain seen through the tangle of trauma, an inheritance of sorts. There was a tale of a professor of signs. She closes her eyes but it comes to her like a tune on a scratched record, a blurred image whizzing by in a storm. Something about the unlearned overcoming the pride of the scholar… Religion… An apple for lunch taken to mean the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Fingers. One? Two? Three, surely…for the Trinity. The characters sit: the Muslim and the Pope, before her father. Under the grape arbor of her backyard they hold a silent debate. She remembers laughing then. She was a child too.
But she knows of another archive. At home, she rummages through the attic closet past the rolled-up tapestry of the famous lovers Antar the valiant and Abla the fair, the warrior-poet and his beloved. The Black Antar astride his dark stallion easily bounds over the stream with the White Abla on his lap. Their pursuers trail behind them in the darkness, unable to keep pace with the lovers. She always thought of her parents: the dark Muslim, the White Christian. A romantic thought woven in rayon threads she loved to run her hands through, like a silky soft carpet under her fingers.
She finds the archive she seeks: a dress. She unzips the translucent plastic cover and looks at it for a long time, memorizing it, deconstructing it. It’s a thobe: a Palestinian dress. Each type of thobe a genre, each dress an anthology. It is a plain white cotton cloth. The embroidery is a mid-tone blue like the sky at its zenith. Birds and vines run down the sleeves, the sides of the skirt, across the chest and across the hemline. Olive clusters burst out fanning the sleeves. Cross-stitched tatreez embroidery from the holy land, made by an aunt perhaps, her hands wrinkled and brown, a testament of a life’s worth of patience. It speaks of skill, cups of mint tea, and cool evenings on rooftops overlooking mountains.
It is forbidden to try on the dress. She tries on the dress. It’s a little too tight for her. Made without measurements she wonders that she could get into it at all. But dresses are made to be worn and embroidery is meant to be read. She sits herself down at the window. Its white lace curtain blows so gently, the sun glowing on its edges, caught by the fine threads of cotton. A fresh breeze blows through the room, carrying away the cobwebs of her mind.
She closes her eyes. The photograph of her grandmother is before her now. She is dressed in a velvet and silk thobe, a style known as the Royal Dress of Bethlehem. The chest panel is covered in couching stitches in spirals known as the Key to the Heart pattern—Tahiri embroidery. Along her sleeves are the simple geometric patterns called Watches although they are far older than the pocket watches they resemble.
Drums pulse in her ears. Miri walks to the spring of the vineyard, the well that is haunted by the Virgin, and climbs down into its tunnel leading into the hills of Jerusalem. She emerges in a grotto, lilies supporting her as she walks across the waters. There are signs. She reads them; words in languages she doesn’t know are carved overhead into the stone of an archway through which the spring waters flow. She reaches out her arms and the embroidered figures in blue transform into indigo and red. On the horizon, a maiden rises and sets like the sun, gliding red across the skies—a stained-glass orrery, some medieval wonder wrought by nature’s artisans.
A voice gentle as a whisper says: “There was and there was not…in the oldness of time…there was and there was not…in the oldness of time…” It is an incessant backdrop, merging into the beating of the drums that carry her along like unseen angels.
“I don’t understand,” she says into the impossible place. Her voice sounds clear and strong. She knows that she is dreaming. She hasn’t fallen asleep; it is an inbetweenity she finds fascinating. She pushes her mind into the corners and analyzes what she is experiencing as if she would report back on it. Her mind is full and sharp, a catalogue of the wonders that spring to life before her closed eyes. Her soul does not sleep but paints and sculpts this world of wonders.
The physics of the place are drawn from her own subconscious mind. It moulds itself in response to her movement through it, around it in time and space. As time goes on, marked by the rushing of the maiden-dawn, Miri travels on. Day and night become blurred into an always-half-light haze of pinks and blues. The dreamer grows light. Miri floats and flies. Below stretches a continent of animals and trees, an uninhabited paradise that never was. She glides along the tree-tops as if she belongs there.
A true paradise opens out before her of shining fountains and broad-leafed trees, the light music of the waters and the birds. Humanity has never been here and yet here stands a palace just for her pleasure. An entire library of towering shelves all filled with books of every description surrounds her. It is a wholeness. She knows that these books are portals into other realms, all accessible through this vision.
The dreamer doesn’t want to wake from this fantastic realm, as real as any world to her in this wakefulness open to all possibilities. It is unclear if she could ever find her way back to the impossible place that is nowhere and at no time, a subjective eternity just for her. Miri lingers in a courtyard rimmed by a peristyle centred on a deep and lovely pool. More lilies float upon the waters. Somewhere, an owl fluffs its wings and settles on its perch. It is all hers, this fortress of bliss on a mountain peak so high she can no longer see the world below.
She opens her eyes, waking to the world around her: the house she shares with her mother. Looking down, she examines the dress that is the plain and sensible white cotton it always was. The cotton thread embroidery is no longer so vibrantly hued. The birds, vines, and olives are just as they used to be. She runs her hands gently over the threads. She sighs, refreshed and thankful for the journey. Reverently, she puts the dress back in its cover and slides it into the closet.
She walks back to her bedroom and sits down on the bed. She finds the notebook on her shelf and takes it out from between bright books of ancient lore. She opens it up and lays it on her knees. Here there was the space, here she had the time.
She remembers how Margaret Atwood once said that writing was about negotiating with the dead, and bringing something back, like so many faceless heroes who have come and gone before. Has she been to the realm of the dead? But she will bring back what she can preserve. She will gather up the emptied, the fragmented, and the lost. It is all there inside the library, all there inside of her.
Miri picks up her pen and writes.
Story copyright © 2020 by Sonia Sulaiman
Artwork copyright © 2020 by Kat Weaver
Sonia Sulaiman is a storyteller and poet from Windsor, Canada. Her work has appeared in Uppercuts, Whiskey Sour City by Black Moss Press, and Stone, Root, and Bone by Hagstone Press. Her reviews have appeared in The Future Fire. She is currently working on a collection of short stories inspired by Palestinian folktales. She is a proud member of the Writers’ Union of Canada.
Kat Weaver is an artist who sometimes writes and a writer who sometimes makes art. She has previously published written work in Luna Station Quarterly, Timeworn Literary Journal, Lackington’s, and elsewhere. In addition to previous issues of Lackington’s, her illustrations can be found in Metaphorosis, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows anthology, and Crossed Genres: Hidden Youth. She lives in Minneapolis with her wife and their two birds.