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by Zaakira Basha
“At dawn” he said, “meet me at dawn”. Then casually he looked around. Almost too casually, it seemed, then drawing his great coat about him, he said: “Remember, go down the stairs” and disappeared into the foggy darkness. Bewildered, I stayed where I was, at the cafe across from the stairs. I felt frightened at the prospect of descending them. I had no idea what lay beyond the first few steps. I could see the yellow light glowing faintly from where I sat, the fog bringing with it an unearthly lustre.
I have no idea how long I sat there that night. Scaring myself like the very devil with ghoulish ideas of what lay beyond. The sky began to turn a deep midnight blue, how I loved that colour– but this morning, it brought me nothing but dread. I felt a fine sheen of perspiration beading upon my skin. My hands felt clammy and my stomach clenched painfully. On wobbly legs I stood and like one in a drunken stupor I staggered towards the stairway.
I considered turning around and running. I was on the verge of hysteria. I could feel it welling up inside of me, like unwanted heartburn. Then it occurred to me, where would I run to. I was quite alone in the world, with hardly a cent to my name. I was deluding myself of course. It wasn’t my lack of possessions that drew me this moment, at the cusp of a new day, to these dreaded stairs. No, it was the man in the great coat. Something compelled me to believe that he spoke truth or perhaps I allowed myself to become entranced because I so desperately wanted to believe that all was not lost. That there was hope left for me yet.
Growling ferociously at my inner coward, who now cowered like a wretch in the corner of my mind, I took the first step down. The sky had lightened considerably by now, but I was nevertheless still apprehensive about the whole business. The fog had not as yet dissipated and so everything in front of me appeared murky and sinister. Suddenly, a voice called out from below; “Quickly! You must hurry. There are but a few minutes left”. Was the voice meant for me, I wondered. “Yes! Hurry”, startled I peered down into the darkness below, yelping when I felt a large hand grab at me and yank me down the stairs. “I told you to go down the stairs”, he scolded. “You came back for me”, I said, somewhat bemused. “Of course”, he said. “Did you think that I would leave you behind?” He flashed me a quick grin, surprising me yet again. “Ready?” he asked. Then without waiting for my reply he pulled me down the rest of the stairs and pushed me into the light.
Blinking owlishly, I surreptitiously glanced around at the people standing in clumps of twos and threes upon the worn paving. Like my guide, they were all clad in either great coats or voluminous shawls. I felt glaringly out of place in my short, frayed denim jacket. “Are all these people here for the same purpose as I?” I whispered meekly to my guide. Smiling enigmatically, he beckoned me forward towards a lady, whom on drawing closer, I noticed, was selling scalding cups of fragrant coffee. “You’ll be wanting the usual then, Child” she said to the man in the great coat. I couldn’t help wondering at the familiarity between the two. He seemed to take no offence at being called a child and went so far as to smile at her fondly. The coffee lady catching me staring winked before handing over the steaming cup. Blushing I took the cup, sniffing appreciatively, I momentarily forgot my anxieties, simply glad for the comforting heat enclosed within my hands.
I felt a slight twinge of envy at the easy camaraderie between them. I always fell gauche when speaking to people. As if I was lacking and they knew it, but never mind that, my life was going to change now and so with an insouciant shrug and toss of my head, I spurned my melancholy. Warm and ruddy from the coffee and feeling slightly adventurous, I ventured away, drifting in between the clumps of people. Here and there I caught snatches of conversation, “they say she’s the best on the continent…all the way from the north…reputed to be just as beautiful as her art…”. I was intrigued. Were they talking about the Teacher that I had come to see? I had never heard these kinds of descriptions before. Yes, word about her talent was legendary but never had I heard her being described in such personal terms.
A hand suddenly fell heavily upon my shoulder and I started, turning around, I looked up guiltily into the face of the man. Was he the Teachers lover? At the thought I felt a flash of irritation which disappeared as soon as it came. “Haven’t you heard about what happens to eavesdroppers?” he said in a forbidding voice. My eyes widened at the sound, until I noticed the telltale twinkle in his dark eyes and I knew that he was teasing me. “It will be our turn soon”, he said. “Is she really as beautiful as they say?” I blurted out, silently cursing my wayward tongue. “You’ll just have to wait until you meet her to decide for yourself”, he said, smiling.
I was not an orphan. I knew very well who my parents where. I even knew where they stayed but I was not allowed to have any contact with them whatsoever. It was no fault of theirs. They had not abandoned me. I was stolen from them, when I was but a baby, by a spiteful, jealous old woman in our village. For eighteen years I had lived under the impression that my parents had given me away. I watched my brothers and sisters living their lives happily and wondered what it was that I had done to warrant my abandonment. Many years later after my meeting with the Teacher did I find out the truth and was once more reunited with my family.
So on that strange morning, in the place at the bottom of the stairs, I stood among those clumps of people who were by this time just a mere handful, most already having been admitted in to see the Teacher and quietly gone on their way, back up the stairs, their hands gloved, resting placidly at their sides. My guide had left at some stage, murmuring something about having to take care of a few pressing matters. So I stood alone, leaning against one of the pillars. There were only two people left now. A girl who looked to be around my age and an older woman, whom I assumed was her mother. I shifted uncomfortably when I saw her staring at me. I quickly dropped my gaze to my shoes, hoping that she would cease staring. Instead I heard footsteps, which echoed eerily in the now empty cavern.
“Hi”, she said. I looked up, sighing inwardly. “Are you getting married too?” she asked, her head tilted to the side. She looked like a curious little bird. I felt my lips curl up into a little smile. I wasn’t offended by her question. Given the place that we were in, it was to be expected. “No…” I said, laughing a little nervously. “I’m not getting married”. “Oh”, she said, her mouth making a perfectly round circle, “what are you here for then?” Once again I felt the urge to laugh and just as I was about to answer I heard her mother call out to her, telling her to stop harassing the poor girl and to come along as it was her turn to see the Teacher. Rolling her eyes at me, she shrugged and trudged off to meet her mother.
I was now alone and where a little while ago, the hallway seemed comforting, and it became once more an unfriendly, spooky place. I jumped at every sound I heard, the silence grating on my nerves. Why had the man left me all alone? I wondered to myself angrily. Perhaps he had abandoned me and he wasn’t going to take me to see the Teacher after all. My eyes began to prickle as I thought about the desolation that awaited me at the top of the stairs. I needed to see the Teacher! He had assured me that she would consider me as her apprentice! So busy in my angry diatribe, I didn’t notice the footsteps coming toward me until I heard a loud sniff. Looking up suddenly, I noticed a filthy man with blackened teeth in expensive looking clothing that looked several sizes too big for him, leering at me.
My heart gave a violent start and began pounding about heavily in my chest and I felt sparks of fear roiling at the pit of my stomach. I became even more aware of how quiet it was and how very alone I was at that moment. I glanced towards the stairs wondering how fast I could run to make it up there. Blackteeth, who had stopped when I noticed him, now followed my gaze to the stairs and with a malevolent smile started once more to walk towards me. I felt ill as I realised that were I to run, he would chase me and I had no doubt that despite his shoddy appearance, he would catch me.
“How much?” he slurred. “What?” I said, even though I knew very well what he meant. “Don’t play coy with me girl, I know your kind”, he said. “I have no i-idea what you’re talking about”, I said as steadily as I possibly could. He was almost a foot away from me now and judging by the thunderous expression on his face, I knew that he had begun to get angry. I was preparing myself to deliver a swift kick in the general area of his nether regions when I saw the curious girl and her mother accompanied by my dratted guide coming towards us. I nearly sighed out loud with relief. Blackteeth noticing the relief upon my face, turned around. Spying the party coming towards us, he hesitated before quickly making his way to stairway, which he ran up as fast as his; drunken, unsteady legs could carry him.
The man in the great coat was frowning as he came alone towards me, the girl and her mother having parted company at the stairs. “You should not have been standing here alone” he said, still frowning. I barely refrained from snapping at him that it was his fault that I was alone in the first place. By now I was quite desperate to see the Teacher, so instead I asked him if perhaps I was to see the teacher then. Shaking his head distractedly, he uttered “yes, yes. Come along this way” and began to lead me through one of the arches.
We walked down the passageway, our footsteps echoing along, the colourful mosaics upon the walls, contributing to a pleasant atmosphere. I could smell the wonderful scent of frankincense as we neared the door at the end of the passageway. Nodding at me, my guide beckoned for me to come forward and he pushed open the door. I smiled nervously and entered into the room… and there she sat upon a raised platform, swathed in bright, colourful loose flowing garments, antimony in her eyes, exuding an aura of mystery and every bit as beautiful as they said. Around her lay the tools of her art. Green and black paste in various glass bowls, bottles of eucalyptus and bergamot and sugar-lemon solution and the cones used to apply the paste. Glancing up, I saw a slight smile upon her lips, encouraging and yet amused. Then, lifting her painted hands towards me, she beckoned.