Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Al-Kahf (الكهف)

There once lived a man who was stolen from the sea. Rare and magnificent, he lived in his cave, rising to the surface every so often to pluck the strings of his violin for the birds before retreating into the water to play for his kin. They spent their days enthralled by the doleful songs of the man who lived in the littoral cave. But there came a day when the songs ceased and the people stopped going and the man was nowhere to be seen. His people first forgot his face. Then they forgot his voice. And then his name. Until they remembered only the sweet music he played to keep himself company in the cave day and night.

Talub experienced much in his thirty years, including heartache at the loss of others like him, rare and magnificent and stolen from the sea. Few existed, living in trenches and corals and caves, each possessing an instrument chosen in youth, forever playing a song that kept them alive—a song that was theirs to play and only theirs. Adored for their sublime skill, they were also hunted by men from the surface who sought their music’s healing properties. It was rumored that the rich notes of a horn or a few strums of an oud could cure injury and illness, but mankind could not leave rumors as rumors, nor could he forsake the opportunity to benefit.

Though friendly with most, Talub had just one close companion, Boutros, who lived out in open water near the sea floor shrouded in red sponge and algae. Sometimes Talub made his way to the sponges. Sometimes Boutros wandered into Talub’s cave. They would eat and drink and tell tales until the sun set and the moon gleamed and the water turned black like the night sky—starless. They made music and sang songs, but one evening when the moon was full and Talub yearned to play, Boutros did not show.

Talub went looking, thinking Boutros might have been by the monolith he liked so much, carving stories into limestone or deciphering hieroglyphics on the sunken tablets of the old pharaohs. It wasn’t until Talub found the riven reed of Boutros’s ney flute behind the aged anchors he collected that he realized what happened. Despite this, he visited every day and night for weeks after in hopes of finding Boutros lounging in the arms of a large statue or cross-legged in the algae fingering the ney he always played from the side of his mouth. But Boutros did not return.

• • • •

The day it happened to Talub, he threw out both arms to grab hold of the violin and bow that slipped his fingers when rough netting descended and folded around him like new skin. He held them close, and he held them tight. As he was dragged up through cold waters, splitting deep indigo with his body, he wondered what awaited him on the other side, wondered if his kindred stolen throughout the years rose to the surface as he did in that moment and if they felt the same weight in their chests.

The knotted net cinched around him, drawn up, up, up, and up until he caught a glimpse of the vermillion Mediterranean sun and rolled over the side of a purse seiner boat. Talub hit the deck hard, disoriented. When bony fingers peeled the net from his flesh and he was dropped into a wide vessel filled with briny sea water and other gunk from old netting, beneath the deck in the cargo hold, the first things he did were breathe and reach for his violin. He felt a pang in his chest instead, his instrument missing. Where had he been taken? Was there a way out? And if there was, had Boutros found it when he was stolen? Talub moved in his vessel to explore his surroundings, but dimness kept him from seeing too far ahead, and sloshing water left him muzzy.

• • • •

For hours, he clawed at his container, short squared nails against scratched glass, blood clouding before his face. Trapped and unable to see, Talub sank to the bottom of the tank, hearing the water’s surface sway and slop to the rocking of the ship, feeling the heavy steps of slick sailor boots on the deck above. Pale light beamed through warped holes in wood, illuminating moonlight hair and eyes of charcoal and skin like old copper.

Without his instrument, Talub had no chance. Without his song, he had no light. He would die in that tank—a forgotten face not unlike Boutros. On his back, he shut his eyes to die, fading, fading, fading until he was interrupted by the splash of something sinking towards him. Talub caught the violin and bow, curved and slender and the color of rusted anchors, to cradle in his arms. He crossed his legs and set the violin on the soft flesh behind his left collarbone. He pressed his jaw against the chin rest, folded his fingers around the bow, and started his song, drawing across taut strings. A somber melody rolling through dark water.

He came to a sudden pause, violin still perched on his shoulder, when he noticed someone, or something, at the top of the ladder—the silhouette of a broken man, the shell of a man—standing with a candle in his hand. The man gazed down at Talub for a moment before slipping away without a word. The light vanished, the deck hatch creaked shut, and Talub was alone again.

• • • •

The sailor lived in fractured Gaza, on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, with his wife and young son. He worked as a crew member on a middle-sized fishing boat, helping bring home what little he could from the limited fishing zone enforced by occupying forces. But it never was enough. Not to eat or to sell or to trade. And even if the sailor could sell his catch, there was always a shortage of medicines, including the kind that would cure his son.

He lived each day helpless and hopeless, until, by chance, he overheard three men at the nearby coffee shop late one night mumbling and whispering about something they should not have been mumbling and whispering about. The sailor hastened over to insert himself in the conversation. When the men eyed him and started turning away, he offered to supply them with fish free of charge for three days. They exchanged glances before continuing their mumbling and whispering, this time including the sailor.

Word had reached their ears of other beings who could heal, far off the coast beyond the fishing limit. Some men had snuck out to search for them but never returned. Whether they were drowned by the sea or shot down by the enemy, no one knew, but it was enough to keep even the desperate in place and out of the water.

“These creatures can heal, you say?” the sailor said. “Anything? They can cure anything?” His shoulders shook as he spoke.

The oldest and fattest of the men took a sip from his tiny cup, licking drops of coffee from his grey mustache.

“They’re more than creatures. Manlike. Not some animal you can catch like your fish,” he said, meeting the sailor’s eyes. “They’re, you know, other beings. Clever and wicked as they come.”

“How do they heal? Sea plants? Their tears? Blood?”

“You do not gut them like fish,” the smallest of the men said. “You cannot harm them the way they harm us.”

“What exactly are they then?”

“What else but jinn,” he said. “Sea-jinn who do not run or hide or shapeshift because they cannot be reached in the water.”

“They heal with songs.” The fat man took another sip from his cup, the last ounce of bitter coffee. “God only knows what else they’re capable of with that magic of theirs.”

The sailor pulled what information he could from the three men before heading home for the night, including when the jinn were rumored to appear and what time of day. He couldn’t catch enough fish to save his dying son, but perhaps he could catch a jinn.

• • • •

Talub pressed his toes against glass, drawing the bow back and forth, right wrist loose and quick, left hand around the neck fingering long, deep, dull notes that filled his tank, his ears, his soul until they were all that existed.

Holding a candle at the bottom of the ladder, the sailor watched the jinn in all his grandeur. Talub, still playing his song, met his gaze. The sailor approached him and placed a hand on cold glass.

“Do you know what I went through to find you?” he said, running his palm along the tank’s edge. “They said I couldn’t catch you like my fish, that you couldn’t be reached, yet here you are in a tank.”

Talub held the last note of his song for a moment longer before lowering his arms and holding the instrument to his chest. He flattened his nose against the glass.

“Is this only to prove them wrong?” Talub spoke in a honeyed voice. “Have you become a hero to your people?”

“I will be.” The sailor circled the tank, dragging his finger across it. Talub twirled in the water, following him, smoky hair around his face and shoulders like pectoral fins.

“Did you think to ask before taking what isn’t yours? Did you consider I might have given you what you wanted if only you had approached me with dignity and decorum? Do you think your wish will come true now that you have me?” Talub pressed for answers, but the sailor said nothing, still circling the tank.

“I see the way you play your instrument,” he commented after a long while of silence. He moved up to the door. “You will give me what I want.”

“And if I refuse?” Talub flared like the fish in his cave.

“I’ll snap that violin in two.”

• • • •

When he reached shore and walked across coarse sand, the sailor realized curing his son would not be so easy after all. First, the boy’s mother certainly would not let him leave the house. In the condition he was in, he couldn’t even if he wanted to. Second, if the sailor could not bring the boy to the jinn, he would have no choice but to bring the jinn to the boy, which brought challenges all its own. He did not want to draw attention to himself and the power he now possessed, but if the sailor wanted to save his son, he needed help.

He raced to the same coffee shop and called upon the same three men who sat playing cards while sipping the last drops of coffee from their cups. After promising each man five days of free fish and the jinn’s music should any of them or their loved ones fall ill, they agreed and hobbled after him to his boat. Together, the four men eased Talub’s tank onto a green plastic dolly and wheeled it off the boat. Talub threw himself against the glass, back and forth, in hopes of tipping the tank and stopping the men where they stood, but they held it down, going so far as to throw an old tarp over top to blind the jinn and avert any passersby who might’ve found a large glass tank on a squeaking dolly strange.

They pushed him across sand and wheeled him through town—heads low, gaze lower— past open shops and closed shops, past mountains of rubble and piles of garbage and billowing flags striped in red, white, black, and green, arriving at the sailor’s home in the end. His wife hurried out the front door, lifting the bottom of her olive dishdasha so as not to trip.

“Bring the boy,” the sailor told her. “I’m going to save him.” He yanked the tarp from the tank, revealing the jinn. Talub sat at the bottom, gently turning the pegs on his violin.

“To hell with them and the blockade. I can save the entire country with what I’ve found,” the sailor said. He stepped up to Talub.

“What makes you think I’ll do as you say?” the jinn asked.

“I promised to break that violin of yours.”

“You need me more than I need the violin,” Talub said, knowing in his heart he could not survive without his instrument, knowing he would never again tell tales or make music or sing songs with Boutros when the sun set and the moon gleamed and the water turned black like the night sky—starless.

“Help me,” the sailor said, “and I’ll give you anything you want.”

“Striking a deal with jinn?” Talub moved forward, pressing his forehead against glass. “I want out of this tank.”

“Cure my son. Then I’ll take you out,” the sailor said. He glanced back over his shoulder when his young son shuffled out of the house, shaking and enveloped in frazzled blankets.

“Tonight,” Talub said, eying the boy long and hard before shifting his gaze back to the sailor. The jinn spread his lips, tined teeth behind a sickening smile. “At your service.”

• • • •

Despite the sailor’s efforts to keep the jinn a secret from the rest of town, word began to spread. The men from the coffee shop had nothing to gain in telling others. His wife and son hadn’t left the front door, and they, too, had nothing to gain by telling the other sick and broken of their secret. Someone from town must have seen and followed and told. The sailor knew he had to save his son and relocate the tank soon before more found out, including the occupiers.

When night fell, the sailor, his wife, the three men from the coffee shop, and a few others who knew something was going on in that part of town surrounded the jinn, the sailor’s son at the forefront.

“No tears,” the sailor said, “I’m going to save you.” The father whispered in his child’s ear, peeling the blankets from his shoulders. He nudged him forward. “Your songs can heal,” the sailor said to Talub. “Play your song. Cure him and I’ll take you out of there.”

“Play my song, I will.” Talub sunk to the bottom, legs crossed, violin at his shoulder. He flicked his wrist once, twice, three times before pulling the bow across strings, the same dour notes in glass and water.

The growing crowd held its breath. The sailor nudged his son again, urging him to get as close as he could, to press his small palms against the tank. Talub lowered his arms not long after. The sailor jumped to his son, spinning him around.

“How do you feel? Are you cured? Did it work?” he asked, shaking him. The boy did not answer, coughing to the side instead. The sailor saw this, and he saw the yellow in his eyes and the color still absent from his face. He pushed the boy to his mother and marched to Talub.

“You said your song would cure him.” He slammed a fist against the tank.

“I said no such thing, only that I would play my song,” Talub replied, running slender fingers along violin strings.

“But your songs can heal. I heard it. They heard it.” The sailor pointed to the coffee shop men. “Men have died searching for your songs.”

“We have died just the same. Too many.” Talub turned his back. “I have one idea, though, it depends how far you’re willing to go to save him.”

“Whatever it takes.”

“He must be in the water for the song to work.” The jinn peered over his shoulder. The crowd, on edge still, faced the sailor, waiting for his next move. His wife tugged at his sleeve. How could he put their child in the water with that thing?

He grabbed her by the shoulders, reminding her it was the only chance they had left. Medicine was not coming any time soon, and if by some miracle it did, he feared the boy was too far gone at that point for saving with anything other than the song of the man from the sea.

“I’ll put him in the water then,” he said. Someone fetched a small stepladder and someone helped the boy out of his shoes and someone from the crowd prayed lā ḥawla wa lā quwwata illā billāhi ’aliyil ’azeem for all to end well. Behind his son, the sailor led him into the tank, holding his head above the water.

“All of him must be submerged. Are his ears not on his head?” Talub said. The sailor kissed his son’s forehead once for a long moment before lowering him into the water. The boy, who could not swim, thrashed his limbs about, cutting water with tiny hands. Talub eased back, propped his instrument, and began to play.

The child’s flailing lessened after the first minute. It ceased after the second. By the end of the third, the boy lay at bottom of the tank and Talub finished his song, holding the last note as he loved to do.

“My son? How is my son? Let him out.” The sailor peered in from the top of the tank. He reached in, soaking the sleeves of his tunic. Talub glanced up at him from the water, silent. The sailor leapt off the ladder and fell to his knees. He gathered himself and faced Talub. “Let him out,” he repeated. The jinn looped an arm around the dead child’s neck, lifting him from the bottom. He pressed his forehead against glass and held up the boy’s pale face. Talub slid something slender from his own waistband, keeping the sailor’s gaze. He curled long fingers tight around Boutros’s cracked ney flute, flashing the same tined teeth behind the same sickening smile.

There once lived a man who was stolen from the sea. And the sea stole back.

Beesan Odeh

Beesan Odeh

Beesan Odeh lives in Ohio and is nearing her final year of the Northeastern Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University. You can see her work in Lightspeed, Ohio’s Best Emerging Poets: An Anthology, and Jenny Magazine. You can also find her on Twitter: @Beesan_O.