A hundred years ago, the blind instrument-maker known as Alem Das, or Alem the Master, made a dulcimer whose sound was sweeter, more passionate, and more filled with longing than any instrument that had ever been made. It was carved entirely from the wood of an almond tree that had grown in the garden of Al Meseret, that palace with a thousand rooms where the Empress Nasren had chosen to spend her widowhood. The doors of the palace were shaped like moons, its windows like stars. It was a palace of night, and every night the Empress walked through its thousand rooms, wearing the veil she had worn for her wedding to the Great Khan. If the cooks, who sometimes saw her wandering through the kitchen, had not known who she was, they would have mistaken her for a ghost. The dulcimer was strung with the whiskers of the Cloud Dragon, who wreaths his body around the slopes of Mount Abora. He can always be found there in the early morning, and that is when Alem Das approached him, walking up the path on the arm of his niece Kamora.“What do you want?” asked the dragon.
“Your whiskers, luminous one,” said Alem Das.
“My whiskers! You must be that instrument maker. I’ve heard of you. You’re the reason my cousin, the River Dragon, no longer has spines along his back, and why my other cousin, the Phoenix, no longer has tail-feathers. Why should I give you my whiskers?”
“Because when I have made my dulcimer, my niece Kamora will come and play for you, and sing to you the secrets of your soul,” said Alem Das.
“We dragons have no souls,” said the Cloud Dragon, wreathing himself around and around, like a cat.
“You dragons are souls,” said Alem Das, and he asked his niece to sing one of the songs that she sang at night, to sooth the Empress Nasren. Kamora sang, and the Cloud Dragon stopped wreathing himself around and around. Instead, he lay at her feet, which disappeared into mist. When she was done, he said, “All right, instrument maker. You may have my whiskers, but on one condition. First, your niece Kamora must marry me. And when you have made your dulcimer, she must sing to me every night the secrets of my soul.”
Kamora knew how the Cloud Dragon looked at night, when he took the form of a man, so she said, “I will marry you, if my Empress allows it.” And that is my first song.
You can’t imagine how cold Boston is in winter, not for someone from a considerably warmer climate. In my apartment, I sat as close as I could to the radiator, sometimes with my back against it. The library at the university was warmer, but the chairs were wooden and hard, so it was a compromise: the comforts of my apartment, where I had to wrap my fingers around incessant cups of chamomile tea to warm them, or the warmth and discomfort of the library. I had been born in Abyssinia, which is now Ethiopia, and had been brought up in so many places that they seemed no place at all, Italy and France and Spain. Finally, I had come to cold, shining North America, where the universities, I told my mother, were the best in the world. And the best of the best universities were in Boston.
My mother was beautiful. I should say rather that she was a beauty, for to her, beauty was not a quality but a state of being. Beauty was her art, her profession. I don’t mean that she was anything as vulgar as a model, or even an actress. No, she was simply beautiful, and so life gave her what it gives the beautiful: apartments in Italy, France, and Spain, and an airplane to travel between them, and a diamond called the Robin’s Egg, because it was as big as a robin’s egg, and as blue.
“Oh, Sabra,” she would say to me, “what will we do about you? You look exactly like your father.” And it was true. In old photographs, I saw my nose, the bones of my cheeks and jaws on a man who had not needed to be handsome, because he was rich. But his riches had not saved his life. Although he could have bought his way out of the revolution, he had remained loyal to the Emperor. He had died when his airplane was shot down, with the Emperor in it, just before crossing the border. This was after the Generals had taken power and the border had been closed. My mother and I were already on our way to Italy, with the Robin’s Egg in her brassiere. “Loyalty is nothing,” my mother would say. “If your father had been more sensible, he would still be with us. Loyalty is a breath. It is not worth the ring on my finger.”
“But he had courage,” I said. “Did he not have courage?”
“Courage, of course. He was, after all, my husband. But it is better to have diamonds.”
Her beauty gave her ruthless practicality an indescribable charm.
“You are like him, Sabra. Always with your head in the clouds. When are you going to get married? When are you going to live properly?” She thought it was foolish that I insisted on living on my stipend, but she approved of my studying literature, which was a decorative discipline. “That Samuel Coleridge whose poem you read to me,” she would say, “I am convinced he must have been a handsome man.”
I insisted on providing for myself, and living in a city that was too cold for her, because it kept me from feeling the enchantment that she threw over everything around her. She was an enchantress without intention, as a spider gathers flies by instinct. One longed to be in her web. In her presence, one could not help loving her, without judgment. And I was proud of my independence, if of nothing else.
Let me sing about the marriage of Kamora and the Cloud Dragon. Among all the maidens of the Empress Nasren, there was none so clever as Kamora. She knew every song that had ever been sung, since the world was made. When she sang, she could draw the nightingales into the Empress’ garden, where they would sit on the branches of the almond trees and sing accompaniment. Each night she followed the Empress through the thousand rooms of the palace, singing her songs. Only Kamora could soothe the Empress when Nasren sank down on the courtyard stones and wept into her hands with the wild abandon of a storm.
On the night after Alem Das had visited the Cloud Dragon, Kamora said to the Empress, “Lady, whose face is as bright as the moon, there is nothing more wonderful in the world than serving you, except for marrying the one I love. And you know this is true, because you have known the delights of such a marriage.”
The Empress, who sat in a chair that Alem Das had carved for her from the horns of Leviathan, stood suddenly, so that the chair fell back, and a figure of Noah broke off from one corner. “Kamora, would you too leave me, as the Great Khan left me to wander among the stars? Some night, it may be this night, he will come back to me. But until that night, you must not leave me!” And she stared at Kamora with eyes that were apprehensive, and a little mad.
“Lady, whose eyes are as dark as the night,” said Kamora, in her most soothing voice, “you know that the Great Khan lies in his tomb on Mount Abora. You built it yourself of white marble, stone on stone, and before you placed the last stone, you kissed his lips. Do you think that your husband would leave the bed you made for him? You would not keep me from marrying the one I love.”
The Empress turned and walked, out of that room and into another, and another, and through all the thousand rooms of the palace. Kamora followed her, not singing tonight, but silent. When the Empress had reached the last room of the palace, a pantry in which the head cook kept her rose-petal jam, she said, “Very well. You may marry your Cloud Dragon. Do not look surprised that I know whom you love. I am not so insensible as all that. But first, you must complete one task for me. When you have completed it, then you may marry whom you please.”
“What is that task?” asked Kamora.
“You must find me someone who amuses me more than you do.”
It was Michael who introduced me to Coleridge. “Listen to this,” he said.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
“I can’t believe you’ve never read it before. I mean, I learned that in high school.”
“Who is this Michael Cavuto you keep talking about?” asked my mother over the telephone. “Where does he come from?”
“Ohio,” I said.
She was as silent as though I had said, “The surface of the moon.”
We were teaching assistants together, for a class on the Romantics. We read sentences to each other from our students’ papers. “A nightingale is a bird that comes out at night to which Keats has written an ode.” “William and his wife Dorothy lived together for many years until she died and left him lamenting.” “Coleridge smoked a lot of opium, which explains a lot.” We laughed, and marked our papers together, and one day, when we were both sitting in the library, making up essay questions for the final exam, we started talking about our families.
“Yours is much more interesting than mine,” he told me. “I’d like to meet your mother.”
You never will, I told myself. I liked him, with his spiky hair that stood up although he was always trying to gel it down, the angular bones that made him look graceless, as though his joints were not quite knit together, and his humor. I did not want him, too, to fall hopelessly in love. For goodness’ sake, the woman was fifty-four. She was in Italy again, with a British rock star. He was twenty-seven. They had been together for two years. I could tell that she was already beginning to get bored.
“There’s no one like Coleridge,” Michael had said. “You’ll see.”
I have told you that Kamora was clever. Listen to how clever she was. She said to the Empress, “I will bring you what you ask for, but you must give me a month to find it, and a knapsack filled with bread and cheese and dried apricots, and a jar of honey.”
“Very well,” said the Empress. “You shall have all these things, although I will miss you, Kamora. But at the end of that month you will return to me, won’t you?”
“If at the end of that month I have not found someone who amuses you more than I do, then I will return to you, and remain with you as long as you wish,” said Kamora.
The Empress said, “Now I can sleep, because I know you will remain with me forever.”
The next day, Kamora put her knapsack on her back. “I wish you luck, I do,” said the head cook. “It can’t be easy, spending every night with Her Craziness upstairs. Though why you would want to marry a dragon is beyond me.”
Kamora smiled but did not answer. Then she turned and walked through the palace gates, chewing a dried apricot.
First, Kamora went to the house of her uncle Alem Das, which was built against the wall that surrounded the palace. She found him sitting on the stone floor, carving a bird for the youngest daughter of the River Dragon. When you wound it with a key, it could sing by itself. “Uncle,” she said, “They call me clever, but I know that you are more clever than I am. You talked the horns off Leviathan, and once Bilkis, the sun herself, gave you three of her shining hairs. Who can amuse the Empress more than I can?”
Alem Das sat and thought. Kamora was his favorite niece, and he did not want to disappoint her. “You might bring her the Laughing Hound, who dances on his hind legs, and rides a donkey, and tells jokes all day long, or the Tree of Tales, whose leaves whisper all the secrets that men do not wish to reveal. But she would eventually tire of these. You, my dear, can sing all the songs that were ever sung. If she tires of a song, you can sing her another. If she is sad, you can comb her hair with the comb I gave you for your fourteenth birthday, and cover her with a blanket, and sit by her until she has fallen asleep. It will be difficult to find anyone as amusing as you are.”
Kamora sighed. “I hoped that you could help me. Oh, uncle,” and for the first time she did not sound perfectly confident, “I do love him, you know.”
“I’m not clever enough to help you,” said Alem Das, “but I know who is. Kamora, I will tell you a secret. If you climb to the top of Mount Abora, even higher than the Cloud Dragon, you will find the Stone Woman. She is the oldest of all things, and I think she will be able to help you. But you must tell no one where she lives, and allow no one to follow you, because she values her privacy. If it grows dark, take out the tail-feather of the Phoenix, which I gave you for your twelfth birthday. It will light your way up the mountain.”
Kamora said, “But uncle, why should the Stone Woman help me?”
“Take this drum,” said Alem Das. “I made it from the skin that the Sea Serpent sheds once a year. The Stone Woman is old, and the old always like a present.”
“Thank you, uncle,” said Kamora, kissing him on both cheeks. “There truly is no one in the world as clever as you.”
Kamora walked through the village, chewing a dried apricot. She walked over the hills, to the foot of Mount Abora. At the foot of the mountain, where the climb begins in earnest, she picked a handful of lilies, which grow by the streams that flow down the mountain to become the Alph. She left them at the tomb of the Great Khan, who had given her sugared almonds when she was a girl. Then she began to climb the path up the mountain. Halfway up, Kamora ate her lunch, bread and cheese and dried apricots. She washed her hands in one of the streams, put her knapsack on her back, and continued to climb. Near the top, she stopped to see the Cloud Dragon and tell him the Empress’ condition.
“Well, good luck to you,” he said. “If you were anyone else, I would be certain that you would fail, but I’ve been told that you’re almost as clever as your uncle.”
“I will not fail,” said Kamora, and she gave him a look that made him break into puffs that flew every which way over the mountain. And this is the woman I’m going to marry, he thought. What have I gotten myself into?
In his house by the palace wall, Alem Das thought about his niece and smiled. He said to himself, “Sometimes she is too clever, that girl. First she asked for one of the Phoenix’s tail-feathers, then for a comb carved from the shell of the Great Turtle. And now I’ve given her my drum. Does she really think she’s tricked me? Oh, Kamora! It’s certainly time you got married.”
I’m not sure when we started dating. There was a gradual progression between friend and boyfriend. We were comfortable together, we seemed to fit together like two pieces of a puzzle. But a puzzle that showed what picture? I did not know.
It was a Friday. I remember because we had just turned back a set of graded papers. I was still taking classes, and for my own class on the Romantics, taught by the same professor for whom I was TAing, I had decided to write a final paper on Coleridge. This will be easy, I thought. Michael and I have talked about him so often.
I was in my apartment. It was cold. It felt like a cave of ice.
And suddenly, I was there.
The Kubla Khan of Coleridge’s poem is not the historical Kubla Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty, and Xanadu is not Shangdu. Both are dreams or hallucinations. Indeed, if we examine Coleridge’s description of the palace itself, we notice that it does not make sense. Here, the river Alph, fed by the streams that flow down Mount Abora, does something strange: It disappears into a series of fissures in the ground, flowing through them until it comes to an underground lake. Coleridge’s identification of this lake as a “sunless sea” or “lifeless ocean” is certainly poetic exaggeration, as my experience will show. The palace itself is situated where the river disappears, so that seen from one side, it seems to sit on the river itself. Seen from the other, it is surrounded by an extensive garden, where the Khan has collected specimens from all the fantastical countries, plants from lost Atlantis and Hyperborea and Thule. The palace is built of stone, and rises out of the stone beneath it, so that an outcropping will suddenly turn into a wall. Although Coleridge describes “caves of ice,” this is again a poetic exaggeration. He means that since the palace is built of stone, even in summer the rooms are cold, so cold. I was always cold in that palace, as long as I was there.
It was empty. There were silk cushions on the floor, embroidered with dragons and orange trees, but no one to sit on them. There were tables inlaid with tulips and gazelles and chessboards, but no one to play. The curtains that hung in the doorways, filtering the sunlight, rose and fell with the breath of the river. But there was no other breath, and no noise other than a ceaseless rushing as the river swept through the caves below. As I walked, my steps sounded hollow, and I knew that the floors hung over rushing water and empty space. As an architectural feat, the Khan’s palace is impossible.
There was water everywhere, in pools where ornamental fish swam, dappled white and orange and black, and basins in which the inhabitants, if there were any, would have washed their hands. The air had the clean, curiously empty smell of sunlight and water.
“I have looked. There is no one but ourselves.”
He was dressed as you might expect, in breeches and a waistcoat over a linen shirt that seemed too large for him. He had thick brown hair and a thin, inquisitive face, and his hands moved nervously. The young poet, already an addict.
I was not sure how to respond. “Have you been here long?”
“Several hours, and I confess that I’m beginning to feel hungry. Surely there is a kitchen? Shall we attempt to find it?”
The kitchen was empty as well, but the pantry was full. We ate sugared almonds, and a sweet cheese studded with raisins, and dried fish that was better than it looked. We drank a wine that tasted like honey.
“Sabra is a pretty name,” he said. “Mine is Samuel, not so pretty, you see, but then I’m not as pretty as you.” He wiped the corner of his mouth with a handkerchief. “Here we are, Samuel and Sabra, in the palace of the Khan. Where is the Khan, I wonder? Is he out hunting, or in another of his palaces? Perhaps when he returns he will execute us for being here. Have you thought of that, Sabra? We are, after all, trespassers.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t feel like a trespasser. And anyway, he isn’t here now.”
“That is true,” he said. “Would you like the last of the almonds? I’ve never much cared for almonds.” He leaned back against a cushion, his hair spread out over an apricot tree in bloom, with a phoenix in its boughs. “Will you sing to me, Sabra? I am tired, and I feel that I have been speaking inanities. There is an instrument, on that table. Can you play it, do you think?”
“Yes,” I said, and picked up the instrument: a dulcimer. While my friends in school were at soccer practice, I was learning to play the dulcimer. It was another of my mother’s charming impracticalities.
“Then sing me something, won’t you, pretty Sabra? I’m so tired, and my head aches, I don’t know why.”
So I put away the last of the sugared almonds, picked up the dulcimer, and began to sing.
Kamora could feel blisters forming where her sandals rubbed against her feet, but she climbed steadily. It was late afternoon, and the sun was already sinking into the west, when she reached the summit. The Stone Woman was waiting for her. She was wrapped in a gray shawl and hunched over with age, so that she looked like a part of the mountain itself.
“Back again, are you? And did you ever find your own true love, the one whose face you saw in my mirror?”
“I found him, lady who is wiser than the stars,” said Kamora. “But now I have to win him.”
“None of your flattery for me, girl,” said the Stone Woman. “I know exactly how wise I am. What are you going to give me for my help?”
Kamora took the drum out of her knapsack.
The Stone Woman looked at it appreciatively. “Ah, this is better than that other stuff you gave me. Although the tail-feather of the Phoenix, which you gave me for teaching you all the songs that have ever been sung, burns all night long, so I can weave my tapestries. And every morning I use the comb made from the shell of the Great Turtle, which you gave me for showing you the Cloud Dragon in my mirror, and my hair never tangles.” She ran one hand over her braid of gray hair, which was so long that it touched the ground. “But this!” She tapped the drum once with her finger, and Kamora heard a reverberation, not only from the drum itself, but from the stones around her, the scrubby cedars, bent by the wind, and even the air. It seemed to echo over the forested slopes of the mountain, and the hills below, on which she could see the tomb of the Great Khan, as white as the rising moon, and the plains stretching away into the distance.
“What is it?” asked Kamora.
“You uncle didn’t tell you? That sound is the beat of the world, which governs everything, even the beating of your heart, and on this drum I can play it slower or faster, more sadly or more joyfully. No one can make an instrument like your uncle Alem, but I think this is his masterpiece. No wonder he wanted you to bring it to me. I’m the only one in whose hands it is perfectly safe. Think, girl, what would a man do who could alter the beat of the world? And by getting you to carry it, he saved himself a trip up the mountain! He is a clever man, your uncle. Now, it’s dinnertime, and I’m hungry. Have you brought me any food?”
Kamora took out the honey, of which she knew the Stone Woman was inordinately fond.
“Good girl. Well, come inside, then, and tell me what you want this time.”
The walls of the Stone Woman’s cave were covered with tapestries. On one you could see the creation of the world by Lilit, and her marriage to the Sea Serpent, in which she wore a veil of stars. On another you could see the flood that resulted from their thrashing when they lay together, so that many of the first creatures she had created, the great dragons with horns like Leviathan’s and eyes like rubies and emeralds, and the great turtles that carried mountains and even small lakes on their backs, were drowned. The whole history of the world was there, and on a panel that Kamora had not seen before, she saw Mount Abora, and the marriage of the Empress Nasren, the oldest daughter of the River Dragon, to the Great Khan, with the apricot trees on the mountain blooming around them.
The Stone Woman sat on a cushion and opened the honey-pot. She dipped a wooden spoon into it, tasted the honey, and licked her lips. “Very good, very good. Well, what do you want this time?”
Kamora knew that it was time to be, not clever, but direct. “The Empress, whose hands move like doves, will not let me marry until I have brought her someone who amuses her more than I do.”
“So that’s how it is,” said the Stone Woman. “You can’t marry your Cloud Dragon until she lets you, and she won’t let you until she has found a substitute. You have been too clever, Kamora. When you asked me to teach you all the songs that have ever been sung, so the Empress would choose you as one of her maidens, to serve her and live in the palace, did you consider that she might want to keep you forever? Getting what you wish for isn’t always a good thing, you know.”
“If I had not learned all the songs that have ever been sung,” said Kamora, “the Cloud Dragon would not have wanted to marry me. And I love him, I can’t help loving him, since I saw how he looks at night, when he is a man. Perhaps I should not have looked in your mirror and asked to see my own true love, but when I saw how happy the Empress was with the Great Khan . . .” A tear slid down her cheek, and she wiped it away with her hand.
“Ah, clever Kamora! So you wanted to love and be loved. You have a heart after all,” said the Stone Woman. “Just remember that cleverness is not enough to keep a husband, not even the Cloud Dragon, who is less clever than you are. You must show him your heart as well. I warned him about choosing such a clever wife! But how do you expect me to help you?”
Kamora said, “I thought about that, when I walked through the thousand rooms of the palace at night with the Empress. What is more amusing than a person who knows all the songs that have ever been sung? Only a person who can create new songs. Only a poet.”
“If you know the answer yourself,” said the Stone Woman, “why do you need me?”
“Because I need you to make me a poet. Not one of those poets who sit in the marketplace, selling rhymes so that soldiers, and anyone with a silver coin, can sing them to the Empress’ maidens—out of tune! I need a true poet, who can write what has never been sung before.”
“A poet?” asked the Stone Woman. “And how to you expect me to make you a poet?”
“In the same way you made the world, Lilit.”
Kamora and the Stone Woman stared at each other. Finally the Stone Woman said, “You are as clever as your uncle. How did you know who I am?”
Kamora smiled. “Who else would know all the songs that have ever been sung? Who else would keep the Mirror of Truth in a cave on Mount Abora? And when the Great Khan was laid in his tomb, the Empress put honey on his lips so you would kiss them when he entered the land of the dead. Even songs from the making of the world mention how fond you are of honey. You have created the Sea Serpent, the Lion of the Sun who carries Bilkis on his back, and whose walk across the sky warms the earth, the Silver Stag who summons men to the land of the dead . . . Only you can make a poet.”
“Very well,” said the Stone Woman. “I will make you a poet, Kamora. But only because I like you. And this is my wedding gift, and the last thing I will do for you. You have had two gifts from me already, and three is enough for anyone.” She stood and considered. “But I haven’t made a poet for a long time. I wonder if I remember how?”
Have you seen the stone caves beneath the palace of Kubla Khan, called the Lesser Khan because for all his palaces, he could not match the conquests of his grandfather, the Great Khan? Where the stone is thin, it is translucent, so that the caves are filled with a strange, ghostly light. In the dark water, which is still and no longer rushing, since the river has mingled into the underground lake, there are luminescent fish. When they swim to the surface, they shine like moving stars.
Samuel took off his breeches and swam in the dark water, in just his shirt. I sat on the bank, striking the dulcimer, thinking of songs that he might like. He floated on his back, his hair spreading around his face like seaweed.
“There seems to be no time here,” he said. “At home, I was expecting a person from Porlock. But here, I feel that no person from Porlock will ever come. Time has stopped, and nothing will ever happen. Except that you will keep singing, Sabra. You will keep singing, won’t you? Sing to me about how the Stone Woman made a poet.” But I did not finish my song, then.
Later, we walked in the garden that surrounded the palace.
“They go on for ten miles,” I said.
“How do you know that?” he asked, but I did not answer. It was hot, even in the shade of the almond trees, and the roses, which had been transported at great expense from Nineveh, were releasing their fragrance into the evening. “I think I could stay here forever,” he said. “Forget my damned debts. Forget my . . . marriage. Never write again, never write anything else. I’m no good at it anyway. I never finish anything.”
“That’s not what Lilit said, when she made you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Lilit created the poet out of clay. Kamora watched her mold the figure, the height and shape of a man. It was late now. Outside, the moon had risen, and it shone in through the opening of the cave, its pale light meeting the light of the Phoenix’s tail-feather. Kamora sat on the floor and watched, but she was so tired that her eyes kept closing, and somehow, between one blink of her eyes and another, the man was complete. He was tall, well-formed, and gray, the color of the clay at the bottom of the river Alph. His mouth was open, as though already speaking a poem.
“‘Now we must awaken him,’ said Lilit. ‘I will walk around him three times one way, and you must walk around him three times the other. Then I will spread honey on his lips, and you must put honey into his mouth, so that his words will be both nourishing and sweet.’
“Kamora rose. She was so tired that she stumbled as she walked, but three times she stumbled around the poet, and when she had done so, she took the jar from Lilit and put honey into the poet’s open mouth.
“‘There,’ said Lilit. ‘And I really think that this time I have outdone myself. He will be the greatest poet that ever lived, and every night he will write a poem that has never been heard before for the Empress Nasren. He will be like the river Alph, endlessly replenished by the streams that flow down Mount Abora.’ The poet was no longer the color of clay. Now he had brown hair hanging down to his shoulders, and his skin was as white as milk and covered, irregularly, with brown hair. Lilit took off her gray shawl and wrapped it around his hipbones. ‘Speak, poet. Give us the gift of your first poem.’
“The poet turned to her and said,
‘A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.’
“‘That’s enough for now,’ said Lilit. ‘You see, Kamora, your poet works. Now take him to your Empress, and marry your Cloud Dragon. But don’t visit me again, because the next time you come I won’t be here.’”
“And was he the greatest poet that ever lived?” asked Samuel. We were sitting on the riverbank, where the Alph begins to disappear into the fissures below, surrounded by the scent of roses. The sun was setting, and the walls of the palace had changed from white to gold, and then to indigo. I could not see his face, but his voice sounded sad.
“He was, in the palace of the Empress Nasren,” I said. “He wrote a different poem for her every night, and she gathered scribes around her to make copies so they could be taken to every village. They were set to music, as poems were in those days, and sung at every village fair. And when her ambassadors traveled to other countries, they carried the volumes of his poems, fourteen of them, the number of the constellations, on the back of a white elephant, so they could be presented to foreign sultans and caliphs and tzars.”
“But elsewhere, in the country of daffodils and mutton and rain? Because I think, Sabra, that you come from outside this dream, as I do.”
“In that country, he was a poet who could not finish his poems, and who, for many years, did not write poems at all. How could he, when every night in the palace of the Empress, he wrote a new poem entirely for her? What was left over, after that?”
“Perhaps. Yes, perhaps that is true.”
We heard it then: lightning, crashing over the palace, turning the walls again from indigo to white. Once, twice, three times.
“He has come,” said Samuel. “He has come, the person from Porlock.” And then suddenly, he was gone.
I was staring at my computer screen, on which I had written, “The Kubla Khan of Coleridge’s poem is not the historical Kubla Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty, and Xanadu is not Shangdu.”
Again, I heard three knocks on the apartment door. “Sabra, are you there? It’s Michael.”
I rose, and went to open the door. “You people!” I said, as Michael walked in, carrying two bags of groceries.
“What do you mean?” he asked, startled.
“You people from Porlock, always interrupting.”
He kissed me and put the bags he had been carrying on the table. “I was thinking of making a curry, but—you’ve had better curry than I can make. Are you going to laugh at my curry?”
“I would never laugh at your curry.”
He began unpacking the grocery bags. “So, what were you thinking about so hard that you didn’t hear me knock?”
“Coleridge. About how he never finished anything. And about how I’m not sure I want to finish this PhD. Michael, what would you think if I became a writer?”
“Fine by me, as long as you become famous—and rich, so you can keep me in a style to which I am not accustomed.”
Later, after dinner, which was not as disastrous as I had expected, I called my mother. “Nasren Makeda, please.”
“Just a moment. Madame Makeda, it’s your daughter.”
“Sabra! How good it is to hear your voice. I’m in Vienna with Ronnie. Darling, I’m so bored. Won’t you come visit your poor mother? You can’t imagine these rock and roll people. They have no culture whatsoever. One can’t talk to them about anything.”
“Mom, I’d like you to come to Boston and meet Michael.”
“The one from Ohio? Oh, Sabra. Well, I suppose we can’t control whom we fall in love with. It was like that with your father. He was the only man I ever loved, and yet he was shorter than I am by three inches, and that nose—such a pity you inherited it, although you have my ears, thank goodness. But I tell you the truth, I would have married him even if he had not been rich. He was that sort of man. So, I will come and meet your Michael. I can fly over in Ronnie’s plane. Is there a month when Boston is warm? I can come then.”
Perhaps he would fall in love with her. But sometimes one has to take chances.
For Kamora’s marriage to the Cloud Dragon, the Empress’ poet Samuel wrote a new poem, one that no one had heard before. It began,
Do you ask what the birds say? The sparrow, the dove,
The linnet and thrush say, “I love and I love.”
Alem Das himself sang it, playing a dulcimer strung with the whiskers of the Cloud Dragon, whose sound was sweeter, more passionate, and more filled with longing than any instrument that had ever been made. When he was finished, the Empress Nasren clapped, and Kamora, in the Empress’ wedding veil, turned to her husband and blushed.
Later that night, in the cave of the Cloud Dragon, he said to her, “It may be that you are too clever to be my wife.”
She stroked his silver hair and looked with wonder at his pale shoulders, shy for once before his human form. “And perhaps you are too beautiful to be my husband.”
“Then we are well-matched,” he said, “for together there is none in the world more clever or more beautiful than we. And now, my clever wife, are you going to kiss your husband?”
That night, the top of Mount Abora was wreathed in clouds. The Empress Nasren saw it as she walked in the garden of her palace, and she told blind Alem Das, who was walking with her. “Did you know, my friend, that it would end like this?” she asked.
Alem Das laughed in the darkness. “I suspected, from the moment Kamora insisted that my dulcimer should be strung with the whiskers of the Cloud Dragon. She always was a clever girl, although not as clever, I like to think, as her uncle.”
“So, your niece is happy,” said the Empress. “It is good that she is happy, although we who are old, Alem, know that happiness is fleeting.” And she sighed her soft, mad sigh.
“Yes, lady,” said Alem Das. “But tonight your roses are blooming, and I can hear the splashing of fountains. Somewhere inside the palace, your poet is reciting to the wedding guests, who are drunk on honey wine. And we who are old can remember what it was like to be young and foolish and happy, and be content.” And they walked on in the moonlight, the instrument-maker and the Empress.
© 2006 by Theodora Goss.
Originally published in Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories,
edited by John Klima.
Reprinted by permission of the author.