Short Story

Poison

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“Once upon a time…”

Wait. Too dramatic, too cliché. It is a comfortable way to start, as easy to note as a lullaby. But this is not a song.

“There once was…”

Hmm. No. While stories are meant to be recognized, they are not meant to be predictable. Rather, they ought to be shaped into their own pieces, despite being of the same clay.

Let me try again, let me break the mold! The third time is the charm, after all, and this does deal with a bit of magic. Ahem… 

Today is the fifth day of the fifth month, and it could be the date of my janazah.

Packs quite the punch, no? Remarkable, one could say, not merely recognizable! And a death by five animals, no less!

So we have repetition, now, another literary device. Alas, this repetition may be pleasant to read, but not to experience. And neither is irony. And yet it was all around me.

But this is not a literature lesson. This is an autobiography. Bismillah. I will tell it now.

***

The Dragon Boat Festival—a time of great mirth and merriment that quickly became one of death and detriment. Young children clutched bamboo leaves stuffed with zòngzi, sticky rice, with painted faces. Performers stretched their colorful, long sleeves as they danced, reciting ancient poetry to a modern melody. Entertainers beat the drums, unintentionally foreshadowing the weight of my task.

All of this, before I was to take a final stand! But I took no offense. Only a breath.

“I seek refuge in the Lord of the daybreak—”

I darted past them all, whispering Surah al-Falaq. Suddenly, the music around me vanished, and I could focus on the sacred words.

“from the evil of whatever He has created,”

Ahead of me, the racers took their places. Clay dragons at the boats’ masts reflected their grins on the West Lake. I frowned. Must the literature lesson continue? Death now had humor! And life was a jester, taunting me!

“and from the evil of the night when it grows dark,”

It was nearly noon, bright enough for everyone to see the horror about to come. Not just humans, either, because we know that the jinn love a show. But I could not allow them to host one.

“and from the evil of those who blow onto knots,”

Herb sachets bumped against me, as well as their sellers, but I paid both no mind. Their owners swore protection by them, urging me to stop and purchase one. But I knew better, by the One who swore by His own book.

“and from the evil of an envier when they envy.”

I hopped into the front of the boat in the guise of a young man; a long ceremonial shirt and loose pants. My long hair was braided and let down in as much of a queue as I could manage. I had not shaved the front part of my head, hoping my age would present an excuse. And as I was young, facial hair was not to be expected.

“Quickly, quickly!” I chanted in as deep a voice as I could manage. … Which, by all accounts, was not much. The grown men grinned. Some laughed, which was annoying. But many of them were delighted with the change, and believed that I meant well. I must have been part of the show, they thought. They heaved, pushing their oars back, then forward. Rowing, slowly.

Ugh. Even on water, one had to deal with traffic!

The West Lake became an ocean. With all of the boats competing, it was as though we were in a typhoon with numerous tides, generating our own storm. Other performers, willow shooters and kite flyers, awaited on scattered bamboo platforms. But the one I eyed was not too far away. 

Centered on it was a boy dressed in costume from the Warring States period. To me, it is not an act—I am desperately trying to save him, and not the character he plays.

His hands were outstretched grandly, but his eyes were downcast with a grief that no one should ever have to bear. On his back, a bow clunking against arrows. At his side, a firework display ready to be lit.

I looked away from him for only a moment. Frantically, I began directing the rowers to careen our boat into the platform. They looked at each other, confused. I urged them further. And when my mouth did not achieve anything, my palms reached for one of the oars. That gave them the picture; and actions always speak louder than words.

We slithered closer and closer to the platform, but my heart only began to sink further. A crow cast its shadow above me. Then, it cawed, perching on the boy’s shoulder.

I gasped. No time left! Without another thought, I leapt from the bow of the boat and tumbled in front of them. 

The boy widened his eyes in fear, and a bit of—surprise? Well, at least it was not malice! The jinn had not reached him yet!

I cleared my throat and cried out, “Have you forgotten?!

A pause. “F-Forgotten… what?” he asked. The crow on his shoulder ruffled its wings, impatient. 

Get on with it, I imagined it saying.

Oh, I will, my thoughts returned silently.

The eyes of the boy pleaded more than his voice did. But I knew that he was afraid. “Ji—”

I interrupted him before he could say my name. “The Five Poisons!

The crowd began to hush itself in complete silence. All dragon boats stopped, sunbathing instead on the lake. We were being watched by every human in Hángzhōu. And perhaps by the unseen, as well.

He had no choice but to go along. “And… what are they?”

“They are the stuff of legend!” I boomed. “Those creatures which can kill with only one bite! Only one sting! They spelled death for so many of us. But no longer!

Those who remembered those dark days cheer. The others watched my performance in curiosity. I must admit, I relished in the attention, and did not give my friend the opportunity to interject.

“Today will be a reminder that all evil, in any form, can be thwarted. Starting from the first of forms that it can take, the crow—

As if on cue, it leapt for me before I could finish.

***

One remembers strange things in the moments leading up to their death. 

There are a few flashes, foremost. The excitement of my father, as he told my mother that we would be moving to Hángzhōu from our landlocked village. 

“The Phoenix Mosque!” he exclaimed breathlessly. He was one of many engravers commissioned to embellish rich poetry on its structure. I nearly jumped at the opportunity to be there. He knew how much I loved poetry. To this day, my parents even assert that my first spoken words were neither Mama nor Baba, but rather, babbling sentences that were my first set of couplets. Even our Prophet ﷺ praised poetry. How can I, a messenger of that Messenger, not?

Another flash. The pang of loneliness I felt as I watched the men work from far away. No one was allowed to observe them for too long, and many of them did not have daughters for me to play with. It was summer, and school did not start yet. 

I tried to busy myself with Mama. When the memories swam around me, I heard scrubbing sounds of brush against wood, the scent of the groceries I fetched from across the lake, and the taste of the recipes I learned. I thought—my father could not have beautified the mosque if my mother had not beautified the home.

The last flash: the day I stopped going to the West Lake to buy ingredients, or to bring Baba his lunch. That was the day I went for myself.

I was in search of ink, a brush, and parchment of my own. I thought that my words may never make it to the edges of buildings, but the pages of a book would suit me just fine. And what was more important was that they live forever in the hearts of others. I did not know then that I would need those materials very, very soon.

On I had gone, triumphant as a young bird who had just learned how to fly. I approached the lake with the meager amount of coins needed, scanning the boatsmen for who could take me this time. One caught my eye—a young boy and a girl who was only a few years older than me. She was talking to him, and she looked angry. Understandable, of course. Boys were frustrating.

I felt the insides of my nostrils flare with surprise. Finally, a friend! I rushed forward, shifting my way through the crowd of adults easily, and in a moment—she was gone.

But the boy was still there, his face sunken. Even his plaited hair looked like it would unravel any second.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Was there another girl here?”

As-salamu ‘alaykum,” he said. A Muslim! Immediately, I beamed. He must have noticed my long, white trousers and kaftan. It was uncommon for girls to dress like that in the heat. I still did not know how my mom managed, when she went out, to wear her veil. Perhaps that was why she sent me to take care of things outside of the house. A clever lady, no?

Meanwhile, it was not so obvious for me to recognize him. His head was shaved in the front, as part of the mandated queue, and a long braid in the back. Still, I was surprised. Even my father only had to uphold the queue when he became an adult.

Keep your hair, and keep your head. That was the order. Hijab in the heat suddenly seemed like such a blessing. 

I should have been sad, or concerned, but I was too excited to meet someone else like me. “Wa ‘alaykum as-salam! What is your name?!”

“… Lín,” he said softly. “Tán.” Another pause. The boy considered his words more carefully than poets did! “And yours?”

My mind pictured the characters easily. 林, like a forest, and 譚, for speech. I wanted to give him my name in response, but… if he knew my last name, he might know me for the reputation of my father. My childish pride got the best of me.

“Jiāwèi!” I said. 嘉, for beauty, and 卫, to protect. His eyebrows raised. It was strange for me to give my first name first, with no relationship between either of us. As though to disapprove of the gesture, the sky rumbled.

Aha! I thought. I settled myself into the boat and clucked my tongue. There were only a few parcels there; a basket and a bouquet of peonies. “I have to go and grab some things! Quickly, before it rains and drenches us! And then we would both be sold in the fish market!”

I puffed out my cheeks and folded my lips inside of them. All in mimicry of a goldfish. Also ironic, as I could not swim.

His bafflement was marred by a smile. Then the seriousness tumbled altogether into a warm chuckle. He looked young again, somehow, and it felt as though even the clouds started to leave. He rowed, beginning to recite poetry:

“… The gates of Heaven are open wide; 

Off I ride, borne on a dark cloud! 

May the gusty winds be my vanguard, 

May sharp showers sprinkle the dust!”

So he was a poet! I found myself considering him more and more as a friend, rather than a brother. I seized my opportunity as soon as he had taken a pause to name the author. “Qū Yuán!”

Lín Tán looked as uplifted as the tones of his name. I gasped. Had I spoken too soon? Qū Yuán was an oft-recited poet, right? Everyone knew him; one did not have to be an aspiring poet to recognize the name!

He had not noticed my embarrassment. Instead, he nodded, urging me to go forward.

One Yin for every Yang!” I quoted. I looked at the peonies, and made up a story in my head—maybe they were meant as an apology, and the girl I had seen earlier had not wanted them. “The crowd does not understand what we are doing. I pluck the sparse-hemp’s lovely flower—

“No! … You went too far!” he interrupted.

The peony nearly fell from my hand in surprise. “Oh—Well, the next part is shirk-y!”

“The Lord wheels in his flight, he is coming down. That is the next line. And that peony is not yours.”

“Is there not One lord already, Lín?” I snapped. “And peonies belong to everyone. Baba says so.”

His lips pursed in contemplation. Did he not even know shirk? If he was forced to shape his hair with a queue already…

Then he nodded uneasily. “… You are right.” His arms slowed, as though burdened with another weight. “I recite this often… mostly, to the other people I give rides to. Because… well… The Dragon Boat Festival is soon. They expect the original text…” A heavy sigh. “I did not know it was bad to say.”

Did he not have a mother or father to tell him? But another question rose in me: “What is the Dragon Boat Festival?”

“The fifth day of the fifth month,” he replied matter-of-factly. “The day that… Qū Yuán died. When he fell into the water… it was said that dragon boats went after him.” He tipped his head to the shore as he pulls the oars back and forth. “This lake… will light up with celebration to commemorate it. Did you… Did you not have this in your village?”

“No lake, no river, no dragon boats,” I replied simply. “Listen—When we go to market—buy some fruit at a small price, and then, your next ride, offer it to them for a few coins more. You will have a more halal income this way!” 

He looked confused at the term I used. I pivoted to say, “A better income!” My mind already raced ahead of me, drawing back ideas as though in a boat of its own. “Or, why not sell the peonies instead? I will buy them from you!”

He gasped. For a moment, I thought I had made another misstep, but his face relaxed as he considered the offer. “… No. You keep it.”

I shrugged, and happily put a peony in my hair. The journey was not much longer, but enough to recite the poem all the way to the end, together.

“The more I think of him, the sadder I grow, 

The sadder I grow; but what does sadness help? 

If only it could be forever as this time it was! 

But man’s fate is fixed; 

From meetings and partings none can ever escape.”

Then, we undocked. The market was busier than usual. As Lín said, it was festival time. The sellers made preparations and propositions; Some sold food, outfits, even calligraphic renditions of the poetry of Qū Yuán. Fortunately, the stalls for fruit and brushes were nearby. We parted for only a moment as we purchased our things, and then reunited near the boat.

Ah! Little sister!” one man said with a wide grin. I stopped immediately. His table was full of charms: paper cutouts of animals that I could not make out, coins with holes in them, pouches stuffed with herbs, and pictures of insects and animals with needles in them. I recognized mugwort and calamus leaves, along with a strand of garlic. I could not imagine why they would be sold. Even my mother would not have such a strange recipe.

This time, I was not the only one that was uncomfortable. Lín looked deeply unsettled, too, as though he had forgotten something on the boat.

“Do you think that boy can protect you from the Five Poisons?” the seller barked.

I thought quickly. “No. But I can protect him. Goodbye!” 

Without another statement, I grabbed the basket of Lín and tugged. We weaved our way through the crowd. I felt like a dragon, even going so far as to wear a fearsome expression for anyone else who dared to upsell me. 

In retrospect, I do not think it worked. But I caught Lín smiling—I hoped, for my own ego, that it was from my clever escape and not my face.

When the both of us were safe from danger, we erupted into laughter. The only threat near us was a crow perching on one of the oars. Harmless!

“Come back… come back… little sister!” he cried out dramatically. His imitation of the man was not poor at all! “You could get sick… the both of you! The queue cannot scare a scorpion… nor can his braid sting back! Wa, there could even be a spider… look! In his basket!”

I was beaming. So there was a fun side to him after all! I feigned surprise. 

“Quickly, quickly! See if they have already eaten the oranges you bought!”

Lín shifted through the basket carefully, letting out a drawn-out breath when he was finished. “I think, little sister, we are safe. I hope.”

It was hard for me to contain my giggles, until I remembered how I had forced him into an escape.

“I am sorry, Lín! I could not think of anything else to say! I do not even know what the Five Poisons are!”

“… Really?”

A blush came onto my face, pink as the flower next to it. I had not grown up as culturally inclined as him. Perhaps, there was something I could learn. He continued.

“It is another reason why the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated. The fifth day of the fifth month is very hot. … All the poisonous animals come out, then, and… people also get sick. So they take part in the festival… in hopes that they will avoid bad luck.”

I threw my hands up in the air. “How many reasons do you need?” Exasperated, I hung them both at my side. “Wait a moment. Like jinn? They can turn into five animals, too. Mama says that we are even allowed to kill them around the house!”

“What are they?” he asked earnestly. I had paid no mind then, instead thrilled that I could tell him more.

“Rat!” I began, having put my two fingers in front of my mouth to make a reference to its great teeth. The gesture also hid my burning face. “And… scorpion, too! … Oh! That is what the seller meant!” My hands floated down and wiggled. “Spider, too, then!”

“Yes. There are others, too, that you can guess.” He seemed to take inspiration from my little game. Lín began to hiss, and waved in an invisible wind. 

“Snake! You are imitating a snake!”

He nodded excitedly. Then he puffed his cheeks out, and said, “Ribbit… ribbit.”

“Obvious! Toad! Only one more left!”

I watched as his eyebrows furrowed beneath the shaved part of his queue. “… This one is hard. Ah. Well… centipede.” His concession put a dent in our game. “It… does not make a noise.”

“The rest of mine do!” Happy to continue, I started to bark. He said “dog,” immediately, but he struggled with “kite.” I had even screeched and flapped my arms around!

“Pigeon?” he guessed. 

I had cackled so much that it had taken me time to get started again with the game. Those fat animals! A likely shapeshifting target for jinn! When I curved a beak with the palm of my hand, he, too, had to chuckle at himself. 

Finally, he guessed it. “… Kite!”

“Yes! Laaast one,” I tempted. “You only get one guess this time!” I took in a deep breath, and once again flapped my “wings.” “Caw, caw!

“… Crow.”

Neither of us shared excitement this time. I remembered the boat and darted my head towards it—but there was no crow any more.

Instead, there was the same girl from earlier.

***

She was beautiful, but in a threatening way. Like the thorn of a rose. Indeed, even her mounted-up hair had roses in middle. Her qípáo was wide in the sleeves and in the skirt, and it looked elegant enough to rank her as a high-class, powerful lady. In her hands was a fan of feathers, waving idly at her face. 

In short: she looked nothing like Lín. In fact, she appeared much like the others around us. Certainly not Muslim. Likely stationed in the government. My mind buzzed with questions, like how the two had come to be together, or how Lín was faring under her “care.”

“You have taken something of mine,” her voice was strange. Airy, but not light. Like smoke from a fire. There was a harshness I did not dare play with. 

My eyebrows furrowed. Even though she did not have the right to say that a flower belonged to her, when it came from the earth, I tried to be kind and return the peony to her.

My fingers reached for my head to undo the flower. “Bismillah,” I whispered.

The eyes of the lady twitched. “Not that, girl.” And why should she refer to me as girl? “Do not do it again.”

“Do wh—”

“She will not.” Lín stood in front of me. “I was… telling her about the festival tomorrow. She came with me here. I taught her about it. And that there will be a performance tomorrow. … She will attend, and see everything.”

This gained her approval. “Then we must prepare, no? Come, Lín. Come.”

Wordlessly, Lín stepped into the boat. I had the strange feeling that even as he was the one guiding it through the lake, that the lady was the one guiding him. I felt sick.

A jinn taking a Muslim? And a jinn in power, where we were already a minority? Lín was in danger. Not just him—but others like us. She had mentioned a performance. What was she trying to show everyone around us?

And even without all of that, I felt like the only friend that I had made was being taken away from me. A Muslim struggling with the queue, with fitting in, and with learning more about the world around us.

Dazed, I walked to the only place I knew where to go: the Phoenix Mosque. It would soon be time for prayer. I passed by many of the colleagues of my father, and I heard whispers all about me. It is not long before he calls my name.

“Jiāwèi?”

I nodded.

“You look pale, my daughter. What happened?”

I opened my mouth, but I still could not find the words. The irony. A poet-to-be, unable to speak.

Poison,” some of the men whispered. Baba examined me and found no bites. He concluded that he was to take me home immediately after dhuhr. I went through the motions, my mind barely focused on the prayer.

“Baba,” I said on the boat ride home. “It was a silent prayer. Say Qur’an out loud, please.”

He sought permission from our rower, and without hesitation, began reciting all he knew, rubbing a hand on my back. The man asked the language, whether it was poetry, but I did not pay too much attention to the conversation. 

I was too focused on how the uneasiness faded away and grew into anger. Before long, I had my strength back. Mama was the first to witness it.

Mama!” I begun brusquely. “Can jinn eat us?!”

Her eyes widened with worry. “I do not know, xīngān.” 

I smiled. Our language is so rich. Xīn, for a heart, and gān, for a liver. Someone so dear to you, they were like your organs.

“But what I do know is this.” She knelt down. “You can be protected from the jinn. Do you know how? Let me tell you…”

***

“Allah!”

My reflexes thought before my brain did. I ducked, and the crow swerved, attempting to ride the air. 

It looked like it was all part of the performance. Some might have even thought I exclaimed “Āiyā!

So I played it as so.

“—The crow is the first!” I called out. The crowd oohed and aahed, marveling at the magic trick they thought they saw, too bewildered to correct me.

My original plan had not worked. I wanted to crash the boat into the platform and force the both of them into the lake. So I had to improvise.

“And we need your help with it!” I cried, as the crow drew a circle in the air, darting straight towards me. “Crows cannot fly well with too many obstacles. Unleash your kites and lanterns!”

The children in the crowd lit up as they ignited their homemade lanterns. Parents assisted them as they sent kites high up into the sky. The more skilled performers next to us maneuvered their grand kites, dragons that floated in the sky this time. All of them danced across the lake, and the wind carried them easily. I nearly giggled. Welcome to our world, jinn! Here, there was unbearable traffic!

The crow cawed, disgusted but not defeated. Its small body tried to worm its way through the many airborne obstacles, but it seemed as though it was a fish trying to swim through air.

Before I knew it, the crow was gone. I breathed a sigh of relief. The crowd applauded, choosing instead to focus on the kite performers’ display. I turned to Lín. He appeared older, paler. Poisoned. As soon as I opened my mouth to speak, he pointed at the sky once more.

I gasped. Another kite—the hawk kind—was headed straight towards us at an alarming speed. Lín forced me to duck my head down in a parallel direction, disorienting the kite.

Just like yesterday, I felt my anger overcome my fear. She must have opted for something that would fly easier than a crow. I cleared my throat. “Archers! Load your arrows!

The willow shooters on the nearby boat immediately came to our rescue. Even Lín suddenly found the courage to wield his weapon. Meanwhile, I ducked on the platform. Overhead, I heard arrows rain in the sky. Most ended up in the water, some miraculously and harmlessly at my side.

I watched as the kite darted through the air, horrified, as it avoided every arrow in its path. The archers began to work together, crying out on count to shoot. I darted around me, scrambling to find ammunition of my own. All I saw were sticks of bamboo to assist in lighting the aerial firework.

“Lín!” He immediately glanced at me, then to the bottom of the platform where I gestured, then back at me to nod. The both of us knelt down. With anxious fingers, we stroked it like a campfire. I did not even notice that I was praying until I heard him, too, echoing my “Bismillah, bismillah, bismillah.”

A gut-shuddering thud sounded near us. I looked across, and it was the kite, with an arrow in its wing. The crowd erupted in cheers, but I was only filled with more dread.

It rose. Wobbling back and forth, as though it was a newly-hatched bird. Then its body hunched forward in apparent pain, and in mere seconds, it lifted its wings with a high-pitched screech that deepened into a growl. The feathers turned to fur on its body and it grew, grew, grew, into a voracious dog. Its eyes were bloodthirsty, and it looked ready to lunge for Lín and I.

I took a look down at my hands, where the bamboo stick had caught fire at the tip. I swallowed, and began to wave it. A pen may be mightier than a sword, but then, I prayed that bamboo could be stronger than either.

“Stay back!” I warned. Around me, the families shouted encouragement. A chant began to emerge with rhyme: “Nánhái yǔ huǒ, shā sǐ dú gǒu!” Boy with the fire, slay the poisonous dog!

I felt like a legend in my own right! I grinned, delighting in it all. I am a fire-eater, a dragon-slayer, a heroine-to-be!

My pride got to me, and rather than waving the flame sword, I started to slash and thrust ahead of me. I thought, if only I could get it to back into the water—

But it was too quick. It howled, and instead of growing larger, it shrunk. Its tail remained attached, but lost its fur, and its teeth still looked ready to tear into me. 

A rat.

By this time, the firework was ready. Lín shoved me and pushed my head down, shielding me with his own body. Sparks flew all around us and poured down in yellow rain. 

I peeked from beneath his cover and watched the rat zigzagging through them, desperately trying to avoid being set on fire again. And again, the festival goers delighted in the show. 

I was only filled with more dread, because I knew what was next. The intersection of poisonous animals, and the animals that jinn could turn into. 

The firework ran out of steam. Lín had gone lax, as well, in quiet observation of the rat. I pulled away. The rat then besought me, and attempted one more transformation. Its tail arched, becoming like a long, curved paintbrush, and the rest of its body dipped in a black ink.

The scorpion ran so fast towards my shoe that I could not even consciously think of running—only freezing as it latched itself onto my ankle.

There were only two remaining thoughts: that I cannot swim, and that I know what I must do.

I leapt into the water. 

It crashed all around me, a naval firework of its own. I held my breath as some water forced itself into my throat. I did not bother to await the pain and sting, and instead, thrashed as much as I can. Kicking, kicking, kicking. I might have lost my shoes. I did not know. I was too afraid. 

My hands stretched out, and I tried to fly, swim, whatever would bring me up. It was no use. My cheeks released and more water entered inside. I closed my eyes. I said the shahada in my mind.

Then I heard a second eruption. Lín. 

He dove for me and clutched my hand. I remembered more, as I felt death nearby, that even dead bodies can hear and feel you.

… But can they see, too?

That, I did not know. So I had to find out.

I opened my eyes, and miraculously, they did. Lín gazed back at me, one hand around mine, the other in desperate search of the other palm.

So I held onto him, and did not let go.

***

“I am not sure.” 

“Of what?”

“… How to begin.”

Lín pressed the wooden edge of a brush to his chin. Despite his concern, he looked youthful again. His long braid had been cut, and I even noticed a few hairs beginning to grow back on the shaved part of head. He had a few years until the mandate was imperative on him, and he would relish every one.

“Tell me!” I urged him. Behind us, the calligraphers worked on their own pieces. They know not to disturb us until prayer is called at the Phoenix Mosque, and we do the same.

“… Once upon a time, I almost died?”

I snickered. But then, I could not contain myself. “So blunt!” 

He decided to join me in my laughter. I supposed he must have spent so long being afraid to smile that he did not mind my teasing him now. 

“You are the poet and performer, not me, Jiāyú.”

I gasped. A pun, at my name! Instead of wèi, he had chosen —the word for fish. No doubt a reference to how I had almost drowned on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival.

Alhamdulillah, all was well. When the surface of the water broke around us, the crowd erupted in applause. The other performers brought us back to shore after Lín swam us to the platform. My parents were immensely grateful to Lín. My father even swore to him that if I had been a boy, he would have adopted him. Instead, he thought to ask his colleagues to take him in. It was at the Phoenix Mosque we waited, the day after, with the ink, paper, and pen that I bought from the market before.

I tutted and placed my brush to my own paper. “You and I performed so well yesterday. You have it in you to write a story, I am sure!”

“I just do not know… what a poet would do,” he confessed.

“Imagine a poet as a wordsmith,” I began. “Their job is to use the most beautiful of language, even for the shortest of stories. So they would make our story sound more eloquent, no?”

He nodded. He looked at my own paper, and then back up. “How about… ‘once upon a time?’”

It was a start. I relented. “Once upon a time…”

“Hmm. Well. That does not sound like you at all,” he remarked. “… You would go on. You would go on and on about that. As though… As though you were talking to the reader. So if I were to write, ‘once upon a time,’ you would comment…”

“It is a comfortable way to start, as easy to note as a lullaby.”

“And then… you would choose something else,” he says with a smile. “Toy with it, like… But this is not a song.” 

I gave an abrupt huff of a laugh.

He continued. “‘There once was…’” 

I liked his “Hmm. Well.” I added it. “While stories are meant to be recognized, they are not meant to be predictable. Rather, they ought to be shaped into their own pieces, despite being of the same clay… Let me try again, let me break the mold! The third time is the charm, after all, and this does deal with a bit of magic. Ahem.” 

He looked expectantly towards me. It takes me a minute to readjust. “Allow me begin again: ‘Today is the fifth day of the fifth month, and it could be the date of my janazah.’”

“Dramatic.”

Dramatic?!”

 “Yes. To reference your janazah… But. I am glad that it was not so, Jiāwèi.”

I smiled. I still did not appreciate the first comment, and I busied myself looking at my parchment. He seemed more confident and comfortable now, even though his quiet voice joined me, like a hidden narrator.

“How will you… end it?”

“I do not know.” I laughed. “I am only at the beginning of my story!”

References

Hannah Alkadi is a lawful good social media master, cat mom, and total nerd. She began writing in the pixels of online threads among friends since she was 13 and continues now in the pages of her first novel idea. Her work has been featured in Amaliah.

2 Comments

  1. Love the research and creativity with this piece! Such a different backdrop for a story that became so easy to visualize

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