Desert Threads, by Kelly Inglis

The sights and smells were dizzying, overpowering. Julie wandered among the street stalls, assailed by the rich colours, textures, sounds and scents that weaved the fabric that was the Egyptian people. Traditional music could be heard over the constant chaos of the street markets. Men sat in groups drinking Turkish coffee and smoking tobacco from traditional shisha water pipes. All of the local women wore burqas. Some women just covered their bodies, while others also covered their heads. These women congregated in groups, chattering and buying fresh fruits and vegetables, and haggling with stall holders over the prices of their goods. The women who also wore the niqāb, the veil that covered their entire faces except their eyes, walked several paces behind their masters, eyes demurely averted to the gazes of all around them. A group of children of around seven or eight years old chased a chicken that had escaped from one of the vendors. They squealed in delight as the terrified creature squawked helplessly and ran in panicked circles. The vendor who had lost the chicken ran at the group, looking much like his lost quarry, arms flapping and squawking at the children who were chasing it. After a few minutes, between the vendor and the children, they managed to corner the doomed creature and return it to its cage. The vendor gave each child who helped him a sweet as reward.

Then there were the tourists. Speaking loudly, pointing rudely, and wrinkling their noses at the children running barefoot and local women in their traditional garments. Julie, too, was a tourist, but she was trying not to be one of the rude ones. She had also dressed in the full length garb to hide her Western clothes, and had gone to the effort to tame her blonde curls beneath a colourful scarf. While her fair complexion clearly marked her as an outsider, out of respect for the local culture, she had dressed to prevent offense.

As she approached the next row of stalls, a frail looking street seller accosted her with bolts of cloth in vibrant colours and bold patterns. The gnarled little woman smiled at her, revealing a lifetime without dental care. She held a piece of cloth against Julie’s face and directed her towards a small mirror. The stall holder spoke at her in rapid-fire Arabic. Julie smiled bemusedly. She held her palms upwards and shook her head, indicating she did not understand the old lady. Her Arabic was only rudimentary, and she had no hope of understanding more than the occassional word.

“Jamila,” said the old woman, “pretty, like you.” Julie smiled at her in thanks. The fabric was beautiful. The cloth was a deep, earthen red-brown, with almost geometric patterns of saffron, ochre and olive green intertwined along the bottom third of the fabric. Delicate threads of gold had been spun through the cloth, making it shimmer in the sunlight. With her fair complexion and green eyes, the colour combination was striking on her. It looked like there would be enough fabric for Julie to make herself a long skirt or shift dress. Struggling to recall her basic Arabic, she fumbled for the right words.

“Kam howa thamanon?”

The woman held up her hands to indicate ten Egyptian pounds. Julie quickly calculated the exchange rate. It was only about a dollar and sixty cents for the exquisite cloth. She hesitated, wondering if the dirt cheap price of the cloth was worth going over her allocated baggage allowance. The woman took her hesitation for haggling.

“Eight. No less.”

“Shukran, khala.” Julie thanked the woman, inclining her head respectfully as she accepted her parcel.

Julie continued her stroll through the stalls of the bazaar, politely declining the various wares thrust into her face by many of the vendors. She stopped at a stall selling nuts and dried fruits along with every spice imaginable. She wished Australian customs were less stringent about which foods they allowed you to bring back home. She knew that their strict rules were in place to protect Australian agriculture, but she would have loved to bring home these beautiful seasonings to enhance her culinary skills. If she tried to bring home any of the intoxicating spices, they would be incinerated by customs upon her arrival. She inhaled the pungent scents of cumin, cardamom and anise, and admired the silken threads of saffron in their tiny glass vials. Instead, for a few piastres she bought a small bag of plump dates, and one of freshly roasted almonds. She crunched an almond, savoring the salty warmth.

Her only other purchase from the market today was a small but beautifully embroidered tapestry asserting an Arab proverb. “Every person is observant to the flaws of others and blind to his own flaws.” The wisdom of the proverb resonated with Julie, having grown up with an alcoholic mother who could only ever see Julie’s flaws, and never any of her many accomplishments, while failing to see her own damaging addiction. She would frame the tapestry and hang it in the kitchen of her tiny two-bedroom house in Brisbane. Julie loved to cook culturally diverse cuisine, and so the bright little kitchen was her favorite room in her home, her haven.

In the distance behind the bright melee of the bazaar, the Great Pyramids and the Great Sphinx rose majestically from the sands of the Giza Plateau, silently guarding their secrets of so many centuries. Julie had visited the monuments most days from the time they opened until she was herded out with the last tourists each evening as the blazing fireball of the sun burned its way into the desert sands, leaving only the black embers of night.

Having majored in ancient history at university, Egypt allured her, tantalized her. So many secrets were entombed within each sarcophagus in each hidden chamber of each pyramid, the hidden language of hieroglyphics depicted the stories of those who were worthy of burying with such reverence, and the stark contrast of the opulence of each death chamber compared to the abject poverty of the vast majority of the Egyptian people all held such intrigue for Julie. These were mysteries she needed to observe and feel herself. There hadn’t been much work in her field after she graduated, so she had acquired her secondary teaching credentials and now taught Ancient History and English at Nudgee College on the outskirts of Brisbane. The pay wasn’t fabulous, but the holiday schedule had allowed her to take six entire weeks off to explore Egypt, unfettered by work constraints. On the days between her visits to the Great Pyramids, Julie had scoured the libraries, local stores and markets for books and artifacts for her own collection, and to enhance her class back home.

Gazing up at the Great Sphinx, she wondered if she would have time for one last quick visit to the mysterious monolith. It continued to steadily avoid her gaze, staring silently at the horizon. Judging by the burnished glow in its cheeks, there was only about an hour until the tourists would be chased out. She sighed. She wasn’t ready to leave tomorrow. In the last six weeks she had thrived on the vast history, and had delighted in the culture. The food, the locals, the culture all drew her into their midst, drew her deeper into Egypt. She didn’t want to leave. How long would it be before she could afford to return here?

She sighed again. One last quick visit, she decided, just to say goodbye, just for now. She adjusted her bags and started towards the path that would lead her out of the maze of stalls and toward the monument. If she walked quickly, it would take her only minutes to reach the Sphinx, leaving her at least half an hour to trace the inscribed hieroglyphs with her fingertips and commune with the quiet sentinent presence that she felt each time she entered these monuments.

She hadn’t taken more than a few steps when she heard crying coming from behind a tent beyond a row of empty stalls. Peeking around the tent, she found a boy of around twelve, the same as some of her youngest students back home. His back was to her, but she could see that he had buried his face in his hands, and she could hear the wracking sobs emanating from him. He was a local, dark skinned, lean, and dressed in the traditional white trousers and long shirt of the locals, although his were dirty and ragged. Julie was a little surprised at the sight of him, and especially surprised at his anguish. He was the boy who had been tagging along behind her that morning with a group of other wayward youths, teasing the younger children and jeering and spitting at the tourists. She had seen him a number of times since her arrival in Giza, at the library, once at the antiquities shop, and several times at the Pyramids. She had pegged him for a pickpocket and a troublemaker, targeting the tourists who were stupid enough to dangle their purses at the end of their wrists or leave them bulging out of their back pockets. But seeing his thin frame shuddering in obvious distress gave her pause. Maybe he was just trying to survive, forced into nefarious activities by poverty. She hesitated, looking at the fading light. She really wanted to farewell the Sphinx before she left, but her moral compass obliged her to see if the boy was alright. She approached the upset boy and spoke softly.

“Muskila?” She asked if he had a problem. The boy didn’t respond. Perhaps he hadn’t heard her over the sound of his own sobbing. Or perhaps she had pronounced the Arabic word for “problem” incorrectly. She took another step towards him, this time laying her hand gently on his shaking shoulders as she spoke.

The instant she touched him, he jerked away from her touch as if she had burned him. She pulled her hand away. Julie took a step backwards with her hands held up placatingly as the boy turned to face her.

 

“Assif.” Julie tried to apologise for startling him, but the words died in her throat. Not a trace of tears lined his grimy face. Instead, he smiled menacingly at her while his eyes remained flat and hard. Julie was confused. Why would he pretend to be crying? What purpose would that serve him? It didn’t make any sense. Then she saw the knife.

She stared at it, shocked. The double-sided blade was perhaps only six centimeters long, but the size of the weapon did nothing to allay the fear that had crystallized within her chest, heavy and sharp. Although small, the blades looked wickedly sharp. It was fashioned like a dagger, with the hilt being almost wide enough to entirely cover and protect the hand of the wielder. The crimson light from the fading sun glinted on the blade as he showed her the weapon, a premonition of her own blood to be spilled.

Her heart stuttered, realising he meant her harm. Did he want to rob her? Julie had gotten into the habit of leaving her passport locked securely in the hotel safe when she left, only carrying a small purse with enough money for the day. He could have that if it meant her getting away from him unscathed. She moved to get the purse for him, but her sudden movement brought a rapid stream of Arabic spewing forth from him. He jabbed the knife towards her, telling her, “Waqf, laa!” She froze.

“‘Umla,” she tried to explain she was reaching for her money. He sneered, waving the knife at her. He spat in the dirt at her feet. His eyes fixed on hers, he took a measured step towards her, cutting the knife in slow, deliberate arcs. Julie could feel her pulse pounding, straining to escape, like her own blood wished to betray her and be spilled into the sand. Heart racing, her breath came in shallow gasps. Blood roared in her ears. She was terrified of passing out and being left to the mercy of her attacker. If he had any. She had to think, find a way out of here. Her mind raced.

“Bezaf ‘umla,” she tried again, hoping to distract him with thoughts of plentiful cash. Really, she had only a few Egyptian pounds and piastres left in her purse, but she hoped it would be enough to placate him, and divert his attention long enough for her to escape and find help. Furtively, she scanned the area around them. Her attacker had craftily placed them behind the tent, which obstructed them from view from the main area of the bazaar. The stalls around them were deserted. Julie knew from her previous trips to the markets that these stalls were usually occupied by farmers selling their produce, and had often sold out and packed up by lunchtime. The vendors had left hours ago. Her attacker had clearly premeditated this altercation, and had chosen the abandoned site cunningly.

Should she scream? Looking at the confident way the youth wielded his weapon, he would no doubt be comfortable using it on her to achieve his wicked goals. If she decided to scream or make a run for it, she would have to make it count, as she was pretty certain she wouldn’t get a second opportunity to do so. She was still unsure of his intent. The temptation of a lot of money hadn’t seemed to entice him at all. He was still cutting lazy arcs in the air in front of her face. He seemed to enjoy the fear flickering in her eyes whenever he passed the blade a little closer to her. What did he want?

The seconds ticked by, and the glittering arcs of his knife drew closer. A bead of sweat trickled down the small of her back. Her breath still came in shallow pants. He refused to break eye contact as he tormented her with the promise of the blade. Heart hammering in her throat, she decided to take action. For just a fraction of a second she cut her eyes to the side, looking over his left shoulder before meeting his eyes again. He wheeled around to see what she was looking at. This was her chance! Sucking in a lungful of air she turned to sprint towards the bazaar to get help. Before she could scream, before she had completed her first step towards escape, she felt a burning heat slice down the back of her shoulder. Caught by surprise, she realised the little bastard had stabbed her. Her scream remained unvoiced as the pain stole her breath. She felt the warmth of her own blood seeping through her clothes. Her earlier premonition had solidified into reality.

She stumbled. Vice-like fingers sank into the flesh of her upper arms, pinning her arms to her sides. Frantically, she tried to wrench herself away. Each movement sent a fresh wave of excruciation through her wound.  Her head was yanked backwards as her hair was grabbed by the fistful. Scalp stinging, she realised that he’d cruelly pulled it out by the roots. It seemed impossible that the boy could be so strong. She took another terrified breath, struggling against his unyielding hold. She had only one chance left to scream, to try and summon help. Her scream was choked by a cloth being shoved into her mouth, gagging her. She felt her arms being bound behind her with rough rope, her skin burning as the rope was cinched tighter each time she struggled against them. Her shoulder was agony, but she felt that the wound wasn’t fatal. The blood flow seemed to be slowing with her restricted movement. She ceased her struggle against her bindings – it was only causing her more damage.

Mind racing, Julie couldn’t figure out what the boy could possibly want with her. If not her money, then what? With dawning horror, she realised that her predicament was likely a whole lot worse than a just brutal mugging. Screaming against her gag, she could barely hear her own muffled terror. The boy moved in front her, sneering. She suddenly realized that he had an accomplice, one much larger and stronger than he was, and that the accomplice was restraining her. The boy moved towards her feet with another length of rope. Mustering her strength, she kicked at him as he bent to tie her feet.  Her feet caught him in the chest and he flew backwards, slamming into an unoccupied stall. Her satisfaction lasted only a fraction of a second until her captor savagely wrenched her hair again. This man’s knife was longer than the boys, and evilly serrated. It flashed up in front of her before she felt the sting as he pressed it into her exposed neck. He grunted something at her in Arabic, but in her terror, she couldn’t understand even a single word that he uttered. The face of the furious boy rose in her vision. The hate in his eyes was shocking. She had done nothing to provoke this attack, and he had deserved that kick and much worse! He sliced his blade at her again, and she squeezed her eyes shut, not wanting to see the blade in the seconds before it plunged into her body, spilling the last vestiges of life from her.

It was agony. Waiting for the pain, waiting for her final moments of life to ebb from her.

 

She heard the older man say something. She felt rough cloth scratch her face as a sack was drawn over her head. She was roughly hoisted onto the man’s shoulder. She desperately tried to extract some sort of information out of their rapid exchange. Her heart iced over as she interpreted the words passing between them. Death would have been kinder.

“Isti bad.” Slavery.

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4 Responses to Desert Threads, by Kelly Inglis

  1. Loved this story,
    Could have been my son’s girlfriends story and my son’s demise but for a couple of strapping passing by Canadians in a Maroccan Bazzar some years back.
    Scary stuff.
    Good tensions great pace lots of atmosphere re setting and a slightly predictable but inevitable ending..
    I wish I could write as well.
    Coral

  2. Pingback: September Short Story Comp (International Setting) Shortlist | The Australian Literature Review

  3. Pingback: Sep 2011 Short Story Comp Winner | The Australian Literature Review

  4. Pingback: Kelly Inglis – Author Interview | The Life and Times of Chester Lewis

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