“Tea in the Sahara” by Daniel Braum
“My sisters and I…”
The din of the souk filled the pause in Petra’s words.
“…we have one wish before we die.”
In the distance a ghaita sounded, the nasal reedy notes winding up a chromatic scale. Marti pictured a cobra rising from a basket.
“Don’t tell him that,” she said, certain the tall man had not been standing there in front of her and her sisters a second ago.
But there he was. Regarding them with his dark eyes, his skin an unreal shade of red-brown that blended perfectly with Marrakech‘s mud bricks. He had to be real because his smell, something masculine and exotic, cut through the aroma of sweat, cardamom, and steaming hot mint pervading the outdoor café at the edge of the bustling souk where they stood waiting for a table. The smell reminded Marti of a cologne long forgotten, perhaps one she had whiffed as a child on one of Father’s guests from far away. It conjured the earthy aromas of the Silk Road, Arabian sandalwood, and all the spices of Morocco, if such a thing could be.
Anything could be in this souk. They had purchased the green glass bottle Petra held in its crowded aisles earlier. The bottle’s long slender neck was topped with a pointed cone stopper that rose from a bulbous round base.
Despite wearing local garb Marti thought she and Petra and Helene would be out of place, as out of place as three young women traveling alone could be. But the merchants were eager to sell and the bottle was such a whimsical and perfect thing for their wine, even if it was unlikely to withstand the rigors of travel.
Last night in celebration of their arrival, they had sat on their little balcony, smoking the last of their cigarettes, and indulged in a bottle. They toasted to the wonders of Africa yet to come. They professed their love and gratitude that they had the means and able bodies to make their journey around the globe, and that they were free of the mental bonds that kept most women back in London. The months on the road had been surprisingly good and they told each other over and over how they wished that the trip would never end. Now Petra was telling it all to this stranger; a cobra who had hypnotized both reed player and crowd.
“Don’t be so uptight, Marti,” Petra said.
Marti stifled her anger. Her “uptight” guidance had avoided all sorts of trouble so far, particularly a sly-tongued con man in Portugal just last week.
“I already know your wish,” the man said.
And with his words Marti wasn’t mad at her sister anymore. She was scared. It was something about his tone, his certaintly, and the slow, calm way he spoke.
“Prove it,” Petra said, twirling a strand of her auburn hair, her green eyes glinting with mischief. “Guess it and win a kiss.”
“I do not want a kiss,” the man said. “Three wishes is my price. But I may ask you to dance.”
“Oh, la, la. Guess wrong, and you shall grant our every desire, sir,” Petra said. “Expenses on you, of course. And I may ask you to be our guide. Deal?”
“A deal we have, young lady,” he said. “You three wish that your trip will never end. You wish to live forever.”
Helene gaped as if she had seen the Sphinx itself open its mouth and answer a riddle.
“I’m impressed,” Petra said, taking his arm. “Hel-lo handsome stranger.”
“Doesn’t prove anything,” Marti said.
But the man knew their wish. Had he been eavesdropping last night?
“Can you grant us three wishes?” Helene asked.
Helene’s childlike outbursts maddened Marti, but she knew her sister’s instincts, childlike or not, were more often than not correct.
“I can give you what you desire,” the man said. “But it is you three who must grant me three wishes.”
“And then our trip will never end? We will live forever?” Petra said.
“Sounds horrible,” Marti said, but she thought just the opposite.
“Sounds romantic,” Helene said.
“Grant me three wishes and it shall be so,” the man said.
She and her sisters had grown up on the stories Father read to them from picture books. Tales full of magic lamps and brave princesses outsmarting kings and handsome, long-haired efreet.
“Done,” said Petra.
“Granted,” said Helene.
“I’m leaving,” Marti said.
In the tales nothing was ever easy or what it seemed.
“Three sisters. Three wishes. That’s how it works,” the man said.
“Marti, Marti. Don’t ruin this,” Helene said. “At worst it will make another good story. Just say yes…”
It would make a good story, but an even better song. She could almost hear Winston, dear Winston back in London, singing in his breathy voice.
“My sisters and I…we have one wish before we die.”
The footsteps and the bustle of the souk were the song’s steady beat and the murmur of bargains being struck its ethereal overture. In such a song anything was possible.
“You will see,” said the man. “What I will ask of you will be easy and so very little in exchange.”
Marti’s instincts no longer cried danger. Her mind simply said, no way. This can’t be. But beneath the logic was that part of her that so very much wanted to throw her hat in with Petra. No one’s asking you to believe, it said, just to say yes. Listening to this inner voice was what had brought them out here in the first place, away from schoolbooks and potential husbands, and dreary old London.
“All right. Yes,” Marti said.
The man’s pursed lips released into a smile.
“My first wish is that you will do nothing to undermine our deal. Should you do so you submit to punishment as I see fit.”
“Sounds austere, love,” Petra said.
“Fair is fair,” he said. “I could wish for a hundred things you would like much less.”
“Granted,” Petra said.
“Granted, easy as that?” Helene asked.
“For this wish, it is as easy as that.”
“Okay, then I grant it too,” said Helene. “Marti?”
“Granted,” Marti reluctantly said. “But I think this is stupid.”
The man laughed.
“Then next you will dance for me. My second wish. Dance for my pleasure.”
From the bustling aisles the miasma of voices pulsed into a driving bass, a steady heartbeat. The rhythm of the souk.
One-and-two. Three, four. One-and-two. Three, four.
In the distance the ghaita wailed. Petra grabbed Helene by the hand as if leading her to a dance floor. She giggled then threw her arms above her head and shimmied in her best impression of a belly dancer. Helene followed her lead by tracing “S’s” in the air in front of her. She reached her hand to Marti.
“I will not,” Marti said, and crossed her arms.
“Your beauty is such and my loneliness so profound that I would gladly waste all the world, at least waste this wish, for but just a moment such as this.”
The man was romantic, Marti thought. And articulate in ways Winston was not. Dear old Winston, who only expressed himself through his music. If he had protested or professed his love maybe she wouldn’t have left him for this journey. So, what harm could come indulging her sister’s fantasy, other than some wine-induced ribbing.
She stepped next to her sisters and danced for the man. For a moment they were his harem of three.
“There, that wasn’t so hard,” the man said.
“That’s enough of that,” Marti said and noticed that the fabric of the man’s robes was moving. Changing. Before her eyes, the dusty white and tan threads unraveled and reformed into small squares of earthen brown tones, like exquisite ceramic tile. Blacks and whites, like marks on a cobra’s hood, punctuated the pattern. His face, too, appeared composed of the same mosaic. She watched, hypnotized, willing herself to say something, but unable. Then the man spoke.
“And for the third wish…”
The entire souk became still. Merchants and buyers froze in place, currency still in hand. Patrons sat immobile at the tables holding cups of tea mid-sip. Petra and Helene screamed. Marti was afraid too, but her amazement stopped her from making any sound.
“…for the third wish, you must come with me.”
The little squares composing the man dissolved into smoke. Where he had stood was now a blurred shadow in the shape of a man. Two red spheres glowed in its head where eyes should be. The air began to move. They felt themselves spinning, then the world became a whirling blur. The spinning air lifted them and in it they flew. Above the souk. Over the town. Past the red mountains and away into the Sahara.
As they crossed the sky, that exotic smell consumed Marti, making the earlier whiff seem but from an old sachet. She felt she might panic but the smell was so intoxicating, full of ginger and chocolate and musk and spice.
Before she could form another thought, the whirlwind set them down. On the sand, in the long shadow of a dune cast by the afternoon sun, tea for four had been set.
Helene staggered as if she had just disembarked a ship on wild seas. Petra yelled in exhilaration and threw a handful of sand in the air. As it fell it coalesced into thousands of little squares, all earthen colored like cobra-scales. The squares spun and whirled and then only the man stood before them.
He gracefully lifted the teapot and poured. Sand streamed from it into the cups.
“I can grant your desire to live forever,” he said. “But my third wish is that you must return here, to this same place every year…”
His speech lilted to the rhythm of the souk, still fresh in Marti’s ears.
“…and join me for tea.”
A pinprick wound opened up on Helene’s finger.
“Answer with a drop of blood. The body’s water of life. And drink.”
Helene looked at her finger, stunned, and let the drop of blood fall into the cup. As blood touched sand the cup became filled with steaming, fragrant mint.
A pinprick opened on Petra’s finger. She touched the red dot to her lips, smiled, then dipped it into the sand. It too became a cup of rich, dark, mint.
When the tiny wound opened on Marti’s finger she hesitated and thought of Winston at his piano.
“This trip is for us sisters, only us. You promised,” said Petra, with accusing eyes.
Marti glanced at the ocean of curves and sculpted sands. Strong mint perfumed the clean, dry air. She slowly submerged her bloodied finger in the cup of sand.
The man smiled and sat, his cup now full of the same steaming mint. They sipped their tea in silence, watching the shadows of the dunes play on the sand. The evening sun sank lower in the sky.
After the sisters finished their cups, the man took one last sip and savored it.
“It is done,” he said. “We return here. The same place every year. Remember.”
Then he too disappeared with the last dusty sunbeams stretching over the dunes. The sisters found themselves safely on the little balcony of their hotel, overlooking the souk.
Marti leaned on the rail, watching the merchants pack their wares for the night. The buyers, all the strange and wondrous people she’d had a traveler’s kinship with earlier, now felt distant and alien as ants scurrying beneath her.
“I shall see every city,” said Helene.
“And I shall seduce a man in each one,” Petra said.
Somewhere far away a ghaita whined.
“Oh, what have we done?” Marti cried.
Following Petra’s whimsical lead, the sisters spent months in Morocco exploring the souks and kasbahs, losing themselves in the labyrinthine heart of Marrakech, strolling in the quiet dusty alleys of mysterious and mystical Fez, and wandering the zigzagging streets of Chefchaoeun, where everything was painted in dreamlike shades of light blue.
Thoughts of the strange man diminished with the new delights of each day and the sisters wondered if it had all been a dream. Besides their newfound confidence and enthusiasm, they felt the same as ever.
But all the wonders, even the mud-built cities, which looked like picture-book castles, could not keep them from their next destination. Egypt called.
Nine months after their tea in the Sahara, Marti, Petra, and Helene found themselves on the Nile as guests of three gentlemen of means from Jordan. Petra had met them marveling at the Great Pyramid and they, three brothers, begged for their company.
The sisters had agreed to join them on a tour of the Nile and Valley of the Kings. One of the brothers pointed out a small, lonely shrine on the banks of the Nile near the city of Dendur, as they floated past.
“One day they will dam the Nile and the waters will rise and cover the temple,” he said.
Helene found this to be the saddest thing.
When they disembarked, days later, a throng of men with camels laden with supplies were waiting for them.
Petra patted the side of one of the camels and peeked into one of the bags it carried.
“Any champagne?” she asked.
“No,” one of the brothers said, with a wink and guilty smile. “It is forbidden.”
“Then come up with some way to make the journey faster,” she said. “Sing.”
The guides started the caravan moving, a line of color and sound entering the shifting sand-brown expanse, silent, but for the wind.
The brothers sang and Marti was grateful.
That night, nestled under her shaggy brown-wool tent, Marti heard a pop and Petra’s distinct giggle. Her sister had been brought champagne after all.
The caravan set off again under the pale glow of morning, before it became too hot. As the sun rose higher the camels became unruly. A dark cloud grew in the sky just over the horizon. The men fought to keep the braying camels in formation.
“A sandstorm,” one of the brothers said.
“What do we do?” Marti asked.
“It is bad,” he said. “They are worried.”
“We must set up shelter,” said a guide.
Is there time? Marti wondered.
The cloud raced across the desert, a torrent of wind and airborne sand, bringing with it unnatural dark and a visceral howl.
Wind-whipped sand stung exposed skin as the edge of the storm reached them. The sisters covered up, but the stings were dangerously abrasive.
Their guides hunkered down in a ring, huddled against the one compliant camel. The brothers valiantly sought to shelter the sisters. Marti allowed herself to be covered.
All became dark. The wind roared but she could still hear the camels screaming and the brother above her praying. His words became screams, then moans, then all was silent.
The silence went on and on. For hours? For days? Marti alternatively shivered and sweated. She swallowed sand and thought that she would surely suffocate. Slowly she gathered her will and clawed her way out of the sand entombing her.
Half buried in the drift was a human rib cage and beyond it a pelvis and leg bone. The guides? The brothers? All the skin had been abraded from their bones so she could not tell. Behind a great dune came a familiar sobbing. She rushed over, relieved to find her sisters, dusty and disheveled, but otherwise okay.
“He protected us,” Petra said. “We can not die.”
“I thought we would be torn apart,” Helene said. “Or suffocate. But we did not.”
“But now we shall starve or burn,” Petra said.
Marti didn’t think so.
“We must trek back. East,” she said. “Toward the Nile.”
Marti led her sisters into the desert. Guided by the sun, they trekked East.
“I do not thirst. Do not hunger. Do not burn,” Petra said.
“It is true,” Helene said. “Everything he said. Everything is true.”
“Keep moving,” Marti said. “Or we will be lost in the desert forever.”
After days under the scorching sky, they came across a caravan of British archeologists. The sisters flagged the surprised men down and, after many awkward questions and answers, passage to Cairo was arranged. The sisters recovered in the luxury of a hotel patronized by British tourists and diplomats.
“I’m going home,” Marti said on the second morning of their stay. “To London. I never want to see Africa again.”
“No,” Petra said. “We must return. To him.”
No, Marti thought. They shall have their adventures without me.
A year, to the day, after they met the strange man, Helene and Petra sat in the café outside the souk.
“Where is she?” Petra asked.
“She said she’d come. Did you believe her? It’s almost evening.”
The man appeared at the table. His flowing bone-white robes were free of the sand that got everywhere.
“Only you two?” he asked.
“I am here,” Marti said and stepped out of the crowded souk and past the tables at the edge of the café. Winston was next to her. Sweat beaded at his forehead and neck and he looked very uncomfortable despite his linen jacket. He brandished the green, glass bottle in front of him.
Petra saw that lovesick look wash over her sister. Ordinarily it made her angry. Now it just made her hands shake.
“Sir,” Winston said as if announcing a duel. “I have been told that you are powerful. But I do not believe you can get inside this bottle. I dare you to prove me wrong.”
He opened the stopper.
A sour look spread on the man’s face, then he laughed. As he did, Winston simply disappeared. The bottle hung in the air for a second before crashing to the ground and shattering.
“Winston!” Marti cried.
She turned around and around checking the souk for him.
“Where is he?”
“London, maybe. Or is it Shanghai or Timbuktu? I forget. Maybe he is the new man in the moon. But no matter, we are late for tea.”
The sisters found themselves atop a red mountain in the Sahara. Tea for four had been set on the weathered rock. The sun hung low in a magnificent purple-red sky.
“Was our deal not fair?” the man said. “I only ask for part of one day out of three hundred and sixty five. Three hundred and sixty four lonely days left for me to fill.”
“It was her,” Petra said. “We had nothing to do with this.”
“Three wishes. Three sisters,” the man said. “As a consequence you will now grow old over the course of the year. Six months from now you will be middle aged. Three hundred sixty four days from now you will be old women. If you don’t return, you shall wither into nothing. Surely this will be an adequate reminder that our deal was fair.”
“It was fair. It was fair,” Helene protested.
A sand-colored cobra rose from the rock. It slithered to the teacups, stopped, and showed its fangs. A bead of purple venom dropped into each cup.
“Drink,” the man said.
As the sisters drank their tea the moon rose.
Was Winston really now the man in the moon? Marti wondered. Anything was possible.
The man sipped his final sip of tea and disappeared with the last of twilight’s glow.
“Same time every year,” said his disembodied voice.
As the man said, day by day the sisters grew old. Six months later, they were unnaturally middle-aged. Six months after that, they returned to the souk and to the Sahara for tea that rejuvenated them. And so it was year after year. Each year they had tea in the Sahara and told the man of their lives. Helene founded a library. When she was not reading she tutored young women and encouraged them to go to university and travel overseas.
Petra took up with one playboy and tycoon after another. Her parties were known the world round, albeit under different identities in different places during different times of the year.
Marti studied the mystic arts, searching the arcane world for some clue of what had happened to Winston.
During one of their “anniversaries,” just after the United States had sent a man to the moon with a rocket ship, Marti pressed the man for information about Winston.
“Where is he?” she asked. “Will the Americans find him there?”
“Do you think they will be looking?” he replied. The question was as close as the man ever came to answering her.
Petra shook her head at Marti with disdain, then took her cup of tea and danced in the sand. As she drained the cup Petra became young again.
When the three sisters finished their tea they found themselves on the balcony overlooking the souk. By the light of fiery braziers the wares of day were being put away and replaced with the oddities of the night market.
“You will help me find him,” Marti said.
“I have parties to plan,” Petra said.
“There is so much to read,” Helene said. “I’m afraid we will see you next year.”
“Same place every year,” Marti said, and went into the night market seeking knowledge.
Petra traveled to California, Beverly Hills and the Malibu shore, for the midsummer parties of the Hollywood elite and film business millionaires. Helene went to New York; the Metropolitan Museum was dedicating a new wing.
Marti returned to her flat in London, content to be among her crystals, alchemical powders, and books of lore. Her family and friends had all passed on, either to the grave or to lives that didn’t involve their secretive, odd friend who showed up only once a year.
Then on the twenty-first of June, when due to loneliness Marti was contemplating seeking out her sisters, Winston walked through her door.
He squinted, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness, and ran his hand along the hardwood banister. Marti stood at the top of the stairs, looking down at him. He wore the same linen suit she had last seen him in, though it was faded and worn. His feet were bare and his beard a kinky gray mess. The weight of years showed on his skin, weathered and cracked like the side of an old ship that had seen too much ocean, though his eyes were as bright as the full moon on a dark night. He clutched a tattered paper box under the crook of his left arm.
“Martina, is it you? Is it just another trick?” he said. “You look as young as when I saw you last.”
June is a good month, wait till October, she thought, not allowing herself to feel anything. It had been so long.
“What happened?” she asked, with a rush of emotion. “Where have you been for so long?”
“I have been…” he began, then squinted and looked around again. His eyes were unfocused and Marti was certain he wasn’t looking at the furniture and paintings but replaying something from somewhere far away.
“I have been walking,” he finally said. “For a very long time. So long.”
Marti didn’t like the way his jaw trembled, then felt ashamed for such a thought.
“There are places you would not believe,” he said.
He staggered and grasped for the banister, still clutching the box.
“I wish to tell you,” he said. “And I have a gift for you. But I am so very, very tired.”
Marti helped him up the stairs and into the bedroom. His skin felt coarse on her hand, his clothes musty and his breath stale.
She placed his box on the nightstand and helped him lie down above the covers. She had always thought his return would delight her, but his presence here, after all these years, felt so terribly wrong.
“The earth looks so beautiful from the moon,” he said. “It was the one thing I’ve wished I could show you. There is no way to tell you. Only in song. But I had no instruments, only paper.”
His eyes closed and Marti thought he had drifted off.
“How…” she whispered.
“There are…men…no, things that live in the moon,” he whispered back without opening his eyes. “They helped me. They are cruel, but also playful. They showed me so many caves, so many tunnels, as if it were a never-ending game…and finally one day…”
Sleep took him. Marti sat there listening until his raspy breathing graduated to the grumbling half-snore she remembered. In the morning, he did not wake.
Instead of weeping, as she knew she eventually would, she went to her stacks of books of arcana. Surely in them would be some way to bring him back. But he had looked so frail and worn and tired and she stopped after only a cursory search.
She went back upstairs. The fragile old form on her bed looked at rest. At peace. She opened the box on the nightstand.
Inside were sheets of thick paper, rough and textured as if crafted by hand. She couldn’t be sure but in the dim room they seemed to glow with a faint blue light. She ruffled through them. All were covered with staves and musical notes. Winston’s compositions, written in indigo-black ink. They bore names like “To Marti from the Man in the Moon.” All of them were for her.
She thought she would bring the music to the piano in the sitting room and try to play. When she took the first sheet out, the music flooded into her. Her mind filled with the orchestrations and musings of Winston’s mind, the musical residue of all his years of travel. She sat there, all day, communing with the music and the dead man’s story.
Petra and Helene returned to London for Winston’s last respects. The evening after the funeral, in Marti’s flat, Marti told her sisters she would not be returning to the Sahara this year.
“What do you mean, not this year?” Petra said.
Marti ignored them and moved around the room. She placed a vase with fresh daisies next to a framed photo of Winston and his box of compositions.
“I mean not at all. Not ever. I’m through,” she said. “Our trip is finally over.”
“But you must,” Petra said. “Three sisters, three wishes.”
“It will be the death of us all. We shall wither and turn to dust.”
“Then turn to dust we shall.”
Marti stormed up the stairs.
“We must think of some way to make her come,” Petra said.
She picked up Winston’s photo, then opened the box next to it. A blue glow leaked from within.
“It’s all his fault, anyway,” she said.
Petra took the box and left a note in its place.
“See you for tea,” it read.
Helene and Petra sat in the sand across from Marti, a steaming pot of mint tea between them. The man stood, watching them argue.
“Where are my papers?” Marti demanded.
“Safe,” Petra said. “Drink the tea. Become young again and I shall take you there.”
Petra and Helene drank their tea, but remained old. Marti did not touch her cup.
Petra looked to Marti then to the man.
“Three wishes, three sisters. Tea in the Sahara. That is the way it works,” he said.
“Drink,” Petra cried.
“I shall not,” said Marti.
“I wish you would,” the man said. “My time is so lonely and you have been such a delight.”
“I can not,” Marti said.
“Then so be it.”
The colorful evening sky turned black. The man stepped backward, rising into the air as he did.
“No, wait,” Petra said. “Surely something can be done.”
The man rose over the dunes.
Helene burst into tears.
The strong steaming mint intensified. Mixed in were the aromas of sandalwood and ginger and burnt cloves and something herbal and spicy, so unique even Marti couldn’t place it. It wasn’t a lost smell from childhood or anything she had encountered in her wide-ranging travels. It reminded her the world was so very wide. She thought of Helene and Petra smoking cigarettes and drinking wine back that first night in Marrakech. This was the way she liked to think of them.
The man lifted higher into the sky. Helene and Petra climbed the dunes trying to follow.
“Come back, please,” they cried.
The man was gone, only the moon and the first stars of night were listening.
“How will we get back?” Petra asked.
Marti thought of Winston’s bright eyes. How they glowed like the moon. What strange places had he seen? She felt her skin tightening over her bones.
“Come morning, we won’t survive out here very long,” Helene said.
“No, we won’t,” Marti said.
Her sisters were all skin and bones. Skeletons draped in finery on the cool sand.
“I’m sorry, my dears,” Marti said. “Our trip was so very lovely.”
Before Helene or Petra could answer and before Marti could tell them she loved them, all three withered and were no more. Their dust held their shape for a second, then crumbled and blew away on the night air still perfumed with the last hints of mint.
Back at the souk, the man held a portion of fresh mint in his closed hands. He cupped the leaves and in them appeared molten green glass, which he fashioned into a green bottle with a bulbous base.
He placed the bottle in the stall of a vendor in the night market. I hope it sells quickly, he thought, and walked away, the rhythm and music of the bustling aisles enveloping him as he disappeared.
|Daniel Braum’s fiction has received honorable mentions in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies edited by Datlow, Grant, and Link. His websites are www.danielbraum.com and bloodandstardust.wordpress.com. “Tea in the Sahara” is a short story based on a song, which itself is based on a novel — a curious fact he did not know while writing it.|