The clouds convened above the souk, suffocating the public square with their dusty wetness, dirty sodden carpets stacked up in the sky by Him. Her own mouth was drained of moisture and melody. She scowled deeper and shuffled clumsily around the bazaar, searching for a place to sit, being jostled by the motions of the throng through which she threaded her way quietly.
The bazaar literally gambolled on all sides of the oasis-city, a living entity made up of everyone in the kingdom. The angles of activity created the vibrant architecture and the constant flurry of numbers spilling out from all sides mortared the body of the animate, open market. The sprawled space of tents and kiosks she carefully navigated was a strange, organic creature composed of and orchestrated by the populace of the realm, building up a symphony of stories, much like she did herself.
On steps descending from a public bath, little girls played with marbles. The storyteller scuffled up to the door and sank down onto the stairs, shifting for comfort to adjust her frame. Her parched voice rasped to the infants, “There was or there was not...” The girls paid no attention at first, continuing their game of coloured beads. The storyteller coughed loudly, croaking out again, “There was or there was not...” This time, the younger child crawled up to the old woman’s feet, “What, grandma? What was there?” The older girl tired of continuing alone and collapsed next to her sister, “Or was not?” Glee swelled in the storyteller’s breast and she ignored the pangs of thirst to go on,
“There was or there was not, little ones, once a beggar...”
“That’s no fun! Who wants to hear about silly old beggars!” the smaller girl piped up, disgruntled. “I want to hear about princes,” chimed in the other one.
“Ah, but he was a handsome prince, the prince of beggars. He had once been ruler of a people who had become very poor and had abandoned him. He had nothing left but the clothes on his back, with no prospects at all. No chance of winning a war or marrying a princess or anything even remotely heroic.”
“Not much of a prince, was he?” an urchin mumbled, rubbing his shiny head and replacing his head-cloth, a bunch of ragamuffins trailing behind him.
“He was though. A prince is as a prince does, as you shall see. The noble blood of an old race ran in his veins, my children, but la! What good is that when one is trudging across an empty desert with nary a drop of water nor a bite of meat? His camel had died a long time ago and he himself aged with each passing day, the fatigue and famishment apparent in his once-beautiful features...”
Suddenly, the bath house’s door opened and a haughty woman emerged, looking down her nose and sniffing audibly, “Mother, would you be kind enough to remove yourself from my premises? I’m the proprietress of this hamaam and it’s highly unseemly for you to be sitting here, regaling this lot!”
The urchins stuck their tongue out at her and the girls sniggered, “You won’t find out what happens to the prince.” The storyteller mustered herself to arise and swept past the proprietress, the children in her wake. The proud owner heaved a sigh of relief when she was joshed by a party of customers returning from their bath, ready to leave. One of them chastised, “O you so-and-so, why did you let her go? I was hearing that tale from the bath just behind your outer wall and what an unusual one it was too. Now I’ll have to live without knowing the end.” The proprietress tried to stammer out excuses but the women would have none of it, “She won’t come back now, thanks to your stupidity. Come on, sisters, we shall go hunt her down and hear the end!” Amid a chorus of agreement, the perfumed entourage took off after the storyteller.
They found her seated at the edge of a well, “It had been many months and a day since the prince had tasted even an ounce of comfort. In the scorch of the desert sun and the chill of its night, our hero laboured on to find an oasis or even a Bedouin tribe from whom to borrow victuals and water. Then one day, as he was dragging his exhausted feet through the desert, he stumbled upon something rare and precious. Can you guess what it was?”
“A marble!” said the girls.
“Fruit!” said the waifs.
“Jewels!” said the women.
“There he is!” boomed a thick, doughy voice from across the well. A short, fat man, whose robes stretched unbecomingly across his paunch, stood at the opposite side, livid and pointing menacingly at the chief rapscallion of the gang. He waddled furiously towards the storyteller’s assorted group, causing the boys to prepare for flight. The storyteller, her throat already half-dead, extended an arm with her palm upwards, stopping the portly man in his confusion, and spoke, “An exquisite lamp.” “No not a lamp! The brat stole a necklace from my stall! After him!” He cupped his mouth and yelled back to some minions.
As the boys ran helter-skelter, the storyteller slowly followed them through the teeming market, with the girls, the women, the fat man and his helots scuttling along at different paces. “Don’t stop now Grandma! We’re listening!” one of the absconding imps shouted as he disappeared beneath a canopy. Oblivious to her disparate and desperate audience, the storyteller wound her way past the buzz of the bazaar, swamped with the aroma of spice and scent, sticky with the muggy hotness of the day. Somehow the urchins kept sprinting around nearby, close enough to hear her as she went on, her arid gullet softening her words,
“The prince picked up the lamp, marvelling at its loveliness, and tried to clean it with his head-cloth. As he rubbed, there appeared before him a jinn, smoky and huge, with a deep doleful voice and reproachful eyes. The prince was so busy gaping at the being that he didn’t notice how fretful the jinn was getting.”
The storyteller almost tripped across some rope as she sidestepped one of the fleeing children, “Now, the jinn was used to being summoned at odd times and being made to grant wishes, so his temper was short already. He intoned that the prince make the three wishes and get it over with – “I’ve been stuck in that little oil-burner for the past five hundred years with no respite and a hoyden of a houri to guard me. You might as well extend my misery and beget some pleasure for yourself,” he contemptuously told the weary, wary prince.”
They were nearing one corner of the souk now, which led to the way out to the outskirts of the oasis-city towards the open desert. By now, the pursuers had had enough, as had the boys; all this while, the women, both old and young, had serenely tailed the storyteller, hooked onto each word, “And what did the prince wish for?” a woman asked.
“A war?” the chief urchin suggested.
“A princess?” was the youngest girl’s idea.
“To be a hero!” squealed a crony.
They had reached the end of the marketplace, where the horde of humans thinned to stray stragglers, mainly traders loading their wares onto camels and preparing to leave as evening beckoned. The storyteller stopped abruptly and turned around, licking her cracked lips, “The prince made only one wish, my dears, to exchange places with the jinn. In doing so, he accomplished all three.”
The fat jeweller scratched his paunch, “But how?”
“La! The prince had grown tired of wandering the vast sands and the jinn loathed his abode inside the lamp. Their spaces of existence violated their happiness so much that it made sense to switch. So the prince forsook riches and subjects and won a war against himself – the triumph of his simple spirit over his noble provenance; he got along splendidly with the pretty houri inside the lamp and thus got himself a princess of sorts. And as for being a hero, well it takes great courage to choose someone else’s freedom over one’s own luxury, does it not?”
And so saying, the storyteller turned away, her last words echoing back to her awed listeners – “But we will never know if there was or there was not” – as she was swallowed up by the setting sun, the desert wind and the dust-clouds kicked up by retreating merchants’ camels.
(-- Kamayani Sharma won the second prize in the Open Space writing contest 2010.)