A Courtship of Beasts

Issue #209, Eighth Anniversary Double-Issue

The rich man’s son had been made strong. He had been gifted mysteries by sages, the poetry of reason from doubters, from scribes the violence of letters, from delvers the secrets of spice, earth, and gem, from builders the reach of man for the seven skies. He had been given vigor in his flesh as steered through campaign and hunt, and shown ecstasy by the mistresses of gauzes, pillows, and sigh. And he sat now upon his bench in his father’s house, among the wealth of his birthright, and knew the ache of a man impoverished.

His mother was inspecting casks of purple, in flock with his sisters at his left. His father was sharing coffees and locusts in delicate cucumber jelly, debating strategy with high merchants at his right.

Shams, for that was his name, great star of his father’s life, drew on smoke of the flavor of lemon and struggled with the ache inside him, until at last he suspected its name.

“I am ready to find my form,” he declared to his father’s household.

All discussion ceased. There arose cheers of celebration.

“My son, you fill my heart!” said Bab, showing his great many teeth.

“A day of days!” said Mam with tears steaming upon her violet-scaled cheeks.

Shams grinned under the kisses of his sisters and the counsel of his father’s peers. “See the oceans,” said the high merchants. “Battle evil. Lead armies. Lift the poor. Build many fortunes. Know love.” Yes, said Shams. He would have it all.

And Shams the Traveler, as he made himself known, set out to flourish his strength in the world.

He chose his favorite mares and his favorite slaves and rode in the wagon house to the valleys of Sabz, where he scaled the three holy peaks and learned to dance with Sabz’i women, and hunted striped mice for their tiny medicinal teeth before returning to his father’s house richer, stronger, knowing more.

Then it was in Naranj where he fired arrows at highwaymen from a priest’s chariot and kissed the fingers of many daughters, where he took ship to Azania and saw a storm like a funnel snatch whales from the bowel of the sea. Across the water he bought and sold treasures, sought many a silken bed, watched a whipping war from a throne on the back of an elephant, tasted a fruit called ndoto that put a fire on his tongue for two days and three nights. And he returned to his father’s house richer, stronger, knowing more.

With each adventure his hunger for the world grew in terrible pangs until it was a fire inside him, as was fit for a son of merchant ambition. And by each adventure the fire grew hotter, and his lovers perspired heavily in his embrace, and his flesh smoked in the cold rains of autumn. But he learned pains of the heart, too, and saw desires lost, and plates of armor grew from his spine—tapered but sturdy like his father’s, colored a milk-and-sea jade like his mother’s. All saw then what form of man he would be. Shams the Simmering, he became known wherever he went.

And too—now that his manly aspect was growing, his heat so easily felt, his plates so beautifully erected—Shams the Simmering became the desire of many a household. Feasted and courted, he met bachelor women whose blooms were felted antennae, scales of brilliant color, whiskers or horns or looping ears. In Noghre, girls remained their entire lives in the flesh to which they were born, and this was as displeasureable to Shams as pigmy cats stunted in their vases. By occasion he would meet an old malika, a woman whose form had grown queenly over the years, her body entire made sinuous or powerful or fleet beyond ordinary quality. She would watch with loft as Shams moved among the younger women. Never had he come within an arm’s reach, but even at a distance the malika were a symbol to him of what could be. It was by the malika that he judged the bachelor women. It was the by the malika that all fell short.

There came a day when Shams was standing in the weeds of a ruined city, using his mare’s saddle as a tablet, swatting at the mosquitoes while he sketched on parchment. He was sketching, with a black that stained his fingers but that he loved, a minaret which had in centuries sagged against the faceted muqarnas of the roof of the Great Bedeguar, and how the thrust of the minaret and the stout roundness of the mausoleum were merged in a nest of bone-smelling dust and adobe and tiles that were broken but that still, here and here, wore slivers of colored glaze. He was a part of a haunting—this was what his hosts had named it—he and the three lords of the Cinnabar Sea, brothers who sat their own horses awaiting his whimsy. They were haunting the carcass of the ruined city Ghaveyi. And in how the vines grew in their inspections of the pillars and bloomed their flowers of honeyed purple, and how the grasses marked the cracks and the birds strutted fluting among the grasses, and how the sun shone through the monuments in beams broken by the broken stone, Shams was taken with hunger for every image, overwhelmed with the need to capture as many as his fingers could draft. He was preparing sand to scatter across the ink when one of the brother lords gave a shout. All followed his pointing arm, and there in that moment Shams lost his heart.

She came loping through the tumbledown mouth of the ruined library, her hair waving in the shade then sun then shade beneath the archways, the leaning almost-archways that Shams had sketched not one hour ago. He had an impression of her—hungry pouncing legs and a thrusted tail and flashing teeth, flashing smile, flashing eyes, and the widest smile in all the world—and then she was past them and gone.

The brothers, already mounted, wasted no time setting off after.

“Did you see her?” cried Jamshid. “What woman is that?”

“Let us ask!” sang Sardar.

Shams was in his stirrups and after them in an instant, his flame stirring in the heat inside. He urged the mare over fallen pillars and across wild lawns, the animal kicking gravel in spray behind them. Babak was in the lead then Sardar then Jamshid. But Shams was on Jamshid’s heels and with a spurt passed him. And after it was Sardar who was in front, now at left, now behind. And here it was Shams and Babak neck to neck, both high in their stirrups, their mounts shy in the terrain and the mare beneath Shams foaming prematurely from the heat of the fire in his skin.

The malika saw them now. And that was what she was. A malika, queenly and in her form. And no older than he. She would turn her head showing the delicacy of one eye and her cheek, and she would sprint up a stairway to nowhere and leap from its top and alight among the stones to look again to see if they had followed, and when she saw them follow it was that widest smile again.

Shams himself was smiling, and when his mount overheated and began to flag and Babak to pull ahead whooping, Shams the Simmering did not give a thought to sucking fast water from his skin and standing in his saddle and leaning over his mare’s neck and taking a great breath and hissing, hard and with a sharp whistle, steam in two jets from his nose. His mare, trained, kept her gait. Babak’s horse, unaccustomed, did not. He saw Babak fighting at the reins in the weeds in the receding distance over his shoulder, and ahead there was the large sound of the malika laughing.

Alone in the chase now he followed her through the city and from it, along the ancient road to the Court of Heroes.

She slowed her pace on the plaza, paused, choosing, and leapt upon an empty plinth. She reclined there, the thick brown tip of her tail stirring in the afternoon air.

Shams dismounted heavy winded and steaming. He could smell her with his heavy breaths, like the linger of a kiss in his beard. He was a moment with the scent, watching her and she watching him. Then, “A subtle pose,” he said.

“By the heavens, I hope it so,” she said looking about herself. “I thought to rest here hidden from the attentions of strange men who chase me. But I had wondered if I was subtle enough.”

“Ah, I am sorry. By subtle I, I spoke with irony. As a jest. You are, I say with respect, of a fineness to steal the eye, and with your form and the podium I meant only—”

She inclined her chin, her teeth white in the richness of her dark face. “I understood it, chaser.”

He tugged at his chin, laughing at himself. “Understood and shared in it, would seem. Now we have irony between us.”

“Irony but no names.”

“I am Chaser, as you said. And you are Fineness, as I said.”

She turned her eyes downward like a girl, and a shyness was there nakedly. “Thank you.”

It stopped him, the gratitude. The sincerity took him in his heart. He bowed. “I am Shams of Tarazet, called Shams the Simmering.”

She stood, arching her back, and dipped her head so that her eyes were level with his. Shams felt aswim in brown. “I am Kaafaha of the Fers.”

“May I walk with you, Kaafaha of the Fers?”

She gave him the widest smile. “You may run.”

She leapt from the plinth and set off with her four great springing legs and her hair telling of the wind, Kaafaha—malika Kaafaha—and Shams was with her.

The hunger in Shams became all for her, a hunger to touch her, to show her who he was and what he’d seen, to know her smells and her murmurs. He gave up his horse two days after their meeting and on foot forded thick wildernesses and forests, pressing hard at her side with his flame all for her, and his hunger (and hers, for she admitted it readily) bubbling in questions.

“How have you found your form so young?” This after she swatted down a leaping goat for their supper.

“I have always known my heart,” she said, stopping to lick her claws clean of the blood. “Where have you travelled that you love?”

“The Murra jar fields. I say it without hesitation. There are infinite picklings, buried for decades in the earth. I was seven days eating and never tasted the same flavor twice. Why do you run?”

“There is too much to see to walk. Why do you chase?”

“I always dreamed of you, I think. I didn’t know it, but it was you. Your strength. Your skill. Do you cook well?”

“Terribly. The goat is in your hands, Shams the Simmer Pot. What form will you be, would you be?”

“I can’t know that. We can’t all be as complete as you.”

“But I’m not finished.”

“Aren’t you?”

“No. Did you think—?”

Shams looked at her. They reclined upon a hill. Beneath them, across a field of wind-touched heather, lay the pinprick lights of a market town in twilight. “What more is there for you to be?”

“Oh, much and more! I never think of it, there is so much. I move where my heart wishes, and I become what it is I am. Do you think of it?”

He lay his head against the fur of her belly, thinking to the sound of her claws kneading the warm earth beside the fire where the goat cooked. “Always. I never cease. Not ever.”

“Always and nevers and evers. We are an eternal pair.”

“We have eternity between us.”

“And irony. And names. Shams the Speculating.” She pressed at the plates in his spine, and he felt pleasure like a chill.

He reached his fingers to her neck. “May I kiss you here?”

“Not yet.”

“I will make you my wife.”

“Not yet.”

“I love you.”

She lifted his face to her with the strength and silence of her limbs. “Not yet.”

Four days later, he gained the courage to ask her.

“There are many comfortable rooms for you to choose,” he was saying, “and there are gardens. In truth a garden, but it is very large. And there are two kitchens and always there is something delicious to smell and the slaves use fragrant soaps on the walls and floors and that smells very nice too. It is on a hill and there are views of the river in the autumn but in the spring, it is spring now, the ironwoods are too thick. But the ironwoods are nice to see even if they hide the river.”

They had left a resting house and were on a road north in the dew of the morning, Kaafaha at his side, moving slowly for once as she listened.

She stopped altogether. “You wish me to see your home? To meet your family?”

“It would please me greatly. Will you come?”

“Of course I will come! How beautiful of you to ask. How very beautiful.” She danced gently with him in the road, then demanded that they go right then and to know which way.

Shams took her south and east and she listened to him tell of his father’s house like a child listening at a knee. She loved the story of the lilies and the turtles and made kind fun of how he’d cried beside the overturned shells. She asked about and memorized his sister’s names and admitted nervousness, this pouncing malika nervous!, that she would soon be meeting his mother.

She loved old things, tombs and monuments and fallen places, ancient things that wore their stories with the dust, and so they were delayed seeing Zara’s Wall in Sormayi and the glass windows of the Fane over Banafsh. But they pressed onward at her high pace, and they were in his country before the heat turned, the atmosphere growing as a comfort to him, the land as familiar as a face. He did not stop in Tarazet Town. He could not wait, eagerness pumping through the heat of his heart, and instead he led Kaafaha along the river and up the hill to home.

They entered the gates, the ironwork ajar, the gates stubborn against the breeze with their familiar creaking, and it was the old path with the old terraces and the lemon tree he’d never fallen from and slaves working in the garden and at the laundry. Shams waved them to quiet, as was his custom, his favorite thing the delighted surprise on his family’s faces when he returned. Kaafaha seemed to devour everything with her eyes as they climbed the terraces, her body pressed close to his. They stopped beneath the iwan and washed each other’s feet. Then, on slippers, Shams led her into the study, where it was a roomful of women whom he loved.

The cries smote his heart. His sisters fell on him like rains and his mother made her own storm with her weeping. Kisses and kisses and kisses, questions and tugs, clucks at his weight. When he could he pulled free, and for the inquisitive gazes he swept his arm.

“This is Kaafaha of the Fers,” he said to their tears, “whom I am slave to in love.”

He had dreamed for days of the meeting—how his mother would look at her and appraise, how the girls would react to his love the malika.

“We are pleased to meet you,” said Mam very correctly. His sisters only stared.

Shams saw the disappointment beneath Kaafaha’s expression, saw discomfort in her neck even as she kept her posture and her smile.

But Shams felt his instinct turn in him. “What is wrong?” he asked his mother.

She opened her mouth and closed it. And he felt it then, the wrongness in the house. Wrong sounds. Wrong smells. Where was the coffee in the air? Where were the walnut shells in the rugs that his mother hated? Where was the sound of debate and bargaining?

Where was his father? “Where is Bab?”

The tears still more, and he saw them then for what they were.

“Tell me,” he said, demanding now.

And they told him.

Familiarity is a miracle. Suffer a strange time in a strange room among strange faces, the twist of misgiving, an unhappiness that feels like threat but is of a wickeder gloom for its causelessness. And visit that strange room twice and thrice and again, converse with or near those faces in this day and that. And the strange is by repetition transmuted into the comfortable, by the alchemy of time made as invisible as a well-worn divan. Familiarity is magic.

Shams, it seemed, was not deserving of such enchantment. This morning he washed his hands and face and he found in the west kitchen a fresh stew upon a platter beside the sharp-smelling herbs in their cold tea, the platter already assembled with the care of an offering. He carried it through the quiet of the house to the room, to the doorway that stood waiting for him, and here he stood working courage through his jaw. He pushed inside with his shoulder. He pushed inside to the fog of his father’s urine.

Kaafaha was there beside the bed reading from the Tales of Behrouz. “‘Be merciful, O Shining King,’” she was reciting, “‘and thrust thine blade through this evil heart.’ And great Fahd took up his sword and grasped his brother by the neck, and Fahd held the blade between them. ‘We are of the same womb, even the same flesh. What steel would pierce your breast would pierce mine the same.’ And the brothers wept together.”

Kaafaha stopped. She smiled as Shams came near. “He is awake.”

Shams stood at the bedside opposite her, and it was just as it had been the first time. Time was not easing this. There was no magic. His father’s palsy had left nothing familiar. The great size was gone, the many teeth now yellowing in a slack mouth, the scales shedding, the plates made brittle and loose in a back of breathing rib bones. His paralyzed father lay on one side facing Kaafaha, and together she and Shams turned him as the physician had instructed, and in the turning Shams saw the abscess like a bad plum beneath the skin at the base of the neck. The physician had drained and drained, but there was no easing. Always the swelling came back. An infection of the blood, said one sage. Of the bone, said another. A parasite, guessed a third, though very soon there was not hope enough even for sincere guesses.

And now it was constantly turn, feed, rags of feces, rags in urine, bathe and feed and turn, massage the limbs twice daily. Shams and his mother and his sisters would not allow the servants to do this. Even in grief was their family honor strong, pride a favorable crutch.

Struck down by we-do-not-know, and suffering in a useless body until we-know-not-when, that was what had become of the father of Shams. It was bright eyes watching Shams now, like gems in a corpse’s sockets.

Shams shivered. He forced himself to kiss the brow and to stay and to minister and to tell his father of the news of the markets, to tell his father’s eyes of the news while the white-bearded face lay slacked in strangeness.

Before noon his sister came, and Shams left the room behind.

“I will be leaving soon,” said Kaafaha, walking with him.

“I know it. I am an ache all over for missing you, even now.”

She pressed her body to his as they walked the outer hall, the sun drifting their shadows across the floor in a dance repeated every window. “It won’t be so long,” she told him. “I will be here again before the feast of Tiregan. And I will send word to you from every post. I will drown you in letters.”

“Better touches. Better kisses.”

“Kisses are the surface of my lips, but my words are their substance. They are more of me.”

“I prefer then words with breath to feel on my cheek.”

“It cannot always be breaths and cheeks.”

“Can’t it?”

“You’d have me suffocate.”

“I’d have you.”

“You’d have me until there was nothing left. What would you save for a later time?”

He turned her where their stroll had taken them, out in a private place in the garden, and put his arms around her. “I do not trust in any lateness of time. Not anymore. Grasp and tightly and here and now, this is the way I have graduated to. Be my wife. Be here with me.”

“Not yet,” she said.

“And what else! Heaven and all goodness, but you do have a litany. My heart is yours, yours mine. What yet is there?”

She stepped free of his arms and sat, her four great feet neatly together, her tail curling around them. She looked at him seriously. “Your bab suffering and helpless, I see how this has cut you, and your cut is my wound. But you know that we cannot lurch forward, fearing ruin in ambush behind every minute. We cannot go fearing.”

“No, no, I would not have that. But I feel these days that time is hard about us like a cage, and the weight of it is as real as iron stripes. I am heavy. And soon you will be gone.”

She gathered him to her and kissed him. “I have something to show you,” she said, and led Shams from the garden. The house shared the hilltop with a shaggy grove of cedars that were blowing with hisses right then in the wind. Kaafaha wove through the trunks and Shams followed, nervous at his heat amidst the wood. But the branches still wore their spring wetness, and aside from the odd sizzle against his neck all was peaceful.

She padded steadily with her strong legs. Shams himself kept his eyes down at the poor terrain, and when he looked again he saw her gift.

“Oh, my Kaafaha,” he said. “Oh, what have you done?” Was she a sorceress, to transport his mind so quickly? Sorrow was fleeing miles away as he circled the clearing where she had been working. She had used his sketches, that much he could see. The minaret in reality had not penetrated the Great Bedeguar so deeply, but he had made their collision more dramatic in his ink to signify the violence he’d felt by their ruin. She had recreated it perfectly.

“What did you use?” he asked her. “Limestone?”

“Serpentine.”

It was remarkable, the detail, the Ghaveyi ruins sculpted in miniature. In truth just a portion of the city was captured. That part where they’d met. Shams crouched beside the tiny archways and peered where the sunlight that slanted through the cedar trees fell in gleams to light her work. There was the library, and the stone hero fallen across the road. And oh, by his life, she’d somehow etched songs in the delicate fiction.

Ghosts remember love in nitred doors, diptychs and dusts,

And leave aching inks for their lores, diptychs and dusts.

 

Taproots of today’s confessions were born in the earth

Beneath green air, below roads, before diptychs and dusts.

 

The river swallowed the city south in trails of tales.

Eddying faded songs, its torrents bore diptychs and dusts

 

The winters rimed wine in crusts along the balustrades

And hanged, with ornamental hoars, diptychs and dusts.

 

A wrinkled sundown lay pooled in leighs of ash tree samara,

Its light speared by clouds of war, diptychs and dusts.

“You are impossible,” he said in a small breath. “A marvel.”

“It is not finished. I have gained permission from your mother,” she said with triumph, “and I will return and add to it. And return. And return. No matter how far you travel, or I, or we together, we can have this place for our own.”

The fire inside Shams was turning, filling him with a bursting hot hunger, and he would have gulped down every leaf and every tree, the stones and earth, the home and the hill and world for his want of her. “Stay,” he said, and the low branches blackened and curled by his breath. “Stay. Stay. Stay.” The light in the wood began to waver in his heat. She sat with him, sweating but unmoved, and she let him hold her and she let him kiss her, and no more. His hunger remained inside.

He slept that night upon a stone jetty beside the river, that his hunger start no fires. He slept like a flame itching in the hearth.

He was late when he returned. She was gone when he returned. He read her letter from three paces without touching it lest it burn, and he ate four quartered chickens and drank seven ewers of tea and drank five more ewers before he was quenched enough to enter his father’s room.

The next night it was several sides of beef flesh and the house’s entire store of cider—peach, apple, and pear.

And it was three mounds of squashes the morning after.

And then it was a custom, no less than nine baskets of vegetables every day, twenty fishes or fowl or nine cuts of rich meat every third. Of the pitchers he could not count.

By the end of the month he had a new name in the rumors of the town. What burned through nutriment with such fervor could scarce be called simmering. No, the son of the rich man on the hill, who had travelled but was home now, loving slave to his father’s health, that young man was known very quickly as Shams the Consuming.

When she returned just days before the feast of Tiregan, she had feathers in her hair.

Rather, as she came close and thrust her face in his neck, better said her hair was becoming feathers. They lay across her shoulders, blue and gray pinions soft against his palm.

“Do you like them?” she asked in their embrace. “I was above the Noghre’i River in chase after an outlaw. I caught him! The people made me a daughter of their town and we feasted, and the old men danced for us. And when it was finished, after I’d slept, I felt the first one tickling my back. Do you like them?” she asked.

“I’ve never touched a more perfect thing,” said Shams the Consuming. The feathers’ softness was a brush upon his knuckles, but when he pressed he felt the steeltrap strength in their spines.

Later he demonstrated his new appetite at dinner, and that night he showed her how they could play in the river steam that his heat brought hovering up like ghostly mushrooms.

Every day she carried his sketches to the cedars and added to their sculpted city ruin. Every day Shams sat and spoke to the fierce light in his father’s eyes, and every day she was with him.

She was with him for just above a half-month and then she was gone again, north and east over the mountains this time.

She returned in the late summer then left again, and returned and was gone.

“Come with me,” she would say on their walks.

“Not yet,” he would say, thinking of his father’s eyes, wondering at his father’s thoughts.

“Stay with me,” he would say in his father’s room.

“Not yet,” she would say, stronger every time.

Visit by visit their little ruined city grew. Visit by visit the feathers became her hair until all from breast to crown was plume. Her widest smile became wider. Her mouth became polished and sharp by the mold of passion and experience. Her voice came from the deep rumbling of her furred body or from the pure clear sharpness of her feathered throat, or from one to the other in mid speech, purring then keening, and her gaze grew large, sharp as swordpoint, the brown of her eyes a liquid gold.

“Do you like it?” she said with every new change.

“It is perfection,” he said, harder every time.

It was after his friends the Cinnabar lords made their visit that Shams knew to build the temple.

The hill was in the crisp of autumn when he could sit at the gates and see the riot of fallen leaves slide their way west along the river top. Mam and Fairuzah and Gol, his first and third sisters, had taken charge of the businesses. Atefeh and Shahrzad and Mahin were off in the world finding their form. The doctor was coming every day and telling them to prepare. And Shams the Consuming thought it would be bitterly unpoetic for his father to die in the dying season.

Thus it was into a quiet household that the brother lords Babak and Sardar and Jamshid came riding. They arrived in three wagons, and each dismounted with a flourish and a smile and a sweep of his arm to introduce his bride.

“Zahra of Zabool,” said the youngest brother, speaking of the tall horned woman who saluted in a soldier’s way.

“Mojgan of Mashhad,” said the second brother, this of the even taller woman whose hair rose in waving spires like seaweed. She swept a foamy gown and bent to kiss Shams upon his cheek, and he pulled away courteously that she might not burn herself.

“Arza of Ardabil,” said the eldest brother, whose wife bowed with a splay of very long and delicate fingers.

Supper was ready on the low table in the garden. All was laid in the traditional way, as his father would have done. The heavy dishes, the eight types of kebab and the pomegranate stew with fish balls, these were set in the center. Outward went the small dishes, the stir-fried pumpkin on its salad, the sliced deep-green kuku with onions and saffron cooked into the eggs, the roasted tomatoes cut into suns. For desserts they had bowls of peaches and sour cherries and a confection made from pistachios and the sticky dew from the anus of the insect called gaz.

“Where is that famous woman?” Babak the eldest finally asked.

Shams made a smile. “She is travelling. It is one of her great joys, haunting the old places of the world, as you three once did.”

“And continue to do,” said Jamshid the youngest. “From here, in fact, we turn our teams for the Golzar valleys. We have heard rumor of hidden caskets in the catacombs there. It makes the now feel large and full, pushing around in the past, does it not?”

“I have heard she was seen in Qom,” said Sardar the middle brother, “running with the panthers across the sands.”

Jamshid raised his brows. “Qom’i panthers? She can run so fast?”

“It may have been another woman,” said Shams.

“With your love of travel, do you plan to marry here or abroad?” asked the lady Arza of Ardabil.

Shams finished his cup of wine. “There is some debate about that.”

Arza looked to her husband Babak and again to Shams and smiled.

“Well,” said Sardar, and he looked at Mojgan of Mashhad.

“Well,” she said. “We will honor the day, when it comes.”

“Indeed,” said Babak.

“Yes, yes,” said Jamshid.

Shams afterward drank too much wine.

It was in the haze of the evening after his guests had retired, while Shams walked the hill eating the remains of supper from a sack, holding the meats and fruits in his mouth until they sizzled before he swallowed them down, that the vision of the temple swam up in his mind. It came whole and abrupt and shining. And he knew how wrong he had been.

But now!, ah now he saw his way. He spent that night entire in the cedar grove with his face to the ground in survey or pacing possible foundations. At dawn he returned to break his fast and wish his guests farewell, and then took up his paper and ink and was again among the trees with his fingers stained black.

He negotiated with his mother for funds and before seven days had dispatched some fifty letters—commissioning workers, drafters, builders, submitting offers for payment and rejecting counter offers and negotiating in ways that would have made his father proud.

He bought stones from the fallen Eternal Towers, tiles of fine glaze from the private mosque of ancient Queen Yasmin. He bought the Fane over Banafsh outright and ordered it transported piece by piece and waged a small war with the caretaker abbot for seven of the famed glass windows. Beams, censers, mimbar, rugs, caskets, urns from the Nzingas’ sarcophagi, great stone reliefs from the Yaunas, the bath from the ruined seraglio in Isfahan, he gathered them in his family’s storehouses and erected new storehouses when those old were filled.

Kaafaha returned thrice during his work, and it was with intense curiosity that she would watch and wonder at the activity hidden within their grove.

“Leave off your carvings this visit,” he would say with belly-felt smiles. “Soon, you will know, my fineness. Very soon.”

His father survived the autumn and the winter, the fierce light in his eyes never fading, and Shams took this as inspiration.

He finished in the spring, and the auspices of this were not lost on him.

She was due to return from her latest travel on a day just following a shower, when the sun was spears of light from a still-clouded sky. It was the custom for Shams to meet her at his gates, but here instead he dressed himself in the trousers he’d ordered made for the occasion—those and the jacket, with the seams cut for his plates, made of glossed fabrics to withstand his heat—and he set off to await her in the grove, leaving word for her with the slaves.

When he watched his creation in the sunlight, and when he walked through its rooms, it was difficult to remember the madness he’d suffered in raising it. Twice he had believed it impossible and quit with swells of terrible heat, only to awake the next day convinced of the effort’s rightness, and beauty, and necessity. And that was the heart. Here was a thing, finally, that proved his strength and mind. Here was a gift for a malika.

Shams was strolling the entryway, lost inside his thoughts, when he heard a commotion from the house. He stepped quickly from the temple into the clearing in the grove. The cedars were thinner for the many he’d felled, and he could see the slaves on the terraces standing with their faces to the sky, hands above their eyes. He heard shouting.

Shams the Consuming felt a twist in his belly. What was this now? His instinct was to look first at the gates, and there he saw nothing, then higher to the house and nothing of his mother or his sisters. Only after he had searched for his loves did he follow the gazes skyward. And Shams lost his heart.

She came from the west so that her shadow sped across the clearing, and then she was in view, and Shams had only a moment to understand before she landed in a whirl of dust and leaf and wind, her tail out stiffly, her rear feet grasping the turf, her claws in front poised in the air before dropping down for purchase.

Shams watched her four heavy legs slow from a lope to a walk, even as she took in his gift with her eyes.

“Oh, my chaser,” she said in her purred way. “Oh, what have you done.”

There had been words, Shams swore—much he had prepared to say. In their place, though now, was only the silence of ideas greater than words. The silence of emotion larger than the body. Shams could say nothing and could think nothing. Could only stare at Kaafaha of the Fers, his dear malika, and her wings.

There were the balconies and the portico and the muqernas up high, and the domed tower that was the Tomb Tower of Hermits with the ancient bell inside. Kaafaha danced the grove and praised them all, laughing, exclaiming, shedding tears along her hooked polished mouth. And Shams followed.

The entryway was a mosaic floor tiled with artifacts from a dozen fallen temples and mosques, and it was high-beamed ceilings lit by lamps from seven different crypts. Kaafaha turned a circling amble inside the entryway. And Shams followed.

The baths, the kitchen, the library with scrolls in dead tongues, the courtyard where nestled her unfinished carving of their city ruin, Kaafaha ran one to the next without rhyme or pattern, dashing as she would. And Shams followed.

At last she raced along a passageway, missing entirely an alcove where sat the plinth from Ghaveyi where first they had exchanged words, which would have been the culmination of their tour through the temple if the intention of Shams had been allowed, if they were not now speeding through his work without a care.

“Won’t you be still!” he snapped, his voice echoing among the pillars.

In the silence she returned to him. “I am sorry, my chaser. But this beautiful thing you have made... I cannot help myself.”

“No,” he said, “you help yourself too much.”

“Have I misunderstood?”

“I had a plan. I had intention that was, as is our apparent custom, made blot by your own.”

She reached for him. “My apologies, my love. Please, I will behave.”

He pulled away from her. “Have you heard jesting in my voice? Then I have failed, and I say this now with every sincerity in my fiber: you move too much. If the wind makes a turn, then naught is possible but that you flit to see where it leads. If a speck falls upon your left thigh, you inspect at the expense of your right. You hear nothing but your own yearning. You see nothing but shades from the colors of your last dream. Why will you not be still?”

She watched him with her head cocked aside, her newly golden eyes seeming aware of his every bone. “You are not speaking only of today,” she said.

“Do you love me?”

“More than I have ever loved a soul.”

“Then why won’t you be where I need you to be?”

“Where I would be is element to who I am, and I cannot be less than she.”

“And who are you?”

“Your fineness, as you are my chaser.”

“It is not fineness to abandon your beloved for adventure, for ambition. And I have not chased you in some time.”

“Nor chased anything. But I had hoped that after—”

“You hoped my father would die. And then you would have me for your play.”

“No! By my life, no! I only wished to give you your time, however long it may be.”

Shams was pacing, the heat was pouring from his skin, from his plates, from his nose. “You ran so fast, that long ago, and I loved you for it. My fleet malika. But you could never stop, never slow, never let me catch you up. And now wings.”

“Do you like them?” she asked.

“No. No, they do not please me. You say you love me, but everything you become takes you further from me. You are violence. You are flight. You are filled with animal groaning and know none of human compassions. And here is the truth. You are a beast.”

She reared then, and the emotion came from her throat in a keen. Her raptor’s eyes were wide. Her sharp mouth was wide. “Your slow weakness is not my curse,” she declared, her voice whipping. “Would you run at my speed? Push faster! Would you fly as I fly? Climb the mountains I have climbed, taste the airs I have swallowed. I love you, the chaser. Not this brood hen you would be. And no matter how pretty the framing, I see your coop for what it is.”

She flapped her great wings thrice, lifting from the carefully laid floor, and Shams saw what she was about. He dashed, crying, “Here! Fleeing again!” He made the doorway before she and ran onto the portico and closed the doors behind him. “Be still,” he cried through the great arabesqued wood, “and listen.”

The doors pushed at him, but he held them fast with his own strength, and the elation at his strength churned the fire so that his hands smoked on the wood and marked it with black prints. And even then he underestimated his malika.

The blow that took the doors from their hinges took with it Shams from his feet, and he and the antique wood went scattering along the stones into the brush of the cedar grove. She alighted not far from him, swishing her tail and growling low in her furred belly. She began to speak, perhaps to make a peace, perhaps to mock. But the fire in Shams was an agony, such a pressure filling him, stretching him, that he opened his mouth and he belched the fire at her. He felt the flames roaring between his teeth and watched them stab in orange for her breast.

Her wings were already high. She snapped them down and together, and with a thump the wind struck Shams with force. He fell again, his fire snuffed, and when he looked she was already above the trees and climbing in strokes for the sky.

“Gone again!” cried Shams. He climbed to his feet and spat his new fire at the temple. He took great breaths and spewed until the stones glowed red. He stalked in circuits around its walls until the windows melted and popped. He circled and circled, his mouth open wide and fire pouring forth, as the blue tiles melted and the beams inside caught. The cedars of the grove were burning, and Shams was surrounded in flame when the temple collapsed on itself and covered him in ash, the black plume of ruin rising to the sky.

He never saw which way she’d flown.

A man may believe he has outgrown childish habits. He may lay them down and pile atop them new etiquettes, new styles, stack the shape of manhood high and well and neatly. But there come times when paths are rough, and those stacks of styles are knocked aside, and what remains are the old childish habits, low and musty and warm.

Shams slept in his own quarters and ate in the garden, but all other hours he was a boy in his father’s room. He would talk at times and sit silently at times, and his father would watch with those gem-fierce eyes.

His father was by now himself slight as a child when Shams turned him, the crumbling body as ever a strangeness beneath those familiar eyes.

Shams had just arranged his father and was standing at the bedside washing the face with a cloth, his own fire once more a bare simmer. He did not hear the door open, and it was with a small start that he felt his mother draw near.

“He is strong,” said Shams.

“He is angry,” said his mother.

“At his illness.”

“No, child. With you.”

It was a wound, and Shams looked at her with his hurt nakedly. “You say that because you are angry with me.”

“I? Child, I am only sad.”

“Have you told him? Of the fire?”

“He knows. But his anger is much older than that. Have you not noticed the rage in his eyes? Have you not noticed the way he looks upon you?”

She was wrong. “That is the light of his strength. I have seen it since first I returned home.”

“It ignited when first you came home. That light is only for you, child. It does not flash for me, or your sisters, and did not for Kaafaha when she was in your favor. You came to this room in love, but it was by fear you continued, and by fear you remain in this house instead of putting to passion the gifts we have given you. You displease him, for your cowardice.”

“You cannot know that.”

“I know my husband.”

Shams watched his father watching, and Shams felt a coldness in his face. “He needs me.”

She did not speak harshly because she knew, as he did, that she did not have the need. The words themselves cut.

“My husband is no man’s excuse.” And she bowed to Shams as she would a caller, and she walked away.

Shams chose to leave on a day of rain. He stood in his travel clothes at the gates, being washed by the shower, and he ducked under the curtains of the parasols to kiss Gol and Fairuzah goodbye.

Last was his mother.

“Read my letters to him,” said Shams. “And try to get word to me when the day comes.”

She promised. “Do you know how to find her?” she asked.

“She is of the Fers. Her mother is named Banu, and her father... I have forgotten. I have not been a good man, Mam.”

“You have time,” she said.

“Tell Mahin and Atefeh and Shahrzad I miss them,” he called on his way down the hill.

He picked up the pace of his walk after he crossed the river. By the time the hill was out of view he was running. He kept his face to the sky, reckless in the wet, and he thought of her flying, and he dreamed by hope of his own wings, to chase her.

And the rain on his face began to steam.


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Michael Anthony Ashley writes in Georgia, USA.  You can find him at michaelanthonyashley.com.

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