Sometimes a single decision can haunt us for the rest of our lives, however short a time that may be. It seems so innocent in the beginning. But then the effects transform from a tiny ripple into a gathering swell, and then finally into an all-consuming wave of destruction.
As human nature dictates, we never see this in advance.
No matter the warning signs, we continue to march steadfastly towards our own doom, eyes fixed on anything but the horizon.
So it was that Ali, possessing all the common failings of a man, married the Woman as quickly as it could be arranged. Witnesses to the ceremony whispered that she was an odd sort of bride. No-one on the bride’s side of the family had attended, and instead of a white gown she had worn a dress of bright vermillion.
But Ali took no notice of his gossiping guests.
And if he did, he chose to disregard them entirely.
‘You’re already my favourite wife,’ he told her. ‘I have no doubt you will not disappoint me. Is there anything I may give you, a wedding gift to show my gratitude?’
‘There’s only one thing I desire,’ she replied. ‘If you can always supply me with new books to read, then I will always be yours.’
He nodded approvingly. ‘A woman’s mind should be kept busy to keep her body out of trouble.’ He laughed, but she did not.
‘Promise me that you’ll always bring me books.’
‘Always, my love. I will gather every book in the kingdom, and it will be yours as long as you keep me satisfied.’
Weeks trickled by as a library was constructed in the vizier’s home and then filled with books from all over the kingdom. From then on, when she wasn’t at the beck and call of her husband, she was absorbed in the marvellous tales which Ali bought from the merchants.
But soon he discovered that she devoured each book faster than he could procure the next one. After some thought, he requested counsel with his king.
‘You’re going to great lengths to please only one wife,’ warned the king. ‘Perhaps she’s not as worthy as you presume.’
‘I feel she’s worth the effort, my king. But books are scarce here. Each new volume costs dinars more than it should as they become rarer and rarer. Yet I find her always lacking.’
‘And what do you request from me?’
‘I ask permission to send a ship to neighbouring ports. They’ll have a supply chain for foreign books, and I can acquire more there.’
‘You’ll go broke from such needless expenditure,’ the king waved his hand as if swatting a fly. ‘Forget the idea altogether. It’s a stupid man who would throw away his fortune for a woman. And a reckless man to approach kings over such frivolous dealings. Take my advice not as your king, but as your friend. No woman is worth this much.’
The king laid a hand on his shoulder, but Ali suddenly thought of the king’s own exquisite library. ‘Perhaps I could purchase some of your collection…’ he began, but the king grimaced.
‘Forget her books and leave. I don’t want to hear of it again.’
Ali lay on his back, his dark eyes lustreless and staring. Outside the window the moon glared into the room. His chest moved with each slow breath, the air whistling from between his lips.
He had retired to bed earlier than usual, struck with a severe headache.
His new wife had followed him soundlessly and found him lying unconscious on the bed. She bound each wrist and ankle to a bed post and sat beside him, waiting. As the night deepened, Ali finally woke with a start.
His eyes landed on her.
‘What’s happening?’ he demanded.
‘Why do you deny me the gift you promised when we married?’ she paused to watch his reaction. ‘I have kept my side of the bargain, have I not?’
‘You ungrateful bitch,’ he snarled, but was checked by the fierceness in her golden eyes. They reminded him of wolf eyes gleaming from the shadows.
She leaned back in her seat, crossing her legs. ‘I have given you my body, my affection, and my loyalty. I share a bed with you. I come running to you every time you call, like a mindless dog, and degrade myself in performing whatever whim you conjure up.’
Her voice softened, but there was an icy edge to each word that made his blood run cold.
‘All I ask,’ she continued, ‘is that you keep your promise. And you haven’t.’ She picked up an object from the bedside table. ‘I want to tell you a story. In a faraway land, there’s a tribe of men and women who live deep within the jungles. While they look primitive to us, they are in fact far wiser than any of our most esteemed scholars. They can make elixirs to cure diseases we have no known cure for, and they can craft poisons more potent than any we have dealt with. These people are also expert hunters. Yet they do not use brute force to run down their prey. No – they use darts tipped with poison; a poison they extract from a certain blue frog native to their lands. Do you know what the effect is should it come in contact with your blood?’
He remained silent, his eyes fixed on the tip of the dart she held in her hand. As she lifted it over his head, he began to writhe under the ropes, but before he could make a sound, she sunk it into his neck.
He convulsed and then grew stiff.
The king was in a dark mood. A city guard had brought him news that his vizier had been murdered as he slept at home in his bed. No-one had heard or seen anything. It wasn’t until noon of the next day that his servants had discovered his body.
The king arranged to visit the house himself, and pay his respects to the body of a trusted adviser and an old friend.
Never had he seen such a disturbing sight.
The dead man’s face was contorted into an expression of horror. His lips were bloodless and white, while his skin had turned green in places with rot. But it was the smell which sickened him most of all. The man’s body exuded a rich sickly sweetness, like the hold of a slave ship overrun by the plague.
The king knew he had died a terrible death.
But he also knew that his vizier had made many enemies, and it was not uncommon for the wealthy to hire poisoners to do their dirty work.
Pushing the thought from his mind, he stepped out onto the balcony overlooking his gardens. He felt momentarily ill. The sweet fragrance of the flowers reminded him of the poisonous odour of the dead man.
Suddenly a figure stepped out before him so unexpectedly it made him jump. She came forward, stopping in front of the king.
The dark locks of her hair hung in loose curls which tumbled down to her waist. The warm, creamy silk of her dress clung tightly to her body. Dragonflies, embroidered with gold thread, flew across her skirt and shone in the last rays of daylight.
She appeared chimerical, beautiful, and impossible to reach.
‘Greetings,’ he called out pleasantly.
She smiled in return, her golden eyes lively and full of laughter.
It touched his heart to see the adoration that shone so clearly from her face into his.
But she wasn’t thinking of the king.
She was thinking of all he would give her if she could bend him to her will. She was thinking of a vast library full of books; books which were portals to other worlds and different lives.
Books that offered salvation.
Books which granted freedom.
And in time she would get precisely what she wanted because she dared to take it.
Once upon a time there lived a woman who had fought her fate and found an escape through books and treachery. Her family would not speak of her. The folk of her village refused to utter her name. But she was not the demon she was painted to be.
She was just a girl who refused to pay the price which all women must pay.
And I know this, because she was me.