But I was here for a flower, so I squeezed my hand around a stem and was about to break it free when I heard music.
I dropped the stem, leaving it to bounce on its bush for a moment, and looked in the direction of the music. An arched door stood open. Someone, a human, was in there playing one of their stringed instruments. An oud.
The notes fluttered upward, and then dove into a melody I recognized. I couldn’t name it, or remember when I had heard it, but it felt familiar. It was like breathing in a scent that made you sad, but not remembering why.
I should have gotten the flower and headed straight back, but I didn’t. I tiptoed to the doorway. It was darker inside, and after my eyes adjusted, I saw a young man about my age bending over an oud and plucking at the strings. His sun-darkened fingers danced over them.
I knew this song. It swirled around in my memory, elusive and haunting, but I couldn’t remember where or when it had come from. I was sure I’d never even heard an oud played before. Why did it sound familiar?
The young man finished playing and put down the oud; then he pulled off his turban, tossed it onto the floor, and ran his fingers through his hair. It stood up, messy and thick.
I pressed my back into the doorway and took in the room. Shelves lined the walls, filled with bound books. Charts covered in numbers and maps of the stars hung on the walls above the shelves, while scales brimming with broken rocks stood scattered on the single table in the room’s center. It was a kind of laboratory, but one in which human boys played music.
The music hung thickly in the air, like the scent of cinnamon, as he stood up and went to the table, taking two long strides before picking up a stone ball off one of the scales. He stared at the ball, which was so large he had to hold it with both hands. Then he turned it over, where it caught the light in milky-white layers. It was selenite. We used it to house the flames of our streetlights, but it was heavy. I had never seen anyone rolling it in his hands before, pressing it close to his face.
“How is this going to work?” he asked the almost-empty room.
My face started to tingle. Soon my shahtabi wish would fade, and he’d see me standing in his doorway. I backed out of the boy’s laboratory while he was still staring at the selenite ball. Then I turned and ran to one of the rosebushes.
I was in a pool of hot sunlight when the wish died out, with a thorn-riddled stem between two fingers. Quickly, I bent the stem till it snapped, gasping as the thorns pierced my skin, and held the rose tight against me.
“Mashila,” I whispered.
My body fell into a cloud of smoke and flame, and I dragged the rose with me, its bit of pink dusting the air like a blush.
“I dare you to cross it,” Destawan said. He pointed at the river rushing past us, its water bubbling and white with cold.
He was daring me to cross the bridge, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the bridge were still intact. But then it wouldn’t have been a good dare.
When the first spring melt happened, the river flooded and took with it bits of the bridge. The thick, woven ropes managed to stay on their posts, but most of the wooden strips were worn away and rotted. No one bothered to fix it, because there was a nice stone bridge just a few hundred feet down the river.
Destawan smirked. He was visiting from another village while his father came to trade with mine. He had gotten four of the children to follow him around, and it made him cocky. Or maybe he’d always been cocky.
“Don’t dare Zayele,” my brother Yashar said. He stared at Destawan with his unseeing eyes. “She’s a young woman now.”
“Then why is she here with us?” Destawan said. I rolled my eyes at Destawan, but he didn’t notice. He pointed at the bridge again. “They said you were the fastest climber, so it’s either that or Truth.”
I’d only known Destawan for a day, but I knew he wasn’t going to give me an easy question to answer. He’d want me to admit to something humiliating. I’d rather fall in the river than give him that.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“Don’t worry about me. It’ll be easy.” I moved away from the children. They had come to see what Destawan would dare me to do. Now they ran alongside me, saying stupid things like “Don’t do it, Zayele,” and “It’s just a dare.” I ignored them and fixed my hijab so the wind wouldn’t blow it off my head. Then I took off my shoes and carried them in one of my hands.
“Zayele,” Yashar whispered. “Please.” He reached out for me, and I turned to take his hand, guiding him down to the start of the bridge. We stepped over the broken rocks and the clumps of green grass. Everything was clean and bright today, glowing beneath gray clouds.
Down by the bridge, the water roared, crashing into the biggest of the boulders that stood in the middle of the river. The boulders dared the water to take them down.
Destawan laughed and jumped up on a giant brown rock that flanked the river. We stood there for a moment in the shadow of the gorge, watching water flow by. The bridge was only a few feet above the river, but it wasn’t the fall that would hurt. It was the rapids. Yashar gripped my hand and wouldn’t let go.
“It’s really not that bad,” I told him. “The wood’s almost gone, but there’s so much rope. I could walk it blindfolded.” Bad choice of words, I realized.
“Are there any rotted bits on the rope? Does it look secure?” Yashar hadn’t always been such a worrier, but since he’d gone blind, things bothered him more than they used to. I patted his shoulder.
“It’s not that far, really. Just twenty or thirty feet.” I pulled my hand out of his and set down my shoes. Then I smiled at Destawan. “If I fall in the river, be sure to tell my father it was all your idea.” He paled, which only spurred me on. Be careful what you dare, I guess.
The bridge used to have wooden planks on which to walk, but they’d rotted away, leaving only a scattering of weakened planks and the thick ropes that had been the railing. Each of these ropes was tied to a boulder on the river’s bank. The ropes were made from woven grass, as thick as my arm, and they were heavy and wet from last night’s rain.
I’d have to trust that whoever had woven the ropes had done a good job.
I grabbed onto one of the handrails with both hands. I walked sideways, holding on to one side of the bridge. I didn’t want to get spread out if the middle ties broke apart. Step by step, I moved along the rope. My ankles clicked together each time I finished a step. Within a few feet, I was out over the water.
My toes were turning blue in the cold, and beneath them was the white water. It was impossibly fast. I could swim, but not in that.
I had to keep moving. The wind was stronger here, coming down the gorge, and my hands were getting stiff. I stepped sideways, then brought my other foot up to the next one. After a while, I looked up to see how much farther I had to go. I was only halfway.
“Zayele!” the children screamed. I couldn’t tell if they were cheering for me or warning me, but I didn’t want to look back. I didn’t want to see their faces.
One more step. Then another. And another, with the water rushing, rushing past. Where did it all go?
I didn’t want to think of how cold it was. I only thought of movement, of the other side. And then, finally, my left hand touched something hard and unmoving. It was the wooden post on the far side.
Behind me, everyone cheered. I was shaking a little, but I turned around anyway and lifted a fist into the air. Then I cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted, “Your turn, Destawan!”
He shook his head and everyone laughed. Then he pointed at the village, and we all turned to see six horses trotting into the village center. We rarely had visitors this time of year, because the mountains were still frozen and no one had any crops yet.
I ran down to the other bridge, where I could cross over and get a closer look. Our village pushed up against the cliff, a little above the riverbank, and the horses and riders lined the street along the river. One of the horsemen carried the black banner of the Vizier of Baghdad. The vizier hadn’t been to our village since the night my uncle and his wife were murdered by jinn, and knowing this, something in me turned cold.