I was in bed. A bed, at any rate.
I had been flattened by a steam-roller, trampled under a stampede of bison. Beaten by a determined thug. I ached, head to toe, fingers and skin. Mostly head.
My skull throbbed, one hot pulse for every beat of my heart. I could see it in the rhythmic dimming of an already shadowy room. I wanted to weep with the pain, but if I had to blow my nose, my skull might split like an overripe melon.
So I lay in the dim room, and watched my heart beat, and ached.
Some time later, it came to me that the angle of the vague patch of brightness across the opposite wall had changed. Some time after that, an explanation slipped out between the pain-pulses: The sun had moved while I slept. A while later, another thought: Time is passing.
And with that, a tendril of urgency unfurled. I could not lie in bed, I had to be somewhere. People were depending on me. The sun would go down: I would be late.
Rolling onto my side was like pushing a motorcar up a hill. Raising myself up from the thin pad made me cry out — nearly black out — from the surge of pressure within my skull. My stomach roiled, my ears rang, the room whirled.
I crouched for a long time on the edge of the bed. Slowly, the pounding receded. My vision cleared, revealing a snug roughly plastered room; hand-made floor tiles; a tawny herringbone of small bricks; a door of some dark wood, so narrow a big man might angle his shoulders, a hook driven into it, holding a long brown robe; a pair of soft yellow bedroom slippers on the floor — babouches, my mind provided: new leather, my nose told me. The room’s only furniture was a narrow bed with a rough three-legged stool at its head. The stool served as a table, its surface nearly covered with disparate objects: in the centre stood a small oil lamp. To its left, nearest the bed, were arranged a match-box, a tiny ceramic bowl holding half a dozen spent matches, a glass of water, and a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles that appeared to have been trod upon. The other side of the lamp had an even more peculiar collection: a worn pencil stub, a sausage-shaped object tightly wrapped in a handkerchief, some grains of sand, and one pale stone.
I studied the enigmatic display. The little bowl caused a brief memory to stir through the sludge that was my brain: As I slept, the sound of a match scratching into life would wake me; the sharp smell would bite my nostrils; faces would appear and make noises; I would say something apparently sensible; the faces would bend over the light, and with a puff, I would be back in the shadows, alone.
My hand reached out, hesitated over the water, rejected it, and picked up the spectacles instead. I winced as they settled between my ears and the snug head wrap I wore, but the room came into focus.
The matches also came into focus: a cheap, bright label, in French. I picked up the box, slid it open, my nose stung by the smell of sulphur. Four matches. I took one, scraped it into life, held it to the oil lamp. A spot of warmth entered the room.
By its thin light, I looked down at what I wore. Drab homespun trousers and tunic. Bare feet. The clothing was clean, but not my hands. They looked as if someone had tried to wipe away a layer of some dark greasy matter, leaving stains in the deeper creases and under the nails.
I stretched the left one out nearer the lamp. Motion caused the flame to throw dancing shadows across the room. When it had steadied, I frowned at the finger-nails to which I was attached.
The light of a candle/the sunshine smell of linen/the slope of ceiling/the soft throat of a young girl asleep/the blood on my hands —
The bolt of memory shocked me to my feet. I swayed, the room roaring in my ears, my eyes fixed on the flat, slope-free ceiling. Don’t look down (blood on my hands) — don’t think about the hand’s memory of the smooth, intimate glide of sharp steel through flesh.
I ventured a step, then another, towards the shuttered window.
To my surprise, the latch flipped beneath my awkward fingers, and when the hinges creaked open, there were no bars. Why had I expected to be a prisoner?
The brilliance was painful, even though the sky was grey with unshed rain. I lifted a hand to shade my eyes, and squinted at the view: a dirty, cobbled lane far too narrow for any motorcar. One could have passed an object between opposing windows — had there been windows. I saw only one, higher even than mine, tiny and tightly shuttered. I could see two entranceways off this diminutive alley: One had been painted with brightly coloured arabesques, long ago, and comprised a small door inside a larger one, as if the carpenter had learned his craft on castles and cathedrals. The door across from it was a single rectangle, black wood heavily studded with rusting iron circles the size of my thumb-nail. Around them, grubby whitewash, a fringe of grass on the rooflines, chunks of plaster flaking from walls that bulged and slumped. In one place, wooden braces thirty feet from the ground kept two buildings from collapsing into each other.
The house I was in seemed to be the lane’s terminus; thirty feet away, beneath the slapdash web of braces, the passageway turned to the right and disappeared.
I pushed the shutters wider open, intending to lean out and examine the face of the building below me, then took a step back as the left-hand door came open and a woman emerged. She was swathed head to toe in pale garments, with a straw bag in one hand and a child’s hand in the other. She glanced down the alleyway, her eyes on a place well below me, and I could see her brown, Caucasian features and startling blue eyes. She pulled her scarf up over her face and tugged the child down the lane, vanishing around its bend.
Arabic; French; woman in a robe — djellaba, the internal dictionary supplied, although that did not seem quite right. Those clues combined with the woman’s Berber features suggested that I was in North Africa. Algeria or perhaps Morocco. In a suq.
The knowledge of where was just beyond my grasp, like an elusive name on the tip of one’s tongue. Similarly, how I came to be here. And what had been so urgent it drove me to my feet. Or why I had blood on my hands.
Or, my name.
Who the hell was I?
Sweat broke out all over my body, despite the cold of the room. There was a good explanation, for everything. One that I would remember in a minute, once I could think around the pounding in my head. Or …
I turned to consider the narrow door. The shutters hadn’t been locked. Yes, the window was high and the drop to the lane sheer, but perhaps it meant that my situation was not the source of that feeling of urgency. That the water in the glass was not drugged. That the door led to assistance, to information. To friends, even.
My bare feet slapped across the cold tiles. I stopped beside the bed, transferring everything but the lamp, water, and bowl into my pockets, then moved over to the door and put my ear to the crack: nothing. My fingers eased the iron latch up until the tongue came free; the wood shifted towards me. I was not locked in.
The odours that washed over me threatened to turn my stomach over. Frying oil, onions, chicken, a panoply of spices — for some reason, I felt that if I were more experienced with their names, I would be able to identify each individual element of that sensory cloud.
I pushed aside the evidence of my nostrils, concentrating instead on my vision. The scrap of corridor was no more revealing than the view from the window: the same rough herringbone on the floor, cobalt-and-cream tiles halfway up the walls, with crisp whitewashed plaster above; another door; a tidy stack of straw baskets; the suggestion of a house off to the left. I took a step out: To my right, a stone stairway curled upward out of view — to the roof, I felt, although I could not have said why. Then I heard a voice — two voices, so distant, or behind so many doors, that I could not determine the language, much less the words.
But I could hear the tension.
For some reason, I reached around to the back of my waist-band, my fingers anticipating a cold weight nestled against my spine, but there was nothing. After a moment’s consideration, I drew a breath, and stepped out. Nothing happened.
I crept down the hall to the left and took up a position just before the bend, not venturing my head into the open. The voices were clearer now, the rhythms suggestive of Arabic. Cool air moved across my face and the light around the corner was daylight, not lamps, as if the walls of the house had been sliced away. Words trickled into my mind. Dar: a house of two or three storeys built around a ground-level courtyard, open to the sky; halka: its wide central sky-light; riad: a house whose inner courtyard was a garden.
Another brief internal flash: clipped green rectangle/rain-soaked brick walls/figures in academic gowns/the odour of learning —
I was gathering myself for a step towards that light when a harsh sound juddered through the house, coming from below and behind me at the same time. I hurried back into my tiny cell and across the tiles to peer downwards into the narrow lane —
No mistaking that blue uniform and cap: two armed French soldiers, pounding on the door below.
Aimless urgency blew into open panic: I could not be taken by them, it was essential that I remain free, that I get to —
To where? To whom? But while I might have given a single gendarme the benefit of the doubt, armed soldiers could only be a declaration of war. I snatched the robe from the hook, stepped into the slippers, and made for the curve of steps leading up.
The upper door’s iron latch opened easily. Outside was a terrace roof around an iron-work grid, open to the house below. On one side was strung a bare laundry line; the furniture consisted of six pots of winter-dead herbs and a pair of benches. The rooftop was empty — had I known it would be? — but it smelt of rain, the drips on the clothes-line showing that it had been recent. The air was very cold.
I worked the robe over my head — it was like a sack with a hood, and to my relief smelt only of wool and soap. I picked up the stick supporting the centre of the clothes-line and brought down one slippered foot on its centre, snapping it in two; jamming the sharp end beneath the door would slow pursuit. And the rope itself — that would be useful. I reached for my ankle, but found only skin where my fingers seemed to expect a knife.
Neither knife nor handgun: not friends, then.
I abandoned the line to make a quick circuit of the rooftop, keeping well clear of the open grid, lest someone looking up see me. All around lay a tight jumble of buildings, their rooftops — squared, domed, and crenellated; brick and stone and tile; crisply renovated or crudely patched or on the point of collapse — at a myriad of levels, like the world’s largest set of children’s blocks. The town covered slopes dropping into a valley; higher hills, green with winter rains, lay in the distance. Here and there, tree-tops poked up between the structures, but there was no discernable break for roads, and the buildings were so intertwined that they appeared to be resting atop one another. Certainly they were holding each other upright — I had seen that from the window below. Several green-roofed minarets sticking above the architectural confusion confirmed that I was in North Africa.
As I circled the rooftop, my fingers automatically laid claim to a few small items left by the women-folk whose territory this was — a pocket-mirror with cracked glass, a tiny pot of kohl, a pair of rusting scissors too delicate to part the laundry rope — and automatically thrust them through the djellaba’s side-slits to the pockets beneath.
The circuit ended, I was faced with a decision: The easiest descent was the most exposed; the most surreptitious way might well kill a person with a head as dizzy as mine.
I looked out over the town, where a faint suggestion of emerging sun was bringing an impression of warmth to the grey, tan, and whitewashed shapes. Weeds sprouted on every flat surface, and storks’ nests. Weren’t those supposed to be good luck? I hoped so. The town’s overall texture had an almost tactile satisfaction that reminded me of something. Something I had seen, touched — honeycomb! But not comb neatly bounded by a wooden frame: wild honeycomb, with orderly hexagons filling up the bumps and hollows of rock or tree. My eyes squinted, making the town blur; the aroma of honey seemed to rise up …
Stop: time for decisions, not distractions. I went to the low wall overhanging a neighbour’s house — then ducked down as a door twenty feet away scraped open and two women came out, arguing furiously in a language I did not know. As I vacillated between waiting for this safer route and risking the other, the door behind me rattled.
Without further consideration, I scurried across the rooftop, pushed through a narrow gap, and dropped down to a wall-top eight feet below. My earlier glance had shown me a glimpse of tiled courtyard through the branches of an orange tree, with this foot-thick wall separating it from a derelict garden next door. I settled my yellow babouches onto the weedy bricks, fixed my gaze on the vestigial window-sill twenty feet away, then balanced like a tight-rope walker across the ragged surface to the abandoned building beyond. Fearful of pursuit, I stepped over the gap and inside — and my heart instantly seized my throat: The brick walls bled light like lace-work; the floor was mostly missing. The entire structure seemed to sway with the addition of my weight.
I stood motionless until bits of mortar and wood stopped drifting down. The breath I took then was slow, but fervent.
Moving with extreme caution, I drew the hand-mirror from my inner pocket and, keeping it well away from the light, held it up to reflect the rooftop behind me. The soldiers came into view.
From Garment of Shadows by Laurie R. King. Copyright 2012 by Laurie R. King. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc.