It was summer, and the widow Saida was crossing the salt flats on horseback, alone.
She had left the market at Qassif several days late, once the goods she sought, fresh figs and oranges and other fruits from al-Hamurah, had finally arrived. They were already suffering in the heat, and to take the lengthy ride around the flats would have cost her her cargo. To cross the flats on wing as the vultures did was a single day’s journey, but longer on foot or horse, for the flats were unmapped and treacherously hot.
After riding for nearly a day, she was lost. Salt and sand mingled in the heat, a haze of swimming light that tricked the eyes and made the sun one among a dozen false brothers. There was little water left. The heat was such that neither she nor the horse could go far without drinking.
That was when she found the oasis.
At first it seemed a mirage. But as she drew closer, plodding on towards what she hoped was east, she saw date trees rising from the ground beside it. The cool scent of water filled the air. In the oasis, half-ringed by the trees, lay a large pool. Beside it stood a single tent, and before the tent, sitting cross-legged on the ground, was an elderly man. His clothes and kufiyah were dark, his smile warm when she greeted him. He offered her a drink from the pool. Sweeter than honey, the water was, and she drank gratefully. They sat a while in silence.
“You have not asked me who I am,” the man observed. “Or what this place is.”
Saida shook her head.
He smiled again. “Ah, and you do not intend to. You are most kind to respect my privacy so. For this, and for finding my little haven, I will grant you a wish.”
“A wish?” she asked.
“Yes. Any thing that you name.”
And so Saida wished for guidance on her way home. His answer was a raised arm. When she looked where he pointed, across the ocean of sand and dancing light, the spine of a familiar ridge stood in the distance where she would have sworn only horizon had lain before. Thanking the man, she set out, and that evening came home to the village of al-Ghaimah nestled between the crimson arms of Ahmar Ridge.
This was the story that she told to Khalid and his men and the villagers when she arrived.
Afterward, when Khalid laughed, a deep, raucous bray, his men laughed with him.
“You would have us believe that you met a djinn in the desert, woman?” he said. “Do you think us fools or children to put faith in such stories? You left early and rode hard, and so came to us sooner than expected, carrying more lies than food. But I will not swallow them.”
“I did not say he was a djinn,” said Saida, and that was her only reply. She sold the fruit to the villagers, gave some to Khalid’s men, took her share to her house at the end of the small valley. Though the villagers gave her sidelong, wondering looks when she came among them, whatever questions they had remained unasked. She did not mind. She cleaned, and sewed, and waited.
Several days later, Tariq rode in to al-Ghaimah. He had gone to the market with her to sell leather and goat hides. He had seen her leave late, he told the villagers, and had left himself not an hour after, but taking the road around the flats he had not caught a glimpse of her since. Excited whispers spread among them. Hearing the story she had recounted, Tariq stared and shook his head. “I could believe it!” he said, laughing uneasily.
Thus Khalid and his men came to her house for the second time. The first had been when her husband died. It was not long after Khalid’s band had arrived in the village, asking for food and shelter in words that were poor guises for threats, staying long past the bounds of hospitality. The villagers did not like them, but they feared them. Most were farmers, herders, simple craftsmen. Khalid and his men carried their swords with patient, deadly ease. What could the villagers do but endure, and speak in whispers of better days? Over time, though, some began to speak louder than whispers. Her husband had been one of them.
Khalid had come to the house with his head bowed, leading her husband’s horse. His men waited in silence beside him. She had known the bloody bundle that lay across the saddle even before he spoke.
“We were hunting,” he said, “along the western ridge-top. His horse trod upon a snake and it threw him down the slope. Talal here nearly broke his neck climbing down after him, but there was nothing to be done. The fall…”
Talal was a sallow-faced man to his left who kept wringing his hands. He would not meet her eyes. But Khalid did, and he smiled at her. Yes, it was a snake that killed my husband, she remembered thinking as she looked at him, his hair wound up in sinuous coils, his teeth white as a row of bones. Her husband was gone, but they had stayed.
This time no corpse accompanied Khalid to her door. When she told her story a second time, he did not laugh.
“He will grant any wish?” Khalid asked. “You are sure?”
“Then tell me the way that you came.”
He left early the next morning with his men, riding out into the flats where Saida had emerged days before. She stood at the entrance to the village with the others and watched them go, then, turning, began the long walk back to her house in the shadow of the ridge.
They had been cautious, taking water for three days, though it was a short ride. Three days passed. Four. Four days stretched into a week, and that was when the widow Saida called the village to a gathering in its only square.
This is the story that she told them.
The man beside the pool in the oasis had smiled at her. “You are most kind to respect my privacy so. For this, and for finding my little haven, I will grant you a wish.”
“Any wish?” Saida had asked.
The man nodded.
So she told him of Khalid, and his hungry smile, and his men who had taken her village and ruled it with fear. And her wish was this: that the village be free of them.
The man had listened until her tale was done, saying nothing, though a darkness came over his face. He frowned at something unseen, and then he nodded once, fiercely, and looked up at her. His smile returned.
“Ride home to your village,” he said. He raised an arm, and where he pointed Ahmar Ridge clove through the bright desert haze. “When you get there, this is the story you shall tell them…”
“Thank you,” she said when he had finished, bowing her head.
He bowed his own in reply. “Farewell, Saida bint Musa.”
She had never told him her name.
Khalid and his men did not return. Some said that they had become lost, or that the man – a man or a djinn depending on who told the story – had slain them. Others believed that the whole tale had been made up by Saida, a trick to lure them out into the open desert. That there was no oasis, no man, no wish.
The only certainty was that they were gone.
The villagers treated Saida with quiet respect. She went riding into the salt flats often that summer, but they never questioned her, nor did they seek to follow. Summer turned to fall, the days shrinking, nights lengthening, before she saw him again.
She was riding home at dusk, slowly, for her horse was weary. The setting sun had thrown a veil of fire across the ridge ahead. The joined shadow of horse and rider stretched out before her. Then there was another shadow beside it, and the old man was walking beside her, watching the colors play along the ridge with a smile on his weathered face. Saida dismounted and took the reins in her hand to walk with him.
“Your oasis-” she began.
“-is no longer there,” said the man with a nod. “I move it often, when I grow weary of the same sights each day. I cannot go far. But a little change, when you are as old as I am, is better than none.” He smiled again, then paused. “I did not think that you would look for me. I had only one wish to grant you, I am afraid.”
“How far can you travel?” Saida asked. “You, and the oasis.”
He planted his feet on the cool, dry earth and spread his arms to encompass the flats, Ahmar Ridge, the towns that bordered them.
“No one has ever seen you in al-Ghaimah,” she said, “or Qassif. I asked, once Khalid was gone. I asked in every settlement that I could ride to.”
“Because I cannot enter them, just as I cannot leave this place.”
“Why is that?”
The man’s face grew dark, but this time there was a softness to it. Not anger, but regret. “An old wish from an old master, and a different time. He is long dead. But wishes do not die.”
“He wished you trapped here?”
“He thought I had wronged him. His earlier wishes…they were not what he had hoped for.”
They were deep in shadow, now. Only the ridge’s upper half still caught the sunlight.
“I am sorry that I have nothing more to grant you, Saida bint Musa,” said the man quietly. “And I am sorrier still that you risked yourself to find me.” He bowed in farewell, and when he straightened, his face was tired and grave.
But it was not a wish Saida proposed. It was an exchange.
The following afternoon a strange man passed through Qassif. He was old, his face a maze of lines, his hair – what could be seen of it – pure white. He went slowly through the town, stopping every few paces to marvel at the most commonplace things. Dogs chasing each other through the market, a checkered awning flapping over a stall, baskets of vegetables, bolts of cloth, a house and its neighbor. Though he smiled kindly at each person he passed, most responded with no more than a nod, for his eyes were somehow ageless in that aged face. Whispers of spirits and demons trailed in his wake. Only one person in Qassif, a boy playing with a stick-sword on the western edge of town, asked him where he was going. The man considered the question gravely.
“I had not decided,” he confessed, kneeling beside the boy. His face broke into a smile. “Where do you think I should start?”
There were no more bandits in al-Ghaimah or Qassif, nor in Gana to the north, nor Dhasar to the southwest. They stayed away from the towns that bordered the salt flats, for always, when they approached, were they met by misfortune. Water flasks would go missing, snakes would worry their horses, sandstorms would hound them. Untroubled by such intruders, the villagers prospered. The winter was gentler and the harvest more bountiful than any the oldest among them had ever seen. In Dhasar, when they had had too much to drink, some told stories of a djinn watching over the land. Soberer companions hushed them and called them fools. Djinns could only grant wishes – it was not for them to take part in daily affairs. This was simply a good year. As was the next one, and the next…
But in al-Ghaimah, to which Saida had never returned, they told different stories. And sometimes, just before dawn, they saw a figure walking the ridgetop, looking down the jagged slope to a house that stood apart, silent and empty now, in its shadow. Come daybreak, the figure was always gone.
Olivia Pourzia is a scientist by day, a writer always, and can definitely stop writing fairy tales any time she wants.