Sama’ (The Audition-2)

I began to cleanse myself, layer after layer, of all the questions and concerns that were never mine


Sama’ (The Audition-2)
by Ari Siletz

Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4

The heavenly taste of jinn baklava still sweetening our breaths, Halsa and I were shown upstairs to our room. I did not remember ever having enjoyed baklava as much. Strangely, I could not even remember ever having eaten baklava before.  When was the last time? Jinn tricks, I thought. I just hadn’t imagined that they would take it as far as the kitchen. Good idea though, making a dish so magically delicious it takes away all memory of having eaten the same dish before.

“How long before the effects of this sweet rosewater potion wears off?” I asked Halsa as we climbed the stairs.

“What effects?” she asked innocently.

“I don’t remember eating any other kind of baklava.”

“Why would you want to remember anything but the best?” she said.

“Well, so I could compare, for instance.”

“There is no comparison. If there were, you would remember.”

“I’m just concerned the baklava magic may not wear off before my second audition.”

“Why do you care?”

“For one thing, I want to remember what I am auditioning for or what the prize is? I can’t recall any of those details either.”

“Don’t worry. You didn’t even know you were auditioning in the first round, and look how well you did.”

“Halsa, it’s driving me crazy that I’m drawing a blank on everything I try to remember. What is my mother’s name? What house did I grow up in?”

“Let it go,” Halsa said.  “It’s not the baklava. Something else.”

“But what?”

“Safieh said not to tell you yet.”

“Part of the audition?” I wondered. “I can only remember as far back as my performance in the desert. The rest of my life is an empty book.”

“Shhh, don’t dwell on it. I will explain when Safieh says I can.”   

It was a warm summer night and my bedding had been spread outside on the balcony under the stars. Halsa’s bedding had been set up inside the room because children are prone to sleep walking and it is dangerous to let them sleep on the balcony. Sighting her bed, Halsa dove onto it.

“Halsa, are your parents not worried that you are not home yet?” I said.

“Why should they be? I am with my older brother.”

“I am serious. Your little prank may not seem so funny to them.”

 “Safieh says I am supposed to stay with you,” she said, testing her mattress with a tumble.

“But what about getting permission from your mother? Has Safieh arranged that?”

“It is only going to be for one night. Tomorrow I will take you to Safieh for your second audition. It’s all right, my mother is used to me being gone for long times.”

“And what were you doing away from your mother for so long?”

Halsa sat up straight, out of breath, from her bouncing. “I was too young to remember, but I know it was longer than forever, and that my being gone made my mother very sad.” She pulled a pillow to herself and lay down to sleep. “Tell me a bedtime story,” she said, patting a spot next to her mattress and shutting her eyes tightly.

I sat down and told her the story of a mother who had borne a son, but who wanted a daughter very badly. One day she went to the shrine of a Sufi master and asked for a daughter. The shrine opened up and out came a little girl who said, “I am your daughter.  In the daytime I will stay with you, but at sunset I must return to the shrine.”

As I told the story, the call to the evening prayer was already being sung. "Hurry to prayer, hurry to prayer. Prayer is better than sleep.”  Wrong prayer, I thought. In the human world this was the dawn prayer. Maybe what we call sleep, the Jinn call being awake and vice versa. I shrugged at the absurdity; making sense of the Jinn world would obviously take patience.

Halsa was fast asleep halfway through the story, which was a relief to me because I did not remember how the story ended. For that matter I did not remember where I had heard that story in the first place. I got up to perform my evening prayer. Bowl, vase, and towels had been placed in the room for my ablutions. Afterward, inspired by Halsa’s peaceful sleep, I shuffled yawningly towards my own bedding under the stars.

I dreamt I was standing in front of the shrine of the Sufi master in Halsa’s bedtime story. The mother came out of the shrine with the little girl.  Next we were in the house and her husband was yelling, “What is this that you have brought home? Take it back.” The mother pleaded, “It is our daughter. I feel it.” “She has come too late,” said her husband. “We already have a child. Take it back.” Suddenly the whole family was in front of the shrine, and the husband was sternly pointing the little girl back inside. There was a wailing voice emanating from the shrine, which frightened everyone except the little girl. She walked towards the voice into the shrine. When the door started to close behind her, the mother ran and threw herself in after her. Outside, there stood only the husband and the son.

I was grieving in my dream when a pat on the shoulder woke me up. It was Halsa. “Time for the bathhouse,“ she said. “It’s almost dawn.”  

I opened my eyes, and seeing the stars, remembered that I was sleeping on a balcony in the land of the Jinn.  It was still dark, but the mountains to the east were picking up a faint pink and blue outline.  The chilly morning breeze made me curl up tighter in my blanket.

“Enough sleeping,” said Halsa, trying to wrest my blanket away from me. “The Prophet, peace be upon him, always awoke before sunrise.” She labored to undo my clutches finger by finger. Finally I sat up puffy eyed, still brooding from my dream.  

Walking ahead of us as we hiked up a steep alley, the server from the inn carried my bath supplies and clean clothes. The bathhouse was far upstream from the inn and got its water before the city could touch it. Halsa had stubbed her toes on too many stones, so I was carrying her on my back.  When we reached the bathhouse, I lowered her to the ground like a kneeling camel and let her dismount.  I was glad to see that a few customers had arrived ahead of us. Having had no one but a child for company since my arrival, I looked forward to making small talk with fellow bathers who could tell me about their land from an adult point of view.  But the bald and chubby old proprietor who greeted everyone at the bathhouse entrance led me to a private antechamber. He had seen that a servant was carrying my bath bundle and concluded that I was too wealthy for the public pool. Halsa said she would be wait for me in the lobby.  

A strong smell of sandalwood emanated from the bathhouse proprietor.  My nose could follow him down the hall even if there were no lights coming through the holes in the brick arches. When we reached the private bath chamber, my servant walked in ahead of me and spread a small rug on the marble platform of the dressing antechamber, stacking fresh towels next it. The colors of the rug stood out brilliantly in the light pouring through the thick glass ceiling tiles. Streaks of red and white swimming inside the blue marble walls added a sense spaciousness to the room’s cubic volume.  

My servant unbundled clean clothes and laid them out next to the towels. Then he went inside the bath chamber where I heard him place my bath items in their proper places and splash hot water over the washing platform.  He turned the steam valve fully open before he left.

I put on the wooden bathing sandals and entered the bath chamber, closing the white painted metal door behind me.  Reclining on the washing platform, I watched the thickening fog slowly dull the colors on the tile work. The tranquil echo of dripping condensation had a lazy rhythm with a calmly hypnotic effect.  Playfully, I kept my hand an arm’s length in front of my face and waited until I could no longer make out five fingers.

As my vision clouded in the turbulent hot steam, breathing became effortless.  It felt as though my lungs could inhale the air in the chamber in one large breath which I could exhale unhurriedly throughout the day like a summer’s breeze through a flower garden. Insights, fantasies and thoughts, taking advantage of the good weather, fluttered about like butterflies.  The old wisdom is true, I thought: bathing is a kind of prayer. It occurred to me that I should not dally too long as Halsa was waiting for me.  But that was the outside world trying to taint my perfect inner calm.  I sidestepped the tension and was immediately rewarded with a sense of peace strengthening in me. Encouraged, I began to cleanse myself, layer after layer, of all the questions and concerns that were never mine.  “What powers the light of the sun?” “How do birds fly?” “When will the world end?”  I scrubbed my soul of what was never a real part of me, sensing that I would ultimately reach a pristine personal intuition buried beneath all the dirt of outer knowledge.  This is a bathhouse, I thought. Wash it all away. No memories, no past lessons, no future plans. Rinse until there’s only the Mind: a present purified of the filth of time.

Still in my trance, I heard the chamber door open. A flesh colored shape approached. The masseur, I thought. I had not ordered a massage, but the proprietor was one to take initiatives. I lay down and rolled over for the rubdown, cradling my chin on the back of my arms. An unexpectedly soft touch felt out my ear. The ear seemed to me an odd place to start a massage, but in my becalmed state, I disposed of that tension too. Then the touch came back, this time covered with a soapy cloth intent on cleaning my ear, as though I were a child.  Groggily, I opened my eyes, still with a trance like distance from the world. The face was in the fog, but the hand was not that of the masseur. It was a woman’s hand!

Bizarre that I did not leap up and scramble away screeching. Had I been drugged? Instead, my first reaction was to calmly tilt my head away and clear my throat.  If this mom had mistakenly walked into the men’s section, the throat clearing would set her straight with minor fuss and screaming. After all the steam was thick enough to cloak our naked bodies from each other’s eyes.  But the female figure grabbed my head between an armpit and a breast, restraining me with a powerful wrestling hold as she continuing the ear washing.

Suddenly the hypnotic trance snapped, tossing me harshly back into normalcy. Heart racing, muscles tightly spasmodic in alarm, I struggled in a panic to break free. “Ma’am, you have made a mistake!” I cried. “This is the men’s section of the bathhouse!”

Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3


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