This month’s story reprint is from multi-award-winning author Amal El-Mohtar, and it originally appeared in Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories, ed. JoSelle Vanderhooft (Torquere Press, 2011).
This was one of the first steampunk stories I ever read which buckled the genre trend of white, Anglo colonialism. The author’s programmatic essay Towards a Steampunk Without Steam, from 2010, created controversy simply by pointing out that steampunk could be more than Victorian England. Then this following story illustrated how it could be done. Now there are diverse steampunk anthologies, websites, cosplay and more. But this story was at the forefront of the change, and it stayed with me ever since.
I am happy to say that there is a free audio podcast of To Follow the Waves in Podcastle, but I was surprised to learn when I wanted to link it that the text itself was not available anywhere online. This reprint will hopefully fill that longstanding gap.
To Follow the Waves by Amal El-Mohtar
Hessa’s legs ached. She knew she ought to stand, stretch them, but only gritted her teeth and glared at the clear lump of quartz on the table before her. To rise now would be to concede defeat—but to lean back, lift her goggles and rub her eyes was, she reasoned, an adequate compromise.
Her braids weighed on her, and she scratched the back of her head, where they pulled tightest above her nape. To receive a commission from Sitt Warda Al-Attrash was a great honour, one that would secure her reputation as a fixed star among Dimashq’s dream-crafters. She could not afford to fail. Worse, the dream Sitt Warda desired was simple, as dreams went: to be a young woman again, bathing her limbs by moonlight in the Mediterranean with a young man who, judging by her half-spoken, half-murmured description, was not precisely her husband.
But Hessa had never been to the sea.
She had heard it spoken of, naturally, and read hundreds of lines of poetry extolling its many virtues. Yet it held little wonder for her; what pleasure could be found in stinging salt, scratching sand, burning sun reflected from the water’s mirror-surface? Nor did swimming hold any appeal; she had heard pearl divers boast of their exploits, speak of how the blood beat between their eyes until they felt their heads might burst like over-ripe tomatoes, how their lungs ached with the effort for hours afterwards, how sometimes they would feel as if thousands of ants were marching along their skin, and though they scratched until blood bloomed beneath their fingernails, could never reach them.
None of this did anything to endear the idea of the sea to her. And yet, to carve the dream out of the quartz, she had to find its beauty. Sighing, she picked up the dopstick again, tapped the quartz to make sure it was securely fastened, lowered her goggles, and tried again.
Hessa’s mother was a mathematician, renowned well beyond the gates of Dimashq for her theorems. Her father was a poet, better-known for his abilities as an artisanal cook than for his verse, though as the latter was full of the scents and flavours of the former, much appreciated all the same. Hessa’s father taught her to contemplate what was pleasing to the senses, while her mother taught her geometry and algebra. She loved both as she loved them, with her whole heart.
Salma Najjar had knocked at the door of the Ghaflan family in the spring of Hessa’s seventh year. She was a small woman, wrinkled as a wasp’s nest, with eyes hard and bright as chips of tourmaline. Her greying hair was knotted and bound in the intricate patterns of a jeweller or gem-cutter—perhaps some combination of the two. Hessa’s parents welcomed her into their home, led her to a divan and offered her tea, but she refused to drink or eat until she had told them her errand.
“I need a child of numbers and letters to learn my trade,” she had said, in the gruff, clipped accent of the Northern cities. “It is a good trade, one that will demand the use of all her abilities. I have heard that your daughter is such a child.”
“And what is your trade?” Hessa’s father asked, intrigued, but wary.
“To sculpt fantasies in the stone of the mind and the mind of the stone. To grant wishes.”
“You propose to raise our daughter as djinn?” Hessa’s mother raised an eyebrow.
Salma smiled, showing a row of perfect teeth. “Far better. Djinn do not get paid.”
Building a dream was as complex as building a temple, and required knowledge of almost as many trades—a fact reflected in the complexity of the braid-pattern in which Hessa wore her hair. Each pull and plait showed an intersection of gem-crafting, metal-working, architecture and storytelling, to say nothing of the thousand twisting strands representing the many kinds of knowledge necessary to a story’s success. As a child, Hessa had spent hours with the archivists in Al-Zahiriyya Library, learning from them the art of constructing memory palaces within her mind, layering the marble, glass, and mosaics of her imagination with reams of poetry, important historical dates, dozens of musical maqaamat, names of stars and ancestors. Hessa bint Aliyah bint Qamar bint Widad…
She learned to carry each name, note, number like a jewel to tuck into a drawer here, hang above a mirror there, for ease of finding later on. She knew whole geographies, scriptures, story cycles, as intimately as she knew her mother’s house, and drew on them whenever she received a commission. Though the only saleable part of her craft was the device she built with her hands, its true value lay in using the materials of her mind: she could not grind quartz to the shape and tune of her dream, could not set it into the copper coronet studded with amber, until she had fixed it into her thoughts as firmly as she fixed the stone to her amber dopstick.
“Every stone,” Salma said, tossing her a piece of rough quartz, “knows how to sing. Can you hear it?”
Frowning, Hessa held it up to her ear, but Salma laughed. “No, no. It is not a shell from the sea, singing the absence of its creature. You cannot hear the stone’s song with the ear alone. Look at it; feel it under your hand; you must learn its song, its language, before you can teach it your own. You must learn, too, to tell the stones apart; those that sing loudest do not always have the best memories, and it is memory that is most important. Easier to teach it to sing one song beautifully than to teach it to remember; some stones can sing nothing but their own tunes.”
Dream-crafting was still a new art then; Salma was among its pioneers. But she knew that she did not have within herself what it would take to excel at it. Having discovered a new instrument, she found it unsuited to her fingers, awkward to rest against her heart; she could produce sound, but not music.
For that, she had to teach others to play.
First, she taught Hessa to cut gems. That had been Salma’s own trade, and Hessa could see that it was still her chief love: the way she smiled as she turned a piece of rough crystal in her hands, learning its angles and texture, was very much the way Hessa’s parents smiled at each other. She taught her how to pick the best stones, cleave away their grossest imperfections; she taught her to attach the gem to a dopstick with hot wax, at precise angles, taught her the delicate dance of holding it against a grinding lathe with even greater precision while operating the pedal. She taught her to calculate the axes that would unlock needles of light from the stone, kindle fire in its heart. Only once Hessa could grind a cabochon blindfolded, once she learned to see with the tips of her fingers, did Salma explain the rest.
“This is how you will teach songs to the stone.” She held up a delicate amber wand, at the end of which was affixed a small copper vice. Hessa watched as Salma placed a cloudy piece of quartz inside and adjusted the vice around it before lowering her goggles over her eyes. “The amber catches your thoughts and speaks them to the copper; the copper translates them to the quartz. But just as you build your memory palace in your mind, so must you build the dream you want to teach it; first in your thoughts, then in the stone. You must cut the quartz while fixing the dream firmly in your mind, that you may cut the dream into the stone, cut it so that the dream blooms from it like light. Then, you must fix it into copper and amber again, that the dream may be translated into the mind of the dreamer.
“Tonight,” she murmured quietly, grinding edges into the stone, “you will dream of horses. You will stand by a river and they will run past you, but one will slow to a stop. It will approach you, and nuzzle your cheek.”
“What colour will it be?”
Salma blinked behind her goggles, and the lathe slowed to a stop as she looked at her. “What colour would you like it to be?”
“Blue,” said Hessa, firmly. It was her favourite colour.
Salma frowned. “There are no blue horses, child.”
“But this is a dream! Couldn’t I see one in a dream?”
Hessa wasn’t sure why Salma was looking at her with quite such intensity, or why it took her so long a moment to answer. But finally, she smiled—in the gentle, quiet way she smiled at her gems—and said, “yes, my heart. You could.”
Once the quartz was cut, Salma fixed it into the centre of a copper circlet, its length prettily decorated with drops of amber, and fitted it around Hessa’s head before giving her chamomile tea to drink and sending her to bed. Hessa dreamed just as Salma said she would: the horse that approached her was blue as the turquoise she had shaped for a potter’s husband a few nights earlier. But when the horse touched her, its nose was dry and cold as quartz, its cheeks hard and smooth as cabochon.
Salma sighed when Hessa told her as much the next day. “You see, this is why I teach you, Hessa. I have been so long in the country of stones, speaking their language and learning their songs, I have little to teach them of our own; I speak everything to them in facets and brilliance, culets and crowns. But you, my dear, you are learning many languages all at once; you have your father’s tasting tongue, your mother’s speech of angles and air. I have been speaking nothing but adamant for most of my life, and grow more and more deaf to the desires of dreamers.”
Try as she might, Hessa could not coordinate her knowledge of the sea with the love, the longing, the pleasure needed to build Sitt Warda’s dream. She had mixed salt and water, touched it to her lips, and found it unpleasant; she had watched the moon tremble in the waters of her courtyard’s fountain without being able to stitch its beauty to a horizon. She tried, now, to summon those poor attempts to mind, but was keenly aware that if she began grinding the quartz in her present state, Sitt Warda would wake from her dream as tired and frustrated as she herself presently felt.
Giving in, she put down the quartz, removed her goggles, rose from her seat and turned her back on her workshop. There were some problems only coffee and ice cream could fix.
Qahwat al Adraj was one of her favourite places to sit and do the opposite of think. Outside the bustle of the Hamadiyyah market, too small and plain to be patronised by obnoxious tourists, it was a well-kept secret tucked beneath a dusty stone staircase: the servers were beautiful, the coffee exquisite, and the iced treats in summer particularly fine. As she closed the short distance between it and her workshop, she tried to force her gaze up from the dusty path her feet had long ago memorised, tried to empty herself of the day’s frustrations to make room for her city’s beauties.
There: a young man with dark skin and a dazzling smile, his tight-knotted braids declaring him a merchant-inventor, addressing a gathering crowd to display his newest brass automata. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he called, “the British Chef!” and demonstrated how with a few cranks and a minimum of preparation, the long-faced machine could knife carrots into twisting orange garlands, slice cucumbers into lace. And not far from him, drawn to the promise of a building audience, a beautiful mechanical, her head sculpted to look like an amira’s head-dress, serving coffee from the heated cone of it by tipping forward in an elegant bow before the cup, an act that could not help but make every customer feel as if they were sipping the gift of a cardamom-laced dance.
Hessa smiled to them, but frowned to herself. She had seen them all many times before. Today she was conscious, to her shame, of a bitterness towards them: what business had they being beautiful to her when they were not the sea?
Arriving, she took her usual seat by a window that looked out to Touma’s Gate, sipped her own coffee, and tried not to brood.
She knew what Salma would have said. Go to the sea, she would have urged, bathe in it! Or, if you cannot, read the thousands of poems written to it! Write a poem yourself! Or, slyly, then, only think of something you yourself find beautiful—horses, berries, books—and hide it beneath layers and layers of desire until the thing you love is itself obscured. Every pearl has a grain of sand at its heart, no? Be cunning. You cannot know all the world, my dear, as intimately as you know your stones.
But she couldn’t. She had experimented with such dreams, crafted them for herself; they came out wrapped in cotton wool, provoking feeling without vision, touch, scent. Any would-be dream crafter could do as well. No, for Sitt Warda, who had already patronised four of the city’s crafters before her, it would never do. She had to produce something exquisite, unique. She had to know the sea as Sitt Warda knew it, as she wanted it.
She reached for a newspaper, seeking distraction. Lately it was all airships and trade agreements surrounding their construction and deployment, the merchant fleets’ complaints and clamour for restrictions on allowable cargo to protect their own interests. Hessa had a moment of smirking at the sea-riding curmudgeons before realising that she had succumbed, again, to the trap of her knotting thoughts. Perhaps if the sea was seen from a great height? But that would provoke the sensation of falling, and Sitt Warda did not want a flying dream…
Gritting her teeth, she buried her face in her hands—until she heard someone step through the doorway, sounding the hollow glass chimes in so doing. Hessa looked up.
A woman stood there, looking around, the early afternoon light casting a faint nimbus around her, shadowing her face. She was tall, and wore a long, simple dark blue coat over a white dress, its embroidery too plain to declare a regional origin. Hessa could see she had beautiful hands, the gold in them drawn out by the midnight of the blue, but it was not these at which she found herself staring. It was the woman’s hair.
Unbound, it rippled.
There was shame in that, Hessa had always felt, always been taught. To wear one’s hair so free in public was to proclaim oneself unbound to a trade, useless; even the travellers that passed through the city bound knots into their hair out of respect for custom, the five braids of travellers and visitors who wished themselves known as such above anything else, needing hospitality or good directions. The strangeness of it thrilled and stung her.
It would perhaps not have been so shocking were it one long unbroken sheet of silk, a sleek spill of ink with no light in it. But it rippled, as if just released from many braids, as if fingers had already tangled there, as if hot breath had moistened it to curling waves. Brazen, thought Hessa, the word snagging on half-remembered lines of English poetry, brazen greaves, brazen hooves. Unfamiliar words, strange, like a spell—and suddenly it was a torrent of images, of rivers and aching and spilling and immensity, because she wanted that hair in her own hand, wanted to see her skin vanish into its blackness, wanted it to swallow her while she swallowed it—
It took her a moment to notice the woman was looking at her. It took another for Hessa to flush with the understanding that she was staring rudely before dropping her gaze back to her coffee. She counted to seventy in her head before daring to look up again: by the time she did, the woman was seated, a server half hiding her from Hessa’s view. Hessa laid money on the table and rose to leave, taking slow, deliberate steps towards the door. As soon as she was outside the coffee house, she broke into a run.
Two nights later, with a piece of finely shaped quartz pulsing against her brow, Sitt Warda Al-Attrash dreamed of her former lover with honeysuckle sweetness, and if the waves that rose and fell around them were black and soft as hair, she was too enraptured to notice.
Hessa could not stop thinking of the woman. She took to eating most of her meals at Qahwat al Adraj, hoping to see her again—to speak, apologise for what must have seemed appalling behaviour, buy her a drink—but the woman did not return. When she wasn’t working, Hessa found her fingertips tracing delicate, undulating lines through the gem dust that coated her table, thighs tightly clenched, biting her lip with longing. Her work did not suffer for it—if anything, it improved tremendously. The need to craft flooded her, pushed her to pour the aching out into copper and crystal.
Meantime, Sitt Warda could not stop speaking of Hessa, glowing in her praise; she told all her wealthy friends of the gem among dream-crafters who dimmed all others to ash, insisting they sample her wares. Where before Hessa might have had one or two commissions a week, she began to receive a dozen a day, and found herself in a position to pick and choose among them. This she did—but it took several commissions before she saw what was guiding her choice.
“Craft me a dream of the ruins of Baalbek,” said one kind-eyed gentleman with skin like star-struck sand, “those tall, staggering remnants, those sloping columns of sunset!” Hessa ground them just shy of twilight, that the dreamt columns might be dimmed to the colour of skin darkened by the light behind it, and if they looked like slender necks, the fallen ones angled slant as a clavicle, the kind-eyed gentleman did not complain.
“Craft me a dream of wings and flight,” murmured a shy young woman with gold-studded ears, “that I might soar above the desert and kiss the moon.” Hessa ground a cabochon with her right hand while her left slid between her legs, rocking her to the memory of long fingers she built into feathers, sprouted to wings just as she moaned a spill of warm honey and weightlessness.
Afterwards, she felt ashamed. She thought, surely someone would notice—surely, some dreamer would part the veils of ecstasy in their sleep and find her burning behind them. It felt, awkwardly, like trespass, but not because of the dreamers; rather, it seemed wrong to sculpt her nameless, braidless woman into the circlets she sold for crass money. It felt like theft, absurd though it was, and in the aftermath of her release, she felt guilty, too.
But she could not find her; she hardly knew how to begin to look. Perhaps she had been a traveller, after all, merely releasing her hair from a five-braided itch in the late afternoon; perhaps she had left the city, wandered to wherever it was she came from, some strange land where women wore their hair long and wild and lived lives of savage indolence, stretching out beneath fruit trees, naked as the sky—
The flush in her cheeks decided her. If she couldn’t find her woman while waking, then what in the seven skies was her craft for, if not to find her in sleep?
Hessa had never crafted a dream for her own use. She tested her commissions, sometimes, to ensure their quality or correct an error, but she always re-cast the dream in fresh quartz and discarded the test-stone immediately, throwing it into the bath of saltwater-steam that would purify it for re-working into simple jewellery. It would not do, after all, for a silver necklace or brass ring to bear in it the echo of a stranger’s lust. Working the hours she did, her sleep was most often profound and refreshing; if she dreamt naturally, she hardly ever remembered.
She did not expect to sleep well through the dream she purposed.
She closed shop for a week, took on no new commissions. She hesitated over the choice of stone; a dream crafted in white quartz could last for up to three uses, depending on the clarity of the crystal and the time she took in grinding it. But a dream crafted in amethyst could last indefinitely—could belong to her forever, as long as she wanted it, renewing itself to the rhythm of her thoughts, modulating its song to harmonise with her dream-desires. She had only ever crafted two dreams in amethyst, a matched set to be given as a wedding gift, and the sum she commanded for the task had financed a year’s worth of materials and bought her a new lathe.
Reluctantly, she chose the white quartz. Three nights, that was all she would allow herself; three nights for a week’s careful, loving labour, and perhaps then this obsession would burn itself out, would leave her sated. Three nights, and then no more.
She wondered if Salma had ever done anything of the sort.
For three days, she studied her only memory of the woman, of her standing framed in the doorway of Qahwat al Adraj, awash in dusty light; she remembered the cut of her coat, its colour, and the woman’s eyes focusing on her, narrowing, quizzical. They were almost black, she thought, or so the light made them. And her hair, of course, her endless, splendid, dreadful hair, curling around her slim neck like a hand; she remembered the height of her, the narrowness that made her think of a sheathed sword, of a buried root, only her hair declaring her to be wild, impossible, strange.
Once the woman’s image was perfectly fixed in her thoughts, Hessa began to change it.
Her stern mouth softened into hesitation, almost a smile; her lips parted as if to speak. Hessa wished she had heard her voice that day—she did not want to imagine a sound that was not truly hers, that was false. She wanted to shift, to shape, not to invent. Better to leave her silent.
Her mouth, then, and her height; she was probably taller than Hessa, but not in the dream, no. She had to be able to look into her eyes, to reach for her cheeks, to brush her thumb over the fullness of her lips before kissing them. Her mouth would be warm, she knew, and taste—
Here, again, she faltered. She would taste, Hessa, decided, of ripe mulberries, and her mouth would be stained with the juice. She would have fed them to her, after laughing over a shared joke—no, she would have placed a mulberry in her own mouth and then kissed her, yes, lain it on her tongue as a gift from her own, and that is why she would taste of mulberries while Hessa pressed a hand to the small of her back and gathered her slenderness against herself, crushed their hips together…
It took her five days to build the dream in her thoughts, repeating the sequence of her imagined pleasures until they wore grooved agonies into her mind, until she could almost savour the dream through her sleep without the aid of stone or circlet. She took a full day to cast the latter, and a full day to grind the stone to the axes of her dream, careful not to miss a single desired sensation; she set it carefully into its copper circlet.
Her fingers only trembled when she lifted it onto her head.
The first night left her in tears. She had never been so thoroughly immersed in her art, and it had been long, so long since anyone had approached her with a desire she could answer in kisses rather than craft. She ached for it; the braidless woman’s body was like warm water on her skin, surrounded her in the scent of jasmine. The tenderness between them was unbearable, for all that she thirsted for a voice, for small sighs and gasps to twine with her own. Her hair was down-soft, and the pleasure she took in wrapping it around her fingers left her breathless. She woke tasting mulberries, removed the circlet, and promptly slept until the afternoon.
The second night, she nestled into her lover’s body with the ease of old habit, and found herself murmuring poetry into her neck, old poems in antique meters, rhythms rising and falling like the galloping warhorses they described. “I wish,” she whispered, pressed against her afterwards, raising her hand to her lips, “I could take you riding—I used to, when I was little. I would go riding to Maaloula with my family, where almond trees grow from holy caves, and where the wine is so black and sweet it is rumoured that each grape must have been kissed before being plucked to make it. I wish,” and she sighed, feeling the dream leaving her, feeling the stone-sung harmony of it fading, “I wish I knew your name.”
Strangeness, then—a shifting in the dream, a jolt, as the walls of the bedroom she had imagined for them fell away, as she found she could look at nothing but her woman’s eyes, seeing wine in them, suddenly, and something else, as she opened her mulberry mouth to speak.
“Nahla,” she said, in a voice like a granite wall. “My name is—”
Hessa woke with the sensation of falling from a great height, too shocked to move. Finally, with great effort, she removed the circlet, and gripped it in her hands for a long time, staring at the quartz. She had not given her a name. Was her desire for one strong enough to change the dream from within? All her dream-devices were interactive to a small degree, but she always planned them that way, allowing room, pauses in the stone’s song which the dreamer’s mind could fill—but she had not done so with her own, so certain of what she wanted, of her own needs. She had decided firmly against giving her a name, wanting so keenly to know the truth—and that voice, so harsh. That was not how she would have imagined her voice…
She put the circlet aside and rose to dress herself. She would try to understand it later that night. It would be her final one; she would ask another question, and see what tricks her mind played on her then.
But there would be no third night.
That afternoon, as Hessa opened her door to step out for an early dinner at Qahwat al Adraj, firm hands grasped her by the shoulders and shoved her back inside. Before she could protest or grasp what was happening, her braidless woman stood before her, so radiant with fury that Hessa could hardly speak for the pain it brought her.
“Nahla?” she managed.
“Hessa,” she threw back in a snarl. “Hessa Ghaflan bint Aliyah bint Qamar bint Widad. Crafter of dreams. Ask me how I am here.”
There were knives in Hessa’s throat—she felt it would bleed if she swallowed, if she tried to speak. “…How?”
“Do you know,” she was walking, now, walking a very slow circle around her, “what it is like,”—no, not quite around, she was coming towards her but as wolves did, never in a straight line before they attacked, always slant, “to find your dreams are no longer your own? Answer me.”
Hessa could not. This, now, felt like a dream that was no longer her own. Nahla’s voice left her nowhere to hide, allowed her no possibility of movement. Finally, she managed something that must have looked enough like a shake of her head for Nahla to continue.
“Of course you wouldn’t. You are the mistress here, the maker of worlds. I shall tell you. It is fascinating, at first—like being in another country. You observe, for it is strange to not be at the centre of your own story, strange to see a landscape, a city, an ocean, bending its familiarity towards someone not yourself. But then—then, Hessa—”
Nahla’s voice was an ocean, Hessa decided, dimly. It was worse than the sea—it was the vastness that drowned ships and hid monsters beneath its sparkling calm. She wished she could stop staring at her mouth.
“—Then, you understand that the landscapes, the cities, the oceans, these things are you. They are built out of you, and it is you who is bending, you who is changing for the eyes of these strangers. It is your hands in their wings, your neck in their ruins, your hair in which they laugh and make love—”
Her voice broke, there, and Hessa had a tiny instant’s relief as Nahla turned away from her, eyes screwed shut. Only an instant, though, before Nahla laughed in a way that was sand in her own eyes, hot and stinging and sharp.
“And then you see them! You see them in waking, these people who bathed in you and climbed atop you, you recognise their faces and think you have gone mad, because those were only dreams, surely, and you are more than that! But you aren’t, because the way they look at you, Hessa, their heads tilted in fond curiosity, as if they’ve found a pet they would like to keep—you are nothing but the grist for their fantasy mills, and even if they do not understand that, you do. And you wonder, why, why is this happening? Why now, what have I done—”
She gripped Hessa’s chin and forced it upward, pushing her against one of her work tables, scattering a rainfall of rough-cut gems to the stone floor and slamming agony into her hip. Hessa did not resist anything but the urge to scream.
“And then,” stroking her cheek in a mockery of tenderness, “you see a face in your dreams that you first knew outside them. A small, tired-looking thing you saw in a coffee house, who looked at you as if you were the only thing in the world worth looking at—but who now is taking off your clothes, is filling your mouth with berries and poems and won’t let you speak, and Hessa, it is so much worse.”
“I didn’t know!” It was a sob, finally, stabbing at her as she forced it out. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—I didn’t know, Nahla, that isn’t how it works—”
“You made me into your doll.” Another shove sent Hessa crumpling to the floor, pieces of quartz marking her skin with bruises and cuts. “Better I be an ancient city or the means to flight than your toy, Hessa! Do you know the worst of it?” Nahla knelt down next to her, and Hessa knew that it would not matter to her that she was crying, now, but she offered her tears up as penance all the same.
“The worst of it,” she whispered, now, forefinger tracing one of Hessa’s braids, “is that, in the dream, I wanted you. And I could not tell if it was because I found you beautiful, or because that is what you wanted me to do.”
They stayed like that for some time, Hessa breathing through slow, ragged sobs while Nahla touched her head. She could not bring herself to ask, do you still want me now?
“How could you not know?” Nahla murmured, as she touched her, as if she could read the answer in Hessa’s hair. “How could you not know what you were doing to me?”
“I don’t control anything but the stone, I swear to you, Nahla, I promise,” she could hear herself babbling, her words slick with tears, blurry and indistinct as her vision. “When I grind the dream into the quartz, it is like pressing a shape into wet clay, like sculpture, like carpentry—the quartz, the wax, the dopstick, the grinding plate, the copper and amber, these are my materials, Nahla! These and my mind. I don’t know how this happened, it is impossible—”
“That I should be in your mind?”
“That I, or anyone else, should be in yours. You aren’t a material, you were only an image—it was never you, it couldn’t have been, it was only—”
“Your longing,” Nahla said, flatly. “Your wanting of me.”
“Yes.” Silence between them, then a long-drawn breath. “You believe me?”
A longer silence, while Nahla’s fingers sank into the braids tight against Hessa’s scalp, scratching it while clutching at a plaited line. “Yes.”
“Do you forgive me?”
Slowly, Nahla released her, withdrew her hand, and said nothing. Hessa sighed, and hugged her knees to her chest. Another moment passed; finally, thinking she might as well ask, since she was certain never to see Nahla again, she said, “Why do you wear your hair like that?”
“That,” said Nahla, coldly, “is none of your business.”
Hessa looked at the ground, feeling a numbness settle into her chest, and focused on swallowing her throat-thorns, quieting her breathing. Let her go, then. Let her go, and find a way to forget this—although a panic rose in her, that after a lifetime of being taught how to remember, she had forgotten how to forget.
“Unless,” Nahla continued, thoughtful, “you intend to make it your business.”
Hessa looked up, startled. While she stared at her in confusion, Nahla seemed to make up her mind.
“Yes.” She smirked, and there was something cruel in the bright twist of it. “I would be your apprentice! You’d like that, wouldn’t you? To make my hair like yours?”
“No!” Hessa was horrified. “I don’t—I mean—no, I wouldn’t like that at all.” Nahla raised an eyebrow as she babbled, “I’ve never had an apprentice. I was one only four years ago. It would not—it would not be seemly.”
“Hessa.” Nahla stood, now, and Hessa rose with her, knees shaky and sore. “I want to know how this happened. I want to learn—” she narrowed her eyes, and Hessa recoiled from what she saw there, but forgot it the instant Nahla smiled. “—how to do it to you. Perhaps then, when I can teach you what it felt like, when I can silence you and bind you in all the ways I find delicious without asking your leave—perhaps then, I can forgive you.”
They looked at each other for what seemed an age. Then, slowly, drawing a long, deep breath, Hessa reached for a large piece of rough quartz, and put it in Nahla’s hand, gently closing her fingers over it.
“Every stone,” she said, quietly, looking into her wine-dark eyes, “knows how to sing. Can you hear it?”
As she watched, Nahla frowned, and raised the quartz to her ear.
Amal El-Mohtar is an award-winning author and critic: her short fiction has won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and her poetry has won the Rhysling award three times. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies including The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories, and The New Voices of Fantasy, as well as in magazines such as Tor.com, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Fireside, as well as in her own collection of poems and very short stories, The Honey Month (Papaveria Press, 2009).
She also writes the Otherworldly column for the New York Times, reviews books for NPR, plays the harp, and lives in Ottawa with her spouse and two cats, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Ottawa. This is How You Lose the Time War, a novella co-written with Max Gladstone, is forthcoming in 2019 from Saga Press. Find her online at amalelmohtar.com or on Twitter @tithenai.