Authors, Writers, Publishers, and Book Readers
I mentioned in a past blog that I’m a member of the Knoxville Writers Guild and, in particular, of the Guild’s Sci-Fi/Fantasy Writers’ Group. We love our “flash fiction" writing experiments, so I’m going to share another one. This one is based on a stock photo that was used as a "prompt," and while humor usually features in my flash fiction, this time I went serious – even spiritually serious. See how you like it:
The copper brazier was finally hot enough to make the ritual’s ingredients smoke within it. On the ground around Amatullah, a murder of wild hooded crows gathered. Some were still, others were shifting on gnarled feet, all were waiting for her to finish.
She gazed over her shoulder toward her people in the distance and sighed. Weeks before, her extended Druze family had been forced out of al-Manara and into nearby caves by Muslim villagers who blamed them for the lack of rain killing their crops. As she watched, most of her people were outside the largest cave trying to prepare a meager communal meal.
“As if we had the power to hold back the rain,” she scoffed aloud to the crows. “We can barely feed ourselves.”
She raised her eyes to al-Manara situated on the cliffs above. It was one of only a few villages of mud and straw that dotted this drought-stricken part of southern Ezbukistan. Some of the villagers she had once considered friends, but friends wouldn’t have stood by while she and her family were exiled to the deprivations of dreary caves, much less to what would surely be a painful death from starvation. No, she thought. They were friends no more.
She smoothed down the front of her long dress, paying particular attention to the beads and fabric of her most prized possession, a girdle of dark red silk tied about her waist. The girdle had been bequeathed to her by her mother, the first victim of their exile. Amatullah would not want a wayward spark from the fire beneath the brazier to scorch even the smallest h*** in its fabric.
Finding herself suddenly intimidated by the final steps of the ritual, she hesitated. She wasn’t sure what would happen when she tried to contact their greatest prophet, Jethro of Midian. There were no words to chant, no spiritual promises or sacrifices to make but caution was required nonetheless. She sucked in a breath to fortify her resolve and looked once more off to the distance caves. To survive, her people must have the great prophet’s help. Otherwise all would be lost.
Carefully she pulled the final ingredient from the folds of her girdle—a long braid of her own dark, curly hair. Holding it above the brazier she glanced briefly at the crows. Uncanny intelligence emerged from their dark eyes, but no evil. Their presence buoyed her heart since wild hooded crows were considered harbingers of rain. Surely their being gathered near her was a good omen and not a portent of failure.
With that in mind, she let the braid fall from her hand into the brazier and quickly picked up a wand she’d fashioned from a scrawny branch of wickweed. She used the wand to draw a circle in the loose dirt around herself, the fire and the brazier. The crows remained outside the circle although a few moved closer, their beaks held high in the air. Where her wand had marked the dirt, tiny wisps of smoke began to rise in strange sympathy with the ingredients in the brazier.
With the last step completed, Amatullah prepared to wait. She was not a priest and had only heard of this ritual in the fireside whispers of the family elders. Were the ingredients she’d used sufficiently pure? Would the prophet consider a summons from a woman to be blasphemy? Were the crows waiting with her, not as witnesses to a coming spiritual communication but as an audience to her folly?
When the minutes continued to pass uneventfully, salted tears of defeat bean to form in Amatullah’s eyes. Just as the first tear prepared to fall, however, she spied the figure of a man begin to coalesce before her inside the circle on the other side of the brazier. He was unexpectedly short and slight, and he wore a dusty Bedouin’s robe of rough, black cotton. His salt and pepper beard was barely long enough to conceal his neck, but the beard was thick as was his hair. He carried the staff of a shepherd.
“You summoned me, daughter?”
In front of her stood the founder of the Druze faith, father of Zipporah, wife of the great Moses himself. And, like Moses, Jethro of Midian was believed to have talked directly with God. Suddenly cowed by the extent of her own hubris in calling him forth, Amatullah was speechless.
“You are daughter to Salman, son of Reda, son of Zayd?” the prophet asked.
Amatullah managed to nod. She heard the crows caw briefly before going silent and sensed they were torn between watching her and the man.
“You summoned me, child. You may speak and feel no fear of me.”
Realizing this was true, Amatullah allowed herself to hope. While Jethro’s blessedness was humbling, a deep kindness lingered in his eyes.
“Oh gr…great one,” she stammered. “Your people need your intercession.” Then, as if a dam broke, her words rushed out. “We have been cast out from our village to live and starve as animals. The villagers blame us for the drought. We did nothing! Can you make it rain? If it rains, perhaps we can return home and—”
The man held a hand up in gentle rebuke. “Daughter of Salman, I am now and always will be with my people. But God is the maker of life and death, the heavens and earth. Only God is the maker of rain.”
Amatullah persisted. “Then can you create food to feed us? Or perhaps you can enchant the ground so our crops will grow. Or you could—“
“Daughter of Salman, how like my youngest daughter you are! Noora was always one to expect the moon, never to be satisfied with moonbeams.”
Amatullah’s shoulders slumped as she watched the man lose himself to his memories. “Is there no hope for us?” she asked finally. “Can you at least tell me if God has forsaken us?”
The prophet’s attention snapped back to her. “Forsaken?” His look of rebuke hardened. “God is in all things. He could no more forsake you than he could forsake himself. Child,” he continued softer, “I see the trouble of our people here and elsewhere. I understand your woe. Did I not feel that same woe upon the plains before Mount Horeb?”
Chastised, Amatullah bowed her head. “Perhaps words of comfort then?”
The man chuckled. “What could I tell you that these crows—among the simplest of God’s creatures—do not already reveal?”
She peaked at the crows who she found were watching her. Seeing only mystery in their eyes, she lifted her face to the prophet, compelled to try again. “Yet, if you could…”
But Jethro of Midian was gone. In a panic, Amatullah scanned the dried fields around her but couldn’t find him. He had vanished.
Heart sore, Amatullah closed her eyes. She did not open them again until she felt flutterings of wind against her bare arms. Apparently bored with her efforts, the crows were taking flight around her. As she numbly tracked their progress into the sky, she felt something hit her cheek and wiped at it. Not a tear, but a drop of damp just the same.
Then she felt another.