This story is by Nathan Rutherford and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ali sat cross legged, cloaked in darkness, trying to remember where he was. He opened his eyes several times, but his vision would not return. He waved his hand in front of his face, hoping to catch a subtle difference in the blackness, but saw nothing.
The ground was cold, and Ali felt the heat leaving his backside. He outstretched his arms and swung his hands slowly around in a wide circle, hoping to feel a bed, table, anything solid. His fingers only closed on empty air. This room was not in his house, he decided.
Ali brushed his hands against the ground in front of him. Cold and smooth, it felt like metal or limestone polished smooth with time. A cave then? Had he slipped and fallen while sheltering from the rain? He tried to retrace his steps but could not recall where he had been. He smacked himself in the forehead, hoping to wake himself up. A memory of a smiling old man with a white turban and blue eyes rose from the depths of Ali’s mind. Who was that man?
He got to his feet, his knees popping, and walked with one hand outstretched, feeling for obstacles. He held the other just above his head in case a low ceiling or stalactite came out of nowhere. Gradually growing more confident, he quickened his pace – but the smooth ground was slick, and Ali stumbled, losing track of his steps. Six? Eight? Ten? How far had he gone? His heart began to beat faster. Was he going to wander forward until lost in the darkness? Ali’s outstretched fingers came to something cold, and relief washed over him. He exhaled, realizing he was holding his breath, and lowered both hands to inspect the new surface. It was flat and cold like the floor but curved outwards.
Suddenly, the cave shook for a moment and Ali fell forward. Earthquake, he thought and sat with his back against the wall, hoping the roof would not collapse. He closed his eyes and took a breath. He rubbed the bridge of his nose with both hands, then moved his fingers along his eyebrows, pushing into his eye sockets as he went. He wished for a light so he could learn where he was.
As he relaxed the pressure on his eyelids, Ali noticed the blackness behind his eyes was replaced with a dull redness. He dropped his hands and opened his eyes. A light! He quickly raised his hand. Having spent so long in the dark, he found the light was too harsh, forcing him to squint until the feeling subsided.
In the middle of the room was a flickering light. Ali gazed at it awestruck. At first, it appeared suspended in mid-air but then he realized it was a candle sitting upon a table. Ali laughed at his own foolishness and the noise echoed back to him. The echo sounded strange to him, deeper and more resonant than his own voice. It reminded him of the old man again, who with a husky laugh told him he could be immortal. Ali shook his head clear. Right now, he had to figure out where he was. With the light of the candle, he saw it was a single round room. Metal walls curved upwards to form a dome high above the candle. There were no doors visible anywhere; the walls were smooth and reflected the light faintly.
Like a child running to a new toy, Ali stood and rushed towards the candle. It was about half a foot tall and the molten beeswax rolled off the top and dripped onto the tabletop. He placed both hands down. The table was rough to touch and not, Ali was relieved, made of metal. It was wood. He circled the table. On the far side a simple wooden chair was tucked in.
The room shifted again. “Shit.” Ali squeezed the top of the chair, his knuckles cracked. What caused the tremors? It seemed like the room was rocked from outside, like a boat at sea. Perhaps he was imprisoned in a ship’s hold. He looked around the room quickly and his eyes came to rest at the very top of the dome. It was flat there, unlike the walls. Maybe it hid a trapdoor?
Ali took a moment to estimate the distance between his head and the ceiling. About 6 or 7 feet, he figured. Moving the candle to the ground, he noticed the vapour clouds of his breath in its light. Next, taking hold of the chair, he stood it atop the table, and then climbed up and joined it.
Ali shifted his weight between both feet, trying to determine if the table wobbled beneath him. It rocked slightly but seemed solid enough. He put both hands on the chair’s back and carefully lifted his feet one at a time to keep balanced. Finally, he stood atop the chair, balanced on the table, in the middle of the metal room.
He stretched toward the ceiling, but it remained just out of reach. If there was a trapdoor he would have to jump and see if it could be pushed open. Ali tensed his leg muscles to jump but was interrupted by a screech. His ears popped, the trapdoor opened, and light fell onto him. He looked up through slit fingers, hoping to see a friend, maybe that grinning old man, starring down at him.
Ali could see a clear sky and sun above him. He smiled, happy to know fresh air awaited him outside. However, as his eyes began to adjust, the colours seemed strange. He shook his head hoping that would help. The sky was brown, and the sun shown blue with a white nimbus.
The old man’s creased face burned in Ali’s memory. His twinkling blue eyes. This was not the sun. It was a huge human eye. The eye began to slide from view, two nostrils replaced it before being in turn replaced by a big red mouth filled with white teeth.
“Salaam!” A voice of thunder called down. The sound reverberated throughout the room. Ali had never heard anything like it before. He covered his ears; his eyes locked on the mouth above him.
“I wish for a skateboard!” The voice of thunder called.
The meaning of “skateboard” was lost on Ali, but the command brought back more memories. A hundred eyes and mouths like this one had appeared in that circular opening at the top of the room. How many times had Ali covered his ears to get away from a loud voice like this? He remembered some of their requests. Building the walls of Samarkand took years. Ali pictured himself hauling limestone blocks across hot sun-baked wastes. Would getting a skateboard, whatever that was, be harder than winning the princess of Baluchistan’s hand? He would have to ask what one was before he could grant it.
“Salaam! Salaam!” Ali shouted, trying to get the voice’s attention. But his call went unheard.
Ali stared as the walls around him began to glow. Lines of script and hieroglyphics slowly appeared, encircling him with a fiery light. The air began to get warmer, and Ali could no longer see his own breath. He stretched on tiptoe towards the opening.
The voice laughed, a rumbling mirthful sound. The old man, a genie, laughed like that when he granted Ali’s own wish many years ago. Immortality, but in exchange, to replace him in this existence: granting life’s luxuries to other people.
“Where did your Dad get that lamp?” Another voice, loud but more distant, said.
“Last summer when he visited Istanbul, he found it at the bazaar.”
“It’s kinda a piece of junk isn’t it?” The second voice said.
“Yeah, come on, lets go play basketball.” The original voice replied.
The air by Ali’s head was now crackling with electricity. His hair stood on end and his back itched. He pushed off from the chair and jumped towards the opening. His right hand caught hold of the edge and he hung in place. The metal felt hot, like a brass plate left in direct sunlight all day. Ali brought his other hand up and bent his elbows to try and pull himself through the hole.
The lamp’s lid was replaced. Still hanging, Ali was plunged into darkness and the fiery script covering the walls disappeared. He felt a sharp pain in his fingers as the lid sealed shut, forcing him to lose his grip and fall downwards. His body passed through empty space before he fell heavily onto the hard metal floor at the bottom of the lamp.
Time passed and Ali lay on the floor gazing upwards. What just happened? His back aching, he leaned on his arm to bring himself to a sitting position, wincing as he raised himself up. Not for the first time, Ali sat cross legged, cloaked in darkness, trying to remember where he was.