The Festival

Behind the spice bazaar at midnight on the first of every month, the four orphaned quadruplets would reunite to share their stolen spoils and wax their moustaches for the upcoming festival. The sharp and gritty scents of cumin, saffron and nutmeg would leak out of cloth stalls and dance around the young men: Azad, Akçay, Adnan, and Akar. They would all sit on their heels under the metal moon, remove their fezzes, and converse.

The first of November: the air was still and cool, and sails of ships could be seen rocking gently in the harbor. The four brothers had just, as was customary, finished waxing their moustaches with beeswax and tallow. Azad’s was thin and sharp; needles curving up to his cheeks. Akçay had a moustache that was short and lively like a rabbit’s tail. Adnan wore his long and solid, framing his mouth and curving to the vertical at the edges. Akar had, most severe of all, a short, narrow bristle with only a slight curl to the sides of his nostrils. Akçay laid a hand on Adnan’s shoulder.

“My brother,” said Akçay, pulling one silvery glove from his embroidered green coat. “Here I have the hand that loved a thousand women, stolen from the bedchamber of the great Emir of Abi Bakr.” Adnan received the glove and held it, glinting, in the light of the moon.

“Ever the romantic, brother,” Adnan responded with a smirk, sliding the glove over his hand. “What better relic to grasp with this gauntlet than the knife that slit a thousand throats, lifted tenderly from beneath the pillow of the Seljuk prince Nasir ad-Din while he slept?” From his belt Adnan drew a short dagger, ornate of green and red gems.

Azad brought in front of his brothers a large sack full of edges and clinks, and from it withdrew a squat, lumpy candle.

“I have the most romantic of all,” intoned Azad. He gestured to Akçay, saying, “This one’s for you: a candle that can be lit only in the Sultan’s mother’s bedchamber, and only during the penultimate year of her life.” Three of the brothers guffawed, prodding and shoving Akçay, who merely grinned.

They had much to share resting beneath the stars’ blue-black dome, as they only saw each other during the monthly festival and the night before it. Mostly they boasted of the month’s exploits, pausing occasionally to chew hazelnut and pistachio lokum in silent reminiscence. Akar told of the blind man who gave him a gold coin bearing the face of Genghis Khan in gratitude for helping him recover the ivory walking stick he had dropped into the gutter. Azad told of his evening stalking the Partridge of Perseverance that he had accidentally released from its cage in the Sultan’s topiary garden; the evening ended in failure.

Their stories finished, Akçay confessed that he was silently falling in love with the girl who sells him plums in the Wednesday morning market every week, falling in love based solely on the way she picks each plum from her basket. He did not know her name and had never heard her speak. Then he pulled a plum from a pocket and displayed it longingly, wiping away the blue resin coating the purple-red flesh. The smooth shine: the one groove and smooth curve and shine. He held the marvelous stonefruit before his face and bit into it, red drops running down his clean shaven chin.

“The girl, her name must be Esma,” ascertained Akar.

“No, it is probably Ruya,” said Adnan.

“Or possibly Mari,” said Azad.

“We will call her Susina, for it means ‘plum,’ ” concluded Akçay.

The festival is about sounds. Sounds of song and music and sounds of merchants selling their stock, sounds of families and children and sometimes sounds of speeches and sermons. The festival is about smells. The spices of course, and the smells of pastry and cinnamon, the smell of roasting lamb and tahini for shawarma enough for a thousand hungry men, and towards the harbor the sharp smell of the sea’s catch: heaps of scaly glistening fish all startled with their mouths and eyes wide open. The festival is about tastes. Syrup and nuts, hummus and mango pickle, olives and apricot cheeses with fruit wines. The festival is about touch. The fortune telling rabbits soft as silk and sand, pashminas of red blue and wool, the press of the crowds between cobblestones and clouds. The festival is about sights. Monkeys dance on the shoulders of men dancing with swords, the dervishes whirl their white robes into rippling circles, the freaks poke their noses between iron bars, and everywhere are elderly men playing chess with ebony and ivory queens.

And the four brothers ply their trade: each young man identical save for their moustaches – all dressed in curly-toed white shoes, white pants, embroidered gold and green coats, and a red fez topped with a yellow tassel. Between the old woman selling thirty-three kinds of olives and the fat man hawking illuminated pages from ancient copies of the Shahnameh, the brothers stood around a giant wooden table laden with the spoils of their adventures and thievery. A pair of falcon’s wings, a quill of endless ink, a tooth from the mythical stallion Rakhsh, a board game stolen from Tutankhamun’s tomb, a pillow still holding three hairs of Rapunzel, and other treasures. The brothers employ a special kind of trade, a two-for-one deal, Akçay calls it: as one brother deals with a customer, a second sweetens the deal by picking his pocket.

Past noontime, Akçay spied the girl of his plum fascination behind the man to whom he was selling the golden Genghis Khan coin. She emerged from the crowd with a basket of apricots looking slowly and curiously around, and smiled at the deferential Akçay as she walked by him to the brothers’ table. The thief met her eyes just barely, and returned to his customer distracted. The three other brothers instantly knew that this was Esma, Stephanie, Mari. She was a slight girl of warm skin and jet black hair that cradled her shoulders in braids. Susina. Her cheeks were full, her lips bright, and her eyes strong, dark, and liquid. Her blue and white dress was fastened and decorated with flat metal ornaments, and a white flower edged with red was nestled above her ear. As Akçay completed his transaction and Azad lifted a satchel heavy with other rare coins from the customer’s belt, Susina approached Adnan. She picked up a jar of snow off of the table, white, bright, white in the sun snow.

“Why doesn’t it melt?” she asked.

“This snow is from Mount Ararat,” answered Adnan. “This snow may very well have fallen upon Noah’s ark in the days after the flood, and not melted since.”

“My little brother has never seen snow before,” said Susina, holding the jar up to the sun. “How much would it cost?”

“Take one of your apricots, and give it to my brother over there,” answered Adnan, pointing to Akçay.

“Are you sure?” she asked, looking over her shoulder.

Adnan nodded.

She placed the jar of snow in her basket and felt for a ripe apricot, her lithe fingers moving across the heap of fruit like each velvety globe was a piano key. Her fingertips would hover momentarily on one apricot, press gently, and then clamber on to the next, searching for one whose flesh yielded only slightly to the pressure of her hand. Suddenly inspired, she dove down with two fingers and plucked one apricot from deep within the pile, sending several rolling to the sides of the basket. It was perfect, heavy, and smooth. She stepped around to face Akçay, who had been watching her. Not blushing, she handed him the fruit with her slender outstretched arm.