"There once was a man named Abu Saber, who lived along the Barbary Coast." Mara loved the way One-Eyed Mu pitched the word Barbary from her mouth. Like something spiney covered in honey. Mara wasn't sure what a Barbary Coast was. Some place far away she guessed.
She flinched at the scream that punched down through the dense metal around them. Breathed in air. Breathed out. Glanced at the air meter inching through Yella toward the gorram Red.
One-Eyed Mu hardly did more than take a short breath at the scream. She looked around the vault at the town-folk all huddled together. Said in that firm soft way a hers, "He was a wealthy man with many fields full a grain and orchards full a fruit. He had herds of fine brindled cattle that always threw healthy calves." She got Lefty Guang's attention with that. It'd been a hard winter and he'd lost dozen or so calves to a flash flood. Probably lost the herd now. He rubbed the leg that he'd twisted up when he was a boy jumping over a combine on a bet and seemed to be thinking about cows and not bun tyen-shung duh ee-dway-ro Reavers coming down through the vault door and ripping, raping and eating every last gorram one of them.
One-Eyed Mu had a way of telling a story like that. She smiled with her lips and eye and said, "But he was generosity itself. No man came to his door looking for charity, but that he didn't leave with twice as much." One-Eyed Mu held up one hand and then the other. She bit some imaginary piece a fruit and it seemed juicy, whatever it was. "He would always say, 'Is not everything I have from Allah. How can I fail to share with another man what has been so graciously given to me.'"
Something loud boomed high above. Something heavy dropped. Nothing she could do about it. Mara realized that she'd stopped noodling with her needles. Went back to making the lumpy thing that would never make a sweater, while somewhere above the steel doors, Reavers hunted for their meat. She shouldn't think about that. Think about Abu Saber with all his fields on the barbed honey coast.
One-Eyed Mu smiled at Huong-mei, who'd just lost her two front teeth. Huong-mei's eyes were dinner plate wide. "Now the Sultan in that land was an occasionally good man, but as he complained to his Boss-Lord, 'Every time I give a poor man something, he tells me Abu Saber gave him twice as much the day before. I should have Abu Saber's head chopped off. That would be a generosity.' And he'd cross his arms like a little boy, who'd been kept from a sweet." One-Eyed Mu crossed her arms and scrunched her weathered face. Huong-mei giggled then stopped, as if she'd realized what she'd done. Her mother hugged her close and rocked her in her arms.
Mara met her eyes briefly, but then looked away. It wasn't good to look too long into anyone's eyes right now.
She looked at One-Eyed Mu's quick dark eye. "But the Boss-Lord said, 'What we should do is go to Abu Saber and tell him that the kingdom doesn't have any money and then ask him an amount that I happen to know equals all he has. It's easy to be generous when you have everything, but I think we will find that he's not so all fired pious when we ask him for everything he has.' So that's what they did." One-Eyed Mu wrinkled her nose at little Baobei, gnawing on a piece of cloth to keep her quiet.
"But when the Boss-Lord went to Abu Saber, why he spread his hands wide and said, 'All that I have is yours." She spread her hands wide. "For is not every man my brother, and does not Allah command that I be generous with his gifts. Praise be to Allah for the sun still rises." She pointed up. "and Abu Saber pointed at the sky. Sure enough, there was a sun hanging in the sky like it did every day."
Fong, who was a lapsed Buddhist from up valley, and who'd only been in town to buy nails, said, "He seems bit soft in the head this Abu Saber."
Leng Shu shushed him with a quick, "Bai-tuo, an-jing-eedyen!"
But Fong whispered again, "Gorram it if I will shut-it." But he trailed off at the sound of another scream. There was a grinding sound of metal scrapping against metal.
One-Eyed Mu nodded to herself. Closed her one eye, patch over the other, so nothing much there to see. Opened it and said, "So generous Abu Saber gave the Sultan all his money and all his fields full a grain and all his orchards full a fruit. But the door to Abu Saber's house remained open to anyone who was looking for help, as it had when he was a rich man." One-Eyed Mu nodded decisively at Fong, as if that decided the matter.
Maybe it did, Fong shut his mouth.
"The Sultan summoned his Boss-Lord and said, 'Ya idjit! You've only made things worse. Now everyone singing Abu Saber's praises and I may be much wealthier, but I look like a hun-dan fool. I shoulda just chopped his head off. Well! Whatcha you gunna do about it?'" She put her hands on her hips and tapped her fingers for a moment as if to ask the people huddled near on top a each what they'd do about it.
But she didn't wait for them to say it. "The Boss-Lord replied, 'Abu Saber still has a beautiful house. It's easy to be generous when you have a place to live. We should go to Abu Saber and say that his home is badly needed for the poor. Surely he will refuse and he won't look so all fired pious after that.' So that's what they did."
Huong-mei squirmed around in her mother's arms. "Are they gunna steal Abu Saber's house?"
"Shh," said her mother, "Just listen."
Mara listened. Didn't seem like she was hearing much from up above. Course the walls were thick. Probably just thick walls.
One-Eyed Mu leaned down toward Huong-mei. "But when the Boss-Lord went to Abu Saber, Abu Saber spread his hands wide and said, 'All that I have is yours. I have been fortunate to shelter here for a time, but the Sultan is wise to see that it is better that my home shelter many rather than just one man. Praise be to Allah for the sun still rises.' And then he pointed up at the sky." She pointed up, and everyone's eyes followed her finger to the bare light that buzzed on the ceiling. "Sure enough, there was a sun hanging in the sky like it did every day."
"I don't hear anything," whispered brown haired Nuying to her best friend red-haired Nuying, although by Mara's count her red hair was mostly henna.
Red-haired Nuying nodded, but didn't want to say anything. Afraid to say it, Mara guessed.
One-Eyed Mu looked down from the ceiling. Nodded to herself and continued. "So Abu Saber went to live in a tent. But just as the doors to his house had always been open, so no man who came to the tent of Abu Saber asking for help ever was turned away."
Huong-mei whispered to her mother, "I don't want Abu Saber to loose his house."
"Shh," said her mother, but her eyes were on the white quiet ceiling.
One-Eyed Mu grinned. "The Sultan summoned his Boss-Lord and said, 'Ya idjit! You've only made things worse. Now Abu Saber lives in a tent and looks like one of the blessed and I look like a yu-bun-duh fool. Well! Whatcha you gunna do about it?' And the The Boss-Lord said, 'He still has his life. We could chop off his head.'"
One-Eyed Mu shook her head a little and said, "The Sultan said, 'Well, maybe I should just chop your head off, ya idjit. Do you want everyone to rise up against me for killing a holy man? No! What we're gunna do is what I shoulda done in the first place. We'll have him kidnapped and cast ashore in some kingdom far out away.'"
Huong-mei whispered to her mother, "Does that mean the Sultan threw Abu Saber outta the Core."
"Shh," whispered her mother, rocking Huong-mei back and forth. But her eyes were all for the white quiet ceiling. The only sound it gave was the steady buzz of the light.
"So, Abu Saber found himself on the shores of a beach far from his home. He said, 'Praise be to the wise Sultan.'" She nodded at those unexpected words. "Yeah, because the Sultan saw that I was humiliated in my old land, having fallen so far. Now I can begin again in a new place where I am not known. Praise be to Allah for the sun still rises.' And he pointed up to the sky where the sun shone like it always did." But One-Eyed Mu did not point. She kept her hands in her lap, kneading each other like so much dough.
Lapsed-Fong said, "Now I know Abu Saber's a gorram fool."
This time Leng Shu didn't shush him.
The Ming brothers were whispering by the shelves about it being a trick. That the Reavers were just waiting. Mara glanced at the air meter crawling its way through the Yella and into the gorram Red.
One-Eyed Mu just kept going like someone walking through sand. "Abu Saber went into the nearest city, where he found work as a bricklayer." She leaned back. "Now while Abu Saber had been a very successful farmer, he was a terrible bricklayer." She shook her head in sorrow as she said that. "He never quite could put down enough mortar or too much. His bricks were always crooked," she gestured the amount of crooked with both hands, "and the man he worked for often swore at him and hit him on the head. But although his back ached with the long hours, but he never complained." She glanced up at the ceiling.
They all followed her narrow gaze.
"Now the Sultan of that land was a kuh-ooh duh lao bao jurn, a terrible tyrant, and he oppressed the people for everything they had to give." One-Eyed Mu patted her pockets. Everyone was listening now, but not for her words. Mara kept noodling with her needles. The soft click of knitting and the buzz of the light and One-Eyed Mu's firm soft voice.
"That meant he was very afraid of his people. So one day the uh-muo Sultan decided to build a great big wall around his palace. He summoned every bricklayer in the land for the project." One-Eyed Mu winked her eye at Huong-mei
"So Abu Saber found himself looking down on a beautiful house. Not all that different from the home where he once lived. He told the other bricklayers that 'All that that we have is from Allah. Allah lifts up the man who is low to the heights," One-Eyed Mu lifted her hand, palm up, then she turned it, "but he can also bring down a high man to the depths." She slapped her thigh with her palm. The whispers stopped and she met every eye. "Praise be to Allah for the sun still rises."
One of the Ming brothers whispered, "But we're almost out of air."
Lend Shu turned and said with fierce bitten words, "Are you volunteering to be the one who goes up and looks."
One-Eyed Mu licked her lips. "So, where was I, oh, yeah, the uh-muo Sultan, liked to spy on his workers, well, he heard this and was furious. You see, he was nothing more than a thief, who'd stolen the throne from his older brother and thrown him in a deep prison. He decided that if Abu Saber wanted to lift up his brother so much, he could just join him."
Mara stopped knitting. She put her hands on the cement floor as if to pull the vibrations from them. She felt nothing. Felt like the ceiling and walls were closing in. Knew it was because there wasn't much air left. Oddly, she wondered what Abu Saber looked like. She imagined that he had soft eyes like the earth after a rain.
She closed her eyes and listened to One-Eyed Mu's voice. "So Abu Saber found himself in a deep pit, far from the sun. The old Sultan told him that he'd been there for many years and that there was no hope. But Abu Saber just smiled in the dark and said, 'In this dark place, I cannot know if the sun still rises, but I do know, praise be to Allah, that we are still alive.' He tried to raise the old Sultan's spirits. However, the old Sultan wasn't well and he soon died."
Mara didn't want to die in the earth. She didn't want to open the door either. The Reavers were probably waiting for them to skedaddle out. Waiting to rip the meat from their bones. She scraped the cement with her fingers and kept her eyes squeezed shut.
One-Eyed Mu continued, "Abu Saber dug a grave with his dinner plate and buried the old Sultan. He prayed over the spot, but he didn't tell the guards that the old Sultan had died, because the food that they sent down for two men was barely enough to keep a cat alive."
Mara wondered if that made the people in this here vault like that cat in that experiment, where you don't open the box. Or if that made the outside world the box. Couldn't know if there was a cat to kill you till you opened it.
She could hear One-Eyed Mu stand up. She could hear Huong-mei squirm in her mother's arms. "Now, up in the palace, the mother of the old Sultan and the uh-muo one didn't know that her son was dead. She often begged her younger son to allow his old brother a nicer prison." She chuckled at some though. "A place in the light, where he could be fed and clothed as a prince should be. But he always refused."
Mara opened her eyes. Everything seemed strangely bright and had a slight glow. She glanced at the air meter. It was almost in the Red.
One-Eyed Mu picked her way over to the door and seemed to say with her one eye, now, shall I open the door now. But no one would look up at her. They stared at the floor, so she kept talking. "Finally she decided that it would be better for her older son to be dead than to be trapped in a dark prison below the earth. So on her son's birthday, she sent away all her women and she roasted a chicken with her own hands." She held out her hands. "She prepared it with all of her eldest son's favorite spices, mixed with a deadly poison." She clapped her hands together.
Huong-mei said, "Oh, no!"
Her mother didn't shush her, just held onto her, squirming in her lap.
One-Eyed Mu put a hand on the door frame. "Then she sent a servant with the chicken to the place where her son was kept." She held out her hands full of an imaginary tray. "The servant jumped when she heard the uh-muo Sultan call out, 'What do you have there?'" She slid her hand down the door frame. "The servant spoke carefully, because she was afraid, 'I am taking a chicken that your mother cooked with her own hands for your brother.'"
Her voice was getting softer, but no one called out, "Open the door."
She kept going. "The Sultan said, 'Who said that my brother could have chicken.' He grabbed the platter away from the woman. He was about to throw it to the ground, when he breathed in and smelled the meat." She breathed in a soft shallow breath. Not enough air for deep, but Mara could almost smell the chicken. "He put the platter down and gobbled it up." She smacked her lips. "He dropped dead before he'd finished chewing his final bite."
But still no one called out for her to open the door.
Huong-mei didn't giggle. She'd fallen asleep. Just asleep. Her chest made faint breaths.
One-Eyed Mu whispered, "It was a very deadly poison." She let go of the door frame and sat back down. "The servant went to the Sultan's mother, who said, 'We should bring my son, the Sultan, out of his prison.' So the guards called down into the prison, 'Come up.'" She gave a faint smile. "Abu Saber climbed up the ladder and back into the sunlight. He smiled at the gathered crowd and said, 'Praise be to Allah for the sun still rises.'" She made some half gesture that didn't quite make it up to the ceiling.
Mara stood up. She felt dizzy. It was the gorram Red.
"The people cheered their new Sultan. No one remembered what the old one looked like. His mother knew. She looked down into the pit where her son had been and said only, 'I should have sent you a chicken years ago.' Then she embraced Abu Saber as her son." Mara picked her way through the people lying on the floor. Faint shallow breaths. No said, "Stop." No one said, "Open the door." No one said anything.
Just One-Eyed Mu, her voice getting softer with every last word. "So Abu Saber found himself a Sultan and while he'd been a terrible bricklayer, he was an excellent ruler. The crops in his fields overflowed with grain and fruit, and he saw to it that no one went hungry, saying, 'Are we not all children of Allah.'" One-Eyed Mu gave this sad, sad smile.
Mara reached the door and put her hand on the lock. She should spin it. They were going to die anyway. Course, here they'd die in their sleep. Not ripped apart by bun tyen-shung duh ee-dway-ro Reavers.
"When the Sultan of his old kingdom found out that the new Sultan of the kingdom cross the sea looked a good deal like Abu Saber, he arranged for all a Abu Saber's money to be returned to him. Because the Sultan really was a good man, and he hadn't wanted Abu Saber's money anyway. He said, 'Praise be to Allah that Abu Saber is alive and has found a kingdom where he can practice all his pious and generous ways,' and then under his breath, he said, 'Praise also to Allah that he no longer practices them in mine.'"
Mara spun the lock and opened her eyes as wide as she could and opened the door. Dusty air crept into the hot sour space. She hadn't realized how hot it was, until something cool came in. She stood there, door cracked as if that meant anything. As if a cracked door could hold back something as horrible as a Reaver.
She opened it a further crack and slipped out the narrow opening.
The door at the top of the stairs was still there. Another door. She opened it and blinked at the light that streamed into what had once been a building. Nothing but rubble now and one lone wall of lumpy handmade bricks.
She blinked in the light of the sunshine and she whispered, "Praise be to Allah for the sun still rises."