Over the next ten days we will be publishing the ten finalists from the 2019 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. This, the last of our first five stories, was one of the ten that made it to the final round of judging. Today, enjoy Nicholas Summerson’s story, “The Tale of Ali.”
Ali peered out his bedroom window barred with wooden sticks. He leaned on the window sill to get a better look of the bustling streets of Timbuktu when—crack—the wooden bars broke and Ali plunged to his death.
Ali awoke—startled—and rose to say his morning prayers. He was the prince of Timbuktu, the descendent of many wealthy merchants who gained enough power to become royalty. Yet Ali did not feel as fortunate as his merchant ancestors who were able to freely trade gold and salt; Ali was trapped in the tallest tower of Timbuktu and, according to tradition, he had to stay there until his coronation. It seemed odd to Ali that he wasn’t allowed to explore his future kingdom and create connections with his future subjects, but he still adhered to tradition. Since he was only permitted occasional visits by his family, he had a djinni to keep him company and ease his solitude. His djinni’s name was Ibrahim and, despite being tasked with educating Ali, he behaved more like Ali’s friend.
“Good morning Ibrahim.” Ali said as he surveyed his room in the morning light.
His room was covered in rugs and tapestries imported from around the Arabic world. Their colorful dyes and patterns brought vibrance to the beige mud-brick room. In the corner of his room, opposite his bed, stood an immense bookshelf filled with tomes and scrolls about a myriad of topics Ali was forced to study. These included ancient maps of foreign lands, textbooks about biology and astronomy, philosophical books, sacred texts about the world religions, and novels collected from around the world, Ali’s favorite being Arabic folk tales.
“Hey pal! Good morning. Looks like we got a delivery of fresh books!” Ibrahim said as he pointed to a pile of new books next to Ali’s wrought iron door.
“Oh how fascinating.” Ali replied rolling his eyes “Hopefully it’s not a stack of algebra textbooks like the last time.”
Ali then proceeded to discover the topics of the books.
“Astronomy, alchemy, botany…” Ali then paused, hauling an exceptionally large book out of the pile. “Hey Ib, come look at this.”
The book Ali held was encased in ancient leather and was titled The Emerald Tablet of Thoth, yet where there should have been pages there was a solid green glass-like material. On the side of the book was a large lock inscribed with“Use the magic words”.
“Well look at that piece of junk. Let’s push it out the window and see if it bounces when it lands.”
“No Ibrahim! This book must be special if it has a lock. Let’s try and find out what magic words we need to use to open it.”
“It’s probably something stupid like ‘Abracadabra’ or ‘Alakazam’.” Ibrahim replied.
“Or maybe it’s something polite like ‘Please open’.”
“Hmm, well those didn’t work. What about ‘Open Sesame!’”
Click-click. The lock fell off the leather casing and opened to reveal a rectangular green tablet with archaic golden writing.
“What is this? This is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I can’t even read it.”, exclaimed Ali.
Hello Ali, we’ve been looking for you. The book’s golden letters wrote, rearranging it’s archaic text into Arabic.
“What? Who’s we? What are you?”
“Hey, Ali, calm down it’s just some crazy book” Ibrahim consoled Ali.
I am not a crazy book. I am the physical manifestation of the knowledge of Thoth and I have been continuously animated throughout millennia by powerful alchemists and wizards. By “we” I mean the universe—the creator. We have been seeking you Ali because we know you want something and when you tell the universe your desires through thoughts and prayers, the universe conspires to help you achieve them.
“But what are my desires?” Ali asked.
That is for you to find out. You discover your desires by facing you greatest fears. In order to do that you must enter the dream world: the place where the subconscious mind reveals aspects of yourself that are unknown to the conscious mind.
“And how should I enter the dream world?”
Normally one can enter the dream world consciously after years of meditation, contemplation, and spiritual practice, but there does exist a way to enter the dream world without years to prepare for it. You will need three berries of belladonna, the root of nightshade, the essence of mandrake, and the flowers of lavender. You will then grind them into paste, place the paste on your forehead and it will induce your journey into the dream world. But there is something you must know first: if you fail to find a way out of the dream world you will be trapped there for ever.
“What? No way, Ali you can’t do this! It’s too risky. I forbid you.” exclaimed Ibrahim.
“But Ib, this may be the only way for me to do something with my life before I become king! I can’t just be stuck studying in this tower until I have to rule an entire kingdom”
“Alright fine. But you can’t say I didn’t tell you it was dangerous if you get trapped in the dream world.”
“That’s alright. If I get trapped I won’t be able to say that to you anyway.” Ali said with a smirk. “Now can you conjure the ingredients for me please, Ib?”
“So first you disobey my forbidding you from entering the dream world and now you want me to help you enter it?” Ibrahim asked angrily. “Fine. I’ll do it, but only because I’m your djinni and technically I’m obligated. You know I can only conjure three things at a time so you’ll have to get the lavender flowers on you own.”
Ibrahim held out his hand and—poof—three dark red berries, a long skinny beige root, and a vial of yellow liquid appeared on a rug in-front of Ali.
“A-hem. You’re welcome.” Ibrahim said with a grimace.
“Now all I have to do is obtain some lavender flowers. Luckily my mother has a lavender plant right outside her door. All I have to do is sneak down the tower’s spiral stars and across the hallway.”
Ali pondered on how to get out of his room. The large iron door was meant to prevent him from escaping before his coronation. He also could not be seen outside his room without harsh consequences.
“Hey Emerald Tablet, how am I supposed to get out of my room and obtain the lavender flowers without being seen?” asked Ali.
You must say these words “Taljealni Ghyr Maryiyin”. This will make you invisible and able to pass through walls. But beware, it only lasts one minute long.
Ali walked towards his door and prepared to rush down the stairs to pick the lavender flowers.
“Taljealni Ghyr Maryiyi”
Ali felt his body begin to dissolve into an invisible vapor. His feet no longer touched the floor, but hovered an inch above. He then rushed through the door, feeling the cold metal interact with his new body. He then hurried down the stairs, gliding along without truly touching any of the steps.
Ali then drifted over to his mother’s lavender plants and began to pick the flower stalks. Right as he picked the third stalk, Ali looked up and saw a servant. Despite being invisible, Ali panicked and with a gust of wind he fled up the stairs, leaving a foul odor—evidence of his immense fear—behind.
Ali re-entered his room and re-materialized.
“Woah. That was scary.” Ali said breathing heavily.
“Well pal, it’ll be even scarier when you enter this so called dream world.” Ibrahim replied.
“Funny.” Ali said with an eye-roll, still panting from his harrowing adventure. “Now that we have the ingredients let’s ask The Emerald Tablet if theres anything else I’ll need. Hello Emerald Tablet, is there anything else I need to know about the dream world?”
Yes. While facing your greatest fears in the dream world you must remember that you are only dreaming. Panicking will cause you to re-experience your dream. Once you overcome your fears, you will realize your greatest desire. Then the universe can help you accomplish this desire.
“Thank you Emerald Tablet” Ali replied.
Ali then proceeded to grinding the ingredients with a mortar and pestle, producing a thick purple paste.
“Hey Ali, it’s not too late to back out of this.” Ibrahim whispered. “Just say the book is crazy and we can go about our life like this never happened.”
“No Ibrahim. I want to do this. I don’t want to be trapped studying here until my coronation. By then I’ll have too many responsibilities to have fun. I just want to live.”
“Alright Ali. Be safe, I’ll be waiting here for you.”
Ali then spread the paste on his forehead, laid down on rug, closed his eyes, and drifted off into the dream world.
When Ali’s eyes reopened he was back in his tower.
“What? Did the paste not work?” he asked.
But Ali realized that Ibrahim was not present. He looked down and saw that he was wearing purple ceremonial robes and there was a gold crown laying on his bed.
“Ali?” A voice outside his door called, “Are you almost ready? It’s about time for the ceremony.”
It was his sister. A horrifying realization came across Ali. It was his coronation day.
“Yeah, I’ll be right there.” Ali responded.
Then Ali smelt something—smoke. He heard screams ensue throughout the palace. But Ali remembered the advice from The Emerald Tablet—do not panic. Ali sat down and surrendered to the hot flames washing over him.
When Ali’s eyes opened again he was back in his room.
“What? Not this again.”
This time Ali heard shouts outside his window. He walked over to his window. He peered out the wooden bars and discovered a mob of people in the street outside the palace. They were brandishing large rocks and torches.
“A revolt? That can’t be! My father is a great king.” Ali said with disbelief.
Then Ali realized that he actually knew nothing about how his father was ruling Timbuktu. He was too busy studying and waiting for his coronation to keep up with current affairs.
Ali then felt a tremble in the tower. The people revolting were throwing their rocks at the palace—at his tower.
Suddenly Ali heard a deafening crack—his tower was falling. Remembering The Emerald Tablet’s advice, Ali did not resist. He let the mud-bricks fall around and on-top of him.
Ali opened his eyes. He was back in his room except this time there were no shouts or smells of smoke, just peace. He glided over towards his window and leaned on the window sill. He looked out over the streets of Timbuktu, the city he so desperately wanted to—but could not—explore. He shed a tear. Ali leaned a bit closer to the wooden bars to get a better view when—crack—the wooden bars broke and Ali fell from his tower.
“No!” He cried. “I don’t wan’t to die before I get the chance to truly live!”
Ali re-appeared in the tower. It was still peaceful. He remembered The Emerald Tablet’s advice; he had panicked and was reliving his greatest fear.
Then Ali realized something. He now knew his greatest fear, which meant that he now knew his greatest desire. He then calmly strolled over to his window, looked out upon the city, let the bars break under his weight, and fell with a smile on his face.
Ali’s awareness came back into his body. He opened his eyes and sat up quickly.
“Hey Ib, I made it back!”
“Welcome back pal! I guess you’re some sort of champion now that you’ve faced your greatest fear. Hey Emerald Tablet, what’s Ali supposed to do now? Fly to the moon?”
He knows what he needs to do now.
Ali smirked and pulled Ibrahim onto a rug.
“Tatir Alsijjad!” Ali commanded.
The rug lifted off the ground and hovered.
The wooden bars over Ali’s window disappeared and—whoosh—the rug flew out the window and over the city.
“A flying carpet? Are you serious? What a cliché!” Ibrahim grumbled. “Ali what are you doing?”
“Ibrahim, I’m free!”