A Modern Fairy Tale
“I don’t care if it is Wedgewood. That’s an outrageous price for a teapot without a lid, and, I might add, a crack in it.” Wrapped in ebony mink and wearing a red silk turban with a ruby clip as red as the garish lipstick smeared over her upper lip, the old woman pointed her cane at the barely visible line on the teapot’s blue porcelain belly.
“Come, now, you can’t call that a crack, Mrs. Wellover . . .”
At her age, such vision. It was criminal. For the second time that morning, Mr. Wolfe, at fifty, envied the troublesome old woman her eyes and wished he were in a position to order her out of his shop. But business these days was slow, and he could no sooner indulge that pleasure than choose to invite her chauffeur—now leaning against the gray limousine outside with a cigarette dangling cockily from his lips—to appraise his latest shipment of Queen Anne chairs.
“No. Definitely not. You junk dealers think, because I’m rich, that I don’t know what I’m buying.”
“Mrs. Wellover, please . . . after twenty-five years? Have I ever sold you anything that wasn’t absolutely—?”
“Stop squirming, Wolfe. I hate it when you start squirming.”
Mr. Wolfe swallowed the urge to grab the cane and club the old woman with it. Instead, he straightened his shoulders and snapped to attention.
“What’s that . . . over there, on the shelf next to that fake Russian icon?”
The antiques dealer turned his myopic gaze on the glass case behind him. “The cup . . . do you mean the goblet up there?”
“Yes, take it down.”
“Ah, Mrs. Wellover, you don’t want that; you don’t want that at all.”
“Don’t tell me what I want and don’t want. Get rid of this stupid pot and bring down that cup. I want to look at it.”
It was her money, her lazy, unearned money that prompted him to obey. Good, let her spend it on garbage. Her insults would cost her, too. He’d drive up the price, sell it to her for twice what it was worth, which, as he well knew, was damned little to begin with. Let her have it, the old bitch. Fat lot he cared about her, with her checkbook and that tiny chicken shit scrawl of hers—just as long as the check ended up in his hands.
“Blow off that dust. Don’t you bother cleaning your treasures anymore, Wolfe? Or haven’t you the time . . . between rushing off to the bank to cash my checks and those long lunches . . . haven’t got the time to dust your treasures, eh?”
He placed the goblet on the counter in front of her. “Mrs. Wellover—”
“Where is it from?”
“Let me warn you from the outset, I suspect it to be of no value.”
“Then why do you keep it?”
“It was brought here on consignment . . . an Arab dealer . . . not the most reliable fellow . . . calls himself Ayub Nasruddin.”
“Yes, and for all I know it’s a front, too. He comes and goes, isn’t recognized by the Antiques Dealer’s Association; but sometimes, every now and then, he’ll bring in a real find.”
“Is that why you accepted the cup?”
“He just left it here . . . said he’d be back for it if I didn’t want it or couldn’t sell it within a month.” Mr. Wolfe removed an oversized handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the oil from the wings of his nose. “Come to think of it, that was three months ago. I’d forgotten about it.”
The old woman took the cup into her hands. It was tall and heavy, undecorated and smooth on the outside and, except for a slightly rough dark patch on the inside, pleasant to the touch. Mirror clear. Probably real silver. Wolfe was trying to keep it from her just for spite.
“Nasruddin gave me some trumped-up legend to boot,” Mr. Wolfe glanced out the window again at the chauffeur. Receiving a menacing stare in return, he quickly looked away. “. . . Some superstitious claptrap about the cup containing the answer to the ‘enigma of life and death. . . ’” Mr. Wolfe laughed dryly. How much could he ask? He cursed himself for having talked it down, for his bloody honesty, for wearing his heart on his sleeve. No wonder he’d never grown rich.
“I’ll take it. How much?”
“Fifteen hundred?” The number slipped out of his mouth. Stupid, stupid! He should have asked for twenty-five.
“Good. Pack it now; I’ll take it with me. What are you standing there for? I said I’d take it.”
His fingers prompted by a mysterious intelligence not his own, the balding antiques dealer dropped the cup into a blue velvet bag with a muted thump.
Drew felt the snap of salt spray against his cheek as he soared above the water. A blue and white striped umbrella, a shaggy grass thatch on stilts, a barefoot girl selling candied applies, and a circle of men cleaning fish merged beneath him in a blaze of color. A tiny, dark, beloved spot, Mina was down there on the beach, too. Snug in his birdman’s parachute harness, Drew didn’t want the half hour to end. If only he could stay suspended like this forever. It wasn’t like any other high he’d experienced, certainly not like smoking hash in town with the Mexican dealers who passed themselves off as flamenco dancers. If he had to give a name to it, he’d call this a “seagull high.” He would describe it to Mina as flying like a baby bird in its mother’s beak midway between ocean and sky. Small Mina, miniscule Mina, so fragile under her tough facade. He would have to come down if only to protect his little earthbound bird. It had been Mina who’d spotted the man with the parachute.
“Look, Drew, look!” She had leapt up from her chaise and run toward the sputtering speedboat. Drew hadn’t wanted to fly; he’d wanted to stay where he was, stretched out on the tatami alongside her under the thatch on stilts. Besides, he’d reminded her, he was too fair to expose himself to the sun like that. But what did Mina care? She was as dark as a gypsy to begin with, had turned a comfortable nut brown from the day they arrived. Drew had pleaded with her to just lie there peacefully next to him. Just once, let there be no jogging on the beach; no following the marimba music to the overpriced tourist bar; no dickering with the unlicensed hawkers over straw hats, dried fish, inedible candies, tacky plaster statues of the Madonna, and sandals that would chafe and be tossed out the next day . . .
“Drew, Drew, come on! It’s a parachute! Look, you can fly like a bird. Let’s fly!”
Of course, she hadn’t come with him. And now his half hour had run out and Drew was sorry. The boy in the speedboat was motioning with his long brown arm to the old man on the sand. The speedboat engine sputtered, and Drew was slowly descending. He could see Mina clearly now, standing next to the old man in her pink bikini. She might be calling to him, but he was still too far above her to hear. He could do it again. Fifty dollars, and the old man would strap him into the seat, pull the elastic cords from his crotch to his shoulders and fasten “dee Mae Ouest.” But it was getting late. Mina would be hungry. They’d have to be showering soon, changing for dinner. He was coming down. The lines slackened suddenly and Drew felt his feet sink into the sand.
That night the electricity failed and they ate dinner by candlelight. Mina wanted to go dancing. The one and only club in Puerta del Sol had opened for the season. Insisting he’d had enough for one day, Drew had convinced her to remain at the hotel. They sat on the deck holding hands and drinking Pernod until their heads got fuzzy. Then, without really planning to, they stripped and dived into the darkened pool.
At two in the morning, Drew woke up out of a dream and was unable to get back to sleep. It had been a familiar dream, something to with missing a train, and it served to dredge up his old fears about the future. Before marrying Mina and “coming into money,” as his late mother might have put it, Drew had been a moderately successful children’s book illustrator. Oddly, he had never really liked children. The only child of hardworking parents with little time or money to indulge him, he’d preferred the parakeets, dogs, seals, and pandas populating his imagination to real-life human friends. He did, however, love Mina. But he never really trusted her. She was too mercurial. Her moods changed as swiftly as the little salamanders on the bedroom walls changed colors. And if you frightened her, like the parrot the maid’s boy kept chained to a perch behind the hotel kitchen, she’d lunge at you and try to peck out your eyes.
Drew was about to turn over on his stomach when he heard an ominous rattling sound.
“Mina . . . Darling . . . . Wake up. Listen.”
“Hmm?” Mina buried her head in the crook of his arm.
“What?” Startled, she bolted up, eyes open wide.
“I don’t hear anything, baby . . . except for the crickets.”
“No, listen closely, the other noise.”
Mina stifled a yawn. “Oh, yes, I hear it now. You mean the rattling.”
“What do you think it is?”
“Hand me the flashlight.”
“But it’s right outside. I left the door open because the fan was off. What if it’s a rattlesnake?”
“You grab the blanket. The minute I flash the light, you drop it over him.”
“Well, it’s probably not a him. Probably nothing. But just in case . . .”
“Could be a she, couldn’t it?”
“Can you just grab the blanket, Mina?”
“Yeah, sort of. Just stay up there on the bed. And remember to throw me the blanket when you see me flashing the light.”
Drew swung himself out of bed, pushed his feet deep into his leather slippers, and slouched toward the door.
“Are you playing Last of the Mohicans?”
“Quiet. It’s stopped.”
“Drew!” Mina’s desperate whisper followed him onto the porch.
“I don’t hear it anymore, do you?”
“Okay, I’m going to flash the light now.”
“Don’t, maybe it hears you, maybe that’s why it stopped.”
But Drew no longer cared. If the thing was so brave, why didn’t it keep rattling? Had his puny footsteps scared it away? If that was the case, well—“Now!”
Seeing the light circle the darkened room, Mina threw him the blanket. Drew turned the beam on the deck, illuminating nothing more than two beach chairs and two bathing suits drying on the railing. “Whatever it was, it’s not on the deck.”
“But I hear it again.”
They decided to take turns sitting up with the flashlight on.
It was only as the faintest glint of dawn entered the room and the electricity came on that the rattling stopped.
They ate an early breakfast. Both were pale and quiet. Before they had finished, the waiter handed Mina a telegram. Mrs.Wellover was dead. The will declared Mina sole heir and executor of her grandmother’s estate. They would have to leave immediately for New York.
Mina wandered through the empty house considering whether to donate the Persian rug in the family room to charity, the center looked so worn. Not having loved her grandmother, she did not grieve at her death, wished only to rid herself of the enormous Wellover collection and return to Puerta del Sol. She hated New York and longed to hurry back to the warm beach and the sea. She always felt estranged from Drew in New York. Being here always made him start harping on his work. They had enough money without either of them having to worry about work. But that didn’t stop him from harping on it whenever he found himself in New York.
Mina had hardly known her parents; they had died in an accident when she was three—flying off to Aspen to ski in a plane piloted by her father. She’d been left alone with a French lady who taught her to speak English all wrong, so that when she’d started school the others laughed at her accent and her mistakes. When her grandmother had taken over and dismissed Mademoiselle Francoise, it was no better. The chauffeur drove her to school in silence while she sat in the back seat nervously jabbing at the electric buttons that moved the windows up and down. The girls at Chapin made fun of her for entertaining no adults on Parent Day and for being the tallest on line, and her teacher made her reach up to the top cupboard for scissors and paste because her arms were so long. Yet, as it turned out, she remained exactly at her twelve-year-old height, so that now, at twenty-four, she was tiny.
Her grandmother had kept her in the huge, dimly lit house without allowing playmates in for fear her precious collection might be scratched, nicked, or stolen. Mina hated the glass cases filled with useless things she could never touch: Egyptian pottery shards, Roman coins, Revolutionary War pistols . . . she hated living in a museum. She had spent a good part of her time as an undergraduate at Barnard dispensing with possessions, ridding herself of anything she saw as superfluous to living in the moment. Cars, clothes and pets were either kept to a minimum or impulsively given away at the end of every semester. Drew had come to her with nothing in his pockets—just in time to help her clear away what she called the “detritus” of her life and start again, free, clean, leaving no trace of herself behind.
Now, except for the threadbare Persian carpet in the family room, the house was empty. The bulk of her grandmother’s valuables were in the Sothby’s warehouse waiting to be inventoried and sold at auction . . . books, paintings—stopping in front of one of the empty library shelves, Mina was annoyed to find that one last book remained: a long, thin ledger with a blue cover. She took it down from the shelf, opened it at random, and read:
March 14-Silver Sheffield Tray: Victorian, 18” diameter
March 27-Early American sled—oak with wrought iron runners.
(Don’t know what I’ll do with it, but I like it.)
Mina skipped through pages of lists, columns of notes on Greek jewelry, Chinese shadow puppets, Argentine fur wraps, Phoenecian tear glasses and oil lamps . . . even an Alaskan stuffed bear that had been donated to a summer wildlife exhibit in Portland, Oregon. She was about to close the ledger—she would give it to the lawyer, make things easier for him during the inventory—when the pages fluttered foward in one sweeping rush to the end of the book. On the last page, she read:
April 2-Found it. It’s mine now. This piece is my last; I have no desire to buy another thing.
It is called 'The Cup of Jamshid.’
April 4- Nasruddin has been here. He says to look into it alone.
Under no circumstances am I to tell anyone else where it is. I am to hide it carefully before and
after looking into its depths.
April 8-I have seen it all in the cup, as he said I would. I have found out what I needed to know.
I have hidden the cup well. Now I can die.
Mina closed the ledger and ran with it down the long hallway to the front door. Holding the book close to her chest, she pushed open the door and rushed outside to the waiting car. She would tell Drew. Together they would find the cup and everything would be perfect.
They had come too late: the shop was closed, its olive drab shades drawn over the display windows.
“Well, what do we do now, Minakins?”
“We don’t come all the way to Switzerland and do nothing. We find him.”
“Of course. How?”
“The same way we found this address in New York. We come back until someone answers.”
Drew looked up at the hopelessly shuttered windows on the floor above the shop, and then at the sign slung across the front door handle: Ferme. Geschlossen. Closed.
Below that, in small letters, he read Ayub Nasruddin, Prop. Watching Mina tap her ring against the front door glass, he wondered how long would it take for her to get bored with her “treasure hunt?”
“Drew, there’s someone coming.”
“But, honey, it’s locked tight. Let’s give it up. Your grandmother might have made up the whole thing. She was probably senile by then anyway.”
A fat frowsy woman in curlpapers and felt slippers unlatched the door with a clatter. A dimple in her chin belied her cheerless, insolent manner.
“Mister Nasruddin, is he here?”
“No, he not here.”
The four-o’clock sun, still surprisingly strong and warm on Drew’s back, glinted off the woman’s thick glasses. They were very strange looking glasses, designed to permit vision from every side and every conceivable angle. They bulged oddly over the woman’s faded blue eyes. Drew squelched the urge to snatch them from her face and try them on.
“Please . . . . Parlez-vous francais?” Flashing the woman her most ingratiating grin, Mina tried again.
“Not here. Herr Nasruddin go Morocco.” The woman slammed the door, fastened the locks and noisily made her way upstairs.
“Drew, he’s in Morocco.” Mina put her hand to her eyes and Drew felt his heart tighten in his chest.
“Mina, don’t get crazy on me, okay? I’m not following some phantom Arab to Morocco just to find out about your batty grandmother’s dumb-ass cup.”
“I have to find that cup. I have to!”
Drew noted that Mina’s brown little bird face now belonged to someone he did not know. “Oh, come on, cut it out. You’re beginning to sound like the old lady. I thought you hated collecting things . . . hated all her trash. How many times have you told me that, huh? How many?”
“Drew, I’m not collecting . . . this is different. It’s something I can’t explain.”
“For Christ’s sake, what’s wrong with you? First it was a game. Now you talk as if you couldn’t live without the damned thing.”
Drew paced around the front of the shop with his head bowed and his hands in his pockets. Church bells were ringing urgently all over the city.
“I don’t think I can . . .” Mina seemed about to cry. Her voice was so soft and the bells so loud that he had trouble hearing her.
“I don’t think I can.” Suddenly she was weeping.
“Mina, baby . . . what’s wrong? Come on, tell me.” Drew pulled her into his arms and kissed the tears as they fell to her cheeks. When she stopped crying, he led her out into the soon-to-be twilit streets of Geneva and over the little brick bridge in the middle of the roadway that ran nowhere. Fearing for the first time that he might lose her, Drew promised to find the cup.
The nimble-footed guide chattered non-stop as Drew followed him into the bazaar. “You need suitcase, maybe? I get it for you chip. . . eighteen American dullar . . maybe . . . that’s all,” his versatile sales pitch accommodating each new item that caught his eye. Only once did the guide stop, to greet a legless boy selling sandalwood incense. “This is my cousin, Ahmed. He find you good hashish, you want it.”
Drew waved aside the offer. The guide turned into a courtyard and stopped in front of an ornately carved wooden door. “Here they will tell you of Mr. Nasruddin. Here I leave you . . . and pick you and Missus up at the hotel tonight? Yes?”
“Thank you. No, we won’t be going out tonight. My wife isn’t well. Thank you anyway. You’ve helped us a lot. Really . . . but will you please stay here with me in case they don’t speak English?” He handed the guide a twenty-dollar bill.
“No, mister . . . they talk English. In that shop no worry, they talk everything.” A grin, and he was gone.
Drew knocked, and the door opened almost immediately. He looked into the face of a small, dark-haired woman.
“What are you doing—?” He caught himself; it wasn’t Mina, only a remarkable likeness: the same tan skin, sad brown eyes, and little bird face. The only difference was the tiny wicked mole next to her right eye.
“Mister Nasruddin’s shop?”
“Yes. What can I do with you?”
Drew almost laughed. “I’m looking for Mister Nasruddin.”
The woman opened the door wider. She wore a long striped robe with a pointed hood and a drawstring ending in two delicate silver bells. The room smelled of cardamom and Arab coffee.
“I am his daughter. He is not here. What would you like of him?” The woman spoke in a mocking tone. Or was he imagining it?
“I have some business to discuss with him. Will he be back today?”
“My father is out of the country. He has gone to Calcutta on a business trip.”
“Look, it’s very important that I see him—”
The woman stepped back and motioned him into the shop. Drew took it all in with one glance: the lapis tiled floor and walls, the great funerary urns and goat-hair rugs, the books as large as sandwich boards, leather hassocks and pillowed benches.
“My name is Emmett, Drew Emmett. My wife’s late grandmother was a . . . customer of your father’s.”
“Emmett? I do not know the name.”
“No, the grandmother’s name was Wellover . . . Felice Wellover. She lived in New York. Before she died she bought a cup from an antiques dealer on East Fifty-Seventh Street named Wolfe.”
“Yes, my father sometimes deals with Mr. Wolfe. I handle those transactions. My father does not do that, he leaves all of the—how do you say—accounting—yes, the accounting, he leaves to me.”
“Then you must know about the cup.”
They were interrupted just then by a slight, dark-skinned boy in a white shirt and tight black gabardine trousers who emerged from behind a curtain and silently deposited a tray containing two coffee cups on a low table before disappearing behind the curtain again.
Drew was overcome by the same queasiness he’d experienced in Puerta del Sol before flying. The same desperation as he’d watched Mina slipping away from him on the beach below. So many airplane take-offs and landings since then. . . January, February, March, April . . . and now it was summer. Consumed by the devilish riddle of her inheritance, he’d left Mina lying sick and feverish in their hotel room. What the hell was he doing here? He turned to go, but was blocked by Mina’s barefoot double. Holding out a blue velvet bag, she said, “You mean this, don’t you?” The silver bells bobbed seductively against her bosom.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen it. For all I know, it’s a trick.”
“It is no trick,” the woman said. “Your wife, she wants the cup?”
“Yes, but . . .”
“You must stay here a little. Then we will see. We will have coffee first, yes?”
Nasruddin’s daughter pointed to a pair of star-embroidered leather hassocks stationed at opposite ends of the table. Inhaling the combined fragrance of sandalwood incense and cardamom coffee, Drew sat down on the one closest to him.
In Mina’s dream, she was sloshing through a muddy river behind a troop of soldiers on a mission. Suddenly their leader turned around. It was Arnold Schwarzenegger, waving her forward. Mina waded toward him with her rifle in the air. Arnold passed her a note with Chinese characters on it. No sooner had she taken it from him than she found herself running behind a Pedi cycle in the steamy heat of a city she’d never been to. She was still wearing her army fatigues and holding her rifle. The soldiers were no longer with her. She knew had to carry out this part of the mission alone.
The Pedi cycle stopped in front of a nondescript shop, and the driver, a Chinese boy in a sloped straw hat, motioned for her to knock on the door before pedaling away. Mina knocked until a copper-skinned man in thick-lens spectacles and a red fez opened the door and led her into a room cluttered with fur rugs, massive folios, and camel hide chairs, its walls crammed with floor to ceiling shelves of identical silver goblets.
“Is the cup here?” she asked.
“As you can see, all the cups are here,” he said, pointing to the shelves and smiling.
“Can I have it?”
“We will see. First, don’t you want to put your rifle down?”
Seating herself on a leather hassock embroidered with stars, Mina placed the rifle on the floor beside her. She hadn’t realized how heavy it was, dragging her arm down and causing pain in her shoulders. She was grateful to him for relieving her of her burden.
The man in the fez snapped his fingers, and a young boy in a white shirt and tight black gabardine trousers appeared from behind a curtain with a tray containing two cups of coffee. After setting the tray down on a low table in front of her, the boy noiselessly slipped behind the curtain.
“You must be tired, Mina,” the man in the fez began massaging her shoulders.
“Yes, I am, and I have a fever. The doctor says that tomorrow they may be able to move me to the hospital, but I’m too sick to be moved now.”
The man in the fez made sympathetic clucking noises with his tongue.
“Let me see the cup. Without it, I’ll die . . . you know that. The note said it was a life-and-death mission . . . ‘The Cup of Jamshid’ . . . you saw the writing in the ledger.”
The man in the fez stopped massaging her shoulders. “I can show it to you if you really want to see it.”
“Please, Mister Nasruddin, please!”
Nasruddin reached up and removed one of the cups from the shelf directly behind her. “Remember, you must look into it alone,” he said, depositing it into her hands before disappearing, leaving only a rainbow of color in his place. Then the rainbow, too, was gone.
Mina ran her hands over the rim and sides of the cup. Hardly realizing that she wasn’t ready yet, she quickly gazed into its depths. Floating on a moonlit ocean at the bottom of the cup lay a miniature version of Drew wrapped in the arms of a similarly miniature version of herself. Drew was planting kisses, like flowers, along the tawny naked body of the woman who, except for the tiny wicked mole next to her right eye, both was, and was not, Mina . . . Crying out to warn Drew of the woman’s deception, Mina dropped the cup. It fell to the floor with a clatter then rolled out of the shop through the open door into the street, startling a honey-colored cat on its way to dinner as it hit the curb.
Two months later, on a fetid Indian summer day in New York, still bearing the bruises of Mina’s doomed “treasure hunt,” Drew roamed Felice Wellover’s vacant mansion in search of the ledger that had sent his wife to her death. There had been no cup. It had all been a fraud. Mina’s look alike had drugged him with opium-laced coffee and emptied his pockets before having him thrown into an alley behind the shop. Barely conscious, he’d somehow managed to drag himself through the maze of the bazaar back to the hotel, where, in a sticky room behind louver doors, he’d found Mina. Her death started here, he thought, as he entered the library. The shelves were covered in dust. Once the books had been removed, no one had bothered to clean them. A few busy ants were circling in a corner of the floor under the bottom shelf. Drew watched the ants for a while. Then he looked up. There, alone on the empty bottom shelf, stood a smooth polished silver cup reflecting him like a mirror.
Drew removed the cup from the shelf.
Recipientof the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence atthe Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem, PushcartPrize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer forthe “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing and by Publisher’s Weekly for its “wisdom [that] points to a universal practice of the heart.” Her autobiographical novel Pilgrimage was published by Houghton Mifflin, and her short fiction has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, AGNI, Transatlantic Review, Nebraska Review, Southerly, and Bamboo Ridge,among others. Her books have been recorded and released in both audioand e-book versions and translated into over ten languages. Her mostrecent book of creative non-fiction, combining memoir, storytelling,and women’s spiritual history, is A New Zen for Women (Palgrave Macmillan); and her story collection, Marriage and Other Travesties of Love, is currently available online from Cantarabooks. Her latest book, Zen Radicals, Rebels, and Reformers,co-authored with Manfred Steger, will be published by Wisdom Books in2011. She has lectured, toured, taught, and appeared on television,radio, and in two documentary films about her work in the US, Europe,Canada, Australia, Japan, China, and the Middle East. Perle currentlydivides her time between Melbourne, Australia and Honolulu, Hawai’i.