Sketch for the Black Cube Project: Beginnings

Diane Earley stood alone in her study. Shadows gathered around the Connecticut manor, as the last few strands of daylight were swallowed up by dusk.

Diane loved this time of night as a child loves it: it was the time to light lamps and tell stories. It was time to eat the last bit of hot food for the day, and find a blanket to keep yourself nice and warm. It was time to scare yourself with things that Should Not Be, and later on drift off into sleep, secure in the knowledge that such things Are Not. The ghosts and the ghouls and the worse things that stalked the night remained safely outside the doors, down the stairs, away from the warmth and the fire.

She should have pursued that M.F.A., she told herself. Friends had said it was a lousy way to make money, but money was the one thing she didn’t need. The Earleys had made their fortune decades before, first in construction, then in IT, and invested it wisely enough that Diane needed not worry about her financial future. She went into financial analysis to make her father happy, and after five years spent on Wall Street, she hated it. She hated the unbearably long hours, the way the seniors treated their juniors like dirt, the way the industry was dominated by men who, regardless of age, were stuck in the fifties when it came to gender equality and respect in the workplace. But what she hated most of all was the lack of surprise. Everything was *so* predictable. People called her co-workers “wizards” and made big eyes when they started talking about derivatives and exotic assets. But really, it was as simple as plugging the same thing into a spreadsheet, working out the same financial formula, over and over again. No surprise. No imagination. No story.

She took her time lighting the fireplace, bringing real firewood in from the garage – none of that propane-doused-self-lighting crap, thank you very much – adding kindling and slowly, painstakingly feeding the first flickers of flame as they rose up in the gathering dark. Soon, a soft orange glow illuminated her face, sharp and angular, framed by shoulder-length black hair. She began to hum as she worked on the fire, a simple yet sinuous melody that she had first heard on a trip to the Middle East several years back.

It had been her first year at the firm and her first overseas trip, to visit an important client in Egypt. She went with three other analysts, who spent their free time trying (unsuccessfully) to obtain booze and hanging around the hotel lobby. Left to her own designs, Diane went exploring. Her first forays weren’t that successful – it turned out, in the Arab world, a woman needed to be accompanied by a man to get anywhere or do anything – so she wised up on the second day of the trip and hired a young Arab boy to be her stalwart protector. Together, they explored crowded Egyptian markets, snuck into underground hookah lounges to escape from the heat, tried halva and smoked sweet-smelling smoke from long pipes. On her last day, the boy suddenly disappeared halfway through their walk – he’d probably heard that she was leaving, and thus no longer paying him – and she was forced to find her way alone. She thought she knew where she was going, so, naturally, she was extremely confident as she got more and more lost. Just at the moment when she realized that the hotel was not, in fact, going to be around the next corner, she’d heard the song.

The fire was blooming now, the heat radiating off her face. She sat back, wiped her hands against each other, and stared into the flames, still humming. She recalled the scene in ever greater detail – standing at the intersection of three impossibly narrow streets without any signs, not even in Arabic, hot, tired, flushed with the first wave of nervousness – and that slow, unhurried melody weaving in from somewhere around the corner. She’d taken a few curious steps towards the sound. It was louder, more insistent now, coming from a dark alley just out of reach. Ignoring her instincts, she’d stepped even closer. And there he was – old, dirty man, dressed in rags, swaying his arms slightly and just singing for the all the world.

It was completely dark now, and even with the crackling fire, it was quickly getting colder. She fumbled around for her bedspread – there it was, where she’d left it last night – and wrapped the warm cloth around her shoulders. Comfy and warm, she returned to her memories.

She’d been standing there, entranced, for what must have been several minutes, when the old man stopped singing and looked at her. He didn’t shoo her away or stare at her, the way people on the streets would when she was alone. He smiled a full smile of yellow teeth, narrowing his eyes to slits, and wheezed out:

“Salaam Aleikem.”
“A-aleikem Salaam,” she stammered back.

The old man’s eyes did not leave her face. He seemed to be searching for something. Finally, he reached his right hand into his robes, and pulled out a crude dagger the blade covered with rust. He thrust the thing, handle forward, towards Diane, and nodded vigorously several times. It was obvious he wanted her to take it. She complied.

Diane closed her eyes, trying to remember the weight of the thing, the surprising coldness of metal on a hot summer day. Three Arabic letters were inscribed on the handle: aleph, lam, mim, from right to left. The man’s hands had gone back to his sides as soon as she took the dagger, and he resumed singing his plaintive song. Diane didn’t know what to do, so she bowed and walked back to the intersection. There, she finally found her disappeared guide and protector – it looks like he wised up and came back for one final payment. She’d tried to ask him about the man, the dagger, but the boy only shrugged his shoulders. It was obvious the dagger was of no monetary value, so it wasn’t important to him. The trip concluded soon after. They’d struck the deals they needed to, her co-workers were happy, her boss was happy, but she couldn’t help feeling vaguely dissatisfied.

The memory was over now, but the melody remained. It hung heavy in the darkness, refusing to let go, the night-time mood adding a touch of menace to the low, glottal tones. She thought back to the letters, which she’d since learned were associated with a concept of ultimate mystery in Arabic mysticism. Some things only Allah is meant to know. Well, maybe that’s how it was with that rusted piece of metal and that old, crazy man. She nestled herself deeper in the bedspread and sighed softly, looking for a pillow.

That’s when she realized she’d long since stopped humming.


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