The Curse of the Sapphires
By Sarah Solomon
Sally Kaduri will purge herself of sapphires. She will dig them out of every bronze jug and ivory tusk. She will carve them out of the walls with her fingernails and scrape them out of the carpets with her toes. Three times is enough, she will tell herself, before she scours her home of sapphires and tosses a pinch of salt over her left shoulder.
Sally Kaduri came from the mountains, draped in oriental silks spun from spider organs. The ceiling of her bungalow dripped with mangoes, which swung according to the calendar of the monsoons. Ice crystals hung in front of wire metal fans, transforming the humid air into a cool breeze that billowed through the bungalow, and back through the window into the creases of the valley.
The Kaduris married in the shadow temple, tucked between the swaying trees that stretched higher than the chirping bee-eaters, bright green wings catching the sun fragments between the palms. Ezekiel Kaduri had a chin with its own landscape, sculpted as if with a chisel, beneath a mouth whose words were equally hewn. Rare and deeply-colored, the kind you rub between your fingers.
Sally looked out the kitchen window of their bungalow. The small town gently bustled below, wedged between the coffee cliffs, the clinking of clay cups and horse hooves, down by the racetrack, rising up to meet her. She breathed in a sandalwood breath, somehow both fresh and old, and adjusted the ice crystal in front of the fan before returning to the stove. On the rim of her cooking pot, she briefly caught a glimpse of her own form in the shimmering oil, sizzling beneath the cubes of potatoes. The steam gripped her with its turmeric fingers, she closed her eyes, and then Ezekiel entered the kitchen through a creaking door. His thumb pressed into her shoulder.
— Here, my dear.
She turned around to face him, but instead of his carved face, which was usually level with her own, she fell into a tumultuous sea of blue. A massive sea, a granular sea, shining inwards as if it might never end. The crystal was big enough to reflect the contents of the kitchen, which glimmered back from the rock’s surface — the steam and the golden potatoes and the Kaduris, peering into the blue depths. Sally had never seen the ocean before she set her eyes on her first sapphire, but she swam more fiercely in that chunk of blue than she ever would in wet, swirling waters.
That evening she paid a visit to the Sullimans’ house.
Its whitewashed columns dug diagonally into the ground, dotted with palm trees. Scattered among the palms were ladders roughly hewn from wood, each one resting precariously against the trunks. Perched at the top, dark men with dark ankles reached swiftly upwards, as coconuts dropped one by one, rolling either towards the east side of the property, or into the monkey droppings amid the tiny petals.
It was easy for Sally Kaduri to not notice this.
Grace Sulliman was sitting cross-legged in her plush green arm chair by the fire place. The entirely unnecessary fire place, given how deep they were into the subcontinent, and Grace was quite aware of this fact. No one in their community – the Kaduris and Sullimans included – ever thought much of it, mostly because for them it was not a need, but a fashion. A fine, foreign fashion that did not run in their veins, but was applied daily to skin like an ointment.
The delicate milky teas, sugar biscuits, candies wrapped in colorful plastics – the dresses in which one couldn’t breathe and the curtains one couldn’t crush – the new company buildings along the main road and the missionary schools up in the hills – this was all part of a life people like the Sullimans strived to lead. Sally Kaduri would have lived this life too, if money would allow it.
Grace straightened her back as Sally entered, but her legs remained loosely crossed.
— Come in, Sally dear, come in!
— Grace, how lovely to see you.
Sally Kaduri was very aware that her dress was not as red as it once was, that its patterns had faded considerably over the last few years, and she had not been able to replace it. Her shoes, however, were just fine – she had just stopped by the new store just a few days ago. She shuffled her feet on the shiny floor.
— Well, what are you waiting for my dear.
Sally sat delicately on the piano stool in between Grace and the hallway. She saw Grace’s eyes flit down to her neck, and back, but Grace waited with a strained politeness for Sally to say it herself.
— Ezekiel bought me a sapphire.
— He did indeed.
— Remember what the chai-wallah said about sapphires?
Sally stopped by Arjun’s street stall on her walk home in the evenings, taking the long way, through the corner of town where jasmine garlands were strewn on cotton sheets on the sidewalks. Her favorite chai-wallah stood behind his cart as the sun dipped down, watching Sally tiptoe around the flower-wallahs and rickshaws in her fancy slippers. She liked listening to Arjun, and also enjoyed a hot cup of tea.
Sally thought about everywhere else in the world, where people, she thought, drank tea out of ceramic mugs. Shiny ones, with shiny handles glazed in white. In Grace’s house it was like this, too. Grace had shelves of China mugs with thinly painted patterns and a constant supply of fresh cream. But here, at Arjun’s, she drank tea out of newly spun clay. The surface was rough and unfinished, as each cup was made to be used only once. Just beyond Arjun’s stall, a pile of used clay cups formed, damp with the drops of unfinished tea.
— Madam, today it was a man with jewels. Bags of them, spilling out of his pockets!
— Really, Arjun? Did he give you diamonds for chai?
Sally was used to Arjun’s exaggerations, and it was fun to play along.
— No, no, madam. No jewels for me. He only had sapphires, anyway, so I would never want one of those, after what he said!
— Oh, really, Arjun? Why wouldn’t you want a sapphire?
— Because he did not have any diamonds, madam. Sapphires only.
— That’s a little greedy, don’t you th-
— No, no, madam, not like that.
Arjun blushed, and Sally felt guilty for accusing him in that way.
— It’s a curse, madam. Sapphires are cursed. You need diamonds to fix it.
— What is the curse?
— I don’t know, madam, I don’t know.
Back in Grace’s salon, Sally rubbed the stone between her thumb and forefinger, waiting for her host to react to the chai-wallah’s warning.
— It’s a gift, my dear, and what a glorious one! You should be grateful to own such a stone.
— But the tournament is tomorrow! The horses, the hooves, rocks on the side of the race track, a storm, an angry jockey, and –
— Darling, darling.
She shifted in the plush chair as she flicked the end of a cigarette alight.
— What’s the worst that could happen?
Sally Kaduri wore the sapphire around her neck at the tournament the next evening. Grace was right, Sally thought, she was just being superstitious — the jeweler said that to sell more stones, and Arjun is prone to exaggeration. It was a good story, after all. She didn’t want to worry her husband with the curse. He would probably pat her on the shoulder and tell her to enjoy the summer breeze. She tucked her blue-tinted fears into a quiet corner of herself.
There was no reason to worry about Ezekiel, one of the best racers in the valley. A few medals dotted the bungalow shelves – one bronze, one silver, one gold – and Sally proudly dusted them when needed. Ezekiel rose in the still-dark mornings, softly, to not wake his slumbering wife. He tiptoed under the swinging mangoes towards the stove where he would stand over a boiling pot of water until the steam billowed around his face and upwards through the window. He dunked his bag of English tea in an old chipped mug. He sipped it slowly, slipped on his boots, and walked the mile out to the stables. An hour later, now in a buttoned shirt, he would ride a rickshaw to his office on the main road.
As the sun swept the sky with its first yellows, Sally would rise in a crisp, empty bed. The sheets beside her were already cool to the touch, and she tapped each of her fingers on the cotton as she wondered where Ezekiel was in that moment. In muddy boots or an ironed jacket, in a saddle or rickshaw, she imagined being next to him, being part of whatever it was he was doing.
In this tournament, their town wedged between the coffee cliffs was competing with the tea fields from up north. Sally Kaduri, Grace Sulliman, and the rest of the spectators could detect the smell of the leaves – weightless, fragrant – rising from their clothes. It was a new smell, it came from far away, and coaxed the blue out of Sally’s corner.
— There’s something about their faces, Grace. I don’t like it.
— Well they are preparing for a competition, after all.
— But the smell, too. It makes me uneasy.
— Don’t be silly dear. Don’t make a mountain out of a monkey pile.
Sally Kaduri watched Ezekiel Kaduri mounting his horse at the starting line. The monsoons, which had only ended a few weeks earlier, had warped the surface of the racetrack, which was now patterned with mud ridges. Sally grasped the shimmery weight around her neck as the hooves clipped off around the track.
— I’m not making a mountain out of a monkey pile.
— There they go! They’re off!
The humans and horses sped off around the edges of the course, above those mud-splattered waves, between those coffee strewn hills, and Sally Kaduri clutched her piece of ocean.
— Yes, Ezekiel! Already at the front, look at–
And then, as soon as it had begun, Ezekiel and his horse ripped a thick plant from its root, and flipped into the cliffs. The sound of splintering bones mixed with the uneasy smell of tea leaves. Grace’s face was ashen, and she did not move from the stands. Sally did not scream, but ran down to the track and kneeled beside her husband. She was breathing so rapidly that the ants weaving beneath her feet could feel the vibrations through her new slippers. She heard two men, in uniforms, talking by the gate.
— The damage is surprisingly contained. The monsoons did a number this year, and the tournament should have been postponed, if you ask me.
— Yes, should have been postponed.
Sally Kaduri knew that the monsoons, the muddy ridges, the gnarled roots, the smell of northern tea, the angry faces, were nothing compared to the blue, and she leaned down to whisper in her husband’s ear.
— Ezekiel, Ezekiel, I am here, tell me what hurts.
Sally held his head in her lap, his hair catching the lace of her dress. His legs splayed out at unnatural angles upon the racetrack. His chest rose and fell, rose and fell, pulling his shirt around his ribs.
— Darling, speak to me.
But he could not speak. He looked up at her, his sculpted chin pointing upwards towards her chest. His leg would heal, Sally knew, but it was clear that something had changed. As she hung over her mute husband, the swirling rains of sapphire blues swung across Ezekiel’s right eye, left eye, right eye, until it shuddered to a rest. It was not the earth, Sally thought, that did this. It was not the earth, but Ezekiel never spoke a word again in this world.
Ezekiel Kaduri’s wounds healed, in a silent way.
The silence in their bungalow was not a lack-of-something, not a pocket-of-nothing. It was as alive as the swaying palm trees, leaning this way and that, pointing at one thing and then another. It was a satiny, dark orange thing, that smelt of roasted cardamom and pine needles. It nestled on their window ledges, to mingle with the sun. It weaved between the trophies — bronze, silver, gold — on their shelves. It wriggled beneath the bed sheets and found its way into elbow creases, as Sally and Ezekiel pressed arm to arm, hand to back. And as it stoked the fire of skin, it stoked the fire of clouds, and the monsoons reigned over the valley until the birth of their first son, a wordless creation that grew precisely in synchrony with the ever-rising streams below.
The silence was not absolute. The rains drummed on their bungalow roof, the coconuts dripped off the palms and echoed through their windows, and Sally would tell Ezekiel each of her fears. He could not console her with words, though he learned to form certain shapes on his chin and emit certain light from his eyes in such a way to warm her in places she most needed it, to fill her with a perfume (of roasted cardamom and fresh pine needles), much like steams filled the kitchen after his pot of morning tea. This became a ritual for the Kaduris, each night a new fear, a new chin-shape, a new eye-light.
— I’m afraid I will be a bad mother.
This is not something to worry about, his face said.
— I’m afraid the harvest will be small, this year, and our baby will go hungry.
— I’m afraid we won’t be blessed with another child.
Their second son was born during the next hot suns, when the purple blooms shriveled among the fallen coffee beans. Their third son was born during the next cold moons, when the worms dug further into the midnight soil, finding the silence that lost its way in the spaces between the fears.
Years passed, but their ritual remained.
— I’m afraid I will never have a daughter.
This is not something to worry about, his face said.
— I will never see her spirals of hair, her pink cheeks.
— I will never wrap her in silks and take her to my favorite places.
— I will never sing to her, or hear her cry.
Sally had stopped making regular visits to the Sullimans’ house. Sally had grown fond of the satiny, dark-orange silence, and the comfort it gave her. Grace spoke far more than necessary, and only short visits were bearable. But there was a fear that she could no longer share with Ezekiel, and she needed a friend.
Grace was sitting cross-legged in her salon chair as if she had never risen from it, all those years ago. Her crisp white curtains blew madly in the evening minds, and voices from the adjacent gardens oozed slowly over the wooden floor, lacquered, unscratched, beneath Sally’s threaded slippers.
— It’s been a while, hasn’t it, Sally dear? How have you been holding up? Nissim says he saw Ezekiel the other day, at the stables. Pity that his condition never quite smoothed itself over, though otherwise he seems to be in fine health.
Sally was glad Grace broached the subject, so she could get right to the point.
— It was the sapphire.
— Still with this sapphire, I see.
She exhaled a cloud of tobacco, which for a moment intermingled with the breezy curtains whipping around the window panels.
— How else can you explain it?
— The track was slippery, and that giant root! You’re lucky it wasn’t even wor-
— I can’t bring up the sapphire in front of him. It was such a nice gift, and I hate to turn it into a bad thing.
Grace shifted in her chair and re-lit her cigarette.
— If you really believe what that Arjun said, then get some diamonds.
That evening, when she returned to the bungalow, Sally Kaduri rummaged through all of her drawers, all of her closets, between the wooden slats in her floorboards and in the pockets of Ezekiel’s suits. She tore open old envelopes and dug through the icebox near the kitchen sink, scratched through the linings of her robes and the folds of her golden scarves. She ran her palms over her mirrors and turned over every candlestick. She searched for any diamonds that could be hiding in any shadowy indents, and also for one of the clay cups from Arjun’s stall. She brought out the sapphire, and spilled it into the clay cup. She sprinkled the diamonds over it, and pushed the cup into the back of her drawer.
There was some peace, in this.
But the silence grew in strength, almost bursting her eardrums, and riled the clouds in a new frenzy. In the monsoon twilight, the rains were too tired to drop straight down and instead curved through the air in braids, falling sweetly among the blooms. In the monsoon midnight, the braids became blades, slicing the valley with heavy drops of jasmine water. And then, in the monsoon dawn, the skies were ripped open with bright wires, and an electric finger slashed through the roof of the Kaduris’ bungalow, slicing the swinging mangoes in half, and entering Sally Kaduri’s left ear.
The silence halved in size, the satiny pocket-of-something lost half of its sheen, and the dark-orange lost half of its color. It is not the sky, Sally thought, that did this. It is not the sky, but Sally Kaduri would never again hear the full silence of this world.
When Grace Sulliman’s bones started dissolving at the edges, confining her to neatly patterned bed sheets, she started offering Sally Kaduri pieces of her estate, objects that Nissim Sulliman had carried back from the swamps and beaches, dunes and rivers, from the damp curves and edges that stretched from the vines at the southern tip to the ice-dipped crags at the northern border. Landscapes of tarnished metal, bursts of roses and waves of grass. Bronze jugs and ivory tusks. Frames dimpled in gold and tapestries bathed in indigo dyes. Each one encrusted with sapphires.
Most of these treasures, thankfully, were from regions of their own country, where the curse was heeded. On these frames, in these jugs, Sally Kaduri found tiny diamonds buried in corners, under fabric.
— Nothing bad has ever happened to me, Grace had said.
— Besides, they’re worth a lot of money, and I want it in good hands.
But this wasn’t enough for Sally Kaduri. She had to be sure, in every bone in her body, that she could ward off whatever evil lingered within the blue stones. The Kaduris could use the money, certainly, but there was enough that she could use, and Sally thought it was worth it, for her and her husband’s sake. So she took a jug of coins down to town, passed Ezekiel’s office on the main road, tiptoeing between the sheets strewn with flower garlands, and purchased as many diamonds she could find. Tiny ones, the size of sand grains. The size of spider eyes, the size of strawberry seeds. And she spent her days carefully embedding these seeds of diamond next to every single sapphire in all of the paintings, sculptures, and pottery.
There was some peace, in this.
But Sally Kaduri did this in secret, during the day when Ezekiel Kaduri was at work, for she knew he would not approve (his chin and eyes would surely say so). In the evenings she would dust the diamond grains off of her hands, and enter the satiny silence that glowed dark orange, diffusing through the bungalow.
These were good times.
Ezekiel’s propensity for silence had deepened the rivets of this morning riding routine and increased his productivity during working hours. Thanks to this, and the Sullimans’ gifts, they were able to fill the mouths of their three sons with rice and meat drenched in the finest spices.
Sally and Ezekiel’s relationship had also grown deeper, woven itself further into the fabric of their muscles. Though the crack of morning light still lifted Ezekiel from their bed, his body lingered long enough to leave his scent drifting among Sally’s fingers until she woke. When, after a cycle of seasons, she had finally matched each blue crystal with a clear one, she would spend her days wandering through town. Though now she would avoid Arjun’s stall, even when she wanted to drink his chai out of roughly spun clay cups, even when she saw him wave at her from behind the rickshaws and flower-wallahs. She couldn’t risk the possibility that he would bring up the curse of the sapphires, and Sally would have to tell him all the things that had happened, all the things she had done. Or, even worse, that he would tell her about a fresh new curse, one that would unravel slowly over the last years of her life.
One day, she returned from a walk along the cliff edge, and swung the door open to the bungalow. Ezekiel stood there, in the kitchen, with a thick piece of paper pressed between his fingers. It was another beautiful gift. He had bought them tickets for a tour of the sights, a journey to see the sparkling palaces and crumbling temples from within the plush ruby seats of a luxury train.
Ezekiel reached for something on the table behind him, and when he brought his arms back in front of his body the smooth cuts of the giant sapphire dangled heavy beneath his palms. Sally wondered how he had found it, she herself had forgotten where she had buried it this time around. But, these were good times, and Ezekiel was glowing with silence and pride. His chords would not emit sounds, but chin-shapes and eye-lights spoke for him.
— Don’t forget this, darling.
The train chugged, chugged, from marvelous dome to sculpted splendor, pearl spires flitting across the carriage windows, clouds spreading their shapes on the glass panes. Sally and Ezekiel Kaduri saw the mirrored insides of hollow courtyards, saw the burnt stones of quiet forts, saw the terrifying arches of the marble palaces, and saw the sooty curves of the tracks as they inched along the rails.
The train chugged, chugged, billowing steam from city to city as the villages whirred by, sprinkled in wet greens. In some brief moments, the trees parted and Sally could see the snow-topped mountains, shimmering beneath an equatorial sun, craggy peaks scribbling into the sky. Sally imagined the crisp blueness of the mountains, their sharp magical edges, and then turned back towards the rich golden silence of their train carriage. Its warmth, its sheen. The people within it.
—I love you, my sweet husband, I really do.
The last night of their tour, while sipping his English tea in the dining carriage after a dinner of heaping bowls of saffron rice and platters of fried bread, Ezekiel’s heart started to beat in rhythm with the grinding axles of the train, and as the train chugged faster and faster his heart started beating faster and faster, and all at once it gripped at the space between his lungs and refused to beat any more. His wife, the queen of the coffee hills, clutched at her necklace with cold fingers, and held his chest tightly beneath hers as his last breath rose and leaked out of the windows along with the herbal steam of his after dinner tea.
It was not his heart, Sally thought, that did this. It was not his heart, but Ezekiel Kaduri would never breathe again in this world.
Sally Kaduri purged herself of sapphires. She dug them out of every bronze jug and ivory tusk. She carved them out of the walls with her fingernails and scraped them out of the carpets with her toes. She threw a pinch of salt over her left shoulder.
— Three times is enough.
Sally Kaduri creaked through her apartment door, now in a part of the world where tea is drunk out of ceramic mugs instead of cups of spun clay. Her silk scarves were tucked carefully in her clothes, her shoulders draped in a large gray sweater, neatly pressed. This new world had drier winds, and skies that mentioned the presence of rain rather than groaning under its weight. She swapped her mangoes for biscuits, her fans for a fireplace. The silence was no longer a dark orange satin, but a lack-of-something, a pocket-of-nothing.
— At least now, I am safe.
One day, like any other day, she unfolded and refolded her golden fabrics. She looked and unlooked at her thick-woven tapestries, now faded, now worn. She sat alone at her kitchen table, patterns of shadows dancing between her silverware. She sat down for a mug of steaming tea, noises from the street below weaving a tune into her right ear. She pulled a bowl towards her, crammed with sugar cubes, sealed beneath a tarnished lid. She twisted the lid, her palm pressing tightly against the metal, until it gave way to her grip, and popped open among the afternoon shadows.
Sally Kaduri gasped, her eyes tightening against their sockets.
Resting above the sugar cubes, staring mightily back, was a chunk of rock so fiercely blue it could churn up the seas in maddening spirals, could rock the oceans from east to west, could beg the deepest cobalts and the maddest ceruleans from the pit of every stomach.
Sally Kaduri’s dormant fear broke free of her grey sweater, and shone brightly in her mango-free kitchen. Its sharpness also exposed something else, something uncomfortable, an acceptance that Sally found nestled deep inside her.
— It was not the blue, it was never the blue.
There was some peace, in this, too.