Short Story
                      The Dancer of Al-Maghrib
                                                 By Joshua L. Hood


 Musa was in the empty basement for the third day in a row.  The woman with
the triangle head was there again.  She had always come at night, but this
time it was only three in the afternoon.  Yet it was dark, like she’d brought
night with her just so she could be with him.

 A hundred or more years ago, the men had always made her dance at
night.  When the smoke had gone to their heads, the liquor to their loins, they
would bring her out, remove the triangle box, and make her dance until they
quailed in fear.  She had shown him this in his mind.  He knew it to be true,
but he didn’t know why they’d made her dance, or why they’d grown her head
inside a triangle box.

 An image floated through his mind of an infant, a toddler, a small child, with
its head crammed into a box shaped like an inverted pyramid, and he
shuddered in horror rivaled by pity.  She hadn’t shown him those images, but
by the third sleepless night, she didn’t have to – his mind simply saw.

 Her eyes had grown catlike, and now she watched him with those eyes from
the area well outside the basement window.  The eyes would have been the
only beautiful part of her face had the skeletal nose, rubbed off by years of
friction, not distracted from them.  With the silken veil they may have been
beautiful still, but she always removed the veil first, revealing long, rotten
teeth angled inward toward her delicate, razor-sharp chin.  The teeth were
the worst, but the area next to her eyes was a close second.  Where her
exotic, harem-girl eyebrows should have been was distended and bulbous,
never having quite reached the corners of the box, and rounded smoothly
into the absolute flatness above, like failed horns poking through the vein-
laced skin.

 He looked down into the box again.  Gouges in the wood where the teeth
had gnashed against it for a lifetime of suffering were still visible, dark stains
having dripped indelibly into the wood around them where her mouth cracked
and bled into shape.  He unconsciously raised the old box a hair’s width
closer to his face, but then grew cold, suffocated.

 She watched him through the window, bent and broken so that she fit into
the area well that should have been far too small for her.  She wore an
expression that her deformed face made completely unreadable.

 Why had they done it, the people who’d grown her head in a box?

 In his mind Musa saw the old city.  Men sitting on stained silken pillows
around tall hookahs, hating to watch her dance.  But like Musa, they came
back again and again.  No one knew who she was, or where she came from,
or who her handlers were that would just show up and demand an audience –
which they always got.  The men never knew where she’d be dancing, and so
they went around under more noble pretenses, den after den, until they
found her and claimed that they were only staying for the quality of the wine.  
They feared her, pitied her, and worst of all, were fascinated by her.  They
grew reviled and aroused as she danced for them, but never did they
approach her, which was good, because she would have bitten into them with
her long, black teeth had they tried.

 Musa tried not to look at her face, and so he looked at her disjointed body.  
She would have been beautiful if she hadn’t grown up with her head inside
the box.  Maybe with the box back in place she would be beautiful still.  He
looked at the hand carved wood, ornate, gilded, masterwork.  He tried to
imagine her slim dancer’s body beneath it, that hideous thing she called a
face locked away behind wood and jewels, long since pried loose, glinting in
the stained-glass lamp light.  The lines of the box contrasted with the curves
of her body, the organic flow of the silks complimented the flourishes of the
carving.

 He ran his finger along the small round hole – the only opening in the box –
and thought of her long, supple neck extending from it and down into her
sinewy shoulders, pulsing with her heartbeat as she swayed like a deadly
cobra.  The box was too small for an adult head, but a perfect counterpoint
for the rhythmic grace of her body.  Its makers, her makers, had been true
artists.

 Then he looked up and her face was inches from his.  He croaked in cold
terror, but couldn’t scream.  He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of the
basement, like the men of old.  The window where he’d broken in three days
ago in search of valuables let in the hollow hum of the desert wind, like a low
toned zurna playing haunted rhythm.  In his mind he heard the shrill twang of
a sitar played out of tune, or maybe it was coming from the tourist market
down the street – except it grew louder as the triangle face started to sway.

 Her body was on the floor with his, except her legs were bent up backward
and twisted around her hips like they had been when she’d appeared looking
down at him through the window.  She’d always appeared in such strange
places, where no one else but Musa could see.

 With loud cracks and snaps she unfolded herself, expression still
unreadable.  The acrid-sweet smell of opium drifted from behind those
blackened teeth.

 Long fingers, crusted with grave-dirt and blue with cold crept out from below
Musa’s field of view, extended by the smooth arms and sinewy shoulders that
he’d just seen in his fantasy.  Suddenly he knew why the men watched.  Why
the handlers took her to show.  Why the triangle box was the only thing the
owners of this ancient home left behind when they moved.  They had seen
her too, and she’d danced for them until they too became cursed by the
rhythm and gave into her.  Suddenly he knew that she was no victim, no mere
tortured slave, no living thing.  For Musa, she began to dance.

 She took the box in her dead hands and with a smooth gesture closed it
around her head.  It clicked shut, irrevocably locked except for the key in
Musa’s tight fist.  She was indeed beautiful as half a woman.  The part of her
where the organic became art was the most beautiful of all.  The angle of the
receding slopes, broken only by her neck, reached a distant point above her
spine like the slender jaw in a painting of innocent youth.  The downward
slope of the face seemed to be bowed in supplication to her audience,
inviting their command.

 As she started to dance, Musa knew that he would give in to her.  It would
be so easy to walk away.  She would let him, but he knew that he would
unlock the box, and that she’d put that vile face next to his, and that the
sinews of his neck would crunch and snap between those gnarled teeth just
like the bones of her face had cracked and splintered over the slow growth of
agonizing years.  And he knew that no matter how much it hurt, he would
delight in giving her what she’d been craving for so long.
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About Joshua L. Hood

Joshua L. Hood is the
author of several short
stories and the
anthology "Melting
People: 11 stories of the
bizarre and
unexpected." He lives in
Boise, Idaho.