PodCastle 577: Temptation
A special episode in celebration of Eid al-Fitr, guest edited by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali.
By Karuna Riazi
“We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?”
— Christina Rossetti, “Goblin Market”
When was the last time food glided over her tongue?
It was funny how Kayla couldn’t even remember what it was she ate.
Was it a quick jaunt to a local fast food joint — a juicy burger or a chicken gyro that was left half-eaten and balled up in sauce-stained foil in the back of the refrigerator?
Had her mother tried to coax her into eating a meal one last time before she walked out the door, shouldering her bag, impatient, sure she was late?
(Late to what? To meet who?
Even that, she couldn’t be sure of, but that didn’t matter as much.)
Shame curdled in her gut as she recalled now all the ungrateful moments in which she’d rolled her eyes and shoved away a plate, or grudgingly grazed on a cold samosa, half-heartedly tugging it through a pool of ketchup and nibbling at it, not hungry enough to savor its heavy spices or the yielding tenderness of a potato chunk.
So many regrets, and all of them to do with those bites she didn’t catalog fervently enough while they were being experienced.
Now, she sat on that moldering throne They always yanked her toward — mockingly, she felt — with the rusting crown pressing low on her brow, trapping the sweat-laden silk of her scarf against her bruised skin, and she closed her eyes and gave herself over to what she could remember.
She’d sucked and laved at the extravagances first until they didn’t hold so much as a brief flicker in her mind’s eye: wedding receptions with several courses, the one time she had attended a friend’s engagement party at a country club and snuck a potentially haraam hors d’oeuvre into her mouth when her mother’s head was turned, a quick melting taste of soft chicken, rich cheese, and olive that anguished her now because God, please, what was that finishing note?
Back then, a friend had noticed the sour twist to her mouth.
“Didn’t like that one?”
“There’s something about it that’s . . . maybe too bougie for me? I don’t know. It was bitter or something.”
She could shake herself by the shoulders now.
Down here, there was no differentiation between sweet, sour, or bitter. Or perhaps there was, in that one blissful moment of taste They all cajoled her toward: the best, most unforgettable twist of flavors that would make the entire sacrifice worth it. It would leave you smiling, eternally, regretfully, as They tore your soul like a velvet coat off your back and danced it to rags beneath Their feet.
No. There was nothing that could be worth that.
She could not forget that lesson, taught to her in masjids with images of vengeful personified fire and brimstone, and in school through the insatiable appetite of Faust.
Hunger made you susceptible.
Hunger made you forget what was poison, what was served by the hand that would see itself wrapped around your neck.
She had to remember. She had to suckle the brightest, most vivid sensations from her own history in order to satiate herself. As long as she did, she could turn her head away from the bony fingers that extended toward her mouth morning, noon, and evening. She could work back the saliva teetering down the gutter of her tongue, and form words that sounded (mostly) believable.
“It’s not time yet. I can’t eat yet.”
It wasn’t Ramadan yet when They took her.
Perhaps, it was the next night. Or the night after that. Time folded in on itself in Their ageless, moonless woods. She watched Them pitch Their tents and spill Their wares over etched gold trays in what could have been minutes or hours. She watched the other perplexed, pitiful humans wander into what they might see as a decadent farmer’s market or a glitzy fundraiser gala.
For her, if she really tried hard to think on it — and she didn’t, not often, considering that it was key to keep from yearning, grumbling, salivating — it was a wrong turn in between alleyways as she headed toward school.
Maybe there was a string of stalls leading back into daunting darkness, luring and reassuring her with beaded bracelets clacking alongside cheap copies of world-famous masterpieces. She hadn’t been able to see the sellers’ faces, but knowing Them, she would have seen kind, encouraging folk, sweetly asking her to stay, just a minute or two. Look a little longer, pause a little farther in.
And then, when her stomach growled and the shadows cast out, would she like a cup of tea? Or a cookie?
They had so much to share with her. They had waited for her so long.
And all of it was free, as long as you could stop at that first bite. As long as you didn’t nibble the pear down to its core. As long as you were able to turn back around and see where you came in.
And she hadn’t. And couldn’t.
Their clothes gave no sign as to how the world spun on and tumbled through seasons — into flowering bushes or leaf piles or snow drifts — without her carrying on alongside them. There was no crescent moon to let her know that this was truly fasting, not merely clamping her lips shut when They paraded newly plucked fruits before her eyes. But she wanted to think it was.
Maybe, in spite of all the evenings she’d casually skipped prayers and yawned her way through Taraweeh, this was her blessing from God: being able to remember what it meant to close your mouth against what was otherwise permitted and remind herself why it was worth it.
Ironic that she was most faithful now, and she might still be doing it wrong.
If she did it right, would the pangs vanish from within her belly? Would she suddenly be tranquil, sweat no longer beading up on her brow or along her chafed wrists where They had bound her with twine the first few days and laughed at her twisted expression? Would she simply vanish off the throne They kept her on through the night or the stump she kept vigil on by day (or whatever times they were) They played with light and darkness as They pleased), and reappear safe and sound under her own sheets with the vague sense she’d escaped a nightmare?
Kayla bit down on a sob as a young man brushed past her.
None of them would resist, well or enough or without knowing that their brief smiles and the shaking of their heads was a rebellion in itself. Hardly anyone who passed through those unseen, unknown boundaries between worlds knew the legends. You did not see even the dreamy-eyed English majors wandering through this place, though perhaps many of them would have welcomed the opportunity to see Them for what They were, to reverently finger their baskets overflowing with produce and whisper, “All of it is true.”
Yes, Kayla thought bitterly. All of it is true.
Down to the hunger.
No, They knew better than to bring in people who well knew the repercussions. Kayla had a working understanding from fairy tales, stories about children being lured away by candy, and missing posters in local supermarkets. Even then, she surprised Them — and herself — with how quickly her jaw snapped the first night, when They came to her with sliced starfruit and raisin-studded bread.
She closed her eyes for a moment to conjure up the memory of steam tendrils rising up from that single slice, the smell of yeast and flour lingering even as the warmth leached out of her cheeks.
It was not time yet.
She couldn’t eat then.
She had to hold firm.
If the old poets were to be believed, They were beautiful.
Perhaps, if you turned your head the right way or narrowed your eyes, They were.
Kayla, arms wrapped around her knees, tried to do just that. It was hard to focus. She was seated on a billowing picnic blanket pinned down by richly roasted chickens, hampers of salads, and finger foods incredibly and garishly elevated: piped and whipped and immaculately pared.
She watched as a young woman — coaxed, caressed, no, turn back, caught — closed her lips around the tender flesh of a peach. Kayla swallowed convulsively along with her and resisted the urge to raise her hands as the woman’s face convulsed, as she writhed.
She didn’t wish to know how that felt. She didn’t wish to know how that last bite tasted. If it was worth it.
It couldn’t be worth it.
Instead, she focused her eyes on Them.
Hunger made Them more beautiful, readily brought more flattering comparisons of Their eye color (green, for mildew and decay but also for apples still on the bough and thin-sliced scallions floating in a warm broth) and Their shrill voices (made well to carry the sweet names of Their wares:
Lemons that love your tongue, and oranges warmer than the sun,
Melons and raspberries,
Cranberries coaxed out of the sweetest ponds,
Crab apples, sweet peas,
Apricots, strawberries . . .)
She knew better than to believe her eyes and ears, particularly now. They had gotten her that way, and They meant to keep her that way.
They were crushing the fruit between Their fingers today.
Jolly round nectarines and slyly sweet plums toppled onto the ground, every burst accompanied by a visible spatter of sap and a scent so rich and deep that it made Kayla want to cry.
She leaned her head against the back of the throne and closed her eyes.
She should have been able to remember a better verse: “with every hardship there comes ease,” was what she wanted. Instead, all that came to mind was references to food: manna from heaven, incredible and fluffy, and dates on palm trees.
“Eat from that which is permitted and good for you.”
They would permit her, if she would just give in. She frustrated Them, she could tell. They were closer today to the human realm — her world — than They had ever been.
She could see the others They held more clearly now: pale, staggering, starving. They panted and sobbed and writhed over the smell that rose from the mutilated fruit. They lay on the ground, just as she would if she had the energy to crawl down off her perch and breathe in the fresh loam through her mouth.
There was nothing good for you in that.
There was only lifelong yearning, and pain, and Their satisfaction.
She’d come too far now, to give in like this.
Their fingers gripped her chin. They pressed the mushy pulp against her lips and shrieked in anger when she wouldn’t part them.
“Eat, human child,” They seethed.
Grapes fresh from the vine,
Our pounded and spread goose liver on figs brighter than your eyes,
Honeycomb that buzzes behind your teeth with the ghosts of bees.”
It was amazing to her that she had the strength still to clench down her jaw and shake her head. They tugged at her hair and seethed as her head fell back onto her chest.
“She’ll eat soon,” They said to each other. “She has to.”
And so They left her and joined Their own festivities as the night drew in like a drawstring bag around Them, and Kayla shivered and tried to blink away the images They had left so cruelly in her head: watery cucumbers and creamy avocadoes and the sharp, earthy tang of a freshly plucked tomato when you held it to your nose before biting down.
It wasn’t time yet.
But what time was it? Everything was upside down and topsy-turvy here. Kayla’s eyes had resigned to her stomach, and she blinked blearily at the shadows, trying to make out the outlines of trees and not focus too hard on what dangled from their branches.
The cursed fruit’s scent wafted over her nose, sweet and floral and sumptuous.
It wasn’t time yet.
It would never be time for that.
In the distance, They called and cried out and danced raucously. Kayla squinted in that direction, and she could see a figure winding slowly up the road, rocking back and forth on top a stately horse.
A shiver ran down her spine.
Nothing prepared you, even days — months — weeks of being with Them, for seeing the fairy tales of your childhood manifest in front of your very eyes.
The man who rode the white horse, who had a mask of hammered gold weighing down his features, whose feet were bare and battered in the stirrups, would not be coming to a good end tonight. He had given in to Them.
And the one who ought to have offered him something else to clear his tongue and wash it free of Their poisons, whose heart and hope would be stronger in his chest compared to the deeply pumped nectar from the fruit, was nowhere to be found.
The story never ended that way when Kayla first read it. Love won. Or, if you wanted to be more cynical, some hungers were more potent than others. Some tastes were stronger than what They could offer.
Their taste faded. Human instinct for companionship, continuity, would be what truly sated an earthly knight.
They closed in about him, and she averted her eyes, unable to look.
Instead, she looked toward the open, glistening road. She felt so weak, but They weren’t watching. Perhaps . . .
Perhaps it was time. At least, she could try.
She dragged herself up, hobbling in the opposite direction from the laughter, the tinkling of bells and that perpetually heady aroma of fresh fruit.
If she could find where the dark velvet night of Their kingdom ended and the imperfect patches of sky she knew began — peppered with stars and satellites and a mottled moon — she would know it was the right time to open back up her lips and teach her tongue once again what it meant to be vulnerable and open and ready for tenderness.
But as she looked up again and again, seeking the seam, and over her shoulder, subtly trying to sense Their approach, she couldn’t find any sign.
Had They taken her in that far?
Was she already lost without realizing it, in spite of shunning Their food and Their company?
A jagged sob forced its way out of Kayla’s mouth.
“Have faith,” she muttered. “Keep walking.”
And then, a ray of light hit her cheeks, and she staggered back, startled at the rush of color. The world was suddenly awash with autumnal orange, clasping its hands around every tree trunk and coating the grass in a warm carpet that made her mouth water over the memory of sweet peaches and meticulously dried apricots.
It was sunset.
Without realizing it, she’d crossed worlds and escaped fate.
Without realizing it, she’d made it to the right place and the right time.
Kayla lowered herself to her hands and knees and pressed her lips against the grass. The dew there coated her lips and beaded on her tongue, and the taste of it was so pure and sweet that tears came to her eyes.
A screeching through the trees made her heart pound, and she leapt to her feet, wiping the moisture off her chin.
But nothing answered her. The receding light only touched her forehead affectionately, leaving warmth there in a way that Their touches — clinical, chilling, intent on ensuring that she stayed whole until They had what They wanted of her — could never achieve.
She had rejected Them wholly and utterly.
She had changed the story and broken the spell.
Kayla laughed out loud, tasting the dew and the salt of her own tears and the fresh, fragrant hope in the air around her. She staggered onward, toward humanity, toward the inevitable joy and welcome and the offered plate where all was good and sweet without strings attached or souls in jeopardy.
After all, she was so, so very hungry.
For food and for home.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Farah Naz Rishi
Farah is a writer, voice actor, and former animal lawyer. She is working on her debut novel with content/production company Glasstown Entertainment.