The Missing Poem
I had forgotten about the book.
After digging through my email history, I located my original query. The bookseller offered an automatic notification service for any book which may show up in its inventory, and 642 days ago, I requested a copy of The Twelve Poems of al-Saher.
I racked my brain trying to remember why I’d ordered it in the first place. It had been at least a year since I’d even read a poem and I didn’t remember being interested in a scribe named al-Saher. A cursory review of my journal around that time jogged my memory.
When I sent in the request, I was chin-deep into mysticism and unexplained mysteries of the past–you know, a little Kabbalah, a little Nazca lines. Several of the authors I’d read went on and on about how civilization was no longer cognizant of the ease by which we can be pulled into alternative universes through certain places and words of power. I recalled even checking out a couple of library books on building structures that played off harmonic frequencies in energy systems, allowing those who resided within said structures to temporarily escape their bodies and float away to the stars.
It wasn’t until I’d conjured hundreds of my own ‘words of power’ and was halfway through completing my own ‘wisdom dome’ in the backyard when I realized that most of these authors also indulged in mind-altering substances that may or may not have aided their journeys.
Not that I ever found any such evidence about Al-Saher. My notes refreshed my memory on him: He was a little-known Arab poet from the early 19th century, and was not only a believer in worlds and forms beyond our ordinary senses but felt that one could access these things at will with the right combination of phrases. He had written only twelve poems in his lifetime, the last of which had supposedly brought about a permanent exit from Earth. His Wikipedia page mentioned that there was only a single run of an English edition printed in the early 1900s, back when seances and spiritualism were seeing a revival in the Western world.
Given my disappointment, I’d wiped from my mind a large portion of what I’d learned during that time and returned to the mundane matters of working at the bike shop during the week and binging on Call of Duty on the weekend. The only thing is that I had apparently been enthused enough to place a pre-order and The Twelve Poems was scheduled to arrive in the mail the next day.
For reasons I can’t explain, my interest in reading the book was suddenly renewed. I called Mack, my boss, and told him I was sick. He didn’t sound convinced, but he was satisfied when I told him he didn’t have to pay me for the day.
I spent the rest of my morning shifting my eyes between animated M1 Garand rifles and the street outside of my window until I saw the little white truck pull up and watched its occupant shove a pile of paper into my mailbox.
As soon as my character was mowed down by a pack of Nazis, I threw down the controller and ran out to see what was what. Beneath the garage door ads and credit card offers appeared to be the book, expertly bound in a tightly-wrapped paper bag.
It took at least two minutes of careful scissor-work to undo the wrapping without damaging the contents. There was the usual return shipping label, stating that should the product not meet my expectations, it could be returned postage-paid. Even if I was disappointed once more, I saw no reason why I’d ever want to send back such a rare book, so I tossed it into the trash with the paper bag.
And there she was–a thin, tanned, leather-bound beauty with gold embossed lettering on the front:
The Thirteen Poems of al-Saher
I had to review my email to confirm I wasn’t mistaken. Indeed, the book had been identified there as The Twelve Poems of al-Saher. I opened the book and reviewed the table of contents where only twelve poems were listed. I even flipped through every page, seeing each poem first presented in Arabic followed by its English translation, counting them until I arrived at the final poem.
I laughed, thinking I had come across a misprinted copy. Now I definitely wasn’t sending it back, though I doubt I would have gotten much should I decide to sell it. There just weren’t many al-Saher fans in the world these days. It had taken some digging for me to remember who he was.
I turned off the TV, grabbed a can of cold root beer, and settled into my recliner to see what all the fuss was about. Now, I don’t know if it was the translation or the poetry itself, but it seemed awfully clunky and disjointed. The poems were pretty short, each clocking in at one stanza of four lines. Most of them talked about gold, slaves, and power. I was beginning to see why this guy faded into history. It took me all of six minutes to make it to the twelfth poem where I remained unimpressed:
The new World draws near,
It is us who are queer.
I seek the Invisible Road,
To gather what is owed.
I was having second thoughts about not sending the book back for a refund when I noticed the last page was a little thicker than the others. In actuality, I discovered that two sheets of paper were stuck together with some sort of adhesive. Remnants of a thin, yellowed glue seeping out at the margins were now obvious. I ran my finger along the top and saw that not all was lost. There was a gap in which I could fit my pinky and so I slid it across, gently breaking up the glue until the single page finally became two.
“Aha!” I said to an empty living room.
A thirteenth poem.
Another four-liner, which, unfortunately, was written in a light pencil and only in Arabic. There was no English translation.
I logged onto my computer and found a website which let me choose from a list of Arab characters to translate. It was tedious, clicking them one by one, but I took a pencil and wrote out my own English rendition below the Arabic, which I then proceeded to read aloud.
Caught in the Maelstrom,
Awaiting a New Son.
Open up the Gate,
It is not too late.
A slight, but sudden tremor shook my entire house for several seconds before the silence returned. Behind my chair, I heard what sounded like a gasp for breath and just as I began to turn my head, someone said, “Ahlan.”
Maybe it was from playing too much Call of Duty, but my defensive instincts kicked in and as I leaped from my chair, I turned and launched my can of root beer at the source of the voice.
Between me and a strange man in a charcoal twill suit, the can floated in mid-air as if someone hit pause on a video. The man’s sunken brown eyes looked past the root beer and directly at me. He was slight, had a dark, well-manicured beard, and a receding hairline.
“Shukran yā sadīqī,” he said.
Goosebumps rose on my flesh and I wanted to run, but I felt just like the can of soda. Something seemed to be anchoring me in place.
“Who are you?” I asked, relieved that at least my voice still worked.
He smiled with tiny yellow teeth and replied in thickly-accented English, “You know who I am.”
And I did. The face looked like that from the Wikipedia photo. I just didn’t want to believe it.
“What do you want?” was the next logical question.
He lifted his hand to his beard and looked around my living room. It must have all seemed a curiosity to him, though maybe not so much after all he had likely seen from wherever he had come.
“You’ve already given me what I want. I have returned, though apparently long after I have left. Tell me, what year is it and where am I?”
It took a moment for the words to schlepp their way from my brain to my tongue. “2018. Orange Valley.”
He mouthed my words silently. “So many years,” he replied softly. And then he asked, “Where is Orange Valley?”
He tilted his head again.
A look of surprise came over his face. “Ah! I see. It’s still here. And what of the Ottomans?”
I looked around at my furniture. I’d never owned an ottoman.
“The Empire? The Sultan?” he continued.
“Oh! Those Ottomans. Yeah, long gone.”
Now the man’s smile grew quite large. “Wonderful. Wonderful.”
He reached into the breast pocket of his coat and pulled out a tiny book.
“I suppose America is as good as any place in which to start.”
If I had any hopes of things becoming clearer, they were quickly dashed.
“Start what?” I asked, still fascinated by the fact that a can of root beer was continuing to float unabated in front of a two-hundred-year-old man’s face.
He thumbed through the book’s pages, finally coming to rest on one and held up his finger. “One moment.”
He spoke in the funny language again, which I assume to be Arabic, but I couldn’t say for certain.
After much pomp and ceremony, he finished speaking. The moment the final word departed from his lips, there was another tremor which sent framed family photos and my reading lamp crashing onto the ground. I grabbed onto an arm of my chair to steady myself.
Now, I don’t know any other way to put this other than to say that there was nothing there, and then there was. What appeared to be an enormous lion zapped into existence at al-Saher’s side, but with fur and flesh missing from half of its face–like it had just had its snout shoved into a woodchipper. It tilted back its ugly head and gurgled a horrific sound which shook me to my core, sounding like something between a hyena and a frog, but nothing like a lion. Acid-green slime dripped from its open sores and out of its jaws onto my carpet.
“Now, you were asking what I was starting,” al-Saher said, giving me his full attention. “Why, I’m simply taking over the world.”
At least that’s what I think he said, but it was difficult to hear him as I was already halfway through my front door with zombie lion’s breath on my back.
I was glad that I always parked my bike on the porch because I don’t know if I would have been fleet of foot enough to avoid the chaos happening behind me. Explosions and a symphony of screams rattled my ears. I looked back only once, maybe a half-mile out and saw that my house, and all adjacent houses, were now piles of debris.
It was one of those things that seemed too surreal to have any real effect on me.
My first thought was that my neighbors were not going to be happy.
My second thought was that, In fact, they were plain not going to be.
It had been a long time since I’d biked at such a frenetic pace. At the edge of Main Street, my legs and lungs let me know in no uncertain terms that I had better stop to rest or I may as well ride back and pet the zombie lion because I’d be dead either way.
I realized I was across the street from Mack’s Bike Shop where I saw him with a customer. They were exiting his store, wheeling a newly-purchased bike towards the woman’s truck when he stopped and looked up at me.
“Hey! Tommy! What the hell are you–”
But he never completed the sentence, or at least I don’t think he did, because a tiny tremor shook the ground around us which sent him and the woman into an awkward-looking dance. It stopped almost as quickly as it started. Mack looked like he was going to yell at me again, but his eyes quickly bulged into little white balloons as he looked past me. The woman’s bike fell to the ground as I turned and saw that less than a quarter-mile behind me, a dark, menacing cloud was trailing behind al-Saher. The poet was walking confidently with a small army of the mutilated lions at his side.
Lungs be damned, I began to pedal away again. Mack was already behind the glass doors of his establishment and the poor woman was left standing there, hands in the air, yelling about her new bike being unceremoniously dropped to the ground. She seemed oblivious to everything going on around her and didn’t get much further along in her protests, because I looked back to see that one of the lions broke away from the pack and pounced on top of her, ripping at her flesh with its sharp green teeth before she could even scream.
I was nearly out of Orange Valley’s tiny downtown before my legs cramped up and I was forced to stop again. More crowds of people gathered outside of storefronts to see what was going on, probably wondering why a crazy guy on a bike was shouting at them to run away.
Despair began to take over. I clambered off my bike and hobbled into the nearest store–Watson’s Pharmacy and General Goods. The world around me turned into a blur of bodies running and pointing and screaming. I only heard the simple chime of the bells hanging from the door handle as I made my way down the stationery aisle where I collapsed
“Please,” I mumbled to the air, “let this be a dream. Let this be a dream.” The only reply was another series of tremors and more screams outside of the store. A pair white pants swept by me but came to a quick stop.
It was the pharmacist, Roger. “Tommy, you gotta get outta here. There’s an earthquake or something.”
“Or something,” I replied softly, staring with dead eyes at a pack of colored pencils hanging on the rack in front of me. I would never see my family again. Never see anything again, all because of that stupid poem.
There was another quake which caused the shelves to rattle and sent Roger scrambling for purchase.
He reached down to grab ahold of me, but I refused to budge. “What’s the use,” I said. “We’re all dead.” The look in his gray eyes told me he was wavering on saving his own hide until a piece of the ceiling collapsed behind the druggist counter. The air became thick with dust.
I covered my face with my hands and heard rapid footsteps followed by the chiming bells.
No matter how many times I pinched myself, there was no waking up from this. I would die in the collapsed building. My mind tried to make sense of it all. I had apparently brought al-Saher back from another place, a wicked place, by simply reading the thirteenth poem. And then he recited something of his own, another poem perhaps, to bring about the current reign of terror.
This train of thought jolted me awake like someone had taken a cattle prod to my rear. My little area of the store still stood, though it was only a matter of time before it all came crashing down on top of me. I moved quickly for the pack of colored pencils I noticed earlier and a stack of sticky notes on the shelf below. My hands were shaking as I tore open the box of pencils and then wrote as fast as I could. I prayed I would find the words, closed my eyes, and wrote.
The Magician’s return,
Was all a Dream.
The World remained,
As it had always Been.
I don’t recall hearing anything, or sensing any point of transition, but I opened my eyes and was suddenly sitting on the floor of my living room, hearing the sounds of birds chirping outside of my window. My butt felt wet. I stood up and saw my can of root beer knocked over onto the carpet.
The colored pencils and sticky notes were nowhere in sight.
I ran to the front door, threw it open, and bounded outside. The sky was clear and so far as my eye could see, my neighborhood was still standing.
There were no tremors.
No mutant lions.
And most importantly, no al-Saher.
I walked back inside my house and my eye was drawn to the recliner. Sitting on top of the debris was the book of poems. That was disturbing in and of itself, but what truly unnerved me was the title.
The Fourteen Poems of al-Saher.
I tried to rip the individual pages out. Tear them into pieces. They didn’t budge from the binding. Even a pair of scissors was useless as it was like cutting a piece of iron with a spoon.
After throwing it in my roaring fireplace and watching it survive unscathed, I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening, pondering how I might destroy the book.
I fell asleep in my recliner and woke up to a phone call from Mack, yelling at me for being late.
In a panic, I got dressed, cleaned up the root beer and as I was about to throw away the paper towels, I laughed.
Of course, I thought. There was the answer, still sitting on top of the rest of my garbage.
Before I left, I carefully wrapped the book, slapped on the salvaged return label, and promptly dropped it in the mail on the way to Mack’s.