Lena Mubsutina – The Thieving Pot: Excerpt 5

Lena Mubsutina

Author’s Note: The next 12 days I will be sharing excerpts from the first part of my novel-in-progress, tentatively titled “The Thieving Pot.” It is loosely based on the Palestinian folktale, “Tunjur, Tunjur,” a story about a pot that comes to life and wreaks havoc on her neighbors with her deception and theft.

The Thieving Pot

But Zara was in no mood to return to the suq the next day as her feet and back ached from walking and riding the donkey through town. She had sold most of her wares, and she worried about what Tunjur would destroy or disturb if she left her daughter alone in the house again.

Tunjur would not stop begging to go though. “Please, Yama, I’ll be good if I can go just one time! Please!”

Zara groaned. “Astaghfirallah, ya Tunjur! The suq is a vile place where people will cheat you and steal from you anytime you let your guard down. It is not the heaven you imagine it to be.” 

Tunjur blew steam from her mouth and underneath her lid as she clanked away from her mother. The suq had to be a lively and wonderful place; it seemed impossible that she had been brought to life just to lead a dull one. “It is not my destiny to wither away in secrecy!” she yelled after she turned around to face Zara.

Zara glared at Tunjur and shook her head, angry and baffled at where Tunjur could develop such delusions about both Bayt Tahweel and her destiny. “In fact, it is the destiny of a pot to remain in the house to cook for its inhabitants,” she told her daughter. What did Tunjur think she would become, an advisor to the Governor or even directly to the Emperor himself? Or maybe a hakawati who told stories exclusively about food? Bayt Tahweel was not a place that produced such remarkable people or things. The town only had one tiny suq that was probably nothing compared to the dozens in Damascus, Cairo, or Jerusalem.

Several days later, the tension had subsided between mother and daughter. Zara restocked her wares, and she decided that taking Tunjur to the suq was the best way to dispel her fantasies about its grandeur. Zara was still afraid to have the rest of the town see Tunjur’s face because she was sure that would set off an endless amount of gossip and possibly suspicion on how Zara managed to transform a pot into a living being.

And Tunjur accepted her mother’s condition to remain hidden in her embroidered pieces.

But as soon as they left their home, worry gripped Zara. Every bump down the mountain concerned her as she worried that her daughter would fly off the donkey, and when she stopped at one of the booths to set up her wares, she feared that her mischievous daughter might sneak out or be snatched by a thief. Any sudden noise startled her, and she would glance at the case that held Tunjur to ensure it had not been tampered with.

Her customers noticed this unease, and a few inquired about her well-being, thinking that Zara was becoming even more of a majnoona than she previously was. Others perceived her jumpiness as her trying to cover up problems or lower quality material than she normally sold. Tunjur listened intently to the latter people and tried to imprint their voices into her memory as best as she could.

She was also steaming enough that the case became as humid as a busy hammam, which caught the attention of at least one onlooker.

“Ya Allah!” the woman said, further unsettling Zara and terrifying Tunjur. “What is that coming from the rug? Do you have something hot in there?” 

Zara shook her head and held her hands together to conceal their shaking. “Laa, it’s just a bit damp,” she replied, realizing that her words made no sense as she said them.

The woman frowned. “Oh, but that is a beautiful prayer rug. I used to have one like that, but the fabric grew so old and thin that I could see the floor through it.” She continued with more detail about the various prayer rugs that her family owned and how she was skilled at mending them, but Zara could barely concentrate on what the woman was saying as the fear of the steaming rug would become more noticeable.

Once the woman left, Zara packed up her wares, much earlier than she had planned and after selling much less than she had hoped to. Her heart could only take so much strain, and she felt foolish for ever believing that she could take someone as unusual as Tunjur without attracting attention.

“Tunjur, you must not become so easily upset,” Zara told her when they finally returned home. She brought a dry cloth to soak up the moisture from Tunjur’s steam and had to hang some of her damp pieces so they could dry without becoming wrinkly or moldy.

“But some of those people are so mean, Yama! You should yell at them or hit them if they think they can accuse you of something bad.”

Zara laughed. “If you think that is terrible, the suq has much worse to offer. At least no one tried to steal from me or insult the quality of my designs.” She picked up her daughter and held her against her belly. “You are too sensitive for a place as vile as the suq.”

“No, the suq should be better,” Tunjur said. “I will make it better.”

Tunjur’s confidence and optimism endeared Zara, even if she believed her daughter’s resolution was so implausible that only the naïve would think it was possible . 

“It will be hard for you to change the suq if you never return, binti,” Zara said, leaving Tunjur upstairs to stop any further argument.

But even if Tunjur could have walked down the stairs on her own, she would not have challenged Zara anymore. The vision Zara had for embroidery, her unique way of seeing colors, patterns, fabric, and thread, did not extend to the world, so Tunjur could never convince her mother with words. Zara did not have the capacity to imagine the change that Tunjur could.

Tunjur knew that she had the power to mold and transform the world the same way she could with food though. She was less certain of exactly how she could do that, but that never made her doubt her capability.

She wanted to be able to give Zara a respite from riding the donkey and dealing with harsh customers, too, so the next day, while she slept late, exhausted from the stress of yesterday, Tunjur sneaked her way down the steps, pushing her body forward slowly to make only the softest of clanks. 

She was already feeling a little tired when she reached the end of the stairs; she had never had to carry herself so far before. But she was determined to make it out of the house and resumed dragging her body across the house after a short pause. She found an opening of cracked stone, one of the many parts of the house that needed repair, and she nearly fit through. Her lid, though, fell off on the first attempt. Tunjur contemplated leaving without the lid but felt too exposed and vulnerable without it, so she pushed herself and circled around to push it forward with her body.

Then she had to find a way to reattach her lid without her mother’s help. Tunjur’s body grew warmer and bits of steam came from her eyes; she was so frustrated with her dependence. After a few minutes of being outside alone for the first time in her life, taking in the sun and the smells of other people’s lives, her resolve returned. She tipped herself over so she could fall into her lid and roll back over so that she could be upright again, but when her body was finally reunited with her top she was too close to the slope of the mountain.

She rolled down fast, the speed of her body a shock after a lifetime of only sluggish movement, and she feared that she would break into many pieces that Zara would never be able to put back together.

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