Many thanks to my lovely benefactors on Ko-fi for making this story possible. ‘Rumanye’ is a fantasy horror story riffing off the Palestinian folktale of the same name, which is a kind of Snow White story, mashed up with the Magnus Archives.
By Sonia Sulaiman
Statement of Rumanye Daoud concerning the fairy tale machine.
I’m an archival assistant at the archives at the University of Saint Sisyphus. We catalog a lot of weird stuff, mostly– anything that doesn’t really fit in anywhere, things that have strange backstories… Most of the time it’s a pretty safe job because the artifacts are generally only supposedly cursed or haunted. Occasionally, it’s the real thing. Unlucky for me, this was one of those times.
So, this is the story of how a medieval robot torture thing captured me. Sorry, I don’t know what else to call it. Before you get mad about me bumbling around Storage just consider that maybe I’ve had rather a lot on my plate lately.
Anyway, I went to Storage to do a manual check on that creepy Minoan vase with the moving pictures on it? My first mistake. Never go down to Storage… things are seriously weird. And it smells down there, like an antique dealer’s I went to once but less floral, more metallic. I heard a creaking sound—never a good thing. I investigated it, even though I know protocol is to get back up first.
There’s this iron effigy brought to England from the Palestine by a functionary in the Ottoman Empire on business and some light looting. It looks like a maiden. There’s some traces of paint still on the face. Large eyes, a hand held out with a single pomegranate.
I don’t think it tried to trap me, so much as it’s just incredibly old. Certainly older than the Ottoman era. I’m not the expert on such things, but unless something came out of that thing before I went in, then I’m chalking the creaking up to old mechanical workings up inside it. It is mechanical– a robot. There is a system of pulleys, hemp rope, wooden dowels and the like. It can move when the rope is wrapped around the dowels a certain number of times in a particular way. It’s an early form of programming.
I stepped over to it and placed my hand on the pomegranate. The paint was waxy and smooth. Nothing happened. I started to leave and just managed to hear the creaking starting up again when it was on me, faster than it had any right to be. It shouldn’t have been moving at all! The front opened and I could see the pulleys whirling. It was dark.
My eyes were not working right. I thought I was looking out at two holes behind the face of the effigy, the irises. But the spots of light grew, multiplied until everything was lit up: pale blues and greens. It registered; I was outside! I blinked, hard, and looked into the light. Shadows gathered into towering cedars. A meadow filled with wild flowers bordered the forest. I knew there had to be another shoe dropping soon.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. The effigy was behind me. Her paint was polished and vibrant, no longer cracked. I kicked the sod with my heel. I shouldn’t have felt relieved to see it. I could feel a prickling at the back of my neck, and a jolt running up my spine. I tried to move, to open the statue again. Maybe it would work both ways? It was more than a sense of dread that had settled on me. It was breath. Hot, venomous breath on my neck.
A creature was moving, paws or feet crushing the undergrowth. I reached for the pomegranate. A hand shot out from behind me and tried to grasp mine. I whirled around and ran. I made for the meadow. Was that the right thing to do? Shouldn’t I try to look big—that worked on bears, right? Is it a bear? No, definitely not a bear… a zombie bear, maybe. With no fur, or… eyes? Or a face.
A house! On the edge of the meadow! One glance behind me—bad idea. I kept running and running… I slammed into the door and yanked it open. I almost cried with relief that it wasn’t locked. But I was too slow. It took me a moment to close the latch; I was unfamiliar with it and the creature went straight for my hand.
Fang slid into my flesh and my whole arm grew cold. I heard myself whimper as the fangs burrowed in but I couldn’t move. Lips closed around the wounds and sucked. I could feel my blood coursing down my splayed fingers but not a drop hit the floor.
The creature released me and I fell back onto the floor. My arm was paralyzed. I got up and bolted the door and then I passed out. It was much later when I came around. I wandered the house from top to bottom. It had large rooms. In a room off of the kitchen hung a deer. There were seven places set at the kitchen table. The beds were unmade. I noted all of this almost as if I were dreaming it.
I found my way back down to the kitchen, drawn by my rumbling belly. I dared not actually fix something for myself; it was bad enough that I was stomping through their house, dragging myself along as if I were high on something. I probably was, come to think of it. At last I found a cabinet. There were linens piled up in there, not exactly neatly but it would do. I climbed in and closed the door, leaving it open just a crack. I didn’t want to lock myself in there. I would just lie down for a bit until my head cleared and I could get out of this mess.
When I woke up it was late. My head still swam and I felt a little worse for wear, if anything. I hauled myself up and peered through the door. The table that was set with simple crockery was full of roasted meats, potatoes, and country bread. At the table sat seven huge men, muscular and tall. A wave of shame washed over me, and my pulse quickened. What was I going to do now?
I felt myself rise and reach for the door. I opened it and stepped out. The men regarded me.
“We thought you might need the rest,” said the nearest. “You seemed half-dead.”
“Seven brothers?” I stammered, looking around me. Of course there were. At least they weren’t dwarves…
“That’s right,” said the mountain of a man. “And this is—“
“Your house…I was just… h-hiding. From a monster,” I winced. I was telling the truth! Why did I have to make it sound so sketchy? “Look!” I held up my bandaged hand and unrolled it in front of their glares. “You’re hunters, take a look at that and tell me what you think.”
The mountain man took one look at it and helped me to my feet. “You’ve lost a lot of blood,” he said. “And the venom is still in your system.”
“What was it?” One of the brothers started inspecting the wounds and rewrapping them in soft new bandages that smelled of something pungent and clinical.
“A ghoul. There is one that lives in the forest. It will undoubtedly come back for a second helping. Didn’t you greet it?” The big man shook his head.
“What? No! Why would I do that?” I took my hand back, cradling it against my chest probably a little too vulnerable.
“Your parents should have taught you,” he said. “Always greet a ghoul; if you greet them first, they cannot harm you.”
“We must prepare,” said another brother. “My name is Adib. My brothers and I will help you kill this ghoul when it returns.” The men all looked at each other and nodded. They seemed competent enough, surely more than I did at the moment.
The brothers conferred and soon had worked out a plan that required me as, what else, the bait. It seemed useless to argue; they were each twice my size and armed whereas I’m just a … archival assistant. There wasn’t really another role for me to play in this little drama. Besides, they said something about how it would track me down anyway…
So I sat near the door, my heart in my throat, waiting. Beside me the brothers huddled before the fire. Only one of them stood, pacing the room. It was the youngest brother, Hamid. A little shorter than the others, he had taken the lead in volunteering to “give the stroke.” He carried a great axe on his shoulder, its blade broad and sharpened to an edge sharper than any razor.
The minutes went by, hours melded together as we braced for our visitor to return. My hand pulsed, and I felt feverish. The venom… I recoiled from the thought of it coursing through my veins. Something slammed into the door. It thudded again. I looked to Hamid who stepped back and drew the axe from his shoulder. He was all coiled, ready to strike.
I opened the door wide and stood in the frame. In front of me stood the ghoul. I could see it properly for the first time. It was tall. Its too long limbs were almost dragging on the ground. I could smell that fur and musk and rotten meat stench of it as it grinned down at me. Its fangs protruded, seemed to grow as its lips curled. I stepped back. I didn’t have to pretend to be immobilized. I knew now that there was a predator’s power in its eyes, its presence that made my body freeze. But still I inched backward, forgetting the plan. My lizard brain had taken over, telling me to run; this was the best that I could do.
Languorously, the ghoul swayed into the cottage. I shuddered as my hips hit the kitchen table. Its tongue flicked around its fangs and its wide nostrils twitched. I stared it down as it turned. Hamid was in motion. “In the name of God!” he cried as he swung the axe into the ghoul’s neck. The blade was buried in its flesh. Black blood oozing and smoking around the wound. The ghoul grunted.
“Strike again, son of Adam!” it spat. “Strike again!”
“Oh no,” said Hamid. “This will do for you.” I stared as the brothers stood around and watched the ghoul thrash and claw impotently at the air until it lay still. When it was over, Hamid removed the axe and wiping it said: “If you were never taught to greet a ghoul, you would not have known that one strike kills them, but a second restores them to life.” It was the last thing I remembered.
Thomas, my supervisor, was leaning over me, the bandage in his hand. “You alright?” he said. I shook my head to clear it, and this time it worked. The fog was clearing. I was back in Archival Storage, lying near the feet of that iron effigy, the fairy tale machine. “You were out cold. I thought you’d died. What happened to your hand anyway?”
“I… A ghoul bit me,” I said. “I must have fainted…”
“A ghoul?!” Thomas helped me stand. “Yeah, okay, that makes sense.”
“Yep. It sounds like you stepped right into a Palestinian variant on Snow White. Don’t mess around in Storage. By the way, I found this in the wounds on your hand,” he held out a small glistening object, like yellowed ivory. It was also covered in blood. “Looks like the tip of some fangs were lodged in there. Must have taken awhile to work themselves out again…” he regarded me with concern.
“So, you uh… want to make a statement?” he inclined his head toward his ever-present notebook. He wet the tip with his tongue.
“I guess I should…”
“I’ll be right here,” said Thomas. “It’s going to be alright now. You’re safe.”
Safe. “I didn’t even get to thank them…”
“Thank… the ghoul?”
“No, it’s… I’ll start now. Thanks, Thomas.”
And… that’s all. I’ve learned my lesson about Storage. And I know I will carry with me the mark of that awful hunt.