He slumbered. For millennia, no doubt. But when he woke it was always to the same rumbling, the deafening crackle of magic like thunder, the stretching of his body to infinite proportion as it squeezed him through a space too small for him to fit, before making him whole again. The space around him came to focus slowly, dimly lit shadows dancing in flickering torchlight, fading fast, a single breath from extinction.
And like a passing sandstorm, they faded, clearing his vision, leaving behind only the shape of men and women, deathly still, crushed beneath the rubble. They’d come for his treasure. For gifts and talents unattainable. At a cost none could fathom. And like most, they earned nothing but a spot among his collection of bones.
The vacuum of silence exploded, as his sense fully returned, only to realize that the stillness of the room did not match the wet gurgling sound echoing against the cavern walls. He frowned, crossing his gargantuan arms over his chest, looking for the source of such desperate gnawing and froze when he saw it.
At the foot of his looming shadow, a small, suckling child sat, it’s tiny mouth pressed against the handle of his golden lamp.
It noticed him then, too. It’s eyes large pools of midnight sky, littered with sparkle like the desert sky. It’s clothing was torn and covered in dust and dirt and it’s face was weathered from the heat and the sand. But it smiled, a crooked toothless grin against cheeks streaked with tears and it lit up the cavern in a way none of his golden treasure ever had.
“Hello little one,” he spoke softly, aware that this might be something altogether new. The prospect was more thrilling than he cared to admit.
When one lived for eons, surprises were few. This was not what he expected to wake to. But for once, in a very, very long while, he was relieved to have been pulled from the lamp.
“Let us get you something to drink.”
He watched the infant’s sleeping form in silent fascination. The way her tiny chest rose and fell in rhythm, her mouth hanging open, lips puckered, each exhale a gentle huffing sound. Her impossibly small hand was wrapped around his finger.
Something heavy within him began to ache. He had not really given much thought to what would happen with the child past the first few days. In truth, he had not expected she’d survive. But here she was, plump and warm, wrapped in the linens he’d procured, responding to the limited supply of water and puréed fruits he’d brought her.
It was a strange thing, to serve her well being without her expressly demanding it. He was not used to acting in such freedom. He had been slave to the lamp for as long as he could remember, which meant he was slave to whomever possessed it. But this relationship was not one he understood.
She was his master, surely. For when she cried he certainly felt compelled to rush to her side. But it was not as it had been with others. He did not feel trapped in his servitude. For she gave him something with each smile, each giggle, each squeeze of her small hand. And when she stared at him, and grabbed for his nose ring, and pulled his hair, it was in such innocence, that it delighted a very ancient part of his weary being.
He served multitudes, but mourned the loss of none. This tiny human, she offered something they had not. Companionship, unconditional.
“If you are to be mine, then you must have a name,” he whispered into her forehead. She curled closer to his warmth, a lock of midnight hair falling over her closed eyes. “I will call you Layla, after the night sky.”
Her lips twitched, and she smiled as though she understood.
“Tell me again, Aziz! Tell me of the night you found me!” She grinned, mango juice dripping from her chin as they sat atop the Sphinx. A full moon cast a silver glow on her cinnamon skin.
“Again? Do you not tire of this tale?”
“Well then,” he started, remembering fondly, amazed that the child was now it’s own walking talking entity, rather than the bundle he cradled to sleep in his arms. “I awoke from a very deep sleep to find a delightful little human treating my lamp like a very tasty treat.”
Her laughter cut through the darkness, a throaty belly laugh that warmed the cool night air and sparked like bonfire.
“Lamps are not food,” she managed, slapping her thigh in amusement.
“They are not,” he agreed. He felt the familiar twitch of his lip. The strange urge to smile whenever she was concerned.
“What was the name of the child you had before me, Aziz?”
“I did not have another child before you. You are my one and only, little one.”
“But who did you live with when I was not there?”
“No one. I lived alone.”
Her dark brows furrowed. “That must have made you very sad.”
He thought for a long moment. Watched as she cleaned her chin with the back of her hand. “You are too young to understand this now, little one, but as you grow, you will learn that solitude is often preferable to bad company.”
“I had many masters, met many explorers, sat at the feet of sultans and scholars and pirates. But I experienced the most genuine peace and happiness when on my own.”
She chewed her bottom lip, deep in thought. A flicker of doubt dimmed her bright eyes. “Am I bad company, Aziz?”
He cupped her chin, sticky with mango, and tilted her face toward his. “You are not, precious one. In fact, I do think I would taste true sadness if you ever left my side.”
Just like that her entire being outshined the moon. “Then I vow to never leave you.”
She wrapped her small arms around him and squeezed.
She looked up at him, dark lashes fanning her cheeks, her eyes as endless as ever. It struck him, how much her round face had changed. It seemed like only an instant…
“I cannot help it, Aziz.” She grinned at him. “There is so much beauty and strangeness out in the world! Did you know there is a city with roadways made from rivers?”
“They are called canals.”
“Have you seen them, Aziz?”
He nodded. “I had a master there many years ago.”
She sighed. “It is a far cry from the acrid desert.”
“I did not realize you found the desert unpleasant.”
“There is so much sand…” her thoughts trailed off as her fingers turned another page. “There is a place in which it rains so often the earth is lush and green and damp. Can you imagine?”
He heard the longing in her voice. He recognized it. The beginning of desire. The dreams that took her far away.
“Would you care to see them? The rainforest? The canals?”
She did not meet his gaze. “Very much,” she whispered.
He paused. A long, thoughtful silence. “Do you wish it so?”
She looked up sharply. “I would never, Aziz. You must know that.”
“Easy little one.” He placed his large hand on her midnight hair. “Of course I know. Still, you hesitate. Do not fear me. In all our years I have held nothing back from you. We have sailed mighty rivers and stood atop pyramids. We have eaten like kings and danced in street festivals like paupers. I have taken you near and far and you have never even had to ask.”
“And I am very grateful, Aziz.”
“But I do not wish to command you.”
There it was. The thing unspoken. A truth neither had acknowledged. Now that she’d said it, it hung heavy between them.
“A question is not the same as a command. And if there is something you desire, I want to know. Your happiness is my own, Layla. Do you understand?”
She nodded carefully, the smile he cherished returning.
“If you wish to see more of the world, then my only wish is to grant it.”
He heard their hushed whispers, their stifled giggles at the mouth of the cavern and watched from the shadows as nothing but a flaming torch and a quarter moon lit their midnight tryst.
“You cannot stay,” she breathed against the boy’s mouth.
“Just the night,” he said, his kiss fierce.
Aziz tightened his hands into fists at his sides. He would give her a moment to recall herself, or he would have to do it for her.
“No. No,” she said, sobering. “Tomorrow. I will meet you tomorrow at the market.”
She pulled away from his embrace, turning quickly to go. The foolish boy took a step to follow. Aziz stepped to meet him.
“Stay where you are,” she said firmly.
Aziz froze, suddenly unsure which one of them she was speaking to.
She pushed the boy an arms length away and without anymore explanation simply said, “Tomorrow.”
He hesitated, but in his limited wisdom heard the finality of her voice and chose to go.
She exhaled deeply when he was far enough away not to hear her.
“You should not have brought him here.”
“And you should not be spying on me, Aziz.”
“You know the rule, Layla. There is but one. You must not welcome any stranger to this place.”
She rolled her eyes. “He is not a stranger, Aziz, he is the butcher from the marketplace.”
“And that means what? That he does not have aspirations to be more?”
“Have you given thought to the fact that he likes me? And that this is not about you?”
Aziz felt a rising heat burn across his face. “Have you told him?”
“Told him what?”
“Do not play coy, Layla. You know what. Have you told him?”
She turned her back on him and something within him exploded with fury.
“You are a fool if you think he comes to my cavern for you. Do not be naive, Layla. The legends of my existence here go much further back than your birth. He cannot come anywhere near here or he might take possession of the lamp. Do you understand? I forbid it.”
“You forbid it?!” She spun violently, her onyx hair swirling across her face, her eyes sharp as stone. “Have you forgotten yourself, genie? You cannot command me! I am your master!”
He froze. An eternity passed. Then another. His chest throbbed. He was certain she had stabbed a knife right down its center.
Her eyes grew wide.
For a brief moment, he recognized those eyes. That baby he’d first looked down upon in the cave all those years ago. The ache intensified.
“Forgive me, Aziz!” She cried out suddenly. “I didn’t mean it!”
But he couldn’t speak. There was just a numbing kind of pain in his limbs. Pulsing, loud and violent in his temples. He stumbled back.
“I swear I didn’t mean it! I just, I cannot live this way! I cannot stay in here, secluded, away from the world! It’s too much!”
Tears streaked across her cheeks, and they were not the soft and supple and round ones he remembered. They were chiseled, the face of a girl close to womanhood.
“Do not look at me that way, Aziz!” Her cries were nearing hysterics. “You cannot have expected I would stay here forever!”
“You vowed…” he choked out. “You vowed to never leave my side.”
“I was a child!”
“And so you lied?”
“No,” she covered her face with her hands, sobbing. “This isn’t fair. You cannot understand.“
“You want to go.”
“I want to not feel bad for wanting to go.”
“What is out there that I could not give you?”
“Life. Accomplishments of my own making.”
“And what am I to do? Here? Enslaved to you? How am I to live in solitude after having your presence for so long? Am I to know true sadness after all, little one?”
She fell to her knees at his endearment, her shoulders wrecked with sobs. He couldn’t stand it. He knelt before her, placing his hand on the crown of her head as he had so many times before.
She faced him, tears sparkling in her dark night eyes. “I could free you, Aziz.”
“And what would that accomplish? That freedom does not appeal to me as it does to you, little one. There is nothing out in the world I have not seen or experienced in all my years of existence.”
She nodded, but her tears stayed constant, flowing.
“Is there nothing I could give you, Aziz?”
“Do you not see?” He placed his large hands on either side of her face. “You already gave me the one thing I never knew I wanted. What I never dared wish for. My being is forever changed because of your existence.” He pressed his lips to her forehead gently, taking in the scent of her. “Go. Go and find what you seek. And remember that I am here, forever yours, Layla, should you need me.”
He stepped back to give her room to stand. She turned away from him on shaky legs, halfway to the mouth of the cavern before she turned back, wrapping her arms around him, crying into his shoulder, whispering promises of return, before she ran off into the night and disappeared from view.
“Hello, old friend.”
Aziz turned slowly, struck by the familiarity of her voice. He expected to see her smooth cinnamon skin, her midnight hair. But the woman who stood before him was not the child he remembered. This one had deep smile lines and crow’s feet, stories etched into her skin, age spots along her slender fingers, her hair a long twirl of grey.
“Layla?” He asked, uncertain. But she smiled, and her eyes sparkled just as they had atop the Sphinx so many years ago, dark and endless and unchanged.
“Aziz.” She tilted her head slightly. “You are just as I remember you. You age well, my old friend.” She coughed, something dry and hollow, that shook her frail bones.
He frowned. “You are unwell.”
She laughed, but it was not the carefree laugh of her youth. “That is one way to put it.” She took another step toward him, looking up at his towering form, closing the space between them. “I have come all this way to see your face. Will you not even hug me?”
He wrapped his large arms around her. She held him tight.
“I have missed you dearly, Aziz.”
“And I, you, little one.”
She laughed, the hearty chuckle he always loved to hear, but it tumbled in her lungs, pulling another cough from her small frame.
He pulled her back to look at her. “Why have you come, Layla?”
Her smile faded. “Because I vowed to never leave you. And once again, I fear, I am here to break that vow.” She paused before bringing the full might of her eyes to his. “I am dying, Aziz.”
He stiffened. “No.”
“I just wanted to be with you, here, in this place, one las time.”
“No,” he said again, his voice shaking. “Wish it away. Whatever the illness is, wish it away.”
She shook her head. “That is not the way of things, Aziz.”
“Now is not the time for stubborn pride, Layla!”
“We have already discussed this. I will not command you. Not now. Not ever.”
“A question is not a command, Layla! Ask for immortality!” He pulled away from her embrace. “Ask for youth! Anything!”
“And what will that accomplish?” She whispered, her voice distant. “There is nothing out in the world I have not seen or experienced.”
He froze, hearing his words echoed.
“Thanks to you.”
“Please,” he begged, falling to her feet. “Please, little one. If you do not wish it for yourself, wish it for me. I cannot… I will not live in a world where you do not exist.”
“It would be selfish of me, Aziz, to ask for more after all you have shown me. From the moment you found me you have served me, loyal one. And you have done so selflessly.” She ran her fingers through his hair, a gentle, mindless caress. “Do you know what I learned out in that big world, Aziz? That very few humans know unconditional love as I did. That relationships exact a price. And all those empty things people wish for are to fill a void that I had overflowing. Because of you. I could wish for nothing else in life. I am content. I am at peace.”
With much effort, she kneeled to meet his eyes, groaning, her knees creaking. “The time has come for me to meet my parents, Aziz. To tell them of the amazing life you made for me.”
She coughed, a spittle of blood spraying the back of her hand as she tried to cover her mouth.
“Will you tell me the story, Aziz? Of the night you found me?”
He wrapped his arms around her and held tight. “Do you not tire of this tale?”
“No,” she smiled. “Never…”
And so he told her the story of their lives, from the moment they first met and every moment in between, until her eyes closed and her breathing ceased.
“I wish…” he whispered into her hair, as he had when she was but a sleeping child, “I wish I could go with you.”
His lamp rumbled. He pressed his lips to her forehead before he was pulled back in, grateful for the endless, dreamless sleep.