A free sample from Yanko Tsvetkov’s story cycle Sex, Drugs and Tales of Wonder, a collection of psychedelic fairy tales for grown-ups.
Few people dared to venture in the Far West, where the Barren Desert met the salty waters of the Sunset Ocean. Those lands were inhospitable and treacherous; they abounded with demons that could seduce even the greatest skeptics and lead them to a path of willful oblivion.
They say exploration is driven by wanderlust, that curiosity inspires brave men and women to fearfully leave their homes and discover exciting new things. A glittering mountain top or a forest full of beasts have an allure that sets the imagination on fire. Unlike them, the lifeless monotony of the desert doesn’t tempt the adventurous. Only people who had lost the taste for life sought the company of the sands, and only to them they revealed their secrets.
On the coast of the ocean, where the moist northern winds turned the sandy dunes to fertile mud, there was a great city called Abharazarhadarad. Merchants from all over the world flocked there to trade. Some traveled for years to reach it, overcoming unspeakable perils and adversities. The city was unlike any other. It didn’t have a king and was ruled by its own citizens, a way of governing the locals called republican. By some miracle, although most of them were politically incompetent, the citizens avoided the anarchy that imperiled other places without a designated sovereign. No king also meant no royal palace, which was unfortunate because instead of being shaped into expensive regalia, all the gold in the city was molded into rectangular cuboids and kept in silos called banks. The city had no walls. Throughout its existence, it had never been threatened by an army. Even when the lands around it were engulfed in bloody wars, Abharazarhadarad was quiet and prosperous. Feuding of any kind was frowned upon at its markets, where fierce enemies were expected to treat each other with respect and amicably shake hands as they exchange goods and services. Anybody who disregarded this custom was severely punished since the Abharazarhadaradians considered such behavior nothing short of blasphemy — the markets were their shrines, and trade was their religion. The biggest offenders had their licenses revoked and were obliged to undergo a cleansing therapy — a form of contemplative redemption — performed under the supervision of an experienced businessman. Stories of millionaires who went bankrupt because of bad temper, but later repented to recover their wealth, were a common subject of all kinds of entertainment.
Rules and regulations were observed by the Supreme Board of Trade Etiquette, a council of business-savvy clergymen, whose central office was located on the highest floor of the Cathedral of Our Lady the Shopkeeper, colloquially known as the Grand Bazaar. Every five hours one of them went out on the terrace, turned his back on the sea, and — facing the desert horizon — recited the lines:
There is no goddess but the Goddess! Praised be Her business acumen!
The ritual was as ancient as the world itself. Billions of years ago, when eternal night still reigned over the earth and all words ended on consonants, the Goddess, riding her favorite camel, came out of the Barren Desert and headed to the ocean for a swim. The cold water made her teeth chatter, and she cursed the darkness repeatedly. Her anger subsided when she realized that as a chief demiurgess, she had no one else to blame for her discomfort.
“There’s only one way to fix this,” she said.
She took a handful of coins out of her handbag and threw them towards the sky. Thus she created the moon and the stars, and although their light was faint, it was enough to warm up the ocean.
When she came out of the water, the Goddess looked at her naked body and said, “I wish there was more light, so I could marvel at my curvaceous beauty.”
And so she opened her handbag again, and from it — like a caged bird yearning to be free — sprang up the sun and bathed her in golden light from head to toe.
“I am now content,” said the Goddess with blissful relief, “praised be everything that glitters!”
Once upon a time in Abharazarhadarad lived a great merchant whose trading skills were so refined, people claimed he could persuade the vilest demon to kneel at the altar of the Goddess and swear perpetual allegiance in exchange for a single grain of rice. His wealth was so vast, it rivaled that of many kings and queens. Only his accountants knew the exact number of rectangular cuboids he had stored in the banks. Like his fellow citizens, he strove to live a simple life and resisted the distraction of luxury. Every day he recited the commandments of the holy scriptures and praised the Goddess for her unparalleled pragmatism. He ate the best food, but in moderation. He drank the most exquisite wine, but never got drunk. His house was comfortable, but modest, and his clothes were custom-tailored, but humble. He possessed the pristine sobriety of a virtuous man and never let bad thoughts and evil tongues distract him.
“Those who envy me,” the merchant used to say, “have no idea about the great responsibility I carry on my shoulders. For it is said in the Great Book that a fortune left on its own will wither like a flower under the desert sun. It has to be tended to, day and night.”
His talent for quoting scripture didn’t prevent his detractors from spreading malicious rumors. “He is indeed a very skillful businessman,” they used to say, “so skillful that he once convinced a mother to sell her newborn baby for a bag of garlic.”
One day a big caravan arrived in Abharazarhadarad. It was drawn by seventy two camels and thirty six elephants, guided by people whose smooth skin glittered in the daylight like the finest chocolate, while under the austere glow of the moon it turned black like roasted coffee. They unpacked their load and built a huge tent decorated with the most exquisite textiles. When their camp was ready, they sent a messenger to the Grand Bazaar, carrying a letter to the famous merchant. It said:
Oh, exalted deal-maker, your fame is spreading around the world like sunlight over the horizon. I am the Queen of the Orient and I have come to trade with you my most precious possessions. Should you decide to honor my offer, visit my camp at dusk.
The merchant was intrigued. “It isn’t customary to trade in private, much less after sunset,” he said to his advisors, “for it is said in the Great Book that people who make deals at night in the confines of privacy offer goods of dubious value.”
“It is most certainly so, sire!” agreed the advisors. “Praise be to the One who brought us the light of reason!”
“However,” said the merchant, “I know that in this world, of which our city is just a speck, there are people with different customs, to whom our own ones appear illogical and even amoral. So I will give this queen the benefit of the doubt, and I will not reject her offer, unless I am sure it is indeed against our cherished principles.”
“Your insight, sire, is unsurpassed, as usual!” agreed the advisors in one voice.
At dusk the merchant headed to the camp. He felt uneasy, yet curious. What kind of goods did this queen have that she was so reluctant to display them on the market? Perhaps her letter was just a facade, and what she really wanted was his advice?
When he arrived at the camp, the first stars were already glittering in the night sky. He handed the invitation letter to the guards. Without saying a word one of them started examining him with his piercing black eyes.
“You are not dressed appropriately,” said the guard and clapped his hands. Four women appeared out of thin air: the first carried a golden bucket full of water, the second — a towel, the third — a bag of dried rose petals, and the fourth — a folded robe made of golden silk.
“Please undress!” said the guard.
“Forgive me, but I won’t feel comfortable standing naked in front of you,” answered the merchant.
The women burst in laughter. The men in the back started giggling along.
“Silence!” scolded them the guard. “Please excuse my people,” he said to the merchant, “they know little about your customs.”
“No offense taken,” replied the merchant, “you probably know more about mine than I know about yours. I hope you could make an exception as a sign of good will.”
“That won’t be possible. If you wish to see the queen, we have to follow the safety protocols,” said the guard.
The merchant took off his shirt, but hesitated when he got to his trousers. Was he ready to give up his dignity just to indulge his curiosity and meet a queen he knew nothing about? He looked around. The cheerfulness of the women was turning to impatience. The merchant reminded himself of a passage from the Great Book:
It is better to waste one’s gold than to waste one’s time, for gold can be acquired from a mine, sold, gifted, or stored in a bank. Time has no master and no shape. No rock can contain it, and nobody can own it. Time is the breath of the Goddess, the rhythm of her chest, the pulse of her beating heart.
His job had put him in awkward situations before. Years ago, waiting for an audience with the Sultan of the Dry Sea, he had to spend three days fasting because facing the sovereign of that realm with a full stomach was considered disrespectful. The Abharazarhadaradians didn’t have a social stigma on fasting, thus the compromise, although difficult, didn’t carry a sense of shame.
“Isn’t it ironic,” thought the merchant, “that spending three days without food seems easier than a moment of casual nudity.”
He swallowed his pride and unbuttoned his trousers. He could feel his pulse on his cheeks, as if his heart was stuck in his mouth. The first woman approached him and started washing his body. When she was done, the second one came and dried him with the towel. Then the third one took a handful of petals, rubbed them with her palms, and blew a cloud of fine dust over his chest. The sweet smell of roses spread in the air. Finally, the fourth woman came and dressed him in the golden robe.
“The queen will see you now,” said the guard and clapped his hands. The heavy curtain over the entrance opened, and the merchant stepped in. The tent looked much bigger on the inside. The walls were made from polished marble. The ceiling was adorned with hanging statues of nude adolescent jinns. A sprawling staircase in the center swirled up like the dissected body of a snake wrapped around a giant column. Its top was engulfed in bright light.
“Thank you for accepting my invitation,” said a voice from above.
The merchant looked up and squinted against the light. The glittering silhouette of the queen started descending with a steady, elegant pace. The scent of hyacinth and myrrh filled the air.
“Our protocol must have confused you,” she said. “According to my grand vizier, your introduction rituals are quite different than ours. He said you extended hands towards each other, grasped them tightly, and then shook them intensely. I started practicing, but I still find it a bit confusing. There is a pause between the grasp and the shake. I can’t quite figure out the right timing. Can you teach me how to do it?”
“It will be an honor,” said the merchant.
“Then I’m looking forward to it,” said the queen, whose descending figure was now obscured from view by the column that supported the spiraling staircase. “Rituals are important, no matter how arbitrary they might seem to foreigners. Who’s to say what’s the right way to greet a stranger? We could spend years arguing about details, but wise people focus on the common things first. Do you know my subjects believe the world was created by an omnipotent Universal Mother? She lives up in the sky, and nothing can escape her watchful eyes. Yet she reveals her divine face only to those who have drunk too much wine. When sober people look up, they see nothing but clouds and stars. One might argue they don’t have to see the goddess to believe in her. But you and me, dear guest, know that if a belief is left without a proof for too long, it fades to fantasy. I’ve been told that your people also believe the world was created by a goddess.”
“That is indeed true,” said the merchant.
“Can they see her?”