"Consider the spider, effenti" said the girl, the Grand Executioner's hands wrapped around her slender neck, his thumbs pressing on her windpipe with just enough force to let her know he could break her neck with the minimum of pressure. There was sweat trickling on his brow; the girl had given him quite the chase through the palace gardens, as she was trying to escape him. The girl had given him a fight too: scratched his hand with her hairpin, a little bone needle with such ferocity that she drew blood.
"What of it?" said the Grand Executioner, his turban bobbing on his great head, the emerald at the center nodding in assent. His words sounded distant and distorted to the girl's ears, as if formed by the rustle of the palm tree leaves above.
"It dwells between the earth and the sky, its home built from thin strands, lighter than air. It walks among them with its eight legs, gently dancing above the world and below the clouds with infinite grace. Its haven is built from its belly, woven like an impossibly beautiful tapestry, a testament to Allah's wisdom, but it is torn apart by gusts of wind or the malicious grasp of man's hand" she said and found herself looking into the Grand Executioner's great green eyes, noticing the arch of his brow that signaled curiosity. Slowly, she realized that she could now breathe unimpeded, though his fingers remained wrapped around her neck.
"But above all, the spider is patient. It does not plead with Allah, nor does it curse at the clumsiness of human hands. Whether its house is torn apart by accident or intent, it merely weaves one anew, creating a pattern of even greater beauty and complexity. Now consider the fly, effenti.."
The Grand Executioner's hands let go of the girl's supple neck. The bruises on her skin were like great blots of ink on virgin paper. The girl collapsed on the ground and the Grand Executioner sat on the base of a palm tree, motioning for her to continue.
"The fly is the complete opposite of the spider. It dwells in the sky, touching land only when hunger compels it to. It has no dwelling and no understanding of concepts like beauty or patience. Its life goes by as quickly as a song; it knows only greed and lust that make the entire world seem like a feast to its eyes, just waiting to be devoured. Its only acknowledgement to Allah is the rubbing of its forelegs as it prepares to dine, its only worry the propagation of its kind."
The Grand Executioner smiled and weaved his hands together. The girl was a storyteller, employed by the Sultan himself, her tales for the great man's ears only. But she had fallen out of favor, given him too many sad tales that had brought him in a foul mood. Eventually, he had the Grand Executioner kill her himself. And now here he was, enjoying one of the Sultan's delights for himself, the girl's very last story.
His profession was a macabre one (not that he did not enjoy it), but it had its advantages. The girl continued her tale:
"Once upon a time, there was a spider. Among her kind, she was considered the greatest, for her webs were like tapestries of great splendor and her faith was absolute and unwavering. Such was her renown, that she was even known among men, who always spoke her name with great reverence. And it is said that even the Pasha of Samarkand held her in such high esteem, that he had allowed her to spin her web between the two spires of the greatest mosque in the city. And such was its complexity and beauty that it is said that the winds never blew fiercely over Samarkand, for not even the efreeti of the air dared disrupt such beauty.
"On that web, the spider dwelt with her children, her grandsons and granddaughters and their children as well. They were all as devout as her and each shared her passion and her spirituality, though none of them were as faithful as her.
"On the other side of Samarkand, there was a fly. And even among the flies, she was considered the most foolhardy and arrogant. She had been born in the stables of the muezzins and grown strong and fat from the excrement of their horses, and had grown to consider herself the most favored creature in creation. Since a very young age, she had been sitting on the backsides of warhorses and had even sneaked and tasted the Pasha's favorite dishes and always got away with a full belly.
"As the fly grew older, she realized that not even the delights of the Pasha's table excited her anymore. So the fly decided to attempt her greatest and vainest feat yet:
" 'I shall go to the spider's web' she told her brethren one day. 'And there, I shall lay my eggs on top of the hairy belly of the spider. When they hatch, they will have grown on the killer's back and be even greater than even me!' in vain, the other flies tried to dissuade her. They called her quest an obscenity, tried to reason with her, then pleaded with her, and finally they cursed at her. For the spider would catch her and devour her in an instant. But her mind had been made."
The Grand Executioner slapped his hand on his thigh and let out a loud bark of a laugh. "What madness! How would she go about her business, then? Or did she trust Allah to save her on this one?"
"Surely not. The fly might have been arrogant, but she was no fool. She knew that Allah does no favors for any living being, especially to those that defy death. Instead, she flew around the web and watched the spider from afar for a week, to find out her habits. She discovered that the spider was truly devout and that she prayed at the appointed times. She also found out that the spider hardly slept, being as old as she was, but for the hours between the midnight and first light. This would give her ample time to fly over her, lay her eggs on her belly and fly away as fast as possible.
"And thus the fly waited for midnight, until the spider walked to the very center of her great web and curled herself into a ball and closed every eye on her great head. However, the fly had forgotten that that night was the first night of the month Ramadan and on that night, the spider shut every eye but one, in reverence. She flew over to her and was about to perform her feat, when the spider shot up and the fly fell wings-first on the web, all tangled. She spun and beats her wings and moved her legs, but the more the fly fought, the worse she found herself trapped.
"The spider saw the fool hardy fly fighting against her invincible web and smiled at her pathetic pleas for help. Had it been any other night, the spider would have killed the fly and devoured her on the spot, but that night marked the beginning of Sawm, the great fasting and the sun was dawning. The spider decided to wait until Iftar, when the sun set, to taste the sweet flesh of her prey, knowing that its fear would make it taste all the sweeter."
The Grand Executioner leaned closer, intrigued by the girl's story. He felt a fierce itch rising from the scratch on the back of his hand where the girl had drawn blood, but ignored it. "What then?" he asked.
"The spider went about her business that day and read the Qur'an with her family. When the sun set and the muezzins announced the beginning of Iftar, the spider went to get the fly and found out something shocking: where the fly had been spinning and struggling in the web, a familiar pattern had emerged. The spider looked at it and rubbed each of its eyes; it looked at it from up close, then from far away and knew that there was no mistaking it.
"The fly's thrashing had formed the first verse of Qu'ran on her web. This troubled the spider greatly. What was the meaning behind this? Was this fly somehow chosen by Allah? Was this a message? Was to eat her sacrilege? She summoned her wisest and most devout child to her side and showed him the pattern. He clicked his mandibles and shook his head in confusion and immediately set out to seek an answer to his mother's trouble.
"He left the web and went into Samarkand's mosque, seeking the advice of the moths that nested in the roof and hovered around the lanterns under which the faithful studied the holy texts. He told them of the strange happening on his mother's web and the moths went into a heated discussion that ended in a maelstrom of mandible, wing and leg, but found no answer.
"The spider did not, however, lose hope. She turned to her most learned grandson instead, who had spent months inside the university of Samarkand and told him of her predicament. Her grandson ran four of his eight legs over his head and ruffled the hairs of his belly and set for the University, where he conversed with the bookworms that lived off the tomes written by the brightest theologians. The worms listened closely to his grandmother's predicament, argued with each other, devoured a few pages off a tome dealing with the lives of insects, briefly feasted on a book on proper etiquette and told the spider's grandson that unfortunately, they could not help him. Crestfallen, he told his grandmother the news and she despaired. Her great-grandchildren, who by then had heard the news, gathered around and tried their best to console her.
"'What if he is making this up?' asked the youngest of her great-grandchildren, a small thing that had not yet grown even a hair on its belly. But the youngling's advice was not only unheeded, it also angered its elders. For its trouble, it only received a sound thrashing and was sent to the farthest corner of the web, to brood on its thoughtlessness."
"Hah! The young one seems to have been the wisest among them!" exclaimed the Grand Executioner, removing his turban (which suddenly felt heavy and unbalanced on his head). "The spider's faith had blinded her to her own folly and her children and grandchildren are swept along by the spider's despair." the Grand Executioner struggled to find the proper word. His thoughts seemed muddled and he felt a terrible weight on his chest. He blamed last night's fierce lovemaking with his favored wife, feigned sobriety and said: "Why, had I been a member of her family, I would have seen through the bluff in an instant!"
"You would, but then again, you are not a spider. You are the Grand Executioner and your prowess and wits are renowned throughout the Empire. How, pray tell, could any living being match your exceptional faculties?" the girl flattered the Grand Executioner, but her words barely registered. There was a terrible sound in his ears, a ringing sound that reverberated across the walls of his skull and sent tremors through his eyes.
"Go on, what happened next?" asked the Grand Executioner, leaning against the palm tree, desperately trying to ignore the numbness that spread upward from the tips of his fingers.
"The spider ordered her family to leave her alone in the center with the fly, to decide its fate. As she looked upon her, she saw that the fly had weaved two whole pages of the Qur'an now and was hard at work on the opening passages of the third. Feeling awed and choked by this display, the spider moved quickly and undid the strands that bound the fly together, releasing it. She wept greatly, feeling the weight lifted from her belly at last.
"But that night, as the spider slept, the fly landed on her bristles and lay her eggs and they hatched on her back and her sons grew from the back of the most skilled hunter among its kind. The spider was washed with great shame at this turn of events. She hung her head, crossed her forelegs over her eyes and wept and wept until she died of a broken heart.
"Because the fly, who had grown among the muezzins, had used her faith against her. He wove a deception for her that tugged at her heartstrings and allowed him to trick her and sire his spawn, using beauty to mask his true intentions. As did I, when I scratched you with this little bone needle as you were strangling me. I had it dipped in poison first. You would have noticed the ploy for what it was, of course, had you not been so preoccupied with my story."
The Grand Executioner said nothing. The numbness had swept all over him and had gone, along with all feeling.
"Your momentary carelessness gave me another chance at life, Grand Executioner. And for that, I thank you." Said the girl and kissed the dead man on his cheek. She walked away then, past the palace gates, into the streets and mingled with the crowd, never to be seen again.