Once Upon a Time…
by Danielle Ackley-McPhail
Way back when Gaslight and Grimm was first conceived I was enthralled by the idea and excited to embark on the project. More importantly, I was excited to participate. Though the title gives a nod to the Brothers Grimm, as editor I had always intended that the collection would have a broader scope, encompassing the cherished fables and faerie tales of our youths.
For me, my most cherished tale was “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”. Originally I was to have a story in this collection based on that tale. I know…what happened, right?
Do you know how difficult it is to tell a classic faerie tale in short story length? I started writing my story and brought Day Al-Mohamed on board first as a cultural consultant, then as a co-writer. By the time we finished our first iteration of our story–in as bare-bones a form as we could and still tell the tale–it was over 17,000 words long.
Yeah…not too short. See, when the original tales were told storytelling was a very different process. In fact, much of the time these tales were orally told. Told being the key word. These days we are drilled over and over to show, don’t tell. You know what happens when you do that? Your story balloons!
When we told the publisher who was originally intended to publish G&G how long our story had grown he said, “That’s not a story, it’s a book. Go finish writing it.”
And that, is how my novel Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn was born and why you won’t find a story I’ve written based on “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” in Gaslight and Grimm. However…. Gaslight and Grimm is funding on Kickstarter right now, and if you back our project and we hit high enough in our stretch goals, you could get a digital copy of our novel for free.
Here is an excerpt for your enjoyment.
An excerpt from Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed
Come, Best Beloved, and sit you by my feet.
I shall tell you a tale such as sister Scheherazade
could have scarce imagined.
A tale of wonders,
of deeds both great and grievous,
of courage that
defies description, and above all,
Child of Adam,
I shall tell you a tale of love.
The night is for the telling of tales of which
the morning may bear Truth. In the oldest of days
and ages and times, there was, and there was not, a great evil that reached across the desert and beyond…
Ali bin-Massoud ducked his head and made his way down Dorset Street at a brisk pace, hunching his shoulders against the damp chill that clung thick upon his person. Though he was but eighteen years of age, on days like this his bones ached as if he were a graybeard. His woolen white thobe and the darker besht robe he wore over it protected him from the worst of the weather, as did the chafiye wrapped about his head, but they also marked him as an outsider. At times that made things difficult for him. In the three years since he had come to England, Ali could have chosen to adopt this foreign land’s manner of dress but he was not willing to forgo any remaining shred of the culture he still cleaved to in this wet and foggy place. His soul ached for home and his family…his father.
Ali shivered as a late-spring drizzle pelted his skin and held the package of instruments he had fetched from the blacksmith for his teacher tight against his chest. The sun drifted lower in the sky, casting dark shadows from the buildings that edged the street. Ali felt crowded and smothered by them, so different from the open desert that surrounded his home in Wadi Al-Nejd. Lengthening his stride and keeping his head down, he hurried toward Professor Babbage’s home, eager for the shelter it offered. He hesitated, though, as the swift clopping of hard-soled shoes approached.
“My word! Two in one day. It is a veritable infestation,” the stranger muttered. “Out of my way, golliwog.”
Before Ali could step aside, the man shoved past him. Ali’s feet slipped off the edge of the wooden walk. He fell toward the cobbles and into the street. Pain shot up his leg as his knee struck the hard stone. Angry yells and the clamor of hooves and wheels shattered the quiet calm of Dorset Street. Mud splattered his besht and covered his one hand where he had tried to catch himself. With his free hand, Ali clutched his package more tightly and whispered a prayer to the Almighty. He scrambled to the safety of the walkway, his body trembling as the carriage raced by without even slowing, the driver yelling maledictions as he passed. Ali’s cheeks burned at the stares of those few people on the street.
With quiet dignity he shoved down his anger and continued on his way. Pride forced him to take slow, normal steps, though bolts of pain from his knee coursed through him with each stride. Ali could do nothing else; any response or complaint would be twisted and misconstrued. He had seen this too often and would not let his honor, nor that of his teacher and his family be sullied so, though the injustice burned him like the noonday sands.
He understood that his father had sent him to this cold place out of desire for a better life for his second son than he would find in his brother Kassim’s shadow. But the well-meaning exile…apprenticeship, Ali corrected himself, weighed heavily on his soul.
His feet longed for the shift of desert sands beneath them. His skin ached for the hot rays of a brilliant sun. His heart cried out for people who would accept him as he was and not give him baleful looks for skin that was more brown than pale. But more than anything else, he longed for his family. Neither he nor his father had realized how ill-received he would be by the English artificers and engineers, unable even to enroll at University despite a sharp mind, innate talent with mechanical things, and his father’s deep pockets. If not for Professor Babbage accepting him personally as an apprentice—an offer made out of gratitude for a past kindness…and perhaps a more recent exchange of coin—Ali would have found his time in England unbearable. Allah be praised, his situation was not so. The hours spent studying with the artificer filled Ali’s mind with wonder and his heart with joy. The man’s mind was a puzzle of machines and engineering and designs that made Ali desire only to sit at his teacher’s workbench and create them. Such knowledge more than made his venture to this land of the English worthwhile.
Today they were to experiment with a new variation on a machine his teacher called a “difference engine.” Ali’s heartbeat sped up and a faint smile appeared at his lips.
Finally he reached the wrought-iron fence surrounding One Dorset Street. As Ali passed through the gate, his shoulders relaxed and lowered. His head rose, and his chest loosened enough for him to draw a more comfortable breath. Before he could knock, Babbage himself opened the door, his forehead creased and his brow heavy as he scowled. His gaze took in the limp and the torn and dirtied state of Ali’s clothing.
Babbage’s lips pressed tight. “Again?” He glared down the street; first one way, and then the other.
“I am fine, Ustad.”—Honored teacher. “The Almighty’s blessing upon your household,” Ali said in English. His words were clear and unaccented. He and his brother Kassim had learned the language, as well as many others, at their merchant father’s tutoring. Ali bowed as he handed his teacher the package he carried, along with a letter he’d collected from the postmaster. Babbage’s scowl deepened as he read the sender’s name: The Honorable Lady Chadsworth. He humphed as he slipped the envelope into his coat, then turned to stride down the hall.
“Well, come on in then,” Babbage said over his shoulder.
Ali followed, pain forcing him to walk slowly. No doubt he would awaken with significant bruises tomorrow. Despite this, his fingers clenched as if already a spanner weighed upon his palm, all memories of his encounter temporarily forgotten.
Babbage waved toward the stairs. “Why don’t you take a minute to wash up?”
Ali glanced down at himself, his cheeks flaming in shame at his disarray. He bowed quickly before hurrying to the scullery that held the house’s single pump for fresh water. Collecting a pitcher, Ali carefully filled it and made his way upstairs to the attic chamber granted him as a part of his apprenticeship, along with meals.
Once in his room, Ali removed his clothing and made his ablutions. He winced as he gently dabbed at his throbbing knee with a damp washcloth. It was swollen, the skin scraped and oozing blood. Each step up the stairs had been painful, but it looked like the injury wasn’t serious. Ali changed to a clean thobe. Eagerness to return downstairs to begin his lesson with Ustad Babbage spurred his pace.
Babbage was waiting at the door at the back of the house, his tall, lanky form tense. Without a word, they stepped out under the covered walkway that led to the workshop, a two-storey affair that seemed a palace in itself compared to how most people in Ali’s home city of Wadi Al-Nejd lived. As they entered the workshop Ali moved to the coldbox in the corner, where they kept items for quick meals. He took out a small pitcher and poured milk into the bowl he’d reserved for the household’s brownies. He had learned of the English’s magical faeries in a book he’d found in the library. It had comforted him to discover that this soot-grey city, in some small way, echoed the magic of his far-off homeland. Being conversant with tales of the fickle, and at times, malevolent ways of magical creatures, even foreign ones, Ali made certain to ensure these were kept happy.
As he placed the saucer just outside the workshop door Ali sensed Babbage’s usual disapproval. He grinned up at his teacher, knowing the complaint. After three years of this ritual, it no longer needed to be voiced—science versus poppycock and ignorant, savage superstition. Yet his teacher never stayed Ali’s hand, his tolerance good-natured though his manner remained gruff. Ali had to admit he had yet to see a being that resembled the images from the book, but set out his saucer all the same. Faith required belief, not proof.
His task complete, Ali rolled up his sleeves in preparation for work. His gaze went to the roof, constructed from sheets of clear glass. The rain tapped against them in a steady patter. Soft light bathed the chamber, but the hour grew late. They would need lanterns to see their work.
Ali sighed, not overly fond of the paraffin lanterns. He missed the fragrant lamp oils of his homeland. The English paraffin stank and smoked. Straightening his shoulders and shrugging off his distaste, he circled the room, using lucifer matches to light the many lanterns until the workspace fairly glowed. Once the task was complete, he joined his teacher at the workbench where Babbage had already opened the package of custom-made tools Ali had been sent to collect. They were truly things of beauty, not just tools for efficiency. Wood handles, with cold steel working parts—a mainspring tightener, a brand-new indicator, a set of collets, indexible turrets, and an oddly shaped ratchet. Ali recognized Babbage’s own designs among the more standard implements. While many were familiar, several were not. He would no doubt learn the purpose of the others as they proceeded.
They worked for hours, constructing first paper, then wooden templates from Babbage’s notes and assembling them, working out the calculations precisely. That was where Ali excelled, in the implementation of Babbage’s designs. Taking something from the theoretical and making it real. Ali felt a small bubble of pride as they tested elements of the machine. He longed to take up the new tools and construct the whole of this difference engine, but that was forbidden him for now, though an entire clean-room remained sealed at the back of the workshop, eternally waiting for the master’s grand invention. Even dust was not allowed entry.
In his secret thoughts, Ali feared his teacher would never venture forward, would never take the steps to realize his dream, his spirit broken by an earlier failure many years before, the specifics of which were never discussed. Nevertheless, Ali sought to become a master artificer. There was yet much for him to learn of theory, mathematics, and engineering through the smaller efforts completed under his teacher’s tutelage.
This is what Ali’s father wanted for him. The skill of the artificer, the knowledge of the scholar, the vision of the inventor; tools with which he could build a future outside of the family business that would be his brother’s inheritance. As the younger son, it was necessary that Ali seek his own destiny. On his own, Ali would have become little more than a machinist or tinkerer. Blessed with this opportunity to work with Ustad Babbage, Ali had the chance to achieve the dream his father held for him, which, in his heart of hearts, Ali wished for himself.
Content, he settled into his work, pausing only for his evening prayers. Other than Babbage’s instructions, neither of them spoke. Just as well, Ali found it hard to breathe, let alone talk; the fumes from the lamps and their work made the air heavy. The third time Ali strangled a cough, Babbage ordered him to open the “damnable” window. The air outside was scarcely any better, but at least the evening breeze and the damp from the recent rain freshened the stifling room and cooled Ali’s brow.
After several hours, they stopped for a bit of bread and tea, Ali preparing a blend his father regularly sent him from his far desert country. Happily, Ali’s teacher was quite taken with the full-bodied flavor of Indian First Leaf and so the evening break was a time of comfort and peace in their day. To make it doubly pleasurable, during that time, Ali had the opportunity to ask questions about the mathematics and philosophies that formed the foundation of the work they were doing. Babbage spoke broadly about the theoretical underpinnings that every artificer needed to know. Time flew quickly and soon they returned to the workbench, ready to toil well into the night.
Before they could take up their tools, something clattered on the windowsill. As one, Ali and Babbage turned to behold a fantastic sight. Perched upon the sill was what appeared to be a falcon. Not one of the small English kestrels. This creature rivaled those of Ali’s desert home.
Head tilting for a better view, Ali stepped forward. The movement took him out of the path of the light, allowing the warm glow of the lamps to fall full upon the form in the open window. Gem-bright eyes flashed at him from a sculpted avian face. Drawing a sharp breath, Ali stopped still.
“How extraordinary,” Babbage murmured softly. Silently, Ali agreed.
Other than its form, this bird had no foundation in nature. Both “feathers” and “flesh” seemed purely mechanical, finely wrought from the most delicate of clockwork and hammered metal. Ali noticed a series of gears beneath the wings. They moved both seamlessly and silently. Feathers of fitted bronze, copper, and tin in their natural colors, undimmed, fluttered flat against its back with faint clicks. Ali longed to examine the inner workings.
Both he and Babbage stepped closer. But as a shape moves, so does its shadow; their own reached out to the marvel before them. The construct gave a sudden cry at their motion and hunched upon its clawed feet, wings sweeping out and upward until they stretched wide into the room.
“Allah, protect me!” Well aware of the damage that could be delivered by claw and beak from hunting falcons, Ali ducked, using his arms to protect his head, expecting to be attacked. Beside him, his teacher swore and picked up the heavy lever from a pullback motor. But the bird did not strike.
Ali peered past his arms, watching as the falcon launched skyward, disappearing into the night, further establishing its unnatural state. The sill bore deep gouges in the wood and an ornate bronze puzzle box remained where the falcon had lit.
The air grew still as neither of them moved. A frown puckered Ali’s brow as he turned his gaze to his teacher. Babbage merely stood there, rigid, his features pale. He gripped the lever so tightly that his hand shook. The man swallowed hard, as if forcing something bitter past his throat.
“Fetch it, lad.” Despite his lack of tone, the words were the words foreboding.
Ali’s jaw tensed at the diminutive form of address used by the older man. In light of the earlier encounter on the street, he had to remind himself that in this there was no malice. Ustad Babbage had the habit of calling any man younger than he, ‘lad.’
Ali moved forward, careful step by careful step, though the raptor had already flown away. For a moment, he thought he saw something move in the darkness beyond the window, but could not be certain. Recalling the bird’s razor-like claws, Ali’s hands clenched into fists. He shook them loose, then reached for the box with one hand as he closed the window with the other. Turning toward the nearest lamp, he brought up his right hand to trace the engraving: his name, scribed in his own language, with a flourish that seemed familiar. Surrounding his name, intricate scrollwork ran from the edges of the top of the box, down each side. His vision blurred as he stared down at the marks, as if the design rejected his gaze. Ali shook off such foolishness. Surely the oily lamp fumes had addled his thoughts.
“Ustad Babbage…?” Ali didn’t understand the significance of the box but perhaps his teacher would. After all, the mechanical beast had come to his home, left the box on his sill. All Ali had done was retrieve it. The lighting dimmed, or perhaps just his vision, and the room swayed.
Babbage’s eyes dropped to the box and then lifted back to Ali before sliding away, avoiding Ali’s questioning gaze. His lips drew down at the corners. “I would say we are done for the evening, lad. Go on to bed.”
Ali held out the puzzle box.
“Take it with you. It is clear whom it is meant for.”
“But…this…” Ali fumbled over the English words. His mind raced and he couldn’t translate his jumbled thoughts and emotions quickly.
Babbage met Ali’s gaze and held it. “It is your name on the box. And no creature, neither mechanical, nor natural, could have found this place, could have found you by accident. Do you understand Ali bin-Massoud?” It was the first time Babbage had used his full name.
Before Ali could inquire further, Babbage turned away, discouraging any further conversation as he set about tidying the workbench and extinguishing the lamps. “Goodnight, Ali.”
Bowing once more, though his teacher did not see, Ali left the workshop, noting in passing that his offering of milk had been consumed. Any other night he would have searched the foliage for the brownies. Tonight, remembering the flutter of movement he saw out the window, Ali hurried back to the house.
The story continues in Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn