by Dawn Taggett-Burton
Format: Short Story
Dear Sleuth Readers: The following content is an excerpt from a letter currently on display in the National Museum of Tourism and Immigration. Carbon dating and ink analysis places the letter’s age between 200 and 300 years old.
Hesitant, we step out of the taxi onto the paved street, still crowded with cars, carriages, and donkey carts at 11:00 pm. The carts are stuffed with enormous rolls of tapestries – perhaps carpets, although only their size and shape hint at their identity.
Behind the taxi, the clip-clop of iron-lined hooves alerts us to the horse-drawn carriages approaching to the left. Smiling tourists spill out of the carriages and disappear into the night, avoiding the mounds of droppings deposited by their transportation.
There is a tree-high wall to our right with a truck-sized gape in its middle, ready to swallow those who pass through. There are no illuminated signs, slotted parking spots, or bellmen. It’s obvious that we are not in front of our hotel. We walk to the front passenger’s side of the car and glare at our driver who is still seated in the taxi. Our expressions betray us, exposing the utter terror hidden beneath the adventurers’ masks we donned at Malaga Airport before we boarded the prop plane that carried us across the Mediterranean Sea. He shrugs his shoulders, gives a nod that is neither convincing nor reassuring, and rolls down the front passenger’s window. “Well okay, this is your stop, and now you go with him.” He looks in the direction of a slight, toffee-colored teenager with wavy black hair. “His name is Hakim. He’ll take you now.”
The thin teenager is smiling wide. Too wide. He nods his head and says, “Yes,” with a gleam in his eyes that is inexplicably discomfiting.
Outside the taxi, to the north, the street is lined with copper lanterns atop tall poles. Ornate and beautiful with their green patina, they illuminate the heavily dung-spotted asphalt. To the left is a wide boulevard with shops, restaurants, mosques, and minarets that stretch high enough to reach the gods.
Some people gather in small groups, engaging in spirited conversation as they sit atop a short wall. Others amble along the lively boulevard, peeking into darkened windows and snapping selfies in front of landmarks no one but they themselves will recognize in the too-dark background.
To the right is an ancient, partially crumbled arch where two halves of the equally ancient wall meet to hide what lies within from what dwells without. Through the arch are narrow, sand-covered alleys cloaked in black, much like a hijab, allowing only a sliver of light to reveal some of their features.
Several young men pace the dirt sidewalk, each looking in our direction; they appear to be waiting for something, but we don’t know what that ‘something’ is.
Outside the taxi, we decide to wait behind the trunk. A week prior, I read a story about thieves who remove the contents of a car’s trunk while the rightful owners sit unaware inside. I convince Lawrence to humor my paranoia while we figure out why our driver has delivered us somewhere other than our hotel and is now asking us to get out and go with someone we don’t know.
As we stand like sentries looking for potential miscreants, our driver exits the taxi and walks over to Hakim, the young man he selected to be our guide. The two exchange words we can’t understand before our driver waves for us to come over. We look at each other.
“Okay, I guess he really isn’t going any further,” I say to Lawrence.
Lawrence glares at me with a rigid scowl. “This is the place you picked?”
I ignore the insinuation as I gather the papers with the hotel confirmation and remove my heavy handbag from inside the taxi. Our driver joins us at the trunk and helps remove our bulky rolling luggage and Lawrence’s duffel bag.
We roll our bags to the right of the teenager, stop, and peer through the giant arch. Through it, light from the crescent moon reflects along the walls of the narrow paths, creating monsters out of men as enormous, distorted shadows march along the dusty roads. The high, unyielding walls framing the narrow paths greedily absorb the moonlight, leaving everything in the dark except the frightening images it chooses to display.
We both kick pebbles across the sand and fiddle with the loose change in our pockets as the taxi driver continues speaking with the teenager.
Lawrence looks around. The teenager is facing him.
“Obama – okay you come,” he says again.
We choose to stay.
“Come on, brother, you must trust.”
We don’t. Lawrence’s eyes narrow into slits as his nostrils flare. “Why the hell is this fool calling me Obama? I don’t look anything like him other than the color of my skin.”
I nod in agreement. “Just ignore him. It’s not worth it.”
The taxi driver removes our coats from the trunk. The annoying teenager grabs the larger of the four bags and walks at a brisk – albeit labored – pace under the arch and across the dark path, its smooth walls too tall to climb in an escape and its turns too numerous to memorize.
I grab Lawrence’s wrist and mouth, Don’t let him take our bags.
Lawrence looks toward the taxi driver, who is already walking back to his cab.
The taxi driver meets Lawrence’s gaze and says, “Go on. Go with him. It’s okay.”
Lawrence shifts his gaze back at me; our expressions reflect each other’s fears.
Eventually, we both suck in deep breaths, shrug our shoulders, and say, “Well, okay.” Our synchronicity is a testament to our decades spent together.
Our driver turns the key in the ignition, and a plume of dark gray smoke fills the air. We hold our breaths, both to avoid sucking any more exhaust into our lungs and to brace ourselves as we take our tentative first steps into the darkness.
“Obama, this way,” the teenager says as he leads us through the first of many dark alleys.
Lawrence’s eyes burn a hole in the back of the boy’s head. I start to worry that angry words will soon follow, but they don’t. Lawrence shakes his head as we hurry to match the boy’s pace.
Two unchaperoned Americans cross our path. They are laughing and smiling, barely taking notice of our presence. Without regard to the lateness of the hour, they loudly recount the thrills of their day. We relax our shoulders with the familiar presence of other tourists – they are a gift sent our way just as our need for reassurance sends the colony of butterflies in our guts into a frenzied flurry.
The alleyway seems brighter somehow; maybe our eyes have already adjusted to the nearly nonexistent light, or perhaps the tourists lifted a veil. Either way, we let our guard down and begin to exhale the diesel-soaked breaths still trapped in our lungs. That is, until we make a right turn as the other Americans turn left.
From there, we venture into a series of alleyways even more narrow than those preceding them. We turn right, moving through a passageway just wide enough for our bags. We then turn left, go around a circle, turn right, then left again.
Sweat flows down my forehead and stings my eyes. I raise my arm, weighed down by my heavy bag, and use my shirtsleeve to wipe the sweat as my shoes immerse into a half foot of water.
“Watch out for the puddle,” the boy says once Lawrence and I are already in it.
“Thanks for the warning,” Lawrence replies and we both shake our heads.
Seconds later, our bodies pass through warm air, thick with the scent of wet sand. The origin of the water is still undetermined, but now there are puddles everywhere. We maneuver our bags around the puddles as foul water squeezes out of our shoes with each brisk step.
Within moments, we enter a beige stone tunnel and are once again thrust into total darkness. The sounds of our heavy breathing echo off the walls. I feel my left arm brush against the gritty surface and decide to use it to guide me out, as if it were braille.
As we exit the tunnel, we’re blasted by wind carrying the scent of sulfur. White smoke wafts through quarter-sized holes in a nearby sewer cap. Ten minutes into the labyrinth and we already reek of the dirt and foul air that has forced its way out of the sewer. Our skin is coated in fine tawny grains that cling to our lips and occasionally settle into our mouths. I feel gross.
A light flashes in our eyes. It is from the teenager’s overly whitened smile as he attempts to reassure us. “It’s alright, just trust. You will never find this without me.”
Again we respond, “Well, okay.”
We acknowledge that, on some level, he is right; we will never find our way through the maze on our own, especially in the dark. Even though he is right, everyone and everything else feels so wrong.
The sandy passages give way to a brick road, uneven and bumpy. I struggle to drag my heavy suitcase as we continue to move at a dizzying pace. Lawrence hoists the strap of his duffle bag onto his shoulder and squeezes my hand. I do the same with my handbag and squeeze his hand even harder. He does not look my way. I am certain that the look plastered on my face, now beginning to crack my sand mask, would be too much for him to bear when he already anticipates the worst to occur at any moment.
Beaten, stabbed, kidnapped, raped, murdered … which will be on the evening’s menu? We’re not sure of the labyrinth’s daily special, only that there is one meant just for us – American tourists who don’t speak Arabic beyond ‘Shokran’. Thank you for killing us so early in our vacation. We were hoping to get some good pictures first, but whatever.
The unknown lies hidden behind every bend, every twist of the seemingly endless brick-paved labyrinth, threatening to spring into view when we least expect it.
“Watch your step,” our guide says as he navigates us around a pit of crumbled red brick in the middle of a puddle. It resembles a freshly picked and weeping wound on the road’s tawny skin.
My heart races as I look at Lawrence and he finally looks at me. Our eyes plead with one another for forgiveness. Whose dumb idea was this anyway? Oh yeah, mine. Then again, we had both said, “Well, okay,” so I won’t carry all the blame.
My shoulder is on the verge of dislocating as my legs quiver with each step and tired, labored breath.
The young man says “Look! The shops are straight down that street, and then you will make a right turn for your hotel. It is very close, you’ll see.”
“Okay,” I say for what seems like the hundredth time. I look at Lawrence and whisper, “He told us only three minutes.”
The teenager turns, flashes that beautiful, white-toothed smile and says, “I told you five.”
I know it has already been at least twenty, but when I try to explain that I was talking about the cab driver, Hakim speeds up without acknowledging that I’m speaking to him, so I give up.
After a minute, he says, “Come on, let’s go.”
“Okay,” I say.
We wind our way around a few more alleys feeling as if the walls are closing in on us. There is no sound but that of our bags rolling on the uneven and, at times, crumbling bricks, along with our synchronized heartbeats, each seeming to mimic a bass drum.
“See, there are many nice riads here,” he says as he points to the ancient ornate doors that occasionally interrupt the medina’s high walls.
“You have two doors,” he says, “A little door when you don’t like the person on the other side, and a big door when you want to give a big welcome for a friend.”
We laugh. He points out Riad Nefriti, Riad Honorio, and then Riad Lotus.
“We’re here,” he says as we approach a door at the end of the alley.
We reach the end of the road and I drop my bag heavily onto the brick-covered ground. There is a small lantern casting a dim amber light across a bronze buzzer to the right of the door. The teenager presses it once, and we wait.
He presses it three more times in rapid succession before a voice on the other end says “Okay! Wait, please!”
Several moments pass before another slight and more diminutive, toffee-colored man appears on the other side of the door.
“Salaam,” he says, followed by a string of words we don’t understand but, thankfully, are addressed to our smiling waif. Finally, we hear, “Come in. My name is Mustafah.”
Relief, gratitude, and fatigue from managing so many emotions while moving at a frenzied pace all come together in a flood of sweat that drips on the threshold of the entranceway. “Okay,” we say, knowing that this time we really mean it and are more than happy to comply.
Mustafah pulls our bags inside as we turn to face the still smiling teenager.
A freshly renewed gleam returns to his eyes, and he proceeds to say, “So, I hope that I have given good assistance to you.” We finally understand. We ask Mustafah what is a fair amount to give. He shrugs his shoulders. Lawrence extends his hand with 40 dinar.
“That’s not enough!” the waif yells. “How about 100 dinar?” Lawrence argues the amount and questions Mustafah, hoping for some guidance or rescue, but neither is offered. The slight man will not leave.
“Just give him 20 dinar more,” I say.
Lawrence and the waif stare each other down. Neither is blinking or moving. Eventually, Lawrence lets out a heavy sigh as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out 25 dinar. The waif’s mouth contorts into a deep frown. He glares at us both, snatches the bills, then stomps out of the doorway.
Mustafah locks the door behind us and motions for us to leave our bags. We comply. We are led deeper into the beautiful riad. Bronze lamps with colorful glass decorate the ceiling. Opulent tapestries hang on the walls, dividing large spaces into smaller ones. Luxurious dark wood furniture decorates the rooms. I take a mental picture of the items I will look for in the nearby souqs.
I notice that Mustafah is in his pajamas. Crusty heels poke out behind his slippered feet. I think of my own feet and remember the stinky puddle that we stepped in earlier. We stamp the stone hallways with an imprint of our still-wet shoes as we are led into a room with a small desk. Behind the desk, numbered wooden slats hold large silver keys on gold hooks. There’s no way that I am going to carry one of those in my purse. Mustafah follows my eyes.
“These keys are for here. You will return them to us whenever you need to leave the riad and will pick them up when you return to your room.”
I sigh. What a hassle. Lawrence nods his head, as if reading my mind.
It is quiet in the small hotel. There is a courtyard at its center covered in deep fuchsia bougainvillea that vines along the mahogany pergola, window frames, and trellises. Window boxes are filled with purple violets and other purple plants I don’t recognize, but all fill the air with a sweet honey fragrance that competes with an unmistakable odor of incense.
Aside from the lanterns illuminating the courtyard and some light flickering inside the rooms – likely from the televisions – all other lights are out. Mustafah leads us into a large office and asks that we take a seat on a red upholstered sofa sitting low to the ground. My knees protest as we lower our bodies only inches from the floor.
“Welcome to the Riad Lotus,” Mustafah says as he displays a wide and sincere smile. “Did you have a good journey here?”
Lawrence and I look at each other and shrug our shoulders. “Well, it was okay,” we say together.
We exit the office and step into the vast, vine-covered courtyard. We look at each other, smile, and let our bodies slump with deep exhales.
“I’m glad we’re – ”
I don’t have a chance to finish my sentence before clawed fingers hook beneath our pits, jerking us into the dark sky and over the medina’s broken, glass-topped walls.
Dearest tourists, we hope you find this message that we have sacrificed so much to share with you. Save yourselves, and please send help before it’s too late.
Our investigations have found that the American couple described in this first-person narrative were reported missing in 2014. To this day, their remains have not been recovered. Over the centuries, numerous tourists have been reported missing following visits to the Marrakech medina. These many unexplained disappearances represent one of the most significant mysteries in the history of the Maghreb.
Dawn Taggett-Burton is an African American medical writer/analyst with a master’s degree in Public Health from San Diego State University. She resides with her husband on the edge of a San Diego canyon, is currently working on a blog of twisted stories from her travels, and recently completed her first novel. Through her writing, she hopes to expand the presence of diverse voices in literature.