A fairy-tale hidden in Oman: The tale of Noor.

I wrote this in my writing journal after a trip to the beautiful, mountainous region of Oman. If you ever get a chance to visit, I highly recommend it. It’s a beautiful part of the world & during the winter season, the mountain roads are engulfed with mist. It was a perfect setting for a tale…

The Tale of Noor.

The dreams always happened during a full moon. Noor’s dreams painted a world different to hers. A world where life existed beyond the mountain’s peaks. Noor would escape to this world, full of people and life whenever sleep came. But tonight, the moon was piercingly bright keeping her awake. Noor looked past her sleeping mother and out towards the moon’s spotlight on the forbidden part of the mountain. The lure of the moon’s beam carried her feet over her mother and out into the wilderness. She looked back at her home; a shelter built from stones and packed together with wet sand baked in the summer heat. The roof made of fallen palm leaves was woven together so tightly that it kept out both the sun and the occasional winter rains. Her mother’s body heaved and sighed in sleep, just inside the entry way.

Although Noor was deaf, her world was not silent. She could feel the rhythms of the seasons, she could feel the change in the air when a mountain leopard was close and the way the sea roared as it heaved and smashed onto the shoreline. Noor’s days were structured by the sun, her years by the seasons. From the scorching summer time where the ocean’s waves flattened under the heat to the cooler winters when the scent of the oryx hung in the air. The winter brought with it her only fear; the arrival of the mist. Without warning, the mist moved through between their valley in the mountains. Heavy and thick, it blocked her sight leaving her life reliant only on her sense of touch with her delicate finger tips. Her mother would sit close, but Noor could not see her. Her mother’s tales of what the mist brought with it danced between them twirling with the spirits and monsters from her childhood.

This evening, the winter mist had not yet come. The golden sands and fallen rocks from the mountain scattered amongst the desert roses with their pink-green stems and budding pink flowers. The trees, stunted, the same size as Noor, tangled up in their brown thorns and leafless barbs and twines. They flattened out at the top unable to resist the intense heat of the daytime sun. She tiptoed past the planted herb garden and the young date trees where her most beloved possessions filled the spaces. They had been either washed up from the sea or had fallen from the mountains. They came in different colours and felt different to touch; some cold and reflective, some smooth, cloudy and green. They collected water for her, so her mother let her keep them but to Noor they reminded her that there was once more to the world before it became just the two of them. She picked up some of the objects and saw another world, and in the reflective ones, she could see herself. Her hair as black as a starless night and her skin was the soft white of a pale winter moon. Her eyes reflected the sea in the winter, blue with a hint of darkness beneath its muddy surface.

She pulled herself up the mountain with ease. Cut off by the wild sea and towering peaks, the mountain ranges wrapped around the enclosure that was their world. As she climbed, she felt the padded sequence of a leopard’s footsteps coming towards her. She could feel the air move, the nostrils of the creature gaped and closed only a few feet away. Noor reached for a sharp arrow on her back and slid it silently into the bow. She crouched down steadying herself on the rock. But she paused. She sensed its trepidation. There was something uneasy about its footsteps. As she waited and watched, the leopard moved into the moonlight amongst the mist occasionally appearing in view. Behind the leopard, a cub balanced precariously on the rocks. Noor lowered her arrow. Just as she did, she felt the air slice past her cheek and an arrow pierced the heart of the leopard.

She swung her head around to see her mother crouched on the dark rocks with the bows string vibrating in her hand. ‘Your life or theirs,’ her mother mouthed. And as she stomped off to collect her kill, Noor’s fingers began to pulse. There was a new sound pulsating through the rocks. She climbed higher, pressing her fingers into the highest parts she could reach. It wasn’t the sound of the mist exhaling past her, it wasn’t the sound of the weather moving in, or animals breathing in the dark, or of snakes slinking into holes. It was something she recognised echoing in the far-reaching chambers of her brain. She climbed higher, passing the point she was supposed to stay within, disregarding it, reaching out for more of this feeling in her finger tips when suddenly a rock hit her leg. She turned around and saw her mother’s face half hidden in the moonlight, her mouth twitching and her eyes narrowed to a slit. Noor knew her mother’s expression meant only one thing. She left her hand behind, feeling the vibrations under her fingertips, desperate to hear more of the sound. But then her mother began to climb towards her. Noor didn’t want her to discover what she was listening to, so she dangerously slid down to the bottom of the mountain. Had her mother heard it? Noor knew there was many things she could sense that her had mother had missed before. She wasn’t deaf like her, but Noor’s other senses were as sharp as cactus needles whereas her mother’s senses had turned into the pulp inside them.

At the bottom of the mountain her mother looked at her like she was inspecting the intestines of her latest kill. Noor looked away and breathed slowly, wrapping herself up in the rags sewn together for blankets, feigning tiredness so she could escape into their stone shelter. She opened and closed her eyes onto the scene of her mother dragging the leopard’s body down towards the garden, so she could consume it. Noor was wondering if the meat would pad out the old woman’s bones that poked through her sagging skin. Noor glanced up to the mountain’s ridge. There, she could see the leopard’s cub. He stared, motionless, his eyes watching the scene below as Noor’s mother gutted and skinned his.

Noor was not left to sleep. Her mother dropped the leopard’s heart into a bubbling pot filled with herbs ripped from the garden. The smell of death and pungent roots wafted beneath her nose.


Noor shook her head.

‘Swallow. Swallow. Swallow!’ Her mother said it with such insistence that Noor expected to look up and see a bird of the same name somewhere in their home. Trapped. Noor pulled her head away and looked up to the sky. There was nothing but a stone roof. Her mother yanked her arm up to lift her body to a sitting position. Her old hands tipped Noor’s chin backwards and her fingers pinched her nose so hard, Noor yelped and in that moment with her mouth wide open, the hot broth was poured down her throat with such precision none of it escaped.

In her delirium Noor thought she heard her mother’s voice. Noor imagined it scraping her mother’s throat as it left her lips, hissing from her teeth that were as jagged as the mountains. The moon’s beam had shifted. The cub was lost, the forbidden mountain peaks out of range. With her boiling, hot blood pulsating through her veins, Noor made a promise to herself that she would discover what lay beyond. And just as she slipped out of consciousness, she realised what she had heard back on the mountain. The intonation. The pattern. The hum. It was something she had not heard except in her dreams. It was the voice of another human.

Noor could not be sure what day it was when she awoke. Judging by the sun’s position it was early enough in the morning that her mother would be at the shoreline dragging in the nets. She had some time to sneak into the garden and make the antidote. She must be quick. If her mother knew she discovered the secret to this one, she would mix up another potion. Noor looked behind her and crept into the garden. She pulled out the black root of the truffle plant, carefully pressing the remaining bulb into the soil so it looked undisturbed. She picked up a tool and smashed the root until it was small enough to eat. She stopped, looking behind to see if she could see her coming back. She couldn’t feel any other vibrations except the beating of her heart. She scooped up the roots and chewed the bitter black, tough stems until the dizzying nausea wore off. The sun inched higher signalling midday. In the winter season, the sun reached its peak by then and when it sank, the mist would rise in the cool air. The mist that left Noor blind. She shuddered at the thought and scurried back to the shelter. She wrapped herself in the corner and closed her eyes hoping her mother wouldn’t see inside her heart and discover her plan to escape back to the mountains as soon as night fell.

Now Noor was alert, the afternoon passed wearily. Her legs complained. Her mind buzzed like a thousand sand flies had taken residence in her skull. She opened her eyes on her mother, watching her like a stranger had suddenly invaded what she once felt of as home. Noor stayed awake until her mother eventually fell asleep a few hours before dawn. The mist was beginning to creep in. For a second she wondered what awaited her outside of the stone walls, in the mist and the evil whirling inside it. But as she focused, the moonlight glinted through the glassless window and provided her with light. The mist provided her with a shield. She crept to the base of the mountain and pulled herself up and up. She couldn’t see anything past the mist, except her hands on the rock face as she heaved her body upwards, but she could sense something watching her. Whatever it was, she wasn’t used to its sounds. Rocks rolling. Breathing. Heart beating. She was over half way now. She felt it closer. Closer. She glanced around, every sense heightened. Through waves in the mist she saw the old woman a few feet behind her clinging to the mountains. Long nails stabbed into the loose rock, old black fur shawls choked around the old woman’s neck blending her into the wilderness as if the mountain had given birth to a half-living thing.

Noor climbed faster and faster. She slipped. Her hand bled on the rocks. Her heart beat so loudly through her body that it made her head pound. Then she felt it again, calling her from beyond the mountains. Determined, so sure in her own soul that something lay beyond the peaks she wanted to use all her strength to reach the top. But instead of scrambling, Noor stopped. She listened to the sounds of the mountain. She saw the eyes of the leopard cub wide with fear crouching in a shelter a foot away from her hand. She reached behind her and pulled out a sharp arrow. She slid it silently into her bow. She turned around and fired. The arrow sliced through the air, piercing the heart of the old woman. Noor watched as she fell backwards, down into the mist.

Noor kept climbing until the sun had almost risen. She could see the horizon behind her, as the earth turned from black to navy. Flat earth rolled out beyond the mountain. It had been carved from the mountains and spiralled downwards. Noor ran down the cut path, imagining the giant’s hands that must have made such a carving. Animals with devil’s horns curling from their heads, looked at her with the black slits of their eyes.

Eventually, she reached a flat piece of earth that had square houses built upon it. Between them well-worn tracks and some of the objects she had seen from the mountain littered the floor. The vibrations were back again. They pulsed through her feet and led her to a dome topped building where tall, slender minarets towered either side of the dome sending the sound into the air for miles around. The voice from the speakers echoed into the cool, concrete floor. It was the call to prayer sounded out by the Imam in the mosque. She had heard his voice before. A long time ago. In its peaceful rhythm, she fell into an exhausted sleep.

When Noor opened her eyes, she saw a woman kneeling over her, whispering her name and holding her hand. The woman’s hair was as black as a starless night and her skin the soft white of a pale winter moon. Her eyes reflected the sea in the winter, dark with a hint of blue and droplets from the ocean fell from them.

The End, or perhaps the beginning…




Published by Shereen Malherbe

Shereen Malherbe is a writer & author. Her novel, Jasmine Falling has been voted as one of the top 20 Best Books by Muslim women. Her second contemporary fiction novel, The Tower, was published by Beacon Books on April 2019. Her first children's book, The Girl Who Slept Under The Moon is out now.

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