The Enchantress

By Mozhgan Mahjoob

People gathered outside the house and everyone covered their mouths and noses against the foul smell that came from the house. Soon the police car arrived and a police officer got out and walked to the door. The young detective asked the men to let them go inside the house and as they entered they saw a man’s dead body lying in the courtyard. The mosquitoes, bees, and ants were all around him. The irritating smell was much stronger and people were shocked. Dried blood stained the courtyard tiles and some police officers looked around inside the house. The man’s body and face were almost destroyed. A young detective, Junaid, asked the people who’d come into the courtyard if they knew him.

“He was mad,” said a man.

“No, he wasn’t mad,” said a young girl among the crowd. Her face was covered and she wore a black veil.

Then the detective asked the girl, “What is your name and how do you know the dead man?”

“My name is Darya Saani.” She replied, “I live in his neighborhood. I called the police station because there was a very bad smell coming from his house, and for a week he’d not come out. I knocked on the door but no one opened it. I thought perhaps something had happened to him.”

“What was his name and what did he do? Does he have a family or relatives here?” Junaid asked.

“His name was Arsalan and he was from Jalalabad province. He lived alone here and he did not talk to anyone except himself. When he was out he talked to himself, and because of this, and his long hair and beard, he was known as ‘the mad man.’ He had no relatives or friends here and most days he didn’t come out of his house. Kids used to throw stones at him. Once I helped him and asked the kids and the young boys to stop throwing stones and teasing him, because he didn’t harm anyone. No one came or went from his house, or I personally did not see anyone.” Darya replied.

Junaid asked, “did he have any enmity with someone, or did he fight with anyone recently?”

“No, he didn’t hurt anyone, even though people hurt him. He would simply not react. I don’t know who would kill such an innocent man. Maybe he committed suicide? But I’m not sure.” Darya pointed to the body. “You see how he has fallen down. I don’t know if it is a suicide or a murder.”

“We will investigate it from both aspects,” Junaid said. “And we’ll figure it out.” Then he wrote down Darya’s contact number and address, and he asked the neighbors to leave the crime scene so that the police could start their investigation.

It was a one-story building, though it seemed higher off the ground. Junaid looked at the decomposing body. The face was hard to look at. There was dried blood around his head. Junaid took photos of the body and the area around it, then asked another police officer to call the morgue and carry the dead body away. The front door was locked from inside, but the police opened it and entered the hall. Inside there was a table covered with a cloth and a pan that had some old cooked eggs with tomatoes, two old loaves of bread, and two glasses of water, mostly evaporated. If he lived alone then why were there two glasses? Junaid thought. Perhaps there had been someone else with him? There was another room on the right side of the hall and a kitchen. There were stairs going to the roof and down to the basement.

Junaid went inside the second room. There was a bed and a table, and as he looked to the right of the bed he saw a painting of a very beautiful young woman hanging on the wall.

She had the most beautiful, sizzling black eyes with long black eyelashes, red smiling lips, and white skin. Her black hair fell like a waterfall around her neck and arms. She wore a silky pink and blue handmade dress with a pink ruby and turquoise stones on a headband, and a necklace made of emerald and lazuli stones. She sat in a garden full of red roses.

Other police came into the room and stood behind him, but Junaid didn’t notice them. The painting’s beauty and liveliness commanded his attention, and for a while Junaid and the other police officers gazed at it, speechless. The painting seemed to be alive and breathing. As they looked on the table under the painting they found a letter. Junaid opened it and he read it out loud:

To whoever finds this,

My name is Arsalan and people call me the madman. I was a painter and I lived alone for years. I always looked for a lonely place in which I could focus and paint what I had in my mind. For that reason, I left my province and came to Kabul. After selling our old house I bought this building and moved in here.

My parents were dead and my brothers and sisters were all already married, but I was single and I lived alone. My brothers and sisters encouraged me to get married, but I never found my soulmate. When I came here, the family who’d lived in the building before me were gone. I cleaned everywhere inside the building, and I bought new carpets, dishes, and kitchen materials, and a table and bed for my bedroom. I cleaned the basement, too, and here I found a lockbox. I opened the lock and inside the box I saw something wrapped in black leather.

It was a well-preserved painting of the most beautiful girl on the earth, a rarer beauty than I had ever seen in my life. As a painter I had painted many faces but here was a face that I couldn’t even imagine, let alone paint. What a beauty! What magical eyes! I hung it on the wall beside my bed. She attracted me. I had never fallen in love and none of the beautiful girls or women in life could ever conquer my heart. But she did, in one glance. Her eyes set my heart on fire. I sat or lay on my bed for days and nights, only wanting to look at her beauty. Gazing at her pink and blue dress, I could fly into the sunset sky. Her smile was like the chilled red wine in a crystal goblet and she enchanted me with her lips. I only wanted to look at her, live with her and be with her with all my heart.

The world faded away. I had nothing if she was not with me physically, and I lived with her painting every moment of the day. I could look at her the whole night, lying awake. I slept, dreaming of her, and each day began with opening my eyes to see her beautiful face again. She was my moon in the dark night. Who was she? Who captured her beauty in that painting? I did not know. All I knew was that she became a part of me, a piece of my heart, and I had fallen in love with her deeply. My mind repeated to me that I love her, I love her, I love her, from time to time that I love her a lot, and my heart rose and fell for her. I was like a butterfly, ready to burn in the fire of her love and turn to ash.

Time passed and I became more dependent on her. The unique perfume of her long hair always filled the room. It seemed that my room was always filled with the fragrance of a thousand violets and millions of cherry blossoms. In her love, I had lost not just my life but even myself.

Lost in her love, I was lost in madness. Yes, I madly loved her, and I wanted her to be with me. Until one night, suddenly she walked out of that painting with her beautiful smile and she sat next to me and took my hands. I asked her, ‘Are you real? Do you exist?’

She replied, “of course I do, but only for you, since no one has ever loved me as you do.” She said her name was Roxana. You cannot believe how happy I was. It seemed that I could now touch the moon.

That night I knew that she loved me too. My days had a lovely sunrise and the sunset was more colorful than any other before. I loved her dance moves in the silence of the wheat fields, and among the flowers of the green gardens—under starlight. I loved the spring breeze that brought me her glorious perfume which was more pleasing and unforgettable than purple jasmine. She was like a piece of light, under her sunset color—the red scarf.

Her eyes had brightened my life and her hands gave warmth and happiness to my cold and dull days. I did nothing but sit and paint with her all day. I could cook with her, walk with her and talk to her, and capture all our beautiful moments by painting them. I put all of my paintings in the basement room and covered them so that no one else could see her. People would think that I was mad because for them she was invisible. She did not show herself to them because she didn’t trust them. When I walked out of the house with her the children threw stones at me, until I stopped going out because I did not want them to hurt her. I trusted no one except Roxana—my jasmine flower.

One day Roxana went back into her rose garden, inside the painting. I waited for her to return to me, but she didn’t. I could not sleep and I asked, ‘please come back again,’ but she would not. I thought I’d lost her forever, and I wanted to be with her at any cost. I even wished to go inside the painting, to live with her forever. I wished love could make a rainbow bridge to carry me into the painting. I cried and asked her every day and every night to come back to my life, or else take me with her when she returned.

I told her, “I want to be with you forever.”

She said, “that’s impossible, don’t even think of it.”

I asked “why?”

She said, “we are like the sky and the earth.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Do you really want to be with me?”

“Of course, I do. Please take me with you and let’s live happily together forever.”

“For that you must come out of your body. Unlike your body, your soul is free. It can go with me,” Roxana said.

“I am ready,” I replied.

She took my hand and we went to the roof of this building. In the depth of darkness only with starlight, I saw her bright smiling face and suddenly she jumped down and said to me, “jump too!”

I went onto the roof and saw the ground. I was so scared of heights. I felt dizzy and I could not jump, and when I backed away she laughed at me and said, “didn’t I tell you that you can’t do it? If you really wanted to be with me you would have jumped.”

I was ashamed, thinking myself a coward. After that she stopped talking to me and stayed inside her garden in the painting. I asked her to please come back but she didn’t. Those several days of silence felt like several centuries, as I waited for her but she did not come back. I knew I would die if I didn’t live with her again. So, I told her, “I am ready to accept whatever you say. I am ready to jump from the roof or anywhere so that I can join you.”

No, do not judge me! Do not think of me as mad! I am not mad. Roxana exists in my world, in my paintings. Even if no one else believes that she and I live together now, we are true lovers because our lives are meaningless without each other. Together in love we live forever. If love is insanity then you can call me mad. I am ready to end my life for it…

Junaid became silent and stared at the painting. One of the police officers said, “this letter proves his madness, and it’s a clear case of suicide.”

Junaid said, “No. No man could write such a letter if he was mad. He was a lover, not a mad man. Only a lover can sacrifice his life for an imaginary beloved who exists only in this painting.” Another police officer rushed into the room and said, “Mr. Junaid, you must see the basement.” They went down the stairs and opened the iron door. There were many paintings, all of them covered with white cloth.

The police officers removed the white cloth from each painting and could not believe what they saw. These were paintings of Roxana and Arsalan. Roxana wearing red, blue, purple and green dresses, sitting and drinking tea inside Arsalan’s house, or walking with him outside, in the market, in colorful, green gardens and wheat fields, and on the roof of the building. On the floor, beside the last painting in the basement, they saw paint brushes and dry paints, buckets of red, green and blue, now solid and brittle.

Junaid took the white cloth off the last painting and he saw that both Arsalan and Roxana were sitting in the garden of red roses, exactly where Roxana sat in the painting that hung beside the bed. They looked out, smiling together. They both seemed alive inside the last painting.

“Was Roxana really an imaginary beloved in a painting, or was she real?” Asked one of the police officers. “Is Arsalan a mad man, and a suicide, or was there a crime committed here?”

“We need to find out,” Junaid replied, and told them to bring all the paintings to his office, as evidence. Then they sealed the building and went to the police station.

Junaid was an intelligent and brave detective who had solved many serious cases, including murders. But he was baffled by Arsalan’s paintings and the letter that everyone called “the suicide letter.” Junaid quietly reviewed the facts: the door of the building had been closed from inside, so there was no way that someone could have entered the house, killed Arsalan, dragged his body out, and then closed the door from inside without being stuck in there. Going to the roof and jumping would be the only way out, and jumping from the roof would have killed them. He concluded that Arsalan committed suicide. But how could his beloved Roxana really have existed inside the painting? Junaid’s heart was caught in this mystery. He wanted to investigate Arsalan’s story until he could figure it out.

Alone in the evidence room, Junaid hung the painting of Roxana in the rose garden on the wall, and he stared at it, drinking his cup of black coffee. The sparkle in her eyes and the intoxication in her smile could capture any man’s heart, and it took him to the sky. He saw the moon reflected in her face.

Junaid stepped closer to the painting and thought, who are you? What is the secret behind your painting… and soon he smelled a mild scent, a unique fragrance, the red roses in the painting seemed to begin rolling slowly. Astonished, Junaid stepped back and he heard a melodic voice, unlike any melody in life. Her whisper billowed like a fragrance inside his heart and in his mind, an enchantress— whose beauty is bitter— leaving her is impossible and achieving her is rare. From now on, only I rule your heart and mind, soon I will prevail on your soul.

28 March, 2023