The Lilac Shawl by Esther Byrne

I remember the first time I went to the marketplace, I was entranced by its pervasive aroma of spices, which drew me in like a warm summer breeze. Ever since then, it had lost none of its magic and power to entice. It was a labyrinth of industry, and I wanted to know its secrets. 

My favourite place was the fabric stall, piled high with beautiful cloths, shawls and scarves, in the most decadent patterns imaginable. My eye was always drawn to one glorious tower of delights in the corner, made up of many shades of my favourite colour. Lavender, violet, indigo, mauve and blackberry wine; shimmering in the noon-day sun. All beckoning me to reach out and touch their silken sheen. I would cautiously feel the buttery fabric, my heart sinking as I knew that the idea of owning it was only a dream. 

One particular day however, as I stood admiring the latest additions, the stall holder seemed to be in a strange mood. More than strange in fact, as though she had forgotten who I was. She approached from behind, and thrust one of the shawls in my face. ‘Would you like this?’ she asked, her eyes popping out on stalks. 

My mouth went dry. ‘Of course I would. It’s beautiful.’ 

She bounced a little on the spot. ‘Then, it’s yours! Take it!’ 

I hastily caught the shawl as it was flung in my direction. ‘What do you mean? I haven’t got the money!’ 

‘It’s a gift!’ 

I gaped at her. ‘Why on earth would you give me something for free?’ 

‘Because I want to!’ She practically danced. ‘Take the shawl, make a wish and then see what wonderful things come of it.’ She winked and walked away, leaving me nonplussed and a little frightened. What did she mean? I hesitated, imagining security guards arresting me for leaving with stolen goods. I stepped forward into her eye-line. She was humming and swishing her own shawl of periwinkle blue. She saw me looking uneasy and said again, ‘take it! It’s yours!’ 

She waved her hand to dismiss me, her mouth twisted into the largest smile I had ever seen. I draped the shawl around my shoulders, breathing in its intoxicating scent of mahogany and warm spices. It smelt and felt expensive, and I could almost hear the sound of jangling coins as it wrapped me in a comforting embrace. My heart pounded as I walked home, sure that at any moment the dream would die and the shawl would be snatched from my bereft hands. 

I arrived home and breathed a sigh of relief. I sat down to examine the shawl, grateful that I lived alone and would not yet have to explain my new acquisition to anyone. I wanted to savour the moment, and enjoy my own good fortune. I drank it in, entranced by the meticulous mulberry stitching. There were subtle embellishments of gold, which sent a dangerous thrill through my fingertips as I caressed the tiny stitches.

I wrapped myself in it again, and decided to make my first wish. I thought hard; what did I want most? I shook my head; surely this was ridiculous? 

I closed my eyes and thought of the man I loved. I imagined the two of us, building a happy home. Was such a thing possible? I said out loud, ‘I want John to love me’. I opened my eyes. Nothing happened. I sighed and sat down. 

An hour later there was a hammering at my door. I drew the shawl closer around me and answered the call. John burst through in a haze of nervous energy. ‘Meera,’ he said, his breathing shallow and ragged, ‘I can’t go on like this. I have to say something before I go insane.’ 

‘What do you mean?’ 

‘I love you.’ 

It slipped out unhesitatingly and without a hint of irony. I stared. ‘Really?’ 

‘Yes, there’s no one else for me.’ He threw his arms around me. ‘I want us to be together, to build a home.’ 

I froze. How did his words so exactly reflect my wish? I could hardly credit it; my wish had come true! I hugged him back, and told myself to be happy. This had been what I wanted. 

John was true to his words ever after. He lavished affection on me, and in time we bought a house together. I was content, but there was always a slight pang at the back of my mind. Was all this because of a shawl? 

I started wishing for more things; whatever my heart, or my mind, desired. The shawl became heavy, but I trusted its power, its beauty never diminishing in my eyes. My wishes grew bigger; I was unstoppable. I hardly visited the market, which was rarely in my thoughts, until one day John brought it screaming back to me. 

He showed me an article in the newspaper about the fabric stall holder. She had been found strangled; a blue shawl wound tightly around her neck. My eyes filled with tears and I flushed hot and cold all over. I drew my shawl around me, and flinched at how heavy it had become. 

It dawned on me, like a scream interrupting a long silence. Her shawl had killed her, and mine had the same designs. There was nothing else to do. I ran into the garden, ignoring John’s cries. I thrust the shawl into a bucket, fighting its aggressive hold on me. My shaky hands struggled to light the match, and I cried for forgiveness as I flung it into the bucket and watched the fire engulf my most treasured possession. It disintegrated in seconds; and I wept, ravaged with grief. I felt the smoke on my face, and sensed hollow emptiness behind me. 

I turned slowly, hardly daring to look.

I was back in my old house. Back before John, back before it all. The shawl was gone. Everything was gone. 

I was alone.

Published in Issue #15

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