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from the November/December 2004 issue

Marked by the Moon: An Ancient Tale

Once upon a time, a long time ago—a very, very long time ago—in a corner of the world that was neither faraway nor near, there lived a girl whose name was Moon-Fairy. Moon-Fairy was kindhearted and helpful to everyone, but she carried a huge burden of sadness. She had no family or friends in the whole wide world. She was very lonely. She had been living with Bibi Khanom for as long as she could remember. Bibi Khanom had a daughter by the name of Golabetun, who was pretty but not kind. She made fun of everyone. Even though Moon-Fairy didn't have pretty clothes, even though her life wasn't easy and she had no family or friends, Golabetun was jealous of her.

Moon-Fairy had to do all the housework. She worked from the light of dawn to the dark of night. She swept the rooms, washed the clothes, cooked, sewed, and did many other jobs, big and small. Moon-Fairy was tired of all this work. Her little hands couldn't wash all those clothes and all those dishes. They couldn't sweep all the rooms. Sometimes her heart was heavy with loneliness. Then she would go to the back yard, sit under a tree, and cry. When she cried, butterflies fluttered around her and landed on her hair. Flowers bowed their heads and blew their perfume on her. If it was night, the stars twinkled for her till morning.

One day, like the day before and like days past, Moon-Fairy went to wash the dirty clothes for Bibi Khanom and Golabetun. Two wells were behind the house. One of the wells had been dry for a very long time, but the other well was full of water. Bucket by bucket Moon-Fairy fetched water and washed the clothes. Washing all those clothes was very hard for her. Her fingers hurt. Her back hurt. She still had a lot of clothes left to wash.

When she had washed all the clothes, she spread them on the line to dry. Then she sat in the shade of a tree to rest a little. Moon-Fairy didn't know how long she slept, but she woke startled by a loud noise. A terrible wind was blowing. A storm seemed to be coming. The trees shook and the fearsome noise grew louder. All at once, the wind carried off all the clothes that Moon-Fairy had washed. Moon-Fairy chased after the clothes to catch them. She ran this way and that to gather them all, and then she looked around. A few clothes had landed at the edge of the dry well. When she tried to pick them up, one dress fell into the well. Moon-Fairy was afraid. She cried out and said, "If Bibi Khanom finds out, I'll be in trouble. She'll scold me for sure. She might even throw me out of the house!"

That's why Moon-Fairy climbed slowly and carefully into the well. Come what may, she had to get the dress. She hadn't yet gone very deep when her foot slipped and she fell all the way down. When she came to her senses, she looked around. The colors of the earth, sky, trees, and flowers were different. They were more beautiful, brighter. She rubbed her eyes. She didn't know where she was. What's more, she didn't know where to go. Moon-Fairy set out to find Bibi Khanom's dress. On her way, she saw a cottage in the distance. Very quietly, she approached the cottage and knocked on the door. She heard a voice: "Whoever you are, wherever you've come from, come in. The door is open." Moon-Fairy opened the door and entered the cottage politely. Inside, the cottage was very crowded. Everything was jumbled together. In all the mess she couldn't see anyone. The same voice said, "I'm over here. Look, I'm sitting by the window."

Moon-Fairy turned her head and looked. She was afraid and moved back a little. An ogress was sitting by the window, smiling at Moon-Fairy. She said, "They call me Aunty Ghouly. What's your name?" Moon-Fairy took a good look at her. Aunty Ghouly had a beautiful smile. Her eyes were kind. They made her feel a little less scared. She went closer and said her name. At that moment she saw Bibi Khanom's dress in Aunty Ghouly's hand. Moon-Fairy smiled and said, "That's Bibi Khanom's dress. I've come to get it."

Aunty Ghouly hugged the dress tightly in her arms and said, "If you answer three questions for me, I'll give you your dress. I'll also show you the way home." Moon-Fairy laughed. She sat down beside Aunty Ghouly, placed a hand on her foot, and said, "Ask your questions, but don't make them too hard."

Aunty Ghouly gathered her thoughts and asked, "Let's see! Is my house prettier than Bibi Khanom's house?" Moon-Fairy looked around. Everything was a mess. Aunty Ghouly obviously hadn't cleaned or swept the room for years. Moon-Fairy shook her head and said, "It's a pity, but Bibi Khanom's house is cleaner than yours."

Aunty Ghouly became uneasy. She was on the verge of tears but Moon-Fairy said, "Get up! Get up and let's clean your room together." Very quickly she herself started working. First she opened the windows. Next she swept the room, dusted, put everything in its place, and washed everything that needed washing. Aunty Ghouly helped her with the work. After a little while, the room was spic and span. Then Moon-Fairy said, "Now your house is cleaner and prettier than Bibi Khanom's house."

Aunty Ghouly looked at the room. She couldn't believe how clean it had become. She was so happy that she didn't know what to do. Moon-Fairy smiled too. She remembered that she had to go so she said, "Aunty Ghouly, ask your second question. It's getting very late!" Aunty Ghouly fixed her scarf. She smoothed her dress and said, "Let's see. Who is prettier, me or Bibi Khanom?"

Moon-Fairy took a good look at Aunty Ghouly. Her face was very dirty. She had clearly not washed her hands and face or combed her hair for a very long time. Moon-Fairy shook her head, sighed, and said, "It's a pity, but Bibi Khanom is much cleaner and prettier than you!"

Once more, Aunty Ghouly was uneasy and sad, but Moon-Fairy said, "Get up. Let's wash your hands and face." Moon-Fairy helped Aunty Ghouly wash her hands and face. Next she sat down and combed Aunty Ghouly's hair. She put a clean scarf on her head too. She looked at her and said, "Now you're cleaner! And you're prettier too!" Aunty Ghouly looked at herself in the mirror. She turned her head this way and that, up and down. Then she smiled at Moon-Fairy, who laid her head on Aunty Ghouly's shoulder, and Aunty Ghouly patted her head. Moon-Fairy remembered her mother. She said to Aunty Ghouly, "You're so kind! You're like my mother." When she heard these words, Aunty Ghouly's eyes filled with tears. She lifted Moon-Fairy's head and said, "My kind girl, you must go. It's late."

Moon-Fairy asked, "Have you forgotten? You didn't ask the third question."

Aunty Ghouly said, "You have already answered it. I wanted to ask who was kinder, me or Bibi Khanom. You said I'm like your mother." Then she gave the dress to Moon-Fairy and said, "I wish you could stay with me always! You would be my dear friend and companion. But your place isn't here."

Aunty Ghouly sighed and said, "There's a river beside the cottage. This river is a rainbow. When the water turns blue, wash your face." She also gave her a flower. She said it was called a wish-flower, and it would make one of Moon-Fairy's wishes come true. Moon-Fairy was very happy. She put the wish-flower in her pocket. Then she kissed Aunty Ghouly and left. Next to the cottage she saw the rainbow river. She waited till its color turned blue. At that moment she washed her face in the river's water. All of a sudden she felt dizzy, as if the world was spinning around her head, and then she didn't know what happened next.

When Moon-Fairy woke up, she saw she was lying down beside the dry well. Moon-Fairy looked around. She gathered the clothes and put them in the basket. Before going, she wanted to wash her hands. She lowered the bucket into the well. As she did, she looked into the well. Something in the well was sparkling, glimmering. Moon-Fairy looked hard at it. It seemed as if a star were in the well. She was very surprised. She hurried to hoist up the bucket of water. Moon-Fairy was frightened. She wanted to wash her hands quickly, but it seemed as if a star were shining in the bucket too. Moon-Fairy looked more closely at it. That sparkle was on her forehead. It was a tiny moon, a crescent moon, sitting on Moon-Fairy's forehead, shining.

Moon-Fairy touched her forehead. She tried to remove the moon, but it wouldn't come off. All at once a soft breeze swept across her face. The flowers bowed. Their petals dropped at her feet and said, "Moon-brow! Moon-brow! Hello, Moon-brow!" Butterflies fluttered around her head and said, "Moon-brow, how beautiful you've become!" The butterflies, the trees, even the breeze called the name Moon-brow in her ears. Softly, slowly, she walked toward the house. She put her hand on her forehead so that Bibi Khanom wouldn't see. But Bibi Khanom did see, and she was speechless with surprise. She couldn't talk. Moon-Fairy's face shone like moonlight, beautifully. Bibi Khanom took her hand and led her inside. She looked her up and down and asked, "What happened? Where did this moon come from? What have you done?"

Moon-Fairy was afraid. Her hands trembled and her heart beat fast. She said, "I don't know! Maybe Aunty Ghouly did it."

Bibi Khanom asked in surprise, "Aunty Ghouly?! So who is Aunty Ghouly?" Then she pulled Moon-Fairy's hair and said, "You must tell whatever you did, wherever you went! You must teach Golabetun how to do it too."

Moon-Fairy was scared. She nodded and said, "All right! I will tell Golabetun what I did and where I went."

The next morning Golabetun went to the dry well with a basket full of clothes. She threw a dress into the well. Then she climbed into the well herself. She hadn't yet reached the bottom when she slipped and fell.

When Golabetun came to her senses, she hurried off in the direction that Moon-Fairy had told her. She saw Aunty Ghouly's cottage in the distance. Without knocking on the door, she entered it. She didn't even say hello. She went and sat in a corner. Aunty Ghouly saw her and asked, "Who are you? Where have you come from? What is your name?"

Golabetun didn't tell her name. She didn't even say where she came from. She only said, "I lost my dress. Give me my dress. Then mark my forehead with the moon."

Aunty Ghouly said, "I will ask three questions. If you give me answers, I will give you your dress. I will also show you the way home." She pointed at the room that Moon-Fairy had helped to clean and said, "Tell me, is my house prettier than Bibi Khanom's house?"

Without looking around, Golabetun answered, "This house of yours is a stable! It's ugly! Our house is clean and pretty."

Aunty Ghouly became uneasy. She thought Golabetun would help make her house cleaner and prettier, but Golabetun did nothing.

Aunty Ghouly asked a second time, "Tell me who is prettier, me or Bibi Khanom?"

At hearing these words, Golabetun stood up and said, "It's obvious my mother is prettier! You're the ugliest person I've ever seen."

Aunty Ghouly again became uneasy and sad. She thought that Golabetun had gotten up to help make her prettier. But Golabetun did nothing. For that reason, Aunty Ghouly didn't ask the third question. She understood that Golabetun's heart was full of darkness. Aunty Ghouly showed her the way home. Then she said, "Go to the river side. When the river's water turns white, wash your face with it."

Aunty Ghouly wanted to wash away all of Golabetun's badness with the river's white water. Golabetun rushed outside and waited by the river. The river turned many colors. Then it turned white. Golabetun didn't wash her face. She said to herself, "The white water isn't pretty. No, I don't want it." She waited for the river to change color. The water turned red. Golabetun was happy and washed her face . . .

When Golabetun opened her eyes, she saw she was lying in her bed. Bibi Khanom was sitting beside her. Golabetun got up and asked, "Is my forehead marked by the moon?

Bibi Khanom cried. Golabetun looked at herself in a bowl full of water beside her. She screamed and threw the bowl. On her forehead, a big, ugly, red sore had appeared. It was like a pimple full of blood.

Golabetun had screamed because she was very scared. Moon-Fairy rushed into the room. The moon on her face lit up the whole room. She went calmly to Golabetun and saw the ugly sore on her face.

Golabetun told Moon-Fairy everything that had happened. Then she laid her head down in her lap and cried. Moon-Fairy didn't like to see anyone cry. She had cried too much herself. She didn't like to see others crying. She wanted to do something for Golabetun, but what?

All at once she remembered the wish-flower. She put her hand in the pocket of her skirt. The wish-flower was still there. Although she had many wishes herself, she took it out. Moon-Fairy stroked the petals and said, "Oh, wish-flower! I have many wishes in this wide world, but I don't want to see anyone sad. If you're really a wish-flower, do something so Golabetun won't cry any more."

Moon-Fairy's words weren't yet finished when the big, ugly sore on Golabetun's forehead started to heal. It seemed as if it had never existed. Bibi Khanom was so glad that she didn't know what to do. Golabetun was happy too. Moon-Fairy took the flower and left the room. She sat on the porch and thought. She thought that the next day she would have to work hard for Bibi Khanom and Golabetun. She thought that Golabetun and Bibi Khanom would still treat her badly. But it didn't happen that way. It was as if their black hearts had been washed in the white water of the rainbow river. It was as if the wish-flower had washed all the badness out of Golabetun and Bibi Khanom.

Lawrence Venuti thanks Dr. Farzaneh Farahzad of Allameh Tabataba'i University in Iran for her help with this issue.

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