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A Palestinian Sunset

Before I went to bed, Mommy told me tales of genies, demons, and magic. One story, relayed to her by an uncle in Lebanon, haunted me for years. 

Long ago a farmer’s daughter named Livy lived in the hills east of the Great Sea. She was poor, for her father didn’t own land and gave a portion of the harvest to the landlord. Her only toys were ones she made, but she liked to walk among the orange trees her father tended and sang in a chirring warble. Life was lonely –– for Livy’s mother died in childbirth and she had no siblings or nearby playmates. One day at the market, she spotted a doll on a vendor’s cart. It had black hair with a white ribbon, green eyes, and a red dress. Her father must have seen the longing in her eyes, for although she suspected he would have to wear patched trousers and shoes with holes in the soles for another year, he bought it. 

Livy named the doll Phyllis and took her everywhere. Some say love that is strong enough can bring cloth, chaff and paint to life, so it isn’t surprising they talked to each other. Livy liked to toss Phyllis among the orange trees, so she could soar like a bird. One afternoon she lodged near the top and wouldn’t come down. Livy climbed but couldn’t reach her without damaging the tree. She shook the branch hard. Phyllis tumbled and landed on the ground. Her arm was torn, and stuffing spilled out. Livy replaced what she could and sewed her back. A scar disfigured the arm, which was thinner than the other. Livy tried to look at the parts that made her smile, because that’s what love is. She knew the exact shade of her doll’s eyes, the wrinkles in her dress, and every thread on her body. During the hot dry summers, Livy was allowed three cups of water to wash herself. She gave one to Phyllis and enjoyed watching the shine of her long hair drying in the sun. In the evening she took her doll to the cliffs and holding Phyllis to her chest, watched the sunset over the plain. 

One day, when Livy was feeding the goats, the landlord came by with his daughter to inspect his land. 

While the man went to talk with her father, the girl approached Livy. “What’s a dirty peasant like you doing with such a pretty thing?”

“This is my Phyllis.”

The girl seized the doll. “You must have stolen it.”

“Give her back.”

Livy reached out but didn’t want to hurt Phyllis by yanking her leg. 

The girl, who was bigger, pulled out a handful of Phyllis’s hair. “This is the color of filth.” 

She stomped strands into the dust and took the doll away. When the men came out of the house, Livy complained the girl stole her doll. Her father, keeping his eyes averted as a tenant was expected to do, said he bought it at the market. The girl claimed it was hers. 

The landlord brushed dust from his silk shirt. “My daughter would never lie to me. Take back your accusation, or I’ll have you evicted from my land.”

Livy’s father did as the man asked. After the visitors left, he promised to buy her a new doll just like Phyllis when the harvest came in. But there was an empty space next to her heart. Livy searched the ground by the goats and found sixteen of Phyllis’s hairs. She gave them names. Bashiyra was longest, Ghada curved gently, and Safa kinked in the middle. Clutching the orange tree leaf that held them as she lay on her bed of straw, Livy thought she heard Phyllis calling her. 

It was a dry year. When the oranges were sold they had barely enough to feed themselves. At the market her father kept them away from the doll vendor. 

In the fall, before the rains came, the landlord took his family on a vacation to the sea. One night when the moon was down, Livy crept out of her hut and down the road to the landlord's mansion. The door was locked, so she climbed a tree next to the house and clambered in a window. Carrying a candle, she soon became lost among the many rooms. At length she found a bedroom with a display case holding dozens of dolls. None looked familiar. She was about to turn away in despair when a slight movement drew her attention to a figure in a blue and white dress. It was Phyllis. 

Livy took the doll in her arms and wept for joy. After rearranging the others to avoid leaving a gap, she closed the case and descended the tree. Beneath the stars, they talked until first light. Every morning Livy sneaked to Phyllis’s hiding place by the cliffs. They sang harmonies and played hide and seek. Using tree resin, Livy attached the sixteen strands to Phyllis’s head. Over time they fell off and were lost. 

When her doll seemed sad, Livy kissed the bare spot and said, “You’re just as beautiful as when we first met.” 

The day after the landlord’s family returned from the coast, a carriage pulled up to the farmer’s hut. The landlord and a huge man wearing a scimitar got out. After Livy’s father greeted them graciously, the landlord declared his daughter saw the farmer sneak out of their mansion with her doll. She was an extraordinary girl who had stayed up writing a fairy tale about her adventures on the coast. The penalty for theft was cutting off the offender’s right hand. If the doll was produced before sundown, the landlord would withdraw the accusation. Otherwise the punishment would be carried out that evening. 

The men searched the one room cabin, scattering meager belongings, and hunted among the goats and orange trees. When the sun was low in the sky, the big man unsheathed his scimitar and examined its edge. 

Livy tugged on the landlord’s sleeve. “I’ll show you where the doll is.” 

Though half her father’s height, Livy was strong and agile. She outdistanced the others and retrieved Phyllis from among the rocks. As the men approached, she retreated to the lookout.

The landlord held out his hand. “Give it to me, and you will be forgiven.”

Livy pressed Phyllis to her cheek. “We will never be parted.” She turned to the sunset and leaped. 

Despite a long search at the base of the cliff, neither the doll nor Livy’s body were found. In the spring, when the orange trees bloomed, a bird with red feathers, green eyes, a black crest and a white stripe on its wing alighted on the farmer’s window and sang a chirring warble. 

(This fable appeared in the literary magazine Postscript, Issue 38, Gulf,; Ron Morita lives in Navarro.)

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