ALL OF THIS FOR A LOAF OF BREAD
PERHAPS THERE WAS a moon in the sky somewhere, but her brother the sun ruled now, and everything faded into the whiteness of the hot day—which was even hotter on a glaringly bright sun-bleached roof.
“Safe!” Aladdin said with a grin, clutching his dearly gotten treasure. He took a quick look over the edge of the building to make sure no one saw him up there, his dark arms flexing with easy strength as he held his chest off the rough bricks. Then he sat down, relaxed, getting ready to break his precious prize in half. His large, clear brown eyes twinkled in happy expectation. “One loaf of bread. More valuable than all the cold, glittering gems at the bazaar.”
The little monkey next to him chattered in anticipation.
Abu had been a last gift from his mother. Aladdin’s father, of course, had never come back from “seeking his fortune abroad.” Aladdin had never believed in that fairy tale anyway, so it was no great loss. But his mother had been afraid of his becoming too wild, too much of a loner without a real family. She’d thought a pet would tame him.
And perhaps it had…
…except that he stole for both of them now.
“And lunch is finally served,” Aladdin said, gesturing at his friend with the bread.
Abu fled. Aladdin leapt up.
Somehow the market guards had actually managed to clamber up the ladder onto the roof behind him. Two had made it up, anyway, with an enraged Rasoul following close behind. These days he wore the striped turban crowned with a black onyx that marked him as a captain of the guard.
Despite their run-ins, even Aladdin had to admit that the man had risen honestly through the ranks.
But that didn’t mean Aladdin liked him.
“I’ll have your hands for a trophy, Street Rat!” Rasoul bellowed. He puffed as he dragged his body up the ladder.
He must have been doubly annoyed by the effort he had to expend to get up there.
“All this for a loaf of bread?” Aladdin asked, exasperated. He had specifically chosen to lift it from one of the carts loaded up for a royal outing—a picnic for the sultan, for one of his desert kite-flying romps or something equally ridiculous. As fat as he was, one tiny sultan couldn’t possibly have missed one little loaf of bread.
But apparently the guards could. And under the law, if an accuser chose to, he could have a thief’s hand chopped off in punishment.
And Rasoul’s scimitar was looking particularly shiny and pointy in the sunlight at the moment.
So Aladdin leapt off the side of the building.
Aladdin was many things: quick, strong, clever, agile, fast-thinking, nimble.
He was not rash.
So while the guards stopped short, shocked at what seemed like a deadly, incredibly insane act, an only mildly nervous Aladdin plummeted down toward the street, grabbing at the clotheslines he knew would be there.
There was, of course, always the chance that the ropes wouldn’t hold.
But Aladdin had luck on his side; throwing his hands out only resulted in being hit in the head by clean laundry and getting rope burns as he slowed his descent. When it grew too painful to bear, he let go and landed with a bruising, bony crash on the dusty street.
There was no time to reflect on his safety, his luck, or any injuries that would have to be looked at later. He had to plan his next move immediately, to stay one step ahead of the guards who would be hurrying back down to see what had happened to him.
The Widow Gulbahar’s robes were tangled around him. It occurred to Aladdin that if no one saw, he could easily wrap himself up in them and disguise himself as a pious—albeit ugly—girl and sneak out through one of the harems.
He paused as loud feminine laughter erupted above him.
He looked up to see the widow herself leaning out a window and smiling not unkindly at him. Two other women stood nearby, where they’d been enjoying a good gossip before his exciting arrival. That would be their only pleasure today before the task of finding food, and work, began.
“Isn’t it a little early for you to be in trouble already, Aladdin?” Gulbahar teased.
“You’re…ouch…only in trouble…ouch…if you get caught,” Aladdin protested, trying not to show pain as he rose and joined them. He hoped they’d gotten the hint as he swirled a cloth around his head and neck. He leaned on the wall in what he hoped was a feminine way, throwing his hips out and keeping his back to the end of the alley where the guards would enter.
Gulbahar rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“Aladdin, you gotta settle down,” she sighed. “Get a nice girl. She’ll fix you up.”
The other women nodded in agreement. They knew about nice girls—being far removed from the definition. But they had to eat, and often in Agrabah nice girls didn’t.
“There he is!” Rasoul suddenly called out. He and a whole squad of guards stomped down the alley, closing off Aladdin’s exit.
“Now I’m in trouble,” Aladdin said.
He turned to go, but Rasoul must have put all his remaining anger and energy into one furious lunge. He managed to grab Aladdin’s arm and spun him around.
“This time, Street Rat, I’ll—”
But before he could finish his threat, a screaming little monkey leapt onto his head and tore at his eyes with sharp claws.
“Perfect timing, Abu,” Aladdin said dramatically for the benefit of the women watching.
Then he ran.
He scooted around Rasoul and managed to duck past the rest of the guards as they grabbed at him ineptly. Ten of them weren’t worth one Rasoul—thank goodness. He was the only one Aladdin needed to worry about—and he knew the streets almost as well as the boy did.
Aladdin ducked into what looked like a crack in the city itself, where two buildings crumbled and tilted into each other, leaning on each other like old men. Aladdin ran under them and wound up in a badly kept courtyard. A dry and useless fountain stood in the center. Once, long ago, it had worked, maybe, when some sultan cared about things being nice for the poorer residents of Agrabah.
Rasoul appeared at the opposite side of the courtyard, scimitar raised.
“Do not think you can escape back to the maze of the Eastern Streets, Aladdin,” he said sternly. He almost smiled when he saw the surprised look on Aladdin’s face. “Oh yes, I know your plan. But you have broken the law. You must accept your punishment.”
“You’re really going to chop my hand off for stealing one…loaf…of…bread,” Aladdin said, trying to buy time as he bounced lightly on his toes, circling around, keeping the fountain between them.
“The law is the law.”
Aladdin feinted to the left and then tried to lunge to the right. Rasoul wasn’t fooled at all; his scimitar lashed out to the right. Aladdin ducked, sucking his stomach in. But he didn’t come away unscathed: a tiny ribbon of scarlet unfurled across his skin. Aladdin hissed at the pain.
“Perhaps, if you explain to the judge, he will be lenient. He will…weigh your circumstances. But maybe, hat is his job. Mine is to bring you in.”
“Really? I thought your job was to eat baklava. You’re slowing down, old man,” Aladdin taunted. With a howl of rage Rasoul brought his scimitar down as hard as he could.
Aladdin dropped into a ball and rolled out of the way. Sparks flew when the point of the scimitar hit the cobbled pavement.
He scrambled up rickety old scaffolding that barely held his weight. It certainly wouldn’t support Rasoul’s. The guard swore in frustration and Aladdin ran as fast as he could, leaping from rooftop to rooftop in a random pattern. Without a clear thought or plan, he concentrated on just putting as much distance between himself and the market as he could before descending into the quieter, darker Quarter of the Street Rats.
A chittering scream announced that Abu had finally caught up. He leapt onto Aladdin’s shoulder and clung there while the boy, still being cautious, kept to the shadows and ducked into empty houses: through their cracking windows, out their gaping doors.
Finally he felt they could stop when they came to a cul-de-sac so decrepit and useless that it acted as a makeshift garbage dump for the slums. No city workers came to take the refuse away, and it grew in piles that the poorest of the poor picked over, hoping for an overlooked scrap. It was smelly, but it was safe.
“Whew, the old man’s getting slower, but he’s getting smarter,” Aladdin admitted grudgingly, clapping the dust off his pants and vest. “And now, Esteemed Effendi, we feast.”
He settled down at the base of the wall and finally broke his bread, giving half to Abu, who grabbed it excitedly.
But just as Aladdin was about to take a big, welcoming bite, the clatter of something hitting the pavement stopped him.
He expected guards.
He expected to run again.
He didn’t expect to see two of the smallest, scrawniest children in Agrabah. They jumped, scared by the noise they had made themselves while picking through the garbage, looking for something to eat. When they spotted Aladdin, they didn’t quite cling to each other but moved closer for safety. Their eyes were huge. Their bellies were shrunken. Only on closer inspection could he tell one was a girl; their rags were shapeless and they were very, very skinny.
“I’m not gonna hurt you. You look familiar. Have we met before?”
The children said nothing and hid whatever they had—bones, melon rinds—behind their backs.
Street Rats take care of each other. The words of his mother traveled across the years to him.
“Here,” he said, getting up slowly without making any sudden movements. He knew what it was like being afraid that anyone bigger, healthier, or older than you would hurt you and steal whatever you had. He held his hands out: one empty, in peace, the other with the bread. The two children couldn’t help staring at the bread.
“Take it,” he urged softly.
They didn’t need much compelling. The girl, bolder, reached out and took it, trying not to grab. She murmured, “Thank you,” before immediately tearing it almost in half. She gave the larger piece to her skinnier, tinier brother.
Abu watched this interestedly, chewing on his piece.
Aladdin felt a lump of anger form in his throat.
When was the last time those two kids had a full meal or a good, long, clean drink of water? This was the way he had been as a child. Nothing had changed. The sultan still sat in his beautiful golden-domed palace, playing with his toys while people starved on the streets. Nothing would ever change until the sultan—or someone—woke up and saw how his people were suffering.
Aladdin sighed and lifted Abu onto his shoulder. He walked home slowly, belly empty of bread but full of anger and despair.