Online Exclusive Fiction: Pandora’s Jar by Zainab Coovadia

Illustration by Alejandra Paton //


Pandora’s Jar

I have a clay jar in my room filled with evil spirits, the kind who whisper doubts in your ears and blow knots in your hair. I hear them chanting their names inside the ceramic confines: Pestilence, Famine, Misery, Death. The jar is from an ancient time when life was harsh, and our ancestors hoped for better days. I found it in the old citadel on the hilltop near my house, on the other side of the wist al-balad, that valley with crammed shops and a tumult of loud car horns and shouting vendors.

The jar is the size of a small vase and light in weight. Drawn in red on its earthen clay is the figure of a woman, the background painted black. She wears a long tunic fastened about her waist with a belt, and on her head is an ornate crown, a veil embroidered with flowers tumbling down from it. Pandora, she was called, the first woman on earth, the one who opened a container that released evil into the world. They say Zeus created her as humanity’s punishment after Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to men. But people are always looking for ways to blame the ills of the world on anyone but themselves. Pandora’s long-lashed eyes stare out at the world in wonder—wonder that she could have been blamed for opening the container at all. Those eyes peer deep into my mind. They ask me what secrets I am hiding. That is why I took the jar, because of the look in Pandora’s eyes. I took the jar, but I wish I hadn’t, because the spirits inside it have taken ahold of my thoughts. They talk to me through the night and say, “Open this jar, wicked man. You’ve kept us in here long enough!”

“Be quiet,” I say, pulling my blanket over my head. All goes silent for a few hours, but then they start up again, louder than before. I wake up tired, always tired since I found this jar. Throwing off my blankets, I go to the kitchen for breakfast, but my stomach is upset and I can’t eat. I return to my bedroom some time later and retrieve the jar from my nightstand.

“We’re going for a walk, just the two of us,” I tell the spirits.

“Oh really? You’re taking us outside?”

“Yeah, I need to figure out what to do with you.”

“Good idea. You’ve been depressed for so long, you’re no fun, you should let us go.”

They continue to pester me as we head out the front door and turn into an alleyway of sloping trash-strewn steps, potted plants, and wrought-iron gates that lead to other houses. One of the neighbours, Nafisa, a woman in her fifties, hangs her wet laundry on a clothesline to dry. She’s a bit of a busybody. I shout a greeting, and she motions to me that she’s on the phone.

She tells the person on the other line, “Oh that is Yunus, the tenant across the street. His mother has cancer and he works to support her. He’s done well for himself, mhm, his mother and sister live in Abdoun,” she waves to me and I wave back, liking how she builds me up.

From inside the jar, the spirits read Nafisa’s mind and tell me her secrets. “Oh, how little she knows about you. But you don’t know much about her either. She had an affair with the carpenter and divorced her husband. Her children won’t visit, and she’s been shunned by her family.”

I didn’t know Nafisa was divorced, and she’s been my neighbour for five years. I would talk to her about it, but her life is none of my business. Besides, I can’t explain to her how I found out those details since the spirits claim only those in possession of the jar can hear what they say. Down the last stone steps, I enter a street that’s crowded with shoppers at the Friday market, families eating at Abu Hashem’s restaurant, and children playing soccer on the uneven cement of the lot that’s always under construction.

The spirits pipe up. “There’s the falafel man, do you see him? The one who scoops up balls of chickpeas and drops them into the fryer.”

“Fasil?” I ask, looking at a man wearing an apron over a black t-shirt and jeans, from whom I’ve purchased many sandwiches.

“Yes, he wants to marry but he can’t afford to support a family. Each woman he courts rejects his proposals. He drowns his sorrows in the oil of the fryer. Look how the oil bursts and bubbles, hot and bitter like his thoughts.”

His slumped shoulders note a resignation with life, as he tops the falafel sandwiches he’s lined in a row with tahini, pickles and tomatoes. He looks so miserable I almost feel sorry for the guy.

The water delivery truck drives past, a merry tune floating from its speakers announcing its arrival in the neighbourhood.

“And that’s Jameel,” the spirits say.

“Who?” I ask, looking around in confusion.

“Jameel, he’s driving the delivery truck. He convinced his dying mother to bequeath her wealth to him, the entire will, and none of it went to his brothers and sisters, though she loved them equally.”

“And that woman, the one in the blue abaya, do you see her?” They ask, turning their attention to a new target.

Looking straight ahead, I notice Faiza leaving the bank. “I know her from the grocery store by my house, she works the till. What about her?”

“She has a bad temper, always yelling at her husband. Last week she got so mad, she forced his hand onto a hot stove plate.”

I avoid making eye contact with her as I pass by. I always understood people to be untrustworthy, but I had taken precautions in my own life to avoid those sorts.

“And there, the man walking down the street, he’s buying flowers for his mother. We like him, he steals money from the zakat box at the mosque, then he keeps it for himself. Not that you’d do anything about it, you’re a coward.”

Annoyed, I throw the jar into my bag while the spirits bicker and squeal. Counting the coins in my pocket, I go into the convenience store to buy something to eat. I hand the cashier two dinars for a bag of dried apricots. Tearing the bag open, I bite into the fruit’s sweet, leathery skin while I stroll through the city square. The shabab, students and tourists mingle under the shade of cypress trees, and vendors sell snacks and trinkets from their stalls. I find an empty bench by the Roman amphitheatre to rest on. Fishing out the jar from my bag, the spirits’ commentary floods my thoughts until a man sits down beside me and taps my shoulder. He wears glasses and is dressed in a white shirt and beige pants. The streaks of grey in his hair and beard make him appear middle-aged. A lanyard around his neck identifies him as a government employee, though not one of any importance. He takes a sip of coffee from a paper cup.

“What’s that you’re holding?” he asks, his gaze fixated on the jar.

“Don’t worry about it,” I say, distracted by the spirits’ constant racket.

“It’s just, I never saw a jar like that before. Is there something in it?” He leans over, curious to know more.

I have not yet confided in anyone about the jar. Perhaps there would be no harm in telling a stranger. Weighing the jar in my hands, I deliberate for a few seconds and answer carefully, “It’s an old, cursed jar.”

“Can I see it?” He reaches for it, but I push his arm away.

“I can’t give it to you. The one who holds it—well, that person hears everybody’s darkest thoughts.”

“Explain,” he says, frowning.

“Inside the jar are spirits and they tell you all the bad things people have done. The things they say trouble me a lot.”

“If that’s the case, why don’t you get rid of it?” he asks.

“What can I do? No matter where I put it, someone will find it eventually. And if the jar breaks the spirits will escape. They’ll reveal everyone’s secrets, it’ll be madness.”

“So what? At least people will be held responsible for their deeds.”

“Or people’s lives and reputations will be ruined,” I counter.

The man takes a drink from his cup. “Yes, but the darker aspects of our personalities come out eventually. I had someone reveal a secret of mine, something I didn’t want the world to know. I was destroyed by it. The entire community turned against me. Your spirits could tell you what I did.”

“They could, or you can tell me yourself.”

He puts his cup down, gazing at me warily. “I was misguided. I was bribed to send a man to prison for a crime he didn’t commit.”

“Do you feel remorseful now?” I ask.

“Yes. But even after confessing the judge would not release the man. When the men who bribed me found out what I did, I was stripped of my honours and demoted in rank. My family connections protect me from significant retaliation though.”

“You are more fortunate than most.”

“Indeed, but I will carry my guilt for a long time. There is evil in all of us, and good comes from acknowledging that. Nothing can be hidden for long, and when you do hide it, it only makes the heart weaker.” He drinks the last of his coffee and throws the cup in the trashcan next to us. “That’s why you should open the jar, let everything loose—the lies, sins, everything— so that we can move on.”

“It’s not so easy. I’d be playing with peoples’ fates.”

Tilting his head, he eyes the jar then me. “Or maybe it’s you who has something to fear from opening it,” he says, giving me an appraising look that makes my skin crawl. He gets up and walks back toward the ministry.

After he is gone, the spirits start talking again. “You should listen to him. All we do is expose the truth. Is that really so bad?”

I get up from the bench and cross the intersection bustling with cars, taking one of the footpaths through Jabal Amman into a residential neighbourhood, not really paying attention to where I am going. My mind wanders as I walk in the same direction as the moving clouds, passing through streets set among the hills planted with orange and lemon trees. Before the sun sets, I buy vegetables from a small shop where I’m friends with the owner, and because of the spirits, know everything about him. I continue home with a small crate of tomatoes and onions as shadows fall and rise around my ankles, and stray cats with eyes glowing yellowish-green slink around the steps ahead of me. Against the darkening sky, a golden light shines from the window of a small house. I make out a family of four eating dinner around a table in silence. What is on everyone’s minds? We are all so afraid to share. A street cat rummaging through a trash bin jumps out, giving me a scare as it runs past me. While I’m regaining my balance, a service taxi passes by inches from where I’m standing and almost knocks me over. The driver rudely yells at me to get out of the way. Turning onto the same street as me is the neighbour’s son, heading home with a bag of potatoes swinging in his hand. He keeps his head down, not bothering to greet me or ask about my day. Instead, he focuses on the cracked slabs of concrete that stitch together the semblance of a sidewalk.

“What’s going on Adam?” I call out.

“Can’t you feel it?” He asks gruffly.

“Feel what?”

“Something’s not right, there’s tension in the air,” he says, brows furrowed, and walks straight past me, the bag of potatoes grazing my leg.

He must be talking about the jar. If it’s making my head spin with thoughts that shouldn’t be there, then maybe it’s doing the same to the neighbours. Maybe everyone can hear the spirits, maybe the spirits lied to me.

“You’ve betrayed me, haven’t you?” I yell at the jar in my bag, hands shaking.

People on the street stop and stare, and curtains in houses ruffle to the side, neighbours peeking out from behind them, afraid I’ve gone mad. Maybe I have.

“Sorry, sorry,” I mumble, embarrassed at my outburst. I reach my house and go upstairs. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, I take out the jar. My fingers stroke the ridges marked into the clay.

The spirits say, “What a sad life, what an angry man.”

Leaning back against the bed frame, I cradle the jar in my arms. We sit together until night sets in. The spirits are restless. Their pent-up energy causes the jar to vibrate in my hands, but still I ignore them. I do not want to let them out. It is true, I have secrets I don’t want to share. It is like this: everything in my life is held together by lies. The lies are carefully constructed, each one an artifice to fool others into liking me. I must control these lies and never let anyone see my true self. The man on the bench said there is a darkness inside us that needs to come out, that things would be better this way. But it is not true. Some of us are monsters, and the truth would only reveal that and turn us against each other. I reach for the top shelf to make space for the jar, but when I pick it up to place it there, it slips from my hand and smashes on the floor.

A brilliant burst of light pours out into the room. Hundreds of spirits fly out. They are tiny, barely the size of my palm, with fairy-like bodies, semi-transparent wings, and sharp claws at the ends of their fingers and feet. They circle around me, cackling happily, then swarm near the bedroom window, their little hands pushing it open. A cool breeze rushes through the room as they stretch their wings and take-off, dispersing into the night. Outside, a trash bin crashes to the ground, the noise like two cymbals clashing together.

“Who’s there? Quiet down!” Yells someone down the street.

I look out the window nervously. The spirits are going wild. They hop among the bushy-leaved treetops in the neighbours’ yards, fly up to peoples’ shutters and push them open, and climb through keyholes into houses and shops, doing everything to get to the people, to their secrets. On the street, there’s a couple beneath a lamppost, a boy and a girl. The boy is crying in the harsh light. Spirits crawl through the girl’s hair and whisper into her ears. They feed her insecurities and lies, saying things like, “he doesn’t love you enough, you are alone in this world.”

Grabbing my jacket, I hurry outside thinking I can catch the spirits and reverse this chaos. I pluck up a spirit darting along the fence. The spirit feels squishy and wet. It squirms between my fingers and escapes my grasp like droplets of water, dripping through my fist. It’s pointless, everywhere I turn spirits whizz about the street flying past me in a blur. I hear a buzzing sound above my head and raise my eyes up to the sky apprehensively. A mist has formed over the rooftops of the houses in the city. I squint. It looks like mist but it’s actually thousands of tiny beating wings, shimmering in the moonlight. The spirits are multiplying, and now there are hordes of them—too many to contain.

Running home, I lock the door behind me and shut the window in my bedroom. Frantically, I pace around the room. It dawns on me that soon everyone’s secrets will be exposed. Pottery shards lie at my feet. From one of the broken shards Pandora’s eyes glint at me oddly, like she knows what will happen next. I am terrified. Somewhere in the room my phone is vibrating. It stops and then starts again. It is my girlfriend. The spirits have taken vengeance on me and shared my secrets with her. I lied to her about everything. I faked my university degree, my age, and my relationship history. My abusive lying was pathological. I did it to bring her under my control, to convince her to respect me because underneath it all I never felt deserving of love. If I maintained the image of the perfect man, I never had to be one, but now the truth is out.

Will my girlfriend tell others? Will I lose all my friends? I controlled them too through lies. The ones I could not control I used what I learned from the spirits to ruin their reputations through word of mouth, turning their loved ones against them. I am a monster. The strings on my marionettes are coming undone, the puppets will soon overthrow me. I don’t know what to expect in this city of disquiet. The jar is open, the spirits out, and Pandora is laughing at me, and the god who made her is too. What have I unleashed? There are neighbours in the streets. I hear them, their complaints rattling in the wind. I am afraid to go outside. The people are awake and now they know there are monsters among them.

Zainab Coovadia is a new fiction writer currently residing in the Greater Toronto Area. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Middle Eastern history from the University of Toronto. Her thesis explored Arabic science fiction. She plans to continue writing fiction while she pursues a second degree in public policy. In her spare time she enjoys walking in the forest, daydreaming in the city, and going on unexpected adventures.