by S. Ali
It was the laughter that finally drove me over the edge, the sound inexplicably bursting through the silence that had surrounded me for decades. A high, girlish peal; perfectly crafted to enthrall a young man, but with a hint of childish delight. Solomon’s eye! The energy that emanated from the girl was intoxicating. She perched on the edge of my tomb, the cupboard that had imprisoned me for decades. I longed to seize her and race into every nerve. By God, what I would give to possess those supple limbs and have a face that could once again feel the sun’s warmth!
The young ones were always my weakness. Humans are a feeble race, and my kind has little use for them save the occasional sport. Our disdain doesn’t stop them from fretting about our existence; however, filling their homes with useless talismans and their stories with our terrible deeds. But for a brief time in their pitiful lives, when they leave the innocence of childhood, something changes. Nature herself, finicky and wild, seems to surge into their blood, filling them with a passion few other creatures in this world can offer. We may be superior, but to see such vigor trapped in their frail, mortal bodies is more provocative than many of us can bear.
It was such an individual that doomed me to these rotting boards. Perhaps I did overstep my boundaries, but it had been centuries since I properly possessed a human. My handsome vessel was the oldest son of a cobbler; condemned to the same dull life as his dreary ancestors. I could barely contain my joy upon once again having a body and caused verses of unparalleled beauty to pour from his lips. We drove the women of Cairo mad with lust, taking our fill of their tender offerings. Unfortunately, I couldn’t control my excesses and soon broke the boy’s simple mind. Unbeknownst to me, his aunt was a skilled exorcist. Recognizing the signs of her nephew’s madness, she took revenge without warning.
Shattered and formless, I sought refuge in the nearest object, the cupboard she was using as her altar. It was mistake. I was immediately trapped; my wretched soul only saved when she stopped the boy’s grieving father from torching it. “No. Let the djinn suffer for eternity,” she insisted. It was the last thing I heard before she sealed my prison with goat’s blood.
They tossed my cupboard into an abandoned alley, a respite for crawling insects and incontinent mongrels. For years I explored the miniscule spaces between the wood grains, pressing against every sodden corner in a desperate attempt to escape. Without a body, I was struck deaf and blind, wordlessly raging against my tomb. Terrified of being trapped until the cupboard rotted into nothingness, I struck out the only way I could, causing the rancid wood to shiver and groan.
However, as the decades passed, the goat’s blood faded and I grew stronger, knitting myself back together, atom by atom. I stayed silent and still so I wouldn’t frighten away a possible host. My kind had watched humanity crawl from wretched caves into splendid palaces; I myself had been ancient when we were cursed by their prophet-king Solomon. We feed off humanity’s most desperate desires. Once I was stronger, all I needed was a single one to brush past my prison; someone craving his neighbor’s wife, perhaps, or a lonely spinster pining for children. My escape would be complete.
But then that damnable girl had to saunter down my alley and lean against my cupboard. I could almost feel her warm body against the wood, imagining the curves straining against her galabiyya. The long years of formlessness suddenly overwhelmed me, and I craved to posses her like I had no other before. I could sense the young men watching her; the air was thick with their desire. I needed one of them to grow brave, to draw closer and come into contact with me. She herself wanted for nothing at the moment, she already had their attention.
Oh, but that laugh, that lovely sound bursting past the decades of silence and calling me into the world of the living. It was a miracle I could even hear it. A sign. I could not resist. With every bit of strength gained during those long years, I reached out to seize her. I snatched at soft limbs, washed over her young mind.
A glorious burst of light, the sudden sight of my dusty alley. The smell of sweat mixed with jasmine and burnt onions. And the sun, so warm against my cheeks! I’d forgotten how it felt. A taste of Paradise. And then, with a sudden horrified scream from our lips, it fell away. Weakened once again, I slammed back into my prison. The cupboard gave a violent shudder and she slipped away.
No, no, this could not be happening! I would have wailed in despair, but alas, my voice had been stolen. My strength began to fail, my power leeching away into the porous wood. No! I refused to let this cupboard take me again. I would either wrench myself free or finally shatter my soul into oblivion.
Summoning every atom of my fading power, I tore myself apart, twisting and jerking as if my body were made of flesh rather than wood. Pain wracked my mind and I attempted to gasp for air with lungs I did not possess. The cupboard continued to quake and tremble, wobbling on its decaying legs.
It began to list to one side and with one more great heave, it crashed to the ground with a soft thud, the rotting wood crumbling apart. The invisible ties that had bound me for so long evaporated and I was free!
My elation was quickly replaced by sheer terror. Without a body, I teetered at the edge of some unknown abyss. Desperate, I threw myself into the nearest human. The boy shrieked as I took him, racing through his body and drinking the adrenaline that flooded his blood like a man dying of thirst. My host’s now silent cries gnawed at the edge of my consciousness, but I pushed them away. I could already tell there was little in his pitiful mind that interested me.
I took a shuddering breath and sighed with pleasure as the rich scents of the alley overtook my new nose: earthy manure, buttery baked pastries, the sharp sting of urine. I threw my head back, making excellent use of the boy’s youthful spine to stare straight into the sun. The bright light made my host flinch in pain, but I only grinned. I could see!
“Praise be to the Destroyer of Worlds!” My new voice rang in my ears. I could hear! Clapping my hands in delight, I marveled at the sensation of skin against skin, pushing my palms together.
“Ismail?” a timid voice asked.
I whirled around. A small boy stared at me, his dark eyes wide with concern. In an instant, I knew I looked like him; same dank hair, skinny body, and dirt-streaked face. My lips curled in disgust at the smell of unwashed clothes.
“Are you alright, akhi?”
Brothers. My host’s mind surged into my consciousness, a memory of sleeping side by side on a narrow bed. I banished him once again, but felt a small prick of pity. “I am fine. Run along home. Now,” I insisted, a harder edge in my voice when he paused. Rid of the nuisance, I glanced around the alley, but it was empty. The girl and her admirers had run off.
The sweet smell of sizzling sugar enticed me forward, and I sprinted around the corner, enjoying the opportunity to stretch my new limbs. Oblivious to the cries of the fateer seller, I snatched the sweet breads straight from the griddle, cramming the sticky hot pastries in my mouth. Ah, taste!
I snarled at the sweet-seller until he backed away, leaving me to enjoy my treat in peace. The sensations bombarding my new body were dizzying, but one suddenly rose to the surface. Thirst. The powdered sugar choked my throat and I began coughing, unable to breathe. Through watering eyes, I spotted a public tap on the corner. The water emptied into a stone basin set low in the ground to ease the ablutions of the faithful.
I thrust my entire head in and drank deeply, sitting up only when my throat finally cleared. In all my years possessing humans, I had never experienced choking. Startled, I shook my head, scattering water droplets over the mosaic basin. I had forgotten how frail human bodies truly were.
The reminder was necessary. I was still weak, after all. I wondered if the men of the city still gathered to smoke shisha: the wisest option would be to curl up in one of their coal pits and hope to regain some of my fiery form. Once I was stronger, I could fly out to the deep western deserts where djinn still reigned – I’d had enough of humans. I sniffed the air, alert for the unmistakable scent of smoke.
The smell of a human city can be overwhelming: full of odors that seem to compete for foulness. But there was no mistaking the scent that suddenly drifted past my nose: jasmine and onions, the first thing I had smelled in decades. My muse.
On recalling her sweet laugh, a wave of yearning surged through my body. What would it be like to possess a laugh like that? Could you feel the emotions that provoked it, the innocent delight? Certainly I should at least visit her, perhaps with some token of my gratitude. I could find a fire later.
The lovely scent led me to a squalid neighborhood on the hilly outskirts of the city. Her home was a makeshift affair on the roof of a narrow building, complete with scrounged sheets of corrugated metal and thatch. Suddenly ashamed, I turned to leave without seeing her. I had dwelled in the courts of caliphs, traded verse with great poets, and been waited on by princesses. My prison sentence may have been long, but surely I could hold myself to a higher standard.
She laughed. The sound was muffled behind the walls of her miserable home, but it still sent a shiver down my spine. I turned back. Her profile was barely visible through a crack between the metal panels, so I pressed an eye against it, hoping for a better look. Despite the ramshackle exterior, the inside was well-scrubbed and impeccably organized: the type of home that can only exist in the absence of men. She was playing with a toddler on the floor, kissing his plump cheeks and shaking a wooden rattle. I caught a glimpse of her mother, frying onions and ta’amiyya.
Southern migrants, then, to judge from the girl’s dark skin and curly hair. She was old enough to be married, not that anyone would pay a dowry to a poor family from Upper Egypt. I licked my lips as she teased her brother. What was it about this girl that so beguiled me? How was it possible that someone from such a wretched home could share the grace of a sultan’s daughter?
A giggle from her brother drew a smile, a flash of white teeth. I fought the urge to leap from my foul host and into this intoxicating creature. The thought of the energy, the confidence that flowed from her made my fingers twitch in anticipation. We could truly be great together.
No. I’d been fortunate enough to escape from the cupboard, and I needed to focus on getting my strength back, not chasing after pretty humans. Yet I found myself hours later, inside her tiny home, watching her sleep.
Her chest rose in the warm night, a barely discernable exhalation of soft breath. Life pulsed through her veins, and I trailed my fingers along her collar, feeling the echo of her beating heart. Her eyelids trembled and I wondered what dreams drifted through her mind.
I could find out, I knew. It was easy. I would just need a moment to leave this body and enter her mind. Just a few minutes; surely that would satiate me and I could leave to find a fire. Yes, that was a sound plan. Brushing her hair back, I laid my palm against her temple. Her breathing slowed and I closed my eyes.
A whistling as the copper pot flew through the air was my only warning, but it was enough. I ducked closer to the girl as the pot smashed into the wall above my head.
“Get away from her!” Her mother stood in the narrow doorway, a stick in one hand. Startled, I backed away with a hiss. It was a mistake. The unnatural sound made her gasp and instinctively clutch at an amulet hanging from her neck.
“Leave this house, demon! Leave and never return!” Snapping the frayed cord, she pulled the amulet free to thrust it in my direction.
The amulet was pitiful, a cheap ceramic charm of an open palm. Only a few chips of blue paint still clung to it. Even so, I flinched, backing away from the girl to better appraise her mother. Like her daughter, she wore a threadbare galabiyya, neatly patched in several places. She was a stout woman, her daughter’s curves long vanished into thick ankles and stooped shoulders. Her hands were calloused and a lock of frizzy hair escaped her ragged turban. A washerwoman, likely.
“You’re clever,” I noted, my voice smooth. “Most humans would not discern my identity so quickly.”
Her expression tightened and she actually took a step closer to me. Well, perhaps she wasn’t so clever.
Clutching the amulet, she raised the stick in her other hand. “My family has not forgotten the old ways,” she snarled. “Now, in the of name of the Most Merciful, be gone!”
Stopping her with a raised hand, I gave the stick a dubious look. “Truly? Because if your ‘old ways’ tell you a wooden stick is an adequate weapon against a djinn… well then, my dear human, you have been gravely misled.”
She scowled, but dropped the stick. “What do you want from us?”
“Is it not obvious?”
Keeping a watchful eye on me, she crept closer and knelt at her daughter’s side. She touched the girl’s soft cheek and gently shook her shoulder, but there was no response. “What have you done? Why won’t she wake?” she demanded, panic rising in her voice.
“She will wake when I allow her.” I kept my tone calm, soothing. There was no reason for tensions to escalate.
Enraged, she stood and took another threatening step in my direction with her wildly swinging amulet. “You will release her and leave us! In the name of God: there is no god but He! Living and Everlasting!” she cried, her voice trembling.
The holy words stung. Ah, pain, I’d forgotten what it felt like. It would have brought a smile to my face, but the woman’s insolence was beginning to irritate me.
“Do you really think you can defeat me? With what? A few simple verses?” I clenched my fists, sparks bursting between my fingers. “I could burn this place to the ground with a whisper.”
She stepped back, throwing me a look of pure malice as she again knelt by her daughter, but said nothing more.
“Much better.” I paced the small room, running a hand along the thatched ceiling. A clump came loose and I tossed it on the worn carpets covering the floor. “This is really a wretched excuse for a home. You must be very poor.”
Silence. I glanced back. She sat on the edge of the narrow straw mat, holding her sleeping daughter in a protective embrace. What is it they say about forbidden fruit? I suddenly knew a few minutes was nothing; I could not deny myself this prize when it was so tantalizingly close! But I was not fully recovered, and that damnable amulet seemed to sharpen the air somehow, seeding it with threats. I would have to try to convince her to move away. An idea took form in my mind.
Wandering to the other side of the room, I picked up a sputtering candle and caressed the flame. It leapt to life in my hands, illuminating the room and throwing shadowy figures on the corrugated walls. Through a tattered curtain, I could see her sleeping son nestled in the bottom drawer of a large cupboard. I scowled; I never wished to lay eyes on a cupboard again.
“It must be difficult,” I started. “Two children, but no husband, correct? It is a miracle your family is able to survive at all.” I drew closer to them, aching once again to possess the girl. “But your daughter is different, no? Surely there must be some mystery in your blood, some forgotten royal ancestry. How else could you produce this gem?”
The woman didn’t react, her cheek pressed into her daughter’s hair. It might have been my imagination, but I thought she looked resigned.
“Let me take her,” I whispered. “She has no future here. Let me whisk her from this dusty hovel and make her a queen. Your family would live in unimaginable splendor until your descendents died of happiness!”
Her voice was so soft I could barely hear her. “A queen,” she repeated, sounding hollow. She finally lifted her gaze to meet mine, and I saw unhappy recognition in her eyes as she scanned my host’s face. “I knew that boy,” she accused. “He used to sell melons at the market with his brother. And now you’ve condemned his soul.”
My host trembled with fear, but I ignored him. He would be free soon enough and well compensated for his assistance. I pursed my lips with displeasure. “I’ve done no such thing. You are simply being overdramatic.” I crossed my arms. “Now what is your answer?”
Her grip on the girl tightened. “You’re mad to think I’d let you take my child, demon.”
I laughed. “I’m not asking your permission, human. I shall take her either way, but I’m no demon.” I paused, and then shrugged. “Alright, I’m a bit of a demon, but I’m not cruel. I only wish for you to understand, to ease your burden,” I cajoled, pressing my hand over the human heart that beat in my host’s chest. “What life could you possibly provide for her? None will pay a dowry to a fatherless family, especially not for such dark skin.”
She shot me a fierce look, her eyes glimmering with tears. “God provides.”
I smiled. “Indeed, He does. I am here.”
The woman didn’t respond, but I saw her nod. She turned back to the girl and lightly kissed her cheek, whispering something into one tender ear before slowly climbing to her feet to face me.
“And how will you make her a queen, djinn? Will you teach her to lie and tempt like you? To steal whatever she desires and ruin the lives of innocents, like that boy whose face you hide behind?” She shook her head with determination. “No. We may be poor, but my daughter is a good girl. Sweet and honorable. I’ll die before I let your foul hand touch her again.”
“Then you’re a fool,” I spat. I was tired of these games. “A fool! Get out of my way or I’ll slay your son as well.”
I expected to see terror, but there was not a trace of fear in her face. When she met my gaze, I saw only rage in her eyes. Before I could even react, she had charged me, her amulet raised like the sword of some avenging warrior. “In the name of the Merciful One, the Compassionate! There is no god but God, Living and Everlasting!”
Surprised by her swiftness, I stumbled back, reflexively raising my hands to protect myself.
“Neither slumber overtakes Him, nor sleep!”
The words fell like lashes. The force of her voice seemed a physical thing, suddenly enveloping me like a tight cloak. The lovely girl stirred in her dreamless sleep. I closed my eyes, blindly striking out to silence that terrible voice.
“To Him belongs what is in the heavens and the earth!”
The cloak tightened and I gasped. It felt as if a thousand shards of glass pierced my new skin. I tried to scream, to rage back, but my voice was hollow and when I opened my mouth, only my young host’s cries for help poured out. I staggered back against the wall, fumbling for an exit, as the verses continued to pound down on me.
“And He is the Most Exalted, the Majestic!”
My fingers closed around the frame of a makeshift window. In sheer self-preservation, I ripped away the shutters and threw myself over the sill, landing in a heap amongst a tangle of laundry. Her chanting continued and I clapped my hands over my ears in a desperate attempt to stifle the noise.
I climbed to my feet, intending to run for the stairs, but the edge of the boy’s sandals caught on the roof’s narrow edge and I slipped. A gush of cold night air swept pass my body, and I slammed hard into the cobblestone street with a sickening crunch.
A moment of terrible pain. The boy’s sudden sorrow overwhelmed me and I cried out as his memories swept past, consuming my soul as if they were my own. Praying alongside my father in a stone mosque, my mother’s warm smile. My little brother tossed me a melon, but it disappeared before I could catch it.
And then it was gone. The boy’s soul fluttered past me on soft, silver wings. Our mind echoed with emptiness and I knew I was alone. Good luck in Paradise, Ismail.
Sighing, I pushed away a brief flicker of guilt. The boy was fortunate: Paradise would never open for me. Instinctively, I gasped for air though I knew it was no longer needed and attempted to sit up. Overcome with fatigue, I could barely even move my arms.
What in Solomon’s name had just happened? I was a djinn! That woman should have been nothing but a nuisance. How had some human peasant with a painted bit of ceramic and a few Qur’anic verses come so close to killing me?
The night was long. Although we can possess a dead body, it’s as just as unpleasant as one might imagine. By morning, the boy’s body had begin to emit an odor fouler than the original, yet no human had passed by close enough for me to take, hidden as I was under a donkey cart.
And then I heard the voice, the beautiful, entrancing voice that had originally lured me to freedom. The cold tendons in my broken neck snapped as I attempted to turn my head to watch her. Strangely, though she skipped lightly on the cobbled street with the lovely air of youth, her appeal was entirely lost.
The girl glanced back as her mother appeared, her son secure in her arms. In the bright daylight, she looked even more haggard, but all I could see was pure power. Potential.
She had displayed an utter lack of fear last night, something no human has ever shown in the face of my wrath. And it wasn’t simply her faith; I have successfully tormented many a pious soul. As she gripped her child, I remembered the way she had gazed at her daughter the night before. A look of utter devotion.
Djinn have no children, instead springing fully formed from smokeless fires. What would it be like to feel such attachments? To love someone so much that you would throw yourself at danger merely to save their honor? It seemed youth was not the only human experience we were denied; motherhood was far more powerful. How else would it give her the skills of a sorcerer and the courage of a warrior?
I glanced down the road leading to the distant desert, to my wild people, to safety, but then turned my attention back to the little family walking the opposite direction. The children circled their mother like moons, happy and secure in her presence. I wondered what it was like to feel such adoration.
I locked my dead eyes on the retreating family. Surely they would return later. And then? Well… perhaps just a taste…More stories like this by topic: Characters of color, Islam, Middle East, Muslim authors, Women authors