Hakawati Jinn – Chapter Four

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Be brutally honest.

I pace my one-room house, waiting for my daughter to return. But she doesn’t.

“Saqr,” I say, awakening the hawk once more. It returned to clay as soon as it told me what it saw, and I brought it back with a touch. “Go find Layala.”

The hawk leaves, and I continue my pacing. Do I walk to the next village? Leave the hut and search for my child? Or do I let her be, and trust she will make good decisions. 

Didn’t you make horrible, stupid decisions when you were just a bit older than her? 

Saqr returns and I lay a hand on him. The images come in snatches, as if he darted around, looking for a better vantage point. 

So, Layala spent the night at the jinn’s house. She’s asleep, her cloak draped over her clothed body, the fire burning bright. The jinn sits in his chair, watching her, stoking the flames every so often to get it from burning too low. 

Saqr picks up a stick and flings it at the window, then hides from view. He perches on a tree branch, looking into the house. Layala stirs, then notices the morning light shining through thre window. 

I can’t hear what she says, but I see her lips move through the window. Her eyes are wide and she’s shaking off the jinn’s grasp on her arm. 

I think I see her mouth ‘I have to go.’

I’m sitting at my table, drinking pomegranate, when she comes in through the door. 

“I was worried all night,” I tell her, my voice calm, even though I noticed a little shakiness to it. I pull up a chair and pat it, inviting her to sit. 

She remains on her feet. “I fell asleep at jido’s,” she lies, not meeting my gaze. 

“I see. Did you eat yet?”

She shakes her head, now picking at the edge of our small wooden table. “I’m going to rest,” she says.

“I thought you slept at your grandfather’s?” I put a hand to her head, feeling for fever. “Are you unwell?” I say. 

“No, just tired,” she says, and her cheeks flush red. I let her go; best to not press her and have her shut herself off from me. No, let her come to me with her heart’s secrets. 

Layala undresses and slips into bed, her back towards me. I bend over her, tucking the covers under her chin and around her slender body, just as I did when she was much younger. 

“I love you, maman,” she says. “I’ll never do anything to hurt you.”

I’m surprised by this, but only kiss her soft cheek, still round with baby fat yet to shed. “I know, hiyati.” 

I stoke the fire to make sure she’s warm, then slip out into the night. The air is cold, and I wrap my simple cloak tight around me. I long for the feel of the earth under me, for Illyas’ smile, for his reassuring words. 

I make a snap decision and steal back into the house, grabbing jars and water, before padding towards the cemetery. 

Illyas finds me, as usual. 

“Hiyati,” he says, “What’s wrong?” HIs brows are furrowed as he tries to draw me close, but our bodies aren’t flesh enough for that. Instead, he has me sit down on the pale ground, made of tiles cracked and cool, flowers and weeds growing through the cracks. 

“She’s in love with a jinn boy,” I say. 

“Who? Layala?”

I nod. “I saw them, through Saqr. She spent the night with the boy.”

Illyas tenses. 

“She kept her clothes,” I say quickly, but it does little to ease the tension rippling through his body. “But still. She lied to me.”

“Who’s the boy?” Illyas said, his voice gruffer than I’ve heard it in a while. 

“I don’t know. But I’ll find out.”

Illyas gives a sharp nod, his brows furrowing deeper over his nose bridge. “I’ll wring his neck if he does anything to hurt her.”

I snort. “You and me both, hiyati. The last thing I’d want is for her to fall pregnant at barely fifteen.”

Both our faces flush; our second-greatest mistake, and greatest joy, has been Layala. Born to young parents who knew nothing of the world, never mind raising a child, Layala tore out of me, bright red screaming, on a night just shy of my sixteenth birthday. Illyas was just three years older, and fainted at all the blood. I remember cleaning my daughter’s face of my insides, while fanning my lover with a slip of paper to wake him. 

Illyas reaches over to hover his lips over mine, and for a moment, I feel nothing but his warmth. Then it is snatched away, and lightning strikes through my body. 

Something is pulling my soul back into my body. 

I gulp in air and flick my eyes open, to find my daughter standing before me. Her face is twisted in anger, and she’s standing with her hands on her hips. 

“Maman,” she says, and it sounds like she’s accusing me of something. “What are you doing?”

I sniff, get to my feet, dusting dirt off me. “I needed some fresh air,” I say. “I guess I fell asleep.”

She narrows her eyes at me, as if not quite believing what I say. “I woke up and you weren’t there,” she accuses. 

“Well,” I say, reaching my hand out so she can help me up. I grunt, heaving my weight forward as my knees crack. “Long day, I suppose. Help your maman to bed, then,” I add, leaning some of my weight on her strong, young body. 

Back in the house, I set a kettle to boil, not tired enough to sleep. Layala sits beside me, legs curled under her. She picks at her nails, a habit she has only when something is on her mind. 

“What is it, kushtbani?” I use her father’s nickname for her: thimble. She was so tiny when she was born, she could fit into the palm of his hand if curled up. 

“Nothing, maman,” she says with a sigh. “I just- I want to tell you something, but not now.”

She looks at me with her wide, dark eyes, eyelashes fringing them like tassels on a curtain. “Tell me when you’re ready, kushtbani. I can wait.”

She smiles, and my heart aches at her beauty. She doesn’t see it yet, but under those baby cheeks are a grown woman’s bones. 

She pushes back her chair and pads over to her cot, and though she is just feet away from me, I’ve never felt farther from my child. There are too many lies between us, and I must do something about it. 

Morning comes angry, with rain pelting the window, and the wind howling through the trees. 

I dash outside, grabbing at as many seeds as I can. Layala helps, grabbing handfuls of pomegranate and dirt and grass, while shoving them into the basket. We run back inside, laughing at the downpour as we peel off our sodden clothing. 

“I’ll get the fire going, maman,” she says. 

I sit down and sift through the seeds, setting aside the clumps of grass Layala grabbed. I juice the seeds, taking a sip to taste the mood. A sense of sadness washes over me, and I hold back the need to cry. 

“Is everything fine, maman?”

I nod, reaching for a lemon. 

“Ah,” Layl says, “It’s sad seeds.”

“Very,” I say, squeezing the lemon into the juice and stirring. The sourness of the lemon masks the sadness of the souls, enough that I can drink without crying. 

The stories shove around me in my mind, snatches of sound, morsels of flavor. I get the whiff of warm cinnamon, the taste of cardamom in rice. The feel of a baby’s skin, the weight of a warm fur around a neck on a cold winter day. 

The stories clamor for my attention, each one trying to be the next that gets written. Souls can be impatient, eager to move on. Eager to have their tale written to pay Mote with. 

I try my best, feeling the ache in my bones growing and the din in my head rising. A headache is coming on.

I sense Layala near me, then feel the press of a cloth to my nose. I must be bleeding again, the strain of storytelling too much. 

“Maman,” she says, her voice sounding far away. “Take a break. The dead can wait.”

“No rest for the dead,” I say, not aware of what I’m saying. “No rest for the weary.”

A story floats toward me. I feel its incessant nagging, a whining sound that grows in my ears like the church bell on a sunday morning. 

A young man spent his days drinking and casting his lot at the gambling tables. Every morning he would stumble home, and his poor father would help him to bed. The son would have vomit encrusted in his clothes, and his hair would be covered in sweat and dirt. 

Fed up with his son, the father tells him one day, ibnay, my son, how about you spend just this one night without getting sakran. Spend one night without drink. 

The son laughs, then says to his father, baba, for you, I will do as you say. Just this one night. 

The father says, come, take me to the place you like the most for drink. We will watch and I will show you what I see. 

The two go to the son’s favorite tavern and walk inside. Men sit in chairs, slumped over from drink, or arguing with each other in slurred words. 

The son glances around and spots his friends, but he keeps to the shadows, watching them instead. 

See? says the father. This is what I see when you are sakran: a foolish man who can’t even string two sensible words together and who stumbles around like a babe just learning to walk. 

The son and father stay another hour, when the drunken men begin fighting over quibbles, or vomiting over each other. The son is disgusted and turns his face away from the tavern. 

Baba, he says, you are right. I will mend my ways immediately.

But his father is not so easily placated. Ibnay, he says, do one more thing for me. Go, go find the King of Gamblers, and see how he lives. 

The son grins, and seeks out this King. He searches through villages and towns, asking for where the King of Gamblers resides. 

The first old man who knows tells him to seek a shaman in the village over. He will know where the king is. 

The son goes to the shaman who tells him to seek an old goat-herd who dwells in the valley. The son finds the goat-herd who tells him to find the medicine woman who lives in the forest.

The son finds the medicine woman who tells him, ah, ibnay, I know the one you seek. He is my brother, and he lives just up that mountain. She points at the mountain in the distance. “Climb the mountain, and there you will find the King of Gamblers.”

The son spends days reaching the mountain. And more days climbing it. He stops at the first person he sees. 

It is an old man, with skin like leather, and teeth stained with tobacco. 

I want to meet the King of Gamblers, the son says. 

The man looks at him and invites him into the simple tent he lives in. The son enters, finding a threadbare carpet laid on the ground, and a rolled up mat in the corner. There is no food but a bit of bread with green mold, and nothing to drink but a pot of tea. 

The old man offers his food and drink but the son refuses and offers his own food instead. 

The man tears greedily into the dried meats and figs the son has with him, then leans back to watch the son. 

Ibnay, he says, why do you seek the King of Gamblers?

My father, he told me to search for him. 

Ah, the old man says. Well, you have found him.

The son flicks his eyes around him. The palace is expected is but a tattered tent. The riches, the women, the feasts he sought were all like air. 

Now I know why my father told me to find you, the son, says. For the King of Gamblers is no king at all. 

I write the story and as the last word is set, the soul snatches its tale and I am left with just the sour taste of the lemons. 

I turn to my daughter and just as I do, there is an angry knock at the door. 

“Get behind me,” I tell her, as I slip out of my chair and grab a wooden spoon from the table. 

The knocks are angrier, and so are the voices behind the door. 

“Open, hakawati!”

“Layl, go through the back,” I say. 

“No, Maman.”

This is no time for defiance, but I don’t have a chance to say anything because the door is kicked in and three men enter. 

“Hakawati,” the first man says. “We’ve come for you and that illborne child of yours.”

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