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The dead have been dropping all night.
I awake before the sun is bright enough to cut across the horizon to gather the pomegranate seeds – each one a soul who has died in the last day – scattered across the front of my house into a basket, my hands red and sticky with juice.
There are many seeds this morning, and the weight of the basket tilts me as I hobble back inside the cottage.
My daughter is still sleeping in her cot as I sit down, setting the basket on the table. My joints click, a side effect of the curse. I age faster than I should. Already I have white streaks in my hair, and some of my eyebrow hairs are white. Just thirty, but I look a decade older, at least.
The seeds are bright red and plump, and I press them between two pieces of wood and let the juice seep into a bowl. Each seed contains the story of the person the soul belonged to. My job as mutahida, as storyteller, is to tell each soul’s story, to write each soul’s tale. It’s the only way for a soul to leave the waiting place in between life and death, and enter true death, or Mote. Once a soul’s story is told, they can take it to Mote’s gatekeeper and pay for their safe passage where they will have eternal bliss and peace.
When the seeds have been pressed into juice, I take a sip and wrinkle my nose. “Bitter today,” I say to myself, pouring honey into the cup. I stir then take another drink. The stories come in flashes, too quick for my mind to understand, and I’m too tired to try, but my magic is fast enough to catch them.
I see snatches of a river flowing fast and sweep, the brown of a head topped with seaweed floating on. I catch the green of a tree and a swing hanging from a thick branch. I think I hear the growl of a bear. Or the clash of blades. But everything comes too fast, and there are so many stories to tell – stories of days and lives lived. I rarely ever see the last moments of death, thankfully.
I write, my fingers weaving stories in the air, words curling into smoke. I’m a hakawati jinn, and the stories I weave return to death and to the souls they belong to.
I drink more of the juice, weaving smoky tales in the air with my other hand. The stories disappear almost as soon as they form, getting swallowed back into death.
Layala stirs behind me, slipping out of her bed and padding behind me. She says nothing as she sets a pot of tea to boil and begins making our breakfast.
I drink the last of the juice and, more out of habit, glance at the lone pomegranate seed I keep in a small glass jar on a shelf.
Layala’s father. Those who have died by their own hand have no place in Mote. They are banished to jehinam, to suffer eternal cold and perpetual executions.
It was the only love I could show him after his death – to keep him in the waiting place of death, rather than write his tale and send him to suffer.
He visits us sometimes, as happy as any dead could be.
As if thinking about him conjured him, he steps into the cottage, his body more smoke and ash than flesh and blood.
“Illyas,” I say, rising to my feet.
He kisses me, soft and, if not warm, then not the cold expected with the dead. And though his face fades through mine, I pretend I feel his solid flesh.
“Sabah al kheer, baba,” our daughter says, throwing her arms around him. Good morning, father. Her arms collide with his body, the only few minutes of a day he is made of enough flesh to touch, though her skin is streaked with ash when she lets go. I reach out to touch him and he takes my hand.
He can only keep his form a few minutes in a day, in the moments when the sun’s light turns from red and orange to its day colors.
“And how are my girls today?” he says, as he does every visit.
“Good,” Layala says. “I’m going to see jido again today.” Her grandfather.
My dead lover’s face stiffens, but he forces a smile onto his face. “You should spend more time at home, with your mother,” he says, and I throw him a grateful look.
But before Layala could respond, Illyas disappears as the sun’s light breaks through our windows and the morning is fully awake.
We both sigh, always wishing for just one more minute with him.
“I wish we could go into death,” Layala says. “You’re a jinn, you’re made of death itself. Are you sure there’s no way–”
“No, Layl. I’ve told you before. Jinns manage death, they don’t enter it or keep its company, not if they can help it.”
I hate lying to my daughter’s face, but her questions have plagued me for years. Ever since she was a child, she wanted to know: what was death like, was it something you could take trips to?
It’s better she knows as little as possible, even if she is half-jinn. She’ll likely never have my magic, and it’s best she doesn’t.
“I’m going to jido’s,” she says with a sigh. “I’ll be gone all day.”
“Your father is right, you know. You should stay home more, learn a craft so you can support yourself when I die.”
“You’ll be around for many more years, maman. You just don’t like jido much,” she teases, kissing me on my head as she darts off to get dressed.
I glance back at that lone pomegranate seed on the shelf. He’s nothing like his father, and thank the heavens for that.
My daughter leaves the house in a flurry of color and voice. “Bye Maman!” she yells, barely throwing me a parting look. I give her a headstart, grabbing an empty bottle and one filled with honey, and a canteen of water.
Then I take the stony pathway at the back of the house, and head straight for the cemetery. It’s filled with chipped tombstones sporting moss shoulders and spiderwebs. No flowers or notes mark any grave anymore – the cemetery has long been forgotten.
Which is why it’s perfect for my escapes into death. I lean back against a tree and spy a fox watching me.
“Come to see me walk into death, little one?” I say.
The fox cocks its head at me, his snout curled up in a characteristic smile. Then it dashes off, its bushy tail following.
I fill the empty jar with dirt from a grave, mix in the honey and water, and drink the mix. My mouth fills with granules of stone and sand and I try not to chew any, only swallow. The honey does little to mask the taste, but it’ll do.
When the dirt water settles in my stomach, I press my hands to the ground and let the cold of the earth seep into my skin. It’s familiar, this feeling of being one foot in the warmth of life and the other in the cold of death.
My dead lover greets me. He’s a shadow first, then the smoke curls in around him and I can just make out his features. He’s smiling, as usual, his hand outstretched me. I take it and like lightning striking me, my body jolts and my soul is in death.
“Hakawati,” he says, calling me by my title rather than my name. “Hiyati.” My life.
“Illyas,” I say, letting him guide me to a bench. Death surprisingly has small comforts for those who can’t or won’t pass on to Mote or jehinam. “How are you?”
He laughs, the sound gravelly but warm, like honey mixed with sand. I want to hold him like he used to hold me, when he was alive. But bodies move and fit differently in death, less flesh and more ash. “As good as can be. How are my girls?”
“Well enough. Your daughter threw animal shit at some boys who were bothering her yesterday. I don’t know if I should encourage her fiery personality or douse it,” I say, laughing.
Illyas laughs, but there’s a tightness in his face. “She should be careful,” he says. “She’s still your daughter, and they don’t take kindly to that.” He brushes a hand across my face, and though I don’t feel skin, there’s still a trail of warmth. I lean my cheek into his touch, and he lets me rest my weight against him.
“There’s so much I want to tell her,” I say, “But I don’t know if I should. And I’ve told her so many lies over the years. How do I undo that?”
Illyas says nothing, but when he tries to pull me in closer to his chest, we fade into each other, smoke curling into smoke. We pull back, our bodies regaining substance.
“Hakawati, tell her a story. You’ve spun her tales since she was in a cradle, she will feel your meaning, even if she doesn’t understand it. Weave her a story, see what she says.”
“She’ll roll her eyes and ask to go to her grandfather’s house. She’s had little patience for me lately.”
Illyas laughs, shaking his head. “She reminds me of me when I was her age. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”
“I loved you at that age,” I say, reaching out for his hand. I let mine hover over his, so we feel each other’s warmth.
“Loved?” he teases. “Not anymore?”
I crack a smile, “You know you’re my one and true love.”
He chuckles again, then sobers. “You shouldn’t be alone anymore. Layl is getting older, she will one day leave home to start her own. What will you do then?”
“Visit you more often,” I say.
Illyas shakes his head. “You should find someone.”
“I remember you being rather jealous of a certain Ihab in the village,” I tease, “When he gave me flowers during the midsummer festival.”
Illyas barks out a laugh. “I was young and unsure of your affection. And I seem to recall you encouraging him, just to make me jealous.”
“I might have,” I say with a smile. “I don’t remember.”
“Lies. You remember everything as if your brain is a stone and someone’s carved words into them.” He smiles at me, the lines around his eyes crinkling, as if he were still made of true flesh. I want to hold him, to smell him..
Instead, I get to my feet. “I should return. The sun will be setting soon.” Time works differently in death than in life, at once faster and slower.
“I’ll walk you home,” Illyas says, and we both smile, because there’s no leaving death for Illyas tonight.
I hover my lips at his cheek in the mimicry of a kiss. Anything more, and we’d fade into each other.
“Goodbye, Hakawati,” Illyas says. “I’ll miss you until next time.”