I blew my magics on the dagger, said Odea, so that when you slit its throat, it will bleed all its blood to feed the earth. The dagger reeked—bane and flowers. It hummed, the melody of the childsong that we’ve sung for generations to give us courage as we traverse the swelter to enter the accursed place.
• • •
I would say I have two friends. The jinnia of some notes on the summer air and Abe. Abe is a liar and a trickster. I trust him. As for the jinnia, she never speaks. I trust her, too. They are both my friends. They enjoy my flute playing. In their own way, they are both kind. Kinder, at any rate, than the rest of the humans and jinn. Kinder than the desert, which eats our flesh and drinks our blood and devours our souls and destroys our destinies for its own unthinking, selfish purposes.
• • •
A second child is like a different country. It is a stain on the earth. It is as if I am the land and he is the invader. It is an impossibility and a blight on the face of the desert. This is one of the many lessons we are taught.
When Abla was born, Zenobia let out a high, purple shriek. Odea cried tears white as camel’s milk. A curse upon you all, interpreted for us the Lord of Night-Scented Stock. Siblings, curses, siblings, curses. Abla was tainted, a foreigner, a second. You must kill it, now (decreed Zenobia or Odea by way of the Lord of Night-Scented Stock). You must take it, they said—always “it” never “he”—take it and go deep into the desert to the abode of the palms and there purify it stab it leave it there to die a bloody death in the sanglant gardens where we may not go.
Abla is a sweet child, with smiling eyes. I have never seen such a smile. But you must understand, it is difficult to refuse the jinn. Of course, if one is smart enough or crazy enough, one can. Wily Abe, after all, circumvented the jinn’s wishes so often and so successfully for years. Until they caught him. And then they dragged him, kicking screaming begging, snot spit and all, into the Aberrant Sea. This is why I like him, even though he is a liar.
So, holding the smiling and cooing Abla in my arms, protecting him, I said, to Zenobia and Odea by way of the Lord of Night-Scented Stock, I said, I will not, and they said, Child, go forth, go forth and kill it. I said to Zenobia, I am no child, lady, and he is a “he,” not an “it,” and they said that Abla (it) had tainted and stolen and I was to go forth in the desert to kill, to leave it to bleed to death, gasping and choking on its own blood (his own blood) in the abode. To ensure our and your survival, and the blessed continuance of the desert.
Naturally, they did not ask our mother and father, who lay silently, wallowing in their sin, as if dead (perhaps dead?, smitten by grief, or lust, or the wrath of the jinn, I thought).
• • •
There are one thousand jinn here in the waste. They all lay claim to this land. I call them jinn for lack of a better word. They are random, fickle, often powerful creatures. They issue decrees and slaughter each other and us. The land is narrow and long. I am told that in the furthest northern reaches, there are wet, glistening jungles. In the southern confines of the land, lush, sparkling coasts. And here is the wasteland. Why anyone—let alone jinn who can fly where they please—would fight over this freakish, barren, sunburnt, yellow, devastating, tainted expanse of land and dead seas is beyond our understanding. But here we are, servants to a thousand jinn in a blasted desert. The jinn, aeons ago, made the rules by which we live. We trust in the wisdom of their laws, even when it is hard. Especially then.
We have all heard of what happens to those who disobey the jinn. We have sometimes seen it, also. Abe is one of the lucky ones, his fate reminding us of a time when the jinn were laxer with us and with each other. So, we obey. There is comfort and safety in obeisance.
In the village, some jinn hold sway more than others. There are, of course, the twin jinniat—Zenobia and Odea—who live as intertwined oval statues of stone in the main square. Zenobia speaks in high, purple shrieks and Odea by fluttering her stony eyelashes. They are attended to by the Lord of Night-Scented Stock, who translates them into our language so we may know what they decree, what they desire, and what they hate. Zenobia and Odea protect us and hate many things. Then there is the Lord of the Palms (he was our enemy and shall therefore not be named, now or ever, may his name be lost in the trash of time), and wily Abe, formerly human, now the Jinni of the Aberrant Sea (Abe is my friend, may his lies ever bless this land, who taught me to be untrustworthy of their, or anyone’s, lessons). And there’s the rest, of course: the jinnia who comes to me as a gazelle; the jinni of mercy who is the cruellest of them all but thankfully weak; the Lady of the sixth night of the month and the Lord of the seventh night of every two months, and the jinni of when the moon is just above its red satellite, and the jinnia of the rays of the sun right before noon; and the child jinni of the blue hour when the sand sings.
The Lord of Night-Scented Stock lives in the bush of flowers whence the twin ladies emerge. He reeks of them, ladies and nightflowers. I have never seen him, but he is the one who translates their requests to us. It is said that he used to be Abe’s lover and was turned into jinni as punishment. One became the heavy fragrances of night, the other the saltiest sea.
• • •
The abode is a space where no jinni may enter, no god, no adult. Only us. Only us, the children, the babies who kill their baby brothers and sisters. The waste of the children. When we reach puberty, the abode removes itself from our ken, our will. Adults can neither find it nor enter it, not even by accident. The only time an adult ventures into the abode is when they are about to be punished. They never come out. Such is the destiny of mortals. Only jinn and children can come and go. I cannot wait to turn thirteen and be spared from this gift.
Our mother and father did not say a word when the twin jinniat spoke. They were not dead, I realized, just catatonic with grief. In fact, my mother squeezed my hand, once, very hard, and that was it. The jinn are fickle but must be obeyed. And so, two hours later, with a full flask of tea, my flute, and the noxious dagger I was given, we set forth, my baby brother and me. A day’s journey.
• • •
A day’s journey: nothing, a fraction of a caravan trail, and yet it was like changing worlds. As the village disappeared behind us, I could feel the abode looming ahead even before I saw it. The dagger hummed. Abla cooed and promptly fell asleep. Innocent, lovely child. Why me, I thought, why me, why must I do it, and why must he die?
Abe tells me that the desert is the body of a long-dead god. The dunes, its mutilated organs. The sand, its blood dried out by millennia of sun. What we think of as ruins are, in fact, its bones. Organic architectures. Monstrosities. But Abe is a trickster and a liar; he must not always be believed.
The desert has very distinct colours. Once you leave the village (in which the desert is merely horizon, backdrop), its colours blur and start bleeding into each other—one pastel into the other, one iridescence into another. The blue and the yellow and the opalescent.
I walked along the asphalt, baby bundled up in my arms, my eyes fixed on the sky first, then the Aberrant Sea. Travellers tell us it is one of the most spectacular and weird features of our desert that it has its own sea. Granted, no living thing can survive in it (some say it is Abe’s doing), but still, it is a sea, a body of water, a full five fathom deep.
I see no reason why it is surprising.
The jinn, who are many, say there is not width enough in the desert and under its skies for more than one, one, one—one people and one god and one one one everything (and yet there are a thousand jinn and a billion sons and daughters of Adam). Thus, I am sent to kill Abla. A second child is a stain on the earth. It is like dirt encasing a flower. It is horrendous.
Abla remained peacefully asleep for most of the day despite the heat. Perhaps Zenobia or Odea, in a moment of uncharacteristic generosity, had bewitched him so that he slept through his violent death. Perhaps our babies, after centuries of killing, had developed this skill by themselves. He only woke up twice. Or perhaps, as I have sometimes heard, Abe intervened. Abe sometimes thwarts what the other jinn decree and force upon us. I gave Abla a bit to drink. I played with him, and he chirped and laughed and marvelled at me. I had never been so close, for so long, to a baby. It was enchanting. Enchanting, too, were his eyes right before he settled peacefully back to sleep. A calm, easy child. An innocent. Surely Abe’s doing, Abe’s tricksy generosity, that he slept so soundly.
I sent Abe a thanks and a prayer in my mind as we walked by his sea. A request. Please trickster jinni of the saltiest sea, Lord Aberrant, please tell me how to save my brother. Please teach me how to save that innocent child. No, a second child is more aberrant than the sea. It is a sickness, and he—no, it —is not innocent.
Sometimes, in the desert, the world slides; the shapes of reality start to tremble in the sun. It is when a jinni of the waste speaks. Call with your flute, Abe the trickster told me.
• • •
On the warmest nights, I play the flute well until dawn and watch the desert turn and burn in kaleidoscope. The flute keeps the heat sickness at bay. Somehow. There is no jinni of the flute, but my friend the jinnia of some notes on the summer air always comes. She truly is one of the kindest of all. She comes to me as a gazelle and rests at my feet. Her aura is a dark violet, sparkles of it surrounding her and me.
I think the jinn are mere décor, stories we tell ourselves. They are the excuses we use. One thousand reasons to make the desert liveable, one thousand justifications for our cruelty, and one thousand opportunities to be kind.
A second child is like a foreign country invading us, my mother, my father, and me. It is imperative to our survival that we dispose of the invading force.
• • •
(At night, sometimes, when the gazelle jinnia is resting at my feet, and I am stroking her, and the wind blows, I feel as if I am becoming the desert. As if the desert would eat me whole, make me become it. I, I, I who am an ocean of life within, to become this it, this being with no sentience no life no contradiction to its being—
But that is not true: the desert pulses with its own life, with its tides of contradictions. It is sentient. It is malevolent. Its beating heart is this abode, where it swallows all the bonus life we create, everything that would make life here less miserable, it eats and eats and eats our flesh, and drinks our blood, and burps and belches in atomic blasts, and laughs at how stupidly obedient we are. The desert is a monster and there is no escape. It knows.)
• • •
The abode is a blood-soaked place where we send to die all that is displeasing to the nature of the desert (according to the intricate rules set out by the jinn). There is blood everywhere. The trees—elegant palms that rise towards the azure sky—are lush because they drink blood. Their trunks have grown flesh like half dead men and women. Everything is covered in blood, splattered with it, dripping with it, caked in it. The ridges of the trunks, and the grooves of the palms, and the sand. All blood. Every village in the desert sends its children there to punish those whose transgressions are beyond the pale.
(Abe says that he saw, back when he could go there, palm trees with eyes and hands, moaning and calling for help. He saw, he claims, bodies remade into monstrous shapes, maimed, mangled, tangled. Eyes below the faces emerging from the trunks coughing blood. Hands grasping at the air in desperation. Noses at the roots drowning in spit. Mouths with no teeth calling out from the palm leaves. Gasps and moans and coughs and cries filled the air. He saw pain in that place of pain.)
In the middle of the abode, there is a hole. In that hole, we must pour the blood of the sacrifice. It then irrigates the palm grove by way of an intricate labyrinth of canals. We say that our ancestors built it. Abe says it’s hilarious that we think so. He won’t tell me the truth about this, though. Says that some of his lies are only to protect me. And the palm grove grows more triumphant every time a being is sentenced to death there.
(Even jinn are taken there to die when they have committed an unforgivable affront to the desert. Abe remembers, he says, when the Lady of Midsummer Twilight was taken there, bound in magics, to be stoned by children. He says that a palm grew there right after her sacrifice: the blue and purple one that stands on the southern edge of the abode.)
It is the only way for the blight to be purified—become part of the desert, feed it, and thus be saved. The abode’s sand is red red red and sticky sticky with the blood of humans and the blue liquids of jinn. Steaming sand. Some insects evolved there to survive by drinking human blood. Some snakes, too, crave rotting flesh now. They live around the abode and never venture far from it. The adults do not believe us when we tell them of their existence. I try not to think about it.
I have been there so often that I could just close my eyes, hold my baby brother, and walk. I knew I was getting closer when the air started to smell, redolent with blood and moans and ghosts and and and life weird steaming life rotting carcasses and broken bodies.
• • •
I stop by Abe’s shore. There is no one here. It is the landscape of the beginning of time, when from the tohubohu emerged the earth and the waters and all that is good. There is no one here. This is a blessing, here on the shore of the world. Abe’s sea is the last stop, the reprieve, before the abode. There is no one here, in this edge and centre of the universe. In this centre of the desert that is also the antithesis of the desert. The trickster sea, where nothing lives save Abe’s wily spirit. Abe who thwarts death and carnage. I sit here, baby bundled up by my side. Please please please Abe I do not want to do this please Abe play a trick a vanishing trick please. I breathe the clean, salty air. It is not the same as elsewhere in the desert and not the same, here, as the bloodwind of the nearby abode. Please Abe why me why us why must he die?
• • •
Jinn, some say, come from the heat. They are borne out of the furnacing air. As soon as they come to existence, they latch onto the first thing they find: a stone, a note on the summer air, some rays of sun, a reflection of the moon, a lizard, two grains of sand, a deer, a pile of trash, a cup of tea, a rainbow. Some others come to be in different ways (such as Abe), but most are furnace made life. Most have no hearts, and therefore no kindness. They are furnace and blood, and they crave heat and blood. They require our pain to sustain themselves.
• • •
Call, with the flute, now, says Abe from somewhere in his watery expanse. It is the waves speaking. Call with the flute and ask for help.
Abla wakes up, next to me, on the fresh stone where I had carefully placed him. I take him in my arms. He looks at me, gurgles a happy gurgle, and promptly falls asleep again. I can feel the dagger—bane and flowers—singing with murderous glee. I gently settle Abla back on the stone. Why on earth did they give him a name if they knew? I take my flute. It feels weak, useless, next to the boldness and triumph of the dagger.
• • •
I play something that is pleasing to Abe, who likes melodies of corals and galaxies, fishermen’s nets and comets. The toxic sea, his home, ebbs and flows. I play softly at first. Abla coos. I think, maybe, Abla hums also. I play louder and Abla laughs. The dagger lets out a shriek, purple like Zenobia, white like Odea. I play louder still. Abla laughs and coos and hums and the sea, also, sings. The dagger wants blood, and it fears it will not get any. Abe’s waves hum and purr with evident pleasure. The desert trembles, twists, and turns as I play. This song of invocation, she loves it also. She always comes when I play. My other friend. I catch, suddenly, glimpses of mauve, of indigo, of violet around me. She is approaching. I sense her colours. She comes to listen to the music and perhaps help a child. Please Abe, please jinnia. For a moment, they all listen to me—the jinnia, Abe, Abla, and the shrieking dagger.
Then the dark violet of the jinnia of some notes on the summer air envelops Abla. For a minute more, the desert flashes mauve, violet, pink. Abla chirps and squeals in wonder as the colours dance around him to the rhythm of the music. And suddenly, I stop, the colours vanish, and Abla is gone. My friend the jinnia has taken him. Somewhere safe, I know.
I play a few notes of thanks and farewell. Bye-bye, Abla. May you be safe and free. The dagger is shrieking louder and louder, its voice making its way into my brain, its anger trying to undo me. A hunter missing its prey. I take it in my hands. Sorry, I say kindly. After all, it is merely obeying its own nature.
And I ask Abe if he is willing.
Yes, Abe whispers.
I walk down the shore, until the waves are lapping at my toes. Bye-bye, dagger. May you be safe and free. I fling it as far as I can in the Aberrant Sea. Splash. Gone. Thank you, Abe whispers.
Thank you, I whisper back to Abe, and to the jinnia, and to the flute and dagger. May you be safe and free. I tell myself, I will never again play the flute.