psicover

The conditions were perfect for drawing a spirit: the pomegranate tree stood for forty years at the top of the hill, overlooking the wadi and its village far, far below. It waved its branches, peerless and heavy with fruits. Long winding strands of fabric entwined every inch of bark. The constant blowing of the wind through these prayer ribbons swelled the reservoir of barakah— of holiness. Nearby stood the desolate ruins of empires past, the signs of their unique character worn by time so that only a rounded column drum now remained. Its white surface was crossed by a red thread tied there by villagers seeking to grow round, like the stone; a form of sympathetic magic. With so many favourable circumstances, no one was surprised that lights danced in that tree, the sounds of chanting in the distance could be heard during feasts and the high holy days.

That night the sky was clear and dark, pierced by thousands of lights. In the stillness at the top of the hill thunder rolled with no one to hear it, the sound coming not from the sky but the earth. The solid ground beneath the pomegranate tree split, opened a gash in the land. A reddish glare threw vivid colour onto the tree as a figure emerged from the pit. They swing up their legs and stood beside the tree as the earth churned, sealing up the crevasse.

The figure—a djinn—looked up into the light of the moon as it shone down from inside the tree’s branches, as if it were held there tenderly. It illuminated her face: dark, round, and framed by long thick braids secured into a crown. She was stately, patient as she sat herself on the column drum.

She was silent for a long moment, just allowing the warm light of that moon to bathe her. She arranged her long embroidered robes, black and red so dark it looked purple in the darkness. In time, she looked up from under her dark lashes, raising her hand to shield her eyes. “You’re bright tonight,” she said, a smile playing on her lips. “I can barely look at you like this. Do you think you can dim for Muneera, O Moon? Maybe a cloud will take pity. But it’s a clear night.” She hugged her knees to her chest, drawing herself up as she sat on the column drum.

Her face half-hidden, she poured out words that filled that remote place with longing, the heartaches of a djinn: one of the hidden daughters of Eve, exiled from the light of the sun, lacking love. To the moon she gave all of her confidences, secrets, aches.

Night after night, the djinn returned and spoke to her silent watcher in the Heavens. “There is no one for me, not in the world below or the world above. The knowledge I’ve gleaned through the centuries is not comforting me, and I grow ever more restless, with no one to turn to for warmth. Even just a listening ear… I’m glad that your branches are said to cure diseases of the mind, for I fear sometimes that I will fall into some extreme state if this goes on for much longer.

I know that as one of the Hidden Ones I shouldn’t expect to walk in the sun and have relationships with the women of the Earth. But what I know has little bearing on how I feel. And my feelings are opposed to what is reasonable.

Stories abound of djinn taking lovers from the world above, but who ever heard of a woman who became a djinnieh’s lover? Besides, I don’t want to dominate and lure a victim who will lose their will and break their mind to bind them to me, as the djinn do their human lovers. I want a companion, that’s all.

Who ever heard of a more pathetic scene? Let me ask you… if a djinn like me can feel and confess such things, is there anyone—anyone at all—who would listen? I mean really listen…” she added forcefully.

“But I am listening,” said the Moon, her voice soft.

Muneera staggered to her feet.

“If you need someone to listen, I’m here,” continued the voice.

The djinn tried to force herself to look up into that light she had taken for the moon. Having failed, she reached into her robes and withdrew a talisman, a small silver casket from which she drew out a slip of paper. Frowning, she held it up between her and the moon. The script on the slip of paper faintly glowed, as if gilded.

“Undead,” said Muneera, her tone guarded. “I don’t make a habit of talking to ghosts and ghouls. So, which is it: ghost or ghoul?” Muneera flicked her hand and a scimitar appeared, snow white, covered in holy sigils and numerological formulae. She got down from the column drum and circled the tree warily. “Just what is your game, anyway?”

The light of the moon wavered, it dimmed as it descended from the tree. A figure appeared from the haze of glittering light shafts as they fell through the branches. She walked in creamy robes, hints of red around her hems. In her hand was a short sword, quite plain. The nimbus of light surrounding her faded somewhat as she walked forward. She stood and looked up at Muneera.

“I was only listening—”

“Well, I’ve done enough talking!” cried Muneera igniting her blade, intoning killing intent into it. She waited, coiled and renewed in her purpose. The nimbus around this ghost’s head, which she had mistaken for the moon, still outshone the real moon which hovered dim and high in the sky. Muneera lunged, trusting down into the figure. She spun away from her, as expected. Muneera recovered to change direction.

The flames of her sword lit up a face in the nimbus. At first, she caught only a glimpse of a smirk. Coral lips turned up—it was not an unkind face. She darted her blade more and more toward that face. Glance by glance, a picture formed. They were beautiful, and incredibly strong. She wasn’t playing around with her strikes. Usually, her bouts end before the third blow is dealt, but this battle went on and on. She felt her stamina draining, and the ghost kept evading, kept absorbing the force of her attacks.

How could this be? They were stronger than her but Muneera had the advantage of speed, and her spells. None were effective! What ghost could repel so many holy sigils and scriptures?! An anger rose up within her; this is the being who heard her pour out her soul, had become a confidant to her most vulnerable secrets. Is this why she could be bested now? They knew her too well? She could anticipate every line of attack without missing a beat or tiring.

“How do you fight so well?” asked Muneera through gritted teeth. The ghost guarded high. Muneera could see most of her face as it was lit by the aura of her white blade. Two black eyes looked over its edge. They shone with a gentle ferocity and a courage she had not expected. These were not the eyes of the restless dead.

“You have my thanks,” said the ghost. “My father taught me.” They circled each other. Her father taught her to fight? But humans do not train their daughters in the warrior arts? She must have noted Muneera’s confusion. She leaped to gain the advantage and struck, forcing Muneera to withdraw to catch her breath. The ghost sliced off a pomegranate from the tree. Handling her sword by the blade, she sliced into the fruit. Purple-red juice erupted from it and stained her hands. They were long-fingered and elegant as they deftly rooted around in the fruit before withdrawing a single aril.

“There is always a seed from paradise,” she said offering the plucked seed to Muneera. Muneera hesitated, then reached for it. The ghost pulled back and the corner of her mouth hitched. “A kiss, and then we will see what we will see.”

Muneera looked down at her, the nimbus shining around her almost scorching her eyes. She leaned in and kissed her gingerly. Her skin was surprisingly hot and supple. She smelled like sandalwood. Light poured into Muneera in a cascading flow of barakah. Engulfed and drowning in her, she happily succumbed. The scimitar slipped from her nerveless hands and she fumbled toward her until she had braced her against the pomegranate tree. Bathed in her holiness, Muneera was overcome. Her hands wandered along the very solid collar bones, and cupped a firm chin her both of her hands. She turned her face up and kissed her again, drinking deeper and wilder from that stream of spiritual power.

The ghost pulled back and examined the aril in her hand as Muneera panted, the kiss broken. “Now, you see,” she said. And Muneera did; this was no ghost. This woman, this being, was a saint. Muneera stepped back and looked on as the saint held up the aril and fed it to her gently. The skin burst between her teeth, the juice piquant and sweet—so sweet.

“Come back tomorrow night,” said the saint. “And I’ll give you another. Remember, there’s one from Paradise in each fruit…” Muneera looked at the tree heavy with pomegranates and smiled.

Muneera did come back, again and again. “I brought some pillows,” said Muneera. “I thought it would be more pleasant to recline here than on the ground.” She arranged the pillows into a nest for them both. The saint laid down and beckoned Muneera to lay beside her, and she did. Under the light of the true moon, they lay together talking long into the night.

The saint pressed her forehead against Muneera’s and smiled gently, fondly. “There is something I’ve wanted to say, but I thought you were too upset about me listening in on your private thoughts, when you mistook me for the moon,” she said. “You sounded so hollow, and the truth is that I was hollow too. Drifting, I found this tree to live in. Worshipers come to leave their tokens, to pray not to me but to the ocean of blessings. They don’t even know me.”

Muneera frowned, “My friend,” she said. “How could you ever be hollow?” The saint opened her arms and Muneera moved into the embrace. Gently she was rocked like that, laying in the saint’s arms. A soft set of lips set a kiss on her temple.

“And you,” said the saint. Muneera’s eyes narrowed, thinking back on all she had said, all that had passed between them. She said nothing in return but reached around to grasp the saint’s strong arms and stroke them. The saint carefully brushed the hair from Muneera’s brow and held her closer.

Muneera gathered up her courage and asked: “my dear friend, what ended your mortal life?” The saint released her and ran a finger along the hem of her robes, the crimson that edged the creamy white. “Are you… are you a martyr?” The saint nodded.

“You probably know what happened already,” she said. When Muneera frowned, she continued: “It’s common for martyrs to be persecuted for who they are, especially when they defy their family obligations and wishes, and refuse to get married off. That was how it happened in my case also.”

“You listened so patiently as I droned on about being lonely,” Muneera drew away with shame, looking earnestly at her companion. “And here you lost your life to be celibate. I must have sounded so self-absorbed to you.”

The saint shook her head. “You misunderstand, just as they did. It isn’t celibacy; it’s who I am. There is no need for pity, or shame; we’ve moved far beyond that. I love you, Muneera. To have the chance to be with you, to love you just like this… I’m blessed. What more can I say?”

Tears were in Muneera’s eyes. Sweet heat infused her body. She was wanted, all of her accepted and treasured for the first time in her life. She held the saint’s hands and leaned over her, eclipsing the moon. And she knew she could return it all. She had faith.

 

 

Sonia Sulaiman writes short speculative fiction inspired by Palestinian folklore. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Arab Lit Quarterly, Beladi, in Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth, and Lackington's Magazine. In her free time, Sonia is a first reader at Strange Horizons. She also shares Palestinian folklore on Twitter @SoniaSulaiman.

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