No moon, no star was visible. Darkness laughed to itself.
Mahguli scattered sharp-scented leaves on the fire. Sparks leapt like comets transversing a secret universe.
Something saw Mahguli that hadn’t noticed her before. Greedy fingers stretched to pinch her ears.
“Ha!” said Mahguli, trapping it in an old scent bottle.
A djinni! Who turned herself inside out with rage, tiny guts smacking against the glass. That horrible trick had always worked before — frightening captors into dropping her prison — kazaam!
But Mahguli’s great-grandma — Nani — taught her how such undertakings are managed, and she was ready for anything.
“Blooooohhhhh!” the djinni shouted, cheeks turning purple; “fleeeegggghhh!”
“Stop that nonsense,” said Mahguli; “you’ll give yourself a stomach-ache.”
Tiny, cheerful Nani had an elaborate proper name — Qurat-ul-Ain — and disconcerting luggage. She took along her coffin if she slept away from home. Nani liked to always be prepared.
She kept all her hair-combings and nail-parings piled neatly beneath her shroud-cloth; someday everything would be sewn inside together.
Only fools, she told Mahguli, leave bits of themselves lying around where anything might find them.
“But, Nani-jan, if we all followed your example — ”
Most of the family treated Nani, now, like a sort of charming pet — welcomed, fussed over and never taken seriously.
Thunderous Aunt Jazbati had her own special Nani-story.
“That idiot — ”
Had once, as a very young wife, returned home from the tandoor wallah’s with one bread less than she’d paid for — because she’d fed it to a beaten ox bellowing in distress. Got her own beating for that, didn’t she!
The ox itself hadn’t thought the incident laughable; after licking the last crumbs from Qurat-ul-Ain’s hand, it whispered to her a Word of Power, in gratitude.
That’s how Nani first learned that things may be more than they seem.
She safeguarded that gift, til a person who’d value it equally came along.
Demons, said Nani, were one thing. They only catch people already creeping in their direction. Right intention’s the best charm against them.
But, she continued, the unseen world has many inhabitants — some with very tiny, simple little minds — hardly minds at all — and they’re terribly curious about things they have no capacity to understand.
(That’s a long way of saying they make plenty of mischief!)
Nani was by now so old, and had lived so blamelessly, that she was almost translucent; her soul glowed like a candle in a glass. That made her a very delicious object of attention — especially when sitting quietly, in contemplation, in the dark, on her little rug, after isha prayers.
Coal and diamonds begin as the same thing. Aunt Jazbati had been innocent, once. Spite was the lampblack that smothered her flame.
Fate made use of her now.
She passed the doorway of Nani’s room, glancing in. Moonlight silvered Nani’s shape, sitting in its usual place at the usual time. The room seemed otherwise uninhabited.
Aunt Jazbati went phhtt! in irritation. She’ll catch cold and everything’ll be in an uproar lest the damn fool die —
Something — entranced by Nani’s radiance — blew right up against the edge of her prayer-rug on that phhtt! of sulfurous air — and became utterly intoxicated by the jasmine-and-myrtle fragrance of her being.
A strand of Nani’s hair — nearly invisible — drifted — and something caught it and tickled Nani’s nose.
Nani sneezed — and something pilfered her soul.
Nani crushed a spider, threw bread on the floor and giggled at Anjum-the-sweeper’s mangled speech. All this before breakfast!
Aunt Jazbati snorted. “Rice-pudding brain finally gone to mush altogether,” she said.
Mahguli dragged a wooden cot into the courtyard’s beautiful mid-winter sun, but not before Nani’s little foot had toppled five flowerpots.
The cot was just high enough to maroon Nani for at least a little while. Mahguli looked into Nani’s eyes, suspecting what she’d see. Nothing. Something had stolen their light.
“What do you want?” the djinni kept wailing; “let me out,” too loudly to hear anything Mahguli said.
Mahguli lost patience. Nani, soulless, had grown more ghouleh-like all day. She’d worn herself to pieces with all that mischief and was — at the moment — asleep.
Mahguli uncorked the bottle. She whispered one of the Most Beautiful Names right in the ears of the djinni, whose flailing legs flew up and tiny bottom fell down. She stared at Mahguli with huge awed eyes.
“In the Name of the Almighty, will you help me, of your own free will?”
The djinni, already in frightful disarray, was flummoxed now.
“What kind of thing are you?”
Nani’s soul — untethered from her living body — yet unsummoned past the gates of the world — was purposeless. Its luster dimmed. The something which stole it couldn’t remember wanting it in the first place. Nani’s soul, abandoned, waited. Time had no meaning.
“Nani smells like this,” said Mahguli, stroking the spotless white chador Nani wrapped herself in for prayer.
The djinni sniffed it rapturously. “What is she?”
“You promised,” Mahguli said.
The djinni sighed, then billowed spectacularly, sharp little face growing impressively stern.
“Wish!” she commanded.
With superb dignity, the djinni handed Mahguli a pale flickering bundle. Mahguli laid it next to Nani’s sleeping form. She whispered the Word of Power Nani had taught her — to be used only for a holy purpose.
Nani’s soul, recognizing her, recalled its purpose.
Time resumed an ordered flow.
“Good morning, Nani-jan,” said Mahguli, bringing a steaming cup of chai.
“Ai!” sighed Nani, “I really must be getting old now — sleeping through morning azan! My sweetheart — why didn’t you wake me up?”
Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.)