by Mimi Mondal
Read by Elizabeth Green Musselman
Hosted by LaShawn M. Wanak
A PodCastle Original! Welcome to Artemis Rising!
This Sullied Earth, Our Home
by Mimi Mondal
A few hours after the Majestic Oriental Circus rolls into Deoband, Johuree steps into our tent and whispers, “This is the place where I took you in. It was here.”Outside, it looks just like one of the many small towns we wind our way through, halting for a week or two to put up a show. It has been raining for days. The university dome in the distance glistens with dark moss against the ponderous sky. The fairground is all mud, sludge and clumps of grass, sucking in our tent posts like a fumbling, ungainly monster. A group of local men, hired to dry up enough ground to put up the main circus tent, have been working since the morning. So why does this miserable earth feel like a familiar taste, again?We wonder if Johuree would like a cup of tea. He agrees. There is no milk, but he sips the dark brown brew in silence.We watch.“There is a cottage at the far end of the town. Little more than ruins now, I presume. Would you like to visit?”Johuree never goes anywhere. We don”t recall him ever stepping out into the daylight. We don”t recall much anything. Though we travel far and wide with the circus, we have never left the camp site and gone “sightseeing”, as some others in the troupe are in the habit of doing.
Nor has he.
“He was my friend. My brother. We had fought together through our darkest hour.”
Johuree never reminisces, the least of all about family. We are not sure if there is anything to reminisce. He shifts his bulk upon the faded patchwork rug that is the only seat for guests in our tent. He places the empty cup and plate delicately on the floor.
We sit on wooden chairs set against the mirror and the dressing table. We nod.
“Well, then. We leave after lunch and return by sundown. I will send Bansiram out to find a pair of hooded raincoats for you . ”
After he leaves, we fiddle around our tent, grappling with the thought.
Eventually, Elia speaks, “Our . . . father.”
“Should we put on our makeup?” says Sascha.
“He didn’ t say. ”
“He didn ‘ t say not to.”
That is a fact. We never leave the tent without our makeup. But then, we never leave to go anywhere but up on the stage.
“What if we dress up as one of each?” Elia suggests. “You take the light one, I take the dark.”
This sounds reasonable. Sounds like the way we think people in the non-circus world might dress.
Our efforts meet Johuree’ s approval. We are less sure that his silver ringmaster jacket is the appropriate attire for a visit to the dead. But we do not know what is, so we hold our judgement.
“Going out, babu saab?”
Wading through the mud towards us is one of the men working on the ground. Soaked, mud-splattered kurta pajama lingers against translucent skin that stretches tight over his bones. The man sucks vigorously at a sodden beedi.
“Just taking the children out for a walk. Bit of sightseeing.”
“Some weather for sightseeing.”
“Not likely to improve any time soon, is it?” Johuree displays his teeth.
The man stares at us. We recede under the hoods of our oversized raincoats.
Then he smiles. “Let me come with you. I know the town well – places to see, things of interest.”
“A generous offer, but really—”
The man picks up our pace. “Which places would you like to visit? The university? Some of our magnificent—”
“Another day, perhaps,” Johuree is curt, impatient. “This afternoon we will just pay a visit to the Padri Sahib ‘s house.”
“On that account, I’ m afraid you are about ten years too late. The Padri Sahib is long dead. There is nothing left of his house and garden but weeds and mud. And a grave.”
“Then my children will look at weeds, mud and a grave.”
“Forgive me babu saab, but you are not a young man”—under the hoods, we hold our breath—“and I cannot bear the thought you getting lost or coming to any harm in my town, more so with two children so small. Please to count me at your service – your man, Shehzad Marid.”
“Shehzad . . .” We think we see Johuree ‘ s eyes expand.
“. . . Marid,” agrees the man with a little smile, extending a dripping hand.
Johuree holds out his own chubby, be-ringed fingers and shakes it.
“Shall we go?”
Our new companion is a talker. As we cut across the bustling town, he points at things and tells us anecdotes about them, bemoans the conditions of the local transport and garbage disposal, offers to buy us excellent chai at the roadside stall he favours, until we get to the highway that leads north-west out of the town. Then, finally, quietude; nothing but the clamour of birds in the trees over our heads.
Shehzad Marid gets bored, sulks, whistles, skips along the way, rolls his eyes.
He returns to Johuree and says, “I never did understand why he let people call him the Padri Sahib. Considering that he never went to any church. There is no church in Deoband.”
“Perhaps he was a church man in his previous life,” Johuree shrugs.
“And you know about it.”
Our guide is unreleting.
“Why don ‘ t we do it this way, Johuree Saab – I tell you the reason why Deoband is unlike any other small town you have seen, and you tell me the story of the Padri Sahib”s life? It will keep the children entertained. They have a long way to walk.”
Johuree never tells stories. Even from when we were younger, we don’t remember being told tales, sung songs, read news from the papers. Nothing to do with the lives of other people.
“Very well,” he says.
And so, Shehzad Marid begins his story:
Once upon a time, children, a long time ago, there was no town in this place. The land was covered with heavy forests, populated by tigers, elephants, bears, all manner of ferocious beast. And here, by the side of a lake, there was a village, and a few rice fields for the villagers to eat. A few dal fields, vegetable fields . . . or whatever it was that people ate. The village was poor, semi-secluded; no different from other villages that dotted the forested uplands. A village that would fall through the cracks as other, more prominent parts of the country were awash with a great wave of change.
What great wave of change, you ask? Well, our story takes place around the time when Qutb-ud-din Aibak took over the throne of Delhi, and his Mamluk armies invaded all the lands from the foothills of the Himalayas to the lower plains of the Ganga. Invasions were not rare in this period, but the Mamluk invaders were unlike any other that came before them. They had come from far-off Afghanistan, or even further west, and brought with them a religion, language and culture that had nothing in common with the people of this land.
The village of our story also came under the invasions, but there was little for armies to invade there. An occasional band of soldiers would ride by and make off with a sheep or a pretty-faced girl, or some travellers would seek a night ‘s rest on their way to elsewhere, but life in the village was largely untouched by the changes in the world outside.
Then, one day, a warrior one horseback came riding on the heels of another. On a mound overlooking the village, the first warrior fought, slew and buried the second, but the villagers barred their doors and looked away. This fight was not theirs. They gave shelter to the victor when he rode down to the village, and sent for their doctor to dress his wounds, but none of them clearly understood what the man kept babbling on about. He was speaking of god and demons and fire, again and again of fire, but the gods and demons these people knew did not behave the way he described. He said he needed to build a
masjid – a house of worship – on the mound where he had buried his combatant, and the villagers thought the man a fool, for there was nothing but forest up there; for no one in the village shared the man’s faith . . . and who built a holy place over a corpse anyway?
The man was severely burnt. He had hardly any cuts or stabs from his battle; but the burns were so bad that chunks of flesh had melted off his bones, horrifying people at sight; and he gave off an unbearably delicious aroma of meat.
As the man kept babbling in his delirium, over the next few days, the villagers were confronted with an unforeseen hazard. At first, cattle started disappearing at night. Then, one midnight, the villagers woke up to find one of their rice fields burning. After that, in the houses, young men and women started having violent, frothing fits. Dung was found smeared on every housefront one day. Old women became pregnant. The village chief’s wife shamed their entire clan by walking home naked after a bath at the pond, and could not remember any of it afterwards.
The villagers offered prayers and sacrifices at their temple, but the torments continued. Eventually, everyone came to conclude that it was the burnt man – the one who threatened to contaminate their land by building a house of worship for his alien faith – who had brought this ill omen upon the village. He was not a man but a deo , a trickster spirit arrived to lure the righteous from the path of faith. So the villagers turned him out of their village at sundown, even though he was visibly too weak to survive the night in the forest. Later that night, there was a forest fire some distance from the village. They never saw or heard of the burnt man again.
The hauntings did not stop. Objects randomly caught fire and burnt down houses. People went into frenzies. Children were born who could remember their past incarnations or cleared the tops of tall trees in a leap. When a family arranged a marriage, they did not know what they were inviting into their homes.
The Islamic invaders had brought many new people into the country. In the following months, the forests became a route for not only wandering soldiers, but merchants, administrators, clerics, men of fortune, ladies in palanquins with long entourages of servants. New people started settling in the village and nearby. Business flourished. The village grew. But the mischiefs of the deo continued.
Much later, a saint of the Sufi persuasion happened to pass through the village. As soon as this pir heard of these occurrences, he identified them as signs of jinn activity. People understood each other ‘s speech rather better by this time, so the pir was able to convey to the villagers the necessity of building that mosque. What that luckless warrior defeated on that mound was a man driven by an ifrit – a jinn of fire, the very worst, the pir told them. The grave of his master chained this ifrit to the vicinity of the mound, and he was thoroughly peeved. Only by building a house of worship over the grave could this
malice be contained.
So they built that mosque, and the village that grew into a town came to be known as “Deoband”, after the binding of its malevolent spirit.
But that was not the end. The pir had come many years too late, for other jinni of various elements had by this time arrived and settled in the village. They had planted themselves among the people – taken their corporeal forms, mated with them, been buried in their earth – to the extent that it was difficult now to distinguish human from jinn. The mosque restrained the worst of their lot , but the jinni would now always live in Deoband.
They became part of life in the town. They owned property, opened businesses, stood for elections, sent their children to schools and the newly built university. The humans no longer say anything. The jinni have less to do with humans now, as long as the humans don”t interfere with their affairs.
The jinn is by nature a nomadic creature, little ones, but the jinni of Deoband have lived on this land for centuries. They have built up legacies and traditions, just like humans, and they don’t like to see those traditions upturned. They also have their own feuds and enmities. And—
“—there is the story I promised to tell you,” Shehzad gives us an emphatic smile and bow. “Now, it ‘s the turn of your uncle.”
Johuree is not our uncle, but he shakes off his silver jacket and preens his slicked-back hair. And says, “Fair enough. I will start.”
Listen to this story well, for I will not recite it twice.
Gregor Johann Mendel was born in a family of poor German peasants in a borderland known as Moravia in western Europe. Poverty was his great misfortune, for he was a man with an exceptional mind. So, in his early twenties, young Gregor decided to no longer impose on his family’s finances and joined the Augustinian monastic order.
Monasteries in Europe have for ages been significant repositories of learning. Gregor was a mild, charitable man, with no desire for a wife or worldly possessions, though he doted on his sister’s sons. He was initially was appointed as a schoolteacher and soon sent to university to refine his skills. He expected to have the predictable life of a monk-scholar.
Unfortunately again for Gregor, at university he developed an interest in a subject that made his church superiors uneasy – the transmission of hereditary traits of creatures through breeding. When he attempted to breed a group of rats for his experiments, his superiors objected. Thwarted, he was reduced to working with bees, which he had learnt to breed as a child in his father’s farm, and the common pea plant, with which he made some incredible discoveries.
But acknowledgement kept eluding the gentle, amateur scientist. His findings received no appreciation in Moravian scientific circles. He never met or heard of Charles Darwin, the other European scientist working successfully on theories of inheritance at the time. Moreover, his failure to improve as a teacher resulted in him being transferred to the administrative side of the order – he was made an abbot before he turned fifty.
In the dark winter of his sixty-first year, Gregor Johann Mendel had an epiphany in the chapel of St Thomas ‘ Church in Brünn. It was late in the evening, a desolate day. The abbot was bent before the altar, alone, murmuring a prayer, shaking from the fevers induced by the renal disease which he knew would consume his life. The moment was ushered in by a voice calling out his name.
He raised his eyes first to the crucifix in front of him, but the voice that summoned him was at his back. He turned to find a man of about his own height, but so completely wrapped in a greatcoat and a woolen hat it was hard to discern his features.
“Father Gregor,” called the stranger again. “I have travelled a long way to seek you.”
With great difficulty, the abbot stood up. He had grown gaunt and pale, much like a tree through these
weeks of ice.
“What is it you wish for, my son?”
Perhaps the man required to make an urgent confession. But it was not so. He motioned, instead, towards the chapel door.
“I have heard much about your scientific work,” said the man. “W ill you walk with me in your garden, Father?”
Father Gregor acceded to the odd request, pulled his cloak tight around him. The gardens were ill-lit, silent, the earth dusted with snow.
The beds where he had once nurtured his pea plants were unkempt, overgrown with weeds. The beehouse he had painstakingly built at the back of the monastery was deserted, the bees having fled to fresher hives. He had nothing of his life’s work to show to the visitor.
Father Gregor’s stunted breath misted over his eyeglasses.
“Your children perish in your neglect, Father Gregor,” said the visitor, tantalisingly.
“The people under my charge are my children as well,” responded Father Gregor, with pain.
“And you have dedicated to them the better part of your life. Give your other children the least.”
The old man sighed. “You ask for more life than I have left.”
“Then may you be mistaken,” spoke his visitor. He extracted a bundle from inside the breast pocket of his coat. “Perhaps this gift will assist your will to live?”
He began to unwrap the cloth that held tightly the contents of the bundle, pausing before he removed the final layer. In the faint moonlight, Father Gregor could already see the objects. They looked like a pair of human infants, shrunk and misshapen. They wriggled, and the thin, high-pitched wail from their throats was muffled only by the cloth cover.
Father Gregor’s face became a mask of surprise.
“Are these . . . could these be . . .?!”
“The true mandragore,” agreed the man, whispering.
“I was given to believe that they were mythical!”
“Merely extremely rare,” said his visitor. “I won ‘t be overstating if I say I risked my life to obtain a pair. But imagine the kind of work you could do with them!”
The very thought made Father Gregor feel light in the head. “But why would you trust these dearly obtained treasures in my hands?” he asked.
“Our intentions are the same, Father. I, too, would like to learn the many possibilities of the true mandragore – if it can be bred to adulthood, if it can be made to walk and think like humans, whether its wail can be trained into speech.” The man smiled. “But I have none of your talents.”
“And I have not the time, alas,” said the abbot ruefully. “I can literally feel Death’s hands tighten on my throat.”
“That can be rectified,” said his visitor. He unleashed a small knife from his belt, and in one swift movement, unwrapped a little, wrinkled foot of one of the mandragores and snipped a small chunk off a toe. He held the slice up to the horrified Father Gregor and said, “Chew this carefully. Make sure you soak up all the juice, then swallow the gristle.”
Father Gregor recoiled.
“Take it and chew, Father!” repeated the man forcefully. “It ‘ s only the slice of a root! It will grow back.”
Fascinated, revulsed, Father Gregor put the thing in his mouth and did as he was bid. The taste was sharp – too sharp to reckon any actual flavour – and the essence of it seared through his digestive track like hot lava, as if burning away all the rot and sickness inside. With a jolt, Father Gregor sensed his spine shoot up straighter, his eyesight focus back into clarity and the chronic pain in the lower back he had suffered for the past three years unclench like a pair of giant fists. He was put in mind of his university days in Vienna, when the entire world had felt new and unravelling like a blossom in spring.
“You have to feed them back your blood, if that lets you conscience rest easier,” said the man. “The mandragores require a drop each day to survive – strictly, no more – besides a bowl of fresh milk to soak them. Repeat this ritual every day until you have found faithful earth to plant them. They will become your true children; blood of your blood.”
He proffered the bundle, now once again securely wrapped in cloth, to Father Gregor.
“But my life here . . . my abbatial seat . . .”
“How long would you have given yourself, before I came to see you?”
“Not long, I ‘m afraid. Perhaps a few hours. Perhaps a few more days,” said Father Gregor, uncertainly cradling the bundle in his arms, as he had once cradled his sister’s children. “I was preparing myself to embrace Death.”
“Then I will remain in your stead for a few more days and embrace Death when he comes looking,” said the man, the stranger, as he removed his greatcoat and hat, and placed them on Father Gregor.
With his face finally revealed, it startled the abbot to find how much the other man resembled him. He was even dressed in an Augustinian priest ‘s habit, as if he had already come prepared for this moment. He reached out for the Father ‘s eyeglasses, now useless to him, and placed them upon his own nose.
“Go now, Gregor Johann Mendel! Waste no time. And may you fare well in your quest,” spoke the new abbott. He turned and started to walk towards the lights of the chapel.
As he stowed his newly acquired treasures in the pocket next to his heart, pulled the hat down low over his face and dissolved into the night streets of Brünn, it occurred to Gregor Johann Mendel – now no longer a man of god – that he did not even know the name of his benefactor.
“Delightfully told!” Shehzad Marid claps his hands in glee as Johuree finishes speaking. “I do love a good story! And we have also made it to our destination. Just the right place at the right time!”
He points across the road ahead, where – no more than an abandoned ruin by the roadside, its wicker hedges crushed under the weight of overgrowth – stands the property once known as the Padri Sahib’s house.
The house itself is a rotting framework of bricks, its doors and windowpanes stolen, the roof caved in to open the floor out to birds, spiders, crawling vermin of every sort. There is no trace of furniture, not a shred of a book, not a shard of glass from the mysterious laboratory which had taken all its secrets with it. Nothing remains to tell us of the man who lived within these walls.
“Every Sunday in the morning, people came to see him – men and women, walking all the way from the town, carrying their children,” said Shehzad Marid, as if speaking in a dream. “The kind, wise, gentle Padri Sahib. He gave the children toys he carved from wood. He gave medicine to the wounded and sickly, spoke words of peace to those who had recently lost loved ones. He even opened his gates to the occasional melancholy jinn, though his human visitors were loath of their kind.”
Johuree steers us towards the garden, the small patch of earth behind the skeletal house. It has – somewhat mercifully – been snared by a nameless weed, whose dark leaves are sprinkled with an abundance of purple flowers. At the other side of the flower bed, by the hedge, is a raised mound of grass. Beneath it, the Padri Sahib rests.
The cloying fragrance of this unrestrained garden makes us swoon.
“This is all there is left,” mutters Johuree.
Shehzad joins him, nods. “He was told to find faithful earth to plant them,” he says bitterly. “No faithful earth this, up in the jinn country.”
“He could have chosen not to die,” says Johuree, “but he never partook of the mandragore again. Said he couldn’t bear it.”
They stand next to each other, gazing at the wildflowers. All four of us stand there in silence.
Johuree is the one to speak first. “Did he go in peace?”
“Like a babe.”
“Describe it to me.”
With a deep sigh, Shehzad Marid starts speaking:
“It was a summer of drought. In his last years, the Padri Sahib had grown extremely feeble. He still received people on Sundays, but he hardly went out on his own. So I came to see him more often – brought him rice and eggs from the town, read to him from newspapers, refilled the water pots, weeded the garden. But that summer, the garden was dying. The ground was cracked and hard. It soaked up pots of water like a hungry maw, and still the plants shrivelled.
“That morning, when I came by, I found the Padri Sahib sleepless, parched and in pain. For days he had watched over the plants, watered them from pots that were now too heavy for him to carry, and when he had run out of water, he had gone without any himself.
“I brought him more water. After he had drunk his fill, I yelled at him for neglecting his health. The Padri Sahib smiled. He said, it”s no matter, there is not much of my health to go. No, Shehzad!—trust me, I have been at this precipice before.
“But you returned from it, I said.
“He said, not this time; I no longer have access to the cure I received. He went up to the window, looked out at his dying garden. They are my children, Shehzad, he said; blood of my blood. A father grows old and is claimed by Death – it’s a fair thing, a natural thing. But for a father to watch his children die, suffering bit by bit, there is no worse torture you can inflict on a man.
“Then he said to me, Shehzad, I have never asked you, and I don’t know what may come of it, but save them, please. If you love me even a little, save them.
“You have given me your love, Padri Sahib, I said.
“So I went out into the parched garden, and the rain came down. It rained for hours in a drizzle, and at sunset, up came the flowers you see here this day. The earth was moist again, the air was cooled. The cottage was filled with a thick, sweet fragrance.
“I held the Padri Sahib’s hand and helped him to bed, tucked him under his quilt. And I sat with him until he was on his way, with a smile on his face and a blessing at his lip.”
“After that, you buried him among his flowers.”
“It was where he wished to lie.”
“Then you have acted like a true friend. And I thank you for it,” says Johuree with feeling, proffering Shehzad a hand that he takes. Then Johuree says to us, “Let’s go home, children. Our visit is complete.”
We turn from the flowers. And that is when we notice a group of townsmen who have gathered, just outside the periphery of the house, perhaps curious to see visitors at this abandoned ruin.
Shehzad Marid is suddenly pricked up. “Step back, Joh—” he starts, but by then the men have seen him.
“Ah, look who we have among us! Shehzad Marid!” says the largest man as a wide grin splits his face, though we do not think he is laughing. “Shall we welcome him back?”
Shehzad steps up to meet them.
“You did not expect me with them,” he says, “and yet you came here with an army. To take on two small children accompanied by a fat old man.”
“Don’t call me a fat old man!” Johuree protests.
The large man rolls his eyes, spits. “Those…children belong to us. You know that as well I do, marid.”
“Then I must let you know that you’re mistaken, ifrit,” says Shehzad. “These children have nothing to do with the jinni. They have no recollection of this earth. They will leave this place now and never return. Let them pass.”
The large man snarls. “Your Padri Sahib had brought heathen magic into our land. Planted it into our earth. Charged it with our spirit. He had taken of you too; and yet, you side with his bastard offspring against your own kind! Have you no honour at all?”
“No honour that isn ‘t tarnished by your proclaiming me one of your greedy, devious, cowardly, child-murdering kind,” spits Shehzad; and in that split second, one of the ifrit at the back goes up in flames and flings himself headlong at him.
Another comes hurling at Johuree – a long, flaming streak of fire.
“That is my stage jacket, you pathetic plebeian!” Johuree roars, as he grabs the ifrit by the waist with his bare hands and sends him flying into the ruins of the Padri Sahib”s house. The smell of singed jacket takes the air.
Then, in front of our eyes, the other eight ifrit transform to fire ; their faces and clothes dissolve until they are like a shower of meteors standing still. And Shehzad Marid, his back to us, rips through his kurta pajama as he grows, white and translucent – a solid wall of ice that rises like a shield between the fiery army and us.
From the other side, we see streaks of light plunge at the wall, all at once. At the point where they make contact, the ice crack with a sickening sound. The wall does not come down, but we see its surface sweating furiously. The ifrit fall back and prepare for another hit. They are joined by their two fallen compatriots.
“Rain! Rain! This won ‘t hold! Shehzad, we need rain!” Johuree jumps up and down, waving about his hands, trying to get the wall”s attention.
He turns to us and hisses, “Get down into the flower bed, you two! No!—take off your shoes first! They won’t stand the sludge! I have to pay for those shoes out of the circus ‘ budget!”
Barefoot, we trudge in among the purple flowers. The mud absorbs our feet up to the ankles, up to the knees. We know this mud. We remember its taste. The fragrance of flowers is maddening.
Then, two things happen at once – Johuree ducks, while the wall of ice that is Shehzad Marid goes up in a billowing cloud of vapour. The ifrit who come charging for the second time pass clean through the vapour, over Johuree”s lowered head, over us in the flower bed, and scatter into the distance.
The vapour comes down as rain.
As the first raindrops spill upon our heads, we send down our roots, reaching, assimilating. The earth accepts us; fills us up like empty vessels with feelings, sensations, memories. Here is our father, bending on a full-moon night upon this very flower bed; he sings to us in a soft, hoarse, unaccustomed voice the lullabies of his childhood. We see the shimmering shadow in his heart – ever since he has settled in this town, his experiments have been yielding eccentric results; he does not understand it, does not know if he will lose us. Here we are, seated in his bed, delighted with the texture of the mattress, as he fruitlessly toils to get us to speak the numbers – eins, zwei, drei, vier. Here we are again, every surface of our bodies wrapped in a pair of cotton saris, as our father leaves us in the arms of Johuree, even then a shifty man in a shiny jacket; the words of reassurance, the hasty embrace. And further away from them, much more, many more . . . the wordless, amorphous memories of the earth and countless others who have rooted before us. We fling our arms – our branches – to the sky and wail.
This is how Johuree tells us to us afterwards. The ifrit, who come swooping back, are taken aback by the scream. They stagger in mid-air, flickering like candles in the wind. Try to restore their balance.
Rain falls harder on the Padri Sahib’s garden.
Our voices are joined by others. They begin as murmurs, slow rumbles in the earth, but then they burst forth in full-pitched song – an entire flower bed of stillborn siblings soaring with us in harmony. Blood of our blood. Blood of our blood. Together, we wail for fearlessness. We wail for victory.
The sound waves emanate in concentric circles from the garden. The bricks of the Padri Sahib ‘s house crumble to the earth. Down in the flower beds, we are bathed in a shower of dead insects.
When the ifrit meet the sound – the larger, sharper, many-voiced sound – it slices right through their bodies, leaving crackling splinters of fire that splutter and go out. They try to come at it from many directions. All of them meet the same fate.
The rain continues to fall, until we are utterly soaked and safe.
“They are gone!” announces Shehzad Marid upon his return. “Vanquished! Snuffed out like matchsticks! Yes!”
He has rescued the tattered remains of his kurta and wears them over his vitals like a makeshift lungi.
Johuree rises from his crouch on the ground.
“I need your help to remove the children from the soil – gently ,” he tells the jinn, “and carry them over to our camp site. They must be taken to my tent immediately. I don’t think they’re in any state to walk . . . and I have a show to run in the evening!”
Shehzad plucks us with his fingers, washes the mud off our bodies and slings us over his shoulders. As if we have no weight.
The two of them walk back to the town.
“The man who defeated the first ifrit on the rock,” says Johuree, thinking, after a while.
“Hasaan al-Ghur,” Shehzad smiles fondly . “He was a good man. A just master. He released his jinn moments before he perished in that forest fire. Or I would have been no better than an estranged slave – the ghoulish, mean-spirited rabble you usually find around this place.”
He says, “I was a prince among my kind, Johuree Saab – a shehzada. I have never done a deed unworthy of that name for the sake of any man or jinn.”
They cross through the town, walking till they reach the ground where our tents are pitched.
“You were the one who brought to the Padri Sahib his mandragores,” says Shehzad.
“Who, me? Indeed not!” Johuree laughs for the first time in the day, then says, “He was a…predecessor.”
“And how do you describe yourself?”
“I am a circus master.”
After they lay us down inside the tent, Johuree asks, “What now, Shehzad Marid?”
“Now, I take your leave,” shrugs Shehzad. “Go where the next fancy takes me. Do the occasional odd job for money. One has to keep oneself occupied.”
He grins. “Unless you have grown attached to my company. In that case, I may stay for a while and work at your circus.”
“And what work do I have at my circus worth a marid princeling ‘s name?”
“Oh, I don’t know . . . I can make it rain in the circus tent, or over the palm of a child’s hand. I can raise ice structures – castles, valleys and people of ice. Does your audience care for that sort of thing?”
Johuree gives him a small, tight smile. “Perhaps we’ll discover that they do.”
And that is the way Shehzad Marid comes to live with us at the Majestic Oriental Circus.
Rated R. Contains some violence, disturbing imagery.