Welcome to PodCastle’s first Eid issue!
Clay and Smokeless Fire
By Saladin Ahmed
Qumqam stood upside-down atop a cell phone tower, twirling at its pinnacle on his fingertip. When the humans had first started to besmirch the earth with the things, Qumqam had thought them hideous. But he’d come to love dancing on them the way he’d once loved dancing on ziggurats.
Well, he’d come to like it, anyway. Qumqam didn’t know if there was anything left in this lower world that he loved, but sometimes when he leapt among the towers and turbines of America he felt something like happiness again. For a moment or two, at least.
It rarely lasted longer than that. For he was one of the last djinn left living in this interminable age of raised apes. The era of humankind, a nothing people, born from dirt when Qumqam’s people were born from smokeless fire.
Qumqam floated lazily down from the tower, landing softly on his bare brown feet. Then he closed his swirling opal eyes and pictured a small red house not far away. A shimmer appeared around him, and when he opened his eyes he was floating above the house.
Some of the djinn enjoyed walking like men — the slowness of it. Qumqam had never been one of them. He had never understood why the flapping bags of flesh were first in God’s eyes. They tore at each other like dogs at any chance. They starved each other to sit on piles of gold. Most unforgivably, they had taken this astonishing garden — this jagged half-paradise of leaf and ice and mountain and flower that God had made for them — and they had filled it with shit and poison.
These insults to God and His garden had grown worse of late, and worst here in America. Qumaqam had seen fool kings and robber-kings, mad kings and rape-kings. The new American king — president, they called it here — was all of them at once. And his merchants and armies were making a befouled realm even fouler.
No, Qumqam didn’t much love this world anymore, and when a djinn stops loving this world he leaves it. Qumqam’s people had been on earth for God-alone-knew how many thousands of years. They did not die from blades or age the way men did. They could live until God declared the end of days on earth.
But only if they wanted to. A djinn’s life didn’t come without fail the way the sun rose and fell. To live, a djinn needed reasons to keep living.
Strangely enough, one of the things that had kept Qumqam alive after so many of his friends had left this world was his interest in mankind. Well, in a handful of them. Most humans disgusted Qumqam — babbling creatures, whose repulsive meat threatened to smother the spark of life that God had given them.
But Qumqam had found that one in every hundred thousand thousand of them were different. One in every hundred thousand thousand could see him. Hear him. Speak to him. And, for perishable sacks of skin, they were fascinating. Qumqam had never been comfortable among his own kind, for the conversation of the djinn had always bored him. But humans? The ones worth talking to were a delight, if a bizarre one.
Such men and women had never been common but there had been more of them once. When he found them now, Qumqam was inclined to be protective of them. He stood now hovering above the house of just such a one, a child to whom Qumqam had not yet spoken. He had been watching this child and his mother in this house on this quiet, dead-scented American street for some weeks. He knew the signs and was certain the boy — Ernesto was his name — would soon discover his gift for djinn-talking. So Qumqam had watched the quiet life of this little red house, listening to birds and squirrels and the occasional voice of a neighbor.
But now Qumqam was watching something different. Something terrible.
Black wagons liveried with angry letters surrounded the boy’s small red house. Men with weapons – the king’s men, a dozen of them at least – buzzed in and out of its doors like angry insects. They were dressed in black and wore badges and flag patches.
Ernesto and his mother were both bound at the wrists. They were being led from the house. One of the armed men was on a cell phone, laughing. The boy was trying not to cry.
Men. This is what these people were. Filth that ate itself. Yet God had raised mankind above the djinn. Qumqam could never doubt the infinite wisdom of the Almighty. There was some high and powerful reason that God had favored the humans. But Qumqam couldn’t see it.
Qumqam floated softly to the ground, and stood unseen and untouchable among the men with weapons. Once he might have taken a direct hand. He might have grown giant and smashed the wagons, or turned this new king — this new president, as they called kings in this land – and his army into pigs.
But that age was past. These days the djinn — the few of them still left — just watched and waited and once in a while whispered with the few men who could still hear them. If Ernesto had learned djinn-talking already, Qumqam might have tried to act through the boy. To fill him with power. He’d done it for a handful of men before, though not in many years. But it wouldn’t work. The boy was uninitiated.
The men with weapons were pushing Ernesto and his mother toward a wagon when the woman next door -very old by the humans’ way of counting things- came running out, followed by her son, a grown man.
Qumqam knew this woman, full of fire and hard to kill. She spoke and sang sometimes in the tongue of Solomon and David. The edges and tones of the words had pleased Qumqam, reminding him of other times and places. So many who spoke the older tongues had been dragged from America since this new king had come. Each time the old woman had spoke or sung the words Qumqam had perched near her, invisible, relishing the sounds and hoping she would continue. But it was never more than a few words, quietly, to herself.
She was not quiet now. She flew at the men, heedless of their weapons. “No! NO! What are you doing? These are good people, this is a mistake.”
One of the men with weapons turned toward her patiently. “Ma’am, please step back.”
“You’re bullies is what you are. YOU LEAVE THESE PEOPLE ALONE! These are my neighbors!” She was still walking. Qumqam had to admire her, for her steps were not easy. The curse of aging flesh that God had placed on humankind — it had nearly taken this woman. But she strode up to the men like a soldier in his youth.
Ernesto was crying now. One of the men was telling him to stop. They would not let his mother hold him.
One of the men put his black-gloved hand up in front of the old woman. “Ma’am please. I really don’t want to charge you.” He held up a small black book.
“CHARGE ME!? GO AHEAD, CHARGE ME!” she shouted.
“MOM!” The woman’s son barked, moving toward her.
“You want my name?” The old woman said to the armed man. “My name is Sylvia Fucking Reitzes. Write that down. Sylvia Fucking Lorraine Fucking R-E-I-T-Z-E-S. Write down that I said this was wrong. That somebody said something. Write that in your little fucking book!”
As she spoke the old woman had managed to put herself between Ernesto and his mother and the wagon they were being herded toward. “These are good people,” she said more calmly. “Graciela never did anything to anyone. You want to take them, you’re going to have to beat up an old lady.”
Qumqam blinked and reappeared right beside the woman. It was not often one saw the spark of God’s light shine so brightly from within human flesh. He wanted to see it up close.
“Sylvia, no—” said Ernesto’s mother.
The angry man grew angrier. “MA’AM!”
“Mom, are you crazy? Stay out of this. You don’t know what’s going on here.” The old woman’s son tried to step in, but the men held him back.
“WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?” she shouted, her moment of calm gone. “ I know what’s going on here. Something rotten. Something wrong!”
Qumqam saw the angry man’s eyes make a decision. The man raised his weapon. He pointed it at the old woman. “MA’AM GET OUT OF THE WAY! NOW!”
And then, without warning, the old woman turned and looked Qumqam in the eye. She saw him. And she said, clear as the call of the muezzin in the night, “You! You can help. You have to help.”
Qumqam felt as if he’d been struck. She could see him? But there was no time for hows and whys. He drew power from within his heart of smokeless fire and he clasped the old woman’s hand.
Smoke-from-nowhere began to roil. The old woman rose bodily from the ground and the men froze. Lightning crackled around her and light filled her eyes. Qumqam floated beside her, unseen by the others, grasping her hand. He smiled. It had been too long since he’d done this.
“Mom?” Sylvia’s son said faintly.
Then the bullets began to fly.
None of them reached her, of course. Their weapons crumbled to dust before her, and the men who tried to grab her were knocked back by winds born ten thousand years ago. Syliva spoke and her voice was both hers and Qumqam’s. A voice of cigarettes and gin and thunder and old mountains.
“GO,” they said together, and the earth shook with the sound. “NOW.”
The king’s men stood there a moment more.
“GO!!!” Qumqam and Sylvia shouted as one. Purple lightning split the sky around them. The calls of wolves and owls filled the air.
The men with weapons screamed. Then they ran.
When they were gone, Qumqam released Sylvia’s hand and they drifted gently to the ground together. Ernesto was staring at him openly now. Qumqam had never been seen by two humans in one day. It felt pleasant.
Sylvia turned to him. She did not marvel at what had just happened. She did not explain anything. She said “They’ll come back. What the hell do we do now?”
“Now?” Qumqam smiled and put his huge arm around Sylvia’s bony shoulder. “Now we keep living.”
An interview with Saladin Ahmed
How has your faith/culture influenced your writing?
I grew up in an Arab immigrant enclave in the US rust belt, a kind of particular culture unto itself. The sounds of Arabic, the smells of Lebanese and Yemeni food, the call to prayer — these were all part of my fabric of being growing up, and they remain so to this day. We write who we are even when we think we’re doing otherwise. So it was almost inevitable that the sounds and tastes and brown faces that were such a part of forging me would emerge often when I write.
The question of faith is a different one. I’m very unorthodox in my practice of Islam, but I am a person who believes in God. As a person who considers himself part of an divinely ordered universe, I think I approach questions of plot and causation and narrative framing a bit differently than the average secular writer.
Have you ever worried that your faith/culture would be a barrier to other people enjoying/accepting your writing or your ability to publish? How did you overcome that?
Yes, and it’s not a baseless worry. If you are a Muslim writer you WILL encounter skittish publishers, clueless editors, well-meaning readers expecting you dispel their racist stereotypes, and hardcore hate-spewing jerks. You have to be ready for that. Sadly, many Muslims in the west ARE ready for skittishness, cluelessness, and hate because we’ve lived with it our whole lives.
Everybody finds their own way to fight this darkness. For me it has helped to connect with other ‘Other’ writers – Black writers, women writers, Asian writers, queer writers, trans writers. To try to stand together even when that camaraderie is imperfect. And to remind myself that there are thousands of curious, open-minded, empathetic readers out there looking to hear different stories than the ones they’ve been told. If you’re going to survive you HAVE to listen to these people harder than you listen to the haters.
Is there a topic or style you have yet to tackle but would like to in future writing? If yes, elaborate.
TV or film would be great! But I’ve been pretty blessed in that I’ve had a a chance to try out and publish in a pretty wide variety of forms and styles. For instance I’m working on a project right now that goes further in the direction of horror than I’ve gone before, and that’s fun and challenging. I will say that I am trying do a better job of writing characters who aren’t heterosexual men. But that sort of thing is a lifetime’s work.
What’s next for you regarding your writing?
Each week, I chip away at a sequel for THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON, but it’s very very slow going and it will be years before that’s done. In the meantime, I’ll be publishing more short stories, essays, and even poems. I’m currently writing BLACK BOLT for Marvel, and there are other possible projects on the horizon. The best way to keep up with all this is my twitter feed @saladinahmed.
About the Author
Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. His debut novel Throne of the Crescent Moon, praised by George RR Martin as “a rollicking swashbuckler,” received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal, and was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel, and the Nebula Award for Best Novel. Throne of the Crescent Moon won the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and has been translated into a half-dozen foreign languages.
Saladin’s poems and short stories, nominated for numerous awards, have appeared in publications ranging from Slate to Callaloo to BuzzFeed, and have been widely anthologized and translated. His essays on politics, geek culture, and Muslim American issues have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Salon. He lives near Detroit, and is currently writing Black Bolt for Marvel Comics.
About the Narrator
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.