In the diffused morning light a boy darted through the forest. Barefoot, Dar leapt over rocks and logs, his feet dipping in and out of the swirling mist blanketing the forest floor. A talisman pouch bounced around his neck, almost as if it were alive. The twisted banyan trees obstructed most of the sunlight, while scorched air wafted around him, hinting at a heat yet to penetrate the world. In Dar’s hands was an enclosed wicker basket filled with millet bread and coal.
At the base of a jagged cliff face, Dar stopped and tucked the talisman into his homespun tunic, pressing it to his chest for luck. The cliff was higher than the tallest tree and the cave halfway up. Dar rubbed rock dust over his palms and fastened the basket to his hip with rope. With a shaky breath he gripped the rock and climbed, with practiced agility, toward the blackened cave. As he neared the cave’s entrance the familiar smell of sulphur ripped into his lungs. Dar inhaled the pungent fumes in bursts and white stars drifted across his eyes.
At the edge of the cave, Dar placed the basket on the flat offering stone. A fine trail of smoke lingered around his ankles. He peered into the cave, heart pounding. Sometimes Dar heard swishing and laughter, but he’d never seen the sisters inside. He clutched his talisman. The thick pale leather hid a crackle of paper sewn within. It protected him as he carried out his duty for the village in the clearing outside the forest.
No one else could help him. The villagers were all whispers and fear. The image of his mother alight on her funeral pyre was a memory he wished to redeem. A note left at his bedside offered his only solution. Dar straightened and, without hesitation, removed the pouch from around his neck. He raised his arm and jettisoned the talisman over the cliff edge. The soft pouch landed on the moss-covered ground in silence.
Dar waited, squatting on hind legs and inhaling the sulphur so deeply he gagged. Dar inhaled the putrid air again and again, fighting dizziness and trying to calm his trembling hands, and muster the courage to speak.
The sisters huddled inside their soot-coated cave. Trinkets from their travels and clay jars, filled with musty herbs or dried bone, were stacked along the edges. Across the walls they had scribbled in white chalk numerous ritual drawings and ancient writings. Loose smoke from their coal fire filled the cavernous room and drifted out past the entrance, seeping down the rock face onto the lush forest floor. The smoke spoke to them, sending messages of mischief and malaise to penetrate their translucent bodies. They often snickered over the chaos and misfortune they inflicted upon the village below.
The salty odour of an unprotected human boy gushed in.
‘Well, sister, lamb for lunch,’ said Safri, her hands flattening her limpid golden hair as though it were real.
‘It’s the offering boy. Let’s see what he wants first,’ said the other sister, Geāra who flittered about the cave in bird form. She then shape-shifted easily into a solid human female, wearing a blood red tunic like skin. ‘Wait here.’
Geāra went to the entrance, curious about the boy, and humming in her human form. It had been decades since she had walked, she preferred flying as an animal. The power she had garnered over a millennia of evolvement was staggering, she felt blessed. Being invisible to humans was the best way to work their magic. Though not always did Geāra turn breast milk sour and whisper trouble into husbands’ minds. Sometimes she would sneak away from Safri to weave light into wildflowers or leave medicinal herbs on some unfortunate’s hearth. The shifting, the tricks and the invisibility had become mundane.
The boy was slight with pulled back shoulders. Not quite a man but with a purpose to him. He stank of fear, dissolution and numb rage.
‘You dare come upon us,’ she said, with a weighted boom, part of her hoping he’d scamper away.
He stood, tall and rigid, beside the basket. ‘I have a request.’
‘What are you offering as payment?’
‘Pah, we could take it for nothing. You are unprotected.’
‘Mine … for my mothers’.’
‘We cannot bring her back.’
Dar grimaced, confused. ‘But the note?’
Geāra quietened for a moment. Safri must be up to something. The boy was ready to sacrifice himself in his mind, but his body gave him away. His temples pulsed and his hands, clenched by his hips, trembled. She eyed him up-and-down and sniffed slyly. In all her long, long, long centuries, no child had ever stood up to her.
Safri called out from deep within the cave, her voice honeyed with charm, ‘I know a spell. Bring the boy to me.’
It was a ruse Geāra knew well, and had began to tire of. She faced the boy and said in a low voice, ‘Return to your village. Now.’
Dar remained. Black smoke seeped out Geāra’s skin and flaming shapes flickered across her pupils. She radiated such combustible heat, Dar’s face reddened and blistered. Still, the boy waited. Tears leaking down his cheeks as he awkwardly undid the neck of his tunic to expose the tender flesh hiding his heart.
Geāra sighed and reined in her heat. She dismissed him with a wave of her arm. Dar wiped his tears and yelped, pleading and desperate, then kicked the basket. Geāra and Dar watched in disbelief as the plaited basket, bread and fists of coal tumbled down the cliff face.
Dar’s voice went from a whisper to a shout. ‘Bring. Her … BACK.’
A surge of jealousy scalded Geāra’s innards, the queasiness of her own wrongdoings haunting her. The boy was doing what he thought noble, rectifying a wrong. She swivelled on her sandaled feet and stormed into the belly of the cave.
The dimly lit cave was nauseated with rich smoke. Safri sat hunched by the coal fire, grinding bones and herbs into a fine powder. Dar squinted, trying to bring Safri into focus. Safri knew he could see right through her, to the sack of coal on her other side, but she didn’t shift into solid form for him. Unlike Geāra, the only way she could take solid human form was to possess one.
‘Sit by me, boy,’ Safri said, smoothing the dirt beside her into a flat circle. ‘I have what you ask for.’
Dar stepped forward and squatted beside Safri. The heated stones surrounding the fire stung his exposed shins. Geāra maintained her solid form, positioning herself between the fire and the cave entrance. Safri sniffed at the disapproval reeking off Geāra, and scoffed. Geāra was an active participant in all they did. Hypocrite, Safri thought.
Humans dominated the world. Angels owned the heavens, and the Jinn … The Jinn were forced to remain hidden in the eaves of existence. Safri was sick of her limited form. The boy had gotten her note and come willingly. His mother had not, and had died in the process.
Dar retrieved a piece of tattered material from his tunic pocket and unfolded it. ‘My mother’s hair … for you, to restore her.’
‘Yes, that will be useful,’ Safri said, adding the hair to her mixture. How easy this is, she thought, and a shiver of glee rushed through her. His body was young and strong, it would last her several hundred years. The notion filled Safri with impatient longing. Her form erupted into a black syrupy smoke and she began chanting.
‘Heartbeat end, skin be mine. Lose this boy, for all time.’
Dar staggered backwards, staring at the smoke encircling him. His face widened in realisation and his voice wavered in shock. ‘No. No. Not yet. Return her first.’
Safri doubled in size and blackness, her joy increasing with each particle surge. She knew he’d seen the smoke before. She’d noticed Dar, hiding under his blanket, frozen in horror as Safri tried to submerge herself within his mother. The salt around his mother’s bed had been swept away. Safri had studied her prey well, waiting for her moment to attack. She knew Dar didn’t want to do the offerings anymore. He’d wanted to hunt with the men. He’d wanted to prove the sisters were human wretches, nothing more.
However, in the end, he’d stood helpless by his mother’s body ablaze in the village square, inhaling her burning flesh and long hair, coiled meticulously around her body. While Safri had stood, unseen, beside him, bemoaning her lost body.
As if sensing her memory, Dar regained his stance and with chilling control commanded, ‘No. The note said you would return my mother first.’
Safri laughed from within the smoke, mocking his plea, delighting in his misjudgement of her. She was taking what she deserved. She was immortal, superior and a god. And now she would be solid again. Safri gathered her smoke particles and with one last chant prepared to submerge herself into the boy’s mouth and nostrils. She grappled for his life force, digging into him, relishing in her new body, blind to everything else.
But there was nothing.
Dar had been snatched away. Safri recoiled, darting around the cave, searching for her fresh body. Her frustration mushroomed and her smoky form tripled in size and blackness. She charged toward the cave’s entrance, ready to explode her fury over the forest and devour the boy who was no doubt scurrying away. But a powerful wall of flames blocked the entrance, its force causing Safri to tumble to the ground and return to her translucent human form. Stupefied, she quickly shot up and marched outside to fight what she presumed were the villages seeking to expel the sisters from the forest and reclaim the boy.
When she reached the entrance, the wall of flames had disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived. Safri’s face twitched at the pungent scent of scorched rock as she scanned the forest for the boy. A fabulous whoosh thumped above the knotted tree line. It was Geāra in dragon form, fire flaring from her nostrils. Her giant wings slapping the air with such powerful strikes the trees bent unnaturally. Safri waved frantically at her, to come get her, so they could chase down the villagers and reduce them all to a blazing ash-pile. Her heart invigorated at the prospect of such a glorious revenge.
But Geāra swooped past her. The fierce breeze from her wings knocked Safri to her knees. Geāra roared, ‘Enough.’
Safri shrieked in horror.
Dar was on Geāra’s back, clinging desperately to her scales. They were flying up the mountain toward the clouds. Safri fell forward, on all fours, depleted and helpless. The smoke, hovering at the entrance, recoiled inside the cave like a frightened, abandoned dog. Within minutes Geāra was a spec of dust in the white sky.
Safri retreated into the cave to sulk by the fire. Grey smoke tentatively nipped at her ankles. She rocked on her haunches, chewing on the last of the coarse millet bread: brooding and wounded. When the fire finally died Safri shifted into a shapeless pale mist and slunk down to the forest floor, to wait.