From the author: A tale of a grandmother petitioning a djinn for justice after an attack on her grandchild. This story was shortlisted for the Write to End Violence Against Women Award 2017.
Sayeeda Khan was an enterprising woman who did many things, and her family knew it.
What her family didn't know was that Sayeeda knew some old magic, knew things that were passed on in hot summer nights when the rolling thunder of the monsoons tumbled through the air without breaking, when the promise of rain was pregnant on the wind. She had never told them of it, simply kept the memories of her Nani close in her heart.
They also didn't know that she was using these now. How could they? They were all in hospital with her granddaughter, Mahnoor, and they wouldn't come looking for some time. Time was all she needed.
She was using the garage, the only place she could think of being reasonably fireproof, and hoped that would not put her in bad stead with her summoned guest. She had made it as nice as she could, candles and scented oils to cover the smell of old grass and older boxes. Omar would be furious if he ever found out, but Sayeeda didn't plan for this to take long enough for him to come home.
Sayeeda had drawn her circle in the centre of the concrete floor, placed her offering inside it and now began to chant, focusing on the need screaming in her soul as she impeached powers much older than her greying hair. A purple flame began to flicker around the circle, the dusky hue of ripe figs, the fire banking and rising as her chant went on.
With the pop of crackling wood a woman appeared in the circle and Sayeeda stopped, eyes widening at the sight before her. She was taller than Sayeeda, her ochre skin alive with the same purple flame of the circle and her bright clothes flowing around her. Dark hair fanned out, buffeted by the flames, and her eyes were the deep blood red of things Sayeeda knew should not be looked at too long.
Sayeeda knelt, lowering her head and spreading her arms wide. She knew the circle would hold, but it was better not to prick the pride of the fire people. She could feel the heat pouring off the circle, an open oven in the middle of a rainy Manchester afternoon.
"Please excuse this intruding upon you, mistress, but I seek a bargain."
"Who are you to know this little trick then?" the voice was not unlike Sayeeda's, the lilting pull of Urdu tugging at memories from home.
"I am the granddaughter of women who knew many of your peers once, before humans disturbed the simplicity of the mountains."
"And you call me to this place for service: a bold choice. I am Sashana. Why do you ask me here? Look at me when you answer." The firmness in her voice was enough to bring Sayeeda's eyes up, though the power rolling off her would have done the same.
"I seek justice I cannot enact. I offer gold and obligation. " Sayeeda rose as she said it, nodding to the jewellery piled within the circle. They were wedding gifts, saved in the attic for retirement but now seeking something more important. The djinn leant down, pushing the items apart before glancing to Sayeeda. The woman seemed to fluctuate, the ripple of fire over her causing her to shimmer in and out of the candle light.
"What makes a human woman ask a djinn for a favour? We have long memories; I may seek repayment at any time. Or , I may take offence, and kill you."
"My granddaughter has been wronged. I would seek blood but the laws here do not allow it. The laws here will not hurt the man that did this. He will be shamed, he may be taken to court, but he will not have to face what my Mahnoor will have to."
"He wronged her honour?" Sashana asked, eyebrows raising.
"No, he paid a coward to throw a liquid in her face, which melted her. Like your fire melts metal this acid melts the skin, and my granddaughters face is gone. Not burned or scarred, but gone." Sayeeda felt the tears start to fall as she spoke but couldn't stop, the words pouring out of her under he crimson gaze of her flaming companion. "She will never look in a mirror and see her face again. She will never see her dimples, or the lines that smiles bring over time, or the crinkles that tears track over a life. The doctors will do their best for her, and help was found quickly, but she will never be who she was. He has wiped her from the world because she would not be his."
"She refused his advances?"
Sayeeda nodded. "She wanted to study before marriage."
"A common thing now, we see it," the djinn commented, tilting her head to look Sayeeda over. "You seek vengeance?"
"I seek a balance," Sayeeda said firmly. "He is never going to suffer the way she has. I want him to suffer something. To give him an idea of what he has caused. Men like him cannot conceive of us as people, only possessions. I want him to feel what it is like to be viewed as a thing and not a man."
"Do you think your granddaughter would want this?" Sashana asked, walking to the edge of the circle so she could look down into Sayeeda's eyes.
"I don't know," Sayeeda said after a pause. "They have had her unconscious because of the pain she is in. She cannot say what she wants. I cannot speak for her. She is a kinder soul than I am but I know a trail will hurt her. I know her recovery will mean a lot of pain. I don't think she should be alone in her suffering."
"What would you have me do, granddaughter of wise women?" Sashana asked, stroking her hand along her cheek. Sayeeda notice she wore bracelets, layers of thin beads crossing over each other in a tapestry of colour, shifting as her hand moved.
"I would have him suffer the same as Manhoor. I would have him know fear and pain and the removal of power. I would have him haunted. I will not ask for his life, but I would ask that he feels what she felt."
The djinn hummed, pacing away from Sayeeda to sit in the middle of the circle and flicking the hem of her long jacket out behind her. With her legs crossed Sayeeda could see the strength of the muscles in Sashana's legs, the firm thighs draped in loose turquoise trousers. The woman was beautiful, if terrifying in a way Sayeeda didn't think she would be able to explain. She waited, watching the djinn sort the golden jewellery and pieces into two piles.
She pushed the larger pile away, sorting through the smaller one like a magpie.
"Tell me his name," she called out as she worked.
"Mikaal Revis. He lives close by."
Sashana hummed again, nodding to herself and never glancing up.
Eventually, she settled on three pieces: a necklace, a thick arm band and a star brooch. Sashana scooped them up, cradling them close as she came back to face Sayeeda.
"Were any of these items intended for your grand daughter?" she asked, eyes flicking over the smaller woman's face.
"No, these were for saved, for sale or donation after my death."
"There is a lot of gold there."
"I did not wish to seem insulting in my request."
"A wise consideration. I will take these items and do as you ask."
"I am in your debt," Sayeeda smiled, bowing her head. "Do you wish me to give you blood to seal the bargain?"
"I would not offer your blood so easily," Sashana laughed, waving her offer away. "I will call in my debt when I wish. In the meantime, donate some of that gold now, to a charity that feeds the poor. I don’t care which."
"As you wish," Sayeeda agreed, stepping back from the circle before breaking the outer chalk line with one foot. The purple fire stuttered and died, though the woman remained. Well, that wasn't meant to happen.
Sashana stepped towards her, the flames gone from her skin and her hair sitting loose down her shoulders and back. Sashana reached forward, laying a hand on Sayeeda's cheek. Sayeeda felt the pulsing heat under the umber skin of the plam cupping her face. She stayed very still, looking around Sashana's eyes rather than in them, aware of her vulnerability now the circle was gone.
"You are concerned," Sashana commented, watching Sayeeda's careful stillness.
"Surprised. I had thought breaking the circle released you."
"It does, I simply chose to stay. I did not want your blood, but I did want to see you properly."
"I hope I am satisfying enough for you to have to stand in Manchester without due cause," Sayeeda smiled, aware the heat on her cheek was being matched with her own blush.
"I think so, yes. You are an interesting curiosity Sayeeda Qureshi."
"How did you know my old name?" She shouldn't have been surprised really; the fire people knew an awful lot.
"There are a limited number of people who could bring this knowledge with them, and we have long memories. You have married, but I know your name. I know those items I took, and where they travelled from. I know you must feel deeply to give away memories of home." Sashana stopped, stroking her hand up and over Sayeeda's hair, tucking some behind her ear.
"I am honoured to be with one so knowledgeable," Sayeeda said, and meant it, dropping her eyes.
"You brought me here, I feel you can claim a similar title," Sahana said.
"You flatter me."
"No, I acknowledge what you are. Formidable women should lift each other, and I intend to do so. Look at me Sayeeda."
Sayeeda did as asked, meeting those bloody red eyes. A thrill, equal parts fear and curiosity, went through her as Sashana gazed back, her eyes flicking over Sayeeda's face.
"You will need to be very strong for your granddaughter, and I will ensure your debt is nothing that would interfere with that. Let her take from your strength as she needs it, because she will."
"Of course, her blood is my blood."
"Good. Now, go and see your granddaughter, and be somewhere you are seen and people know you. There is no point in your efforts if your police suspect you."
"Thank you," Sayeeda breathed, stepping away from the heat of Sashana's body and turning to reach for the rug she would throw over the garage floor, to hide the circle. She could wash it off later, in the night while Omar slept and would not notice her moving around in his space. She heard the cracking noise, a flame jumping between branches, and knew she was alone now. She covered the chalk, opened the window, snuffed the candles, then gathered up the items she had left the hospital to collect and drove back.
Mikaal was walking home, sated from his time in the pub and the result of his plans. He knew he would get interviewed by the police, that was inevitable, but he had an alibi and the man he had paid would be out of the city and possible the country by now.
This was regrettable, Manhoor had been very beautiful, but she was headstrong and disobedient and he would not tolerate the gift he had offered her being rejected. Girls like her assumed they could behave that way because of their looks, and their charm, dismissing men who were well above them because of their own notions. It couldn't be seen to be allowed, not openly. Not in a way that reflected on him.
So he had paid a man to fix it for him.
He wondered idly if Manhoor would come back to him, if the pain and shame would bring her to heel. Her bitch of a grandmother would probably interfere but she couldn't give Manhoor what he could.
He wouldn't take her back. He might see her a while, take his fill, but he didn't want her now.
He smirked to himself, pulling out his cigarettes. He wasn't meant to smoke, it was frowned upon, but he could afford to have one just now.
He was shaken from his enjoyment by a woman walking along the road, sunglasses on in the autumn gloom. Her pace was slower than his, those long legs taking their time, and she was looking at a map. This was not the place to be advertising you were lost and Mikaal quickly made a pace with her, trying to catch her eye.
"You need a hand?" he asked once she acknowledged him, nodding to the map.
"I am having some trouble," she laughed, a tinkling thing Mikaal liked. She was tall, almost his height, and her dark hair was in a loose plait down her back. "I can't find my hostel."
"No one in the city to help you? It's dangerous for women to travel alone."
"I'm visiting a friend in hospital," she shrugged, tugging on the strap of her bag.
"Well I can walk you to where you're looking for if you want?" he asked, spotting the circled spot on her map. Not far away really, past a few old shops and she'd be there.
"I don't usually let strange men walk me to where I'm sleeping for the night."
"I'm a good man; I won't come up after you. I'll point the door out to you and leave you before we reach it if you want."
"That would be very reasonable of you," she nodded, holding out a hand. "Sashana." What a bold little thing.
"Thank you for your help Mikaal."
"You're welcome. This way." He led her along the road, up past the disused shops, between the old, dark buildings. No place for a woman to walk around alone.
"This doesn't seem like the best neighbourhood," Sashana sighed.
"It has good and bad parts. Is your friend unwell?"
"She has been injured; she will need help in her recovery. I hope to give her some assistance."
"I'll have her in my prayers," he offered, nodding to her.
"That's kind, thank you," Sashana smiled. "It is a worry. Recovery can be such a hard time, almost worst than the injury."
"I've never needed to do it, but hopefully your here will help."
"I do intend to help," Sashana confirmed, a private smile passing over her face.
"Well you're here now, so that should be a start. Your hostel is the bright yellow door across the street, very close to the train station as well."
"So quick as well. Here, let me thank you," she said, tugging his shoulder. He leaned into her, feeling the brush of her lips against his cheek and shivering at the heat from her skin, so close to his. She smelled of wood smoke and the spicy earth of yarrow root, home cooking flooding his memory. He hadn't been around that for a long time.
"A bold thing to do when you don't know me," he laughed, pulling himself away from her.
"Oh I know you," she said, turning her head to look at him full. "There are hundreds of men like you that I've met, many of whom have never met another afterwards."
"What are you talking about?" he asked, backing away a pace.
"I'm talking about men who don't know the difference between a person and a prize, Mikaal." She said his name like she was tasting it, her mouth forming the sound slowly, and he felt ice dripping through his ribcage.
"I don't know what you're talking about-" he began but the words faltered as he caught the scent of pork, the sudden pain in his face catching him unaware. He doubled over, howling as it lanced down along his jaw and over the ridge of his nose. He couldn't see, static flooding behind his eyes as he clawed at the burning mark of her kiss, the white hot shooting agony.
"That's going to hurt for a while," she commented off to his side and he swung blindly, flailing at her. "No point in that either."
"What did you do to me?" he slurred out, falling to his knees and blessing the brief relief he got from the tarmac, cool and damp in the evening light.
"Nothing you wouldn't wish on others."
He screamed, the fire reaching over his whole face now, the sizzling of his hair curling in his nostrils. He slammed a fist into the ground, trying to grind out some sensation other than the infernal heat on his skin.
"You're going to have to see a lot of doctors about that, eventually," he heard whispered in his ear and he flinched, scrambling away from her. He heard he laughter chase him.
"Why?" he groaned.
"Call it a rectification of a debt. You won't be blind for long, once the swelling goes down then the scar tissue will probably be the worst of it. There won't be any of your face left. You'll be awfully ugly I'm afraid, but then you already were weren't you?"
He tried to huff a response but he was panting against the pain now, and he could feel himself pushed along the precipice of unconsciousness. With an aching cry he let himself go into it, drifting down to the call of sirens somewhere close to him.