December 1, 2022 | Issue II | Sundus Hassan Nooli
Held captive by the story of men, I’m not allowed a chance to be in this world as myself. As a woman, as a lover. An entity as indigenous as sovereignty. Someone wishing for touch without destruction. But so long as the humans hide from me, I will continue to conceal myself in the flames of their fear. Play out monstrosity when given the chance. For I do not write the script. This is their apocalypse.
Looking down at the child, I watch as their chest rises and falls like sitting dough. Their peaceful snores disguising my presence. It’s been years since I’ve last done this. I hold still. Breathe in. It’s time to begin.
I take a seat on the child’s chest. His eyes immediately shoot open. We lock eyes and I smile. Teeth wide and sharp, the child gasps for air. They’re breathing as much as they’re not. I push harder on their chest and smile more. The element of fear is important to me. It’s how I get the right attention. Reluctant to keep eye contact, he starts staring at the ceiling. I watch as he counts and wriggles his tiny fingers. Poor thing, the child thinks I’m sleep paralysis.
But I’m very real. Even if these people have forgotten their history, I am alive and out to hunt. Children and pregnant women accept the reality that I stalk them. Flickering in candles, whistling in corners. I often appear to them as a man. When they talk about me I’m just a jinn, boogey, poltergeist, psychosis trigger. Something the doctor or sheikh can easily ward off with some frankincense and diagnosis.
And as for the men, over the years they have grown tired of fighting with me. Now that the nomad men wear western uniforms and are blinded by the cycles of industry, they find the shadow of their debt collectors more horrifying. Until of course, their child goes missing. Then they sit in the khat bars, chewing, wondering whose shadow was really knocking at their door.
I get off the child’s chest. Show my true form. Long eared and scorned, the gender I’ve been for the past millennia.
Get up. Take me to your Chief.
The child, a little boy, no older than the age ten asks me who’s the Chief.
Things haven’t been the same since the war. The nomads have lost touch with why I’m here with them. Families are now displaced in lands too far cold for me to haunt. I wish them all bad luck. May my siblings elsewhere take their children.
He takes me to his Hooyo in the other room. I grab the two tangles hanging off her sash, wrap her neck around it and hold her up. I ask again.
Get up and take me to your Chief.
Mother looks at me and back at her son. He’s crying. Dashes of fear and confusion illuminate her eyes in the dark.
Good. She recognized me.
The woman points to the front door. She agrees to tell me where the Chief is. As long as I can spare her son from coming. I shake my head. No, he is coming with us.
All three of us walk outside. The night rings peace with the music of cicadas. A mother and child walking with an apparition. With me. How I wish I could do the same.
This village hasn’t changed much despite the bulletholed homes. The rock dirt paths remind me of when I had my son. The way he’d play in the bush. Peer into the lives of humans from afar. Play tricks on their shoes. Replace them with rocks. And then eat those same rocks when we went hungry. Like the humans we too went hungry during the civil war. Famine. The great equalizer of both our species.
From the corner of my eye, the mother whispers something to the boy. Either to shut him up or run, doesn’t matter to me. This neighborhood will wake up and realize that I was never folklore. That my people aren’t hunting game. We too are from this land called the desert. And my son died in vain.
The boy makes a dash for the alley as the mother leaps towards me. Her thin frame disguises the strength of a hundred terrified mothers. Even then I overpower her.
I grab her neck, twist it to its final vertebrae. I look into her tearful eyes. A worn look I know too well. Neither positive or negative, it’s what I must do. In her final moments, the mother asks me if I’m Dhegdheer. I nod my head yes. She asks me why I’m doing this to her. In my heart, I can’t tell her I’m sorry.
I catch up to the child. He’s flustered and surrounded by elder men chewing khat by the fire. As to not get noticed, I disguise my form again. This time, dipping my body into the shadow of the willow tree. I closely watch the inebriated men from afar. They’re all wearing plaincloths wrapped around their waists. Shirts and button downs from the west, a few miswaaks in their hands, and one playing with his kufi hat. From the left, a man enters my range of vision. Dusting off his plaincloth as if he just urinated the length of an elephant. I catch the curved knife belt tucked in his waist. How interesting.
He’s not an ordinary man.
As the thought that I may have stumbled across the Chief enters my head, I begin to lift and change form. I push my being back into the shadow. Wipe the spit forming on the corners of my lips. The man playing with the kufi looks in my direction then shakes his head. I almost revealed myself too early there.
Laughing and slapping the back of the boy’s head with his dirty hand, the man with the curved knife tells the boy to go back to his mother.
This begins to make the boy hysterically cry. He shouts and begs the men to help him. That his mother has been murdered by Dhegdheer. And he knows she’s following his scent. Good boy, he knows to speak the truth.
The man with the curved knife begins to whistle. Shouting boisterously to come get a piece of him.
How can you invite me when I’m already here?
Hissing I appear in true form to the men. The boy hides behind the fire and looks at the ground. If only he knew, I’m done with his story.
The men stand up and form a line. Deliriously they look me up and down. Looking neither like a woman or a man but a nightmare, they slowly realize what is at stake. The man with the curved knife speaks first. He shouts at me to go away. That a demon can not be in the presence of holy men. I smile.
And who are you?
He recounts his family name. Tells me he’s the son of the many sons that campaigned against my people. I found you Chief. Tonight’s work has become fruitful indeed. I will kill the Chief last, and I will kill him slowly.
Sensing my intentions, the Chief pulls his curved knife out while the rest bear their fists. Two of the men run towards me. They must have been the dumbest ones, for I easily tore their neck veins with my nails. As their bodies thud to the desert floor, the man with the kufi hat begins to run as he prays to his god. But the shadow of fear is what I prey on. Crying to his lord to give him a second chance to life, I appear from the right side of his own shadow. Shocked that I need not run to find a coward. I pull his spine out. His cries wake the desert creatures up. We have a show now.
I dance back to the fire carrying his backbone. I throw it at the boy. He can keep it as a lesson. The Chief turns around and looks at me in awe and anger, but his heart rate tells another story. He brings his curved knife into the air and says he’s willing to make a treaty. He says to name any price and he’ll prepare the entire city, no region to give what I want. One of his forefathers did the same thing once.
What I want, you cannot give.
He asks me to be reasonable. But what is the price of a child killed for a culture’s vanity? My son was tortured and murdered in front of many tribespeople for show. To show that one man from an arbitrary family had power over all in the land.
For centuries they hunted our sons, took them away from us for their rites of passage. Their manhood meant our boys couldn’t live to be men themselves. They made us into what we are. All surviving mothers brood the vengeance of Dhedhgeer. So much so that they wrote stories in their own language about how even their women couldn’t be trusted, for they are Dhegdheer adjacent. That’s what we are. That’s what it was all for. We were just stories to them.
When all knowledge was lost to war and industrialization, they stopped killing our sons. Began circumcising their own. In their new heritage, we began to plan our return. Slowly murdering and recapturing our land. For sharing is no longer an option. How dare the novelty of times ever be a form of armistice to scorned mothers.
Chief asks me again, what I want. Safely I reply.
There a struggle begins. Stronger than the mother I just killed but in weaker resolve. I overwhelm his chest, break his rib cage, and pinch his heart with my canines. Looking up at him, I see the same vision of fear. He knows his time has come.
I break into his heart, take a bit of it and push his warm blood to the back of my throat. Careful to not let it fall out of my mouth. The man’s chiefly body crumples to the ground. Gurgling his last shahada, a testament that maybe he’ll be saved by something else. I walk over him.
Coming face to face with the scared boy, he looks up and winces at my victory. It’s alright now, the time has come to go. I pick up the boy. In his shock, he urinates on me and passes out. Perfect. He’ll oblige then.
Carrying the child to the city center, I think of the weight of my son.
As the sun rises and the roosters wake the people. The smell of death huddles the neighborhood. But these aren’t the people to show what I’ll do next. I carry the child and aim for the city center. Following the scent of rubber and risk, I guide us to a circle paved road. In the center is a statue and a flag. That is where we’ll wait until people emerge.
For a few moments, the city is quiet and dull. And in that moment, I think of the weight of my son. How he used to jump on me haphazardly when I was pregnant. How he’d hate walking from one corner of the desert to the other. The look on his face when he died.
Soon engines begin to dance and motors run in a circle. The boy wakes up in my arms. We reveal ourselves to the busy street people. Most wearing a mix of traditional garb, and some in suits. People exclaim and beg to their god. Shouts come from the motors. A few of the cars pause. Small tablets are held up to the boy and I. It is time to begin.
I pry the child’s mouth open and pour the Chief’s blood into him. I hold his mouth tight and chant a prayer only my people will ever know. There, the boy begins to shake. His bones transform, his skin begins to scale like mine. His teeth grow longer for his mouth. He is turning.
He is turning into my new son.
Sundus Hassan Nooli is a Somali-American poet, writer, and podcaster. She's written articles for gal-dem & theGrio, recently published a poem with Blackflowers, and produced several podcasts over the years. Currently, she's the poetry editor for Oxford Public Philosophy and is studying creative writing at Brunel University London.
Art Credit: Pinterest