Time of the Djinns by Salvatore Difalco
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September had been a red month. Leaves red, the sunsets. People hacked down, blood in the streets. When they – authorities, media, gossips – said the centre would not hold, they meant it. When they said things would change, to prepare for the worst, they mean it.

 

Dr Ram lived in an iron-barred flat in the middle of the troubles. A chiropractor once, he scavenged these days. Dangerous, of course. Ill-advised. That said, the state had atrophied his choices.

 

Out at dusk he faced the flaming skies. Post-nuclear, let it be said. The east existed only as a distant memory, tinted red. People warmed their hands to it on frigid evenings, like the embers of a giant fireplace. Dr Ram did not know when he had last heard laughter.

 

Smelling rotting meat and excrement, he closed his eyes and tried to recall a time when the city was full of laughter and smelled like orange blossoms and black pepper. His nostrils flared. But what was the point of this exercise? He opened his eyes and, suddenly, the red dusk bled away, replaced by black effulgence.

 

Down an alley illuminated by a station lantern mounted on a garage, he stepped over green garbage bags stuffed with clothes, and blood-soaked boxes.

 

At the end of the alley stood a large steel bin; there they dumped refuse from the adjacent modular building, where scientists tinkered in secret. Often, among sheafs of paper, plastic bottles and other office debris, Dr Ram found foodstuffs. The other day, a half-eaten loaf of black bread, covered with green mould, proved edible once
scraped clean, though Dr Ram experienced extreme vertigo for days after eating it.

 

No one saw him, security lax in this quarter. Still, he had to be careful. Barking erupted in the distance: feral dogs. You had to watch for them. Some fancied human flesh.

 

‘You don’t want to get jammed up tonight,’ he said to himself.

 

‘Not tonight,’ the voice in his head responded. ‘And you don’t want to get eaten by dogs. That would be horrific.’

 

‘Hush,’ Dr Ram said aloud.

 

‘I have an opinion.’

 

‘You always have an opinion.’

 

‘Without me you would be stumbling around like a blind man.’

 

This wasn’t altogether true. Independent of Dr Ram’s consciousness and will, the voice provided him with conversation, advice, and served as a sounding board for his ideas. His terrible loneliness – everyone he had known was either dead or disappeared – had been mitigated by the emergence and evolution of this voice. Sometimes soothing, sometimes puckish or shrill, now and then Dr Ram wished it would shut the hell up.

 

He advanced. A rancid gust rattled the refuse bin.

 

‘You flinched,’ said his voice.

 

‘I didn’t flinch.’

 

‘You’re weak.’

 

‘Just be quiet.’

 

‘Weakling.’

 

‘I said be quiet!’

 

Of course he had questioned his sanity. But thriving in an environment that challenged any living being, he figured sane or not, he was alive.

 

A few faint stars studded the sky; the moon, although full, faded in and out in a dull slow strobe. Since the conflagration, the sky was not the same as Dr Ram remembered it. He recalled constellations: Sagittarius, Big and Little Dippers, and so forth. He thought of the glowing moon of the old sky with particular fondness. His stomach growled. Three days since he last ate.

 

As he neared the garbage bin a foul smell – what the devil could it be? – made his eyes water. He fought back nausea. The scientists: Dr Ram could only imagine their unspeakable experiments. ‘That’s awful,’ said his inner voice. ‘That’s absolutely awful. Be careful, man.’ Dr Ram lifted the hinged lid of the garbage bin.

 

Someone whistled from the top of the alley.

 

Dr Ram released the lid. ‘Be careful,’ cautioned the voice in his head.

 

‘You find any grub?’ asked the intruder, a coarse burnous cloaking his face and shoulders

 

‘No,’ said Dr Ram.

 

‘Are you tired?’ asked the man.

 

‘Am I tired?’

 

‘You can’t be here now,’ said the man. ‘You should go.’

 

Dr Ram thought the statement odd. The voice in his head said, ‘Watch out for this guy.’ Dr Ram stepped back. The man must have been from the north side, where the minarets stood. He moved closer. Dr Ram thought of bolting. ‘Do it,’ said the voice.

 

‘Don’t move,’ said the man. ‘I need to tell you something.’

 

Wind howled down the alley, whipping up dead leaves and paper scraps. Dr Ram shivered.

 

‘That is a terrible smell,’ said the man, drawing closer. Framed by the burnous, his eyes shone like wet plums.

 

In a state of nerves Dr Ram clenched his fists at his sides. He wanted to shout at the man not to move closer but his lips, trembling automatically, could not shape words.

 

‘Now look here,’ said the man, sandals clicking. ‘I need a word with you.’

 

‘I was leaving,’ Dr Ram managed.

 

‘No, you were not,’ the man said. He pulled up, a full head and shoulders shorter than Dr Ram. ‘I know you’re hungry. Everyone is hungry. There are no cats left in the city. Appalling. By the way, my name is Qaouaji.’

 

Dr Ram winced.


‘What is the matter?’

 

Indeed, the name had caused him physical pain when he heard it. Strangest thing. ‘How is that possible?’ asked the voice. Dr Ram shrugged. Prudently, he did not look the man in the eyes, which was all he could see of his face – those black, gleaming eyes.

 

‘What do you think goes on in that building?’ Qaouaji asked with a nod to it.

 

‘No idea,’ Dr Ram said. ‘Physics experiments?’

 

Qaouaji laughed.

 

‘Did you come for grub?’ asked Dr Ram.

 

‘Grub?’ snorted Qaouaji. ‘Do you smell that? I know you did. You have been spotted here before. Do you not think this alley is being surveilled? As for my mission, it is not important to probe for explanations at the moment. Do you understand me?’

 

‘Tell him to show his face,’ said the voice.

 

‘What is it?’ asked Qaouaji. ‘Do you have a djinn?’

 

‘A djinn?’

 

‘Yes, in your head. A djinn. Haha. This has become a commonplace.’

 

Dr Ram felt the asphalt shift underneath him. The garbage bin groaned at the wind.

 

‘Ah, the scirocco,’ Qaouaji said. ‘It could carry a man away if he does not have his feet planted firmly beneath him. What is your name? You must have a name, haha.’

 

‘Dr Ram.’

 

‘Dr Ram. And what do you practice, Dr Ram, medicine?’

 

‘I was a chiropractor.’

 

Qaouaji clapped his knee.

 

‘He’s laughing at you,’ said the voice. ‘I’m not happy with that, are you?’

 

‘Shut up,’ Dr Ram said under his breath.

 

‘I feel your anguish,’ Qaouaji said. ‘It can get a little unnerving.’

 

Dr Ram didn’t want to get the voice worked up. When that happened he felt like plunging needles into his ears to silence it.

 

‘How about an adjustment?’ Qaouaji quipped. ‘My neck hurts.’

 

‘I don’t, any more.’

 

‘A pity. You have forgotten your craft?’

 

‘I’ve not forgotten it.’

 

‘It’s a sketchy business, admit it,’ whispered the voice.

 

Dr Ram smiled and slapped himself in the ear hard enough for it to smart.

 

‘I protest! Do you hear me? I protest!’ cried the voice.

 

Something moved at the top of the alley. Qaouaji continued laughing. Shortly, a large black dog was upon them, a heavy mass of reeking fur and fangs. The dog lunged, knocked Qaouaji to the asphalt, and clamped its teeth on his neck.

 

‘Help me!’ cried Qaouaji. ‘Help me!’

 

Dr Ram found a broken broom-handle with a sharpened end. ‘Don’t do it!’ cried the voice. ‘Don’t help this guy! He was going to kill you!’

 

Dr Ram ignored the voice and jabbed the broom-handle at the dog’s spine, but it continued mauling Qaouaji. Blood now reddened the back of his burnous. Dr Ram jabbed harder and caught the dog on the flank, piercing its hide. The dog turned to him in a frenzy. As it sprang, Dr Ram jabbed the stick in its eye. Undaunted, the dog heaved its mass at him. A confusion of pain and harsh sounds ensued – clicking,
growling, screaming.

 

‘I don’t want to die this way!’ cried the voice.

 

Dr Ram grabbed fistfuls of fur and held the snapping beast at arm’s length. Qaouaji rose in silhouette and moved toward them, issuing a sharp whistle. The dog abruptly stopped the attack and scurried off down the alley, head bowed.

 

‘Are you injured?’ Qaouaji asked.

 

Uninjured as far as he could tell, Dr Ram accepted Qaouaji’s hand and rose to his feet. He tried to discern Qaouaji’s physical state: blood darkened his burnous; but he stood there rocking from side to side, black eyes staring calmly from the fold of the burnous.

 

‘Show your face,’ Dr Ram said. ‘That’s it,’ said the voice. ‘Get him to show it.’

 

‘I show my face to no one,’ he said. ‘I am Qaouaji.’

 

Once again, the utterance of the name caused Dr Ram discomfort. Was it the man’s voice, perhaps? Its timbre, its pitch?

 

‘I am Qaouaji,’ the man repeated.

 

This time Dr Ram bent over like he’d been hit with a liver punch.

 

‘It hurts?’ Qaouaji said. ‘Yes, I know. The physicists – and many of them call themselves ‘doctor’ like yourself – came up with this novelty. If I utter the name again, you will succumb.’

 

Dr Ram struggled to wrap his head around Qaouaji’s disclosure.

 

‘I used to have a djinn before joining the agency. Annoying. Always chirping. Did you know they actually dictate that inner voice to you from the mainframe at headquarters? Direct interface, no implant needed. It is meant to unbalance you and eventually drive you mad. You have to be mad to continue living in this world.’ Qaouaji touched the back of his head. ‘I am hurt. Ha. That dog – believe me that dog was a random thing. No idea it would show up so soon. Then again, they are all about, these feral dogs. Look.’

 

Dr Ram gasped as Qaouaji turned and showed him his oozing neck wound. The back of his burnous glistened with blood.

 

‘It goes with my face,’ Qaouaji quipped. He pulled the burnous from his face. His lower jaw was missing. In its place was a metallic piston of sorts, with black wiring.

 

Dr Ram collapsed to the asphalt, slack and powerless.

 

‘Get up!’ cried the djinn. ‘Get up!’

 

Conscious but in a stupor, Dr Ram heard dogs barking. They were drawing closer.

 

Qaouaji nodded. Then he said, ‘Your journey ends here, Dr Ram, at the place where you found sustenance. You had no way of knowing this would happen. A man never really knows when his journey will end. But I hope you understand, it cannot continue, this trespass, your trespass. It ends now.’ He sighed. ‘My, it is late.’
‘Get up!’ cried the djinn. ‘You must get up!’

 

But Dr Ram was now well down the cliff of the existential abyss he had stumbled upon. How could this man kill him with one word? How could any man kill another by repeating a word? What a fiendish conception.

 

‘And now,’ Qaouaji said, closing and opening his eyes, ‘it is time to kiss the djinn goodbye. Such a curious phenomenon. People will write about it one day. Or not. I know that it is the least of your concerns now.’

 

‘Don’t believe a word he says! Don’t do it!’

 

‘Please . . .’

 

‘My name is Qaouaji,’ he said with finality.

 

Dust swirled. Dr Ram shut his eyes.

 

Time passed. Dr Ram went on being aware of voices speaking over him and of being weighed down as if by stones or rocks. A throbbing black silence opened like a hole from time to time. So you remain conscious after all, the voice said, even as they devour you, you remain present in some fashion. And this presence – this presence is a direct continuation of all that has gone on before, something that should give you comfort. Suddenly Dr Ram felt pain – pain and cold. Such cold. His inner voice fell silent – the last thing he heard was someone, in the immediate distance, whistling.

 

*


Salvatore Difalco is the author of four books. He splits time between Toronto, Canada and Palermo, Sicily.