As we approach publication of Mike, Linda and Louise Carey’s extraordinary 1001 Nights-esque The City of Silk and Steel, we’re delighted to present a series of short tales designed to entertain and enlighten you. Here, without further ado, is the first of them . . .
What is Known, and What is Hidden
There is not much that can certainly be told about the seven djinni. Those who have encountered them are for the most part reticent on the subject of what they saw, or are for good and sufficient reasons unavailable for comment.
Where descriptions do exist, they are filled with contradictions. Some say the djinni are of huge and terrifying size, others that they buzz about your head like flies and sound in your ears in tiny voices pitched almost beyond human hearing. Some would give them fangs, and others wings, and some indeed no limbs or features at all but vast and shapeless bodies wracked with ceaseless motion like calving glaciers.
Even their number is not universally agreed upon. Most sources say seven, but some say it with the air of one throwing up his hands and surrendering. A few argue for a number which is ever-changing, since the djinni are not confined to flesh and so can arrange themselves into what formations and phalanxes they please, merging and parting at the merest whim.
Curiously, the matter on which there is most agreement is how to find them. Anyone will tell you that the best way is to leave your city in the hour before the setting of the sun, and travel due West for three days. Just before dark on the third day, you should look for a rock whose summit looks like the fingers of an upthrust hand; this you should keep over your left shoulder as you walk on for a further hour.
As the light fails, you will come to the mouth of a ravine. You will not wish to enter into it, because the darkness within will seem to be of a different quality from that which is gathering all around you. But you must enter, and that quickly, because there is still some distance to go and the time within which the cave of the djinni may be found is a very narrow span of time indeed.
So go on into the ravine, and count the spurs of rock upon your right. The first three will look like the spears of silent men standing on guard. Then you will pass three more like spears raised in threat or exultation. And finally, you will pass three that are arrayed like spears pointing at your heart.
If in the next ten paces you do not come upon the cave of the djinni, then you have gone a wrong way and must retrace your steps through the darkness as best you can. May the Increate be with you, and guide you.
And if you find the cave, then again, I say, may the Increate be with you, for you are in the most peril you have ever known, and all the course of your future life is as an egg that you throw from hand to hand, heedless that it might fall or be shattered. Watch your words. Rein in your thoughts.
A merchant came before the djinni, and begged of them that they should grant him riches beyond his ability to count. He failed to realise that there are not one but two variables in that equation. The djinni increased his wealth by twice ten times, and reduced his intellect by the same ratio so that he became a chuckling imbecile. He certainly had more, then, than he could possibly count – and though his brothers, and his brothers’ wives, helped him out of most of it, he remained happy with what he had, for wealth and poverty were now as one to him.
A wise woman came before the djinni, and beseeched them to grant her unfettered understanding of all things. The djinni obliged. The wise woman felt her consciousness spread like sunlight over all things, pour like water into every corner of Creation, until indeed her apprehension was almost like that of the Increate himself, except that He knows what came before Creation and what comes after.
The wise woman died late on the following day, her body overcome by thirst. Her mind was striding through levels of perceived harmony so far above the mortal sphere that she could not have found her fleshly part again if she had tried, and if she had found it could not have found a way in, so far had her spirit outgrown its former lodgings. She died in ecstasy – and who is to say that she did not think she had had the best of the bargain.
Many who come to the djinni ask for smaller and more modest things. A vengeful man who had discovered his wife in adultery asked for both her and her lover to be visited with the most terrible torments. The djinni came to the two – wife and lover – where they lay in the sweat of spent desire, and fused them into one unutterably strange being. They did not become an androgyne, in the strict sense: it was simply that where their flesh touched, it was combined inextricably. So the man’s forearm was thrust into one of the woman’s breasts, his hand entirely gone, and his penis was a conduit sunk into her thigh. Her arm around his back grew into his shoulder and became a humped ridge there, while their foreheads were likewise conjoined so that they could look nowhere except into each other’s eyes. The very thing that had given them the greatest joy and delight – the joining of their flesh – now became a source instead of anguish and despair.
So the wronged husband received the vengeance he craved. But he took his own life, not long afterwards, by throwing himself from the edge of a precipice. It is no trivial thing, after all, to be the author of another’s agony. Some have the skill of it, and others do not.
What makes the djinni act as they do? Are they, as some would have it, whimsical and spiteful in the gifts they give because they themselves glory in the suffering of those who come to them? This seems implausible, since some supplicants have come away with exactly what they asked for, and others with blessings as startling and inexplicable as the reversals and tribulations given to others.
Certain it is that the djinni are older than time and space. So perhaps they have little patience with such things, and with us who live in them. Perhaps they are bored with what the Increate has wrought, and are only waiting for the worlds to cease their spinning and the stars to go out, so that they can resume some conversation begun before the darkness groaned and gave birth to light.
And perhaps, while they wait, they grant wishes.
Here is a story that I was told. It shares many essential features with the stories outlined above: chiefly, a too-literal interpretation of a wish too thoughtlessly put into words, with the result that the supplicant got what they asked for but found that this was far from being what they wanted. Also, a suspect vagueness about time and place, and about the particulars of how the story came to light. Perhaps that is because the story is untrue; or it may be that the djinni are themselves vague about time and place, and utter their exploits through the voices of others . . .