The Widow’s Tale

From the manuscript, "Contemporary Jinn Stories"


The Widow’s Tale
by Ari Siletz

Narges’ knuckles were inlaid on the back of her hands like little pearls, almost as pale as the white skin of her throat. I watched her unknot her scarf, sliding it away to flash the obsidian sheen underneath. This was just how I had pictured her all these years, in glossy black and white. She crumpled the cloth for a toss, but seeming to apologize for an old habit, caressed the wrinkles out and placed it folded by the entrance mirror. After all, she had just come home from her husband’s funeral.

“Do forgive the mess,” she said, showing me into her guest room. Her ritual earthiness had the right effect. I looked around for untidiness and noticed instead the exquisite décor. A Farsi compliment was in order. A quote from Hafez perhaps, protesting my hostess’ self -deprecation.

“So nice,” I finally said. My repertoire of fancy Persian was a shambles, a hazard of living away in America for too long.

“Kind of you to say,” she replied, amused. I had no right to expect disappointment, much less sympathy. Not after what I had put her through. “I’ll put on the tea,” she said turning to go.

“Actually, I don’t wish to be a bother in such circumstance,” I said, cringing at how formal that sounded. I hoped I wasn’t hurting her feelings.

“No trouble at all?” she retaliated graciously. “It will just be a minute.”

We both knew it would take at least an hour for the tea to brew properly, and it felt awkward being alone with her for that long. She hadn’t asked how my wife was, an oversight due to grief no doubt. But her reason for asking me over didn’t involve having tea together. “Narges khanoum, if you would be so kind as to give me the item we talked about, I really should be on my way,” I said.

She seemed mystified. “Did I say I had something for you?”

“Yes, at the funeral. You said the late Sohrab wanted you to pass something on to me. Did I misunderstand?”

“It’s not an item,” she said, vanishing to the kitchen. There was much clink and rattle of chinaware, but I thought I heard her add, “It’s something he wanted you and I to do together.”

I sat on the stylish guestroom sofa and continued to take in the splendid surroundings. The intricate Kermans on the floor and the rustic Turkemans on the walls refused to soften the sound. The carpets were in no mood for cozy hospitality. They knew the man of the house was dead, and refused to befriend the stranger his widow was entertaining.

The photographs cluttering the mantle were friendlier. The smiles were wise, and hadn’t been caught unawares by the tragedy. Sohrab’s death wasn’t a surprise. It had been his family’s heritage to burn brightly, but not for very long. His father and grandfather had also died of hypertension, medications doing no good. There was a picture of Sohrab and me in our high school soccer uniforms, victory cup at our feet. That was the day he hit his head on the goal post and caught a cannonball in the groin. Sohrab gambled recklessly with his mortality, an “up yours” to Fate for a stingy portion of life.

Narges was finally done putting on the tea. She came back and offered some chickpea cookies on a small silver tray. I had to suppress the ”no food or drink” conditioning that fine art museums promote. Gingerly, I removed a cookie from the tray, and trying not to provoke it into powder, popped it in my mouth just in time. It vanished instantly into pure aroma. Looking up, I caught Narges transfixed on my face, reminiscing. She broke off and sat down with me on the sofa. It barely noticed her weight, as though an insect had lit on a leaf. I couldn’t tell if the scent of perfume was coming from her or from the flower garden framed by the French windows.

“Narges will wait for you, dear,” Aunt Tahmineh had said. Years ago when my family was twisting my arm to go study abroad, the old matriarch made it her mission to overcome my hesitation to leave. I used every excuse to stay. Our universities are just as good. I needed the discipline of military service. Why travel abroad when I’ve barely seen my own country?

“Narges will wait for you, dear,” Aunt Tahmineh repeated annoyingly after every pretext. In her old age, she had made a hobby of embarrassing those too young to know their own motives.

Ever since we were children, Narges and I knew our clans had us in mind for each other. No one told us outright, but by the way adults exchanged looks when she and I walked in together, our shoes muddied in play, and by the number of times any uncle or cousin with a new camera had to have a picture of us standing together, we felt we had been paired.

In the old days Narges’ grandfather and my grandfather were partners in a business. The next generation, our parents, kept up the courtship between the clans. Some even partnered in new businesses. They mingled at each other’s weddings, potlucks, backgammon picnics, funerals and such. There were no good matches in our parents’ generation, but it was a small prophecy that the partnership of three generations ago would be finalized with a marriage.

Narges and I didn’t qualify for Romeo and Juliet, because there was no family feud. We missed out on Lancelot and Guinevere for lack of a King Arthur. And thankfully we had no parallels with Bijan and Manijeh because Narges’ father didn’t want to kill me. Yet on our own simple turf of romance, Narges and I were legendary lovers. As children we stuck up for each other like brother and sister. As we grew into our teenage years, we shunned the adversarial nature of young love. Neither tried to test the other’s feelings or make the other jealous. There were no rivals, no doubts, no hesitations. Our dramas were little quarrels that only bound us closer. She and I were destined for an uncomplicated life together, with the blessing of person, animal, vegetable and mineral.

“Hey, are you still here?” This time Narges had caught me reminiscing.

“Yes, sorry,” I said. “I was just wondering.”

“About what?”

“Narges, how far did you let Sohrab get away with his craziness? I mean we all felt he was entitled to bending the rules now and then, his lifespan being so brief. But sometimes he could be demanding in hedonistic ways.”

She understood me. “You’re still worried about what he has asked us to do together.”

“It seems unconventional.”

“You want to though, I can tell. But first you have to vow you won’t tell anyone.”

“Narges Khanoum...”

“Promise on you honor it will be our secret,” she pleaded. “It was his last wish.”

“All right, I promise.”

She kept a long stare on me to seal the deal, then walked over to the mantle, picked up one of the picture frames and held it out to me. A youth in a very out-of-fashion haircut posed underneath a giant mulberry tree. It was Sohrab in his early twenties, probably not too long before his marriage to Narges. The stone tiles beneath his feet were alive with writhing rivulets of Koranic calligraphy. They were tombstones. He was in a cemetery.

“Where does this fit in to what we’re supposed to do?” I said, perplexed.

“He said if you looked at the photo carefully you would see what it is about.”

Sohrab always gave me credit for an artistic eye I really didn’t have. All I saw was that the composition lacked a professional look. The scene had been framed amateurishly and the lighting was awkward. “Did you take this picture of him? It’s very nice,” I said.

Her grimace implored earnestness.

Then slowly the photographer’s creative handiwork crept up on me. The young Sohrab posing by the massive tree trunk was only a decoy subject. The image was really about the figure standing behind the camera whose long afternoon shadow protruded well into the field of view. Or it could have just been the camera tripod superposed over the shadow of a sapling. Whatever it was, its shadow was human-like and it seemed to be snapping the picture.

“Is that a person?”

Narges shook her head. “It’s the jinn.” She seemed serious.


“You know, the one Sohrab told you about.”

I kept waiting for the ‘just kidding’ smile, but it didn’t come. It occurred to me that grief had affected her senses.

“Sohrab never said anything about a jinn, Narges,” I said cautiously.

“Yes he did. When he visited you in California.”

‘I don’t…” Suddenly I remembered. But that was such a long time ago.

“A jinn got you,” Sohrab had said. He had dropped by to visit while on assignment for a magazine. I remember his exact words because it struck me as out of character. Superstitious lore had never been part of Sohrab’s vocabulary. Usually when people say, “a jinn got you,” they mean you lost your mind. How was I to know there was a photograph of this jinn?

Besides, “you lost your mind” was more in context at the time. Aunt Tahmineh was right about Narges. She did wait for me—love letters and all. My unexpected marriage to Nicole created the worst scandal in the history of our two clans. What had simply been a common expectation suddenly took on the acrimonious bite of a contract in the breach. The happy friendship between the families never recovered. The tension was obvious even at Sohrab’s funeral

Yet death invokes our deepest wisdom. I knew that with little urging the two clans would reconcile. So I tailored my eulogy to let everyone know how I lived in Sohrab’s shadow. Did I wish to be like him? I didn’t have his imagination to dream the impossible, or his courage to challenge the imperative, or his reach to grasp the sublime. The self-flagellation went well. I had admitted in front of all of Narges’ relatives that their daughter had narrowly escaped being an orchid in a Coke bottle vase.

Perhaps that is why Sohrab had stipulated in his will that I should deliver his eulogy. In all likelihood his purpose was something even more tangled. When Narges phoned to tell me about the will, I could hear commotion in the background. Everyone struggled to understand the insult. But no one could really fathom Sohrab. Not even if he had lived a hundred years.

Narges had the right to a private groveling, however. A thorough accounting of my misdeed was the first step in letting the two families continue their suspended courtship. Maybe there were already two promising children who could not be paired until Narges gave the nod. This explained how the grieving widow had managed to shake her relatives. Ordinarily they wouldn’t dream of letting their daughter go home alone right after her husband’s funeral. Especially with her ex-fiancee in tow.

The narrative I had prepared was a clumsy lie. I was never good at making things up, and the truth would make matters worse.

Only Sohrab knew what really happened--which is what I thought he meant when he said, “a jinn got you.” What would Narges’ think of me if she found out I met Nicole at a college keg party, and that all of my desire for my American wife pivoted around a single magical moment during our first dance. It was when Nicole’s golden hair flowed smoothly between her breasts like water carrying sunshine over river rocks. That’s all! Until then, the only representative of the other gender for me was the woman I had been paired with since childhood. I am an awkward, uninspired dancer. What did I do to deserve an invitation to dance from the most beautiful girl at the party? What amusement did this goddess find in a shy foreigner, tardy into the rhythm by random fractions of the beat?

Though we stayed together through the years, our dance of matrimony never did get in synch. Nicole and I were meticulously attentive to each other, but there was an annoying emptiness in my life where Narges had been which I kept revisiting compulsively as though tonguing an extracted tooth. I sensed Nicole was just as unfulfilled, seemingly following the same self-help manual on how not to fall in love.

Though we were good partners in a checklist sort of way, there were telltale signs that a primary essence was missing. For instance, we rarely shared our pasts with each other. I got to know my wife bit by bit through her family, one Thanksgiving at a time. When I found out from her sister how heartbroken Nicole had been when she left her boyfriend for college, l wondered why the two had to part in the first place. They grew up in the same town, had the same English teacher, the same dentist put in their braces, the same friends smiled out of the same year books, they cheered themselves hoarse for the same basketball team.

What distorted concept of opportunity had made them go their separate ways? What greater opportunity than making your life with someone who knows you without the rituals of disclosure? Since when had the reading of ingredients on canned personalities substitute for lovers being part of the same recipe? What uncivilized rite had committed Nicole and her boyfriend to servitude in a heartless order where they lived homesick lives like a zoo animals kidnapped from their native latitudes?

And why did I feel so little possessiveness for Nicole to give her up in thought to a high school sweetheart?

During Sohrab’s visit many summers ago, Nicole and I had a barbeque for him in our backyard. The charcoal was damp and wouldn’t catch. It seemed I cooked the entire meal with lighter fluid. “This is my relationship with Nicole,” I told Sohrab when I thought she was inside the house answering the phone.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Sohrab said chewing through gasoline-flavored meat. “A jinn got you.”

“And what got poor Nicole?” I asked.

“Your barbeque skills,” he ribbed. Then we heard Nicole’s footsteps hurry away, and we were both very embarrassed. Later that night Nicole bolted upright in bed, turned on the light, and asked me what a jinn was. I mumbled something about a magical creature that grants your wishes.

“Do you believe him?”

“Believe who?”

“Sohrab. When he said a jinn got you.”

“Of course not.”

“Me neither,” she said.

“No dear, I don’t think jinn got you either,” I joked. “Get some rest.”

“I mean I don’t believe him about you. I didn’t say anything about me.”

“You think a jinn got you?”

“Stop me, I can’t help myself,” she growled Exorcist fashion, pouncing to pin my shoulders to the mattress with her knees.

I hadn’t expected her to confront me with what she had heard eavesdropping. This was uncharacteristically candid of her, but she had let it go graciously--and with pleasurable humor. So thankfully I could continue to keep my feelings for Narges to myself.

By then, Sohrab and Narges had been married for four years.

And they stayed married until Sohrab’s death sixteen years later. I was ashamed of how grateful I felt for their happiness. Jealousy is less irksome than guilt. I would have felt terrible if Narges ended up with a bad match.

“So this is the jinn he was talking about,” I said, handling the frame. I was now viewing the photograph as a work of art. A piece Sohrab had done while reflecting on my behavior towards Narges. I thought it curious that he hadn’t simply wished I should have the photograph. What did he expect me to get from only a few minutes of looking at it? He used to say I was the smartest person in the world if I had a million years to figure it out. It really would take me that long to sort out this awkward work of art.

“Narges, are you sure he didn’t wish me to borrow this for a while?”

“If I gave away everything else of his, I would keep this for myself,” she said adamantly, reaching for the frame. I almost pulled it away. Kids again!

“Here,” I handed it back. We were both chuckling. “Seriously though,” I said, “He did instruct you to help me with this priceless mystery, right?”

Narges placed the picture on the coffee table so that Sohrab was facing us. Then she slid closer to me on the sofa, letting our shoulders touch, just as when we were children. “It tells a story,” she said, her voice warming up for the tale. I had not forgotten what it was like to sit next to Narges and listen to her stories. Her body heat used to wrap me in a blanket of fantasy, while her soft breathing gave breeze to words adrift in imagination. Overwhelmed by nostalgia for her, I let my body lean towards her like a sleepy child, and she in turn placed her hand on mine reassuringly. That touch was why I still remembered Narges’ small knuckles of pearl, and that storyteller’s voice was why I still remembered the white skin of her throat.

Even before she could read, Narges used to entertain other children by making up stories about magazine pictures. I remembered the day aunt Tahmineh had her cataract surgery and needed someone to read to her. Narges, now about seventeen years old, brought an illustrated women’s magazine to “read,” pictures and all.

That was the day she and Sohrab first met. He was over cramming for exams with me. They barely looked at each other when they said ‘salaam.” I got up to close the door because Sohrab’s concentration kept drifting to her voice reading to Aunt Tahmineh in the next room. I had no idea he was interested until I saw Sohrab’s mother leave Aunt Tahmineh’s house one afternoon. Except for Sohrab and I, our clans didn’t know each other. There was only one reason Sohrab’s mom would have visited my aunt’s house. Aunt Tahmineh probably set her straight. Here’s their address if you want it, but the girl is not available. Of course, Narges’ parents wouldn’t say why their daughter wasn’t available. They would say something like, “Let’s all wait for her to finish her studies and see what she wants to do. Enshallah, she will pass the university entrance exams.”

Narges started her studies towards a literature degree at a university in Shiraz the same year I left for the United States. Sohrab majored in journalism on the same campus in Shiraz. I thought his real interest was art. He had shown enough talent in high school that he had the option of studying at the prestigious fine arts school in Tehran. His excuse was that he needed more action in his life than a career in fine arts could give him. Besides, he had developed an astonishing mastery of the camera, which the whole world quickly recognized and rewarded with fame and money. The way Sohrab could make a photograph tell a story was as though at the snap of its creation he imagined the tales Narges would weave into it.

“This feels so like the old times, Narges.”

“Shhh. Listen.” She began. Using her voice, Sohrab spoke out of the picture.

I was on assignment to photograph the elusive cheetah of the Iranian central plateau when I met the jinn. The cheetahs were supposedly extinct, but gambling on the testimony of some of the villagers, I had hiked in with my equipment. Walking back to my encampment after a long day of interviewing the locals and setting camera traps, I stopped at the village cemetery to splash some water on my face and cool off in the shade of the old mulberry tree in the yard. There I saw a figure in a cloak reciting the Koran by a grave. His face had turned leathery from too much exposure to the sun, so it was impossible to tell his age. His cloak was so old I couldn’t tell if it was dusty or if it had just turned to dust. I nodded a salaam as I walked by. Suddenly the man became excited. He stopped reading, closed the Koran, and ran to catch up with me, parts of his cloak disintegrating as he ran.

“Can I help you?” I asked, taken aback.

“You can see me!” he said, his voice squeaky with joy.

“I beg your pardon?”

He pawed my camera case, “What’s this?

“I’m a photographer. From Tehran.”

He stared, not seeming to understand.

“Pictures,” I said.

“I knew it,” he leaped up. “You are an artist.” He was gaping at me, lips parted and parched, as though he wanted to drink me through his admiring eyes. “Wherever you are from, it is Allah that has sent you here. What year is it?”

“What year is what?” I said, pulling my arm away. He was trying to grab my sleeve.

“On the calendar.”

This was the first time my city-style clothes had created an interest in me. The other locals had been disappointedly caught up with current fashion. But this man’s enthusiasm overflowed the bounds of comfort. How could someone not know what year it was? Perhaps he meant the Christian year. “1985, why?”

He gasped. “1985 after the Hegira!”

“No,” I laughed. “1364 after the Hegira. Solar calendar.”

He slumped in relief. “Thank God.”

I thought he was a madman who had made a home for himself in the cemetery. My first impulse was to give him a few bills and send him on his way. But he hadn’t begged for money and I didn’t want to insult him if I was mistaken. Then I realized that he had a face no photographer should pass up. Here was his chance to earn the money.

”Look, would you give me permission to take your picture? It will probably go in a magazine in the city.” I took out my wallet and pulled out some bills.

He took the bills and spent several minutes examining the guilloche around the borders.

“I promise they are not counterfeit.”

“Such skill!” he cried out.” Did you make these drawings?”

I was about to say, “I think it is done with machines.”

“Allah’s will!” he screamed. “Such subtlety!” He had discovered the watermarks.

“Calm down, this will just take a second.” While I took out the camera and adjusted the settings, he began muttering verses apprehensively.

“What are you doing? The camera won’t harm you.”

“Forgive my eagerness. I am just praying for your success.”

I was almost at the end of the roll so I took only a few pictures, then gave him my business card and went on my way. He kept calling after me, but stopped after I went beyond the cemetery walls. That night I developed the roll in my improvised field darkroom. The cemetery had come out clearly, mulberry tree and all, but I don’t know how I had managed to point the camera over my subject’s head in every shot. Was there something wrong with the viewfinder?

The next day on the way to checking my cheetah traps, I found the cloaked figure at the same gravesite reading his Koran.

I walked up to him awkwardly. Apologizing for the interruption, I told him yesterday’s pictures hadn’t come out.

“I know,” he groaned.

“Could I snap some more with a different camera?”

“Snap all you want,” he said despondently. “You have the eyes to see the jinn, but not the talent to capture one.”

This madman has potential for a story, I thought. It would be worth the risk to humor him. “You claim to be jinn?”

He ignored my question. “You say it is 1985 of the Christian year?”

“Yes. 1364 after the Hegira.”

He tapped the gravestone and shouted below. “Perhaps Allah has stopped creating the likes of you.”

“Who’s buried here?” I inquired.

He turned his back to me and returned to his Koran. The engraving on the tombstone had been eroded by years of dust, wind, and passing feet. I could only make out the word ‘ostad.’ Whatever this man did for a living, he must have done it extremely well to earn the title of ostad.

I recited a brief prayer for the deceased, then asked, “What was Ostad’s craft?”

“He was a painter of Persian miniatures. Now go away and leave me to my sorrow.”

“You must be proud of this ancestor to come here everyday to pray for his soul.”

He frowned. “This human was no ancestor to me.”

“Then why are you at his grave?”

“He was my master,” he grumbled, shooing me away with the back of his leather and bones hand.

I adopted a more serious tone so as not to appear to be mocking him. “Your loyalty to your master is admirable, O jinn.”

“You can keep your admiration. It is not as though Allah gives the Jinn a choice.”

“Does Allah give the Jinn the choice of being pleasant with strangers?”

My subject relented, unburdening his irritability with a sigh. “I apologize. But you see I am a jinn whose hopes have just been dashed. You seemed so promising.”

“You really wanted those photos to turn out, didn’t you?”

”I thought since you were able to see me, perhaps you could send me back to where I came from.”

“By putting you in this camera?” I guessed.

“Anywhere in the arts would do. Once I’m in, I am free to roam. You could drop me off in the lazy lilt of a poem or in the erotic sizzle of a dance move, if you had the gift. Are you better at dancing than you are with your picture box?”


“I bet you’re being modest. Dance with me. Come on, put me inside a cute wiggle,” He tried to embrace me, humming a tune, but I shoved him away.

He recovered his poise indignantly, then spoke into the grave again. “Not a dancer either. Useless! We remain master and slave.”

“How did you become this man’s slave? Did he capture you in his art?”

“There, you see. That’s the injustice of it. He refused.”

“O dear.”

“ One day I was roaming the forest in a Persian carpet when suddenly I inclined to a gazelle hunt. Not far away in the same town, Ostad happened to be painting a hunting scene in the most pleasant meadow I had ever seen. Carefully so he would not sense my intrusion, I flowed through his brush to become one of the miniature riders on the vase he was working on.”

I wished I had brought my tape recorder. “Ostad caught you trying to sneak into his painting?”

“I still don’t know how. Suddenly his brush froze like a gazelle that has picked up the scent of a predator. He lifted the vase to his face and studied me suspiciously. Then he took a rag, dipped it in a foul smelling goo and wiped me off. “ He wrinkled his nose disgustedly. “I had no choice but to come out.”

“Like the genie in the lamp,” I said, recalling the old story. “He freed you from your prison.”

His face froze in a shock of indignation. Then he exploded, pounding his fist on the tombstone. “Are you deaf? I was happy in my miniature hunting ground. He didn’t free me. He enslaved me and demanded his three wishes. I had to agree, but I made him swear on the pain of damnation that in return he would paint me back in.”

“But he died before he could keep his end of the bargain. Is that right? And now you bless him every day hoping to save him from damnation.”

“You have a kind imagination, human. Try another guess, this time on the cruel side, ” the jinn said, an angry tremor in his voice.

I took up his challenge. “You couldn’t resist tricking him with his wishes, so the deal went sour, and now you’re remorseful. How like a jinn.”

“I didn’t trick him,” he roared. “I had to obey him. Why Allah has given humans such power over the Jinn is beyond Jinn wisdom, just as it was beyond angel wisdom when Allah asked them to bow to Adam. I hated my master, of course. That is the right of a slave. Every time I granted one of his wishes I felt the fury of Satan in me. I laughed when the gold he wished for was its own disappointment. I danced when the fame he wanted embalmed him in conceit. But I did not deceive him. Never!”

“Why then do you sit by his grave every day and bless him with Koran recitations?”

He bowed his head and shrank, his anger giving way to the sadness beneath. “After his fall from grace, friendless and miserable, Ostad plunged into a melancholy he could not recover from. Illness invaded his organs. He had one wish left, which a sensible person would have used to regain his health. Curing illness is my favorite wish to grant, I told him, longevity being my specialty. He could go back to his old life, healthy again but wiser, and I could go back to being a blissful drifter wandering the universe of art. But he said he didn’t trust me; said I had wheedled him with his first two wishes. I told him it had been his own folly that had brought him to ruin. Anything I said just made him angrier! On his last night on earth he summoned me in a rage of pain and said. ‘My third wish shall be a curse upon you, jinn.” I pleaded with him not to waste his last wish. Curses don’t work on the Jinn. We’re the ones who carry them out. What was he going to do, put me in a pretty bottle? That’s like threatening to throw a pigeon off the roof.”

“So how did he find a way to curse the Jinn?”

”He made sure his last wish would take me until the Day of Judgment to fulfill. With his last breath he wished that I would come to this cemetery every morning, sit by his grave, and recite the Koran, cover to cover. I had underestimated the creative power of human vengefulness. I see now why Allah told us to fear the human. The Jinn cannot be cursed, but how is blessing the departed a curse? How is sweetening my mouth with the Koran every day sunrise after sunrise a curse? I once existed in dimensions of freedom so vast and varied they make insanity look like the axioms of geometry. Look at me now. Imprisoned in a world with only up, down, sideways and tomorrow, playing chess on a board with only four squares. I have waited centuries for rescue, but until you arrived, no human could even see me, much less help me out of my wretched condition.”

He opened his Koran dejectedly and went back to his task. Sensing the interview had come to an end, I said, “I am very sorry I was no help to you. ”

“Look,” he said suddenly excited by an idea. “Ostad’s last wish is still not completed. Never will be. If you capture me you can claim it for yourself. Turn this cruel wish into what it should have been in the first place. Ask for health and a long life.”

“I ask that all the time. If only you knew,” I muttered mostly to myself. It was late afternoon. I had skipped lunch and my stomach was growling. “I should be going now. Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.” I took out my wallet and pulled out a few more bills. “God keep you.”

As I walked away, a booming voice stunned me to stillness. “You’re slowly being murdered, Sohrab, by the powerful coursing of your own blood. You are terrified of early death. Not a day goes by that you wish an ancestral curse had not touched you. Even now as your afternoon shadow stretches longer and longer over these gravestones, you pray for the sun to set more slowly.”

Suddenly, I felt an upheaval in the universe. Not a single atom shifted position or changed state, but the world flipped, as though it had been a perceptual illusion. The cube that turns inside out, the chalice that becomes two faces. But when the cube turning inside out is the whole universe, the sensation is no longer one of amusement. It is the utmost terror.

The jinn kept his imploring stare on me.

My instinct was to run out of the cemetery. But the walls receded explosively in all directions, enlarging the graveyard faster than I could hope to run. All around me was nothing but an expanding ocean of Koranic verses interspersed with dates of birth and dates of death. This is it! I thought to myself. A blood vessel has finally burst in my brain and I am hallucinating as I collapse from a stroke.

“Please don’t be afraid. You are not dying.” It was the voice of the jinn.

I realized I was running anyway, aimlessly. The jinn threw his arms around my legs, begging. I tried to kick him off of me, dragging him as I hobbled away. Finally my panic subsided. The cube snapped back to where it was. Everything was the same again except for remnants of the terror that faded slowly as I swallowed between breaths. When I calmed down, all I felt was pity for the creature that was kissing my feet even as I tried to kick him away.

“Sorry,” I breathed out. “I just lost it.”

“It’s all right,” said the jinn, rubbing the pain out of his chin. “It happens when human meets Jinn.”

“Look, why don’t you just let me go? Didn’t you say I didn’t have the talent to capture you?”

“That was before you really believed I was a jinn. Now that you know my magic can cure your illness, your talents may improve. There is no telling what miracles you will be inspired to conjure.”

“Look, all I can do is try again.”

“Exquisite,” he gushed affecting a prancing ballet pose. He looked ridiculous. ”Now concentrate. Feel the moment. It has to be good art, or you will fail again. Careful you don’t get greedy when you wish for life. I can’t guarantee good health past a hundred years.”

“Fine,” I said. “But there is something you must do for me first.”

He dropped his pose impatiently. “What!”

“I want you to take a picture of me under that mulberry tree.”

“Me, make a picture of you? Why? I am no artist.”

“Look, this is my condition,” I said.

“Your condition looks like vanity, not art. Perhaps I was wrong about you being an artist.”

Ignoring his grumbling, I dialed in the camera settings and showed the jinn which button to push. He took the camera reluctantly, hanging on to it mournfully as I walked to the mulberry tree and posed under it.

“Ready,” I said. As soon as I heard the whirr of the shutter, I made my wish.

The camera tumbled into the dust in front of me, having swallowed the jinn holding it.

Twenty years later, there was the jinn’s long afternoon shadow, captured in a photo. Sohrab, still in the middle of making his wish, finished speaking.

“And that,” said Narges “is how this picture was made.” She let me linger in her story world long enough for a pleasantly smooth awakening. Then, gently, she disentangled herself to go bring the tea, leaving me lamenting the years I had squandered far from her imagination.

“How did Sohrab know that capturing the jinn’s shadow would be enough?” I asked to the kitchen.

“What do you mean enough? He knew that only a shadow would do. If you let the eye see everything, the mind won’t seek so the heart won’t find.”

“But why didn’t Sohrab just take a picture of the jinn’s shadow himself? Why trick the creature into thinking the subject was something else?“

She raised the tea tray against the window light, making sure her tea was the right amber. “Because you can’t trap a cheetah if it knows you’re trying,” she said lowering the tray to me. In that light, her eyes matched the tea color.

“Pity how that lying jinn goes around swindling such great artists.”

“Swindling? How do you figure?”

“Are you kidding? Where’s the rest of the hundred years Sohrab wished for?”

For the first time since our reunion that day she seemed disappointed in me. She took the photo from the coffee table and placed it back on the mantle “How is Nicole, by the way,” she said, “When I phoned about Sohrab, she picked up. She has a lovely voice, so empathic. Do you have a photo?”

“Not on me,” I lied, annoyed with the change of subject. “Sohrab snapped some face shots when he visited. Didn’t he show them to you?”

“I was just hoping she would look less lovely to a different photographer,” she shrugged self-effacingly. “A touch of jealousy, I suppose. Ever since the jinn, Sohrab made a ritual of wishing something from every subject.”

“What do you suppose he wished of Nicole?”

“It’s all over those shots,” she laughed. “I’m surprised she didn’t show them to you.”

Suddenly a festive melody chimed all around us, and Narges turned to go answer the door. “Please apologize to Nicole for me. I must have sounded rude not introducing myself on the telephone.”

I called after her, “He sent her his works?”

Tens of Narges’ relatives dressed in black poured in like an ink spill, obliterating her slight figure from my view. I never got a chance to be alone with her again.


Nicole picked me up at the airport just after sunset. She let me take in the fragrance in her hair as we hugged, but I held her an instant longer after she let go, as though to feel in her embrace that she had missed me. She kept me unsure.

On the long drive home she asked how the funeral went.

“I’m too jet-lagged right now; we’ll talk tomorrow.” I said.

“There’s something on your mind.”


Nicole pressed down the passenger widow button and let in a tornado.

“All right, fine. Did Sohrab ever hit on you, even subtly?

She halted the storm. “I’m not sure. It depends on what’s going on between you and his wife.”


“Her voice on the phone wasn’t nothing,” she said raising a threatening finger to the magic tornado button. Reluctantly, I began telling her my history with Narges and Sohrab.

My wife seemed quietly eager to hear my confession, drawing me out skillfully, blocking every path of escape. I was mystified, though, by how she dwelt on the minutest detail of the jinn story to the point where it became the focus of her interrogation.

Once I was done with the telling, Nicole said, “About me and Sohrab, he never hit on me, even subtly.” Now she seemed certain.

“What did I just tell you that I’m not telling myself, Nicole?”

“Why Sohrab died.”

“He died because that bastard jinn went back on his word. I hope the jinn doesn’t represent me in Narges’ story.”

Nicole checked the side view mirror for a lane change. I adored how she put me on pause to concentrate on her driving. Somehow she looked even more splendid when I couldn’t reach her. For a moment I wondered if she had known this about me all along. When she had piloted us safely into the next lane, she finally said, “No, you’re not the jinn. The creature kept his promise.”

Odd, I thought, that Nicole suffered the same frustrating inability to see the obvious as Narges. “Early forties isn’t exactly old age,” I grumbled. “Sohrab was supposed to live to a hundred.”

She turned on the radio and we drove the rest of the way home in soft jazz while I dozed off the jetlag. As we wound our way up the driveway, tree shadows scurried into the woods out of the path of the headlights. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of the artful shadow Narges had captured in her story. I had disappointed her in not seeing it, but she knew Nicole would spot it right away.

“He wished for her, didn’t he? If he had wished for life he would still be pining for her on his hundredth miserable birthday.“

Nicole wasn’t answering me.

“I swear Nicole, Sohrab’s wish had nothing to do with my leaving Narges for you,” I said caressing her hair back. “And I don’t need a cemetery jinn to enchant me with how beautiful you are.”

Nicole had been crying, her lips quivering. “Shut up, love,” she whispered.



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Azadeh Azad

Fascinating read

by Azadeh Azad on

What an enchanting tale, dear Ari. I loved so much what Narges said: "If you let the eye see everything, the mind won’t seek so the heart won’t find." Thank you so much.


Ps. I tried to kick him off me, dragging him ...

Nazy Kaviani

Dear Ari

by Nazy Kaviani on

This was absolutely delightful to read every time! I loved the many ways in which each image had several others sitting inside it, telling more and taking us deeper into your story, making sure we were all sitting somewhere in your jinn's bottle, before the story was told in full.

"His cloak was so old I couldn’t tell if it was dusty or if it had just turned to dust...,"" of his cloak disintegrating as he ran." How fantastic is that?!

The ending is perfect now! I hope to read more in your jinn series soon. Thank you!

Flying Solo


by Flying Solo on