By Danie Shokoohi
When the doctor found the tumor in his brain, when the surgery was first scheduled but not yet scalpeled, before the poorly fitted tracheostomy tube which introduced the sepsis, your father forbade you from coming to Connecticut. He didn’t want you to see him like that, he said. That when your grandfather died, your father could only picture him ill and threadbare in a hospital bed. He did not want that for you, if he didn’t make it.
“No.” You lifted your laptop from the coffee table and clicked your internet browser. “Absolutely not. I’m pulling up Delta.” The ticket would be expensive from Iowa City, but you would pay anything to be there.
He told you that you could visit when he was well again, for Thanksgiving, maybe. “Look, Kimmy,” he said. “I got some bad apples, but we can still make applesauce out of them. It’ll be okay. The surgeon’s good. I’ll have to do some PT, but I won’t lose any cognitive function. That’s pretty good applesauce.”
You wanted to tell him there was nothing applesauce about a brain tumor. That you didn’t care how small, or how easy the recovery, or how experienced the doctor. You wanted to tell him that twenty-two was too young to be fatherless. If it was your Iranian mother, you would have had permission to scream and rip hair from your scalp and weep. But he wasn’t one for big sentiments, your father. He was American. So you laughed because you knew he wanted you to laugh.
After the phone call, you drove to the grocery store and picked out a jar of applesauce. It sat in your cupboard through his entire sickness, and you ate a spoonful a day as if it could keep him safe.
As a child, you had trouble understanding the anatomy of love. In the twist of Farsi and English that was your first tongue, emotion lived in the stomach. It made sense to you, anatomically, for emotion to be something swallowed. What had the heart ever done but give a few weak flutters? What could the heart give when compared to the stomach—and if the stomach loved better than the heart, then didn’t that mean that love was stronger in Farsi than it was in English?
So it doesn’t surprise you that the djinn first came to you while you were cooking.
It was the day of your father’s surgery. You were making koofteh berenji, which was the hardest dish you knew how to make. If the proportions of rice, veggie, and ground beef weren’t exactly right, then the meatballs dissolved into the broth and became a disappointing stew. You had never made anything except that disappointing stew. But the act of it, even if the meal was inedible at the end, meant that you could stop thinking, for a moment, of his illness.
You washed the herbs under the faucet, running your fingers through the bristle of leaf and stem. You plucked each tiny petal by hand, though the food processor sat on the bottom level of the pantry. This too was by design. This meal could not come to you easily; you needed it to take hours. You needed something to do with your hands.
Only the dill gave you any trouble. Those leaves, thin as eyelashes, clumping and bunching, resisting the pluck. The pruning was uncomfortable, that pulling apart of wet vegetables which caught in the wrinkle-dampened pads of your fingers. You noticed too late that you were out of fenugreek but at that point, it didn’t especially matter.
You pounded the herbs and ground beef into the rice with your bare hands, to tighten the pain around something you could not injure. You balled the sticky mixture between your palms, placed each of the spheres into the broth with the tips of your fingers even though the liquid was already boiling. The physical pain felt indulgent. At some hour that night, your stepmother would call to tell you if your father survived.
You knew what the djinn was when he rose from the pot of koofteh berenji. Later, this knowing will perplex you. There are certain things which belonged to you in your mother’s language, but others which only belonged to your father’s. The American in you had always believed in ghosts and faeries and cryptids—but it had never believed in djinn.
Sometimes you will think of him as two different beings: one for the part of you that is Iranian, one for the part of you that isn’t. As a child, you liked the idea of wish-granting genies, but somewhere you had separated them from the djinn in your grandmother’s stories. That there could be both, and that they could be different things—that’s what you believed, if you had been pressed to articulate it. Just as you were both Kimiya and Kimmy, slightly different versions of yourself for each of your parents.
That first time he came to you, his skin was bluish like the flame of your gas stove. You thought the two things could not be coincidental, your father’s illness and this djinn standing in your kitchen. You asked him, “Will you help my father?” and he looked at you, unblinking, with the slitted yellow eyes of a cat.
Later, he would come to you in more unsettling shapes but this first time, he tried so hard to make it easy on you. He hardly looked monstrous at all. Only a bluish man with cats’ eyes stepping out from your stockpot.
The djinn did not answer. He stood much stiller than a normal man as if he did not have the need to breathe or twitch or tap as a normal man would do. You realized that you had asked him English, and then, a moment later, that it was possible the djinn did not speak it. You tried again, this time in Farsi. “My father is sick.”
“Nakhair.” The djinn’s voice sounded hardly like a voice, not a proper one that used vocal cords. It sounded like wind blown through a copper pipe, any resemblance to words accidental. “Nemitoonam komakesh bokonam.”
“Please,” you said. “I don’t want him to die.”
The djinn turned to the pot of koofteh berenji and scooped the meatballs into his mouth, bare handed. If the heat hurt him, he did not flinch. The broth ran down his arms and dripped to the floor from his elbows, tinged yellow with turmeric. It puddled at his feet. Other than the dripping broth, he ate neatly and he chewed without any noise. As you watched him, you crossed your arms over your stomach.
If your father hadn’t been in surgery, perhaps you would have reacted differently. Screamed, maybe—that would have been the logical thing to do. Or perhaps you would have thrown something at him, barricaded yourself in your room, escaped through the window. You lived on the second floor. You could have managed that kind of drop. You might have wondered if you were hallucinating, if you had snapped under the stress. But your father was in surgery, could be dying even now, and you felt nothing but numb curiosity, more as if you were watching the building’s maintenance guy unclog your sink.
Through the thin yellow shirt he wore, you could see the plates of his shoulders moving. He must have been very hungry to eat so much of the koofteh. It had only been on the stove for half an hour, and you weren’t sure if it was cooked all the way through. “Did it turn out alright?” you said, to break the silence.
The djinn glanced over his shoulder, his cheek bulging with the bite. Then your cell rang. Your stepmother. “I’m sorry. Give me a moment.” The djinn did not turn again as you went into the bedroom to answer the phone.
You do not remember the words your stepmother used when she told you he still hadn’t woken up from the surgery, that there had been some complications with post-surgical swelling, that he had needed the tracheostomy to breathe. You did not remember if she comforted you, or if she was crying. You only remember falling to your knees and whimpering, vaguely aware of yourself curled on the floor—and some small part of your brain saying, how cliché. He would be ashamed of you, whimpering like this, giving up on him. Get up.
By the time you remembered the djinn, he was gone and so was the koofteh. In the pot, the broth had boiled into foam. You turned off the burner and stumbled to your bed to lay in the dark, not sleeping but not entirely there either. You felt as if you were only a stomach, and the rest of your body had dissolved away.
In the morning, the pot sat upturned on the palsy print hand towel from your bathroom, scrubbed clean and still dewy from the sink. You must have washed it the night before—but no. You turned off the burner but you’re sure you left the pot. The puddle remained half-dried on the floor. Why had the djinn come, if not to save your father? What could he have wanted from you? You hated him then, cursed him with every Persian curse you could muster: son of a bitch, snake poison, pimp.
You tried to scrub the floor, but the stain of turmeric wouldn’t lift from the cheap linoleum.
For a week, your father laid halfway across the country in a hospital bed, strung with tubing and wires like a marionette. The IV hooked into his arm kept him in the warmth of a medically-induced coma so he would not feel the sepsis ravaging his body. Above him, the fluorescent lights hummed along as the respirator hissed in rhythm to the beep of the heart monitor. How unfair that he survived the surgery, and that the surgery was supposed to be the hard part. That a nurse’s stupid mistake fitting the tracheostomy tube would do him in.
You do not know if it is true, but you suspect that the djinn arrived the moment the tube was fitted.
The morning your stepmother called to tell you they were turning off his life support, you became an animal of yourself. You didn’t believe in God, but you prayed to science. You prayed to medicine. You prayed for a miracle.
You could not stop thinking of the last time you visited him, when he drove the long way home from the airport between the green of the tobacco fields. He played the National CD you gifted him on some long-ago Christmas, because he kept it still in the CD player of his car. And he kept it because of you; he preferred blues or early rock and would never have picked out a CD like that on his own. He would send you Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and you would return pop punk and indie. You paced your apartment and ate applesauce from the jar like it could still help him, and you listened to the Keb’Mo album he gifted you for your fourteenth birthday for the first time since your fourteenth birthday. You realized, as you turned the album cover in your hands, that the album came out the year you were born. This was so like him, sneaking sentiment into his gifts to you. You reached for your phone, laughing, to tell him you finally understood the joke before it struck you, all at once, that you could not.
It was the realization that you could not call him which made you desperate for the djinn. If only you could summon him. If he came while you were cooking, why not again?
You drove thirty minutes to the nearest Middle Eastern grocery store and returned to your apartment laden with rosewater and saffron and pomegranate syrup. You made sohan asaali with pistachios and almonds and burnt the honey. You mixed layers of rice with yogurt and chicken for tacheen but mistook turmeric for saffron. You made watery khoresh karafs, burnt your fingers searing eggplant for kashke bademjan. You cooked everything you could think of, anything that might bring the djinn back. You wept and screamed and cursed and shattered the bottle of rosewater against your wall, but the djinn did not come.
When the phone call came, you fell, fatherless, into the hole in your stomach.
For a week after your father died, your friends sent flowers and fruit baskets, but no one came to see you. Most of your closer friends had moved out of town post-graduation, but you stayed to work as a grader for a standardized testing company. You mainly graded essays for fifth graders, and it was soul-sucking work but the pay wasn’t bad. You meant it to be a temporary job while you searched for something better, but when no better job emerged and the company offered you a permanent position, you didn’t see a good reason to turn it down. You preferred it to the alternative, which was moving back into your mother’s house in Michigan. As much as you loved your mother, you also loved living alone. You loved your hand towels and your coat rack, your thrift store couch and the battered lazy boy you inherited from your old roommate. Your mother had folded her upper lip over her lower teeth when you told her about the job, but she said only, “If that’s what you need to do.”
Your father had not been so generous. He told you it was a waste of a year. “Life is too short to hate your job, Kimmy,” he said. “I would know.” Your father spent fifteen years working a research job he hated before he switched to teaching chemistry at UConn.
The night after he died, your mother drove nine hours through the night to come take care of you. She showed up in the morning, smelling of strong coffee and lugging an air mattress from the trunk of her SUV. During the week she visited, you laid limp in your bed, the blinds closed while she cleaned your apartment with bleach and rubbing alcohol. When she saw the turmeric stain in your kitchen, she raised her eyebrows. You watched her lift away the yellowed rag and thought, there, the last trace of that horrible, pointless djinn gone.
You did not cry, and every time your eyes prickled, you pinched yourself until your stomach petaled with bruises. Your father would not want you to cry so you would be strong. When you used to call him crying, he would hush you, tell you to breathe, that he could not understand you around your sadness. You would not disappoint him in death.
When your mother finished cleaning, she made a large pot of the barley soup that had been a sick food staple of your childhood, and twice a day she brought a bowl to your bed with a few saltines and a wedge of lemon. From the cutesy white bookshelves in your room at home, she’d packed your favorite book as a teenager, a thick hardcover volume following the life of a teenage girl through the age of 20. Your mother had wrapped it in a plastic bag in her luggage, tucked between a tin of cardamom tea you’d run out of, and packets of saffron and sabzi, so that the book would take their smell through the drive. The thoughtfulness of this made you cry, and she rubbed your back as you bit the linen of your pillow. Every evening, she pulled your desk chair to the bed and read to you. She had trouble, sometimes, when her accent would snag on the words but as long as you could focus on her voice, the soft parts in your center stopped spinning apart.
Your parents had met as doctoral students and shared a lab together. He’d loved her right away, though your mother required more convincing. She tells you of the night she received news of the cut funding for her degree and the news of the Revolution, in that order; how your father drove across town in a blizzard to find a Middle Eastern bakery. He arrived, red-faced and huffing, at your mother’s door, the snowflakes melting in his eyelashes. In one hand, he held a pink and yellow easter basket filled with baklava and louz and bamieh. Your mother could never bring herself to tell him how much she hated honey.
Delam barash tang shodeh. It was an idiom—my stomach is tightening for him. It is balling like a fist. It meant “I miss him.” It was one of those phrases that for your mother had lost meaning. It was cliché even, a turn of phrase that slipped into Farsi unnoticed and unremarkable. It shouldn’t have startled you. But you couldn’t stop thinking about it, like the pot of broth empty of koofteh berenji. Like the djinn who would not save him.
Halfway through her visit, your mother dragged you to the local mall to buy things for your new apartment. You supposed your mother felt guilty now that she had not pushed you harder to come home, that now you had to live the next year in a loneliness of your own making. She was not the sort to say I told you so, though you think you could have lived this loss more easily in your childhood bedroom. This was why she bought you a green glass hand soap dispenser, a pair of fluffy gray towels, a cutlery set, a string of fairy lights to drape across your living room window. She insisted that you come with her to pick these things out, though you only trailed her around the store and nodded as she held this and that object up for your inspection. You strung the offerings of grief on the wall, set them beside the sink, sipped barley soup from the grief spoon. A few months later, you would throw these all of these things away—you will be unable to look at them without thinking of the orange lilies at your father’s memorial service, your aunt passing you a cigarette in the parking lot as you huffed nicotine in place of tears, your father’s doctoral student who had taken both your hands in his and said “He saved my thesis. He was the best professor I ever had.”
On the last night, as your mother struggled through a passage about the teenage protagonist’s first crush, you interrupted her. “Mamani, do you believe in djinn?”
It took your mother a moment to place the word. You’d asked in English, which was a bit inconsiderate of you. You learned Farsi and English together as one language, tied together like the heft of a rope you later had to unravel. The only person you could speak to easily with was your mother, because you could throw a Persian word into an English sentence, or more often, an English word into a Persian one. Your mother found it harder, though, to switch tongues so quickly. You should have been more thoughtful.
“Djinn? They belonged to a time when everyone was very superstitious.” She folded her finger between the pages of your book like a ribbon, and leaned forward. She tilted her head a little to the left as she considered the question. “Anything unexplainable happened, and that was djinn. Seizures, you know? Or mental illness. People would say, oh that was djinn.”
You took the corner of your blanket between your thumb and index finger and kneaded its softness You had bought it some long ago Black Friday with your stepmother, and it took up the bulk of your suitcase on the way back to college. It felt like the pelt of an animal, and you could not stop yourself from buying it. “You don’t believe in them?”
“Are djinn supposed to be bad? Like demons? Or—” You grappled for some creature your mother would recognize and ended up with, “Ghosts. I remember Khanomjoon always used to say, sheytoon raft too jeldesh?”
Your mother shrugged. “I don’t know a lot about djinn. I think they are more like people—they have choices like we do. They can be good or bad. It’s not like dev, uh? A sheytoon is just a bad guy.”
You nodded slowly, remembering the way the djinn had looked over his shoulder at you, the broth dripping down his elbows. “In the stories, do djinn ever help people?”
“Why are you curious about djinn all of a sudden?” Your mother frowned and pulled the inner corners of her mouth between her teeth—not the lip, but the meat inside where her lips met, which bared other side of her mouth. It was an expression you considered especially Persian, though you had no proof of it. You didn’t recall, at least, seeing it on other Americans, only your mother’s family. The gesture meant worry and confusion, and your mouth folded into the same shape.
“No reason,” you said. “I was thinking of Khanomjoon’s stories.”
“Vah!” Your mother tossed her head to the side, and she laughed too loudly for the shades-drawn closeness of your bedroom. “They’re Islami stories. Don’t pay attention to them.”
And because she said this, you decided not to tell her about your djinn. You had already come to think of him as your djinn, even then. You had come to feel possessive, as if he were already living in some fold of flesh near your liver.
A week after your mother left, you were folding laundry in the bedroom and happened to look out the window. A thin border of woods separated your apartment building from the McDonald, and you saw, at that threshold of balding forest, a cat. It was a small white thing with a lean belly. The cat curled and uncurled its tail as if it were drumming its fingers on a table. You wondered if the cat belonged to anyone in the complex, or if it was a stray. It looked like a stray. It looked hungry.
You were lonely after your mother left, and this was why you picked up a packet of salami from your fridge. You thought, I have never owned a cat. Your mother hadn’t approved of pets in the house. Your father’s beagle died when you were still knee-high to the coffee table, and her death had so shattered your father he blatantly refused to get another pet. You used to fantasize about animals following you home, or finding some wounded creature by the road. Of a soft-muzzled dog with a limp, of a hungry kitten mewling at its dead mother’s body. You thought if you found such an animal, you would bring it to your mother and her heart would melt like butter on a hot skillet, and you could love it. You could nurse it back from the dead, and that would make it undeniably yours.
You took your cardigan from the coatrack. Perhaps you could tame the cat, that you could give it a home. That it revealed itself to you because it knew you would love it, that you would hold it in your arms at night and nuzzle into the soft fur of its skull. You imagined, in this moment of indulgence, you would name the cat Pishi even if it was ultimately unimaginative to name a cat Kitty.
When you reached the stretch of lawn between you and the cat, you fished a round of the meat, still cold from the fridge, and flung it. It watched you, blinking lazily, and then it ambled toward the meat as if it were in no hurry. As if it weren’t hungry. You had intended to fling another round when it finished the first, to lure it close enough to scope into your arms.
As it came closer and you got a better look, you bit back your disappointment. A cat did not have two tails, nor did it have the talons of a bird. Perhaps the djinn took this form because it knew that you would not be so happy to see it again.
“Mamnoon.” The djinn dipped his head once, before he began to delicately pull pieces of the meat free with his talons.
“You’re welcome,” you said. When he didn’t respond, you added, “I didn’t recognize you like that.”
The djinn swallowed, and set the meat down. He fixed you a hard look and tilted his head. Then he smiled, the way a human would smile. You were reminded again that djinn weren’t necessarily good creatures. That he might not be there to be kind to you. Or perhaps—and this truly upset you—this was not the same djinn at all. The unease started at the back of your neck, prickling cold. But the eyes looked the same—what you could recall of his eyes—and he seemed preoccupied with the meat. You threw him another slice, aimed precisely at his feet because you did not want him coming any closer.
“Natars,” the djinn said as he licked the salami fat from his talons. “Gazet nemigiram.”
“I know you won’t hurt me.” But the djinn looked at you with as much skepticism as you felt when the words left your mouth. You cleared your throat and threw him another slice.
“Khob, pas natars.”
As if it were so easy to stop being afraid.
“I called for you, the night he died.” The heat rose up your neck, and your cheeks burned. You raised your free hand to your throat as if you could palm your anger. “You didn’t come.”
The djinn chewed without looking at you. When he finished this piece of meat, he loped back into the woods, and you saw him briefly reappear between a Honda and a Chevy in the McDonald’s parking lot before he vanished altogether.
You stood outside a few minutes longer, the meat warming between your fingers. It wasn’t right for him to come back. He shouldn’t have done it. It meant something, for him to return—that he wasn’t done with you yet. Perhaps he was angry that you had cursed him. It was unwise to anger supernatural things. Perhaps he meant you some harm, and this hurt you in a way you didn’t expect. His reappearance felt like the beginning of something.
The next morning you woke to what sounded like a bell clanging outside your window. You stood and peered through the blinds but saw nothing. When you turned back to your bed, you found a half-peeled lemon on your nightstand, lewd and arabesque and waiting. It smelled of the rosemary lemonade your father made in the summer, and your mouth watered. You thought of the patterns stitched into Persian rugs. You thought of how its tartness would roll on your tongue and your lips puckered in anticipation.
Sheytoon raft to jeldesh. That’s what your grandmother used to say when you misbehaved. That a bad djinn had possessed you and forced you to eat all the gaz from the box. It was the sheytoon and not you who stayed up all night reading under the covers, who stole another girl’s coin purse in the first grade. Not you. Not your fault. The sheytoon did it.
You stumbled your way to the kitchen and from under the sink you fished out a container of rubber gloves and a tube of wet wipes. You wore two layers of gloves, just in case, and lifted the lemon from the nightstand with as few fingers as you could manage. Then you threw it from your balcony. You felt safe only when it landed on the asphalt below your building.
You wiped the sticky pool of juice from the dark wood, and then threw the used wipes on the street too. Omens could not be disposed of in the same place they were found.
When you returned the wet wipes to your sink, you found him, cat-like again, curled on your red leather sofa, his tails flexing in the air.
The djinn visited every few days. He came most often as a blue-skinned man, perhaps because he knew that form scared you the least, but he also came with snake scales, with tiger-teeth, with flaming wings that left charcoal singes on your creamy white ceiling. He came often enough that you became accustomed to him, that you stopped jumping when he appeared. He never spoke much. A simple “Tashakor” here, a “Mamnoon” there. A request for gaz or lavashak that you did not have and could not make. When you did not have what he wanted, he stood in your living room immobile as you folded laundry, or washed the pots after dinner. He watched you until you threw a hand towel at him and begged him to leave. Your hand towels had acquired many scorch marks in the shape of feathers.
Sometimes he left you chocolate bars arranged in a circle on one of your chipped thrift store plates. He arranged them like the petals of a flower. You did not eat them. This made him angry. The next time he came, he blew open your front door during a thunderstorm and the rain drenched and warped all your nice shoes. It was not so easy to know what he intended as a gift, and what he intended as a punishment. Like when you woke to the sounds of breakfast being made in the kitchen. Like when you dreamed of your father running from an ice cream truck, tearing with his nails and teeth the silky wrappings of a dreamsicle. Like when you bought bottles of red wine and turned to find them disappeared from the counter.
You grew up on your father’s stories of fairy circles and dragon hordes and goblin fruit. He bought you books of dragon riders, books of chosen ones and sell swords, books of the Seelie and Unseelie courts. He would argue that Gawain was the best of Arthur’s knights, while you tried to redeem Mordred and Morgan le Fay. You would know how to trick a changeling, how to protect yourself from a vampire, how to pay a troll, but you never paid much attention to your grandmother’s stories about djinn. You honestly hadn’t found them all that interesting.
So when the djinn kept returning, you weren’t sure how to treat him. You salted the doorway once to see if it would affect him like a ghost or a vampire, but he crossed the threshold and eyed you accusingly, as if he guessed what you intended.
One day, you returned home to find your laundry piled neatly. You wanted to thank him.
You had been too heartsick to tend to it, and your stomach seared with gratitude as you placed your hand on the pile. You poured a bowl of milk, mixed a teaspoon of honey into it, and left the bowl on the counter. That’s what you were supposed to do with faeries, the gift you were supposed to leave the brownies who cleaned your home.
An hour or so later, you heard ceramic shatter from the kitchen. The first thing you saw was the broken dish and the white puddle, and the sticky drool of honeyed milk oozing down the pantry door. The djinn leaned over the Formica counter, his palms pressed flat and his chest heaving. You stood in the doorway, holding onto your elbows. “I left that for you. It was a gift.”
He bared his incisors at you. He pulled your fridge door off at the hinges and threw it, screeching, into the living room where it stilled against the mound of your carpet. He lifted up a bag of pita bread and shook it at you. Then he ripped into the feta cheese with his teeth and pillaged the radishes in your vegetable drawer. As he chewed, he spat the food onto the floor instead of swallowing.
You weren’t sure at what point you ended up on the linoleum covering your head with your arms and screaming. You couldn’t say why you had done it, except that it was the first time the djinn had hurt you, had actually scared you, but also because you had so clearly angered him when you had intended a gift. When you peeked through your arms the djinn was gone. You locked the door to your bedroom that night, even though you knew that it would do you little good if he really meant you harm.
In the morning, the kitchen was clean and the fridge door sheepishly reattached, a little crooked but nonetheless functional. It groaned when you opened it, and the groan reminded you that the djinn wasn’t your friend.
It made you feel ridiculous, and maybe a bit ashamed because you were Iranian and you would know if you paid more attention, but you do end up researching djinn. The images of blue-skinned men made you flinch even though your own djinn had come to you like that—probably exactly why he had come to you like that. Because the American in you found that blueness more acceptable and less threatening than his other forms. You supposed that better resources might have been available if you could read in Farsi, but you couldn’t. The search told you nothing about why he was there, or how to get rid of him.
After a day or two, you began to wake with a small green stone on your tongue. The stone tasted briny, with the porous texture of clay. Do not leave it there. Do not think of the rocky shores of the whaling museum your father took you to in Connecticut. Do not think of the spiraled curve of his walking stick, which your uncle worked for him from the limb of a tree from their childhood home. Do not think of things that will convince you to swallow the stone. Think, instead, of the lemon. Sheytoon raft to jeldesh, and you did not want the djinn living in your stomach.
You sealed the stone in an unaddressed envelope and dropped in a mailbox on the way to work. You did it slowly, so no one would see you, but you also did it carefully so the stone couldn’t find its way back. The stone stopped appearing the night you finally decided to call the research quits.
“Am I going crazy?” you asked him.
“Why do you keep coming here?”
Baraye inke bayad biyam.
“What do you mean because you have to? What do you want from me?”
“How can you want nothing?”
Baraye inke chizi nemikham.
“When will you leave?”
Hamisheh injah boodam.
But you know there is a time before the djinn came. Once, you came home in the evenings and drank wine on the couch, and called your father every Thursday evening so you could watch superhero shows on the phone together. He loved superheroes, your father, had collected comic books in his childhood. The day your father called to tell you he was sick, you stood in the canned foods aisle of the grocery store, paralyzed between apple cinnamon and original applesauce, and where was the djinn then? Or in the time before the pot of koofteh berenji, when you considered hosting your work friends for a potluck?
“My stomach feels fine.”
Na. Nemifahmi. Del-dard daree. Yek chizi bayad bokhori.
You told yourself you loved your father from the heart. You told yourself that’s what he would have wanted. You told yourself not to be so melodramatic. You told yourself not to cry. You told yourself you couldn’t love him from the stomach because the stomach didn’t belong to him. But it belonged to you, didn’t it? It did belong to you, and you were so damn empty. The djinn said you needed to eat. You doubted it would help, but you couldn’t take much more, you would try anything to get rid of him.
The djinn watched as you brought the rice to boil, but when you pulled the parsley and the dill from their plastic Hy-Vee bags, he took the dill from your hands. His fingers were quick, but not as quick as yours as you plucked the parsley. “This isn’t going to help,” you told him. He smiled at you, this sad smile as if he knew something you didn’t. You turned away from him because what gave him the right to smile like that?
When the rice was ready, you dumped the pot into a metal mixing bowl with ground beef and the plucked vegetables, and you dug your fingers in even though the rice seared your hands. You grit your teeth and kept mixing until you had the right consistency for the meatballs. The djinn leaned against the counter with his arms crossed. His cats’ eyes glinted in the light. He hummed a little off-key, one of the Sasy Mankan songs you liked so much.
When the koofteh berenji was ready, you ladled the broth into two mugs. You passed one to him, and he nodded his thanks but did not drink. You drank yours still hot, so it scalded the roof of your mouth. It tasted under-salted. It tasted of nothing. You put the meatball in your mouth and chewed through its softness, and it tasted like the night he died, and the phone call, and your stepmother’s voice.
You fell to your knees so hard you felt the crash of the linoleum in the clank of your teeth. You tore at your hair and gouged your face with your nails and the salt of your tears washed the scratches like baptism. You threw yourself into the djinn’s arms, and the impact against his chest jolted you. You bit his shirt and crushed the cotton between your teeth. It tasted of smoke. He hummed a Persian nursery rhyme and rocked you as you screamed your throat sore. You beat your fists into his chest, but he only held you tighter. You wept, I am not ready. This is not the end. I love you. Come home.
Danie Shokoohi is a recent fiction graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison MFA program. She was raised in Michigan by her Iranian mother and white father. Her work has been previously published in The Puritan, the American Journal of Poetry, and Glass: a Journal of Poetry, amongst others. In 2018, she was the winner of the Wasafiri New Writer’s Prize in Poetry.