Red dust swirled about the black vehicle as it slid silently into the village. Nuhu was sitting among the other men under the giant flame tree in the village square, sipping sorghum beer and gossiping aimlessly. He watched with dread as the driverless car hummed to a stop just beyond them. Its clean, glossy lines looked out of place in the desiccated landscape. A crowd of children gathered to look at the car but scurried off when the door opened.
The woman who emerged was not exactly what Nuhu was expecting. Tall and fair, she wore a modest red hijab and black abaya. It was not until she was close that he could tell that her kohl-rimmed eyes had no irises or pupils.
“Who is Nuhu Aliyu Danbatta here?” she called out. Nuhu’s beer turned to mud in his mouth. The other men suddenly found reasons to be elsewhere and crept away hastily. He was tempted to feign ignorance and pretend he was another, but that never worked. The question was merely a formality; she knew exactly who he was. They always knew.
“I am he,” he said, standing.
She regarded him without expression. “I am your final notice,” she said. Nuhu felt the cold hand of despair grip his heart. His legs felt weak and he forced himself to remain upright. “You have three days.”
“Wait, wait, let’s discuss this,” he said, unashamed of the note of desperate pleading that had crept into his voice. “Please.”
“There is nothing to discuss. The terms of the contract are clear.”
“But he’s my son …” his voice trailed away as he stared into her blank face. This was futile, he realized. How could she, a spell made flesh, possibly understand? She turned to walk away and a surge of anger rose in him.
“This is not fair!” he screamed at her retreating form.
She paused and turned back. A flicker of something passed over her face.
“Fair?” she echoed. There was an air of detached anger to her, as if the ire that briefly distorted her features was not her own. Nuhu knew he was hearing the voice of the elemental being that animated her. “How is this not fair? When you sealed the contract, just what did you think would happen?”
A sudden hope surged through him. This was the first time any of them had ever spoken to him beyond their protocols and he lunged at the slim chance this occurrence invited.
Crossing to close the space between them, he dropped his voice to a pleading whisper. “Please, ask me for anything else; I will give it. Don’t do this.”
“Three days,” the spell said. “Give him up peacefully, or I will be forced to fulfil my mandate.”
The woman strode back to the driverless car and got in. With a near silent whoosh, the car drove off.
Nuhu’s stomach roiled and a wave of nausea overcame him. He barely had time to lurch to the space behind Mallam Bello’s hut before he vomited the sorghum beer. Wiping his mouth with the edge of his keffiyeh, he began to cry.
Grandfather’s house was hard to miss. Its three storeys of whitewashed marble dwarfed the mud brick-and-thatched-roof homes around it. Built in the style of the old masters, it boasted a red tile roof and marble pillars over the veranda. One had to look closely to notice that more than a few tiles on the roof had already rotted through—they were unable to withstand the heavy deluges of the rainy season—and that the white plaster was peeling and cracking. The date palms that lined the long driveway looked majestic but provided little shade.
As Nuhu walked up the long drive, the noon sun reflecting harshly off the grey flagstones, he remembered the massive fruit trees that had once surrounded his grandfather’s compound, before the Catalogues came. He and his friends would spend hours climbing them and picking mangoes, cashews, guavas, and oranges, each in their own season. As beautiful as the palms were, he could not recall any of them ever bearing fruit.
Grandfather was seated among the other elders of the town in the main room of the house. The floor was covered with colorful carpets of the finest weave, and the old men lounged on leather cushions decorated in gold and silver thread. One did not have to look closely to see that the carpets were already threadbare in parts and the leather was cracked from use.
Nuhu greeted the men, performing obeisance at Grandfather’s feet. The old man wore a jellabiya of fine white cotton, and his beard was freshly oiled and trimmed. Like the others, he was fat and sleek with good food and care, and Nuhu lost the resolve that had brought him here. Instead, he exchanged pleasantries with the old men, asking after their health and families. He thought to leave quietly, but his plan was forestalled by one of the elders.
“I hear you received your final notice today,” said Mallam Garba, shifting his bulk as he adjusted the voluminous sleeves of his sky blue babban riga. Nuhu nodded glumly. “You should not wait so long to make your payment; you might lose your next Catalogue.”
Nuhu could not think of what to say to this. Instead, he turned to the man who had raised him after his parents’ death and asked: “Grandfather, what does the Djinn want of us?” He fought to keep the tears out of his voice.
“Wants? The Djinn wants nothing. He is the benevolence of God. His only desire is to serve mankind,” said Grandfather in his deep, sonorous voice. The old man settled into his seat and lit his fine clay pipe. Nuhu recognized his storytelling pose and sighed inwardly—he would not be leaving for hours. “You know, I was there as a child the day the Djinn first came among us. I saw him with my own eyes. A wanderer from the land of spirits, he had been trapped by an evil being and forced to do great harm to mankind. When he was finally set free of his prison he sought only to serve and make amends for the wrong he had once done. So, he asked us each to name our single deepest desire, and in return he asked each for only one thing—a gift of his own choosing.
“You do not remember the cruelty of the masters, Nuhu. How their thugs would raid our humble village, beating men and dishonoring our women, taking our food and animals under the pretense of collecting taxes. Those were dark times, my child. We were slaves, forced to do the bidding of those no better than ourselves. Worse, for the masters did not know God.
“I remember the day the last of their machines were driven from our streets, never to return. The Djinn had set us free, Nuhu. And do you know what he asked of us in return?”
“A cow!” thundered Grandfather, continuing as if Nuhu hadn’t spoken. “A single cow in exchange for our freedom. No more would our women be incited to disobedience and prostitution, filled with the false ideas of the masters’ teachings. No more would our young men labor under the yoke of another’s desires. And after he freed us, did he abandon us to the vagaries of fate? No! He remained at our service, offering us his protection and benevolence. And today we have the Catalogue,” Grandfather hefted the enormous book that appeared on the doorstep of every man once he turned sixteen, “that once a year we may come to him with our deepest desires. And in return what does he ask?”
“A boon,” Nuhu whispered.
“A boon,” Grandfather lowered his voice. “A thing so small, it would not trouble you to give it. After all he has given you, would you deny him this?”
“But my child—”
“Nuhu Aliyu!” Grandfather called out in his booming voice, “Are you the first man to give a child to the Djinn?” Nuhu shook his head. No one knew exactly when the Djinn had first begun to ask for children. It was usually a girl child—unfortunate, but since every family had sons these days, not too much to bear. Though there would be no dowry for the child taken, a man could always have more daughters. Plus, it was one less mouth to feed. The mothers did not always agree, but then women were unnecessarily sentimental about such things. On the rare occasion that a boy child would be taken, it was always a youngest son—the kind who would only cause trouble for a family by disputing his inheritance, or bring shame by running off to become an entertainer.
“Besides, what will become of such a child?” asked Mallam Daudu with his characteristic gentleness. “A child that cannot even be brought out for its Naming Day?”
Nuhu hung his head in shame. A son’s Naming Day was normally a time for celebration. The family would slaughter a goat and there would be village-wide feasting. But his own child’s naming ceremony had been a quiet one: no feast had been held and none but Grandfather had attended the blessing. This was usually reserved for children with deformities—and girls.
“Nuhu, think of what your father would say.” Grandfather pitched his voice low and placed a warm hand on Nuhu’s shoulder. “You were his greatest wish—his only desire. Is this how you want our line to end? In the hands of that … child? Fulfil your contract and the Djinn will ensure that you always have more sons—just as he did with your father.”
This was a familiar refrain to Nuhu. For as long as he could remember, Grandfather never hesitated to remind him that the responsibility for continuing the family lineage lay solely on him. His elder sister had died at birth, and though his father had married and divorced many other women, Nuhu was the last of his living children, and the family’s only son.
He could barely speak, and Grandfather took his silence for assent. Satisfied, Grandfather clapped his hands, and his newest wife entered the room balancing a tray of delicacies. At sixteen she was in full bloom, with round cheeks, clear skin, and straight white teeth that spoke of robust health and good feeding. She even had the luminous, blue-black complexion that was all the rage these days. But her beauty was only human. In a few years Grandfather would tire of her. By the time next year’s Catalogue came out he would be finding fault with her and eyeing the newest models. Nuhu doubted she would see her eighteenth year in this house.
Grandfather was right; the Djinn had indeed given him a great treasure. His own fox bride had only been offered once—not before and not since.
There were none to compare with her, Nuhu thought wryly.
It was Grandfather who first told him about fox brides, when he was still a child. After dinner, when the women were clearing away the dishes and the men of the household settled down to smoke their clay pipes, the old man would regale Nuhu with tales he himself had heard from the masters of impossibly beautiful women who never aged, never spoke out of turn, and cooked and cleaned without complaint. Women who looked upon their husbands with absolute devotion and birthed only sons.
And so, when Nuhu had received his first Catalogue on his sixteenth birthday and saw her entry, he knew exactly what his wish would be. He had placed the order and she had arrived by shuttle bus within the week. Of course he had been warned that her cost would be high—he had signed the contract after all—but nobody ever reads the fine print.
Everything Grandfather had said was true, Nuhu mused as he trudged up the hill to his house. Hana was the perfect bride. Five years later, she still possessed the same otherworldly exquisiteness that had captivated him in the Catalogue. Her flawless complexion was still porcelain-pale, her large black eyes never needed kohl, and her tiny bow mouth was perfection itself. Beneath her hijab her hair was a straight black waterfall, and she would always be as slender as the day she arrived. Yet as he spied her waiting for him by the low mud wall of their compound—she waited for him whenever he went out—Nuhu felt a familiar weariness settle in his bones.
When she caught sight of him her face lit up in joy. She almost broke into a run to meet him, but she stopped herself. She was finally starting to remember, Nuhu noted.
“Husband, you’re home!” she said, and she rubbed at his arm as he stepped through the low wooden gate built into the compound. “I have missed you.”
Nuhu forced a smile. The stories had not mentioned that all the attention she gave grew draining after a time. Such devotion was acceptable from a pet, but from a human—even if it was only a fox spirit wearing human form—it was unsettling. Hana was always eager to do his bidding; she never questioned or disagreed with him, but neither did she advise or correct him. She had no interests or opinions of her own, and her temperament never varied. There were no bad moods to be cautious of, no minor sulks to coax her from. The only time he had ever displeased her was when, a year into their marriage, he told her that he had decided to take another wife.
For the first time, he witnessed the true wildness of the fox in her. Crying and howling, she had vowed to kill herself and any other woman who came near him. She had scratched at her face and chest with her claw-like nails until they were bloody with gouges. It took all night to calm her. By the next day, Hana’s wounds were healed as if they had never been, and her sweet disposition had returned. But Nuhu had not forgotten his terror. He never spoke of taking a second wife again.
Now he gritted his teeth as she washed his feet in rosewater, an elaborate ritual that she performed every time he came into the house. He suffered in silence as she offered him plates of snacks and treats that she had prepared especially for him, but when she asked after his day, he had to draw the line. The encounter with the spell was still too fresh with him.
“Habibi, I am tired,” Nuhu said, forcing a light tone. “Could you perhaps draw me a hot bath? Make sure to fetch the water from the forest stream, just how I like it.”
“Of course, my love,” Hana said in her sing-song voice, and she darted off. It would take her a few hours to hand-draw water from the stream on the far side of the village, but he made sure to see her to the door and out of the compound. Only then did Nuhu call for a servant to bring him his son.
Umar was just two months old, but Hana had already stopped nursing him. That was another thing they hadn’t told him. Fox spirits did bear only male children, but they rarely raised them. All their devotion was reserved for their husbands.
He could not believe how tiny the baby was, even at this age. And it was still a shock to see the two-month-old’s fine down of dusty red fur and his sharp yellow eyes. To hide his pointed ears, they kept a woolen cap low over his brows, even in the heat. But Umar gurgled like any other child. Nuhu waggled a finger at the baby’s face, careful not to let the child grab at it; his tiny teeth were already needle-sharp. He cradled the baby until it fell asleep in his arms. As Nuhu watched his son’s tiny face slacken, a warmth spread through his chest. He rubbed a finger against the soft fur on the baby’s cheeks. The spell’s words came back to him with force and he drew the child tighter to him, causing it to fret a little. He didn’t care what Grandfather said; no one would take this baby from him. No one.
The Djinn’s headquarters was located on the top floor of a massive obsidian-faced building that dwarfed the skyline at the center of the capital city. After the spell’s visit, Nuhu had spent the next three days deep in thought. Finally, on the day he was to give up his son, Nuhu had persuaded his cousin Mohammed, who owned a commercial motorcycle, to make the two-hour journey from the village to the city.
It was nearly noon when they arrived, and the city was winding down for afternoon siesta. Nuhu knew the Djinn never slept—and his business was too urgent for protocol. They wove through the busy traffic of the capital, dodging cars, mini-buses, and tricycles until they got to the tower. After promising to meet with him in front of the revolving doors in a few hours, Mohammed drove off.
Nuhu spared a moment to take in the massive structure, a black finger whose tip was lost in the clouds. It was said the building had appeared overnight, and he marveled at the power required to do something like that. Then remembering his purpose, he squared his shoulders and strode in.
The lobby was as stark as the exterior. The walls were paneled in a dark wood and the carpet was an industrial iron grey. A row of black leather chairs lined one wall under a series of monochrome paintings that provided the only real color in the room. A spell in a black hijab sat behind a desk of white marble with a single bright red phone on its surface. She looked vaguely familiar, but Nuhu didn’t have time to parse why.
“Excuse me,” Nuhu greeted politely. She turned her pupil-less eyes to him and he suppressed a shudder. “I would like to see your master.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“I’m sorry; without an appointment I cannot grant you entry.”
Nuhu thought hard for a moment.
“But I have a complaint.”
The spell stared at him for a long moment. Clearly, no one had ever come in with a complaint before. Finally, she graced him with a wide mechanical smile and pressed a number on her phone.
“Customer Service is on the thirtieth floor. Thank you for visiting us, Mallam Danbatta.”
The lift slid open with a soft ping and Nuhu stepped on. Only as the doors slid closed did Nuhu realize he had not given the spell his name. A cold wave washed over him just as the door clicked open at the thirtieth floor.
Nuhu hesitantly stepped out of the lift and took a moment to observe the quiet efficiency of the spells sitting at their cubicles as they conducted their duties. With a start, he realized they were all women. Come to think of it, Nuhu didn’t think he had ever seen a male spell. A long row of tinted windows at the far end of the room let in just enough light to signal daytime, while soft fluorescents above supplied the rest. The carpet here was a soft blue-green. It was hard to believe that unremarkable rooms like this controlled the lives of thousands of people who ordered their wishes through the Djinn.
A spell in a grey kaftan and matching hijab walked up to him. Her pupil-less stare seemed to carry a hint of curiosity.
“I understand you have a complaint?” she asked.
“Yes, but I would like to see your supervisor,” Nuhu said.
“I am head of this department. Perhaps I can help you?”
“I am sorry. My complaint can only be resolved by your manager.”
The spell’s face went blank for a moment, like a radio that had been turned off. When she became animated again, it was as if she had shifted to a different frequency.
“My manager is unavailable at the moment,” she said cheerfully. “Why don’t you come into my office and we can discuss the issue?” Without waiting for his answer, she turned and glided deeper into the maze of cubicles. Nuhu had no choice but to follow.
The office was a glass enclosure at the end of the room with only a desk, two chairs, and a file cabinet in the corner. On the desk was a manila file folder and a red phone. She indicated that Nuhu should sit in the chair in front of the desk and took her place behind it. Clasping her hands together, she fixed Nuhu with an unblinking stare. “Would you please explain the situation?”
Nuhu briefly considered apologizing and leaving, but he caught himself. This was his last resort. If this didn’t work, he would lose his baby. He explained as best he could, watching the spell for any signs of sympathy or understanding. Her expression of cheerful concern never wavered; she simply nodded. “Tell me more.”
When he was done talking, the spell gave a final nod. “I am so glad you have brought this to our attention. What would you like to see happen here?”
“I-I want to keep my son,” Nuhu said, blinking in incredulity. Hadn’t he been clear?
“Let us review your file; perhaps there is something we can do.”
Joy bloomed in Nuhu’s heart as he watched her open the manila file in front of her. From it she drew out a slim sheaf of papers. Nuhu had never seen it before, but he knew what they were. His contract. Signed before he was born, it was every wish that he or anyone in his family had ever made on his behalf. He watched as she scanned through the papers, fighting the urge to wipe his sweaty palms on his trousers. He had worn his Friday best.
“It seems you have not made a wish in four years. Why is that?” The spell fixed him with a look, and Nuhu quailed. Before getting his first Catalogue, he had only ever had one wish, and by the time his next Catalogue had come the following year, Nuhu had lost his taste for wishes; his fox bride was enough.
“Well-well … that is … well, I-I already have everything that I need,” he stammered.
The spell arched an eyebrow. The look of distant curiosity had returned. “You have no desires?”
“Only to keep my son,” Nuhu said quickly.
The spell frowned and looked through the sheaf of papers again. “The terms of the contract indicate that you are to yield your first-born child in payment for your bride. Normally, I would be able to offer you some compensation, but you have not placed enough wishes to qualify for any of our promotions or rewards. I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do.”
A lead weight settled in Nuhu’s stomach. Desperation overwhelmed him; he wanted to leap to his feet and scream. Then a thought struck him.
“But my son is no child. He is not human.”
The spell blinked at him, her face slack with astonishment. Just then, the phone on her desk rang. The spell picked it up and after a moment or two, put it back down.
“I think you may need to speak with my manager,” she said.
The room was white. Floor to ceiling, it was covered in some sort of sheet or tile that fit seamlessly and gave no impression of angles or perspective. It was like stepping onto a blank canvas, and it made Nuhu’s head hurt to look at it. Ambient light from no direct source filled the room. In the center of it—or what Nuhu assumed was the center, he had no real way of judging distance in this space—a small man in a white jellabiya floated in mid-air, his legs crossed in the lotus position. He was tiny, no bigger than a small child, and though his face was seamed with thousands of wrinkles, he seemed ageless.
“Welcome Mr. Danbatta,” said the Djinn. “Please, come in.”
Nuhu realized he was still standing in the lift. The spell had ushered him into it and pressed a red button that was on its own pad, separate from the bank of other buttons. He stepped cautiously into the room. Behind him the lift slid shut, and the room became a featureless white space.
He took off his cap in deference and greeted politely. The small man returned the greeting and waved a hand at a red armchair in front of him. Nuhu was certain the chair hadn’t been there a moment before. The Djinn waited for Nuhu to sit before speaking again.
“I understand you want to discuss your account,” he said. Nuhu shifted uncomfortably, his throat suddenly dry.
“I have come to beg you: Please, spare my child,” Nuhu said. He could feel a lump of tears at the back of his throat.
The Djinn sighed and tugged at his long white beard.
“Would that I could,” he said. The boredom of a thousand lifetimes leaked through his voice. “This is all in the contract, Mr. Danbatta. That child is mine by rights.”
“He is not even human. He would be of no use to you.”
The Djinn laughed, an oddly hollow sound. “For a moment, I thought you might have something new to say … Look, you may have sullied yourself through your animal union with the fox, but your abomination of a child is still a human spirit. I can always find use for him. The contract stands, I’m afraid.”
Nuhu thought of his tiny, beautiful, helpless son as nothing but a tool in the Djinn’s employ. Anger flared in him and he stood.
“No! I refuse to accept this!” he shouted. “You promised us freedom, yet you are no better than the masters. Nothing has changed. We are slaves to you as surely as we were to them.”
The Djinn cocked a shaggy white eyebrow. “How so? I provide you everything you desire through the Catalogue.”
“You fulfil our desires, but not our needs.”
The Djinn shrugged at that. “What can I say? Humans are such short-sighted creatures …”
“You will not take my baby,” Nuhu said. “You will have to kill me first.”
The Djinn was suddenly standing in front of Nuhu, his face inches away. His expression grew ugly and Nuhu saw the ancient creature behind the human mask.
“I will not kill you, Mr. Danbatta, but I can hurt you,” it said with soft menace. “And should you try to stop me from taking what is mine, I will.”
“If you could hurt me, you would have done so already,” Nuhu said, and he felt the truth of his words as he spoke them. “You have no power over us. None except what we give you, year after year. That is why you send us the Catalogues.”
The Djinn stared hard at him for a moment, then he burst into laughter. He laughed so hard his tiny frame shook.
“Well done, Mr. Danbatta. I knew there was a reason I liked you,” the Djinn said when he could finally catch his breath. A chair matching Nuhu’s appeared behind the Djinn, and he sat down on it. “So, now you understand. But that still does not free you from the contract you signed. Your child is due for collection today.”
“No. You may have our liberty, but you have no claim on my son.” As Nuhu spoke, another realization hit him.
“Why is that, Mr. Danbatta?” The Djinn seemed genuinely eager to hear Nuhu’s next statement.
“I saw my file, and I saw that my parents made a wish for me—a boy child—and in exchange, you took their only living daughter. She’s still here, isn’t she?”
“Perhaps …” The Djinn leaned back and steepled his fingers, a smile creeping over his face. “I have so many employees.”
“You signed a contract with Nuhu Aliyu Danbatta the son of Ahmed Mahmood Danbatta— but I am not his son, am I?”
The Djinn’s smile grew into a grin of ghoulish glee. “No, you are not. Your father could not sire sons, no matter how many wives he took. And I can do many things, but even I cannot create human spirits.”
“Who am I, then?” Nuhu asked, his mind reeling. “Whose child am I?”
“No idea. When I first started, I’d take the children myself. But the organization has grown so quickly, and your people are so eager to give up your children for a bit of material comfort …” The Djinn shrugged and spread his hands. “I don’t really handle the paperwork anymore.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Nuhu, sadly. “Your contract with me is void. Take back your fox wife, leave me my child.”
“Of course.” The Djinn stood with an inexplicable air of satisfaction. “After all, my purpose has only ever been to serve the desires of men.”
From somewhere behind him Nuhu heard the lift ding open. The spell he’d seen in the lobby emerged; she was holding his son, Umar. Face to face, Nuhu could see how much she resembled his father in a way he never had. She smiled as she handed the child to him.
“Is she happy here? With you?”
“Happier than she would ever have been among your people,” the Djinn said. “I have always known the value of women.”
Nuhu didn’t know what to say to that, so he nodded dumbly. He wasn’t sure what was what anymore—and he realized that he no longer cared. Cradling his precious son, he turned and went home.