Below, read the second half of chapter 1. The first half is excerpted here.
SYRIAN DESERT, SEPTEMBER 1900
In the desert east of the human city of ash-Sham — also called Damascus — a pair of jinn chased each other across the landscape.
They were young for their kind, mere dozens of years old. For millennia, their clan had dwelt in the shelter of a nearby valley, far from the human empires that grew and shrank and conquered one another in turn. As they flew — each of them attempting to steal the wind that the other rode, a common game among the young — one of them spied something puzzling: a man, a human man, walking toward them from the west. He was tall, and thin, and wore no head-covering. In one hand he carried a travel-stained valise.
The young jinn laughed in astonishment. Humans rarely traveled alone in this stretch of the desert, and never on foot. What insanity had driven this one so far astray? Then their laughter ran dry, for he’d drawn close enough for them to see that he was no human at all, but one of their own kind. He came closer still — and a sudden, instinctual terror seized them both.
—Iron! He brings iron!
And indeed there it was, a close-fitting cuff of beaten iron, glinting from his wrist. But — how was such a thing possible? Did he feel no fear at its presence, no searing pain at its touch? What was he?
Bewildered, the youngsters fled back to their habitation in the valley, to tell the elders what they’d seen.
The man who wasn’t a man approached the valley.
The youngsters had seen the truth: he was indeed a jinni, a creature of living flame. Once, like them, he’d been free to take the shape of any animal, or fly invisible through the air, or even enter dreaming minds — but he’d lost these abilities long ago. The iron cuff at his wrist was the work of a powerful wizard who’d captured him, bound him to human form, and sealed him inside a copper flask for safekeeping. He’d languished in that flask for over a thousand years — which he’d felt only as a single, timeless moment — until, in a city on the other side of the world, an unsuspecting tinsmith had broken the seal and released him. He could no longer speak the jinn language, for it was a thing of flames and wind, unpronounceable by human tongues. Inside his valise was the copper flask that had been his prison, now home to the very wizard who’d bound him — a victory that had come at great cost. And now he’d returned to the very habitation that once had been his own, to hide the flask away from the human world.
He reached the edge of the valley and paused, waiting. Soon he spied them: a phalanx of jinn, coming to investigate. The jinn youngsters returned as well, but they were not so bold as their elders. They took the form of lizards, and hid in the scrub near the stranger’s feet, small enough to go unnoticed.
—What are you? the elders asked. And the stranger told them his story.
Word of the stranger spread.
Before long, hundreds of jinn had gathered upon the ridges to peer down into the valley where he knelt, digging a hole in the desert floor with his bare hands. The two youngsters, meanwhile, flew among their fellows, eagerly spreading the tale they’d heard at his feet.
—He is one of us, born from this very habitation, bound by a wizard over a thousand years ago …
—The iron is enchanted, it chains him to human form …
For hours the stranger worked in the growing heat. At last he opened the valise and removed the flask, its copper belly glowing in the afternoon sun.
—There, you see? That was his prison! And now the wizard himself is caught inside!
The flask disappeared into the hole, along with a tattered sheaf of papers.—The wizard’s spells, the youngsters said; it was a guess, but an accurate one. Then the stranger replaced the dirt and sand, built a cairn of rocks over the spot to mark it, and stood, wiping his hands.
The elders, too, had been watching. They descended and spoke, their voices echoing to the ridge-tops.—But how will you live, they said, bound and chained as you are? What will you do, where will you go?
“I’ll go home,” the iron-bound jinni replied. And without another word he walked out of the valley, and vanished into the desert.
The tale of the iron-bound jinni spread from jinn-child to jinn-child.
All agreed on the main elements: the stranger, the iron, the flask and its burial. But from there, the story fractured and diverged. Some said that he was spotted near the invisible remains of an ancient glass palace, its walls and spires worn to tatters. Others spoke of watching a jinni in human form cross into the Ghouta, the dangerous oasis along the eastern edge of Damascus, where the marsh-creatures liked to snare passing jinn and drag them into the waters, which soon extinguished them.
—But why would he go there? the listeners asked.
—Perhaps to end his unhappy life, some guessed.
But others remembered his words: I’ll go home. And their thoughts turned to the land beyond the Ghouta, the world of men and iron. Was that what he’d meant? Did he dwell among them now? It seemed impossible. To live as a human, constantly trudging upon the ground; to shelter in their buildings from the killing rain, and speak to them in their languages — how long could one bear it? How long before the waters of the Ghouta began to seem like a welcome relief?
He could no longer speak the jinn language, for it was a thing of flames and wind, unpronounceable by human tongues.
Thus they speculated, and argued, and told the tale over and over amongst themselves. And through their workings, the tale soon gained enough weight and shape to break free of the valley and travel, like its own strange protagonist, into places where it wasn’t expected.
In truth, the iron-bound jinni made it easily through the Ghouta, for the marsh-creatures there were just as frightened of him as their desert cousins had been. He had no inkling at all of the story he’d set into motion, the legend now growing behind him. He only knew that he had a ship to catch.
In Damascus he caught the train over the mountains to the docks at Beirut, where he placed an overseas cable at the telegram office and then joined the line for his packet ship. The line advanced slowly. He tried to remain patient. A year now since he’d been freed from the flask, and patience was still a daily struggle. He suspected it always would be. He closed his eyes, felt the ticket in his pocket, listened to the calls of the seagulls and the waves lapping at the harbor walls. It was a humid day, and his skin tingled where the air touched it. He kept his mind on the voyage ahead: first to Marseilles, where he would change to the steamship Gallia, and then the Atlantic crossing to New York. It would be long and trying and uncomfortable, but then it would be over. He refrained from remembering the feel of the desert, the sight of his kin on the breeze, the sound of the windswept language he could no longer speak. He’d wanted to stay longer, to beg the elders to keep talking to him for hours, days, about anything at all. But what good would it have done? Far better to finish his errand and leave quickly. To return to New York and fulfill the promise he’d made.
At last he reached the front of the line and handed the uniformed agent his ticket.
“Name?” said the agent.
“Ahmad al-Hadid.” Not his true name, of course, but his nonetheless. He’d chosen it himself: hadid meaning “iron,” and Ahmad simply because he liked how it sounded.
The agent waved him through, and he started up the gangplank— just as a boy from the telegram office ran up to him, bowed quickly, and handed him a folded cable.
The Jinni read it, and smiled.
A tall woman in a dark cloak walked a tree-lined path in a Brooklyn cemetery, a small stone nestled in the palm of her hand.
It was October now, a crisp and beautiful day. The trees had long since turned, and their burnished leaves lay so thick upon the ground that they obscured the path. The woman turned at the correct spot regardless, walking between the rows of headstones to a grave whose sod had barely taken root. Michael Levy, Beloved Husband and Nephew. Rabbi Avram Meyer, his uncle, lay only a row away.
Beloved Husband: it was a well-meaning fiction. Not the marriage
itself; she had every right to call herself Chava Levy, though she’d been married and widowed in the space of a season. But love? She’d kept her nature a secret, had built their union upon her husband’s ignorance, and it had been a failure from the start. And then, at last, he’d learned the truth — not from her own lips, but through the workings of Yehudah Schaalman, a villainous man. It was Schaalman himself who’d created her, a clay bride for a businessman named Otto Rotfeld who’d wanted a new life in America and a wife to go with it. But Rotfeld had died halfway across the Atlantic, leaving her confused and adrift, utterly ignorant of humanity — knowing only that she must keep her nature hidden at all costs. Then Schaalman, too, had come to New York, and learned his own hidden truth: that he was the deathless reincarnation of a desert wizard who, a thousand years ago, had captured a powerful jinni, bound him with iron, and sealed him away in a flask. In the end, Schaalman had been defeated — but not before he’d murdered Michael, a tragedy that she couldn’t help feeling was on her own account.
She crouched down, plucked the stray leaves from the headstone. “Hello, Michael,” she murmured. She’d spent the streetcar ride to the cemetery considering her words, but now they felt self-conscious, inadequate. She went on anyway. “I’m so sorry I lied to you,” she said. “Your uncle told me once that I’d have to lie for the rest of my life, and that I’d find it hard to bear. He was right, of course. He usually was.” She smiled sadly, then sobered. “I’m not asking for your permission, or your blessing. I just want you to understand. If you’d survived, I would’ve been a true and faithful wife, without any lies between us. But I don’t think it would’ve lasted.”
Was she only telling herself what she wanted to hear? Would he have been willing, even happy, to stay with her? She would never bear children, never age, never change. She gazed down at the stone she’d brought, cupped inside a hand formed from the clay of a Prussian riverbank. If she wanted to, she could close her fist and squeeze until rock dust sifted from her fingers. No, Michael wouldn’t have wanted her for a wife. Not once he knew.
The pier was crowded with men in autumn hats and overcoats, and here and there a few women, cloaked like herself.
She couldn’t stay long. She had an appointment at a Manhattan pier, a promise to keep. She placed the stone atop the smooth-carved granite: a token of her visit, like she’d seen on other Jewish graves, more sober and lasting than flowers.
“I hope you’re at peace,” the Golem told him.
The Gallia approached the Hudson docklands.
The pier was crowded with men in autumn hats and overcoats, and here and there a few women, cloaked like herself. They were waiting for fathers and mothers, wives and children, distant cousins, business partners; for those whose faces they knew by heart, and those they knew not at all. The crowd stirred around her, filling her mind with their fears and desires:
Is that Mother at the rail?—
Please, God, don’t let him find out what happened while he was gone— If he didn’t make that sale, then we’re sunk—
It was a strange and dubious gift of Rotfeld’s passing, this power of hers. Without the wishes and commands of a true master to follow, her seeking mind instead found those of everyone else. At first the compulsion to obey them had been overwhelming; but time, and training, had weakened their pull. They still harried her on occasion — when she was anxious or upset, or simply at the limits of her mind’s endurance. But for the most part they were only whispers, dimly overheard.
And threading through those overheard fears and desires, neither louder nor softer: a simple sound, an elongated note, the frozen scream of Yehudah Schaalman, who lay trapped in a flask on the other side of the earth. He’d be with her always now. A small price to pay when she’d come so close to losing everything.
At last the gangplank lowered, and the passengers began to emerge — and there he was. Tall and handsome, hatless as always, his battered valise still streaked with desert dust. His features glowed as though lit from within: the proof of his true nature, visible only to those, like herself, with the power to see it. From one wrist glinted the iron cuff that trapped him; it also veiled his mind, making him the only person in the crowd — perhaps the world — whose thoughts she couldn’t sense.
He must’ve spied her from the deck, for he angled toward her unerringly. They stood together as the crowd rushed around them and the air filled with greetings in a dozen languages, a Babel of reunion. They smiled at each other.
“Well,” the Jinni said, “shall we go for a walk?”
They went to Central Park, he still carrying the valise.
They kept to the main paths and spoke little, though there was much they might have said. She considered asking about his visit to the desert and the jinn — his own people, of whom he spoke so rarely. What had it felt like, to be in their presence again? She imagined pain, joy, regret — how could it be otherwise? But perhaps he didn’t want to talk about it yet. She had no wish to cause him pain, to start an argument, when he’d only just returned. There’d be time for all of that later. For now, she merely wanted to be with him again.
He, too, had questions he might’ve asked. How had she fared these last weeks? He couldn’t help thinking of Michael, the husband he’d never met. She mourned him, surely, but he saw no outward sign of it. Perhaps he was meant to ask — but he knew next to nothing about the man, let alone the specifics of their brief marriage, and felt a half-guilty reluctance to learn. Far easier to leave it alone, for now, and simply be glad of her company.
The shadows lengthened; the crowds dwindled. She drew closer to him now as they walked the Mall — and belatedly he remembered that she’d been forced to stay indoors each night that he was gone, a hostage to the societal rule that no woman of good morals went out alone after dark. He smiled now, watching her gaze up at the elms, strangely proud to be the one whose presence meant she could walk the lamp-lit cobbles, and enjoy the cool and misted air. And she smiled, too, to feel the Park’s life-force all around her, the earthly strength so like her own.
They left the Park through the Columbus Circle gates, walked south along Broadway’s thoroughfare. Each passing sight — Madison Square with its tidy paths, the Washington Square Arch awash in electric light — was a landmark of their relationship, the spot of some discussion or confrontation. They’d discovered each other in these places, over those nights. Now, in silence, they listened to the echoes of their past arguments — but fondly, without rancor, their eidetic memories in perfect agreement.
They reached the Lower East Side, and her boardinghouse. She looked up at her own dark window, then at his glowing face.
“Until tomorrow?” he asked. “Tomorrow,” she agreed, and they parted.
Alone, he walked west. He crossed the Bowery — a brief burst of noise and light — and continued through the Cast Iron District with its facades of painted metal. At Washington Street he turned south again, passing shuttered markets, tobacconists’ shops. To his right was West Street and the river; he heard shouted orders, the thumps of barrels, laughter rising from a cellar shebeen. To his left, the blocks narrowed and grew angular, the streets pulling together as the island thinned, drawing him along to Little Syria, the neighborhood at its tip. Here the street was dark and quiet, save for a solitary light that glowed from a half-subterranean shop window. Arbeely & Ahmad, All Metals, read the sign above the steps. Through the window he could see a man at a wooden workbench, his head cradled upon his arms, his back rising and falling in sleep.
The Jinni opened the door carefully, reaching up to still the bell— but Arbeely woke anyway. The man sat up, rubbed his eyes briefly, and then smiled. “You’re back,” he said.
“I am,” said the Jinni, and set down his empty valise at last.
The Golem and the Jinni was awarded the Mythopoeic Award, the VCU Cabell Award, and the Harald U. Ribalow Prize, and was nominated for a Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. Her work has appeared in Joyland, Catamaran, and in the anthology The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her family.