This piece contains fire-related themes and imagery. In light of the recent tragedy in Oakland, I encourage those impacted to do whatever they need to do to take care of themselves, including taking breaks, or holding off reading this story until you are in a safe/supported space, physically and emotionally. My heart goes out to all who have felt loss this weekend; I have so much love for each you.
– Kirin Khan
Orzala walks. She walks as the sun sets in her left hand, casting it in a ring of light and fire, walks from south LA up Vermont, stares at her feet, watches the sidewalk cracks squiggle and squirm away, watches brick expand and contract.
How long has it been?
A man approaches her, “hey baby girl, slow down, where you headed?” She walks, head down and silent; he follows eager in a frowning baseball cap, talks at her until he finally gives up and she walks on, “damn bitch, acting like a stuck up bitch, no one wants your ass anyway.”
How long has it been?
The last blaze of light licks her face and retracts into the horizon, leaving behind only haze and bruise skies. The hour of the jinns. Keeping her head down, Orzala scans the trees for movement –
“Orzala! Dhana rasha, it’s getting dark” Ami called from the doorway. “Dharalum!” she shouted, walking her bike on the sidewalk up the block. “Khyal sata,” Ami scolded, “stay away from the trees, bachay, now is when the jinns come down and snatch you! You should come inside before dark, you can play again when the night has come.”
–but no tree stirs, even leaves sluggish in the late summer heat. Car honks, catcalls, engines and walkby conversations blur into a steady murmur, throbbing and inchoate. She passes Beverly Blvd and keeps walking, head down, whispering to herself her mother’s prayer,
ق ُ ْ َ ُع ُ ِب َ ِّ ْل َف َل” ِِ
“م َش ِّ َم ا َخ َل َ
Say: I seek refuge in the Lord of the dawn. From the evil of what He has created.
She lifts her head to see the street and sky both clear, all people, all cars, all colors, all stars, gone. Only streetlights and shadows. Only stray cats and her steady prayers, rising.
In the sudden stillness, in the silent, gravid night, her heart and her breath both thunder in her ears. The air smells electric and feels dense, like a storm might – but Orzala knows it never rains in LA. She walks to the corner of Sunset and Vermont and sits under a streetlight. The post hums, vibrates slightly, and she looks up, watches moths scud into the lamp and bounce off and back again. She stares at the light unblinking, as though memorizing the trajectory of each moth, and then past them, into the blinding white glare. She stares, bathed in the pooled cone of streetlamp, outside the shadow’s reach. Is the buzzing the moths, or the light? Her eyes water, a tear trails down her cheek; her body feels light, as though her spirit, the weight of her, is being suctioned into the orb, projected outward through her eyes, shining bright as floodlights.
“Hey! Heyyyyyy!” – jolts her down into her body hard, suddenly she feels its weight, her legs and feet heavy against the sidewalk, her spine tender and sore against the lamppost. She drops her head, looks quickly across the street for the voice calling but in the moment she is night blind and sees only darkness, green black and slick.
“You okay over there?” A woman’s deep laughter near a red blur. Orzala’s eyes start to clear; the silhouette slouches against a doorframe across from her, bathed in and hidden by the red neon in the window casting pink shadows, the Hamsa, a bright red hand of neon tubing with a bright red eye in the center, beneath it, the words PALMISTRY PSYCHIC CRYSTALS TAROT NUMEROLOGY.
“I’m okay!” She calls to the shadow and stands up slowly.
She crosses the street as the leaning woman disappears inside. The neon Hand of Fatima beckons with a wink; Orzala pauses at the threshold to enjoy her tawny skin bathed in pink light. She steps inside.
The room, painted vermillion and filled with plants, some draping from the ceiling, others reaching up from ceramic pots, is so humid, she feels as though she is wading in, and the air smells green and slightly smoky from jasmine incense. To her right, behind the display window, sits a round table covered with a large silk scarf, at its center, a diamond-shaped wood tray filled with salt, inside it, a geometric arrangement of crystals she does not recognize, with a clear quartz cluster at the heart of it all.
“Hello?” Orzala calls out.
“Welcome,” a voice returns, “have a seat, I’ll be right with you.”
Orzala sits at the card table and draws in the condensation on the window with her finger. A sinewy Black woman strides toward her from the back, dressed in black cargo pants, steel-toe boots, and a black tank top, her small ‘fro a golden blond set off with a black ribbon headband. The plants seem to stir and face her, as though she is the sun.
“I’m glad you came in.” She smiles. “I’m Oni.”
They shake hands – Oni’s grip solid, Orzala’s gentle.
“Orzala. Nice to meet you.” She suddenly felt shy, “Um, sorry if I weirded you out sitting there.” She nodded toward the streetlamp through the display window.
“Orzala.” Oni stretches her name out with a hiss as though tasting it, “the brightness of flame. I am not easily weirded out, zarrgiya.”
“Wai, Taso Pukhto poyegee?!” Orzala exclaims.
“I picked up a little on tour in Afghanistan,” Oni says, and begins to shuffle a tarot deck.
As Orzala’s fingers glance a card, her vision blurs.
“Are you alright? Do you need some water?” Oni watches her closely. Orzala blinks hard, Oni retracts, expands, glows bright and hot, her umber skin lit from within, her fro a gilded halo. Orzala puts her hand on the table to ground herself, “I’m okay, just the humidity I think. It’s weird; I’ve been in and out of it all day. I don’t even remember how I got here. I just started walking.”
“Let me see.” Oni places her palm over Orzala’s, feeling the membrane of air between them.
A blink and Oni crushes Orzala’s hand in hers, her body hardens, her topaz eyes grow wide and catch more light. She looks through Orzala not at her.
“You are being followed. Man-like but not man, attached to your body like a long shadow. He follows you, trailing smoke and heat and something else, something sticky,” she squints, searches her mind, “I can feel it but I don’t know what it is.”
Her gaze shifts back to Orzala’s face, her voice low, as though trying not to wake someone nearby, “I’ve seen this before, but not since Kabul. The visions were so strong there, when my tour was over, I couldn’t re-enlist. I needed time.” She exhales heavily, “time to feel safe again, to build this place, to protect me. It’s back. It’s here. It’s coming.” She still grips Orzala’s hand, sends electricity through Orzala’s body, a circuit of fever and fear.
Nauseous, Orzala whispers back, “What is it? What do I do?”
“I’ve seen this before,” Oni repeats, “The closer it gets, the more you will feel it, something pulling you out of your body. And it is getting closer, Orzala, I can feel it too.”
we flame body of smoke we shift unroll unfurl from trees as ancients let down their hair we fire-cast seek our own not angels made of light not man made of clay or blood clot only we who live in in-between breaths twilights daybreaks just before الفجر breath whisper and sigh in the fracture split between night / day we seek Our own fire seeks fresh air to feed to grow we, fire caste, seek our own
The heat in the room rises, jewels of sweat condense on Oni’s upper lip. Oni glances at the emerald tarot card Orzala’s fingers grazed – a grinning skeleton on horseback – death but not death, transformation, change. Oni gets up and opens the door to let air in, leans against the doorframe. She breaths, slow and from the belly, watching Orzala seated, staring into space glassy eyed.
“You still with me ginay?” Oni calls her sweetly. Orzala’s eyes snap back and she stands up, walks to the door, stands across from Oni.
“I’m still here,” she says quietly, looking down, “It’s so hot, I -”
“- I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Oni interrupts a little too loudly. “It’s safer here. I’ve been waiting for it to come back.” She pauses. “I didn’t think it would come after anyone else.” Orzala looks at Oni’s strong arms, her cargo pants, her steel toe boots, and realizes Oni has been preparing for this day.
No breeze in the doorway. Downtown LA is oddly empty and silent.
A crash below. The basement? The clang of metal on metal. Oni jumps and turns, shouts “Stay here!” and races to the back room, towards the stairs.
Orzala leans out of the doorway, her head across the threshold, and begins to vomit.
The voice hits Oni as she thunders down the plank staircase.
discord follows you we bone eaters
we follow you smoke we مارد you signal
She hears the roar, shakes her head. Snap out of it. The basement is chaos, the deafening whistle and boom vibrates. Another, missile? Missile.
Oni drops to the floor, crawls into broken glass, puddles, upturned shelves, chaos. Takes cover behind overturned bookcase. The ground starts to shake, old junk crashing all around her.
It looks like a warzone in here, she thinks. A warzone. She starts laughing. Laughs until her eyes start to tear. Was it always like this, the heat, the glass, the blood, moon dust and panic? The noise and shaking, find cover, she reaches for her rifle –
there is no rifle.
“Girl, get it together, this is why they kicked your ass out and sent you home,” she mutters to herself.
we eat fear
follow you smoke we مارد you call us
you shadow we seek fire
She hears loud as she did years ago. The “we,” the Arabic and English, the fire. She tries to remember, what did the villagers tell her? “Don’t fight them, try to negotiate” – was that for the bad guys, or the spirits? Are they the same? She remembers ruddy bearded faces, she remembers wings of fire and red flashes, she shakes her head. Think. They’re here. Some good, some evil, like man. Over the earthquake and deafening roar, she screams, “What do you want?!”
A jar smashes into her skull.
we follow you follow smoke
She rolls onto her back. Gasping in sweat and blood, ears ringing with impact and voices, she looks up the staircase through the doorway at the white wall, where orange light flickers. Orzala.
Orzala wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and hopes she didn’t get any in her hair. She closes her eyes to try and stay the vertigo. She begins to pray, ”بسم الله “ but the ground starts to shake, cuts her off. The earth roars, beneath it,
we who live in fracture glowing split of day / night / day born of fire we glow
we burn we consume
and here she feels hands caress, then tighten. A grip, then stroke. She awakens to the touch.
I smell smoke, she thinks. She marvels at how soothing the hands are, how light she feels, how calmly she wonders, Where is Oni?
Her body snaps violently into an arch.
The last thing Orzala sees is flaring white refulgence, the blaze blinds her. Wildfire dances along her side. Inferno crashes in her ears; underneath, a buzz, a hum, teases,
You are one of us now.
– Is the buzzing the moths, or the light?
she is incandescent, she is devoured.
The smoke and heat grow stronger as Oni drags herself up the stairs, her hands and face tacky with blood. Wisps of hands flicker, grasp from every shadow, slow her down, pull her skin. At the top, Oni freezes. Bent backward and engulfed, Orzala hovers inches off the ground. She isn’t screaming – it’s louder, deeper, the room shakes and books fall off shelves.
Oni falls to her knees, woozy and unable to look away. The villagers’ voices murmur in her head: Stay calm. Don’t fight, negotiate. Orzala’s body rotates until her head faces Oni upside down. Orzala growls through splitting lips,
we are flame we bone eaters we مارد
we transform we –
“-well shit,” Oni interrupts, snapping out of it, “What do you want?”
Ryan Spencer is an artist, producer and photography book editor based in Brooklyn, New York. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado and received his MFA in photography from Pratt University. His series of Polaroids, “Romance & Adventure,” which chronicled the history of The World Trade Center in popular film was exhibited at Dust Gallery in Las Vegas, Nevada and featured in NY Arts Magazine in 2006. He was recently a producer and technical director for the theatrical presentation “American Power,” featuring photographer Mitch Epstein and musician Erik Friedlander which premiered at Les Rencontres d’Arles in 2011 and made its US premier at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2013. “Such Mean Estate,” Ryan Spencer’s first monograph and first publication with Powerhouse Books was published in 2015. It has been Featured in Guernica Magazine, Blonde Art Books, Hyperallergic and The New Yorker.
Kirin Khan is a Pakhtuna, first-generation Pakistani-American writer currently living in the Bay Area. A VONA/Voices Fellow, her work has appeared in sPARKLE & bLINK, Uproot, and Blue Minaret. Her writing explores issues of womanhood, identities in conflict and flux, grief, violence and safety, immigration and immigration trauma, isolation and belonging. She writes poems and short stories and is working on her first novel.