Flames of the Ifrit
It was the dust that was the worst. The way it stuck to her skin and clung up her nose. It was terrible, as it made her skin crawl and infuriated her. It didn’t used to be so dusty, but the bombings and the broken buildings blew a lot of it up in the air. Afroza covered her eyes, trying not to be blinded by the dust. Sometimes she wishes she could wear goggles like the soldiers did. But her mother wouldn’t allow it. It was improper for a girl to wear something over her hijab. She could wear them with the strap under her head-cloth, but then she wouldn’t be allowed to take them off until she got home. And she wasn’t going home; not until she found the journal.
She ran across the street. In the distance she could hear men shouting at each other as they leaped onto the back of trucks, their guns grasped tightly in their hands. Everyone in the city was on edge; and walking through the empty streets by herself like this was just asking for trouble. There’d been air strikes and fire fights all over in this district, while from outside the city cannons fired on the buildings. Afroza’s mother would be outraged if she found out that she’d ventured back down here. Even if the fighting died down someday, it was far too dangerous to go near her school. Afroza was scared out of her mind, as she ran through the emptied streets with her backpack dangled loosely from her shoulder, knowing she could be shot or arrested. She couldn’t even look to the sky, afraid of seeing those American robots with their bombs fly over. But she was so close now, with only a few more blocks to go where her school was.
Afroza missed her school. She missed seeing her friends every day, taking the bus, and all the other little things she never imagined she’d ever miss. Normally, today would have been a school day. They would have been studying math all morning. Now, with the school locked up and the battle spreading throughout the city, all the girls were forbidden from going outside. It was too dangerous, with the fighting between the rebels and the army on the outskirts of the city and the random bombings happening all over the place. And then there were those robots, whose bombs never missed their mark. Perhaps the robots were the worst of all.
In the weeks since the fighting started, Afroza hadn’t been able to speak to any of her school friends. They were all hidden away in their homes with their families. Some of them, those whose fathers had enough money, fled the city. Her best friend, Ilana, had even left for Europe to live with her aunt and uncle in London, where she enrolled in an all-girls academy. So even if the fighting were to end, she’d probably never see Ilana again. All she had now of her friend was the journal.
She cursed the war. This whole stupid war ruined everything. School. Her friendships. The city. She hated it. Why did they have to go and start fighting anyway? She felt like she could kick them all against their shins; soldiers and rebels alike. If she could, she’d swat the robots out of the sky and stomp on them. She was furious.
“Girl! You, girl! You need to go home,” yelled Mr. Zahra the grocer angrily at her. “There are soldiers and rebels fighting all over. Go home, or you’ll be killed! Or worse! Go home, you stupid girl!”
Afroza’s eye twitched. She hated being called stupid. What reason did he have to stick his nose into her business anyway? Still, she remained as calm, as she didn’t want to get in more trouble if he called the police on her.
“My mother sent me out to get water. We need water for my little brother,” she lied, as there was plenty of water back at the apartment. Her father always made sure they had enough. But she lied well, as Mr. Zahra didn’t seem to object.
“Wait here,” he said. He ran inside, only to return back out within moments with three one-liter bottles of water in his hands. “Take this. It should be enough. Now go home, girl!”
She took the bottles, thanked him, and went on her way. But she wasn’t going home. She needed to find the journal. She had to reach the next block, and no war would stop her.
Most of the buildings in these streets were ruined; destroyed by the bombs and bullets. Afroza overheard the adults say that the American robots had wrecked this neighborhood, thinking there were rebels hiding here. The robots always hit their mark, leaving nothing but ruins and piles of ash.
Afroza was saddened at seeing the area like this. She came here quite often with her mother and her brother after school. This used to be a busy street with shops. Now, it was practically all burned to cinders. By some sort of a miracle some of the structures still stood at all. She could hardly believe these were the same streets that her mother bought her the shoes she wore now.
“Hello, girl,” said a voice.
Afroza turned around, and was quite surprised when she saw the young man that sat amongst the rubble in the burnt out remains of the clothing store. Without any concern, he rested himself on a broken block of concrete, the molten remains of a mannequin’s head held in his hands, turning it so he could see every angle, as if he was studying its shape.
“Hello?” Afroza called to him. “You shouldn’t be here.”
He chuckled. “Neither should you. And yet, here we both are.” He turned to face her. He looked like an ordinary young man, yet something about made her feel very uneasy.
“Are you hurt?” she asked. The young man smiled at her, so she assumed he was fine. “It’s dangerous here, you know. The robots could come back and drop their bombs.”
He stood up, unceremoniously dropping the mannequin head on the ground. Afroza was surprised by how tall he was. Much taller than her father. She wondered if he was a foreigner. He kicked up the dust off the ground into the air and inhaled deeply, almost relishing it.
Why would he do that? Afroza thought. Breathing in dust is bad for you. Father told me that. But the man didn’t seem to mind. His face was young, but at the same time, something made him look very mature. His lips were chapped. He seemed thirsty. Afroza fumbled through her backpack and retrieved one of the water bottles. “Here, take it.”
The young man took the bottle, yet he strangely didn’t seem to know what to do with it, letting the water swish back and forth as he gently rocked the bottle from side to side. It was almost like he’d never seen bottled water before. Still, he thanked her. Instead of twisting the cap off the top, he pressed his thumb against the plastic and tore a small hole in it with his nail; letting the water pour out into his mouth.
“Why didn’t you…?” Afroza began to ask, wanting to finish her sentence with: “…didn’t you just unscrew the cap?”, but she changed her mind and asked a better question instead. “Why are you here? It’s dangerous, and there could be fighting here soon. Or the flying robots again.”
“They are already here. It is you who should leave. It is not safe,” he said. “Their ‘drones’ are upon us. They will rain their fire down on this city. You should go home, girl.”
Afroza felt her heart sink into her shoes. She broke out into cold sweats. Was he right? She trembled, not sure what to do now. But then she remembered why she’d come here in the first place.
“Well, girl? Are you not going home?” he asked.
“I will. But I need to do something first.”
“Your school?” the young man asked. “The one two blocks from here?”
“Do not go. It is not safe, girl. It will burn.”
Her heart sank a second time. But his weird smile didn’t sit well with her. He had to be lying. He was trying to scare her, laughing at her fear. It wasn’t funny. The bigger his smile, the angrier she became.
“I’ve got to go,” she said in a huff.
“Stay here, for now,” he said. “Just wait for a moment.”
What a weirdo, Afroza thought. First, I had to go home, now I have to stay? This man was obviously a creep, and she would not let herself be stopped by him. She was going to her school, and that was final. She couldn’t leave the journal. It was the last thing she had to remember Ilana. She’d forgotten it when the school was evacuated during the first attacks and had left it the drawer of her desk. For weeks, she was worried it was lost forever. But now that most of the district had been evacuated and the conflict was moved to the city’s edge, she knew she had a chance to get it back.
And now this weirdo in the rubble, who played with doll heads and sniffed dust, was telling her to go home? Not a chance.
“I need to go on,” Afroza said. “I’m close, so if I hurry, I’ll be okay.”
“Do not go. The school will burn. And you will burn with it if you go to it.”
“I don’t know why you say that. That’s a horrible thing to say. I don’t need to listen to you. I’m leaving.”
“The fire,” he said.
“Can you feel it? The fire that burns here?”
Afroza looks around. What is he talking about? “There’s no fire here. Are you a crazy man?”
“No, it is still here. It lingers. The flames may be dead, but the fire has burned the soul of this place. The fire has become one with the earth. The dirt has been ignited. These ruins call out for us.”
“You are a crazy man. I’m leaving.”
“You should, girl. Go home, or stay here. But do not go to your school.”
“I can’t,” she replied.
“Then the fire will burn you. The fabrics on your body will be scorched. The synthetics of your shoes will melt to your skin. You will scream as the heat sears your skin, long after it has melted from your flesh. The fire is cruel and uncaring, and it will show no mercy.”
She shuddered. She’d seen other children with burns being carried off by the ambulance. They screamed and were covered with bandages. She couldn’t imagine what pain they went through. But she shook the awful thoughts from her head. “I need to go,” she said, walking towards the hole in the wall she had entered the structure.
“Girl! What is your name?” the man asked.
“Afroza. What is yours?”
The young man ignored her question, more preoccupied with her answer instead. “Afroza,” he said, letting her name glide past his teeth as if he was tasting it. “A good name. Do you know what it means?”
“I need to go,” she said, antsy and annoyed with this weird stranger and his bizarre way of speech. She didn’t want to linger any longer than she already had, and certainly not around a strange man.
“It means burning one. You are a child of fire, like me.”
“I need to go,” Afroza said again, her patience with the bizarre young man long gone.
“Then why don’t you?”
“Because it’s rude to walk away when someone is talking to you,” she said. “But I need to get to my school. I—”
“No, you are right. Leave if you must. Go to your school. Do not let me stop you.”
“I am not,” Afroza said. She turned around, but she stood still. She tried to force herself to take the step, but her thoughts stopped her. Thoughts of fire and pain. Thoughts of buildings collapsing on her and fire searing her clothes. The young man’s warning went through her mind again. Could he be right?
“Are you not going?” asked the young man.
“No, I am,” Afroza said. But she couldn’t move. She trembled, even in the blistering heat; she felt a chill run down her spine.
“Too late,” said the young man.
A loud whooshing noise flew over them. It was one of the robots. The ‘drone’, as the stranger had called them. Seconds later came the thunder. A ball of fire flew into the sky. A bomb. Another bomb was dropped, not far from here. No, please no! Not the school, she thought. Afroza ran towards where the fire raged. Other people gathered around the flames, dragging pails of water to try and douse the fire before it could spread. Afroza cried when she recognized the building, blackened by fire and smoke. It was her school. She was too late.
The journal, her pretty book with the kittens and balloons that Ilana had given her, was lost forever. Turned to ashes, along with all the school books, posters, and other binders. More men arrived. Police. Soldiers in a truck. It was getting too dangerous to stay here. If they asked her where she lived, they would escort her home, or arrest her for being outside. Mother would find out about her sneaking into the streets during the curfew, and she would get it for sure.
A warm hand tapped her on the shoulder. It was the young man from the ruins. “I suggest you leave.”
Afroza did as told, and snuck out from the crowd and back into the alley. The young man, on the other hand, leaped into the fray and began helping the people with fighting the fire. He took a large barrel of water from the military truck, heaved it onto his shoulders and threw its contents onto the flames. Afroza was surprised by how strong he was, but she was too afraid to stay and watch any longer. She ran as quickly as she could, away from what was once her school.
Afroza wandered down the empty streets, with any passion in her step long gone. She stumbled past the abandoned clothing store, where she’d met the strange young man. She saw his mannequin head lying in the dust. Thirsty, she pulled one of the bottles out from her backpack and drank from it, as she walked through the gap and into the empty store. Earlier it had seemed so scary to her. But now she welcomed the quiet serenity it offered. It was a place to calm down.
But she couldn’t calm down. Afroza tried her best to fight it, but she was furious. She was so angry. She felt like she could explode, the way the bombs did, but nearly a million times worse. Her body wasn’t burned by the fire, but she felt her soul was incinerated. She had enough of everything and everyone to do with this stupid war, and if she could, she’d burn them all in her rage.
“Are you unharmed?” a familiar voice asked. It was the tall young man, leaning against the remains of a pillar.
“I’m fine,” she grumbled.
“No, I’m not!” she snapped. “My journal…and I…I nearly…I could have been killed. I could have been burnt to a crisp!”
“But you were not, by choosing wisely to wait, so you are fine.”
“No, I’m not fine!” Afroza shouted, throwing the bottle against the ground and stomping on it. Water splashed onto the dust as she dropped her foot down on the plastic bottle, again and again.
“There was no-one there. You should be pleased there were no deaths.”
“You don’t understand. It was my journal. My journal was inside the school. It was the last thing my best friend gave to me before she left for Europe. It was all I had of her. And now it’s gone.”
She couldn’t contain her rage any longer. If her mother saw her kick that rock like she did, she’d have a fit. The boulder didn’t budge over, but Afroza’s toe did. It hurt so bad, that if she knew any curse words, she’d use them right there in the open.
The young man wandered toward the boulder, nudging it with his foot as if he was trying to get a feel for how heavy it was. “You are saddened?”
“I’m not sad. I’m angry. I’m angry at everything. I’m angry at the ones who made the world like this.”
“Are you angry at Allah?”
Afroza hesitated. But she knew the answer to that. “No. Not at Allah. At the people. The adults who fight. All they do is burn things down and shoot at each other. I hate them so much.”
“And now you wish to see them burn?”
“What? No. That’s horrible. Why would you say that?”
The young man inhaled deeply. He seemed to enjoy the smell of ash, letting it dance against his body and rubbing it the dust between his fingers.
“I can burn them. I can burn them all if that is what you wish.”
Afroza was shocked. Why would he say such a thing? “No, you can’t. And it’s not what I want. I’m not going to ask for something so terrible, you weirdo.”
“Mnn,” the young man nodded. Afroza wasn’t sure if he disapproved of her response or not. “You are a peculiar child. Most of your kind would have gladly taken me up on my offer. So many of them who desire to incinerate their enemies.”
She did not like the way this young man smiled. Her mother always warned her about strange men, but she’d never believed there would be someone this strange out there. “I don’t have enemies. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“No enemies?” he laughed. “Then who is it who has reduced your city to rubble? Is there not an army advancing to this very place? Have their robots, their ‘drones’ not destroyed most of your home? And you have no enemies, you say?”
“Well…” Afroza hesitated. The way he put it, it did sound dumb to say she had no enemies. There were many people who wouldn’t bat an eye if she died today. The same people that just burned her school. All around her, there were people who would want to see her dead, simply for being who she was and from where she came. Or worse, there would be people who wouldn’t even care if she lived or died. What a horrible idea, meaning so little that her death would leave no impact at all.
“I see your anger. You want this war to end, do you not? I can make it so if you please.”
“You can’t do that. You’re just one man. You can’t burn anyone.”
“Oh, I can,” he said. “And if it pleases you, I will.”
Afroza looked the man in the eyes. There they were again, those white, burning eyes. She hadn’t imagined it after all. He also seemed to have gotten taller, with his shoulders wider than before. The air around him was very hot. Afroza felt like she was standing before an open furnace. Every breath he exhaled blew a blast of hot air against her.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Have you heard of the Ifrit?” he asked.
She had, in fact, through a story her grandmother once told her. A story about a burning man who lives underneath the Earth, a burning king with super-human strength and untold riches. A djinn with large, fiery wings, that hides among ruins. But that was just a story. There is no such thing as djinn, Ifrit, wish-granters, and other magical beings. But for some reason, she was afraid to say any of this to the young man, worried to offend him. “Who are you?” she asked, stammering slightly.
At that moment, the light coming from his eyes began to grow brighter and brighter, engulfing him entirely in a white glow. He spread his arms, which then burst into flames. They didn’t even look like arms, but more like giant fiery wings. They were not like the fire that torched her school. Those were destructive and angry flames. These were beautiful, illuminating the dark ruins with a serene but comforting glow. The young man’s face, however, had become anything but. Large, crooked teeth protruded from the sides of his mouth, while his chin was long and pointed. His white eyes were large, while his skin turned a deep orange. He towered over her, barely even fitting his body inside the burnt clothing store. His every breath was accompanied by a burst of blue fire, and from the tip of his wings, he grew long, razor sharp claws that dug into the concrete.
Then, he spoke. “Your people once called me by the name Arghan. Now, I have no name. My kind ruled as kings among the temples of old, but now I am the last, ruling the ruins of this war. My fire burns fiercely, aching to burn the men that fight on the outskirts. Command me, child, and I will unleash my inferno upon them.”
Afroza had never seen anything like him. Not even in her strangest dreams or in the movies would there ever be anything as intense as this creature. The way he spoke frightened her at first, but his pushy attitude made her angrier than anything else. She knew what her answer to his offer was.
“No. I don’t want you to burn anyone. Too many people have been hurt already. I’m not going to be a part of it.”
“Really?” he said with a laugh. “Not even after your city has been torn asunder, your school demolished, your friends chased away and your journal burnt?”
Afroza looked the Ifrit in the eye, squinting angrily at him. “No.”
“I feel your anger. Why do you deny yourself the chance for retribution? Allah would see it as just.”
“Because that’s not who I am. Allah doesn’t want this, I’m sure of it. I don’t want this. No matter how angry I am at the adults, the soldiers, the world, I’m not going to ask you to burn anyone.”
The Ifrit looked at her bemused. He scraped his sharp fingers against his pointed chin, contemplating Afroza’s answer. Then, as suddenly as he had revealed his true form, he turned back into the young man from before. He clapped his hands together.
“I commend you, child. You are not like the others of your kind. It is rare that one of you doesn’t answer the call for more bloodshed.”
Afroza stood there stunned. It was then that it dawned on her.
“You were testing me?”
“Yes, I was.”
“You weren’t going to burn anyone?” she asked.
“Of course not. Why would I? Your people are doing a good job at it themselves. I am not needed,” he chuckled. “I am content with hiding amongst these ruins.”
“Then why were you testing me?” Afroza asked.
The Ifrit shrugged. “To see if you would. But you didn’t, so you proved me wrong.”
“No more questions,” he said, laughing at his own private joke.
But Afroza wasn’t having any of that. Were he a man, or any adult really, she might have obeyed him. But an Ifrit is not a man, as far as she saw it. “Why me? Why did you tease me with offering to burn the soldiers?” she snapped.
“The same reason I convinced you earlier not to go to your school; so you would not be harmed when the bombs fell on it,” he said, very nonchalantly. “You intrigue me, Afroza.”
Again, he tapped his finger against his chin, deeply lost in his thoughts while trying to find the right words. “It is the fire in you, child. Despite being a young girl, living through a war like this, you remain true to yourself. I know no other girl who would have braved the streets and defied her elders for the sake of a journal and the friendship it symbolizes. Nor would anyone of your kind reject a quick end to war, knowing it would kill many more. You have the fire of the Ifrit in you. I commend you, Afroza: the burning one.”
Afroza didn’t know what to say. She felt herself blush at these kind words. No-one had ever encouraged her like this, not even her parents. “Thank you,” she muttered shyly.
The Ifrit laughed. “You must go home now. Soldiers will be coming here soon. It is not safe.”
“Okay, I will,” she said.
“Before you go, a gift,” he said. The Ifrit picked up a handful of dust blew it upward. To Afroza’s surprise, the dust didn’t fall to the ground. He then stuck his hands in the floating dust, twirling them into a circular motion. As the Ifrit’s hands turned, the dust and ashes began to mix into a ball. He blew into his hands again, igniting a fire in the palm of his left and pressed it against the ball. A flash temporarily blinded Afroza. When the spots finally faded from her eyes, she saw the Ifrit hold something out for her to take. “To repay you for the water.”
She couldn’t believe it. In his hand was her journal. It was unmistakably hers. It even had the adorable stickers on the cover. She took it and leafed through the pages. Every little story and poem she and Ilana had written together were in there. There wasn’t a single trace that it had ever been burnt at all.
“How did…?” she nearly asked, before realizing that question would only lead to further questions. Questions the Ifrit probably wouldn’t answer anyway.
The being once known as Arghan walked toward the gap in the wall. He turned around once more, throwing Afroza a cheeky wink, before spreading his arms out. His flaming wings re-ignited, and with a heavy flap, he flew off into the air. Afroza ran to the gap and looked outside. She saw a fiery figure fly through the air. For the first time in quite a while, she wasn’t afraid to look to the sky.
Joachim Heijndermans writes, draws, and paints nearly every waking hour. Originally from the Netherlands, he’s been all over the world, boring people by spouting random trivia about toys, comics and film. His work has been featured in a number of publications, such as Mad Scientist Journal, Asymmetry Fiction, Metaphorosis, Econoclash Review and Gathering Storm Magazine, and he’s currently in the midst of completing his first children’s book. You can check out his other work at www.joachimheijndermans.com, or follow him on Twitter: @jheijndermans