The Last Djinn

He wasn't supposed to go down to the end of the alley—the abandoned houses there were unstable, his uncle said. But it was an escape from all the shouting and cigarette smoke. He liked to take a stick and poke through the heaps of tins and papers. Once he found a nest of baby ferrets, once a broken watch, once a half-eaten picture book.

He kept his favorite trinkets in a hole in the wall, sealing it with a brick. He'd take them out and sit on an upturned can and make rows of bottle caps and buttons, arranging them by color. Or he'd use a stone to bang rusty nails into a piece of wood. Even if the day was hot, the end of the alley was always shady and cool.

One afternoon, as he was turning into the alley, he stopped. His uncle had been right: one of the walls at the end had collapsed during the night, and his secret chamber of objects was buried under bricks and stones. Cautiously, he walked down to the slant of rubble. Putting out a sandaled foot, he prodded one of the stones. It shifted, and a stone above it shifted, and there was a mutter as the whole pile settled into a more comfortable position. A light mist of dust rose into the corner of sky above his head. Though he was sad that his bottle caps were buried, he could see that he should have listened to his uncle: if he'd been here when the wall fell, he'd have been smashed.

As he was turning away through the thinning dust cloud, he caught a glint of something in a cranny high in the broken stonework. He tipped his head this way and that, but couldn't quite see what it was. So, telling himself to be extra careful, he tested first one stone, then the next, and slowly mounted the pile of rubble. When he reached the glittering thing he could see it was tucked away into the wall itself—into a little space between the stones. Whoever built the wall must have made the space and placed the stones around it, and then mortared it over so no one would ever know . . . until, many years later, the wall came down. Balancing on a chunk of stuck-together bricks, he tugged away a bit of mortar so he could lift the object free.

It was a lamp—one of the old kind, with an oval handle at one end and a long spout at the other. It was made of some sort of gold-glinting metal. Brass? Bronze? He didn't know which was which. Even spackled with mortar and darkened with age, it was splendid. There were swirling designs scratched into the sides and the handle curled up at the bottom. The spout was plugged with something.

Clutching the lamp to his chest with one hand, he made his way down the hillock of rubble, a little more carelessly, perhaps, than he'd mounted it. He sat on a stone with his back to a still-standing section of wall and peered at the plug. Blowing away the dust, he saw it was just clay, gray and chalky, dried into an uneven shape. He could see the tiny ridges of a thumbprint. He worked the plug free, and then gasped and threw the lamp to the ground as a great billow of smoke poured from the spout.

The smoke, in the first moments, was as formless, as erratic, as the smoke from the smoldering carts of the sweet-potato vendors, bulging and swelling. But instead of thinning up into the sky as the dust had, it congealed and grew edges, like ink spilled on tile. A moment later the boy was pressed against the wall, fingers at his temples, staring up at a figure made of smoke. Its arms were folded, its eyes pockets of shadow. The smoke still wavered where it emerged from the lamp, as though trickling out to feed the form, but the figure itself seemed almost solid now.

"Your wish is my command," said the smoke person in a voice like distant thunder, and something glimmered in the hollows where its eyes should have been.

The boy was so terrified he couldn't say anything for a full minute. He squeezed his eyes shut and slowly opened them, but it was still there, the looming figure made of smoke.

"Who—who are you?" he asked at last.

"My name is Mogwai," said the figure. "I am a djinn."

"I see," the boy said politely. He didn't know what a djinn was. "And how did you get into the lamp, Mr. Mogwai?"

"I was placed within the lamp one thousand three hundred and sixty-four years ago by a cobbler. His name was Ali bin Azzar."

"I don't know him," said the boy. "My cousin's name is Ali, but he's not a cobbler. Well, I don't think he is." He took his fingers from his temples and laid his hands in his lap. The djinn didn't seem inclined to eat him, and he was curious. "So what did you do for all that time? For a thousand years?"

"I slept. I dreamed."

"I hope they were nice dreams," the boy said. "Sometimes mine aren't so nice. I once had a dream that my head came off and started rolling away and I was running after it but I couldn't catch it. I don't know how I could see it, though, because my eyes were in my head, you know? Dreams are funny sometimes."

"I have dreamed of many things in my centuries of sleep within the lamp," said the djinn.

"Like what?" the boy asked.

"I dreamed of my past masters and mistresses, in many lands."

"Oh, tell me about them!" the boy said, sitting back. He loved stories, and his mother was always too busy to tell him any.

"Certainly, master," said the djinn. "Listen: I dreamed of the midnight sun in the snowbound country of the far north, where I dwelt with my mistress, pale Theda, in her frozen palace. She kept me in a block of ice, which she melted in a saucepan to release me. I dreamed of leopards in the rocky hills far to the south, where I lived in a thatched dwelling with my master Masheko, who was adept in the arts of koujour. He kept me in an earthenware vessel stoppered with grass. I dreamed of sunrise through the standing stones of the western islands, where my master Eoghynn held the ceremonies at the solstices and equinoxes of every year. He kept me in a leather pouch around his neck, secured with a thong. I dreamed of the pillared hallways of palaces in Byzantium and Pekin, where I was kept in bottles of emerald and jade. I dreamed of the house of Sultan Suleiman in this very city, where his magician, Mustafa, placed me within the lamp at your feet. And lastly I dreamed of my late master Ali bin Azzar, a cobbler in this perished house, who chanced to pick up the lamp after Sultan Suleiman was poisoned and his palace looted. When the slaves from the east revolted and made havoc in the city, Ali bin Azzar placed the lamp within the wall, intending to retrieve it when the violence subsided. However, he was killed in the skirmishes, and thus I remained within the wall for century after century, until this day. Now I am yours to command."

"Well," said the boy. "I'm not a magician. I'm not even allowed to light the stove yet."

"That is no matter," said the djinn.

"So . . ." He wasn't quite sure what "yours to command" meant. "Do you want to play with me?"

"Is that your desire?"

He nodded.

"You will have to instruct me," said the djinn.

"Well . . . it's too bad all the bottle caps are stuck under the stones." He pointed. "And you can't move them because you're just made of smoke."

"I have transported mountains and palaces in my time," the djinn said. "Would you like me to move the stones, master?"

"Oh, yes please," said the boy.

So, as deftly as a fruit vendor arranging oranges, the djinn plucked up the stones and stacked them in a neat row along the wall. As he worked, the boy realized he was slightly transparent: he could see the wall through the djinn's smoky body; could see the texture of the stones through his fingers. Nevertheless, he was immensely strong.

When Mogwai had moved all the stones and the dust had cleared, the boy clapped his hands. The little nook where he stashed his trinkets was exposed, and he pulled out the bottle caps and sticks and matchboxes and buttons, setting them carefully in the dust.

"Look," said the boy, kneeling beside them. "You can choose the ones you want. They're like people, see, and you can move them. Okay, over here's the market, and this is your house." He drew off-kilter squares with a stick. "And here's my house, and here's the street." He drew a double set of wavy lines connecting their houses and the market, and looked up. "There! So, where do you want to go?"

The djinn crouched or compressed himself opposite the boy—you couldn't really have called it kneeling—and picked up an orange bottle cap in his smoky fingers. He looked at the boy.

"You can move it anywhere," the boy told him. "You can even draw some other places if you want. Here." And he handed the djinn a stick.

"This counter will signify my former master Mustafa," said the djinn. "He wore a turban of this very color on feast days." With spare, fluid gestures, he sketched a palace with domes and towers beside the market. "He will attend a great banquet in this palace, held by the sultan, who is signified by this red counter." Within the palace he placed a red bottle cap.

"You see!" The boy clapped his hands. "You do know how to play. Okay, now one day the boy goes with his mama to the market to buy some pomegranates . . ."

So they played, boy and djinn, until the light failed and the boy looked up and exclaimed, "Oh, I have to get home! I'm not supposed to be out after dark." He stood, and the djinn rose above him in the air, as if a light shone behind the boy and the djinn was his vast shadow. "Will you be all right?" the boy asked. "Do you want to go back into the lamp?"

"Is that your wish, master?"

"I guess so. Yes, that way I'll be able to find you again."

So, with an undulant motion, the djinn poured himself back into the lamp. The boy plugged it with a bit of chewing gum and stuck it in the cubbyhole with the bottle caps and matchboxes and bits of stick, and sealed the nook with the brick.

By the time he got back to the apartment the sun had set, and his mother smacked him and sent him to the bedroom he shared with his three older sisters. One of his sisters smuggled in a falafel sandwich, which he ate under the covers, trying not to leave crumbs. He wept, and then crouched on the mattress, knees against his chest, whispering to himself a tale of palaces and pomegranates and poor cobblers, and remembering with a stuttering heart the moment he had unplugged the lamp and the djinn had emerged like a dream come to life. In the apartment, with the musty smell of the mattress and the cigarette smoke and the clink of teaspoons outside the door, the djinn was impossible, of course. But he couldn't make the memory go away.

The apartment was crammed—full of bodies and smoke and shouting. There were two bedrooms—his mother slept in one with the baby, he and his sisters in the other, and his older brother and uncle slept in the living room, on mattresses they rolled up and set on the balcony during the day. His uncle worked in the brick factory and had a cough that wouldn't go away, and his brother sold cigarettes on the street, but there was never enough money for food. They ate two meals a day: beans midmorning and for supper macaroni or lentils or falafel. Sometimes they could afford fruit; on festival days they ate meat.

Because the apartment was so crowded and the television was always blaring and his mother was always squabbling with someone, the boy spent as little time there as possible. Sometimes he went to the canal and made boats of palm leaves. Sometimes he went to his aunt's house, which was calmer, but his mother would shout at him if she found out—she didn't get along with her sister. When he discovered the alley, it was like stumbling upon a forgotten corner of paradise: a place apart, where he could take his trinkets from their nook and sketch in the dust a separate, an alternate, existence.

The next day he could hardly wait for school to be over. Without going home to get a snack, he ran to the alley. But as he approached he giggled and shook his head. After the day of sums and grammar, the notion of a man made of smoke bottled up in an old lamp seemed so ridiculous he was sure he'd dreamed it. When he entered the alley, though, there were the stones piled neatly along the wall, and he dashed forward and tossed his schoolbag to the ground and knelt beside the hole. Tugging out the brick, he reached inside and pulled out the lamp. His heart was tapping at his temples and he sat on a stone, trying to quiet his breaths.

Though he knew his mother would be angry, he used the inside of his hem to polish the metal. Then, with a whisper that might have been a prayer, he pulled out the chewing-gum stopper.

Once again smoke poured from the spout, and a moment later the djinn Mogwai loomed above him, arms crossed.

"Greetings, master," the djinn said in his voice like salt under boot heels. "What is your desire today?"

The boy raised a trembling hand, and after a few breaths managed to say, "Would you like to play with me again, Mr. Mogwai?"

"Certainly, master. Your wish is my command."

So, in the cool slot of shadow at the end of the alley, the boy and the djinn laid out the bottle caps and matchboxes and scraps of wood and created elaborate intrigues between priests and kings, between rival princes, between powerful sorcerers, ending in a grim battle in which tin cans were toppled and a lone bottle-cap warrior rode back to his palace on a mango-seed stallion, brandishing a matchstick scimitar.

* * *

The next day the boy couldn't go to the alley. His mother had become frantic when he didn't show up after school, and she sent his sisters to the market and then to his aunt's but they'd come back emptyhanded. When at last the boy returned, after dark, she'd screamed at him and told him she'd keep him locked up if she had to. And the next afternoon his brother was waiting for him outside the school and escorted him home with a fist on his collar.

The day after that, he headed straight home after school. He did his homework and ate a scrap of bread with tahini and drank a glass of tea, and his mother patted his head and gave him a spoonful of fig jam as a special treat. When, a few minutes later, she handed him a coin and told him to go buy bread, he dashed down to the alley. He could spend half an hour with the djinn, he thought—maybe a bit more.

As they were setting up their game, he said, "Can I ask you something, Mr. Mogwai?"


"I'm not trying to be rude, I promise, but . . . what are you? I mean, you're not a normal man, right?"

"I am a djinn, young master." His eyes glimmered.

"A djinn. Yes, that's what you said. But what is a djinn? That's what I'm trying to ask, I guess."

"What is a djinn? Is our tale no longer told in the city?"

The boy shook his head.

"Listen, then," the djinn said, and he folded his arms and seemed to settle in the air. "When the Creator was populating the earth, he made the trees and the flowers and the animals in the forests and the fish in the sea and the birds of the air. Once those tasks were completed, he knelt by the river and crafted the first humans from clay. He breathed upon the figures and the spirit blossomed within them and they walked on the riverbank and spoke. Lastly, the Creator gathered cloud and shadow and likewise crafted from them figures and breathed upon them, and they moved and spoke, and they were the djinns. He bestowed upon the djinns immense power: the power to move great distances in an eyeblink, to lift mighty weights, to alter reality at their whim. They were, in essence, beings with the power to perform magic, like their Creator.

"Now, the Creator was aware that the djinns possessed vastly more power than the humans, so to ensure that equilibrium was maintained he decreed that the race of djinns should be subservient to the race of humans. Thus you and your people can with a word or a charm direct us to do your bidding or keep us caged or banish us.

"In the early years of our existence, humans and djinns lived side by side, in almost equal numbers. Humans dwelt in the houses, djinns in the drains and wells, in the nooks and crannies. We ventured out to frolic in the nights while the humans slept, dancing across the rooftops, flinging bolts of lightning across the city as boys throw balls, and all the while speaking our poetry into the wind. Our poetry, which is not like the poetry of humans, locked in boxes or pinned to paper or chained to shelves. Our poetry is like breath released, like the clouds and shadows from which we were created: evanescent, ever changing, ever new.

"For a time we were free, the djinns, and we existed alongside the race of humans, in companionship, and each race delighted in the other's company. Eventually, however, certain of the humans realized they could contain us and use our power to their own ends. Soon many of the powerful had in their possession bottles or boxes or lamps, within each a djinn. And they would call us forth to wreak havoc: to turn the blood of their enemies to molten lead or create vast palaces filled with gemstones and gold. Some realized that we had the gifts of manipulating language, and ordered us to create poetry or tales they passed off as their own.

"As the djinns wrought terror and created imbalance in the service of their masters, the less mighty humans developed incantations that could be uttered to thwart our power, to keep us at bay, to keep us penned in the drains, in the crannies. They muttered as they poured water down the drain, as they opened doors, as they settled in bed at night. And the incantations were, of course, efficacious. Eventually, as the cities burgeoned and the masses uttered the incantations daily, the djinns were forced into hiding. When a human master died, the djinns who were still free released the djinns who were caged or bottled. And in time they fled the city altogether."

The boy wasn't sure he'd understood everything, but he thought he could sense sadness in the djinn's voice. "Where did they go?" he asked. "The other djinns—the ones who went away."

"In the midst of the desert, in a landscape of sun and stone, sand and shadows, where few humans come, the djinns dance," Mogwai told him. "Under the stars they pirouette on the stones and scamper across the crests of dunes and create their poetry, which is not captured, not imprisoned by pen and paper and bottled up on shelves in locked rooms,but is set free, dispersed by the winds and strewn among the stars. During the day the djinns dream, crouching under rocks, so even if travelers entered their land, they would see only blue shadows. At night they dance, but even then a traveler might blame the visions of frolicking djinns on faulty eyesight or thirst or sandstorm, and might imagine their poems emerged from within his own head."

"Oh, I'd love to see them," the boy said. "I'd love to watch the djinns dance and listen to their poems."

"So would I, young master. So would I."

"Why didn't you go with them?" the boy asked.

"I was forgotten. I was left behind. For centuries I remained within the lamp, until you found me and released me. I am the last djinn. The last djinn remaining in the cities of the humans."

The boy was silent for a minute, turning a bottle cap in his fingers. Then he said, "So if I wanted . . . if I wanted a palace, or a bicycle, or a chocolate pastry, you could . . ."

The djinn's eyes glimmered. "Yes, little master, I would perform those deeds for you."

Again the boy thought he detected a note of sadness in the djinn's voice.

"And what do you want?" he asked.

The wavering smoke of the djinn's body seemed to solidify for a moment. "I am sorry, young master," he said. "I do not understand your question."

"What do you want?" the boy asked again. "I mean, if your wish was my command, what would you wish for?"

The great inky torso drew back slightly. Finally the djinn said, "In all the thousands of years of my existence, no one has asked me this question."

"Well?" said the boy. He dropped the bottle cap and pressed his hands between his knees. "Do you know? What do you want, Mr. Mogwai?"

"If I were truly given a wish of my own," the djinn said, "it would be to leave this city and dance on the winds of the western desert with my fellows."

The boy nodded. "So why don't you?"

"Do you not know?" the djinn asked.

The boy shook his head.

The djinn crouched slightly. "I am under your command," he told the boy. "As long as you desire it, I am in your thrall."

The boy thought for a minute, still fingering the bottle cap. "So if . . ." he said finally. "If I let you go, you'd be . . . you'd be free? You could go where you wanted? Out into the desert to be with your friends. Your other friends."

"That is correct, master," the djinn said in his voice of distant earthquakes.

"But then you wouldn't be here to play with me," the boy said.

"That is also correct."

* * *

As soon as the boy stepped through the door he realized he'd forgotten the bread—he'd been thinking so hard about what Mogwai had told him, about the place in the desert where the djinns danced, that he hadn't remembered why he'd left the apartment in the first place. But before he could head back out his mother caught him by the ear.

"What did you buy?" she asked.


"What did you spend the coin on? Chips? Chocolates? That bread was for our supper."

"No, I still have it," the boy said. "I just forgot to buy the bread."

But when he reached into his pocket the coin wasn't there. It must have fallen out while he was crouching in the alley.

"I can get it, I promise," he said, but his mother gave him a blow across the cheek that sent him twisting to the ground. Hauling him up by one elbow, she hurled him into his room and locked the door.

"I wish you'd never been born!" she shrieked. "You've been nothing but trouble to us! Nothing but trouble!"

Much later, after the shouting had died down, one of his sisters came in and gave him a tangerine and he ate it under the covers, snuffling and crooning to it.

* * *

The next morning his cheek was swollen and he couldn't see out of one eye. He got dressed and slung his schoolbag over his shoulder and went out the door without drinking his cup of tea. But instead of going to school, he turned in the other direction and headed to the alley.

"You have come early today, young master," the djinn said, as the boy released him from the lamp. And then his eyes glimmered like the first faint stars at dusk. "Your face is bruised. Were you engaged in a skirmish?"

"A sort of skirmish, I guess," the boy told him. "My mother beat me because I forgot to buy bread yesterday."

The coin lay in the dust beside the stone he sat on, and he picked it up and polished it on his shorts. "It fell out of my pocket," he explained, "but my mother didn't believe me. She said . . . she said she wished I'd never been born."

"I am sorry, young master," the djinn told him. "I saw the coin fall, but did not recognize its significance. It is difficult for us, for the djinns, to understand the importance of coins in the lives of humans."

"It doesn't matter," the boy said, but tears smarted and one escaped from his swollen eye. He tapped it away, wincing. "I'm not going back," he said. "I'm not going home again."

"Where will you live, then?" the djinn asked, and his voice was almost gentle: a rockslide of gypsum rather than granite.

"Well," the boy said, "after what you told me yesterday, I've been thinking . . ." He looked back toward the entrance of the alley, and then up into the clear pane of sky above.

"What have you been thinking?"

"I was wondering . . . wondering if . . . Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is that I finally have a wish. A wish for you to command, if you want to."

"Ask and it shall be done," the djinn said, and there was a movement or contortion in his face that might have been a smile—the boy was learning to read the subtle variations in the congealed smoke.

"But it's a bit . . . well, there are two parts, and I have to ask them both, you see."

"Ask, young master."

"All right. So, remember how you said that there were djinns dancing in the desert? The rest of the djinns?"

"I remember."

"But you got left behind in the city?"


"Well, I want you to go be with them. All right? I want you to be free, like they're free."

The djinn was silent for a minute, and he seemed to grow taller, filling the space between the walls. Finally he spoke: "Master, I do not know how to thank you. This is my heart's desire—to frolic and make poetry with my fellow djinns in the western desert."

The boy turned the coin between finger and thumb. "But there's another part of the wish, like I told you."

"I have not forgotten. What is the second part of your wish, young master?"

"The second part is this. I want you to take me with you."

"I cannot do that, young master."

"I'm not heavy, I promise. I'm lighter than those stones you moved."

"It is not your weight that concerns me. I cannot take you from your family."

"They would be happy if I left, Mr. Mogwai. Yesterday my mother told me I'd been nothing but trouble. If I left they wouldn't have to pay for my food. I'd miss my youngest sister a bit, though. She was nice to me."

"I think you would be happier among your own kind," the djinn said. "Among people whose lives you comprehend."

"I've never been happier than when I'm playing with you," the boy said. "You're the best friend I've ever had. I want to be with you. I want to hear your stories and your poetry. I want to see the djinns dancing. And you'd still play with me, wouldn't you? You like playing with me."

The djinn was silent for a long time, motionless, the glimmer gone from his eyes. At last he leaned down over the boy. "You are also the best friend I have ever had," he said. "And yes, I enjoy playing the games with counters. In the desert there are no bottles, but we could use stones and bones and the green glass created when lightning scorches the sand."

"So will you take me?" the boy asked. "Please, Mr. Mogwai."

"I will take you," the djinn said gently, though there was a curl of sadness in his voice now. "Your wish is my command."

And the boy dropped the coin among the bottle caps and lifted his arms.

* * *

At dusk a mother weeps, on her knees in the alley, a dusty schoolbag before her, and in her palms are bottle caps and matchboxes and a single coin.

But many hundreds of miles to the west, in a place beyond cities, a place without walls, the djinns are dancing. They twist like dust devils, high in the air above dunes, and as the night deepens they toss from hand to hand a young boy. Their hands are as powerful as elephants, as gentle as sea foam, and the boy giggles, reclining in their smoky palms, and listens to their poetry, which is as stunning and pretty as lightning, and like lightning leaves an afterimage for a moment in the mind's eye, and then is gone.

About the Author

Keith Miller

Keith Miller graduated from Goshen College in 1991. He has spent most of his life in East and North Africa, and now lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with his wife, Sofia Samatar, and their two children. He is the author of the novels The Book of Flying, The Book on Fire, and The Sins of Angels, as well as a translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s The Illuminations.