Haydara stared in dismay at the crumpled bills in her hand. "But...is this all?"
The Fat Lady growled something in that awful language that was too hard for Haydara to learn and made shooing motions with her hands.
"I finished the whole house. I don't understand. Why will you only give me...ouch!" Haydara stumbled forward as the Fat Lady grabbed her ear and dragged her inside, where she jabbed a fleshy finger at a lone cobweb in a corner, then barked something undoubtedly unkind and shoved Haydara roughly toward the door. "Oh! I thought that I had -- please, let me just..."
The door banged shut behind her.
"Please!" Haydara begged while she thumped on the door with her good hand. "I need the money. I'm sorry." She struggled to form words that the Fat Lady would understand. "Sorry, please. Let me in please?"
There was no answer. Haydara began to cry. "What am I going to do?" she said out loud, but of course no one replied, nor did any one of them pause as they bustled along the sidewalk behind her, nor did they spare even a pitying glance.
Sixty dollars, that was all for the week, and not one more window to wash and not one more floor to scrub. She could pay her rent but then she would have no money for food. She could buy food but then she would have no money for soap and mop-heads. She could buy the soap but then she would not have enough for her rent, and the thought of that simply made her cry harder. The Red-Haired Man, the one who looked like fire was flowing from his forehead down to his rear, would howl so frighteningly and if she was even a day late he would shut off her water or leave her to freeze. Her father? No. He had thrown boiling water at her and called her sharmouta, a horrible thing to say, after she had run away from her husband, and so she had run away from him as well.
Haydara wiped her eyes on her sleeve and gathered up her pail and mop. "God is good," she whispered, and with a sigh she limped off toward her tiny apartment. She had learned long ago to walk very close to the buildings, almost like a mouse, so that the people on the street would not bang into her and make her drop her things. They still did that now and then and never said a word. Once someone had stopped to pick up her mop but then saw money in her hand and had grabbed it and run off. Police? They would just send her back to where she surely would not live for long.
It was dark when she turned off of the busy street and onto the one where no one else ever wanted to go. Darker still, she saw, with four streetlights out. It had only been three in the winter, and the previous year only two. Now she had to move very slowly indeed, inching her feet over the cracks and heaves in the sidewalk. The last thing she needed was to fall and hurt herself. It was already difficult enough to work with an arm as thin and achy as hers. It had never quite healed after her husband had twisted it until it cracked for serving him his soup too cold.
Thump! Haydara swayed but caught herself before she tumbled over. A shadow lay before her, and when she leaned down she felt cardboard against her fingers, and when she tugged back the lid and reached inside she felt -- oh, my! -- a little statue, a box with knobs that felt like a radio, some forks tied together with string, and could that be a pair of folded pants?
"God is good!" she said happily. The people of this country were always tossing away things that in her homeland would be coveted treasures. A box on a sidewalk in the gloom of night and nobody around -- surely this was just more trash that some callous rich person had cast off, and maybe there were things inside that she could sell at the pawn shop, and if they did not cheat her too badly she might have enough to pay her rent and buy food and get a new mop-head, or maybe even two. Nervously Haydara peered into the darkness but saw no one, nobody rushing up to yell at her or to claim the treasures back, so she placed her pail and soap inside and hoisted it -- oh, so heavy! -- and carried it as best she could the rest of the way home.
The box was a gift from Heaven more grand than Haydara had dared to hope. The statue was not very pretty but it looked like it was painted with real gold which would surely be worth a dollar or two. There were movies that Haydara would not be able to understand even if she had something to play them on, but someone would want them, no doubt. Though old, the radio played lovely music as soon as she turned it on -- maybe if she made enough money she could keep it for herself.
And, tangled up with some old coat hangers at the bottom of the box, was a delightful old oil lamp much like the one that Haydara's grandmother used to own. It was caked with dust and grime as though it had sat in a smoky kitchen for far too many years, and no one had bothered to look through the filth at the beauty and stories that lay beneath and had flung it aside with a shrug. "You are my blessed savior," Haydara whispered as she draped a rag over her thumb and began to scrub away the layers of grease to reveal bright gleaming metal beneath. "It is so sad that I must sell you. I wish..."
The moment she spoke those words a great cloud of smoke boiled forth all at once from the lamp. Alarmed, Haydara dropped the lamp to the floor and stumbled backward. More smoke gushed from the spout and from somewhere within its depths she heard a voice. "You wish for what?"
With a cry Haydara rushed from the kitchen and into her bedroom where she heaved up the mattress and hid behind it. "No no!" she wailed. "It cannot be! I do not believe it!"
"Now, now, it is a sin to disbelieve in one of God's creations."
The voice came from right over her head. Haydara scrambled backward and cowered against the wall behind her. The mattress did not fall but stayed upright, and dancing about on its top edge was a little...a little...
"What are you?" Haydara whimpered.
The creature was not very big, no larger than Haydara's thumb in fact. It seemed to be a woman with the fur and ears of a cat, or rather a cat with the body and legs of a woman. It smiled sweetly at her, a cat-smile, green eyes twinkling and slinky tail slinking. "Oh, you know."
Haydara rubbed her eyes. "It is not possib--"
"Ah!" The creature held up a scolding finger. "What did I say about disbelieving?"
Haydara started to say something else but closed her mouth. The little thing had a point and Haydara did not want to be guilty of a sin, especially after God had been so good to her. "What...what were you doing in my lamp?"
The creature rolled her eyes. "How do we ever get into lamps? It is what happens when one forgets how cruel and clever Men can be."
"I know it." Curiosity began to overcome Haydara's fear. "Are you...a djinni?"
The little cat-thing giggled and danced some more along the edge of the mattress. "What else would I be?"
"I don't know. Do you have a name?"
"Y-yes. I'm Haydara."
The cat-lady tucked back her ears. "Haydara," she said thoughtfully, and again, "Hay-dar-a," rolling it over her tongue, and then she beamed. "That is a beautiful name."
"So you are?"
"A name is a creation of Men. But so are you, and I am in your debt, so you may call me Umniyah."
"Do you like it? I do." Umniyah flopped down on her belly and kicked her legs up behind her. "So please continue." Getting no reply she sighed and rolled to her back and looked at Haydara upside-down. "You were saying, 'I wish.' What do you wish for?"
Haydara's eyes widened. "Can you...can you grant wishes?"
The little djinni tittered. "You know the stories. You should know that part. Everyone knows that part. You freed me. I reward you by granting you your desires."
Haydara knew the stories indeed. Depending on who told them a djinni could be a benevolent guide or a vile trickster. One uttered a wish at one's own peril and if one was wise one would think long and hard about the precise wording of the wish, but even while Haydara was telling herself these things she heard her own eager voice blurting out, "I want to be the most beautiful, richest woman in the world!"
Scarcely had those words left her lips than she felt a great stupor washing over her. Her skin crawled, creeping and itching over her whole body, and she felt the shape of her face changing and her arm suddenly felt strong again and she felt that she could kick away her limp and dance with the djinni and the room grew bright and wonderful music filled her ears and she swept her tail to her face and hugged it with joy.
Her tail slid from her arms which she realized with a jolt were covered with fur. With a cry that came out as a mournful yowl she stumbled to the bathroom and stared into the rusty mirror at the feline face that stared back at her, at the tawny fur that rose in alarm on her neck and shoulders and the cookie-shaped ears that tucked down flat against her skull and --
-- and she wheeled and charged into the bedroom, lunging for the vile little trickster who simply leaped nimbly away and laughed. "What have you done to me?" she roared.
"Done? I have given you what you wished for." Umniyah lighted on Haydara's shoulder like a butterfly. "Look at you. I think that you are the most beautiful woman in the world. And you are the only one who has a djinni in her debt. How could any worldly riches compare to that?"
Haydara wanted to cry but her eyes would not make any tears. Instead she wailed and yowled and lashed her tail. "You turned me into a monster! Change me back this instant!"
"Ah, but wait! I could, you see, but perhaps that part of the story did not get told to you. Your desires I will grant with pleasure, but if you ask to have any reversed, then you will have denied my gratitude and will receive no more. You will return to what you were and what you had. Is that what you truly want?"
"But I am a beast! People will scorn me! They will be disgusted!"
"And they were not before? 'Look at that filthy woman with her withered arm and her scarred face, living off the scraps that we toss her.' Did you not hear that in their hearts when they passed you by, too proud even to look upon you?"
Haydara hung her head.
"They could have no more scorn for you today than they did yesterday," Umniyah said more gently. "But now you are a thing of beauty, lithe and supple, breathtaking to behold. Why should the likes of Men matter to you now when you never mattered to them?"
Slowly, Haydara turned and crept back to the mirror, dreading that the same slitted eyes would peer back at her, and they did. She was no stranger to scorn, "...but now...now they will hate me." Sorrow kindled and began to burn into anger within her. "They will hate me more. They always have. I am the stupid girl. I am the girl that they cheat. I am the girl whose face they cannot bear." She clenched her fists so tight that her claws began to dig into her padded palms. "And now I am the girl who is a monster. So let them hate me! I wish for the power to show them what true hate is." She turned to the little djinni on her shoulder. "Make me strong and powerful so that I can teach them what it is like to be used and cast aside like trash!"
Again that profound stupor, a sensation that every one of her bones was shifting and creeping beneath her flesh, that the floor was sliding over her feet, and then a loud crack and she was falling, her feet landing hard while wood and plaster shattered and showered her like a violent storm, and when she tried to move she found her legs mired in wreckage and she stumbled but two warm arms caught her and helped her to stand once again and the world spun to a stop and the room around her...
Cool night air ruffled the fur all over her body. The sky above shone its sooty orange glow. It took her some time to realize that it was not the ceiling that had collapsed around her ankles but the whole building itself, and that what she saw down around her knees were not boxes but the tops of the neighboring houses. The height made her dizzy but Umniyah steadied her again, and Haydara was astonished to find that the djinni stood just as tall as she herself, and she was smiling that knowing cat-grin. "Your wish is my command," she said brightly.
Haydara stood motionless, her eyes open very wide. Umniyah's smile faded a little. "What's wrong? This is what you wanted. Strength. Power..."
"...and to teach them a lesson."
Umniyah laughed. "Of course you can." She tilted her head and pondered the dumbstruck Haydara for a moment before she dropped to a crouch and began to paw through the rubble surrounding Haydara's feet. "I think I know something that will help. Let's see, it ought to be...no...maybe under -- ah, there it is!" She plucked something from the wreckage, stood up and held it out for Haydara to see. "Take it. You'll understand."
Numbly Haydara raised her hand and peered at what the djinni dropped into her palm. It was squealing and flopping just like a mouse caught in a trap. The hair that tumbled from its head down to its rear was redder than ever now, as well as glistening and wet. "I don't believe it," Haydara whispered.
"Believe it!" the djinni giggled. She slunk up behind Haydara and laid her chin on the trembling girl's shoulder so that she could peer also at what Haydara held in her hand. "Now, you may give him what he has earned."
Haydara could not take her eyes off of the tiny man. He was cowering now, both hands clasped pleadingly. "How can I?"
"Remember how cold it was at night?" Umniyah whispered into Haydara's ear.
Haydara remembered. She felt her tail lashing about behind her. The man gibbered and shook his head, flinging some of the red from his matted hair.
"Remember begging for water?" Umniyah whispered.
Haydara remembered. Her lip slid back from her teeth.
"Remember what he made you do to get the water back?"
Haydara remembered all too well. A growl boiled in her throat.
Umniyah licked delicately at Haydara's ear. "Crush him," she purred.
The man flailed and howled as Haydara's hand closed around him. His voice was muffled for only a second before Haydara squeezed hard. He crackled, his body quickly growing soft until he felt like dough in her grip. Trickles of red ran from between her fingers and joined together and ran down her arm until they dripped from her elbow.
Haydara's breath hissed through her teeth, in, then out. Her heart pounded. Her fiery gaze slipped from her fist down to the ground, and to the boiling tide of little people that was surging away from her. Umniyah was whispering a reminder of how they had spat on her as they passed by but Haydara needed no more encouragement. With a roar that cracked every window in the city she flung the handful of meat aside and stalked forward with her fists clenched tightly at her sides.
In three steps she was upon them. They could not ignore her now. They could neither look away nor hide their faces. All they could do was shriek as Haydara brought her foot down hard upon them. The leathery pads smashed six of them at once and Haydara twisted her leg, grinding them until nothing was left, but it was not enough for her. She lifted her other foot and stepped down firmly, snarling as six more crunched down flat. Still she was not satisfied. Savagely she began stamping on them like a swarm of roaches, every thundering footfall echoing a growl of frustration from her throat.
It was Umniyah who stopped the slaughter with a hand on Haydara's shoulder. "What is wrong?"
"They simply will not die fast enough," Haydara seethed.
Umniyah smiled. "Then perhaps we need to think of another way. Come -- walk with me."
She took Haydara's hand and they began walking. Somehow a few stars had managed to peek through the orange cityglow and the two marveled at their beauty while their legs swept buildings to splinters and scurrying figures popped like berries beneath their tread. Then they noticed the pale moon and Haydara asked jokingly if Umniyah had ever been there. Umniyah paused to stoop and pluck a little squeaking thing from the street and pop it into her mouth like candy before she giggled and said, "Who hasn't?"
The roaches became very thick, almost like a crunchy carpet, and Umniyah turned and held up her hand. "Now stop. Sit down."
Haydara obeyed. She giggled as they squelched beneath her furry behind and she could not resist rocking a little from side to side.
"Lie back flat," Umniyah purred, "and enjoy the lesson."
Haydara did so. The wiggling tickled her back and made her giggle again. "Now what do --"
That was all she said before Umniyah dropped to all fours and ducked her head between Haydara's legs. A great crowd was trapped there, penned in by the great furry thighs, and with her muzzle Umniyah bumped them all in a great pile against the spot where those thighs met. They piled atop one another, wailing, flapping, writhing, as Haydara pressed her tongue flat against them and dragged it slowly upward.
Haydara's shriek drowned out those of the captives. "Umniyah! Don't!"
The djinni raised her head and met Haydara's gaze. "Don't?" she purred sweetly. Her tongue slid forth and its tip caught a little man and pressed his squirmy self against a spot that was very, very, very tender.
Haydara's eyes closed in a red haze as her blood started to boil in her veins. "Don't...stop!" she mewled.
"Your wish is my command," the djinni snickered.
The whole city rocked and thrummed with the moans and the screaming and the purrs and the pleading and the yowls and the bleeding. At first Umniyah simply shoveled them against the folds of Haydara's sex and let them thrash as they slid back down, but with each lick she pressed more firmly, until at last she scooped perhaps a dozen onto the folds and then worked her tongue over them in a powerful kneading motion until their screams were muffled within those folds and they were struggling deep inside.
Haydara made a sound that had never before been heard upon the Earth. Her hand smashed through the front of a building that lay beside her, and when it emerged six little legs were kicking from between her fingers. Umniyah noticed them and without lifting her muzzle from her work she delicately plucked a choice individual from the thick of the crowd. That one met his end when the djinni reached forward and pinched both him and Haydara's nipple between her fingers until he broke. The lesson was well-learned and it was not long before the three in Haydara's hand met a similar fate.
Pleased, Umniyah herded fresh prey forward and continued to cram them four and five and six at a time into the depths of Haydara's sex, where their struggles shot bolts of lightning through Haydara that made her roar with delight. Her hands groped about for anything that moved around her, and when she caught them she mashed them hard against her breasts and roared and squeezed and kneaded until they were little more than juice and she cast about eagerly for more. She could feel them being forced into her, their little limbs caressing, deeper and deeper, the pressure mounting as they were packed in tight, and then blue-white fire exploded from her gut. Her back arched and the roar caught fast in her throat. She felt them dying, felt her body chewing them to bits, felt them falling intact and in pieces from her folds, felt their screams being squeezed out along with their innards.
In the brief silence that followed the tinkle of glass could be heard as it tumbled from a newly-shattered window. Haydara's breath rushed forth in a long rumble that sounded like train passing. Slowly she became aware of the tiny, thin chorus of screams that still echoed all around, and when she opened her eyes and lifted her head she saw Umniyah grinning triumphantly at her. "They are yours now," she purred. "Your property, to do with as you please, my Queen."
Haydara did not hear her, though. Her ears, far more sensitive than she had ever known, had caught a faint cry amongst the throng. It was feeble, far-off, almost lost, but it was most definitely the wailing of an infant. The red fog cleared at once from Haydara's eyes. She saw the blood on her chest and on her hands and on her thighs, and she saw the surviving crowd retreating in the distance. "Oh, no," she whimpered. "That child?"
"What child?" Umniyah frowned. "Not any concern."
Haydara raised her hands to her face and stared at what was left of people on her fingers. "She...she is hungry. Can't you hear her?"
"I might...I might have killed her mother..."
With a terrible wail Haydara leaped to her feet. Awful things rained down from between her legs. Stunned, Haydara staggered through the low buildings beside her, stumbling as they came apart. She felt a hard tug as Umniyah grabbed her tail and she lurched onto a neighboring street while dragging the djinni behind her. "I don't want this!" she cried. "I don't want this at all!"
"You do!" Umniyah's eyes burned with anger. "I saw it in your heart. You wanted revenge and I gave it to you!"
"Not this way!" Haydara whimpered. "I can't do this."
"They did not deserve to live!"
"But neither did they deserve to die." Haydara sniffled and mewled miserably. "Revenge is sweet on the tongue, but burns like fire in the heart. Please, Umniyah, tell me that I can make this right."
Umniyah snorted. "You could," she grumbled. "But you would lose everything. And you would have rejected the most precious gift that I have ever bestowed on any mortal."
Haydara stared at the street below. Dozens of tiny people were backing away from her blood-soaked feet. Some turned and ran while others fainted. A car spun sideways and crashed into her toes, its driver tumbling from the open door and crawling desperately away. "Tell me that I can make it go away," she whispered. "Please, tell me that I can bring everyone back."
The djinni rolled her eyes. "Yes, you can," she said impatiently. "But you will never again receive a gift from me. I shall be gone from your life as though I had never been."
Slowly Haydara crouched down, her eyes on the gibbering driver. "And everyone will be alive again?" she said softly.
"This will not have happened. They will wake in the morning just as any other day."
Haydara nodded. Carefully she reached down and lifted the driver between two fingers, then placed him into the palm of her other hand. "And me?"
"You will be exactly as you were, too. Miserable. Downtrodden. Poor. Pathetic. Can you honestly tell me that you want to go back to that?"
Haydara gazed deeply at the little man who cowered in her palm. He seemed quite different now than he had when he had twisted her arm until it had cracked. "Yes," she said quietly. "I do. But...not just yet."
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