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I wake up to the sound of bleating. I say bleating, because I can’t think of any other word to describe the sound I’m hearing, which is closer to the sound you’d imagine a sheep would make if it could scream. So yes, the sound that was ringing—is still ringing—in my ears is the sound of bleating-screaming.
At first I pull the pillow over my head, pressing it tightly over my ear with my palm so I don’t get to hear the noise. But it’s there. Persistent, a repeated bleating-screaming that isn’t even muffled by the woolen insides of the pillow. I throw the pillow away, and look to my side. She’s not there of course. She’s never there when I wake up.
It’s a warm night. Warmer than usual. I hadn’t realized it but I’m soaked in sweat, the T-shirt I’m wearing sticking tightly to my body. It’s the sort of night where people use the cover of darkness to burn their rubbish to avoid from being detected by the Majlis Perbandaran. Nobody knows where they burn their rubbish, but everyone can smell the smoke.
Yawning, I slide my feet into the slippers I keep under the bed, then I shuffle over to the window and take a peek through the curtains.
We live in a thirty-story apartment building overlooking both the always-full-of-traffic LDP and the IOI Mall. Puchong’s a dense town with development rising everywhere and anywhere people can find space. But even when this much city seeps into Puchong, you can never take the kampung out of it. Somewhere between all the malls, shophouses and highways, there’s a tiny, walled-in field of grass. Our apartment happens to look over this field of grass. And in the field, well, there’s a small herd of sheep.
Sheep? In Puchong? Yeah, I know. Let me explain. Some bright intrepid entrepreneur decided it would be big money to bank in on the Malay need for superiority over their brethren by importing sheep from New Zealand and rearing a whole flock here so that he could sell them for aqiqah ceremonies and Hari Raya Korban slaughters. After all, Malays in Klang Valley do love a good exotic animal to show off and slaughter. Keeping up with the Joneds is buying a goat for Korban, but buying a sheep is the Malay way of sticking up both middle fingers at all the Joneds and winning all the Raya Hajis.
Now where was I? Oh yes, the field. In the field, a sheep is engulfed in a fiery light show of orange, red and yellow. The other sheep are giving it a wide berth, but the one on fire is scrambling here and there, bleating-screaming. It’ll be ash and bones by dawn.
It’s three o’clock in the morning and I don’t think anyone else hears the screaming sheep. The intrepid entrepreneur will probably only find out about it the next morning. He’ll probably come over to our apartment once again demanding an explanation. He’ll suspect it’s something to do with us. After all I’m the only one in the apartment who married a you-know-what. I’ll offer no explanation, just my apologies. I’ll give a vehement denial then I’ll say I’ll keep an eye out for any sheep burners I might see. Just like I did the last time. And the intrepid entrepreneur will eye me suspiciously before leaving, muttering under his breath about how he doesn’t trust people like me who marry djinn.
Just like he did the last time.
I’m fully awake now, and there’s no point going back to sleep now. It’s too noisy, it’s too hot and I’m too awake. Might as well check on our kid. Our dear little Qistina is nearly three now and sleeping in her room. At least I hope she’s sleeping. I don’t hear her crying so hopefully she’s undisturbed by the horrid bleating-screaming. Hopefully, she’s still purring to her dreams.
As I tiptoe out of our bedroom, I notice something conspicuously missing from the bedside table. I have a slight suspicion where my wife could be, and my hunch is confirmed when I take a peek inside our daughter’s room next door. I see our daughter hugging the grubby old oil lamp as if it was a bolster pillow. There’s a hint of incense in the air. I switch on the night light so as not to disturb Qistina sleeping so soundly. Wisps of thin blue-grey smoke puff lazily out of the oil lamp’s nozzle. That’s how I know my wife is in there.
I gently stroke the oil lamp to summon her. The wisps of smoke become darker, thicker, and eventually smoke fills the room before coagulating into a purer, more solid form—the form of a human female, as if dressed by fire.
I clear my throat. “Sorry to wake you, sayang,” I say cautiously. One can never predict the fluctuating moods of djinn, especially when you’ve just awoken them at three in the morning, and after they’ve had a rough day negotiating a tough deal.
(My wife does business development in a GLC. Probably not the perfect job for a djinn, but it helps pay the bills.)
“Would you happen to know anything about the burning sheep outside?”
My wife yawns and stretches her bright red arms and looks towards the window. The curtains are drawn but of course she just looks through them as if they weren’t there. She shakes her head and stares at me blankly. I hate her blank stares. I can never tell if she’s cross or not. She probably is though. It’s three in the morning.
“I don’t recall burning any sheep,” she says. “Why are you asking?” The tone is more Are you accusing me?
Realizing the calamity I was about to head into, I say, “J…just wondering whether you knew anything about it, is all I’m asking.”
My wife looks over to our daughter and sees her hugging the oil lamp close to her chest. She smiles and I sigh in relief when I see that she’s not mad at me.
“I see she took my lamp out of our room,” she says.
“Maybe the little cutie’s dreaming of you,” I say.
“Can’t you see into her dreams?”
“I can, but I would rather stay out. A dream is a very personal thing and for me to enter her dreams and imprinting upon her so early in her age would be dangerous for her young mind.”
We both look at our daughter in silence. After a few moments, I say, “Well, I suppose there can’t be anything done about the burning sheep. I’ll just go back to bed.”
“Wait,” my wife says. “What did you read her last night? What bedtime story? Before you tucked her in?”
“I didn’t read her anything last night,” I say. “Was too tired. Spent the whole day yesterday trying to fix the air conditioning. Didn’t feel up to reading her anything. You know how she wants me to act everything out. So I told her to count… to count… oh. Sheep—” The word “sheep” barely escapes my mouth before I palm my mouth and gasp.
My wife sighs. “Looks like I’ll have to visit her dream for a moment after all,” she says in that voice she makes when she’s about to do something djinn-like. “Stand back. I don’t want you coughing again because of all the smoke.” She disappears with a poof and the room once again fills with smoke which then whirls into a spiral before disappearing into our daughter’s ear.
It’s just me and my sleeping daughter in the room now. Still sleeping, she cries out in delight, “Ummi!” I know my wife is talking to her, because Qistina murmurs snatches of conversations, all of them half-formed and incomplete, words obscured by dream and sleep.
As I’m try to figure out what’s happening, Qistina cries, “Look what I can do now, Ummi!”
Without a warning, a flash of light illuminates the room from beyond the curtain, from outside the window. A blast shakes the apartment and dust falls gently to the floor, while the mobile with the farm animals above Qistina’s bed jiggles and wiggles.
I rush to the window and pull the curtain to see what’s happened. The sheep that was burning had blown up, spreading sheep entrails and meat pieces all over the field and onto the walls of the surrounding shophouses. There was a small mushroom cloud slowly rising into the sky where the sheep had been.
“Oh dear,” I say. “That guy’s not gonna be happy we blew up his sheep.”
Then another sheep blows up in the same bloody fashion. And another. And another. Each blast shakes the apartment. Several mushroom clouds sprout majestically over the field. More sheep keep exploding.
Smoke comes pouring back into the room from our daughter’s ear and my wife’s presence once again graces the room.
“Yes, she was indeed burning sheep in her dreams,” she says, a little out of breath. “As she was counting them, she was setting each one aflame. I think some of the magic must have seeped out into reality and burned the sheep outside.”
“Uh huh. So what did you tell Qistina?”
“Told her not to burn them anymore.”
“That’s it? You don’t happen to know about the sheep exploding instead?”
“Well, at least they’re not burning anymore.” My wife yawns again, then she looks at me, realizing that I need more to go on. “Oh, don’t worry, sayang. Exploding sheep aren’t dangerous at all for her. It’s just some mindless fun I told her to try out instead. She’s only half-djinn so her magic isn’t as strong. Or maybe it isn’t as strong just yet. Nothing to worry about. At least not yet. Not till she’s sixteen perhaps. Go back to sleep.”
I murmur something in protest but she has already smoked herself back into the oil lamp. “Good night,” comes an echo from somewhere within the oil lamp.
“Good night,” is all I could stammer in return.
I am left alone with nothing but the sound of Qistina’s snoozing. At least the bleating-screaming has stopped.
I wake up blearily to the incessant banging on the door. I look to my side. She’s not there of course. She’s never there when I wake up. I get out of bed and drag myself to the front door only to see the entrepreneur fuming in the doorway after I open it.
“Would you happen to know anything about the exploding sheep last night?”
He’s trying to act calm but his face is as red as a ten ringgit note. His eyes are practically bulging out of their sockets, and if he contains the fury much longer he might find his head exploding like his sheep did last night. I figure I owe him some kind of explanation.
“Oh, I did hear some explosions last night,” I say. “Were they your sheep? I thought they were fireworks. Probably the Indians celebrating Deepavali a little early or something.”
The entrepreneur might as well have steam shooting out of his ears. “Why would it be fireworks?” he says, still trying to contain his anger. “Deepavali’s not until six months’ time.”
“Oh, so that really was your sheep then? I didn’t know sheep exploded.”
“Sheep don’t explode. They don’t catch fire, they don’t spontaneously combust and they don’t. Fucking. Explode.”
“Hey, watch your language,” I say. “I’ve got a three-year-old in here.”
“I don’t care,” he says. “I’ve got seven dead sheep and I demand an explanation.”
I shrug. “Do you think it was the heat? Heat can do some crazy things, you know. Those sheep aren’t used to our weather.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” he says. “Heat’s got nothing to do with it!”
“Pretty warm night last night, you know? It’s murder without the air conditioning on. Ours is broken. No idea what’s wrong with it. Felt I could have blown up myself if it had gotten hotter.”
He eyes me, squinting, like he suspects I’m keeping something from him.
Then, without a word, he turns on his heel and slowly walks away.
I hear him muttering to himself. “Celaka punya orang. No idea why’d anyone would marry djinn. Gila ke apa.”
Ted Mahsun is a tech writer for a global software company. His book reviews have been published in The Star, and his fiction included in Australia’s Griffith Review as well as in various Malaysian anthologies. He was co-editor of the 2016 and 2017 editions of Little Basket, a literary journal of new writing. He also runs a Malay science fiction writing website at penasaifai.com.
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