Translated by ANDREW LEBER
Before my feet even crossed the threshold of the main door, her voice reached me from the courtyard. She appeared from deep within the cloud of dust kicked up by the sweeps of her palm-leaf broom and called out her usual warning: “Don’t you dare play near Khaduj’sruins!”
I reassured her that I wouldn’t, though deep down my intentions were quite different. Jamil had called me a scaredy-cat the day before, and all his friends had laughed at me. I wasn’t afraid of that bully, or Khaduj either—I’d show all the children in the neighborhood that I wasn’t afraid like they were. All they did was stand outside the ruins of Khaduj’s house and make up silly stories about what was inside.
It was a grand building of stone and adobe, with flocks of crows nesting in the broken windows of its many rooms. Their harsh caws rang out at all hours of the day. Nothing scared those foolish other kids more than the towering thornbush: as darkness fell it seemed to turn into a ghost, reaching out its tentacle-like arms. When the wind whistled through the place, it was enough to make those cowards piss their pants!
My poor mother was always afraid for me, warning me about so many things. The amulets she made annoyed me. I didn’t understand a thing about their talismanic lines, drawn on old yellow parchment; she’d just hang them around my neck regardless, sewn into a little leather pouch to protect the writing from getting wet. She would tell me every time that the amulet was a blessing that would protect me from the jinn, the afarit, evil people, and the eye of envy. She was all the more afraid because I was her only son after four girls, or so my grandmother said one day.
My mother now gave me a warm look, affection brimming in her smiling eyes. “Habibi Hamoud—come here and take this.” She placed a hundred-fils coin in my palm and a kiss on my cheek.
I took off in a hurry, happily flying along the dusty alleyways like a smooth-winged nightingale. I wanted to see that woman—was she crazy, like people said? My mother had warned me about going to Khaduj’s house so many times that I had become very curious about exploring it, to learn its secrets. In fact, her words of caution made me even less afraid—I wasn’t a child like they all thought I was; I was a man!
I found a group of boys playing near the ruined house. A swift kick by my friend Aboud sent the orange ball leaping high in the air and over the wall of the forbidden house. All the others stopped playing and shouted as one: “Hey, Aboud, get the ball!” None of them felt reckless enough to go in. Aboud pleaded with me to do it for him. All the other boys carried on insisting he should get the ball—saying that if he didn’t, he’d have to pay for it—at which point my friend even promised to give me five of his colored marbles if I ventured in there for him.
No one wanted to go. Our mothers had turned these ruins into a house of ghosts. Aboud had told me that in the upper story of the house a skull could be seen flickering in the east window. That coward thought I believed him, and went on to tell another ghost story. He told me about a boy of our age, a child in ragged clothes whose eyes dripped blood and whose head was pecked apart by the crows. If any of these ghosts looked into your eyes, you’d get sick and die just like that! He thought he’d scared me off for good with all this nonsense, but I’d made up my mind this time. This was my chance—I would finally see inside. A step, another… two steps. Then I stopped, the group silent behind me. My heart froze, and the rumor came back to me: “Khaduj is crazy—she eats children!”
But I had to see for myself—surely my mother was exaggerating? It would just take one fleeting moment and I would get the ball from behind that adobe wall, easy. Those boys were cowards, but I was about to discover Khaduj’s secret.
The door of her wasteland of a home was already half broken. All of a sudden, a black cat stole out from behind it, and one of the boys cried out: “Hamoud, Hamoud, don’t go in! It’s haunted by jinn—we’ll just buy a new ball!”
But I went in. Peering about in fear, I pressed on, trying to step carefully and deliberately. In the darkness, though, I stepped on a board with a nail sticking out of it. It went straight through my right sandal, biting viciously into my foot. I cried out in pain and wrenched my foot free, the plastic sandal smeared with blood. I could still hear the boys calling out to me with their repeated warnings, but I resolved to takeno notice and again pressed on, limping now.
In front of me was a stone step leading to two rooms. In the doorway of the room on the left was the ball. I picked it up, but then I heard a mysterious muttering that made my hair stand on end. I was so scared I considered making a run for it, but I stayed where I was, staring into the gloom. There was a small hole in the roof through which a little daylight seeped in and mingled with those frightening mutterings and the rotten smell of the place.
I was drawing closer to the pools of light when all of a sudden she appeared—crazy Khaduj, yes, just as they had described her! Honey-colored eyes, skin white as sugar, and hair, such long hair, all windblown and so wildly tangled it turned her head into a weirdly shaped ball. Her eyes shone in the darkness like a cat’s. Even more frightening, she was sprawled on the floor, her threadbare clothes soaked in blood and fluids. She held a child in her arms that was yelling loudly. I was right in front of her and she couldn’t see me! In that patch of light, her face was glistening and pale, covered in sweat. What would she do with that poor child? His cries weren’t stopping, but only growing more frantic, just like my fears as I stared at her. What was she doing? She wiped off some of the fluid from his white face. Something like a rope connected them, bound them together. Then she started to lick the child, as if tasting a delicious meal before devouring it hungrily. She laughed idiotically, then went back to her muttering. It was exactly as my mother had said. Fear exploded within me and I dashed off screaming to all of the children still playing: “She’s in there! Run! Run! Khaduj eats children!”
Ahmed Al-Mo’azzen is a Bahraini writer. His writings have appeared in the local and regional press, and he has won a number of awards for his short stories, several of which have been adapted into short films and plays. In addition to such short story collections as From the Concrete Jungles and Man for Sale, he has published the novel Time of the Coming Ruin.
Andrew Leber is a PhD student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Government. His writings and translations have previously appeared in The New Arab, Guernica, the New Statesman, and AGNI Online.
Khaduj is a diminutive form of the name Khadeeja, used as an affectionate nickname for young women of that name. In the case of the heroine of this story, the name is used differently, in the terrifying legends mothers resort to in order to frighten their children away from misbehaving.