Illustration via National Gallery of Art

DREAMing Out Loud: Voices of Migrant Writers, is a PEN America workshop series for young undocumented and migrant writers. This week we excerpt an anthology of their work.

Chapter One
At Al-Ameen Madrasa for Girls, it was the week when government officials came to see how the children and the school teachers were doing. Some students would even be selected to receive scholarships to go to a boarding school abroad.

“Oh, bhalo lage na. How dull!” Rookie said to her friend Liver. They were sitting in a cramped room with the older girls in the school. Rookie and Liver were well into their fifth year of what felt like a sentence of twelve years of education at Al-Ameen. 

Rookie thought these morning gatherings were useless. It was quite obvious that the school was doing well. She liked the playground they had, complete with a red swing set, and the man-made pond that they swam in. She liked her classmates. This was because everyone, from Ms. Begum the Principal to the tiny preschoolers, always listened to Rookie. If Rookie wanted to eat dates during snack time, she could get the school maid to retrieve them from the food cabinet. If she wanted a new uniform, Ms. Begum would make arrangements with the local tailor. If she wanted to play Snakes and Ladders during reading hour, all the children humored her and played with her, even though some were wary that they would be given detention. Rookie was never wary. She just had a way about her. 

There was commotion coming from the teacher’s lounge in the next room over, where the schoolteachers were gathered for their morning meeting with the officials. Rookie listened carefully and heard, “The Ministry is quite impressed by the grades in the school!” and “So many of these children graduate high school!”

“What does it matter what our grades are?” Rookie whispered under her breath. “School isn’t everything!” Rookie liked most of the teachers and school staff, but she seldom thought that they ought to be admired for their grades. They were children, not report cards. 

“Easy for you to say,“ her friend Liver said. “You always get good scores.”

Rookie liked Liver the most out of everyone at the Madrasa. She always did what Rookie wanted her to do. Liver’s only fault was that Liver was always anxious about her exams. Rookie said softly, “You’ll do well and pass, too.”

“But I have to study three times as much,” Liver said. “Sometimes I barely pass.” Then she added, courageously, “Don’t you ever want to leave this Madrasa and go to a school abroad, Rookie?”

“Not even a little bit,” Rookie said with determination. But she did think about it. Would it be fun to go to another country and see what life was like beyond their village? Then she remembered everyone at Al-Ameen Madrasa for Girls who always did what she wanted, and she thought that if she went to another school, she would not be able to play with Liver and the rest of the girls. And she quickly lost interest. 

“No,” she said. “I think that if they chose me to go abroad, it would be strange. I’m not even at the top of the class.”

At that moment, Ms. Begum rushed from her office, looking frantic.

“The children are in here,” she said. “Do come right this way, and I will introduce the girls to you one by one.”

Rookie could only manage to say to Liver, “Remember to look confused if they ask you a question, like I taught you!” before three strange officials followed Ms. Begum into the cramped classroom. 

Rookie could tell that the three individuals tried to look normal, but she knew they were not, not even a little. The first woman had a purple tuft of hair peeking out of her tattered headscarf and a waxy, wrinkly look to her face. It was not an appealing face. She tried to do something about it by putting on blue mascara and drawing a mole near her left frown line. But her makeup clashed with her long black-and-white checkered dress and her orange flowery sandals. Nothing seemed to do her large blue leather bag any favors.

The second woman was covered head to toe in a long suede lime-colored burka. She covered her eyes with sunglasses that looked like mirrors. Her hands were covered with black satin gloves. The only visible skin was on her feet. She wore muddy flip-flops like the fishermen by the river bank.

As for the third woman, the moment Rookie looked at her, she thought of an elderly aunty she might see at a local bazaar or food market. And then again, every time she peered at the woman, she seemed to get less and less visible. She was like a small dot on a piece of notebook paper. By the time the three women were standing in front of Liver, Rookie was so sure that the woman was barely two feet tall.

“This young woman is Rubaya Deen,” Ms. Begum said. Rookie was thankful she was not Liver. 

“Her mother and father both drowned in a sinking ferry,” Ms. Begum added. “Pitiful!”

Liver scrunched up her face in annoyance whenever Ms. Begum made comments of that sort. She despised people saying her circumstances were sad. But Rookie could see the peculiar women made her so nervous that she could not even scowl. And she had forgotten to assume confusion at the questions that were being asked of her. 

Before Rookie could poke Liver to feign dumbness, the women moved on. They stood in front of Rookie. Liver breathed a sigh of relief. 

Ms. Begum said despondently, “And this is Rukhsana Malik.” Ms. Begum never understood why it was that Rookie was never chosen for the scholarship. Rookie was smart enough. She was polite in the classroom. But Ms. Begum had come to understand that far less precocious children seemed to be picked. What Ms. Begum did know was that Rookie was quite good at making herself look uninteresting. It was something she did subtly with her facial expressions, and she did so because she was satisfied at Al-Ameen. 

She behaved as if she had no spatial perception or social skills. She thought these women were the most unpleasant she had ever seen. They stared at her, unamused at her attempts to repel their attention.

“Rookie has been here since she was a wee little one,” Ms. Begum said cheerfully, seeing the way they were looking. She did not say, because she always thought it was so curious, that Rookie had been left in front of the gates of Al-Ameen late one evening with a letter tucked inside the blanket wrapped around her. The letter said:

“The other six Djinns are following me closely. I will return for the little one when I am no longer in their sights. This may take some immeasurable amount of time in human years. The name is Rookie.”

The Principal and Assistant Principal were unsure of what to make of this. The Assistant Principal said, “If the Djinn is one of seven, then the Djinn must have betrayed the others.”

“Ridiculous!” said the Principal.

“But,” said the Assistant Principal, “what if this little one is a Djinn as well?”

The Principal said “Ridiculous!” again. “I don’t see how this could be true.”

Ms. Begum never let Rookie know about the letter. Or that her name really was Rookie. Ms. Begum thought it could all be some terrible prank. Rookie couldn’t be her birth name. So, Ms. Begum had written “Rukhsana Malik” on Rookie’s birth certificate and did not tell a soul. 

Meanwhile, as Ms. Begum pondered Rookie’s bewildering past, Rookie was determined to make herself look as dull-witted as she could. Liver was slowly moving away from Rookie, and even Ms. Begum was thinking how sad it was that Rookie’s cleverness never seemed to show itself when it would be most lucrative. The three women viewed Rookie as if she was contagious. The sunglassed woman peered over to the two-foot woman and looked down at her.

“What say you?” she asked. “And the Presence?”

“Well, perhaps,” she answered in a scratchy, hateful voice. Rookie winced, wanting to hold her ears and feeling more annoyed than disturbed.

The sunglassed woman looked to Ms. Begum. “This one will do,” she said, as if Rookie was a ripe tomato or a piece of fabric for sale. 

Ms. Begum was so taken aback that she jumped a bit. Before she could come to her senses, Rookie proclaimed, “No, it won’t do at all. Because I am staying here.”

“Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about, child,” said Ms. Begum. “All of us want you to take such a wonderful opportunity. Studying abroad! That’s what all the other children want.”

“Not what I want,” Rookie said. “I’d rather stay here with Liver.”

“Oh, darling,” said Ms. Begum. “These good people have another home here. So you’ll be no stranger. I think they will let you visit during your summer and winter breaks. And let you call and phone Liver whenever you want.”

Once Ms. Begum had spoken, it seemed that Rookie could do nothing but adhere. She found herself packing up her belongings in a suitcase while Ms. Begum took the peculiar women to her office to sort out documents. After that, Rookie had to bid Liver farewell and keep up with the women in their outlandish attire. The two-foot woman was not a human being, Rookie was positive. It concerned her that no one else seemed to be aware. However, what overwhelmed her most were her feelings of fury and astonishment, because never in her life had someone made her do something she didn’t want to do. It was incomprehensible. 

“Challenge accepted, I suppose,” she affirmed to herself as they turned into a busy bazaar leading up to a row of apartments that seemed to stack on top of each other. She had never been this far out of the periphery of the school, but she knew that the wider the world was, the less likely the women would be able to track her down once she escaped their grasp.

Chapter Two

Rookie was not at all shaken to discover that the tin shade house behind the busy bazaar was named Bahattor (বাহাত্তর), which stood for “72” in Bangla. It suited her strange escorts, even if it was perfectly satisfactory as a house. After all, the 72nd chapter of the Book she studied most often at Al-Ameen’s Madrasa for Girls was called The Djinn. The tin house had no doors or wooden shutters. Instead, there were arched openings, which reminded her of the mouths of caves. It would be simple to jump out from one of its many mouths if things become too much, Rookie decided.

The barely two-foot woman stepped carefully into the center of a perfectly drawn circle in front of the house, put her right hand over their heart, and whispered inaudibly. She then hopped out of the circle and went through a maze-like sitting area made out of orange and beige clay. Rookie watched the other two do the same. 

The tiny woman went through the main entrance first and down a corridor, declaring to the purple-haired woman, “We’ve brought the little one like you wanted. So we better not hear about this matter again. No more bothering us now.”

Rookie could not see the two-foot woman because the purple-haired woman was much taller and blocked her view. Meanwhile, the woman wearing the lime-colored burka was tracking mud inside the house and unceremoniously dragging Rookie’s suitcase behind her. Rookie ran past the circle and followed them unwillingly to get a better look and keep guard over her things. She watched them sling her luggage into a nook inside the shaded home. She caught a glimpse of a small jute bed before the purple-haired woman stood in front of her and took off her worn-out headscarf. She folded it gently and placed it inside her bulging leather bag. The other two women seemed to vanish. 

The woman said, “Listen carefully now. My name is Si’lah. And I am a—” 

Rookie gasped, “You’re a shapeshifter!” She had heard about this Djinn from one of older girls at Al-Ameen who often tried, very unsuccessfully, to frighten her before bed. 

Si’lah cleared her throat and spoke softly and slowly. “Let it be understood that you will not interrupt me.” Rookie squinted her eyes, wanting to decipher her like a particularly challenging verse in the Book.

 Si’lah continued, “I am a Djinn. And I may be the most intelligent and clever one you will ever meet. I am fairly misunderstood, and I prefer it to be that way. I’ve brought you here because I need the delicate wits and particular smarts of a child for my work. If you do well, and follow my orders, like a good little one, I see no reason to impress trouble upon your forehead. However—”

Rookie knew right away this was going to be a very large undertaking indeed, infinitely more challenging than anything she had ever faced at Al-Ameen. And that was fine with her. Rookie embraced challenges. And somewhere deep down inside her heart, Rookie had always known that one day she would find an actual teacher who could guide her and help her to control her powers.

“That’s fine with me,” Rookie interrupted. If you would like to make somebody do as you want, it is best to start with them in the proper way. Rookie knew all about that. “I didn’t really think you were a school official offering me tuition abroad anyway. So, how about this? You agree to teach me to control my powers, and I agree to stay here and be your helper.”

She could tell Si’lah had expected more of a fight and had been prepared to convince her much more forcefully. 

“Right, then. All’s in order, then,” she said sharply, looking a bit peeved. “Follow me quickly, and we’ll get you started.” 

She led Rookie through another twisting corridor. Rookie glanced around and did her best to hold in a sneeze. She had never seen a place so dusty. Since she had grown accustomed to the simple rooms at Al-Ameen’s which were frequently cleaned, it came as quite a shock. 

Everything from top to bottom seemed layered with dirt. There was some sort of grime on the floor made of soft mud, pond algae, and some otherworldly stuff—which mostly seemed like bits of shiny glass that caught light from nonexistent places and ashes from half-burnt pieces of parchment with indecipherable script. 

Like a paste, the gunk seemed to collect at the end of the main artery of the tin shade house. An especially gigantic, cream-colored lotus flower with lavender-colored smoke billowing beneath it perched atop the house. The smoke’s smell was strong and spicy and burned Rookie’s nose. More strongly-fragranced items, like unclean blue medicine bottles and tattered jute herb pouches, lay about on a circular table, some of them lazily trickling out their contents, or they were scattered here and there on the many bookcases that held little to no books. All the rusty tin cups and indented plates piled on the floor were covered with grime or dust.

Rookie held a finger under her nose to combat the strong wafts invading her senses, wondering if Si’lah really required so many pungent things for whatever work she did. She decided that she would sort her affairs in a much cleaner way when she had learned to control her powers.

In the meantime, she looked around and was perplexed to see that the house had so many turns. It was like a labyrinth.

Si’lah laughed mirthfully at the expression on Rookie’s face. “Come along, little one,” she said. “Didn’t bring you here to gawk around. And if you can’t stand the dirt, get to scrubbing later. But now, come sit at the worktable, and start coloring in the dotted lines on these maps with this blue ink.” 

When Rookie approached the large circular wooden table, she got her foot caught between a rope made out of tree vines and an especially muddy spot. Si’lah said, “Right then, there’s one outstanding rule in this house. You’ll have to etch this rule into your soul. You must on no account ever disturb the other two. The Lilycat and the Lebubird.”

“Do you mean the other two women? Is Lilycat the one that’s about two feet high? And Lebubird the one with the awful lime-colored outfit?” Rookie guessed in a whisper.

“They’re not women!” Si’lah said crossly. “At least, most of the time, they’re not. They tend to only change shape when they must interact with the other kind.”

“What happens when they are disturbed?” Rookie urged.

Si’lah startled at the thought. “Dreadful things,” she said. “If what’s written upon your forehead is any good, you’ll never need to witness such things. Now, get on to the maps.”

Soon, Rookie was carefully following the dotted lines with a peculiar ink that seemed to settle ominously into the parchment of the map. At first, the dots seemed to run from the inked brush, and she heard small squeals of protest. After an hour, Rookie learned to talk them into staying put until she heard their muffled retreats as the blue rivers of ink blanketed them. But Si’lah said that the blue lines needed to be colored in more quickly and with more concentration, and she made Rookie keep on drawing streams of blue across the large expansive maps. 

Si’lah would not tell her why she was having to draw these lines on the maps. She would not humor any of Rookie’s questions at all. By this time, Rookie’s forearms pulsated with soreness and she was tired of following the dotted lines, which she suspected were actually people walking in a desert being led to water.

Rookie saw quite clearly that Si’lah was not going to teach her how to control her powers. She just wanted Rookie to labor over tedious tasks. Rookie decided she would have to change that once she learned enough about Si’lah and the tin shade house. So, Rookie continued drawing over the dotted lines and kept her eyes and ears open.

The only other living, moving creature in the workroom was a peculiar white fox, who spent its time slinking around the ribbons of lavender smoke below the large lotus. Occasionally, Si’lah would write something down in an unfamiliar script and mutter, “Will be needing a host for this invocation.”

She would then glide over to the lotus flower, beckoning, “Asho, Rifu. Come on, Rifu. I’ll be needing you now.”

Rifu always tried to escape. One time, Si’lah caught the fox after only a short struggle, but mostly it leapt around the walls with Si’lah on its tail, screeching, “You better listen, Rifu, or I’ll feed you nothing but chili peppers for the next three days.” When she caught Rifu, she marched back to the table gripping the back of its neck and plopped the fox beside a piece of parchment on which she was writing and a scroll she seemed to be referencing. Rifu curled itself into a seething disheveled heap until Si’lah finished the rest of her recitation. Rookie thought she saw Rifu’s eyes resemble Si’lah’s for a moment, before Rifu suddenly disappeared. Then a few seconds later, Rifu reappeared, lurking below the lotus flower once again.

Author’s note: I would like to acknowledge that this book is an experimental piece, essentially a line-by-line adaptation of the setting, language, and plot in Diana Wynne Jones’ Earwig and the Witch. I wanted to see how protagonists’ location and language can affect how we interpret magic and mystery in well-known children’s books. In this case, the main character is a young South Asian orphan with a mysterious connection to djinns (i.e., supernatural creatures also known as genies).

(c) t. jahan, 2021. Reprinted from DREAMing Out Loud: Voices of Migrant Writers.

t. jahan

t. jahan is a writer working on a novel set in 1970s Bangladesh and a children’s book, as well as narratives and memoirs to bring awareness to Asian immigration and diasporic experiences. Their work has been published in The Margins, PEN America’s DREAMing Out Loud anthology, NYWC’s The Journal, and is forthcoming in the Gagosian Quarterly and Somewhere We Are Human, an anthology of migrant writing edited by Sonia Guiñansaca and Reyna Grandeand more. Perhaps equally important and relevant, they are teaching themself piano and take aphorisms on satchels of tea very seriously.