“It takes courage to grow up and become who you truly are.” – E.E. Cummings
The battered building rattled, threatened to fall, then showered its inhabitant with dust.
The cycle was repeated as another howitzer shell made rubble of one of the world’s oldest cities.
With a growl, an olive-skinned child who couldn’t have been a day over twelve, came barreling out from under what was left of an overturned desk. She pounded the brick windowsill and stuck her head out into the street.
“Knock it off, will ya? Everybody’s dead, assholes!” the girl screamed to the air.
Four Syrian rebel fighters were praying thirty feet below her glassless husk of a window and one snarled up at her between prostrating prayers.
She was about to call him an asshole too when she saw the symbol floating over his head. The symbol meant ‘today’.
That was her gift. She could look at any creature and floating above their head would be a number that told when they would die.
That number wasn’t written in stone, it could come sooner. She knew that because of a Russian soldier she had met only a few weeks before while trying on dresses in a post-apocalyptic dress shop. Before the destruction that had reduced Aleppo from a two million person metropolis of culture down to a junkyard, the dresses that littered the floor would have been worth more than her dearly departed mother could have afforded with a month of pay.
The shop didn’t have the poorly made mud stucco like every house she had ever lived in. The walls were smooth painted stone with marble crown molding painted with scenes of Greeks and Minoans fighting mythical battles. Just being in the shop made her feel like the war had reduced the unfair and unreachable world to flotsam just for her. It was as if karma had been her very own faerie godmother. The only problem was that this godmother had shelled, bombed, and murdered her step sisters, Prince Charming, and carriage.
In the new Aleppo, people needed food more than fashion. The beautiful handmade dresses were works of art that would have been cut up for bandages instead of decorating cute young girls, if there were any cute young girls left. She had discovered a cache of sugar biscuits still in the package behind a counter, which only added to the decedent evening. Normally, she would have been scrounging for food long before dinner time, but the cookies had given her some extra time for pleasure. She had stayed up all night whirling like a dervish inside the dress shop; the world was a song and she was Shirley Temple.
Finally exhausted, the energy from the sugar worn off, she collapsed mid fashion show wearing only her new pink lace panties and tee shirt.
She awoke to the sandpapered rub of a vodka-smelling soldier trying to force his tongue into her tiny mouth. In the time between seconds she cursed herself for not hiding before sleeping. She knew how deadly this wasteland she called home was. As she was kicking and hitting the Russian brute, her hand closed on the hilt of a knife in his combat vest. Although he was naked from the waist down he still wore his assault vest, as one could never be too careful.
Her small hand drew back the knife and she opened her eyes to improve her accuracy. There, floating above his head, was a day a dozen years in the future.
That symbol was wrong.
It was dead wrong.
When she drove the knife hilt deep through his right eye, he died instantly. There was another Russian standing guard outside the door. He was thumbing through a girlie magazine to get himself ready because he thought he would be next. His floating number was for a week later.
It was also wrong.
She slit his throat from behind and he didn’t last ten seconds.
She marveled at how he tried to make the sign of the cross. A murdering rapist was calling on his God. She reached down and touched his cheek with her thumb, burning a black mark on it.
His God may have come and retrieved him before the mark, but after, it was only the Underworld for him.
The cute little killer was named Hadija. Her mother had tried to raise her with Islam. That seemed like a million lifetimes ago. She had to stop and remember if she was even ‘her’ then. Was she a happy boy playing football in some other existence? That had been another life and another world. Despite the fact that the miniscule murderer often found herself hungry, battered, and covered in gore, she had never been happier. She was truly herself.
She knew all the prayers and rituals of Islam, but she knew that Allah wasn’t her father. She looked at Allah and Christ the way that poor children looked at rich children’s dads. Hadija would wistfully dream that those were her parents, and that even if she raped and murdered they would still love her, but she knew it wasn’t so. She was not the product of a mastercraftsman like Allah. She was what happens when a mechanic tries to build a house. Her defective god had made her his defective offspring.
There was a Sister Antoinette, a nun from The Red Cross, who always used to make her long for a father like the Christ. She would have never put the black mark on Sister Antoinette. The nun used to give her food and new shoes. Of course she had her bad points, like making Hadija bathe, and never calling her by her name. She even gave her a little card she could use to get food, but it had the wrong name on it. Hadija threw it away.
There had been a boy that Hadija liked. He was her scavenging partner last year. His name had been Jocapo, and their life had been great for a while. Jocapo lied sometimes, but Hadija liked him anyway. She knew that just because someone lied didn’t make them bad. Jo was a couple years older, but still more of a kid than a teenager. Jo told her that his father was a baker, and that he lived down by the wool market. She had her doubts about the light skinned boy’s story, but his gap-tooth smile and hazel eyes made her feel less alone. Once she had stolen a bag of flour and baking powder, thinking perhaps they could make bread. It had been since the death of her mother that she had even smelled fresh bread. She was so excited to bring him the flour that she thought her heart would burst. The blank look on his face when he puzzled over the white powder broke her heart. What kind of baker’s son didn’t know what flour was, she had thought. Then she realized that he just must have lied. She lied about her father too, so she couldn’t be mad. Their life went back to normal right away.
They stole food from soldiers and dodged shrapnel like powder monkeys scurrying around a pirate ship.
She didn’t have brothers at home, so she didn’t know what all the rules were. She tried to give Jo as much privacy as their crazy life would allow, but one day he spied on her while she was making water. He made fun of her, and she forced him out into the street with a threat and a knife. He knew she meant it.
He wasn’t a Muslim, he was a creation of the Christ. She would miss him, but his floating number said he had had only one day left anyway. She let his god take him. She could have given him the black mark, but they had been friends. He only made fun of how she peed; he wasn’t that bad, at least he knew her name.
Wearing a bright yellow dress with matching yellow shoes, she skipped out of the building past the rebel fighters. A couple shook their heads and one made a symbol with his thumb and pinky to ward off evil.
She shot him a fist with thumb tucked in. The gesture, called the fig, was understood clearly, but the men just turned away. Normally, they might have harmed her, but rumors about the girl had become almost legend among the Syrian soldiers.
The offended soldiers had only days earlier found one of their own dead in his tent. He had bragged about stripping the girl down to her panties before she escaped his clutches. He said he would get the whole package next time. It wasn’t the slit throat that scared them, because they saw death daily. He had a black “X” on his forehead that looked like it had been burned there.
The hardest part about infiltrating the soldier’s camp was getting past their old dog, Ali. Ali was a one eared mongrel mutt that no decent human would be proud to call friend. He lived off of mostly cats, rats, and meat that became available after gunfights. He was a three-toned gray, tiger striped mess with dreads of matted fur, but he could pluck a bird off a window sill, or a fish straight out of the koi ponds. He, like Hadija, was a perfectly adapted survivor in a city that took no prisoners. She thought of poisoning him to get past, or the old reliable heavy falling rock, but something about how much they had in common always stayed her hand. In the end she just looked at his symbol and waited for death to take him. Despite his life, the old scrounger died peacefully.
That night she pulled the darkness to her, cloaking herself in the blackness of a powerless metropolis. She knew the soldier had his own tent, which reassured her because she knew an alarmed cry would bring a battery of armed men.
“Shh,” she told the soldier when he awoke with her sitting on his chest. She had learned from watching him that he drank every evening until passing out and snoring loudly. He never flinched when she tied him spread eagle to his own tent stakes. He would have screamed out but his mouth was stuffed with an old dirty rag and duct taped shut. A helicopter spotlight illuminated the tent and he saw the reflection of his own eye in a hawkbill knife blade, a heartbeat before it opened his throat.
As he was dying his heart began to warm at the golden ethereal light surrounding his newly adrift soul. The soul tie was broken and Allah was sending Djinn to retrieve him.
Hadija swiped her thumb over the man’s forehead and the light of his soul turned charcoal black. She wouldn’t have wanted to be in the tent when the beautiful but terrifying Djinn had come, but her black mark cancelled their trip. This soul belonged to a less benevolent god.
Slowly out of the ground rose three ebony shapes that made the soldier’s soul look bright. What had been a big, strong, powerful man, was reduced to a whimpering wreck as Charon’s collectors drug his soul away.
She hated the men. All she wanted was to be left alone. She wanted to play and explore. She wanted to eat and laugh like any little girl. The thing she hated the most about the rebels was the fact that they never called her by her name. They called her Haden. They yelled, “Haden this and Haden that.” They knew her name was Hadija; that pushed her closer to killing them than the manhandling did.
Three shells exploded in rapid succession, and the fighters scrambled for cover. She thought they were cowards because none of their floating numbers said they would die that day. They were all so scared of death, but she knew death was unavoidable. It had come for her mother and everyone she knew. Death was her creator and when she died he would be her collector.
Everyday there were horrifying explosions. She thought, the previous year, that there wasn’t anything left to destroy. She wasn’t trapped in the living hell of Aleppo, she could have left, but this is the only place where she could be herself. She knew that if in the morning Christ and Allah returned to their sanity and decided to restore the city that they had cursed to its previous glory her life would be hell. The women in her family had lived sequestered in the Zenana away from the men. They had their own tiny little world. She had never worn a hijab because it wasn’t required of children below puberty age. She would never wear one. She couldn’t see the number above her own head, but she knew that no golden haired Djinn, nor winged Seraphim, would be coming to retrieve little Hadija.
She wasn’t thinking about death, she was thinking about food. It had been two days since she had eaten, and she had never felt more hollow, even though she had gone longer without food. It was the burning buildings. They must have contained people, because the whole city of horrors smelled like a barbecue grill. Any grilled flesh smelled like food. Her mouth watered and her stomach constantly had to be reminded that the smell was not chicken leg quarters, it was her lifelong friends and neighbors.
Hadija tried all of the normal places she might go when the scavenging became thin. The hospital was on fire, the United Nations were gone, and the nuns had been shelled. She was starving.
As a rule to live by, she avoided soldiers, but if she did have to approach one she preferred Americans. She had heard that they had laws that prevented them from acting like animals during war.
She rounded a corner of apocalyptic Aleppo and saw two American soldiers eating ready-to-eat meals outside a tent next to a crumbled animal clinic. They were both startled and didn’t believe their eyes at the sight of the dark haired, olive skinned girl in her yellow sundress. They thought she must have been a mirage, because neither one of them would have taken off their body armor for a new car and here was this girl armed only in a sundress.
The soldier nearest to her was a big blond Marine with a surly look and a crooked smile. He called to the tent for a translator, but she didn’t need one. She could speak his language, or any language for that matter; it was part of the gift just like the symbols hanging over their heads.
“Can I have some food? I am starving,” she said in English with a bit of an Arabic accent.
“How’d ya get he’ah? Where’d ya come from?” the blonde Marine asked with Texas accent.
“How do you speak English?” the other Marine, who was a skinny, beady-eyed kid, asked.
“I live here and I learned it from my Ma. Can I please have some of that food?” Hadija pleaded.
A lanky, red-headed Sergeant with a pencil thin mustache that didn’t connect under his hawk-like nose stepped out of the tent. He didn’t look at Hadija like he was trying to help. He looked at her like he was trying to solve a puzzle and she was the answer.
“I got some food right in here, come and get it.” the Sergeant replied.
“Sarge, she’s jest a kid,” the young Marine answered.
“Shut yer piehole, or take a walk, Private,” the redhead snapped.
She was so hungry she could almost taste the food, but every one of these men had the symbol for ‘today’ hanging over their heads. She didn’t trust anything about them, and she knew she could just wait till tomorrow when they were dead, if the food wasn’t blown up, too. The risk was too high, and she bolted.
They were on her like hounds on a fox. They had the speed, but she knew the terrain. They winded through rubble and over mounds of destroyed concrete, until she finally ducked through a tiny hole in a burned out diner.
They couldn’t follow her through, but one of them had gotten a hand on her pretty yellow dress and it ripped irreparably during the escape.
The Marines yelled obscenities through the little hole before their voices eventually faded away. She knew their threats about getting her another day were false, because according to the floating symbols they didn’t have any more days. She and Jacopo had once caught a rabbit that had floating above its head a one day symbol. They were going to try to see if they could save it. They were determined to take the proper safety precautions to ensure the rabbit would not die. They placed the rabbit in a very durable steel cage designed to protect a dog. They covered the rabbit in its cage with a thick steel desk in the back of the abandoned office where they were living. They heard something outside and went to investigate. While they were outside the building fell down. If the symbol said they die tomorrow, they could still die today, but if it said today, it was resolutely today.
She stepped out of the torn dress, wearing only her sunflower panties and yellow shoes. It frustrated her to think about how far she would have to go to get back home almost naked, so she decided to look around the building for an adult t-shirt. She was rifling through empty boxes when she found the score of a lifetime for a starving girl: a box of canned peaches.
Using the knife she was now carrying in her bundle of torn dress to open the cans, she gorged herself. She tore through can after can until her little belly was full to burst. She drank every drop of juice and devoured every piece. The peaches were the kind of pleasure that made life worth living.
Just as she reached into the box to grab the last can, a huge body slammed into her, throwing her sideways. With one hand around her midsection, the big redhead slammed her gut into a nearby counter, knocking out her wind while tearing off her sunflower panties with the other hand. She was dazed and dizzy, gasping for air.
Grasping her most sensitive parts with the intent to violate her, he yelled, “What the fuck?”
The would-be rapist exposed her nakedness to the other two marines.
“It’s a boy,” laughed the blond Marine at the sight of Hadija’s little penis.
“Well, I don’t care either way,” the Sergeant said, bending the gasping Hadija over the counter once more. Before he could enter the girl that was born a boy, a chasm opened in the air. A hideously massive monster with the face of a skull and the horns of a ram pounded through the opening. The smell of brimstone filled the room and the god of the Underworld, Hades, let out a howl that unmade the three Marines. Their bodies came apart at a cellular level and filled the air with a fine bloody spray. The mist stunk of putrid shit with the metallic taste of foul blood.
“Haden, these animals would even rape the son of a god. Gather yourself, you are coming home, boy!” Hades boomed in a voice so deep it rattled the kid’s bones.
“I am not a boy. My name is Hadija!” the gore covered kid spat back.
“I know what you are, I created you. They will never accept you. You are a demigod. They are animals. Come back to the Underworld and be its Prince.”
“When I enter the underworld I will be its Queen and you will be dead!” the filthy, blood covered little demigod screamed up at the unearthly monster that was Hades.
Just as Hadija was walking out of the rubble, head held high after staring down a god clad only in a pair of yellow shoes and the remains of three would-be rapists, Hades threatened, “Next time I might not give you my help.”
She spun around, pulling two knives out of each heel of the seemingly innocuous yellow shoes and growled back, “I didn’t need your help this time!”
The mighty god breathed fire and a burning vortex closed before him, transporting Hades back to the underworld. A smile crept across his malformed face as he realized that all of his fears about being succeeded by a weak Prince were irrelevant. The future God of the Underworld wouldn’t be weak at all; she would be the fierce Queen Hadija.