Before that stifling evening in 1924 the children had always thought it impossible for grownups to see the Nazir and live.
Cynthia’s elder brother Roddy was the authority in this matter, as in all others. A tall, sullenly handsome fourteen-year-old, who would later drink himself to death with majestic nonchalance among the hollyhocks of a house in Dorset inherited from their uncle, Roddy had first seen the Nazir at the age of eight. He was out in his little boat, Ward el-Sham, with Mansour the gardener at the helm, when the surface of the river had suddenly gone dark and a wind rattled wildly in the fig trees. A terrible odor had rained from the sky with a delicate pattering sound, along with a number of little bright objects he thought at first were pearls. When they dropped in the water he saw they were maggots. The Nazir passed over him, crooning. Its voice resembled that of the Italian head matron at the Anglo-American Hospital. He couldn’t tell what it said, or even whether it spoke English or Arabic or its own strange tongue. It turned its head and winged southward along the river.
“It had talons like this,” said Roddy, making a great C with his arms. “There were shreds of something hanging from them. Like cloth.”
“Did the gardener see it?” asked Hugh, wiping his nose on his wrist.
“Of course not,” said Roddy. “He’s a grownup. He’d be dead.”
Hugh had never seen the Nazir himself. Cynthia had never seen it either, but she thought she had caught a glimpse of its shadow once, soon after her nurse Félicité had gone back to Lausanne. Félicité, rosy, cheerful and short of breath, helmeted in a brilliant topee, fond of Offenbach and jam, had drunk rat poison. She had floated for a week between life and death, laid out like a stout white pillow on the bed in her little room, and when she was well she was sent away. She left Cynthia her button collection, a postcard of the Rhine and the lumpy armchair in the nursery where she used to do the mending.
The first night Félicité was away—not ill upstairs, but really gone—Cynthia curled up in bed clutching a rag doll and the postcard. She ran the edge of the card along her teeth and took a few experimental, consoling bites of the worn paper. Félicité’s chair was in darkness, but the lamp with the colored beads on the table beside it gave back a ghost of garden moonlight. Downstairs the servants were laughing, and there was a splash as someone tossed out a basin of water. Then a low rumble, a pressure, a killing fear. The Nazir.
“I didn’t really see it,” she explained some years later to a group of girls at her aunt’s home in London, at a time when she had a respect for accuracy. “It was more of a feeling—like a weight pressing me down. All I saw was a shadow drifting by. The shadow of a huge wing.”
Her audience gave a gratifying shiver, a chorus of mews. And Cynthia, bobbed and self-assured, clad in a tasteful blue wool jersey, recalled the specific terror of that Cairo night, the wind, the conviction that life, like a row of candles, was going out.
The grownup who saw the Nazir and lived was Hugh’s mother, Mrs. Ashgrove.
The Ashgroves lived in a villa on Kasr el-Nil. Mr. Ashgrove, weedy and dyspeptic, was in the Civil Service. Mrs. Ashgrove rode, favored trousers and scarves, and smoked a hookah. Cynthia had once heard her father describe Mrs. Ashgrove as “a real blonde, of a type more common in Germany than in England.” She remembered the words for their tone rather than their meaning: it was rare for her father to speak so mellowly and appreciatively of anyone. It made her shy every time her mother took her to call on the Ashgroves. “Careful,” her mother warned her as they went up the ill-kept little path, picking their way among the discarded fruit-skins. They both jumped when the monkey, Marco Polo, threw himself the length of his rope, screeching a welcome. The hair on his neck was quite rubbed away. “Dreadful creature,” cried Cynthia’s mother, trotting a few steps, for Marco Polo had been known to hurl feces at guests. The doors of the villa stood open, and in the parlor Mrs. Ashgrove perched on a ladder, blurred by the sunlight, hanging curtains.
“Minna, dear,” gasped Cynthia’s mother. “What are you doing?”
“Lovely, aren’t they?” Mrs. Ashgrove called down. “So much more cheerful!”
“Look out,” Cynthia advised her mother, who was about to stumble over the suffragi, Sherif, who sat on the floor grinding coffee in a mortar.
Cynthia’s mother recoiled. She picked up her skirts, sailed round the suffragi and approached the ladder. “Minna, my dear, come down. It isn’t safe.”
“Oh, I’ve a head for heights.”
“But why not let the servants take care of it?”
“No need. I’ll be through in a moment. Hello, Cynthia.”
“Hello,” said Cynthia, lingering in the doorway.
Her mother turned round a few times. There were books and unfinished bits of embroidery scattered on the couches. Most of the squares of embroidery had needles in them. A cut-glass bowl occupied an armchair, glittering like a tiara.
Cynthia’s mother moved the bowl to the table, pushing aside a plate of fish-bones and an illustrated magazine. “Really, Minna,” she said, looking about her despairingly. Sherif thumped his mortar, scattering coffee-grounds.
“There,” said Mrs. Ashgrove. She climbed down the ladder, smacked her palms together and greeted Cynthia and her mother with kisses. Her thick hair was tied on her neck with a ribbon. Up close she was less beautiful, but more disturbing. Her white shirt smelled of cucumbers freshly sliced.
“Hugh’s in the garden,” she said, “plotting mischief.”
Cynthia trailed outside. She knew that Hugh was not plotting anything interesting. He hadn’t the brain. He shared with his mother only his shock of golden hair and the appearance of impregnable good health. Crossing the veranda she passed a window and saw her mother leaning toward Mrs. Ashgrove, murmuring urgently, and she knew that in an hour, seated at Groppi’s with Mrs. Bourne-Hopewell, her mother would sigh over dear Minna, her inexperience, her disorder. “Trousers!” she would say. “Absolutely alone with the suffragi!” And Mrs. Bourne-Hopewell would shake her military jowls. But Cynthia would be happy. She was going to have lemon ice, the kind that came with a little rosewater sprinkled on top.
By Roderick Rutherford
The sages say the Nazir lives in the moon. It prefers the half-moon, and lies on top of it with its huge tail hanging down. This is why the period of the half-moon is best for traveling by night. Full-moon nights are risky, and the dark of the moon even worse.
The Nazir is in decay. Nearly all who have seen it mention its stench.
It likes grownups to eat, but only children can see it.
It eats very slowly, lying in its lair. Sometimes you can see the bones it tosses down. We call them falling stars.
Cynthia, who had a stubborn streak and was careless with breakable objects, was never whipped. Roddy, organized and withdrawn, was whipped rather often. He was whipped for laziness at lessons, for eating the nasty messes the servants cooked for themselves, and for what their father called his “crooked eye.” “Don’t look at me with your crooked eye,” their father would shout, and if Roddy did not look down in time he was certain to be whipped. Strangely, it was their father who had something wrong with his eyes: one was of glass, the original having been mislaid at Ladysmith.
Roddy was beaten a few days before they learned that Mrs. Ashgrove had seen the Nazir.
Cynthia was skating through the drawing room in her stockings. The vast room, with its floor of reddish marble, was perfect for this exercise, although of course you had to avoid the carpets. She was humming, skating closer with each pass to the carved sideboard, tasting the danger of banging into it and shattering a decanter, when her father’s dragoman Ahmed passed through the room on his way to the library, buttoned tightly into the Circassian costume he used as livery. The skin between his brows was dusted with dandruff, a sign of November. He nodded to Cynthia, said “Good afternoon, Miss,” and went into the library. He left the door open and Cynthia heard his murmur and then her father’s voice. “If you will excuse me for a moment, gentlemen.”
She skated into the corner and crouched in the shadow of a cabinet. Her father strode through the drawing room, purposeful, his head thrust forward. Through the open door she could see part of the library: there was a map on the wall, stuck all over with colored pins. Ahmed, bowing, led two men out into the drawing room: Mr. Ashgrove and Robertson Bey. They sank in the cushioned chairs. “Whiskey, Ahmed,” said Mr. Ashgrove. He scratched nervously underneath his stubbly chin. Robertson Bey sat frowning, his coat pulled tight across his shoulders, his big hands on his knees.
A moment later her father returned. He moved at the same determined pace. One of his hands gripped the collar of Roddy’s jacket. Roddy, inside the jacket, skipped along beside him, trying to keep his footing. He wore only one shoe.
They went into the library and her father slammed the door.
Ahmed brought the whiskey on a tray.
Robertson Bey swallowed his and gestured for more, and Ahmed poured. Cynthia’s father could be heard in the library, shouting.
“Endanger yourself… Disgrace… The native quarter…”
“Bloody mess,” said Mr. Ashgrove.
“Started two years ago,” grunted Robertson Bey.
“Started in 1919,” said Mr. Ashgrove. He covered his eyes as if he were suffering from a headache. “I don’t know… Sometimes I think…”
“Think what?” Robertson Bey inquired sharply.
“Nothing,” said Mr. Ashgrove, lowering his hand. When he picked up his glass the ice rattled.
“Don’t want to lose your nerve.”
“Oh, it’s nothing like that. It’s Minna. She’s upset about things. Brooding. It makes the house—well, it’s a strain.”
“Only to be expected,” said Robertson Bey, losing interest at once, gazing at the picture above the sideboard, camels in an oasis. He took another swallow of whiskey. His scalp had begun to sweat. “Damned hot for November,” he remarked. “Could be the cause of all the trouble.”
Mr. Ashgrove laughed weakly. Cynthia shifted her weight with care, trying to ease the cramp in her legs. It will be over soon, she thought. Surely the sun was advancing across the carpet.
In the silence the strokes of the belt came faint and rhythmic like the ticking of a watch.
THE TALE OF ABU WALEED AND ABU SAMEER
By Roderick the Younger
A tale is told of Abu Waleed, a holy man of the desert. On a time a man called Abu Sameer went to visit him in his cave. “How can a man see the Nazir?” he asked.
“He cannot,” replied Abu Waleed. “It is a grace given only to children.”
“But I desire to see the Nazir,” said Abu Sameer.
Then the sage smiled and said: “Very well. You will see the Nazir when you walk east and west at the same time, when you are able to lick your palm without either bowing or raising your hand, and when you look through the back of your head.”
Then Abu Sameer went away disappointed, not knowing how to achieve these things. Some years later he was captured at Constantinople. His enemies tied each of his legs to a horse, and drove one horse east and the other west, so that his legs were torn from his body. Then they pulled out his tongue and made him hold it in his hand. Lastly they flayed his head, starting at the nape, and brought the skin down over his face, leaving him in darkness.
It is believed that in his last moments he saw the Nazir.
They went to the Ashgroves’ for dinner in their father’s big motorcar. The unseasonable heat continued; Cynthia’s white piqué stockings prickled. The streets were empty except for policemen, standing on the corners, who saluted smartly as the car went past.
Someone had begun clearing the path at the Ashgroves’, but stopped halfway through. Marco Polo was nowhere to be seen. As they neared the house a white shape coalesced in the evening grey and glided toward them: Mrs. Ashgrove in her evening gown.
“Hello,” she said. She kissed their parents as if everything were quite normal, as if she’d come down the steps of the house and not through the dry, exhausted garden. Her hair was plaited and circled her head like a crown.
“Minna, darling,” their mother stammered, “what have you done with your shoes?”
Mrs. Ashgrove glanced down at her feet, pale and bare on the banana-skins of the path. “Left them somewhere. Please go in, don’t wait for me. Evan’s in the library, I think.” She looked up, and Cynthia realized it was her eyes that made one uncomfortable: so bright and so direct.
“But,” said Cynthia’s mother, gesturing helplessly at the garden, a wilderness of thorns and fallen eucalyptus leaves.
“Come on, Addie,” their father muttered. Their mother took his arm.
“He’ll tell you I’ve been seeing dragons,” Mrs. Ashgrove called after them.
She glanced at the children. Her arms were crossed, as if she had a chill. Sequins glittered in the deep V of her gown. “True, you know. At least, it wasn’t a dragon. More like an enormous bat. Horrible.” She looked away then, at the guardhouse, the iron gate. And Roddy, who had barely spoken to Cynthia since his last beating, who for the first time had refused to allow her into his room afterward, although she had brought a cloth and a bowl of water to cool his head because he said the headache afterward was the worst thing about being caned—Roddy clasped Cynthia’s hand.
“What did you say, Mrs. Ashgrove?”
Again her flashing gaze. “Something awful flew over the house. But no one else saw it.”
“Roddy’s seen it,” Cynthia cried.
“Hush!” Roddy glanced at the house, then grasped Mrs. Ashgrove’s hand and pulled them both away from the path, through the trees.
Dry leaves crackled beneath them, releasing fragrance. They paused among the slender shadows. “You’ve seen the Nazir, Mrs. Ashgrove,” Roddy said.
Her eyes widened. “You’ve really seen it, then. You’re not joking.”
“Oh God,” she whispered. “You’ve told the Colonel? Your father, I mean?”
“No good. Look, you can’t stay here.”
“I know.” The brightness in her eyes grew sharper, more concentrated, and became tears. “I know. I’ve got to get away. But I don’t know how.”
“Roddy could talk to the guard,” said Cynthia, knowing he could persuade anyone.
Roddy shook his head. “No, he’d be sacked, maybe put in prison.”
“I’ve thought about going over the wall.”
“But why not?” said Roddy, excited. He crunched through the leaves and looked up at the wall. “You could do it. We’d help you get up.”
“There’s broken glass,” Mrs. Ashgrove said. Her voice trembled, and she was not, suddenly, distant and invincible, armored in her golden laugh, fearless with horses and ladders, but one of them.
“Cynthia,” Roddy said. “Get a blanket from the house. And shoes.”
Cynthia ran to the house. The door was open, the drawing room empty. They must be in the music room, where it was cooler. She ran up the staircase, past the bust of Kitchener. In the hall she met Hugh.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“We’re playing hide and seek,” she said.
“Quick,” she told him, “Roddy’s coming,” and he ran to his room to hide, and years later, when they met in London at a dance, she still felt guilty enough to dance with him and to agree to a drive in the countryside the following afternoon.
She ran downstairs, a blanket over her shoulder, Mrs. Ashgrove’s riding boots under her arm. In the garden Mrs. Ashgrove pulled on the boots, and when she lost her balance she put her hand on Cynthia’s shoulder for a moment, her touch as chilly and pure as moonlight.
When Cynthia thinks of Cairo now she remembers a garden party. She and Roddy stood at the window in their nightclothes, looking down. The garden sparkled with fairy lights and everyone looked lovely and somehow distant, the dancers turning slow to the music of the band. They wore transparent wings and garlands of flowers, and laughed as they leaned together, streaks of glitter shining on their cheeks. Her mother held a wand and was tall and beautiful, like a stranger; and the sad donkey’s head with gilt ears was her father. The whole scene often comes back to her in dreams, silent, mysterious. Sometimes it speeds up suddenly, like a film being played too fast. Then it slows down, so that she can read every gesture, every smile. And then it speeds up. And then it slows down. And then it stops.
Cynthia has never seen the Nazir. Not once.
She’s tried everything. At first she thought the key was running away. After she was sent to school in England she ran away twice: once as far as Chiddingly on the train, and once into the woods. After the second time she was sent to London to stay with her aunt. She let a boy take down her knickers in the airing cupboard. Soon afterward her mother arrived from Cairo, dabbing tears of rage with a crumpled glove, and decided that Cynthia had better go to France.
She never saw the Nazir in France, or Italy, or Greece.
She has drunk ouzo and water. She has planted a bomb in a public garden. She has bathed nude in the Arno. She has marched and shouted. She has been jailed. She has never been married. What does the Nazir want?
Sometimes she tells herself that the Nazir cannot leave Egypt. She knows it isn’t true.
Sometimes she tells herself that the Nazir has passed away, that it faded and fell with the old Cairo life, a life crammed into suitcases now, imprisoned in attics.
She knows it isn’t true.
THE SONG OF THE NAZIR
By Saif Al-Atfal
One and two and one and two
Carry me off to the moon with you!
No, my child, my chick, my crow,
You’re far too small to the moon to go.
Teeth you have, but they are thin,
Buds to keep the summer in;
Claws you lack and gizzard too
To crack the skull and grind the stew.
You must stay a little while,
And paint the mirror with a smile,
And hope I do not find you lone
And weak at night, when you are grown.
Hope I never find you slack,
Bearing a rifle on your back,
Riding a camel, tally-ho,
Into a desert white as snow.
If I do, I’ll drink your wails,
And comb your flesh out with my nails;
Your brains I’ll suck, your marrow tap;
I’ll wear your stomach like a cap.
And bits of bone I’ll sprinkle down
In every street, in every town,
While the little ones cry, “Oh Nazir, do
Eat our wicked parents too!”
Sometimes she tells herself that she’s too old. If she sees the Nazir now it will kill her.
She knows that this isn’t true either, because of Mrs. Ashgrove. Mrs. Ashgrove saw the Nazir when she was already grown up, though she was younger then than Cynthia is now. Sometimes when her lover is sleeping Cynthia goes to the window, cups her hands at either side of her face and whispers: “Come.” The glass is so cold, like the ice-cream freezer at Groppi’s. She wants to look into the Nazir’s eyes just once and say: “Do you forgive me?”
“Come,” she whispers. A fragile print of steam on the dark glass. “Come. If you don’t forgive me, then you can take me, I don’t care.” She strikes the glass with her fist, but softly, so as not to wake the man in the bed. She closes her eyes and imagines a claw breaking through from outside.
Cynthia heard of Mrs. Ashgrove only once after the war. It was springtime and freezing in Paris, where Cynthia was waiting for the baby to be born. Her mother wrote, with barely concealed triumph, that Mrs. Ashgrove had been recognized by Robertson Bey on one of his trips to Cairo. She was seated in a cart, being pulled through the streets by a little Arab girl. Her legs were horribly deformed, as if they had both been broken. She wore a dirty black abaya, but when it slipped back Robertson knew her profile at once, although it appeared she had cut off all her hair. He spoke to her, but she refused to speak English and shouted in Arabic for the girl to pull her away, and of course people gathered to see what was going on, and there was nothing poor Robertson Bey could do, being English in Cairo these days. Mad, her mother wrote. Quite mad. She’ll never come home again either, poor girl.
Cynthia laid the letter on the bed. She drew her shawl about her and huddled closer to the heat of the gas ring. Downstairs the drunken newspaper vendor was coming in; the floors were so thin she could hear the landlady snapping at him to close the door. Thank God, she thought with tears in her eyes. She wished Roddy were still alive so that she could tell him. She knew, of course, what had happened to Mrs. Ashgrove’s legs. The Nazir had caught her after all, but then, before it could bear her away, before she was lost forever, it had dropped her.
Sofia Samatar is a PhD student in African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specializes in twentieth-century Egyptian and Sudanese literatures. She has lived and worked in Egypt and South Sudan, and took her books everywhere she went. Her poetry has appeared in Stone Telling, and her debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is forthcoming from Small Beer Press in 2012. She blogs about books and other wonders at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com. She says:
This story used to be a novel. It followed the unhappy lives of a British family in colonial Egypt, and contained no monsters. As a novel, it was sprawling and aimless. Compressed into a short story and granted a winged horror, it seemed to come to life. In particular, the looming presence of one’s own evil deeds, which won’t go away, became stronger when given form as the Nazir, which in Arabic means the Observer or the Overseer—the One Who Looks. The monster enabled me to get at some key themes, particularly the way we inherit privileges whether we want them or not, and how people deal with the irony of being born in a foreign country.
Wikimedia commons image of the monster Amnet By André from Amsterdam, The Netherlands (kist uit de tweede eeuw na Chr. / Teuris) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons