Fareed’s excitement at meeting the house demon had him bouncing in place. The stout thing with grey fur and completely black eyes stood not far from him in front of a pile of stones lit by moonlight. The smell of sulfur mixed with the aromas of the night, smoky and meaty. Hypnotic music from the faraway town square broke through his awe and reminded Fareed of his mission.
“I want you to change me,” he said to the demon.
Fareed closed his eyes and waited for something to happen. The hard ground beneath his feet bit into the open cuts there. When nothing interrupted the ebb and flow of the night sounds, he opened his eyes to find the demon staring back at him in amusement.
“And why—after all this time—do you need me?” it asked.
“The festival has started without me. I can’t go looking like this. Nobody.
“The only place you can go unnoticed is—” the demon broke off. “I doubt new clothes will help them forget you’re the son of a coward,” it said instead.
Fareed stopped bouncing. “But at least I’d fit in a little.”
The demon shook his head, and said nothing. Fareed’s mood was dropping fast. His mother always said demons existed solely to serve the house they were assigned to. So why was this short fur ball talking back to him?
“You’re supposed to do whatever I want,” Fareed said, puffing his chest out. “Those are the rules.”
“And do the rules also say I have to listen to an imperious child barely old enough to summon me?” the place where an eyebrow should have been on its wrinkled face went up.
Fareed ground his teeth in impatience. “I’m thirteen. And you’re shorter than me!”
The demon frowned. “And so?”
“Shouldn’t you be taller? Powerful creatures usually are.”
This time, both its invisible eyebrows went up. The effect made Fareed shudder a little.
“And I wasn’t expecting to be awoken from a yearlong nap by the same person who abandoned me and his house as soon as his father died.” The look of disappointment in its obsidian eyes cut like a sword.
Fareed’s throat closed, and the ruins he’d given a passing glance when he arrived became inescapable to his eyes. All that remained of his family’s hut was the smell of days spent wrestling with his father and nights eating bush rats caught in their inventive traps. The spicy taste was a ghost on his tongue as he recalled the day they’d put his mother to rest. The tears his father had shed that day were surpassed only by those Fareed shed when he found him with a rope around his neck a year later.
The day the villagers destroyed his house—house of a coward, they called it—no tears fell. When it was all over, Fareed had run into the streets, embracing a life spent among forgotten souls and cruel laughter. But tonight he wanted to forget everything and remember the sugary sweet taste of happiness tinged with dark pleasure.
It was his birthday.
He took a step forward toward the demon. Its curved horns glittered in the starlight.
Beautiful, Fareed thought.
“I’m sorry for leaving you like that. But you knew I couldn’t stay. There’s nothing left for me here.”
Hurt showed on its face. “And you think there’s something for you with the people who ridicule you?”
The music of the festival pulsed while Fareed’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I won’t know unless I try. I just want to fit back in.”
The demon regarded him for a long moment, Fareed worried he’d fossilized in the air.
“Alright,” it replied. “I’ll help you.”
Fareed’s excitement returned like a flood, and his split lips lifted at the corners. The demon turned to the low mud wall surrounding them and snatched up a lizard bobbing his head to the joyful music from far off. Fareed furrowed his brow.
“What do you need that for?”
The demon silenced him with a look and kept the reptile ensconced in its palms. The wind picked up a bit, teasing Fareed’s very long holey shirt as its lips whispered to his closed hands. Then the wind died abruptly, and the demon vanished in a burst of red lilies. Fareed’s heart stuttered and he exclaimed in surprise.
The petals drifted to the floor, where they coalesced into a glittering gold platform the lizard landed on—the same lizard that was now bulging and twisting into a person.
In a matter of seconds, a young man stood before Fareed, clothed in nothing but a long shirt similar to the tattered one Fareed wore, beads in his braided hair and on his arms and legs. But even the ratty linen could not diminish the beauty in his form and face. Skin like polished oak, eyes which constantly changed color, and cheekbones like a hunter’s knife. Toned limbs and full, pouty lips completed a package Fareed could only perform rituals for.
“Who are you?” Fareed asked. Forget the demon. This man’s aura of power amplified the music of the night in Fareed’s ears. Surely he would be more useful.
The movement of the man’s hand through his braids was hypnotic enough to make Fareed swoon.
“I don’t think I need any introduction,” his voice was like a dragon’s hoard. Deep and rich. “I am the feeling you get when you steal from your mother’s pot and get away with it. I am how drunk you get when your ears hear your name from the lips of your bedfellow. I am the thing you may spend your whole life chasing but only find in death. I am Pleasure.”
Fareed stared at the man and the cat slinking around his shoulders. It had appeared from thin air.
“Are you a god?” he asked.
Soft sensations tickled Fareed’s neck and he scrambled backward, scratching his skin.
“Stop it! I know you’re doing that.”
Pleasure laughed lightly. “You don’t like it? Cats can be very affectionate creatures.”
Fareed scowled at him. “Yes, but she’s on your neck. I shouldn’t feel like she’s on mine.”
The man blinked like Fareed was stupid. “I would think someone in your shoes would appreciate a little pleasure, what with your miserable life.”
Even with the soft sensations covering him, Fareed bristled. “I’m not miserable.”
The man cocked his head to the side and the cat slithered down his body. “No? Then why were you begging that grubby demon to give you new clothes just so you can spend a night dancing with gold and ivory?”
The absence of the cat left Fareed feeling cold and empty. The man stepped off the platform—which promptly disappeared—and started to walk around Fareed.
“Even now, I see the desire in your heart. You have no love for the demon I so easily dispatched. A demon that could have left when you did long ago. All you care about is moving your feet to the drums of the festival praise from those you place above yourself.”
Shame bent Fareed’s head towards his chest. He’d forgotten all about his loyal house demon.
The man—god—used two fingers to prop his chin back up. A small squeak left Fareed. Though he looked into the same eyes, the god had become a goddess with feathers braided into her waist-length hair.
“Never be ashamed of what you desire,” she said. “I can always help you.”
Fareed’s smile was weak. “You’re the god of pleasure. You have to say that.”
“I assure you, he does not.”
The new voice startled Fareed into turning around. All he could see was the dirt road leading from the back gate and the houses on either side. Then a tall woman stepped out of the ground with the regal bearing Fareed’s mother once had. The dirt covering her from head to toe morphed into black robes reminiscent of the night sky. Her black mane of hair was shot through with white that matched the stones around her neck. Her otherworldly beauty made Fareed’s tongue loose.
“Is that one of your lovers?” he asked Pleasure.
The goddess smacked the back of his head. “Show some respect. That’s my mother.”
Fareed winced and rubbed at the sore spot.
“Sorry Mama. I didn’t know gods could have parents.”
The dirt woman smiled. “It’s something we prefer to keep to ourselves, lest humans think they have something in common with us.”
“Then why did you tell me?”
Pleasure smirked. She—he—walked around Fareed to link arms with his mother. “Who says you’ll remember any of this?”
Fareed blinked. He could barely focus on his mission with all these goings-on. The dirt woman’s presence came with the smell of rain and eclipsed the drums Pleasure’s presence had intensified. Then he remembered what she said about being his mother.
That must mean she’s more powerful.
“Not necessarily,” the woman said out of nowhere.
Fareed stared at her gray eyes.
“How—I didn’t—” he stammered.
“I hear everything in this world, no matter how quiet. And while it is true that I have a larger sphere of control than my child, their presence increases your awareness of your desires.”
“And yours reduces it?” Fareed asked.
“You could say I ground them,” the goddess replied with a smile.
Cricket sounds sprang up, covering the sound of the festival. The goddess turned to her son and scowled.
“Is that necessary?” she asked.
“Yes Mama. That was a terrible joke.”
This is ridiculous, Fareed thought.
“Can one of you at least help me get to the festival?” he asked.
Some of the warmth in the goddess’s eyes gave way to judgment. Fareed bristled. What could he have possibly done wrong?
“What’s stopping you from enjoying the festival the way you are right now?” she asks.
“I can’t go looking like a poor, dirty joke. When you have nothing, you start to look like nothing.”
She walked forward and ran her calloused hand over his bushy head. “Didn’t your mother tell you I created the world from nothing?”
“Then it shouldn’t be too hard to help me,” Fareed said while shrugging off her touch. She felt like a mother, only not his.
Pleasure poked him in the back with a finger. “I thought you wanted me to help you. How fickle the heart of man is.”
Fareed half turned to him. “What does that even mean?”
“It means I won’t do a single thing for you.”
The god exploded in a blaze of light and the smell of burning meat that reminded Fareed of days past, especially the day when his father had died.
Someone else who was supposed to help him, gone.
The drums of the festival and his breathing were all the sound around him and the goddess. Fareed stared at the spot where the god disappeared, shuffling his feet and refusing to face Mama.
“Let’s go and see where all this noise is coming from,” the goddess said, breaking the awkwardness. “Maybe I can do something about it.”
Renewed success made his feet restless, and he started to move towards them, rags and all. Mama followed a step behind as he used the dirt road to the village square.
They passed by houses similar in structure but differing in building material. Some were the dull brown of wet sand, and others were a shiny marble echoing their occupants’ status.
Fareed knew what to expect and waved to the families dancing in their individual courtyards. They didn’t wave back. The mud walls of their homes absorbed the moonlight and appeared a beautiful gray. He also knew that their answering waves were to the goddess trailing him.
“I don’t know where you humans got this stupid idea of segregation from.”
Fareed knew what she meant. Every year, only the wealthy families went to the town square for the festival. The music playing from there could be heard around the village and towns over. The music belonged to everyone. The boisterous air and opulence of the town square, not so much.
“How exactly do you want to blend in with the people in the square?”
“Have you seen those rich families? They have children every minute simply because they can afford it. If I introduce myself as vaguely as possible, they won’t notice. As long as I look like them.”
“Won’t it be easier to just find a more…accessible family to enjoy the music with?”
Fareed smiled. “No. They know each other too closely for me to hide within them.”
The goddess fell silent. The intensity of the music continued to build as they neared the center of the village. Fareed’s heart started to beat in time to music that was—to him at least—nonpareil. He wondered if that was another side effect of meeting Pleasure.
The closer they got to the square, the fewer houses they saw and the more the smell of bushmeat and roasted vegetables saturated the air. Lanterns lit the path from the last house up to where beggars sat just outside the square. Fareed’s smile was equal to the moon the closer they got. He and the goddess were a few feet away from the orange tree at the gate when a hand from the wind caressed his face.
“Is that one of your children?” he asked offhandedly.
“Yes, and they know better than to disturb me when I’m busy.”
A chorus of laughter whispered around them. In truth, the whispers were loud, but since meeting Pleasure, the night’s music was a loud cloud to Fareed.
“But we can help you,” the multitude said. “Mama will only tell you what you need. We can give you what you want.”
Fareed’s heart stuttered. He struggled to clear the fog surrounding his mind and stopped in his tracks, forcing the goddess to halt.
“Is that true?”
The goddess remained tight-lipped and her eyes radiated a sympathy that grated on his nerves. The night’s magic bled away a bit and was replaced with anger. How dare this woman and her son cheat him so? His fingers began to shake.
“You’re no better than your son,” he spat. A few people gave him horrified looks as they walked past. One man even slapped the back of his head, but Fareed barely felt it. He was tired. How could everyone that was supposed to help him be so useless?
“All of you think you know what’s best and the rest of us don’t matter. And like petty children, you just leave without caring.”
Fareed’s chest heaved and sweat dotted his brow. People had stopped to watch, but it didn’t matter to the tears building in his eyes. He swiped angrily at his face and pushed past the goddess. The people gathered moved to part for him when a hand clamped tightly on his arm.
“You do not realize what you are doing because you are still young. You are just like your father, toying with those who care for you and not giving them a moment’s thought.”
Fareed ripped his hand from her grip and stalked into the square, not caring if she followed or not. He couldn’t believe she compared him to that traitor! The music of the night dimmed a bit.
“Do not be angry,” the wind whispered. “She does what is best, as a mother should.”
Fareed said nothing. He was tired of dealing with deities. He walked a little faster to escape the voices.
“Don’t be a fool,” an invisible hand stopped his movement. “No man or god can escape us.”
Fareed’s pause made him finally take in the spectacle he had been too preoccupied with himself to notice. His mouth dropped open in wonder. Everywhere he looked, there was a new attraction to whet his appetite. Dancers that moved like well-oiled machines! Every kind of meat under the sun! Different colors of open flames coming out the mouth of show animals! Masked performers slipping between patrons, some literally!
Fareed blushed at the tableau before him. It was so much more than he could have imagined; a smorgasbord of pleasure and sensuality. Sounds of laughter and cheer mixed with the drums and flutes he could now hear. That very moment, a man decked in gold jewelry, and nothing else was being led by a beautiful, robust woman in a long yellow tunic toward Fareed. Fareed started to panic and look for where to hide when the woman and her pet passed through him like he was nothing.
Of all the things that had happened that night, none floored Fareed as much as this.
“How?” he asked no one. “It’s like I’m—I’m—”
“Nothing?” the wind finished for him. “That is because to them you are. That is the true reason no poor person comes here. The elites have made this a world of their own, a space no other human but them is seen.”
An empty feeling came over Fareed and his chest hurt. This was what he was fighting against all night. If only he had the jewels, the clothes, the money…
“But what if I look like them?” he asked.
His question got no reply for a few seconds.
“Is that what you truly want?”
The pulsating music abruptly gave way to popping sounds like nuts being cracked. The next moment, every single person in the square was naked.
Fareed squeaked and used his hands to cover himself. All movement stopped and every single eye in the square turned to spear Fareed with hateful looks.
“Vermin,” they hissed. “Impostor. You do not belong here, rat.”
Their disgust struck Fareed with blinding force, and he turned around, running for the gate, unseeing. When the crowd parted for him this time, they did so like he was a human-sized cockroach.
As he ran out of the gate and swerved right into the woods, he heard the wind in his ear.
“You see how they treat you?” it hissed. “No power can move heaven and earth to give you the status you have no claim to.”
Fareed waved his arms around him like a madman, low-hung branches scratching his arms. He needed the voices to stop. Invisible arms grabbed him and threw him to the ground. Fareed screamed through the tears streaming down his face and curled up into a ball. His vision became strangely one-sided.
“Why are you doing this to me?” he whimpered.
“Did you really think you would play with the gods and get away with it?” a sack appeared in front of Fareed. “Look inside the bag.”
Fareed opened the sack. Inside lay his ear, eye, and house demon, one for each final touch from the deities, each brutal brushoff.
And his cracked lips let out a sob, soaking the earth and breaking apart the skies with their pain.
Image by Owensart from Pixabay (modified)