For seventy years, a Biblical age, the shadows hungered in the village. Daylight, moonlight. Growth of weeds, and slumber of stone. The settlers smashed in the domes of the houses to keep away the living. They forgot to ward off the dead. Thirsting, the shadows raised desiccated tongues to catch the benevolence of Baal Haddad, the only god who would remember them.
The rain that moistened the grave dirt was their only blessing.
The almonds bloomed.
Each grave defiled, the cemetery a trash heap, the den of vermin and decay, neglected—though not forgotten. Across the wadi, settlers sip lattes and muse over the view: a decadent, gothic playground, a corpse laid on the hill country of the Holy City.
To archive, to preserve, to destroy, to remake? Every year a new developer eyes the village with greed: he sees luxury apartments rising out of the teeth of the white stone vaults.
The dead still wait; they wait for children to come with the libations and feasting that would bring them delight and relief. To archive, to erase— Both carry a heavy curse.
“Give us something to drink, O Lord!” they murmur in their graves. The sound is an echo of the singing of their own mouths when they were children calling on their God to refresh the green growing things, and themselves. And now their only relief is in those gentle rains.
But even those rains are coming less and less. The forests are tinder-dry, land unscathed by the cleansing of herds and flocks, the forests ignite and burn to the ground around Jerusalem. The waters are drying up, evaporating in the heat waves and the dust.
When the day comes that the Lord doesn’t bring his rains, as he has done since before the Pharaohs came, the number of the dead will swell with spirit, a new kind of spiritual energy will soak the land and transform it into another world entirely.
The blessed trees are uprooted, slashed and burned. In each forty-year-old tree there lives the soul of a saint. It returns, a ghost, to the realm of the dead. All is death and dying, when the communal lines are broken and all becomes so much resource to be plundered and possessed.
For now, they drink those rivulets of water showered freely from the darkening skies that stretch out their flanks over the hills and across the plain. To the living, pray. Pray that the dead are filled and satisfied. Grant them dignity and ease, if you would value these yourself.
From the darkest of doorways, a figure lingers—it is I. I beckon, and entice the unwary, the foolish, the curious. The sharpness of my eyes is beautiful, like that of a hawk. Something wild and impossibly old crawls beneath my skin, which seems to fit a little too tightly. Having ventured too close to the threshold, having called out “who’s there?!” the overly curious colonizer steps closer, and my voice fills the humming of the ruin:
They never told you to suck my breast, to call me ‘auntie’ before demanding of me a name. And they never told you to Name—to speak a blessing before beginnings and openings, to prevent us from slipping through from the hidden world beyond human sense.
On the other hand, someone surely told you not to defile a grave. And long have we warned you about the danger of pride, especially when it is overweening and undeserved. Pride in the service of empire, of colonization.
Now, you call me monstrous. You are the one who makes the rules here, and I am playing along, playing my part. If you are the hero, someone has to be the villain. And a villain is simply a hero whose story has drawn on too long.
I am what I am: a ghouleh, a breaker of dried bone, snapper of sinew, the ravager that strips flesh from the dead to fill my need. Answerable to none, this village suits me well—this shell where memory itself dies. My kin have long gathered in the ruins of cities, age upon age. Few ventured to prey upon the living, and only when we had been disturbed, forced out of our proper places in the emptiness where there is air and darkness.
I bring with me the stillness and the silence. It is the stalking of the leopard, I assure you. In giving over the lands of the living, this place, once so full of life and energy, is now become stagnant and sweet to my tongue.
I will meet you here, in the decadent decay, for you too, hunger. Take this place to sustain your hunger—sustain, I do not say satisfy. Devouring this village, as you would do, will only sharpen the edge of want. It will force my hand, however, and I will have to turn my steps toward the light and stalk among you, though it brings me no pleasure. The living have an acrid, fresh taste that I dislike, but if needs must, then I will feed—but not on you.
If you had only sucked at my breast, had you called me ‘Auntie,’ I would have taken you in, my dear one. I would have forgiven you all. As it is, I owe you nothing. And I leave you nothing.
You can pray, you can beg for me to leave you alone. Shut your borrowed and stolen doors and windows tight. Leave a light on in the night. Watch each and every step. Look over the shoulder and see a ghouleh in every school girl, dark of eye, and of wrong religion.
I am a ghouleh. I will be here long after you have died. All of your works will fade, your name unremarkable and unremembered. Your marrow will not live on in my flesh. I will leave you alone.
They say to be careful what you wish for, and that is wisdom. To be left alone by a ghouleh is not the blessing you think it is. The decaying and dying will not be cleansed without me. And without that, there can be no ease, no life worth living.
The ghouleh’s voice is carried away into echoes chasing the shadowed hollows of the village. Night has fallen, the dark of the doorway spreading out inky and thick. The susurration of the almond trees carry the chorus of the dead: “give us, give us something to drink.”
Sonia Sulaiman writes short speculative fiction inspired by Palestinian folklore. Her work has appeared in Arab Lit Quarterly, Beladi, FIYAH Magazine, Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth, and Lackington’s Magazine. In her free time, Sonia is a first reader at Strange Horizons. She also shares Palestinian folklore on Twitter @SoniaSulaiman.