On the eve of my nineteenth birthday, the man snatched me from a complicit night.
You see, I had finished high school. For good. Hours earlier, I had cried and hugged my best friend as my name slipped from the school director’s thick lips and hers didn’t. I had felt sad that she’d have to retake the exam next year, yet joy overcame everything. My old folks weren’t as happy—it was a success with honors they wanted, not a narrow pass.
I didn’t care.
When night fell, I freed myself to the streets of Liberté. Smoke clogged my eyelids; the familiar dust settled on my flip-flops. A grin twisted my lips upward as I slid between angry, bellowing cars and silent couples.
The world was mine. The night was mine.
I crashed on a public bench. Faded green paint crusted on top of the wood; it smelled like old shoes and, faintly, piss. Inhaling it all, like a junkie did their liberating poison, I let the howling of dogs, the horns, and the djinné’s drums seep into my ears.
That last one, I made up. I pictured the spirits dancing on top of a pregnant hill, thick black hair kissing their ankles as they hissed the letters of my name.
Nightlife died around me, too quickly. My brand-new black T-shirt long taken off, I scratched the glabrous skin of my chest and the sharp bones underneath. Dusty leaves grazed the back of my neck as a soft wind rose. Maybe the djinné had stopped their party for a moment, reminding me to come and dance with them.
Someone sat on the bench. Scents of sweat mixed with peppery curaay made me open my eyes.
There was no one but me and the man. He was smiling as if I was a puppy he was about to rescue.
Maybe he had tricked the night and my djinné friends, too. That was why they let him clamp a stinking cloth over my nose and squeeze. The man was middle-aged, but his hold and dry muscles were unyielding. He had the withering strength of those retired traditional wrestlers—the ones who defeated countless opponents in their youth and had remnants of physical rigidity to show for it.
They all let him drag me toward his car; I couldn’t see if it was old, or new. It was the color of my mother’s tears when they would tell her her only son had disappeared. Or maybe it wasn’t. Its engine roared like my father’s anger, as he would find a way to blame me for my own absence. Maybe it was like the silence that I took with me when I skulked out of their house.
I fell in and out of darkness and hid there, away from the fear. My father would be right. I was small for my age. I was never a fighter. Knowing the streets of Dakar could be enchanting at times, deadly at others, I shouldn’t have been out there. My defiance was a sacrifice to the sinister hearts of men, committed as a celebration for becoming one.
When he turned the engine off, the man forced a new whiff of ether up my nostrils.
I woke up inside a room without light. My jeans were soaked and stenchy, while my tongue stuck to my palate like a dead limb. He sat across from me. Watched me struggle against dark-painted chains, against the dryness that quelled any attempt at screaming. A plastic mat unfurled under his legs as prayer beads made a click, click sound, counted through his fair-skinned fingers. His dark eyes felt almost gentle. Smiles would cross his face as he watched me and I watched him, in painful silence.
Days had passed—months, maybe—when he first slammed those beads on my neck. I had croaked ‘Water, please,’. Red I couldn’t see overtook his eyes. Pain flared across my skin and the tip of my vertebrae. I had seen a glimpse of the monster.
He cried, after that. The tips of my toes felt numb and dead. My legs were foreign bricks he rested his head on, calling me ‘little brother’. The man never told me why he was keeping me hostage—nor did the monster. Bit by bit, through my exhausted brain and through the fear, I assembled the man’s story. Shards of glass that slit my fingers and made little sense. It was a wobbly, monstrous thing.
The man would let me out of the chains, sometimes. I was too weak; hunger grew into a close friend I learned to ignore. Like the djinné, it would come and go without a sound. Leaning my head against the wall, I listened as he told me about his rakk, his little brother, who had my skin and my frail stature. The man told me about the time his little brother made him angry. With dreamy eyes, he described his fingers curling around the boy’s throat and squeezing the life out of him. No one in his family ever suspected the man, for he was close to the boy and framed his murder as an accident.
Then, I happened. He had noticed me on one of his night strolls, stricken by my resemblance with his lost brother. Through my jovial smile and bare chest, he had seen a second chance. A message the universe was sending him: the chance to have his rakk back. The man told me how he walked into a nearby pharmacy and bought the blue, burning liquid that submitted me to him. How he waited for the empty to take back the night, and stole me then, like a trapped mayfly. Manic fervor cleared the fog in his gaze as he said this to me. A prophet, whose every word dripped with honey, every gesture dictated by carmine madness.
You should never name the things that terrify you. Names held power. They shattered barriers.
Names released evil.
Fresh drops of blood pearled atop my cracked lips as I called him a monster.
A midnight wave brought the thing forward. The cockroaches lurking under my soiled mat fell silent as it slapped me across the face. Even as I curled in a fetal position, it beat my flanks, and its silver ring left marks on my skin.
The monster receded. I made a decision, that day. I would do as it did. Drowning all my feelings, my pain, my exhaustion, in the deep dark waters of my soul. I would become a porcelain doll—the perfect replica of the man’s little brother.
Days passed. Months, maybe. When the beast peeked from under the man’s eyes and left blood on me, I would tell the man that I was a painting and it, the artist. My grime-covered fingers would brush the cut, and I would whisper, ‘how it blooms on the canvas. Hibiscus flowers, look.’
The demon resurfaced from time to time. But the man let me clean myself, eat more. I never left the room which walls I couldn’t see the color of, apart from using the shabby bathroom next door. When I complained of the pain in my limbs, the man gave me this fatherly gaze I never got from my own father; he upheld my head as I drank expired painkillers.
Did I ever hate the man? I think I hated myself, the whole world, more. I had been ignored by them and felt the need, the defiance, to scream my own existence. My parents, were they looking for me? Did they forget their uncontrollable, feral child already?
Despite my promise to become metal, cold and lifeless, I could never suppress the anger. It was making me a monster, like him. A djinné I was, who could not get the invisibility to slip off. The man’s madness slithered under my skin, too.
Then, I broke free. I had waited a long time for the monster to be on a leash, while the man slept on that mat beside me. It’d been hard to inject life back into my porcelain muscles. I knew he kept the key in the front pocket of his faded yellow shirt. Without missing a breath, my porcelain fingers fished the old key out and locked the man inside.
It was moments before dawn when I walked out of the barrack he kept me in. I staggered into the streets of Liberté; everywhere I looked, I saw the man’s face. Fear had long left me, heeding my command to stay underwater. Old homes loomed like giant turtles over my head. People who all had the man’s face, coming from nearby mosques after the Fajr prayer, looked into my eyes and did not see me. My t-shirt and jeans were in shambles, filthy. The only thing they saw was another dof who roamed these streets.
Asphalt grew cold under my feet. Yes, I was crazy, was I not?
The man found me sitting under a cashew tree as I watched the sunrise. Painting the trash flying here and there, the people, and the treetops in fire, the rays refused to get through me. He parked the colorless car, prayer beads in hand. The man’s shadow covered me—or the monster’s, maybe—before he joined me in silence. I knew it was him, this time. No haunting could mimic his particular curaay scent.
Not once did I wonder how he’d freed himself from the locked room. Maybe the beast had come out, once and for all. Maybe it had torn down the door, and it would, at last, strangle me with those beads until my tongue and eyes swelled. Until I joined the man’s little brother, wherever he was.
I still rose up and followed him when he went back to the car. There were more people now, watching me walk to my certain death. Women wearing his face wedged empty calabashes in the crook of their arms. Through fair-skinned fingers, taxi drivers leisurely swung the wheel.
This wasn’t far from the Rond-Point Jet d’Eau, where we first met.
I had never really been far from my home.
And among the people who ignored me as my hand trembled around the door’s handle, I saw a girl. She looked at me and screamed. She screamed like that time, months ago, maybe, when we heard my name in the admission list and not hers.
My best friend called the name I forgot I had. Tears flooded her cheeks, and only then did I notice that she wasn’t wearing the man’s face.
Piecing the puzzle together, her tears turned into anger as she cursed the man. Calling him all sorts of names, she drew the attention of everyone who was passing by. Everyone who thought I was a dof that this good man wanted to help.
Fear swelled in his gaze. People cornered him, and they were getting angry, too. A part of me—the porcelain rakk—wanted to drown all the voices and flee with the man, even knowing that he was gone and that the beast would kill me.
I saw the exact moment when the beast took full control. Not to attack, as I expected it to do. Like all cornered beasts did.
The man, or the beast, maybe both, shoved me off and climbed inside the colorless car. Ignoring the onlookers’ angry shouts, he started at full throttle and left in a puff of black smoke.
He abandoned me, and I wondered if he had been real at all.
My mother kept crying, days and days after that. It had been eight months since I was taken away. In an effort to survive, I had drowned myself too deep. The feelings, the emotions, all were lost. I could only see the man’s face, in every nook and cranny. The sound of his prayer beads clung to my eardrums and left room for nothing else. Despite all my mother’s pleas, my father refused to let me see a psychiatrist.
“Only the dof go there. That is no place for my son,” he would say. Then he stared into my eyes as if I was the monster that had abducted me; I stared back. His disgust plummeted down the infinite pool where all my emotions laid.
That night, I went to sleep and saw the monster. I watched as it cut the blanket he used to cover me with. I watched as it tied it around its neck and jumped.
I woke up smiling. The smile never left me as I dug out the thick belt I had once stolen from my father. It went broader as I secured the belt over the ceiling fan and around the skin of my neck. The buckle was cold—metal against my metal.
My djinné friends danced around the bed in silence. Their hair shone under the moonlight, their faces being their own demonic ones. I wondered if we would meet there again. The man, his rakk, and me: the other rakk he imprinted madness into.
The djinné froze.
I soared to freedom.
Moustapha Mbacké Diop
Moustapha Mbacké Diop is a Senegalese writer living in Dakar. He is in his fifth year of medical school, and is obsessed with African folklore, mythology, and animated shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender. When he’s not writing, he can usually be found stressing over hospital rounds or binge-watching horror movies. His fiction has appeared in Omenana, Fractured Lit, and is forthcoming in the Africa Risen anthology.