Antar bantar, goft or daftar, choof, choof. The old lady said for the last time under her ‘second tongue,’ as the people of the town would say, so no one could hear her. The baby disappeared from her gahwara crib. “Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I warn you all? Not to give her milk and honey. She is al-khatoo. She is the one and only alive otherworldly old woman, deceiving death…” Maceen kept screaming. But no one seemed to listen or mind her. Hunger and thirst had spread in the entire country by now. People cared more about food and water than their babies. “If you think, you have sacrificed her for this year’s harvest, you are wrong. Al-khatoo cannot do anything with God’s misery set upon us. She cannot bring us prosperity. She only takes it.” Still, nobody was listening to Maceen. The crowd now started dispersing. The twilight had disappeared somewhere in the darkness. The late autumn air felt cold around the village mountains. Only a few thoughtful parents locked their young kids in their empty tableee khana, where their livestock once used to spend evenings so that the insane members of the village do not snatch their babies at night to deliver them to Al-khatoo.
Al-khatoo was not from Maceen’s village or the villages nearby. No one knew for certain where she had come from. But they only knew she had come from the heart of the northern mountain, where wolves were her friends. Her long-braided hair looked like lengthy ropes that never got to see water. Her dark muddy eyes were swallowed by her skull, darker than winter nights, and her aged breasts were hanging from her stomach. They said, “She fed the wolves with those breasts.” The layered wrinkled skin around her neck looked like collars which she covered her ears with, whenever a baby screamed. Her nails were so long that she could point to a tree, and it would touch its head. “Al-khatoo brings good news and bad news. You just need to be open to receive any with open-mindedness.” Maceen did not believe anything of what the villagers said about her or believe in her existence. All she knew was that all these years, every child that disappeared alive or dead, ended up in Al-khatoo’s belly cave. She did not feed the wolves. She fed herself. If it were the wolves, the wolves would come for their prey themselves. Why would they need Al-khatoo? This was Maceen’s reasoning. “But how to prove to the villagers that Al-khatoo is nothing but a monster?” Maceen kept thinking that day when everyone refused to listen to her.
The next day, before the sun could touch the highest mountain, Maceen undug a white book from her room’s floor. She wrapped the book in the whitest of white fabric and then wrapped it in the blackest of black cloth. She fastened it tight around her waist and headed toward the north. She paced through each ridge, tiptoeing, crisscrossing, sometimes bending her stature, so Al-khatoo would not see her shadow moving. They said she was also blind in those hallow eyes, only by motion did she move to her prey. Maceen saw little huts in every valley, burning a candle outside their porches in honour of Al-khatoo, giving her the dimmest of light to find her next blessing. But then there were huts with two candles burning bright outside. Those were the houses with no children residing in them. The residents thought they could trick Al-Khatoo into walking to their home, so they could give them offerings. Maceen could not believe how people had gone so mad that they would sacrifice their wives or husbands to Al-Khatoo. The air was getting brighter, the sun was about to rise. Maceen untied the book from her waist and tied it on her head. She kept walking under the brightest autumn sun. She was safe now from Al-Khatoo but not so safe from the wolves. But she believed in the book she carried on her head. It was a gift from her father who was a mystic, who had taught Maceen about the stars and the power of nature in rooting goodness and uprooting the evil on the face of the earth. She had never used the book until this very moment. There was no hunger, thirst, or exhaustion in her body. She saw the highest mountain and paced toward it quickly.
The twilight spread red shades everywhere. Maceen felt the presence of danger around her. One by one from every cave, there appeared wolves, white as the snow, fierce as thunder, larger than anything Maceen had seen. She tried to hide, but nothing can be hidden in the presence of those wolves. She was surprised that the wolves were not chasing her. She stood silent as the wolves started roaming about their chores. She looked around, perhaps hoping to see Al-khatoo. But there was no trace of her or her existence. One thing was proved to her, these wolves and Al-khatoo had never met. The wolves were majestic, just like in her father’s fables. But Al-khatoo was something else, something more like a monster. She started moving carefully. But the wolves did not seem to mind her. Why were the wolves not following her or chasing her? To her surprise, she remembered the book on top of her head. She reached for it and started untying it. As soon as the book was a little far from her head, the wolves became restless, smelling and searching. They saw her and started fiercely running toward her. Maceen pulled back the book above her head, and the wolves stopped. The wolves were now face to face with her. She could see her reflection in their eyes. But the wolves did not see theirs in her eyes. It was proved to Maceen that her father’s book was her answer how to protect her village from Al-khatoo and how to guide the wolves to help her bring prosperity back to her country. Even better, she was going to ask the wolves to find Al-khatoo. But how to speak to the wolves, who were so restlessly searching for her now?
About the Creator
I am a scholar of medieval Persian poetry. I am an Afghan poet writing in English. My debut collection is called Forty Names, published in 2021 by Carcanet Press. I also translate poetry, fiction, and essays from Persian/Dari into English.