It was my fourth day as a volunteer speaker in the British Language Academy. The daily task was to do a fifteen minute or so conversation with the students on various topics relevant to their lessons. This part of the program had been adopted by the school to enhance the students’ learning experience. The volunteers, who were mostly English native speakers, were required to be at the school for five hours and would take turns to appear as a guest in the classes. The work was without remuneration but volunteers were given free accommodation and every Friday, the maid would cook Moroccan cuisine for lunch.
I moved to the school’s provided apartment on Tuesday, following the confirmation of my request to be hosted the day before. The apartment had four bedrooms and a living room with four cushioned benches. All rooms appeared to have the same floor area. Two rooms had four beds each but the others had only two. All the twelve beds were already taken but the occupants were currently out of town, except Barry, a very nice guy from Ireland. The school staff instructed me to just use the bed assigned to another Filipino volunteer as she would not be coming back soon.
The guests seemed to have left the apartment right after the party night as evident by the clutter, dishes in the sink, uncollected garbage, and empty liquor bottles conspicuously lying in the sala. I overheard the staff complaining, “foreigners!” The room was not any tidier either, so I had to spend some time to declutter my sleeping area. One, for my own convenience and two, to let her know that “foreigners” could clean. Still, it was not a comfortable night. No sheet. No pillow case. No Blanket. Barry was alone in one room and I was too in another. I was not afraid of the dark but had to keep the light on the whole night to ward off unseen companions. I was not able to sleep until six in the morning when I already had the guts to turn off the bulb.
Fortunately, there was another volunteer who arrived at the school the next day and would become my roommate. His name was Matt. He was a 19-year-old college guy from Chicago, Illinois. He used to play football and his build showed regular physical activities. Fortunately too for him, he arrived on the day when the maid was scheduled to clean the apartment. After unpacking, he fixed his bed using his own linens. I thought he might be a little fatigued from his flight and the instantaneous task at the school. “Would you like to put off the light now?” I asked. It was just a few minutes past midnight. We had been warned that sleeping time was usually at 2 am unless we had the ability to ignore the loud music coming from the pub one floor down. He said he would still be doing something. He let out his notebook then began to scribble. I faced the wall then closed my eyes.
I was sleeping soundly when an indistinct voice pulsated into my consciousness. There was some kind of a fight. The sound became louder. Then someone bawled very near me. I opened my eyes in shock. It was a jinni. Huge, tall and dark. Its hand was extended forward like a superhero letting out a massive power field. I was really frightened my heart stopped. While I was struggling for breath, I looked towards Matt’s bed which was illuminated by the red LED in the extension socket. Matt! Help! He was not there.
I suddenly realized that the silhouette of the super jinn was Matt’s. But the scare did not go away. He was still standing there. I felt like a very frail quarterback about to be blitzed by a giant. I readied my body for the attack. Nothing happened. A moment passed and all my senses were back in place. No one was possessed by the unfriendly spirit. Matt might have just turned off the switch and was not yet familiar with the orientation of the room. “Are you okay man?” I asked to hint that he was going towards the wrong wall. He sounded surprised, “yeah, I’m fine.” He groped his way to his bed and apologized for waking me up.
Minutes passed and I was still wide awake. I kept seeing his tattoo just a few centimeters down his neck, which I noticed when he removed his shirt earlier in the evening. He told me it was his birth year, 1997. Under it was his surname. On his shoulder was the head of a roaring tiger. Now I could not sleep again and my mind was focused on the year. 1997. My left eyelid started to palpitate. The palpitation got harder. The first time I had similar sensation was in that unforgettable year – 1997.
This was the year I graduated from college. The year I had my first job. It was also the year when most of my young siblings were left under my care in Zamboanga City.
I was never a good sitter. I was 23 and had a very bad temper. One time I asked my brother, who was 11 years old at that time, to buy ice in plastic. Yes, we did not have a fridge but we liked to drink cold water. After he bought the frozen water, he just negligently put it on the table to melt. When I got to the kitchen, I noticed the ice had dripped so much portion already. “Mohammad!” I yelled with anger already burning at a maximum level. Without hesitation, I hammered him with the ice the instant he appeared in front of me. He groaned then put his palm on his temple where the ice landed. It was too late when I realized how hard I hit him. He did not cry nor attempted to fight back. Instead, he retreated to the chair beside him feeling downtrodden. I saw so much pain and sadness on his face.
And the monster had to live alone again.
A few months later, my parents asked me to come home to our province because Mohammad was admitted to the hospital. He had been having severe headaches, nausea, and his fever fluctuated from high to extreme. “No! There is no way the blow could have caused his ailment.” I was extremely worried, but even more worried to know it was something else. There was an outbreak of a mosquito-borne flavivirus in my hometown. Since our provincial hospital did not have the right facilities, other patients with dengue fever had to be taken to the hospitals in Zamboanga city for proper care. My family could not afford the immediate transfer so my parents just entrusted my brother’s recovery to the local health practitioners.
The doctor explained that the disease was hemorrhagic and any food intake could exacerbate the internal bleeding. A little amount of water would be enough nourishment. He would be fed with few spoons of water. It was quite agonizing looking at him while he sipped from the spoon with trembling lips. He was famished. My parents asked the attending physician if he could be given a little bit of solid food. No. Unless they wanted his condition to worsen.
I positioned myself beside him. He appeared to be recuperating but looked so much different from the last time I saw him a few months back. He was thinner and the hair above his temple was shaved to reveal the vein into which a butterfly needle was inserted. He smiled at me and pleaded, “please let us go to the coffee shop.” My heart sank. Why couldn’t he be given food? He continued with even softer voice, “I have some money, let us go to the coffee shop. My treat Utoh Kadam.” I felt a lump in my throat and my eyes moistened.
The following day, he was gone forever.
It had been twenty years. But I could never forget how his remains was wrapped in a blanket carefully held by my father in his arms. My grandfather was the last person to know what happened. The moment he saw him laid down on the bed, the old man broke down like a child. He was inconsolable. A very distressing sight. I went to the other room, curled myself on the mat and wept my heart out.
Twenty years, over thirteen thousand kilometers away from grief, awaken by the jinn, I curled myself on the bed with tears rolling down my eyes. Why could I not move on? I still blamed poverty. I still blamed the doctor and the hospital. I still blamed the mosquitos. I still blamed myself. The pain was still so fresh. Last night I wanted to wail but I did not want to be the emotional sociopath who would surprise the person I just met. I had to contain the pain. God, it was more difficult than the first time.
In the morning, Matt and I had breakfast together. We talked about it. “I don’t remember anything. I might just be sleepwalking man,” he jested. “It must really be the jinn,” I wanted to return the jest but proceeded to tell him about my brother instead. He said sorry then gave me a tight hug. The young man who I imagined being possessed by the jinn just became my good pal in Casablanca.