I stay in New York to bargain for power.
My gran'mere taught me to negotiate for smalls and ways in the unlit parts of the city; she taught me that there were things that lived in New York, that were New York, who could be treated with and flattered or threatened or spoken to over a cup of chocolate or a mug of beer.
I was seven when she knew.
"Police car! Police car!"
"Hush, Michael. No police, see? No police."
"But they're driving! I hear them!" It was true; the siren was laying two-toned brushstrokes of warning down an avenue unseen one block over. Gran'mere looked sharply down at me, my little smooth hand in her small wrinkled one there on Eleventh street on the way to the market.
"You hear them driving, Michel?" When she had something important to tell me, my name changed. The Old World intonation shifted it from something cheap and coarse, borrowed unimaginatively from a shoddy cardboard bible, into something mysterious that spoke of dew-lined trees and forests ancient with tales.
"Yes, Gran'mere. I do, I do! Can't you?"
"I hear it, Michel. But listen, now, that is not police."
"Is it firemen, Gran'mere?"
She looked down at me, and turned uptown on Hudson towards the playground to sit on a bench and pull me onto it beside her. "No, Michel. That is not the firemen. Can you still hear it?"
I listened. The sound was barely audible, moving downtown, before it suddenly stopped. "It stopped, Gran'mere."
"Yes. It is not firemen, nor is it an ambulance."
"Then what is it, Gran'mere?"
"Do you see anyone around us looking for the sound?"
"No, Gran. But unless it is close, no one ever does."
She laughed, once, softly. "That is true. It is true. New York, the city of the unconcerned. Listen to me, Michel." She patted my arm, and her unexpected tenderness was frightening to a child used to cold distance, if affectionate remove. "You can hear the djinn. You must know what he is."
"Yes, mon cher, he. He is the djinn. Have you heard of the djinn?"
"Ah, if you lived in France, you would have, at your age. No. He is a creature of vast age and power, the djinn; he is magic, magic itself. He comes from Araby, long ago. He came to Paris in the time of Napoleon, and when Armistice came after the trenches he came to America with the soldiers."
"He is a magic man?"
"No, cher, he is not a man. He is magic, but not a man. He is a creature of the desert and of the wind. Have you heard of genies and lamps? That is America's poor understanding of the djinn. He would lift up beggars into riches and cast down kings for his sport and fun; torment brave men and rescue cowards to balance sufferings in favored villages, or play great games of pretend and cause great confusion over whole lands, at which he would roar with laughter."
I stared at her, transfixed. "He is here? In New York?"
"Yes, cher. He is. He has been here since the Armistice; but he made a terrible error, and he cannot leave."
"Why not, Gran?"
She waited a moment, looking into my eyes. "Michel, I tell you this because very few people can hear the djinn. If you can hear him, that means you will be able to see him, and to speak with him; and if you can speak with him, you can ask him for things, do him favors. You will be able to see other things most people cannot. But-" and her hand tightened sharply on my arm- "you must understand what it will mean. If I tell you the rest of this story, you will have to let me tell you many things, teach you what you can and cannot do." She sat back, relaxing. "You are young, but already so old here in this world, I don't know if you will understand me."
I gulped. "Gran'mere, I want to hear about the djinn. Why does he make that sound like the police?"
She looked into my eyes, one after the other. "You will listen to me when I teach you?"
"I will, Gran'mere."
A rare smile. "You're a good boy, Michel. Bien, I will tell you. Listen. The djinn came to New York, and he did not understand how very many people there are, here in New York. You see, the djinn's powers, he can only use them in certain ways."
"What ways, Gran'mere?"
The question seemed to please her. Her eyes sparkled and she patted my arm again. "The djinn has no body, Michel. He is wind and darkness and light. He is a shape, no more. In order to speak, he must live inside a person; he must live within their body. Do you understand?"
I sat up, shocked. "He is demon?"
"Yes! Yes, a special demon. He must possess a person to exist and use his power. That is why the stories say you must rub a lamp to see a genie - the djinn can be confined in a vessel or container, but when you touch it, he will possess you. What he wishes you to see, you will see, for he can touch your eyes from the inside, non? And once he is inside you, he can use your body to perform his magic, to grant you wishes as the happy stories go."
"Would he really grant wishes?"
"Ah, that depends. You see, the problem is that the djinn is usually in a container because he has been imprisoned there. If he is grateful for his release, he will perform magic for you before moving on; if he is angry, he will perform a curse before doing so."
"But why do all the stories say he grants wishes?"
"Ah, well, some stories say the wishes are ones that make the wisher regret them later. You see, the djinn dare not hurt you directly, for he is actually inside your body, do you see? If you were to die, or be harmed, it would not hurt him - but in these stories, the lamp is usually hidden somewhere very remote, and if he were to kill you, he would just likely be pulled back into the prison container when your body failed. What would be the point?"
"How does he escape, then?"
That earned me another pat. "You see, a djinn moves from person to person when the person he is in touches another. He cannot help it; he is pulled into the new person. But he is a helpless passenger, unless he can capture the mind of the person he is inside and so take control of them. Once he has done so, he need no longer transfer from person to person upon touch, and he is then 'free' so long as he keeps his body healthy."
I thought about this. "Gran, what happens to the person whose body he is using?"
She smiled sadly. "That person is sleeping, until the djinn leaves. Sometimes for years. If it is that long, when the djinn leaves, they almost always go mad - or those around them usually think them mad, for they remember nothing of the years since they were pushed aside. Sometimes they never return, and the djinn remains until their body dies."
"Why would a djinn not do this all the time?"
"Why, because the longer a djinn stays in a body, the more human it becomes, and the harder it becomes to do magic. Most leave after no more than a few months, before the majority of their powers desert them. When the djinn leaves, their powers return."
"Why is the djinn I hear making that noise? You haven't told me."
"Why, so I haven't. He has been here for many years, you know, cher. And the problem is that in order to capture the mind of a person, that person needs to be quiet for many hours - in sum, they need to go to sleep, really. Do you see the problem, yet?"
I thought about it. "No, Gran." I looked down. "I'm sorry."
She laughed. "Of course not, cher. You have grown here, and it is your home. It is not strange to you." She stood up and waved around us at the avenue, the people rushing back and forth. "You see, from the moment he got off the ship, he has moved from person to person by touch. No New Yorker ever can avoid touching others for an entire day; or, at least, no New Yorker ever has gone from the time the djinn has found him to his bed without touching another - and those that have been touched just before retiring have not slept long enough, or slept alone. The djinn has wandered the streets these long years, moving from person to person, never sleeping, never able to direct his movements."
"But why do the people he posesses not see what he wishes them to see, or accept his wishes?"
"Ah, because those that do are thought mad. He is weak, you see; he has been shuffled from person to person so quickly that his power is confused. He dares not even speak to most he touches, for fear they will become afraid and harm themselves - and those he tries to touch will usually immediately seek help, and be touched."
"It sounds so lonely."
"That, mon cher, is why he howls. It is that which you hear. Sometimes when he is riding the trains, or in buses, he will howl his sadness- and I am not sure if the police sirens were made to sound like him because someone heard him once long ago, or if he has come to imitate them."
"How do you know all this, gran'mere?"
"Ah, I have spoken to him several times."
"Yes. If you know how, you can see him when he lives within someone. If you touch that person, he will be pulled into you. If you can see and hear him, you can speak with him."
"But will he not hurt you?"
"He might. But cher, think of it. He is so very lonely. If you can keep yourself from being touched, and so long as you are not unwary enough to fall asleep, why, he cannot harm you if you do not make any foolish wishes. And he is often so very desperate to talk to someone, even if only for a few minutes. He is usually quite grateful for the chat, and his happiness allows the return of some of his power - which he has used to offer me favors, betimes."
"So if I were to find him-"
"Yes. You may be able to ask him favors."
"Oh." I thought about this for a time. "What should I ask him?"
"Oh, that is up to you. We will talk about what is appropriate. But he is so powerful, that his gifts are best used to help you in your dealings with the others who are in New York."
"There are others?"
"Oh, yes. Ever so many others."
"Who? What others, Gran'mere? Can I see them too?"
"We will see, Michel. Come, we still have to go to the market. When we are home, we will try some small things, to see what you can see."