Matthew So-Yohu had thought it was a day like any other when the unthinkable occurred. Pushing aside that inherent illogic, So-Yohu grimaced internally and continued his speech. His unnameable audience was transfixed. So-Yohu’s grimace grew. He felt it stretch within his soul like a rubber band as large as Archimedes’s hypothetical lever. Would the grimace grow until it exploded his soul’s natural capacities or would his soul expand in its turn to accommodate the increasing proportions of his grimace, thereby proving itself infinitely flexible, gargantuan, and monstrous?
At this point the grimace transformed into a grimmus, which in fact it had been all the time, and So-Yohu was able to relax. The grimmus, however, could not.
So-Yohu’s grimmus got to work at once, as all grimmuses are compelled to do. It began with an ordinary 16-oz can of tomato sauce that So-Yohu inexplicably purchased on his way home from work. That was the unintentionally easy part since djinns can abide in anything but prefer the packaged effect. The intentionally easy part, of course, was summoning the djinn. Like cherries in an Anatolian cherry orchard after a moderately hard winter, plentiful spring rains, temperate sunshine, and only a modicum of infestation, djinns are everywhere. One doesn’t have to know where to look. The grimmus had only to choose. And that was the difficult part, though Who made it so, the grimmus knew very well.
So-Yohu’s grimmus did actually settle on one djinn but he ended up summoning another. Their little joke. But in cases like that and otherwise, the grimmus understood, the outcome was predetermined.
So the djinn claimed occupancy of the 16-oz tomato can that its owner, placidly unaware of its contents, carried in a large paper bag all the way into his domicile.
It happened shortly there afterward that Mrs. So-Yohu, whether the mother, wife, daughter, or member of the undesirable elements of the extended family being altogether irrelevant if not immaterial, ordered So-Yohu to fetch a tomato can for the purpose of a planned meal of spaghetti. In their history, none of the So-Yohus embarking on such a culinary enterprise ever completed it satisfactorily, suspecting correctly that the ideal spaghetti sauce was just an unknown measure of basil and garlic away and incorrectly that brawny, excitable Neapolitans wielding wooden ladles knew any more than they did.
When So-Yohu opened the tomato can, he was surprised. The djinn almost did him in by its rapid self-expulsion from the can, much like an airbag deploying with or without cause. When he was able to open his swollen left eye, So-Yohu, who was a college drop-out, decided that his right brain at least was working and that he was dead in one sense but alive in another more archaic fashion known in books and scrolls as the after-life. An after-life, when he had ever thought of one, seemed to him more like an afterthought, like dessert. But from what his left eye allowed him to survey, his after-life was swiftly becoming the entree.
“Can you turn on the light? It’s very dark here and I can’t see you properly. Are you going to eat me?” So-Yohu croaked through bruised lips at the two unblinking eyes that were examining him with a phosphorescent gleam in each.
“HA!” cried the owner of the eyes. “Now there’s a question! This is surely the first time a presumed meal asks its presumptive diner for a good look! How edifying!”
So-Yohu frowned. “For you or for me?”
“For me, of course. I would not presume to speak for you. Even the remains of you, if that were your lot. Which it is not.”
“Then you’re not going to eat me?” So-Yohu exclaimed, his surprise overtaking his relief.
“Are you inviting me to do so or daring me?” So-Yohu’s after-life companion asked, taken aback. “Either way I wouldn’t want to offend you and that would place me in rather a quandary.”
“But you popped out of a tomato can meant for Mrs. So-Yohu’s spaghetti sauce and killed me!”
“HA! Naturally, two plus three plus one adds up to an unnatural conclusion without the benefit of doubt. I see now why I was summoned.”
“Summoned?” So-Yohu’s swollen right eye was beginning to open and around him something approaching light was beginning to dawn. “By whom and for what purpose?”
“HA! Now there’s a question!”
Around the phosphorescent eyes of his interlocutor a form took misty shape, a form whose attributes and proportions identified it immediately as a ….
“You’re a mythological dragon!” So-Yohu’s eyeballs popped out further between their swollen eyelids but he ignored the pain, going so far as to jump to his feet and hop about in a perfect frenzy of wonder and delight, leaping around the dragon’s feet and jumping over its tail like a schoolboy in a playground and almost splitting his pants. “Yes! Yes! A mythological dragon! Woo-hoo! When I was a child, I had a stuffed ….”
He tripped over a jutting claw and scrambled up, patting the dragon’s snout in apology, before it was rather pointedly lifted out of his reach. So-Yohu’s reverence grew. He repeated in hushed tones, “A mythological dragon!”
The dragon snorted. “HA! Mythological indeed! Storybook too, no doubt, since you apprehend me with at least two of your limited senses.”
Using those limited senses, So-Yohu perceived he had unwittingly offended the agent of his newly-found after-life. Just as he was about to apologize, the dragon spoke again.
“I’m a djinn, non-mythological and strictly speaking, not a dragon. We djinns prefer the dragon shape above most others, but on our way to the Weeping Preacher you may observe a few real dragons among other, er, mythological beings.”
“Unreal!” So-Yohu breathed. “A real djinn!”
“You may call me Oomani. My full name would unfortunately take two million, three hundred thousand, five hundred and eighty-eight days to repeat and your time here is rather limited.”
“But I thought this was my after-life,” exclaimed So-Yohu. “Don’t I have eternity to look forward to, Oomani?”
“Indeed you do, whichever way you look. However, this happens to be an in-between-life and the line at the Weeping Preacher’s is rather long. We must hurry.”
So-Yohu’s jaw dropped. “In-between-life? Weeping Preacher? And I have to wait in line? But that sounds ridiculous,” he began to say, until he saw Oomani begin to stretch his wings and So-Yohu’s eyes gleamed in anticipation. “Shall I climb on your back?”
“Certainly not!” Oomani said shortly. Then before So-Yohu knew it, he found himself airborne by the seat of his pants with the mighty dragon’s powerful claws wrapped around him, while below visions that he would once have thought unimaginable passed before his eyes.
Just as suddenly, Oomani had descended once again and So-Yohu stood blinking his eyes at the end of a middling long line of folks wearing the same dazed expression as his own.
“Where are we?” So-Yohu asked. “And why is it twilight here already when it was broad daylight when we left from … wherever we were?”
“We were in the vicinity of your tomato can and are now in the courtyard of Mr. Mbudi Bowen-Sadha’s home.”
“But we’re in the African Congo!” So-Yohu exclaimed unequivocally, having had time to take stock of his surroundings. “That’s on earth! What on earth are we doing back on earth after traveling the universe?”
“HA! The universe indeed! There’s a universe in a grain of sand, as a poet once said, if you know how to look at it.”
“B-b-but all the strange th-things, th-the beings, the p-places I saw on the way here,” So-Yohu spluttered, “they weren’t on earth. They were unearthly.”
“Were they?” Oomani directed his gaze at So-Yohu after exchanging a greeting with another dragon. “Or were you simply able to see them for the first time, much like you’re seeing me and my fellow djinns?”
“What fellow djinns? Where?” Oomani asked, looking around.
“I rest my case,” Oomani retorted before hastening him from the darkening courtyard into the house of Bowen-Sadha where they were greeted by a dark-faced gentleman.
“You are most welcome-most welcome, I am Mbudi,” the colorfully dressed man said in a decidedly hurried fashion.
“Mbudi, I am Oomani. And this is Matthew So-Yohu,” Oomani replied, while So-Yohu gathered what was left of his wits.
Nodding happily, Mbudi seemed undisturbed by the appearance of either of his guests. “Most happy. Please, come-come, and here we have The Room for guests. Please, here, yes, sit-sit.”
And he rushed out.
As soon as Mbudi left The Room, Time stopped and So-Yohu heard a man begin to sing. He sang himself right into the Room. He began with Genesis and sang until the last Amen in Revelation. The man sat right in front of So-Yohu, quite undisturbed by his presence. At some points, he wept profusely. When he was finished, he looked at So-Yohu and wept.
Finally, the man spoke saying, “Leaving them so unexpectedly must have been difficult.”
So-Yohu shook his head to signify abject incomprehension. He was not willing to speak until he had regained control of his emotions for the song had moved him immensely. Without knowing it, he was also unnerved by the absence of his Internal Grimace to the Weeping Preacher’s non sequitur.
“Your family,” the man clarified.
Again So-Yohu shook his head, this time with a sense of regret. Not once had his family crossed his mind. He remained silent, waiting for something that seemed to him to be at the very edge of his consciousness, something that would reveal God-only-knew-what.
“Don’t be disturbed, So-Yohu, you will find it,” the man said.
“Find it? Find what? What am I looking for?” So-Yohu held his breath.
“Rest. Rest for your Soul.”
Again, no Internal Grimace made its appearance. Again, it had inexplicably missed a perfect opportunity.
So-Yohu leaped up and paced around The Room before a dragon claw pulled him firmly down into his seat again.
The man spoke again. “So-Yohu, you are troubled and alone. Your sins stand in judgment against you, do they not? But you have listened and learned the Way of deliverance.”
“I have no sins,” So-Yohu began. Oomani gave a loud snort, and So-Yohu hastily added, “No great sin, no persistent sin.”
Silence met his claim and So-Yohu reluctantly mumbled, “Except for ….” He looked at the Weeping Preacher before continuing, then looked away. “That is, you see, I’ve had an Internal Grimace. But that doesn’t mean anything. Not really. Not seriously.”
“Do you believe you possess a Soul, So-Yohu?”
He was tempted to deny it until he remembered he had just told the man he had an Internal Grimace. Wasn’t that just as outlandish as a Soul? Why, if he hadn’t a soul he wouldn’t feel tormented by the Internal Grimace! He remembered the day he first gave in to it, when as a child of two he had grabbed a chunk of his older brother’s hair until the big weenie howled. He mocked his brother’s pain as his Internal Grimace widened in approval and Shame appeared like cancer in his Soul.
Suddenly, So-Yohu realized something and he turned in surprise to the djinn beside him. “You know, Oomani, this is the first time I’ve been free of the Internal Grimace.”
The Weeping Preacher wept again and all of Oomani’s dragon form glowed with satisfaction.
At this point, Mr. Mbudi Bowen-Sadha bounded into The Room. “Time’s up-time’s up. You must go now. So-Yohu go. Now, please.” He rushed them out of the door in a flurry of color. “So long! Good-bye!”
Oomani had him by the hand as the Weeping Preacher’s last words came to him as if from a distance and The Room disappeared in a mist. “Remember the song you heard here, So-Yohu. Find it and sing it. Find rest for your Soul.”
Oomani blew So-Yohu home from The Room and from his in-between-life with a gentle breath, his two great eyes possessing a phosphorescent twinkle that seemed to carry an exhortation and promise.
For weeks afterwards, the family of So-Yohus watched in amazement as Matthew So-Yohu bought crates of 16-oz tomato cans and, wearing a crash helmet, carefully opened can after can. Day after day, ignoring Mrs. So-Yohu’s pleas, he methodically persisted in this enterprise until they all feared the worst. What would the neighbors say? Then one day, So-Yohu began singing. And the djinn Oomani, hovering nearby, saw him leave his house and begin on the Way, saw also the foul grimmus haunting his steps, but knew that one day he, Oomani the Untinned Djinn, would welcome Matthew So-Yohu to the after-life after all.