“Tainted”—fiction from May Haddad

28 August, 2023
A conversation reveals the fault lines between the generations — an older one, which clings to traditional beliefs, and a younger one, suspicious of ancient custom and its ability to solve the pressing crisis of the modern-day.


May Haddad


The cold night had stretched on for longer than anyone in the lone cottage could remember. Windows had been bolted up with whatever the family could get their hands on, and every single hole and crack in the makeshift roof was carefully blocked off with leftover pots and pans. Those who believed it was better to sleep through the whole affair, retired early, hoping rest would ease their minds, but they found little comfort in the straw beds and animal-skin pillows they now had to get accustomed to.

This left Umm Kamila and her granddaughter, Nahla, by themselves in the parlor — the former humming the hymns she could recollect from a childhood that felt so long ago, and the latter fidgeting with a contraption she had found in the last scavenge with the children of the other families stranded in that village. Neither seemed to have much to say to the other in the hours that had passed in shared solitude, and this is how they would have carried on as the storm raged had Nahla not finally tired of playing with the broken gears that once seemed to captivate her. Instead, she walked over to her grandmother seated on a cushion of old clothes by the fire dying in the hearth and, without saying a word, lay down in her lap as she used to when she was younger. Now staring out the window that was facing them, Nahla started to ponder the world around her …

“Teta,” Nahla said, ending the silence that had subdued them that night. “I was wondering …”

“Yes, habibiti,” Umm Kamila replied, ruffling gently through her hair. “What is it you want to ask?”

“If our world is suspended in space …”

Umm Kamila raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

“… what’s to keep it from falling into the abyss?”

“Oh, my,” Umm Kamila chuckled, extending her arms out to the heavens. “Why, an angel, of course.”

Nahla’s eyes widened with excitement. “An angel?!”

“Yes, an angel that shoulders the world with its magnificent wings.” Umm Kamila now spread her arms. “Wings that span the Earth from pole to pole!”

Nahla rose from her grandmother’s lap.

“But what does this angel stand on?” She asked.

“This angel stands on a slab,” Umm Kamila responded as she hovered her hands in the air horizontally. “A slab of the finest gemstone.”

“A slab of gemstone?” Nahla wasn’t sure what to make of this. An angel seemed natural enough, logical even from what she had been told of them prior, but the colored rocks she often tossed aside while scavenging held no such luster in her mind. “Is there a reason it stands on gemstone, in particular, Teta? Wouldn’t steel be sturdier?”

“That’s not for me to answer.” Umm Kamila smiled. But, for once, it seemed forced, strained even. “Don’t you want to know what supports the slab?”

Nahla, who still wanted an answer to her prior question, nodded. “What supports the slab?”

Umm Kamila moved her hand so that the back brushed against her lip, and her fingers seemed to protrude out of her like some strange appendage.

“Kuyutha*, of course.”

“Ku-yu-tha?” Nahla tried to pronounce the name, but it felt foreign to her tongue — as if it was from another culture she couldn’t understand. “Kuyutha.” She muttered again, and picking up on her granddaughter’s perplexion, Umm Kamila feigned shock.

“You don’t know of Kuyutha?!” she exclaimed, then leaned over to tear off a cog from a rusted machine and tossed it into the fire. “Now, where were we? You don’t know of Kuyutha!”

“No, Teta.” Nahla shook her head with a look of embarrassment. “What is it?”

“My child.” A zeal was now palpable in the old woman’s voice. “Kuyutha is the cosmic beast with 40,000 horns and 40,000 legs and as many eyes, ears, mouths, and tongues!”

“Forty-thousand horns, legs, eyes, ears, mouths, and tongues?” Nahla’s voice shook with unease. “How tall is it, Teta?”

Umm Kamila raised her hand as far as she could.

“The Kuyutha’s horns are said to reach the Throne of God itself, entangling it like a crown of thorns.” She then flailed her arms about, losing herself in the wonder of it all. “Its nose is in our seas, the two nostrils pinned against holes in the slab of gemstone, enabling it to breathe, and when it breathes once a day — the seas rise and ebb!”

Umm Kamila then arched her back, praising God in all His majesty, as the thunder outside suddenly sounded so much louder to Nahla. Strange thoughts coursed through her young mind — so wild was the image she had conjured that she felt shaken by the sheer madness of it all. To think that the world around her could be filled with such… marvel …

“Does Kuyutha alone carry us?” she finally dared to ask, her curiosity getting the best of her again.


Bahamut, or the Salt of the Earth

habibiti, Kuyutha is carried by the Bahamut, and before you ask …” Umm Kamila chuckled again with an eye on the storm outside. “… the Bahamut itself is suspended in endless water for its own stability.”

“But if Kuyutha is so big, how can the Bahamut carry it?”

Umm Kamila pinched Nahla’s nose.

“The seas of the world, placed in one of that fish’s nostrils, would be but a heap of sand in the desert. That’s how on its back, it can carry a beast, an angel, and the rest of the universe, including six hells, the earth, and the heavens.”

“Why…” Nahla was at a loss for words. “Why would God create all this?” 

“Nahla, before this, the earth tossed and turned without rhyme or reason,” Umm Kamila avowed, thanking God silently, then gazed down at her granddaughter, who seemed transfixed by whatever was happening outside those windows. “Like all of his creations, these creatures were gifted to us by God to bring us peace.”

“Peace?” Nahla glanced up at her grandmother wearily. “How?”

“Not only do they stabilize our world, but when they quench their thirst with our seas, they hinder the rising tide and prevent our world from drowning in its own waters.”

“My God …” Nahla whispered to herself, for she could say nothing else.

“God is great.” Umm Kamila nodded in affirmation.

“But we aren’t,” Nahla muttered.

“Nahla …” Umm Kamila held her granddaughter’s hand, noticing for the first time how small and coarse it was. “Oh, what’s become of the world.”

Nahla smiled as best she could. “That can’t be all of it, can it, Teta?”

Umm Kamila raised her eyebrow again. “What do you mean, habibiti?”

“There’s always more …” Nahla muttered to herself. “Is there anything underneath the Bahamut?”

“Oh yes, my dear.” The old woman forced a mischievous smile. “But do you really want to know?”

Nahla went silent, wondering for the first time in her life if it would be better not to. But her grandmother carried on, hoping to lighten the mood.

“Beneath the Bahamut is the great serpent Falak, residing in the seventh circle of Hell.” Umm Kamila playfully moved her hand towards Nahla’s face and clasped it before her as a predator’s jaw would before its prey. “So great is the Falak that it is said that it could devour our world whole.”

“You mean… our world could end?”

Umm Kamila caressed her granddaughter’s cheek and smiled.

“Yes, all things must end. But worry not, my child. That will not happen anytime soon, as I assure you the Falak will never be the one to consume us.”

The old woman then moved to embrace her granddaughter… only to recoil when Nahla asked her in the faintest of whispers, “How are you sure of that?”

“Why, its fear of God the Almighty, All-Knowing, and Most-Merciful prevents it from doing so, of course.”

Nahla took a deep breath, trying to calm herself down before her grandmother added, “And as you know, God will always be with us.”

“Teta…” Nahla suddenly found it hard to speak. “How do you know all of this?”

“My child, these are the stories that have been passed down to us from the very beginning,” Umm Kamila recited the litany that had been recited to her once upon a time, only to pause for a moment and lament: “And these stories will be with us until the very end …”

A moment of silence passed, one that felt like an eternity to young Nahla, who now found it hard to breathe.

“But Teta,” She finally broke that silence, her eyes widening with fear as she glanced over at the storm raging past her windows, “if the Kuyutha and the Bahamut are nourished with the Earth’s water …”


“What happens now that we have tainted it with our machines?”

Umm Kamila took a deep breath — one she hoped would not end — only to find herself holding on to her granddaughter with all her might. 

“Teta?” Nahla asked once more when the fire in the hearth finally died down. “What will happen to us?”

But all she could tell her was: “It’s best not to think about it, my love …”


*Bahamut and Kuyutha are mythological figures described in ‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat wa Ghara’ib al-Mawjudat: عجائب المخلوقات وغرائب الموجودات (Wonders of the Creation and Unique [phenomena] of Existence), by cosmographer and geographer Zakariya al-Qazwini, born in Qazwin, Iran, in 1203 AD. 

May Haddad is an Arab American writer of speculative fiction whose work deals with the Arab experience across time and space and touches on themes of nostalgia, isolation, memory, and longing. As of this publication, you can find her work in The Markaz Review and Nightmare Magazine.

Bahamutgenerational fictionKuyuthaspeculative fiction

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