He came to me looking like one of the cholo boys who haunted Queens, hair cut close to reveal a tattooed scalp. He wore a white cotton undershirt, bore a puckered scar on one shoulder. His lips were full and soft.
The platform was crowded and I did not see him until he was very near, already reaching for my hand.
It was my wristwatch that he coveted, running his finger along the strap, caressing the buckle. He took it off me with a care bordering on tenderness. When I started back from him, he only smiled, displaying gold teeth. “Eh, flaca, relax. You don’t need this.”
When he drew closer, I saw that he was not a cholo after all, despite his bold swagger and his tattoos. This device, they call protective coloration. Even scorpions and horned vipers may match their surroundings.
On his breath, I smelled spices and the sand that blanketed the desert in great rolling dunes. I breathed deeply, breathed the perfume and the heat of Cairo.
“Honored sitt,” he said, with his mouth beside my ear. “Is it good to see a familiar face so far from home?”
His eyes were black, but there was fire in his pupils, certain proof that he had risen from the dead as smoke rises from a brazier. His body was born in flame, and he had walked out of the desert, leaving his heart behind.
“What do you want?” I said, aware that my English was not perfect, even after so much time in the company of the Inglizi.
“Such a question. I want you.”
A train charged up to the platform, opening its doors to release hoards of travelers. They poured into the station and we stood among them, the only still thing. Man and woman, underground.
The first time he came to me was on the West Bank. I wandered at the edge of the Cultivation, below the mortuary temples at Deir el-Bahri. Stars were scattered across the sky like grains of wheat, and the cries of jackals were shrill like the cries of girls. I stood alone on a sandbar, and the water was black at my feet.
This was many years ago. Before Egypt fell under rule of the Khedive. The British Empire was only a faint notion, and the Ottomans had not yet come with the kourbash to bloody all who stood in their way. In these days, my people held me in high regard and I feasted on the hearts of dead men. But what terror lies in hunger, for a man who has no heart?
He came to me on the shores of the Nile, eyes burning. His chest gaped empty and I fled him. Even a god may fear an afrit, if he is impervious to her teeth. I had no power over him, and I ran because he chased me.
He found me the second time in Punt, and then again outside of Prague, in a small cathedral filled with bones, and after that, I saw him everywhere.
In Mumbai, he caught me at a discotheque. He wore the bright colors and shining fabrics of the local men, but he could not disguise the smoldering of his eyes. This was the closest he ever came to me, but I slipped his grasp and found another continent.
There on the subway platform of Queens, he held me by the wrist as he had never done, and his touch warmed, but did not burn.
“If it were my sad misfortune to possess a heart, it would be you who pursued me, no?” He smiled and his teeth shone dull yellow under the florescent lights. “Who is more dangerous, sitt? The woman who takes everything, or the man who has nothing to lose?”
I did not answer, because the truth in his questions was terrible.
“This will not stop,” he said, holding the watch too close to my face. “It does not stop. You look at where we have come from and see only a straight line, a series of moments. I see a circle. There is no man who will not topple before you, save one, and I will always come for you.”
He spread his fingers and let the watch fall.
I opened my mouth to say something, or perhaps to show my crocodile teeth—the jagged edge with which I consumed the unworthy.
He crushed the watch to pieces beneath his heel and I closed my mouth again.