Eli Whitney and the Cotton Djinn
by Zach Shephard
Eli Whitney was not always a great inventor. Even the best of his early ideas failed to generate
public interest, because no one needed weaponized cheddar or a sock that covers both feet. He
had all the tools he needed to improve the world -- a Yale education, free lodging with a friend
and an abundance of physical resources -- but without inspiration, he just couldn't come up with
Then came the day when he burned the handkerchief, and everything changed.
Eli, brainstorming alone in a shack on Catherine Greene's plantation, had just wasted his last
piece of paper designing a harvester that couldn't possibly be efficient because yams aren't
twelve feet long. It's for this reason that, when his next idea struck, the only available writing
surface was the pair of handkerchiefs in his pocket.
On the square of red cloth Eli recorded his idea for a new type of banjo, which could churn butter
more effectively than any banjo before it. He labeled his invention the slapwagon, which would
make perfect sense if you could see the illustration.
Grinning at the thrill of discovery, Eli held the drawing out at arm's length. Upon review, he
soon realized the slapwagon's fatal flaw: it was stupid.
"Worthless!" he said, and set the handkerchief on fire. He threw it to the dirt floor of the shack,
where it promptly exploded.
From the cloth rose a pillar of smokeless fire, which shifted through various bestial shapes before
solidifying into the form of a statuesque woman in purple, stomach-baring silks. Her skin was
the color of lava, its texture that of rough tablecloth, and her eyes blazed like flame reflected in
"Who dares?" she asked. "Who summons Mari, Lady of Fire, Wielder of the Eternal --"
The water struck her squarely in the face, soaking into the red cloth of her skin. Mari peeled
open one eye, then the other, looking something less than jolly as her gaze fixed on Eli, who was
still holding the empty bucket.
"Why," she said, "would you ever do that?"
"You said you were on fire."
"Of fire. Of."
"Oh. I'm dreadfully sorry, then. Will you accept my apologies?"
Mari sighed. "Oh, I suppose so," she said, turning to the wall-mirror and finger-combing her
long black hair. "After all, I'd hate to get off on the wrong foot. Tell me, darling, what's your
"Eli. Eli Whitney."
"And how did you summon me, Eli Whitney?"
"I burned a handkerchief."
Mari stopped combing her hair. "A handkerchief? Yes . . . that does sound familiar. Do you
happen to have another like it?"
Eli held up a black cloth.
"Oh, wonderful! Would you mind burning that one, too?"
Eli, eager to find an explanation for the seven-foot woman who'd materialized out of thin air, lit
"Wait!" Mari said. She took the handkerchief, blew her nose into it and handed it back. "There
we are. Carry on."
Eli lit the soiled handkerchief and tossed it to the floor. A familiar explosion followed, and when
the flaming pillar stopped its shifting, a bare-chested, heavily muscled man with two small horns
on his forehead stood beside Mari.
"Who calls me forth?" he asked. "Who calls upon Zumaj, Lord of the Shadowy Depths,
Vanquisher of the Warrior-Kings, Keeper of the why the hell am I covered in snot?"
Zumaj held his arms to the sides, as if too disgusted to let his body touch itself. His skin,
textured like Mari's and dark as an endless cave, was soaked.
"Eli, this is Zumaj. Zumaj, Eli."
Eli stepped forward to get a closer look at the pair. "This is remarkable," he said. "What are
"We're djinn, silly."
"Djinn! Like from the Arabian tales! Do you grant wishes?"
"We've been known to dabble in miracle-making, in exchange for certain services. But before
we get to any of that, I'd like to know more about those handkerchiefs. Where did you get
"I bought them at the market, just the other day."
"I don't recall the merchant's name -- I'm new in town, just passing through on my way to a
"Hm." Mari tapped her lips. "A teacher. I suppose that's all right."
Eli, not wanting to leave his wish-factories unimpressed, quickly updated his story.
"It's just a temporary position," he said. "What I really want is to be an inventor."
"An inventor!" Mari said. "That's much more interesting. Isn't that lovely, Zumaj?"
The darker djinni leaned away from Eli's curious hand, which was trying to touch one of his
horns. "Yes," he said, sounding entirely unamused. "Lovely."
Mari clapped her hands. "It's settled, then! We'll do inventions. But we'll need some help. Eli,
would you be interested in earning a few wishes?"
Eli's attention cut over to Mari. "Yes! I'd like that very much."
"Good," she said, draping her long red arm over his shoulders. "Now, let's talk details . . ."
In theory, Eli's rat-trap should have taken three hours to capture every rodent on the east side of
the plantation. In practice, it only took forty minutes to kill two cats and incinerate a shed.
Eli splashed one last bucket of water onto the shed's smoldering remains. He sifted through the
ashes, but found none of the rat parts Zumaj had tasked him with gathering. Too discouraged to
start over right away, he took a break from that project and focused on Mari's needs for a time.
Eli headed into town to gather the materials on the djinni's list. Just before he reached the
general store he felt a sudden tug on his jacket, which drew him forcefully into the empty space
"I beg your pardon!" Eli said, as he was released with a shove. He turned to get a look at the
brute who'd attacked him, only to find a five-foot woman with glittery green eyes and animal-hide clothing.
"I don't have much time, so I'll make this quick. Your name is Eli. You bought two
handkerchiefs at the market recently. I need them, and you're going to give them to me."
"I'm sorry," Eli said, straightening his jacket, "but even if I wanted to, I couldn't help you."
The woman leaned in close and sniffed him.
"Oh, hell," she said. "You've already burned them. I can smell Mari's stench all over you."
"You know Mari?"
"Better than I'd care to." The woman rubbed her forehead, muttering under her breath. "Okay.
This is going to take longer than I thought. I'm going to have to tell you my name -- promise me
you won't panic."
Eli, having never experienced an aversion to obscure names in the past, confidently nodded.
The woman took a deep breath. "My name is Henrietta."
"Henrietta? Why would that --"
There was a sound like too-tight pants tearing over a too-plump rump, and in the next instant,
Henrietta was a walrus.
Henrietta, with spiraled tusks like unicorn horns and a rainbow mane running down her back,
regarded her left flipper.
"Oh, wonderful," she said. "That's just perfect."
Eli, far from panicking, leaned in for a closer look at the creature.
"Remarkable . . ." He moved his hand toward Henrietta's tusk, but she flipper-slapped it away.
"Okay," she said, "I'm sure you want an explanation, so here's the short version: I'm cursed. If I
don't tell strangers my name, they forget having ever met me. If I do, I temporarily change
"This is fascinating! I don't see why you were worried. I'm delighted to meet a . . ." Eli
gestured at Henrietta, searching for a word. ". . . Walricorn."
"Yes, well -- we got lucky. This shape looks to be pretty tame. But now that I have your
attention, let's talk djinn. I'm sure Mari and Zumaj have set you to a few tasks by now, yes?"
"They have. Though I must confess, I'm still not certain why they need me to gather such
"It's because they're planning to kill each other. Probably in a very elaborate fashion."
"Kill each other! But why?"
"Because that's the game they play. They've been playing it for as long as anyone can
remember. Mari and Zumaj are immortal -- their bodies may die every now and then, but they
always come back. And when they do, they pass the time by finding new ways to end each other.
We can't let that happen. There can't be a winner. They both need to die."
"I'm afraid I don't understand."
"The world of magic takes getting used to, I know. But look at me!" Henrietta flailed her
flippers and body about, like she had an itch she couldn't reach. "You can't deny what your eyes
"No, I don't deny it at all -- I've seen enough magic today to be a believer. The thing I don't
understand is why we can't let the djinn continue their game. If they're both consenting and
they'll be resurrected anyway, where's the harm?"
"The harm comes from the winner having to wait a few decades for the loser's resurrection.
When djinn get bored, they get into mischief."
"What kind of mischief?"
"The kind that involves death and destruction, and cursing innocent people." Henrietta spread
her flippers, her rainbow mane ruffling. "Exhibit A."
Eli considered the woman's story. He shook his head.
"No," he said. "That can't be right. They promised me wishes."
"Of course they did. Because they want your help. This game of theirs is run by some pretty
strict rules -- they can't harm one another directly, which is why they're having you run errands.
But you won't be getting any wishes after the day of their contest, Eli. The best you can hope for
is a curse that doesn't make dating incredibly awkward."
Eli paced the alley. He didn't want to give up on those wishes. Despite his many failures, he
really was a brilliant engineer -- he could build any machine that came to mind, no matter how
complex or likely to explode it was. Unfortunately, none of those machines was the world-changing device he aspired to produce. He had a creative block, which he was certain the wishes
"I'm sorry," he said, "but I only just met you. How do I know you're telling the truth? How do I
know you're not the dangerous one here? I have no frame of reference for walricorns; maybe
you're all thieves and killers."
"I am not a walricorn!" Henrietta shouted, flopping around like a walricorn. "I --" She paused,
composing herself. "Okay, answer me this: what do the djinn have you collecting?"
"Mari needs some basic building supplies. Nothing unusual -- all items that can be purchased
from various shops around town."
"And what about Zumaj?"
"He . . . has me collecting rats." Eli quickly looked away.
"And?" Henrietta asked. "What else?"
"Well," Eli said, rubbing the back of his neck, "he did mention another ingredient, but he said it
was optional. I don't have to collect a fresh human head."
Henrietta crossed her flippers over her chest, raising a rainbow eyebrow.
"I admit it sounds bad," Eli said. "But I don't suspect the djinn are as evil as you think."
"That's the greed talking. You want your wishes."
"And with them, I'll finally be able to make the world a better place." Eli straightened his
posture, raised his chin and bowed. "It was a pleasure meeting you, Henrietta." He turned and
exited the alley, knowing the walricorn would not follow him into public view.
"You need to think this through!" she shouted after him. "And once you have, you'll be hearing
Mari had selected the plantation's workshop as her base of operations, not only because its great
size suited her needs, but because Eli had assured her total privacy: the workers tended to avoid
that place, because no one wanted to be around when Eli resumed work on his Wasp-Agitation
Eli entered the workshop with the bucket of metal spikes Mari had ordered, placing them on a
crate as he marveled at the sight before him.
"My goodness!" he said. "You've been busy."
Mari stopped hammering on a machine she was building into the far wall. She approached Eli
with a smile.
"Marvelous, don't you think? And are those my spikes? Lovely! This is all turning out so very
Eli circled the rectangular pit that took up most of the workshop's floor. A large wooden
cylinder ran lengthwise through the middle, filling the majority of the pit.
"What's this for?" he asked.
"The event, silly. Did you get the rest of the materials?"
"They're outside. Mari, about this event . . ."
"Which event? The one I specifically told you not to ask nosey questions about?"
"Yes, well -- I'm just concerned for your safety, is all. Especially since the two of you are trying
to kill one another."
Mari's eyes narrowed. "Who told you that?"
"No one," Eli said, picking at a loose shirt-thread. "But I'm an inventor, you know, and I can see
the pieces of your event coming together, forming into an elaborate machine. It seems clear that
you and Zumaj are planning a fight to the death."
Mari turned to examine the bucket of spikes. "You're right, of course. But don't worry about us.
We've done this plenty of times throughout the centuries -- we never stay dead long."
"That's certainly a relief. Still . . ." Eli scratched the back of his head.
"Go on, darling."
"I just -- it seems there are better things you could do with your immortality. You have an
infinite supply of time, not to mention considerable strength and wit. With your tools you could
invent machines, tend to the needy, write poems -- you could change the world."
"Have you ever tried writing poetry? Good luck finding a rhyme for 'eviscerate' that fits the
context of a love story. No, Eli, I will do none of those things. Your world-changing nonsense
could never be as fulfilling as a good victory over Zumaj." She pointed her hammer at Eli. "And
speaking of that big black behemoth, you should see if he needs any help -- this won't be a fair
contest if I'm monopolizing all your time. Run along, darling."
Eli crossed the plantation, hands in his pockets and heavy thoughts in his head. Before he knew
it he was at the shack where he'd first summoned the djinn, which now served as Zumaj's
The sack of dead rats Eli had dropped off earlier was no longer outside the door. He'd given up
on capturing the vermin himself, and had instead acquired them from a local hotel owner who'd
been lazy about cleaning his traps. The price had been very reasonable, because it turns out rat
carcasses were not an expensive commodity in 1792.
Eli stepped inside the shack, its walls bright with sunlight seeping through the cracks. Zumaj sat
on the floor, his hulking back toward Eli, with a pile of rat parts to one side and raven parts to the
Eli cleared his throat.
"Come in, mortal."
Eli circled Zumaj, seeing his first glimpse of the djinni's project.
"Oh, that's -- that's some very nice work."
Zumaj pulled the thread tight and clipped it with his teeth, then stuck the needle into the cloth-flesh of his forearm. He held up his project, viewing it with a critical eye.
"Well?" he asked. "Tell me what you think, inventor."
"It's . . . I mean, it's certainly a . . . bird. Rat. Thing." Eli moved to get a better look at the
abomination. "Very pretty, if that's what you're going for. Or not, if it isn't."
"Hmph." Zumaj removed the needle from his arm and resumed his work.
"I think it will be a fantastic tool for your event, if that's what you're asking. That thing surely
has a decent chance of killing Mari."
Zumaj stopped stitching. "You know about the event?"
"I made some guesses. Mari confirmed."
"I see. Well, if you're worried that I'm not adhering to the theme, I would argue that biological
inventions are still inventions. Now, come and sit. I need my legion prepared by tomorrow
morning, and your aid is required."
For the next thirty minutes, Eli learned how to assemble unholy monstrosities from dead animal
pieces. The process was equal parts educational and gross.
"I was wondering," Eli said as they worked, "have you ever considered doing something else
with your immortality? Something that might benefit the world?"
"There is nothing else. Avenging my losses to Mari is all that matters."
Eli finished his first abomination, which Zumaj animated and commanded to sprint to the other
side of the shack. The bipedal creation ran in three big circles, tripped, and fell on its face.
"I see the problem," Eli said. "I took mismatched legs from the pile -- they're not the same
length. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I've ruined this one."
"It's not ruined. The parts are interchangeable."
"Interchangeable?" Eli scratched his chin. "What a brilliant --"
A rat's leg hit him in the face, dropping into his lap.
"Use that one," Zumaj said. "Back to work."
By the next morning, Eli still hadn't figured out what to do about the djinn. On the one hand, his
conversations with Mari and Zumaj had been eye-opening, and seemed to coincide with
Henrietta's story about their evil nature. On the other hand, wishes.
Eli resolved to continue business as usual until he could decide on a course. It's for this reason
that he went to Mari's workshop in the morning, only to find Henrietta in a giant birdcage in the
Henrietta, human-formed once again, held a finger to her lips and beckoned Eli over. He jogged
across the workshop, keeping an eye out for the absent Mari.
"Henrietta," he said, grimacing at her bruised cheek and split lip, "what are you doing here?"
"I came looking for you. I wanted to see if you'd found anything that would change your mind
about the djinn." She gestured at her prison. "Is this proof enough?"
"I'm sorry -- I never meant for you to be harmed. I should have known the djinn were cruel
from the beginning, but I see the truth now. I'm getting you out of there."
"I'm afraid I can't allow that, darling."
Eli turned to see the towering form of Mari, standing just a few yards away. How a seven-foot
woman with cherry-red skin had managed to sneak through the vastness of the workshop was
anyone's guess, but there was probably some magic involved.
"I'd hoped this moment would never come," Mari said. "Or at least not until after my victory
today. Do you have any idea how many of our wonderful competitions this one has ruined, Eli?
In fact, I seem to recall her being responsible for a certain spell that turned me into a
"And I seem to recall you burning my village and killing my family."
"Did I? Hm. That must have been a good year for me -- sounds like a victory celebration. You
should be glad your family died for a noble cause."
Henrietta's spit landed just south of its mark, striking Mari below the eye. The djinni wiped
herself clean with a forearm.
"Sometimes I wonder why I didn't kill you years ago," she said. "Then I remember what a
delightful idea that curse was, and how much I enjoy knowing that you still suffer to this day.
Once such a social creature, now unable to be remembered as anything but a strange beast . . .
How positively lovely."
"Please," Eli said, "let her go. You don't need to do this."
"I'm afraid I do, actually. Today's event must run smoothly, and that can't happen so long as this
"What are you going to do with her?"
"I'm not certain. I'd like to hear Zumaj's opinion on the matter, which is why you're going to
have him meet me in the western fields."
"I'm through running your errands."
"Come now, Eli -- I can't seek him out myself. Catching a glimpse of his project before the
event would be a blatant violation of the rules. And besides, you're in too deep at this point. If
you don't do as I say, I'll kill this little darling, not to mention everyone you've ever loved.
Here," Mari said, handing Eli a note. "This is a list of things I want you to accomplish while I'm
meeting with Zumaj. I'll be checking your work when you're done. And if you finish early, do
be sure to tidy up the places where Zumaj and I will be standing during the event; I'd hate for
him to think I'm a slob."
Mari opened the cage, enveloped Henrietta with a large sack and slung the protesting prisoner
over her shoulder. "Be back soon," she said. "The show starts at nine o'clock, sharp!"
After delivering Mari's message to Zumaj, Eli found himself with a second list of last-minute
tasks. He only had a short time to work with, but managed to speed through the stitching on the
abominations and prepare the workshop for the event. The djinn entered just as he finished
"I've done everything you asked," he said. "Please don't harm her."
Mari put Henrietta, now bound and gagged, back into the cage. She then patrolled the workshop,
checking the spinning gears on the machines she'd built into the walls, while Zumaj took Eli
"My legion," he said. "They are prepared?"
Eli pulled the covering away from a crate, revealing the abominations inside.
"Good. This will be a day to be remembered, inventor. I see Mari's device in the floor, and
don't suspect it is strong enough to end me. Prepare to celebrate in the name of Zumaj."
"Yes," Eli said, lifting his fist half-heartedly. "Zumaj. Woo."
Zumaj took the abominations to the far end of the workshop, where he started setting them up.
Mari, halfway through her sweep of the area, came across the workshop's clock and sucked in a
"Eli!" she said. "Is that time right?"
"It should be. That clock's always run fine."
Mari ran to one end of the workshop and stood in the small red box Eli had painted on the floor.
Zumaj stood in a similar box on the opposite end. Between them, running lengthwise through
the workshop, was the pit containing the cylinder, which now had a number of spikes protruding
from its curved surface.
Everyone, including the bird-rats, looked at the clock. A few seconds before nine, Mari smiled at
Zumaj. "Good luck, darling."
"To you as well."
The clock chimed and the event began, Eli watching helplessly from the side.
Zumaj's legion waddled forth in their jerky, uncoordinated manner. Mari watched the cylinder,
which was doing an excellent job of not moving at all.
"It's not spinning! Why isn't it spinning?"
Zumaj laughed. "Poor Mari. Was there an error in your calculations? Should we expect your
machines to start functioning at the stroke of ten?"
"Even if my machines are late, at least they'll prove more useful than your little errors."
Zumaj looked at his legion. The bird-rats were supposed to be advancing on Mari, but were
instead stumbling in circles.
"Inventor!" he yelled. "What is wrong with my creations?"
"It looks like a problem with their legs," Eli said. "Maybe you should check."
"I can't! Once the contest has started, I am forbidden from leaving this spot!"
Eli nodded. "I had a feeling that might be the case."
"Fool!" Mari said. "What have you done?"
Eli went to Mari and took the cage's key from her pocket. The djinni stood still as stone, not
"Explain yourself!" she said.
"I did a lot of thinking about your game while you were gone," Eli said, unlocking the door to
Henrietta's cage. "It seemed odd that you would observe so many rules if the ultimate goal was
simply to kill each other. Why not just get to the point and have it out? Why all this strange
ritual? And then I realized: you do it this way because you have to. You do it because, like
Henrietta, you're cursed.
"I probably wouldn't have made the connection if I hadn't known about Henrietta's condition,"
Eli continued, cutting his ally's bonds. "But I saw definite similarities between her curse and
your game, which led me to a realization: they're both machines. They both have rules --
mechanical parts, essentially -- that dictate their functions. So in order to ruin your game, I took
the approach I'd take in stopping any machine: sabotage."
Just then, the cylinder in the pit began its rotations.
"Oh," Eli said, checking his pocket watch. "It's now nine. I changed the clock while you were
gone. I wasn't certain it would help, but you'd seemed very adamant about starting on time, and
the cardinal rule of sabotaging a machine you don't understand is to break anything that seems
"You're a fool," Mari said. "I may be off to a late start, but that doesn't matter. My machines
will end Zumaj, and once he's gone and I've won, I'll no longer be bound to this place."
A wooden beam that had been spring-loaded against the wall snapped out like a sideways
catapult, swinging in an arc intended to strike Zumaj's back and knock him into the pit. It
narrowly missed, grazing the djinni's arm.
"I should also mention," Eli said, "that the other reason I changed your start-time was so you
wouldn't have a chance to inspect everything properly." He pointed at Zumaj's feet. "I painted
your boxes a few feet to the side of where your note instructed."
"Mari!" Zumaj said. "Do something!"
Eli had Henrietta stand behind Mari, then positioned himself behind Zumaj. All the while, traps
sprung on the walls, ineffectively striking the air around Zumaj.
"They can't move their feet to resist," Eli yelled to Henrietta over the sounds of the workshop,
"but they're still awfully big, so we're going to have to put our weight into it. Ready?"
"One . . ."
"No!" Mari said.
"Two . . ."
"You can't do this!"
Eli and Henrietta pushed their shoulders into the backsides of the djinn, who had conveniently
high centers of gravity. Mari and Zumaj fell simultaneously into the spinning cylinder, whose
spikes pulled them through a slotted sheet of metal and started shredding their cloth flesh from
the legs up.
"Curse you, Eli Whitney!" Mari yelled, her lower half sucked into the death-trap, the rest of her
torso following quickly. "May you never find profit as an inventor! May you never --"
And then she was gone, along with Zumaj. All that remained was the separated threads of their
flesh, taking another trip around the cylinder.
As the last of the wall-traps finished springing, Eli took up his broom and swept Zumaj's legion
into the cylinder pit. He wiped the sweat from his brow and leaned on the broom handle as
"What now?" he asked.
"Now I collect their threads and lock them away somewhere safe."
"Will that keep them from returning?"
"They'll find a way back, like they always do. But this might keep them sleeping long enough to
forget about you." She tilted her head to the side. "What about you? Where do you go from
"I suppose I continue on to my teaching job. I'm not thrilled by the idea, but --"
"Oh . . . my . . . Lord."
Eli and Henrietta turned to the doorway. Standing there with a basket against her hip was
Catherine Greene, the owner of the plantation and Eli's gracious hostess. She advanced,
marveling at the contraptions on the walls.
"Catherine," Eli said, kicking a stray bird's wing into the cylinder pit before she could notice.
"What are you doing here?"
"I was picking up some cotton from one of the workers, and thought I heard a commotion . . ."
She leaned over the pit, looking curiously at the still-spinning cylinder. "What is this thing?"
"It's . . . why, it's my latest invention, of course! Look!" Eli grabbed a handful of cotton from
Catherine's basket and tossed it into the pit. He tried not to show his surprise when he realized
the spinning spikes had instantly separated the cotton fibers from their seeds.
"Eli! It's marvelous!"
"Yes, well -- this is just a prototype. The final version will be much smaller."
"You're going to be rich! I'll go tell Phineas right away!"
Catherine hurried off. Eli turned to Henrietta, smiling.
"Cancel that order for the teaching job," he said, hooking his thumbs in his suspenders and
sticking his chest out. "I'm going to be rich."
And that's how Eli Whitney, creator of the cotton gin and pioneer of the interchangeable-parts
manufacturing system, finally found his inspiration. Although his inventions would go on to
forever change the world of industry, he never did get rich.