Haseeb Asif, 25, got his bachelor's in Economics from LUMS. Economics was a lot of bad fiction for him, so he decided to read some good fiction. He completed his MA in English Literature at BNU. He was born and raised in Lahore, but because of his ancestral home in a village near Jehlum, he’s always commuting between urban and rural existence. He loves books, football, alcohol, and music that makes him lay back and tap his feet.
I stare at the reflection in the mirror but hardly recognize myself. Florescence changes you somehow. I turn the tap for what seems like an eternity but the gushing water is as relentless as the ceramic white of the bathroom walls. The sink is threatening to overflow; I was never any good at dealing with threats, so I step back and watch it become a waterfall.
Outside, the conductor asks me what I was doing. I ask him the same thing. Questions bore me, anyway. I want to sit down and stare at the other world. What other world, he asks. The one where foliage travels at the speed of light. Where existence is all a blur. My face is glued to the window; I look like a mosquito caught on the windscreen of a very long car.
A ticket? I don’t have a ticket, I’m sorry, I’ll get off at the next station. This does not satisfy him, but all of a sudden, there is movement in his bowels and he rushes off to the employee’s compartment. Fortune is not against me today.
Pleased, I turn around to attend to my primroses. They smell a lovely colour: lilac. My ancestors used to breed flowers. When the rest of the world was busy building towering infernos, which reached up to the heavens and burnt even God’s abode, my ancestors were breeding harmless, delicate, joyful flowers.
The conductor is back again, asking for the fare. I suggest we go outside and discuss this over a cigarette, like civilized men. He steps off the rampant locomotive and breaks his leg in three places. Not that a perfectly whole appendage would do him any good, now that he’s dead.
I stand there, shattered. I think about the six kids and the pregnant wife he might have left behind. I think about his poor old senile mother hanging off the balcony at the picket-fenced nursing home, an orderly at each side trying to throw her down as she’s clutching on for dear life. I think about all the dreams and aspirations he might have had some day in the future when he would have finally woken up to the fact that he was a fucking railway conductor.
Death always makes me thirsty. The bar is a splendid thing of ornamental beauty. A waif-like waitress glides on the wooden floor, her cotton skirts chasing her silken hips; I place my elbows on the maple-stained fruitwood counter and ask for the finest wine known to mankind. She turns around, and gulps down the contents from an Emerald jug. Then asks me to drink from her mouth.
The conductor is back once again. This time from the Hereafter. He looks like a fright, but he’s still in uniform, still asking me for a ticket. Is this it? Is this all that happens when you die? Your hair gets frazzled and your skin takes on the translucent properties of lampshades? Is there no escape from your rank, your class, yourself?
The passenger in the next seat is snoring loud enough to cause the great quake of 1906 all over again. I want to get up and slap him but his wife has read my thoughts and is staring at me with murderous eyes. Her red dress and pale skin and raven hair all meld into one, the colours bleed into each other, until she becomes a wriggling white blob. This is me erasing her from my memory. A coping mechanism.
Fine, I didn’t pay my fare: I won’t trouble you any longer. I’ll leave.
I let go of my weight and drift towards the copper plated roof of the carriage. By the time I hit the ceiling, I am completely intangible. I weave through its molecular gaps and emerge into the lusty autumn air as a vapourous being.
I dance upon the wind, soaring higher until I blend in with the clouds. I spread myself like a cumulus, and cry with joy at the vision I behold; untarnished meadows and silvery, snake-like mirrors glistening in the sunlight. My tears must seem like rain to the people down below, a solitary cloud pelting them with warm and salty droplets, a cloud gone mad.
Suddenly, He plucks me from my irresolute form and makes me solid again. He says He has something to show me. We traverse the Milky Way on a beam of light and come to nestle in the shadow of a derelict star, whose ashen surface is steadily disintegrating into space debris.
From this niche of the universe, I espy millions of glowing, glaring orbs engaged in a seamless waltz with one another, in perfect harmony, gracefully following invisible directions, like a phantom troupe. For every ball of light that is snuffed out a new one emerges in some distant corner of this living darkness.
I ask Him what all this means and He simply says, “This was not a scheduled stop.”
I circumambulate the Earth. I pass the moon on many occasions. It is pale and sullen, and the uneven contours of its surface tell me to keep my distance. I extend my arms and start rotating like a satellite. For many eons. Then one day, golden fire rains down on that familiar blue globe and devours about a quarter of it.
The shattered thing falls off its orbit and prepares to extinguish itself in a glorious burst of colour and light. The moon and I keep revolving around an imaginary mass, Earth’s ghost, for many more eons. The moon is less sullen now that people don’t stare at it. Brighter even, healthier, almost a golden brown. Algae and fungi grow freely on it, and on me.
When the Word comes, it is deafening. Everything stops. The moss on my face dissolves back into the blackness. Mars, producer of strife, bellows bile into the hearts of the other planets. Gargantuan Jupiter rises from its stupor and floats magnificently out of the galaxy. Ostentatious Saturn with its rings of gold and silver, accompanied by voluptuous Venus, follow. Neptune moves like a tidal wave. They all migrate to other crevices of the universe, some other galaxy, abandoning the Milky Way, leaving just Pluto behind, because it is too little to be separated from its mother.
The sun is not pleased, all the same.