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.
An Improbable Tale
He woke with a familiar blur in his eyes, got up from what he thought was his bed, staggered, then opened the door to what should have been his toilet. It was a closet, instead. This annoyed him in two ways: firstly, it was obviously not his apartment and secondly, his bladder was just about to lose the battle against propriety.
He stared at the off-white walls for the outline of another door. The one he tried next led to a sparsely decorated living area. Turning around would have been too painful, so he relieved himself on the Afghan rug below his feet. The feeling was excruciatingly pleasant.
Another night of heavy drinking?
He tried licking the inside of his mouth to feel for the taste of vomit. Nothing; he could neither feel his tongue nor his teeth. He was numb inside. He went into the kitchen, poured himself a glass of water and gulped it down. It shot back up his throat and splattered the floor.
Blood. What the hell? What happened yesterday? Why couldn’t he remember?
Memory proved to be beyond his reach for the moment; he had to get out of that apartment, escape the stale air that was sedating his senses and get some sense of place and time. Outside, the suffocatingly narrow corridor went from a windowless wall on one end to an elevator on the other.
He pressed all the buttons he could make out on the elevator panel. They turned from a dull grey to a bright crimson as he waited. A bell dinged and the doors parted. He stepped inside and nodded when the lift attendant, a freckled youth sporting a jacket and tie inquired, “Ground floor?”
The machine lurched, and so did his guts. His green and yellow puke smeared the attendant’s sleek black shoes.
“Will you kindly let go of my tie, sir?” came a raspy voice after a while, the words all clipped at the end as if the person uttering them was being choked. He looked up and saw himself dangling from the boy’s neck. He let go and his arms fell in a heap.
He heard the grinding of worn out gears and the doors parted again. He stepped out into the lobby. Specks of dust spiraling indecisively in the ambient light prompted more nausea; this time he keeled over on a dirty maroon carpet and lay prostrate before the reception desk.
A pair of strong shoulders heaved him from his bizarre worship and he stumbled on as if nothing unusual had happened. The glass doors of the main entrance gently got out of his way like wayfarers encountering tumbleweed. Outside, the glare of the afternoon sun blinded him and he put a hand over his head, turning his face low to one side. When he opened his eyes again he saw a swathe of arms dangling briefcases and purses.
Must be a working day.
He noticed, for the first time, the state of his dress. He was wearing a beige shirt with sleeves that were rolled up to his elbows. He had no shoes on and there was a slight bruise just below his right knee, which glowed an angry red.
It seemed fresh; he must have scraped it on the way out. Wait, why could he see his knees? Where were his pants? The plain white briefs over his crotch shrugged sheepishly in reply.
Fuck. He had to get out of here, he had to get back home, he thought.
Fresh waves of nausea. His subdued attempt at calling a taxi only caught the attention of a nearby pedestrian.
“Are you alright, friend?”
He replied with empty eyes. Why was the taxi driver wearing a goddamn suit?
“Forgot your pants?”
Pants? No, I don’t want pants, I want to go home. Please take me home.
“You look like a fright, you know.”
He had met somebody the other day, who had offered him all the riches in the world, or at least twenty thousand in the Queen’s currency. That man had lied. Or had he?
“Are you drunk or something?”
He sure talks enough to be a taxi driver, but something seems out of place.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
Name? What was his name? Something… something beginning with a gasp and ending in a sigh…
What? He’d never had memory loss from drinking before. Or even if he had, he didn’t remember it. What the hell was this shit?
OK, relax. Calm down. This is nothing a couple of dozen aspirins can’t fix. Just get home. Remember where that is, right? Not on these virile streets, which vaguely resembled the Southall area of London.
Where the hell was the taxi he had called, when was it, yesterday?
Maybe he needed to move closer to the road. Towards the middle of it. Yes, from here he could see lots of taxis. In fact one was headed right for him. At last, but why was it blaring the horn so loudly, why was it not… wham!
He saw explosions in front of his eyes, a lot of yellow and grey, and the memories came crashing back like a train wreck.
It was almost impossible to sift through the debris and see if anything had survived.
A green-eyed man, a maroon velvet cloth and the overwhelming smell of chloroform. Three remnants rescued from the terrible rubble.
Promises of money, yes? A chance meeting, or perhaps something more sinisterly arranged? A man of medicine, a healer?
He was broken and needed healing. Or perhaps he had been whole and needed breaking.
“Somebody call an ambulance, he looks really out of it.”
A dimly lit room. Hushed voices. The taste of stainless steel. Something wrapped in a maroon velvet cloth, sitting on the table at the end of his bed. Somebody speaking to his ear in hushed whispers, telling it he was sorry.
Sorry for what?
A struggle. Raised voices. The cold essence of skin on steel. Something missing from his person, a vacuum in his being. A large illuminated mirror at the end of his bed. Somebody still hushing their words with whispers.
Sorry for what?
Mirrors on every square foot of every wall. Eyes peering out from each one, looking at him, looking through him, some glumly, most cruelly. Eyes peering out from the mirror at the end of the bed. Eyes violently, menacingly green.
“Young man, are you okay?”
A lurch, a limp, a sway and he was in front of the mirror at the end of the bed. His face was not his face, it was coarse white and broken up in lines.
No, these mirrors were all wrong. They reflected lunacy, not light. He needed to find a proper one.
“Hey? Hey! Can you even hear us?”
By the time he opened his eyes the pain from the crash had become mercifully dull. He grabbed at the coats and trousers around him and pulled himself up. He ignored all manner of questions and remonstrations to saunter further across the road.
At the far end of the asphalt, he stopped and hurled once again. More nausea. More blood. The glistening liquid mirrored another lie.
He found a clothing outlet nearby and entered the shop with the air of an important customer. He followed some sense of where the dressing rooms would be. A steward attentively took stock of his situation and hurried to the cubicle with no less than six pairs of pants draped over one arm.
He had no interest in the pants but took a few with him so as not to upset the establishment. Inside the cubicle, in front of the three-sided mirrors he looked silly from every angle. Covered in nudity and grime.
He noticed some blotted stains below his neck, but his face, his face was there. No cuts, no bruises, pupils a little dilated but otherwise fine. That aristocratic nose, all crooked and bent to one side, his pouting lips looked brittle and parched but unharmed. He smiled.
Behind them there was still that full set of teeth… wait, something about the teeth. Something about the mouth…
The store clerk outside heard strange gurgling noises coming from the changing booth, followed by the dull thud of somebody falling against the door. Probably trying to force himself into a size too small, he ruminated, with a smile.
The unfortunately named Mr. Nigar stared in the mirror at the unusually happy visage of his old friend and companion: himself. His rotund nose spread itself wide over his face in between dimpled cheeks and above the glistening white of his teeth; he hadn’t smiled like this in seven years.
Mr. Nigar was tall, very dark and had been fond of cycling once, until the age of twenty-two when a freak hillside accident and surgical inadequacy left him without that red, muscular organ we all take for granted in our lives: the tongue.
He had, however, kept his chin up, or whatever was left of it after the reconstructive procedure. He had finished his software engineering degree at college and managed to land a data entry job at a local firm through their disability quota.
He was given a cubicle next to the gas main in the basement and his life had been uneventful and suffocatingly silent since. Until now. Standing in front of the mirror, he felt like a new man.
His mouth felt a bit parched, so he licked his lips, and that’s when it really sunk in; the soft, moist appendage against his skin. The salty taste. Taste! He could taste again.
He stuck the tongue out at himself, playfully. He held it between the thumb and forefinger of his ebony hands and examined it more clinically. There was a slight discolouration where the thing had been attached, a visible scar outlined the exact point of grafting, but otherwise it looked alright, perhaps a bit blue towards the tip, but then the doctor had said the flow of blood would never be perfect again.
He wriggled it around for a while, rapidly jutting it in and out, pretending to be a snake, He hissed at his own reflection and his smile broadened further. He had been smiling so much that his cheeks had begun to hurt.
He went to his kitchen and made some coffee. He paused after every sip to lick the insides of his mouth. He also licked the circular edge of the coffee mug and even the bit of light brown froth that had fallen on the ceramic table. He mulled over all the different tastes and textures he’d absorbed in a little over five minutes. His tongue burned pleasantly.
More frolicking in this miraculous recovery would have to wait, he thought. It was a Monday after all: humanity’s least favourite day. As he stepped outside his ground floor apartment, he was greeted an old Indonesian lady in the sunlit courtyard.
“Good morning, isn’t it just a lovely day!” she said pleasantly as she smiled and ambled across.
Today, he didn’t need to conjure up a smile before he faced anyone, it was already there. He opened his mouth to repay the nicety in kind.
“Enjoy it while it lasts, you shriveled up old hag, you’ll probably be dead by evening,” he said and bowed his head politely.
“Well!” said the flustered old lady and walked away in a huff.
Haha. What did I say that for? Strange. I wasn’t thinking anything of the sort. I was about to say it’s the kind of day that makes you feel like anything is possible. Maybe it’s an aftereffect of all those pills, he thought, the drive to work will clear my head.
Good thoughts were still careening in his mind when he went out to the parking lot to retrieve his battered old white (now grey) Mini. At the exit, the security guard tipped his hat as he raised the barrier.
Nigar rolled down his window to say hello.
“Take your sweet time, fish face, no rush here, I only have to go sign in at a dead end corporate job, we can’t all be as successful in life as a pleb.”
The stunned guard stood with the barricade raised for a good five minutes after Nigar had departed, trying to figure out what just happened.
What on earth was wrong with him? Had he hit his head on something this morning? He did not just say what he think he said… did he? No, it wasn’t possible.
“Denial is not just a river in Egypt you know,” his mouth suddenly spoke.
What? How could a mouth speak without its owner’s permission?
“Owner? You don’t own shit, you brown, immigrant turd. Other than a lousy apartment, a lousy car and a lousy sense of direction. We just passed the turn to work.”
He was hallucinating. He must be. What other explanation was there for… this?
“If so, you’ll be the first man, and I used the term loosely here, in the history of the world to hallucinate from a couple of painkillers.”
It was more than a couple! Wait, why was he arguing with a… tongue?
He brought his Mini to a halt, and looked at himself in the rear view mirror. This could not be… real, surely? Yet there he was, getting late for work on account of his mouth.
It’s just your imagination, really, what’s gotten into you?
“You’re too dull to imagine something as delightful as me, pebble brain.”
Should he go back to the doctor… but, work! He had never missed a day in half a decade of it, a habit acquired from being the most expendable part of a work force. But how could he show up to work with a renegade mouth?
“You were going to cause a furor either way, you human latrine, people tend to notice little things like new tongues.”
Well, all he had to do was go down to his desk in the basement. He’d only have to cross reception for that and nobody ever bothered talking to him anyway. Then he would figure this all out. It was definitely his imagination, he reassured himself.
In the parking lot to his office, he thought it better to cover his mouth with one hand.
“Hmmph… oi! Fwhat do fwink fyou’re doing!”
His tongue kept churning out indignities, but only faint mumbles could be heard. He took the backstairs to the basement, purposefully avoiding the lift. The yellow strips of paper and red signpost at the end of the stairway almost broke his heart, “unscheduled maintenance – concerned employee is requested to report to the main desk.”
“Now we’re talking!” the tongue exclaimed as he momentarily lost grip on his face. He went upstairs towards reception, clenching his mouth tightly this time. The woman behind the desk asked if he was okay.
“Fwooi’m…okay enufff fwor…you…honey!”
She assumed he had a cough and told him the managing director had asked him to use his office on the third floor and kindly not go running to the press over the minor matter of a leaking gas pipe, even if it had been leaking for half a month. He nodded and briskly walked to the elevator.
The doors opened, empty. Good. He made his way to the director’s office without incident.
Where’s the sign-in sheet? Where’s the sign-in sheet.
“Ah, Nigar. Just in time. My secretary had to run some unexpected errands down at marketing, make use of her desk as you see fit. The sign-in sheet should be in the top drawer, and no hard feelings, eh? A bit of methane never hurt anybody!”
The words insufferable weed were waiting to erupt from his mouth. He held on tighter than before.
“What’s the matter? Something wrong with your mouth? Oh I’m sorry I didn’t mean… I mean, is there something else wrong with your… oh dear, this isn’t coming out right…”
Nigar kept shaking his head from side to side, all the time making dismissive gestures to suggest that it was nothing the director ought to concern himself with.
“See, Nigar, I feel that at this firm, and we’re the industry trend-setters of course, we shouldn’t just make token gestures to unfortunate people, such as yourself, I think we should concern ourselves with the day to day lives of all our employees.”
The urge to speak was now overwhelming; his throat was like a volcano wanting to erupt in hot, molten bile. He started for the door but the senior partner gripped him by his elbow.
“So…whatever it is, you can let us know about it, Nigar. Write a memorandum of concern, it’ll be a weight off.”
He smiled a plastic smile. The meticulously flossed teeth were too much to take. Nigar let go of his mouth.
“I’m not the one who needs to off some weight you miserable, fat, four eyed, fucking irritating, congenitally retarded leper!”
Nigar grimaced like a rodent about to be caught under the wheels of a truck.
“You… you can talk,” croaked the managing director.
“I can also sing and recite sonnets in a slumberous monotone.”
Nigar felt suffocated and went over to pry open a window, or failing that, tear it apart. He loosened his necktie and breathed the sickly aroma of afternoon traffic. He thought for a moment about jumping out, then remembered he had a fear of heights.
“That… was unexpected. Regardless, I am paid to adapt to unexpected situations, it’s how you make a career in management, Nigar, not that this advice will do you any good now that you’re fired!”
“You can’t fire me! I’ll sue for discrimination, you sanctimonious shit stain!”
“You can talk; no disability, no disability employment. We don’t make quotas for jerks! Now, you may fuck off. God, I’ve wanted to say that for six years!”
The tongue kept flapping wildly in his mouth but his larynx was so constricted by the choking sensation in his throat that Nigar could not even let out a mournful, inarticulate protest.
“I see that’s made you mute again. Get out!”
So that was the unceremonious end to his first, and only, job. He roamed the streets for a while, crestfallen; he couldn’t even remember having smiled that morning.
After a while, he walked into a place of religious worship, the Shree Ram Mandir, and trawled over to an ornate black idol. He knelt down, let his mind go blank and through the power of his furrowed brow tried to hold communion with the deity.
“Yes, cry out to that one, I’m sure she’ll give you a hand seeing how she’s got so many of them.”
Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.
“Is that a new prayer? Haven’t heard that one before.”
Aaaaargh. Fucking demon tongue! I’ll go back to that doctor and have you ripped out. That devious green eyed bastard! It’s all his fault!
“Now, now, don’t be so melodramatic. I may be hard to stomach sometimes but at least I’m articulate. You don’t want to go back to being a gagging, mumbling mute do you?”
The silence would be a heavenly reprieve.
“Look, you treat me nice and I’ll treat you less badly. I’m burning up inside your wretched throat, let me taste a cold ale, will you?”
Shut up. I need a cigarette.
“No, no cigarettes. They make me feel ill.”
“Like you all those years, you mean?”
I am going to cut you out. Entirely, even the parts that were mine, lest they were infected with your malice. Then I’m going to grind you up and feed you to the dogs.
Some dogs. Any dogs!
“Oh please, you don’t possess the testicular fortitude to do any such thing. I have an idea, let’s go to a primary school and molest little girls. We’ll tempt them with my natural charm. And ice cream.”
I will need a clamp of course, to hold you in place…
“…And a serrated blade. It helps with the fleshy chunks in the middle. You think you can actually go through with it? Who are you trying to fool, you ingrown scrotal hair.”
I’ll do it. You’ve ruined the best day of my life. I spent every last saving on that horrible surgery. You’ve ruined my life.
“Cry me a river, build me a bridge and fall off of it. You won’t be missed. You’re less useful than a used tampon.”
Why can’t you shut up? I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you.
“I’d like to see you try, you ball of dung. Let’s have it then, I’ll bet good money that you will chickenshit out.”
Right. You have yourself a wager, if you let me get the things that I need, that is, you fiend.
“You have my fucking word.”
Says the lying, deceitful…
“Don’t push it you twat, let’s go.”
With surprisingly resolute steps, Nigar made his way to the nearest utility store on Park Avenue and went up to an available clerk.
“Can I help you, sir?”
“Yes, I want to have sex with your wife.”
“I said I want two sets of knives. One with a serrated edge.”
The clerk returned a little while later, wiping one hands on his pants, holding a box of knives in the other.
“Here you go sir. Have a look. Anything else?”
“Do you have the clap?”
“A clamp. Do you have it?”
The devil tongue was evidently enjoying itself. Nigar swore to repay it in sum.
Soon, he had everything he wanted, he even bought cotton pads and some tape to help stem the bleeding. He went up to the cashier, made an uncalled for comment about his premature baldness and then headed for home.
“Do you really think you’re going to sit there and manage to slice your tongue off, without going weak in the knees and fainting at the sight of your own blood?”
You’re not my tongue, you’re evil and I’m going to kill you.
“Alright, we got off on the wrong foot, I never did like feet anyway, but listen to me, we can make this work.”
Nigar opened the lock on his apartment door, went inside and slammed it shut behind him. He took three deep breaths, a bottle of aftershave from his toilet and a silk handkerchief from his cupboard. He fixed one end of the clamp on the edge of the ceramic table he’d been licking joyfully that morning. Then he bathed the cotton pads in the alcohol from the aftershave, took out the serrated knife, put everything in touching distance of his right hand and sat down on his knees to clamp himself.
“Don’t do this, you idiot! Will you be happy going through life senseless and dumb?!”
It took him a few tries but now the tongue was firmly in place.
“Thyou’re ghoing tho reghreth thisss, athshole!”
Just as Mr. Nigar was about to make the fateful incision, the door to his apartment crashed open and a strange man, bare legged, wearing a beige shirt, came tumbling in.
“Oh thwank thfuck!”