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Volume 7

Outside: Looking In - January 2011


Asmara Malik

Written by
Asmara Malik

Asmara Malik can usually be found lurking at http://elmara.deviantart.com [link], where she has, to-date, been awarded six Daily Deviations in Literature. She was one of the eight winners of the LUMS Young Writers Workshop & Short Story Contest 2013. She was short-listed for the Matthew Rocca Poetry Award by Verandah, an Australian journal of art, design and literature. Her work has appeared in Karachi: Our Stories in Our Words (OUP, Pakistan), Papercuts, Poets & Artists, Sparkbright, Read This Magazine and Breadcrumb Scabs, among others.


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Formaldehyde Womb


He opens his eyes and the first thing he hears, as always, is the steady beepbeep beat of the heart-monitors lined up parallel to the beds in the ER – strange, blank-faced sentinels, with their oscillating, almost jump-rope-like pattern of green lines. Up-down-Uuuuuuup-DOWN-up-down. He shakes his head, only marginally clearing the cobwebs of indistinct dreams still clinging with sticky cloud-fingers to his mind.
This is not really happening. None of this is really real. If I can hold on to that I can put up with this insane façade where supposed healers chew diagnoses and lick spit-shiny biscuit crumbs off each other’s moustaches while a tumor grins balefully from within the shinyshiny brain-scan of some poor bastard’s skull.
(O sir such a precise work up sir o sir you’re so right sir sir the patient’s blessed to have you for a physician sir doctor so-and-so is no match for you sir)
The duty nurse looks up inquiringly at his pale, drawn face, her eyes resting thoughtfully at the shadowbruises beneath his eyes.
“Can I get you a coffee, doctor?”
He nods, his head already sagging back on his neck, shoulders drawing up in the tired hunch of a soldier emerging from the trenches after a long day of bombardment.
The cup trembles a little in his hands, subtle coffee wave-fronts lapping against its porcelain edges. He thinks about the words his last girlfriend – who’d fancied herself a poet – had scrawled in red lipstick across the tiny refrigerator in his ratty apartment the day she’d left him: Pathology is not your bitch, you poor little wannabe god.
This late July afternoon, setting his half-empty coffee cup down, he’s thinking, hey God, how about a normal end to this day huh whaddaya say huh?
He settles back in his chair at the nurse’s station. Next to him, the nurse who gave him coffee is speaking in hushed tones into the phone.
“…when this woman cradling a big jar sat down right next to me. And I was biting the insides of my mouth and something inside my head just started to buckle and twist…”
Please, God, he moans inside his head.
“There was a baby,” she whispers, fingering the crucifix around her neck, awe and fear giving an unspeakable, almost pagan, flavor to her voice, as she re-lives her moment with the unnamed woman and her baby floating placidly in its formaldehyde womb.
“The woman looked beyond tears…”
Eons of endless seconds elapse.
Somewhere, in the chasm when his heart is utterly empty and dark, its mouths closed – not receiving, not giving – he turns to the nurse, her face contorting to become the featureless countenance of the woman with the baby-jar.
You should bury him, he says to her, only he knows they are not speaking in words. They communicate like mute fish, amphibians stranded tongueless in this shadowland of muffled heartbeats, rasping breaths and dying eyelights.
How can I? she replies. He was never really born. Only the dead belong in the earth.
He was born, he says. He came into this world. He wore his prison of flesh for the time that was given to him.
He pictures her free hand reaching blindly out for his. He pictures pulling her close, close, closer to him, the formaldehyde fairy-monster staring through cataract-white eyes up at his face. Daddy, it’d say, the word bubbling from its pale heart-shaped little mouth. He sees himself prying her fingers away from the jar, watching it fall, slow, slower, slowest to the ground, as he traces the delicate hollows of her eyes, his lips resting against her ear.
We’ll bury him, his voice a husk of a whisper. Beneath a tree, an old banyan with deep roots, some place warm beneath its cool shade, some bright patch of earth where the sun manages to shine all day long.
He jerks awake. There’s a crash as the cup supernovas into bone-white shards of nebulae and iridescent leftover coffee droplets.
“It’s alright – I’ll get it,” she says, compact and competent, already on her knees beside him, putting the broken pieces into the waste-bin near his feet.
He feels some apology-shaped word emerge from his mouth. She smiles like a cat, nodding, sympathetic, holding his hands and telling him to get some rest, she wouldn’t tell a soul he’d left the station when he was supposed to be on-call.
Please, God. No more.
He shakes his head. Later, he says.
Moment by moment by moment, he feels the darkness receding from his mind.
Not much.
But enough.


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