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.
If you look at the glimmering surface of Hunnah Lake long enough, you can see the chaotic prose of its dark face begin to form almost coherent narratives, some story almost discernible in the whispering waves that come to rest against its shores. But no one looks to the Lake for stories any more. No Lady of the Lake rules anyone’s fevered nightmares now but mine.
If you asked, you would find that no one in the city of my childhood remembers the story of the woman murdered in Hunnah Lake. The young woman, you might persist. Which one? They would respond. Even the Lake might not remember how many daughters it’s claimed. It’s been around for so long, you see. All the thousand stories of its drowned women – I only know of one, though. One tenacious ghost-monster which refused to drown quietly in its sleep.
Afternoons in the Quetta of my childhood were a strange gold-infused no-time, slow siesta interludes, when the air felt like the sajji cooking mellowly inside the belly of a particularly large goat roasting on an open fire. The slowness of it all made you think you could walk almost to the moon and still be back in time for post-Maghrib chai and samosay.
When you’re nine years old, you’re built a little closer to the ground. You learn to notice things in the immediate vicinity of your feet – the way the black tar of the street gloams in the mellow afternoon sunshine, the tiny heliographing lights that flash from the ground as you walk towards them, morse-coding messages to the sky. You notice the way the shards of coloured glass from broken bottles flash with a mystical inner fire when the light hits them just right.
Do you see what I’m trying to do? I want you to see that time, that world, through my eyes. I want you to remember the ineffable beauty of being that young so long ago, of knowing once you, too, were only four feet or so tall and the only way an adult could see from your point of view was if they would kneel. I want you to remember what being that young was like because now you can consider the truth of your death. Your inevitable entropy – the first white hair, the first root-canal, the first ache in your knees, the first wrinkle on your face. Everything decays.
Now, with my own demise setting in, the sight of the afternoon sun blazing a blinding path on the west-facing roads of Quetta makes me reminiscent – it’s as though all the darkly gloaming particles I remember glinting up from the streets of my childhood have coalesced to become this celestial road that leads to fiery furnaces of our lone solar inferno.
Sometimes, if I feel guilty enough, if I feel nostalgic enough, I wish so hard for that road to materialize, to feel my feet lift effortlessly off the solid ground onto the molten-gold surface of that stellar highway, to smell burning hair, skin, tears, regrets – everything. Until only ash is left.
My sister used to love the story of King Arthur receiving Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. She would ask me so many questions about that story and I, a born liar, would spin stories out of thin air for her. My baby sister believed every single word – why wouldn’t she? I was her Big Sister, the All-Knowing, the All-Mighty, Appointed Protector and Patron of Younger Sibling. Even if she occasionally irritated me enough to make me happily choke a rainbow coloured unicorn out of her, she was still my kid sister. I loved her. I did. I do.
Mama walks in through the door, sunlight spilling behind her in a warm haze, her hair glowing with the suffused firelight. She gathers me into her arms and we sit together for a while in the warm pool of light beneath the big window in the lounge. She says things will be alright now; Daddy will be just like he used to be before.
I bury my face in the milky scent of Mama’s belly. Twins, she whispers against the top of my head. This time it’ll be twin boys. I turn my head, ear flat against the soft swell of her stomach. I close my eyes, imagine the dark amber womb-world of my still-forming brothers, the pulsing cord of the umbilicus that joins them to each other, to our mother. They’re like fish, aren’t they? I ask Mama, they’re floating in there. Mama laughs and says, yes, they’re little fairy-fish.
She smoothes my hair down; just like you were, she says.
I imagine the hearts beating within my mother; hers, huge and pounding, echoing down from above my brothers’ hearts, tiny and still-forming, pumping something dream-woven and ethereal throughout their translucent bodies. I wonder if they look up from where they are and wonder at the source of that beat, wonder that it should be the only sound in their existence.
You better hurry and wash up, Mama says after a while. Daddy’s sister will be here soon.
When Daddy took us to Hunnah Lake, it was a Saturday, the sky was overcast and the wind was a shrieking banshee demanding immediate reunion with some demon-lover. In the grey evening light, the Lake looked like a cataracted window in a condemned house through which anything could be staring back at you – anything at all.
I watched her walk to the edge of the Lake and kneel by the shore, her 5-year-old hands star-fishing blurredly in the murky water as dampness crawled up the sleeves of her shirt and the frayed knees of her jeans. Her dark hair spilled all around her face, inky blackness that obliterated her features for a moment before a gust of wind screamed past her, streaming her hair behind her, dark-darkest banner on some unimaginable battlefield. She seemed transfixed by what she saw in the shallow water.
It was the look on her face that froze me in my place.
If only I’d known then that not every Lady of the Lake comes bearing gifts of noble weapons. Sometimes they just come for your heart – your warm, bloody, relentlessly pumping, bleakly hoping heart. And when they’ve got it, they don’t like giving it back. They like to chew on it for a while.
I know ours was a one-armed monster. Slimy and eel-y. Slit-eyed-snaky. I know because I saw what twisted up my baby sister’s arm and pulled her screaming towards the water.
Before her head went under, my sister got one coherent word out, one word that finally broke my paralysis:
I ran. I ran as I’ve never run before in my life. Not to my sister’s aid, no.
Away from her.
She’s still there, of course, my monster-lady, stretching languidly on the floor of Hunnah Lake, bubble-shaped words emerging from her baby-soft lips, dark hair floating around her pale heart-shaped face, her voice an indigo Doppler-distortion, singing words you think you can almost understand, almost fathom, if only you could be closer to her. But getting closer to her is like a fly romancing a Venus Flytrap.
The jagged sounds of raised voices keep waking me, upstairs. I pad softly down the steps, stopping midway.
I hear Daddy’s sister shouting something. I lean forward and see Mama’s head bent over her plate, dark hair falling forward, obscuring her face. Daddy’s leaning back in his chair, arms crossed. I can’t see his face from where I’m standing. I take another step down.
Daddy’s sister has her back to me, she can’t see me. She keeps yelling something about money and mouths to feed. Daddy’s too focused on her face; he doesn’t see me either. Then, Mama looks up, looks straight at me. Her lips are pressed tight into a thin line, eyes blazing, rim of bright hazel against the dark circles of her pupils, double-eclipses.
Her lips part, pale and perfectly heart-shaped. Go, she mouths. I shake my head. To me, no time at all passes between this moment and the next when Daddy’s sister is ripping my arm from around the banister of the staircase. There is only the rising shrillness of her voice and then silence as Mama reaches back her hand, the brittle sound of her slapping Daddy’s twin sister across the face. Then Daddy’s there, Daddy’s really therefor the first time in years, silent and impossibly male. Daddy’s sister touches her face, blood spilling from her lips, congealing on her chin. She holds out her bloody hand to my father – all the accusations she would ever need.
I can’t remember her face any more, nor the sound of her voice. Daddy’s sister, who my every nightmare. The woman my Daddy shared a womb with, who looked so much like him, who had his square vein-y hands – dark mirror image of my father who still stalks my dreamscapes so silently.
I never really figured out why our father took us to the Lake on such a dreary day as that. The road was apt to get mucky if it rained and it would’ve been hard driving the way back in our car with the tires as bald as they were.
Our father. Strange, dark man with his brooding eyes. He must’ve known. He must’ve known what would happen that day. That’s why he had that gun packed in the glove compartment of his madly male brown car. The car that always smelled of cheap cigarettes and cheaper aftershave; that had the ninety-nine names of God inscribed in silver on a piece of velvet, suspended from the rear-view mirror, frayed silver tassels hanging limply from its edges. Daddy-car, where hair brushes and ponytails were forbidden, where a single discarded candy wrapper would land you in more trouble than it was worth.
He turned to me as I ran screaming up to him, infinitely slow, as if he was some jellied creature moving limblessly through glue. My father saw me, saw through me to the edge of the Lake where my sister was and he smiled.
He was still smiling as he reached into the glove compartment of the car and took out his gun. His oddly handsome lopsided smile, the kind that makes you wonder if maybe you’ll have that same smile when the muscles of your cheeks are at their leanest at the height of your youth, when men might look at you, see your smile and fall in love. The same way that my mother must have fallen in love, I suppose, with the slow one-sided curve of his lips.
People are inherently lemming-ish in their deep-seated desire to fling themselves off cliffs. They can stare Death in the face and as long as he smiles prettily, they’ll fall right into his cold arms.
Mother, father and everything in between them that was so unholy.
Her face is wreathed in shadows, darkness pooling in every crevasse. Daddy’s sister stands behind him, just as tall as him, just as wraith-like.
Mama is on the floor beside me at the foot of the stairs where Daddy’s thrown me, pain racing electric through the bones of my face, my arms, my legs.
I watch Daddy fist his hand through Mama’s hair and slam her head against the banister. I watch the slow descent of a single drop of blood from Mama’s forehead pool like a tear on her inner eyelid then trace a ruby path down her cheek. Daddy begins to drag Mama by her hair but it rips out with a gristly snarl and Mama’s head drops, face down to the floor.
Daddy contemplates the dark strands caught in his hand. He walks out the door, his sister following him, their slight shapes merging and becoming one in the chancy moonlight. The roar of Daddy’s car as it shudders to life.
((Fish die without water))
I drag myself to where Mama is, hook my hands around her, inch by hellish inch, drag her leglessly towards the bathroom down the hall. Mama’s body leaves a trail of blood behind it, black and somehow, damned. The smell of it, coppery and sizzling, rises all around us.
I let the water run in the bath, let Mama sink in it, limb by limb, the water turning rosy-pink then arterial-red. I know it’s too late, my fairy brothers are dead.
I sink down into the water beside her, screaming as the coldness of it seeps into my broken leg, bloodied water gushing over the edges of the bath. I put my hands on Mama’s desolate womb, watch my hand blur into a vague starfish.
I rest my head against Mama’s bosom. The running water lulls me to sleep.
My father walked slowly down to the edge of the lake where my baby sister was screaming wordlessly, the tentacle drawing huge bloodied welts on her slender arm, her hair vortexing in the insane wind.
“In a second, precious,” said my father calmly, wrapping his broad-palmed hand around the base of my sister’s skull as he knelt beside her in the water. “Just a second, baby.”
He put the muzzle of his gun against the kneecap of one of my sister’s thrashing legs and pulled the trigger. Her head jerked viciously back on her neck. I saw her eyes roll back into her head, a tiny beadlet of blood clinging to her eyelashes. The monster-arm seemed to freeze in place, then withdrew at a hissfull speed into the water. I fell to my knees.
And still my father smiled, jagged white bone-shards gleaming from the ichor of congealing blood painted across his face.
He moved his gun to her other kneecap. I saw the world turn into treacherously swimming mirages before my eyes.
The second shot rang out across the eerily placid surface of the Lake. The wind had fallen still so suddenly it was like a door slamming shut on a room with padded walls, leaving you trapped in its cocoon-shaped silence.
“Come out, darling,” I heard my demon-daddy say, “You can’t touch me, can you, you bitch?” His hand, cradling the fragile cranium of my baby sister, her tiny body hanging limply against him, her blood pooling darkly around him. Tendrils of her long hair floated listlessly on the water.
“I’ll give you your child,” he screamed suddenly, veins pulsing in his neck, muscles pulled taut in rage.
In the arc of descent that formed my father’s arm pushing my sister’s head, face first into the water, beads of bloodied water flung like infernal jewels from the tips of her hair, her black hair radiusing into a dark fan, closing in on itself as her face sank into the water, I felt a thousand eyes opening in the back of my mind. A thousand eyes, suddenly lidless, and in them I saw what I had forgotten.
The ninety-nine names of God blink sleepily at me, the silvery brightness of shiny tassels framing them, glowing in the mellow evening sunshine. I look out from my window at the sun hanging suspended above the horizon, impossibly huge, fiery flames banked to an amber light that faded out as I count my heartbeat in time to its descent into the horizon over the Lake. One, two, three…
My baby sister, perfectly tiny, perfectly fairy-shaped, sleeps placidly in my mother’s arms; pale, slender arms lightly dusted with freckles. My father’s hand rests against the steering wheel, elbow jutting out the window. I feel anger pulsing red in the car, a lecherous cat biding its time before it rages in a frenzy of claws and feral screams. I count down my heartbeat. The sun sinks into the fiery water.
Another daughter, he snarls. She looks out her window. His voice, rising, cursing her. She says nothing. His foot stamps down on the brakes. I feel my head hit the back of his seat, his door opening and slamming redly. The sun holds my gaze. If I look away I will turn to stone. I know this. My eyes widen until all I see of the world is an endlessly fiery circle.
I hear my mother’s door flung open, hear my baby sister’s fairy form wrenched from my mother’s arms, hear their screams, shrill, impossibly female.
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see my baby sister’s limbs kicking in futility in the seat, the place where my mother’s jasmine-scented perfume still hung like a shroud.
I hear water splashing, frenzying, my mother’s wordless screams, jagged and crystalline shards burying into my ears, slight frame moulded against the dark shape of my father. Inside, I hear the whisper of a thousand eyelashes closing over all-seeing eyes.
In the fiery circle of the sun, I see my father hold down my mother’s face in the water, her arms twisted behind her, her legs thrashing, water vortexing around them both.
I see my mother’s body stilling, my father’s hands relaxing. I see him look down at her as he stands waist-deep in sunset-tinted water.
I see the circle sink beneath the horizon. I hear the crunch of gravel as my father walks back to the car.
The ninety-nine names of God shudder as my father starts the engine. My sister’s gasping sobs echo bleakly in the emptiness of my mother’s absence.
I close my eyes. In the darkness behind my eyelids all I see is the blind eye of the sun.
I feel myself rising to my feet, a hellish clarity informing the world. The eyes of a thousand murdered daughters regard me from all around the lake. I feel their eyes resting against mine, as they stand silently, still as the air, faces veiled, expressionless. A thousand daughters watch me rise.
I am standing in the water behind my father, my hands suddenly eel-y, silken slither-y. I look down on a body no longer mine. My skin is no longer my own.
I am my mother’s daughter.
My father’s head is still turning to face me as I wrap my deep-sea claws around his neck, his one eye facing me, widening as capillaries burst beneath the clear surface of his cornea, bloodying and reddening against the whiteness of his eye. He tries to twist around. My baby sister’s body floats face down in the bloody water. The Lake turns her over to face me. Her eyes are locked on mine. I see her lips, my mother’s heart-shaped lips – blue with shock – part. Blood and water stain her mouth. In the neverness of this Lake, her eyes see everything.
My/Her/Our hands tighten around his neck. We feel the delicate snap of small bones beneath our hands, the concertina collapse of our father’s suddenly spineless body, his mouth locked in the approaching snarl of rigor mortis.
My/Her/Our hands relax. We watch our father’s body float on the water.
I look at my sister’s eyes. They are closed. I watch a pale hand rest below her head, a tentacled monster-arm cradle her slight, 5-year-old body.
My monster-mother holds my baby sister in her arms as she rises from the water, her skin alight with a million tiny gems of water, glistening with a pale fire. Her hair, darker than my sister’s, streams behind her, cascading blackly. She towers over me, my mother. My father’s body floats between us.
I push him aside.
I walk on water to her, shedding her skin, becoming lesser, the blandness of ordinary life permeating my pores again. My mother understands. She lowers her arms to me. I look down on my baby sister’s face. I kiss her pale blue lips. Her eyes open, blinking wearily, an eternity of pain encapsulated in her young eyes.
“Home…?” she whispers.
“Love…” she sighs, “love you…”
The wind rushes past us, blowing my pallid hair into my mother’s face. I look up at her. Her eyes are unfathomable. In a way, she was more than my mother ever was yet somehow she was less, as well. She was mine but not mine to have. I was hers but not wholly hers. Not like my sister. That’s why my mother touched her first on the edge of the water so many eternal hours ago. Mama’s little fairy-baby.
Impulsively, I press my lips against my mother’s monster-hand, blood spurting from my mouth as soon as my skin touches her. She says nothing. She does nothing. I feel her move away from me, further and further, the water rising around her. Her face changing, contorting to become all gnashing canines and incisors. She stretches her leathery neck, jaws crushing Daddy’s body between them.
I watch the waters rise around her. Here at her hips, here at her waist, here at her shoulders, her neck, her mouth, her cold eyes. The waters close above her head with barely a ripple.
The day closes around me. I look around. A thousand murdered daughters look back at me. Then close their eyes. The wind shrieks past me in an infernal scream.
I walk back to the car, Daddy’s car. I open the door; sit for a moment with my head resting on the steering wheel. The ninety-nine names of God spin insanely in the banshee wind. I reach up and pull the velvet cloth off the rear-view mirror. I get out of the car and walk.
I walk until my shoes are tattered phantoms of their selves around my feet. I walk barefoot until my feet bleed. I walk until the mountains of Sulayman become a distant mirage.
I walk but the baleful grin of Koh-e Murdaar is never far from my mind.
I walk but the still silence of the eyes of a thousand murdered daughters is never far from my mind.
I walk. I walk to become another phantom upon the ancient roads of Balochistan. I wish I could. But in this I am my father’s daughter. I bleed and bleed and bleed but I do not die. My mother and my father won’t let me die.
Even when Ordinary finds me and gives me a home and tames me and tells me what is expected of me in life, in my head, I’ve never stopped walking away from my family, the only one I’ve ever known.
You can never choose the people who are bonded in blood to you. Neither can you escape them. Their eyes are your eyes. The bones of your face are the same as theirs. The ancestral echoes ringing in your ears are the same as what they hear in the deep of the night when the boundaries we draw between ourselves and our fears is thinnest.