Usman T. Malik is a speculative fiction writer resident in Florida. He has works published and forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Space and Time, Eye to the Telescope, Exigencies, and The Crimson Pact: volumes 4 and 5. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Codex writers group, and a 2013 graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop.
The woman with the crimson face walked with slow and measured steps in the afternoon gloom of Anarkali, dragging the flour sack behind her.
She wore a dusty chador on her head, the shawl the color of dead autumn leaves, rusted and faded. Most people she met along the road glanced at her, looked away, glanced back, startled. A few smiled, too polite and uneasy not to; some just stared. An old woman chewing a wad of tobacco stick spat a maroon paan-stained glob near her feet. The thick phlegm struck the edge of a rain gutter and oozed down. It looked like a squashed eyeball.
Sweat trickled down her distorted features, snaking through gutters of anatomy and misfortune. In the beginning — the beginning of her new life — the sweat had stung. Each time she ventured out in the sun, it had sizzled, the pain jabbing at the exposed circuitry of her flesh, like the cold scalpel she remembered from her new-birth. But with time her body had changed, adapted. She was grateful for that.
The flour sack dragged behind her like a life full of heavy memories. She grunted and heaved; the sack tumbled and bobbed and slid over rotting vegetables, mounds of rubbish, floating paper and plastic wrappers, and discarded jute bags. A sandal lay by a broken wooden horse-cart in the narrow Anarkali street, its shredded thong limp against the body of a dead cat. The cat’s back was broken, crushed under the wheel of the cart. The dead creature stared at her with dull jelly eyes, flies hovering above it. As she dragged the sack, it hit the cat’s face, and the carcass bounced up and down once, making the cartwheel shudder.
She remembered shuddering too. New-birth. A liquid molting.
The street veered and suddenly opened out onto New Anarkali Road. All at once rickshaws, horse carts, motor bikes, pickup trucks, and cars flooded her vision. She stopped to catch her breath before the next inevitable step, that death dance between the vehicles and the animals. Human and non-human. She marked her passage between a slow white passenger van that, she knew, would stop for thirty seconds at the wagon stop and a horse with a bad leg that trotted in a wounded dance.
There it was.
One, two, three. She darted. A rickshaw spluttered by her, the badly vented engine machine-gunning in her ears. A horse whinnied. A bus conductor yelled, “Watch it, maii!” The flour sack swung behind her in two arcs, left and right, slamming her once in the hip, making her stumble, and she almost fell in the flood of screaming, deaf cars and wagons and deadly animals that raced, maddened by the Lahore heat; crashed, burned, died, and often pulverized others before dying.
But then she was through. She was across.
She glanced back at her precious sack. It had torn at the bottom, the threadbare lining leaking a blood-red thread covered with splotches of powdery flour. She decided it was acceptable damage and trudged on, head bent, the chador shading her from the angry sun.
A few feet ahead a half-naked scrawny little boy with hollowed yellow eyes stared at her, a dusty string of spit dangling from his upper lip. Not taking his eyes from her, he wiped the spit, pointed at her.
“Devil,” he said. His jaundiced eyes never wavered. His bloated, malnourished belly heaved as he slapped it and laughed maniacally. “Monster maii.”
A thin brown woman, bony cheeks chiseled in work lines, ran toward the boy from a nearby alley, screaming, “Shut up, bastard, shut up,” and scooped the child up in her arms. The startled boy began to cry.
“Forgive him, maii.” She looked at the woman with the crimson face with frightened, pleading eyes. “Forgive him. He’s just a boy. Please don’t curse him. Allah listens to you people. Allah listens to your curses.”
“It’s all right,” she said, her voice empty, a phantom sigh that wafted up and down the road, and walked on, the flour sack dragging behind her like a meek child.
New Anarkali Road snaked and turned, and there it was.
Mayo Hospital’s small bicycle lot lay in the heat, covered with errand bicycles, chowkidar bicycles, poor bicycles. Bicycles that had travelled hundreds of kilometers, pumped by skinny legs that had no fat but lean, starved muscle. Bicycles from towns and villages outside Lahore, tire-tread worn, wheels rusted and changed countless times. The back wheels were almost always in worse condition because of the multitudes of children and chador-covered wives hanging behind the laborers or chowkidars or railway-crossing guards, as they pedaled, face red with heat like ripe pomegranates ready to burst. She walked on.
She walked, sweaty and hot, till she reached the main gate of the King Edward Medical College compound. The chowkidar recognized her.
“Hot day, bibi,” he said in his gruff voice, a long twin-peaked Henna-colored beard bobbing up and down as he spoke, “Would you like a glass of water?”
“That would be nice, bhai,” she said, yanking the sack forward until it sat next to her. She squatted beneath the gatekeeper’s colourless umbrella.
He poured water from an earthen bowl into a mug with a broken handle. “How many did you get this week?”
“Three.” She drank the water, clay-cool. Her parched throat
(hurt. Hurt like burnt, macerated flesh)
stopped hurting for a few blessed moments.
He watched her, this old man with a henna beard, the orange of the beard somehow disturbing. “I don’t know how you do it, bibi,” he said at last.
She nodded. He didn’t have to. She put the mug down, thanked him, and began to shamble across the compound.
“Bibi,” he called after her. She turned. His hands shaded the cataracts of his eyes from the sun as he looked at her. “Don’t ever tell anyone.” His brown face, pockmarked with age and hard labor, twisted for a moment. “They won’t understand.”
She said nothing. In a moment he turned back. Slow, stiff. She jerked her sack, a reluctant mongrel on a leash, and began walking to the courtyard.
Freshly laundered medical students in white shalwar kameez, blue jeans, khaki pants, and colorful t-shirts surrounded her in a chaotic sea. A few couples strolled lazily by, specks of flotsam riding a placid wave. Some held hands. She wished she could say something to them. Touch them. No, never touch them. But talk to them. Scream if she had to. Tell them she worried about them with a dark worry.
She waded through, whispering excuses and apologies. She knew fewer of them here would look at her. They had all seen worse, and in the grip of this new world were already inured, bored. Some looked at her with pity. Others with a curious anger that was almost accusatory in its impotent power.
The department building she sought stood apart from others, like a tall red-faced silent woman, her stony hands at her hips. She crossed the grass in front of the building, got off the cobblestone path, went to the back of the structure. A small wooden door, pale and splintered, nestled in an ivy-covered nook. She pressed the white button next to it.
“Come in,” a man called. She entered.
The clerk sat behind a small desk. He wore a wrinkled white shirt with half-sleeves. A jittery electric fan fluttered above him.
He looked at her as she heaved her sack inside the room. His hands came up to wipe at his sweaty face. He said, “How many?”
“Three,” she said. “Would you like to see?”
“No, no,” he said, waving a hand at her. His fingers were stained with the tar of cheap cigarettes. His nails were bitten. “Go on, then, bibi. You remember the corridor?”
She nodded, and her chador fell forward on the left side of her face. She righted it. He watched her face, and his fingers moved tap tap on the pink pad in front of him.
“Last time,” she said, not looking at him, “Sahib said he would increase the rate.”
“No, he didn’t,” the clerk said, watching her face. He looked disgusted. Fascinated.
“He said, five hundred for a hand, a hundred apiece for fingers, and …”
“Shut up, maii,” he said, looking around all of sudden, his eyes big and anxious. “Don’t name them here.”
She fell silent. The fan fluttered, its tri-pronged shadow waxing and waning in the small room. The room was very hot. She wished she were outside again.
He sighed. “All right, I’ll talk to him. Four hundred for the … whole thing, eighty rupees for the singles.”
“And a thousand for the … ”
“I know,” he said angrily. “Now get those sister-fucking things out of my sight.”
Quietly, she dragged the sack across the room, opened the door, and stepped out, the sack suddenly whining on the wiped linoleum.
“Motherfucking freaks. Think I’ve nothing better to do,” she heard him mutter as the door closed behind her.
The corridor was long, worn, dark. A few light bulbs gleamed on both sides. She walked for a while and then turned left into another corridor, and then another. She was in front of the slaughterroom.
She paused. Entered.
A few medical students worked in the far corner. It was late afternoon, and most of their classmates would have already gone home. She dragged her load inside, across the room. The TA sahib sat in the adjoining room, a few chipped and toothy skulls hunched in front of him. He was about twenty. He looked up as she approached.
“Salam, bibi,” he said, dropping the jaw in his hand. “It’s always good to see you. The kids go through these damned things so quickly. Let’s see what you got.” His arm stretched out.
She smiled. His arm trembled slightly as something went across his face. With visible effort, he smiled. “How many?”
“Three,” she said, and handed him the mouth of the sack.
He opened it. Peered inside. Jerked his head back. “Uff.”
She knew what he smelled. She had once smelled that herself. She had smelled that smell for six months, as the flesh of her face rotted, and healed. And rotted again. Till she had finished three rounds of those cold scalpels, and months of germ-medicine.
“It’s the heat,” she said mildly.Still holding his nose, he reached behind with the other hand, groped inside a pale-blue bottle with crystal liquid, and grabbed a cotton ball from the nest of cotton floating inside. He dabbed the cotton at his nostrils, inhaled. Sighed. “Better.”
She said nothing.
“I see you found a head too this time,” he said, peering inside. “It’s covered with road-shit and flour dust, and the nose is gone, but I can fix most of it.”
She said nothing. A moment later, he nodded.
“Thank you,” he said, beaming now. “We really needed these. Next time, I wish you’d find a whole face. Maybe a full torso too. Two thousand rupees, I promise you. We really should send you up to Miranshah, where all those drone attacks happen. Bombs scatter too much, you know. Especially in the city. By the time the site gets cleaned up, we get nothing but a few pieces here and there. But the drones. Well, now that’s a different story. I know we could find whole bodies there, and so much more…”
She waited. Her hands, now free of the sack, twisted at her chador, at the fake silver Allah necklace around her neck.
“You can go,” he finally said. He looked at her, contradicting his command. Fixed by that stare, she waited. “Maii,” he said, his eyes moist, dim in the light of the slaughterroom. “Maii, did you ever go to the police?”
“No, sahib,” she said. Behind her, a medical student snickered at something another said, and a female student giggled. She didn’t turn to see their faces, but she knew the girl would have perfect teeth and a clear pimple-free face.
“Why not?” the TA sahib said.
She said nothing. TA sahib gazed at her crimson face, his eyes almost sad. He waved a hand at her, and turned back to his desk.
Outside, the sun had at last softened down. Shadows forked and rippled across the grass. She went to the gate.
The college gate was unmanned. She stepped out and saw the chowkidar chatting with a bhutta-seller. The vendor turned his golden corncobs over the heated sand, black charcoal dotting the yellow grains. The chowkidar saw her and waved.
“Come here, bibi,” he said, his hands slicing through the heat mirage of the hot sand. “Want a bhutta?”
She waited. He stopped waving. The corncob turned, discolored. The chowkidar handed the butta-seller a few crumpled notes, took the two cobs, and ambled toward her, favoring his bad right leg. She knew he had been in the ‘71 war against India, after which Pakistan had broken in two, like a hollow shell. A bullet had smashed his right kneecap.
“Here you go,” he said, smiling, handing her a half-roasted bhutta.
She bit side-ways. Her teeth had fallen out on the right when her gums had turned liquid; she’d never gotten used to the half-dentures. She preferred biting on the left, chewing slowly till she could swallow. A bit of yellowish spit dribbled out the hole in her right cheek. When she felt it on her chin, she wiped it with the hem of her chador.
“Thank you, bhai,” she said.
He nodded. Ate his own bhutta. They sat side by side in the umbrella’s shade, the chowkidar sitting in his rickety wooden chair, she on her haunches.
“Bibi,” he said through a mouthful. He chewed thoughtfully. “I’ve known you for about two years now. Ever since the suicide attacks started.”
She grimaced as a grain slipped inside the notch of her molars, found it with her leathery tongue, inched it forward gently till it dropped out, and swallowed it.
“Can I ask you something?” He looked at her with eyes that were almost frightened.
She said nothing.
“Who threw it?” he said.
She said nothing. She sat on her haunches in the afterglow of the dying afternoon. She was drifting in the marketplace. She was going with her husband to Wagah border to see the Independence Day parade. She was holding her husband’s hand. Her four-year-old was giggling. Mama, you’re lying. I know you got me a birthday present.
The chowkidar watched her eye. Her left eye. His orange beard dangled, twin-peaked, like a woman’s breasts. The one who threw it had a beard too, a long black beard that glittered like a cloudless night. She’d never seen him before. He’d looked at her when he threw the colorless bowl, looked her in the eye, as the sizzling liquid covered her skin and her muscles and her eyes and her bones, a trembling, biting pall that had draped her flesh and become her new face. He’d turned back to look at her one last time when the motorbike sped away.
“I was holding his hand,” she said, this woman with the crimson face. Her voice was empty. Then it was not. She felt a liquid grow inside her. A vitriolic bubble gurgled at the back of her throat.
And for the first time in many months, when she spoke, her voice was acid: “I was holding my husband’s hand.”