Editor’s Note: Instead of two original horror short stories this month, we have for you a single novelette (presented in two parts) by Usman Malik, which is about twice the length of a regular Nightmare story. So, although you are getting one original story instead of two this month, you’re still getting about the same amount of fiction. We hope you enjoy this minor deviation from our usual offerings, and rest assured we will return to our regularly scheduled programming next month. —eds
Jee Inspector Sahib,
he came looking for a missing girl in Lahore Park one evening in the summer of 2013, this man known as Hakim Shafi. It was a summer to blanch the marrow of all summers. Heat rose coiling like a snake from the ground. Gusts of evil loo winds swept across Lahore from the west, shrinking the hides of man and beast alike, and Hakim Shafi went from bench to bench, stepping over needles rusting in bleached June grass, and showed the heroinchies a picture.
Have you seen this girl, he said.
For all his starched kurta shalwar and that brown waistcoat, his air was neither prideful nor wary. He was a very tall, bony man with stooped shoulders, a ratlike face, and thick whiskers. His eyes were sinkholes that bubbled occasionally, and when we said no, we hadn’t seen that girl, Shafi’s gaze drifted away from the benches, the park, the night sky.
We distrusted him. This lost stranger—we had no doubt he was lost—we watched him wander the park for weeks. Each Friday he came after Juma prayers, that colored eight-by-six photo clasped between his palms, as if the girl in the floral-patterned shalwar kameez and his prayers were intertwined. Before I knew that they were, I laughed along with the others at his inquiries. It was amusing to see this well dressed gentleman court our company, eyes full of hope, that faded picture in his hands.
In his absence we speculated. He looked in his fifties, maybe early sixties. Perhaps the girl was his runaway daughter. As we injected the queen into our veins, as we gave ourselves up to dreaming in her orbit, we argued whether the rich-born pretty girl with her sad eyes and smooth skin was roughing it with lowlifes, while her father searched for her in shadows. We giggled when we thought of that.
You understand how our life is, sahib, don’t you? We heroinchies are the children of the white queen; a tribe unto ourselves. We do not share company with the outside, our years pass differently in her presence. Hers is a shadow that enwombs us: It nurtures us as it suffocates—it is a bit like being slowly, sinuously lowered into an endless grave and watching that dome of light shrink until its memory becomes hateful. You fall in love with the descent.
With Hakim Shafi things might have gone on that way—he on his insoluble quest and we daytiming when we could—but Mustafa, our dealer, he got greedy and fucked up everything. I have wished upon my dead father’s name many times since then for that bastard to rot in hell. Had he not ruined it for all of us, I would not be sitting here tonight with you and the sub-inspector sahib in this skeleton of a police station with its shadow-draped oil lamps and broken windows and sweat-slick bars. In this stench of metal and piss and—
No, sahib, it’s not like that. Just saying greed is the most dangerous of beasts, as my old Dada used to say, and Mustafa’s stupid greed dragged us into the darkness that finally showed its teeth tonight.
• • • •
So this is what happened with that son of a whore Mustafa.
Before he came along, we used to get our masala behind the flower market in Liberty. A paan-and-cigarette stall owner was our man. His crop was fresh and as pure as any Lahori queen has ever been. It was expensive, but we made do by rummaging through garbage for sellables, snatching cellphones, stealing manhole covers, hubcaps, and begging. Most of us could snag two or three hits a week. Wasn’t much, but was enough to keep the nighttime at bay.
Then came news that Afghan police had set hundreds of thousands of poppy fields ablaze in Kunar. Overnight, opium supply dropped. As the Pakistani army’s battle against militants up north intensified, prices shot up, and we found every door shut and bolted on us with nothing but the habit to keep us company. Such desperate times that many of us became cotton shooters and fluffers. Chicken shit, I know, but what could you do? There was only so much queen to go around.
“I know a man who knows a man,” said Yasin one day. Five of us were crouched around a bench under the oldest peepal tree in the park, and Yasin, a scrawny lizard-like heroinchi who had recently turned to fluffing, sat grinding milk-sugar and a laxative he stole from a dispensary to bulk up our meager supply. “He can get us cheap masala.”
“Nothing is cheap,” someone said, and gawked at the blue velvet of the evening sky.
“It’s that or we are dry. I’m completely out.”
Nothing we could say to this. Enter Shani, Yasin’s man’s man.
He was a fidgety midget with a wispy mustache wider than his face and he offered to help us ride the queen cheap. Word was, he had made deals with police stations in Model Town and Kot Lakhpat for confiscated masala, and knew how to tap into the army’s black market—
Yes, sahib, of course. You’re right. He was likely lying all along, the bastard.
Suffice to say he knew people, and so we eagerly accepted. I was among those who stopped going to the flower market and trusted this fiend for my needs.
As you can see, that was a mistake. My dying is ample evidence of that.
• • • •
It happened on a Thursday evening. (I remember because one of the heroinchies went to Data Sahib’s shrine to pay his respects.) After the park guard made his rounds to collect bhatta for letting us use the benches, most of my group left to polish-wipe cars and beg at chowks and traffic lights. Seemed as good a time as any to retrieve the plastic-wrapped masala I had squirreled away weeks ago. I pulled out the packet and rolled up my sleeves and, under the swaying elms and peepal, I slipped the queen into my blood.
(Yes, sub-Inspector sahib, that cigarette is most welcome. Thank you for the light. This close, the flame hurts my eyes a bit, but my hands are shaking and I cannot chase the dragon at this hour.)
Sahib, we sit here today in this gloomy thana. I can plainly see the shadows squirm by the door, the oak and eucalyptus boughs moving in the wind. Hear that whistle in the dark outside. Watch the way your fingers wind the ends of your mustache, your eyes half-lidded as you listen to my story. I smell the ash falling to the floor from the tip of my cigarette. See water bead on the plastic sheet over that ice block the sub-inspector wheeled in earlier, should I prove less than cooperative—and I swear on my mother’s name, this is how clearly I saw my dead son under those wheezing trees that night.
Heroinchies die twice, they say, and we can all tell the story of our first death.
My son is mine.
He was twelve when I beat him black and blue on his birthday. He wanted to enroll in school again. I wanted him to train as a mechanic’s apprentice. He was thirteen when he ran away and fifteen when they found him in a gunnysack behind a dumpster at Lakshmi Chowk. His face was swollen and discolored in a dozen places. His lips were torn. Blood had clotted in the corners.
His throat was—
I died the day they found him, sahib, and I died again that night in the park after I injected the masala. And in this fresh death when my son came to me he was smooth and untouched. Angelic was my boy. He bent over me and I thought he had forgotten, that he had forgiven. His eyes were kind. He smiled at me, changing, and it wasn’t his face but a piss-colored full moon shining at me. The eyes were red stars, the darkness between them whipped out and licked my cheeks. The white queen was in a mood, she rose with the tide of my blood, and I saw a giant golden snake tower above me. Its hood pulsated wider than the night sky until it seemed the heavens stood on its flared head, and I knew, I was sure, that its basilisk gaze would be my end.
The world shivered then and came apart. A gaunt man with a bristling mustache leaned across the bench, his hands poised above my chest. He lowered his face, breath afoul with onion, garlic, something else, and said, Are you all right?
Later, Hakim Shafi would tell me that I was gone. When he found me, head lolling off the bench, my mouth frothed and my eyes were glazed. The left side of my body twitched. When he found no pulse, he pumped my chest and continued for nearly fifteen minutes. That was how long I was dead, he said.
I believed him. How else could I have seen my son in that gloaming?
Hakim Shafi saved my life that night. A medical man present at that hour in a corner of a park haunted by heroinchies—some might call that a divine act. Maybe it was, but I wonder. Sometimes I think life is like a junkie’s flesh, crisscrossed where kismet injects other souls into our lives. Souls lost as we are. Who knows if the perpetrator of such accidents is God or the devil?
Whatever force it was, it bound my life to Hakim Shafi’s forever.
“I’m fine,” I said, but he brought me to his small, neat clinic in Old Lahore anyway. Here, he drew my blood and took a pinch of the leftover masala for testing. We sat on a moss-colored couch and watched the powder bubble and hiss in a glass vial when Hakim poured acid on it.
“Look at the bottom,” he said. I looked. Molten black residue, like tar, stuck to the glass. “Your dealer’s been shortchanging you,” he said. “I’d guess for a while, too. This heroin has more cut in it than any I have seen. Elephant tranquilizer. It was just a matter of time before something happened.”
I nodded, and it occurred to me I was a bit disappointed. I had been courting my demise for a long while.
“You inject.” It wasn’t a question. I nodded again. He pushed back the spectacles he had put on inside the clinic. They made him look confused. He dragged his knuckles back and forth on the oak desk. “You get your blood tested?”
“You know how to chase the dragon?”
I laughed. He smiled. “Right.” His gray eyes went inward. When he spoke, he might’ve been talking to himself, “Maybe that’s the way to go if you can’t kick the habit.”
“What makes you think I want to kick anything?”
Hakim Shafi pulled out a drawer and brought out four tiny vials. He picked up the syringe cocked with my blood, dropped some in each vial.
My mind was fogged up from my death. I wanted to rise and flee to the park, but Hakim’s eyes were fixed on me. Restless, I scanned the room and saw a framed picture on the desk. I pointed. “That your daughter?”
Hakim’s fingers whitened around the vial. He shook it vigorously. “Did you eat today?”
“I’ve seen you take that picture around the park. I know everyone’s told you she was never there.”
Hakim flicked a finger against the glass. The yellow liquid turned red, golden. “I’ll set up some intravenous saline for you.” His lips were pressed into a line. “Your blood is thick from fluid loss.”
He helped me onto the couch and gave me a concoction to drink. When my eyelids grew heavy, he pulled a crisp white sheet over me. It smelled of hospital.
“Sleep well. It’s the only way most of us can dream.” He paused, and in the silence a drowsy moth thunked against the room’s window. I muttered something. Somewhere in the night a baby cried, and its mother shushed it and began to hum. The moth thunked again. I looked, and outside the window, a small boy-shape pressed its face against the glass, mouthing words at me.
“Hakim sahib,” I said, voice thick and sticky. “Who’s that?
Shafi turned. The shape was gone.
• • • •
In a room at the back of the clinic, Hakim Shafi showed me snake skins.
“This is how I make my living.”
“By killing snakes?”
He smiled. “By using venom to heal. Similia Similibus Curantur.” He swept a hand around him at the hundreds of glass vials, filled with pills the size of sugar cubes, arranged on dusty shelves. “Like cures like. Poison will kill poison.” He knuckled the diamond-patterned leathery skin. “My suppliers send me tokens every year. Skins, fangs, vertebra. Keeps up the clinic’s image. Helps the business.”
I scratched the stubble on my chin. “How does snake venom heal? I thought the only thing it was useful for was killing dumb assholes who mess around with creatures they don’t understand.”
“It’s one of the oldest cures. My ancestors have used it for centuries.”
“You’re pulling my chain, aren’t you, Hakim sahib?”
Shafi studied me. “We’re so besieged by newness we forget old diseases haunt us for a reason. Did you know snake venom is being researched at big universities these days? Dementia, palsy, heart attacks—it has a role in curing all of them.” He went to a cupboard and pulled down a large rosewood box from the top shelf. He set it on the table next to a gleaming row of vials and tubes. “For my medicines, I mix most of the substrate myself. The venom varies between species. Some is toxic to human nerves, some to blood, some to tissues and organs. A pinch of the wrong sample, and you’d be dead in seconds.”
He opened the rosewood box. Inside were dozens of matchbook-sized tins. He pulled on a pair of gloves and carefully removed the lids of two. They were filled with tiny snow-colored pellets.
“This,” Hakim picked up a pellet with a pair of tweezers, “is the venom of the common krait. It paralyzes the breathing muscles. If you get bitten by a krait during sleep, you’d scratch the spot, thinking it was a bug bite, and doze off. You’d never wake again.” Hakim replaced the pellet in the tin. “I use it for patients with lockjaw and neck spasms. A millionth portion in goat milk. Highly effective.”
He tapped another tin with the edge of his tweezers. “A couple bring their nine-year-old girl to me every month. She has thin blood. A genetic condition. Bleeds for hours from her gums if she brushes her teeth too vigorously. A knee scrape would be fatal. Most children like her don’t survive childhood. My Koriwala viper venom has kept her alive for seven years.”
I shuddered. My third day at the clinic, and the shakes were beginning to hit me. My skin itched with strange life. I felt it in the bunching of my bowels, at the back of my eyes. The absence of the queen was becoming loud and insistent.
I licked my lips. “Got anything to help my nerves, Hakim sahib?”
Shafi tipped his neck and watched me. He plucked a vial filled with russet-colored liquid from the shelf. “Cobra in laudanum. It will help the diarrhea and muscle aches.” When I eyed it warily, he laughed. “Diluted. Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.”
He shook the vial, dipped a glass pipette into the frothing liquid, and retrieved some. I opened my mouth and he squeezed three drops onto my tongue.
“Easy,” he said when I rolled my tongue around. “Let it settle into your tissues.”
Already, the fire in my body was sputtering, calming down. It wasn’t the queen’s embrace, but it was something. When I closed my eyes, a fog rose and surrounded me, whispering me into a lull.
• • • •
By now, sahib, you must be wondering why I was still at the clinic with the good hakim; why I stayed for weeks and didn’t steal his medicines, his laudanum, or his money. After all, I had done nothing but steal, steal, steal for years since my boy died and my wife ran away with a shakarkandi vendor. Hubcaps, tin sheets, tools from a garage where I worked briefly, an old beggar’s wheelchair. You name it.
Before I became a thief I used to work in a dispensary—a tiny roadside stall in Qila Gujjar Singh run by a compounder named Ram Lal. He mixed tonics for common illnesses. Occasionally, a certified government doctor would check in, but mostly Ram Lal was free to do as he pleased. He was a good compounder, even though he did not have a medical degree. He helped the locals and earned a good name for himself with his gentle manner and willingness to subsidize his prescriptions.
I helped him run the dispensary. I attended seven grades before I dropped out of school, and could read labels written in English on pill bottles. My job was to grind pills with a mortar and pestle and wrap them in squares of newspaper to make medicinal puris. We did well and it was a good life. Until my son disappeared.
I suppose being in a similar environment with Hakim Shafi brought back those memories. For years I lived in that park—scabies-infested, filthy, often hungry. I had grown addicted to the darkness, but I suppose I was ready for it to end when I overdosed. Shafi came along, saved me, and cleaned me up, and I guess I was just too tired of myself to rob him.
I don’t know, maybe every heroinchi also wants one story with a happy ending.
Shafi helped me through the next week. Quitting cold turkey was like being cooked on a spit. I ground my teeth, sometimes I writhed and screamed; but his tinctures helped. I suspect he could have done more, but I think he knew this was my battle and would only go so far in steering. The ship and its course were mine and mine alone.
Like cures like, he’d said.
• • • •
On the seventh day, when I had more strength, Shafi showed me the terrariums.
His clinic was located in Old Lahore. Squeezed between a shoemaker’s shop and a cloth merchant’s, it was more like Ram Lal’s dispensary than a real clinic. His patients came in lines of worn, sickly faces, most of them women and children. They crowded into the dingy waiting room up front where whorls of Quranic calligraphy draped the walls and the smell of formalin and bitter salts hung in the air.
Once I had enough vigor to navigate past the front hall to the backyard, the fierce, sudden beauty of it shocked me. A statuary of ceramic children laughing and kneeling in the mud stood in the center of a lush zoysia grass patch. Creepers hung from trestles arrayed across carrot patches, weaving between the half-dozen mango and orange trees that circled the statuary. Exquisitely kept and trimmed, the yard smelled of citrus and honeysuckle.
I whistled when Shafi told me he did the landscaping himself. “That’s hard work.”
He nodded. “My wife helped me do it. She was a wonder.”
I turned to a row of empty glass tanks in a corner of the yard. “What are those?”
“Terrariums.” He crouched and ran a hairy hand over them. Monsoon season was upon us, and night drizzle had left the glass shiny and clean. It twinkled in the afternoon light, slanting red shadows across the grass.
“You kept snakes?”
“My wife did. She was a herpetologist at the University of Punjab. Russell vipers, sand boas, Indian kraits, striped keelbacks—she kept them, fed them like babies.” He showed me cracks, little spiderwebs, in the glass. “This is where her cobras tried to bite us.”
“What happened?” I said. Shafi yanked a tall weed poking its head from between the cages. We both knew I wasn’t asking about snakes.
“I sold them,” he said. “Couldn’t bear to look at them anymore.”
A thought hit me, a realization that must have shown in my face; when Shafi looked up, his eyes changed. He rose and went inside the house, his footsteps impressing upon the muddy banks of the flowerbeds, a trail leading into his past.
I got up to follow, stopped, and went to the back wall. I bent down and fingered the human footprint under the windowsill. It was fresh and clear and a child’s. The toe prints were filled with rainwater.
As I watched, a worm snaked its way out of a toe print and began wriggling madly in the rain pool.
• • • •
The girl in the picture was not Hakim Shafi’s daughter.
It was his wife—his child bride.
Shafi said nothing when I voiced my conclusion. I ran my fingers across the picture, across the large black eyes gazing out at the world, nose proud, chin firm and defiant. The girl, probably in her early twenties, sat sidelong, a half-smile covered by a hennaed hand. With the nose ring, her broad forehead and that chin, she reminded me of those desert women from Thal and Rajasthan who meander with their tribe across the wasteland, grazing cattle-stock.
I said as much to Hakim. He flicked at the end of his nose. “Eighteen years ago, I was in Hyderabad for a relative’s funeral. I bought her from a band of gypsies who camped at the outskirts of the city. She was eight at the time.”
“Eight.” I wasn’t shocked. I come from a family of moonshiners and shanty-dwellers, sahib. My father ran errands for a pimp most of his life. I knew how some old customs work. “You raised your wife,” I said to him.
I stared at the picture. “Where is she now?”
Hakim polished a row of bottles with a rag.
“Why do you keep returning to the park?”
His voice was low. “Maliha loved the park. She used to feed those stupid ducks at the pond. Loved their ugly dirt-colored feathers. She said they reminded her of the desert. I used to laugh at that.” He yanked out a drawer and removed a brown pouch, its top cinched by leather thongs. He tugged at the drawstring, removed a wrapped sheet of paper from it, withdrew a necklace strung with three large stones from the sheet. They were cracked and yellow. “These here are the bones of her childhood.”
“Desert pearls. Sandstone baked by heat for years. Maliha didn’t remember much of her early life. Her parents were dead, which is why her tribe wanted to sell her to someone willing to take care of her. But she said she remembered her mother giving her these. Her Ma told her they had magical powers and would protect her from jinns.” He smiled. “My Maliha believed it ’til the day she disappeared.”
“When’d she disappear?”
“Two years ago.”
“How old was she?”
“You loved her?”
It was a stupid question, sahib, I know, but asking it came so naturally, it surprised me. Maybe it was a bond of understanding between sinners. I could see his love for her nestled in the crowfeet around his eyes, I could see his entire life in those eyes: feeding her, clothing her, raising her, falling in love with her, sending her to college. But he had bought her with rupee. Her heart then—did he win it, or chain it with need?
Hakim held the necklace. “Yes, I loved her.”
“You didn’t have children?”
“We were barren. I was.”
“Why’d she run away?” I didn’t mean to say what I said next, but I said it, “A younger lover?”
His fingers pressed the stones as if telling beads on a rosary. “She loved me. It might have been a mixed kind of love, but she did. I’ve always known that. She went away because she was looking for something. A dream. Something she heard when she was a child.” He brought the necklace close, until it brushed against his chin. “Many times, I thought she didn’t know what she was looking for, but she was a precocious girl—always had been—and I trusted her.”
We were sitting at the table in the clinic’s little kitchenette. Hakim got up and poured us green tea from a boiling pot. The scent of it drifted between us, sweet, spectral, ephemeral.
“Sometimes I can feel her in the house, breathe her perfume. She left this necklace behind, you know.”
“And that has you convinced she’ll return?”
Shafi sipped tea.
“What was the dream she chased?”
“I don’t know. It’s a little insane, if I’m to be honest.”
“What was it?”
He put the cup down, shook his head. “Not now. Another day, perhaps.”
Sahib, you might wonder why was he telling me all this. Why a respectable man like him would open his heart to a stranger, a heroinchi? I wondered the same, so I asked him.
He wrapped the necklace with the sheet and paper and placed it in the pouch. When he turned, his face was inscrutable. It comes out at last, I thought. No one is so good, so pious, so righteous they’ll pick up a dying needler from the garbage and take him home.
“I want your help,” Hakim said. His gray eyes were feverish. “I want you to help me find my wife.”
“How can I? I haven’t left that park in years.”
“Maliha disappeared from that park. I know it in my gut.”
I watched him. If his wife did visit her precious duck pond, I never saw her. Then again, in the darkness in which we thrived, she could have danced around us naked and we might have missed her.
He persisted, “I want you to ask your friends. They won’t tell me anything, but they will tell you. Someone must have seen her.” His hand trembled and tea spilled on the table. He wiped it with his sleeve. “I’ve looked for her for two years now. I have talked to the police, and they’ve done nothing. They—” He stopped, clenched his fingers. “Will you ask your friends? Please?”
I took another look at his face and I relented, sahib. God help me, I told him I would.
There are days when I wonder if I should have refused, if I should have got up and left his clinic and walked away fast as I could. In the end, I didn’t. Not because he saved my life—I owe him no debt for that; he saved me to answer his own needs, I think—but because I had nothing to go back to. The world is big, yes, but I had my own ghosts chasing me, and if I left, they’d just catch up sooner. Also, Hakim’s love was naked and trembling, pinned to the wall. He was asking me to help him take it down, and I couldn’t refuse.
I told him I’d ask around.
• • • •
When I began the inquiry, my friend Yasin—I believe I mentioned him before—directed me to some of the heroinchies who kept an eye out on the goings-on in the park. One of them told me that two years ago, around the time Hakim Shafi’s wife disappeared, the qawwals were in town.
Every year, a band of musicians comes to Lahore Park to take part in a qawwali festival. They’re led by a maestro named Tariq Khan.
Yasin has a stereo he salvaged from a junkyard. When he shot up, he would often listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, his head thrashing to the alaap and raagas. Occasionally I’d join him. Khan sahib’s love songs are great, but we especially adored those that lauded the merits of sin. And whenever the qawwals came to town, we tried to attend the free performances in the park square.
I have never heard Tariq Khan sing, but legend says, when he was a young man, he was visited by the legendary Tansen in a dream and trained by him. That, at the peak of his prowess, Tariq Khan once set a dozen candles alight just with his singing.
“I saw her twice,” said Yasin’s heroinchi confidante. “A young woman hovering around the maestro Tariq Khan. Lovely girl. Beautiful dark eyes.”
When I prodded, his description of the girl matched Maliha’s. The coincidence was too big to ignore. I asked Yasin to talk to the festival organizers, and he returned and told me that after each performance in Lahore, the qawwals left for Panjnad in southern Punjab. Perhaps Hakim Shafi could learn more if he visited the area?
I talked to Shafi.
At first he was incredulous, then his eyes widened. “Ya Allah.” He wheeled and, ignoring my startled face, ran to his room and locked the door. I waited in the kitchenette for nearly an hour before he emerged.
“I know where she is,” he said.
Shafi wiped a callused hand across his pale face. His fingers were grimy. “Her family, her people—they were gypsy singers. They came from a lineage who were once known as ‘professional mourners’: Folks who’d come at the bidding of rich families to wail at funerals. To add glamor to their dead, so outsiders would think the departed was dearly beloved. Maliha would feel right at home with qawwals and their lyrical lamentations.” Shafi turned and stared out the window. “At first I thought she went looking for her people. But she wouldn’t do that. She wouldn’t leave me for her folks. They sold her. She hated them for it. She’d never say it out loud—she wasn’t one for self-pity—but I knew it.” His forehead creased and he talked in a low voice, as if to himself, “No, she went looking for naag mani. That’s the only explanation.”
“She’s gone looking for her childhood.” Shafi turned his strange-colored eyes on me. Nightfall was at hand, behind him the window was darkening, and I thought I saw something pale and glistening peer in. Hakim coughed and threw something across the table.
I looked down. It was his wife’s necklace with the three desert stones.
“She’s gone to Panjnad,” Shafi said, “looking for the mythical serpent pearl.”
[Go to Part 2]
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