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
This is how Hakim Shafi gave away his life: First, he closed his shop. Next, he sold his house.
“What in the name of God are you doing?” I said.
Shafi grinned. That grin raised the hackles on my neck, sahib. “Burning bridges,” he said.
I looked at him closely. In the four weeks since I’d told him about the qawwals, he had shaved his thick mustache and lost ten kilos. He was always thin, but now he looked like a needler at the end of his days. His temples were wasted, the flesh of his face pulled taut across the blades of his bones. His eyes discomfited me the most: the gray in them swirled madly, like smoke from charred moths after they crash into candles and explode into flame. It was as if a light had flicked on inside Shafi’s head, bathing his body in an otherworldly glow whose secrets only he understood.
To be honest, I was becoming rather afraid of this skeletal man, sahib. I decided it was time for me to return to my world, leave the clinic and run to the park—
Which was when I discovered the true extent of the damage that motherfucker Mustafa, Yasin’s dealer, had wrought. We’d thought Mustafa had cut heroin deals with police stations only. Turned out he’d gone a lot further than that.
He had swindled the Poison Men themselves.
I don’t know who came up with that name. When the opium fields up north were razed, many folk lost a lot of money. Folk other than the militants, with connections outside the country. To whom many body bags in Lahore and Karachi were attributed.
Mustafa had been heavily scrounging the white queen from these people. In his greed to set up a drug cartel in Lahore, he lied and told the Poison Men his clientele was the city’s elite; that we, the park heroinchies, were suppliers for children of bureaucrats and feudal lords. Cunningly, he plotted it all out so that we became the swindlers and betrayers.
As they say, though, no one plots better than God. The Poison Men discovered that Mustafa was lying. He had been selling the queen and its substrate masala to their direct competitors in the international market.
Mustafa and his affiliates went missing.
Five of my friends paid the price for their greed as well. Yasin was among them. Their bodies were found floating in the pond near the banyan trees in the park, throats cut from ear to ear, rusted needles jammed inside their penises. Their fish-nibbled fingers—what few were left—were trapped in tree roots.
Word was that I was on their kill list as well. They were looking for me and a few others. We were condemned. Dead men walking.
So . . . I resolved to stay missing. Hakim Shafi had made preparations to journey to the town of Uch, close to Panjnad, where, he had learned, the qawwals had gone. I begged to join him, and he was happy to have my company. He was expecting me to go with him all along, he said.
• • • •
At noon, we got off the train at Bahawalpur Station and Hakim rented a taxi that would take us to Uch—a three-hour road trip.
On the way, he told me how he finally realized his wife’s destination.
“When she was eleven or twelve, Maliha used to talk about a mythical stone. She called it naag mani, the serpent pearl. A precious stone gifted by the Serpent King, who rules the underworld, to his queen.”
I stared at him. He didn’t look like he was joking. “And you think your wife went after this magic rock a snake gave his begum as a wedding present?”
Hakim guffawed as if it were the funniest thing in the world. His eyes were too bright. “Why wouldn’t she?” He chewed at his lip. “Her people came from the desert. Her mother gave her that sandstone necklace and told her it would keep jinns away. There are stories of such stones in every culture. It hardly matters what I think. It’s her assumptions that have brought us here.”
“Hakim sahib, that is insane. I thought she was an educated woman.”
He lifted his chin and stroked his throat. “I have been thinking about this for a while, you know. In her mind, she probably came up with rational reasons to look for the stone. I believe she talked herself into looking for it. You’re still sniffing and shaking your head.” He reached into his pocket, brought out his wife’s necklace pouch, withdrew the wrapped necklace. He unfolded the sheet of paper. “I should have thought of it much sooner, but . . . this is a copy of a letter she wrote to a herpetologist in America.”
I took the note and tried to read it. It was in English, sahib. Hakim saw me squinting at the writing and took it back. He read it and translated it for me.
Incidentally, it is the same note, sahib, that you retrieved from the rosewood box later. There, sub-Inspector sahib, that’s the one. If you like, you can read it yourself. No? I see. It is to be part of my testimony. Well, I will tell you what I remember.
• • • •
(Item #13 pertaining to Case 546D3: Copy of letter from one Maliha Shafi, Evidence Collection Lab, Lahore)
Dear Professor Hensoldt,
I have read with great interest your article about the Cobra Stone in the New York Times and was fascinated by your description of the hours you spent watching cobras catch fireflies in the grass.
You state that the female lampyridae has rudimentary wings and is too large to fly; that it sits in the grass quietly, emitting a green light stronger than the males’. The light flickers intermittently, and if watched for a long time, “a steady current of male insects will be observed flying toward it and alighting in close proximity” for mating.
You state that little pebbles of chlorophane emit a similar greenish light in the dark. It is possible, you say, that thousands of years ago, the cobra chanced upon such a stone in a riverbed and, thinking it a glowworm, swallowed it. It then discovered it could be used to lure male fireflies. That, over millennia, the cobra has come to use the stone as decoy in the grass, and when the male insect weaves its way toward the stone’s light, the snake lunges and catches it.
Because of this evolutionary advantage, you claim, the cobra carries the stone in a fleshy pocket in its head to prevent others of its species from seizing and monopolizing it. Thus through accident and race memory, you say, this behavior is exhibited and the cobra learns to treasure this precious natural decoy.
My issue is with this last statement. I have studied snakes in the Punjab area of Pakistan. I have also travelled to the desert of Thal, looking for such “naag manis” (for that is what the locals call the Cobra Stone), where nomadic tribesman claim to have seen giant snakes fighting over these pebbles. The only gems I found which emit green light are calcium fluorite crystals, which are easily fractured. Cobra Stones found by Berlin mineralogist Gustave Schubert in Mongolia’s Tavan Bogd mountains, however, are reported to have been so resistant to breakage that diamond-tipped tools cracked before their strength.
Gustave found these in a nest of Ophiophagus hannah—the King Cobra.
Which is why, I have concluded that none of the gems I found are Cobra Stones. Furthermore, I propose that none of the “natural” fluorite crystals found near the habitat of the cobra are the mythical serpent stones. That the real Cobra Stone is a compound formed of cholorophane and unidentified biologically active substances in the glands of the Ophiophagus hannah; the snake might use for it for evolutionary or other advantages, but the process of its formation is entirely within the serpent’s body, much as gallstones form in man and other species.
This conclusion is enthralling and in some ways wistful for me. The “geo-natural” samples I recovered, which are breakable fluorite, have been deposited with the University of Punjab, and I am again in search of the real mythical stone. (You might be surprised to hear there are Indian and Pakistani herpetologists who have looked for it for decades. We really are a secret society!)
Putting all flippancy aside, I have heard gossip among fellow seekers that the Panjnad area in southern Punjab (where all five Pakistani rivers come together) has an alluvial riverbed upon which sightings of these stones have occurred with astonishing frequency. Residents of a small desert town called Uch claim to have found and sold many such stones to tourists and local homeopaths. The report has piqued my interest, and I find myself wondering if I should make a visit to the area to further my studies.
Again, thank you for writing this gem of an article (you’ll excuse the pun). It was a pleasure speculating on the possibilities such scenarios offer.
Maliha Shafi, PhD
Associate Professor of Herpetology
University of Punjab, Pakistan
• • • •
I raised my eyebrows. Shafi smiled. “Still think I’m a fool for coming here?” he said.
“She came to Uch in search of the Cobra Stone,” I said, piecing it all together. “Probably with the qawwals, since they knew the area. Why wouldn’t she tell you before she left?”
“She used to do this kind of thing all the time. Go on these ‘research trips’ without telling me.” His lips twitched. “My Maliha was a wild one. You can take the girl out of the desert, I suppose, but you can’t—” His gray eyes wandered, found the horizon, settled on it. “I thought she’d outgrow it, you know,” he said. “I thought a day would come when she’d settle down. We would adopt children. We’d grow old together.” A salt-and-pepper stubble had grown on his cheeks. He rubbed it vigorously. “Maybe something happened to her. God forbid, an accident perhaps. Otherwise, I know she would have returned home.”
I nodded. The letter seemed to be carefully worded. Maliha came across as thoughtful and practical. Imaginative, but calm and collected.
Maybe something had happened to her.
“Tell me more about this stone,” I said.
“Myth and speculation more than anything else. She was full of stories from her tribal days. She would laugh when she narrated them, watching my face as if she expected me to laugh at her.”
“Did you?” When he said nothing, I asked, “What stories?”
“Her favorite was the tale of the Serpent King and his Queen.” Hakim rubbed his fingers together. “The Sheesh Naag, king of serpents, ruler of the underworld, asked his wife what she wanted for her hundredth name-day. The Serpent Queen, having grown tired of time’s ravages upon her body, asked the King to grant her youth and immortal beauty. The Sheesh Naag told her he couldn’t reverse time, but he would grant her immortality via metamorphosis. By virtue of the stone’s magic, she would turn into a beautiful woman, a snake-nymph with skin smooth and white as polished marble.
“The Queen agreed. Since that day, on the lunar fourteenth when the moon is at it brightest, she rises from the underworld in human form and gazes upon our world, sighing at time’s cruelty. Those who have seen her claim she wears the serpent pearl on her forehead.” He tapped his own. “It is said that this serpent stone is a gateway to other worlds than ours. That the possessor of the pearl shall rule animals and birds, be immune to all the venom in the world. Even become immortal.” Hakim shook his head. “Oh, Maliha could tell these stories so dramatically.”
“Yeah, it’s dramatic all right.”
“Isn’t it?” He smiled without mirth. “And to think we’re in the middle of it, traveling to find a woman who thinks this gem really exists.”
“Although to be fair, her interest seems academic.”
“Like I said, my wife rationalized well. By the way, want to guess which species of snake the Serpent King is according to legend?”
“Which?” When Hakim grinned, I knew. “Ophiophagus hannah,” I cried out. “The King Cobra.”
He laughed, and for the first time in weeks it was open-throated and heartfelt. “By Allah, that’s it. Driver, what is it?”
The taxi driver had braked and stopped the car. Now he was getting out, muttering under his breath. “Fallen branches, sahib,” he said. “Probably from a dust storm. They said one passed through here a few days back. I’ll take care of them.”
We peered out. Two large branches lay across the road. Something large and white lay curled near them under a swarm of flies.
“What’s that?” Hakim called.
A couple of vultures hopped back, hunching their shoulders as the driver approached, their yellow beady eyes fixed on him. “Hussshhh,” yelled the taxi driver and waved his arms at them. “Get out of here.” The vultures jerked their way to the gravel roadside, where they paused and waited.
The taxi driver called over his shoulder. “Roadkill, sahib.”
My gaze went to the whirling blowflies, then to the carcass. Afternoon was dissolving into dusk, and I couldn’t quite make out what it was. The driver lifted the second branch and heaved it at the vultures. They scattered, casting venomous looks at the intruder.
When the driver slipped behind the wheel and turned the ignition, Hakim tapped him on the shoulder. “What was it? Raccoon?”
“Nah, sahib.” The driver looked at us in the rearview mirror. “Just a dead snake.”
Hakim looked at me, eyes wide, and laughed. I wouldn’t say anything. My heart thudded in my chest. Just beyond the tree line on our left stood a boy, arms crossed and hugging his chest. The woods were dark and, though he was too far for me to make out his features, I was sure it was the child I had seen at Hakim’s clinic peering in from the window.
As I gripped the edge of the rolled down window, the boy turned and disappeared into the woods.
• • • •
The qawwals are in town, indeed, and tonight they will sing, said the owner of the guesthouse we were staying at.
A large musical mehfil was planned for the evening. Hundreds of people would gather at the shrine of Bibi Farida, a female mystic who died centuries ago. The qawwals would sing the nostalgic folklore of her life and the tireless work she did for Uch’s children during a fatal dysentery epidemic.
“Who was she?” I asked.
The guesthouse owner, an elderly man with no teeth, shivered with reverence. “An angel, sahib. Personification of Allah’s mercy and glory,” he said in a voice garbled by toothlessness. “Our elders used to say her goodness migrated into her skin. Her forehead shone with Allah’s light. On dark nights, it could be seen for miles.”
“Who built the shrine?”
“An Irani prince who fell in love with her, they say. In the Mughal days this was a common route for Persian princes and amirs to travel on their way to East Indian cities. The prince wanted to marry her, but Bibi Farida declined, choosing her orphan paupers over the prince.”
It was our second day at the guesthouse, a small bungalow on the outskirts of Uch. The owner had situated it on the banks of the Panjnad River, offering his guests a glorious waterfront view from the porch that ran around the back. You could sit there and drink tea and gaze into the night-darkened river.
Hakim had no interest in tea or scenic beauty. His agitation was visible. For the first time in two years, he was close to finding out what had happened to his wife, and the anticipation was gnawing at him. He rubbed his forehead, muttered prayers, and gripped his rosewood box—the one with the snake venom tin boxes—as if he’d never let go.
“Why’d you bring that?” I said.
His fingers drummed on the steel flip-lock. “It was a present to her from my mother. Maliha used it for her trinkets before she went to the University. The venoms are mine, but the box was always hers.”
“And what exactly do you plan to do with it?”
He didn’t answer. A thought occurred to me. “The venom you gave me for the shakes—does that cause visions? Hallucinations?”
“No.” His eyebrows knotted. “Why?”
“No reason,” I said, staring over his shoulders. The window was empty. I went to change into something comfortable.
We left at dusk. Following our landlord’s recommendation, we took the trail that ran along the Panjnad River, a two-mile hike to the shrine.
The river breathed in and out, a shimmery line trembling below the mud bank. Rocks crouched amid wind-hissing reeds and apluda grass, like men prostrated before a dark deity, their mineral-gleaming humps desolate. They made me think of the floating bodies of my friends murdered by the Poison Men. Water birds cooed and flapped above us. The landscape of sand and mud sprawled and tilted into the water, and I saw someone standing motionless in the distance, a dark speck haunting the liquid loneliness.
“No respite for the seeker,” murmured Hakim. I looked at him sharply, but he was staring at the ground, where mica and water-smoothed pebbles gleamed. As he walked, the rosewood box rattled in his backpack.
“Are you all right?”
He gave me a tired smile, a sickly man with sunken eyes. “Never better.”
“What are we going to ask the qawwals? You know, when we get there?”
He shrugged and shifted the backpack to the other shoulder. “Whether a lady researcher came here with them.”
“What if they say no?”
“Then we ask others.” His smile was gone. “Every fiber of my heart tells me she’s here. Somewhere in this town.”
How can you be sure, I wanted to ask, but I held my tongue. What use disrupting any man’s illusions? Hakim would leave no stone unturned in his search for his beloved, for it was clear to me that the man was maddened by love and had been for a long time. What kind of love, I didn’t dare ponder. What does it take to raise a child bride, what transformative alchemy must happen between a man and a girl as age eats innocence and the infatuation evolves into its adult counterpart? I didn’t know, didn’t want to think about it. The prospects were too disturbing.
We turned from the river to follow a winding trail leading up to Uch Lake, an artificial canal created by the dam at Panjnad head. That was where the shrine was located, the guesthouse owner had said.
“She once told me she loved snakes” Hakim said, “because when they shed their skins, they live anew. She said snakes are lovelier than butterflies, for a cocoon hides a butterfly’s ugly childhood, while snakes don’t worry about the artifice of beauty.”
Then we were nearing the shrine, and Hakim stopped. My heart lurched a little as we stood there, gazing at the towering structure in front of us.
“Holy heart of God,” Hakim murmured, his face full of awe.
The shrine was spectacular, a dazzling three-tiered octagonal building erected close to the lake on a sand base. The top tier lifted the marble dome, while eight towers of carved timber supported the base tier. The exterior was patterned by many shades of blue and white mosaic tiles, themselves covered with coils of extraordinary calligraphy in cyan and gold.
“This is where the qawwals come every year.” I exhaled a shuddering sigh. “No wonder.”
It was a building of heartbreaking beauty, a glittering fortress in the arid landscape around it. It made me feel lonelier than ever. It made me want to flee from it.
Hakim’s lips had tightened. His eyes glowed in a shaft of bleeding sunlight.
“Should we go in?” I said gently.
He nodded, his eyes fixed on the dome. We joined the throng of visitors come for the great musical event. We passed under the arched gateway into the courtyard and crossed a sandy yard broken by rows of cemented graves of sinners wanting the sacred proximity of Bibi Farida.
The qawwals were gathered in front of the shrine proper, its entrance locked and bolted at this hour. A boisterous bunch, they chattered happily, their glances roaming but inevitably wandering back to their leader, a squat, morbidly obese, bald man, who waddled his way around the courtyard, greeting acquaintances with a wide smile under his handlebar mustache.
“That’s him. Tariq Khan,” I whispered to Hakim. I lifted my chin and nodded at the maestro as he passed by us. Hakim found us two empty plastic chairs five rows down from the stage and we sat.
“Do you want to talk to him now?” I said.
Hakim’s eyes scanned the crowd, his fingers futilely trying to find the phantom ends of the mustache he had shaved. “After.”
The carpeted stage was adorned with four teakwood tablas, microphone pedestals, rolled silk pillows, and red-velveted bolster cushions for the singers. A harmonium fronted the tablas near a large tray filled with small paan-daans and filigreed spit utensils for the lead singer’s betel-chewing and spitting pleasure.
Hakim leaned over. “You see the harmonium?”
I glanced at it, then at him. “Yes?”
I peered at it again. It was a beautiful hand-pumped instrument crafted from rosewood, its white teeth gleaming in the spotlight. I could see nothing strange about it. “What?”
Hakim’s hand reached out, took hold of my chin, directed my gaze. “Look at its right corner.”
Even from the fifth row, the large white-and-gold symbol was visible against the dark mahogany: Twin snakes coiled around a ruby emitting rays of light.
• • • •
Sahib, my throat is dry. May I have some water?
Thank you for the shawl, sub-Inspector sahib. The weather must be changing. Your station is so cold. I don’t know how you get any work done. Although, I suppose, this chill is ideal for what you do here. Must be more efficient to torture and break a freezing body.
Are they still standing out there, Inspector sahib? The Poison Men?
Come now, sahib, you can tell me. We both know I’m not leaving this station for a courtroom.
All right, sahib. As you wish.
About the music mehfil.
• • • •
The shrine rang with the qawwals’ music.
Dholki thumped, harmonium dueled with the vocal alaap, the background chorus clapped their hands to the thrumming tablas. The lead singer, a chubby, red-jowled man, screamed loudly, his ululating falsetto soaring high in the night.
Hakim was not impressed. “I think my head’s going to explode,” he whispered. “Where is he?”
I shrugged. The maestro Tariq Khan hadn’t made an appearance, cameo or otherwise.
Hakim rose. “I’m going to look for him.” Before I could so much as open my mouth in protest, he turned and disappeared between the aisles of chairs and standing bodies.
I labored to my feet and combed the crowd: farmers, carpenters, shoemakers, and shopkeepers. They swayed to the music. A strong earthy odor exuded from them, mixing with the sweet smell of the cannabis they smoked. Some had bowls of bhang, which they downed like lassi. Mesmerized by the music, some old men and women had begun the dhamaal, that mystical dance in which the audience aspires to become the music. They jittered and whirled, faster and faster, eyes glazed. A burly man, naked except for a dhoti, looked at me, a beatific smile on his face. He rolled up his sleeve and began to inject a pale liquid into his arm.
I turned away. It had been months since I’d had anything to do with the white queen, but still the vision of that needle dimpling and piercing his skin left me shaky. My head pounded with the tabla beat, my flesh bunched up in gooseflesh. Men laughed. Someone thrust a cup of bhang into my head. Another clapped my back, whispering. I chugged the liquid. The crowd spun, the sky wheeled, and I glimpsed Hakim. He was slipping through a knot of hard-faced white-turbaned laborers at the back of the crowd. I weaved my way after him, ignoring the listless mutterings in Saraiki and Punjabi. By the time I reached the laborers, Hakim was gone.
I don’t know how long I looked. Could have been hours or minutes. The smell of bhang, cannabis, and the white queen wrapped around me. The migrainous music swelled and abated, the dancers danced, the colors of the evening changed. My heart fluttered, and little pale children flitted between the legs of the surging audience.
At some point I stumbled from the grasping hands of the multitude to a narrow, uneven gravel path twisting through the shrine’s outer towers. Night deepened and shadows swiveled, pirouetting to the drumbeat, and I found myself in front of an arched postern door.
A large padlock hung open from its latch like a broken jaw. I gazed at it. The keyhole stirred. A black threadlike snake nosed its head out, slithered down the door, and disappeared into the gravel. I pushed the door open. Beyond was a black gullet softened by gleams of distant green light.
I went in.
• • • •
The corridor meandered. It came at me with drunken angles, or perhaps I was drunk with the bhang from the mehfil. The qawwali music receded and a strained silence took its place. I lurched toward the green light’s source in this unnerving quiet. Even the earth dreams and murmurs in its sleep, but here I was benighted by the claustrophobic endlessness of that corridor jolting, tilting, and looping back on itself.
A burst of emerald light drew me out into a vast space. I sensed it more than saw, because my eyes had closed. I blinked rapidly and slitted them. Acid-green flickered in the periphery of my vision. The stone floor felt uneven. The dip and rise of the high ceiling, the damp feel of the granite wall I ran my hand across—this was a natural chamber of some sort. Perhaps a cavern under the shrine.
Again I blinked against the pulsing light, a verdant web that receded and expanded with my breathing. Something moved in the web’s center. I raised a hand and plunged forward. The source of the light materialized: It was the top of a large marble slab. A gravestone.
Hakim Shafi loomed over it.
He stood by the grave. His shirt was torn, the rosewood box lay discarded at his feet. He had his back to me, a scarecrow’s relief in the green light, as the portly maestro Tariq Khan leaned and whispered in his ears.
I stopped. The maestro didn’t turn to look at me. His thick lips puckered like fat slugs near Hakim’s earlobes, his chubby fingers gripping Hakim’s wrist. A strange humming came from him.
Something was clearly, horribly wrong here. But my legs wouldn’t move. Maybe it was the bhang, maybe terror—a bristle that migrated up and down my flesh. My feet were magnetized to the rough stone floor. I leaned forward, straining to hear what the maestro murmured to Hakim, and found that he was singing.
Sahib, I swear on my mother’s grave, I have never been more horrified, more enthralled in my life. The paunchy qawwal’s stomach heaved in jellylike movements as he whisper-sang strange tunes into Hakim Shafi’s ears. Melodies jerked and slithered in swift tenor across the thrashing web of light. A gurgling song made entirely from vowels, a deep vibrato alaap that lunged and rose and pitched, as if the maestro intended to gut the cavern walls.
I put out my arms, intending to run and shove Tariq Khan’s massive bulk off my friend. Before I could move, the maestro dropped Shafi’s wrist and withdrew his lips from his ears. Shafi shuddered and let out a sigh.
The maestro threw his head back and began to sing at the ceiling.
The emerald light blazed. A torrential luminescence that spun in circles and fIooded my vision. The gravestone was shaking and the light source shook with it, throwing juddering shadows of the two men across the ground, stretching them like tar. Hakim shook, as if in the throes of a seizure, then turned around, smacking his lips. His tongue drifted out and receded. His gray eyes shone like moonstones. “My darling,” I thought he said. In the inhuman wails from Tariq Khan I couldn’t be sure. The maestro sang and stepped back, sang and back-trotted, until he stood at the far end of the cavern, his woeful music lapping across the stony distance. It made my head pound, turned my blood viscous.
Something shimmered at Hakim’s feet. A child. No, a woman, with hair like moonbeams, crouching. She rose and stood silently as Hakim gazed at her in awe, at the clearness of her marble skin, the perfection of her nose, her softly moving lips. She smiled at him and drew herself tall and Hakim grinned back. She reached, plucked the glowing stone from the grave slab, and placed it on her forehead where it shone, the brightest star there ever was. She whispered. The sound was like insects rubbing their legs together, or lonely reeds sighing on cold alien shores, or hundreds of serpents—
“You could have just asked me to join you. Why make me suffer?” Hakim said, and laughed heartily at the intensified buzzing that came from her. Did he think she was his wife? In the throbbing light, the woman’s features blurred, softened, became a child’s, and for a moment they were so terribly familiar that sweat broke out on my forehead.
Carefully, I retreated into the dark. The woman’s hissing came again, loud and clear, and I realized I could understand it. Words were buried inside its peculiar cadence. Rhythmical words, like a monstrous lullaby, or a soothing self-annihilating qawwali.
Tariq Khan was gone. Sometime between the woman’s apparition and her whispering, the maestro’s song had stopped. The cavern was quiet, except when she murmured; her bone-white hands rose and settled on Shafi’s shoulders, drawing him close, and she was taller than he now.
“Anything for you, my love,” Shafi was saying, his arms encircling her waist even as she lowered her face to his, her pale skin glistening in the light. Drool fell from the corner of her mouth, snaked down Shafi’s cheeks, inflaming them. Hakim grinned wider and licked his lips. “Anything,” he said.
She wrapped herself around him, her arms, then legs, rising and coiling. Her weight staggered him for a moment, but he recovered and stood swaying as she hung from him, a giant spider, or a leech planted on his flesh. Her eyes burned, her lips never stopped moving. The light cascaded around their conjoined bodies, and I thought of giant cobras in sprawling fields playing with fireflies.
I must have cried out, for she lifted her head and gazed at me. Her eyes were green, like squeezed summer grass. Like strange planets roaming across a vast black cosmos reflecting light from dying suns. Like the sparkling jade-colored dress a king might have gifted his queen, come another spring.
She smiled dreamily at me, this marble-skinned woman, showing her fangs, and the terror in my heart was so great that I began to shake. Deranged thoughts raced through my mind: this is the queen the true white queen and up till now whatever we imagined about the world our world their world was a mote of dust licking its own tail in the tiniest sliver of light unaware of the biting dark stretched endless around it.
The pale woman jerked her head away. The spell broke. I wobbled and fell to the floor, hugging my chest. The Lady of the Stone kissed Shafi’s neck. Her lips parted and a torrent of sharp teeth, like nails from a nail gun, drove into his flesh.
Shafi never uttered a sound. Instead he closed his eyes, sighed, and began to pant.
He never stopped panting.
Even as his skin gurgled and fell away; as the venom softened him, reshaped his flesh, melted his face. As her legs fused at his back and her skin began to shed, a diamond-patterned second skin emerged from beneath. Her fingernails flailed, tore at Shafi, flayed him, unhooking his flesh from its burdensome wrapping, as the toxin congealed his blood and plugged the gashes. Her teeth and fingers roved and split, peeled and stretched, so that, when she was done, Hakim Shafi was a pillar of clotted blood and liquefied bone pulsating with each beat of his encased heart.
The snakewoman paused. She examined her handiwork, angled her head, and opened her jaws. Wide, wider, stretch, expand, until her maw was a black gullet around which flared her spectacled, ribbed hood. Her mouth crackled and thrust and wrapped around Hakim’s bubbling head. His eyelids were gone, his pupils dull, and I saw he was still trying to smile.
Sahib, I . . . I cannot go on.
I need to breathe. I cannot breathe.
• • • •
Inspector sahib, you sit there, smug.
You’re thinking to yourself that, at last beyond any shred of doubt, you know that this junkie, this peddler, this heroinchi, is mad.
A raving lunatic who murdered Hakim Shafi and secreted his body someplace so you never found it. You say to yourself, a little more, just a little more nonsense out of him for the Poison Men, and you can wrap it up and call it a night. Cold iron bars for the maniac with rats and vermin for company, and a warm bed for you and the sub-Inspector, with perhaps your wives pressing your sore legs before you fall asleep.
You are wrong.
I know this now, sahib: Our world is not our own, it is borrowed. Sometimes it is shared and occasionally it’s taken and reshaped against the will of its possessors, but always briefly.
We heroinchies were mistaken. We are neither lovers nor children of the white queen. The real children of the true white queen are hidden, a tribe of men and women who have infiltrated our puny civilization. They lurk in shadows and come forth only at the call of their mistress.
Which is why I did what I did. Why I didn’t flee when they came out from the darkness that night, although I was terrified and half out of my mind. As the spawn of the white queen surged from the depths of that cavern, a tide of venomous children rushing toward the smoking pillar of blood that used to be Hakim Shafi, it came together in my head, and I realized my true purpose at last. I understood why God or whatever force it was saved me the night I died in the park.
The snakewoman’s translucent children licked and ripped and gorged on the lower half of Hakim Shafi; he was already waist-deep inside their mother’s maw. As his blood steamed, they chased the crimson smoke with their spade-shaped mouths and muzzles. They followed the blood vapors with their snouts and lapped the condensate. Their smacking, slurping sounds filled the green-lit cave and they pulled and dragged Hakim away, their mother still riding his head.
It took all my will to creep forward and grab the rosewood box when they were gone. It was slick with blood and slime. I tottered and nearly fell across the yards of snakeskin molted across the cavern’s floor: a squamous, gory, leathery thing that twitched like a lizard’s tail.
Trembling, I reached out and fingered its coiled edges. As the green light from the gravestone fell on it, the snakeskin blossomed, and etchings suddenly burst onto its surface: strange geometric patterns, jagged whorls, spiraling curlicues and scripts. An enchanted map borne of the white queen’s inhuman flesh. A primeval cosmos unfurled like a lotus dipped in blood. How the light made those secrets glow! Their mysteries burned into my eyes so everywhere I looked the universe was naked and serpentine, the light of the snake pearl limning those mysteries; and when I looked down, I saw the minuscule particles of my own skin shedding as I became something new and never known before.
I gasped at the enchantment, trying to understand it. The light twitched and the snakewoman’s hum wrapped around me. Love me, it said, Love me. Stay with me. I shall show you sights beauteous and teach you ways of embracing your astonishment. Worship me and you shall never want again, dream again, fear again. Not even your little boy.
And then there were too many faces in the cavern. They dripped from the ceiling, they draped the floor, they licked with blackened tongues the wounded skin of their mother. They poured down, and I dropped the snakeskin. They swarmed around me, dead and lolling, and I screamed.
Clutching the rosewood box, I whirled and ran. Back the way I came, up the dark corridor leading into this den of quietus, the domain of the Lady of the Stone with her green gem shining like a murderous beacon.
Before I fled into the tunnel, I turned for one last look and saw what I had thought was a cave was really an ossuary. The walls were lined with skulls and bones, and the wetness of the granite was damp moss flourishing on snakeskins tautened across this ossified legion.
• • • •
A yellow moon sickled the night clouds when I stumbled out from the postern door. Somewhere a cock crowed.
I gripped Hakim’s box and ran across the brick path through the shrine’s towers.
The qawwals and their audience were gone. Brass bowls, bottles, used needles, and crushed joints lay scattered where the stage was. I lurched between the cemented graves filled with sinners, my eyes aching with what I had seen. My stomach heaved. I think at one point I vomited on a grave, yanking at weeds and cemetery dandelions to wipe my mouth. Then I got up and labored onward, onward, until my lungs were on fire, and I collapsed on the banks of Uch Lake.
I must have lain there for hours. I dozed and dreamed, and in my dreams the river and the lake and all the oceans of the world were nothing but giant blue snakes wrapped around the earth. The moon and the sun were their alien eyes, the horizon the burning mottled flare of their hood supporting the heavens. Like the towers that raised the dome of Bibi Farida.
I thought of the maestro Tariq Khan and his band of qawwals and the town of Uch and the townsfolk. I thought of the little pale children I had seen at Hakim’s house and on my journey into the queen’s realm. Who watched Hakim? Who watched us all? I lay curled like a fetus and dreamed fetal dreams; and at some point I woke and went to the water and drank and opened the rosewood box. From it I took Shafi’s venom boxes, mixed the powders, and tossed fistfuls of them into the docile lake. Coppery-red and black smoke drifted in the wind, blown across the lake’s surface, and I thought again of Shafi’s steaming offal billowing from the pillar of his petrified blood.
When the tins were empty, I looked inside the box and saw the sandstone necklace Shafi’s wife had left behind. I counted the stones and flung them into the lake as well. I went back to the guesthouse, where I gathered Shafi’s things, called a taxi, and left the wretched town of Uch. I had enough money to be taken to Sangchoor, a nearby town, and there, in a shabby motel, I hid and waited.
Two days later, news came that a hundred people, including a band of qawwals, had sickened from a mysterious epidemic in Uch. Five days later, the papers said, traces of potent poisons were found in the blood of some who died. Foul play was suspected.
A week later, the children of the white queen came for me.
It was a river of faces that flowed inside the walls of my motel room. I glimpsed them in the ceiling cracks, heard their chatter in the eaves, felt them thump against the windowpane. One night the torrent rushed at the glass, hit, and broke into a million poisonous children; tiny-limbed, gelid, and familiar. They exhaled fog on the glass. They wore faces that dissolved and reemerged. Last night, they came for me again, and . . . and sahib, I was done. I was utterly exhausted.
Which was why, I finally decided to come to your police station.
• • • •
This is my story, sahib. Of a heroinchi courting a third death.
I see by both your and the sub-Inspector’s eyes that you don’t know which part to believe. That I am mad and tried to murder a hundred people, half of them children, or that under the shrine of Babi Farida, there breathes a different life. The paradox of my insanity doesn’t nullify either truth.
I am so cold, sahib. So cold. Just look at my arms; have you ever seen such hideous discoloration, such scales? I know what Hakim Shafi would say: I touched his poisons with my bare hands, but that is not it. Already I can feel my fingers shriveling, the skin becoming thick and cracked above the knuckles. Sometimes I have difficulty chewing, as if my jaws have become too big for my meals. My teeth feel so pointed they appear suited for entirely different purposes now. I would go to a doctor, but which antidote would they give me? I handled hundreds of those poisons, I handled her dead skin, and, well, only like can heal like. Her skin.
One was a hidden treasure that needed to be discovered. A goddess returned to her people.
I see your eyes. You think I killed them both, Shafi and her.
You’re standing up. Of course. You have to hand me over to the Poison Men. I do wonder how they found me this quickly. Perhaps a phone call from you? But how did you know I was wanted by them? How did the Police Inspector of Sangchoor know gangland members from the big cities wanted me?
I also wonder why their shadows look bloated and misshaped when they pass the window. Why they seem to be holding some kind of drum under their arms. It almost looks like a tabla.
In my mind, it’s so difficult to keep everything in order. I keep returning to the song the Serpent Queen sang. It warbles in my head, it whips my bones. Perhaps, I shall hear it when they slice my throat. Her words—they come to me in my dreams, buried in that hissing cacophony. Magic words, ancient words, shards of glass in an ambrosial meal:
“I live in your soul’s crevices. I have lived forever there.
Like a moth to dancing light you’ll come; I will prepare
to skewer you with my arrow, to noose my hair locks flung.
I’ll whip out my tresses, grin and show:
dead lovers on each blade
Spread the word!