|BETWEEN THE SHADOW|
AND THE SOUL
by Bhavika Sicka Shafiq stood overlooking the sprawling concrete wilderness that was Old City. The day was closing, and the muezzin’s call to prayer could be heard wafting across terraces and mingling with the sonorous clanging of temple bells. In the gathering dusk, tea sellers poured frothing chai into earthen cups, and haleem vendors scooped out bowlfuls of steaming stew from large aluminum pots. Soon, the sun dipped below the western horizon, spreading its vermilion streaks across the sky, against which the minarets of the Charminar danced and blinked in the muted, nebulous glow, as they had always twinkled on evenings such as these for as long as Shafiq could remember. One of his life’s only constants. Like his mother. And like Mehnoor.
Below, the pavement was still smeared reddish black with the blood of the goat that he had sacrificed this morning, a crusting carmine stain that had imprinted itself upon his mind’s eye. He felt a dull throbbing in his temples, a heaviness that seemed to sweep over his being and soak into his very marrow. Trimming the lengthening ash of his cigarette against the outer edge of the parapet, he allowed his gaze to wander over to the haveli across the street—its yellow sandstone walls chipping; its tall, majestic colonnades crumbling in disrepair—and come to rest on the lobed window of the Palladian mansion, on the silhouette of the courtesan draped in diaphanous chiffon. His eyes traced the languorous rise and swell of her hips, the sweep of her thick mane of hair that eddied and cascaded around her shoulders, and her face—now that she had turned toward the light of a candelabra—with its lantern eyes and dimpled chin and earrings that dangled like chandeliers. A face that had always lingered at the edges of his sleep, had always conjured itself up in his waking dreams, that countenance ever so inscrutable. A body like an ocean—undulating, waiting to unfurl.
The hum of traffic had subsided to a suspended lull, and the walled city was now curtained by darkness. In the distance, the domed mosques with their tapering finials stood like budding breasts against a naked sky. His gaze trailed as she stepped out of her spangled saree, as it unraveled into a serpentine heap on the floor, the contours of her bare muslin body familiar and yet ever so mysterious. The candles in her window flickered in the whiffling wind like a will-o’-the-wisp winking in the forest. He wondered whether she’d ever realized that he was watching her, as he’d watched her all these years for as long as he could remember, his eyes always searching for her in this sea of blackness. He didn’t know her name, but to him she was Mehnoor—she who is the light of the moon; every vision of her gliding gracefully, shrouded in silk, skimming the lake of his desire.
He felt his skin burning, the warmth building, spreading, an aching and yearning that seemed to fill him up every night only to claw at him and leave him hollowed-out the next morning; an overwhelming tide of strange pleasure and even stranger sadness. When he pressed his eyes shut, the carmine stain was growing, growing, like a damp patch on a rain-soaked wall. The animal had not flinched when he had brought the cold steel to its throat, and its eyes had expressed—and he tried to grapple with this thought momentarily, trying to discern what it was that the animal had expressed—not fear, but an absolute void of emotion; peaceful, placid, as though prepared. Just as his mother had looked when his stepfather had forced himself inside her every night, as Shafiq remembered her and remembered himself, a boy of nine standing in the dim doorway, shaking and confused, his feet rooted and his fingers numb.
Looking back on his childhood, Shafiq would remember the dust and din of Moghalpura, a densely-thronged suburb where he’d spent his early years. His memories were fragmented, and would come and go like waves lapping the shore of his consciousness, some soothing and others tempestuous. He would savor some, whereas others he pushed far, far away into the shadowy recesses of that very consciousness. His memories were of his mother, a reserved and deeply religious woman, her burqa veiling her sorrows and her solitude, rare glimpses exposed when she’d lift her eyes from her cupped hands after prayer; and then there was his stepfather, a stern-faced Hadrami man of Yamani descent who used to run a mobile repair shop in Barkas, and who had sauntered inebriated into Shafiq’s life, trampling over his father’s grave and his mother’s dignity.
Fourteen years ago, his stepfather had walked out on his mother, had moved to Masqat and married a young Arab girl and, last Shafiq heard, died from cirrhosis. And yet Shafiq felt nothing, nothing at all, not even a sliver of grief, of loss. Because his stepfather was the same man who had turned away to pursue more important matters—such as frequenting brothels in Jahanuma, or squandering his family’s savings, or drowning himself in lurid shayaris and cheap rum—every afternoon when Shafiq had come home from school bruised or beaten or bullied by the older boys. The same man who had thrust a knife in Shafiq’s tremulous hands every Bakrid, forcing the boy to slice an unsuspecting animal’s jugular, to empty out its insides, its guts spilling out like a clew of fattened red-worms. The same man whose shadow continued to follow Shafiq, to lurk in dim corners of deserted bylanes, to crouch in his cupboard or hover over his mother as she slept, even today.
When Shafiq pulled his eyes open, the light from the haveli‘s window was suddenly brighter, jarring, almost blinding. He squinted, pearls of sweat beading his burdened brow. He saw Mehnoor bent over a chest of drawers, enveloped by a man in a flowing, black ankle-length kaftan, the wood moaning, bottles clinking, tipping over, shattering one after another after another. Shafiq found his hands trembling, the veins of his temples bulging and pulsating. He watched as she flailed and thrashed, heard her whimpering like an animal as she was spun around and hurled across the floor, across broken shards and splattered flecks of glass that glimmered like mica against her bare thighs. He had witnessed this spectacle of savagery before, but tonight it all felt different, as though he were not observing from afar, but was in the haveli, in the very room with them, complicit, somehow. It had, all these years, felt like a disturbing dream, a fleeting glimpse through a door left ajar leading to someplace otherworldly, but tonight, it felt evisceratingly real.
Fumbling, reeling, he gripped the edge of the parapet-wall to steady himself. The wind had stilled, and a calm now brooded between them. He watched as she brought herself to her unsteady feet and stood facing an oval mirror, rivulets of blood meandering their way down her parted thighs, tainting the pristine marble floor. The figure, almost shadowlike, was upon her again, like a dark cloud trying to snuff out the stars. In that moment, for the first time, Shafiq saw her eyes, reflected, and her eyes appeared to meet his and to say—and he tried to grapple with this thought momentarily, trying to discern what it was that her eyes were trying to say—that she no longer needed help, only deliverance. And then she stopped struggling, her face blank, her wild curls matted together like the vines of an untamed jungle.
Shafiq stubbed out his last cigarette and tossed it over the parapet. After years, after what felt like a lifetime, his legs seemed to be uprooting themselves, slowly and yet purposefully, and he found himself tumbling through his dark living room, past the paisley-printed sofa, past the framed holy sites and cursive Qur’anic verses hanging mum on the walls. He entered the kitchen and fumbled in the drawer, bowls of lentils and minced keema lying untouched on the granite counter above. He stopped by his mother’s room, by her bedside as she slept soft-snoring, making sure her frayed quilt was tucked in on both sides of her, making sure her inhaler was within her reach on the mahogany bedside table beside the burning agarbatti, a ritual he carried out every night, hoping, like a weary pilgrim does, that performed conscientiously enough, it would absolve him of all that he had failed to do for her in the past.
He found his legs carrying him down the narrow staircase of his apartment, across the potholed street that separated him from Mehnoor. The silence outside hung heavy like a chador, made even more palpable by the diffused amber glow from streetlamps. Gravel turned to soil as the pavement opened out into the neighboring courtyard, godforsaken and overgrown with weeds and droves of thornapple, their white trumpet maws gaping at the heavens. A melancholy moon had risen in the east, as pale and porcelain as her. He stopped for a brief moment on the haveli‘s verandah, looking up at the scalloped stucco arches and delicately carved screens trellised by creepers, filling his lungs with the cool night air that was laced with the heady scent of nightshade. The turbid swirl of his emotions seemed to settle and still, and for the first time, this tranquility lent him clarity.
He knew what he had to do when he walked through the cusped gateway. Perhaps, a part of him had always known. The inner rangmahal loomed bare and austere, its large mirrors cloudy and speckled with age, and in them, he saw himself, really saw himself, for what felt like the first time in his life. The oak-wood staircase creaked with every step he took, and the door down the hallway upstairs splintered and gave way without a creak of protest when he kicked it in. She was lying outstretched on a divan, the shadow now covering her, smothering her, thrusting itself inside her limp body, its thick palms pressed against her lips, her legs with their belled anklets dangling loosely over its large shoulders. When the shadow spun around in rude surprise, Shafiq found himself slicing its jugular, feeling that, for the first time, his knife had found its purpose.
The shadow convulsed and tottered to the floor, collapsing in a slick and growing pool of red. A stream of garbled oaths was spewed, words mixing with blood, sputtered out like betel juice. Shafiq looked down at Mehnoor, at her face in the soft subdued glow of the candelabra, expecting to witness a raging storm, but gazing, instead, at the surface of a calm and pregnant sea, unseeing eyes turned ceilingward. Who could tell what brewed, gathering fury, below those burnished waters?
He wanted so desperately to reach out and run his fingers through her tangled hair, brush the back of his palm against her cheeks flushed like fire, drink from the silver stream of moonshine between her legs, from the fountain of her lips smudged sanguine, swallowing all her words unspoken as yet. But, instead, he turned and walked away, letting the knife drop, the carmine stain shrinking, shrinking, and then disappearing. About the Author:Bhavika Sicka is an emerging writer from Kolkata, India. She has been a finalist for the Write India contest, and her work has appeared in Arkana, Crab Fat Magazine, and Jabberwock (the literary journal of the Department of English, Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University). She is currently pursuing her MFA at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and is a fiction reader for Barely South Review.