Genre: Horror (Anthology)
Muneera is a 9-year old girl. alone with a forest guard father and a cruel step mother. Her only friend is the exotic Aicha, who has a curious house, with two of everything. But thats not the only thing curious about Aicha….there is something particularly odd about this 19-year old girl.
Nine-year-old Muneera’s eyebrows arched questioningly, as she combed Aïcha’s long silky black hair.
‘So you have two living rooms?’ she said.
‘Yes. This room is where we greet men and our official guests,’ said Aïcha. ‘My house is designed like a Saudi home, so this is what we call the majlis. We always keep it clean because Saudis are very spontaneous and guests drop in all the time.’
Guests? Muneera had never seen any.
‘And we also have separate entries for men and women, so no curious peeking and stolen glances,’ laughed Aïcha, ‘separate sinks, separate bathrooms…’
‘But only one bedroom?’ said Muneera, making Aicha blush.
‘Look at this door’, Aïcha said quickly, ‘I made it in memory. Back in Saudi, it led to my mother-in-law’s house. Like a secret passage. We would visit each other without wearing the burqa. The kids had so much fun running through it, creating such a ruckus! You would have loved it too.’
Muneera gathered Aïcha’s hair into an intricate top knot, high above her head, wrapping the white scarf around it. She pinned the little golden brooch to the scarf, just above Aïcha’s ear.
‘You look beautiful!’ sighed Muneera, regarding the black fabric running the length of Aïcha’s curvy body. ‘Almost like…’
‘Barbie?’ laughed Aïcha. ‘Well, you always say that. Burqa Barbie!’
‘Well, Baran is going to love you! Please have lunch with him? Please. Pleeeease!’
‘Oh…alright. Get me my veil.’
‘Aïcha? Lunch…with a veil?’
‘We always eat that way when we have guests!’ said Aïcha. Muneera huffed loudly as she threw up her hands and sat down. She picked up the cup of tea, imagining Aïcha with her half-raised veil, sitting at the dining table, struggling with a forkful of spaghetti, while her stepbrother cracked an awkward joke.
‘Aïcha, you don’t really need a veil now, I think.’ Muneera bit her tongue even as the words came out. She felt the pain as it touched Aïcha, without looking up at her face. For she could never look at Aïcha’s face without a shiver running down her spine.
For Aïcha’s face was different.
For where should have been those beautiful eyes, ruby-red lips and the fluttering eyelids of a bewitching Saudi nineteen year old, Aïcha had nothing. Aïcha had no face. Instead of a face, there was just smooth white skin.
‘Yes,’ said Aïcha through her absent lips, her head cast down. ‘Things have changed now.’
A high-pitched voice entered the living room. It was her stepmother. ‘Where are you, you goddamned girl?’
Suphairath flung open the living room door.
‘What are you doing hiding in here?’ she barked. ’Don’t you have your lessons now? Mujeeb has been waiting for you.’ She saw the cup of tea in Muneera’s hand and her eyes narrowed. ‘And what the hell are you doing with the fancy tea sets?’
Muneera paled. ‘It wasn’t me, Mamma. It was Aïcha.’
Suphairath looked at Aïcha, her eyes tightening. She turned to Muneera.
‘If you blame one more thing on that faceless doll, I’m getting rid of it. You hear me? And don’t you dare touch those tea sets with your filthy hands again.’
Muneera made a face as Suphairath stormed out, catching the flash of red heels and the curve of a cocktail gown through the sheer of the black outer fabric. A strong whiff of Nina Ricci still hung in the air. Gossip Friday, thought Muneera, quickly hurrying after her stepmother, with Aïcha tucked under her arm.
The three cupboard doors in the bedroom were wide open, their contents heaved onto the floor like a wrecked garments store. The bed was piled with stacks of saris, each one zipped in plastic bags, gowns still in their hangers, and a box of slippers and heels.
Her stepmother sat before an ornate mirror, her scarf spread out on the bed, dabbing a layer of rose powder on her cheek. The dressing table was lined with tiny bottles of nail color, rose powder, liquid powder and shimmer. Muneera picked a kohl pencil.
‘Don’t touch that.’ Suphairath slammed the comb at Muneera’s little fingers.
Muneera stared at her pudgy reflection beside the dazzle of her stepmother. Suphairath held tweezers to her eyebrows and picked out a tiny hair, a tear forming in the corner of her eye.
‘Can I come with you to Lakkidi?’ said Muneera.
‘Haanh?’ Suphairath said with a nasal twang, throwing down the tweezer. ‘And I’ll sit with your teacher Mujeeb for your lessons? Idiot. That man has already stuffed himself with the all the samosas I could serve him. The longer you make him wait, the poorer the house gets.’
‘But I don’t want to study with Mujeeb. He smells and tells weird stories.’
‘Oh! I get the Muezzin of the town to come all the way to this godforsaken place to teach her what is right, and it’s just not enough for my daughter, is it? And tell me, what do you plan on doing in Lakkidi? It’s six kilometres through the forest. You can’t even manage two.’
‘It’s my birthday next week. And I was thinking. Aïcha is getting really lonely…we could buy a Barbie.’
‘Haram!’ Suphairath shook her head, her nose ring quivering with her reddened lips. Her stepmother could flare expressively at the most minor provocation.
‘But Najma has one!’
‘And that whore child will go to hell for that. Ruxana should know better than to let her daughter play with the devil’s toys. Girl, this is for your own good.’
‘But why? Why is Barbie haram?’ said Muneera.
Suphairath pulled Muneera close and and whispered, ‘Did you know that Barbie has a boyfriend?’
Muneera had no idea what a boyfriend was. It seemed like a demonic thing to own.
Suphairath looked back into the mirror combing her hair. ‘I’m sure Ruxana has one too. Which is why she goes working instead of decently getting married again and staying home.’
‘So does Abba have a boyfriend too, then?’ said Muneera.
There was a loud guffaw from behind. Her father stood dressed in his khaki Forest Guard uniform. His cheerful face was red as a radish.
Suphairath’s nose ring flared, her eyes darkening like a storm.
‘Eyyy…are you laughing at this shirk?’ Suphairath said. It was never good to stick around when her father was called Eyyy. ‘Laugh. Now that her mother is gone, don’t blame me for her fancy ideas.’
A shadow fell across Muneera’s face at the thought of her mother. Abba swooped down to pinch her cheek.
‘You’re all dressed up.’ Abba said to Suphairath. ‘Off somewhere?’
‘Must I sit here waiting while you prance around the forest with Ruxana in the name of work?’ said Suphairiath. ‘I’m off to Lakkidi.’
‘This is dangerous, woman. A man almost died yesterday. A wild elephant, a bull in musth. It’s a total rampage all the way to Lakkidi. A wet year. The males are aggressive. Crops fields, farms…’
‘Well, it’s good I am not a rice field. Although some people here treat me like one.’
‘Fool! Why don’t you listen?’
‘It is Friday, Tariq, and I need to attend my prayers.’
‘Is it not best for a woman to pray in the safety of her home?’
‘Yes, and destroy the one chance I have to meet some humans. We live like wild animals. God will protect me from the mad creatures around me.’
Abba threw up his hands and shook his head.
‘I don’t have time for this.’ He grabbed his briefcase.
Suphairath watched him leave, and flinging the comb down on the table, in one sweep, struck half the bottles of nail paint to the ground. The belly of a bottle burst and green paint stained the carpet.
Muneera snapped out of her reverie and scampered to the door.
‘Muneera…wait.’ Suphairath called. Muneera turned to her stepmother.
‘Come here child.’ Suphairath’s wide eyes beckoned, two great yellow black-slitted orbs. Muneera walked back, dragging her feet.
Suphairath’s hands slithered over her shoulders, pulling Muneera close, her scent surrounding her as fumes. ‘Do you still want that Barbie?’ she whispered in her ears.
‘Umm…’ said Muneera.
‘Tell me this, child. Has Mujeeb taught you the punishment for shirk?’ Her words were low and rasping.
‘Uhh…hell?’ The heat in the room rose suddenly.
‘And do you know what hell is, child?’
Muneera felt the words freeze in her throat. She watched Suphairath’s eyes glistening like embers of fire, sucking the air around.
‘Speak up. Do you know what hell is, girl?’ Suphairath’s tongue lashed out at her, a fork in her frightened eyes.
‘I…fire…’ Muneera’s lips trembled.
‘Yes, fire.’ Suphairath touched her bangles, nodding. ‘And boiling water. Would you like to put your little hands in boiling water?’
Muneera shook her head quickly. Suphairath’s long fingers began coiling around Muneera’s little neck.
‘Would you like me to shackle your neck and pour boiling water on your head, your skin roasting like chicken?’
Her stepmother wet her lips, watching her. Muneera’s mind flashed an image of her screaming body thrashing around wildly in chains, as her stepmother poured the scalding water, relishing each burn.
‘And as your skin burns,’ Suphairath said with a cold smile, ‘just your white eyes popping out of your coal red and black body…it grows back…your skin. So that you can burn for eternity. That is the punishment for taking idols in place of God. For shirk. Remember that the next time you see Najma and her doll again.’
Large blobs of tears fell upon Aicha’s face as Muneera walked into her mother’s room. Everything was exactly as it had been. The giant four poster bed. The long flying curtains. She remembered it like yesterday. Her seventh birthday.
Suphairath and Abba were screaming at each other. Had they forgotten? Baran’s five-year birthday celebrations had just finished last week. Biriyani, balloons and boys. She stepped into the room. Her own mother would never forget. No matter how tired she was.
There she lay as white as an angel. In her white prayer clothes, on her white bed, reading her white-bound Quran, a little white thrush breathless at its final song.
Muneera had climbed into the bed with Ummi and grabbed the present from her outstretched arms, tearing at the coloured ribbons. She had been praying all week for this day. Oh, she and Najma had planned a million games with her new present.
When the box fell open, Muneera’s face stared down at it, her face blank as the doll’s.
‘I know you wanted a Barbie, Bi.’ Ummi’s eyes flitted away, cringing at the pain that was yet to touch Muneera’s eyes. ‘But Suphairath thinks this is best for you. To teach you what is right. She really does want what is best for you, you know. And Abba too…and I…’ Muneera heard Ummi’s voice breaking.
‘It’s ok, Ummi. I like her,’ said Muneera quickly. She didn’t want her mother to cry, fall sick or lose her hair again.
‘Look, she’s even got something to change into,’ said Ummi through her tears, pointing to the box. Muneera looked in. Packed neatly at the bottom of the box was another black burqa and head scarf, exactly identical to the one that the doll already wore. Muneera looked at Ummi.
‘I’ll call her Aïcha,’ Muneera said finally, ‘like the song!’ And Ummi’s delighted smile instantly warmed Muneera’s heart to the doll.
Now, Muneera lay on the bed alone, hugging Aïcha. She heard a knock at the door.
‘Muneera!’ Mujeeb poked his large head into the room. ‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you. And you’re hiding here? What’s the matter, child?’
‘Where is Suphairath?’ Muneera sat up, wiping her tears.
‘Aaa…she’s your stepmother! Don’t call her by her name. She left for Lakkidi a while back. And baby Baran is sleeping as usual. So it’s just you and me. What happened? Are you not well?’ He touched her forehead, and she cringed at the strong smell of attar mixed with sweat. He sat down on the bed.
‘Well, you seem alright to me. Just a bout of laziness, I’d say.’
‘Brother Mujeeb. What is a boyfriend?’
Mujeeb’s eyes widened at first. Then he suppressed a grin, a quick twitch to the left end of his lip. He spread his moustache with his fingers and held an expression he had when saying something never too right.
‘Aaah…a boyfriend, Muneera, is definitely a bad thing. You cannot have a boyfriend before marriage. But tell me, where did you hear such a thing?’
Muneera told him about the sinful Barbie that was destined for hell. Mujeeb touched Aïcha thoughtfully, then lifted her burqa way up to her waist, pulling down her white panties. He looked into Muneera’s eyes, but his fingers massaged the smooth white between Aïcha’s legs.
‘I cannot tell you what a boyfriend is, Muneera. This is a secret.’ He held his odd smile again. ‘But I can show it to you.’ He pulled her close. Muneera shrank, her chest beating like a pack of chased deer. She felt her body freeze.
‘Don’t worry Muneera.’ His moustache tickled her ear, ‘I am an Ustaad. A teacher of God. You needn’t be shy with me.’
Suphairath trudged back home through the forest, whispers of condescension seeping into the cackling chorus of crickets. The shadows grew in recompense, until the pale moon too abandoned her, slinking behind the ominous, dark clouds. A baboon shrieked at her, and she let out a yelp and hauled out her umbrella as the rain poured down.
Her eyes fell on two black vultures, their hairless grey throats tearing at the splatter of muddy blood. A baby bird. Suphairath shuddered. Scavengers. They were everywhere.
Three loud barks ripped the air, and a giant dog came bounding in her direction.
Suphairath flinched, a familiar chill spread through her feet and arms. It was only a few paces home.
The dog gasped at her, panting. Suphairath bent down, as if to pick a stone, and the creature flinched, whimpering, diving into the bushes. She stared after it, frozen for a moment.
A loud scream rent the air. From the direction of the house. The dog began to bark.
Baran, her mind screamed. She ran towards the house.
The front door was unlatched. Stupid Muneera. There was nobody in the front hall. She saw the light under the living room door. She flung it open.
Baran was asleep on the sofa, suckling his thumb. Mujeeb sat next to him, headphones plugged into his ears, reading his texts. She yanked off his headphones.
‘Owww,’ he said, flinching.
‘What’s happening? Who screamed? Where is Muneera?’ she said.
‘Wh…I don’t know. In her room, upstairs, I think,’ he said.
She ran up the flight of stairs and threw open the bedroom door. Empty. Suphairath ran to the guest room. The child loved going wherever she wasn’t supposed to.
Her eyes widened. It was a peculiar sight. A shocked yelp escaped her lips.
The doll was perched on a little stool near the window, as if it had climbed up to stare at the moon when Suphairath barged in. Its blank head and body stood half twisted towards Suphairath, caught in the weird act.
Suphairath took in the odd sight for a few seconds. Muneera wasn’t in the room.
‘Suphairath, listen, Muneera keeps running off to Najma’s the first chance she gets,’ called Mujeeb from below as he lumbered up the stairs behind her. ‘And this is a forest. It could be one of those cursed baboons screaming.’ He reached the room. ‘Remember the one that stole your brassiere and ran around with it!’
‘Shame! Don’t remind me of that.’ She hit him, a fierce blush covering her earlier shock.
‘Maybe today I will be as lucky as that baboon.’ His arms circled her waist, his voice low and teasing.
‘Shut up! You want the child to hear?’ she hissed.
‘Ok, leave that. At least, finally, we are alone. Tell me. How was the ladies’ meet at Bini’s place?’
‘Yes, yes. Bini’s was great. Everyone was raving about my samosas. But forget that. You know what happened at the mosque, today? That Imam…Shafi? During his sermon…the man was ranting away about partying, gambling, drinking…and the dirty looks I got from everyone, all the while. Shame! I wished the ground would consume me.’
‘What? How did they know?’
‘Ruxana! I saw her smiling. Spawn of Satan, that’s what she is. You know, I never touch the wine at Bini’s. And we never play for money. Can’t a woman have her pleasures! Just lock her up in the house and leave her to die. That’s what they all want.’
‘I know, princess.’ He grabbed more of her and planted a wet kiss on her cheeks.
‘You know what? At the next community prayer, you should give a speech. Incite the men. Terrify the women. About the evils of working women in society.’
A naughty glint sparkled in Mujeebs’s eyes.
‘Women who prance around in offices, while their babies bawl for their milk-laden breasts.’ His voice slipped into a high tenor, the fervour seeping with practiced measure, ‘Husbands, sleeping alone and hungry for the gentle warmth of their beautiful wives. Is it the moral thing to do? Is this why God created women? Must our sisters and mothers struggle so in dangerous places?’
‘But the widows. Like Ruxana?’ said Suphairath, imitating an honest question from the crowd, earnestly tilting her head in an expression so adorable that it drove Mujeeb wild. He pushed her down onto the guest bed.
‘The widows will have our kindness,’ he said, hungrily stripping off her clothes and his own. ‘The charity and kindness of society. Cursed be the day when there is not enough kindness to help a woman stay where she belongs.’
‘Bhesh, Bhesh! Well done. And at this point, let’s have some of those tears of yours.’ She laughed, tumbling in with him.
‘Mmmiii!’ came a voice from downstairs. Suphairath froze.
‘Shhh,’ said Suphairath to Mujeeb before he said anything. Baran was awake and crying.
‘I’m coming, Baba,’ she shouted to the boy downstairs. She turned to Mujeeb, ‘You…stay here. And put on something.’ She slipped her naked body into her burqa.
‘But don’t leave me like this,’ he pouted. Suphairath looked at the doll, facing the bed, staring at Mujeeb’s stretched and naked torso with its missing eyes. The toy was creeping her out. Had it shifted slightly for the view?
‘Do what you want,’ she barked, banging the door shut and latching it behind her. Nobody needed to see that. She stomped down the stairs.
‘Mmmiii,’ whimpered Baran again, as she entered the living room.
Baran was on the floor curled into a little ball. He was trembling, his body shaking with sobs. She felt a cold bead of sweat forming on her forehead. Why was the boy on the floor?
‘What’s wrong? Are you okay, Baba?’ She ran to him and shook him. He looked up.
‘Mmmiiii,’ he cried again.
Suphairath froze as she stifled a loud scream.
From head to toe, the boy was covered in deep red hives – live veins enlarged and throbbing with excess blood. The child looked a monster. A monster in pain.
‘What did you eat?’ she barked. The boy whimpered, his own veins choking him.
She dragged him to the bathroom and turned on the water, immersing the child’s naked body in the filling tub. She rubbed the soap on him. Then lotion. Then cream. One thing after another. The child was choking. She held him tight, rocking and praying, tears washing down her face. It was spreading fast, worsening, moving further, consuming her baby, and then, right before her eyes, onto her own hands and body, a line of marching ants, feeding on its way. What kind of curse was this?
‘Help me, God!’ she screamed, looking up to the heavens. And she felt her body freeze again at the sight that greeted her.
For right above, looking through the tiny bathroom window, was the face of the little doll, peering in. Its blank face now lit with the rough squiggles, mocking eyes and sniggering red lips.
Suphairath dropped into a dead faint. The bathroom fell silent, save for the sound of the filling tub and the slow, insistent knocking upstairs.
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