PodCastle 526: When Shadow Confronts Sun

Show Notes

Rated: PG-13.

When Shadow Confronts Sun

By Farah Naz Rishi

[Allah] will say, “Enter among nations which had passed on before you of jinn and mankind into the Fire.” Every time a nation enters, it will curse its sister until, when they have all overtaken one another therein, the last of them will say about the first of them, “Our Lord, these had misled us, so give them a double punishment of the Fire.” He will say, “For each is double, but you do not know.” (7:38)

The paan seller’s cart has a very particular smell: burnt roses, sugar syrup, cumin. Spicy and sweet, like Nani’s sticks of sage, the ones she burns every Sunday after fajr to ward off jealous eyes and jealous spirits. But I am hungry and I breathe it in, letting the newfound familiarity of the fragrance settle into my bones.

Perhaps if I smell like paan, this world would accept me as one of its own — because that’s what Pakistan is in Ramadan. Its own world.

The paan seller greets us. The smell of his wares is its own lighthouse in the bustle of the market, still crowded in the long days of Ramadan. Beside me, Sayf’s chappals slap against the bottom of his bare feet with his every step. Nani is ahead, as she always is, her chin high and her dupatta low, revealing silvery strands of hair. She is very much at home here.

I don’t really like paan; it tastes too much like grass and birdseed. But the paan seller with his pink and yellow teeth always gives Nani free paan and affectionately calls her Nani-ji. She loves paan, so I want to like it, too.

The paan seller smiles at Sayf, my twin brother. And then he sees me. His smile falters, as it has every time he has seen me these past few weeks.

“There is the paani bachi,” he says. Water child. I feel my own eyes brew with quiet annoyance. Mine are blue. Nani says blue eyes are a bad omen. It means I carry a watery, unstable personality. What she really means is rebellious. Secretly, though, I think she means this with affection.

Sayf has brown eyes, round and gently inquisitive. He is petting a donkey’s velvet nose a few feet from the cart. His lashes are almost as long as the animal’s.

“Maybe she’ll look like Aishwarya Rai when she grows up,” the paan seller suggests in Urdu. Whether he is trying to comfort me or Nani, I’m not sure. But I know he’s spewing nonsense. I am too short for my twelve years, my hair and eyebrows too thick and unruly, and my skin is just a shade too dark, even here. And now I am angry.

Her blood pressure has prevented Nani from being able to fast in years; she takes the free paan he has offered. “Maybe,” is all she says. I can’t see her face.

Warm fingers suddenly fold themselves between mine. Sayf smiles at me; besides Nani, he’s the only one that ever does. He reminds me that despite the paan seller’s coarseness, I still like it here. Flaws and all. I press my fingertip into one of his dimples, which makes his smile only wider.

The azaan begins to echo through the market, a sound that gleams through the smog-tinted air.

Nani sneaks the paan in her mouth and chews as she strides ahead. The market’s walls of stands and carts narrow, though many of them are closed during the day for the monthly fast. Above us, colorful signs plastered in Urdu — which I’d never learned to read — wave in a barely-there breeze, hung on laundry lines. Nani walks fast; she knows I will get distracted by the fried jalebi that glitters like topazes and the baskets of tamarind and mangoes. My mouth waters, and I am breathless once we reach the cloth seller, a diminutive woman surrounded by red and fuchsia and pastel bolts of cloth, threaded with gold.

“We need to make sure we get you all the kurtas we can get,” Nani says, her fingers running against some green velvet. “Before you go home,” she adds softly.

I run my hand against a nearby bolt of dark plum silk.

I should be happy. I love kurtas; they suit my body better than t-shirts ever did, and people pay well over forty dollars for unsightly knockoffs in America. But my chest aches because I don’t want to go home, and she knows it. There is magic here and it is alive and it sings the azaan.

“It’ll be good to finally be back, don’t you think?” Sayf asks me.

My eyes begin to throb.

Home is where I am ugly.

I blame Mom. She wasn’t there to warn me about the cruelty of middle-school girls. She wasn’t there to teach me how to use a tweezer, or the importance of lip balm or shaving your legs before gym class.

Nor did she prepare me for Sayf, with his beautiful eyes and charming smile, to be so popular. She did not inform me that I would never be.

Instead, she died and left nothing of her beauty behind for me to keep.

“I don’t want to go home,” I say softly. The words have escaped before I can apprehend them.

Now there is silence, and I am grateful for the full mug in my hand.

The sun is down, and the four of us — me and Sayf on one side of the dinner table, Nani and Dad on the other — have just eaten. Sayf and I were supposed to catch fireflies after iftar, but our bellies are too round and full to move.

I take a slurp of the warm, frothy cream from my mug, too thick to be called milk, though Nani insists that’s what it is. Whatever it is, I do not have to force it like the paan.

“I have told you time and time again: after Eid, we go home,” Dad says, tiredly. “We’re all going home.”

“You can leave Sana for a little longer,” Nani pleads.

“School starts in a week. She needs time to prepare, she has homework to do.”

Nani looks at me apologetically. There is nothing she can do to convince her son-in-law. He stopped listening to her after Mom died and makes fun of her behind her back for dabbling in superstitions.

Dad sighs. “Ammi, please. Don’t encourage her.” I know he hates it here. He didn’t used to, but now Pakistan reminds him of Mom.

I swallow, but the milk does not douse the fire burning in my chest.

“What if Sayf stays with me, too?” I ask. Dad trusts Sayf more than me because I am at times, I overheard him say once, unpredictable. “We can make sure we both get our work done. We’ll fly back right before school starts, I promise.”

Sayf looks up at me from his mug. He hasn’t touched his milk. He doesn’t like it; he likes watery milk and school and home. He does not argue with me, but he does not defend me, either. Instead, his mouth remains wound in a grimace.

But it doesn’t matter.

“We are leaving together,” Dad says. “It’s done.”

Over the past few weeks, I have flown kites on rooftops, been chased by trained monkeys in the streets, seen mosques covered in white marble and adorned with minarets the size of small planets. I’ve fed families of purring kittens, unafraid as they followed me down palm-tree-lined roads. Kind strangers have given me mango kulfi in terracotta pots, or fed me fat, juicy dates once the sun has disappeared, and I’ve waded through the ocean in a t-shirt and shalwar and no one thought it strange.

And no one has laughed at the hair between my brows or mispronounced my name.

There is magic here, and I will not leave, even if Dad has forgotten it and Sayf has not felt it.

Eid is in three days, and I will not leave.

I am inside the shed behind the house where the cook keeps his extra pots and — to my surprise — a goat, when celebrations draw near. The goat is my only audience. Black and yellow eyed, tied to a banister with a long rope, he chews on hay and doesn’t seem to care about me at all. He is big, and looks like he might have been expensive: fat, well fed, his fur patchless and smooth. His blank eyes creep me out, but at least he won’t tell on me.

I slip a nigella seed under my tongue, sit cross-legged on a heap of hay, and hold my breath. The Black Seed, my nani called it — a cure for the evil eye, even if the gaze belongs to you. “The raqi in my village used Black Seed for the ruqyah,” she’d recalled during one of her late-night childhood stories.

“What’s a ‘raqi’?” Sayf asked.

Nani cleared her throat, searching for the right words. “Exorcist,” she said. “The exorcist would use Black Seed and honey to coax the jinn out.”

Sayf had stiffened beside me; he didn’t like talk of exorcisms. He was too gentle for such darkness.

I wonder what he’d say if he knew what lingered inside all of us.

The lantern behind me flickers in the evening breeze, and I spin my head to check the flame holds. But it’s stubborn; it clings to its wick. A good sign, I think.

Shadows dance across the bare walls of the shed as the flame shudders. My nose itches, but my hand won’t move. My swollen eyes feel heavy, like two stones embedded in my skin.

I imagine Sayf’s face, a face I know better than my own. I imagine the fear in his eyes when he sees what I’ve done. The hurt in his eyes. Expressions better suited for me.

But it’s too late to cling to regret. My stomach suddenly lurches, the tug of freefall clinging to my insides. The nigella seed burns against my tongue, but I bite it in place. I can see the goat from my periphery. He is as still as prey catching sight of a wolf.

It’s working.

The light fades, tugging shadow across the shed. I see movement in the depths. I see fullness.

The shadow thickens its form and stands before me, short and dark and proud. She appears human. Whole. She cocks an eyebrow at me, as if taking me in and not liking what she sees.

It is me, I think, and the absence of all that is me. If the false skin I wear were to be stripped away, it would be her that you found underneath it all. My qareen.

Nani says qareen are jinn companions, bonded with every human being. Each is different; each has its own thoughts. Ultimately, they are a reflection of their human.

Their nature depends, said Nani, tapping my shoulder with a smoking stick of sage, on you. But they whisper ideas into your ear in a voice so familiar you believe it is your own.

A reflection. A shadow. A twin.

My head spins. The qareen takes a step towards me. With every step, she leaves a small puddle that evaporates far too quickly. There is a feral tug at her lips. I take a step back.

“Dhood dho”, my qareen says, stretching out her hand. My Urdu is not very good, but I understand.

She is hungry.

I dream that night I am home, and worse, I’m in Madame Bernard’s third period French class. Mme. Bernard (Non non, Mme. Bernaaarrrr) is tall and thin and blonde (bluhndu), and her eyes crinkle at the corners like a woman who has dozed beneath a smiling sun. She was born in France, and she takes the time to remind us of this every afternoon.

In my dream, she makes the class listen to an insufferable song about soleil and Champs-Élysées, and I want to die. Which is why she makes eye contact with me.

“Adelaide,” she says, using the French name she’s given me, “Why don’t you finish the song for us?”

“In French?” I ask.

“Oui, bien sûr.”

“I have to sing it?”

“En Français, s’il vous plait.”

I stand. It’s hot in the classroom; sweat pools beneath my armpits, and it trickles down my sides. I sweat too much. When I’m called on in class, it means the rest of the kids will remember I exist, like an old, ugly toy left forgotten, now found to be thrown away. Sayf told me that when I’m nervous, I start to smell a little like Nani. I didn’t talk to him for a week after that, even though he’s right.

Mme. Bernaaarrrr is waiting. Her eyes are gray, but mine are blue, and they are boiling. I should have taken Spanish with Sayf. He always feels so far away. Too good, too loved for me. I’ve been called a liar by my classmates for telling them he was my twin.

The words that spill from my mouth are not French, but Urdu.

If you’ve never heard Urdu, it is as ugly as it is beautiful. It bounces between your ears and takes hold, long after a conversation has finished. Syllables drip from lips coated in razor barbs one moment and silk the next to create a textured harmony suitable for only two purposes: poetry for a loved one, and utter, blissful rage.

I don’t know what everyone heard, but it makes them laugh at me. I desperately wish for Sayf to be there, to stop them. Would he stop them?

This is when the dream becomes blurry, or maybe it’s the smoke. But fire bursts from my pupils and shrouds the classroom in flames. Mme. Bernard and my classmates laugh even as they melt into puddles on the floor.

Heat hums in my veins. But I don’t smell smoke.

I smell sage.

My qareen wants to go back to America, so in two days, she will do what I say and go on the plane with my dad and Sayf while I stay here.

Her gaze is trained out the window, towards the shed. She’s wearing my clothes — an old Montgomery Middle School Fair T-shirt and dark blue leggings — but she wears them better. I’m not used to her yet. She moves too fluidly, like liquid.

“You are an idiot,” she spits in English, her words laced with barbs. I’ve learned she often tells me two things: what she hates, and the obvious.

“Why?” I ask.

She turns her head to look at me. Where her eyes should be blue, they’re as black as obsidian.

“The air isn’t right here. There’s too much . . . awareness,” she says carefully. I’m still not used to hearing my voice from her mouth. “There’s just too much.”

“But at home . . . ”

Footsteps creep behind me from the hallway; I shove my qareen in the closet. She hisses like a feral cat when Nani ambles past us.

My heart thuds against my rib cage. My qareen didn’t have to finish her sentence; I hear her thoughts echo in my head, thoughts intertwined with a smile.

But at home, there is nothing.

Later, I am in Nani’s room. The smell of incense lingers at her doorway, beckoning. Nani wasn’t always superstitious. But I don’t mind the change, or her sudden move to Pakistan. After a loss, she explained to me after the funeral, you must embrace change. If you don’t bend with it, you will break.

A sun-faded photograph of my mother when she was a child stands on Nani’s dresser. I look away from it, though I feel Mom’s gaze.

“You look just like her,” Nani tells me. “The splitting image.”

I fail to see the resemblance. I also fail to inform her that she’s gotten her idiom wrong.

Nani sits on her bed, which creaks beneath her weight. Her long silver hair is uncovered, and in a white shalwar kameez, she looks a little like a ghost. I want to tell her about my qareen because I think she would understand. She’d laugh and mess up my hair and call me clever.

But then she grabs her lumpy blanket in her knobby fist — but no, it’s not her blanket but the kurtas she bought for me in the market. Elegant, flowing shirts made of green velvet and gold thread and fuchsia and fiery reds, shredded. My beautiful clothes, reduced to fragments of fabric.

Nani had picked them so lovingly for me. And maybe Nani isn’t my mom, but she is the closest link I have. Her kurtas, her gifts, are Mom’s gifts. Ones my qareen has destroyed.

I wait for Nani to scold me, to tell me how cruel it is to shred them just because I’m angry I have to go home. But she doesn’t.

Instead, she says: “You’re a good girl, Sana.” Nani breathes in, lets the air settle in her old lungs, and balls the ripped fabric in her hands. “It’s okay to be upset sometimes.”

It sounds like she’s reassuring herself.

Eid is tomorrow and Sayf has already packed his things. It is the end of August, and he will start a week-long soccer-training camp before school starts, as if he doesn’t do enough already. He is convinced seventh grade will be better than sixth, and for him, I’m sure it will be.

I think he knows about my qareen. He saw her climbing the lime tree in the courtyard, hanging upside down and laughing at him like a wild monkey even as I told her to keep it down.

He knows I would never laugh at him, and I am too afraid of heights to climb trees. But he hasn’t said anything about it to me. The thought makes my heart curl into itself.

I want to hate him. It would be easier than loving him from the shadows.

“I’m going to hurt them,” my qareen says. Milk dribbles down her chin as she folds some paper in half, then half again, before folding in the corners. Her mug lies forgotten on the floor.

I’m not sure where she got the paper from. “Hurt who?”

“When I go back, I will hurt them all for you.” She has folded a paper airplane. “All the ones who hurt you.”

“No one’s hurt me,” I tell her. I don’t know the point of lying to her. Especially when her words hold a hint of bold vindictiveness on my behalf, and I want to cling to them.

She aims the paper airplane at me and throws; it collides with my chest. The sudden force knocks the wind out of me. I tell her it hurts, but she laughs.

When I unfold the paper airplane, I realize it is the photograph of my mom when she was a child. She’s laughing, too.

But at home, there is nothing. My qareen’s earlier words unfurl in my head again, and now I understand their true meaning.

There is nothing to stop me.

When we first arrived in Pakistan, Nani told me a story about the girl and the mango tree. It goes like this: a lonely young woman — because all young women were lonely back then — stumbled across a mango grove after fighting with her new husband. She threw herself beneath the biggest mango tree in the grove, illuminated by moonlight and stars, and wept.

The tree shuddered, awoken from its winter slumber by her tears. From its branches, fleshy mangoes suddenly swelled, glimmering like droplets of the sun.

The young woman had heard of trees like this: gift givers that only revealed themselves to those who needed them. But she’d forgotten the warnings that came with those tales. She plucked a mango from the tree and took a bite.

The moment her teeth pulled flesh away, the mango began to glow with a brilliant light, and out of the light poured forth a jinn with gold-stained eyes and skin like dusk. He offered himself to her to soothe her loneliness, but instead of taking him beneath the tree, the young woman plucked another mango and bit, releasing yet another jinn, one with skin like white opal flecked with reds and blues and silvers and long black hair that reached the dew-kissed grass beneath the girl’s feet. Greedy still, the girl bit another mango, then another, until she’d consumed every mango on the sacred tree. But even though the young woman was surrounded by a flock of jinn eager to please her, loneliness still plagued her heart. Their love was not enough. She sobbed, disappointed with her gifts, and in a rage, the jinn piled upon her and ate her.

We had just passed a row of mango trees, Nani and I, and I could swear I heard them rustle with life. With magic.

“Count your blessings, lest the tree catches a glimpse of your loneliness and makes you an offer you will not refuse,” Nani warned me with a wink. “Unless you can handle a flock of jinn, of course.”

Catching her tone, I shrieked, “Astughfurillah, Nani Jaan! Gross!”

I can’t help but wonder why she told me this story.

That morning, I am awoken by the sound of cook’s shouting. The goat is missing. Only a puddle remained in the shed.

“Eid will not be the same without goat meat,” the cook cried.

I haven’t seen my qareen in a few hours.

But that night, when she returns, sneaking through the open window while Sayf sleeps and I am awake in bed, she smells like hay.

“We leave tomorrow,” Dad reminds us during iftar. It is Eid, the first real Eid since Mom died, but he is in an especially bad mood because his laptop is broken; the screen is a mess of ink and shattered glass. I have locked my qareen in my bedroom while the four of us dig into a pot of fish biryani.

“Make sure you have everything packed. Our flight is early,” he adds.

I quietly sip my milk, which Nani has sweetened with syrupy Rooh Afza. My stomach roils like an angry ocean.

My qareen will be more at home than I ever was, I reassure myself. She’ll be a better daughter. A better twin.

After dinner, Sayf takes me aside and hands me a thick box tied with silver ribbon. “Eid Mubarak,” he says softly.

I tense. “But I didn’t get you anything.”

He smiles. “That’s okay. Get me something extra good for my birthday.”

I unravel the ribbon and lift the top of the box. Inside is fabric, soft, silken. I take it out to reveal a long, dark plum kurta inlaid with metallic silver beads across the neckline. It’s beautiful, utterly beautiful, like something our mom would have worn.

It’s too good for me.

“The fabric-lady said it’ll suit you,” Sayf says.

My mouth has gone dry. “I can’t — ” I choke out.

He takes a step towards me. “It’s yours.”

It’s yours. It’s yours, yours, yours.

I look down into the box because I can’t meet his gaze. My eyes throb. I’m angry, and I don’t know why, but I feel as though I’ve missed something important.

Say: “I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind, The Sovereign of mankind, The God of mankind, From the evil of the retreating whisperer, Who whispers into the breasts of mankind, From among the jinn and mankind.” (114: 1–6)

I stare at myself in the mirror. My qareen appears behind me. She doesn’t say anything. Instead, she runs her fingertip across the thick line of my brows. Her touch burns and my eyes water.

I hear a bang upstairs and a scream.

Nani. I race up the stairs, so fast I can feel wind that isn’t there, though my legs aren’t strong like Sayf’s.

The screaming is coming from my bedroom. I sprint towards it, swallowing mouthfuls of breath and gasping for more. The floor is littered with shredded paper and dark plum silk. Nani is standing at the doorway, and beyond her, I see Sayf on the ground.

Pinned by me. Or my qareen, I can’t even tell anymore. Her short brown hair cascades around her face and her short brown arms and hands are at my brother’s veiny neck.

“I will hurt them all,” she hisses.

Nani feels me next to her. “Sana . . . ?” I run past her as she demands, “Sana, what have you done?”

I throw myself at my qareen, knocking her off Sayf. She flies to the ground with a thud, like she’s solid, a real and living thing. I marvel at my own strength.

“Sana!” I hear Sayf choke out behind me.

My qareen does not try to flee, but presses her back against the wall. I feel something deep inside her flinch and tightly curl like a dying wick. She is afraid, I realize. Of me.

She snarls, and my mind goes blank as I approach her.

There once was a young woman and a mango tree.

I close my eyes because I don’t need to see her, not anymore. From somewhere, maybe the white marble mosque, the azaan echoes and lingers like a song.

“Let’s go home,” I whisper. I hold her tightly, closely, like she was always meant to be there, short and dark and proud.

I love it here, but I’ll bring it with me, all of it, hide it in the spaces between me.

About the Author

Farah Naz Rishi

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Farah is a writer, voice actor, and former animal lawyer. She is working on her debut novel with content/production company Glasstown Entertainment.

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About the Narrator

Nadia Niaz

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Nadia Niaz is a writer, editor, and academic who is now mostly from Melbourne and still a little bit from lots of other places. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and Cultural studies and teaches poetry and creative writing to everyone from pre-schoolers to postgraduates. She’s a member of the West Writers Group and the founder of the Australian Multilingual Writing Project.

Find more by Nadia Niaz

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