By Usman T. Malik
4 August 2014
I was thirteen when I dissected my first corpse. It was a fetid, soggy teenager Baba dragged home from Clifton Beach and threw in the shed. The ceiling leaked in places, so he told me to drape the dead boy with tarpaulin so that the monsoon water wouldn't get at him.
When I went to the shed, DeadBoy had stunk the place up. I pinched my nostrils, gently removed the sea-blackened aluminum crucifix from around his neck, pulled the tarp across his chest. The tarp was a bit short—Ma had cut some for the chicken coop after heavy rainfall killed a hen—and I had to tuck it beneath DeadBoy's chin so it seemed he were sleeping. Then I saw that the fish had eaten most of his lips and part of his nose and my stomach heaved and I began to retch.
After a while I felt better and went inside the house.
"How's he look?" said Baba.
"Fine, I guess," I said.
Baba looked at me curiously. "You all right?"
"Yes." I looked at Ma rolling dough peras in the kitchen for dinner, her face red and sweaty from heat, and leaned into the smell of mint leaves and chopped onions. "Half his face is gone, Baba."
He nodded. "Yes. Water and flesh don't go well together and the fish get the rest. You see his teeth?"
"Go look at his teeth and tell me what you see."
I went back to the shed and peeled the pale raw lip-flesh back with my fingers. His front teeth were almost entirely gone, sockets blackened with blood, and the snaillike uvula at the back of the throat was half-missing. I peered into his gaping mouth, tried to feel the uvula's edge with my finger. It was smooth and covered with clots, and I knew what had happened to this boy.
"So?" Baba said when I got back.
"Someone tortured him," I said. Behind Baba Mama sucked breath in and fanned the manure oven urgently, billowing the smoke away from us toward the open door.
"How do you know?" Baba said.
"They slashed his uvula with a razor while he was alive, and when he tried to bite down they knocked out his teeth with a hammer."
Baba nodded. "How can you tell?"
"Clean cut. It was sliced with a blade. And there are no teeth chips at the back of the throat or stuck to the palate to indicate bullet trauma."
"Good." Baba looked pleased. He tapped his chin with a spoon and glanced at Mama. "You think he's ready?"
Mama tried to lift the steaming pot, hissed with pain, let it go and grabbed a roughcotton rag to hold the edges. "Now?"
"Sure. I was his age when I did my first." He looked at me. "You're old enough. Eat your dinner. Later tonight I'll show you how to work them."
We sat on the floor and Ma brought lentil soup, vegetable curry, raw onion rings, and cornflour roti. We ate in silence on the meal mat. When we were done we thanked Allah for his blessings. Ma began to clear the dinner remains, her bony elbows jutting out as she scraped crumbs and wiped the mat. She looked unhappy and didn't look up when Baba and I went out to work the DeadBoy.
DeadBoy's armpits reeked. I asked Baba if I could stuff my nostrils with scented cotton. He said no.
We put on plastic gloves made from shopping bags. Baba lay the boy on the tools table, situating his palms upward in the traditional anatomical position. I turned on the shed's naked bulb and it swung from its chain above the cadaver, like a hanged animal.
"Now," Baba said, handing me the scalpel, "locate the following structures." He named superficial landmarks: jugular notch, sternal body, xiphoid process, others familiar to me from my study of his work and his textbooks. Once I had located them, he handed me the scalpel and said: "Cut."
I made a midline horizontal and two parallel incisions in DeadBoy's chest. Baba watched me, shaking his head and frowning, as I fumbled my way through the dissection. "No. More laterally" and "Yes, that's the one. Now reflect the skin back, peel it slowly. Remove the superficial fascia" and "Repeat on the other side."
DeadBoy's skin was wet and slippery from water damage and much of the fat was putrefied. His pectoral and abdominal musculature was dark and soft. I scraped the congealed blood away and removed the fascia, and as I worked muscles and tendons slowly emerged and glistened in the yellow light, displaying neurovascular bundles weaving between their edges. It took me three hours but finally I was done. I stood, surrounded by DeadBoy's odor, trembling with excitement, peering at my handiwork.
Baba nodded. "Not bad. Now show me where the resurrection points are." When I hesitated, he raised his eyebrows. "Don't be scared. You know what to do."
I took a glove off and placed it on DeadBoy's thigh. I tentatively touched the right pec major, groping around its edges. The sternal head was firm and spongy. When I felt a small cord in the medial corner with my fingers, I tapped it lightly. The pec didn't twitch.
I looked at Baba. He smiled but his eyes were black and serious. I licked my lips, took the nerve cord between my fingers, closed my eyes, and discharged.
The jolt thrummed up my fingers into my shoulder. Instantly the pec contracted and DeadBoy's right arm jerked. I shot the biocurrent again, feeling the recoil tear through my flesh, and this time DeadBoy's arm jumped and flopped onto his chest.
"Something, isn't it," Baba said. "Well done."
I didn't reply. My heart raced, my skin was feverish and crawling. My nostrils were filled with the smell of electricity.
"First time's hard, no denying it. But it's gotta be done. Only way you'll learn to control it."
I was on fire. We had talked about it before, but this wasn't anything like I had expected. When Baba did it, he could smile and make conversation as the deadboys spasmed and danced on his fingertips. Their flesh turned into calligraphy in his hands.
"That felt like something exploded inside me, Baba," I said, hearing the tremble in my voice. "What happens if I can't control it?"
He shrugged. "You will. It just takes time and practice, that's all. Our elders have done it for generations." He leaned forward, lifted DeadBoy's hand, and returned it to supine position. "Want to try the smaller muscles? They need finer control and the nerves are thinner. Would be wise to use your fingertips."
And thus we practiced my first danse macabre. Sought out the nerve bundles, made them pop and sizzle, watched the cadaver spider its way across the table. With each discharge, the pain lessened, but soon my fingers began to go numb and Baba made me halt. Carefully he draped DeadBoy.
"Baba, are there others?" I asked as we walked back to the house.
"Like us?" He nodded. "The Prophet Isa is said to have returned men to life. When Martha of Bethany asked him how he would bring her brother Lazarus back to life, Hazrat Isa said, 'I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.'"
We were in the backyard; the light of our home shone out bright and comforting. Baba turned and smiled at me. "But he was a healer first. Like our beloved Prophet Muhammad Peace-Be-Upon-Him. Do you understand?"
"I guess," I said. DeadBoy's face swam in front of my eyes. "Baba, who do you think killed him?"
His smile disappeared. "Animals." He didn't look at me when he said, "How's your friend Sadiq these days? I haven't seen him in a while." His tone was casual, and he tilted his jaw and stared into the distance as if looking for something.
"Fine," I said. "He's just been busy, I think."
Baba rubbed his cheek with a hairy knuckle and we began walking again. "Decent start," he said. "Tomorrow will be harder, though." I looked at him; he spread his arms and smiled, and I realized what he meant.
"So soon?" I said, horrified. "But I need more practice."
"Sure, you do, but it's not that different. You did well back there."
"You will do fine, Daoud," he said gently, and would say no more.
Ma watched us approach the front door, her face silvered by moonlight. Baba didn't meet her eyes as we entered, but his hand rose and rubbed against his khaddar shirt, as if wiping dirt away.
Ma said nothing, but later, huddled in the charpoy, staring through the skylight window at the expansive darkness, I heard them arguing. At one point, I thought she said, "Worry about the damn house," and he tried to shush her, but she said something hot and angry and Baba got up and left. There was silence and then there was sobbing, and I lay there, filled with sorrow and excitement, listening to her grief, thinking if only there was a way to reconcile the two.
The dead foot leaped when I touched the resurrection point. Mr. Kurmully yelped.
"Sorry," I said, jerking my fingers away. "Did that hurt?"
"No." He massaged the foot with his hand. "I was . . . surprised. I haven't had any feeling in this for years. Just a dry burning around the shin. But when you touched it there," he gestured at the inner part of his left ankle, "I felt it. I felt you touching me."
He looked at me with awe, then at Baba, who stood by the door, hands laced behind his back, looking pleased. "He's good," Mr. Kurmully said.
"Yes," Baba said.
"So when are you retiring, Jamshed?"
Baba laughed. "Not for a while, I hope. Anyway, let's get on with it. Daoud," he said to me, "can you find the pain point in his ankle?"
I spent the next thirty minutes probing and prodding Mr. Kurmully's diabetic foot, feeling between his tendons for nerves. It wasn't easy. Over the years, Mr. Kurmully had lost two toes and the stumps had shriveled, distorting the anatomy. Eventually I found two points, braced myself, and gently shot them.
"Feel better?" I said, as Mr. Kurmully withdrew his foot and stepped on it tentatively.
"He won't know until tomorrow," Baba said. "Sometimes instant effect may occur, but our true goal is nocturnal relief when the neuropathy is worst. Am I right, Habib?"
"Yes." Mr. Kurmully nodded and flexed his foot this way and that. "The boy's gifted. I had some burning when I came. It's gone now. His first time?"
"Good God." Mr. Kurmully shook his head wonderingly. "He will go far." He came toward me and patted me on the head. "Your father's been a boon to our community for twenty years, boy. Always be gentle, like him, you hear me? Be humble. It's the branch laden with fruit that bends the most." He smiled at me and turned to Baba. "Let me pay you this once, Jamshed."
Baba waved a hand. "Just tip the Edhi driver when he takes the cadaver. One of their volunteers has agreed to bury it for free."
"They are good to you, aren't they."
Baba beamed. He opened his mouth to speak, but there was sudden commotion at the front of the clinic and a tall, gangly man with a squirrel tail mustache strode in, followed by the sulky-faced Edhi driver looking angry and unhappy.
Baba's gaze went from one to another and settled on the gangly stranger. "Salam, brother," Baba said pleasantly. "How can I help you?"
The gangly man pulled out a sheath of papers and handed it to Baba. He had gleaming rat eyes that narrowed like cracks in cement when he spoke. He sounded as if he had a cold. "Doctor Sahib, you know why I'm here."
"I'm not sure I do. Why don't you tell me? Would you like to take a seat?"
"Just read the papers, sahib," he said in his soft, nasal voice.
"Oh?" Baba looked at the Edhi driver. He was a gloomy, chubby boy fond of charas and ganja and often rolled joints one-handed on his fat belly when waiting at red lights. I had ridden with him a couple of times and once he showed me his weird jutting navel. Everted since birth, he told me proudly.
"Zamir, what's going on?" Baba said.
"Sahib, they're giving us trouble with the burial," Zamir said. "This man is from the local Defend The Sharia office. They have a written fatwa stating that since the dead boy was Christian he cannot be buried in a Muslim cemetery."
Baba turned back to the gangly man. "Is that true, brother?"
Gangly Man thrust the papers into Baba's hands. "This is from Imam Barani. Take a look."
Baba took the roll, but didn't open it. "This boy," Baba said, "was tortured by someone."
Gangly Man's shoulders stiffened.
"He was beaten badly. His teeth knocked out with a hammer. Someone took a razor to his mouth. When he was near dead, they threw him in the river."
Gangly Man's lips pressed into a thin, white line.
"He was sixteen. He had a scar on his stomach from a childhood surgery, probably appendectomy. He wore a tawiz charm on his forearm his mother likely got from a Muslim saint. You know how illiterate these poor Christians are. Can't tell the difference between one holy man and another, and—"
"Doctor Sahib." Gangly Man leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "He and his filthy religion can ride my dick. My orders are simple. He will not be buried in the Muslim cemetery, and if I were you I wouldn't push it." He grinned and shook his head as if talking to a child.
Baba's face changed color. He looked around and for the first time I saw how angry and tired he was. He looked like he hadn't slept in days. Maybe he hadn't. It was hard to know. He and Ma were talking less to each other lately.
"If you make it difficult for us, well, things could go many ways, couldn't they? Sometimes clinics run by quacks can be shut down by provincial governments until NOCs are obtained. I don't even see a diploma on your wall. Surely, you went to medical school?" Still smiling, he toed the foot of the threadbare couch, the only piece of furniture in the room. "Besides, you might be Muslim but blasphemy is blasphemy, brother, and punishable under the Hadood Ordinance. The boy is Christian. That cemetery is not."
The Edhi driver took Baba's arm and led him aside. They talked. Zamir gestured furiously. Baba's shoulders rose and sagged. They came back.
"We will take the body to Aga Khan Medical College and donate it to their anatomy lab," cried Zamir.
"But he has already been—" Baba began
"I'm sure they will find more to do with it," Zamir said, nodding and smiling.
Gangly Man took the front of his own shirt with a tarantula-like hand and began to shake it, fanning his chest. "Very wise. How they will appreciate you!"
Baba remained silent, but a heavy ice block appeared in my belly and settled there. I turned and ran from the clinic, ran all the way to our house three streets down. I burst into the shed and went to DeadBoy and wrenched away the tarp. His insides were tucked in with thin stitches. I yanked the stitches out, peeled back his skin, and pressed my gloveless fingers into his muscles. I discharged the biocurrent again and again until his limbs twirled and snapped, a lifeless dervish whirling around his own axis. I let the electricity flow through my fingertips like a raging torrent, until the room sizzled with charge and my nostrils filled with the odor of burnt flesh.
After a while I stepped back. My cheeks burned and the corners of my eyes tickled. Even though it was close to noon, the shed was dark from a low-hanging monsoon ceiling. Interstices of sunlight fell on DeadBoy's half-face, revealing the blackness of his absent teeth and his mutilated lips.
"Sorry, DeadBoy," I said.
He twitched his shoulder.
The movement was so unexpected that I jerked and fell over the toolbox on the floor. I sat on the sodden ground, gazing at DeadBoy, my heart pounding in my chest. He was still. Had I imagined it? That movement—it was impossible. The deadboys couldn't move without stimulus.
I got up and went to him. His disfigured flesh was placid and motionless.
"Hey," I whispered, feeling foolish and nervous. "Can you hear me?"
The shadows in the room deepened. Somewhere outside a swallow cheeped.
DeadBoy never said a word.
After the Edhi driver hauled DeadBoy away, I walked around for a while. Soon it began to drizzle, the kind of sprinkle that makes you feel hot and damp but never really cool, so I took off my shirt, tucked it into my armpit, and ran bare-chested to Sadiq's house.
He lived in the Christian muhallah near Kala Pul, a couple kilometers away. His two-room tin-and-timber house was next to a dirty canal swollen with rainwater, plastic bags, and lifeless rodents, and the rotten smell filled the street.
His mother opened the door. Khala Apee was a young-old woman. Her cheeks were often bruised. Her right eye was swollen shut today.
"He's at the Master sahib's," she told me in a hoarse voice. She smoked cigarettes when her husband was not home, Sadiq had told me. "He'll be back in an hour. Want a soda?"
They couldn't afford sodas. It was probably leftover sherbat from last Ramadan. But what was Sadiq doing at Master sahib's? Summer vacation wouldn't be over for another month. "Thank you, but no, Khala Apee. I'll wait under the elm outside."
She nodded and tried to smile. "Let me know if you want something. And if you can, do stay for dinner."
Plain roti with sliced onions. No gravy. "I'll try, Khala Apee. May I borrow a plastic bag?"
She brought me one. I went to the charpoy under the elm where we sometimes sat and made fun of our families. Rain pattered on the elm leaves and hissed on the ground, and as I sat there with my plastic-draped head on the steeple of my fingers I thought about Baba and Ma and how they had been arguing for months. Ma was worried about the house, she wanted Baba to start charging patients. Baba refused. His father and grandfather had never charged a fee, he said. They lived on food and gifts people gave them.
Ma laughed bitterly. Those were different times, you fool. So different. And the house, what about the house, Jamshed? We are in debt. So much debt. What will you do when they come to take our home? If you cared as much about your family as you do about your goddamn corpse-learning, we could live like normal people, like normal human beings.
But we're not normal, Baba protested. This is a good way to blend in, to be part of this world. Be part of the community—
Blend in? Mama said. We will never blend in if you keep antagonizing them. What was the point of arguing with that mullah? You know they are dangerous people. You keep going like this, we will never be part of the community. How could we be? We are . . .
Sadiq was shaking me awake. "Hey, Daoud, hey. Wake up."
I opened my eyes. "Hey, how was . . . what?" I said when I saw his face. Sadiq was a small boy with mousy features and at the moment they were chiseled with worry.
"You've got to leave, Daoud," said Sadiq, glancing around. "Now."
"What's going on? Everything okay?"
"Yes. Master sahib had heard some rumors and he wanted to warn us. He . . ." Sadiq gnawed at his lip, his fingers still tugging at my arm. "Go home. We'll talk tomorrow."
"Why?" But he was already leading me away from the elm and toward the canal. The drizzle had stopped and the canal water eddied gently. I put on my shirt and watched as Sadiq took a tin box from his pocket and tied a brick around it with jute twine and twice-doubled rubber band. He waded into the shallow canal and deposited the box at a spot two feet from the bank.
"What are you doing?" I said when he climbed back up the embankment.
"Nothing," he said, but his voice was strange. "Run back home now. I'll come by in a couple days if I can."
I went up the canal road, occasionally looking back, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Sadiq stood there, hands in the pockets of his shorts, a skinny, brown boy with a sad face and a fake-silver cross gleaming around his neck. Sometimes even now I see that cross in my dreams, throwing silver shadows across my path as I trudge down alleys filled with heartache and rotting bodies.
As I glanced back one last time, Sadiq took off the cross and slipped it into his pocket.
Baba was waiting for me.
"Where were you?" he said, his eyes hard and red. "I was worried sick."
"At Sadiq's. I wanted to—"
"Foolish boy," he said. "Don't you know how dangerous that was? Don't you realize?" I stared at him, feeling my head throb. He saw my incomprehension and his voice softened. "Someone vandalized a church in Lahore yesterday. Someone else found feces strewn in a mosque in Quetta. As a result, two people are dead and tens more injured in riots around the country. These tensions have been building for a while. You saw what that Defend The Sharia asshole did this morning. This will only get worse. You cannot visit Sadiq until things settle down."
"But what does Sadiq have to do with that?"
Baba gazed at me with pity. "Everything."
I met his eyes and whatever was in them frightened me so much that my hands began to shake. I couldn't stand facing him anymore. Quickly I walked past him and went to my room, where I sat on my rickety charpoy and watched the dusk through the skylight. In the other room, Ma prayed loudly on the musallah. She might have been crying, I couldn't tell. I tried to read a medical textbook Baba gave me for my last birthday, but my mind was too restless, so I gave up and went to the kitchen where Ma had arranged unwashed raw chicken breasts on a chopping board.
I lay my hands on the meat. I thought about Sadiq and his tinbox, and softly let the current flow. The chicken breast jumped and thudded on the wood. I discharged again, this time with more force, removed my hands, stepped back, and watched as for a whole minute the meat slapped up and down, squirting blood that puddled on the wooden board, making curious dark shapes.
That should have been impossible but clearly wasn't.
In school during physics class our teacher had explained capacitors to us. Strange ideas came to me now. Words that Baba taught me from his textbooks: cell membranes, calcium-gates, egg-shaped mitochondria, and polarized ionic channels. Could they act as capacitors at times and hold charge so the flesh would stay alive even after I removed my fingertips?
The boy is gifted, someone said in my head.
I should have felt better. Instead I felt angry and miserable. I went to Ma's room and opened the door.
She was sitting on her haunches in front of the only pretty piece of furniture in the room, a mahogany dresser Baba's mother gave her as a wedding present. Ma had been fiddling with a half-open drawer, a jewelry box glittering in her hand. When I entered, she plunged the drawer into place. "Are you so ill-mannered now that you won't knock?"
"Sorry, Ma. I wasn't thinking."
"Idiot boy," she said quietly. Her gaze drifted back down to the box she held, fingers sliding up and down its metallic edges. The space beneath her eyes was dark and wet. "Next time mind your manners."
I thought it prudent to remain silent. Ma lifted the lid and gazed within and her eyes turned inward. The effect was so intense that for a moment she looked dead, her lifeless eyes watching something in the box, or behind it. Uneasy, I took a step forward and glanced inside. A picture of a naked man nailed to a cross, surrounded by wailing people; then Ma was snapping the lid back into place so violently that I jerked and fell back.
Ma's hands shook and she said something that didn't make sense, "Never wanted to come here. Your father made me. I never wanted to leave my people," and she glared at me hatefully. It was a brief moment, but nothing in my life since has made me feel so ashamed. So lonely and self-loathing; a mutant child broken and hated forever.
I turned and ran from the room, blinded by anger or tears or both, while my mother watched me from the darkness of her room, the jewelry box still in her callused hands.
Later they told us it was an accident, that a wooden shanty caught fire and set the muhallah ablaze, but we all knew better.
It was the tail end of monsoon season and the rains had petered out which worsened the conflagration. Fifty Christian houses burned down that night; the flames and smoke ceiling could be seen from as far as Gulshan Iqbal, we were told. Twenty people died; Sadiq's father (who survived tuberculosis and, later, the 1999 Kargil War) was among them. Their corpses were pulled out from the wreckage, burnt and twisted. Sadiq's mother recognized him only by the hare-shaped mole on his left foot.
When I went to see Sadiq, he sobbed on my shoulder.
"They took everything," he wept. "My house, our belongings. My father," he added as an afterthought. "They burnt the house down. My cousin saw them, I swear to God."
"Which God?" I said. My right arm was around him. My left hand dug so hard into the flesh of my thigh I popped the blood blister a biocurrent discharge had raised on my finger. "Which God?"
He stared at me with bloodshot eyes, threw his head back, and cried some more; while his mother sat stone-like in the charpoy under the elm, rocking back and forth, her face blank. One hand tapped the bruises on her cheek. The other hid her lips.
I held Sadiq for as long as I could, then I went home, where Ma sat knitting a cotton sweater. Winter would come in two months, and we couldn't afford to buy new clothes. Baba was out—he'd been delayed at the clinic—so I sat at Ma's feet and counted her toes. Ten.
She watched me through the emptiness between her needles and said, "I'm sorry."
"It was horrible, wasn't it?"
"Tell you what. Why don't we take Sadiq and his mother some naans and beef korma tomorrow? I'm sure his mother is too upset to cook right now."
I recalled Khala Apee's vacuous stare, the hand covering her mouth, and nodded.
Ma placed her knitting needles aside, lowered herself to the floor, and hugged me.
"The world is a bad place," she whispered. "We're in danger all the time. People who are different like you, like us . . . can sometimes seem like a threat to others."
I listened. Outside, thunder cracked. The skylight window rippled with water as the night opened.
"You use your gift to heal others, you hear me?" she said. "Don't get involved with anger or hatred or sides. There are no sides. Only love and hate."
Behind me the door banged open. My left eye twitched, the vision in it dimmed transiently, and cleared. Ma sprang to her feet.
"Zamir?" she said. "What is it?"
"Your husband," someone said. I turned. It was the Edhi driver. His hair was dark from rain. His cotton shirt was soaked and I could see his abnormal navel protrude through it like a hernia.
"What about him?" Ma's voice was full of fear. "What happened?"
Zamir had a look on his face I had never seen before. His lips trembled. "There was an incident at the clinic."
Ma stared at him, eyes wide and unbelieving, then comprehension dawned in them and she screamed. It was a sudden noise, sharp and unfamiliar, and it wrenched the air out of me. I shrank back and clutched the end of Ma's love couch, and the knitting needles slipped and fell to the floor, forming a steel cross.
"No, God, no," Ma said. Her hair was in her eyes. She clawed it away, looked at the ends, screamed again. "Please don't let it be true. I told him to be careful. I told him."
Zamir's face was ashen. He said nothing.
I scrabbled blindly on the dirty floor. The steel cross glinted at me. Pinching the skin of my thighs, I hauled myself up, feeling the world flicker and recede. Zamir was holding Ma's hand and speaking gently. Your husband went to the Police, he was saying. He reported the Christian boy's mutilated body. The mullahs didn't like that. Then someone somewhere discovered an old marriage certificate with your maiden name on it.
Ma yanked her hand away from Zamir's. "I killed him," she whispered. Her fists flew to her chest and beat it once, then again and again. She rushed to the door, she shrieked at the rain, but the night was moonless.
Bewildered and crying, I thought about the tin box Sadiq hid in the canal when he realized they would be attacked. I thought about dead bodies and festering secrets; of limbs thrashing on a healer's fingertips; of the young Christian boy who was tortured to death. I thought of how "Daoud" could have been "David" in a different world, such a strange idea, that. Most of all I thought about the way the chicken breast thrummed under the influence of my will, how it kept jerking long after I took my hands away. Would Baba whirl if I touched him, would he dance a final dance for me?
I wiped my tears. From the crevasse of the night rain blood-black gushed and pawed at my eyes. Then we went in Zamir's rickshaw to pick up my father's corpse.
Someone once told me dust has no religion.
Perhaps it was the maulvi sahib who taught me my first Arabic words; a balding kind, quiet man with a voice meant to chant godly secrets and a white beard that flowed like a river of Allah's nur. The gravedigger who was now shoveling and turning the soil five feet away looked a bit like him, except when he panted. His string vest was drenched with sweat, even though the ground was soft and muddy from downpour.
Perhaps it was Ma. She stood next to me before this widening hole, leaning on Khala Apee as if she were an axed tree about to fall. Her lips moved silently all the time. Whether she prayed or talked to Baba's ghost, I don't know.
Or perhaps it was Baba who lay draped in white on the charpoy bier under the pipal tree. The best cotton shroud we could afford rippled when the graveyard wind gusted. It was still wet from his last bath. Before they log-rolled him onto his back, the men of our neighborhood had asked me if I wanted to help wash him.
I said no. My eyes never brimmed.
Now I let a fistful of this forgiving dust exhaust itself between my fingers. It whispered through, a gentle earthskin shedding off me and upon Baba's face. It would carry the scent of my flesh, let him inhale my presence. I leaned down and touched my father's lips, so white, so cold, and a ghastly image came to me: Baba juddering on my fingertips as I reach inside his mouth, shock his tongue, and watch it jump and thrash like a bloodied carp. Tell me who murdered you, I tell my father's tongue. Talk to me, speak to me. For I am Resurrection and whoso believes in me will live again.
But his tongue doesn't quiver. It says nothing.
Someone touched my shoulder and drew me back. It was Ma. Her mouth was a pale scar in her face. She gripped my fingers tightly. I looked down, saw that she had colored her hand with henna, and dropped it.
A shiny flaming orange heart, lanced in the middle, glistened on her palm.
It was dark enough to feel invisible. I left Ma praying in her room and went to Kala Pul.
Lights flickered in the streets and on chowrangis. Sad-faced vendors sold fake perfumes and plastic toys at traffic signals. Women with hollow eyes offered jasmine motia bracelets and necklaces and the flower's scent filled my nose, removing Baba's smell in death. Children fished for paan leaves and cigarette stubs in puddles, and I walked past them all.
Something dark lay in the middle of the road under a bright fluorescent median light. I raised a hand to block the glare and bent to look at it. An alley cat, a starved, mangy creature with a crushed back. Tread marks were imprinted on its fur; clots glistened between them. A chipped fang hung from one of whiskers.
I didn’t know my right hand was on it until I saw my fingertips curve. They pressed into the carcass like metal probes seeking, seeking. I didn’t even need to feel for a point. In death, the creature’s entire body was an enormous potential ready to be evoked.
I met the cat’s gaze. Lifeless eyes reflected the traffic light changing from green to red. I discharged.
A smell like charred meat, like sparks from metal screeching against metal, rust on old bicycle wheels. The creature arched its spine, its four legs locking together, so much tension in its muscles they thrummed like electric wires. Creaking, making a frothing sound, the alley cat flopped over to its paws and tried to stand.
It lives, I thought and felt no joy or satisfaction.
Blood trickled from the creature’s right eye. It tried to blink and the left eye wouldn’t open. It was glued shut with postmortem secretions.
My hand was hurting. I shook it, brought it before my eyes, looked at it. A large bulla had formed in the middle of the palm, blue-red and warm. Rubbing it gently, I got up and left, leaving the newly risen feline tottering around the traffic median, strange sounds emitting from its throat as if it were trying to remember how to mewl.
Deep inside the Christian muhallah I waded through rubble, piles of blackened bricks, and charred wood. I stood atop the destruction and imagined the fire consuming rows upon rows of these tiny shacks. Teetering chairs, plywood tables, meal mats, dung stoves, patchworked clothes—all set ablaze. Bricks fell, embers popped, and shadow fingers danced in the flames.
I shivered and turned to leave. Moonlight dappled the debris, shadows twisted, and as I made my way through the wreckage I nearly tripped over something poking from beneath a corrugated tin sheet.
I stooped to examine the object. It was a heavy, callused human hand, knuckles bruised and hairy like my father's. Blood had clotted at the wrist and formed a puddle below the sharp edge of the tin.
A darkness turned inside my chest; rivers of blood pounded in the veins of my neck and forehead. I don't know how long I sat in the gloom, in that sacred silence. Head bowed, fingers curled around the crushed man's, I crouched with my eyes closed and groped for the meat of the city with my other hand’s fingertips. I felt for its faint pulse, I looked for its resurrection point; and when the dirt shivered and a sound like ocean surf surged into my ears, I thought I had found it.
I stiffened my shoulders, touched the dead man's palm, and let the current flow.
The hand jerked, the fingers splayed. A sigh went through the shantytown. Somewhere in the dark bricks shifted. The ruins were stirring.
Something plopped on the tin sheet. I looked down. Fat drops of blood bulged from between my clenched knuckles. I let the dead hand go (it skittered to a side and began to thrash). I opened both of my fists and raised them to the sky.
A crop of raised, engorged bullas on my palms. One amidst the right cluster had popped and was bleeding. The pain was a steady ache, almost pleasant in its tingling. As I watched, blisters on the left palm burst as well and began to gush. Dark red pulsed and quivered its way down my wrists.
Trembling, I crouched on my haunches and grasped the dead man’s convulsing limb with both hands. I closed my eyes and jolted the Christian muhallah back to life. Then I sat back, rocking on my heels, and waited.
They came. Dragging their limbs off sparkling morgue tables, slicing through mounds of blessed dirt, wrenching free of rain-soaked grass, my derelict innocents seized and twitched their way across the city. I rose to my feet when they arrived, trailing a metallic tang behind them that drowned the smell of the jasmine. Metal rattled and clanged as my last finally managed to crawl out from under the tin sheet and joined the ranks of the faithful.
I looked at them one last time, my people, faces shining with blood and fervor. Their shredded limbs dangled. Autopsy incisions crisscrossed some’s naked flesh. Blackened men, women and children swaying in rows, waiting for me. How unafraid, joyous, and visible they were.
I raised my chin high and led my living thus on their final pilgrimage through this land of the dead.