Of Sweet Seas and Starlight

Zahra Mukhi

Illustration by Sumit Roy

It was said that schools were built on top of graveyards in this city. Only children believed in this; it was considered an urban legend too trivial to be given a second thought. There was a school in the centre of this city, in the middle of which there was an old neem tree. It spilled over the entire courtyard, giving shade to all. It was also said that an old and powerful jinn lived in this tree. Some said this jinn took refuge in the tree to hide. From what? From a rival? From its own sins? From a past life? From an angel, a demon? From itself? From friends turned enemies? They kept spinning their stories.

Others said the jinn grew with the tree; it was harmless and only wanted a peaceful life. Whatever anyone believed, no one would venture close to the school as soon as the evening call to prayer would begin.

At the end of the main school building, there was a path that led to the very edge of the boundary wall. There, in a corner, the ground was raised just slightly. It could easily be mistaken as a construction error – uneven paths were very common in the city. Beyond the boundary wall was an open naala, a sewer. This connected with the main sewerage system of the city and anyone going towards the back of the school would always, always have something around their nose to lessen the intensity of the smell. Now, this was a fairly normal occurrence in the city. But there was something unusual too; anyone who stood on the mound could smell fresh roses lightly sprinkled with water, mixed with the delightful aroma arising from the naala. And then, something even more perplexing would occur. The smell would change to that of dried roses shuffling on the parched ground, mixing in with all the smells of the wind. Except no one could quite place that smell.

The chowkidar of the school, an old man who had been around for as long as anyone could remember, was so used to the smell he would deny its oddity. He had a small room in the school, where all the extra school supplies would be kept. That room hadn’t been cleaned and sorted out in living memory, and no one wanted to try either.

It was the second full moon of the third quarter of the year. The school was all but an abandoned ground. Nobody but the chowkidar remained. He was always engrossed in a television drama and too inebriated to stop even a cat from passing through. The air was heavy with the unfulfilled promise of rain, sticky and overbearing. It was on this night that the ground near the naala started shaking, almost like an earthquake but too small for anyone who wasn’t there to notice. The shaking stopped as soon as dawn broke and continued the next night. And the next. And the next. It went on for a fortnight, until the next full moon.

On this night, the air was especially heavy and sticky. No one in the city dared to stay out for longer than necessary. Even the chowkidar had closed his room door and stayed inside with the fan on full. A black cat walked all over the junk in the small hut, and climbed out of the lone window. It made its way to the neem tree, walked all around it, and disappeared into one of the classrooms.

When the city was quiet and the air unbearable, the raised ground opened up. It didn’t crack or crumble, it simply shifted to the side to open up, an invitation to anyone around to take one step in, just one. Out came a hand, then another, and then a pair of eyes. The hands and the eyes were still covered in the burial shroud.

Well, not entirely. The shroud had been eaten up by the kinds of insects that are made for graves. The being, the human, the woman, tried getting out of the grave. And then it was as if a gust of wind pushed her out. The cat sat on the windowsill of the classroom and looked on.

‘Here I was thinking you had abandoned me,’ she said in a scratchy voice.

‘You wouldn’t be here if I had,’ the jinn replied.

‘It wasn’t supposed to take this long. One month. I was supposed to be back within a month. I feel like I’ve been down there for at least a hundred years.’

Looking at her, anyone would’ve thought so. Half of her body was still as it was at her burial. The other half was missing parts of itself. Her flesh was rotting and her bones were visible. The other part of her body was the same as the day she had ‘died’. It was as if she were in a flux, her body not being able to decide which form to keep. The jinn could only look at her and lament at all that had transpired in the last fifty years.

‘Why don’t we sit somewhere? It’s not a long story but, well, you just rose from the dead.’

The woman made her way to the neem tree and sat at its base. The jinn followed after a minute. They didn’t quite know how or where to begin.

‘Do you still have the gold chain I had given you?’ they asked.

She ran her hands around her neck, finding it bare. She ran her hands over her body, under and over the shroud. Then she limped back to the site of what had been her grave and ran her hands in the hollow ground. Upon much prodding, she caught something small and thin.

‘It must’ve slipped when you brought me out.’

‘Look at it.’

She brought it into the light, removed the mud and grime from it. She gasped and looked at the jinn with an accusing eye.

‘Why has this become so dull? This was supposed to be my guarantee, the reason I agreed to any of this!’

‘That wasn’t the only reason you agreed,’ the jinn countered.

‘That’s not the point. Why isn’t the stone bright under the moon? Is this why I have become…a churail?’

‘You’re no churail, your feet aren’t backward,’ at this the woman looked at him with impatience. The jinn continued, ‘And yes, this is partly why you were down there for so long. I take it you weren’t exactly aware of your surroundings?’ the jinn asked.

‘Had I been even the slightest bit aware of anything that was happening in that grave, I would’ve resurrected myself,’ she exclaimed in anger. ‘And taken you down with me.’

‘I see,’ the jinn mumbled, trying to think of a way to tell her what had truly happened.

‘Why have you gone quiet now?’ She was getting impatient.

‘Look, whatever I tell you, you have to promise not to jump to any conclusions.’

‘You know that won’t be possible. I can let you finish speaking before I go on with my bit, though,’ she offered.

The jinn sighed. This was probably the most difficult thing they’d ever had to do. Including the stunt they pulled off fifty years ago. ‘The reason the stone isn’t glowing under the moon as it did before is because I have lost most of my abilities.’

They looked on, gauging the woman’s reaction. She looked back with a raised half-eyebrow.

‘When we did what we did, when I put you to sleep, so to say,’ they paused, finding it difficult to continue.

‘When all of that happened, I knew I was crossing a line. A line I should not have been crossing. And because of that, there were consequences,’ they paused again to let her take it all in.

They continued with a sigh, ‘As I was trying to bring you back, to get you out of the ditch—’

‘Grave,’ the woman said, ‘Call it what it is. A grave.’

‘The grave. When I was trying to get you out, I realised my abilities were slowly fading. The Powers That Be, they weren’t exactly happy. That is when I realised it would take me longer than expected to bring you back.’ At this the jinn went and sat in a branch high up in the neem tree.

‘Why are you running away? What’s done is done. I have taken…a form. Tell me, how long has it been? Will I find Apa, Bhai and Abba alive or are their graves buried beneath this building as well?’ the woman asked. Enough with the riddles, enough with the secrets, enough with the you-don’t-understand. She needed to know. It had been too long.

‘I haven’t been able to keep track. Your Abba is buried in another place. Your siblings I have no clue about,’ they replied.

‘So how long, then? Give me a number.’

‘You would’ve been 70 this year. Though I’m not exactly sure how to calculate your age now.’

‘I am bones and half-eaten flesh. What age do I have to care about?’ the woman sighed and thought about what to do next.

‘How long till the sun comes up?’ she asked the jinn.

‘We have about five hours.’

‘Do you have enough to call it forth?’ she asked.

The jinn looked at her and then looked away. They shook their head.

‘What choices do I have before me?’

‘I’m not sure.’

This angered the woman. ‘Why call me back then? You should’ve let me rot down there. At least then I wouldn’t be stuck in a half-dead form wondering if I should just die again or if I can actually live a normal life in whatever world this is.’

‘I had made a promise. I had to keep it,’ the jinn tried to explain.

‘Is your promise more important than my life? Or should I say death?’

‘Shabnam.’ She hadn’t heard her name since well before that day. It brought back memories she didn’t have the strength to deal with. The jinn went on, ‘I tried, I really did. But I guess being old and skilled doesn’t exactly equate to being powerful.’

And then, after a hollow pause, ‘You could try calling to it. It did work for you a few times before.’

Shabnam turned her face towards the low-lying branches of the neem tree. She looked at the leaves illuminated by the moonlight, holding on to the fruit it gave to the earth in her hands. She could feel the fruit being squished. She could feel the juice spreading down till her elbows in parts of her hand. In other parts, she couldn’t sense anything. Shabnam tried squeezing the fruit with all her might. Nothing. She threw what was left of the neem fruit on the ground in front of her and got up. She paced in front of the tree with the jinn still perched high up on a branch. She turned, facing the jinn, looked them straight in the eye and went to sit at the edge of the corridor, leaning against a pillar. The cat was annoyed, Shabnam was blocking its view.

‘I am not even human anymore. You see it. I know it. I can’t ever go back to who or what I was.’

‘Your abilities have nothing to do with your physical form. I can see it within you. I’m just not sure if it’s enough.’

‘And if it doesn’t work? What then?’

‘What if it does?’

Shabnam turned her face towards the ground. She didn’t know what to do. If this worked, she could start over and live however many years, months, days, minutes or seconds she had left. Conjuring up all the strength she had, Shabnam brought to mind a world. A world where the sky and the sea intertwined. Where trees grew underground, their roots growing towards the sky. Where rivers shimmered and flew in abundance. A world where the mountains started where the oceans ended, and ended where the land began. Shabnam thought of all she had seen in that world and all that she wished to see. She brought forth everything she had felt when seeing that world for the first time. Alarm, astonishment, joy. She willed her mind to not stray, gathered all the strength in her body and sat there, thinking.

The jinn looked on. They weren’t entirely sure if this was going to work. But what other choice did they have? They thought back to the day they had found Shabnam like this, sitting in a corner conjuring up images. And looking at those images turn into reality. They hadn’t thought a human had the ability to do this. It was in that moment they knew they had to help her, guide her, protect her. The Powers That Be could be unrelenting. But the human world could be unforgiving and brutal, sometimes worse. And this girl would need help. It surprised the jinn when she had looked at them then and said, ‘Are you going to keep looking at me like that or will you say something?’

Shabnam let out a breath and slumped her shoulders. ‘I told you it wouldn’t work,’ she said to the jinn.

‘How do you feel?’

Shabnam scoffed, ‘Like I was brought back from the dead.’

‘I apologised already,’ the jinn sighed.

She looked away towards the boundary wall of the school. She then turned her head up towards the moon hiding behind the clouds.

‘It’s about to rain.’

The jinn looked at her in confusion. ‘It hasn’t rained in years.’

‘It will now.’

Shabnam looked back at the neem tree and wondered if she could live there, up in the branches. With the sky just within her reach and the birds coming to sit on its branches, she could look forward to a somewhat pleasant time.

‘However many moments I have left in me, I think I would like to hear the birds sing again. Even if it’s for one tiny second.’

‘The birds don’t live in the city anymore. The trees feel their absence, the wind feels their absence. But the city has forgotten them. They’re now part of a faded collective memory. Few can recall their song.’

Shabnam went quiet. She didn’t know what to say. The birds were such a big part of her life, back when she had one. She would wake with them, feed them, sit around them, listen to their song for hours on end. As the night passed, she couldn’t help but keep her ears on alert for any birdsong they could catch. But there was no point now.

‘Tell me, why did I want to die?’ she asked the jinn.

They looked at her, puzzled. ‘You had grown fond of the worlds you could see. This world held nothing for you. You thought you could escape, from one to the other.’

She shook her head. ‘No, that’s not quite why.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Do you know why death is welcomed and feared?’

The jinn looked on, waiting for her to explain.

‘Right, I’m asking the wrong being. Do you remember when Ammi died?’ she looked away towards the boundary wall again, ‘I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t broken, I wasn’t crying like a child separated from her mother.’

‘You were barely seven years old. Everyone understood. Death is hard for everyone and nobody really understands it. You were only a child.’

Shabnam chuckled humorlessly, ‘Every child understands death and loss. Maybe not in the ways that adults do. But it’s a feeling that’s there, within us. I saw my mother die in her sleep. And I was…happy.’

This caught the jinn’s attention.

‘I knew there were better worlds awaiting her. This one had given her next to nothing. Our mothers deserve so much more than what they were given. They are owed it. The world has a debt to pay back.’

Shabnam paused. She didn’t quite know how to proceed. The jinn looked towards her in anticipation. They thought she was struggling to remember; she was only struggling to form words.

‘Once, as she lay dying, I went into my corner. I imagined the worlds I had seen, willing them to take me into their fold. So many worlds came before me. I wanted to go into them and never come back. In the middle of it all, I saw Ammi in one of them. The one where everything was made of starlight, remember that one? She was standing in the middle of a field, looking straight at me. I almost went in. Except there was a wall of steam, burning my skin off. So I made a promise to meet Ammi there, in the middle of that field, in the world made of starlight.’

She paused and looked at the moon hanging low in the sky. The jinn dared not interrupt the eerie silence. ‘I welcomed death. I wanted to see Ammi again, I wanted to see my dead loved ones again. I didn’t fear it because of the worlds I had seen. I had seen Ammi in one of those worlds and I wanted to know if that was death. I wanted to see it and come back to tell the tale. Or tell it to myself and the birds. You were the only one who could make it happen. And well this world, or rather its past, wasn’t my kind of place to live in.

‘I do not know what awaits me,’ Shabnam continued, ‘I did not know what awaited me when I decided to go under. I don’t remember anything from there. Except darkness that was blacker than a still night sky, and light that was brighter than the sun’s rays. Maybe I was alive in that other world. Maybe I had lived a life, or multiple lives. I remember nothing and I have no desire to make myself remember. I only want to go to the worlds of my past, the ones I kept seeing every day and every night. They have been with me ever since I can remember. And as I jump through them, I hope to venture into the world made of starlight to see Ammi still standing in the field waiting for me. Maybe I will see Abu and Apa and Bhai now. I know I’m weaving up dreams. I may not see them, or the world, but I can try.’

She heaved a sigh that formed a cloud of air in front of her. Shabnam stopped and looked up to the jinn. ‘What was that?’

‘What was what?’

‘The air feels like it could stifle me, the skin left on my body is sweating profusely, my throat feels parched and the wind is still. I am so sure it’s summer, yet I can see my breath as though I were somewhere in a harsh winter. Tell me this was just my imagination, and not the end of the world.’

The jinn sighed and said nonchalantly, ‘Merely works of your kind. I would wager the end of the world is near, if not already here. It hasn’t rained in years, winter and summer have merged, and the dead rise from their graves. What else would you expect?’ they shrugged.

Shabnam gave them a pointed stare, ‘So I guess there is no point to any of this, is there? If this world is to end, what guarantee is there that my worlds will survive?’

‘They are disconnected for a reason. This reality won’t seep into others. Or at least I hope so.’

She could swear she smelt the faint notes of damp mud, signs of rain. Maybe it was her memory playing tricks with her half-eaten body. Though her gut – or what was left of it – was so sure.

‘It will rain. It will rain so that this city washes away into the Sea. This dusty city that never really caught a breath. The people will be asleep, they will awaken just as their hearts stop beating. The dust will wash away, leaving nothing behind it. And it will be like this city never existed, even to the minds of those who witnessed it.’

Shabnam looked towards the jinn. They showed no emotion on their face. Knowing Shabnam and her ways of interpreting the future, they didn’t even bother to ask a question. They just knew that these events would come to pass, eventually. There was no denying it. Tragedy was the second name of this city. They weren’t surprised. Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. Both of them sat for a bit in silence. Nothing but the odd car or motorcycle could be heard. Everything else was still. They were startled by an aggressive coughing fit coming from the chowkidar’s room. The coughing stopped after what felt like ten minutes, but in those ten minutes Shabnam had made a decision.

‘For all that you have done, I am truly grateful. I cannot take this with me to the place I am going to now. It has lost all its power and I have no intention of coming back. I still wonder how I was able to carry this with me.’

‘You have the gift of seeing and walking into worlds that exist beyond yours, and you’re surprised you were able to hold a stone from my world?’ the jinn asked. ‘Had I been able to make do with a stone from your world, maybe things would’ve turned out differently. Maybe this is why you are the way you are, and why it took me so long to bring you out.’

‘It doesn’t matter. My reasons seem trivial now anyway. I don’t regret anything. I just wish I could conjure up a world to see into one last time.’

Shabnam got up from her place next to the pillar and placed the stone at the foot of the neem tree. It glared back in the darkness, becoming dull in parts where the faint moonlight hit. The most peculiar color; blue-grey the first time a pair of eyes looked upon it, a rose pink on the second, blinding white on the third, all the colors of the rainbow and then some on the fourth, but ultimately whichever color the hand holding it wanted it to be. Its true color was seen by few and even then, it was something that couldn’t be described in words. She looked up to the jinn, smiled and turned away.

She walked towards her open grave. The jinn looked on, a little startled but not surprised. Shabnam stopped at the edge, looking down towards a final death. With her shoulders held back and chin up high, Shabnam looked ahead. She wasn’t looking at anything or anyone in particular, just at the dust in the air. ‘Take care,’ she said to the wind. The jinn smiled a small sad smile and looked away.

Shabnam took one step into the dust ridden air and vanished into her grave. The earth above closed her in.

The jinn looked down. The roses had started gathering around her grave already. They looked towards the first signs of dawn, streaks of blue and orange and the sounds of the city readying for the day ahead. They lingered on the branch of the neem tree, eventually coming down to gather the stone in their hands. They were struck by its beauty, as if their eyes had seen it for the first time all over again. It was true they had almost forgotten what it looked like. But holding it, they could not deny it was the same glistening stone they had handed Shabnam in the midst of grief and anger. Now without its shine, the stone looked like no more than an odd stone washed up from the sea. And that’s where they would place it, they decided. In the middle of the vast sea.

The jinn had nothing to do now. They had waited fifty years for Shabnam. With her fate sealed, this place, this school held nothing for them. They decided to move to another home. Maybe in this city, maybe in a new one. One thing was certain, they would like to slip away from this world along with this city. When Shabnam’s rain came, they would make sure this city wouldn’t leave without them. So they would stick around until then. For now, they had to go house hunting.

The black cat – who had by now curled up in its position on the windowsill – stretched and yawned. It jumped down from the windowsill, made its way into the chowkidar’s room, walked over all the junk, and jumped over the gate, leaving the school grounds without a glance back.

‘Ball pakro!’ shouted the excited ten-year-old.

Two younger children ran towards it. The ball had found its way to the edge of the school boundary wall. It smelled of roses steeped in sewage water here. Both boys held their hands over their noses as they looked for the ball, anxious to get back to the game. 

One of the boys found the ball in a corner, drenched in water. The ground was completely dry. Not thinking twice, the two boys ran back towards the game. The chowkidar suddenly stopped them as they were running. He had a look in his eyes that chilled them to the core.

‘Why did you go there?’ the chowkidar asked.

They held up the drenched ball, unable to speak.

‘Don’t ever go there again. Understood?’

Both boys nodded their heads vigorously and ran towards the game as if their lives depended on it. The chowkidar shouted after them, ‘Shabnam needs to rest!’

She stands underneath the roots of the neem tree. The branches grow in the ground, the tree is bare on top, the roots hang with their weight. She sees the sea crashing into the river, neither mingling with the other, a battle without an end. Parts of the sea are crashing onto the shore, the green plains. The sweet sea feeding the plains and everything around it. Starlight emanating from every rock, every blade of grass, every root, every dust particle. She looks on, she doesn’t know why. She holds onto a root of the tree, steadying herself against the wind – the wind that always smells of roses steeped in sewage water.

As she braces herself against the wind, her eyes catch a figure coming out of the sweet sea. She cannot make out who or what it is. This figure looks to be human but she can’t be too sure. As the figure steps closer, realisation hits her. She heaves a sigh of relief and slumps against the roots. She can finally stop looking. ∎

Zahra Mukhi is a writer from Karachi, Pakistan. Her work has previously appeared in Apex Magazine. ‘Of Sweet Seas and Starlight’ received an Honorable Mention for the Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction 2020.

Sumit Roy, a.k.a scorpy, is a self-taught freelance illustrator, graphic designer, and digital artist from Basirhat, India. Sumit’s work has also appeared in Weird Horror Magazine and other publications around the world. See more of Sumit’s work at his website.

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