“You’re feverish,” Baba said as soon as I woke up. He stood at the foot of my bed with a mug full of herbal tea in one hand and medicine in the other.
“You’re in no shape to go to work, Tara,” Baba said. I did feel unwell. My head ached as I got up from the bed and walked to the toilet. My tongue felt heavy. I got ready anyway.
I drank the herbal tea and swallowed two painkillers as I headed for the door.
“I’m late,” I checked the time. Nurse stood in front of the door with my bag and keys. She asked me about dinner. I gave her detailed instructions about Baba’s medicine as I walked to the car.
“Hand him the pills yourself and make sure he takes them,” I told Nurse and she nodded. She’d heard it all before but I had to say it again. I wondered if I was becoming one of those finicky women who slowly lose their minds while taking care of a sick man.
Baba came shuffling out of the house in his pajamas and slippers. He walked up to the car window and knocked. I rolled down the window.
“It’s hot as hell outside.” I wiped the sweat from my face with a tissue. “Please go back inside.”
“I got you a doctor’s appointment for two o’clock,” Baba said. “Come home early.”
“I can’t.” I started the car.
“Tara!” Baba shouted in a forlorn voice as I backed out of the garage. I waved and left.
I hummed as I took my temperature in the teachers’ lounge.
“What’s that?” Mona pointed at the thermometer.
“Oh nothing,” I smiled.
“Is that the thermometer from the nurse’s office?” Aftab said with a small smirk.
“No, it’s my own,” I said. The thermometer shifted in my armpit.
“You keep one with you?” Mona said.
“She’s always getting sick, isn’t she?” Aftab replied before I could say anything. “It makes sense.”
“It comes in handy.” I took out the thermometer. No temperature. The bell rang just as Mona took one last sip. She swirled the cup and sighed wistfully.
“Back to work,” I said and opened the door.
The children were picked up by their parents or nannies when time came for them to head home. The security at the Montessori was excellent. The parents had a card that they showed the gatekeeper, who made an announcement of the student’s name on the loudspeaker, and a teacher escorted the child out to the parent. I waved and smiled as they left.
Later I drove to the Government boy’s school near the Peco factory. The same worn down building where I started teaching four months ago, the white paint now even more faded, piles of termites frass outside the wooden doors. The boys were rowdy and loud; sometimes throwing out compliments, sometimes insults, and often breaking out into laughter or violence. They were used to severe punishments and nothing I said in a loud voice got to them. I’d learned to be more inventive. I whispered instead. The room would quiet for a moment and the students stared. I’d heard from other teachers that the boys were scared of me.
“Sir, could you explain that again?” Salman asked in English. He was my best student.
“Of course,” I turned to face the blackboard.
They hadn’t thrown anything at my back in almost two months.
I drove through leaf strewn streets at dusk. The trees swayed. The wind seemed to pick up for a moment and rain came down with a roar. I turned my wiper on and leaned forward to try to see through the rain. 481, 483, where was 482? Dina’s house was hard to find. I stopped and put my crap car in reverse. I was dragging the old thing along. It creaked and groaned and would fall apart soon because I was merciless, wanting to see what I could get, even if it was just one more day.
Someone opened the gate. He was soaked through, his clothes plastered to his body, and his feet slipping on the wet pavement. I parked my car in the garage and ran into the house. We met in the dimly lit hallway. He was short. I’m as short as a person can be but in heels I was the same height as him. His eyes gleamed in the dark.
“How do you know Dina?” I asked.
“I don’t,” he said shortly. “And you?”
“We went to college together,” I said.
“Sorry,” he tried to dry his hands on his wet shirt. “I’m Qureshi.”
“Tara,” I shook his hand. It was uncomfortably hot. “Let’s go in.”
Qureshi was a true believer. What I mean is that he zealously believed in God, etc. He was the only one of his kind in the company that was gathered at Dina’s. He wrote poetry in Urdu and was an editor for a terrible Urdu newspaper. We spoke together in Dina’s living room because no one else wanted to talk to him. I think I felt sorry for him.
We both didn’t know any of the other people Dina had over. They’d studied together in the same schools, went to the same local Universities, knew each other’s parents and families, shared a hundred different connections. I’d missed all that because I grew up elsewhere.
We were having a surprisingly good conversation in our little corner. I would say something rude just to see him blink and he surprised me with his strange kindness. For example when I told him, “I almost died from leukemia when I was twelve.” He didn’t say anything.
“I had a relapse when I was eighteen.”
He touched my hand.
My heart once seized and stopped. I’ve told only a few people in my life because when I try to imagine the perfect response—some alloy of both sympathy and indifference—I can’t even imagine it. Qureshi became important to me almost against my will after our conversation. He seemed to know the right thing to say or do.
He was already married or he might as well have been married, his life was badly complicated, and he was reluctant to tell me about any of it.
“Trust me you don’t want to know,” Qureshi said. He hated to even mention it, but what if I ran into someone who knew him or his family? He didn’t want me to hear about him from anyone else. He could be thoughtful like that.
I asked him if we were having an affair.
“Am I doing something bad when I’m with you?” I said to him. He couldn’t answer my question at all. He was a moralist and yet somehow he couldn’t tell me what our time together meant in terms of right and wrong, and as a result we were hardly ever together and I was nearly always filled with some kind of guilt. I didn’t want to feel it is the thing. I just wanted to be happy.
I wondered what I was scared of and why. I’d once been dead or near enough to count and shouldn’t that have killed the little coward in me? But I’d been braver while suffering than now when I was healthy and safe. I knew it daily. I knew it when I drove to work in my car, when I passed traffic accidents, when I heard of some crime in the city.
Baba was left in my care by my dying mother and I in his. I had to do the work my mother had done and he worried about me like she had when I was a sick kid. She was lioness and I her cub. My father was busy at the office and often he came home with a small frown on his face, unable to even apologize since his job kept me in medicine and chemo. He’d left me completely to her. She would be on the phone all day while we were home (we lived in Virginia then) talking to the administration of various hospitals, especially John Hopkins, where I was treated for the majority of my illness. She’d call our insurance company, write down names, she would talk to people she knew, asking them for recommendations for doctors and surgeons. Her voice wore out. Her hands shook. I remember that she couldn’t even eat.
When I did the things she would have done, I tried to put as much thought into it as she would have and I found myself agonizing about curtains in a way that was crippling. What color might she have picked? Might she have wanted tassels? It was her house even now. The red bricked colonial with the sunken veranda and the wooden shutters—an inferno in the summers—impossible to cool or heat. We couldn’t sell it or move because I remembered her whirling around in the house with the dust while cleaning.
I was writing down my address for the curtain delivery when I caught a glimpse of strangers staring at me. I turned for a better look. Two women stared at me rather intensely, and while one looked younger than me, the other was older than my mother would have been if she were alive today. They—with matching loathing in their eyes—looked like mother and child. I was about to leave the store when Qureshi joined them. He barely glanced at me, pretending not to see me, but how could these women have known me if not through him?
There was panic in the city. People said that children were being kidnapped for their organs. I heard how ambulances came to a neighborhood with a doctor waiting inside to cut the kids open. That children were snatched, their kidneys and heart harvested, bodies thrown into the river. Someone said a thousand or more kids had disappeared in the last month alone. I didn’t believe the mass hysteria until two boys disappeared from the Government school where I taught.
I doubted myself for the first time after that. What if it were true?
We organized the children after school into groups and told them to walk home together. I tried to find out if the police were doing anything. I called Abrar. He was posted with the police in Quetta. I asked him if he knew anything. He laughed at my concern. He quoted statistics from the department and said he’d tell me if the two missing boys were found. They’d probably run away. He described some of the problems that children like them faced at home. He said a thousand kids ran away every year and over nine-hundred ninety-nine of them returned home voluntarily. I could tell that under his amusement was wonder. He’d never understood why I taught for almost nothing in a school that could offer me little in the way of compensation or why I concerned myself with the children of others.
The tube-light flickered on the porch. The white of the light barely shattered the darkness. I found the oppressive heat of new summer stifling and draining. Nurse brought me falsas coated lightly in salt. I asked her if Baba had taken his medicine on time, he often lied to me, and she told me that he had. Baba ignored us while we discussed him.
He sat in his chair drinking a glass of milk and staring out towards the sukhchain in the garden. “What do you see?” I said. Around us the buzz and whir of insects.
“What you see,” Baba said. He went inside and put on a on CD. Bird and Diz. He told me again of the day he’d seen Gillespie in Karachi. I was sweating down to my bones by then and I’d heard the story many times.
“How can you sit out here?” I complained. I didn’t want to leave him alone in the heat. I’d sit there till I melted if I had to. He wiped my face with a tissue. His hands smelled of mangoes.
“I don’t think our bodies know how to regulate their temperature anymore,” Baba said. “We’re unlearning something that’s always been vital. People who spend a long time in air conditioned rooms can’t deal with heat.”
“Your solution is to sit out in the sweltering night,” I smiled.
“Well, one day we might not have these systems that shelter us,” he said. “Suddenly. Poof.”
I laughed as he gestured into the air. “A magic trick.”
“I think our lives right now are the magic trick,” Baba said. “And one day. Poof!”
I’d heard nothing from Qureshi since running into him when he was with the two unknown women. I’d really put myself in a messy situation, hadn’t I? And for what? We had no future. The anguish wouldn’t leave me. He hadn’t called. Finally he sent me a series of text messages that couldn’t be ignored, explaining himself but not apologizing. “We should talk. I hope you haven’t misunderstood. My family is crazy. They drive me crazy.”
“Let’s meet,” I sent back. We met at a coffee shop. The two women had been his mother and sister, he said. They knew about me and hated me. It was what I had been afraid of—I’d seen them glaring at me and noted their resemblance to Qureshi—but I couldn’t stand the idea of being disliked. His family wanted him to get back with his wife. They were unhappy but who was happy? I drove slowly back home thinking about the dilemma of happiness.
I pulled the car by the side of the road and put on hazard lights. It took me a while to convince myself I hadn’t imagined it. There, right there, I’d seen it. I leaned forward and squinted. I’d seen a man carrying an unconscious child over his shoulder and walking slowly through the streets. He’d looked right at me but I couldn’t remember his face. I drove forward to street in which he’d disappeared. I traced his shadow through the side streets of Gulberg. There he was again under a linden tree. He heaved the child over his shoulder and looked at me as I stopped the car near him. Later I couldn’t describe him, his clothes, or anything. He was watching me. He wanted to see what I would do. I put the car in reverse and ran home.
My bed was soaked in sweat the next morning and I was delirious with fever.
I was still sick a week later when I got a text from Qureshi telling me that he wanted to talk. “I can’t leave the house,” my fingers were shaking. I was swaddled in blankets, the smell of vomit and tainted fruit all over me. I couldn’t keep anything down. Baba sat nearby with his head in his hands. Nurse brought me a glass of water and painkillers. She wiped my forehead with a dry cloth and checked my fever.
“I’m right outside,” Qureshi wrote back. I tried to get out of bed. I explained that I wanted to go for a walk. Baba was shocked and angry. He was determined to keep me resting. He had tears in his eyes when I refused.
“Let me go with you,” Baba said when he saw it was no use stopping me.
“No,” I said while putting on my shoes. “I’ll just be a minute.”
I blanked out then and woke on the floor with Baba shouting for Nurse. I really couldn’t leave after that. I was drifting in and out of consciousness for what felt like hours but was probably only ten minutes. Baba left the room to call the doctor.
“Where are you?” Qureshi sent while I was still floating. “Please hurry.”
Knowing that Baba wouldn’t let me out of the house, feeling disconnected from my body, I jumped out the window and broke my leg.
My leg was in a cast. I had to lie or tell the truth every time I talked to a doctor, a friend, or a stranger. I was a bad liar but the truth sounded strange and put people off. I hadn’t the ability to make it appetizing, to cover it up, and let people laugh it off. When I told the story, people didn’t smile or anything.
“You were feverish,” Dina said when I tried to tell her about my sense of shame. “You weren’t in your right mind.”
I sipped tea and looked down at the table.
“Did you get your test results back yet?” Dina said.
“Not yet,” I said. “We’ll know soon enough.”
“Your brain was boiling,” Dina smiled. “That could explain anything.” I wondered about it later. The uneasiness of the situation rattled something loose in my life. I could feel it dragging behind me as I went about doing the things I had done before I broke my leg. Dina giving me that most perfect of alibis—insanity— as if I’d committed a crime that needed to be excused, brought it to the surface with a roar.
“We must learn to be precise,” I said to the boys in my class. I remembered how reluctant I’d been to teach them. There was an awful anxiety I always felt while teaching. It was hard to explain and maybe I shouldn’t even try. It often felt like I was wrestling with English that most foreign of our languages.
“Precision can sometimes seem violent,” I said to the children.
“Like a gunshot,” said Haider without raising his hand.
“Yes,” I looked at him until he stopped smiling. “What else?”
“Like a fist slamming into someone’s gut,” Imran shouted after I pointed at him. The class started laughing.
“Ok,” I smiled and pointed to another boy near the front.
“––––––––––,” Saleem told me.
I hadn’t spoken to Qureshi since that night when I jumped out the window. There was a part of me that was relieved by the distance. He made me feel as if I was sinking under what I could never understand. He made understanding alien. I met him a week later. I wanted him to leave me but I didn’t know how to do the same to him. He told me straight away that he was ending things between us.
“Will you get back with Hina?” I said. Hina was his ex-wife. They’d divorced but were thinking of remarrying.
“I’m against it completely but I feel it’ll end up happening despite my reluctance. Have you ever felt that way?” Qureshi looked at me for the first time.
“Yes,” I said.
“I often feel that way,” Qureshi laughed and then glanced at me. “You think I’m being self-pitying?” He laughed again. Somehow we had little to say to each other.
“Is hulla your only objection to marrying Hina again?” I said.
“No, but it’s a big objection,” Qureshi rubbed the bridge of his nose. It was a bad habit of his that I had noted. “You know that I had a kidney transplant when I was twenty?”
“I think you told me that when we first met.”
“I didn’t want it,” Qureshi said. “I didn’t want it. My family persuaded me.”
“You didn’t want the kidney?” I said.
“The doctor told me my life would be shortened without it,” Qureshi said. “Dialysis might have worked for ten years but probably not longer then that.”
“You might be dead today.”
I held a hand to my mouth.
“No you’re right,” Qureshi said and looked down to his hands. “I think about it. My family thinks about it and reminds me.”
“Why didn’t you want it?” I was still trying to understand him which was frustrating.
“I didn’t want to be corrupted,” Qureshi ran a hand over his head.
“What does that mean?”
“After Iblis refused to bow before Adam at Allah’s command,” Qureshi said after a moment. “Iblis vowed to tempt man to sin until we were corrupted.”
“Iblis meaning shaytan,” I noted. “The devil. You believed the devil would corrupt you if you got a kidney transplant.”
There was a long silence.
“It’s hard to talk about it,” Qureshi said. “I’ve always been careful—“
He paused and swallowed. He was struggling to get the words out.
“There’s the idea of the dignity and perfection of God’s creation,” Qureshi said. “That’s why the shaytan wants to distort man. There’s also the idea that the transplantation of any reproductive or genetic material between unmarried persons is zina. I believed then that the exchanging of body parts was both the disfiguration of God’s creation and zina.”
“Zina means adultery,” I said.
“Any relationship outside marriage—“
“I’m not sure. I’m just not sure what we’ve been doing. What did you think we were doing? Why were we together?”
“I just held your hand,” Qureshi said.
It was incredibly difficult to move on from that conversation. I found myself thinking about it constantly. I sat on the balcony watching the rain and gnawing at the things he’d told me. The maghrib azan came from all directions and made it harder to put my mind to rest. I wasn’t used to thinking about the shaytan and human dignity. It wasn’t that I hadn’t met religious people before. I grew up with them. I’d met them and ridiculed them. I’d met them and noted their hypocrisy. I kept my distance when possible. I texted Qureshi as I watched the flooded street outside my house. “Was the kidney you received from a woman? Is that why it was zina?”
It took a while for the reply to come, “Yes. But I’m not sure I would have accepted it easily even if it were from a man.”
“Because poverty forces men and women to sell their kidneys for nothing.”
“Is that a moral concern or is it religious?”
“I’m not sure where one ends and the other begins,” Qureshi sent back after five minutes. “I have to go.”
We still talked. We met. There didn’t seem to be an end in sight. It was the monsoon season and Qureshi would pick me up after my class ended and we drove out to Walton Road for chana chaat and then further until we hit Mall Road. The AC in his car was broken and we had the windows down while we went down the blooming green city. I could feel moisture clog up my throat. The sky was a pale baby blue and birds and crows sat on the old post office.
The light changed as the day was dying.
“What’s that color?” I pointed to the sky. We spent the next ten minutes trying to pin it down. We couldn’t figure it out. It exists but there’s no name for it.
Qureshi seemed to be fading before me. He had a chronic cough that bothered him constantly. The doctor wrote him a litany of tests that he avoided because he was afraid. He said he’d found the fear of death only recently. “It must have always been there, but I felt particularly brave compared to others. I thought my lack of understanding was something to be proud of.”
He’d worked carefully to realize it because so much of what was expected of people in the Qu’ran came from an awareness of death. It was hard for me to accept someone working to make themselves more afraid. It seemed to be a certain kind of madness and to sit next to it was difficult enough but to try and bring it closer seemed impossible.
The rain came everyday and water rose up in the streets. The drains were blocked and some neighborhoods became unreachable. We took up brooms and mops to stem the flow of water into the house. The electricity went one day and didn’t return. We called WAPDA but the lines were all busy. Baba joked that the electricity had gone for good when our UPS only lasted four hours and our house plunged into complete darkness. Candlelight in the living room and kitchen as we ate our dinner. “Don’t go to work tomorrow,” Baba said as he listened to the radio.
“I have to go,” I said. We had this discussion too often for my liking.
“The roads will be flooded,” Baba said. “Most of the boys from the Government school live in badly built homes. Their roofs will have caved in, their homes flooded, and who knows how many will even make it to school?”
“Aren’t you optimistic,” I laughed. “This happens every year and the kids never miss a single day of school.”
Most of the standing water had drained or evaporated by the time of my class. The muddy remnants dirtied up my rusted car until it looked more brown then blue. The students all made it to class. Not a single seat was empty. It made me sentimental and I was easy on everyone for the entire lesson. We played vocabulary games at the end. I didn’t assign any homework. If their houses had fallen down around their ears it didn’t show and they didn’t say anything. I’d dressed in the dark and my clothes stuck to my body with sweat while my glasses fogged up in the humidity. I felt for once that we were all living on the same two inches of dry land and tomorrow we might have to learn to live underwater.
The boys divided into groups or pairs after school. They weren’t to walk home alone but the rule was hardly enforced. I often stayed behind after school in order to enforce it. Saleem lived further out and he usually sneaked out earlier than the rest to avoid me giving him a ride home. I didn’t let him escape this time. “Let’s go,” I said while grabbing my keys from my purse. I hobbled to my car.
Saleem was walking a little behind me. I heard him scream just as I unlocked the car. I turned around to see a man grab him from behind. The man was dragging Saleem away from me. I lunged for Saleem’s legs and barely touched the end of his trouser pants. I raised my head in a daze. Saleem was yelling in desperation as I lay on the ground. I took a hold of my clutches and pushed up from the ground. I hobbled forward as fast as I could. Saleem was crying now and dragging his feet. I reached them, grabbed Saleem’s arm and pulled him towards me. I dug my fingernails into him while staring at our attacker. It was the same man I’d seen carrying a child through the streets of Gulberg. The face I hadn’t been able to describe as if language had been swallowed up by deep boggy ground.
He took Saleem now and left me crawling in the distance. I must have seemed a slug and without legs I felt like one. My hands weren’t strong enough to carry me. My torso slowly slithered forward. A watery mud coated my teeth and lined my throat. I forgot how to walk.
Sehrish Ranjha studied Literature and Photography at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She lives and writes in Lahore, Pakistan. “Mr. No” is her first published story.