- Qurat Dar -
I’d heard my share of cautionary tales. The land of fertile ground was a place just as fertile for vivid stories to scare children, and more adults than would care to admit it, as it was for rice and sugarcane.
There were a number of stories about witches, with their backwards-facing hands and feet; a few about paris, fairies, who would play tricks on unsuspecting travelers; and then there were the never-ending series of bogeymen with absurd names.
But the most serious of tales, those told with uneasy expressions and seldom repeated, almost always involved some malicious ruh, or spirit, or a djinn that had overstayed their welcome.
Djinns, who were made of fire, outnumbering humanity nine to one—who shared our world but remained out of sight, out of reach. Most of them, anyway.
Every now and then there would be some anecdote of a distant cousin’s, or an aunt’s childhood friend’s, about a room that was always kept locked. Or hearing your husband’s voice and realizing he was still at work. Or finding all the cabinets and doors opened in the middle of the night.
My grandfather didn’t tolerate those kinds of stories. The colour would rise in his face and he would yell about “that nonsense”—how he wouldn’t have any of it under his roof.
As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the djinn stories. I’d ask for them, from anyone who would listen, as soon as my grandfather was out of earshot. I’d buy pulpy rasalas, digests printed on paper as thin as air, as soon as I saw anything vaguely paranormal on their covers, and hide them in my wardrobe in an old Bata shoe box.
But as soon as I stepped foot on American soil at eighteen, wearing a suit my grandfather had toiled to pay for, I left all of that nonsense behind.
In time, I became a doctor. And sent money home whenever I was able, in the hopes of paying back even a fraction of what he’d given me. I called whenever I could, too, but his voice was so faint that I could barely hear him. I visited, too little, but each time I did he looked so much smaller that I could hardly bear to see him. I tried to convince him to come to the States. He adamantly refused. And my visits grew less and less frequent.
On one occasion when I forced myself to call again, there was no response. I called maybe fifty times over the next few days until I finally had an answer.
It was a voice I couldn’t recognize. Probably a new damn servant.
“Could I speak to Salman Sadiq?”
“The man who lives in the house you’re in right now?”
“Oh . . .” There was a long pause. “The house was sold. I’m told the previous owner moved to his old house. I’m just the caretaker.”
I was stunned momentarily into silence.
“Could you get me his address?”
I barely slept on the flight. It took a lot of cajoling and several thousand rupees before I was sitting in a taxi, my carry-on in the trunk after being roughhoused by the driver.
We left behind the chaos of Lahore, rickshaws and carts and motorcycles occupied far above their capacity all growing sparse. The roads definitely didn’t improve.
I couldn’t quell the feeling of dread in my stomach. I was sure something terrible had happened—dacoits, or fraud, or some uprising that hadn’t made the news. He had to have been sick, or dead, or humiliated beyond measure to have left without a word.
I couldn’t decide which scenario scared me most.
The car stopped suddenly in the middle of nowhere, and I felt again the paranoia that hit me whenever I came back to Pakistan. I was travelling alone, fairly well off, a clueless foreigner for all intents and purposes, and it was dark out. I was an easy mark.
But then the driver craned his neck back and addressed me. “The house is just down the road, sahib.”
“Well, isn’t it your job to drive me there?”
He shrugged and raised his hands in a gesture of defeat. “Nobody drives past here, sahib. Most wouldn’t have even driven you here.”
“Why not? Is this a dangerous area?”
The driver hesitated. “I’ve heard things. It would . . . not be right to repeat them. I might attract the wrong sort of attention.”
I made a face. But he only looked serious. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Wallahi, sahib, there’s an evil there. It has been in this place for as long as I can remember.”
I resisted the urge to laugh. “You can still turn back,” he said quickly. “I’ll take you back to the airport. For your own safety—no charge.”
I huffed and waved him off, stepping out of the car onto the dirt road.
The driver shook his head as he took out my carry-on from the trunk and dropped it beside me. “Please, sahib. Do not stay in this place.”
“Enough,” I said, irritation getting the better of me, and took money from my wallet. “You’d have had more had you actually dropped me at the door.”
He looked briefly at the money, hesitated, and then took the papers and folded them into his shirt pocket.
“Allahhafiz,” he said, and drove away as quickly as he could.
I picked my way to the house with my suitcase in hand, confused and still irritated. It was a big house. By American standards, it would be a mansion. It looked like a haveli, every window obscured beneath a carved arch. An overgrown garden lay to the left, jasmine and rosebushes in each other’s chokehold. A few vines were in the process of swallowing the lower level of the house, and wilderness stretched out on either side, indiscernible in the dark.
I peered through the bars of the gates, but could see no watchman, nor any sign of a driver in residence. The grounds were empty.
I hit the buzzer. Nothing.
I pressed the button for the intercom. “Dadabu, can you hear me? I just came from the airport, please open the gate.”
It was a few moments before I heard a crackling noise, and his voice filled the air.
“Get away from here,” he whispered. “Now. Leave, and don’t ever come back, understand?”
I stood in shock, before hitting the button to respond. “I’m sorry I didn’t come earlier. Please let me in? I was worried.”
But there was no answer.
“Please, it’s dark out,” I said. “My taxi left. I don’t even have a SIM here yet, so I can’t call another.”
“Go!” he hissed, and I jumped.
“I’m not leaving!” I shouted, feeling the sweat on my skin chill in the night air.
I saw movement somewhere in front of the house, a flash of what looked like a white dupatta, and sighed in relief.
“Don’t worry, I see your maid.” I laughed. “I’m sure she’ll let me in.”
“Don’t!” he screamed.
I stood, mouth agape, as the door swung open. Followed by the small figure of my grandfather as he ran out, the whites of his eyes visible.
“Where is she?” he panted, breathless.
I was about to point, but I’d lost sight of her somewhere in the pomegranate trees. “I . . . don’t know.”
“Listen,” he said, his eyes wild. “If you value your life, beta, run from this place. Now.”
I frowned and studied him, marking the sheen of sweat on his gaunt face.
“Are you all right? You look sick.”
“Please, just go,” he pleaded, leaning on the gate.
“Let’s go inside,” I said as I pulled my carry-on close. “Let me check your BP.”
I couldn’t believe the maid had let an old man run out to the gate in the dark when she was already outside. My grandfather always had a knack for hiring incompetent staff.
He looked on the verge of tears, and my guilt doubled. I’d left him here, alone. And now he was a wreck.
I heard something in the trees on the other side of the road, and was about to turn to look when he grabbed my wrist through the bars and shook his head no.
Before I could say anything, he’d opened the gate and half-dragged me into the house.
The lights flickered as we rushed in. Dadabu bolted the doors as soon as we were inside.
“You do have a generator, right?” I asked, suddenly uneasy at the prospect of being plunged into darkness whenever the power went out.
“She likes to play with the lights,” he muttered as I helped him onto a sofa in what was probably the sitting room, and unpacked my medical bag.
The floor looked like it hadn’t been swept in years.
“You really need a better maid.” I tightened the cuff around his upper arm and he didn’t even wince. His expression distant, glazed, as if the initial adrenaline of his paranoid episode was wearing off.
He looked so old.
“It’s a little high,” I admitted, removing the monitor from his arm. “But that could just be from all the running. Have you been exercising, Dadabu?”
His lips barely moved, and his voice was so quiet I had to lean forward to hear him. “This must be a bad dream.”
I patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. “I’ll go make us chai.” I got up and the floor creaked. The lights flickered again as I sought the kitchen, and I made a mental note to have the bulbs replaced when I went into town. It was already annoying.
The house was a maze of giant doors, but the kitchen wasn’t far. I turned on the light, but it took a good minute for it to do any good. I put two cups of water in a saucepan and put it on a stove that looked like it should be in a museum, which seemed fitting. Everything was worn, more from time than use. I hunted for tea as the stove coughed to life, finally finding it in a faded Lipton tin. I put it on the counter as I looked for a spoon, drawers creaking in protest. When I finally found one, the tin of chai had vanished. It was back in the cabinet. I stared at it for a moment, shrugged, and chided myself for being so absentminded as I took it out again.
By some miracle, I managed to have two cups of passable chai to carry back to my grandfather. “You don’t have any rusks or biscuits in the house?” I asked as I handed him his cup. He stared into it, as if surprised to see chai in it, and took a small, pained sip.
“I guess it’s good you finally managed to control that sweet tooth,” I joked, trying not to look worried.
He drained half his cup before he looked at me through dimmed eyes. “You’re not leaving?” he asked quietly.
“No, I’m not,” I replied, trying not to look as ashamed as I felt. “I didn’t know things were this bad. You need someone here with you.”
He looked away. “I’m not alone.”
“Your maid hardly counts,” I huffed. “You need a new one, anyway.”
“Beta,” he said still more quietly. “I don’t have a maid.”
The house was even bigger on the inside.
After a fitful few hours of sleep on the ancient, lumpy couch I rose with the sun and wandered the house and grounds. Most of the rooms were empty, but others had furniture inside, all covered with white sheets. The doors had a tendency to jam and lock, which didn’t improve my tour. Several were locked to begin with, entire hallways of closed portals. I made a mental note to ask Dadabu where he kept the keys.
Before the heat of the afternoon set in, I left the house and called a cab to take me into town. From there, I acquired a rental car and went shopping. I bought a lot of food, having seen how empty Dadabu’s fridge was. A few books to keep myself busy. Cake rusks, of course. I couldn’t stop wondering if he’d gotten any of the money I’d sent him. When he’d last eaten.
I didn’t haggle. The vendors looked at me oddly when I paid whatever they asked, as if they hadn’t realized from my accented Urdu that I was foreign. I got a SIM card for my phone and asked around about maids, and left my number with a few people who insisted they’d find me one.
After, when I drove back to the villa, almost unrecognizable in daylight, the gates opened for me straight away. Then slammed shut again as soon as I’d driven through.
I had half a mind to ask Dadabu what he thought he was doing, but when I found him inside the house he was still asleep. I figured I’d tripped some kind of faulty automated system with the car.
I made an omelette and toast, putting them on a tray with a cup of chai that actually had enough milk this time. And returning to Dadabu, I found him just finishing his prayers on his four-poster bed. I tried not to remember the days he stood beside me as I was learning to pray, how invincible he’d seemed, a titan bowing his head to empty space, waiting for me to catch up before he rose.
When he saw the tray, I heard him quietly saying a dua. The thought of him sending thanks to Allah for eggs and toast seemed almost cruel.
“Have you eaten yet, beta?” he asked me, insisting I sit and join him.
“Um . . . not yet,” I admitted. “But my food’s in the kitchen. You eat.”
“I’ll wait,” he replied, rising slowly to his feet. “We can eat together in the dining room.”
I glimpsed his shaking hands reaching for the tray, but I picked it up for him before he could get to it.
He followed me to the dining room at a shuffle, and I tried not to think about what a proud man he’d once been. He’d built a family with just the two of us, and I’d broken it just as easily. He’d carried me on his shoulders, and I didn’t even trust him to carry his own tray.
“I’ll have to get the gate fixed,” I said off-handedly as we ate, reaching for the salt.
“What happened to the gate?” he asked, and furrowed his brow. When I told him, his face fell. “She’s seen you then.”
“Who’s she?” I asked around the food in my mouth.
“You have already felt her presence. Already drawn her attention.”
I scoffed. “Don’t tell me you believe it, too?”
“She’s here. She’s real,” he replied curtly. Then shook his head. “You should have left. I spent my whole life trying to keep you safe, away from her. But now . . . who knows if she’ll let you go again.”
“Are you hearing yourself, Dadabu?” I laughed off his fears. “You sound like a madman.”
He glared at me. “Did you forget how to speak to your elders in America?”
He stood up to leave, at least half his breakfast still untouched, and I cursed myself for angering him. Though it was a relief to see the man I remembered return, if only for a few moments.
I was having little luck finding a maid. I’d had a few calls about it, but as soon as I told them where the house was they either cut the call immediately or adamantly refused to come anywhere near the house. And then cut the call.
The day went quickly and fruitlessly, until at twilight there was a knock at the door. I opened it to look out, but couldn’t see anybody, so I shut the door in frustration.
But soon after, there came another knock. When again I saw no one, I decided it was some village boy playing a practical joke on a solitary old man, and that I wouldn’t answer a third time.
Then the knocking came in sharp, repeating bursts. For long minutes, I waited for the prankster to tire, but it kept going. Then the knocking became pounding.
Dadabu came out of his room, eyes wide. “It’s her.”
“Please, Dadabu, go rest. I’m sure it’s just some troublemakers.”
“The gate is shut, beta,” he whispered, fear creeping into his voice.
I huffed, and shook my head. “It opened once for me. I’m sure it’s the same thing. I’ll have to get a padlock for it.”
The lights flickered and went out. Just as the noise at the door stopped.
“I’ll go check the generator and find candles,” I said into the sudden silence. “You stay put, Dadabu.”
Dadabu said nothing.
It took a good couple of minutes for me to find my way to the kitchen with the house darkened. And I fumbled with the box of matches I’d put in the top drawer once I found it.
As I struck the first, it flared and was snuffed out.
The second stayed lit for a few seconds before a puff of air blew it out.
I took out a third, and hesitated as something breathed. I forced myself to light the match. To find an unfamiliar face directly in front of mine.
I dropped the match in shock and scrambled to strike another, quickly lighting a candle and sweeping it around me like a torch.
The kitchen was empty.
I rubbed at my eyes, caught my shaking breath, and went to inspect the generator. It was in working order as far as I could tell, so I took the box of matches and a few more candles with me to find Dadabu.
The house felt enormous in the dark, the walls and ceilings all too far for the candle’s light to reach. I walked through a vast emptiness, unmoored in a black ocean as I wandered my grandfather’s halls.
I wondered if “she” watched my slow progress.
Anyone would go mad in a house like that.
“Dadabu!” I called, trying to steady my voice.
“Promise you’ll never leave, beta,” he said from somewhere behind me, and I turned, holding up the candle. “Are you okay? Where are you?”
“I’m here!” he shouted, now ahead of me. Panic in his voice as he yelled, “Don’t listen to her! She’s trying to trick you, beta. Please . . . not him.”
“Dadabu?” I asked. The thought came to me, sudden and violent, that I was having a mental breakdown. I needed air. I stumbled my way toward the door, but in the dark all the hallways felt the same. I found myself before locked door after locked door as Dadabu’s voice called to me from multiple directions, entreating me to leave, entreating me to stay.
I couldn’t bring myself to respond, not knowing which was truly him. I ran, slamming my body against every door I found, every hallway identical. The flame in my hands shrank as I went, and the shadows pressed in.
Until I emerged into a familiar-looking room. I raised the weakened candle, spinning with it, and saw the sofa I’d slept on. I was in the parlour. I ran to where I knew the door would be. Heard it swing open slowly as if inviting me to leave.
“Please, beta!” Dadabu cried from somewhere deep in the maze of the house, “Don’t leave me!”
I ran to the door—toward freedom, thinking only of escaping that place, of what being here again had done to me—only to have it slam in my face. Laughter came from behind the door as I threw myself against it and pounded at it with my fists, begging to be let out.
Until Dadabu’s voice drifted down to me once more. He was still in here with me. With her.
I turned and prayed to anyone that would listen that I would see my grandfather again, that I could take him from this godforsaken place. My eyes were momentarily blinded as the lamps came back on. “Dadabu!” I screamed as I flew down long halls up to his room. The house back to its own shape again in the light.
I found him on the ground. And for a moment I feared the worst. But he was breathing, if very faintly.
It didn’t matter that I’d never made it out of the house. I’d left him. Again.
His chest rose and fell, and his eyes opened as he turned to me. “She’s yours now,” he said in a voice that barely reached my ears.
Then he left me.
I might have started CPR, or called an ambulance. But somehow I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Even if anyone would dare come to the house.
I almost felt it then, before the lights flickered gently. The weight of Dadabu’s legacy, now mine. Almost knew, before I looked up.
There she was, smiling at me.
© 2019 by Qurat Dar
Qurat Dar is an engineering student at the University of Guelph and an emerging author. She has work currently in The Evansville Review, Augur Magazine, and The Temz Review, as well as a microchapbook out with post ghost press. She was also recently a finalist in the 2018 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW) and for the 2018 Best of the Net Anthology. Find her on Twitter: @DQur4t and Instagram: @qthewriter.