Extract from Fire Boy by Sami Shah, in both audio and written versions.
These stories always happen to someone’s cousin’s brother’s nephew. Muzammil Bangash was, unfortunately for him, just that. His entire family – all the cousins and brothers and uncles included – lived in the same tiny village in Pakistan’s north, in the shadow of the Karakoram mountains. It was the combined crush of relations and oppressive topography that drove Muzammil away. Shortly after turning 17, he announced he was leaving home and moving to Karachi.
When he told his father there had been violence. Even though Muzamil was taller, he did not dare protect himself from the thick leather belt his father beat him with. All he could do was let the old man exhaust himself, allowing the silence he offered in return as his only defence. When he told his mother, she retaliated with a marriage.
In a hurriedly arranged ceremony, Muzammil was wed to his first cousin, Mina, and had he been less obsessed with escaping the confines of their village, he would have been grateful for her. That night, when he took her virginity, she gasped, nails digging into his shoulder. He felt a spasm of sympathy for her, but it was replaced with the need for release that sharpens men’s senses to a singularly focused point. Afterwards, as she slept next to him, he stared at the ceiling, forcing himself not to turn and look at her nakedness, so that the anger and bitterness may grow in him unabated; she was a part of his parent’s plan to keep him from going away, from replacing the mountains that filled his horizon with the towers and structures of the modern world. And so, in the morning, after telling Mina he would return in nine months for the birth of their son, he left.
A year passed and he did not go back. Karachi swallowed him whole. He got a job working for a distant relative who owned several taxis and shared a small room on the fourth floor with three other men, their lives partitioned by bunk beds under a roof sagging with water seepage. Every morning he cleaned the old black Daihatsu he rented from his uncle and set out in search of passengers. His day would end once he had earned enough money to fill petrol for the next and still be able to put away for the weekly payments for the taxi. Then he would drive to the edge of the city, where land gave way to ocean. There he’d sit on the rocks, looking out at the world ahead. He played at wondering how long before he would be able to leave even Karachi behind and travel to the rest of the world. He knew of another taxi driver who had managed to get construction work in Dubai and the idea of crossing to another country gave him a dizzying thrill.
It was while driving back from the beach one night that he saw the woman on the side of the road. The road leading back from the beach was barren and dark, thorned bushes on either side of a dirt track, lit only by the feeble glow his headlights threw a few feet ahead. Yet the woman stood out brilliantly in the gloom, wrapped in a shawl so red she was like the flame of a candle.
Muzammil was speeding when he saw her and by the time his taxi came to a stop, he was well ahead of her. The car grunted loudly as he threw it in reverse, giving a teeth-rattling shudder whenever asked to do anything other than move in a straight line. He sped back towards the woman and braked just in time to come to a rest near her. He checked the meter and flipped the switch on top that reset the rotary dial. When he turned to look, she was still standing near the back of the car. Just as Muzammil began to reach back to open the rear door from the inside, she started walking around the car. He could hear footsteps crunching on the gravel as she rounded past the trunk and all the way to the front seat on the passenger side. The wind increased, throwing fans of dust against the windscreen and pressing her shawl against her. A slim hand rose up and tapped the window, red nails clacking on glass. He almost threw himself at the door, cursing as hands that suddenly seemed large and unsteady struggled to pull up the small latch. He finally succeeded and yanked the handle, letting the door swing outwards. The woman manoeuvred herself into the car and sat next to him. Muzammil got his first proper look at her; straight black hair, utterly still and brushed so neatly he could make out each individual strand; her face was white, fairer even than the women of his village and they had been renowned for their complexion; the eyes were bruised with mascara and the lips were coloured as red as the nails that had tapped against the window. All of it came together with such symmetrical beauty that Muzammil found himself staring. She turned to him, fixed him with deep black eyes and smiled.
He visibly shook his head, resetting it back to working condition, and then turned to look at the road ahead. Small whorls of sand were spinning like carousels in the light his car threw.
‘Where to baji?’ he asked, patting the meter.
‘Just start driving,’ she replied, in a voice that laid phantom kisses across his mind.
Muzammil depressed the accelerator, trying to shift in his seat so that he could better hide the erection swelling under his clothes.
Needing to hear her voice again, Muzammil asked, ‘Baji, it is not safe to be here so late at night. Why were you walking at this hour?’
Hearing no reply, he glanced at her. She had shifted in her seat, so that her body now angled towards him. The shawl was lying in her lap, the blouse beneath the same deep red, curving over ample breasts and ending several inches above her navel. She looked at him with eyes that were not shy and soft like Mina’s had been on the night that he had lain with her, but hungry and full of promise. Muzammil’s foot lifted off the accelerator and the car slowed. His erection was an obvious tent in his shalwar, so hard that it throbbed painfully.
‘Baji, I –’
‘Stop here,’ she said, reaching out with one hand and placing it on the side of his face. It was cold and he could smell roses on her fingertips. Muzammil pulled the steering wheel sharply to one side and brought the car to a skidding halt on the gravel. He switched it off and darkness pressed against the windows.
Muzammil was now thinking of only one thing. His mind had already raced ahead to imaginings that drove all other thoughts from his head. He turned towards her, desperate to press his face against her skin and taste the roses and sweat he could smell on her. And she was reaching down, her hands gripping the stiffness between his legs. He lifted her up, trying to pull her onto him, finding her almost weightless. She raised a leg, bringing it across his lap. Which was when he saw her foot.
Muzammil began screaming.
The erection, firm in her hands just moments before, shrank and his bowels loosened. He was still shrieking when she bit out his tongue with teeth jagged as shards of glass in a broken window. Her eyes filled with darkness, the contents falling backwards inside her skull. He stared into two empty sockets that swallowed his sanity. She pushed her fingers into his eyes, popping the eyeballs like soap bubbles. As he died, Muzammil’s last thoughts were of Mina, lying there in bed next to him all those months ago.
The thing that had been a woman fed. When it was done and there was nothing left, it climbed out of the car and walked away, the footprints it left in the dirt facing the wrong way.