Fire Boy Extract: Roadside Picnic

Extract from Fire Boy by Sami Shah.

These things happen. They happen all the time, in fact. And they care not a whit whether we believe in them. What happened to the two men on their drive back from a village in the interior of Sind, for example, really did take place.

Tariq and Parvez left Karachi just before sunrise and drove all morning on roads that were nothing more than gravel pressed flat by the passage of trucks. Through larger villages where every building was concrete and every house had electricity, to smaller ones with houses made of packed mud and lanterns in the windows. Tariq steered and Parvez sang songs and told stories the entire way, each one containing more poorly constructed puns about sex than the last.

They hunted till sunset at a friend’s farm, shooting at wild boar and quail and managing to hit neither. The two reluctantly put their guns back in the jeep only once the first stars appeared in the purple sky. Still, with enough hash to last them the drive back and Parvez’s cache of stories not yet fully emptied, they were looking forward to the long return journey.

As Parvez and Tariq took turns exhaling sweet, thick smoke, their stomachs began protesting loudly. Parvez searched the backseat in vain for forgotten bags of chips or half-full biscuit boxes, but found only wrappers and cigarette packs. And so, hunger growing, they drove on through the dark, hoping for a shop or truck stop around every corner and cursing loudly when they found none. They were passing through long stretches of darkness, with the headlights of the jeep casting stretched ovals of halogen white on nothing but gravel and trees.

Soon the hunger grew so intense that both of them fell silent. So when Tariq saw a man pushing a cart in the distance, a tiny figure pecked out of the dark by a solitary streetlight, he pushed down on the accelerator with a whoop of joy. They stopped just a few yards away and bounded out, loudly thanking Allah and praising the cart vendor for finding his way into their lives. They didn’t notice that the vendor didn’t turn in their direction. He was an old man, bent and tired, a grey shawl draped over his head like a burkha, splattered with dried mud. A thick, white beard spilled from inside the hood. As Parvez drew closer, almost running in his enthusiasm, he saw the cart was not carrying any vegetables or fruit, but was laden with four large rolls of cloth, their ends drooping over the side like softening candles. He slowed down, disappointment replacing elation. Behind him, Tariq dropped down to one knee to tie an opened shoelace.

Parvez walked up to the man and gestured at the cart.

‘Asalam-o-Alaikum Baba ji, we are starving. If you have any food, we would gladly pay you for it.’

The old man didn’t reply. He just stood stooped over his cart, as if inspecting the wares, his face completely hidden in a puddle of darkness. Parvez, glanced down at the cart, taking a closer look at the cloth. Each roll was white as ivory and almost as long as he was. An old rusted metal weighing scale lay on top of the spool furthest from him. It was this scale that the old man was giving all his attention to. Moving closer, Pervez saw the ends of the spools were leaking, a dark liquid dribbling steadily from whatever was wrapped inside. Each droplet made a plip sound as it splashed in its respective puddle.

‘Baba ji, what is –’

From behind him Tariq began stuttering loudly, Arabic words hiccupping from him. Parvez recognised them as the words from the last chapter of the Quran. Words that offered protection against the devil and against evil.

And against djinns.

He turned to look at Tariq, who was still crouched and staring straight ahead at what was on the cart. His eyes had widened, tears streaming and flecks of spit flew from his mouth as he struggled to get the last words of the prayer out. Parvez turned back and was startled to see the man was standing closer, somehow having moved silently out from behind the cart.

The droplets were falling faster. Plip plip plip.

The face that emerged from inside the cavern of cloth confused him at first. The eyes were too low on the head, just above the chin. Then he understood and with comprehension came a terrible shriek. The beard was not a beard, but was in fact hair. A thick white tumble of hair hanging down from a head oriented the wrong way up. Black eyes stared out at him just above the wrinkled brow, a nose curving upwards above that and a twisted scar for a mouth on top. The shawl began to pull apart, revealing two arms, naked and thin with pink skin sagging off them. They ended at the wrist in blunt, red stumps. Parvez stared stupidly, taking in the small, jagged shards of white bone that stuck out of the rotted ends. Then he looked back at the face. Torn and blistered lips parted and a line drool tracked down over the cheeks and around the eyes below, disappearing into the course matting of hair.

A single sentence was said. Parvez wailed and Tariq screamed like he hadn’t screamed since he was a child. They turned and ran, back to their jeep that had been mercifully left running. Both jumped in, knowing better than to look back, Tariq not even waiting to close his door as they accelerated away. The man was still standing, blunt arms outstretched as the jeep rocketed past him, the question he asked ringing in their ears even when they finally stopped the hysterical crying much later.

‘How will I weigh them?’ he had asked.


Extract from Fire Boy by Sami Shah.