A Game in Three Acts
Even before his parents fell, Haris’s witchy aunts had begun to plot.
First it was Samar Khala’s turn. She draped her cloak around him, and told him what to do. This little place he had known all his life had changed on a dime. The mob had been jostling violently, screaming kaafir, swaying around Haris, drawing him closer and closer into the centre until Samar Khala removed her yellow dupatta. She then used her power to affect the eyes of those around her, so only she could see Haris as himself. It was majestic. Samar Khala had always seemed to be able to change the weather around her entirely, blue skies to ashen, a heaviness to a lightness, but he did not know she could do this: make everyone who had ever known him forget his face. They spun round and round through the crowd that ceased to look at him, looking instead through him, at Samar Khala.
Samar knew she didn’t have the time to kneel before she let him go, to say goodbye, but she did it anyway. Finally she managed to whisper: “It’s time, beta. Run to that house. Rania Khala is waiting for you. Whatever you do, don’t look back.” She kissed his cheek hard, and whispered “I love you” before releasing her grip, her anchor giving way. Haris saw her yellow get swept up in the crowd. Then he began to run.
Haris cried as he ran, ran, ran to where Samar Khala had pointed. He ran till he could feel the road through his shoes. He sprinted through walls of breathlessness, like he was drowning, to the edge of the street with the last house.
He didn’t even see Rania Khala before she swooped in and grabbed him. She put a hand over his mouth. “Shh, shh.” She wiped his tears. Her purple dupatta was already folded in half. He cried so hard he could barely hear her. “Haris, you know what to do. You cannot let even one person look at you, okay? It’s the game of invisibility. You win if you make it all the way to end. Don’t you want to win?” He shook his head, sobbing. He didn’t want to play a game. He wanted it over.
Rania rose to look at the growing crowd, his head wrapped closely in her lap. Like all but one of the sisters, she had never married. Like her sisters, she too had made a vow for the boy. If death came to one of them in the street, like it inevitably always did for people like themselves in this village, like a relay race they would each sacrifice themselves in turn to get him to the finishing line.
Haris had always thought Rania Khala was like the ocean: furious, or calm, at the merest whim. And incidentally, it was the ocean she wanted him to seek. She knelt. “Haris beta, you have to run again, okay? It’s going to take much longer. You need to follow me the whole time.”
Haris’s sobs turned into choking sounds. He prepared himself, and then Rania Khala made herself be in two places at once. She handed him the purple dupatta. “Hold this, hold this very hard. Never let go. Now, look up with me. Do you see me up there? Follow me. Follow me till you can’t follow me anymore and you’ll find Mariam Khala, okay?” The sky had cleared up. Haris could see her in flight. She let go. “Now go. Go. Quick!”
He watched her from above. Afraid she had gone back, he didn’t look back to see her on the ground.
He followed her through swoops and dives, a bright purple plumage leaving trails through the sky like smoke. She flew diagonally, guiding him to the water, and they both tore off along the bank. The sea roiled nastily but it didn’t matter anymore. Up ahead was something else, something new he would need to believe in.
The clouds darkened. Rania Khala’s purple streak began to blink. The spaces in between were growing. He steeled himself for the inevitable. Soon, she drifted into the clouds and was no more.
He finally stopped. His tears rushed across everything he had lost. Baba and Amma. Samar Khala and her shield. Rania Khala and her map.
Mariam Khala, draped in black, was walking close to the water. She saw him and rushed over. All Haris had to do was look at her, because Mariam Khala’s gift was the same as his. They only had to look into each other’s eyes to know what the other was thinking; now, he finally saw where they would end up.
Mariam had only needed to see her nephew alone to know what had happened. She tried her best amidst her grief, but still felt helpless. She was the youngest, nineteen. Her sisters were the ones who knew how to act, and they had largely kept their calculations from her. But she understood the order: sight, flight, insight. She tried desperately to find — through the mist, the fog, the foam, and the sea — a mere moment of perception.
She was the only one who had stayed at home, but news traveled fast in this town, so she left for the only place she knew to find someone. She looked at him, holding her hands across his head. He was her charge alone now, so she came up with something for the both of them. It was her first and only plot and it was ambitious, but it was the only one she had. What they had always feared had just happened. There was nothing left for them here.
Mariam looked up and Haris did too: at the artless sky the colors of eggplant and straw. She removed her black dupatta. He took it from her and threw both dupattas into the ocean, a water burial. They flew like victory flags. This was what winning the game looked like.
Kamil Ahsan is a biologist and historian with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, he is also a journalist, Pushcart and Best of the Net-nominated writer, and the Reviews Editor at Barrelhouse. His work has appeared in The Millions, Chicago Review, The Rumpus, Dissent, The American Prospect, Salon, Aeon, and Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment, among others.
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