I Call Upon the Night as Witness

November 18, 2021

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Zahra Mukhi is a twenty-three-year-old artist and writer from Karachi, Pakistan. A story she endlessly procrastinated on received an Honorable Mention for the Salam Award for Imaginative Fiction in 2020. When money’s not tight, she likes to travel as much as she can. Otherwise, she can be found experimenting with words, art, and food. Zahra is currently pursuing her MFA in Studio Arts from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. You can find her on Twitter at @zahramukhi and find some of her other work at www.behance.net/zahramukhi. This is her first publication. 
Content Warning(s):
Classism

Sawan’s head rolled back and onto the woman’s shoulder. She was woken up when the woman jerked. Sawan wiped the drool off her chin and drank the last sip of water from her bottle. The bus came to a sudden stop. They had reached the Line. All 31 passengers got off the bus and stood in front of the Line. 

“We’ve caught it now, right?” someone asked.

“It looks very still. We’ll make it through this time,” another said. 

The bus driver got off and led them to the Line. “One at a time. And remember to step over, not on, the Line.”

Everyone nodded. Nobody wanted to go back or to go through the Hunt again. Carefully, taking big, light steps, they stepped over the Line. This time, everyone made it through. The bus driver got into his vehicle and drove away. They would have to go on foot from here while keeping a lookout for more Lines. 

When they made it to the City, everyone dispersed. Nobody knew anyone’s names, nor did they care to. Sawan went straight home. She had been looking for a way home for the past year, but the Line kept moving. 

She turned her key in the lock, opened the door, switched on the lights, and found everything exactly as she had left it. But with a very thick layer of dust. She opened her window and immediately smelled the salty, oily sea. There had been so many oil spills in the past few years, so much chemical waste dumped into it, that everyone eventually gave up trying to save it. At least now they wouldn’t have to spend money on treating waste. It could all be dumped into the sea and no one would say a word. It was ruined anyway. 

Sawan still had some stale chai-patti left in her cupboard. There was no milk, but kahwa would do for now. She took her kahwa and sat on the dusty sofa. She didn’t mind the dust; she wasn’t very clean either. 

§

The heat woke her. Sawan had fallen asleep on the sofa. She didn’t know when or how except that now her body ached all over. The empty kahwa cup lay on the floor. Sawan rubbed her eyes, stretched up high, and went over to the window. The grills had gotten rusty. She would have to do something about them. She rubbed the rust between her fingers when a loud noise from the sea made her look up. The sea was being split. Sawan looked down. The Line had appeared. 

After the Hunt, after promising to never look at or think of the Line, it had come and settled right in the middle of Sawan’s home. A home that was no longer hers. 

“They did it again. They fucking drew it again.”

The land around the shore had started splitting. Soon, Sawan’s home would split too. She had nowhere to go. 

She grabbed her still-packed bag and rushed outside. Everyone on her street had run out of their homes. They were all so tired. Sawan went to the police car that was pulling up at the end of her street.

“Take everything you can and come with us,” a police officer said. 

“Isn’t this a violation of one of your laws? Why did the Line have to split our homes in half?” spat Sawan. 

“The laws have changed,” the officer said. 

“And where are you going to dump us now?”

“Over the Line to our east.”

“And if that moves?”

He looked straight into her eyes. “You know your status.”

The officer walked past her into the street. Sawan dug into her bag and took out a card with a microchip, a passport, and a file with identification papers. The passport disintegrated in her hands, the papers turned to mush. The card remained. She was once again stateless. 

Someone decided that the Line needed to be moved. That Someone was sitting in a bunker or a submarine or a safe house or a palace or a parliament or a tree. The Line had to be drawn on an existing map. And the map changed every few months, sometimes every few weeks. This was new. The Someone had done other bizarre things before, like changing the cardinal points so that the sun rose from the West and the Global South became the Global North, changing their fortunes immediately. But the Line was never drawn so that it went right through people’s homes. There were cases where once you stepped out of your house, you would step right into another State. Those houses were allowed to remain because they were whole. These houses were now broken in half. 

Sawan looked through her bag. She had enough money to survive a month, two at most. Now she didn’t even have a roof over her head. So, she had only enough for two weeks. The r-word was no longer used for people like her. Instead, they were officially called Travellers. Unofficially, Dragons. And now their homes, their street, would be part of the land that was beyond the Line. It would be marked by one line only acknowledging the land, not the scores of people left out, and on the now altered map: Here Be Dragons

And as Sawan looked at the map in her bag, the Line had indeed shifted, and she was now a designated Traveller. She had to move fast, to a place where she could survive. The card wouldn’t last very long. And neither would she. 

§

Sawan moved with the crowd. These people were familiar and not. Faces that she had seen from her balcony and window, the neighbourhood park, at the dhaba. Bodies she was not familiar with. She had not held them close, never had them in close proximity, and now she had to move with those bodies as one. 

The crowd moved in a slow hum. Nobody knew what to say. If only one of them carried the power of Lines. If only one of them could move the Line a few inches behind, out of their homes, so they didn’t have to leave. If only. 

Sawan looked down at the card. The letter T had appeared in place of C. The State had marked her a Traveller. Even if the Line somehow moved back to its place tomorrow, once the T had appeared, it could only be removed if another State took her in. None of the States wanted more Travellers. The only place they could go now was No Man’s Land. 

Once a six-inch-wide piece of land between two Lines, No Man’s Land was now a 750-square-feet piece of land that narrowed at each end. Right in the middle were microcosms of towns, engineered to hold hordes of people, reminiscent of high-rise apartment buildings within States. The only difference was that each person got seven cubic feet to themselves. That was what you got when your home was snatched from you: seven cubic feet. 

The buildings kept growing upwards and downwards. Everyone was waiting to either go back to their homes or to find a new one. To find papers that would get them out of these seven cubic feet. 

Officially it was called No Man’s Land. But the people weren’t official. Their existence didn’t matter so long as they weren’t part of any of the States that littered the planet. The people who lived in No Man’s Land called it Here Be Dragons.

When Sawan and the crowd reached Here Be Dragons, they were greeted with shabby buildings that looked ordinary enough from the outside. Then, four people appeared as if out of thin air. They introduced themselves as Selfs. They divided the crowd into four groups, each following one person. Sawan walked right next to her Self. 

“Will you take us to the next Line?” she asked.

“This isn’t immigration,” the Self replied. “You will be taken to a temporary space to rest.” 

“How temporary is temporary?” Sawan asked. 

“That’s subjective.” 

They walked until the crowd reached a tall building. Was it blue? Red? It was too dark to tell. The Self gave everyone a key to their spaces. Sawan’s space was on the ninetieth floor.

She got in the elevator with everyone and watched as they got off on their floors. Some had been assigned spaces underground. She was grateful she wasn’t one of them. There were five people in the elevator going higher still when she got to her floor. She walked up to her space, marked 9-0-H, turned the key, and walked in. So, this is what seven cubic feet looks like

She threw her bag to the side and slumped down the wall. There was a tiny window to her right. She looked through it only to see deep, black night. No lights. Stars and moons were myth. She hadn’t seen any in her life. Nor had her mother or her grandmother. Lights were essential though. Everything had to be illuminated, everything had to sparkle, everything had to glitter. The night was not allowed to penetrate except in Here Be Dragons. 

Sawan curled up on her side and willed herself to not think about home. That wasn’t her home anymore. She had spent a year getting back to it, less than nine hours in it, and two days later, this seven-cubic-foot space was her home. 

No, she refused to call it that. Home was by the rotten sea, not high above the ground. So high she felt wheezy at just the thought of looking out the window. This was just a space, just a place to be. This couldn’t be it, right

Sawan closed her eyes, turned her face away from the window, and hoped she could find some answers tomorrow. 

§

Smells of freshly cooked food wafted from the hall. Ground cloves, fresh chilis, roasted garlic, turmeric, curry leaves, mustard seeds, and cumin. Sawan had missed breakfast. She was too exhausted to move from her position, and it hurt to move her neck. In line for lunch, she held her plate in one hand and massaged her neck with the other. She was relieved to see daal chawal. She hadn’t had it in over seven years. It reminded her of her mother and Sunday afternoons. She took some on her plate and made her way to the dastarkhwaan laid out on the floor. 

Sawan sat down next to a woman who looked like she wouldn’t want to start a conversation. She was wrong. 

“New?” the woman asked.

Sawan nodded as she took the first bite.

“Which building?”

Sawan had only seen a dark, ugly green on her way out. “The green one.” 

“There are five green ones,” the woman said. 

Sawan stayed quiet. 

“Where are you from?”

“West,” Sawan answered.

“I’m from down North. You must’ve heard of the River. My people lived among the Delta. The Line moved, and my home was not my home anymore.” 

“The Line broke my home in half,” Sawan said.

“First time I heard of that happening. I’m Bahar. What’s your name?” 

“Sawan. I was named after the season my great-grandmother missed the most.” 

“I was named after the season I was born in. My parents didn’t really put much thought behind my name.” Bahar laughed. Sawan saw the room through Bahar’s jaw. 

Sawan looked around the room. There were more people here than she had ever seen in her life. 

“You will have to pitch in, you know. Everyone has turns,” said Bahar. 

“For what?”

“Cooking, since you’re new. They’ll give you a week to settle in. Then you’ll get your schedule with your duties. Everyone has to help out.” 

Sawan nodded slowly. “How long have you been here?” 

“About two years.”

“Isn’t this place temporary?”

“That’s subjective.”

§

Sawan hummed a song she thought she had forgotten as she peeled the onions. Her grandmother would sing it all the time. She tried to remember the words only to stumble each time. 

An old man, who was washing the rice, started to hum along as well. 

“My mother used to sing this to me. How did it go again?” He too tried to remember the words. 

Sawan and the man hummed the tune until their duties were over. 

§

The Self was walking toward an orange building. Sawan ran up to her. 

“Hello! Do you have a minute?” Sawan called out.

The Self turned around and gave her a pointed stare. In the light, Sawan could see that the Self didn’t have eyes; she had metallic prosthetics instead. 

“I was wondering what the procedure is to get out of here,” said Sawan.

“There is none,” the Self said. “If your card says C one day, you’ll know. Otherwise, you can try crossing over Lines with a T on you, but Travellers aren’t welcome anywhere at the moment,” 

“I just don’t understand why I’m here. Why me?”

“Everyone asks the same question.”

“Does anyone ever get to go out?” 

“There have been some.”

Sawan heaved a sigh of relief. “So there is a way.”

The Self grew impatient. “Listen, more Lines have just moved. Hundreds of people will be arriving in a few hours. I need to prepare. Do you have any urgent questions?”

Sawan shook her head. The Self went into the building, and Sawan walked around for a bit until she got bored.

Back in her space, she lay down, taking care of her stiff neck. She rubbed her hand on her neck, noticing where the skin had become fragile. She held up her right hand but couldn’t make out anything in the darkness. She rubbed her left palm on her right and felt some of the skin peel away. Sawan knew what had happened, but she wasn’t willing to worry over it now. 

As she was about to fall asleep, she remembered the words to the song. I’ll tell Uncle tomorrow.

§

“It’s good you remembered the words. I was going crazy racking my brain,” the old man said. “It doesn’t work properly anyway. Half gone. Soon I won’t be able to do any work at all.” He grunted in protest of his dying body. 

“Pass me the curry leaves, Uncle,” said Sawan. 

aaj bazar mein pa-ba-jaulan chalo

dast-afshan chalo mast o raqsan chalo

khak-bar-sar chalo khun-ba-daman chalo

rah takta hai sab shahr-e-jaanan chalo

They sang these lines in complete harmony. Sawan didn’t remember the rest of the words but for now, these were enough.

“You said your entire street became Dragons?” Uncle asked.

Sawan nodded her head. 

“Were you all baaghis?” 

“I wasn’t. And the lady next to me certainly wasn’t either.” 

“One baaghi is enough for them,” Uncle said.

“Changing Lines for a baaghi? Don’t you think that’s a bit excessive, even for them?” 

“It is a bit strange. Did you live somewhere near a mountain? These days they’re obsessed with building summer homes for each Citizen.” 

“Nope, just the rotten sea,” said Sawan.

“So, they wanted more space for their trash? They really have run out of reasons.” 

“Doesn’t the Line move because Someone wants it to?”

“Well, yes. But it’s always to the benefit of some State or the other. It doesn’t happen without their approval you know, woh. First, they wanted to build on top of the sea, and now they want to build as far away from it as possible. Tch tch tch.”

Sawan kept stirring the pot. She dropped some shirva into the middle of her palm and licked it off. She took the bag of coconut powder, spooned a bit out, mixed it with some water, and dropped it into the pot. Then she added some salt and stirred. 

“Will you taste this and see if it’s fine?” Sawan asked.

Uncle licked the shirva off his palm and smacked his lips three times. “Do the vaghaar. I think that will make it just right.” 

§

Bahar was picking up the dastarkhwaan. Sawan waited for her to finish up near the door. 

“I haven’t seen you around,” said Bahar. 

“I haven’t seen you either. Where were you?” asked Sawan. 

“Change in duty. I was underground.”

“What’s there to do underground?”

“People who haven’t seen sunlight. They need special care.” 

“Oh.”

“Do you want to go for a walk?”

“Sure. We have an hour until it’s back to work .”

As they walked the narrow streets between buildings, Sawan asked Bahar, “Come to think of it, I haven’t met a person from underground.”

“Because they rarely come up.”

“Why not?”

“Most forgot how to tell day from night or night from day sometime after they first arrived down there. Some have lost the will to do much more than stare at a wall. There are very few who still come up.”

“Why not shift them on the upper floors?”

“If you haven’t noticed, we’re running out of space.”

§

Sawan rushed to the hall. She was late today. She reached the kitchen out of breath.

“Calm down, behen, don’t forget to breathe,” said Bahar. 

Sawan was not in the mood to breathe. “My neck has been bothering me all morning. I didn’t realize the time until I looked at the sun.”

“I’ll have to tilt my head to look at you straight if you don’t do something about that neck of yours.”

Sawan put her bag down and began to cut the tomatoes. She just needed one excuse to burst. It had been three years ago today that she had arrived at Here Be Dragons. She had expected to find a new home by now. Sawan didn’t know what was worse: the fact that she couldn’t see an end, the seven cubic feet, her aching neck, or the hopelessness. The cooking helped her concentrate on something—gave her a purpose. Her neck, though, was stuck in a painful angle. She wasn’t even sure if Bahar would be around for much longer. The first layer of her skin had already peeled off. It was quick after that. 

“I know that look. I know you want to get out,” said Bahar.

Sawan kept cutting the tomatoes. 

“You know, some Travellers have made it across Lines.” 

“Dead?” asked Sawan. 

Bahar shrugged. “I just know the States are scared now. We’ve grown to be too many.”

“They’re scared of us? Of Travellers?” 

“No, jaan, of Dragons.” Bahar winked. 

§

Sawan’s neck felt like it would permanently stay tilted. The pain was annoying. She just wanted to sleep. She tried to hum the words to her grandmother’s song. 

As though a pocket in her brain had opened up, she remembered more words. She wasn’t sure if this was the complete song—but anything to forget the pain. She stroked her card as she sang. A corner had broken off and the print was fading. And so was she. She could see through her hands and legs now.

rakht-e-dil bandh lo dil-figaro chalo 

phir hamin qatl ho aaen yaro chalo 

aaj bazar mein pa-ba-jaulan chalo 

In the morning, Sawan would make a plan to escape with Uncle. If she remained.

© Zahra Mukhi

1 Comment

  1. sadafpatel1

    Amazing ! Such a beautifully written story – leaves you yearning for more 👍🏻Brilliant ❤️

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