A short story
In my grandmother’s village in Sylhet stood a gnarled banyan, from the ficus family, with warty knobs on a thirty-five foot trunk that curved forward. To me it looked like a dancer with a broken back. Its highest branches boasted wide, green leaves that shivered and hissed with the wind. Its lowest branches were gray, dry and devoid of leaves. Its aerial roots formed a forest that spread over an acre, all because a fig eating bird had dropped a seed on the ground. I was told it was something to be avoided like so many things girl children needed to avoid. The summer I turned thirteen I decided to ignore the warnings. It was 1984. I traveled with my parents from Larchmont, NY to visit my grandmother in Bangladesh. It was lush and green around the cluster of houses in which various family members were distributed. There was a pond fed by a modest creek near the center that had crumbling, mossy steps leading down to the water. They were built so long ago that no one knew exactly when they had been placed there. The water, once pristine, was now coated with thick algae amidst which pale pink water lilies floated. Just thirty years before people bathed in the water and sometimes fished from it. Now it was too polluted, though some children took dips every now and again to combat the brutal summer heat and were rewarded with stinging rashes for it.
The village was at the foot of a small hill terraced with untended tea plants. It was part of the acreage of an old British plantation. The plantation master’s dak bungalow had fallen to ruin but we were allowed to play in its shell after being warned of scorpions, snakes and ghosts.
The tree was haunted they said by one of its khansamas. There were many such caretakers since it was first built in 1896.
I was re-warned about the tree by various aunts.
“Don’t take its shade.”
“Anyone who touches its trunk will break out in tumors on their face.”
“Anyone who sits at the base and leans against it will be snatched away by the djinn who inhabits it, especially at twilight, especially if you are a girl over twelve and especially if your hair is loose, wild and long.”
“Why over twelve,” I asked one aunt.
“Because that is when you are walking into womanhood.”
I looked down at my flat chest. Nothing seemed to be happening to help my journey along. Not even a period. I had the body of an ungainly boy. But I had hair that was long and mostly went un-brushed. It could be described as wild.
The hangings only added to the tree’s morbidity. Two girls, my age, the winter before had been found hanging from it early one morning as the azaan for prayer was called. They were from a different mofussil altogether, and traveled a great distance to commit suicide on this tree. They were sisters, aged thirteen and twelve, skinny, barefoot creatures in torn kurtas. The branch they chose was high, it was impossible they climbed that high without assistance, but there they were; swaying, the strangest of fruit.
I overheard my aunt tell my mother that no one wanted to climb up the tree to cut them down so the little girls dangled there for nearly ten hours while people argued. Even the police refused to go near the tree. Finally the local vagrant, Bacchu, who some were convinced was possessed himself, was paid 500 takas to tie his mud caked lungi like a dhoti and shimmy up the tree to cut them down. The villagers were desperate because the bodies had started to smell, attracting crows and vultures and rats. My cousin, a morose girl of sixteen who was very beautiful and well developed, which prompted her mother, my father’s sister, to force her into hijab at fourteen, told me that the moment the bodies were cut down they were taken to the village mosque where they were washed and wrapped tightly in white clothes and laid under the tree in the shade side by side. In the cloth they looked so slight, like dolls.
Some of the women said prayers over them because the Imam refused to, stating that they were cursed bodies. He almost did not allow them into the mosque. In keeping with tradition they needed to be buried at once, but my grandmother suggested they wait another twenty-four hours to see if anyone would claim them so they could be buried properly for the journey upward. The women in the village took pity on them. The men were frightened. To the women, they looked like two small girls far away from their mothers’ arms. The men, for the most part, were convinced they were not human at all, but bait, dangled there by the evil djinn, who lived in the tree; a warning to the villagers that bad things were afoot, or that there was evil in their midst.
My cousin lowered her eyes and her voice and said to me, “Also, when they were cleaning them, the women saw bruises and marks all around their…” here she stopped and swallowed, “their hips, and belly and even near their you know whats.”
“No, whats?” I said.
“Their private areas.”
I could see the tree from my grandmother’s window. When she faced Mecca and prayed five times a day, it was behind her. When I was much smaller I would sit at the head of her rug while she prayed. She would perform her ablutions and gather me up and place me on the floor with some toys. I was unruly according to family lore and prone to fits and tantrums but I did not make a peep when my Dadi prayed.
At thirteen I still sometimes sat quietly near her when she prayed even though she did not make me do it anymore. She never demanded that I pray with her. She was slowing down and I was afraid that every summer would be my last with her. On this day it was a quiet, humid afternoon, unbearably hot. Everyone was napping, but Dadi was taking an extra long time to finish praying. I was bored but dared not stir because she had already flashed a few sharp looks with one eye closed when I fidgeted. She went into the trance-like state she always did after reciting the surahs. Her eyes closed as she communed with Allah. She would tell him all her woes and desires and requests for duahs for her loved ones. I was sitting on her bed, my feet suspended above the floor. I swung my legs a little too hard and my right heel hit the bed frame with a thud. I stilled myself at once and looked at Dadi. She did not open her eyes. Behind her, outside, I noticed something moving at the base of the tree. I slid off the bed and tip-toed to the window for a closer look.
There was no breeze. All the other trees were still but this tree was swaying. Its leaves were fluttering as it danced and dust was being kicked up in small whirlwinds at its base. I watched as the tree continued to dance, its aerial roots vibrating. The dust was being disturbed by a wind that only seemed to surround that tree. A drop of sweat rolled down my back and disappeared in the waistband of my cotton panties. The tree seemed to beckon to me. Dadi had finished praying and rolled her rug into a tight cheroot and placed it in her creaky almirah. She joined me at the window.
We gazed at the tree.
“Do you think about the girls who died, Dadi?”
“Why don’t they chop it down?”
“It’s old. There would be consequences.”
The wind seemed to pick up around the tree, like it was eavesdropping on us. I asked Dadi if she saw that.
She nodded. “She’s restless. Don’t go near her.”
She left me alone at the window still staring at it. The wind died down. Eventually my eyes grew heavy. I lay down on Dadi’s lumpy bed and fell asleep. When I awoke the light of the early evening sun cast long shadows on the floor. The room was dark but I could still see. I slept with my mouth open and my throat felt parched. Dust coated my tongue. It left a metallic taste in my mouth. I sniffed the air and detected a faint odor of something burning, like someone had lit a match. No one smoked in the house. I did not see smoke anywhere. I gulped some water from the Johnny Walker Black bottle Dadi kept on her side table and walked to the window.
I saw a slim young girl underneath the tree. She had her back to me and was gazing up at the branches. Her hair was long, black and braided in a single plait. It stood out against her bright yellow tunic. She started to undo the plait, loosening it with her fingers so her hair rippled down her back.
“Oh no,” I said. “What are you doing?”
It was dusk. Allowing her hair to blow recklessly in the wind was practically summoning demons.
She was still facing the tree. She ran long fingers through her hair and fanned it out. I was mesmerized. I did not expect her to suddenly turn around and look directly at me. I gasped and ducked below the sill. My heart was thudding against my chest. I waited for it to slow and rose up, my fingers gripping the sill, to meet the eyes of the girl in the yellow kurta staring at me through the screen. She was not sweating in the still, moist air. She pressed her face against the window screen and stared at me. She ran her long tongue against the rusted mesh. It cut her; she bled and did not flinch. Her eyes were so dark I could not see the pupils. I could smell her sour breath through the screen. She smiled and I gasped because it was bitter, mischievous and wounded. I thought of the faces of child murderers and rapists who smiled into the camera on TV.
Some great hurt had been done to the girl in the yellow kurta, even as she smiled I knew it.
Out loud in Bangla, she said, “Come with me.”
Her voice was normal, a young girl’s voice, a little high pitched. She could shriek in delight or pain. She was no more than thirteen or fourteen, like me. But unlike me, she was not alive.
I turned around to see Dadi standing there looking out the window.
“Can you see her?” I whispered. Dadi nodded.
“Maha, come away from the window,” she said.
“Is she dead?”
Dadi shook her head. “She’s a djinn.” My body was half turned away from the window and half facing Dadi. Dadi held out her hand to me but I did not move toward it.
I felt the girl’s breath on the back of my neck.
“Maha, come away from the window,” Dadi said again.“Try not to look.”
I was paralyzed. Even when I felt the tips of her cold fingers move through the screen and stroke my neck, I could not move. I closed my eyes and whimpered.
Mouthing a dua, Dadi yanked me away from the window. I looked at the girl. Her eyes were locked on my face. I could not look away. Dadi muttered a surah and the girl giggled.
“Give her to me, she’s mine,” she said. I was her plaything.
Dadi kept muttering surahs and pulled me behind her. She drew the curtains over the grinning face.
She took me by the shoulders. “Don’t tell a soul about this, Maha. Promise me.”
I kept looking at the window and white curtains. I could still see the girl’s slim outline and the wildly bright yellow through the white; only when the sun faded she too did.
Dadi took my face in her hands. “Maha, if you tell people about her, they will call you possessed. There will be no peace for you. She lives in the tree but everyone ignores it.”
“She touched me.”
My trembling hand went to the back of my neck, where two itchy welts had appeared.
Dadi tried to arrange her stricken face into a calm expression but I could see she was terrified. In the bathroom she removed my clothes and washed me. It stung, she scrubbed so hard. She ordered me to dress and then covered my head with a dupatta and rolled out two prayer rugs.
“Your parents taught you nothing, so just follow me and repeat everything I say,” she said. I repeated every surah haltingly. I was still in shock. A djinn was from a story book. Or a Disney cartoon. They were playful and funny like Robin Williams.
“Dadi,” I said after we were finished.
She was staring at the window. I dared not look. I did not want to see the yellow kurta in the dying light.
“Why can’t you kill her?”
My grandmother shook her head.
“You cannot kill a djinn. They leave when they are ready to. If they are bad they leave after they wreak as much havoc as possible. Her work is not finished. So she will linger.”
I forced myself to look at the window. She was gone for the time being.
“Are djinns human?”
“Yes and no. They are made of fire but they mourn, they love, they weep and they can grow bitter and exact revenge and they destroy. Just like us. Stop asking questions. Let me think.”
There was something in Dadi’s voice that struck me then. It was something akin to pity. But I could not imagine she felt sympathy for this ugly, twisted creature, who was clearly murderously insane.
“Where did she go?” I said.
“Back into the tree. Hush!”
My American mind could not understand why they did not simply chop the tree down. Right or wrong Americans expeditiously removed unpleasant obstacles; that was how the country was built. I could not think of a single one of my friends’ parents back in Larchmont tolerating a djinn-possessed tree sitting in their neighborhood, driving down their property values. And now it had touched me and all my Dadi could think to do was make me pray, reciting words I did not understand, in a language alien to my tongue and thus not having any real power in my mind.
“She will summon you to the tree. You are not to go,” Dadi said, breaking into my irritated and frightened thoughts.
“Will these surahs really protect me?”
Dadi frowned. “Of course!”
“How can you be sure?” I said.
“If you question them, then they will surely lose power,” she said, filling me with even more dread.
For three days Dadi kept me close. I slept next to her and she personally prepared my food for me, dismissing the cook who sometimes came to help. She said the cook, a young woman from a neighboring village, was scatterbrained and would be susceptible to the djinn’s manipulations. My blissfully unaware parents had gone away to Thailand for ten days. They had given me a choice. I could go back to the capital, Dhaka, and stay with cousins who lived in a huge flat in a tony part of town, with air conditioning and a VCR, or I could stay here, with Dadi.
I chose to stay back in the village because Dadi explained that no matter where I went, the djinn would follow me. It occurred to me that my spoiled cousins and aunt were less equipped to handle a demon than my grandmother who had lived through the war for independence in 1971, the year I was born, a near genocide that took her youngest son.
The djinn had touched me so I was marked, and she felt I belonged to her. Had I taken my Dadi’s hand and moved away from the window when she asked me to, I would have been safe.
The djinn kept her distance for three days. On the third day she climbed down from the tree and crouched at the base of it and watched Dadi’s window. No one else seemed bothered by it. Villagers walked by her, speeding up their gait when they neared the tree but not a soul looked in her direction.
Dadi said everyone could see her, but everyone saw something different, something that pained or frightened them.
“What do you see, Dadi?” I asked
“I see a boy, 15, skinny and pale.”
“Like Syed uncle?”
Dadi began to cry then. She nodded. How could she hate it when it showed her beloved boy who had been killed by the Pakistani army during the war? They had come to the village and killed most of the men and boys in the clearing where the tree stood.
“Has she ever shown her real face?”
Dadi wiped her eyes with the edge of her sari. “No.”
“Do you want to know what she looks like to me?” I asked.
“No,” Dadi said, stroking my head. “Because then I will know what plagues you and frightens you. You are only thirteen.”
I understood then that the girl demon in the yellow kurta, with the long, unruly hair was part of me.
On the evening of the third day after I first laid eyes on her, Dadi and I had just finished maghrib namaaz, evening prayers. I was getting better at the Arabic pronunciations, though my Bengali was not advanced enough to fully grasp Dadi’s translations. Dadi had been feeling unwell and retired early for the night. I lay awake next to her. I knew the girl/demon would come to the window that night and was not surprised when I heard scraping on the screen.
I climbed over Dadi gingerly and crawled out from beneath the mosquito netting. I walked to the window, my feet being carried by something beyond me. I was not directing my feet; I was not in control.
She said, “Come with me.”
“Are you going to hurt me?” I whispered.
She looked surprised. “Not if you do as I say.”
She was still grotesque, but I was not filled with dread.
I walked into the still night and saw she was already by the tree. She beckoned to me with her abnormally long fingers. She and I looked at each other. My heart began to slow down, and then in a burst of movement she climbed up the twisted trunk of the tree, startling me. She was preternaturally agile. She crouched on a thick branch like a gargoyle, and grinned down at me.
“Now you,” she said, like we were playing a game.
She was far away yet her voice was a whisper in my ear.
“Tell me your name,” I said.
“Noor,” she said. “Because I am made of light and embers. My mother named me that.”
Demons had mothers? I wondered.
“Mine is Maha,” I said.
“I know. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time,” she said.
“I can’t climb like you, I’ll fall,” I said.
“I don’t like cowards.”
She had been almost affable a moment before but her mien had changed. Before she smelled of earth and rain. Now it was at once an odor between low tide and rotten eggs. I almost gagged.
To my terror, she crawled down the tree head first, like a spider. Now I was no longer curious. I started to back away. She swiftly crawled up to me and stood to her full height. She glared at me.
“No is not a word I like,” she said. “No is not a word I will hear. No is for the weak. The strong won’t hear it. I never said no. I obeyed.”
“Please let me go,” I said, whimpering. She grabbed me by the hair and dragged me up the tree. I felt the bark scraping against my bare thighs and back, cutting me. She deposited me on a thick branch and pushed me against the trunk and ordered me to be still.
“Watch,” she said. “Here they come. Right on time.”
I looked down into the village clearing. Two men walked into it. One was older than the other. The older man was in his 40s and the younger man was much younger, maybe 18. I do not know how I knew that. But the information was simply there. They were cautious and glanced around a great deal. Every small sound made them react. They did not speak to one another. I suddenly did not want them to look up and see Noor or me. I shrunk back into the shadow of the leaves, wanting to disappear. Noor pulled up her tunic and crouched down, baring her pale thighs. It was then I saw the gashes and blood on them. She licked her lips as she watched them almost eagerly. If they chose to look up, they would see her, or whatever form she took for them as plain as day.
“Watch,” she said again. “This is clever.”
I watched in horror as the two men quickly loosened and removed the grating and screen to my Dadi’s window. One of the men leaned the grating against the wall, and the other man handed him the screen to do the same.
Noor looked at me. “They have been coming every night and loosening the grating bit by bit. They chiseled away at the concrete patiently for ten days. Ten whole days!” she said. “What a prize they must think they have, to go to all this trouble.”
I felt my throat tighten.
“But I am up here,” I said. I could barely get the words out. “It’s only my old Dadi in there.”
Noor smiled at me. It was a terrible smile. Her upper lip curled back.
“Is she now? Are you sure?” she said.
I looked toward my Dadi’s house. The older man was waiting outside the window. He was gesticulating energetically to someone inside. I saw him step back and reach out for something that was being handed to him through the window. It was a bundle of some kind, wrapped in a cotton quilt. It was wriggling. The man outside took the moving bundle and threw it over his shoulder as his young companion climbed through the window. He quickly replaced the screen but then the man carrying the bundle stopped him and started speaking. I could hear them clearly, as if they were standing right next to me.
“Arre. Leave it. We’re going to have to bring her back, nah? It’s too much bother to undo the screen again.”
“Bring her back?” his companion said. “I thought we agreed what to do with her.”
“We never decided, remember?”
Noor looked at me as I watched and listened, but the terrible, mocking smile from a moment before had been replaced by pity.
“Don’t look away now,” she said to me gently. “It’s best to watch it through until the end.”
And so I did as instructed because the girl couldn’t have been me because I was in the tree with Noor and felt oddly safe. I watched as the two men unraveled the girl from the blanket, and stuffed her mouth with cloth, and pinned her arms behind her, and she tried in vain to get away but they slapped her and dragged her by her long, unruly hair and pushed her up against the tree. I watched as they pulled up her nightgown and pulled down her panties and the older one inserted two fingers into her, because she was “too tight”, which excited the younger one so much, he could not wait and he pushed the older man aside and thrust himself into her so hard, it tore her. I could hear her muffled grunt of pain. It could have been his grunt of pleasure. But the older man did not let him finish and he wanted his turn. They tussled. She made the mistake of trying to escape during the diversion. They caught her, and punched her in the chest and jaw, knocking her out and dragged her, unconscious, back to the foot of the tree where they took turns on her. Only the boy could finish. The older one became soft and frustrated. He pulled his trousers back on and told his young friend to finish her off. The younger man looked down at the girl’s crumpled body and shook his head.
“She’s out cold. She won’t remember anything.”
I had begun to cry but I only knew it when Noor wiped the tears from my cheek with the back of her hand. I felt a warm trickle between my legs and saw the blood.
“You’re a woman now,” Noor said. “I’m sorry.”
Her ugliness had softened and she appeared blurry to me, like a smudge.
They didn’t kill the girl in the end. But that was only because Noor jumped down as they were choking her and startled them. Her shrieks were piercing, and primitive. I clapped my hands over my ears. No lights switched on—no electricity—but the clearing filled with people. They caught the men. I didn’t see what happened to them, but I heard later that they had been beaten almost to death.
The next morning or days later, I cannot be sure, I awakened in a hospital. I was sore and could not move without wincing. There were scratches on my inner thighs and a blue and yellow bruise on my jaw. I didn’t remember falling out of the tree but that must have been how I got these bruises I told the doctor. My parents, along with my Dadi, stood around me. I smiled at them, which prompted my mother to start sobbing. She had to be led out of the room. It was confusing. I knew I should not have gone up the tree with Noor. I had been warned but no real harm was done. Right? I was fine. I never saw Noor again, I never went back to the village. My Dadi passed away this year, in Dhaka, surrounded by her children and grandchildren and a ghost or two. In the end she was not present, went in and out of consciousness and did not recognize anyone. Except me. I got there in time and she saw me, and her eyes, now partially blinded by glaucoma, lit up. She took my hand and pulled me close.
“Forgive me,” she said. “Be brave. Noor is always next to you.”
I think she said Noor. I will never be sure.
(This story first appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly.)
Sharbari Zohra Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-born American fiction writer. Her debut short story collection, The Ocean of Mrs Nagai: Stories (Daily Star Books) was published in 2013. Her first novel, Dust Under Our Feet, is forthcoming. She also writes for TV and films.