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art by M.S. Corley

Pinned and Wriggling on the Wall

Usman T. Malik is a Pakistani writer who lives in Florida with his family. He is a member of the Codex Writers Group, Florida Writers Association, and the Horror Writers Association.

To date, he has sold speculative works to Daily Science Fiction, Crimson Pact volumes 4 and 5, Space and Time, Papercuts, Deep Magic, and Eye to the Telescope. He was accepted for the Clarion West Speculative Fiction Writing Workshop, where, this summer, he will be under the tutelage of a stellar lineup of instructors that includes Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill. This is his first professional prose sale.

Regardless of what they might preach now, they once allowed you to be in college and in love. They allowed love to be magical.
Beneath the deep midnight sky, Sara and I walked hand in hand, and one of the college guards followed. We led him around the prayer area, where a medical student I didn't know prostrated before a blank wall. The finals were tomorrow and the anguish on his face was palpable, contagious.
"I want to kiss you," Sara whispered. Her eyes were a swirl of imbricated colors, so deep, so full of the unknown I shuddered. We know when the best moments pass us by. I did not kiss her, and she turned her head away.
"Did you draw the pictures?" I sat down on the ledge near the praying student, my feet dangling above the lip of the ablution fountain. The fountain was dry as water-smoothed bone, and for some reason that made me sad.
"No," she said. But her hand gripped mine and caressed the base of my thumb. Yes.
"I love you," I said. "And I won't kiss you till you say it back."
Around us darkness thrummed, filled with possibility. When she said nothing, I rose. She pulled me back down, her fingernails biting into my flesh. "Sit with me. Oh, sit even if nothing good comes of us tonight."
I sat back down. The guard ambled by, his face carefully neutral, his eyes studying the streaming heavens. What does he see there? I wondered. What does he really see? A shuttle carrying its escaping cargo across the blackness between the stars, or the yellow face of an aged moon, full of dark wisdom?
"I drew for you," Sara said. She was holding a pocketsize notebook with a cross-eyed puppy drawn on it. "One for each stanza of the poem."
I took it from her hands and opened it.
It was a wonderbook. A brilliant flurry of chiaroscuric images that stirred in the graphite darkness surrounding them. A sulky-faced man tottered round the edges of the first page: J. Alfred Prufrock. The next page showed him skeletal and dying, his trembling limbs spread out against the sky as if etherized upon an ebony table. Perhaps sensing my gaze, he opened his eyes and grimaced.
"He's beautiful," I said. He was. I closed the notebook on his parted lips and took out a cigarette.
"I thought you were quitting," she said.
"I thought you were staying." When she fell silent, I replaced the smoke in my pocket and added, "When's the next shuttle?"
"You promised not to bring that up." She snatched the notebook from my hand, her fingers brushing against my skin. Oh, they were warm, her fingers. Warm as a fresh corpse. Warm as my mother's breath when she blew Quranic prayers at me. "You promised--"
She couldn't go on. Instead, she furiously began to rifle through the pages. Muttering streets full of heartbreak sighed and shuddered. The yellow fog sidled by running shadows as unglimpsed alleys changed angles and nooks turned razor-sharp. One of the edges nicked Sara's skin and a drop of blood appeared. I tried to take her finger into my mouth, but she clenched her fist.
The guard strolled by. His perfunctory nod turned into a puzzled look by whatever he saw in our faces. I stared at the dry fountain. No water. Broken, in need of a fix. Everything on this goddamn planet needed a fix.
"It's our last night together," Sara said. In the dingy prayer nook, the medical student straightened and began counting duas on the ridges of his finger. His face was forlorn, his eyes black as unplanted seeds. "Please."
I nodded. Sara flicked another page, and we came upon a woman trying different faces: a woodpecker, a pimp, a demon with twenty eyes and a weeping gash for lips. In one hand the woman held tea, in the other toast. When I exhaled slowly, she turned and waved at us, her lips moving soundlessly.
"I can't draw sounds," Sara said and blushed as if that was something to be ashamed of. As if any of us ever dared disturb the universe and its plethora of miserable principles. Its infallible postulates and the neo-cultural norms. The ineffaceable societal distance between the rich feudal princess and the med school's clerical pauper.
I wanted to weep, but of course you can't do that. Not in front of the woman you love. My stomach heaved and I bit back nausea, closed my eyes until the vertigo passed.
When I opened them again, Sara's mouth hung open.
The Pinned Man had escaped.
It took us ten minutes to catch him. He'd wriggled and peeled away from the notebook and now sprinted across the courtyard, his paper-skin fluttering. His needle-staked heart bulged meticulously with the damp in the air. When we finally managed to capture him, it seemed as if he whispered something pleadingly, a begging that drifted around me even after I slipped him between the pages, like a ghost.
Don't fix me in a formulated phrase.
I looked around wildly to see if anyone else heard or understood. The medical student had risen and was walking away, his eyes wet with fear or fervor. The guard was swallowed by the shadows, and Sara--she was wrestling with her struggling pages and didn't understand.
"I don't want you to go," I said quietly and felt the world blur at the corner of my eyes.
She jerked and dropped the notebook. The night turned uneasily, the moon hovered, and in a gust of phantom wind the chiaroscura spilled from the pages like preserved butterflies: the yellow fog, a magic lantern that threw shifting pictures, pale braceleted arms like serpents. Sara screamed, and I couldn't tell if it was with dismay or delight. She bent to scoop them up and the minuscule human head on the platter opened its eyes, its lips twitching.
"I can't draw sounds," she told it and swept it off the ground.
"Leave them," I said. "Leave them alone. They're helpless, they're trapped. They deserve to be free. They deserve answers."
"No one deserves an answer," she said sharply. "Answers are earned." She slapped at the pair of ragged claws scuttling across the courtyard, and they lay still, pretending to be dead.
How? I wanted to scream at her. How do you earn answers? Do you curl up the universe into a crystal ball and peer inside it? Do you bring the dead back to life and inquire of them? Do you pretend to be ridiculous, a fool, in hopes of gleaning meaning from between a woman's words?
Water hissed behind us. It was the fountain: it had finally begun to run. It gurgled and sputtered, then quieted as the rim of water rose higher.
"My father, he--" Sara stopped and considered, her beautiful face thin and fearful. "If he knows, we will... you will--"
I knew what would happen if her father knew. Body bags, missing people. Amputated limbs. I'd seen it all in its glorious misery daily on the streets of Karachi. Feudal lords and their unchecked power.
I took her hands. "Listen to me." I peered into the magic of her eyes, that gleaming which left me weak in the knees. That tore me away from the world of indifferent scalpels and rotting corpses picked up from the shoreline; corpses of people who would never be missed. "I have loved you since I saw you. I want to marry you. I want to take you away, if you'll have me. Don't you understand?"
Her face was pale. "I understand." Gently, she retrieved her hands from mine, and crouching on her haunches, picked pieces of our collective soul, the magic we'd spun with our love. "I understand you'll disappear. No one will ever see you again. And one day," her lips trembled; she spoke rapidly, "one day, I'll enter a lab somewhere and a young med student will point excitedly at a fresh corpse and say, "Hey Ms. Bhutto, we call him Fetid Faisal," and he'll whisk the white sheet away from it and... and, Oh God, I'm afraid, it'll be you!" She flung her paper lives away violently and began to sob.
My heart ached. I leaned forward, and together we stood under the bottomless sky, our arms wrapped around each other. The night wind gusted, and our enchanted memento mori twirled around each other and danced.
A star-studded shawl wrapped itself around long arms; dusky smoke from long-tipped pipes whispered around lonely men with half-lidded eyes; a mermaid threw her head back and laughed as she rode a sea wave white as a unicorn--they shimmered and merged into each other, and I closed my eyes and hugged my love tighter and thought of a pale sea-washed body, salted with anonymity, lying under a shower of jaundiced stars.
For a moment, I felt Sara's lips part against my neck. She shuddered, then murmured, "I love you."
I opened my eyes. "What?" She broke the embrace and backed away. Above us, the black sky rippled. A trans-shuttle glimmered momentarily, its arc visible at the dimple of the moon, then disappeared.
"If you mean it, then stay. Please stay," I whispered.
Sara shook her head sadly. As the guard's footsteps grew louder, the dancing images flickered and clambered back into the notebook. By the time he reached us and stood staring at the tears on Sara's cheeks, the last of our magic wove of love and sorrow had disappeared.
"The fountain," I said, trying to make him look away. "It's working again."
"Yes, we fixed it earlier tonight. Maintenance was waiting for the reroute cycle, that's all." He watched Sara's face, his eyes concerned. "Everything all right, Miss?"
Somewhere behind us came a splash in the fountain. We turned and looked. Sara gasped.
It was him again.
The Pinned Man drifted in the water. His colored eyes bulged as water eddied around them; then they widened. His paper mouth opened, drew wider and wider until it came apart, his eyes and nostrils and pinned heart twisting, melting, coming apart in shreds of glistening white.
We watched Pinned Man's dismemberment wordlessly. And only I understood that--had one of us spoken--he would have bitten off the matter with a knowing, fractured smile.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Author Comments

I first read T.S. Eliot's spectacular poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in high school, and it blew me away. It was my first exposure to early imagist works and the power and melancholy depth of this one stunned me. I had to get its bewildered, flailing spectres out of my system and giving them enchanted life woven of love and pathos seemed to be the way.

The added layer of feudal and religio-political fear in contemporary subcontinental society made the story homespun.

- Usman T Malik
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