By Mehreen Ahmed

Short story: ‘As soon as he stepped out of the cubicle, the ‘ghost’ disappeared. Perhaps, it was an optical illusion. Like a rainbow where people saw only the colours, not the water particles behind the veil.’

This was one of those days when the sun had tilted slightly south while rotating on its sliding axis. Dolly Rahman woke up to go for a morning jog. Her favourite route was through a lonely park near her apartment. Like every day, she came down the elevator in her white sneakers, but noticed today that her laces had come undone. She stooped over on the pavement to tie them up. Someone jogged past her. She could smell the faint odour of sweat in the air. She looked from the corner of her eyes. It was a male jogger. 

He went a few nimble steps ahead, and then turned around to return towards her. The young man stood by Dolly, as she finished knotting up. Their eyes met. Politely, they smiled at each other. He seemed to be in his early twenties, with black curly hair on his forehead, and brown beady eyes. 

“Do I know you from anywhere?” she asked him.

“Not that I can think of,” he responded. “No, I don’t think so.”

She searched her memory to find a match. There was none. She readied herself to jog, but in the opposite direction to him. The man too, then turned around and followed her, jogging abreast at the same rhythmic pace. 

She thought he must want something. Was he after her for her money? The only solid thing she had on her was her age-old wedding band, handed down through generations of her husband’s family—an heirloom. She looked at the antique ring and thought she could trade this off.

When Dolly saw a bench on the roadside, she stopped and sat down. A stubborn mucous dropped into her throat; she tried to gulp it down with a hard cough, but it lingered in her throat area, like a stringy lump. 

As she sat, the man stopped, too. They looked at one another. Dolly lifted her ring finger offering her wedding band. She asked him if he was interested. But he looked disinclined. This puzzled her. She rose again and continued with the jog. 

He came up close behind her again. Perhaps Dolly thought, he was trying to be protective. After all, this man was just about her son’s age—who turned twenty-one last month. Was he a friend of her son’s, perhaps? She made one round and back to where she had started on the pavement, where her shoelaces had come undone. She was just a few meters away from her apartment building now.

Dolly looked behind her, the man had disappeared. She went up to the building guard and asked him if he recognized the other jogger. But the guard said that he only saw Dolly jogging alone. 

Dolly was shocked. She asked him if he had seen her tying up her shoelaces. Yes, said the guard, but he confirmed again that she had been alone. 

Unbelievable. Dolly nodded and went up the stairs into her apartment. She went straight into the shower and through a fog of vapour, she saw a blurry-shaped phantom, with a gleam on those same beady eyes. She was now convinced that she was seeing a ghost. 

As soon as he stepped out of the cubicle, the ‘ghost’ disappeared. Perhaps, it was an optical illusion. Like a rainbow where people saw only the colours, not the water particles behind the veil.

No, she thought to herself. She was sure as hell that she saw a solid human being. That was no illusion.  

Eid would be coming up in two days. Dolly wanted to have a grand party at her place. She cared less about fasting, but she was a fastidious shopper. Down the same pavement she had jogged this morning, she now ensued toward a bazaar, just a block away from her residence. 

The last few days of Ramadan had gone past at an agonizingly slow pace. The days seemed longer and lingering, until the new moon was sighted. As she walked, the waxing moon was still deep below the horizon. Dolly could let herself forget about whoever she had seen in flesh or imagination. 

She went from one shop to another indulging herself in new chiffon saris, jewelry and food. After all it was Eid, and she was going to splurge money like there was no tomorrow. She was going to cook a feast for Eid in the expensive ghee, too. She bought so many things that she couldn’t carry them all, and had to Uber back with the stuff. 

At her apartment gate, she asked the same building guard—a tall man clad in khaki, to help her carry them into her apartment. She knew she needed the extra hand. Her husband, Junaid, who worked at the stock market, was still not home. Their only son was away, vacationing abroad.

As she stepped out of the Uber, Dolly saw the curly-haired boy again, standing behind the guard.

“Look behind,” she said to the guard.

The guard looked where she pointed, as did the Uber driver. But they both shrugged, as if they couldn’t see anything. 

Maybe she was losing her mind. Or, maybe she wasn’t. That was not the point. The point was this: something or someone was trying to scare her, or perhaps even communicate with her. She wasn’t sure but the former seemed more likely. The world was blind to this young man, as though he had cloaked himself like a Klingon vessel from Star Trek

No matter—it was just a glimpse, and he had already left the scene again. Dolly stomped up to the elevator with the guard carrying all of her bags behind her. She saw him struggle to lift the heavy weight with his thin, lanky arms. He stumbled into the elevator with her, but Dolly couldn’t get herself to assist him. At home, they were greeted by Dolly’s cook, whose eyes popped out when she saw what the guard had dragged in behind Dolly: a huge bucket of ever -fattening ghee. 

Later in the evening, when her husband came back from work, he asked Dolly about her shopping that day. Junaid was a fair-toned man, with a square jaw and soft black eyes, eyes that Dolly knew had the power to perceive more than she was willing to reveal to him. 

“What did you buy?” he asked.

“Stuff that I need,” she said.”

“I hope you didn’t buy the whole bazaar.”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Well,” Junaid said. “I am the one filling up the coffer.” 

Dolly knew her husband only too well. She wondered if he could see her ghost, too. After all, he did believe in spirits. He thought every spirit was unique. Just as the same type of crop couldn’t grow into the same soil. Crops had to be unique and it had to be rotated for healthier growth.

She, on the other hand, thought ghosts were sentimental and silly. She was the sort of person who didn’t get emotional about anything—whether it be Eid charity or people living or dead. She treated her friends as disposable, almost like sullied water. She used them without even the slightest reproach on her part. 

Only, her emeralds and diamonds had to be uncut. If there was a discrepancy there, that would surely enrage her. For Eid, Dolly bought another plover’s egg-sized emerald pendant. But for now, she chose not reveal it to Junaid. It would be kept secret, saved for Eid evening, when they would also be joined by their friends for the festive occasion.

On the morning of the Eid, while Dolly stayed in bed, Junaid rose up early to shower and dressed in his white kurta and chooridar. The apartment was filled with fragrant ghee flavours. He quietly went downstairs to set off for the Eid prayers at the Jamaat Field. A couple of hours later, she finally trudged out of bed to shower.; The vapour rose in the hot bath again; at a glance, she thought she saw some words on the vanity mirror. Some form of writing in the fog. 

She came out of the cubicle, wet and naked, to read the words.

Share-market crashed. Your land was once mine, we were tortured out of here without  compunction.

Dolly read the words three times before the writing vanished. She could not make any head or tail of the matter at all. Today was Eid. Who was playing this practical joke on her? She was going to report this to the police. But perhaps, she should’ve realized that ghosts don’t leave evidence; that’s why they were ghosts. 

At least, she should speak to her husband. She came out of the bedroom into her golden drawing-room where the Eid dinner party was to be held. It was empty here today: no royal furniture, no luxurious velvet curtains, no antiques, tables or chairs. The room felt like a claustrophobic vault, where she was suffocating between the four walls closing in on her. 

In the next moment, Dolly fainted.

When she woke up. Junaid was there, standing right beside her. He called an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Suddenly, time moved fast—the agonizing slow pace of the days now seemed to be on fast-forward. Hospital. Stretcher. Lab coats. Needles in her skin. Machines whirring beside her. 

A doctor told Dolly that she had to be kept admitted, as her heart condition was not good. She was overweight.

Dolly couldn’t make an audible response, but she sighed to herself. And this had to happen on Eid day? She thought in disgust. What about her party? Who was going to wear her emerald pendant? What about her expensive chiffon and ghee-flavoured feast? No, no this was a nightmare. She must be sleeping

She pinched herself to wake herself up, but it didn’t work. She sat on the white sheet of the hospital bed, looking at the white walls around her. 

And there, she saw him again. That young man; her curly-haired young ghost. He smiled at her. She thought of the message on the bathroom mirror. Our lives hinged on something much larger, she figured.

Multiple contests winner for short fiction, Mehreen Ahmed is an award-winning Australian novelist born in Bangladesh. Her historical fiction The Pacifist is an audible bestseller. Included in The Best Asian Speculative Fiction Anthology, her works have also been acclaimed by Midwest Book Review, DD Magazine to name a few. She is a featured writer on Flash Fiction North and Connotation Press, a reader for The Welkin Prize, Five Minutes, a juror for KM Anthru International Prize.

Her works have been translated into German, Greek and Bangla, reprinted anthologised and have made it to the top 10 read on Impspired Magazine multiple times. Her works have appeared in Cambridge University Press,University of Hawaii Press, Michigan State University Press, ISTE, Call-ej, University of Kent Press, The Sheaf:University of Saskatoon, Writer’s Digest:Six Sentences, IceFloe Press, Litro Magazine, Otoliths, RogueAgent: Sundress Publication affiliated and many more.

2 thoughts on “Like Sullied Water

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