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from the March 2020 issue

Enemy

A woman discovers the true nature of her enemy in this short story by Khalida Hussain.


Therefore, every thought was a decision, and she hid in corners and crooks to escape the decisions. Even though she knew very well that actually every moment is a decision, and she was always standing in the witness box. She could only escape decisions if she escaped moments—if she escaped time itself—but it is impossible to escape time, absolutely impossible to both exist and escape time. The decisions, the moments, followed her. She went around trying to hide in corners and crooks and crevices. She hid in dark, silent, damp places where it was impossible to survive. But she made her way inside the narrowest and smallest places. She shrank and shrank, hugged the floor, stuck to the walls. For a few moments, the damp, dark, narrow places wove their sleepy, silent webs around her. A deep silence flooded her ears. Then she silently questioned: “Am I right or wrong? Should I exist or not?” And this decision, this great, mighty question, came and installed itself in front of her. She started speaking to escape the silence, the absolute quiet. She spoke quickly and loudly. She shrieked. But the shriek asked the same question, over and over again, like the reliable, ticking hands of a clock: Right or wrong? Speak, think, tell. And so when the place became unsafe, she set off again, searching for a new place.

My decision has no impact on her life and death, she tried to convince herself.

The question isn’t about the impact. Who’s asking you about the impact? The question is simple: Do you consider her death right or wrong? the person who was always whispering in, out, everywhere, all the time, asked her.         

She replied: “Understanding is like deciding. It’s like an action. There’s no difference between thinking and acting.”

“So you consider her death right?”

“I don’t know.” She set off again in search of a new place.

The beautiful, elegant dresses hung neatly inside the wardrobe that smelled like old times—a cool and delightful smell. Gusts of evergreen air escaped the dresses and embraced her. She was surprised. These dresses, these colors, they belonged to the present. Then how did the sweet smell of people from the past, colors from the past, sounds from the past, settle inside them? But it was unprofitable to live in the past. The sensation of the past soon surrounded her like a nauseating yellow hue. Outside the wardrobe, a desolate afternoon, an afternoon full of echoes of past voices.

She was perplexed and looked away from the wardrobe. She wiped the dust off her makeup accessories, fine-looking but useless items, and came and stood in the middle of the room.

“My decisions are impacted by the decisions of many who live with me.”

“I’m not asking about them. Don’t worry about them. Tell me what you think. Do you think her death is right?”

Silence reverberated like a beating drum.

“I don’t know.”

She set off again in search of a new place.

“I don’t have any leisure time!”

She carefully started her work.

I am a busy woman who is not rich, who—after a long, busy day—gets tired and falls on her bed, who dreams of better opportunities and resources in her life. The traffic of friends’ problems, their sorrows and griefs, the unfinished plans for the children’s future. Then why am I being interrogated? Why am I being questioned at every moment of my life? Why is no one else questioned? Those who flow happily in the stream of life. They are not confronted with a decision before taking each step. They don’t have to be held accountable for their thoughts, their decisions. Nobody demands a verdict from them. They are outside this eternal web. Completely outside.

“She passed over my feet today—went creeping over them! I won’t let her live anymore,” Sajjad said.

“So the decision is made,” she breathed contentedly. 

“But it’s someone else’s decision. Is it your decision too?”

Silence reverberated like a beating drum.

“Yes! Maybe it’s my decision too.” She seated herself in the armchair.

I was confused. What was the constant mayhem in my wardrobe? How did everything turn into powder?

“But the gun won’t do. She’s so quick, there’s no saying how quick. How will you aim?” Hassan asked.

“So what! A gun isn’t necessary. There are so many other things. There’s the iron rod with a pointed tip—your walking stick.”

“Yeah, that works. Oh, it’ll be fun to chop her into pieces. She thinks this house is a park. Just coming and going. Anyway, what’s the use of her?”

“Use? It’s an act of virtue to kill her! If we didn’t kill such useless things from time to time, there would be more of them and less of us.”

This is sensible. It is only right that such a useless thing shouldn’t exist, she decided in her heart. Though my decision doesn’t impact her life and death. Nor will I raise my hand against her. But it is right that she shouldn’t exist. She’s the enemy of my wardrobe, where all my attractive dresses are arranged in a neat order. So she’s my enemy. It is only right that she shouldn’t exist. But does that mean: Death? I don’t know. I really don’t know. The long claws of her own thoughts gripped her. She was restless. She quickly slipped her body out of the long claws of her own thoughts. She set off again in search of a new place.

But now all the corners and crooks and crevices of the house were useless. They were not safe. So bright, so spacious—you could see all the way through. Unsuitable for refuge, for hiding. A sea of unending grief and hopelessness flowed in all directions. Or maybe the tall, strong walls separated one person from another so absolutely that no one could know the words that pumped inside the veins of another person. Could not hear them. When she spoke, when she tried to speak, her own ears only heard a loud shriek. The voice was strange. As soon as someone heard it, they picked up the iron rod with a pointed tip and leapt. They ran toward the gun. If nothing else, they picked up their shoe and chased. Then all the corners, crooks, crevices, cracks, clefts, crannies, and chinks were searched.

“The damn thing can’t be found! She runs freely during the night.”

“Not even! She’s started moving around the rooms in open daylight now. She was creeping up the wall. You know, she even thinks and contemplates! She turns her head this way and that. Surveys her surroundings. But the damn thing got away.”

So the corners and crooks and crevices were all useless. Heaps upon heaps of decisions. Just the wardrobe was left—the smell of nostalgia. Filled with a pleasant and delightful calm, like a very old and sweet song.

Pain throbbed. Moved forward. Alive like a pulse.

Yes, sit here silently for a moment or two.

Eyes closed.

But even the wardrobe was full of grief today. She tried to hide herself in soft silk. But she was still interrogated: “Speak—decide—is it right that she shouldn’t exist?” Yes, yes! Her death is right. The silk turned into powder in her mouth.

“That’s it! She destroyed the wardrobe too. She won’t get away today.” Sajjad clenched his teeth. 

So the decision was made. Though others made the decision for you. No, you made it yourself. Because such a useless, ugly, revolting, and disgusting thing shouldn’t exist. Her death is right. Exactly right.

“She’s here. She’s here under the table. Ssshhh, ssshhh. Stop talking.” Sajjad put a finger to his lips. He held the pointed rod in one hand and a broken piece of brick in the other.

“Slowly move the table. She thinks before she moves.”

Hassan moved the table. Yes, she was hiding there. And now she knew that she wasn’t hiding anymore. She was visible. She was naked. She turned her long face from right to left. Her shining black eyes popped out of her head—and spun around, searching for a new corner. She knew death was nearby. She knew death was ready to leap at her with its bare talons. She stuck to the floor. But on the tip of the pointed rod: a loud shriek—a loud, dragging, wordless shriek—spreading wave after wave, advancing, scattering, sinking, and dissolving in each and every tissue of the body, each and every pore. An unceasing, wordless shriek. Which wall now? Which corner?

“Oh! Oh! Kill her! She’s behind the curtain. Look there. She’s hanging from the curtain. After all that beating!”

Another unceasing shriek—then deep silence, peace, stillness, the deaf stillness outside time. The end of decisions.

“Look at her, look at her!” Sajjad raised the pointed rod in front of everyone.

“No!” She shut her eyes.

She had seen herself dangling from the end of the pointed rod.

Translation © 2020 by Haider Shahbaz. All rights reserved.

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