Beneath Her Scarf

Pireh Moosa


The second curated piece by digital guest editor for November 2022, Taiba Abbas. Her curation is following the theme of Personal Myths.


There was nothing particularly wrong with Irum’s eyesight. She owned a pair of purple spectacles, bought recently with her savings from content writing—but they were reading glasses. As far as hallucinations go, hers were only ever enabled once. A year ago, after popping a small square strip into her mouth, she had been eyeing an elephant on the cover of her school notebook when it suddenly jumped right out, grabbed her hand, and made her dance for the first time in her life. Other than the usual khichdi of depression, anxiety, family trauma, et cetera, Irum was fairly neurotypical. She functioned. At home, at work, in public. So when she witnessed a man pulling at a young woman’s hijab to reveal something supernatural, it was neither her eyes nor her mind that betrayed her.


That whole night held a lingering oddness. Perhaps a scale below the probability of paranormal occurrences was the probability of seeing an ordinary upper middle class girl on Karachi’s streets past midnight. Amidst the transient buzz of motorbikes, the hushed chatter of the dhaba’s final customers, and the odd howls of street dogs, the general air around Badar Commercial had tensed with the anomaly of Irum’s frantic presence. She found herself scrambling for another Careem outside a Tinder date’s building, caught between the danger of being alone at night and the awkwardness of ringing the bell to tell her date that the first Careem had canceled on her. It wouldn’t be tasteful, she thought. She was never fond of the aftermath of relationships. With men, she kept things short and swept away what she could—politely, of course. Her latest rendezvous was not the most thrilling. After a bland, rather quick exchange of thrusting and groping that seemed to finish him off, she swiftly called a car as he began woefully retracing the events of his most recent breakup with a most beloved Islamabadi model, miles away.


Untitled watercolour painting by Mubeen Arif

“Thank you for your time,” she said, as she usually did. If it was truly memorable, a smile would linger at the end of that statement, a sort of ‘would-have-been’ in another world, were it not for an ambiguous nothingness that lay suspended beneath the surface of her every encounter. This time, she exited promptly, leaving her words at the door.


Standing alert and watchful, Irum considered resorting to desperate measures when another Careem driver came through, notifying her that he was on his way. She waited near the entrance, half hidden, scanning the streets carefully for any signs of slowing vehicles, motorbikes, or passersby. Sensing movement on her right, she turned to see a dark figure walking in her direction. Instinctively, she reached into the front pocket of her bag for her pepper spray, whispering a dua under her breath. As the figure approached her, it began to form the outline of a tall girl in a black shalwar kameez and a headscarf. A clear green crystal bumped gently against her chest as she walked, falling from what seemed to be a rather extensive chain. Temporarily, Irum’s muscles eased, her chest falling as she watched the jewel catch odd glimpses of light. Then she noticed another, larger, figure trailing behind the girl, its shadow spilling over her like dark, thick liquid. She tightened her grip on the spray bottle in anticipation, taking her eyes away momentarily only to check for other followers. When she turned back, there was a man reaching for the girl, bony fingers outstretched.


Kahan jaa rahi ho larki? Idhar toh aao!” he taunted, tugging at the fabric of her hijab.


Irum darted forward with her spray ready, but was imminently stopped in her tracks. With the girl’s headscarf on the ground and her back towards him, several writhing snakes began prodding and picking at pieces of flesh on the man’s hand.


Dramatic reactions were never Irum’s thing, but there are fewer options within the understood human landscape of responses when it comes to a supernatural sighting. Her mouth hung open, eyes fearfully widening at the man, who seemed to want to scream, but to no avail. She weighed the possibility of running—in either direction. Then a series of memory frames flashed before her: the biker on University Road, the man at the next table at Chaiwala, the English teacher who had found her ‘fascinating’, the older boy in the mall parking lot, the multiple unsolicited DM-ers, the ex-best friend that violated her. Gradually, the shock began dripping from her and the wiry man being picked apart by snakes became a much easier sight to see.


It made Irum recall her morning tweezing routine and the cleansing sensation that would emerge from yanking out menacing, thick, loose hairs, even if it left a little blood. She observed quietly, moving closer and realising that the reason no sound had escaped the man’s mouth was because the girl’s thickest reptilian lock of hair had plunged itself down his throat. A strange, wicked satisfaction coursed through her veins.


He made further attempts to fight back, slapping and wallowing helplessly. He was probably already dying, in some way. Degenerating with every slice of meat and tissue she scooped out of him. He aimed lower this time, reaching weakly for her buttocks. Strands of bile had begun to coalesce in Irum’s throat when the girl turned around, her green necklace glowing fiercely. Gradually, she eased the snake from his throat and he sighed heavily in staggered breaths, as if his body had only just been able to register all the missing pieces. He stared at the ground, stupidly enraged. And then he looked up at her. “CHURAI– !”


Those were his last words. Or word. Or half word, really. A cold greyness overcame him, and his body—whatever was left of it—froze in place.


The girl bent down to pick up her scarf, then stood up slowly. The snakes coiled themselves gently into small curls. They seemed to settle so neatly onto her forehead, Irum almost wanted to reach out and stroke them. Blinking, she shoved the thought away and spoke: “Who are you?”


The girl said nothing in response, still facing the frozen man who was now eroding with the night wind. She began wrapping her hijab back around her head.


Irum lingered for a moment on every possible question to ask before deciding on a statement. “My name’s Irum.”


For what seemed like a lifetime, the girl reached into her kurti pocket and pulled out a small pin, using it to fix her headscarf in place. The habit had made her careful, her hands moving through the fabric with skilled precision. The jewel hanging from her neck had dulled, taking light only from passing cars. Finally, after Irum turned away, she spoke up for the first time in a low, dry voice. “Don’t turn around unless you want to get fried too.”


Irum heard the clicking of an opened lock, the aging creak of an old door, and then a small, soft pause before her final words.


“I’m Mahira.”


On the way home, Irum mouthed the name to herself like a question, puzzled at the cosmic significance of this chance encounter. Mahira—a grand myth had materialised and yet it was one she felt so intrinsically, so personally. It struck in waves past the surface of her skin and coloured, into her vast nothingness, a cool shade of emerald.


 


Pireh Moosa is a media student at IBA who loves reading, writing and anything musical. Her writing is inspired by the likes of Vandana Singh, Ocean Vuong, Elena Ferrante, Charlotte McConaghy, Rainbow Rowell, and many, many others, all of whom have changed her life.















Mubeen Arif wades his way through life with a pen and a paintbrush. He draws from the works and ideas of Sadequain, Egon Schiele, Madeline Miller, and several others. When he's not writing or painting, you'll find him drinking his coffee and being late for wherever he needs to be.

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