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Chaudhwin ki Churailain

Updated: Feb 9

A coven of witches resist an oppressive regime in this short fiction by Mahnoor Fatima, with artwork from Laila Rahman.


Layla sits on a tree stump, her face worn out, her hair greasy and muddy. Surrounding her stand seven other women of similar age and proportion, their hair tied up in a bun and covered with a pointed, rose-gold hat. Layla looks to each of them and sighs, knowing she has let them down. She believed she could pull it off this time; she believed she could hex the moon. The rose-gold hats tip towards her as she slowly pushes herself off the ground and stretches her arms. Scratches and burns cover the skin on her long neck, bruises where other women wore pendants. A delicate chain surrounds her neck, and dips into the bruise just above her bare chest. She had discarded her clothing a few hours before the time of the hex, and they lay to the side; muddy like her.


One of the rose-gold women walks up to her and stretches out a hand. Layla nods. The woman grabs her arms and pulls her up, brushing aside the dirt that covers every inch of Layla’s body. The woman shakes her head.


“You’re mad,” she says, “you really are.”


“Shakila,” Layla smiles, her chuckle ending in a painful sigh, “I know.”


The Invisible Men have never shown their faces to the population. They also discourage any attempt at describing their appearances; what is important is that they are in power. Imagination and questions are met with punishment

Shakila takes out the leaves and twigs from her hair and casts them away. Picking up Layla’s clothes from the ground, she begins brushing the dirt off them when another rose-gold woman steps forward. She raises her hand and motions for Shakila for stop, then asks to be given the clothes. Shakila obliges. The woman sniffs them once, then begins undressing herself. Layla claps and squeals with childish delight.


“Mona,” Layla sticks her chin out. “Make me proud.”


Mona smiles. She keeps her rose-gold hat on, walking over to stand next to Layla. The five other women stare at both of them.


“Oh, come now,” Layla beckons to them. “Are you going to keep me waiting all night?”


Three other women step forward. They begin undressing themselves. Most of them wear a simple robe; Shakila and one other woman wear a light shalwar kameez. Shakila looks to the two other women. They nod. Shakila rips apart her kameez, being very careful to keep the hat on her head. The other women follow her lead.


“Brilliant!” Layla slaps her thigh. “I love you more than I love my broomstick!”


*


The Invisible Men talk to the people through their wires. There are speakers around the city, facilitating announcements. No one is excused for having 'missed’ an announcement— it is physically impossible to do so. The Invisible Men have never shown their faces to the population. They also discourage any attempt at describing their appearances; what is important is that they are in power. Imagination and questions are met with punishment. There is always too much to be done, anyway, for any normal person to have time to wonder. It feels like the world is always delicately balanced on the brink of its own death, and yet never seems to die completely.

                                   

*


Layla walked through an old alleyway, trying to keep her footsteps as quiet as possible. Frequently glancing furtively around her after every five minutes, she jumped from one step to the other in an attempt to move quickly. A metal door shone in the distance. Neon signs lit up the rectangular doorway, the only source of light in the dingy pathway that led to it. Layla seemed unbothered by the muddy pools of water she kept walking over. She was intent on reaching the metal door.


The door was locked. Layla sighed. She looked around, narrowing her eyes and trying to look for someone. A key fell to her feet. She bent her neck to the back and sharply looked to the window two storeys above the metal door. Another key then hurtled towards her; it hit her on the neck and disappeared. Layla shuddered.


She raised her palm and pressed it against the cold metal. A light whizzing sound flooded her ears, and she saw herself standing in a room darker than the alleyway she had come from. She heard the metal door shut behind her. There was a sinister aura in the air. Layla took out a tiny bottle from her pocket and began to pour the contents around the room. Suddenly, the lights turned on.


“Stop playing with me, Sunny.” She rolled her eyes and tried to suppress a smile, but failed. A tall, bearded man stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her. His tense shoulders softened, and his face eased into a smile itself.


“I’m so glad you’re alive.” He said. “We were worried you had been abducted—or, worse, shot at.”


“I was almost shot at,” Layla said with pursed lips, “but I survived. My memory is still intact. They can’t do anything to me.”


Sunny shook his head and looked to his feet. Behind him, the wall was covered in posters. Most of them had been scribbled over, with lines from famous movies, verses from The Crow, the mysterious anti-establishment poet from the past, and a few doodles. The posters overlapped each other, with some torn off and joined together like pieces of a puzzle.


BROOMY 3480 – JUST THE BROOM FOR YOU!

Introducing the BroomMaster 1275

We know what YOU want, we know how YOU survive

Place a call and see your BroomMaster flying to your window!

Witches have itches and we have the stitches!

Order our Broomanga NOW for discounted offer


Layla looked at the posters, running her finger over them and laughing at the comments her friends had left under each one of them. Most of those friends had been lost to the shooting. She sighed.


Sunny turned around and began walking up the stairs he came from, not a single sound escaping his quiet feet. He walked ahead, looking over his shoulder once to see if Layla was following him. Layla caressed the wooden bannister as she slowly glided behind him, inhaling the musky scent of the building. A tear escaped her eye. She wiped it away, swallowing once.


The top of the staircase opened into a wide area. The floorboards on this floor creaked slightly, and some had been replaced with metal slabs. A group of young men and women sat in the far corner of the space, trying to make the most of the wind coming through a broken window. They seemed to be arguing. A cat softly wrapped herself around their legs and slithered in and out of the group, meowing at anyone who gave her attention. Layla smiled at the familiarity of the scene. She was home.


“All I’ve been saying is,” one of the women raised her hands and opened her eyes wide, “witches are not an industrial commodity. This is stupid. First they glamourise the unicorn horn and create the perfect dildo, now they try to make profit off witches. And we know why they’re doing it!”


“Do educate us, Ayesha!” Layla called out as she made her way to the group and found herself a space to sit. Sunny sat opposite to her and winked once.


“Why did they commercialise the unicorn? To make people believe that the unicorn is a myth. They started making money off ‘fairy wings' to try and prove they never existed. And now this. We are not a myth.”


“Preach!” A young man shouted. His bald head reflected light from the one light bulb that hung in the room.


“Ayesha,” Layla started, “I don’t know if it is like that. Witches have been prosecuted, as have other religious people. They recognise our existence; they just don’t want it.”


“Layla,” Ayesha sat straighter to look Layla in the eye, placing her hand on Layla’s knee. “It runs deeper than that and you know it.”


Layla looked at Ayesha and caught her breath. Something about Ayesha’s eyes always made her dizzy. She pulled away and looked for the cat.


“Ayesha,” another man laughed, “you need to stop casting your spells on her, bechari. Look at her state!”


“I’m not doing anything”, Ayesha went back to her place, “but you can’t change my mind on this one. Bionic broom? Bionic my butt.”


"I’d certainly like that.” Layla whispered. Ayesha chuckled and threw a broken piece of wood at her.


“It is what it is.” Ayesha continued, her tone more serious than before, “First they turned the Lascaux caves into a holiday resort, then they made holiday resorts that looked like the caves. Then they took over the temple of Solomon that was uncovered and turned it into a visual arts school. They converted Vatican City into a psychiatric facility. Jerusalem is called the birthplace of physical enlightenment—because of the crown of thorns piercing into our skulls and gushing forth a new intellectual atmosphere. Don’t you see? They’re turning everything that supports a different belief into something that corresponds to their beliefs, so they can profit off it and nobody raises any questions.”


“Ayesha,” Sunny raised an eyebrow, “how do you know all of this is true?”


“Sunny, don’t you play that card. We were not born last Thursday. These memories are not false. It all happened. The history books are hidden, but they still exist. Civilisation did exist before the year 3500—why do you think our schoolbooks never go further back than 3500?”


“Because we hadn’t evolved into the humans we are now before then?”


A man shook his head, “Ayesha, look, I know they are after us. Why do you think we hide out in this junk every once in a while? But it’s really not that deep, yar.”


“We had evolved! That’s them trying to tell us that 3500 was the year we perfected the human body, which led us to create other species. How we made the earth a better place to live. That’s not true. There is history, you guys, but with history comes art. And art is illegal.”


The room went quiet. Layla sighed and thought about everything Ayesha had just said. Her brain felt like an elastic band—she couldn’t digest a lot of what had been said. If she was right and they were trying to confuse anyone who thought otherwise, then a lot of things would make sense. Why did some people randomly start humming a tune even though it was a biological defect? Was humming a threat to their power? Was humming—she dared to think—art?


Wahid IV by Laila Rahman (2018; etching and aquatint)

Layla clapped her hands once and stood up. She looked at all the people sitting there—the young men and women who have vowed to practice witchcraft despite the fatal consequences that it could bring. She smiled at them all.


“I do have some news that could support Ayesha’s claims,” she said, leaning towards her audience, “I was going through the data we collected last time we had such a plan, and you will never guess what I found.”


“What?” Sunny’s eyes danced in anticipation. Layla was the sister he would forever be grateful for.


“I found some very weird coded text”, she explained, “so I traced it. And I found websites— there was one called X, and although I did not really understand what it really was, I found analyses written on it by the likes of people like the Crow. I thought it was just a social site, like the ones we have today, to talk to other people, but there were anonymous people who used this website and even spoke against whoever was in power.”


“Wait—people could be anonymous on this website?” Ayesha smiled and sat up straight.


“Yes!” Layla nodded animatedly, “and this was dated way before 3500. So, while I’m not sure about the historical sites and all the things you mentioned, I am very certain people existed and were not as intellectually dumb as we like to think of them.”


“I knew it!” Ayesha threw a punch into the air, “Layla, my people-net genius, I love you with all my heart.”


“But what do we do about this information?”


One of the men spoke up, “We can never be anonymous. It’s not something that’s possible anymore, even if it was in the ancient times.”


“Azi,” Ayesha smiled, “it means we’re not wrong. It means there have always been sane people, people who knew they had to speak out for change. We will do just that.”


“How?” Sunny asked.


“We will hex the moon.” Layla announced. “This our time to shine.”


“Hex the moon?” Sunny gasped. “That’s one of the most hypnotic spells I have ever read about!”


“We need to take the people out of the trance of the powers of the state,” Ayesha rubbed her palms together, “the only way we can remind people of their nature is by showing them an alternate way.”


“I always said structural polytheism made the most sense,” Azi chuckled. “We’re about to destroy the single, stable stream of thought that rules the world. We are about to offer people a chance at democracy—or even just the right to an opinion.”


“That’s absolutely right”, Layla clapped her hands once and squealed, “once the moon shows up in a range of colours it hasn’t been seen in before, people will know they’re not insane for thinking differently to those in power.”


“When do we meet again?” One of the women asked. “In a month,” Ayesha said. “Mona, we have lots to do, now, don’t we? I think we have a chance now.”


“The Chaudhwin ki Churailian will finally strike!” Mona declared.



*


Layla set up her things in a clearing outside the city. It was an abandoned place. They decided years ago that areas burned because of radioactive testing would not harm the nearby population: medical sciences had taken care of most humanly problems. The sites that had fallen victim to the testing, however, could not be used. There was too much energy that radiated from the ground, and even this evolved race of humans could not stay there for more than a few hours without falling ill. The witches had decided this was the only place strong enough for them to practice their spells.


Mona and Azi set up another circle near Layla’s, and were busy reading the instructions Ayesha had set down to make the perfect hexing circle. Sunny and Shakila were busy with another circle. Layla looked up at the sky, at the full moon that would fall victim to their plan. Surrounding the clearing were bits of broken buildings, with a few charred animals lying on the ground.


“Rodents are stupid,” Layla broke the silence as she lit a small fire in the middle of her circle. “If we created them, why did they not know better than to try and live in a place like this?”


“You’re talking too loud.” Sunny murmured. He went around all the circles and checked to see if everyone had followed the right instructions. Satisfied, he walked to where Layla stood and grabbed her in a hug.


“You need to stop hugging me all the time.” Layla complained. Sunny laughed and let her go. He reached into his rucksack and pulled out a rose-gold hat with a pointed top. Layla took it from him and placed it gently on top of her head. Rose-gold was her favourite colour.


Sunny took out another and put it on. The clan slowly began to look like a proper cult. Ayesha arrived on her BroomMaster, flying in and snatching Sunny’s hat to place it over her own head. Sunny stomped his foot on the floor. Layla put her arm around him in a half-hug and smiled.


Ayesha landed in the center of Layla’s circle, nodding approvingly at her handiwork. She took off Sunny’s hat and returned it.


“Now we begin the hex,” Ayesha announced. “Everyone, let’s get our brooms started. Hopefully we’re not caught before the deed has been accomplished.”


Layla and Sunny walked over to their circles and picked up their BroomMasters. Holding them horizontally, they slid over the stick and waited for the BroomMasters to start hovering. Layla looked around at her friends; this could go very wrong.


The witches slowly began to fly around the circumference of their circles, gaining more speed with each turn. In a silent offering to the moon, they closed their eyes and trusted the energies of the universe to guide their sticks around the attractor points they had set up. The fires inside their circles slowly begin to grow higher and higher, enveloping the witches from above and creating a canopy that shaded them from the moonlight.


Layla felt her elastic head spin. Trying to take control of herself before she crashed into the fire, she opened her eyes and realized something had gone wrong. There were tiny discs flying towards them, and she saw the Invisible Men slowly pierce through the canopy. Layla let out a scream, ducking beneath the canopy and flying away from the site. She heard shooting. She did not look back.


*


Layla watches the other women undress, and realizes that this would be the last of the witch coven on earth. She sees a tear roll down Shakila’s cheeks. Reaching out to wipe it off, she feels Shakila’s hand pushing her away from it. She feels her heart break a little.


“Let me cry, Layla,” she smiles, “what other way of expression do I really have?”


Layla nods and backs away. She flexes her left hand and traces the prominent blue veins that run across her dirty skin, the skin she desperately wishes she could shed off and give away to the flames that were supposed to hex the moon. The Chaudhwin ki Churailian would never again be spoken of, nobody would know their names, nobody would care to research into their matter. Art was illegal, and so was history. Layla sighs.


The other witches finally stand in front of her, naked except for the rose-gold hats that adorn their heads. They had all escaped the hexing circle attack. They had all been a part of something greater, but had failed, and now there was only one way out.


Layla picks up her BroomMaster. She bends down to dig into the pile of clothes she has thrown to one side of the tree clump, gradually standing up with a flask in her hand. A black bottle, with vines etched into the glass, the flask glows in the moonlight. Layla gently twists open the top, then pours a little amount of the salve out onto her broomstick. She hands the bottle to Shakila.


Shakila stares at her. She opens her mouth once, then shuts it tight. Taking the flask from one of her dearest friends, she sighs once and nods to her. Layla nods back. Imitating Layla’s movements, she, too, applies some of the salve to her broomstick. A shudder runs down her spine. The flask goes from one witch to the other, until they all hold broomsticks covered in the salve from Layla’s flask.


“So, witches.” Layla laughs weakly. “Are we ready to fly?”


“What did you apply this time?”


“A very light dose of Deadly Nightshade.”


Shakila inhales slowly. She knows what Layla means when she says ‘light’. She begins to place the stick between her legs, watching the others do the same. As the BroomMaster whirs to action, hovering just beneath their torsos, Layla looks to the moon once and lets out a scream. Shakila looks at her and laughs, screaming out loud herself. The other witches follow their lead, waiting for them to be heard. Layla wipes away another tear, then looks to the sky.


“Witches!” She shouts.“We did it!”


The moon is slowly going red, the craters adopting a more a bluish tone and spreading a purple hue to the rest of the celestial object. A rainbowed haze surrounds the satellite. Layla can feel her brain relaxing; she knows she hasn’t failed entirely. She lowers herself onto her broom, feeling the stick fit snugly between her legs.


“I love you.” Layla looks to all of them. “We won.”


The witches slowly begin to doze off, their BroomMasters feeling the weight dragging downwards and following their leads. They get off their brooms and lie down on the bare ground, the dirt sticking to their sweating bodies. Layla regrets giving up their lives and depriving the world of their magic, but as her head leans against a rock, contentment rolls over her in waves. And just before she closes her eyes to the world, she can swear she’s flying to the moon, fighting for the colours to stay.



 



Mahnoor Fatima is an architect and author from Lahore, Pakistan currently based in Austin, Texas. She was shortlisted for the South Asian Literati Award 2019, and has since written for multiple architectural magazines. Mahnoor enjoys experimenting with different forms of writing, particularly merging fictional history with architectural fiction, and is working on launching her own design magazine.






Laila Rahman works in both the disciplines of Painting and Printmaking. She has been a student at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design, London; the Slade School of Fine Art, London; and the prestigious National College of Arts where she teaches at the Department of Fine Arts. She was awarded a Fulbright Award in 2010, which she spent at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA, ending the year with a solo exhibition. Her work is in the House of Commons Permanent Collection, London; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Cartwright Hall, Bradford; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA; the Permanent Collection of the National College of Arts and in private collections in Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe, India, Pakistan, Turkey, United Kingdom and USA.

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