The following is an excerpt from flash fiction originally published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 4 (2020).
Off Qumber went, school bag on his back, water bottle hanging around his neck, in pursuit of answers. As he followed the address, the streets became gloomier, the people fewer and the place stranger. He thought of turning back, as fear slowly crept up his tender spine, but he immediately changed his mind. “I can’t keep coming back with all this weight on my shoulders,” he thought, as he fixed the straps of his backpack.
After a series of serpentine streets, he came to an open field, with nothing but a peepal tree in the far distance and behind it a thick forest. And there it was, scarier than the boy had described it. Keep walking.
As he went closer, he saw a faint shadow of a man under the tree. Keep walking, dammit.
Reached. He stood under the tree, facing the ancient trunk, and felt droplets of sweat forming on his forehead before streaming down. There was no man, just a dark shadow, taking ambiguous shapes. Qumber gripped his straps tighter.
“Who sent you here,” a voice came from the deepest branches of the tree.
“My friend. His mother has also been here,” replied Qumber, hesitantly.
“Who is it?”
“Come back tomorrow, same time. It will be arranged.”
This was Qumber’s cue. He turned back and tried not to run. He didn’t want to seem weak to whatever entity he had just communicated with. And with moist eyes and an audible heartbeat, he walked till he entered a street from where the peepal tree was no longer visible. And then he ran.
The night was sleepless and school terribly slow. Qumber felt surprised at his strong intent and brave heart, both of which were brand new. As the bells rang, he collected his belongings, all the weight on his shoulders per usual, and began the journey.
He reached the peepal tree and waited for the voice to give further instructions.
“Walk into the forest and keep walking till you come across another peepal tree. It will be much smaller than the ones surrounding it. Stand in front of it and begin your questions.”
Qumber briskly walked beneath the thick canopies, keeping his gaze straight. He was deep into the forest when he saw it; there was, strangely, no uncertainty.
“Babi?” he hesitantly asked.
“Babi?” once more, a little more earnestly.
Nushmiya Sukhera is a writer and journalist based in Lahore. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Columbia Journalism School.
About the featured artist: Mahnoor Malik is a visual artist and illustrator from the National College of Arts, Lahore. Using fantasy as a muse, she creates illustrations often inspired by children’s stories. Within them she incorporates her own narrative of exploration using her astronaut characters. Mahnoor looks at life as an explorer venturing through the depths of reality and imagination.