The following is an excerpt curated by digital guest editor Mina Malik from a short story first published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 2 (2018).
Banisbat’s hands do not shake as she yanks off the bib from under M3’s chin. Precious neck. How puzzled she had been at first, noting the absence of the part referenced by the most critical instruction: support the neck at all times.
She had supported the neck weeks after the baby could hold up her head. Starting three months, twelve days, logged. At four months, four days, she logged the first sound like Ma or Umma or Mum. Blinking straight into glowing amber eyes, thrice. Mumumum.
Three times makes it something. From a distant burn of memory, something fetches up. Triads. Triangles. Forms in triplicate. Ritual. Thrice a maulana asks; thrice they assent. Three loops of fire through which the prince jumps before he reaches the tower where the princess is held captive by a green ogre with yellow bowls of fire for eyes.
It hadn’t escaped her, the detail of the eyes. Why hadn’t they made her eyes brown or blue or even green? But she knew the answer without having to search. It would be too much like their own eyes. Then the little stab to the left, just above her waist, and she said it out loud. I am an ogre.
But softly she said it, and only after the twins were asleep. They have unpredictable memories, she’d been warned by her Training Assistant. Untrainable heads, untameable mouths. Not like us. They record every word they hear, especially words denied, ugly pictures and bits of video. The fleetingest look and their minds claw around the thing, sucking it up like a drop of dew in the desert and spitting it out when it is most likely to get you into trouble.
She was cautious. She had been decommissioned before although she has no memory of it. Still, she didn’t like the idea of being decommissioned. What had she done?
It has been scraped off and a barren cell has formed along one of her memory radials. This is her only clue that she had been returned, refurbished, sent out again. Good as new. Only one barren cell marking irregular behaviour.
From leisure searches, she has gleaned that the word barren refers to a field where nothing can grow. One way to render a field barren is to heap salt on the soil. A woman who cannot bear a child used to be called barren, but the word is classified archaic and considered rude in its last few decades of recorded usage. There were synonyms. Infertile. Then they stopped describing the woman. Records only mentioned fertility assistance. Women helped each other. Some were reimbursed for the time and trouble as the process was external, lengthy and potentially debilitating.
Searching for barren had created the illusion of an oblong pool forming on her midriff, below her button, above the fork of her lower limbs. Something that felt moist to the touch, though nobody could see or touch it, of course. She had deleted the memory of this pool. Also, the memory of the bedtime story about the ogre with fire eyes.
The story was from the time when M1 and M2 were still her charges and she was assigned additional bedtime duty, Master M being preoccupied. He never said, of course, what his projects were. He never said anything, except “come here” and “you may leave”. Not even when doing irregular things. Little things. Not things that would extract a fine. Master showing his parts to a Home Assistant was irregular but not reportable. However, ideally, for such things, they were supposed to get another Assistant, one appropriately suited and equipped.
Banisbat is not supposed to know about that sort of Assistant. The information hasn’t been fed in, but she once saw an Assistant with three apertures along its collar in the park where she used to take M1 and M2. They had asked who that was and she had run a leisure search to answer them. She had to tell them that the information was blocked for under-13s.
She knows many more things now, things she wasn’t fed. There was little to do except run leisure searches. Eleven years of searching and she’s run out of memory radials. She now has only one radial clear plus twenty-three percent on another radial. But she has been clever. She searched deep and found a way of fudging the charts in case Master M checked her drives. It wasn’t hard. She only had to flip the colour codes so that one radial and twenty-three percent of another showed up red and the rest showed up white. Practically empty at a glance.
Banisbat now knows empty has multiple meanings. The absence of data on radials. The absence of water in a glass. The absence of M1 and M2 on lap, shoulders, arms. The absence of their brown eyes searching her amber ones, especially when they made a request they knew she would have to turn down. The absence of clattery sounds in the kitchen when they returned from social activities outside her supervision. The absence of clothing in laundry baskets. The absence of morning, afternoon, bedtime duty. She understood empty.
Even though her head and torso were disconnected before she was stuffed into the storeroom, her belly felt like the inside of an oven. She used to worry about her midsection. There were times she wished it would melt down. Most days, however, she wanted to stay intact. And when at last she was taken out of storage, Banisbat wondered if some wiring had not melted after all for she found that she did not want a new charge.
Master M had reached into the belly of womanhood and taken a share of it. He had gotten himself a womb without foregoing his seed. He was father and mother both, and now Banisbat was dusted off, her parts locked into place, reactivated. Diapers, feeding bottles, one hand under the neck. Brown eyes locked upon her ogre own. Then the first word. Umma or Mum. Three times.
People used to bow three times before royalty. People say a line of prayer three times. Third-time lucky. Trinity. Third eye. Banisbat had no experience of ritual, barring the ritual of being thrice tested by the agent who delivered her here. She has witnessed rituals though. After Master M printed out his womb and had it filled, he had a baby shower. Then there was a naming ceremony where Master M had a picture taken of himself and M3 in matching lace-trimmed white caps, printed it on postcards and sent the news out saying that he had searched far and wide for a mate that would become the half that completes him, but that this has been the true quest after all. Flesh of my flesh and blood of my blood, and mine alone.
When M3 first said it, Mumumum, Master M was not in the room. She said it lying in Banisbat’s arms. And not just the first time. Not just a second, fourth or seventh time. Each time, in her arms.
The brand of mumumum burnt Banisbat. She was seized with the notion of grabbing her charge and squeezing her so hard the ribs cracked and a shard of broken bone went clean into the infant’s heart. A pierced purplish-pink organ is pictured clear in her drive, as if it came from a body scan. She does not know where the picture came from. An old leisure search? She burnt it off at once, but it returns often. A heart pierced with a shattered rib. She has not burnt away the latest memory of its return as a dream. She has not been conditioned for either sleep or dream.
She has revisited radial one and the core tenets.
Annie Zaidi is the author of Prelude to a Riot, Gulab, Love Stories #1 to 14 and Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, and the editor of Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing. She was awarded the Nine Dots Prize in 2019 for innovative thinking and The Hindu Playwright Award in 2018 for her play Untitled 1. Another short story of hers, ‘Heartless’, was featured in our fourth volume (2020).
About the featured artist: Yasir Waqas was born in Quetta, Pakistan, and graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 2013. He specialised in miniature painting and is currently based in Lahore. While growing up, learning the dynamics of airplanes and the details of mechanical engines was something that interested him. After becoming a GPL-certified pilot and a CAA authorised aircraft mechanic, he somehow felt limited and constrained, and a contradictory conflict grew within him. This led to a haze of confusion, clash of ideas and flight from certain circumstances. His work deals with compromises and conflicts between ideas innate and implanted, and the resulting damage to one’s personality and the idea itself. The featured artwork is gouache, silver and gold leaf, with 14 layers of wasli, and was exhibited at the artist's solo show at Rohtas 2 Gallery, Lahore.