It was Needle who first suggested robbing the Orangutan’s treasury. We were huddled under the tin-sheet roof of a roadside dhaba, stained china cups of chaisteaming between cupped palms, safe from the falling hail. It clattered noisily above us, bouncing off the roof and peppering the ground around our feet. We had nothing to fear from the hail, though, other than a few bruises. Snow was a different matter. But it hadn’t snowed in Karachi for a decade.
I gulped down the last of the tea, relishing the burning path it stole down my gullet, and stuffed gloved hands into the pockets of my jacket. Needle followed suit, yanking the hood of her oversized hoodie, with ‘SUTTA-CHAI-WI-FI’ emblazoned vertically down its front, over indecently blue hair. True to the slogan, she pulled out a joint, her own configuration of hash and weed, and lit it. An ember against the darkening sky. I held out my fingers, eager for a whiff that could dull the constant deluge of other people’s emotions.
“It won’t be complicated.” A plume of smoke engulfed her mouth when she spoke and then faded away into ghostly tendrils. Needle had hatched this harebrained plan before, years ago. It had been slightly more palatable then. We had been younger, and stupider. And we had been trying to save a friend’s life. That friend was dead now.
“Robbing the head of state’s personal museum of artifacts won’t be complicated?” I scoffed. Distress, smothered by rage, radiated off her in waves. My emotions plummeted to my feet. “We’re not children anymore, Needle,” I said, gentler this time. “We don’t need to stoop to thievery to handle our lives.”
“So you’re willing to go through with it then? Marriage to your own personal tormentor for life?”
She wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t that my betrothed was a difficult person; it was just that any person was too difficult for me. I clenched my hands into fists, harder than usual because I couldn’t feel it in Needle’s presence, my nails leaving little crescents in my palms. Needle winced.
“You’ll end up like Tsuzumi.” She spat the words out in the reflexive anger that comes with sudden pain. An image darted across my mind like the impression of a bright light on closed eyelids. Tsuzumi, racing across the hospital roof, dismantled IV tubing fluttering behind her like a ripped cape, and leaping off the edge. Emotions that I kept sealed carefully away roared free, engulfing my already-tenuous mind. I shuddered to my knees. Needle caught me.
Everything started with Tsuzumi. Well, to be fair, it started the day my five-year-old self caught a snowflake on the tip of my tongue and received a resounding slap from Amma.
When the clouds had first drifted in, purple like bloated corpses, the entire neighborhood had spilled out onto the street in excitement. The monsoon rain flooded our narrow, drainless streets every year, and turned our neighborhoods into murky approximations of the swimming pools we could not otherwise afford. It was customary to spend the season waist-deep in cold water, dodging electrical cables slung low across pylons, and then slink out, shivering like wet dogs, to splay ourselves on flat bungalow roofs for a blissful sleep, despite the black-out, under starry skies. The excitement only escalated when the first flakes that drifted down turned out to be snow instead of rain. We watched, delighted, as the flurry picked up pace and descended in a curtain of angelic white. Until a snowflake landed on a person.
It touched Rashida, the child who cleaned Sonia Aunty’s house—her own parents too poor to house her. She shrieked in pain and collapsed to the ground, writhing like a cockroach that had been stepped on. We watched Rashida’s employers flinch away from her grasping fingers as the paramedics hauled her away, her legs dragging uselessly behind her.
A couple of weeks later, Needle held a placard up to her bedroom window neighboring mine. EAT THE SNOW. The horror of Rashida’s fate had faded to a mild echo by then, and I would not be the coward who refused a dare. I tiptoed out into the verandah, stuck my tongue out and caught a falling snowflake. The slap from Amma was the immediate repercussion. The shape of the snowflake came later, blooming on my upper arm, obscuring the dent of a childhood vaccination.
My fate was different, but no better, than Rashida’s. She lost something she needed. I gained something I did not want. The collective emotional pain of everyone in a one-mile radius was mine to bear. I was a cell pulling the emotions of others like water through osmosis. I could make people feel better—at my own expense.
Needle followed my example, sneaking out into the snowy garden once her parents were asleep, out of a mixture of guilt and a rebellious refusal to be left behind. It took us years to find the others. I found Bullet when he helped me bunk a class, and Stellar when she helped me pass one. Needle found Tsuzumi, crying in the corner of the school courtyard. As far as we knew we were the only five who had these symbiotic houseguests, courtesy of the falling snow, without suffering an obvious physical handicap. We bore the unseen side-effects.
Tsuzumi’s predicament was the most apparent. It was impossible not to notice her throbbing larger in anger, dwarfing the rest of us. And everytime her anger faded she was left a little bit larger, a little bit extraordinary. Pehlwan, the rest of the school called her. A hulking giant. Tsuzumi’s eyes were perpetually swollen in the aftermath of tears. Though the aunties lifted their manicured nails across their mouths when they spoke, their words were barbs meant to reach Tsuzumi’s ears.
“Seventeen years old, and already so huge? No marriage prospects.”
“It’s all the creamy food her mom feeds her. I mean, if my daughter looked like that, I’d consult a dietician right away!”
“Chalo, that sallow brown complexion is something she was born with, but her weight is not beyond her control!”
The danger of these voices grew very real the day we found Tsuzumi with a bottle of pills. We coaxed her to be rational but we knew we needed to find a permanent fix. That was when Needle first announced the heist she was planning.
“Wouldn’t therapy be easier?” I suggested.
“Well sure, if we want to give my mom a panic attack.” Tsuzumi glowered. “She doesn’t want to add crazy to the list of reasons the rishta aunties have for finding me unsuitable.”
Needle sighed and pushed away from the wall, arms crossed across her chest. She slapped a newspaper, which showed the Orangutan cutting a ribbon around an exhibit at his museum, onto the table.
“Snow made us the way we are. And he made the snow.” She jabbed a finger at the Orangutan’s pixelated suit.
At the skeptical looks on our faces, Needle urged, “All the taxpayer money that we don’t see translating into good infrastructure—where do you think it goes? To fund all his pet projects.”
We watched, perplexed, as Needle pulled several crumpled tissues and assorted coins out of her pocket. They clattered onto the table. She smoothed out a cutting from an older newspaper.
We craned our necks to peer at the smudged writing.
GATEWAY TO A NEW WORLD
Yesterday, the GoP applauded the Ministry of Science and Technology for their groundbreaking discovery. Earlier this year, the ministry had announced a new project of utmost secrecy which generated a lot of excitement and speculation. It now appears that this project has been a success. On the surface, it seemed no different than the many other tree planting drives that have been undertaken over recent years to restore the species that have been decimated due to climate change. However, the GoP has now released an official statement that this project is far more promising—a genetic experiment that could enhance our future. As quoted by the Head of State,
“This is no ordinary tree. This tree could be our salvation in a world that, everyday, spins closer to the apocalypse. As soon as we can get some side-effects of its existence under control—this will be our gateway to a new world.”
Needle looked triumphant. I felt angry. I glanced at Bullet and saw that his hands were curled into fists.
“A fraction of the resources he pours into this nonsense could change this city for the better,” he muttered. Needle ignored him.
“This article was published two days before the snow began to fall. That snow came from somewhere else, and this tree will lead us there.”
She sketched out a questionable plan that seemed perfectly plausible to our teenage minds. We left that day, elated at the thought that we would be a family of runaways. But as I walked further away from my friends and closer to the painted iron gate of my father’s bungalow, my excitement was smothered by a waiting dread. It wasn’t a new emotion, this dread, it was always there—stretched taut between the clacking of my mother’s bangles as she kneaded roti in the kitchen and the shadow of my father sitting in the armchair, awaiting his dinner. But today, it was sharper. I steeled myself as I opened the front door. And yet, it was like plunging my head into a basin of water. Rage and fear beat an incoherent tattoo against my ear drums. The swell of emotion was so potent, it momentarily blinded me. I stood there, arms stretched out, gasping for breath amidst a flurry of impressions.
First, a rising irritation as the wheels of the suitcase Amma was dragging squeaked across the newly tiled floor. Then, the sharp pain of hair parting scalp as my father yanked Amma backwards by her hair. And then the pathetic fear, before he crushed her body against the wall. I crawled across the floor towards the dock where I knew the cordless phone was charging. 1-5. My thumb roved over the keypad, finding the numbers, and then I fell back onto the floor, splayed like a snow angel. It was ages before the police arrived. And even then, it took my father’s grudging consent for them to carry mine and Amma’s prone bodies to the hospital. Three days later I woke up in a frenzy. Stellar and Bullet were by my bedside. They had waited for me.
“Tsuzumi’s in ward 231. We couldn’t stop her this time.” Bullet told me. She had overdosed. I tried to visit her that night, dragging my IV pole behind me, but she wasn’t in her room. I followed the faint pulse of her sadness and witnessed her plunge off the hospital roof.
I could see the clouds from the kitchen window, tectonic plates of smog drifting to and and fro, cloaking the sky. The snow had stopped a decade ago but the clouds had never left. They were a constant threat hovering above us. People were used to them now. Our lives had resumed their routines. Our eyes had grown accustomed to the shielded dimness of the once blazing Karachi sunlight.
“And here on the next float comes Vizier Azam… this year’s parade is so blessed to be graced with his presence…”
The noise from the television set drifted into the kitchen as I sliced the crust off the sandwiches for Amma’s dinner. The backs of my hands, moving up and down in tune with the knife, were webbed with translucent, fern-shaped snowflakes as if someone was replacing the inner circuitry of my veins with LEDs. This was a recent phenomenon. Before this, the snowflake on my upper arm had been my only marking.
I imagined the Orangutan swinging his huge, hairy arms as he strode from one end of the float to the other. The Orangutan always found something to celebrate, even when the economic upheaval of his misguided policies left thousands of his countrymen hungering on the streets.
I carried the plate of sandwiches outside and found Amma asleep on the couch she pulled up too close to the TV. Strings of drool connected her parted lips to the arm of the sofa. I placed the plate onto the foldable plastic TV table just as someone rapped sharply on the front door. The rapping continued frantically in the five steps it took me to reach the front door.
“Stellar?” I didn’t have to ask what was wrong. My friend stood hunched on the doorstep with one hideous black eye.
“I’m sorry to startle you like this, Fern,” Stellar wept, and winced. “I just didn’t know where else to go. I know we haven’t been in touch for years, and I knew Amin would never think of looking for me here.”
I was uncomfortable. The flat Amma and I shared was hardly presentable. But Stellar’s fear throbbed inside me, raw and oppressive. I couldn’t turn her away.
“He had an affair… when I confronted him he said I haven’t taken care of myself, haven’t aged gracefully. But you know that’s not my fault, don’t you, Fern?” Stellar pleaded.
Stellar’s particular tendencies drained appearance, talent, and sensation from her, and leaked it into the people around her. She was a perennial giver. It left her gray with use, like a wrung out washcloth. But that wasn’t why this wasn’t her fault.
“I don’t know what to do, Fern. I’m scared.”
My mind pulsed with Stellar’s fear. I fumbled my keys from the shelf and pulled my gloves onto my hands. Thankfully, the clouds kept the weather cold enough that my choice of clothing would not elicit raised eyebrows. I could feel Stellar’s tearful gaze trained on my face but I did not meet it. I had survived this long by evading emotions that threatened to engulf me. That’s all I was good at anymore.
“Let’s go find Needle.”
We found Needle at a half-constructed building in the budding, reclaimed, neighbourhood of Phase 9. She was crouching in a corner, under a sack cloth blanket, her body covered in blisters. The healthy homeless around her were guilty and concerned. My own anger dwarfed the emotions around me, for once. I pushed past everyone and crouched next to Needle’s prone form.
“Hey, Fern.” Needle cracked an eyelid and gave me a smile filled with yellowing teeth. “Are you here to tell me you’re onboard with my plan?”
Stellar joined me, squatting near the foul-smelling pallet that was Needle’s current home.
“Stellar!” Needle pushed the blankets away with weak fingers and flung her arms around her bruised friend. “Did Fern find you and tell you I’m restarting the plan?”
I noticed the needle-shaped snowflakes scattered across the back of her hand, like light leaking from expert cuts of a knife. Maybe Stellar had them too, hidden beneath the foundation that usually hid the rest of her scars.
“No.” Stellar’s fingers fluttered over her black eye, highlighting it in an attempt to hide it.
“Oh.” Needle’s expression grew somber, and her right eye began to pucker and welt in shades of blue as the bruising on Stellar’s eye grew faint. Soon, they were two halves of a reflection.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to inflict this on you with everything else you’re bearing,” Stellar apologized.
“No, we’re sorry, Stellar.” Needle’s eyes, one larger than the other, glared at me. “That we’ve let another friend suffer this long.”
“Needle, this is absurd! We’re adults! You want to escape? Get on a fucking airplane!”
“To be smothered somewhere else? No, thank you.”
“Getting a fake exit visa would be easier than a heist,” Stellar ventured, and earned herself a glare from Needle.
“You don’t even know what you’re trying to steal.” I curbed my exasperation and sank onto the floor beside Needle. “Listen, when Amma and I left home, I got in touch with this guy who has contacts at NADRA. He got us National IDs that helped us live a life away from … my father. We could reach out to him and get tickets and visas out of here. I know people living better, freer, lives abroad.” We all knew aunts, uncles, and distant relatives, fleeing from collapsing companies or accusations of blasphemy, reappearing on Instagram to show off manicured backyards framed by dollhouses in places where snow wasn’t something to be afraid of.
“No.” Needle gritted her teeth. “Blending into a crowd isn’t the same as belonging.”
Stellar had become too timid to lend me any strength, and Needle’s self-righteous determination was a battering ram on my fragile senses. I hung my head, pressing the bridge of my nose with a thumb and forefinger to ease the stabbing pain Needle was sending my way.
“Fine. But we need Bullet. He’s the only one of us who can do anything useful.” I sighed, “And my plan acts as our failsafe.” I took Needle’s battered old Nokia and thumbed the ID guy’s number into her contacts.
Bullet, the fastest one of us, got his first stroke at the age of nineteen. His jingoistic parents didn’t realize the correlation between his unnatural ability and his illness. They encouraged him to become an engineer, if not a soldier, in the army. Death was a welcome side-effect of patriotic duty. All Bullet wanted, meanwhile, was to be an artist. He thought it was the perfect antidote to the stress that had caused his collapse. A useless profession in his parent’s estimation.
He rented the apartment above his parent’s garage, though he hadn’t spoken amicably to them in years. He had never ascended to the expectations they repeatedly touted, and yet, as the only son, cultural indoctrination prevented him from leaving them behind and striking out on his own. There was barely space to squeeze past the canvases propped on every inch of surface, but we all made it past the front door.
“To what do I owe this honor?” This wry manner was typical of Bullet, but I knew he was happy to see us.
Needle unrolled the schematics of the museum she had dubiously acquired from an architect involved in its recent renovation. “How well do you remember the heist I planned in highschool?”
By the time I returned home, leaving Stellar and Needle at Bullet’s home, the plan was making me nauseous. I knew it wouldn’t work. We weren’t invincible and even if we did succeed, interdimensional portals did not exist. And yet … an indiscernible compulsion tugged at me to at least try. I swallowed my misgivings. At least my father would no longer be able to use me, his only disposable child, as a tool to build alliances. I consoled myself by imagining him, his new family at his sides, explaining either my disappearance or my felony charges to my in-laws and losing a contract in the bargain.
I left a note for the housekeeper in the event that I could not make it back, and sealed it in a labelled envelope. Then I took out the .38 revolver I had purchased when Amma and I had first escaped, and left the house. I was going to give it to Needle. She could do the necessary shooting.
I held up my paltry revolver as Bullet dumped four obscenely heavy guns onto the table.
“You could have told us you have access to an armory …” I pocketed my revolver.
“This puts Bullet never inviting us over to his house into perspective, doesn’t it?” Needle chuckled.
“Are you sure your parents aren’t the Orangutan’s bhatta collectors, bullying small business owners for money?” Stellar stood far away from the table as if proximity to the guns would contaminate her.
“The nationalization and corruption he’s instituted has left the citizens with nothing more for him to steal.” Needle looked disgusted.
“Judging by your reactions, it’s safe to conclude we won’t be using these?” Bullet said, “How exactly are we going to strong-arm the guards into letting us do what we want? Are you guys harboring a secret talent for invisibility? Or are we going to advertise our intentions by donning ski-masks with holes?”
Every sentence Bullet uttered tightened the knots in my stomach. An expectation of success was probably the only thing more preposterous than the plan itself.
“Jeez. Relax. Stellar, did you bring anything?” Needle turned to her.
Sheepishly, Stellar held up an ugly green plastic bag filled with the crumpled oily packets of Super Crisps and white cartons of Frooto.
“Well, that’s quite helpful.” Bullet was sarcastic. But I could feel the warmth of nostalgia wash over me.
The last time I had tasted this feeble replica of orange juice packed inside a Frooto box, we had been eager ten-year-olds waiting for Bullet to return from the shop around the corner, armed with a movie cassette. That shop, with its rusted metal sign dangling on broken hinges, defined entertainment for us back then. He had brought an old VCR tape labelled ‘NAPOLEON’, and we had spent the next eighty-one minutes watching a movie about a furry beige dog and a parrot on a hot air balloon. There was something inherently absurd about the idea of a dog and a parrot navigating the world in such a vehicle, but that was not why the movie captivated us. It was the fearless adventuring we tried to recreate with stuffed toys and pillows bound together with ribbon. That was before we had grown up and understood that chasing wanderlust was not child’s play. It was something you fought for.
We spent three days staking the museum out and surveilling the guards. We ran their names through the search engine and discovered that one guard had a GoFundMe page to raise money to treat the rare disease that afflicted his daughter. After a day of back and forth in which Needle flatly refused our advice, she approached the guard and offered her services. One healed child in exchange for one access card and minimal help. It was the deal of a lifetime.
We masqueraded as participants of the morning museum tour complete with gaudy polaroid cameras. Our accomplice told us he would take sick leave and we would use his access card to make our way through the inner sanctums of the building. The plant was housed in a greenhouse-like chamber on the west end of the building. The walls of its chamber were made of privacy glass that was made transparent during viewing hours. Nobody approached the plant inside the chamber.
Needle carried a cane to support her weakened body. Wrinkles webbed her face like tree bark. We passed a sign perched above a streak of tumbaku spittle that read NO SPITTING and approached the metal detector.
“Grandma, you can come through this gate.” A young guard waved at Needle. I watched Needle totter towards the alternate entrance. The guard was eager.
“Needle, stop!” I pushed her out of the way just as the guard reached forward to grab her. The guard’s grip tightened around my wrist, but that wasn’t the most painful part of this moment. I froze against the onslaught of emotion. Needle’s denial that her plan could have gone so horribly wrong. Stellar’s confusion. The crowd’s panic. Sparks danced across my eyes, and I squeezed them shut. When I opened them again I saw Bullet disappearing with Needle and Stellar into the fleeing crowds. The guard’s manic grin faltered as he fumbled with his radio.
“Three of the suspects have fled to the northeast side of the exterior of the building!”
Then he turned to me, flecks of tobacco-reddened spit filtering through his mustache as he spoke.
“You’re coming with me.”
I stood while the Orangutan ogled at me like I was just another oddity to be encased in glass. He always took a special interest in those who lay beyond the narrow bounds of what he deems permissible. I was marched along a corridor until we reached the door to the greenhouse. The Orangutan punched the keypad with stubby fingers and the door slid open. A slender green tree trunk curved upwards from the center of the room covered in a spray of white flowers as if its branches had caught a flurry of snowflakes.
“We discovered the seeds of this remarkable tree,” he caressed the tree with his eyes. “It is a pity we had to contain it in this facility. Parasitic, you know. It would have grown over us all, smothering us like an avalanche. It self-pollinates. You saw these flowers, drifting across our city as snow. Well, of course you did. You’ve been marked by it,” he grinned with his teeth locked together. “Once I’ve unlocked its secrets, though, I will be charting new worlds just when we thought we had it all mapped.” His face twisted into a proud smile. “Go on now, this tree will open for you. It will devour you and the parasites within you. We’ve purged hundreds of thousands of you lot by bringing them here. And one day, because of your contribution, we will learn to access this gateway without losing ourself to this parasitic plant.” Two of the guards nudged me towards the tree as if afraid to approach it themselves.
I inched towards the fragrant, arcing tree and heard a sussuruss of whispered voices—a non-existent wind rustling through its leaves. My limbs began to acquire a weightlessness, as if the minute fractals strewn across my skin were pulling me apart. Needle had been wrong. This wasn’t a portal to escape through. This was a transformation. One our bodies had ached for.
I looked at the Orangutan’s pleased, simian face.
You aren’t purging us. You’re growing us, I thought with grim satisfaction. I said nothing at all.
The cajoling voices pressed upon me. I was standing at the edge of a field of green and white, and, though I was by myself, I was not alone. The fractals of my body rushed upwards, becoming the petals of another snowflake flower on the tree. I was the symbiont now, and the snowflake, my host.
“Ah, the change can feel a bit drastic…”
“Don’t worry, we’ll be your lanterns…”
“There are endless places to explore here…”
And, for the first time in my life, I felt relief.
Kehkashan Khalid is a writer and illustrator committed to bringing the fantastic to life in South Asian settings. She can currently be found in Jeddah, building supportive communities for mothers, lending books to everyone within reach, and spending time with her three young children. Learn more about her at www.kehkashankhalid.com