BY AHSAN BUTT
She can see only as far as her headlights, not that there’s much to see. At some point, the road becomes unmarked and lane-less, liable to end without warning. Zayna rolls slowly. Not out of care, just no longer mindful of her speed or time. The radio—on since she left Jeffeh—strains for a signal. It seems lost in static for good, but so it had countless times—always returning to a late-night call-in show that went on and on.
Zayna drifts somewhere between Jeffeh and Miraaz. It’s taken hours to lose sight of Jeffeh, its mess of golden veins and arteries vivid in her rearview, then hazy, then gone. The absence of its lights almost as unsettling as the loss of its sounds, its million clashing poems. Nothing replaced it in any direction. It was as if she was driving along thick black curtains that had descended while her eyes had taken a rest.
Like most born in Jeffeh, she’s never seen Miraaz, had never thought to.
It was a rumor about an installation that had sent Zayna looking for Miraaz. Entered alone, it was said, one would experience the first moments after one’s death. No one seemed to know more than that. Beyond the question of how long a “moment” in a state of death might last, the controversy surrounding the installation was whether this taste of death—if in any sense real—made one certain of the existence of God and an afterlife. And if so, whether this certainty marked the true end of one’s earthly life. After all, could any further act of self-transformation or repentance be sincere, faithful? Beyond that point, could faith be involved at all? The installation, it was speculated, would render the faithless cognizant of their error, yet unable to alter it—left, then, in a state the inverse of the afterlife: materially alive, but spiritually dead.
Also speculated is where it is. Somewhere vague on the outskirts, before the descent into town. Tents off the road, she imagines. A night market, a fire lit in a smattering of trees; artists or mystics, or both, huddled in zhikr.
Hours ago Zayna had killed her phone listening to Abu’s voice-mail. She’d played it whenever the radio turned to static. She pictured him calling from the veranda, ashtray smoldering on the railing, head held in his arthritic hands. She wondered whether Ammi was in her study, whether she knew Abu was calling her. It surprised Zayna how much she wanted to hear her voice, if only in the background.
She senses the stars have vanished the way one wakes and knows the house is empty.
The way a kind of knowing arises from the shock of realizing one was dreaming and didn’t know it. The stars aren’t home, she thinks, or she isn’t.
The caller on the radio goes silent but if Zayna tries she can hear the woman cry. None of them make it through their stories. Every caller has lost a child, all have lost toddlers, all of them two years old. This woman is saying the loss has changed her. She can’t feel anything for her family anymore. Their shallow words only make her angry.
Zayna could hear herself reciting all the duas she knew—
The words breathless. Urgent but calm.
It was silly to wonder if children knew what to do when they died, but still she spent two years wondering. How could she stop? She would never know Azhi as anything but a child, his awareness of the world around him still nascent, his personality barely peeking at the edges of his features, more a string of reactions and uninhibited wants. She had fed and bathed him for Ammi, burped and changed him. She told Abu she’d take him into the doctor’s, and when Azhi grew scared under the white lights he looked to her and cried because she couldn’t make him understand that she couldn’t make it stop, and when it was over, she bought him treats on the way home to make him forget. But she couldn’t forget how he had looked at her, so bewildered and heartbroken. And no one could convince Ammi for certain that Azhi was still Azhi somewhere. So, instead of waiting for Jannah, Zayna drifted to Miraaz, praying the rumors—no matter the risks—were real.
She remembers leaving a note for her parents before she left in the night with Abu’s car, but now she’s not so sure. If there’s a note, they would have expected her back yesterday, or the day before maybe.
Hours ago Zayna took her hands off the wheel and it ceased to exist—or the wheel faded first and her hands had no choice but to retract into her lap. The gas pedal and brake remain, though she’s unsure if they’re only there for show. It’s difficult to know how long the car—wheel or no wheel—had moved without her. She had taken for granted that she acted on the car and not the other way around. And yet the loss of control, once realized, feels natural—the lifting of an artifice. The shape of one’s thinking and convictions suddenly exposed, as if on a surgeon’s table or in a gallery. Context and traumas impossibly clear in the stark light.
On the radio only women call in, but it was Abu who called her. Cigarettes jackknifed in his moonlit tray, he went on and on. He told her about when she was Azhi’s age. Stories she hadn’t heard. Stories about how he knew she’d grow up to be exactly as she is now. He repeated himself, mixed her with Azhi, wept about Ammi. He said maybe a different kind of man would have been better for her, able to reach her.
The road gives to gravel. There still isn’t much to see. Only a distant twinkle, like something signaling from afar.
The host sometimes read a poem or an ayat from the Quran between callers. His delivery a bit saccharine. Zayna, like Ammi, prefers restraint. But out here, taste seems fickle. Truth is subtle until it isn’t, or it isn’t and then it is. What one thinks of the truth seems to determine everything. Would the walking condemned suddenly have a taste for melodrama? And what of the faithful who have tasted certainty—perhaps they know mercy to be subtle, thus subtlety divine? Perhaps even this isn’t simple.
The woman who can’t feel anything for her family stutters. Her words resist the will to say them.
Ammi once told Zayna—know what you want and never hesitate. Ammi once took Zayna aside and asked her who she wanted to be. Zayna hadn’t known what to say. Of course, she wanted to be Ammi, but Ammi would never have answered that way, and the longer it took to say even one thing the worse it felt. She remembered looking into Ammi’s eyes and seeing surprise and tenderness, but also disappointment. How could she not be disappointed in a daughter who had none of her will? But now, in the minutes and hours Zayna’s been watching the radiance at the front of her hood pierce the dark, the memory feels false. Familiar, yes, but it no longer fits, like it’s been molded for someone else. Wouldn’t she have shut her eyes to stop the tears? Did she even look Ammi in the eyes at all? She could feel Ammi’s arms consoling her now, her head graced by a kiss—didn’t this feel truer?
Time had been adrift for how long?
Ya Rabb, Ya Rahman, she was crying again.
There is no one like Ammi,
no absence like Azhi.
The radio turns up and the path ahead is disappearing beneath a foamy wave. She senses the vastness of the sea that’s coming. As it surges out of the dark, shimmering in the headlights, she knows it never ends.
The lights in the distance tilt.
The car dislodges—
It has to end with a breath, doesn’t it?
Was she faring any better than a child?
On the radio the host is playing something familiar. Water sloshes in through gaps and seams. The car careens. Ahead, the dark has been slit open and headlights have spilled out. Dozens of lights in staggered rows hover over the roaming ocean. The faint hum of hot grills and chassis. Beyond them, an unadorned dome and a lattice radio tower oily in the night. More and more lights spill into impossible spaces and the upholstery begins to shine, the interior flooding, the unfolding of another sense—
An old breath catches her.
On the radio the host is reading—
She can see only as far as her headlights—
Hasanthika Sirisena talks to Ahsan Butt about “The Installation.”
Ahsan Butt was born in Toronto, is of Pakistani descent, and currently lives in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review, The Normal School, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, The Offing, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @ahsanb_.
Nazish Chunara is a Los Angeles based painter and installation artist whose works explore dimension, history, future, and sound by utilizing geometry and the Gujarati language. Her work has been featured in Venison Magazine and VoyageLA. You can see more at https://zishery.weebly.com/, and can follow her bookish and aviatrix antics on Twitter @chunara_zish and Instagram @zishery.