Ali stared at his twin and the gross impropriety of his laughter in the current dire situation. It was like someone giggling at the climax of an epic horror movie. They were crouched in hiding on a rooftop in the middle of a strange locality, spying on the courtyard of a mosque famed for supernatural activity down below, from where screams and howls bit through the night like blades, where men were presently praying to wash away their sins in this most holy month of Ramadan. A lorry had driven into the courtyard and men had wordlessly started unloading it – on top of which sinister clockwork progress, a contorted creature had emerged from the madressah and howled like a wolf.
And all Raheel could do was laugh. Uncontrollably. Insanely. Ridiculously. It was as if the insanity was infectious and had bitten him.
Ali smacked him on the head for attention. "Have you gone mad?" he whispered furiously.
"No, but I've discovered the mystery behind that demon you just peed yourself over." Raheel retorted, pulling out of the range of his brother's stinging reach.
"What?" Ali exclaimed. Even for Raheel's standards, such a discovery over such a distance at such short notice, was no mean feat.
"It's a child." Raheel said, eyes twinkling. At his brother's appalled face, he clarified with greater kindness than he usually betrayed, "A wild child."
Since Ali continued to look like he'd seen a ghost on Christmas, Raheel continued, "It's not a fully grown man. Look closely – he hasn't even grown a beard yet. And that left knee is defected. Notice how he never unbends there."
"What about his voice?" Ali was on shaky ground now in the face of Raheel's absolute serenity. "That's no human voice."
Now his twin seemed utterly exasperated. "He's probably a psychiatric patient."
Ali could not dispute here: they had seen plenty of kids whose voice changed with the mood, and became hoarse and deep in mania. "No, that's in mazaars, man. Madressahs are schools – they wouldn't keep such children." The argument sounded lame even to his own ears.
"Not if they didn't have their own axe to grind." Raheel agreed, leaving his brother again with that uncomfortable feeling of having lost the point however impalpably.
They resumed watching the unloading of the van. Raheel had a strange frown, as if he could not quite put his finger on what irked him.
After a while, Ali broke the silence spiritedly, "We've never heard a child produce animal sounds! There's no way on earth that one's a mere human… child."
But the clouds gathering on Raheel's brow had disappeared, as if dispelled by magic. "Of course…"he murmured softly.
"You'll let me know in your own good time, I bet." His brother remarked acidly.
Raheel smiled, leaning back against the corner of the parapet lazily.
The unloading ended, the driver got back into his seat, and the van drove off. The gates of the madressah closed behind him. The creature Raheel had identified as a wild child prowled around the courtyard for a while longer. He really did look like a poor animal if considered long enough. Mute, and without the ability to ever convert his thoughts and needs into words; unwashed, innocent and quite incapable of harming anything, he tried to befriend the neighbourhood cat that gazed at him placidly. It was the one thing that did not shrink from his touch.
A man appeared on the threshold and whistled twice, clapping his hands.
The child had turned to stone – like a hound who had picked up a scent. And as the clap fell on his ear like thunder he bolted, howling, towards the door, rushing past the man quite like an animal in his wild fear.
"It's just a child." Ali could hardly believe it.
"I want to take a look inside those boxes." His twin observed as if the topic had been a box of candy or the weather.
Ali asked grouchily, "Can't you just surmise what's inside them from your great pondering heights over yonder?"
"Of course I know what's in the boxes!" Raheel replied with just a touch of impatience, "I want to take a look inside to be sure."
"What is it then?" Ali asked conversationally, as the mosque prepared for Fajr prayers below.
"Animals."Raheel grinned, and then glanced at him, "Let's go beg ourselves some sehri."
That of course, was Ali's department.
Mosques were bound to be charitable. If this one deviated from the accepted norm it would be suicidal – in colloquial, it would be apnay payr pe kulhaarhi maarna. In other words, it would be bad publicity.
"In God's name, some food!" he called, limping pathetically, pausing outside the gate of the mosque. "Sheikh sahib – God will give you more, if only you show some kindness to a poor man today!"
Raheel simply stood by the corner watching the drama, with a mild air of amusement.
"Maulana sahib! Haaji sahib!"
In the end Ali kicked up such a rumpus that not even the conveniently deaf chowkidar could ignore him. And all in that plaintive, nasal tone he so loved employing.
Two men hurried outside to escort him in.
"My brother too." Ali winked at Raheel, and then continued sorrowfully for the benefit of the two maulvis, "He was born dumb. But he speaks some mornings, by God's grace, if only we have had something to subdue this terrible hunger of starvation."
It was not a lavish meal. But that in no way stopped it from being a rich one. The fried eggs positively floated in oil, the sunny side so far up that even its namesake would have been utterly revolted at the sight of so much blatant yellow. The parathas too were worked in seven layers; seven mighty layers of pastry, no less mightily drenched in the animal fat so endearingly called 'ghee'.
Ali saw Raheel flinch in horror, and recommenced his own meal with grim satisfaction.
There were few excuses to get up from a dastarkhwaan where you were a guest for sehri, and still fewer to go exploring the madressah hosting you, but Raheel was nothing if not resourceful. He got up, stared the blinkers out of a senior maulvi and then walked calmly to another group's platter and tasted from it. The most they could do was slap his hand away, and then too, only to be graced with a long, unblinking look. Flustered, they all looked away.
He then proceeded to make his way in and out of doors, examining the courtyard, pausing and staring owlishly about him. Nobody could have made a finer retard, his brother noted with pride.
It was tiresome work, but he eventually got into the main building of the madressah where they had seen the boxes being stowed away. It was quite a benign place, and there was no sign of those huge crates.
Raheel looked about, a small smile playing about the thin lips hardly visible through the beard. Challenges, he relished challenges.
It was then that he heard the low growling, and turned his head to see the real guardian of the building.
The contorted little boy, shirt half-torn, was crouching in the corner, fingers bent into claws above the hard cemented ground. The abnormal, eerie growl escaped from his throat.
Ali had, by this time, arrived upon the scene, having apologized profusely for his psychotic brother and his all too frequent need to look for the restrooms. Now he stood in the corner, unobserved, watching Raheel reach into his pocket and pull out a handful of almonds. He moved calmly, so slowly that it was mesmerising. How he did it defeated his brother, who stood petrified at the sounds issuing from the child-creature's throat. But it was Raheel's very calmness, he realised later, that had stopped the child from going – metaphorically – for the kill. The calmness belied any threat to this creature that was little more than a wild little thing, misunderstood and ill-used, kept only to warn away prying eyes.
The child moved closer, eying Raheel warily still, and then sniffed at the hand being held out. Raheel waited with commendable patience, though all Ali could think of commending him with was his shoe: they could be discovered at any moment, and here he was, making friends with the child. From here Ali saw that that was exactly what the famous supernatural creature was. Indeed he had started to grow something on his chin, but it was more peach-coloured down than anything since the child's hair was stark white. The fierce eyes that rose up to meet Raheel's were odd: one glazed over, icy blue and blind, and the other a shocking red.
Finally he snatched the almonds out of the large fair hand and darted off to the corner, gobbling them down hungrily. It seemed as if he really was an animal – as if animals had brought him up, and they were all the company he had ever known. The famous Mowgli had nothing on him.
Raheel waited with perfect composure, looking for all the world like a lost poet.
Ali was not exactly a patient man, but here for once he kept his peace. If they were indeed discovered as he realistically feared, he could always say his brother was befriending the spirit of the place.
But then something very strange happened. The child crawled up to Raheel, balanced on his stiff hip joint not unlike spider, and took him by the hand.
Within minutes he had led them – for Ali followed at a discreet pace – past a door under a stairwell to a basement. This was odd in itself: buildings in Karachi never had basements. Not unless they were posh skyscrapers or offices. It was badly lit, but the albino – if that was what he was – seemed not to notice, and ambled along happily.
But down there, in the dark, other growls seemed to emanate from the very walls. In fact, the air seemed thick with them. Ali couldn't help shuddering: echoes, he told himself repeatedly. But there were such strange tales about the mosque – and there was no smoke without fire. He tried to forget it.
A hair-splitting yowl split the darkness, and Ali backed very hard into a corner.
It was followed by hissing and spitting, and growls very different from that poor boy's. Surely, no one creature could make so make so many sounds all at once.
There was a click and the chamber was flooded with light.
The boy screamed as if in pain.
Ali looked up guiltily at the two thickset frowning religious men barring the doorway through which they had entered. Without thinking, he pointed to his twin, presently being clutched by the maddened and terrified boy.
"I had to follow him," he explained hoarsely, "He's my brother. I can't let him come to harm." But in that one moment he had glanced towards Raheel, he had also noticed the boxes from the van. And what's more he had noticed the steel cages beyond. His twin had been right.
"You will work for us." The taller, stouter man had decided.
Ali had nothing if not the gift of gab, and he had spent the past half hour humbly putting in a word here or there, as their case was laid before the senior Maulana of the institute. They had been inclined to deprive him of his life at first, but then he started talking. Overall he came across as being slow, stupid and eager to please – which was more than could be said for most trespassers. And those were reassuring qualities. Ramadan was a month of charity and generosity, besides: it would not be smart – where Heaven was concerned – to ignore its wishes where another way besides force could be found. The way Ali had suggested insidiously: bondage, politely known as employment. You always needed a few more hands to haul the boxes.
"How did you know? About the animals." he hissed at Raheel in the bathroom. It was the first opportunity they had gotten all day, shortly before iftaar. The maulvis of Madressah Waleed were hard taskmasters. Ali had not even had time to bitterly repent having cajoled them into getting employed here.
"Didn't you see the way the men were behaving as they lifted those boxes?" Raheel raised a mocking brow. As no reply ensued, he continued, "They were holding them away from their bodies like they were terrified of whatever was inside them. And the noises this place is famous for. The boxes trembled, and this child reacted to them." He paused, looking down at the boy who had started following him about like a puppy, "And later, this child's animal behaviour, of course."
"Smugglers." Ali coughed into his beard, disgusted.
"They fetch a good price." Raheel replied, as if that made up for it.
"Pumas and baaz – they're prized hawks, you know." The complacent twin explained kindly.
"I know!" Ali said wrathfully. "It's wrong, Raheel. They're stealing."
"It's okay if it stays within the country." Raheel smiled sweetly.
For a few moments Ali could not find words to express his feelings. And then he did: "You're mad."
Shortly after Isha prayers, the van pulled into the driveway once again.
Ali had no choice but to load it up. Only two of the 'boxes' – or what were actually cages, hastily boarded around with chipboard for extra cover – were on the menu that night. They were heavy, and the creatures inside hissed and spat and fought with claws against restraint. Ali heard them and he trembled at the panting and frenzied scraping. He wished he had asked Raheel what pumas were. Frightening images of pythons with razor-sharp talons filled his mind's eye. But it was Ramadan, so he prayed, trying to negotiate with Providence. But then again, he had the gift of gab.
Raheel, unmarked as a psychotic case, casually walked out of the Madressah.
At the end of the street he slinked into a waiting taxi.
"Wait five minutes and then follow that van."
The tax-driver was not inclined to humour him at first, but when Ali ran out of the Madressah looking breathless and then also walked into the cab, he just stared.
"My sister is dying in childbirth." He told the taxi-driver breathlessly, "They are going to claim the baby – he was promised to the Madressah – but they will not let us see her. Help us, brother, and may God help you in this mubarak time."
The speech, complete with pauses and heartfelt sighs, was not wasted: the cabman unbent.
Nearly half an hour later, they stopped at a traffic signal near Karsaz.
"That's our cue." Ali nimbly swung out of the window of the cab – for such a large man, anyway – and, careful to stay right behind the van and so out of sight of the rearview mirror, mounted the back of the van.
After paying the fellow, Raheel climbed up beside him.
The van turned into the service lane and halted beside the gate of a huge mansion.
to be continued...