R.Z Baschir is the 2021 winner of the White Review Short Story Prize, and 2022 winner of the PEN America/Robert J Dau Prize for Emerging Writers. Her writing has appeared in The White Review, The London Magazine and The Best British Short Stories 2022. She lives in London and is currently working on a short story collection exploring the themes witchcraft, body horror, and the relationship between waking and dream. The following text, published for the first time in Port, is a phantom-filled story that revels in the worlds of sickness and care, repression and liberation, nightmare and reality
‘You know what yeah, I don’t remember when The Night Hag first came. But I was there, asleep. You were there too, inside Mum, in her belly, and I was next to her, next to both of you. The windows and doors were locked. It was hot that night. Mum couldn’t sleep, like you can’t sleep now. She sat up in bed, her eyes open in the dark. Waiting, to hear the jingle of the glass bangles she’d left out, or the swoosh of the embroidered fabrics being unfolded and spread out. The sounds never came or anything. So, after a bit, she just asked, ‘What do you want?’ Her voice was steady, but her hands trembled on her stomach, covering you. And The Night Hag came forward as if she’d always been there, and with a small grey hand, she pointed through the dark, straight at you. Are you listening?’
I looked over at him, his face floating within the hollow darkness of the wardrobe where he slept. When we spoke at night, I pushed back the heavy curtain that worked as a sort of door so we could see each another, just about. He nodded.
‘She was tall, Mum said, her body went on endlessly, and above it, her face was grey and pointed, her mouth was a small space just underneath her massive nose. She had no teeth. Her eyes were black, shiny holes. Like buttons. She stood at the foot of the bed, just like she does when she comes now. Mum said you felt the finger she’d pointed at you, because you started twisting and turning about inside her, and it hurt like a bitch she said. ‘It hurt so bad,’ she said to me. She looked at The Night Hag, and said what she was supposed to: ‘I have something for you.’ She pointed at the metal chest over there, in the corner. The Night Hag smiled and mum heard a horrible scampering sound, like rats rushing across the floor as she turned and looked at the glass bangles, the heavy fabric covered in embroidery, the sugared almonds, and those high-heel shoes that are mine, but you can have one day. Mum had displayed them all for The Hag on hangers and boxes on top of the chest, like a dowry or a little display in a ladies shop or something. Mum said she looked at them for a bit. She even bent down and she sniffed them, she ran her grey hands and feet all over them, and with every movement, horrible squeaks and quick, anxious, rushing sounds came from her, all at once, like drumming fingers and scraping nails. Then she just stopped, and she turned around, and began to scuttle along the side of the bed, her body just like a rats. Mum screamed and put her arms over her belly and rolled over. The Night Hag stopped. But it was too late, because mum said she felt you inside her, turning, and nibbling at her, gnawing at the cord, and she felt it snap, like an elastic. I woke up, and I saw you when you came out. Mum thought you died, but here you are, aren’t you? You’re still here. Mum’s never seen The Night Hag again or anything. It’s you she comes to see anyway, not her.’
I looked around. There was enough light in the room to see the neck of my sewing machine outlined on the wall opposite, the glint of the scissors that rested on its table. I turned my head slightly to look at my brother, and saw his shining eyes, his dark crooked mouth.
The old ladies like their snacks even if they say they don’t. ‘What’s this?’ they say, eyebrows pinched together or high on their wrinkled foreheads when they see me come in with the tray of puffy nimak paras, green and gold squares of butter pistachio biscuits, coconut barfis and salted chickpeas. ‘Take it away! Take it, take it!’ ‘Who’s going to eat all this?’ ‘Who has the teeth for chickpeas?’ I place the plates on glossy little tables mum drags out in front of the settees, and say ‘Don’t worry, just try it, go on, go on’ as I pour their tea. Sometimes they bring granddaughters with them. They’re polite girls, with mouths always jammed shut. They don’t touch the snacks or anything. I ask if they want to play and their grandmothers untuck their hands from beneath the tight white shawls wrapped around their heads and shoulders, and place them gently on the girls backs. ‘Jao jao, go and play,’ they say. Left alone, the old ladies feed themselves snacks from discreet handfuls they hold in their laps. They’ll show one another the lumps that cover their arms and legs, and talk about the building work being carried out in the villages, or the weddings or funerals they have arranged in the coming months. The granddaughters stand up, smiling shyly, and follow me out of the room and up the stairs to the bedroom I share with my sick brother.
They never see him of course. They sit on the bed while I check on him behind the curtain that covers his narrow bed on one of the deep, long shelves within the wardrobe. His hair is so wet with sweat that it looks styled. ‘You doing fashion?’ I ask him. He doesn’t respond. He’s shy when the girls are around. He’s shy anyway, he doesn’t do fashion. He doesn’t do anything. His mouth hangs open, and he coughs, and he cries. I check his mouth to see if we’ve got any wobblers – that’s what I call the ones that are about to fall. I check his gums to see if they’re bleeding, and I rub clove oil on the buttery red parts if I need to. I dip a kitchen towel in the water bowl I keep on a shelf above the one he sleeps on that we both use as a storage space. Not that he’s got much. Bits of my sewing projects and the tins of soft biscuits he likes go in here. I put the wet cloth on his forehead and pull the curtain tightly across his bed so the girls can’t see him. I don’t want them to start gossiping or anything. It’s usually while I’m doing this that one of them asks, ‘Where’s the radio?’ I always wait for them to ask because I don’t want to be accused of influencing them. Messing them up or anything. It’s not my fault they like listening to music and dancing.
They aren’t allowed to listen to songs or anything at their house. Their mums say that if you play songs backwards, you can hear demons laughing. They say the guitar is the devil’s nose. The girls never say anything. Never say that it’s not true or anything like that. They just look and listen, their eyes wide. I’ve known these girls since they were as little as my brother. But they grew up, unlike him. Now they’re teenagers with pimpled skin. They’re good girls, they don’t eat the snacks they’re offered, or record their favourite songs from the radio onto cassettes like I do. Once, one of them told me to keep my knickers on when I have a bath to stop the djinns that live in our house from having impure thoughts about me, and to hide my privates from god at all times, because He watches everything. ‘Change your clothes under your bed sheets’ She said when I asked her how to do this.
I tell them to close the door. I tell them to promise not to tell, or jump, or make too much noise. I turn and pull the curtain in front of the wardrobe to the side slightly, and get the radio out from the hiding place in the gap between the floor of the wardrobe and my brother’s bed, being careful so the girls don’t see him. Then I rearrange the curtain, unplug my sewing machine and plug the radio in. I make sure the volume is low before I turn it on, just in case. Then the girls start.
They don’t care what’s on. They don’t know what they like. They’ll listen to anything. They stand up and remove the pins that keep the scarves on their heads and toss them on the bed. They face each other, their long black hair touching their knees. When they’re ready, they bow their heads and their hair completely covers their faces. They do look like they have the devil or something inside them when they’re like this, I think. Whatever song’s on, they dance with their legs apart, and bend their bodies forward from the waist, up and down, and bang their heads into the air, eyes closed. I see only parts of their faces, just fragments from between their dark hair. Their teeth glint from half-open mouths, between ragged breaths. It’s always the same dance, always the same with their heads banging backwards and forwards. They move slowly at first, then, faster, faster, till blood rushes to their faces and sweat darkens the seams of their underarms. Then they get dizzy, and act mad, stumbling and lurching all over the place before they stop. Giggling, they hold out their arms to steady one another and fall down with their legs in the air. ‘Shut up!’ I hiss, laughing, and mum shouts from downstairs ‘I can hear you!’ and we put our hands on our mouths as we try not to make a sound, so we shudder and we shake.
Like I said yeah, the girls are teenagers now, but I’ve known them since they were little because I’m the one that sews their clothes. I’m a dressmaker, even though no one calls me a dressmaker, or a tailor, or a fashion designer even. Everyone just calls me sister. Even the old ladies. When the girls were little I made them frocks and waistcoats and matching hats. Now that they’re grown up they only wear salwar kameez with matching rectangular scarves in plain or patterned fabrics. They come to me carrying heavy plastic bags with gaping handles stretched out of shape by the weight of the stuff inside them. I take the loose fabrics out and spread them on the floor. I cut the patterned material of the kameez into a sharp oblong, and the plain fabric of the salwar into a rough triangle. I snip a flat line across the bottom for the hem of the trousers, and another across the top, where I insert elastic for the waistband. The remaining sharp angle of fabric is the space I leave for the seat of the salwar, space for their thighs and bums. I add more shape later, as I sew. But every salwar kameez I sew starts like this. My brother and the radio keep me company as I work. Mum doesn’t do anything about it even if she doesn’t like me listening to the radio. I tell her I have to listen because it drowns out his moaning. She doesn’t like that. Doesn’t like being reminded of him or anything. I keep the curtain pulled back as I sew so I can keep an eye on him. Even when he has his face turned away from me, I know from just the shape of his back, or the position of his head, when he’s in pain, or when the pain has passed and a tooth is ready to fall. That’s what’s wrong with my brother basically. Bad things happen to his teeth. Some turn black, and fall. Some crumble. Others grow long and soft. If I try pulling them, they swing like they’re on a hinge. To help them fall faster I try to get him to bite an apple or old biscuit or something. Even when he cries and says it hurts too much, I make him do it. It’s better that they fall than rot in his mouth. Everyday I find dark, yellow, black or blue teeth in his bed, or on the floor, or in the cereal bowl I leave next to him. I collect the whole ones, check everywhere to make sure I have them all, then take them outside to bury in the usual spot under the fence in the back garden so The Night Hag can’t have them. His small, dark face lies shrunken and bruised against his bedsheets. Even when I chew his food for him and put it in his mouth his teeth fall, and fall. He doesn’t eat a lot anyway, most of it just ends up on the bedsheets. Sometimes yeah, there isn’t enough space for all the teeth in his mouth, and they start to grow in rows on top of each other, thin and crooked. The skin on his lips stretches and cracks and blood blooms and smudges into hard stains all around his mouth. His teeth are bad, but baddest of all is that there are always more. They fall, and they grow back, every time.
The ones at the back mostly crumble. I leave those under his pillow for The Hag to take, she can have those. She can’t do much with those. In the morning I find needles, scraps of fabric, or loops of thread where the teeth were. Once, I found tiny glittering beads.
Mum gets dizzy when she climbs the stairs or anything. The painful lumps on her calves and thighs swell up when she walks, so she never comes up to see him. She never asks about him either, I think she knows I’ve got him under control. She was already an old lady when she was pregnant with him. I was small, but I remember she craved mud, and the painful lumps on her arms and legs were already appearing, stopping her from bending, or moving much. Then they grew so big, they stopped her from standing at all, so I’d go out to the back garden looking for soft, red clay. She could barely move or anything. After he was born she acted like he hadn’t been, because of how sick and small he was. ‘He’s not a real boy,’ she kept saying. But I loved him straightaway. I’d been alone with mum for so long, but now I had a brother. He became mine. I held him and fed him formula milk from bottles that were bigger than his little face. The smell of milk and wet nappies clung to my own babyish skin. I kept him in the wardrobe next to my bed because there was nowhere else to put him, and I was scared I’d crush him or something if he slept with me at night. When the rubber dummies on his bottles ripped, torn apart by his sharp yellow teeth that appeared too early, I didn’t realise something was wrong. At three months, he already had his first full set of teeth. They fell a few weeks later. Then they grew back. His skin was always blue, his mouth was always swollen. But I didn’t know that wasn’t how it was supposed to be. When mum used to say ‘He’s not a real boy’ she used to look sad yeah, but also a little bit angry because her lips would twist around when she said it.
He doesn’t read or do his prayers like other boys, it’s true. He lays around sick, like an old woman, and I look after him like he is one too. I take him soft boiled eggs and milk sweetened with rose jam, or torn chapati mixed with butter and sugar. I chew his food for him and place each softened piece of bread or biscuit directly in his mouth with my hands. A sour smell hangs over him, no matter what I do to keep him clean. But I don’t mind anyway, I’m used to it. I give him pills to take the pain away, and pills to sleep. Which he sometimes does after a tooth has come loose, and the sounds of the sewing machine and radio lull him to sleep.
We don’t sleep much, the pain keeps him awake, and his crying keeps me awake. But I’m used to not sleeping, it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes, when I’ve finished my sewing for the day, and I’ve checked that mum has everything she needs downstairs, we stare into the dark room, and we talk.
‘A dream came,’ he’ll say. ‘She stood at the foot of your bed.’
‘And what did she look like?’
‘She was tall. She had a grey face, and a hairy body and she was naked.’
‘And what did she want?’
He’ll look at me then, open his mouth and point inside. His eyes go big and glitter. His eyebrows raise into his hairline.
‘And what did she say?’
‘Nothing. She smiled and she had no teeth. She held out her hand as if she was begging.’
‘And what did you do?’
‘I opened my mouth to call you, but my teeth began to fall, and I felt sad.’
‘And then what happened?’
‘She laughed and her eyes became blacker and wider. And when I woke up, she was a rat, a big one, and she creeped into your sheets.’
‘And who was she?’
‘She was The Night Hag.’
The Night Hag is always with us. She walks around naked, but she’s covered in grey brown fur. She has small drooping breasts and a massive arse and thighs. There’s a tail between her legs or something. She moves around the house at night when everyone else is asleep. She comes and goes whenever she wants. She does anything she wants. I’m not scared of her, but my brother is. He’s scared of rats. Sometimes I have to shout at him to be quiet, and then he gets scared of me too. He gets scared of anything. Sometimes, when I’m sewing, I can feel like The Night Hag’s small grey hands guiding mine. I’ll be stitching something yeah, and when I look at it later I see patterns of leaves and flowers and birds I don’t remember making. I found a wedding lehenga like that under my brother’s bed. A lehenga I don’t remember sewing. It was made from scraps of fabric, just off cuts from other dresses I’ve made. Now I find myself working on it at night. Adding bits of lace trim to the hem, or stitching on patches of embroidery I’ve cut from other girls wedding dresses. When I rub oil on the lumps in mum’s legs and massage her head I’m thinking about what I will add to the dress. I think it will be beautiful when I’m finished. We’ll leave an opening in the skirt for her tail to pass through, and enough fabric for her to loosen the stitching and adjust if she needs to. No one will just call me sister when I finish it. I’ll be known as the dressmaker then. And she’ll no longer be a Night Hag when she wears it. Maybe then she will leave us alone.
My hand hovers over the ON button, while the girls take their positions opposite one another. They take off the scarves that cover their hair, their necks, and their chests. They let their hair down, I press PLAY, and when the music becomes loud enough for them to hear it, they bend their bodies forward, at the waist, towards each other, and then they bang their heads up and down again, and again, towards the floor, and up in the air, up and down, forward and back, over and over, till their faces are red and sweat covers their brows.
Whenever our snacks are running low, I go to The Elegant Food Market, a place with shiny tiled floors and rows of hair gels in pink and green and purple, and toothpastes in languages that look like English but aren’t. It’s always quiet in there, and even the evil crocodile-skin gourds with their withered wobbly tails stacked on top of one another in wooden crates look pretty. Star-shaped notices in orange neon show the prices. I go through the quiet aisles and pick up plastic trays of biscuits, boxes of salty pastries, and the painkillers my brother needs. I got the radio from the small electronics section behind the front counter here, with money I had saved from my dressmaking work. There’s a woman on the tills that I like. She sits in front of rows of radios and grey, glassy televisions. She wears pink lipstick and has fried yellow hair, and she’s always sniffling like she has a cold. ‘You not well? You got a cold?’ I ask her, and she always replies, ‘I have a bit, yeah’. She asks sometimes after the ‘young un’. She’s never seen him, but she knows I have a brother because I tell her that’s who’s sick, that that’s why I’m buying so many pills. She sniffs as she scans the pills, and the biscuits, and the juices or rose jam or whatever I’m buying, and she just says, ‘Bless him’. She says, ‘Bless his heart’.
Sometimes, I go to Bits and Bats, the haberdashery. Wheels of gold and silver lace line the walls from floor to ceiling and the narrow aisles are jammed with spools of thread, small plastic cartons of pearly plastic buttons marked as ‘5 for £1’, and clear plastic bags of beads and sequins. Heavy tailoring scissors with metal handles hang from hooks in one section, and zips and elastics hang in another. The ceiling is scattered with glowing tiles of light, and the soft sounds of TV news stations, and ladies muttering and nodding at things fill the place. I let myself walk around, not sure why I’ve come in, what it was I wanted. Then I find myself looking for things I can use on the lehenga. A lace trimmed with golden bells for the sleeves of the blouse, gold buttons for the fastenings, and glittering green beads I’ll thread through my needle to create the leaves and roses that will cover the red chiffon of the dupatta. When I found the lehenga, it didn’t have a dupatta, so I bought the chiffon from here for it. Sometimes, if the lady who owns the store is asleep or listening to the news in a far corner of the shop, the girls who work there give me discounts. Then they bring it up when they come to collect their own clothes from me. ‘Remember, remember I gave you a discount sister?’ They’re always trying to get a deal, but I don’t mind because they never ask me what I’ll do with the bits I buy for the lehenga or anything. They look at the lace, and the chiffon, and the gold buttons covered in tiny crystals that look like teeth, and they know I won’t use them on my own clothes. My clothes are plain and simple. I have no one to dress up for or anything, unlike the girls who come with bags of fabrics they want transformed into wedding wardrobes.
When I am making a kameez, I imagine the body of the woman who will wear it. How it will sit on her hips or waist, how it will bulge around the middle after she’s had dinner, or when she needs to go to the loo, or becomes pregnant or anything. I always keep an allowance of fabric stitched into the dress so she can make it bigger, when the time comes. I insert zips and fastenings that can help her get in and out of it. Under my hands, the clothes, even when they’re flat and lifeless, take on three dimensions, and every outfit lives in different fantasy scenarios in my head. It is walking in a park, or browsing the isles at The Elegant Food Market, it’s cooking rice, or sometimes hanging mid-air, bent double on a clothesline. Sometimes, I see the outfit on a girl, or a woman, sat on a bed draped with garlands of golden carnations, the hem of her dress or skirt spread around her, her legs bent beneath her, and her eyes downcast. Her hands are in her lap. She is waiting for something to happen I think, and so am I. The moment the dress is pulled off her body by someone who is not yet in the room with her. Now, The Night Hag is always in the room with me. Not just at night. Sometimes, I concentrate on her so hard I forget to swallow, and a line of drool slips onto my hands as I make a new stitch, embroider a new leaf. I see her tail disappear beneath the skirting boards, and then her breath on my face when I sleep.
When the lehenga is finally done, I leave it out on the metal chest where mum had put the fabric and shoes and almonds for The Night Hag the night my brother was born. It will be different this time. The Hag will be different when she wears it. I pull the curtain door of the wardrobe, and see my brother tucked into his bed. A blue-black tooth hangs over his thin lower lip, and grazes his chin. His eyes are wet. I’ve already pulled two half crumbled teeth from the back of his mouth tonight, and put them in a small pile next to the lehenga on the chest. I know he’s in pain. I climb into my own bed, and I turn to face him.
‘She’s gonna come now, yeah’ I say. ‘And we’ll need to speak to her, so don’t be scared or anything.’
His breaths are shallow and strained, but he doesn’t speak.
We wait. He makes soft animal noises. He sighs. Minutes pass. I’ve given him painkillers. Soon, he won’t feel anything. We wait. When I still don’t hear anything, I ask, ‘What do you want?’ Then I see her, standing at the foot of my bed. The outline of her rat body quivers in the dark. She points at my brother, as I expect, and I see him pull the covers to hide his face. I say, ‘I have something for you.’ I point at the lehenga draped over the metal chest, where it glows in the moonlight. She turns, nose twitching, her small grey hands reaching forward, then she lunges towards it, and I hear a squeal of excitement. She sniffs it, moves her hands and feet up and down it, she disappears into it. For a moment, I think she will rip it. ‘Take it,’ I say. And she does. The dress moves towards me, hovers over me. I take off my clothes and stand on the bed. I pull the skirt on first, and it feels heavy and cold against my skin. Her black, toothless mouth opens wide as she looks at me, my chest bare, the skirt hanging loosely around my waist. ‘What are you doing?’ my brother asks from the wardrobe. I pull on the blouse. The bells tinkle as I move.
She just watches me, my hands twitching at the fastenings at the back and on the sides, she drapes the scarf over me, scuttles to my brother’s bed, and takes him away. I am wearing the lehenga. I sit in the middle of the bed with my skirts arranged around me. My eyes are downcast, my hands are in my lap, and my scarf covers my hair. I smile to myself, and my teeth stick out at angles and fall into my lap.
Artwork Dror Cohen
This article is taken from Port issue 32. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here