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Out. I want to get out.
I wrap my shawl around my head, covering my overgrown curls. I wish I hadn’t broken the mirror, I wish I didn’t have to see my face over and over again in the shards and cracks that spread from the centre. I grind my teeth. The muscles in my hand are contracting. I hiss. My skin is torn, my knuckles still bleed. It feels like the little grains of glass scratch at my bones. Mum covered my hand in bandages soaked in haldi, leaving the smell of ginger and orange peel to sink into my skin. Another of my mum’s home remedies: use a tablespoon of haldi for cuts and bruises. Use haldi in milk or honey and ingest for colds. Use haldi for everything. But haldi won’t keep jinns away.
I jerk my head, trying to find a better angle of my face in the mirror. My shawl slips away. The shards of mirror reflect different versions of me. In some my hair is long and my wings are clipped, in others my eyes are golden and my hair short. I turn away knowing my real eyes are ringed from sleepless nights. Stretch marks creep in the white of my eyes, moving towards my brown pupils. Scissors lie on the floor. I’m not brave enough to use them.
A horn sounds. The jinn pass over our silent house every night. They ride on white steeds, cracking their whips. Their black hounds fly in regiments howling at the moon as though claiming it for themselves. They come to collect souls to take them to freer lands.
‘Why you think I can get you moon from the sky?’ mum says when I say these things. Her voice rises an octave. ‘You think you be free with those creatures?’ Then she smacks my cheek and wags her finger. She yells whilst she sprays holy water. She thinks that shaytaan controls me and that he tricks girls to show their hair. Then he curses them. I shake my head and roll my eyes at the thought. I would never show this dirty hair to anyone.
‘Ruhi! Pagal larki! Crazy girl!’ my mum shrieks at me from downstairs. I know she’s making that pinchy face that I hate. She’s widening her eyes, showing the yellowing whites of dead men. I swallow against the sticky phlegm caught in my throat. Pagal has become synonymous with my name. It hits its mark without fail each time.
‘Deddy will be angry.’
Yes, deddy will be angry. Because I broke his mirror, in his house, under his roof. He will drag me down the stairs by the tips of my hair and I will scratch and fight. He will throw me into the bathroom and slam the door. Then I will scream and cry because it hurts; my body responding even when my mind promised it wouldn’t. That’s how it goes. When he’s done beating me, he will cry. He will force my head against his chest and sob and say, ‘Sorry Ruhi! Beti, Beti! Please forgive me!’
But I can’t. And I won’t.
I want to rebel, but I don’t have the energy to speak or to fight back. I don’t want to yell. So instead I will hide in my room. I climb onto the bed and curl into its corner. The window is closed. I have stuck my head out many times, expecting my soul to be taken. I want to forget everything. I don’t want to wait for what will happen. The moon glows, beckoning me. I stare at the horses flying past in the sky. Their horseshoes put the stars to shame as they fly over the tiled roofs and dark windows. They are calamity clothed in a sultan’s death robe. A horn sounds again. Mist wafts from the steeds’ mouths as they neigh. Others draw their curtains in fear of these omens of disease. I wish calamity would pause outside my room and take me away.
I have to get out.
But I can’t. And I won’t.
I used to pack my bags when I was younger. I planned to run into the sky each night. I wanted to unclip my wings and follow the jinns to the moon. I packed my bag too heavily with books and no money. Pagal larki, you need money in this world. But it’s too late now. I’m tired. Now I just stay trapped in my room. The room with sky-blue walls that deddy calls a white girl’s room. One wall is covered with dreams of Amsterdam, Italy and a million other places. Another has all my white-girl books. Stories of fantasy and magic and romance. Mum told me to throw them away because they attract shaytaan. Deddy told me to throw everything away.
I pull a collection of my favourite stories from my shelf. I let the pages fall open and read. I turn the page after a while. My eyes skip. The words aren’t touching me. They aren’t making any sense and I can’t remember what just happened. Why did I like these stories so much? My fingers slacken. The book falls onto the midnight carpet next to the scissors. I want to cut the hair that tangles around my throat as I try to sleep. I need to cut the noose. My fingers reach out. I breathe in. My hand snaps back.
Cutting your hair is a sin, Ruhi. I’m starting to believe it.
I’ve forgotten that I’m falling, falling, falling. I’ve started accepting the rules. The weight of my hair measures my goodness. Then why does it fall to the floor? Why does it tangle at my feet? Why is there a little tumbleweed going past my feet as I open my door?
I need to get out.
I have to stay.
I wouldn’t have anything without my parents. They don’t deserve such a selfish and belligerent daughter. They gave me life. They gave me a roof over my head. They gave me their version of love and warmth. I’m stuck. ‘Freedom is a couple years away,’ they say. ‘You can be free with your husband.’ Sometimes I dream that it’s true. That he’ll understand and love me. But then I remember the milk skin bruise around mum’s eye and wonder what other bruises she’s hiding.
‘Are you free?’
‘Your husband will give you everything.’ Wrong. I will have to cook and clean. There will be no love but he will insist on making blood trail down my thighs and bruises along my collarbone. I will raise our children alone. I will have to look after his lazy mother. She will complain that I do nothing. Then, when she’s dying on a bed in our house, I will have to change her nappy and clean her piss. When she’s gone my husband will batter the hate-filled glint out of my eyes. At the end of my life, my son will put me in an old person’s home and my exhausted body will scream for death. Finally, God will make me his. To him I belong and to him I will return.
That’s not freedom.
I want to be a jinn. I want to possess the moon like they do. But the words don’t come out. To mum my freedom is as far as the moon. She says it’s the only thing she can’t give me. I scoff out loud. I wish that were true.
I throw my shawl to the floor. It falls next to the scissors. I claw at my scalp until deep brown strands fall to the floor. I stare at the multiple images of me in the mirror. So much hair, so much wilderness, so much to get tangled in. I don’t want mum to give me the moon anymore. If I want the moon I have to take it for myself. I pick up the scissors. I cut. And I sin.
What will you do when you get the moon? the voices of the free ask me. The voices could be shaytaan or the jinns, I don’t care. I am ready for their question. I am ready to answer to sin:
I’ll ask for the sun. And when no one gives it to me, I will take it for myself.
Each curl is sheared away, falling to the ground. Until my midnight carpet isn’t a sky anymore. It’s a sea of hair. The cuts on my knuckles open again. The sting clears the muddiness in me. The ceiling towers above me. My knuckles ooze blood and haldi through the bandages. I return to my bed, to dry land. I turn the handle of my window. The wind lashes at me, pushing me back, but I fight and scratch and bite.
I jump into the sky, reaching for the moon. It’s hidden behind the clouds tonight. There are no riders or horses marching. I am falling. And I am free.