A Pakistani girl with a gift for seeing what no one else can incurs the wrath of a supernatural being. A pudgy accountant who sees far more than he wants to is chased by mysterious figures through the gloom of an industrial city. Both encounter what lies beyond the edges of the mundane world.
Unseen is a collection of two previously published short stories by Rabia Gale.
The fairies were fighting again.
Daria saw them out of the corner of her eye—wing-flutter, iridescent-flash—among the rose and jasmine bushes. Normally, she would’ve stopped to play peacemaker, but she was too excited and too nervous. Her thoughts skittered out of the garden, through the gate, and to one car out of the thousands in the mad rush of the city. She pictured it nosing through clogged streets, trundling over ruts and potholes, and fuming at stoplights as it brought Amir ever closer.
Daria ran a nervous hand down the front of her kameez, new and of a flattering dark green color, with blue embroidery at neck, hem and sleeves. Short sleeves, she thought, slightly scandalized and disbelieving. The wind caressed her bare, recently-waxed arms, raising goose bumps, and she resisted the urge to pull her dupatta over them.
“Well, well, what have we here? All dolled up and no mistake, Miss! Done something new with your hair, eh? Looks like it’s been tortured.”
Daria looked up at the Skeleton Man leaning over the wall. It wouldn’t do to ignore the Skeleton Man; he could carry a grudge longer than most people could remember what they had to be angry about.
“Mummy put it in a French braid.” She reached back and ran her fingers over it. Then, anxiously, “Do you really think it looks tortured?” A small part of her shook its head at her desperation. To be asking fashion advice from the Skeleton Man!
The Skeleton Man creaked as he peered down from the ten-foot-high boundary wall. “I suppose it’s all right.” His rusty voice softened. “In my day, the maidens wore their hair long and flowing down to their ankles, and the hem of their skirts filled entire rooms. Like flowers come alive they were, rustling over the grass as they strolled in the evening cool.” He looked doubtfully at her outfit. “But then, you’re too young to be collecting lovers.”
Embarrassment flooded Daria. “I’m not trying to impress anyone!” Her voice was higher than she’d intended. The gardener, coming around from the backyard, gave her an odd look, which she returned with a haughty tilt of her chin. The Skeleton Man cackled.
“Oh, very good! Just the look my Raheela would have given. That’ll teach the servants to speculate if their betters are mad.”
Daria waited until the gardener had disappeared into the servants’ quarters before speaking. “They just don’t bother to see.”
“Haven’t you ever wondered if you really are mad?” pursued the Skeleton Man, slyly.
“No, just weird.” That’s what her former best friend had said. Then she’d told everyone else in their class about Daria’s stories and now they thought she was weird, too. She was glad that it was summer.
“Ow!” A tennis ball slammed against her left shin. Daria peered at the grimy circle imprinted upon her shalvar.
“It’s His Highness,” hissed the Skeleton Man.
The next-door boy swung over the boundary wall, climbed down the neem tree and came over to her with a careless, jaunty stride. Daria tensed. If the gardener should see! He’d be chased away with a rake, prince or not.
The prince sauntered past Daria, bent elegantly, and plucked the ball from where it had come to rest in a flowerbed. His brown, slender-fingered hand was covered with small cuts, old and new, and dirt lay under his fingernails. His clothes were faded with many washings and none too clean.
But he bent gold eyes on her, thick-lashed and clear, light and startling in his bronzed face. He looked her up and down, flashed her a white smile, and turned.
“Oi!” The gardener galloped out of the servants’ quarters and stopped, panting, next to Daria. “Young Miss, did you see the boy from next door?”
Daria sneaked a look to her left. As expected, the prince had vanished, swift and silent as a shadow. She thought she caught a glimpse of the gold lining of his tattered tunic against the bark of a tree, but he was like water, fluid and slippery and hard to catch—or hold. He’d be gone over the rooftops.
“I didn’t see anyone.” Behind her, the Skeleton Man murmured, “Liar!”
“Those ruffians next door! Always trampling my plants, running around on my grass. They’re all heathens, turning on their infidel music late at night, singing and dancing from isha until fajr.”
Daria did not say that princes and the sons of princes were beyond the customs of common people. She looked at the Unpainted House where the prince lived. It was of drab and grey concrete, and the one big window upstairs was a gaping hole. But beyond the house lay the faint glimmering of minarets and domes, the lazy silken drift of flags of red and purple and gold, the blue haze of incense spiraling towards the sky… How to explain to the gardener that the prince straddled two worlds?
“There was no one here,” she repeated. Then, grandly, “Go back to your duties.” Grumbling about rapscallion boys, the gardener went.
A rustle in the tree top made her look up. The prince laid his lean hand briefly against his breast, above his heart. Daria sketched a slight curtsey, then half-waved, half-shooed. The prince melted back into bark and leaf and shadow.
Out of Shape
Thaddeus Pudgekin, middle-aged accountant, paunchy and balding, ran for his life through the gloom of Blackburn. Sweat plastered his thinning hair to his scalp and stained the underarms of his silk suit coat. Acrid air scoured lungs, blood bludgeoned heart, skin strained against shirt. He cursed his flabby body and all the food it had ever consumed: the buckets of deep-fried eels, trays of trembling soufflés and luscious bonbons, even the two biscuits with his mid-afternoon tea.
They were all around him, slipping like shadows from crumbling archway to hidden alcove. Thaddeus sloshed through a puddle, looking for help—a pedestrian, an open door, light glinting through a shutter. But the life of Blackburn happened behind locked doors and boarded windows and he was alone in the sickly twilight.
Who were they? The City’s agents? But he’d always paid his own taxes on time and in full. Had he offended one of his clients?
A distant rumble and clanking raised his flagging hopes. Wheezing, Thaddeus tottered towards the tracks that ran down the middle of the street. A trolley trundled into view. Metal clanged against metal. Thaddeus flexed his knees and jumped on, almost slipping in oil, the impact jarring his ankles. He squeezed between piles of rusty cans and tin coat hangers. A sharp edge tore his sleeve.
Dark figures slid past as the trolley picked up speed. Thaddeus pumped his arm, danced a few steps and howled, the rush of escape making him heady. The trolley rumbled under a bridge; the world grew dark, roared and echoed in his ears.
Something thumped on the roof.
Thaddeus went cold, hand upraised in mid-obscene gesture. His feet locked in place.
A skein of darkness twisted, a pale face flashed, the trolley lurched back into twilight. Thaddeus stared into red and bloodthirsty eyes, madness writhing within.
“You can run, fat one, but not forever.” The voice was raspy, with a knife-edge of lunatic laughter. Sharpened teeth snarled at him; a dozen gold rings winked from eyebrows and ears. Thaddeus turned, looked at grey road. Trolley-clank, metal-screech, sooty air whipped into a bitter, gritty wind by the velocity.
The ground rose up to meet him and Thaddeus slapped it. Whoosh! went his breath. He lay stunned, tiny stones digging into his cheeks and palms. The rattle of the trolley faded into the distance. Thaddeus scrambled up, clumsy and aching.
Mad Eyes watched him. “Nice try.” His pupils were flames in their flat, black irises.