And After the Fire, Ash by Isha Karki: Winner of the Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2021
Northern Soul is thrilled to have been the media partner for the Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2021. The prize, which is now in its fourth year, was created by Comma Press and the University of Central Lancashire as an opportunity to showcase exciting new literary talent from across the UK, imposing no restrictions on entry such as a fee or a first publication.
The theme of this year’s Dinesh Prize was ‘Home’, as inspired by the running theme of Place throughout Dinesh’s back catalogue of work. The theme was well-timed to inspire submissions as the competition opened just as the country went into the first COVID-19 lockdown and people began to spend more time at home.
We’re excited to announce – and publish – the winner: And After the Fire, Ash by Isha Karki. Karki lives in London. Her short fiction has won the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize and Mslexia Short Story Competition. She is a 2019 graduate of Clarion West and the London Writers Awards and is currently a PhD student at Brunel University.
And After the Fire, Ash
Her mother wanted to be cremated. In those final days, faint with pain, she would murmur: It’s only right.
Now, she too dreams of fire on skin – and after the fire, ash.
the stories they told each other
When she was a child, her mother kept her awake, whispering stories of the women who came before them. How they died before touching forty: cancer, plague, car crash, stroke, heroin, murder. Death snaked the double helix of their DNA, all the way back to that fated ancestor who, centuries ago, secured their inheritance.
Her mother stayed in bed most days, clammy with fever. Sometimes, she succumbed to bursts of activity, razing the garden in one go; other times, the weeds sprouted wild, swallowing the house whole.
At nights, her mother climbed to the attic, rotted slats creaking beneath her bony feet. She had to coax her down, tuck her into piles of duck-feather pillows and quilts. To lull her to sleep, she spun tales of old havelis, with doors of carved wood, walls a dusty sindhoor, and dhoop wafting through latticed windows.
Fear brightened her mother’s eyes. Where did you learn these words?
The foreign sounds spilled from her tongue, unbidden, but to her mother, she said: At school.
Before dawn, her mother would shake her. Tell me about your other world.
Rubbing sleep from her eyes, she’d speak of snowy mountains in distant skies. Of chittering monkeys clinging to stupas, snatching cameras and flowers from the hands of tourists. Of lines of devotees, foreheads daubed with vermillion, prostrating before the many-limbed gods of metal and stone.
the first time
At the funeral service, the sea of black suits and wool coats blur in front of her. She sees them all standing by a murky river instead, the smell of singed flesh and smoke thick in the air.
A few seconds, then the hall is back: the estate agent, her mother’s lawyer, and the man from antiques valuation deep in conversation. They’d told her what she long suspected: despite the sparse meals, harsh winters, and pennies clobbered together for cinema tickets, she is rich. Her mother had been rich, and her mother before her.
A figure breaks away from the throng of mourners.
There’s something about this stranger, face shadowed, hands gloved in kidskin, which makes her think of her mother’s dying rasps.
She wants desperately to turn away–
An old lady, wearing a velvet coat of deep purple, swoops in and blocks her view. She lets out a long shaky breath.
‘Poor dear,’ the woman says and clasps her hands – then drops it immediately. Her hands are always icy, even in summer when the temperature sails over twenty-five degrees, as if they were moulded for hotter climes. ‘Prudence tells me it’s your birthday tomorrow. Here.’ A hard-boiled candy is slipped into her pocket.
When she looks up, the figure is gone.
At the stroke of midnight, she turns eighteen.
The next morning, she wakes to find the peacock lamp, the tapestry of a Moroccan mosque, and the glittering replica of the Koh-i-noor crumbled to ash.
the things in their home
Her mother dies before forty, but her body seems to have lived a hundred years, skin loose and crinkled, glimpses of blue-tinged bone underneath. Her mother spent hours trailing fingers over dusty lamps, spit-shining statues of heavy brass, stitching up tears in silk hangings, spreading her naked body on rugs of animal skin.
Where did these things come from? She asked, looking at their house furnished with dead, cold things.
Her mother would say: It’s your inheritance.
On those nights, she woke from visions of havelis and hovels, feet weighed by clinking silver bells.
the second time
When the doorbell rings, one long, piercing note – the sound a small, hollow-boned body makes when struck with an arrow – dread blooms inside her.
A shadow behind the frosted glass; plumes of smoke curling through the gaps.
She puts her chilled hand on the door. ‘Please, go away.’
A moment of stillness – she imagines glass shattering – then the stranger retreats, and she shudders with relief.
The next morning, her mother’s ornate bed, the giant tusks of ivory, a cabinet of blades, swords, janbiya, kirpan and khukuri, every piece of silverware, and the skins and furs lining the floor have disappeared.
In their place, heaps of ash.
That night, she scrubs herself with a pumice stone, hot water blistering. No matter how hard she does it, she can’t rid herself of the thing that clings to her skin.
When she reaches for the soap, she finds it has vanished, and along with it the jars of shampoo and the marbled sink, its legs carved from whalebone.
the third time
The third time, there is a soft tapping on the door, and she knows she must let the stranger in.
That morning, two pieces of buttered toast turned to ash in her mouth.
She opens the door. When she looks at the stranger’s face, the sun’s glare is in her eyes.
‘Child,’ a voice, a soothing balm over aching limbs, says, ‘May I enter?’
She nods, and the djinni crosses the threshold, bringing in the curling scent of incense.
‘I didn’t think you were real,’ she says.
‘Your mother must have told you of your inheritance?’
‘My mother was,’ she hesitates, licking the dryness of her lips, ‘not always in her right mind.’
The djinni doesn’t say anything, looks around the hall, perhaps surveying how it has remained unchanged all these years.
The old question tumbles from her lips: ‘Where do these things come from?’
The djinni glances at her, before turning back to the room. ‘Your mother asked me the same thing, but only after she made her wish, which was perhaps unwise.’
She watches the djinni finger tapestries with gloved hands; they luster under the touch.
Her heart thuds with a recklessness which comes only when the world reveals its strange truths to you. ‘You didn’t answer the question.’
She detects amusement in the djinni’s voice. ‘I cannot conjure them out of thin air, if that’s what you are asking. Every action has a reaction, every wish fulfilled, a cost.’ The djinni lingers over ruby-encrusted lamps and she feels something – perhaps anger – thrumming under the surface of these careful movements. ‘So, tell me, child, what is your wish?’
She rolls the possibilities in her mind: she knows a wish is a many-sided dice that won’t stop spinning; a wager she cannot win.
‘Will you be honest with me?’
‘I do not lie.’
‘Are you happy doing this – for us?’
The djinni pauses in the circuit of the room, and says in an immeasurably soft voice, ‘Your definition of happiness is not for the likes of me.’
That feeling – of skin stretched too tight, of two bodies stuffed into one hide – rises within her.
‘Just leave us,’ she says, ‘leave this family.’
The djinni’s hands still. After a pause, they say, ‘I do not understand.’
‘I want you to be free of this family.’
She isn’t expecting the laugh, unfurling in her ears like leaves of a withering plant fed a trickle of water.
‘The moment I step away, everything – that you stand on, sleep on, that you eat, drink, wear, cherish – will crumble. You will never find me again.’
Ash coats her throat.
‘I can give you anything you desire.’ The djinni sounds tired.
She grew up glutting herself on tales of wishes – for beauty, fame, wealth, love, immortality – she knows how they all end.
When she closes her eyes to think, really think, how such a being came into her family’s possession, there are cries ripped from throats, metal piercing bone, the putrid smell of decaying flesh; the things that had, perhaps, snatched her mother from sleep every night.
‘Can I ask for a secret instead?’
‘A secret?’ The djinni pauses, then says, ‘Your wish is yours to choose.’
‘What was my mother’s wish?’
‘This is what you will ask of me?’
She nods, though her insides grow heavy. Her mother hadn’t wanted her to know; she should honour the secret. But she doesn’t take the words back.
‘Very well,’ the djinni says, and the words sound like a knell, ringing once, twice. ‘I shall show you.’
You are a just-turned eighteen-year-old, recovering from surgery which has sucked your body dry. Your mother died two days ago. You will never have children.
You are alone in the world. You will always be alone.
The djinni appears, wrapped in thick smoke, and asks you your heart’s desire.
You think, immediately, of a warm bundle in your arms. Dimpled cheeks. Downy hair. A rosebud mouth latching your nipple. A tiny fist clutching your hair.
The rest of your life unfolds before you.
You are a just-turned eighteen-year-old.
You have prayed for this child every day. Your mother wanted a natini, a little girl-child to help raise – though the rest of her ilk plead with the gods for a boy-child – she wanted to teach her kathak just as she taught you, to adorn her doe eyes with kajal and oil her under the sun. But she died just after you got married.
The birth wrecks you. The doctors advised you not to bear children. Your mother-in-law forbade you from sleeping in the same room as her son, afraid you would put your life at risk.
But the baby called to you in dreams, cooing in the hollow of your ears. You felt her warm weight on your chest, her baby smell seeping into your pores.
Your husband died six months ago fighting for the British: they sent you his khukuri, rescued from the battlefield, but not his body. You were left alone, darkness creeping into your veins, but then you discovered the gift he left you. Your greatest wish, whispered every night into his sleeping ears, fulfilled.
You were ordered bedrest, forbidden from dancing or housework. You sat with the new maid as she cooked, passing on your mother and mother-in-law’s recipes, heating water as she scrubbed dishes engraved with your husband’s name. You sat by the kathak school, watching young dancers, feeling the baby drum-beating your stomach with her own little hands.
You ate plump jamun and platefuls of tiny river fish with achaar so spicy your eyes watered.
This baby is fire, you thought, smiling as you tore off another piece of pau.
Even when your mother-in-law ailed suddenly and passed from this world, even as debtors seized the haveli with its gilded peacocks and marble murtis, even as you sold your wedding gold, even as your silk and banarasi saris turned to dust, even as you moved into a hovel your old maid found you, even as you bartered away your precious collection of wrought silver pauju, you held the joy of her inside you.
You dried chillies and green mango and lemon in hordes, pickling and steeping them together, scooping them into cheap polythene bags to sell. You saved each ana in a tin dabba for hospital fees.
When she comes out of you, slick and bloody, on the tenth day of Dashain, you think she’s the most perfect thing, blessed by the gods themselves. The doctors let you see her, once, before they take you in to fix and stopper you.
You have almost bled to death, but thoughts of her keep your body pulsing with life. You will name her after her hajurama, teach her the dance that is your inheritance. You will make jars of achaar and run kathak classes. You will do everything in your power to fulfil her every wish.
When you wake from surgery, your baby is gone.
Her smell – that beautiful baby-smell, tinged with sweet jasmine, the oil your mother saved to rub on her skin – will haunt you for the rest of your life.
You are a just-turned eighteen-year-old, with a baby in your arms, when you ask, Where did this child come from?
You know your insides are fallow and this wonder you did not birth, though she looks like you, that same pale skin, the birthmark on the tip of her nose, a mirror of yours.
The djinni shows you. As you watch with horror, you wish, more than anything, that you’d never asked. But you are out of wishes by then. The truth of what you have done will haunt you for the rest of your life.
a child borne of wishes, shaped with regret
When she emerges from the past, she is not in a house filled with cold dead things.
They are on a rooftop, concrete hot under bare feet, clothes lines strung on wooden posts. She hears the street far below: cycle bells, the rattle of carts, pedlars calling.
Something buried inside her stirs. Her visions, the haveli, the bells, the stupas, all those ghostly words tumbling out of her mouth. This is where they belong. The knowledge of it swells, and swells, and swells –
Her hands grip the ledge. It is gritty, dusty sindhoor rubbing off on her palms. She closes her eyes. Her mother’s body crumpling in a crook of the attic. Another mother crumpling on a cheap hospital bed.
A throbbing behind her eyes; a brimming.
The djinni is at the edge of the rooftop, facing the horizon. She doesn’t ask if they are really here or if this is a fleeting vision, the vanishing tail end of a not-wish. Instead, she lets go of the ledge and lowers herself to the ground. Later, she will think about what comes next. Now, she tilts her face to the sky, clear and blue and endless.
She speaks only when the swelling has eased a little. ‘Would you like to sit with me?’
‘Am I obliged to?’ The djinni’s voice is quiet.
‘No,’ she says, ‘You are free to go as you please.’ She feels the weight of truth in these words, begins to understand that she is but a small borrowed piece in a chain of events slotting into place after centuries. ‘Your service ends with me.’
The djinni turns to survey her. She does not look; in these first moments of freedom, the djinni’s blaze must be brighter than the sun.
After a few moments, the djinni moves closer.
They sit side by side. She doesn’t know how much time passes. The sun is scorching, a prickling heat on her scalp and the tops of her shoulders. Her hands are warm to the touch. Prayer chants and incense swirl around them. She inhales deeply and notices the tightening of her skin. Curious, she rubs her arm where something seems to have hardened then loosened. It comes away. Underneath the fire, there is ash: an unseen skin, breathing.
The eight shortlisted stories will all be published online as an eBook, Home Stories, published by Comma Press (available to buy here).
The Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction will run again in 2022, with more details to be announced in due course.
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