Third prize prose winner of the Hart House Literary Contest in 2020 was Sana Mohsin, a student of Economics and English at U of T.
This is what the judges Antanas Sileika and A.M. Dellamonica said about Mohsin’s short story:
“Great opening images—the man’s glasses, the smell of incense, etc is strong scene setting. The handling of magic and mystery gave us confidence in what kind of universe the characters are moving through. The twist when her hand matches Kahla’s is an ominous development.”
This is like something out of Ami’s glossy magazines: the young heroine finds herself in the company of a peculiar old man with such thick glasses that he resembles a fruit fly. The room is hazy from incense, and the deep purple table cloth in front of her looks like it hasn’t been washed in years. Decades. She is in the presence of a fortune-teller; more specifically a palm-reader.
He leans in close, microscope and all; if nothing else at least I could appreciate his theatricality. He places the glass over the thin, fine lines on my palm and observes, silently.
I don’t know why I’m here. Actually, that’s a lie. I know exactly why I’m in this stuffy room in the basement of a decaying plaza, right in the center of the old city, miles away from where my life in Lahore actually begins and ends. Ami had seen an advertisement on her way back from a bazaar trip, and promptly decided that the twenty-two-year-old woman dwelling in her humble abode must go see what her future will be like. Just in case.
Ami would have had much in common with this man, with all her burning of chili peppers and slaughtering of goats to ward off the evil eye. And then her astrology columns that were read religiously every morning as soon as the Urdu-language newspaper was thrown at the gate, saved from the muddy hands of the children who want to read the comics. A palm-reader went along with her hysteria, her incessant planning to gather just enough good luck so that I can have a better life, a safer life without thunder and storms and insomnia until the early hours of the morning, right as the crows begin to gather.
We are a family left only of women, you see, constantly, carefully on our tip-toes. Ballet dancers with none of the grace.
It hadn’t been like this before.
“How strange…” the man says, pulling me away from the tornado of my thoughts and back to my current predicament. His beady eyes peered at me, and I feel almost compelled to ask:
He pauses. Lets the tension build up enough that even my curiosity is piqued. And then, finally, says, “Your hands. Your palm lines. How strange…”
“And what’s so strange about them?” I retort, patience running thin.
He smiles, and proceeds to say, “I’ve been in this business twenty-five years, I never forget a hand. Faces maybe, but never the palm lines. And I’ve seen these lines before… years ago, a young woman… much like yourself.”
Against my better judgment, I was hooked. He took my silence as a cue to continue speaking, “The same money-line, stretching towards the thumb… and the branched heart-line… and the fate-line… completely cut off…”
He leaned back and squinted at me, as if trying to place my face.
“I can’t for the life of me remember what she looked like. But her palm lines were exactly the same. I told her of her tragic kismet. Ill-fated, like you.”
A shiver ran down the length of my spine. I had heard that too much in my life. Ill-fated. Thrown towards me by Ami in moments of vulnerability, but first used for Khala who had disappeared nearly fifteen years ago. All my life I’ve been told how much I resemble her; the dry humour, the quick temper, or even the shared love for literature, if the countless paperbacks I had inherited from her any indication. My mother stares wistfully sometimes. I’m too frightened to call this a coincidence.
I get up and thank him for his time, but I had somewhere to be, somewhere very urgent so here’s the money and the all-knowing smile on his face simply grows.
I stepped outside from the haze of the dimly-lit room, the thick pollution of Lahore’s streets not helping in clearing my thoughts. What a strange man to have crossed my path. What a strange moment, to be reminded of the memories buried deep within the heart, all while navigating through the heart of the city. The crows on the too-low telephone lines cawed on my journey home; this isn’t the first-time bad omens have followed me.
Ami, of course, was ready to pounce as soon as the rickshaw dropped me home, wanting to know exactly what he said, how he said it, perhaps even why he said it, all in the space of one breath.
“Arré, how can I tell you my fortune? I’ve heard it’s bad luck if you tell anyone else,” I said, knowing well that superstitious Ami would never risk any sort of bad luck upon us, upon me. And sure enough, she agreed with a gasp, hand on her heart and all, and went back to her magazines.
In the privacy of my own room, I let my thoughts take over. If I had told Ami what the fortune-teller told me, we would have had to deal with the heartbreak. All over again. Nothing happens by chance; Khala had met him somehow, possibly due to Ami’s insistence as well. Ami and Khala, older and younger, had been as thick as thieves their entire lives, so it’s impossible that Khala had escaped becoming one of her targets to fulfill her superstitions.
In my daze I had forgotten he had confirmed our worst fear, had told Khala the same thing whatever many years ago.
Ill-fated. Ill-fated. Ill-fated.
Khala disappeared on a dark and stormy night, because anything else would have been too normal for her.
Light rain is expected on the humid nights of monsoon season, but storms are surprising. Dark, heavy clouds had been gathering all day, and the crows were gone from their poles, perhaps checking on someone else. I remember the bone-shaking claps of thunder, and the sound of Ami’s sobs when Khala had been missing a full twelve hours.
I was seven years old when I first learnt of tragedy.
She was magical, Khala was. Or is. I don’t know, we’ve never been sure. As I grow older she gets blurrier, so that all I remember now is the fragments that I sew together to make her whole. Her full-bellied laugh, loud and contagious. She knew Punjabi couplets from memory, Bulleh Shah and Baba Farid, and had one for every occasion, every mood. Nana, Ami’s father, would call her his ronak: his light, his brightness. Maybe that’s why the menacing glow of lighting weighs down the house whenever we get a thunderstorm now.
I wonder if the crows haunted her too?