You can read the interview that accompanies this fiction reprint here.
The thing everyone who came by Ashad’s already knew was that Ashad’s Mumma was crazy, or getting there at least, so close she could probably kiss crazy as it went by.
Ashad’s family had been big once, back in Shah times. They’d come over to Toronto after the Revolution and spun one store into three, then ten. But last month the original store had finally closed, after a solid year of Going Out of Business sales. Condo people didn’t want rugs anymore—not gabbeh, not kilim. Not without a million assurances they weren’t supporting child wage-slavery, or that every fibre wasn’t somehow soaked in blood.
“But it is!” Ashad’s Mumma would put in, however—with a horrid sort of cheer—whenever Ashad’s Dad complained around the dinner table. Which was yet one more way you could tell how fast the old lady was going off, sitting there smiling so pleasantly with her filmy eyes half-closed, an elegant set of bones covered in fine lace wrinkles, ricepaper skin and a long silk dress, her silver hair still painstakingly pin-curled in the height of 1950s fashion. God knew what she did all day, up there in her room. The only person who could so much as have a conversation with her, far as Nazneen could see, was the cleaning lady-cum-attendant Ashad’s Dad paid to come in, Shecilia.
“Why yah got that rug up on the wall, nah the floor?” Shecilia demanded. “Jus’ look at the dust on it! Pitiful, how yah treat an heirloom like that; thing fallin’ to flinders almost, that’s a fact. You need tah let me take it down, run the vacuum over it a time ah two, ‘fore it draw moths.”
But Ashad’s Mumma just shook her head. “Out of the question,” she said. “It is not to be touched—everyone here knows so.”
The rug in question was a gabbeh, thick and coarse-woven, probably almost an inch in depth, ninety by one hundred fifty centimetres. Its pattern was mainly grey on green on brown, squares on rectangles on stepped diamonds, with small, intensely red blocks and triangles scattered throughout—oddly drab yet strangely natural, its variegated colours breaking up in sub-textures like skin or sand, even the veins of dry-crisped autumn leaves. And while Nazneen thought it unlikely Ashad’s Mumma had had anything to do with its actual manufacture, she still had to give the old lady props for interesting taste.
“Why for nah, yah crazy old hen?” Shecilia demanded. At which Ashad’s Mumma’s eyes just narrowed further, an odd sort of cunning creeping in, and wouldn’t say, at first. Not with Shecilia around.
“Can you keep secrets, Indian?” she asked Nazneen, in a whisper, after pulling her aside into her room.
Nazneen’s parents were from Pakistan, but she didn’t see the point in correcting someone this old, let alone this crazy. “Depends,” she replied, instead.
“Well, it makes no matter, probably; I must tell, before I die.”
The upshot was—and Nazneen couldn’t believe she was even telling Ashad this, later on—that the reason the gabbeh had to stay on the wall, potential moth damage notwithstanding, was that if you put it on the floor, you might step onto it (duh). And if you stepped onto it… you fell in.
“In where?” Ashad asked, eyebrows hiking.
“Oh God, I don’t even… the Zagros Mountains, maybe? Or somewhere near Shahr-e Sukhteh, the Burnt City?”
“Those places are nowhere near each other, Naz.”
“Look, I don’t know. Besides which, apparently you end up sometime else, not just someplace. This day back whenever, when a whole village was wiped out.” She nodded at the gabbeh. “That’s the grey and green, in case you’re wondering.”
“How can you even tell?”
“You can’t—everything has to be done all geometric because no representation, right? I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff.” As Ashad shrugged: “Point is, if you know what the gabbeh’s theme is, you can sort of work out the story. Better yet, you have your Mumma to explain it to me, so there you go.”
Ashad peered at the gabbeh, not quite close enough for contact. “Dad says Baba ran off with a loose woman after the third store opened, because Mumma was so hard to live with. He says his friends saw them out in Mississauga at some fancy nightclub that doesn’t exist anymore, eating pork and drinking.”
“Yeah? Well, she says he’s that little red blotch, there. The one that doesn’t look like a triangle or a square.” Ashad did, frowning. “Says he must’ve fell right in the thick of it, and how that would’ve been a real bad day to be on the ground, because that was the day your family came in and killed everybody over—salt, or something. Something like that.”
“Salt was probably worth a lot, back then,” Ashad said. “Still is, right now.”
“Lots of places.”
“Okay, anyhow: They killed everybody, and then I guess they felt bad, and somebody made a rug out of it. And the rug eats people. So that’s why it stays up.”
“Yeah, well—not for long.”
Ashad knew lots of people, one of whom claimed to be an antiques appraiser with a specialty in fabrics, and he’d already made it clear he didn’t intend to wait for whatever portion was coming his way from the family’s corporate dissolution proceedings—fine with Nazneen, since part of his immediate need for money involved the two of them disappearing off to someplace her own family wouldn’t be able to easily locate them. Still, the less said about that, the better.
So they waited until his Dad had taken Mumma off to her monthly glaucoma check-up, when no one but Shecilia was supposed to be home. As perhaps the single most pragmatic person in the mix these days, she hadn’t put up much protest when approached; simply named the size of cut she wanted to let them in, and to run interference should the older generation happen to get back early. Ashad saw bribing her as an investment, and Nazneen had no real proof he wasn’t right; people were like that, she’d found. Mostly.
Which was why it made for somewhat of a surprise when Shecilia didn’t answer the door on the first ring, or the tenth.
“’Round the back,” Ashad said. “There’s an extra key, unless Dad’s moved it.”
Upstairs in Mumma’s room, all they found was the rug on the floor and the brand-new Dyson Ball vacuum cleaner just sitting there, half on top of it and half off, still plugged in, and roaring. “Shecilia?” Nazneen called, looking around.
Ashad shrugged, checking his watch. Remarked: “She had the right idea, at least…”
…and, picking up the vacuum’s pipe-shaft, took two brisk steps over the gabbeh’s thin, blood-colored border-band. His shoes came down silent, one, two: “Don’t!” Nazneen warned, automatically—
—and found herself, abruptly, all the more doubly alone, letting the last part of the word trail away into empty air. The vacuum fallen, in a new place on the rug, still roaring.
No way of telling how long she stood there, vaulted instinctively back, to hug the wall; her eyes felt fixed, distended and dry, pupils pin-point. What she would remember, for years after, was how she only jolted awake again when, below, the doorbell rang once more.
The appraiser, a brisk lady all done up in taupe, seemed a bit taken aback when Nazneen answered. “I’m… here to see Ashad?” she said, trying to stare around her.
Good luck with that, Nazneen thought. Hearing herself reply, at the same time: “Oh, he’s just—up… there—”
But the appraiser was already shrugging her way towards the stairs, taking them two at a time. “Oh, never mind,” she called down, “I think I see… is this it?”
Yes, Nazneen felt her lips shape. Then, quickly: But no, don’t, I really wouldn’t, wait—
But nothing more followed—not a scream, not a thud, nothing. The vacuum roared on. And then she was sliding down the door-frame with the filmy back of her hijab knocking and rucking itself along the wood-grain: Slack all over and slumped into herself, too weak to peel herself free, even to raise her hands far enough to cover her own eyes.
It didn’t matter. The gabbeh’s pattern hung in the air in front of her, pulsing: A blotch for Ashad’s Baba, another for the appraiser. Another for Ashad himself.
Rout and fire, mayhem and chaos, blood for salt reduced to a cool, grey-green-brown tangle of geometric shapes inside a thin red edging. A square of guilt, pure and thick and hungry, always hungry. Always, and forever.
Ashad’s Dad had to force the door to get in, sending Nazneen toppling onto her side, curled foetally. When he saw her, he took off running, following almost the same path everyone else had. Except that he must’ve stopped just short of the rug itself, because when he began to wail, it cut through Nazneen like a knife.
Ashad’s Mumma, meanwhile, surprised Nazneen by lowering herself just far enough to stroke the hump of Nazneen’s shoulders, as though gentling a horse. “There, there,” she said. “You see, Indian? Did I lie? This has happened before, so many times. It will happen again, surely, just as many.”
“You should burn it,” Nazneen whispered, into the floorboards. And felt the old lady sigh, her fingers thin and sharp as bird-bones.
“But it is ours,” was all she said, finally. And to this, even as Ashad’s Dad cried on, striking his forehead over and over against the hardwood floor of the corridor outside his mother’s room—
—there really could be no possible reply.
E N D
Gemma Files began as a film reviewer, and now writes the sort of things she’d like to see at the movies. Overwhelmingly, these narratives are dark in slant, ranging over a spectrum that includes everything from classic M.R. Jamesian ghost stories and nihilistic body horror to what may or may not be the only queer-positive Weird Western novel series featuring random black magic and bloodthirsty Aztec gods (the Hexslinger series, from ChiZine Publications). Critics have called her work both poetic and pornographic, which she’s fine with. Her most recent book, the stand-alone horror tale Experimental Film, won both the 2015 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2015 Sunburst Award for Best Adult Novel. She has three new collections of short fiction coming out in 2018, two (Spectral Evidence and Drawn Up From Deep Places) from Trepidatio Publishing, the other (Dark Is Better) from Cemetery Dance. She is currently hard at work on her next novel.
Original illustration by Luke Spooner, AKA Carrion House.