Content Warnings: child sex abuse, PTSD
“Nuclear Disassociations” by Aqdas Aftab
4,563 words, Short Fiction
CW: child sex abuse, PTSD
Nanu and I wake up at the same time in the middle of the night, wheezing, covered in cold sweat, both recovering from rapid heartbeats. I kick the sheets off and rub the fear out of my eyes. It has been two years since the attack, two years since we found safety underground, but Nanu still has nightmares. I reach over to her silhouette, my hand patting her mat aimlessly to feel some comfort, to rub the familiar fabric of her shawl with my fingertips. After wiping her forehead, Nanu moves her mat closer to mine and offers to hold me. I try to extend my arms, but my gills feel bumpy. I’m still not used to these. I don’t want anyone to touch them, even Nanu, so I shake my head. Say no when you don’t want something. Nanu’s constant reiteration echoes through the residual terror of my ebbing nightmare, but somehow, the effort to utter a no still constricts my muscles, somehow; my tongue sticks and stumbles in my mouth every time I try to reject the offer of touch. Instead, I shake my head vigorously, so Nanu can feel my response even in the opacity of the airless night. “Okay, my jaan, let me just sing the azaan to you then.” Nanu’s musical rendition of the azaan overtakes my fuzzy mindscape, lulling me back and forth from dream to reality, but keeping me from regressing into nightmare.
Some rituals don’t change, even when everything else does. Nanu had sung the azaan to me when I was born 20 years ago, when she wanted god’s call to be the first sound that her grandchildren heard when we came out of wombs, wet and weepy and hairy. She believes that sleep is half-death. That we rise from death every time we wake up. That our soul changes with every awakening. That every morning, like every bodily metamorphosis, is re-birth. And every awakening, albeit frightening, is like evading death again. “Just a dream, my jaan. I have them, too. Have faith that Allah will protect us here. He has so far, hasn’t he?” She strokes my hair.
“You mean ‘she’” I mutter with my eyes closed and take her shawl between my thumb and forefinger, circling the tenderness of the fabric gently. I wonder if I fake this annoyance at her to maintain the relationship we had two years ago, when our world was still made up of rooms and streets and bazaars, when our conversations were laced with the gender politics I was learning from exciting books, when our lives still had sunlight. I wonder if I have nostalgia for that normalcy, even though a part of me is relieved that the life I knew is buried under rubble now.
“Yes, She. Whatever you call her or him. Have faith. Allah hu akbar allah hu akbar, hayyee alul falaah, hayyee alul salaaah” She continues singing the azaan and, as always, gets stuck on the phrase hayyee alul falaaah, repeating it over and over again.
Nanu’s lullabies and azaans rarely soothe me, and often her off-tune singing of an archaic Arabic phrase in a Punjabi accent irritates me, but this time, I let myself feel her gesture. The stillness of the underground darkness has taught me to need her despite the annoyance, and to share my pain with her without revealing the content of my nightmares, which unlike hers, are seldom about the attack that she and I survived together.
I have learned to embrace love with silence in the past two years of living deep within the caves of granite rocks, away from the nuclear radiation above. There isn’t much else to do here anyway except make paltry plans with the neighbors about our eventual escape from the nuclear wasteland above us and watch each others’ bodies metamorphose. Wings, seeds, wood, claws, mushrooms, horns, I’ve seen it all by now. But I am bored and tired of everyone’s optimism, of their plans to escape without catching any of the nuclear radiation. They think this fucked up metamorphosis is some heavenly signal from God. They think our bodily communication with other survivors elsewhere will somehow help us all make some grand plan to overthrow the armies that still send creeping machines to kill us, the armies of white bodies that can’t even step foot on this land as they try to steal it. Nanu thinks she can plot some grand revolution with the survivors from underground while the world bombs itself into tears above us. I keep telling everyone around me it won’t work. That we don’t even know if anything exists above ground anymore. That we don’t even know the exact location of the safe pockets where we were forced to take refuge. But I guess they believe more in faith than in my textbook knowledge of the intricacies of physics. Nanu has guessed that we are somewhere between Kandahar and Gwadar, but no one knows how we ended up here, so far from our different homes.
I spend most of my time daydreaming or writing or eating or carving shapes into walls. Anything to distract myself from everyone’s intent calculations, their conjectures about what the world looks like above, their communal ecstatic prayerful singing. Staying at an appropriate distance from the others, I usually direct my energies into imagining new stories, or making new colors with the dyes I squeeze from flowers, or sometimes, but only during very desperate moments, praying quietly.
This is not one of those times. I am used to nightmares. I have had them since I was an almost-pubescent child, groveling for some safety in the secure urban home where the smell of cardamom and cloves woke me up every morning. I look over at Nanu’s wrinkles in the dark as she calms her post-nightmare breathing, whispering the same phrase of the azaan, over and over and over again. She still dreams almost every night about the attack. Many people here do. I wonder if Nanu’s nightmares about the attack are worse than mine. If remembrances of a nuclear attack are worse than those of insidious familial attacks. I wonder if it’s better to be attacked by the people we love, people we can know and name, or by slithering machines controlled by god knows who, by wires and wheels that don’t allow us to place blame on a single person. I wonder if Nanu’s heartbeat feels more painful because of her asthma, her aging organs, her crinkling leathery skin. I kiss her forehead before falling back to sleep, still circling the fabric of her shawl between my thumb and finger, over and over and over again.
The next morning, I am excited for the monthly gathering led by an auntie who claims to have spent her life healing others. I’ve always found those social worker types annoying, but I have grown to like this particular auntie. Her healing circle is the only time I interact fully and wholesomely with our neighbors and make all efforts to stay mentally present as everyone digs deep into their feelings about this new underground life. As always, Nanu refuses to attend. She says she’d rather cook and pray and dance to heal, but I think she’s just afraid to talk about things that remind her of the attack, that bring back the helplessness she felt during those days. She’s similar to Ma in that way, refusing to talk about things that are hard, refusing to verbally acknowledge the terrible.
The gathering starts with the usual exercise of touch. We all stand in a circle and hold hands with a new partner. This month, my partner is orange-pink, with long black curls and eyes that remind me of the inside of cantaloupes. Full, seedy, juicy. I cup his hands, stare into his eyes for many long minutes, and he asks me to feel the wings growing out of his back. Wings on a fruit; I find this being striking. I touch his wings gently. Soft. Velvety. I ask him if I can run my fingers through them. He says no. We are supposed to say no. At least once. Healer Auntie thought it would be a good idea to practice this every month. To get comfortable with boundaries, since we have no other form of privacy in this large cave. I keep ogling his eyes, hoping this was his compulsory no, the no he does not mean, the no he says simply to practice a refusal. I hope that he will change his answer, but he doesn’t. He stares back into my eyes, perhaps hoping the same, that I will ask him to touch a part of me. The intimacy moves something in me, something that makes my hard scales feel squishy, feel like quivering, but I do not invite any touch as usual. I simply cup his hands in mine, looking into his eyes, so sweet and so seedy.
I am a little disappointed when the introductory exercise is over, and everyone starts sharing their feelings verbally. Not because I have to break my gaze with his fruity, fleshy eyes or move away from his sweet-smelling texture, certainly not, he is certainly not the type I like to gaze or smell, but because the sharing becomes sanguine. Once again.
A bright-eyed young person raves about her new experience. “My body changed again last night. I talked to someone old. Beautiful deep voice. They sang to me. I haven’t heard such good music in so long. It was the best experience ever!” I roll my eyes, again. Again, I wait for a window to talk about feelings that have become so numb they are unspeakable, about the people we lost but still haven’t grieved fully, about the destruction of the world above us, but like always, I don’t know how to intervene, how to change the direction of the gathering. But that is what this gathering is all about isn’t it? I cajole myself as another familiar face rambles on and on about how magical they felt when they first metamorphosed, as if all the rubble and damage of their life finally led to something meaningful. This gathering is all about honesty after all. This is what Nanu teaches me. To say no. Even if I have to say no to other people’s joy. I wait for a moment of silence as I adjust my tongue, keeping it from touching the roof of my mouth, holding it still as I get ready to speak without stuttering on my words, without choking on my own breath.
“Maybe you all feel good about it because you never really knew what’s at stake in changing one’s body.”
A long awkward pause. I cough to fill up the silence.
“Can you share more?” The fruity person next to me asks. His eyes are nudging, gentle.
“Well, the first time. It was just hard, you know. Hard to adjust. To all these new bonds. With you all and to strangers who spoke through our bodies. To a new body. I wish we could talk about how hard it was.”
“But what was the love like for you? The communication?” His eyes speak more this time. I think I hate them. Fleshy fruits inviting nibbles.
“Fucked up. Like I was going mad. I thought I had lost it. Like I was hallucinating this voice inside my belly, like my intestines were talking to me. Really fucked. I just had no control. And I feel the same way every time I go through it, even though I’ve metamorphosed only three times.” I hate that he asks me this pointed question. I hate that I can’t explain my feelings to him.
“How come?” An enthusiastic child asks, “I’ve changed so many times, I can’t even count.”
“I guess I caught less of the radiation. Or maybe my body was already too transformed for the radiation to do much. Maybe I was already monster enough!” I laugh to replace the awkwardness pulsating through my limbs, suddenly on display for everyone’s probing eyes. I shift my arms. Fold them over my gills. Then unfold them, unsure of what to do with my limbs all of a sudden. I feel my back muscles tense up as my gills close in.
Healer Auntie asks me what that means. That she truly wants to understand my experience. I ignore her. Roll my eyes again. Gestures are so much easier than words. Besides, what would she know about all the meanings and all the baggage that my body holds?
“How does it feel to be connected to others in different parts of the world, our kinfolk we’ve never met?” His annoying eyes again.
“They are not our kinfolk.” I look around at people’s shock. My voice is louder and shakier than I intend. “Sorry to be a killjoy, but really, we never chose these people. I didn’t choose to communicate with these people while my body grows strange organs.”
“But have you ever considered what the attack led to!” His eyes are dreamy now, his pupils glazed, as if gazing into another world. “They wanted to break us. Those imperialist men. Those military women. That’s what they do. Categorize us. Put us into grids. And instead, we became even more bonded. Tied to people elsewhere. Connected through our bodies. Isn’t that beautiful? Shouldn’t we thank god for the gift of these connections?” I hate that I find his eyes so pretty. I hate that I can feel my cheeks heat up. I hate that I cannot speak coherently, that my tongue feels stuck to my gums, that my heart is racing faster than the bullets tearing human flesh above ground.
A deeply flustering anger rattles me inside my gills and I laugh loudly to break the cadence of the gathering before leaving the circle. “Fuck off. The only thing I thank any deity for is that I share voices and bodies with these strangers way less than you all. I wouldn’t stand changing a body every fucking week.”
My pulse refuses to slow down as I walk away. My back feels cold with his concerned juicy gaze perforating me, wetting my spine. I know I will ruminate for days about this, that I will regret this unkindness, but I leave the circle anyway and join Nanu in her silent dance, unbind my chest as I move, teaching myself step by step to breathe through these gills I do not want, these gills that will remain unchanged for the next two years. Perhaps this is better than what I had before. Perhaps I can make peace with these gills, with this new scaly skin. Perhaps I can learn to be comfortable in this body. I did spend the many years of familial betrayal before the attack trying to do the same after all.
“Who are you? How can we talk? Am I going crazy?” the voice in my body wouldn’t stop asking questions. Shit, it’s happening again, and this time, it sounds like a child.
The flab hanging from my gills flutters when I sigh deeply. How do I describe to a child what is happening to them? How do I tell a child that material waste is probably exuding radiations so vicious that veins are disentangling from bones, that the earth is probably shuddering with fear, but somehow we should be happy because we are safe? How should I explain that the dead around them are simply collateral damage for some imagined greater good?
I think of Nanu. Her teachings. Her stillness, her silence, her love. And decide to calm this child whose frightened voice is radiating whimpers through my abdomen.
“Deep breaths, child. Take deep breaths. It’s all okay. I am your friend. We are connected now. Do they know where you are?”
The child is crying now.
“It’s going to be okay. If this is happening to you, you are probably safe. I am also safe. We are both safe and connected. But your body will change after this is over okay? You might get my gills and I might get parts of you. And don’t worry about it. You’ll get used to it.”
No response. Just hiccups and moans. And then silence.
Another useless conversation with another nuclear survivor somewhere in the world. Nothing comes out of it, no information, no plan for an escape, but I do feel a deep agonizing tenderness towards the child. Their voice disappears but the sadness of this communication lingers within me. Another shift begins in my body. Fuck! I insert my hands deep within the openings in my chest and finger my insides, feeling the sponginess harden slowly. My back closes into my ribs as a fierce wave rushes through my lungs. I hold onto my chest so tightly my breathing is constricted. But no matter how tenaciously I hold my breath, my gills dissolve through my fingers. I feel the rough ridges of my scales smoothen as a silken skin emerges through the rupturing hardness of my shoulders. Sericin erupts and spreads through my upper body, softening the skin on my chest. Tiny multicolored crochets pepper my legs. I had finally decided to learn to use these gills. I had spent two whole years learning to love them. And now again, I had to transform parts of my body. New skin. New silk. New bones. New forms of dysphoria.
“Sit still, baita” Nanu’s shadow bends over my metamorphosizing body as she sings the azaan in my ear. “Allaahu akbar, allaahu akbar, hayyee alul salaaah.”
“I never learn anything from the comrades, Nanu, nothing. This time, it was a child. I wish I never had this communication.” I try to wriggle free of her warm embrace as she finishes singing the azaan. She makes sure to complete the azaan before saying anything else to me.
“Hold still, this is re-birth, a new awakening, a new life!” she sounds hopeful, joyous.
Not surprisingly, Nanu acts like it is my first time on earth. Like a fresh morning. Nanu is used to these changes, but to me, each new body still feels like imprisonment, not like re-birth, and certainly not like a fresh start. Even when I try to get used to the body. Even when I decide to make changes to my skin on my own terms. But I know what Nanu would say if I complained to her. That this is a small price to pay for our sacred familial communication with the survivors elsewhere. That we have to keep communicating with them in order to forge possibilities of escape from living amidst nuclear waste. “They are not just comrades, my jaan, they are our family now. Family bonds are more important than gaining information for resistance or escape,” Nanu says after completing her azaan ritual. Her teachings have become tedious now. “Our communication with our kinfolk doesn’t have to lead to anything tangible. It just has to be sincere. It has to form connections so we can get to know our kin. All the survivors are family. We all literally share skin and bone and blood. And what is more important than the bond of blood?”
Like always, I shrug and say nothing. Like always, my heart pounds as images from my nightmares flash before me when she uses the language of family. It has been years since I lost my biological parents and sibling. Years since their flesh was branded with thermal burns. Years since I left their bodies and took refuge inside granite with my Nanu. Every remembrance of that time, however momentary, envelops my heart in contradictions: the grief at losing family, the trauma of seeing them bombed, the relief at breaking contact with their abusive tirades, all coalescing into one painful breath.
Somehow, Nanu’s descriptions of family as safe, as important, as loving, still confuse me. Still remind me of that house, of that room, of that bed. Of those years when a body was stolen, piece by piece, touch by touch, finger by finger. A body already stolen, plundered again, like this land we hide under, like this bleeding geography that was already occupied by our own military even before it was bombed by imperialists, before some of us died and some of us metamorphosed. But somehow, we are supposed to remember only the last violence. Somehow, we are supposed to celebrate only the most recent survival. Stupidly, we are supposed to lament only the latest attack. Just the machines that blew up our homes. Just the aftershocks of that particular injury. But this body remembers. This body that I see from within and from afar, this body that I step out of to gawk its changing features, sometimes loathingly, sometimes lovingly. This body wanders through this new detached existence while my mind wonders what will become of others like me, ripped apart from such lost ambling bodies even before the machinic assault pierced through our skins, even before we learned to survive by exchanging bodies with each other, with other creatures, with other life that has been trying to teach us symbiosis since centuries. This body speaks secretly to this land, still grieving the years seemingly forgotten, still angry, still bitter over the long past.
The past is too long and too bruised, even Nanu’s, but when Nanu has nightmares, she dreams only of those insidious machines that slapped invisible radiation onto human skin. She seems to remember only the debris of this recent terror. But how can I blame her for forgetting, when I’ve told her nothing about the violence that my first body went through, about the homely attacks that plodded on and lurked under my purple nightshirt before my home was set aflame? I can’t tell Nanu about the sibling abuse. I can’t tell her about the parental neglect. I can’t tell her now, I can’t do that to her soft heart. Can’t tell her that family has never meant sincerity and love to me. How could I explain to Nanu how much I hate adopting other bodies without telling her about the imprints left on my mind and heart from my first body? I guess Ma was right, that some things are best left unsaid.
Nanu, who metamorphoses frequently despite her old age, loves her communication with other nuclear survivors. She has to recover from the excessive fatigue every time she changes a body part, but she thrives over finding community through bodily connection, through other people’s voice resounding through her insides. She asks the survivors for recipe ideas that involve the roots and salt she finds underground, she shares folktales when she communicates with someone younger, she laughs and dreams of leading her clan to meet all the nuclear survivors at the utopian cusp where land meets the sea as her body changes over and over and over again. My heart swells seeing Nanu so fulfilled holding her imagined kin deep in her bosom.
But I also know this life isn’t for me. This life of forced bodily changes, of pretending that strangers are my family, of pretending that family is good, of imagining that escape means swimming away from Gwadar, of racing heartbeats, of holding silences and secrets so deep that even my nightmares cannot access them.
On my 25th birthday, I decide to give up learning to fly. These feathers have been useless, like another vestigial organ I do not need. Nothing like the wings I dreamt of when I was child.
A whole year with these feathers sprouting out of my head, replacing my lashes, creating an ugly moustache above my lips, and still, nothing. No flight, no sway, not even a slight ability to hover. I step out of my skin and stare at my body closely. I feel nothing. No guilt. No hatred. No disgust. No pride. This numbness is exactly what I need to cease all communication with the survivors. To end this metamorphosing existence. To unhear any sound that screams within my belly. When I tell Nanu I have decided to be passive during the communications, to ignore the voices inside my body, she shakes her head slowly, looking at me long and hard. After seeing the resolve in my eyes, she moves her sleeping mat away from mine. Then, one by one, she moves all her objects away from my mat. Her papers, her dyes, her baskets, her shawls. My feathery fingers miss the texture of her shawls folded neatly, far away from me. Granite loneliness really feels crushing and bleak. Land loneliness doesn’t compare. But I have to stop the unwanted bodily changes, I have to slow down my heart. Finally. I must go on. No steps backwards. Even if Nanu refuses to hold me anymore.
Since communications happen internally, I’m not sure if I can say no to them. I’m not sure if my numbness, my disengagement, my dissociation will keep me from changing. But when the voice of another survivor rises inside my stomach soon after my confession to Nanu, I take the deepest breath my lungs can muster, clutching my stomach, feeling it shrink. I hold my breath. When I hear a voice, I force my mind to step out of my body. I start to think about the time I drew for so long I collapsed. I go over my drawings, slowly, with focus. I know how to control my mind, even if I can’t control my body. I fixate on my breathing, on my drawings, on that time, on the sketches I made, on the figures I scratched into the wall—but I hear a giggle. My breath catches in my throat. Another giggle, followed by plea for comfort. Familiar voice. Young. Tender. But I have to refuse any response. I watch myself sitting cross-legged, staring at Nanu’s mat far away from mine, passive, unresponsive. I think of the drawings, I count each line, each curve I had drawn that day—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7,– but my body has started to change. Again.
I keep sitting, staring at Nanu’s wrinkled hands as she crushes black salt, her new night ritual before she can sleep. I watch Nanu as she grinds the salt, holding the pestle with both hands, clasping the mortar between her thighs. Perhaps the physical movements help her insomnia. Perhaps she has figured out her own ways of carrying her body into a restful sleep, free of frightened awakenings. I think about her sleep, even as I try to focus on my previous drawings. I am breathing slowly, my feathered chest rising and falling, my lips moving silently as I count, synchronizing my breath with Nanu’s repetitive movements as she works the salt. Defeated, my mind steps back into my body. New tingling nerves. New bones. New strange external organs on my chest. Without Nanu’s melodic spiritual awakening in my ear.
Metamorphosis, despite the refusal. Metamorphosis, without the love of the azaan. Reluctantly, I run my fingers over my waist and hips to feel what bodily alienness I am supposed to get used to next. Surprised to feel scales appear over my skin, I look away from Nanu and examine my new chest. My heart is still pounding fast and hard, but I have my old, familiar gills back. Fingering the sponginess inside my gills gently, I whisper to my new chest. Hayee alul falah, hayee alul falah, hayee alul falah. I keep whispering the same phrase over and over again until I fall asleep.
Aqdas is a reader, writer, educator, and dreamer from Islamabad, currently living in Washington DC, where they are working towards their PhD in decolonial trans studies at the University of Maryland. These days, aqdas is thinking about spirituality, love and prayer through the framework of prison abolition and queer liberation.