By Noor Imaan
2023 Winner of the
Breakwater Review Fiction Contest
"'Moonspotting' is a glorious fever dream, a tale of secret love that seems to unfold outside of time and even place. Like all the best stories it defies synopsis, being 'about' much more than one would realize in hearing it described. Desire--for another, for deliverance, for understanding--features prominently, but so, too, do all the forces that keep us apart: class, sectarian divides, cultural prohibitions, the damage wrought by one generation upon the next. In the end, 'Moonspotting' succeeds so wonderfully by accomplishing that most improbable of feats, the creation of a whole, real, lived-in world on the head of a pin."
— Ron Currie, 23' Judge
Last week Prem broke into the mosque and emptied the donations box. He bought hasheesh, five bottles of daru, and three evenings with the girls at the brothel. He promised to treat us to a meal of chicken kebabs with the remaining money, but that never happened. The muezzin found him out one way or another, and before the week was over the whole neighborhood knew. Prem’s father slapped him and flushed the hasheesh down the toilet. He offered the mosque a return but the muezzin refused to accept it. Instead he took to announcing the dangers of infidel parents and wayward youths through the microphone at the top of the minaret.
“Allah is watching the non-believers,” he warned before starting the daily calls to prayer.
Now Prem had a curfew and no allowance. His father did not speak to him and his mother slept with the key to the liquor cabinet beneath her pillow.
“Those Muslims,” said Prem, “are ruining my life.”
So when Sahil said he needed to take a piss after we drank bhang at the night market, I wasn’t surprised when Prem led us to the three-story house near the woods. It was dark and the bungalow glowed like a ghost, the paint on its walls pale-blue and peeling. The curtains were drawn across the windows, but Prem told me to stay back nonetheless. I stood beneath a starfruit tree and took a last drag from my biri before crushing it with my heel. Ahead, Prem was instructing Sahil to relieve himself at the muezzin’s doorstep. It wasn’t until after he had pulled up his pants that I saw the white-clad figure peering down from the roof. She stood still, the thin cloth draped over her head fluttering in the wind. Her eyes held disdain as they met my own. Though her face was beautiful, something about it filled me with dread and I ran, leaving Prem and Sahil behind.
That night I could not sleep. Each time I closed my eyes the girl appeared before me. Who was she? Why had I never seen her before? What was she doing on the roof at that hour? These questions prodded me, unrelenting, and a strange fever spread through my body. In the morning my mother pressed a hand against my forehead and called for the doctor, who could not pinpoint the cause of my ailment. I swallowed potassium pills with hot ginger cha and laid in bed till noon when the phone rang.
It was Sahil. Last night the girl had hurled a potted plant at him. It hit his shoulder, leaving him bruised.
“We barely got away,” he said. “Why didn’t you warn us?”
I told him I had seen a ghost, that it had cursed me and now I was sick.
“Good,” he said before hanging up. “I hope you die.”
She only appeared at night. This I learned after strolling past her house at dawn, at noon, at dusk. The muezzin strode to and from the mosque at daily intervals, and I hid behind the rose bushes to stay undetected. His belly protruded behind the chalk-white kurta he always wore, and his beard quivered, red with henna, as he recited surahs beneath his breath. It was difficult to imagine him having such a pretty daughter. What did her mother look like? I had never seen her, nor did I know anyone who had.
“Come out with us tonight,” said Prem during class. He had tickets to the latest picture playing in the neighboring cinema hall, the one in the back alley, with images of women in low-cut blouses graffitied on the walls.
“I have to study,” I said, which was a bad lie, as everyone knew that my father made yearly donations to the school to keep me enrolled. Prem and Sahil watched me with suspicion as I bade them goodbye and walked towards my house. Once they were gone I changed direction. I hid in the garden and waited for her to emerge, but she didn’t. A window was open, and I heard the notes of a harmonium. I considered climbing a mango tree to get a glimpse into the house. Was that her playing the instrument? I was sure of it. I imagined her sitting on the floor like a mermaid, her nimble fingers pressing the keys, and felt feverish again.
“A weak disposition,” said Baba as I sat across from him at supper. “How will you run a business if you fall ill all the time?”
Baba only spoke of three things: the number of rooms that had been booked in his bed-and-breakfast each week, my shortcomings as a son, and how the Muslim neighbors were ruining the community.
“Animals,” he said whenever he smelled them cooking meat.
As usual, I agreed with him. I retreated to my room after supper, locked the door, and turned off the lights. Then I snuck out the window. This time my wait in the garden was brief before she appeared on the roof. She rested her arms on the railing and looked up at the moon. The white cloth slipped off her head and her hair unspooled down her shoulders, black as ink.
Every night I watched her. I wrote her notes in-between classes. I thought of ways to make myself known to her. Then I saw Sahil and remembered the potted plant and stayed out of sight.
The only other person who left the house was a young boy who could not have been older than twelve. He wore a blue cap and brown Bata sandals. I had seen him here and there, bartering at the fish market or carrying bushels of green bananas on his shoulders. One day I followed him and caught him staring at the bakery, so I bought him a bakarkhani, the good kind, with extra ghee. He pocketed it, saying he would save it for iftar. Then he answered my questions. The girl’s name was Sonali. Her mother had died when she was a child, and her father guarded her closely. She was a year younger than me, home-schooled, and liked to eat jalebis. It was difficult for her to fast and she often cheated, and every night she watched the moon to see how close they were to the end of Ramadan.
Sonali. It seemed to me the perfect name. I said it over and over, feeling it form in my mouth. I wrote and rewrote it on pieces of paper, then crossed it out because my handwriting did not do it justice. Finally, I completed a brief letter. I taped it to a small box of laddoos and gave it to the boy, who brought back a response three days later.
The laddoos were dry, it said in a clean, cursive hand, but I ate them anyway.
I sent a pound of malaikari, dripping in syrup. I bought kalojam, shadhajam and sweet curd in clay pots. I stayed up all night to watch her watch the moon. I slept through classes and took my lunch at the market, where I waited for the boy to bring me her notes.
Show yourself, the last one said, and my skin began to burn. With shaking hands I wrote back that I would be in the garden that night, and every night after.
She emerged beneath the half-moon dressed in a lavender kurti. My throat was dry as I stepped out of the bushes. I had put on my best shirt and close-toed leather shoes. She looked at me, and for a moment I was afraid she would reach for a potted plant. Then she lowered her gaze. We stood there till dawn.
I wrote about her shy eyes, her feather lashes, her crescent lips. I said she was the most beautiful girl in the village, in the country, and perhaps the world.
Nonsense, she wrote back. You have only seen me in the dark.
So come out in the light.
The boy met me at the butcher shop two days later. He pocketed the taka I gave him as I read her response.
Tomorrow afternoon. Abba has given me permission to go to the market to look at Eid clothes. My maid will come with me.
I followed them on a rickshaw. The maid trailed Sonali as she flitted from stall to stall, admiring this saree and that kameez. From a distance I saw her reflection as she stopped by a mirror. Now and then I caught her stealing glances at me. Her hair was covered with a cream-colored cloth. Her face was shaped like a mango. The shopkeeper gave her bangles to try on. She had dainty hands, with small wrists and unpolished nails. I wanted to hold them. Did I dare stand next to her? What would we look like side by side?
The maid haggled with the shopkeeper and then they moved on. The bangles were too expensive. I bought them and gave it to the boy the next time I saw him.
You shouldn’t have, she wrote, but I knew she was pleased. Her arms glimmered red and gold, like a new bride’s, in the light of the moon.
I needed more pocket money, so I helped Baba at the bed-and-breakfast. The employees saluted me and brought samosas on a plate. I nodded along as Baba spoke of logs and numbers.
“Soon this will all be yours,” he said, and praised me for my initiative. Then he saw that my calculations didn’t match his and called me a gadha.
“Do they teach mathematics at your school?” he asked.
“And you are studying hard?”
“Or are you wasting time with those lazy friends of yours?”
“Yes, Baba. I mean no, Baba.”
He glared at me with furrowed eyebrows and said that money couldn’t buy brains. Then he told me to get out of his sight.
At home Ma could tell that he had yelled at me again, so she made me cha with extra jaggery. She untied the knot at the end of her sari and gave me a few hundred taka.
“Don’t tell your Baba,” she whispered. Last time he had found out and slapped her. He called her a good-for-nothing woman who was raising a good-for-nothing son. I had listened to her weeping from my bedroom. I wanted to go to her, but I heard Baba’s footsteps in the living room and did nothing.
I bought Sonali a hairpin, the kind with cascading jhumkas. She fastened it to her braid as I watched from below.
I want to give you something in return, she wrote.
A day in the park, I requested. A boat ride on the river. Your head resting on my shoulder as I play with your hair.
There was no note in the next envelope. Instead I found a lock of black hair, tied with a thin blue ribbon. I carried it with me everywhere.
The moon was thinning and exams were drawing near, but I kept falling asleep in class. Prem had stopped asking me to go out, and Sahil sat between us in silence. I scribbled letters on the back of exercise papers and folded them into flowers.
You should study, she wrote, so I sat with my textbooks beneath the starfruit tree. Every now and then I glanced up at her as she flipped through a volume of poetry.
I want to read what you read, I wrote, but it was more than that. I wanted to breathe the same air and taste the same tastes and hear the same sounds. I began to skip breakfast and then lunch. I only ate at sunset, when the muezzin’s voice rang out from the minaret, imagining that she and I both took our first sips of water together.
She translated the Persian words in her book for me. I read, in her cursive hand, poems by Rumi, Hafez, Attar. She described her days, filled with lessons and recitations, playing kerram with the errand boy, the maid who followed her like a shadow, and the quiet suppers with her father, who quizzed her on the books he brought her each week.
I love my Abba very much, she wrote. But sometimes I want to tear out all the pages and throw them out the window.
I longed for her. At night I sat on the grass and stroked down the heart of a touch-me-not. It furled shyly, hiding itself, and I heard her breath catch. When I looked up she was clutching the railing, her bosom rising and falling beneath the silk of her kurti. I held her gaze and licked the dew from my fingers.
You tease me, she wrote. Emboldened, I described how I wanted to steal her away to the mountains, how I would undress her there, the things I would whisper in her ear as I pressed her against me.
I’ve always wanted to live in the mountains, she wrote. I can cook and clean and you can mind the sheep.
All right, I replied, as long as there is no one else around us.
No. Not for miles and miles.
“I know where you’ve been going,” said Prem during class. For the past few nights he had followed me without my knowledge. “Is that why you’ve stopped eating? Are you one of them now?”
“No,” I said. “It isn’t like that.”
“It all makes sense,” he said to Sahil, who avoided looking at us both. “Our friend here is too holy for infidels like us.”
The teacher stopped scribbling on the chalkboard to glare in our direction. I ignored Prem and stared ahead.
“You could do worse, I suppose,” he continued beneath his breath. “Did you see those nipples poking through the white kurti she had on? I don’t think she was wearing undergarments, do you?”
My head felt hot. My nails dug into the sides of the desk. “Stop.”
“Sahil, you should come next time.”
Sahil didn’t respond. Scraps of wood splintered into the flesh of my hands.
“I could write her a letter too. Ask her to stand on the roof with nothing but a dupatta on. She would probably love that, the slut.”
I took him by the collar. My fist collided with his face. He fell to the floor and I followed. There was screaming, and someone tried to pull me back. But I kept hitting, again and again, until my knuckles were red with blood.
Prem was sent to the hospital while I was taken to the local station. The officer paced to and fro as I sat on a bench. Baba arrived and handed him a bundle of notes. The officer pocketed it, but said next time I would be sent to a detention center for delinquents. I followed Baba home and pretended not to hear the whispers of the neighbors.
The school mailed me a notice of indefinite suspension. Baba tried to make another donation, but Prem’s father was a lawyer, and he had threatened to take action if I did not receive a proper punishment.
Baba sat hunched in the living room. His eyes were red and there were deep hollows beneath them. His graying hair shone in the light of the lamp, and I was suddenly flooded with shame.
“There is a good boarding school in Wales,” he said. The vice principal was a former classmate of his elder sister. If he asked, they could arrange for me to start there soon.
Ma wept. I begged Baba to reconsider.
“I will do whatever you want,” I promised. “Please don’t send me to Wales.”
But he wouldn’t look at me. He made a few phone calls and told me to pack my belongings.
We have to run, I wrote. It’s the only way.
I cannot leave my Abba, she replied.
Then we’ll never see each other again. Is that what you want?
She did not respond for several days. On Eid, she wrote back. The evening was bound to be busy with festivities, and it would be easier for her to leave the house undetected.
I agreed. Baba had gone to the neighboring town to sort out my travel papers. It could take up to three days for him to return. I walked to the inn. The receptionist saluted me and asked me if I wanted anything to drink. I declined and went into Baba’s office. I closed the door and pressed the numbers on the safe. I filled my school bag with bundles of notes and left. At home I laid in bed and stared at a map. First we would catch a train, then transfer to a bus that would take us up towards the hills. I could buy a small hut, or rent a room in someone’s house.
And then what? I could look for work when the money ran out. But what did people do there for a living? When I was a child Baba had shown me black and white documentaries of men pulling rickshaws.
“That is your future,” he had warned, “if you don’t improve your studies.”
The next evening I sat next to Ma and watched the news. There was an update on the weather and then there was an image of the Eid moon, a sliver in the clouded sky. We heard the screeches of the neighbor’s children, their footfalls as they rushed to the roof to see it with their own eyes. The commotion continued into the night. accompanied by music and the occasional firecracker. It kept me from falling asleep, and I was annoyed with all the noise, their lack of manners, the disrespect.
“As if they’ve never seen the moon before,” I said to myself.
I packed a few things in my backpack. That way it looked less suspicious. I told Ma I was going to Sahil’s and headed for the train station, ignoring the lump that had formed in my throat. I bought two tickets and waited. Every few seconds I checked my watch. What if she was unable to escape? What if she decided not to come?
But she did. She wore a black niqab that covered her entire form, but her eyes, the only part of her that was visible, found mine. It was the first time I had seen her dressed this way, and it unnerved me. I was reminded of our first meeting, when looking at her had filled me with an eerie sort of dread.
I watched her make her way to me as the train pulled into the station. Then I heard a familiar voice.
“What are you doing here?” asked Baba. He stepped out of the train and onto the platform, wearing a brown suit and holding a black briefcase. His forehead was creased and his eyebrows were drawn together. I thought of how humiliated he had been at the police station. I remembered Prem’s blood on my hands. My mother, crying as she read the suspension letter. The stolen money in my bag. The strand of hair I kept as a talisman that now felt more like a curse.
“I came to see you home,” I said, and reached for his briefcase.
For a while he studied me. Then his gaze softened. “That is good of you. Did your mother tell you I was returning early?”
“Yes, Baba,” I said. We joined the throng of people heading for the exit. Baba kept looking over his shoulder. He said that the woman in black was watching us. When he asked if we knew her from somewhere, I said I had never seen her before.
Noor Imaan's fiction has appeared in Boston Review, Mississippi Review, Indiana Review and Missouri Review. She lives in New England and is currently at work on a novel.