THURSDAY: Wailing in the Night


Copyright is held by the author.

WHEN I was a kid I didn’t know what to do with myself when I came home from school. My mother would never let me go out on the streets to play for a number of reasons, mainly because the security situation in big cities in Pakistan wasn’t really good. To chase away my boredom, then, I took up writing short horror stories.

The stories themselves were not Stephen King material. They plots consisted mostly of some pre-teen kids deciding to investigate a haunted house out of no reason but sheer stupidity. There they would encounter the usual rogue gallery of monsters and would run around the whole house for the rest of the plot until the ghouls would just get bored of chasing them, or I would just get bored of writing the story. Nonetheless, these stories would frighten me like no modern splatter horror movie has done in a long time. I would create my own nightmares because I had no real threats to face in my sheltered life.

Every year during summer vacation, around August, my mom would take me to our ancestral village, about a two-hour bus ride north of Lahore. There she would stop fussing over me and dedicate all her attention to family dramas, figuring out the manipulative schemes of our family elders. I would take full advantage of the situation and sneak out of surveillance to explore my surroundings, free and vagabond as a crow. There was a sizeable population of children in the village which I tried to befriend. At first I was made fun of for being a “city rat” but gradually they warmed up to me, or at least got used to having me around.

What really helped me socialize with them was our common love for horror stories and urban legends. After all, kids go wild for stories. I would tell them my stories and in exchange they would share tall tales that they had heard from friends of friends or from older cousins.

The content of the urban legends varied according to who told them. A cousin told us that a friend had seen a lonely hare on a mud path outside the village and decided to pick it up, only to have the hare turn into a huge fire-eyed monster. The friend had to run for his dear life, reciting Quranic verses for protection. The same story told by someone else would swap the lonely hare for a lonely goat. Another time we were told that a hapless cousin-of-a-cousin decided to go explore the area around the village tube well during twilight, and there he happened to notice three skeletons eating the flesh off a corpse, and when the skeletons noted his presence, he ran home and came down with a high fever and became yellow with jaundice.

Looking back, I think our grown-ups told these urban legends to us kids as cautionary tales, trying to scare us away from certain hazardous areas. There was a lot of empty lots in the village; its proprietors had left for the city or for abroad soon after purchase. Left unattended, the plots of land would become breeding grounds for snakes and scorpions. The adults would just tell us that there was a monster in those areas, hoping that we would be too scared to go there.

Likewise, they said that witches lived in the trunks of the trees and woke up for their hunts at night, so we should stay clear. They told us that a while ago a boy decided to pee under a rosewood tree outside the village at dusk. Several of these witches clung to him and started sucking out his life force. The boy died an agonizing death about three weeks later, stricken with fever, violent convulsions and delirium, foaming from his mouth and unable to touch water. I understand now why we were really told to stay away from trees in the evening. Bats live in the trees, and at sundown they awake and fly around. Bats can carry Rabies, and their small bites are almost undetectable on skin. If you don’t know you’re bitten, you don’t get the shots, until of course fever and hydrophobia kick in, and then it’s too late.

This was how village life went for us kids: every aspect of life was governed by supernatural forces. It seemed village society never got to the social stage of worldly disenchantment. I could never really figure out how anything real got done. I would just see shopkeepers, tailors, farmers, all walking around the streets apparently doing nothing and somehow all the work would still get done. Clothes would still get made; crops would still get planted. I never figured out who was responsible for disease control, or law and order. There was no sign of government apart from election slogans painted on walls. Life was a bucolic painting with magical realism undertones.

It was one of the still days that punctuate the monsoon season, when the heat is setting the stage for a yet another downpour. Our group of urchins was loitering outside the nearest dry-goods store. Soon one of our older cousins passed by. He saw us and asked us if the adults had already got back home. He said that they had to visit someone in the neighbourhood who was sick. We ignored his question, and pestered him with requests for money and stories. He got annoyed and told us there would be a churail going through the village. If we didn’t behave, we might get visited.

This actually made us more curious and we started asking him what a churail was. He told us a churail was the ghost of a wretched woman who roamed the earth wailing. She may have been killed by a man in an incident of domestic violence, she may have died in a kitchen accident, she may have killed her children and then committed suicide; the accounts were various. Now she couldn’t find peace and roamed. It is said she appears near the houses of people on their deathbed to wail: if you see her near the walls of a house, somebody in there is about to die. People’s tales varied widely, but most said they see her hanging upside down from the branches of trees at night. Her feet are backwards; her face is scarred as if somebody had thrown acid on her.

He decided to go check himself if our elders had returned. Leaving, he told us to watch out, and to not play out after dark, as there were sick people in the village and a churail may appear. The story of the churail had excited our imaginations, and we pondered the nature of her existence. But soon it was time for lunch, so we came out of our story worlds and ran back home.

In the following days the monsoon battered the village with rainstorms and hail. When it was not raining and the wind stopped, our dwellings would get very muggy inside, so we would try to sleep on the roof whenever we could.

One night, about a week after we had heard about the churail, I was lying on a charpoy on the rooftop alone. Everybody else was sleeping downstairs. It was a pleasant night to be sleeping in the open. Gradually the moon came out, and there was a blush of silvery light. It was eerie, how things glowed at night; they looked completely different than in sunlight hours.

Suddenly I heard something that sounded like a scream, but it was faint enough that at first I thought I had just imagined it. I could not make out the source. The electricity was gone, and the whole street was empty, lit only by the moon. Even the street dogs were exceptionally quiet tonight. Had they sensed danger and ran away?

At that moment I remembered the story of the churail, and in a minute a shiver ran through to my legs. This has got to be her! I turned white from the thought of actually seeing the wretched creature hanging upside down in one of the trees, moaning, condemning someone to death.

I sunk my head into my pillow. There was another shriek followed by a loud wail, as if someone was crying their lungs out. I tucked myself in my sheets, covering even my head. It didn’t matter how forcefully I clenched my eyes, the figure of the ghastly woman was painted on my eyelids: the toothless mouth slashed open, the empty eye sockets oozing tar and blood.

I leapt out of the bed and took my sheets with me, and hid under the charpoy. The crying and wailing was still there, the wind could not suffocate that beast. I held my ears shut forcefully, but absolute terror had entered my head, I could not keep it out anymore. This went on for a good hour, I don’t know how I didn’t start screaming myself. But there is a saying in our culture: sleep came even to Christ on his cross, and so sleep came to me too, as I released my hold on my ears and sank down onto the surface of the roof.

I woke up in the morning, sweating, kissing dirt under the charpoy. I was alive. The sun ruled the skies and the branches of trees were a menace no more. Only later did I figure out the origin of the wailing. It was no churail. Churails probably don’t exist, but what actually does exist is mourning and death. We found out that a young fellow in our neighbourhood had died of cholera during the night. His conditions had suddenly worsened, and he gave up his ghost while his lone mother clenched his body tight, wailing, begging him not to leave. She could not do anything, nor could anybody else. That was what I heard that night — the crying of a mother whose child was dead in her arms. She had cried all night holding the lifeless corpse—14 years of growing up, of prayers, of stories shared in the family, ended just like that.

Cholera was the churail. It had visited the village, running through the pipelines and the streams, carried by infected feces. Our mother took us back to the city, and that was the last summer we passed in the village. The next summer we moved to Europe.

It has been decades since then. I forgot all about this episode in the following years, as my adolescent mood swings kept my imagination occupied. Night terrors were substituted by night pollution. I went on to reflect on bigger things as an adult. I can now finally look back and put things in perspective, and understand why people told us all these stories.

They had told us all this in the way we all tell ourselves tall tales, to avoid looking reality in the eye and defining it as it is. We suck at love? Maybe our stars are not aligned yet. We get paid little because we haven’t applied ourselves. Epidemics happened because the ghosts of our ancestors are angry with us. In a certain way, we never left that enchanted world of our ancestors where supernatural entities govern our affairs.

I still write. In a certain sense I still write horror stories — the horror stories of daily life. My stories do not contain dead souls looking for revenge and ghosts with disfigured faces. These monsters are nothing compared to the horrors present around us. Warfare, disease, massacres. We are reminded of death and destruction every day. Images of charred corpses in bombarded buildings, of skulls and bones exhumed from mass graves. No, I don’t need churails anymore to frighten myself, not when I can hear the desperate wailing of a mother who is going to outlive her son. Her cries terrify me. They keep me awake at night.


Image of A. Daniyal

A. ?Daniyal was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and grew up in a small town in northern Italy. He moved to Canada in 2008, and currently resides in Montreal. He has studied Political Science, Philosophy, and Russian Studies. He is an avid traveller and language learner.

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