Shirin did not often leave her house at night. The dark was not something she was entirely comfortable with: there were too many unknowns, too many uncertainties, and she had always been the type to take words on a piece of paper to heart. Being driven into the night, though, was different. When the lack of sleep got too oppressive, there was little Shirin could do but wander quietly out her front door and float — the barely-there fall of her feet against grass was too light to constitute actual walking — towards the pond nestled between thorny brambles and scrub that no one else gave a second glance to.
She always knew there was something different about her little retreat. There were plenty of times where she had pointed a tiny forefinger towards the scrubs and trilled, “Sometimes I see little women there!” but her happy exclamation was always shushed by nervous warnings. “Don’t. Do you want the pichal peri to get you?” Even though Shirin knew that her friends in the pond were far from the back-footed, long-faced witch that pervaded the lore of her mountain village, the pit of her stomach got knotted up like her hand in her mother’s dupatta and she shook her head vehemently.
But thoughts of pichal peris and other strange, menacing creatures took a backseat to her own excitement — it must be admitted, the fantasy of fairies and water-nymphs overtake much of the sense that a child hungover from dreaming possesses. So Shirin continued, using muscle-memory to navigate her way to the pond. She felt brave, like the heroes and heroines in her Urdu literature anthology, kicking komodo dragon-shaped flora out of her way and whispering threats at alarmed bats journeying between trees. She wondered what mysteries she would stumble upon and subsequently solve, and how, when she finally came home from her adventure, her mother would envelop her into her arms and cry, “My courageous, intelligent Shirin!” Her older siblings would apologize for all the times they stole her toys and books, and she would be rewarded with bowl upon bowl of kheer. And thus, stuffed with rice pudding, Shirin would retire and return to her life as a humble student.
Satisfied by these thoughts, Shirin used her tunic to carefully push aside the brambles — a hero does not get scratches from bushes — and found herself breathing the familiar air of her lake. Canopied by the night sky and mantled by tall grass, the pond was a resplendent, yet still blue. The only ripples in the water were caused by the forays of minuscule frogs, leaving trails in their wake as they swam towards the colony of flowers abloom, no doubt in search of a midnight snack (Shirin was careful not to accidentally step on the frogs; it would not do to alienate the locals).
She waited for her friends to come. Usually it would take them a minute or two, and then they would poke their heads out from underneath the flowers and smile at her. They would listen to her talk but for the most part, the two parties enjoyed the silence.
Five minutes, ten minutes, and Shirin started feeling impatient. She tugged at small blades of grass before moving onto the taller ones. “A hero doesn’t sulk,” she muttered to herself, but it was a half-hearted reminder. As if in response, she heard a rustling in the bushes behind her, and then a high-pitched, musical voice saying a single word:
Shirin heard it twice. The first time, it went in through her ears, and the second time she heard it in her bones. But a hero never balks, and Shirin, in all her childish wisdom, replied with, “Th-that’s a bad word.” Suddenly, the frogs in the pond began ribbiting in alarm, and hopped as quickly as they could towards the safety of the grass as a dark head slowly emerged from the water. A less stubborn child would have raced home, but Shirin just trembled and stared down the bright blue eyes that looked at her. The woman’s nose and lips remained submerged.
A nod by itself may not be inherently menacing, but Shirin had enough experience with her own mother to know that a simple head movement could convey a whole array of intentions. She fidgeted in her seat and sat in silence for a few seconds more before the silence became less tense and more awkward. Of course, the pichal peri hadn’t even twitched in the slightest, but the witch was not a 7 year old girl and, hence, was not accustomed to the struggle between sense and curiosity that a child went through every moment of their day. “People say pichal peris have long faces. Are you sure you’re a pichal peri?”
If Shirin didn’t know any better, she would have assumed that the woman in the water had sighed, but no one can sigh underwater. Nevertheless, she got what she had wanted, and the woman straightened to reveal most of her body and, indeed, a face that was longer than one needed to be. And now Shirin could see that the pichal peri was possessed of a complexion unnaturally white, and hair unnaturally black (it had been already established that the witch’s eyes were unnaturally blue, so that particular detail required no further contemplation); her lips were full and pink, albeit a little on the white, dead side of the color spectrum, and her nose was the kind of aquiline that left people irrationally envious. “How come you didn’t get married if you’re that pretty?” Shirin asked. The pichal peri blinked in surprise — an expression! — before replying, “I’m sorry?”
Maybe it was the matter-of-fact tone of her voice, or the way Shirin’s chest puffed out in pride as she declared her heroism, but if there is anything that can make a horrific creature of lore lose her fabled villainy it is the innocence of a child. The laugh bubbled out from between the pichal peri’s perfect lips, much to Shirin’s confusion, in a display of sheer mirth. Sulking just the slightest bit, the little girl went back to picking blades of grass while she waited out the shameful hysterics of this so-called monster.
“I put you under a spell every time you visit here,” said the still-smiling witch once her laughter faded. “I do not hurt children. I had a child in my own life. But I could not let you see me. I could not risk you stirring up a situation in the village out of terror, so I distracted you with fairies.”
This pichal peri, old enough to have forgotten her own name, who had committed countless murders, who had broken households and hearts without thinking once let alone twice, felt her lips twitch upward. Affection prompts lies sometimes, and the lie in this case was: “Of course they’re real. I sent them myself.”
“I would not recommend it, but I cannot stop you.” The life of a pichal peri was a solitary one, and good thing too. Smiling this much was not appropriate for a servant of evil. But she would redeem herself with one trickery, no matter how harmless — and, admittedly, well-intentioned — it was. She crooned at Shirin, employing a softer version of the voice she would use to woo men out of their Jeeps and into her vice-like hold, “Little one, you must be sleepy.”
“Then let me take you home.” In the back of her mind, Shirin debated the merits of falling asleep right there and then, but sinking into the witch’s voice was a much better option and so she let herself be cradled by affectionate deception.
How strange, the pichal peri thought to herself. She trekked noiselessly up the hill and to the little girl’s home, holding her tiny form against her bosom. I thought I had forgotten what children were like. She deposited Shirin onto the ground, on her feet, supporting the sleeping child with a hand and whispering into her ear, “Go to bed now, little one. Tell no one of your friend the pichal peri.” With a soft noise, Shirin obeyed, her eyes closed and the magic of the witch by her side. She watched as the little girl closed the door quietly behind her and then smiled one last time before turning away.
NOTE: I haven’t written a short story in a very long time. This was so much fun to write, and I’m a little bit in love with Shirin and the pichal peri myself. It was also awesome to take a piece of my culture’s mythology and run with it; definitely something I want to do more.