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Chasing the


Thinner Than Skin: An Excerpt
by Uzma Aslam Khan

This excerpt appears as a preface in the 2012 novel Thinner Than Skin and is reprinted here with the permission of its publisher, Clockroot Books.

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She had felt this way once before and it might have been the wind then too.

There had been the scent of the horse right before he ran. The stream rising from the manure he had left in a thick pile on the glacier. The wind carrying the dissipating heat to her nostrils just as the horse's nostrils flared in panic. Then he was racing forward, straight into a fence of barbed wire masked in a thicket of pine. The mother of his foal lifted her neck. The goats too. They sensed it, even teh stupid sheep sensed it, the fat Australian ones the government tricked them into buying. Every living creature had felt the horse impale himself just before his cry rang through the valley like a series of barbed wires.

That was a year ago. Now the wind carried a similar foreboding, not in the shape of a scent but of a wingbeat, and the lake froze in anticipation. Maryam waited, and nearby her daughter Kiran waited too. So did the mare and the filly, the three buffaloes, the four goats, and all the stupid sheep. What would it be this time? Whose cry was about to cut through the valley?

She walked along the shores of the lake, feeling the weight of her past, the one she left behind each year when her family moved up from the plains to the highlands. She absently stroked her daughter's unbraided hair, her brow crinkled as the skin of a newborn lamb.

The trouble with memory; it awakened her mother. When alive, her mother would say that horses are the wings to this world, owls to the next. She had stories for the mountains that enclosed them too, stores in the shape of names. The Karakoram was the black door. The Pamirs the white door. The Himalayas the abyss. At times she saw no point in distinguishing between them, and all the mountains became, simply, the wall. On such days, her mother herself became a wall, pushing Maryam into corners and cracks. "Walk along walls, not toward them," she would snap. "One footloop at a time." Other times she would counsel Maryam to look for individual peaks—such as the two lovers, Malika Parbat and Nanga Parbat, the Queen and the Nude—that might appear as windows in a door, or as footholds in a void. And Maryam always looked.

Tonight, the peaks were draped in a deep blue sheet of mist. No windows. No footloops. She had lived with them her entire life and knew that the taller mountain, Nanga Parbat, could not be seen from here so much as felt, and that only on very particular days, when he was drawing closer to Malika Parbat. She understood that the mountains were not as fixed as many believed. She knew too that when undressed, the taller mountain had as many angles as a buffalo hip. He moved in much the same way. A slow slip into a socket, a turn of the tain, a shadow sloping deep into a crotch. In the sunlight his summit was cast in gold, and this was what she looked for each spring, during the trek to the highland pasture, the herd lowing before her, each buffalo hip mimicking the movement in the sky. She looked for it, even if she found it only in her imagination.

It was the snowmelt of the two peaks that created the lake where she now paused. The melt had been too strong this year, obsessive even. As if last year's vices had not been smoked out completely. They had followed them all the way up from the plains, these vices, hitching a ride on the backs of their horses and even the bells of their goats; if you did not get rid of such things they had a way of getting rid of you.

She gazed into the lake that lay between the mountains, till, gradually, her eye adjusted to the picture surfacing from the water's depths. It was a picture of a man, his back to her. Though maryam could not see him she could see the peak on which he lay traffed. She knew every color and curve of this valley; the peak he lay on she did not recognize. What was he doing here, at the foot of the two mountains, at the bottom of the lovers' lake?

Maryam looked away from the image. Her fingers fussed over Kiran's chaotic hair with increasing fervor and the girl complained. Her eyes darted back to the water. Nothing, except that thick sheet of mist in the sky, reflected in the lake. The picture of a man trapped on an unfamiliar mountain was gone. Her fingers tried to relax.

Her daughter was squirming but she tried to keep her, whistling softly through her teeth. she was answered with the chime of a bell. She liked the animals. When you call, they come. It was the buffalo Noor, gazing casually over her shoulder from the shore, a stalk of grass between her lips that she twirled like a cigarette. There were no barbed wires here. No one tearing down the trees. And no forest inspectors telling the nomads to stretch their limbs barely as far as the length of a blanket, only to deprive them of a blanket altogether. She yanked Kiran's hair. No! All that had been left behind, down on the plains! Up here, they were free to graze. The highlands belonged to those who had been coming here for so many summers only they knew how the Queen and the Nude behaved when no one was watching.

The wind slackened. The air began to ring with bells as faint yet bright as stars. There was no nervous scent, no echoing cry. No owl's wingbeat gliding to the next world. Kiran skipped away from Maryam, and Maryam, drawing teh night around her shoulders like a shawl, began to chase after her, forgetting entirely that only moments earlier, she had been wondering who would find him, the man glimpsed for just that second in the water, the man who walked into a wall.

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