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The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family

by Usman T. Malik

Usman Tanveer Malik
Oct 22, 2014 · 21 min read

First published in Qualia Nous (2014) edited by Michael Bailey


On a Friday after jumah prayers, under the sturdy old oak in their yard, they came together as a family for the last time. Her brother gave in and wept as Tara watched, eyes prickling with warmth that wouldn’t disperse no matter how much she knuckled them, or blinked.

“Monsters,” Sohail said, his voice raspy. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked at the sky, a vast whiteness cobblestoned with heat. The plowed wheat fields beyond the steppe on which their house perched were baked and khaki and shivered a little under Tara’s feet. An earthquake or a passing vehicle on the highway? Perhaps it was foreknowledge that made her dizzy. She pulled at her lower lip and said nothing.

“Monsters,” Sohail said again. “Oh God, Apee. Murderers.”

She reached out and touched his shoulders. “I’m sorry.” She thought he would pull back. When he didn’t, she let her fingers fall and linger on the flame-shaped scar on his arm. So it begins, she thought. How many times has this happened before? Pushing and prodding us repeatedly until the night swallows us whole. She thought of that until her heart constricted with dread. “Don’t do it,” she said. “Don’t go.”

Sohail lifted his shoulders and drew back his head, watched her wonderingly as if seeing her for the first time.

“I know I ask too much,” she said. “I know the customs of honor, but for the love of God let it go. One death needn’t become a lodestone for others. One horror needn’t — ”

But he wasn’t listening, she could tell. They would not hear nor see nor smell once the blood was upon them, didn’t the Scriptures say so? Sohail heard, but didn’t listen. His conjoined eyebrows, like dark hands held, twitched. “Her name meant a rose,” he said and smiled. It was beautiful, that smile, heartbreaking, frightening. “Under the mango trees by Chacha Barkat’s farm Gulminay told me that, as I kissed her hand. Whispered it in my ear, her finger circling my temple. A rose blooming in the rain. Did you know that?”

Tara didn’t. The sorrow of his confession filled her now as did the certainty of his leaving. “Yes,” she lied, looking him in the eyes. God, his eyes looked awful: webbed with red, with thin tendrils of steam rising from them. “A rose God gave us and took away because He loved her so.”

“Wasn’t God,” Sohail said and rubbed his fingers together. The sound was insectile. “Monsters.” He turned his back to her and was able to speak rapidly, “I’m leaving tomorrow morning. I’m going to the mountains. I will take some bread and dried meat. I will stay there until I’m shown a sign, and once I am …” His back arched, then straightened. He had lost weight; his shoulder blades poked through the khaddar shirt like trowels. “I will arise and go to their homes. I will go to them as God’s wrath. I will — ”

She cut him off, her heart pumping fear through her body like poison. “What if you go to them and die? What if you go to them like a steer to the slaughter? And Ma and I — what if months later we sit here and watch a dusty vehicle climb the hill, bouncing a sack of meat in the back seat that was once you? What if …”

But she couldn’t go on giving name to her terrors. Instead, she said, “If you go, know that we as we are now will be gone forever.”

He shuddered. “We were gone when she was gone. We were shattered with her bones.” The wind picked up, a whipping, cha-dor-lifting sultry gust that made Tara’s flesh prickle. Sohail began to walk down the steppes, each with its own crop: tobacco, corn, rice stalks wavering in knee-high water; and as she watched his lean farmer body move away, it seemed to her as if his back was not drenched in sweat, but acid. That his flesh glistened not from mois-ture, but blood. All at once their world was just too much, or not enough — Tara couldn’t decide which — and the weight of that un-seen future weighed her down until she couldn’t breathe. “My brother,” she said and began to cry. “You’re my little brother.”

Sohail continued walking his careful, dead man’s walk until his head was a wobbling black pumpkin rising from the last steppe. She watched him disappear in the undulations of her motherland, helpless to stop the fatal fracturing of her world, wondering if he would stop or doubt or look back.

Sohail never looked back.

Ma died three months later.

The village menfolk told her the death prayer was brief and moving. Tara couldn’t attend because she was a woman.

The villagers helped her bury Ma’s sorrow-filled body, and the rotund mullah clucked and murmured over the fresh mound. The women embraced her and crooned and urged her to vent.

“Weep, our daughter,” they cried, “for the childrens’ tears of love are like manna for the departed.”

Tara tried to weep and felt guilty when she couldn’t. Ma had been sick and in pain for a long time and her hastened death was a mercy, but you couldn’t say that out loud. Besides, the women had said children, and Sohail wasn’t there. Not at the funeral, nor during the days after. Tara dared not wonder where he was, nor imagine his beautiful face gleaming in the dark atop a stony mountain, persevering in his vigil.

“What will you do now?” they asked, gathering around her with sharp, interested eyes. She knew what they really meant. A young widow with no family was a stranger amidst her clan: at best an oddity, at worst a ripe seductress. She was surprised to discover their concern didn’t frighten her. The perfect loneliness of it, the inadvertent exclusion — they were just more beads in the tautening string of her life.

“I’m thinking of going to the City,” she told them. “Ma has a cousin there. Perhaps he can help me with bread and board, while I look for work.”

She paused, startled by a clear memory: Sohail and Gulminay by the Kunhar River, fishing for trout. Gulminay’s sequined hijab dappling the stream with emerald as she reached down into the water with long, pale fingers. Sohail grinning his stupid lover’s grin as his small hands encircled her waist, and Tara watching from the shade of the eucalyptus, fond and jealous. By then Tara’s husband was long gone and she could forgive herself the occasional resentment.

She forced the memory away. “Yes, I think I might go to the City for a while.” She laughed. The sound rang hollow and strange in the emptiness of her tin-and-timber house. “Who knows I might even go back to school. I used to enjoy reading once.” She smiled at these women with their hateful, sympathetic eyes that watched her cautiously as they would a rabid animal. She nodded, talking mostly to herself. “Yes, that would be good. Hashim would have wanted that.”

They drew back from her, from her late husband’s mention. Why not? she thought. Everything she touched fell apart; everyone around her died or went missing. There was no judgment here, just dreadful awe. She could allow them that, she thought.


The structure therefore becomes mobile and malleable.

In the City, Tara turned feral in her pursuit of learning. This had been long coming and it didn’t surprise her at all. At thirteen, she had been withdrawn from school; she needed not homework but a husband, she was told. At sixteen, she was wedded to Hashim. He was blown to smithereens on her twenty-first birthday. A suicide attack on his unit’s northern check post.

“I want to go to school,” she told Wasif Khan, her mother’s cousin. They were sitting in his six-by-eight yard, peeling fresh oranges he had confiscated from an illegal food vendor. Wasif was a Police hawaldar, and on the rough side of sixty. He often said con-fiscation was his first love and contraband second. He grinned when he said that, which made it easier for her to like him.

Now Wasif tossed a half-gnawed chicken bone to his spotted mongrel and said, “I don’t know if you want to do that.”

“I do.”

“You need a husband, not — ”

“I don’t care. I need to go back to school.”

“But why?” He dropped an orange rind in the basket at his feet, gestured with a large liver-spotted hand. “The City doesn’t care if you can read. Besides, you can housekeep for me. I’m old and ugly and useless, but I have this tolerable house and no children. You’re my cousin’s daughter. You can stay here forever if you like.”

In a different time she might have mistaken his generosity for loneliness, but now she understood it for what it was. Such was the way of age: it melted prejudice or hardened it. “I want to learn about the world,” she said. “I want to see if there are others like me. If there have been others before me.”

He was confused. “Like you how?”

She rubbed an orange peel between her fingers, pressing the fibrous texture of it in the creases of her flesh, considering how much to tell him. Her mother had trusted him. Yet Ma hardly had their gift and if she did Tara doubted she would have been open about it. Ma had been wary of giving too much of herself away — a trait she passed on to both her children. Among other things.

So now Tara said, “Others who need to learn more about themselves. I spent my entire childhood being just a bride and, look, I am left with nothing. No children, no husband, no family.” Wasif Khan looked hurt. She smiled kindly. “You know what I mean, Uncle. I love you, but I need to love me too.”

Wasif Khan tilted his head back and pinched a slice of orange above his mouth, squeezed it until his tongue and remaining teeth gleamed with the juice. He closed his eyes, sighed, and nodded. “I don’t know if I approve, but I think I understand.” He lifted his hand and tousled his own hair thoughtfully. “It’s a different time. Others my age who don’t realize it don’t fare well. The traditional rules don’t apply anymore, you know. Sometimes, I think that is wonderful. Other times, it feels like the whole damn world is conspiring against you.”

“I understand.” She rose, picking up her mess and his. “Thank you for letting me stay here.”

“It’s either you or every hookah-sucking asshole in this neighborhood for company.” He grinned and shrugged his shoulders. “My apologies. I’ve been living alone too long and my tongue is spoilt.”

She laughed loudly; and thought of a blazing cliff somewhere from which dangled two browned, peeling, inflamed legs, swinging back and forth like human pendulums.

She read everything she could get her hands on. At first, her alphabet was broken and awkward, as was her rusty brain, but she did it anyway. It took her two years, but eventually she qualified for F.A examinations, and passed on her first try.

“I don’t know how you did it,” Wasif Khan said to her, his face beaming at the neighborhood children as he handed out specially prepared sweetmeat to eager hands, “but I’m proud of you.”

She wasn’t, but she didn’t say it. Instead, once the children left, she went to the mirror and gazed at her reflection, flexing her arm, making the flame-shaped scar bulge. We all drink the blood of yesterday, she thought.

The next day she enrolled at Punjab University’s B.Sc program.

In Biology class, they learned about plants and animals. Flora and Fauna, they called them. Things constructed piece by piece from the basic units of life: cells. These cells in turn were made from tiny building blocks called atoms, which were bonded by the very things that repelled their core: electrons.

In Physics class, she learned about electrons. Little flickering ghosts that vanished and reappeared as they pleased. Her flesh was empty, she discovered, or most of it. So were human bones and solid buildings and the incessantly agitated world. All that immense loneliness and darkness with only a hint that we existed. The idea awed her. Did we exist only as a possibility?

In Wasif Khan’s yard was a tall mulberry tree with saw-like leaves. On her way to school she touched them; they were spiny and jagged. She hadn’t eaten mulberries before. She picked a basketful, nipped her wrist with her teeth, and let her blood roast a few. She watched them curl and smoke from the heat of her genes, inhaled the sweet steam of their juice as they turned into mystical symbols.

Mama would have been proud.

She ate them with salt and pepper, and was offended when Wasif Khan wouldn’t touch the remaining.

He said they gave him reflux.


Liquid may be converted to gas by heating at constant pressure to a certain temperature.

This temperature is called the boiling point.

The worst flooding the province has seen in forty years.

Wasif Khan hadn’t confiscated a television yet, but if he had, Tara was sure, it would show the same cataclysmic damage to life and property. At one point, someone said, an area the size of England was submerged in raging floodwater.

Wasif’s neighborhood, in the northern, hillier part of town, escaped the worst of the devastation, but Tara and Wasif witnessed it daily when they went for rescue work: massive upchucked power pylons and a splintered oak tree smashing through the marketplace stalls; murderous tin sheets and iron rods slicing through the inundated streets; bloated dead cows and sheep eddying in shoulder-high water with terrified children clinging to them. It pawed at the towering steel-and-concrete structures, this restless liquid death that had come to the city; it ripped out their underpinnings and annihilated everything in its path.

Tara survived these days of heartbreak and horror by helping to set up a small tent city on the sports fields of her University. She volunteered to establish a nursery for lost or displaced children and went with rescue teams to scour the ruins for usable supplies, and corpses.

As she pulled out the dead and living from beneath the wreckage, as she tossed plastic-wrapped food and dry clothing to the dull-eyed homeless, she thought of how bright and hot and dry the spines of her brother’s mountains must be. It had been four years since she saw him, but her dreams were filled with his absence. Did he sit parched and caved in, like a deliberate Buddha? Or was he dead and pecked on by ravens and falcons?

She shuddered at the thought and grabbed another packet of cooked rice and dry beans for the benighted survivors.

The first warning came on the last night of Ramadan. Chand raat.

Tara was eating bread and lentils with her foundling children in the nursery when it happened. A bone-deep trembling that ran through the grass, flattening its blades, evaporating the evening dew sitting on them. Seconds later, a distant boom followed: a hollow rumbling that hurt Tara’s ears and made her feel nauseated. (Later, she would learn that the blast had torn through the marble-walled shrine of Data Sahib, wrenching its iron fence from its moorings, sending jagged pieces of metal and scorched human limbs spinning across the walled part of the City.)

Her children sat up, confused and scared. She soothed them. Once a replacement was found, she went to talk to the tent city administrator.

“I’ve seen this before,” she told him once he confirmed it was a suicide blast. “My husband and sister-in-law both died in similar situations.” That was not entirely true for Gulminay, but close enough. “Usually one such attack is followed by another when rescue attempts are made. My husband used to call them ‘double tap’ attacks.” She paused, thinking of his kind, dearly loved face for the first time in months. “He understood the psychology behind them well.”

The administrator, a chubby short man with filthy cheeks, scratched his chin. “How come?”

“He was a ranger. He tackled many such situations before he died.”

“Condolences, bibi.” The administrator’s face crinkled with sympathy. “But what does that have to do with us?”

“At some point, they will use the double tap as decoy and come after civilian structures.”

“Thank you for the warning. I’ll send out word to form a vol-unteer perimeter patrol.” He scrutinized her, taking in her hijab, the bruised elbows, and grimy fingernails from days of work. “God bless you for the lives you’ve saved already. For the labor you’ve done.”

He handed her a packet of boiled corn and alphabet books. She nodded absently, the charred bodies and boiled human blood swirling up from the shrine in her head, thanked him, and left.

The emergency broadcast thirty minutes later confirmed her fear: a second blast at Data Sahib obliterated a fire engine, killed a jeep-ful of eager policemen and vaporized twenty-five rescuers. Five of these were female medical students. Their shattered glass bangles were melted and their headscarves burned down to unrecognizable gunk by the time the EMS came.

Tara wept when she heard. In her heart was a steaming shadow that whispered nasty things. It impaled her with its familiarity and a dreadful suspicion grew in her that the beast was rage and wore a face she knew well.


This state is called the Plasma Phase of Matter and exists in lightning, electric sparks, neon lights, and the Sun.

In a rash of terror attacks, the City quickly fell apart: the Tower of Pakistan, the Shrine of Jinnah, Iqbal’s Memorial, Shalimar Gardens, Anarkali’s Tomb, and the fourteen gates of the walled City. They exploded and fell in burning tatters, survived only by a quivering bloodhaze through which peeked the haunted eyes of their immortal ghosts.

This is death, this is love, this is the comeuppance of the two, as the world according to you will finally come to an end. So snarled the beast in Tara’s head each night. The tragedy of the floodwaters was not over yet, and now this.

Tara survived this new world through her books and her chil-dren. The two seemed to have become one: pages filled with un-fathomable loss. White space itching to be written, reshaped, or incinerated. Sometimes she would bite her lips and let the trickle of blood stain her callused fingers. Would touch them to water-spoilt paper and watch it catch fire and flutter madly in the air, aflame like a phoenix. An impossible glamor created by tribulation. So when the city burned and her tears burned, Tara reminded herself of the beautiful emptiness of it all and forced herself to smile.

Until one morning she awoke and discovered that, in the cover of night, a suicide teenager had hit her tent city’s perimeter patrol.

After the others had left, she stood over her friends’ graves in the twilight.

Kites and vultures unzipped the darkness above in circles, lost specks in this ghostly desolation. She remembered how cold it was when they lowered Gulminay’s remains into the ground. How the drone attack had torn her limbs clean off so that, along with a head shriveled by heat, a glistening, misshapen, idiot torso remained. She remembered Ma, too, and how she was killed by her son’s love. The first of many murders.

“I know you,” she whispered to the Beast resident in her soul. “I know you,” and all the time she scribbled on her flesh with a glass shard she found buried in a patrolman’s eye. Her wrist glowed with her heat and that of her ancestors. She watched her blood bubble and surge skyward. To join the plasma of the world and drift its soft, vaporous way across the darkened City, and she won-dered again if she was still capable of loving them both.

The administrator promised her that he would take care of her children. He gave her food and a bundle of longshirts and shalwars. He asked her where she was going and why, and she knew he was afraid for her.

“I will be all right,” she told him. “I know someone who lives up there.”

“I don’t understand why you must go. It’s dangerous,” he said, his flesh red under the hollows of his eyes. He wiped his cheeks. “I wish you didn’t have to. But I suppose you will. I see that in your face. I saw that when you first came here.”

She laughed. The sound of her own laughter saddened her. “The world will change,” she said. “It always does. We are all emp-ty, but this changing is what saves us. That is why I must go.”

He nodded. She smiled. They touched hands briefly; she stepped forward and hugged him, her headscarf tickling his nos-trils, making him sneeze. She giggled and told him how much she loved him and the others. He looked pleased and she saw how much kindness and gentleness lived inside his skin, how his blood would never boil with undesired heat.

She lifted his finger, kissed it, wondering at how solid his va-cant flesh felt against her lips.

Then she turned and left him, leaving the water and fire and the crackling, hissing earth of the City behind.

Such was how Tara Khan left for the mountains.

The journey took a week. The roads were barren, the landscape abraded by floodwater and flensed by intermittent fires. Shocked trees, stripped of fruit, stood rigid and receding as Tara’s bus rolled by, their gnarled limbs pointing accusatorially at the heavens.

Wrapped in her chador, headscarf, and shalwar kameez, Tara folded into the rugged barrenness with its rugged people. They were not unkind; even in the midst of this madness, they held onto their deeply honored tradition of hospitality, allowing Tara to scout for hints of the Beast’s presence. The northerners chattered constantly and were horrified by the atrocities blooming from within them, and because she too spoke Pashto they treated her like one of them.

Tara kept her ears open. Rumors, whispers, beckonings by skeletal fingers. Someone said there was a man in Abbottabad who was the puppeteer. Another shook his head and said that was a deliberate shadow show, a gaudy interplay of light and dark put up by the real perpetrators. That the Supreme Conspirator was swal-lowed by earth soaked with the blood of thousands and lived only as an extension of this irredeemable evil.

Tara listened and tried to read between their words. Slowly, the hints in the midnight alleys, the leprous grins, the desperate, clutch-ing fingers, incinerated trees and the smoldering human and animal skulls — they began to come together and form a map.

Tara followed it into the heart of the mountains.


This particle is sometimes called the God Particle.

When she found him, he had changed his name.

There is a story told around campfires since the beginning of time: Millennia ago a stone fell from the infinite bosom of space and plunked onto a statistically impossible planet. The stone was round, and smaller than a pebble of goat shit, and carried a word inscribed on it.

It has been passed down generations of Pahari clans that that word is theIsm-e-Azam, the Most High Name of God.

Every sect in the history of our world has written about it. Egyptians, Mayans. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mystics. Some have described it as the primal point from which existence began, and that the Universal Essence lives in this nuktah.

The closest approximation to the First Word, some say, is one that originated in Mesopotamia, the land between the two rivers. The Sumerians called it Annunaki.

He of Godly Blood.

Tara thought of this oral tradition and sat down at the mouth of the demolished cave. She knew he lived inside the cave, for eve-ry living and nonliving thing near it reeked of his heat. Twisted boulders stretched granite hands toward its mouth like pilgrims at the Kaaba. The heat of the stars they carried in their genes, in the sputtering, whisking emptiness of their cells, had leeched out and warped the mountains and the path leading up to it.

Tara sat cross-legged in the lotus position her mother taught them both when they were young. She took a sharp rock and ran it across her palm. Crimson droplets appeared and evaporated, leav-ing a metallic tang in the air. She sat and inhaled that smell and thought of the home that once was. She thought of her mother, and her husband; of Gulminay and Sohail; of the floods (did he have something to do with that, too? Did his rage liquefy snow-topped mountains and drown an entire country?); of suicide bomb-ers, and the University patrol; and of countless human eyes that flicked each moment toward an unforgiving sky where something merciful may or may not live; and her eyes began to burn and Tara Khan began to cry.

“Come out,” she said between her sobs. “Come out, Beast. Come out, Rage. Come out, Death of the Two Worlds and all that lives in between. Come out, Monster. Come out, Fear,” and all the while she rubbed her eyes and let the salt of her tears crumble between her fingertips. Sadly she looked at the white crystals, flat-tened them, and screamed, “Come out, ANNUNAKI.”

And in a belch of shrieking air and a blast of heat, her brother came to her.

They faced each other.

His skin was gone. His eyes melted, his nose bridge collapsed; the bones underneath were simmering white seas that rolled and shimmered across the constantly melting and rearranging meat of him. His limbs were pseudopodic, his movement that of a softly turning planet drifting across the possibility that is being.

Now he floated toward her on a gliding plane of his skin. His potent heat, a shifting locus of limp time-space with infinite energy roiling inside it, touched her, making her recoil. When he breathed, she saw everything that once was; and knew what she knew.

“Salam,” she said. “Peace be upon you, brother.”

The nuktah that was him twitched. His fried vocal cords were not capable of producing words anymore.

“I used to think,” she continued, licking her dry lips, watching the infinitesimal shifting of matter and emptiness inside him, “that love was all that mattered. That the bonds that pull us all together are of timeless love. But it is not true. It’s never been true, has it?”

He shimmered, and said nothing.

“I believe in existing, in Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit. If nothing comes from nothing, we cannot return to it. Ergo life has a reason and needs to be.” She paused, remembering a day when he plucked a sunflower from a lush meadow and slipped it into Gulminay’s hair. “Gulminay-jaan once was and still is. Perhaps inside you and me.” Tara wiped her tears and smiled. “Even if most of us is nothing.”

The heat-thing that her brother was slipped forward a notch. Tara rose to her feet and began walking toward it. The blood in her vasculature seethed and raged.

“Even if death breaks some bonds and forms others. Even if the world flinches, recedes, and becomes a grain of sand.”

Annunaki watched her through eyes like black holes.

“Even if we have killed and shall kill. Even if the source is nothing if not grief. Even if sorrow is the distillate of our life.”

She reached out and gripped his melting amebic limb. He shrank, but didn’t let go as the maddened heat of her essence surged forth to meet his.

“Even if we never come to much. Even if the sea of our consciousness breaks against quantum impossibilities.”

She pressed his now-arm, her fingers elongating, stretching, turning, fusing; her flame-scar rippling and coiling to probe for his like a proboscis.

Sohail tried to smile, and in that smile were heat-deaths of countless worlds, supernova bursts, and the chrysalis sheen of a freshly hatched larva. She thought he might have whispered sorry. That in another time and universe there were not countless intem-perate blood-children of his spreading across the earth’s face like vitriolic tides ready to obliterate the planet. That all this wasn’t really happening for one misdirected missile, for one careless press of a button somewhere by a soldier eating junk food and licking his fingers. But it was. Tara had glimpsed it in his nuktah when she touched him.

“Even if,” she whispered, as his being engulfed hers and the thermonuclear reaction of matter and antimatter fusion sparked and began to eradicate them both, “our puny existence — the conclusion of an agitated, conscious universe — is insignificant, remember … remember, brother, that mercy will go on. Kindness will go on.”

Let there be gentleness, she thought. Let there be equilibrium, if all we are and will be can survive in some form. Let there be grace and goodness and a hint of something to come, no matter how uncertain.

Let there be possibility, she thought, as they flickered annihilatively and were immolated in some fool’s idea of love.

(c) 2014 Usman T. Malik

Header image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

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The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family by Usman T. Malik

First published in Qualia Nous, Edited by Michael Bailey

Available from Barnes & Noble

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