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November 2008
CLOAK OF NAILS

Kamila Shamsie
In the block of flats named Kahin-na-Kahin there lived a man so old his skin had a translucent sheen that suggested he was past the age for death and gradually metamorphosing into spirit.
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He had been living there as long as anyone could remember, but how little the other inhabitants of Kahin-na-Kahin knew about him is evidenced in the name by which they called him: Nanga Baba, naked old-man, which summed up all the information they had about him.

According to the stories told by the older inhabitants of Kahin-na-Kahin, when the first tenants moved in to the block of flats, Nanga Baba was already living in the ground floor flat which led straight into the garden. Merely as a show of courtesy they said, ‘May we move in above you?’ and were startled (as people often are when the rhetorical is treated as the literal) when the old man replied ‘You may, provided you each give me a clipping from your finger nails.’

The tenants were people without superstition so they decided to humour the man, and gave him a clipping each from their fingernails. After that, it became a matter of custom for every new tenant to give Nanga Baba a shaving of fingernail. Those who wanted to show they had no time for custom gave him toenail clippings instead.

Every morning Nanga Baba hobbled out into the communal garden and felt around the grass for the indentation he had created in the ground by sitting there every day from sunrise to sunset, year after year. Having found the spot, he moulded his body to its contours and waited for one of the young boys to come and open his eyes. Within minutes he heard the slosh of water against one-half of a melon rind, and felt wet hands rubbing away the grime that wove his eyelashes together. (Seen from behind, his head looked like an old melon itself, yellow-brown, bald and shrivelled.) His ablutions finished, Nanga Baba leaned forward so that his eyelashes touched the boy’s cheek, and blinked five times in succession. To the boy these eyelash kisses were nothing less than the rush of butterfly wings against his face.

And that was the extent of Nanga Baba’s interactions with the other tenants for the day, unless there were newcomers who would present themselves — and their nail-clippings — to him.

‘And what if we don’t give him the clippings?’ certain new tenants were known to have asked.

And the other tenants replied, ‘How does it hurt you to humour him?’

There was one prospective tenant, a particularly brash woman with a tendency to question everything, who actually said, ‘That first time when he asked for a nail clipping — are you sure he didn’t just mean it as a joke?’

But this was going too far, and the other tenants pressurized the landlord to refuse her bid to buy the flat.

It was true, they conceded, that none of them had actually known him to ask for a nailclipping, or show much interest when one was handed to him, but that didn’t mean anything. Not anything.

Then, one day a stranger with the dust of distance on his feet walked into the Kahin-na-Kahin gardens, went straight to Nanga Baba and spoke to him, and as he left called over his shoulder, ‘So I’ll come for you tomorrow morning.’

Only the young boys were in the garden to hear this exchange, but when they repeated it to their parents there was mass confusion. What could it mean? Where would he go? They speculated, discussed, dissected late into the night, though no one bothered to ask Nanga Baba himself about any of it.

The next morning, Nanga Baba did not appear in the garden, and when the boys put their ears to his door they heard shuk-shuk-shuk-shuk noises coming from inside. A little while later the stranger from the day before arrived with a pick-up van, went into Nanga Baba’s flat, and came out with two suitcases which he loaded into the back of the van. All the tenants gathered around to watch. Finally, Nanga Baba emerged, and a murmur went around the assembly. Wrapped around his skeletal frame was a cloak - a cloak made of fingernails. Chewed and manicured, yellow and pearly, tapering and splayed, the nails shuk-shuked around him. Without looking left or right, Nanga Baba walked away from the people and out of the gates of Kahin-na-Kahin — a melon-head bobbing up and down on a mound of fingernails.

The tenants didn’t know what to make of any of it, but there was a feeling of unease that passed over all of them.

The next day, the tenant in flat 7B died. He was very old, and very ill, but he had been very old and very ill for a long time, so that didn’t seem ample reason to explain his death.

‘Nanga Baba,’ someone whispered, as they gathered around the corpse and all those assembled felt a shiver down their backs.

In the next six months, there were two more deaths, three divorces, several broken limbs, five kitchen fires, and an inordinate number of burnt meals in Kahin-na-Kahin.

‘Nanga Baba,’ everyone agreed. ‘This all started after he left.’

A little while later, one of the tenants murdered the woman next door. ‘Nanga Baba,’ he said when the police came to question him.

Nanga Baba. Nanga Baba. Those became the words that followed every wrongdoing, every misfortune, every bit of bad luck.

And everyone in Kahin-na-Kahin slept more peacefully at night than ever before. Yes, there could be disaster the next day, they could find themselves murdered the next day, they could find themselves becoming murderers. But it didn’t matter. They were not responsible for any of it. They were not responsible for anything.





© Kamila Shamsie 2006
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