Illustration: Manjil Rijal
Illustration: Manjil Rijal

Containing lightning

A short story

Saher Hasnain is a researcher with the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. She spends her time working through the future of global food systems, reading science fiction and speculative fiction, and trying to get better at crochet. She can be reached at @SaherHasnain

Did you know that you could eat avocados and drink turmeric milk and pray five times a day and still get struck by lightning?
It's true!
Did you know you could be a "good girl" all your life and still get punched in the face with lightning and still be ordinary afterwards?
Sadly, also true.
"Mom's going to get superpowers." My daughter is an optimist.
While there's no trace of superpowers, apparently, you're supposed to get these lovely patterns on your skin called lightning flowers. Of course, I don't have those. And there's a society and a forum you can join! There's a society and a forum for everything. But there is no society for this in our country. Apparently nobody gets struck by lightning here. Or if they do, they are not inclined to discuss it in societies. You can discuss it in society because society won't let things like this go. You don't need a forum when society effectively communicates vital information.
And by society, I do mainly mean other women. There was much discussion on whether my clothes attracted the lightning to me, my questionable activities (only hinted at with the most careful level of appropriate eyebrow raising and "these things don't just happen in a vacuum" smirks), or the evil eye. Many hours were spent dissecting the decisions and morals that led to me being in that area beside the lake.
It was a picnic with a couple of other families. Perfectly respectable. And a sudden summer rain. I was the only volunteer to make the last frantic trip in the downpour to rescue a soggy stuffed giraffe. It didn't even belong to my daughter. I was struck by lightning for rescuing the stuffed giraffe of someone else's kid.
Why a giraffe? We don't have giraffes here. When is this kid ever going to see a giraffe?
Society.
This was probably the fifth most exciting thing to happen in our little nook of society. It wasn't way up there with the sudden wedding of Asifa's son, or even the strange colour-scheme choices of Jaffar's new neighbours. This was such a different kind of exciting that society spent more time trying to slot it into something familiar. Hence the inquiries about my activities and what I could have done to inspire a jealous gaze. This last one was baffling to everyone involved because there was literally nothing to be envious of. My aunt would say that the evil eye could look right through me because there was nothing to see.
"Trust you to be the most boring lightning-strike survivor."
My husband drives me around now. Not that I can't, but he read that some victims have trouble with navigation (on a forum for the spouses of survivors). The car is fairly new, after all. And the daughter fairly young.
It was salad for dinner. Being struck by lightning doesn't mean you stop eating healthy.
"Some cardiac damage is to be expected. 300 million volts of electricity through the body in three milliseconds is no joke! We'll monitor you carefully."
The cardiologist is a young man who sounds like an old man. He wanted to write a paper on my experience and my indestructible heart. "Did you know that there is no evidence of lightning survivors from here? It's very strange. I think either nobody tells anyone, or they all die." He is skilled at ending appointments with interesting statements. At the very first appointment, he had ended with asking my husband to call him if I died during the night.

"Trust you to be the most boring lightning-strike survivor."

"Did you discover your superpower yet?" My daughter has been reading articles on people who can do grand things after lightning strikes.
I've never done a grand thing in my life. What if I try something grand now, and that is what kills me?
I've been hanging around (it's called lurking, according to my daughter) this one online forum. Eleanor, a woman from America, got fantastic hearing after her strike. Her clothes and hair had caught fire (mine only steamed a little). Now she could go days without sleeping. This was very cool because she was a corporate lawyer and was now fantastically productive, and still had amazing skin and wasn't slowly going insane from exhaustion like all her other colleagues. She is still a terrible person, but that is okay because terrible people make for more interesting reading in stories. Nobody writes stories about average, normal people, who don't get up to anything interesting. She didn't say all this other stuff on the forum of course, but people's realities leak through their sentences.
I was a Normal Good Woman. My husband says that this is a good thing. He should know this because his last wife was a Most Attractive Lady. My daughter called her this and she is right about such things. I also think that the ex-wife is a Most Attractive Lady. She still gets work as a model at this age in this country and in the West, and I think that's pretty cool. My husband says he's discovered that it's important not to focus on looks but instead see inner beauty. Seeing the ex-wife and being told this apparently nice thing confirms that he doesn't think I'm good-looking. He protests this vehemently and tells me I have a different kind of beauty. I guess the Not-Epically Attractive kind of good-looking. I'm okay with this because I hear that when good-looking people start aging, they get very panicky about losing their good looks. Unless you are the ex-wife and are aging in such a phenomenally amazing way that there are articles like "Forty is the New Twenty" and "A Primer on Aging Gracefully from Pakistan's Own Supermodel".
There is a voicemail from the cardiologist. Apparently, I can join a research group as a subject. There isn't much known about lightning injuries. And even less about injuries that should be there after a lightning strike but aren't. My daughter tells me that while this is significantly less cool, given everything about me it will have to do for now. My husband has agreed to drive me to the hospital from work. Luckily, his team is mystified enough with the strike to pardon his occasional breaks for driving me around. The men around him don't talk in the same way society does, I assume. I think men think about important things like work, responsibilities and promotions. This is a good thing because women have everything else well covered.

Seeing the ex-wife and being told this apparently nice thing confirms that he doesn't think I'm good-looking.

I work as a Market Failure Tester. This means that various companies can hire me to test their products. I test their products by deciding if I like them or not, and if I would buy them. This tells the company whether those products should be taken off the market or modified until I no longer dislike them. Sometimes, I get to go to virtual stores and be discreetly observed by bots who note down what things I spend time looking at. Usually, I sit in a quiet room at a market research company and either go through samples or pretend to shop online. It is quite relaxing and I've learnt a lot. Tiles. Tiles are way more complicated than we usually think. I keep waiting for this company to shut down because it's the Asian arm of a big multinational, and it seems that everything that is successful is leaving the country. Like my brother and his family and my sister and her family and my best friend from childhood and her family. One way to measure success and levels of desperation is to see who is leaving. So many people have left here, soon the country will be empty of anyone important and the whole world can look away, which won't be so hard because they do that anyway.
Did you know that there is someone whose job is to assemble those sample binders? I have really come to appreciate their work. Maybe one day I can work as one of those people. There is something terribly satisfying about a good binder. I've been told that finding things like this satisfying is also terribly boring and is why I will never be a cool and popular person. "Why can't you be a cool mom like on the TV shows or Meral's mom?" I hear this often from my daughter. She is very young but adept at making complicated sentences that deeply hurt your feelings. That particular one doesn't, really. If you hear things often enough, they become very normal. I am told to be cool a lot. While also being told how nice it is that I am not cool.
This is alright because all the cool and popular people I know seem to have very stressful lives. Like Eleanor on the forum. Or my friend Anicka. Anicka sells expensive cars to foolish people and then uses that money to go on long vacations on big yachts and have short love affairs with unhappy men who live in grey houses. This all sounds terrifically tedious. I still enjoy talking to her though, because she can go an entire hour not talking about the newest prints from Khaadi, or the expense of school fees, or how the whole day just flies by in dropping and collecting various children from various schools and monitoring maids, and making obligatory phone calls to family members that make everyone unhappy. Anicka just talks about interesting things she's done or read about or someone has told her. She occasionally remembers to ask me what my life is like and you can hear her being actually interested that someone can get by like this.
I try to remember how we became friends and I can't. This is an interesting point and I note it down in my Survivor's Journal – the forum has advised me to keep one so that unusual symptoms can be kept track of. So far, I've had nothing beyond the occasional tingles on my fingertips that showed up the first few days after the strike. I still carefully check my skin every day in case those lightning flowers show up. Nothing. I only had a round white spot over my left shoulder that was still tender. And nothing else. The lightning was still inside me. 300 million volts! The cardiologist said all my organs should have melted, burnt or exploded.
So, the symptom. Forgetting things. I carefully made a headline on the second page of the empty notebook and wrote down what I was forgetting. Then I wrote my name and address on the first page because I'm not a monster. I looked up how to figure out what other things one was forgetting. This is not the most helpful search because the internet takes you to things like dementia and Alzheimer's, how to make mind palaces, and music videos from yet another show about Sherlock Holmes. I decided to find my daughter and make her ask me questions.

I keep waiting for this company to shut down because it's the Asian arm of a big multinational, and it seems that everything that is successful is leaving the country.

This became an enjoyable evening with food and talking over a serious show about a convenience store that apparently was very funny but I think I am too old to see the humour in it. She asked me a lot of questions and took lots of notes on her phone. This is what she says, but I know she was also on a couple of her young-person apps where they look at other people doing fun things. Which seems to be the general situation with life. She keeps talking about doing her own channel and videos, but she definitely will not. I know this about her. She gets it from her father. Both of them talk about doing cool things and watch other people do them and say how they will do it so much better, and they don't do it and say it's because they are waiting for the right thing at the right time. I am of course not superior to them at all, because I just have no ambition to do anything cool in the first place. Saves a lot of difficulty, in my opinion.
The interrogation evening with my daughter had two main results. The first is that I am definitely forgetting things. And the second is that she wishes that her father's ex-wife had been her mother instead of me. I have suspected this for a while, but now I know. It is quite sad to know that someone you birthed feels so little for you, but I'm hoping it's a phase of light-handed cruelty. Women are very good at that, and our society encourages you to start young.
So, the forgetting. It would seem that quite a lot of small small details of my past have fallen out of my head entirely. On their own, they are not very big and not very important. But altogether? It is a bit strange. Not knowing how I met Anicka even though we have clearly known each other for many years. Why I had two wedding dresses for the same day (not a fashion choice but one of necessity, it seemed). There is a burn and a missing sleeve on one. Why it is that I have memories of two houses growing up, but don't know where the other house was. Or why my sister doesn't speak to our elder brother and only finds out how he's doing by calling his barber once a month. Or why, whenever I visit my sister, I only go for three days in the middle of the week even though it's a pain for everyone involved. All these things eventually become part of the foundation of many relationships that are there but are never spoken about. Like the relative you somehow keep in touch with regularly but the whole family knows not to talk about her husband's infidelity. We all have things like that. But not all are unpleasant, of course. Like friendships that started when someone pushed someone off a swing and there was plenty of crying, but somehow you became best friends and now your children are married to each other. But I seem to have forgotten all of these things, for all sorts of people. I think it shouldn't really be a problem, but it's a flaw in the fabric.
The thing that is problematic is that I have forgotten the face of my father.
And my mother.
And my elder brother, who may be alive, but whom I haven't seen in fourteen years.
And my first best friend who died in an unfortunate pressure-cooker accident.
And my grandmother who taught me how to sew and how to listen to people in a way that made them feel seen.
And my favourite aunt who believed in me even though there was nothing to believe in.
And my first love who told me I was an empty and broken thing.
And my uncle who gave me the finest set of pens I have ever seen, that he'd received from his father.
But I have forgotten the face of my father, and I am thus unmoored.
I can't remember the last time I remembered it. I can see him in the photographs. All sixty-three of them. But when I close my eyes, he is gone.
How does that happen?
There are constants in life. This was one of mine.
What does one have when the constants are gone?
These missing things are a pervasive rootwork through my history. Missing fragments here and there that connect and then disperse. Or, more accurately, missing sheets and pockets from a sample binder. Captions without pictures, category labels without inventories, special cases without glossaries, symbols without annexes. A thoroughly untidy job that can justify a severe note to management: I am afraid to report that the work cannot continue under these conditions. Kind regards, etcetera, etcetera.

The thing that is problematic is that I have forgotten the face of my father.

Let us add these together. A pedestrian life of no particular interest with a family who wishes you were someone else but luckily do not wish it hard enough to do anything about it. A daughter upstairs who wishes that something more interesting had happened to her mother when she was struck by lightning. A husband who is relieved that his second wife isn't good-looking and therefore he doesn't have to worry about infidelity, as if being good-looking leads to this. And a job that monetises the absence of good taste.
But maybe… maybe I can buy a fast motorcycle in an outrageous colour, and go zipping about the world (not this country, one mustn't be silly in fantasies), and pose at railings at pricey establishments, and say things like "Oh darling, how absolutely marvellous" at things that aren't, and occasionally write long letters to my family who finally think I am interesting, and talk to Anicka about how tiresome things are and compare notes on our exciting lives.
Or I can just wait.
And see what else the lightning does besides singe away the meagre remnants of history and personality.
No wonder the lightning didn't exit.
Quite a lot of emptiness to work through first, no?
***
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