On the first night, the soldiers dragged Kalmashi to the fortress and locked her up in a cell. Iron-bound, with nothing but a pisspot and walls with memories. I have heard it said that when prisoners dream, it is only the walls that bear witness. And when the crimes are paid for and the prisoners are escorted out, with or without their heads, most of them forget. Only the walls remember. They endure through water, paint, spit, and the scribbles and scratches from fingernails. They are a catalogue of ruminations and regret.
Except Kalmashi. On her, the walls had no effect. And that was what terrified me the most.
They had trapped her with symbols and salt, and enveloped her in chains of ivory smeared in holy water. In whispers, she was a witch, an alchemist who had been flushed out of her smelly hole. But she carried no wand, and certainly no tools with which she could fashion any sort of sorcery upon us. Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop such whispers from floating out of the prison and down the city like a dreary mist.
I was only a night watchman, with a wooden cane and pockets jingling with keys and old coins. My powers were limited to my ability to conjure forgotten songs from the depths of my memory, from the time when I wandered the plains of Palankor, bearing messages like an obedient runner. I whistled a particularly cheerful tune when they brought Kalmashi down and pushed her into the cell. The guards warned me from talking to her or, well, even looking at her. Eye contact was dangerous. Our eyes were, after all, a pathway to our minds.
The moon refused to go away on that first night. It cast a luminous glow through the high window that was as small as a sparrow’s eye. The other guards and soldiers tied saffron threads on their wrists, blessed by the priests, and drank no water of the prison.
Time, eventually, parched our throats. And thus, although it was forbidden, we all quenched our thirst by gazing at Kalmashi, at the sprawl of her silk sari, at her long, pointed nails, at the pinch of skin at her waist, and at her lips, coated in blood. I was immediately reminded of a song the local bards had sung in a distant town, of the shape of lips and the words that emerged from between them.
Gazing at Kalmashi, however, took a toll on us. My eyes soon lost purpose and I fell asleep, sitting on that stool that had supported a century of watchmen’s bottoms such as mine.
As I slept, I dreamed of a lush, green paradise. Kashmira...
...next to me stood a boy. Wrapped in a thick shawl, with a stick in his hand. I placed him at five, maybe six, summers old. Behind him, a jagged path wound like a scar between purple carpets of chrysanthemums, up the slope to meet the mountains. Oh, the mountains! All of them snow-capped and wondrous. Tall enough to hide the sun.
I never asked the boy where we were. Or his name. His village was a colony of cottages and a brook running beside it. More goats than people. The women had their heads veiled, with glinting nose-rings. They fed and bathed me and guided me to the altar of stars, where they sanctified my presence among them and garbed me in a shawl made of goat hair brocaded in silver threads. After sundown, a bonfire was erected and set ablaze. The men and women gathered to dance to the beats of drums and horns and cymbals while I drank their milk of kesar and nuts. The boy returned, bearing a gift. A hand mirror, which he said I could use to awaken the dormant spirits around me in the time of my need. I nodded and offered him my cane in return. He refused and disappeared into the crowd, and I lost myself once again into the sway of the songs. They loved me more, for I knew what they sang, and I sang along with them until I memorized their language.
The night was endless. They brought plates laden with rogan josh spiced and flavored with yoghurt, rice sweetened with cinnamon, saffron, and ghee, minced meatballs, lamb flavored in mawal flowers and cardamom, and mutton spiced in black pepper. Wine was passed all around, and rice ale, which had me teetering along the brookside after a few mugs. Moonlight washed over the valley, making the river sparkle. Once the festival ended, they gave me a bed to rest. It was only a small discomfort that I was not on my stool.
On the second day, I woke with a start. The ministers and generals had arrived and demanded to interrogate Kalmashi. They came decked in necklaces and bracelets and veshtis brocaded in gold. Their sword hilts were embossed with rubies, while their armor gleamed even in the feeble firelight of the gaol.
Laughter echoed through the vaults of the prison as they celebrated their victory of Kalmashi’s capture with crude jokes. I was hurried out to keep the conversation discreet. Later, I heard screams, certainly of a woman, coming from the bowels of the prison, while I waited with the other guards sharing a pipe. Nobody thought anything amiss. I was forced to shrug.
When I returned to my post and to my beloved stool, I found Kalmashi lying amidst a heap of silk. Her hair was open and her face down, buried in her own bosom. The soldiers collected their piss in a flagon and splashed it on her face to make her stir.
On the second night, I dreamed I was in Kashmira again...
...the boy had disappeared. Nobody knew where he had gone. Or if he had been taken. There had been rumors of dacoits hunting in the periphery of the village, with hideouts in the mountains. They said that the dacoits abducted young boys and sold them as slaves to the merchants, who would then carry them across the seas in great ships to assist them in their murky trades. Ivory, silk, spices and the medicines of Malabar. The colonizers were merciless. They did not care who the slaves prayed to, as long as their arms worked the boats and carried the timber.
His mother was inconsolable. The other women wept with her, while the men sent runners and pigeons to the greater cities of the north. I offered to carry a letter myself, back to the empire of Palankor where I would spread the word. However, nobody in the village trusted Palankor to help any more than to make things worse. The villagers were better off by themselves, they remarked, and convinced me to stay the night and partake in their food and drinks. I asked them if the boy had a mirror like the one he had gifted me. No, they said. What I possessed was the last of them. I then sang to the valleyfolk the song of gratitude, taught to me by the minstrels of the southern ports, and promised them that their son would return.
On the third day, they wrapped Kalmashi in a black flag and paraded her through the city in a cage dragged by a chariot. The people flung eggs and tomatoes on her and screamed ‘traitor! traitor!’. As I walked beside the cage, I watched the crowd for signs of my wife and daughters. I hadn’t been home in three days.
On the third night...
...the boy who had disappeared returned as a man. He recounted his adventures on the sea and brought sketches of the fish he had caught whilst slaving to the high masters. His arms had sinewed from rowing the great galleys, while his back was scarred by whips. His tan amused the valleyfolk, while his aged mother pinched his cheek and arms for signs of possession.
When the moon rose, he gathered his old friends and greeted me with a hug. We feasted on rogan josh and rice and toddy and prayed together at the altar of stars. With our bellies filled, he whispered to us of the victory of the country over the pale colonizers. It was the birth of a new empire.
Before the men could erupt in cheer, he warned us to be cautious. That a plague was coming north, to haunt us for the sins of our forefathers and desiccate this land. That the new empire was dragging its own shadow upon the light that it promised. That freedom was an illusion, like a moon hovering in the skies on a stormy night. One never knew when it would disappear behind a cloud and never come out.
I lay quiet on my back, watching the stars. A cold breeze swept down the mountains and bristled through the fields of chrysanthemum and created ripples in the waters. That night, we trekked up the hills to a hidden lake and bathed in that icy chillness until I lost all memory of warmth. I was reminded of the time when I was a child and father would take me to the temple of garlands, pour milk and honey on the idols, thanking them for the land we lived on and the folks we loved. And as we walked back, he would wrap his hand around my eyes, to stop me from peering into the altar of stars, and whisper to me of the curse on those who entered that shrine, who would never be reborn once they died.
Shivering, I urged the men to pack their belongings, abandon the village, and come south. But the boy who had become a man laughed and said that he had never met anyone who, when a fire began to burn, advised to walk towards it instead of running away. Truth be told, the man did not intend to run, either. So, as we lay in the quiet of the lake, I sang them a song of endurance, taught to me by the warriors of the desert, to whom I would unfailingly go every year carrying letters from their families, smudged in tears.
On the fourth day, one of the guards who was looking for a shave came up to me and requested me to lend him my mirror. I said I did not have any. But as it turned out, more famous than the stool of the watchmen was the mirror I had in my pocket, as old as my time in the prison. I watched Kalmashi scratch her arm in sleep, curled in shadow.
On the fourth night...
...I was at a wedding. The man who was a former oarsman had met a girl in the woods bordering the valley, the daughter of a shaman who had been chased out of her home for meddling with a prophecy. The oarsman had admired her courage and her beliefs and had brought her home to his mother.
The wedding was a splendid affair, with shamianas erected with fluttering canvases and people invited from all the villages in the valley. There was an air of anxiety over the state of affairs in the new empire but nothing that a plate of rice and rogan josh could not distract one from. Fireworks peppered the sky, and the valleyfolk danced along the brookside, dragging me into their midst till my ankles hurt.
I did not bring a gift, and so I sang them all the songs I knew. From the distant plains to the coasts, deserts, and forests. I sang of joy, of unions and of longing. Until the bride walked up to me in tears, planted a kiss on my cheek, and whispered her name in my ear. When she parted, I found a tulip peeking out of my uniform pocket, and its fragrance filled the dream.
On the fifth day, I went home to the arms of my wife and the voices of my daughters. I played with them and told them the stories of the high seas, of mischievous pirates and the coves they haunted. Before my return to the prison, I took my children to the altar of stars in the city and planted the tulip beneath the shrine.
On the fifth night...
...fire consumed all I could see. I stood beside a burning wagon, surrounded by smoke and screams. The ground trembled beneath me and ashes drifted overhead, carried by the wind. The new empire’s cavalry chased the valleyfolk until the jagged path into the mountains was lit by a dotted line of fires. The brook flowing beside was littered with bodies floating on the water and a jetsam of belongings like driftwood. Cries of a united empire rent the air as the soldiers sought to reclaim the land they had lost centuries ago to the ancestors of the fleeing valleyfolk. Flags were planted and the altar of stars was razed, and on its ruins the soldiers laid the foundations of a temple of garlands.
Like the old times, they said. When the empire was one.
Among those who remained in the fields of chrysanthemums were the man who was once a slave and his family. The earth had turned grey with soot as I walked into what remained of their home. The shaman’s daughter was with child when she greeted me in an embrace and offered me a bowl of water and soup.
The man had bought his way into the new empire’s stronghold by selling scarves, spices, and stories. He was a bard and a weaver, and he did not care much for either stars or garlands. When I walked with him, he told me of his plan to endure on these slopes till his last breath. He wanted no new home across the mountains, or to be a part of another’s household.
To garnish our nostalgia, we sat beside the brook and ate meatballs laced with saffron and drank rice ale until we were cackling with laughter. When he left that night towards the soldier’s barracks, I promised him to keep his wife safe. She screamed in the agony of delivery when he was killed. I stood along with the midwives, singing a song of life taught to me by my mother.
On the sixth day, I woke to the cheep of a sparrow fluttering over Kalmashi while she slept. Nobody in the prison could explain its presence. When she came to, the sparrow landed on her palm and nibbled at the scraps of groundnuts we had never given her. That noon, a letter arrived from the Emperor’s palace, flourished with a long list of crimes and the subsequent sentence. Kalmashi was impassive when the captain of the guards read her the statement. She blew hair out of her eyes, yawned, and returned to curl against the wall, staring at the stones and the memories they held.
On the sixth night...
...I was trailing behind a girl herding sheep into an enclosure. She was of four summers, with eyes bluer than the purest of sapphires. She was wise enough to keep a distance from me, until I showed her the mirror her father had given me a long time ago. Much of the valley had been transformed – more cottages, wider roads, flags of the empire flapping against the breeze, wagons rolling down the dirt path cutting a scar through the forest, bridges over the brook, and people strange and familiar – at home and yet with a feeling of being lost.
A new altar of stars had been erected at the foot of the hills, and the girl took me there. Her mother, the daughter of the shaman and wife of the oarsman, greeted me with tulips and milk and requested me to follow her up the slope. There, in a cave that bored into the heart of the mountain, was a camp, filled with crates, cooking pots, tents, and a horde of people wrapped in shawls and beards.
They were the insurgents, she said. Time had slipped out of its stream and had fallen into a morass. The new empire had annexed them and demanded that they raise the flags and stand true to the colors of the empire. The ones who didn’t were whipped or cast into the river or had their homes snatched and given to the priests. I watched them work their swords on the whetting stone and shape helms out of copper.
The girl came to me with a ring. A gift, she said, to make people remember you after you’re gone. It was carved in bronze, with a tulip engraved on it. I wore it, and it gleamed like a moon in the dark of the cave.
Later when she squirmed on the cave floor in a fit, her mother and the men came running. They gave her water while the mother removed her iron pendant and placed it on the girl’s palm, closing her fingers over it. Once the fit passed and the girl slipped into a deep sleep, the mother wept, and I wept with her. What chance did this fragile army stand against the might of the empire, she asked me. I sang her a song, then, of courage, taught to me by the slaves of a galley, who hacked down their cruel masters on one moonless night and escaped with their lives and more. One of them was her husband, I told her.
On the seventh morning, the Emperor rode down to the fortress to wring out a final word from Kalmashi. The priests, commanders, and ministers accompanied him while I retreated into shadows, dragging my stool with me. The other guards held wagers, while the soldiers drank to the health of the empire.
Kalmashi, of course, did not say a word, unless a spit on the Emperor’s face could be counted as one. She was sentenced to be beheaded the following morning. No more sparrows, no more sleep. The guards gave her a last meal, and I was forced to sell the mirror to the cook in exchange for a spoonful of rogan josh stuffed between the stale rice.
On the seventh night...
...I was surrounded by candles and herbs. The oarsman’s wife let out a last sigh in the presence of her trusted warriors, lying on a bed of leaves. Candlelight on her face made her seem like a painting. I laid a tulip at her feet, then sang a song of love taught to me by a beggar drunk on the streets of a forgotten town. Her daughter stood by the entrance to the cave, her figure masked in silhouette as she looked over the precipice at the valley below, at the flickering lights and the wagons rolling in from beyond the forests, always rolling. The remaining insurgents began to draw a plan for their days ahead after the mourning, but nothing I saw could overcome the vast resources deployed under the banners of the empire. I only had songs to offer, and a word of courage.
That night, we cremated the shaman’s daughter and fanned the smoke out of the cave and into the cold mountain air. A blanket of silence hung inside, and nobody thought to speak. We sipped on our toddies and whispered our stories in private.
The moon hung low in the sky, and the girl, standing at the mouth of the cave, jumped in an attempt to catch it. A moment later, she was squirming on the floor, her limbs scraping against stone, her head twitching from side to side. The women and men cried and ran to her, but we had burned the iron pendant with the mother’s corpse. I pushed through the insurgents, all the while removing the key dangling from my uniform. I placed it on her hand and wrapped her fingers around it and slowly brushed her hair. It’s all right, I whispered close to her ear. It’s all right.
And like all nights in the valley, this too was endless.
On the eighth morning, I woke to a nudge from one of the guards. In front of us was the empty cell where Kalmashi had been imprisoned, its gate left open with the lock dangling from its hook. I spotted a key plugged into the lock’s wards, its familiarity staggering me. The other keys—the ones of my home, my cupboards and of the chest that lay under my bed—were tied around the railing. I sensed a lightness near my waist where the keys had rested as far as memory took me back, and that lightness slowly rose to my head.
Nobody who stood there missed the trail of tulip petals scattered on the floor, which led all the way out of the prison and up to the fortress where the Emperor slept.