The sun hung in the blue sky, the river roared, a breeze rustled through the forest, all unconcerned that a funeral pyre had exhausted itself on the bank. Some distance away, a sacred fire crackled in a quickly built fire-altar. Before it sat Pavitra’s father, as stunned as she herself was. Pavitra, thirteen years old, sat behind him, fiddling with the pebbles underfoot. Little one-armed Mohita sat beside her, aghast at the loss of his hero, Gayatri. Tamarasa, the pack’s story-singer and priest, fed the sacred fire ghee and puffed grains and dried grass, chanting shlokas in praise of Yama, that he might take good care of Gayatri’s departed soul.
The story sang of Yama asking his son Yudhishthira to name the greatest wonder. Answered Yudhishthira, “Day after day, countless people die, yet the living wish to live forever.”
Once upon a time, Pavitra knew, people lived to be old. They lay for months on their sick-beds, their families fighting to keep death away. And still death surprised them, cutting short what they had expected to be one more day of medicine and ministration. Now, of course, with Bhoomi, the very ground they lived upon, having turned hostile, they died as Gayatri had: quickly, violently, unexpectedly.
Bhoomi these days let no one grow old; she did not even let them settle. Once, she had been forbearance itself, letting them tread upon her, rake her for crops, dig into her for dwellings. But, said the songs, she had grown tired of the constant fighting over who owned her. Now she quaked angrily whenever the people’s numbers grew, breaking open and swallowing one, or ten. If they so much as planted a seed or trod a path, her plants turned vicious, with snaking vines and falling branches crushing roofs and carts and shovels. Their food had as much a chance of killing them as they of killing it.
Despite it all, underneath it all, they still expected to live forever.
Certainly Pavitra had not thought—no one had thought—that Gayatri, her identical twin, would be next. Gayatri, who was unafraid of the hard life they led, who was decisive in hard situations, who inspired confidence in everyone around. Who more and more was accepted as leader of the pack, no matter that there were people older.
To a heaven? Reborn? Or—dreaded thought—a hell? Yama only knew.
They had been tracking a boar, Gayatri and Pavitra, creeping forward quietly through the foliage towards its soft grunts. Then the grunts went silent and they were walking blind. Awfully dangerous, but it was so close and they were all so hungry always. Gayatri had trudged on and Pavitra, as usual, had followed. Apparently they hadn’t been as quiet as they thought, for in a half-breath, the bushes parted and it stood directly in their path, head lowered, pawing the ground, half-again the size of a typical boar. By the time Pavitra could raise her bow and nock an arrow, Gayatri had hefted her axe and taken off at a run towards it.
Gayatri mistimed her blow, and the boar sank its tusks deep into her gut. Pavitra stood, stricken, not seeing the smallest opening until after the boar had flung Gayatri to the forest floor. Then a volley of her arrows had found their target. Then. Far too late.
A sob escaped her into the chant-filled air around the sacred fire. Her father half-turned, his face sadder than Pavitra had thought possible, and took her hand. “What’s the matter, my love?”
“Why am I such a useless hunter, Father? Why couldn’t I have stopped it, saved her?”
Father faced her and placed a hand on her cheek. His eyes were serious as he looked into hers.
“Pavitra, do you know how I know, with perfect certainty, that there wasn’t the smallest possibility of landing an arrow?”
Pavitra shook her head.
“Because Gayatri is not here.”
Pavitra nodded, and her father gave her one last look, meant to be fortifying, before he turned back to the fire. He would say that, of course. He would not see, would not admit, that she was terrible at the one thing that kept them all fed.
It had always been so. When she and Gayatri were six, they’d been taught to wring the necks of rabbits caught in the pack’s traps. It took them both many tries... but Gayatri had never hesitated. Not even once. Whereas Pavitra only had the courage to try because Gayatri went first. Pavitra’s weapon was the coward’s: bow and arrows, used at a safe distance. Gayatri used the axe. Gayatri could not wait until she was old enough to hunt, whereas it had taken Pavitra a very long time, to understand her responsibilities, to tear herself from Tamarasa’s side and remove her head from the whirlpool of story-songs it was forever in, to learn to shoot arrows. Even after all these years, she only hunted alongside Gayatri and still shed a tear or two for each kill.
If Bhoomi was planning to doom their pack, she could not have done much better than have Yama take Gayatri and leave Pavitra behind.
“I’ve nothing more to say to you all!” exclaimed the girl, Gayatri, in frustration and rage. Her father and Tamarasa, they at least ought to have known better, but they were being the worst of all. She picked up her axe. “I’m off to hunt. Perhaps you’ll all have come to your senses when I return.”
She stalked off into the forest, reeling. In her mind was a terrifyingly real image of being gored to death by a wild boar; she had no idea where the image came from, and no one wanted to listen to her. So clear was the image, it was as if she had witnessed her own death from but a few paces away. Fear coursed through her veins; she fought it for control over herself. A good thing this situation had a ready remedy: find prey, meet it with her thick blade, return triumphant.
She stopped. Soft hoof-beats sounded on the forest floor. She stepped quietly towards the sounds and saw a grey deer in a small clearing.
She remembered herself saying, on many occasions, how hunting was like a meditation; how all the world fell away save the connection between hunter and prey, how the danger hummed under her skin like life itself. She remembered the words, but all she felt now was a wrongness. Her legs were like lead, the axe was unwieldy in her hands, and inside her skin she only felt terribly, terribly alone.
She shook off her malaise. It was understandable—an image of her own death had occurred to her—but this was not time nor place for it. She forced herself to consider her prey.
The deer, for some reason separated from its herd, nosed the lower branches of a tamarind tree, nudging off ripe fruit. It cracked the thin shell with its hooves and licked at the tangy flesh within.
The girl chased away her morose thoughts—it wasn’t like her to have them. Deer were notoriously skittish; her usual method of rushing it was unlikely to work. Her hands itched for a bow and arrows, but the axe was her weapon; it was all she had. So she lifted it and—feeling an errant, quickly suppressed pang of sorrow for the beast—hurled it through the air at the deer’s head. A breathless moment later, it met its target with a thunk, lodging itself in the deer’s skull. The deer slumped down in the small clearing.
But—what was this?—no, it hadn’t. Not all the way. It only sank to its knees. Then, as if it had turned into deer-coloured smoke, it roiled and dispersed and rose, filling out a new form.
To the girl’s great astonishment, where the deer had knelt there was now a strange being with the body of a woman and the head of a deer. The axe had dissolved in the transformation, as if it were no more than a clod of mud tossed into a river. The girl forgot her discomfort and confusion... and gaped. Did such things happen outside of the story-songs? What next, was the creature to offer her a boon?
The creature turned slowly around, peering at the trees. “Who was it that bested me?” it asked. “You have just saved me from a curse. Emerge, that I might reward you!”
Surely this was a trick. Everything sensible in the girl screamed to run away, but she was rooted to the spot by wonder... and by another old memory, resurfacing, of herself saying that no one ever gained anything by risking nothing. And that memory did not let her be cowardly.
“I see you,” said the creature, walking directly to where the girl was concealed behind bushes. “My saviour.”
The girl forced herself to leave cover—cowardice did not become her—and stand face to face with the creature. Its eyes danced in mad delight; its mouth quavered in laughter so subtle the girl might have been imagining it.
“What is your name?” asked the creature.
“I am... Gayatri,” said the girl, and it felt wrong. As if she were lying. No, worse. As if she were stealing. “Who are you?”
The creature sighed. “I have been under a curse so long I have forgotten my name. But I am a yakshini, and I remember the way back to my home. Will you accept a reward for having saved me?”
The girl bit down the ready refusal on her tongue and said, “What kind of reward?”
“What would you like? Safety and stability, escape from Bhoomi’s wrath? Beauty? Immortality? Simply name it.”
Desire exploded in the girl’s heart at the mention of safety and stability, rest... She quashed it. What would she do in such a world? She was a hunter. But she’d been right, these were gifts that would benefit her pack, gifts worth taking risks for. Even if they came with a large sense of foreboding.
“Can you make me invulnerable?” she said, giving in to the image of her death, the boar’s tusks sinking into her and what it would mean for them all if she did indeed die.
The yakshini’s deer-face grinned; she nodded eagerly. She plucked a handful of leaves from a nearby bush and murmured some words over them. As her shloka reached its crescendo, she crushed the leaves and drew a shimmering circle, vertical in the air, with the juice they left on her fingers. The shimmer covered the circle for a moment, then retreated to its edges. Through it, the girl looked into a whole other world, one that was as hard and dry and scrubby as her own was green and wet and mossy, with stone pillars taking the place of trees as far as her eye could see.
The story-songs said that when Yudhishthira answered that question of Yama’s, and numerous others besides, Yama was pleased enough to bring Yudhishthira’s brothers back to life.
Pavitra would have no such luck.
Tamarasa came up to her as she sat cradling Gayatri’s axe, trying to feel her lost sister through it. Mohita, who had followed Gayatri around everywhere, had now attached himself to Pavitra. She had patted him to sleep beside her.
The ceremonies were complete, everyone had had their midday meal, and all were lounging about in various states of rest, just as they did every day. Soon Tamarasa would sing, lulling them to sleep. Usually, this afternoon rest was Pavitra’s favourite time of day. She especially loved it when the ballad of Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, rang out in Tamarasa’s warm, clear voice, the almost-presence of the goddess binding everyone together in love and understanding. Often, Pavitra would sing along.
“What would you have me sing, Pavitra?” asked Tamarasa.
“Why do you ask me?” Pavitra was still thinking of how she could have prevented Gayatri’s death. She had no time to choose songs.
“There is no one to whom Gayatri was more important.”
Pavitra looked pointedly in the direction of her father, who sat, morose, some distance away.
“He has you,” said Tamarasa.
“Me?! How could you compare me to Gayatri?”
Tamarasa placed a hand on her head. “In the olden times, dear Pavitra, you would be a child upon the brink of adolescence. You would have just begun to take interest in your family’s trade, or quite another one, perhaps. Your father—or perhaps both your parents, for your mother might have still been alive—would have indulged whatever you wanted to learn, found you an apprenticeship. You would not have had to hunt for—”
Pavitra pushed her hand away. “Why are you telling me all this, Tamarasa? Do you think I ought to grieve more?”
“No, my dear, I merely wanted to caution you against mistaking the loss of Gayatri for some imagined inadequacy of your own.”
“It’s not imagined,” muttered Pavitra. “She’s the daring one. She could jump into a fray with her axe and hack an animal to pieces. She was not—” Pavitra gulped, laid a hand on sleeping Mohita’s head. “She was not useless at... at the important things.”
Tamarasa went quiet. There was no doubt which incident Pavitra was referring to.
Some months ago, the pack had crossed the river on whose banks they now sat. They had lashed branches into rafts and poled their way across. Mohita, in the same raft as Pavitra and Gayatri, had stuck his hand in the rippling, gurgling water, laughingly splashing everyone on board as they indulgently let him. Until he screamed, and they saw that a gharial had his arm in its flat jaws, its scaly nostrils flaring in triumph. The gharial and Mohita thrashed against the raft, those on board holding on to Mohita, the gharial whipping its spiked tail, pulling him to itself, threatening to upturn the raft in the process and make meals for its circling fellows. Pavitra was one of those clinging to Mohita, determined that if he were to go, she would too. Her bow and arrows were useless against the armoured hides of the gharials.
It was Gayatri who ended the impasse. She raised her axe... and hacked off Mohita’s arm.
It still made Pavitra sick to think of the blood, and Mohita’s screams, and the horrified faces of her people. She never could have done it, but it had been the right thing to do. Mohita survived, and so did everyone else on the raft that day.
“So don’t try to console me,” continued Pavitra to Tamarasa. “The whole pack has sustained a great loss today.”
“No doubt. But we do still have you, and your bow. Your heart may not be in hunting, but you are still strong, and valorous, and your aim is impeccable.”
“What makes you the authority on where my heart lies?”
A grim smile played upon Tamarasa’s lips. “Because I have heard you sing.”
The words fell like arrows upon Pavitra’s heart. It was true, for in the moments she was singing, she could forget what a burden it was to be alive. If only singing brought them food, too. “I cannot waste my time on music.”
“I know,” Tamarasa said, sadly. “But for now, you can let us take comfort in your existence, and tell me what to sing.”
Pavitra’s heart immediately and selfishly called out for the songs of Saraswati, but she knew she did not deserve happiness and comfort, not now. “Isn’t it obvious? Sing of the warrior goddesses whom Gayatri took so much joy in. What else?”
“That’s what will make you happy?”
Pavitra, unwilling to discuss it further, looked straight at Tamarasa. “Yes.”
Tamarasa gave her a strange look but complied. She started with a ballad about the demon Mahishasura and the bloody end he met at the hands of Chamundi. She sang of Sumbha and Nisumbha, demon brothers destroyed by Kalika and Ambika, the dark and light aspects of the Supreme Goddess, the Devi. She told of Durga, and Kali, and innumerable others, reaching a crescendo with the death of Raktabija, the demon whose drops of blood, when spilt, sprang to life as his exact replicas.
Each note, each word, landed upon Pavitra’s ears as a lamentation that she was alive while Gayatri was not. And she gripped Gayatri’s axe, letting the regrets beat her heart, willing her sister alive, in vain.
And then Tamarasa changed register.
She sang the songs of Saraswati. The soft notes carried images of beauty, of gentleness, of learning. Pavitra tried to push them away, but the music cradled her heart, holding it, letting it rest. She wanted to tell Tamarasa to stop, to return to singing about the warrior-goddesses... but instead found herself picking up the notes, singing, full-throated, full-hearted, until Tamarasa’s voice faded away and Pavitra’s carried the song alone. She poured in all she had until she had sung every single song of Saraswati’s.
Then, even as she breathed deeply to regain her breath, her eyes drooped, her head sank to the pebbled bank, and she slept.
When the girl, Gayatri, stepped through the yakshini’s shimmering circle in the air, she found herself in a clearing bathed in soft-crimson twilight, amidst scrubby bushes, stunted trees, and stone pillars that stretched as far as she could see. There was also a permanent brick fire-altar painted in red and white stripes, with small metal pots by its side. The place looked like the temple ruins her pack sometimes came across, except roofless, in vastly better repair, and infinitely multiplied. She felt a pang—of what, she didn’t know; just that she wasn’t supposed to feel it.
“Where is this?” she asked.
“My humble abode,” said the yakshini, her deer-face crinkling into a smile.
The girl’s skin prickled, but she ignored it. She’d known that coming here was a risk; she had to arm herself now and be ready.
“Now,” said the yakshini, completely at ease in this world she claimed to have been away from so long, “I must go gather some herbs for the ritual, and some firewood, and perhaps some dried grass. Make yourself at home.” She let out a sharp whistle. “My friend here will see that you don’t get lost.”
Dried leaves rustled, and the girl froze as an immense king cobra sidled into the clearing.
“Aheendra,” said the yakshini, and the girl realised with a shudder that she was talking to the snake, “we have a guest. Guide her back if she wanders too far, will you?”
To the girl’s great incredulity, Aheendra nodded. Whoever heard of snakes obeying commands?
The yakshini traipsed off, leaving the girl with the king cobra and the pillars.
Aheendra drew itself up further, flared its hood, and fixed its black, beady eyes on the girl. She froze, sure she was to die in an instant. But it must only have been a warning, for then Aheendra subsided, coiling itself up in a pile of leaves, its slick, mottled scales rustling through the brittle brown, and promptly went to sleep.
There were only two things to do with snakes: kill them, or step quietly away. The girl did not have any weapons, of course, but as she stepped away from it and it didn’t move, she let out a breath of relief.
It seemed there was nothing to do but wait.
She knew she had to find herself a weapon, but she couldn’t stop herself from wandering up to one of the pillars: eight-sided, carved every inch. She ran her hands over the nearest one, feeling the vines and chariots and animals of stone. Interspersed with the pictures were twig-like symbols the girl knew to be the lost art of writing. Even the metal pots near the fire-altar, they were intricately carved. Mining metal was lost knowledge for the people on Bhoomi, so any scraps they found were immediately smelted into weaponry. These lovely, fragile things could not have survived long with her pack, or any other.
But why, for the love of everything good, was she thinking of loveliness and fragility? She was Gayatri, she needed a weapon.
Nothing around was promising: there were no fallen branches—indeed, the yakshini herself had gone elsewhere in search of firewood—no big rocks or even sharp, flinty ones. No vines.
The girl was stumped. She turned around in place, slowly, hoping something would occur to her. Nothing did, and the pillars drew her in once more. She looked wistfully at the symbols, wishing she could read what they said.
Almost of their own accord, her hand reached toward one, brushed it...
...and a voice sounded within her head.
“I am Suneeti,” it said. “Born one thousand, four hundred and forty-five years ago. Forgot myself as a child, and have been here ever since.”
The girl snatched her hand away and leapt back in alarm.
Had the pillar just spoken to her?
And what if it had? She was Gayatri, not known for shying away from anything, and this was only a talking pillar, after all the wonders she had just witnessed.
Cautiously, she stepped forward and placed her hand on the stone once again.
“Greetings,” she said, feeling stupid. Surely pillars didn’t talk.
“Greetings,” said the voice.
The girl stayed with her hand on the pillar, but it took effort. She kept wanting to flee in panic.
“I’m... Gayatri,” she said, the name once again strange on her tongue.
“Is that what the yakshini told you?”
“No,” said the girl, puzzled, “that’s my name.”
“That’s strange. Nobody here knows their names.”
“Nobody? Who else is here?”
“Here,” said the pillar, “let me show you.”
Images flowed into the girl’s mind.
A little girl sat by a road, petting a friendly grey dog. Her head smarted, she could feel a large bump where it hurt, and she had just been scolded by a woman for “being silly, no one forgets themselves because they bumped their heads.” Everything was bewildering, and she didn’t know what to do.
The dog licked the little girl’s hands, nuzzled against her legs.
“Come with me,” it said, “I’ll take you to your home.”
The girl nodded; the dog dipped its paw into a nearby puddle and, muttering under its breath, drew a circle on the dusty ground. It shimmered and shone, and the little girl and the dog stepped into it.
And they were in the yakshini’s world, only there weren’t quite as many pillars then. There were a lot more trees, more green plants, not just scrub.
The dog turned into the yakshini: a dog’s face now, and a woman’s body. She quickly gathered up some herbs and dead branches from the ground and settled down by the fire-altar, seating the little girl on its opposite side. She chanted shlokas, fed the fire; then, as she reached her crescendo, blew into the fire. The flames bent towards the little girl, enveloped her, and carried her some distance away, to where the pillar Suneeti stood now. The flames were not hot, they were cold. So cold. They seeped into her body, into her bones, freezing them, freezing her flesh—
Into a carved stone pillar.
And there she stood, year after year: not dead and not alive; unmoving, unchanging.
And then Suneeti told the girl the others’ stories. Child after child, brought there, confused and disoriented, to be turned into pillars just as she was, until—
“Stop!” cried the girl. “No more!”
She sank against the pillar, trying to understand. Each one was a prison, then; a life lost but not completed. She thought to afternoons with her pack, sharing food and laughter and care; she thought of how even the dead had a chance to be reborn... and the monstrosity of the pillars curled around her gut like foul smoke. Bile rose, threatening to spew.
“And soon, you’ll join us,” said Suneeti.
“In all these years, no one has come here and not been turned into a pillar.”
“But all those stories you showed me—those children had all forgotten themselves!”
“In all these years, no one has come here who has not forgotten their own self.”
“But I have not!” Even as she said it, however, she thought of all the times that day that her hands, her tongue, her skin had spoken differently... No, wait. She could not doubt herself. She was Gayatri; that was all.
And yet, perhaps that might not save her.
She was not a pillar yet; she might escape. Her heart gave a twinge at leaving the others behind, but what was it that she said often? Those who cannot, must sacrifice for those who can. She hated having said it, hated being bound by it, but knew she’d meant it, and that it was important to remain faithful to it. Her people needed her to be herself, to be Gayatri.
“I must return to my people, Suneeti,” she said, her heart heavy. “Tell me how.”
“No one’s ever managed it. If you ask me, the only way out is to summon Yama. Because she’s stealing souls, you see. Keeping them from living out their lives, keeping them from Yama at the end. She gets drunk every so often and rails against him. More, he’s a god. If he comes here and sees all this, he’s sure to destroy such an evil creature.”
“Yama? But that means someone has to die.”
“Yes, what about that nasty snake? It’s terrified so many of us.”
“I’m weaponless! It will kill me before I can even scratch it.”
“Ah well. Yama will come, nevertheless. Just think, we will all be free.”
For one moment, the girl considered this. After all, despite the tendril of fear creeping up her stomach, she was Gayatri. If anyone had the courage to summon Yama, it was her. Only, invoking him meant she would die, leaving her pack significantly weakened.
“I cannot die,” she said firmly.
“That’s why no one has ever escaped. No one willingly courts death.”
The girl looked around frantically for means of escape. The shimmering circle she had come through was gone now, closed by a snap of the yakshini’s fingers. But perhaps she could open it again? She needed water. And the shloka.
“Do you know—” she began.
“No,” said the pillar, evidently able to read her thoughts. “I don’t. But if you can find water in the pots by the fire-altar, it’s just magical enough to open—”
The girl dashed off to the fire-altar, not waiting to hear the rest of Suneeti’s sentence. There was, indeed, one pot that was half-full of water. Hands shaking, the girl carried it back to the pillar.
“All right,” she said. “Wish me luck.”
“Luck won’t help. This hasn’t worked for anyone but the yakshini.”
The girl snatched her hand away from the pillar once more. She couldn’t afford this not working. She dipped her finger in the water and drew a circle in the air. Sure enough, a shimmer trailed her finger, and when she closed the circle, the whole of it sparkled; when it cleared, the girl could see Father and Tamarasa speaking by the river-side, Mohita clinging to Father’s arm.
Gladness filled the girl’s heart at the sight of them. As she raised a foot to step through the window, she felt a pang of regret that the trapped souls couldn’t escape too. But the pack came foremost. She shoved her foot forward... and hit the circle: it was solid. There was a barrier where earlier there had been a window. Transparent, but a barrier nevertheless. Frantically, she ran her hands over its entire span, but that was no use. Not a single spot gave. She couldn’t pass through.
“Father!” she screamed, “Tamarasa, look at me! Mohita!”
But they were deep in conversation, and the girl noticed something else. A large crack in the ground ran down the river bank. Bhoomi was getting restless.
Desperate, she threw the rest of the water at the circle, but it simply splashed against it and trickled down.
“I know it doesn’t feel right to leave without her,” Tamarasa was saying, “but Pavitra is brave and resourceful. She will find us.”
The girl shivered at the mention of that name: Pavitra. As if that were someone she should know.
“She’s my daughter, Tamarasa!”
“And she’s, what, nothing to me? Gayatri was exceptional, but Pavitra is no mean hunter. And—” Tamarasa’s voice choked with angry tears, “what of the story-songs? We already accord them so little importance, but without her to carry them on, we will forget them, and ourselves, and our humanity.”
Why were they so worried about this Pavitra? And not at all about her, Gayatri? Again, the flutter of fear went through her. Who was this Pavitra, more important than even her, Gayatri?
Father looked stricken. “But how can I go on without either of my daughters? Oh Yama, will you not return my Gayatri? Oh Bhoomi, guide my Pavitra back to us!”
Yama? But she, Gayatri, was here, alive!
“I’m not dead!” she yelled at them, remembering why she had run away to hunt this afternoon: they’d kept saying she, Gayatri, was dead.
“Pavitra will find us,” said Tamarasa. “I am certain.”
Slowly, the rest of the pack were gathering on the river bank, knowing what the crack in the ground and the rumble that created it meant. Once Tamarasa said a prayer, they would all set off, in search of another spot they could camp in for a few days.
Father’s shoulders crumpled. He pressed his palms into his eyes. He spoke without looking up, his voice resigned. “Begin the benediction, Tamarasa. Let’s move on.”
And Tamarasa began to sing the ballad of Saraswati.
On the river bank, Pavitra slept and dreamt. She was Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, sitting on a large white lotus in the middle of a lake, playing on the veena she cradled. She’d hoped to have one since the moment Tamarasa had sketched it on wet river sand, and here it was. Gayatri was Durga, sitting upon a tiger on the lake-shore, each of her eight hands holding a weapon: trident, mace, discus, sword, spear, club, and the foremost two hands holding her axe.
Gayatri cried out and Pavitra looked up from her music to see an enormous beast emerge from the lake.
Boar, gharial, deer: it was all of these and none of them. Its skin shimmered one moment soft and shiny as a deer’s, the next hard and scaly like a gharial’s. It had tusks flanking an elongated snout, which it opened to reveal row upon row of sharp teeth. The tail it thrashed the water with had the girth of a gharial’s, the speed of a deer’s.
It would feed them all for days.
“Get it, Pavitra,” yelled Gayatri. “I am too far away!”
“But I only have a veena.”
“That has strings, doesn’t it? Use it to loose arrows!”
Pavitra looked forlorn at the veena, knowing that the arrows would scratch it. Such a beautiful one, too, heavy dark wood inlaid with ivory; where had she gotten it?
“Hurry, Pavitra, don’t let it escape!”
And, out of nowhere, Pavitra remembered that Gayatri was supposed to be dead. She had seen her gored, cremated, mourned. How could she be so alive and vivid, yelling out to her?
Unless... unless the images of her death were false. Illusions. Hallucinations. An errant nightmare, even.
Relief coursed through Pavitra as she arrived at this explanation. She shot arrows from her veena, but they all missed the beast, and Gayatri grew annoyed with her. “You’re not even trying,” she said.
Then a soothing hand rested upon Pavitra’s head and a voice said, “Sleep well, gentle Pavitra.”
Her eyes flew open, to find Tamarasa beside her. And Mohita, and the river bank.
And she knew what was dream and what was real.
Splinters of pain shot into her every nerve. White sorrow blanketed her, covering, smothering. She closed her eyes tight, curled into an embryo, let it wash over her, through her, across her.
This was impossible. Gayatri could not be dead. The universe could not allow it; Pavitra could not have been betrayed by her own dream. No, there had to be an explanation. She just had to find it.
And then it came to her, simple and true.
She was Gayatri.
The roar of pain died in her ears, dulling, contracting, removing itself.
She woke, sighed in relief, and rolled upright. A void yawned within her, but before her was a world she no longer had to shy away from. What she wanted was the same as what her people needed of her: to hunt, to prevail, to provide. No longer did she have to feel ineffectual; she could impose her will on the world, and the world would comply.
The girl sat upright on the river bank and smiled at Tamarasa, who was nearby.
“Go back to sleep, Pavitra,” said Tamarasa. “It is high afternoon yet and the beasts are not about.”
“Why do you call me that, Tamarasa?” said the girl. “Can you not see? I am Gayatri.”
Not even Bhoomi’s quaking could have matched the alarm those words caused. Every member of the pack, from her father to Mohita, was upon her, asking if she was all right, telling her to sleep some more, checking her forehead for a fever, offering her herbs and soup and water.
She leapt to her feet, shook them all off.
“I’ve nothing more to say to you!” she exclaimed in frustration and rage. Her father and Tamarasa at least ought to have known better, but they were being the worst of all. She picked up her axe. “I’m off to hunt. Perhaps you’ll all have come to your senses when I return.”
She stalked off into the forest, reeling. In her mind was a terrifyingly real image of being gored to death by a wild boar; she had no idea where it came from, and no one wanted to listen to her. So clear was the image, it was as if she had witnessed her own death standing but a few paces away. Fear coursed through her veins; she fought it for control over herself. A good thing this situation had a ready remedy: find prey, meet it with her thick blade, return triumphant.
On the other side of the window, Tamarasa began to sing the ballad of Saraswati.
The girl knew this song, knew its lilts and rhythms the way a leaf knows the quirks of the current that carries it.
It spoke to her of rest, of kinship, of love. Of Tamarasa lulling her pack to sleep after a hard morning or day. Of the notes binding their souls together against Bhoomi’s wrath.
Unbidden, the same notes rose from within the girl. They rang in her throat, escaped into the air around her. The already-quiet clearing seemed to still. Suneeti went quiet.
The girl poured all her strength, her spirit, everything she had, into the song of Saraswati.
When Tamarasa finished, so did the girl. Her throat was raw; she was slumped against the pillar, exhausted. For one moment, she allowed herself to be light, free, grateful to be alive.
Then the realisation came crashing down on her.
Why it had all felt wrong.
Why the name Gayatri felt stolen.
Why she had wanted to set the pillars free.
Why the memories of Gayatri’s thoughts had not had the weight of conviction.
She was Pavitra, not Gayatri.
...the traitorous relief.
She fell to the ground, hugging herself, tears coursing down her face.
She was Pavitra.
The yakshini stepped into the clearing. She took in the scene and smirked. With a snap of her fingers, she closed the circle.
The yakshini had been at her ritual for a good amount of time now.
Pavitra sat curled up against Suneeti, still trying to understand it all.
Gayatri was really, truly dead.
And Pavitra had wanted to be her, to step into her skin, her life, her person, because she had thought that Gayatri imposed her will on the world in such a way that the world complied.
But that hadn’t been what happened. Being Gayatri had put her in awful danger, and therefore her pack in danger as well. And if Tamarasa’s words were anything to go by, the pack truly did need her. For the first time, it occurred to Pavitra that Father’s and Tamarasa’s words of encouragement might not have been empty of meaning.
And, if that were the case, perhaps the story-songs were important too, like Tamarasa said. Perhaps Pavitra was doing something of significance by learning them.
The yakshini continued adding herbs to her fire, chanting. It wouldn’t be long now before the freezing flames took Pavitra. There was no way out, it appeared, except through summoning Yama. Only, not being Gayatri, she didn’t have the courage to summon him.
But then—and the realisation twisted deep into her heart—Gayatri’s being an eager and excellent hunter hadn’t stopped her from being killed. And Pavitra’s being slow to learn hunting hadn’t stopped her from eventually doing it well enough.
So, when it would help thousands upon thousands of souls and not hurt anyone besides herself, why should not having courage stop Pavitra now?
“Goodbye, Suneeti,” she said, caressing the pillar.
“Good luck, Pavitra. Thank you.”
She fixed her mind on Yama and ran at Aheendra. Her feet thudded against the ground; her eyes focused on the dancing orange flames reflecting off Aheendra’s scales. She jumped.
A heavy rope landed on her, coiled about her, took her down.
It wasn’t a rope, it was Aheendra.
“No biting, no choking, Aheendra, remember,” said the yakshini, not missing a word of the shlokas.
Pavitra cried out in frustration and strained against Aheendra’s coils. No use; they were too strong for her. Tears welled up and poured out.
The yakshini’s chanting picked up, gained more purpose. She would finish soon, and not only would Pavitra be a pillar for all eternity, but every other pillar would lose their one chance of escape.
Aheendra hissed, its eyes glistening. Its tongue flickered out of its mouth. It opened its terrifying jaws wide and shut them again.
There was only one way out. Pavitra chased away all thought, scrunched up her eyes, bent forward—and bit. She reeled with shock at the touch of the scaly skin against her teeth and lips. Dark fury flashed in Aheendra’s eyes; a shiver ran through its long body; its jaws opened wide, showing a glimpse of pink mouth and black tongue as it sank its fangs into her shoulder.
Pavitra cried out, and Aheendra slithered off her, as if realising what it had done. It just hovered there, its head raised, and watched.
The yakshini’s chants quickened, getting panicky, reaching a crescendo. She hit a gong, its deep notes vibrating through the ground.
A dark mist crept in at the edges of Pavitra’s vision. It brought sleep with it. She let go.
He was dark-skinned, sitting atop his water-buffalo, one hand holding a mace flung over a shoulder, wearing a white silk dhoti and a thunderous frown, just like all the story-songs described him.
“What is happening?” he bellowed. “What is this place?”
Pavitra pointed across the clearing at the yakshini. “That wicked one—”
The yakshini turned to run away, but Yama raised a hand and she stopped.
Yama’s eyes widened as he took in the field of souls before him. “Who are you?” he asked the yakshini. “Why have you done this?”
“You took my sister,” she spat at him. “Far, far too early.”
“My duty is not personal,” he said, raising his hand further. A flash of light burst forth, bleaching everything Pavitra could see. When it cleared, the pillars and the yakshini had vanished from this scrubby world.
Yama turned to Pavitra. “I am indebted to you, child. That was a courageous thing you did, summoning me. Your time is not yet up, so I will return you to your people. And you may ask for a boon.”
“Please, worshipful Yama, bring my sister Gayatri back to life,” said Pavitra, not hesitating.
“Alas, her body is now ashes, or I could have done so. Perhaps instead of returning you, I could have you both be reborn together elsewhere?”
Pavitra’s heart leapt at this. To be with Gayatri, to never need fear again, to never hunt alone again!
But then, she would have to start over. Be a child once again, learn to wring a rabbit’s neck, to pierce an arrow through a deer’s soft skin. To give up her story-songs; to accept killing unsuspecting animals; to make, for the excruciating first time, the decision to give up her well-being for that of the pack. Once again, she would have to find herself. And her pack, they wouldn’t survive without her.
Heavily, she shook her head. “No sir, as you said, my life is not yet complete.”
Yama smiled. “Then, my child, if I reincarnate Gayatri close to you, if I promise that your pack will survive until she grows up, will you watch over her? Will you bring her up to be the protector your pack needs?”
For perhaps the first time, Pavitra looked into the future and saw purpose beyond survival. Barely able to speak, she said, “I will know no greater honour or happiness, my lord Yama.”
“So be it.”
He raised his hand once more, and all went white.