The bonfire of the unknown and foreign sits far from the village, as is the custom of the plains. My friends for the night are a loud and drunken lot. There isn’t enough maul-wine in my veins to drown out their merriment, so I take another leathery sip from the skin before passing it onward. They cheer on, seeing my reaction to the heat blossoming in my chest.
“Again, Little Duck! Again!” the one-eyed smith shouts, tossing the skin back to me. I have known the man less than two hours and already he has re-christened me. This overfamiliar and overbearing man stinks of stale sweat and the road. In all fairness, he has been much more generous with his wine-skin than my father would’ve been. My father’s merchant’s blood runs true, unlike my own.
Then again, blood matters so little at the bonfire of the unknown and foreign. All of us are equally unclean to the village we’re camped next to. Once the sun is up to ‘singe away our impurities’, those bumpkins and maids will let us in to spend our coin on pickled meats and road-breads. At sunset, I’ll be back out here with these drunken louts. In all honesty, this is an arrangement I can live with. Sleeping with no bed may be hard on the back, but sleeping with no walls is easy for the heart. I could live like this till I died, were you not waiting for me back home, Vijaya.
It has been four weeks since I left to learn the cure from the sages of the terai. I am making good time. If I find the sages within four more weeks, I will make it back to you before it’s too late. Once the disease is scoured from your veins, you and I can wed. We’ll get married under the village banyan, just as we promised each other on that rainy evening. I still remember the look on your face when I took your hand in mine. Two years since you’d shown up at our doorstep, and I’d never seen you so afraid. I would’ve done anything to comfort you then. I will do everything I can now.
“Once more, Ducky!” The smith’s face is inches from mine. His barked command flecks my face with a drunken spittle. He isn’t angry, just belligerently soused. He and his family of smiths are bound for the string of craft-caste hamlets scattered along the shifting banks of the Nahara’s delta. They seem like they’ve been drinking all the way from wherever they’d begun.
I am polite in my reply. “Thank you, brother, but I think I will cease for the night.”
“Come on now, Little Ducky!” he burbles, “just the one.”
I push his hand away. “My name is Jeetu.”
“Pah... come on now, Ducky! It’ll put some curls down where they matter!”
Before I can respond, his hand dives for my crotch to show me where the curls matter.
Even as I flinch away, I know I am too slow.
I’d prepared for being attacked on the road, but I’ve forgotten everything in this moment. Instead, I screw my eyes shut in anticipation of the inevitable. A tense moment passes. Then another. My stomach is shuddering like a twig in the monsoon, even as my whole body prepares to burst into motion.
The merriment around the fire dies down, only to be replaced by a scared murmur. All around us, night bugs are churring.
I open my eyes to find a white-bearded man in mendicant’s robes glaring at the smith. The smith’s vice-like paw clutches helplessly at thin air, held back from my waistcloth by the mendicant’s frail hand. The mendicant turns away from the smith to meet my eyes, releasing the hand with a toss. The smith backs away from me, his levity punctured.
My savior is a koni—a priest who exchanged the vestments of his office for brown rags and now wanders the countryside in search of the divine. Our family priest calls them an order of never-do-wells and holier-than-thous.
He turns to me and says without preamble, “You are too young to be traveling alone.”
“Thank you for your help, Teacher.” I bow deeply, ignoring his reprimand.
Even in the half-light of the stars and the bonfire, I can discern his surprise. A wry smile crinkles his face. “You’re not from around here, are you? Where is this land that teaches such respect for humble seekers such as myself?”
“Rokhala, Teacher.” I repeat the lie I have spent the past few weeks rehearsing. Nobody had asked me yet. “I am Jeetu, a warrior of Rokhala.”
The koni introduces himself as Teacher Vidhira. Thankfully, he hasn’t yet heard of Rokhala, though he promises to keep an eye out on his journey. He is traveling downriver to meet other seekers of god. “I will engage them and defeat them in a spirited debate,” he tells me, with a dramatic flourish ill-suited to his somber brown robes and flowing white beard.
I have never heard such a thing. It sounds quaint and provincial.
“Why travel these roads now, son? They are hostile, to lone travelers” The koni’s brow furrows with genuine concern. I haven’t seen such an expression anywhere on the road so far. It is unsettling. It makes the lie harder to tell. I carry on nonetheless. Nobody really wants to know your woes unless they know you already.
“Our house is holding a grand rite to commemorate my grandfather’s thirteenth year of death. I was sent to call my sister home from her in-law’s village.”
“And which village does she live in?”
“It is a warrior hamlet past the woods of the terai, a few leagues from the foothills. It is too small for you to know by name, venerable one.”
“You’ll want to be careful of those woods, my son.” the koni replies, evenly. “Strange things dwell within, preying on those that dare trespass. A promising-looking young man like yourself? The ancheri will be on you before you can even blink.”
Ears perk up by the fireside, and a few mouths begin to mumble. “What’s that? Have they been sighted again?” one of the southbound travelers exclaims. “The ancheri are back, boys! Who’s volunteering?”
I do not understand their laughter, but the lascivious tone carries forth the meaning.
The koni looks uncomfortable, but the travelers at the bonfire are merciless. “Do tell us, Teacher,” they jeer. The smith joins in, seeking revenge for the koni’s rebuke, “Who are the ancheri? What do they do, Teacher? Do tell us!”
“Enough!” the koni barks, silencing the japes. He then points heavenwards at the stars glaring down at us from the vast night, at a cluster—more will-o-the-wisp than inferno—tucked away near the flaming red beacon our priest calls Rohini. The koni lowers his voice into a portentous baritone. “The seven daughters of the moon, hiding in plain sight. When their father’s eyes are obscured by passing clouds, the ancheri descend to the earth to indulge in their desires. To sate their thirst for flesh.”
Man-eaters. Despite everything, a tendril of fear coils around my heart. I push it away irritably. This is no time for silly nonsense. Every one-cow hamlet from here to home has stories to while time away while the one cow is out to graze. “Thank you for the warning, Teacher.”
“Should I pass Rokhala, I will give them tidings of your safe passage thus far. Live long, son.” The koni brushes his fingers over my forehead and murmurs a soft prayer into his beard, then wanders away into the dark.
“’Thirst for flesh’,” the smith snorts derisively as soon as the koni is out of earshot. “They’re whores, boy! They lure you off the path and then seduce you into their arms. And when you’re sweaty and spent and asleep...” He mimes snapping a twig between his oversized paws. “They break you in half.” The smith’s laugh is tinged with the liquor coloring his cheeks. “So... what do you say, boy?”
“What?” I have no words. Is the color rising on my cheek visible in the firelight?
“Good way to go, isn’t it?” The smith continues, “Shall we go wait for a cloud?”
“Who would want that?!” I splutter
“Get me away from my shrew wife and inside a good, firm woman? Yes, indeed. Who would want that?” The smith cackles again, emboldened by the chatter around the fire. “They say you enter your next life cross-eyed if you die by ancheri.” He roars with laughter. In the distance, one of the village’s pie-dogs begins to bark in response.
“They’re not real.” A man in a great woolen coat grunts from besides the fire. Even in this summer swelter, his voice is shivering. “Old wives’ tales.”
“No old wives are repeating tales like these, I promise you,” the smith replies.
“If they were real, there would be no tales.” The man speaks in grunts before taking a deep draught of the maul-wine. The smith’s hairy face wilts into dismay.
The man in the silly coat is right. The ancheri must be old wives’ tales. Just like pisachs. Just like bhoots. Just like chudails. The only man-eaters in the plains were the naked priests who ate the deceased. I won’t have to worry about them till it’s too late to matter anyway. Old wives’ tales aren’t real.
Then again, I must hope that at least a few of the tall tales are real.
I’ve come a long way in hope that at least one is.
Vijaya, how are you faring today? Will you live long enough for me to return?
In the plains of the Nahara river, the villages and their farms are little rafts adrift on a sea of grass. As the journey takes me further northward, toward the mountains of the Garhi range, the grassland sinks into marsh. Travelers peel off at each village the road passes through, shrinking our ranks. This splash of lowland and jungle stretches till the horizon, sprouting dense undergrowth and old woods along the way, stopping only where the world ends in the jagged curtain of the Garhi.
This is what the natives call the terai. I am so close, Vijaya.
Nestled on the banks of a merry creek that eventually tumbles into the Nahara, the village of Panwakesh awaits me. It is nearly sunset when we cross the ford into the village. Snakebirds dart in and out of the rippling waters, returning with a mouthful of something wiggling each time. I have eaten the last of my pickled meats, and the sight of the birds gulping down their meals is making my head swim with hunger. I must get to the grocer before we are thrown out for the night.
Luckily, it is a special night in Panwakesh. A grand rite is to be held in the village. A villager hails us and leads us to the bonfire of the unknown and the foreign. Everyone is welcome—even us unknown and foreign types—to partake in the grace, so long as we leave the village right after.
From my vantage point by the bonfire, I can see the banyan tree under which the rite is underway. A raised dais houses a crackling ritual fire that sputters as a pot-bellied man pours little spoonfuls of something into it. In Silgara, we use ghee. Villages are poor; they must use oil. Three women in white sit by the pot-bellied man, their hair covered by their snow-white sarees and their palms folded in prayer. The villagers are seated in a ring around them, watching with pious expressions and swatting at mosquitoes.
“Widows praying,” snorts one of my interchangeable new companions at the bonfire.
“It’s the marshes,” one of his compatriots chimes in. They are both wearing the colors of any one of the innumerable little fiefdoms that dot the mountain ranges of the north. “The air is thicker down here. Makes these Pankaweshis thicker and slower.”
This strikes me as unfair. My mother used to say that language and customs change with every league. It is ironic that only travelers can attest to this truth, even as they’re forced to sit by identical bonfires outside each village abutting the Nahara.
The ritual ends just then. A loud hiss of water douses the ceremonial fire, and the people of the village converge inward to surround the widows. We cannot see what the mob is doing, but I assume they are collecting grace from the pot-bellied priest.
“Grace, my brothers?” A voice pipes up from my side. I try not to jump. Real men don’t jump at childish voices that only reach your ear even when you are seated.
It is a ragamuffin of the sort you see gamboling about any given village, devoid of any parental attachment. He tugs at my tunic. “A quarter-anna and I go into the crowd for you. Yes?”
I admire the boy’s enterprising spirit. “Here’s half-an-anna. Go grab me some.” It is four times what the work is worth, but I would have paid fifty times as much right now. Shortly, he emerges from the knot of people, kicking and spitting like a feral cat. In his hand is a bagful of something. It turns out to be a pudding of semolina and sugar. “Halwa, brother! You like?”
“Yes, I like.” I can’t help but smile. He reminds me of when you, Vijaya, and I were young. My poor Vijaya. Are you still alive? It is all I can do to not think about you. “What is the occasion?” I ask the boy, trying to turn my mind from thoughts of you.
“The spring festival,” he replies through lips sticky with halwa, without bothering to hide the disdain in his expression. “Don’t you know anything?
“No, my lord,” I reply, humoring him. “Why are widows praying for the festival?”
“Who else would pray for the spring festival?”
Why did I think this child would have an answer?
A voice cracked by cheroots and sweetened by honey arrives into the circle of our bonfire, answering my question. “Those with a husband would inflame the jealousy of the goddesses, and those who have never known loss would incite their rage.” It is one of the white-sareed women. Her lips are without paint and her hair is hidden under the drape of her saree. She must have broken free of the crowd around the banyan to make her way here. My companions at the bonfire have taken several bodily steps away from her. The effect is comical. It is as if she is a snow-white horse wading through the brown and black mud of us unknown and foreign types. “Good evening, brother. Would you like to partake of the grace?”
I shoot a scathing glare at the boy who has conned me out of a half-anna. He sticks his tongue out and disappears into the crowd. Turning to the widow, I fold my hands. “Thank you, sister, but I have eaten.”
“Take a bite, my brother. It is inauspicious to deny grace.”
I take another bite of the sickly sweet halwa. Semolina and sugar. Luxuries back in Silgara. Passed out to strangers here on the plains. Amazing how far I’ve traveled these past weeks. Curiosity about these people strikes me with a passion. “Why would the goddesses be jealous of women?”
“They are patrons of women who die on the night before their wedding. The goddesses shepherd the unfulfilled souls of those women till they achieve rebirth,” she replies. “Married women are a reminder of the pain their flock suffered. Maidens are a portent of grief to come. Only us unfortunate widows are tolerated by the ancheri.”
I must have misheard her. “The ancheri? Goddesses?”
The widow pats my back with a smile. “There are more rumors in the world than there are men, brother. Don’t believe everything you hear on the roads.”
Unbidden, the image of the smith comes to my mind, licking his lips, recounting his eagerness to die between the legs of ghosts. I wonder what he would think of Panwakesh. A whole village that prays to them. Are the ancheri truly ghosts?
It has been several days since the conversation with the koni. I had put the matter behind me faster than I’d put those traveling companions behind me. Never-do-wells, holier-than-thous and spinners-of-yarns—that was the koni for you. Spin tales of fell beasts so they can sell you an amulet for warding them off. It’s a scheme my father would approve of, if he wasn’t so suspicious of priests as a whole.
I decide to drop the matter. Nothing good can come of prodding at people’s gods. We Silgarans have seen rivers of blood flow from such matters. The last thing I need is to draw any attention to myself. I finish the morsel of halwa and begin to shuffle towards my sleeping spot on the dirt.
“Are you married, my brother?” the widow asks, taking me aback.
Do Panwakeshi widows marry? I cannot court her, of course. For one, you await me, Vijaya. For another, my father would kill me. He hates you, Vijaya, but this would be beyond the pale. “I am spoken for.”
“That is wonderful. I hope the betrothal is fruitful, brother.” She places three fingers on my brow. They smell of sandalwood and smoke. “It is said that any betrothed woman or man who asks the goddesses for anything during the festival will get it. You made the pilgrimage all this way. I hope you get what you came for.” With that, the widow moves along, handing out little pouches of halwa to the rest of my companions.
This idea niggles at me all night. I stare at the pockmarked face of the moon and contemplate what I want. Of course, I want you healed, Vijaya. That is the first and only thing I want. After that, I want to marry you. I want to spend my life with you. I want children. A house. A life, together. When we die, I want us to be burned on the same ground and our ashes submerged in the same river.
That is what I want.
Will the ancheri grant me my wish? If not that, I wish to be back in your arms for a brief moment again. To have you look at me without the fevers clouding your eyes, without your face seized in agony.
I will find the sages of the terai, Vijaya.
This I promise you.
Low-lying mists cling on to the land under a cloudy day. Our group leaves our bonfire behind with groans and moans complaining about everything from backaches to soured middens. Some head downriver, back the way I marched up. Some head Eastward to the barbarian deserts. Only ten of us head for the forests past Panwakesh, where the marsh gives way into woods carpeted with sal and sagaon trees.
Our impromptu band is led by Viveka, a southern man who claims to be a soldier of fortune. He says he is headed to the northern ranges of the Garhi, where the local king is fighting off raiders from the barbarian wastes. “That fat tub of lard has more gold than iron. If he didn’t have a crown...” Viveka cackles gleefully as he leads the way through the jungle. The rest of us are subdued by the gray mist obscuring the already gloomy path. Viveka is unaffected, whistling cheerily to himself as he forges forward.
A few hours in, I begin to relax as well. This is a well-trafficked trail at the best of times. Ten people under the sun would be a safe enough journey, and my destination lies just beyond the woods. The monastery of the sages of the terai is right across this stretch of forest. I am nearly there. It has been seven weeks and half a day since I left Silgara. The apothecaries in the city—I’m glad that you don’t know this, Vijaya—have given you only a season more to live.
I am going to make it, with time to spare.
In my giddiness, even the gloom of the jungle appears fresh and full of life. The fern fronds and the flitting birds fill me with joy. I’m going to make it! Vijaya, against all odds, I’m going to make it! My step is light through the tangle and the fallen branches slashed down by Viveka. Soon—if seven more weeks could be called soon—I will be back with you, Vijaya. And you will be cured. I will cure you.
It is only when we break for lunch that I spot that there are only nine of us now.
I tell myself the missing man has slipped away to pass water. After it has been far too long, I tell myself he was called away for a longer urge. We are about to leave the clearing where we halted for lunch, but the man still hasn’t returned. It is time to accept the unsavory truth.
“Viveka jee,” I mutter to our leader. “Wasn’t there a tenth man with us?”
He glances across our group, and his cheerful whistling stops cold. With a forced smile, he tells us to wait here while he goes and finds the laggard.
I do not know what to tell myself now.
We wait under the building heat for Viveka to return. The mists have been shredded away by spears of afternoon sun streaking down through the leaves. Rushing water, cracking twigs, and churring insects fill my ears. All eight of us leap to our feet as something crashes in the brush to our side, ready to fly back up the road. Luckily, it is Viveka.
He confirms that the man has disappeared. “Do not worry, friends. He has likely turned back. However, it is too late now for us to follow. We are half into the forest, and we may as well press on.”
Our path is slower than before. Viveka forges up the trail before letting us follow cautiously. He refuses to tell us what happened to our tenth companion, if he knows it. I am sure I know. I shudder as something cold trickles down the back of my neck. A single man disappeared in the woods?
The ancheri. It is them.
If I make it back, I will tell those thick-air Panwakeshis to stop worshipping ghosts.
If I make it back. Did I celebrate too early, Vijaya?
Evening falls gently this far north. I watch the distant snowcaps through holes in the canopy. They turn from white to gold, flashing pink for one last burst before melting into a purple darkness. Around us, the forest grows loud and wild, bringing to mind untamed and untamable beasts, incurable poisons and vile diseases. I can hear tigers in the distance again. Their tell-tale bellows remind me of the mangroves around Silgara. I didn’t even know they had tigers all this way north.
We’d hoped to be clear of the woods by nightfall, but this pace is too slow. Viveka’s careful reconnaissance has left us caught in the middle of the woods, bereft of light. We make our bonfire of reluctant greenwood and sit around it with long faces, watching it belch smoke into air already heavy with decay. Outside our little enclave of light, the darkness is absolute. In the plains of the Nahara, night is dark. Here, it is black.
The unseen sky rumbles threateningly scant moments before making good on its threats. Rain pummels the braided branches of the canopy. By the time it trickles down to us, it is gentle and green with bruised leaves. Our fire is barely surviving the downpour.
“We should’ve kept going.” Someone finally says it out loud.
We’ve all been thinking about it. I certainly have. My mother taught me to keep a civil tongue, but the others are furious young men. Tensions are high now. A scuffle breaks out. One of the two unsheathes a dagger and, suddenly, we have only eight travelers left. Viveka pulls the man away from his victim. The killer’s eyes aren’t angry. He’s terrified of what he’s done.
I can smell the dead man’s blood. It’s soaked into the mud. The scent will attract animals. The rain is smothering the fire. When it dies, so will we. A tiger, perhaps. Perhaps a leopard.
No. It will be the ancheri. I can sense it in the air.
A crash overhead sends a wet branch tumbling into the fire, putting the struggling flames out of their misery. After the initial outcry, we all fall silent. The darkness now swallows even sound. Only the patter of rain is audible above the roaring in my ears. I am holding my breath. We all are. We’re waiting for Viveka to speak. When even our fearless pathfinder is silent, who are we to venture anything?
He finally speaks, his voice a-quiver. Gone is the brash confidence that had convinced us to follow him into these wilds. He is talking to someone. Something. “Who’s there?”
A match flares into life in his hand.
It lasts merely a moment, but it is long enough to see her.
In the sulfurous glow, a woman stands before Viveka. She wears the white of widowhood but tattered and despoiled. Her skin is fraying and peeling like the walls of a moldering house.
An agony-stricken Viveka stands before her, his face a rictus of pain.
The woman’s hand is buried in his chest.
The rain pinches out the match, letting the darkness swallow up the macabre tableau.
Tigers be damned, I am already running.
I leap off the path, crashing into undergrowth, brambles ripping at my clothes and skin. My feet catch on snake hollows, twisting and turning at odd angles. I don’t care. I must live. I must live, so that you can live, Vijaya.
I cannot hear the others. Did the ancheri get them already?
I can’t stop running. I scold my tearing lungs and aching legs. A stitch in my side renders me clumsy and chokes the breath out of me. Distracted as I am, my foot lands squarely into the mouth of an unseen warren. Then I am flying. For the briefest of moments, I soar gracefully through the air before coming to a squelching halt in a faceful of dirt.
I scramble to my feet, but a searing pain in my ankle brings me right back down.
It is behind me. I am sorry, Vijaya. It looks like I won’t make it back in time.
I twist to face the end of my journey just as a bright white figure steps into the glade.
The gnarled tree trunks around her light up in the moonlike glow sloughing off her fair skin and white saree. The figure’s eyes are lined with pitch-black kohl. Her lips are ruby-red and her tresses flow wild, despite her widow’s attire.
Is this an ancheri, Vijaya? I do not believe this illusion for a moment. Viveka’s lit match revealed her true nature. The luminance of her saree is letting her hide it somehow.
She leans down towards me and smiles.
I brace myself for her assault, but I am not prepared for her words.
“Sister, sit up straight and wipe off that dirt.” Her voice is warm, even friendly, but I cannot resist the compulsion to obey her. More of them step into existence behind her, carving white forms out of the darkness. They stand behind her, all watching me intently as I rise from the ground. There are seven of them in total. The koni had been right about something after all. Their glow illuminates the leaf-strewn glade.
“How did you know?” I ask her.
Then I realize what a silly question this is. To a demon, the entire world is mere illusion. If they can see through reality itself, they could definitely see through a tightly wrapped cloth and cropped hair. A great weight slides off my shoulders, one that I’ve been carrying for seven weeks. I can be myself here.
Among these demons... says my father’s voice in my head.
“You shouldn’t travel these roads alone, sister.” The first ancheri tells me, “It isn’t safe.”
The image of Viveka with the ancheri’s hand protruding from his chest resurfaces in my head. I almost giggle at the absurdity. They’re like kittens playing with a mouse. They will bat me around and swallow me whole.
“Even Vijaya is not with you,” one of the new one says. There is true concern in the ancheri’s voice. Once again, I am reminded of the koni who had saved me from the smith’s groping claw. “You need a man to keep you safe on these roads, sister.”
“He is back home dying of bloodrot,” I protest, biting back my terror. “I will save him.”
A ripple of pity passes through the ancheris’ expressions. “He is not dying of bloodrot.”
“Yes, he is. The medicine man said—”
“Vijaya was dead the day you left the village, sister.” The ancheri’s voice is compassionate, even as she spins her lies.
“No!” He isn’t dead. My Vijaya is not dead. “You’re lying!” I point a crazed finger at them. All my terror has fled, replaced by a hollow numbness that is aliquot rage and despair. I’m shrieking like a child now. “Lying. You’re lying!”
You’re not dead, Vijaya. You’re not.
You can’t be. The medicine man said the bloodrot would wait till the turn of the season.
“It was never bloodrot,” the ancheri nearest me mutters.
“Why would the medicine man lie?” I splutter indignantly.
Even as I ask them, I know the answer. I know why he would lie. My father’s clipped tone rings in my ears. The pursed lips. The twitching vein on his temple. The daughter of a well-named merchant house, marrying into something unknown and foreign? Marrying something found abandoned on a doorstep? I know you noticed his anger, Vijaya, even though you pretended you didn’t. I know you remember his face when we told him. Is that why you looked so sad the night I left? Had you guessed already?
“Was it poison?” I ask.
My tears do not wait for their answer. The world drowns in my grief. The ancheri huddle around me, whispering soothingly as I bawl on the floor of rotting leaves. Mud, tears, and snot run down my body as the rain gently wicks them away. Little by little, the tears dry up. I am lying with my head in their leader’s lap, her warmth a comfort long forgotten.
Vijaya, why did I not see? Why was I so blind?
“Where do I go now?” I ask them.
“Where do you want to go?”
“Nowhere.” I cannot live in hiding as a man forever. Eventually someone will spot me bleeding or catch me bathing. “The roads aren’t safe. I have nowhere to go. I want to die.”
She brushes her fingers over my forehead. “Do you know who we are?”
Their laughter is exquisite. Like my mother’s love washing over me; like the first rain after a drought, the first birdsong after a storm. These aren’t demons. They’re angels.
“We’re your sisters, Chandra.” Her voice feels ancient, like the earthy warmth of a temple. “I was a washerwoman when I was alive. I loved a prince. He loved me too. But I was a washerwoman. He was a prince. They did nothing at first, but when my belly began to show...” She smiles sadly. “To be truthful, I cannot remember what they did. It wasn’t poison. Perhaps it was a knife. Or a flame. Perhaps a rope. They do like the rope in these lands. And it was no conspiracy behind closed doors. It was a celebration. There were crowds. Cheering. The prince’s honor had been avenged.”
I peer up to see her expression. She is at peace. The other six ancheri have similar serene expressions. Little nods answer the question in my head. All of them. They’re all like me.
No, I correct myself bitterly.
They’re all like Vijaya.
A low note breaks the silence as the ancheri begin to sing. Songs of the Naharan plain fill the little glade. Their songs are many and in many tongues. I wait, head in her lap, letting their music wash over me, wiping clean my heart, brushing aside my tears. The rain stops overhead as time slips past.
Before I know it, little amethysts of dawn appear in the leaves overhead.
“It is time, sister. We must depart,” she says to me.
We rise from the dirt. I am dusting myself off when I notice that my tunic and waistcloth are the same spotless white as their sarees. It is only now that I realize I have made my decision. I suspect I’d made it when I realized what killed you, Vijaya. The eight of us leave the glade, heading towards our roost in the mountains.
The pain of missing you burns all my waking hours away. Our leader promises me that feeling will fade. I worry that my rage will fade with it, but my sisters tell me that my memories will stay with me till vengeance has been exacted. This delights me to no end. I think about it as we roam the foothills of the Garhi.
Now that I have joined the ranks of my sisters, I too can see past the fetters of the world. The koni will reach Silgara to find my father offering rewards to anyone who can provide information about his misguided child, Chandra. The koni will hem and haw and make a great show of divining the truth, but he will eventually disclose the circumstances of my meeting him. My father will join the bounty hunters to ensure they don’t harm me on the way back.
My father will soon enter the terai. My lips twitch in anticipation.
I will remember him, Vijaya. This I promise you.
This story is dedicated to JD, who never got to read it.