by Rati Mehrotra
Friday was the last good day. On Saturday the hunters came and by Tuesday Mira was gone, swallowed in the maw of the crowd fleeing Chandipur.
Mira my older sister, the normal one. I look up at the stars glittering in the sky and pray that she is safe.
Why did they come? Chandipur is as far as it gets from the heart of the New World. Perhaps the capital wants to stamp out the border communities, make sure that the taint of the old blood never spreads. The taint I’ve lived with all my life.
I used to think I had it bad before. But I swear if I could turn back time, I’d keep it Friday forever. We’d go to school, someone would trip me up in the hallway, and the others would laugh. I’d sit alone during class, as usual. Nobody would die.
My friend Rohan is sprawled next to me, snoring, his spectacles askew. It’s a comforting sound and I don’t poke him awake as I should. How long do we have before we’re discovered? We’re in a cornfield, an hour’s walk from town. The farmers didn’t harvest the corn this season – I’m guessing they left when everyone else did. Everyone sensible.
Rohan didn’t have to come with me. He doesn’t have the mark like I do. No one in his family does, even though they’ve lived in Chandipur for generations. He could have left with the others, safe from the hunters and their hounds.
But he didn’t. He stuck with me. I hope nothing bad happens to Rohan.
In the morning it’s raining. I don’t do anything to stop it, although I’m tempted. Gran always said that only a fool tried to change the weather. There are too many variables. You can end up with a storm that takes the roof off your head, or a flood that submerges the entire valley.
Thinking of Gran makes my chest hurt and my eyes sting. My face is already wet from the rain and Rohan doesn’t notice my tears. It takes an hour to come out of the cornfield. And there it is, the Chang-ho River, grey and turbulent through the film of rain. There’s no bridge of any sort, just some moss-covered rocks that we’ll have to use.
I hold Rohan’s hand to make sure he doesn’t slip. We step slowly from stone to stone, and I know he’s trying not to think about what we’re doing. Little wavelets break over our feet and the dark wall of Kirrill rises before us: dense, impenetrable.
I hope the river doesn’t rise. It’s not supposed to, not in October. But if the rain continues like this, we might not be able to come back.
Chang-ho is the end of the New World and the start of the Old. Only someone really dumb – or desperate – would try crossing it. A boy from my class did it two years ago as a dare but he fell into the water on the way back, so I don’t think that counts. They never found his body. He was just like the others, calling me witch and dirt-face, sitting behind me in class just so he could pull my hair and kick my seat. I never fought back, of course. Gran had warned me to lie low. We were tolerated in Chandipur because we didn’t flaunt our abilities. Not that I had much to flaunt: Gran bound my magic nine years ago when I was five.
I feel sorry whenever I think of that boy. No one should have to face what lives in the Chang-ho. The fang-fish and the poison toads are just the welcoming committee, Gran used to say. Beneath the surface lurk darker things, and they are always hungry for flesh.
Rohan slips and falls, arms and legs flailing. I swallow the cry before it can escape my throat and grab his shirt. He scrambles up and adjusts his spectacles. “Sorry,” he says.
“Are you hurt?”
He shakes his head. “Look Kamya, we’re almost there.”
I release him and look up. Yes, almost there. We jump over the gap between the last stone and the sodden, reed-covered bank. The trees gather thickly just ahead, a forbidding wall of green. I swallow and stride toward the trees, knowing that Rohan will follow. He does, although I can sense his fear.
The forest closes over us, cutting off the light. A smell of something resinous, almost fruity, assails us. The silence is complete. It’s like we’re in a green womb, the only sound the beating of our hearts.
It doesn’t take me long to find the ancient path. We walk deeper into Kirrill, following the trail as it winds through the forest. Vines wrap like snakes around the trunks of massive trees. Water drips from twisted branches. Phantom orchids hide white faces in the undergrowth. And always this feeling of being watched, watched, watched . . .
“The hunters won’t come here,” I say, and wince. My voice is too loud in the stillness of the forest.
Rohan shrugs. “Won’t matter, will it,” he says, “if Kirrill gets us first.”
“Nonsense,” I say. “Gran told me there was nothing to be afraid of here.”
I’m lying, of course. Gran didn’t say that.
But she did tell me that the Old World was not so terrible as people made it seem. And she sent me an image of the path winding through the forest, so I would know how to find it.
Did Gran foresee what would happen? We could all have hidden in Kirrill together: Mira and me and Gran and Rohan. Mira would have fussed without all her clothes and things, but I’m sure she’d have seen the necessity of it.
It hurt, what Mira said to me before she left. I wish I was better with words so I could have answered back.
If it weren’t for the likes of you and Gran, they never would have come. Chandipur would still be free.
It’s true, perhaps. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Why do they want to kill us? We never did any harm – Gran or me or Shirka the medicine woman, or John the old violin player, or any of those other folks with the wedge-shaped marks on their foreheads – the strange pattern that brands us as the tainted spawn of the Old Ones. The Old Ones who came down from the stars to rule the world, before the world turned against them. Against us. That’s the story, anyway. Me, I don’t know what to believe, except that there has to be a reason we’re born this way.
I should have said to my sister: It’s because of the likes of us that Chandipur exists. I should have said: Don’t go, Mira. It’s crazy out there.
But I didn’t. I let her go. She shouldered her bag and skipped down the creaky stairs as if she couldn’t wait to be gone, out from the house-on-stilts where Gran raised us. I watched from the window until I couldn’t see her any more in the crowd and confusion below. The hounds were everywhere, sniffing the air, howling for blood. They were looking for me. At that moment I wanted to end it, to give myself up to them.
Then Rohan was there, poking me in the ribs, whispering that we had to run, to hide, to get away from there. Gran’s concealing charm wouldn’t last forever.
By the time darkness falls we’re both exhausted. Rohan is all for turning back. Kirrill affects him more than it does me.
“You’re being ridiculous,” I tell him. “If we turn back now we’ll be caught for sure.”
Rohan wants to argue but I don’t let him. I’ve found a nice sheltering tree, almost like a cave. It will protect us from the rain, if nothing else. I make a little fire with some dry sticks of wood. We eat rusks that Rohan grabbed from the kitchen before we left, and then I put him to sleep. I don’t want him to see what comes next. Because something will come, I’m sure of that. It’s been following us all day, waiting for the dark. It wants to find me asleep.
The hours pass. I sit by Rohan, watching the rise and fall of his chest. Without the spectacles, his face looks open and soft like a baby’s. He’s a year younger than me, but he stopped going to school a while ago. Every time I think of how the bullies used to waylay him after school and beat him up, my fists clench and I want to explode.
My eyes water. The fire flickers blue and green.
I sense the Old One coming. And all of a sudden I’m scared, more scared that I’ve ever been in my entire life.
The fire dies and my skin breaks out in goose-bumps. Rohan moans and stirs, but he doesn’t wake. I’ve made sure of that. No matter what nightmares come, there is no escaping them tonight.
A rustling of leaves, a pushing aside of branches, and a breath of fetid air. A dark shape out of my nightmares. I bite back a scream and make myself sit still. Something pushes against my mind, seeking entry. I push back hard. An age passes.
A voice, so old that it sends spiders skittering down my spine:
You are stronger than Brinda.
Brinda? Oh, Gran.
“Gran was stronger than my mother,” I say. “And I am stronger than Gran.”
The pain of it comes back. Gran bleeding into the ground from a hundred wounds in her tiny body, using her last bit of power to send a concealment charm to me instead of saving herself. I am invisible to the hounds. They will not taste my blood, not yet.
Why are you here? This is our place. Your kind doesn’t belong here any more.
The threat is soft, unmistakable.
“I need help,” I say. “Gran bound my magic years ago. I can only touch the surface of it. I have to be strong to fight the hunters and their hounds, to free Chandipur.”
Why should we let you live?
“We’re all that’s left, you know that. The hunters won’t stop until they’ve killed every one of us in whom the old blood still flows. And then what’s to stop them crossing the borders? Burning down Kirrill?”
A pause, and I sense the stirring of an old lust.
There will be a price.
My mouth is dry. I lick my lips. “Name it.”
I shrink back, shaking my head. “No, not Rohan, no.”
Only for a while. Until you come back for him. We will not hurt him – not much.
The voice is amused now, in a cold sort of way. It has asked for the one thing that I cannot give: Rohan’s life, his sanity. But isn’t this why I brought him here in the first place? I have to trust that my plan will work.
“All right,” I say. “Until I come back for him. Now unbind me.”
Not so fast, little cub. Brinda would have used something of great power to bind such a one as you.
I think about it. Yes, of course. “It was love,” I say. “She did it out of love for me. Even though I did something terrible.”
There is silence in the tree-cave. I look at Rohan and count his breaths.
The voice commands:
You must remember everything about that day. Each moment that lead to the terrible thing. And each word that Brinda uttered.
The Old One pushes against my mind again, and this time, reluctantly, I open the gates.
A cold, rushing sound of invasion. Teeth and claws that clatter down the corridors of my mind. Sweat drips down my forehead. I grit my teeth and fight back. You are the guest here, I shout.
It retreats, watches me with numerous eyes. Remember, it commands.
And I remember.
Mira’s voice, sharper than a blade:
If it weren’t for you, our parents would still be alive.
I should have said: If it weren’t for me, That Man would have killed us too.
Why did Mama choose him? She was a looker, she could have had anyone. Not that there’s much choice in Chandipur. Old blood makes an old maid, I’ve heard it said. Not many men want to marry a woman with the mark. And this close to the border, almost a quarter of us have the stain – far more women than men.
But Mama was so pretty. At least, when she wasn’t crying. I remember sitting at her feet, watching her put kajal to go to the cinema house with him. That was one of the good days. He had just gotten a job managing the corner store. Mama was so happy and proud that day. I think she truly believed our luck was about to turn, that a job would do what her tears and pleas could not: make him stop drinking the hooch that flowed like water when men clustered around the card tables of Chandipur’s bars.
It lasted about a fortnight. Then one evening he didn’t come back home. Mama reheated his dinner and went out to wait on the porch, the worry lines sharp on her face. Mira and I sensed something amiss and made none of our usual protests when she sent us off to bed.
A loud banging and crashing noise woke us up a couple of hours later.
“What is it?” Mira sat up in bed, her face pale and frightened in the moonlight.
“He must be throwing things again,” I said.
Just then there was a scream, abruptly cut off. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard, because now I know what it was, although I try not to think of it, not to remember it. But I’m remembering now; the Old One is making me remember and I have to fight not to scream myself.
I threw off my bedclothes and dashed out of the room.
Mira shouted, “Kamya, wait! Don’t go downstairs.”
Did she guess what we would see? I don’t think so. She was only eight herself. All she knew was that we had to stay out of his way when he was like that, or he’d beat us like he beat Mama. Worse, because we were no use to him, we weren’t boys. Other kids laughed at us and called us names, even though Mira didn’t have the mark. We were nothing he could be proud of, even in the best of moods. Running toward him when he was angry was just asking for a whipping.
But the scream still reverberated in my head and I ignored Mira. I ran downstairs and my sister followed, sobbing.
Mama was lying on the floor of the kitchen, her legs splayed apart in an undignified fashion that would have horrified her had she been conscious. I averted my eyes from her hiked-up skirt, her plump thighs. I looked at her face instead. It was covered with blood. I don’t know what I felt then. The anger came later.
Behind me, Mira gave a choked little scream.
“Call Gran,” I said. “She’ll help Mama.”
There was a harsh sound, like a sob and a laugh all mixed up.
“Call the witch, will you?” It was That Man, standing in a corner of the kitchen. In his hand he held a knife. He smelled bad, like he hadn’t showered in a month.
He sauntered toward us, playing with the knife in his hand. Mira and I froze. “It’s all her fault,” he said. “Hers and yours.”
He leaned forward, grabbed my hair and pulled my face to his. A red vein throbbed in his forehead, like he was going to burst from inside. “Your Mama’s past all help,” he said. “Even the witch can’t do anything but bury her. Would you like to keep her company?” He giggled, like he’d just made a joke.
It was at that moment, staring into his mad, empty eyes that I understood what I had to do. I closed my eyes and imagined it, my father with his heart outside his body.
The fingers gripping my hair let go and I stumbled back. There was a thudding sound, as of someone falling. I opened my eyes and stared at what I had done.
Behind me Mira started to scream, a thin, continuous wail that did not stop until I turned around and pinched her.
“Get Gran,” I said.
Mira turned and ran.
I stayed with my dead parents, watching over them. How long was that night? I kept thinking of how Mama could have stopped him, and she hadn’t. She’d let him do this to her. She’d wanted to die.
It must have been at least half an hour before Mira returned, shaking and shivering, with our grandmother.
Gran knelt in front of Mama and stroked her cheek. Perhaps she wept a little; I don’t remember. After a bit she got up and walked to That Man’s body. She turned to me.
“What did you do, Kamya?”
I shrugged. “I took his heart out.”
Gran shook her head. “No, how did you do it?”
But I wasn’t able to tell her. Gran was silent for a while, looking at me. Then she told us what we had to tell the Thanedar and his men when they came by the next morning. She made us repeat it after her, and sent us to bed.
There isn’t much more to tell. The next day was a blur of uniforms and hushed voices. I think we told the Thanedar that we hadn’t heard a thing, that we’d come down in the morning to find our parents lying on the kitchen floor, awash in blood.
We moved to Gran’s house-on-stilts. One evening, after sending Mira on an errand, she called me to sit beside her at the fireplace.
She gathered me in her arms and stroked my hair. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. Gran didn’t make me talk or explain anything. She just said that I was too powerful, that I might hurt someone without meaning to, and that she was going to bind my magic until the day I really needed it. She asked my permission, and at first I didn’t understand, but then I realized that this was not something she could do – my grandmother, the strongest, wisest woman in Chandipur! – without my help. So I gave her my help; I let her bind me. And she told me the word that would set me free.
Hatyasin, the Old One whispers.
The pain of it is unbearable. I fall to the ground and hug my knees, trying to shut it out, but I can’t.
The old word for witch. The word imprinted on my forehead. Who will remember us when we’re dead?
They’re all gone. Mama with her legs splayed out. That Man with the look of surprise on his face, the open cavity of his chest. Gran betrayed by the Mayor and hunted down by the hounds, her strength failing until, with her last gasp, she sends me one final instruction: Live. Thinking about her, I let the pain wash over me, drown me.
When I wake up, Rohan is gone. I am alone in the tree-cave. Dawn-light filters through the branches and I crawl out, blinking. My head feels like it’s been split in two and I’m worried about Rohan, but otherwise I feel fine. No different from yesterday, in fact. Am I truly free?
I let my mind wander out of the cage of my body and it’s amazing: I can sense every creature that lives and breathes in Kirrill. Everything has a mind, even a blade of grass. I locate a stream and make my way to it. After drinking and washing my face I strike out for the Chang-ho. Back to Chandipur. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m not afraid of the hounds any more.
Everything speaks to me. The moving water of the Chang-ho. The moss-covered rocks that bridge the river. The dark things beneath the surface. I’m not even afraid of them. Not that they wouldn’t eat me if I fell in, of course. But that they have a place, just like I do. And who am I to say that their place is less than mine? They belong to the Old World; I am but a visitor.
I walk to the town square and wait by the stone fountain. They’ll find me sooner or later. Few people are around, although it’s morning, autumn-bright. Those that walk past the fountain take a quick look at me and avert their eyes. I don’t blame them. These are the ones without the mark, without the slightest stain of magic. Everyone else will have flown by now. Or been imprisoned or killed. The prisons must be overflowing. Where have they buried Gran?
I hear footsteps and turn around.
“What are you doing here?” Fat and sweating, the mayor’s eyes dart right and left. I can smell the fear on him. “Saul said you were back but I couldn’t believe it.”
“You led them to her,” I say. “Why? What harm did she ever do to you?”
To my surprise tears leak out of his eyes. “I’m sorry. But they asked for the strongest one, the healer, and I had to tell them. I had no choice. Why have you come back? They’ll kill you too now.” He backs away. “Go now. They haven’t sensed you yet. The hounds are feeding and the hunters still sleep.”
“Where is she buried?” I ask. I can’t help it, I have to know.
The mayor retreats. But I have seen the look in his eyes.
They didn’t bury Gran.
They fed her to the hounds.
I raise my head to the sky and scream. It feels good to let it out, as if it has been trapped in my chest for too long.
Behind me the stone foundation cracks. Water sprays everywhere. I cut the scream off. No point wasting my power.
I hear baying in the distance. They have heard me, smelled me. I take off at a run, diagonal across the square, through the narrow alleys, ducking under awnings, sliding down moss-covered steps.
The baying becomes louder. Yes. They’re all coming for me. I push myself harder until I’m out of Chandipur, near the cornfield. My heart is a song, at one with the swaying cornstalks, the clear blue sky. Is this how they felt, the strong ones of old? As if nothing could never happen to me, because there is no me. Beyond this skin the whole world is mine, feeding me energy.
I slow down once I’ve crossed the cornfield, not wanting to lose the hounds. I prick my arm on a thornbush, squeezing drops of blood onto the soggy grass. It will drive them into a frenzy of need, blind them to everything else. I wipe my arm on my shirt and take off again, thinking of what I know of them. Part wolf, part machine, perhaps even part human. Bred to detect the taint of old blood. Driven by the need to destroy it. Remotely controlled by modified humans – hunters.
The Chang-ho gleams turquoise. The stone steps have almost disappeared under the water. But I know where they are.
The baying is so loud now that my chest thrums with it. But I wait for the hounds to leap through the trees and into the clearing before I step onto the first slippery stone across the river. I balance and look back and for a moment, I cannot move. They are my nightmares given teeth and flesh and bone. There are so many. White-pelted, red-eyed, snarling. I cannot stand against them. I cannot.
I close my eyes and jump, letting the stones guide me. Mid-way through, I hear the first splash. I turn around. The hounds cluster on the bank, howling.
I cup my hands and scream: “Come and get me. Are you afraid of a bit of water?”
Three of the massive beasts leap in and start swimming.
I dance from stone to stone and I’m laughing now because I know how it will end. This is not my fight alone.
There is a gurgling scream, and then another. I clamber over the far bank and turn to face the hounds. One of them has made it through and is racing up toward me, yellow fangs glistening in its maw. I think of the machine where its heart should be, wrench it out and throw it in the water. The hound drops before me, its chest open, its fur soaked with blood.
They come thick and fast after that and it’s all I can do to keep them off. Some I bury in the earth. Some I simply send sprawling back in the water, and many of those don’t come out again. If it wasn’t for the Chang-ho I would be torn apart, like Gran was. But the river roils around them and the dark ones feast on their flesh.
A while later, they stop coming. I see a few vanish silently into the trees, called back by their handlers. But most are dead. The stench of their bodies rises around me and I vomit, bringing up yesterday’s rusks.
I’m so tired that I could lie down and sleep forever. But the battle is not won. Not yet.
The river is quiescent, satiated. I lean down and cup some water into my hands. I rinse my face, hair and mouth with the water that is now mixed with hound’s blood.
I walk back on the stones, every step now an effort. They will be waiting for me in Chandipur. They will have laid a trap. I could go back to Kirrill but what then? I would have accomplished nothing. The hunters might take out their wrath on those left behind, even those without the mark. I won’t have their blood on my hands.
The sun is a low red disk on the horizon by the time I make my way back to town. Everything is quiet and still. Not a leaf stirs in the breeze, not a footfall echoes on the streets.
By the town square I stop. In the light of the setting sun I see the trap. It is so perfectly done that it almost stops my heart.
They have set up a scaffold in front of the fountain. By the horizontal beam hangs a single noose. The noose coils around the slender neck of a naked girl. Her feet balance precariously on a barrel. Her hands are bound, her mouth stuffed with rags. Her head is shorn but I know who she is; I knew it the moment I looked into her terrified eyes.
Mira my sister, the last of my kin.
I summon the remnants of my energy, knowing that it will not be enough. I run toward her, willing the noose to untie itself, but my mind is a sieve and images flash before me one after the other – brushing my sister’s long black hair, laughing when she mimicked her boyfriends, our last fight before she left.
Shots ring out, deafening booms that echo across the empty square. I drop and the transparent shield springs up around me. I crawl to Mira but I am too late. The shots smash the barrel, riddle her body. She kicks out once. Blood pools around her feet.
I cut her down with shaking hands. No, Mira, don’t leave me. I shield her with my body and imagine oxygen filling her lungs, skin sealing her wounds.
Her chest rises and falls, but her eyes are empty. I push more air into her lungs, and think of her heart pumping blood.
Let go. Gran’s voice, calm and strong as always. Your sister is dead. But I can’t. I can’t let go. My sight blurs. I’m so sorry. Sorry for what I am, for what has happened. It’s my fault. Mira was right. If it weren’t for the likes of me, they’d have left us alone.
Boots march down the square and stop some distance away. I sense my shield quivering and I hold it in, hold myself in. I wipe my tears and turn around. A dozen hunters range in a semi-circle around me. Armoured monsters of men with gleaming black weapons. What chance did Chandipur have against them? What chance did Mira have?
The leader steps forward. “Give yourself up and we will not hurt the others.” His voice is like something recorded.
I want to give up. I couldn’t save Mira but perhaps I can save the others.
I raise my hands and slowly step toward them. The leader makes a tiny movement. In a click, everything falls into place. I sense the trap closing.
The guns start. I close my ears from the roar of the bullets. My shield quivers under the strain. With draining strength I face the fire. If I could, I’d open the earth to swallow them whole, but I can’t. It’s as much as I can do to stay shielded. But I manage to stop the leader’s breath. He falls to the ground, legs kicking, hands wrapped around his choking throat. One of the hunters tries to drag him away, and I take him down next. And then the next. Again and again until silence has returned to the square.
I topple to the ground and let my shield dissolve. I can die now and it would be all right, I’ve had my bit of revenge and they won’t be sending any more hounds to Chandipur. They’ll breed something else perhaps, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I can let go now and no shame in it. Gran would understand.
Except that I can’t. Rohan’s face swims before my eyes. Oh no. I had almost forgotten about him.
I drag myself up and go to the fountain. I drink, taking my strength from the water, opening myself to the stone. Make me hard, make me elastic. Make me whatever I need to be.
When I’m done, I bend down and close Mira’s eyes. I kiss her smooth, unmarked forehead. Goodbye, darling. Later I will bury her. Later I will weep.
I go to the Mayor’s house and drag him out with a stream of air. He blubbers his ignorance, and I let the air stream slap him about a bit. He cracks easily, tells me where the remaining six of them are, where their com equipment is. It’s in the courthouse and that’s where I go first, smashing the receiving sets and breaking the wires.
I hunt the hunters. The prison, the temple, the church, the school, the streets. It takes all night. By the time dawn lights the eastern sky, I am covered with blood, a moving mass of pain. But I’ve done it – Chandipur is free.
We release everyone from the prison. Men and women spill put, rubbing their eyes as if they can’t believe it. Some bless me, others shuffle past, eyes lowered.
I tell the Mayor what I intend, and to call a townhouse meeting. He opens his mouth to object. Perhaps it’s something in my face, but he changes his mind, just nods.
I make my way back to Kirrill. I’m living on borrowed time. Strength seeps into me from the world around, but I’ll pay for it later. I cross the Chang-ho, feeling light-headed. One misstep is all it needs, and I’ll be gone quicker than a blink. But I make it across and then I am in the forest, deep and quiet and utterly familiar, as if it’s home. Perhaps it is. Perhaps I should give up on Chandipur and just move in here. No one would miss me.
Rohan is back in the tree cave, still fast asleep. I kneel and brush his cheek with my fingers, allowing myself the luxury of relief.
An ancient voice whispers: You tricked me.
“I didn’t,” I say. “You asked for Rohan until I came back for him. You said nothing about him being awake or asleep.”
A pause. Then: I should kill you.
“You cannot and you will not,” I say, stroking Rohan’s hair. “I have interesting news, Old One.”
Nothing in the world outside Kirrill interests us.
“No? What if I tell you that Chandipur is leaving the New World alliance?”
I sense It stirring, sense something vast awakening around me. “I have more to offer you than one boy,” I say. “I have a whole town.”
It sighs, moans with need. It must be done willingly.
“I know,” I say. “There will be conditions. But Chandipur is now part of the Old World. Extend to us your protection. Return magic to our blood and feed on our belief.”
For a while there is silence. It ponders, dreams, wants, remembers.
Humans betrayed us. They will betray us again.
I shrug. “That’s human nature. I can’t promise anything. Besides, Gran told me that the Old Ones became too powerful, too greedy, and that’s why people rebelled. Think about it. I’ll be back in a few days.”
But It doesn’t have to think. I can feel the need of Kirrill pressing down on me until I’m half-drowning in it.
I wake Rohan. He sits up and puts on his spectacles. “Kamya! What happened to you?”
I think of how I must look. Dirty, blood-stained, wild-eyed. I slip my hand into his. “Long story. Tell you on the way home.”
On the way back I fill him in. He’s utterly silent and after a while I’m wondering if I’ve told him too much, gone too far. But when I look at his face, he’s crying. For Mira. For me.
I’m quiet then. We cross the Chang-ho and walk to the cornfield. In the middle of the field, my legs buckle under and I fall. Rohan tries to help me up but I stop him.
“Can we just stop here a while? Will you stay with me?”
“I’ll always stay with you, Kamya,” he says, and he sits down next to me, keeping watch.
But it’s not enough, I need him close. After a while he looks at my face and understands. He lies down next to me, cradling my head on his shoulders. I listen to the beating of his heart, the insects whirring in the cornstalks, the bees buzzing overhead. And I think of how it’s not a taint we have – it’s a gift. A gift that takes far more than it gives. Perhaps there’s nothing I can keep safe but this moment, lying with Rohan under the deep blue sky. So I stretch the moment; I make it last, wrapping it for myself like a present to open later. Then I haul myself up and together we walk back to Chandipur.
After travelling to over fifty countries, Rati Mehrotra currently finds herself in Toronto, Canada. When not working on her magnum opus – a series of fantasy novels based in a fictional version of Asia – she writes flash fiction, and rather unreliably posts updates on her blog ratiwrites.com. Her short stories have been published or are upcoming at AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, Apex Magazine, Inscription and Lakeside Circus. Follow her on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra