He came lumbering back an hour later, by which time Maya had washed her face and her feet, woven her hair into two plaits, and left a morsel of rice on the sill for the crows.
Araapa from the next house beyond the bamboo railings glared at her, before withdrawing behind his curtains. Both his cows had gone dry, udders swollen and eyes downcast, considering even the grass treacherous. He would have glared at anyone, she told herself.
“What are you looking at?” her father asked.
“Nothing,” she replied. Everyone in Sumara had been glum for a fortnight, weighed down by suspicion and fear, growing eyes on the back of their heads, smearing turmeric over their foreheads, and taking nimble footsteps. It was not customary for the men to be quiet, but that’s how things had changed in the village of Sumara.
“Here, have some milk,” her father said. A hint of rose; a pink froth on the surface.
She thought of Arappa while she sipped from the glass. “Something is happening, isn’t it, appa? I have never seen Baru anna’s forge so crowded before.”
A shake of the head. “Focus on what you’re taught at the grove,” he replied. They were standing in their backyard, where the grass tickled her ankles.
“But Eranu thinks I ought to get my own sword,” Maya argued. A twitch in her father’s lip. Perhaps it was the wind. He turned his face the other way, toward the forest where the leaves swayed, the branches drooped in clusters to form hideous gates leading into darkness, and the fragrance of the alinyas beckoned her.
• • •
Munivar lashed him before picking him up by the shirt collar. “Sumara is safe, remember that. The alinyas, bless their crimson souls, protect us as do the deep roots.”
“They’re just dogs,” Eranu chuckled, one eyebrow raised cocksure.
Munivar slapped him again but refrained from the topic any further. For the rest of the class, there were murmurs among the students. Even Maya, who usually sat at the back, crawled forward to hear the gossip from the village.
Juwala-dhanu and Pimri had clearly been more fortunate in their arguments with their fathers, for even their looks, by the end of the day, had descended into that pallor that had plagued the rest of Sumara.
• • •
“Come with me,” her father said to Maya that night.
They walked to the edge of the forest, where the hollow clicks of midnight were the loudest. They shared a torch until she realized she didn’t need one. The darkness had a clarity in her eyes, shades of black and poison green, which until then, she could swear she had lacked. They wandered a mile inside. Teaks gave way to cedars and oaks. The crevices in the barks became more prominent, and the smell of woodsmoke from the hunters’ dead fires gripped her senses. What did they hunt? The undergrowth grew soft, the air thick and wet, and the birds whispered their songs like secrets exchanged across the highest branches.
Her father stopped next to a tall cedar. “Climb,” he said.
Maya craned her neck to look up, through the canopy of leaves at the brightly spotted, black canvas. The moon frolicked aimlessly to the west, its light fell on the forest floor in freckles and scars. “I don’t know how to,” she said. “Why do you want me to?”
“This is what your mother would have wanted,” he said, a saint-like expression on his face. It was a compelling argument; it would have made her do anything.
The bark was wet and flaky against her skin, with knots like wobbly knees, and oozed sap onto her hands as she climbed. Her limbs snuck into the gashes like pieces of a puzzle, her body moved back and forth and up and up and up until, when she gazed down, her father’s face looked sculpted, surrounded by a grizzled mane, gleaming in the torchlight; he was smiling.
“You did well,” he told Maya later that night, as he tucked her into bed and slept the other way. She hugged his knees for comfort, afraid to ask him any questions.
• • •
Maya believed him a little. That evening she asked Father. “Is it really the end of the world beyond the forest?” She sipped the milk. Rose red, darker than the previous time. The smell of what moans alone.
He nodded only half-heartedly, as though he had never seen it himself. “The world is a big place,” he replied, “and they say what is the end of one is the beginning of the other.”
• • •
When he left, Maya took her sling, her pouch of stones and a torch, and surreptitiously crept out to the forest. The sun was a reddish afterglow, pulling the mountains over it like a blanket.
The forest was dark inside, indifferent to the dusk beyond. The fragrance of the alinyas was faint, but Maya smelled it grow stronger with each step. Shadows lurked behind trees, coming forth when the moonlight pierced the leafcover. Old oaks, birches and teaks snuggled next to each other, the wind flitting between them, playing catch with her in hisses and hollow swirls. Twigs crushed under her feet. She only followed the scent; a sister’s calling.
An hour into the forest, she realized she had forgotten to light the torch. Her eyes borrowed the light hidden beyond the leaves above. She stood in a small clearing, and as dew drops splashed on her palm, she wondered why she didn’t feel cold.
The silence broke to her left.
The alinya ambled from behind a great bush, nettles amidst coppices of oak. Larger than a dog, covered in silver fur, its forehead a mass of glowing flesh, and narrow eyes with that crimson glint that cut the darkness of the heart of the forest. It wrapped its long tail around a branch overhead, the orbed end radiated with clarity, shaming the moon for its cowardice in these parts. Others came. Three, four. They descended from trunks or slipped out of burrows. And they all moaned.
It was a calling, Maya realized.
She followed them deeper into the thickets, the clearing a forgotten oasis. Her breathing steadied, her eyes dimmed to absorb the light of the alinyas’ tails and the miasmic glow on their foreheads. They led her down a slope scattered with trees and shrubs to a valley that smelled of them entirely.
There, in the middle of a clearing, under a great slab of rock in a pit, lay the wounded one. Its forehead sliced open and the hollow cavity within made her retch. Beside the pit with the wounded one was a fresh grave just as deep, carved with shivering limbs by the alinyas, sealed with teardrops and immortalized with their cries. When she looked around, she noticed other graves, a dozen or more mounds swollen with the flesh of dead alinyas.
Maya’s hand felt the underside of the rock, fingers curling over rough edges. Her muscles caved to her will. A gentle tug was enough. She lifted the rock as easily as it were a pebble and cast it aside. The alinyas moaned louder, snuck around her and into the pit, pulling out the wounded one, and licking the ooze off its forehead until its breathing ceased. They dragged the alinya into the grave, into its final resting place. The smell was familiar to Maya, but she could not name it.
She sat and hugged her knees and looked at the dead one. She looked at the four that lived.
The light from their tails illuminated the tallest tree in the clearing, the one Eranu claimed to be at the heart of the forest. Maya stood, gathered her belongings, and went to it. The tree rose like a great tower to pierce the sky. Her fingers felt the raw timber of the trunk, like people huddled together under a great umbrella, their limbs interwoven, and flesh sewn into the roots of the valley.
When she climbed, she did not look down.
When you reach the top, do not attempt to pluck the moon, her father had said. Instead, she looked all around her: at the new floor of treetops under her, at the expanse of the forest stretching to the silhouette of mountains in the distance. The sound of water, the bristle of leaves, the sky curving to clasp the horizon, sending its army of stars as gifts. Eranu was not wrong, but he was also not right. This was not the end of the world. This was only the end of theirs.
• • •
“Where did you go today?” her father asked Maya once she had returned.
“To do what mother would have wanted me to,” she replied.
She was too exhausted to tell what she had witnessed in the forest. Images played in her head. Visions appeared in consciousness. Her strength faded like an illusion, reducing her to a child. The alinyas came in her dreams, transforming them into nightmares, until, when she woke, her father sat beside her, a look of worry on his face.
“You’re not well,” he said, observing the sweat glistening her forehead. “Take rest. I’ve fed the crows. And if it’s what you want, do not go to the grove today. I will speak to Munivar.”
“No,” she said. “I’ll be alright. If I don’t feel well, I’ll come back.”
Her father nodded. “Have this milk before you leave then.”
She drank reluctantly. It tasted of honeyed petals and salt, and dark red as the blood bubbling out of a thorn’s prick.
“What is happening in the village?” Maya asked him. Just one question, she told herself. Instinctively, she snatched a fly by its wing in candlelight and brought it close to her eyes. Something in its webbed eyes made her let it go.
Her father took a deep breath. “Nothing to worry about,” he said. “The Empire promises to protect all its lands, even the farthest ones. Remember what Munivar says. Learn everything that he teaches. Wisdom is man’s greatest weapon.”
“Then why is everyone making swords at the forge?” she asked.
He ruffled her hair, urging her to drink faster. “Maybe I can come to the council’s meeting with you today, after the grove,” she offered.
It was her father’s turn to be reluctant. He had invited her yesterday, but today was different.
• • •
At the grove, Munivar paced the grass restlessly. He taught them the history of the Empire and how to count beyond fifteen. Eranu was the first to interrupt him. “How much time do you think we have?”
Munivar stopped pacing and shot a sharp look at him. “You’re all fools,” he snarled. “Sumara cannot be found. It is a baseless fear. Even the Emperor is not privileged to drink of the forest’s water without our permission. We needn’t invite ourselves to this carnage. We sit at the edge of the world, under the shield of the infinite forest. Trust the lore, boy, and no harm shall befall us. Now,” Munivar narrowed his eyes, “I want to meet your father before you go planting more ideas in the other children’s heads, do you hear me?”
Eranu shrugged and winked in Maya’s direction. “There are roads, you know. And caves dug through the mountains. And monsters to walk across them.”
Maya was not one to forget such untamed conversations, however. When she made her way to the council meeting, it was with an unsettled head, a vacillation between nightmares and memories she knew she would have to cast aside.
In the grotto, she sat by a blazing sconce, fanning her fingers over the flame, trying to remember what it was to feel the sting of the fire. Over a dozen men and women sat in the chamber, their eyes sleepless, clouds sprawled underneath them.
“It’s not for the rain we pay the taxes,” one of them said. “What is the purpose of them eating our crops if we don’t get arms when we need them?”
One guffawed. “Rumor is that the man who sends the soldiers is as dead as the man who collects our taxes,” another offered. “We have only two choices: we either leave through the forest, hoping that the end of the world is a soft and kind place, or we stay here and watch the blood seep out of our bodies.”
Her father sat quietly on one of the gunnies, chin resting on his knuckles, his eyes shifting between the occupants of the grotto before finally landing on his daughter. “We fight,” he said. “The forest holds no reward for us. It is only for those born in it.”
“Hear, hear,” a few murmured. “Bless the alinyas, and the roots they feast on. And there bloody be some worth for that wall we built.”
• • •
“You don’t,” Maya replied. “You have something on your hands.”
The dark on his hands rebuked the candlelight. He slid to the floor and slept all night leaned against the door, his snoring filled the air with the groan of his sins.
A day passed and then two. The shadows of the hills were thought to be poisoned. As though something lurking beyond it had intruded in that sacred land which even Emperors were forbidden from trespassing.
Bajuna and Khumarao erected two more watchtowers, but there was no sight of the Empire’s shields marching toward Sumara; no hint of aid. As Maya stood by her door, sipping on the milk the color of strawberries, her father laid a hand on her shoulder. “A sword is like the fly whose wing you caught,” he said. “Only this time, don’t let it go.”
“Appa,” Maya replied. “Am I what my mother would have wanted me to be?”
“Your mother wanted you to live.”
“Then spare the last alinya,” she begged, for she knew what he had done.
Her father stared at her, his words lost. His knees failed him, and he sank, holding the frame of the door, before grabbing her hand. His strength paled in comparison to hers.
“The alinya is a beautiful thing, appa. It is what we pray to. The enemy cannot find us while the alinya lives. You told me to listen to Munivar. So, I’m doing that. Please.”
Her father smiled and cupped her chin. “We always had a weakness for myths. The hordes are beyond that hill, child. Or maybe under it already. It is time to stand for who we are.”
Maya brushed his hand away and, shoving him through the door, ran. Away, through the gate, over the low fence between bamboo pikes that separated her house from Araapa, his poultry and his crank, and toward the bulk of the trees that burst out of the earth to form the mouth of the forest.
She did not stop; she didn’t need to. Her body retched out the fatigue like something distasteful, making her endure the terrain, own it. The woods had always been her true home, the undergrowth a soft silken carpet, the shadows of the trees insignificant to her in front of the aroma of the wood and the flowers blooming where the leafcover bowed to reveal the sky. She drank from the water that sparkled in the brooks flowing down the slope. Each step mimicked a forgotten memory, each broken twig a former life she glimpsed in fleeting images. She wove herself around and between the trees, ensnaring what always ensnares, darkening what always darkens.
When she reached the mystical clearing, she followed the trail of the alinya, sniffing the footprints, dogging their voices left on the rims of the leaves and their paw marks on the trunks.
Under the shadow of the tallest tree, Maya knelt and watched the last of the alinyas breathe like Maya’s mother had breathed on a bed surrounded by candles, her rattles shaking something deep within herself. The alinya gasped a final breath. Its crimson eyes waned to colorless gray. The light on its tail flared brightly for one moment that begged forever, before the beast fell into stillness, all its brilliance fading, its face shrouded by the blood flowing from its injured forehead. The blood Maya had drunk the previous night, and so many nights before.
Two instead of one. Her father had betrayed her in his desperation. Maya cried until the sun feared the endlessness of her tears and scurried behind the mountains, leaving behind an orange hue to placate her anger. The forest grew silent. A silence of a guardian abandoning its duty.
Maya buried the alinya and marked its grave with her blood.
As she stumbled out of the forest, she saw fires on the thatches of the watchtowers, heard the screams from a distance. She snuck around the village to the far gate and scurried into her home from the backdoor, the night now as bright with flame as a summer noon. She packed bread and the balls of rice tied in coriander leaves and stuffed it within her clothes.
The strangers arrived at the village with glinting axes and spiked helms. They spoke a tongue that did not require to be understood. Hate burned in their eyes.
She could not find her father among the screaming or stilled faces. In the thick of the battle, everyone looked the same. Eranu, Munivar, Araapa, and the rest of the village men who had walked out of Baru anna’s forge like brave pretenders, with swords in their wobbling hands. Now all faces meshed into one until the blood dried.
Maya picked up a sword lying on the ground and sliced her way through the horde, undeterred, unhurt and unchallenged. The spirit of the alinyas coursed through her blood. The bodies did not bother her anymore. Not Eranu’s, Araapa’s, anyone’s.
Not even her father’s.
She spotted the one who was pointing fingers and issuing orders, seated on a black horse, on a saddle of pelt and bones. A wolf stood by him, its eyes scanning the falling populace with a measured growl.
It had been the last sip of red milk before Maya left for the forest that now gave her the courage to approach the rider and his wolf with her fear abandoned. It was what made her angry. “Come here, little one,” said the voice. The wolf howled.
She took a step closer. Made her stance a few feet away, her sword aloft and gleaming.
“They say this is the end of the world,” the voice continued. “Is it true?”
Maya did not reply. Only waited until the wolf, sensing her intention, stepped forward to stand between her and its master. Blood dripped from its teeth, and as it opened its mouth wide, she screamed the sound of what lay hidden inside her.
Her breath was a storm; her eyes a punishment for those who lingered around her.
The wolf staggered. It turned around and ran, bouncing over corpses and flesh, until it bore a hide a darker shade than the night around and disappeared.
Maya watched the rider regard her from his towering steed, staring down at her small frame and tilted expression covered in blood. When his ride would not advance, he dismounted and pounded toward her, drawing his blade. She felt his eyes on her, his intent, and finally his rage. He took two great strides ahead to bring down his sword upon her. Maya parried his effort with her own, the clang of steel ringing in her ears. Her scream pulsed from her, entered his veins and weakened the mettle of his bones and their shape altogether. In that instant, the sword slipped from his hand, betraying him when he had demanded its loyalty the most. He cowered and fell on his knees, until his heart stopped at Maya’s sight and her strength.
When he died, Maya saw the clouds of smoke reflected in his eyes. Only a remnant of her strength left, she suppressed her tears, turned and fled. Not outside, but to the heart of the village, where in the middle of the square there grew a banyan tree. She climbed it like her mother would have wanted her to, and lay amid the leaves and branches, shivering and hugging her knees. And she cried. For her father, for her friends, for everyone who now lay beneath her.
It was morning when she came down. The village was empty save for the stench of rot and blood, and a handful of survivors.
Munivar alone saw her leave the village. He hobbled toward her, calling her name in the feeble light of dawn. He leaned on a cane, face withered and unapologetic, and offered to travel with her. There was always pride in being proved right, she knew, and no count of corpses was going to dissuade Munivar from showing it on his face.
“Where do we go?” she asked. “We’re at the end of the world.”
“Then we turn the world on its head,” he croaked. “And go inside it. Come, let me tell you about this other forest I know, and the beast it harbors.”
© 2020 by Prashanth Srivatsa, all rights reserved