December 2010

New Phantasma…

Love in the Time of the Serpent King by RJ Astruc

She lays her tusked head on the ground and I climb onto her back, curling my fingers around the horns of bone that jutt from her ribs. My doomed cell-mates do not stir. The deev spreads her great wings and around us the cell walls and ceiling melt away. Above us I see a hole in the palace roof and through it stars. “Come with me, Rahaeb Reyad,” says Jahazan, “and don’t look back.”

The Keeper of Promises by Abha Iyengar

Marushi, the bird, with his blue beak, yellow head and bright orange plumage, his red breast adorned with black dots that shone like live coals when the sun fell on them, watched the young fifteen year old girl, Ramlu, as she danced on the hot, deserted road.

The Fox by Richard Beland

He was a hard man, a seasoned pirate who earned every bit of his notoriety. It was always a mystery how he acquired his nickname or his peg leg. How many fell beneath his sword is unknown, nor how many hearts his dagger pierced.

Echo of the Invisible World by Shelly Li

From across the desk, Connor Richardson’s gaze darted from his father to the tall foreign being standing next to him, lingering on this ambassador for just a fleeting moment before returning his eyes to his father. So this was who his father had dedicated his career, his life to. A giant preying mantis of a being who stood gaping at him, as if he were a strange specimen in a jar.

Sasquatch by Hugh Fox

They were obviously tracking us down. Roles were reversed…and they’d wear us down before we’d ever wear them down. They were ‘home,’ after all….

Echo of the Invisible World

by Shelly Li

Six-limbed but standing on two, the foreign being stared at Dr. Richardson with black, almost blue eyes.

Looking out the window, Richardson could see the cubed silver pods docking into the space station’s hangar deck, ready to finally transport their alien ambassador back to their home planet.

Richardson turned back and exchanged glances with his secretary, the only other person in the room. The expression on the young man’s face matched his own. Delomen was the first extraterrestrial connection that the crew had made, and now their time with the foreign planet was running out.

If Richardson had to guess, he had maybe two, three minutes to salvage an entire year of failed audiences and cement an understanding between Earth and Delomen. He couldn’t let the ambassador, who called himself F’tacerus, leave the ship, for Richardson had a feeling that F’tacerus and the Delomen people would never return.

“Thank you for your hospitality this last earth year,” F’tacerus said in Delomen’s language, raising a hand and touching all three of his fingers to his forehead. “We are afraid that we have nothing to offer you, and vice-versa. Perhaps it is better if we go our separate ways.”

The words smashed into Richardson’s stomach, ripping, tearing. “But F’tacerus, how can you say this when you will not allow me and my crew to step foot on Delomen? We can bring something to your people if you just let us come study, I know it.” And vice-versa, he said to himself.

But F’tacerus merely shook his head and said, “The Elders of Delomen have deemed this unnecessary. I’m sorry.”

Richardson sighed, knowing that this conclusion was inevitable. F’tacerus had told him this all along.

And so he did nothing but sit and watch as the Delomen ambassador’s tall, lean figure stepped out the door and began to walk away.

“You’re going to stop him, aren’t you?” his secretary said.

Richardson couldn’t take his eyes off the distancing F’tacerus, his heart panicking to an unsteady beat. “It’s extremely clear now that they don’t want anything that we have,” he said. “It’s hopeless.”

“Hopeless,” the secretary repeated, finally diverting Richardson’s attention to him. “Dr. Richardson, the suits in Washington are not going to back down just because we’ve given up. They’ve poured billions into research and mapping, satellites to capture footage of Delomen’s surface, decryption systems to study their people’s language. They want to see results.”

Richardson leaned back in his seat, exhausted. He didn’t want to hear the chiding, but he knew that his secretary was right. He needed to keep the Delomen ambassador on the ship. F’tacerus was their ticket into the planet.

But how will I keep him here? he wondered, combing through his mind for answers.

However, no answers came. At least, not from him.

Just as F’tacerus was about to turn the corner and disappear from Richardson’s view completely, a soft violin note seeped into the air.

F’tacerus stopped mid-step and spun around, as though trying to find the slow stream of music filtering into the hallway. The ambassador’s dark impassive eyes lit up for the first time ever, locking gazes with Richardson.

At first Richardson didn’t understand. But as he watched F’tacerus set a hand against the wall to steady himself, opening one door after another to locate the sound, he began to realize.

So the alien race was not apathetic toward everything after all.

Of course Richardson knew where the deep, resonating music was coming from, and who was creating it. Stuck on the spaceship negotiating terms of cooperation with Delomen, he hadn’t returned home in two years—and realistically, he never considered his home on Earth to be home and seldom returned anyway. But he could recognize that violin anywhere.

“Allow me,” Richardson said, easing out of his seat and beckoning F’tacerus down the hall. Punching in the pass code, he opened the door and let the ambassador into his own quarters.

Behind Richardson’s desk, partially hidden behind a violin case, sat a young man of twenty-four. His left hand curved over the neck of his violin, shifting up and down the fingerboard as his fingers flitted across the four strings, manipulating the sound with vibratos, an occasional tremolo.

Both Richardon and F’tacerus stood in silence, watching, waiting—Richardson out of grudging courtesy, F’tacerus, perhaps, out of sheer awe.

Standing besides him, F’tacerus whispered, “We have examined the electromagnetic waves that your kind has emitted, but this… this is something entirely different.”

Finally the man’s fingers halted, and he lowered the violin. He turned toward Richardson. There was no smile, no hint of warmth in his expression, nothing but a blank stare of expectation.

“Ambassador,” Richardson said, making the first move and gesturing at the young man. “Allow me to introduce you to Connor Richardson. My son.”

From across the desk, Connor Richardson’s gaze darted from his father to the tall foreign being standing next to him, lingering on this ambassador for just a fleeting moment before returning his eyes to his father. So this was who his father had dedicated his career, his life to. A giant preying mantis of a being who stood gaping at him, as if he were a strange specimen in a jar.

For a brief second Connor let his emotions get the best of him, struggling to fasten down the years of resentment and frustration. But the moment soon passed, as logic filtered in to remind him that his father had virtually been absent all his life. It was time to accept that this would always be true.

The alien spoke before his father could, but all that Connor’s ears picked up was an unintelligible garble of differing pitches.

Luckily Richardson stepped in and responded in an equally confusing sequence of low tones.

But the alien seemed unsatisfied, and he gestured directly at Connor and mumbled out a few phrases.

After a pause, Connor finally heard something understandable, coming from his father. “Ambassador F’tacerus asks that you play another, ahh, song on the violin.”

“Why?” Connor asked with a frown, looking at F’tacerus.

“Please do it, son.”

His father’s tone was gentle enough, certainly not demanding, but there was a quiet force to his words that nettled Connor. Of course he was familiar with this, the soft way in which Richardson spoke as he delegated tasks. All his life the subdued voice repulsed him, yet he could never refuse it.

And so, raising the small wooden violin to his shoulder, Connor set the pearl-white hair of the bow on the strong’s and began to play. Violin Sonata No. 9, movement two. He knew every sudden crescendo, was aware of every vibrato that made his own stomach churn.

Halfway into the piece, the door to his father’s quarters slid open, and five, no six, figures approached. Connor didn’t need to raise his eyes from the violin to realize that the guests were aliens. The collective gasp sufficed.

Silence continued even after the music stopped. Clutching his violin by the neck, Connor looked around at the foreign beings standing in front of him, each over seven feet tall, with long fingers and glittering dark eyes. He couldn’t lie, he was entranced by their outer appearances; the way they carried themselves; the way they stared. They watched him with an attention his father had never had.

The ambassador, F’tacerus, finally spoke.

Richardson translated, “This must be the echo of the invisible world.”

Behind F’tacerus, another of the aliens managed a few distorted words. Those accompanying seemed to be in agreement with whatever he said.

For a long moment Connor’s father seemed stunned, the scientist’s mouth agape as he stared at F’tacerus and the other foreign beings.

And then, slowly, he turned to Connor. “The Delomen people would like to invite you to their planet and play the violin for them.”

Connor couldn’t help but chuckle, setting the violin down on his father’s desk.

Immediately one of the aliens dashed forward and picked it up before he could even blink.

“Hey, be careful,” Connor said to the alien as he curled his long fingers around body of the violin. “That’s expensive.”

His father did not translate.

Taking a step back, Connor watched as the alien raised his hand and gave the A string a light pluck.

Out rang the soft vibrating of the synthetic core, and the alien’s back stiffened. He plucked the string again, then moved to pluck another.

“What is he doing?” Connor asked his father, standing beside him.

Richardson answered with only two words. “Discovering music.”

“Of all the things we possess—mathematics, religion—they want music! For such an advanced race, this is just sad.”

Now sitting with only his son in the room, Richardson replied to the hologram projection of a man on his desk. “Connor is willing to go to Delomen and play. Are there any objections?”

“Well of course we’re not going to send a civilian to Delomen, unprotected. Come now, Dr. Richardson.”

Richardson sighed and leaned back in his seat. By “unprotected,” he knew that NASA administrator Everett Storm had meant “unsupervised.”

“Look, I think it’s great that we finally have a chance to step foot on Delomen,” Storm said. “Sharing music, getting friendly… But we’re not here to harvest warm fuzzy feelings. We are scientists, here to study. And the Delomen people are being unreasonable by only allowing you and your son into the planet.”

“So what do you suggest I do?”

The hologram of Everett Storm, dressed in a well-cut wool suit, smiled and said, “Propose a trade.”

From across his desk, Richardson caught the look of disdain on his son’s face as he looked away from the hologram. He tried to ignore the sinking feeling of guilt that Connor’s expression sparked inside him, and he replied to Storm, “You want to trade human music for Delomen weaponry.”

“Naturally. Nothing is free in this world—or should I say, universe.”

“And if they refuse?” Richardson didn’t think he could take it if his one chance to step foot on Delomen, the goal he had been working toward for almost twenty years, were to vanish right now when it was already within his grasp. “What if Delomen cuts off contact with us forever?”

Storm paused a moment, as if seriously pondering Richardson’s question. However his reply proved otherwise. “You’re a smart man, Dr. Richardson, but you fail to see the big picture. The government doesn’t want to see us getting chummy with the aliens. That is not why they funnel billions upon billions of dollars into this project. Our satellites have been circling Delomen for a while now, enough time to determine that we really don’t need to step foot on the planet. We need the advanced weaponry of the planet, and we need to obtain it first. Who knows what China will do if given the alien technology before us?”

Richardson fell silent.

“Do what I advise, Dr. Richardson, and negotiate for the space weapons. Do your job successfully, so that I can do mine and ensure the continuation of this project.”

And with these words, the hologram shut off.

Richardson hesitated a second before looking up at Connor, apprehensive. Then he said, “So. You’re now a college grad.”

“Since last week,” his son said, fiddling with the gold statue standing on the desk, sculpted into the figure of a Delomen. It was an award that Richardson had won last year to congratulate his work in space with the foreign planet.

“Sorry I couldn’t be there,” Richardson said.

Connor shrugged. “It would have seemed unnatural if you had.”

The words delivered to Richardson a pain that no physical force could. How many months had passed since he had even spoken to his son—seven, eight months? Nothing had changed. And judging by the spite seeded in his son’s voice, Richardson ventured that his wife had all but forced Connor to make a trip up to space to see his father.

But Richardson kept composed on the outside and instead said, “Tell me then, what would you like as a graduation present?”

Slowly Connor’s eyes, identical to his father’s, flickered up to meet Richardson’s. The intensity of the stare caught him a little off guard. “I can have anything I want?”

Richardson smiled, an uneasy feeling flowering inside his chest. He would never admit it, but he needed Connor’s approval, he couldn’t help it. “Anything I can give you, son.”

Connor folded his arms across his chest and, leaning forward, said, “Don’t negotiate. We will go to Delomen ourselves, and I will play the violin for them.”

For a moment Richardson sat frozen in his chair, his mind scrambling to recover from the blow of his son’s words. At first he laughed them off. “You have an interesting sense of humor, Connor.”

Connor ran his fingers over the closed violin case, set on the corner of Richardson’s desk. Since he was a child he was always fidgeting, tapping a rhythm, humming a melody. “When I saw the alien pluck the strings of my violin, and when I understood the look of revelation on his face… I felt pity. I cannot imagine a world without music, and I cannot live knowing that I am surrounded by this gift while there are others who are kept in ignorance.”

Richardson sighed, shaking his head. “Why must you put me in such a compromising position?” he said. Anything Connor wanted, he could have given. Anything but this. “I’ll lose my job.”

“Your job? Look at what your job has turned into!” his son exclaimed, standing up from his seat. He gestured at the hologram projector sitting before him and took a few steps back. “Bending backwards to appease the warmongers of government? Why?”

“You have to see the big picture,” Richardson said. “The government funds this project with the unvoiced promise that I will produce results for them. If I want to sustain, I need to deliver to them what they want.”

He paused and stared at his son, wrapped in desire and held back by frustration. Richardson wanted to reach out and set a hand on Connor’s shoulder, tell him that he was familiar with the feeling. He wanted to say something that would make his son understand that real life was much more complex than the ideas in one’s head. But try as he might, he could not find the proper words, and so he let Connor speak.

“It’s impossible to love someone like you, Dad,” he said, pacing inside a three feet radius of Richardon’s chair. “You pour all your attention, all your effort into your work, so that nothing is ever left for me and Mom but isolation. But I understand that—we are attracted to what we love. I can respect that.”

Richardson’s hands tightened into fists as he watched his son take a step toward the door.

“What I can’t tolerate is my father acting like the government’s lapdog, mutilating your science and your morals. You’ve turned away from your work, what you love. It’s disgusting, and any man who will betray his soul for a business of violence will never have my love nor respect.”

And before Richardson had a chance to reply, his son stepped through the door and walked away.

The hiss of the closing door made Richardson sick to his stomach.

So his son was making him choose, it seemed, between him and his work.

Sighing, he swiveled in his chair to face the floor-to-ceiling window behind his desk. Millions of stars twinkled their hellos at him, shining through a blanket of black abyss.

He began to recall all the years he had spent up here, deciphering the Delomen language, learning their culture, studying snapshots of the planet, reasoning with F’tacerus…

Turning back to face his desk, Richardson could see no evidence anywhere of this effort. No, this was clearly no longer the desk of a scientist.

Weapons schematics covered most of the space, sketches that the defense engineers had drawn up based on satellite imaging. Space missiles, lasers, bombs, all hypothetically capable of penetrating the shields protecting Delomen.

The funders of his project didn’t care about what he cared about. They didn’t want to establish intergalactic connections, trade, peace. Their first priority was the continuing survival of their own people, even if that meant eradicating another.

All this, he saw in his work.

Yet when he looked at it, the papers scattered over his desk, lines and lines of raw data, he realized that he could hardly see himself anymore.

Connor Richardson closed his eyes, and the sounds of music thickened in his head as though solidifying.

The first notes of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major echoed through him, reverberating in the core of his bones as he fingered along on his violin, sitting next to him in the station’s cafeteria booth.

He could feel the eyes of others burning into him, wondering what he was doing here on the space station, why he was sitting alone with his violin, his existence pointless.

He didn’t have a clue himself.

The music inside him began to crescendo, pick up speed, growing angrier and angrier until Connor’s fingers started to feel sore with each pound against the violin’s fingerboard.

His eyelids flitted open again, and he took a moment to scan the cafeteria, taking in the matching silver tiles on the floor and the ceiling, the men in blue uniform pounding drinks at the bar, the red and white curtains framing the sun’s rays as it climbed over a ringed planet.

Connor couldn’t help but wonder: Why am I here?

Why, when time after time his father had succeeded in disappointing him, why did he continue to render himself vulnerable, hoping that just once, his father would act like one?

A small smile touched his lips as he took a sip of the coffee in front of him, a decision becoming clearer and clearer in his mind.

It was time to cut his losses and return home to Earth, from where he should never have let his footsteps cool in the first place.

He was snapping shut the clasps of his violin case when all of a sudden he felt a hand on his shoulder, then a voice that drilled into him deeper than even violin notes.

“Good afternoon, son,” his father said, smiling down at him.

Connor looked up into Richardson’s eyes, frowning at the mystery shining inside them. Like an alarm, the little voice in the back of his head told him, You’re done giving him chances. It’s time to go.

For a long time Connor said nothing, struggling with the hurt and hope inside himself. He wanted to be finished with hoping, knowing it was the only string keeping his soul tied to this unbearable anguish.

He opened to his mouth to tell his father that he was leaving.

But the only words he could force out were, “Aren’t you going to have a seat?”

His father shook his head and said, “Actually, I’m afraid we don’t have the time to sit. The t-pod to Delomen leaves in,” He checked his watch, “about ten minutes.”

Connor’s heart skipped a beat as he fixed Richardson with a questioning look.

“There is no negotiation, no weapons deal.” His father reached over and wrapped his fingers around the handle of the violin case. “There is just me, you, and the music.”

Richardson’s hands shook as he took his first steps on Delomen ground. Now walking the surface of the planet, he finally saw that the cracked terrain that satellite imaging had captured was in fact a ground composed of billions of tiny rocks, like cobblestone, but organized in a smooth fashion, as though there was a layer of glass covering the pebbles.

“The pilot of your transport must stay docked here,” the Delomen guard said to Richardson. “This is the wish of the Elders.”

Richardson nodded and, handing Connor his violin, the two proceeded down the undisturbed pebbled path toward a gelatinous-looking center stage, surrounded by thousands, tens of thousands of Delomen people. Thick black columns stood rooted on either side of the elevated platform, dripping light the way a sponge drips water. Each separate bead of light sparked and flashed as it fell, dissipating into the darkness upon impact with the crystal floor.

“Dad,” Connor whispered so that only Richardson could hear. “I don’t know what song to play.”

“This is the first time this planet will hear music,” Richardson said. “It’d be best if you chose something to play before we reach the stage. Or, would you like me to first explain to them what anxiety vomit is?”

At this a smile traveled from one end of Connor’s mouth to the other, and he turned and said, “Listen, about that time in your quarters, when I told you that I had lost respect for you.”

“It was a wakeup call,” Richardson said before he could finish. “And I needed it.”

Connor paused a moment, looking as though he was about to reply, but after a few seconds he seemed to change his mind and simply nodded instead.

By now they had reached the steps of the stage, made of some flowing see-through substance that resembled a more solid version of jelly. The scientist in Richardson wanted to question the Delomen guard about its compound, maybe collect a sample to take home, but he kept his mouth shut.

“Are you coming?” Connor said, looking back at Richardson as he ascended the stairs.

Richardson shook his head and extended a hand for his son to shake. “Today, I am your shadow.”

His son’s grip was firm, strong.

With a smile, Richardson let go and said, “Now go bring music to the world, son.”

And so Connor turned and walked toward the center of the stage, unpacking his violin on a shelf that extended out of the ground.

Richardson didn’t need to survey the crowd to know that each Delomen citizen was holding his or her breath, suspended in excited anticipation.

Connor lifted the violin to his shoulder. From behind the stage, Richardson could see the ups and downs of his back as he breathed.

Then, setting the bow on the string and taking an exaggerated inhale, Connor began to play.

The sounds spilled everywhere, magnified hundredfold. It was as if the gooey composition of the stage was surging and absorbing the violin notes, sending the sound waves in all directions.

Richardson’s stomach performed its first flip in a matter of seconds. Though he was not familiar with the song, slow and gut wrenchingly sweet, he had been exposed to human music his entire life, and thus had a leg up on those who surrounded him.

Still the beauty of the song shocked him.

Each note seemed to transcend the one before, transitioning from cautious to confident, delicate and warm to edgy and hard.

Richardson smiled despite the knot of emotions that had bloomed inside his chest. Here, now, with the music of the violin filling his thoughts, he felt a painful kind of longing. He longed for something he had never had, would never have, and never be able to explain.

Standing on the stage, Connor played and played, his fingers flitting up and down the fingerboard in a blur.

“My people are feeling emotions that they have never experienced before,” a Delomen voice said from behind.

Richardson turned as F’tacerus pulled up beside him.

And with those words, Connor played his last note, a low, rich, vibrating sound that was capable of igniting dreams.

The Delomen Ambassador said something else. Richardson thought he had said “thank you”, but the roar of the crowned drowned out all other noise.

Richardson looked up just in time to watch his son exit the stage, climbing down the steps with sweat lining his forehead and a youthful grin that coerced a smile onto Richardson’s face as well.

“Translate for me, Dr. Richardson,” F’tacerus said, turning to Connor. “Tell your son thank you for the performance. Thank you, from one planet to another.”

Richardson related the message.

For a moment Connor said nothing as the smile disappeared from his lips, and the intensity faded from his eyes.

Then, with a nod of acknowledgement, Connor handed his violin over to F’tacerus. “The song is titled ‘Echo of the Invisible World,’ and it is not a gift from Earth to Delomen.”

Richardson hesitated as his son turned to him, giving him a look that required no words.

“It is a gift from one heart to another.”

Love in the Time of the Serpent King

by RJ Astruc

I am four, maybe five, when the deev first visits me.

I’m sitting behind our house, drawing pictures in the sand with a stick. Save for the neighbour’s chickens, I am completely alone. My mother is at the market with my sisters; my father and brothers are soldiers and have not been home for many months. As the youngest son of eight, I am used to entertaining myself. The chickens, a dozen scraggy, mad-eyed things, cluck and peck around me, occasionally walking through my pictures. I lean forwards to shoo them away, and when I look up, there is a woman standing over me.

She is naked save for a necklace of green stones around her neck. Her skin is the colour of ochre and her body casts no shadow across the ground. Ridges of bone protrude from her ribs and back like the spines of a dragon. Her hair is as long my mother’s and shimmers like gold when the light touches it. But it’s her eyes that I like best. Her iris are black, ringed within and without by a thin line of orange.

She is the strangest thing I have ever seen, and I think she is beautiful. I bow my head, as my mother has taught me to, and introduce myself.

“I am Rahaeb Reyad.”

The woman smiles, a thin, tense smile, as if she’s not certain what to do with me. It is not a friendly smile—her teeth are needle-thin and jagged like the dried piranha-fish the Nubians sell. “I am Jahazan Deev,” she says, “and there is a new war coming, child.”

I frown. I am only four, maybe five, and the word war lacks context for me. I know my father and brothers fight in it, and that people are killed in it, and that soldiers go to it, and that it can eat cities and devour men, women and children alike. But then, so does the desert, and I have no fear of sand. “Where is it coming from?” I ask.

“The deev have fought against the peri for many years. That is the old war, of old grudges long forgotten. But this new war is that of your kind, your mortal ilk. You have brought it to us. You have brought us to this.”

“Can’t we take it away again?”

She is about to reply but a rumbling thunder-sound interrupts her, and the sand between my fingers stirs. In the distance I hear shouts, growing louder, and foreign, guttural noises like the roaring of a wild animal. I get to my feet and move to turn my head, but Jahazan catches my chin and forces me too look at her, into her strange black-and-orange eyes.

“Come walk with me, Rahaeb Reyad,” she says.

“But I—”

“Don’t turn around.” She takes my hand and entwines our fingers. Her smile is encouraging and perhaps genuine. I smell dust and fire and sulphur and blood; I hear the sound of stone cracking and a woman’s shrill scream. The sand around us jumps and shifts as the earth itself pulses with what I know now is war. I think of my mother and my sisters; I don’t want to turn around. Jahazan kisses my forehead. “Let’s go,” she whispers.

She leads me from my village. I hold her hand as tight as I can, until it hurts so much I have to cry.

I am fourteen, maybe fifteen, when the devil-deev Ahriman curses King Zohak with two black serpents that sprout from his shoulders.

They are huge venomous beasts that crave only the flesh of mortal men. Every time they are cut down they grow back instantly, and no doctor or witch or holy man in New Persia can cure the King of them. So King Zohak—now known as the Serpent-King—decrees that every day he will feed his snakes two of his own subjects to sate their hunger.

When the soldiers come to take me to the palace I am not surprised. I’m a pauper, an orphan; I am a lost thing in the world. I barely remember my old village, my dead mother and sisters, my father and brothers lost in the war against the deev. No one will lament my death; no one will notice my disappearance. At fourteen, maybe fifteen, I’m both realistic and apathetic. I let them chain me in a cell to await the serpents’ whim.

It is dark there, beneath the palace, and as cool as a desert night. I am not alone in the cell. There are other men, perhaps a dozen of them, all equally poor, all equally lost. They talk in whispers to each other about their lives, their hopes, and their hatred for the Serpent-King, Ahriman’s mortal puppet, a man who killed his father and may yet live to kill New Persia itself, the land once called the kingdom of light.

It is small wonder that the peri, the fair fairy-kind, have turned their backs on us.

When night falls the men sleep huddled together for warmth. I sit apart, staring at the ceiling, remembering the moon. If it weren’t for Zohak and his serpent curse, I would be going to war in a few years, the mark of New Persia emblazoned on my shield. I’m a poor swordsman, clumsy and inelegant when I play with other boys; I suspect I would be an early casualty on the battlefield. But none of that matters now. I cover my face with my hands, and when I rub my eyes, Jahazan Deev is there.

This time she has come in the form of a giant black dog with great leathery wings like a bat. Silver tusks extend from her cheeks and a ridge of horn protrudes from her brow. Her fur is sleek and gleams blue in the dim lantern light of the cell, as bright as the armoury of the peri. But I know her instantly by her black-and-orange eyes, which gaze at me with an urgency.

“Jahazan Deev,” I whisper.

“Rahaeb Reyad.”

“This time the deev brought the war to us,” I say, going to her. “This is Ahriman’s work.”

“You mistake a battle for a war,” the deev replies, “and mortal corruption for deev trickery. In this war we are now allies beneath Zohak.”

“I’m not a child any more. I know the deev have no allies—only puppets.” I touch her fur and find black scales beneath it, like those of the Serpent-King’s snakes. “Why are you doing this?” I ask.

She lays her tusked head on the ground and I climb onto her back, curling my fingers around the horns of bone that jutt from her ribs. My doomed cell-mates do not stir. The deev spreads her great wings and around us the cell walls and ceiling melt away. Above us I see a hole in the palace roof and through it stars.

“Come with me, Rahaeb Reyad,” says Jahazan, “and don’t look back.”

We fly out of the prison cell and sail through the night-sky. I cling to the deev’s back and close my eyes.

When I am twenty-five, maybe twenty-six, I go to war.

I wear the mark of New Persia and the rough, dark clothes of a soldier, and I walk with my company across the desert. Under the rule of the Serpent-King, we do not hunt the deev, as my father and brothers did. The deev are the Serpent-King’s new councillors, their evil suggestions his law. Instead we seek out those who would oppose Zohak, who would challenge the wickedness he has brought to New Persia. We bring insurgents to justice; we halt rebellions. Our new war is against ourselves.

I have become a fine swordsman. My feet are quick and light and my arms are strong. It is a long time since I have fought a man and lost. Although I am young, already the name Rahaeb Reyad is known to the people of New Persia. There are many stories told of my escape from the Serpent-King’s prison and the destruction of my childhood village. In some circles it is rumoured that I have deev magic about me. Perhaps they are right, and a lingering trace of Jahazan remains on my skin like perfume, protecting me from harm.

One day my company and I destroy a village in Ramadar. We have been told by the Serpent-King’s men that there are rebels hiding in the village. We come down upon the place with all the might of an avenging deev. When we have killed all those who would oppose us, we set fire to their houses and let their animals loose into the desert.

At the back of a burnt out house I find a woman with a small child in her arms, her face creased with fear. It is my duty to kill them both, to erase all witnesses of the Serpent-King’s treachery. But I find I cannot do it. The scene reminds me too much of the day twenty, maybe twenty-one, years ago, when the deev Jahazan saved my life.

“I am Rehaeb Reyad,” I say, sheathing my sword. “You should go.”

The mother scoops up the child in her arms and runs away into the desert, her feet making little impression on the shifting sands. I fall to my knees and hold my shoulders, bracing myself for tears of mourning that never come. Night falls and my company, failing to find me amongst the village’s wreckage, numbers me amongst the dead. They leave Ramadar without me.

When I wake the next morning, Jahazan is at my side.

This time she has taken the appearance of a girl, no different from any girl I ever met in New Persia, save for her strange eyes and her smile that’s neither kind nor cruel. She is not beautiful; she is not even unique, but her very presence trembles my soul. As soon as I say her name she is upon me, sitting on my chest, holding my shoulders to the earth.

“I won’t be your puppet, Jahazan Deev,” I tell her.

The deev tilts her head. “If I wanted you to be my puppet, Rahaeb Reyad, I would curse you until you had no choice, until you were as will-less and cruel as the Serpent-King. Until you had ears only for my truths, my twisted deev lies.”

I think of the rumours circulating about my past. “People call me a deev-kin, sometimes.”

“Underneath they see that you have the heart of a deev. You are the child who walked from the destruction of his village without looking back. You are the boy who escaped from prison without a thought for the man who would take his place. You are the man who has killed so many, by sword and by fire; you are a scourge of New Persia. Of course they call you a deev. You are hardly human.”

“Yesterday I spared a woman’s life.”

“We deev can be weak too, sometimes.”

“Did you do this to me?” I cry, my hand on her throat. “Did you make me like you?”

The deev laughs. “I only told you not to look. I was never your puppeteer.”

She is a deev in the skin of a girl, like I am a deev in the skin of a boy. We roll together in the sand, in the ruins of the village I helped raize.

For two months, maybe three, we are together.

We fly to the mountains of Mazandaran, where the wild deev live. There, in the caves and crevasses, we fight and feed and copulate like beasts. When the old war comes to us—the peri soldiers, with their feeble hearts filled with pity and love—we attack them mercilessly, sending them fleeing through the rocks like scared rabbits. When the new war comes to us we go down to the battle and fight, sometimes siding with the Serpent-King’s men, sometimes with the rebels.

One day we walk along the cliffs to a place where the peri sometimes come, to soothe their aches of war. It is a tranquil pool amidst the barren rocks, fringed by flowers and soft grasses, like the lush veldts the Nubians speak of. Tall trees provide a thick canopy through which the sun cannot penetrate. Fair fragrances, so sweet that they make Jahazan spit and retch, lie heavy in the air. It is a paradise.

The deev and I, we hide amongst the trees with our sharp teeth and sharp blades.

We have not been waiting long before a peri passes us, on the way to the pool. He is delicate and beautiful and bare-headed, with thick curly hair as dark as Jahazan’s eyes. At his side he carries a sword, beneath his arm a shield with the mark of light upon it. He kneels by the waterside, gathering water in his hands to splash his face.

As he bends to drink we come up behind him, and while Jahazan skewers his heart, I cut off his head with a single blow of my sword. His body tumbles forward and the water swallows it. Lilies bloom where his blood was spilt, the ends of their petals stained a deep purple.

“We killed a peri in a holy place, Rahaeb Rayed,” says Jahazan, laughing. “Now you are as damned as I.”

Perhaps she wants me to be horrified, but it’s not horror I feel but the sensation inside me of something coming apart. Of being stripped, of being broken. The smell of the peri’s blood is pungent as poison. It is the smell of holy things, of heaven and purity and the cleansing of sin. It is the smell of warmth and family and home. It smells like waking up on a new morning in a village far away, my mother singing in the kitchen, my sisters laughing as they play.

I realise that I’ve been lost for a very long time.

“We shouldn’t have done this,” I say, turning away.

“We did it so easily,” says Jahazan. “What’s the life of a fairy to us? We could do it ag—”

“No. No.”

“What is it?” But she has realised now how the peri’s blood has ruined me, has ruined the deev-thing she made of me. “You did it!” she screams, and her voice is the voice of thunder. “Why did you do it? Why are you here?”

I think: Because you can’t fight a war without having something to fight for. Because mortals don’t do it for vague, intangible notions like loyalty and patriotism but for real things, for things they can touch, like flowers in their garden, like the smile on a child’s face, like the lover they left behind. Because all battles start and finish in the heart. Because opposites attract.

There are the right answers, answers she would have stayed to hear. But what I say changes everything, irrevocably.

“Jahazan,” I whisper, “I’m in love.”

I am thirty, maybe thirty-one, when I hear of her capture.

The peri army brought her down in the desert. They came for her like an arrow seeks its target and beat her to the door of hell. When she grovelled at their feet, they bound her with chains of truth that burnt channels through her flesh. When she wept and screamed, they dragged her through the rubble of every village she helped destroy, across the grave of every man she murdered, and along the palace steps of the Serpent-King, son of their ally, now their foe. When she was exhausted, half-dead, they took her back to their court in Jinnistan and tied her there like a dog, a warning to those who would flaunt their immorality.

The peri are creatures of love and light, but it’s easy to forget that they are soldiers, too. Their grievances are deeper than those we mortals suffer.

The morning I hear of Jahazan’s capture, I pack food and water in a satchel, sharpen my sword, and set off into the desert. I do not know where Jinnistan is, or if the beautiful cities of the peri are even accessible by mortals, but I have heard that the Arabs believe it lies above the deev’s mountains, in the clouds that halo the highest peaks. It is a good a place to start looking as any other.

I wander the rocks of Mazandaran for many days. Sometimes I see the Serpent-King’s armies patrolling the valleys below; most of the time I see no one. When I run out of food, I hunt wild ibex and pick bitter narud grasses, those flowerless green needles that grow even in the winter months. Thoughts of Jahazan keep me warm during the cold New Persian nights. I dream of her anger, her cruelty and her lust, the things that brought us together, the things that tore us apart.

One night I find a peri-child captured in a trap I had laid for the ibex. It is a little girl with hair like sand and eyes of emerald. When I approach her she drops to all fours and throws dirt and stones at me, her face set in a bestial snarl. It’s laughable to think such a pathetic effort could deter a beast like me. I dismiss her little missiles with a wave of my hand; I kneel beside her on the ground.

“I am Rahaeb Reyad, and I do not want to hurt you. I need only information. How do I get to Jinnistan?”

The fairy girl sneers. “Tribute.”

I let her loose.

At day break I go hunting for larger prey. The deev Ennaza suns itself daily on a cliff nearby, its rippling, scaly flanks a common sight as I walk through these parts of Mazandaran. It is a dragon-deev, a great green lizard that stalks the peri who stray from the mountain paths, devouring them whole. I find it lumbering along a slope towards its favourite sunspot. Spines like sabres ripple in a frill about its stout neck; and its face is as puggish as a boar. The stench of death exudes from its flesh like some foul perfume.

Without hesitation I leap upon its back, my hands finding easy purchase on its scales. Ennaza howls with rage as I clamber toward its head, riding out the dragon’s bucking in the same way a horseman tames a wild stallion. As I cling to Ennaza’s spiny neck, it turns and fixes me with a huge, golden eye—and I see recognition there, in that cruel lizard brain.

“I know you,” it screams. “You are Rahaeb Reyad, Jahazan’s lover. What do you want from me?”


I cut its head from its shoulders and leave its body spasming on the slope. With my still-bleeding trophy in hand I walk to the top of the mountains, to the place where the clouds touch the earth.

“I am Rahaeb Reyad,” I shout to the sky. “Peri of Jinnistan, let me pass!”

Darkness comes then, and lightness too. Then before me the gates of the peri’s city appear, gleaming like Nubian gold, and as I watch they swing inward, to reveal a paradise that burns my heart.

In this paradise, maybe heaven, I am set upon by the peri.

They strip my sword from me and take all my clothes save my daujin, the loose cloth that preserves my modesty. They cut my hair and pluck away my eyelashes and beard. Across my bare chest they paint the letters ANDJIAH in Ennaza’s blood; in their language this word is a slur that means the killer of brothers. Then they bind my hands and feet to a pole and carry me like a dead pig through the beautiful jewelled streets of Jinnistan.

So many peri come to see my passing! They run from their homes and their shops to stare at me, as if I were some visiting royalty. Peri youths point and jeer and throw stones; their elders simply shake their heads, as if I represent a great failure to them. Small children hide their heads in their mothers’ skirts, while soldiers touch their hands to their swords reflexively, remembering past battles and my war-worn blade.

The peri take me to the palace in Amberabad, where their Queen Hasshana rules. In the palace’s stately courtroom, they chain my battered body to a ring in the floor. Stunned, silent, I stand there in wonderment. The court’s walls are alive with flowering vines, and sweet birds sit upon their buds. Its floor is a mosaic of jewels: ruby, emerald, and others more lovely that I have never seen before, perhaps mined from the lands of the Nubians or the Egyptians. And the ceiling of the court opens up to the clouds, which are charmed by their peri magics to form a perfect dome.

I begin to weep. I have not wept since childhood and without practice the act is awkward to me. I weep shamefully, then, hiding my face in my hands. About me the peri jeer, their pretty faces contorted to reflect the ugliness of deev-beast that lies within me.

“Let him alone.”

It is a clear voice, a woman’s voice, but a voice more lovely than any I’ve ever heard before. I raise my head and Queen Hasshana is standing over me.

“I know why you are here,” she says, taking my chin in her hand. “It is written all over your face—your eyes are dark with shame. You came to plead for the deev’s life. Isn’t that right?”

She is tiny, beautiful, with eyes that shine like a fire in the desert. I want to possess her, the way I once possessed Jahazan, the way the deev once possessed me. In her hands Hasshana holds one end of a golden cord, looped around her wrist like the leash of a pig or goat. The other end of the cord vanishes through the open door behind her.

“So you are the deev-kin.” She pushes me away and her peri-courtiers laugh. “Not mortal, not deev, but a bastard thing that belongs nowhere, to no one. You are worse than the deev, because you were once a true mortal—you made a choice to be like this. By rights I should kill you where you stand; your presence pollutes this holy place. What makes you think your pleas will mean anything to me?”

“Perhaps because you are curious.”

“Curious of what?”

“Curious of why I made that choice.”

Hasshana smiles. “Love in the time of the Serpent-King,” she says. “Who knows why any mortal makes a choice these days? If Ahriman himself whispered words of evil in your ear I would not be surprised. But come—you are here, and I suppose I can listen to you for a short time. Tell me why I should let your lover go.”

“She can be good, Queen,” I say. “Five years ago Jahazan came to me in a village I had destroyed. I was weak, I was broken. There, I might have taken my own life. She showed compassion then—she came to care for me.”

The Queen shakes her head. “She came to lead you astray. She encouraged your immorality. She fed you lies of bloodlust and sex. How many innocents have died because she ‘cared’ enough to let your evil loose in New Persia? You know as well as I do that a man who saves the devil will not find honour in heaven.”

“What about in the Serpent-King’s palace, then? She showed compassion; she saved my life so—”

“So another would die in your place. Did you know that the man who replaced you was a child of ten, son of the last general to stand against the Serpent-King’s cruelty? A child who died screaming his father’s name. His death weighed hardest on the people of New Persia, for it was only then that they understood even the strongest were powerless against Zohak.” Hasshana’s fingers loop about the cord, as deft as any weaver. “Why reward the man who saves the fool, only to kill the king. You are wasting my time, Rahaeb Reyad.”

“One last, please,” I say, pressing my forehead to the pretty stones at her feet. “From the time before I was made cruel, when I was still innocent of war. Jahazan took me from my village when it was destroyed by the deev armies, and brought me to safety. She had nothing to gain from my life in those days. She saw only a small child in a burning city and knew—“

“Compassion? Weakness, I would say,” Hasshana sneers.

“I thought only the deev believed those two words were interchangeable.”

The Queen stares at me for a long moment.

“I am Rahaeb Reyad, a mortal man,” I say. “And she loved me. From that day, in the burning village, she loved me.”

Her frown deepens, and I know then that she believes me. “Jahazan will not harm another being again, whether you take her or not,” she says. “We have tamed her; we cut the devilment from her. Now she is like a boar without its tusks, a snake without its fangs. It would be safer for her to stay with us. We could give her peace, here; we could give her purity. And there are many in New Persia who remember her cruelty—”

“Please,” I say.

Slowly she unbinds the golden cord from around her wrist and passes it to me. In my hands I feel it flex and tug slightly—there is a creature tied to the other end. Jahazan.

“She will never care for you again,” says Hasshana, turning away. “You saved her life but in doing so proved yourself weak as any mortal. She could not tolerate that in a lover. She will wish you dead.”

“I know,” I whisper.

“You must lead her through Amberabad and Jinnistan,” says the Queen. “While you hold that cord in your hand, you must not look back. Not until you are back in the land of mortals can you set her free. Now go, Rahaeb Reyad. Leave Jinnistan and never return—this place is not for your deev-kind.”

I am thirty, maybe thirty-one, when I walk through paradise with my deev-lover on a leash.

Through the jewelled city of Amberabad, where the streets are lined with foreign sea-shells and the houses are painted with blue enamel. Through the crowds of peri, who are no longer staring at me but at the broken deev dangling from the golden cord. Through Jinnistan, the heaven of fairies, and to the great gates that gleam like Nubian gold.

On the threshold I stand and stare down at the lands of mortals, the war-torn world of the Serpent King. And as I step out the cord behind me tugs, just once.

“Rahaeb Reyad.”


“Look at me,” she says softly, and then screams it: “Look at me.”

How can I refuse her? Even as the Queen’s warning rings in my ears, I turn around.

She is naked as she was when I first met her, save for that necklace of green stones around her neck. Her skin is still the colour of ochre, but her body casts a shadow now, a darkness on the sparkling Jinnistan street. She is human-shaped, but her iris are as they always were, ringed within and without by a thin line of orange. Yet they lack the fire they once had, that cruel passion. Queen Hasshana was right: they have cut the devilment from her, as sharply as husking wheat, and left only a shell. A weak deev like Jahazan would die in the kingdom of the Serpent-King.

And I realise with a suddenness that this is what was meant to happen; that Queen Hasshana never intended to let Jahazan go, only to teach me a lesson: that the only way to go forwards is to look back, for your future depends on everything that lies behind you.

I raise my hands to her: “Jahazan—“

But then the gates close and there are only clouds, and I am on top of the mountains of Mazandaran, with a light snow falling.

The Fox

by Richard Beland

Alan O’Dunne, known to every buccaneer and sailor on the high seas as the Fox, was captured, and the Bones had him. An infamous dungeon, the Bones was almost always the last gasp for criminals, and those not sent to the gallows would wallow in their cells, shackled to the wall, until nothing remained but a skeleton, which was left on the cold stones as a ghastly reminder to new inmates that theirs was a grim fate.

He was a hard man, a seasoned pirate who earned every bit of his notoriety. It was always a mystery how he acquired his nickname or his peg leg. How many fell beneath his sword is unknown, nor how many hearts his dagger pierced. He and his terrible crew robbed merchant ships and sank them to the bottom of the sea. They plundered ports and disappeared into the rolling mist. So reckless, so brazen, was O’Dunne, that no man in his murderous mob ever sailed with him long, for most were killed in battle or captured and hanged, yet the Fox always managed to elude the authorities, often by the skin of his teeth. He was captured only once, early in his career, but escaped his South American prison, despite the fetters that held him to the concrete floor.

Now he was in the Bones, left to rot, and even he brooded on his plight. His left hand was manacled, the heavy chain set deep in the brick wall. He had companions, skeletons who had long ago slipped away from their bonds and lay strewn about the floor. Crows perched between the bars of his cell window, waiting for the Fox to die so they could peck at his skull. Those bars were almost as thick as a man’s wrist, but the bricks and mortar which held them were crumbling. A powerful, wiry man, the Fox knew that if he could reach the bars he could tear them out of their moorings; then he could flee into the wood and quickly lose any pursuers in the clustered pines.

A ration of bread and water was brought to his cell in the morning, but the pirate was nowhere to be seen. An alarm was raised, but the Fox was long gone. Still, they learned how he had gotten his nickname and peg leg, for there on the floor lay his bloody hand, which had been chewed off.

The Keeper of Promises

By Abha Iyengar

Marushi, the bird, with his blue beak, yellow head and bright orange plumage, his red breast adorned with black dots that shone like live coals when the sun fell on them, watched the young fifteen year old girl, Ramlu, as she danced on the hot, deserted road.

Ramlu was slim, brown and smooth skinned. She wore red and green bangles on her arm, her bodice was short, and her long skirt had once been a deep emerald velvet. Now patched and muddy, its beauty was still visible. Just like Ramlu’s angular features and soft eyes shining through the dirt on her face. She had no instrument in her hand, but her fingers strummed the air. Her dance was slow as she was lost in her world. She sang the song her mother, Sura, would often sing:

O bird who sits on the tree

Come close to me

Marushi, the bird, spread his wings out and flew down onto her shoulder.

“Here I am,” he said, matter of factly.

Ramlu was startled. “Who are you?”

“You called me with your song,” he said. “You called for the bird on the tree. Here I am.”

“Go away,” she said. “I will not sing the song again.”

“Take me home,” Marushi whispered in her ear.



“I can’t look after you. Mother will scold me.”

Ramlu’s little sister, Kuchina, came scampering out from the trees that lined the road. In the distance, there was a thick forest.

“Ramlu,” she said, “see what I found.”

She held a sparking grey stone to the sun. It was smooth. “Should I eat it, I am hungry.”

“Wash it then and suck on it, Kuchina,” said Ramlu. She tried to shrug Marushi off from her shoulder, but he held on tight.

Kuchina spotted him,“Oooh,” said Kuchina, forgetting her hunger,“who is this? So beautiful. So beautiful.” She began to jump up, wanting to touch Marushi.

Marushi watched as Kuchina ran circles around them. She smiled at him.

“O bird who sits on the tree…what is the song, Ramlu?” This is my bird now, Ramlu. I am taking him with me.” Marushi knew there would be no refusal and that he would go with them. He sat quietly on Ramlu’s shoulder.

“We have nothing to feed him,” Ramlu hissed.

“I will give him my stone,” said Kuchina. Her eyes big in her face, she passed the stone to Marushi.

He opened his beak and swallowed it up.

They looked at him, surprised. They had not seen any bird eat a stone.

“He will eat whatever we have,” cried Ramlu.

“I want to take him with me,” said Kuchina. “Let’s just take him.”

They had walked quite a distance now and had almost reached home, which was an uncovered place under the shade of a tree on the roadside. Only a charpoy, some cooking utensils and a brick fire indicated their settlement. The brick fire had been prepared, but not lit. Sur, their mother, was sitting under the tree on her haunches, smoking a bidi, and their father, Salura, was not around.

Kuchina ran up to her mother and snatched the bidi from her fingers. She put it in her own mouth. She stood there, hand on hip, and drew its smoke in deep, her eyes now hungering over. Ramlu tried to push the bird away, sick of it sitting on her shoulder, and not wanting her mother to comment on it. Marushi hopped away, lighting on the charpoy that was in one corner, a mobile bed which Salura carried on his back when they moved ‘house’.

It had rickety wooden legs, with splits down the middle of three of the legs. It was a wonder it held, but was their pride of possession. The ropes had hung, forming a kind of shallow pool in the centre.

Marushi sat on a tree branch and watched the scene. He watched Kuchina jump into the charpoy and then yell to be pulled out. “I am stuck, help me!” Ramlu ran to hoist her out. Kuchina giggled, holding her stomach, then saw the look of resignation in Ramlu’s eyes and stopped. Sur continued to smoke the bidi. Kuchina, knowing that her mother was hungrier, had put back in her mouth after taking a deep inhale. Ramlu was rummaging in the dustbins nearby, hoping to find something to give to her mother for cooking. Kuchina now sat on the ground, making a garland of flowers. Occasionally, she would suck at a flower, and then swallow it.

Sur had not commented on the coming of the bird into their life.

Night fell. They were to go hungry again. Marushi had taken care of himself as only birds know how to do, flying to places and getting what they want. Sur continued to sit under the tree, waiting. She could not bring herself to move, and there was nothing to do. Ramlu had taken a stick of sorts and swept the place free of dry, fallen leaves. Kuchina had scampered around, picking a few, putting them in her mouth and spitting them out. Ramlu had told her to stop, but Kuchina had made a face at her.

“Give me something else to put in my mouth then,” she had said, and Ramlu had looked at her, dry eyed. Ramlu did not want to hear the sound of her stomach growling for food. She wanted to drown it with something else. She began to sing, “O bird on the tree…”

Marushi perched on Ramlu’s shoulder again.

“Why are you here?” Ramlu hissed.

“I will help you,” he said.

“How? You want to gloat over our misery. You even ate the stone my sister picked to suck at.”

“Oh, I can give her many like that,” he said.

“But you have not.”

“The keeper of promises. That’s what I am. I have come to keep my promise. Wait and see.”

“What promise? To Kuchina? She does not need stones in the stomach.”

“No, a promise made to your mother. As for Kuchina, she needs more than stones. It will come to be.”

“Who are you?”

“You called me. I have come for you, for my family.”

“Your family?”


“You are joking.”

“No song goes out without a want. You called out to a bird.”

“And you are that bird?”

“I was waiting. I heard your call.”

“Do something for my mother then. Look at her.” Ramlu tried to swallow a lump that had formed somewhere in her throat.

“I know your mother.”

“You know?”

“Yes. I know. It is for her that I have come. We have sung many songs together. She was named Sur or music by me.”

“But I sang the song. You have been sitting on my shoulder.”

“It does not matter who calls. I heard the call, it was her calling me through you, my child.”

“I am not your child. I am my mother’s child. And why would she call you?”

“She needs me, I have heard her desperation.”

“Ha,” Ramlu’s voice expressed her disbelief, “as if you can do anything. You are just a bird.”

Marushi swept a wing over her face. It was a gentle sweep. She felt the softness of his touch. Blue powder covered her cheek. She removed it from her cheek, looked at her finger.

“Lick it,” he said.

Her hunger suddenly jumped up from her stomach. She put the finger in her mouth. She tasted of something that was sweet and warm. It reminded her of the time she had stood outside a big building and one of the people from within had thrown an egg out of the window. It had somehow landed on her lap, a beautiful decorated egg. She had opened it, and licked the brown gooey stuff inside. A sweetness that she had never known had filled her mouth. This taste was the same. Her eyes filled with sudden tears. Then she laughed. Marushi could see the chocolate lines down her tongue as she stuck it out at him, a kid once again. She sat on the charpoy now, legs swinging, with a little secret of hers to nurse, of the taste of chocolate in her mouth.

Salura staggered into the space, for there was really nothing else you could call the area under the tree where they had settled for the time. He was drunk. He may have earned some money, but had spent it on hooch. His body sparse, black, his beard a shambles, his clothes as black as the body, he saw Sur, and lurched, falling on her. She pushed him away with a feeble hand. Then she just rolled him over and soon he was snoring. She had been shaken out of her stupor by his weight falling on her. She pushed her hair off her face, her thick, red bangles jangled in the night. An owl hooted somewhere.

She lay down on the pavement, too tired to do anything. Her children slept.

Marushi went and stood by her side. He observed her breathing. He matched his own to it. It made her aware of his presence.

‘I am here,’ he said.

‘So what?’ she answered,talking to him without words. She knew him. He had been visiting her in her dreams.

‘So now you can rest. All you have to do is come with me to the Garden of Many Senses.’


‘I will take you on my back.’

She climbed onto his back without a murmur.

Then she asked him, ‘What is the price?’

‘I will tell you when the time comes.’

She glided silently with him then.

The night air filled with the smell of jasmine.

Soon he alighted at a small clearing in a forest. The leaves shimmered in the moonlight. The river sparkled blue. He himself was beauteous, glistening under the silver moon, blue beak, orange wings, his red breast a ruby. She was sliding off his back and into the streaming waters, cool and clean. Her hair now covered with rainbow dewdrops as she emerged from the water. They played in the water. As the moon disappeared behind a cloud, she once again rode on his back, to return.

‘It is good,’ she whispered.

‘It always is,’ he said, ‘for both of us. Now listen. When the seed becomes a sapling, he will leave. When he decides to go, you have to say goodbye to him. He will go away, this player of the flute, this singer of songs, from your life. Let him go. He will bring you to me. We will be together.’

‘Yes.’ She agreed. It did not matter to her right now.

Marushi was gone the next morning. He had left, next to Kuchina, many small grey stones. She picked one up to suck on it, and it tasted like sweet mango. She bit into it, and the fruit filled her mouth. She gave Ramlu some. “Sister, eat,” she said. Her eyes shone like a thousand stars.

Ramlu had a flute next to her. She was scared to pick it up and play it.

Sur was soon big with child. Salura kicked her around, beat her, telling her it would be another girl. Sur bore everything in silence, not retaliating, not shouting back at him or hitting him in return.

Salura realised that she had reached some space where she was no longer accessible to him. Whatever he said or did had no effect on her. He knew that she now had only the baby on her mind. His spirit began to dry up and even the drinking did not help him. A few days before the baby’s birth, he withered like a prune and fell on a corner of the road to die.

Sur just lived and relived the memory of the night. It was her dream where she visited Marushi, lived with him, spent time with him and talked to him.

The baby was a boy. He had two little stubs under his armpits, which Kuchina noticed. No one else bothered about it. The boy was called Mahroop. Sur’s life revolved around him. There were little wings sprouting under his armpits but she ignored them.

Ramlu gave her flute to Mahroop, who played it all the time. He sang as well, his sweet voice filling the air. Sur was scared to let Mahroop out of her sight. As the days went by, sudden fears would grip her. She had begun to remember the promise. She would often lie, feeling a part of her was getting mutilated, being taken away. She would search then for Mahroop, and be relieved to find her playing next to her, or under the tree.

One day Mahroop began to walk away. He put the flute to his mouth, and his strong black limbs moved in the direction of the forest, which was to the north of where they were.

“I am going, mother,” he said, “wish me luck.”

His voice sounded strange to her, as if coming from a distance.


“You know.” His voice was quiet, sure.

Sur knew the promise she had made but could not let him go. All kinds of thoughts came to her mind. She thought of herself, all alone. She would be lost. She would have no reason to live. Marushi was a dream. Mahroop was the reality. She could feel and touch him.

She asked him to come to her. As he came towards her, she tied him up with her sari. She was now in her petticoat and blouse. She had nothing else to wear. She watched him.

He could not understand. “Mother, why are you doing this?”

She took the flute away. Threw it and stamped on it.

“Mother, I am dying,” he said now.

“No, how can you die?”

“I am.” His eyes closed.

She saw him turn to blue ash in front of her eyes. Only two feathers remained. They fluttered to the ground. She held them to her heart and walked in circles around the place where he had been, just moments ago. In the distant, an owl hooted. She put the feathers to her bangles, and tried to fly.

Ramlu and Kuchina returned from their long day of work as labourers at a building site, and saw their mother sitting under the tree, with two blue feathers held over her breasts.

“Mother, mother,” they whispered. They looked around. “Mahroop, where is he? What happened, mother?”

Sur shook her head and pointed to the ground. Nothing was visible except dust. The flute lay there. Ramlu picked up the battered flute and put it to her lips. No sound came.

Ramlu began to sing, she was desperate for her mother, tears stung her eyes.

“O bird who sits on the tree

Come close to me”

There was a whisper in the wind. “I cannot come to your world now. Your mother broke her promise to me. She has killed our son, he will never come to us, and she will never be able to meet me. As long as we kept our promises, we could be saved. We could save our loved ones regardless of where we were and who we were, but not anymore. I kept my promise, but because your mother… your mother…did not…so much loss…my children…”

The whispers grew loud. Ramlu began to cry, she could not be brave and dry- eyed any more, she could not bear all this. She sat next to Sur and held her. Kuchina put her head on Sur’s lap.

“Mother,” they said, “mother, we are here. We will be here for you. We promise.”

Sur pushed them away. “Mahroop, he is there,” she said, “My son is there. Can you see him?” She got up and began to walk. “He is calling me, I must go. I will bring him back.”

She clutched the feathers to her breasts. She walked towards the forest, her figure disappearing in the night. The girls watched the lightning flash, an orange winged bird that set the forest on fire.