Science Fiction & Fantasy

Stross_Dead-Lies-Dreaming_Lightspeed

Advertisement

Fiction

The Witch Speaks

As different as earth and sky. That is what they said about us. Yet even earth and sky meet at the horizon.

Shade your eyes from the sun. Look, far in the distance. Do you see that line where brown merges into blue?

I’m ready to walk there. But not before having told my story.

• • • •

I am in Varanasi, one of the seven holy sites of Hinduism. Devotees throng the bathing ghats to wash themselves of sin and attain salvation. The water is muddy, mixed with the ashes of the dead. When I dip my hand in it, I can hear their whispers, their sobs, their sighs.

This is just one of the things that makes people uncomfortable about me, even my own family. Especially my own family.

But you never minded, did you? Life and death, two sides of the same coin. Earth and sky, the distance between them an illusion.

Astronauts, when they view our planet from space, marvel at the thin strip of atmosphere that cradles the Earth.

• • • •

The witch will speak once and remain forever silent. But while she speaks, you will listen. You will not interrupt, as you so often did. Feel free to disagree with me, to disbelieve me. But hold your peace.

See, I can pretend you are still with me, after all these years. I glimpse you in the flight of geese across the winter sky. I hear you in the bells of the evening ceremony on the banks of the Ganga. I feel you in the ashes of the river where I trail my hands. I smell you in the acrid smoke from the burning ghats. You are everywhere, in everything. You always have been.

• • • •

In Varanasi, funeral pyres burn all day, all night, all week. To be cremated in this ancient city is to escape the cycle of birth and death. The demand for funerals is very high. People stay in charitable death hotels, waiting to expire. Sometimes they are kicked out if they don’t die in five days. Come back when you’re sicker, says the proprietor. And the elderly person is carted away by disgruntled relatives, only to die on the way back home. What bad luck, they might grumble. If only we had known exactly when Baba was going to leave his earthly abode.

I could have told them, if they’d asked me.

This is another thing that makes people uncomfortable about me. I can understand that. It is a curse, knowing when those you care about are going to die. I suppress the knowledge as much as I can, but sometimes it seeps through and I grieve—five, ten, fifteen years in advance.

Time is another illusion, one that keeps us sane. Most of us.

• • • •

Do you recall the moment we met? Of course, you might say, remembering a lecture hall, a girl with untidy hair raising her hand to argue with the professor on the decline of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Wrong, I would reply. We first met at a death party.

How apt, you would say in that dry voice of yours, if you were here.

Do they still do death parties? It was all the fashion back then, at least among the younger, edgier set. Food, drink, tears, eulogies, and, as the grand finale, the séance.

You were taking photographs, and you snapped at me for jostling your elbow while you were trying to get a good shot of one impressionable young man who had apparently just been possessed by the spirit of his aunt.

I am not surprised you do not remember this, our first encounter. You were consumed by the moment, and the task you’d been given.

Are there cameras where you are? Do you still take photographs? I hope so. I hope you are now the official photographer of . . . Cloud City. Yes, that is where I shall imagine you to be. You have an umbrella against the persistent drizzle, and you peek down to look at me now and then, debating whether to make the leap. Whether to trust me.

My grandmother, the summer I graduated: You can marry anyone, but not a Muslim. You know they call us “kafir”? You know they can have four wives? He will expect you to convert. What are you, if not your faith?

• • • •

In Varanasi, boats chug downstream, piled high with timber. It takes a lot of wood to burn a body properly, and not everyone can afford it. Sometimes, partially cremated bodies are discarded into the river. Sometimes, you will see a decomposing corpse floating downstream. Flesh-eating turtles have been released into the river to deal with this problem.

How do the dead feel about this?

Well, I ask you, why should they mind? They have died in Varanasi, which practically guarantees moksha. Anything more is icing on the cake. Nice, but not essential. It would be neater to be burned to ash and bone fragment, but the body will get there, eventually. Sun and wind and water will do the job humans could not be bothered to. The turtles will help.

• • • •

What am I, if not my faith?

Let me remind you, in case you’ve forgotten. I am a witch. A witch does not need a name, a religion, a nationality. She owes no one her allegiance. She does not stand for the national anthem in cinema halls. She scorns convention and laughs at the stupid rules preventing menstruating women from entering temples. She will pee by the roadside if she has to, and curse any man who dares look at her. May your penis shrivel up like a raisin and fall off by the next new moon.

Very effective, such curses. Men flee from me, and I throw in a cackle for good measure.

• • • •

Every culture has a story of star-crossed lovers from opposing families: Romeo Juliet, Heer Ranjha, Layla Majnu, Tristan Isolde. The romance lies in the tragedy. It is their dying that endears them to us. So beautiful, so young, so hopelessly in love, so dead. They are immortalized in our hearts, frozen in time, perfect forever.

I didn’t want to be like those poor dum-dums.

Elope, I suggested.

No, you said firmly. You don’t discard your past to make a future. That would be like trying to build a house without foundations.

But what if there’s something rotten in the foundations? What if you have to tear everything down to build a better house, a house in which our kind of love can survive?

• • • •

In the interior of Varanasi, far from the tourist hordes crowding the ghats, broods a small temple that is not much visited by travelers. Here, in the second century BCE, the Sanskrit grammarian Patanjali wrote his famous treatise Mahābhāṣya. But it is an older secret that draws me there.

In the temple courtyard is an ancient stepwell. At the bottom of that well is a door to Nagaloka, the wondrous world of Serpents. No ordinary human can open it. But I am a witch, and I know my fate. That is why I am here in Varanasi, after years of hiding.

Perhaps, you might say, none of the stories about Varanasi are true. All those people taking dips in the polluted water are simply exposing themselves to bacterial infections. All those prayers, those rituals on the banks of the river, are nothing but noise, designed to soothe the universal human fear of death and oblivion. The stepwell is just an ordinary well with garbage floating on its surface, and a marked absence of magical doors of any kind.

Ah, I told you not to interrupt. Listen to me. Belief is important. Belief shapes the world we live in, the lives we lead, and the way we die. Who are you or I to say it does not shape what comes after?

• • • •

A witch does not feel guilt. But she takes responsibility. She is plagued by questions, large and small. Could I have protected you from harm? Could I have persuaded you to run away, to hide with me in those in-between places only witches know of?

No, probably not.

Could I simply have left you and run away on my own?

Yes. But I didn’t. I did not foresee what would happen. But that is no excuse, not for a witch.

• • • •

Can witches fly? This is a serious question, posed to me by a small child sucking an orange bar, a couple of steps above me on the ghats.

I turn to face her, and cannot help but smile at what I see: sticky face, torn frock, bruised knees, pigtails. This could be me, thirty years ago.

Well, and if they could, do you think I would be down here in the mud with you? I demand.

She shrugs, unconcerned, then fades from view, leaving me disoriented.

I have always attracted ghosts, but they are getting more corporeal. Maybe that is the effect of being in Varanasi. Or maybe I walk in the borderlands now, one foot on Prithvi, one in the underworld. Getting ready to meet the horizon.

Are you taking photographs yet? Did you get the ghost?

• • • •

We could have died in each other’s arms. Our doomed love affair would have inspired other inter-faith couples. Our mothers would have shed copious tears of regret, our fathers and brothers hung their heads in shame and defeat. That is one way our story could have ended, gloriously tragic.

Or we could have survived, hidden and forgotten, our names struck from family histories, never to be spoken of again.

The reality was both more brutal and more banal.

• • • •

Your grandmother, the day you brought me home: What a dark, inauspicious face. A bad-luck bringer. She will be the ruin of us all.

You were embarrassed and furious, and we both pretended for a while that I hadn’t heard her. The words burned me, not for their cruelty, but for the seed of truth they contained. Perhaps your grandmother had some traces of witchcraft too?

• • • •

My mother, the day I brought you home: This is how you repay me for the freedom I’ve given you.

My uncle, the day I packed my bags and left my hometown for good: We know what to do with cow killers like him.

My father said nothing. He just looked at me out of hurt, lost eyes. Behind him, his mother’s ghost shook her head at me in disgust and pantomimed cutting her nose.

The dead are not any wiser than the living. Just less talkative.

• • • •

A brief mention on the second page of the Delhi Times in an article on communal violence. That was all you got.

• • • •

In Varanasi, I walk the crowded streets until my feet hurt. The ghosts follow me in a silent, ragged procession. As I approach the temple with the stepwell, they hesitate.

The dead are not welcome here, and they know it well. Their mortality binds them to the city, to the holy river where their ashes mingle with silt and sewage. This is their moksha, their own liberation from the cycle of birth and death, to be bound instead to the polluted waters of the Ganga. Perhaps this is what they truly wished for.

• • • •

No, witches cannot fly. They cannot even swim. But they can melt into the snow, dissolve into the rain, become one with the shadows of dusk. They can disappear, so that no one alive may find them again. There are things the living choose not to see. There are things I choose to forget. My mother’s death, a year from now. My uncle’s, ten years ago.

I confronted him, the day you became fodder for a second-page news article. He laughed at me, told me I was mad, that he had nothing to do with it, that hot-headed young men must have attacked you on the way to the train station.

But a witch always knows when someone is lying.

• • • •

The temple is locked, and the priest is missing. Good. Locked doors cannot keep a witch out, especially not one armed with hairpins. I have seen myself pick the lock already, and so I know I can do it. The pins click open as if waiting for my touch, and I slip inside, past the indifferent regard of the idols that adorn the walls.

In the courtyard, steps lead down to the ancient well. It is quiet and cool, the sounds of traffic muffled by the high walls. I take off my sandals and sit, letting the dark water lap my feet. Polythene bags, empty chip packets, and cigarette butts float on the surface. I will be contributing to the general uncleanliness, and I regret this. No flesh-eating turtles here. But it cannot be helped, and it won’t be for very long.

• • • •

My uncle got drunk and hanged himself one night. That was the conclusion the police arrived at. The maid found him in the morning and screamed the place down. My cousins sold the flat shortly after. Good riddance. The flat, I mean, not my uncle.

No, I don’t know anything else about it, so stop asking.

• • • •

The stepwell is cleaned once a year before Naga Panchami, the worship of Serpents, which falls on the fifth day of the bright half of the lunar month of Shravana. That is when my corpse will be discovered, bloated and decomposed, snagged on the ring of the door at the bottom.

Yes, there is a door, and yes, it is visible to any human who might be standing at the lip of the emptying well, peering down as the devotees pump the putrid water out.

No, I’m not planning on dying; what a question. This is my husk, the part I choose to leave behind when I enter Nagaloka. My discarded skin, which most people will mistake for me. Only the young men cleaning the well may have some inkling of what truly happened. And they will never speak of it, not to any outsider.

• • • •

My mother will die of “a broken heart,” my youngest aunt will claim. This is not entirely incorrect. She will have a coronary and doctors will be unable to revive her. In any event, it will have little to do with me.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention; after the autopsy, my remains will be quite thoroughly cremated on the banks of the Ganga. Very neat, no? Perhaps my family hopes, in this way, to keep my spirit quiescent. They needn’t bother. I don’t care what happens to the skin I discard. I will grow another one, gorgeous and scaly, armored against the evil of the mortal world.

• • • •

Witches cannot swim, but they can breathe underwater. Bet you didn’t know that, did you? I walk down the steps into the water, trying to be as graceful as possible. I know you’re watching. I know you have your camera in hand, waiting for a perfect shot. I’ve sensed you, standing just behind me, since the moment I entered this courtyard. You don’t have to believe what I do; you just have to believe in me, the way I’ve believed in you for years.

Here, I won’t even turn around. Take my hand, and we’ll go together. This is our horizon, our magic door. Grasp the ring; help me pull it up. Do you see the light seeping around the edges? Do you see the light?

Rati Mehrotra

Rati Mehrotra

Born and raised in India, Rati Mehrotra now lives and writes in lovely Toronto. She is the author of the Asiana duology: Markswoman published in January 2018, and the sequel Mahimata in March 2019. Her short stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Apex, IGMS, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, AE–The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and many more. The only thing missing from her life is a cat. Find out more about her at ratiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra.