Published by In Her Place on November 29, 2011

Ebony has many shades

by Mira Desai

The terrace was deserted, heat haze and scorching sunlight dancing off the rough white stone, the sun a pinpoint in the desert sky. Aruna’s skin burned, scorching seven layers, as she shaded her eyes and watched the black flecks circle overhead, wingspan spread, almost motionless as they rode invisible air currents. Death birds. Birds of prey.

“A witch’s escort,” Ma would have whispered, “harbingers of doom…” her hands fluttering at her throat and then reaching for her prayer beads. Ma would have scanned the skies, pulled her veil low and fervently prayed, making a deal with the powers above– her own barter exchange–and she would have trembled at the wails, the message of the birds that only she could hear. And then she would have sighed and stepped back into her silent cocoon. Ma was like that. Stoic, or perhaps it was something else, an undefined acceptance?

No. Ma wouldn’t check the skies anymore. She was gone.

As was most of her family, sucked into a swirling, all encompassing void. One that she’d as good as pushed them into. Bhai, her brother, was gone. He’d been all life and color: unruly curls, easy smile, off tune yodel, high voltage energy…. Baba was gone too, a figure she knew mostly as sedate grays and greens, she could see him calculating the year’s grain yield, a pencil tucked behind his ear, worry on and off in his tired eyes, the story of his life in the map of lines that crisscrossed his forehead.

Sharp bands of colors. That’s how she remembered them. Sepia-tinted memories and shards that poked her like thorns, that was all she had left.

Ma, Baba, Bhai. Identical earthen urns held their ashes, their essence reduced to fluffy gray dust, tied in with cloth and red thread. Three souls yoked to the *neem* tree outside their estate gate, much like a vagrant kite caught in the branches, paper tearing every time the kite struggled to break free.

After the thirteenth day rituals, they’d be cast adrift in the river, their ashes floating away with the rushing water. “Don’t look back,” the priest had said at the funeral, but she had, her gaze caught on the spearhead of that bitter moment. Baba would not have to worry anymore about tenant farmers cheating him. Bhai wouldn’t place wild bets on test match outcomes or burn up the highway with his bike, Ma wouldn’t pray to the sky, or drink in the stars, heeding a mystical call only she could hear. Only she survived, bent double with the cursed knowing that she’d as good as pushed them to their deaths.

Now they were well on their way to moksha. Sixteen steps to the land of the souls, that’s what the priest had said. Redemption. Breaking free of earthly ties. All her fault—her liaison with Ranbir had cost them their lives.

Overhead, a bird screeched, flapped its wings and swooped lower. Ma had strained to hear their call. She had a gift. A boon of the mystics, she’d said, a smile in those gray serene eyes.

But now there was no one. Sometimes she’d turn and see shadows slip by. But there was no one. No one to dissect and fret over tonal quality, frequency, pitch. No one to check the time, consult the almanac and interpret. Which was just as well. Perhaps all that was wishful thinking, the working of an old woman’s mind. When trouble loomed and cast its net, how had her faith helped Ma?

For no birds had announced the marauders. Just when they were needed the most, they’d stayed away. All her fault. She’d broken the rules, stepped past the *lakshman rekha*, transgressed her family’s honor code, its line of accepted behavior.

That afternoon, Ranbir’s hired goons had driven swift and ruthless, emboldened by rage and empty roads, sullen in the orange glare of the harsh day. Daring someone to stop them. As if they would. The few people who’d seen, had turned away, tight lipped. *When the sword was drawn, a sandstorm strung my eyes*. Jeep tracks had crisscrossed the desert sands, mocking, unchallenged. In time the gritty sand would cover every trace. Just as the honor code would cover every trace of these deaths.

The hard-faced cavalcade had raced through the main road of their village. They knew her father would be caught by surprise. They knew her family would put up a spirited defence. And that any brave front would crumble in no time. In her mind’s eye, she could still hear the ugly clash of steel that had punctured the dappled afternoon silence. A black miasma had swept down and eaten away all the colors, swallowed them all in. Accompanied by the babel roar of that screeching lament—yes, the black birds had swept down too, but to scavenge, not warn, for it had been too little, too late.

No one from the village had rushed to their rescue. No one would, she knew, and now her father knew that too. *When the sword was drawn, a sandstorm strung my eyes.* The splutter of distant tractors and busy pump sets could be heard clearly past their wild cries and mercy pleas. After the raiders had reached the farm, they had pursued each member—family, paid help– and showed no heart. Each of them pursued and cut down, threshed and bound like a grain bushel, the air soaked with their bloody screams.

She’d been alerted to their arrival by a sudden change in the air. Mangu, her mongrel guard dog, had wailed for no reason. She’d heard the shouts and hidden, first behind the haystack and then climbing down the rusted step ladder to shelter in the old dry well. With each echoing scream she had shriveled, something dying within her. A gag seemed to be throttling her ever since, the acrid taste of bile now her constant companion. And it was all her fault.

Ranbir’s angry words from that last fateful evening were like nails hammered on her defenceless head. That last time when he’d held her so hard she’d winced, he’d shaken and hit and mocked her, his narrowed eyes raining fury.
.
“We’re different, you don’t know? Class, language…everything! You low-class slut! *Chudail!* Were you mad? Willingly giving everything, uncrossing your limbs? Putting on airs just because you’ve been to college? Accept you? Never! Neither will my family—you’ll be cut to pieces if you even try. And tell that lily-livered brother of yours to keep a safe distance. A baby due, a cake in the oven? What can you do? Nothing!”

She’d cowered at this fury. The trigger? She’d only begged him, once again, to speak to his parents and hers. To take the first step towards a shared life. She’d adjust, play the ever-dutiful daughter-in-law of his feudal family. Angered by his words, she’d clawed him, hit out; but he’d only laughed. “Go to the bazaar! Too many of your kindred rot there. Get a good price!”

That had been a month ago. After which a plan of brutal harassment had been put into place. Their grain stores trashed. Their fields razed, giant flames soaring skywards in the middle of the night. Temporary workers would suddenly go missing, or be unavailable for hire. Even their tractor was gutted beyond repair.

Her father had fought long in his quest for justice. Did he leave any avenue untried? They’d battled village scorn and derision, they’d made the rounds with police complaints, they’d put forth faltering pleas to community leaders, begged politicians and social workers to listen. No one wanted to look at gray, once bright colors now blending into dark nothing. Empty reassurances, wringing hands.

They’d still been hunted down.

She patted her belly. A few more months. She’d bide her time, nurture this corrosive flame.

In time the death bird would call out again.

Read Mira Desai’s bio »

14 comments

This story has everything, Mira, love, loss, grief, future revenge. The imagery throughout is absolutely beautiful. I can’t say enough.

Judith

by Judith on December 1, 2011 at 8:01 pm. Link

Well done, Mira. This was a gripping read and beautifully written. Powerful.

by Jan Smith on December 1, 2011 at 11:25 pm. Link

Mira, this was simply spellbinding, even when doom was being described with such depth ! You’ve captured the essence of the characters so vividly and completely, in your brief story! And your description of Baba….” the story of his life in the map of lines that
crisscrossed his forehead ” Superlative scripting! Can’t have enough of you my dear!

by Kashmira Grewal on December 2, 2011 at 11:14 am. Link

About a single culture, and yet universal in theme — I was entranced.

by Gary Presley on December 2, 2011 at 7:34 pm. Link

Beautiful language and a powerful story, one that effortlessly conveys the pungent bitterness of
loss.

by Farah on December 2, 2011 at 8:20 pm. Link

Beautifully done Mira. Powerful throughout, but then you end it with the promise of more drama yet to come. What will Aruna do? Kill the baby? Or let it live? Or kill her ex-lover? Or…the door’s open, and I encourage you to write the next story.

by Adrienne Ross Scanlan on December 4, 2011 at 5:42 am. Link

Thank you. I’m grateful.

by Mira on December 4, 2011 at 7:23 am. Link

Well written, conveying powerful imaged.

by Hemant K Chitale on December 4, 2011 at 11:19 am. Link

Mira, congratulations.
I can almost visualize the location and characters …they are very real. Wonderful narration …
Great !
Expect more from you…

by Shyamal Ghosh on December 4, 2011 at 3:16 pm. Link

Speechless. How do you write so photographically? Each image comes to life with your words!

by Madhumita on December 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm. Link

Thank you, sir. Thanks Hemant and Madhu.

by Mira on December 7, 2011 at 6:51 am. Link

Mira, just came across this. I am blown away, as always, by your writing. Congratulations. So much said in this little piece, a whole culture and attitudes exposed.

by ABHA IYENGAR on December 7, 2011 at 8:21 am. Link

Fierce beauty, Mira. The images and emotions you have created will linger in my heart and mind for a long time. Wonderful writing.

*Note — my new memoir blog will not go public until 12-12-11. I’ll send you a note.

by Elizabeth Westmark on December 8, 2011 at 9:49 pm. Link

Thank you, Abha and Elizabeth.
Yes, I’ll wait.:)

by Mira on December 9, 2011 at 6:12 am. Link