From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

What is Mercy?

Nanda hauls the bucket from the depths of the well, her palms aflame with red blisters from clutching the frayed rope too tight. The thick rope, screeching against the pulley, trembling under the weight of the water, becomes heavier by the minute. The minute she goes weak, the bucket will plunge, crashing into the sweet water below, and she’ll have to start the charade for the fourth time. But she has to get the water. If she can’t, she will have nothing to clean her Kaka’s feces and nothing to bathe him with.

Behind her, Asha Tai waits impatiently for her turn, her betel-nut smeared lips parting to reveal an impatient grimace. Sweat trickles down Nanda’s forehead and falls on the stone parapet of the well, sizzles, and evaporates in a puny fume.

“Quick, chhori, what are you waiting for? The Thakur boys are on the prowl again.”

“What’ll they do, huh? Eat me?” says Nanda as she pulls the rope with all her might. Her measly breakfast of one roti and some achaar threatens to come up. The bucket arrives, water filled to the brim, splashing about with abandon. Asha Tai comes up to Nanda and helps her pull the rope towards herself and untie the bucket. Nanda swipes her sweat with her chunni and holds the bucket, veins of her arms bulging with effort.

“Haven’t you heard? Thakur aaye…”

“…andhera laaye.” Nanda completes Asha Tai’s fragment of a sentence, an ancient rhyme. Thakur Aaye, Andhera laaye. Thakurs bring darkness. Her Amma snuffed out lanterns whenever they came and no one dared speak a word. At such a time, silence would fall over their household, a silence so all-encompassing that a snip of a feather seemed like a thunderclap. “I don’t fear them, Tai,” says Nanda with a quiet defiance.

“You’re young,” says Asha Tai. “When is the baby due?” asks Asha Tai. Nanda shrugs. Kaka often mumbles under his breath about curses that would befall the family if her mother delivers another girl this time. Ever since the lower half of Kaka’s body paralyzed after an accident six months ago—three months into her mother’s pregnancy—the only thing he is capable of is complaining. He says their fates would turn if somehow a boy is brought into the world, that he would be magically healed and run on his two feet once again.

The thought soon fades away into afterthought, barely a wisp of memory. “Any day now,” says Nanda. “I hope it’s a girl.” If there’s anything she wants in the world, it’s a baby sister to play with. When she grows up to be five years old, Nanda will braid her hair. When she grows up to be seven, Nanda will be seventeen, and they’ll play pitthu and skip rope and the game she has heard the city children call kona-kona.

“Did you hear the Yadav boy can speak to birds now?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes,” says Asha Tai, now sitting on the stone wall of the well, blocking the way for other women, as if the well was her own. “Ate something bad and vomited continuously for days. A fever gripped him and the next day he sang songs to the butcher’s chicken.”

“What kind of songs?”

“Maybe a bhajan, who knows?”

“How did he get it?”

“My bet is on the ojha.”

Nanda has heard about the ojha. A tall man cloaked in black, with kohl-smeared eyes and deep blue lips, had entered the village a week ago singing verses in a language as old as the water and the wind. The verses themselves were pleasant to hear, aided by the deep, bassoon-like voice of the ojha. The first person who met the ojha had spent the night under a forgotten banyan tree at the edge of the village, and came back in the morning with nails that could cut through iron. But Nanda has heard similar fables from her mother, and fables only have a sliver of truth in them.

“Be careful, girl,” says Asha. “Off you go now.”

Nanda heaves the bucket, gripping it tight with both her hands, resting it near her chest. This way at least, one of her hands doesn’t have to do all the work. The way back is not long, but is treacherous. A shuffling of feet begins in earnest behind her as the other women scramble to take the water from the well.

• • • •

Her throat is parched, like a sand-crusted road, by the time she reaches her jhuggi, but she dares not touch the water yet. Not until the elders of the house have had it to do their business. She will probably have to make another trip in the afternoon, and then one in the evening to make up for their daily use. Her lips have started chafing, blood trickling down and drying against the dust, a persistent brown layer near her chin.

She’s almost at her doorstep when a thickset woman comes out of her house, wringing her blood-soaked hands. The woman glances at Nanda. Her gaze is like a slap of cold wind, and the bucket slips from Nanda’s hands. The woman reaches just in time to catch it. Nanda mutters a thank you under her breath, but the woman thrusts her hands inside the bucket to wash off the blood. Nanda stares at her in astonishment, a weariness seizing her bones. The water turns red.

And then she hears the wail of a child from inside. “Go inside,” says the woman. “Hold your sister in your hands.”

Nanda had opened her mouth to curse the woman, but now it hangs agape. Immediately, the edges of her lips curl into a smile, and her heart flutters. She dashes towards the door, screaming with joy, “My sister is born!” In her excitement, she doesn’t see the raised platform on the floor. Her foot hits cold stone, she stumbles, and falls head first.

A sickening bone crunch mixed with the first sounds of her sister is the last thing she hears before her eyes close.

• • • •

She wakes up, a mad throbbing in her head, the ground beneath her cold as a whetstone at night. Darkness has fallen outside; she can tell from the pitch black of the sky. But why are the insides dark too?

“Maa . . . ” she calls, fumbling around in darkness, her hands eager to find purchase. She can’t see even a morsel, all light snuffed out. She was sure she had enough kerosene to keep the lamp burning. What has happened?

“Shhh . . . ” A cold grip seizes her hands. “Keep your voice to a whisper. Or better yet, shut your mouth.”

It is the voice of the woman who she saw outside her house.

“What’s the matter? Who are you? How is my sister… Where is mother?”

“Your sister is asleep,” she says, her voice a cracked whisper. There’s something in the air, a forgotten letter, a half-formed sentence, which doesn’t quite come out of the woman’s mouth, but Nanda senses it.

“My mother?”

“Look . . . child . . . what’s your name? Nanda . . . The Thakur boys came.”

A chill creeps through her spine and finds a home at the base of her neck. She wants to scream, but the black pit that has formed in her stomach clutches her insides and denies her any voice. Thakur aaye, andhera laaye. Thakurs bring darkness. Before today, that darkness had been distant, wrapped in hushed whispers and stories. She’d never assumed it would come to her doorstep so soon.

For the past three months, nothing untoward has happened in the nearby village where people of her caste lived. It was an uneasy truce. But when a boy and a girl were beaten, burned alive, and hung by a tree, just because they’d drank water from the wrong well, ugly shockwaves had shaken the district, the neighbouring towns, and subsequently the state. The police had brushed the case under the carpet and the government had termed the murder “an international plot to disrupt communal harmony.”

If there was one wise thing that Nanda’s father had taught her, it was this—there was no communal harmony. Their heads would always be down, their steps always silent, their bodies always tired, their wills always broken. And that was a truth which Nanda’s heart pumped in her veins every passing second, a truth which was as much part of her as her blood.

“But why . . . did anybody do anything?”

“Do they ever need a reason? Your existence is reason enough,” says the woman. “You, I hid under a thick blanket so they couldn’t see. I took your sister and went behind a shed.”

“What . . . what did they do to my mother?”

“I don’t know. They brought a lot of smoke with them. Your mother wasn’t here when I came back inside. But if she’s lucky, she’s dead.”

Nanda wants to scream, but her own body rebels. No voice comes out, and she shivers, chokes, gasps. Her eyes brim with tears too afraid to flow. She wants to touch her sister. She wants to sing lullabies to her and tell her everything will be alright. Her will won’t be broken, her head won’t bend.

“I think they’ve left now,” says the woman after a long, deep silence. Then, a sound comes, sharp, like metal hitting stone. “I am burning the lamp.”

Nanda listens to the mechanics of the kerosene lamp and the hiss of the matchstick that follows. But the pinprick of brightness and the flame she expects never come. She waits and waits in darkness. Waiting for light so she can at least see her newborn sister and hold her.

But it doesn’t come.

“I can’t see and my head hurts,” Nanda whispers, grabbing her forehead. She can feel crusts of dried blood on her skin.

“Can you see how many fingers I am holding up?”

“No, I told you, it’s all black. Oh my god; oh my god, I’ve gone…”

“You need to rest. It’s late night anyway. I’ll take care of your sister.”

Again, a pause, like the deep lingering silence between two tides hitting the shore. A silence which presses upon Nanda. It threatens to linger for too long until it’s finally broken by her sister’s wailing.

“So, ja, bacha.” Sleep, baby, sleep, says the woman in a sing-song lullaby. It is entirely the wrong sort of rhythm. The words are barren and don’t have the desired effect. Her voice is too harsh, like a saw on a wooden bench.

“I want to hold her,” says Nanda, holding out her hands. “Please.”

The next second her arms touch skin softer than clouds. A delicate bundle, like it would melt if held for too long. Without sight, Nanda has to rely on her own instincts. She is intimately aware of the lightness of the baby, but the weight of a precious life is enough to send her heart hammering. Yet she prevails. She is the elder sister, after all. A protective warmth surges through her.

“Be careful,” says the woman.

“Rukja raat, theher ja re chanda…” O’ night, stop… O’ moon, cease your turn. The old song is barely a trickle in her brain, and yet it comes out. This is the song her mother sang for her when she was little. Her voice, her cadence, her words are still deep inside her, and now they come out pouring.

The baby stops crying and cooes silently.

“What are you going to name her?”

“Yamini,” says Nanda.

Nanda holds the baby until she can hear soft snores. Then she feels the weight being lifted as she falls into the comforting arms of sleep herself.

• • • •

A grey cloud hangs in front of Nanda’s eyes, persistent, unmoving. She can make out an inkling of light at the edges of her vision, but most of it is still blurry. Gori, the cow, moos and the sound is thunderous and that’s how Nanda knows it’s morning. The other signal of morning—her Kaka’s persistent yelling of her name to help him in his morning routine—is curiously absent. She has to go to the well to collect water for her and her family’s daily needs.

Family. The word tastes rank on her tongue now, almost alien. What did she have left? She wasn’t even sure if her mother was alive. Where was Kaka?

Yamini.

She has a sister now! A younger sister to take care of. Nanda wipes dried spittle from her chin and scrambles on the floor, her hands feeling for signs of life. “Yamini . . . Baby, where are you? Yamini, it’s your sister . . . Nanda.” The air is still, oppressive, and the quietness of her surroundings gnaws at her. There’s no sign of Yamini. Is the baby still asleep? A cold terror grips her heart as she goes on all fours, searching, panting, searching for her last thread to a brutal world. Yamini.

“Nanda! What are you doing, girl?”

“Where’s my sister?”

“She was crying in the morning, so I took her outside,” says the woman. Her words seem earnest. Nanda has no choice right now but to trust her. She sits down on the spot, holding her head, helpless. The grey in her eyes dissolves, drowning completely in sudden tears.

“I figured your vision won’t be back, so I brought you something.” Nanda moves her head in the general direction of her voice. “But it will only work after you’ve eaten.”

“Has my sister eaten?” Nanda says while holding out her hands.

“I breastfed her,” says the woman. “Here, have this first.”

As the woman speaks, an angular thing plops in Nanda’s hands. Hard, oily and warm, its smell is both nutty and buttery, something which she has witnessed only once before in her life. She brings it to her mouth and takes the first bite. A savoury crunch of bread later her teeth dig into warm and spicy potato fillings. A samosa.

Nanda wolfs it down in four big bites.

“Now, this…”

The next thing is slimy to the touch, similarly warm, a liquid, blob-like, misshapen, unruly thing. She brings it to her nose and the smell is unbearable, flies over dead-meat, deep sewer, algae on stone. The samosa almost comes up in her throat in an oily bile.

“You trust me?”

“I am not sure.”

“I’ll leave you to your devices then.”

Nanda takes a deep breath, holds it, and then brings the thing to her mouth. She takes a bite, and the taste is metallic, like scraping rust off iron. She chews and chews and chews and the thing won’t dissolve in her mouth, and she chews for the life of her, until the thing is nothing but water and fiber and then she swallows it.

Her breakfast comes out of her in a greenish yellow gloop. She can tell it’s green by just how it feels on her tongue. Then her eyes burn, a raw, primal fire rages inside of her eyelids, and she howls, her guttural cry enough to make her sister cry, too. She wants to claw her eyes out, but her hands are gripped by the woman.

“No, no, no, it hurts, hey raam, it hurts….”

“It will pass, child,” says the woman.

And it does. The fiery sensation vanishes and the absence of fire makes her eyes cold. Then a red prism comes in front of her vision, and everything becomes awash in blood. She can see, but what sight is this?

The woman sits down in front of her. She wears black robes, her eyes smeared with black kohl, and her lips of an unknown dark colour, which would have been blue had it not been for the reddish hue through which Nanda is seeing the world.

“You . . . You are the ojha . . . the one who cursed the Yadav boy with . . . whatever the hell he can do now. I thought the ojha was a man.”

“Don’t call me with that foul moniker,” says the woman. “And yes, I gave the Yadav boy the ability to speak with birds.”

“What have you cursed me with, woman!?”

“You can be kinder to me. I saved your life and your sister’s.”

The woman kneels down on the hard floor and shows Nanda her sister. Even basked in red, the sight of her sister fills warmth in her heart and softens its maddening thump.

“I can’t wait for her to grow up,” says Nanda, touching little Yamini’s forehead.

“I don’t wish this village, or even this district upon her. Promise me, Nanda. You will move out of this place the first chance you get.”

Nanda nods, absently. She doesn’t know what she’ll have to do to forever move out of the village. Its dust, its grime, its furnace hot air are a part of her now.

She looks around to find her Kaka on the bed, gazing at the ceiling above, catatonic with a wide-eyed horror. His lips are moving and he seems to be murmuring something. Nanda crawls towards him and grabs his right hand, which hangs limply by the side of the charpai. His skin is clammy and cold to the touch. Nanda strains her ears—her Kaka is chanting an age-old prayer. A prayer to Goddess Durga.

“He has been like this since the events of the last evening,” says the woman. “When the boys took your mother, he screamed at them, and then his head hit the pillow. Then he started praying.”

“His lips are completely torn. He needs water,” says Nanda.

“I brought some for us, but I think a trip to the well is in order.”

• • • •

Crimson sight is better than no sight at all. Nanda is reminded of the peephole camera person who came to the village once and showed them moving images inside a wooden box. It cost ten rupees per viewing, and Nanda had begged Kaka to give her the money just so she could catch a glimpse of a horse galloping across a race track. The moving images were tinged in green and yellow, but the feeling is the same.

On the way to the well, she is stopped by Chacha Iftiqhar, the postman, standing by his old bicycle. “Why are you running, kid?” he asks as he sifts through envelopes in his bag. This is when Nanda, too, realises that she’d been hurrying. As if some great disaster would befall if she didn’t reach the well on time.

“I have to get water from the well.”

“You shouldn’t be alone,” he says. “I can drop you there.”

“I can manage, thanks Chacha,” says Nanda. But before leaving she notices a dark shadow hanging on the postman’s shoulder, eager to devour him whole.

The way to the well is familiar yet strange. Where she’s previously seen cobwebs and pebbles she now sees animal and insect carcasses, always shifting, moving, disappearing and appearing again. She sees the trees on her path reduced to husk. A stream under a stone bridge reduced to vapour. All red, all dead.

When she reaches the narrow path tucked away beside Jatav’s cloth shop, she hears a faint whistle of the wind. On a normal day, at this spot, she’d hear the voices of the women huddled around the well, chatting away their concerns of ignorant husbands, skipped meals, or useless household chores, jobs which didn’t pay well. But today she hears nothing.

When she’s twenty feet away she sees dark figures lying around the well, all red, flies buzzing around the area. Her heart skips a beat, two, then stills, then starts beating madly again. The women.

She dashes towards the well and sees tumblers lying on the ground, their water spilled, steam oozing from cracks on earth. The faces of the women are aghast, eyes bulging outwards, skin a deep purple which, when mixed with the red haze of Nanda’s sight, looks blacker than the night. She sees Asha Tai sitting against the wall of the well, her head lolling forward, her face wearing the same horror as the other women.

“What happened here?” she screams at Asha Tai. “Tai, tell me.”

Tai doesn’t speak. She’s dead, deader than the others. The corpses around Nanda are all real, and not phantasms of her blood vision. Her heart feels heavy inside her chest, her breath coming in chokes and gasps. She places her hand on Tai’s lifeless arm and sits there, a coldness gripping her insides.

The dead Tai wakes and glances at Nanda, her eyes grey and mottled with white. Her speech is a webbed crackle when she eventually speaks, a dry heave of a sound coming from the depths of pataal. “Ladki, they came and poisoned the well.”

And soon the other women also wake slowly, all their eyes grey and white and grey, their voices the same husky, guttural drawl, all of them chanting, “Ladki, the Thakur boys came and poisoned the well.”

Nanda staggers to her feet, but the soles of her chappal feel fused to her skin, the entire lower half of her body a heavy, rubberlike mass. The other women go back to being dead.

• • • •

The air feels bloated, on the cusp of exploding into an unforgiving morass. The road Nanda had taken is emptier on the way back. Chacha Iftiqhar’s bicycle hangs an inch from the ground, impossibly cradled by the air. As Nanda walks, her vision goes darker. The back of her neck feels cold. Something salty and serrated crawls on her skin, but she can’t see what it is.

She turns.

Thakur aaye, andhera laaye. The saying, like a clarion call, rings through her head. A black, vapory mass trails across the road, approaching her, engulfing shops, houses, vehicles. A darkness, with wispy tentacles, ever growing. The saying was true. The Thakurs on their prowl always brought darkness. A real, palpable, magical blackness which killed and maimed, as the Thakurs wanted.

Nanda runs across the deserted village, and the blackness follows.

• • • •

“They were dead, and then they spoke to me.” Nanda’s chest hurts while speaking. The words tumble out of her mouth and hang in the air, waiting to be picked up by the witch woman. “What have you done to me?”

“You told so yourself. You could speak to the dead. Just like the Yadav boy could speak to birds, and the barber who cut open a cycle with his bare hands. Many more I have given such gifts to, and many more I would keep giving.” The woman cradles Yamini in her lap who looks at the world with innocence. Nanda’s eyes dart towards her sister.

“Bet you gave it to the Thakur boys too,” Nanda said, spitting. There’s an urge in her to lunge at the woman and claw her kohl-smeared eyes out. But Nanda resists. “I want no part of it. Take it away from me.”

“Stop, girl, you’ve already said too much,” says the woman. “I come from afar, and I have heard of the darkness those men carry. I came here to put an end to it, but little did I know you people have resigned yourselves to your fate.”

“What do you mean?”

“Their kind has fought my kind for ages now.” The woman’s voice cracks and comes out as a hoarse whisper, like sandpaper on a saw. “The boy in the other village who was found hanging from the tree . . . was my nephew.”

“So it is personal?”

“Isn’t it personal for you? For everyone in this village and the surrounding ones? They do all these crimes . . . You know all the Yadav boy wanted was some laddoo from the mandir. He was beaten up for having a sweet tooth, because the Thakurs didn’t deem him pure enough to enter the temple. I gave him a gift! He could have brought down a swarm of hawks upon those sneering Thakur boys from the other village. But all he did was speak to chickens.”

Nanda sits down on the cold floor. Her breath comes slowly now, and her heart is a distant thrum inside her chest. The woman continues.

“You are surrounded by suffering and injustice, but when given power to fight, you always flee. You have been so powerless, you don’t know what to do with power. You have been without justice for so long, you don’t know what to do with it.”

The woman’s piercing words hang in the air, echo around the hut, and take their sweet time to fade away. Nanda’s father mumbles in the darkness, chanting a hymn, unperturbed by the accusations thrown. Yamini points a small finger at the ceiling, unaware of the blackness of the world she is born in.

“Their darkness . . . ” says Nanda, after a while. “It’s real. I saw it.”

“They turn into vapour and then they turn back. Which is why we never know properly when they come and go. But they’re fragile when they transition.”

“I am scared.”

A clatter of hooves and a resounding neigh, outside. Nanda turns to see a figure in the darkness, black against the red of her eyes. The woman places a warm hand on her shoulders.

“We have time,” she says.

• • • •

Leaving the small hut she grew in wasn’t that difficult. Hunger was the only memory she had attached to that place, mixed with Kaka’s scoldings and her mother’s gasps as she made four rotis for three people on a small, smoky choolha. But hauling Kaka’s wet potato sack of a body onto the woman’s carriage was the most difficult thing Nanda had ever done in her life. A sliver of her being was convinced that it would be best if she just left Kaka behind. He isn’t himself anymore, and there isn’t much of a life left in him.

The carriage moves leisurely, depending on the horse’s pace. Nanda sits hugging herself, watching the world outside, awash in red. The witch woman sings a crude song to Yamini who seems content in listening to misshapen, badly formed ragas. Kaka is on the floor of the carriage, mostly a vegetable.

“What will you do when you grow up, ladki?” asks the woman, stopping her bad song.

“I don’t know,” says Nanda. The carriage lurches. Kaka’s body shakes violently, uncontrollably, for a brief moment, before going back to its catatonic self.

“Can’t you do something for him? Don’t you people always have a potion?”

“Don’t show sympathy for this man. I saw in him what he is capable of, and it’s not a pretty sight.”

“He was always good to me,” says Nanda.

“He didn’t want Yamini in this world. He looked at you with disdain.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I told you, I saw.” the woman stressed on her last word.

The carriage lurches some more and comes to a jittery halt. Nanda is almost thrown towards the woman in a fierce motion. The woman shields Yamini from hitting Nanda’s lithe but harsh body.

“What happened?”

“The horse might be tired, let me check on it. You hold your sister.”

Nanda holds her sister’s soft body close to her chest, her heartbeat mirroring the little child’s. The world outside grows progressively darker, and redder, and the air grows heavier. The tarp over the wooden carriage flutters, then comes to a stop.

“Ladki!” the woman’s harsh scream rattles Nanda. She shivers, her hands clammy as Yamini’s light body feels alien. Her sister coos, unaware of what is about to befall. Nanda glides out of the carriage, forgetting that she has stepped over her Kaka.

To her right, the witch woman hovers in the air, smoke coiled around her, even as more smoke oozes from cracks on the barren earth, taking a vague humanoid form.

“Run, Nanda!”

A man six feet in height with smoke for hands envelops the witch-woman, his face contorted in a snarl, revealing lips smeared in paan or blood. The man opens his maw and digs his teeth into the witch-woman’s neck. The next second, everything is blood. The man, the woman, the world. All blood, all red.

Nanda runs.

• • • •

She doesn’t know where her feet hit on the hard, parched earth. She doesn’t know what stone, what nail, what thorn pierces her naked skin, numb from all pain, numb from every feeling except one—survival. The air around her knows her breathless gasps intimately by now, the ground her skin. On the road she sees corpses of people she has known all her life. Chacha Iftiqhar, the kind postman, who once took her to the other side, where the narrow road from the village met the road from the city and she saw an airplane in the sky for the first time. The village darzi’s wife, Meena, who took the measurement for her mother’s blouse one time, and had sneered at Nanda. The small Pathan boy who had once given her a sweet. All those lives touched by her. All those lives snuffed out by a being that consistently denied their existence, and fed on the fact, becoming stronger.

The temple looms in front of her, a milk white, conical tower with a saffron flag atop it, fluttering noiselessly against the wind. If there was some sort of a divine justice, a divine mercy, then Nanda would find here.

Holding her sister tight, she ascends the steps of the temple. Each step she takes, she hears a sharp slice of air, once, twice, thrice, then relentless clawing, fluttering sounds. On top of the stairs, just beside the stone statue of a lion, sits the Yadav boy, caressing the wings of a pigeon. Above him, in a spiral, hovers a murder of crows. The crows don’t speak, yet their eyes shine. The boy looks at Nanda. She believes, in that impossible moment, that the witch woman was right about many things, but wrong about one thing.

“Did you lose someone too?” the boy asks.

“Amma and Kaka,” says Nanda.

“The Thakurs killed my babuji. I ran . . . and then the crows came to me. I speak to them. But they’re angry.”

A pause builds between the two children, and for a moment the air feels oppressive, rank, redolent of evil, despite the presence of divinity around them. Nanda holds the gaze of the goddess in the temple, not expecting any divine justice.

“How many times do we have to drill in your head the same damn thing?”

The voice is harsh, adult and commanding, yet flat. Nanda turns to see two men, wearing black kurtas, sporting thin moustaches, their hair neatly parted in between. Clean, prim, they look. The two Thakur boys—Prakash Thakur and Vinay Thakur.

“We had to poison the well because what choice did you leave us? Polluting the waters with your filthy hands,” says Vinay.

“But desecrating our place of worship with your presence. Again?”

Nanda’s insides feel hollow, and a cold rotten fear grips her. Yamini begins crying and her wail echoes in the empty temple lot.

“Your kind just keeps breeding,” says Prakash Thakur. Smoke curls upwards from his right hand.

They’re fragile when they transition. The witch woman’s words ring like a temple bell in Nanda’s mind.

“Yadav,” she whispers. “How angry are your crows?”

The Yadav boy looks at Nanda. His face tells her he wants no part in what is about to befall the two of them, but has to make a choice anyway. Nanda clutches her sister to her chest as she waits for him to reply. The air stills.

The boy makes a swift hand movement. The swarm of crows descends upon the Thakur boys, engulfing them completely like the smoke they turn to. They smite at the crows helplessly, but the birds keep clawing them back, tearing at their kurtas, their vapoury flesh. A smattering of fresh, red blood droplets on white marble steps of the temple follows.

“We should go,” says Nanda. The Yadav boy gets up and follows Nanda downstairs. Her gaze is affixed on the Thakurs who are fighting the crows. A dark fear bubbles deep in her stomach. A fear that she will take the last step, and just at that moment the crows will be defeated, and the Thakur boys will give another chase, this time of a more successful kind.

• • • •

On the last step, the fear becomes all too real. Out of the flock of crows comes out a black, smoky hand, and it grips Nanda’s arm.

“Not so easy.” the arm shakes Nanda. The Yadav boy is two feet ahead of her. He holds out his hands. Nanda doesn’t want to part with her sister, but she has to. She has to keep her safe. And so she does.

She is taken in by the unforgiving swarm of crows, all around her. She and the two Thakur boys, wrapped in smoke and feathers and blood. Her eyes meet Prakash Thakur, who grimaces at her as he shakes her body hard.

“I am going to do to you what I did . . . ”

Nanda doesn’t let him complete the sentence. She pulls all her might and kicks him in the crotch. As he crumbles to the ground, the crows fall on him again. Nanda staggers back, but this time, the other Thakur boy emerges from behind the feathery curtain, smiting at the birds left and right, his eyes affixed on Nanda.

“You pesky little girl.” He snarls. “Bend down and lick my feet.”

“No,” says Nanda, defiant. “My head won’t be down, my steps won’t be silent, my body won’t be tired, and my will won’t be broken.” In her mind, something terrible takes birth. One by one, she recites the name of the dead, the lives she touched, the lives which touched her. Asha Tai, Chacha Iftiqhar, Meena, the Pathan kid. And many, many more.

Behind the Thakur boy, a movement. Dust swirls from the ground, then vanishes, revealing a crowd. White eyes, dead, deep-blue skin, crooked walk. The people she saw on the streets. The lives she touched.

“What are you saying? Do as I say, and maybe I will have mercy on you!”

His hands turn to vapour. But then the air is filled with chants. The crowd of the undead marches ever closer, singing a hymn.

Our body won’t be tired, our will won’t be broken.

Nanda takes a step back. The people push in closer. The swarm of crows ascends as the undead force themselves upon the Thakur boys, bare teeth on skin, biting, clawing, ripping apart smoke and flesh alike, chanting. Nanda stays and watches the Thakur boys stripped to their bones. As the crowd of the dead retreats, a head lolls to the side, its eyes gouged out, staring at the heavens in mute horror.

Nanda holds its dead gaze and whispers, softly, “What is mercy?”

Amal Singh

Amal Singh

Amal Singh is a screenwriter, author, and a cat dad currently living in Mumbai, India. While his cat silently judges him, he can be seen drafting a novel, or trying to bake brownies in a cooker. His short fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Clarkesworld, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and is forthcoming in F&SF. He tweets at @jerun_onto.