Autumn Jewels by Shveta Thakrar

On the third of the nine nights of Navratri, the celebration honoring goddess Durga, a call slight as spider silk murmured through the temple. Most revelers heard nothing, but four-year-old Bhavna eluded her mother’s watchful eye long enough to sneak out of the saturated colors and lively music of garba, past a wild pumpkin patch, and into the night-shrouded woods beyond.

A yakshini swayed there, her lithe frame swathed in a sari of fall foliage. Fire gems tumbled from her fingers, ringed her throat, dotted the licorice-dark tresses twirling down her back. She wove about the trees, her skin the color of a freshly peeled cedar and just as smooth.

The trees, clad in leaves of crackling flame, sported the same gemstones in crimsons, oranges, deep yellows, and purples, the fruit dripping from their branches. These autumn jewels gleamed beneath the black of the midnight sky, ripe with story.

Bhavna recognized them immediately. Hers was a heart shaped by narrative, as dreamers’ hearts always are, ever eager for new tales.

“Have you come to trick-or-treat?” the yakshini asked. “It is not yet All Hallows’ Eve, and I have no candy for your bucket.”

Shivering in the crisp, woodsmoke-tinged air, Bhavna shook her head.

“Have you come to chase away the old year’s shadows? It is not yet Deepavali, and I have no oil for your diya.”

Again Bhavna demurred.

“Then why have you come?”

Bhavna had come for adventure, for spells and secrets. For all the things her mother’s fables had hinted were real. The deepest part of her heart thirsted for them. She pointed to the grove of gems. “For those.”

The yakshini looked wary. “Autumn jewels are not for foolish mortal creatures. Begone.”

Bhavna stubbornly continued to point.

“I do like your jaanjar,” the yakshini allowed. Bhavna promptly unhooked the silver anklets and extended them in offering.

The yakshini considered, long enough that Bhavna grew antsy. She peered at the glittering landscape behind the yakshini, where witchy daayan cavorted, their long hair swinging freely as they hit their sticks together in dandiya-raas. Though they frightened her, with their eerie cackles and frenzied eyes, she still yearned to go to them, to strike her own dandiya against theirs in the fast-paced dance.

“No,” said the yakshini at last. She pointed to the heavens, where even the stars had closed their eyes for the night. “But you see we lack a moon. Bring me one the daayan will not eat, and you will have your jewels.”

***

In the years that followed, Bhavna hunted everywhere for such a moon. Even as others went to plays and parties, she perused leatherbound books of myths and lore. She filled journal after journal with curiosities: snippets of furtive nocturnal conversations, pressed moonflower petals, half-finished love songs scribbled on coffee-stained napkins. Each night, the daayan screeched invitations in her dreams, and the autumn jewels crooned promises of magic. Something more, something greater than this.

Five-year-old Bhavna brought the yakshini a small wheel of Brie which the daayan gobbled so fast, she barely saw it happen. In retrospect, that hadn’t been the best decision. Who didn’t like cheese?

Ten-year-old Bhavna brought a picture of the moon cut from a magazine. The daayan shredded it to ribbons and scarfed them down, then complained it tasted of newsprint.

“These things have no substance,” scolded the yakshini, pushing Bhavna back out. “Bring me a moon with meaning.”

Fifteen-year-old Bhavna returned with a lunar lantern, one she liked so much she’d purchased an extra for herself. This had to be the moon that would illuminate the late-October thicket.

Her heart pounding, she slipped the lamp from its hiding place in the pumpkin patch and hurried toward the trees. Finally she would win the jewels of story and soothe the ache inside.

Yet the clearing was bare. Not a twig rustled, no matter how long she searched; no branch shifted which she did not brush against.

They had left her. She had failed.

Eventually, knowing she would be missed at the temple, she left the moon lantern in the dirt. The toy’s light shone faintly, lost in the gloom.

Bhavna didn’t try again after that, just stayed at garba each Navratri and gripped her dandiya tightly as she danced, her jaanjar tinkling about her ankles.

As if the only story that existed was this one.

***

When the familiar chill stirred her bones in summons once more, twenty-five-year-old Bhavna scarcely dared to believe it.

The forest had faded from brilliant scarlet and pumpkin orange to dried blood and rust, and the leaves had fallen from the trees and crunched beneath her feet. Yet she didn’t mind, not when she’d been given one last chance to prove she understood.

The bhootinis whirled tonight amidst the trees, the vetaalis and rakshasis, too. A bone palace rose up around them, the yakshini in its doorway.

“You took too long,” the yakshini said, her mouth pinched. “But we still want for a moon.”

Bhavna smiled. “I brought you a moon.”

She spread her bag’s contents over the ground. Unfulfilled wishes in crystal bottles, tiny dreams she’d written down on scraps of paper—both hers and others’—and milky moonstones to bind them, all carefully squirreled away in a wooden chest in the hopes that one day, they might be needed.

A moon with meaning—her story for theirs.

The yakshini echoed her smile.

Together Bhavna and the yakshini assembled the shimmering bits of unspoken things into a mosaic, plump and lambent with silver light and longing. Once it had hardened, they mounted the freshly made moon on the shadowed-sapphire sky.

In response, a coterie of monstrous women emerged from the trees: daayan, harpies, faeries, apsaras, naginis, banshees, and more. Their beauty, their ferocity, glowed as each gifted Bhavna one autumn jewel. Story upon story soaked into her skin, quenching her thirst.

Then, led by the yakshini, the circle of women raised their dandiya and spoke:

“Welcome, fellow dreamer, to the Sisterhood of the Moon.”