by Ian Muneshwar
It was the end of a summer that burned through Queens quick as a fever, and Jamie couldn’t sleep. He twisted in his sheets, kicking them to the bottom of the bed, and watched his box fan. The blades made ribbons of the streetlights and cast sharp-sided shadows that chased each other across the walls.
Outside, his parents were fighting.
He took the fan out of the window and climbed into the night. Perched on the flat stretch of roof over the back deck, bare feet against asphalt shingles, he listened. Every time one of his parents said his name—usually his mother, since his father almost never raised his voice—Jamie pinched the fat just above his hips. If he could make out a whole sentence, it was a pinch and a twist. He only let go when he couldn’t hear them anymore.
He laid back, letting the shingles dig through his cotton t-shirt. Low flying airplanes roared overhead, drowning his parents’ voices. He got to thinking about how strange it was that there could be so many people right above him, with only metal and plastic and the muggy air between them. He thought about how likely it was that they would crash (there had been seven hundred and sixty-one deaths from plane crashes last year, which was more than twice what it had been the past two years combined) and how no one would be there to catch them if they fell.
Jamie was nearly asleep, lulled to dreaming by half-heard whispers, when he realized that the roof was no longer beneath him. Summer air rushed by, whipping at his clothes and stinging his dry eyes. He tried to twist his head around, to look for the ground coming closer and closer but the wind was too strong. After a few seconds more his stomach became sickly hollow as he realized that he wasn’t falling at all—the ground wasn’t getting nearer, the sky was coming closer.
It took another minute to feel the hands. First, the pair around his waist, pressing into his bruised sides; then the ten fingers clasping his legs and another ten around each of his arms and finally the calloused palms cradling his head, supporting his neck.
Before the fear came to pull him under, Jamie closed his eyes and hoped that the hands would not let him fall.
Elaine crossed the Demerara the day her parents left for America.
She and Don got off the boat in the late afternoon, suitcases in hand. Fishmongers dragged their hauls onto the silty banks, shorts and t-shirts stained with mud and blood.
“This isn’t so bad!” her brother said with a relentless enthusiasm Elaine was quickly tiring of.
The whitewashed buildings and paved roads of Prospect, Guyana had been visible from the boat but here on the shore, on packed dirt and remains of fish intestine, there was only the green of tamarind trees.
“I suppose I should be happy this is only until September.” She kicked a still-bloody eel spine out of the way with her white tennis shoes.
“C’mon,” Don said. “You’re a little too eager to get to grammar school. We have the whole summer. Besides, we get to see Robby and Bish again. How long has it been since you last saw them?”
“Never long enough.”
“Don’t be a pest.”
They started down the road into town. It had been years since she’d been on this side of the river. Their parents had never told Elaine why they’d moved to Prospect—she always assumed it was to be closer to the British school—but now she was beginning to understand. After the first mile, her hands were so slick with sweat she could barely hold onto the suitcase. Red-eyed flies with barbed feet pricked her face and settled in her braided hair.
Their aunt and uncle’s house was a mile from the docks, not far from the jungle’s edge. It was a squat, wooden home perched on stilts. In the space beneath the house, a dozen keen-eyed chickens kicked up dirt and clucked mistrustfully as they started up the stairs.
Auntie Indra pushed through the front door.
“Ayushi!” Indra opened her arms and pulled Elaine in. She smelled of woodsmoke and cumin.
Ayushi. Elaine hadn’t heard her coolie name in years, since she’d moved to Prospect and chosen an English name.
“Come! Come!” Indra led them to the kitchen. For such a small woman she moved with ferocious determination. “There’s a room upstairs all ready for you two. The boys are out back there.”
Upstairs, Elaine unpacked slowly, unrolling her blouses and skirts and hanging them neatly in the closet. Don tore through his suitcase, stuffing his socks in the dresser and leaving most of his shirts on the twin bed before pounding down the stairs.
When she was certain that he had gone, Elaine started rifling through socks he had just put away. Sure enough, there was the wad of money their parents had left them. Her brother was nothing if not predictable.
She pocketed a twenty and made a vague excuse—something about exploring the village—when Indra asked where she was going. She let the screen door slam behind her.
She’d heard someone on the boat mention that there was a ferry that crossed the Demerara twice each week and once on the weekends. With any luck, she’d be able to get away from town once in a while and get back to Prospect, where she had friends. And a life.
But by the time she made it back to the docks, the boat was gone. The sun was setting faster than she’d expected, and the merchants were packing their wares. Elaine tried to stop some of the fishmongers and barefoot boys with their cracked cricket bats to ask when the ferry would come back and where she could buy tickets, but they all ignored her. It was nearly dusk by the time she realized how out of place she looked here, in her white, school-issued blouse and pleated skirt.
She started home. The village changed with the fading light; birds she didn’t recognize called to one another from the trees and clouds of bats raced to cover the slender moon. The crooked, stilted houses that overlooked the river became strange beasts themselves—wood-paneled spiders standing guard to the jungle’s edge.
Her thoughts were just starting to race in a panicked frenzy—How late would she get back? Would she get back? Was this the same road she was on before?—when she saw the man stuck in the mud. He was buried waist-deep next to the splintered remains of a collapsed house close to the river. His chest was impossibly broad and deep and ten heads sprouted from his neck.
Elaine knew that she should have started back at a sprint. But instead she came closer. The middle head smiled broadly, and the man raised one of his twenty arms to greet her.
“Ayushi,” he said. “Do you remember me?”
When he opened his eyes Jamie was still in his pajamas, standing in a rooftop garden that overlooked a world he didn’t know. Humidity hit him all at once, slicking itself against his skin. He walked past terra-cotta vases taller than he was, brimming with vines; insects with burnished shells droned in the air, flying between flowers whose petals curved like eyelashes. He ran his fingers along the golden lattice that enclosed the garden and looked down.
Below, a city woke. Sun-browned merchants took to the narrow streets, leading swaybacked animals heavy with wares. They traveled toward the city’s center, where a temple rose. It was gilded white in ivory and long-necked birds circled its domes, spinning higher and higher, but Jamie was still above them all.
“Welcome to Lanka.”
A man with blue-grey skin stood behind him. He was very tall and wore silken pants and a finely embroidered crimson vest that covered little of his muscled chest. He had ten heads and twenty arms.
Jamie’s first reaction was to scan the garden for some place to run, and yet he couldn’t tear himself away from the blue-skinned man. In the pit of his chest, where there should have been fear, there was another feeling entirely: something heavy and warm, golden as honey.
“What is this?” There was no door or steps to be seen, no way of getting off the rooftop. Jamie glanced down and, seeing the backs of flying birds far below, began to feel his palms sweat.
“This is the home of your great grandfather’s great grandfathers.” The ten-headed man reached out a single hand, clasped Jamie’s shoulder in a calloused palm, and directed him away from the edge. “And I am Ravana. Would you like something to drink? You’ve come so far.”
The ten-headed man guided Jamie to a stone fountain in the corner of the garden, near a patch of flowers with huge, silky petals. He bent down and plucked a flower from the dirt. In his hands, it became a bone-white bowl filled with water.
Ravana sat on the edge of the fountain. He was much too large—the fountain should have groaned under his weight, but he balanced effortlessly, one leg crossed over the other. He offered Jamie the bowl.
“Why did you bring me here?” The water was cold and Jamie drank so deeply he realized how thirsty he must have been all this time.
“I want you to be happy.”
“I am happy.” Jamie retorted, defensive. He put the bowl on the tiled ground and it became a flower, its fleshy stem pushing up between the cracks.
One of Ravana’s heads at the very middle grinned. The others, whose attention had drifted to different parts of the garden, all snapped back to focus on him.
“You’re so smart, Jamie. I think you know why you were out there on that roof. You were waiting for the inevitable, listening to it closing in on you.”
Jamie felt heat in his face. That was his to know. Not this man’s, not anyone else’s.
“They’ll leave,” the ten-headed man continued. “They’ll make you choose between them because they’re not really thinking about you at all.” He stood and ran a hand though his hair while two others adjusted his vest. “But here, with me, you don’t have to choose. Here there’ll always be someone with you and you can have whatever you want. Anything!”
“But none of this—” Jamie gestured expansively “—is real. This is all a dream.” He hoped he sounded more confident than he really was about that.
“This is a part of dreaming, yes. It’s also a part of memory, a place where your past and your ancestors’ pasts are inseparable.”
Ravana stepped closer. His face—the face on the head in the very middle—was covered by lines so fine Jamie hadn’t really noticed them at first. They crisscrossed his cheeks and ran from the corners of his lips to the tips of his ears.
“I know! You want to see things, go places!” Jamie didn’t know if the ten-headed man had seen his gaze shift, but his voice was suddenly bright with enthusiasm. “You have such an inquisitive mind, I can tell. I can take you anywhere, Jamie. Name a place.” Two nubs burst from Ravana’s back as he spoke, and they grew and unfurled as feathered wings behind him.
As he moved closer, Jamie realized that the lines on his face were scars, hundreds of fine black scars running like spider webs across blue-grey skin.
“I want to go home.” His voice cracked.
Ten scowls of disappointment.
“You’ll let me go?” Jamie tried to harden his voice, make it a statement rather than a question, but he balked as the garden changed with the blue-skinned man’s mood. A cloud muted the sun; the fountain choked and stopped running; the flowers turned their pollen-blushed faces to the ground.
“Of course you can go,” Ravana crossed two arms over his chest and added reluctantly: “This is your memory, after all. Just tear away the layers.”
“What? This isn’t my memory. I’ve never seen any of this before.”
“Your memory. Your ancestors’ memory. What does it matter? Everything you live and everything you see stains your blood and sticks in your bones. Whether you like it or not.”
Ravana walked to one of the terra-cotta vases. He pinched the lip of the vase between two of his fingers and peeled the whole thing away, as if the vase had only ever been something completely flat pinned to the face of reality. Behind the space where the vase had been, a window looked onto Jamie’s bedroom.
“The past is never fixed.” He tossed the paper-thin image of the vase away, and it disappeared. “Here memory can be whatever you want it to be.”
Jamie bolted for his room. Ravana’s mouths had opened to say something else, but Jamie was gone before he could hear anything more from the ten-headed man.
“My name isn’t Ayushi. It’s Elaine.”
“Elaine.” He spat the word from his tongue as if it was an ember. “Please—Elaine—would you help me get out of here?”
“Who are you?”
The dying light that came between the trees cast the river a deep umber, the color of bonfires nearly burned out. In this twilight, the man’s skin took on a dark blue hue. Elaine took a deep breath to clear her mind, to be certain she wasn’t tricking herself.
“Don’t you remember?” he asked. “I am Ravana. A god. Your king.”
“We don’t have a king anymore.” Elaine circled around behind Ravana, kicking aside splintered wood and broken glass. He had twenty arms, but they were all tied at the wrists with vines, securing him to the one beam still sticking up out of the earth.
“Besides,” she continued, “you must be a pretty terrible king if you’re stuck in a riverbank.”
Ravana’s middle head exhaled and shut its pale eyes.
“The people of this country worship animals as if they are gods. And maybe they are. There are beasts in the murk beneath me. Slick, writhing things. They wrap themselves around my legs, hold me here and eat with their little teeth working against my bones.”
He pitched forward, straining, all those muscles in his chest and arms knotting. But the vines held and he relaxed again.
“Why should I let you go?” She bent and picked up a dried stalk of bamboo from the shore. She broke it over her knee and then ran her finger along the sharp, shattered edge. “I could. But if you’re a god, like you say, could you give me anything I wanted?”
Ravana smiled ten bright-toothed smiles and his flat eyes flashed. She had asked the right question.
“Tell me,” he said. “Do you know what it’s like to be alone?”
Elaine, who had been pacing around the stake, stopped short. Ravana knew too much about her, sensing the shifting tempo of her heart the way a snake smells fear in the air with its tongue.
“Yes,” she said.
“My parents flew to America this morning. But they’re coming back to get us at the end of the summer.”
“My people left me too.” Three heads, hissing together. “Left me for this blight on the world’s face. Come with me and you won’t have to be alone.”
The buried king ran his tongue over his black lips; ten tongues moving perfectly together. “We can bring your parents back. If you just come with me for a while.”
“Where would be go?” she asked, her voice small.
“Anywhere, Ayushi! What would you like to see? If you help me out of here, I’ll show you wonderful things. Forgotten things. There are cities at the heart of the earth carved from the bones of beasts that died when the world was still new. There are creatures that fly so high that you think their feathers are clouds and when they beat their wings they raze civilizations. Tell me! Where should we go?”
The only light now came from the yellowed moon and Elaine could hardly see Ravana’s faces anymore in the near dark. The shadowed road seemed far, and Don, Auntie Indra and her cousins seemed even farther.
“But I’m not alone,” she said. Elaine wiped her hands on her skirts and turned her back to the blue-skinned man. “I’m not.”
“If you go,” Ravana said, his voice pitching upward dangerously, a sickle-sharp plea, “you’ll only be left behind. I’m the only one who will stay with you, Ayushi. Come back to me. Please.”
Elaine started running when she came to the road. Fear set blood burning in her lungs. Not the fear of the ten-headed king, but the fear that maybe what she wanted most was something only he could give her.
Jamie had almost decided against returning to Lanka. Every night before he fell asleep, he saw the outline of the terra-cotta vase and a glimpse of a world beyond his own. He tried to push Ravana from his mind but never could, not completely. In class he sketched portraits of the ten-headed man while the teacher droned; when he slept, he dreamed of distant temples and beetles with shells like molten silver.
His parents’ next fight came that weekend, and he sat with his back to the bedroom wall, his ear pressed to the drywall.
“Please, Elaine. Not tonight.”
His mother’s response was too soft to hear.
“You’ve seen how he is now.” His father rumbled. “He’s distant and closed off. Cold. That’s your—our—fault.”
He was out of skin on his love handles, so Jamie moved up to smooth, tightly-stretched skin over his ribs. This was harder to get purchase on. He winced as he twisted it tight between his pointer and thumb, but still kept an ear to the drywall.
“I don’t want you in my bed.”
The sound of his father sliding his slippers down the hall, downstairs.
It was another two hours before Jamie was able to drift off. He was thinking desperately, furiously, about what he could do to change their minds when he slipped into the dark and saw the window to Lanka open.
This time, he ran through.
Ravana came from the sky in a flurry of wingbeats, a rush of the wind. It was noon on the garden rooftop and, as he came down, the spread of his wings shielded Jamie from the sun. The wings folded into his back and his ten mouths stretched very far up the god’s scarred face as he grinned and landed beside Jamie.
“You decided to come back to me.”
“I’ve been thinking,” Jamie said, choosing his words purposefully to avoid raising suspicions, “about something you told me before. You said that in Lanka memory could be whatever I wanted it to be. That nothing is fixed.”
“That’s true, yes.”
“So can I change memories? Or get rid of them?”
Ravana’s faces clouded. The beetles stopped humming, the wind chilled.
“Why would you want to alter your memory? So you can go back to your little life and not remember the things that make you unhappy? You would use me for this and then leave me?”
“No, that’s not it. I want to change my memories so when I stay here with you, I don’t miss anything from before.”
The insects resumed their routes again, buzzing from one vase to the next.
“So you want to stay? You’ll stay here with me?” All his faces grinned broadly, folding the spider-web scars together. In a moment of childlike joy, he bounded into the air, twenty arms raised, and pulled the sun from the cloudless sky. He threw it away—a golden discus spinning across the earth.
“Which memories would you forget, child? Imagine what you felt, where you were, and we’ll go at once.”
He pulled Jamie close to his chest and barreled through the hole the ruined sun had left in the sky.
They landed in an old memory, a throw-away fragment from a time Jamie only half-recalled. He and his parents were on one of a hundred camping trips, deep in the pines of a forest Jamie hardly remembered.
“Why this place?” Ravana asked. He swatted at mosquitoes with several hands as they watched a much-younger Jamie help his father drive tent stakes into the dirt.
“I thought—maybe we should start in an early place, just as a practice run. So I can erase the rest cleanly…You know?”
The middle head nodded thoughtfully.
“Can you show me how to get rid of the memories? It’ll be faster that way.” Jamie watched Ravana’s faces for signs of disbelief. But the ten-headed god seemed more amused than anything else—he kicked the stakes into the ground while Jamie’s father had his back turned, and then chuckled at the man’s confusion.
“Pick a corner, any corner,” the god replied, reaching a hand into the air. “You just take it—” He snapped his fist shut. “—and pull. You try.”
It seemed ridiculous, but he raised his hand up anyway, feeling for one of Ravana’s corners. Sure enough, there was texture in the air—small, soft bumps like knotted yarn with long stretches of smooth air between them. Like he was running his hand along an invisible tapestry.
Just as he found the corner, where the tapestry seemed to give way to reality, he pulled his hand back. “What happens when I pull?”
“The memory will tear away, forgotten, and you’ll be thrown into another.”
“But how will I remember what I’m doing? If this memory is lost, then I’ll forget what we’ve been doing all along? Right?”
Ravana’s middle head gave a sharp bark of laughter. “See, I was right when I said you were smart. This memory—” he extended the ten arms, smacking one against a pine’s trunk and cursing under his breath—“will be gone. This past. This version of you, sitting there, sullenly watching your parents do all the work.”
“Hey, I was like four years old—”
“But the you that is here, the eleven year old—”
“—twelve year old, will still remember. There are two lines of memory now, running parallel to one another. Does that makes sense?”
“So I just have to think about where I’ll go next?”
“You’re catching on.”
Jamie took a deep breath. He had a theory about this memory-jumping, and there was only one way to test it.
He raised his hand, felt for the fabric of his past, and pulled.
Auntie Indra was not much for second chances: Don found that the money was missing, told their aunt, and Elaine was grounded indefinitely. So she forced her curiosity about Ravana to the back of her mind and spent the next few months shelling chickpeas for the night’s cookup, watching the boys send cricket balls though the branches of the mango trees, and silently fuming at her brother’s betrayal.
Then at the end of the summer came word that her parents wouldn’t be back until March. But Elaine pushed this aside too: she was back in school, and the wet months were here, which meant the holidays—and her parents’ return—wouldn’t be far behind.
With December came a strange, silver Christmas tree from New York, courtesy of her mother and father. Old Year’s Night, Uncle Feroze set it up in the living room for the party. He draped tinsel and a string of white lights over its branches. When all the people came—aunties and uncles, cousins and friends—they gathered around it with cold beers and Cokes and talked about how well her parents must be doing that they could send a fake tree from America.
“Ayushi!” Uncle Feroze, already ruddy with gin, lumbered over to the corner of the room where Elaine sat, cross-legged and far from the rest of the party. “Where’s your brother? Where’d he leave the vinyls? We need a beat.”
Elaine had been reading her father’s copy of Gulliver’s Travels—the only thing, aside from his prized collection of Stones records, he had left them with. She folded down a corner of the page.
“I’ll go find him.”
In reality she had only planned on retreating to her room where she could read in silence. Uncle Feroze was already tipsy enough that he’d forget about the Stones and be on to the next distraction before he finished his drink. But when she opened the door, Elaine found Don on his back in bed, a crisply folded letter on his chest.
“There you are. Uncle Feroze is looking for Daddy’s records.”
Don sat up, swinging his long legs over the side of the bed. He crumpled the paper in his hands.
“What’s that?” Elaine tossed the book on the bed and reached a hand out, but Don didn’t offer it. “C’mon.”
He unfolded the letter, smoothing it under his palms, and placed it between them on the quilt. “They’re not coming back.”
Downstairs, the Stones took off running to a frenzied drum line. Paint It Black. The aunties, uncles, and cousins all around the tree started to clap and sing along, none of them quite in tune.
Elaine grabbed the letter. She started reading it and looked up before she’d made it too far.
He reached out to touch her arm. “I’m sure they’ll—”
Elaine pulled back before he could get near her. Part of her wanted to rip the paper, to throw it, to send it up in the woodstove downstairs and never think about it again but she knew that she couldn’t, she knew that she could only stand here and dig her fingers tighter into it as she made it through the last sentence.
“They could have said when. They could have said ‘this summer’ or—or—”
But she couldn’t think about not seeing them for any longer than that. She couldn’t imagine living in this cramped hovel on the wrong side of the river where she’d spend her summers burning channa and soaking pound after pound of rice. All she wanted was to go back to Prospect, back to her school and her life, every night since she had found that ten-headed freak—
“Where’re you going?” Don asked when she tossed the letter to the bed and bolted. “Elaine!”
The party was in full swing. Auntie Indra had brought out fried chicken and curried goat. Uncle Feroze was telling a story, his chin curry-stained and his arms spread wide, the others were laughing and drinking, and there were children spinning around the Christmas tree, strings of tinsel in their hands, shrieking as they ran themselves breathless.
Elaine slid past it all. She found her shoes at the back door and, outside, began to sprint.
The night was quiet except for the rain. Under the house, the chickens gave gentle, concerned clucks and poked inquisitive heads from between the stilts. Elaine bounded around the corner of the house, and the chickens pulled their necks back, affronted.
Just beyond the outhouse, Uncle Feroze’s toolshed stood near the jungle. She fumbled with the latch.
Inside, in the wet, molding dark, she ran her hands along the rakes and hoes until she came across a metal edge.
She pulled the shovel off the wall, kicked the doors closed, and started for the river.
His plan worked. Mostly. They landed in the bedroom of a small apartment with shag carpets and lime green walls. The place his parents had moved into just after they were married.
“What is this?” Ravana said. The top of his middle head almost brushed against the ceiling; he seemed comically large against the background of Jamie’s past. “This isn’t your memory! This is—”
“I know,” Jamie said. He had hoped that by focusing on the feeling of his mother’s unhappiness he would be brought to one of his parent’s more recent fights. This was not recent, but in the corner of the room, on a low bed that was much too small for two people, his parents were bickering. An infant Jamie crawled across the floor, pulling at wayward strands of shag carpet.
Before Ravana could continue Jamie reached in the air again, feeling for the texture, and pulled.
They tumbled into another memory, a fresher one. He was a little older now, old enough to have books with more words than pictures scattered across the bedroom floor. He was asleep, or at least pretending to be. His mother was on her hands and knees, picking up toy cars and delicately piling them into an old laundry basket. Her shoulders shook, but she didn’t make any sound as she cried.
His father was nowhere to be seen.
Jamie watched, transfixed. He was beginning to fill with a familiar feeling: a drowning sense of dread that started as a vicious pinprick of a headache and slowly worked its way down his body to send his heart bounding out of control and his intestines into bloated knots. What was he doing? How would this fix anything? He was erasing bad memories, yes, but they were also the same memories that made his parents his parents—
With a six-armed shove, Ravana pinned him up against the wall.
“What are you doing?” he growled, his middle head so close that Jamie could see the spit bubbling between the god’s greying teeth.
“I thought—I thought if I could wipe away my parents’ bad memories of each other they’d stop fighting.” The words came in a tumble and he looked away as he spoke, trying to avoid the glare of twenty furious eyes. “I could fix things if I made the past better. I thought maybe I could make them stay.”
“So you were never going to stay with me?”
Though Ravana’s grip tightened, the steely bluster slipped from his voice. For the first time, Jamie thought he heard uncertainty.
“I see,” the god said, picking Jamie up in five arms. “Let me show you, then, how you will be rewarded for depending on your parents to stay.”
With his remaining hands, Ravana pushed up on the ceiling. It floated away, thin as a paper cut-out, and the walls bent and drifted down to the ground.
With Jamie in his arms the ten-headed man stepped outside, and deeper into the past.
The mile-long run from Auntie Indra’s to the riverbank seemed twice as long in the driving rain, but Elaine didn’t slow. She’d heard Don following behind her, calling out, but she was just as fast as he was and knew where she was going.
The ten-headed man was where she had left him that summer, but now he was buried up to his neck. Only one head, the one at the center, was still above the ground.
“Ayushi! You came back for me.” His voice was wet with phlegm.
Elaine drove the shovel into the riverbank with her heel, then wiped her dripping bangs out of her eyes.
“Bring them back. You made them go, now bring them back.”
Ravana blinked the rain out of his eyes. “Ayushi, I didn’t make your parents leave.”
“You said they would! You said that they’d leave me if I didn’t rescue you and now you’re punishing me for not coming back!” She pulled the shovel out of the sucking mud.
“I don’t control the comings-and-goings of every person. I don’t control much at all anymore.” He turned his head and coughed until he brought up mucus stitched though with blood.
“If you don’t control much at all anymore,” Elaine sneered as she parroted his words back to him, “then what could you possibly have to offer? Why shouldn’t I just bury you here so all those animals that live in the mud can eat you?”
Ravana turned his head up into the rain, letting it streak down the sides of his long, grey cheeks, over his lips, his nose. He tossed his head, shaking matted black hair from his eyes. When he looked to Elaine again, he said:
“There was a time when people knew my name and spoke it often and loud, in fear and in jealousy, in admiration and in hate. I was so beautiful. So strong.” He smiled a grim smile, lips stretched white over his teeth. “In the end, the people left, as they always do. Their lying tongues forgot how to speak my name.
“But Ayushi, I fear most of all that they will leave even this country for some other place, some new world, and what will I be then? What will I become? Can they find a way to make me less real than what I am now?”
Elaine rested the tip of the shovel against the fat, pulsing vein running down the side of his neck and into the dirt. She placed her heel against the back of the blade. She knew now, looking at the trembling, snot-crusted head beneath her, that she had been wrong: no god could bring her parents home.
“So I’m supposed to feel sorry for you?”
“You don’t see what I’ve been telling you all along. You may see your parents again. It may be next month or next year or five years from now. But you won’t be the same person you were when they left you. This you,” he said, gesturing with a thrust of his chin, “will only be a shadow. Weaker than memory. Things will never be the way they were; the closeness you shared will have to be built over, and when it is, if it ever is, it won’t be as it was. It won’t be the same at all, Ayushi—”
“My name! Isn’t! Ayushi!”
With a single swing, Elaine brought the shovel down across Ravana’s face. It split his lips wide and traced a sickle-shaped wound across his chin. He looked down, surprised, at the blood dripping down his face.
He looked up. She brought the shovel down again and didn’t stop swinging.
Jamie’s feet landed on a muddy riverbank. The ground was slick, as if it had just stopped raining. High in the canopy a creature trilled, thin and alien.
Freed from Ravana’s grip, Jamie hunkered down. He took a breath, counted to ten, and let it out through his nose. He’d had panic attacks before, just never in a jungle at night with a ten-headed god. A subtropical jungle, by the looks of things, where he ran a very high risk of malaria, dengue, yellow fever, West Nile virus—
Jamie took another breath. Out through his nose. He could do this. He had to do this.
A girl emerged from the ruins of a house on the river. She carried a shovel. Jamie recognized her from the black-and-white photos on the mantle.
He stood. “Where are we?”
“Guyana. When your mother was young,” Ravana said. He walked carefully along the silty bank, as if he expected the ground to give way. “This is the night she found out her parents weren’t coming back that year.”
“They left her for a year?”
In the shadow of the abandoned house, his mother raised the shovel over her head. She brought down on something Jamie couldn’t see properly. It looked the remains of some animal—all blood-matted fur and freshly snapped bones.
“What is that?”
“Something from the jungle,” said Ravana. “This is why, even if you erase their pasts, you still won’t be happy. They’ll always leave you.”
But Jamie was hardly listening. He walked closer to his mother. He saw something in her face when she brought the shovel down, tearing the last bits of bone from the fleshy remains of muscle, tendon, and skin. She was not crying but there was a stillness, a sadness. The feeling of slick, writhing things burrowed in the gut, eating and eating until nothing remained but the hollow inside.
“Can you give their memories back?” Jamie asked.
Ravana laughed, nine heads thrown back in empty mirth, the middle one fixed on the slight boy hugging himself on the riverbank. “Give them back? This was not a game.”
“But I thought—you’re a god. Can’t you do things like that?” He looked at his shoes as he spoke, suddenly feeling very insignificant in the twenty-eyed gaze.
Someone came running down the road. A tall boy in khakis and a button-down.
“I thought you wanted to fix your parents’ marriage. Make them forget it all and love each other again.”
“I did,” Jamie retorted, annoyed by the condescension in Ravana’s voice. “But now I’m afraid I’ve really messed things up. I don’t even remember how many memories I took away! Maybe my parents won’t hate each other as much, but will my mother still be the same if she can’t remember half of the things that made her who she is?
He was starting to get chills. His teeth clicked and he couldn’t keep his hands steady.
“That’s your choice. Yours to live with.” The confidence in his voice deflated. “So, you don’t want to stay with me then?”
The boy in the button-down took the shovel away from his mother. She had blood on her shoes, on her jeans, on the white blouse clinging to her body in the rain.
“No,” Jamie said. “I have to go back.”
Ravana reached one balled fist into the air, raising it level with the moon, and flicked five fingers out all at once. The clouds tore away from each other and the full moon skittered from its place in the sky, leaving a hole even darker than the night.
“You see? I was right,” the god said. “You always leave.”
Jamie just looked at him, shaking.
“You can go. Just jump, and you’ll be home again.”
Jamie took a mighty leap. For a moment, he balanced in the space where the moon had been. From the vantage point of the sky, Ravana looked very small. On the other side, he had an aerial view of his room: his twin bed, dresser, and desk all toy-sized from this height. For a second, thoughts about vertigo-induced deaths raced through his mind, but they were unseated by a stronger fear: scarier still than the idea of falling was the sight of the bedroom wall, and the question of who he’d find behind it when he got back.
Below, his mother and the boy had almost disappeared down the dirt road. Ravana picked up the shovel she had left and went to the abandoned house. He kicked the steel tip into the mud, and started to unearth the nine heads buried below.
He woke to a rain-streaked morning.
He been bruising himself in his sleep, pinching already tender skin. He pulled on a white t-shirt, tucked it into his shorts, and then arranged a collared shirt over that. It would be hot, but all the layers would keep anyone from seeing.
He couldn’t go downstairs. He smelled breakfast—French toast and sausages—but all he could think about was what he had done. He didn’t remember the memories he had torn away, but he couldn’t help feeling that they had been very, very important.
It was only after Jamie had removed the window screen that he realized that not only would his parents be different, he might be changed too.
Panic started to set in again—needles against his skull, driving their way into his neck and chest—when the door to his bedroom swung open.
“Jamie?” His mother came to the open window. She was still in her pajamas—a moth-eaten tee and men’s boxers—with her long, tangled hair down. “What’re you doing out there?”
“Nothing.” He retucked the front of his shirt into his jeans and buttoned the top button.
She joined him on the roof. It was late Sunday morning and the neighbors were starting to move behind open windows, flipping eggs on the stove and yelling for their kids to come downstairs. Jamie sat with his knees pulled up to his chest and she sat cross-legged, her knee brushing his leg.
“Your father and I were hoping you’d come downstairs for breakfast. We wanted to talk to you about something.”
There it was, the phrase he’d been waiting for since they started fighting.
“You’re getting divorced.”
His mother’s face creased with a gentle smile. She looked over to him, to his fingers dug into his jeans, but he just kept staring out to the neighbors, to the fat mourning doves studding the powerlines, to the small quiet world beyond.
“No, actually. We’re staying together.”
Jamie knew what he should have felt then: warm, golden things. But instead he could only think about how every time she and her father talked, no matter what they said, it sounded like there was another, angrier conversation happening underneath.
“How do you feel about that?” She turned toward him and slid her bare foot over to touch his.
“I don’t know.”
Out past the slow traffic below them, past the rooftops, the sky along the far line of the horizon was a pale blue-grey.
“When I was little—just your age—my parents left me and Uncle Don to come to Queens. I don’t if I’ve told you that. Have I?” When he only shrugged, his mother continued: “Those weren’t my best years. I don’t remember much. We lived with Indra and Feroze—you met them at Uncle Ken’s wedding. They took care of me and Don for five years.”
Jamie sprawled onto his stomach as she spoke, resting his chin on his palms.
“You know what I remember most about those years, though? Every spring, your Uncle Don—and me too, when I was old enough—we used to work hauling fish from the boats and bringing them to the fishmongers just to make enough money so that we could go, every week, to see our friends on the other side of the river. So I wouldn’t feel so lonely.
“That ferry ride was always my favorite thing. I remember it like it was last week. The paint peeling from the railing, the muddy water, the way the boat’s engine used to roar so loud we almost had to yell to hear each other. The tall white buildings coming closer. And then, when we had to go back home, it didn’t feel so awful anymore.”
Jamie pulled his leg away from his mother’s foot. She looked like she always did, but he couldn’t help but to see the girl on the shore, that stillness carved into her.
“How bout we go downstairs?” she asked. She reached out and lifted the corner of his undershirt, which had slipped out of his pants as he stretched out. At first, Jamie scrambled upright to pull it back down, but then he hesitated. He let her lift his shirt just enough that he felt the air and the brush of her fingers for just a moment, and then she let it go.
His mother stood, and reached out for his hand.
“You coming down for French toast?”
Jamie watched the doves take off, beating their heavy wings to land on the gables of another home. Puffy contrails laced the morning, the last remains of a hundred planes carrying a thousand people who didn’t know if they would make it back to the ground again but who had to risk it to get across the water, to see the ones they love, to just keep going.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m coming.”
Then he took his mother’s hand and followed her through the open window.
About the Author
Ian Muneshwar is a Boston-based writer and teacher. His short fiction appears in venues such as Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and The Dark, and has been selected for a handful of best-of-the-year anthologies. Currently, Ian teaches writing in the Myra Kraft Transitional Year Program at Brandeis University. You can find out more about his work at ianmuneshwar.com.