PodCastle 655: Mariska and Major
Mariska and Major
By Damini Kane
Mariska is not an Indian name. I think that’s what caught my attention. She looked Indian enough, but there was something otherly about her, as though she spent too much time reliving childhood fantasies in her head. Still, she was nice, and we were neighbours, so we became friends.
She was the newest addition to our town. You wouldn’t know where I grew up; it doesn’t exist anymore. The people who lived there have moved on, their children based in expensive countries with jobs like Doctor and Lawyer and Techxpert. Our town was on a mountain. It snowed in the winters and burned in the summers. The little houses there were like grit in a nail bed, clinging to nooks and crevices in the rock, held together by a thread of a road. Sometimes, a bus would come to take us downhill, but we rarely ever boarded it. I believe my town might have been the last idyll in India, my country now full of choking cities. Today there’s a shopping mall over my home. The mountain was blown to pieces and in the winter, it is ash, not snow, that falls from the sky.
But this is not about any of that. Those are big things, Development, Environment, The Passage of Time. God knows I’m too small for such big things. This story can fit inside a coin purse. You could spend it at the corner store. You might drop it on the street and not even notice.
Mariska was tall for our age, and her hair was long and bounced around when she walked. She said she’d come from a city. I don’t remember which one. She told me her mother had disappeared, the way a dream does as soon as you wake up. Such things happened to Mariska. The things that happened to people in novels.
Anyway, long story short, she didn’t want to live with her unemotional, distant, boring businessman father, and decided to come to our town, to stay with her grandmother.
Her grandmother was another storybook creature. I had known her since I was little, as she was our neighbour. She would smile at me and give me a boiled sweet from her bag whenever she saw me, so I grew up liking her a lot. She asked all the children to call her Major. She used to be a doctor in the military and Major was her designation.
I had never been inside her house before Mariska invited me. “We can watch an old movie,” she suggested. She was always watching old movies. She said they were better than the new ones. I would tell her she was an elitist. For some reason, it made her laugh. “Drishti,” she said my name, “it means Vision, doesn’t it?”
“That makes sense. You see things the way they are. The truth at the heart of everything.”
Seriously. Mariska would say things like that.
Major’s house smelled of ginger tea. I soon learnt this was because she was always making some, fresh, with great knuckles of ginger peeled and thrown into the pot without chopping. I had never had such strong ginger tea before, but after a few sips, I discovered a taste for it. Major was quick to pour me more, and the three of us sat around the table, chatting for a while.
Mariska loved her grandmother more than any other person in the world. They laughed all the time. They had inside jokes within inside jokes. Spontaneously, Mariska would hug Major, and Major would stroke her long open hair and tell her she had a beautiful soul. I didn’t know grandmothers could be like this. I didn’t grow up with grandparents.
Later when we were watching the movie in Mariska’s room, on a grainy little TV with poor reception, I decided to go to the bathroom. And a stranger passed me in the corridor. She was impossibly tall, with an oddly shaped face, and black, empty eyes with no pupils. Her body was covered in mottled cloth, the colour of old bones. I can’t tell you if it was a coat or a robe or a cloak. It was cloth, like several bed sheets torn and stitched back together wrong. She ignored me as she passed, but I couldn’t move, my breath trapped in my lungs like a caged bird. I was sure that if I even twitched, she would pounce. I remembered the first time I saw a snake, my father had said: “When facing a predator, don’t run.”
The stranger crossed the hallway and vanished into the shadows. Only then did I dare stir, throwing myself into Mariska’s room, my hands clammy and cold. “There’s a monster outside.”
She looked up at me from where she lay, on her stomach on the floor. “Oh? What did it look like?”
I described it, breathless, wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans. Mariska only blinked. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised you can see them. Your name means Vision. You see the truth.”
She took me to her grandmother’s room. Major was at her desk, reading, and barely looked up as Mariska opened her cupboard. I was too embarrassed to peer in. My mother had taught me it was rude to stare into strangers’ cupboards; cupboards are extremely personal things.
With great purpose, Mariska heaved something log-like out of its depths, plonked it down on the floor, and unrolled it.
It was the most fascinating carpet I had ever seen. Each little seam on the carpet had been hand-woven, and it was filled with images: human-animal hybrids, spectral trees, figures in white drapes, bridges, mountains, and deep blue oceans. It was a paracosm in fabric. A thick, tightly-woven gold border lined each side, walling the world. It reminded me of the zari on my mother’s best saris.
There was a large charred hole in the middle of the carpet. A great emptiness. An abyss.
“In my family, generations of women knit these worlds into one fabric,” said Major. “We pass them down to our daughters and granddaughters so that they may tell their stories.”
I stared. I should have stated this earlier: I am a writer. Or at least at fifteen, I wanted to be. And as is the case with young writers, I never knew where to start. I had ideas, sure, but everyone does. Writing is a little more than that. I’ve now come to agree with Major: writing is like weaving. There are many parts to a story, and when they’re woven well, you can’t tell where one thread ends and the other begins. Back then, I had only cotton balls of ideas. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what I sounded like. The Greats always talked about their Literary Voices. I could barely understand that concept. I would write my stories down until they ran out three pages later, and throw them away. Now I believe that killing your own art is a kind of self-harm, but I used to think of it as a necessary purge; if it wasn’t good, it didn’t belong. It didn’t belong to the story, it didn’t belong to you. So I just gaped at Major, stricken by the idea that not only was a woman supposed to think up a story, but also commit it to fabric, for generations to see.
“During Partition, we took what we could and left,” she went on. “A piece of the carpet burned in the riots.” She finally left her desk and came over to where we stood. “I don’t know when it started happening, but I’ve always known that they don’t sit still. They wander in and out of there whenever they please.”
“W-what?” I stammered.
Major blinked at me. “Sorry, I thought you could see them. That’s why Mari is telling you about this, right?”
“Yes, I think she saw Waning Gibbous.”
Mariska looked at me. “You know,” she said. “One of the Moon Witches.”
Of course. One of the Moon Witches. Obviously.
She proceeded to tell me about them. There were eight, one for each phase. The shyest was New Moon. Nobody had ever seen her because she possessed the power of invisibility. The brightest, their leader, was Full Moon, who guided wanderers to safety at night and commanded the seas to ravage the earth. Together they formed the Dark Council and managed the business of shadows. Mariska told me they were artists.
“So every time you see a shadow at twilight or a strange shape on your bedroom floor, it’s not an intruder or a monster. It’s just the work of the Moon Witches. They’re painting.”
There were stranger stories. Major described hundred-footed beasts and men as tall as blades of grass. She talked of them with shining eyes, her voice lilting. She was in love with these tales. And in those moments, so was I.
She told me about the Red Priest.
Mariska sat next to her grandmother and held her hand, listening to the story like a terrified child instead of the teenager she was. The Red Priest, Major explained, guarded the Abyss, the great split in the world, and he filled that void with horrors and miracles that he spun from the nerve-threads of his brain.
I could see him now. Not in our world, but in the carpet. His figure stood on guard, at the very edge of the hole, his blood-red robes and ashen hair bright, like a warning. I stared more closely at the other woven shapes and people, and realised, finally, that I was looking at generations upon generations of stories, each one painstakingly detailed into fabric so that it was now this enormous, intricate universe of its own. The carpet wasn’t just a family heirloom, it was centuries of female memory etched into cloth. These were their stories. Maybe they dreamed them up. Maybe they lived them. But these were their stories, and they were still alive.
This was enough to make my eyes well up.
I was jealous. Angry. Resentful of Mariska. She had centuries of stories written into her family tree. She was better than me in every way. Prettier. More interesting. More eccentric. She had the loveliest hair and the brightest, most expressive eyes, and clear skin that no person our age ought to have, and to top it all off, she had a family legacy. What did I have? Just some torn pages in my garbage can.
The problem with having a fascinating best friend is that you sometimes envy them more than you love them.
I got up and left, resolving never to go back to that house.
The next day, I joined them for tea again, the ginger smell overpowering the kitchen. I didn’t know then what I know now. No one can keep a writer away from stories. Not in the least, the writer themselves.
I was still jealous, you must understand, but I could have stared at that carpet all day, listening to Mariska and Major talk about the characters woven into it. The more I looked, the more I found. There were ten-winged butterflies and thousand-eyed lake monsters, lost rivers wandering across lonely deserts, and there was food I couldn’t recognise, and palaces made from pearls. There were heroes and villains and onlookers, and in the middle of it all, that burned-away hole.
“Why don’t you just fix it?” I asked.
“It’s for Mariska to fix,” said Major with a warm smile. “When the words come to her.”
And then, Major died.
She was so old. It happened in her sleep.
Mariska was stone-faced through the cremation, even though people whispered about why her parents didn’t come. She was polite with the other mourners. She acted older than she was. My parents told her to come stay with us for a while, and she said she would, that she would just go over to her house and pack her things.
Instead, she disappeared.
You may feel I have glossed over Emotions. It was on purpose. Emotions have a way of overwhelming us, flooding a page, forcing us to accept our humanity. But this story is not a cup, it is a saucer, and I will not flood it with more Emotion than it can hold. For our purposes, we will not follow how the people in this story Feel. We will follow what they Do.
All that is relevant is that Mariska was heartbroken. She had never loved anyone like she loved her grandmother. And in the midst of that grief, she disappeared.
It was many hours after she was due at my house that I went to check on her. The front door was unlocked, which wasn’t worrying because our town was safe, but the lights were off.
I wandered around her house, calling her name, and found the carpet, which they usually kept rolled up in the cupboard, sprawled on the floor by Major’s bed. I stopped and looked at it. And then I noticed another figure in the room.
Well, I can’t say noticed. That implies eyesight, and I couldn’t see her. It was the shadow I saw, dripping across the floorboards in vine-like shapes, dancing in the light of the lamp. Outside the window, a large tree with rope-thin branches drooped to the ground. It swayed in the wind, and the shadow copied its movements.
I could sense her.
I took a step forward.
“Madam New Moon?” I asked.
The shadow skittered towards the darkness, away from the window. I remembered then that she was shy.
“I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, Madam New Moon. But do you know where my friend Mariska is? I’m really worried about her. Is she safe?”
I waited for a minute or two, until Madam New Moon finally made up her mind. I saw the shadow approach me, this time in the silhouette of a woman. I saw her hand reach towards me. I couldn’t imagine how she would touch me, but I felt the shadow between my fingers. It felt like a jewel, smooth, hard, and cold.
A firm grip tugged me onto the carpet, and suddenly I was falling.
Have you ever scraped your knee? Have you held cotton to your skin, to stem the blood? That was how it felt, to be falling into a carpet. It was like my whole body was being absorbed by the fabric.
I landed on a clearing, smack in the middle of the Dark Council’s nightly session.
“New, you’re late,” said Full Moon with a flicker of annoyance. Though perhaps flicker is the wrong word. She was the brightest thing I had ever seen. Her face was perfectly round, pockmarked, and white as — well — the moon. Her hair glowed in a mane all around her. I noticed, beside her, Waxing and Waning Gibbous, twins in their mottled cloths, First and Third Quarter, whose bodies were literally halves of each other. I couldn’t tell if they were sisters or lovers, or perhaps both, because they embraced, never letting go, their light almost matching Full Moon’s. The two Crescents were extremely thin, hunched over in their chairs, looking half-starved.
And then there was New Moon, who was still holding my hand.
“You brought a friend,” said Full, disapprovingly. “Will this one die too?”
My chest constricted. “Where is Mariska?” I demanded of Madam New. She didn’t answer. “You led her here to die? Is that what you’re doing to me too?”
Finally Full Moon looked at me, though I couldn’t meet her gaze, lest I go blind. She spoke for Madam New. “We don’t lead people anywhere. We are the Moon, not the stars. We only paint with shadows and light the way for travellers. A torch and a compass are not the same.”
How do you speak to a Moon Witch?
I had no instruction manual, and I was annoyed by her convoluted answer, so I called her a rude word. Then I said, “Where is Mariska?”
Full didn’t seem to notice or care about the insult. I wasn’t sure she understood it. “She came through this path,” said Full Moon. “She was looking for the Red Priest.”
“Where is he?”
“Torch, not a compass,” reminded Full.
I looked around me and tried to remember the carpet’s layout. The Dark Council was on the newer corner of the carpet. It was one of the stories Major had sewn into the fabric. Behind me, there was nothing. I was at an edge. A golden fence blocked the way, reminiscent of the carpet’s borders. Straight ahead, and I would run into the lake with the thousand-eyed monster. But straight ahead was also the clearest path to the centre of the carpet, to the burn hole. The Abyss.
That was where I would find the Red Priest. And hopefully Mariska.
“Is she going to die?” I asked Full Moon.
“The Red Priest isn’t known for his good temper.”
I didn’t know what she was thinking. Did she want to kill herself? Mariska didn’t seem like the type, but these sadnesses could afflict anybody. Whatever she was planning to do, I simply had to drag her back. And if that meant tearing through this frightening storyworld, then fine.
Why should a writer be scared of stories? I thought to myself, trying to ignore the fact that I was terrified. Soon I realised I was not alone. Above me shone Full Moon, lighting my way. But beside me ran a torrent of crisscrossing shadows. “Madam New,” I greeted her. “Thanks for your company.” I couldn’t see her or hear her, but it was nice to have her around.
The forest opened out in front of a massive, gravelly bank. The lake was simply enormous. The water sparkled in the moonlight. I looked for ripples and disturbances, some indication of the monster under the surface, but I found none.
“I can’t just walk around the bank, can I?”
New Moon’s shadow — now shaped as a woman — shook its head. Then it changed into the shape of a boat. I understood. I’d have to sail across. But there was no boat in sight.
I tried to remember the carpet again. There was definitely no boat woven into it. There was a monster, though, a great ugly thing, like a snake. I had wondered initially if this monster was inspired by Kaliya from Hindu mythology. I couldn’t rule it out. Mythology always sank its claws into stories across time and space. Why would this carpet be any different?
If I was right, though, that meant the monster would have multiple heads. The water was very likely toxic from his venom. I didn’t dare try and swim across. A breeze made the lake ripple. The full moon’s reflection slithered across the water’s surface. I had never understood what the poets meant when they talked about moonlight. When they waxed about its beauty or its wildness. I had never noticed quite how silver it was. Like a pendant. Like a knife’s edge.
The witch of the Full Moon lit a corridor before me, a pale path into the water. It was hypnotising. I walked forward. The gravel underfoot shifted. I saw it happen, slowly, very slowly, the way the ground lotused open. A man emerged, glittering in silver and white.
At first, I thought he was some kind of illusion. Then I realised his clothes were covered in small mirrors. He was dressed like a yesteryear prince with a feathered turban and a sword, The mirrors were sewn into his clothes, into his shoes, into his skin. Between his eyes, where a man might wear a tikla, was a mirror with Mariska’s face trapped in it.
I just stared. His mirrors reflected different people who, judging from their clothes, belonged to different eras. He smiled at me, and I noticed there was one embedded into his upper incisor. It was empty, so I knew it was for me.
“You need a boat,” he guessed. He waved a hand and one appeared out of the ground, just as he had. “I am the Bhuvanesh, the Merchant Prince. I am a tradesman. I will give you this boat, if you do me the honour of looking into my mirror.” And he smiled again, wide and dangerous.
I took a step back.
Mariska was staring at me from the mirror in his forehead. Was it really her? Maybe she never reached the Red Priest. I had to free her.
“You kidnapped my friend.”
“They’re not kidnapped,” he assured. “These are just their reflections. Your friend Mariska crossed the lake and went to find the Red Priest.” He laughed. “Though what good he’ll do her, I don’t know.”
“You’re lying. You kidnapped her.”
“I did not.”
Beside me, New Moonshook her shadowy head. Back then, I thought she was concurring with Bhuvanesh. In hindsight, she was warning me.
Bhuvanish gestured lavishly at his clothes so his mirrors sparkled. He insisted, “It’s just their reflections.” Another smile, calculating, greedy. If he was right, Mariska was still out there somewhere. I couldn’t waste time here, so I approached and stared at the mirror in his teeth.
And I felt something wrenched from my body, snatched by an invisible hand with rough, violent fingers. It was as though he’d stolen an organ I didn’t even known I’d had. I toppled over, retching, and he helped me to my feet. “The boat is yours,” he said with a grin. My own face stared back at me from his tooth.
I gawked at the image. A dark-haired teenager with big eyes and a chipped canine. I tongued it, feeling for the edge. When had that happened? It must have hurt. Had I bled? I couldn’t remember. Did I really have such a round face? Such thin lips?
I touched my cheek. The image in Bhuvanesh’s tooth did not copy me. What an odd thing, to be rid of a reflection. What would she do without me? What dreams did she have? Had I been holding her back?
My skin under my palm was bumpy with acne. I didn’t remember having acne. Was this really my face? Bhuvanesh had so many special faces in his mirrors. Lovelier ones. Smoother skin. Pretty teeth. Long, glossy hair. The filmstar smile. His mirrors glittered in my eyes and all I could think was: I want, I want, I want, and take whatever you need.
That’s silly. The voice in my head. Was it mine? Silly, silly, she kept saying. You can trade with him until you die but you’ll never find anything of equal value.
“Can I sample your wares?” I heard myself say. My spoken voice matched the one in my head. Perhaps the person in my mind was Me. How odd. To own a Self. To Voice it.
“Of course,” said Bhuvanesh brightly, extending his arm, inviting me closer. So many faces. Would I choose the button-nosed girl with the seventies sari? Or the stately woman with a diamond around her throat? I pointed at her. She was stunning.
“I want to wear her face.”
Looking back I don’t think it would have fit me. Other people’s faces will never fit right on your bones.
“Ah.” Bhuvanesh slipped the mirror from the threads in his sleeve. “You break it, you buy it. What will you trade with, my dear?”
“You can have the boat back.” I couldn’t remember what it was for, anyway.
“Oh, no. I don’t do returns.”
“My voice, then.”
He raised a brow at me. “Lovely. Voices are prized things. Rare, too. And you have a particularly fierce one. Not everybody would want to trade away such a thing.”
“You like my voice?” To my ears, it felt plain.
He laughed. “Not your spoken voice. I am not interested in something so banal.” His mirrors flashed. I couldn’t blink for fear of missing their dizzying lights and colours. “I want the voice inside your mind.”
He stepped into my space. “Look at me.”
He was much taller, much older. He had traded with smarter people than I. Five hundred or more faces bore into my soul, their thousand eyes manic. They banged at their mirrors like moths at glass windows.
I looked up him. Up. Up. An ant staring at the boot.
He said, “Speak to me.”
I didn’t know what to say, what to think, and as I gazed at him for inspiration, a girl stared back. Her face in the mirror. Her hands on its wall. She looked into my acne-scarred face, my chipped tooth, my narrow lips. I saw her mouth twist in fear. I saw her warning. I saw her.
The word flooded my brain. It was my voice. My Voice. Mine, mine, mine. I recognised it. I held on. Mine, mine, mine. My Voice. Me. And my friend!
Bhuvanesh’s eyes shot open, horrified. He stumbled back, but it was too late for him. My Voice was loud, the loudest thing in the world. It rumbled across my skull, across the lake. It made the Moons tremble.
He hadn’t taken my reflection. He had taken from me the one thing I could ever truly own.
“Those aren’t reflections. They’re identities. Whole. Untarnished. Identities. How dare you!”
“You consented, did you not? Besides, it was your idea to keep trading.” He approached me again, somehow taller, menace rolling off his shoulders like smoke. “And I think it’s a wise decision. What good is a Voice without an identity? It is weak. It is easily dismissed. It—”
I punched him. Square in the jaw. “Shut up.” I punched him again. My fist connected with his tooth. The mirror holding Me shattered.
In a rush of colour and emotion, every thought and memory I’d ever had bloomed in my chest at once. I remembered everything. My family. Mariska. The day I fell from the playground swing and broke my tooth. The paragraphs I’d lain to waste in my dustbin. The colour of the ink that stained my palms when I wrote. The words that flooded to my head. Every missed comma and run-on sentence and incomplete plot. All my flaws. All my insecurity. All my power. I could have chewed the mountains and spit them out. I could have cleaved the earth and drunk its magma.
He was screaming, swallowing blood and glass. I pushed the boat into the water, then turned. He was lying on the gravel, cursing, sobbing. I loomed over him and pulled out the mirror in his forehead. My Friend, I thought. She saved me from giving myself up entirely. I would save her too. I would save her as many times as I had to.
The boat was drifting from the shore, but I was no longer afraid of the water. I paddled to it.
I was Drishti. My name meant Vision. I saw through the tradesman.
There was no monster in this lake. He was the monster.
Anyone who barters for your identity is a monster.
It took me a while to realise it, but Madam New was in the boat with me. “I really wish you would talk to me,” I told her. “I know you’re shy. But we could be friends.”
She was silent, of course. The lake went on seemingly forever, and we didn’t face any disturbances. I fell asleep at one point, my eyes growing heavier as I watched shadows dance and swim on the water’s surface. Perhaps the ordeal with the Merchant Prince had tired me. The mirror with Mariska’s face trapped in it was safe in my pocket. I wanted to break it, but I wasn’t sure if I should. It wasn’t my place.
I awoke to a soft, feminine voice whispering, “She will not survive the Red Priest without it.”
I jerked awake, grabbing the mirror. Still there. My eyes squinted against moonlit darkness. “Madam New?” I murmured. “What do you mean?”
“The Red Priest,” she went on, in a demure sigh. “He cannot be commanded. But if you own what the mirror holds, he might consider listening to you.”
“Who is this Red Priest, exactly?” Major’s story hadn’t told me anything. Only that he was the guardian of the Abyss, that he had only taken on this role after the carpet had been burned, but regardless, he had always been the most powerful character in this world. Enigmatic, temperamental, and extremely dangerous.
I will not divulge what the New Moon said to me.
You figure it out.
The boat reached the other side of the lake by morning. Madam New left, taking the night with her. What stretched before me was a golden desert, reminiscent of Sindh. According to Major’s stories, this place was filled with lost things: disappearing rivers, treasure chests with legs and arms, but no head, and a language in search of speakers.
But I saw none of it as I walked through the desert, towards the Red Priest. It must have been hours, but eventually, the sand gave rise to mountains. They were not like the Himalayas but like broken teeth.
With every step I took in his direction, something in the world dipped. As though this universe itself was getting heavier, weighed down by more than it could handle. And I was growing heavier too. My footprints left deep impressions in soil that turned blacker and blacker. The earth rumbled. Every breath I took became a breeze. My heartbeat was a roar that echoed through the valley. Though I looked the same, I knew I weighed as much as a god.
There were no trees, no signs of life. Just the smell of smoke. And darkness.
And I saw the Abyss.
It was in front of me, an enormous hole in the fabric of the world, extending endlessly forward and across. And buckled at its edge was my Mariska. She was screaming.
Her voice was raw, as though she’d been screaming all night. She was bowed at the feet of an old man, her mouth moving in soundless shapes, a Voice that couldn’t be heard over the loss of its identity. The Red Priest wasn’t listening to her. Even as she pulled at his red robes, he wouldn’t look at her. He gazed ahead, not at me, not at anything. He reminded me of ash and smoke and the lava that bubbled at the dawning of time.
“Mariska! Mariska!” I shouted. “I’m here to res—” as the distance between us reduced, I saw her disappear before my eyes.
I was trapped in what I thought were afterimages. As though someone had hammered my eyes shut until I was seeing stars and lines and indecipherable shapes. I shouted for Mariska again, and—
We were in her room. Watching old movies. Major was in the kitchen, making ginger tea. Mariska was laughing at the TV screen, eating kurmura, dropping half of it on the floor.
“Mariska?” I asked her. “Is this real?”
“Is what real?” she asked me.
I got up and walked out of her room and stepped into the bottom of the ocean. I had fins. Seaweed in my hair. My neck was trapped in a fisherman’s net, and I was being hauled out of the water with a thousand other lives. I was screaming for mercy, but my words didn’t carry in the air. I died.
And I woke up in a warzone. Kargil, I instinctively knew. Bloodied faces and bodies blown to bits everywhere. The boom-boom-boom of war machines. I was firing but my gun was out of bullets. I took cover behind a rock and the earth swallowed me whole.
I was a meteor. My whole purpose was to slam into the atmosphere of something that would eat me. A planet. A star. But I drove myself forward, determined to die with pride—
“NO!” I roared. And I was me. Rescuing Mariska. Picking up a pebble. Throwing it. Another one. Another one. Stone-pelting the Red Priest. “MY REALITY IS NOT YOURS TO PLAY WITH!”
He was staring at me. Unsmiling. “You still have it,” he murmured. “The thing that makes you you.” He was whispering but I heard it. I didn’t care for a word he said. I ran to Mariska, expecting him to stop me. But he couldn’t. She was in a foetal position, less a person and more a pile of tears and pain.
“Mariska, Mariska,” I whispered, holding her. I gave her the mirror. “You have to break this.”
She wouldn’t listen. She was too far gone.
“What did you do?” my throat burned. I looked at the Red Priest and then at Mariska, wiping her tears even as more fell. She couldn’t recognise me.
“I do what I want,” the Red Priest answered. He spoke through his mouth, but his words rang from the strings that tied this world together. He was music, he was violence, he was the beating heart of reality itself.
But Mariska was my friend. It was all that mattered.
“Fix her. You pig, fix her!”
He looked at Mariska, as though registering her presence for the first time. “I did not break her. So why must I fix her?” Toddler logic. I was livid, but there was no point. You may think him a villain, but I don’t. Even then, I sensed no hate in him. Only a frightening surety of being. He could not help his existence. He was a function of a world that was filled to the brim with noise and ideas and arguments. He was given these pieces to play with, and it was all he could do to keep track. Everybody believed the Red Priest was powerful. But power was only a matter of perspective.
“She wanted to see her grandmother,” I concluded. “She wanted to live in a world where Major was alive. That was why she came here.”
Mariska choked on tears. I wrapped an arm around her shoulders and glared up at the Red Priest.
“You are torturing her. All because she wants to see Major again.”
“Major was my friend.” The Red Priest blinked his vacant eyes. Something stirred in them. A memory, long forgotten. He knelt before Mariska, almost remorseful, and placed a palm on her head. “Only the brave and the foolish ever seek me out. Often, humans are both. Mariska surrendered herself for a chance to see her grandmother again. But without the person in the mirror, she could not deal with her own reality — much less any of mine. Unfortunately, grief needs to be felt. You cannot beg, barter, or negotiate your way out of it.”
I swallowed. He looked at me.
“I cannot save her. Only that which is in your pocket will help her now.”
I pulled the mirror out. Mariska’s face stared at me through the glass.
Until that night, it hadn’t occurred to me how much the world will demand of us when we’re scared. Or how much we’re willing to give up, just to quiet the fear. Whether it’s the fear of loss, or change, or even our own selves. In that moment, I thought: we can’t help but do this, chip away at our bodies and voices and sell them for parts to the first person who asks for a price. We are terrible auctioneers. We don’t know the worth of any of it.
Then I thought: this is why we need each other. We need someone to still our hand, to say, This is too valuable to sell. Give it to me. I will keep it safe. I will protect it until you are ready to bear its burden once again.
“Mariska,” I whispered, clasping her hand. I placed the mirror in her palm. “This is you.”
She shook her head. She turned away.
“This is you,” I told her. “Weird and brilliant and special. You love old movies and ginger tea and Major. You love music I don’t understand and you love to snack between meals and you hide a flashlight in your closet so you can read fairy stories when you’re supposed to be asleep. You’re my best friend. Even if you don’t remember, I do. I do.”
I guided her hand. We smashed the mirror against the stones.
I watched as form returned to her body. Mariska sat up, pressing her hands to her eyes. She took a heaving breath, then another. “Drishti,” she murmured. “We’re a long way from home.”
Sitting on my heels, I untangled a stray lock of her beautiful hair. “We’ll find our way back.”
“I wish she was here.” Mariska’s voice, stretched thin from hours of pain, broke. She pressed her head into my shoulder and I held on tight. Her tears sank into the fabric of my shirt. This world ate them, one drop at a time.
We did not return the way we came. Mariska was in no condition to brave the trek. The closest way out of that world was through the Abyss, and the only way to leave from there was to build a path of our own. The Red Priest did not offer to help, but he didn’t stop us. He simply observed, curious, like a god struck with ennui.
With Mariska’s head on my lap, I sat on the ground, shut my eyes, and dreamed up an exit.
I thought about a staircase that extended down and out. I thought of blue skies, not darkness, that would light our path, and music so gentle it could hold the soul together. I thought and thought and thought, leaving no room for doubt. If I failed, I wouldn’t be able to tear up the page and throw it in the bin. I wouldn’t let us fall down the Abyss. Not when I could figment my way out of it.
When I opened my eyes, the Abyss was no longer a dark hole, but a well filled with beauty. It had exactly what I had imagined, and then some. It had a landscape: a meadow that grew vertically along the stairway. It had birds. It had flowers.
Mariska and I walked down, taking many breaks. It took us a long time. But we finally stepped out of the carpet’s world and onto Major’s bedroom floor.
Here, it was still the night of Major’s funeral.
I called my parents to tell them I’d be staying over. No time at all seemed to have passed.
Mariska stared at the hole in the carpet for many minutes before she said, “I’m sorry,” and then, “thank you.”
“It’s everything.” She took a shuddering breath. “Will you make us ginger tea? The way grandma used to make it.”
She stood. “I’ll go get some paper.”
Mariska smiled at me faintly. “We have to fill that abyss,” she said simply.
With the smell of ginger coating the air, we sat on the table and wrote.
About the Author
Damini Kane is a 25-year-old novelist from India. She has been coming up with stories since she was six, and would fill pages and pages of her school notebooks with scenes and drawings. Though she writes some poetry, her first love is prose fiction, the novel in particular. She has been published in literary journals, online and in print, such as the Lakeview Journal and The Purple Breakfast Review. Her piece, titled Aleppo, was long-listed for the DNA Out of Print Short Fiction Contest. She was also a winner of the Campus Diaries 25 Under 25 contest, a national talent hunt that highlighted the skills of 25 people in four categories: Photography, Design, Science and Technology, and Writing. Kane loves to write character-driven stories, and fantasy stories with a heavy focus on interpersonal conflicts. Her first novel, The Sunlight Plane, was published in 2018. She is currently working on a fantasy fiction series. Follow her at @daminikane on Instagram and @DaminiKane Twitter.