Just One Last Mango
by Chaitanya Murali
“Do you want one?” Meghna asked between bites. She was sitting in the upper branches of Balu maama’s mango tree, with half a dozen golden fruits bundled in her podavai and another one in her mouth.
I shook my head, keeping an eye out for maama, and an ear out for his dogs. If he caught us, then that was another day of helping him. Another day of hearing him lecture us about how those mangoes were for selling, not eating. Another day of unpaid labour. Another loss for us. The mangoes I could eat once we were home. For now, I just wanted Meghna to get down so we could go. But my sister, older by a year and therefore infinitely more wise, swayed on the branch, kicking her legs and laughing — giddy from the flavour.
Stolen mangoes always did taste sweeter.
“He’s going to come out soon!” My words were a hissed whisper.
“You better start running, then,” Meghna said, without the slightest urgency to accompany it. If anything, she seemed about ready to fall asleep on the branch, splaying herself across it like a basking cat.
“Meghna! What if someone sees you?”
“Their problem, no? It’s fine, Karthik. No one comes here at this time, anyway. And besides, he never eats them.”
I could hear the dogs stirring now and my bones screamed in the panicked remembrance of a thousand crushing dog hugs. Balu maama’s dogs weren’t the biting kind. They were the aggressively friendly kind, which was somehow worse. They threw themselves at us with abandon, looking only to knock us down and pin us long enough to lick our faces raw.
“They’re coming, toss the mangoes to me!” I said, opening thatha’s veshti that I’d snuck into his room to take while he snored on his wicker cot, a Dhina Thandhi magazine spilled open over his chest. Four fruits dropped, golden splashes in billowing cotton. Gilded and shining in the morning sun.
These weren’t normal mangoes.
I looked up, searching for where Meghna could have plucked these, but I couldn’t tell. The culprit herself was scurrying down the tree, each scraping step belying her grand indifference from before. She had the other mangoes tied in a bundle in her podavai, though I couldn’t tell if those were normal or not.
“What are these?” I asked, holding one up for her to inspect.
“Saw them just before I came down. They were in the upper boughs, coming from another tree,” she replied. “Don’t they look fancy? Just imagine how they’ll taste!”
“Did they come from over the compound wall?” I asked. She ignored the question.
Her silence was enough to tell me the answer.
We jumped the compound wall as the dogs turned the corner, Balu maama close behind them. He was pale as a ghost, his skin and hair bleached white by some strange disease that had afflicted him for many years. But despite that, and despite his age, he was still sturdy — he told us he’d been a warrior in his youth, though he never told us any stories about it.
But for now, we were over, and so we were safe. Meghna and I stood in the road, secure with the barrier protecting us. We had an unspoken rule in this game, Balu maama and us — if we made it over the compound wall, then we’d won for the day, and we were free to keep our spoils. If not, we’d work as punishment.
“Cutting it fine, eh, kids?” Balu maama said, grinning. “I was this close to getting you today.” He pinched his fingers close and then leaned his elbows against the wall.
“I wanted to leave long ago, but Meghna refused,” I said.
“It’s more fun this way, Karthik . . . but you won’t get it, since you’re such a bayandhagoli.”
“Ey, your brother’s not a coward — he’s just cautious. Without him pushing you, I’d catch you every time,” Balu maama said.
“And without me, he’d come home with one mango every day and be happy with it,” Meghna replied. I stuck my tongue out at her.
Balu maama laughed. “You’ve won for today, kids — but remember, you owe me my cut still. I’ll expect it at lunch tomorrow. Now go home, before your mother scolds you again.”
He waved his goodbye and returned to his house, the dogs whining at his heels.
“Should we have shown him the strange ones?” I asked Meghna.
“Why would we? He’d take them from us and sell them. I don’t want to let them go to waste like that!” she said, disgusted at the idea.
I followed her home then, but each glance I stole at the golden mangoes twisted the knot in my stomach ever tighter.
There was one house in the village we didn’t enter. It loomed over us all, a remnant of a time long since lost. It had once belonged to kings, Amma said. A summer home for them to stay in when they wanted to get away from their stuffy palaces. When they wanted to live amongst their subjects, as one of them. But at some point, the place was forgotten, left to be a relic and a reminder of better times.
Most families had shifted their homes ever further away from it, but Balu maama wasn’t given to our superstitions. His home was ancestral property, as old as the one we didn’t enter, and there was no way he was leaving it. But even he kept his distance from the house, marking the base of the wall along his borders with wooden spikes — though nothing lived on the other side. He was old enough to know why the house was abandoned, and though he wouldn’t give voice to the thoughts, he had seen things there, I knew.
But that was why Amma didn’t like us helping the old man, and why Meghna loved it. She would constantly sit in the boughs of maama’s trees and peer over the large compound wall, trying to get a good look at what was so terrible about an old summer home. What could be so terrifying about it that they’d had to build a fifteen-foot wall all around it?
Mangoes, it seemed, was the answer. I don’t know how she found the tree, or how that branch snaked its way over the wall to her, but they were a match made in heaven. Insatiable curiosity meeting that which longed for contact.
“No branches have ever come over the wall before,” I told her, while we sat out on the verandah of our house.
“You just haven’t seen them,” she replied.
“Why aren’t you worried? That building is cursed, and Amma’s going to kill you if she finds out.”
“She’s not going to find out, because you’re going to help me finish these mangoes before she comes.”
“I’m not touching the gold ones. Give me the kili mooku.”
“Common sense, it’s called. You should learn it someday.”
She made a face at me and took a bite out of the mango, skin and all. Meghna didn’t care for the time it took to cut a mango into serviceable pieces, preferring to eat them like apples. She also did it because she knew I found it weird.
She squealed, a drunken grin splaying itself across her juice-stained cheeks.
“This is heaven,” she declared. “Should’ve taken the offer, Karthik. Now I’m definitely not sharing these with you.”
“Whatever! They’re probably not that good anyway.” I turned away from her, letting my legs dangle off the porch. But my eyes betrayed me, edging over to the corners of their prisons, constantly straining to get another glimpse of the mangoes Meghna ate.
I waited for something to happen to her — maybe a tree would grow out of her stomach, like Amma always warned, or she’d transform into a monster, like in Amma’s stories — but to my disappointment, nothing happened to her. She spent the day buzzing around, thrilled at her theft and utterly insufferable.
I was miserable.
It was just a tree.
I didn’t want something to happen to her, but I was disappointed that the first thing we’d seen from the house had been so . . . normal. Other than their colour, the mangoes had just been fruit. No magic, no curse, nothing.
Amma came home late, having spent the whole day helping Kannama aaya’s cow give birth. She was too tired today to even be disappointed with us for disappearing before she could take us with her. We heated water for her bath and then she collapsed onto the rajai on the floor.
That night, I dreamed of solid gold mangoes.
I walked an ancient courtyard, oversaw the birth of a union — and the celebrations that ensued. I saw kings, dressed in silk veshtis and angavastrams, their fingers intertwined as their mothers took stage.
And I saw another, a six-armed woman woven from shadow, watching them.
Meghna woke me sometime after midnight, throwing Amma’s hand off me and pulling me to my feet. She didn’t need to say it; I could feel it in her trembling grip.
She’d seen something too.
We snuck back into Balu maama’s garden. Even with his dogs patrolling the grounds, there was no real danger here — nothing could wake maama once he fell asleep. We played with the dogs for a few minutes, calming them just in case someone was about this side of the village, and then climbed back into the tree. I went up first this time, driven by curiosity and a determination not to let Meghna get them all again.
At the very top, where I could just about peek over the wall, I saw the golden fruits. They glinted even in the dark of night, the burnished gold seemingly possessing a light of its own. Meghna must have been lying in the morning, because that tree didn’t reach over the wall. It was nestled a full ten feet within the old ruins. She must have climbed over when I wasn’t looking and collected the mangoes.
I looked for a branch that could carry her over the wall and spotted one not far from me. The vines growing on the other side would be easy to climb down, and I could return with an armful of the mangoes in moments. Easy as that. And then she’d never call me a bayandhangoli again.
“Karthik, what are you doing?” Meghna asked, confusion and concern rising in her tone.
“The same thing you did in the morning, climbing over to get those fruits.”
“I told you, I didn’t go over. There was a branch, right . . . ” Her voice trailed off, and her raised finger pointed at empty blackness.
“Yeah, can’t lie now that I’m looking, no?” I said.
“Karthik, I’m not lying. It was right there; I didn’t go over the wall. No one goes over, you know that.” She sounded afraid now, but I didn’t believe her. How could she be telling the truth, when I could see the tree with my own eyes? There was no way she hadn’t set foot inside the old grounds.
I inched closer to the wall, my eyes focused on the prize, my mouth watering at the promise of its taste. I heard Meghna climbing now, calling out to me, but her voice was distant, whispered. I could ignore her.
I reached the wall. Climbed over.
Meghna’s voice was gone now. Instead, I heard the silence of ages, the whispers of ancient winds, whistling through halls as old as time. I could tell now that the house was overtaken by plants, ivy and ficus and money plant consuming wood and stone, wrapping them in winding tendrils until only yawning holes remained to indicate the existence of a homestead. And just in front of the verandah stood the mango tree. I saw again for a moment the kings, kneeling before it, venerating it as a gift of their god. And then they were gone.
I went first to the house. No spectral faces peered out at me from those decaying halls, no ghostly whispers inviting me in with temptations of power. All those warnings, all those tales about the house, and there was nothing here. What was everyone so afraid of?
I turned then to the tree, turned my gaze from the house to the golden fruit, that which I had come for. I stepped over the dried husks of birds and squirrels, barely noticing them. I told myself that those weren’t eyes I saw carved deep into the tree trunk. That I was reaching my prize.
“I would not step closer, if I were you.” The man’s voice was as that of the wind, timeless and thin, susurrations in my head.
I stopped in my tracks, paralysed by sudden confirmation that all the tales had been true, after all. I looked at the mango tree, which was only a dozen feet from me now, seeing clearly the grinning visage of the devil cut into it. Its branches waved at me, beckoning me closer to that maw of jagged timber. Inside, I saw a writhing mass — centipedes, spiders, scorpions. They tumbled and jostled within for position, for first claim at this latest feast.
I stepped back, heel crunching on an old corpse.
“He likes to spit the dried corpses out each time, see how far he can toss them,” the man said.
I swiveled instinctively, looking for the ghost, for this creature toying with me.
“What do you want?” I ventured, puffing out my chest even as I cowered.
“You’re the first person I’ve seen in years, since my neighbour shut me out. I don’t want Old Banganapalli to eat you before I even say hi.”
He stepped out of the house’s entrance, where the vines and the shadows met in a tangle of impenetrable darkness at the doorway. He wore a veshti seemingly cut from those selfsame shadows, a sheet of swirling black wrapped around his legs. It gave the impression, when he stood still, of a statue carved from a tree, possessing only an upper body.
“Step away from my brother, demon!” Meghna yelled. The strange man cocked his head, and I turned to find my sister standing atop the wall, wooden bat in hand. A warrior draped in red, come to rescue me from peril.
“Karthik, wait right there, I’m — what on Earth is that?” She was staring at the tree, whose branches now split in half to wave invitingly at both of us.
“Girl, meet Banganapalli. Banganapalli, don’t eat girl,” the ghostly man said.
Meghna climbed down gingerly, keeping her distance from the tree. When she reached me, she grabbed my hand and pulled me back towards the wall, her eyes flitting between the spectre and the tree.
“Leaving so soon?” the man asked. He was still smiling, still a picture of calm. His hands were clasped behind his back, his posture relaxed.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Karthik, don’t talk to it,” Meghna hissed.
“That’s a rude thing to say to the person who saved your brother.”
“What are you, demon? Why did you call us here?”
The man-demon ran a hand through thick shadows where there should have been hair.
“I’m the owner of this land you’re trespassing on. The one who planted the tree that sends you visions. You can call me Dhanush.” His tone was teasing, a thin smile playing on his lips. He walked as he spoke, drawing closer to us, casual and rhythmic and mesmerising.
Meghna raised the bat, but we both knew that it would do little to the thing we faced.
“You were the target, you know. I watched Old Banganapalli try to reel you in with his mangoes in the morning, but you were too quick. So he searched for those who had touched his fruit, his lure. Drew them in with visions, promises of answers,” he said, shrugging, “And if it wasn’t for me, your brother would have followed those visions right into Old Banganapalli’s mouth.”
“What do you want from us?” Meghna asked. “You saved him, so now he’s in your debt?”
Dhanush’s grin grew wider, and then he was in front of us, a hand on each of our heads. “You’re absolutely right!” he said, the darkness flowing from his head and his veshti to cover us, muffle our screams, swallow us whole.
I woke up in a cellar, my face pressed against ice-cold rock. Water dripped from somewhere to echo its despondent pitters through the cavern. Around me I could see the vague outlines of enormous roots, running all along the walls and the ground before disappearing into cracks in the rock.
I was under the tree.
I stifled my cry. What had I done?
“Karthik? Are you there?” Meghna’s whisper came from across the cellar, quiet but urgent.
She’ll know what to do.
When I reached her, she grasped my arms and pulled me into a quick hug. Momentary warmth.
Then she was holding me at arms’ length.
“If you’d wanted one so badly, I’d have given it to you in the afternoon, you idiot,” she said.
My laugh was choked, cutting off midway to become a gurgle of tears that I hid in her shoulder.
“It’s okay. We’re still here. I’ll get us out, just wait and see,” she said.
I rubbed my face and nodded. But it wasn’t just that.
“I saw something, after . . . whatever the demon did,” I said. Meghna’s breath caught in her throat.
“What did he show you?” she asked.
“Two men, planting a seed in the ground. I think one of them was him,” I replied.
“He showed me the same thing. Why is he doing this?” Meghna asked.
“Maybe he’s doing the same thing the tree did? Toying with us,” I said.
“Whatever his game is, we’re not falling for it. Now, which way is out?” Meghna asked, walking forward, right hand pressed to a mouldy wall and left hand gripping one of mine like a vise.
The cellar eventually gave way to a wide corridor that reeked of decay. More roots coursed the passage, spreading across the framework of this house like veins under the skin.
The passage never split, and soon enough I could feel the dying breath of the midnight wind brush at my face. The surface was close. The roots faded as we rushed for the exit, trickling further into nothingness with each step we took.
We reached the rotted door to this cellar. Broke through the threshold.
And interrupted a feast.
The cellar had held the damp chill of a midwinter night, but what we entered now was summer, with its water-clogged air and its heat that burned at the brain. Servants in sweat-stained veshtis walked past us, ignoring us as they carried trays of lavishly dressed quail and deer to the people sitting cross-legged on the floor of the house’s inner courtyard. Stone and mud cups clattered into one another in celebration, the muggy air doing nothing to curb the enthusiasm of those in the room. At the head of the feast, the same two men I had seen planting the tree in my dream sat side-by-side, splitting the revellers into lines running parallel down from each of them. They were bare chested, with hair tied into kudumis above their heads. While those around ate and drank, these two men only had eyes for one another, as if nothing existed but them.
“This was supposed to be a good day.”
The demon, Dhanush, stood beside us, still ghostly and unnatural even in the light of this vision’s fires. Of all those in the palace courtyard, only his gaze seemed to touch us. But his words were soft, carrying little of the malevolent humour they’d had before.
“I saw this. The tree showed me these people,” I said.
“That’s you in the centre, isn’t it?” Meghna asked.
“This is a vision, from before my house fell,” Dhanush said.
His ancient gaze was fixed on the scene playing out before us, where the kings’ mothers rose to take their positions behind their sons. The room stilled, cups paused mid-drink, jokes died half-uttered on drunk lips; even the rasam boiling at the hearth in the centre of the floor stopped simmering so as not to anger the matriarchs.
The one closer to us spoke, raising a mug to the open sky. “We give thanks today, first to Deivi Jyestha, for staying her hand on this auspicious day, and second to our hosts and now family, the Chozhans. Long may the bonds we have built today live!” She brought the cup to her lips and drained it smoothly, prompting everyone but the couple to do the same.
Dhanush spoke, quiet bitterness drowning the scene before us. “If only Jyestha had seen fit to leave us be. But I’ve come to know her much better in the years since, and know now how much she relished stringing us along like little idiot puppets.”
I knew of this goddess; the oldest villagers attributed ill fortune to her — I’d heard her name invoked when Amma was called to help with livestock that had fallen ill. But Dhanush spoke of her as someone they . . . worshipped? Who would worship bad luck?
The scene blurred into shadows, voices distorting into echoed wails as the spectre reformed its vision.
We were back in the vision I’d seen earlier — of Dhanush and his husband planting what would become the cursed tree.
“Was it already a monster?” Meghna asked.
“For now, it was what tied our families together. What tied Rajan and me together.”
“What happened?” The question came out a whisper.
“You asked if I wanted something from you,” Dhanush said softly.
“I have two demands to make of you. One, I think you know — though that will happen if you carry out the second demand. I . . . just want you to witness it through to the end.”
He was rambling, his words vague and confusing.
“What’s the second demand?” Meghna asked.
“I’ll show you.”
The mango tree had grown to adulthood now, rising high into the sky and broad as an elephant. In the broad daylight of this most recent vision, I could tell just how much the curse had affected our village.
Mylampettai had been a city of thousands, its lands filled with all manner of people. From the courtyard of the house, I could see a marketplace that spanned the distance of the entire village today, where merchants dressed in outlandish garb screamed in strange tongues as they hawked their goods to busy passers-by.
“What happened to this town?” I asked.
“This town was our dream — Rajan’s and mine. Mylampettai meant everything to us — after all, it was where we’d found each other. We wanted nothing more than for this city to prosper, to better its fortunes, and for that, we were ruined.”
A figure walked up the hill from the market alone, his ash-marked body and orange veshti naming him a wandering priest. Someone who could not be turned from the threshold of a house.
“That can’t be . . . ” Meghna said, and a moment later I saw it too.
The priest, all these centuries ago, was Balu maama.
“But . . . he’s not a priest,” I said, as if that was the least believable part of his appearance.
“He is one of Rajan’s uncles, a warrior who had turned to the saffron once our union was announced, once his purpose was erased. We never realised that peace affronted him,” Dhanush said.
Balu maama walked up to the house, where the human Dhanush, and Rajan, waited to receive him.
“Please, aiyya, come inside. It is an honour for you to visit us once more,” Dhanush said.
“I do not need to come inside, thambi — I am but passing through your town. But if it may please you, could I eat some of the wonderful mangoes on that tree?” he asked. Balu maama had shaved his head around the kudumi in the manner of priests.
“Please, nothing would make us happier than to see you eat from our bond-plant! It has been far too long since you visited us, so why don’t you stay for a few days?” Rajan said.
“Thank you, my son. You are most gracious,” Balu maama said.
“It is nothing, especially for family. Your time here shall be spent in the greatest comfort, maama,” Rajan replied, drawing Balu maama into an embrace.
“That was Rajan. He would do anything to ensure that others were well taken care of, even if he had to force it upon them,” the spectre said.
Rajan rushed into the house and returned a few moments later bearing a cushion and a straw-woven mat for the priest to sit on, placing them in the shade of the tree. Balu took his seat there and began to eat.
The day turned to dusk, and dusk to night, but still the priest ate. He called for Rajan and Dhanush every hour or so, asking them to climb ever higher into the boughs for fruit. They did so without complaint, because who could ask a priest to stop? But the tree was growing barren, and the priest’s hunger showed little sign of abating.
Balu maama patted his belly, dropping another kottai to join the burgeoning pile on the mat in front of him.
“Maybe just one last mango, and I’ll be full, thambi,” he said, smiling beatifically at Rajan.
As we watched, Rajan climbed into the upper reaches of the tree, searching blindly in the night for one last golden fruit to save them this priest’s wrath. We stood next to both the human Dhanush and his miserable spectre, watching in openmouthed horror as Rajan’s left foot missed a branch, just as he found the last fruit in the tree. The spectre watched on, face stoic as stone, though the shadows of his hair and veshti flared with repressed anger.
Rajan fell silently, shock stealing what time he had left. The human Dhanush did not reach him in time, only arriving once the blood pouring from Rajan’s head had already begun to soak into the ground.
And behind the tragic kings, Balu stood stoic, firm in his guest-right.
“Where is my mango?” he asked.
Dhanush didn’t reply, his head buried in Rajan’s chest as he sobbed for his love.
“Boy, are you going to leave me unsatisfied?” Balu asked again, his tone threatening now.
Dhanush turned to him, his head heavy with tears. He looked from the priest to the seeds that littered the floor around him, a dangerous cast setting in his back and shoulders.
“You killed him,” Dhanush said.
“You killed my husband!” Dhanush screamed.
The priest-warrior rose to his full height, a full half-foot taller than Dhanush. He towered over the king — grim, offended, and triumphant.
“How dare you accuse me of murder! First you fail to feed me, and then you call me a murderer?” There was a wicked glee lying just under Balu’s veneer of apoplectic rage. He was enjoying this.
“Oh, Deivi! Hear my words. This false king has shamed and insulted me, your most ardent follower. Oh, Deivi! Cast your net over him, grant him the boon of your divine misfortune, so that he may be an example for the world to see!” Balu cried to the skies.
“What are you doing?” Dhanush yelled, hovering protectively over Rajan’s body.
“Deivi! Channel your power through this cursed tree, bind these two ill-mannered souls to it, the source of this insult on your flesh! Their hubris, their greed, their ill-conceived bond, all of it is tied to this tree, a most prescient gift to you!”
The moonlight focused on Dhanush, Rajan, and the tree, its glow illuminating the awful elation on Balu’s face. And then the light expanded, drawing the priest into its fold, devouring them before they could utter a sound. There it remained for several days, pulsing with energy that spread into the earth around the hill. All around us, people emptied into the streets as Misfortune manifested within their homes, cursing them with its touch. They abandoned the town, forming an exodus that spread the word of Mylampettai’s fall to all who would listen. In the end, only the light remained, a beacon illuminating the meaningless ruin of a prosperous town. A testament to the fickle whims of the goddess it had chosen to worship.
It poured down on the house, bleaching it of colour and life. When the goddess’s power finally abated, the returning sun revealed Dhanush and Balu lying unconscious on the floor, both looking as they did in the present. The tree too had changed, its trunk twisting into its current, tortured form. Of Rajan’s body there was no sign, not even the blood that had spilled onto the ground.
“What he didn’t consider was that Jyestha would include him in the curse. Ever opportunistic, was the Lady of Misfortune. Why ruin only two lives when a third was standing right there, begging for her blessing?” Dhanush said.
Balu awoke first and panicked when he realised what had happened. He drew a knife he’d kept at his back and tried to kill Dhanush, but the blade twisted out of his grip and fell to the ground. He tried to choke him, but nerveless fingers refused to close around the spectre’s neck.
“She plays cruel tricks, does Jyestha. He wanted us ruined, so she tied his fate to mine. We were forced to live this un-life together, unable to kill each other. And my poor, dear Rajan, who died for that fruit, he became my only hope.”
The tree, out of Balu’s sight, blossomed a single golden mango.
Now it made sense why Balu maama always refused to eat the mangoes in his own garden.
Meghna let go of my hand, which I’d forgotten she was still holding, and went to the tree. Its whip-like branches waved slowly but didn’t attack her. She spared a small glance for Balu, who was stumbling to his feet now, running from the site of his crime.
She reached into it and plucked the mango. It shone in her hands, a teardrop of sunlight. And then it was a regular mango, no different to any that we’d seen before. Nothing like the ones that had lured me here in the first place.
“You know what you must do,” he said, disappearing into shadow.
The vision broke, leaving us alone in the courtyards of a home ruined by envy. Meghna stood under the tree, but it did nothing to her. She pressed a hand to its trunk and then backed away.
We climbed over the wall and returned home through Balu maama’s garden, the mango hidden deep in Meghna’s podavai.
Tomorrow, we would see Balu maama.
We made it at home, cut the mango open and let it boil over a fire. I roasted chillis, venthiyam, kothamalli, and ginger, while Meghna scraped the insides of a coconut. We ground the coconut and the thalichu into a paste and threw them into the pot with the mango. Add some curd and manjal podi and stir, until the mango flavour is subtle, a sweet accentuation under the spice of the mor kozhambu.
Amma often made this using the mangoes we stole from Balu maama. A recipe she’d picked up through constant experimentation, a way to keep mangoes interesting once we’d had thousands of them. Balu maama would never know it was mango until he tasted it.
We went to him after Amma had left, promising that this would be the last time we visited his house. I kept his dogs away from Meghna, who held two bowls, one of kozhambu and one of rice, in her hands.
Balu maama was lying on a cot, as he usually was in the afternoon. He looked the same as he always had, pot-bellied, white haired, and pink-skinned from illness.
“Maama, our payment for yesterday,” Meghna said. She held the dishes out for him to take.
He grunted with the immense effort of sitting up and took the dishes from her, smelling them for what we now realised was a hint of mango and not finding it. We watched with rapt attention as he mixed the kozhambu and rice together, mashing them with his right hand until there remained not a single grain of rice unstained by the golden curry.
We watched him eat, saw the realisation hit him with the first mouthful.
And we watched him continue eating, ravenous, unstoppable, greedy, until he’d licked the bowl clean.
“Why?” I asked. Even the dogs had gone silent.
“I had forgotten the taste,” Balu maama said. He stared into the bowl, like he could conjure more of the food if he looked hard enough.
“You knew what it was, and you still ate it,” I said.
“Only after the first bite, and by then it was already done. You did well to hide it from me,” he said.
“Are you angry?” Meghna asked.
“That you went over the wall? Yes. But for this, I . . . am glad,” he replied. His hair was beginning to fall from his head, fluttering to the floor in wisps of light.
“Glad?” Meghna asked. “Are you not going to tell us that he showed us a lie, or even that you’re sorry for what you did?”
“Bah! They deserved it then, and they deserve it today. I’m not glad for them. I’m glad you tricked me into eating those mangoes once more. They truly were delightful,” Balu said.
He held the bowl out in one atrophied, skeletal hand. “But please, just one last mango?”
There was once a house atop the hill overlooking Mylampettai. It was a grand affair, a summer home for kings. And then it was a ruin, fit only to hold the spectre of a man grieving the death of his love. It was a relic of a bygone time, a mausoleum built by the power of a long-forgotten goddess.
And now, it too was taken by time.
We climbed over the wall once Balu maama had fallen to dust, ready to report our success to Dhanush.
We pretended not to know what we’d see.
The mango tree, so menacing when we’d first laid eyes on it, had wilted, its many branches falling limp to the floor as it sank. The face carved into its heart had opened, depositing a human body on the earth.
Rajan, beautiful and serene in slumber, no trace of the violence of his death.
And kneeling in front of that body, cradling it in his lap just as he had all those centuries ago, was Dhanush.
He turned his head to the skies, voicing an unspoken curse to the goddess who’d done this to him, and then they fell to mist. Dhanush, Rajan, the tree, and the house.
We were left standing on an empty lot.
When the mists lifted, something glinted on the ground.
Just one last mango.
About the Author
Chaitanya Murali is a writer and editor based in Bangalore, India. He has spent the past decade moving from one profession to the next, cycling from law to publishing, and now, to game design – where he will remain. This is his first pro sale.
About the Narrator
Prashanth is a speculative fiction writer from Bengaluru, India. His works of short fiction have appeared in magazines such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Reckoning, Three-Lobed Burning Eye and Dark Matter among others. He is represented by Naomi Davis of BookEnds Literary Agency.