Black Wings, White Kheer
by Rati Mehrotra
The wings knock against the closet door on full moon nights, trying to escape. The sound terrifies Sarita, because if it wakes Amit, he might think there’s an intruder in the apartment. He might arm himself with something (what? Sarita settles on the kids’ baseball bat), throw open the closet door with a warrior’s scream, and pound the old bones of her once-beautiful wings, reducing them to a pile of dust.
Blood and feathers, why does she torment herself like this? Amit is a sound sleeper. He snores with his mouth open, spread-eagled on his back, taking up three-fourths of their bed. Besides, the wings can take care of themselves. Does she not know this better than anyone else? Far likelier that Amit will be the one in need of rescue.
Still, she cannot help but think of the promises she’s broken, along with her wings. The recipes she’s forgotten. The family she’s left behind. And all for what?
A small snuffling sound alerts her to the presence of her younger daughter in the corridor outside the door. For them, she thinks as she scrambles out of bed. For them.
Ayla stands with her thumb in her mouth, her eyes large and anxious in the dark. At the sight of her mother, the thumb falls out, and she puckers her face to cry.
“Hush, darling.” Sarita swoops down on Ayla and lifts her up. “What are you doing, awake at this hour?” Although she already knows, has known for a while. Ayla is only five, and Sarita had hoped desperately to have more time than this. To have a normal life, safe from hunters, even if that normalcy came at the cost of freedom and so much else. It isn’t fair. Chia, Ayla’s sister, is older by two years and—so far, at least—perfectly ordinary.
“My back hurts,” says Ayla tearfully. “And I had a bad dream.”
“Oh sweetie,” murmurs Sarita, “dreams are not real,” hating herself for the lie. But really, what choice does she have? Is she going to explain the blood-soaked history of her family to a five-year-old? Is she going to say, honey, I used to have wings. You’re hurting because you’re growing them too—rather earlier than I did. And if I don’t cut them off, evil creatures will come for you, just like they came for my mother. And they will do things to you that are too terrible to contemplate.
No, that is obviously not an option. Nor can she try sending Ayla back to bed; that will just bring the dreams back, stronger than ever. So Sarita does what she always does when one of her children is scared or upset. She cooks.
She goes to the kitchen of their tiny tenth-floor apartment and sits Ayla down on the counter.
“Guess my favorite childhood dish?” she says.
Ayla beams, delighted with this turn of conversation and the indefinite postponement of sleep. “Chocolate cake?” she hazards.
“No,” says Sarita. “That’s your favorite. Try again.”
“It’s not chocolaty at all. Though it is sweet.”
Ayla scrunches her face in concentration. “I know,” she shouts. “Ice cream!”
“Hush.” Sarita gives a quick glance at the corridor behind. “You don’t want to wake Papa, do you?”
Ayla shakes her head, pursing her lips tight.
“I’ll tell you my favorite dish,” says Sarita. “It’s kheer.”
Ayla makes a face. “I don’t like kheer.”
“That’s because I’ve never made it my special magic way,” says Sarita. “If I cook it the way my Nani used to, you’ll never ask for chocolate cake again.”
“Was your Nani magic?” asks Ayla.
Sarita rarely talks about her family. She sees now that her reticence was a mistake. It has not prevented the inevitable from happening, and it has left her and her daughters woefully unprepared for what must come.
“She knew many magical recipes,” says Sarita. “They could cure illness, heal wounds, even make people happier.”
Ayla considers this. “Could she have stopped my back from hurting?”
A dozen lies come to Sarita’s lips; she dismisses them all. “She might have been able to reduce the hurt a little,” she admits, “but some pains we must bear until we grow out of them.”
“Do you still hurt?”
Sarita takes Ayla’s hand and cups it in hers. “I’m big and strong, and one day you will be too.” Which is not an answer, but seems to satisfy her daughter.
“How come you don’t know magic?” is Ayla’s next question.
Because I left my home. Because I cut my wings. Because I married your father.
“I may not know magic,” says Sarita. “But I remember my grandmother’s recipe for kheer. Do you want to learn?”
“Yes!” Ayla bounces up and down on the counter in excitement.
Sarita smiles at her daughter’s enthusiasm. It is both terribly simple and terribly difficult to make the kheer just right. It has been many years since she has done it. But tonight, the Harvest Moon rides the sky, filling the air with both possibility and danger. Ayla stands at the brink of change into winged-girlhood. The kheer will be for her, a piece of knowledge that will always protect her, if she can but summon it. Sarita invokes the spirit of the Goddess Matangi, the patron goddess of the winged outcastes, and begins.
“You need whole milk,” she says, dragging a full carton out of the fridge. “Lots and lots of it. You need a handful of basmati rice, sugar, saffron, crushed cardamom, kishmish, and chopped cashews and almonds.” As she lists the ingredients, she plucks various jars out of the cupboard and places them on the counter, her hands falling into an old, familiar rhythm.
“I don’t like raisins,” complains Ayla. “They taste like frog poop.”
“What?” says Sarita, momentarily diverted. “Oh, kishmish are not exactly raisins. They’re sultanas. Very tasty in kheer. You’ll see.”
She pours the milk in the slow cooker and switches it on, while Ayla soaks a small handful of rice in a pan. When the milk starts to boil, Sarita adds the rice and reduces the heat to a bare simmer. “Two hours, then we mix the sugar in,” she says.
“What?” Ayla yawns. “Are we going to watch it the whole time?”
Sarita laughs. “No, we can’t. That’s part of the magic. It has to cook unwatched and unattended, so all the things you secretly wish for can sneak into it.”
A heavy tread sounds outside the kitchen, and Sarita’s heart jumps.
But it is only Amit, sleepy and disheveled. “What are you two doing up at this hour?” he grumbles.
Ayla leans toward her, arms outstretched. “Thanks for the water, Mama,” she says, squeezing both eyes shut in an effort to wink. “You can put me back to bed now.”
Sarita lifts her off the counter, suppressing a grin. The kheer will remain their secret. Her fingers brush the two small nubs on Ayla’s upper back, pushing against her pyjama top. How much time does she have before Amit notices them too?
“You can put yourself to bed,” Amit tells Ayla. “Big girl like you. Don’t wake your mother in the middle of the night again. It disturbs my sleep.”
“Yes, Papa,” says Ayla meekly. She wriggles out of Sarita’s arms and slips past her father out of the kitchen. Sarita moves to block the cooker, hoping Amit will not notice the kheer bubbling inside it.
Amit inhales deeply, a look of puzzlement on his face. “What’s that smell?”
“Nothing,” says Sarita firmly. If Amit even looks at the kheer, he will spoil it. She can’t risk that. Not now, when she has taken the name of the goddess and begun the process. There will be no second chance, not for this recipe at least.
He sniffs again. “Are you cooking?”
“Don’t be silly. Those must be fumes from a neighbor’s kitchen.” She chivvies him along until they are back in the bedroom.
Later, when he is snoring once more, she stares at the ceiling, thinking of all that she has lost and gained because of him. Well, not because of him, but the decision she made to marry him. Even had she not cut off her wings, that alone would have been enough to have her exiled from her clan.
Not that he would have paused to take a second look at her if she’d still had her wings. One look would have been enough to send him running. Perhaps the wings would have made her chase him. Their idea of a joke, to treat him as prey instead of mate.
The curtain flutters, and the moonlight thickens, illuminating the clock on the wall. Three o’clock: a perilous hour. The hour when hunters ride the moonlight, searching for the winged ones. She should draw the curtain, check on her daughters, check the kheer bubbling in the slow cooker. She should do all these things, but she cannot move, cannot, for the moment, make herself care.
She remembers what it was like to fly on nights like this, soaring over sleeping villages and moonlit fields. The heady joy of it, laced with unease. Not knowing if the hunters were on her trail. Not knowing when the wings would take over her mind, or where she might find herself in the morning, blood on her mouth, gristle in her nails, the taste of the kill on her tongue. Dragging herself back home on her feet, not trusting herself to fly, afraid of being seen and shot by a farmer or set upon by dogs. Her grandmother’s eyes, full of contempt. Control, Sarita. Learn control.
Well, she’d never learned it. One day, she’d woken in the pine forest above her village with the half-eaten remains of a dog. That was the day she’d cut off her wings.
A dark, deep ache flares within her at the memory. Sweat beads her forehead. She digs her nails into her palms, willing the pain to fade.
A hairless, eyeless face appears at the window, pale and distorted against the glass, its multiple mouths open in hunger or lust.
Sarita stifles a scream, and the face vanishes. She leaps from the bed and races to the window. She utters a brief prayer to the goddess before pushing it open. A breeze wafts in, carrying the stale late-summer smells of Toronto: barbecue and smoke, mixed with a whiff of sewage and despair. Below, to her right, cars zip over the Gardiner Expressway. To her left, the CN Tower rears into the night, flashing indigo and magenta.
But nothing can outdo the moon. It hangs in the sky, fat and silver. Harvest Moon, the once-in-a-year chance to repair past mistakes and try to live anew.
But there is no sign of the hunter. None at all. Perhaps she only imagined seeing that dreadful face. She closes the window with shaking hands, then makes her way to the children’s bedroom. They’ll be all right. They have to be all right. But no harm in checking.
At the door of their bedroom, an alien smell steals into her nostrils, paralyzing her with fear. But the aroma of rice cooking in milk overpowers the alien smell, and movement returns to her limbs. She throws open the door and stands transfixed.
The hunter is perched on the windowsill, framed by the moonlight. It squats on the ledge, grasping it with the prehensile claws of its spindly rear legs. On its face are multiple smiles, showing various lengths of teeth. In the embrace of its long gray forelimbs is Ayla, struggling to break free. Chia is nowhere to be seen, but Sarita senses her close by. Hiding, perhaps. Clever girl.
Sarita steps forward, arms reaching for Ayla of their own accord.
Stop, the hunter hisses. Or I’ll throw her out the window.
Sarita stops and swallows hard. Now is not the time for fear.
“Give her back to me,” she says fiercely. “I cut off my wings to be free of you and your kind.”
Some of the mouths laugh. Another licks Ayla’s face with a long red tongue. Ayla stills, as if knowing that struggle is futile. Or perhaps she is simply frozen in terror.
You can cut off your wings, says the hunter. But you cannot change who you are.
It falls back from the windowsill, carrying Ayla away in its arms.
Screaming fills the room, setting off an unpleasant vibration against her skin. Sarita realizes it is herself, and clamps her mouth shut. She runs to the window and leans over.
Up in the sky, something like a very large and ungainly bat is flying eastward.
Sarita wheels around, almost knocking her older daughter over.
Chia clutches her nightgown. “You’re going to rescue her, aren’t you?” Her urgent voice cuts through the gray fog that has descended on Sarita’s brain.
“I . . . I don’t have wings anymore,” stutters Sarita. “I cut them off.”
Chia frowns, pushing the hair out of her eyes. “But you still have them. I can hear them in your closet. Put them on, Mama.”
It’s not that simple, Sarita wants to scream. You don’t know what I might become. But, once again, the aroma of kheer wafts into her nostrils, calming her fear and giving her strength.
“You’ll have to finish making the kheer,” she tells Chia, leading her daughter into the kitchen.
She points to the cooker. “Stir it slowly. Make sure the rice is cooked, but the milk and rice stay separate. Add sugar, cardamom, saffron, and the chopped nuts. Everything is right here on the counter. Mix well, and let it cook for another half hour.”
Confusion blooms on Chia’s face. “Why? Why is this important now?”
Sarita allows herself a grim smile. “It may save Ayla’s life.”
“What about Papa?” asks Chia. “What do I say to him?”
“Don’t worry about it.” Sarita takes a deep breath. “I’ll . . . I’ll talk to him.”
Talk. What a joke. Hey Amit, remember when we got married? There’s one little thing I forgot to tell you. I’m not completely human. Surprise!
She returns to the room occupied by her sleeping husband, and feels a pang of regret for what she is about to put him through, and the marriage she is about to lose.
But Ayla’s life is at stake. No matter what the price, she must bear it. Sarita unlocks the closet for the first time since she shut it eight years ago. The closet that Amit cannot see or hear or touch, because it does not belong in his world, which is filled with certainties and stock markets and business lunches. The broken wings of his wife are an aberration, dangerous and consigned to the dark as all dark things should be.
The door opens, and the wings tumble out, black and powerful, as tall from the scapulas to the wingtips as she is. They drip silver at the edges, and the sight smites her. Silver, the color of their life force. So many years, and they still bleed from her knife. But doesn’t she bleed too, the red scars on her back never healing, always remembering, always mourning?
The wings smell of grief and betrayal, anger and fear. They beat slowly, stirring memories and regret.
“I’m sorry.” Sarita’s voice breaks. “It’s all right. Can it be all right? I’m here now, and I’ll never lock you up again. Never hurt you again. I swear.”
Amit’s voice, thick with sleep and irritation: “For God’s sake, can’t a man get a decent night’s rest? I have to work in the morning.”
Sarita does not turn around. She keeps her eyes locked on the wings, willing them back to her. “Please,” she whispers. “Forgive me. I was wrong. I need you; I know that now.”
The bed creaks as Amit sits up. “What . . . what the hell is that?” His voice changes from irritation to alarm.
Sarita spares him a single glance. “It’s part of me,” she says quietly. “The part I cut away to be with you.”
Horror dawns on his face. “Sarita, get away from it!” He scrambles out of bed, perhaps to try and stuff the wings back in the closet where they belong.
This is the moment when the wings make their choice. They leap toward Sarita, ripping off the nightgown and embedding themselves in her back. She arches her neck and bites off a scream as their tendrils burrow into her flesh, finding the roots she so cruelly cut off. Blood trickles down her back, warm and wet.
You cut me. You threw me away.
I’m sorry. Never again.
Amit freezes, seeing, perhaps, what is truly there for the first time in his life. “What?” he says, stunned. “What?”
Awareness floods through Sarita. The temperature of the room, the smoothness of the moonlight, the texture of the hardwood beneath her feet, the throbbing of the wings on her back. And the man standing before her, his expression changing from shock to wonder.
“You . . . you’re one of them,” he blurts out. “I thought your kind were only legends.”
“Sometimes legends are real,” she says.
“I . . .” he gulps and continues, “always knew there was something different about you.”
Why didn’t you let me out, then? The voice of the wings is a screech of pain and anger in her head. She presses a hand to her temple and murmurs, “Hush. It’s not his fault. It’s mine.” She takes a step toward Amit, who is standing between her and the window. The wings beat in warning, but Amit does not move.
“I’m not afraid of you.” He grips the back of a chair like it’s a weapon or a lifeline. “You’re still Sarita, my wife. Mother of my children.”
“Yes, but I am not only her,” says Sarita. “And now I must protect our children. A monster has Ayla, and my wings might just save her. Out of my way, husband. I won’t ask twice.”
Amit stares at her a moment, then leaps to the window and throws it open. Sarita eyes the rectangular opening. It is big enough, she decides, and makes a dive for it.
There is a moment when she is stuck and has the panic-stricken thought that Amit will have to grab her legs and drag her back inside so she can make a more dignified leap over the balcony.
Then she is through the window and falling falling—no, she’s flying. Her wings flex, defying the pull of gravity, lifting her through the thick summer air. Behind her, she feels Amit’s stricken gaze like something physical.
To Lake Ontario, she thinks, and her wings obey. They beat powerfully, carrying her high into the sky. Her heart pounds to their rhythm with a fierce exultation she had forgotten how to feel.
This is what it’s like. This is what it’s like to be free. To be me.
She wheels eastward, following the scent of the hunter. She can overtake him; is she not the granddaughter of the fastest winged woman in the history of their clan?
How many of them are left in the small Himalayan village where she was born? Sarita both dreads and longs for the answer. She was only five—Ayla’s age—when her mother was taken. She remembers falling, hurtling toward the earth as her mother was snatched out of the air. She remembers dark, monstrous shapes blotting out the night sky, and thin, inhuman laughter mixed with her mother’s screams.
Her grandmother caught her before she hit the ground. Although, she told Sarita later, there have been times when I wished I had let you fall.
It was a long time before Sarita understood this and stopped hating her grandmother. It wasn’t the fact that her grandmother never flew again, wings broken in the desperate battle with the hunters. It wasn’t even the constant fights Sarita had with her as a sullen teenager, chafing at the smallness of the house, and the harshness of restrictions placed on her for her own safety. It was the fact that if not for Sarita, her grandmother might have been able to save her own daughter. Encumbered by the child, and injured by the fight, her grandmother had signaled a retreat. And Sarita’s mother had died.
By the time Sarita realized this, it was too late to forgive either herself or her grandmother. She had already cut her wings, weeping as blood poured down her back and the wings flailed in agony. She buried them in the pine forest before stumbling away, hitching a truck ride to the nearest city, hiding her wounds under a thick shawl. She lived on the street for days, spending the nights on a railway platform, keeping predators away with her own predatory smile. Eventually, she healed. She got a job at a supermarket and a place to stay in a women’s hostel.
But the wings followed her. They appeared beneath her dormitory bed one night, bleeding silver, whispering their fear and need. Once again, she fled to another city, another job, where she met Amit. The large, quiet-spoken man who had just been offered a job in the company’s Toronto office courted her with garish flowers, bad poetry, and baskets of plump fruit. Sarita ate the fruit, considered her options, and made her decision. Lucky girl, said the office crowd. What a catch!
And: seven thousand miles, thought Sarita. Surely that is far enough away.
It wasn’t. The wings reappeared in the second year of her marriage, when she was expecting Chia, and homesickness for her mountain village had taken root inside her like an insidious weed. They clambered in through her bedroom window, reeking of exhaustion and sorrow, and she wanted very much to fly away home on them and never look back. But she was eight months pregnant, and it would have been impossible to fly any distance without exhausting herself. Plus, there was the danger of what they might make her do once they were in charge. So she locked them away and convinced herself it was for the best.
As she soars over the dark swell of Lake Ontario, Sarita sees how she has trapped herself in a cage of fear—the nine years she has spent afraid of the hunters, afraid of the wings, afraid of what Amit might think.
You are right to fear me.
Her wings no longer sound hurt or angry. They sound amused and confident. She draws on that confidence, makes it her own.
“I cut you once,” she says. “I won’t do it again. But you will obey me.”
They do not answer, sensing, perhaps, that she will not be crossed, not now. They will test her again later, but she will deal with it when the time comes.
She spies the hunter, skimming low over the lake, bat-wings beating steady and inexhaustible. Rage consumes her, and she dives like a gannet, aiming for the hunter with unerring precision and speed.
But the hunter senses her. It drops Ayla toward the lake and darts away.
Pulse racing, Sarita swoops down and catches her daughter before she can hit the water. Ayla’s eyes are closed, her body limp, her forehead clammy. But she still breathes. She still lives.
Sarita holds Ayla close to her chest and chokes back a sob. “You’ll be okay, darling,” she whispers. “I promise.”
Then she spreads her black wings and gives chase to the hideous creature which tried to take her daughter. “I’m coming for you!” she screams. The hunter whimpers and tries to put in an extra burst of speed. Grimly, Sarita pushes herself harder.
The hunter can fly for days, and Sarita cannot. But she is faster, even holding Ayla in her arms. And her wings are eager to prove themselves. Slowly but inexorably, she closes the distance between them. At last, when she is almost within reach of the hunter’s spindly rear legs, it whips around and says:
Told you. You cannot change who you are. Welcome back.
Sarita’s wings falter mid-flight. It is an old, familiar voice. A voice that has scolded her, taught her, pleaded with her. A voice she never thought to hear again.
“Nani?” she stammers.
Sends her regards, says the hunter.
“But . . .” Sarita cannot frame the words. Her thoughts snag like broken hooks around the fact of the hunter’s presence, the voice it has used, and what it means.
We drank thandai together, says the hunter, not long after you ran away. It adds, after a moment, it was delicious, and licks its face with several tongues.
Thandai, the peace drink, made from milk spiced with a dash of ground cannabis leaves. How could her grandmother have made peace with their mortal enemy?
“You killed my mother.” Sarita trembles with anger and wants, very much, to smash the hunter’s wings. Break them, like the hunters broke her mother. But she holds Ayla in her arms, Ayla who needs healing before the morning comes.
Not me, personally. But yes, a member of my hive, who also died later. There are so few of us left on both sides.
Silence. The night has turned cool—the coolness before dawn, when anything seems possible. The moonlight strokes Sarita’s face, calms her down. Far below, small waves ripple across the lake, concealing shipwrecks and skeletons and the fossils of long-extinct mammals.
When are you coming home? says the hunter.
The old rebelliousness flares within her. “I’m not coming back. I’ll start my own clan, right here in Toronto.”
Disbelief emanates from the hunter. In this cold city of towers and fumes and boxes on wheels? Where would you hide?
“I’ll think of something,” says Sarita. “I’m done hiding.” She pauses, swallows. “Tell her I’m sorry.”
She’s sorry too, says the hunter. She loves you. But you already know that.
She does know it. Has always known it. Sarita hugs Ayla to her chest. Tears prick her eyelids as the hunter wheels away, vanishing into the distance of the dying night.
Sarita flies back to her apartment, her wings slower now, tired after the pace she has put them through. Anxiety churns her stomach. She hopes Amit will not make things difficult for them all. There are conversations to be held, a separation to be negotiated.
But first, there is kheer. Both for her daughters and for herself.
Chia is waiting in the kitchen. She has switched off the cooker and set four bowls and spoons on the kitchen island. When Sarita enters, wings folded demurely behind her back, Chia runs to her and wraps her arms around Sarita’s legs.
Sarita pats her head. “It’s all right,” she says. “I got Ayla back.” Got myself back.
“The kheer is ready,” says Chia. “I did exactly what you said.”
“You did a fantastic job,” says Sarita, sniffing the air with appreciation. “My own Nani could not have done better.”
Amit clears his throat. He is standing at the door of the kitchen, his face nervous but determined. In his arms is the kids’ baseball bat. “Is Ayla okay?” he asks.
“She will be.” Sarita eyes the bat. “You can drop that. The monster won’t be coming back.” Amit drops the bat with a thud, looking embarrassed.
We’re going to have such fun with him. The wings’ voice is a greedy caress.
Be careful, she warns. He’s mine.
If you scare him away, he won’t be.
The wings fall silent. She dips a spoon into the warm, rich porridge, and holds it up to Ayla’s nose, aware of Amit watching them. “Come on, darling. Time to wake up,” she croons.
Ayla’s eyes flutter open. “What happened?”
“A bad dream,” says Sarita. “But it’s over now. And the kheer is ready.”
She sits Ayla down on a stool, keeping an arm on her back to steady her. Chia serves them all, ladling generous helpings into the bowls. Sarita looks up at Amit and jerks her chin at the island, inviting him to join them. “I thought you’d run away when you saw my wings,” she says, keeping her voice light.
“It’ll take more than that to scare me away,” he quips, sitting down next to her. Her wings shiver in delight at his words. He frowns. “I’ll have to do all the grocery shopping from now on. What about PTA meetings? How will you—”
“Hush.” She lays a hand on his arm, her heart too full to speak. He isn’t leaving. He isn’t screaming. It is enough, for now. “Let’s have the kheer.”
Ayla takes a spoonful, and then another, her face brightening. “Very tasty,” she announces.
“I made it,” says Chia importantly.
“Mama made it,” argues Ayla.
“We all made it,” says Sarita. She takes a bite and closes her eyes. The kheer is heavenly. Sweet, but not too sweet. Nutty and creamy, scented with saffron and cardamom.
But the real flavor lies beneath those superficial ones. There is moonlight and magic in every bite, love and memory. All the things Sarita has made herself forget, that she will now remember with her daughters.
Midway through their second helping, Sarita begins:
“Girls, did I ever tell you the story about the Goddess Matangi? And why we are supposed to take her name before making any magical dish?”
She talks on, and her little family listens, rapt.