This story is by Anindita CSH and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
That moonlit night,
Under the starry sky,
We danced in your dream,
We danced to this song.
Meenu can’t take her eyes off Nishi as they dance in the garden. Such is her ethereal beauty. Her lustrous black hair ripples in the gentle breeze of a fragrant spring night. Her bright white saree shimmers in the moonlight. The woman floats in the air, performing a mudra as she twirls and tilts, smiling and singing. Can spirits have dimples?
Maa died when Meenu was five. Baba re-married within a year. He said, “A man needs a woman to take care of his house and herd.” Isn’t Meenu a part of his herd, like his goats and cattle?
Meenu told her parents when the dreams began.
“It’s the call of a Nishi,” Baba said.
“But she sings Maa’s song.”
“Your mother is a Nishi.”
Her stepmother sniggered and said, “Evil spirits lure children out of their beds at night to kill them and eat their heart, especially the lazy, disobedient ones.”
Meenu doesn’t talk about her dreams anymore. Nobody knows the thirteen-year-old has answered the Nishi’s call and survived for the last eight years., they’re just dreams, aren’t they? As the old saying goes, dreams of dawn often come true. Meenu can only hope.
Last evening, Meenu shared her secret with Chand. Meenu felt generous after hearing what her friend had to endure that day. And Chand laughed at her!
“Nishi’s don’t exist, you foolish girl. Your parents are liars. They want you to live in fear. Heart-eating-spirits, nonsense.”
“But Nishi and I dance all night. She leaves right at dawn.” Meenu’s protest was feeble. Chand went to school, and she was a clever girl. But… “Chand, she sings my Maa’s song!”
Chand stopped laughing. “Your Maa is dead. Like mine.”
People say the river Malati drowned Chand’s mother and cursed the village with a three-year-drought. No one knows why.
The girls left the broken temple with a promise to meet again, the following night.
Meenu ignores her stepmother’s screech and continues poking the soil, muttering, “Needs mulch, more water.” None of the seeds in her little patch have sprouted yet, signaling the beginning of a long and dry summer. The farmers will have to apply for drought relief again.
“Have you chewed up your ears? Mother-Goddess, why did you dump this worthless piece of shit on me? I feed it, shelter it, care for it, but it spits on my face.”
Meenu mimics the tirade, beating her forehead, shaking in laughter.
The goat bleats a warning right before the hard slap on her back knocks the breath out of Meenu. Baba has caught her laughing at his wife, the pearl of his eyes, again. The wounds from the last ‘lesson’ haven’t healed yet.
Meenu howls in protest and pain as the large farmer drags her inside the main house by her ears, “Baba, please, no more, promise–”
Baba pushes Meenu to the floor. “No food. If you finish the water, use the tumbler to pee. I am sending you to work for Gopal in the city.” He sneers, “You are of no use to me, just like your mother. Stupid bitch couldn’t fetch a decent dowry or give me a son. Ran away with that bastard–”
“Lie! You said–”
“Don’t talk back!” Her father’s large
hands leave red prints on her young cheeks. Meenu struggles against the fierce grip on her throat and her scalp screams as he yanks her braid, hissing, “Why didn’t let her take you? Going to find out your worth soon, won’t we?” He reaches for the belt.
Meenu bites her tongue and swallows her screams, enduring the lashes in silence. Just one regret, she won’t be able to see Chand tonight. Her friend won’t have a shoulder to cry.
The loud whisper breaks Meenu’s sleep.
Her head hurts. She gropes for the water pitcher. Her throat burns, the muscles on her limbs throb. The faint light of the setting sun plays peekaboo with her through the round hole near the low ceiling. She pulls herself up and leans on the wall as her legs want to give way.
“Chand,” she whispers back. The hoarseness of her voice scares her, and she tries to clear her throat and flinches it hurts. Every part of her body hurts. Her head wants to roll and fall on the floor. Meenu drags herself closer to the gap. It’s just a little higher. She tries to stand on her toes and falls with a loud thud, hitting her head against the stack of boxes.
“Meenu, are you alright? Wait. I am coming in.”
Meenu hears a few scratching and scraping noises before Chand calls her again, “Meenu, I can’t. I need something to stand on.”
Meenu doesn’t respond. She remains prostrate on the floor letting the surface cool her overheated body. She silently thanks the Goddess for remembering to apply a fresh layer of mud on the floor in the morning.
Meenu thinks about Chand’s big brick house. She had approached Gopal, trying to sell her vegetables and had met Chand, the trader’s youngest child, sporting a black eye and walking funny.
Meenu was jealous of Chand before she found out how her friend hurts in a different place, a secret place. Who says little girls of thirteen have an uncomplicated life? Meenu and Chand know such great variety of pain.
Meenu worries Chand is too short and not strong enough to climb up the smooth walls. Chand can’t eat much. “Don’t want to add more meat,” she says. “More meat attracts wolves and vultures.”
Chand can’t dance in her dreams but Meenu can. That’s why at night when everybody sleeps, Meenu’s shoulders become Chand’s comfort.
“Ai Meenu,” Chand breaks Meenu’s thread of thoughts. “I found a bucket.”
Meenu sits up. Chand’s pale moon-shaped face shows up in the window. She sports a bruised mouth besides a new black eye. Love and anguish for her friend stir up something inside Meenu.
Meenu wills herself to get up. Every part of her body sings in pain, but biting her lip, she drags a wooden box from the corner and stands on it. She asks Chand, “What happened to you?”
“Come out, quickly.”
“Baba has locked this room.”
“Try this window.”
“Baba said I am going to work in your father’s city store from tomorrow.”
“There is no store in the city. The farmer is selling you–”
Meenu tries to move away, but Chand catches her by the braid. Meenu bites her fist to stop the scream. The raw pain in her scalp sends jolts down to her toes.
Chand hisses at her, “Listen carefully. Our fathers are selling us. The tourists who visited last winter, they want fresh supply. Remember Veena?”
“Your third sister?”
“Fourth. Veena and Neetu were sent to the city last year. Neetu’s father went to check on her a few months after the letters stopped. The police told him she was pregnant when they found her body.”
“Veena ran away before Baba could catch her. Neemu’s father can’t talk due to his debts.”
“The river Malati didn’t drown my mother. Gopal did. The tourists who visited that winter—they didn’t come here to enjoy the mustard fields or the river. Your father had sent your mother too.”
The room closes in around Meenu.
“I heard the trader and the farmer this morning. You will fetch a higher price because you are still–not like me. The trader thrashed me so I couldn’t come to you before. Meenu, your Maa didn’t die. She had to run. He kept you for future trade.”
“I know.” Her voice sounds like a stranger’s. Her body feels strange. Is there no end? Why must the helpless boil in the purging oil of Naraka? Isn’t that for the sinners? The baby killers, beaters, liars?
“Veena has sent an address. I have some money. We must hurry.”
Meenu, or the stranger, nods. She steps down, hunts down a matchbox and a pot of kerosene oil from the wicker basket. She climbs the wooden box and sprinkles the oil as far and wide as she can reach. Throwing the pot away, she opens the matchbox.
Chand gulps as she figures out what’s happening. “Meenu!”
The stranger’s voice doesn’t shake as she chants,”I pray to you, o Lord of the final judgment. Purge our sins, rid us of vice and malice, purify us in your holy fire.”
Chand whimpers but complies to Meenu’s command, “Move.”
Meenu stands on her toes and helps herself up to the round window. Once half her body is out, she throws the fire-lit matchstick into the room. The oil catches fire with the eagerness of a deity hungry for sacrifice.
Meenu freezes, unable to turn away from the dancing flames licking the walls.
Chand pulls Meenu by her loose braid, tumbling from her makeshift stool in the process, and takes them both down painfully to the ground.
Next morning, the trader serves tea to the members of the village council in silence. His shop acts as the council’s unofficial headquarter for gossip.
“Heard what happened yesterday? Meenu tried to burn down their storage.”
“Anybody was harmed?”
“If not for the mud walls… Her stepmother saw her run away with Gopal’s youngest one. She couldn’t catch them.”
“The selfish bitches…Treat them with love, and they kick your balls. You beat them, starve them, and they follow you like a stray dog.”
“Gopal, how did yours escape?”
The trader nods, keeping his eyes on the tea kettle. “The little bitch broke the lock, emptied my cash box, and left a note. They took the last train to the city.”
“Don’t you know some folks in the city, those tourists? Can’t you find the girls?”
He won’t. The police are looking for him. They haven’t deduced the connection between the child trafficking ring and a trader from this village who has two missing daughters and a dead wife. Let the girls go rot in a pit of shit. Finding a fresh supply of young flesh in a drought-stricken village isn’t a problem.
Chand and Meenu follow Veena’s instructions and reach a village far away from home by changing two trains.
They spend the night in the station master’s office. In the morning, the friendly old man brings them to the square little brick house with white windows and a beautiful garden. He informs them that the florist couple who offered shelter to Veena will take the girls too. Meenu and Chand can go to school. Meenu decides to offer help with the plants.
The old man reaches for the brass knocker on the green door when Chand thanks him for his help.
With a sad smile, he touches her hair, “Just wanted to help. I lost my little girl in Gopal’s hands.”
“Who?” Chand whispers.
Meenu slips her hand in Chand’s sweaty one.
The man knocks.
The door opens. A woman in a bright white sari with raven hair and kind eyes appears. Her dimples show. “You are here!”