HUGO AWARD-WINNING SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY MAGAZINE
Cry of the Kharchal
She was no more than a breath, a tongue of air, tasting, sensing, divining. She swept through the hotel ramparts like the subtlest of breezes. She had done it: made time stand still. Her people, so scattered now, so weak, had helped her draw the power from the sandstorm, turning its energy against itself so that, for a brief moment, it lassoed time itself. Perhaps the moment would be long enough . . .
Incorporeal though she was, she still thought in physical terms. Thus she thought of the threads of stories that she held in her hands, ready to be woven into something that would change the fabric of reality. She thought of the heavy attire she had worn as queen, and the wings, the yearning for flight over the desert sands, the flight west. All that was gone, but she was still here. Six hundred years against the next few hours—how could mere hours matter against the weight of those years? And yet, if the stories came together . . .
The manager. The foreign poet. The woman. The boy.
It was time.
Avinash, running, crashed into a pillar at the edge of the courtyard. The physical pain brought him to his senses. He leaned against the pillar, panting, and surveyed the scene. Something had happened to the sandstorm. It rose above the hotel ramparts, a tsunami of sand, a hundred-headed cobra, a dark wave against the darkness, absolutely still. A faint susurrus of sand seemed only to amplify the silence. What had happened to the blaring alarm, the roar of the approaching storm? There were only soft sounds, the sigh of sand grains falling against a window, or the dance of a wisp of sand across the floor, borne on a breath of wind. And the bodies. Before him, in the great central courtyard, bodies sat in chairs, or leaned against pillars, or stood frozen in mid-run. Thin skeins of sand still blew about, filling plates and tureens, laps and elaborate hairdos, and the corners of eyes. But none of the eyes even blinked. Were they dead or alive? And why was he alone able to move?
“I am Avinash,” he said shakily into the darkness, as though to remind himself that he was real, that he had to live up to his name. He searched for her again, that comforting, mysterious presence in his mind, but she was turned away from him. “Queen!” he spoke without words, begging for her attention. She did not respond. Sometimes she got like that. He looked around the courtyard. The hotel had been rebuilt on the ruins of a medieval fort to bring to the twenty-first century the lost grandeur of that era. The courtyard had been designed on the same grand scale. Usually its vastness reminded him of his insignificance: he was only the tech person for the hotel’s computer system, a young man with no past and even less of a future. He had come here empty as a gourd, his small, inadequate soul rattling like a seed in the dried shell of his body, so that the scale of the rebuilt fort walls and the lavish excess of the decor always reminded him that he was nothing. Even the long-dead Queen rode his mind as though he was a beast of burden . . . yet what sweet possession! Surely she was the key to his coming glory.
Had time, itself, stopped? Why had he been spared, then?
The queen would know, but she was still turned from him. For months now he had indulged her machinations and schemes, petty though they seemed to him: collecting information, and acting on it to obtain desired results. “If you are to control people’s lives, Avinash,” the Queen had told him, “you must start small, by manipulating the little lives around you. Only then will you be able to touch the power within you.” So he had been doing according to her instructions, developing story-lines in real time, with real people, collecting information, informing, manipulating. He had found out that the manager was a closet alcoholic; the aged movie star, had a thing for young girls; and that the mad Bolivian poet was in love with an elusive woman . . . Then a word here, an act there, and events could be made to unfold according to plan. But the storm was something else. Surely he wasn’t yet powerful enough to conjure up a sandstorm, or to stop time? He asked the queen in the depths of his mind, but she was quiet, preoccupied, as though waiting.
Maybe, he thought, striding into the courtyard as he had never dared to do before—maybe it is I who have wrought this. Even if he hadn’t bargained for a sandstorm, perhaps it was a consequence of some unintended magic, an unleashing of power. He had finally grown large enough in spirit and sheer boldness to fill out and own his name: Avinash, the indestructible. He was somebody. He had power over the guests, frozen as they were—look at that young woman in the white silk, frozen in her chair—he could have his way with her if he wanted. He reached toward her.
But quite abruptly a swift, cold, feeling came over him, a wave of aloneness so sudden and icy that he withdrew his hand, trembling. The vastness that he had felt in himself vanished. He was nothing, nothing but a small child abandoned in a large, noisy, frightening railway station. Come back, he shouted to her in his mind, but there was only silence. The queen was gone right out of his mind. He staggered about, pleading with her, forgetting his moment of triumph, his arrogance, begging her forgiveness seeing nothing, feeling only the terrible emptiness. After a while the queen sighed back into his mind; everything slipped back into place and he was himself again, shaky but sane. She was playing with him; perhaps she was angry, jealous that he had thought of another woman (if only!). Although he had never seen her face, he had imagined it from the old paintings that remained from the original fort. Those almond-shaped eyes, the stern, sorrowful, remote gaze. She had kept herself remote from him also, refusing to reply to his first hopeless adoration of her, until he accepted that she needed only companionship, a tenantship in the spaces of his mind. He could never think of her as a ghost, although the hotel staff did embellish upon the old tragedy when they entertained the foreigners.
Out of habit, he glanced up at the balcony from which she had fallen to her death six hundred years ago. Now it was a place to be pointed to, and talked about, and the room adjoining it was a small museum commemorating the dead queen. Here some of the old paintings still hung, dreadfully marred by time, and on the shelves were the stone statuettes of the birds she had loved, the ones immortalized then and now in the window latticework, the kharchal of the desert—long-necked, with goose-like bodies and long, swift legs. Their eyes were set with semi-precious stones. The old story didn’t mean much to him; not as much as her presence now, with him, a constant companion, someone to talk to, an advisor, guide to his own greatness.
Standing in the courtyard, he heard a sound. Half-lost in the sibilant whisper of sand and wind, there was a distant, unmistakable tapping. Someone was using a computer keyboard.
He followed the sound through the hazy dark until he realized he was going to his own room, and what he heard was someone using his own computer. Angry, fearful, he ran down the employees’ corridor until he reached his door. It was open; a tiny spiral stairway led down to the floor. From the top of it he could see, firstly, that the haze here was considerably thinner than outside, and secondly, his desk lamp was on, the only electric light in the entire hotel as far as he knew. Before his laptop at the desk sat a familiar figure: the odd-jobs boy and itinerant goatherd, Raju.
The boy turned before Avinash could call out. The round, obstinate face, the guarded gaze, the somewhat mocking adolescent smile. Stick-thin, wearing a second-hand pair of blue jeans, and a faded green t-shirt. What was he doing here? He wasn’t supposed to come to Avinash’s room without permission. But before Avinash could scold him the boy got up, sighing with relief, gesturing Avinash to the chair he had vacated.
“Boss, you are alive, thank god. I’ve looked and looked for you. Listen, you have to do something!”
“What are you doing here? How is it you aren’t like . . . like the others? Oh never mind, get away!”
Avinash shoved him lightly and sat down before the computer. The boy had opened the secret window to the Queen’s Game, the tangle of storylines and manipulations, and had been checking status. All right, so no harm done. The story of the Bolivian poet was important, or so she had told him, and he had located the woman whom the poet sought, and he had sent her a message purportedly from a state government minister about funding for a nature preserve. She was on her way. Was she here yet? Hard to tell because she only stopped at the Maharajah, the 4-star hotel restaurant, on her way to Delhi or Jaipur. She’d never checked in as a guest on her earlier visits. He looked at the other stories that were currently in progress. Expose the manager’s drinking so as to ultimately humiliate the man into resigning. Arrange it so that the two gay men could get a room together. Find a way for the movie star to fund a sound-and-light show—a little bribe and threat had proved effective. All of these stories showed progress, and one was complete. The manager had departed in disgrace, and his room, the best in the old wing, (once a royal storeroom) was in the process of being re-done. Avinash checked his online bank information and saw that the money, from whatever unknown source, had already poured in for the successful outcome of the manager’s story.
Nowhere in the tangled web of stories was there any hint of a sandstorm.
He turned to the boy who was his accomplice. Raju had been good at gathering information, and in return Avinash had helped him learn to read and write. The boy claimed to be descended from the old kings, which Avinash had dismissed with a show of hilarity—partly because he suspected it could be true. He’d heard that the descendants of so many of the old rulers now lived in poverty, having lost wealth and prestige. Raju had had neither, only a burning ambition to make something of himself. His dream was to live and work in a big city like Jaipur or Delhi, to have a job with some dignity. He didn’t think running errands for hotel staff or herding goats in the off-season were dignified enough. Avinash found his mixture of precocity and innocence sometimes annoying, sometimes touching.
“There’s nothing I can do . . . now,” he said reluctantly. He didn’t like to appear less than competent before this boy, who seemed to believe quite readily that Avinash had something to do with the storm. “There is a reason why the timelines have stopped.” Yes, that sounded plausible, even to his own ears. “The timelines of all the stories got in a knot, see. All tangled. We have to wait.”
The boy gave him a skeptical look, then grinned.
“You don’t know what’s happening either. But it will come to you, boss! You always come through.”
Avinash had not told him about the queen. The voices, the conversations in his head, the reassuring feeling of companionship, of guidance. But what he said about waiting was true. He had to wait for her to start talking to him again. He felt her presence lightly, as though she was preoccupied. Perhaps she, too, was waiting.
The poet peered out of his balcony. Never had he seen anything like it: the great, rearing heads of the sandstorm held immobile so many hundreds of meters up into the sky. He coughed and wrapped his linen handkerchief more closely about his face. The haze was thick here. When the storm’s roaring had given way to the sudden silence, he had found his way out to the darkened lounge and had seen with horror the silhouettes of figures frozen in various postures. Why had he been spared? Pachamama, he whispered, what have you wrought now? He hadn’t spoken that old name, the name of the earth mother, for years. All he had suspected of the world—that the mundane was only a veneer—he now knew to be true. Some deep power had stirred, and caused everything to stand still, even the storm. He thought about Lalita, and the first time they’d met, and how sure he had been that he would meet her again. The fellow Avinash seemed so certain. But who knew where she was, now, the elusive Lalita? He hoped fervently that she hadn’t been at the steps of the hotel when the storm hit, that she wasn’t among those so grotesquely frozen. A terror came upon him that if he ventured out he would find her among the others, suspended between life and death.
And then upon its heels came a thought that he dismissed immediately: perhaps this was the way his talent would return. His once prodigious talent, honed in La Paz, blossoming in Spain and Italy, driven mysteriously from him one night in Madrid some seven years ago, after which he had been unable to write another word. He could write letters, instructions, but not poetry. He had tried deceit; he’d written a shopping list and edged it toward poetry, without success. He lived off his already famous work for a while, and then he had taken to the road, journeying as far as Siberia, South Africa, and now India, hoping his power over words would return. Nothing had happened so far. The only poetic thoughts in his head were those of other poets, most notably Bolivia’s Jaime Saenz, posthumous mentor, Poet-in-Residence of his mind. Even his meeting with Lalita, when he’d had a thought as close to poetry as he’d come in years, had not yielded anything.
He had met her in the Thar desert a year and a half ago. He had thought that a landscape matching the privation of his soul and his bank account would work some kind of magic on him, but it hadn’t been that kind of magic. He had been captivated by the stark and unpretentious beauty of the scrublands and the sand dunes, the small villages with the sparse, thorny trees, and the people and animals who made their home in this inhospitable place. So different from the arid beauty of the altiplano where he’d grown up—yet the vastness of the sky felt like home.
He was sitting outside a tea stall at a village one afternoon, awaiting his first sandstorm. Most of the people who frequented the tea stall had already left to prepare their belongings and families for the storm. The owner of the stall had packed up too, but Felipe Encina Amaru, child of the Andes, wanted to stay and see the storm approach so he sat outside on a wooden chair after everyone had fled, sipping tea in a thick glass with bubbles, watching the western sky darken. The sandstorm, approaching, was an enormous brown, roaring wave, dwarfing all that lay before it. There was a stillness in the air, and grit, and he felt the great, pregnant pause.
She came out of the storm. So it seemed to him. In fact her rented jeep had broken down before she had reached the village and she had been walking for a while. But when he raised his eyes from the glass she was striding toward him, in a long orange shirt over gray pants, her blue scarf blowing behind her in the sudden, swift wind. Her hands fumbled at her neck adjusting her scarf, but to the poet she was manipulating the reins of the storm, which towered behind her, a beast of impossible proportions. She walked to the tea stall, looked in, seemed disappointed that it was empty. She looked directly at him for the first time.
“Got a car?” her voice was urgent but unhurried. He felt himself drowning and had to gather himself to nod wordlessly toward the blue Zen.
“ . . . I wish to know what wind carries you,” Felipe declaimed silently in the words of Saenz, as he started the car. A wild hope filled him as they rattled toward Jaipur.
She was an ornithologist studying an endangered bird, the Great Indian Bustard. She described it with her voice and hands. A large bird, friendly, inquisitive eyes, swift runner through the desert scrublands. “Think of it like a little ostrich. Or a large goose. ” She laughed easily, but her eyes were sad. She told him she fell in love with the bird at a fair in New Delhi when she was a child. He imagined her face pressed to the glass, the bird coming up to her unafraid, curious. “I actually felt a kind of recognition,” she told him, looking at him directly, as though to see whether he understood. She had questions for him about Bolivia’s new law granting rights to Mother Earth. “You guys got it right,” she said. She wanted to know more about it. He told her he hadn’t been back in a long time, and all he knew was that it was hard to implement the law. “Greed,” he said.
He found himself talking to her without effort. He had spent his childhood tagging along with his mother, hawking herbs in the Mercado de las Brujas. The streets and alleyways, the women with their charms and amulets and dried animal parts, the light of the sky between the narrow, upwinding lanes—had been his world until his uncle took him in. His uncle worked as a janitor in an office building in the modern part of the city. In the two-room tenement that was his home, there were all kinds of strays—a cousin from a remote village, a runaway child, a street dog or two. Always, there would be someone in need, knocking at the door of his uncle’s heart. The uncle would frown and wonder how he would house the next abandoned soul. “Hell, what’s another one?” he’d say at last, resignation mingled with relief, nodding to the boy or animal, finding a place in the already crowded rooms for the newcomer. Some weekends Felipe would spend with his mother, south of the city, gathering herbs. From here he could see the city of La Paz reaching up the mountainsides, higher every year; if he turned around, there was the white peak of the Illimani, a wave flung up into the sky. His poet’s heart had been forged here, in the thin air of the altiplano, in the market’s narrow alleyways, among his uncle’s rescued flotsam, under the clear blue sky of winter, in the spring rain.
“I can see why you are a poet,” she said, smiling, mesmerized by his descriptions.
“No longer,” he sighed.
He told her how his talent with words had vanished on a night in Madrid, seven years ago. Hunched over a drink, listening to an unusually strong sirocco howling outside, he had not known until the morning that the poetry had been taken from him.
“Did you try going home?” she asked him. “Sometimes that works.”
He said, quietly, remembering: “Two years later, for my mother’s funeral.”
“And your poetry didn’t come back to you then?”
“No.” He had nursed a secret hope that it might, but there was nothing. Only grief, and guilt that he hadn’t been back in time, as he gazed upon his mother’s emaciated body, her hands like claws, as though she had been in the middle of a transmutation that had been arrested by death. He went to the old market and consulted a healer, but there was nothing anyone could do. He remembered arguing with Pedro in Madrid later on, Pedro the friend, later the suicide. Pedro’s memory said to him: “Why do you think the world has magic, then, that things are not just of themselves, but of something ineffable? Why do you persist in believing this childish rubbish?” He shrugged defensively at Pedro’s ghost.
So they drove to Jaipur with the storm following on their heels like a wild beast, and they talked, and she told him stories. The Great Indian Bustard was once seriously considered for the national bird of India, but was defeated by the peacock. “Because those fools were afraid it would get misspelled,” she said. “Can you imagine, the Great Indian Bastard? What kind of name is Bustard, anyway? I like the Indian names better. Kharchal is one of them. Or Hoom . . . because of the male bird’s cry—I’ve heard it a few times, too few times. There’s nothing like it.”
She fell silent for a while. When she spoke her voice was thick with tears. “There are fewer than two hundred left in the wild,” she said. “They are this close to extinction. They used to live around people, near villages without harm, but modern agriculture is their enemy. And modern mega-projects signed on by multinationals. No habitat, no bird. And nobody cares.”
She looked out of the window. Her passionate rage moved him. He sensed a delicate thread of sympathy between them—a kinship beyond the obvious. He wanted to tell her she mattered to him. He wanted to tell her that she could have walked out of one of Jaime Saenz’ poems. The dead poet whispered lines into his mind, as was his wont, but they were not Felipe’s lines.
“I had my first poetic thought in years when I saw you,” he said at last. He told her about his fancy that she was the harbinger of the storm. Her laughter rang out, startling him.
“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard!”
She said, more seriously, with a long sigh as though of despair, “I’m just a human being, Felipe . . . I hate the human race for what we’ve done to the world, but human is all I am.”
“Nobody is just a human being,” he said slowly, keeping his eyes on the road. “We have something else in us, yes, a kind of magic, a connection to the world that can transform us. I am hoping it will transform me.”
His words sounded unconvincing even to him. But she looked at him without mockery, with a half-smile. Jaipur was approaching with distressing rapidity. He wanted to hear her speak. He asked her if there were any more stories, legends, myths about the Bustard . . . the kharchal.
“Not many,” she said. “But people who live close to them have fancies about them. They are very compelling creatures. One old man took care of a small flock of them outside his village. He would guard the eggs they laid, and in return he said they would warn him if a storm was coming. He took to believing that they could call storms. There is one major legend about them, though. Have you heard of the queen of Chattanpur? There’s a hotel they’ve built over her fort. I sometimes stop at the restaurant there on my way to Delhi.”
That was the first time he heard about the hotel. It was not called Chattanpur any more: it was the Hotel Vikram Royal.
There was a woman who lived outside a village in Rajasthan many hundreds of years before now. Nobody knew where she had come from, but she was a healer and a tantric practitioner with great powers. People were afraid of her but those in need would come to her and she would cure them for a small price of cloth or food. She was young and beautiful but nobody dared to touch her.
Then the king of the region happened to pass by, and he was taken by her beauty and her quality of self-possession, and he desired her for one of his queens. She, too, was struck by his noble mien and his kindness to her, and agreed to marry him, on one condition.
“I am not an ordinary woman,” she said. “As a magician I have duties to the great forces from whom I derive my powers. There are times when I will have to go away from you for several days. If you let me do this without question, I will always come back to you.”
The king did not like this but he was much in love, so he agreed, and took her away to his fort on the great hill. His other wives were jealous and took to gossiping about the new queen, and spreading rumors about her. For several nights she stayed with the king, but after that she told him she must leave for some days. She went into her room and closed the door, but he stepped out on a balcony and watched her covertly with the help of a mirror. She threw off her clothes and muttered some words, and a mist surrounded her, and then a bird—a kharchal—flew out of the mist and out of the window. He could hear, far away across the desert, a long, melodious call of such yearning that he, too, was moved by it. The bird flew toward the call and was lost from sight. Then the mist in the room dispersed and there was nothing there but her pile of clothing.
Some days later the bird flew back, again under cover of darkness, and returned to the form of a woman. As the King got to know his new wife, he began to wonder whether she was more bird than woman, but he kept his thoughts to himself, not wanting to tell her that he had spied on her. His other wives were not pleased with the King’s continued devotion and spread rumors that the new queen went off secretly to meet a lover. The King began to half-believe these lies even though he knew the truth. He became jealous of her time away. After all, what was to stop her from turning into a woman again, somewhere far across the desert, and lying with another man? One day he challenged her with the accusation of infidelity. If she wanted to prove her loyalty to him, she would have to stop these excursions.
“I think the time has come for me to leave you,” said the queen, sorrowing. “If you will put bars around me, I cannot stay.”
And she ran to her room, but the King was at her heels, so that when she turned into a kharchal and flew out, he managed to pull a long feather from a wing. When he did that, the bird shimmered in mid-air and turned back into a woman. The queen fell to her death from that balcony and the King was left holding the feather in his hand.
After that terrible day, ill-luck befell the fort city. There was a plague, followed by a storm, and then a fire. It is believed to this day that the queen cursed the place as she fell. It was abandoned not long after, and fell into ruin. For a long time after that the local villagers heard the kharchal call for days upon end, as though in mourning, and they say the cries had such longing in them as to make the hardest-hearted men weep like children. Now the kharchal don’t cry so often, or if they do, it is likely for themselves, for their own coming extinction. But who’s to hear their cry?
Lalita slipped out his car with a wave and goodbye somewhere on Mira Marg in Jaipur, as casually as though she hadn’t completely changed his life, burned away all he had been before. “When . . . uh, where will I see you next?” he yelled after her over the cacophony of traffic, terrified he would lose all contact with her. She turned back, her blue scarf loose about her neck, her hair long and loose about her shoulders. “I’ll come with the next sandstorm,” she told him, mocking him, and then she was gone.
Later he Googled her name, sent emails without much hope (“I don’t do much email, and Facebook, don’t even think about it!”) and went to ornithological meetings when he could, asking about her. She always seemed a step ahead of him—he had just missed her, she had just left. To make ends meet he wrote a book about modern Bolivian poetry and the enduring influence of Saenz. The book was reasonably well received; as soon as he could, Felipe took his earnings and himself to the hotel she had talked about. Here he felt an unreasonable hope, not just because she had told him she sometimes stopped at the restaurant on the way to Delhi, but because reminders of her were everywhere, through the latticework on the balcony windows that showed the kharchal amidst leaves and flowers, and the statuettes of the birds in the queen’s room. It was all very romantic and very expensive, and time and money were running out. In desperation he talked to Avinash. The errand boy Raju had recommended him. Avinash had seemed so sure he could bring Lalita here, the poet had come to believe him, despite his distrust of the man. And now there was this impossible storm. But she had said, hadn’t she, that she would come with the next storm?
She’s a modern young woman, and an ornithologist, his mind told him. And as he was thinking this, leaning on a balcony pillar, staring out into the sand-smudged night, he was startled considerably by footsteps.
“Sar! Sar!” It was the errand boy, Raju, a handkerchief around his face. “Sar, Avinash boss calls you, sar!”
Raju’s explanation in broken English didn’t make sense as Felipe followed him through dark corridors, but this much was clear: some others apart from him had been spared. Felipe found himself being led to an unfamiliar part of the hotel.
“What’s this? Where are you taking me?”
“Employee wing, Sir! King’s royal store-room in old days. New manager’s room is being re-done. Boss is there.”
The manager’s room was small and square. Work had been going on in it apparently for widening—a layer of the thick stone wall had been taken down on one side, and a pile of broken stone pieces lay in the middle of the floor, with tools arranged neatly in one corner. Avinash was standing in the middle of the room. He held a small flashlight in his hand.
There was someone else there, outside the pool of light cast by the flashlight. The person moved suddenly into the light. Felipe’s heart turned over.
He saw her smile in the inadequate light. She looked both strange and familiar.
“Hi Felipe. Long time.”
Raju had found her in the restaurant, the only person there who could speak, and move. She had been going from figure to figure, trying to see if there was anything she could do.
“Didn’t expect to meet like this!” she said. And then in Hindi: “Avinash, what is all this about? Why won’t you tell me?”
He was standing in the middle of the room, listening to the queen.
“Don’t disturb him, he’s thinking!” Raju said.
Felipe watched them. The young man with the flashlight, head cocked to one side, as though straining to hear something. The woman who had intrigued him so, standing some distance away, alert, practical, and yet, to him, extraordinary. The boy looking at Avinash—faith in his gaze. The pile of stones, the widened part of the room casting unearthly shadows.
Then he saw that even in the poor light and the dust haze, there was an opening—a gap where a stone should have been in the wall. He moved toward it just as Avinash did. He was startled by the smell of alcohol.
“The manager was a drunkard,” Avinash said. His voice, sudden and loud in the darkness, startled them. “He kept his stock of booze here, in a secret compartment. Must have been a loose stone in the original wall that opened into this little chamber. He smashed one of the bottles in his hurry when he was packing up. Didn’t think to look further in.”
“There’s something further in?” Lalita said. They were all crowding around Avinash now. He trained his flashlight into the small chamber, put his arm in.
“There’s something . . . . At the back.”
He drew it out. It was an ornate box, about a foot long and no more than two inches in depth. The silver had tarnished long ago, but the mother-of-pearl inlay work still glowed. It depicted a kharchal, each feather carved delicately as though with a hair strand, standing in a garden.
“This must have belonged to the queen,” Lalita said reverently.
Avinash opened the box.
In it, on a bed of white silk, lay a single large feather.
“This was the king’s storeroom,” Avinash said. He spoke in a monotone, as though repeating someone else’s words. “The king took the feather from the queen as she was in flight, and he kept it in this secret chamber.”
He paused, frowned.
“Give it to her? You’re sure?”
“Whom are you talking to?” Lalita said. Raju looked at Avinash with wide, scared eyes.
Mechanically Avinash held out the box to Lalita. She took the feather out breathlessly.
“Give me the flashlight for a moment. I want to see . . . ”
But something was happening. Lalita looked up in alarm; a mist was coming up around her. Felipe felt the change in the air, moved instinctively toward her, but he could not part the mist. Within it she was getting less and less visible—her arms, her clothes, made great sweeping motions. The alarm in her eyes changed swiftly to surprise. Then he couldn’t see her any more. He couldn’t move into the mist to reach her. His body appeared to have become heavy and sluggish, his arm going up and toward her with so much effort that it took his breath away. The next thing he knew: a large, heavy bird, awkwardly flapping its wings, was making its way out of the mist . . .out of the doorway, into the courtyard. The three of them ran after it. Silently it flew, with increasing strength and grace, making its way to the queen’s balcony. Felipe was hardly aware of their mad rush up the stairs. He arrived, panting, in the little museum with Avinash and Raju. There was the bird perched on the balcony’s stone railing.
It seemed to Felipe that in the jewel-like eye of the kharchal was the same humor, the same sadness he had known in Lalita’s eyes. Before he could speak there was a terrible cry from Avinash.
“Don’t leave me!”
Avinash looked all around him, like a blind man.
“Where are you? You can’t leave me after all this! Come back!”
The bird prepared to launch itself as Avinash’s tortured gaze finally settled on it. With a terrible shout he lunged toward the bird. But before his hands could close on the bird, Raju had moved, swift and efficient, and pinned Avinash’s arms to his side.
“Boss, boss, let her go!”
Felipe felt it, then, a presence barely tangible, like spider thread brushing across one’s face in the dark. A presence in the room, diminishing swiftly, a wave departing. No, not a departure, a dissipation. There was a feeling of sadness, of completion. The bird flew free. She flew low over the hotel ramparts, a blurry silhouette against the dusty old moon, and then she was gone.
“You stupid boy, what have you done!” Avinash thrashed in the boy’s grip. Felipe grabbed a flailing arm.
“Calm down!” Felipe said, holding his grief and wonder at bay with an enormous effort. “What is the matter with you?”
“She’s gone! The queen!” His sobs ceased. He looked around him, searching, unbelieving. “I thought she would go with the bird, but she . . . she’s dead. The bitch! To die after all this! To leave me empty! All empty!”
He sobbed out his story. I am Avinash, and I am nothing, with a mustard seed for a soul. She said she would unleash the power inside me, so I could fill up. She left me . . . they left me. Five years old on the railways station because they wanted to save my brothers and there wasn’t enough food. Through the sobs and the garbled words, Felipe saw in his mind’s eye the railway station, heard the noise, the terror of strangers, the vastness, the scale of the world. Saw that this had been the boy’s nightmare through all his life. Not the orphanage, not his education, nothing had taken away the pain . . . until she had come, the queen of Chattanpur, and filled the echoing emptiness inside him. Now she, too, was gone, gone to the death she had been awaiting for six hundred years.
With one long cry of agony Avinash flung aside the restraining arms of the others and leapt toward the balcony. Their rush toward him, their shouts, were all too late. In a moment he was over the edge, limbs working wildly, and then he dropped. They heard the impact on the stone floor of the courtyard far below.
There was nothing to be done for him. When they got to the body there was blood pooling under his head, and the stillness of death was on him. Raju muttered something under his breath, and straightening abruptly, began to run. Felipe followed him through the dusty passageways, through a door, half-falling down an unexpected spiral staircase into a room where a laptop screen glowed upon a table. The screen saver showed falling leaves, and birds flying. Raju looked about him wildly. He loosened one of the mosquito net’s support rods, and brought it down on the computer. Sparks flew; there was a burning smell in the air. The boy wouldn’t stop, until Felipe took the rod gently from him. Then Raju began to weep.
“I loved him, the fool!”
Abruptly a great roaring filled their ears: the storm. They were suddenly back in the flow of time. Above them, in the rooms and courtyards, people screamed. The poet and the errand boy looked at each other, ran up the staircase into the open. There was complete confusion: people running, tables turning over. The emergency klaxon was blaring and a booming voice attempting to direct traffic. Some lights went on as the backup generator began to run.
Felipe had never known such a night. The storm broke upon them in a fury. He and Raju worked to bring people to safety, to help close and tape windows, to fill up cracks in doorways. Their hands bled, their eyes stung. At last they huddled in Felipe’s room, wrapped in shawls and blankets, handkerchiefs around their faces, to wait it out. Felipe couldn’t stop coughing. Tears ran down his cheeks as he sipped water. Between coughs, he thought he heard the cries of the kharchal, the cry of the desert itself. His soul called back, again and again, soundlessly.
In the mid-day the storm subsided. They had lost two more people, and there were several injuries. Raju threw himself into the work, running for medical supplies, helping with the dead. But he would not touch Avinash.
Felipe’s throat was so sore by mid-day that he could not speak. He was coughing blood. He packed up and went to the van that was taking the injured to hospital. He whispered goodbye to Raju as the boy stood under the great archway of the entrance. “Be careful, Sar,” Raju said. “Queen’s gone to her death, but Boss . . . that old bastard, he didn’t die right. Came to me in a dream, begging for asylum. Maybe it was just a dream, but maybe when the death’s not right you can’t go away. Like the queen. In the dream I told him I was having none of it. Told him to get lost.” The boy’s eyes filled with tears. He said, inconsequentially, “He taught me how to read and write. On the computer.” Felipe put his arms around the boy, surprising him, and whispered goodbye. From the van he waved. Raju was dirty, disheveled, scraped and bleeding in half a dozen places, but he stood tall. I will remember you, Felipe thought: Raju, errand boy, goatherd, possible descendant of kings.
It was after a few days of tests that the bad news came. The doctors did not think Felipe would get his voice back. There was too much damage to the larynx. When they told him this, he had been doodling on a prescription pad in the waiting room. He stared at their sympathetic faces. All he could do was whisper. He got up, shouldered his bag, and staggered out. He went into the bright sun, the mad traffic of Jaipur, and began to walk swiftly toward nowhere. For a week or more, he lost himself in the city, in its markets and pink palaces, its gardens and residential areas. The days paraded before him like the faces of strangers.
Then one afternoon he found himself outside the railway station. Horns blaring, bells ringing, shouting voices, auto-rickshaws and taxis and cars everywhere, and a surge of humanity going this way and that. A small boy cannoned into him, looked up at the stranger with the long hair and burning eyes, and burst into tears. “Mamma!” he wailed. A terrible, irrational fear that was not his own gripped Felipe. But here was the mother, barreling through the crowds like a battleship, grabbing the child. She gave Felipe a backward look full of suspicion as the two vanished into the crowd.
The spell broke. Felipe rubbed his eyes.
“You’re here, aren’t you?” Felipe said into the air. “Avinash?” There was a sigh in his mind, a plea. Felipe didn’t respond. He walked around the corner of the road, raising dust with every step, weaving his way through the traffic, until he found himself in a small park with a fountain, where he bought an ice-cream cone from a man with a cart. He stood contemplating the water cascading into the pool of the fountain. Small children were throwing pebbles, watching the ripples.
So it is with our lives, Felipe thought. Each life like a ripple, spreading out, changing as it met other ripples, other lives. Some circles die away quickly, others expand into larger circles. A minor character in one story becomes the lead in another. We are all actors on shifting stages. We contain one another.
I should throw you out, like Raju did—you could have killed Lalita.
So what shall I do with you?
The presence in his mind was barely tangible, as though Avinash had cried himself to sleep. Who knew where he would go, what mischief he would cause, if Felipe rejected him? There must be a way to release you, to bring you the peace you need, he said after a while. There was no answer.
I suppose we are all haunted, he thought, with sudden insight. All humans carry with them unacknowledged ghosts. He thought of his mother. His uncle. The poet, Jaime Saenz, whom he had never met. Little Carmelita. Pedro. The crowded two-room tenement where he had grown up. He heard his uncle say: Hell, what’s one more?
Felipe sighed in resignation. Well, stay with me awhile then.
But you’ll have to behave yourself, he added.
There was a long, answering sigh in his mind like a child turning over in sleep.
He pushed his hands into his pockets, ready to leave the park, when he found the prescription pad from the hospital. His doodles were all drawings of kharchal. He thought he heard again that reverberating cry.
At once he knew what he had to do. He began running through the streets toward the bus-station. He had to get on the next bus to Jaisalmer, get out there in the open desert, find Lalita. He would be whisperer, interpreter between the kharchal and the human race. She held the key, the secret, the question for which his life was the answer. As for the boy Avinash, his story was as yet incomplete. Perhaps it was only in the largeness, the emptiness of the desert that the abandoned child would find his courage, his peace. Felipe found his way from the ticket line to the bus. “I’m taking you home,” he said to Avinash in his mind, not realizing he had whispered aloud. He didn’t know why he’d said that, but it felt right. The old man next to him looked at him in surprise. Felipe whispered, “Do you hear it? Do you hear it too? The cry of the kharchal? Cry for the kharchal, my brother.” He remembered abruptly the night in Madrid, the sirocco howling outside, the stirring within him, an animal waking from sleep, stretching, telling him he was not merely human. He remembered his fright at that discovery, his pushing it away into oblivion. Might as well put a lid on a sandstorm. Now he felt as though some barrier within him was dissolving, something was freeing itself. Without warning, words began to swirl in his mind. Sitting in the bus he found himself afraid they would disappear if he didn’t set them down now. He pulled out the prescription pad, found a pen, and began to write.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vandana Singh was born and raised in New Delhi, India. She acquired a passion for inventing her own myths around the age of eleven, and obtained a Ph.D. in theoretical particle physics in her twenties. She now teaches physics at a small state university near Boston, and obsesses over everything from human nature to climate change to creative pedagogies. Her short stories have appeared most recently in The Other Half of the Sky (ed. Athena Andreadis) and Solaris Rising 2 (ed. Ian Whates), and several have been reprinted in best-of-year anthologies.
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