From the novel by Anjana Basu
got a wicked, wicked sense of humour that even shines through the story's
darkest moments. Her prose is effortlessly elegant and her characters are
interesting and life-like, warts and all.
the veil on an elegant writer whose only curse is that she may be called
upon to repeat the performance."
of what lies unsaid in family narratives is told in this multi-layered
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The sun rose in a streak of red over the hills. It looked as though the land beyond was bleeding to death, especially when the red spread to the Lake of the Moon and the waters rippled in red rivulets backwards and forwards backwards and forwards. The few women who were there early with their bathing cloths looked at the red water and backed away from it, knowing that it was the morning’s games, but reluctant nonetheless to touch it. As they stood there hesitating, dipping a toe and drawing it back again, the first of the raiders came over the hills. He stood silhouetted on the highest peak like an omen drawn in black. A tall shape standing poised there for moments in which the sky bled itself the sickly pale of morning. Then came the others behind him and the hills swarmed and boiled like an ant heap.
Chinku remembered that day in all its colour, first the red sky, then the pointing fingers of the hills, the dismay of the women and the way they turned to look up. Why had they turned to look – she was uncertain at that point – had a cheel wheeled overhead with a shrill scream of warning, its black wings scrabbling doom messages against the red? In the days before when life itself was a dawning some of them had read bird languages and talked to the great mountain lords, the eagle and the lammergeier. Talked through flapping palm fronds and later in the language of mirror-embroidered fans. They all knew that the old ones had talked, the fans were still there, one of them hung over the arch of Chinku’s home gate, whispering when the wind blew. Once, when the old ones were sleeping, she had climbed up on a tall stool and reached up to the fan, but a flight of pigeons had swooped down on her bubbling and boiling and set her falling down from the stool with such a crash that the old ones had woken up and she had to pretend that she had been dusting, nothing more than that.
Her father said, “There are some memories better left unremembered.” But she did not agree with him. Nothing proved it better than that red warning. First the black man then the others behind him, one after the other, slipping over the hills, their hands balancing the Mind Stealing rays. It was only too easy – the men were turning under their coverlets yawning and closing their eyes against the red shadows on the walls, thinking that they had another half an hour before they needed to rise and go to the lake. All they knew of what happened was the red light being blotted by a black moving shape and the touch of icy cold on their heads. The ones whose homes were towards the caves had more warning, they struggled out of their covers and tried to run.
The first Chinku knew was when her father scooped her up from the verandah and rushed her through the cold morning. She saw his feet crunch on gravel and then felt him roll her up and thrust her into the smallest of small holes, a hole that would cramp a rabbit, not to mention a skinny eight year old. “Stay there. Don’t make a sound. When they’re gone, I’ll come for you."
“But why me?”
“Because you’re not dead as long as one person is alive who remembers you.” The words had floated on the air outside but she could not see them, crushed as she was with her fists and knees digging into her stomach and the frightened tears rolling down her cheeks. Then the shadows flitted past the mouth of the hole and the feet crunched, a huge black boot with teeth ran past her filed of vision hunting its prey. She closed her eyes as tight as her fists clenched into her stomach. The feet and the shadows went by her for what seemed like hours. Sometimes a bird fluttered down only to take off again startling when it met her eyes. A rat turned its pointed nose in, met hers and backed out again. She crouched there cold and cramped and her father did not come. Finally, when valley had been quiet for hours and the angle of the light told her that the day was waning, she crept out of the hole.
The flag on the pole was gone. That was where her eyes first went. But the smoke was rising in blue puffs from the evening fires against the darkening sky. Smiling women in front of the huts were preparing their evening meal. Someone was herding the cattle in from the fields, she could see the dust rising from their hoofs in a misty white cloud. She skimmed past the houses to her own home. The fire was lit in the courtyard there too and her heart took wings and flew free for a moment. She could see her mother there and she ran up to her and into her arms crying, “Ma, ma, I was so scared…” The arms were tight for a minute and then slackened, “Chinku, you naughty girl, where were you? We’ve been looking for you for hours. Your father has gone to the fields to look for you! Go and wash your face and hands immediately!” For a moment she stared at her mother wide eyed. Then the tears welled into her eyes and she jerked away from her running towards the lake.
Her mother would think it was anger and not be alarmed, but before she reached the lake and while she was still out of sight of the hut, Chinku turned towards the Records Chamber. The door swung open at her touch. There was no one inside, the wooden floor level desks gleaming clean, the Guardian’s chauki desk squarely in its place, moved not one inch out of alignment. She stood in the doorway her head swiveling from side to side, wondering what it might mean. Something on the floor caught her eye, almost under one of the desks. She scuttled forwards and scrabbled for it, pulling it out and up into the palm of her hand. She did not look at it until she was clear of the place, though it tickled her palm. It was a grey pigeon’s feather, just an ordinary feather, shading from white to dark except for a notch as if the bird had broken some of its plumes. Just one notch. One for sorrow.
She thought that there would be other trails left for her and for any
other Memory Keeper who remembered, but she would have to look later. She
had just graduated to the tray of the Nine Sacred Runes and the old ones
had been pleased with her handling of the runes as she passed them backwards
and forwards between her fingers, learning the grooves of each and the
subtle shadings of colour that spoke of a time beyond dreaming, when the
horizons of memory and imagination merged, till no one could be sure where
one ended and the other began. “For memory is an imagination of a sort,”
the Old Ones had told her. “And even the lies we tell hold some shadow
Her grandmother was old and forgot anyway. When Chinku went to her and demanded a story as she sat on the white verandah in the evening breeze, her grandmother looked at her. “Since when was I ever a story teller?” she asked. “Stories are for those who have time to waste. For old people like me our days are better spent meditating on how to be more useful to people.” And yet on her good days. She could spin stories out of the waving palm fronds and the shape shifting clouds, stories that were almost as good as the legends that the Old Ones recorded. “But you can tell me a story, can’t you dear beloved golden granny?” she pleaded, hoping against hope that the Shadow Men might have missed her.
“The child must have termites in her head!” her grandmother said and huddled into her shawl, drooped her head and shut Chinku out beneath her withered leaf eyelids.
That night with her sleeping family around her she took out the pigeon feather and studied the notch by the light of the dying fire. Sorrow. That was the easy message the harder ones were the bent flights of the plume. The Old Ones had told her that the shadings too had a message but in the shadows of the fire they were hard to read, especially for one who had just graduated to de- ciphering the tree rings. One ring for the first 10 years, the bark patterns for stories of spring and fall, the notches for every woodcutter’s wish. Those were the obvious things. She had to be careful not to notch the feather further or clutch it too hard.
Her day had become the day of an ordinary girl child in the village – a day of lighting fires, grinding spices and fetching water. She walked with her friends to the lake and filled the pots, listening to the talk of love and new ribbons that flowed amongst them. She slept in the afternoon and at night, while her family slept the sleep of the dead she would take out the feather and study it, trying to read beyond the obvious, beyond the flights and the scratches of the quill.
It was difficult because the lessons had stopped. The Old Ones had been regenerated too, or killed. She knew that because she had found blood at the base of one of the caves, a smear spreading out with spider fingers still fresh and red despite the passing days. Her mother had looked at it and shuddered, “Sticky gum from one of those trees. It looks like blood doesn’t it?” There was a saying that the blood of the Old Ones would always run fresh, even though it ran outside the body and beyond the veins. One of the Old Ones was there too standing a hairsbreadth away, Chinku looked at him, holding her breath. Was it possible that he…but the Old One shook his head, “Some animal must have been slaughtered here. So sad, so very sad…” And walked away slowly, the leaf shoes that he wore making strange cloudy tracks in the red dust.
One day when she thought that she could not bear the loneliness of it any further, a boy came from over the lake. He was an easy moving figure among the cattle, all arms and legs. His walk first caught her eye because it flowed so easily, almost like the water. No one in the village walked that way, flowing between the people and the cattle. She almost expected to see a blue skinned boy who glinted in the sun, but all she saw was his smile, a boy like butter her mother would have said. Just for a moment she forgot the feather and the things that she had to write. He was carrying a bundled up cloth over his shoulder and strode through the women to the water’s edge hunkering down next to her. “You’re a memory keeper aren’t you,” he whispered softly, so softly that she thought she had heard nothing at all. The thali slippery with rithe foam almost slipped out of her fingers as she struggled to turn blank eyes on him. Look at anything blank, look at the water in the shadows, the sky swirled in white cloud, let your eyes reflect their nothingness. To see nothing is to be nothing.
His eyes were as clear as the water, as the sky without the clouds. He held out his hand carefully with a quick glance around. “I found these matrix stones there under the pine trees. Perhaps you should keep them.” She looked, she could not help it and they were matrix stones lying in the typical criss cross in the palm of his hand. The sunlight crossed them as it glinted. “How do you know what they are?” she asked, wary as a young wolf. “They look like ordinary pebbles.” Looking at the lake water in front of them he put out his finger and made one of the secret signs in the water, a sign that the men from over the hills would never have known. Her heart leapt in a moment of happiness, even as she struggled to keep the blankness in her eyes. “How do you know?” she said again coldly.
“I sat in your class twice.”
She sat back on her heels. “You? You’re not one of us. How could you have got into our class? You’re a liar.”
“If I were a liar, how would I know that?”
He was older by a few years, taller and more confident, a true smooth as butter boy. And his smile rippled across his face like the wavelets in front of her. “Keep the stones,” he said, getting to his feet. “I have to go.” And then he was moving through the cows and the people, crossing Chinku’s mother who was coming over to find out the boy’s name, with an angry, “Haven’t I told you not to talk to stranger?”
It was too late to hide the matrix stones, so she played them in the mud, throwing them like dice or marbles and watching them spin crisscross beams across the water. “He gave me these pebbles. Aren’t they pretty?”
“Where did he say he came from?”
“From across the lake.”
“Strange people like in the village of Baghen,” her mother said. “Be very careful. And do not go too deep into the woods. They are full of wolves.” Saying that she went away again, balancing the butter churn that she was carrying on her hip.
Everyone in the village and across the mountains had heard of the wolf people of Baghen. They ran at full moon with the wolves in the forest. Some said they turned into wolves themselves when the moon changed and went looking for babies to add to their tribes. All it took to become a wolf man or woman was one scratch from a claw, or even a fleck of foam from their mouth when they were running with the pack at midnight. But was the boy really a wolfman? Wolfboys had ruffled hair streaked with silver and yellow or ice blue eyes, or so the stories went. The Old Ones had thought of them as sacred and spoken of them in the same terms as silver sickles and waxen berries gathered by the light of the full moon. What colour had the boy’s eyes been? She thought hard but could not remember. What she did remember was the way his smiles had spread from his mouth to his eyes in a slow stream of joy like rippling water. She wanted to know that boy better, to play the games of the matrix stones with him, as she could play with none of the other children.
The next morning, after the water gathering, she had slipped away early around the lake to the forest, reminding herself that the full moon was long gone and the wolf people likely to be in their normal form. The pine trees shook their needles around her and the squirrels scuttled up the bark and scolded from the safety of their branches. And if they did that, she was certain that there was no one around except herself.
There was a story that her grandmother had told her once by the evening fire, stirring her soup pots while Chinkua sat nearby. The story of a starving man in a long hard winter. He had a wife and child to feed and there had been no food for days – the lake was hard frozen with no chance of breaking the ice to spear the fish. The man had wandered through the deserted forest for days, until he was almost an ice statue himself. Then, in a mess of broken branches and ice spears in a hole, he discovered a trapped wolf. The icy blue eyes had looked up at him through the darkness below. It was food, the man thought and warm furs for his wife and child. In his trembling hands, he lifted the spear, but try as he could he was helpless in front of that blue stare. It asked for nothing, was neither hostile, nor threatening. It just looked at him and throwing the spear down and scrabbling among the branches he was able to help the wolf out of the hole, thinking the whole time, “I am a fool, the wolf will attack me and I will never see my family again.” But the wolf did not attack him – instead it gave him a gift. How it gave him the gift Chinku’s mother did not know – there were a thousand and one ways the gift could have been given, through the wolf’s breath, warm on the man’s face, through a growl, or a scratch, or perhaps for a moment the wolf had taken on human speech. What Chinku’s mother did not say was that from then on the man had been able to transform himself into a wolf when the moon rose full and golden over the mountains. That the wolf had given him the gift of being able to hunt with the wolf packs so that he could always scent and find food. That he could walk unseen at night if required and hide his tracks in the paw prints of a wolf. That he could speak the language of wolves and know what enemies lurked in the forests. It was a gift that the man had handed down in his blood to his sons, to the baby through a scratch, or so they said. And the tribes lived on their own keeping to their own strange ways and even the Shadow Slayers from across the hills did not dare to tangle with them.
“Do you remember the story, Ma?” Chinku had asked her. “Of how they became wolves?” But her mother had shrugged and said, “Who remembers these things?” and dragged her home to help with the washing. But there was hope, she thought, because if her mother remembered the wolf people, then perhaps somewhere the memories lurked. She sat down on a grassy bank in the shade of one of the trees and wondered what to do next. The Shadow Slayers had their city somewhere to the west. She had heard of the white stone houses of Kalabash with their iron gates that closed every sunset and opened when the sun was a thread of red on the horizon.
At Kalabash they ate memories and the more memories they devoured, the stronger they grew. Their ruler the King of Shadows had decreed that he would rule over a race of mindless subjects, people who did not remember their long term past, only the immediate moment. Not that they would be made to forget heir families of course. What they would not remember would be the collective memories of race, their legends and the histories of their forefathers. All those would go into the Kalabash cooking pots to fatten a race noted only for its logical mechanical mindlessness. Kalabash had no poets or storytellers, no musicians or artists. It was those things that the King of Kalabash was determined to steal from the others whenever he could.
“Why?” Chinku had asked in one of her classes, in a piercing childishly clear voice that made the other young Memory Keepers nudge each other and giggle.
“Who knows,” the Guardian had shrugged. “Perhaps he had a son who wouldn’t sleep until he was told a story and his nurses had no stories to tell.” The child must have wailed through the night. Perhaps the child died of wailing and the king in his grief had determined to steal all the stories and legends in the world, to steal other people’s histories. Chinku had not understood it then and did not understand it now, but the tales of tribes left memory less, cultureless began to seep in from the surrounding lands and the Memory Keepers had grown anxious. It was the weaker tribes at first and the simpler tales of the birth of the sun from a fleck of fire sparking out of the Creator’s oven, or the moon dropping from Inaki Sky Queen’s ear to take its place in the night and light a lamp for the weary traveller. She had loved those stories even though they were not the tales of her own tribe, but stories shared by a wandering raconteur. The Memory Keepers had begun knotting those stories into their thread tallies the moment they heard of the story thieving and the lost memories.
Sitting in the soft sun Chinku wondered whether the wolf people had stories of their own or whether the magic of running in the moonlight with the wing footed wolf pack was enough enchantment for them to live by. “Hello Memory Keeper,” said a voice almost in her ear and she startled. The boy was standing there, smiling, his teeth flashing white in the sun. Were they sharp, those white teeth, instinctively Chinku tried to peer into his mouth. The boy’s smile widened. “I won’t eat you if that’s what you’re thinking,” he said.
She tried to pull herself together and not act like the silly girl her mother often said she was. “What’s you name?” she asked. If someone gave you their name, you had their essence, the Old Ones had said. A name was knowledge and power. “Nick,” he answered. Did he look like a Nick? The name could sometimes be a lie. “That can’t be your real name,” she challenged.
“It’s much shorter than my real name. A baby like you wouldn’t be able to pronounce it anyway.”
“Try me,” she said, getting to her feet. Standing on the hillock gave her added height so that felt taller than him, even though she could not understand how he come upon her so quietly. “Nekrasol Baghilov Timbre Lupineska,” he answered with a bow as springy as the tree branches. “But you can call me Nekrasol. Now isn’t it time I knew your name?”
“Chinku,” she answered simply. “That’s all.” She wished she had gone one class higher before all this had happened. They would have studied the origins of names them and she would have understood what this boy’s surname meant.
“Well, Chinku That’s All, what are you doing alone in the woods like this? Don’t you know that it’s not safe?”
“I was looking for you. I wondered whether you were a Memory Keeper too.” In the dappled sun shadows she could not tell what colour his eyes were – they could have been any colour at all.
“That’s not why you came,” he said. “You were wondering if I was a wolf.” His eyes were yellow, she decided, a colour she hated and she stamped her foot. Wolf or otherwise he was an annoying boy. “I’m not such a curious prying creature.”
“But I am a wolf. And you are a Memory Keeper.” Too late to deny it – the word ‘too’ had slipped out of her mouth and she could not pull it back.
“How do you know that?”
“We can smell Memory Keepers, don’t you know?” Now he was jeering at her. All the disappointment and loneliness of the past few days gathered themselves together in Chinku’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks in blood warm tears.
Wolf though he was, he faltered, then walked around her in a circle.
As she fought her tears, Chinku could feel his shadow passing over her
tightly closed eyelids. “Don’t cry,” he said finally, uselessly, as helpless
as most boys in front of tears. “I know what happened to your village.
We smelt the men coming.”
“My father would have. And at least our memories would have been saved.” Tears were memories gone sour, the Old Ones had said, except for the tears of the gods, the Sky Queen’s tears that had trickled down to form the world’s seas, or her son’s honeyed tears that ran through the veins of trees and flowers to be gathered by the bees. Those had been tears of gold. Human tears, however, were tears of blood and weakened the earth’s core. She did not quite understand the meaning of that saying and nor had many of her class. Instead they had walked away with an indelible impression of blood tears flowing down white cheeks. The wolves would have come running at their scent.
The boy was standing there firmly balanced on his two feet, He was too reasonable, but she could not stamp her foot at him again. She knew that what he was saying was true. Their tribe did not talk to a tribe of wolves, even though the book of wolf tracks had once been there in the secret library to be studied along with the secret messages that they left for their kind. Well, she knew Nick was a wolf and now she could go back to her washing and her days because there was nothing more to be done. “I have to go back,” she said lamely. “My mother will be anxious.” She could sit there, of course, under the trees looking at the patterns of the leaves and counting the dots on the butterflies’ wings while the sun gently kissed her toes. She looked at the boy.
“Yes,” Nick answered, his smile growing longer and more wolfish. “Run along, Memory Keeper. Go carefully, there are real wolves in the forest.”
“Where is Kalabash?” she asked him suddenly. “Do you know?”
“Over the hills and far away,” he answered. “Why, do you want to go
Nick cocked his head and thought for a moment, the sun turning his ice blue eyes briefly yellow. “It might be,” he answered. “But I have never heard of anyone who has gone to Kalabash and stolen from the thieves there. Nor in fact do I know how the memories are kept either.”
“The Old Ones say they eat them.” It was a silly thought, where had it come from suddenly, to make a fool of her in front of this wolf boy. If she looked down she would know that it came from her own sense of futility, at having to meet her parents every day knowing that the memory of one day and a whole way of life had vanished from their minds. No one remembered the Old Ones or left flowers at that ugly stain. And in Kalabash there was a king singing his children to sleep with their stories.
Nick smiled, that same smile she had seen by the lake. “I can’t tell you,” he answered. “But stories aren’t always the truth, you know.”
She wanted to argue with him but could not quite find the words. No, she knew that stories weren’t always true, but she also knew that stories could shorten a road or put the blue into a grey sky. Stories could do more than that, but at eight that was all she knew. “I had better go,” she said half turning away from him.
“Goodbye Memory Keeper.” There was a rustle and something moving behind her. She turned back again quickly and found no boy, just the sun shadows chasing each other, the squirrels scolding and the bushes stirring softly as if something had passed through. All at once the goose flesh prickled on her arms and she quickly ran for the path that would take her back to the lake and safety.
(Anjana Basu's novel Curses in Ivory was published by HarperCollins India in January 2003. A second novel, Black Tongue, was published in 2007 by India Ink/Roli. Ms Basu is also the author of The Agency Raga, a collection of short stories [Orient Longman], and her poems have been featured in an anthology published by Penguin India. Her short fiction has appeared in Wolfhead Quarterly, Eclectica, Amethyst Review, The Blue Moon Review, Kimera and Recursive Angel.)