From the editor:
Deepak never felt at ease in Madras, but he feels even more alone in Des Moines, where an unforgiving labor market landed him after college. But when an ancient rakshasa hitches a ride in his suitcase, his life will take a permanent twist.
Author Shweta Adhyam calls both Madras and Seattle home. She attended Clarion West in 2017, and her work has appeared in Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Expanded Horizons, and more.
In the taxi going home, Deepak could feel the jet-lag coming on. The tiredness in his bones, the almost drugged sleep, the weird dreams and the subsequent wakefulness that felt like walking through sponges. It might actually have been pleasant, had he not had to return to work soon. It was already the early hours of Monday.
Not a soul was about. The taxi slipped through the streets of Des Moines, the snow on the ground hushing all sound. It passed gas-station convenience stores, drive-through banks, fast-food restaurants, big-box stores – all shuttered, the red-lettered, blue-bordered ‘OPEN’ signs now colourless, silent. An LED sign glowed brightly next to the First National Bank of Iowa logo, alternating between the time and temperature: “00:43” and “5°F” and, incongruously, “-15°C”.
And yet the crush of Madras, having seared itself onto his brain for two weeks, now refused to give way to the cold, clean quiet. Those were not empty alley-ways the taxi went by, but Ranganathan Street, near his parents’ flat, where you didn’t walk so much as let the sweaty crowd jostle you along. The quiet taxi-driver might be replaced any moment into Amma’s shrill voice, or Appa’s patronising one. The dark – punctuated only by the perfect cones of light thrown by the street lamps – would surrender to prickly sunlight, to the blare of vehicle horns, the noise of crowds that thronged the stores on the street where his parents lived, the constant ringing of the telephone and the door-bell.
It had puzzled him for years that people could live there, like that. As he grew up, the puzzlement grew with him: not only did others not shy away from the noise and the intrusion, they took part in it, shouting over everything else to make themselves heard.
Which was why he had taken the first chance that presented itself – a full scholarship at Columbia University – to flee the place.
Deepak felt a pang at the thought of college. That had been his place in life: hanging out in New York with Jason, Anil and Charlie. If only he hadn’t been spit out into such an unforgiving labour market. Maybe his introversion would not have been such a problem and he could have been with his friends in New York, at a Big Four job, right now. Certainly he would have found something more exciting than an insurance behemoth in Des Moines, Iowa.
The taxi stopped at his building and Deepak hauled his twenty-three kilogram suitcase up a flight of stairs to his flat. He was almost there, he told himself. He would place his laptop bag and keys in their basket, shower, unpack and crawl in between his memory-foam mattress and down comforter. He was a deep sleeper and there would be escape for a while.
The apartment was cold – Deepak wished he had a friend in Des Moines, someone who could have turned on the heat a day before. But there, he had had to take a taxi back from the airport. He felt for the light switch and flipped it. The room stayed dark.
It had to be a circuit breaker in his apartment; other lamps in the building were on. He fetched his flashlight, but the battery was weak. There was no use searching for the fuse box with the faint beam it leaked. His laptop and cell-phone were out of charge: no way he could call a hotel or a taxi. Just as he was considering sleeping with all his clothes on, he remembered that the bedroom had a gas fireplace.
It was a beautiful thing: stone façade, beige cornices, a removable glass door and even a completely unnecessary set of wrought-iron coal-tongs with handles shaped like snake-heads. It had simply been waiting for an opportunity like this.
Deepak showered in the faint firelight. There was hot water, thank goodness. He let it wash over him, seep through to his bones. The water pressure in this building was one of life’s redemptions.
Two years in Des Moines had changed Deepak’s attitude. It was no longer his pride that made him hate the place, it was the deep loneliness that dogged his every step. Deepak had tried everything to make new friends: joining a photography club, living close to Drake University’s campus, meeting with friends of friends. He lunched with people, went hiking, but felt no connection.
He would call his New York gang: “Jason is five shots down,” Anil would say. “Man, I wish you were here. Can I call you back?” Sometimes he did, mostly he didn’t.
When Deepak returned, the bedroom was much warmer.
Only the unpacked suitcase stood between him and sleep, escape. Let it go, he told himself. Unpack it in the morning. In the end, he couldn’t bear to think of it sitting there all night, unattended, ready to remonstrate with him first thing in the morning.
The dirty clothes went into the laundry basket, the toiletries travel pack chucked into the vanity under the sink, Indian milk sweets placed in the balcony (who knew what state the fridge was in). The bronze vase he had bought at his native village remained. The little boy who had sold it to Deepak insisted it was thousands of years old. Deepak had known better than to believe the claim, but had bought it anyway, saddened that a child had to lie to feed himself and his family.
There was a particular place in the living room he intended it for, but the apartment was a Tundra, and he had just gotten all warm. Just leave it in the suitcase and go to sleep, he told himself, in vain. Well, it wasn’t the best thing in the world, but he would place it on the mantelpiece for the time being.
Deepak picked up the vase and dropped it the next instant. He backed away, horrified. The vase had sort of … scalded him. Not in a physical way, but something had seared up his arm and into his heart. Something evil, malevolent. Ravenous.
A single word sounded in his head.
Absurd then, that the next thing he thought of was himself at seven years old, sitting at the foot of his grandmother’s wicker chair in the living room of his parents’ flat, one lazy Sunday after another, as she told Deepak and Sunita, his older sister, stories of gods and goddesses, heroic kings and princes and quick-witted animals … and their triumphs over rakshasas and asuras and other assorted dangers.
Deepak shook off the image.
This was ridiculous. It was the jet-lag, the lack of sleep. Mythological demons did not belong in sane, waking reality.
Gingerly, he reached for the vase again. His fingers hovered over the metal, gradually nearing its surface. A murmuring that Deepak had not noticed before grew louder in his ear, more distinct. His fingers brushed the decorative grooves on the metal and he knew the murmuring to be a repeated verse:
The fire wakes the rakshasa
The fire warms the human
The human goes to sleep
The fire goes out!
He snatched his hand away and sat heavily down on the bed. He was shivering. The murmur was a slowly-dying echo in his ears.
There was a rakshasa in his bedroom. He knew nothing of how to deal with them. Hidimba had been killed by Bheema – but then, Bheema had been the son of Vayu, god of wind, and possessed with legendary strength. Indrajit had been killed by Lakshmana, but only after three days and three nights of battle and with the help of Indrajit’s uncle, who betrayed his evil nephew. Sage Agastya – no warrior – had killed Vatapi, but that was only because he had had the power to instantly digest the rakshasa after Ilvala, Vatapi’s brother, had converted Vatapi into a goat and fed him to the sage, intending to use black magic to bring his brother back to life, tearing out from Agastya’s stomach.
Deepak had no allies, no weapons, no mystic powers. Even his laptop and cell-phone were battery-dead, uselessly plugged into outlets that had no power to give.
Way to kick me when I’m down, life.
And then it struck Deepak that he was still alive. He straightened up. Perhaps the rakshasa couldn’t get out unless someone let it. He had to find out – and knew exactly how he could.
“Have I told you the story of the fox,” his grandmother had said once, “who returned to his cave one evening, only to see a lion’s footprints go in, but not out? Now, the fox doesn’t want to enter, for to find the lion there would mean sure death. But if there isn’t a lion inside, he would be abandoning a perfectly good cave, no? He is a smart fox and he hits upon this idea. He addresses the cave, asking why it hasn’t greeted him as it usually does. If it won’t reply, the fox understands. It doesn’t want him anymore. He will go away. Now, there is a lion inside and, not wanting to lose the meal that has presented itself at his doorstep, he answers. The fox wastes not a moment in running away, for, in all the years that he has lived there, the cave has never spoken to him.”
Rakshasas were not famed for their blazing intellects.
The words were awkward pebbles in his mouth, but Deepak spat them out anyway, “Hello fire, you haven’t said a word to me since I got back. Are you afraid of something? Are you hungry? Speak to me.”
The Tamil words dissipated into the Iowan ether, without reply.
“There is someone around, isn’t there? Why won’t you speak to me, fire?”
“Fire? What’s wrong? You’re hungry, aren’t you? Shall I feed you this vase?”
“Oh, be quiet, you senseless human!”
“I know that story, too, you know. You only had to ask; I would introduce myself. I am Nakadaranan. The instant that fire dies down, I will tear you apart with my claws.”
The rakshasa’s voice was exactly as Deepak would have expected: like a tiger speaking. Perhaps it looked like he imagined, too: big, golden-skinned, red-eyed, with sharp horns, teeth and claws.
The fear jumped at Deepak and submerged him. He choked, struggling to keep himself afloat. He told himself that he was in a first-world country; the fireplace had a direct fuel line. That he was safe for the moment; he would think of something.
He came to believe his words – at least partly. It gave him a tenuous hold and he clung on tightly.
As the fear began to ebb, a hammering vexation took its place. As if being trapped between two entirely different, yet equally horrible, worlds wasn’t enough for him to contend with. Now he had to fight to even stay alive? Why bother?
Angry, afraid, emboldened, Deepak said, “Why are you waiting for the fire to die down?”
“You wish so much to die?”
“Let me see you answer the question.”
“There may be a thousand and eight reasons. What is it to you?”
“It may be a thousand and eight things to me. Answer the question.”
“You puny human, I am a rakshasa and you think to order me about? I have lived much longer than any of you ever has. I have seen so much, heard so much, eaten so much …”
“What: eaten so much? How does that matter?”
“How do you think I learnt that lion-and-fox story? I think it was a monk I ate many centuries ago, who was carrying that – and other – stories around in his head. I like monks. And sages. They hold lots of knowledge.”
“Well, then, I am going to be a sore disappointment to you.”
“When one is hungry, one eats anything.”
“Fine,” said Deepak. “The way my life has been going, being eaten by a rakshasa may even be good fortune.”
“Oh no, you’re one of those. Cue the lamentations.”
“You will eat me anyway, so why not listen to me first?”
“I will know it when I eat you. But speak: perhaps it will get some bitterness out of your flesh.”
“Look at this frozen desert I live in,” said Deepak. “There is nothing interesting for miles and miles around. Do you even realise where you are now? You’re not in your homeland anymore – this is the United States.”
“What, what, what? What’s that? Where am I? Where are we?”
“We have crossed the seven seas and the seven lands and are halfway across the world.”
“We are on the other side of the world? Really? I wonder how tasty the humans here are.”
“You’ll find out. Here entire days go by without my having said a word to anyone. I go to work, and all I can talk to people about are spreadsheets and computers and payables and receivables–”
“What are those? Never mind, I’ll know when I eat you.”
“Then I come back home and there is nothing for me to do here. I so miss New York.”
“What does ‘New York’ mean?”
“It is a big and wonderful city in this country. Everything happens there: art, music, movies …”
“I’ve eaten memories of those! But I’ve never actually seen any.”
“If you don’t kill me, I can take you.”
“Maybe I will let you live long enough to do so,” said Nakadaranan, lazily.
“You won’t,” said Deepak, “Let me speak.” And he told the rakshasa of his failure to make new connections; how his old friends seemed to drift further away each day.
“Well, perhaps this country,” said Nakadaranan. “What of our homeland? I have not known anyone there to complain of a lack of people in their lives.”
“Oh, there is noise enough – but that is just the problem!” said Deepak. “The incessant cawing of crows; my mother fighting with the maid; the woman next door shouting at her daughter; vendors yelling the virtues of their oranges; somebody or the other asking me ‘Jet-lag is bad this time, no?’ and Manju attai, my father’s sister, pushing me to ‘Just see for one second’ a photo of her husband’s second cousin’s brother-in-law’s daughter. Who there do you think I feel close to?”
Nakadaranan laughed. It went on laughing, a good long time.
“Now what in this is to laugh about?”
“Oh,” said the rakshasa, controlling its mirth, “you are no man. You are but a pouty little child, pushing away both savoury and sweet rice, asking to be fed what Brahma has not yet created. Your flesh will be soft and delicate, no doubt. A rare feast awaits me.”
“Well then, why don’t you eat me and put me out of my misery?”
“All right … Now, why is the fire still burning so strong?”
And then, Deepak knew what he must do. He swooped down on the suitcase, picked up the vase and flung it into the fire with a flick of his wrist.
“Aaahhh, warmth,” sighed the demon. “Why didn’t you do this earlier?”
“I’ll give you warmth!” said Deepak and plucked the tongs off the wall. He picked up the vase, opened the balcony door a fraction and dropped the bronze cylinder into the snow.
The rakshasa’s muted screams lasted only a minute or so, but Deepak was afraid they would wake the neighbourhood.
For one week, the vase lay on the balcony snow – and on Deepak’s mind.
It festered there, alternately fading into preposterous hallucination and roaring back into reality. It was so awfully out of place there and yet his life might be forfeit putting it away.
On Sunday evening, the hour when loneliness weighed most, he wondered what it said about his life that a rakshasa had given him the most real conversation he’d had in years. He could no longer put off opening the vase.
A blast of icy air hit him as he stepped into the snow. His fingers stuck to the vase when he touched it with his bare hands. Using his shirt, he tipped the vase over and fine grey dust spilt into the snow.
It looked like vibhuti, the sacred ash from temple sacrificial fires that a priest would drop into your hand as a token of the deity’s blessing. Deepak would touch a little dot of it between his eyebrows, in acknowledgement. Some people smeared longer lines across their foreheads; others swallowed a pinch.
Deepak rubbed some of the powder between his fingers.
If the rakshasa absorbed the personas of people it ate, then these remains represented not only Nakadaranan’s life, but also all of theirs.
How shocked his grandmother would be to hear the remains of a rakshasa called sacred.
And how strange that being destroyed by the cold made those remains look like ash.
Deepak studied the granules on this thumb and forefinger.
Before he could talk himself out of it, he tipped his head back and dropped a pinch of powder into his mouth, rubbing his thumb and forefinger to dust them off – just as he had seen countless people do.
The world tore apart.
Deepak was not Deepak, but something else.
A being of fire.
A fire that burned in its claws, in those already-dangerous horns and menacing teeth, but mostly, strongly, relentlessly, at its core. A fire that ruled awareness and actions; a fire that lusted after blood and hunted it; that, upon tasting it, burned brighter, hotter, more insistent.
It watched a forest pathway, and the travellers along it, for those that came alone.
An ambitious young man who had left his village to seek his fortune.
A wastrel, who had had news that his fortune was waiting in a distant town, left to him by an uncle.
A merchant, too thrifty to pay a guard’s fees.
A potter, going to another town after the death of his wife, to start afresh.
They fought for their lives, all of them. But who can fight an inferno with bare hands and win?
Once, a warrior, a woman dressed as a man, who travelled alone so she wouldn’t be found out.
She fought, too. Her blade was sharp and strong and she wielded it well. She also succumbed, but not before lopping off an ear and a horn.
Searing agony. Long days.
Death had seemed near, but recovery eventually limped into view.
The fire still burned, but it was wary. No more did it risk fighting – it simply waited for its prey to fall asleep first.
Nevertheless, the biggest danger to the fire had come from a monk who awoke, but did not resist. His last thoughts were of gratitude towards his master and a humble hope that he himself had taught his disciples well. He counted himself blessed that his body would feed another creature.
No flesh had ever tasted like his – sweet and cool and calm slipping down the throat, a relief from the relentless heat of the fire inside.
It had nearly quenched the blaze.
The days after that meal had passed in contemplation and regret. In thoughts of not killing again. Of goodwill, of charity.
And, indeed, for a few days, only fruit and grain were ingested.
But fruit and grain did not have stories. Biting into them was like ingesting voids. And it was painful, for they fed another void, a raw, tender one that had hidden behind the fire for centuries, perhaps forever: the being knew no other of its kind.
The fire was preferable. So once more priests were eaten, and barbers. Flower-women and fisherwomen. Well-diggers and fortune-hunters.
Until fewer and fewer travellers came by the pathway and it grew over in disuse.
A road had been built some distance away, well-lit and guarded. A beautiful bronze vase lay by its side, perhaps fallen out of some young woman’s dowry. The vase became home.
Time and again it was picked up, carried, until it found itself alone with a fire and a human being. When the fire guttered out, the human was asleep.
A pesky man-boy – and a frigid chill that rushed in at impossible speed from the edges of consciousness, freezing, debilitating, powdering everything it touched – had ended it all.
When the world came back to Deepak, the frosty air was biting at his fingers, and his toes within his slippers, and his insides every time he took a breath. He took the vase inside and shut the balcony door.
Deepak wandered around the tiny apartment, adjusting a picture here, a book there, flicking at a speck of dust elsewhere, suddenly ashamed. He had spoken of loneliness to a creature that had lived alone in a vase for a thousand years.
Nakadaranan had sought companionship the only way it knew. And now, all those lives lived within Deepak, all their memories, their desires. It hurt. He savoured the pain, held it close.
Sometimes, a friend was to be found in the unlikeliest of places.
This story originally appeared in Expanded Horizons.