Nira and I
By Shweta Narayan
16 March 2009
Nira and I are with Hemal on the day she dies. She is teaching us a clapping song game, a remembering game. She is winning.
We call Hemal by name, though that breaks respect law because she is my mother's younger sister. She says being called jal-amaa makes her feel old. She is sixteen, which is old; Nira and I are five.
My amaa opens the door screen and says, "Hemal, we must talk. Nira, go home; your amaa will worry."
Hemal's eyebrows pull together, scrunching up her caste marks, like maybe she ate all the butter or forgot to douse the cookfire. She gets up and ruffles my hair. "I'll be back soon, little ones."
She ducks outside. Arms grab her. She fights. My father shouts, "Don't try to lie. We saw you with that boy, that fisher caste scum! And all this time you were living in my house, luring in the mist. . . ."
Nira says, "Your ataa won't beat her, will he, Shaya?" Her voice is small.
I say, "Shh," and put my arms around her.
Voices pile on each other, words like Law and Honor, words like stones. Nira's eldest brother says, "Fishers use children's fingers for bait." He is supposed to marry Hemal.
Amaa sobs, "Sister, little sister, how could you?" and Hemal says, "How could you?"
Then the half-bricks start, and cobblestones and broken bottles. Shadows huge and sudden against the door screen; the thud of Hemal falling; screams and wet breaking noises.
"This isn't happening," I say. Sounds blur outside. Shadows lighten.
Nira huddles closer to me. I put my arms around her. "It's all right," I whisper. "Remember, she said she would come back."
Nira and I are six when her eldest brother loses his way in the mist. Three days later his bones get home. An extra finger sprouts from the left hand, and the skull has no eye sockets. But his clothes dangle from the shoulder blades, and dry knuckles scratch at the door for two days before the King's men come.
This happens, but not to us. We are rememberers. We know each corner, every cobblestone. The mist cannot tempt us into a street that never was, can never make us think that we are home, or that we are kittens or fish. We are the city's traders, its messengers; we know it from wharf to hill. We roam through the dead market, piled high with bananas and seaweed but smelling only of age; we cross the tricky bridge, whose planks dissolve underfoot when we aren't there to remember. We are not trapped, huddling in tiny neighbourhoods. We matter. Travelers pay us to lead them safe through the mist, and our families work even in the palace. Granted, we may have little changes—forked tongues or grey eyes and skin, or feathers for hair—but nothing to bring the King's men. Our caste is pure. Till Nira's brother is lost.
Nira's amaa keeps her home after that, keeps her brothers home. All the mothers do, holding children close and safe when we should be learning the city. And every day we grow more scared.
I am eight when I see Nira again. She appears out of thick curling twilight with her brother Abjit, who is ten, gripping her hand so hard it hurts me. I can see through their feet. I do not imagine what they might become. Nira says, "They're lost. All lost. Amaa and Ataa, and Imar, and Garun. They've been gone a week, and we are so hungry, Shaya, so very hungry."
I pull them in and shut out the mist. Wrap blankets around them, feed them spicy coconut rice to wake them up. Taking care of Nira again. A knot loosens in my heart.
Nira comes back fully, but I do not remember Abjit as well. One of his feet is grey, and clawed, and much too small. Mist-burned. "How did you find us?" I say.
Nira says, "Hemal showed me the way."
The next day Abjit will laugh at her for this, will taunt and tease and pinch. But now he stares around wide-eyed, and touches every wall and stool and bit of floor, and says nothing at all.
Ataa clears out Hemal's old loft room and buys straw for Abjit to weave two more mattresses. Until they are done, Nira shares mine. We stay up far too late at first, trading stories, and one night, after Ataa starts snoring in the next room, I slide the window open. The blown-glass window eye swings back and forth on its string. I say, "Hemal?"
There is only mist, so thick that the ground and the neem tree are gone. It pokes a finger into my room, right around the eye. I cringe back. Nira says, "Listen."
Hemal is singing.
Nira and I listen at the window most nights until I am nine, though Nira is still eight. We learn teaching songs and sad love songs and sometimes fishermen's ditties, which make the ground sway under us. We are not scared.
It's a fisher song that Amaa hears. She slams the window shut and locks it, her lips a pale tight line, her fingers trembling. "I should beat you," she says.
"Like you beat Hemal?"
Tears pool in her eyes, glint on her cheeks. She stumbles from the room.
Ataa is grave the next morning. Amaa is ill. Abjit says, "Is she mist-sick?" Ataa does not answer.
"It's Shaya's fault," says Abjit.
Ataa says, "Something is in the mist."
I shrug. "Just Hemal."
"No," says Ataa. "Hemal's dead. Stoning is part of culture law; it keeps us safe, keeps the dead from walking."
Nira and I look at each other. We know.
Amaa does not get better, not properly. She forgets where she is. She forgets what she is doing. Now it is Amaa who must stay home and safe.
So Ataa inks caste marks into Abjit's forehead, and he starts running messages, though he limps. Nira and I teach my little sisters. We teach them the city and we teach them Hemal's songs to find the way. And we teach them not to sing around Amaa.
We keep the love songs and fishing songs to ourselves.
When Nira and I are ten, Amaa calls me Hemal. I run outside, leaving Nira to soothe her.
The next day, Ataa gives us our caste marks.
Nira and I go everywhere. Though we are little, we are fast and we never lose our way. Nobody knows how we do it. Nobody else sees Hemal. The mist is not threatening where she is. It is her. And though her eye and lip are swollen black and blood drips over her caste marks, she never frightens us.
We get work at the palace, which makes Ataa proud and Abjit jealous, and there we meet Bhatar. He is like a fire-shadow: dark, long, and quick. Caste marks shadow his eyes, for he is cousin to the King. He is sixteen. Nira and I are eleven now, and it doesn't seem so old.
Bhatar comes with us when we run messages sometimes, which breaks caste law. He says he doesn't care about castes and who are we to question the King's cousin? He says the mist has nothing left to scare him with. It took his sister, and the thing that came back tried to kill him. He unmade it; he says it wept and begged with his sister's voice. He was eleven then. Like us.
I think he is brave. Nira says he is reckless.
Bhatar unmakes the mist with a whirling, stomping dance. Where he hits the ground even the dead market grows more real; gleaming brassware clunks when we tap it, and we smell rotten fish and mangoes and the sea. Bhatar tries to teach us, but we cannot keep his rhythm any more than he can keep our tune. He says that may be for the best; songs break culture law. I say, "Is everyone a lawbreaker?" Nira and Bhatar have no answers.
With dance and song together we thin the mist to haze, till one day the sun breaks through. We do not expect it to hurt. While we blink away tears, the mist pulls over us once more.
Bhatar grins and hugs me. "We'll do it again," he says.
I say, "How does lawbreaking thin the mist?"
On the day we dance back the royal gardens and bring sunlight streaming down over the whole palace, the mist pulls away to reveal two gardeners and a palace servant. Adults. I open my mouth, do not know what to say; but the mist keeps rolling back behind them, back and down, leaving the hilltop bare to the sun. I point. From above, it looks like a silent white ocean.
The next time we meet, the same three adults come trailing hopefully after the children. Bhatar starts to teach them the dance. He is seventeen. Nira and I are twelve, and the adults look more like him than we do.
There was a pavilion in the gardens, made of painted wood and slate, where Bhatar fought his sister. It became forgotten. But he remembers, so we learn it for a meeting place.
Mist and rushes grow so thick that Bhatar must dance the path into being. His first step sinks in past the ankle, but Nira and I know better than to scream, and his second step comes down on slate paving, and his third. Octagons and squares tiled together. His seventh step finds the boards of a wooden bridge all painted red. We follow, fifteen people of nine different castes, singing what he has shown us into memory.
The pavilion is eight-sided, red with black beams and yellow rails and grey slate floors. Painted on each wall is a palace-caste man at work. The roof is fringed yellow silk. Sun shines through it, though mist pours down the walls.
Bhatar starts sounding like the adults he talks to. Nira and I have work, so we don't hear everything he says. But he takes me aside and says that the mist is our fear. "I think it will grow, Shaya of the questions," he says, "until we stop hurting one another." Worry lines his forehead and his eyes.
Nira thinks he is wrong. But though there are forty-one of us now, of thirteen castes, she says this only to me and to Hemal.
When I am fourteen, though Nira is still thirteen, Abjit pulls me into a dusty corner and kisses me. I start crying. I know what happens to lawbreakers.
"Don't be a baby," Abjit says. "I'm going to marry you."
I snatch my hand away, run to Nira. "What happened?" she says.
I tell her. She pulls back, her lips smiling upside-down. "I don't want you to kiss Abjit," she says. "If you must kiss a boy, kiss Bhatar."
I lean forward. Her lips are softer than his, and warmer, and her breath is sweet. I feel her upside-down smile melt.
Nira and I walk hand-in-hand to the pavilion the next day. Hemal holds the mist thick around us.
Bhatar is not there. Nobody is. We wait, each with an arm around the other; then Nira tries dancing again. Watching her, I make my first song. A love song to my dearest friend, its hesitant rhythm following her dance and the sunlight that catches on her hair. I find myself smiling as I sing.
We are kissing again when the children come running up. Their sandals are loud, slap-slap, on the solid path and bridge. We pull apart.
"You're kissing," says one.
"You're girls," says another.
"Where's Bhatar?" says Nira.
They fall silent. And stay silent, until the pavilion is full of sweaty, shifting, wordless bodies. I say, "Where's Bhatar?"
"He spoke to the King his cousin," says somebody. Uwati, who is sixteen and often with him. "We brought sunlight into the court, pushed the mist far away. Bhatar said we must teach everyone to sing, to dance; but the king said that was noisemaking and public gathering, and did Bhatar mean to teach the rabble not to heed the law?"
"He told the King that the law brought the mist," says Yash. "Fear of the law and the killings." Yash is old. He is tall and thin and has a beard, and children. But now he looks frightened. "He told the King that the law must change."
I look around. We are fewer than we have been.
"And?" says Nira.
Uwati says, small and thin in the silence, "And he's dead. So is everyone who tried to help him. It was so fast. . . ."
There was no mist for Bhatar to become. He danced it away. It lurks around us now, and from it Hemal starts crying. The others shift, uneasy, and draw closer to the pavilion's sunlit center. Do they hear her?
A child I do not know says, "The rest of us ran."
"What should we do?" Yash asks us.
Nira looks at me. I shake my head, tears hot in my eyes. What do I know? Only that Bhatar is dead.
Nira says, "Let's hide now, meet another day. They will come for us. But they won't come far into the mist."
Lying to Ataa and Abjit makes me feel flat and distorted as a shadow on the door screen. Who is the girl Ataa hugs and calls eldest child? Not me. He would not hug a lawbreaker. He would call the King's men.
For I have taken Bhatar's role. Even Ratit, who joins us when Nira and I are both fourteen, looks to me. He brings us to fifty-three people from all twenty-four castes. Ratit is twelve. He dances well, and he is the King's youngest son.
We meet in different streets each day, call the sun down to different castes. People look up into the blue beyond the mist, tears streaming down smiling faces. They call us god-sent; they call us Sunbringers. And when we run, scattering before the King's men, hiding in Hemal's mist, they lie. The city protects us.
We share songs when we hide. Hemal knows weaver's songs and potter's songs and the marching chants of the King's men, though she does not remember that she was my jal-amaa. We can see through her, now, and she has no bruises and no caste marks.
Sometimes Nira teaches us a song nobody knew.
Other people remember the red bricks and blue door of Nira's house, but inside it is gone to shifting grey. Except for what she remembers: the black and white rug with its jagged toothy stripes, stairs blue as the door, her room at the top. We go there to love each other. The stairs sink and wobble, but her room is steady and her blanket is warm soft yellow. And her smile is bright with the sunshine that fills me.
"Can the law lie?" I ask one day. The law says we cannot love each other.
"Maybe that's how it brings the mist," says Nira.
"We pretend," she says. "We know what's real."
We pretend all the time at home. We let Ataa and Abjit love shadow-girls. But we do not become the shadow-girls, because we each remember the other.
Amaa's skin grows grey. Mist-burned. We remember her, but she forgets. She calls us both Hemal, and the little ones too. She remembers us only at midday, when sunlight filters bright through the mist.
I cry about this sometimes. Ataa does not, though he looks like he wants to. He still says the law protects us. He says the Sunbringers just push mist around, making everything worse for hardworking people. He is not alone. One day the hardworking people catch Yash with bottles and bricks.
His sons cry when they dance.
"I want to show her sunshine," I tell Nira. "Before we lose her." As we lost Bhatar and Yash.
She says, "They would stone us." They. We are no longer rememberers.
"We can do it when the workers are not home," I say. "Who else will tell? We'll give them something to remember."
We are Sunbringers.
Sixty-one of us dance in the street of the rememberers the next day. Only children watch us, and the old, and the mist-sick. They are silent through our song, angry, huddled together—until sunlight pours into the street and paints it in colors they had forgotten. Until they see blue sky, dry and hot as coconut rice.
Then we are dancing all together. Amaa dances too. Grey fades from her skin, and she knows me. I beam at her, full of light, and dance away to kiss Nira. And Amaa stops.
The dance stumbles, fades around her. Mist trickles in. Nira and I back away from the glitter in her eyes. Our sunlit friends gather to us, behind us. Four neighbourhood children run over to our side.
"What are you doing?" says Amaa. "Caste-mixing is bad enough, but girls with girls . . . what are you?"
Uwati says, "We should run, before they call the King's men."
I say, "No." Holding hands, standing tall, Nira and I face the sun. Our shadows fall away behind us. Ratit takes my other hand and holds his hand out to Uwati. My baby sister Rimi comes toddling to Nira. I say, "We should dance."
Mist gathers into Hemal, and she starts to sing.