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The Abduction of Sita, Folio from a Ramayana. India (Rajasthan), 1675–1700. Courtesy of LACMA.
It was the priest who smothered the horse. The horse’s limbs were tied with ropes strong enough to withstand his panic, as the priest took the horse’s head in his arms. Almost tenderly. The body became wilder and wilder and tried to buck itself loose. When he was dead, stallion, black-colored, neck sweat, they laid the body down and I laid down beside it as I was instructed. I had seen other queens perform the horse ceremony; now I was a queen myself. I was newly married, and young. They daubed my forehead with sandalwood, my forehead, the horse’s forehead. I lay facing the face of the horse and I looked into his open eyes.
For weeks, for years, they had been preparing me for this moment, the men, the priests, conferring upon me the shlokas I would recite, mentally or aloud, through the full course of night. The women had prepared me, too, told me a truth known only to them: that I would dream a dream that the gods had chosen for me, that the dream, if I heeded it, would prove me. Old queens told me old dreams, the dream that reversed a drought, brought sons—triplets, cured a sick king. Yet, when the mantras began to slow on my lips and sleep took me, I saw behind my eyes nothing like the dreams that others had described. I saw no magic cows, or wizened sages, or women springing from the earth. I saw my city burning. When I awoke it was still deep night. The horse’s open eyes had a gleam and I could smell him, his dry, dusty smell starting to sour. I touched him. His body had become cold. I could feel the muscles in his neck. I was not supposed to touch him, only to say my mantras. But I had forgotten even though I had practiced for weeks and lay there with my hand on the creature. It was as if this night would never end. I began to whisper to the horse, touching him, his silky ears. We had both been bred and groomed for this night. He had fulfilled his duty as I had failed mine. Dew had gathered in the field and soaked me. I began to shiver. And slowly, slowly, dawn came, the most beautiful I had seen. I bore three sons who lived and two who died, and a small fish that slipped out too early and whom I knew to be a girl. Then I was not young anymore, and took pleasure in my garden.
• • •
When I went to see the woman in my garden she was wearing a cotton sari that had once been yellow, but was torn and dirty as a beggar’s. Her face, too, was dirty, yet unharmed by my husband’s hands. It was slender and symmetrical, her face, but there was something keen there, sharp-eyed as a bird and not quite pretty. She was frightened when she saw me and began to whimper, but I laid a hand on her cheek, and she calmed at my touch, and began to cry. I asked her if she was hungry, and she shook her head. Her breath was dry and horrible, her body smelled of squat, human smells, sweat, urine, shit. I bade my servants bring a plate of nuts and fruit, and a clay pot of fresh water. It was hot, on this day, a fat ominous heat, and I was sweating in my silks. She too was sweating, across her forehead and her upper lip. I had wanted to spend the day outspread in pleasure, a hand dipped into cool water. But the sight of her gave me serious fright. There would be no pleasure, I knew, while the woman remained here.
There would be no pleasure, I knew, while the woman remained here.
My attendant poured a stream of water into my cupped palms. I drank. The clay gave it a sweet taste, like the river water of my childhood, in which I swam freely, like a kitchen boy. The girl watched me drink with resolve to refuse it. But I could see the desire for water plainly. Again my servant poured, and again I drank, lustily, wetting my lips. The third time, I held my hands out to her. She, after a moment of hesitation, ducked her face between my palms and sucked the liquid, wiped her face, and spat, and then held out her hands hungrily, and drank, and drank and drank. When she was sated I washed her face and peeled and fed her pieces of a bright, sweet mango, which I ate from too. She had stopped crying. I asked her if she wanted to bathe and she said yes, so I had my servants bring her a tub of water. When she emerged from it she wore the clean cotton clothes I had brought her, and smelled only of flowers, rose. She was smiling with relief to be free of her animal stink. Luminously beautiful, as youth is, brought back to herself: for an instant I wondered if I had made a mistake. But I put that thought aside. Guests necessitated kindness, this guest above all. When it was time to leave, she asked me to stay, and her eyes began to fill again with tears. Like a child I took her in my arms, and told her that she would not be harmed, that she could have anything she desired, food, or drink, clothes, or jewels, or servants. What did she want? To go home, she told me. She only wanted to go home. Then she steadied herself, wiped her hot face with the tail of her sari, and pulled herself away.
• • •
In bed that night, I asked my husband plainly to let the woman go. At first he seemed irritated that I had brought the subject up, but he willed himself into patience and listened to my misgivings. He was still my old friend. There was a border dispute, he explained. The woman’s husband, this king in exile, was mobilizing an uprising in the outer territories. Rebellions had to be quashed ruthlessly, as ruthlessly as these men had handled his sister, ruler of the dark woods.
What would an evil act like this do but stoke the fire of these rebellions?
Evil? Who was it that cut off the nose of his sister?
Yes, I had seen that horror. And wept with pity at the sight of her ruined face, this woman who had danced in my wedding procession with an untrammeled joy. And yet—does an evil act beget another? On and on and on and on? Surely he is the more honorable, just, and reasonable, unruled by emotion.
He lost his patience and exclaimed that a woman couldn’t possibly understand the complicated politics of the situation. This stung, and I told him so. He had never resorted to this tactic in any of our arguments. He regained himself. He didn’t apologize to me, but his tone was apologetic, he praised my wisdom in many matters—in all matters—and nuzzled me, rasp of beard against a bare shoulder, and said, my heart, let us talk of other things now. Or better yet, not talk of anything at all.
On the edge of sleep I mused. I was not my husband’s only wife, but long ago I had made peace with my jealousy: my unease had another source. Something inside him trembled before her. Her beauty? I had seen more beautiful within the walls of our palace. Perhaps it was simple pride. I knew his mind so well I could often guess his thoughts before he voiced them. But this—I didn’t understand. It was the action of a weak man, a desperate man, to take another’s wife. I fell asleep and had a nightmare, awoke alone, morning already, and bathed, and did my morning puja at the temple. Then I went to see my youngest son. The elder two were their father’s sons, mine was this boy: thirteen, and gawky, and sweet, and growing, dark-skinned, like his father, but with my features, the proud nose, the big lips, the large eyes. He was too old now to let me pick him up in my arms and cuddle him, but he let me smooth his hair away from his face, and after his lessons were finished, he broke his fast with me from the food on my plate. When he was little, and asked me how he was born, I told him he was once a small rabbit, and I carried him around in a fold of my sari. Before a rabbit? A mouse. Before a mouse? A little moth that used to perch on my shoulder. Before a moth? A whisper. He was a plump-cheeked child, shy around men, his brothers, even his father, but lively around me. Question after question: What was the shape of the world? An egg. What was outside the egg? Pure nothing. Why was he a prince while this teacher a teacher, the sweeper a sweeper, the nursemaid a nursemaid? We progress this way, I told him, through many lives, passing from one thing to the next, burning away our bad deeds, accruing merit, ascending to the highest plane though effort and discipline. Like your father. Once he climbed to the top of the world, where there were two lakes, one freshwater and one salt, and sat between them for centuries to pray. It was blue, blue, blue there, sky and mountain and waters, unearthly still as time gathered around his body but didn’t dare touch. Now your father is powerful. As one day you will be. What if I’m not? What if the gods made a mistake? The gods are too powerful to make errors. More powerful than my father?
I left him with his archery teacher. I watched them stride out to the range together, carrying their bows, until they became small figures moving across the wide green plain. He might have glanced back at me with an expression of anxiety—he was not a warrior, my youngest, though he tried. He was too gentle, and was beginning to feel shame for it.
I took my afternoon meal with the women. My husband’s two young wives were shy with me: one pregnant, the other had given birth some weeks before to a girl, who was born too early and had stood for some time in the gateway between life and death. The mother was worried and ashamed. I told her that it was a joy to have a girl in the palace after so many bellicose little boys (as second wife, her sons would never be kings, we all knew). We went to see the child together after our meal. In the nursery, a big demon woman held the child in her arms, feeding her from her own breast, and stroking the little head with her dark hands. I took the girl in my arms and kissed her, blessed her. She had the smell of milk, her mouth was so tiny and tender, and her eyes were closed.
When I was a girl, I didn’t know I was a princess. I thought perhaps I was a boy. I learned astronomy and the plant sciences and read the scriptures, and ran wild when my lessons were finished. I never knew my mother. She had coupled with a god and been turned into a frog by his jealous consort—so my nursemaid told me. My father said nothing about her. Like a frog, I was easy in water and on land, and had the certain coolness of skin that amphibians have. Was I happy? It blurs. I’ve lived so many years now that I only remember color: yellow, yellow, gold, the royal color, and the jewel tones of the palace garden. One day someone slapped me and reminded me I was a girl, a woman—I don’t know who dared, it must have been my father. I bled and bore sons, yes, I was a woman. The girl in my arms would grow, learn words, lengthen, be left one day on the steps of another’s palace, a beautiful present, and then we would be instructed to think no more about her. She unwound herself into a cry: live, tiny, sputtering. I gave her back to her nurse.
• • •
For some days there was a weight to the air that sat in my ears. Then a storm came. I could see the laundry women running to pull the clothes off the lines. It was warm-rained and gentle, and did nothing but wet the parched earth. My husband did not come to visit me in my chambers for some days. And when he did come, his eyes were febrile and unsettled, and he paced the room a hundred times, walking miles and miles in that room while he talked to me almost unceasingly. It was talk of the girl’s stubbornness, that the proud bitch would not yield to either threats of violence or love, that her husband was assembling an army full of undisciplined children; how he had foxed him, this husband, who wandered the earth in search for his lost wife; how he would break her, the proud bitch—
Don’t speak like this.
—the proud bitch, how she would one day meet her husband at the Capitol’s gates and tell him to find another wife because her heart belonged to another. How it would break him. How it would crush the rebellion before it even began.
He wouldn’t. We argued. He slapped me for the first time—hard—across the mouth. Then he became quiet and we could hear the sea thrashing on the shore. My mouth was warm and wet. I touched my hand to it and pulled away red. He had slapped me because he wouldn’t let himself touch her, I knew, and I knew also that he had forgotten himself, he had forgotten everything, for an instant, but his own frustration. He said my name, quietly, but I was afraid to look at him. After a little while he left the room.
He exclaimed that a woman couldn't possibly understand the complicated politics of the situation.
The girl gave me some comfort. She ate her food now, took water, but still refused the jewels my husband sent. She had set up her small mat under the ashoka tree and spent the brutal heat of afternoon dozing under its shade. Some evenings I brought her ripe yellow breadfruit to eat. It seemed to delight her, this fruit, and I asked her questions about her exile. She said that she was happiest outside, eating berries, wearing simple clothes, free from the constraints of courtly life. Her husband was teaching her how to swim, how to use a bow. The two men, her husband and his brother, became playful away from the eyes of the kingdom, sparring and joking like teenagers. From her royal life, she missed not her servants, her father, her silk bed—nothing. She had never been so happy.
Color had come back to her voice, and with it, her bearing: she now did not let me see her fear. Her fear she kept for herself in the long waking hours between night and morning, when every sound she heard was that demon my husband, come to take what he felt was rightfully his. She hardly slept, her attendant told me. Each night, she sang and talked to herself quietly for hours, until her voice was spent. Even then she would sit mumbling to herself some calming nonsense. Her mother tongue.
If she had been a man, she told me, she would have been a hunter. So she could roam the forests with a bow slung over her shoulder, moving lightly and quickly on her feet.
I would have been a scholar, I told her.
She asked, why not a king?
Being a king means you cannot be anything else: not a lover, not a father, not a son. You forget.
Not my husband.
I smiled. Misery clustered around this unfortunate girl. I could not see what was coming for her, but I could see that. Very well, not your husband, I told her.
• • •
It was hot, too hot, for weeks. The crops were beginning to brown and curl. Instead of rain clouds, the sky shimmered with thick flocks of crows. Another horse sacrifice was performed with a younger queen. We sweated, all, through the fire rites, eyes stung by the holy smoke. And in her dream she sewed a shroud for our husband out of the silk of her own hair.
• • •
My youngest died first. I was told he fought bravely. Honor or not, he died, fighting in the garden that sheltered the stolen girl, died fighting not an army but a single creature, the Emissary, who felled him with a single, crushing blow. How the Emissary managed to infiltrate the garden was still unknown. He had been sent to deliver the warning of war, and killed my child, and several of our men, fighting with a scary genius until my elder son bent his knees to the earth and bound his wrists. When they brought the news to me, I was in the temple, performing my evening prayers, kneeling on the cold marble floor. I thought for a moment quite simply: I will die, too. I could feel my body reach for death of its own accord. Who sends a little boy to battle? I sat so still I could hear my pulse begin to slow, then to stop. I felt my lungs shut, my blood cool. I died for a long time. But I opened my eyes and found that I was still living.
It was night. I went to see the girl. The garden was in ruins, so they had moved her to a proper cell. She had folded herself up neatly by the window, and, covered in moonlight, she looked as still and cold as a temple carving. But I came closer to her and saw she was trembling. She had seen my son die. When she saw me, she was afraid of me and tried to shield herself with her arms. In fact, she became nearly hysterical. I approached her like I would a deer, walking slowly toward her, talking in a voice that was little louder than a whisper, until I was close enough to her that I could touch her hair. She started at my touch and then calmed, and I stroked her hair. I asked her if he looked frightened. My son, did he look frightened? I could see her considering a lie, and then she said, yes. She said, I thought you were going to kill me. She was too thin, this girl. I took her fragile hand. The veins stood out from the flesh like embroidery. She put her arms around my neck and wept into my shoulder, and I stood still, bearing her up. Hush now, little one. I felt her fingers in my hair.
I stayed for several days in my room, looking out at the sea. On the other side of the sea, the Emissary told us, an army was gathering. The shore was so distant the eyes could not reach it. But the army would, and claim all that was ours. That was theirs, the Emissary had said, but I knew they wouldn’t stop at the girl.
I thought of all the moments of my son, all the moments he had ever had. I held my mind to them like a hand thrust into a fire. I walked from the window to the bed to the window, again and again, not quickly like my husband, but slowly, thinking of my dead son’s curiosity, and of his fear. I had thought that grief would make me brave against the rest of my fears: if the worst had come, there was nothing left to dread. But I was still afraid. I could smell smoke, though my window showed me nothing but the shore and the moonlit water. I watched the sun rise yellow through an eerie haze. My maid told me the fire had already been extinguished but it had done some damage. The air smelled of flesh and singed hair.
• • •
When my husband came to me, five days after our son had died, he was dressed in the white robes of a mourner. I would not speak to him and turned my face away. I was trembling from the force of my suppressed tears, but finally they came anyway, leaking out of my eyes. I didn’t want to be his soft little woman. He said my name. In his voice was a pure sorrow I had never heard, so perfectly it mirrored my own. I looked at him. His face, ageless for centuries, was older than I had ever seen. He said it was too late. Even if he returned the girl, it was too late.
I told him that we still had two other sons.
He said that these sons would avenge the death of their brother. Or I, he said, and rage came into his voice. He slapped his chest hard with his hands. He said he’d kill the creature himself.
Why did you send him? He was just a boy.
He had wanted to give the boy a chance at glory, conquering an easy foe. It was not battle, and he was not too young, my husband had fought and vanquished at a younger age than him.
He wasn’t like you.
He was my son as much as yours.
Why why why why why? Lust? All this for a fuck?
He said no. He said he didn’t owe me any explanation.
I thought of a time when my husband and I had raced across a field of grass. I ran as fast as I could, and he ran just a few paces ahead of me, looking back at me, goading me onward, laughing. We were much younger then. I had felt as though it was I running ahead of myself in my husband. I felt I was running ahead of and looking back at myself and I was also the one behind looking ahead at my husband. We stopped running and looked at each other without speaking. We were looking at ourselves inside the other person, feeling the resonant core that had hunted its mate through the various births and rebirths. The part that said, yes, you. It felt not like luck but birthright to have found my husband. The way you might enter the house where you spent your early childhood, but had never returned since. The memory of the room had the same weight and blur of a dream, yet it existed outside of your mind. Your hand pressed against the cool walls of that house.
We were on opposite sides of the room, and stood and looked at each other. My husband was huge, and handsome, and his face was dark. I felt shocked into my own body and mind; I could not enter his. I could not reach him and was not sure I wanted to. Would he return to me? He had been a good king once and, even more improbably, a good husband. But he was neither now.
• • •
In the weeks that followed, life was oddly calm. I had neither the interest nor the permission to participate in the strategizing, the gathering of troops, the fortification of the Capitol’s walls. Instead, I worked in my ruined garden. A week was spent clearing the debris. Trees centuries old had been uprooted. I had them hauled away. In a time of peace, this wood, prized above all, would have been carved into fragrant couches and beds. Now the trunks were chopped and burned like cheap firewood. When it was finished the earth was pitted with holes. The rich, loamy soil showed through the torn skin of grass, moist and black. It had a sweet smell. I gathered a handful of it and squeezed it between my fingers. When the army comes, I thought, they will find me here. I will stand here and hold the earth of my son in my hands. I was frightened. I kept squeezing the handful of dirt. It packed under my nails. I wanted just to stand there, and I stood for a long while, very still.
When the army comes, I will stand here and hold the earth of my son.
The next day I planted new shoots and seeds. I had called for the girl and she came willingly. She seemed relieved to be outside. We knelt against the earth together. I told her that her husband was coming for her. She said she knew. A few weeks more, I told her. She nodded. Her arms were stippled with red where mosquitoes had bitten. She said that she spent most of the day asleep, or looking out the window. But her dreams were often that she was asleep, or looking out her window, so she never knew when she had been dreaming, and when she had been awake. It got very dark in her cell on moonless nights, and she would open her eyes and think she had gone blind: it was a kind of darkness that didn’t ebb as the eyes adjusted. Then she looked at me and said that I seemed frightened. Sad, I told her, with sharpness, but she insisted, frightened. Her husband was good and just and merciful and would spare me when he came. The just and merciful one who watched his brother slice the nose from a woman’s face? Then she was angry and looked away.
We began our work. It was a strange sight for the attendants and guards, two queens doing the work of servants. With a small spade I cut holes in the ground and placed three or four seeds carefully. Then I covered the hole I made and gave the earth some water, poured from a copper vessel. The girl needed no instructions. She seemed at ease with her fingers in the dirt and her arms covered in soil. She looked very young and happy, sweating a little as the sun beat down on her, as it did on me, darkening our skin. We’ll move you back outside, now that everything’s cleared. She nodded. I told her that my husband was a good man. She didn’t say anything. I asked her if she had heard me. She asked me what I expected her to say. Nothing, I told her. I wish you knew that he was a good man, that’s all. He had been a good man.
Tell me, do you remember your mother?
She said yes, of course she did.
Not in the abstract, the concept of mother, but right now, can you remember her?
She said yes.
Tell me what it’s like.
She said it was like hearing your own heartbeat. If you stop for a minute and are entirely still you can hear it. All along she’s with you but you never notice until you think to notice.
Is that what mothers are like, I asked her. Or just her mother.
Just hers, she thought, though she didn’t know. Her mother was the only one she’d known. Perhaps all mothers were like that.
I was not with my son in the garden. I wiped my face again.
When I looked at her, there was kindness in her eyes and mouth. It was enough that for a single instant my pain subsided, and, despite everything, joy rushed into the space it had opened.
• • •
My husband continued to visit me at night. He had a manic energy. He seemed almost happy. It was terrible to look at him. I had dreams that they sliced off his head. In my anxiety I would find my sons, smoking with the soldiers, drinking and talking, or strategizing late into the night. Quietly I asked them to surrender themselves to their enemies and be spared what was coming. Of course they balked. Once, the elder got angry and called me a traitor. I could see him lying on the palace floor with flies crawling his cheeks and eyes. And remember the sweetness of his first word—mama—bursting joyfully from his lips. He died with an arrow in his navel, like his father. His brother died by sword. I held them. I took their hands in my hands and kissed them. I wrapped my arms around their big shoulders and they didn’t refuse me, but softened with a mysterious grace and let me. I gathered and kept it, all of it, their voices and their smells and the sound of their rough laughter, and their hands, cut and bruised and strong and tipped with hard yellow nails. My husband told me that if I did not stop my hysterics he would have me confined to my room. I was confined to my room for several days. I spent most of those days awake but in a strange state that was neither waking nor sleeping. I was not hungry and ate only berries, brought to me by the girl. She looked clean and healthy and well fed even without my care. Or maybe it was my mother who put her hand on my brow. My mother, a frog? She had brilliant, amphibious eyes. I stood in a fire. I could feel my skin burning clean off, and the pain was a relief. The voices of the dead reached me. I was so afraid I began to weep. My tears evaporated before they formed. The fire left only my bones. There was a loud noise like nothing I had ever heard before, the scream of something metal. Then, I stepped out of the fire.
It was calm and silent, night. I was alone in my room. I looked down at my body, lying on the bed, whole, dressed still in the mourner’s white. Dizzy when I sat up. Alone. I took in a lungful of air. I felt for the place that fear had been, and couldn’t find it. Where was my rage? After some time an attendant came in and gave me some water to drink. The fighting had begun, she said. My sons? Gone to battle. My husband? Leading the charge. She told me my fever had broken. Had I been dreaming? Yes. Was I dreaming now?
No, she said. No, I wasn’t dreaming.
I bathed and dressed, and went to the garden. The girl was sleeping lightly under her tree, and woke before I touched her. Is it time?
She said I didn’t look frightened anymore.
No, I said. I wasn’t.
She said she felt ashamed.
Why? This has nothing to do with you. We could hear, distantly, shouting, and metal against metal, and a sound like fire. I took her face in my hands. I’ll miss you.
She kissed my hands. Small shoots, I noticed, needled the earth, growing imperceptibly from the seeds we had planted. Even on this night. I plucked one from the soil and put it in my mouth, a bitter green. Then we sat for a long time together and waited for daybreak.
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