Aeons have passed since the Woman began her journey with these five Men. New worlds have spun and coalesced out of nothingness and now, at last, her once incandescent rage has forged her into a shimmering, clean thing. They have journeyed before, for glory, for vengeance, and once for salvation, but on this final journey, they have come looking for death.
It was the Elder’s decision and the other four brothers stood alongside him without a murmur, as they have done all their lives. Except once, when the Second Eldest spat and snarled at the Eldest, but that was a long time ago.
It was surprisingly easy to walk out of the desolation of their echoing palace. To bow one final time before the sacrificial fires guarded by the flinty, austere priests who have kept the three fires burning their entire adult lives. Easy also to remove the gold earrings, waistbands, and necklaces, untie the fine silk dhotis and lay down at last the iron-tipped arrows and heavy wooden bows. They leave all this behind like a sigh, like a half-remembered dream.
The Woman kept only her gold anklets with the little golden bells. She has a premonition that a time will come when their soft murmur will be her only solace.
For days, then weeks and months, they cross the marshlands and forests to the north of their kingdom before arriving at the dense, deciduous foothills of the Himalayas. Here they turn away the last of their retinue – the ossified priests and the keening elderly maids. Only a dog remains with them, stubborn and optimistic, eyes filled with the unconditional love of a child. The five Men and the Woman remove their white cotton dhotis, their overgarments, and turbans and replace them with clothes of bark, reed, and wool – fibrous, organic garments more like a feral skin than clothes.
They walk for days up the mountain slopes, foraging for food and sleeping in the rough shelter of shallow caves. Conversation slips away and their movements become dense and slow.
They carefully gather fruits, berries, and roots which they eat raw, the taste a smoky earthiness that makes them feel light-headed. The dog disdains their leafy offerings and disappears on most days, returning triumphant and bloody with a scrawny hare or an indolent crow-pheasant in its deceptively lethal jaws.
Eventually they reach the high passes, where the sacred geography of eternal snow and subterranean mythical rivers beguiles and blinds them. Their footsteps are muffled now. The Woman’s anklets are quiet as her feet sink deep into the freshly fallen powdery snow. The Men are fiercely gaunt, ancient scars from forgotten battles hidden among the folds of their now loose skin.
One day, after a bitterly cold night huddled in front of a faltering fire, they walk out before dawn onto an immense icy plateau at the top of the world. They walk silently for a while, as their breath foams and swirls around them and the stars silently fade into the opalescent dawn.
Under the vaulting sky in this place where all stories end, the Woman suddenly finds she can’t walk any more. Each step has been an agony of effort and will and now she can do it no more.
She cries out in shock but as she slowly sits down on the frozen ground, she realises that the Men are already far ahead, an indistinct smudge of shapes on the pristine snow.
She calls out to them once again, her voice husky from disuse.
She thinks she sees one of the Men falter and briefly glance back. She strains to make out which one of the brothers has been arrested by her call, and whispers a name. But the figures are now all walking away from her, their shadows getting smaller all the time.
Come back, she cries again, her voice strangled by sobs.
Don’t leave me alone.
Her sobs make a painful, rasping sound but no one comes back for her. Not even the dog, who is an ungainly shadow next to the Eldest. Finally, after staring at the figures till her eyes burn, the Woman settles back against the cold embankment and looks away with a sigh.
She pulls her blanket of coarse fur tightly around herself and hacks out a slight hollow to lean against with the wooden stick she uses for walking. She rubs her eyes roughly with the heel of her hand and pulls the blanket over her head, hiding her thickly coiled plait, still provocatively black.
She pulls out a small cloth bundle from the folds of her clothes and takes out a few rust-coloured dried goji berries. She eats these slowly as she looks around at her stark surroundings. She is alone at last, after a lifetime saturated by people and animals and the ebb and flow of constant movement.
She wishes the dog, at least, had stayed behind with her. She would have gathered him into the folds of her fur blanket and his hot, musty animal breath on her face would have been a consolation.
The snow starts to fall gently, in sparse, economical drifts. The Woman gathers a few snowflakes in her palm and scoops them into her mouth, amazed at the clear taste, like eating a cloud. She looks out at the distant horizon where the sky glows pomegranate red in a suffused band behind the peaks.
The first rays slice through the frigid air, incandescent and true, like the very first dawn of time. The woman closes her eyes as she feels the rays kiss her face. Behind her eyelids are striated patterns of gold and saffron.
As the snowflakes gather softly on her eyelashes, the crimson Song of Draupadi warmth of the sun awakens an ancient memory in the Woman. She feels her being scatter into nothingness and catapult through the meagre mountain air into the wide-open skies. She can sense that her body is still in the snow, shallow breaths barely lifting the rugs and skins as her other, spectral being rushes towards the fire and heat of an older, primal time.
Smoke, acrid and greasy, billows out in the air from the sacrificial fires and spreads like a malevolent thing through the ceremonial hall. The smoke smells of ghee and camphor and a spike of herbs. Priests are everywhere, gaunt and sepulchral, the tendons on their necks straining as they chant the mantras endlessly.
Two priests – brothers – huddle before the main altar of baked tiles, sweat pouring down their faces in which the eyes are manic and vacant. The sweat trickles down their bare brown chests, soaking their janeus.
They wipe their faces with the ends of the white upper garments as their vibrating, tremolo voices rise and fall in cadence. Marigold, champa, and mango blossom garlands, fragrant and fresh ten days ago, hang limply like disconsolate brides. Heaps of offerings – rice balls, milk, yoghurt, honey, and fried barley balls – lie in rotting piles next to the flickering flames. No servant dares to step onto the consecrated grounds to clear up any more.
Wispy rumours unfurl out of the hall and through the corridors of the unholy black-magic rites being performed by the vengeful king.
In the darkest corner of the hall, the earthen floor is dark with the blood of the sacrificed goats, first smothered to death then butchered following explicit rules. Their excrements are buried in the ground and the animals are dismembered, with select parts offered up to the priests and the devouring fire-god.
The blood of the animals, collected in earthenware jars, is offered by a priest to the legion of baleful, evil spirits. The sharp metallic smell of blood mingles with that of the incense sticks, rotting flowers, and food, and it smells like carnage.
The two brothers pour a final offering of soma into the fire which blazes up, sizzling and crackling into a raging inferno. Aghast, they step back from the fire, as the flames begin to singe the braided banana-leaf ceiling of the hall. The goblet of prasad glows red in the elder brother’s hand, and he calls out loudly for the queen.
The rani! Call for the rani at once!
The king, who has been keeping a wrathful vigil these past ten days, turns to the cowering maidservants:
Go at once! Bring the rani here immediately!
Within minutes, the sound of running footsteps can be heard hastening towards the fire altar. The queen is rushing towards the priests, her long black hair cascading down her back, slick and wet from her interrupted bath. Her gold waistband and armbands glitter in the light of the sacrificial fires against her smooth nutmeg skin.
The priest is almost screaming now as the prasad slowly singes his skin. He grabs the queen by the throat and presses the pot of soma between her lips. The queen swallows the soma and her eyes widen in fear for a moment before she faints in the priest’s arms. He carries her out of the hall which is now ablaze from the flames of the main altar and lays her down gently on the ground under the clear sky. All thirty priests hurry over to the queen, abandoning their altars to the howling fire and the disintegrating bamboo structure.
The instant the queen faints, the Woman, who has been observing the proceedings with a puzzled detachment, feels herself hurtling towards the unconscious figure. She tries to scream and fight the falling sensation but it is inexorable.
She feels the world solidify and crush around her, forcing air into nascent lungs. As she approaches the queen’s body, she is startled by the brushing presence of another being, jostling and kicking her. She tries to turn towards this other presence but she is held fast now in an ocean of pulsating red liquid and the only sound in the distance is the faint and steady throb of her mother’s heart.
Excerpted with permission from Song of Draupadi: A Novel, Ira Mukhoty, Aleph Book Company.