Priya was organised about it; she started planning her father’s funeral in mid-February, so that when it became an immediate necessity, it wouldn’t be a shock. Sylvia, her mother-in-law-to-be, called to say that in these difficult times, Priya shouldn’t have to worry about the wedding, too. Sylvia would arrange for everything and all Priya would have to do was offer an opinion occasionally. Of course, Priya and Adam didn’t even have to get married now, they could wait until later in the year, but if the two of them did want to—
Priya cut her off, thanked her, and said that she would be glad of the help. Adam was on a business trip to California, but he agreed that it was the right idea to go ahead as planned. “I’ll get an earlier flight,” he said on the phone, raising his voice over a background of seagulls and surf. “I don’t like to think of you wandering around the house alone, especially in these difficult times.”
Priya wondered why they were all so afraid to speak of death, herself included. “I’ll be fine,” she said. The daylight spilling across the kitchen floor was filtering through the layer of snow on the window, erasing all shadows. It all felt pleasingly melodramatic. “If I get lonely, I’ll go to Amarnath Noy.”
“Oh,” Adam said, obviously trying to hide his surprise. “I guess you could. I, uh, I thought you didn’t go there alone, usually.”
More tactful stepping around the subject. “I don’t,” Priya said briskly, “but I guess I’ll have to start.”
She wasn’t sure where the idea had come from; she’d been to Amarnath Noy less and less as she grew up, and hardly at all in the years since college. But it felt necessary all of a sudden. It must be these difficult times, Priya thought. She put on her snow boots and set out.
• • •
Amarnath Noy wasn’t an allegory, for all that you found your way there through a magical doorway in the woods. Priya had never doubted it had a real existence apart from its visitors, that its people lived and breathed and flew and did strange magics and blew fire and started revolutions whether she was there or not. She passed through the arch, a curved-over birch cloaked in moss and frost, and came to a town square that had changed since she had last seen it. There was a new statue of Sopholos, the ancient dwarven social reformer, on the central plinth, pointing an emphatic stone finger at the rising sun. There was a new selection of market stalls selling bezoars, dragon-hide boots, and precognition potions, though the fairies and fauns lined up for their wares as they had always done. Even the Teashop of Far-Off Wondrous Days on the north side of the square seemed to be under new management, judging from the prismatic new signage, but inside it was unchanged from how it had been on the many long afternoons Priya had spent here with her father. It was a place of dewed glasses and quiet, solemn customers: great winged figures asking for elaichi chai, renowned mages catching up on their reading, wizards doing chiaroscuro magics and throwing shimmering patterns of light across the walls. Words of power were forbidden in most eating establishments in town, but no one minded if they were just used to amuse the cats. Khazad the tabby licked a paw in unconcern.
“Dragon-flat nimbu pani,” Priya said, having squeezed past the wizards to get to the counter. The person standing behind it wore a long, homespun cloak, and there was a suggestion of bone and metal in the shadow beneath their cowl. When they gave no reaction, Priya added, in English, “I, uh, used to come here with my dad? I don’t speak the language as well as he did.”
The past tense crept in when she spoke about her father, whether she wanted it to or not.
“Na ajho,” said the person under the hood, their voice sepulchral; it meant, I don’t understand. Priya could try the words again, or mime what she wanted, or find another customer with a nimbu pani and point at it. But it seemed pointless to try, or to be here at all, in this place that should have been a comfort but made her feel lonely and changed. She left the teashop and went back into the town square, ignoring the cobblestone paths that led out in every direction towards dragon caves and fountains of youth and all manner of other wonders, and found her way back through the tree arch to the winter left behind. At home it was too cold for nimbu pani and she didn’t have the ingredients for it anyway: there was bottled lime juice in the pantry, but no rich minerals harvested from the dragon-desolated salt flats. She made camomile tea instead.
• • •
It was Priya’s great-grandfather Bharat, her father’s Babaji, who had first wandered through a steaming jungle in West Bengal and thought it was interesting that a banyan tree had grown to form an arch. Having passed through into the other world, he at first feared that he was having a mental breakdown, then that he might never make his way home again, and then too busy to be concerned by either. He had happened to come to Amarnath Noy in the early reign of Tigridates IV, when dwarves and elves and rakshasas and devis and young humans were all being press-ganged alike. Bharat found himself riding into battle on a darkling plain, discovering by some atavistic magic that he could speak the same words and sing the same songs as his disparate fellows, and teach some of his own songs to them likewise. When the Great Usurper’s last troops were routed by a regiment of elves, nagas and one human, it was to the sound of snake songs, marching songs and songs of amar shonar Bengal.
When the war was over, Bharat took his discharge pay in shells and small rubies, returned through the banyan arch to find that very little time had passed, and told no one of his adventures. But the pandit in the village heard him talk in his sleep and recognised the language of Amarnath Noy, having read of it in the scriptures of Yama when he was a boy. The pandit assured Bharat that in going through the banyan arch the first time, he had made Amarnath Noy a part of himself, and now could come and go as he pleased. His children would be able to do the same, and it should be mentioned to the girl’s family, when his family came to find him a match.
Priya had heard the story many times and wondered how much it had been distorted in the retelling. Sometimes, she wondered how much it mattered at all. “It’s just a place,” she told Adam, the morning after they both came back, her from the Teashop of Far-Off Wondrous Days and him from California. “I was kind of disappointed when I saw it the first time, you know? My dad had hunted high and low for a tree in the shape of an arch. And finally he found one, and he was so excited, and I was, too, because fairies, you know? And wizards and rakshasas and magic. But it was just a place in the end. Just somewhere else.”
Even aged eleven, she’d known in her heart that foreign wasn’t the same as special. The kids at East Riverside Elementary were impressed by sneakers, and sometimes iPods. It wasn’t a good place for the glitter of other worlds.
“Sometimes you’re in a bad place,” Adam said, with the measured calm that Priya loved in him. “And because you’re feeling bad now, you rewrite the past. You start to think nothing was ever good, or happy. You think you’ve always felt like this.”
He was peeling an orange as he spoke, one of a half-dozen he’d brought her from California. In the language of Amarnath Noy, oranges were naram, or keled, or kel, depending on the place in the sentence, or if you’d seen them yourself or if they were just the oranges of hearsay, or if their pips held the power of immortality or not. Priya couldn’t remember which word was right.
“It’s not that,” Priya said. “It’s just… I wanted to go back, I still want to go back, but I don’t belong there any more. I don’t know if I ever did, or if I was just tagging along with my dad.”
Adam looked at her with understanding, but didn’t respond to that. “Here,” he said, handing her another segment. Priya tried to picture the oranges on the market stalls in the square beyond the arch, piled in great pyramids alongside pomegranates and lotus fruit, and what the labels had said. But the word still wouldn’t come to her, and she had no one left to ask. She gave up.
• • •
Then Sylvia called, and Priya gave it one more try. It had been a week since her visit to Amarnath Noy and she had been to the hospital every day since, sitting mutely at the end of the bed for the allotted visiting time. It was possible her father might wake up for a while, enough for a few words, but he didn’t. She got home and learned from Sylvia’s rambling voicemail that her mother-in-law-to-be had been going through her emails and had come across something Priya had written months before, before they’d found her dad’s tumour and when the trees in the woods had had leaves.
“You said you wanted a multicultural wedding,” Sylvia chirped when Priya called her back. “Now obviously we don’t have much culture”—a laugh with the texture of aluminium foil—though Adam’s grandfather on the other side was Greek, and I guess we could do something with that. Feta cheese canapés, maybe. But there must be a tradition we could incorporate from your heritage, Priya.”
Standing in the kitchen with her phone wedged between her shoulder and her ear, Priya had a sudden sense of the world as plasticky and insubstantial. Even the weather churning beyond the window felt like a gimcrack snow globe. “We can if you want,” she said. “Whatever you think is best.”
“Oh, Priya, you know I’d feel uncomfortable arranging something like that myself. Isn’t there something you would like? Some dish we could serve, or maybe we could pin something to your dress?”
She was floundering, and Priya took pity on her. “In Amarnath Noy,” she said, “they hang amulets off the wall, to keep away the sight of all evil things except Yama, because the god of death will bring mercy when he comes.”
“Well,” said Sylvia, after a long pause, “hanging an amulet on the wall as decoration might be very pretty. Could you get one or two, do you think? You know I can’t, though I wish I could, you know. What would happen if I tried?”
“If you tried what?” Priya asked, roused for a moment out of torpor.
“You know.” Sylvia sighed, wistfully. “If I tried to walk through your arch in the woods.”
“It would just be an arch,” Priya said. “You would just be in the woods.”
She killed a couple of hours cleaning, then gathered her courage and set out. In Amarnath Noy, it was a fresh, invigorating morning, the market stalls opening up for the day and the temple bells ringing out bright and proud. Priya knew vaguely that the amulets were made on the street of the artificers, further along the northward cobblestone path than the Teashop of Far-Off Wondrous Days, and walked cautiously along, avoiding the baby griffins bouncing along the gutters and the cold remaining shadows of last night’s public occultism. It was beautiful, and Priya felt attuned to that beauty, part of it, as though her last disorienting visit had just been an anomaly.
Traditional Amarnath Noy amulets were properly called nazar, or lalait, or haspai, depending on what they were intended to ward against, or if they did so truly or were just used out of superstition, or whether they were made of metal or glass or canzanite, the odd metal from the southern continent that could be made to hold time within its crystalline structure, so just once in a lifetime you could smash it and relive for an hour the beautiful days of your youth. Priya had decided on a haspai, an amulet that could really ward off evil but would do so unobtrusively in a country club in northeastern Connecticut, but when she got to the small shop her father had favoured, she couldn’t muster up the grammar to ask for it. If you wanted something but wanted to express it politely, the noun went into another case, or took a particle, but she couldn’t remember which, or how to do it. She babbled and faltered and finally fell silent, while the shopkeeper looked at her as uncomprehending as the proprietor of the teashop had been.
“It fades with the generations,” Priya told the amulet shopkeeper in English, just before she started to cry. “My great-grandfather was the first to come here, which meant he got all the gifts of magic, and the language and the songs were part of that, you know? And then my grandfather got them, too, at least most of them, and my dad could still speak the language. He’d get it right, anyway, he’d be able to say which amulet he wanted, it would be fine. But I can’t even order a drink in this country, and if Adam and I have kids, they won’t even want to come here at all, it won’t mean a damn thing to them, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
The shopkeeper looked alarmed. Then he picked up an amulet—haspai, by chance—that wasn’t the most expensive in the shop but wasn’t the cheapest, and thrust it into Priya’s hand, saying words that she knew meant, It’s okay, don’t cry, take this with you and it will ward off evil. She tried to give him the money for it, which he wouldn’t take, and she hurried out of the store, still crying, with the amulet wrapped up in brown paper and stowed in her bag. She returned home well after night had fallen, but not too late to call Sylvia and tell her that she had gotten the amulet for the wedding. They could hang it up at the venue and it would look very pretty. “But I probably can’t get another one,” she said, trying for a light, frothy tone. “It’s a hassle to go there and back and it’s not always easy to make them understand what I want.”
“That’s always a problem in another country,” Sylvia said, kindly. “I’m sure the one you’ve got is lovely. We can put a note in the service so people know what it is.”
• • •
Then the axe fell, and her father died, and Priya was suddenly at a funeral that she had planned for a whole month and was still, somehow, a shock. Sylvia took charge, her kindness blowing away obstacles like a soft but persistent breeze. “You don’t have to worry about a thing,” she said, and Priya believed her. Adam made small talk with the guests, told them where to hang their coats and that there would be refreshments afterwards.
Some people from Amarnath Noy attended. Only at the fringes of the party, or briefly beyond the window glass, their wings grey and their heads bowed. One of them wore all black and might have been Yama, the god of death. They smiled at Priya whenever she caught sight of them, as if to say, Don’t worry about us, we know about the refreshments and where to put our coats. They left when the other guests did and Priya knew now that she would never see them in this world again. They had come to pay their respects to her father, as the last in his family to be known in Amarnath Noy; after this they would have no cause for returning. When everyone else had gone, Sylvia tidied up, put the leftover food in the refrigerator, and asked eight times if she could do anything else, but in the end she, too, went away, leaving Priya and Adam alone in a house that seemed grotesquely familiar, unaltered by a death.
“Come with me into the woods,” Priya said into the deep silence, and Adam went to fetch his coat and scarf. He followed her along the sodden path, his nice leather funeral shoes squelching in the snow. Priya took his hand as she stepped through the arch, but they’d tried that before and it had never worked. She went through to Amarnath Noy, leaving him behind. In the Teashop of Far-Off Wondrous Days, she ordered a dragon-flat nimbu pani by pointing at one that was being served to another customer, and drank it in honour of her father, whose favourite drink it had been. Then she went back to the woods.
“It has to start again sometime,” Adam said, after she had cried for a while and he had found her a handkerchief. “Your great-grandfather was the first in his family. Maybe our kids will find their own Amarnath Noy.”
“Maybe they will,” Priya said. She’d never thought of that before, and felt a brief stab of resentment that she should be the last, while someone else, blithely and without trying, could find their way to a beginning. But that was the way of it: you didn’t care about what you knew for sure you’d always have. A place to stand and call your own, even in the deep, dark woods.
“It couldn’t be the same one,” she added. “It would be a different place between worlds.”
Adam nodded, a cute head bob of hood and scarf. “You know, we could get married at the courthouse,” he said in a different tone. “I’ll wear cargo shorts. We’ll eat out after at Taco Bell. No cultural heritage at all.”
“Sounds great,” Priya said, smiling. The wedding was a long way off, in the summer. They still had time to plan. “Maybe we just pick a theme. Star Trek or Lord of the Rings or something.””Whatever you want,” Adam said. He leaned in and kissed her, and they set off back down to the house. It was snowing again, heavy and beautiful. In the house, Priya put the amulet away in a drawer and ate another of the oranges Adam had brought her. The word for it, she thought, was orange, and that would have to do. All worlds left behind were lost.