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The Storyteller

By Rhea Roy | https://www.khoreomag.com/author/rhea-roy/ | Rhea Roy
Edited by Kanika Agrawal || Narrated by Ishani Kanetkar || Produced by Lian Xia Rose
Death of a spouse and parent
1350 words

He stays up all night alone with me
and only leaves at the crack of dawn.
His departure breaks my heart.

Mala Auntie was sucking down her third cigarette of the night, her foot jiggling so anxiously that she nearly rocked the whole motorbike. Her fingers were speckled where years of hissing hot oil had spluttered up from a korai, and they shook with all the force of an arthritic woman though she had barely crossed thirty-five, which led all in all to a somewhat comical image: she could not trust her fingers to bring the long European-style cigarette to her mouth, so she had to crane her neck like a turtle at its meal to bring her thin lips to the end and take a long, well-savored drag. With each puff, the mild mountain sickness abated, her stomach settling bit by bit like an ocean calming after the storm, though the cigarette did nothing for her anxiety.

Occupying the seat of the motorbike behind her was the most important thing in her entire world.

Mala Auntie had ridden up that evening from the lowlands to what one could generously call the top of the world—a clearing at the peak of one of the lesser Himalayas. It was a journey every member of our family had warned against. We had lined up single file and entreated her with our arguments, each of them polished to perfection, only to have them fall on deaf ears. After Mishti Bhai, the toddling second-youngest of our clan, said her piece, Mala Auntie simply took one long breath in, flaring her wide nostrils, nodded, and walked out into the hot evening. As soon as the roar of her ancient motorbike reached our ears, we all solemnly proceeded to the iron gates of our household and saw her hunched over like a crone on the rusty cherry-red thing.

It was the new moon of Diwali and so her way was lit only by the town she left behind, ablaze with candles, her own headlights burned out. Remember, this was in the years of the Licence Raj, back when the Ambassador was considered top of the line. It was a miracle she even made it past the army base in the foothills, but there are forces that intervene on your behalf, she claimed, in order to see a story play out. And a story she had in mind.

When Mala Auntie was doing her postgraduate, where she met her bor, Bhaja Uncle, she studied the literature of far-off places. The West and beyond. My mother always said it was the reason she had such odd ideas about the world; half her head was there across the mountains, dreaming of turreted castles and witches who bargained for firstborns. As impressionable children, we’d gather late at night around the sleeping mats to hear her tell jokes and Khusrow riddles, the puzzle stories of Akbar and Birbal and the exploits of girls spinning gold with the help of imps.

My favorite stories of all were the deals with the devil.

There were a thousand ways to make those deals, as many as there were people to make them. The Germans, Mala Auntie said, would tell you how you could gain mastery over the natural world in exchange for your unnatural soul. The Americans favored crossroads, and the British were so scared of the women who signed their names in Satan’s scripture, they burned them at the stake.

“Why would anyone shake his hand?” one of us would inevitably ask, assured in our superior ability to see a raw deal when the adults couldn’t.

“The Devil can get you anything you’ve ever wanted,” Mala Auntie would always respond. “And he always knows your price.”     

 Bhaja Uncle would come after her and soothe our terror just before bedtime, promising us that the witches were too scared to ever cross the mountains. But Bhaja Uncle died last week, killed in a car crash the same day that his and Mala Auntie’s first and only daughter came into the world. 

A stroke of fairy-tale fate like that would have felled a lesser person, but Mala Auntie was a woman of extraordinary determination. She simply turned to her books, poring over them with such intensity that her infant daughter remained unnamed, her care falling to the rest of us. 

Which brings us back to the top of the mountain, where Mala Auntie was finishing her last cigarette just as a man stepped out from behind the Himalayan pines. 

The Devil, of course, was no ordinary man, though you would be forgiven for mistaking him for one in a crowd. He stood no taller or broader than average, but he smelled of snakes in the hot sun and always walked with a shadow, even on the night of a new moon. Magic wilted in his presence, and      should he smell desperation on you and approach, the world would lose all flavor. Food eaten in his presence tasted of air and ash, the loamy scent of the forest soured into gasoline and sweat, and the only spots of color were the cherry of her dying cigarette butt and the red burn of the Devil’s eyes.

“I want my husband back,” Mala said, to the point and unfazed by theatrics. “And I’ve brought you his equal.”     

“How so?” asked the Devil, his voice the rumble of tank treads on a gravel road, the rhythm of an army’s echoing steps, and the crackle of a fire set to something irreplaceable.

Mala jutted her chin at the basket on the seat of the bike. “If I held either of them up to myself, they would show me who I am. I could not live half so well without them; their departure would break my heart, leaving me unable to work, feed myself, or care for my health. With them,” and here Mala was careful not to oversell, “even on the coldest winter night, I would be warm.”     

The Devil considered, drawing closer to Mala. His shadow curled around her feet, the slimy sensation not unlike eels slipping over her toes in a creek bed.

“Trading a child for a father didn’t work out so well for the miller’s daughter,” he whispered into her ear, leaning over her like a lover. Wherever he touched her, her skin went numb. “And there won’t be any outs.”

It is crucial to understand, the Devil does not steal. He does not take what has not been willingly offered; what makes for the best wine is the rot that blooms when there is no one else to blame. All heroines know this, and Mala was no exception. They still take the deal, and she was still no exception.

“I know,” Mala said, resolutely gazing down the path before her.

“Very well. Leave your gift here and return to your home. Don’t look back, no matter what you hear behind you. Your husband will be waiting for you in your bed.”     

Mala set down the basket, readjusting the blanket over it one last time. Then, without a backward glance, she descended the switchbacks of the mountainside, the detached light of the stars gazing at her from a distance of millions of years. 

She arrived at the silent family home at the darkest hour, just before dawn, when everything was painted that inimitable shade of navy. As she passed through the rooms on the way to her bed, she gently brushed her fingers over the forehead of her nameless daughter, the infant cuddled in my arms. Then she got in bed, tangling her legs with her husband’s.

He stays up all night alone with me

and only leaves at the crack of dawn.

His departure breaks my heart.

Who, girl, your man?

No, an oil lamp. 

—Amir Khusrow

Paul Losensky and Sunil Sharma, trans., In the Bazaar of Love: The Selected Poetry of Amir Khusrau (New Delhi: Penguin, 2011), 75, Kindle edition.

Rhea Roy is a short story writer from the United States and part of the South Asian diaspora.
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