The Fruit of the Tamarind Tree, The Sword’s Edge and Entrances and Exits are from Every Last Bone by Shain Stodt, currently available on Amazon.
Urban fantasy for the 21 Century. Every Last Bone is full of hip riot girl humor, bone chilling horror, and powerhouse characters who touch your heart unforgettably. The little burg of Lawton, USA is invaded by malign creatures and the world is shattered and reformed into a new abnormal of shocking violence and twisted agenda’s.
The vengeful ‘monsters’ of many nations and cultures arise to devour and destroy humanity, and it’s up to the few, the brave, and the very scared to stop them, be they human adversaries or the stuff of nightmares. Liz Blackwell must risk petitioning the powerful and dangerous witches of Eboni for help while Sioux leader and four-star General Lee Red Horse holds off the cracked regime of President Diddler.
Adain watches the infection take over his body while struggling to retain his humanity. As passionate love, fierce loyalties and the need to step up or loose everything mobilizes a diverse group of people caught in the tides of catastrophic events, a crew of unlikely warriors is born.
Entrances And Exits
Whatever it was that was speaking to Liz was communicating more in images and feelings than words. ‘Enter through the other door.’
What other door? There were only the four.
An image appeared in her mind of an interconnecting door between the warded room and the third room. The one with the freaky arcane symbols in the middle of the floor. The one that Sophia had been at pains to warn them not to enter.
Perfect. It was probably a freaking interdimensional portal that would drop her in a parallel universe where everyone who attended theater either crumpled wrappers loudly or clacked gum during the dramatic scenes. Or snored.
She gave the third door a stern look, shaking her finger in warning. “No funny stuff, chum. Witch here.”
Immediately she wished she hadn’t said it. Who knew what kind of a grudge a spelled door might hold? She turned the doors handle as apologetically as she could.
The room had changed. Gold symbols covered the original black ones. The spaces ambience felt distinctly less primitive and alert, as if it was drowsing. Still, Liz kept to its edges, avoiding any markings. When she’d sidled about twenty feet she came to a door that hadn’t been visible from the front of the room. It was the other door the voice was referring to. She just…knew it.
Liz took a long, chocking breath. Pull up your big girl panties, Blackwell, she thought, and opened the door.
In the strangely amorphous space beyond, an emerald-toned liquid atmosphere streaked with flashes of blue and yellow energy surrounded what looked like a large abstract sculpture of a woman. Elongated shafts and tendrils sprouted from her boulder-sized head. White, blue and gold lights shot through them, exploding in tiny novas. Her attenuated limbs where twig thin, giving an impression they’d been stretched like taffy.
The woman, if she was a woman, appeared to be blind. Her eyelids were closed shut in an angular face that resembled petrified wood. When she spoke, it was as if an aquatic creature was communicating from the depths of the ocean floor. Very slowly and distinctly, her specific meanings entered Liz’s mind.
Do not fear me. We can help each other.
Liz spoke aloud. “Who are you?”
“No shit. The Big Pickle? I always did figure your job sucked.”
The new God. She made me so. I did not fathom her intentions.
“Who is she?”
Claudia. Agrippa. The fiend. I would thwart her. I will not serve her purpose. I WILL NOT BE HER INSTRUMENT.
The blind eyes flew open, black magma blasting from their bottomless pits. I am sorry, Liz Blackwell.
Oh, crap, thought Liz. Then there was nothing but pain beyond pain.
Bennie tapped his foot. It had been an hour. There was a difference between giving Liz her space and ignoring the very real fact that she could be in trouble in there. Enough. Weapon held ready, he entered Claudia Agrippa’s den.
His heart stopped. Where the fourth door had been there was an empty void.
He approached it slowly. There was absolutely no light or density in the vacant space, only a sound like sucking wind from far off. Bennie knew intuitively that if he stepped into the void he would not find a floor.
“Liz?” he called into the emptiness. The sound waves of his voice cut off at the doorway. He felt it. A deadness.
“No,” he whispered. “Liz.”
The Sword’s Edge
Adain Genet climbed out onto the rusty fire escape when he needed relief from the others obsessions; hunger, deterioration, the compulsion to infect. In the morning sky, a tender blush of golden peach inseminated the first pale tendrils of sunlight.
He had traveled the world painting love letters to light. Its kiss on the earth and sky, on the faces of the people and the intimacies of birth, death and rebirth. Devotees bought his paintings eagerly when he would part with them, which was seldom. How can one sell ones soul?
Last night, he had put down his brush and pencils for a final time. He knew that he had painted the last picture he would be satisfied with. His vision was growing dull, his joints stiff and cold. It was subtle, but he had always been perceptive of every nuance in the marvelous flesh of his body. He saw his advancing decrepitude for what it was; the contagion’s harbinger of decay.
Adain looked into the brightening horizon with love. Soon he would soar into its embrace. He was satisfied that eighteen stories of height would provide the force to pulverize his brain and give him peace. But not yet.
His grieving friend touched him lightly on his shoulder and sat next to him, silently sharing the sunrise. He was grateful that he could feel her touch, dreading the loss of nerve sensation that would rob him of this precious human connection. She looked as bleak as the undead, and if the witch had not torn his tongue from him he would have spoken words of comfort to her.
He wanted her. He was grateful for this, too. He would not act on his longing and did not know if he could, but he was thankful to bittersweet tears to still desire a woman.
A bird whistled a song. Its mate answered. His friend stirred. “It’s time. Are the others stable?”
He conveyed that yes, the others were stable enough and the ambush prepared. They had reviewed the plan and scoped the location.
She looked at him with infinitely sad eyes. “I am so sorry this was done to you, Adain, my friend.” She knew his name because he had written it for her when she freed him, fiercely determined that it be known he had a name, that he was a man. That he had not been stripped of his identity.
During his captivity and torture under the Witch, a recognizable sign of fatal degeneration among the sentient zombies occurred when they became nameless to themselves. This profound loss of self was followed by a vacant stare and then the mindless hunger. Adain had rejoiced when she put them to death, even as it cemented new levels of hatred for her in his heart.
His mission of slaying his mindless sisters and brothers was a balm to him. A noble purpose terribly achieved. For Adain each execution was a prayer of hope, a testament that love and compassion found a way to transcend the darkest fate.
Grabbing the rail to lift himself, his knee buckled and he sickened with fear that the convulsions were upon him, but it was only a cramp. Every morning and lately more often he maximized the flexibility of his stiff joints and muscles by soaking in the health club’s hot tub and rubbing emollient into his skin. He closed his eyes and composed himself while his friend waited patiently.
Adain was afraid that she was seeking escape from her broken heart through death. When they hunted together he was vigilant to protect her from herself, from the blind excesses of her orgiastic abandonment to vengeance and grief. He wanted to keep her alive long enough to pass through her veil of sorrow into hope and a renewed passion for life.
He himself had a great passion that motivated his continuing existence. Before he bid the light farewell, he was going to destroy the Witch. She had been his study while he was so cruelly hers, and he knew her weakness.
…Of all the conspirators, Poorani captivated her interest the most. The others nurtured old wounds and grudges which over the centuries had brought them to this present course. Poorani alone was born in this epoch, by appearances a very young woman at the time of her metamorphosis. What had so blighted the blood eaters life that she would band with them in this campaign of human extermination?
The Fruit Of the Tamarind tree
Indira found them hiding in the Sal tree forest, as shattered and bereft as she. Forty or so women surviving on foraged roots and fruit, afraid to openly cultivate land lest they be seen.
Indira’s mother Mani had wanted the best for her daughters. She proudly named her second daughter Indira after India’s first woman Prime Minister. That was before.
Born poor, low-caste and female, Mani’s mother had still managed to give her children a priceless gift before she died; the ability to read. It instilled the courage to aspire in Mani. Perhaps she could attend school one day. Even become a professional woman, a boon to her family and her village. Hope gave her walk a spring that distinguished her from the other village girls.
When Mani was twelve, Sumatra, the village Oijha’s son, got an itch for her. Not much dowry to offer, he figured, but she was comely and she made his cock hard. He was forty-five, well past time to take a wife. She would bear him children and serve his household, and he would make her work harder to compensate for her poverty.
His breath smelling of rancid fish, he cornered her behind the stall where she and her sisters sold vegetables in the marketplace. Offering himself in marriage, he was secure she would accept the match thankfully. Perhaps she would shed grateful tears.
Instead, Mani timidly explained that she wanted to delay any thought of matrimony in favor of getting a rudimentary education. A school for girls was opening next year in a nearby village and she was excited by the thrilling prospect of expanding her horizons. She didn’t notice his hands clenching hard enough to turn his knuckles white, or the ugly turn of his mouth. Truthfully she was too bashful to look at him much at all. When he stormed away without a word in the middle of her explanation, she didn’t know what to think.
On their way home a swaddled woman called to Mani and her sisters. When the stranger withdrew around a corner beckoning with a crooked finger, Mani told the younger girls to wait while she went to find out what the odd bird wanted.
Turning the corner, searing liquid splattered in her Mani’s, eating off her skin and burning out her left eye. The rejected man had doused her with acid. She thought the unspeakable pain would never stop.
It never completely did.
Now disfigured and a worthless burden in her families estimate, she was married off that winter to a very old man, Dinesh Poorani. His child bride had died during her second labor at the age of twelve. He wanted someone to care for his infants, twin boys and a girl, and to work his small dust patch of a farm.
The property was wretched, but to Mani it had the advantage of being located on the outskirts of the village where she did not have to see her smirking attacker every day. A beautiful old Tamarind tree was in flower by Dinesh’s rough brick house the day she was delivered to his virtual ownership. She loved the tree instantly, sensing it was a kindred spirit, rooted in sterile earth yet determined to flourish.
Heedless of her tears, the old man forced himself between Mani’s legs at night, pushing her face roughly to the wall to hide the sight of her scars. She bore two daughters fourteen months apart; Sunita her first born with violet-flecked eyes, and laughing Indira.
“A girl! Worthless!“ complained the man each time, striking her as she lay in her afterbirth. “I’ll toss her on the rubbish heap.” Mani held the babies tightly, and eventually Dinesh passed out sodden drunk without fulfilling his threat.
They lived in harsh poverty as Mani struggled to raise the five children, toil the fallow earth and attend the man’s constant whims. When Indira was three years old Mani woke on the cold floor next to the man’s bed were she always slept, disturbed by an unfamiliar sound. It was Dinesh, his breathing clogged and irregular. Ropes of spittle hung from his mouth, which drooped on one side.
“A devastating stroke,” confirmed the local doctor. “Prepare yourself, Mrs. Poorani. I doubt he will live another week.”
But Dinesh did not die. He lived on, his mind adrift in a twilight of semi-consciousness. The care of his moribund body added heavily to Mani’s daily work burden. In spite of this, she found herself blessed with more freedom than she had ever experienced. The house and property were hers to tend to as she saw best, as was the child-rearing. In the privacy of their home she raised the children more leniently than the ridged tenets of the Sarna religion permitted, encouraging the self-worth of both genders equally. Neither the ritual Sika nor Khoda gender tattoos marred the children’s skin. She taught them all to read in the hour before exhausted sleep took her, using Dinesh’s worn copy of the Bhagavad Gita and some disregarded children’s primary books she salvaged from a wealthier villager’s trash bin. Day and night she spent her energies on improving their welfare and on the slow cultivation of the farm, unsparing of her own health.
Mani sold her wedding clothes for a handful of chickens and used their manure to enrich the garden soil. When this gave her superior vegetables, she sold them at the market at top price and bought a few more chickens. For these she built a strong protective twig enclosure, its bottom sticks buried three feet in the ground to prevent predation. In the predawn before going out to work the farm, she also taught herself to weave rush baskets and decorated them inventively. When they were good enough to sell, she took them to the larger market three villages over and bought better farming cultivation utensils, and a wider variety of seed.
This way, after thirteen years of grueling labor and thrifty ingenuity, Mani gradually transformed the useless property into a small but moderately prosperous homestead. The excellence of her vegetables, her distinctive baskets and sweet tamarind preserves earned her a token standing in the community which she quietly prized.
That year Dinesh died during the monsoon. She had treated him well in his dependency and buried him with peace of mind, offering what material objects she could to accompany him in the afterworld. At the funeral ritual a large, cross woman and a small reedy man she had never seen in the village appeared, introducing themselves peremptorily as Dinesh’s mother-in-law Mama Sidkar from his former marriage, and Mahto, his father. Courteously she invited them to stay the night.
They looked at the tidy farm in astonishment. “My goodness, look what wonders my fine son worked for his family!” exclaimed Mama Sidkar, assessing the plain but good furniture, the well-appointed ancestral bhitar alter, the abundant herbs and vegetables drying in the kitchen. When the children were brought to greet her, she smothered the two boys to her bosom and studied Mala, Dinesh’s daughter, with a cool proprietorial eye. Sunita and Indira she brushed aside with undisguised distain.
As they sat at Mani’s central table eating her food that night, Mama Sidkar and Mahto shared calculating glances. Mama Sidkar delicately separated out a few grains of rice on her plate and cleared her throat, announcing her intention to speak.
“Mani, it is not proper for a woman to live alone. You should have family with you for the sake of your reputation, and to help manage the property.” Mama Sidkar ate a morsel of finely-cooked rugra and savored it. Then she looked at Mani under kohl-darkened eyes. “And you know, the strange way Dinesh was in that bespelled state for so long… you wouldn’t want any accusations of witchcraft.”
Sunita dropped a bowl. It cracked, spilling green bamboo shoots and red peppers on the table. Women died like flies in Jharkhand when accused of being a dayaan, a witch, or lost everything; thousands of women had been murdered, tortured, or disenfranchised in the last twenty years. It was a threat every vulnerable woman feared. Now the terror had entered their home.
“Clumsy,” scolded Mama Sidkar. “Clean it up, girl.”
Sunita remained motionless, frozen in her seat while the bellicose woman scowled at her. Mani quickly cleared the broken shards and Indira sopped up the vegetables, her hand on her sisters’ trembling shoulder. Mama Sidkar looked down to hide her smile.
Mama Sidkar waited until desert had been served— a delicious dish of mitha khaja— to casually announce her intention of moving in within the week. “I shall, too,” affirmed Mahto, a mouse scurrying to hide behind an elephant.
Good to their word, the twosome intruded the very next day. Sidkar insisted on taking the main bedroom, with Mala sleeping on the floor beside her. Mahto took the room the girls had built for themselves, crowding Mani and her daughters into the living room. The boys kept their small room at Mama Sidkar’s insistence: ‘It is only proper for growing boys. Urges, you know.’
The duo quickly settled into treating Mani and her daughters like servants, separating Dinesh’s children out for spoiling. Sidkar took every opportunity to remind her grandchildren that they were a higher caste than Mani and her children, and it broke Mani’s heart to see the children she’d raised succumbing to disrespectful, bigheaded traits.
Two months after this enemy occupation Mani saw Sunita flying up the dirt path, hair wild, arms empty of their precious vegetable baskets. Dropping her rake she ran to her daughter, enfolding the terrified girl. When Sunita could speak, she relayed a dreaded scenario; that foul scoundrel Reyansh, their village Oijha, had approached the girl carnally. It seemed Mama Sidkar had encouraged the old lecher with a greedy nose toward the income the charlatan’s relentless fleecing of the villagers could bring into the family.
The withered ancient had proposed marriage while caressing her body with a coarse hand. Aghast, Sunita struck him and ran, abandoning their marketing baskets and precious stock of vegetables.
Mama Sidkar was enraged. She tried to beat Sunita with a cane but Mani prohibited it. Purple with anger, Mama Sidkar hurled invectives like a harridan while Mahto hid behind his grandchildren. Two days later, when Mani, Indira and Sunita returned from the market — for they would not let Sunita face the Oijha alone, lest he resume untoward advances — the house was empty. Mama Sidkar, Mahto and their grandchildren were gone, along with some of the few possessions of value Mani had managed to acquire through hard labor.
The women looked at each other blankly. Then Sunita began to smile like a lucky sunrise. Indira caught the bug, and soon all three of them were smiling like happy fools. Gods be blessed! What a relief. They had their home back, although they felt the sadness of the three missing siblings.
“Let’s celebrate with an early dinner and some extra sweets,” suggested Indira.
“Halwa!” petitioned Sunita enthusiastically.
“No more work today! We’ll act the part of rich women,” declared Mani, sitting right down and putting up her feet on the central table. Laughing, Indira prepared tea and a plate of halwa, and joined Sunita and her mother by putting her feet up, too — on a work day!
The worn Bhagavad Gita lay in the middle of the table. After they had enjoyed their treats in the comfort of each other’s company for a luxuriously long repast, Indira picked up the dear old book to peruse and noticed a strip of note paper poking out from its binder. Rather conspicuously, actually. She wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before. Must be the sheer relief of their deliverance from their in-laws oppressive rule. Fortunate the book’s too worn out for that mean old water-buffalo to steal, thought Indira as she flipped to the note. It was written in Mala’s handwriting.
“RUN. The Oijha has accused you all of witchcraft.
I am sorry and ashamed. Run. Run. Run.
I love you, Mala.”
Indira’s blood froze. This was no idle threat. It meant death to poor women in Jharkhand.
“Daughter, what is wrong?” Mani laughed and gently felt her daughter’s forehead with her work-roughened hand. “Too much rich food?”
Indira lowered the note like a sinking rock. “Mother. Sister. We must flee this house. The Oijha has accused us of witchcraft. They will come, and you know what will happen.”
They stared at each other, wracked with foreboding. They did know. No one would speak for them or offer protection once the Oijha branded them dayaans. There would be no forthcoming witnesses to their fate. They would suffer or die like thousands of other women, unmarked by the village’s collective silence.
Mani did not weep aloud. Tears rolled from her one eye like a silent fountain while her daughters packed what belongings they could into a cart. They could go to their aunt in Ranchi City, suggested Sunita. They would bring their best baskets so as not to arrive complete beggars.
Indira’s throat ached. She looked at the property her mother had built up through years of hard labor, aging Mani decades past her thirty-four years. At the home where their mother had raised five children, teaching them to read and value industry and laughter. Though the structure stood, to them it was gone as if incinerated by summer lightening.
That night they slept together on the big bed. The daughters wrapped their arms around their mother and tried to sooth her endless tears. Sleep came late.
Indira woke in the predawn with a full bladder. The air was chill with winters early nip, and she wrapped herself in an old work coat before slogging the 150 yards to the outhouse. A pleasure to have so far away in the stinky summer; a nuisance in the cold winter. Half asleep, she dozed while her pee dribbled into the dirt hole, dreaming that she heard the familiar voices of villagers. Voices she might never hear again.
And then she was wide awake. The voices were real, held low but loud enough that she could make out some of their identities. The Oijha, Mama Sidkar, Sumatra, Dev the Headman. Before she could react she heard a jarring thump, and Sunita began to scream. Mani’s voice, reasoning, pleading. Crying out in pain.
Indira lowered to the ground and carefully bellied out of the back of the outhouse, which was made of flexible twigs for mobility. Keeping low, she ran for the Sal tree forest bordering their land, delving in until she came to a favorite climbing tree. From here she could remain hidden in the foliage while seeing the whole of her mother’s property.
She would never forget a second of what she heard and witnessed. Inside the house the sounds of her mother and sister being raped, beaten, and tortured went on for hours. She felt their agonies in her body and soul. When at long last their suffering ended, her’s continued, indelible psychic wounds she would carry as long as she lived.
At least twenty-five villagers participated in the initial atrocities. As night wore into day they became less cautious about noise and she recognized every voice. Neighbors. Regular patrons at the market. Friends.
Indira heard the Oijha and Sidkar encouraging the cruelties, even urging children to beat and burn the witches to “lift their curse from the harvest crops.” After dawn they dragged Sunita and Mani down to the Tamarin tree and tied them to its trunk with rope. There they forced them to eat human feces before hacking them to death with blunt axes. They did not die quickly.
During the day the Oijha held court with Sidkar by the Tamarind tree, inviting the whole village to view the banished witches and for good luck, strike or soil their corpses. Mahto brought them chairs from the house and they sat in them like thrones. By late afternoon there were no more gawkers, and the trio retired to Mani’s house to eat and drink.
Under the veil of night Indira crept to her mother and sister’s ravaged bodies. Kneeling at their feet, she prayed for the peace of their souls, assuring the gods that the Tamarind tree would offer summer blooms as their sacrifice. She knew the tree would gladly give flowers for Mani and Sunita, who had cared for it lovingly.
Indira heard a twig break and whirled to her feet. The Oijha lurked in the shadows. Stealing forward like a thief in the dark, he spoke to her as if calming a frightened horse. “I have been waiting for you. We shall be married.” His head shook up and down on his skinny neck like a broken weed. “You shall be cleansed and forgiven in the Sacred Grove when we wed.”
She looked at him, his jittering eyes gathering in the darkness. He was mad. Indira spat, and ran like the wind to the forest.
“Indira’s here! The other witch girl is here! Catch her! Kill the witch!” Reyansh bawled.
Indira ran. She heard bodies crashing after her and voices shouting for the next hour, then they grew fainter until she heard nothing at all. Still she ran, all night and the next night and the next, hiding high up in the trees during the day. Attuned to every crackle and flutter the forest made around her, she was too frightened to think about food. She drank from springs when she crossed them, careful as a forest dwelling animal not to be seen.
On the seventh day she found the secret village.
Or more accurately, the women in it found her and took pity. The village was so well hidden, its innocuous system of caves and tree houses so indivisible from the natural forest that she would have stumbled through it, tharn and starving. She almost didn’t respond when a subdued voice called down from the trees: “Nomoskar, sister. Are you running?”
Bit by bit Indira made her legs stop moving. She looked for the voices’ owner and saw only shifting foliage. She wondered if it was a figment of her imagination when three women lowered to the ground on rope pulley’s and questioned her.
Was she raving? Talking to phantoms? Perhaps she was a phantom herself.
They gave Indira drink, food, and whole clothes and allowed her to sleep in one of the hidden caves wrapped in blankets. When she flinched awake, she found herself alone next to a serene flame in a low clay pot. Five women came in and sat on rush mats. They explained that she had found the fabled community Sharan, the last refuge for women fleeing from the many injustices that befall women in modern rural India. Widows, poor and low-caste women, and women of independent thought who defied the status quo, refused unwanted sexual advances, or rejected forced marriages. Women who dared to charge their rapists, or were threatened by “honor killings.” Women who were scapegoats for an Oijha whose phony “magic” had failed.
Forty-one women, survivors with terrible stories like Indira’s who had run for their lives and found asylum in the inner forests of Ranchi. They were generous, and she came to love them and their lifestyle, restricted by fear and caution as it was. By day they remained in the trees and caves, sending out only a few experienced foragers to gather food from the forest. They had looms and rush beds, clay pot fires to cook and work by. In a small, informal classroom the literate taught the unschooled to read, write, and basic mathematics. At night they bathed naked in cold streams, washing each other’s hair and backs with rich nut oils.
They never spoke aloud outside of the caves except in a low bird call as a warning or to find each other. For they were hunted by many; vindictive families, rejected lovers, sanctimonious Oijha’s.
When Indira had lived in the community for a year, a strange woman wandered into their central cave at night, passing their guards unnoticed. Tattered and yet somehow regal, the woman asked for refuge. She looked exhausted to illness, with dark circles under her large eyes and colorless lips. When the women consented, she sank onto the floor and slept for two days and nights.
Indira and her friend Madhuri were sitting close to the stranger on the third evening. The woman habitually slept with her back to the fire, but tonight she rolled onto her side showing her face. With an odd gurgling sound, she exhaled a cloud of foul breath. Madhuri grabbed Indira’s arm, pointing in alarm. The stranger’s mouth had dropped open, exposing four long canine fangs like an animals!
When Indira gasped, the woman’s eyes flew open, hard as diamonds. Her teeth retracted behind her lips as she sat up in the Buddha position. Indira’s heart leapt against her ribcage in fear, but the stranger gazed at the two frightened women tranquilly. “Do not be afraid of me, daughters. I am just a woman like you in need of shelter. The same strictures that persecute you persecute me.” She smiled, and now there was no trace of the long canines. Her breath smelled like night blooming jasmine.
“What are you? An Asura?” accused Madhuri.
“My dear, don’t be troubled by my teeth. A genetic defect from a long history of malnutrition, nothing more exciting or mysterious. Or of danger to you.” The effect of the woman’s soothing speech and steady gaze was soporific, like listening to a comforting bedtime story. Indira and Madhuri were enchanted. They forgot the frightening fangs, the reeking breath, like a bad dream that passed from memory.
Over the next month the woman mostly slept. Clearly she was unwell, but she would not allow them to tend her and so the nature of her illness remained unknown. When she was awake she told the women thrilling, terrifying stories about Kali and her train of demons and the Mahavidyas, powerful Goddesses of Creation and Destruction. Her tales carried them to unimagined worlds of magic and passion. And of female power, an intoxicating prospect.
One evening the woman stood at the cave entrance gazing east, her expression melancholy, when Indira brought her food. She turned to Indira with a measuring look.
“Indira, I want to see my home before I enter the Sleep of my people. It is three hours walk from here. I believe I can manage with your young arm to lean on. Will you help me, child? I promise we shall return before dawn.”
“I will,” Indira answered with a touch of playfulness, “if you will tell me your name, chaachee.” The woman had never answered this question in the month she’d lived among them. Now she bowed slightly and smiled.
“You may call me Bhairavi. I am a Mahavidyas Raakshas, one of the last of my kind. Do you understand what that means?”
Indira shook her head no. The woman dipped her chin thoughtfully. Then she said, “You shall, in time. For now I thank you, child, for granting me this request. My gratitude.”
Walking together through the dark, Indira felt no fear of the forest creatures in Bhairavi’s company. The woman seemed to exude a peaceful connection to the night world. How beautiful were the dappled patterns of light and shadow, how soothingly lyric the hoots and cries of the insects and animals in the brush! Indira wondered why she had never realized before how exhilarating walking in the forest at night could be.
She also observed that although Bhairavi took her arm, she did not lean on her and in fact seemed quite spry and strong. Her steps were sure and sometimes she spoke to a night creature that listened and ‘spoke’ back. It was wonderful.
They entered the large clearing sooner than Indira expected. “Ah, yes. Home. I am home,” sighed Bhairavi, “where one must always go in the end, no matter how far they wander.”
In the midst of the clearing, a large stone temple soared three stories high, vine covered, forgotten and crumbling with age and neglect but still standing. A statue of a woman with four arms topped its peak, a lotus, a sword, a cup, and a scroll in her hands. At the statues feet, a yellow-haired woman lounged like a jungle cat.
The woman wound down the temple path with feline grace, speaking in the charming voice of a seductress. “Bhairavi, I have searched for you in many lands. What an honor and blessing to find you here, in this most sacred grove.” When she reached the base of the temple, she knelt. “I am Claudia Agrippa, a witch of Eboni. I come to offer you fealty and beg to sit at your feet.”
Bhairavi had stood still and silent at the woman’s approach. When she spoke now, her tone was dry. “You come to extort, beg or steal my gift, Agrippa. I know you. Speak plainly or leave this holy site.”
It came to Indira that she was in deep waters without knowing how she got there. Fealty? Gift? Who were these women who spoke like goddesses?
The yellow-haired woman dipped her head. “You are forthright, Great Goddess. Forgive me.”
“And you are too late. The heir is chosen.”
Claudia Agrippa tilted her head, looking circumspectly at Bhairavi and then languidly, she turned a calculating gaze on Indira. “I see,” she breathed, and Indira sensed something dangerous to her had occurred.
The blonde woman took a moment composing a courteous smile, and then asked: “May I not then learn at your feet, Great Goddess? If you would permit me–“
But Bhairavi interrupted, impatient now. “As I have said, you are late in the day, Agrippa. The legacy is set to transpire. I do not object if you wish to trail along and ask your questions, but should you attempt to intercede I shall strike you down.”
Abruptly she turned her back on the yellow-haired woman and took Indira’s arm. “It is time to return, my child. Let us walk.”
They smelled smoke and seared flesh before coming to edge of the village. Their murderous persecutors had found Sharan. Thirteen of Indira’s beloved friends lay trussed and burned, their bodies left to rot like garbage. The soil of Jharkhand once more swallowed women’s blood in unremarked silence.
Where the other women were was an unknown. The site was so trampled and the trails to and away from the site so various that getting a clear picture was beyond her.
A riven cry rose from Indira. Bhairavi clamped a strong hand over her mouth, stifling it. Effortlessly she lifted Indira and carried her into the forest. As she moved, she spoke softly, explaining the hidden truths and ancient secrets of the Raksha.
When the moon ascended the following night, Indira was initiated into the lineage of the Raksha, the true beings behind both the myths of the Rakshaand of the Boot. Before dawn, she laid Bhairavi to sleep under protective incantations in a secret compartment below the temple. Then she cast her senses out into a world more vivid and alive than she could have imagined.
A rustle made her spin around. Agrippa stood at the edge of the clearing.
“I have a place you can go to grow into your power in safety,” she stated plaintively. Indira looked at her with the newfound power to peel deception from pretense and found no lie in Agrippa’s offer.
She lived for years in the grim Keep Agrippa where took her, a peculiar structure of pellucid red stone that turned dark ruby in the moonlight. Indira heard whispers within the stone, and sometimes sensed a monstrous heartbeat throbbing through the entire Keep. Here among the ancient, amoral powers that dwelled within the Keep’s walls, she learned what she was and how to use her abilities. After a decade passed, she was ready.
That summer a sleek motorcycle roared through the village where Indira had grown up, ridden by a woman dressed in western garb. Villagers goggled after her; tourists did not usually bother with their little hamlet out here in the sticks.
The shiny red Yamaha SR400 came to a stop by the Tamarind tree, still giving shade in front of the old homestead. Mani’s house was now occupied by Mama Sidkar and Mahto, who had married. A wizened old man lazing under the tree in a hammock was being served cool mint tea by a young, harried looking woman. Mala and the Oijha. Also married, it would seem.
Sidkar waddled out to stare, half irritated and more than half intimidated by the intruder. She had become corpulent and wore what had been Mani’s one fine pashmina across her enormous heaving round bosoms, which she thrust forward like agitated hens.
“Aye?” grumped the Oijha when the rider said nothing. “What do you want?”
The woman removed her black sunglasses and looked at each of them for an uncomfortably long time. Just as the Oijha was getting riled enough to grab his cane, she struck the bikes kickstand with her boot and roared off.
“What a nerve!” exclaimed Sidkar, bold now that the outrageous motorcycle woman was gone. “We should complain to the authorities! A disturbance of the peace!” She vociferated on, trying to cover the unsettling fear the strangers arrival stirred in her.
She was still complaining at dinner that night when Mala timorously suggested, “I thought she looked familiar.”
“Nonsense! We don’t know any people like that! One of those shameful city girls who have forgotten their place. It’s disgusting. Mala! Stop standing there like a stupid ox and bring the desert.”
Indira listened to them from under the Tamarind tree, watching light shine through the glass panes it had taken her mother eleven years of hard labor to afford. They had not recognized her because they saw what she was now; educated, wealthy, powerful. Everything she had not been before, when they so easily destroyed her family without fear of recrimination or consequence. They did not see in her the persona of the cowed, brutalized, faceless poor women of Jharkhand because she was not one of those women any longer; she was their revenge.
Many unusual and inexplicable deaths puzzled the local constabulary that summer. Not the common deaths of low-caste women accused of witchcraft or disobedience, but the lurid deaths of respectable community members. An Oijha flayed himself alive, devouring strips of his own flesh. A well-to-do couple hacked each other with blunt axes and then lit themselves on fire after eating human feces. A village man burned himself with acid, a slow, bad death; a headman rammed a spike up his anus, internally eviscerating himself before leaping off a cliff. A number of stalwart village VIP’s pounded each other to bits with stones.
The house with the Tamarind tree was purchased from Mala at an exceptional price. Now that the old Oijha had disposed of himself (rather sensationally) it was said to be for her to retire on in independent comfort.
Contractors came from the city to expand on the house, but no one knew exactly how because the first thing they did was build privacy fencing around the entire fifteen-acre property. Unsupervised women lived in it once it was completed. One seldom saw them, but their expensive cars could be seen entering and exiting the large double gates at all hours.
The gates! They were a scandal. Carved in relief in frighteningly realistic detail, they portrayed the Great Goddess Kali and the Mahavidya Bhairavi, the ‘Fierce Goddess’. Villagers swore the goddesses’ eyes followed them and took to avoiding the road past the compound.
A delegation of Oijha’s and Headmen came to complain and demand the gates removal. However when they stood before the visages of the goddesses they became afraid, shaking unaccountably. Without a word of complaint they walked, then scurried away.
The property and its residents became the objects of juicy gossip, superstition and curiosity. Everything was suspected, nothing confirmed or denied. A movie stars’ love nest; a whorehouse of upper-caste prostitutes. A haunted house full of churls and dayaans; a monastery for a sect of esoteric yogini’s.
The house ignored it all, biding its time. Until the day came that Kenneth Sachs staggered down the stairs of his families townhouse, transformed into something Other. On that day the gates of the house split open like an infected wound, spilling death across India as Indira and her sisters brought merciless vengeance, reaping the fruit sown by the seeds of the Tamarind Tree.
About The Author
Shain Stodt lived most of her life in New York City and upper New York State, growing up in Greenwich Village during the social revolution of the nineteen sixties. She was an activist by age ten and has always been dedicated to justice for people, animals, and the environment.
Professionally trained in dance, she performed the choreography of modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan at the Smithsonian Institution (that’s her photo above at the Smithsonian), The Museum of the City of New York, and many other venues, often with actress Barbara Feldon. At the same time she wrote on social media in a number of contexts and created a website on Sex Education emphasizing diversity and equality.
Shain currently lives in North Carolina with her husband and their furry family, Chuck, Ebeneezer, and Blossom the possum.
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