The Women Who Would Not Die
The plantain leaves were shivering in the wind. The women were seated around a dying fire. Their outstretched arms were warm, but their backs were starting to feel the chill. They knew they would soon have to get up. They knew they would soon have to go home. When they got home, they would each one of them push open their bamboo doors. The doors would creak on the hinges and they would pray the sound did not wake up their husbands and children. Then, in the dark, they would grope around till they found their beds of hay. As they lay down to wait for the morning, their bones would groan and creak too, but nobody would hear a sound.
Tonight was the night of the Kite but the Kite had not come. They had waited a long time, holding the fire responsible. The fire had kept their bodies warm, and warm bodies can sometimes feel hope. But the night had kept crawling over their skins threatening to seep in. Then feebly, from the distance, they had heard the khong xinga ringing. They had known then that the Kite would not come. They had been told she would be dead when that horn pipe rang. The other pipe, the rong xinga, had turned to dust a long time back. Nobody had played its happy tune after the Kite’s daughter died.
The Kite had a daughter once. She taught her how to laugh and talk, cook and clean, weave and sew, dance and sing, harvest and husk, hide and show. The perfect woman. A man passing by under their tree one day found a strand of her hair on his shoulder. The Kite’s daughter was combing her hair. He looked up and said he wanted to marry her. She played her rong xinga then and the Kite gave her blessings.
After marriage, he took her to his forest. It was across the border from the motherland. The king of the motherland was a despot. He had a pack of wild dogs called the Rang Kukur. The Kite’s son-in-law was a rebel. The king’s dogs chased him and his band of rebels and they took refuge in the forest. Other rebels from other lands had also taken refuge in the forest. It was in a no-man’s land. Every man who was a rebel could live there. Every man who lived there, though, had to be an animal. The leader of the hill tribe, for instance, was a tiger-man. He said he would devour anybody who stood in the way of his people. The one leading the plain tribe was a lion who wore a ruby around his neck. He promised that after the war was over, he would pave the roads of his village in gold. The Kite’s son-in-law led the people of the valley. He was a python.
When the Kite’s daughter reached the forest, the women were all living there. They knew her husband was a python. He had devoured his first wife that way. The first wife’s mother was a cat. When on their wedding night the husband had turned into the big snake, the cat’s daughter had called out, “Mother, my toes, they are a-tingling.”
The cat was in the motherland, dreaming of fish bones and warm milk. She sang back, “Daughter, those are jewels a-dangling.”
The girl sang out again, “Mother, my hand tingles.”
The cat said, “Daughter, he gives you bangles.”
By the time the tingling reached her forehead, she had entered the belly of the beast.
On her first night, when the Kite’s daughter sang out to her mother, the bird was alert, waiting for news from her daughter. When she heard her daughter’s voice, she started flying. She reached in time to pull her out of the python’s mouth. Her legs were covered in its digestive juices. In the morning, the python became a man and cried remorsefully. The Kite left.
The next night, the Kite was out hunting. When she heard her daughter sing out, she spread her long wings. She reached in time to pull her out of the python’s mouth. She was covered up to her waist in its digestive juices. In the morning, the python became a man and again cried remorsefully. The Kite asked her daughter to leave. The girl stayed.
The night after that, there was a strong wind blowing. The Kite could barely hear what her daughter sang, but she took flight anyway. The wind kept pushing her back. She persisted. She reached in the morning but her daughter was dead. She played the khong xinga then, loud and shrill. And she turned to leave.
The sound of the khong xinga must have reached the motherland, for just then, the Rang Kukur howled. They were there, just across the border, ready to attack. The men prepared to run. The women were afraid. They stopped the Kite from leaving, told her about their sin. “We didn’t speak,” they said and spoke now.
The Kite told them to meet her by the plantain grove.
“I will come to you, any night, every night, wherever you are, whenever the plantain leaf shivers in the night wind,” she said and left.
The old bird had kept her promise. Even though the rebels were on the run, even though they travelled from one no-man’s land to another, the Kite came to see the women wherever there was a plantain grove, every night the leaves shivered in the wind. And she taught them what she did not teach her daughter. She taught them how to grow feathers. She taught them how to fly. She taught them how to grow beaks and talons. She taught them how to rip and tear. And scratch and shriek and prey. She taught them how to evade the wild dogs that were on their scent still. She taught them how to master the wind.
That night, they were in the hill of the dragons. They had been for a fortnight now. The dragons were merciful. They said the pythons were their brothers and sheltered them. So the valley rebels now lived in the many caves of the dragon hill. Sometimes the women wondered if they would ever descend to the valley again. Then they would tie their children tighter on their backs and walk carefully across the mountain stream.
That night, the Kite was supposed to teach them how to see. But she never came. Instead they heard the khong xinga ring. Tomorrow, while bathing the children, cooking the rice, husking the paddy, sweeping the yard and milking the mithuns, the questions will sweep through their minds like so many spring storms: Who killed the Kite? Who blew the pipe? Who knew? Right now, though, they only watched the embers dying. Their eyes stung and they let the night in through the pores of their earth-colored skin. Then they rose to leave.
Death has no meaning. It comes and somebody goes. Now that the Kite was gone, the women went about their next day’s work as they were wont to. It was the nights that would be difficult. Whenever the plantain leaves shivered, they would think of her. They would look for meaning in her absence. They would find none.
As the day progressed, they killed the questions that were indeed sweeping through their minds one by one. Fetching water from the mountain spring, they watched one drown. Another was charred to death with the paddy husks. Yet another question was crushed to death with the mortar and pestle. By the time it was evening, they had resigned themselves and started accepting that from now on, their nights would be empty. Their feathers would have to be clipped, their wings folded and tucked away in the wooden boxes. Their collective sigh shook the hills, darkening now in the dusk.
Suddenly the hills seemed to come alive. They started ringing with the shrill notes of the khong xinga. For some time now, the sun had been trying quietly to penetrate the thin fabric of darkness that was lazily draping itself over the hills. Now, the Rang Kukur howled not very far away, and their cries tore the evening into a million multicolored shreds. It was war.
The rebels knew then that the dragons had been slain, for no man nor animal could mount the dragon hill while they stood guard in their submontane lairs. They waited for the Rang Kukur to arrive, for they also knew that there was no escape from the dragon hill. The only way down was the only way up and the Rang Kukur were on it. So they said they would fight unto death, but the women knew death wasn’t pleasant.
“Maybe we can live,” they urged. But the men wanted to be heroes.
So the women tied their children to their backs and started walking down the hill. As they turned a bend, they saw the Rang Kukur approaching. They hid behind the trees. There was not a wind blowing. Not a leaf stirred. A small child whimpered in his sleep. The mother was afraid. But the Rang Kukur did not hear, for they were rejoicing loudly, blowing on the khong xinga. Their howls were cries of victory. Their victory was over the body of the Kite.
The women cringed behind the trees when they saw her, stripped to her skin, dragged by her feet, declawed, unfeathered, fettered. Blood oozed from her body, leaving a redder trail over the redness of the exposed earth that marked the hilly path. So she was not dead after all, they thought, just dying. And as they peered out at the procession, they saw her eyes searching for them. When they found them, they closed.
The women knew then that the Kite had given them the sight. That was to be her last lesson. So they spread out their wings and bared their talons. They took flight. The women rose above the trees, circling over the wild dogs. They shrieked with all their might and their shrieks dispersed whatever light remained in the hills.
Only eyes glowed now. Snake eyes, dog eyes, bird eyes. Snake eyes charged at dog eyes, dog eyes leapt in the air and snake eyes dimmed. And all the while, bird eyes circled overhead.
Soon, though, the children began to cry. Tied to their mothers’ backs all this while, they were sleeping. Now they awakened. So the bird eyes glided away, breaking the circle, down the hills and into the valley below. The women were back in the motherland.
The next morning, they gathered twigs and leaves and built small nests for the children. And they settled down to wait for their husbands. They saw the Rang Kukur come down eventually and asked them, “Where are our husbands?”
“We don’t know,” they said.
“Did you kill them?” the women asked again.
“You don’t kill snakes in the land of the dragon. We weren’t even there.”
So the women flew up to the hills one day. There was nobody there. The shrubs and creepers and grasses had grown back up again, covering all traces of the war that was. They flew back down. And waited.
The king of the motherland came to meet them one day. He welcomed them back.
“You are home now,” he said.
“Where are our husbands?” they asked.
“Who?” said the king.
“Your wild dogs killed the Kite,” they said.
“Who?” he said again and went back to his palace.
Many people came to meet the women after that. Some offered them food and money. Some took their story to distant lands. They called the story “The Kite and her daughters.” They marveled at the children in their little nests of leaves and twigs. “What craftsmanship!” they said.
Some called them resourceful, some lucky, others called them heroic.
“No,” they said emphatically. “We are the women who did not die.”