When the British marched in with their long-range guns, everyone became little. Muslims and Mughals and Jainists and travelers and warriors and merchants all seemed to shrivel up and harden the shell by which they identified. The castes were still there, but beneath the British Raj, all untouchable. This saddened me most, I think, the shell-hardening. The enemy of your enemy is not your friend; you just have more enemies, and see fit to on occasion use the ones that offend you least. This was my spoke on the wheel of suffering. I have no opinion.
We were southeast of Simla, some many days’ march out, when the richest of the poor farmers’ elephants went mad and, in the marketplace, killed a merchant and his servant. If it had just been the servant, the elephant would have been forgiven and his owner fined. The merchant was too close to being human, though.
I was borrowing food in my usual, quiet way when the ordeal happened, and I used the distraction to borrow more than normal. This I took to my hiding place, a cannon-damaged bit of Mughal Fort, leftover from an Islamist war, before returning to see if anyone needed errands run.
The sun crept to midday before a British man with a gun came to the marketplace. He had a crowd behind him, but he worked at pretending not to notice. No one walks with so many behind them and avoids looking back so hard. But if he had looked back, this would have acknowledged that they were like people to him. He couldn’t. I know the walk too well.
This mess was going down the middle of the market, though, toward me and if I had run, the merchant I’d just borrowed from would have seen me and raised a bedlam. I kept pretending not to notice the British man and hoped for the best.
I did not stop, because I am not a boy. The arm that took me was ungentle. The British man turned me to face him. He wore the unwieldy, waxed moustache of his kind. He smelled of dogs and fruit, and the sun-seared cherry red of his face hurt to look on, and painted a stark contrast to his rifle.
This life of mine was about to end, I was certain.
“Apologies, miss,” he said, when he’d realized his mistake. He did not introduce himself. “Take me to Bilgrami’s farm.”
I wanted desperately to not understand him, or for him to realize how unsuitable of a guide I was. I wanted to look at him blankly until he cast me aside.
Instead, I responded instantly: “There are several, sir.”
He rolled his whole head in the unnatural way the British express their frustration. “The one with the mad elephant!”
“I mean, he owns several, now, sir. He works for the provincial governor.”
He cuffed me, and I made a show of staggering for the crowd he was pretending not to notice. Pity is its own form of currency, and I planned to buy respite with it, later, since no one spoke up on my behalf.
“You know damned well what I’m asking; don’t play stupid.”
“You mean to kill the elephant, sir?”
He nodded. I was close enough to him now to see the unease lurking just under his face. He was swimming in his own fear. He wasn’t ignoring the crowd because they were Indian. He was pretending that they were not completely controlling him. They expected him to kill the elephant, and if it had ever been his idea, he had regretted it at once.
Here was a soft man used to leisure, who had everything already stolen for him and no need to reach for it, suddenly forced on a death march to play a part he did not understand.
I led him to where I thought the elephant might live, because I, like him, suddenly had a new and strange role: I was the guide, and was expected to know these things, even by the crowd.
My blood rushed. I’d never been in the front before. This fed something that I craved. I killed it, because I have no opinion, nor should I. I led them quietly where I thought they wanted to go and tried to think about my breath.
As it happened, I had a fuzzy awareness of the places where easy food could be plucked. The farm I led him to had elephants, and one was a tyrant male, storming keenly from one tree to another when we arrived. I do not know if it was the same creature from the marketplace.
The British man planted himself flat on the hill and took aim, and the sun crept past overhead. He was sweating, but the day was cool.
I wanted to tell him, “It might be the wrong animal.” I wanted to tell him that if he didn’t fire, he might leave a crack in the hardening shell that had forced him with me to march here.
He fired, though, before my voice and my courage met. The elephant fell, and sent a shudder through the earth. It screamed. The British man watched for a long moment before someone called for him to finish the job. He stumbled upright, and seemed to fall through the steps of shoving another bullet down the gun’s throat. Every time the elephant cried, the British man jumped, and instinctively kept the gun pointed at the sky.
He readied himself back in the mud, aimed again at the dying creature, and fired. It bellowed, its voice powering through the farm and seeming to push the wind out into the trees. It thrashed in the mud, slamming its body and rolling, somehow growing more powerful as death crept over it.
The elephant took the entire day to die.
The British man’s eyes soaked in every pained writhe, every slosh of reddening mud as the beast thrashed. The elephant’s breath grew shallower. The British man’s flesh grew whiter. The crowd cheered and jeered, and one went to fetch the butcher. Bilgrami arrived and shouted for a while, but the British man ignored them all, as was his luxury.
Even after the animal died, and was dragged away in pieces, the British man stared. Frozen.
I sat next to him. There was no need to suffer alone.
When the sun hid for the day, we parted without a word.
Three weeks went by and I found myself hanging in a cage and waiting to die. My borrowing had caught up to me.
The British man, his moustache freshly trimmed, passed me one day as the monsoon threatened overhead. He saw me and squinted and kept walking.
I said nothing to him. I have no opinion.
The shadows of the day had moved a few feet across the ground when he found me again. I was meditating, with my arms and legs dangling through the cage. I was imagining an offering of fruit and gems before a great stupa.
The British man passed again. Stopped this time, pointed at me, and asked a passerby, “What did this one do?”
“It is a thief, sir.”
“Well, it’s mine. I want it freed.”
“I’m not his,” I said.
“Then I will buy you.” He didn’t look up.
I shook my head and closed my eyes as the uproar began.
He paid the wrong people to open my cage and as the other option was death, I made to follow him. Someone, I suspect a merchant, kicked me, and this started a rain of beatings. I said nothing. The food had been borrowed and I was paying it back.
The British man walked with a confidence that seemed to know I would be behind him when he turned, as if the crowd could not swallow, or if I could not find some shadow and melt away there.
This compound was absurd, with its walls and guards and men exchanging paperwork and salutes. He sat on a step near where a horse was tied. I sat too, across from him, in the dirt, careful of what I was sure was a broken rib.
“How much did I cost you?” I asked. I was curious what I owed the world.
“I…” he started and let the word die into his own breathing. I had a sudden horror that he wanted me for my flesh. “I wanted to show my gratitude.”
“The elephant,” I said. “Then as your gratitude has been shown, I’ll take my leave and head for Simla.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “I bought you, after all.”
“I thought your people had denounced such practices.”
“Well, I’m hardly sending you to a cotton plantation, Miss… what was your name, again?”
“You never asked.”
“So I didn’t.” He removed a cigar from the inside pocket of his dust-covered coat, bit off the end, and then spit. He took a small, rounded box from an outside pocket, opened a lid on it, and then twisted on a dial. A sulfurous odor went past as he twisted, and then all at once, a flame erupted from the box. He dropped it in surprise.
“Loaded it wrong,” he said, then picked it up. Part of the box glowed, now, and he ignited his cigar against it.
“What?” he asked.
“That thing in your pocket,” I said. “My father could have met the dowry with it. I’d be married.”
“A cap igniter?” he seemed confused, as if it weren’t wealth. “Ridiculous.”
I agreed with him, but perhaps he meant something different and dismissive with the word.
“I’m going on expedition tomorrow, to meet up with my man Jennings” he said, puffing his cigar. “You’re to go with me.”
“Will you shoot another elephant?” I was goading him, but it was a mistake. My debts were too steep to afford sarcasm. I humble myself in the three refuges. Perhaps the goading will come back as another broken rib.
“God, no,” he said. He snuffed. His whole moustache moved. His eyes were blue. How strange. “A messenger arrived this morning. A colleague of mine, Randall Jennings, made an archeological find that’ll make our fortunes. At least he thinks so. What do you think of that?”
“I have no opinion.”
“But you’d be in my employ. If I do well, you do well. So come now, what do you think?”
“I have no opinion, sir.”
He blew air out from his moustache. “I’m an explorer. You’re my guide. You don’t need an opinion. We’re to assess Jennings’ find tomorrow and bring supplies to him. We’ll trade off, if it’s a good find, and I’ll send him back into civilization for a working crew. Perhaps you can dig. Some honest work will straighten out your back, eh?”
“I have no opinion.”
He lifted a hand, but never brought it toward me. Instead he bit the back of his wrist, hard. Then drew a long breath in through his nose. I was certain he’d have drawn blood from himself, but he hadn’t, and the back of his wrist was callused over.
“I apologize for the suggestion,” he said, his voice steady, as if he’d hidden his anger in his wrist-bones. “I keep forgetting you’re a woman.”
“What exactly will my role be with you tomorrow?” I was afraid of the answer and ashamed of that fear.
“I’m fond of your company,” he said, and nothing else.
I thought of escaping, but had nowhere to run.
He showed me a quarter for the servants, forgetting my sex again, and then went to bed. I wandered outside to watch the setting sun and imagined what Buddha had felt when the devil pestered him after months of starvation. Then I slept beneath a tree, and dreamt of being hanged there, and of my body swinging over a pot made of invincible clay, and full of elephant meat.
The horse screamed and rose up on its back legs, trying to hurl me away.
“Haven’t you ever ridden before?” the British man asked.
“No!” I said. Somewhere deep within, I knew that monster was a kindred spirit, but it could be kindred from a safe distance. “Can’t I walk?”
He calmed the horse. Touched it gently on the nose, and patted it. Would that we all calmed one another so. Then he turned his attention to me.
“Now, squeeze with your legs like I showed you.”
I did. The animal bolted, and I landed on my pride.
One of the guards sniggered under a hand, and turned away.
“God’s blood, boy, you’ll just slow me down even if I get you riding.”
He decided out loud that I would ride behind him on his horse. I decided that, when we were far enough from people, I would walk, and perhaps disappear into a quiet patch of forest and try my luck in the wilds.
We went out of the town on a dirt road, going southwest, and started down a forest trail. The horse objected to this, and I took my chance to get back on the ground. Looking ahead, I saw why the horse objected. The dark of that place was absolute, and the path looked rough.
“She’s not normally like this,” the British man said. “Behave, Elise!”
I was glad to see his mastery of things not extend perfectly to horses, but kept it to myself. He goaded the poor beast forward and I walked alongside. The forest made the way so slow-going that any advantage the horse had provided on the way out of town, it surely cost again here. Had I been on my own, I could have cleared twice the distance. It was tempting, but leaving the horse seemed cruel. The British man had, at least, a gun.
The sun went high and the foliage thickened when we found a tree with a knife buried deep into its flesh. A syrup bled from it.
“Here we go,” The British man said, and tried to veer the horse left. The animal wanted nothing to do with that direction, though, and tried to turn right instead. Finally, it screamed and went to its hind legs. Its hatred of the forest made me nervous, and I wondered if it hadn’t sensed a snake, or a big cat. Trying my luck in the wilds seemed suddenly to have very poor odds, and I realized that even if I turned back now, it would be more than half a day of walking before I made my way back to clear land. That’s if I was left unmolested by Thuggee, or whatever other bandits roamed.
The dark of the forest made itself suddenly apparent. The sun was very far away, it seemed, and only a few stray slivers of its light made their way through to the earth. The path on the left was darker, still, and my mind played at filling it with spider webs and serpents.
I’d been thrown from one cage into another.
“We should go back,” I said.
“Look at that, you’ve got an opinion,” he snapped back. “We’re going the right way. This is the tree he mentioned in his message,” The British man said. “He’ll have a base camp set up, and by his reckoning, we’re closer to it than the town. You kept me company through one darkness; can’t I count on you for this one?”
“You’re like a king,” I said, suddenly. “Why would you ever go in there, when you can go anywhere you like and have everything you’ve ever wanted?”
He laughed. The horse cried again, and tried to turn. He got down.
“If I don’t find success here by the year’s end, I’m either joining the Foreign Legion or going to debtor’s prison.”
“I like your prisons,” I said. “They feed you once a day.”
“Step up from a cage in the town square, I dare say,” he said. He took a pack from the horse and slung it over his back. It sloshed. He took another and handed it to me.
“Can I trust you not to scamper off?”
“Will you not turn back?”
“I can’t,” he said. “And if the horse won’t follow, and can’t find its way home, my debts go up that much more.”
“What’s there that you’ll die for it?”
“My fortune,” he said, turned, and started walking away. He did not look back at me.
I stood, calculating my odds. My spirit screamed to flee, and that this British devil was going to kill himself, and me with him if I followed. The horse would be no help, though, and if I returned alone, I’d be accused of leaving him to die, or maybe even of killing him myself. I consoled my sudden, swelling opinions with the knowledge that, by following him, I would not be alone, and in that minor blessing, would pay off some of the infinite sin that follows every soul into each life.
His reasons for bringing me still worried me, too. The sort of company British men took from Indian women, I wanted no part of. But if nothing else, he was a better choice than the horse, who was already snorting and threatening to leave me alone in the wood.
Eyes up for serpents, I went after the British man and into the dark.
In a clearing, soon, we found a ruin, its shadows long with the setting sun.
“Jennings!” the British man called. “Jennings! Anyone?”
The ruin, though, rang empty, feeding him back the words.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“Part of making my fortune will be in finding out, won’t it?” the British man said. Never mind that I had found this place with him. Or found it third, I corrected myself. His friend, some Jennings, would have been first. Except—the place had buildings. Foreign, strange buildings of a style I’d never seen, with walls that slanted up, and many stone pillars. No. No one had a claim to finding this place; its builders were long gone. I was to be a scavenger here, keeping company with a vulture.
He made his way into the ruin, between two crumbled structures, and there we found the tents, long empty and draped on the inside with spider webs. There was a fireplace, long cold, and saddle bags minus a horse half-full with supplies.
I would suddenly have given the world for an absurd guard to demand paperwork.
“We should go,” I said.
But the British man was deaf to me, and rummaged through the dead camp site.
“Jennings!” His voice pierced, as if he’d reached into his dead elephant and summoned a part of its cry. If anyone had not been aware of us before, they surely were now.
I grabbed him. I turned him to me, barely seeing his face in what little light was left of the day.
“Please,” I said. “We must leave.”
“Damn you!” he whirled. “I can’t leave, do you understand? I need this.”
“What if this is a Thuggee place, and we’ve caught them away? Please, we should go.”
“You can run if you want,” he said. “I’ll write a letter for you, explaining.”
In that instant, I saw the same man who had stared down the barrel of a rifle at an elephant he’d never wanted to kill. The man who made himself watch every second of its death, when anyone else in their right mind would have left.
“No,” I said. “I’m with you, like before. But you should do your business quickly.”
He nodded. Turned his back to me.
I have no opinion.
At the ruin’s center, we found a step pyramid, and it was overgrown with moss. I stared up at it, unsure if my heart pounded from fear or wonder.
“Is it like the ones in Egypt?” I asked, trying to imagine it topped with gold, and wondering where that thought had come from.
“No,” he said. “Wrong type of construction and far too small.”
I went first up the steps. The structure seemed to sing, the stones themselves hum. The darkness out here was cold and wet, but in there—a perfect dark that hinted a promise of warmth. I was halfway up the stairs before the sensation let its grip loose. Or perhaps I slipped free. The British man was barely to the stairs, and there were a great many of them between us.
The wind began to shriek. Rain fell like gods tipping over buckets.
“Careful,” he called up. Then followed me. The stairs were so steep that it threatened to topple us. I went on all fours, because they were too narrow and too slick. I didn’t want to turn back, but the part of my mind that speaks during meditation knew I should have wanted this. It knew that my desires were alien. My mind was looking for a way to turn around, but the rest of me kept climbing, knees pressing fresh bruises into themselves with every doglike, entranced step up the stone stairs.
The British man shouted above the weather. “There are buildings like these in the Americas,” he said. “But this has no place here--This is the find of the century!”
At the top of the stairs was an altar, stained brown, perhaps from ancient blood. An entrance, dark and open, towered before us. I pushed myself to my feet and followed the water down. The British man came after me, sloshing, our feet echoing in the darkness.
I found myself looking at an entrance into the pyramid—a doorway, drenched in blackness, that led into the building’s belly. Even when lightning tore across the sky and its thunder boomed, I did not look up. The door came closer, though such a thing seemed impossible.
It entered over me.
I am marching to a gallows tree with British men surrounding me and men from other castes watching and congratulating each other. The sky seems wrong; it is daylight, but there are stars. A certainty fills my being; this is the only life. I will be dead forever. There is no wheel of suffering, then; I am free.
I step up to the gallows and smile.
No? The voice is foreign. Powerful. Angry. We’ll try another.
I am lounging in the depth of a pillow of finest satin, and sipping wine from a chalice. I do not know this time or this place, but the luxuries of the palace splayed before me are glittering. Somehow, I am unhappy.
The wine is strange. The part of my mind that meditates knows that this flavor should please me, but I am disgusted. I pour the wine onto a marble floor.
“What is this piss? Who chose it?”
I cannot control my anger. I am a whirl of opinions, and chaos. I want to scream.
A man is brought to me. Shoved roughly to the floor. His head is lowered; he is a patchwork of old scars. My deeper mind feels that he has forgotten how to cry, and on purpose.
The words are in my throat, gagging me. “Take him below; use his skin for book covers.” This is what I am meant to say; my deep mind knows it, but not why it would ever come from my mouth.
“No!” I scream, instead.
The palace, and everyone in it, including myself, shatters and falls back into eternity.
I gasped and regretted it immediately; this place smelled of rancid flesh. I pulled away, pushing my back into the dank stone wall. An alien, blue light filled the room, coming gently from blossoms that stringed across the walls of the inside of the pyramid. Yes, inside the pyramid. I had to assure myself that this was real.
The lights were draped across my neck, too, and they moved. Slid off of my body and away from my head. They were embedded in flesh, and I realized this with a horror that paralyzed me. I was covered in these bulbs of glowing skin, and they were jutting from thick arms that could bend whichever way they pleased.
The voice ripped at me as it spoke.
You are useless to me. Go.
My eyes rang. My ears were blurred. Only my nose reported fact—that this place was rancid through and through, rancid arms in rancid waters, endless. The world made no sense and the arms would not stop writhing. There was a stairwell in the wall to my left and every ounce of me that lived wanted to be there.
“No,” the British man cried. I looked for the source of his voice, but the world was still shattered at my feet, and the arms were sliding across me. “Let the poor creature die. Why won’t it die? Please. I’m so sorry.”
Go. The world shook. Now!
I was in the stink-water on all fours with no recollection of falling. My lips had touched it. Vomit curdled within me.
The stairs were so close, but the British man was down here, somewhere, and there was a debt to be paid. This life of mine, I was sure, was about to end.
The first step was still toward the stairs, because they were a temptation and because the thing at the heart of all those tendrils needed to think that I was compliant. It needed to think I had no plan, because it was smarter than me and—
An alien thought. Small, almost imperceptible, but my deep mind knew it didn’t belong.
A breeze came down the stairs; it washed over my face and carved a hole in the hot stink of the place. The shadow of the British man’s gun stood against the stairs. It beckoned, and as I stepped toward it the tendrils fell away from my feet, letting me go as I pleased.
I stopped. Closed my eyes, but calmly, though the realization had been harsh.
“I am my own person, not your toy,” I said. As the words came out, reality shook at the edge of my perception. “Not your food. Let me go.”
When my eyes opened, I was in the corner of the pyramid’s room again. The squeeze of the tendrils around my chest relaxed. I expected the mental blast of its voice, but there was none, and I soon saw why—the arm that held me was limp. Motionless. Its blue lights dimmed to nothing, and the appendage fell from my head, connected to me by a thousand lines of fleshy, orange thread. I put my hand on this and tugged, gently, so that they slid from under the skin of my face. There was a tightness around my eyes as they came free. I screamed, and then all the threads were out. I let it fall with a horrid plop. Blood ran freely down my cheeks, like tears.
I fought my way across the tendrils, which filled up the water on the floor and draped across the room like banners. Not all of the lights were dead, and those on the British man glowed bright.
The tendril affixed to his skull shuddered as I grabbed it. Orange threads with flowing light inside them were taut, stretched from the flowers on the arm to his head, where they’d punctured the skin. They writhed within him, visibly.
“No,” he muttered, as if dreaming. “No, please.”
“He is mine,” I said. “He is a thief and I own him now. He is not yours.”
I started pulling.
The room faded to darkness. He screamed.
When the tendril came free, I threw it, hard, and pulled the British man to his feet. He wobbled, but his balance slowly came to him. He looked lost.
“What’s going on?” He asked. “I heard your voice and then--”
“We have to go,” I said. “Now.” I kept his hand in mine and led him toward where the staircase up had been when the creature’s blue lights still lived.
They popped to life, and the tendrils swirled around the room.
“Run,” I breathed.
The tendrils lashed all at once, but we bounded, our hands gripped white. A tightness around my ankle, a pull, but we had momentum--the British man kept running, and kept his grip tight on me. A tendril slammed into his back, but the staircase and its fresh air were so close. I shouldered into him, forcing him upward, so that we both scrambled up the stone steps, with hell thundering behind us.
Then we were outside, the wind fresh on our faces. I worried, briefly, that this was another of the pyramid-thing’s tricks, but then the British man coughed, and laughed, and leaned into his own coughing and laughing and panting. It was too human of a slurry. Blood poured from wounds on his head, but the rain cleared them. I realized that I was bleeding too.
Lightning lit the whole of the ruin, and I saw that it was filled with people, shadows moving back and forth and trading, and loving and hating, and worshipping in death the thing at the core of the pyramid.
“No,” I said, and tugged him from where he was trying to catch his breath. “We’re not safe.”
Only in the forest, among the safety of snakes and spiders and true darkness did I dare let my heart slow down.
We held hands instinctively to not lose the way. When the ruin was lost again, where it belonged, we leaned against a tree.
“Since we’re shaking hands,” he said, watered blood running down his nose. “I’m Francis. Francis Tennyson.”
I laughed. The rain washed my own blood into my mouth. Had I seen my future in the pyramid? And the past that had condemned me to it? Or was it a nightmare, playing with my mind? The part of me that meditates quieted the thought, and reminded me: I have no opinion.
“Ahsan,” I said. “My name is Ahsan.”