The ground seemed to rumble as the shouts, cries, and thumping of heavy feet grew closer. My hands gripped tighter the sides of the young girl’s petit head, my mind aching to stay clear.
“Walk me through, Aditi, walk me through,” I whispered.
The doors of the small hut began to rattle, wooden pots and spoons crashing to the floor. I wrestled with myself, pouring my focus inward and then outward, my mind expanding and contracting with the pull of the bala. A light began to beckon, opening me to the scene from so many years ago – the scene was within my grasp but still evading me.
“They’re coming,” whispered Durga, her wrinkled hands picking up fallen objects from the dusty crooked floor.
I hummed softly, strategically maintaining focus. I could hear the falling of the gates as the screams of our sisters filled the air.
“Ankita, we must know now,” insisted Durga. “Will they hunt her?”
At last, the scene came into view: a man bowing over the young girl, white powder encapsulating her face, but no mark left behind. I dropped my hands in relief and took a deep breath as I clamored to the floor. I quickly shook my head. “They will take her, like the others. But she bears no mark.”
The door crashed open, leaning off its hinges. Two men entered forcefully, pulling the young girl roughly from her chair and whisking her away as if she’d never existed in the first place. She didn’t scream – no, this was expected. But she left with some relief: she would not be hunted. Durga crumpled into the corner, weeping silently at a destiny she wished she couldn’t foretell. The relief of knowing her daughter was not marked for torture was pale comfort in the wake of the hell she would yet be required to survive.
The vibrations of the hard-packed dirt underfoot softened, the screams melted to sobs, and Durga and I finally left the hut to begin the week of mourning and consolations.
As we exited, we quickly noticed that almost every home was still standing – this was a good sign. Not many of us had fought; it was always better not to fight. The sobbing bodies of our sisters lay scattered across the gated landscape, crunched in heaps that bore resemblance to the sense of loss we all felt. Durga took to the woman nearest us – Dakini – and pulled her into her lap, wrapping her arms around her and allowing their tears to combine into a river of sorrow. I continued through the many huts, following the sound of a more urgent and pained cry.
When I first approached her, I thought she’d been injured; this would have been quite unusual as the men had strict ethics surrounding the harassment or harm of the older women of the village. But there Nalini sat, her arms wrapped around her bloody legs, small deep red drips falling to the stones below her as she rocked herself back and forth.
I attended to her at once, searching for abrasions or cuts. She simply shook her head and, unable to speak, gestured a few feet away. There lay a ragged, limp body: her daughter Priya. Her face was almost unrecognizable, arms flailed out to the side, and deep trails of blood cascading from the crack at the crux of her head down to her middle. She had fought.
“I told her not to,” Nalini whispered as my heart tore into a million pieces. This was the pinnacle failure of the world the Rakshasa had created: the most cunning, brave, and bold women always bore the ruthless fate of nobility.
I pulled Nalini close, watching Priya as though I were watching myself – so many times had I come close to becoming the same corpse. The men were brutal; they were rancid. They did not stop until each had collected his God-endowed prize to beat and to wither until his trophy was won. I wanted to kill them; all of them. I had many times forgotten the necessity of self-control in lieu of revenge. In many ways, Priya was me; an older version of me, for I had not yet come of sufficient age to suffer at the feet of Bridal Day or Vivaaha as they called it. Such an insulting sentiment, surely meant to drive in the depravity of our circumstances.
“Ten more minutes,” I whispered to Nalini, eyeing the hovering stare of the all-watchful dome of mist forever suspended above us. “You must pull yourself together or they will come back.”
Nalini’s tears escalated into sobs; a final effort to extract months-worth of mourning into one small moment. The smiles would never return; not likely. But the tears must stay at bay. “After all”, they told us, “it’s a celebration. Your daughters are serving the Thirteenth Quorum. They will make their army strong.”
I pulled Nalini to her feet to retire before the sun disappeared behind the hills. She hesitated. I pulled her more forcefully, unwilling to be caught out after curfew. She stumbled, then wrenched herself from my grasp, her chest heaving as her gaze followed the boundary of the barbed wire fence that kept us captive.
“I won’t,” she said, quietly, shaking her head vigorously.
“Nalini, come,” I insisted. We had lost one sister; I was not prepared to lose another to the darkness.
“No. Priya fought. I will fight too, in her honor.”
“Nalini, no. It is a death sentence; nothing more. Come inside before they see you.”
She held her ground and I made a desperate attempt to spare her life, tackling her and dragging her towards her hut. But my body was small and she was determined. She fought me off, kicking recklessly and biting my hand until it bled, causing me to cry out and forcing me to release her. The sun was just barely peaking above the hills. In a few moments, it would be too late. I lunged at her one last time, but she evaded my grasp, running instead to the center of the Square, her fist shaking in the air, her eyes locked in on the center of the swirling dome.
“You will not see me bow to your power! Never again! You took my daughter and I will fight in her stead!” Her voice broke, her screaming becoming hoarse. “I refuse to be leached – “
A loud thumping noise echoed across the plains as the last of the women scurried to their hideouts. Nalini stood still at first, her body stiff with shock, then she collapsed to the ground, a large iron bar fileted through her heart.
I dove inside before I could meet her fate, the terror and fear combining so violently that I ejected all nourishment from my body into the small woven basket by the sad and lonely table. The one-room hut was now forever abandoned. It belonged to no one and to everyone. I wasn’t sure which was worse; either way, two more were needlessly dead and left to be scraped up by the Sudra and dumped miles from our small camp. The death had been enough. The carnage had been too much. The life we lived was no life at all but a hell that burned brighter than the blood of our broken hearts. I wasn’t even sure why I fought to live anymore. I fell to my back in the hard dirt and stared into the rough straw ceiling until my mind forced me to relinquish consciousness.