by Smita Bhattacharya
He slithered over rocks, slid down from mouldy stones, surging and falling in turns. Between glossy creepers and blossoming stalks, his body spun around like molten tar, and dried leaves crackled under his weight.
She stopped when he came close. “You don’t frighten me,” she said, her brown doe-like eyes holding steady his black beady ones.
“Is that so?” he said, his forked tongue gliding in and out. In. Out.
“Yes,” she stood with her feet apart, hands on her hips.
“Aren’t you afraid to die?”
“Ma says snakes don’t bite unless we stamp on them,” she said. “I did not stamp on you.”
“What if you do?” the snake hissed, twisting his gleaming body around her.
She shook her head. “Never,” she declared.
“But you’re in my territory,” he said, moving closer, “and I don’t like it.”
“I’ve come to ask for your help,” she said.
He looked up at her. She was short and scrawny, wearing a frock too large for her. Her skin was dark with a thin film of dew (or sweat?) on it. Her hair was tied back in a stiff, tiny braid, which bobbed off the back of her head like a tail when she talked. She was about five years old and had a few teeth missing. She seemed loved and well cared for.
“You’ve disturbed my morning sleep,” the snake complained, curling his body away from her and folding up into circles. He rested at the centre. “And we don’t help humans,” he said.
“Please,” she pleaded. “I’ve walked for an hour looking for you.”
“For somebody of the forest. See how thorns have cut through my skin,” she raised the hem of her frock to show a blistered knee.
“Why were you looking for somebody?” he asked, perplexed.
“I want to see Maya.”
Taken aback, he paused for a minute and then snickered, “In your dreams.”
“It’s impossible to reach her,” he said dismissively.
“But I need to,” she insisted.
“Go away, child.”
A whine crept into her voice despite her best efforts. “You must know where she is. Tell me,” she said.
He had never seen Maya, but this girl seemed to think he had. She was in such awe of him that he thought to lie.
“What will you give me in return?” he asked.
“Anything you need,” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“Kaushiki,” she replied. “What’s yours?”
“Ahi,” he said. Then, giving her an appraising look, he asked, “What do you want from Maya?”
“My pa says she can solve all our problems.”
“What problems?” the snake asked curiously.
“I don’t know,” Kaushiki whispered. “Something bad is going to happen if we don’t find Maya.”
“What do you know about Maya?” he asked.
“That she has great healing powers. That she is like God.”
He rested his head down, looking disinterested. “What did you say you’d do for me in return?” he asked.
“I’ll come by every week for a year to clean your home.”
He lifted his head, surprised. “You know where I live?” he asked.
She nodded. “I’ve been watching you.”
Ahi considered this. The offer sounded reasonable and his burrow was dirty and cluttered. How many years had it been since he had cleaned out the leaves and crusty scales? And he could do with some company from time to time. Others of his tribe had either moved away or been killed over the last few years. The forest had become a very lonely place.
He sighed. “It’s very, very far to Maya,” he warned. He had heard a brother speak of it once – he was an adventurous one, that one, far superior in skill and influence than Ahi was or could ever hope to be, a mighty king among snakes. He had offered to show him the way but Ahi had been too lazy (or afraid?) to take it up.
But Kaushiki was undeterred. “We need to find her,” she said.
He sighed again, deeper and more ponderous this time. “All right, come on,” he said.
The girl jumped and clapped her hands.
“Run along ahead because I can glide faster than the great river that falls down the mountains. I’d soon overtake you,” Ahi said and slithered forward.
Kaushiki ran as quickly as she could, her frock flapping behind her. Her legs felt like lead, and her chest heaved with painful breaths.
“Stop!” she cried. “Stop or I’ll lose you.”
But Ahi wouldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. He was afraid for his life.
“Nooo,” he shrieked, surging through the grass in tearing hurry. “Look behind you.”
She couldn’t run any longer. Halting, she doubled over, clutching her stomach and grasping for breath.
“He’s afraid of me,” a tiny voice suggested, the words like spurts of air on her back. She turned.
“Down here,” the voice prompted.
“Mongoose!” she said angrily. “Why are you troubling us?”
He gave her a self-satisfied smile. “You’re troubling me, girl. It’s breakfast time.”
He had short legs, gray fur, a snout, and a ringed tail. He was about two feet long.
She wrinkled up her nose and said, “Cheee, you’re stinking.”
“Kaushiki…” he whispered mischievously, “…will you clean my burrow too?”
She looked at him. “How do you know my name? And that?”
“I’ve been following you. That Ahi,” he grimaced, “I have my eyes on him. It won’t be long before…”
“You leave him alone,” Kaushiki said sternly.
The mongoose smirked and gave a non-committal shrug.
“What’s your name?” Kaushiki asked him.
“Nakula,” he replied.
“Nakula, don’t kill that snake, but promise me one thing and I’ll clean your burrow too.”
“Make him show me the way to Maya.”
“With pleasure.” Then he narrowed his eyes. “Maya…” he murmured. “It’s a long journey, definitely not for your little legs.”
She straightened her back. “Ma always tells me to think of how nice the goal is, not how hard the journey will be.”
“Your ma is sensible.”
“She cries so much every day.” A sob escaped her. “Only Maya can help us, she says.”
Nakula did not stir. “How will Maya help? She’s only a flower.”
“She’s like God, Pa says, capable of curing any illness.”
“A god he hasn’t seen. Perhaps she does not exist.”
“She does,” Kaushiki said stubbornly.
Does Maya exist? The mongoose thought to himself. Was she like the ocean he had never seen but everybody said lived, far, far away, a being bigger than a thousand rivers put together?
He had barely covered a fraction of the forest himself. This sounded like a great adventure. So he said to her, “Let me catch that snake for you.”
“His name is Ahi,” she called out after him, sprinting to keep up.
They had walked for four hours and now the sun was on their heads. Its rays filtered through a tapestry of boughs to fall like beacons on the forest below, crossing one another and at times trickling down the company’s shoulders like honey.
“I’m tired,” Ahi complained.
“By all the slithering?” Nakula tittered. “Our legs suffer more.” He looked up at Kaushiki. There was sweat on her brow, and bits of hair had come out of her braid. She pushed a few strands away from her face. Her breathing was laboured.
“How much longer?” she asked.
“You look tired,” Nakula and Ahi said together.
“We need to find Maya soon and return,” she said, sounding worried.
“Can’t we rest for a bit?” Ahi said, jerking to a stop.
Nakula rumbled a warning. “Move on, slimy reptile.”
“Hush, you both.” Kaushiki waved a hand at them. “We should eat something,” she said.
But her mates did not reply. They seemed transfixed all of a sudden, their eyes on something behind her.
“What is it?” she asked, following their gaze.
A scrawny fox stared back at her, a loose grin on his face. Stray clumps of sallow hair covered his ragged skin and bony head. His tail was limp, his gait wayward. He was swaying from side to side, as if stirred by the wind.
“My dear, beautiful madam,” he bowed grandiosely, “I’m at your service.”
She scoffed. “What do you want? You’re frightening my friends.”
“I mean them no harm,” he said, speaking in a low, reassuring voice even as saliva dripped from the sides of his mouth. “I’m seeking some adventure, merely that,” he said.
“He means to kill and eat us,” the mongoose whimpered, rooted to the ground. One trembling paw held the snake, who looked terrified but also somewhat hopeful.
“Nonsense,” the fox murmured, scampering round the trio. “I don’t eat the likes of you stinky mongooses.”
“How can you help us?” Kaushiki interrupted.
“I heard your story,” he said. “I can smell Maya from a distance away.”
Kaushiki considered this. “And you promise not to harm my friends?” she asked.
“Only if you clean my cave every week for a year and bring me food,” he said.
She sighed. “But I’ve already promised the mongoose and the snake.”
“I promise not to eat them if you serve me,” the fox said. “But I will eat them if you serve only them.”
She saw them nod quickly in agreement. “You win, fox. What’s your name?”
“Khikhi,” he said happily. “Come, snake. Lead us to it. It looks like a long way ahead.”
The group started moving again.
Each had heard the story from another and thought he knew the way. But it was the little girl who recounted the many intricate details of the fable and surmised the road ahead. They walked on narrow paths and through thick undergrowth. They walked for six hours more, braving the heat, thorny bushes, buzzing insects, and stony ground. Then exhausted, just as they wondered if they should give up, a turn appeared, trees parted, and roots moved aside. In front of them, like a child sleeping on its belly, a dense clump of bushes emerged. On it, hanging out like vibrant periscopes, were three flowers.
“A smell like warm, fresh cream… a colour like blood,” Kaushiki muttered, searching her memory. She squealed with delight when she realized it really was “Maya!”
“Wow!” the others said, staring down at the flowers. The snake slithered on the mongoose’s back to get a closer look.
“Get down, snake,” Nakula squeaked. Ahi slipped and fell with a thud. Khikhi laughed, and then resumed staring, drool dripping from his mouth.
The flower was about eight inches in diameter, with a crown-like blue-gold pistil and seven deep crimson petals around it, evenly elliptic with crisped edges. Thin lines of sapphire coursed down from the crown to the flower’s edges, like a spider’s web in a pool of blood. Legend said a single Maya took twenty years to flower, lived for another twenty, and held the cure to all diseases.
Kaushiki looked around. “None of you had seen one before?” she asked, surprised.
They stared back, thinking to lie, but realized none would be lesser to admit it because none had seen it.
“No,” they said together. “We did not think she existed.”
“You fooled me. Especially you, snake…” she reproached. “But we made a good team.”
They smiled back, somewhat ashamed.
“How are we going to carry her?” Nakula asked.
Kaushiki plucked the flower closest to her and placed it at the bottom of her dress. Then she rolled the fabric inward to form a loose pouch. Removing the thread her mother had tied around her arm for good luck, she tightened the neck of the pouch. She smoothed the fabric of her dress and patted the flower within. It felt like a lump of warm jelly.
“Come on,” Kaushiki said, turning and waving at them to follow her.
The journey back felt harder. They were tired and had nothing to wonder about. Ahi and Nakula quarreled while Khikhi kept a close watch.
“Hush, you both,” Kaushiki scolded.
“He says I stink, the vile reptile,” Nakula grumbled.
“See! He’s calling me dirty names,” Ahi whined. “You eat me, stupid mongoose. That makes you vile as well.”
“I can eat you both and be very, very vile,” Khikhi growled. They both shut up.
Kaushiki plucked a few berries and distributed them around.
“Here, take these. Hunger is making you quarrel.”
The snake caught a grasshopper and the rest ate the berries.
“These used to be sweeter before,” Khikhi remarked around pieces of a berry in his mouth.
“The forest used to be bigger and more bountiful,” Nakula said sadly. “But things change. A mongoose makes friends with snakes and a snake makes friends with humans.” He shrugged. Then trotting alongside Kaushiki, he said, “Tell us about your ma.”
“She’s tall and very kind. So is my pa. Every day he goes to a faraway land to work where people are very rich….”
“What’s rich?” Ahi asked.
“Something that makes you happy,” Khikhi said knowingly.
“We are happy,” Nakula protested.
“It’s something adults do,” Kaushiki interrupted. “Ma says it’s not for me to know.”
“Who told you about Maya?” Khikhi asked.
“I heard Ma and Pa talk about it. Pa said people in the faraway land draw pictures of her and pray to her.”
“We don’t pray to anything,” Ahi announced.
“You pray to Maya now and thank her that you are alive,” Nakula said, stamping on his tail. Ahi shrieked.
“But nobody had seen her for a long, long time. They’d forgotten about her.” She patted the bottom of her frock. “Now they’ll remember,” she said and walked ahead. The others followed.
For six more hours, dragging their feet (and bodies), fighting, laughing, and complaining, they walked. Darkness fell upon them like a softly descending blanket, blotting out the lights, making the trees look like witches and the grass around them like silent wolves. Cicadas cried and insects buzzed about their ears.
But they had one another. They were not afraid.
It was dusk when they returned.
“Ma…” Kaushiki screamed and ran. “Maaa.”
“Kaushiki!” her mother shouted. She was tall and plump, with a good-humoured face now etched with worry. Her hair was loose over her shoulders, her clothes in disarray. She hugged her daughter. “Where have you been?” she asked. “I was so worried.”
“Look, Ma. Look what I brought you.” Kaushiki settled on the ground and smoothed her dress. Unfolding the lump in her frock, she took out the flower.
“Maya,” her mother gasped, her eyes wide. “No! It cannot be!” She sat beside her daughter and stared at the flower for a moment. Then, extending a fingertip, she touched a petal, as if it were a ghost. “Is it really she? So, it’s not a myth?”
“I walked a long way to get her,” Kaushiki boasted. Then she saw her father running down the pathway.
“Pa,” she shouted. Jumping up, she ran toward him and fell into his arms. “When did you get home?” she asked.
“You were missing since dawn. Your mother was worried. She called me home,” his eyes scanned her face. “Foolish girl, where were you?”
“She was in the forest,” her mother said, her voice filled with wonder. “You won’t believe what she has in her hand.”
He stroked his daughter’s hair. “What? Show me,” he said.
Kaushiki smiled and handed over the flower to him. “Pa, meet Maya.”
Enthralled, his eyes followed the course of the brilliant crimson flower as it passed from his daughter’s hand to his. After a few seconds, realizing what it was, his mouth fell open.
“Oh, my darling!” he crushed his daughter in a tight embrace. “Where did you find this? I thought they were all gone.”
“I found this one in the forest,” she said. “My friends showed me.”
“Friends? What friends?” her mother asked, puzzled.
“A snake Ahi, a mongoose Nakula, and a fox Khikhi. They showed me the way to Maya,” Kaushiki said happily. “Look, there they are.” She turned to point to them but couldn’t see them. “They must be hiding,” she said, puzzled.
“Are there more such flowers?” her father asked.
Kaushiki nodded and held out her fingers. “Two more,” she said.
“Do you know what that means?” her father asked her mother.
“That now they won’t dare burn the jungle down,” her mother said, her face breaking into a smile.
They held each other and laughed together, laughed until their bellies hurt and tears rolled down their cheeks.
“You saved us, silly girl,” her mother said, picking up her daughter. “You silly, brave little girl.”
“Very, very brave,” her father agreed. “You believed in the myth when none of us did. Not even the townsfolk who worshipped her.”
Kaushiki smiled at her father and circled her tiny, tired hands around her mother’s neck.
“I’m so glad we are saved,” she murmured. “Can I call my new friends home sometime?”
Her parents laughed. Her mother stroked her head. “Your friends are always welcome. After all, they are Maya’s emissaries, her djinns,” she said. Then, looking at her husband, she whispered, “What a rich imagination this one has.”
He nodded in agreement. “But she saved us, the village, and the entire forest. How did she know where to find this? We’ve been looking and looking… just to prove Maya existed, to be able to take her to the town and say if they cut down the forest, it’d mean destroying what they worshipped. They didn’t care about us, our village, or the forest, but they’d now surely care about Maya.” He gazed down at the flower in his hand and murmured, “But we were looking half-heartedly. No one believed in the myth, yet we prayed.”
As they talked, Kaushiki rested her head on her mother’s shoulder and scanned the forest behind. By the root of a large tree she thought she saw three blurred images – a snout, a silky black circle, and a wiggling tail – but she couldn’t be sure.
She closed her eyes and dropped to sleep.
Smita Bhattacharya is an award winning short story writer based out of Mumbai. She has two published books: He Knew a Firefly and Vengeful, both of which rank among the top 100 Asian Literature & Fiction on Amazon with a 4+ star review. Though, seeking to write the next big novel, she considers short stories her pièce de résistance. Smita works as a management consultant and travels the world. When not working, and sometimes even when, she stares out of coffee shop windows and wonders about the hidden stories behind the passing faces.