Hindu Fire – Mary Drover

She sees the world through opal eyes.

——

Shri extends her fingers long, tenting around the glass sphere in front of her.  She listens to the hum of magic singing through her body, and smiles as it ignites a fire beneath her ribs.  When she inhales, it is with the taste of ash and smoke, and though it burns its way down her lungs, she takes it in gratefully.  She hums with the song, letting her voice carry beautifully around her, and the men around her home begin to sway.  She is not a siren, but she can impersonate one if it suits her.

She lets the magnetic pull of the sphere tighten her fingers until they are clinging against the glass, and then she opens her fiery eyes and looks down into its black depths.  They see nothing but solid darkness.  She sees an opaque blue at first, and then a sharp swirl of creamy porcelain; pink begins to leak in, and then a final, angry snap of red hot orange.  One of Shri’s thumbs linger against the orange, watches as it pulses once, twice, a third time before it expands and overcomes the orb.

They still see nothing but darkness.

Shri lets the colors fade as she inhales again, fire and smoke, singeing the corners of her lips as she swallows it whole.  She watches their tiny, little village burn, and then she turns to their leader and opens her mouth.  Her humming cuts off abruptly, and all he can see is her burnt tongue.

The leader starts to wail, but her master comes around the corner, leans against her barred home, and says, “Quiet.”  His voice is a deep command, and there are none that do not bow to his wishes.  He turns his pale eyes to Shri and asks, “When?”

“When the moon is whole again,” she says, her voice hoarse and angry.  The fire is still flickering out in her chest, and it warms her, brings a light flush to her skin.

“Enough,” her master says, reaching through the bars, but Shri backs away from his touch, the touch that silences her magic.  His glare is feral, and Shri matches it even as she reaches out a quick hand.  Their fingers brush, and the blush creeps to him.

She doesn’t listen as he bargains with the leader of the village, but instead carefully tucks her seeing stone away, covers it in velvet on a bed of incense, and chains it down for the journey.  Their work is done before nightfall, and they leave the doomed village.

“Nagendra,” Shri whispers quietly into the gathering dark.

“They will stall fall.”

“Why do you give them trinkets, then?”

“To appease the masses.  Do you think they would pay us merely for your insights?  You predict death, Shri.  They hate you.”

Shri thinks on his hurtful words as she lays down, curling her knees into her chest.  Cold metal pulls at her ankles, and she sighs, unraveling.  Nagendra never allows her warmth anymore, not after the last time she’d set fire to her cage.

——

“What is your name?”

Shri looks up at the unfamiliar voice, smiling when she sees a little girl peering through the bars of her home.  She reminds her of Nagendra, with her blonde hair and light eyes, making her look sickly in the stark wasteland around her.  The village is plagued with death, and still Nagendra has brought them here, has listened to the hum of her magic and seen something volatile that needs predicting.

“I do not speak my name,” Shri says, tilting her head to the side, her long, dark hair swaying over her shoulder and pooling on the cage’s steel floor.

“Why are you behind bars?” the girl asks.

“My master fears me.  Why are you running free?”

“I am immune to the plague.  That is what the healers say.”

“Will you touch my hand?”  Shri holds out her dark hand, hopeful, and the little girl looks at her strangely.

“They say you are a witch here to burn our village to the ground.  I cannot touch you.”

Shri frowns.  She does not feel fire in her lungs, and she cannot understand why Nagendra has brought her here.  “When did your plague begin?” she asks.  She does not retract her hand, and she watches the little girl stare at her fingers.

“Three years ago,” the little girl says quietly, “It is slow-acting.  The healers say it could take a decade to wipe out the entire village.  Have you come here to cleanse us?  Is that what the fire is for?”

“What is your name?” Shri asks instead.

“Devika.”

“Your face does not belong here.”

“No,” Devika says, “And neither does your master’s.  Why are you here?”

“I don’t know yet,” Shri says, “I’m sorry.  I don’t know how to help.”

“Are you going to burn us?”  Shri shakes her head, and, to her great surprise, Devika reaches out her hand and touches her fingers slowly, as though afraid.  “Are you going to save us?” Devika asks, and this time, Shri does not move.  She does not know how to respond.  Devika reaches farther into the cage, hesitates a moment, and then tightens her fingers around Shri’s hand, holding it.  “Your hand is cold,” Devika says.

“Do you take magic, little goddess?”

Devika pulls away sharply and spins, back pressing against the bars as she looks up at Nagendra and his pale, quiet eyes.  Devika shakes her head quickly.  “I am magic,” she says, and Nagendra grins.

“Daughter, come away.”  There is a man standing behind Nagendra, but no one pays him mind.  Shri shrinks back against the farthest bars of her cage and watches sadly.  She is not certain, but she does not believe Devika will make it out alive.

There is a long, awful silence before Nagendra turns and says, “Your daughter for your village.”

They have an argument which Shri does not listen to, but instead hums along quietly to the song in her blood.  A warm hand curls around her cold one, and her song becomes a duet.

——

The last village they visit on this year’s journey, Nagendra arrives late, having been stopped by several road blocks along the way.  They hear a tale spun about dark witches traveling without masters throughout the land, inflicting every method of torture imaginable upon unassuming villages.  They question Nagendra at length about his girls, and when they finally reach their last village, he is exhausted from riding all night.

When he finally steps down from his seat, releasing the reins on their two horses, it is with an angry sigh.  “Stay here,” he growls at his girls as he strides away, and they do not see him for the rest of the night.

Shri holds Devika close, trying to keep her warm through the cold, winter night.  Devika shakes in her arms, trembling as snow falls through the bars and settles around them.  She cries softly, and Shri stares out at the frozen village in front of them, willing Nagendra to return.

He does not, and in the morning, Devika is dead.

She falls silent to the winter just before dawn, when the first pink rays are peering over the horizon, and Shri listens to her heart stop.  She drinks the warmth of the little girl’s body until it fills her, and she feels fire where she had not in Devika’s village.  She melts the bonds holding Devika to the edge of the cage and curls her body in on itself, laying her cloak over her.  She sits, legs crossed beneath her, the snow blanketing over her dark skin.  She is nearly nude without her cloak, and when Nagendra finally stumbles out of the pub, Shri’s eyes are darker than they have ever been, and he grins when he sees her.

“Has your pet finally served her purpose?” he snarls, and Shri closes her eyes, holding her glass sphere in her lap.

The leader of the village follows him, as they always do, and Shri’s palms rise up, just the tips of her fingers pressing warmly into her seeing stone.  Nagendra introduces her dramatically, as he always does, and many from the village gather to watch her perform.  Darkness gathers together as she opens her eyes and watches the colors drift lazily around one another.  They sing a song that she impersonates, and the men of the village watch on in awe.  The women heed her warning and back away, calling for their children.

“Run!” one woman screams, and Nagendra looks at her suddenly.

“Enough,” he says, but Shri merely turns her dark eyes to him, her black irises expanding until they consume her eyes, seeing nothing but fire.  “Enough, witch!” he exclaims, reaching through the bars.

Shri snatches his hand, her other palm slamming down on the sphere, and Nagendra lets out an almighty roar.  None but Shri sees the flames eat away at his flesh, but when he falls, he is nothing but charred bones.  The bars of the cage begin to fall away, hot metal burning into the ground, and Shri does not stop singing.  The men cannot do naught but stare at her, even as she steps down from her old home.

She thinks of the tales of the dark witches roaming the lands without masters, the world theirs to destroy.  She thinks of all the power she might have, and she turns back to her cage, exhaling her song into the beauty left behind.  She breathes out ash, and Devika breathes in life.

“Witch,” Devika whispers as she slowly pushes upright, the cloak falling away from her.

“My name is Shri,” the witch says, and Devika smiles.  “Come, my little familiar,” Shri says, holding out a hand.  Devika takes it, allowing Shri to help her down from the cage.  When they turn, the men of the village have returned to themselves and are staring at the two girls in horror.  Shri lifts a quiet hand and exhales smoke.

——

She sees the world through opal eyes, and watches it burn.

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2 thoughts on “Hindu Fire – Mary Drover

  1. Things that ARE Working:
    – Imagery. The description of the magic, physical descriptions of people, emotional descriptions of people, sounds, smells… the imagery is definitely the strongest part of this piece. It’s so vivid I felt totally engrossed in every line, and almost every sense was engaged, which is so hard to do. Smell and taste, especially, are so often ignored, but you weave them into this piece as well and really bring the reader fully into the world.

    -Hot vs. Cold. The warmth of the fire’s magic paired against the cold winter of the dying village is really skillful, and it brings a very fresh take to a very tired trope. There also seems to be an alignment of fire with life and vitality, which isn’t necessarily uncommon, but fire usually is associated with death and destruction (which is what repels the villagers). The association of fire here with power and with life is a really interesting choice.

    -Music. There is so much singing in this piece, and I love it. There’s not enough music in literature. But more importantly, I love that the singing happens in conjunction with magic-making. It highlights the emotional power of music, and engages the reader’s auditory imagination as well as their visual imagination. I ALSO like that the music is not described, so that the reader is able to imagine for themselves what it might sound like.

    -Plot. The ending isn’t exactly a surprise, but that’s not a bad thing. This story runs much deeper than the plot, and so the fact that the reader kind of knows what’s coming is actually a good thing. It forces the reader to pay attention to other, more important things, rather than wondering what’s going to come next.

    Things that are NOT Working:
    -Wordy. Some sentences can get a little wordy, so there’s definitely some trimming on the sentence level that needs to be done. A quick example of this is in the second paragraph (first full paragraph): “When she inhales, it is with the taste of ash and smoke, and though it burns its way down her lungs, she takes it in gratefully.” This sentence could read something like “She inhales the taste of ash and smoke. Though it burns its way down her lungs, she takes it in gratefully.” Just to streamline things a bit.

    -The first and last sentence. I’m conflicted about this pairing, so it doesn’t necessarily “not” work, but I put it in this category because I’m not 100% about it. On the one hand, I like the idea of making the first and the last line of the story the same, and I understand the change to the last line. However, I don’t know that the change adds anything to the story, and I don’t know that it would hurt to add the “and watches it burn” to the first line. I’m not exactly sure what’s off, but I do know that last line didn’t punch me the way that it should have.

    -Shri’s magic. This part is works just fine, both in the beginning and at the end, but I’d like even more of it. More detail of what Shri sees and experiences, what is happening around her, and who she is sharing this vision with, would only enhance the reading.

    -Backstory? Not too much, because then it would get in the way of the story, but just a tad more backstory would help to invest the reader more in the characters. A little more on the background of these people, how they came to be together, what their relationship is to this village or country, etc., would give the characters more depth, and therefore give the reader more space to root for and/or identify with them.

    Like

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