No Truer Shades

 

No Truer Shades

by R. P. Sand

First published in ParSec Magazine #6

Download the epub format at this link.

 

 

 

The end of the world doesn’t come once for me but twice. Once three years ago, the day Mother died. Once again, right now, as the roof collapses.

And as the roof collapses my immediate thought is: good riddance. This thought, of course, is promptly replaced by a considerable and familiar shame that hangs dark and heavy as the night sky above. Good riddance? Really, Cosmahria?

And then comes the panic. Because as I stand here on the terrace in my tenderly-loved, hodgepodge of a garden, a jumble of bamboo palms, peace lilies, spider plants, all manners of potted greenery that tremble with every resounding crash, I truly witness the end of my world.

My world is snugged into a corner of this terrace, a mere four meters from me: a single room apartment, the barsati of a low-rise Agra household. It is—was?—not only a home to me but a workshop. Mother’s legacy. The barsati is made of concrete and wood more faithless than its counterparts constituting the rest of the three-story building, and the buildings crammed shoulder to shoulder along the serpentine road. Which may very well be why its roof decided to give up.

Despite the panic, a thought as shameful as my ‘good riddance’ strikes me: how beautiful this looks, the end of the world. Though it takes mere minutes for the roof to fall in, the minutes are stretched thin into eons and before me is the most extraordinary tableau:

Spirals of resonant cerulean and pink smoke leap starward, released by thunderclaps of concrete and wood. Bubbles glitter silver and red under the moonlit haze, then pop like wayward firecrackers above the crumbling barsati. Otherworldly glimmers keen in and out of existence before dissipating, each spanning the entire color spectrum, shades upon shades upon shades. The result of shattering vials and jars and boxes of a poorly-stored assortment of decoctions and ingredients.

I am utterly transfixed by the roiling colours, but once they disperse, once the clamours quieten and I can no longer ignore the gravity of the situation, I slump. My knees scrape against the coarse concrete of the terrace.

This. This is what happens when a witch who is no good at being a witch tries to run a business. Has there ever been anyone as useless as me? Everything I’d worked so hard to preserve in Mother’s name, gone.

Gone. Gone. Gone. The word coils and sticks to my insides like a Sumerian slug and only a sharp nip on my left hand wrenches me free from the loop.

I yelp and look to the culprit at my side: my most audacious Yules, crouching alert against my legs, tail and back puffed in alarm. For all intents and purposes my Yules, short for Ulysses, appears an ordinary domestic cat with his cupreous coat baring stripes two shades darker. But he prefers baths over naps, snakes over yarn, and words over tuna, particularly adjectives.

“You didn’t have to use your teeth,” I say, but he looks pointedly from me to the broken barsati and back. “All right. Come, you vexatious thing. Let’s go see if there’s anything worth salvaging.”

There isn’t, really, I discover a short while later. We rummage through the disaster by the sloshing radiance of the garden lanterns I’d retrieved from among my plants outside. The rubble casts jaunty shadows on the walls. Thankfully, the walls are unscathed for the most part and it’s only the roof that has buckled; where the ceiling would have been is a tapestry of stars or what would have been a tapestry of stars had the city not succumbed to the ponderousness of civilisation. The moonlight is as mercurial as that of the lanterns.

My slippers are sticky with questionable liquids and glass fragments, scents that never should have been mixed clog my nose, Yules sniffs out smaller spaces as I haul pieces of roof to a corner, and through it all I explicitly ignore where I’d stored a little wooden box behind a kitchenette tile, daring to prolong hope that it remains intact.

What survive are the more robust tools like mortar and pestle, and a smattering of boxes holding common herbs. But the particularly difficult to procure items, the ingredients Mother had so painstakingly collected over centuries, like a bottle of original mulsum, the bones of a Tahiti sandpiper, caput mortuum, are destroyed.

As is my laptop, my one saving grace after Mother’s death. Mother and technology shared a deep mutual disrespect, and owing to her magical proficiency we never had need to move online despite the global sweep into the digital age. But it was the internet that allowed me to continue the business after she’d gone; where I lack in magical skill, I make up for in navigating the world of non-magicals. With my laptop destroyed, my only path forward is one of uselessness.

“Useless,” says a voice—my voice—right on cue. “Careless, contemptible, chuckleheaded, pah!” Damn. A part of me had hoped the mirror would be nothing but smithereens. The voice comes from beneath a concrete slab, onto which Yules promptly hops for some insistent yet nonchalant grooming. I’d smile had I energy left for amusement. Instead, I give his rump a gentle nudge, and rescue the heirloom in all its gilded vine-framed glory. My reflection crosses her arms, surveying the damage as I return the mirror to the wall.

“What was Mother thinking, leaving all this to you,” she says, not for the first time. “What were you even doing outside?”

Before I can point out she should be grateful that I wasn’t in bed when the roof caved in, that I suffered a terrible bout of insomnia and chose to wander among my plants on the terrace under the few brave stars that penetrate the city haze, her arms uncross and she assumes the stance and expression of a lost puppy. Her head jerks back in startlement, rattling the moon and star charms in the braids helixed into a bun atop her head.

It takes a moment to click that she is mimicking me, doing what reflections are supposed to do. And it takes a moment further to understand why: a seething Ishita stands at the door, her bed kaftan flapping in the wind, hair unkempt, a slight angle to her stance as if she had strained quite heavily to come up here.

“What!” the landlady shrieks. She pauses to catch her breath, to tug at her kaftan in the small, jerky movements of one who’d been startled awake. “What the hell is all this? What the hell were you trying?” She shakes a finger at me.

“I… wasn’t trying anything. The structure is old,” I say, but Ishita’s eyes narrow at the hint of accusation. “I’m, I’m sorry, I’ll fix it, it’ll be good as new, don’t worry.” I cringe at that last bit. Curse my quickness to take blame. Curse my incompetence. Curse my reflection because I know she’d smirk if she could. Curse curse curse how I continue to babble like a stream without a path. Floundering.

Ishita discards my apologies and promises of reconditioning, refuses to delay the next rent payment that I may divert what little I have to a new roof, and it takes every modicum of courage I can muster to remain standing.

It is infernally silly that a freshly minted grandmother with hardened features can render me vulnerable, seeing as I have decades upon decades over her. Shouldn’t I be the one shaking my finger? But in witchkind eyes I am nothing more than a youth, and in non-magical Ishita eyes I am an irresponsible, naive 29-year-old named Ananya.

The skin of this character fits uncomfortably well: I keep quiet at Ishita’s fusillade of rebukes and complaints, of how this space could be used for better things, why she still put up with me after Mother’s death she did not know, what good was magic these days anyway when people practically had the world at their fingertips?

The words prickle because they ring true, and as they grow in intensity I lose myself for a while, drifting away, away, imagining a place of white-capped trees under a swirling starry night, and her words slip over my ears like oil droplets on freshly polished glass.

 

#

 

There is much peace in silence. Quiet is a comfort blanket wrapped so snuggly the only thing left to be heard is colour. This is why I watch the sun rise: for a delectable few pigment-shifting moments the creaks and groans of the night fade and the city holds its breath prior to the cacophony of daylight.

The day’s first rays cast a muted, misty grey-crimson onto the silhouette of my neighbourhood and delineate the rearing majesty of the permanently scaffolded Taj Mahal beyond. For a few magnificent instants I can pretend, perched on the edge of the terrace with watering can tucked under my arm, that all is well in my world, that I merely watch the dawn before morning chores, that Mother sleeps soundly in her palace folded in space behind the red wooden door hanging by my bedside in our barsati, and that the red wooden door is not, in fact, smashed to bits by a collapsed roof.

What would I be doing on this normal day? I poke at fragments of memories, grasping for the insignificant things the mind shrugs away as mundane. Tuesday breakfasts: biscuits for me, dosa with monk eye chutney for Mother, Old English for Yules. Coffee with hibiscus and snake scale shavings if I couldn’t bring myself to venture out. Or elaichi chai from that genial aunty’s tea stall down the lane if it happened to be one of my better, braver days.

On those better, braver days we would linger at the kitchenette table, relishing in the tingle of elaichi on the tongue and the cosy warmth of the sweetened beverage. I smile at the recollection, and my eyes crack under the weight of salt cakes formed by a night spent alternately crying about the loss and obsessing over how better I could have handled Ishita’s confrontation.

The pretence I cling to that all is well flees as the sun creeps higher. The city stirs as it always does, stray dogs call to one another, the few remaining city koels chirp greetings, errand drones course humming from half-opened windows, automated hawker carts clatter down the road calling wares and political slogans alike in computerised voices.

The world carries on as if it hadn’t ended mere hours before.

Even the Taj emerges, a discordant yet triumphant yellow-white through the polluted sunshine, and where it was a glorious backdrop moments before, it is a heckler now. A reminder of what Mother said the first time we saw it, what I knew she thought any time her gaze fell upon it:

“We were great once, did you know that, Cosmahria? We were a great coven, walking like gods among the Pharaohs. We guided their pyramids, instigated conquests, squelched misbehaving civilisations. Had we remained as we once were, Shah Jahan would surely have consulted us rather than those white-shawl-donned twittering floozies. We could have conceived of something more magnificent than this, this, thing,” she scoffed at the Taj, tugging expressively on the black shawl framing her shoulders. “We were great once. And now look how we’ve dwindled centuries upon centuries down to…” She did not need to complete her thought; shame had already settled in my gut by then, an inseparable companion, and that shame was amplified by the contrition that I did not agree with her opinion of the Taj at all.

She was, however, right about our family, and about me. We’d dwindled centuries upon centuries down to a witch who cannot ignite a candle without a matchstick. Down to a useless girl who spent many hours straining to spark even the slightest glow of magic in her taupe skin and failing. Down to me.

It spurred much abashment that she was stuck with me.

I made up for my shortcomings by becoming excellent at mediocrities, the tasks that guarantee businesses run smoothly: chores, errands, accounts. I braved the markets of densely populated cities despite how jostling through crowds makes my skin crawl; I cleaned and folded and cooked and sewed, I fiercely suppressed my desire to spend a decade or two in peace and isolation where one could observe with clarity stars and cosmic phenomena—fiercely suppressed by finding solace in the moon and star charms I wore in my hair. All so her entire attention could centre on witching.

And our pockets grew splendidly heavy. Mother had a knack for adaptation as potent as her innate magical power, so business flourished where it should have tanked over the years as scrying gave way to video calls, tracking spells to GPS, cosmetic transformations to plastic surgeries. With Mother, we had no need for advertisement or the internet. There were always hedonists to indulge, a slighted lover seeking revenge, a zealous patriot who sought an extra oomph to a political vote.

Bustling cities make for opportune ground, as Mother liked to say. Even after her death I could scrape by in Agra, selling potions online that require no incantations or magical injections.

But without ingredients, I cannot do even that. With a collapsed roof and an unsympathetic landlady, where will I find the extra money to replenish my stock? What little I have left would hardly fetch peanuts, even my plants would barely cover a few meals.

I sink into myself at the intensity of my utter uselessness, and the now-risen sun mocks as it flares through the marketplace that constitutes the ground floor of the neighbourhood. I shake my head to clear my thoughts, and another sound is added to the overbearing hubbub of the rousing city: the rattles of the labradorite charms in my hair.

A thought is elicited by the sound and I furiously attempt to shove it away, pretend it does not exist. No, no, I cannot do this, I reassure myself, even as the thought comes again: perhaps I do have some items of worth to sell. A quick and easy way to salvage the scraps of my shattered world—Ishita had given me twenty-four hours to commence roof repairs or face eviction—and resume business.

The thought looms and loops at the forefront of my mind, and presently I cannot help but acknowledge it. I trace a regretful finger over the moon and star charms snugged into my braids. Well. Even if I let go of these, I’d still have my box, wouldn’t I? So… everything should be all right. Will be all right, even if I do not believe it.

I swallow a dry sob and grudgingly muster up the courage to check whether my precious box survived the disaster after all. With leaden footfalls I make my way back into the broken barsati. Yules greets me with a soothing rub against my shin, likely perturbed by the fluctuations in my heart. I pry open a kitchenette tile and just behind, in a square alcove, is a little wooden box, a whole wooden box. My breath catches in relief.

I lift the lid and drink in the familiar comfort of its contents: a bundle of papers, tenderly bound in twine, article clippings and photographs, of paintings and myths and explanations of… I cannot remember what it is called, any one of its wide array of names; those names are blurred not only in my mind but to my eyes as well. The pictures, however, are clear, and boast spirited shades of green and violet cast across crystalline night skies like some galactic painter’s magnum opus.

One has to travel to where it is very north and very cold, blissfully far from swarming city-life to witness this sublimity, the one thing I desire to see more than anything else in the world.

With none of its names at my disposal, I simply call it: the sky fire.

 

#

 

Every corner of the north has its stories about the sky fire, tales sparked in prehistory, inherited by generations, myths and lore to teach and delight. Each has its own shades and twists but the one thing they share is the indisputable majesty of the colourful cosmic performance.

Some tales speak of lit paths guiding heroes to great halls, others claim a warning of evil to come. Modern tales use a different manner of words, words like collisions and electrically charged particles. There are those who say the language of science dampens that of poets, but I disagree. How can one sing of heroes journeying among the stars yet not revel in how the sun sends pieces of itself to dance with gaseous particles in our atmosphere?

Every one of these stories is precious to me, and I like to think each holds truth in its own way.

The witches of old had a tale too. They believed the walls between the realms of magic and matter are thinnest where the fires appear, and that each witch no matter her allegiance should make pilgrimage to the north at least once in her lifetime.

The why of it was lost and the belief waned over time as beliefs are wont to do, along with much of the ancient witching language. That I discovered it was happenstance, when Mother had need of an elvish soul blessing for some client commission, about a month before we left Damascus for Agra.

There was a homely elf disguised as human who ran a library for non-magicals from an underground shelter, a library that not only shared stories but food and supplies for those in need.

Delighted to encounter others of the magical persuasion, he led us to a study in the back hidden from non-magical eyes. The room captivated immediately with its eclectic assortment of primeval gadgets, paintings, and sculptures, but what really drew my attention were the tomes that lined meticulously dusted shelves.

By then I’d learned to read the ancient witching script though I could not understand much of it, and devoured the books while Mother conducted her business. One book regaled of the sky fire not only in words but in tender hand-painted depictions spanned across entire pages.

It was in those moments that something snapped at my core, as if two magnets had come together. The feeling was not unlike that of the nostalgia invoked by a forgotten childhood tune.

I tore those pages and pocketed them just as Mother whisked me away, her skin aglow with freshly conducted magic, and I vaguely registered what I would much later recall as the limp figure of an elf left behind.

From then on, I couldn’t shake the sky fire from my mind; I’d realised at a young age that I seem to experience colours rather uniquely, and there was something in the iridescent sky fire that called to me, invisible puppet strings tugged by some benevolent puppeteer. I knew I had to witness this majesty for myself, as my ancestors once did.

I spoke so often of its beauty and my desire to travel north Mother would throw up her hands and wail, “Curse me for having named you Cosmahria! I should have named you Dirtmahria that your head remain on earth and be of some use to me.”

While I’d assumed many false names like Ananya over the years to blend in, the name given to me at birth is the only one I truly embrace. Cosmahria. The name is a marriage between modern English and the ancient witching language, and means One whose home is among the stars.

In those days I knew what the sky fire was called, its many, many names from different cultures, different centuries. That I lost those names was my own fault.

After a particularly taxing day with one too many city errands, I retired with gemstones from Mother’s rejected pile, endeavouring to carve moons and stars to bring the sky fire home to me since I could not witness it for myself. I settled for labradorite; the way mellifluous hues appear trapped beneath the surface made it an ideal candidate.

When Mother came looking for me, I enthusiastically displayed the wire-wrapped charms, but she slapped my hands away, reprimanding me for wasting precious time and resources.

“But you were to trash them!” I said, even as I recoiled from her displeasure.

I understood, however, how I’d offended her, how wrong I was. Pretty trinkets were not my place, there is a proper hierarchy to a coven, an order that must be followed. It was ridiculous that I thought to turn the charms into hair accessories when my own hair was short;  worn deliberately so back then, to ensure it would never grow beyond Mother’s black, silken mane of which she was very proud. One should be able to immediately identify the most important person in a witching family.

Mother’s glowers were punctuated by coos from the mirror that bore her reflection at the time. With hands on hips, her reflection crooned to her about ungrateful daughters. The comment stung more than it should have, and I blame the exhaustion of a particularly strenuous day for what came next.

I said: “Be grateful you still have a loyal daughter!” I knew the moment the words left my mouth I’d made a tremendous mistake.

Any reference to my older sister, no matter how slight, was forbidden in our household. My sister left one day and never looked back, rejecting our family and the glorious history that came with it. For many months after the betrayal, Mother was a shadow of herself, clawing at her chest and anguishing over the loss of her only magical daughter, her precious, precious star of a child. The day she returned to herself the two of us fed my sister’s name to Yules, that it be forever stripped from our vocabularies.

Mother did not react to my retort, did not say anything at all, which was much worse. Her complexion grew devoid of expression, her reflection remained still and silent as stone, and my heart sank.

I began to sputter, begging forgiveness, remarking on my stupidity and uselessness, but Mother simply turned to the red wooden door hanging by my bedside and pulled it open.

Where there should have been a wall was a cobblestone pathway cutting through grass and flowers and trees brighter than they had any right to be, down to a valley with a palace at its heart. She stepped through, steady and calm, and the door closed behind her with a soft click.

I lunged for the handle and yanked the door open hoping to catch the path but I was met by the wall as I knew I would be. Even the mail slot that occasionally appeared as a way to correspond with her when she was inside was nowhere to be seen.

I banged on the wall, screaming apologies, professing my love for her, banged until my wrists seared. Yules, who had dived under the bed the moment I’d opened my stupid mouth, reappeared and circled my legs.

It was three days before Mother returned. During that period I succumbed to a medley of discomforting emotions: frustration; rage; desperation. And my old friend, that very deep and smothering shame.

Despair negated my appetite, and even Yules seemed less than enthusiastic about the words I fed him from the dictionary I kept under my pillow, his ginger coat dull and whiskers limp. I longed for the slightest sign that Mother still loved me despite my having hurt her so very deeply. It wasn’t the first time I’d hurt her, and I could never predict whether she’d ignore me for days or months.

I flailed and convulsed in a pool of utter uselessness.

By the third day I could feel my body give up, and I expelled my last smidgen of energy on anger. I threw open my stupidly precious wooden box and screamed at Yules every last name on the clippings describing the sky fire. The words spilled violently from my lips, and Yules, my sweet, darling cat Ulysses, swallowed them all to save me from drowning in my own maelstrom of selfish, silly wishes.

I collapsed on the barsati floor, my bones and muscles feeling nothing more than a heap of burning sludge, I retched and sobbed because I regretted so wholly and so immediately giving up those names, how could I have been so stupid?

I curled into myself tighter than a foetus and did not hear when Mother opened her door. Nor did I hear her making her way across the room to me.

But when I felt her hands gently stroke sweat-matted hair from my forehead, it was as though stars illuminated a midnight sky, and the weight of torment fled my fibres.

“Oh my dear Cosmahria,” she said as I melted into her comforting arms. “My poor little dear one.”

 

#

 

Mother let me keep the charms, in the end. They soon became a comforting constant in a temperamental city, a kaleidoscopic world. Much has changed in the years I’ve spent in Agra. Navigating the streets once meant grappling with manually driven vehicles, crowds of people on bicycle and foot alike, hefty carts, shops that spilled out onto the pavement, the occasional cow. The noise cloud was fluffed with people out-shouting one another or honking their exasperation over something being in their way.

Now, I navigate a maze of errand drones, self-operating autorickshaws and hawkers’ carts, a handful of pedestrians. The noise still overwhelms but it is primed with buzzes and hums, blaring headsets over oblivious pedestrian eyes, computerised voices screaming enticing deals from shopfront screens, the honks of drones and automated vehicles that seem angrier at obstacles in their way than humans ever did.

The noise feels thicker to me than the polluted haze I push through, and I pull my black crocheted shawl ever tighter around my shoulders as though it were armour. I wear a mask over nose and mouth, to blend in, I tell myself, even though pollution doesn’t affect me the way it does non-magicals, and not because it feels an extra layer of protection. But the pedestrians I pass are too heavily absorbed in their own headsetted worlds, and I allow myself a splash of ease.

Only a splash, because my heart races tragically at the reason I venture out into this raucous jungle at all. I cling tightly to the bundle in my palms, and the moon and star charms inside clink together morosely. Every step towards their final destination is to me like moving through thistledown, and it makes being outside that much harder. My one reassurance is the feel of Yules’ eyes on my back as he watches from our terrace until I turn out of sight to the artisan square.

It takes a great deal of courage to push open the jeweller’s door and an even greater courage to slide my wire-wrapped charms across the counter to him. He raises an eyebrow as I attempt to let go, once, twice, thrice perhaps, until I feel self-conscious enough to get the deed over with in a quick, painful yank as one would an adhesive plaster.

“I would like to sell these,” I say.

The elderly jeweller’s eyes crinkle in smile as he examines them with a headset specially tailored to accommodate his methodically wrapped turban. I note appreciatively how gently he handles my treasures, like handling a newborn.

“You made these?” he asks.

I nod after a hesitant beat, anxious that I’d inadvertently lowered the price by my admission.

“You have good hands,” he says. I blink. “Very skilled.”

The words hang strangely at my ears but my shoulders unclench. I adjust my shawl unnecessarily and clear my throat, searching for words. Thankfully I do not need to find them; he continues to speak. “I cannot give you much, I’m afraid, but I will give you everything I can.”

Had Mother been here she would have him begging to give her more, handing over the rights to his whole shop, perhaps even his first born or his wife. But I have no such inclination, nor skill, and gratefully accept the paltry handful of notes he pushes across the counter. I leave with one last regretful glance towards my prized possessions.

At the door I feel a soft tap on my shoulder and stiffen in alarm, but it is only the jeweller, and I will myself to relax, at least a bit.

His eyes strike a smiling hazel as he gently pries open my fist and presses a moon charm into my palm.

“What—?” I begin but he shushes me, flicks his hand as though sending a child off to play, pointedly ignores my scramble to reimburse him for the charm, then closes the door once I’m outside.

I rush away, taking sanctuary in the empty steps of an abandoned corner shop, mind reeling, searching for all the sinister reasons the jeweller returned a charm. He couldn’t know that I am a witch, could he? Ishita is the only one in this neighbourhood who does, and even she is not privy to the extent of our kind, no non-magical is no matter how aware of us they are. Does he know where I live?

My thoughts run amok, but as I brace myself for impending doom, my mental trawl for possibilities comes up empty.

There… there is no reason for his gesture.

Well… there is one. Kindness. Simple, unexacting kindness.

I teeter, yet what comes over me is not dizziness but a lightness that feels altogether alien. The lightness of a feather on a gentle breeze in starlight.

With a trembling hand I return the moon to its rightful place among my braids. And when I step back into the artisan square and make my way through the street, I sense a shift in the noises around me. They seem softer somehow, gentler. Clanging still, and muffled, as though behind a foggy veil, but… more tender.

Smiling hazel eyes, a moon charm pressed warmly into my palm.

There are headset apps that transform surroundings so eyes can view a world with blue grass instead of green, pink skies instead of blue. In this moment, it is as though I wear a headset running such an app, and the street of now is overlaid with that of one years before. Before masks covered smiles. Before headsets and self-driving vehicles. When people would hang over their balconies, calling cheerily to their neighbours or dropping pieces of roti to the street to feed the stray dogs they unspokenly and collectively adopted. Stringing up laundry and sipping tea in the sunshine. When hawkers would show off their wares themselves and shopkeepers would compete for attention. When there were more smiling eyes.

Smiling hazel eyes, a moon charm pressed warmly into my palm.

I’d hated it, moving through the marketplace elbow-to-elbow with strangers, all the while thinking how inhuman it is to be in such physical proximity to another person. On some level I know I’d hate it even now, if the city reverted to what it once was, but somehow the jumble of inanimate objects and computerised voices seems worse. Colder.

It is so easy to lose oneself among a living crowd, but easier still to lose oneself amidst things not living. A colder invisibility. How I wish I wasn’t so quick to drag my feet during those earlier days, how I wish I had at the very least cherished being part of a living, breathing pattern if I could not be elsewhere as I’d wanted.

Smiling hazel eyes, a moon charm pressed warmly into my palm. 

A faded banner a few buildings down from my own catches my eye. I head to the nook it proclaims, a smile tugging at my lips. People once gathered in semi-circles around this nook, chatting among themselves as though they were old friends and not strangers.

I come upon exactly what I’d hoped to find: a tea stall, and at its helm a genial aunty. She is older now, stark highlights of grey in her hair, creases in her forehead and around her eyes, and her hands quiver as she pours steaming tea into a thermos carried by a drone. Another drone approaches her as I do, another order from someone sitting on a couch or at a desk somewhere, but she looks at me. A gleam ignites in her eyes though I doubt it is one of recognition. I idly wonder when she’d last met a customer face-to-face.

Smiling hazel eyes, a moon charm pressed warmly into my palm.

“Elaichi chai please, Aunty,” I say. From my wallet I fish double the amount necessary for a single paper cup of tea. When she objects at the excess, I shush her and flick my hand just as the jeweller did.

 

#

 

Mother was born during the declension of the Roman Empire, the death of one glorious thing giving birth to another, as she liked to claim. And I believed her, for she commandeered any room she entered, a magnet on fire in a world of moths.

She was invincible, immeasurable, inevitable, and a substantial part of me expected to be outlived by her, though I’d barely crossed a century alive. Which made her death that much more of a shock.

Mother was over fifteen hundred years old when she died—an above average life-span for witches these days, far less than witches of old—but it was easy to ignore her maturity; witches do not necessarily show age unless they mean to. This is ensured by the regenerative nature of our cells granting us super-human longevity topped with the ample magical solutions at our disposal. There are witches who take pride in wrinkles and warts, their vanity expressed by out-greying one another, but Mother delighted in her own smooth dark skin and hair that left people guessing at her age.

I believe Mother assumed as I did that she’d live forever. Which meant there were no preparations for the worst, no contingency plans or protocols, and I only got to know of her passing because my reflection replaced hers in the heirloom mirror. Presumably, she’d been asleep in her palatial bed.

That morning my world ended for the first time.

After tortuous days of grief and panic and despair, after I’d beaten bloody the wall behind her red wooden door, I cursed her.

I cursed her for not preparing me for her death, for not teaching me how to continue her magnificent work.

I cursed her for not casting a spell that would grant me access to her valley in an emergency. What had become of her body, her enchanted servants and lovers, the minute bubble of space that was not quite here on Earth and not quite elsewhere either? Damned if I knew. I hardly recall what it looked like; my being allowed visitation was rare.

The sole noticeable transfer to me upon her death was the mirror, a transfer as useless as I was. When my reflection appeared I’d expected her to be all smiles and compliments, perhaps an advisor, a true companion as Mother’s reflection had been to her.

But no, she glowered and accused and berated, and reminded me all too well of my incompetence.

It took me many, many weeks to become more than a mere shell of a person, though a part of me had died with Mother. What stirred my recovery was a keen determination to make Mother proud, to continue her legacy, nurturing it as I would a child, for I was the last of our proud bloodline. That the mirror had transferred to me and not my sister, wherever she might be, was a clear sign.

From the end of that world birthed another, in which I became a business owner, a legacy caretaker. We had a bit of money then, whatever of Mother’s I had access to in bank accounts and hidden slots around the barsati. It was how I could afford the laptop and the internet advertisements.

But now?

The world had ended again, and I have hardly more than what my charms fetched, no ingredients of worth to sell, no way to preserve Mother’s work. And an ordinary non-magical job is out of the question; Mother held a chasmic contempt for any witch who chose that path, and though she is no longer here, I cannot bear the thought of disappointing her.

I lie in my bed, pondering the open sky of a ceiling, watch the occasional airplane pass overhead in the hazy daylight. The warmth in my throat—the cosy aftermath of nourishing elaichi chai—provided a clarity to ponder solutions, temporarily staving off despair.

Perhaps a more humble but robust rooftop would be practical. I cannot afford a grand rebuild, but I’d witnessed smaller structures withstanding the elements rather remarkably in my time in this city, structures made of clay or cow dung cakes. Ishita may not like it, but it could work, and anyhow, truly pleasing her was as difficult as pleasing a guardian witch.

A snort tears through my contemplations.

“Cow dung cakes! What in the world have we become?” my reflection says.

“And what would you have us do? We can’t very well afford a gold roof,” I say.

She heaves a dramatic sigh and shrugs, fidgeting with the lone moon charm in her braided bun.

“I could always sell you,” I continue, and the lie feels good to say aloud despite knowing my reflection sees right through it. How could I sell the mirror? It has been with my bloodline for uncountable generations. Trust the one impotent witch in our family to let such a precious thing go.

“You’ve got that right, at least,” my reflection says. “The one impotent witch in our family. Utterly—”

“Useless?”

“Why, yes! However did you know what I was going to say?” My reflection howls as though she’s made the cleverest of jokes. Her dissolute laughter bounces wildly off the walls, sounding eerily close to Mother’s.

At the sound my muscles clench, as though my body remembers something just before a memory comes coursing to the surface of my thoughts. Of another time I was a target of such unrestrained glee. Of a party near Inverness when I’d just crossed into my second decade, newly initiated into witchhood.

The party was a celebration of the 200th anniversary of my sister’s initiation. My own had been hurriedly conducted a night before because all preparations were oriented towards this grand feast on a hill, the very place my sister had been initiated two centuries before.

Mother spared no expense, and even the most remote of acquaintances demonic, angelic, or fae were invited to this remarkable display of wealth and success, my sister the star focus. Mother fussed and fawned over her, reprimanding the slightest dishevelment in her hair, waving away my sister’s embarrassed objections at such excessive grandeur.

“Nonsense!” Mother said. “You are such a strong thing, so bright, so talented, it is my duty to show you off.”

Mother planned a demonstration of my sister’s powers to commence the feast, and I, the assistant, was to release a bowl of silver fire into the sky at a precise moment.

But when the fire was lit I was so mesmerised by the way the flames careened and tumbled and whistled in my hands that I missed the cue to release them.

I fumbled when I realised my mistake, and my dress caught fire. My skin was immune, of course, and I remained unscathed, but the silver flames devoured the black fabric of my dress. Our guests clapped and laughed as though I’d made some sort of delightful joke, genius entertainment, they said, genius! A tiny witch on fire. And they laughed and laughed and laughed and Mother had no choice but to mask her fury and mortification by joining them as they pointed and laughed.

Little me was devastated, humiliated, and wished fervently to sink into the ground or vanish into the sky, journey to a place far, far away, anywhere but there and—

Yules nips a hand and the memory disperses as quickly as it’d come. My reflection stops laughing.

“Thank you, my sweet,” I say, nuzzling his ears with trembling hands. I try to slow my breath, focusing on the stripes of his cupreous coat. “How… how about a treat?”

I sit up, pull the dictionary from under my pillow, and note with interest that though I tremble and sweat, I am steadier than usual when an unfortunate memory comes upon me. How strange. How lovely.

I leaf through pages, pointedly ignoring my reflection, eyes sliding over the blurs of words I’ve fed to Yules before. I search in particular for adjectives that I wouldn’t have any use for.

“Nary,” I tell him with intention. The word drips from my lips, rambles towards him, and he swallows it in a single gulp. Moments later I select another: “Otiose.”

“You cannot ignore the truth, you know,” my reflection says. “You cannot avoid the failure you are.”

I pay her no heed, focusing instead on the letters that slip through Yules’ tiny teeth. As the last one disappears, an idea occurs to me. One I should have had much, much earlier.

My reflection stirs in alarm at my thought but before she can open her mouth to object, I take Yules’ face between my palms, peer into his eyes and with all the intention in the world, say: “Useless.”

 

#

 

If one were to examine my life closely, the word triumph would play a scarce role. I have not accomplished much, nor do I have very many good ideas. And I can count on one hand the times I’ve made a decision that sets me in a mood that can only be described as resoundingly triumphant.

My adoption of Yules was one. Purchasing the laptop was another.

And… Now.

My head whirrs in a state of elation, a state more intense and tangible than the lightness I’d felt after the jeweller returned my charm.

My reflection, for once, has nothing to say.

Why hadn’t I thought of this before? To feed Yules the words my reflection so loves to use, to remove them entirely from my mind and memories so when she reaches for one she’ll grasp only emptiness.

I jump around the barsati with outstretched arms, fumbling like a newborn foal and much less graceful. I like to think I’m dancing. Yules scampers after me from bed to kitchenette and back, swatting playfully at my rolling ankles as though they are snakes. The thought of Ishita glaring at her ceiling, wondering at the ruckus, prompts a fresh swell of delight. She would be waiting for my solution, having given me twenty-four hours to set a plan into motion. But at this moment I couldn’t be bothered to spare a thought for her or how I’ll recover from the loss.

In my heightened state I recollect all the words that my sinister reflection has used before and shout them to Yules as he trails at my feet.

“Careless! Contemptible! Chuckleheaded!” The words slip away from me and twirl as I do, and Yules eagerly consumes them all. Words and words and words, an avalanche of words, my reflection growing more still and sullen with the loss of each one.

I land before the mirror, panting and grinning, and I relish in my audacity to shake a finger at her. How dare you my finger says.

Among the many things I love about watching the sun rise is how the world appears to transform in a matter of mere moments, colours and shadows setting life to rapid-changing shapes, as if one travels through snapshots of a hundred different places by simply sitting still.

As I shake my finger my reflection appears to undergo such a transformation and it is as if I see before me an entirely different person. Her fawny skin brightens, her eyes glint with fresh energy, and her smile, oh her smile! She… looks the way I feel. Triumphant.

“Hello, sweet one,” she says. I blink. My breath catches. I blink again.

She continues: “Why are you still here? Don’t you know what you can do?”

Huh? Don’t I know?

Oh. Yes. Yes. Of course. I laugh, slowly at first and then with abandon, throwing my head back, likely the first spirited laugh of my entire life. Of course!

What is a mirror but something that bears a reflection? And what, really, is a reflection? There is a part of me that is her; she is me, and she is what I believe.

With my triumph over the foul vocabulary my mind had the gall to hurl at me, with this newfound power, who was left for the mirror to reflect?

Ha! How fiendishly silly that the world had to end not once but twice for me to discover… her.

The one who understands, truly understands, that we. are. free.

 

#

 

It is little known among non-magicals that buried just beneath India Gate in New Delhi is a circular disk that allows one to journey instantly anywhere on Earth. Journeying is an expensive, risky magic not because of the disk itself but the witch who guards it. They say if a guardian witch is dissatisfied with the price you offer she will make you regret the day your parents first met.

Mother and I used the India Gate disk only once, and though I do not remember the price, I remember well Mother grumbling about it. Thereafter, on the rare occasion we required travel for business we stuck to airplanes.

But I make my way to India Gate anyway at the heart of the abandoned city, first by train, then by foot. I have a singular focus, and as I push through the smog cloud that clings to the ground—the inviolable fixture that forced the city’s denizens to evacuate en masse—bright anticipation pounds in my chest. The closer I approach the more my heart races, practically leaping from my ribcage as I spot the outline of India Gate’s lit arch through the stifling grey-black of a Delhi night.

Yules’ tail whips so wildly from his position around my neck that I have to keep pushing it from my face. I pull behind me a wagon that clanks on the cracked pavement. It carries all the survivors of the barsati’s death. Among them is a large, flat package carefully wrapped in bedsheets and twine.

What aren’t with me are my plants. The instant I’d made the decision to leave I stirred into action, almost frenetically, as if to make up for all the time I’d wasted being untrue to myself. I packed what I could, disposed of what I could, and my plants? Each one placed on a doorstep around Agra belonging to a person who’d exacted even a modicum of kindness to me over the years. There was a client halfway across the city who’d  let me experience the latest VR space opera game on his headset when I made a delivery. The tailor called Masterji who fixed Mother’s shawl when I accidentally tore it—for free when he saw how red my eyes were, how dark the bruises on my cheek, how I didn’t dare fix it myself. The genial aunty who made the world’s best elaichi chai. And a dozen more in this vein. My largest, greenest bamboo palm I left on the steps of the jeweller’s shop baring a simple, unsigned note: “For you, Uncle. Thank you.”

Come the time when Ishita would stomp and huff her way up the stairs to confront me about rebuilding her precious barsati, no trace of my having lived there would remain, save for the lack of roof and an envelope on a counter containing some money.

In a single step forward, just as the triumphal India Gate comes into view, the night and fog vanish completely, as though I’m no longer in Delhi as it is now, but Delhi as it once was, green under amiable sunshine. This is not a thing of headset apps or superimposed memories, it is magic, a perimeter laid around the Gate by the witch who guards the journey disk. No non-magical can cross it, and I suppose no matter how hard I am on myself, I am, at the end of the day, not a non-magical.

The witch is old and looks it, hunched in all black, a gauche face fettered by frown-lines and wrinkles, and warts that ought to win awards. She would take pride in how she looks, I know; a witch’s vanity manifests in curious ways.

With a sharp eye she examines the wagon’s contents I offer in payment, and any other potential journeyer would have the wisdom to be riddled with nerves. But I am steady as fairy breath; I have never been surer of anything in my life. I move as if through a dream because I am close, so very close.

It is the largest, flattest package that seals the deal. The mirror no longer carries my reflection, or any at all, I’d renounced it, made my peace and my farewell. The witch snatches it up most greedily, and not a single thread of regret stirs inside me, not a single pang, despite the embossed hieroglyphs that march up its gilded vines denoting just how uncountably many generations the mirror had been in my family.

The minutes that follow are quick and forgettable, her recitation of instructions, the way I assume the appropriate posture under the arch, preparing to speak my destination with the required focus and intention.

“Abisko, Sweden,” I say. My eyes close as I sink into the ground; I am ready. Ready ready ready.

 

#

 

I rise from the ground into night; silence and cold weave a blanket I have longed for my entire life. The encircling white-capped trees are as striking as I’d imagined them, the snow at my feet blissful and pure.

And the sky? Oh the sky.

It is night but it is not dark, for I stand under an extraordinary dome, of stars, of constellations, of nebulae, of what I imagine to be many, many other worlds. I’d known in my heart this smog-less sky would read crisp and true, but knowing and witnessing are two entirely different things.

The chirrups of the forest, rustling leaves, and the sheer colours of a glade unblemished by civilisation mark a striking contrast to the dissonance of a city.

I drink in a deep, clear breath as Yules vaults from my shoulders to roll in the snow, drink until my lungs threaten to burst. It is then I notice the forest too appears to be drinking in a deep, clear breath, and when I look starward once more I understand why.

It begins.

As though an invisible hand wields a supernal paintbrush, luminous pigments streak across the sky, of green and violet, of paint that lives. The hues skip and twirl to harmonised voices over an empyrean symphony, alive, alive, alive! They partake in a celestial ballet, and a pervasive story plays out above me, a story that began at the advent of time.

A story unfolding across centuries, of single-celled organisms and eukaryotes, of towering sandstone pyramids and a canvas expressing starry night.

Of smiling hazel eyes and nourishing elaichi chai.

How boundless this story of me, of we.

An understanding clicks, primal and intimate, that there are no truer shades than these: Cut are we from a singular fabric that folds itself into sweeping constellations, prismatic universes. Every entity who draws breath and even those that do not, creatures, stone, wind, all churned from a unitary pattern into this… thing we call beinghood.

Why then did I fear falling in love with being alive? The cosmos feel no shame in their expansiveness, in their taking up space, the stars do not fold into themselves and hide. Then why should I?

Twice, the colours seem to sing, twice it took your world to end for you to come find us. Look.

It is then I become aware my skin glows ripples of green and violet that mirror the dance above. Glimmering hues concocted by that same unseen painter.

And among these shades and in this moment I… I am become my name.

Cosmahria.

I stumble back, agape at my radiating skin, stretch out arms, turn palms in disbelief, stumble all the way to the ground till the snow offers a gentle seat. I gasp for lost breath and blink back hot tears, exultation resounding in my every cell because I am a witch, I am a witch, I am a true witch after all.

Yules clambers onto my lap and studies my face with unblinking globes of eyes. His mouth twitches, once, twice, and I make to reach for him when letters begin to spill from his lips and coalesce in the air. He… expels words? A thing I did not know he could do.

I jolt in recognition at the words, even as I notice his fur dull slightly at this regurgitation. Yules, my precious Ulysses, gifts me the unthinkable. All those names I thought lost to me, the names from every century and every culture of the sky fire frolicking above us. They return to me in glorious cascade, on and on and on until finally, the last three settle in:

Northern Lights.

Aurora Borealis.

And from the language of my ancestors: Daehs-la-mahria.

It means I am home.

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