Saanvi wiped a dirt-laden arm across her forehead to prevent the drops of sweat, pooling there and having an impromptu party, from entering her eyes. The sun blazed above her, and the heat was palpable enough to cut with a knife. The dirt and dust did nothing to help, lying in thick layers, not only on the tools and equipment lying around but upon her too, like an ochre veil.
She lowered her hand and looked with distaste at the muddy furrows etched in them, overlying the ugly scars, gifts from her husband Akshay, that crisscrossed the wheatish skin above her wrist. They reminded her of the tiny lines running towards a river on a map, of the kind she had frantically consulted before landing here. She had no idea where Gobekli Tepe or Anatolia was when she first heard of them. She had faint remembrances of the site belonging to Turkey.
It was her luck that she could accompany the team departing to examine the newly famous archaeological site of Gobekli Tepe, touted as the cradle of civilization, the first temple established ever. Her senior had contracted the flu at the last moment, and the director was not to let go of a paid seat unoccupied. She had jumped at the chance and had ended up here. It had been almost a fortnight of scrabbling in the dirt, her knees scabbed, fingernails thick with brown clay, and soiled hair mussed into a tangled mess. Yet she was happy.
"Tu meri zindagi hai…"
The ringtone shattered the quiet of the excavation site along with her equanimity. She put the offending device to her ears with shivering fingers and looked around furtively to see if the others had noticed. She was relieved to find that everyone had been subdued into a stupor in the afternoon heat and continued with whatever they were working on. Only Ahmet, the leader of one of the Turkish groups working on the site next to them, looked at her, concerned. She smiled at him to show she was fine and walked some distance away.
The shrill voice of her husband blared at her from the phone. The long-distance wasn't enough to dilute the venom of his words.
"You whore! Cavorting with dirt-loving bastards while I sit here alone. Why do you get to eat exotic delicacies when I have to make do with dal-khichdi? Thirteen days… How long can I eat food from outside? When are you coming back, you characterless woman?"
Her voice deserted her, as it always did whenever Akshay screamed at her. Was it the screaming or all the insults? She listened as he continued in the same breath for a few more minutes.
"Nothing there in the house for cooking a decent meal. Not even an extra packet of tea, and you think you are qualified for excavations of foreign sites!! Come back, and I'll carry out excavations on your ugly body.!"
She told him where he could find the spare grocery items and disconnected the call, feeling disconcerted. She took a few deep breaths to calm herself and gazed at the site stretching before her, the limestone pillars carved out of the mountainside and various sections supported with steel wires and canvas canopies. More mountains stood like silent sentries in the distance. Even the grass lay unmoving, undisturbed by the absence of any breeze.
As she turned back to go to the dig, she spied a goat kid running into one of the recently excavated caves, followed by a little girl. She shouted to let the girl know it wasn't safe, but she disappeared into the gaping maw as if she hadn't ever been there.
Exasperated, she hurried towards the cave's mouth. As she entered, a few stones dislodged from the mountain, disturbed by the unexpected movement.
That foolish little girl. This place will crash to the ground with only a few excited jumps of the kid.
It was not difficult to find them. They had kicked up a dust storm in the few minutes they had been inside and loosened more than a few rocks. She quickly herded them outside and found a plump middle-aged woman standing there, wearing a dark red loose-flowing gown woven with geometrical designs. The corner of her eyes crinkled in the heat, and a frown sat on her face dripping with disapproval. The girl squealed and hid behind Saanvi.
"I… she had gone in… it was not safe…" she stammered as she handed the girl over, having no idea if the woman even understood her. The woman took the girl's hand and walked away, the goat kid happily sauntering in their wake.
Strange woman. Not even a word of thanks. Well, at least there was no tragedy.
She went back to work.
The sunset over the distant mountains painted the skies in shades of tangerine, lavender, scarlet, and rust. It would be their last day here. Their team and the Turkish team were going for a stroll in the nearby settlement. She decided to join them. No use letting Akshay’s words rile her up.
They had dinner at a small cafe, sitting outside on quaint woven mattresses. Everyone enjoyed the kebabs, lentil soups, and the baklava ordered by Ahmet and broke up to shop for souvenirs.
She chose to wander alone through the little village square, gawking at the displays of beaded necklaces, blue carved tiles, and the amulets with the 'nazar' symbol that promised to avert the evil eye in the shops. However, she could feel Ahmet’s eyes following her. She felt out of sorts with the attention and never realized when she drifted away from the square. She ended up in a dingy lane, dark and narrow, where she found the same little girl standing by her side, smiling.
The girl tugged Saanvi into a shop, lit dimly by various oil lamps with metal bases of unknown origin, adorned with filigree designs, and without doubt, ancient. Bead jewelry shone dully in the shadowy interiors of glass cases, and woven baskets of various sizes and designs thronged the corners. Brightly painted ceramic bowls and vases of various shapes and sizes did their best to dispel the gloom. Saanvi stood gazing with wonder at the intricate handwork of a wooden chess set when the woman, who she had seen in the afternoon, bustled into the room from an inner chamber.
Saanvi looked up in surprise. The woman approached her smiling and said something. Saanvi, who only knew a smattering of Turkish words, shook her head. The woman persisted, and from her gestures, it soon became clear she wanted Saanvi to buy something. Saanvi refused as she didn't need anything and had no intention of haggling with someone who didn't understand her language.
The woman persisted and kept showing her ceramic bowls with pretty floral designs and carved wooden figurines. Finally, Saanvi, understanding that she could not leave without buying something, pointed to a beaded bracelet mounted on the wall in an old dusty case with a transparent cover. Enough dirt covered the surface to make the cover translucent, but the blue and green shades of the beads were visible even in the dim interior.
The woman hesitated. But then she lifted the case from the wall and, wiping the cover with a dirty rag, opened the box. Saanvi was dazzled. The bracelet was made of dense blue turquoise beads interspersed with silver charms of various shapes and sizes. She didn't examine them in detail, but they elicited a sense of disquiet deep in her bosom. Before she could wonder why, her eyes were arrested by the sparkling gemstone set in the middle. Even in the dim light reflecting from its surface, it gave the illusion of harboring hidden sparks deep within. She tried to determine the color and found it impossible to arrive at one. It changed color like a chameleon, from mint green to olive, from tangerine to fuschia to a deep purple. She had never seen anything like it before.
She lifted the bracelet gingerly from its velvet bed and tried to put it on her wrist, but the woman's look stopped her. With raised eyebrows, she inquired about the price, and the woman muttered an absurdly low figure in reply. Saanvi handed over a few lira notes from her purse and deposited the box inside.
The woman agitated, held her arm and spoke rapidly, but Saanvi removed her hands, gently but firmly. A little tug at her scarf made her look to the side, where she found the little girl standing. She looked scared but spoke in anxious bursts.
"Mother says the bracelet has been in our family for generations. She would not sell it if you hadn't saved my life today. It is both a boon and a curse. It imparts knowledge and wisdom to the one who wears it. But if the wearer uses the gift to hurt someone, it can harm him or her as punishment." She said to Saanvi in broken English, with many repetitions and backtracking.
"Harm?! How?" Saanvi asked. The little girl shook her head.
"But this is what I want." She affirmed. Before she could leave, the woman clutched her hand again. The girl again translated her mother’s words.
"You are good of heart. Use it for good."
"Sure." Saanvi agreed and left.
Saanvi stood atop a hillock, her fingers playing with the beads. The turquoise of the bracelet shimmered almost translucent in the sun, and the zultanite, as she had learned the center stone was called, shone like the sun itself. Busy men ran helter-skelter, trying to cart the treasures they had unearthed at the archaeological site; shining gems, gold ornaments, vessels of precious metals, and statues of importance. All that had been found because Saanvi had told them where and what to look for.
It had been a busy six months since she had come into possession of the bracelet. Once she was home, she had taken a good look at the ornament. She had been surprised to find that the charms which she had thought depicted some twisted vines were snakes instead, slithering and curling around the beads in some sinister design. The biggest of the lot was a figure with the head of a woman and the lower body of a snake. Instead of being repelled at this discovery, the expression on the woman's face intrigued her. The woman looked regal, and a calm confidence radiated off from her visage.
The first time she slipped on the bracelet, a rush of energy, thoughts, and information through her body and mind almost brought her to her knees. She had felt wise and knowledgeable beyond capacity. And then the miracle happened. Whenever she approached an archeological site, she knew exactly what would be found under the surface and where to look for important artifacts. It was as if the snake lady (as she called the figure) had agreed to give up her subterranean secrets to her. She had made good use of the knowledge, helping in the excavations at Chennai and Mizoram, and even wondered if there was more to know and learn. Presently she was in Hisar, Haryana, helping to excavate another site. It had been a successful excavation till now.
"That is Shahmaran. The queen of snakes. I hope you know that." A husky voice broke into her thoughts.
"Ahmet! When did you come here? What do you mean? I didn't get you." She felt out of sorts in the presence of her Turkish colleague, who she learned had come with a team to examine the Harappan site.
"That snake-woman figure in your bracelet. According to some Turkish legends, she was the queen of snakes who fell in love with a mortal. The man betrayed her, and she was killed. It was said she could bestow untold knowledge on those she chose."
"So, is she the secret behind your uncanny sense of exploration?" He teased.
Saanvi blushed. She was not used to men paying her attention. "The only discovery here would be that we are not attending to the work at hand." She took her leave, not knowing Akshay watched the two of them with murder in his eyes.
While she had done miracles professionally, her personal life had turned into hell. Instead of being happy at her success, Akshay had become even more bitter and abusive, finding solace in the depths of a bottle. He was soon fired from his job for his angry outbursts and erratic attendance. Holding Saanvi responsible, he made his sole purpose in life to keep tabs on Saanvi to the extent of even accompanying her to the excavation sites.
When Saanvi reached her tent, she found Akshay already there. One look at his pinched face and squinted eyes, and Saanvi knew she was in trouble.
"Bitch! Can't keep your hands off your colleagues, smiling and making eyes at them? Even when you know I am there watching you? If you can flirt openly in my presence, God only knows what you do when I am not."
"How lovingly you smiled at that Turkish bandit! Let's carve a smile on your face permanently."
He conjured up a knife from somewhere with a flourish and waved it at her face. Saanvi whimpered and begged, trying to convince him all the time she was not flirting as he thought.
"I believe you. But you should know the consequences if you even think of trying." He cooed and lowered his hand. Then, quick as a flash, he clutched Saanvi's wrist and slashed across twice. Saanvi screamed as blood erupted from her skin, which he dried with a towel he had with him. As he applied the bandage on her wrist he whispered, "Now both your arms look the same."
Saanvi whimpered with pain, but this time rage was mixed in it too. And not altogether her own. This rage was ancient, vast, and deep, and Saanvi felt she was drowning in it.
That night she dreamt of the Shahmaran. The beast-woman lay in a pit, her lower body coiled upon itself, as hundreds of snakes slithered around her. One of the snakes slithered around her wrist and dug its fangs into the alabaster skin. The woman stroked the snake even as the skin of her arm gradually turned blue. Saanvi felt her arm burn and found it was her flesh and not of the woman. Scared and in pain, she screamed while the snake-woman gazed at her, eyes full of compassion. Or was it pity?
When Saanvi woke, she knew what she had to do.
Snakes are present aplenty in any archaeological dig. Early morning Saanvi put out a saucer of milk outside her tent. The snake came for the milk but stayed like a loving puppy, curling on her braceleted arm like in her dream. She moved inside and released it on the bed where Akshay was still sleeping. He didn't even scream as the venom choked his arteries. The snake slithered away, its job accomplished. She had done it. She was free.
A month went by before Saanvi decided to resume work. Though she hadn't mourned her tyrant of a husband, pretenses mattered. She had spent each day on tenterhooks waiting for the punishment of the Shahmaran to strike her like a bolt from the blue. But nothing happened. Maybe it was all an empty threat to deter people from misusing the power the bracelet bestowed. Or maybe the snake lady had spared her.
It was a bright Monday morning. She put on a white shirt and beige trousers for her first day back to work. She left her ears and fingers bare but pulled on the Shahmaran bracelet before stepping out. Who knew if she would be sent to explore some site or not? After all, it had proved lucky for her so far.
A terrible pain ran up her arm, and the bracelet tightened on her wrist like a manacle, pinching her skin and twisting her flesh. Before her surprised eyes, the skin of her arm turned blue. Her hand felt doused in a fire. The pain was too much to bear, and unconsciousness arrived as a mercy.
When she came to, she was in a hospital bed. She threw the sheets with the unaffected hand and lifted the other one. What she saw shocked her. Her right hand, down from the elbow to the fingers, was now a charred remnant of bone with no flesh, black as coal, and shrunken like a dried mango seed. She stifled her sobs but her tears fell unchecked. The bracelet sat on her shrunken limb like a grotesque joke. A reminder of the price one paid for freedom. Always high.
“So I was right. The Shahmaran was responsible for your fantastic powers of exploration.” A familiar voice spoke. She wiped her eyes and turned to find Ahmet standing near the foot of the bed with a bouquet of roses.
“Why do you think so?” Saanvi asked.
“We've heard stories.” He paused, then muttered hesitantly. “He deserved what he got. What will you do with it now?” He motioned to the gruesome sight of the bracelet adorning her blackened hand.
“Wear it, of course,” Saanvi said as she removed it and held out her undamaged hand before Ahmet, bracelet in her palm.
“But what about…?”Ahmet didn’t finish the question, his eyes on Saanvi’s arm.
“I hope no one gives me a reason to hurt them,” Saanvi replied as Ahmet slipped the bracelet on her good arm. She lifted her hand and examined the trinket in the light of the sun rays illuminating her bed. The zultanite caught the light, splitting them into myriad rainbows, turning everything around her psychedelic.
Pic credit: Ellis Mbeku from Pexel.com