The magic of the Visupada* (autumnal equinox) was in the air. Trees danced in the breeze, birds chirped from their nests, stars sparkled in the inky sky. Dressed in dark robes, a woman rushed through the woods to the tree that carried her child.
It was a strange land where humans mated under a tree they chose. The tree would then conceive, nurture and deliver their child in the form of a fruit. Of course, there were too many rules to avoid confusion and maintain harmony. But, women like Kamana still existed.
On reaching the mothering tree, Kamana saw what she knew all along- the fruit wasn’t ripe yet. Taking the dagger from her robe, she looked up at the sky. In the other hand, she held a phial of red liquid. It was time; the magical moment of Visupada night.
In one practiced movement, she cut the stalk. The fruit fell to the hard ground and cracked open. Inside it was a baby the size of her palm. Kneeling, Kamana fed the liquid to the blue child, watching him (Oh, it would be a him) turn bigger and pale. He let out a wail loud enough to scare the animals around. A black, squiggly tattoo decorated his right wrist. It was shapeless. Kamana wasn’t bothered. So what if her son did not have the stamp of his mother tree on him? He would soon be the ruler. He had to be different from the others.
Kamana felt a sense of exhilaration watching the child kick his feet. She was successful in achieving something no one ever did. The child from a forcefully cut fruit never survived. It was just one of those various rules to keep humans from acting out on their greed. Picking him up, she walked away dreaming about the day she would own the land, Guhya. Her son, she decided to call him Dahana, would conquer Guhya. The curse of the man whose blood flowed in the veins of her son was forgotten.
Far away, on the other side of Guhya, a lush fruit gently fell onto the soft grass below. A middle-aged couple stood nearby weeping with happiness. They finally had a child of their own. After years of expecting in vain for any of the trees to give them a baby, they visited the local sage who advised them to request the Sarga* (Nature) for a boon.
“Do you know what this means?” Ganith asked his partner.
She nodded and kissed the soft curls on the baby’s head. “He will have magical powers. We only wanted a child, Sarga blessed us with a great one.”
“It is a responsibility, Pankti. Remember, he belongs to Sarga.” Ganith told her.
A sigh escaped her lips. The boy waved his tiny arms at them, drawing attention to the star-shaped tattoo on his right wrist. He blinked and stared at them with emerald eyes that shone with intelligence.
“Let’s call him Sirak,” Pankti whispered.
Five years later…
It was the longest day of the year. Sunsets on the Uttarayana* (summer solstice) evening were mesmerizing. Almost everyone stood outside their modest homes or at the hilltops to watch the sky turn golden red. In the vana* (forest), a tree gave birth to a baby girl (it would be a girl) as the last rays of the sun bathed her in golden light.
No couple was present to claim the baby. She cried, her sweet voice rising an octave higher each minute. Minutes passed into hours. No one appeared. It was rare that people did not pick up their children. In a world where birthing was not a common phenomenon, people hoped to have their share of time under the trees to produce a child.
A child born in the days of the equinox or solstice were gifted with powers that made couples yearn to have such a baby. That was why every tree had a different time period for conceiving and delivering the baby (one of those rules again).
An old man walking that way heard her cries. He squinted to take a look at her when she tugged at the end of his robe with her tiny fingers.
“Arika, you decided to be my child, didn’t you?” He whispered, the wrinkles of his face curving into a smile. With the stick in one hand and the child in another, he started to his hut, two cats and three dogs following him.
Ten years later…
The unconscious body of a young boy lay on the ground. A well-built teenager kicked it in disgust.
“Dahana! We need his blood.” Kamana snapped from behind.
He resisted the impulse to wring her scrawny neck. Of course, she’d be tracking his every move.
“Sorry, maa.” He lifted the body in his arms. They would carry him to their home where the blood transfusion would take place. His usually pale skin was turning blue by the minute.
“Be careful,” Kanama said, urging him to walk faster.
Why did they have to wait till the last minute? Oh, yes. His mother was searching for the person with magical powers so that he, her son, would be free of the curse. Imagine a father cursing his unborn child. Dahana knew it was because of Kamana.
She followed, noting the angry carriage of Dahana’s shoulders. Kamana wished he’d stop hating her. Was it wrong of a mother to want her son to become the ruler of Guhya? So what if a few people lost their lives in the process? People die someday or the other, don’t they?
No, Kamana wasn’t wrong. She mated with a visupada born man. She wanted his powers for their child. Then, she stabbed her lover in the heart and used his blood to revive the son she forcefully hacked the fruit from the tree.
With the dagger in his heart, he cursed her and the child. “Your wish will not be fulfilled. My blood will poison his body inch by inch.”
She laughed it away until Dahana started to turn blue when he was six months away from his fifth birthday. He began to grow weak and slept most of the time. Frantic, Kanama searched for ways to keep him alive. She couldn’t take him to the healers. One look at him, they would notice he was a force-born. It meant death for her and Dahana. She was not going to die until she achieved her goal.
“Maa, open… the… door.” Dahana’s grunts brought her back to the present.
She rushed into the room and lit the lamps. Dahana placed the body on a bed and went to lie down on the other. He knew the process by now. Kamana gave him a potion. He gulped it and drifted into sleep.
Kamana attached a hollow stem to the dead body’s arm with the help of a wooden needle. The tube was connected to a jar. Through it, the blood flowed from the young boy to her son. It would last for another four and a half years. She was going to have to find a boy born on the Visupada and use his blood. Until then, Dahana would have some of his father’s blood in him. The curse would continue to loom over his head.
Fourteen years and eight months later…
The birds chirped, monkeys squealed, squirrels squeaked, and rabbits danced. In the center of the circle was a young lady, her long ebony hair adorned with fragrant flowers. She wore a top and a dhoti that allowed her to run and climb the trees.
Searching for some tasty Rasbhari, Arika filled the basket she carried in her arms. Arika skipped home on the usual path, hoping she wasn’t going to be late for lunch. Baba must be waiting for her. Halfway, she heard a cry for help. Closing her eyes, Arika focused on the sound. She sprinted, racing faster than a gazelle through the thick vegetation. A lion cub was wounded by falling from a tree.
“Oh, you poor little thing.” Arika cooed, cradling the cub. She used the leaves from a medicinal bush to make a paste and applied it on the wound. With one last pat on its head, Arika started for home the second time. By the time she reached, baba was in conversation with a stranger.
“Come, my child. Meet Pankti.” He gestured.
Arika bowed to her in respect.
Pankti smiled. “Maggalam Bhuyat*(God Bless you).”
Arika noticed the agony in her eyes.
“They killed Ganith, my partner. Sirak, our son, vowed to take revenge. Now, he is in danger too.” Pankti sobbed. Baba consoled her.
“What danger?” Arika asked.
“His life is at risk,” Pankti replied.
Baba spoke. “You have to find Sirak and save him.”
“I can’t leave you alone, baba.” Arika hesitated.
“I’ll be fine. It’s your destiny, Arika. Go.” He urged her, knowing it was time for Arika to take up her role as a protector. She too was the Sarga’s child.
“How does he look, maata?” She asked.
Pankti gave her a rough description of Sirak and told her about the star tattoo on his wrist. “I promise to stay here and take good care of baba. Please bring back my son to me.”
It was night by the time Arika reached the center of the vana. Baba told her it was where she would find the answers to her questions. The moonlight guided her, its rays playing hide and seek through the trees.
Arika thought about the time she met five siblings from the same tree. The tattoo on the wrist was an identification. The relationship between people was based on the tree they were born rather than the parents. It was an easy way of identification.
Arika had a lotus on her wrist, which glowed. Baba told her it was because she was a blessed child. It was a powerful gift. Suppressing a sigh, she halted under the tree hidden by the thick bushes. There was a red tattoo on the trunk that indicated the tree was nurturing a life inside. Arika knew she did not have a sibling.
“Sirak, where are you?” Arika whispered, knowing she wouldn’t get any response. She would continue her search the next day.
The morning sun peeped through the treetops, gently kissing Arika’s soft skin. Her hair, which was twisted into a bun came loose. The strands teased her face, dancing in the warm breeze. Arika sighed, stretched and slowly opened her eyes. She could never wake up in an instant.
Yawning, she felt something wet touch her feet. It was a rabbit, playfully nibbling her toes.
“Aww, my cutie.” Arika murmured, rubbing her nose on its silky fur. “Take me to a lake.”
The rabbit clucked and wriggled free. Arika followed, brightening up as the deer, porcupines, and monkeys darted around her. The vana was her love. Nothing made her happier than roaming with the animals and treated the wounded ones. Baba told her the importance of letting Sarga run her world without interference. The life cycle and food chain had to be balanced.
Arika saw a disheveled young couple laughing and walking away from a tree hidden in a small groove. Smiling, she hoped they would be blessed with a baby. When she was young, Arika wondered why some trees were protected by thick vegetation. When she asked a couple, they blushed. The woman told her that it was to ensure privacy to the mating couple. They had their own homes, but if they wanted a baby, the couple had to take a bath in the lake and find a tree to bless them with a child.
Arika was fascinated by the wonders of Sarga. Growing up in the lap of the vana was a gift. Not once did she regret staying from the small colonies that surrounded the vana. She frequently met people, made friends and had fun playing with the other kids. It was rare for any animal to attack a human, especially a child.
For Arika, Sarga was one big family with few shadows lurking around. Baba made sure she understood the presence of evil. As a gifted child, she would soon be part of the teams which worked round the clock to keep Guhya free from darkness.
A quick wash in the pleasant lake rejuvenated her. She found some berries for breakfast and gobbled them up. It was time to search for Sirak. Half an hour later, Arika was scanning the ground in excitement. Beside a bush, she found signs of a struggle and drops of blood. Nearby, there was an irregular track of broken rice. The ants were devouring the rice when Arika followed what looked like a clue to her.
She found herself in the darkest corner of the vana. Arika plunged into the thorny plants noticing blood drops at random places. Whoever it was, did not surrender. Despite being morning, there was hardly any light for her to see and gauge her surroundings.
Depending on her instinct, Arika reached a wooden cabin. It was the size of her home- a ten by a twelve-foot rectangle. A sudden sound made her dive into the bushes. Dressed in black robes, a person walked out of the room and went into a bigger house a few feet away from the cabin. Arika released the breath she was holding. The presence of evil was strong.
Arika tiptoed into the cabin and shut the door. The sight shook her. A large man lay on a bed while a teenager and a young man were on the floor. Stems were attached to all three of them. The smell of blood overpowered her senses.
As she went closer to the young boy, her foot hit the man on the floor. He stirred. The faint glow from the earthen lamps helped her identify him.
“Sirak!” She whispered and shook him. “Wake up!”
He groaned. Arika covered his mouth with her palm and pulled out the wooden needle that was bleeding him. The action jerked his body in pain.
“Shhh! I am here to help you. Can you stand?” Arika whispered.
He nodded and took her help to stand. Pain exploded in his head and his right arm. Blinking, he saw a beautiful young woman with concern etched on her features.
“Who…” He trailed off when she glared to be silent as she checked the pulse of the teenager. “He is no more. We have to leave.”
Sirak tried to pull his sword from the hilt. He would kill the man who was responsible for ruining many lives. Taking a step forward, he swayed.
Arika caught Sirak before he could crash to the ground. He was heavier than she expected. Shaking him did not give her the required result, so she decided to drag him one way or the other, away from the dark place.
“Bhalu, help me, please!” Arika called.
In less than five minutes, a bear arrived and picked Sirak’s unconscious body. It hefted him onto the shoulder and nodded at Arika.
She smiled. “Thank you.”
Arika sat on the floor beside Sirak. He lay on a straw mat with a wet cloth to his forehead. Outside, the sky was filled with dark clouds. Pankti cooked them a simple meal of roots and leafy vegetables. They ate in silence.
“There’s a storm brewing,” Baba said.
Arika nodded. “Sirak is going to wake up any time now. Maata, please keep the broth ready. He had a significant amount of blood loss by the time I reached the place. He will need to regain his strength.”
She looked at the star tattoo on his wrist. It had a faint glow while her lotus shone brightly. As he recovered, the tattoo would regain its lost shine.
“Baba, will he lose his powers because of the blood loss?”
“Why do you ask?”
“His tattoo is dull. It indicates his powers, right?” Arika replied.
Baba shook his head. “No, vatsa* (child/dear). It’s not his blood that has magic. Every cell in his body is equally powerful. Also, he is training for the Rakshak team, according to his mother.”
Arika was curious. “What’s that, baba?”
“It is one of those teams that keep the criminals under control. After your twenty-fifth birthday, you will get to meet the leader and train for one such team.” He explained.
Before Arika could ask more, Sirak moaned. The three of them moved to his side checking his pulse and keeping his hands warm.
“Sirak, vatsa…” Pantki whispered.
He slowly opened his eyes. “Maa… Sorry…”
“You are alive. That’s enough for me.” She turned to Arika and gripped her hand. “Thank you, vatsa.”
Sirak’s gaze slid from his mother’s face to her hand. He noticed the tattoo on Arika’s wrist. “Lotus girl. You…” He gulped. “Help.”
Baba decided they had enough conversation for the time being. “Pantki, feed him the broth and go to sleep.”
Arika had a lot of questions, but she knew she had to wait till the next day.
“Dahana stabbed my father in the border of the vana. Papa found out that he was the witch Kamana’s son and they were killing young boys for some reason.” Sirak was still a bit pale.
Pankti added. “I asked Ganith why he was worried. He was adamant to tell only Sirak. Our son rarely gets to come home.”
Arika wanted to know why Sirak did not ask for the help of his team.
“This is my revenge. It took me three months to find their location and observe their routine. Our Guruji found me lurking around the dark vana and warned me not to go in alone. I do not have enough training, he said.” Sirak replied. He regretted losing conscious when Arika saved him. Maybe, it was time to admit needing help.
Turning to Arika, Sirak spoke. “Guruji told me I wouldn’t be able to defeat them without the help of a lotus girl. I was too arrogant and angry to heed his advice. Now, I realize the truth of his words. The mother-son duo has to be stopped.”
Arika wasn’t sure. She was a novice. He has had four years of training. “How do you know it’s me?”
Sirak pointed to the tattoo on her wrist. “You may not be aware, but you are the only one alive with that tattoo. Guruji keeps track of all the children… He looks a lot like baba.”
Baba said in a soft voice. “Arika, healing and protecting animals is just a part of your responsibility. Go with Sirak. The thunderstorm will help you win.” There was a spark in his eyes.
Sirak offered Arika his sword. “We always carry two of those for tricky situations.”
Kamana was fuming. How could the man escape? She tried to get his blood directly into her son, but Dahana’s body withered in agony. She was forced to use the teenager’s blood to dilute the power and moderate it. As ever she left to bring the special concoction for Dahana to drink after he woke up. By the time she arrived, the man was gone.
“First, he attacked me. Now, he escaped.” Dahana glared at his mother. “I will kill him with my bare hands.”
Kamana paid no heed. A sudden thunder shook the house. She looked at the sky through the window. The storm has arrived. She had another plan ready.
“Dahana, we need a young girl for sacrifice. It should happen exactly when the sky and the earth are connected by the longest lightning.” She ordered.
“That man…” He stopped midway and walked out of the house when she threw a pot at him. Once she got him the powers, he’d snap her bloody neck.
Now, where was he going to find a young girl immediately? The lightning began to strike with increased frequency. No one would be roaming in the vana. And, he was forbidden from entering the colonies; another curse because of his mother. That woman was evil through and through.
“Shhh! That’s him.” Arika whispered, pulling Sirak behind a huge tree. They were soaked by the lashing rain. Each flash of lightning and the following thunder resonated in the vana. They reached the clearing when Arika spotted Dahana stalking.
“Where’s the woman?” Sirak spat. He toyed with the small ring he found beside his father’s body that day. No one wore gold jewelry except for the witches.
“Wait. They are up to something.” Arika insisted when Sirak took a step ahead. Just as she spoke, Kamana arrived dressed in white robes. Her hair hung loosely over her back. Dahana removed his tunic and placed it on the ground. He managed to find a little girl who was rushing home.
“A child sacrifice!” Arika gasped and rushed forward with Sirak at her heels.
Dahana saw them. Pulling his sword from the hilt, he raced to meet Sirak halfway. Arika ran towards Kamana who was casting a spell and held a dagger in one hand. Her head was thrown back in concentration.
Arika raised her sword high when the lightning struck, blinding everyone. A stark white line connected the earth to the sky. She felt the sword in her hands vibrate with energy.
Kamana opened her eyes and stared. She paused a split second, horrified at the power radiating from Arika. It was a fatal mistake. Arika plunged the sword through the woman’s body. A shrill cry shook the land. Mixed with the rain, dark blood that was almost black in color formed a puddle on the ground.
Dahana and Sirak were engaged in an intense battle. Dahana did not even turn to look at his dead mother. He wasn’t bothered. Arika lifted the little girl and laid her under a tree. She noticed Sirak’s slowing movements. He wasn’t fully recovered and needed help.
“Sirak! Take this.” She threw the sword at him. Dahana tried to intercept and snatch it. But, he miscalculated the distance. The sword went right through his throat. His face contorted with horror.
Sirak pulled it out and stabbed Dahana’s heart. The man collapsed to the ground, his body turning blue as the blood drained from him. Sirak raised his sword again when Arika stopped him.
“Your father is avenged. He is dead.” Sirak stared at her. He then threw the gold ring on Dahana’s lifeless body.
“Your tattoo is glowing in green,” Arika told him. He carried the little girl while she walked beside him holding both the swords. She wanted to carry the girl but agreed when Sirak insisted he’d do it. He was simmering with rage and holding a child would calm him.
“Yours is red. It looks like an alipriya* (red lotus).” He murmured.
They handed over the child to her worried parents. Arika made sure the girl was conscious before leaving for home. Baba and Pankti would be anxiously waiting for them. The storm continued to lash, though the two were not bothered by it. Sarga always protected its own.
On Uttarayana evening…
“We welcome you to the team, Arika.” It was none other than her Baba who blessed and gave her the sword.
She was stunned to realize that he was the Guruji. Sirak grinned. He guessed it some time ago. Arika was happy as she could continue to live with him and make new friends. Her birthday gift was the same sword which killed Kamana and Dahana.
Sirak did not want his mother living alone. So, Pantki decided to live at the sage’s ashram and care for them.
“Go. Start practicing.” Baba, the Guruji ordered Arika. He would train her to be his successor.
Arika smiled at Sirak and the others. She was a part of the Rakshak team and the Ausadha* (Medicine) team. Arika loved every second of it. She would safeguard Guhya under the guidance of Baba and with blessings from Sarga.
Author’s Note: The author gives her heartfelt gratitude to Shankar Hosagoudar for patiently listening and suggesting as she dumped various ideas on him.