Kalyani had to stop and touch the Jambu trees lining the road, each exactly twice, or else her insides would itch. She counted as she walked.
“Twelve. Fourteen. Sixteen,” she murmured, tapping the bark lightly with the pad of her index finger.
“Hurry up,” Aruni said.
Her brother was three years older and one hundred steps ahead. Kalyani was twelve. She could have kept up with him if it weren’t for the trees.
They arrived at school on time. Kalyani kept track of the sun’s position so she could pace herself. When they passed into the stone enclosure, she flipped her long, black braid to the front and stroked it with her left hand. One stroke for each step; one to sit cross-legged on the packed dirt; one for each of the students around her. The boys had their hair coiled in top-knots. She was glad to be a girl with hair hanging in reach.
The guru asked a boy to recite the Rig Veda from the fourth mandala and fourth hymn. Four by four was sixteen, one of Kalyani’s favorite numbers. She knew the words by heart: “Make your vigor like a wide spreading net. Go like a mighty king with your host following in the rapid passage of your march. You are the archer. Transfix the fiends with your most burning shafts.”
She had memorized all the Vedas. The guru stopped asking her for recitations years ago, around the same time the other children refused to play with her.
After their instruction was finished for the day, she waited by the road for her brother. Aruni stood near Urmila, his intended bride. He spoke to her at least four times a day at school. Sometimes eight. Never ten, not since the time Kalyani screamed at him for it. Ten was unlucky.
“Kalyani, want to come with me to the mango grove?”
One of the older boys stood in front of her and smiled with lots of teeth. Smiles were good. Aruni was always telling her to smile more often. But she wasn’t fond of mangoes.
“Are there birds?” she asked. Birds—and animals in general—were easier to understand than people. They didn’t make her insides itch with their gazes.
“Birds?” He paused, smiled wider. “Sure, why not.”
She followed him across the road and down a short path. A few other students were scattered about, always in felicitous groups of two. Several pairs had already been promised in marriage. She peered up at the leafy branches.
The boy’s arm wrapped around her waist from behind.
Kalyani shrieked and pushed him away so hard that he stumbled and fell. Her skin itched with the memory of his arm, and she couldn’t stop her shrill cries as she scratched desperately.
Aruni came running, yelling at the boy, asking him what he’d done.
“She followed me here,” the boy retorted. “Everyone knows what the mango grove means! It’s not my fault your sister is crazy!”
“She doesn’t like to be touched,” Aruni said. “Everybody knows that, too!”
Kalyani clapped four times and ran, the raised voices fading as she gained distance. The itch penetrated inward from her skin as she fled past the Jambu trees. The need to get home—familiar, safe—overwhelmed all other considerations. Her feet slapped on the dirt road—thwap, thock—even, odd. Her ankle bells chimed. Trink. Trank. She arrived at their house out of breath, remembered to step across the threshold with her right foot.
Chithra, the black cat, sauntered over and rubbed against her legs. Kalyani squatted and stroked her. The plush fur whispered, cool and silken, against her burning palm.
“One, two, three, four,” she whispered.
She forgot to count in pairs. The damage was done. Her insides crawled with itches she could not reach, but she kept petting, kept counting, hoping for relief. She was at two-hundred forty-three when Aruni arrived. It was not an auspicious number.
“What were you thinking, going off with him by yourself?”
“He said he would show me birds. He smiled at me. You said smiles are good!”
“Not all smiles are the same, Kala. How are you going to find a husband if you can’t even figure that much out?”
“Two-hundred fifty-seven,” Kaylani murmured.
Her brother sighed. Sighs were never good.
Kalyani settled on the dirt, curling her body around Chithra’s. She inhaled animal’s calming musk. People were too complicated, their gazes inscrutable, their touch demanding and fiery. Life would be easier if she could marry an animal.
Aruni fumed on the way to the cooking area in back. Someone had to prepare their afternoon meal, and Kalyani was useless when it came to housework, especially in her current state. Why did his sister have to be so strange? The adults in their village tolerated her fits, but their schoolmates had less patience.
He would be happier once their parents came home. Father’s latest play was being performed across the river, in the grand city of Prayag, and for the first time Mother had gone too, leaving Aruni in charge of their household. He was old enough, and he thought he would enjoy the freedom. He’d forgotten to account for his sister.
After he cooked the rice and lentil stew, he worked on his mural. The afternoon sun cast a pleasing, mellow light over the half-finished landscape. He frowned at the nearly-empty pot of red dye. It was the most expensive color, and Father wouldn’t be selling any of their cattle for months. How could he perfectly capture the setting sun without red?
His thoughts were interrupted by a man calling from the front of the house. A sage, clad in loin-cloth and a bead necklace, stood in the yard. White hair hung to his hips, and his beard reached the middle of his wrinkled, sun-browned chest.
They were used to receiving travelers—their house being the closest to the bridge from Prayag—but this was the first time with Mother away.
“Be welcome, sir,” Aruni said. He ushered the man onto their stone verandah and went to find Kalyani.
His sister stood by a tree, running her fingers along the back of a chipmunk.
“A traveler has come, Kala, a sage. With Mother being gone, only you can serve him.”
His sister followed him to the well where he washed a banana leaf and handed it to her along with a clay cup filled with water.
“I know what to do,” she said. “I’ve watched Mother.”
Aruni bit at his cuticles and watched from the back of the house. Light filtered through their thatched roof and made criss-cross patterns on the beaten dirt floor. A fly droned past his ear. He groaned as his sister served the guest half the food he had cooked, but the traveler’s needs took priority.
Sometimes a wandering ascetic was just that, but Aruni knew the stories. The more devoted sages had power given by the gods. What if Kalyani, with her strange ways, caused offense to someone like that? He wished that Mother were here to handle it.
The sage finished eating in silence. His sister sat and stared at nothing in her peculiar way. After Kalyani had cleared the meal and brought a wash pot, she knelt and prostrated to the sage. To Aruni’s relief, the old man smiled and said something to his sister. The words were too soft for him to hear.
Then, miraculously, Kalyani replied. The man spoke again, and his sister held out her hand. The sage put something into it. Aruni danced with curiosity, but he dared not interrupt whatever was going on.
The sage looked through the house, straight at Aruni, who stopped fidgeting. The man nodded in thanks and departed. After the traveler had passed out of their gate and turned down the road—toward their village and onward to the city, most likely—Aruni breathed a sigh of relief.
Kalyani hadn’t moved.
He ran to her. “What did he say? Show me what he gave you!”
She opened her hand. An iridescent black beetle nestled in her palm. Its wings shimmered with fern-like emerald and morning glory purple. The tail was a lighter color, almost clear.
“What is that for?”
“The sage offered me a boon.”
“A boon! Why?”
“He said that I was quiet and he liked not being chattered at.”
“You could have asked for anything, Kala! You wanted an insect?”
“I asked for a friend. This is a magic lightning beetle. His name is Mithraba. The sage said so. He said I can use Mithraba as a token of entry.”
Aruni snorted. A useless offer—their parents needed help at home. He couldn’t study art with the masters in Prayag, and Kalyani would never be sent to live in an ashram. He took the insect from his sister’s hand to examine it more closely.
“Don’t touch him,” she cried. She was scratching at her palm, and her ribcage swelled in readiness for a fit.
“Sorry! Here, open your hand!” He dropped the beetle into her outstretched palm, carefully avoiding contact.
She clutched the creature against her heart and ran into the thicket across the lane. Aruni shook his head. Why would the sage give her a beetle? Better that he’d cured her of this madness.
Kalyani kept Mithraba close over the next few days and nights, watching the lightning beetle’s glow. She decoded his yes and no patterns on the first night: Two light flashes meant yes; one was no.
At her request, Aruni had made exaggerated faces at her—happy, sad, angry—until she memorized those patterns. Mithraba flashed other patterns and sometimes beat his wings for certain counts, too. She wasn’t sure yet what they meant, but she kept a chart in her head of everything that she’d seen. She loved riddles.
Today was market day, which Kalyani normally skipped because of the crowds. Her skin would itch for hours afterwards, and she would sit near their well, scratching and screaming and dousing herself with water. With their parents being gone, though, she had to help her brother.
“Twenty-four. Twenty-six,” she murmured.
The Jambu trees dwindled to nothing at the outskirts of the village. If she could be a tree, she would rather be a fragrant Parijatha with its star-white flowers that only opened at night.
Night was better than day. Less light and sound meant less itching in her thoughts.
They arrived at the chaos of men, women, animals, and baskets. Kalyani’s skin tingled. She kept her braid in back and stroked Mithraba instead. She had tucked the beetle into the folds of her cotton sari, right near her breastbone. He liked feeling her heart beat. He flashed his tail four times to tell her so.
Their first stop was the coconut-oil maker. The woman smiled at Kalyani with red-stained teeth. The color was from the chewing of betel leaves, but if all smiles weren’t the same, what did this one mean?
Mithraba flapped his wings twice: friendliness.
Kalyani hazarded a quiet, “Namaste.”
The oil vendor kept smiling, but Aruni scrunched his brow. Was he angry or deep in thought?
Mithraba did five flashes and four flaps. It wasn’t a code she knew.
“I’m surprised you talked to her,” Aruni said when they walked on. He handed her the clay jar full of oil.
She made a note in her mental chart: five flashes plus four flaps equals surprise.
“Six, seven, eight, nine.” Kalyani counted the steps to the next stall. Unsettled by the odd number, she took a small step back. Nine minus one was eight. Much better.
They were at the venison dealer. He smiled, too. Mithraba flapped three times. Kalyani didn’t eat meat because it made her insides itch, but Aruni and her parents did. They never let it touch her banana leaves.
She was glad when they moved on. Fruits and vegetables were less itchy.
Voices clashed as vendors called out their wares. Cluck-clack, cried the chickens. A horse whinnied, and a goat bleated.
Kalyani’s ears itched inside and out. She was carrying too much to scratch them or to stroke Mithraba so she rubbed them against her shoulders.
Their pace slowed. They stopped, but not at a vendor. She lifted her gaze to discover that Aruni was speaking with Urmila.
“My parents want to speak to yours when they return,” Urmila said. “I think they want to set a wedding date.”
Aruni smiled. “At last! Mother and Father are due back in two days. I’ll tell them as soon as I see them.”
“Meanwhile Father is trying to convince my younger brother to become a well-builder, but he wants to be a cow-herder like you.”
“Really? Cattle are so tedious. If I could do anything, I would be a painter.”
Urmila scrunched up her face, and Kalyani glanced down at Mithraba. He gave her an unfamiliar pattern.
“I’m glad you raise cattle,” Urmila said. “I’d rather stay here and be close to my family than go live in the capital. Besides, you can still paint here.”
Aruni smiled. Happy, Mithraba indicated, but also sad. Kalyani checked her mental chart to confirm that she hadn’t made a mistake.
“I could study painting with the masters in Prayag if my parents had another son,” Aruni said. “Oh, you should come to the house soon. I’ll show you the new scene I’ve added.”
And then Urmila was looking right at Kalyani who immediately dropped her gaze. Eyes were like wells; they made her dizzy if she stared into their depths for too long. Urmila’s were particularly challenging, with their dark kajol outlines and shiny collyrium on the lids.
“How is that cat you keep, Kalyani? Has she had kittens yet?”
“No, it’s the wrong season for kittens.”
Mithraba was still and dark.
Kalyani itched everywhere. Urmila’s stare made it hard for her to breathe.
“I have to go home,” Kalyani gasped.
As she hurried away, Aruni apologized to Urmila. He did that a lot. She didn’t understand why. She glanced down, but Mithraba was no help.
Each day without Mother and Father had tested Aruni’s patience: with his sister, with housework, and with mud from the rains. He had to endure one more day until their scheduled return.
The trip to the market had gone surprisingly well. Kalyani claimed her magic beetle could help her understand people better. After yesterday’s behavior at the market, he was almost willing to believe her. His sister’s abruptness had startled Urmila at the end, but his betrothed was forgiving. She had to be if she was going to live with them as his wife, at least until Kalyani was married and gone.
Aruni’s shoulders ached and his palms chafed as he drew water from their well. The hempen rope was miserably wet, and mud coated every surface, making his feet slip on the stone steps to the house. He almost dropped the clay pot full of water. The rain was unusual for this time of year, and he looked forward to a bath in the cistern, which had been dry for weeks.
He heard his sister speaking. Had Mother and Father returned early? He strode through the house, heedless of the muddy footprints in his wake. Another wandering wise man—a much younger one this time, with black hair and smooth skin—stood on the verandah with Kalyani. She proffered a cup of water while staring intently at the beetle in her sari.
“Stay still! Don’t be afraid,” the man said, reaching toward Kalyani.
He plucked the beetle and crushed it between his fingers.
The cup fell from her hand, its coconut shell clacking as it rolled across the stone floor.
Kalyani collapsed on the muddy stone verandah and howled like the world had ended. Perhaps it had. The sage towered over her and frowned. Annoyance built on his face, and Aruni forced himself to move.
“I apologize for my sister, sir,” he said, raising his voice over hers.
“Why is she shrieking like a demoness?”
“That beetle was a pet, sir.”
The sage’s brow furrowed deeper. “I thought she was frightened of it. It was a well-intentioned mistake, but it’s only an insect. She can get another one.”
Kalyani clawed at her stomach. Her piercing wails continued.
“Will she stop?”
“I don’t think so, sir, not very soon.” Aruni felt near to tears. Kalyani’s distressing noise was bad enough, but now the traveler looked to be angry with them. “Might I serve you?”
“You insult me!” he thundered. “I would not be sullied that way, and I can hardly eat with this racket.”
Aruni fell to knees, touched the sage’s feet. “I meant no disrespect. Please—”
But the sage stepped away. He looked down at Kalyani. “Will you not behave, girl? Do you know what I think of such inhospitable behavior?”
Aruni trembled at the rage on the other man’s face. Please, merciful gods, let my sister recover! The unearthly shrieks continued.
“Then I curse this house. As you have rejected me from your home, so shall yours turn you out!”
He flung the beetle’s misshapen mass at Kalyani and stalked out into the rain. The insect landed on Kalyani’s outstretched palm. Her eyes snapped open, and she took a deep breath.
“Don’t cry,” Aruni said quickly. “I’ll burn it for you.”
The ritual honor and purification of fire was for family, but it was the only act of solace he could think of.
“No,” Kalyani said. “I won’t be parted from Mithraba.”
She popped the dead insect into her mouth and swallowed. “He’s mine,” she said as she stood and walked to the front gate. “Forever.”
“Where are you going? Didn’t you hear what he said? He cursed us! You can’t just walk away! Because of you and that damned bug of yours, we’re doomed to be homeless. Kalyani, come back!”
She crossed the lane and disappeared into a haze of rain and trees. Aruni smashed a fist against the stone floor and sat back. Rainwater soaked through his threadbare dhoti in seconds. He pulled up his knees and rested his head and arms on them.
I’m a man now. I can take care of everything, he had promised his parents. Don’t worry. We’ll be fine.
But they weren’t fine. He was only a boy after all.
Aruni sat on the porch until he was stiff and cold. A chill wind blew in as the sun set. He should have cooked some food, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the traveler’s words. What would it mean for them?
The day’s light faded behind dark gray clouds, and still Kalyani had not returned. Why did he have to be burdened with such a sister? His parents must have done something wrong to deserve a child such as her. Or perhaps it was his fault from a past life.
Mud coated his feet as Aruni crossed the lane. He had to bring Kalyani home before night fell. Familiar trails became strange in the half-light of dusk. Raindrops pattered on the broad canopies above him. Deep shadows filled every gap, but the smells of wet earth and greenery were rich and calming.
He tried Kalyani’s usual haunts first: the grassy stream bank where she liked to wash her feet; the glade of white-barked trees where she fed the chipmunks. His sister wasn’t anywhere he looked. Heavy drops tapped his head constantly, and mud sucked at his tired feet. Idiot girl. Had she managed to get lost? How would he find her in the dark? He glanced up at the gloom. If he didn’t find her soon, he wouldn’t be able to make his way home.
He continued on as long as he dared without seeing or hearing anything but ferns, trees, and water. With a sinking heart, he turned toward home. How would he explain this failure, on top of the others, to his parents? Every step felt like stone weights were tied to his legs.
I tried my best. It’s not my fault if my sister is crazy and gets herself lost in the jungle at night. Serves her right if she gets eaten by tiger! All this over a stupid beetle. Oh Brihaspati, please give my sister some sense, and holy Varuna, please stop sending us travelers until Mother comes home.
Aruni emerged from the forest. A glow lit the side of the house, beyond his line of sight. Had their parents come home at last? He quickened his steps across the lane. Was it a fire? But no wood would catch on such a wet night.
He rounded the corner and stumbled to a stop. Kalyani lay on the ground, covered in mud, a serene expression on her face. A spotted leopard stretched out beside her. Its eyes were half-closed as his sister stroked it from head to tail.
Her whole body emitted a soft yellow light. Wherever cracks of skin showed through the mud, she blazed. She looked as if the sun itself burned within her; like goddess Usha at dawn.
Aruni fell to the ground and prostrated himself.
“What are you doing?” Kalyani asked, sitting up.
“Paying my respects,” he choked out.
“It’s all Mithraba’s magic. I’m not holy.”
Aruni raised his upper body cautiously. “And the leopard?”
Kalyani’s hand rested casually on the animal’s back.
“Mithraba makes it easier for me to understand all living things.” She glanced at Aruni, then down to her chest as if the beetle still rested by her heart. “He says you’re afraid. I’ll ask my friend to go.”
She leaned and whispered into the great cat’s ear, which twitched once before the whole animal—nearly twice as large as Kalyani—stood, stretched, and loped away.
Aruni willed his heart to slow down. “What now?”
“I’m hungry,” Kalyani said.
“I … haven’t cooked anything. I was looking for you.”
“I’m sorry,” Kalyani said. It was the first apology he had heard from her. “I’ll make something.”
He was going to protest that it was too dark to cook and then realized the foolishness of his words. Light stood before him. He shook his head in wonderment. The Vedas told far stranger tales, but Aruni never expected to be living in one.
“I’ll cook.” He smiled. “But you have to light the way.”
Scrape. Scrape. Scrape.
Kalyani’s nails left red streaks on her skin as they scrubbed away last night’s mud. She was careful to use her four fingers, not the odd-numbered thumb.
Aruni stood next to her in the cistern, also washing. Her brother stretched his long brown limbs and smiled. Light pulsed faintly through the wet cotton folds across her chest: four times; his smile was happy.
Splash-splosh went the water as he waded out. Urmila’s voice called out his name.
“We’re in the back,” Aruni yelled. “Come around!”
Her brother’s future wife arrived breathless. Her skin shone with sweat. “The bridge washed out! The river water swelled and came rushing. My father told us. He was about to cross over to Prayag. He thinks the dam upstream must have broken.”
Too bad, Kalyani thought. She liked the bridge and its twelve stone pillars. It connected their village to the capital city where their parents had gone. Kalyani scrubbed the last of the mud from between her toes.
“How is he?” Aruni was saying. “Anyone hurt?”
Kalyani climbed out of the cistern and walked toward the house to put on a dry sari.
“A few people.” Urmila lowered her voice. “Three of them died. They blame her.”
Kalyani stopped. Aruni and Urmila were looking at her, and their gazes made hot spots on her skin.
“What does the bridge have to do with Kala?”
“A sage came through the village yesterday. He was so angry, Aruni. He told people that your sister is cursed.”
Kalyani’s insides began to itch, and a scream built as the sensation became unbearable. She dropped to her hands and knees and screamed, but no sound emerged. Light spilled from her open mouth. It pooled on the packed dirt and then vanished like water being sucked into the ground.
“What is she doing? Is it true, then, what he said?”
Kalyani clutched and clawed at the burning in her stomach. Tears of pain dribbled off her chin and fell as glowing drops.
“I—I’m not sure. She’s become something strange. Full of light. That can’t be bad, right? There was another sage, before the one from last night, and he gave her a lightning beetle as a boon.”
Kalyani’s palms flashed thrice. She felt five wing-beats against her breastbone from the inside. Aruni and Urmila were sad and frightened. Or maybe she was. The itching abated.
“Never mind, Aruni! It doesn’t matter who did what. Look at her! If the villagers see that, I don’t know what they would do. Please, you have to take her and leave before they get here.”
First Mithraba’s death, and now this. She couldn’t swallow everyone she loved.
Wing-beats drummed a complicated pattern inside her. She recalled what the old sage had said when he handed Mithraba over. Would he honor his token if it was a ghost within her?
Aruni’s heart nearly stopped at Urmila’s plea. “Take my sister and go? Aren’t you coming? You’re my bride!”
“I can’t.” Tears trailed black kajol down her cheeks. “We’re not married yet.”
“We’ve promised ourselves to each other. We can get married somewhere else, in Prayag maybe. We’ll find my parents there. They’ll help.”
“You’re asking me to leave my family with no assurances? I can’t do that! My first duty is to them!”
Aruni balled his hands into fists. Mother and Father were gone. He was being turned out of his home. Kalyani had become something unearthly. Urmila was all he had left, and she was abandoning him, too.
“Fine, we’ll go,” he said. “Run off and tell the ones who are coming for us.”
“Don’t be like that! I came to help you.”
“Thank you,” he said. He folded his hands and bowed formally. “I’ll handle it from here.”
He ignored the stab of guilt at Urmila’s devastated expression before she turned away. He couldn’t afford softer feelings now. Kalyani alternately vomited light and stared at her hands. As usual, she was no help. He stepped around her and gathered a spare dhoti, his paint pots, and brushes. What else should he take? He’d never been beyond the village limits. How was he supposed to know what to do?
A small, cool hand rested on his bare shoulder. Startled, he turned and saw his sister standing behind him. Touching him. Light leaked faintly from her eyes, nose, ears, lips.
Kalyani walked away, her anklets tinkling. He stared at her back for two astonished breaths, then grabbed the cloth bundle and ran after her. Why not? If she was touched by the gods, perhaps she had an idea of what to do.
They headed toward the river. Sunbeams reached the treetops, outlining the leaves in gold. The forest birds cried out in a raucous chorus. Faint human voices carried through them. Aruni looked back, but the villagers were out of sight.
“We should move off the road, Kala.”
She nodded and took them on an overgrown forest path. Ferns brushed their legs. Vines drooped with aromatic white and yellow flowers from above. A faint, warm mist formed as the day warmed, and Aruni began to sweat.
Then he smelled smoke.
He climbed up a tree. Smoke rose in writhing columns from the thatched roof of their home.
“The house is burning,” he said.
“And the fields?”
“They will catch soon.”
Kalyani dashed through the undergrowth.
“Wait for me!”
Aruni scrambled down the trunk. He caught up to his sister at the wooden fence that enclosed their pastures.
“What’s the matter with you? When you first got that beetle, I thought it was going to make you normal, but you’re crazier than ever!”
“Mithraba is still with me, and I will always be myself.” Her eyes glowed. “We have to save the cattle. Help me!”
The half-rotted planks came loose with a few hard tugs. Kalyani ran through the gap. His sister’s whole body glowed by the time they reached the herd. She whispered into a few rounded ears, then headed back the way they came. He followed her, as did the cattle, their musky bodies pressing into him. His sister led the way through the broken fence.
Kalyani motioned him into the cover of the forest. The animals lowed and squeezed through the gap, a few at a time, until more sections splintered from their bulk. Father’s wealth ambled away in front of their eyes, and Aruni could do nothing to stop it. He should have remembered the cattle. He should have come up with a better plan to save them, hidden them somewhere that they could be found. He hadn’t meant to become such a disappointment.
The line of flame was visible now, a flickering orange-red that answered the steady glow beside him.
“They’ll be safe,” Kalyani said. “We should go.”
They reached the river south of the collapsed bridge. A bend in its course hid them from view and blocked the great city of Prayag from their sight. Aruni examined his body and pulled off several small leeches. His sister was untouched.
The red clay of the riverbank stretched ahead for several strides before it disappeared into the placid green water. Here and there, a nubby gray-green snout poked above the surface.
“We’ll cross here and then walk to Prayag,” Kalyani said.
“Have you lost your mind? Even if we could swim the entire width, those gharials would eat us alive.”
“No, they won’t.”
Kalyani tied her sari between her legs and waded into the water, her glow visible in spite of the blazing sunlight. The brilliant combination made him squint.
His sister held out her hands and waited until two snouts nosed against them. She reached past the rounded tips to stroke the long, straight sections of the gharials’ muzzles. Then she walked slowly backwards, leading them out of the water.
Aruni’s throat constricted as the two enormous reptiles emerged. Each was at least three times his height in length, much greater than a crocodile. The narrow snouts with bulbous caps made them easily distinguishable from their cousins.
“They’ll carry us across.”
“You … want to ride … on these?” he whispered.
Kalyani frowned. “You’re afraid.”
“Look at the size of them! They could break our legs with one bite.”
His sister cocked her head. “They’re my friends now. They wouldn’t do that.”
Aruni rubbed his temples. Should he listen to her? His sister was a child. She might have inhuman powers, but that didn’t make her wise. He closed his eyes against her dazzling form so he could think.
“It’s too dangerous,” he said. “We’re better off going further down river where no one knows us and where we might find another bridge.”
“The sage said Mithraba is a token to enter his ashram. We’ll be safe there. I can study. You can paint. We have to gather Mother and Father first. We have to go through Prayag. This crossing will take us almost as close to the city as our bridge.”
Her words were surprisingly sensible. Kalyani would make a good scholar, with her near-perfect memory and skill in mathematics. The ashram might welcome his Father’s play-writing skills. Mother could help tend their garden.
And he would have the freedom to paint.
If only Urmila had come with them, it would have been a perfect situation.
Smoke blew from the forest’s edge and made him cough. The crackle of flames was close enough to be audible. What choice did they really have?
“Holy Varuna,” Aruni prayed, “please give us safe passage across the river, through Prayag, and to the sage’s ashram.” He turned to Kalyani and nodded. “I’m ready.”
With a mixture of terror and awe, he climbed astride the closer gharial. Its back was hard and scaly but also warm and solid. As they swam into the river, he twisted to watch the shore recede. They were leaving the only home they’d known.
“Mithraba says you’re sad. Is it because of Urmila?”
Aruni breathed into the sudden tightness of his chest.
“I liked her, Kala. I thought we would be happy as husband and wife. I’m sad about losing our home, too.”
“So am I.” She paused. “Maybe you’ll find someone to marry at the ashram.”
“Who could be as wonderful as Urmila? I would like to fulfill my duty as son, if I can, to have a chance at a good rebirth. Maybe I can come back for her somehow.”
“I won’t have to marry there. I’m glad.”
He realized what should have been obvious. “It would be impossible for you to do what marriage requires, wouldn’t it? You’d have to let a man touch you.”
“I might be able to now, with Mithraba’s magic, but I still don’t want to. I expect to fail at that duty. Perhaps I’ll be reborn as a beetle.”
“Maybe you already have.”
Kalyani smiled slightly, as much as she ever did. She began to stroke her gharial’s back with her index and middle fingers.
“Two. Four. Six,” she murmured.
The familiar litany brought him comfort as he turned and faced forward.
Kalyani counted to four thousand ninety-six, an auspicious number. She stepped off the gharial into knee-deep water and whispered her gratitude to her friend. Aruni followed her lead, climbing from his with care.
The ground rose ahead of them and became a tangle of green just beyond the riverbank. The walked up to the edge of the forest and looked back, across the river. Smoke billowed in great clouds from the far side. Small figures stood on the shore, but she couldn’t tell who they were.
Next to her, Aruni frowned and moved his hand to shade his eyes. Leeches dotted his legs with fat, black oblongs. Mithraba’s wings beat within her. Her brother’s posture reminded her of a wounded animal, and Kalyani reached out two fingers, stroking the back of his neck. Light seeped from her skin into his. The corpulent worms fell from her brother and crawled away.
Aruni sighed. With Mithraba’s help, she knew it was good.
They turned east, toward Prayag, and walked. The city’s jeweled spires rose from the river’s edge like one of her brother’s paintings come to life. His steps whispered against the grass. Shish. Shush. Her ankle bells rang in answer. Trink. Trank.
“We can’t go into Prayag with you glowing like this.”
“I don’t know how to make it stop.”
“What if we cover you with mud, like you were last night?”
“Or I could wait at the edge of the forest, while you get Mother and Father.”
Aruni shook his head. “Too dangerous.”
“Not if I make friends first.”
Mithraba drummed against her breastbone. Tawny eyes outlined by black glinted through the undergrowth. She extended a hand toward them. Light blazed from her fingertips and palms. The grass rustled and then bent as a full-grown tigress pushed her way through, exposing long whiskers and a trim of white fur backed by orange and black stripes.
Aruni hissed. She touched her other hand to his arm. A throaty rumble emerged from the tiger as it nosed her knuckles. She stroked between its ears with two fingers.
“We’ll wait here for you,” she told her brother. “She’ll protect me.”
Aruni placed his large hand over hers with the weight of a feather. “I believe you.” His voice was low but steady. “When we reach the ashram, I’d like to paint you—that is, if you don’t mind.”
“I would like that.”
“I’ll return soon.” The grass whispered as her brother moved away.
A Jambu tree rose from the undergrowth and cast an inviting circle of shade. Kalyani’s fingers twitched. Her palms tingled. She opened her mouth and expelled a rush of air, like blowing seeds from a puff. Light floated away in a cloud of breath, her discomfort going with it. One more riddle solved. She took eight steps to the tree and sat at its base. The tiger lied across her feet. She reached up and tapped the tree with one finger, two times, for the pleasure of it.