A flash of whiteness in the dark, almost like a yank through the cosmos, and yet Sara had seen it. She had caught the figure in her tar coloured eyes, only for a moment, fleeing across the throng of night green.
She pushed the blanket aside quietly, careful not to disturb Mathai, and slowly got off the floor. She considered waking him up and asking if he’d like to come along but decided against it. He wasn’t as brave as her and he was a boy after all. What if she decided to take him? Or hurt him? It was best to do this on her own. It would have to be a solitary adventure.
She had to be quick too, or the figure would be lost forever. As softly as she could, she unlatched the wooden door and pushed it open. She was sure its moaning creak would wake both Mathai and Ammooma, but they lay motionless, deep in sleep. Sara thanked the old gods; she was going to make it. One last look at them to make sure they were still asleep, and Sara rushed towards the kitchen at the back of her house.
Another latch pulled back, the timber screamed into the void, and Sara stepped out into the back veranda. Chinnu was sprawled out on the parapet wall, a remnant of the flash in the dark. Sara eyed the banana leaves swaying in the night breeze, scanning them intently for a clue. Maybe there would be another flash of light, a reflection off her. The only guide at present was the full moon, as uninhibited as her. She stared past the cow shed, with pregnant Rani as unbothered as Mathai and Ammooma in it, and into the horde of cricket noises, trying not to be fooled by the moon’s tricks.
She thought back to the legend, the story that had built it for her, to the words that Ammooma had so often obliged to recite to Mathai and herself.
She would always whisper towards the end so as not to anger Sara’s father. He let Ammooma indulge his kids through her stories, or as he put it, her delusions. He loved her just as any other son would but found it hard to reconcile with her beliefs – prayers and thoughts – he shared with her until he had found the new god. “Tell them what you want,” he would say, “but they are only stories, not the truth.”
Sara found it hard to side with her father. She believed the words that Ammooma said. She could sense the belonging of those stories, they were just as much of her country as she was, irrespective of the changing world around her.
“The old gods are like us, they don’t claim to be perfect,” Ammooma would say. “They made mistakes just like us, oh, so many mistakes. It’s only for us to learn from though, only for us to know that mistakes are meant to be made.”
Mathai would always nod aggressively, eagerly lapping up every word while Sara observed intently, only her eyes moving in rhythm to the words of the legends.
“They can be good, and they can be bad. Sometimes, extremely bad. Those are lessons too. Those are the gods that teach us the most of them all. The ones that make the biggest mistakes, the ones that act without concern. They are the ones that show the truth of the world, like Moha, the abandoned goddess.”
Mathai would always perk up like Chinnu, their eager cat, at this moment, knowing well that Ammooma was about to indulge them in another one of the stories from her roster. Moha’s was one they had heard many times, one that Ammooma especially loved retelling.
“Moha was Goddess Sneha’s sister, the Goddess of Love,” Ammooma would say. “Moha’s realm was like that of her sister’s but divergent. She was the Goddess of Passion. The Goddess of everything that burns inside you, the essence of everything that drives you”
Mathai’s nods would at this point get even more rigorous. “Like how I love Chinnu,” he’d say, as he squished their old, white cat.
“Yes,” Ammooma would agree, “but also much more.”
“Much more,” Mathai would respond.
“Incidentally, Goddess Moha was God Ona’s partner, the God of Desire and well, uh, other things,” Ammooma would say, always seeming to leave out a little piece of the information.
“What other things?” Sara would ask.
“Things in relation to your body, things that your body needs to thrive.”
“Yes, and more.”
“That’s another story, not this one,” Ammooma would always say, ending the interrogation. “Now, since Ona was the God of Desire, he could have anything he wanted in the universe. Anything he could dream of was his, except another’s desire for him. That is not something you can demand. It must be fostered, nurtured through love and time. This is what he desired most though, another being’s desire for him”
“Didn’t he love Goddess Moha?” Mathai would question innocently, even though he knew the gruesome end that awaited her.
“Oh yes he did,” Ammooma would say, “but he wanted another, desired him more than anything else.”
“Who?” Sara and Mathai would utter in unison.
“Bharatha,” Ammooma would declare, “All he cared for was Bharatha, a human, an ordinary, unattainable human. Tragically, Bharatha was already married to and in love with another, Mira. God Ona knew there was nothing he could do for or ask of Bharatha that would make him want to be with the God of Desire, for his heart was with Mira. So, he hatched a scheme, one where he offered Mira a boon. He tempted her with a wish, one where she could ask for anything she desired, and it would be hers. In return, he wanted Bharatha to spend every night of the full moon with him and want to do so.”
“Did Bharatha agree?” Mathai would whisper. “And what did Mira wish for?”
“Mira was just as in love with Bharatha, as he was with her. She feared that if she denied the God’s offer, he would cause trouble for them both. She knew what had to be done. She convinced Bharatha to make good with God Ona’s offer and in return demanded that for every night that he spent with the God, he would get to ask for one thing in return. Mira didn’t want anything for herself, she only wanted to ensure Bharatha’s safety. So, after the first full moon night that Bharatha spent with God Ona, as per Mira’s direction, he wished for the God of Desire to protect him from any harm that could befall him from the Goddess of Passion. He wished for security from the wrath of Goddess Moha, if she was to ever know of the illicit affair. Ona granted his wish and Bharatha returned to Mira.”
“It’s almost like Mira knew what was going to happen next,” Mathai would exclaim.
“Almost,” Ammooma would say. “She was cautious but not enough for herself. As Mira had feared, Goddess Moha saw Bharatha leave her partner’s abode after the second full moon. She was furious, for she knew Ona was prone to decisions based on want, and not honesty. She confronted him immediately and sadly for her, he denied nothing. Goddess Moha threatened to kill Bharatha, but Ona made it clear that he was bound to protect him; that she would have to get through him to lay a finger on Bharatha. Humiliated and heart broken, Moha left, vowing to herself that she would get revenge one way or the other.”
“It’s not her fault,” Sara would say. “She’s in the right and yet she’s the one who gets banished.”
“You’re jumping ahead, darling,” Ammooma would say. “The story isn’t really about right and wrong but how we have to live with our decisions. Once we set out to do something, we need to be ready to meet all the monsters along our path. Sometimes, like in the case of Goddess Moha, it can lead to cataclysmic repercussions. She knew there was nothing she could do to Bharatha as he was well protected. There was only one other thing she could think of. Bharatha had stolen Ona from her, even if it was for only once every full moon night. She was gong to take something of Bharatha’s.”
Mathai would exclaim out loud, knowing well enough what was coming next.
“Bharatha had saved his second wish as per Mira’s request. He was to save all the remaining ones until the right time. The third time the full moon rose, Bharatha said his goodbye and left to meet Ona. When he returned, all he found was Mira’s lifeless body. Goddess Moha had exacted her revenge. She had taken Bharatha’s heart.”
Chinnu would grow tired of Mathai’s love at some point during the retelling and meow loudly, escaping into the swarm of green outside the veranda.
“Distraught, Bharatha went to the God of Desire, pleading to him to bring Mira back to life. Ona told him that it wasn’t something he could do. He wasn’t a god with that kind of power. Bharatha even tried demanding it as his second wish, but Ona reminded him that he could only grant him things within his power. Driven by anger and resolution, Bharatha demanded to know who had committed the heinous act. Ona had no option but to reveal to him that it was Goddess Moha that had killed Mira. Bharatha knew he had one last wish left and so he made it.”
Mathai and Sara would huddle closer at this point, getting ready to hear the culmination of everyone’s fates.
“Ona had to help Bharatha, he had to keep his word. Late night, after Goddess Moha had fallen asleep, he let Bharatha into her home. He had given Bharatha a magical knife, one that could end a god’s breath. He had left out a single detail though, one that Bharatha hadn’t known – you can never truly kill a god, not in completion. You can only take away their current form, their present life force, which would surely manifest itself in some other way once extinguished. Bharatha, oblivious to this, shoved the knife deep into Moha’s heart and watched the light disappear from her eyes. She lay motionless, her beauty transcending death. Then, to ensure Ona would cause no more pain to any of them again, Bharatha took his own life.”
“It should have ended there,” Sara would say. Mathai would nod in agreement.
“Ona’s omission bore truth. Moha’s spirit reincarnated into Ekshi, the white clad hunter. She was just as beautiful as before, but now driven by her hunger for vengeance. Realising what had happened to her, and subsequently Bharatha, she marched into Ona’s dwelling. She asked him to repent and he did, more so out of fear than love. Ekshi could sense the horror within Ona, born out of dread for himself over anything else. She walked up to him and opened her arms. Ona moved into her embrace with a smile, albeit cautiously. They stood in embrace for what seemed like an eternity and a moment, as time sped and stood still. Then Ekhsi’s fangs slid out without a sound and drained Ona of his being.”
Mathai and Sara would stare at Ammooma then, their eyes gleaming with amazement. No matter how many times they had heard the story, she always made it special.
“Since Ekshi had taken Ona’s life force, his soul was in limbo. Neither was he gone, nor could he come back. He was caught within his schemes, his lust and within Ekshi. She refused to let him go, promising to forever hold him captive. No amount of convincing from the other gods, including her sister Sneha, could convince her to do otherwise. They convened and decided to banish her to the mortal realm. They sympathised with her, but knew that a decision had to be made.”
“It really isn’t fair,” Sara would whimper.
“To this day, Ekshi is said to roam our lands every full moon night seeking out men like Ona. Men who thrive on lies and deceit. Once she finds them, she drains them too and adds them to her collection of trapped souls. As for Ona, he still hasn’t reincarnated and there is no one to guide us through our desires. There is no being to govern our wishes and wants, which is why they cause us the most pain in life. Our lives our still affected by his mistakes and compounded by our own.”
Sara had almost fallen asleep in the veranda, lost in her thoughts, until Chinnu noticed something amongst the trees. She stood up, alert and ready to pounce. For a while, nothing happened and then, as suddenly as before, there was a flash of light. Chinnu darted into the darkness and Sara followed her.
She cursed herself for not having brought one of the torches with her. As soon as she was out of the field of dull light emitting from the cow shed, there was nothing but the moonlight to guide her. Chinnu soon disappeared into the mass of dark green but Sara kept moving forward. These fields of grass weren’t alien to her. She knew every tree and flower that stood there. She crept through the darkness, determined to catch at least a glimpse of Ekshi.
Sara tread through the thickening bushes, resolute in her belief that if she could catch hold of Chinnu, she most probably would get a sight of Ekshi as well. She scanned ahead to see if any of the tall grass was moving against the breeze, if any of the flowers were trampled by old paws.
There it was again, right in front of her. The dash of lightning sped past her, a tiny mouse, glowing in the darkness. It was unlike any other that Sara had seen, white as snow and eyes the colour of the ocean. Though she saw it only for a moment, the image was stamped into her mind. She stared at it in disbelief, only to be startled again by Chinnu who was chasing the gush of light.
Was this what she had seen through her window?
A glowing mouse, a freak of nature wandering through the field?
Sara decided to chase behind them and in haste missed to see a broken branch in front of her. She tripped over it and landed on the grass, sending a swarm of insects flying out of her way. Sara knew the chase was lost again. It would require luck once more to catch hold of the mouse or Chinnu. The chances of her seeing Ekshi seemed bleak too, like the fantasy of a child.
She pushed herself off the ground and debated whether to return home.
Sara heard the leaves crumble under something heavy. She turned around to see the silhouette of a tall figure behind her, clad in something darker than the night. The only feature she could make out were the heavy, round glasses perched on their long nose. The spectacles were so big that they seemed to cover most of the person’s face, the glass reflecting the moonlight.
Sara felt unease creep into her. She readied herself to bolt through the bush.
The light off the glasses somehow reflected onto the person’s mouth as it curved into a grin, bordered by a thin moustache.
Sara turned as fast as she could, her legs speeding back towards the back veranda.
Somewhere along the journey back she felt the fangs pierce her neck.
The last thing she saw was the dull light coming from the cow shed. She could hear Rani crying out in pain. Her moo was the last thing that Sara heard.
And then there was only the night, white with the moonlight.