Dark blooms in Keshavar

The Lord Wizard tried to blink out the sting from his eyes. The fumes from the cauldron-thick and dark didn’t bother him the first two hours of the process. After all, more than 30 decades of preparing exotic materials the kind of which no one would believe existed unless they see it with their own eyes has taught him how to withstand a little smoke. Okay, more than a little smoke. But now that the process entered its final phase-one marked with a series of loud pops and hisses in the swirling yellow liquid, the smoke took a particularly noxious turn.

“I must be getting old,” muttered the wizard as he left the ladle on the table by the cauldron, turning his face away.

Not for the first time, he wished he had an assistant. Not that he couldn’t find one. On the contrary, many are the ones who would do just about anything-maybe even slay a dragon or two to have the honour of being assistant to the Lord Wizard of the great  land of Keshavar. But the wizard wasn’t interested in hiring. For his magical creations were of a unique nature and he wouldn’t trust anyone with the secrets. Without the secrets to preparing these amazing concoctions and what not, he would just be a frail old man, respected not any more by the people than they would an ordinary farmer.

Pouring himself a drink of spirits(made with dragon scales, water extract from golum’s dung and lentil leaves among other things) the wizard sat on a wooden chair that overlooked the sprawling landscape. Though it was night the moon illuminated the land so brightly that it could have been day-like the white orb was competing with the sun, saying, “I can do one up on you!”

The river that snaked past the castle glistened in the light, like a necklace against a dark woman’s skin-not that there were any dark women in Keshavar. Dots of light were visible on the other shore, which the wizard knew to be lanterns in the houses of the common folk-traders, farmers and a few petty bureaucrats, perhaps.

“Houses and not a castle, like I have!”the wizard grinned at his own words. Having been living in the castle on his own for years,  talking to himself was as much a part of his life as eating. “Sure, they may have a proper family-with wife and children and everything but still, no castle with servants at your beck and call,” he added as if to convince himself of his fortitude.

As if to celebrate that fact he drained the red liquid in the golden cup in a single gulp.     With a satisfactory sigh, he got up and walked back towards the boiling cauldron.

As he expected, he saw now that the colour of the swirling liquid has changed. But contrary to expection, the colour didn’t change from a deep yellow to the purest white. Rather, the transformation ended in the liquid becoming the thickest of black.

No, not quite. For that wasn’t the end of it. The liquid actually coagulated into a thick plasma, something that formed the outer covering for the being that was being ‘brewed’ inside the cauldron-using a method which the wizard has created with painstaking diligence over the years- a method, if it’s successful would bring joy to Keshavar that has lied barren for a long time.

The being rose. It’s whimpers at the heat died down soon enough. A very human smile, a face that was pretty in its proportion-oval shaped with small round eyes encrusted in them like jewels. Three thin arms grew out of its body which ended in six fingered palms. Its body-at least four times the size of a normal human adult  heaved up and down with its berating-expanding and contracting like a sack into which air was being pumped. But the body itself wasn’t the sack. Rather,the sacks were on the body, covering it all around, with openings on the top, like the sack of a Vangaroo- the creature which carried its young ones in pouches.

All of these features were as the wizard had envisioned. Except for one thing- the colour of the being’s skin. She was dark.

**

The newly created being was seated on a stool in one corner of the ‘Creation room’-in reality, nothing more than an ordinary room with a few necessary ingredients and a cauldron. The wizard has his back turned towards her, leaning over a book in which he had made the inscriptions-the  recipe for the being’s creation.

“A disaster, a disaster!” he kept muttering, running his fingers down the lines he has inscribed. “Where did I go wrong? Perhaps the leaves of the traiyoha were a bit too dry, or maybe the Ganda fruit wasn’t ripe enough!”

Such exclamations continued unabated long enough to make him irritated, irritated enough to pull at his own long flowing beard-as was his manner whenever he was in a frenzy of some kind.

The newly created being looked at the antics of her creator with amusement. In fact, she looked at everything in the creation chambers-from the portrait of the wizard’s mother on the wall to the stuffed dragon head on the wizard’s table and everything in between with equal amusement. These, after all were the first things she gazed upon since birth.

“Found it!” The wizard’s sudden exclamation made her look up from the carpet with a green moon and a blue landscape etched on it which she has been quietly admiring.

The wizard swirled around, the hem of his long robe sweeping the carpet in the process, and beamed at his creation. Not quite understanding what he was so jubilant about, she reciprocated with a smile of her own.

“Now I know why you ended up being dark!” he said. “It was a silly mistake,” he added, slapping his own forehead.

His creation now looked at him with a slight frown on her face. Once the jubilation in discovering what went wrong abated, the wizard looked away, abruptly jerking his head as though he was disgusted at having to look at her for long.

Just an hour since birth, his creation got the feeling that something wasn’t right.

**

The creation now sat in another room, much smaller than the previous one, on a bare floor made of rocks. It was colder than the other one too. She could see no hearth here. But there were shackles dangling from the wall .This was where the wizard would keep his human and animal subjects for experimentation whenever they were needed. Keshavar had a pretty high rate of crime-and there was rarely any dearth of criminals whom the government can hand over to the wizard for whatever experimentation he deemed worthy. The wizard was not under the direct employment of the government but he was a free agent whose service the government brought at frequent intervals-like in this instance when the land was barren for a long while.

The wizard’s dark skinned creation crouched in a corner, making herself as small as she could as a defense against the cold. All those pouches on her body made this harder than it should have been. She could hear the wizard at work in the creation chamber. Grand sounds of hissing and what appeared to be twigs snapping. Divided just by a door, the chamber was so very close to her-all that warmth which is so unlike the cold cocoon that this room was.

Why had he put me here? Why didn’t he think of my wellbeing?, questions of this kind ran through her mind.

Back in the chamber, the wizard was hard at work on another creation-this time using the correct process.

“It’s getting late and I am an old man who needs his sleep!” the wizard shouted as he stirred the liquid in the cauldron. “But I will finish it tonight for sure, and my creation will be ready when the representatives of Keshavar are here at dawn! Just as I promised-a new dawn for the Keshavarians, a dawn that brings in its wake more children for them!” Beads of sweat rolled down the wizard’s forehead. His hands ached with all the stirring-he could of course use magic to make the ladle stir by itself but he believed that that “takes away the human element which adds to the magic.”

“But I will do it!” he said with very stirring which made him all the weaker-his 170 years catching up with him, showing in every labored heave of his chest. “I have a reputation to keep!”

Old and tired though he was, there was one thing about the wizard which was far from tired-his voice. And the sound of his bellowing carried down from the top of the castle where was the creation-chamber(a higher altitude makes the magic more potent) all the way to the servant’s quarters at the bottom. In fact, his voice disturbed even the wolves at the valley of the hill on which was the castle. They howled, wondering who could raise more noise than their pack.

And as for the wizard’s dark skinned creation, she sat in the cold room with her arms pressed to her ears, wondering what sort of a person her creator was, and how in such a short while he seems to have forgotten all about her.

**

“Look at you! You are so beautiful!” the wizard sounded like a proud father-which in a sense was what he was.

His newer creation looked just like the previous one on every respect-including the lopsided right ear(a detail which wasn’t intended by the creator but which added to the cuteness quotient all the same). Only in one respect did it differ from the first one. Whereas the first one was dark skinned, this person-if such a term could be used for her, was of the fairest skin-fairer than any of the Keshavarans-all of whom were of a fair skin- all that’s alive, at any rate.

“Master, I am pleased that you are pleased with me!” The wizard’s heart gladdened on hearing her words-just as a father would be gladdened when his child calls him ‘Papa!’ for the first time.

Sure, you could have been made more articulate, but I don’t know how to do that. And now that I have run out of all the ingredients, there’s nothing I can do about anything!thought the wizard.

And the ingredients would take another four decades to get matured enough for something like this to be attempted ever again.

“What was it that you said, master?”

Blinking, the wizard looked up at her. He wasn’t aware that he has spoken anything out loud-old habits die hard.

“Nothing!” he said, evincing happiness beyond what he felt. “You are just perfect!”

Tired though he was, the wizard poured himself another drink before retiring to bed. He sat in the same wooden chair as before, looked out on the same landscape-the only difference was that the cast of the moon’s light was even wider this time-illuminating even the snow-capped mountains that stood at the Keshavar’s edge.

Sipping the red spirit, feeling its warmth spread down his throat and the rest of his body,, seeing the snow sparkling under the moonlight -a sort of magic of its own, he thought how the white mountain’s name would be apt for his fair skinned creation.

Soviak-that was the mountain’s name.

“Soviaka, that’s what we should call her,” the wizard murmured , sitting there in the glow of the fire from the hearth.

“Soviaka..Soviaka..” he repeated the name, stressing different syllables as though trying it out. A smile spread across his lips even as he was falling asleep. The dark sinned creation didn’t even cross his mind.

**

Water. That’s what everyone claimed as the reason for the malady that struck the land. Both the experts and the plebians. Not that the experts were any wiser-at best they could make only an educated guess.

But everyone was in agreement about one fact-it was after the war with the neighbouring kingdom of Ledra that the women of Keshavar became barren. Not immediately but over the span of just a few years. And the mighty Langsha river which was the main water source for the land was contaminated with the poison the Ledran army had deployed to kill the populace-the war was meant to kill the entire population.

Owing to interference of the global community, the terrible war came to an end but the poison-or fragments of it remained in the waters. And even though the people of Keshavar followed the distillation processes laid down by the scientists of the land, it couldn’t negate the poison completely. Or so went the theory.

Nothing could be proven though. None of the scientists could find a direct link between the water and the dead wombs of the women .

And the wizards including the Lord Wizard himself were secretly pleased when the people openly expressed their displeasure at the fact that the scientists couldn’t come up with a plausible solution to the problem. “Science fails man!” was one of the more dramatic headlines carried by one of the newspapers during the early days of the crisis.

Though in theory it was a community in which magic and science co-existed, it was no secret that the wizards generally looked down on the scientists. Science was toned down wizardry, the way they saw it. It can only aspire to the purity of magic which is both instant and instinctual-you can train to become a scientist but one is born to be a wizard.

“And now a wizard has given the people a grand solution!” proclaimed the Lord Wizard, stroking his long flowing beard like it was an animal that needed petting. Standing at the grand foyer of the castle’s entrance his gaze extended towards the gate where the procession of the Keshavaran representatives were leaving with Soviaka-his beautiful creation.

Before they passed out of view, Soviaka looked out from the window of the hearse which carried her. The Lord Wizard smiled at her though he wasn’t sure whether she could see the smile from this distance.

“But you will surely bring smiles to a lot of childless families of Keshavar,” he said before turning around to enter the castle.

The wolves of the valley began to howl.

**

And smiles she did bring to a lot of Keshavarans. Sure, there were those women who felt jealous towards her for bearing their husbands’ children for them. But almost all of the Keshavarans felt happy about the fact that Soviaka lived amongst them.

As one of the elders of the community put it, “The malady will leave the land in another generation or two. But it’s because of Sovika that we will have more generations.”

There was even a cult that was born which worshipped Soviaka as the main deity-the goddess of prosperity and progeny. The fact that she had multiple pouches in which to incubate the newborns meant that the land became populated fast. And people’s regard for her rose.

Many other wizards tried to replicate the Lord Wizard’s creation, using one method or the other, all of which failed.

As for the Lord Wizard himself, he was absolutely sure about the fact that the necessary ingredients would mature only in another few decades by which time Soviaka would have served her purpose.

Indeed, he has all but forgotten about her-having gotten deep into his next set of experiments, one of which was to create a ‘super-male’ who could create sperms that impregnate in counts far higher than is normal.

**

“I reckon there’s no point in keeping her alive anymore!” the wizard said out loud what he been in his mind for a while.

He went to the ante-chamber, opened the door and saw the dark one lying on the cold floor, lying in a fetal position-though her ‘fetus’ was actually the cauldron. She could go without food for months but apparently, from the look of misery on her face, loneliness wasn’t something which she could bear.

The fact that she was dark meant that the Lord Wizard couldn’t bear to look at her for long without making himself sick. Any Keshavaran would turn physically sick at the prolonged view of a dark creature, some even at the mere sight of one-even it were a black kitty that crossed their path.

The Lord Wizard moved fast, hoping to get it over with and get out of the room fast. ‘Once it’s over, I will ask one of the servants to carry the body out-maybe they should leave it out in the open so that the wolves could have it.” The Lord Wizard, and indeed many in the Wizard community considered the wolf as a creature imbued with magic-the belief was that their howls were sounds that linked together the terrestrial world with the world of magic.

It was considered auspicious to feed them.

“Here, take a few sips!” the Lord Wizard said, holding out a small vial which contained a transparent liquid. The dark one sat up, and as he expected accepted the vial without protest-an obedient servant if ever there was one. Her eyes strayed up to his face. They looked tired but she was trying-ever so hard to bring a twinkle of smile to them, as if eager to please him with his presence.

The wizard looked away, not out of disgust but from remorse. She was his creation. And unlike the scientists who might consider their creation with so much detachment that it could well be a stranger that they were gazing at, the wizard’s heart was always entwined with that of his creation- no matter how hard he willed otherwise.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the dark one taking the cap off the vial and bringing it up to her lips. Her eyes, he noticed still hadn’t attained the glow of happiness which she strove to express.

“Stop!” commanded the Wizard just as the vial’s mouth touched her lip. “Give it to me.” The cap closed around the vial’s top with a satisfactory ‘thwap!’

“From now on, you will be my assistant” said the Wizard before turning away and walking out of the antechamber.

And so began the apprenticeship of the dark one.

**

One important thing that the dark one learnt in her long apprenticeship under the Lord Wizard was that one never could tell with certainty when he was going to blow.

One day he would be the most amicable of masters but the very next day he would glower like a raging thunder- and for no mistake of yours either. It only needed something-even the tiniest detail to go wrong with an experiment, like an extra drop of the moon’s beam to spill into a potion under preparation for the Wizard to start glowering at her.

But come dinner time and he would invite her to the table.

“I used to have dinners with my wives when I was married. Such a long time ago..” the Wizard would say, the wistful look in his eyes made all the more poignant with the glow of the light spilled on them from the tallow candles. But of course, he wouldn’t look at her directly, not for long at any rate.

“What happened? I mean, why did you stop being married?” the dark one, who remained silent most of the times asked of the Wizard one day(By that point the wizard had repeated the fact that he used to eat with his wives so many times that it would have been considered downright rude if she didn’t ask the question.)

The Wizard sighed, looked away towards the stuffed dragon’s head on the table as though it might breathe out the answer. When he spoke it was in the lowest voice which she has heard him use yet. “A man like me,” he began, “is not meant to marry, I believe. For it’s hard for me to mind to the requirements of a woman and also tend to my professional requirements at the same time. You see, once I start on a project I become completely obsessed by it, so much so that I even forget myself, let alone others.” A long sigh later, he added, “I married twice. But both of them left me, the latter saying that I loved my potions and creations more than I did her. I couldn’t say that she was completely wrong,” he looked up at the dark one and winked, then looked down at his dinner plate.

Even after this many years, he couldn’t stand to look at her continually. But whereas earlier he used to find the mere thought of her sharing the same table as he revolting, nowadays he found her presence oddly comforting.

‘I must be getting seriously old,’ he would think at such moments.

Old he may have been but his passion for work still remained the same. If anything, he became even more adventurous with age.

Adventurous enough to undertake a journey to the Kiasta jungles that neighboured Keshavar. The jungle was a hotspot for the strangest creatures-like the buck billed hyena and the armored elephant, and also exotic herbs and flowers. It was also rife with dangers.

“Oh, I think I have learned a trick or two in my time to stand me in good stead if ever some danger appears when I am there,” the Wizard said confidently when the dark one-who has heard of the tales of the jungle from her master expressed her concern when he told her of his intention.

“But couldn’t you find the herb somewhere else..somewhere safer?”

Touched by the concern in her voice, he looked up straight into her eyes. He smiled, placed an arm on her shoulder and spoke in a gentle yet firm tone, “Of course, you can’t silly. That’s why I am going there. This project is very important for me. It’s possible that this could be the very last major project of my life-to create a living deity for the people of Keshavar- a being that wouldn’t wither away with time-at least for a very long time, and one which would have all the wisdoms of generations. Whenever the Keshavarians need guidance on something, they could come to the deity and consult him.” And he would be made in my image, that was something he didn’t add though that’s what he intended to do. Provided he could bring his ultimate creation to life.

“I will present the deity to the Kshavarians on the upcoming millennial celebrations.”

A wizard’s determination has much more strength than that of an ordinary mortal’s. For a wizard is born to do certain things with his life and if he fails in those endeavors he would never find fulfillment.

But then again, a wizard is still only mortal. Even if it’s the Lord Wizard himself.

The search for the ingredients to bring the deity to life spelled doom him. For deep in the jungles, at the height of his exploration, the Lord Wizard encountered an enemy which he has never come across before- a creature with a body akin to that of a lion but with thicker skin and tail as long as 10 feet. At the tip of the tail were spikes that jutted out to two sides, their tips glistening in the sun’s rays that managed to seep in through the canopy.

None of the spells the wizard threw at the being worked. It was a recent mutation-one of the rarer species which men haven’t encountered before, there are many such species in these jungles: these were some of the last thoughts which the Wizard had before the lion-like creature lashed out at him with its long tail.

The wizard found himself getting weaker by the minute. He held his ground against the creature still, putting up a shield around him with his wand.

But how long can I sustain the shield? ,he thought.

Already he felt the hand that held the wand up quivering with lost strength. The creature circled him, repeatedly ran to him, though its brute strength was no match for the unrelenting invisible force.

I can’t keep this up, thought the Wizard who blinked against the onslaught of fatigue.

The light dimmed as the sun descended. The wizard watched as if in a dream, the creature leaving. It was ferocious but the dark scared it.

The wizard couldn’t remember most of the journey back home. But the tears on the eyes of the dark one as he looked down at the wizard’s dying body was something which made an impression on his mind in its last moments of cognition.

The wizard was given a grand funeral-fitting for such an esteemed personality. The dead body was kept for the public to pay homage at the city square.

But the skin around his right ankle which was blackened where the creature’s tail had stung him was well covered so that no one could see it.

**

Fate wasn’t a concept that the dark one believed in, at least not until her master passed. Not even when he would explain to her eloquently(“Fate is like a blind warrior sometimes, cutting to pieces lives of the innocent and the cruel alike).

The way she saw it, things happened on the world because of deliberate actions. She was born because of the wizard, the wizard lived alone because he spent more time in his creation chambers than with people .The wolves that she would hear howling in the dead of the night howled because they willed to-the noise ripping apart the silent sanctity of the night. Actions and their effects. Fate didn’t have much say in things.

Of course, she could reduce the circumstances of the Wizard’s death to the effects of actions-the wizard went to the jungle so he got killed. But somehow she found that she was incapable of doing so, the sting of the tears that rose at the thoughts about the dead wizard obscuring not just her vision but also her powers of thought.

And fate also came to her in the guise of the wizard’s nephew-his closest kin to whom by the rule of the land the castle went. In appearance he bore resemblance to his uncle-the callow cheeks and the round eyes framed under a long forehead-if you looked closely, you could even see a faint trace of the hook nose which was a prominent feature on his uncle’s face.

But the appearances were as far as the resemblance went- it didn’t extend to the empathy with which the old man had treated her.

“It’s only because my uncle kept you alive so long that I am not ordering you to be killed!” said the youth, never really looking at her(the stench of his puke was still in the room as he spoke-he spilled his guts literally when his eyes fell on her the first time). “I must banish you from this castle though. And what happens to you in the hands of the Keshavarians, I am not responsible for!” He spat out the words.

The next manifestation of the fate for the dark one was the harsh light of the day. Apart from the brief hours in the gardens surrounding the castle, she has never been out. And those hours when she would breathe in the free air and the gaze up at the sky was always in the night time.

“People know that you are here,” the wizard had said. “The servants couldn’t keep their tongue tied about someone like you. And I have gone to considerable lengths to spread the illusion that the only reason I have kept you alive is because you are important to many of my experiments. But if people see you out in the open, no amount of convincing will turn their natural impulse to turn away from you, and to destroy something that they consider to be most hideous-an abomination to existence, in their eyes. So, I recommend you only ever go out to the gardens in the night. For as you know, I do get visitors in the day.”

Though the wizard had said it in his calm, pleasing tone with warmth both in his eyes and voice, the dark one couldn’t help but feel sad.

Now, she was getting all the light of day that she has ever wished for, walking under the uncompromising glare of the summer sun, wandering along the fringes of Keshavar, trying her best to keep out of people’s view.

And now she walked along the side of a stream at the edge of the forest. Some people said every water way in the land was contaminated. The king’s government didn’t do anything to alter that view, instead giving the people ‘scientifically treated water’ for consumption.

The dark one looked at the shimmering water of the stream which flowed with a sound that felt like crying. At least, that’s what it sounded like to her. ‘Why didn’t you give me the ability to cry!’ she said out loud, addressing the spirit of the wizard. ‘And why couldn’t you use wizardry to beat death!’ She whimpered which was as close to crying as she could get.

A band of men who were coming out of the jungle, back from an expedition to collect honey of the wild bees-one of the major exports of Keshavar saw the dark ugly figure walking towards them. It didn’t take long for them to feel revolted, one among them-a thick mustachioed bulky man even began to puke.

The rest of them were busy picking up rocks off the ground and throwing at the dark one. More than the force of the stones that hit her, it was the ferocity of the men’s revulsion which hurt her more. And it wasn’t just because her skin was thicker than the average human’s.

Wishing for the second time in as many minutes that she could express her sadness through tears, the dark one ran across the stream upon a fallen tree that formed a bridge. Before beginning her ascent up to the jungle, she turned around and looked. The men still held stones in hands, ready to throw more at her. In fact, one of the men did throw a small rock which fell short of the mark, falling into the stream, making a “plop” noise in the water, ‘the sound of spear plunging into a heart,’ thought the dark one.

Beyond the men stretched a land which looked more alien to the dark one by the minute. The Lord Wizard had told her that Soviaka-his white creation has successfully helped populate the land, an indeed will continue to do so for another couple of decades-until the chemical contamination (in the air and not the water) would clear off. But the land looked barren to the dark one.

How could one believe that life exists there?, she thought. Or is it that I am not part of life-the reason why they hate me so much?.

Her multiple ‘baby pouches’(as her creator so fondly used to call them) jiggled with every step she took. The jungle-filled with so many strange noises and trees the branches of which bent and twisted in fashions she had never thought possible(so different from the ‘tame’ trees in the castle grounds) looked inviting to her. More inviting than the land where all the trees are less wild, she thought.

Instead of tears, a sad smile appeared on her face.

**

The fact that she was made to survive without food wasn’t something for which the dark one was ever thankful for. Many were the times when she would sit across the dinner table from the wizard, hoping that she could enjoy a meal or a drink with him. Like a proper human.

But now, in the jungles, she began to appreciate the facet of not having to eat. For one thing, she didn’t know which fruits were edible and which weren’t. And as for hunting, she didn’t have the mind for it. Hurting another being to placate herself was an idea she just couldn’t digest.

‘Almost as though I was meant to be living in the jungles,’ she said with wry humour. In the place where lived no humans, it was quite comforting to hear the sound of her own voice.

The cave she chose for a home was cold comfort, the hard ground reminding her of the cellar in which she was locked up that first night of her life, when her creator was hard at work in the antechamber trying to bring a better creation to life. Cold, alone and lacking a future.

‘I have come full circle,’she said. She was beginning to develop a habit of talking to herself, and to the animals that she came across.

“So, are you still the king of the jungle? I heard that the number of your lot in the jungle has come down  with the last war!”

The red striped tiger eyed her without blinking. The dark one was lying on a boulder sunning herself when the tiger-apparently wanting to sun himself jumped on to the same boulder.

“Are you going to make food of me?” said the dark one. She felt amused by the fact that she didn’t feel even an iota of fear.

The tiger eyed her closely as though contemplating her question, then as is normal with such beasts and persons with attention deficit issues, it suddenly lost interest in what’s in front of it and turned its face away. After gazing at the sun which so recently had come up above the mountains, the tiger, its long tail swinging luxuriously from one side to the other, jumped off the boulder. The dark one leaned forward, watched the beast until it disappeared out of view.

She felt alone. Missing the wizard would become a frequent happening in the mind in the coming days.

**

The animals-once they got over the strangeness of her appearance and odour began to ignore her. Not that they went out of their way to do so but whenever she walked by a monkey or a deer, it would barely look up, engrossed as it was in its current activity of grazing or tearing the skin off a fruit.

But the dark one didn’t mind. In fact, she was quite happy that the beasts of the jungles didn’t actually hate her, unlike the humans.

The thoughts about humans also brought to her mind memories of the wizard, and along with it sadness surged within her like a sudden rise of water in a well.

“Is there no end to the sadness? Is there no end to my loneliness?” she addressed the questions to the wind which presently blew across the valley in the jungle where she was walking, ruffling the fur of the zebras and the giraffes, tickling the ears of the bulls and making the tigers rise their snout in the air. Once you make the jungle your home, it didn’t feel out of place to talk to the wind.

“Who are you talking to?”

She was pretty sure that the sound she heard was her own imagination. This loneliness is crushing my mind, she thought.

But she swirled around all the same, to face the direction from which she thought she heard the voice.

“Oh, the imagination is praying tricks on my eyes as well!”

“No. Not really. You are not hallucinating,” said the man. The dark one hadn’t realized that she had said anything out loud.

“Oh,” was all the response that she could summon. The grey robe with a black band wound around the midriff made it clear that the man was a wizard’s apprentice-it was their uniform-there was one time when the Lord Wizard made an innovated version of the robe for the dark.

The man-he was just barely a man, the small smattering of black hair under his nose a remnant of his adolescence which still remained in him like a shadow behind a boulder. The arms that jutted out from the sleeveless robe were muscle rich though, noticed the dark one.

“I never believe in apprentices because they are all so lazy,” she remembered what the Lord Wizard told her one night after the successful end of a project. “You should see them, just slouching around, looking more like bloats of flesh than humans.” She has forgotten the context in which the wizard said it but his words stayed with her- any details regarding the wider world-one she has so little experience of remained with her.

“I heard that you have retreated to these jungles after the Lord Wizard passed,” said the man.

“You know who I am?”

“Of course, everyone knows who you are, though very few people have actually seen you with their own eyes. You-someone whom the Lord Wizard kept alive in the tower because he had a fatherly affection to you-you being his creation and all..You can imagine how such a person would become an icon in the land, can’t you? You can’t imagine the number of books the bards have written about you!” The more he talked, the more excited he became.

The dark one felt amused. This was the first time that she was hearing someone talking about her in so thrilled a manner.

That was when she realized something else-something even more amazing. He looked directly at her and didn’t seem the least revolted by what she saw.

She was about to ask him about this when her eyes fell on the probable reason- a map of black on his wrist-a deeper shade which was akin to the dark seen on the Lord Wizard’s ankle during his final days-the black splotch a memento from the creature that stung him.

Seeing where the dark one was looking, he said, “I was attacked by a strange creature. It stung me but didn’t kill me. But it did leave this mark on my body, turning my skin black.”

“So, you ran away from people…” she completed for him.

He looked up at her, a sad smile lending its dullness to his eyes. “Yes. Or more like they drove me away.”

The dark one smiled back. It felt good to be putting her smile to good use-to try and bring solace to someone else.

“It’s dangerous to walk these jungles without any weapons.” The concern in her voice surprised her as much as it did him.

“It’s okay,” he said, giving her a lopsided, almost boyish grin. “I have learned a spell or two in my time as an apprentice.”

That brought a smile to her face-not so much at the words themselves but at the tone in which he said it-like a young boy bragging about winning a match against his friends.

**

The two began to walk together and it didn’t take long for love to bloom and the relationship to get deeper.

“I want to make kids with you,” he said one night. They were lying in the cave which was now considerably warmer thanks to the animal fur he had laid down on the floor-not to mention the fire he kept going even without woods, even in winter.

The flames cast fascinating shadows on the cave’s roof. It felt dreamy to the dark one to be lying there in the crook of his arm, watching the dance of shadows, hearing the voice that crooned a wish to make kids with her.

“Why, are you not interested?,” he said when she didn’t reply.

“No, of course not,” she said abruptly, gently pressing an arm to his chest. “I was thinking how would the kids be like?”

“What do you mean?”

She looked up at him. The blackness has now spread across his body, spreading up his neck and marking his cheek where it stopped like a cloud in mid-motion.

“I mean, wouldn’t the children be black-skinned?” she said, her voice sounding as though it came from afar.

“So what!” he said, his voice the most stubborn she has ever heard from him.

“But they will hate them,” she said, hating the feeble sound of her own voice.

After a brief moment of silence, he said, “Hate is not anyone’s prerogative, is it?”

The dark one wasn’t sure what exactly he meant by it. Neither was she sure whether she wanted to know.

**

The couple made four babies-four beautiful babies who were the apples of their eyes. Two boys and girls who grew up under the guidance of their mama and papa, protected from the wild animals, nurtured on the wild berries, growing up free in nature, unconstrained by the schooling systems of modernity yet taught by mother nature, delighting in every moment of their existence-at least those moments when they felt hungry or weren’t being admonished by either parent for one wrongdoing or the other.

“I never really thought that I would find so much happiness in life,” the dark one’s words, spoken as she was lying with her head on her man’s chest, looking at the faces of their four young ones illuminated by the glow of flames encapsulated perfectly the joy the couple enjoyed in the wild.

Lowering his face, he kissed her on the forehead. The slightly wet kiss felt like a blessing to her. But as he pulled his face back, she saw or thought she saw something peculiar.

“Wait a moment!” Pushing herself up on an elbow she took a closer look at his face. Yes, it was no illusion caused by the dancing flames. The black patch on his cheek had come down a bit.

**

“Maybe it’s just time. I mean, it’s been a long time since I have been stung by the beast. Perhaps over time the effects wear off.”

It was a few days since she discovered his abating blackness. And now, standing in an open field, under the bright light of day it was more than clear that his ‘condition’-for that’s what it was was now on the descend. Except for a few patches on his left forearm, his body had regained its original colour.

Coming closer to her, he gently stroked her hair.

“I will never leave you,” he whispered into her ear. “You and the kids-you guys are my life!”

But the Keshavarans have always hated the dark ones, it’s a tradition so deep-rooted that the hatred evokes physical responses-like retching. Though the words passed through her mind, when he gently pulled her closer to him, she decided not to voice them out loud.

Love triumphs all, isn’t that what they say?

**

Though the words weren’t said aloud, the idea they implied-that of her man leaving her now that he was reverting to his earlier state was a stress which weighed down her heart throughout the day. The result was that when it was time to go to sleep in the night, an odd sort of fatigue-more mental than physical settled in, causing her to sleep immediately.

But that’s not to say that the sleep was disturb-free. She kept seeing patterns of searing light crashing into her retina like a meteor to a planet’s surface, making  a dent, causing debris to fly and dust to float. And from behind the swirl of dust loomed the face of her man-grinning, but at the same time appearing sad. “I am sorry, but I cannot stand the sight of you anymore!” he was saying.

I am sorry..I am sorry..I am sorry.. the words repeatedly drilling into her mind’s ear like a long blade being plunged into her black skin.

And now the words were replaced with the sound of retching. Even in a dream that’s one sound devoid of all subtlety. She came awake from her sleep.

A wind howled outside-specks of snow drifted in the night: not exactly the best setting to come awake from a disturbing sleep. All the same, she was glad that she was awake now, and even gladder to see the sleeping kids’ faces.

The sound of retching persisted in her mind though. A sideways glance showed that the part of the animal fur on which her man lied was now empty. And with the sight came the realization that the retching was happening here, in the wide awake world, just outside the cave.

She didn’t go out to see him crouched beside a shrub, puking, trying to eject the disgust he felt as he came awake in the night and saw that he was lying with a black one-and her black litter. But when he said, “I am sorry”-three words floating up to enter the tunnel like opening of the cave, and went past the sleeping children to lodge in her ears like a deep thorn, she did hear the words. And tears-for the first time broke free from behind the cages of her eyes.

**

“Where is our father?” the question was repeated by four different mouths in different pitches and scales but always with the distinct presence of pathos combined with anger.

Throughout the entire walk in the night, the dark one didn’t answer the children, except for once. Anger was throbbing inside her heart as well. And the anger was what was prodding her on, dictating almost all her actions, staring from waking the children up in the middle of the night leading to approaching the edge of the forest.

They went beyond the edge, spilling out of the deeper dark of the forest into the terrain of the humans. She had no qualms finding her way to the Wizard’s castle-the light shed by a half-moon was more than enough to show the way which even after these many years, she still recalled.

“Where is our father gone?” said one  of the little ones in a much weaker voice but not any less vehemently.

She didn’t reply, leaving them to ponder on the only thing she had said in the long walk: “I will make you another father.”

**

The woman and her litter had no qualms getting into the castle. She knew the lay of the place only too well, and the small door on the side was unlocked as it always was back in the days of the Lord Wizard. She had to climb but the first few flights of stairs to learn that the castle was unoccupied-there was a smell to the air which said the place lacked in human life.

Human habitation changed the atmosphere in an unmistakable way-she could always smelled them, when they would come into meet the Wizard when she would be hidden behind one closed door or the other.

But now the only smell was that of the damp of non-occupation. Not that it would have made much difference if there were anyone around-she intended to kill anyone if they tried to oppose her. And in the mounting rage that built in her body like an avalanche that went up instead of down, killing a Keshavaran-the vile ones that looked down upon you just because you were born a different shade, was the most pleasurable activity she could think of.

Upon arriving at the creation chamber, the dark one found a lamp which she lit promptly. She was afraid that the wizard’s nephew might have sold off all his uncle’s goods-for he was no wizard. So it was with much relief that she saw all the apparatus still in place- as though they remained untouched all this time.

The sight of the cauldron in one corner of the room brought tears to her eyes.

And with the tears the rage surfaced once again- rage at the injustice that’s being meted out to her.

She proceeded to one particular contraption-one which was made of a crisscrossing mesh of metal into which went a whole lot of tubes.

The tubes were meant to be fed with certain fluids, this she knew. A quick glance through the cupboard showed her that all the necessary ingredients were here.

She had the children sleep in a different room-one where they would be securely out of earshot. She knew from assisting the wizard that the experiment involved a lot of noise. But the wizard had failed in the experiment that time-the only once he ever attempted it.

“But I know how to do it properly, for he has figured out what went wrong with the first experiment, and he did tell me,” she muttered, silently as though saying a prayer.

Four hours later, she stood in front of her creation- the superman, the one with an exponentially higher number of successful sperms than the average man. One who could ejaculate at will-one of the quirkier ideas of the Lord Wizard(who had plenty of quirky ideas jotted down in his diary-a fist sized dragon that breathed water instead of fire so folks can use it for watering the garden was just one of them).

The superman was conceptualized along with herself, so that the land would be populated faster. “Well, it might as well that the experiment failed, for I’m not too sure how the men of the land would have taken it!” was what the wizard had said in a lame attempt to placate himself.

The dawn was breaking. The sun’s rays hit the floor of the creation chamber-so far above the ground tread by ordinary mortals, atop a castle perched on a mountain. The sun kissed these places way before that it did the plebian population.

And there stood, glistening in the sun’s light a dark skinned man whose bulk already made her wet in all her pouches.

As if dictated by a command that couldn’t be heard by anyone else, the man and the woman moved towards each other and kissed.

Pressing her body to his solid bulk, she kept her lips joined to his, thinking how the two of them could bring to life an army of dark ones-ones that they could nurture, perhaps in this castle itself-for the castle for some reason was not being used by anyone-the haggard upkeep had made that much clear.

Yes, they would build their army here. And when the new ones were grown enough, the Keshavarians down below wouldn’t stand a chance.

Maybe the mere sight of us would make them puke to death.

The only reason she didn’t grin at the thought was because her lips were locked to the superman’s.

She wrapped her arms around his shoulders. The gentle heat of the morning sun felt good on her fingers.

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