- The boy at the window
The bell, the lantern, the witching hour. (Though this happened to me one time in line at Starbucks – two of us helped the stranger up and the barista got her a chair.) Undone shirt cuffs, unkempt hair. A refugee from the republic of conscience.
An old woman, now. Lonely, when the kettle whistles and there's no one in the house to wake. Kiran would have helped me get the boy off the floor, and stayed with him while I got something to clean up the blood.
- What we are
Once upon a time, they say in these parts. (Not everywhere, I guess. Where Kiran came from, they don't say anything special at the start of the story, but they always finish with, and I saw the handsome prince the other day in the market, but he wouldn't talk to me.)
So, however they say it where you're from. A long time ago, my people came to terms with themselves, and each other. Some people say it was a deal with a higher power, that we signed a piece of parchment (or shook on it, or clicked "Proceed with transaction", or whatever). But I don't think so. I think the time had come and we had come to it. A thousand years of peace and prosperity. Universal basic income; healthcare free at the point of use; happily ever after.
However they say it where you're from.
The boy's name was pretty, like a bird's. You'd know it if I said it. But for now—before he became what he became—let him be Raven the Trickster, or the clever mynah in the folk tales, or ane o' the twa corbies in the poem, who ate the knight's corpse in the wood.
(It wasn't me who loved poetry—that was Kiran. At the water's edge, at the scattering, I read from one of her favourites: of grief that no longer rings within the bones of a people, systematic, symphonic, but chimes in each of us alone.)
You know how this goes. You, who are reading this a long way from here, my kitchen with the high beams and white tiles, the spice jars, the warmth. You, who have stood on the parapet, leaned over the barricades; who have spoken truth to power; who have been torn between what is right and what is easy; you who always took orders, until you said: no.
We don't know why or how it happens, that you come to us without crossing the years in between. Only that when it does, it's in pain, in fear, in all the lightless places of a bloody history; and that it's not to stay. A night, a day, an hour: a respite. Ring the bell as you come in.
(And don't think we're a fantasy. We have alchemists and armourers but also accountants. Kiran could do a corporate tax return at twenty paces. You are the myth.)
"It's because," the boy said to me, urgent, though he didn't have to explain. "It's because I'm a poet. I try—and raise them up, you know? Give them something to sing about. And people used to say that to listen to me, to hear me—was to be run through by a knife so sharp you didn't know you'd been cut. So when they came to take me away…"
Underneath the soaked cloth of his shirtsleeves, hand-carved text whirled and snaked along his forearms. I hissed and swore and put water on to boil. "What does it say?" he asked, while we were waiting.
"You can't read it?"
"No." He looked at me. "I can only—they don't let us learn…"
I thought about lying to him and didn't. There was dirt in the cuts, grit, infection. I cleaned it up and read it out, filth in filth. After a while he started to cry, quietly, and I let him be, making masala chai on the stove so the kitchen filled with the scent of cardamom, and snow gathered in the dark on the panes.
- The others
The first time I can remember, I was eight. Parents teach their children about this, to prepare them for what they'll have to do all their lives. So I sat up all night, with my mum and our visiting stranger, a woman who breathed through the pain of delivery and took away two packets of sanitary pads. Later, there was someone we made up a bed for, who wore clothes I'd seen in history books, and a lost child who liked the aloo paratha my father cooked.
Much later, there was the first time with Kiran. We were twenty and twenty-one, just back from our second date, and the stranger was even younger. Her coat slipped to the floor, the pocket spilling blueprints of a public building, and something that gleamed in a vial, with a syringe. "She's on her way somewhere," Kiran said.
Somewhere in our recent history, I thought. Kiran put the vial back so it wouldn't get lost, and made tea for the three of us.
I know what you're thinking. But we feed and water our assassins in this country. Assassins, terrorists, freedom fighters. They are who we are; there is no other.
I put the mug of masala chai in front of him and said, "This was my wife's recipe."
And then cried. Because scent is a trigger for memory, because he had cried, too, and because it was that sort of night. The waves shattered on the shoreline and the wind howled a ghastly sympathy.
"Was," he said, perceptive despite everything, and I wondered if he would think it nothing worth crying about. Not a recent loss, not a whole lifetime's loss. One death, one widow, laid before someone who had received mercy, but not justice; whose loss was human dignity.
But he got up, went across to the window and rang the bell. As they do at funerals, sometimes. "A chime struck for you alone," he said, thoughtful, "though you don't have the whole symphony."
Like the poet said, the one Kiran loved. Written after he landed on my kitchen floor, after running all night from his torturers; before he went back to the battle he was fighting for his people, his language, his occupation of space; and before they fucking killed him.
In the morning, I went down to the gate with him. Kiran used to sit on the bars with her feet swinging, even in the bitter cold, when the snow came down to the low-tide mark.
To her poet, I did not say: this is the way to the gallows; nor, perhaps it was worth it in the end; or even: when the ashes were scattered, when I read, no one cried: it was so new, so sharp, that we didn't know we'd been cut.
(Let no inventory of our better world obscure this: who they were, and how they died, so we could lose our knowledge of grief.)
I said, "Be safe."
"Thank you," he said, picking up a plastic bag of painkillers, medical alcohol, and trail mix, and started off down the path. I watched him grow more distant, along the slough of land into water, until I was distracted by a bird rising from the fog. When I turned back he was gone. No footprints, and no sound but the crack of ice, and the gathering of crows.