This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Body transformation
You still remember the first time Hailé visited the pharmacy, because that was the day the rogue battle elephant overturned the village water tank and flooded five stores on Sacred Heart Road. The pharmacy was one of them, and you were bailing it out with a plastic jug, swearing a blue streak, when the bells jangled over the door. Without turning, you shouted, “As you can see, the pharmacy is closed today!”
“Please help me,” begged a voice hoarse with smoke, and you plunged your arm into the yellow water and cursed Raj, as you’d done frequently since the wedding, for leaving you to handle customers along with everything else. “If you just walk to Trincomalee Street, the surgeon’s office will be opening soon—”
“Please,” the voice begged again, and this time there was something terribly familiar about how it wisped at the edges. You turned and Hailé was hunched by the counter, holding the Rift in his bare stomach together with his hands. Blue memory fluid, almost but not quite the shade of an April sky over the paddy fields, flowed through his fingers and down his sarong before coiling away through the ankle-deep water.
You said, “God’s sake, come here,” and hauled him into the alcove where you kept the extra bindings, because you already knew this color wasn’t on the pharmacy’s regular shelves. Hailé was taller than Raj and solid with farmer’s muscle, but in that moment he was unfathomably light under your tugging hands, his bones shifting about like the limbs of a stringless puppet. You left him on the tiled floor while you climbed the shelves, all the way up to where Raj stocked the blues, wringing dung water from your fingers as you scrambled for a shade that wasn’t there. Hailé tipped back his head to watch you.
He was your first Bereaved after your grandmother died. Raj liked to think he was better at treating the Rifts, and he wasn’t, but after her funeral he’d ordered a whole new inventory from the city and made you sell it while he received the Bereaved. So you were far from your best healing self when Hailé showed up. Even after you found bindings that almost matched the bleeding, dyed navy and cyan and cobalt but never that one elusive color, it took you four tries to wrap the Rift. The linen kept snagging on your wedding ring and the colors seeped through for another hour.
You remember that by the end Hailé dragged himself off the floor and helped you finish bailing out the pharmacy, even though the water had stopped rising; neither of you said a word, not about what triggered the Rift, not about what he owed you for binding it, not about the consequences he might have brought upon both of you by entering the village, never mind the pharmacy. He was gone long before Raj came home, filthy and loaded with arrack after a fruitless search for the rogue elephant, and you prayed any witnesses would hold their tongues, because if Raj didn’t know it happened he couldn’t beat you for it.
The entire corner where Hailé collapsed was stained bright blue, and you scrubbed it for weeks with the coir brush, but the color never faded. On the day you lost the pharmacy Hailé’s blue was still there, a bright strip of sky obscuring the grout. There were so many memories on the floor by then that no one would ever notice Hailé’s unless they were looking for it. Even you found it difficult to see sometimes, especially before you knew what he’d lost, or how to name the shade of his memories.
The last of the elephants dies when you are thirty-four, a few months after Raj is trampled to death in the paddy field behind the tavern. You hold onto the pharmacy for two more decades, but by then the whole place feels Bereaved itself, riddled with the kind of Rifts that no length of bindings can heal. Everyone you knew as a child is gone to the city by then, or dead; you are the last to leave. The surgery chain that took over Trincomalee Street wants to expand onto Sacred Heart Road, so at fifty-five you sell the last pharmacy for kilometers around and come to the city.
You think that losing your grandmother’s legacy will hurt, but by then you haven’t closed a Rift in years. You wrap your last Bereaved in three meters of bindings and he drowns himself in the reservoir anyway; he’s in his twenties, part of the generation that grew up scorning the idea of wearing their grief, and so when grief strikes he’s not prepared for it, not when he doesn’t believe in the bindings. You return to the pharmacy after watching city police pull his body from the water and look at the shelves of adhesive tape and mass-produced sticking plasters and synthetic glue, and then you pack your grandmother’s wicker suitcase, sell the pharmacy to the surgeons, and take the train into the city.
The sale money is just enough for the train ticket and two months’ advance rent on a shoebox apartment by the monorail tracks. It’s on the fifteenth floor and there is no elevator; it takes you thirty minutes to climb the stairs, tripping over discarded needles and stained adhesive tape. But you know that unfortunates much older and younger than you are sleeping in the streets, drooling and bleeding into pools of each other’s memories, and you know you are lucky.
You hold down a job at Palliative Incorporated, one of the grief suppression conglomerates; you are part of a human assembly line of the exact kind that city officials insist were abolished years ago. You work standing up, winding rolls of plastic tape for eleven hours a day. The artificial strands arrive at your workstation in shades of white, labeled with names like Chalk, Bone, Milk, and Rice; they’re marketed as natural colors, but look and feel like nothing found in nature.
If the Palliative executives asked, you could tell them that no healthy Rift bleeds white. It’s the color of festering Rifts, of memories that aren’t mourned right, of grief that lingers and rots and funguses. White has no place in memory fluid. But no one asks you, and anyway, you need this job, because you are a fifty-five-year-old widow from the village which once boasted battle elephants and paddy fields but now hosts abandoned homes and back-alley surgeries, and all that must stay hidden if you are to survive in this city.
You dream of your grandmother often.
The back door is open, and the sun is still below the mangosteen trees. Your grandmother stands barefoot on the stone step, listening to the birds. You hide in the kitchen doorway to watch her; she is wearing the sari that signals the start of the work week, frangipani white edged with ivory ribbon. When she shifts her feet, you catch the flash of crimson that wraps around her ankle, and the game begins. It’s a game to you then, naming these people whom you know only through the bindings. The crimson is for Loku, your grandmother’s big brother, who drowned during the monsoon as a boy. Her arms are wrapped in nutmeg brown and cinnamon orange for Kasun and Mala, her best friends who died during the mahout war. Your grandmother’s hair is dyed night black, heavy coils still loose down her back, and if she turned around you could see the mangosteen purple bindings that curl around her throat, in memory of the day your grandfather died. There are other stories under her sari that you can’t see but know by heart. The stone step beneath her feet is stained with memory just like the pharmacy tiles, leaked over the years from a hasty first binding or a quick change at night.
The kettle starts whistling and she turns; you startle. She smiles. “Up already, baby? Come then, help me make tea.”
You follow her to the wood stove, hopping from one memory to another as if they are patterns on a carpet. You wash the metal cups while your grandmother measures tea leaves. Outside, the birdsong is winding down; you hear the distant clop-clop of a bullock cart turning off Sacred Heart Road.
“Have your mother and father woken up?” your grandmother asks, measuring milk powder and sugar into a pink plastic jug.
Your grandmother sighs and shakes her head; this means she is disappointed that your parents will oversleep instead of helping her at the pharmacy, which is busy on Monday mornings. Her disappointment is familiar; your parents go into the jungle every weekend to do something you’re not allowed to ask about, and they are always tired on Monday mornings. You tug at your grandmother’s sari to offer a solution you think will work for everyone. “But I can come with you to the pharmacy! I can help!”
She laughs, pouring the brewed tea into the jug. “I’ve told you before, baby, you’re still too small. You can come after you get your first colors.”
“But I want to come now!” you insist, pouting. “I can just wear bandages like yours, and no one will ask questions!”
There is something strange in your grandmother’s eyes, but you can’t see it then. “It doesn’t work that way, baby. Now do you want to stand here talking or do you want to finish the tea?”
You clap your hands and stand on tiptoes. Your grandmother lifts you into her arms with a grunt, until you can hoist the jug with both hands and pour. The tea hits the first metal cup as a churning froth, and you giggle; your grandmother steadies the cup with one hand and murmurs encouragement. You keep pouring, until the cup holds three-quarters tea and one-quarter bubbles; this is how your parents like to drink it, especially after jungle weekends. Your grandmother gives you the brass tea tray to carry into the dark house; behind you, the sun is rising over the mangosteen trees as your grandmother sits down on the step to change her bindings.
You are seven years old, visiting the village temple with your family, a few months before the city police shut it down. Your grandmother binds the neglected Rifts of the few beggars who haven’t yet been arrested; your parents leave flowers and sheaves of new rice at the altars. You, on the other hand, only have eyes for the enclosure behind the stupa, where a murmuring crowd is staring at twin elephant calves tethered in a nest of sugar cane. You don’t understand why seeing them makes your parents gasp and touch the scars behind each other’s ears. You don’t hear their furious whispers about how the calves belonged to a mahout whose mount had been shot dead beneath her, how she’d bled out because the city police forbade anyone from binding her Rifts and wounds, how the temple claimed her elephant’s calves, but her young son is still missing. You hear none of it. You are only fascinated by these small, bumbling creatures, trumpeting to themselves under the temple torches; you clamor to feed them sugarcane, and when your parents refuse and hurry you home, you sulk for days.
Your grandmother is standing over you when you wake up. “Put on your clothes,” is all she says before leaving the room. You burrow deeper under the blanket that used to be your mother’s; you haven’t left your parents’ bed since their funeral. They are your first Bereaved; for the first time in your life, you understand why city people hate the backwards village folk who believe a strip of linen can absorb the hideous pain of losing a person.
Then your grandmother is back; she pulls you out of bed, drags the nightgown off your body, and whips a white sari into place around you. You shriek and struggle, but the bones in her arms are like iron bars against your ineffectual fists. She grabs you by the back of the neck like a stray cat and bundles you outside towards Sacred Heart Road. It’s not even four in the morning; the stars are still out. She is running by the time you reach the shops; you’re wheezing and stumbling, dizzy with the effort of ignoring the twin Rifts throbbing in your calves. Your grandmother pushes you into the pharmacy and padlocks the door.
“What are you doing?” you gasp, sinking to the floor. She lights a kerosene lamp and disappears into the alcove; you hear the ladder scraping across the tiles. “I’m not opening the shop today,” you say, grabbing the counter and pulling yourself up. “Amma and Baba wouldn’t have done it if it was us. We just buried them, for God’s sake—”
Your grandmother charges out of the alcove. She pushes you back against the counter, reaches under your sari and rips the bindings off your legs. You shriek; colors spray across the floor, indigo for Amma, turquoise for Baba. Elephants and paddy fields, Amma’s wild laugh and Baba’s rare approving smiles, flowing further away from you with every second.
“What are you doing?” you wail again through gritted teeth as your grandmother unrolls waxy adhesive tape that you’ve never seen in her hands before. She wraps it over the Rifts on your right leg; the colors seep through immediately and the adhesive burns your skin. You open your mouth to scream for help and your grandmother slaps you.
“Keep quiet, you fool child!” she hisses. You stare at her, too terrified even to sob. In all your seventeen years, your grandmother has never looked like this. Her face is all bones; her eyes are darker than potholes on a moonless road.
“These Rifts can’t be allowed to heal,” she continues, starting to wrap your other leg. “They’re too clean, too neat. Perfect grief. Perfect closure. One look and the city police will know that we know exactly how your parents died!”
“The city police? Why would they look—I don’t understand—”
“Neela!” Your grandmother’s fingers seize your face. “Your parents were mahouts. They rode battle elephants. The cities are mowing down Rift healers and elephant stables in every direction and your parents getting themselves killed just put us in the crosshairs for both those crimes!”
You flinch away. “They’re not crimes! You told me it was an honor to heal the Bereaved! You said a family of healers and mahouts was a legacy you never expected to leave—”
“Because it’s a death sentence, baby.”
Your grandmother sniffs. Her hands, stained to the wrist, drop the bandages on the floor, something else you’ve never seen her do. “When the investigation starts, you say you had no idea that your parents were mahouts until you found them dead. That we have no idea if they trained any more mahouts, or harbored any other elephants, or who tried to hide their elephants from the executioners. You say that I forced you to heal the Bereaved because there are no other jobs, and God knows things are bad enough that they’ll believe you. You say you want to get married and go to the city the first chance you get, because all your parents gave you were Rifts that won’t heal properly.”
You shake your head, then stop when the pharmacy spins around you. Somewhere down the road, the village dogs start barking. “No,” you try to say. “No, it isn’t true. We have to tell them, or they’ll never learn. They have to know the bindings are the only way we can heal—”
The look on your grandmother’s face is the strangest one she’s worn yet. You think it might be pity. “Baby, you don’t understand,” she whispers. “The cities can’t know that the Rifts don’t really heal, or that death isn’t the only thing that triggers them, or what they’re for. We fought and lost a war to protect that knowledge. They already know too much; if they knew what the Rifts can really do—”
“What the Rifts can really do? They don’t do anything; they just help us remember—”
“Exactly,” your grandmother snarls. “They help us remember. Remembrance is human, and the Rifts help us hold on to our humanity. The things that bind us together. The things that remind us who we loved, who we fought for, who we used to be. That’s what the cities are trying to wipe out, and that’s why you’re never going to be safe—”
Someone hammers at the door, and your grandmother stands. She hikes up her sari and you see that there are matching streams of indigo and turquoise staining the crimson binding she wears for her brother. Amma and Baba. She must have left footprints all the way here, manufacturing undeniable proof of a healer family’s unhealing wounds to save both your lives. In that moment, you hate her for it. She walks to the door and you stay slumped by the counter, watching the memories of your parents join a thousand nameless strangers on the pharmacy floor.
You’ve been in the city two years when you see Hailé again.
Leaving a work shift always makes you dizzy. The searing steel walls trap the fluorescent lights and refract them down to the white plastic tables, until everything looks the way you imagine the world will appear in a few years: whitewashed, sterile, ghostly. After eleven hours in that barren metal belly, you stagger like a drunk the minute you collide with the city colors. They’re not true colors—spinning headlights, the yellow eyes of skyscrapers, the smoggy not-blue of what sky is left—but they’re still a million times more stimulating than the sterile factory floor. You reel on the pavement every evening, and you hate that what always grounds you is the sight of someone’s artificially colored plastic tape or bandage or the surgical scar where they used to have a Rift. Chalk, Bone, Milk, and Rice. Little taunts of what the world will become, floating across your field of vision like milk suds in tea. You’re almost to the bus stop when someone says, “Neela!”
You turn. It’s Hailé’s voice, you’d know it anywhere, but you can’t see him; most of the surrounding crowd has just left the factory, browbeaten faces hunched into their coats. The only person not on the move is a tall man in an ivory three-piece suit, standing at the entrance to the factory car park. You look up and down the street twice before you realize the tall man is looking at you.
You stare and stare and slowly recognition dawns, even though it should be impossible. “Hailé?”
He steps across the pavement towards you. The stream of workers parts for him and then flows on, and that gives you pause, because no ordinary person gets a right-of-way in this district. This man who sounds like Hailé has hands that are pale with the plastic wrap favored by executives and a hat more expensive than your apartment. He looks grotesque, alien, like something out of the Technicolor movies that still play in the monochrome cinemas; you cannot see a single inch of his skin. Like many cosmetically challenged citizens, he’s wearing a mask, but the difference is that you recognize this one. It’s a Palliative product, the latest thing in cosmetic tech, only released last week and advertised nonstop on screens across the city. It snaps onto the face like a second skin and retails for more than you can ever hope to earn.
Suddenly you are afraid. This man knows your village name and sounds like someone you haven’t seen in twenty years, but voice boxes can be manipulated, just like Rifts and faces. You step gingerly backwards; you can’t run, not at your age, not in this crowd, but you are still deep in the industrial district. You just need to evade him long enough for the pickpockets to swarm him, then slip away through the chaos.
You retreat through the crowd and he steps after you with the unsteadiness of a rich man unused to confronting the unwashed masses. Someone jostles him and the hat flies off his head, disappearing underfoot. Both of you freeze.
Years and years ago, Hailé cut his hair by hand in his one-room shack on Trincomalee Street; he told you the village barber couldn’t navigate his tight curls and would probably scalp him in the process. You used to joke that no binding in the world would ever match the shade of those curls. There’s silver in this man’s hair now, threading through the strands like city snow through cobblestones, but then you see it again, as he stoops to snag the hat—a flash of color. A misshapen green sticking plaster, behind his ear, just where the hairline ends.
It’s not a Rift, even if the sticking plaster is meant to imply as much; it’s a physical scar, the curved ankus mark that all village mahouts are given on the day they choose their elephant. On your thirteenth birthday, your father explained that the mahout’s mark survived the rise of the cities and predated the mahout war, a practice as old as the elephant-human partnership itself. A mahout bound themselves to their mount by taking a cut from the same weapon used to defend them, to fight beside them, to plant over their grave when they fell in battle. Your father had never seen a mahout refuse the mark, even after bearing it made outlaws of them.
You were there the day Hailé chose his mark and his mount. Even under the green plastic, you know that scar like your own skin, and it triggers a gush of memories that sets every Rift under your bindings aching. The full moon night your father cut carefully into Hailé’s skin, in a jungle clearing so isolated that only the four elephants bearing witness knew how to find it. The burn in your gut as Hailé drew from the wound and left crimson handprints on two massive brows, finally claiming as his own the twin tuskers your parents had stolen from the temple to keep his mahout mother’s legacy alive. The blur of years where you staunched a steadily worsening stream of Rifts at your grandmother’s side, while he soothed his own Rifts with ever-riskier raids against the city forces; the months where the only person you had left to bind your Rifts was Raj. The morning Hailé staggered into the pharmacy you’d told him never to visit, while one of his tuskers died slowly beside a destroyed police post and its Bereaved twin wrecked the village. The moment you nearly failed to bind his Rifts, knowing all the while that if your husband hunted down that last tusker first, Hailé would bleed out on the pharmacy floor no matter what you did.
The sudden rumble of wheels shifts you back into the present; your bus is approaching. You flag it down and climb inside, knowing without looking that Hailé will follow you.
Hailé doesn’t remove his mask until he crosses the threshold of your apartment. You have your back to him, lighting the candle stubs on the kitchen table and pulling back the curtains to saturate the cramped space with the glow of billboards and screens and rattling monorail cars. You turn around in time to see the city colors strike his bared face and your hands fly immediately to your stomach; you back away, hunched into yourself, without taking your eyes off him.
The first Rift you see is a diagonal slash in his cheek; it pulses a burning crimson that turns maroon when it meets his skin. You know at once who caused this one, like you know the others under his clothes; later you’ll ask what city-dwelling blasphemy he’s committed in trying to erase them, but right now your eyes move to the second Rift, which stretches clear across his forehead. Hailé has aged too; the Rift might resemble another frown line, except for how it leaks a shade of blue you haven’t seen on another person in twenty years.
You sink onto the rattan mat that covers the dingy floor, arms wrapped around your midriff. “I see why you invested in the mask,” you say, with a detachment you don’t feel.
He must have been wearing cosmetic tech for decades; no one can evade the city police with an unhealing Rift like that. Freed from the mask, the memories run amok down the jut of his nose, the planes of his cheeks, the hollow of his throat. The sticking plaster over his mahout’s mark is saturated; his suit is ruined. Not that it matters, you think; given the caliber of cosmetic tech he’s wearing, a new suit is the least of what he can afford to have repaired.
“Raj was right,” you say. “Everyone sells out to the city in the end.”
His face twists; it was cruel to bring up Raj, but you are feeling cruel. You are feeling things you haven’t felt in decades as he rasps, “What else was I supposed to do?”
“You could have kept fighting,” you hiss. “You left the village without a protector, and I know my parents taught you better. You could have found a way to help us, but you never looked back. Amma and Baba passed on everything they knew, and you decided that legacy would vanish with you—”
“Clearly I wasn’t the only one,” Hailé scoffs. “The fact that you’re willing to live in squalor like this, one nobody among nine million, tells me you haven’t thought about either of our legacies in a long time. You work on a factory line. You look twenty years older than your grandmother ever did. Before you accuse me of never looking back, do you even remember who we used to be?”
His voice still breaks the words apart at the edges, and for a moment, it takes you back to a dark dawn road again, your hand around a racing wrist, your world broken open—but this time you’re the one leaving bleeding footprints. You stagger upright, haul the wicker suitcase from under your bed, and upend the contents onto the mat.
Your memory of the night Raj died always begins with Hailé’s frantic face. “You said you wanted this!” he shouts.
You can’t spare the breath to reassure him. The Rift is opening before your eyes, cleaving your skin apart from wrist to elbow. You thought it would be white, because everything that Raj brought into your life was rotten; instead, the Rift pulses red, the bright crimson of a wedding sari, visible even in the rain-whipped dark of the jungle. Dimly you acknowledge that the pain could be worse, that it was worse when your grandmother died, and your parents before that—but it is still agony to move, to pull the milky bindings out of your pouch and wrap them one-handed over the Rift. The linen is soaked in seconds, memory fluid mixing with rainwater; it splatters over your already drenched sari as you kneel in the mud, fighting tooth and nail against unconsciousness.
There is a splash and a curse; Hailé has leapt off the elephant and is struggling down the path towards you. One of your eyes is swollen shut in the wake of Raj’s final punch, but even so you can still make out the massive bulk of the bull elephant behind Hailé. Battle tusker, last of his kind, shadow among shadows. High up, a red eye gleams furiously in the light staggering over from the village; you cringe closer to the ground, like an animal that has slipped a rung on the food chain. Then Hailé sinks to his knees before you, his shaking hands catching the trailing bindings. You taught him everything he knows about healing, so he must know you can’t heal this Rift out here, especially with the wrong shade of bindings. He glances off the path. There is something dark dripping from his curls.
“We can still stop the Rift,” he says, and the loathing in his voice is so thick you could choke on it. “We might be able to save him.”
You follow his gaze. Raj is lying at the edge of the paddy field. He’s still alive; the unbroken fingers of his right hand are moving, even though the knuckles are dark where he bruised them on your body. His face is turned away, and for that you are grateful, even as your eyes skitter over the bones that have erupted through his skin, a kneecap here, a scapula there. Raj’s body is more familiar to you than any other, but right now you cannot tell where his Rifts end and his bodily wounds begin.
The first impact was when the tusks caught him in the chest and flung him away from you; Hailé had glanced back, seen Raj struggling to stand, and steered the tusker around a second time. Feet the size of hubcaps landed on Raj’s spine. You are a healer of memories, not a surgeon, and you were a mahout family’s heiress, but you never went to war; until tonight you never knew the sound of all the body’s bones breaking together. There is no reversing this. Even as you watch, Raj’s hand stills in the mud, and the Rift in your arm cracks the crook of your elbow. Hailé throws the binding over it and pulls tight.
You scream. Hailé claps a hand across your mouth, but the damage is done; the elephant bellows behind you, the sound unimaginably huge. Across the field, lights flare inside the tavern.
You scrabble feebly at Hailé and slur, “You have to go,” even though you’re not sure how much he can hear, or if he’s even listening. “They’re going to come for you.”
“You’re still bleeding, let me bind it again—”
He’s rummaging through your pouch. Beyond him, you can see torch lights bobbing away from the tavern. The rain is clearing up. “I’ll come back,” Hailé is rambling, trying to find the right colors. “Damn it, Neela, why did you only bring white bindings? I have to go to the pharmacy, I should be there when they bring you in—”
“You have to go,” you snarl, and finally he stops. “You need to leave the village. They know you’re a mahout, they know you harbored battle elephants, and you and your tusker just killed Raj. Hailé, if you don’t leave now, they’re going to kill us all.”
There is shouting by the tavern now; more lights are approaching. The tusker bellows again, pawing the earth; Hailé swings his head wildly from you to the tavern to the tusker and back. “He’s dead now,” he says, and his voice is ashen. “It’s what you wanted. You’d never have married him if you could have married me. He broke you. Why does he get to leave you a Rift?”
He reaches for you again. “Why won’t you let me heal you?”
Before you know it, you are scrambling backwards through the mud. “Hailé,” you say, and your voice breaks his name, creates syllables where there have never been any. “You murdered my husband. Don’t you think you’ve done enough?”
For a moment there is silence. Then Hailé drops the bindings in the mud and turns away from you. He shouts a command and the tusker roars; its bulk dips and wavers for a moment before rising to its thunderous height. It wheels around and crashes into the forest. You kneel in the mud, propped on the arm not bleeding crimson, feeling the earth shake. You know by heart the sound of a battle tusker’s headlong jungle charge, and you hear the moment Hailé leaves the village boundaries.
Then fire explodes across your chest.
It is nothing like the Rift in your arm. It is like no pain you have ever experienced. You shriek, clawing with your uninjured hand at your sari blouse, ripping seams and flinging buttons into the jungle. There is a Rift opening under your collarbone, stretching diagonally across your chest. It is slow-moving and hooked deep and you crumple in the mud, still screaming. The Rift burns like a brand, and you can feel the shape it means to carve into your skin. It reaches your stomach and keeps going.
Torchlights hit the tree trunks above you; the sky is a furious damson. In your last seconds of consciousness, you raise a hand to your face and realize it is stained with a color so potent it has swallowed your wedding ring whole, a color you have seen once before but still cannot name.
You flip the latch on the suitcase and immediately choke on the scents that erupt into the air: mothballs and ancient linen, ivory and rust. You brush them away and reach inside the case, pushing through colors you have not seen in years until you find what you need. The rolled-up bindings are fragile as parchment, their original width and weight the only thing that prevents them from crumbling between your fingers the way human-scale bindings would.
Hailé’s plastic-wrapped hands are trembling. “These are—”
“Theirs. Yes.” Carefully, you liberate the first roll of linen from the tangled colors and place it on the rattan mat. Even after all these decades, the turquoise catches the light like dragonfly wings.
“Maha Pambata.” Your father’s tusker, eight feet high at the shoulder; he was the gentle one, whom you rode on the day you turned thirteen and your parents finally revealed how they spent those weekends in the jungle. When you came back to earth again, your mother showed you how to replace the turquoise binding around Maha Pambata’s left foreleg, your grandmother shouting suggestions from the sidelines.
“He let me practice as long as I wanted,” you murmur. “I think he knew, the first time I rode him, that helping bind the herd was the only time I felt like part of the mahout family and the healing family.”
“That was the first time I saw you,” says Hailé.
He’s still looking at the bindings, but for a moment the memory is suspended between you; the sun-soaked jungle paddock, Maha Pambata flinging up his trunk in gentle greeting, an answering trumpet that drew your attention to the half-grown tusker emerging from the trees, the wiry, curly-headed boy perched on his neck, the red-eyed shadow on the path behind them. You shake it off to reach back into the suitcase and this time the bindings are indigo and ragged, spilling across the floor like ink.
“Kandula,” Hailé exclaims. “You kept them.”
“Of course I kept them.”
You arrange the bindings beside Maha Pambata’s, refusing to give Hailé the satisfaction of berating, once again, your mother’s darling; Kandula, small for a battle elephant but flighty and full of deadly speed, driven so desperate by an unhealing battle wound that he caused the stampede that killed your parents. You think Hailé might press the point, but then you reach into the case again, and his attention sharpens. You know what he’s thinking; you avoid his gaze when you say, “I never found Abdul. You never wanted to talk about him after I bound your Rift, so I thought you took his bindings along when you left.”
“I never got a chance,” Hailé whispers bitterly. “They burned his body. The day they shot him. The day I came to the pharmacy. And I escaped with the clothes on my back, later; I couldn’t have brought them along. I never knew if they did the same with—”
“—Mahmud,” you finish. “No, they buried Mahmud. Everyone thought you were dead; there was no point burning him. No one left to sicken into submission.”
And you bring out the last roll of bindings.
The crimson burns at the rest of the colors, deadly even in the nearly dark room. Hailé takes the bindings from your arms, letting them unravel, and closes his eyes. You remember them both, the twin tuskers, jungle-raised and full-grown on the day Hailé took his mahout’s mark from your father’s ankus. Abdul had been the biddable brother, the docile peacekeeper of their little herd, his bindings the same shade as an April sky above ripe paddy fields; in a different time he would have lived out his days in the jungle, without ever needing to fight for or against humankind.
But Mahmud had been born for war. Mahmud had been the holy-grail, the ten-foot tusker, the red-eyed jewel of the ancient kings. After his twin’s death he was monstrous, but Hailé had still mastered him, had wielded him like a nine-ton sword to murder Raj in that paddy field, had nearly died trying to save him. Had carried his memory through the exile and the cities. Had loved him.
“How did you find these?” Hailé whispers now. His face is ravaged. The rattan mat is soaked blue-crimson around his feet and you can’t bring yourself to care. “I stole them,” you say.
He looks up then, about to ask you for details, but you stand. It’s barely scabbed over in your mind, the memory of the night you broke into the police compound that had been built over the temple, the horror of unwinding the barely dry bindings from that still, mountainous form before the earth swallowed the last legacy left by your parents, Hailé’s mother, your grandmother. But this is not a story you want to tell tonight. The apartment reeks of old bones.
“Did you ever find out the name of the color?” you ask instead. “You must have tried, no, given all the answers your money can buy you now?”
“Which color?” he asks, instead of rising to the bait.
“The color you bled when they murdered Abdul,” you say, suddenly too exhausted to be anything but blunt. “That Rift on your cheek is for Mahmud, but the one on your forehead is leaking the color I couldn’t find, that morning in the pharmacy. We bled the same color when you left.”
Hailé stares at you. “We bled?”
You’re still wearing your city work clothes. You fumble with zips and buttons and sleeves and drop your coat; the front of your blouse hangs open. Hailé tries to get to his feet, but you grasp the bindings around your torso and pull.
There is a spray of blue; it sluices over your chest and ribs and hips and splashes across the mat. Hailé skitters backwards, clutching Mahmud’s bindings to his chest; you laugh and glance down at yourself. You haven’t looked the Rift in the eye for years; the skin around the edges is crisping, indigo in some places and crimson in others, the memories bleeding together.
“I called it tusker blue,” you say to Hailé, watching as your memories seep across the floor, staining the bindings before reaching his feet. Your colors meet and coalesce, become indistinguishable. “It’s what you bleed when you grieve for those still living, those left behind—you and me and the last battle elephant. It’s the one color I never learned how to heal.”
The memories are flowing faster now, your ruined clothes changing color like an advertisement screen. Hailé is rummaging desperately through the suitcase for a shade of healing that doesn’t exist. You leave him and stagger towards the open window, gazing out into the jungle of lit skyscrapers, flashing monorail windows, and hovering fluorescent haze. You grasp the windowsill and close your eyes, and for a moment, somewhere between the screaming wheels and the exploding screens, you hear a battle tusker bellow.