Oct/Nov 2021  •   Fiction

My Refuge in the Swirls of Her Chalk

by Vikram Ramakrishnan

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

Artwork borrowed from Unsplash.com

On the first day of winter, we would huddle together near our grandmother, Paati, and she would pull out a drawstring pouch from her azure sari's inexhaustible folds. She squatted on the sandy ground, sprinkling the bag's chalk in a grand white circle around us. On any of our birthdays, the chalk was vermillion. Fall, it was a ring of turmeric orange. On spring banana-leaf green, and during summer, her craft was thick with rainbows. Her magic was for our safety, she said, and we weren't allowed to cross the rendered thresholds.

One time I was hungry, my mouth salivating from the village scents of saffron-infused payasam and raisin-laden laddoos, and, when her back was to us, I tried tiptoeing across the circle. Paati roared. She was like a raging elephant protecting her children from a pack of poachers. She yanked my arm and pulled me back, flicking my ear.

All our holidays were like this. When we got older, and Paati's wrinkles had grown into deep crevices, her pottu slightly off-center, and her hair more wispy than lush, I stood up and asked her why she was so superstitious. Her eyes narrowed, and with the snap of her fingers, I felt compelled to sit back down.

It was not superstition, she said. As long as her chalk surrounded us, they wouldn't be able to hurt us. When we asked her who they were, her eyes went vast and distant, and her head shook faintly.

The summer before Paati died, her circle was more a jagged shape looping in heavy swirls around us. She was getting old, and as a form of courtesy to her, we kept up with the silly tradition.

That night, after sunset, we were all about ready to leave, but Paati told us to wait. I rolled my eyes and wanted so badly to go home, eat, and sleep. I was sore from sitting around all day. The sky blackened and draped itself over mangroves, like the woolen blankets we would throw over our shoulders on winter nights. Paati told us they were here. We needed to stay inside her circle. I tried saying it wasn't a circle anymore, but words fell from my mouth like dust.

Faint hisses and gentle thuds filled the night. Paati said to close our eyes and get real close. Worried, we all squeezed together and tucked our chins, throwing our arms over each others' shoulders, clenching our eyes tight. One of my brothers' prayers turned into uneasy, faltering whispers and then vanished altogether.

It was the first time I thought there was truth to Paati's rituals.

The hisses strengthened, and the gentle percussion turned into resounding beats like someone was playing an unholy drum, setting our bodies rattling. The wind picked up and buffeted us, and if we hadn't had our arms around each other, I surely would have fallen over.

The hisses became demanding voices, filling my head with unwavering insistence. Let go of your family, they said. Cross the threshold, and walk into our forever protection.

I had to look up.

Chimerical stone figures paced around us, swaying like dead puppets. Some bore lion heads atop naga bodies. Others wore visages of angry men, their bodies prowling about in tiger form. Their hundreds of arms ended in glistening claws, each wielding slim blades or blazing chakra. From their mouths—taut in eternal screams—fell long stone tongues, curling and gyrating, dripping slithering shadows onto the ground.

One of the lion-nagas flung a chakra at us. It flew like a shooting star in a lambent streak across the air. Paati caught it with her teeth, crushing and grinding the weapon until sprinkling stardust fell from her lips.

She was a divine dancer, her eyes an inferno of anger. Her body twisted into a compact form, arms looping through one another, her knee pointing to the sky. Her thick, gold nose stud gleamed in the night. She was a goddess in all her fury.

Her head still, her eyes flitted to mine, and their ferocity set my eyes clenching shut. I gripped my family tighter. The night was full of cries and growls, strange yelps seeming to bleed into my mind. Through it all, I felt refuge in our protectress.

Dawn parted the curtains that held the dark mangrove closed, and the sounds drifted away. Paati fell over with exhaustion. I held her frail head in my hands. A faint smile amused her lips as I fed her payasam to give her strength. She rolled over and pushed herself up with our help.

Her magic had touched us, and we were protected. We might have to protect others one day, she said. So she stood us all in a line and gave us little drawstring pouches. She pinched my cheek and ruffled my hair with chalk-stained fingers before limping away. The bag was azure like the sari she wore, a silk coat of grandmotherly armor that seemed, with or without the sun, to glow.