Ammi Was Right
I knew the basics of survival. My mother had already given up on trying to confine my unmanageable bouts of adventure and had resigned instead to teaching me a few life hacks in the hope of preventing my untimely death. Or that is how she used to put it in order to emphasize on the gravity of the situation. To her, there was no transition from normal health to injury and from injury to demise. For her, every day was perfectly radiant until a demon pounced on me and gobbled me up for good.
So, when the faint snap of a twig ascended from the ground in my vicinity, my ears shot up like a rabbit's and I froze midway in my gallop. It did not take long for the slivers of sunlight to tear through the high canopy and reflect off the skin of a dark, glistening mass, slowly emerging from the shadows of a concealed bush. I shut my eyes in reflex, in accordance with my mother's lessons and began humming in the tone of a pious devotee,
"If anything moves that isn't wind, hold your ground and stand still."
Having chanted it five times, I began opening my eyes at a snail's pace. The blurred sight of my nemesis began to cleanse itself and by the time my eyes were wide open, I could see my reflection in hers. I watched her arch back slowly, lower itself but maintaining her glare all the while. She eventually turned around and left in the same sinuous grace with which she had arrived.
The snake was gone.
Ammi was right, I recalled while panting at the door of our bungalow,
"Innocence and honesty are immune to evil."
This incident happened a week ago. Seven days hence, seated at the breakfast table, I watched something change in my Ammi's demeanor. "Finish your cereals", she nudged me with an uncharacteristic urgency in her voice.
"We're going someplace today. I've built you a home in the woods like you always wanted!", she finished with a feigned smile.
Even though I've always behaved to the contrary, I do not blame her for having tried to convert me into a hermit. Because our house and its surroundings did not essentially exude an assurance of security, Ammi was right in her concern for my wellbeing. Our bungalow was a withering mass of dilapidated woods, entrenched within miles and miles of unforgiving woods. Presently, it housed my father, Colonel Debdut Banerjee, now retired after having served twenty years as an Army Doctor, my mother Asifa Hameed and me, their seven-year-old runt. My father still practised in private and operated within those walls on anyone who came to him in need.
He was pacing in his study when Ammi took me by my hand a went back around the house to a little enclosure behind the Peepal trees. At first, I could not figure out what I was looking at. It was only when she pointed out that I realized how she'd dug a hole in the ground and covered it with branches and twigs and a little opening that was barely enough for me to glide through. She kissed me on my forehead and asked me to remember everything she had taught.
"If you come out in the light, you lose, okay? Stay put." And she left.
I sat there hunched and restless, staring through the only slit my mother had allowed in the nest at my fervent requests. Half an hour later, I heard leaves rustling all around me on a day that had so far been unusually still.
"If anything moves that isn't wind...", I froze on my spot, like I had practiced a million times before. This time too, the Sun extended its fingers through the dense canopy, to shed light on a swarm of creatures crawling up the slope towards my house. The metal on their bodies glistened as they gesticulated to each other in coordinated signals and braced themselves at the threshold of the bungalow.
"Innocence and honesty are immune to evil", I assured myself as I watched the men in masks beaming with the foresight of an assured victory.
I was calm because I knew my parents were praying the same and no harm could befall them. Ammi is never wrong, I had promised myself. I had seen it, felt it in my bones barely a week ago.
What resultantly ensued, ensued in a haze and noise whose limits I was hitherto unused to. My mind swam through a torrent of words like 'betrayal', 'pig', 'religion', 'scum', 'cow', 'Hindu', 'shame', none of which made sense to me no matter what order I put them in. They eventually exited the house; men in saffron huddled in one corner of the courtyard and men with beards in the other. They raised their fire torches in unison and lit up what was left of those dying wooden panels and of the tattered humans inside.
It was then that I realized that the lines around the game were starting to blur. Something did not seem right. I was not allowed to get up, I was not allowed to scream. Ammi was still asking me to believe in her, to follow what she had taught me for so long. The most I could do without betraying her was to prise my fingers at the end of an outstretched arm that was making its way through the slit in the nest in an effort to hold onto anything but oblivion.
And then it went dark.
I woke up, God knows how many hours later, to a fetid smell of ash and charred remains. The blur of my nemesis was slowly cleansing itself into a clearer picture. By the time my eyes were wide open, all I could see was the moon dancing off the shimmer of the snake's eyes. There was no more light, just like Ammi had promised.
It was time to come out.