Beasts of Burden
By Gargi Mehra
Arts Illustrated's Short Story Contest, Second Runner-up
In the dream, her hands are tied. Nandita kneels on the earth, deep in the middle of the forest, coir ropes binding her wrists. Somewhere else in the woods, sunlight filters through the canopy of leaves and lights up the soil. But not where she is trapped now, her hips resting on her ankles. Things have turned blurry before her eyes. She can see almost nothing through the tendrils of hair falling on either side of her face, and the sweat rolling onto her eyelids. She cries out for help. Through the shadows, a creature comes into shape before her eyes. An owl, its beady eyes regarding her closely. A king cobra lies curled up beside it. Fright takes hold of her, as she watches a crow trot up next to them, and then a peacock. The silhouette of a woman, standing behind the animals, reveals itself to her, but she can’t make out her features. Release me, please, she whispers. They observe her for a few moments. Then the snake uncoils itself and glides towards her. Surely it will loosen the cords binding her wrist, but no, it slithers up her torso and around her chest, winding itself around her, tighter, until she can’t breathe.
In one whooping gasp she wakes up, her hands clammy and her breath tight in her chest. She knows what the dream means. She knows who to call.
On her eighth birthday, Nandita tore open her gifts to find an unusual one from Rani, her sworn enemy at school. It was pretty enough – a wooden set of animals straight out of Aesop’s fables. A tawny owl perched atop the branch of a tree, a gnarled stump beside it, and a strange assortment of beasts. A jackal, a fox, a rabbit, even a crow and lion and a peacock. Nandita’s young eyes noticed the coiled-up cobra much later, nestled among everything else.
Her parents laughed at the present. Too childish for an eight-year-old, they said, but she loved playing with it. Every day after school she’d go straight to the cupboard and take out the set.
She detested the person who’d presented it, though. Perfect Rani, flaunting her curly hair and light grey eyes, winning all the singing competitions, topping the class, captaining the basketball team.
In later years, Rani rose to Prefect and then Head Girl, before sweeping up all the accolades and striding into St. Stephen’s College to earn the highest honours. Nandita watched from the side-lines, waiting for a chance at glory that never came.
Nandita climbs atop a stool and drags down boxes of her old things from the loft. She finds it in the last one she opens. The wild animals are gone. No more cunning jackals and clever foxes tumbled out from the little packet where she had stowed them. The bunny rabbit and the lion are also missing, but the others – the ones that filled her dream – they’re all right there.
Nandita now knows – the animals embody the might of Rani. They would haunt her until the end of their days, and so would Rani, until she did something about it.
She cannot locate her but from somewhere she hunts down Rani’s mother’s number.
It rings many times before someone picks up. A husky voice answers.
Something’s wrong. ‘Hello, Aunty?’ Nandita asks.
‘Who is this?’
Nandita reminds her, how they lived next door to each other in CR Park until Nandita’s father packed up and swept her family away to Noida.
Aunty remembers. ‘Ah, Nandita!’
It sounds like she might say something more but her voice trails away.
‘May I speak to Rani, Aunty?’
A stifled sob sounds down the line. ‘Oh, beta, what can I tell you?’
Nandita’s chest tightens again.
‘She committed suicide, three days ago.’
That was when she first had the dream. The news stuns for a moment, then she blurts it out: ‘But what happened, aunty?’
Aunty sniffs. ‘I don’t know, beta. She never told me anything. I thought everything was fine in her life.’
Nandita inhaled. ‘I am sorry to hear all this.’
Aunty sobs again. ‘Tell me, how did you remember her?’
She can’t tell her about the dream. ‘I just found the toy she had given me when we were young, and it reminded me of her.’
‘That was Rani, always doing little things to make others happy.’
Nandita cannot bring herself to disagree, and mumbles something.
‘We are in Kolkata now. Tomorrow we will disperse her ashes in the Ganga.’
Nandita offers her condolences, promises to visit whenever she can, and hangs up the phone.
Rani never cared for anyone except herself, and maybe her parents.
Nandita wanders the streets and finally locates the place where she can exorcise the ghost.
The dream has ravaged her nights, but she grasps it now. Rani has left this world and moved on. Her animals need to move on with her too. Her spirit resides in them.
The priest builds a funeral pyre as he would for a person, stocking logs one upon the other until a small pile is formed.
The images flash before Nandita’s eyes.
The way Rani mimicked her in front of everyone. She tosses the crow into the fire.
How she pulled down her pants accidentally-on-purpose during PE class. The peacock lands into the flames.
Chanting ‘Nandy is Dandy’. The cobra burns faster than the others.
Whining about her to the teacher when she had done nothing wrong. The owl, together with its little tree and gnarled stump, all dissolve in the fire.
She watches until she can glimpse little of the remnants. The smell of smoke clogs her nostrils. She shifts her position, away from the plumes.
In the end, nothing remains except a pile of ashes.
Nandita takes home the urn. On the way, she empties its contents into the Yamuna.
That night, she eases into a dreamless sleep.
About Gargi Mehra
Gargi Mehra is a software professional by day, a writer by night and a mother of two at all times. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines online and in print. She maintains her website at gargimehra.com.