by Shveta Thakrar
Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian–flavored fantasy, social justice activist, and part-time nagini. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, Interfictions Online, Clockwork Phoenix 5, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Mothership Zeta, and more. When not spinning stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames, Shveta crafts, devours books, daydreams, draws, travels, bakes, and occasionally even plays her harp.
for Karuna Riazi, an inextinguishable candle against the gloom
That was all the rakshasi could think of, how she longed to sink her sharp fangs into freshly caught flesh, how delicious a still-beating heart would taste. An organ ripped from a rib cage, sundered valves dripping crimson, muscle still supple and slippery from the life that had animated it just moments before.
She stepped off the pedestal. How fine it was to breathe once more, to stretch long-stiff limbs.
Centuries upon centuries spent as stone, and for what? What crime had she committed? She had simply disguised herself as a lovely maiden, thick of tress and lash, curvy, and with large, mischievous eyes. Then, slowly, she’d approached the handsome young fisherman on the riverbank and let him know of her interest in his company.
She didn’t often dally with humans, preferring to lure in and make meals of the worst of them, but occasionally romancing them offered a nice diversion.
Clearly charmed by her attention, the man had plucked a flower from the grass and offered it to her. She’d accepted both the blossom and the invitation to stroll along the water — past the house where a great rishi dwelled. “My house,” the fisherman explained.
They’d met this way each day for months, their walks growing more languid, more intimate. He was different, kind, always offering her food before he took any, murmuring to her of his wishes and dreams. The rakshasi allowed her heart to swell just a bit.
Perhaps she would even keep this one.
But some months after, they’d returned late, the fisherman’s basket of fish forgotten, to find the rishi waiting outside his house. The sage had immediately seen through the rakshasi’s veneer to the green skin and long teeth hiding beneath and cursed her for her deception.
The rakshasi had huffed. Deception! As if she were to blame for her natural ability to cast illusions and change her shape.
“Rakshasi,” the rishi had shouted, jabbing a finger in her direction, “you would dare to steal my son? A thousand years you will stand on this spot, a statue for all to see. A sign to warn those who would imitate your arrogance.”
She should have eaten him.
Instead, her disguise had fallen away. Her lungs had halted, her heart had ceased its rhythm, and each bit of her skin, each scrap of her sari, had hardened into marble. The last thing she’d perceived was her suitor turning away in revulsion.
His grimace would be forever etched into her memory. The rakshasi scowled. She certainly should have eaten him.
Of course, all that was a millennium behind her. She took another breath — and was promptly wracked with coughing.
The air! It wore a smoky haze and burned her lungs. She tasted filth, char. And what was that noise?
Rather than the golden chariots she’d always known, boxes zipped by on wheels. Even Arjun’s chariot had never been so fast. She glanced up. Lines of rectangular edifices taller than the mandirs in Madurai rose up into the sky, blocks that extended into the clouds. Their rows of glass panes reflected the sunlight, stinging her eyes.
For the first time in her lengthy life, the rakshasi faltered.
What had happened to the world she had lived in? This spot had been a riverbank lush with trees and flowers. Now there was only a strange gray material like the stone pedestal on which she’d passed so many years.
She hefted the pedestal with one hand and smashed it on the gray ground. It crumbled to smithereens. That, at least, felt good. No one would ever imprison her again.
As she dusted off her hands, a mortal man approached her. His manner of dress was so odd, she wasn’t sure at first that he was mortal. When he spoke, the words were unfamiliar. The rakshasi frowned. “Speak Sanskrit.” He bridled in surprise, then recited a shloka. How useless. She wanted information, not chants to invoke the gods. “I said speak Sanskrit.”
The man waggled his head and said something else she could not understand. She let out a heavy sigh and marveled at his short hair. Cropped so close to his scalp—why?
Her stomach roared, reminding her she had yet to eat.
Hungry. So hungry.
Grinning, he stepped closer. That was not what she was used to from mortal men. They feared her skin, her teeth. They feared her.
The man gripped her arm.
Glancing down, she realized she’d unknowingly donned her maidenly disguise once more. No wonder. He thought her soft, sweet fruit ripe for the plucking. They always did.
She shook him off as easily as though he were a gnat, knocking him back ten paces. “I gave you no leave to touch my person.”
The man, eyes wide, clambered to his feet. Then, muttering under his breath, he stalked off.
The rakshasi’s smile was bitter. A thousand years later, for all that the trappings of the world had changed, its heart remained the same.
He wouldn’t have tasted good, she reminded herself. He looked stringy and full of gristle.
She wandered toward the snaking gray path where the boxes rolled, all belching smoke. How could anyone find riding in them remotely comfortable?
All around her, pedestrians stopped and stared. Some pointed, some cringed, and others laughed as though she sported a costume. As though she were a joke for their entertainment. They said things that swept past her ears like the wailing of storm winds. But there was no fear. Certainly no respect.
It struck her then: no one recognized her. Perhaps the world had changed more than she knew.
Another man approached her, this one followed by a woman. He was quite attractive, even with the strip of strangely patterned silk knotted around and dangling from his neck—why would he wear a paashu, an easy weapon for an enemy? The rakshasi thought he looked a bit like the fisherman before his face had twisted in disgust.
Her eyes narrowed.
The man tapped the small box he held a few times and said something unintelligible to the woman, who nodded. Smiling, she addressed the rakshasi in Sanskrit. “Welcome.”
At last, someone who made sense. The rakshasi smiled in return. She rubbed her belly. “I’m hungry.”
The woman nodded, but before she could speak, the man said something to her. She shook her head. He said it again, louder, urgently, and when she again refused, they began to fight.
As the rakshasi observed them, her hunger grew.
More people stopped to watch. They smelled so good, the rakshasi’s mouth watered. She could almost hear the blood strumming in their veins. How hot and coppery it would taste . . .
The man shoved the woman, and the rakshasi flashed back to the rishi and his anger. Why hadn’t he punished his son for dallying with a rakshasi if he was so appalled? Why hadn’t the fisherman stood his ground?
Did history just repeat itself over and over until Kalki came to burn the universe to ashes once more?
This man was no different than the rest. His like had existed throughout history: Dushasana pulling off Draupadi’s sari against her will; Ravana abducting Sita and Ram rescuing her, only to abandon her in the woods; Arjun philandering his way through life. They would never learn.
They were prey, nothing more. Food to sate the appetite.
The rakshasi reached out and punched through the man’s chest. She emerged with his heart clutched in her fist, then took a huge bite of the bloody, dripping, still-beating mass. It tasted like life. Still chewing, she tipped back her head and moaned.
The crowd screamed and scattered. Some people raised the same kind of device the man had held and tapped at it before fleeing.
Then it was just the rakshasi and the woman. With blood dripping down her chin, the rakshasi waited to see what the woman would do.
“Thank you, sister.” For a second, the woman’s eyes gleamed with scarlet fire, and her skin flashed green as grass. “I’ve become too sentimental of late and stay longer with the meat than I should.”
Wonder of wonders; another rakshasi!
“But in the end, a girl must eat.” She nodded at the corpse now sprawled on the ground. “They may have forgotten us in these modern times, but we are still here. Come, let us find dessert.”
The woman winked a sly, deliberate wink. Then she transformed into a cat and sauntered off.
The rakshasi, lips still jewel bright with blood, did the same, becoming a sharp-clawed tabby. She would remind the world of her presence in it, one meal at a time. With delicate swipes of her tongue, she licked her chops clean and set off into the new world.
Originally published in Hanging Garden Stories, July 2016.