This beautiful story explores the concept of healing much more than the physical body. Shveta shared this is “for Bai and Bhaa, who live in the flat of my heart.”
The Mango Tree
by Shveta Thakrar
“When I was young,” Baa said, “and I lived in Bhuj, my best friend was a kesar mango tree.”
She picked up a mature yellow-orange mango from the kitchen counter and began slicing it with her small knife. Lata could already taste the tangy, sweet-tart juice on her tongue. Sucking on the pit was her favorite thing, even though she always ended up with fibers lodged between her teeth.
In the adjoining living room, the fan whirred overhead, a lazy rhythm that did little to move the humid, stifling air around. Even the ancient window unit didn’t help. Lata gulped down her glass of water and, still thirsty, stared at the luscious fruit.
“These mangoes are nothing like the ones from that tree,” her grandmother went on. “Dry and sour in comparison. That tree loved me.”
Lata was barely listening. She’d heard this story so many times already, and Baa couldn’t really expect her to believe in spirits, could she? It was bad enough that Dadaji and she still dragged Lata to the mandir for regular devotions. Lata supposed she believed in the gods; it made sense that someone had made the world she lived in, and there was something comforting in the idea of the cosmos that housed her going through a birth and death and rebirth cycle. Even the universe got a second chance.
It wasn’t that she didn’t care, she decided. The brilliant colors and delicious food that went along with ritual were so much fun, but she just couldn’t imagine the gods concerned themselves with the opinions of some girl from Mumbai. Plus the old scriptures didn’t seem that relevant in the modern world. Who wore topknots and went begging for alms nowadays? Maybe a sadhu on the street, but no one she knew.
Really, what did any of that matter when she still had to figure out what she wanted to study? Everyone thought she should go into medicine, including Baa, but she herself wasn’t so sure.
“One for me,” Baa teased, setting a piece aside, “and one for you.” She handed the next slice to Lata, who immediately bit into the vivid orange flesh. Nectar dripped down over her chin, and she swiped at it with the back of her hand. It was nice just to stand here in the kitchen and eat fruit her grandmother had cut for her. “Sometimes I think my tree was better than any person. I knew exactly what to expect from her.”
“Her?” This was new. Baa had spent many hours talking to her tree, hugging it, and eating its fruit, but she’d never gendered it.
“Oh, yes,” said Baa, “her. My tree housed a yakshi.”
Laughing, Lata sprinkled her next piece with cayenne powder. One of the first things Baa had taught her was that cayenne induced sweating, which helped reduce body temperature, making hot days like today slightly more bearable. “Come on, Baa, how could you possibly believe that?”
Baa’s frown deepened the wrinkles behind her glasses. “What would you know, city girl? You grew up with all this cell phone bell phone computer business. What do you know of the earth? Of Bhoomi Devi? Of the sky and the nakshatras?”
Lata started to reply, but Baa sighed. “The whole world is different now. In my day, I didn’t even see Dadaji before we got married, and we wouldn’t have let your mother date. Today everyone runs around in skimpy clothes and lives with those cell phone bell phones attached to their ears.”
Lata considered the summery purple dress she was wearing, then Baa’s green-and-pink sari. The thought of her eighty-seven-year-old grandmother texting made her giggle. “It’s true, Baa. The world is coming to an end.”
“Shh!” Baa made swatting motions. “Don’t summon the evil eye.”
Baa and her superstitions! “Sorry, Baaji.”
They finished the mango, and Lata quickly washed and dried the knife. Outside the open window, the sounds of the city combined to form an aural wallpaper: horns honking, people talking avidly in different languages, someone playing the latest Bollywood pop loud enough for the entire street to hear.
As Lata was about to discard the gotli she’d sucked clean, Baa shook her head. “Might as well plant that.”
Running her tongue over the fibers between her teeth, Lata set the large oval pit on the windowsill to dry. Planting it couldn’t hurt. Maybe it would sprout, and they’d have their own little mango tree right there in the middle of the city.
The next day, after school let out, Lata stopped in the flourishing Ayurvedic medical practice on the first floor of Baa’s building. People who seemed like they wouldn’t trust anything outside a sterile, stainless-steel-and-chrome office setting flocked to her grandparents’ clinic, migrating birds in search of nourishment.
And the Drs. Dalal always provided. Whether it was a nightly cup of warm turmeric doodh for inflammation, a regimen of ashwagandha and pranayama breathing for depression, or sweetened coriander paste taken internally for excessive menstrual bleeding, Baa and Dadaji always had a prescription ready to dole out. It made no difference whether a poor laborer paid in barter or Bollywood glitterati with a platinum credit card; no one was turned away. Lata still hadn’t gotten over the starstruck wonder of seeing a real, live blockbuster actress who’d recently crossed over into American cinema stroll into her grandparents’ office for a consultation. Just like that, so casually, as if she were any other patient.
While Baa saw the actress, Lata organized the stock of herbs and supplements they kept on hand, powders, capsules, tinctures, some bitter, some sweet, some pungent and spicy. Baa had dried and pounded and ground so many of them. That wasn’t practical, of course, and she relied mostly on suppliers she trusted, but she insisted part of the magic was in preparing the medication herself. Something about getting her hands on it. In it. Lata didn’t quite understand, but if it made Bai happy, she wasn’t going to argue.
Once she was done, Lata climbed the three flights to the flat and headed straight for the refrigerator. A large bowl full of shrikhand greeted her on the top shelf. The golden, strained full-cream yogurt was her favorite, sweetened with sugar and cardamom and brightened by saffron, then dusted with slivers of pistachio and almond. With some of yesterday’s puri to scoop it up, it would make a perfect afternoon treat.
Then she hurried to the open-air room with the hammock. It was screened in to keep out the mosquitoes but allowed in enough sunlight to be cozy. Lata had made it her own by hanging a cotton ajrak from the middle of the ceiling, turning the hammock into a perfect color-splashed reading nook.
Tuning out the traffic below, all the cars that never stopped whooshing by and blaring their horns, Lata curled up in the hammock with her snack and a book she’d just gotten, a teen adventure set in outer space. Everyone at school was raving about the dreamy hero, but she’d had to study for an exam before she could find out why.
Her phone buzzed, and she reluctantly set chapter two aside. Her best friend Nisha wanted to know how the book was. Well, Lata would actually need to read it before she could answer that.
Laughing, she told Nisha as much and turned off her phone. Before she knew it, she was three more chapters in and had just polished off the last velvety bite of shrikhand. With a sigh, she turned another page.
“Hello,” a voice said, and Lata almost leaped into the air. Had someone broken in? Men on the street liked to stare, and occasionally a few had even dared to follow her, but no one had ever been quite this aggressive.
“Down here,” the unseen speaker added, “in the pot.”
Lata glanced around, though the ajrak blocked her view. Baa kept a whole garden in containers out here—when it came to growing tulsi, she didn’t have just a green thumb but also an index finger and pinky finger—though as far as Lata knew, plants didn’t talk. She peered over her shoulder, anxious now. Who was pranking her?
She jabbed the button to turn her phone back on. Dusk had slipped in while she was reading, stealthy as a thief, staining the familiar corners with dark shadows.
The breeze shifted direction, carrying both car exhaust and the spicy fragrance of tulsi to Lata’s nose. Unsheathing imaginary claws, she pushed herself out of the hammock and tugged the ajrak aside. “What’s going on?”
A put-upon grumble followed. “You already forgot your poor mango seed? Maybe you don’t deserve a tree of your own.”
Lata rushed toward the earthenware pot in which she’d planted the gotli the day before. Instead of a seedling or even just a lot of soil, an entire tree pushed its way out of the pot. It shouldn’t have fit; the pot was barely enough for a houseplant, yet there it was, a mature kesar mango tree happily blooming in the middle of a third-story flat in Mumbai.
And out of the darkness of its leaves emerged a handsome boy.
No, not a boy, Lata corrected herself. A yaksha, a forest-dwelling caretaker of the earth and its hidden treasures. It made no sense, any more than a full-grown tree fitting into a tiny clay pot, but she couldn’t deny what he was. She knew the old folktales too well for that.
She inspected him. He was tall, with a muscular bare chest, a yellow dhoti wrapped around his strong legs, and a curved sword sheathed at his hip. It figured she’d gotten the fierce-warrior type of yaksha, not the short, portly imp she could have defended herself against. “What do you want?”
The yaksha smiled. “So I hear you like mangoes as much as your grandmother?”
The yaksha’s name was Pranav, and if the fantastical tale he’d volunteered up was to be believed, his family had known Baa ever since she was a child in Bhuj. “You planted the seed, and here I am.”
Lata supposed he was. She observed him some more. He was quite good-looking in a fairy-tale way, his cheekbones high and pronounced, his long black hair tied back under his gold crown, his dark eyes naughty with potential capers, but it was like giggling over a movie star from afar. You watched his movies, you sighed over his posters, and that was as far as it ever went. The fantasy was what sparkled, not the reality of the person behind the face.
Then again, if in the classic stories, Asvatthama could be born with a jewel embedded in his forehead, if Prince Yudhisthir’s chariot could float two inches off the ground on the condition that he spoke only truth, if Princess Savitri could trick Yama, Lord of Death, into restoring her husband’s life, Lata guessed there was no reason a yaksha couldn’t show up in her grandmother’s modern-day flat. It was no less bizarre than the mango tree, anyway.
She glanced at the tree, whose branches now sprouted clusters of pink-and-white buds. At this rate, it would be fruiting by midnight.
Something behind them rustled, and a light flashed on. Both Lata and Pranav whirled around. “Champaben!” the yaksha exclaimed, putting his palms together before his face. “Are you keeping well?”
Baa looked at him carefully before responding. Lata had never witnessed her be surprised by anything, which Baa claimed was because she’d gone through so much in her life, and even now, she just nodded. “Little Pranav,” she said. “How is your mother?”
“She’s well, bahen, and sends her pranaam.”
“His mother…you mean, your yakshi?” Lata asked at the same time.
Baa waggled her head. “Who do you think taught me my spells?”
“Ayurveda? That’s not—” Lata began.
“Of course it’s magic,” Baa said, waving her off. “All healing modalities have their origin in understanding the deeper connection that binds us all. We talk about science, but we need to remember magic, too.”
“Well,” said Lata. “Well.” She felt like she should say something, but it was a lot to take in at once. “Well,” she said a third time, and sat back down in the hammock.
Pranav produced a smooth, orange-yellow-skinned mango and offered it to her. It smelled like all the sweetest verses of a poem, and she didn’t need to squeeze it to know it would be just as ripe and juicy, an edible jewel. “You know,” he said suddenly, “you don’t look much like the Melody Queen at all.”
Lata wished she had a rupee for every time someone teased her for sharing a name with Lata Mangeshkar, the greatest film singer to come out of India. She’d be as rich as Lataji herself. “Lots of people have that name. Millions, even. And before you ask, no, I can’t sing.”
She actually could, but it was easier to pretend otherwise. And the joke had at least restored normalcy, enough that she could grab hold and use it to find her footing again.
Baa held out her hand for the mango. “Why don’t you take Pranav out for some sightseeing? He’s never been here before. Perhaps you can take him for chaat.” While Lata considered, Baa said, “And you, don’t think I don’t know what kind of masti yakshas like to get into. None of that with my granddaughter around, understood?”
Pranav bowed his head. “Yes, ji,” he said, but Lata didn’t miss the sparkle in his eye.
She bit her lip so Baa couldn’t see the smile threatening to burst out.
But Baa saw it, anyway. She always did.
Lata and Pranav met Nisha for dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant. The yaksha had announced his desire to try new foods, and the Jade Garden was the first thing Lata could think of. She herded him toward the round table where Nisha sat, introduced him as a family friend, and ordered him sweet corn soup, spicy Szechuan paneer, and vegetable stir-fry. He struggled with the chopsticks but finally decided to eat the gobi Manchurian by hand, dipping the battered cauliflower chunks in the red chilli sauce. Seconds later, he wore the look of sheer gustatorial bliss that only came when tongue and stomach met in perfect harmony.
Lata exchanged an amused glance with Nisha. She’d made Pranav remove his crown and sword and trade his dhoti for the jeans and T-shirt Baa had found in her closet—almost as if she’d been expecting him—but was that enough to disguise his nature? Or would Nisha recognize the truth?
“So where did you say you were from again?” Nisha asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Bhuj,” answered Pranav, ladling himself another bowl of soup. Lata couldn’t believe how much he’d polished off already. Did they even feed him back home?
“And how do you know Doctorji?”
“She was friendly with my mother when she lived in Bhuj,” Pranav said, “and we were reunited when I came out of the mango tree Lata planted.” He poured more tea for everyone. “What about you? How do you know Lata?”
Nisha had managed to swallow her laugh and wait a few minutes before pulling Lata into the restroom. Once the door swung shut behind them, she pounced. “Who is this guy? He ‘came out of the mango tree you planted’?”
Lata knew her smile was watery. “Um, you look really pretty?” It was true; Nisha’s curls were nicely fluffed and pinned with a peacock barrette, and her blue-green dress with the gold zari embroidery set off her medium-brown skin. But that wasn’t enough to distract her. “It’s complicated.”
“Fine,” said Nisha, “don’t tell me. But you owe me for dinner at least.”
It wasn’t that Lata didn’t want to tell her. It was that she didn’t know what to say. Why was Pranav even here?
“So what do you want to do now,” she asked once they’d returned to the table and paid the bill, “go see a movie?” What did a yaksha do for fun besides hang out in forests and cause mischief? “Or we could go get dessert—kulfi or gelato or something.”
As they walked past the hostess station on their way out, the plants on either side immediately grew two inches, and a vine curled onto the hostess’s shoulder like a kind hand. Lata braced herself for yelling, but the hostess, on the phone with a customer, merely brushed the vine away. Still, Lata couldn’t usher Pranav out the door fast enough.
On the street, Pranav caught sight of Nisha’s scooter, illegally parked as always. It was small, magenta, and swift, a birthday present from Nisha’s parents when she’d turned eighteen a few months before. Pranav stroked the handlebars with reverence. “What a little gem. Could I try her out?”
Nisha raised her eyebrows at Lata, who made a puzzled face, and handed Pranav the key. “I guess. But only if you go with him.”
Lata didn’t really like scooters, plus her American cousins had given her a hard time for riding without a helmet, but before she knew it, she was straddling the bike, her arms around Pranav. He revved the engine and zoomed into the sea of traffic: rickshaws, taxis, buses, private cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and of course, scooters. No one followed traffic signals, vehicles cut from lane to lane with no warning, and pedestrians just hurled themselves into the mess when they wanted to cross.
“This is amazing!” Pranav declared, darting between cars and speeding around turns without signaling. Lata pinched her eyes shut. The scooter rumbled into the night, finally zipping right through the toll booth leading to Marine Drive and earning a chorus of angry horns and shouts.
Amazing wasn’t the word Lata would have used, what with the harsh gusts lashing at her cheeks and hair, but she just tried not to throw up. Finally she wrenched her eyes open and stared out at the illuminated waterline. If she was going to die tonight, she might as well go out with her gaze on something beautiful.
To her surprise, the sight of the glittering bay opened a well of calm in her, some part that wasn’t afraid of the whipping wind or the risk of flipping over at high speed. Some part that didn’t want to be anywhere but riding into adventure behind a yaksha who had popped out of a mango tree’s branches.
Her pulse began to relax. From this vantage point, she could see just one or two stars in the sky, the ones that hadn’t been washed out by nightlife and air pollution. What would happen if she wished on them? What if she wished to stay right there forever, suspended over the water lining one of the largest cities in the world?
Lata didn’t know how much time had passed when a voice whispered, “We’ve been waiting for you.”
“Who are you?” she whispered back, shivering.
Pranav must have heard it, too, because he spun the scooter around and drove even faster. “Time to go!” he bellowed over the roar of the wind. Lata forgot the whisper and leaned forward, holding on tightly. She could go so fast, so very fast…
It was almost a shame when they pulled up before the restaurant, where a frantic Nisha was yelling something into her phone. When she saw them, she dropped her phone into her purse. “Where were you? I thought you were just going to drive around the block!”
“It’s my fault,” Pranav said smoothly, bowing. He patted the scooter’s handlebar. “I couldn’t resist the lure of this little wonder.”
Nisha rolled her eyes and snatched her key back. “Well, I have to go—”
“We’re waiting,” the voice whispered again.
“I knew I heard something!” Lata said, her skin erupting into goose bumps. “Who was that?”
Pranav’s expression darkened. Trees and bushes burst out of the sidewalk around him, shattering the cement. Lata counted garnet Japanese maples, huge, domelike banyans, birches with silvery bark, bold holly berries with sharp, glossy leaves, and raspberries plump and pinkish-red. Her eyes widened, and she stepped backward.
“We have to go,” Pranav told her, grasping her wrist.
Nisha shook her head, then reached out and gripped Lata’s other arm. “What are you?”
“He’s a yaksha,” Lata mumbled, and was rewarded with the purest look of disbelief she’d ever seen. This one said plainly, You have left our solar system and are heading straight for the nearest black hole.
Then there wasn’t any time to say anything else, because Pranav pulled them through the trunk of a banyan tree.
They emerged into an arid night sky copiously spread with stars like icing sugar. The air smelled clean, fresh. Their feet touched down on cool sand that immediately worked its way into Lata’s shoes. She wanted to kick them off and run around. “Is this the yaksha kingdom?”
Pranav snickered. “Hardly. Surely you know Bhuj, considering your grandmother grew up here?”
Lata’s cheeks flamed. She wasn’t about to tell him she’d never been to Bhuj. City girl, indeed. “What are we doing here?”
“Yeah,” said Nisha, who looked like she might fall over. “Were we inside a tree?”
“Yakshas have the power to travel anywhere at will as long as it’s dark,” Pranav said. “It was just easier for me to bring you along through a portal. And to answer your question, Lata, there are people here who want to meet you. People your grandma knows.”
He glanced at Nisha. “You know, you weren’t supposed to come.” Then he shrugged. “Too late now!”
Nisha glared at him. “I don’t remember asking to come! My mummy-papa must be panicking, wondering where I am.”
The moon emerged from its dupatta of clouds like a shy bride, and an invisible paintbrush lacquered the expanse of land before them with a silver patina—including the band of women with their own filmy, gold-rimmed dupattas flowing around their heads.
If that wasn’t strange enough, Lata could make out the blood red of the women’s clothing, their individual skin tones. The women stood close together, whispering, their backs to her.
Something was off about this picture, but she couldn’t place it.
“Do you believe in witches?” Pranav asked, grinning.
The women began to dance then, long, thick braids swishing from side to side as they did. They cast their hands up to the moon as if in supplication. Something deep in Lata yearned to go to them, and she did, leaving Nisha and Pranav to bicker.
As one, the women turned to meet Lata, each holding a lit oil lamp. The sight of the burning diyas against the stark landscape was so enchanting, it took Lata more than a minute to realize what was wrong: the women’s feet were turned backward, and their fanged mouths, whether young or old, radiant or hideous, raged with a furious grief that threatened to slice her own heart in two.
Daayan! The witches of lore, the women who had been turned to something else after death. Something that returned, full of rotted passion, and drank the blood of men.
“So you have come to us at last,” one daayan said, her fangs gleaming as she smiled. They bit into her cheeks, yet she didn’t appear to notice. “To sing to us as we dance?”
“Nisha’s a better singer than I am,” Lata said honestly, gesturing to her friend. Nisha, her eyes darting back and forth, tried to hide behind Pranav, who, despite the gloom, sat on a rock, reading a book.
Lata realized with delight she could see in the darkness well enough to tell which book. It was the adventure story she’d dropped when Pranav had appeared in the mango tree. She laughed. He was so ridiculous.
“Aren’t you afraid of us?” a younger daayan asked, her face as lovely as any temple sculpture. Scarlet droplets trickled down her chin where her fangs pierced the skin.
“No,” said Lata. She really wasn’t. Raw emotion swirled off the women and buffeted her, strong as any hurricane’s gales. “I want to help you,” she said, startling even herself.
The older daayan shook her head and moved closer. Lata would have expected her rearward feet to trip her up, but instead she drifted over the sand until she was nearly nose-to-nose with Lata.
“When I was younger,” the daayan said, “all I wanted was to be loved.” Her night-colored eyes were rheumy with a misting of nostalgia, yet Lata didn’t doubt for even a second that the old woman was completely aware of her surroundings.
“No sudden moves,” the woman agreed, as if Lata had spoken her thought. “I could rip open your throat if I wanted.” Lata held up her hands in surrender. Pranav just yawned.
“We all wanted that,” another woman said, alike enough in looks to be the first woman’s sister. “To be desired, to be seen.” She cast Lata a speculative glance. “Did you ever want a child of your own? A husband to love you?”
Lata thought about the question. “I don’t really know.” She’d assumed she’d get married eventually and have children; that was what most people did. But she’d never actively craved that future.
So what did she want?
The women exchanged jeers. “Such freedom, not to have to worry about such things!”
“Perhaps I should claw her eyes out and let her become one of us,” another daayan suggested, waving her fingers with their unnaturally long nails.
Lata’s heart began to pound and her underarms to sweat, the fear she hadn’t had minutes before flooding through her. What had Pranav done, bringing her to these women? They might shred her as readily as speak to her.
Nisha appeared at her side. “You will do no such thing,” she told the daayan. “We’re not the people who hurt you.”
The women started to weep in unison. “They hunted me and threw acid in my face,” one sobbed.
“They beat me until I lost my child,” another wailed.
“They called me bad luck and cast me out of my own house,” moaned a third.
Wrath mixed with anguish battered Lata’s senses, a tempest of undiluted despair. She instinctively reached for Nisha’s hand to steady herself, but the storm came on, bruising and abrading her heart. Story after story of mistreatment made its way into her ears, her brain, her bloodstream, followed by anger hot and bright as fire.
“They’ve hated us,” the daayan collectively whispered. “For so long, there’s been nothing else, just this lingering pain, this existence as a ghost. They call us witches, and perhaps we are.”
“We drink their blood because we want them to pay,” said the old daayan who had first spoken. “They stole our place in the world; now we steal theirs.”
“That’s so horrible!” cried Nisha. “What can we do?”
“Yes, tell us,” said Lata, her mouth bitter with the metallic residue of their blood pain.
“Your baa knew us,” the daayan said. “She came here once, too, to help one of us who had been taken against her will by a man whose advances she’d previously refused. She was brave; she wanted to see the man punished, and her family even stood by her, but the community did not. So your grandmother helped her flee.”
A star twinkled overhead, winking a signal Lata couldn’t understand. In a story, it would be so simple. She’d be able to reach up and pluck the star from the sky, and it would give her the answer, the cure. In real life, she just watched and felt so very small. This is wrong. All of it. No one should suffer like this in life and then again in death.
“I have a plan,” murmured Nisha, nudging her in the side. “If we get rid of their braids, they’ll be banished from this form for twenty-one years.”
She yanked a pair of nail scissors from her purse and moved toward the nearest daayan.
No, thought Lata, her lower lip between her teeth. “Nisha!”
“What are you doing?” Pranav asked. He looked at Lata. “I brought you here to fix this. Think.”
Before she could respond, the daayan shrieked and shoved Nisha to the ground. The scissors flew from her hand and landed tip-down in the sand before toppling. “How dare you, little wretch?” the daayan growled.
The other daayan formed a tight circle around Nisha and moved in. Wild as they had looked before, their glowers now were far worse, like static electricity compared to a bolt of lightning, as they stared down at Nisha. “You would banish us?”
Pranav frowned, all playfulness erased. “Stop,” he said. The daayan paid him no mind.
“I read somewhere that cutting your braids would free you for a while!” Nisha managed to say, her voice wobbling. “Somewhere online.”
Lata needed to do something. She riffled through the conversation they’d had since arriving here. Something niggled the back of her brain, just out of reach. What was it, something about her grandmother?
“They call us demons,” said the second daayan. Her fangs elongated and retracted, and she twirled in agitated circles. “They say we destroy everything good, that we are responsible for their woes.”
“Perhaps we should be,” said the first, reaching for Nisha. A droplet of blood spilled from her fang and splashed on Nisha’s chest. She shuddered.
Though Lata didn’t know what the solution was, she did know the women weren’t demons. They had done their best in a world that hadn’t learned how to make space for them. But it would.
“Pranav!” she shouted. “I need you.”
Pranav materialized by her side. “It’s about time.”
“I have an idea. You’re a yaksha; go find these herbs.” She gave him a list. “Get them from wherever you need to.”
Ayurveda. Baa had helped one of these women with her own knowledge; now it was Lata’s turn. She thought of how Baa had said healing was rooted in magic as much as science, and fell back into the well of calm she’d discovered while riding on the scooter. It felt taking a dip in a cool pool on a summer afternoon, first shocking her, then putting her at ease.
Pranav returned just minutes later with the herbs, and Lata accepted them, running her fingers over the plants. Information about how to combine the herbs streamed out of them and into Lata’s mind. Tulsi did this. Gotu kola that. Tamarind something else altogether. It was all too much.
This must be why Baa liked to make her own medications. The connection was whole, real. And so overwhelming. Lata reeled.
I can’t do this, she thought. I don’t even know if I have what it takes to be a doctor. There had to be some other way to save Nisha.
But as she met Nisha’s terrified eyes, she knew there wasn’t.
Pranav nodded at her. “I know you can do this.”
Yes. Yes, she could. “Come to me,” Lata told the women. “I can heal you once and for all.”
A handful of the women approached. They could tear Lata to bits if they wanted, but she trusted that they wouldn’t, not when she could help them. She listened once more to the tulsi root, the gotu kola leaf, and the tamarind concentrate before mixing them into a paste. Then she offered each woman a cowrie shell–sized portion. “Eat this.”
A few daayan put the pellets on their tongues and waited. Lata held her breath, and Nisha and Pranav watched intently. Would it work?
Then one by one, the women who had taken the medication quieted. A feather of smoke spiraled around each of their bodies, turning them more and more translucent until they vanished altogether. But what struck Lata was the serenity in their faces as they departed. It reverberated in the air, a veena string growing still. She couldn’t stop smiling.
The other, warier daayan clamored for their share of the spell, and Lata quickly distributed what was left. Again, the daayan’s bodies dissolved into stardust, and then nothing at all.
She’d done it! She’d given these restless spirits the peace they’d been denied in life. Pranav beamed, helped Nisha to her feet, and even hugged her.
Maybe, thought Lata, already contemplating other places in the world where women needed the aid of other women, she could handle this healing thing after all.
Lata and Baa sat in the kitchen, drinking a cup of just-sweet-enough masala chaa at the tiny table. “I told that boy to keep you out of trouble, so naturally he did the opposite.”
Lata laughed. “You knew he was going to, Baa. Don’t pretend you didn’t.”
“Of course I did,” said Baa, sounding affronted. “What kind of person do you take me for? It was time for you to see what I had seen. If you want to be a healer, you need to know there are different types of wounds.” She scrutinized Lata’s face. “Do you want to be a healer? My practice will be yours one day if you want it.”
“That’s awhile from now, though, right?” Lata asked, gulping her chaa too hastily and burning the roof her mouth. The spices glided over her scalded tongue, and to divert herself from the pain, she mentally chanted the merits of each.
“You still have to learn patience, girl,” Baa said, shaking her head. “But there’s hope for you yet.”
They ate the chevdo Baa had set out, enjoying the zesty mix of rice flakes, crunchy lentils, fried potato sticks, peanuts, and raisins in silence, when Pranav manifested. “I came to check on my tree,” he said, helping himself to a giant scoop of the chevdo. “And maybe go for another ride on that scooter?”
“Oh, gods,” said Lata, but she grinned at him. “Only if there’s a mango in it for Nisha and me at the end.”
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, Mythic Delirium, Uncanny, Faerie, Strange Horizons, Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold, and Legendry. 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.