by Indrapramit Das
Namir watches his wife and son as they sift baking salt-pans under the sun. They help gather the wet mounds of white clay that will be turned to dry powder later. If they see him, they will avert their eyes. If he comes any closer, they will flee in fear and alert the village. He knows this. So he watches from afar, his clawed feet sunken in the cool shadowed side of a dune. The whiskers that cover his face and shoulders like tattoos of string-thin spines quiver in the breeze, picking up the emanations of their life-heat.
Sanih tries not to scan the shores of the dry lake for the tell-tale silhouette of Namir’s ghost, crouched behind a crescent curve of sand. She knows that her husband has passed on in the cycle of reincarnation, that his spirit now dwells in the body of a xir, a desert ghost.
Seven days ago, Namir collapsed beside Sanih, mouth foaming, hands white from salt gathering, already dead by the time the mozhar arrived with his tinctures. She cried into his warm, dry headscarf as if to dampen it again with her tears, cursing him for forgetting to soak it just once, and one time too many. She told her ten-year-old son that his dai was gone, and held the boy to herself to absorb his pain. Despite her own suffering, she is aware of the child’s shock, having lost her own dai to the scouring dust of a sandstorm. Her zai died in childbirth.
Six days ago Sanih rubbed every inch of Namir’s cold body with palm resin and oil, to sweeten his scent and lure his ghost to his own funereal meal. She wrapped him head to toe in a death-shroud, leaving the last three feet of its cotton length free so that she could use it to drag him from the tent to the edge of the village. She unwrapped the shroud and kissed his resin-candied lips at the end of this journey, arms aching, her son by her side, the tents of her village behind her, the other widows and widowers watching in silent recognition. She laid her husband to rest on the dunes under the light of Heshan-Bahal, the world-ghost, its vast half-sphere blazing with the light of the set sun, its rings a jewel-bright scythe slashing the dark sky. She said goodbye to Namir, whose time on this world as a man had ended, and she left his body unclad and alone for his new shape to feed on.
Five days ago, by dawn sun, she saw that the corpse was gone, and knew it had been taken and devoured by the juvenile xir that had caught Namir’s spirit in the desert, and come to the edge of the village, drawn by the scent of its past body. She lit incense in the temple-tent, one stick for each of the three carved salt idols; the cat, holder of the embryonic spirit; the human, holder of the median spirit; and the xir, which looks like cat and human both but is neither, holder of the ghost spirit. By this trinity she said a final prayer for Namir’s journey onward.
Four days ago, she joined the work of the village once more, and saw for the first time the xir prowling at the edges of the village, even during the day.
Sanih knows her time of grief is over. But yet she finds herself looking for that xir she knows is her husband’s ghost. When her son turns to look, she covers his eyes with her hand and turns him away. “It’s bad luck to look at ghosts, Dimir,” she says, and bites down on the air in her mouth as if it were a sadikh’s bit.
Every time the village moves to a new location, Sanih and Dimir, along with other wives and husbands and sons and daughters who have lost their loved ones, come to the edge of the tents at night, their tapers glowing in clay cups to draw a line of light in the dark beyond the village. There, at the edge of the desert gloaming, they leave their pots of meat and broken shell boiled in milk; leftovers from the communal supper, as an offering of respect to the ghosts of their families. It is also a deterrent to keep them from seeking prey in the village.
In the mornings, the pots are always empty, except for a few shattered remnants of shell. The xir are hunters, but they will scavenge, too, like any wise creature of the desert.
Namir tears the tender strings of meat from the giant beetle’s head in the pot, lapping up the smoky milk that it floats in with his long tongue. He uses his clawed hands to turn the chitin skull, punching holes in the shell with his long, curved thin tusks, to free knots of white flesh. He pulls away the remnants with smaller, but sharp, teeth.
He recognises the taste of the spiced milk, and like a sudden fever, is struck by the image of his wife Sanih in the supper tent, sitting on the other side of the palm-leaf mat where the dripping hunks of boiled beetle, still ensconced in cooked shell, are ladled. There are many hands taking food from the pile; but his eyes go only to hers as she plucks an eyeball, berry-black and soggy, and pops it into her mouth, mischievous and quick. She sits next to her dai, but doesn’t seem bothered by this as she eyes Namir flirtatiously through the pungent veil of steam rising off the supper. It is weeks before he will ask for her hand in marriage.
Namir hurls the beetle’s head away, a growl rippling through his body, his whiskers snapping upright. In the bright light of the stars and the world-ghost, the multicoloured sky-diadem of its other moon-worlds, he can see other ghosts picking through the other pots, all solitary, staying away from each other, their shadows long and lonesome on the sand.
A female watches him from afar, tusks stained with the blood of some kill from earlier in the day, her eyes lit amber. The whiskers on her back and shoulders quiver in a wave, a signal. He remembers Sanih looking at him through the steam, her lips shining with milk, silent beckoning; a kiss outside in the dark, the two of them tangling into one at the edge of the village, unafraid of ghosts. Namir whips around, looking toward the village, expecting to find her there standing at the edge. She is not. There is no one. The tents are dark, the humans all inside, asleep, the portals drawn closed to shield them from hungry ghosts. From him.
His lips peel back from his teeth as he refuses to meet the gaze of the female, and instead lopes away from these remnants of human food, filthy with his memories of a life that has ended. He can feel the other xir looking at him, the fresh juvenile, only just illumined with a spirit that still yearns for its previous existence. Or perhaps they can’t even tell—perhaps they don’t even know anymore that they hold spirits that once lived in humans. He can’t speak to ask them.
When Dimir wakes to the ravening scream of a xir, Sanih is already awake and ready to hold him close and kiss his head. The tent is dimly lit, the cloth walls saturated with the night light of Heshan-Bahal and its celestial host.
“Is that Dai-Namir?” Dimir asks, face covered in his sweat, eyes wide and blinking rapidly to rid themselves of their tears. “Is he…is he sad because he’s dead?”
“I don’t know if it’s him or some other ghost out there, Dimir. But Namir isn’t sad. He’s not your dai anymore, he’s a xir, and they don’t know sadness. He’ll forget he was ever a man, and when he dies again in the xir’s body, his spirit will finally go to Heshan-Bahal, the world-ghost, to meet every life that has ever passed away on this or any of the world-moons.”
“If Dai-Namir isn’t sad, why does he still come and watch us?”
She looks away from her son, closing her eyes, not wanting to answer. She forces herself to speak. “Don’t look at it, Dimir. I’ve told you. Don’t look at the ghosts. They’re hungry, that’s all. They’re hunters. If you see one, look away. And don’t ever try and sneak away from the village to see one.”
Dimir sniffs, taking a shivering breath.
“The desert is theirs at night, you must respect that. Promise me you won’t go looking for Namir,” she says, squeezing his small shoulder. He nods.
“I promise, Zai-Sanih,” he says. She smiles at his sincerity, and combs back his black hair with her fingers.
“Come now, no more crying. We must be strong, for the village; we have much more salt to gather, and beetles and game to hunt, and cattle to raise before summer comes, and we must reach the steppes. Our time for grief is over.”
And so it was. He would have to learn that, and so would she.
Sanih sees Dimir crouching near the tent’s portal. He is stroking a cat, its sand-white coat puckered and patched with scars. Its sky-blue eyes are narrowed, squeezing out rheum, its ears flattened. It is an old cat, one that Sanih has seen stay close to their village and follow their karvan when they move. Old cats sometimes stay longer than others in the village, to get leftovers because they are slower and can’t compete for prey or scavenge as well as younger ones.
“Careful, Dimir,” she says. She remembers trying to pet any and all the cats that wandered through the village as a child, and being scratched and bitten often. “They don’t always want to be touched by us.”
“This one does,” says Dimir, patting the creature’s fragile head. She can hear the subtle grumble of its purring even from where she’s standing. She has to admit that this one seems happy enough, luckily for Dimir.
“I gave it some scraps of the cured meat,” Dimir says, still looking into the cat’s face. He sounds sheepish.
“Dimir, I don’t have to tell you. They don’t need to be fed.”
“I know, Zai-Sanih. But…he’s going to die soon.”
Sanih holds her breath, and nods. “Yes. He is.”
Dimir looks up with his pale grey eyes, and he has never looked older to her. “When he dies, he’ll come back and become someone’s dai, won’t he?”
She smiles, bends to brush her hands across his smooth chin. “He will.”
“Good,” he says, nodding, as if satisfied by this simple answer. Sanih wants to hug him, tell him she’s proud of him. She wants to tell that she’s envious of his strength.
She lets him pet the cat.
When the next hunting trip is announced, Sanih takes the longbow from its rest at the corner of the tent, running her fingers along its coarse stave, etched with her and Namir’s names, his script-work a delicate tracery along the edge.
Sanih had watched Namir carve the bow on the week of their marriage. He had hacked away the fossil-wood heart of a fallen, desiccated megacactus dried out by flashfire, swinging his tulwar like a little boy, his black curls flying. She had helped him treat the wood and shave it down to a stave, then watched with a pang of pride as he turned serious but still boyish, tip of tongue sticking out of the corner of his pursed lips as he smoked the stave over a fire and bent it little by little, with the care of an artisan. She had waxed the string, tested it with her jaws, laughed at his arousal as he watched her do this. Namir had let her slip the end of the string through the first notch, and then taken it and threaded it through the second, tied it tight and strong.
The day they were wed, they went with a hunting-gathering party to the edge of a guelta lake, its rocky shores clad with scores of iridescent boulders—a swarm of basking beetles. The gatherers pried beetles from the ground, hands wrapped against snapping jaws, shoving the giant insects into sacks that would lull them to sleep. The pickers plucked clusters of dates, or dug under boulders for the fat black mushrooms the beetles often ate, or filled skins with water. The hunters searched for prey.
Together, Namir pressed up against her back, his hands guiding hers, helping her pull back the taut string with his thicker wrists, they shot the bow for the first time. Their arrow found a young seehet, killing it immediately. It was just large enough for the both of them.
They had skinned and roasted the lizard over a fire outside their tent, late at night, when the communal supper and celebrations were over, feeding each other in the quiet, mouths steaming in the cold, fingers slick with butter.
Sanih’s wrists and arms are stronger than that time they first pulled that string. She has drawn the bow many times. It bends more easily now, more supple from the years of use, but it still has its strength, never once cracking or splintering. Namir always let Sanih shoot when they went hunting together, so that she could get used to it.
Her fingers pluck at the worn script of their names. Slinging the bow over her shoulder and strapping the quiver to her back, she goes out and joins the hunting party. For the first time, she hunts without Namir. She brings back three seehet, and a vasikh fox.
When the Arrem traders come in their sand-ship, to barter for sacks of salt and desert meats to take to their cities, Sanih looks enviously at their etched metal masks and bulbous goggles, their ribbed tubes that make them look less than human and more like the giant beetles whose flesh they covet and buy from her people. But she knows their strange suits protect them from the desert. They have to lose no husbands or wives to the heat of the sun, or the fangs of rogue ghosts, or the scathing knife-winds of sandstorms. She has seen the spires and minarets and ziggurats of the Arrem cities on the horizon, glowing in the night like distant, burning palaces. She has seen their false stars rising up, leaving glowing scars against the sky.
The Arrem cut themselves off from the reincarnation-cycle in their cities; they send their ships into the sky, hoping to one day travel in them to the other world-moons, to Heshan-Bahal itself, a terrible folly that only they can one day discover the price of. She has always feared for them, for their fates, their spirits evaporating into the cold void between the stars instead of ascending to the world-ghost. They have become ghouls, in their sprawling, far-off cities.
But now she looks at them and envies them and their strange lives. They fear nothing, it seems; not even the xir, whom they hunt sometimes for their pelts, though this is never mentioned during trading camps because they know it is taboo here.
She walks amidst them in the shadow of their sand-ship, its great hull looming huge over the trading camp like a rusty axe-blade, its crowning fan of solar-foil sails reflecting a flickering rain of sunlight over the cluster of makeshift stalls. Because of their suits, the Arrem always make her fellow villagers look small and vulnerable as they barter and trade. Mostly they trade with skins of precious water from their cities’ deep-wells, each gourd the size a child. The air is filled with the sounds of haggling, the rumble of the ship’s mysterious engines.
Sanih touches one of them on the arm. He flinches and pulls back his arm to look at her. His goggles hide any trace of the humanity he shares with her.
“What do you see up there? When you send your ships out to the sky? Have you seen others on the world-moons? Have you seen past the clouds of Heshan-Bahal?” asks Sanih.
“I don’t understand, nomad. If you have something to trade, step to the mercantiles,” he said, his voice warped by the mask, his accent strange as he speaks her language, foreign to him. She sighs and nods.
So it is.
“Listen,” she says, loud and clear. She checks to see where Dimir is, running around the stalls with other children. “Listen to me. Please.”
“What is it?” he asks.
“You are a hunter. You have blades and gun.”
“Yes. They are not for trade.”
“I don’t want them. Just listen to me, I beg you. There is a xir following our village. Please, after you’re done trading here, go away, go far from here, if you must hunt the ghosts. Don’t hunt around here.”
The Arrem hunter’s gloved hand goes to the handle of his sheathed scimitar. He looks around. “Are you threatening me, nomad?”
Sanih raises her hands, palms open to show she has no weapons, and shakes her head. “No, no. Listen. My husband is dead. He is now a ghost, and he follows our village still. I don’t want his ghost to be shot and flayed for its pelt, like some ignoble spirit-empty beast. Please. Just go far from here, if you must hunt. That is all. Please.” She realises she is trembling. She has never before spoken to one of the Arrem, has only watched them barter with the village traders.
The hunter’s breath hisses in and out of the mask. She keeps her hands open and visible. The mirrored lenses flash with sunlight, the ghoul, spitting fire from its eyes.
His hand moves off the handle of the scimitar. He twitches his head, almost imperceptible, and walks away, heavy boots leaving craters in the sand. She touches her chest, feeling it rise and fall, wondering if it was a nod she saw. She feels light-headed, selfish, sweaty.
Namir watches his wife and son sifting the salt pans from afar, wishing he could come closer to see what they look like. He is now tracking them almost entirely by their emanations, his whiskers bristling always to catch them in the breeze. He is glad he can still sense them. But he is forgetting what they look like.
He still holds onto the memories of Sanih looking at him through the steam, tonguing the boiled eyeball into her cheek with a grin; of their first kiss in the cold desert night, shivering in a shared shawl; of watching his glistening newborn suckle his zai’s breast under the dappled shadows of an oasis; of little Dimir taking his first tottering steps onto the tender flank of a dune. But their faces are blurring, melting away, the details of each moment becoming confused. He wants to go closer to them, to see their faces again, but he resists, digging his claws into the packed sand. A growl rattles through his clenched teeth, his lips peeling back to bare fangs.
Sometimes, breath shallow with shame, Sanih gives Dimir a sleeping tincture with his supper water. Once he is deep in his dreams, she smoothes back the curls of his hair, kisses his forehead. Then, she wears the bow and leaves the tent to go to the edge of the village. There, she waits. If a vasikh or a giant scorpion comes near, she readies the bow, though they never make her shoot.
She waits, until the shape of Namir’s ghost appears crouched on the dunes, a sharp silhouette against the soft, swollen cloud-seas of Heshan-Bahal.
She wants to say his name but doesn’t, knowing that it may attack if she draws its attention too much or confuses it. But despite the fear that tightens her throat on these night walks, wrapped in her shawls, she feels nothing but relief when she sees Namir’s ghost still there, prowling at the edge of the village.
It hasn’t forgotten yet.
She wonders if she would walk up to it, offer herself to its jaws and tusks and claws, if Dimir weren’t alone and asleep in the village, blissful in the knowledge that his zai will be there when he wakes. She wonders what it would be like to be a ghost next to her husband.
Namir travels across dune seas, through forests of megacacti lit by the flaming curtains of firejacket hives; through rocky nests of giant beetles, their black moisture-gathering exoskeletons gemmed with condensation; through oases where he hunts herds of horned garradh and placid sadikh through diamond-clear sheets of precious water. He follows the shoreline of the great dried salt-sea, always behind the village as it moves toward the cooler steppes and mountains where its inhabitants will roam for summer.
Every time he sees his wife and son, he longs to come closer. His memories of them disappear like dreams each time he tries to think of them, so he tries not to. It saddens him that he cannot remember what they looked like, once, through human eyes. It saddens him that they are beginning to look like different creatures entirely, that his body reacts to their presence, and the presence of their fellow villagers, with a tense hunger.
But a xir cannot show sadness, as humans can. So he watches.
When the village settles at the edge of the steppes, the mountains finally on the horizon, Sanih is called to see the village Edei. They sit in council, in a circle, their faces sun-stained with age, creased from years of bearing out the desert winds. She sits in the centre of their circle. The tent is dim, lit only with a few tapers, the portal closed, letting in a thin line of sunlight that burns like a brand against her back.
Rehla, one of the council wives, tells her, “You’re still grieving for Namir, child Sanih.”
She doesn’t know what to say. “No, Edei.”
Barazak, one of the council husbands, tells her, “You don’t show it; it’s true. You’ve been strong, and have done your duties.”
“Yes, Edei. I beg forgiveness if I’ve failed any of them.”
“You haven’t,” says Rehla, sucking on the stem of the water-pipe they pass around, to keep their minds clear and just. The smell of burning reed is a welcome perfume, but Sanih is not comforted. “But you still grieve,” Rehla says with regret, and passes the pipe as her throat hitches, a grey gobbet of smoke spilling from her lips and nose.
“Your time of grieving is long over, Sanih. Summer is never easy. Your spirit must not yearn for things it has lost and cannot have. It will sap your will, and jeopardise our entire village,” says Hashil, another husband.
“I have grieved, Edei. It is done.”
“Sanih, my dear,” sighs Barazak, bowing his head to her in respect, to show he thinks that she is not telling a lie, as such. “You may not have even admitted it to yourself. But Namir’s ghost follows us still, and it’s been too long. It has broken the cattle enclosures on three different nights, and it has already taken two garradh, and a sadikh, and it’s becoming bolder. We can’t ignore it any longer.”
Larih, another wife, nods, her brow furrowed. “It is a xir, and a most dangerous presence to be constantly with us. For now, it’s just taking away our livelihood, but this will change. The only reason it could still be stalking the village is you, Sanih. It senses your emanations, your grief, and it’s drawn to it. You’re not letting Namir’s ghost live out its life as a xir, you’re confusing it. If this goes on, it will kill you and Dimir, and become rogue, mad.”
Sanih closes her eyes. She knows they are telling the truth.
“Edei, I have a question for you all. If Namir’s ghost kills Dimir and me, would it be so bad? We would find ourselves amongst the xir, alongside Namir, and we would be one step closer to transmigration, to Heshan-Bahal. Why is that a thing to avoid?”
“Sanih, it’s a sin to give oneself deliberately to the xir. You know this,” says Rehla, calmly.
Bazakir shakes his head, slapping his knees in anger. “If we all fell to our feet by the xir like so many chickens, we would die out entirely, and the chain of reincarnation would be broken. We would turn cats to spirit-stagnant ghouls, like the Arrem have done for themselves, and the new generations of xir would become mad, spirit-empty demons,” he says, his jaw clenched and leaping with every word, his long white beard sweeping across his chest.
Rehla places one hand on Bazakir’s shoulder, calming him. She turns to Sanih, her eyes watery with age and smoke. “Namir was young, and so are you, Sanih. We know this. It is difficult. Believe me, I know. I’ve lost two husbands and a daughter in one lifetime. But you must move past your grief, or you’ll endanger all of us. I know you wouldn’t put your own son in harm’s way.”
Sanih feels a sudden, stabbing shame at her insolent question, at having even thought of allowing helpless Dimir to be slain. In her lap, her hands turn to fists, nails digging into palms.
“I’m sorry, Edei,” she whispers.
“Don’t be sorry, dear Sanih. The world is cruel. But who knows how much more cruel the other world-moons are to their people, or how much kinder? It doesn’t matter, as long as Heshan-Bahal remains in the sky,” says Rehla.
“What would you have me do, Edei?”
“We’ll leave that to you,” says Bazakir, his anger gone, or hidden, his eyes drooping and tired. “You know the judgments.”
“We trust you, Sanih. Make things right, one way or the other,” says Rehla.
Sanih closes here eyes and nods.
Sanih knows she will fail. If the xir following them is drawn to her grief, then it will follow them still, and keep following for days. How many, she doesn’t know.
She is not Rehla, stalwart and wizened, letting the loss of her loved ones slip from her like water off a waxed cloak.
She is not a xir; she can’t forget that she had a husband, even if Namir’s ghost will soon forget that it had a wife. And when it does, it will come to her, confused and drawn by her emanations, and it will probably kill her and Dimir.
She waits till nightfall, puts Dimir to bed with his tinctured water.
Looking at Dimir sleeping, Sanih shakes her head. How much he resembles Namir sometimes. Namir when he had been younger, and beard-less, crafting his bows and hunting with her, scouring the salt-pans for hours without taking a break. She wears her shawl and cloak, slings the bow and quiver over her shoulders.
She bends, and kisses her son’s forehead, his little onion-bulb nose.
She blows out the taper in the clay cup. The smoke rises like a silk string in the line of Heshan-Bahal’s beckoning light, which slips through a parting in the curtain. Sanih steps outside.
Sanih walks beyond the edge of the village and into the steppe. The mountains in the distance are coal-black daggers stabbing the luminescent curve of Heshan-Bahal, whose rings have tilted to a razor-thin line now, so sharp against the black night sky that Sanih feels like she can hear its humming song as it slices the celestial void. The night is so clear she can see the swirling of the world-ghost’s cloud-seas, the black spots of shadow cast by its eclipsing world-moons. The grass of the steppe shimmers with its reflected sunlight, golden-green waves lapping in the breeze, clamoring at her hips.
Her every breath is crystalline against the stars as she looks up.
She stamps her feet to warm herself, feels the pull of this gem-like orb she stands on, while it takes its eternal journey around Heshan-Bahal. It may be cruel, but how can she not forgive its cruelty? She wonders, as she often has, about the lives of those on the other world-moons. Whether they have parents and husbands and wives and children. Whether they would appear even more alien to her than the Arrem in their cities. What sorrows they sing of into the void?
She listens; perhaps their songs are carried between the orbits, and drift in the night sky. Sanih can only hear the wildgrass dance its silken song, to match the voice of the breeze.
Her breath hitches as she catches sight of it, standing amidst the wildgrass, the long line of its shadow wavering with the wind. Behind the ghost, a far-off cloud of firejackets rises above the steppe, a sheet of sparks against the dark mountains.
“Namir,” she says into the breeze, knowing the xir’s ears will catch her voice, like its jaws caught her husband’s spirit, back when it was a spirit-empty juvenile. She lets down the bow from her shoulder, rests an arrow’s neck against the notch Namir carved into the centre of the stave.
As if imitating the surrounding sea of wildgrass, the whiskers on Namir’s ghost bristle and wave.
Namir’s ghost recognizes the name on the wind. His name. Like a canker it sticks to his spirit, not letting go, blinding him with a pain that has no physical source, that is everywhere at once. His whiskers lick at the emanations of the woman in the field. He shakes his head, snapping his jaws to rid himself of that name, which somehow comes from her. His body is drawn tight like a bow, his hackles raised, whiskers snapping.
The ghost screams, a noise so piercing and mournful that it wants to send her own spirit fleeing from her body. Sanih flexes her hand, trying to lessen the tremors in her arms and fingers. The xir is crouching low.
A sign. It is about to charge.
“Yes. Come to me, Namir. I’m here. It is my grief that pulls you here. I’m making you suffer. I’m the one keeping you from living your new life. I will not have that,” she says, nocking the arrow and pulling back the string, her string hand inches from her cheek.
It is forbidden to give oneself as willing prey to a xir.
It is forbidden to hunt a xir.
It is not forbidden to kill a xir in one’s own defense, or to die defending oneself against it.
Live a good life, Dimir. She mouths her prayer. Her arms start aching immediately, and she grits her teeth.
Namir’s ghost charges.
No scream, no roar. A silent wound slashes across the grass of the steppe in its wake. It covers fifty feet in a few seconds, faster than Sanih expected. She raises her aim slightly. Its bristling shape is ten feet from her when she lets the arrow sail, looking straight into the flashing shards of its eyes.
She is knocked off her feet by the impact against her. Shaking, she gets up, her body surging with the urge to run. But she knows there is no need to, even if her body doesn’t. She wouldn’t be getting up if the xir had reached her with full strength.
The arrow rests in the ghost’s cheek, just underneath the ember of its eye, a place where she might have kissed his human body once right before they fell asleep in each others’ arms. She had been aiming for the throat, or the forehead. The arrowhead is buried inside the skull, probably just in the quick of the brain. A little shallower, and she would have been dead.
It is a near-perfect shot, one that she could not have made without Namir’s years of guidance.
He can finally see her face. But he sees nothing he can recognize. He sees a human antagonist, a frail, small thing that has somehow taunted and defeated him.
The stinger she has left in his head blossoms into a numbing pain, wiping away his confusion.
He sees himself: xir. He sees his life: unlived, hunting among the dunes, sleeping under sun-warm sand, mating under the bright night sky, grooming his infant until it is old enough to venture alone. He tries to get up, to go and live this life. He can’t. He feels his breath leaving through his mouth, drawn outwards as if called, and his eyes focus on the great blazing circle in the night sky.
Sanih rests one hand on the furred face of the ghost. Its whole body vibrates with one low growl. Its golden fur glitters, feathery dark stripes fluid, shifting as its senses seize. Fangs revealed in a foaming grimace. Steam rushes from its mouth, misting the beautiful tusks that curve outwards from them. They look shockingly fragile. Sanih wipes her eyes.
“Wait for me in Heshan-Bahal,” she says, gripping the arrow’s shaft in one shaking hand, and shoving it deep inside the ghost’s head.
More from Indrapramit Das:
Indrapramit Das is a writer and artist from Kolkata, India, currently living in Vancouver, Canada. His fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Redstone Science Fiction, New Scientist CultureLab, and is forthcoming in The Speculative Ramayana Anthology (Zubaan Books, India). He is also a writing mentor, and a reviewer for Tangent Online. Having just graduated with his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, he is ready to flounder about trying to be an adult until someone publishes his novel (which might make him officially an adult). To find out more or see his artwork, visit http://flavors.me/indra_das.
To see his impression of what a xir might look like, click here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/indradas/5578799074/in/set-72157626404212030/lightbox