“Marrying a village girl is out of the question,” my uncle said. “What matters now is your training with the dakinis.”
He returned from her village in good humor. I had persuaded him to negotiate the match only by shouting, wailing, sobbing, cajoling, begging, promising, and threatening to kill myself. (I think I meant the last.)
So when he came back grinning, I suspected he was glad to have failed—or to have only pretended to make the attempt.
He was, instead, pleased with himself to have accomplished the impossible: the betrothal of a brahmin’s daughter to an outcaste Buddhist. The first day, he had visited the village’s astrologer, who was also its chief religious authority. The two passed several pleasant hours talking shop about planetary exaltations and lunar mansions. At some point, my uncle let slip that his royal employment was rather remarkably remunerative; and finally brought the conversation circuitously round to his true agenda.
“It is often surprising,” my uncle told me, “how agreeable the gods may be to exceptions in sacred law, when gold is brought into proximity with a priest. A fact usually better not mentioned.”
Armed with this divine dispensation, he spent the second morning flattering Sukhi’s father. After lunch, my uncle waived dowry, and in fact offered a considerable bride-price; which, after a great show of reluctance, Sukhi’s father accepted.
“I saw the girl,” my uncle said. “Are you quite sure about her? She’s kind of cute, but awfully funny-looking. It’s not like you’ve seen real beauties. If you come to the city—”
At any other time, I would have been furious; but I was so giddy with happiness that all I could manage was “She’s not funny-looking. And I love her!”
There was a hitch. The astrologer had consulted his star charts and determined that the first auspicious date for such a match was slightly more than a year away.
During the year, I was to be permitted one visit with Sukhi each month. They were to be strictly chaperoned, and the deal was off if my behavior was not impeccable.
This was ghastly; but I could wait a year. Just.
“I have failed you,” my uncle said. “I would have raised you as my own son, if I could. I wish things were different. But I have done what I can. I hope to live to see you again. Otherwise… do not forget what your father was, and your mother.”
It was only after he left that I began to suspect my uncle had given the date to the astrologer. The stars, like the gods, may be swayed by gold. My uncle, I supposed, hoped that I would lose interest in Sukhi during that year; and he would return before the wedding to try again to talk me out of it. Fat chance.
Isn’t it strange how tiny choices can have unimaginable consequences? If my uncle had arranged the wedding for a few weeks earlier, I would not be talking to you now. I might be married to Sukhi still. I used to curse him for that… I might now be a farmer in the village I was born in. I might have nothing more to teach you about life and death than any other farmer in any other village.
But if I had married Sukhi, there might be no one to teach you about life and death. There might be no Nalanda, no Magadha, no India, no Persia, no China. There might be no you and no me. There might be no life on earth; only death.
Some of my meetings with Sukhi were chaperoned by her mother; some by her older sister. The ones with her mother were awful. Her sister didn’t care what we said to each other, so long as I was kept at a proper distance, and there was no possibility that my contaminating outcaste shadow would fall across one of theirs.
Her mother lectured me about morality and the duties of a husband. Neither Sukhi nor I could say a word. All we could do was exchange agonized longing glances—and not even many of them, since her mother demanded my constant attention. I forced down my rebellion, lest she use it as an excuse to break the engagement.
When we could, Sukhi and I talked about our future together. The uncomfortable fact was that we had no way to live if my uncle did not return. I was not yet strong enough to drive a plow, and as the daughter of a brahmin Sukhi had no useful skills. Yet somehow, we would find a way. So long as we could be together, we would overcome any difficulty.
So instead, I told her fantastic stories about what I would do once we were married. I did not want to be a farmer, or a monk, or a sorcerer. I wanted to be a hero, like in the stories my uncle told when I was younger.
In stories, the hero sets out alone; he rescues the princess; and after they are married, she stays home, while he ventures on new quests. I had rescued my princess—with some help from my uncle—but Sukhi objected to the “staying home” part. So in our stories, she came with me. She helped tell the tales, and in her versions, she often outwitted the wicked witches or ogres that threatened us.
It was the day of my last chaperoned visit before our marriage. No sign of my uncle.
He had paid the bride-price in advance, so the wedding could go on without him. I worried, though, that if he didn’t show up, Sukhi’s parents—and her whole village—might find an excuse to forbid the wedding after all. After his demonstration with the wooden kila, I had no doubt that my uncle could enforce the deal. On the other hand, I also worried that he would appear at the last moment and break the engagement himself. Perhaps he had only arranged it in order to keep me from killing myself during the year he was away in Kannauj, spying.
Sukhi’s village was united in hostility to me. Everyone there was twice-born and proud of it. On each visit, I had to thread a gantlet of hateful glares, making sure I did not come too close to any of the holy ones and contaminate their purity.
Not this time. There was none of the usual morning village bustle. All the houses were shut. Was this the sign that the whole village would refuse the marriage? Would they keep Sukhi from me? I started to run toward her house.
As I ran, I heard cries and groans, but saw no one.
I banged on the door to Sukhi’s house.
Nothing. Except an awful, sour smell.
I banged again.
Sukhi’s sister opened the door. Her face was thin and pale.
“You can’t see her,” she said.
I forced my way past her. I no longer cared what her parents would say about my shoulder brushing her arm holding the door.
“You will wish you hadn’t!” she said.
I had never been in the house; Sukhi and I were permitted to meet only outside. All the shutters were drawn, and my eyes were slow to adjust to the darkness. No one was there—but I heard a bubbling cough from a back room. Again I had to push past Sukhi’s sister to open its door. Her skin was burning hot.
The bedroom was even darker, and it was hard to see clearly. The sick stink was overwhelming. There was movement from one corner. It was someone—Sukhi?—on a cot. Thrashing.
I took a step closer. She was tied to the bed, wrists and ankles, on her back, naked. Panting, exhausted. I had never seen a girl naked before; I couldn’t help looking.
The horrible acrid stench was vomit and diarrhea, which spilled from the cot onto the floor. Both were black, and she was covered in black blood.
“Surya?” she said, in a hoarse rasp, gasping for breath. Her face turned to the door. “Surya, is that you?”
I stared in horror, speechless.
“She can’t see you,” her sister said. “Her eyes turned flame-red. Then they exploded.”
Sukhi’s eye sockets were black empty pits, except for tattered threads of tissue and blood.
“Mother and Father died right after that happened,” her sister said. “Last night. We were caring for them.”
Sukhi’s body convulsed, and with a tearing shriek she coughed up a gelatinous dark-red glob. It fell to the floor, quivering. It was part of a lung, I think.
“Surya, help me!” she cried. “Please, help me!”
She caught some breath, made a violent effort, and tore one hand free.
She reached it out to me.
I turned and ran.
I threw her sister aside from the door. I stumbled through the front room, out of the house, and ran out of the village. I did not stop running until the searing pain in my lungs would let me run no more.
Then I fell to the ground, and shook, and howled.
“There is nothing in my life I am so ashamed of,” said the old man.
“I should have done something.”
“What could you have done?” asked the young monk.
“I don’t know… something. At least, I should have said something.”
Silent tears spilled from the old man’s eyes.
The young monk bit his lip.
“I don’t think there’s anything you could have done,” he said.
“Everyone in that village died… If I had stayed any longer, I would have died,” said the old man.
“Still… Still, I should have done something.”
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