The scent of mint and ginger filled her nose as she crushed the herbs together in the kitchen. The mixture was missing one ingredient. She poured a vial of blood into the mortar and started mashing it with the green pulp. This would do the fisherman’s anemic wife well.
The front door opened. Footsteps echoed across the floor.
She undid her apron in haste and covered the workbench with it. Five men crowded into the kitchen, grim and tense. They ringed her at a distance as if confining a leper. She smiled and bowed her head, falsely demure.
This wasn’t usual business.
The silence grew. At last one man, a scar etched into the side of his face, stepped up to her. She backed up into her workbench, tried to slide away–but he gripped her wrists with his sandpaper hands and jerked her towards him.
“Come along, witch,” he said. “Village Patriarch sent us for yer head.”
And when Satyavan’s life had thus been taken out, the body, deprived of breath, and shorn of lustre, and destitute of motion, became unsightly to behold. And binding Satyavan’s vital essence, Yama proceeded in a southerly direction.
– The Mahabharata
There is fear in me as I move through the dance floor, sticky with a mix of spilled drinks and glitter and blood. I’m not drunk, I’m not even close to drunk, but the beat of the music slides between my ribs and pulls everything I feel right to the surface, just under the skin.
Three nagas with jewel-scaled arms hiss urgently to each other as I pass, black eyes cataloguing the lines on my face, the grey at my temples, the heaviness of my step. I’m hardly old, but age is something unknown to this ancient place, full of monsters in the full flush of youth.
I manage to angle my foot just enough to step down heavily on one of their tails – she rears up and expands her hood, split tongue flickering out of her mouth as she looks at me in what is clearly reproach. “Sorry,” I say insincerely, ignoring the flex of muscle underneath her violet-black scales, the coils and coils of her glistening like oily rope.
I height Perdurabo but I am sick of it. To endure this dismal dross sickens me. I shall avaunt! Hie me away from these citied planes, this procession of moments that constitutes time, this extension of dimension in all directions that constitutes space, this A to Z within which have arisen only prisons and orisons. I shall find the keys that open doors most never see and I shall return with that which shall grant me dominion, that which shall place in my possession the power to escape all prisons, to direct all orisons at my own newly acquired godhead.
I was sleeping in the fire. Or trying to.
I was obsessed with breaking the chains of space and time that bind us to this single plane of existence; I wanted to explore other realms, realms that exist all around us, if we could only see them. I found clues in the writings of the alchemists, but I should have known that they had hidden as much as they revealed in their complex symbolism and allegory. So there I was, trying to become more like the salamander, trying to learn to live in elements other than air. All I needed was one glimpse of the other worlds, worlds that once seen could never be unseen again. So I was sleeping in the fire.
I had gained entry into the tiny hotel that occupied part of the ground floor of the shoddy lodging house I lived in and had created a makeshift bed of fire using the gas stove and an assortment of trays filled with cooking oil. The initial discomfort had passed, and I was beginning to feel almost snug when a sudden involuntary spasm caused flaming oil to overturn directly onto the naked flames. There was a loud explosion that hurled me across the kitchen and then a powerful jet of flame that would not cease until the gas was completely exhausted or firefighters arrived. Naturally the explosion attracted the attention of several people, and there was soon a crowd clamouring at the entrance to the grimy kitchen that was to have been the stage of my first step to the other worlds.
My grandfather called me at college three weeks before the summer semester ended to say he’d stopped sleeping. “No need to any more, Rob, my head’s clear as ever, but maybe we should think about seeing each other before too long.”
He didn’t ask me to come right away, but by the following midmorning, I was creating a dust cloud on the long driveway to the dozen or so acres at the heart of the farm. On either side, fields leased to neighbors were high with corn having a good year.
Though my father grew up here, farm life never got into his blood. Manufacturing close tolerance jet engine parts for the military and the money that brought appealed to him more. As for me, well, the road to my eventual future in neurological research was already mapped out in some detail.
I’d driven all night without sleep, but going sleepless wasn’t anything new for me. With finals close, I habitually shambled around campus, bleary eyed, grunting at friends and getting no better response back. We were a serious, career fixated lot, little more than academic zombies by the end of a term, too obsessed with stuffing our own brains with the knowledge to think about eating anyone else’s. Still, if knowledge were transferrable that way, who knows how safe our professors’ brains would have been?