‘Apala’, Terrance Jefferson

 [ 'The beautiful girl and the dying tree' © 2007, Cécile Matthey ]

Illustration by Cécile Matthey © 2007

Apala Desai had sometimes wondered if she had really been born beautiful. When she was a little girl, living with her mother and father on the outskirts of Sikkim, she often heard stories of her birth. Some said that she had been born without struggle, under the white cherry blossom trees that line the Teesta River, lifeline of Sikkim and considered a good omen. Others said that when she was born the wind was sweet and stinking of ripened mangoes and cow dung; that her mother, ruby colored sari drenched in sweat, screamed in a tongue from an ancient land.

"No one is simply born beautiful," Apala overheard a housewife whisper to her husband while walking home from school. Apala was eleven then and her beauty shone with its own seashell light. Her hair, like silk, fell straight down to the small of her back. Her face and body, though not fully developed, were sculpted and proportionate and seemed to be an art designed by Vishnu, the God of Beauty himself.

"And if anyone could be born beautiful, Kangchenjunga would have surely cursed them with ill fortune," the housewife added.

Apala wondered what the woman meant by this. She was used to people talking about her when they thought she could not hear, or when her parents were not around. Children in the schoolyard did it. Adults would whisper as she skipped down the dusty, winding road to fetch fresh coconut milk for her mother. She would slow down just enough to hear their stories and catch their glances. But this was the first time anyone had mentioned Kangchenjunga in connection with her beauty. It filled her with a feeling that made her run home, hair and sari flailing in the breeze, bronze bracelets ringing in rhythm with her feet.

When it was time for Apala to go to sleep that evening, her mother sat at the side of her bed to kiss her goodnight and pray for sound dreams. On nights like these, when the wind was warm and moonlight shone through Apala's bedroom window, her mother would sing a part of Tyagaraja. And even though the housewife's comment earlier that day still burned in Apala's memory, she would not dare interrupt the lullaby to ask what it meant. After all, it was only gossip. Another story someone had made up about her. And those types of stories—"rumors" as she would later learn—became dangerous if they were believed.

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Apala was twelve when the nightmares began. They snuck into her bedroom one night, creeping under her sheets and across her skin, lodging themselves in the part of her mind that was pale and private. No two were ever the same. One night she dreamt that she was a Polar Bear, hunting in the snowbound lands and ice flows surrounding the North Pole. Then, without warning, her thick fur began to suffocate her under the smoldering sun. The icecaps she stood on began to crack and crumble. On a different evening she was an Indian Bustard, flying high over emerald fields and red slate rooftops. Then, like a stone, she began to fall - out of the sky and through the trees, until her body hit the cold ground. Another night, Apala dreamt that she was Mother Earth, sustaining life within her majestic mountains and deep blue oceans. But then, as swiftly as the dream formed in her mind, her lands became barren and her oceans polluted. There was fire and lies, jealousy and war.

On these nights, Apala woke up gasping for breath, clutching the budding breast that formed over her heart. She sat up in her bed, shining through the darkness like the new moon.

"They're only dreams," Patel muttered one morning while gathering the last of the harvest.

Apala dug her big toe into the soil. She was reluctant to tell anyone about her nightmares, let alone her father. Patel was the type of man who could turn day to night simply by willing it so; who could make the extraordinary appear merely fair or foul. But in spite of this—or perhaps because of it—Apala woke early that morning under the rose colored sky and went to him.

"But I am afraid Papa. In my dreams, I am not myself, but a great white beast in a land covered in snow or a bird with large wings dropping from the sky like a stone. In another, I am the Earth that—"

"That's enough!" Apala's father barked, cutting through the air with his hand. He was a round, practical man. He was so practical, in fact, that he knew there were far more important matters to tend to than his daughter's silly dreams. Sikkim was suffering an unseasonable drought—the worst anyone had ever seen. The plants and trees that were once lush with green leaves and fruit were now barren and brittle. The Teesta River, nearly dry, was the only source of water for the people of Sikkim. Patel woke early that morning to gather the last remaining harvest. If they rationed properly, the harvest, combined with what was left in his wife's garden, would last Patel and his family well into next season. But this did not stop him from praying for rain every night before he went to sleep. It was, in his mind, the only practical thing to do.

"They're only dreams," he repeated. "Nothing more. Nothing less." He put down the harvest and laid his hands on Apala's shoulders. She had none of his features, but right then, they held a strange semblance, like that of a double star.

Patel's voice grew quiet.

"Now why don't you go play," he said.

Apala kept her eyes cast down on her feet. She did not want to tell her father that she had no friends to play with. While other children spent their time playing hopscotch or hide-n-go-seek in the schoolyard, Apala sat under a tree and picked the petals off of a dandelion. None of the other children ever included her in their games. None of them ever spoke to her.

Apala's mind drifted to the time when Nandan Bisht, who had long pigtails and a scar on her chubby cheek, stopped doing her arithmetic and turned around in her desk to stare at her.

"You're weird," Nandan said.

Apala, who was also doing arithmetic, looked up from her desk. By this time, her beauty could be described as nothing short of ethereal. Her skin was the color of fresh nutmeg, even and soft. But she carried with her a light that made creatures be still and watch her. It was spring wherever she went. The Pride of Burmas, Red Cassias, and Golden Champas that grew along the dirt roads of Sikkim, bowed their branches and bloomed whenever she was near.

Even in the dead of winter.

Even in the deepest midnight.

Though there were no flowering trees left because of the drought, the barren branches and waterless barks that stood in their place trembled and swayed to show their respect.

"Do you know what people say about you?" Nandan continued on, stroking one of her pigtails, "They say that you are cursed—that you and your beauty have brought bad fortune to Sikkim. That is why there is no water and little food. Kangchenjunga has cursed us all because of you." She took a deep breath and whirled back around in her seat, brushing Apala's nose with her pigtails.

That was the first and only time anyone had spoken to her at school. Sighing, Apala focused her attention back on her arithmetic. She had three more problems to go before she was finished.

"Go ahead. Play!" Patel urged, interrupting Apala's thoughts, nudging her with one hand. She turned to go. And as she walked back through the desolate cornfield toward her small house, a flock of wild cranes that were in mid-flight, landed to watch her. Patel continued gathering the last of the harvest. He was far too practical to notice such things.

 [  ]

Hunger struck Sikkim. It came like a night predator, ravaging the picturesque valleys and riverbanks, eventually arriving at the small homes, to the people who lived in them. The Teesta River was completely dry now, exposing its cracked underbelly. The cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens that grazed in the green fields, were long since dead. Unwilling to face starvation, some people moved inland to Gantok, leaving their homes in order to start a new life in the capitol town. Others climbed the great peak shrouded in mist to pray to the guardian deity Kangchenjunga, which both protected and terrified the inhabitants of Sikkim.

But there was still no rain.

Apala and her family, along with most of Sikkim, could not afford to leave and were forced to watch as the drought drained the life from all who lived there. Mrs. Bhatti, who once spent her days outside selling hand-made jewelry on the road, now stayed confined within her home, rationing the remaining lima beans from her garden. Children once laughed at Mr. Chetan because his fat chin bounced every time he walked. Now, they gawked because he could not find clothes that fit his thin body. Apala overhead Nandan Bisht, whose cheek bones now protruded, whisper to Sidra Chinmay that their arithmetic teacher, Mrs. Kalpak, ate her pet dog for dinner. Kakde, the village drunk, disappeared one night and was never seen again. Some said that he sold his soul for a single Steamed Momo. Others said that the Steamed Momo tasted so good on his tongue that Kakde died on the spot.

Of all the inhabitants of Sikkim, it was Apala who suffered the most. Physically, she could not have been more beautiful. The weight she lost from the drought sharpened her face, arching her eyes slightly, and accentuating her full lips. Her long, sloping back was slender and defined her hips and waist. Her eyes were the color of mist.

But at night, Apala was still haunted by eerie dreams. When she closed her eyes to sleep, she became an African Elephant being hunted in the safari, or a Black-footed Ferret starving in the western Great Plains. She was an Indian Rhinoceros, Loggerhead Turtle, or a Mediterranean Monk Seal. Every night she was never herself, but something equally beautiful. And every night she woke with images of that beauty engulfed in a world of death, destruction, hunger, and pain.

Though the nightmares made her uneasy, what awaited her in the waking world was much worse. The people of Sikkim, who once watched and admired her beauty, had grown to hate her. They spat at her when she was near. Men, whose glances were similar to the way one looks at the sun, now avoided her and shot her evil glares.

"Witch!" they hissed. "You have cursed Sikkim!"

Mothers that were once kind to Apala because they saw past her beauty in a way only mothers can do, pulled their children close.

"Don't look at her," they whispered to their young ones, "She'll turn you into stone."

Apala took a different path when walking home from school one late afternoon. She avoided taking the main road, afraid that she would only attract unwanted attention. Besides, this way had a stone border that she loved to walk along. She enjoyed pretending to be an acrobat or a tightrope walker, teetering on the edge with both arms stuck straight out to the side. When she was bored, Apala skipped along the dirt road like she did when she was eleven years old.

Before the drought.

Before the hunger.

Smiling, Apala thought back to the time when she was seven and Mr. Krishna, who had since banned her from his store, used to give her a free stick of liquorice.

"For such a beautiful girl," he would say, handing it to her.

As she made her way up the road, Apala thought of Sikkim and all the people who lived there. She thought of those who left to Gantok and wondered what the streets were like—paved perhaps—how the air smelled, and if the liquorice tasted the same as it did in Sikkim. She thought of the great peak shrouded in mist where some went to pray to the guardian deity Kangchenjunga. She had never been there, but her parents brought her to the Pang Lhabsol Festival that was held every year in Sikkim, celebrating Kangchenjunga and the belief that from beneath the slopes of the sacred peak, the original Sikkimese man and woman were created. Patel attended the festival because it was tradition. But Apala and her mother enjoyed the colorful masks and warrior dances.

Apala sat down on the side of the road. The long, bare branches of a nearby flowering tree trembled and swayed. A warm breeze swept her hair across her face and between her lips. At age thirteen, she was the most beautiful girl who ever lived and she did not seem to care.

"You!" Apala heard a harsh, dry voice scream from the other side of the road. She was so deep in thought she did not know anyone was near or even watching her.

"You!" the voice said again. Emerging from what seemed like a secret fold in the air, a housewife with a sagging face and large earlobes pointed at Apala.

"Your end is near, little one. Your end is near."

Apala recognized the housewife. It was the same woman who whispered to her husband as Apala passed up the road two years ago. It was the same woman who said that Apala's beauty was a curse.

"Your end is near," the woman said again, staggering forward.

Apala rose to her feet, terrified. She took up the road as fast as her beautiful legs could carry her. She did not stop or look back to see if the woman was behind. She ran all the way home and did not breathe until she was safe in her room. Once there, she buried her beautiful face in her hands, and cried.

 [  ]

"Do not listen to them. They speak only rumors," Apala's mother, Antima, said while rubbing her daughter's back.

"What's a rumor?" Apala asked, lying face down in her bed.

"A rumor is something people say that is not true. But by the time it spreads, it is difficult to tell what the truth is and is not."

Apala sat up, sniffed, and rubbed her nose with two fingers. She had cried so late into the evening that when she looked out her window night creatures illuminated the sky. In the dim lamplight, Antima looked young. Her hair was in a single, swooping braid that she liked to let hang over her shoulder.

"When something is beautiful, as you are, it is man's nature to take it for granted and eventually end up trying to destroy it," Antima continued. "I believe that is why you have those nightmares."

Apala blinked twice. "But Papa says that they are only dreams and that they mean nothing."

Antima took a deep breath and held it in her mouth like chocolate. Looking at Apala reminded her of the time when she too was thirteen, growing up in the slums of Delhi with a mother who was a seamstress and her father, a fisherman. As a child, Antima told secrets to the rain and danced with fire. There were rumors about her as well. Antima often thought back to the day her mother came to her and told her she would marry a farmer from Sikkim; a man whose practicality turned wine into water; the man who would become Apala's father: a man named Patel.

She remembered the day she gave birth to her daughter. The wind was not stinking of ripened mangoes and cow dung, and she had not given birth under the cherry blossom trees that line the Teesta River. The rumors were all wrong. Apala was born in her house with the assistance of a midwife. Antima had prayed to Kangchenjunga for a beautiful baby girl, vowing she would never force her daughter into a life she did not want just because she was born as something the world could not accept, appreciate, or even see; a fate to which Antima was forced to submit. Apala came into the world swiftly and quietly—with a smile that was as beautiful as the sea. Antima was overjoyed. Kangchenjunga had answered her prayers.

Antima let out her breath.

"Your father is a difficult man," was all she said.

 [  ]

The people of Sikkim came when the sky was castle gray. They came in a group of four dozen men and women, with torches that cast shadows on the road. Most came out of fear. Others came out of blind faith. There were some that came because they had nothing better to do. And there were very few that came out of hate. But this evening, they all took up the narrow path to Apala's home. Their faces indistinguishable under the sallow moon.

It was late. In the small, apricot-colored room, Antima sang Tyagaraja as her daughter drifted off to sleep. The words floated through the air and Apala leaned toward them to keep warm, or perhaps for another strange, unknown purpose. In the house, nothing stirred. The smell of the curried chickpea muck Antima cooked for dinner permeated the walls and made her want to be sleeping. But she could not sleep. For the night pulled at Antima in a way it had not done before, creating an ache from within the deepest part of her. She thought, for a moment, of taking Apala and leaving Sikkim before the sun rose. She had dreamt about it before. As Patel lay in bed, Antima would watch herself in the mirror, thinking of her life and all the things she longed to see and do. She bent under the thought of knowing that maybe there was no magic left in her anymore. And that Apala would end up being as dry and barren as Sikkim itself. Then, between the rush of one breath and the reach of another, Antima wept. They were not tears of sadness, but of yearning, and desire, hopelessness and loss.

A rustling caught Antima's attention, dislodging the hold the night had on her. It came from outside. Perhaps it was a hungry skunk or a possum searching for food. With the sounds growing louder, Antima left her sleeping daughter to investigate, but cautiously, knowing how dangerous skunks and possums could be when hungry.

When Antima opened the front door, they stood before her. They looked like ghosts in the night and it took Antima a moment to catch her breath. She scanned the crowd. There was Mrs. Kalpak, Apala's arithmetic teacher. And to the left of her was Mr. Krishna, who owned the spice shop with the liquorice Apala loved. To the right were Mrs. Bhatti and her husband, who had a torch. Behind them were people Antima could not remember by name, but had seen many times eyeing mangoes in the market or fishing with their sons in the Teesta River. They all stood, torches crackling, bodies thin and misshapen.

"We have come for your daughter," a voice boomed from within the crowd. It was Mr. Chetan, who, being half the size he once was, looked as if he had trouble holding the blazing torch.

"We have come for your daughter," he repeated, "She is not of this world and has brought this terrible drought to Sikkim. Kangchenjunga is displeased with her being here."

The crowd muttered and grumbled in approval as a light breeze blew from the north. Antima pulled her sari close to her.

"Why have you all come here? My daughter is a child like any other." Antima answered.

"Then why do the trees come to life when she is near," cried a voice from within the sea of ghosts. "What ordinary child can make animals be still and silent? If you say what she -"

The voice stopped short and there was a hushed silence. It took Antima a moment to notice the mob was not looking at her anymore, but passed her, at Apala standing in the doorway, half sleep, dreaming and waking with every blink. Her hair was matted and messy, but her beauty still radiated through the evening air, causing several onlookers to break the silence to gasp in wonderment. Apala rubbed her eyes. She wondered what Mr. Chetan was doing at her home so late and if it was really Mrs. Kalpak standing next to a man with a torch. But most of all, she was hungry and had risen out of bed to ask her mother if she could have more chickpea muck. The look in her mother's eyes, however, made Apala wish she had never left her room. It was a look that made her wish she were dreaming.

What happened next cannot truly be explained. There are many different rumors. Some claim they heard Mr. Chetan yell, "Get her!" which then prompted a large, lumbering man to emerge from the crowd and hoist Apala over his shoulder. Others say that there was not one man, but three, two of which restrained Antima while the third seized Apala. Children in the schoolyard say that Antima cried so loudly that people in Gantok heard her and covered their ears; that it was a sound no human could ever make. There is even a rumor that when Apala was taken, a single bolt of lightning struck down from the peak shrouded in mist.

What is true, however, is that when Apala was taken her sari was twisted and tangled around her waist and head, blocking her vision. She kicked and thrashed her legs in an attempt to free herself from the hold the big man had on her. But he held on tight.

Apala could hear the sound of men grunting, woman yelling, and the sound of shoes on dirt road. Overlapping, she heard her mother crying, "Let her go! Let her go! She is my daughter!"

"Mama!" Apala called out. There was no answer. The only response came in the form of grunts, screams, and scuffling until finally there was nothing except heavy breathing. And then there was quiet. The silence left a rusted bell hung in Apala's heart. It rang in her ears. Indescribable. Similar to the sound bees make when buzzing under the sea. And she knew it was over. Under the billowing clouds, the ghosts of Sikkim made there way back down the winding road and headed toward the northern trail that faced the great peak. They cast their eyes down, making sure not to look at the beautiful girl that lay bent over the big man's shoulder.

Tired from thrashing, Apala lay still and let warm tears stream down her face and along the ridge of her nose. She could see nothing except the color deep of sapphire that covered her eyes. Her beautiful head bounced with each step her captor took.

And Apala was never seen again. There are rumors that the people of Sikkim sacrificed her to Kangchenjunga, and that her blood stains the jagged rocks where she was slain. Others claim that Apala escaped and that she leaves remnants of spring wherever she goes, even in the dead of winter. That's the story Antima spent the rest of her life believing. But there is no doubt that when Apala was taken, the flowering trees trembled and swayed over a sea of ghosts, deafened by a mother calling for her daughter, as her husband lay in a dreamless sleep. That part is absolutely certain.

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© 2007 Terrance Jefferson

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