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Usha lived with her father, a giant with a thousand arms, in an enormous house on a hill. More of a mansion, really, although the house was made of such old, thin strips of lumber that mansion seemed too sumptuous of a word. Usha had her own quarters, decked out with pale, thick carpets designed to capture the texture of sea foam. Gauzy muslin drapes covered the wide, creaking windows, which faced east towards the dawn and towards the ocean. On clear days, Usha could just barely make out the water—a thin strip of murky green-blue—on the horizon. She led a cloistered life, and designedly so. Her quarters could only be entered via the antechamber to her father’s rooms, and narrow, steep walls made of limestone encircled the house and its grounds (the house just barely protruded above the walls because of the hill, or mountain as the local mortals called it). Was it possessiveness or obliviousness on her father’s part that kept her confined? Though daintier than her father, Usha was herself a giantess who wore earrings the size of boulders. Her father seemed not to notice his daughter’s transformation from eager girl, content to sit in the garden, braiding rose trees into garlands, to sighing young woman, absently playing board games with her consorts.
Usha’s only relief from her confinement came during festivities among the gods. Then Usha could leave her father’s house. She stayed with cousins and family friends in places like the quartz caves beneath the desert and the eyes of hurricanes in the middle of the sea. One August she was invited to come celebrate the goddess of love’s wedding anniversary. The goddess and her husband held the celebration above the marshlands, where thick, lustrous clouds meet the tree tops. Only female deities were invited so that no male guests could rival the god and to provide an endless retinue for the goddess: mostly apsaras, beautiful and sprightly nymphs, though Usha caught sight of a couple of ungainly giantess sisters from the West. A small group of professional musicians floated on a cloud, concealed by fog. The nymphs danced to the light, rhythmic drumming. In the center of the gathering, the goddess and her god swayed and laughed. The goddess of love tapped the beat with a massive ruby diadem, which she sometimes used to catch her beloved’s diaphanous blue garments. Their dancing was playful. But every now and then, Usha (who had somehow found herself in the innermost circle of dancers) would notice a detail that both thrilled and shocked her. The goddess gave her lover a fierce look, even as her eyes misted in rapture during the next moment; she caressed his ear lobe with a lust that was at once both sensual and precise.
At one point, Usha’s best friend, a nymph named Citralekha, leapt into the center beside the goddess. Citralekha was naturally slim and lanky, with dark hair and lilac colored skin, but she now transformed herself into the form of the goddess of love. Jutting her newly curvaceous hips, Citralekha stepped up to the god. With a lascivious look and an exaggerated gesture, she caressed his earlobe. The god grinned while the goddess of love roared with laughter. The nymphs began laughing, too, as Citralekha transformed back to her usual form, retaking her place among the dancers. The god now embraced his goddess and took her hand. He picked her up in his arms and slowly turned in a circle. Usha found herself rooted to the spot by a plangent envy. I wish I had a husband, she thought.
The goddess’s fleet feet had barely touched the ground: she turned and fixed Usha with her piercing gaze. “Don’t worry, dear one,” she said, still holding her lover’s hand. “You’ll soon make love with your own husband, just as I do with mine.” Usha blushed at having her private thoughts intercepted. “But when?” Usha stammered. (Her father thought her too young.) The goddess of love laughed and raised her eyebrows with a daredevil glance. Careful what you wish for, the goddess thought. “Listen, my dear,” she said, “in the month of April on the day before the full moon you’ll have a dream of the man who will be your husband.”
The exchange was over so quickly it was as though it had hardly happened, and Usha vaguely wondered if time had stopped or if it had only felt that way. The goddess now took both her spouse’s hands. The two of them swayed together, as though their arms were a rope bridge caught in the winds. A flustered Usha retreated to the back row of dancers. Then she stepped down from the clouds altogether. She took off her anaconda shoes and dipped her feet into the marshes while the music drifted down.
Usha returned to her father’s house with its jagged, towering walls. She returned to her walks in the garden, where artemisia and ironwort blossomed in shades of silver and blue. The flowerheads drooped in the retreating heat and, a few weeks later, withered in the frost. Leaves fell and blew across the rocky soil. Then the tree branches were bare, exposing a wider view of land when Usha gazed outside the windows.
She returned to her quarters each night at dusk. She returned to her place at the window and fastened the shutters. She returned to her downy bed, the comforter stuffed with albatross feathers. She returned to her bewildering but repetitive nightly dreams of vast lakes that she crossed on narrow causeways, of stumbling as she stepped forward onto nonexistent stairs.
Rain came; then snow. Winter broke forth and relented. Dead boughs fell off the trees, and a green lustre began to creep back across the land toward Usha’s garden.
One night, a few weeks after the equinox, a certain unmistakable spring freshness began to slip in through the eaves and rattle the shutters. Citralekha was visiting that month and the pair had stayed out in the lengthening daylight, laughing and drinking turmeric lattes as her friend shared gossip about the deities. Perhaps it was a mark of Usha’s sheltered upbringing, but she hadn’t learned to restrain her laughter: when Citralekha told a joke, Usha threw her head back and laughed unreservedly. At last, after darkness had fallen and Usha was doing a worse and worse job of concealing her yawns, the two of them went inside. They embraced in the corridor before Citralekha repaired to the amber guest room (so named because everything inside—drapes, bedclothes, and wallpaper—was amber-colored).
In her own room, Usha followed her bedtime routine, changing into a milk-colored nightgown and daubing rose oil behind her ears. She slipped in between the sheets and spent the usual minutes adjusting them so that they warmed but did not completely cover her feet. Then she lay back and counted the glowing stars that were fixed to the ceiling. The stars had been gifted to her family by a magician. They cast silvery pinpricks of light down from the ceiling. As usual, as she counted them, Usha thought she would never fall into sleep. But, at some point, she dropped the reins of consciousness and crossed over.
Her dreams began with gusty air and unsteady footing: she was by the sea, walking on a stone jetty slicked by rain. The walls of this dream tumbled down into other dream episodes—she was on a ferryboat captained by her childhood arithmetic tutor—or was that another night?—but then those evaporated too.
She was in a bedroom that was and was not her own: the same sky-blue sheets and muslin drapes, but this room also had jewel-encrusted walls; the bed, a jewel-encrusted headboard. She reflected that the rubies above her head looked sharp, and thought she could see her reflection in the wall’s polished opal and onyx, trembling in the light of dim candles with short wicks. The linen of her nightgown was transformed to a more delicate, filmy material. Her room was transformed to a dark, decadent place. The ceiling above her was black as a pit.
She wasn’t alone.
The man’s body was pressed against her own, dense and unyielding. His arms held her in a solid, adamant embrace. He slowly broke away and turned over onto her. Keeping his arms on her, he began to move his face close to hers. He brushed her lips with his lips; he kissed her earlobe, and then he bit it, whispering, “Slow, slow.”
In the seemingly interminable moments in which he lifted his face and then lowered it, kissing her again, she caught glimpses of him. He had dark hair and a narrow, equine nose. A small mouth with pale, thin lips. Smooth lips, smooth and cool as a polished stone. His skin was very pale, too; the dim room made it appear almost translucent. His dark eyes glinted in the candlelight.
His hand—she noticed his hand was also very smooth, entirely uncallused, and then wondered at herself for registering such a detail—he ran his hand down her side and stopped at her nightdress, which he pushed up her thighs, so that it bunched up awkwardly beneath her.
He forced his hand between her legs as though to push them apart then he—
Then his fingers were in her and she sucked in her breath. He was still whispering, soft, soft, like an incantation.
Then he did pry her legs apart and his hands were off her, doing something, but his thighs were very close and he was pressing them against her.
When he penetrated her, she screamed. She cried out again as he moved in her. At the same time she noticed he’d clamped his hands back down on her. The pain was intense and became sharper; she thought of a cave with fibrous, intractable walls.
Usha screamed as she woke. She continued to gasp as she slowly looked around, her eyes and other senses consolidating back into awareness. She realized her arms were raised up by her head, pressed against her pale, lumpy pillows, as though they had been pinned there. The stars on the ceiling above glinted with a burnished pewter light.
She was alone. “Where are you?” she cried, at first tentative, then terrified. She called out again, beginning to weep with confusion. She was terrified by what had happened; she was just as terrified to find herself suddenly alone.
As she sat up, she had the feeling of something sticky, like resin, which smacked as she parted her thighs.
She shrieked. Her thighs were smeared with blood.
That same night, Aniruddha, something of a libertine and the grandson of a god, had gone to sleep in his own bed. It had golden sheets which his servants covered with fresh-cut lilies each night. The smell helped him sleep. When this failed, he tried to follow the moving glints of light on his bejeweled wall, which matched his headboard.
He didn’t usually remember his dreams, but on this night, he dreamt a dream that was as real as his life.
He was lying in his own bed, amidst the light that glinted from the dark, bejeweled walls. But his room was brighter than usual; the very air felt crisper, as though the usual arid heat had been replaced with the air of a more northern clime, where the seasons were sharper. Pallid moonlight mingled with his smoky candles, coming in through the slats of blinds or shutters. His purple damasked curtains had been replaced with thin muslin ones, and his sheets were not his sheets but sky blue sheets, of a lighter fabric. Set against them, his lilies practically glowed. And he wasn’t alone. He sat up to get a better look at the youthful woman. She had dusky olive skin, wore her hair in a loose braid, and had stocky but comely limbs, like a giant’s. She averted her gaze from his, as though embarrassed. She wore a gauzy nightdress that fell in folds over her skin. It was like the fabric of the curtains. One moment, he thought he could see through it; the next its whiteness had solidified again. The room’s wispy breeze gathered into a gust, blowing her garments aside so that he could see the contours of her breasts. She met his gaze. Her face was illuminated in flickering light. A fire was blazing between her legs.
“Citralekha!” Usha cried.
She threw on a robe and hurried to her friend’s room. She called her friend’s name again as she threw open the door. It took her a moment to make out her friend’s form, curled up in the corner of the amber guest bed.
“Do you know what time it is?” Citralekha groaned, sitting up. She pushed her eye mask up and winced. “Usha—is it dawn?” The first light of daybreak had started to illumine the room, mingling with the amber decor to create a washed-out glow.
Citralekha was not a morning person. She carefully pulled the plugs out of her ears. “Usha—I told you—” she was about to berate her friend, who she had specifically told not to wake her up before noon, when she realized Usha was weeping. She took in Usha’s agitation, the blotches of blood on her gown. Her eyes widened with alarm. “Usha—what happened?” She suddenly felt very awake.
Usha ran to her and dove into the bed, putting her head on Citralekha’s lap.
“Citralekha! I had a dream and it felt so real.” She sobbed out the story of the dream in bursts, omitting some details; stammering and wailing out others. “What will I tell father? I’ve been ruined, I’m—it’s so horrible! I wish I were dead.”
Citralekha stroked Usha’s hair and shoulders with her spindly fingers. “It was a dream,” she murmured consolingly. “You can’t be held responsible. If someone breaks a rule in their sleep, the rule isn’t really broken. You are still pure.”
But the blood smearing her friend’s legs and garments concerned her, and she gazed at Usha pensively. A greater scale of magic, far beyond her own, was afoot. “Usha,” she sighed, “Don’t you remember what the goddess told you? It’s April. Tomorrow night is the full moon.”
Usha had, in fact, forgotten about it, relegating the episode to some substrata of her consciousness which was reserved for the remote and not quite credible. She was shocked to hear Citralekha speak of it. Hearing another person talk about that day—the ruby diadem; the tumescent clouds; the goddess’s words—made the memory surge back with new vividness.
“You could hear what she said to me?” Usha asked incredulously. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Citralekha shrugged; the ways of nymphs were not Usha’s business. “Listen, my dear, man or demon, we’ll find him.” She reached for the nightstand to get her magic sketch pad, straining so that she wouldn’t displace Usha, who still had her head buried in Citralekha’s lap.
Aniruddha woke when the flare of daylight started to irradiate the room. The flowers on his bed were all crushed.
He was not one for lingering in bed, thinking about his dreams. Aniruddha passed over from sleep to waking quickly, like breaking into a run. This day would be no different. So he tried to shake off his night visions and rejoin the world. He took a shower and drank a pot of cardamom coffee. He did push-ups and spent half an hour on his rowing machine. But throughout this, a certain residue clung to him from the previous night’s dreams, like the shapes seared onto one’s eyelids after looking at the sun. He had visions of moonlit shutters and of an olive-skinned woman who wouldn’t look at him. At odd moments of the day, the thoughts ran through him like a shiver: he could still feel the smoothness of her skin.
Beyond these memories a baffling and opaque image haunted his peripheral vision, disappearing when he tried to look at it directly. He could faintly perceive an old house on a hill, and looming limestone walls, surrounded by lush, green land.
Usha sighed and shook her head as Citralekha sketched yet another face that was not the face of the man from her dream. Citralekha had the power to sketch the likeness of any being: she had started with the most handsome demons, then moved on to male serpents, then to court musicians, then to human princes and to the gods and demigods. Usha sighed at the parade of faces. The two of them sat on the floor, surrounded by discarded sketches of faces—fat and bony; fierce and good-humored—along with the remnants of breakfast and lunch, crusts and drained tea pots. The sun had passed from the chill pallor of daybreak to the full blaze of mid-morning, retracting at last into a more level brightness, partly occluded by the afternoon clouds. Usha was feeling increasingly despondent. She grew quiet and absently chewed her own thumbnail. What if she had been deceived, she thought. What if the man in her dream had been the sort of demon who changed form; what if she never found him; what if her father disowned her for no longer being a virgin; what if what if—she felt an awful heavy dread churning in her. The cartilage between her thighs still ached from the previous night. She also had a strange sensation, as if something soft and slightly moist, like flower petals, was crushed against her back and legs. She kept running her hands over her limbs only to find the skin bare.
Citralekha had remained patient and focused throughout the day—though in truth she was starting to tire as well. Now she produced a fresh sketch, this one of a prince from the desert with unkempt hair, owlish glasses, and raccoon circles under his eyes. Usha sighed and shook her head. Citralekha next sketched the kingdom’s court musician, a man with wavy silvery hair, worn to his chin, and deep, kind eyes. Usha sighed and shook her head. Then Citralekha began to sketch a lean, severe face with a small sensual mouth.
“THAT’S HIM!” Usha cried. She was blushing deeply.
Citralekha fell back against the pillows. “Finally,” she moaned. (Citralekha was ready for a nap.) Citralekha sighed at her friend’s embarrassed, eager expression. She propped herself up on her elbows and squeezed the last tea from the tea leaves. “Your lover’s name is Aniruddha, Usha,” she said, speaking in a level tone. “I’ll fly to his palace. I’ll bring him back here tonight.” Usha blushed again and stammered her thanks, on the verge of tears again. The two friends embraced. Then Citralekha grabbed her cloak, walked across the room, and pushed open the window. She stepped out into the dusk gingerly, ready to apprehend Usha’s husband.
After flying across the darkening continent, Citralekha alighted on Aniruddha’s terrace. Bougainvillea climbed the stucco walls and star-shaped electric lights were strung up in the eucalyptus trees. Jazz was playing inside. Citralekha could also hear the sound of women’s laughter. Her nostrils caught the sharp scent of liquor. “Oh, no,” she muttered. Turning invisible, she slid inside through the glass doors.
Aniruddha was indeed in the midst of a party, at which he was the only stag. A few women were standing with drinks or dancing on the polished floor while Aniruddha stretched out on the couch. Two mortal women sat on either side, caressing his hair and shoulders. He was very handsome, but then again, they always were.
What an idiot, Citralekha thought. How like a man to throw a party to get his mind off of a premonitory dream of his bride, et cetera.
If she had only been acting on Usha’s behalf, she might have left there and then. But the imperatives of the goddess of love were not really hers to question.
So she lowered the sound on the stereo, blew a cold breeze onto the bare shoulders of the female guests, and waited for Aniruddha to nod off, which he presently did, the ice in his drained cocktail tumbler clinking as he dropped it.
Then Citralekha wrapped him in her cloak of darkness and flew him back to Usha’s room. She deposited her sleeping quarry on Usha’s bed, leaving before he had woken up.
Usha was sitting on the seagreen couch in the dressing room she shared with Citralekha. She’d been pretending to read a magazine, but had actually spent the evening straining her ears and pacing around as she rehearsed possible futures and tried to banish certain fears. When she heard movement in her bedroom she stiffened. She thought it might be her imagination or the breeze, since she had left the windows open for Citralekha. When she entered, she walked slowly, and then stood stock still, frozen in the doorway.
Here he was … clothed now, in slacks and a white shirt with an open collar. He was slimmer than he’d seemed in the dream, she thought. And so handsome.
Aniruddha had been looking out the window but he turned when she entered. Standing in the doorway Usha had blocked the light coming from the dressing room, and she realized that he couldn’t see her. And so she flicked on the aquamarine lamp next to her bed.
He had the pleasantly disoriented feeling of one who has just woken from a deep, restful sleep. He briefly glanced out the window and then looked at her again. “This is the place from my dream,” he said. He looked at her with a bemused expression, as if trying to assess whether he was still dreaming.
She evaded his gaze for a moment. Then she looked up. As her eyes met his, she felt an enjoyable shiver, the same way she had felt when she had watched the goddess of love caressing her lord months earlier. “My dream bridegroom,” she said, taking a step toward him.
Usha and Aniruddha spent the next several days in a trance of lust. They wouldn’t have been able to tell you whether it had been hours, days, or weeks that they’d been together. Citralekha had departed on the night she fetched Aniruddha, and he and Usha barely noticed, so ensconced were they in their private world. Of course, the servants did begin to notice. A hazy bloom of contentment pervaded Usha’s features when she wandered downstairs to give orders. Nail marks ran down her back and bite marks protruded from her shoulders. And then there was the noise—cries, gasps, and sighs—that came from her previously sedate room.
So they called her thousand-armed father, who had been away, overseeing some earthquakes down the coast. He was infuriated, not least because he’d personally reinforced the outside walls before he left.
Subtlety was not his strong suit, but her father did try to be quiet when he returned. Unfortunately, his restraint failed him at the last moment. He pushed the door to Usha’s chamber aside so that it rocked off its hinges.
Usha and Aniruddha looked up in surprise. They were sprawled on the floor playing Scrabble. She was naked except for her lover’s white shirt; he wore only her drawstring pants.
“Dad!” she said, leaping up, “I can explain!—uh—the goddess of love—well, um, this is my hus—”
Her father didn’t let her finish the loathsome word. He charged across the room and tossed Aniruddha up in his arms. Then her father bound Aniruddha’s arms, legs, and lips with ropes made out of serpents.
“Daddy!” Usha wailed. She jumped back and she crawled into the closet during the tumult that followed. Aniruddha was, after all, the grandson of a god, and as soon as he was threatened, her in-laws burst into the room. Usha went through a series of complicated reactions as she watched through a crack in the door: frightened of her father as he smashed the bed into splinters (the sheets, still soaked with sweat, fell in a clump); relieved when her lover was freed in a burst of light; afraid for him again as he menaced her father with an iron club. She tried to remember the verses of an entreaty to the goddess of love, as though that might help her weather the gale that shook through the room and ignore the wolf-faced giant that was tearing off her father’s limbs.
She also kept thinking, even as she was aware it was a ridiculous thought, that she wished she could get some proper clothes on, but she was too frightened by the whirlwind. The wolf-creature was now holding her father down as Aniruddha speared him. The light bursting from the god (if that’s what it was) was blinding. Usha cowered in the closet, not reaching for the clothes that were mere feet away from her.
Sometime later, she found herself dressed in a bathrobe and blue jeans as Aniruddha led her across the room. The seafoam carpets were soaked with brown, inky blood. She tried not to step on her father’s many arms or the severed snake ropes, which had the consistency of slugs.
At last, they reached the window and climbed into a golden chariot, drawn by fleet-footed golden horses. Usha leaned against Aniruddha, staring ahead blankly, as they sailed through the bright blue skies to his family’s estate.
Aniruddha and Usha were happy enough. They had an official wedding, presided over by the goddess of love and attended by his family and by Citralekha. Then the couple moved into their own quarters inside his family estate, where the walls were not so high (they converted his bachelor quarters into a guesthouse).
The pair continued to spend hours making love. When Aniruddha was away, Usha tended the garden, learning all about the plants of his drier, more southern clime.
But sometimes at night she thought she heard the creaking of branches; thought she felt cold air rush over her face. Six months in, when the newlywed spell had worn off somewhat, she arranged a little vacation for herself, leaving for a week despite her husband’s weak protests and her own worries that he would resume his carousing.
Usha rented a little cottage in the dunes by the northern sea. On her first evening at the cottage, she marked how the quiet here was different than the quiet of either her father’s or her husband’s house. “I need to be away from you to be close to you,” she had told Aniruddha, though in truth she’d felt driven by a deeper, more mysterious wish.
She wanted to dream of him again.
It was the week of the autumn equinox. She sat on the cottage’s deck watching the blue night overpower the wan daylight. She watched the stars for a while, but, finding herself exhausted—by travel, by happiness, by expectation—she went inside.
Usha changed into her new silk bedclothes, which were a gift from her husband, and daubed the same old rose oil behind her ears. She turned down the bed, spreading it with lavender-perfumed sheets she’d brought from home. Then she shut the curtains tight, making the room dark as a cave.
What else could she do? Usha lay down to seek him in her dreams.