For C. S. E. Cooney, whetstone
Wiping sweat from her forehead before it could spill into her eyes, Rupali stirred a large iron cauldron over a searing fire. Swirls of silver, shards of sky, and the thorny notes of a forgotten folk melody all danced through the boiling beeswax. It was different every time, like a legend passing from mouth to mouth and changing in the telling. She drew in a breath through cracked, parched lips, and the oppressive air scorched her lungs. Impatience shot through her. Would she always be the one heating the wax, never the one lighting the flame?
She reached for a small jug and poured creamy cow’s milk into the mixture. The principles of Ayurveda demanded the milk be heated, but the final ingredient, a honey made from blue lotus pollen, could only be drizzled in once the cauldron had been removed from the flames.
Then there was the matter of the binder, a drop of blood.
She cringed. How much would it cost her this time?
Her mother and grandmother spoke from across the room, startling her. Their voices sounded as though they were melting in the waves of heat from the fire. “She’s too young,” her mother said as she always did, one hand fanning her face. “She could still be an artist. An architect. A storyteller.”
“It’s our duty,” her grandmother countered. Her white sari clung to her, dark with perspiration stains. “Perhaps some ideas are lost in the process. But this is our art, and Rupali is bound to continue, just as we did in our time.”
The familiar cadence of the tired argument comforted Rupali—it might as well be part of the rites—though the words did not. At sixteen, she was the latest blossom in a lush garland that stretched, petal by petal, back to the beginning of their family, the only keepers of the rainbow flame in all Kashi. It was a thing to be proud of, belonging to an old and important lineage, carrying out the ancient ritual. She knew that, yet part of her wondered if playing this role should really make her feel so sick afterward.
The mixture bubbled and spat, calling her back to the moment. With a sharp knife, Rupali pierced her thumb. Though she’d done it many times before, the rush of pain still made her gasp. A single, perfectly round droplet appeared on her skin, thick and red like pomegranate juice, rich with unspoken dreams. Bracing herself to be scalded, she thrust her hand over the cauldron.
The crimson drop hissed as it hit the golden wax, and starbursts bloomed behind Rupali’s eyelids. She saw images of indigo palace walls threaded with silver stars, flying sheep with dazzling purple wings, grinning orange puppets manipulating their human masters. They floated before her eyes, vibrant and swaying to an eerie, wordless music.
Something tore free of her spirit and joined the contents of the cauldron.
Blisters were already forming on her exposed skin, but there was no help for it. Rupali grabbed a long wooden pole and used it to hoist the cauldron from the fire. Immediately the wax began to cool. Before it could solidify, she sprinkled in a vial of honey, then tipped the cauldron over a row of molds.
By rights, the cauldron should have been too heavy for her, and the wax should have spilled everywhere, but the magic within the room guided the process. All Rupali had to do was perform the time–honored steps.
With the last of her stamina, she unclenched her fingers from the pole. Then she fainted.
When she woke, the hardened candles had been cut from their molds, and she’d been moved to the cot kept for just this purpose. Her grandmother stroked her hair, and her mother handed her a steaming cup. Rupali carefully sat up and sipped. The hot, spicy dal was just what she needed; she could almost feel her body restoring itself, blood calling to blood, bone to bone. Yet nothing could replace the visions taken from her or soothe the strange, starved ache in her chest.
What had she given up this time? The notes to a ballad of love and loss? A game of seashells and gemstones?
Her grandmother insisted the loss was necessary, that their family was the last one to craft these master spell candles. But Rupali didn’t see why the siphoned imagination should allow someone else to dream, to travel, to hold the moon in her palm for as long as the wick burned with rainbow flame.
“May I—?” Rupali paused and cleared her throat. Her tongue was dry despite the dal. “May I try one?”
Her grandmother frowned. “We’ve talked about this before. Our spell candles are reserved for the Singers.”
“Why do they need them so badly?” Rupali burst out. Yes, she thought bitterly, they did seem to have the same argument over and over.
“Child, you know this. The Singers must heal the holes in the star field, the rents in the fabric of our traditions and stories. If even a single thread were to unravel …” Her grandmother raised her chin. “It’s a fine thing we do.”
Her mother, however, snorted. “Hardly.” She brought her face close to Rupali’s and whispered, “The Singers get them because they’re the only ones with the money to afford that kind of extravagance. Ordinary people have to eat.”
Rupali thought about that. She thought about that when her mother and grandmother left with the haul of new–made candles, while she scrubbed off the grime and sweat of the previous night, as she later strolled along the banks of the holy river Ganga, which at night mirrored the changeless stars above, snug in the dark narrative fabric of the sky.
Right now, though, all she could see in its waters was the sun. The sun, and the reflection of a hundred thousand people bustling through the city—a hundred thousand people whose lives were protected by the spell candles and the Singers who used them. Everything was as it had always been each time she walked here.
Rupali’s hand tightened around the empty journal and sketchbook she carried. She had never been permitted to record her thoughts, because they might be stripped from her during the candle–making process, and the sacrifice had to be complete. Yet she couldn’t stop herself from buying the tools to record things. Nor could she help but ponder what the books’ pages might have held. What she might have said.
Her stomach roiled, and to soothe it, she purchased a paper cup of sliced fruit. The sweet–tart mango dribbled cool juices over her eager lips, while the plump cherries burst between her teeth. Rupali imagined consuming a heart, then broke off mid–chew. Would that thought be taken from her, too?
Envy rose up in her, a spiky, soaring thing. It tore at her insides and caught on the place just beneath her breasts. Clutching her empty cup tightly, she watched children play and laugh and chat together, not a care in the world. They danced, they sang, they sculpted and drew.
She opened the sketchbook and put a stick of charcoal to the page. When forced, the charcoal made rough scratches, but that was all. Nothing in Rupali drove it to turn those scratches into something more.
Her belly aching once more, she closed the book. What would it be like, to retain her own whimsy? To engage it without a second thought?
The Singers, in their isolated diamond–walled palace on the hill, were said to be the guardians of the star–laced stories—and of the people themselves. No one really knew what the Singers did with their spell candles, but rumor had it they went straight to fulfilling personal pleasures. Rupali, though, guessed otherwise; as far as she could tell, the city was thriving.
Yet why should it be at the cost of her own visions? Wasn’t she one of the people, too?
She tossed the cup into the river. It floated off, a tiny boat sailing away on adventures she couldn’t begin to imagine. If this were a story, a maiden would rise from the waters and offer her three wishes. At the very least, the children would invite her to join their games.
Of course, nothing of the kind happened. Instead, Rupali took one last, longing glance at the city, and then turned to go home.
Panting, Rupali finished her latest batch of candles. She could craft candles every day of her life and still not sate her customers’ appetite, but the risk of stripping herself bare was too great. Her great–grandmother had done that, pushing harder and harder until she snapped into a schedule that repeated itself perfectly from waking to bed. She would not deviate from it, cycling through the same activities at the same times as the day before, using identical words and intonation to tell the same stories, eating the same foods in exactly the same sequence and proportions, even coughing and sneezing at predictable intervals. When the family tried to intercede, her great–grandmother had shut down completely. Upon waking a day later, she resumed the routine.
With a shudder, Rupali swore now she would never let that happen to her. Even once a month left her drained.
Her mother and grandmother reached for her just as she swooned.
The next thing Rupali knew, an unfamiliar voice called her name. “Wake up, Rupali.” A hand shook her.
Rupali moaned and opened bleary eyes. It took a bit of blinking in the dark before she could make out the shape of a girl standing over her. “What—who are you?” she asked, her voice still clothed in sleep.
The girl held a torch up to her face and grinned. “Daya. Pleased to meet you.” She rattled the cot. “Now get up.”
Too dazed to protest, Rupali let the strange girl pull her upright. “Good,” said Daya. “Now you’re going to show me where the candles are.”
“The—the candles?” Rupali squeezed her eyes shut. Thoughts began to form behind her lids. This girl had come in the middle of the night. She had somehow slipped in past Rupali’s mother and grandmother. “Wait, are you here to steal them?”
“Maybe,” said Daya. “I haven’t decided.”
Rupali stared in disbelief. “You haven’t decided? How did you even get in here?”
Daya shrugged. “I saw you this afternoon and followed you. Everyone knows who you are, candle girl.”
That wasn’t the way the story was supposed to go. Rupali was supposed to get a candle of her own, not help a would–be thief take one. She hopped off the cot and snatched up one of the ordinary candles used for light. “I think you should leave now.”
“Or what? I know you won’t call your family.”
Rupali walked toward the door. “Well, you’re wrong. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
“Wait!” Daya grabbed Rupali’s wrist. Her grip was strong for someone so small. “I don’t want to steal anything! I just want to see your candles. Please.”
Rupali looked down at the girl studying her anxiously. Daya was actually quite pretty, she realized, with long, thick black hair and large, dark eyes. Her smooth skin, a darker brown than Rupali’s own, contrasted nicely with her violet salwaar kameez. But it was the worry in her tone that made Rupali pause. “Why?” she asked warily.
“Because!” Daya dropped Rupali’s arm and reached for her hands. “Because I’m not a Singer.”
“Well, yes, but—”
“If I hadn’t said anything,” Daya rushed on, “I would be one of them. If I…”
“If you what?” Rupali asked, intrigued. “What did you say?” She had never been close enough to see a Singer in person, let alone to offend one. “It must have been terrible.”
“Never you mind,” Daya said, glowering. “Are you going to show me the candles or not?”
Rupali didn’t need to think about it. This girl could be anyone, a liar, a swindler. Certainly she had broken into the workroom; there was no arguing with that. “No, and I think you’d better leave now.”
“You’re just as bad as they are,” Daya muttered, “except you don’t know what you’re doing.” She let her gaze roam the cavernous space one more time, taking in every corner, every shadow, as though she could tease out the candles’ location. “Next time, then.”
“They’re not here.” Rupali held open the door, fully expecting Daya to resist. Instead, after shooting a final glare, Daya scampered out into the night.
Rupali knew she’d done the right thing, yet as she curled back up on her cot, she could not stop replaying the strange visit in her mind. Why had Daya wanted to see the candles so badly that she would break in for them?
And her final words: You’re just as bad as they are. A spiteful parting shot, and one that stung. Perhaps, Rupali decided, Daya simply couldn’t stand not getting her way. Perhaps that was why the Singers had rejected her.
Either way, it was clear Rupali would have to think more about all this.
Two nights later, on Sarasvati Pooja, the day Kashi honored the Goddess of Speech and Stories with narrative and song, Rupali handed her grandmother the bowl of mushrooms she’d chopped. She’d always loved how they were called “cat’s hats” in Gujarati. That had been the product of someone’s mischievous imagination.
Yet even the little smile the quaint phrase brought to her face couldn’t lessen her guilt at having chased off the intruder girl, nor could she forget Daya’s taunt. Imagination, rainbow flames, the Singers. You don’t know what you’re doing.
What if Daya knew something Rupali didn’t?
Laughing, her mother rolled out a fenugreek–stuffed theplu. “Dikri, remember how you used to tell Nani and me a story about the clever kittens with their mushroom caps? You changed the ending every time!”
“I did?” Rupali’s chest felt hollowed out. Try as she might, she could not recall a single version of the tale, let alone having told it. “What did I say?”
Her mother’s mouth turned down. “Never mind.”
“Enough!” Her grandmother gestured impatiently. “Let go of what is gone. To do otherwise is to court trouble.”
“You’re right,” Rupali’s mother said, her voice distant. “I’m sorry.”
Rupali, however, was anything but sorry. The ghost of an image glimmered at the edges of her thoughts, then vanished into the evening sunlight pouring through the kitchen window.
Her grandmother, ever keen, narrowed her eyes. “Is something troubling you, dikri?”
“Yes, Nani,” Rupali said. “How does one become a Singer?”
Her mother and grandmother traded glances. “Why do you ask?” her grandmother asked casually. But the vigor with which she stirred the spicy mixture on the stove betrayed her concern.
“Because … because they’re our customers,” Rupali replied. “If I’m making candles for them, surely I should know more about them.”
Her mother nodded. “She has a point, Mataji.” To Rupali, she said, “They accept initiates every five years, from every walk of life.”
“The idea is that the Singers must never lose touch with the people they represent,” her grandmother put in, lifting the lid from the pot of rice. The aroma of cumin and cloves drifted toward Rupali, making her stomach growl.
“But the work they do,” she asked, “does it truly serve us?”
Her grandmother paused. “Is it for us to say? Our job is to do as tradition demands. We make the candles as we have been taught, and we sell them to the Singers. That’s all you need to worry about.”
Rupali lowered her head, though inside, she seethed. Why shouldn’t she know the people for whom she sacrificed her imagination, her vision?
But there was nothing to be gained from arguing, so instead she ate quietly, barely tasting the meal. Once her grandmother decided they had eaten enough, Rupali was free to take her leave.
Her mother followed her from the kitchen and all the way to her room. “I’ve been thinking for some time now that you should try your own candle. It is only right that you know not just the people you’re selling your candles to, but also what it is you’re creating.”
She put her finger to her lips, then reached into the knotted end of her sari and produced a long, waxy cylinder the color of honeycomb. “Think carefully about what you want before you light it. Whatever you ask for will be so for the time it takes the wick to burn all the way down. Even the most powerful sorcerer couldn’t ask for more.”
Rupali stared at the candle. A smile swept over her face. “Anything?”
“Anything. But,” her mother cautioned, “you must not forget the spell will only last as long as the candle burns, so act quickly.”
“But how does it actually repair holes in the story star field?”
Her mother pursed her lips.
Rupali let it go. The candle was already an enormous gift, one she’d had no reason to expect. She kissed her mother good night. In return, her mother lay her hand on Rupali’s forehead in blessing.
In the solitude of her room, she cleared her desk, set the candle on a glass plate, and struck a match. It flared in the gloom, a spark of life. Unable to suppress a smile, Rupali lit the wick.
She had thought she would ask for a million gold pieces. She had thought she would ask to see inside the Singers’ palace. Instead, as she gazed into the undulating flame that, for now, was merely orange, her thoughts jumped to her unexpected visitor from two nights before, who had clearly enjoyed many adventures, likely alongside a coterie of friends. What would that be like?
The flame kindled, then burned red, then green, blue, then purple, yellow, then indigo and orange and red once more, rotating through the spectrum again and again. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
Still, how could she have been so stupid as to waste the wish? She should have asked to find the Singers!
The candle began to cast off sparks, and Rupali inhaled sharply. The sparks blossomed in the air, scattering bands of light over the bed like the sun through a giant prism. As she stared, the bands merged into something like a window, which expanded until it filled an entire wall.
The portal opened onto a vista of the river at night, thickly salted with the reflection of the stars. Rupali chewed on her cheek, considering. The candle had been lit, the spell cast. She had only the few hours until the wick burned out. If she wanted to see what the candle could do, she needed to try it now.
She clambered through the scintillating frame.
Rupali emerged beneath a moonlit papaya tree near the softly splashing river. The air was perfumed by the fruits’ fragrance, and all around, people in fine clothing danced and sang beneath a myriad of colored lanterns. But the leap through the window had stuffed her head with clouds and cotton, and she couldn’t make sense of the celebration.
A sweets seller beckoned to her from his brightly decorated stall, which was festooned with a string of tiny lanterns. Rupali thought vaguely that the lanterns might have reminded her of something once, long ago. “Feast days are my best days,” the seller announced.
How could she have forgotten? Her family might have stayed home, tending to mundane concerns, but today was a feast day. The proper thing to do would be to purchase milk sweets to give in offering at Sarasvati Devi’s temple and tell stories amid the scent of incense.
The seller convinced her to buy a box of round yellow laddoos, diamond–shaped kaju katli topped with silver leaf, and bright pink chumchums. Bemused at having forgotten the date, Rupali didn’t even haggle.
A group of five people her mother’s age wandered by. One threw back her head and broke into peals of delighted laughter. As Rupali glanced around, she saw everyone was already paired off or in groups. Only she was alone.
Her shoulders slumped. Never mind the temple. All she wanted to do was hide. The papaya tree’s branches would be a fine place to wait out the spell…
Rupali, who had never climbed a tree in her life, found herself scampering up the notched bark. There, a large platform sat nestled precariously amidst the branches. She stiffened. Someone had already claimed this tree.
“Who is this little monkey who’s come to play?” Daya’s voice rang out in pleasure. “Not the candle girl herself?”
Rupali laughed and climbed onto the lantern–strewn platform where Daya nibbled on chevdo. At the sight of the red box Rupali carried, Daya abandoned the savory snack mix. “Ooh, what did you bring me?”
Still slightly cloud–muddled, Rupali opened the box. Per tradition, she plucked out a sugary chumchum and held it up to Daya’s lips. Daya’s eyes darkened even more, and after a brief hesitation, she opened her mouth.
Rupali deposited the confection there. “The goddess be praised,” she recited.
Daya smacked her lips. “Indeed!” She selected a piece of kaju katli from the box. “My turn.”
Rupali’s cheeks warmed, yet according to age–old custom, she couldn’t refuse. She parted her lips, and Daya fed her the sweet, echoing her words: “The goddess be praised.” The cashew fudge melted on Rupali’s tongue, lush and delicious, making her reckless.
She met Daya’s stare squarely, not averting her eyes even when the moment moved from acknowledgement into awkwardness. Daya, who appeared to enjoy a challenge, also stayed put. They sat that way, each breathing the other in, the raucous sounds of celebration beneath them a world away. Rupali could almost…
Then Daya spoke, her words harsh in the silence. “Did you bring my candle?”
Rupali went rigid and responded with a question of her own. “What happened? Why aren’t you an initiate?”
“I found out something I wasn’t supposed to know, and I paid the price.”
“I don’t understand,” Rupali said. “What are you talking about?”
“Did you bring my candle?” Daya asked again. In the soft light of the lanterns, she seemed more spirit than human. “I want to see the rainbow flame.”
Something woke in Rupali at that, something she couldn’t name. Her mouth formed words, but her mind had again been ensnared by the strange, compelling eyes of the girl staring back at her. It was oddly difficult to exhale.
Irritated, she tilted her head up at the star field. Above them, the constellations gazed back, steady as ever, their radiance bright against the blue–black cloak of sky. Narrowing her eyes, Rupali tried to make out the patches where they had been mended or any holes awaiting repair. But there was nothing she could see.
Yet her grandmother had been so adamant about the Singers’ need to protect the star field. Perhaps they had already done their job with the candles and their song, and that was why she couldn’t see any problems?
“Tell me about the Singers,” she whispered. The breeze stole her words away, but not before Daya heard her.
“My mother is one.”
“What?” The space beneath Rupali’s ribs constricted. “Then why did you try to steal the candles?”
“I told you, I didn’t! I just wanted to see them. My mother may be a Singer, but I’m not.” Daya ran a hand through her long hair. “Because I went hunting in the palace archives and found the book that told me how things used to be.”
Rupali shook away the phantom feel of her own fingers knotted in those dark, glossy waves. “How they used to be?”
“Yes.” Daya pointed to the stars. “See how they never blink?”
Rupali nodded. “Why would they?”
“They should be. It’s called ‘twinkling.’ They’re frozen up there, just like we are down here.”
“I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me,” Rupali said, though her stomach knotted tighter with each word Daya spoke. “If you believe you can make up a story to trick me into giving you a candle—”
Daya leaned forward. “That’s just it. There are no new stories. All we have is the old stories, and we’re stuck in them.” She took a breath, then added, “That wasn’t the first time I broke into your house. Even you and I are starting to get caught in the narrative loop.”
If Rupali had thought her thoughts were muzzy before, that was nothing compared to this moment. “What do you mean, you broke in before?”
“This isn’t the first time we’ve had this conversation,” Daya said wearily, as if she had repeated this many times before. “The Singers made a mistake. My ancestor thought she could keep us all safe by freezing the star field. And the star field is made up of what?”
“Stories.” Rupali fought to think. “So the spell candles don’t heal the rifts in the star field?”
“Oh, they do. They keep the field in stasis. The stars are supposed to move, to blink. The narrative flow of the world is meant to move and renew itself. When it doesn’t, we freeze, too.”
“Prove it,” Rupali said. Even if it explained her great–grandmother’s last days, how could this possibly be true? “Show me the book.”
Daya flinched visibly. “I can’t. My mother took it when I confronted her. She… she destroyed it. She won’t listen to me. She won’t even look at me!”
“A convenient excuse,” Rupali said, rolling her eyes even as her hands trembled. Her great–grandmother, lost. “Well done trying to get a candle out of me, but it’s hardly my fault you can’t get along with your mother.”
“But can’t you see how everything repeats itself now?” Daya pleaded. “How many times do we have go through this?”
Rupali couldn’t stop imagining her great–grandmother trapped inside a single day. Her mouth burned with fear. She couldn’t listen anymore. She couldn’t.
“I know you know,” whispered Daya.
Refusing to look at her, Rupali turned and inched her way back down the tree. It was fiction. It was false. Of course it was.
Yet what if… ?
She approached the sweets seller’s stall. Again he beckoned to her, his string of lanterns flickering in the same order, and again he greeted her with the same observation on the day’s earnings and a box of laddoos, kaju katli topped with silver leaf, and chumchums. Again she felt no urge to haggle.
Again the group of friends strolled by, and again the woman tossed back her head before breaking out in enthusiastic laughter.
Rupali ran, leaving the seller holding the box. She passed Daya, who now stood on the ground, watching her with concern.
“It’s going to keep happening, isn’t it?” Rupali jabbed a finger at the sweets stall. “Whatever that was.”
“It already did,” Daya said.
“Take me to meet them,” Rupali ordered, the words surprising even her. “The Singers. Right now.”
Though Daya raised her eyebrows, she took Rupali’s hand. “Come, then.”
No one gave them a second glance as they rushed through the throng. Tonight, they were just more merrymakers honoring the goddess.
But how many times had Rupali played out this scenario without knowing it? How many times had the people around her? Would they eventually become like her great–grandmother if the spell candles continued to burn?
Rupali and Daya were silent as they climbed the grassy hill, leaving behind the jubilant crowds and festive lights. Rupali traced the moon–silvered river with her eyes. Had her cup sailed away on new adventures, perhaps even located a tiny captain and crew to aid it on its journey?
“Daya,” she said, paying no heed to the pounding of her heart. This would be one bit of her imagination no one could take away, not with Daya safekeeping it. “I put a paper cup in the river, and it sailed away, and now I believe it has a crew of miniature sailors. Maybe even pirates.”
“All women, of course,” Daya said, grinning. She didn’t—she couldn’t—know the terrible thing Rupali had just done. Her grandmother and her mother would be so disappointed if they knew.
But maybe, she thought, they were the ones who should feel guilty.
Daya abruptly halted. “There,” she whispered, pointing. “There’s my mother. Mrinalini.”
People with elegant hairstyles and glittering, ornate jewelry clustered outside the palace. They wore black silk dotted with silver, a tribute to the constellations above. Tables set with gem–cut jars of blue and green fireflies provided the only other illumination, so it took a moment for Rupali to locate the woman in question. Once she did, however, her heart dropped. The woman was not beautiful, but authority radiated from her like pollen, rich and intoxicating, and the sari pallu covering her head glinted with miniature mirrors that caged the light of the immutable stars.
Not to mention she clutched a spell candle bound up with slivers of Rupali’s imagination.
Daya squeezed Rupali’s hand hard, too hard, her palm sweaty. Rupali squeezed back.
Mrinalini opened her mouth, and the other Singers followed suit. Eddies of notes tumbled forth, crisp as silver, soft as gold. Rupali could almost see the music in the night air. Some notes flew up into the sky, one by one, and others spiraled around Rupali in an ardent caress of sound. She shivered.
Next to her, Daya sighed.
The candle burst into flame, and stories from the star field began narrating themselves, cascading over Rupali’s body, soaking into her bones.
The other Singers held up spell candles, and they, too, were burning, their seven hues shimmering and dancing. As one, the Singers came to a crescendo, and overhead, the stars quaked and tried but failed to shift position before finally resettling themselves. Rupali watched, unable to speak. The story star field!
She could feel how it connected everyone, and how desperately it needed to move. Unable to flow unhindered, it was drowning them.
Then Mrinalini spoke.
“Order must be preserved. Let those who forget the importance of tradition and preservation of the old ways now remember what they mean. We are made of stories, and we must protect them.” Her gaze, which had been trained on the stars, now found her daughter.
“No!” cried Daya. “It’s not meant to be like this. I know the truth is scary, Mother, but you can’t keep denying it. Can you just listen for once?”
“She’s right,” said Rupali tentatively. When no one spoke, she continued. “I can feel it; the stories belong to everyone. They need to be released.”
“You’re wrong,” Mrinalini said, her voice cold. “We are their guardians. We must protect them from corruption and outside influences.”
Though Rupali quailed beneath the force of the Singer’s words, she made herself go on. “But it’s my imagination burning in that candle right now. I give it all to the candles, and I must never use it myself. Surely I have some say in what’s done with it?”
Mrinalini glared at Rupali, her candle flame wagging like a finger. “Enough. I will silence you myself.”
Before the spell could be completed, Rupali clasped Daya’s hand, then released it. “Run!”
They set down the hill, legs pumping and sides stinging. When they neared the papaya tree, the window of winding colors appeared in the air, and they vaulted through it, landing in Rupali’s bedroom.
The last of the wick burned out then, leaving nothing but a couple drops of singed wax. The window, too, dissolved into darkness. Rupali counted out slow, deliberate breaths. Had the entire evening been just a fantasy brought on by the spell?
Muffled weeping nearby quickly dispelled her doubts. The rainbow flame might have gone out, but the girl it had brought was still there. “Daya? Are you all right?”
“My—my mother tried to cast a spell on us!” Daya sobbed. “I was just trying to save her. To save all of us. How can she not know that?”
Rupali knew her own mother would never attack her like that. How sad Daya must feel, how alone. “Listen,” Rupali said, taking her hand, “we’re safe. You’re here with me. Now explain what exactly is happening.”
Daya rubbed her reddened eyes. “My mother knows, but she can’t admit it,” she said. “It’s the candles. The Singers cast spells to keep us wrapped in the old stories. To keep them from changing, so our world never changes, either. That’s why I wanted one, to see if perhaps I could break the spells.”
Rupali let that information seep in. “Let’s set the candles free,” she suggested. “If the stories are meant for everyone, then we will give them to everyone.”
“If you light them,” Daya whispered, “I believe I can sing them free.”
In reply, Rupali opened the door and signaled for Daya to follow.
In the shadows of the shop’s workroom, Rupali thought of all the spells yet to be cast, all the visions still to be sacrificed in the rainbow flame, and all the stagnation that would cause.
“Tradition is a good thing,” she said, “but sometimes we need to make our own.” She pressed a vial of honey into Daya’s hand and a kiss onto her cheek. “Our first new tradition—demanding recognition for the people!”
Smiling, Daya studied the honey. Rupali had given her the smallest vial she had, one tiny enough to wear on a golden chain about her neck. “What is this for?”
“For binding the imagination to the candle. Honey is sticky, you know.”
Daya looked thoughtful. “It is, at that. Shall we gather the candles?”
“Yes, but we have to be silent.” Rupali pointed to the doorway. “Wait here.”
It was more than risky, it was dangerous. If her grandmother caught them, she would lock Rupali away for years. Worse, they didn’t know what the rainbow flames would actually do. But there was only one way to find out. She stuffed the fresh candles into a burlap sack along with a fistful of matches, then grabbed a torch.
Daya, who had been shifting her weight from foot to foot, snatched the bag from Rupali. “Let’s go!” she whispered.
With the star field of stories their only witness, they hurried down to the river. Most of the revelers had gone home to sleep, and those who lingered paid the girls no attention. The moon hung low in the sky, ready for its own well–earned slumber. No candle was burning, yet the night felt even more like the work of a magical charm.
“We must hurry,” Daya repeated again and again, “or my mother will find us!”
Kneeling on the sand, Rupali lit the spell candles, then placed each glowing pillar in the water. As if weightless, they floated on the river’s surface, their multihued flames flickering. She gently nudged them into motion. Go, she thought. Go to those who need you most.
The individual flames spread, eating through the wax pillars and merging into one conflagration that plunged down in search of more fuel. The water hissed, but rather than dousing the massive pyre, it, too, ignited. Seconds later, the entire Ganga blazed, one enormous, raging sheet of seven–hued fire.
Her thumbnail between her teeth, Rupali backed away as fast as she could. She gaped at the incredible sight of burning water. What had they done?
The shore began to liquefy in the heat. “It’s going to burn the whole city down!” Daya shouted over the roar. “We have to put it out!”
“How?” Rupali managed to ask between unsteady giggles. “We can’t exactly throw water on it!”
The old world is burning, a story murmured in her brain. The old world must die, that the new one be born!
“No,” Rupali told it, ignoring her wobbling limbs. That wasn’t true. No one should blindly obey the dictates of elders and follow traditions without question, but there was no reason to discard everything all at once. People needed to be able to look up to those who came before. They needed well–worn rituals that linked the past to the present. Power resided in those rituals.
Daya’s mother knew that. Her own mother certainly did.
Yes. The heroine. The tempering. The sacrifice, the stories murmured as the fire advanced. That is how the new world will be born—not in spite of the old but from it.
That Rupali understood. She knelt on the smoldering riverbank. Before she could think through it, she dipped her hand into the firewater.
Her skin shrieked with pain as it sizzled and melted.
Screaming, Daya tried to pull her out, but the rainbow fire had already left the water to leach into Rupali’s pores and penetrate her veins. Soon it would reach her heart, devouring, cleansing.
“It’s all right,” she whispered, just loud enough for Daya to hear. “Just sing.”
“Enough!” another voice called, a musical voice. A distant corner of Rupali’s mind recognized it as belonging to Daya’s mother. The other Singers stood behind her, agape. Mrinalini frantically tore a spell candle from her sari and raced toward Rupali. “This is unacceptable. The order of things must be observed!”
“It’s too late, Mother,” Daya said softly, stepping back. “There’s nothing you can do now.” She began to sing, the lyrics about a boat made of a paper cup.
“Stop!” Mrinalini cried. “You have no idea what you’re doing!”
Daya kept singing.
The fire, Rupali realized, it’s me. It’s my imagination. It’s everyone’s imagination. It’s the stuff of stories. She glanced up, and the constellations shone with the same seven–toned flame. They always had. She just hadn’t been able to see it before. But the flame was fixed in place, unable to burn freely. It needed to flow, to incinerate old stories and create new stories from the ashes. We’re the real spell candles.
As Daya sang, the rainbow flame gushed forth, filling the dark spaces between the now–twinkling stars. The constellations themselves began to spin. How they glowed with starlight and story and song!
All the memories, all the ideas Rupali had ever had and lost flooded back into her, a lava stream of inspiration. She was so hot, she would combust any second now.
The crowd at the water’s edge grew as more and more of the city’s inhabitants woke, summoned by the fire’s call. Rupali spotted her grandmother and mother among them, their eyes wide with fright.
Her song finished, Daya held out her arms to Mrinalini. “Stories change, Mother. Sometimes they die, and new stories are born. They need to, just like us.”
“We have new ways now,” Rupali added, just before her throat seared shut and her breathing stilled. The fire crackled hungrily in her ears as it claimed every part of her.
Mrinalini waved her unlit candle. “Daya, what foolishness have you wrought? Don’t you understand? We can’t make new stories.”
“We have to—”
“You’re not my daughter,” said Mrinalini, shaking. “My daughter would never shame me like this.”
The hope in Daya’s face dimmed, a wick spent at long last. Rupali’s heart twisted with an ache that had nothing to do with the rainbow fire. Unable to watch, she closed her eyes.
Then, just as abruptly as it had begun, the flames within Rupali ceased to burn her. Now they were hers to command. Just like the Singers.
No, she corrected herself. Not to command. That was where the Singers had failed their people. To guide.
She opened her eyes. Her skin was whole, untouched, as was the riverbank. But everywhere she looked, from the shadows to the worried faces staring back, she saw the sparks of rainbow fireworks, blossoming, booming. Story was in the people’s blood. It was their birthright. It was the signature of the goddess.
The star field arced over them, sparkling, woven through with all the tales that had ever been and would be. Every person in Kashi and beyond was threaded into that magnificent tapestry, and every person could tap into it at will.
They didn’t need spell candles or even Singers anymore.
Before her, curious citizens trickled toward the palace, whose diamond doors now stood open to them. Others laid hands on the Singers’ shoulders and murmured words of comfort while eyeing Rupali with suspicion. Still others just looked on with bewilderment, her grandmother among them. Her mother, though, beamed with pride.
Mrinalini snapped her candle in half. “Sarasvati Devi only knows what you hope to accomplish here, but I have no need of your imagination any longer.”
Drawing strength from her own mother’s smile, Rupali stood. “I’m glad to hear that,” she told Mrinalini and her Singers. “Today, on Sarasvati’s day, the magic goes back to the people entrusted to your care. The stories flow free, to die and change and be reborn. You may have forgotten, but your privilege is to serve them—and us.”
Then she walked over to Daya and took her hand. “Would you like to keep me company while I draw the story of what will happen tomorrow?”
With tears still streaking her cheeks, Daya kissed Rupali, and there was only fire.
© 2015 by Shveta Thakrar