“Devil Child” by Sahil Mehta

The first time I met Ammu, my father’s mother, she spat on me. I was outside the post office under the shade of the big banyan tree, minding my own business, when an old woman started shouting at me. “A thousand curses on you, you evil child,” she shrieked, spit flying out of her toothless mouth. At first, I thought she was a mad woman, but she knew my name.

“Anjoli,” she screamed, pointing her cane at me, “the day you were born the tides stood still, and the moon disappeared.” Her mouth was stained red with betel juice, it looked like she’d just finished eating a child or two. “The sky filled with blood and the roosters failed to greet the sun,” she railed. “A thousand curses on you, you devil child.”

I wanted to run away or shout for Ma but I froze, too shaken to move. “You are darkness. The demon. He was my only child!” She ranted and she raved. Then she spat on me. The Crow had a bird’s eye view of the incident.

Ma came out of the post office upon hearing the commotion. She ran between me and the witch, gathering me in her widow’s whites. She pulled, pushed, and half-carried me away, weeping giant tears all the way home.

“Ma, who was that old woman?” “Why did she say I killed my father?” “Ma, please answer me.”

“Ma, please don’t cry.”

I begged. I pleaded. I coaxed. I cajoled. Ma said nothing for a while, quietly holding me against her heaving chest. I, too, started crying then. Now, my fears and tears, no longer frozen, rushed out unhindered.

Finally, Ma sat me down in the courtyard. “You are old enough,” she said, “to hear about your family on your father’s side. That old woman is Ammu, your father’s mother.” She combed my hair, gently tugging at the unruly curls. “The other woman who was standing with Ammu is your father’s cousin sister. She must have pointed you out to Ammu.” Ma plied my hair with warm coconut oil, massaging it into the scalp in delicate little circles.

“Pay no heed to her words, my child,” she said as her fingers expertly wove my hair into two identical plaits. “You are innocent and were conceived with love. She is just a mother grieving the loss of her only child.”

“Nonsense!” said the Crow, who had joined us in the courtyard. He was inspecting the lime and mango pieces that were laid out to dry in the sun. He hopped on one leg, then the other, before he turned around to face us. “Don’t make excuses for that terrible woman,” he said to Ma.

“Who throws out a grieving widow with an infant child just days after her husband dies? Thank god, Mamu and Mami took you in at your maternal home. Where would you have gone, Sonali? What would you have done with Anjoli?” The Crow then pointed his beak at me, “Anjoli, you were only three days old when that wench kicked you and your mother out, penniless and without a roof over your heads.”

I sat quietly for a while, absorbing this new information. Ammu’s angry words refused to leave me alone, running round and round in my head like a snake chasing its own tail. “But why was she saying I killed my father? How did Papa die?” Ma looked at the Crow, who for once seemed at a loss for words.

“Your father had a weak heart,” Ma eventually said. “He was over the moon, my love, anticipating your arrival with such joy. He didn’t want to worry me, so he didn’t tell me he was having chest pains.” The Crow stayed silent, spreading his wings to catch the rays of the winter sun. “He died the day you were born,” Ma concluded.

“Your father was a very nice man,” the Crow said, “but he had a weak heart since he was a child. Your evil Ammu hid this from your mother and her family. I tried to warn them but no one listened to me.”

Ma teared up again. “Yes, Ammu hid his condition from us, but she was only trying to do what was best for her son,” Ma tried to placate the Crow.

“Besides, your father came clean about his heart condition as soon as he could and said if I wanted to break off the engagement, he would understand why. But he was such a nice man, Anjoli, simply one of a kind, I couldn’t imagine harming even a single hair on his head. He was my fate and my destiny. Who was I to fight God’s will? I only wish you had gotten to know your father, my child.”

The Crow wiped his eyes and looked away.

“I still don’t understand why Ammu was saying I killed my father. Did I break Papa’s heart?” I asked.

“Some people are old-fashioned, my love. Ammu believed that the eclipse on the day of your birth and the birth of a female child were both bad omens that augured your father’s death. These are just superstitions, my love. People rely on them when they don’t have the answers they want.”

“And they call us bird-brained!” The Crow muttered. He retired to the mango tree for his afternoon nap. Ma finished plaiting my hair.

“What’s an omen, Ma?” “And what’s a superstition?”

If Ma answered me, I didn’t hear her.  Darkness seeped into the world. The sky turned black, Yama’s soldiers danced around. The clouds wept. The world turned to water in front of my eyes. The Crow hid with the fox and the hen. My tears raged into torrents the likes of which mankind had never seen before.

Black herons ferried souls of the deceased to other realms. Ammu’s was one of them.

Sahil Mehta was born and raised in India. He currently lives in Boston, where he works in the hospitality industry. He has over two decades of experience in educational publishing, but his foray into fiction is much more recent. His short fiction has appeared in Foglifter Journal and Roadrunner Review.