I am not a mercenary–the word infuriates me. Only Asma used to call me so—she paid the price. We’re messengers. This moonless night, I and my people march through the crepuscular streets. Our wooden masks—colored outrageously in reds, dark greens, oranges and black—with bulging eyes of rage and lecherous bloodthirsty mouths, glisten. When we’re at the feet of the burnt woods, we chant Change! But the more we desire change the more we remain the same—only with altered masks. We shed blood; we maim and kill because our Masters tell us that’s how change can come. We pass on from one life to another, but the promised land eludes us. So we put on cloaks, become different selves. We die like Zaid and Shan, several deaths, but are reborn like the weeds in our poppy fields. With our flesh embalmed, our bones turned to steel and faces behind masks, we regroup and follow orders.
Tonight, madmen prowl the streets. But we aren’t the madmen. It’s them on the other side we insist. With a Molotov Cocktail in my grip, I aim at the enemies—shadowy figures prancing at the other end of the street, below the half-burnt monoliths of concrete, signage of our town. There’s a hail of stone missiles from their side, shells burst, smoke rises. The shrill wailing of passing ambulances perforates the air, but we ignore them. Presently, a blinding haze shrouds us. We hear gunshots, deathly screams, more wails, and thickening smoke, but we dash ahead. In the alley near our childhood homes, the only sound is that of beatings of our heavy boots. Our masters bark commands into our heads in language we can barely decipher, but we understand the part they’re spitting abuses, impatient at our failures. They’re never here except when new orders must be given. They stand so high on the pulpit that we see them only as miniatures, like puppets, not even their masks visible. But their voices boom. Across the land. Urging us to action. Like a pack of dogs we cry Murder! And when our leashes are pulled by invisible hands, we swirl wildly, our feet circling in feverish paces, ready to embark on a vicarious thrill ride. The beatings of our drums rise to a crescendo, we chant Blood (not Change!) because it is now a Dance of Death.
Centuries ago we were different. The enemies and we were on the same side but tonight the least we want is their severed heads. From a slit in the awning of one closed shop, I see old crafts handed down from generations—Papier Mache vases, dried wild flowers, flutes, multi-colored flags and masks. Daitara, Lalburo, other Gods and Demons are casting a spell. I think of my friend Tais who used to run the shop. People thought he was eccentric because he walked barefoot in the woods and made wooden birds in his shop. He carved them to perfection, and chiselled them with patience. When I took those birds in my palms, they whispered they wanted to fly. Where to, my love, asked Tais standing beside, they shoot down even birds from the sky. I promptly let them go to Tais that day, shuddering at the image.
Several days later, with no mask and a stone in his hand, Tais hurled the piece at our Master. Tais was taken to the lunatic asylum right away and never seen again. We remained—lunatics outside of the asylum.
In the darkness, we enter the ruins of our homes looking for enemies. Empty homes stare at us, blackened doors ajar crackle with laughter, smells of rot besiege us. I look for Elbe, the boy who limped; where’s Sirac, the cousin who swore at us; are you there Asma? Asma, the girl I loved, but who had to pay the price.
My people are at my heels; we’re all looking for foes we think are crouching in the corners. We try to grab them, struggle, rise, wrestle, fall. We hit the walls. Our hollow bodies collide, bone against bone, we’re chasing our own forms. The forms dissolve; they’re only ghostly shadows we can’t hold on to. When day breaks, even we’re gone.
Mandira Pattnaik is from India. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in print and online including The Times of India, Editor’s Pick Juggernaut Publishing, FewerThan500, MicrofictionMonday, 101words, Paragraph Planet, 365tomorrows, Spark Magazine, and Runcible Spoon.