by Kevin Lucia and Richard Wright
The ravine was a tree-lined gash in the baking landscape. The sky above was the most intense of blues, and as the river Ganges surged violently along the base of the crevasse it absorbed the colour and churned it up, turning it to a deep, strange green.
The hunter was dressed in well-worn black, showing only hands and sandaled feet to the world. A black scarf masked an eager face. The prey was close. The chase had lasted weeks, but exhaustion had worn the quarry down. While the hunted had a vehicle of his own, the hunter had been able to follow only on public transport, or in the cars of strangers going the same way. Dressed in human clothes, the hunter had drawn many shocked and curious glances on the journey. It was a relief to take the black once more.
Stalking along the bank, the hunter almost missed the broken shape resting in the shallows. It had tangled behind a spray of grasses growing into the river’s savage flow, a broken, bobbing thing. It looked to be a cast off toy, a babe of plastic white, but the view was obscured by the shrubbery. The temptation to investigate was strong, but the hunter resisted the call of childish things. It was the ice of the river that proved the real lure, for the hunting outfit was sodden with sweat. A stop of minutes to bathe could turn to hours once the relief was allowed, and the end of the chase was too close to contemplate a pause now.
There was something else that held the figure back, an instinct that suggested there were things best not seen in full. Nothing could be allowed to chip at the hunter’s resolve, and the doll had a vile taint, its innocence stolen by the great river. There were truths to that image that the hunter did not wish to dwell upon.
Abandoning the doll, the figure picked a path further upstream, cursing the midday sun while trying to find a route between trees that would offer some shade. If the summer heat were not so brutal then it would be possible to walk at the river’s edge, on the beaches and rocks that lined it, and better progress would be made. The hunter had learned the previous day that choosing speed over shelter would sap the energy from overworked muscles long before the sun sank low, and chose the harder route.
Two hours passed before the bridge came into view. It was a decrepit wooden affair propped on spindly legs over the raging waters. Standing little more than six feet above the waters, it was difficult to see how its sun-bleached boards could have survived there for more than a season.
There was a minivan parked at the end of the bridge on the hunter’s side of the river. It was a tiny, filthy rectangle on wheels. The windshield was thick with brown dirt, showing only a single fan of clear glass where the wiper had worked overtime on the driver’s behalf. There was no road to the bridge, only a treacherous footpath, and the hunter struggled to imagine how the vehicle had descended the steep slope of the ridge through the trees.
At the centre of the bridge was the prey, dragging the last of four white mannequins dressed in saris to the river’s midpoint. As the hunter picked through the last of the trees the prey heaved one of his trophies up and slumped it over the handrail. It bent double at the waist, arms reaching down to Mother Ganges. The still image was horribly lifelike, but the hunter noted the too-white plasticity of the face and was reassured.
The prey was a tiny, skinny man, all bone and sweat. His moustache dripped, and his greasy fringe swayed in front of his bloodshot eyes. He was wearing a cream shirt several sizes too large, stained dark and moist at the armpits. His brown trousers were also large, rolled up at the bottom and held in place only by the belt he had cinched tight.
The hunter stepped up to the van, and checked the back. It was empty. The prey was alone, as expected, and the hunter’s slim hand reached back to draw the curved khukuri knife that had been a gift. The inward curving blade was sheathed at the hunter’s back, and slid free eagerly. It had tasted blood before, but too long had passed since then. With the prey in sight it had a fresh thirst.
The stiff dry boards of the bridge creaked beneath the hunter’s weight, but the roar of the Ganges ensured the prey did not hear. Intent on his task, he did not at first realise that he was caught. When he bent to lift another mannequin, a female form like the one already draped over the handrail, he saw the shadow that stalked him. Straightening, he took two broken steps back on exhausted legs, more doll-like than the things he had hauled on to the bridge. At first the hunter thought he might turn and flee, and was ready for the chase should it be required, but stark terror drained what strength the man had. He dropped to his backside, weeping as he drew his knees up to his chin, keeping his head down as the hunter reached him.
“You know who I am,” said the hunter.
“You… you are Kali’s Blade. You are here for me.”
“I did not do it! I am innocent!”
With the last of them on his knees in tears and the khukuri ready, the hunter had expected a rush of triumph. The hollowness inside was both a surprise and a powerful disappointment after everything that had been endured. “Innocent of what?”
“Of nothing! I do not know!”
“Then I will tell you a story, and you will be reminded.” The hunter slapped the man’s face, and as his head jerked back seized his shirt in a single small fist. “Do you know where the story takes place?”
The prey wept and shook his head.
“There is a village far away, deep in the Punjab. A girl named Avneet lived there with her family. She fell in love with an outsider called Deepak, from beyond the tribe.” Birds screamed in the sky above, but the hunter had eyes only for the prey. With a heave, the prey was lifted to his feet. “They were caught one night, while lost in youthful passions, and presented to the village elders. It was commanded that the family of each should pay a fine of fifty thousand rupees for their transgressions, but this was far beyond the sum that could be gathered by either. With no bribe forthcoming the elders gathered thirteen young men from the village and gave each a metal bar. They were told to beat Deepak until he was repentant, and they took turns smashing and cracking him. The meat mess that was carted out of the village and dumped by the road was barely human. Do you remember, prey?”
“No, no, he was fine, he was alive.”
The hunter hauled him across to the railing, and pushed him forward so that he too was bent double over the rail. “He was crippled. He was comatose. The elders looked on that and smiled. They commanded that Avneet be bound naked and spreadeagled in the centre of the village, and told each of the men to rape her. Twelve took to this with glee. They speared every hole. Do you remember, prey?”
“It was not me! I did not…”
The hunter grabbed the prey’s hair and drew his head up. “No, you were the thirteenth. You stood there with your manhood dangling limp in the wind, and the others joked and laugh as she cried and bled.”
“Yes! Yes! I saw her face and could not rape her!”
“So you took the metal bar with which you beat her lover, and put that to use instead.” The prey nodded, his face wet with his tears.
“Let me tell you what happened next. Deepak was found the next day and treated. It was a year before he could leave his bed, and long did his family have to care for the crippled thing he became. Avneet was a shell of a different sort. No matter what her family offered, none in the village would take her as a wife. She was a shattered plaything for the men of the village, but only when drink was on them. Sullied as she was, none would touch her sober. She could not even ply her trade that way. One day she simply vanished, and all assumed she gave her life to the goddess.”
“Have lost their heads. You know this. You fled when the third was found.”
“I… the others…”
“You are the last. A lost man with his plastic ladies. What solace do they give you?”
Releasing the man’s hair, the hunter crossed behind him and seized the shoulder of one the dolls.
It was soft. It was meat. The hunter leaned out over the rail, ignoring the man’s sobs. The head was bound in white plastic sheeting. It was not a mannequin at all.
The prey grew hysterical. “They laughed at me because I could not rape her! They called me a worthless Eve tease! I wanted to show them, with these ones! I thought that if I could take away their faces I could do it! I tried so many. Mother Ganges takes away my sins.”
The hunter stared downstream. Somewhere down there was a tiny doll at the water’s edge.
Not a doll.
Leaning close to the prey’s face, she tore away her scarf. He recognised her at once, and the high keening noise that issued from his throat carried his sanity away on a single note. “This is the face you will take with you to your next destiny,” Avneet told him. She seized his hair again, holding him steady as she raised her blade. He did not fight her as she chopped down.
Raising the dripping head high, she shoved the body into the foaming water. He was the last. The demons were slain. All the elders. All those who had violated her.
Why did she still feel dead inside?
The trees whispered in the voice of dark mother Kali, who had once fought demons by the legion, and told her that her work was just beginning. Avneet rolled her shoulders, and sheathed her weapon. These few men were not the end at all.
This was India. There were a thousand thousand demons left to slay, and Kali’s Blade was keen.
And there you have it. Week two of The 52. I hope you enjoyed it, if that’s the right thing to say about this sort of tale. I have to confess a lingering dissatisfaction – this draft doesn’t feel like a final draft, and clunks occasionally where it should glide. Still, it’s show and tell time, so there you have it. If you like the story, and think that people should read it, please share.
All of the stories in this project are free, and will stay here indefinitely. If you want to support my writing in general, or the publishers that I’ve worked with down the years, then buy a book one of the times you swing by. My new novel The Flesh Market is a good place to start with my longer fiction. If short stories are your thing, and you enjoyed ‘Kali’s Blade’, then you might also like my story ‘Skins’ in Nightscapes.