The Dragon is coming to tea. Grandmother sends me to The Village at dawn with a list and a handcart.
Multiversal Mart (Unlimited Indulgence – Family Friendly) has just opened. C-devi, the owner-manager, sits behind the glass counter. One head inspects the packed shelves, making occasional clucking noises like an irritated hen. Another bends over the new baby in her cradle, crooning a lullaby. The third is busy with The Daily Village, the four-page broadsheet that is relished by the hydras, owlings, garudas, simurghs, griffins, parassayas, mothmen, and other creatures who call this place home.
The Village (pronounced Vi-hage for no known reason) has a motto—The Home of the Weird and the Wonderful.
We are the anomalies here, Grandmother and I.
Every conversation about our life here ends the same way.
“We are human,” I’d say. “We don’t belong here.”
“Just because we are human doesn’t mean we’ll belong there either,” Grandmother would reply. “Being human is more complicated than that. Anyway here we are and here we stay.”
Fine for Grandmother. She keeps herself busy with her herb garden and her chats with the Dragon.
Not so fine for me. I longed for school but had to be satisfied with Grandmother teaching me herbology. I long for university, but my only option is to learn cosmic-math from the Dragon. I’ve no friends to giggle with or discuss new fashions. As for “going out” with someone, as they phrase it here, what choice do I have other than wings or tentacles, bulls’ heads, or goat’s body?
I sigh. Loudly.
C-devi raises her paper-reading head. She tries to arch an eyebrow—forgetting she shaved both off—after reading an article about personal improvement in The Daily Village. “You are early, Bouti-dear.”
I give her the list. “The Dragon is coming to tea.”
The powder-blue eyes beneath the scaly hoods widen. “He visits her often, doesn’t he?” C-devi doesn’t wait for an answer. “Not surprising, not surprising, two such powerful beings having so much affinity with each other.”
I shift uneasily. “How’s the baby?” Any baby-talk is bound to divert C-devi. She’s crazy about the little thing.
The crooning head lifts to flash me a loopy smile. “Doing fine, dear, doing fine. Would you like to play with her?”
I am not into babies, so happy that I have an excuse the entire Village would understand. “Not today. I must rush. Grandma is expecting me.”
The powder-blue eyes beneath the scaly hoods widen. “Yes, of course. She’s such a special lady, your grandma. That tooth powder she made especially for me was just miraculous, I tell you. See how well my teeth are.” She flashes another smile. “We were so proud when she decided to make her home with us.”
I wipe my sweaty palms on my trousers. For some reason fibbing makes me uncomfortable. “Grandmother has ordered cakes…”
“I thought I saw the crow yesterday. Such an interesting familiar. Go, get your cakes. I’ll have everything packed and ready.”
To get to the Cornucopia Bakers, I have to traverse the length of the main street. I hurry, hoping the shop owners would be too busy with their opening-up rituals to notice me.
They are, except one.
Mistress Soodi, minotaur, editor, and proprietor of The Daily Village leans against the door to her office, picking at her tombstone teeth with a silver toothpick. “Good day, Bouteflika. When are you going to bring out the writer in you and do a piece for us?” She winks. “How about a list – Ten Spells from Granma’s Grimoire?”
I smile politely. Since not enough printable things happen in the Village to fill four pages every day, Soodi is forever scouting for new blood.
“Going to Cornucopia?” she asks. “Tell that owling I’m still waiting for his article.”
I nod and hurry off, stilling the impulse to run.
Cornucopia is a Bake House. Jack-Jack the owling bakes and lives in it.
I ring the mouse-head knocker, just to be polite, and go in. The smells embrace me, rendering me breathless.
A good way to die, I have always thought.
Not today though. Grandmother would never forgive me if I choose today of all days to die by chocolate.
I move through the shop to the living quarter. Jack-Jack, the owling, perches on a wide bough. He points at the center table. “Over there, Bouti-girl.”
Jack-Jack always keeps some of my favorite sweets for me.
“Thanks,” I murmur through a mouthful of peach and champagne jam and buttermilk cream with a hint of saffron.
Jack-Jack’s head droops. “Don’t mention it.”
He sighs. “What’s not wrong? I allowed myself to be seduced by dreams of fame. Now I’m in a state of utter despair.”
A bell clangs in my mind. “Is it the article?”
“How do you know about it?”
“I met Mistress Soodi. She said to remind you of it.”
“As if I am in any danger of forgetting!”
I bite into a black chocolate. “If you don’t want to write, why did you promise an article?”
A shudder runs through his body “It happened at our Book Group meeting. Ranee gave a speech. You know what a brilliant mind she has, what intellect…” He pauses, his face rapt. “Afterward there was a discussion. I wanted to join, but between us, Bouti-girl, it was way above my head. Then I remembered something Ranee said, that in certain worlds people die and are turned into gods. So at the first chance, I repeated it and said it would make a good novel plot. The next thing I know, Soodi was at me, demanding I write a feature for her rag.”
“You should have refused.”
“How could I?” wails Jack-Jack. “Everyone was watching, you see.”
I see. The Book Group is the brainchild of Ranee the garuda, a permanently bad-tempered carnivorous bird three times the size of an owling. Garudas probably regard owlings as snacks—if they notice owlings at all—but love is a strange thing.
“So just write something,” I say. “Soodi will reject it. Then you’ll be free.”
“But I don’t want a rejection. It will devastate me.”
“I don’t see why a rejection should matter much,” I argue. “You are a baker, not a writer. You should be devastated if people said your cakes were soggy or your buns were hard. Why should you mind if you get a letter saying, ‘This is not for me,’ or ‘Your writing didn’t engage me,’ or whatever editors say when they want to be polite?”
His round eyes grow rounder. “But what about the writer inside me?”
It’s my turn to go goggle-eyed. Then I understand. The writing madness is a contagion. It has inflicted even sensible souls like the owling.
“Bouti-girl, do you think your grandmother can help me?” There’s something different in Jack-Jack’s voice, less wool, more steel.
“I don’t see how,” I say carefully. “She’s not a writing instructor.”
His smile too is different, sharper, and secretive. “But she is a witch. And witch, in some tongues, means wise. Witches are problem-solvers. I’ve a problem. She can solve it.”
We stare at each other. His eyes are guileless, yet full of guile.
I blink first.
“I’ll talk to her,” I murmur.
He smiles again, that you-know-I-know-you-know smile. “You do that, Bouti-girl, you do that. I’ll expect word from you. Now about those cakes…”
The Dragon arrives punctiliously at four, bearing red roses for Grandmother.
They make a strange pair as they sit in the parlor. Grandmother’s rake-thin frame is swathed in her best star-spangled black robe. The Dragon’s blue satin cloak and white cloche hat clash hideously with his bronze scales.
I leave them to their devices, and eat cake in the kitchen.
Grandmother has always insisted that we ended up here by accident. I know it’s a lie.
Humans do stray here occasionally. They don’t survive.
We were spared because everyone thought grandmother was a great witch. I’ve no idea how she managed to perpetuate such a preposterous lie for close to two decades.
Fear of exposure was something I’ve lived with ever since I understood the hoax at the core of our existence. Over the years I managed to banish that fear to the margins of my mind.
Jack-Jack’s remarks have changed things.
What if he suspects that grandmother is no witch? What if he tells others? What would they do to us if they realize that for seventeen years we’ve deceived them?
That would make a list to beat all lists, wouldn’t it?
Grandmother notices my distraction. Once the Dragon has winged his way home, she turns to me.
It never occurs to me to lie to Grandmother. In our relationship, she does the lying. My role is to tell the truth.
Grandmother arches an eyebrow. She can because she makes her own fashions. “So?”
I try not to grind my teeth. “I just told you, Grandma, about Mr. Jack-Jack…”
“Yes, the owling. Given to melodrama, I always thought. I’ll send Kitty and summon him tomorrow, no, the day after. Must not make these things look easy.”
Kitty is the crow, the supposed familiar, named after a cat grandmother had as a child.
“Why do you want him to come?”
“I thought he wants help with his writing.”
“But…” I swallow. “If he is rejected, he might tell people you are not—”
Grandmother gives me a look and picks up a book.
Jack-Jack arrives at the appointed hour.
Grandmother receives him in the book-room dressed in her second-best black robe.
The curtains are drawn. Scented candles illuminate the room. On the table are her paraphernalia for the evening—the hexogrammic chessboard, the star-crystal inkstand, and the phoenix-feather pen.
Jack-Jack sits down.
Grandmother speaks, and it’s as if her voice is coming from far away. Ventriloquism—a trick she learned in her other life.
“I’ve consulted the powers. Writing, they tell me, is a commercial enterprise, not unlike running a bakery. To succeed, you must know your market. Discover what your consumers want, and deliver it, preferably with a cherry on top.”
Grandmother closes her eyes. Her fingers move the chess pieces (supposedly made of elf-bones) until they form a perfect quadrangle. She opens her eyes and looks straight at Jack-Jack. “Where is your market today? What is the current literary mode?”
“Lists,” Jack-Jack and I cry in one voice.
Grandmother mutters something over the pen and hands it over to Jack-Jack together with a diagrammed piece of paper.
He accepts both. His hands shake.
Grandmother dictates, her voice sounding as if it’s coming from a place nowhere in this world. It sends shivers down my spine even though I know it’s just hocus pocus.
How to become a god in five easy steps (without dying):
- Decide on the kind of god you want to be and dress appropriately.
- Choose the right setting. If you aim to be a tree-god, sit on a tree.
- Do the first ritual yourself and leave the evidence for display purposes. Flowers and incense sticks are mandatory. The rest can vary depending on your likes.
- Wait patiently for the first few potential worshippers to come along.
- Show your powers occasionally. If someone passes you by without making an offering—and you are a water-god—give them a good ducking.
The Dragon has invited himself to tea. Grandmother sends me to the shops at dawn with a list and a handcart.
Multiverse Mart has just opened. C-devi sits behind the glass counter, all three heads bent over The Daily Village.
“Oh Bouti,” the three mouths cry, a one-hydra orchestra. “Did you read my review of the owling’s article? 10 Reasons why everyone must read Jack-Jack’s Literary Debut.”
“The paper wasn’t in when I left.”
“I’ve some extra copies. You can have one.” She gives me a conspiratorial wink, three to be exact. “There was the owling, floundering with that article. Then he visits your grandmother, and whoosh, the thing is done. The wise have drawn their own conclusions.”
I blink, blink, and say nothing.
Cornucopia is my next stop. Soodi hails me as I rush past the office of The Daily Village.
“Bouteflika, any chance you can get your grandmother to do a piece for us?” She guffaws. “Under her own name.”
I pretend not to understand the inference, promise to pass on the message, and flee.
The owling greets me with a winged embrace. “Bouti, my friend, come and see the cake I made for your grandmother.” He beams. “A little expression of my unending gratitude.”
The cake is a rose garden.
As I leave, I meet Ranee the garuda coming in.
“Ah, Bouteflika,” she drawls in that voice which can make snakes curl with fear (seen it with my own eyes.) “I intend to organize a literary workshop soon. We need to take writing here to the next level. How about your grandmother making the keynote speech?”
I promise to pass on the message.
Grandmother and the Dragon have their tea in the parlor. I gobble cake in the kitchen, clear up, and head out for a swim.
The Village is ringed by a circular river called The River. The way to it leads through a scenic woodland, the kind with leafy trees, flowery glades, and fluttering butterflies.
The River has moods. Today it sleeps like a baby.
I finish my swim and head home.
Seeped in my own thoughts I don’t see the shape until I crash into it. It springs back, and I spring back.
Koko (a basilisk and The Village’s main weatherman) and I stare at each other.
To say that Koko is dressed to kill would be to miss the point by a couple of miles. I’ve seen him dressed to kill, and he was dressed in nothing.
Today, he is resplendent in a tiara and a gold waistcoat. He carries a basket. I catch a glimpse of flowers, incense sticks, and a covered dish inside.
My jaw drops. Koko the basilisk is trying to become a god.
Goggling would be a bad idea, giggling would be worse.
I’ve heard what Koko does with large bones.
I mutter a goodbye and run, take the bend running, and crash into the Dragon.
“Koko, the basilisk, is trying to become a god,” I blurt.
“Not the only one. God-mania has taken the place by storm. We are in for some interesting times.”
“But who’s going to worship any of them? Everyone will know it’s a hoax.”
“Never underestimate the power of credulity, Bouteflika. Some believe, therefore others are. Gods, kings, leaders, heroes, that’s how they are made in many a world.” He smiles. “I came looking for you. Your grandmother wants me to talk to you about a few things.”
“About Here and There, for instance.”
“What is Here?” I ask.
The Dragon scratches a scaly chin. “Hard question to answer. How about the antithesis of There?”
This conversation isn’t going to take me far. “Whatever Here is, it’s not our home. We are humans.”
“This is the only home your grandmother can have. If she goes back to the human world, she’ll be bones, maybe even dust. You see, she came here more than four hundred years ago. If time is a stream, and it probably is, The Village is in a very sluggish eddy, if you get my drift.”
I say nothing. Hard to speak with one’s mouth open.
“I knew your family, starting with your great-great-grandmother. Your mother sent word to me through her familiar, just before she was imprisoned. But Kitty the crow lost her way. By the time I got There, they had burned your mother…”
Burned. My mother was burned.
“Your grandmother was being pursued. By a mob. All of them human.” He pauses. “They wanted the baby.”
“Me?” I croak.
“Yes, you. They would have killed your grandmother too, but only because she would have defended you with her life. The witch-baby, they shouted. Give us the witch-baby.”
The world swings. My legs fold. I collapse onto a root.
“I brought both of you here. Told everyone you were a witch-baby. They assumed that your grandmother was a witch too. Witchery generally runs through the female line.”
Me, a witch? Me with my unruly hair, overlarge shirts, and baggy pants. Me with my dream of living in a human place where hydras, minotaurs, owlings, and dragons exist only in books.
“I know you don’t feel like a witch. You will when the time comes.” The Dragon pats me again. “You can visit There and even live There, if that’s what you want. Most of your world is done with hunting witches. At least for now.”
Grandmother is sitting by the fireside reading a book when I get home.
“Koko the basilisk is trying to become a god,” I tell her.
She doesn’t look up from the book. “Is he now?”
“The dragon talked to me.”
Her eyes remain on the book. “Did he now?”
I kneel by her chair and put my hand on hers. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“What was my mother like? Was she really a witch?”
Grandmother looks up from the book. “Your mother was a good woman. That was all that mattered. She knew they were coming for her, and for you. So she gave you to me. I promised I’d keep you safe.” She pauses as if considering her next words. “I learned all I know about herbology from her. She was my neighbor for eight months. Couldn’t have asked for a better one.”
The silence is ours, hers and mine. The rest of the world—birds, bees, trees, wind—continues to be its noisy self.
I break the silence at last. “The dragon said I can go back any time I want to.”
She says nothing.
“I think I’ll stay.”
“C-devi is always complaining about her accounts. I can ask her if she needs an assistant. I can learn on the job. And maybe study cosmic math with the dragon.”
Her eyes meet mine. Still, she says nothing.
“But I have a problem,” I say. “Maybe you can solve it since you have become the problem-solver of the Village.”
She waits, her eyes holding mine.
“It’s this going out thing. I’d like to give it a try. But every choice involves claws or tails or feathers or fangs or fins. And I would always be wondering whether they want just romance or a snack as well.” I pause and add, “What should I do, Grandma?”
Grandmother places her hand on mine, covering it, holding it. “You know, Bouteflika, love can bridge any divide, turn other into us. You must allow yourself to look beyond the tails and the feathers, the fangs, and the fins. Let go of the walls in your mind, and you never know what you might find.” She smiles at me. “Maybe nothing, maybe everything, most probably something that suffices. Believe me, in life that is enough.”
I smile back at her, feeling more at home than I’ve ever felt in my life. “I’m listening, Grandma.”