“Seven Turns Around the Sacred Fire” by Meera Jhala
“Maybe we can pretend to be bushes.” A thin straw to grasp at, but my lungs were on fire and I could run no further.
You shook your head, as the rumbling became an earthquake and trumpeting rent the sky.
“I shouldn’t have thrown that spear.” You looked at me. “Goodbye, my love. Maybe in our next life there won’t be mastodons.”
Perhaps it was the time you climbed the headman’s wall and stole mangoes from his garden, because I had said I hadn’t drunk a lassi in many moons. Or that we made love, before our vows were sanctified by sacred fire.
I don’t know why we didn’t make the cut.
Matsya had whispered to Manu that the great floods were coming. Just—nobody had told us. So here we were, our two imperfect selves perched on the last bit of roof; the current rising, rising.
“Why Manu?” you asked. Two ducks bobbed past where our doorstep ought to have been.
I shook my head. “Dunno. I never liked him much. Goody two-shoes.”
“Well, I suppose we’ll all drown now, and he’ll father the new human race.” You poked at the murky water with a stick, frowning. “I’d have been a good father,” you whispered.
I nodded and squeezed your hand. “Well, anyway, I’m glad you stole those mangoes. The lassi was excellent.”
For a moment, you grinned. “Dates are good, too,” you said. “Next time, I hope we’re born in the desert.”
“Last one to the next life’s a rotten egg.”
Giggling, we dove into the water.
The moon hung over the sand dunes, the size of my silver dinner plate. You came to my tent, for the first time in a fortnight, your rustling silks spilling the scent of her perfume. Her; your second queen.
I wanted to slap your face. You deserved it. But the guards outside would have heard, and I would have died for treason. And the worst part is, I’m not sure you would have cared.
You forgot our seventh phera, the turn around the fire where we pledged to be faithful. So I forgot our fifth; that we would protect each other.
I didn’t invite the asp into our tent. I didn’t wake you when I saw it, either.
“Next time around,” I whispered in your ear, “we’ll do better.”
You swore we’d go back home in five years, once we had a bit of money. But you got drunk on the clean water, and the freedom to be more than the potter’s son.
The years unspooled. Thirty slipped by. “I never expected to die on foreign soil,” you said, eyes wide, the night it became clear that your thread was running out.
I wanted to arch an eyebrow. When you chose to stay even as our parents passed on, and our brothers, I figured this was our mrityubhoomi—we had committed. But now was no time for reproach, so I kept my face blank and bit my tongue. Maybe it was karma. Maybe I’d done something bad to you the last time around.
“I hope in our next lives, we will be in our country again.” You closed your eyes.
I took your hand, remembering how once I’d fished a pebble out of the Narmada, turning it in my hands. When I’d finished, the water had flowed into new water, and the sands had shifted to fill the hole the pebble left behind. I didn’t throw it back.
Our 120th anniversary celebration began with homage to our ancestors, speakers of a long-forgotten Indo-Aryan language, who lived in a foreign land.
The holograms showed our engagement, our wedding, the birth of our first child and grandchild. The chocolate fountain flowed, and our family clapped and cheered. A great-great-granddaughter wailed, and the nursing robot rolled across the ballroom to change her diaper.
“I wonder if it’s time to go,” you whispered. It was the first time you’d spoken all night.
It took me a moment to realize you weren’t talking about the party.
The cold and dark beat down on the cracked soil. You fiddled with the transponder, but communications had ceased long ago. Noon came and went. The return ship did not come.
“Why did we come here?” I asked.
“I’m sorry.” Your eyes were wet. “Next time around, I won’t cause you grief.” Your promise hung against a background of blackness.
When your process terminated, I felt nothing.
“A major bug,” the Programmer said, frowning. At the end of your final lifetime together, you are supposed to feel the sort of sadness that inspires you to write bad poetry, or code simulations of a universe.” He fingered a locket around his neck.
He pored over my code, His eyes bloodshot. “I can’t fix this,” He said at the end of the seventh day. “I’ll patch it with a physics simulation.”
For the remainder of runtime, I existed with a suitcase chained to my wrist. Some days it was full of lead, and other days light as a feather.
|Meera Jhala is a physicist, former professor, and mom of two. Her most recent literary pieces appeared in Rattle (poetry) and on the Wigleaf 50 (prose).|