Edgar Degas, Dancer: Two Dancers, Half-length

If they did not fill the pots with water, the walls would crumble. They knew that. They didn’t know know it, but if you shook them hard and the pyramid of all-things-they-know tumbled, you’d find the knowing at the foundation—that their houses would fall if they did not fill the pots buried under the floors. 

But this summer was harsh and water in the village well was almost gone. The big pots under the floors sounded hollower each day. 

Each morning the women woke up with new patches on their skin, a tiny part of their lights snatched away in the dark. If they did not figure out a way to fill the pots, the pain would cocoon into a numb shell, muting their lights to a dangerous low. 

The pain they could bear; the smothering of the glow scared them. If they lost all radiance, they’d be buried in darkness, condemned to drag their diminished bodies to a dishonorable end. 

Some dimming was needed. They knew that. Even I knew that! I, who was yet to get my own home and my own pots to fill. You couldn’t let your light get too bright lest you lost your footing. A few patches now and then kept your light in check, and kept you grounded. But too many bruises could plunge you into darkness. So, you had to be careful. “Balance is everything,” they taught us. The tiniest mistake could upset it and this knowing sat atop the pyramid of all-things-we-knew and kept us on track all day.

But the summer didn’t care and the water level in the well continued to drop. Buckets no longer sank and, if forced, brought up muddy slush.

They gathered around the well and deliberated.

Munia and I were chosen. I was ten, Munia younger. Only we could be spared. Not too young to be useless, not too old to have pots and houses of our own.

They handed us each a bowl and lowered us in buckets. I was fine but Munia, she of the crooked thumb and hollow eyes from the time she came out of the tortured womb, let the vessel slip from her shaky fingers as dark depths swallowed us and the sunlight. The echo of copper on stone jolted her and she tugged furiously at the rope. The bucket swung, nearly smashing her into the walls. They pulled her up, their admonishments drowned by her shrieks.

So it was just me. I slid down and lurched up with the bowl filled to the brim. Pouring into the waiting buckets, I felt like the priest bestowing blessings. I’d never felt so important, and so good.  

It felt even better coming up without letting a single drop slosh out. Because every time I came up with a full bowl, I saw a house of my own reflected in their approving smiling eyes. 

The fun lasted a day, because the next morning the dark patches on their bodies multiplied and their lights flickered dangerously. My trips down the depths had not helped. 

They gathered again at the well. 

Someone mentioned the last option. 

Silence ripped through the circle. Some sank to the ground, shaking their heads, tears streaking down their faces. Others walked away. A few stayed, desperate for relief. How could they let the walls crumble? Let their lights go out? A fate worse than death. 

Summoning their courage, they continued. Who will go to the river and get water? 

They looked at me. I’d been so brave yesterday. Also, Mother had five daughters.  

I started to shake like Munia-in-the-bucket.

“Carry two buckets and try not to splash on your way back,” my mother smiled, her eyes welling up. “You were so good with the bowl yesterday. We’ll be waiting near the well.” 

My heart sank. The river was nowhere near the well. It was beyond the line of peepal trees at the southern edge of the village. We heard it all the time, especially during summer when it roared. No one had seen it though. We were told not to, lest we catch sight of the Shapeless. 

Mother had accidentally seen the river when she was a girl. She was by the window in Granny’s house when the coconut-leaf mat flew loose. Mother, as old as me at the time, fainted. It wasn’t the sight of the beach or the river that scared her. She’d spotted a Shapeless floating above the sand on the far bank of the swollen stream, its light so bright it almost blinded her. 

Granny had immediately packed her stuff and her daughter and moved to the center of the village near the well. She’d dug out all her cowries from under the tree and bought a tiny broken shack as far away as possible from those cursed creatures God had abandoned. They were lost, damned to glow uncontrolled and unchecked in the dark woods with no houses to live and no pots to fill. 

Now Mother wanted me to fetch water from the river.

What if I saw a Shapeless? What if they got me? Mother had been warning us about the freaks five times a day since we were born. The priest would ring the bell every two hours and all women would whisper warnings into tiny ears. “Don’t look at their lights, throw stones at their glow.” I’d wondered how we were supposed to do both, till sister told me, “Follow the first part and you’ll never have to bother about the second.” 

Now, as I walked away from the well, I was sure I’d meet one of these abominations and my light would go crazy and I’d lose my footing. And then no one would give me a home with a pot of my own to fill.

Shaking, I approached the peepal trees, my sweaty palms clutching the empty buckets. I knew no one would help when the flying fiends got to me. They were all at the well, far away from the river, waiting, scared. Even Mother. I was alone. 

I stopped under the largest peepal. Beyond this lay danger, so I looked around. I did not see the golden sand twinkling in the sun; I did not see the water bounding over rocks, laughing, bubbling, rushing; I only saw a coast clear of the Shapeless. 

I took a step and my leg felt odd. I stopped, but didn’t dare look down to see what was wrong. My eyes refused to leave the river, for if a light flashed, I’d dash back to safety. 

I took a cautious second step and immediately recognized the funny but familiar feeling; it felt like I’d tied stones on my ankles to play Hop Catch with friends. But strangely, it did not slow me down, unlike when we played near the well. I wondered why. 

Stop thinking! Run!

I took a deep breath and raced over the hot sand to the river. I dunked the buckets in water and tried to rush back to the trees. Mother’s words and the heavy buckets stopped me. I was forced to slow down and my mouth turned dry. I knew the Shapeless were watching me, staring at the tingling spot between my shoulders just below the neck. 

I looked back to check if they were. 

“I can remove them,” said a voice.

I whipped my head around and saw a small Shapeless sitting on a rock between me and the peepal trees. The buckets suddenly felt heavier. My eyes stung. 

“If you remove them, you can run,” she said. 

Her voice was just like mine and I realized she was a she. Also her face was like mine. She was smiling but her teeth showed. Who smiles like that? And why was she sitting with her knees spread. Mother would whack her if she saw. 

“Remove what?” the words squeaked past my parched throat. 

“The chains,” she said. 

By now my eyes had adjusted to her halo and I noticed her dress. No one told me they wore dresses! And it wasn’t too difficult to see through her light. It wasn’t as harsh as Mother said it was. And I didn’t faint. But the dress had no sleeves and her shoulders peeked through.

“You shouldn’t show shoulders,” I said, going red in the face.

“You shouldn’t wear chains on your legs,” she said. 

“I don’t,” I scoffed and looked down. Rusty chains coiled around my ankles. When did she put these on me? Will she now drag me beyond the river? Will I ever see Mother again? 

“Why did you…?” I asked, shaking, shivering. 

“I didn’t,” she scoffed now. “But I can take them off,” she offered and came towards me. 

I dropped the buckets and ran. 

Her giggles broke through the pounding in my ears. She was chasing me and caught my dress. It ripped. She laughed at the funny sound like it was a game. Suddenly, her hands were around my ankle. I fell, turned on my back and kicked hard. 

She tumbled and fell too, on her stomach. She lifted her face off the sand and cursed. Golden grains plastered on her face slid into her mouth. She tried spitting them out and ended up dribbling. She cursed again.

A girl cursing like an adult sounded so weird, I almost laughed. We never cursed like that, or spat, or dribbled.

She was rubbing her arm where my heel had landed and trying to dust her dress at the same time. Maybe I could get away. 

I yanked hard at my chains. 

“Why did you kick me?” she asked. “I was only helping!” 

I pulled a coil desperately, my eyes never leaving her face. The coil loosened, but the others tightened and choked my ankle.

“Loosen all of them together,” she said and grabbed my foot. She tugged gently at the coils one by one and turned them into a loop. I got up and tried snatching my leg out of the noose.

“Slowly!” she commanded. 

This time I lifted my foot gently through the loops and it came free. I smiled. She grinned. We tried with the other foot. The chains came off faster this time. A warm glow rushed up my body as she lobbed the chains far into the peepal trees. 

“Want to play catch?” she asked. 

“I’m hot. I want water.” 

So we raced to the river. She bent, scooped the sparkling water in her palm and slurped. I did it louder. She jumped into the river, and with her upper lip peeking above the surface, she blew bubbles. She waved her hand egging me on to jump in, her laughing eyes daring me to do this better. 

Of course, I couldn’t! I’d get wet and my dress would stick to my legs. And if they saw me like that, no one would ever give me a home of my own. Then, like Munia’s aunt, I’d have to live in one of my sister’s house and help her fill her pot forever. And everyone would know how sad I was. 

“I have to take water to the well,” I said. “They’re waiting.” 

I filled the buckets and started towards the trees. She tumbled out of the river and took one from me. We glided towards the peepal, my mind racing. What if they saw me with her? 

“Hand me the bucket at that big peepal tree. I’ll take it from there,” I said. 

“I want to see the well,” she declared. 

“But you are wet!” 

“So?” she asked.

“And your shoulders are showing!”

“So,” she repeated. 

How stupid was she? I thought the Shapeless were smarter than us.  

“You can’t come. That’s it!” 

She said ‘OK’ but I knew she meant the opposite. 

So when we came to the large peepal tree, I stopped and looked around. 

No one was in sight. I ran to the nearest hut and reached it much faster than I’d expected. Yanking a sheet off the clothesline I ran back to the peepal and draped the sheet around her, making sure her shoulders were fully covered. Magically, her light dimmed. It was almost like mine now. Normal. Balanced.

“Perfect! Now they won’t know.” I said, satisfied with my work. 

We walked into the village. As we neared the center, I could see them all waiting at the well. They were crowded around Mother who sat with her head bent and shoulders slumped. Like she did on mornings of too many patches. 

Poor dear Mother! 

I ran towards her to tell her I was fine, but a scream stopped me dead in my tracks. It came from Munia, huddled against her aunt, pointing in my direction. 

“Don’t mind her. She’s always …” I turned to my new friend to tell her about Munia and her screeching ways, but before I could complete the sentence, I stopped. 

What are those shiny things?

I turned and looked back at the group by the well. Everyone had chains on their legs. Like the ones I’d seen on my ankles at the beach. Munia had only a few coils like mine but the older women had so many, they disappeared upwards under their hemlines. Scared, I looked down to see if mine had come back. No chains.  

My feet were off the ground. I was glowing as bright as the Shapeless girl.  

Before I could move, a stone came hurtling towards me. I ducked. I looked up and saw Mother, holding a bigger stone in her hand, ready to fling it at me, her face twisted in agony. 

In a flash I saw the stones in every hand at the well. The hands were taking aim.   

I dropped the bucket and ran. So did she and we didn’t stop till we came to the river. 

She jumped in. 

I jumped in too. A gush replaced the howls in my ears as the water washed over me and washed away the pyramid of all-things-I-knew.

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Neelu Singh
Neelu Singh is a Mumbai-based writer. She explores social issues through her short stories, scripts and photographs.