“Mook, mook, mook!!” she heard, dimly, in the darkness.
After wading through fallen leaves in the humid night air, her bow poised, Leelavati finally heard the sound she had long sought.
“Chakora!” she exclaimed under her breath, calling to mind the legendary partridge that feasted on moonlight.
She looked carefully, watching for the glinting red eye, stepping gingerly in the direction of the sound.
A short flutter, and the mythical bird was on the wing. She raced, the ground rustling under her, until the sound of flapping wings stilled. A peepal tree ahead shivered as the bird landed.
She could see it clearly now, the red eyes, dark head, and lighter brown body. A black stripe ran across its face like a mask. It did not move.
She pulled an arrow from her quiver, her cream colored angavastram cloth tied at her waist to keep it out of the way. She softly tossed her head, her two long braids swinging behind her. Her legs were firmly planted, the sandal feet on the earth, her turmeric-dyed dhoti tied securely. Then, she notched her arrow and pulled her arm back, steadying her breath.
The moon, the bright Chandra, emerged from behind a cloud and the bird glimmered bluish silver, as if it were painted with moonbeams. It was known that the Chandra and Chakora were fated, in love, as the bird thrived on moonlight, and Chandra, in turn, lived to bring the Chakora into her arms. Each month, they brought each other love, excitement, and anticipation.
Leelavati released the arrow.
For five years, Leelavati had been chasing this bird, the mythical Chakora, the one who lived on the moon. Their parents’ dead bodies decayed bit by bit, their final rituals left incomplete, until Leelavati and her brother were driven from their village, ostracized for their refusal to cremate them properly. When they left, her baby brother grew sickly and ill, his skin pale and his fever perpetually high. Orphaned, they lived on what they could, but as the boy aged, he only grew weaker and frailer.
It was then that they’d wandered deep into the Dandaka, the darkest forest of India. No one would follow them here, because it was a place rumored to harbor monsters and untold dangers. Here, they stumbled upon the Sage’s ashram. He greeted them in his saffron robes and rudraksha-seed necklace. He had a long beard, and his gray hair was tied in a bun. The Sage offered them food, but they respectfully slept in a cave outside the ashram, where their unclean bodies, having been touched by unpurified death, would not contaminate the ashram’s daily rituals. The Sage then informed Leelavati that only performing the proper last rites of their parents would release her brother from the curse of ill-health, for all the ancestors of their past were angry, and her parents’ souls were adrift.
For that, they needed this bird, he told Leelavati. Only the meat of the Chandra Chakora could satisfy her hungry ancestors and release her brother. Only she, the eldest child of her parents, could perform this task, complete the last rites, and send her parents’ souls on their way to the next life. In the meantime, her brother grew more ill. Though his body was longer, it was now merely skin and bones. He shivered even in this summer heat, and his once bright eyes were vacant.
She remembered when they all lived together, when the sun glimmered off the golden fields. Her mother bent down in her sari, harvesting rice, and her father’s long switch whistled in the air as he drove the cattle. Each evening, she and her brother would wait at the door, filled with anticipation, and then hurl themselves into their parents’ arms as they returned, eyes full of love.
Then one hot, dry day, their mother and father failed to return. Their bodies were found halfway to the parched river, the cattle stolen, grains of rice scattered in the direction the thieves must have gone. The villagers followed but lost the trail, and soon, Leelavati and her brother were forced to make their way alone, searching endlessly for this bird.
But the Chakora only visited Earth on full-moon nights, once every month, to drink the bright moonbeams and visit the home where it was born. And here it was, after so many months and years, right before her.
Her hopes rode on this arrow; her dreams, her freedom, her yearning.
The arrow flew through the air and grazed the celestial bird’s wing. “Mook!” it cried in pain.
As it tried to take flight, it fell sideways, landing far in front of her. This bird, that nearly none had seen before, lay before her, its scarlet eye turned toward her. Leelavati stopped to press her fingertips to the ground and then to her forehead, a thank you to the gods and an apology for the life she was about to take – the ritual her parents had taught her to perform before every meal.
She raced forward, pulling her knife from her belt. This was her chance - before it could get away. She could kill this bird and begin, in earnest, the rites that would free her family.
She stood over the creature, its shimmering body bleeding dark crimson onto the dirt of the forest floor. Its eyes had turned grayish, fading, and it seemed to be lifting its head toward her. Anyone in the villages where she had lived would now bow down to this bird and ask for a boon – a wish granted, a blessing. But she had a more nefarious purpose.
She brought the knife down.
“Save me, true,” it pleaded in a raspy, deep voice. “And I will save you.”
Her knife stopped an inch from the bird’s heart. She was taken aback, having never heard a bird speak before. It was said only the purest could hear the animals. She wondered, should she save this rare being? Why? How?
As if it read her mind, the bird spoke again. “He who is ill, will be whole again. Two will be four, and seven, and ten.”
Who are the four and seven and ten? What did this mean? How was this bird speaking? Would her brother be well again? Questions filled her mind.
“Take me to my home, the moon. All that is wrong will be put right soon,” the bird continued in rhyme, its voice fading. Then it was still and silent.
Leelavati stood up, at a loss. A celestial bird. A talking bird! But after five years, would she lose the chance to perform the funeral? She remembered the Sage’s words that only the meat of this bird could release her parents.
She looked into its trusting eyes. She remembered this same look on her brother’s face, back when he was just a baby. He had put all his trust in her, pleading with her to help him in the face of their sorrow and abandonment. She knew then, if there was a chance this bird could save her brother, she had to take it.
She tore her sleeve with her knife. She gently retrieved the arrow, then wrapped the wounded wing with the cloth. Holding the bird, she made her way up the branches to the very top of the peepal tree.
There she stood, holding the Chakora in her outstretched arms, proclaiming, “Come, O Moon! Come, be not my enemy. Take this bird to moonbeams. Heal him and my family!”
The words coursed through her blood as if the bird itself had spoken through her lips.
And then, the still fowl rose through the air into the arms of the waiting, round Chandra.
Leelavati saw the bird shimmer again with a healing light, its eyes once again flashing red, and spread its wings. She thought she saw two human faces smiling down from the sky, familiar faces that brought comfort and warmth, as if they had just returned from the fields. She closed her eyes, and the moonbeams spilled over her, cool and bright. The light seemed to radiate over the whole forest.
A sudden current ran through her body. Like love, like excitement, like anticipation. She sped on her heels back to the cave where she and her brother slept. He was fast asleep, his small dhoti wrapped around his legs, and his angavastram draped over him like a blanket. But she could see his round cheeks had already filled in a bit, and his brow was smooth. He smiled while he dreamed. “Chakora,” he whispered, his voice no longer trembling, his skin dry and cooled. His eyes fluttered open.
She looked into them, which gleamed again with a brightness she recalled. Together, they would make their way in the world, gathering other orphans to this forest world.
She looked up at the full, round moon. The shape of dark wings was imprinted there. The Chandra and the Chakora, unrequited for so long, were together again, just as her small family would be, one day.
“Yes,” Leelavati replied, curling around him, a deep stillness settling within her. “Chandra Chakora.”
rani jayakumar is a writer, teacher of mindfulness, and environmentalist. She writes essays and blog posts, as well as short fiction and poetry, soon to be published in Good Life Review and Ab Terra Magazines at http://bmpvoices.com/ab-terra-flash-fiction_issue-2/.