The Hundred Names of Darkness

The Hundred Names of Darkness: Nilanjana Roy (2013)

The Hundred Names of Darkness: Nilanjana Roy (2013)

hundredcover

“The night hides more than predators until we know it so well that we can speak its many names without fear; and yet, we live most keenly under the wing of darkness.” ~ Kirri

Flipkart page: The Hundred Names of Darkness, Aleph Book Company

“But how do you make friends with the night?”

From the branches of a distant tree, a nightjar called: “Did you see it? Did you see it?” The bird’s call was harsh, splitting the night, and two others joined in, from further away: “The dark is deep! The dark is deep!” “Did you see it? Did you see it?” The dark is deep! The dark is deep!”

Mara felt the fur on her paws prickle, and slowly, as sleep left her and her eyes became more accustomed to the low lighting, she became more aware of the night around them. There was scant shelter for Beraal and her kittens: a patch of tarpaulin hid them from the prying eyes of the Bigfeet, but the sheet of tin that covered part of their home was rusted and pitted with holes. The dark poured in through the holes, and came stealing in past the edge of the makeshift roof.

***

“Mara?” said Beraal’s calm voice. “Is it the darkness that troubles you, Mara? That must be new and strange for you, to have no roofs between you and the night?”

She felt the sender’s flanks relax, felt the little cat’s breathing start to slow down and come back to normal.

“Yes,” said Mara. Her green eyes were fixed on the blackness of the night, and her mew was as small as Ruff’s might have been. “My whiskers reach up and there’s nothing between them and the clouds; it feels as though the night rushes down them and seeps into my fur. Kirri said that the night contains more than predators; she says that we live most keenly in the dark.”

“That is true,” said Beraal. “The day is mostly for Bigfeet, but the night belongs to us.”

Mara leaned against her teacher, feeling Beraal’s thin fur rise up and down. Ruff mewed in his sleep and turned, his paws cycling at some dream.

“But how do you make friends with the night?” said Mara miserably. The damp had made her whiskers feel soggy, and her fur felt as though it would never know what it was to be warm again.

Beraal purred at her kitten, who splayed out his paws at the sound of her voice and purred back sleepily. Ruff scrambled over Mara’s neck, walked across her protesting head, balanced on one of her ears and successfully made the leap across to land on his mother’s belly. He bounced once, and snuggled into her fur.

“By learning its names,” she said.

She caught the question on Mara’s whiskers. Ruff squeaked.

“He likes stories,” Beraal explained.

Mara’s tail flicked in interest. “So do I,” she said hopefully.

“This one,” said Beraal, “has a long history. It was told to me by Miao, and Miao said it was told to her by Tigris—” Mara raised her whiskers at the mention of the name of Nizamuddin’s last Sender—“and Tigris said it had been passed down to her by other Senders.”

Ruff kneaded his small paws against Beraal’s belly, his skinny belly rising and falling against her black-and-white fur. Beraal curled around Mara, and using her whiskers as much as her voice, she began her tale.

The cat and the egrets: illustration ©Prabha Mallya and AlephBookCompany.
The cat and the egrets: illustration ©Prabha Mallya and AlephBookCompany.

Once, there lived a cat who liked to follow her whiskers: when they twitched at the breeze, when the scent of something new and strange murmured to them from the back of the east wind, her paws would twitch too, and she would go where her whiskers and paws carried her.

When the spring winds spoke to her of fish with silver mouths and fat juicy bellies to be found in the frog-speckled silt of the mangrove forests, her paws took her to a river boat, a light, lean craft, whose planks she warmed for the length of the summer.

When the summer sun of the river deltas walked its fingers through her fur, whispering to her of the rains that drummed on the red tile roofs of Goa, the plump crabs and frogs that swelled the paddy fields with their croaking, the cat listened to the sun’s whispers. Soon, she was stowed safely in the back of a truck, perched high on its bales, sleeping snugly in the thick knotted coils of the ropes that trussed its cargo, sharing the truck drivers’ milk and meat until they had reached the other coast, where the skies roared and the dark clouds lay their full bellies pressed against the green land.

When the monsoon rains slowed, the last of the rain and the wind caressed her ears, and she heard about the friendly house-stoves in the mountains, where there was always room for another cat or three. And her paws twitched and stirred, and though the owner of the shack by the beach would have gladly fed her fish curry and rice for many seasons more, she thanked him, purring as she rubbed her head along his sturdy legs. She found a berth in a train whose wheels clacked along, singing of the high hills and the birds soaring in those great empty skies. The bearers on the train made her a pillow from some old torn sheets, and let her curl up to warm her belly on the flasks of tea when they reached the colder slopes of the hills.

Her whiskers rested for many moons, and she found a village nestled in the high ranges, where there was always place for her and the friends she made around the curve of the potbellied clay stoves. And so it went for many years; the cat’s whiskers would twitch after the turning of the seasons, and the winds would rustle the names of far-away places until it had smoothed them into her fur, and her paws would uncurl and take her where she needed to go.

Sometimes, the tortoiseshell—for she was a torty, Mara, they have twice as much curiosity in their paws as the rest of us—thought she had come home. She settled for a long space in a fishing village that nestled like a sleeping kitten alongside the broad curved back of the ocean, and learned to climb coconut trees and hunt the slippery fish who darted in and out of the stalks of the emerald green rice paddy fields. But then the wind changed, and curiosity set her moving again. In a large city, she found a place near the racecourse, loving the comfortable smells and warmth of the stables, making friends with the fastest horses, hunting the mice and rats who were lured there by the perfume from the straw, the carrots, the sweat of the thoroughbreds themselves. But the wind changed again, and she moved on, and so it went for many years.

One spring, when the winds came dancing joyously across the muddy banks of the river where she lived as a ghat cat, she padded out to greet them, as she always did. But she hobbled a fraction, and perhaps her fur seemed a little thinner than usual, and it is possible that her whiskers had the smallest of droops to them.

The east wind, scented with mogra flowers, murmured of other villages and towns on the banks of rivers she had not splashed her paws in yet; the west wind, heavy with mango blossom, brought her news of ships that travelled up and down the coastline. But though the tortoiseshell thanked the east wind and the west wind, she padded quietly back to her home, which was an upturned, abandoned boat that kept her snug on the riverbanks. She slept that night, and her paws did not twitch, nor did her whiskers point the direction she should take.

The north wind came swooping down the next day, carrying the last of the chill from the distant mountains in its hands, and it spoke to the cat of roaming with flocks of bharal, in places where only the marmots popped their heads out to gaze at strangers in wonder. The cat thanked the north wind, and padded back to her boat.

The south wind stirred her fur the next day with stories of golden sands, tipped with black rocks, where the fishermen’s nets were anchored by sleeping cats, their stomachs rounded with the catch of the day. And the cat put her whiskers up, a little sadly, and she thanked the south wind, but she went back to her boat.

When the white egrets who had become her friends came curving out of the skies that evening, one cried to the tortoiseshell: “Where are you off to this year? Which of the great winds will you follow these next few moons? Will you be back?”

“I don’t know,” said the cat slowly. “The winds spoke of many beautiful places, but my whiskers have not stirred, nor do my paws twitch.”

The egrets looked at each other, and they flapped their beautiful shell-like wings, landing on the edge of the cat’s boat. Their thin long legs held them easily in the river mud, so that they walked with grace through its thick ooze, unlike the other birds.

“It is the sickness,” one said to the other.

“What sickness?” said the tortoiseshell.

“It happens to some of us birds, after too many migrations,” said the egrets. “Our hearts do not soar any more as the weather changes, and when the chill sets in, we do not want to ride the high winds, to set sail for the lands across the oceans and the rivers, because the wings in our heart will not beat as fast at the thought of the journey as they once did.”

The cat’s whiskers rose in recognition. “Yes,” she said, “yes, that is it. My tail does not quiver in excitement; the fur on my neck does not rise in hopeful anticipation any more. I am tired; perhaps I am old.”

“Oh no,” they said, “you are not yet so old, your eyes are not rheumy, your joints are not yet stiff and aching. All you need is another kind of journey.”

“Another kind of journey?” said the tortoiseshell in wonderment, her nose quickening. “But my paws can only go left or right, up or down; what other kind of journey is there?”

The egrets rose into the skies again. “We will ask the winds for you,” they said. And they flapped their wings, and like unfurled sails, they skimmed high above the river, calling out to the four winds.

She watched the two egrets as they rose higher and higher, until they flew so high that there was nothing between them and the sun. They made dazzling white shapes against the gentle azure of the sky, and then the sun’s rays shone even brighter, and the egrets in all their brightness seemed to shimmer and vanish into the sun.

For two nights, there was no word from the egrets, and though the tortoiseshell heard the soft songs of the other river birds, the calls of the ferrymen bringing their passengers to and fro across the river’s broad back, she did not hear their high, wild cries.

On the evening of the third day, the egrets came home. They flew slowly, but they flew straight, and gradually, their beautiful shapes emerged from the deep blue. Soon they were flying so close overhead that the tortoiseshell could see their white, dappled feathers, their thin black legs glistening in the evening light, the way slender black driftwood branches gleamed in the river water.

“It was a long journey,” said the egrets, dropping down to rest on the welcoming curve of the boat. “The winds had travelled further, and we had such a time of it, trying to catch the north wind.”

The tortoiseshell brought out some fish for them, and the egrets fed gratefully, cracking the bones but leaving the tails for her out of politeness. By the time they were done eating and preening their feathers, the sun was almost setting, its fading reflection casting intricate nets of flaming oranges and reds across the river. The familiar sticky scents of marsh and mud, wood and rotting leaves and water, wrapped its comforting hands around the three friends.

The cat settled, stretching her bones, wrapping her tail around her paws.

“We spoke to all the winds,” said the egrets, “and this is what they said. The south wind whispered that you might want to follow your nose to land’s end and settle by the last black rock, letting the sea lap your worries away. The east wind lifted us and spun us around, and she said that the rabbit in the moon would show you where to go, if only you would follow the moonbeams where they fell. The west wind grew slow and still, and said that he didn’t know where you were going, but that you should follow the rain and the rainbows back home. And—oh, the north wind! She had rushed off, and what a trail she left behind her! The tempests! The gales!”

One of the egrets raised his wings involuntarily, remembering what it had taken to sail those choppy high seas, to ride out the storms.

“But we found her, resting in between a cyclone and a bitter freezing spell, caught in the cleft between two of the low hills. And when she heard what we had to say, she stopped blustering and blowing; there was a lull, a quietness. She let out her breath, and she said, ‘Tell your friend that she must go in search of the cat who lives on the other side of the night.’”

The egrets stopped, shuffling uncomfortably on their twig-like legs.

“We are sorry,” they said. “She said no more than that. We asked, but where must she start? And we asked, how will she recognise the cat? And we even asked, but how do you cross to the other side of the night? But though she sent us back on a floating bed of clouds, minding that we were safe from the lightning and the thunderstorms, she said no more—but where are you going?”

The tortoiseshell’s tail was raised in glad enquiry, and her whiskers were held high as she sniffed at the twilight sky.

“Thank you, my friends!” she cried. “There is such a tingling in my whiskers, it’s as though the skies themselves are tugging on the line! And my paws are itching, and dancing, and eager to be off! Wait, here is something for you—the fish I had caught and cached, thinking we would share it in the days to come. Please take it, with my gratitude. Now I must go.”

And, brushing her head tentatively against each egret’s slender neck—for they were birds, after all, and she a cat, and it was wise to remember that, no matter how many moons they had been friends—the tortoiseshell hurried away. Her eyes had lost their tired gleam. Her paws had the spring of a young kitten’s bounce and the eagerness of a young cat’s first explorations. She did not know, any more than the egrets did, what the north wind had meant, but her whiskers called to her urgently to come along, and she followed.

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