by Keyan Bowes
At first, King Shantan was not sure what he saw. Something moved on the bank of the river. A buck, perhaps?
The winter mists still swamped the forest in a white fog. Shantan had given up the hunt, unstrung his bow and turned his horse for home. Over the protests of Rai, his attendant, he had ordered his party to fall back so he could ride alone.
Shantan was in a meditative mood, and the cool grey world of the river spoke to him. The River Grana was the true heart of Asthal. The kingdom lived or died by it. It seemed to Shantan that he must reconnect with this heart, to lift Asthal from the dull dispiritedness that had gripped it since the last war with neighboring Pashim. That odd movement, just a rustle among the trees, distracted him from these thoughts. He dismounted and quietly closed in, as though stalking a deer.
But it was not a deer. It was a woman, a woman who glowed through the mist. He caught only a glimpse: Unusually tall, with eyes that shone like the sun on the river. He had an impression of great beauty. As he neared her, she was gone. He searched along the river’s thickly wooded banks. Startled birds darted squawking from the underbrush, and a deer bounded away, but he found no one.
His horse snorted, shaking its bridle as though it wanted attention. Shantan looked up. His party was approaching. He mounted and rode back to them, quietly telling Rai what he had seen.
“Things take on strange shapes in the fog, sire,” Rai said. “Men have seen things. She might have been a ghost. The old stories say they sometimes appear as beautiful women. Were her feet backward?”
“I didn’t see,” Shantan replied.
They rode in silence, vague gray shapes of straggling deer appearing through the fog. Shantan could almost see the woman in his mind’s eye, but he was not sure how much he remembered and how much he imagined. He had to see her again. As they rode in through the gates in the palace walls and the sentry sounded the trumpet to announce his presence, Shantan turned to Rai. “Tomorrow afternoon we’ll go hunting. Tell the councilors to change meeting times if they must. We’ll leave the attendants behind.”
By the next afternoon, the sun had burned off the morning’s mist and lit the forest with sunshine through the leaves. Flocks of duck and other waterfowl enlivened the river and marshlands on the other side, and the sky was full of skeins of migrating geese. A few deer warily looked up and froze, but Shantan had not even bothered to string his bow.
“Did I tell you a deer ran out of the bushes when I lost sight of her?” Shantan said. “Who could she be if she was not a spirit? Why did she hide and where?
“A forester’s girl, sire, fetching water?” said Rai. “Perhaps she was afraid. If she’s forest-born, she would know a hundred different places to hide.”
“She didn’t look like a forester. There was something about her…”
The sunlit forest was empty. “Tomorrow,” Shantan said.
Six days later at dusk they found her, an extraordinary beauty sitting nonchalantly on the river bank, wearing unbleached linen. Her dark hair was nearly dry after a dip in the river. She did not vanish or hide her face or change into a deer when she saw them. Instead, when they came abreast of her on the path, she smiled up at them.
Shantan immediately dismounted and went toward her, not taking his eyes off her in case she should disappear. “Lady!” he said, “I have sought you for many days. Who are you?” He spoke formally, not knowing to whom he was speaking. “Are you a vision?”
“Why,” she said with amusement, “Do I look so insubstantial?”
The King, moonstruck as a young lad, said nothing. Rai whispered that her feet definitely pointed forward.
She must have heard. “Did you think I was a ghost?” she asked, laughing. Then she rose. “Well, I must be going now.”
“Wait!” commanded the King. “Who are you? Where do you live?”
She smiled and paused, half-turned.
“Don’t you realize? This is the King!” said Rai, aghast. “You cannot leave his presence unless he dismisses you.”
“Really?” she asked. “The King! Welcome to the river, Your Majesty.” The tone of her voice did not reveal whether she had known all along, and whether she even cared.
“Is it your river, that you welcome me to it?” he asked with a smile. “I had thought it mine, at least where it passes through my Kingdom.”
“Can a river belong to anyone?” she asked. “But look, the day is nearly done.”
Rai turned to light the lanterns. One by one, they gave a small glow in the darkening twilight.
“Our horses see in the dark,” Shantan said. “How will you manage?”
“I live nearby, and I am accustomed to the river at night.” She turned again as if to go. Would she actually dare to leave before the King? Rai glanced at him and then at the woman. Shantan knew he was hinting they should move so that the woman could go home before absolute dark. He clicked his tongue to call his horse to him.
“Will we see you again?” Shantan asked urgently, as he mounted.
“Perhaps. I am often here.” She turned, and was gone. He could no longer see her in the shadows.
As they rode away, Shantan thought he heard her singing, barely audible over the sound of the water in the river.
Each day, soon after the midday meal, when most people rested before resuming work as the day aged, Shantan rode alone into the forest, over his councilors’ protests. Sometimes she was there, along the water, glowing golden-skinned among the trees. Often, she wasn’t. Sometimes he heard her song but didn’t see her.
Their conversations were never more meaningful than that first day’s talk. Shantan had an impression of some depth of wisdom that he would never completely plumb. Her eyes sometimes sparkled with mischief, other times were deep and serious. She was always alone. Once he saw a lotus in her hand, another time a fish. Alive. When she saw him, she let it go in the river, and it swam in a circle near her feet before heading into deeper water.
As the winter lightened and summer approached, Shantan realized he could not live without her. He thought of nothing and no-one else. One day, Shantan asked to see her parents. He wanted to marry her.
“But, you’re the King!” she said with amusement, sitting on a tree-branch that overhung the river. The branch rocked with her mirth.
“Lady. Tell your family. I will talk to whoever I must.” He approached as close as he dared. The branch she sat on would not take his weight. His horse noisily tore up grass on the other side of a thicket.
“Well, there’s… me. You could talk to me.”
Shantan felt she was treating it as a jest, and had a terrible need to convince her it was not. Yet his words did not seem adequate for the purpose. “I meant it sincerely,” he said. “Will you marry me?”
“No,” she said still laughing. “You do not know me. You do not even know my name.”
“I would like to know you. Will you marry me?”
“Should I?” she asked.
Shantan could not tell if she was being playful or not, but he had the sense that his response mattered a great deal. He tried to put into one word all the intensity that he felt, the feeling that his entire life would be valueless without her. “Please.”
She seemed to recognize it. “I will then, but there are — conditions.”
Shantan wasn’t sure if she was still joking, but he grabbed at the opportunity to convince her. “Any condition,” he said.
“You will never refuse me, you will never question me.” She leapt lightly from the branch to the bank of the river, and onto the path.
“I agree. Tell me your name.”
“Call me Grana, like the river.” She was standing before him now, her gaze clear, direct and unsmiling. She seemed larger, more imposing. “Do you know what will happen if you break that promise? I’ll leave. I will go away and never return.”
“I won’t break my promise.” His mouth felt dry as he said it. He could not imagine having her and losing her.
“Swear an oath. Swear by what you hold most dear.”
“I would have to swear by you.”
“No.” Now she laughed again, and to Shantan it felt like rain breaking after a drought. “Swear by something serious.”
So he swore, by the God in all his incarnations and by the Goddess in all of hers.
“Ask your sages for an auspicious day, and we’ll be married.”
Just like that, thought Shantan. It seemed altogether too easy. He put his hand out to her. She touched it briefly, and then smiled the way she did when she intended to leave. Shantan quickly said his farewells and mounted his horse. He still did not know if she would leave his presence without his word.
Shantan’s advisors were appalled that he wished to marry an unknown woman of unknown heritage. Royals make alliances, not marry for pleasure. The King, nevertheless, formally announced his intent in Council, and ignored the resulting babble of voices.
But even Rai spoke with him privately. “Sire, is it advisable? Who is she, really, this lady of the forest?”
“Grana,” said Shantan. “Like the river.”
“The river, Sire? But who is she?”
“I do not know,” admitted Shantan. His attendant, his boyhood friend, was the only person he could talk to but he found he had little to say. “A deer-spirit. A forest woman. A fisher-maiden. She has not said. All I know is my life would be a bare empty thing without her.” His mind danced with the joy of her answer. “She has accepted me.”
“Accepted you, Sire? But you’re the King. Surely it was you who accepted the lady?”
A conclave of the palace sages, sworn to secrecy, divined an auspicious time for a spring marriage. Hoping she had not changed her mind, Shantan rode into the forest to find Grana.
“That’s fixed, then,” she said. “Send a palanquin for me at dawn that day. Here, beside the river. I’ll be waiting.”
It seemed too easy. Would the wedding happen at all? No bride Shantan knew was so casual. When his sister married, months had been spent in preparation. Expert weavers and tailors created magnificent clothes; master jewelers came from other kingdoms; cooks with reputations were summoned. What if he called a wedding, and no bride came?
But he was really too tense to make any preparations. Shantan wished his parents had lived to see him wed, to organize this wedding and revel in it. But neither her parents nor his were available. Well, it would have to be oaths at the temple of the Goddess, then.
Rai disagreed. “Sire, a king cannot marry simply,” said Rai, “Festivities are essential. But equally, a King must not be embarrassed if his bride for some reason does not come.”
“If she does not come…I don’t know what I’ll do. Ride into the forest, I think, and remain there.”
“Sire, as to that I cannot say. But leave the feast to me.”
The feast that was announced honored the Goddess: No one mentioned a wedding. Since the time was so short, the majordomo called in three times the usual number of weavers to make new clothes for the household, and the prices of cloth rose for several months. Jewelers had not had such commissions in years. They ordered pearls and coral from the sea-coast and diamonds and emeralds from the south, and the light blue turquoise from over the mountains.
Never had there been such a feast planned! It seemed as though all the world had been invited; the rich to be present, the poor to share in the bounty. The flower market was stripped of every last marigold and rose.
Shantan told only Rai that she had agreed, that she would be waiting by the river. Rai himself was to bring her, with some porters and a gold palanquin.
“Sire, you’ll have to let someone of your family into your secret,” Rai told his King. “She must be met by the elders of the House, or how will she know she’s welcomed? Your lady aunt, perhaps?”
And so it was that when the procession wound out of the woods and in through the Gate, and the sentry announced the arrival of the Princess Grana, a group of ladies waited for her. They took her into fresh-painted rooms adorned with flowers, and commanded the porters to bring her boxes into a store-room.
Rai reported the mission’s success privately to Shantan. As she had promised, Grana had been waiting in the half-light of dawn. Her clothes… there on that river bank, amid the trees and mud, her clothes were fit for a princess, fit for a bride. Rai told her about the preparations. She had stepped into the palanquin as casually as if it were something she did every day. Her boxes lay in a neat line, waiting for porters. They were not heavy; perhaps they carried more clothing.
“Who is she, sire? Who is she really?” asked the Chief Councilor, aside.
“She is my bride,” said Shantan.
The surprise announcement of the marriage at the Feast was met with a roar of approval from the gathered crowds. They saw the bride step out of the brilliant gold palanquin, and another roar of approval went up at her beauty. The people did not care about her lineage. They threw flowers at the dais, and celebrated. Grana seemed to appreciate the ruse; Shantan saw the mischief in her smile as she advanced and sat on a throne that had quickly been placed next to his.
“You didn’t believe I was coming, Shantan,” she laughed behind her hand. Then she rose and ceremoniously made an offering of marigolds and water-lilies at the altar of the Goddess, in whose honor this Feast was held. The crowd roared again.
Shantan was surprised to find that Grana managed her end of the wedding perfectly. She seemed to know all the rituals. Although her boxes and been few and light, she had an apparently endless supply in unusual designs of the customary gifts of clothes and jewels. She seemed like a foreign princess who was somehow entirely familiar with the appropriate behavior at Asthal. He wanted to know how — but he had promised to ask her no questions.
“What time is the…” Shantan started to ask, as he lingered over his morning meal, and was startled when Grana laid a quick finger on his lips. “What time is the council meeting, I wonder,” he said, recovering rapidly. She smiled and said, “I’ve been wondering, too.”
Shantan taught himself ways to communicate with her. No questions. Instead, if he wanted to know something, he would make a statement: “Grana, I’d like very much to know…” or “I’m really curious about…” or “I’ve been wondering why…” Then, if she wanted, she would tell him.
At first he considered it tedious. He resented it and almost resented her for her demand. On reflection, he realized they were very much the same accommodations people made in speaking to him. No one demanded answers of a king. Not even Grana; she was as courteous to him as he was to her, and was a marvelous companion, merry and affectionate. He relied on her judgment, and increasingly, “I’ve been wondering” related to matters of state.
In the weeks after the glorious celebration, Shantan found himself no less in love with Grana than he had been at first. But how do you get to know someone if you can’t ask questions? Even about trivial things?
“I’m puzzled as to what your favorite food is” or “Perhaps some time you’ll tell me which flowers you like best” or “I’d like very much to know what you wish to do today” or “I’ve been wondering what might make you angry or upset.”
Half the time, Grana smiled at him and said nothing, as though the observation was irrelevant, or ruffled his hair. Shantan tried to understand her by observing her. She was always kind and good-humored, though sometimes mischievous. She had her own rituals, and one of them was her daily ride to the river. Whatever the weather, whatever the day, Shantan knew she would be gone to the river in the mornings.
Grana seemed endlessly fascinated by the life of the place, as though it was entirely new to her. She joined the ladies on market days; she joined Shantan on his hunts in the forest, though she killed nothing herself. She sat in the hall when he gave his general audience. Her quiet suggestions gradually became more authoritative. Shantan thought how wondrous it must be to someone who had spent all her life in the forest. He was delighted that Grana was happy.
The people became accustomed to seeing her at the King’s side on occasions of State, and at all the Festivals. Her presence was a blessing on the land.
A year later, Grana was with child. Shantan was joyous and terrified. An heir was all-important, but childbirth, especially of a first child, was dangerous. He arranged for an especially comfortable apartment, cool in summer and warm in winter. He surrounded her with ladies experienced in pregnancy and childbirth, including Rai’s wife Jiya, and plied them with the questions he could not ask her.
“How is she doing?” he asked Jiya. “How does she grow more beautiful as she swells?”
“Well indeed, sire,” said Jiya. “Few women are blessed with such simple pregnancies. But the test will be at the end.”
“Is there anything that needs to be done?”
“If we think of anything, sire, it is done already.”
“Take good care of her,” he said. “My life is wrapped up in her.”
Grana did seem to take easily to pregnancy. Her skin glowed even more than usual, and she bore the increased girth gracefully. She did not get nauseous; indeed, she seemed to have more energy than before. She did not appear to particularly anticipate the birth, nor did she seem upset or frightened as many are when pregnant for the first time.
“Grana,” the king said, “I wonder if you’re afraid or anxious or happy.”
She smiled. “You’re considerate to worry about me.”
“Everyone says I need an heir.”
“This might not be one, you know.”
“I just want you to come through this safely.”
“I will, don’t worry. I will.”
At last, it was time. Grana was in labor.
Shantan could stand it no more. He went down to the apartments, but Jiya gently blocked his entry. “She has work to do, your Majesty. It would be better not to distract her. She will be better with us. The labor is progressing normally.”
At last, word came from the rooms below: She had borne a healthy son. Shantan shouted with triumph, and ran down the stairs to her rooms. He congratulated his bride, and saw his first-born, but her attendants did not let him stay.
Of course there was fierce rejoicing throughout the kingdom, as fires were lit to convey the message. An heir brought security from possible invasions by Kings who saw a power vacuum. The ambassador from neighboring Pashim brought greetings that had a hint of annoyance. Lamps were lit all over the city.
The next morning, Grana was fully recovered. Evading her surprised and anxious ladies, she went into the forest, to the river as usual, taking her son with her. When Shantan went down to see her she was already gone.
“How could you let her ride into the forest the day after she has borne a baby?”
“The Queen does not ask our permission, sire. She took the child and left.”
Shantan sat waiting for her return. He saw her ride in at the gate, into the stables, hand her horse over to the attendant. At first, he did not realize what was wrong, but then he saw the stable boys looking at her strangely. It was then he noticed that the child was not with her. She has alone.
Shantan was frantic with fear and worry.
“Where’s the baby?” Shantan wanted to ask her, “Where’s my son?”
But he couldn’t. He wondered, he was curious, he said he’d like to know. She didn’t say. She looked downhearted and uplifted at the same time. Had she left the baby with someone? Had she taken him to her mysterious family? Shantan offered these theories to Grana, who only said, “He’s gone. I put him in the river.” And she left the room.
Maybe the baby had been defective after all. Maybe he was dying, and she needed her time alone with him. Perhaps she had cradled the little body, and put it into the river she loved. Who can say how a mother thinks about her child?
So soon after the birth, the little prince’s death was announced. People were shocked, people mourned, but briefly. Fragile babies did die, especially boys. They were so vulnerable. Hopefully, there would be more.
There were. The next time Grana bore a child, Shantan sent Rai to follow her into the forest and down to the river. She returned, as before, without the baby. Rai returned shortly after her, shaking.
“I cannot tell you, Sire. I cannot believe it. I cannot say it.”
“Say it and be done,” Shantan commanded.
“She kissed him, she blessed him, and she threw him in the river. He sank immediately. I ran to the river, and I could not even see where he had gone.”
“Was he alive when she did this?”
“Yes, Sire.” Rai swallowed hard. “He was … moving.”
“Threw him in? How could she so? Threw him into the river? Her little baby?” Shantan’s hands cradled the air as they had cradled his son the night before.
That evening, Shantan sat with Grana.
“I’ve been wondering why a mother would kill her son,” he said tentatively. He was afraid of her now, though he still loved her in the same way he had when he first saw her.
“No mother would kill her son without a good reason, unless she is mad,” she said. And that was all she said. She looked at him with sadness, as if she would explain, but could not.
He tried again, some months later. “Another time, perhaps we will have a child we can raise,” he said.
“Perhaps,” said Grana, “But perhaps not. Sometimes there are hard prices to pay for mixing bloods. Perhaps you should have married the Pashimi princess.” But she didn’t explain further. Shantan could not imagine being married to someone else, not being married to Grana. His love for her increased in proportion to his despair.
Six months later, their first daughter went into the river.
There were no more birth announcements. Shantan knew any babies he had would not live a second day. He kept Grana’s pregnancies quiet, did not visit or acknowledge the babies, and let Rai bear witness to the deed. Grana was like the phases of the moon: she appeared, grew large, disappeared and reappeared slender. She never actually told him when she was pregnant. Most of the time, he could pretend that the pregnancies never happened. It was something his mind shied away from.
Ten years. Five children. The love Shantan bore Grana was constantly fruitful; the fruit were constantly cut off before they could even form. Jiya gave out that the babies were stillborn and Shantan chose to believe it.
He knew, guiltily, that Rai’s was the hardest part: to watch the lovely queen take the newborn baby down to the river, hold it as though she loved it, and throw it in. He could say nothing, by the King’s command. He could not interfere.
The day after the fifth child, Shantan watched the sunset from his balcony. He had ordered them not to tell him when the child was born, or even if it was a son or daughter. He tried not to think about the child, but his mind returned to it again and again. And somehow, he always knew. It had been a daughter again, this time. He heard voices below, Rai and Jiya.
“Can you not keep the baby from her?” Rai asked, sounding desperate. “Or even substitute another’s still-born infant? Do not let her drown another baby. Only my loyalty to Shantan keeps me from hating this murderous queen.”
“We have tried, Rai. She knows her own. She knows where they are. She is fearsome when anyone tries a trick on her. None of us would dare it twice.”
“I have never seen Grana angry,” Rai said.
“I have seen it only once, on the night of the great flood. May you never see her anger in spate. It is unstoppable as a tidal wave. And it sinks as quickly, once she has what she wishes.”
Shantan’s advisors told him to take another wife; two queens were hardly excessive. Shantan could not do it. He thought Grana would disapprove. He thought she might leave him. He refused to remarry.
“Ten years,” remarked his Chief Councillor. “Ten years is a long time. A man can grow old. Kingdoms are vulnerable without heirs. The people are murmuring she is barren.”
“Listen to reason, sire,” urged Rai. “A monarch’s duty is to produce an heir. Who will be named Crown Prince or Princess? There are not even nieces or nephews to nominate… not in Asthal, anyway. Would you have Pashim claim the throne, sire?”
“I understand,” said the King. His mind turned to the conversation he had overheard, to the desperation in Rai’s voice. “It must be done. This time, I will follow her into the forest, not you.”
Grana’s horse moved easily through the forest, and she did not need both hands to guide it. All animals moved well for her, seeming to know what she wanted them to do. He could see her ahead of him on the path. She seemed oblivious to his presence.
She stopped near the huge tree, her favorite spot of old. It was where he had found her, the place where Rai had brought the palanquin to fetch her to her wedding. The river flowed in little swirls and eddies near the shore. Farther out, the current was strong.
She took the baby from the cloth that wrapped him, and held him naked up to the water. He could not hear her words, but she seemed to be blessing him.
“Now, quick,” thought Shantan. “Stop her.”
The habit of years inhibited him. He urged his horse forward, calling, “Grana!” It was all he could say.
She turned to him, pausing in her little ceremony. “Shantan.”
“Grana, stop, I must talk with you.”
“I am listening, Shantan.”
“Grana, I never thought I would ask you anything. I swore I would not. And I never thought I would refuse you anything. I swore I would not.”
“But now I ask you, why? Why have five of our babes died, died before they were a day old? You must not drown this child… If not for me, then for Asthal. The kingdom needs an heir, Lady Queen..” He waited for her response.
“Since you asked, oh King, I will tell you, and then I must go.” Her voice was gentle, kind. “I am not precisely mortal. There is a mortal strain in me, but I am the spirit of this river, I am the river. I keep your land fertile, and your fields green. I keep your kingdom alive.
“I had a destiny, to marry a mortal man; and it was a good one while it lasted. The young I bore you were river-sprites. They would not have lived long outside the water. In the summer time, when the water ripples over rocks and pebbles, you may hear their voices here in the river, though you will not recognize them. Maybe you’ll see them sometime, they’re there.
“This son. He has more mortal fiber in him, and I can make him fully mortal. It will take time, it will take much from me, but I will do it. Now I must go, and I will take him with me. When he returns to you, he will be mortal like you, and you can make him your heir.”
“River-sprites.” He looked out over the river, searching. When at length he turned back to Grana, she had turned to leave. “Stop, wait, Grana! Where are you going?”
“Back again. Remember that oath? It’s been a wonderful ten years, Shantan.” She reached up and touched his face, tenderly. “I’ll remember you and I’ll send back your boy.”
“You don’t have to go,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, “It was a spell, an enchantment. Breaking the oath broke the spell.”
“Will you be happy?” he asked, desperately.
She brushed the tears from his cheeks. “You’ll see me in the prosperity of your kingdom. The river will bring life to Asthal. I’ll be happy.”
She stepped off to the side, behind some bushes, but when Shantan tried to follow her, she and the baby were gone.More stories like this by topic: Authors of color, Desi authors, India, Indian authors, Women authors