Memories of My Sister
by Aliette de Bodard
I was baking flatbreads on the hearthstone when I saw my sister walk out of the forest.
I paused, disbelieving. She had left us, many years ago, to become a hermit. She had abandoned both my husband Nayen and me, and we had never heard from her afterwards. We had thought her safely ensconced within the forest, weathering monsoon after monsoon in some crude hut, serenely meditating on the gods of the Triad. And now she was walking towards me, as if she still belonged in my house.
She had changed. Her hair was white, her face gaunt and pinched, as if she had not eaten for moons. She wore rough, blackened clothes of bark, nothing like the red cotton sari she had put on before entering the forest.
I had half-risen, my hands still covered in spiced dough; she saw me. “Isalaya?” she asked, and swayed.
“Menmathe,” I said, and was there to catch her as she fell.
I carried her inside; she weighed little, as little as fallen leaves, as the wind through the canopy. She was no longer the elder sister I remembered, who had been carrying herself with a quiet certainty that filled her whole being. The forest had aged her, hardened her and thinned her so much I feared I was not carrying a live person, but the husk of one. Her hair had been black when she had left us; now it was as white as milk.
What have you seen, sister? What made you come back here?
Her eyes opened, focused on me. “Where–?” she asked. She looked at me, at the four mud walls making up the house, and the image of the Protector engraved over the hearth.
“You’re home,” I said, quietly.
She took a deep breath. “No,” she said. “I don’t know you.”
“You called my name. Before you fell. I’m your sister.”
“I–” She was obviously trying to focus on what had happened, and obviously failing. Tears filled her eyes. “I don’t remember,” she said, over and over, like a hurt child. “I don’t remember anything.”
I had not forgotten what she had done: her betrothal to Nayen, broken without thought of what it would do to him, the casual way she had abandoned both of us, sure that we could fill the hole she had left. But still, at seeing her so vulnerable, my heart twisted in my chest. “Ssh.” I put my arms around her, rocking her until she stopped crying. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll find some help.”
Nayen, who was now my husband, was working the communal fields, as he did every day. So I put on my shawl, and went instead to the nearby temple, to get Lanari, the village’s priestess of the Destroyer.
The temple stood a little away from the village, not far from our own house. Its facade was the highest and most colourful of the village: its builders had painted images from the legends on the white-washed wall and on the door of sandalwood.
I left my shoes on the porch, before an image of the Destroyer–for one can only go barefoot in the presence of the gods–and entered the temple. The inside was filled with incense smoke; no doubt Lanari had lit the sticks recently. After the clean air of outside, the stifling smell made me feel dizzy.
Lanari herself was laying coconut oil on the altar, muttering prayers to the Destroyer, who had swallowed the poison in the primal ocean and saved all of creation. She looked up, saw me.
I explained to her, in a confused manner, what had happened. She frowned, and closed her palm-leaf book of prayers. “I’ll come,” she said.
Menmathe looked at Lanari curiously when she entered, but showed no sign of recognition. Lanari’s face, serene, ethereal, showed nothing of what she felt. She merely took Menmathe’s pulse, asked a few questions–questions which soon faltered when it became clear my sister had lost her memory.
Afterwards, she spoke to me outside, out of earshot of Menmathe.
“She is–different,” she said. I knew she remembered the composed girl who had decided, one day, that she would serve the three gods by dedicating her life to them. Menmathe had walked into the forest without asking anyone’s advice. Not even mine.
“Changed,” I said. “What is wrong with her?”
“I don’t know. Her pulse is very weak, and I don’t like the way her skin feels. She’s on the edge of a fever.”
Lanari shook her head. “Look at her. She is still young, and yet her hair is white. She has clearly received the Gift of the gods. She shouldn’t be sick, but should have the power to dispel any sickness. She should be wreathed in glory, so to speak.” Her voice was bitter; Lanari had never found the courage to leave the village and seek out the visions of the gods. “And most of all, she shouldn’t have lost her memories.”
She refused to meet my gaze. “You live on the edge of the village, Isalaya. You know better than me what prowls the forest, and what can come out of it.”
I did not speak for a while. “Rakshasas,” I said. Demons who consumed human flesh, and took the shape of their victims. “How likely is it?”
“It might be. But I don’t think so. Hermits, especially Gifted ones, know how to ward against demons. Besides, rakshasas cannot abide the light of the sun, but daylight doesn’t seem to bother your sister.”
“But you’re telling me all the same.”
“I am warning you,” she said. “Just in case. But I think that something went wrong when she received the Gift of the gods. That it burnt everything out of her. It will take her time to recover.”
I looked at the first trees of the forest, with their shimmering shadows. Time to recover. Time in my house, seeing Nayen every day. Time to remember she had once been betrothed to him. I did not want that. But what other choice did I have? I could not turn my back on her in her moment of need; or I would have been no better than her, who had abandoned us for the forest, years ago. I could not cast her out.
Nayen came home later that evening. He moved slowly, stiffly: tilling the communal fields under the sun always exhausted him. I had brewed some cardamom tea, for I knew his throat would be parched. Had this been an ordinary evening, I would have waited for him inside, where there were fewer mosquitoes. But I had to warn him.
So I stood on the threshold, a vague smell of cardamom in my nostrils. Nayen stopped when he reached me, and looked into my eyes. He had always known how to read me. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“She’s come back,” I said.
He had no idea who I was talking about. I was glad, selfishly so, that he had forgotten Menmathe and his previous betrothal to her. I was glad that she no longer had any hold over him. How childish of me. How foolish.
I led Nayen inside, to the mat where she was sleeping.
He stood, silently watching her, and I saw pity fill his eyes. “Menmathe,” he whispered.
I did not speak. She had no right to be there, no right at all. She had shattered enough when she had walked away from us, leaving Nayen behind without a second thought, and me in the middle, holding everything in place.
“How–?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Lanari came, and did not know either. She said perhaps something went wrong in the forest.” I did not say anything about her warning.
I served the tea; he drank it, speaking only briefly of the work of the fields. Later, we ate cardamom rice and coconut, and I laid aside a serving for Menmathe. Throughout the evening Nayen kept glancing at my sister, waiting for her to wake up and speak. I said nothing, but something in my chest twisted each time he looked away from me.
At length Menmathe opened her eyes, stared at both of us. “Isalaya,” she said.
“This is Nayen,” I told her. “My husband.” I knew what I was doing: staking out my claim to him before she had a chance to remember him. I could not prevent myself.
“You don’t remember anything?” Nayen asked, gently.
She shook her head. “No. I–I was in the forest, looking for the Gift of the gods. I dreamt–I dreamt that they spoke to me.”
“They do that,” Nayen said. He knelt by her side, looked her in the eye. “We’ll take care of you, never fear.”
Later, as we lay on our mats, listening to Menmathe’s even breath, he said, “I didn’t think she would come back.” His voice was shaking.
I was silent for a while, staring at the stars through the open door, at the moon, the eye of the gods on this world. Mosquitoes sang in my ears, an endless reproach. “Nor did I. But you saw her. Her mind is a child’s.”
“Are you afraid you won’t be able to deal with that?”
Nayen was a kind man, a strong and gentle soul, one who had always known where my weaknesses lay. And for that last, too, I loved him. “I am afraid,” I said, “that we will find we haven’t grown since she left us. That nothing has been forgiven or left behind.”
“You’re my wife.” Nayen stroked the base of my neck, tenderly. My skin quivered under his touch. “Nothing else matters.”
“And she was your betrothed. Have you forgotten?”
“I forget nothing.” I could not see his eyes in the dark. “I promise you she won’t come between us.”
“No,” I said, at last, blinking away tears. “She’s done enough damage.”
I took care of Menmathe as I took care of the other household tasks. In between washing laundry, baking flatbreads and grinding spices, I spoke to her of the past, of the way we had played together near the river’s edge, back when we were young children. I shied away from the later years, the ones when she had grown distant and moody, searching for her place in the world. The days when she broke away from us.
But, even without memories, she was still sharp enough. “How did you meet Nayen?” she asked me, one day.
I had been preparing rice in a mortar: with each descent of the pestle, husks would break, leaving only the white grain we would eat. Now I stopped, looked at her. My hands were shaking. I pondered over whether to give her a lie. But I could not. “He was your betrothed.”
Her eyes rested on me, expressionless. “And I abandoned him when I entered the forest?”
You broke him. You tossed him like a toy you no longer had need of. What was he, after all, compared to the gods of the Triad, the gods you suddenly decided to serve?
I could not tell her that. I could not hurt her when she was at her most vulnerable. So I said nothing.
“I see. I am sorry,” she said, and there was no emotion in her voice.
“Don’t be,” I said, and then had to stop, for Nayen had entered the house. I rose to greet him, still smelling of rice.
“Isalaya.” He kissed me, making me whole, as he always did.
“Is she better?” he asked, after we were finished.
He moved away, motioned for me to follow. “If she bothers you–”
“I am her sister. Who else would take care of her? Our parents are both dead, and we have no other relatives.”
“I know,” Nayen said, gently. “But you talk of nothing but duty, Isalaya.”
“What more do you want from me?”
He was looking at Menmathe, and did not speak for a while. “Something to remind her that she is among family.”
“Then you see to it,” I snapped. “She tore our houses when she left. You ask for too much.”
“I ask for forgiveness,” Nayen said. “As you said, she is like a child. She doesn’t remember.”
No, she did not remember. I could not even confront her with the past, no matter how dearly I wished for her to realise what she had done, what she had wrecked with her arrogance.
I moved away from Nayen, said, “I have to see to the laundry.”
The laundry was wet and heavy; I struck it, again and again, against the flat stones at the river’s edge, seeing, again and again, Menmathe’s serene, confident gaze as she broke her betrothal to Nayen. Her look as she entered the forest one moon later, unaware of what she left in her wake. Curse you, I thought. Why did you have to come back?
When I returned, Nayen was kneeling by Menmathe’s side, speaking to her, earnestly. Two empty bowls lay on the ground; the air smelled faintly of cardamom tea. Menmathe was smiling like a young girl.
I turned away, struck by an unjustified pang of jealousy. Of course Nayen loved me. How could I doubt him? How could I condemn him?
But, as the days passed, and Nayen spent more and more time with Menmathe, neglecting the work of the fields, my worries deepened. He was always with her, sometimes holding her hand, sometimes smiling at her, with that secret, composed smile he had reserved for me.
I had known, of course, that our marriage had only happened because Nayen, adrift after Menmathe’s casual rejection of him, had needed someone he could lean on. Or, to put it more bluntly, because, with Menmathe gone, we only had each other.
But I had learnt to love him, and I thought he, too, had returned my feelings.
Only to fling everything to the winds once Menmathe returned. I was no competition for her. Even white-haired, even amnesiac, she still was everything I could not be. Even Nayen had only been on loan to me, and now she was claiming him back as easily as she breathed.
I went to Lanari, and told her what was happening.
She was silent for a while. “You may be overreacting,” she said, her wrinkled face thoughtful.
“Perhaps. But I know him well enough to tell. He doesn’t see it yet. He thinks he brings her comfort.”
“I see,” Lanari said. “I can’t think of much to say, really. If he’s what she needs to get better…”
“And what if he’s not?” I asked, and realised how selfish this sounded.
“Tell him. Make him see what he is doing.”
I could have told Lanari how Nayen would answer. And I would have been right.
“Are you so jealous?” he asked. “This is ridiculous, Isalaya. We are still husband and wife.”
“For how long?”
“Don’t be silly,” he said, sharply. “We were married before the gods.”
“Yes,” I said. “I realise that you may not have been thinking marriages were final.”
“You’re being unfair.”
“Then tell me why you spend more time with her than with anyone else. Tell me why your fields are untended.”
“She’s your sister, for the Triad’s sake!”
“And you’re my husband,” I said. “Act as husbands should.”
His fists clenched, and I thought he was going to strike me. But he merely went away without a word, as if I were not worthy of quarrelling with.
Menmathe had been watching us. When Nayen was gone, she said, “I had not realised.”
“Don’t lie,” I snapped. “You enjoy it. You’ve always enjoyed having power over other people. Over me.”
She looked hurt. Her face was even gaunter than usual. She had been eating little, as if the forest had left no human appetites in her. “I am sorry if I offended you,” she said.
I turned away from her to brew some cardamom tea, and did not speak.
I slept with difficulty that night, and got up while it was still dark. I walked the outskirts of the village, seeking something that might bridge the gulf between Nayen and me. And I found nothing. I stayed away from the forest’s edge, but I still heard the chatter of macaques as they leapt from branch to branch, the night cries of tigers on the prowl. And I wished Menmathe would go back to the forest where she belonged, to be lulled to sleep by those sounds instead of my husband’s voice.
I came home in a foul mood. Nayen was still sleeping–I could hear his soft snores from outside. But Menmathe was awake, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor. The moon was still up, and bathed her in its cold, unforgiving light.
And for a moment the moon let me see something behind the human outline: something with fangs and claws, with yellow eyes that transfixed me in the darkness, something vast and inhuman that knew only hunger. It did not last. For when she heard my steps on the threshold, Menmathe moved away from the moonlight, and everything disappeared.
It had to be an illusion. I was tired, and prone to imagining things.
But I knew what I had seen.
I smiled at Menmathe, saying nothing. But now I remembered Lanari’s warning. A demon, she had said. And everyone knew that the moon, the eye of the Creator on this world, showed demons for what they really were.
A demon. Not my sister at all, then, but something else.
All day I remembered that outline, as I baked bread, as I swept the floor of the house. Menmathe spoke little. When Nayen came she basked in his attentions, but it seemed to me there was an unhealthy hunger in the way her eyes lingered on him.
I went, again, to Lanari, and told her what I had seen.
“You are sure?” she asked.
“No. It could be jealousy trying to give me a good reason for hating her.”
“I don’t think you need that.” Lanari paused, counted on her fingers. “It has been almost a moon since she came back to you, hasn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said. “What is your meaning?”
“Assuming the last person it consumed was your sister, that makes it more than a moon since it ate anything. It’s hungry.”
“Nayen,” I said. “I need to warn him.”
Lanari stopped me with a gesture. “It’s a rakshasa,” she said, “that is strong enough to walk in daylight, while lesser demons fear the gaze of the sun. It’s strong enough to defeat a hermit with the powers of the gods. You can’t expect to tear your husband from it that easily.”
“Then give me a way,” I snapped. “Give me a way to kill it.”
Lanari pursed her lips. “Hard. Essence of goldenrain flowers is what they prescribe, but it doesn’t keep for long, and it takes time to brew.”
“How long?” I asked, my heart sinking.
“Three, four days. Can you keep an eye on him till then? The demon draws its power from the forest; it will need to lead Nayen back there in order to fully overpower him. Don’t let them leave.”
“I’ll try,” I said.
I could not keep an eye on Nayen, who went to till the fields every day, but I could keep an eye on Menmathe. I spoke to her, reminding her of the time we had spent together, knowing, all the while, that she did not remember. Or that, if she did, they were not her memories, only those of her victim.
My sister was dead.
I tried to go about as if everything was normal, but it was hard. At night, I waited until both Nayen and Menmathe were asleep before I would fall asleep myself, and I rose at dawn before either of them.
On the third morning, weariness overcame me, and I overslept. I woke up, panicked, to see that both Menmathe and Nayen were gone.
I rose, and went running through the village, asking those I met if they had seen either of them. A farmer finally remembered that Menmathe had entered the forest near the western edge of the village, followed by Nayen, who had been walking behind her as if bewitched.
“Why did you not stop them?” I wanted to cry, but knew it would be useless.
Running after them, no matter how I wished it, would avail me nothing. I would be powerless against a rakshasa. So I went, instead, to wake up Lanari.
As it turned out, she was already awake, and praying.
“They’re gone,” I said, breathless. “I need your essence.”
Her face twisted. “It’s not ready, Isalaya. It won’t be ready for another few hours.”
“I can’t wait that long. Give it to me as it is.”
“It doesn’t have its full power.” But still she handed me a flask containing a golden liquid, one that smelled as musky as a rich woman’s perfume.
“I’ll come with you,” she said.
I shook my head. “You would only slow me down.” She was long past her prime, old and wise for all of us, but she would not be able to keep up with me.
“Good luck,” she said, but I was already running, my fingers clenching the flask as the only hope I had.
There was one path within the forest, and their tracks were easy to find. As I ran deeper under the canopy, the trees became larger, towering over me like guardians of hidden wisdom, and the light changed, became green and shimmering, lost its connection with the sun overhead. The cries of monkeys, of birds, became overwhelming.
I ran, keeping Nayen’s face in my mind. I ran, remembering Menmathe’s expression as she had entered the forest, years ago.
I found them in a clearing that shimmered with magic: magic that clung like mist to the branches overhead, to the thick trunk of the banyan trees. Nayen was kneeling in ecstasy before Menmathe, who still wore her human shape. She had both hands on his head, and I could almost see the stream of memories she was taking from him.
“Stop!” I said.
She raised her head.
“Step back!” I cried. “Or I’ll…” I unstoppered the flask I held. Its strong, musky smell filled the air, dispelling the demon magic.
The rakshasa’s face did not change expression. The demon did let go of Nayen, however, and took a few steps backwards, but not enough for me to consider my husband out of danger.
“So you have found out,” it said. Away from the sunlight, its shape wavered between that of my sister, and the other one, the one with fangs, with inhuman eyes.
“Yes,” I said. “Now step back. I won’t let you take him.”
Its face twisted in pain. “I need him. How else will I keep myself whole?”
I held the flask before me, moved between Nayen and the demon. “Was that why you came to me?” I asked. “For this elaborate charade? Couldn’t you feast on some other travellers? Why did it have to be us?”
Why did it have to be my sister’s shape?
“You don’t understand,” the demon said. It moved, slightly, watched the flask, as if knowing I held it at bay with an incomplete weapon. “I could not remember anything. I consumed her, and took her shape, and the gods in her overwhelmed me. I could not remember who I was. I had never been so sick. All I had were her memories of your house. Of family. Warmth. Kindness.”
Tears filled my eyes. I had given Menmathe none of those things, and it was too late now.
“You will not have him. He is not yours. He never will be yours,” I said, knowing all the while that the one I could have told the words to could no longer hear them.
“I need him,” the demon said. “I–” It shivered. “I can no longer feed on human flesh. But his memories–if I can have more of them–” It moved closer, seeing that I had not done anything.
I held my ground. “No. You have no place here.”
“I need to–”
It was pitiful now. Reaching out with shivering hands–claws, hands, trying to move past me, but not daring to. And in every pore of its body, the gods that had filled my sister were raging, fighting against the demon’s very nature. It was a wonder it still held together. Death, in truth, would be a kindness.
“I–” it said, and lunged past me.
My hand opened, out of its own volition. The flask flew through the air and landed on the rakshasa’s chest. The fragrance of musky flowers filled the air, so sharp I thought I would weep.
The rakshasa howled, staggered backwards, clutching at the place the potion had struck. It was unravelling before my eyes, the goldenrain essence eating its whole body. The liquid did not have its full powers. But then, neither did the demon. They warred together before my eyes, and I had no wish to wait to see who would finally win.
I turned, shook Nayen until his eyes focused on me. He did not recognise me.
“Menmathe?” he said, and I wondered how many years of memories the demon had taken from him.
“Come,” I said, pulling him against me. Together we walked out of the clearing. I turned, one last time, to look at the rakshasa, and saw it sink to its knees, its eyes on me.
“Warmth,” it said, a bare whisper, one hand covering the gaping hole in its chest. It was still wearing my sister’s face, and pleading with me to understand. “Kindness.”
I turned away from it, weeping.
When we arrived back at the village, Lanari was waiting for us by the door of my house. “So?” she asked.
“It’s dead,” I said, curtly pushing past her to get Nayen to the bed. I needed to be alone with him.
Lanari waited for more explanations, but I could offer her none. “Later,” I said, my voice shaking. She said nothing, only moved away from me, and left me to tend to Nayen.
His body was unscathed. His mind, though, would be another matter. The rakshasa had taken much from him.
When his eyes at last focused on me, bewilderment and loss filled them. He looked at me, struggling to remember what I meant to him; I could tell he no longer knew.
“I–” he asked. “What happened?” His face twisted, as Menmathe’s–no, the demon’s–had, when she had been trying to remember what had happened.
I did not speak for a while, realizing how close I had come to losing him. How my jealousy towards Menmathe had blinded me to what should have been obvious. “It doesn’t matter,” I said at last. I held him against me, feeling his warmth spread to my skin, to my heart, until the demon’s dying face was nothing more than a dull, aching memory. “I’ll take care of you.”More stories like this by topic: Authors of color, French authors, Hinduism, Women authors