(Originally written: June 26, 2020)
Raahi returned from school that day with a pamphlet gripped in her small hand. It’s the most determination she could summon into her soul, with the rest being fear. The fear a child has when she must ask a strict mother for money. If her father had been in town, she would have asked him instead. It was just her luck that he had left on business right as the Skydancers came to her small village to put on a performance.
Her mother was on the patio right outside the kitchen, sitting in front of the grinding stone. Various spices had been mixed with grain and filled into the bowl shaped crevice of the stone. As Raahi watched, her mother hefted a massive pestle and smashed it into the crevice. She began rotating it in a clockwise motion, putting some of her weight onto the pestle while she crushed the dry mixture. The sharp, spicy smell hit Raahi immediately along with the soft crunching and she picked up the large jug of water that was waiting to the side. Amala looked up. “Ah. You’re home.” She stopped grinding for a moment so Raahi could pour in some water. “Enough.” When Raahi stopped, she continued grinding. “I’ve left some rice on the table. Wash your hands then eat.”
“I’ll help first, Ma.” Raahi poured some more water after squatting across from her mother. The pamphlet she had brought was shoved into the pocket of her school uniform.
“Mmm.” Amala didn’t say anything beside that, though she was mildly pleased by Raahi’s offer to help. She paused to wipe sweat with her sari and cough into it before resuming. “Where are your sisters?”
How would I know? I just got home. Raahi thought. “I don’t know, Ma.”
“Mmm.” Amala coughed again as she inadvertently inhaled some more of the dry spice still coating the sides of the grinding stone. “Pour the water properly!”
“Sorry.” Raahi stifled a cough of her own while she poured water onto the dry spices, washing them down into the batter that was forming. Once that was done, she went back to squatting. She absentmindedly swatted away a fly. It returned moments later, landing in various spots on Raahi and never satisfied with where it picked. After Raahi swiped her hand at it again – it had attempted to land on her cheek – the fly left to go somewhere else.
Amala clicked her tongue in annoyance as the fly landed on her face but ignored it when it crawled around on her stomach, getting lost in the folds of her sari. Raahi knew she’d have to hurry if she wanted to make it to the Skydancer show on time but this part was important. Amala looked to be in a decent enough mood but Raahi needed to make sure. For that, she had to help with the dinner prep. “Are there any vegetables I can chop for you, Ma?”
Amala kept grinding but her eyes were on Raahi now. “What’s that in your pocket?”
Raahi sighed internally. She had been caught. And so easily! She handed the pamphlet over with a shaking hand while feigning extreme interest in the batter. It was a cream color with flecks of red from the crushed red pepper that had been added. When she felt Amala’s eyes on her, Raahi’s interest in the batter amplified.
“You can go.”
Raahi looked up so quickly she winced from the whiplash. “Really?”
“Mmm.” Amala gave the pamphlet back and resumed her work. “Eat your rice then go. Return before nightfall.”
“Thank you, Ma!” Raahi shot straight up, almost dropping the jug. It was her good luck that she didn’t.
“Mmm.” Amala said, looking at the unbridled excitement in her daughter’s dark brown eyes. “There’s spare change in the drawer by the door. Take what you need and not a single cent more! I will be checking.”
“Okay, Ma!” Raahi hopped from one foot to the next, careful to not spill any water.
“And no talking to boys!”
Why would I do that? Amala thought. “Okay, Ma!”
“Mmm.” Amala said. “Go on. Eat, then go.”
Raahi carefully set the jug down then danced her way to the dinner table, the skirt of her navy blue school uniform twirling with every twist. She ate the rice in record speed, her brain only registering the extra spice while she was rummaging in the drawer for change. Raahi didn’t even consider going back for water, instead running out the door while hissing softly. The cool air rushing out her mouth didn’t ease the heat on her tongue but Raahi didn’t care. She was about to see Skydancers!
“Goodness, girl!” A neighbor exclaimed as she watched from her home’s gate. “Where are you off to in such a rush?”
“Skydancers!” Raahi called out. She turned the corner and didn’t hear what the woman had to say. Many of the villagers Raahi sped past asked the same question and to all of them she responded with a single word, “Skydancers!” The villagers all watched her run with gentle amusement, nostalgic for their own childhoods.
When she got to the village center, Raahi’s excitement dimmed slightly from the crowd. What if she wasn’t able to get a good spot to watch? There’s no way she could see over the heads of all the adults present. She’d be able to see the main part of the performance regardless of where she stood, but Raahi wanted to watch the entire thing.
“Raahi!” Said the man at the ticket counter. “Are you here by yourself?”
“Yes, sir.” Raahi held out an open palm, 25 cents shining up at the man. Exactly enough to admit a child. “One ticket please!”
“One ticket for the young miss.” The man ripped a stub from the roll he had attached at his hip and handed it to her before taking her change and dropping it into the coin box. He then wrote out a receipt to give her. “Here, Raahi. For your mother. Hurry! The show is going to start soon!”
“Thank you, sir!” Raahi took the receipt and sped off. Evidently her luck was to continue because many of the adults that saw her smiled and pushed her to the front of the crowd. One man offered to carry her on his shoulder but after she shyly refused, he smiled and let her continue making her way through the audience. Sooner than she expected, Raahi was at the front. She shifted from one foot to another, with her small arms intertwined with each other and a cute smile lighting up an already cute face.
Without preamble, a man burst from the floor of the stage, flipped in the air, and landed with his arms spread wide. The sound of bells faded as quickly as they had appeared. His white tassel cloak hid most of his torso and arms, revealing only ringed fingers. On his ankles, just past his black leggings, were the belled ankle bracelets that Skydancers were famous for. “Hello, kind people of Baavi!” His ankle bracelets chimed as he lightly tapped his heels together.
“Hello!” The kind people of Baavi cheered back.
“My name is Rithik, master Skydancer.” Rithik bowed, his oiled, black hair covering his face until he stood straight once again. “I have traveled far and wide but no other place makes me as happy as Baavi. And that can only be because of its people! Where else could I find such kindness?” Rithik rolled his eyes. “In Udum? Bah! Impossible.”
The crowd laughed as their neighboring village was dragged by the performer. Raahi laughed just to join in.
“It is because of that kindness that I return season after season.” Rithik said. “I am a city boy, dear Baavi. Where I am from, a man will hide his money box from his own wife. Yet here? Well.” Rithik waved imperceptibly and a young woman walked onto the stage. “I could leave my most precious treasure in your hands and I would return to find her unsullied.” He laughed. “In fact you would not return her to me! You would not trust a man who would so willingly abandon his daughter!” Rithik turned to his daughter. “Am I wrong, Asifa?”
“No, Papa.” Asifa smiled. Her own tassel cloak was the color of the noon sky. While her father’s cloak stopped just past his waist, Asifa’s cloak extended to her knees. The leggings she wore were the white of clouds and her ankle bracelets were gold – compared to her father’s silver. Raahi thought Asifa was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen.
“And so, to show how much we love this village, Asifa will be picking one of your children to be a part of our performance today!” Rithik announced to a crowd that quickly grew silent from the shock. You could not be a Skydancer without magic and no one in Baavi had that rare blessing. The villagers looked at each other, seeking comfort in familiar faces. As Raahi had no one to look at, she just stared at Asifa.
“Shall I begin searching, Papa?” Asifa asked. Once Rithik nodded, she walked to the edge of the stage. As if walking on invisible steps, Asifa descended to the ground. She momentarily stopped to wriggle her bare toes in the soft, dark ocher dirt. They were long, light brown, and, Raahi noted, had silver rings adorning them. These Skydancers were rich! “Who wears the face I seek?” Asifa asked in a sing-song voice as she walked along the crowd’s edge. “Who wears the face hiding Garuda’s blessing in their hearts? I can feel it! Such a warm strength you hold, dear child.”
Baavi’s shock increased! One of their children had magic! Who could it be? They looked at the kids now in a futile attempt to detect magic. Raahi felt people stare at her but she didn’t think much of it. It couldn’t be her. She was just Raahi, the third daughter of Velu and Amala. A shy, quiet girl with a pretty face and that’s all.
“Will you not come to me?” Asifa continued in her voice that dripped with honey. “Will you not dance with me?”
Raahi watched eagerly as Asifa got closer to her. Would she get to see the person get picked? Raahi dearly hoped so. Could it be Raja? Raahi hoped it was him. She had never talked to the boy but she thought he was handsome and had a nice smile. Plus, she knew he was very popular because of his generosity and his easy laugh. Give Raja your hand in friendship, and Raja would give you his heart is what the people of Baavi would say. They were all eager to see the kind of man he’d grow up to be. They were all… Raahi looked up as Asifa stood in front of her. The woman was even more beautiful up close. Her big, almond shaped eyes twinkled with dark amber. Raahi didn’t usually like nose piercings, but on Asifa the diamond stone looked beautiful.
“Found you.” Asifa said, in a quiet voice heard by all.
Raahi turned to each of her sides. There were only adults next to her. She looked back at Asifa and smiled nervously. “Who is it?”
Asifa laughed, her eyes shining like her nose stud. “You, daughter of Baavi! What is your name?”
Raahi responded in shock. “R-R-Raahi.”
“Raahi! Beautiful name.” Asifa held her hand out. “Come with me?”
With a push from the woman standing behind her, Raahi stumbled forward and clasped Asifa’s hand. She craned her neck back to the villagers as she was led to a tent waiting to the right of the stage. The villagers smiled encouragingly and waved her on. It didn’t do much to comfort her, but she listened to them instead of the anxiety gripping her heart. How could it be her? She was just Raahi! A mistake for sure.
Once inside the tent, Asifa let go of Raahi and crossed the carpeted floor to a large, locked chest. “We came to Baavi in the spring, Raahi. How did we miss you?”
“I didn’t come to the show then.” Raahi murmured. It surprised her that she had even managed to talk. “Umm… Miss?”
“Yes?” Asifa held up a small red tassel cloak, looked at Raahi, shook her head, then returned the cloak to the chest.
“I think…” Raahi swallowed. “I think you made a mistake. I can’t do magic.”
“Is that so?” Asifa smiled at Raahi before frowning at the yellow cloak in her hand. That too was tossed back into the chest. “How do you know?”
“I…” Raahi frowned. How did she know?
“Exactly.” Asifa said. “Trust me, little Raahi. Garuda’s blessing is in you and it is strong. With it you can dance your way to Heaven’s gates if you wished.”
Raahi’s family had lived in Baavi, and the surrounding area, for generations. They had been farmers, teachers, healers, and even chefs. Not one had magic, especially magic so rare as a Skydancer’s. That’s how she knew. If her family had someone with the blessing, she would have been told. “No one in my family is a Skydancer.”
“Genetics has nothing to do with it, though it does increase the chances.”
Raahi frowned. She didn’t know that word. “Genetics?”
“It’s your body’s language.” Asifa said. “If you read it you can learn a great many things, including who you are related to. It will give you hints at what your children will look like. It will tell you why your eyes are large and pretty and why your skin is a beautiful brown and, even, why your heart beats fast and scared whenever something unexpected happens.” Asifa smiled. “Sometimes it will tell you that you have Garuda’s blessing. Sometimes it will not. Sometimes, no matter what genetics say,” Asifa paused to hold out a small version of the tassel cloak she was holding. “You are just blessed.”
Raahi reached out and took the cloak before she realized what she was doing. The blue cloak felt like air in her hands and it was just as light. “But my Ma… She will not let me.”
“My father and I will speak to your mother about you becoming my student.” Asifa looked like she didn’t care what Raahi’s mother had to say. Her disinterest was valid as it was mandated by law that magic be nurtured, no matter the wishes of the parent. “But that can come later. For now, we dance.”
“I don’t know how!”
“That won’t matter. I will guide you.”
Raahi wasn’t sure how Asifa was so easy going. The thought continued as she let Asifa help her change into the tassel cloak. It was still too big for her so it covered her to her shins. Regardless, she was given white leggings to wear. They too were soft and felt like air. If Raahi closed her eyes she could even convince herself she was in fact naked. The thought made her cheeks warm so she banished it from her mind.
“You look beautiful, Raahi.” Asifa gently guided her to a floor length mirror. Once there, she undid Raahi’s twin tail braid, brushed it for a few moments, then began tying it into a single braid. Raahi just blushed in silence, averting her eyes from her reflection. Asifa saw this and laughed. “I used to be like you.”
Raahi didn’t believe her.
“You don’t believe me.”
Raahi’s eyes widened in shock. Could Skydancers read minds?
“I can’t read minds, Raahi.” Asifa laughed. “But I can read faces and children are the easiest of stories to read.”
“For what, sweet Raahi?” Asifa asked. “For not believing me? Do not worry. If I were you, I would not believe me.”
A small hope began growing within Raahi’s heart and it warmed her. Her timidity had always bothered her and she hadn’t known how to change. Maybe Asifa would change that. Maybe one day she too could travel the world, performing magic and find children to teach. Maybe one day she would be free.
“Now for the best part.” Asifa opened the chest once again and slid open a secret compartment. Inside it were a small pair of ankle bracelets. Mainly composed of leather, the numerous bells studding the binding were made of silver and twinkled from the simple act of being held. “These were mine when I first started learning. They are now yours.”
Amala could take one look at the ankle bracelets and tell you that selling them would feed their family for six months. And here Asifa was, just handing them away to a child she didn’t know. Raahi shook her head and put her hands behind her back, clasping them tightly.
“A Skydancer does not need these to dance.” Asifa knelt and began putting the ankle bracelets on Raahi. “Our magic is in our heart. Yet we must wear them.” She looked up at Raahi. “Do you know why?”
“No, miss.” Raahi was surprised. She had always thought Skydancers needed their ankle bracelets. Everyone thought that.
“I have just told you a secret. You must keep it.” Asifa laughed, reading Raahi’s face once again. “We wear the bracelets because the sound it makes is similar to the sound deep within a Skydancer’s heart. It is a beautiful song you will learn to hear.” Asifa finished and stood, putting her hands on Raahi’s shoulders. “A beautiful song that all deserve to experience. So we wear the ankle bracelets. Salangai. That is their true name.”
“Salangai.” Raahi repeated.
“Correct.” Asifa smiled. “Are you ready?”
“No.” Raahi shook her head rapidly, her hair whipping from side to side.
“You will be once you feel Garuda’s warmth.” Asifa took her back outside, holding the young girl’s hand. “When I reach out to you, hold my hand tight and do not let go. That is all you need to do, sweet Raahi, and my dance will take you.” She smiled. “Understand?”
Raahi had no choice but to nod. Before she knew it, they were on the stage and facing what felt like her entire village. In the forefront she saw her teacher. She was grinning and waving at her so Raahi returned the gesture with a shy wave of her own. She stopped when she saw who was standing next to her teacher. “Selvi?” She said, though her smiling sister didn’t hear. Raahi searched the crowd for another face, her second sister Shan. She couldn’t find her.
“Isn’t she beautiful?!” Rithik exclaimed, beaming down at Raahi. Seeing the girl’s nervousness, he kept a casual distance from her. “Come on, everyone. Give your daughter some applause!”
Raahi half hid behind Asifa when the wave of clapping struck her, but her anxious heart allowed her a small smile. It also permitted her to wave again, though her legs shook to the point of her knees knocking together. Asifa’s presence greatly helped. Without her, Raahi would have run all the way home by now.
“We have made you wait long enough, dear Baavi.” Rithik said once the applause died down. At a gesture, musicians hurried to the stage and quickly set up. “Stand to the side for now, child. Asifa will come to you when it is time.”
Raahi nodded and retreated in relief that attention would be taken away from her for at least a few minutes. She settled in a back corner that Asifa had pointed her to, standing with one leg crossed in front of the other and her arms crossed. It was a position that made her feel safe and protected.
Asifa stood in front of Rithik, and the man shrank to a slight crouch so he was hidden behind her. As the veena player began and the flute’s sweet whistling met their ears, Asifa began the dance by extending her hands at a high angle. Her fingers were spread save for her index finger and thumb that were curved and touching. Rithik made the same move, though his arms were spread at a low angle. From the front, where the audience was, it would look as though Asifa had four arms. As the music increased in tempo and more instruments joined in, Asifa and Rithik alternated between various angles and different gestures, their thumbs going through each finger as if counting them. The effect was mesmerizing. Let enough of reality slip away, and Asifa and Rithik would become one dancing being. Their salangai didn’t make a single sound, such was their control of their feet.
Then suddenly they began moving! Asifa twisting and spinning to the right while Rithik went to the left. The sound of bells finally came, resonating deep into Raahi. The Skydancers continued their complicated gestures and arm movements, adding to the story they were telling with their facial expressions. It was a dance of frustration, Raahi could tell. Rithik and Asifa’s faces were contorted into anguish, their wild dancing showing the true desire for their hearts to be free. Again and again the two would spread their hands to the sky or to the sides, begging Garuda to come and take them away.
The song became discordant and Rithik fell, one arm twisted awkwardly. Raahi cried, understanding that Rithik’s desire for freedom had been granted cruelly with death. Asifa fell to her knees beside her partner, her hands and face telling the story of her sadness. The song slowed, slightly, and Asifa got up. With an ocean wave hand motion indicating the wiping away of tears, Asifa danced to Raahi. In a whirl of gestures, Asifa gripped Raahi. The young girl found herself spinning with Asifa. Around the stage they went. Around and around and around, the music getting faster and faster. Their salangai sang with constant ringing. Louder than them, Raahi could hear bells deep within herself. It was the saddest, most beautiful sound she had ever heard. A song that had waited so long for Raahi to hear. A song begging for the freedom to fly. A song meant for her first, and then for anyone with Garuda’s blessing. She looked at Asifa in shock, and the woman gave her a smile only she could see.
Then they were flying. Raahi didn’t notice at first, too caught up in listening to her song. But when she felt a breeze glide through her scalp, Raahi shifted back to the outside world. The villagers exclaimed in awe as Raahi flew over them, her cloak flapping like wings. Just as intended. Asifa continued the story in the air, one hand gripping Raahi and the other going through the necessary gestures. Sometimes they flew horizontally, just a few feet above the villagers. Other times they shot straight up while spinning. Once, they even plummeted straight down towards the stage, only to veer back up at the last second. The point was made with that move, telling all that were watching that freedom had been achieved and even gravity couldn’t take it away.
When they landed, Raahi’s rapidly beating heart joined her song. A wide smile took control of her face and she showed it to Asifa. “That was amazing!”
“You were amazing, Raahi. A natural.” Asifa said, taking Rithik’s hand as he appeared next to her. As a trio, they bowed to the thunderous applause.
“Yes. A natural. A shame we did not find you last time we were here.” Rithik said.
Raahi cringed and clung to Asifa. The song in her heart got louder, so loud she could scarcely hear anything else. She wanted to cover her ears to make it quiet but she knew it would be useless as it came from deep inside her. How had she been so deaf before? “Ma…”
“What have you done, stupid girl?” Amala spat, storming onto the stage. Selvi and Shan were behind her. Selvi smiled at her encouragingly. Shan’s expression was neutral. “I permitted you to come watch the dance. Not join them!”
“I would have you mind your tone.” Rithik stood in front of Asifa and Raahi. He seemed much larger than before. “We can talk in our tent. Quickly, now. My daughter and I still have more to perform.” At a gesture from him, the musicians moved to the center of the stage to perform for the audience while he and Asifa talked with Amala.
Inside the tent, Asifa brought out cushions for them to sit on. Raahi, without thinking, sat between Rithik and Asifa. Amala scowled at her. Seeing this, Asifa put her hand on Raahi’s leg and squeezed the girl’s hand. “Raahi is a Skydancer. You cannot deny this fact. You saw it for yourself.”
“I won’t allow it.” Amala crossed her arms, her glare not leaving Raahi. “I won’t allow her to spend time with the likes of you, corrupting her mind. I made a mistake by letting her come here.”
“And I made a mistake in thinking the people of Baavi were kind.” Rithik said coolly. “The likes of us? What do you take us for, woman?!”
Amala wasn’t so dumb that she’d speak further and insult the Skydancers. But she hadn’t mastered control of her face. A face that both Asifa, Rithik, and even Raahi could read. That was enough. “As a Skydancer, Raahi will live a filled with prestige. Her comforts will be endless and no door will remain closed for her.” Asifa said. “Not even an eagle has that level of freedom.”
“A simple life will be enough for her.”
“We are speaking of Raahi, woman!” Rithik snapped. “Not you. Don’t drag your daughter down to your level just because the farthest your hands can reach are her ankles!”
Amala’s grimace turned into shock, as if she had just been slapped. To her left, Selvi covered a smile with her hand. Amala shook her head. “My husband…”
“Will have to agree as well.” Rithik said. “Has your close mindedness blinded you to the law? Even the smallest hint of magic must be nurtured. No matter the wishes of the child’s guardians. I can have officials here at a moment’s notice if you wish to argue further with me.”
“My husband isn’t in town!”
“It does not matter.” Rithik said. “Besides. It is not as though we will take Raahi with us.”
Amala could see that she wouldn’t be getting her way so she just glared at Raahi. The girl stared right back, shocking herself and her mother. “You will remain here?” Amala asked.
“I will continue travelling with my troupe. I have business to conduct and not all of it is performing.” Rithik turned to his daughter. “I will leave my treasure here with the people of Baavi. I still trust that they are kind, but I now know that even they have their exceptions. Or perhaps you are from Udum?”
“And where will your treasure live?” Amala knew she was grasping at straws.
“We have a spare room!” Selvi exclaimed before grinning sheepishly at her mother’s glare. “…Sorry.”
“Then it is settled.” Asifa smiled, squeezing Raahi’s hand again. “I will pay for room and board while I teach Raahi. She has so much potential I feel as though she will become my teacher sooner than later.”
Amala didn’t return the smile and stood, dragging Selvi and Shan up with her. “Will that be all or will you be taking my other daughters as well?”
Rithik hardly spared them a glance. “As much as I would love to, neither of them have the potential.” He smiled at Selvi. “Though this one does warm my heart with her smile. What is your name, child?”
Amala huffed and began pulling Selvi and Shan away. While leaving the tent, Selvi turned back. “My name is Selvi!”
Rithik chuckled and stood. “Come, Asifa. We must dance some more. An encore at the end, even, should the audience wish it.”
“I will be right out, Papa.” Asifa said. Once he left, she hugged Raahi. “What do you think, Raahi? Are you excited?!”
“I don’t know what to think.” Raahi said truthfully. “But I am excited. I feel like I’m dreaming. I feel like I’m going to wake up at any second and you will be gone and I will just be a normal girl again.”
“You will not be waking up, sweet Raahi.” Asifa said. “But you have in fact entered a dream. A Skydancer’s dream!”
Deep within her, Raahi’s sad song began to change. It turned hopeful, an innocent ringing that suited a child as young as her. A ringing that proudly sang of freedom. Raahi’s lips stretched into a wide, toothy grin. “I’m free!”