Little Mahal ‘Eva, leave that snake alone. It’s poisonous.’ A voice calls from the veranda to a girl who sits between two piles of crumbly, terracotta soil. The mound to her right is large and oblong, the other, the same shape but far smaller and almost unnoticeable. A snake has died between these two mounds, its sundried body curling in on itself like a question mark. Eva puts the back of her wrist across her forehead and twists around, briefly looking up in the direction of the house and the familiar voice. She stands a moment later. The cobra lies lifeless before her. Its skin, no longer a slick tessellation of scales, is clouded with dust. Its head is missing. It is a wan evening and uncomfortably warm. The voice belongs to a young woman who has swung herself round on the doorframe to call out. She hangs there, head tilting to one side and hair falling in a dark curtain as she watches the distant figure stir. Rose rights herself and steps fully outside onto the wooden veranda. She sighs, looking at the mounds. They were not there yesterday. A wooden banister runs the entire perimeter of the house; Rose leans over it and stares into the sky, appraising the unbroken blue smudges that hang above the horizon. The violet of dusk and the first stars are less than an hour away. ‘Looks like rain,’ Rose observes, a combination of doubt and hope turning her statement into a question. Still by her snake, Eva is oblivious to her elder sister’s words, and so Rose repeats it loudly. ‘I said it looks like rain tonight. Don’t the clouds look promising?’ Rose watches her sister looking down at the ground. The British-style dress she wears is stained from the hem upwards with ruddy dust; it trails limply as she turns toward the house. Her mop of dark hair straggles about her face like a frayed cap. Piki had not been there to pin it up this morning, or wash it; the fringe is streaked with grease. Eva constantly pushes it back out of her face with oily, impatient fingers and she does so again now. Rose smiles to herself, smoothing down her own hair with some satisfaction at the contrast and retreats into the house. The space between the snake and the house, the lawn area, is a crusted yellow. Today, like the day before and the day before that, has been a day of gold. The sun, a heavy disc of bronze, had shone so violently that the sky was bleached white. Inside the house the freckled inhabitants fan themselves, loosening their high collars and sinking,
lethargically, into the clammy shadows. Only Rose, Eva and the staff are unaffected; or if not entirely unaffected, are better prepared to cope. As evening creeps into dusk, the white walls of the house blush peach; a tableau as soft and unassuming as a young girl’s painting. Not like one of the British watercolours that hang inside Little Mahal’s dining room but a feverish, golden watercolour for this country, with its stringy crimson horizon and royal shadows of blue. With her feet, Eva finds the bare earth between hairy stretches that were once grass. The pads of her feet scuff the warm ground as she hops from one patch to another. She pauses occasionally, stopping to poke her toes into a particularly crumbly crack. The house casts a long shadow into the garden and here the ground is cooler. Somebody checks her halting progression to the house from a first level window. Eva looks up with wide eyes. As if suddenly cold, she wraps her arms around her body and sombrely pads toward the house. Two broad fingers part the voiles to pull the shutters closed. Much later that night when Little Mahal could be seen as a beacon for miles around, thunder announced the start of the monsoon. The heavens cracked and it rained for the first time in months. *** 29th April Before arriving at Little Mahal, I could never form a strong picture of it in my mind. When I was told it would be big, I imagined it sprawled outwards as far as the eye could see, a patchwork of buildings with hundreds of rooms, all under one roof. The journey had been a hot one, but after the sun set, everything seemed more bearable. Sanwari lightly tripped down the stairs as I was unpacked with my bags, tears sliding down her honey cheeks like the rainwater our country has not seen for many months. A flurry of little dogs ran out after her, yapping around her legs and then darting towards me. They were the kind of dogs that nosed around villages with ragged ears and wafting little tails. They yearned towards me with their goggling eyes and yipping barks, as if it was they who’d been longing for my arrival. Sanwari shooed them away with a sweeping motion of her leg. She had just finished dabbing her pointed wet eyelashes with the side of her finger, her eyes cast upwards into the sky. Placing both hands on my shoulders, she told me how glad she was to have her little sister by her side again. She was dressed differently, I noticed, and I
reached out to touch the fabric. As I did so, she leant to press her lips against my forehead; her chin left a wet mark on the bridge of my nose. An almost visible change in her mood occurred and animated by my presence, she declared that she had missed me a lot since marrying the colonel. There were too many British men in this house; she needed a companion for the long days spent amusing herself whilst the men worked. As she spoke of the house, I looked over her shoulder and up at its white walls, noticing for the first time a man who leant against a porch beam, his foot tapping the steps, though not impatiently. The sign ‘Little Mahal’ sat just above his head like a label. I smiled. Following my gaze, he looked up. ‘Dee-dee.’ I spoke for the first time. Sanwari cut over my term of endearment with a high laugh and I fell silent. She told me not to address her with old family words now she was a lady and a wife, and she was no longer called Sanwari. Her new husband wanted British names for his growing exotic collection. Revision: family. Colonel Lionel Cracknell. She spoke his full name, three syllables on Lionel, with a rehearsed musicality. ‘Here I am called Rose,’ she announced, emphasising the name with a dreamy smile, ‘It is for a beautiful girl in England. Named for a flower.’ I looked dubious, a look which she must have mistaken for jealousy. ‘Don’t worry, when he meets you, you will get a new name too.’ The newly named Rose stepped up onto the porch with a smile, and I looked up at her with a small frown, or perhaps it was with confusion. Anticipating our movements, the dogs, who had been sniffing around each other, bolted up the stairs with yaps and howls, their hard little claws tapping and scratching on the wooden steps as they clambered inside. ‘A Rose by any other name,’ the man spoke, moving down the steps with a smile. He had pressed himself against the banister as the litter of dogs stampeded by. We both looked up at him blankly, before Rose spoke. ‘Oh, Wilbur!’ She laid her hand delicately across her chest, as if he had frightened her. ‘It’s probably too late to wake the servants now, would you mind taking my sister’s bags inside?’ The man, Wilbur, pushed away from the veranda with both arms and replied genially, ‘Of course, Mrs. Cracknell.’ He immediately crossed past us, smiling an appraising smile that spread from sideburn to sideburn.
‘Say thank you to Mr. Fenton,’ Rose instructed as we passed through the door. Before I had the chance to turn around, she had ushered me inside and was asking after appa’s health. 30th April The colonel has been out since dawn on official business. Mr. Fenton stayed in his room and didn’t appear all day. He is a writer, soon to be published, Rose tells me. The colonel, her favourite topic of conversation, led an entire regiment of the British army, and was positioned out here over twenty years ago. He retains his military title despite the fact he is now involved in engineering and infrastructure. My sister is the most recent in a long string of wives (a fact she recalls several times a day), but she is his first non-British wife and, I would imagine, also the most beautiful. My first day at Little Mahal was spent exploring. It is a large house, but set in grounds that are much larger. The closest village is only a short walk away, but the house appears quite isolated being so much taller than the stubbled landscape that surrounds it. Inside the house, stairs of white wood sweep from a top floor gallery into the hall. It was here I caught my first glimpse of the colonel. He hung, lifeless at the top of the stairs. The portrait is in oils, thick and textured. He stands broad and handsome, with an equally broad and handsome sandy moustache. A line of smaller portraits follow him up the stairs: the ex-Lady Cracknells, one, two, three and four. Pinched lips, Sickly looking, Yellow teeth and Double chin. Rose pointed each of these out to me, naming each woman and the year they wed the colonel as we ascended the stairs. Rose doesn’t have a portrait. My sister wanted me dressed in the same British style, at her husband’s request, I supposed. Piki, Rose’s favourite maid, was delegated the task of preparing me for my introduction. I stood naked, looking out of the bedroom window and across the gardens, still dripping from the bath. The new dress I had been given lay fanned out across the bed, and I reached out to touch the material, leaving four wet fingertip marks on the skirt. They dried almost instantly. Piki was raking her fingers through my wet hair. I was quite capable of dressing without her help, but kept these thoughts to myself. Piki’s hands were swollen and felt rough as she helped me into my new attire. The dress was cleaner than anything I had worn before and felt tight in different places. I complained, tugging on the waistband that pressed into my chest.
‘Enough.’ Piki swatted my hand away like a lazy cat; her tone was lecturing, ‘Don’t you want to look nice?’ I retorted by sliding two fingers under the ribbon she was just tying at the nape of my neck, scratching at my scalp. For this, I received another half-hearted swat. ‘You should bachcha. You know, Colonel Cracknell treats your sister like an empress. He is a good man.’ She moved to stand in front of me, her eyebrows knitting together in a frown, ‘Other men will call you their empress, their tamed kitten. They praise your beauty and youth, but they don’t mean it you know.’ I nodded, even though I did not know. ‘Other men will…’ She looked me up and down and decided to let the sentence hang, fiddling with the lace around my neck intently. Her voice hardened. ‘With your sister, they mean it. It’s because she is beautiful he wants to keep her. And she still has many years before it runs out.’ A futile warning. Piki is quite attractive, if you overlook the high forehead and the small eyes and full lips that don’t quite match up. For a young girl of average build she is also remarkably round about the middle. The colourful, woven tunic she wore was baggy, but I could tell. No wonder she is jealous of my sister. After my dark cap of hair had been brushed into submission and the dress laced, Piki pinched my cheeks between her fingers and massaged the spot with her thumb, spreading a flush across my cheeks. I looked into her face as she worked on mine. She looked tired for someone who was only just leaving girlhood. Somebody really needs to pinch her cheeks. My new dress is too white. It will be very easy to dirty. 1st May Piki was not here to dress me this morning and my sister left with her. Everything seems quiet, and not right. It’s like the moment of silence after something smashes to the ground, or a scream is suddenly cut short. The silence this morning rings with the aftermath of last night. Mr. Fenton has volunteered to stay at Mahal to keep me company again. But I am getting ahead of myself; let me rewrite this from the beginning. The night before, after Piki had washed and dressed me, we went downstairs to the drawing room. As I stood outside the door I implored her to come in with me. She stepped forward, casting a short rounded shadow over the door. ‘I am coming in.’ A smile of relief.
‘I do most evenings,’ she added pointedly. Piki’s presence, no matter how cold, reassured me. ‘Go on then.’ She pushed me from behind as I tried to lean backwards into her cushiony body, forcing her to enter first. ‘I will follow,’ She opened the door with the other hand and pressed me forwards. The room was beautiful and foreign to me. Dark wooden furniture lined the red walls. At one end there was a large fireplace, unlit. This room, thick with the scent of spice and tobacco, contrasted starkly to the airy body of the house. The colonel was sitting with my sister on the seating angled toward the unlit fire. He is a large man, with a deep colouring across his cheeks and nose. Most noticeably, he sports an impressive collection of facial hair. The portrait doesn’t do his three dimensional presence justice. Both his eyebrows and moustache seem to grow beyond the perimeters of his face. There was a round piece of glass in his eye that glinted as he looked up. I stepped into the room, unable to keep from staring at him. ‘Ah!’ the colonel exclaimed, ‘And this must be the newest lady of my household.’ His face was very red, brighter than the walls, and there were plum coloured stains in little semi-circles beneath his eyes. He gestured towards me with his empty glass. ‘And all dressed up as an English rose like her sister.’ Rose smiled smugly at the mention of her namesake, reaching one hand to pat the hair which wound around the nape of her neck in plaits. ‘Don’t just stand there, come in, come in.’ As I walked a few steps further into the room, I was aware of Piki following behind and closing the door. ‘Ah, good, yes,’ the colonel reasoned with himself as he looked past me and addressed the maid, ‘We’ll have brandy, the good stuff: Delamain.’ I stood awkwardly on display until Mr. Fenton moved across the couch to make room for me. ‘Yes, yes, you must sit.’ The colonel pointed to the space as if the gesture had been his. I took a seat beside Mr. Fenton as the colonel scrutinised. ‘Not much like my wife are you?’ I was used to this comparison. There were very few girls that looked like Rose, and the ones that did were expensive. The colonel continued when I didn’t respond, ‘But she is glad for the company.’ ‘I’m glad for the female company,’ Rose replied, as if issuing a correction. ‘I know a lot of ladies I could have invited,’ the colonel began, patting Rose’s knee with some force, ‘but they are all quite old. Besides, family is better for her.’ He looked me up and down, ‘And you’re such a scrap of a thing I doubt you’ll get in the way much,
will you?’ I shook my head firmly. ‘Ha!’ the colonel gave a loud laugh, and Piki clinked together the glasses in fright. ‘I didn’t think so, didn’t think so.’ The colonel took out a pipe and, with his mouth occupied in this new task, I took the opportunity to avert my eyes from his face for the first time since he had addressed me. In this interval, Piki carried over the drinks. The heat had given the amber liquid a strong aroma. I could smell the heady vapours as Piki’s trembling hand leaned across me to pass Mr. Fenton his glass. Her face was dotted with beads of sweat. The colonel, finished with his pipe preparations, had relocated to a closer seat. Rose walked over, perching on the arm of the chair. The colonel smiled up at her, then looked back at me. ‘So, what is your name?’ he asked in between puffs of his pipe. I told him my name and he repeated it thoughtfully, clipping the vowels in his British way that made it sound like an alien word. ‘Different,’ he concluded. ‘Well that won’t do, what do you think Rose?’ He gesticulated toward me with a wave of his pipe, and she shrugged in indifference. ‘How about another English flower hmm? A small one? A little shrinking violet, or a daisy perhaps.’ Rose pursed her lips as if about to oppose when Mr. Fenton spoke up in his deep, level voice. ‘Perhaps her name should be Eve, after the first woman.’ The colonel stuck out his bottom lip, nodding his head slightly as he considered the suggestion. ‘Tempting…’ A pause, before the colonel chortled at his own inadvertent joke. ‘Tempting!’ he repeated, a short blast of laughter following. I smiled blankly, as did Rose. ‘After another little help-meet are we Wilbur? Do I not provide you with enough paid help-meets?’ He laughed again, a deep throaty laugh, then drained his drink. We all looked toward the door where Piki stood with her hands clasped before her. Mr. Fenton did not look around, but murmured in agreement, sipping at his brandy before answering. ‘I want for nothing in your household, Cracknell, you take good care of me.’ Pleased by this remark, the colonel turned a slightly deeper shade of red. ‘We’ll have you as an Eva then. Young Eva. Won’t have to worry about any temptations that way, will we? How about it, Eva?’ I watched the ends of his moustache twitch as he spoke my new name. I nodded, assenting, leaving my old name behind like the abandoned skin of a snake. Naming out of the way, the colonel leaned forward in his armchair to wave his empty glass at Piki. Settling back, he set the glass down where there wasn’t a table and it banged to the ground, miraculously whole. I jumped and tensed. Mr Fenton felt me stiffen
and he laid a large hand on mine in reassurance. The colonel, guffawing at his own mistake, had inhaled on his pipe at the same time and was currently choking. Rose rubbed his back as he turned a dangerous shade of vermillion. I giggled and Rose threw me a dark look. ‘Alright there Cracknell?’ Fenton enquired, ‘Mrs. Cracknell seems to have it under control but if you need a good hard slap on the back…’ ‘I’m… just… fine… old boy.’ The colonel wheezed in between bouts of coughing. Leaving Rose to pet and fuss, Mr. Fenton, whose hand still lay on my own, asked me whether it was nice to live with my sister again. I replied that it was very nice and that I had missed her at home. ‘I suppose home must be very different for you, that is, compared to Little Mahal?’ I had been happy living at home with appa and my other siblings, but here it was bigger, and more beautiful. I told him so. The colonel had recovered from his fit of coughing and was slowly returning to his natural shade of puce. He cut across our conversation. ‘And how’s the writing going?’ he asked Mr. Fenton, who swiftly removed his hand from mine as he was addressed. ‘I hope our little interviews have helped with the details?’ In the conversation that followed, I found out that Mr. Fenton had kept diaries when he served under the colonel years ago when they were first positioned out here. It was these he was publishing. I wondered if he had many adventures in his diaries. Now, sat between them, watching their conversation, I wondered how many of my people they had each killed; how many terrible things they had both done that nobody knew about, or that people knew about but didn’t care about, because the people they had hurt meant nothing. They were girls with no future anyway. I didn’t like to think of the bad things they could have done and consoled myself with the fact that no-one would want to read Mr. Fenton’s work if he was a killer. He would have to be a hero in his stories. In history. ‘I’m just writing things up in order, now that you’ve helped to fill in the blanks,’ Fenton tapped a finger on the rim of his empty glass. ‘It’s the little details that count. I’ll be done within the week.’ He glanced at me, just for a second. It was barely discernable. ‘Perhaps a little longer.’ ‘Good, good,’ the colonel replied. Unlike Rose, he was oblivious to our exchange of looks. ‘Of course, the details are most important. No-one will believe anything without the details. And it’s not that I want you to leave my dear boy, that’s not why I’m asking at
all. I’ve enjoyed reminiscing about my hey-day; it’s surprising how much you forget when it is not all written down.’ Then there were three loud smashes in succession. The colonel swivelled in his chair with a speed I did not think him capable of, dislodging Rose from her perch. Piki was leaning forward onto a small table, gripping onto the edge so tightly that her knuckles looked as white as her face. I followed her legs down to the smashed glass and the sienna liquor that trickled between the shards in sticky streams. Two things happened almost simultaneously. Piki glanced up at us in shock and water burst from between her legs. It was comically sudden, like tossing a bucket of dirty water into the street. The water seeping from Piki only just hit the ground before her eyes rolled back into her head, her grip loosened on the table and she collapsed backwards to the floor. ‘Dear God!’ the colonel exclaimed. He jumped to his feet to join Rose, who was already by Piki’s side. We crowded around her body. Mr. Fenton’s complexion had a greenish hue. ‘She needs hot towels, and water,’ Rose instructed, as confident in giving orders as her military husband. Her eyes found Mr. Fenton’s, who left the room immediately. ‘This glass, it’s dangerous,’ Rose addressed me next, ‘there—around her legs and face. If we just sweep it to the side.’ The glass tinkled as I began brushing it away from the motionless body. Rose continued to issue instructions: ‘Darling, someone needs to go down to the kitchens and see if Manjira is still up, if not, get her from the servants’ quarters. Wake her up.’ Piki gave a low moan. ‘She’s done this before.’ The colonel dashed out. Only the three women were left in the room now. There was an acrid smell of liquor, tobacco and sweat. Rose knelt beside Piki, one hand placed gently on her prominent stomach whilst the other wiped slick strands of hair from her forehead. Piki was only just awake; her face dripping in sweat. Blood ran from the cheek where she had fallen heavily on shards of glass. Rose began sweeping the rest of the glass and watery liquor away from Piki’s body with her bare hands. As Mr Fenton re-entered the room, Piki convulsed and gave a loud scream that turned into a growl. She arched her back, thrust her stomach into the air and clawed at the wet ground with her fingers. I watched with wide, glassy eyes. She looked sick and fearful, like a rabid dog.
Mr Fenton handed several towels to Rose who, despite her initial calmness, was now crying silently. Her hair had fallen loose of the neat plaits and she brushed it away with the back of her arm. Piki whimpered like a wounded animal. Slowly, a scarlet inkblot spread across her tunic from between her legs; it mixed with the bright oranges and greens of the fabric turning them a rusty brown. I was crying, and had been for a while now. I was scared that Piki would froth at the mouth and bite Rose. ‘Piki?’ Rose spoke her name as a question, as if the writhing, blood-covered girl who lay in a puddle on the floor was perhaps not her. The colonel returned with Manjiri. She looked flustered, her grey hair not quite contained by her headscarf. ‘Move, move, let me.’ She bustled through the men to join Rose and began barking instructions in the local dialect. There was no time for the splitsecond a translation took. ‘Eve, Evie? Come on.’ A strong arm wrapped around my shoulders, leading me from the room. My head rotated, eyes unable to leave the outline of Piki’s body. Mr. Fenton pulled me close to him. The shock must have made me cold. I asked what was wrong with Piki. He didn’t answer. Allowing myself to be led upstairs, we passed the portraits of the deceased Lady Cracknells. When we reached the main bedroom corridor, off from the gallery, I stopped letting him lead me and paused. Sensing the mute resistance, Fenton looked down at me for a moment. Properly looked at me, considering. I pushed my fringe out of my eyes so I could look back. He threw a glance back down the stairs, and then opened the closest door. The first door on the landing happened to be the door to his room. I walked in ahead. A large bed with translucent hangings was the main feature of the room. Rose and the colonel shared a similar one. A cluttered writing desk was pushed up against the near wall and wide windows overlooked the garden. They were open; the voiles fluttered inwards in the paltry evening breeze. Piki’s screams could still be heard echoing throughout the house. I could still see her and the panic etched into her face. There was the feeling of guilt, but the silver lining of opportunity. Mr. Fenton was here, and everyone else was occupied downstairs. He was being kind by offering to look after me. I sat down on the edge of his bed; my toes, only just grazing the floor, traced little circles. Mr. Fenton sat beside me, and I began to ask him a question.
‘Call me Wilbur, Evie,’ he paused before saying my new name. It sounded childish when he said it like that. I told him that wasn’t my name. Either of my names. He said he preferred it that way. I was right. The white dress I wore that night had been easy to dirty. As I write, it is hanging over the back of a chair, stained red. It should be taken to the servants to be washed, but I will hide it instead. I still don’t know what happened to Piki, whether she is alive or not. Rose will tell me when they return. Perhaps I will spend some time in the gardens before Mr. Fenton wakes up again. It has been quiet today, with only the two of us in the house. He showed me a snake that lives in the far corner of the garden, in the roots of a banyan tree. It is a snake the servants would have killed, the naja naja. It would kill me, except we both know it is too hot to do anything during the day. It raises the front half of its body, and I just look at it, and it just looks at me. I feed it small rodents and birds from the gardens that have already died from the heat. I place them between the rough roots that plunge into the ground, forming the network of little pathways where the naja naja lives. The naja naja considers my offerings with its little bead-like eyes, but always waits until I am gone before it eats. If no one is around I will go back into the drawing room and see if the mess on the floor has been cleaned up. Later Wilbur came and found me in the garden; I had been on my hands and knees, looking under the veranda of the house for dead insects. My snake was hungry. The dogs lay slumped on the wooden slats of the veranda, panting in the shade and following my movements with half closed eyes. One half-heartedly yapped when Wilbur came out to say it was too hot to stay outside; everyone was wilting. And so I left the naja naja unfed and went inside with him. His room was the coolest in the house and I lay on his bed, watching him write his stories at the desk. My dress was dirtied, and so I had to change it once again. Rose will assume it was from crawling around in the dust outside. I need a red dress that won’t show up stains. Afternoon
When Rose returned with the colonel later that afternoon I was in my own bedroom and could see them in the distance, returning with a bullock-cart in tow. A body wrapped in a white sheet bumped up and down the dirt path. By the time the cart had reached the front of the house I was already on the porch, standing underneath the Little Mahal sign. Wilbur, too, must have heard their approach, because he appeared in the doorway behind me. Rose’s voice was high and shrill; I could hear her before I could see her properly. ‘Why, why would you put her in the ground?’ ‘It is respectful-’ ‘It is not respectful and it is not what we do. She would not have wanted it this way. Believe me, I wouldn’t and I know she wouldn’t.’ ‘This is what we do.’ ‘You bury your dead, in your own garden?’ ‘Sometimes,’ Rose looked shocked at this concept; one eyebrow had risen. The colonel continued, ‘My close friend, Rover, we buried him in my garden.’ ‘Well,’ Rose did not have a response to this. ‘She was a servant. She had no family, and the cause of her death?’ The colonel was flustered. His ears had turned red with the exertion of defending his point. ‘Don’t you think I have shown her respect by bringing her back here? Or would you rather I tossed the girl in a ditch?’ Whether it was because Rose had seen Mr. Fenton and I standing close by, or the colonel’s last statement had an impact, her demeanour abruptly changed. ‘Of course, of course you show her respect. Thank you for bringing her home with us. We can bury her if you think that is best. It will be a permanent reminder.’ She turned from the colonel, looking behind me, ‘Perhaps Mr. Fenton should help you.’ ‘Yes, yes. Well I do think that’s best,’ the colonel seemed surprised to have won the argument so suddenly. He beckoned Mr. Fenton toward him, and Rose came over to stand by me, her lips pressed in a thin line. I asked her what was wrong and she paused before answering, looking down at me tenderly. ‘Nothing, nothing is wrong Evie. You are alright? Here with Mr. Fenton?’ I nodded slowly, my eyes flicking between Wilbur, the cart and the shrouded corpse. ‘Piki died,’ Rose told me quietly. ‘We took her to the next village last night but it was too late. I stayed with her until she died, early this morning.’ She paused, ‘The colonel wants her buried here, in Little Mahal.’ I had already guessed all this. I asked her what had killed Piki, and why the men were not cremating her. She shook her head, her long dark hair brushing
against the side of my face. ‘She died… of complications. Sometimes with women, we die of complications. And the colonel does not want to burn her because it is not his way. Their way is to put their dead into the ground.’ Her nose wrinkled in distaste and she inhaled deeply, soaking in the openness of the air as if to reassure herself. The colonel was pointing to the far end of the garden, the snake end, and Wilbur was nodding. ‘Go and say goodbye to her. Say a prayer.’ Rose instructed, leading me toward the cart. We were close enough to the men to hear what they were saying; the colonel was still telling Fenton what had happened. ‘… she was fevered all night. Talking a lot of nonsense half the time. Rose stayed with her. I thought it was best for another woman to comfort her, you know, considering-’ ‘Darling.’ Rose cut across the colonel, ‘I would like to speak with Mr. Fenton when you are finished digging the graves.’ I moved away from them and towards the cart apprehensively, glad that the body was wrapped in a sheet. It was as if any moment the off-white cloth would begin to unravel, and she would emerge like a moth, stretching her downy wings. Moth Piki would bat at the shutters of Little Mahal trying to get to the light. The sun felt hot on the back of my arm as I reached out a hand and touched the sheet that covered her. It was rough, but I could feel her body soft beneath it. I frowned, noticing another cocoon of sheets, only two hand spans in length, swaddled beside Piki. The sheet of this smaller moth was whiter. I almost offered a moth to the naja naja earlier today, having found one the size of my curled fist out on the veranda, just before Wilbur called me inside. I whispered my prayers. I stayed to whisper two. I said a third for myself as I went inside with Rose. Under the sun, the men laboured, digging two graves in the dry, hard earth. Evening I did not see Wilbur after the men came inside, dusty and sweat-soaked from the exertion of digging. Rose stayed by my side for the rest of the day. We ate together. We cleaned the drawing room in silence. Mr. Fenton came to help but Rose sent him away, telling him that what they were doing was women’s work. Grave-digging is a man’s work, she said. Wilbur said he would return to his writing. Rose agreed that that was also man’s work. She said she still needed to talk with him later.
Later All is still now. It is near midnight. This is the man’s work. Not only the graves I have dug. The words I have written. He can’t even write himself in as the hero of his stories, God knows I’ve tried. I never wrote the colonel’s war diaries, but what I have written is worse. Perhaps I will burn this sheet of paper, along with the many others I have started in the same way. He has filled a book with false stories. He is a character in his own story. He can write away the truth. They say that to write is a compulsion; that a writer must write even if he hates what appears on paper before him. Writing is not his compulsion. Writing is his escape and his innocence and his fantasy. And it has all gone up in flames. When I have finished writing, writing these words, I will walk to the window. The air is full of fine dust; his shadow already begins to flicker against the wall, preceding him. The garden extends from the house, its edges blending into sky. His edges dwindle. Paper, room, and girl: they lose their solidarity and retire into hot shadows. *** The fire advances quickly. It seems to follow human pathways, spreading from the bedrooms, creeping along the corridor and edging down the stairs. Little Mahal is a paper house, with neat creases and folds just waiting to be flattened. The upstairs windows are robed in gold. The relentless sun has dried the roof and walls to tinder. Now, it roars a violent orange against a sky of tarnished pewter. There are no stars, no moon, no lesser lights. The only light comes from Little Mahal which shimmers as if a mirage, the miraculous oasis appearing on the horizon. Inside, the first Lady Cracknell catches on fire, the flames erasing her face as if she never was. The frame smashes to the floor, other frames follow suit. Wallpaper curls down from the walls like fruit peel, and rafters begin to collapse in on themselves, blackened, snapping like brittle bones. Three shadowy figures look on from the bottom of the garden, their faces thrown into pinkish relief. The colonel stands close to his young wife, her long eyelashes casting spiky shadows across her forehead as she stares into the blazing house. A little girl holds her hand, the flames reflecting in her wide glassy eyes. She looks as if she is peering into hell.
The whole estate is lit with a sickly glow. From somewhere the other side of the house, the servants holler. Cracknell! Mrs. Rose! Miss Eva! The colonel shouts back, and several of the young male servants run towards them, giving the house a wide birth. They exchange breathy, ragged questions, each asking the other who is unscathed. The servants’ quarters, it appears, are unaffected. ‘Where’s Mr. Fenton?’ one asks, looking around. ‘I don’t know,’ the colonel replies. ‘He could still be inside, we didn’t see him leave.’ The servants do not question this, one even shrugs. Rose hugs Eva tightly, her eyes finding two recently dug graves. ‘Where did it start?’ The servant asks instead. ‘I don’t know.’ The colonel repeats. ‘It started up there, in his room.’ Rose declares, turning her gaze to the top of the house. No-one asks her which room she means. ‘It’s those papers all over his desk. I’ve seen them.’ ‘What papers? His book?’ this from the colonel. ‘I don’t know,’ she admits, ‘We cannot read your alphabet. We were not taught.’ More flames, just pin pricks, bob in the distance. The villagers could not miss Little Mahal like this. Perhaps they are coming to help. Perhaps they are coming to watch. Eva wanders off slightly, looking down at a headless snake with a childish fascination. She wonders where its head could be. If only I could have fed it that moth, she thinks. She remains silent as always, leaving the adults to their heated British words. The fire drowns out the sound of conversation, the dogs’ howls and the shouts of villagers who are descending the drive. Little Mahal can be seen as a beacon for miles around when the thunder announces the start of the monsoon. The heavens crack and it rains for the first time in months. EMMA VINCE