The golden-skinned creature danced gaily under the surface of the metallic mirror. Its long curly hair bounced in rhythm with its movement, and its gown blew around, as though caressed by a breeze.
Kavi pushed her glasses up her nose and peered into the leaf-shaped bronze mirror, tightly clutching its ornately carved handle. No, she did not imagine it. The creature was very much visible in the mirror, where her reflection should have been. It waved at her and continued its jiggling.
“What are you doing here?” Someone spoke from behind her.
Kavi dropped the mirror on the dressing table, where it landed with a thud. Her grandmother stood at the doorway, looking grumpier than usual. Her white hair was tied up in a messy knot, and her cotton sari was as stiff as cardboard.
“Did you break it?”
Kavi shook her head. The mirror was still intact, but the figure in it had disappeared. It reflected the purple tin of talcum powder standing beside it, her grandmother’s only cosmetic item.
“I didn’t do anything,” Kavi mumbled as she squeezed out of the door, passing the still scowling old lady.
Kavi was not supposed to be in her grandmother’s bedroom, but the temptation had gotten the better of her. She was told too often not to step into that room. Naturally, she had to find out what was so forbidden, and guess she discovered the secret on the first try. Her grandmother possessed a magical mirror.
In the long decade that had been her life, Kavi had seen her grandmother only twice. The first time was when she was brought out of the delivery room wrapped in a white and pink cloth by a purposeful-looking nurse. Kavi knew precisely what had happened because she had seen the video of that occasion ‘millions of times.’ She had stared at her grandmother wide-eyed, while the elderly woman had precariously held her as though she was extremely fragile. In another moment, the baby had burst out crying, and the nurse took her away.
Kavi had lived in New Jersey for the most part of her life, but five years ago, she had visited India with her parents to celebrate her grandmother’s seventieth birthday. Kavi had never known anyone so unhappy at their own birthday. Her grandmother was not at all pleased with all the fuss being made around her. She didn’t even talk to Kavi.
This year Kavi was visiting her sprawling ancestral home in Kerala for the summer break. The only residents of the house were her grandmother and an even older lady who helped her. Kavi had not wanted to come. Her parents had insisted. Kavi was supposed to know her roots, but there was nothing to do in the house. She had no cousins, no friends, and no proper internet connection. It was destined to be a dull visit. That was until now.
Her mother had gone to visit all her childhood friends. Kavi would be alone with her grandmother for another six hours. And after lunch, Gran and her Lady Friday would retire for their daily nap. That is when she would search the rest of the house for any other sign of magic.
So, when her tummy was satisfied by a meal of boiled rice, spicy fried fish, and a mish-mash curry of vegetables, Kavi crept away. No one would be able to find her in the numerous rooms of the house. With that consoling thought, she raided all the unused bedrooms. The cupboards held dusty books written in her mother tongue—Malayalam. She couldn’t understand a word. If they held secrets, secrets they must remain. Cardboard boxes were piled on wooden bedsteads. Some of them contained moldy old clothes, and others held broken frames with faded photographs. She examined the latter closely. No, the figures in them weren’t moving. Not magical.
The sitting room was clean and bare, and the kitchen was locked. Shaking her head, Kavi walked to the final location, the attic. It should have been her first and obvious choice, as it held as many mysteries in it as did her grandmother’s bedroom. However, there was no way she could have opened its heavy door without help. She stood at the bottom of the precarious wooden stairs that led up to the attic and raised her head to the ceiling.
The door was already open. Was somebody up there? Maybe the electrician who had come in earlier to do some repairs had left it open. Or did her grandmother go up there to hide something and forget to close the door? Kavi placed a barefoot on the stair, and it creaked, though not loud enough to alert anyone. A voice in her head, which sounded very much like her mother’s, warned her against going up the stairs. She firmly shushed it and continued climbing.
The heavy door was leaning at an angle to the floor of the attic. Kavi held on to it and hauled herself up into the dark, chilly room. She had been up here only once before with her mother. There had been a light bulb, but where was its switch? She debated whether she should try to find the light or go back down. It wouldn’t do to back off now. This was her golden opportunity. She would never again be able to get into the attic unaccompanied. Another step and her foot caught a round object with limbs sticking out of it. She toppled to the floor.
“Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me,” Kavi cried. Surely it was the creature she saw in the mirror. She could vaguely make out its shape as it rolled toward her. She backed toward the attic door and hit it. It slammed shut.
Kavi whimpered as she got up and scampered to a wall, frantically examining it for a switch. There it was. The yellow fluorescent bulb dimly lit the room, and no living creature was in sight. What she had stumbled over was an unpeeled coconut with twigs sticking out of its head. It must have rolled away from its family that was heaped in a corner.
Once the giggling started, Kavi found it hard to stop. This would be a funny tale to recount to her classmates, if she ever got out of there alive. The door was now firmly shut. There was a rusty metal ring on top of it, but even before pulling it, Kavi knew that it wouldn’t budge to her strength.
“Mom,” she screamed.
“Ammumma.” Her voice was slightly lower as she called her grandmother in her native tongue. She wouldn’t like to be discovered in the attic like a thief by her grandmother. Still, it was definitely better than staying here for all eternity or dying up here.
There was no answer, no footsteps, and no attempts to push open the trap door.
She did not cry out again. The two elderly inhabitants of the house would be enjoying their habitual nap, and screaming would be futile. She could try after a few hours. And wouldn’t her mother look for her once she returns? Mom couldn’t afford to go around losing her kids, seeing that she only had one—Kavi.
The floor was rough and dusty, but Kavi spread an old sheet of newspaper and sat down. Wooden crates were stacked in one corner and misshapen copper vessels and coconuts in another. Kavi didn’t feel like peeking into them even if all the occult books in the world were hidden in those crates. Her overactive imagination had fooled her into getting trapped in the attic. The mirror was not magical, and her grandmother was not hiding a mystical creature.
A muffled giggle came from behind the boxes.
“Who is there?”
“Someone you know, but someone you don’t know,” came the squeaky reply.
“What do you mean? Show yourself.” Kavi tried to keep her voice steady because that was what heroes did when they faced unknown dangers, but she couldn’t control the shivering of her chin.
“I showed myself earlier, but obviously, you didn’t like me.”
“Are you the one I saw in the mirror?” Kavi asked softly, standing on her fours and peering into the darkness. “I didn’t not like you. I thought you were wonderful, but you went away. Do you belong to Gran?”
A rotund figure crept out from behind the boxes and stood under the pale light. It was shorter than her and its body was not golden as it had appeared in the mirror, but it emitted a faint glow which grew brighter the longer Kavi stared at it. On closer inspection, it looked a lot like her. Its chin protruded out exactly like Kavi’s, and its hair was also black and curly. However, its pointy nose gave it a non-human appearance.
“I don’t belong to anyone, but I take care of your Gran.” It waddled toward her, twisting its hair with one long finger. The hem of the tiny polka-dotted gown bobbed above its knees. “She has been my only friend.”
“Oh, then she does know you exist,” Kavi exclaimed. She couldn’t make out how old the thing was, but it didn’t seem as old as Gran. Nor was it a child.
“She once knew me.” It sighed. “But it’s been years since she has talked to me. I doubt whether she could see me anymore. Or maybe she is willfully ignoring me. I greet her whenever she looks into her mirror, but she never says hello anymore.”
“That is sad. She can be grumpy, you know.”
“No, never that. And even if you didn’t ask me, my name is Maari.”
“Maari, can you help me get out of this place?”
“Why do you want to get out of this place? Isn’t it nice in here?”
Kavi wasn’t so sure. For one thing, there was no food to be had or water to quench the thirst she had worked up while searching the house. More than that, she thought that her heart that had started pounding at the sight of the creature—Maari—would relax if she could only get down to broad daylight.
She was not exactly afraid of Maari. It had kind eyes and a serene face—not the features of a monster, but still, it was strange to talk to something that was not a human being, or animal for that matter. It would have been all right if she was talking to an animal. She knew animals existed. But what was this glowing thing?
“Do you live up here?”
“Not always. Only when Ambili doesn’t need me.”
So it was on a first-name basis with Gran.
“How do you take care of Gran if she doesn’t see you?”
“She keeps losing things, you know. Forgets where she has placed stuff and searches the whole house for them. I find those things and leave them where she can plainly see. She is often surprised but pleased and relieved to find them. Only yesterday, I helped her find her checkbook, which she had hidden under some clothes and forgot. But it would be so nice if she could just see me again.”
“I can tell her about you.”
“If you let me out.”
“I wouldn’t know how to. I can get in or out any time, but I don’t think you can do that.”
“How do you get in when the door is closed?”
“I just wish I could be here or there, and I am here or there. I came now because I heard you scream.”
Kavi closed her eyes and fervently wished to be downstairs. Nothing happened.
“I am not magical.” She sighed.
“Neither am I,” Maari said.
Creak, creak, creak. Someone was coming up the attic steps.
“Is somebody up there?” A doubtful voice asked.
“Yes, yes. It is me, Kavi.”
The door was pushed open, and her grandmother’s head popped up through the gap.
“Thank God you came looking for me, or else I would have stayed here all my life.” Kavi hugged her grandmother.
“I doubt that,” her grandmother said, squinting at the place where Maari stood. “Who were you talking to?”
“Do you see her, Gran?”
“Who is that? I don’t see anybody other than you.”
Kavi glanced at Maari, whose huge grey eyes were quite watery now. Even as she stared, Maari faded away, becoming one with the light.
“Turn off the light and come down. I won’t ask how you ended up here, but I hope you will never repeat it. Do you know how dangerous it could have been if I hadn’t thought of looking for you?”
Her grandmother droned on as Kavi switched the light off and carefully clambered down the steps. It hadn’t looked this steep when she was climbing up.
“Why did you look for me?” Kavi asked once she was on firm ground.
“I couldn’t find my mirror. Did you take it?”
“No, it was on your dressing table.”
“It’s not there now.”
“Let me see.” Kavi ran ahead of her grandmother into the forbidden bedroom. The bronze mirror lay exactly where she had left it. Her grandmother was forgetful but not blind. How did she not see that mirror lying there?
“Psst… I had hidden it,” a voice said from under the bed, “so that she would come looking for you.”
Kavi bent low. Maari was lying on her stomach, propping up her chin with her hands.
“Come out of there,” Kavi said. “Gran won’t see you. So why are you hiding?”
“I am not hiding. This is another of my favorite haunts. This was where Ambili and I always played.”
“Can you call her Gran or Ammumma? It feels odd when you say her name, as though you are as old as her.”
“Oh, I am older than her.”
“Who are you talking to?” Gran was panting slightly as she entered the room. She tried to look under the bed but couldn’t bend too low.
“If I tell you, you will think I am crazy,” Kavi said.
“Try me. Come, sit here.” Gran patted the bed.
“Am I allowed to sit here? Mom said you didn’t like anybody touching your bed.”
“I will make an exception for now.”
So Kavi sat cross-legged on the creaseless sheet beside her grandmother and related everything that had happened since she had picked up the bronze mirror. Gran’s face was emotionless as she listened, and her eyes were fixed on her wrinkled fingers. Kavi explained how she eventually got trapped in the attic, where she met Maari.
“You said that name earlier,” Gran interrupted. “Maari. There is no one by that name here.”
“But she says she knows you, and she is under the bed now.”
“What?” Gran clutched the side of the bed and looked underneath.
“She is gone again,” Kavi said, after imitating her grandmother’s action. “But don’t worry. She is not a ghost. She helps you. See, there is the mirror. She got it back for you. And yesterday, she helped you find your checkbook.”
Her grandmother took in a long breath. “Did your mother tell you about the checkbook? And you ran back here to replace the mirror before I came in, right? I should have encouraged your mother to take you to Disneyland instead of visiting me. I knew you would entertain yourself by driving me crazy.” It was said calmly, but Gran’s eyes were cold.
“I am not trying to drive you anything.” Kavi gaped unblinkingly at her grandmother.
The latter held her head high. “If you have such a wild imagination, you must write a book. Don’t try to confuse others with such ridiculous tales.”
Kavi jumped down from the bed and rushed out of the room. She would never talk to Gran ever again. She stayed in her room until the outer world was blanketed in darkness. Once or twice, her grandmother called her to drink her evening quota of milk. She refused to answer, bolting the door from inside. No one knocked, and no glowing figure appeared.
Just before dinner was served, her mother returned from her outing. Kavi unbolted the door as soon as she heard her mother’s voice. She had a lot to tell Mom. No, not about Maari or the strange metallic mirror, but that Gran was rude and that she didn’t want to stay there even for one more day. Mom can cozy up with Gran if she wants, but Kavi would like to return to the States. She could travel alone, and Dad could pick her up from the airport.
“How was your day, baby?” Her mother asked after dropping several shopping bags on the bed. She tried to tame her shoulder-length hair into a ponytail but then gave it up as a lost cause and let it lay there in all its glorious frizz. “All my friends sent gifts for you. Do you want to check them?”
“All right,” Kavi said. She could go back to the States after looking through the gifts. The traditional dresses with gold and silver embroidery awed her, and the wooden chess set soothed her nerves. She almost forgot how irritated she was with Gran. Almost.
“Mom, I don’t want to stay here.”
“Why? What is the problem with this room?”
“Not this room… in this house… with Gran.”
“Do you know how annoying she is?”
“She is my mother, Kavi.”
“She has had a hard life, and now she is all alone. That is what makes her a bit… you know…”
“Don’t say that. Now come and have dinner.”
“That’s all that I have done after coming here. Eat.”
“Tomorrow, I will take you out. We will go to our ancestral temple. Do you know I spent all my childhood in this house? So did your Gran. You are the first one in four generations who have no childhood memories here.”
“Mom, have you ever seen anything strange around this house?” If her mother had spent so many years in this house, wouldn’t she have spotted Maari somewhere?
“What kind of strange?”
“Anything glowing or disappearing?”
Her mother raised an eyebrow. She would think exactly what Gran thought—Kavi was making up stories to fill her time.
“Do you mean fireflies?” asked her mother.
“Maya… Maya.” Her grandmother was shouting from the other side of the house.
“What now?” her mother muttered.
Kavi followed her at a safe distance. Maybe Gran wanted to complain about the incidents of the afternoon. If so, it will be safer to slip away and hide for a while.
“Look what she has done now,” Gran said from inside her bedroom.
Kavi knew that ‘she’ was her. She hadn’t done anything.
Gran was holding the metallic mirror, which sported a crack through its center. “She broke it. My great-grandmother’s mirror. She broke it.”
“She was playing with it the whole afternoon,” Gran said.
“But I didn’t break it. You saw it when I last left the room.”
“How do I know when you last left the room? I was in the prayer room until now.”
“And I was in my room.”
“Amma,” Kavi’s mother addressed Gran in a soothing voice. “This mirror wouldn’t have cracked just like that.”
“Don’t I know that?” Gran was on the warpath.
“It would require some force. I don’t think Kavi did it.”
“I didn’t,” Kavi said and ran away.
“Kavi, come back here.”
No. Kavi would do nothing of the sort. Her mother could have been more forceful in her defense of her. Why didn’t she say that she was sure Kavi didn’t do it?
Kavi pulled out her travel bag from under the old four-poster bed and unzipped it. Maari jumped out of it, and Kavi stumbled backward.
“What are you doing?” she squealed.
“What are you doing?” Maari asked.
“Your friend, Ambili, is not giving me a moment of peace.”
Maari rolled around on the floor, gurgling with laughter. When she was able to stop it, she said, “I broke that mirror.”
“What? You did what?”
“I broke it.” She shrugged.
“You broke the bronze mirror?”
“Well, it is not exactly bronze, but it was rather strong, and it wouldn’t crack easily. But I did it.”
“But why? I thought your mission in life was to help Gran.”
“I was helping her. You see, when I first met her, she was your age. She lived in a world where peacocks were her friends, and the attic was where rainbows had their secret meeting. She would look into that mirror for hours, imagining she could see kingdoms under the ocean or castles of the past. That was when I first appeared to her.”
“But you are not something she imagined. I can see you.”
“Are you sure?” Maari flickered slightly.
“Kavi, where did you run off to? You wouldn’t imagine what just happened.” Her mother’s voice floated into the room, and Maari disappeared.
“The mirror is intact. There is no crack on it. Your Gran is pretty upset that she shouted at you.”
“She should be.”
“Come, she wants to say sorry.” Her mother took her reluctant hand and led her to Gran’s room.
Gran was sitting in her chair, looking intently into the mirror in her hand. The mirror was flawless.
“It must have been a trick of the light, Amma,” Kavi’s mother said. “Don’t blame yourself too much.”
“I don’t,” Gran said.
You should, thought Kavi.
“Can you leave Kavi and me alone for a moment?” Gran asked.
Kavi tightened her grasp on her mother’s hand.
“It will do you good to have a chat,” her mother told her, kissed the top of her head, and gently unclenched her hand. “I will be in the kitchen.”
Kavi stood there, her head turned away from Gran, determined not to encourage a conversation, and moreover, not to forgive so easily.
“I felt the crack with my finger. It was not a trick of the light. Maari did this, didn’t she? I had forgotten her name. Is she still here?”
“No, but she came to my room earlier and told me that she broke the mirror,” Kavi said despite her resolution not to talk.
“Will you be able to forgive me?” Gran got up and enveloped Kavi in a hug, her body trembling with uncontrollable sobs.
If Kavi had thought that there was anything more uncomfortable than seeing a crying adult, she was wrong. She didn’t have any idea what to do other than pat her grandmother awkwardly on her back, and she was relieved when the sobs were quickly controlled with a huge sigh.
Gran wiped her face with the hanging tip of her sari and sat down again.
“I had forgotten all about her. No, I had convinced myself that she didn’t exist and had deliberately forgotten her.”
“But who is she?”
“I don’t know. And she didn’t know. For the longest time, I thought I had imagined her.”
“But you didn’t.”
“And when I told my father, he threw down the mirror and threatened to take me to a doctor.”
Now I know where you get your grumpy nature from, Kavi thought. “That was not good of him,” she said.
“No, but probably he was afraid I was conjuring up ghosts. But the thing is, the mirror broke then, and Maari mended it. I didn’t tell anyone and pretended I couldn’t see Maari anymore. It worked. She left me forever.”
“She didn’t leave. She is still here, helping you when you need her. But I still don’t understand who she is.”
“This mirror has been with my family for centuries. I think she is the reflection of all those who ever looked into it.”
“Wow, Gran. You have a wonderful imagination. I think she is the spirit of the house, sworn to protect us.”
“That is also a possibility.”
“But why did mother or uncle never see her?”
Gran laughed without humor. “I never let them have any imagination,” she said.
“Have you made your peace?” Kavi’s mother asked from outside the room. “I don’t know who put these in the kitchen. Are these to be disposed of with the waste?” She handed Gran a bunch of notebooks.
“Oh, I thought I had lost them.” Gran snatched the books. “These are the silly stories I wrote when I was a child. I hid the lot from my father and then couldn’t find them.”
“You must have them published,” Kavi said.
“They are the ramblings of a child, but I will read them again and make them proper stories to tell you. I will.”
During the final two weeks of her holiday, Kavi did not see Maari. That didn’t bother her because Gran’s stories held more than enough magic for her. On the final day of their visit, her mother frantically searched for their passports. She couldn’t remember where she had carefully kept them, but two hours later, they appeared on her bed. Gran shared a smile with Kavi.
The return flight to the States was eventless. Back at her home, Kavi arranged her new chess set in her playroom. She intended to challenge Dave later in the week for a game of chess after she had gotten over her jet lag.
Her bag lay open on the floor, half unpacked. Kavi dug deep inside it to get to her new set of nail polishes. Something cold grazed her fingers. Her grandmother’s mirror lay at the bottom of the bag, its serrated side caught in a sock. A note was stuck to its back.
Look into me, and I will tell you a thousand stories.
Maari danced under the mirror’s surface, but behind her, a peacock spread its tail feathers and let them shimmer as it followed Maari’s steps.
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