Nakul huffed as he lugged the bucket toward the river.
“Why do I always have to fetch the water?”
The dusty path slowly wound its way downhill. A constant swarm of gnats nipped at the boy, further souring his mood. At first, he tried reasoning with them but realized their thirst and hunger made that impossible.
“It’s just when she’s about to do something interesting, too!”
The heavy bucket bounced annoyingly against his legs. He hoped it would leave a bruise, causing Indali to feel guilty.
“Don’t touch that, Nakul! Shh, Nakul! Back to work, Nakul! All she does is order me around.”
He had come to learn from Indali, but she hadn’t taught him anything as far as he was concerned. For months now, the woman merely lectured Nakul about responsibility and the danger of communicating with animals. He had tried to argue he couldn’t stop hearing what they said. Nonetheless, Indali insisted mastering his ability to tune out the surrounding wildlife’s constant chatter was important.
Espresso, tobacco, an old grudge and a chance meeting. Daydreaming About Mesoamerican Indigenous Folklore.
Everything was quickly settled into the new apartment. Qochata’s lifestyle was simple; uncluttered. He changed locations often to avoid the inevitable questions.
“How do you do it? You haven’t age a day. I must have your secret.”
Qochata would smile, demurely attributing his perpetual youth to good genes and a healthy lifestyle.
“Abuela and Abuelo, both past one hundred, still run our family farm. They work hard, rest well and eat humble home cooking.”
The lie never worked. Once someone remarked his agelessness, the wary looks and whispers began. He’d soon moved on.
His new, small studio in a historic, Mexico City building came furnished. He required only a bed, a nightstand, a comfortable chair and a lamp for late night reading. A large brass bird cage hung from the ceiling, empty with the door ajar. Each wall was entirely lined with crowded, newly installed bookshelves. The numerous books, his sole material burden, formed towering piles about the room. The kitchen table held a terrarium; home to a red coffee snake. Qochata reached in and stroked the reptile.
“Ah, Café. It’s been centuries since we’ve been to Mexico City.”
A cawing, keel-billed toucan flew in and perched upon Qochata’s shoulder.
“Yes, Pluma. I was waiting for you to return before beginning.”
With each relocation, Qochata felt at home, only after preparing his favorite dish; a sweet corn cake made with masa harina. Centuries ago, he had travelled far, working his magic to acquire the maize plant for the Mexica people. His patronage had helped humans conquer famine. Qochata taught the Mexica to live peacefully in magnificent cities filled with art, music and scholarship. It had been a happy time.
“Now let’s begin.”
Qochata gathered ingredients. He set out butter to soften and began mixing together cornmeal, masa harina, sugar, salt and baking powder. Shucking ears of corn, he carefully cut off tender kernels to add to his mixture.
“Now, for the cream.”
Qochata opened the refrigerator. Moving items about, he saw no heavy cream or milk. Frowning, Qochata rummaged about the cabinets.
“Mierda! No condensed milk either. Don’t worry my pets. There’s a corner market nearby.”
Grabbing keys and his wallet, Qochata donned a white, felt, stetson. Encircling the hat was a silver band, styled as a rattlesnake, holding a solitary eagle feather.
“Be right back.”
Qochata crossed the street to the market. Stopping in front, he regarded the placard above the entrance.
The sign depicted the caricature of a jaguar smugly sipping espresso, smoking a cigar. Hesitating, Qochata glowered at the sign. He distinctly disliked jaguars.
Sneaky, brutish cats! Lazing about or devouring the weak.
Bells jangled as he entered. The store was split in two. The right side contained shelves of groceries with a small refrigerated section along the back wall. The other half was dedicated to a large espresso bar. Lining the wall, behind the counter, was a selection of cigars, loose tobacco, cigarettes and pipes. The individuals working behind the counter greeted Qochata warmly. Noticing the comfortable, leather chairs set out for patrons to lounge in as they enjoyed a smoke or cup of coffee, he decided to sample the espresso.
“A solo espresso, por favor.”
“Coming right up, señor.”
Settling down in a chair, Qochata flipped through an abandoned newspaper. A barista approached with a demitasse and saucer.
“Your solo. Enjoy.”
Qochata cupped his hand over the tiny cup, feeling the steam tickle his hand. Lifting it to his nose, he inhaled deeply. Murmuring approval, he slurped his espresso. The rich flavor was smoothly bold with hints of caramel and brown sugar. He swallowed, savoring the rush of smokey, bitterness. The espresso was exquisite.
“Excuse me? Where do you source your beans?”
“The owner is a connoisseur of coffee. He owns a plantation in Chiapas. He cultivates new varieties and tinkers with the processing and roast.”
“Yes, I find his work with tobacco in San Andreas even more fascinating. I’ve never smoked anything close to the tobacco he imports from his own properties.”
“I would very like to meet with him. Is your boss in?”
“Yes, he’s out back. One moment.”
Qochata finished his espresso. He walked about inspecting the hanging photographs. They were all pictures of Mexican soldiers and scenes from famous battles.
He seems to be a military buff as well.
Qochata hated conflict.
Gazing out the window, waiting, he heard someone approach from behind.
“Señor, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tchondee. Welcome!”
Qochata turned around to make his introduction. Both men’s smiles melted as their eyes locked in recognition. No handshake was made. They stood still, sizing one another up. Qochata spoke first.
“Thought you were in Afghanistan or Syria nowadays.”
“I was. But, with everything winding down, it’s just a dull routine now. I had a hankering for home.”
“Yes, me as well.”
“I see. Espresso is delicious isn’t it? You enjoyed it?”
“I suppose. I really must go. I was looking for heavy cream. I came to the wrong place.”
Qochata made to pay his bill and leave.
“What name are going by now?”
“Qochata.” he grimaced embarrassingly.
“Ha. White man, huh? Fitting.”
“As is Tchondee, brother. You always enjoyed tobacco with its smoke and death.”
Tchondee simpered, holding his hands out with a shrug.
“Look, Quetzalcoatl. It needn’t be awkward. The days of importance and power are over for both of us.”
“Perhaps, but you still relish stirring up trouble. My people have suffered terribly.”
“How long are you going to hold that over me? I am what I am. However, I’ve been trying to broaden my perspective.”
“Ha! That’s rich! What? Focusing on more subtle ways to kill? Cancer, addiction?”
“You wound me, brother.”
“As I said, I was just in need of a carton of cream.”
Qochata turned away, reaching for his wallet.
“Yes, sweet corn cake. I know.”
Qochata stopping, turned to watch Tchondee retrieve a carton of heavy cream. He held it out to Qochata.
“Here. It’s free, as is the espresso.”
Qochata looked down at the offering, deliberating. A few seconds passed and he took the carton.
“It was a fair fight, until you tricked me.”
“Yes. It was.”
“Your actions have been utterly reprehensible for an age now. What’s your angle? Should I move on?”
“It’s tiring always being evil. Guess, I’m feeling more neutral these days.”
“Neutral? Interesting. What about your new fascination with agriculture? You could use your talent for something actually helpful. Humans take readily to your influence. They’re destroying themselves and this world with your beloved smoke, smog and pollution.”
“Look. I don’t want this fifth age to end. We could see what we can do to save it.”
“Our days of being heroes are over.”
“There’s a bit of juice still left.”
Qochata considered his brother’s words. He walked to the door and stopped.
“Tezcatlipoca, the sweet corn cake will be ready in about an hour. My apartment is across the street. Number 282. Bring coffee and cigars. And you can bring Colmillos, provided he doesn’t try to eat my toucan.”
Tchondee smiled, chuckling to himself, as Qochata walked out.
This is my third piece featuring Nakul, who wields the ability to take on traits from nearby animals and use them. There is a cost though.
This story is set in India. Below are definitions for the Hindi words you’ll find used in the story.
Mātā – mama.
Ajee! – Good gracious! Good Heavens!
Priya – Nakul’s deceased, older sister.
Vaah! – Wow!
Are nahin – Oh no!
Ḵẖudā – diety, god, divinity
Lēnēvālā – taker
Monsoon season dominated the countryside. A seemingly endless storm ebbed and waned, day to day, week to week and now month to month. Torrential rains submerged much of the landscape surrounding the village, its people patiently enduring this life-giving deluge.
From an outlying house, a restless boy stared out a doorway. Nakul was aching to venture outside. He was ever vigilant, scanning above for signs of any approaching respite in precipitation. The especially prolonged, heavy, soaking rain, the day began with, had miraculously ceased and a burgeoning patch of blue sky emerged high up in the sky.
“What is it Nakul?”
“The rain has stopped. I’m going out. I’ll stay close. I want to see how fat the stream is with rainwater.”
“Stay out of the stream, Nakul! It will be swift and the flooding disrupts the wildlife.”
“Nakul! Your walking stick. In case of snakes. Remember, Priya. Ajee!.”
“Yes, Mātā. I remember.”
Nakul didn’t fear snakes, even the poisonous ones. He understood his mother’s dread, but he had never known his older sister. She died before he was born.
Nakul’s favorite tree grew along the stream. He was surprised by the extent of the flooding. The familiar scene was strange and compelling. No longer along the banks, it sat within this new, swollen river.
“Vaah!” he exclaimed.
Nakul yearned to climb up and survey everything.
Reluctant to disobey his mother, the water posed a problem. He gave the situation some thought. Only a few steps would bring him to the trunk. Swishing the stick back and forth repeatedly, he probed the water. Nakul cautiously waded in. The water was just past his knees. Emboldened, he sloshed quickly to the tree and secured the stick into the submersed earth. His conscience nagged. Keen to leave the dangerous water, he blindly grabbed the lowest branch to pull himself up.
Straight away, he noted a difference. Expecting a rough, unyielding surface, his grasp instead sunk into something softer. The branch roiled. Pain lanced Nakul’s hand, jarring fingers, wrist and arm like an electrical shock. Releasing, pushing away, he stumbled backwards falling with a splash. Gaping upwards stupidly, Nakul recognized the markings of a king cobra. Dumbfounded, he peered down at two marks glistening like vibrant ruby pendants.
Finding his feet, Nakul ran. He sprinted. Adrenaline quicken his breath, his heartbeat and supercharged muscles. His frantic struggle accelerated the spread of venom throughout his body. His vision blurred and waves of dizziness disoriented him. Unbeknownst to Nakul, he was racing further away from his village.
“Are nahin! Help! Somebody!”
Nakul struggled to breath.
He collapsed to the damp ground in pain.
He tried to rise, but his limbs felt stiff and uncoordinated.
Nakul lay gasping, growing colder, knowing he was dying.
Moment bled slowing into moment.
He was lost and alone.
As he began to drift away from the pain, a voice shouted.
I’M COMING! DON’T GIVE UP!
Nakul searched feebly, seeing no one. But, an ember of hope flickered brighter.
He fought to stay awake, alive.
The voice sounded close.
Here. Next to you.
Nakul turned his head to vaguely see an old, graying mongoose. Nakul understood animals didn’t speak, but he was young enough to accept this current incongruence with reality.
“A cobra bit me.”
I smell it.
“Mongoose. I’m dying.”
No. You are different. I can help. Accept my help. I am old with little time left. I will give you what I no longer need. You could demand it; take it from me, but I see you are unaware of what you are. I gift it to you. Take it.
“i …don’t know what you’re talking about…i don’t understand”
You are out of time. Let me help you.
“how…how can you help”
An ever so sight pain pinched Nakul. The little beast had bit his wounded hand. Now, a warm itchiness oscillated up his arm.
He felt the mongoose’s nip only added insult to injury.
Nakul wondered if the mongoose was hungry.
The thought was absurd.
“why did you bite me?”
Giving you something only a mongoose possesses…so you may live.
Nakul felt a sweat break out. A buzzing in his ears intensified, drowning out all other sounds. He felt as if his very blood was boiling within. Somehow, he knew a battle was raging and his side was winning.
Time passed and finally all was still and silent.
The pain was gone.
“I feel better. I don’t understand?”
A mongoose is immune to snake venom. Now, you are too.
Most men don’t have the speech and the ability to assume power from us. To us you are Ḵẖudā. Your kind calls you Lēnēvālā.
Nakul sat up. Observing his hand, the wound appeared now only as a bite from something non-poisonous like the checkered keelback snake. Gazing up, he startled seeing the mongoose lying prone with labored breathing.
I too… change. You have given… in return… a part of yourself.
Nakul sat by the mongoose gently stroking its fur, watching in disbelief as glossy, dark brown hair replaced its grey, grizzled appearance. Suddenly, the mongoose was up. It stretched and bounced around.
This is a tremendous boon! Youth returns! You have given me some of your natural longevity.
Nakul pondered this. He knew mongoose typically lived a fraction of the time a person might.
“Am I going to die now?”
Hmm, I need a good look at you.
The mongoose jumped around Nakul sniffing. Satisfied with his inspection, he peered up at in Nakul.
You smell the same to me. Humans live forever to a creature such as me.
But, something else felt different to Nakul. Watching the mongoose catch and tear apart a large beetle with sharp canines, he realized what was different. Feeling inside his mouth, he confirmed it was full of sharp, pointy, jagged, canine teeth.