The twitter of birds had intensified into a full chorus, flooding the air from every direction. In the grass, a shrill orchestra of cicadas took up their bows in accompaniment.
I could not turn back now.
Slowly I moved toward the wall with my arm outstretched until my fingertips touched its vine-smothered surface. I waited for something drastic to happen when my skin made contact with the stone, but when neither I nor the wall burst into flames or evaporated into thin air, I continued dragging my hand along the wall, emboldened, until my palm felt the roughness of vines give way to a smooth, hard wood.
The door had an old-fashioned brass knob, which I pushed and twisted to no avail.
“Hello?” I called. My voice sounded hollow and out of place.
Bending down, I pressed my glasses against the keyhole. An amber-throated hummingbird the size of my thumb thrummed in my line of vision, blocking my view.
“Shoo, shoo,” I whispered.
The bird’s wings were vibrating so rapidly I started to get dizzy until at last it buzzed off. The swimming sensation in my head came to a halt and my mouth fell open.
A Rakshasi did not live here.
A princess did.
I was staring into the most dazzling garden I had ever seen. Cobblestone pathways meandered between rows of salmon-hued hibiscus, regal hollyhock, delicate impatiens, wild orchids, thorny rosebushes, and manicured shrubs starred with jasmine. Bunches of bougainvillea cascaded down the sides of the wall, draped across the stone like extravagant shawls. Magnolia trees, cotton-candy pink, were interspersed with coconut trees, which let in streaks of purplish light through their fanlike leaves. A rock-rimmed pond glistened in a corner of the garden, and lotus blossoms sprouting from green discs skimmed its surface. A snow white bird that looked like a peacock wove in and out through a grove of pomegranate trees, which were set aflame by clusters of deep orange blossoms. I had seen blue peacocks before, but never a white one.
An Ashoka tree stood at one edge of the garden, as if on guard, near the door. A brief wind sent a cluster of red petals drifting down from its branches and settling on the ground at my feet. A flock of pale blue butterflies emerged from a bed of golden trumpet flowers and sailed up into the sky. In the center of this scene was a peach stucco cottage with green shutters and a thatched roof, quaint and idyllic as a dollhouse. A heavenly perfume drifted over the wall, intoxicating me—I wanted nothing more than to enter.
Then I was no longer looking into the garden, but into an eye—brown and inquisitive, like mine, pressing against the other side of the keyhole. I fell backward, then looked again, wondering if in my excited state I was imagining things. The eye had vanished, and the garden sat still and beautiful again.
“Hello? Anybody there?”
I must have imagined it, I told myself, when nobody answered.
But just as I was about to calm down, without any warning, the eye came back, then receded, revealing a face, a terrible face, illuminated by the bleeding sunset light. I did not register the shape of the face, or what hair, if any, framed it. All I saw was a large splotchy pink mark, like a bruise, spreading across the surface of pale skin, and a jagged mouth that had a triangular gash cutting into the upper lip. The open mouth merged with the nose, revealing a set of yellowish teeth.
I screamed, a harsh sound that wrenched my gut, and amplified the screams that sounded from the other side of the door. I leaped to my feet and sprinted back through the trees, numb to the sting of branches and thorns needling my arms and legs, scathing, as if to say I told you so, I told you so. I could hear the sound of blood beating, like wings flapping, in my ears, and my heart thundered. My stomach was heavy, full of stones, dragging me down. I ran and ran until I reached the wall at Ashoka, and flung myself over it, back into the safety of the yard.
Everything was still and dark, except for Ashoka, which was lit up and inviting, oblivious to the horrors that lurked so near. Something warm and wet was trickling down my leg and pooling in my sandals. Stopping to catch my breath, I stuck my hand under my dress and saw that it was covered in blood.
“Amma! Amma!” I ran toward the front of the house.
Amma was standing by herself on the verandah, her features contorted in anger. “Oh my God, Rakhee—where have you been? I checked your room and you were gone. No one knew where you were. I was worried sick—”
“Amma, I’m dying, I’m dying!”
The anger melted from her face, and the last thing I remember before I fell into the darkness was Amma’s arms cradling me.