The afternoon sun was warm on my face. Even hours later, I would remember this moment. I stood staring up at the sky, shielding my eyes against the brilliance. I would remember because I could hear birds singing all around me, idly basking in their dust-laden tranquility.
I would remember my heart lifting a little, as it always seemed to do these days. My gaze swept across the outer walls of the old house that had been bequeathed to me by some distant relative whose face I barely even remembered. It was starting to feel like, finally, there was a place in this world where even I might belong.
I took my time making my way up the paved pathway to the front door. I was making lists in my head of things that needed to be done. The roof was in desperate need of repairs. Better get it done now before the rainy season arrived. The ivy that crept up the latticed walls needed to be trimmed somehow. It was suffocating the walls, and I was sure that a lovely window or two had been covered up by the relentless greenery.
I would remember uneasiness suddenly sliding into my bones. My hand froze in mid-air as I reached for the knob to the front door. Oh yes, I shuddered. There was That. The reason my first night in this rambling old house was spent with my back to the wall and baseball bat poised for a fight. The reason why as soon as I mentioned where it was I was staying; the friendly people of this quaint little town promptly replaced their smiles with stony glares and made a wide berth around me, should any of them happen to cross paths with me on the street.
Screw that, I scoffed silently and shrugged. Being some backwater outcast didn’t really have a profound effect on me. How was that any different from anywhere I’d ever been?
The thing was though (I reached for the knob again tentatively); I never knew quite what to expect. I think that was the most daunting quality of this strange aspect to my new home. I actually had to summon the nerve to push the door open and cross the threshold. It took a bit longer to open my eyes, which had been squeezed shut-bracing myself against another disaster like the night before. The place had been wrecked, completely and utterly wrecked. My heart ached a little just thinking about it. It had taken me the early hours of morning though late morning to set the house back to right, after my previous “guest” had departed.
My nose crinkled. The air was thick with the scent of incense. That was what made me open my eyes, and I smiled in surprise. Everything was in order but fundamentally different, nonetheless.
It was dark inside, so shadowy that I forgot how brilliant it had been outside, only moments earlier. The ivy that clogged the walls kept the daylight out too. I ventured farther inside and turned the corner into the living room. My eyes widened. There was a row of tea lights along one wall, flames dancing jerkily although there was no breeze. Along the opposite wall the job was half done. A woman garbed in a deep red sari, was lining up more candles and lighting them one by one. She turned when I entered the room, bowed her head in polite greeting briefly before returning to her task.
“Hello,” I murmured lamely. What else was I supposed to say?
She lit another candle and turned towards me. Her veil fell away, and I got my first clear look at her face. She was beautiful. Not young. Her face had a weathered sort of serenity that reminded me of knobby trees that had fallen in the forest. The aged thickness carpeted by crackled bark that always hummed with a primal sort of energy, begging to be touched. She stared at me intently-not critically or with hostility. She had a sharp and interested gaze. My heart sank when her smile tilted curiously. She seemed so bewildered. So lost.
I was reaching deep inside my mind for some inkling of what to do, some way that I could be useful. My great-aunt that I never even knew had left me this house but no instructions on how to deal with the things that happened here. The only clue she had left behind had been a hesitantly scrawled note.
“Don’t desert them. Just use your heart.”
What the hell was that even supposed to mean?
Well, here I was, and something told me that any sensible person would have run away from that house screaming, never to return after that first one appeared in the dead of night. Yet, this place felt like home. My home. Even momentary bouts of panic and terror couldn’t usurp that feeling of belonging. I didn’t know what they wanted, and they seemed to always be gone by morning. This one though, was different. Lost though she may be, she didn’t seem as disoriented or demented as the rest.
“I can’t seem to remember how I got here.”
That last word ended on an expectant lilt. She was waiting, I realized, my spirits plummeting. I cursed lightly under my breath. “Well, do you know why you’re here?” It was a stupid question I know. I was stalling, OK?
“I do not,” she answered softly.
Not what I wanted to hear. Oh god, I thought. She doesn’t know. I’m going to have to tell her. This was the part I hated most. So far, it almost never ended well. She moved suddenly, surging upright, and I quailed inwardly with shame as I scrambled backwards a few steps. Inspiration struck.
“Do you remember your name?”
“Sarasvati.” When she said it, joy split across her face, as if she had reclaimed something precious that had been lost.
“Are you here to teach me something?”
Her eyes widened. “You?” Her hand went to her throat, exposing an intricate and achingly beautiful mehndi.
So much for that. I cleared my throat. “Or maybe, do you need something from me?”
She edged closer. So close that I could feel her breathing and smell the perfume on her skin, which was odd considering the present circumstances.
“I…” her voice fell to a helpless whisper.
“I’m sorry.” I wasn’t sure if I was apologizing for my ignorance or for what I was about to tell her.
She surprised me by smiling. “Not all who come to you will be ignorant.”
“Then you know?”
She nodded benignly, drawing closer. “It’s fairly obvious.” She looked around curiously, her eyes lingering on the weathered moldings and filigreed details of the hall mirror. “This place?”
I shrugged. “A transition point of some sort?”
She chuckled. “You’re not very good at this, are you?”
It rankled. I scowled. “I just moved into this crazy house a week ago! And I never cared much for metaphysics anyway.”
My grumbled retort sounded lame and nonsensical even to my own ears. She turned away to face her handiwork. The soft glow of the candles she set out licked at the walls. There was something poignant about that simple gesture, lights set out in the darkness by the dead. She remained silent for a while. Just when I thought she must have forgotten I was even there she looked up.
“Souls are just travelers,” she murmured. “Yes?”
I smiled. “I’d like to think so.” Suddenly I knew exactly what I was supposed to say. I gestured toward the candles she had put out. “Tell me about the candles, Sarasvati. Tell me what you remember about your life.”