The first step is to take the animals into your home. They arrive as they did during the flood, in twos, then tens, then dozens--an instinctual awareness guiding them through several thousand years. Birds congregate by light fixtures, hawks snapping lazily at sparrows, a crow peeks through the glass of your dusty showcase. Squirrels and raccoons scamper into dark places: under the bed, in what was once Dadi’s room, the unused hall closet. The fish find water where you left it, in the bathtub and buckets and jars and everything you could muster up at short notice. Aside from curiously flitting bees and flies, the insects stay mostly out of sight. An unspoken truce exists between predator and prey at these times, an understanding that the danger outside is greater than that within, but centuries lived in shadows create habits that are hard to shake. Finally, the wild dogs and cats and wolves and occasional snake stretched out across the floors, curled up on top of tables, always careful to avoid windows. You leave the doors open as long as you can--a family of rabbits scampers in at the very last moment.
The next step is to bind the lightning. This is dangerous and difficult, but essential. You unlock the bottom drawer of your dresser, take your father’s hunting knife and a jewelry box from another life and walk out on the rooftop. It is not quite raining yet, though the air is damp and so heavy that it seems to press down on your skin. Thick, smog-like grey stretched over the night sky, obscuring the stars, the moon, the blank darkness of all the rest. Your body trembles imperceptibly as you near the spot. When you were younger, you would stand still and listen for his footsteps shifting above you right there, that left corner of the rooftop, so near to the edge with only a wire railing to keep him back. Not that falling was your primary fear on those nights, or his.
You cannot see it but you can sense it. That presence above the clouds, bright and burning and brimming with force. You have memorized the scent of its impatience, its malignancy. Strange, it is, to think of nature as being capable of evil. A decade ago, you would have laughed. Now you know better.
When the light surges and the scent of sulfur fills the air, you aim your knife at the sky. You must get the timing exactly right. To stake your own life is to stake that of thousands and yet this a risk that demands to be taken. The first beat after the thunder sounds, you let the blade fly. Don’t look up, if your aim is off, it might carve out an eye. One graceful, scythe-like arc in the air and it returns to your hands. No heavier than before, but now smoking slightly. But the presence is contained, the pressure lifted. Target practice had always been your strong suit.
Your lips lift a little at the corners as you tuck the knife back into the jewelry box, careful to turn the lock. This life is nothing if not isolating, but you can never deny the pride that wells up in you at your work. There is some grief for your before, and yet you imagine this contentment in fulfilling a duty, in fulfilling foretelling, is how the prophets felt with every blasphemous word they breathed. Now you are lonely; you will never again be lowly. Divinity, even without anyone to share it with, is intoxicating.
The final step is the simplest yet the most arduous. You drop down the spiral staircase to the attic and land semi-gracefully on the hardwood floor. The house begins to shake around you. You hope the animals don’t get frightened, last year it was a pain to clean up after the ritual had already exhausted you. Carefully, you step closer to the shrine, in its usual place nestled at the right-hand corner of the little room. This one took far too long to carve--it seems every year the woods around the house thin out a little and so you must use saplings for the delicate portions, and they always break the easiest. It troubles you to pick off the young ones, but if you cut down the named trees, the oldest ones, the entire forest will come down with them. And without the forest, there is nothing left to protect.
Samaya had said once, three or four years before her death, that she sometimes wondered what it would be like to live for only herself. Her voice sounded rueful through the phone, maybe even depressed. You chalked it up to the distance twisting up her tone--Sami had always been the golden child, heir to Baba, who had been heir to Dadi. Exemplary in every lesson, eager attention on every trip deep into the forest, grilling Baba for details the morning after each year’s ritual. The last is an image eternally engraved into your mind: Sami sitting up with her hands neatly folded on top of the kitchen table, her knees jiggling excitedly under it. Baba leaning back against the fridge door, looking battered and exhausted but smiling down at the two of you with such brightness that your chest felt warm, warm, warm. He’d place one large brown hand on the back of your chair, and brush the other over Sami’s forehead, tapping it once with his index finger. Then he’d stand a little straighter and say, Okay. Listen. You would listen, the both of you, rapt at the sound of his voice. The world could have ended around you and it would have been less important than that sound, that story, that light.
At the time of that phone call years ago, you didn’t quite believe Sami. You didn’t think it was possible for her to be anything less than completely content living the life she had been born for, the life she had hungrily sought out for herself. Now that you’ve lived it too, you know better. At least you got a couple of decades away, being among people instead of plants, learning what normal meant and doing your best to live up to it. Sami never considered that an option, to your knowledge at least. Sometimes you wonder if Baba’s approval hadn’t been half the magic for her. Without him to please, without you there to watch, you wonder if she gave herself up to it. Let her arms loose at the crucial moment instead of fighting back. Then you shake those thoughts out of your head. Sami wasn’t like that. Sami was brave.
Hoisting the shrine up against your chest, arms corded with strands of thick muscle that took years to form, you start down the stairs to the first floor. The first time you’d done this, you’d had to drag the thing for miles because you couldn’t for the life of you lift it up. There is no noise inside the house, a silence unnatural for a gathering such as this one. The animals are alert but immobile. If you could paint, you would turn this scene into art--human domesticity overrun by the wild, and somehow nobler for it. It’s not a painting anyone else would ever get to see, but on tiring days you could gaze at it and bask in the peculiar glory of your life. A cat sprawled on the welcome mat looks up as you step over it to reach the front door; you blink slowly back.
The shrine is reassuringly heavy, knobs of wood pressing against the soft of your chest as you emerge into the open. You note that sky is almost light now, only the barest hint of the indigo night before, a singular smudge on the edge of the canvas. In a few hours it will be mid-morning, and you will be making this trip back, your hands empty, clothing grass-stained and torn. The ceremony’s physicality frightened you the first time you did it. You staggered home in a daze and slept for thirty hours straight, waking up once to rescue a trapped field mouse in the basement and then falling back to sleep. You still don’t look forward to it, per se, but there is a certain satisfaction in destruction for a greater purpose. A wild joy that spills out from between your ribs when you’re in the middle of it, a fast beating beast of a feeling that is as exhilarating as it is deadly. Maybe that was what had really happened with Sami. Maybe she didn’t give up; she simply gave in. Let the wilderness pull her into its dizzying orbit. Let that become the love that defined her existence, and ultimately ended it.
Twigs snap under your electric blue sneakers more often the deeper you get into the forest. The air is still thick but now infused with rich magnetism and not a threat. Every step sings out to what awaits you, every soft rustle in the trees a beckoning whisper. The forest has a voice of its own, you discovered that long ago, but it is more discerning with it than humans. Only used when unavoidable. A useful tool, a weapon on occasion.
Past the wildflower clearing, then a trail that leads to the tumbling ravine. Around the pond lush with waterlilies. You don’t need to count each step when you know this journey by heart, but the numbers calm you. You walk in time with your heartbeat.
In a thousand ways, they are still with you. Sami, Baba, Dadi, Dadi’s father, and the family that came before yours, and the families that came before theirs. In a thousand ways, they still do this work alongside you. Closets full of old shovels and hoes and raincoats that seem hundreds of years old. Taped journal entries crammed into a white bookshelf, labeled neatly or almost illegibly according to who was doing the recording. Sometimes, you play Dadi and Baba and Sami’s tapes all at once, listen to their voices rising and falling and overlapping as if in conversation. Log books with dates and times and descriptions of incidents, rituals, things that went wrong or right, revelations of every nature. And it’s not just the job, either. The house and grounds overflow with personal touches. Letters and photographs and keepsakes. Your mother’s wedding jewelry wrapped in graying satin. Dadi’s father’s fountain pens, run out of ink long ago. Nothing is ever thrown out, in a place like this. These are surroundings that will always expand to accommodate their history.
Only a few strides forward now. This is the hour between hours, just before dawn, when everything on earth is changeable. The call of the forest quiets, lulled by its understanding of your presence here, in the center of it all. You kneel inside the circle of trees, roots digging into your ankles, and set the shrine on the ground before you.
After you, there will of course be another, but you’re not sure who exactly this wilderness will choose as its protector. Neither you nor Sami had any children--you never wanted them, and Sami didn’t get the chance. It’s not a matter you need worry about, the forest has better judgment than any human. But there is a child from the surrounding village whom you’ve seen around a few times in the last month, peering up at a beehive with single-minded concentration, gently poking snails with a little stick. You like the look of her, but you haven’t approached her. When the time is right, it will bring her to your door.
Taking a fistful of loose dirt, you raise your arm above your head. Aranyaka, you say quietly, naming the forest. Sacrifice. Aranyaka, the woods around you whisper, naming you in turn. Aranyaka, you chant together, ancient and offspring, god and human, creator and keeper.
You open your eyes, let the dirt fall from your fingers. Smiling very slightly, you lay your hands over the first carved flower on the shrine and pull. Almost immediately, it starts to rain. The water runs down and slips into your open mouth.