by Amanda Kear
Characters: Thiede, OCs
Word Count: 4830
Summary: An old man discovers that he has skills that Thiede wants to make use of.
Old Mr Murthy was toiling back to his home with a load of firewood, when the Wraeththu came. One moment he was alone in the ruined street, wondering if his neighbour Santosh might have spare eggs to trade. The next the sky split open with a crack and the street was full of armed hara on huge white horses.
The old man cried out with fright, certain that he was about to die under pounding hooves or in a hail of bullets. The community of humans that lived here had thought that their crumbling quarter of the town was of no interest to the Wraeththu. Apparently they had been wrong.
But guns did not fire, nor horses charge. Most of the riders took up positions looking outwards from where the trembling Mr Murthy stood; warriors alert to threats that were more distant and dangerous than one old man with a basket of firewood on his back. One of the riders dismounted and strode up to him.
“You are Rhaghavendra Mahesh Murthy?” It was less a question than a statement, spoken in American accented English. The Wraeththu was unnaturally tall, with the pale skin of a European and hair of such a vibrant red-gold hue that it surely must be dyed. His – her? – clothes were neat and clean, a dazzling white in the sun.
Mr Murthy gave a mute nod. This apparition knew his name?
“I am Thiede. Which house is yours? It will be more pleasant to talk out of the sun, hmm?”
This flame-haired Wraeththu had materialised from nowhere and wanted to talk to him? Was he dreaming? Was this a hallucination brought on by a stroke?
The apparition looked at him expectantly. Mr Murthy hesitantly pointed further up the hill, to the tumbledown apartment building where he and his neighbours lived. Horses wheeled and riders pounded in that direction. He trembled. What had he just unleashed on his neighbours?
The one called Thiede walked towards the building, the white horse ambling along in his wake. Mr Murthy paused, wondering whether he should run…? Then wondering where on Earth he could run to, to escape horses that materialised out of thin air?
Talk. The red-haired one had said talk. If he was lying, at least he’d die in his own home. Mr Murthy trudged wearily up the hill in Thiede’s wake.
The Wraeththu warriors were apparently going through every apartment in the building, looking for threats. Mr Murthy could hear cries of alarm and the crash of things breaking echoing from the uppermost floors. On the ground floor, doors had been smashed in, a few of the inhabitants herded into the communal courtyard. Mr Vardhaman’s grandson was sprawled on the flagstones, with vigilant hara watching over him. Thiede raised an eyebrow.
“He had a gun. We dealt with it,” said one of the warriors, indicating where shattered pieces of black metal lay. Mr Murthy had not heard any gunshots.
“He’s young enough,” continued the warrior. “Do you want him?”
Thiede paused to consider the prostrate and terrified youth. “No,” he said. “Unsuitable. The locals can claim him if they have a mind to.” Paying the youth no more heed, he gestured to Mr Murthy to lead the way onwards.
The old man caught glimpses of frightened neighbours watching from behind shutters or through the shattered remains of doors as he led Thiede up the stairs to his home. Four elegant Wraeththu followed him into his shabby apartment. One har prowled the apartment, evidently checking for assassins through every door and behind every curtain. He finished his sweep and gave the one called Thiede a nod, then stationed himself by the front door.
Mr Murthy became conscious for the first time in years of how the place had fallen into disrepair; of how a once modern and well-appointed flat in a well-to-do area of the town had become little more than a hovel. Candles instead of electric lights, cooking with firewood on the balcony instead of with appliances in the kitchen, hauling water up the stairs one bucket at a time because the taps were now little more than a place to drape his socks to dry. When his wife was still alive she had strived to keep the place clean, but since her death Mr Murthy had bothered less and less with such things.
He put down his basket of firewood and stood in the middle of his living room, wondering what on Earth a Wraeththu could possibly want to talk to him about. The Wraeththu didn’t take old men such as him – they only took the young. The rest of humanity they brushed aside as irrelevant. It was whispered that Wraeththu had upset the balance of the world; had disrupted the cycle of death and rebirth. They stole human youths, yet they could not breed themselves. They were apart from nature – alien, anomalous. What could such creatures conceivably want to talk about to an old man like him?
Thiede settled on a chair and gestured at Mr Murthy to sit in another, as if he and not the old man was the host here. The other two hara, both very young looking, remained standing.
“You were a silkworm breeder,” said Thiede. “More than that – you trained others in the craft, yes?”
Mr Murthy blinked. Of all the possible things he thought that a Wraeththu might want to talk to him about, his former life as a tutor at the Sericulture Training Centre had not been one of them. “Yes,” he said cautiously. “Many, many years ago, yes.”
Thiede gave a curt nod. He waved a hand at the two young Wraeththu standing next to him. “These are to be your apprentices. Teach them everything you know.”
Mr Murthy looked at the flame-haired Wraeththu in incomprehension. “Apprentices?”
Thiede gestured impatiently. “Silkworms, Mr Murthy. You will teach them to raise silkworms.”
“Sericulture,” Mr Murthy mumbled automatically.
“Sericulture?” Thiede raised an eyebrow.
The old man drew himself up. “The correct term is sericulture.”
A smile without warmth. “There – you are teaching them already.”
“But why? Why do Wraeththu want to learn about silkworms?” Wraeththu were chaos and destruction, violence in the night.
“My Wraeththu are beautiful,” came the reply. “They need beautiful things.”
Beautiful things? Mr Murthy thought of cities in flames, fighting in the streets, corpses left to rot where they fell. Wraeththu had smashed and destroyed all in its path, and now they wanted beautiful things?
He didn’t realise that he had expressed all this sentiment out loud until Thiede replied airily: “Birth pangs. Childish rage. My hara will grow beyond all that. When they do, they will need beauty in their lives.” The two younger ones were watching Thiede worshipfully. “I have a city to build and a king to create. I have need of the beauty that the world has lost. Your silks were one such thing.”
Build a city? Create a king? Was this Wraeththu madness mutated into another, more subtle, form?
“Teach them,” Thiede said imperiously, and made to depart.
“Mr Thiede!” Mr Murthy implored. “I have no food or lodgings for apprentices! I have no silkworms! How can I teach them?” How would his neighbours react if he housed the hated Wraeththu in his flat?
Thiede waved a hand in dismissal. “All has been arranged.”
Thiede’s arrangements sprang into being almost instantly. Hara materialised to carry Mr Murthy’s meagre belongings away from his flat, sweeping him up with them, almost as if he were just another item of furniture.
They took him to the quarter of the town where the Sericulture Training Centre had been. There Mr Murthy found small groups of hara industriously scrubbing and tidying in the ruins of the institute. Shattered glass was being swept up, broken fixtures and fittings removed. All this was being done under the supervision of a few more Wraeththu – these with the manner and mien to them of soldiers, not workers.
There were even a couple of women there, assisting with the clean-up. Mrs Rao, who years ago when the Centre still functioned, had cleaned the offices and canteen, was sweeping debris from the car park. She waved nervously as Mr Murthy was hustled by.
“We will have it cleaned for you in no time, Mr Murthy,” she called, in an anxious voice. “Your office is already done.” She and the other woman glanced at the nearby Wraeththu apprehensively. Mr Murthy had no time to speak with them before he was whisked indoors.
His office turned out to be not one but two. The office that had belonged to the Centre’s Director was now to be his. The room next door, which had once been workspace to the accountant and the secretaries, was to be Mr Murthy’s living quarters.
“The plumbing is not working on this floor yet,” said one of his ‘apprentices’ apologetically. It was the first words that either of them had uttered to him. “We are promised that it will be repaired by sunset tomorrow.”
“By sunset tomorrow?” Mr Murthy repeated woodenly. He sat down heavily on a battered chair that had been brought from his home.
Famine, plague and Wraeththu gangs had raged throughout his country, reducing civilisation to rubble… and now there were beings who could have the plumbing fixed by sunset tomorrow? He put his head in his hands and wept.
His apprentices… captors… were – as all Wraeththu seemed to be – tall, lithe and beautiful. Both had an abundance of long, black hair; one straight and falling to his waist, the second with a slight curl to it, and held in a loose ponytail. Their names were Jalapata har Ambar and Djebel har Gelaming. The former had a local accent, while the latter spoke Kannada haltingly and with a Middle Eastern lilt to it. His English was better than his Kannada, but still rather broken.
When they thought he wasn’t looking they shyly held hands or kissed.
“They call themselves ‘he’ but they are hijra – are chakka,” whispered Mrs Rao as she brought up food to him that evening. Hijra – the third gender, neither male nor female. “If you make fine silks for them, as they want, perhaps they will become more hijra and less male? Perhaps they will cease trying to destroy the world?”
The other woman – Gayathri, Mrs Rao’s niece – was of another opinion. “They are Rakshasa,” she hissed, hate and grief in her eyes. “Rakshasas who have taken on human form.”
That Wraeththu were Rakshasa – demons – had been a common rumour for decades. Mr Murthy had never considered himself an especially religious man, but the sky splitting open as hara came and went was apt to make him rethink. “Rakshasas can be good or evil,” he said hopefully.
“These ones are evil,” Gayathri spat. Tears welled in her eyes.
“They took her husband,” Mrs Rao explained. “Changed him into one of them.”
“They did not change him,” the younger woman insisted. “They murdered him and one of them now wears his shape.” She ran from the room before he could think of an appropriate reply to this.
“Why is she here if she hates them so much?” Mr Murthy asked.
Mrs Rao gave a sad sigh. She seemed about to tell him something and then changed her mind and would say only: “I am the only family she has left.”
The education of his apprentices began.
He started in what had once been the visitor centre and museum. Local schoolchildren had once come here to be given talks on the Indian silk industry and the types of jobs they might do when they grew up. He recalled girls giggling over the silk saris they were shown, or shrieking as unruly boys tried to put a live silkworm into their hair. He remembered how year by year the classes got smaller and smaller as fewer and fewer children were born. He remembered how eventually there had been no more children to visit, nor adult students to learn the craft, for silk had become a luxury that the world no longer needed.
The display cases of the visitor centre were mostly smashed and the information boards faded and watermarked where the roof had leaked, but it was enough to get started. Mr Murthy talked his new apprentices though the life cycle of the silkworm moth, and all the stages necessary to produce the silks the region had once been famous for.
They listened attentively.
When Mr Murthy used terms that Djebel did not understand, the har would glance to Jalapata for a translation. Sometimes that translation came in spoken words. But sometimes there was a moment’s silence and then abruptly Djebel knew what Mr Murthy had meant, without a word being uttered. Those silent exchanges could make him mutter a swift prayer under his breath. Wraeththu may not be the Rakshasa in human form that Gayathri believed them to be, but they reeked of the supernatural nonetheless.
“No, no, no! You cannot do everything under one roof!” Mr Murthy threw his hands in the air in exasperation. He wondered if these Wraeththu apprentices and their minders thought that the silkworms wove the silk themselves? Sat at little looms perhaps, or crawled back and forth on a large loom in regimented rows of warp and weft? “The silkworm seed is produced in a—“
Jalapata interrupted. “Seed?”
“Eggs, eggs! Silkworm eggs are called seed. We have seed, we have a harvest. We have grainages and brushing and chawki worms. You Wraeththu have your own terms for everything, yes? Well, we sericulturists have ours too.”
The pair exchanged a look and then nodded.
“Why can’t everything be done under one roof?” asked Jalapata.
“Disease!” he snapped. “Disease! We must guard against fungus, parasitic flies, protozoan infections. We must disinfect equipment, keep every crack in the doors and windows sealed to keep out uzi flies. And humidity – it is important to regulate humidity and temperature for efficient growth of the worms. What is suitable for the weavers will not do at all in the grainages or the rearing sheds. Would you have a chef do his cooking in a slaughterhouse or in the hold of a fishing boat? No, you would not!”
He regarded them sternly. “Does your Thiede think that you two can do everything? Grow the plants, raise the worms, spin the thread, produce the dyes and weave the cloth as well?”
Jalapata and Djebel looked at each other and had one of those eerie, wordless conversations. Jalapata spoke: “Tiahaar Thiede told us that we’re supposed to learn everything…
Mr Murthy’s frown deepened. “Then Tiahaar Thiede will need to recruit more people to teach you what I cannot. And we will need more workers.”
From all over India, they came. The old, the forgotten… people who had never thought that their skills would ever be of use again. Thiede had found former workers from dye factories, ageing farmers who had once grown mulberry or other silkworm food plants, and ancient seamstresses who had sewn silk garments for export. He had found weavers – everything from village women with hand looms to mechanics who had serviced the power looms in a large factory. The hara had uprooted them and with no more thought than if they had been fruits waiting to be plucked.
And then there were the hara who were to be his workers… From the ruins of Bangalore came amber-eyed youths, as sleek and dangerous as leopards. From the Eastern Ghats came solemn beauties who wore garlands of leaves and flowers and little else. From the floodplains of the Ganges came henna and gold painted warrior-philosophers who wished to build a new world.
All these were dumped in Mr Murthy’s lap without thought to language, culture or species, with the expectation that he could mould them into what was needed to re-create the silk industry.
He found, to his surprise, that he relished the challenge. For the first time in years he no longer lived a hand to mouth existence. Others – human and hara – cooked his meals and cleaned his quarters. Wraeththu warriors kept danger at bay. Freed from the need to haul water, collect firewood and grow food, he could let his mind revel in the intellectual exercise of planning everything that they needed for the enterprise to succeed. The ‘Council of Elders’ – as someone had laughingly named their collection of ancient humans – debated and discussed, drew up lists of materials, and made schedules for ploughing and planting, for building and repairs.
Jalapata har Ambar and Djebel har Gelaming took all these lists and schedules and somehow made them reality.
Jalapata would not talk of his past beyond saying that he was from Bangalore, but Djebel was happy to use his stumbling Kannada or faltering English to recount his prior life. His human family was from Egypt. They had made a living taking tourists on boat trips. When the tourists no longer came, they turned to fishing. When the fish dwindled to a handful too contaminated to eat, they starved. The Wraeththu came, and Djebel had gone to them willingly.
“They sing the sea alive again,” he said, with wonder in his voice. “They promise the fish return.”
“You didn’t want to be a fisherman?” Mr Murthy asked.
Djebel shrugged. “Thiede came,” he said. “He want me to be Gelaming, so I be Gelaming.”
“And what Thiede wants, Thiede gets?” Mr Murthy enquired, trying not to sound ungrateful.
A solemn nod. “Of course.”
He was awoken by the rattle of gunfire and the roar of engines in the night.
Mr Murthy hurriedly pulled on clothes and groped for his shoes in the darkness. He risked peeking out the shutters of his quarters. Muzzle flashes lit up the streets outside the Institute’s walls. Dark shapes – whether human or har he could not tell – ran through the night.
Bullets tore through the shutter and he staggered back in shock and then belatedly threw himself to the floor. Someone was shooting at him!
He gave a shriek of fear as the door burst open, and the outline of a figure was faintly visible in the darkness. It took him a moment to recognise the voice that barked urgent commands at him belonged to Jalapata. He crawled swiftly along the floor at the Wraeththu’s urging and once out the door Jalapata pulled him to his feet and hurried him down the stairs.
“There are humans in the grounds,” said the har. “Someone unlocked the gates.”
He was about to reply that of course there were humans in the grounds – that he and Mrs Rao and all the myriad others were humans – when he realised that Jalapata meant that the intruders were humans. That he had said someone not somehar had opened the gates.
He stumbled to a halt as the realisation of that sank in. This was not a gang of Wraeththu raiders attacking, but his own species. Jalapata jerked his arm to get him in motion again. “Come – we have set up wards in the nayati. You will be safe there. The warriors are dealing with them.”
He had no idea what the har meant beyond the word ‘safe’, but he obediently stumbled along in his wake. Sporadic gunfire echoed around the compound. He could hear distant screaming. Jalapata pulled him into the empty warehouse that the Wraeththu had taken over as their quarters. Humans and hara clustered there, some of the garlanded hara painting glowing symbols on the concrete floor.
Jalapata released him and Mr Murthy stumbled to join Mrs Rao, Gayathri and others, many still in their nightclothes. “You are still alive!” Mrs Rao gasped in relief. “I thought the soldiers must have killed you.”
“Soldiers? We are being attacked by soldiers? Why would soldiers want to kill me?” he asked in bewilderment.
“Why wouldn’t they want to kill you?” said Gayathri bluntly. “You collaborate with the enemy.”
He stared at her in disbelief.
Next morning the only sign of the attack were holes punched in walls by bullets, and bloodstains being diligently scrubbed away by young hara. Five of his humans and two of his hara were dead, and there were a number of minor injuries. There were only to be funerals for three of the humans. The hara removed their dead to deal with them in their own way, and Mr Murthy was given to understand that the two remaining humans had been those who had opened the gates to the soldiers. They were to receive no honour in death.
He started to protest this, and then looked at the hard eyes of the Wraeththu who had called the dead kin, and kept his peace. He threw himself into thoughts of silkworms and rearing sheds and pretended that the outside world did not exist.
The re-building work and repairs had been going on for several months when Thiede returned, once again appearing out of nowhere on a pure white horse. He trotted up to where Mr Murthy was supervising the final repairs to the roof of the rearing sheds, and leaned down to offer him an ornately carved box with ventilation holes in the lid. “Your silkworm eggs,” he said.
Mr Murthy took the box eagerly. “How many?” he asked.
“A few thousand. I thought we could start small and build from there.” Thiede turned his horse’s head, starting to ride away.
“Wild moths or a domesticated strain?” Mr Murthy called after him.
Thiede turned in the saddle, called back as his horse picked up speed. “I called the mothers from the wild, but they had the scent of humankind in their aura. I believe that they may be a domesticated strain gone feral.” The sky split and he was gone.
Mr Murthy clutched the box to his chest. He beamed at the hara and humans around him. “Now we begin the real work,” he said.
He had to scold curious hara who kept coming into the hatchery to look at the eggs. “They need to be kept cool and dark to ensure as many hatch on the same day as possible,” he admonished. “Stop disturbing them.”
When he saw someone slip furtively into the hatchery one evening, he thought that it was yet another over-curious young har. Clicking his tongue disapprovingly, Mr Murthy hurried to the hatchery door, ready to deliver another disapproving lecture.
Gayathri whirled round as he entered, a burning rag in her hand. Flames from other piled rags were already licking at some of the precious trays of eggs. A large jar of cooking oil sat at her feet.
He stopped short at the sight. “What are you doing?”
“Killing their precious worms!” Her voice shook with rage. “Why should they have beauty created for them when all they do is destroy? Let them live in rags and ruins like the rest of us!” She threw the final rag and snatched up the jar of oil.
“No!” Mr Murthy grappled with her, trying to wrest the jar from her hands. Oil slopped over both of them.
Gayathri gritted her teeth and barged into him, shoving them both into the flames. Fire raced up their clothing. Mr Murthy screamed, beating at the flames with his hands. Gayathri howled, half in agony, half in triumph and raised the jar above her head, poised to hurl it onto the hatching trays.
Abruptly Jalapata was there. He made a gesture and in an instant all the flames were snuffed out. Mr Murthy staggered back shuddering in mixed relief and pain.
“Gayathri,” Jalapata said softly. “Make peace. It does not have to be this way.”
Gayathri stared at the Wraeththu for a long, drawn out moment. “You are not him! He died. You are not him!” She gave a shriek of rage and fled into the night.
While an older har examined his burns, Mr Murthy watched Jalapata assessing the damage to the hatching shed, separating out the dead eggs from the living. The young har’s features were pinched with grief.
Djebel arrived and took Jalapata in his arms. Mr Murthy looked away, embarrassed, as the two hara comforted each other.
“He was her husband?” he asked the healer quietly.
The har paused in his ministrations and gave him a cool stare. “Such things are best not asked,” he said.
On hatching day the eggs were exposed to bright light early in the morning, to encourage the larvae to emerge from their shells. Now he permitted the rearing shed hara to crowd around, watching as the tiny creatures hatched first in ones and twos, then in droves. They were gently transferred to the rearing trays and given tender, finely chopped mulberry leaves to consume. About two thirds of their surviving eggs hatched. Mr Murthy did not consider that a bad tally for an unknown strain of unknown provenance that had travelled from who knows where on a magical horse.
The larvae ate, shed their skins and grew. His hara got adept at moving them to new trays as the old ones became crowded, and at cleaning away rejected leaves, shed skins and worm excreta. They expressed dismay when some of the worms inevitably died.
The surviving worms matured and were transferred to a cooler, lower humidity rearing shed, and given mature mulberry leaves to consume. Thirty days after the first worm had hatched, Mr Murthy saw the first signs that they were ready to spin their cocoons. It was later than was ideal, but such glitches were only to be expected on the first attempt.
He watched proudly as Jalapata, Djebel and the other hara tenderly transferred the larvae to the mounting frames, and listened to their exclamations of excitement in several languages as the first silkworms began to spin their cocoons. Djebel wanted to stay and watch one particular worm until it had competed its instinctive task.
Mr Murthy tutted. “Foolish child – did you not listen to my lessons? It will take the creature two to four days to make a cocoon. You think you can take a holiday for four days while the rest of us work, eh?”
A few days later he found Djebel weeping over the cocoons that were ready to harvest.
“Whatever is the matter?” he asked. They had successfully raised their first crop – what was there to cry about? Was the har homesick? Had there been some sort of lover’s tiff with Jalapata?
“Do they have to die?” sobbed Djebel. “To make the silk – do they have to die?”
Mr Murthy sighed. “We have been over this many times, Djebel.” He sat down beside the weeping Wraeththu and gave him a tentative pat on the shoulder. To his surprise, the youngster flung himself against him, embracing him tightly as he wept. Mr Murthy froze for a moment, then hugged him back, muttering reassurances as if to a small child.
“We raised them and cared for them and protected them,” Djebel said between sobs. “Now we are going to kill them.”
“If Thiede wants silk, then yes, we will have to kill them. There is no other way to get good quality thread.” Left to their own devices, the moths would hatch, dissolving their way through the silk and damaging the cocoon in the process. You could spin from the ‘waste silk’ left in hatched cocoons, but it was an inferior product, without the full lustre of raw silk. He had explained this more than once to Djebel and Jalapata, and even to Thiede when he had come to inspect the worms’ progress. The prospect of killing the cocoons had not appeared to bother the flame-haired Wraeththu leader.
“It seems so unfair,” sniffled Djebel. The har pulled away and regarded him with solemn, bloodshot eyes
“That is the way of the world, is it not? Unfairness and death, walking hand in hand with beauty?” Mr Murthy thought of the cities that had burned, the death and chaos as civilisation fell. Why should Wraeththu worry that their silk was tainted with the death of insects when their whole species was stained with the blood of humans?
“But we have to make the world better,” Djebel insisted.
Mr Murthy stared back at the exquisite, inhuman creature before him. The species which had inherited the world from humanity. He thought of the beauty of tigers… of lightning… of molten lava… Wraeththu were all that and more.
“It is the way of the world,” he repeated, and for the first time truly believed that Wraeththu were a part of nature and not set aside from it. Part of death and rebirth. Believed that perhaps one day his own soul would be reborn in a harish body. “Only out of death are there born beautiful things.”