In a village nestled high in the mountains of Southern India, a pregnant woman went to catch a magic fish. She carried with her three things: a fresh coconut, a gold bangle, and a fine net woven from her own thick hair. First, she ventured deep into the forest: past where the old banyans fringed the fields on which the village cattle grazed, past the well with vines snaking from its mouth, past the ancient stone temple where the queen of the cobras dwelt. She walked until she reached a clearing of thick grass with a deep pool in the centre. Then she put a stone in her net, cast it into the water, and waited. The sky grew ripe and the sun began to dip. Birds stopped calling, and a chorus of silence filled the air around her. Still she waited patiently, until the air was black as ash and she finally felt a tug on her net. She heaved, and up the net rose, and a large luminous fish the colour of moonlight lay prone inside.
Carefully, she laid the net flat, cracked the coconut open on a nearby rock, and poured the sweet liquid into the fish’s gaping mouth. “I have come to ask for something,” she said.
“Oh?” the fish asked, and it was no longer a fish but a being with skin like ripples. “It must be a very small thing, to fit inside one coconut.”
“I’ve brought more,” the woman said, and held out the gold bangle.
“Your husband gave this to you,” the spirit said.
“That’s not all he’s given me,” the woman replied.
The spirit saw the lines on her forehead and the set of her teeth. “You want me to curse him,” it said.
“Yes,” the woman said, “but I won’t ask for that. Laying a curse is like holding a flame in the palm of your hand. Instead I want you to bless the daughter in my womb.”
“Very well,” the spirit said. “What will you have me do?”
The woman told the spirit, and if it was surprised it gave no indication. Instead it nodded once before disappearing into the water once more. Then the woman quietly burnt the net and the coconut shells, lit a branch to serve as a torch, and made her way back to the village.
Three months passed before she gave birth to a daughter, and named her Kayal in honour of the magic fish who had helped her. The joy she felt upon seeing her child was so great that she did not mind the pain, or the fact that her husband had already slipped out to see beautiful Sunai, whose belly had begun to curve despite her lack of wedding bangles.
In due time the rains came, bringing a bloom of green to the fields and the first bubble of laughter to Kayal’s lips. But when she clapped her hands in joy, a frog leapt from them, astounding everyone present––save for her mother.
“That must be from my side of the family,” she said calmly. “It always skips a few generations.”
Kayal’s father clenched his jaw. “You are a cursed witch,” he said. “I only married you because I owed a favour to your father. If you do not leave the village by nightfall, along with the creature you have birthed, I will throw you both into the well where frogs belong.”
Kayal’s mother did not protest. She held her daughter tightly in her arms and walked out of the hut, past the line where the old banyans fringed the fields, past the overgrown well filled with vines, and to the ancient stone temple which marked the farthest bound of human memory before the deep forest took over. There she sat down and began to rock her daughter, singing and pulling faces until the baby’s wails turned into laughter and clapping. First one frog, and then another and another, jumped from Kayal’s hands and began to hop around.
There was a whisper of scale on stone, and then out of the shadows slid the largest cobra Kayal’s mother had ever seen. She was bigger around than two men put side by side, and even with her head raised off the ground she stretched from one end of the enormous room to the other.
“I smell food,” she hissed.
Kayal’s mother was trembling, but her tone remained even as she held her child aloft. “When she claps, frogs leap from her hands. That is what you smell.”
“How unusual,” the queen of the cobras said.
“It was a blessing from the forest spirit.”
“I remember that evening. You walked past my temple without fear. Tell me, if it was a blessing you sought, why not have her drip with gold or fragrant flowers?”
“I wanted to leave my husband. If my Kayal could produce gold or exotic flowers, he would never have let me take her away.”
The cobra’s hood flared as her great head tilted. “Why not simply leave? Why take the trouble of asking for such a strange blessing first?”
Kayal’s mother stood with her back straight. “When you catch a mouse, O queen, would you let it go free of its own will? Running would have driven him to cruelty in the name of saving his reputation. Better to give him an excuse to discard us without pursuing us. Besides,” Kayal added, “I wanted to repay you.”
“I have no husband and no family to take me in. I thought you might let us stay here if I offered something in return…”
Kayal’s mother had never heard a snake laugh before. “You are a clever woman,” the cobra hissed in a voice embroidered with amusement. “I have known men like your husband, and I would have let you stay anyway. But the frogs are certainly a nice touch.”
That is the end of this story. Others exist, but they must wait to be told under a different moon.
Aditi is twenty-four years old, and her dream job is to haunt a pond in the woods. Until she becomes the forest spirit she's destined to be, though, she'll stick to software engineering and writing fiction. Her work has been published in The Dillydoun Review.
Serge Lecomte was born in Belgium. He came to the States where he spent his teens in South Philly and then Brooklyn. After graduating from Tilden H. S. he worked for New York Life Insurance Company. He joined the Medical Corps in the Air Force and was sent to Selma, Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement. There he was a crewmember on helicopter rescue. He received a B.A. in Russian Studies from the University of Alabama. Earned an M.A. and Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in Russian Literature with a minor in French Literature. He worked as a Green Beret language instructor at Fort Bragg, NC from 1975-78. In 1988 he received a B.A. from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Spanish Literature. He worked as a language teacher at the University of Alaska (1978-1997).