In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

Sadhus in Trouble

Copyright © 2004 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved.

I

Sadhus in Trouble

     The tank treads broke the cobblestones like the barking of Hell; the stones gave up their liberated spirits with sounds of gunfire or snapping bones. As dust and the shrieking moans of hot metal filled his small beehive of mud, Dharmendra remained as he was, as he had always been, folded closed against the illusion of the universe. He wore only skin and hair — coiled reams of gray hair that spilled from his head and face, cascaded down his thin brown body, hard as cliffs, to pool across the dirt floor.

     The tank halted on the protesting stones, engine idling like the thudding heart of a tiger. Dharmendra breathed deeply of the hot diesel fumes, the stinging breath of the beast.

     The Captain dismounted the tank, his black boots crunching in new gravel. His shadow filled Dharmendra’s doorway. He was clad in darkest green, with a red beret; his dark skin made his nails and eyes luminous in the half-darkness of the mud hut.

     “Master,” he said with only the slightest of tremors.

     Dharmendra sat as he had for the last one hundred and one moons, folded calmly in the lotus, eyes closed.

     The Captain cleared his throat and rested a jittery hand on the butt of the pistol at his hip. “Master, the Americans are here — or maybe the Europeans — it’s so difficult to tell these days.”

     Dharmendra sighed behind heavy lids. Presently, he spoke. “Eight years have I sat thus, Captain. Eight years, and I have not been moved. I chose this place, next to the road, above the bazaar, for the challenge it posed to my meditations. I have surpassed much in these short years — the noise, the people, the building of this mud tomb by the misguided faithful — but it is all nothing more than the turning of the Wheel of Life.”

     “And what is coming now,” said the Captain quickly, “I can tell you, is no mere inconvenience — it is horror!”

     “Nothing more than another turning of the Wheel.”

     The Captain’s nostrils flared. “I tell you it is the Wheel stopping. How can a learned Master such as you not know this truth? When the birds fled and the people did not — how could one such as you misread this omen? Lord Shiva closes His eyes upon us and you would do nothing!”

     Dharmendra simply breathed. The air beat in sympathy with the thrumming tank engine. “If it is as you say, there is nothing to be done.”

     The Captain groaned and beat his fist into his own thigh. Dust burst golden into the shafts of sunlight that fell around his taut form. He wheeled and strode to the tank, mounted it; with a shout the tank roared and crunched down the road, followed by others of its kind. Their sounds faded, dropped down beneath the soft popping of distant artillery, and then the screaming began.

     Within the space of breaths (Dharmendra did not lose count, for there was no point in counting breaths) the Captain returned to the hut, heralded only by the unsteady crunch of his boots in the gravel and his breath that came labored and wet. Again, his shadow filled Dharmendra’s doorway, though his shadow was now diminished, lopsided. This Dharmendra felt through closed eyes. The Captain coughed, and Dharmendra smelled blood.

     “Only you,” the Captain burbled, “Only a learned Master can face such a thing.” He began to cough in short, hacking coughs, each one ending in a suppressed whimper.

     Dharmendra opened his eyes, and the universe, such as it was, slid into him.

     The Captain’s arm was torn free from its socket; the uniform on that side was flayed and wet. In his last hand, he held a grenade. Dharmendra’s eyes slid to the grenade.

     The Captain looked down at it as well, and they both realized, simultaneously, it was live.

     “Ganesha’s tusk,” spat the Captain, and held the grenade close as he turned his back on Dharmendra. With a singular profusion of noise he hurtled backwards into the hut, striking the back wall and sliding down next to Dharmendra, smoking.

     He lay like that as Dharmendra breathed the acrid air, ears ringing, eyes stinging. Suddenly, the Captain’s uniformly shredded face was interrupted by the wide white of eyes and teeth.

     “They’re — worse,” he gasped and gave forth his final breath.

     Dharmendra sighed deeply, and coughed on the rough, stinking air. He unfolded and rose, his hair and beard hanging like mummified snakes. “It is better to live, fateless,” he whispered after a time, “than be an instrument of the divine, planted irrevocably in the path of a destiny.” He regarded the body for a moment longer, the echo of his words a pain upon his heart. The doorway beckoned brightly. Dharmendra lingered over the steaming corpse, listening to the ringing in his ears, the summoning bells of the gods. Then he turned and stepped through the doorway as a child might.

     The street had been paved at great expense by an ancient and venerable raja in the days when demons stalked the Earth. That those times should come again, on this street, only spoke to the eternal balance of all things in accordance with the will of the gods. The sun pierced the center of the sky with silent heat, warming the broken stones and broken bodies of soldiers alike. Military trucks, some with backs of empty canvas and some with large metal containers, flanked the road on either side. Deserted houses stood beyond, low and simple, their empty windows and doors making them look not unlike the startled dead. A theadbare curtain came alive, possessed by the breeze.

     Two figures stood in the street, naked and brown. The larger one spoke.

     “Master Dharmendra! I see you too have been roused from your mortifications.”

     “And how were yours progressing, Madhukar?”

     Madhukar shrugged, tickling the small silver bells pierced through the flesh of his broad shoulders. “Standing on one leg is easy enough.” He curled the toes of one foot under and cracked his ankle. “Foot’s asleep, though.”

     Dharmendra looked to the smaller of the two, a boy of perhaps twelve whom he did not know. He had a smooth, wide face and eyes that gleamed; his hair was beginnning to grow past his neck, and not yet matted. The boy wore a five-stone weight pierced through his lingam, stretching it into the shape of a sitar. It hung nearly to his knees. “And who might you be?”

     The boy swallowed, eyes wide.

     “This is Ajeet,” said Madhukar proudly, “My disciple.”

     Dharmendra smiled as best he could, creasing his face with innumerable wrinkles. “Is he as promising as you were?”

     Ajeet spoke up. “Learned Master — just this morning did I wrap my genitals in plaster, there to stay for the rest of this life. I broke it to be more ready for my duty this day, and yet, it did not feel right to come to the fight naked.” He gestured to the weight and his mortified lingam.

     Madhukar shrugged again, musically. “What can I say — he’s a good kid.”

     At the far end of the road, in the direction of the sea, a mob undulated toward them.

     Dharmendra took his place in the center of the road, between his disciple and his disciple’s disciple. “So this is why we have been summoned,” he said.

     “Yes,” replied Madhukar, squinting. “But by whom?”

     Dharmendra chuckled. “Shall we now deal in rhetoric, Learned One?”

     Ajeet beheld the mob with his wide eyes. “We are summoned by the gods,” he said reverently.

     Madhukar threw him a pinched look. “I got that.”

     The mob worked its way up the hill in fits and starts, unsteady and silent.

     Madhukar shifted from foot to foot, stretched his long-muscled arms over his head. He bent sharply at the waist, stretching. His bells jangled. “Damn them for their sloth!”

     They saw then what slowed the mob’s advance — as they walked, stiffly, slowly, an occasional one at the front would stumble and fall, and so others would fall upon him, and when they rose they were fewer in number.

     “Who are they?” Ajeet squeaked.

     “The Americans,” replied Madhukar, “or the Europeans. It’s so hard to tell these days.” He tilted his head and cracked his neck audibly.

     The mob reached the crest of the hill, silent still, and stopped a hard stone’s throw away. They stood swaying beneath the noontime sun, their flesh split and peeled back from still-moist bones. Their numbers filled the street.

     Dharmendra spoke. “Madhukar, bind my hair.”

     Madhukar stood motionless, his feet like broken stones.

     “Madhukar! Do as I say!” Dharmendra’s eyes never left the dead.

     “Ajeet –” croaked Madhukar, “do as the Master commands.”

     Ajeet looked to Madhukar, blinked, then quickly stepped behind Dharmendra. He took hold of the Master’s beard, and hair, thick as the branches of a tree, and knotted them with deft hands behind the Master’s back.

     Madhukar’s bells rang lightly. “There –” he began, “there are so — many of them.”

     “Is that the voice of fear, disciple?”

     “No –” Madhukar replied.

     “I am sure we are all aware that they are many,” said Dharmendra, “and we are few. Have you now, at this moment, forgotten who you are?”

     Madhukar shuddered. His bells called sweetly. “No.”

     “Good,” said Dharmendra. “Then make ready.”

     The dead stood, their glistening heads weaving like cobras.

     Three hearts beat.

     A newspaper sheet curled and lifted from the ground. It wove through the air between the living and the dead. MADNESS IN THE WEST! declared the serpentine headline.

     The dead seemed to come to a decision, and began a shuffling advance.

     With a cry, Madhukar charged them in return. Ajeet followed. Madhukar gripped the first one by throat and groin and lifted it quivering over his head. The thing clawed at Madhukar and made to bite him; Madhukar flexed and tore it in twain, stripping the spine and skull, as a unit, from the rest. He hurled the body into its advancing brethren and began to beat them back fiercely, wielding the spine and skull as a mace. His eyes shone like angry jewels. The bells upon his shoulders played a vigorous requiem.

     Through his chaos darted Ajeet, performing small acts of extrinsic full-contact yoga, pulling here, twisting there, until joints slick with decay came undone.

     They fought long and well beneath the amused sun, but were eventually pressed back to their initial position, beside their Master, by the unquenchable and innumerable dead.

     “Master,” panted Madhukar, “they are too — numerous.”

     Dharmendra nodded. “What do the dead require?” he asked.

     Madhukar’s head snapped to face Dharmendra, brows knit, mouth agape. “A foolish question!”

     The dead strode nearer.

     Dharmendra raised his brows. “Who is the fool now?”

     Madhukar pressed his palms together and bowed. “I beg your pardon, Master.”

     “Granted,” Dharmendra said. “Now, what is it the dead require?”

     An armless woman, her face and hair worn like a soiled scarf about her neck, jogged to the head of the pack in anticipation.

     Madhukar’s body remained clenched in a low stance; his rapid breathing rang the bells across his shoulders. “They require nothing!” he shouted.

     “Forgive me, Master — but that is untrue.” It was Ajeet. “The dead require only the cleansing of flame.”

     Dharmendra nodded, closing his eyes, then pressed with his mind and crumpled the fuel truck. It burst with a loud, hollow sound, showering the bulk of the dead in petrol. The sharp smell was a welcome relief from the charnel air.

     The dead paused.

     “Ajeet,” said Dharmendra, “produce flame.”

     “But –” Ajeet protested, “I have not the power!”

     “Use your mind,” replied Dharmendra, “and quickly.”

     The dead walked again, the air above them rippling with fumes.

     Ajeet cast about desperately, then spied the folded corpse of a soldier on the side of the road. He ran to it and pulled back the coat, digging into the pockets.

     “Ajeet!” screamed Madhukar, bells ringing with the hard words. “Do as the Master commands!”

     “He is,” stated Dharmendra.

     Ajeet pulled the gold lighter from the soldier’s pocket and flipped it open, struck it once, twice and then pitched it with a boy’s practiced overhand into the crowd of living dead.

     The air itself burst like a fruit made of fire. Sudden heat washed over the three sadhus with a furious noise. The flame wound itself lovingly about the dead, over them and through them, binding them all in a massive pyre that burned bright and hot. And still, they continued forward.

     “Now they are afire!” Madhukar yelled. He threw his mace of bones clattering against the cracked stones.

     Dharmendra frowned. “If you learn nothing from me, disciple, learn patience.”

     The dead began to slow, three strides away, then the length of a woman; they dropped to their flesh-scoured knees, their beings sublimated into a column of black smoke — a single, hot breath away, then a heartbeat, and they crumpled as one, their heat-crackling bones scorching the road as tongues of flame licked the last of their succulent marrow to dust.

     “Master?” Madhukar breathed.

     “Yes, my recently educated disciple?”

     “I never want to do that –” He indicated the smoldering pyre. “Ever again!”

     At the edge of the sea, they found the Carnival Cruise Fun Ship, beached. It rose above them, gleaming in the setting sunlight, ivory cliffs topped with a fortress of glass. Flags, tattered and faded, snapped in the chill wind as great flocks of carrion gulls screamed and churned above.

     “This is how they came,” Dharmendra stated. “They filled these vessels to capacity, packed corpse upon corpse.”

     “And set them loose upon the world,” Madhukar finished.

     Ajeet kicked at the sunset-pink sand, his weighted lingam swaying.

     Further down the coast, an oil tanker languished in the shallows, its deck tilted ominously toward the beach.

     Madhukar shivered with slight music. “What shall we do?”

     “What would Lord Krishna say,” Dharmendra asked, “standing next to you, facing this peril before us?”

     Madhukar smiled. “Who’s dealing in rhetoric now?”

     “Call me admonished, clever disciple.” Then, “What do you know of the Americans?”

     “They are sexless flesh-eaters,” interjected Ajeet.

     “Good movies,” said Madhukar.

     Dharmendra grunted and turned his face to the sun setting in the west.

     “We go to America,” he said quietly.

     It was night, when the goddess Ratri slides her black velvet floss to the stones of the Earth, engulfing all in her humid darkness, when they left.

     They flew across the sea, Dharmendra folded in the lotus and hovering, Ajeet clinging to his back like a monkey. Madhukar was strong enough to fly alone, though he did require his leaning staff to focus his meditations. He hung from it, long and lean, as they flew through the night, and into a gathering storm. When the rain at last lashed them it was a welcome cleansing, though it did nothing to assuage the smell of burning dead that clung to their hair.

II

     The sun broke Ratri’s embrace at their backs, and America lay in twilight before them. They coasted high above the harbor of a great, dark city. Below them, standing in the water, they beheld the green statue of a goddess, possibly Usas, or Sarasvati, her previously upraised arm severed at the shoulder, her head gnawed down to the metal skeleton beneath. She clutched, in her last hand, a book of law.

     Ahead of the trio, the city’s tall towers rose from a multi-colored carpet of stilled automobiles — piled like beetle husks — that spilled out before an empty wharf. All manner of boat or ship was gone.

     They landed beyond the silent city, in the place where the desert sands were overtaking her streets. It was there that they found the river. It was a black scar upon the land, a ribbon that wound westward to the horizon through the sand and rock and wind. It oozed, thick and dark, eastward to disgorge itself into the city, dividing into sluggish and unknowable tributaries among the lightless labyrinth of streets. The river was composed of a thick black fluid, as if someone mixed a mud bath from the ashes of the dead. Dharmendra would not let Madhukar or Ajeet touch it. Not that they tried — the stench was of the hair-curling variety, and therefore nearly beyond description.

     “From here we walk, if for no other reason than because we are able.” Dharmendra looked to the other two for dissent, and found none.

     They followed the stinking flow westward through the desert that was all, from horizon to horizon, in day and night — an eternal famine of the Earth — the Earth a dead thing, mummified beneath an unrelenting sun.

     They came across an automobile, half-buried in a shifting dune, doors flung wide. Ajeet stumbled to it and huddled in its small shadow. They rested there awhile, and Ajeet found a hat, and shirt, and trousers, which he put on.

     Dharmendra frowned.

     “But Master,” bleated Ajeet, “the sun burns my skin!”

     “Only because you say it is so, little one.”

     Ajeet fanned his face and panted as the sun slowly evaporated the little shadow. “And there is nothing to drink!”

     “Then drink nothing,” Dharmendra replied.

     Madhukar left to scout ahead.

     When all shadow had become nothing more than insubstantial ripples in the air, Dharmendra spoke. “Are you familiar with the American god, Ajeet?”

     Ajeet thought for a moment. “Only that they eat his flesh.”

     “There is more, much more. Theirs is a desert god, little one, a god of disabundance and drought. He came to them once in the form of a burning bush. Think on this, Ajeet. What can this mean? The desert bush — it is the thing that gives sustenance, shade and comfort — it is life itself, burning. Being consumed. The consumption of life itself — it is the destruction of all human comfort. That was the form their god chose. A wise and forward-thinking form, but such is the way of gods.”

     Ajeet’s eyes widened. “Is their god here, now?” he whispered.

     Dharmendra paused. He rubbed a pinch of gray sand through his fingers, squinted into the merciless sky. “They were known to beg for the divine’s sole attention.”

     When Madhukar returned, he was not alone.

     “Namaste, muthafuckas!”

     The man was scrawny, filthy with grime, clad in dimpled brown cowboy boots, blue dungarees and a dirty t-shirt that had no sleeves. The shirt proclaimed a poorly-rendered sigil of a drunken cowboy hovering above an angry Brahma bull. WHY WALK WHEN YOU CAN RIDE A COWBOY? it declared in bold capitals. But it was his head, his face, that struck them dumb. The flesh of his head — his face — was twisted on his skull, turned to the side like a misaligned sock. One eye, red, burning, glared from beneath tattered lids; the other peeped, glinting, from inside an ear. His nose hung flattened on the side of his head while the bones that should have filled it made his scruffy cheek bulge. His gaping side-slung mouth was slack at the front, hanging from the center of his face and drawn tight to the side where an ear should be; it was filled with a half-skull of teeth, a cocked grin peeled back to the molars.

     “Namaste, muthafuckas!” he spat again.

     Madhukar held him by the end of his leaning staff, with a twist of wire around the wretch’s neck.

     “How –” whispered Ajeet, “how — would an American know the proper greeting?”

     Dharmendra rose gracefully. “It is only natural that any living thing should know the true nature of the universe.”

     “Hey!” the wretch shouted, struggling at the end of Madhukar’s staff, “Hey, old timer! Are y’all here t’ reopen th’ McDonald’s?”

     Ajeet and Dharmendra stared.

     “Cuz, shit! I’m so fuckin’ hungry right now I’d eat a McDickwich!”

     Dharmendra looked to Madhukar. “This aids us?”

     The wretch stopped struggling and blinked with his misaligned eyes. He looked at the three, in turn, up and down. “Are we gonna do yoga or sumpin’ –sumpin’?”

     Madhukar produced a stick, and smacked the wretch in the head with it. “Introduce yourself, wretch — you stand before my Master, now!”

     The man howled and attempted to pull away, then turned and struggled furiously, spitting, to get at Madhukar. Madhukar held his leaning staff fast.

     Dharmendra sighed. “Madhukar, please.”

     “Speak, wretch!” Madhukar shook his leaning staff.

     The man rubbed his twisted head. “Aw, that’s just wrong.”

     “Indeed,” replied Dharmendra, stepping close. “Who are you?”

     The man paused, seeming to consider this.

     “My friends call me Half-Twist — or at least they used t’.”

     “What happened to your friends?”

     Half-Twist peered at Dharmendra through his ear hole. “Oh, they all left like they was s’posed t’.”

     “Left?”

     “Duh — you know,” Half-Twist flopped his arms in exasperation, “went away, like on a cruise. Duh.”

     Dharmendra stepped closer. Madhukar twisted his grip on his leaning staff.

     “Why?” Dharmendra asked.

     Half-Twist cackled. “T’ spread th’ Word! Hallelujah, muthafuckas! For I have been marked by my Lord, as his last faithful servant!” He launched into a fit of cackling, slowed to a wheezy chuckle and then finished, sotto voce, “I just wish that muthafucka’d reopen th’ McDonald’s.”

     “Take us to your Lord,” Dharmendra said.

     Half-Twist brightened. “Oh, that’s why I’m here! To take y’all that-a-way!” He pivoted on his boot heels and pointed with both arms, thumbs up like six-guns, to the westward track of the black river.

     It took weeks. Weeks in which Ajeet accumulated more discarded gear, a canteen, a face-mask and gloves, boots and a parasol.

     Dharmendra continued as he had begun. Naked and lashed by the sun, sand, and wind.

     Madhukar, meanwhile, took to beating Half-Twist more and more severely — beating him when he spoke out of turn, beating him when he stubbornly refused to answer a query.

     Dharmendra continued as he had begun, for the perturbations of the flesh are as nothing.

     At the end of weeks they sighted another black river, on the northern horizon, and then another, to the south. As they walked they saw the rivers converging upon a distant maze of stone canyons, yet far west. A black spire rose from the center of the maze, impossibly tall. It burned red as it swallowed the setting sun night after night, growing larger with each meal.

     Every day, the sand was less, until they walked only upon rocks — rocks blasted and strewn, bent and shaped away from the point where the rivers must converge. They entered the labyrinth of canyons, and it felt very much like a place that would eat suns, and grow larger for it.

III

     The rivers converged at the base of a horrible machine. The machine sat in the center of a deep crater filled with the black flow, rising from it to challenge the sky. The first layer of the machine was a slowly rotating metal disk larger than a city, which distributed the black gore into the crater. The second layer was a mass of throbbing hoses and sloughways that gurgled and gorged themselves from above even as they voided themselves below. The third layer was a massive engine, a mountain forest of pistons and whirling cranks. The fourth and final layer was a bulging, smoothly curved half-sphere, as seen from underneath. They could not guess what it held above, as the clouds themselves decorated its flanks.

     “Huh,” shrugged Madhukar musically, “it’s like a big, evil wedding cake.”

     Everyone turned from the machine to look at him.

     “Well, a Western one, anyway.”

     Half-Twist giggled. “That’s God’s muthafuckin’ Jacuzzi tub, muthafucka!”

     Madhukar was beating Half-Twist for speaking out of turn when the Lord came.

     Fingers so large they seemed as whole awesome beings unto themselves slipped over the edge of the half-sphere, awash in a dark wave of dripping, flowing gore, fingers more numerous than the teeth in the blackened grin of an immolated skull. They glistened and gripped as the black ichor flowed over them.

     “That’s — a lot of fingers,” Madhukar said, awed.

     “Enumerate not that which is false,” cautioned Dharmendra.

     Ajeet crouched and hid his face in his hands.

     The thing pressed itself upward then, amid a monstrous slopping of the wet blackness, sheets of liquid night. Taller than two towers it rose and swallowed the sun whole. The distant end of the thing folded downward and beheld them, swaying and hazy from the monsoons of darkness that dripped from it. The rain of gore, when it finally reached them, was cooled from its long fall.

     Dharmendra supposed it was only natural to think of the massive steaming head as that of a titanic bull, but the horns were not horns, the bulging eyes were not eyes, the lazy, slavering mouth was not a mouth. He felt that the thing beheld him through its flared nostrils which did not sniff so much as they… sought.

     It was an exponential profanity, corrugated with corruption, that the demon should choose the most holy of forms.

     Dharmendra blinked.

     From the thing’s back issued massive tubes, shifting, writhing with obscene growth, from which hung ichor-slicked bead curtains of war dead–bodies strung head to foot in rows longer than cities, the children being both smaller and more numerous in the pattern.

I AM LORD.

     The voice coursed through the ichor, issued from the surrounding rock face of the canyons. It was the air and sky itself.

     Half-Twist fell to his knees and pressed his palms together over his bowed head. Madhukar made a small sound.

     Dharmendra took his first breath in far too long and stepped forward slightly. He squinted upward against the halo of the blotted sun. “That is all?” he said, “You claim ultimate supremacy?”

I DO.

     “Hmmn.” Dharmendra stroked his beard with a shivering hand. He looked up again. “Have you other Aspects?”

I AM ALL.

     Dharmendra’s brows knit. “I know of no demon by that name.” He leaned to the side and addressed the cowering Ajeet. “Take lesson in this, Ajeet, for demons are known to lie.”

     The thing pointed a massive, squirming finger at Ajeet.

THIS ONE IS ALREADY MINE. I CLAIMED HIM LONG AGO.

     “NO!” Ajeet screamed, jumping to his feet. “NO! I am Ajeet!” He began to pull at his protective clothing. “I am Ajeet!” He peeled away a glove but there was another glove beneath. He threw his hat aside and pulled his mask off, but always there was another thing there, a skull cap, sunglasses, scarves to be unwound… He worked feverishly, tugging, pulling, undoing, discarding until there was nothing but a pile of wind-rustled gear.

     “Ajeet!” Madhukar cried, “Ajeet!” He kicked at the pile, scattering things across the ground.

     “Aw, t’ain’t a thang. Shit like that happens a lot ’round here,” shrugged Half-Twist.

     Madhukar stopped as if frozen, stiff, then he turned and pulled out his stick.

     “Madhukar — don’t,” breathed Dharmendra.

     Half-Twist shrieked and made to cover his head with his arms as Madhukar drew the stick back and brought it forward with all that he was, again and again and again, until the screaming stopped and there was nothing but the music of bells ringing in time with the stick tearing through flesh and crashing through dead bone.

     Madhukar leaned heavily on his leaning staff over the ruined form, panting. The broken stick dropped from his wet hand. He looked about, blinking and breathing in time with the subdued bells pierced through his flesh at the shoulders. Then he met Dharmendra’s gaze

     “Oh, Master,” he breathed, “I’ve killed –” He looked down at Half-Twist. “I’ve killed my pet!”

     “What?” Dharmendra’s face lengthened. “What did you say?”

     The rocks and the air laughed then, sonorous and thumping.

     The demon extended a finger toward Madhukar. His body twisted within his skin to the sound of bells and tearing reeds. He writhed inside himself, struggled like an overdue pupa within a chrysalis of flesh. Bare, glistening skull shone from his wide eye holes and startled mouth. He dropped to his knees, and still he struggled.

     Dharmendra closed his eyes. “Lord Shiva,” he implored, “close your eyes to this one, now.”

     Madhukar ceased his struggles and lay down with a final crash of bells.

     Dharmendra opened his eyes and breathed. “You,” he said to the malignant sky, “have no power over me.”

NO? I CAN TWIST YOUR BODY THUSLY —

     Dharmendra’s arm stiffened and pointed out on its own accord and rotated. His shoulder dislocated with a pop.

     Dharmendra smiled. “And so can I.” He wound his arm back into the socket as he raised his leg and seized his ankle, placing it behind his back and over the opposite shoulder. He scratched his nose with his toes.

I CAN TWIST YOUR MIND, ALSO.

     “And what is the mind, demon, but the belief that I am my body? Twist as you will — it is nothing to me. You are unbound and free to go, demon — your worshippers are dead. There are none left who believe.”

NONE SAVE YOU.

     Dharmendra unwound his leg, and squatted, twisting into a good stretch. He squinted. “Interesting. Do you mean to say that if I were to stop believing in you –“

COULD YOU TRULY DENY ALL THIS?

     The demon spread its many arms, filling the sky and reaching almost to unite the horizons.

     Dharmendra paused. Then, “With great effort, but I am capable.”

I WILL NOT ALLOW IT.

     Dharmendra chuckled. “It is not yours to disallow.” And with that he made ready to cease the beating of his own heart.

     The demon realized this and roared with all the thunder and fire of the Earth’s core unspun — but it was nothing more than a breeze upon a child’s face on a sunny day, a child who, watching boats sail in a sparkling harbor beneath a blue universe as broad as Lord Shiva’s opening eyes, remembered she was once, long ago, a sadhu known simply as Dharmendra.

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