Gita gently pushed the shop door open and walked down two dusty steps into the strangest shop she had ever seen. Outside, the London afternoon wore its bustling way on, as if indifferent to the thin dark girl in school uniform. She looked around her in growing curiosity. Stuffed heads of strange creatures – snakes and buffalo and animals she didn’t recognise – jostled for shelf space next to arcane daggers with odd markings on them. She shuddered suddenly in the cold February sunlight streaming fitfully through the dirty window.
She turned to an old Sikh man sitting behind the oak counter, the white of his turban matching the white of his hair that peeped from under it. He was doing the accounts, and had no time for a schoolgirl. But as Gita stood gazing at him, wondering what impulse had drawn her to this shop, he looked up.
‘Hello, my dear,’ he said politely. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘I’m looking for a present for my mother,’ replied Gita instantly. So that’s it, she thought.
‘Are you indeed?’ replied the man, and he gave her a sharp look from his dark eyes. ‘Well, look around, looking costs nothing.’
Gita turned back to the shop and fingered a pile of oddments on a musty armchair. She found a game of dice, an old necklace, probably gold plate, a series of brass signs, a collection of old bells. She was about to sigh with frustration – there was nothing here for her mother – when she spotted a round, flat talisman out of the corner of her eye. It was a perfect circle, golden in colour and inset with strange symbols. The twirling leaf patterns and scrollwork looked as if they were alive to Gita, and she stopped to stare in fascination. She reached out a tentative hand to touch it. A flash of white light came and went in the instant that her finger touched the talisman, and in that moment she saw a dancing girl resplendent in jewels, then the vision changed into horribly misshapen earrings, corpses dangling as if from a gibbet. Gita snatched back her hand in fright, and sank to her knees.
‘Is something wrong?’ asked the old man solicitously.
‘N- no,’ replied Gita. ‘I’m fine. Please, I want this.’ And she pointed to the talisman, setting her chin firmly.
The old man gazed at her again with his deep-set eyes. ‘A strange choice indeed,’ he murmured, half to himself. ‘Yet perhaps not. It is, after all, up to us whom we revere and worship, if we are able to make an adult choice. Yet for a child – well, I do not know.’ He looked up. ‘You say this is a present for your mother?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ lied Gita, who was now determined to keep the strange object for herself.
‘Then all is well,’ said the man with a sudden smile. ‘Tell your mother to put this talisman under her pillow and she will have a lovely dream. But beware – it must be used once and once only. The dream will not be as other dreams – what she sees and experiences will be real, as real as you and I and this shop,’ he said. ‘If she cuts herself in the dream, she will bleed in truth. If she is poisoned in the dream, she will die in truth. Do you understand?’
‘Y- yes,’ Gita faltered, but she was determined not to let her growing unease show. Quickly she bundled the talisman into the pocket of her blazer, paid him twenty pounds and left the shop. As she got on the bus that went to her home in Camden, she hugged herself with sudden excitement. I won’t give it to mother, I’ll keep it for myself, she thought fiercely, grinning in triumph.
Gita’s mother was English, her father Indian. Her mother had learned to cook Indian dishes, but whenever she was feeling overworked she fell back on her staple Italian-style pasta and rice dishes. It happened so often that Gita never knew, when she came back from school, whether the food would be Italian or Indian. Gita and her mother didn’t see eye to eye. She suspected her mother preferred her younger brothers, Ravit and Tian, because they were boys. Gita had no time for someone like that. Gita’s father worked for the Corporation of London, and because he worked late during the week she often only saw him at weekends. Tonight, she went upstairs willingly, carefully placing the magic talisman under her pillow before she climbed into bed. She settled down to sleep.
She was on an empty plain, which stretched in all directions as far as the eye could see. It was the dark before dawn, the coldest and bleakest part of the night, but heavy with the promise of life to come. Gita got to her feet and looked eastwards, to where a slow light was stealing over the horizon. It was Ushas, the dawn, ever-young and yet ancient and immortal, heralding the new day with fingers of fire, indeed, Fire was her lover. On she came, smiling and confident, driving away the darkness. Gita looked at a point of movement in the centre of the rising sun. The movement resolved itself into a chariot drawn by a young girl and harnessed by six reddish cows. As the light grew, Gita stood rooted to the spot with awe as the chariot drew closer. The figure at the reins was so chameleon-like that every time the fitful light changed she seemed to display a different aspect – now a dancing-girl resplendent in jewels, now a girl fresh from her bath, now a wife decked out for her husband. She had a river of black hair that streamed out behind her like a banner.
Soon the chariot came to a halt before Gita and the woman hailed her.
‘Gita, my child, I am Ushas, daughter of Heaven and sister of Night. Are you willing to serve me?’
‘I- I don’t know,’ faltered Gita. ‘I don’t know anything about you.’
‘Come now, hasn’t your father rocked you to sleep with stories of me, many a time?’ asked Ushas.
Gita felt faint with the effort of speaking to such a dazzling being. ‘Yes, I suppose he has,’ she said finally.
‘Well, to help you decide, perhaps you would like to come with me as I waken the world on this fresh, young morning?’
‘Yes, please!’ said Gita, her eyes shining, forgetting her shyness. She clambered into the chariot and settled herself on a peacock rug amid cushions made with the lightest of bird feathers and embroidered in pure gold. Ushas turned her brilliant dark eyes on the girl and for a moment Gita was transfixed by the light in them. Hidden in their depths was the memory of centuries, thick like dust on old tomes in a library, yet new and fresh as the dew on a rose. Gita smiled with joy, and remembered that this joy was real, not a mere shadow in a dream.
Ushas came up to the folds of darkness, and opened up the treasures hidden within to the fresh morning air. Flowers and trees sprang to life under her gaze. The birds took flight on the wings of her breath. ‘This landscape is in homage to you,’ said Ushas, and Gita noticed that the flowers, trees and birds were those of England, not India. Ushas breathed on a rabbit and it danced out of its burrow and prepared for the morning feed. A farming family in a hut stretched and yawned under her influence, and she ordered them silently to light the fires of sacrifice to her and begin the various duties of their day.
At length Gita found herself back in the centre of the plain where the dream had begun. It was not drab now but alive with the brilliant colours of a sparkling new day. Ushas bent and kissed her on the forehead. ‘So, my little Gita,’ she said. ‘Will you serve me? If you do, one day I shall come for you.’
‘One day,’ repeated Gita to herself, savouring the words, and her heart lifted in anticipation. She stretched out the fingers of one hand and touched Ushas’s fingertips. ‘I will serve you,’ she said simply.
‘It is well,’ laughed Ushas. ‘But remember, do not use the talisman again. Keep it as an ornament only.’ Gita nodded, and then looked down, again struck by awe. When she looked up, there was no longer anybody there, but on the wind was a faint fragrance as of honeysuckle and all around, the light of full day gleamed and glimmered.
Deeply asleep, Gita turned over and began to be lost in a more ordinary dream, which she was to forget on waking. The talisman, which had been glowing strangely while the girl experienced the vision of Ushas, returned to its wonted colour, a dull gold, as if it were merely an object. Eventually Gita awoke, and as the dawn stole between her bedroom curtains she was reminded of Ushas. She sat up and smiled. She fumbled for the talisman under her pillow. It was still there. ‘It was real, it really happened! The man in the shop said so,’ she said aloud, marvelling. ‘And one day I will see the goddess again.’ When she was ready for school, Gita stopped for a moment, looking at the talisman. ‘I will do as Ushas said, and not use it again,’ she resolved. ‘I will lock it in my secret drawer and only take it out to admire it.’
All that week at school, Gita felt something tugging at the back of her mind. She paid little attention to it, as she was a studious girl and enjoyed school. She had no idea what was on her mind. Then came the English class, her favourite lesson, and they were studying John Betjeman. Gita had grown to love his word-paintings of a fast-vanishing England. But today the nagging feeling in her head grew stronger and stronger until she had to give into it. She surrendered, and the world around her grew dim as she focused on the life within herself. ‘Use me again, use me again,’ said the voice. ‘I was bought to be used, do not hide me away, use me again!’
‘Gita! Are you attending to me?’ said the teacher. Gita came back to her surroundings to find the whole class staring at her. ‘This is not like you, come,’ the teacher went on.
‘I’m- I’m sorry,’ Gita stammered. ‘I must have dozed off, I expect I’m tired.’ She looked apologetic.
The teacher said dryly, ‘We are grateful you are once again honouring us with your presence. Now – as I was saying, what is the role of the evocation of the age of steam in those of Betjeman’s poems that you have prepared for me?’ The lesson resumed its course.
When she got home from school that afternoon, Gita ignored her mother’s rather tart command that she help with the cooking, dodged the gibes of her brothers, and slipped up to her bedroom to open the secret drawer and look at the talisman. She slipped it underneath her pillow.
It was black night, and the same plain that Gita had been to before stretched in all directions. Eagerly, she looked for Ushas and the slow growth of the dawn, but in vain. It remained dark, until Gita began to grow nervous. Something shivered in the air before her. She peered into the blackness. There was someone there. Slowly the shadows resolved themselves into the figure of a woman, but what a woman! Her four arms held a sword and the severed head of a giant, her earrings were two corpses and her necklace was made of human skulls. Gita shook where she stood and cowered before the hideous apparition. ‘I am Kâli,’ said the goddess. ‘I will show you how great I am, and then-,’ she broke off and licked her lips with her lolling blood-red tongue, ‘then, we shall see.’
Gita was thinking frantically. How can I wake up? She pinched herself in desperation, but nothing happened. Kâli had stepped back. Out of nowhere the chief of the army of demons appeared, and Kâli rushed at him with her sword. She pierced his side and he let out a great bellow of pain. Gita crawled away to be out of the way of their flailing limbs. Then she stared in horror. Every drop of blood from the demon king gave birth to a thousand giants. They swarmed around Gita until she had nowhere to run. Then suddenly all was quiet again and only Kâli stood there, draining a great vat of blood to seal her victory over the giant army and its king. She gave a triumphant cry as she drained the vat to its dregs, and then turned to Gita who, sick with fear, had got behind a tree. ‘Come now, my young one,’ said Kâli. ‘You are mine now. I hereby take you!’
‘And I challenge you!’ said a voice, old as the hills yet fresh and new with the now-dawning day. As a burst of light came over the horizon, a spot in the middle of the rising sun got larger and larger as it hurtled towards them. It was Ushas, adorned as if for a husband, her bright gaze cleaving the darkness like a sword, the colours of her chariot so dazzling they hurt the eyes. Gita was so overwhelmed with relief that she began to cry. Then Ushas was getting out of her chariot before Kâli and sending the dark goddess fleeing into the night like the memory of a shadow. Ushas stood stern before her. ‘What did I tell you, my dear? A moment later, and you would have been beyond my help. You disobeyed me, child.’ Her brown eyes softened as she saw Gita’s tears. ‘Awake now,’ she said gently. ‘Awake, and forget your fear. Do not disobey me again.’ And Gita awoke, and the light of another day heralded the flight of the shadow of fear. She would tell her mother of the talisman, but she would warn her only to use it once.
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