The Viveks were in the habit of drinking the milk straight from their bovine friends. They had done so for generations. For everybody else, special ceremonies were needed. Pujas were performed, bhajans were sung. Incense was smoked in cold rooms where buckets of cream were stored. Crystal powder from edible crystals harvested from underground caves was sprinkled into the milk before it was processed for double cream, butter, paneer, an assortment of cheeses, and their trademark khoyya. This khoyya was so thick and sweet it was like eating milk flavoured with honey, with an aftertaste of violets that infused the vision with images of the planetary over-soul. The townsfolk of Rahji grew used to visions and dreams filled with fractals that sang and colours that bled into nothingness. They allowed dark matter to seduce them with every mouthful. They allowed the crystals to infiltrate their bloodstream. They began to be frightened of the taste of chillis. Garam masala became too strong for their palate.
But for the Viveks, the sweetness of the celestial milk reminded them daily of the promise they had made to the Eldest Moon, that sentient moon also known as the Cruellest Moon. And soon, it would be time for them to leave their life on the planet Sesen to voyage through the skies to her demesne.
Chatur, the cream-broker, used to talk to Varna while she milked the cows by moonlight because they could never end their conversations with each other. He listened as she murmured to the cows and soon he could understand them as well. He would read to them the same love cantos he read to woo Varna, from Renduk Mildur’s Kishahara Courtship Cycle. Chatur swore the cows loved the cantos and that the milk they produced was all the sweeter for it. They probably agreed, for did they not low placidly as they recollected the pastures of the Eldest Moon, the craters filled with crystalline goats and sirens who inhabited lunar seas?
“She doesn’t seem so frightening to me,” Chatur said to Varna on more than one occasion as they argued, even in the midst of the sweet-smelling grasses. “And the cows tell such beautiful tales.”
“You’ve never had to suffer because of her, never had to be in her longstanding debt,” Varna would tell him as she allowed him to caress her callused fingers, even as the lowing of the cows lulled them into a trance-like state.
The celestial cows were tame only for the Viveks. The cows had silver horns and their silver hooves were tinted lavender. In daylight, they were placid and solid. At night, they appeared translucent and luminous. When the cows mooed, one could almost imagine the songs of constellations hovering at the edge of consciousness. When one was allowed to taste the untreated milk from the cows, one’s entire reality was re-aligned. One could hear the voices that wove the Grand Complect, and witness the iconographies that shaped all of the collective destinies of the colonists of the planet Sesen.
The windows were left open in the library to let in the pale ochre light of the late afternoon. The breezes from the sea carried both the scent of the frangipani trees and the incense used to smoke the milk of celestial cows. Auntie Lalitha and Auntie Vikneshwari were singing bhajans on the verandah to honour the Eldest of the seven sentient moons. In the kitchen, Auntie Pushpa was roasting spices to be ground into garam masala for onion chutney that would be served with steamed idli and sambar, like every other midweek dinner for as long as the Viveks could remember. It seemed so normal, so normal.
“Akka, do you want to talk about it?” Reva asked Varna.
Varna ignored the question. She was trying to read the occult correspondences Reva was drawing freestyle on a hanging parchment. Pushing back her polka-dotted cotton duputta, she countered with a question of her own, which was to be expected. They were the Viveks, after all. “Are you sure we’ve fixed the right day for our Ascension?” she asked, a customary crease appearing between her finely arched eyebrows, where an ochre pottu had been daubed.
“I am very sure. I know the betrothal complicates matters for us though.” Reva put down her pen and turned around, fixing an inquiring look on her sister. “Particularly for you, akka.”
Varna moved away to turn the corkscrew of the room’s generator. She elected not to answer Reva until the lamps were lit and the desk-light was illuminating the central table in the slow-darkening room.
“Actually,” Varna said, “the betrothal is rather fortunate for us. It will occupy the townsfolk, which means that we will be able to execute our plans with less interference.”
As she spoke, she shuttered the windows. The mosquitoes came out at dusk.
Reva looked up then. “Would it not mean that we would be harassed to keep helping with the betrothal? We need to Ascend when the Eldest Moon is at her closest to Sesen, after all.” Reva threw Varna an irritable look. “Of course they’d want to hold the betrothal then, on the night that all of my calculations have said is optimal.”
Varna shook her head. “I don’t think we’d be that harassed, not really. We’ll deliver our goods and help with some of the cleaning up after the betrothal. We’ll mingle and attend to all the pujas. We’ll be fine. They won’t even remember us.”
“I hope you’re right, Varna akka.”
“So do I. We’ve worked too hard on this, and there won’t be another chance for Ascension, not for another hundred years. The cows are ready and anxious.”
Reva put her pen down and looked at Varna. “Are our brothers still working with the compounds in the woodshed?”
“Yes, they are. The Aunties are composing the pujas we’ll need. To fortify our soul, if nothing else. Honestly, I think it’s up to the cows, not us.”
“I tend to agree. Look, are you sure you’re fine?”
Varna avoided her sister’s knowing look. “I’m fine, Reva. Really. Just leave it be, please? I’ve recovered. I’ve had my heart broken before, remember?”
“If you say so. But if you need to change things, if you want to stop the betrothal, I really do not think it’s too late. We’ve read in some of the more apocryphal accounts that in-laws are allowed to Ascend as well, so long as they drink the cream. And I know Chatur has done so. Kirin could have, if she wasn’t already a daughter of the Courtesan Moon.”
Over the years, they had softened the exact nature of the agreement by calling it “The Promise,” but Varna always felt it was a ridiculous euphemism for what it really was. Her ancestors had sold over their entire family. Lock, stock and barrel to a capricious alien entity that possessed the silver moon and turned it sentient. Varna knew her siblings too were giving up more than they wanted to give up. Her brothers had always been taciturn about their personal affairs but everyone agreed to make their goodbyes, and to do it before the day arrived. Reva for instance cradled the loss of her mate, Kirin, and their children. Kirin could not accept the Ascension and so had filed for a divorce.
Varna steeled herself against her own rebellious thoughts and said, “There’s nothing to fix. It was too late before it ever began. You know I had to send him away. You left your family. I’m not entirely sure you should have done so.”
“There was no choice. I’m the only astral navigator we have. Clearly I have to lead the way,” said Reva. Her breath was a shuddering exhalation, the quality of it not unlike the steam-powered khoyya-machines when they were winding down after the third hour.
Tactfully, Varna said, “I need to be with the herd now. They need to be soothed. I think they’re afraid too.”
Lately, Varna’s sleep had been disturbed every night by the distressed lowing of the celestial herd, and when she did sleep, her dreams were even odder, crystalline in their intensity, filling her senses with an alien cognition that took her breath away with both fear and with a longing that guided her diligent work on the charts as much as the nightly bhajans sung by the Aunties soothed her fears.
“Once, a long time ago, it was said that your family attempted to travel to the Eldest Moon, and failed. Why did they fail?” asked Chatur the night before she had turned down his proposal and sent him away.
“I think they did not have accurate charts—and their calculations for the conjunction of the moons and the neighbouring planets were off by a couple of weeks,” Varna said. “Some said their heart wasn’t in it.”
“I don’t blame them,” Chatur said. “Who would want to travel to some unknown destination, not knowing if it would lead to death or transformation?”
“Some promises must be kept,” Varna said that evening, her eyes slanted downwards, urging herself not to express what she wanted to confess.
She thought of that moment often but never more than on the evening when she attended Chatur’s betrothal to Anjali, the Mayor’s daughter.
The Mayor of Rahji was an imposing man with an equally imposing handlebar moustache. He held court in the middle of the town square with his assistants and the head merchants who answered to him and his bank account, bidding everyone, “Welcome, welcome! Welcome to my beautiful daughter’s betrothal!”
Anjali was a doe-like woman with nervous eyes constantly turned towards either her father or Chatur for approval. Sometimes in her delicacy Varna could almost discern the imprint of the Pearl upon her, what was also known as the Rabbit Moon.
That night, Chatur lurked beside Anjali in an awkward, morose silence, not looking as though he approved of anyone, especially not himself. Almost, Varna felt sorry for Anjali, who looked lost and miserable. She looked as though she was attending a wake, rather than her own betrothal. Varna watched Chatur for far longer than she wished. It was going to be the last time, she told herself. Chatur glanced up, and met her eyes across the square, across the horde of townspeople in their glittering kurtas, sarees, and salwar khameez.
Later, the crowd jostled them together when she was trying to get to the town hall where the weekly devotionals were being held. Chest to chest they stood, and stared at each other as people pushed past them to get to the long tables full of sweetmeats on the four corners of the square.
“Varna,” Chatur began, as they discreetly tried to untangle themselves from an accidental sweaty embrace. So close, they could hear the jagged rhythms of each other’s heartbeat.
“Chatur, my felicitations upon your impending betrothal,” Varna said, her tone and demeanour caked with awkwardness. She fought against the headiness of proximity. Oh, it felt like it was too much for her to bear!
“Oh, forget the dreadful formalities. You know I don’t want to do this. I know now you don’t want this either. Why did you put us through this torture?” Chatur’s voice throbbed with melodramatic verve, which was to say, he was only being what he always had been.
Varna looked away in bemusement from the naked longing, a mirror to her own feelings. She pushed away emotion. “And yet, you’re betrothed now. You did ask Anjali for her hand in marriage. And who could blame you?”
“Varna, you sent me away—no decent man would stick around when so obviously not wanted. Besides, her father’s my employer. I really didn’t have much of a say when he decided I should marry his daughter. I never even asked for her hand in marriage, to be honest. He just said, ‘Marry her, or lose your job.’ It was probably decided in his mind before he sent me to your farmstead. I think of Anjali as my sister. And as for Anjali, she likes women far more than she likes men. Neither of us wants this.”
“You decided to marry to secure your job. As for Anjali, it must be rough living with that brute of a mayor. That’s reasonable enough, I can’t fault you for that. So, why are you talking to me now?”
Chatur moved sideways, parting the crowd so she could attain the town hall.
Later that evening, Varna stepped out of her homestead to stare east. The farmstead of the Viveks lay thirty furlongs away from the town. Eastwards, the hills undulated gently down into meadows, the meadows spread towards the soft sand of the beaches, onwards toward the sapphire-blue sea. The world was so small here on the outskirts of Sretonvi. On the other side of the bay lay the larger section of the crescent-shaped island, where the rest of Sretonvi sprawled, a partially urbanized expanse of land. Their extended family lived there. The Viveks could have moved there were it not necessary for the work that they had to do. The cows would not move.
The world was so small. So small.
The world had need of tartness and solidity. People had need of sour creams, and crème fraîche, and yogurts, and stinky cheeses. They would miss it if it were gone. They even had need of unlovely wizards who wrote epicurean tracts until the sun came up in the sky. But she was not the only unlovely wizard in the world, and across the bay, she would not be viewed in the same way as she was viewed in Rahji. More women who looked like her existed across the bay, with their rich brown skin, and their snub noses, and their propensity for heat and chillis in their cooking, with fiery sambars paired with steamed idlis that rivalled the idlis made by Auntie Lalitha and Auntie Pushpa. She had yearned to be there for far longer than their annual family visits. Sadly, that could not be the fate of the eldest Vivek born of any generation. She was responsible for the celestial cows, especially now, this close to Ascension.
Varna pulled out a short, three-legged stool. Always best to milk the cows by moonlight. Three hours later, exhausted, she dragged herself to the wash-shed to sluice away the efforts of the day. When she emerged from the shed in a simple woollen robe, her hair caught up in a towelled turban, Chatur was waiting. He was seated on the bench outside of the kitchen, nursing a black eye and a bleeding lip. His ceremonial kurta was torn in places. It was painfully evident that he had been beaten up, and by more than one person.
“Oh Chatur,” Varna said with a sigh, moving closer to inspect his wounds. “Do you want to tell me what has happened, or should I guess?”
He fixed her with a tight-lipped smile. “I couldn’t go through with the betrothal,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair to Anjali when I’m in love with you. I can’t do it, Varna. If I can’t be with you, I’d rather be alone. I respect your decision not to be with me, but I thought you should know. I’m probably a fool but I just needed to be here. I’m sorry.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re not declaring you’d die without me, or beating your chest,” Varna said.
Chatur’s tight-lipped smile oddly became a grin at that.
“Chatur, it’s unconscionable to break a betrothal, and breaking a betrothal with the daughter of Rahji’s Mayor? That’s asking for trouble.”
“I rather think I got into trouble already. You should have heard the Mayor rant and rave. I really think he would have killed me there and then. So, perhaps you could spare me the lecture?”
Varna removed her towel from her head, and tried to wipe at some of the bleeding on his chin before edging away.
He looked at her earnestly. “I obeyed when you sent me away. I thought you did it because you didn’t care, and I didn’t want to be a pest harassing you. But I saw you looking at me tonight. I saw the pain. I would never have entered into a betrothal with Anjali if I knew you cared.”
Varna couldn’t bear to see how beaten up he was, so she said, “Look, I think you need to come into the kitchen so I can treat you.”
He groaned in pain as he slowly got up from the bench. Varna secured the knot of her robe, and held open the kitchen door. She leaned to assist Chatur, who was slightly shaky on his feet. “I suppose the Mayor and his goons did this?”
“Of course. I managed to give them the slip after my friends joined the brawl.”
“They might look for you here, and that’s the last thing we need right now!”
“Why is it the last thing you need right now? Tell me?” Chatur asked, but his eyes told her he already knew.
“It’s a family ritual. We need privacy for it. Look, sit here and I’ll make a poultice for your bruises.”
“Varna, come on. I know you’re Ascending. Take me with you if you must go. Don’t leave me here! I’m not afraid of it, and I’d give everything up to be with you. You have to believe me!”
“Shut up now, I need to concentrate.”
Obediently, Chatur allowed Varna to tend to him, even though the words were still swelling in his chest. “You’re crying. I hate this. I hate that you’re doing this. Let me be with you. Or don’t go at all. I mean, it was so long ago, and your family already failed Ascension a couple of times. Why not let future generations have this headache? The Eldest Moon doesn’t seem anxious to claim you Viveks, anyway.”
Varna slapped the icepack she had been applying to his bared shoulder down upon the holding bowl. “Chatur. I am not happy that you ended the betrothal and got yourself all beaten up. As for Ascension, yes. It’s happening. No, you’re not going to interfere. You’re not a Vivek. I don’t want you in harm’s way.”
“Nothing is impossible. Surely the mistress of the celestial cows should know that?”
Varna turned towards the kettle that was bubbling on the small, charcoal-fuelled stove. She poured some of the hot water into the bowl that held the herbs and powders she had mixed to remove Chatur’s pain, and to clot the blood on the wounds.
“Drink,” she said, in a firm tone of voice.
Chatur carefully blew on the hot liquid as he sipped. By the time he was done with the drink, his eyes were heavy-lidded. “And now you’ve resorted to drugging me? That’s a very low blow.”
“Look, I love you, okay? Silly man. But you need to get well, and this potion will help your wounds heal fast. Now, take this cushion, and have a nap. And don’t throw your life away on me. I won’t let you. I want you to be here on Sesen where it’s safe.”
“That’s still a low blow, doping me up before you have the guts to…”
Varna placed the cushion underneath his head just in time.
Entering her bedroom, Varna pulled out her most serviceable salwar khameez, made of light-blue denim drawstring pants and a woollen top for colder nights. It would be cold, very cold on the Eldest Moon. If they survived the journey.
Reva poked her head in. “He’s now asleep on the sofa in the library. The boys have distracted the Mayor’s goons by saying that Chatur was last spotted limping towards the harbour. They’ve jumped on their bicycles and are headed there.”
“Good. You need to ask Kabir to escort him off our homestead. We can’t have any witnesses. Perhaps we could leave him with one of his cousins?”
“I think he might be crying in his sleep, akka.”
“Why do they have to be such babies?” Varna did not want to leave him behind, but she could not ask of him what she was afraid to do herself.
“This one might actually really love you. The way Shashi did before you sent him away. And you know you love him. We all know that. You were scared. And you always send them away.”
“If he really loved me, why did he get engaged to Anjali?”
“You hurt him. And you know the Mayor is a big thug. What else did you think was going to happen? But it’s not too late.”
“It’s too late. We’re leaving. These considerations will not matter there. We can’t bring him along! We don’t even know if we’ll survive Ascension!”
“If you insist, we’ll get him off the property. Appachi is in the work-shed with the Aunties and Ramesh. Ramesh says the machines are ready, and so is the device. We need to bring the cows in soon.”
“Great. Are you ready for this, Reva?”
Reva’s eyes betrayed the same uncertainty Varna was feeling, along with a profound sadness.
“The over-soul is waiting for us, akka. We’ve known for generations that there would be a price for all that we’ve enjoyed through the cows. We knew we had to offer ourselves to the Eldest Moon.”
Varna inhaled, only now admitting to herself that there were night-moths flapping their wings at the base of her belly. “But what will become of us when we’re there?”
“Who knows what the Eldest Moon will require of us? The over-soul is strongest there. The over-soul has been compassionate to us, but also vengeful. Who knows what aspect she will take there?”
Varna reached out to place a hand over her sister’s fist, saying, “We all do not know what will happen. But I know one thing for sure. You should not be making this trip.”
“What? Isn’t it a little late to—”
“Your life is here, Reva. Kirin and your children are waiting. I don’t think we actually need a navigator, to be honest. The cows will know their path. But if we do—I have memorized the charts.”
“But akka,” Reva protested.
“You know I am right. Please. Spare me at least this heartbreak. Let me know when I leave with the rest, that my sister is here, happy with her wife and children.”
When the Eldest Sister made up her mind about something, no one could argue with her. Reva, however, had another thing to say. “That will leave one cow without a passenger, akka. Besides, Chatur has touched the cows, and has survived drinking the milk untreated. You know what that means.”
“I cannot expose him to that risk.”
“Perhaps you could ask him if he’s willing to take the same risk? No relationship can exist without these negotiations. No relationship can exist without consent. I know you say you don’t want a relationship—but is this true? And if it’s true, you’re going to have to be the one to decide, to let him know. You’re going to have to grow up enough to let yourself fall in love, akka. That’s the one thing you’ve never been able to do.”
“Grow up? Of all the cheek!” Varna’s protest did not hold too much heat.
Reva chuckled and planted an affectionate peck on her sister’s cheek. Varna was silent, but the struggle was plain to see on her expressive features. Reva did not press the issue. An idea had been placed in Varna’s head, and perhaps that was enough. Varna was a woman entitled to make her decision.
She had one last chance to decide what she wanted—one way or another.
All of the machinery needed to power the Ascension had been positioned carefully in the diamond-shaped clearing between the sluice-sheds, the work-sheds, the buttery and the other outlying huts of the homestead.
Her three aunts were completing the diagram on the ground.
A soft lowing sound was heard as the celestial cows entered the clearing, almost in single file. Varna walked towards the eldest cow and curtseyed before it. She may have looked a little dishevelled and flushed. The cow nudged her up with its head. Varna stared into its liquid eyes, and saw the wisdom of the Eldest Moon reflected there. Reverently, they waited as the celestial cows entered the diamond-shaped diagram. All twenty-four of them, unchanging in the centuries since the South Asian Arrivals had settled on Sretonvi, even as their communities and their beliefs changed, and shifted.
Each living member of the Vivek family put their arms around one of the cows. Each living member, except for Reva, whose heart was with a woman of the Courtesan Moon. Quietly, she handed the charts to Varna, who kissed her sister goodbye.
“Be happy, my love,” she whispered to the weeping Reva.
The Eldest Moon reached her zenith in the night sky.
The people of Rahji were completely insensible to the moment when twenty-three members of the Vivek family flew up to the Eldest Moon that shone brilliant silver. They did not see the luminescent flames of violet that streaked behind the hooves of the celestial cows. They were too caught up in the tragedy of a cancelled betrothal and the intrigue of an absconding broker. The Eldest Moon had never been so radiant in all of the centuries since the Arrivals settled on Sesen. The next time she would shimmer with similar brilliance would be the night when all seven sentient moons consumed the planet they had been protecting. Varna and her family did not know this. Where they were heading, this knowledge would be irrelevant. What they were turning into would consider this knowledge trivial.
Of little note.
“Be kind to my family,” whispered Reva to the Eldest Moon, the whisper a combination of a wish, a prayer, and a half-formed threat. Her journey was not over by far. She would have to convince Kirin to take her back. She would have to mourn her family for the rest of her days.
One may only speculate as to the events that led an Eldest Sister to wake up a drowsy man sprawled on a couch where they had sat side-by-side for many evenings. Hands were held, an earnest conversation took place beneath the cold light of the Eldest Moon that coruscated through unshuttered windowpanes.
“But are you sure, Chatur?” Varna asked after they had hammered out the details.
“I’ve never been more sure. If you’re going to be in danger, I want to be in danger with you. If you’re going to have an adventure—let me be there for you. Let me be a part of it. I…I can’t believe you’re considering this.”
“Perhaps I’ve taken leave of my senses. Or perhaps I’m finally waking up to them,” Varna said as she pulled Chatur towards her. He gave her a crooked grin as she put her arms around him, and they half-sat, half-sprawled on their couch.
Outside, the cows mooed with approval in the silence in which no words were spoken. The couple were so preoccupied, they did not even notice three bovine heads peeking into the window.
“Is it too much to wish that we had time to do more than this before we Ascend?” Chatur murmured into her jasmine-scented hair.
“Why, Mr. Cream-Broker. How forward of you. Are you open to negotiations for a small window of time?” Varna was surprised to realize how easily flirting came to her.
“How small a window of time are we talking?” Chatur asked as he buried his fingers into her hair.
“Well, everyone will be in the courtyard in about forty minutes. That gives us at least thirty minutes here. Thirty-five if we’re able to get dressed and sprint towards Ascension in five minutes.”
“Say no more, Varna. Say no more.”
When the festivities were done in the morning, a very distressed mayor with an excessively oiled handlebar moustache disturbed the tranquility of Rahji. He was found running around with a machete because the villain who had jilted his daughter had disappeared, along with the cows, along with the Viveks. The Mayor was not the most brilliant man in Rahji, but he was still able to put two and two together.
The entire economy of that small town was affected by the disappearance. The people of Rahji soon learned to content themselves with the milk from normal cows, and those of the mountain goats. A decade later, their palates had reacclimatized themselves to spice and heat, much needed after centuries of being fed the richness of celestial milk. Curries returned to their diet. Rahji became famous for its spiced chutneys, fragrant masala teas infused with ginger and cardamom pods, fiery sambars, and the most delectable aloo matar samosas that could be found on Sretonvi.
No one in Rahji ever dreamed of the over-soul, or saw visions of baby universes again.
But on the moon, oh, on the wicked Eldest Moon, an astounded family was discovering that they had survived their exodus. The Viveks had a brand new adventure ahead of them—of carving out life from nothing at all but the dubious magnanimity of a surly over-soul who was not entirely sure what to do with the family that had become uneasy lunar inhabitants.
As for the cream-broker and his love, well. We can safely assume they lived happily ever after.
Even the Eldest Moon could not deny them that.
Story copyright © 2019 by Nin Harris
Artwork copyright © 2019 by Diana M. Chien
Nin Harris is an author, poet, and tenured postcolonial Gothic scholar who exists in a perpetual state of unheimlich. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post- apocalyptic fiction, planetary romance, and various other forms of hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and The Dark.
Diana M. Chien is an illustrator, writer, and scientist. She teaches at MIT.