The Wizard

The Wizard

By Kumar Narayanan

Sometimes, on the coldest of days, I can see only this:

A village, splayed out across the arid desert plain like a withering cloud across the sky. This village, she is wrapped in earthen bunting; thatched roofs and parched streets seething with yesteryear's broiling dust. Filtering in between the scattered houses and the yawning, empty porches is a certain stillness; it is etched in the eyes of the windows, in the soft song of clattering wind vanes, it drips from the rafters in the stead of water, and flows through thirsty gutters. The wind, as the villagers say softly, tousles but never moves.

The villagers-ah! It would seem that they are ghosts; that the life has been bled out of their hearts. Maybe they dream of torrential rain; or maybe in the colors of bleached yellow of the land around them. Their movements are drawn and thin; their eyes flicker, but never flit. They lift one foot long after the other has reached the ground.

This time of year, when the sky is stretched between the horizons out in measured monotonous blue and when the sun will not relent, the villagers are seldom seen. They move slowly in the shade-sleeping and softly talking in the corners of their huts. Every so often, they might scurry across the patches of searing gold sun to the verandah across the street, but only to borrow a pinch of spice and steal gossip.

In the wake of the evening villagers might sortie into the streets; but even then the children's laughter is muted, held in check by the call of mothers and the weight of the sky. Men gather at corners and in the village square, discuss dawn and doom in quiet tones and hollow voices. Soon, the shadows will seize the night, and the villagers will return for a late (meager) supper, before drifting off to bed. Here they live by candlelight.

Marketmen are the only visitors, trekking in from the west across forlorn and fallow fields on a footpath staving off desert weeds. They do not bargain anymore; simply state a fair price-for they have learned this village can not afford to haggle. The marketmen's stay is brief; a mere pause and a few calls advertising his wares, and then he continues on to more fertile towns.

Today, however, in the arms of midmorning there is another visitor. Across the cracked fields to the northeast a black silhouette is spotted by a bricklayer. The form is tall, imposing, and altogether mysterious-there is nothing in north or the east save a few empty fields, ragged grassland and after some distance, expansive and spacious scrub desert.

The form approaches at a careful, thoughtful pace. The bricklayer has stopped work now, and put his soiled hands on his hips. His wife, a few feet away, has also stopped work, and wards off the piercing sun with one hand to peer at what her husband is looking at. Both of them, who have been toiling since the reaches of early morning, cannot recall anyone foolishly venturing forth past their brickyard into the desert from this village.

The bricklayer and his wife screw up their eyes, and can barely resolve his features; the form accrues only more mystery. It is a man, tall, and wrapped in a black cloak. His features are dark, his hands swinging loosely at his sides. His boots are shady and ominous, and underneath his cloak, a brownish tunic peeks out. He is looking straight ahead. The bricklayer and his wife stand stock still for a long time, rigidly watching the figure's approach.

Soon, the strange figure was upon them. The intruder does not even look at the bricklayer, or the constellation of mud scattered around or the neat rows of baked bricks or the (softly) raging kiln; he walks past the whole operation without so much as a side glance. He is walking on no path; his strides are quick, sure, and long across the parched earth. He does not falter as he steps over a low fence, or walks up a small incline; his head remains riveted on the village. The bricklayer musters up a call, a tenuous and uncertain hail, to which there is no response. So the bricklayer stands, and turns to watch the strange visitor's constant progress to the village.

By now, in an outlying clump of cottages, children have gathered in the porches of the houses, and irresistibly curious housewives peek out the windows. Several pairs of eyes are fixed on the strange man's approach, poring over his frame for answers as to his muffled identity.

They could see his eyes by now; big and stern, could see his granite nose and chin, and the haggard lines of age and weather playing across a slight beard and a set mouth. They could see big brown hands, open and swinging in perfect time to his loping, sure strides. His cloak is drawn up over his head, casting a slight shadow over his forehead. His black form drank in the sun's rays.

The wheelwright's son, at the age of tall and imaginary tales, suddenly takes off down the street like a startled bird, little feet kicking up tender palls of dust. He tarries just long enough to appraise bystanders of the strange visitor; and then is desperately off with steps altogether too short. But he soon does not have time for stops, he merely screams at the top of his little lungs that there is a strange and evil man from the desert at the north end of the town. Many simply laugh and continued their slow work or quiet conversations, and some scold the boy for making such noise; but a few begin to wonder, and wander towards the north end of the village in groups (globs) of two or three.

The strange man reaches the first cottages; yet still his gaze is cemented ahead. He does not so much at look at his audience, tucked behind pillars and trees. Questions ripple throughout the onlookers, reverberating in the doorways and the inner chambers of the huts. Why is he dressed so strangely? Who is this man? Why is he so funny looking? Why is his hood up? Is he a wizard? Will he bring rain? Will he raise his fist at the sun? Will he destroy us? Will he save us?

Like the precious morning dew, villagers begin to condense around him, precipitating in small clumps on the side of the street, whispering like wildfire. They do (can) not speak to him, merely watch agape as he strides by. He does not seem to see them. His cloak billows over his big frame, taller than any village dweller's. Each boot step lets loose a plume of dust, erasing the hurried footsteps of the wheelwright's son that had preceded him.

His steps bespeak purpose, his eyes betray intent. At first, a few brave villagers call out to him; but now, they now fall silent. Men are called back by worried and curious wives and children from their sparing work in the fields, and hurriedly return to deal with the strange man.

A column of voyeurs had collapsed behind the man at the safe distance of 100 feet or so. The boys and girls led the crowd, murmuring and postulating wild stories. Behind them, women and men seethed to get a better look at the strange man--the unspeaking, kernel of black mystery that was striding into the heart of their village.

He strides out into the open and dry plaza in the center of the village, where festivals and meetings would take place, and the villagers often gathered in the cool of the evening to sit and talk quietly. The onlooking villagers no longer hide now; they pour out and ring the edge of the plaza-still afraid to come any closer.

The strange man's manner now melts into something entirely different; He rips off the hood of his cloak, revealing cascading locks of black hair, shining in the angry sun. He runs a hand through his hair, and circles, eyes flashing like a caged animal. He casts his gaze around the plaza, looking through the villagers. Out of the brown tunic comes a small scrap of parchment, and then he stands for a long moment, locked in a gaze with the sun.

From underneath his cloak , he procures a small stick, adorned with various symbols, and scratches a circle about 10 feet in diameter upon the dusty plaza floor. He pauses for another long moment, and then produces a curious stick from his cloak. With fiendish energy, he drives the stick into the earth at the center of the circle with his boot. The earth swallows the stick with surprising ease.

One of the villagers, a cantankerous land owner , can bear the intruder no longer. He gathers his courage and, to the horror of the villagers, charges out into the plaza.

"What are you doing!! Who are you?" the land owner barks.

The strange man does not respond; his gaze oscillating between the sun, the scrap of parchment, and the circle sketched out in the dust. The land owner, fury gathering where there was not a storm, draws closer and closer. The portly land owner stands on his tip toes to give the strange man a slight push on the shoulder.

The mysterious figure shudders at the touch, and then wheels, his cloak brushing the land owner. The land owner's mouth opens to ask another question, and then contorts into a scream. The strange man's shadow falls upon him, and the land owner begins to howl as he backs away. After about three backpedaling steps, the land owner collapses in writhing heap. After a brief climax, the land owner begins to whimper, and then lies still, chest rising and falling in a sort of exhaustion. Silence grips the crowd now; only the din of the wind fills their ears; and for the first time in their memory, it begins to move things.

The strange man calmly turns back to his circle, and sinks to his knees. His head bowed, black locks flowing over his hidden brow, and his soft chanting joins the whip of the stirring wind. His hair shines with intent, his cloak grew unearthly still. The groan of his soft chanting became the sound of the earth grinding to an uneasy stop.

And then, in one grand gesture, he suddenly lets his arms fly skyward, and throws back his head, eyes and lips folded shut.

At the center of the circle that he had drawn, a small black silken drop appears. It is small and metallic and liquid, shackling the jealous sun for a moment before releasing it in a shaft of dazzling light. As the stranger leans back, possessed by glee, arms spread, the pearly drop begins to shimmer and shiver and grow.

The earth liquefies before it, becoming a silent metallic liquid. It spreads slowly at first, without sound; usurping the tired dust and worn earth with its shiny onslaught. It grows unevenly, like an amorphous kraken or like foul water spilt from some unseen hand, oozing forth in (earth shaking) trembles and waves.

The villagers are paralyzed with fear and foreboding; young children take shelter behind mother's legs, and women cover their eyes. Village men look on, steeling themselves to forces outside this world. A few look away, at the boundless blue sky or the parched earth. Now the storm comes.

Still, the liquid spreads, forming a perfect, gilded surface, an inky outlandish mirror. The faces of the village are reflected in a distorted frame of reference. The liquid seems to form a raised pool, smooth and reflective, black and thick, viscous and silent.

The strange man thrust his big hands into the pool, and some of the villagers gasp in shock. He turns his hands over, and lifts them up, letting the black liquid dribble through his clutching fingers, saving a little pool in the cup of his palms. The liquid drips in thick ropes, slowly twisting and folding upon itself like a thousand dark ribbons of a million sizes. The pool seems to reach up and grab the falling liquid--it seems in both in motion and standing still. The wind did dare ripple its surface.

The man turns, shakes his hands off with powerful flips of his wrist, and turns to his audience. A wild demon seems to possess his eyes, as they danced and flashed with unfathomable emotions. He rotates slowly, taking stock of the frightened villagers cowering in the arms of the porches of the houses flanking the plaza.

"Don't you realize?? Don't you know???" He screams in a basso voice, filling the now empty village with the only thunder in months.

"You're rich! You're longer will you have to live like this.." he gestured with one liquid covered hand "You're free!!"

The villagers only cowered, only retreated, and some began to outright backpedal.

He pointed to the (jealous) sky "You can escape the rain--escape the sun. With this, you can shackle the earth" he pointed to the shivering pool of blackness threatening the boundaries of his circle. He reached into his cloak, and brought out a monocle, and kneeled down next to the pool. He held the monocle to the sun, and bent its rays, forcing them upon the pool.

"Watch!!" he cried.

For long minutes, nothing happened. Fear ran deep through the hearts of the village, yet many of them had no place to go.

Of a sudden, a impish flame dances upon the surface of the pool--but only for the blink of a frightened eye. And then, the flame reins in the pool, spreading in a flash of hot blue and searing orange, and a raging inferno storms into being. The pool becomes a small new sun, glowing hot yellow and white. A pillar of thick smoke the color of thundercloud shoots up into the blue sky, and the skitter of fire and flame pours forth. The fire rages, flames licking the eaves of the sky, towering above the village in a red plume of fire. The top of the pool was sucked up into the (burning) air, and vaporized. The pool seemed to send prominence, columns of fiery liquid into the air, to fall back to the earth. Next to it all was the strange man, raging fire at his back, cackling with curious and insane abandon, black locks and big hands quivering with devilish glee.

That was quite enough; the villagers broke rank and scattered to the far corners of the village; some never stopped running. They were no longer moving slowly; after that, they seemed to have forgotten how. They seemed to forget how to speak in hushed voices, to yell in quiet tones; their feet were rarely touching the ground, and they could never again live by candlelight.

And now, it makes me warm.

Copyright 1998 by Kumar Narayanan Kumar can be e-mailed at: nkumar@leland.Stanford.EDU


Bio: A young writer born in Seattle Washington, and is now attending Stanford University.

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