by Tamoha Sengupta
“You never sing for me. Why is that?” Rob’s voice was casual, but I froze. It was a breezy evening in March and a tired sun handed out the last lights for the day.
“I have an awful voice. I fear you’ll stop loving me once you hear me sing.” I tried to keep my voice playful, but fear in me didn’t make it easy.
He sighed and put a finger under my chin, turning my face so that my eyes met his. Chocolate brown and inviting—that was what his eyes were.
“Don’t lie, Nupur.” His casual tone had gone, and hurt framed his voice. “You sing for the young, the old, the sick and I always hear that you have a lovely voice. Some say your voice has magic.” With a great effort, I kept my face expressionless. The last word hit too close to home. “So why not for me, love? What have I done wrong?”
It’s not you, I wanted to say. It’s all me. But I was a coward. I feared that if he knew the truth, he wouldn’t love me. So, I said nothing. I hugged him instead. He lowered his mouth to my ear and his breath fanned it. “Please? Just once?” he whispered. My heart hurt. I silently begged him to stop his requests. I couldn’t refuse him for long.
“When does your assignment start?” I asked, changing the topic. An epidemic was breaking out in some parts of the world and he was enrolled in a team of scientists who had set out to find the cure for the deadly disease.
He pulled away from me and watched me with an expression I couldn’t fathom. “Tomorrow.” He said. Darkness was spreading its wings around us and he stood up, pulling me with him. “It’s getting late. You should probably head home.” He kissed me briefly on the lips. “I love you.” He said and his eyes were as soft as his voice. My voice struggled to say the words back to him. But just like every other time, I didn’t. Confirming that I loved him would be bringing him under the curse without any question at all. As if denial would starve the truth to death. He sighed, caressed my cheek with his knuckles, then turned and walked away. The fact that he had not enforced his request should have eased me. But it didn’t. Not for a second.
* * *
The epidemic broke out in our country the next month. One or two cases gave way to thousands, and soon people were gripped by the killer disease. In those days, I hardly saw Rob. I set out doing the only thing I did right, singing and healing as many people as I could. I only prayed for one thing—that Rob shouldn’t catch the disease. I wouldn’t be able to save him then. I regularly checked on him, always keeping out of sight, to see that he was healthy. He made sure to visit his younger sister during the breaks of his assignment, to make sure she was all right.
“The cure will be found soon.” He told her one day, pulling her into a hug. “We’ve identified the organism responsible and the medicine will be developed soon.”
“The epidemic will be over. I’ll return to school.” His sister hugged him back. Abha, that was her name, I recalled.
The Sunday when the skies were sparkling, at odds with the people’s moods, I visited the cottage again. I’d saved a young girl about my age a few hours ago. In the dead of night, of course, so that no one would know of my power. Always in the dead of night.
The house was quieter than usual. I wondered if Rob and Abha were still sleeping. It was still dawn after all. I made sure to keep my footsteps muted as I peeped in through the window.
My heart turned over. Rob was sitting on a chair, near the bed on which his sister lay. He was shaking and though I couldn’t hear him through the glass, I could imagine the sobs escaping him. My heart filled with dread as I watched Abha, taking in the telltale signs—darkened circles beneath her eyes, yellowing skin, the painful rhythm of her breath as she slept in pain. The epidemic had reached the house.
I turned away, my heart hammering. So long, I’d not been able to give Rob the one thing he’d asked from me—a song. If I’d let him hear me, he’d turn to stone—forever. That is what happened to people on my loved list after they had heard me sing. My mother, first to go. I had discovered the curse my power carried that night. The power to heal combined with the power to kill. Kill in a way worse than any other. I’d preserved her statue, along with my father’s and brother’s—until the earthquake last year had reduced them to dust.
I couldn’t do that to Rob, could I? And as much as it killed me, I had not let him hear my voice singing. No matter what. But I could do one thing right for him this time. For his sake. I could save his sister. I only needed two minutes alone with Abha, out of his earshot.
“Just hold on, sis. Just a few weeks till the medicines are developed. We’ve come so close. Don’t leave me. Not yet.” I heard him say quietly to her in that gloomy room that night, when I came to visit them again. He sat quietly for some time, then got up and left the room. I wondered where he’d gone, when I heard the front door turn. He’s gone out, I thought. Now is my chance.
I crept in through the window, hurrying towards the bed. I’d sing, and I’d leave. That was it.
I sat on the stool Rob had occupied moments before, and watched the sleeping girl for some time. I’d never met his sister before, but I knew Rob adored her. He would be broken if she died.
I sang slowly, letting the words wash over her, making sure they reached her ears.
Her breathing steadied and I let out a low sign of relief. Soon, she’d wake up from her sleep, completely cured. I turned to go, and froze.
Rob was standing at the doorway, staring at me. For a few seconds that stretched infinitely, I gaped back at him. And then I gave a gasp of horror. The skin near his feet was no longer the color of human skin. They had turned to stone.
I stood up, finding it difficult to breathe. “Did you h-hear me sing?” I almost choked on the words. Please, I prayed. Let that stone color be an illusion, please …
But the color was spreading, and fast. It had reached above his ankles now. No, no, no …
“You have such a beautiful voice.” I looked up at him. It hurt to meet his eyes.
“I told you not to listen!” I rushed up to him, and he tried to move towards me. It was only then he realized he could not move. Bemused, he looked down and his eyes widened.
“Robert, you fool!” I clutched him by the collars, and the terror made my voice tremble like a leaf in the storm.
He was half-stone, half-man now. He stared at me. “Why—”
“The people I love turn to stone hearing my songs! That’s why!” The emotions were a medley now—of rage, frustration, anger, guilt. And helplessness. Heart-wrenching helplessness.
His eyes closed. “I knew you loved me.” My lips moved, but no words came out.
“Does this mean …” He trailed off. I did not know what he was asking; I could not bear to think of it.
He sighed, “Abha …” His eyes fixed onto the figure on the bed.
“She will be ok.” I said.
He looked at me. “How do you know?”
“Do you trust me?” I loathed myself for saying the words, but his eyes were full of love as he smiled.
“More than you’ll know.” His words made me hate myself more.
“She’ll be cured. Believe me.” I said. The irony stung me. I had given him back his sister, and I had taken Abha’s brother away from her.
“I’m glad.” His voice was low. His face was the only thing that showed that he was a human now.
In the silence, the clock ticked away, louder than ever. A howl was rising in me. His eyes met mine. “Don’t let my sister see me like this,” he breathed. His eyes were teary now and the drop turned to stone before it fell, as did the rest of his face.
“Rob—no—please …” I sobbed, my arms going around his neck. I sobbed into his cold, hard neck, into the coldness I’d brought upon him. I remembered the warmth in his arms when he would hold me, and the tears came faster, incessant. The tears I’d been unable to shed the day when my parents and brother turned to stone also came pouring out. I couldn’t stop them. I didn’t want to.
I pulled away from him, staring up at him for a long time. I pressed a kiss to his stone-cold lips.
“I love you.” I whispered, the words finally coming out too late. Then I gave him a push. I couldn’t make him budge from the doorway. He was too heavy. I pushed again, my hands shaking badly. He toppled over, and before I knew it, he fell to the floor and shattered.
“Who’s there? Is that you, brother?” Abha’s drowsy voice reached me and I jumped away from her sight. She had awoken and I did not want her to see me. I did not want anyone to see me.
Then, without a backward glance, I ran.
I wanted to run until I could reach the end of the world and hurl myself over the edge. I wanted to disappear. But I had a job to do. I would save as many people as I could ’til the cure came out. And then, I would go far away, where finally, I wouldn’t have to fear love anymore. Where I could love my family and Rob as much as I wanted. Where I could sing all the songs Rob would want me to sing.
Tamoha Sengupta lives in India and is currently a final year student pursuing her B.Tech degree. Anime is the other world she wanders off to when she is not reading or writing stories. Her work has also appeared in Acidic Fiction.
Her twitter home is @sengupta_tamoha.
Tamoha Sengupta writes, … “While wondering about the age-old phrase, “There are two sides of the same coin”, I set out to explore a character with a power that would be exactly that—would be two-sided, both beautiful and terrible, and how it would affect herself and the people around her. These thoughts formed the basis of ‘A Healing Song’s Curse.'”