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On a night that cradled a bright moon, a female spirit rose into the land of the living through the trunk of an old oak tree. The yakshi – as she was known in places familiar with her lore – rested on the twisted boughs of the oak and stared down at a dimly lit home.
The house belonged to Unni Namboothiri, the village priest. As the yakshi flew down to grip the jagged trunk of the tree, Unni stopped scooping his nightly gruel and sat still. After a few minutes, he drank the rest of it, washed his bowl and stepped out into the moonlit night.
The oak moved a little, reflecting the moon’s pallor. Unni tied a rag around his head, lifted the hem of his sarong from the ground and walked towards the tree. The earth buzzed beneath his feet. The roots of the oak stretched up. Unni knew the signs but he sensed no malice. Whatever was up there meant no harm.
Unni had lived alone since his father’s death, serving the guardian goddess of his village. His ancestral home had seen many an exorcism – from the formless odiyan to the thendan, who followed his victims till they turned around; spirits and the supernatural were part of common folklore. He had heard about yakshis. They lived in a part of the sky that was invisible to humans. “There churns an ocean of milk for yakshis to drink from, but they thirst for the blood of virile men,” said his father once, polishing the rattan cane that he carried with him on his nightly walks.
Unni shivered a little as the air around him shifted. He turned to find a pale-skinned woman with long tresses standing in the moonlight. She looked at him wide-eyed, reminding Unni of a barn owl he had once seen deep in the forests surrounding his home. “You must be Unni,” she said, prodding the earth with her milk-white toes. The priest nodded and looked away.
“I will not harm you,” she said, standing very still.
“It’s in the nature of yakshis to seduce men,” he replied.
Her eyes glittered. “I was a goddess once, Thirumeni,” she said, using the title given to priests in Kerala.
It was true. The voluptuous bodies of yakshis symbolized fertility. They were earth spirits and had commanded a huge following of worshippers centuries ago. Yakshis could bless families with children and turn barren lands fertile.
“But you drink human blood,” said Unni.
The yakshi’s face glowed with anger and her tresses billowed in the air. “It’s the weak that we take, Thirumeni.”
Unni turned and walked back into his house. The spirit followed him. He didn’t try to stop her. He closed the wooden door at the threshold of his house, lit a stub of incense in a corner and lay in his room, unable to sleep. As the moon slid over his rattling window, Unni finally closed his eyes and muttered a prayer.
Several mornings passed and several nights settled in. The yakshi roamed through the walls of the ancient house, her laughter ringing across the yard. She could rouse the bees with a sigh and fill the well with sweet water. Her hair fell to hug her hips – like a glorious waterfall – and smelled of harvest. She filled Unni’s home with an energy that unnerved him. His father – the great Shankara Namboothiri – would have driven her out by now. He would have whipped her and cast her out, warning her never to enter his yard again. But she hadn’t flinched as she crossed the threshold of his home – a place known for its power to cage her spirit.
The yakshi sat atop the oak every morning as he pedalled to the temple. Her eyes revealed a mysterious longing, but Unni didn’t see any spite in it. One day, as he was leaving home, she flew to sit behind him. Unni wasn’t afraid of her but he didn’t know what she wanted. Besides, it was a day of prayer. The village faced a heavy drought that ate into the lives of the farmers. The rivers were running dry and the land was parched. The villagers would have gathered to pray for rain. It wouldn’t be right to let a wandering spirit into the temple.
As they neared the place, Unni pulled the brakes and looked back to find no one there. Then he was aghast to see her standing before the temple, her dark eyes admiring the ageless structure. At that instant, he realized why the yakshi had chosen his home. She resented not being remembered by her own people. Banished into the nether world and branded a vampire, she had lost her prominence and power. The yakshi sought the sanctum.
She strode in as if she owned the temple. Unni let his cycle clatter to the ground and ran towards the shrine. She disappeared into the tall pillars surrounding the temple but Unni saw her again as he turned towards the crowd. His heart melted at her hunger for human love. Her eyes burned as if on fire – wild yet beautiful. Had she not risen through the earth, she could be mistaken for the goddess herself.
As months rolled by, Unni became increasingly uneasy. The Yakshi Pala or Devil Tree in his yard released hundreds of blossoms despite the drought. The wind carried its scent all around the house but Unni didn’t notice. There were lovebirds calling each other on the withered tamarind and a swarm of bees – eager to pollinate – buzzed about madly on his porch. Unni lay on his bed all day wondering what he would say to the villagers. Would they accuse him of harbouring a seductress? Would they remember that night – several years ago – when Unni had sworn never to look at a woman again?
One morning, as the yakshi lay atop a low-hanging bough of the oak – her feet swinging like sunbirds on vines – Unni approached her. She sat upright and stared at him.
“You can’t stay here forever,” said Unni, crossing his arms across his bare chest.”
“That sanctum is mine, Thirumeni,” she replied. “This is my land.”
Unni stepped aside as she glided down. “You belong to the nether world!”
The yakshi laughed. “It is because of me that the rivers flowed here,” she said. “I guarded this village ages ago and was cast out because I gave myself to a demon.”
Unni avoided looking at her but her scent was impossible to escape. It was there in the house too – from the dim corridor to the deep well in the backyard – a soft fragrance that settled in his mind like mist. “You lay with a demon?” He closed his eyes.
“Why won’t you look at me?” she asked. “You are afraid, aren’t you?” Unni didn’t answer. “He was a demon with a heart of gold,” she said. “But the divine world stood against me. It was all part of a conspiracy.”
Unni turned to look at her and immediately regretted it. She stood there like someone had etched her in air. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. The yakshi chuckled, her breath falling around him like autumn leaves. Unni realised that she could see into his heart. “I still guard this village, Thirumeni. There is no other goddess.”
Mortified, he stomped back into his house and stayed there till evening. A full moon rose to taunt him through his bedroom window. It was on such a night as this that his father had … he had…
Unni slammed the window shut.
As the breeze awoke, the yakshi climbed into the tree. Unni’s face tightened when he heard her sigh. He sat upright on his bed and looked over at the steel cupboard where his father’s cane stood. His body froze as he remembered every stroke that had bitten into his body that night … the night of the full moon when his father had stumbled upon him as he lay in bed with a dancer from a nearby village. How ashamed he had been! The son of a priest! As for the girl, she had killed herself to avoid being disgraced by Unni’s father and the entire village.
And now … this godless spirit … how dare she? He wiped the sweat off his face and marched towards the tree. At first, Unni couldn’t see the yakshi, but then he spotted her through the faint light of stars falling through the leaves.
She lay naked, her pupils reflecting the moon. Unni could hear her hum. Her breasts rose and fell as she breathed and her marble-white legs gripped the branches of the sturdy oak. Her hips curved against a jagged bough while her ink-black tresses coiled around the trunk, a few strands holding on to the petals of the pala blossoms. Unni stood open-mouthed as she smiled at him, her lips the colour of red roses.
He awoke the next morning with the roots of the old oak tangled around his torso, but he couldn’t remember anything about the previous night. He freed himself and ran to his room. The cane threw dust at him as he grabbed it, mumbling his prayers. Unni dashed towards the tree and looked for the yakshi. “Why don’t you leave?” he shouted, and waited for a reply. Nothing moved. Unni panicked and hit the earth with the cane.
“Don’t!” said a clear voice oozing the sweetness of a young girl. “Don’t hit me!” Unni beat the ground till the cane snapped, and then he started digging into it like a lunatic with his bare hands. A shadow formed behind him and he turned around to find the yakshi standing as his dead paramour. “Isn’t this what you have been hiding from, Thirumeni?” asked the yakshi. “Your manhood is afraid of seeking a woman’s body!” she thundered.
Unni wished for the sky to fall on him. He wanted to burrow into the earth and stay there. The yakshi knew he couldn’t make any woman happy. Had he lain with her? He trembled with shame and rage. “Let me return to my rightful place, Thirumeni,” she pleaded. “Only you can help me as only I can heal you.” Unni realised what the yakshi was offering him in return. He could consecrate her as the primary deity of the village and she could make Unni a man again. He looked at her for a very long time. The sky outside turned a deep blue as dawn touched Unni’s home.
“No,” he said. “I have to go.”
He cycled to the temple and dived into the pond. A few onlookers stared as he swam like a mad man – back and forth – for a long time in the icy water. Finally Unni picked up his clothes and headed for the sanctum. He lit the wicks and steadied the lamps around the goddess’s shrine. The deity – a large black stone – stood upright as Unni wiped it clean. His hands shook as he poured water over it. He closed the sanctum doors and chanted his prayers, but his words came out garbled.
The earth rumbled under him without warning, forcing the priest to hold on to the inert stone. The roots of the old oak tore through the ground and the doors to the sanctum jangled. His heart raced madly as he got up. He ignored the pandemonium outside and strode out in search of the yakshi. He could sense her distress everywhere – in the cawing of the crow to the mournful marigold. She made her misery known. Finding her nowhere, he trudged back to the sanctum, closed its doors and collapsed before the shrine.
Bedecked with jewels, the yakshi came to Unni as he slept. A glittering sarong – the colour of blood – covered her body, and her nose-ring sparkled in the dark. Her hair swept the floor as she walked towards him.
Unni awoke, drowning in his own sweat. He squinted against the light but saw nothing. He got up and hobbled home. Despair clouded his mind as he sat hugging his legs at the threshold of his house. He could cage the yakshi or cast her out. He knew his people would never accept a fallen spirit, but would they accept him? Could he betray them? He closed his eyes and buried his head in his hands.
As the last rays of the setting sun touched Unni’s village, the sky growled. He looked up to find a flurry of clouds pregnant with rain. The oak tree in his yard held hundreds of delicate flowers. The earth below him threw up little shoots of bamboo and the Bharatha River roared near his home – louder than ever. The air smelled fertile, full of hope. The yakshi had blessed the land nevertheless – her land, as she called it.
Unni stood up and walked towards the temple. The oak had retreated and the shrine looked just as it always had. He knew then that the yakshi had left. Chanting a hymn in her honour, he offered burning camphor to the crowd. He lay prostrate for a very long time – whispering prayers for his orphaned village – and left the temple he had served for decades.
As night fell on the old oak, Unni pedalled far away from his house. He had with him some money and his father’s satchel full of books. Had he stayed, he would have seen the tree shudder and the earth heave, uprooting red ants and snakes. He would have watched the bats fly high up in a circle. Unni would have seen – had he stayed – the roots of the oak retreat deep into the ground, dark and gleaming, like the ink-black tresses of a fallen goddess.