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Root: Part III, Chapter 5
Having reluctantly joined her parents for their morning prayer ritual, Hasta receives a most unexpected communication—and a sacred mission.
For more on this project, please see “This Year a Serial Takes Root.”
Hasta jumped up from the couch, filled with black despair. Earlier that night she would have given anything to be home again, but now it was the last place on earth she wanted to be.
An oval mirror hung near the couch. Through a ripple of gathering tears, she glared at her reflection in it, her face twisted and grotesque. The frame was mango wood, green, yellow, and brown in hue, intricately carved to resemble rising tongues of flame. She’d always loved this mirror, which her father had brought with him from India, but now it showed her only a tormented soul wreathed about with the fires of hell.
Juan kidnapped. Ivan captured. A whole world warped and gone crazy. All her fault.
A wordless howl tore from her throat. She slammed her middle finger at the girl in the mirror. Sparks exploded behind her eyes. She fell to her knees, wanting to throw up. When she looked up, she saw only a dark oval on the faded green wallpaper. The mirror itself had vanished.
Footsteps clattered down the hallway. “Hasta! Flower!” shouted her barefoot father. Dressed in a colorful dhoti, the long, formal wrap he wore during morning worship, he fell to his knees and hugged her to him. “You’re home, Vishnu be praised.”
She wanted to wrap herself in his wiry strength, have him tell her that everything would be all right. But he grasped her shoulders and held her at arm’s length. His eyes darted between her face and her clothes. His hair had never looked more gray.
“You look like you’ve been through a war!” he gasped.
As he hugged her again, her mother Sumedha, dressed in her finest sari, knelt and flung her arms around them both.
“Oh, my baby, my baby,” cried the normally stoic marketing executive. “You’re safe, you’re safe.”
Tears running down her cheeks, Hasta shook her head. Her heart felt like it would break. She wanted to give in to the comfort her parents offered, but she couldn’t.
“No, Mom,” she said, pulling back and sniffling. “I’m not safe. None of us are.”
Her parents stared at her incomprehendingly. “What do you mean?” asked her father. “Young lady, where have you been all night? Whose jacket is this you’re wearing?”
Hasta wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand. She had always felt that, in making her, her parents had selfishly kept all their best traits for themselves. But now they looked awful, despite their fine clothes—wan, haggard, eyes bloodshot and underhung with dark bags.
“Have you slept?” Hasta asked, her eyes brimming again.
“Never mind those questions now,” her mother said, a hand to her mouth, “either of you. We must complete our puja.”
The puja was the ritual of offerings her parents undertook each morning in the shrine room. It was important to them, of course, but Hasta couldn’t believe her mother was seriously suggesting that at this moment. “But—”
“Your mother is right,” said her father, raising a palm. “We’d be ungrateful indeed not to complete the ritual, since Vishnu has answered our prayers so swiftly and brought you home.”
Hasta caught her breath, remembering her late-night chat session. Vishnu . . . ?
Her father smoothed his mustache, which had never looked more unruly. “We know your feelings on such matters, but, well—would you consider joining us?”
During middle school, Hasta’s participation in the puja had tailed off and finally stopped. She couldn’t bring herself to give daily thanks to gods whose greatest influence in her life had been to drive most of her friends away. But now . . .
pls lets talk again, v15hnu_pr3z had said.
Hasta bit her lip, embarrassed at how attractive the idea seemed. Was there more to be gained from the ritual than a few minutes of empty comfort? Her parents certainly seemed to think so.
Was she only considering it because she was afraid, exhausted, and vulnerable?
“I really don’t have time to bathe first,” Hasta said, realizing she was going to give in.
“Under the circumstances, I think you can dispense with that,” her father said. “You can purify yourself ceremonially.”
Hasta left her coat and shoes on the floor outside the shrine room and followed her parents inside. The electricity was off, but at least their gas furnace had kept the house warm. The dark orange walls danced in the light of flickering candles. Wooden Vishnu dominated the far end of the room, five feet tall atop a two-tiered platform. The god gazed downward with a mild expression. It was painted entirely blue except for the red mouth, the black hair, and the whites of its eyes. A saffron robe draped it, hanging from the left shoulder and tied at the right hip. Eight arms radiated from its shoulders, symbolizing the god’s manifold powers. In its front left hand it held a carved lotus blossom. Its front right held a scepter.
A low altar sat before the statue. Around it Hasta’s parents had arrayed dishes containing water, essential oils, and spices, plus larger bowls of fruit and flowers. Her father brought the water dish to Hasta. “You remember what to do?” he asked.
How easily this could all vanish and be gone, like the flipping off a switch—this room, her parents, the world. She wanted to hold on to it all, never let it go. “I remember,” she said.
She took the dish and walked in a slow circle clockwise around the open space in front of the altar. She dipped her fingers in the water and sprinkled droplets around her as she went, purifying the worship area. Her parents usually recited mantras in classical Sanskrit as they did this, but Hasta couldn’t remember the words so she mumbled self-consciously and kept her eyes down.
When she’d completed the circle, she poured a little water into her cupped right palm and sipped it. This was for inward purification. Then she shifted the dish to her right hand and poured a little water into her left palm. She gave the dish to her father. She dipped her ring finger into her palm and touched it to her eyes, mouth, nose, ears, shoulders, and knees for outward purification. Then she put her hands together and sprinkled the last few drops over her head.
She surprised herself by thinking, Lord Vishnu, I know I’m not worthy. Help me be worthy. Help me do what needs to be done.
The god stared at her blindly. Hasta was beginning to feel stronger, calmer, her head more clear.
“Now we invite Lord Vishnu into our home,” her father said.
The three of them sat in a semicircle on the floor in front of the altar, Hasta in the middle. Her parents easily achieved lotus position, crossing their legs with each foot resting on the opposite thigh. Hasta couldn’t do that and didn’t try. She gazed at the statue as her parents chanted their mantras. She was now supposed to visualize Vishnu himself taking up residence in the statue, transmuting it from dead wood to living flesh. Instead she pictured herself opening a chat window to him.
After a minute or two of contemplation, her father stood up to lead them in offerings of hospitality. The statue was treated like a dusty traveler who had journeyed far to be with them. They laid flowers at its feet and sprinkled its head with water and rose oil. Hasta lit a stick of incense as her father, chanting, held a bowl of fruit out to the statue.
Kneeling beside the incense tray at the back of the room, Hasta sniffed at the smoke curling up from the coated sandalwood. She couldn’t really smell it, which made her think she might be coming down with a cold. She wasn’t looking when her father let out a shout and dropped the bowl.
Hasta sprang to her feet as her father stumbled backward. Oranges, mangoes, and strawberries rolled everywhere. Her father threw himself flat, bowing his forehead to the wood floor. Her mother too gasped and prostrated herself.
Something about the statue wasn’t right, but Hasta’s mind couldn’t quite grasp what. Something about its scepter. The scepter had moved into one of the hands farther back. Because, because—
Because its front right hand held an apple.
The statue tilted its head, regarding the shiny apple. “I’ve been dreaming so long,” it said, “and I’m so hungry.” Its voice was deep and sweet, like the ringing of huge bells. “Your kind hospitality honors me. Your home is a blessed oasis.”
It raised the apple to its mouth and took a bite. Hasta watched as if in a dream. The statue’s eyes closed as it chewed. When they opened again, they regarded her with wooden flatness.
“And now, Hasta,” it said, “I beg your help.”
Hasta stepped between her parents on legs gone watery. “Who are you?” she asked. Could this really be a god? Or was it another outside occupier?
Her father tugged at the cuff of her jeans, his forehead still pressed to the floor. “Hasta!” he whispered. “Kneel and avert your eyes!”
“Fear me not, Hasta.” The statue inclined its head. “Fear the chaos that overtakes the world, the chaos that wakes me.”
Hasta shook off her father’s hand. She stepped around the low altar to get closer to the god. The statue’s head turned with her.
“Did I chat with you before?” she asked, barely aware that she was raising her right hand.
“Indeed,” said the god. It extended one of its right arms. “I spied you on the battle plain from atop my catafalque as I began to stir. I spied many fine warriors, but few mighty as you.”
The statue’s finger had the texture of ordinary wood as it touched her forehead. A scene from the marble plain sprang into her mind, with her warrior friends arrayed behind her and the huge altar far beyond them. Despite the great distance, she could see Vishnu lying prone atop it with perfect clarity.
The god withdrew its hand and the vision dissipated, leaving Hasta with a lonely gulf inside her. Her eyes stung. She ached for her missing friends. She mourned for their ordinary, boring lives, their lives before all this had started.
“Is this really the end of the world?” Hasta asked.
“Should I wake,” said the statue, “it surely shall be.”
Hasta’s eyes overflowed again. “The agents said this was my fault! Whatever I did, I didn’t mean to do it! It wasn’t my fault!”
The statue took another bite from the apple. “My daemons understand little beyond their own sphere,” it said.
“Your daemons?” Hasta exclaimed, whacking the statue on its nearest arm. “They want to erase my brain!”
The statue idly rubbed its arm. “They are as they were made to be. I can no more shift them from their paths than I can oppose the will of Brahman.”
“They were made to be ugly and mean?”
“They are my servants,” said the god. “As defenders of my dream they have their part to play. As do you. We are none of us blameless, yet none blameworthy. We have all in some way encouraged this chaos, and we all must oppose it after our own fashion. If, indeed, it does not seduce us entire.”
Hasta was tired of so much elliptical talk. “But why is this happening?” she asked. “What am I supposed to do? People keep wanting me to save the world, but no one will tell me how.”
“That is the question,” the statue said. “Let me hold out no false hope. You may, in fact, not succeed. My waking may prove inevitable. But comfort yourself with the thought that, should you make the attempt, you and your chain will not be the only warriors on this quest.”
Hasta wanted to shake the god. “What quest?”
The statue took another bite of the apple. “You will petition Brahman to intervene on behalf of the world,” it said around a mouthful of fruit. “You will approach Brahman by way of the Bus.”
“Everyone’s talking about a bus all of a sudden,” Hasta complained. “What bus?”
The statue fanned its eight arms. Its head shuddered and suddenly unfolded like an accordion. It multiplied to either side until five heads sat in a row atop its shoulders. All were blue, with flat, dead eyes and wooden expressions, but only the original head retained Vishnu’s own visage. The others were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
Hasta gaped. “Mount Rushmore?” she said. “I have to go to Mount Rushmore? That’s got to be a thousand miles from here!”
The statue shrugged and shuddered. The heads merged again. “Nine hundred forty-five,” it said. “Still, it’s a distance you’ll never cross without your comrades-in-arms.” It took three more quick bites of the apple and handed the rest to Hasta. “I thank you for your hospitality, but now I must take my leave.”
“Wait, please!” Hasta cried, grabbing for the statue’s hand. “Is this a simulation or is it all real? What’s really at stake here?”
It moved its arms out of reach. “Everything you care about is at stake.”
“Everything, Hasta. This world may be an illusion, but that makes it no less precious. Now you must go. Farewell.”
The statue stood dead and motionless. Hasta turned with the half-eaten apple in her hand. Her wide-eyed parents were kneeling together at the back of the small room. They had their arms around each other. Their cheeks were wet.
“Um, I think I have to go,” Hasta said, though the thought filled her with unbearable grief.
Her father kissed her mother on the cheek and stood up. Wiping his face, he said, “Well, if Vishnu wants you to save the world, you’re going to need a chauffeur.” √
To be continued…