Gone But Not Forgotten
Budh first came upon her on a moonlight night. Every Wednesday, the merchant visited the temple in the village to give thanks to the divine for his prosperity. On the way back, Budh liked to stop by the riverbank and enjoy the peaceful nighttime scenery. It never failed to lift his heart.
This night, however, a low, droning sound caught his attention. A minute later, he realised it was the sound of a voice, hoarse and nearly inaudible. Hurrying to the source, he found that it was a young woman, half unclothed, covered inmud and lying on the riverbank, nearly insensible. She murmured a prayer under her breath, but did not seem to realisethat help had come at last.
As Budh pulled off his own tunic and tossed it over the woman to cover her upper half, he felt sick. Clearly, the woman had been travelling with a party that had heard about the bandits in the mountains. The woman must have dressed in men’s clothing for safety, she still wore long leggings. The bandits must have suspected, however, because they had torn off her top, exposing her breasts, proving that she was a woman.
They must have killed the rest of her party. But how did she come to be here? Budh looked up at the mountain that overlooked the little river. He could see it now. Mad with grief, fearing for her life, surrounded by bandits who sought to rape and kill her, she must have taken the only escape route she could – by jumping into the river.
At the thought, Budh felt a great swell of pity. Taking the woman into his arms as gently as he could, he started to walk back to the village. The elders would know how to help her.
‘I’ll take care of you, I promise.’
She didn’t react, still murmuring her prayer.
Budh stepped out of his home and looked around, expecting to see a flash of yellow saree or the swish of a hair plait as its owner rounded the corner. All he heard were ringing anklets, though, which meant he had been too slow, and that Ila was already halfway back to the river.
It had been three months since he had found the woman by the riverbed. The elders had named her Ila, after the prayer she had been murmuring when she had been found. The village healer had done his best, patching up her many bruises and cuts, and she had come out of the shock the day after she had been found, looking around and asking where she was.
The worst of it, though, was that Ila had no memory of her life previous to waking up in Budh’s home all those months ago.
The healer had done all he could, but Ila’s past was a blank, and she was too scared to probe further in an attempt to recall anything. All she said was that, ‘I know my past was unhappy,’ and the healer agreed that to push Ila to remember unpleasant memories would only harm her.
She was better now. Her cuts had healed, the hair that the bandits had chopped off haphazardly had grown back, and she even had a family again. The village headman had decided to adopt Ila until her memory returned, and she had recovered enough to do the cooking and work in his fields, almost as if she were his real daughter.
Once Ila had been told Budh had rescued her, she had been touchingly grateful. She had stammered out an apology that first time, and Budh had waved it away, feeling embarassed. She still took to leaving flowers on his window sills and doorsteps, too shy and timid to thank him in any other way.
Budh packed up his accounts books and closed his front door. Ila would be at the riverbank now, he was sure. She had a fascination for the river, despite – or perhaps because – of her own history with it; Ila would often sit on the riverbank and watch the water flow by. She said it calmed her.
With a smile, Budh set off to find her.
‘But why not?’
Ila said nothing, she just sat there, arms wrapped around herself. A tear made its way down her cheek.
Budh felt like taking her shoulders in his hands and giving her a shake, but he tamped his frustration down and took a deep breath. Ila was already agitated enough at his frustration, if he got too upset it would only make her go deeper into her shell.
Taking another deep breath, Budh sat down next to Ila. He wanted to take her shivering form into his arms, but he refrained from touching her. The grass was damp, and smelled good and green. The moonsoons had been kind to the land, the river was swollen, gurgling against the banks. It was a beautiful sight, but Budh found his eyes drawn to the woman next to him.
Tall and willowy, some might say she wasn’t truly beautiful – her hips were too narrow, her hair was fine, not growing as long as it should, and she wasn’t as curvy as some of the other women – but there was something about her face, something that shone from her eyes that made Budh want to protect and cherish this woman his whole life.
But she would not accept him.
He had taken her to the river bank, hoping that her favourite spot would work in his favour when he humbly asked her to marry him, but all he had received in reply was a flat refusal.
And she wouldn’t tell him why.
‘Is it the headman?’ he asked her now. ‘I’ve already been to talk to your father, and he has no objections. I’ve told him I’d cut down my business trips, I don’t have to go to the capital to trade more than once a month, anyway, I just like travelling—’
Budh broke off when Ila shook her head. So it wasn’t her adopted father.
‘Is it your memory? You don’t know if you’re already married, is it that?’ He didn’t wait for her answer, plunging on nervously. ‘Because we’ve discussed this before—if you truly had a family left, they would be searching for you high and low, wouldn’t they? Like the royal family is searching for their lost son, remember, hmm?’
At the mention of the royal family, Ila looked up at him for the first time, nodding in agreement. Budh took that as a good sign and continued.
‘I’m sorry, Ila, but you accepted that your family would be dead, remember? That’s why you decided to stay with the headman as his daughter. So there’s nothing wrong if you make a new life for yourself here.’
Still she shook her head.
In desperation, Budh finally caught her chin in his hand and turned her to face him again. ‘Why, Ila? Why won’t you marry me?’
Perhaps she saw the desperation in his eyes, because Ila opened her trembling lips to speak.
‘I don’t know why, but I can’t. I just can’t.’
‘No,’ she said, interrupting him, ‘that’s not right. It’s not that I can’t, but that I shouldn’t.’
‘What?’ Budh said, stunned. What on earth was going on?
Ila shook her head, frustration on her face. ‘I shouldn’t marry you. I don’t remember why, my past’s a blank to me, but I just know I shouldn’t marry you. It’s not right.’
The hand on her chin slid to her cheek, and Budh drew Ila closer.
‘But how can something that feels so right be wrong?’
His gentle words did more to convince her than all his agitation, in fifteen minutes they were on the grass, entwined together. Ila was still skittish, startling when his hands slid her blouse off her shoulders. Budh moved slowy, love lending patience to his hands, and when he moved to pull her saree off her body, Ila said nothing, only looking up at him timidly, her hair spread all about her head like a halo.
Budh leaned in again for a long kiss, his hands moving over Ila’s body—
He drew away as if burned, staring down at Ila in shock. She blinked at him, the lust slowly fading from her eyes as confusion filled them.
Budh scrabbled away from her, holding up his undone dhoti with one hand.
Ila sat up, as well, and Budh turned away. He couldn’t bear to look at her—him?—any more. His head was spinning, and he felt like he might be sick.
He remembered how Ila had been when he had first found her, and he choked down hysterical laughter. All this time, he had thought she had been a woman disguised as a man, when really, it had been the other way around.
But it made no sense—even now, he had seen her breasts, felt them in his hand—how could she also be a man?
‘What are you?’
The question was torn from him involuntarily, Budh spinning around to fix wild eyes on Ila. She froze in the act of pulling on her clothes, her hands going to her side.
‘What are you?’
The crown prince stood with his back to the river, his broken spear held in front of him threateningly, for all the good it would do. His mother had warned him not to trust the chief minister, but he had ignored her, telling her the man would hardly be brazen enough to try something on a royal hunt when the prince would be accompanied by twenty men.
Those twenty men had turned out to be loyal to the chief minister, though, and they had surrounded him when they had gotten a safe distance away from the capital. The tales of a rare white deer had been only that, a story meant to draw him out of the shadow of his father’s protection.
It had all happened so quickly. His weapons had been taken from him, and the chief minister had had him stripped. He had seen for himself, then, that the rumors were true.
Their crown prince was not a man, and not really a woman, either.
The soldiers who had ripped the clothes from him had spat at his feet and wiped their hands on their clothes, as if he was dirty.
‘Your parents tried their best to hide it from everyone, but I know what you are,’ the chief minister had snarled. ‘You’re a curse on our illustrious royal family, a sign of your parents’ sins in their past life. Which princess would marry you? You’re not even a man. The royal line will die with you, but not before we become the laughing stock of the world.’ He paused, taking a deep breath. ‘And I won’t let that happen because of an abomination.’ He spat at the prince’s feet, before turning away.
‘Kill him,’ he had said to his men. ‘We’ll tell the king he died in a hunting accident.’
When he came back to himself, Illa saw that Budh was drawing away from him, rubbing his hands against his unwound dhoti as if they were dirty.
‘What—what are you going to do?’
Illa hated how his voice was still that of a scared, timid woman, but he didn’t know what else to say. He had loved Budh when he had been a woman, and the emotions wouldn’t go away just because he remembered who he truly was.
Budh was silent for a long time, simply looking at him. Budh’s eyes travelled over Illa’s exposed breasts, the first visible sign of the ‘curse’ that had appeared at thirteen and ended with an absence of a beard, a weak, womanly body, and long, soft hair.
Perhaps there was still hope, Budh had always been nothing but kind and gentle, he would look past all this and see that he was still the same as he had always been, still Ila, no matter how the outer appearance had changed—
Budh gave a great shudder, and turned away from him convulsively.
‘Budh,’ he called desperately, reaching out a hand.
‘No, no, don’t touch me,’ Budh cried, stepping back instinctively. The wet ground gave way beneath his feet, and before Ila could do more than give a shocked cry, he had tumbled into the river.
When they found her two hours later, Ila was sitting at the bank of the river, her top undone, holding Budh’s slippers and laughing hysterically. She never recovered her memory.
A/N: In Indian mythology, the god of Wednesdays, Budh, was married to Ila, who was a woman for a month, and then a man (Illa) for the next. As a man, Illa had no memory of the time he spent as a woman, and Ila had no memory of being Illa. My version of Illa suffers from Klinefelter syndrome, which would have been a big deal for a monarchy in ancient times.
- Ila is a Sanskrit word for prayer.
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Image from FreeDigitalPhotos.net, with thanks.
[music| Firework: Katy Perry]