Aarti, particularity, broke my heart. She was only a couple of years older than I was. Six or seven. That is, when I became. Her biological father had died when she was too young to remember him. Her mother married again, and her little brother died two days out of the womb. Her stepfather blamed her mother and beat her for the loss.
It may have been the perfect formula for her mother to follow mine.
Devika promised release from pain, from worry, from reality, from responsibility.
The responsibility of Aarti, being one of them.
It was easy for my mother to kill Upasana’s husband, but killing a child still gave her pause. Maybe she had more of my mother left inside than I gave her credit for then…
But. No. She had no problem sending Aarti to the streets as an orphan to make her own way as her mother worshipped at mine’s revered feet.
Most of my mother’s worshippers disgusted me, but that fact would take centuries for me to discuss properly.
Aarti had no other family. No grandparents. No aunts and uncles. No older siblings. Perhaps that’s what drew me to her. Other orphans of the cult had someone, even if that person was less than desirable to me. Her fate was the streets, begging to get a scrap of something from a stranger.
Her belly was bloated and her eyes sunken. So many nights she prayed that those things would give a passerby an iota of sympathy for her, gain her a real meal, a new home. Everything in her tiny body—so undersized for her age!—ached from malnourishment. She cried herself to sleep almost every night, missing her mother, despite her mother’s betrayal.
I identified with Aarti, now that I think more on it. We both held onto that love for a person who abandoned us.
I’m certain it will be difficult for you to think of me as shy, afraid to approach Aarti, but that’s what I was.
Remember: I still wanted to be an obedient daughter to my mother. The thought of defying her… we were of the same strength, but I somehow feared being punished for my actions because she was my mother.
So I went to Aarti in secret. At night, just when the sun set. The poor child was exhausted from a day of begging by then and slept wherever she could, safe or not. The first week, I just sat as she tossed and turned, but I left her food and water for when she woke. I stayed the entire time, only leaving when I felt the sunrise pull me into the cave for my own rest.
Then one night, a drunken man stumbled upon her as I hid in the shadows keeping watch. He rested a hand that looked huge and imposing to me on her bony shoulder and shook her. His thoughts… I couldn’t read them, though I tried… and maybe…
But she was mine.
Maybe, now that I look back, he wanted to give her a home? He wasn’t going to hurt her, to take advantage of her…
No, I was determined. I was convinced he would hurt her. Convinced he would do bad things to her.
Aarti was mine. Aarti would become like me. Aarti would be safe.
Just as she started to wake, I lunged at the man. How I can feel my fangs tingle at the memory of taking him! The shock. The look in his eyes. The grunt as he fell back against the street. That memory confirms he was not good for my Aarti. He tasted sour, like spoilt milk. Good people taste good. He didn’t taste good.
I sat up, that rush of blood filling me, and met Aarti’s groggy eyes, which moved from me to the dead man and back.
When I look back at all the things I’ve learned about human behavior over my five millennia, the differences between children and adults never ceases to amaze me. Children, as I know Ajit has said to others in the past, don’t care about your religion, your lovers, or your skin color. We’re curious and want to learn the why of things.
The why of Death is no different. Aarti was no stranger to it; she had seen her brother die, seen her stepfather after Devika had killed him, seen others starve on the streets. She crawled to the man and pulled her legs under her to sit on her haunches.
Her head turned towards me, unspoken questions on her face.
“He was going to hurt you.”
“He’s offered me… things… I wouldn’t… couldn’t…” She squeezed her eyes closed, her lips quivering, then she opened them, staring at me suspiciously. “Are you the one who leaves me things to eat and drink? Why? Who are you? You’re just a child like me.”
It’s very rare that a situation renders me speechless, but Aarti speaking to me did exactly that. Had I not planned this far ahead? Apparently I had not. My mouth moved but no sound came out for what seemed like hours to me. “Your mother follows my mother. Is in her cult,” I finally choked, sitting back against the wall, waiting for her reaction.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re a goddess then? Or a demi-goddess, being the child of a goddess and a human or maybe not?” Her lips pressed together as she contemplated all the possibilities, her eyes slowly moving left to right as she thought.
“Well…” Aarti’s mother Upasana believed Devika and Vivek were deities, yes, but they were far from it. “Not a goddess or demi-goddess and neither is my mother. She’s just someone who can… convince people she’s good enough to be worshipped, to be followed to their death.” I inhaled at my statement. How could I say something so horrible about the woman who gave birth to me? Who raised me? Who held me as I cried from nightmares when I was a human child?
Aarti’s eyelids lowered, but she looked up through the long, dark lashes at me timidly. “Your mother is not good. She convinces people to abandon their lives, their families, their children.”
No, my mother was not good. None of the woman who comforted me in my humanity was left. The conflict no longer raged in me, the war won. I met her stare and nodded.
“Then what are you?”
“I am a child of the rahkas, an immortal, a vampire who feeds from the life blood of others.”
The girl opened her eyes to mine, trying to stave off the fear I could smell on her. “Then what does that mean for me? Why do you bring me food and water and—” she pointed to the dead man “—kill people who come near me?” Tears ran down her cheeks.
“I want to protect you. To make you like me. To make you what my mother will never make your mother.” I extended my hand.
She hesitated before lightly grasping my fingers, nodding.
To be continued…