The demon-drums started and the little girl's face contorted like a blood-soaked rag being twisted dry. Her tongue hung out, purple and almost to her chest, a dribble of spit leaving a dark, wet mark on the loose nightdress she wore. The thick smoke from the perfumed incense made everything look like it was enveloped inside a dark cloud. I craned my neck out further from behind the curtain that separated the main room from the rest of the house, where I was hiding, hoping that no one would notice me.
My father sat in front of the girl. I knew she was ten years old, but she looked much younger as she thrashed around on the mat that had been laid on the floor. Almost like an animal about to be taken to the slaughter. I noticed that her white cotton nightdress was embroidered with little yellow ducks. I'd had a similar nightgown when I was that age.
The light of the small clay lamp that my father held in his palms cast strange shadows on his face as he chanted pirith. He was blessing her, and most importantly, blessing what was about to happen next. They had passed around pirith nool to everyone who was in attendance a while back-the protective thread that was meant to be tied around our wrists-so that meant things were about to begin.
May the blessings of the triple gem be with you, I silently mouthed, my own prayer for my father. Words I had uttered countless times, but still, today, they wilted on my tongue like sleeping grass when you touched it. Exorcisms were never cheerful events, but there was a certain hardness clinging to the air this evening, leaving everyone clenching their fists and shortening their breath, rigid and strained.
Three young men lined up, waiting for my father to say the word. They had on colourfully painted wooden devil masks. The same kind that hung in our hut-bad spirits to scare away worse spirits. I was thankful that these men hadn't abandoned him. Most people in the village had, though my father, Thaththa to me, would never blame them.
"People have a right to believe in what they choose to," he'd said, the finality in his voice conjuring rocks in my chest. There was a time we'd talk about anything and everything, but not anymore.
A tiny voice cut through my thoughts. "Aren't you scared, Amara Akki?" Siyath Malli asked me. Our parents were friends, and I'd been there the day Siyath was born. That was six years ago, and I was eighteen now. His eyes were wider than the possessed girl's and his lips quivered. Even though he threatened my hiding spot, I couldn't help but laugh at his expression. I put a finger to my mouth and ushered him to join me behind the curtain.
"Why?" I whispered. "Are you afraid of men in masks?"
We had a funny relationship with spirits on this island. We respected them, but we didn't fear them in the same way the British did, or the Dutch before them, or the nuns who taught me back when I used to attend school. We used them to help us, often against other spirits. I suppose you could say it was fighting fire with fire-although the only real fire here was from the torches my father had ordered lit around the property.
"No matter what, don't ever let the torches die out," he had said to his assistants. The same men who wore the wooden devil masks and had tied gejji-bells-around their ankles, waiting to dance a tovil on my father's orders. The devil dance was meant to draw out the evil spirit that had wedged itself inside the poor girl.
The De Silva family had come to see my father five days before. Clifford De Silva had brought home some beef, freshly slaughtered at the market, but when his wife had opened the parcel to make a curry for dinner, the meat had been rotten. Crawling with maggots, he'd said, and the stench had caused his daughter to vomit. It was definitely a hooniyama, Clifford had cried, a curse, cast by his neighbours, who had recently argued with him about a fence put up at the edge of his property. The neighbours claimed it was on five yards of their own land, but Clifford said they'd have to take it up with the British, who had gifted the property to his family for their support.
My father had narrowed his eyes at that, but had not said anything. Support for the British meant that the De Silva family would have joined the Christian church. Or perhaps they had already converted many years ago-their new name certainly suggested so, as did eating beef, which Buddhists never did. And my father made it very clear to me and my mother how he felt about that.
But most importantly, my father didn't like to deal with demons-yakku, as we called them here. My father was a Capuwa, he liked to clarify, and this profession required him to appeal to deviyo-the gods. He was mostly called upon to bless houses, cut limes to ward off the evil eye, administer tonics. Not to be confused with a Cattadiya, who used the dark powers of yakku.
He had given Clifford De Silva some blessed talismans-prayers inscribed and rolled into small clay pots-to hang in the four corners of his house for protection, and suggested he speak to the priest at the Christian church if his troubles continued.
But he didn't have the heart to refuse Clifford when he visited our home for the second time two days later, at the very crack of dawn, hair dishevelled and eyes bloodshot, trembling like a leaf. His daughter, Lalitha, had started speaking in a different tongue, he sobbed. What little they could understand was all profanity. Curse words that the girl had never once uttered in her life-words that she had not even heard before, he claimed. She would lie on her mat, her body bending and contorting while she hissed and spit and snarled. She had tried to bite the Christian priest who came to bless her. She'd been possessed by a yaka, Clifford cried.
His face grim, my father simply nodded and started to make preparations. This was no job for a foreign god. We had to deal with our demons the traditional way.
"It's not the masks I'm afraid of," Siyath Malli said, curling his small body into mine. "It's the yaka."
My father preferred not to deal with yakku, but I had grown up watching him perform these rituals when it was absolutely necessary. I'd usually help him-gathering the objects he needed, making sure everything was ready, though he never let me participate in the exorcism itself. I was still too young, he said, until a few weeks ago when he appeared to have changed his mind completely and declared I wasn't allowed to be involved at all.
I'll claw out your tongue if you tell. No one can find out what happened.
A chill ran through me, but not because of the scene in front of us. Since the last full moon, I'd been having dreams. They started in the same place every time. In a small hut, at the very edge of the world. It was made of mud, like most huts, but it had no sleeping mat, no shelves or baskets to store things in. All it had were old, tattered curtains in a surprising, startling red.
And every time I stepped out of the hut, my surroundings would be different. Sometimes I would be deep in the heart of the jungle. Sometimes on the ocean shore. But each time, without fail, one thing was constant.
I didn't know her name. I didn't know what she wanted. She was a monster. Demoness. A yakshaniya. Every time I dreamt of her, her image would get clearer in my mind.
I pushed the dream to the back of my mind and looked down at the small boy in front of me. "No, Malli, I'm not scared. And you shouldn't be either. Shall we shout some insults at the yaka?"
But he just shook his head.
"This yaka is useless. He's as weak as a worm," I cried, and Siyath Malli giggled. Closer to the exorcism, others were hurling insults too, as a group of older men and women, maybe the family of the possessed, were reciting pirith. This was the first step-taunting the demon. To shame it into submission. The tovil dancers would come out in a while too, pretending to be devils themselves, pantomiming the most ridiculous scenarios. When the yaka couldn't bear the humiliation anymore, it would speak out, and that's when my father would get to work. He'd transfer it to another object-a bottle, perhaps, or a small pot-before tying it with blessed string and burying it somewhere far, far away where it couldn't find its way back to torment anyone else.
"Come on, let's go outside," I said, taking Siyath Malli's hand. When he was a baby, I'd mixed a spoon of soot with water and put a large black dot on his forehead to ward off the evil eye-as vaha, kata vaha, we called it. Poison from the eyes, poison from the mouth. Nobody ever spoke about poison that would leak out of a heart, the way that Clifford De Silva's neighbour's supposedly did. But still, everyone knew that if you made a deal with a devil, it wouldn't be long before the devil came to claim its dues.
It was time for me to leave anyway. The truth was that Thaththa would be furious if he found out that I was here tonight, when he had specifically told me not to come. He'd been teaching me about his craft, and I'd even been taking on the duties of his apprentice after I'd finished with school. It was what he'd been grooming me for ever since I was a little girl, letting me accompany him to all these rituals, and teaching me about the old ways.
But all that changed about a month ago. I'd been ill, I think. The kind of sick that leaves your body feeling like it was on fire and your head was being dashed on the waves. I'd drifted in and out of consciousness until I finally recovered, only to be told by my parents that they didn't want me participating in my father's practices anymore. And I had more than a little trouble accepting their reasons why.
"You're a young woman now, awaiting a suitable marriage," my mother had interjected, and I bit my tongue so I wouldn't say anything to anger her. She had a much shorter temper than my father, and the last thing I wanted was to provoke her. "It's not proper to be out and about, away from home in the middle of the night. It'll ruin your reputation, diminish your chances. Another year and it'll be too late for you to wed at all. No, from now on, you will assist me with my sewing work."
I knew, deep down where the truth always managed to make itself heard, that she did have a point. That I was probably one of the last of the girls from my class at school to be married. That the whispers didn't have to reach my ears for me to know what everyone was saying.
We'd just stepped outside the De Silvas' home when Siyath Malli tugged on my arm.
"Amara Akki, what's happening over there?"
He was pointing to a small crowd that had gathered just outside the torch line that Thaththa had set up. I had an inkling from the expressions on their faces that this wasn't going to end well, and when I saw who led the group, I knew for certain.
Aloysius Peiris, my father's staunchest adversary, was arguing emphatically with some of Clifford De Silva's relations. He stood almost a head above the other men, skin glowing pale in the light of the flames. He was younger than his counterparts, but most of the men flocked to him like it was the most natural thing in the world.
"These attacks in the jungle," Aloysius boomed while I edged close enough to listen to what was happening. "What are they, if not sorcery? And now all of you are casting your lot with the demon worshipper and all this talk of black magic."
My pulse quickened. This wasn't the first time someone had tried to link Thaththa to the attacks, but it was certainly the first time I'd heard it done so blatantly.
A few short months ago, villagers would loiter outside well after sunset-chatting to their friends, visiting with loved ones. Children would climb the banyan trees, spying on the teenagers gossiping in the shadows. But not anymore. The stale smell of worry hung in the air, and everyone retreated inside their homes as if their lives depended on it. I supposed they did. Tonight was an exception, because of the tovil, but that was perhaps why Aloysius and his cronies decided to cause a scene.
"Aloysius, we don't want trouble. We just need to rid the poor girl of this demon and then things can go back to normal." I knew the man was just trying to pacify the situation, but I couldn't help but snort. What was normal? Everyone cowering in fear, blaming my father for something he was not involved in. All while they still begged for his help when things got out of their control.
But my snort drew more attention than I'd hoped for. The men from the crowd, the welcome and the unwelcome, whipped in my direction. Eyes were narrowed. I heard a sharp intake of breath from a few of them.
"Looks like the demon worshipper brought his daughter to help with his moneymaking venture." Aloysius's voice was slippery like slime.
"Excuse me?" My voice came out haughty, and surprisingly like my mother's.
"Good thing Clifford's daughter was possessed." I heard a small snicker through the group. "I got word your family has fallen on hard times. How very convenient that your father was called on."
"He's just trying to help her." I made sure that my voice was steady.
"I'm sure he is," Aloysius replied with a smirk.
"If you came inside and saw the girl . . ." I tried to explain. "Lalitha was-"
"My niece and her are in the same class," Aloysius interrupted. "They had their midterm tests this week. Guess who was able to conveniently miss it because of her theatrics?"
"And I heard that it wasn't the first time she did something like this either. She fell down with convulsions on her cousin's wedding day last year. They said she was jealous that the bride was getting all the attention."
Copyright © 2024 by Amanda Jayatissa. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.