I first met the reaper when she came for my hamster.
I had my feet up on the sofa, can of Foster’s in hand, packet of sunflower seeds balanced on my chest, watching Dawn of the Dead. Every now and then I gave Raj a seed to nibble on, standing up in his cage, grabbing on with tiny paws. All the things that made Nirmala bite her lip and shake her head.
A zombie got his head rotored off in an aircraft hangar, and I jumped a bit and dropped the sunflower seed I was dangling on the floor. Nirmala would have laughed. I couldn’t see where it went and when I looked back up there was a six foot, eight-armed warrior goddess in my living room. Sword in one hand, spear in another, whole ensemble ringed in fire. I’d only had two cans of lager but it’d been a long day. I blinked at her as she paced about, until I smelt smoke.
“Can you turn that fire off? I think my curtains are burning.” It was my hallucination, so I should be able to order it about in my own home.
The goddess turned large copper eyes to me, as if she’d found a newly discovered species of large and vicious mosquito.
“BHAVIK MITRA, RELINQUISH YOUR RODENT!”
“Um, curtains? And shouting? You’ll wake up Mr Zelenski next door, and that makes him grumpy.”
“I HAVE A SACRED MISSION, YOU AND YOUR MINIONS CANNOT STOP ME !”
A sunflower seed hit her on the head. Almost hit her, it disintegrated into ash near her long, hooked nose. A cinder landed on my chest, burnt a tiny slash in my AC-DC t-shirt. I poked it with a fingernail and scratched my chest. The sting made me focus on the apparition standing by my flatscreen, screen paused on a reaching zombie. A six foot, armed warrior goddess was in my living room. I hadn’t been to temple in nine weeks.
“Goddess, I am unworthy!” I said as clearly as I could from my new position on the floor, with my face pressed into the grey dhurrie rug.
“Rise, baccha, I’m not here for you.” She sounded amused, and thankfully, restrained.
I tilted my head. Still standing, still armed, no longer on fire. I inched onto my knees. Another sunflower seed flew through the air, and hit her right on the bindi. I winced.
“Sorry, he’s a bit of a messy eater.”
I looked down at Raj, but the only thing visible was a pile of bedding.
“THE RODENT! RELINQUISH IT!”
“Relax, goddess. It’s just a little hamster, he can’t hurt you.” I figured something along the lines of ‘elephants being scared of mice’ was happening. A curved scimitar rattled the cage.
“You are harbouring Indrajit, a mighty demon warrior, adept in the magical arts. It is my quest to pursue him through the ages. He must not remain in the realm of men to wreak havoc.”
The scimitar started to prod the straw. I spotted the end of a twitching whisker, and threw myself back down on the rug.
“Wait, goddess, please. There’s been a mistake. It’s my son’s hamster. It’s harmless.”
“No error, I must retrieve Bhavik Mitra’s rodent. You must yield.”
The blade flashed at the side of my face. I pushed it away, and sat cross-legged in front of the cowering hamster. The scimitar nudged at the tear in my t-shirt. Two cans of lager impacted on my shrinking bladder but I forced myself to stay still.
“You risk the wrath of your goddess? Durga, the slayer of demons? Explain!”
I rubbed at my throat to make it behave, and stop choking me. “It is my son’s. He’s Little Vik, I’m Big Vik. See, a bit of confusion.” The scimitar stayed near enough to be threatening but stopped nudging my ribs. “Please, Durga, it’s the only thing I ever brought him that he liked.”
Durga tapped at the photo-frames on the wall with an unweaponized hand.
“This is a representation of your offspring, with the curly hair? Where is he?”
That was the question, wasn’t it? The reason for the lager, the zombie movies, the sunflower seeds instead of dinner.
“Um, his mum’s taken him back to Kolkata to see her family. Just for the school holidays.”
Durga brought Little Vik’s Year One photo closer to her face. The one where he’s not not wearing his shirt because he’s given it away. He’s like that, going up to people if they look happy or sad, giving them something. Except Raj.
“What is the reason for his flattened nose? Did you drop him?”
I started to think she should have the hamster. But she turned the picture to me, and I could never resist Little Vik’s gap-toothed smile.
“He has Down Syndrome. They don’t have that on Mount Kailash, right?”
“Who can say? Vishnu has many avatars, many facets. All that matters is the heart.” She put the picture down and moved on to the one of Little Vik in his Kermit apron, with Nirmala waving a wooden spoon. She nodded approvingly. “He looks strong. Good teeth. And she has heart.”
Nirmala loved dancing to Beyonce in the kitchen, singing into her spoon before passing it to Little Vik. Of course she has heart. I’m the one whose son hides in the kitchen instead of watching the cricket. The goddess picked up the largest picture, Little Vik in most of a lion costume at his first school concert. The one I missed to go to the Men’s Final at Wimbledon. I considered how to say that in a way that wouldn’t turn me into shish kebab. Luckily, a sunflower seed bounced off her right
“Indrajit! Reveal your true self! We must fight like warriors.”
Another weapon appeared, a kukri. She was relentless. Even in Mitcham, someone was going to notice something. Eventually.
Little Vik’s drawing seemed to glow on the wall. A crayoned blob of golden fur with six carefully placed whiskers and two black googly eyes, surrounded by red hearts and orange stars.
“I will fight you.” I stood up as straight as I could, back muscles creaking, and clenched my fists. “But we do it my way.”
Four pointy objects swung through the air, missing the lampshade by inches. “Does Shiva know you’re here, in the realm of men?” The goddess didn’t answer, but my furniture was no longer at risk of decapitation. “Durga, can you play karrom?”
She insisted on having first strike but I won the first game. Then the goddess remembered she could have as many hands as she wanted, and they didn’t have to be gripping something threatening. She cracked her knuckles as she hitched up her red and gold sari and leant over the board, golden headress sliding to one side. She smelt like burning tarmac.
“Your fingernails are very dirty, and your hair is retreating from your forehead.”
I lined up my next turn, and ignored the goddess version of trash talk. I sunk a black piece but missed the next one. Durga narrowed her eyes.
“What aren’t you in any of these representations, Big Bhavik Mitra? Are you ashamed?”
This was a combat strategy, I knew it, but I’d had this argument so many times with Nirmala, the answer was automatic.
“We don’t like the same things. He’s a mummy’s boy. Just likes to cook and sing. I want him to be tougher, live in the real world.”
Durga’s next shot sent one of her white pieces into a pocket, and the striker dangerously close to my crotch. I was discussing gender politics with a personification of female empowerment. I played my next move with my legs crossed and overshot.
The goddess lined up for the red queen, the move that could decide the game. As she flicked her finger, a spark accompanied the piece’s journey to the opposite side of the board. It hit the pocket and burst into flame at the same moment. Durga’s victory celebration knocked the side table over.
“THE RODENT IS MINE!”
I thought about suggesting another game, but karrom was out, and I didn’t think the small hold I had over Durga would extend to her playing ‘Happy Families’. She picked up the hamster cage and waved a hand. A shimmering green oval appeared in front of my flatscreen. Raj’s head popped up, and he twitched his nose. I knew the chances of Nirmala returning were disappearing with his fat little
“You played well for a mortal. Wash under your nails, put coconut oil on your hair, and apologise to your wife.”
“I want to, goddess, but no-one in Kolkata will tell me where she is.”
Durga brandished a spear in what I took to be a farewell, but could have meant ‘don’t try that blackmail stuff again.’ There was no evidence that she had been here, apart from the singed board and the missing queen. Who would believe I didn’t do those things myself? She turned her back on me, a vision in red and gold, and stepped forward.
And remained in my living room.
She stepped forward again. No change. My ordinary room, with its pale blue walls and pale grey rug, still contained one magical portal and one angry warrior goddess.
“WHAT IS THIS SORCERY!”
Durga’s shoulders were tightening shoulders. She’d smiled at Little Vik’s picture and attemped to fix my marriage,
“I can probably open that if you want. I’m a locksmith. Most doors, you just find the sweet spot. It’s a knack.”
I felt around the edge of the oval, then kicked it at the bottom. Raj twitched his nose again. The portal changed from green to purple, my leg was suddenly somewhere very warm. I think something licked it. Durga pulled me back before I overheated.
The copper eyes searched my face, from my increasingly smooth head to my increasingly sweaty chin.
“I am retrieving your offspring’s hamster. You will never see it again.” She tilted my chin up with a beringed hand. “Yet you have aided me.” A javelin tapped me on the chest. “Heart”, she murmured. She faced the rippling portal.
“Indrajit owes you a boon. He could locate your wife.”
Abruptly my arms were full of hamster cage and my house was minus a goddess. A sunflower seed hit me on the chin. I looked down. I might have imagined Raj twitching his nose. The flat seemed small and empty, and the can of Foster’s was flat and warm. I flopped back on the sofa, face to cage with a mighty warrior, with short legs and stubby ears.
“Right then, master of the magical arts. What about this favour?” Raj blinked. I shook my head at my foolishness. I’d caused my problems, I needed to grow up and fix them. No more stories or excuses.
Then the phone rang.
Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi.. Her stories are published and forthcoming in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, the Word Factory website, Dodging the Rain, Rigorous, Pocket Change, Haverthorn journal and Riggwelter. She tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer