I was not born a monster.
People forget that. The cruel ones sneer and tell me I’m demon spawn. They think the words will hurt me, but they are closer to the truth than they know.
It is the kind ones who lie. “You have a good heart, like your sister,” they say in their pitying tones. “Deep down, you are beautiful—like your sister.”
I am nothing like my sister.
Across the islands, her birth is a legend. Many come from near and far for a glimpse of her beauty, and our neighbors have made good coin telling her tale—how on a moonbow night seventeen years ago, my father faced a terrible choice: to save his wife, who lay dying on a moth-ridden cot, or his newborn daughter, whose pink cheeks, silken curls, and divine glow had already enraptured everyone who saw her.
Adah chose his wife. He snatched my sister from the midwife’s arms and ran into the jungle to sacrifice her to Angma, the Demon Witch. There, on a flat rock beside a crooked tree, he left my sister to die.
Yet even as a baby, my sister gave off a golden light, which mesmerized the Demon Witch such that she could not devour her. And so, the next day, Adah found my sister where he had left her, laughing and singing among the birds and the frogs, and she was returned to us.
The story has a touch of fairy tale, which is why the villagers love recounting it. But it does not explain what happened to my face . . . because that is not how it really happened.
It is true that from the moment my sister was born, she was so radiant she outshone the stars, and her smile could soften even the hardest heart. It is also true that Adah faced that terrible, fateful choice. To save my mother, he did try to sacrifice a child. Only it was not my sister that he took into the jungle.
It was me.
There was no moon or moonbow when my sister was born. Contrary to the stories, she arrived late in the morning, close to noon. I remember, because the sun was in my eyes, and its glaring heat needled my skin until I bubbled with sweat.
I was very young and playing outside, poking the ants crawling up my ankles with a stick, when the sun suddenly receded—and I heard screams. Mama’s screams.
They were faint at first. Thunder had begun to rumble, swallowing the brunt of her cries. The loud cracks in the sky did not frighten me; I was already used to the island’s fickle winds and the low howls that rolled from the jungle at night. So I stayed, even as rain unfolded from the sky and the chickens ran for cover. The dirt under my toes became mud, and the warm, humid air chilled. The ants drowned as the water climbed up my ankles.
Adah had told me not to come inside until I was called, but the rain was getting harder. It came down in sheets, soaking my shirt and sandals and drumming against my skull. It hurt.
Kicking off my sandals, I clambered up the wooden stairs to our house and ran inside to the kitchen. I shook my hair free of rain and tried to warm myself by the fire, but only a few embers remained.
“Adah?” I called, shivering. “Mama?”
My stomach growled. Up beside the cooking pot was a plate of cakes Mama had steamed for me yesterday. They’d made her hands smell like coconut and her nails shine, sticky with syrup.
“Channi’s cakes are ready!” she would always call when they were done. “Don’t eat too much at once, or the sugar flies will come sweeping into your belly for dinner.”
She didn’t call for me today.
I stood on my tiptoes and stretched my arms high, but I wasn’t tall enough to reach the plate.
“Mama!” I cried. “Can I have cake?”
Mama had stopped screaming, but I heard her breathing hard in the other room. Our house was very small then, with only a curtain separating the kitchen from Mama and Adah’s bedroom.
I stood on my side of the curtain. Its coarse muslin chafed my nose as I breathed against it, trying to see what was happening on the other side.
Three shadows. Mama, Adah, and an old woman—the midwife.
“You’ve another daughter,” the midwife was telling my parents. “Channi has a baby sister.”
Forgetting Adah’s warning and my hunger, I ducked under the curtain and crawled toward my parents’ bed.
There Mama lay, propped up on a pillow. She looked like a fish, all translucent and pale, her lips parted but not moving. I barely recognised her.
Adah was hovering over her, and the restless look on his face soured quickly as Mama locked her fists around the edges of the bed—as if she were about to start screaming again.
Instead, she let out a gasp, and a gush of red swelled through the blankets.
“She’s bleeding!” Adah cried to the midwife. “Do something!”
The midwife lifted the blankets and went to work. I’d never seen so much blood before, and especially not at once. Not knowing it was my mother’s life flowing out of her, it almost looked beautiful. Vibrant and bright, like a field of ruby hibiscuses.
But Mama’s face, twisted in pain, kept me quiet.
Something was wrong.
I stood rooted to my corner, unseen. I wanted to hold Mama’s hands. To see if they still smelled like coconuts and if the sugar syrup had seeped into the lines of her palms like always—and tasted sweet when I kissed her skin. But all I smelled was salt and iron: blood.
“Mama,” I breathed, stepping forward.
Adah grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the bed. “Who let you in here? Get out.”
“It’s all right,” said Mama weakly. She turned her head to face me. “Come, Channi. Come meet your sister.”
I didn’t want to meet my sister. I wanted to talk to Mama. I reached to squeeze her fingers, wan and blue, but the midwife intercepted me and thrust my sister into my face.
Most newborns are ugly, but not my sister. Her black hair was long enough to touch her shoulders; it was smoother than glass, and softer than a young bird’s feathers. Her complexion was gold and bronze at the same time, with a kiss of pink on her plump, glowing cheeks and smiling lips.
Yet most enchanting of all was the light that emanated from her, brightest around her chest, as if a sliver of the sun were lodged inside her tiny heart.
“Isn’t she a beauty?” the midwife whispered. “Hundreds of babies I’ve delivered—you included, Channi. Out of them all, only your sister laughed when she came into this world. Look at her smile. I tell you, kings and queens will bow down to that smile one day.” She touched my sister’s chest, her palm covering that strange glow inside her. “And this heart! Never have I ever seen a heart like this. She’s been graced by the gods.”
“Vanna,” Mama whispered. Pride rippled in her voice. “We’ll call her Vanna.”
I reached for my sister’s tiny hand. She was warm, and I could feel her little heart pitter-patter against my finger. For someone who’d been alive only a few minutes, she smelled sweet, like mung beans and honey. All I wanted to do was hold her close and press my nose against her soft cheeks.
“Enough,” said Adah sharply. “Channi, go back outside. Now.”
“But, Adah,” I said, feeling small, “the rain.”
“Let her stay,” Mama said, biting back another scream. Clearly, the pain was returning. “Let her. I don’t have long.”
I didn’t understand what Mama meant then, or why Adah wiped his eyes with his arm. He folded onto his knees beside the bed and muttered prayer after prayer to the gods, promising to be a better husband if only Mama would live. The midwife tried to comfort him, but he jerked away.
Shadows fell over his face. “Give me the baby.”
His look frightened me more than Mama’s screams. I’d never felt much for my father; he was always working in the rice paddies while Mama took care of me. But he’d never been cruel. He loved my mother, and I thought he loved me too. This was the first time I’d heard him speak so sharply, with an edge that bit.
The midwife noticed too. “Khuan, let’s not be rash. I’ll take care of your wife. You go to the temple and pray.”
My father would not listen. He seized my sister, and alarm flared in Mama’s tired eyes.
“Khuan!” she rasped. “Stop.”
Against Adah’s wide, hulking frame, Vanna looked no bigger than a mouse. But my sister must have cast the same spell over my father that she had cast over me, for once he cradled her in his arms, she began to glow, brighter than before.
It was like magic, the way Adah softened. He stroked her hair, black as obsidian. He kissed her cheeks, pink like her lily-bud lips. He stared in awe at her skin, which shone gold like the sun.
Then his shoulders fell, and he gave her back to the midwife. “Feed her.”
Mama wheezed with relief. “Come, Channi. Mama will hold you.”
Before I could go to her, Adah snatched me up, hooking a strong arm around my waist. He threw me over his shoulder, so hard that I gasped instead of screamed.
In three long strides, we were out of the house, and quickly the midwife’s shouts faded behind us, consumed by the rain and thunder. He ran through the thick of the jungle.
I kicked and shouted, “Adah! Stop!”
Fear spiked in my heart. I did not know where he was taking me, and Mama wasn’t coming after us. The rain had grown stronger, and it battered my face with such force I thought I might drown from it. I beat at Adah’s back with my small fists, but this only irritated him. His grip tightened as he continued running.
In the jungle the rain weakened. All I could see were flashes of green and brown. I’d never been in the forests before, and for a moment I forgot to be afraid. Instead, I gazed in wonder at the trees with toothlike leaves, flowers large enough to swallow me whole, and vines that looked like snakes hanging from the sky. Gnats buzzed, mosquitoes bit Adah’s neck, and mud splashed under his sandals.
Suddenly, Adah fell back in surprise, almost crushing me. A magnificent red serpent hung from one of the trees, its long, forked tongue drawn out to hiss at us.
Adah propped himself up on his elbows, and I clung to his neck as the serpent bared its fangs.
“Let her go,” it said.
Adah did not seem to understand. He got up, grabbing me by the waist so tightly I let out a little gasp, and shuffled away from the creature.
The serpent followed. It did not speak again; instead, it wrapped its body around my father’s ankle.
Adah screamed and kicked his foot frantically, almost dropping me as he struggled. He grabbed a fallen branch and started beating the snake.
“Don’t hurt it!” I squealed. “Adah!”
Freed from the serpent, my father ran faster than before, pounding deeper into the jungle.
The rain had ended. Mist layered the trees, and faint gold sunlight streaked across the graying sky. I only noticed because Adah ran hard and had to stop often, his chest shaking as he breathed. His back was slippery, and my hair became drenched with his sweat and odor. At some point, I craned my neck up for fresh air.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
The chill in Adah’s voice startled me, and I fell silent.
At last we came to a valley with a great clove tree at its center, ringed by flat white rocks. Elsewhere in the jungle, trees wrestled for space, their branches snarling against one another for a mere brush of the sun’s nurturing light. But
this crooked tree was alone. Not even gnats or dragonflies or mosquitoes dared to encroach here. As soon as we approached, they flittered away from Adah’s skin, done with him.
Adah set me down on the largest rock. Rain and sweat glistened in his beard.
“Stay here,” he said.
“Are you coming back?”
“I will come for you in the morning.”
He would not look at me as he said this.
“Adah. . . .” I began to cry. “Don’t go!”
At the sound of my full name, I made a whimper and crouched obediently.
The rock’s face was cool and dry, shaded by the tree’s canopy. As Adah turned back the way we’d come, I gathered my knees to my chest. In the distance I saw a family of monkeys climbing a tree. One of them had a baby on her
hip, and I thought of Mama on that bed, screaming. Mama had never allowed me to enter the jungle before. Why was I here now?
He’d left. The bushes still rustled, betraying his proximity, but no matter how I howled “Adah! Adah!” he did not come back for me. I was alone.
Well, not completely alone.
Birds chirped unseen in the trees. Centipedes and other mites skittered across the dirt around the clearing. Then the serpent—the same one that had attacked Adah earlier—appeared.
I backed away from it fearfully as it slithered across the rock. Its eyes glittered like emeralds, and its bright red scales were stark against the watery sunlight.
“Come with me,” said the snake.
I flinched, but not because the idea of a talking snake surprised me. I’d heard enough about magic and demons not to be frightened by such creatures. What made me hesitate
was that this snake had tried to bite Adah. I couldn’t trust him.
“Follow me,” the snake said. “Angma is coming.”
Though I was very young, a chill swept down my spine when I heard that name. Mama had told me about Angma, always in the same cautionary tone she used to warn me when Adah was in a foul mood.
“Long ago,” she’d begin, “Angma was a human witch whose daughter was stolen from her. In her rage, she was transformed into a fearsome demon, wandering the earth in search of her daughter. She devoured babies to maintain her
immortality and strength, and sometimes, when a child was offered freely, she would grant a favour in return.”
Such as saving my mother’s life—or so Adah must have hoped.
I was too young to understand what “sacrifice” meant. I didn’t know why I should be afraid of Angma. So I ignored the snake’s warning.
“Adah said for me to stay here,” I said stubbornly.
“Suit yourself,” hissed the snake. He paused. “Just don’t look into her eyes.”
He slid off the rock and disappeared.
It wasn’t long before a shadow cloaked the clove tree, and all the music of the jungle – the twittering birds, chirping insects, and rustling monkeys – was silenced.
I looked around me. A shadow darted from behind one of the bushes.
“Adah?” I called out again.
I climbed off the rock, digging my toes into the moist dirt. Tiny pebbles pricked my feet. If only I hadn’t kicked off my sandals at home!
A beast purred behind me, and I whirled around. A tiger!
She moved languidly, knowing I was trapped. Even if I tried to run, she would catch up in fewer than five paces. Her powerful legs were longer than my entire body, and her fur was copper, like the statues at the Temple of Dawn, streaked with bolts of black.
There was something odd about this tiger. I had never seen one in real life before, but I had seen the sculptures in the village, the paintings and scrolls hanging in the temple. I had seen the pelts that hunters brought back to the village to sell, and they looked nothing like this tiger’s.
It wasn’t just that the tiger breathed smoke from her nostrils, or that she had sharp ivory tusks like an elephant and a sheath of ancient white hair that cascaded down her striped back. It was the glow of her fur, both dark and radiant at the same time, like shadows burning under moonlight. It made me feel cold.
“So,” rasped the tiger. Her voice was low and guttural. It reverberated against the dirt beneath me and nearly made me jump. “Your father has left you to me.”
Shadows swelled from wherever the tiger moved, enveloping me as she drew close. She smelled strong, though I could not recognise the scent. It was not of the trees or flowers or anything I had experienced before. A spice, maybe.
My eyelids grew heavy.
“You’re a bit old,” the tiger continued, sniffing me. “Your father was supposed to bring your sister. The baby.” Her shadow eclipsed me. “The pretty one.”
I rubbed my eyes, awash in sleepiness. My fear of the tiger gone, I glanced at the stone before me. Flat and smooth: perfect for taking a short nap.
The tiger roared. “Look at me, child! Where is your sister?”
I stared stubbornly at the ground. I hadn’t paid attention to the snake’s warning to run, but his warning not to look into the tiger’s eyes made sense. I disliked the way she was yelling. When Adah yelled this way, he would strike me as
soon as I glanced up.
The tiger was so close now, the air quavered with her breath. She exhaled on me, a cloud of black curling smoke.
“Look at me,” she said again as I coughed. “Look at me, or I swear I will break your neck.”
Slowly, I lifted my gaze to meet hers. Her whiskers were taut and sleek, bone-white against her black-striped cheeks.
Her eyes were the most vivid yellow I’d ever seen. Like the turmeric powder Mama made me eat when my stomach hurt but which only made it hurt more.
Blood trickled out of my nostrils, and I could not move.
In the tiger’s eyes, my reflection showed a streak of my hair whitening at my temple. The blood from my nose turned black.
My knees buckled in fear, and behind me the snake darted out of his hiding place. He was a flicker of red, so quick I barely saw him glide toward me. He flashed his fangs, and for an instant I thought he was going to attack the tiger.
Instead, he bit me on the ankle.
His fangs sank into my flesh, into my muscle and bone. I let out a gruesome howl, one I barely recognised as coming from my lungs. All of me quaked, and hot bursts of searing pain ripped across my flesh as if I’d been lit afire.
The snake retracted his fangs, and the pain abated slightly. A wave of cold swept over me. Sweat still dribbled down my temples, but now I shivered.
I’d forgotten about the tiger. She leaned forward, laying one sharp claw on the rock, and growled at the snake.
“What are you doing here?”
The snake slid forward, creating a barrier between the tiger and me. He flared his hood. “Leave her alone. She isn’t the child you’ve been waiting for.”
“What does it matter to you whether I eat her or not? Move aside.”
“Mother Angma,” the snake said respectfully, “I would advise you to let this child go. Her blood is worth nothing to you now.”
The snake gestured to my ankle with his tongue. Already a painful lump had formed, and strange green streaks limned my veins. Great Gadda, it hurt!
The tiger let out a furious growl. She whipped her tail at the snake, catching him and flinging him into the bushes.
Then she whirled back to me, ready to unleash her fury. But as she watched me trying to limp out of the clearing, her anger vanished.
She blocked me from leaving. “Poor, poor girl. You think he has saved you, don’t you?”
No. I didn’t think anything other than how my leg hurt, how the world was spinning, and how I wanted to go home. How I missed Mama.
I tried to run past the tiger. A bad idea. She pressed a paw to my chest, her yellow eyes swirling with lurid enchantment. “The Serpent King has poisoned your blood,” she said viciously, “and so I shall curse your face. You will never look at it without feeling pain.”
Strange, that in the moment that should come to define me, I felt so little. Only a tingle across my face, then a thick, suffocating pressure that rose to my neck, as if there were an invisible string cutting off my breath. Then nothing.
Nothing but a premonitory shiver that tracked down my spine as shadows spun beneath the tiger’s fur, and her eyes . . . changed. They were still yellow, still mesmerising. But her pupils had gone from black to a bright and violent
red. Like blood.
“Bring your sister to me before her seventeenth birthday,” she said in a quiet, lethal tone, “and I will undo my curse. If not, I will come for you both—and you will wish you had died.”
Then, with one great leap, she bounded into the jungle.
She was gone.
It felt a long time before the snake slithered back into view. Everything was blurry, but in the dense mess of green, I could easily make out his red scales and glittering eyes.
I didn’t care if the tiger had wounded him. Or what curse had befallen me. “You hurt me,” I accused.
“I had to bite you,” replied the snake. “Otherwise, Angma would have devoured you. But now my poison runs through your blood. If she tries again to eat you, it will harm her.”
I didn’t like his reasoning. When I touched my ankle, the green streaks transferred onto my fingers. They wouldn’t rub off, either, no matter how hard I tried. “It hurts.”
“The pain will go away,” the snake said, sounding apologetic. He paused. His mouth stayed open, and though I did not know how snakes spoke, I got the sense he wanted to say more. Instead, he asked, “What’s your name, little one?”
“Channi,” I whispered. “Channari.”
If a snake could smile, this one did. His mouth curved as he flicked out his thin, forked tongue. “Moon-faced.”
Mama and Adah had named me Channari because I was born under a full moon, and when I arrived my eyes were wide and open, catching its silver light. But I wasn’t about to tell that to a stranger. A snake, no less.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
His smile faded. Only then did I see the claw marks on his scales, raw and pink in the jaundiced sunlight. Many years later I would learn that when a snake dies, he can see the future, for a brief instant. And that this snake, who had
sacrificed his life to protect me, was the king among his kind.
“My name doesn’t matter,” he said. “For you, you need Hokzuh. Say his name.”
“Hok . . . Hok . . . zuh.”
“Remember it. He’ll come looking for you one day, when you are older.”
Before my eyes, the snake’s skin turned white, his scales becoming like tiny sea pearls studded along his body. His head was still lifted, while the rest of his body curled, slowly shriveling and going limp. “You’ll need him.”
“One sister must fall for the other to rise,” he replied, so softly that I almost didn’t hear. He folded his head into the center of his coiled body, eyes closing. “Sleep now.”
I didn’t want to, but the poison in my blood gave me no choice. Already my head felt leaden, and as the ground spun faster and faster, I had to cover my face. My leg tingled until I could no longer feel it, and the numbness swept up from my ankle to my brow. “Sleep,” the Serpent King whispered one last time. Then he too slept. Except unlike me, he would not wake up.
When I awoke, I was home, nestled in my little bed by the cooking pot. I lifted my head. The throbbing pain in my arms and legs was gone, replaced by a numbing sensation behind my cheeks, but even that was fading.
I crawled up to Mama’s bedside. In her arms, little Vanna was asleep.
The pretty one, I remembered.
Mama stirred. When she saw me, she let out a small gasp. Fear leapt into her eyes and made her voice shake.
“Ch-Ch-Channi, what happened to your face?”
I blinked, confused. “Is it dirty, Mama?”
“No. No.” Mama swallowed. I tried to see my face in her pupils, but it was dark. The sun had fallen, and we were too poor to burn candles at night.
When she spoke again, she was calmer. “Never mind your face. Come.”
She cupped my cheek in her cold, sallow hand. I held it close, feeling how weak she was, how brittle her fingers were against my skin.
I snuggled beside her. Her pulse was so faint I had to press my ear to her chest to hear it. I glanced over at Vanna, still sleeping peacefully. Still glowing, though the light was softer than it had been earlier, when she’d just been born.
A tinge of envy washed over me, imagining that I’d have to share Mama in the future.
But then Vanna opened her eyes. She smiled at me, reaching out her tiny fingers to touch my cheeks.
“Look there,” Mama whispered. “Vanna opened her eyes. For you.”
I was the first person or thing she ever saw.
Vanna laughed then, an adorable little giggle that made my heart flutter. That was the moment I fell in love with my sister, the moment I swore I wouldn’t let the Demon Witch take her. Not ever.
“Will you promise to watch over her, Channi?” Mama asked. “To protect her always?”
I almost jumped. Had Mama read my mind?
“Yes, I promise.” I reached out and held Vanna’s tiny hand, squeezing as hard as I dared. I’ll protect you.
The light in Vanna’s chest flashed, and a shot of warmth emanated from her fingertips, so unexpected and powerful that it sent a jolt through my entire body.
“You see? Even the gods know now that you two are bound.” Mama leaned back with a feeble smile. “A promise is not a kiss in the wind, to be thrown about without care. It is a piece of yourself that is given away and will not return until your pledge is fulfilled. Understand?”
This was a saying from her village that she’d taught me long ago. “I understand,” I said, even though I didn’t really.
“Good.” Mama inhaled. “Now, let the baby sleep.”
Obediently, I let go of Vanna and climbed up the bed to Mama’s side. Even though Mama was tired and worn, to me she was still the prettiest woman in the world. She had the warmest, brownest eyes. They weren’t large or wide, and her eyelashes weren’t long or thick, but they were honest eyes. Honest eyes to match her proud, honest nose and lips.
I glowed whenever anyone said I looked like her.
Bringing me close, Mama caressed my hair and began to sing:
Sitting among the stars is my beautiful moon-faced girl.
Channi, my beautiful moon-faced girl.
Her music calmed me, and I forgot about the fear in her eyes when she’d seen my face. I forgot about Angma’s promise to kill my sister and me. My thoughts drifted far away, and my muscles softened.
For the last time, I fell asleep to the sound of Mama’s voice.
In the morning, she was dead. And no one called me beautiful again. Not for a long, long time.