“What to do with the body?”
“What do you mean?” said the first God’s servant, “What do we do with the body anyway?”
“I mean, she looks pretty. I hate leaving her like this,” said the second God’s servant.
“Why does it matter? Our job is to take the soul. Not the body. Do you have the soul in your box?” said the first God’s servant.
“Yes, I do. But why her?”
“Yesterday, we took a one-year-old boy’s soul. You didn’t ask any questions.”
The second God’s servant bit his lip. “Yes, but look at her face. I haven’t seen anyone like her.”
“We have to leave. Yama needs her soul so he can put it in the store.”
The second God’s servant’s face lit up. “Remember, I picked a soul by mistake last week. The old man who was ninety-nine years old. I was supposed to pick his son but I picked him instead. I still have his soul in the box that I haven’t handed over.”
“You can’t be carrying a soul like that.”
“What if I put his soul into her body? I don’t like to see her like this – dead and still.”
“I don’t know how that’ll help,” said the first God’s servant.
The second God’s servant opened a small wooden box. He picked the soul in his hand, chanted some mantras, and dropped it inside the body. The body woke up slowly, the eyes and the lips twitching as if someone had poked them with a needle.
A woman’s body sat up, looked around and said, “What am I doing here?”
“What did you just do? How will we explain this?” said the first God’s servant. “The humans will freak out when they see this and they’ll think the body is a ghost. We have more souls to pick up so take that soul back from this body and leave it dead.”
The second God’s helper opened his mouth to talk when a little boy with black hair came running to the woman. He hugged her and said, “Amma, I have been looking for you.”
“Me?” said the woman.
The boy chuckled, “You have a funny voice Amma. You’re silly.”
“What’s wrong with my voice?”
“It’s silly, Amma. I like it. You sound like Bala grandpa.”
The woman burst into tears.
“This is your fifth soul-picking. You’re new to this. You didn’t even speak the right mantras and now the woman got only the old man’s voice and not his whole soul inside her body.”
“This one time. Yama won’t notice,” said the second God’s servant.
“He won’t be happy, that’s for sure.. He keeps track of every human that dies and takes birth.”
“Look at her. She deserves to live.”
Geetha noticed the way she sounded after the boy left. “Oh my god! Am I possessed? What is wrong with me?”
Her husband, Ranga walked towards her. “Sai says you are silly. What does he mean?”
“It is my voice.”
Ranga gave her a strange look. “Geetha, are you okay? Is your throat scratchy? I’ll get you a cup of ginger and lemon juice.”
Geetha ate five cough drops and drank a cup of scalding lemon and ginger juice. When she spoke, her voice still came out shaky and old. “It’s not working. We should see a doctor.”
“Look what you did. Now we are running out of time. I have to pick three souls before midnight,” said the first God’s servant.
“I broke her heart. She isn’t happy to be alive. She wishes she were dead.”
“But you wouldn’t let her be.”
“I can’t see her dead. I wish I hadn’t taken her soul at all,” said the second God’s servant.
“You know that’s not a choice. We have a job to do here. Humans have to die when they have to die and Yama decides that.”
“Why does Yama get to kill people when he likes?”
“I don’t think you get it. Human death is a game of numbers. It’s like a cycle. Some must die so new ones can come in.”
The first God’s servant looked angry. “She can’t die. It’s not her time yet.”
Geetha was confused. She didn’t know why her voice was taken away. The doctor opened her mouth wide, poured some bright light, pressed her tongue with a stick to get a good look at her throat. He ran scans to determine if there was something wrong with her vocal cords. Nothing seemed wrong and he couldn’t come up with an answer. He didn’t know what medicine could bring her voice back so he sent her home with advice to drink turmeric milk.
At home, Sai continued to laugh at her. To Sai, it seemed as though Geetha was pretending to be an old man. She had never been this playful. When she tried to talk with other people, she frightened them. People spread rumors that Geetha was possessed with a spirit.
She was a mismatch among people. The wrong voice in the wrong body. She stopped going outside or meeting people. She stopped sharing her bed with her husband. Instead, she spent all her time praying for God to give her voice back and take away this wretched man’s.
“If there is a spirit inside of me, why do I feel like myself? Shouldn’t I be acting strange?” said Geetha to her husband.
“Since your voice changed, you have been acting strange,” he said.
Geetha shot him a look. “What do you mean?”
“Last night, I saw you circle the table twenty times, and then you stared at the wall for an hour and then you drank ten cups of tea.”
Geetha sighed. She didn’t tell him that she was scared of this voice living inside of her. She didn’t say it felt as if something had forcefully entered her mouth and refused to leave. This something, this voice was changing her identity. Her friend told her people called her names behind her back – the woman with an old tongue, the mystical lady, and the ghost woman.
She was only thirty-three. Why had her voice aged overnight and had taken a new form?
She didn’t know why. So she prayed and prayed. She sat inside her room with an oil lamp made from clay that held a burning cotton wick dipped in ghee, placed in front of pictures of deities – Krishna, Ganesha, Vishnu, and Shiva.
She looked at the deities and asked, “What will happen if my voice doesn’t come back?”
Her husband crept behind her and laughed. “Then I’ll call you ‘my old man’. We’ll become the best of friends.”
“You won’t leave me?” said Geetha, turning towards him. She had heard of men who left their wives for other women or for money. But she hadn’t heard of a man leaving his wife for her voice.
“No, I won’t. I hope this voice goes away. But if it doesn’t, we’ll learn to live with it, won’t we?”
Geetha made a gurgling noise as she glanced at the still deities. “I hope they hear me soon.”
The first God’s servant said, “It’s been a week. Why haven’t you taken her soul yet?”
The second God’s servant said, “I have been watching her. It’s too late to empty her.”
“What will you do if Yama asks you?”
“He won’t. Tomorrow, there will be a flood in the southern states. He’ll be busy taking at least a hundred souls.”
“What about the woman?”
“What about her?” said the second God’s servant.
“How will she live like this?”
The second God’s servant said, “I watched her alone yesterday and peeked inside her head to see her thoughts. Nobody has known her as anything but a wife or a mother. People hardly know her name. She works as a sweeper. But now, with the old man’s voice–she likes that people talk about her. She likes that they are also scared of her. But most of all, the voice makes her son happy.
Three months passed. Geetha said in her tired voice, “I think I might be pregnant. My breasts are swollen and my period hasn’t arrived.”
Ranga looked at her. “That’s good news.”
Geetha said, “I can’t imagine singing to a baby in this voice. Yesterday, Amma said I sound like my father before he died. She feels as if he is reborn inside of me.”
Ranga rubbed his hand over her flat belly. “Okay, tell me this. If I ever lost a leg or an arm in an accident, would you leave me?”
“Never. I’d be there for you. Isn’t that the whole point of marriage?”
“I see it the same way. We can’t undo this voice, but we can accommodate it, the way you make up for my lack of earnings or my long nose that always gets in the way of kissing.”
Geetha laughed and placed her palm above his hand. Together they circled her belly ten or twenty times. They slept, both breathing heavily, snoring like two old men.
Chital Mehta is a writer of color and an MFA graduate from Lindenwood University. She serves as a fiction reader for Ploughshares magazine, and her fiction has appeared in LandLocked magazine and Sangam magazine. Her essay is forthcoming in a Parenting anthology, Keeping Under the Wraps. She lives in Delaware, where she is revising her novel.