Boy between worlds

Anita Roy | Updated on April 03, 2020

Read an excerpt from Anita Roy’s fantasy fiction novel ‘Gravepyres School for the Recently Deceased’, which follows the adventures of a young boy who dies and wakes up in a peculiar school

When Jose came to, he found himself lying on the stone floor of a darkened cave. In a circle around him sat eight hooded figures. They were chanting a deep, buzzing, guttural chant that rose, then fell, then rose again. From time to time, a small, high bell would ring out punctuating the chant with a clear single note, there would be a pause, and then the chanting would resume, pulsing around him, holding him as surely as salt water buoys up a float. He let himself drift away, carried by the steady rhythm of gentle waves.

After some time — he had no notion of how long — he opened his eyes. The cavern was empty save for one figure, kneeling before a small stone shrine in the darkest corner. Small oil lamps in terracotta cups added their sooty smoke to the blackened wall behind, and curls of smoke rose up from smouldering cones of incense. The figure was draped in a black cloak, on the back of which was an embroidered insignia: a snake curling in a circle, its tail in its mouth, its scales picked out in silver and crimson thread.

Jose began to sit up, and sensing his movement, the figure held up a hand. He froze. It was a skeleton hand, white bones of tarsals and metatarsals. The hand withdrew back into the folds of the cloak, and the figure resumed its muttering. With a final fling of its bony arm, the creature threw a pinch of powdery substance into the flames, causing them to crackle and fizz and send up a bloom of dark smoke to the cavern roof. Then the figure bowed down, touched its head briefly to the ground and in one smooth movement, as though drawn upward by a string, rose up.

And up.

The black figure stretched almost to the roof. Hooded and robed, the featureless shadow loomed over him, as though the cave wall had split and parted to reveal an abyss. Panicked, Jose started to edge away, scooting backwards on his bum, but as the figure approached, it seemed to shrink and diminish, its outlines becoming sharper and clearer until it coalesced into an ordinary-sized human shape before him. Then it threw back its hood to reveal the dark and strikingly long face of an old man. His close-cropped hair was pure white, as were his eyebrows, but his skin was smooth as polished ebony and unlined except, perhaps, at the edges of his deep black eyes that twinkled as though lit by starlight from within. The man smiled down at Jose.

‘Joseph Eapen Srinivas,’ he said, and his voice was like velvet against the skin. ‘Welcome back.’

Jose stuttered, ‘How… how do you know my name?’

At that, the man laughed — a loud boom that echoed around the chamber. He had the whitest teeth that Jose had ever seen. ‘Well, you know, it is my business to know,’ he said, seeming to find the whole situation vastly amusing. He pushed back the long sleeves of his cloak — and Jose was relieved to see that the bare bones had somehow vanished and the man’s long arms now ended in quite ordinary hands with long, nimble fingers and neatly trimmed fingernails the colour of old ivory.

‘But forgive me,’ he went on, ‘I know your name, of course. But have neglected to tell you mine.’

He walked to one side of the cave where a deep niche had been cut into the wall. From it he plucked what looked like an old-fashioned perfume bottle, filled with light blue liquid, and removed the small glass stopper.

‘My name is — well, I have a number of names, and I answer to them all — but you can call me Yama. Although, honestly, and in view of (a) your tender years (b) my exalted status and (c) the fact that I hold a PhD from the University of Thanatos — my special area of research being decomposition and deliquesence — I think Professor Yama would be a more fitting term of address. After all, I am the Deadmaster of Gravepyres School for the Recently Deceased, and that deserves at least a little bit of, ah, gravitas, wouldn’t you say?’

Gravepyres School for the Recently Deceased; Anita Roy; Westland/Red Panda; Rs 499


All the while that he was speaking, Professor Yama was carefully letting a few drops from the bottle drip into a small terracotta dish, to which he also added other things — a couple of strands of saffron, a pinch of ash, a dribble of honey, a dash of this and a smidgen of that, including many ingredients that Jose couldn’t identify. He held the little dish up to the light, added a final drop of the blue liquid and then decanted it into a small silver spoon, which he held out to Jose.

‘Down in one,’ he said. ‘It’ll do you good, I promise.’

Obediently, Jose took the spoon and put it in his mouth. It tasted utterly, spectacularly, unbelievably, stupendously vile. He spluttered, coughed, gagged but managed somehow to get most of it down. And immediately felt a little warmer, a little happier, as though lots and lots of very small creatures were hugging the tips of his fingers, his elbows, the backs of his knee, each and every toe.

‘What was that?’ he asked, when he was finally able to speak.

‘Ah,’ said Professor Yama, rubbing his hands together. ‘A little concoction of my own making. I call it “Rescue Rememory”.’ He held up the little bottle, smiling broadly. ‘Fast, effective relief from melancholia, heartsorrow and acute tristesse. Also, delicious.’ He licked his fingers.

Jose got to his feet. The pounding in his head had completely gone and, though he remembered, vaguely, the sensation of blacking out, the images and sounds that had preceded it were already fading fast, like the memory of a bad dream.

(Extracted with permission from Gravepyres School for the Recently Deceased by Anita Roy, published by Westland, Red Panda, March 2020)


Anita Roy is a writer, editor and environmentalist

Published on April 03, 2020

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