Durga’s heartbeats had wings.
She discovered it the day she turned eighteen, when she was returning home after a bath in the river. On the way back, she came across Ravi, the zamindar’s son. He met her eyes and she blushed, and that was when it happened.
Her heartbeats fluttered—she felt the soft brush of feathers against her ribcage, the brief rustle of wings. It quieted down in an instant, but the memory made her giddy with terror and joy.
Her parents would be mortified if they found out.
Already they had handed her rules on how to live her life, on how she was to behave if she wanted to get married.
“Don’t laugh loudly. And don’t talk out of turn.”
“You are eighteen now, Durga. A marriageable age. Act dignified.”
When she’d been younger, she’d wanted to follow her brother to school, but her mother would always shake her head.
“No one from our villages will marry a girl who is more educated than them. Don’t you want to get married?”
“I want to study,” she’d said, but her mother had acted as though she could not hear the words.
Nowadays, she snuck out of her house at night after her family had slept. She met Ravi under the banyan tree, halfway between both their houses.
“Your father will kill our family if he finds out,” she said to him, and he only smiled.
“Are you afraid?”
She shook her head.
He taught her words. He told her tales of the country they lived in and taught her how to spell it.
Her heartbeats fluttered as she fingered the letters into the mud, her eyes widening with wonder at her creation.
“One day I’ll tour the whole country. Maybe even the world beyond. I’ll take you with me,” he said.
The wings beat faster at his words, and she found herself smiling for the first time in a very long time.
She knew that theirs was a forbidden story, but these moments were her lifeline, and so she didn’t think about the future when she was with him.
Ravi wasn’t like his father. Her parents worked under the zamindar, toiling in the fields all day. Sometimes, when she went with them to help, she would see him keeping guard over his workers, prowling the fields like a tiger waiting to pounce on any wrongdoer.
Ravi was good. He came to meet her every night, and he didn’t care that he was going against village traditions by teaching her to read and write.
But she told no one about her heartbeats, not even Ravi. Her life was a pre-decided course of kitchens, rice fields, darkness, and marriage, and this was one thing the world did not know about her. She guarded it from everyone. It was her secret, her own precious winged secret.
One night, Ravi taught her to spell her name in the mud. When she’d written the letters, he leaned in and kissed her, and his hands brushed against hers, warm and eager.
Her heartbeats were so loud that she was afraid he could hear them, and she pressed her hands to her chest, feeling the wings brush against her skin.
The wings didn’t stop fluttering even after they said goodbye and she returned home. They fluttered the whole night, and she tossed and turned on the mat on which she slept, her smile wide, her eyes sparkling in the darkness.
The next morning, her mother called her.
“I have good news, child. The zamindar has helped fix your marriage. The groom is from a neighboring village, and he asks for very little dowry.”
Durga’s heartbeats stopped their loud beats in an instant as she stared at Ma, fear seeping in.
“Yes, of course. Don’t look at me like that. You are old enough to be a bride now.”
“Don’t argue. Clean the house and cook something good. I’ll be back early from the fields today to help you dress up. The groom’s family is coming to see you.”
Even after her parents left, the words echoed in her brain, beating like incessant drums till she almost screamed out loud.
She stumbled to the kitchen, not seeing where she was going.
A lifetime in a stranger’s kitchen, in a stranger’s bed. Her hands shook so badly that she dropped the pot she was holding.
She tried to forget these thoughts. Her mind searched for happier memories, better things.
She remembered Ravi. She remembered the stories he had said to her, the dreams his words had awoken in her.
Learning and travelling the world. Going places. Hope stirred and her heartbeats grew. They gave her strength.
She had wings in her heart, and she would not let anyone slice them off.
Her heartbeats stretched their wings, straining against her chest, and she did not try to stop them. She remembered the joy that had filled her with her dreams. She could see wings emerging from her chest, and she smiled as she tasted freedom. The wings burst out, heartbeats of an imprisoned life emerging free, and she watched them with fascination. They were red and blue and attached to a golden body that glinted in the sunlight streaming through the window.
The bird was hers and she belonged to the bird, and as it flew away, she knew she would go wherever it went.
As she fell to the floor and her eyes closed, her last feeling was happiness.
At last, she was free to go to the places she’d dreamt of.
—Tamoha Sengupta lives in India, but is happy to have visited many places in the world and elsewhere at the expense of words. Although she works in an IT company, she stubbornly refuses to grow up until she receives her Hogwarts letter. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Mad Scientist Journal, T.Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog and a few other places.