Iti had a squint from the beginning. In her left eye. When she was a baby, you could barely make out. But after her brothers were born, and after she began wearing frocks and passed on her toddler clothes to either of them, the squint showed up. Wide and proper. They never went to a doctor to get it corrected. Nobody even knew if there was anything that was correctable. And some even considered it a good sign of prosperity and would rather let it be.
So she grew into it. The other children at school referred to her as the girl with the squint. That was for the few days she had gone to this one. But before her name had completely gone around, she was pulled out.
There was that black magician sorcerer. Who stifled the souls of little children it was said. Many fell into Iti’s example and evaded school with that same excuse. Mothers found a decent alibi to keep the daughters around, gather some more help in carrying the load of pots and pans to the steps of the village pond where they were washed clean with ash each morning, each afternoon. Some boys were taken fishing in the river, some tended to vegetable gardens.
Iti and her brothers were pleaded to stay behind their land lord’s compound walls. The only one in many villages around to be made of granite and mortar, well guarded with shards of glass fixed into the cement on top when it was raw. Nobody slid out of the iron gates, only held the rust on the rails and stared out.
The black magician was learning, they said. Picking up sundry traits. Practicing during the nights, chanting hymns. Walking about alone, to check if the hymns read out during the night had bore fruit during the day. He was the sweet vendor’s son. Instead of inheriting his family business of milking cows and rolling balls of cheese in earthy hands, he broke off from them in an ugly fight over splitting of wealth among brothers. And swore that he would reduce all of them to dust. Somehow, anyhow.
At cross roads, where four streets met, a few days ago they had found an earthen pot filled with vermillion, shreds of grass and what not. Scraped upon it was a skeletal face of man. As an aftermath of that, all the Bael trees, absolute dozens of those dried to death within a week. There was absolutely no moisture left in their trunks as if someone had sucked each drop of life from their veins and vein-lets, those who saw whispered. This was only a precursor before he started jinxing men and women and killing them. But prior to the grown man and woman, the sweet vendor’s errant son would definitely try his deft hands on children.
Children with their gullible souls, fragile resistance to desires and new born consciousness, were expected to walk into his hands. So the children were forbidden from school, lest they were wanted to die like the bael trees. To shock Iti and her little brothers the bael tree from which their landlady plucked from amongst thorns the hard crust fruit and for her offering of one hundred and eight leaves had died like its blood brothers around. Its leaves turned black and the fruits yellowed in no time. The tree had died like a person would fall sick from a sudden attack of hemorrhage and perish overnight. On the night of the no moon.