One day in the year 1405, a small boy spent a humid afternoon looking out into iridescent expanse of the Arabian Sea from the doorway of a thatched hut situated beside the mouth of the Periyar River. A stiff breeze blew in from the sea cooling the sweat on his body. And then, without warning, a massive shadow appeared on the horizon.
A song was written later, and ever since, its words float past as legend, even today, adrift on the humid currents of air along the coast and in memories that live in the narrow ancient streets of Mattancherry – “As the shadow rises, a cloud of tautly ribbed sail, aflame in the tropical sun. A floating city, like nothing the world has ever seen before…, an illusion in the fauna of mirrors.”
It was a couple of weeks after Zheng He’s fleet had berthed at Kochi, that the little boy named Chinchu befriended a mender of sails on board an enormous junk. His name was Ah Ai, habituate of the opium dens along the Shanghai waterfront and who over many voyages to Mattancherry and Kozhikode, possessed a rudimentary proficiency in the vernacular languages of the people along this coast. It was perhaps the opium procured in Shanghai that sustained Ah Ai through the arduous voyage across two seas, and now, inspired the tale that Chinchu heard.
Ah Ai, his eyes like marbles in deep sunken sockets set in protruding cheek bones, seemed to stare through the chimeras that danced in the late afternoon light over the bay. A noisy fly buzzed about their heads, the tide was rising and a raucous crew drew their boat alongside the quay.
He spoke very slowly, with pauses between words.
“When you look in the mirror, are you sure that it’s you looking back at yourself boy? Or is it something else, something more sinister?” he asked.
Chinchu swallowed and gawked unabashedly, tugging at the folds of his loin cloth.
“Our reflections are not reflections at all you see? They are another species from the netherworld, whose purpose lies in pretending to be our reflections.” Ah Ai continued.
“From Patalam?” Chinchu asked.
“I know nothing about Patalam*. All that I know is that these phantoms that we see in mirrors only mimic us in order to learn our ways and eventually, when they have learnt enough, emerge through the mirrors that serve as windows into their worlds and take our places. The world of mirrors bears no similarity to ours at all. Of course, since these evil beings were pretending to be our reflections, once they emerged, neither we, nor they would continue to have reflections.”
With mounting dread Chinchu remembered that he had stared at his reflection in a polished metal mirror a couple of days ago, searching for the first signs of facial hair. He gently touched a cheek, conscious of the Chinaman’s piercing gaze.
Attempting to divert his thoughts from the looming dread, he asked in a whisper “Do these creatures eat us?”
“They take your soul, every bone, your flesh, your thoughts, memory.” Ah Ai replied, his voice like sandpaper now.
He lit a long stemmed pipe with a ball of opium wedged in its tiny bowl. He sucked long and hard and after holding the smoke in his lungs for a while, let out tiny serpent like wisps through his nose.
Ah Ai continued “When their learning is complete, these creatures emerge by the thousands and launch a full scale attack on humanity, devouring their human counterparts.”
“Is a lot blood shed? Does it pain when they eat you?” Chinchu asked.
“I have lived through one such attack, a long, long time ago when I was about your age, and yes, it was bloody, very bloody.”
Ah Ai drew on his pipe and exhaled, “It was during the time of the great emperor Huang Di that the demons were last thwarted and I was there. The emperor defeated them with alchemy. These demons were led by a great tiger assuming the form of one of the emperor’s pet tigers. The alchemists cast a spell imprisoning the demon in tiger form for ten thousand years. Fish exist in the mirror world as well, appearing to us as a flash of light that is sometimes seen in the periphery of one’s vision as we turn towards or away from a mirror. These fish serve as gatekeepers to our world. The day we stop seeing them will be the day that the fauna of mirrors will gain access to our world and once again all of mankind will be in danger.”
The muezzins in Mattancherry and on Vypin Island began to sound the call to Salat al-‘asr, the late afternoon prayer. Chinchu realized that he had to return home. A metal mirror awaited his compelling curiosity.
He bid farewell to the sail maker, promising to return the next day. As he turned towards the dirt path that led to the beach, Ah Ai said “The emperor warned that the prison he had made for the creatures would not hold forever and they would return one day to try to take our world for themselves once again. Think about it boy.”
*In Hindu mythology Patala denotes the subterranean realms of the universe – which are located under the earth, the netherworld.