A fights down the urge to turn up his collar as he steps into the darkly lit bar. Instinctively his eyes take in the alignment of lights inside the space and his body moves seamlessly to become a part of the surroundings. A knows he is good, because he is the only white man at the bar, and even in this city of starers people have barely noticed.
A low jazz saxophone wails from invisible speakers, seeping into the room an air of sophisticated forlorn. A’s practised eyes seek out the four-person table forty-five degrees to him, and feel a twinge of regret at how easily they find it. The young, dark-skinned woman who sits alone at the table is wearing simple, demure clothes, he notices, but she has a long way to go before she learns to merge into the background.
‘Mr. A,’ the girl looks up from her drink. Large, expressive eyes, long curls pulled back from her temples. The lips hold the smile a few seconds too long for it to be a mere gesture. Too much warmth, too much heart. How old is she: eighteen? twenty-five? She still has a long way to go.
‘Just A, no appellative.’ With a fleeting grin he pulls himself a chair, ‘And you must be W.’
She nods amiably, and follows his questioning gaze to offer, ‘The master will join us shortly. He has left briefly to attend to others he must meet.’ No recognisable accent, A thinks. Good. E was always an exacting trainer. Just as well, since when has E been “the master”?
He takes a long time over the drinks menu to evade the awkwardness of no small talk to make. He knows a little bit of the history of the girl. Picked up by E from one of the tsunami-hit coasts of the Indian Ocean, right after the disaster struck. All the people she loved are dead, her old life completely destroyed; must be, for her to be here. Perhaps if he asks she will still tell him their names, and the name she used to go by. But A must not ask, neither tell her anything of himself. Names and personal histories are required to become non-existent, peel off their beings like dead skin, till they are nothing but the uniform, pervasive grief that binds them to their resolve. That is the cardinal rule.
A is relieved of his discomfort by the light touch on his shoulder that announces the arrival of E. They greet each other as E settles into one of the chairs. He is glad to see E again, to be in E’s benevolent, soft-spoken presence that radiates a Buddha-like calm. No man who hadn’t encountered E would ever know what lethalness was concealed behind that saint-like exterior, and no man would ever encounter E. E may once have been Japanese, and the mildly greying hair provide an indication of age, but beyond that A has never guessed much about him. E’s unspoken seniority among them may be of age or of being around the longest. E’s other life may have been taken from him in one of the many earthquakes in Japan, but A does not know which one. Which did not matter. The exact details varied and were irrelevant. The why was always the same.
‘F is on her way. Caught in the traffic, I understand,’ declares E as he orders a round of snacks. He relaxes in his chair and starts whistling casually to the music in the background. How cheerfully murdering the John Coltrane tune, A privately muses while he pretends to pay attention to the cricket match displaying on the screen on the opposite wall. At the edge of his eyesight he is aware of W shifting and shifting. So young! Is there nothing else in the world she would rather be doing?
Despite himself, A’s mind is drifted to the time he too had been young, in another country, more than a decade ago. He had a name, a house, parents, one younger brother, the childhood dog he loved. There was a university in another town, friends, a girlfriend whose name still rings in his mind like sad music his ears must never hear again. He had brought her home on a break; the brush of her skin so soft against his, the faces of his parents so proud to watch their son take his first steps into adult life. And then the storm had struck, more violent than anything he had imagined in his life, and his two-storey wooden house had crumbled like a sandcastle. Even in this age of technology, in the richest and safest country in the world, all it had taken was a few hours’ storm to deprive his life of each of the people who had given it any meaning.
And then, as he sat at the rescue camp bitterly speculating why he had been spared, two unknown men had approached him with an offer. He would eventually know them as E and W, when he had agreed to take up the role of A. A still remembers the previous W, a sagacious man with a flowing grey beard and a voice like the gurgle of a forest stream. He had died a year ago and A never came to know where or how, just as he was never told the details of the death of the one who had been A before him. The group does not dwell on of information that was not essential, even within itself. The current four are always the only four.
A’s thoughts are interrupted by tumultuous entrance of F through the front door of the bar. Yet again he is struck with fascination by F’s particular brand of inconspicuousness. In her mid-forties, F’s brown-haired, green-eyed, coffee-skinned appearance blends in anywhere between Asia and the Americas. And F is always visible, walking in the middle of crowds, singing aloud at karaoke bars, but she does it all with such an easygoing mediocrity that people forget her as soon as she’s left the scene.
After F is seated and gets her drink, E opens their discussion. ‘The reintroduction of W completes us again,’ E’s gravelly voice sweeps over their table, ‘and I shall reiterate the reason why we exist. As we know, there are four elements that sustain and destroy this world. Each religion in this world agrees to their existence, though some may confer upon them the title of god, while others merely acknowledge them as forces. But these entities exist, and while time has moulded into them several human-like characteristics, the essential strife and reward of human existence escape them. To them we matter not…’
He has heard the introduction repeated till they’ve become part of his brain’s fabric, and A’s mind wanders again. Meeting after years at a randomly selected bar in a landlocked city far away from where each of them was born, and no one except the four of them knew who they were or why they were here – at times all this strikes A as entirely unreal, but that is only a proof of their efficiency. The four of them are the oldest and most secret society in the world, existing since the dawn of time, so secret that they don’t even have a name. Names attract identities, and the world tends to notice that kind of a thing. They have no documents, no records, they leave no memoirs. Ever since paper identification had been invented, each of them has possessed multiple names, passports, personal histories, and sometimes these pass on smoothly as death replaces one person with another. They train at different places under different pretexts, picking up each skill from a different part of the world, and the final assimilation is always done on their own. As far as the world is concerned, the four of them do not exist.
This was essential, since unlike other secret societies which existed for the sake of political power, ideological stances or the worship of particular gods, they were a group of humans who had declared war against entities nearly god-like themselves. What right do the elements have to sweep thousands of human lives away like playthings, lives whose intricate beauty they cannot fathom, all the intense love and hope and effort that go into building each of those? This little society has existed for millennia, silently working, each small step by step, towards its final, nearly unachievable mission. Its members had once been prophets and adventurers and scientists and kings and builders of enormous civilisations. They had only one thing in common: all that their lives had been worth had been reduced to nothing in one unforeseen stroke of natural disaster, leaving them with nothing but an alphabet to identify the element they must redress their inexorable grief against.
They met scarcely and trained in secret; long, painstaking years of preparation. Training was even more important than strategy. The elementals did not change their habits from day to day. But centuries have been spent in preparation – in the study of religious, philosophical, scientific and every other text that led them to a weak link they could break through; in rigorous exercises of the body and the mind to raise them beyond the flaws of the mortal coil. Each new member has to internalise centuries of accumulated skill before they could add something new to the repertoire. Ten years have only enabled A to speak thirty languages and debate with clerics with all the Semitic and Aryan religions. He walks without casting a shadow, his bones are nearly unbreakable, he can outsmart the most skilled spy on the planet, and yet there is so much left to learn. To become barely competent.
After the meeting breaks F takes a hasty leave and E slips away to the back of the bar to reunite with the others he was meeting. Finding himself alone outside the bar with young W, A asks her if she would like for a walk along the uncrowded night streets. She blushes and agrees. Blush, he notices. The girl’s spirit is overwhelmingly feminine, a serious flaw, and how had E overlooked it?
‘I cannot help wondering why you refer to E as “the master”,’ he finally mentions, when they have walked far enough from the bar. ‘None of us do that, you must have noticed.’
‘But he is the master, is he not?’ she looks at his face in surprise.
The feeling of something being not quite right strikes A again. All through the evening, every time a remark was addressed to her, he had noticed W turn her eyes imploringly at E. E had surrounded her, mouthed her words, like a protective guardian answering for a child. That was not how A has known their society to function, for the four were never meant to have a leader. If six months of training had not instilled that self-sufficiency in the new W, clearly something had been amiss in either her selection and training, and how could E have committed either?
A remembers that his own training had been overseen by both E and the previous W, occasionally joined by F. The new W had been selected and trained by E alone, and what E had been doing? Was it mistake, negligence or deliberation, and was there a way he could find out?
‘E is certainly the eldest and most skilful of us; without his training you or I would be nothing,’ A carefully says. ‘But the purpose of our training is to renounce all the identities that define us, is it not? I’m not Mr. A because A is not my name; I have no name. There is no hierarchy within us, because hierarchy must come from identity, which we do not have. Is that not what you have been taught?’
‘Essentially, yes,’ says W, her figure shifting uncertainly. Then her voice turns stiff, ‘I am sorry, should I answer your questions? Is it not forbidden to inquire or divulge of information beyond the strictly essential?’
She is brave, loyal and has learnt her lessons right, A thinks with a hint of irony. Each of the four is alone, independent and dies with their own small secrets. Yet how easy it was to twist those rules, and A suddenly realises how much he has never been taught about the group. Has there ever been a traitor in the history of the four, and how were they intercepted? Would he be a traitor tonight if he spoke of his doubts to W, or would he be a traitor to hold his tongue?
‘You are right,’ he tells the girl, frowning to contain his thoughts. ‘I only implore you to remember that those rules apply equally to each of us. If you have been taught otherwise… you have been taught wrong.’
‘Water and earth are sympathetic elements,’ W starts speaking in a distant voice, staring ahead, apparently unconcerned with his presence. ‘Water nurtures earth, and together they give forth vitality and life. It is a relationship water shares with neither air nor fire.’ The girl’s voice trembles, as if with the great effort to hold back tears, ‘It has not been easy. Sometimes death has seemed easier. But I have given myself to this mission. I will not disappoint.’
Her hand casually brushes against her belly, and suddenly all of A’s doubts are dispelled. In his other life he had been a forensic student – why has it taken him so long to notice? And the weight of the realisation shakes him to the core. What has E done, the man under whose tutelage he has trained, the man he had aspired to become all these ten years? That preposterous theory held all the answers he needed. The four of them were not the elements themselves, they were mere human crusaders, and who would know the distinction better than E? And if E had fallen from the ideal, what was their society worth any more?
A tremor goes through the earth and throws both of them on the ground. Panicking madly, A looks up to see the silhouettes of the buildings on both sides of the street shaking violently against the night sky, their lights flickering, and the cars in the street screeching as they hit one another. ‘An earthquake! Run!’ he yells at W, a second before a surge of terrified people comes rushing down the street in the direction they were walking. He pulls W up by the hand and they both get carried down by the crowd, further and further away from the bar where E is, and which seems to be the centre of the earthquake.
The ground shakes again, the walls of buildings collapse, and W, holding on desperately to his hand, sobs out aloud as she runs, ‘But the master! He is still there!’
‘There is nothing we can do for him!’ he yells at her over the screams of the people. ‘Nothing more than he can do for himself. Earth is his own element, and he is more powerful than even the two of us combined!’ But as he runs a strange premonition fills A’s mind. He has never been in an earthquake before but he has studied them enough, and who had ever heard of an earthquake that rises so violently from its centre and yet quiets down within so short a distance? Where they had started the buildings are already razed to the ground, but less than a kilometre away the crowd is fanning out. Everything is normal in this part of the city. Even the windows of cars have hardly shattered.
They spend the night in A’s dingy hotel room in Paharganj. He does not prevent W when she turns over from her side of the bed and curls up against his chest. She sleeps uneasily, shivering in her dreams. But A lies wide awake as he runs his fingers impatiently through the depths of her hair. He had always wondered how others of the group found out when one of them was dead, and now he knows. But how exactly did it happen? E could not have triggered that earthquake himself, he had not yet mastered those powers. Or had he, striving alone to push the boundaries of his immense knowledge, the oldest and wisest of the four? Was that what he had tried to convince W? But when did E break away from the rest of them, and how, and why? Will A ever find out, or will the next E simply not be told because the other three did not know? But again, who will recruit the next E? What if they do not inform F? What if no one is recruited? What now, what now?
A year later a postman climbs up an Alpine hillock to the cottage which young Mr. and Mrs. Silverstein, a strangely reclusive inter-racial couple, had made their home with their equally mixed-race infant. Mr. Silverstein, cradling his dark, slanting-eyed baby in the garden, receives the envelope and sees the postman off with a smile and a few coins. Putting the baby down on its cot he opens the letter and reads the blue handwriting:
I write to you to say that perhaps all that has happened has happened for the good of everyone, and none of us must blame ourselves for it. A dream has been expelled, a dream dreamt by hundreds of people over millennia which had perhaps grown just too large for four mortals to carry it further. How far can mortal fabric be stretched before it rips quietly at several significant points? How far can we humans renounce the flesh, blood and soul we are made of?
I have built my house on the earth that had once been husband, children, parents, an entire hometown to me. An entire life flamed down to nothing but dust, can you imagine? But of course you can, the two of you have been through the same. But you are young, you can rebuild your lives. I am glad you have chosen to do so. My house stands alone on this barren ground, as do I, for I have forgotten how to make friends. But oh! what a relief it is to pronounce those dead people’s names again, to remember them without guilt, to freely grieve those who I loved more than my own life! I can spend the rest of my life in this meditation, and there will be no greater reward.
Who was it that said that we are never truly dead until we are forgotten? All the people who had been the four had erased their existence from the world, receded to nothingness, the reason why the current four used to always be the only four. I implore you, children, to never let your memories die. Remember the pasts that have abandoned you, the people you have lost. Remember the man who had led you on an impossible track and perished in his own ambition. Remember with fondness, pain or hatred, with your imperfect memories, write their names down everywhere you can. The elements forget, we do not. That is our greatest victory over them.
Emily Ojibwa, erstwhile F.
There is no address anywhere on the letter, no request for a meeting. Meetings are a thing of the past none of them want to return to. Mr. Silverstein folds the letter, puts it in his pocket, picks up his wailing baby from the cot, and goes inside to inspect what his wife has been cooking. The air is unnaturally still. Soon there may be thunderstorm.