Between the Banyan Tree by Sanjana Ramanathan

Dharsha kept her hands tight over her eyes until she reached 10 because that was the sort of girl she was.

Even in a game of hide and seek, she was a rule follower — her school uniform neat, her twin braids tied off with green bows, her face always scrubbed. The opposite of her older brother. In fact, she had taken off her clean socks and shoes and stored them in a hollow stump before following Rohith through the fence and into the woods.

Her bare feet squelched in the mud now, too loud. Though the branches above were mostly bare, they swallowed up the thin rays of sunlight. Dharsha pressed her lips together to shutter away her fear; if Rohith caught sight of her wide eyes, he would tease her mercilessly.

But after a long while of searching, Rohith’s laughter was the least of Dharsha’s concerns. No matter how many trees she clambered up and roots she tripped over, her brother seemed to have vanished into the grove. Built like a tall tree himself, Dharsha wondered how Rohith could have disappeared so completely.

“Rohith!” she yelled, startling a flock of crows into the air. They swirled above like the dark spiral of a coming monsoon. “You promised you wouldn’t go past the big banyan! Rohith!”

The only answer was her echoing voice — but hearing her own words sparked a thought . The big banyan. She had long suspected her brother had a stash of sugarcane rum in the high boughs, ones her still-growing limbs couldn’t reach.

Dharsha caught sight of the towering tree, the biggest in the woods, its many trunks sprawling yet entwined. She stormed towards it, sure she would catch sight of her brother lounging in the branches.

“Rohi-” her voice puttered out as she approached, catching sight of a long white sheet caught high up in the tree.

No, not a sheet. A corpse. It was strung out and deflated, all the color had been drained from the skin, leaving only four pale strips of empty limbs and a long mat of black hair attached to a hollow neck. But the shape of it was unmistakably a body’s. The balsam-pink nails fluttered in the wind as if reaching out in vain.

Dharsha tried to scream, but for once, her voice was caught in her throat. She felt a hot breath against the back of her neck and whirled around, tripping over a banyan root and falling onto her back.

A figure stood there, looming over her like a tall reed. The glassy eyes blinked once, twice — then he began to laugh.

Dharsha felt her fear swell into fury, dripping into hot tears. “Rohith!”

“Oh, look at your face! You were totally tricked, weren’t you?” The shrillness of his laugh was familiar. She cast a glance over her shoulder at the body in the tree. “You thought it was real! It’s only a cotton sheet. I tore it up and made the hair from leaves. Looks good, doesn’t it?”

Dharsha continued to stare into the branches. The pink nails pointed at her accusingly.

The heat of her anger turned to shame. How could she have been so stupid, to fall for one of Rohith’s obvious tricks? All he’d done was play dress-up with a towel, and she was shaking like a reed in the rain.

“What? You think it’s real, huh? Should I climb up there and get her for you?” Rohith snickered. He rolled up the sleeves of his muddied uniform shirt and grabbed one of the hanging vines.

“No,” Dharsha snapped. She wiped the tears from her face and stood, looking down in dismay at the dirt now streaked across her skirt. “This is stupid. You’re stupid! I want to go home.”

“Are you sure?” Rohith said, mocking. He swayed with the vines, and Dharsha wondered if he really had been drinking moonshine while waiting for her. “Maybe you’d finally make a friend. I think she’d suit you!”

Dharsha puffed like a screech owl, and her voice rose to match: “Shut up!” She began retracing her muddy footsteps back through the grove.

“Come on, Dharsha. It was only a joke!” She could just feel Rohith rolling his eyes behind her. “Look, don’t leave. Just one more game! You can hide this time.”

Dharsha stopped, remembering the clever hiding spots she had checked before the banyan tree. There were so many little hollows only she could fit into, places Rohith would never think to check. “Okay. But if you can’t find me, you’re buying me kulfi on the way home.”

Her brother shrugged. “Fine.”

Dharsha darted off into the trees, the fluttering corpse already forgotten.

The thing wearing Rohith’s skin watched her go, smoothing out a small crease against its collarbone. Then, it began to count.

SANJANA RAMANATHAN — Sanjana is an English student at Drexel University. She enjoys playing video games, cracking open a new book, and daydreaming. Her work has been published in clandestine lit, Analogies & Allegories, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @sanjubilees.

Art by AMY CHASE — Amy is a content manager and creative writer from Southern California, with a focus on short prose and comics. Her published work can be found via Avery Hill Publishing, Final Girl Bulletin Board, and UCSB’s Emergence Literary Journal. She can be reached on Twitter @IfSheBeWorthy.