Very few Mahuts turned up at my husband Bora’s funeral. Six—I counted them, including the funeral officiant who’s also the head priest of our locality. I was pacing in the empty graveyard, occasionally glancing back at my mother-in-law whose figure lumbered along, partly due to the fat she’d amassed all these years, partly because she was sad at the death of her beloved son. I watched the tense twitching of her whiskers, several of which had turned white, and her greying tail that twitched involuntarily. Her cold gaze carried with it a sense of bitterness.
Master Idi performed the ritual while I stood silently. My mother-in-law squinted at me between sobbing bouts. When a thin strand of grass was placed on the mound of earth over Bora’s grave—the sign of a believer in Aruh, our Supreme Lord—I thought of Master Praavu, our last tryst, and the ideas he had believed would transform the entire course of Mahutian life. To be honest, I was thankful. Bora’s death ceased the subterfuge I’d resort to every time I went to meet Master Praavu.
There was a time in my youth when I’d lost my faith in Aruh. During these years, I’d inferred something from the revolutionary ideas of Master Praavu: we should obey the customs of our society only as long as they benefited us.
One Sunday, I was thinking about this while walking down our gutter-like thoroughfare in the capital Usha. I saw Mahuts from all walks of life: workers hewing out sharp edges of stone with their teeth; foreign traders laden with sacks of rice, barley and other grains, hawking their produce; grumpy-faced butchers flaying tittir, a delicious bird species of the forbidden forest.
A small rat scurried across the road with a sliver of meat in its mouth, its tiny legs almost invisible to my eyes. How small it was! I looked up at the big round sun—how incongruously connected we were to the sun: one of us the largest and the other among the smallest of creatures, having knowledge and wisdom to shape the world with all four legs!
I was distracted by a commotion. In the distance, I saw a police squad forcing a middle-aged Mahut into a large wagon. A group of youngsters surrounded the wagon. They sank their teeth into the tails of the cops, encouraged by the squeaks of many others. The cops tried to save their tails, shrieking wildly.
I saw that some of these Mahuts had cut their tails, inspired by the philosophy of Master Praavu. He had declared that a tail made one slothful since it was an unnecessary part of the body that consumed our energy. “An animal needs to be thin and slim, both in body and mind.” I heard the neophytes say this several times at the intersection of Harita, which they now called Young Mahuts’ Intersection.
They also argued that our aesthetics should reside in our minds, not in our tails. To me, this rang true. They had caused great agitation among the reactionaries, the old white-whiskered, grizzly-backed, dull-witted Mahuts of our land.
Master Praavu had another grand idea: that we must stand on our two hind legs, changing the way we had walked since time immemorial. He pointed out that standing on two legs would free our hands, a revolutionary step that would change the entire course of civilization: with our hands free, we’d be able to shape the world any way we wished.
The reactionaries abhorred this idea and argued that, while walking, it was always important to feel the earth closely with all four legs. It developed a sustained relationship with the earth and Lord Aruh, they said, leading Mahuts to be humble and gracious not only to fellow Mahuts, but also to all living beings.
I followed the riot and the acolytes of Master Praavu until my father discovered me in the crowd and tugged my tail towards him, gesturing that we should leave the place immediately. The cops reorganized and, puffing up their fur, chased the acolytes and pinned some of them to the ground. The acolytes fought back, hissing and squealing. I stood on my hind legs, raising my head, and tried to see where the wagon carrying Master Praavu was heading. My father grasped with his teeth and pulled me back home.
Three Sundays later, he married me to a carrot-faced, pale-eyed, middle-aged Mahut who tried to titillate me with a bawdy dance and passé jokes. I barely listened to Bora, for I’d already found better things in my life. I wanted to join this revolution and shape the world with my forelegs by standing on my two hind legs as Master Praavu urged. There’d be no place for my husband, this coward Mahut, who only knew how to coarsely try to win the heart of his wife. I knew he’d bribed my father with a bushel of grains, persuading him to marry me off without my consent.
My mother-in-law was determined to harass me from the very beginning. She knew of my support for the Cut Your Tail movement. To occupy my mind and kill off my revolutionary spirit, she kept me busy with chores.
One morning she asked me to use my teeth and help her build a new larder room. She wanted more space to store food for the future grandchildren she foolishly imagined. She knew she’d gone against our custom, which clearly stated that a newlywed female Mahut shouldn’t use her teeth doing any sort of household work before she had stayed seven Sundays at her mother-in-law’s house.
I brought up the custom and resisted her order, and she exploded in rage, cavorting in the air and unleashing her tongue. “Don’t teach me customs!” she squeaked. "I know why you protest against me, you spoiled woman! You and your goddamned movement!”
She lowered her voice. Her eyes narrowed. “Listen carefully. You cannot eat while laying idly around this house. If you don’t use your teeth and work, I’ll kick you out!”
I couldn’t tolerate her insults anymore. I squeaked in fury, whisked towards the front door, and bounded out of the wretched house.
I passed through dusty roads of the neighborhood, among moldering old houses jutting haphazardly towards the street. Children scurried to and fro, blocking my way. As I passed an alley and walked by the shops of grain sellers, stone polishers, and mirror makers, I wondered where I could possibly go. Then I made up my mind and strode towards the edge of the city where the prison lay.
The prison was perched on the tallest mountain in Mahutland. Looking at it through a tightly spaced row of linden trees, my heart leaped as though I were an explorer discovering Mahutland for the first time. It looked more like a lighthouse than a prison. I imagined the glow of Master Praavu’s radiant existence on the horizon. He’d free me from the fetters of my menial existence, allowing me to fight for a movement that I truly supported. Little did I know this desire to join a larger cause would lead me to discover—through the death of Master Praavu—darker truths of life.
When the prison guards stopped me at the gate and asked me whom I intended to meet, I could barely hide my excitement. “Master Praavu!” I replied. “And what should I tell him if he asks after you?” asked the same guard. “Tell him a lady in distress is here! A lady who loves his cause and supports it from the bottom of her heart.” The guard gave me a cold look and returned after a few minutes. Two different guards with long whiskers escorted me inside.
Master Praavu was walled in by a mound of bricks. He stuck his head out through a single hole. The guards had given him a black eye, which he could not open beyond the tiniest slit. He was a sorry sight in every way: his nose badly bruised, his whiskers dust-smeared and unattended. He gazed at me with his uninjured eye while I approached him with teary eyes.
We hadn’t previously met, yet his gloomy eyes invited me closer as if we’d known each other for a long time. Was this the love that I’d been yearning for all my life? I went closer to him and rubbed my nose against his. I don’t know why I did it.
The guards watched us suspiciously. Master Praavu didn’t say anything. I was flushed with excitement. Only when I stepped back a little did he say, in a soft, friendly tone, “We will meet again. Don’t tell me your name now—I want to learn it under better circumstances, should they let me live.”
Three weeks later, Master Praavu was released from the prison. He returned to his old house on the sparsely populated eastern side of the town. On an auspicious evening, I snuck out of my mother-in-law’s house to meet him.
Bora had left for Lasker Town to sell grain and pomegranates, telling his mother that he intended to stay there for three nights. He was bothered by a nagging cough and needed time to look for a cure.
When I reached Master Praavu’s house, I found him talking to a few young Mahuts in the doorway. Noticing me, he finished his conversation and invited me inside. I followed him into a spacious room with smooth walls and a pebbled floor. He asked my name politely, rubbing his nose against mine.
“Lili,” I replied, my voice soft, eyes hinting that he could take me. He didn’t hesitate.
We didn’t make a sound. I said nothing as he clawed his nails into my skin in a frenzy. I trusted that he was a wise and polite Mahut, who just happened to love leaving on his mistress’s body marks during lovemaking. I enjoyed the pain, and a wave of ecstasy swept across my heart. When he stopped, I could feel hot teardrops on my cheeks.
I became the first female member of the movement. I frequented Master Praavu’s house against the will of my mother-in-law and my husband.
The government incarcerated many young supporters of the movement. It was at this time when the town was suddenly infested with our smaller brethren. The rats would steal food and race through the streets after swarming old houses in large groups, like a frenzied army.
One Sunday, pointing to a caravan of rats scurrying along an alley, Master Praavu said, “Look at these miniature versions of ourselves. Seeing them gives me this feeling that I’m standing before a mirror. This version of us is neither aesthetically appealing nor of any use. Lili, see how we hate ourselves!”
Master Praavu spat. “When we hate these animals, we exhibit a sign that tells us we’re repulsed by our own reflections, at our own selves. This is what I’ve been truly occupied with since you met me in the prison.”
I didn’t know then that these words would one day trouble me greatly, pricking me like deadly palm thorns and turning my life upside down. At the time I remained silent. After a while, he said, “Lili, tell me something. Do you feel a strange kind of revulsion sometimes?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He didn’t move. “Are you sometimes afraid of meeting fellow Mahuts? Are you even afraid of encountering your closest friend?”
“I guess. Sometimes.”
Master Praavu nodded his head as if he knew what I was going to say. And for the first time, he muttered two foreign words that I’d never heard before: “P-si” and “En-si.” I asked their meaning, and he replied: “One day I’ll explain, Lili. I’m not sure about them yet.”
Meanwhile, the revolution reached its peak. Three thousand Mahuts demonstrated against the guards and cut their tails in Young Mahut Square. Nearly two thousand volunteers were present to help revolutionaries cut their tails with a sharpened stone. It was even secretly proposed that they’d add a word to our national anthem: “O Mahutland, our cradle of tailless forefathers.” There were many revolutionaries whose parents were mossbacked conservatives. They shouted about how tails helped us balance, how we brushed aside little insects with it while moving. To remind us of the benefits of the tail, they started using their own tails excessively.
They cleaned the fur on their tails, coiled it in a round manner, and started dyeing their tails with different colors to show that they could be fashioned in various ways. What a laughingstock they became when, at the Town Square, they grabbed some magnolia branches with their tails and hung upside-down—just to show that the tail was an integral part of a Mahut, and that cutting it would be a sacrilegious act against the will of Lord Aruh.
The most heinous part of their conviction was how they reacted to Master Praavu’s teaching to stand on two hind legs, which they found profane. They’d refer to it as the s-word, as if saying the word “stand” were forbidden.
We gladly owned the word, however. The Great Standing would gradually shape the course of our lives. For that, we’d have to cut off our tails.
After the mass protest, the government banned any sort of public assembly. However, as Master Praavu had envisioned, the good-spirited young Mahuts were determined to fight tooth and claws for their cause. The reactionary philosopher Erzu asked Master Praavu in public: If Master Praavu was a fervent preacher of this movement, why was his own tail not cut? Why was he playing a shameless double role?
I was tormented by this question, for I was also preparing to cut my tail and become a true supporter of the revolution. Master Praavu left for the countryside to avoid constant visits by the police at his townhouse.
Riding with him in a hansom drawn by sashi, I asked, tentatively, “Master Praavu, why is your tail not cut yet?”
The hansom jolted over potholes, and Master Praavu adjusted his posture. It wasn’t easy for him, for his belly had grown since that day we met at the prison. His whiskers twitched, and he looked at me anxiously before his eyes darted away. He clutched the footboard with his tail to maintain his balance.
He swallowed and said, “Lili, I’m in grave doubt. I feel I need to Mahutize this philosophy more.”
He cleared his throat, gaining confidence. “Sustaining this revolution among the young people would require an understanding that we’re meant to be free from all the prejudices and old customs that make us weighty creatures day by day. One day I’ll make them understand all of this and they’ll all cut their tails and walk on their hind legs. Until then, I’m not sure if I need to cut my own tail.”
He shook his head. “Sometimes I feel these young Mahuts are cutting their tails on impulse. They’re doing it inMahutantly. But then I also feel that we need to push this on two grounds: philosophically and practically. I want them in the streets too, demonstrating our capacity to make change. I want every Mahut to be free in their thoughts and deeds.”
Glimpses of the countryside were visible before us. I reclined against Master Praavu’s back and listened to the chatter of a river we passed. It snaked away beautifully. The wind made the trees creak and the voice of Master Praavu sounded to me like the words of Supreme Lord Aruh. I decided to please Master Praavu. I thought this was a meek version of him. Plebeians like us needed to support his great philosophy, even though Master Praavu hesitated to practice some aspects of it himself. No female Mahuts had cut their tails yet, so I wanted to show him how I looked without a tail. I thought it would make me feel lighter and give me more freedom while walking and thinking.
At home, my mother-in-law cursed me every night, repeating, “Aruh will give you a grave disease. That’s what you deserve for whoring around like this!”
I didn’t take her words to heart, for I knew I’d do what I had decided to do. But before I could cut my tail to show the strength of my will, my husband Bora died in the middle of a terrible coughing fit.
Master Praavu grew restless as he heard the news. The young Mahuts who had cut their tails were no longer tailless. They now saw an even larger and darker appendage growing where a healthy tail used to be.
“Aruh, the Supreme Lord’s revenge!” the reactionaries crowed. Some of the tailless Mahuts prostrated themselves before the priests, moaning that they’d made a grave mistake by following the philosophy of a plebeian Mahut. They said that Master Praavu wanted to destroy the harmony in nature preserved by the Almighty Aruh. The reactionaries jumped on the opportunity and proclaimed the triumphant return of Lord Aruh in Mahutland.
A lull followed. Master Praavu would sit in his rocker all day long without exchanging a single word with me, but sometimes he’d behave like a young Mahut. Holding me tight and sinking his teeth into my skin, he’d say, “Lili, my Lili! You never know what I’m up to.”
But something wasn’t right in the sun, for I felt a little under the weather in the next few months and noticed some changes in me. I began to shed fur.
The exposed patches of skin felt so itchy that at night I couldn’t sleep at all. I was frightened. Was it my mother-in-law’s curse that had caused this new disease? I was never sure about what to do, but of course, I didn’t reveal this to her. Since the death of her son she had become quieter than before, asking me to follow religious ethics. Sometimes she wailed for her son at night, cursing me for not joining her in wailing and wishing for Bora’s miraculous return. As was custom, I’d still have to stay with her for ninety-four Sundays to mourn my husband’s death.
As much as I tried to ignore my fur loss, after a couple of weeks, I’d lost all the fur near my ass and belly. Master Praavu didn’t notice this during his lovemaking frenzies, for he was only fond of leaving scratches on my skin.
I began to avoid Master Praavu. After thirty-five Sundays I had lost almost all the fur on my body. I was a vile creature.
My mother-in-law admonished me. She said, “Child, if at this time you don’t turn to Aruh, then you’re doomed to receive Aruh’s fire volleys and deadly breath when you die.”
I was so tormented that I couldn’t show myself to Master Praavu. Would he be able to make love to someone as bare as I was, stricken with an ugly disease? I remembered how he had praised my fur, saying that the oil that oozed from my pores made the most precious smell in all of Mahutland.
With resolution in my heart, I entered Master Praavu’s house a few weeks later. He seemed to be in a trance. His head rested against a small stone stool. He didn’t look at me but said in a strange voice, “Lili, I was waiting for you. Why didn’t you come?”
He shook his head. “Do you know what I have learned? Like you, I am deeply disgusted with myself. I think it applies to all of us—every Mahut of this land. I advocated for revolution because of the revulsion piling up in my heart. No revolution can be good for us unless we can comprehend the very nature of this revulsion, the way it works.” His thinly furred ears flapped with excitement as he spoke.
He coiled and uncoiled his tail a few times, then said, “This revulsion was eating away at my understanding of everything I was trying to say. I couldn’t see it in its true light, in its true form. But now, as on a limpid rock-pool or in a lucid dream, I can see everything very clearly.”
Master Praavu’s eyes became bright and intense. I stepped away. “We’re frighteningly alone, Lili,” he said. “We’re nothing but a flickering consciousness, and it’s only in this flickering moment do I realize my being—my Mahuthood.”
He continued, eyes avoiding my bare countenance. “The devil that arises in us is because of this emptiness—this solitude. So the absurdity of our existence can only be understood when we can divorce things from their names and forms, and when we face them in their bare existence. We’d then discover that things are simply there, loathsome and fearful, and only then do we experience this revulsion in its true form. You can still feel this revulsion in you even if you don’t understand all these nuances. Remember those words I told you once?”
He didn’t need my response, nor did he ask for it. He rocked back and forth unevenly, speaking as though he was explaining himself to a ghost, not noticing my presence in the least.
He continued, “En-si means ‘being in itself,’ like rock, dust, or hard objects. They simply exist. They have no consciousness. They’re bound by causal laws and simply determined to be exactly what they are. They’ve no freedom, no awareness, only their bare, doomed, and solid existence.”
He stopped pacing. “On the other hand, Lili… On the other hand, p-si is ‘being-for-itself’ and it describes those of us who can feel the rhythm of our hearts, but our self-awareness is empty. We become conscious of ourselves only in regard to something, a mirror for instance, which confirms our existence when we look at it.
“But to be a truly conscious being, we must occupy the gap between our consciousness and the objects around us. I exist between myself and the mirror I’m looking at. I’m only this flickering consciousness. Nothing else is true, Lili.”
Master Praavu finally raised his eyes to look at me. I stood uncovered, devoid of any fur on my body, my skin red and inflamed from his scratches.
Was he the same Mahut who had loved me and pushed his ideas upon me? Why did I see a flickering of hatred in his eyes? Did he believe I had let other Mahuts sink their claws into my skin?
I couldn’t stand before him anymore. I bolted into the street, leaving him as he was—terribly disturbed, frightened, and doomed to his own thoughts.
Three Sundays later, Master Praavu committed suicide. He’d overdosed on realgar.
I couldn’t compose myself after Master Praavu’s death. I drifted here and there. The revolution was hamstrung and the reactionaries put a strict law into action: If any Mahut was seen walking down the lanes of Usha without a tail, they’d be put to death without trial. Those with darker tails had to dye them regularly to avoid being caught.
My mother-in-law asked me to join the public prayer that now took place every week. Instead, I stopped by my old haunts.
In the wintry mornings, by the old Calendar Lake, I spent hours thinking about my past. As the sun made things vivid at midday, I saw birds in the distant woodland. How they planned things around the sun! Year after year, they came to the same places searching for its glow —the glow that made their hearts and thoughts warm. Everything before me was touched by the sunlight and was vivid as ever.
Walking by the lake, I decided to move out of my mother-in-law’s house. I saw birds of prey swoop down on the water to earn their day’s meal and ants build mounds of earth out of their instincts. I knew what I was waiting for: my fur to grow back. I wanted the sun to blanket my being, my consciousness.