The Orphan Handler by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

At dawn, another van with girls comes in and Sister Agnes takes them onto the back veranda, branding them with a tattoo iron, warning them roundly not to scream. Then Agnes checks them for scabies and lice, examining their exquisite forms while wearing non-latex, non-allergenic, purple gloves. Then she leads them, even those who are weeping quietly, in spite of the command to stay silent, into a vast gay room with bright-colored streamers and balloons and glittering signs spelling out birthday greetings even though not one of them has given us their real birthdays or names. Then she initiates the change that is our little spiritual secret: the transformation of orphaned girls with special powers, the powers to change into wild creatures of various kinds, into future housekeepers, grounds cleaners, toilet scrubbers, perhaps a secretary or two, and God-fearing. After the birthing rite comes songs, a ritual that never fails to irritate Mother Superior Devi, our driven boss.

Post-birthing ritual, during the songs, in between clapping after each number I write fake letters home and to the government. These are to advise any last living relatives as well as state welfare agencies, that the girl in question has died. Sometimes I throw in the name that I would out of fancy assign the girl. No one can select names better than mine, not even the girls themselves, who usually claim not to remember who they were. “They’re orphans, all orphans,” the sisters say, but whispers abound outside our colony that in reality the girls nearly all have parents somewhere, or aunts or other relatives, wondering what’s become of them, concluding that they ran off once and for all like the unruly girls they were, because in order to allow themselves the privacy they deeply craved to become eagles or panthers or wild mares, the girls had always often disappeared. When the government aid workers call with their concerned voices, wanting more details of how the girls had died, I’m reassuring and solemn. I cry only at the conclusion of the tragic ends I narrate, holding my voice steady and calm and factual when I talk of accidental drownings, suicides, auto-riksha crashes, kitchen fires. Then, as per Mother Superior Devi, I ask if they’d mind sending us the girls remaining possessions, so these can be buried like relics with them. The possessions may look cheap but sell well. And here and there is a treasure: a bracelet of the finest gold, a piece of ivory carved into sandalwood. Even once or twice, a thick packet of coins.

These days the girls’ possessions are my major joy. I’m too tired and poor to attract too much male company. I am nearly seventy. I am considered past my prime. I don’t like it, considering how long it took me, a nun ordained at age sixteen, to find permission for my wants – the homemade movies, the videos of their experience, the erotic paintings and the sounds – but like the fates of the girls themselves, the situation is beyond my control.

Those in bright, fresh, clean-looking clothes shouldn’t be here. At ten, eleven, twelve years old it means they have mothers who will not rely on fathers to find them. They have the kind of mothers who may show up at the gate, and in the years that I and my sisters of mercy have been here, there have been one mother or two dragged into the compound for branding. Mother Superior Devi can smell women who change – and the girls, the special girls, with powers to transform into animals – well, many of them inherit this capacity from their mothers. Girls in grey are easy fish: calls are cursory, inquiries disinterested. It isn’t even grey that they’re wearing. It’s filth-colored clothing, washed if you can call it that in refuse-tainted water. There is a smell on these girls that is distinct, not just a smell but a texture – the unwashed clinging even to the newly-washed, the smell of their hair still rank even when girls are gilded with flowers.

Still, the transformations astound me. The way that at night, manacles aren’t enough. What was it like when you discovered you could roar? I asked a beautiful fourteen-year-old girl-cub-lioness one time, a girl whose eyes were golden-brown and hair was matted from life in the slum. But by then she had already been branded and subdued. Doubtful that she knew anymore what to answer; grateful as she’d be, shortly after, for how the Mother had made her forget, helped her attain a quieter, more durable power.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna and elsewhere, with poetry forthcoming in apt magazine and Hobart. She has received the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a Henfield award for her writing. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 including for upcoming readings and events.

Image: Janko Ferlič