(From an Indian Folk Tale)
Retold by Christopher Leeson
Long, long ago, a hero captured a vampire that had been haunting a lonely graveyard. The creature, held firmly by King Trivikramasena, sought to stay his captor from destroying him immediately by distracting him with a diverting story: He said: "In the city of Sivapura there was, once upon a time, a king named Yasahketu. This ruler had placed the burdens of government on the shoulders of his councilor Prajnasagara and, with his queen, lived a life of pleasing self-indulgence. In the course of time, the king sired upon his consort a daughter whom they named Sasiprabha, which means Moon-Lustre. From the day of her birth the child had displayed the pale beauty of the moon. In due time she grew to nubile young womanhood and fascinated all the men who beheld her".
One day the princess came out into the palace garden to watch the festival of spring. Many young men were there and their eyes followed the princess wherever she went. As she was picking flowers to offer to the goddess, Moon-Lustre unknowingly bent in such a way as to reveal one charming breast. Her indiscretion was observed by the son of a rich Brahmin, Manahsvamin. The instant that he set eyes on her forbidden fruit he was smitten. His name meant "Mind's Master," but, bewitched with passion, he ceased to be the master of his own mind in any way.
"Is she the Goddess of Desire? Or is she a sylph that has come from the deep forest?" he asked himself. While he stood wondering, the princess turned his way and as soon as she had appraised the young man, who might have been the God of Love embodied, she was so overcome with yearning that she dropped her flowers upon the earth.
While they stood staring at each other, there arose a loud clamor and they raised their heads to see what had happened. Bearing down on them, uprooting the trees along the road, came a berserk elephant which had thrown off his mahout and was running wild. The companions of the princess fled in panic and the princess was left abandoned, hardly knowing where to turn. Instantly, Manahsvamin dashed toward her, swept her up into his arms, and carried her out of the elephant's path. Then the princess was again surrounded by her attendants, who, though praising the Brahmin's courage, nonetheless turned their backs on him and returned with their mistress to the palace.
Unseen by them, she kept stealing glances over her shoulder toward her bold rescuer, who was following her longingly. At home, the princess could not stop thinking of the handsome youth and went to the window as soon as she was alone, to see if she could espy him.
Manahsvamin had watched Moon-Lustre vanish into her chambers. He asked about her and soon learned that he had set his aim very high, for she was the princess of the land. He thought to himself, "I cannot hope to endure this life without her. Princess or not, she must be mine! My only salvation may be my teacher, Master Muladeva, the crafty sorcerer."
Somehow the youth struggled through the day and a long, sleepless night, and in the morning went off to visit Master Muladeva. Manahsvamin bowed to the mage and told him of his desire.
With a smile, Muladeva promised to satisfy it. The magician took a magic bead, put it into his own mouth, and thereby changed himself into an noble-looking old Brahmin.
The youth marveled at his changed figure. "An excellent disguise," he said. "But how shall this get me closer to the arms of my beloved?"
"I will be your father-in-law," replied the mage. "You will be my daughter-in-law and I shall contrive to make you an intimate of the princess herself."
"Daughter-in-law?!" exclaimed Manahsvamin incredulously.
The wizard made no reply, but pushed into Manahsvamin's mouth another bead, and this one changed him instantly into a beautiful girl.
"What have you done!?" shouted the pupil.
"Be patient, young sire," Muladeva admonished. Then he explained his plan in greater detail. When all had been made clear, Manahsvamin decided that his mentor was indeed every bit as clever as his reputation would have it. Thereupon, the cunning Muladeva escorted the transformed Manahsvamin to the marketplace to buy him some fine clothing fit for a lady, and from hence took him to the father of the boy's beloved, who was the king himself.
Securing an audience, the wizard made of the monarch the following request: "Your Majesty, I have one son, and on his behalf I have contracted for this girl's hand in marriage. Her name is Tavi. I have brought her here from afar and she knows no one in this kingdom. But when I arrived home, I found that my son had gone adventuring and now I must to venture out into the world to call him home. While I am away, I beg you, Sire, keep the maiden under your protection."
Wary of offending a powerful Brahmin and thus earning a curse, King Yasahketu promised to do the favor asked of him. He summoned his daughter Moon-Lustre into to the hall and said to her: "Daughter, keep this girl with you in your rooms and treat her like your own sister!"
So the princess accepted the command and conducted "Tavi" to her own chambers. And while the false old Brahmin went his own way, Manahsvamin remained near his beloved, albeit in the shape of a girl. She was near to Moon-Lustre when she bathed, when she changed clothing, and when she made ready for bed. Manahsvamin's heart beat like a drum to be so near to his beloved and he had to struggle to keep his sighs of longing from being overheard.
After a few days, the princess had come to trust in her companion's friendship. One night, Tavi dared to whisper softly from the adjoining bed, asking why Moon-Lustre was not eating well and so often lay at night tossing on her coverlets. "Every day you grow paler, and look sorrowful and thin, as though you were in grief. Tell me, what is the matter? You may trust me with any secret, like a sister. If you do not confide in one who loves you, I shall refuse my meals also!"
The princess sighed: "Ah, Tavi, they say a burden becomes lighter if shared between two. I will therefore tell you, my friend. Listen. One day I went out to watch the flower festival of spring, and there I saw a handsome Brahmin youth. He was as fine as snow, or pearls, or moonlight -- he was like a god. But while my eyes feasted on his beauty, there was a sudden thunder and a monstrous bull elephant came down on us. My attendants left me behind, but that young Brahmin took me into his arms and swept me out of harm's way. When I touched his body I felt. . . .I don't know what.
"Before we could say a word, my companions returned and dragged me from his embrace. I was beside myself. It was as though I had been thrown from the bliss of paradise down to the sordid earth! Ever since then, even when I am wide awake, I imagine that the lord of my dreams is beside me. I pretend that he has used some clever ruse to win his way into my chamber. And at night, when I dream, I fancy that he urges me to love him, and presses me to accept his kisses. Finally he embraces me, after which we abandon all modesty. . . . But I know nothing about him, neither his name nor his family -- nothing -- and we have no way of communicating. And so the agony of separation burns my soul with fire."
Her words intoxicated Tavi like nectar, and the boy in the body of a maiden saw his blissful end achieved. Judging that the moment was ripe to reveal himself, he took the bead from his mouth and showed himself in his natural form. "Darling with the dazzling eyes," he addressed her, "I am the one whom you have won with your glances in that garden! When my meeting with you was cut short, I fell to such immoderate lamentations that the gods deemed that I was unmanly, a disgrace to my lordly father, and so gave me the form of a girl. It is your declaration of true love that has broken the spell."
When the princess saw her unknown beloved appear so suddenly, awe, astonishment, and desire overwhelmed her. They married each other in the informal manner that the Gandharvas practice in Heaven. There was such a feast of affection that their passions were at least temporarily sated. And henceforth Manahsvamin lived contentedly in two different forms: by day, with the aid of the bead, as a girl, and by night as a youth.
Several days passed. Then it happened that King Yasahketu's brother-in-law Mrigankadatta gave his daughter Mrigankavati with a very large dowry in marriage to Councilor Prajnasagara's son, Varda. Moon-Lustre was invited to the wedding of her cousin, and the Brahmin youth Manahsvamin attended, too, as the virgin Tavi amid her retinue of maids-in-waiting.
But what Fortune gives, she oft will endanger! When the bridegroom saw the supposed girl standing behind Moon-Lustre, he was utterly smitten. Robbed of reason by the love god's mischief, he went with his new bride to a home without the joy that a new husband should know. And there, totally immersed in his longing for the beauty of the unknown girl, he fell into a swoon, bitten by the poisonous snake of unrestrained desire. His father Prajnasagara came hurrying to his son's house when he heard of the emergency. Confronted by his father, Varda raved deliriously about his yearning.
The councilor was alarmed and supposed that his son had lost his senses. He notified the king concerning what had happened and the gracious monarch soon appeared at his advisor's house. When the king had seen the boy suffering from the seventh stage of love-sickness, he conferred with his ministers. "The maiden of his desire has been entrusted to me by a Brahmin," he said. "Her hand is spoken for. How can I marry her off to another? But unless I permit it, the boy will certainly die of love's arrows. When he has died, his father, my councilor, will perish, too, of grief. And upon the councilor's death the kingdom may collapse, lacking his steady guidance! Advise me, Wise Ones, what can we do?"
The ministers debated for a long time. They decided that regardless of circumstances, the maid must marry the councilor's son, lest disaster befall the kingdom. The Brahmin would be enraged, they owned, but he could be mollified by generous gifts.
The monarch agreed, despite his misgivings, and consented to give the supposed girl to the councilor's son. When the propitious hour for the nuptials had been calculated by means of the stars, Tavi was brought from the princess' chambers to meet the king.
The disguised youth was at first dismayed by the demand placed upon him, but he addressed the king courageously: "Your Majesty, if you invalidate your pledge to my father-in-law, that is for the gods, not a young girl, to judge. I have no choice but to consent to the nuptials, but will do so on this condition only: I shall not be forced to sleep with my husband until he has returned from a pilgrimage of six months to the holy places. He has acted without thought for others and must therefore purify himself by praying at the altars of many gods. If this condition is not granted, I swear that I shall kill myself by biting off my tongue!"
The king conveyed Manahsvamin's conditions to the councilor's son, who was too much in love to gainsay his beloved's harsh demands. The false girl and Varda were married and, as soon as the wedding was over, he lodged Tavi with his first-wed bride, Mrigankavati, in a well-guarded wing of his house and then faithfully departed upon the agreed to pilgrimage.
Manahsvamin, therefore, lived comfortably with Mrigankavati and shared her every intimacy, even sleeping beside her in bed. She was a young woman of good temper and did not resent that her husband had taken a second bride so swiftly. Indeed, it had been a match that her father had desired much more than she had herself.
As the days passed, Manahsvamin tried hard to think of a plan that would return him to the arms of Moon-Lustre. That he had become someone's wife seemed truly mad. While Tavi fretted, there came a night when the two young mistresses experienced unusual privacy and Mrigankavati whispered to Manahsvamin in their common bedroom: "Tell me a story, my dear, for I cannot sleep."
Manahsvamin, regarding her, realized for the first time that he desired this girl just as much as he had desired Moon-Lustre. Inspired, he accordingly told her the of legend of a young king -- the scion of the great Solar Dynasty, who had ridden through a forbidden forest and for that offense had been cursed by the White Goddess to become a woman. The transformed prince left his throne in shame and took the name of Ila. In Ila's changed role, however, the world around her seemed to have become entirely new. Men, not women, now appeared comely in her eyes and she yearned night and day for the touch of a lover. At last she and a king named Budha met, fell in love, and wed. From their royal intimacies, the hero Pururavas was born.
Now, concluding her story, Tavi added slyly: "So, it may happen at rare times, either by divine will or through the power of magic, that a man becomes a woman and a woman becomes a man."
When the naive bride contemplated this legend, she admitted to her companion: "While I was listening to your story of Ila and King Budha joining so passionately, my body began tingling and my heart missed a beat. Why should that be so? Tell me, my friend!"
"Those are the signs of your needful passion, my dear!" said the Brahmin with a smile. "Is this the first time you have felt such emotion?"
Softly Mrigankavati whispered: "Darling Tavi, I love and trust you. What I am asking you is forbidden, but I must request it nonetheless. It is wicked for Varda to have married me and then gone away without once touching my naked body. I burn! Could a man somehow be smuggled into our rooms, so I might at last feel like a married woman?"
Her words intrigued Manahsvamin, who was not thinking at all of Moon-Lustre just then, but only of this beautiful girl close to him. He replied, "If that is what you want, I shall tell you something. The story of Ila is not legend but fact. She and King Budha had not just one royal child, but many, and I am descended from her blessed loins. All of Queen Ila's bloodline are permitted by the gods to take either a woman's shape or a man's as they please. For this reason I, too, am able to change myself. And for your sake I shall now become a man."
He secretly took the bead from his mouth and showed himself in his natural guise, a handsome and virile young blade. And with Mrigankavati's inhibitions dispelled by the intensity of a passion too long unsatisfied, a feast of love was consummated -- and consummated with a zest that well suited the midnight hour.
So, from then on, the young Brahmin lived with the bride of the councilor's son, by day as a woman and as a man by night. When he knew that the councilor's son was due to return in a few days, Manahsvamin took the girl, escaped the house by darkness, and they eloped. They wisely stayed hidden in a woodland home that his father owned, for Varda's family sought for them angrily. Varda himself, it was reported, was not so much thinking of Mrigankavati, but of Tavi, whom he desired with a consuming lust. Though in bliss, Manahsvamin sometimes remembered Moon-Lustre and tried to think of a stratagem by which he might keep two wives, not just one, but the circumstances were difficult and his parents were angry because of what he had done.
At this point, Manahsvamin's teacher, Muladeva, who had kept himself appraised of all that had happened, decided that he would play a new joke, and thereby twist this matter into an even more confusing tangle. Once again he assumed the form of an ancient Brahmin and went to the palace. But this time he was accompanied by another pupil, Sasin, who though only a merchant's son, had been dressed to resemble a scion of the highest rank. Muladeva met King Yasahketu and said, "Your Majesty, I have located my son. I beg you restore to me my daughter-in-law."
The king, again fearing that the Brahmin would curse him, took counsel with his wise men and brought back this reply: "Venerable One, your daughter-in-law has run away! Forgive me, please! To make up for my lack of vigilance, I shall give my own daughter to your worthy son to wed."
Muladeva, the crafty wizard, feigned indignation and rebuked the monarch angrily. The king pleaded earnestly and the impostor finally permitted himself to be pacified. The king then bestowed his daughter Moon-Lustre with royal pomp upon Muladeva's pupil, Sasin, along with a generous dowry.
Thereupon, Muladeva took the pair, who were now bride and groom, back to his own home. But there they met an angry Manahsvamin, who had heard of the wedding. A contentious argument arose between him and Sasin while Muladeva and Moon-Lustre looked on.
Manahsvamin declared: "Moon-Lustre should be mine, for I have already married her as a virgin, which was the intent of both myself and Muladeva when this folly began!"
Sasin gainsaid him: "What has Moon-Lustre to do with you any longer, fool? She is my lawful wife, for her own father has given her to me in the presence of the sacred rites!"
"But you have wed under false pretenses!" declared Manahsvamin.
"Your pretenses were even more false ," Sasin replied "and you are greedy besides, wanting two wives while I have none."
They made an angry clamor and when they finally fell to blows, Moon-Lustre parted them. She said she would choose her wedded husband, Sasin, over her unfaithful lover, Manahsvamin. So the matter now came to be settled, but it was settled outside the strictures of the law, for a woman's changeable opinion counts for very little in this world of ours.
"The story is all but ended," said the vampire to his captor. "Tell me therefore, Your Majesty, to whom did the princess Moon-Lustre truly belong? Was it to whom she had formerly loved and chosen for herself, or to the one she had married with the consent of her father, and with all the blessings of tradition?"
The king frowned thoughtfully. "In my opinion, she belongs fairly to Sasin, for it was to Sasin that the king had married his daughter in public ceremony. It was Sasin upon whom he bestowed her dowry. Manahsvamin had taken Moon-Lustre by stealth and married her without ceremony. It has never been the law that the thief is to be considered the owner of the property that he has stolen. Moon-Lustre had chosen her mate as a righteous wife properly should."
The vampire had noted that the king's grip had grown slack while pondering the quandary. He suddenly slipped like mist from the hero's grasp and fleetly returned to his deep grave. King Trivikramasena, undaunted, went after him, burrowing into the fetid earth with a gravedigger's shovel. Once the skilled hunter had gotten the undead creature again in hand, the vampire urgently pleaded: "Sire, listen, and I will tell you yet another story. It shall make you forget your anger and toil."
"You are a clever fellow, vampire," the hero said with a grin. "Indeed, let us have another tale as good as the last."
And so the vampire related story after story, throughout the long night.