Oh, Sita! With what cunning did you guard
your virtue, those long nights, when the demon
king, leering, drooling, bent over you, his hot
breath so foul you bit back retching, thrust
it down to your treacherous stomach, that you
might smile, might teasingly back away, might
protest modesty, shyness, the need for a delicate
touch? You had no other recourse. The demon
would not have cared that you were married,
married to a prince, a good and noble husband,
a kind man who might have taken you from
your comfortable home, your silks and jewels
and the company of your sisters, to live alone,
alone with himself and his brother for sole
company, alone in the jungle with the monkeys
and the snakes and the tigers and the shrieking
bats, solely on a point of honor — but what of that?
You loved him regardless, loved him as a tender lover,
as a noble husband, as your god on earth, dutifully,
but also with joy. You were for him a lotus blossom,
a still pool of serenity, a memory of those days
in the palace, when he was the favored eldest son.
You were the best of wives — but the demon would
not care, and so you chose other means to shield
your virtue; you pled fragility, you giggled shyly,
you told him stories as Scheherezade might have,
not to save your life (for you knew your prince,
your Rama, would arrive soon to save you), but
to save your reputation, your virtue, your body
inviolate for your most beloved husband. And then,
he came, Rama came flying across the deep waters,
flying on the back of the monkey king, he and a
thousand soldiers came and battled fiercely with
the demon, while you waited below, secure in your
fidelity, your faith in his courage and might and
nobility, which must surely triumph in the end.
And so it did. It did. He defeated the demon and
took you back across the waters, away from your
island prison, from that tall slender tower where
you spent so many nights repulsing the advances of
the slobbery demon king. And when you returned,
the soliders demanded your death — the price for
a wife’s infidelity. And you knew, when Rama looked
in your eyes and asked you, when he heard your
protestations, your assurances, you knew that he
believed you. He was your husband, after all,
your lord and god on earth, and he knew you
almost as well as you knew yourself. He knew you
had been the most faithful of wives. He knew.
And still. Still he ordered the sticks laid, the fire built.
Still he announced that his faithful wife, in which he
had the uttermost faith himself, would undergo the
test of fire, would walk through burning flames to
prove her purity before the people and the gods.
He turned to you and kissed your forehead and pushed
you towards the flames. The love of your life.
Oh, Sita! You trusted in the whims of the gods, trusted
that they would be paying attention. You had burned
your fingers on enough iron pots (in that damned
jungle) to know that you were not immune to flame.
You survived, as it turned out, but it could so easily
have gone differently. In his triumphant progress,
when he lifted you up, fainting in his arms from the
bitter heat, the smoke that choked your breath, when
he carried you before the people — in that moment,
what did you desire? Was it love, or faith, or trust,
or the courage to fight for what Rama knew was true…
or did it not matter anymore? Had love burned out
in your heart, burned to an ember, then a cold cinder?
I know what you felt, princess. You stayed with him,
through the long jungle years that followed, until his
triumphant return, his kingship on the old cold throne.
Was that your reward, princess? I might have stayed,
too — it was a close call. But in the end, I walked away,
with the marks of his distrust sharp on my shoulders,
the heavy buckle’s imprint cut deep into my side; I walked
away to make my own way, hungry and cold and longing
for the man whose love had once flamed within my heart.
Walked away in the dead of night, leaving him to wake
and grieve for my loss. It was hard. As hard, perhaps,
as walking into the heart of a great burning pyre.
But princess, I think I made the better bargain.