By Asha D.
Text Copyright © 2016 Asha D.
All Rights Reserved
To the few gems who genuinely pushed me to write.
To the few who will this read.
I thank you.
Dream Come True
Bold and brash, the imposing rays of another day’s sun knocked against the front door of Helen’s consciousness. Aware of her first sentient breath, she stirred awake but kept her eyes shut. She was up before the ring of her alarm and knowing this, frowned, already suffering the deep loss of those few extra minutes of senseless sleep she should have attained. Damn the circadian cycle! Damn evolution, urbanization and human beings! Damn her life!
Turning over onto her left side, Helen forced a lungful of air into her being, and switched the channel in her mind. Flickered into clarity, a snapshot of herself- standing in front of her bathroom mirror, dressed and ready to head to work. Only, her hair was longer, fuller and exuding more life than a newborn; her skin pristinely smooth; facial features perched as perfectly as an architectural wonder’s; and figure, a supernatural replica of Michelangelo’s best sculpture. She was unconquerable and everything any working- woman (or man, if she dared to hope that far) in this century aspired to become. Eliminating all other thoughts but this from the dungeons of her groggy mind, Helen squinted open her eyes, and heaved out of bed.
She turned on the faucet to her shower, hopes of a positive day steering her actions, but in want of the warm cocoon of water to invigorate her. She stretched her neck up in anticipation, only to be hit by a Himalayan downpour of freezing pinpricks instead. Gasping in shock, Helen banged the shower shut. She was awake now all right! This is what she paid rent every month for? Curses to the landlord, Markus Zingman. May the wrath of all the Gods in all the worlds be unleashed upon his grimy head!
In her mind’s eye, Helen had already begun stomping her way over to Mr. Zingman’s apartment.
Her two most dangerous weapons in possession were gripped tightly in each of her fists- a cheap toolbox hammer long exiled to its forgotten place somewhere in the utility closet, and her worn out wooden spatula that has survived the most gruesome of wars with its enemy the non-stick pan! She banged on his pretentious door, fire burning in the pits of her stomach. As soon as he unlocked the door, Helen was upon him- a feral beast, ready to annihilate its prey. As ridiculous as her choice of weapons were, the blows delivered were unquestionably fatal. She hadn’t religiously attended mixed- martial arts lessons in her youth for naught! Helen truly believed in her spirit animal, The Bride from Kill Bill.
The scene of Mr. Zingman’s mutilated body flopped against expensive wallpaper slid out of projection, replaced by another, less gory view in her mind.
This time, Helen was leaning against her bar table with phone in hand, the epitome of cool. She was calling up Mr. Zingman’s home line. As soon as the ringing was cut off, Helen barged into speech, not allowing for the customary “Hello”. “Heeeeyy sweethearrrt, how aaare you,” she purred. “I had suuuch an amaaayyzing time last night that I just couldn’t wait anymore to talk to you. You said you were free again tonight, no?” Helen gushed in a breathy, drunken manner, which she hoped was seductive enough to make her neighbor’s neutered dog impregnate again. There was a moment’s silence on the phone, followed by a sputtering, hoarse reply, “Who is this? You bitch, tell me your name!” “Yes!” thought Helen. The wife was in. “Oh! Oh no, I’m so sorry,” Helen spewed in mock embarrassment. “I was only looking for Mr. Zingman for business purposes, I swear!” she cried before hanging up.
And then she snapped back to reality.
On her way to work after a delight less breakfast of oats and fruit, Helen could not help but notice every glaring testament to the glamour of a life that was wholly out of reach of someone in Helen’s position. Her daily walk to work constituted thirty minutes of navigating through a maze of modern towers, shiny and splendid in the sheen of each others’ reflected light. Each massive structure seemed to Helen to possess a certain lure, like the pulling charm of a seductive woman in a smoky bar. Yet at the same time, they were equally forbidding; challenging of a person’s status, questioning one’s worth to partake in the cult- like energies that flow within. Will someone like Helen, with her blemished Chelsea boots and faded jeans ever fit in in such places…
Other than in her dreams?
As orchestrated and formidable as those buildings were the people that marched beneath them. Sophisticated, independent, dressed like mannequins from a variety of stores. Helen wondered if her unadorned appearance solicited ridicule from this army of perfection, perhaps pity, or revulsion even? She felt stuck in a place where the high standards of beauty towered over her like the very buildings of downtown. Just then, two ladies with sickeningly tempting physiques and color coordinated outfits wandered too close for comfort in their effortless gait, oblivious to the musings of a less fortunate counterpart, who would rather have just been born a goblin instead. She imagined one of those dimwits to trip over her obscenely tall heels and fall face flat on the grey asphalt, a thunderous ripping sound erupting from the back of her beige pencil skirt in the process and cracking her porcelain charm. Catching herself in the midst of her wretched thoughts, Helen bowed her head slightly in shame and hurried on, grateful that those who knew her had no inkling of her barbaric views.
At the corner of Rose Ave and Luther St, Helen was about to turn into the back courtyard of Roseburgh Building, where she worked as a Materials Research Assistant. Just as she was going to make the turn, she caught sight of a movement in the alley beside the building opposite her. An elated giggle sailed with the wind toward Helen from the spot of the movement. Helen knew that giggle, was familiar with that octave of voice. She did a double take, bending sideways at the hip a little to get a better view. There, leaning up against the sidewall of the red- bricked building ahead and talking into her cellphone, was the unmistakable figure of Kat Erindale.
Tall and captivating she was, even from a distance. Those long, spindly legs rose from the ground like summer vines up the wall, blossoming into a petite but voluptuous form framed by fiery red cascading hair. Mesmerizing to many, Kat was the very core of what Helen recognized as hatred.
It was not just an irrational personal feeling, founded off of jealousy or insecurity. Indeed, Helen had many sound reasons to support her opinions about Kat Erindale. One of the major ones being that she had first hand experienced the offhand unpleasantness of Kat’s attitude toward those she obviously deemed lesser than her. From blatantly ignoring those who even made efforts to acknowledge her, to outright humiliating those she worked with, Kat had showed no reservations when it came to ascending her ladder of success. Reminiscing the time when Helen had the misfortune of working alongside Kat on a certain project made her cringe. She can never shake off the feeling of hurt and shame that Kat had instigated by practically overwriting all of Helen’s efforts on that project and how she completely diminished Helen’s worth before her respected professors. There were not many things in Helen’s possession that she cared for deeply or harbored much pride in. However, her work was, in her mind, her saving grace, and even though she often coveted a more dazzling alternative, nobody could say that she was not serious about what she did.
Spotting Kat in that alleyway, effortlessly beautiful even in such meek backgrounds but deceitful in her very appearance, immediately ignited rage inside Helen. She tore her sight away from the alley, shook off the negativity, and tried to reset her mind to focus on the day ahead. She started down the path toward her workplace.
Yet, she couldn’t restrain her thoughts from running wild again. This time, she was envisioning herself gliding her way over to Kat’s position, breath-taking and mighty in her own way. She came up to Kat, innocent smile playing on her lips. “Hey Kat, remember me? We worked together once although you did all the work, apparently,” Helen said, oozing confidence. She waited for the spark of recognition to enter Kat’s eyes before softly placing both palms on the sides of Kat’s face. She cupped Kat’s pretty face in her hands, and admired the faint sprinkling of freckles across her fair cheeks. Then she brought Kat’s bewildered face closer to hers, seemingly to place a lover’s kiss on her lips, before bashing her head back with all her force into the wall behind. There was a sickening, dull thud as a sharp breath whooshed out of Kat’s mouth. Her eyelids had snapped wide open in fright and her painted lips were agape. Helen brought her head forward again, before cracking it into the wall once more. She repeated the motion a third time, and then again, and again, and again.
Satisfied that she had ended the loathed character’s essence in her head, Helen breathed in deeply, and turned her face toward the shining sun’s rays. Now she could come back to reality and finally focus.
She made her way toward Roseburgh Building’s entrance, feeling more awake. Suddenly, a bloodcurdling scream filled the surrounding air and Helen jumped in shock, turning abruptly toward the source of the outburst. All motion on the streets came to a chilly standstill. “What happened, what have you done?! Oh my goodness! Oh my…! Call 911, call an ambulance, somebody, now!” shrieked an aging lady in a printed dress clutching her hand above her heart. She was gaping straight ahead in panic- straight ahead… at Helen. Helen suddenly became disorientated and dazed. Why was the lady screeching at her? Why was Helen perspiring and gasping so heavily? Her arms felt strained and heavy, like they usually did after a tough workout session. She looked down at her hands, and was hit by a shockwave.
They were bright red.
Helen turned in her spot in what felt like slow motion, and froze when she faced the marred body of Kat Erindale, flopped against a brick wall not nearly as red as the blood slowly pooling around her. Helen stopped breathing.
Her skin experienced a fast succession of hot and cold flushes. Her feet turned heavy like they were blended into the concrete. She screamed in her head, pleaded with her consciousness to stop this dream, and begged the universe to return her to reality. Helen somehow found the soft skin of her left forearm with her right hand, and started pinching. She pinched with her nails until her skin gave way and red crescents dripped blood onto her jeans. Still, the lady was there, was shrieking. More people had gathered around, blocked her way. Helen could not hear anything but the blood pounding in her head. She was blacking out.
This was not how dreams were supposed to come true.
In the hilly banks of the perennial woods, there lived a little family in a comfortable wooden home. On sloping plains of dense shrubbery, the house sat snug between loping branches and leaves. Twines of bark and florid vines endowed its window ledges, painted gables and wooden crevices. One passing by this house often got the feeling that whichever family dwelled inside lived a natural, balanced and snug life, and indeed, they did.
One crisp autumn’s morning, when the rustling leaves filtered through golden light, a baby boy was welcomed into this home. The newborn had all ten fingers and toes, and wailed mightily as any healthy baby should. Yet, instead of cooing and fretting over this little one’s liveliness, his surrounding family members merely stood around looking at him stiffly, oddly subdued.
In the tired mother’s arms, quivered a pruned up red creature that was, even when kindly viewed, quite grotesque. His face was a nightmare of misshaped features, distorted and difficult to look at for long.
Framed by an unnaturally elongated and skewed jaw, the baby’s yowling mouth was a gaping entrance into a wild, deep and slimy cave in the midst of rough, cratered wall that was his skin. Surrounding his bulging lips, varicose skin scrawled up to uneven slits of eyes that watered with salty liquid. So close to his eyes was pinched his upturned nose that one may even think from far that he had four eyes.
This baby was truly a gruesome sight to behold. His distraught father and frightened elder sister kept their distance from the bed, mentally questioning what went wrong, wondering what to do next. The mother, a stark contrast to the ugliness that she held, seemed indulged in the deepest of thoughts as her pale, lovely face gazed intensely upon her child. Her light brown eyes flicked up to the rest of her awaiting family, and a sad, deep sigh escaped her lips. Her elegant fingertips stroked down the crooked side of her baby’s face as she said tenderly, “Grover”.
“His name shall be Grover, and we will love him and care for him more than God has, because the rest of the world won’t.”
Years passed, and Grover grew through his childhood, strangely oblivious that anything was amiss. While he might have on occasions, noticed somebody or other staring at him strangely, looking a little too long, Grover was still completely unaware of his disfigurements. His family had, in fact, raised him in a very cautious manner.
Since the very day of his birth, Grover’s mother had set about establishing rules and unspoken guidelines, emitting an aura of authority linked fiercely to maternal protectiveness. Guests and acquaintances that were not especially dear to heart, nor severely trustworthy, were skipped over being invited around altogether. Only the closest of relatives and one or two intimate friends still came over, and were privy to Grover’s company. The family’s series of family outings to events, parties, festivals, and outdoor activities, converged to almost a vanishing point, and Grover only knew a handful of familiar areas where he repeatedly went out to frolic.
He played sometimes with his small tribe of allowed cousins, frequently with his elder sister, and most of all by himself. All of his playmates had undergone strict screening procedures by his mother, and were never free of her invigilator’s glare. Her number one condition was that Grover would not come to be aware of his oddity, for as long as she could help it. This went to the extent that there was not even a single reflective surface to be found in the house! Unlike regular households, this ordinary looking home had not one mirror in reach. Furthermore, the family had developed the habit of most peculiarly steering clear off shiny surfaces anywhere, as if their reflections may backfire and singe the very skin off of their bones. In effect, Grover had no inkling of the concept of reflections, and had never seen his surroundings or he miraculously replicated on a flat, hard surface. Everything he interacted with was comfortably whole, tangible and 3- dimensional.
That is, until he was the ripe age of nine. The age when a voice inside the mind awakens that doesn’t identify as friend or foe. The age when the self starts becoming a minefield of curiosity, but the world starts to slowly make sense. Grover had blossomed into an amiable, obedient son. However, his curiosity got the better of him one day, when his father was out at work, sister at school, and mother busy in the kitchen. There was a door, almost hidden behind a large potted butterfly palm, in the hallway leading up to the back door. When younger, Grover and his sister had tried going through that door, but it had always been mysteriously locked. When asked about it, their mother had replied with hard stares and a stern voice- just another broom closet, nothing for little kids in there. On this ordinary day however, the allure of that lavender painted door with floral embossed frame was unusually strong for Grover. He gravitated towards the door that until then, had seemed to blend into the wall and be forgotten from consciousness. Thinking that he might as well just try his luck again after all these years, Grover reached out and turned the old door’s brass handle.
There was a soft click, and the door swung open easily on its hinges. Grover froze for a moment, a concoction of surprise and pleasure coursing through his bloodstream. Checking that the cacophony of sizzling oil, clanging and banging of crockery were still emanating from the kitchen, Grover slipped like a little thief through the opened door.
As his probing eyes raked the contents of the little room, Grover realized that his mother might indeed have been telling the truth. The room was barely bigger than a cupboard and filled with household objects and spares that sparked no interest in the child. Thick blankets and extra pillows, boxes filled with unused items such as torchlights, playing cards, stationary and tools, and musty old books lined the peeling walls of the room. Disappointed, Grover was about to turn around and leave, if not for a sharp glint of light that caught his eye. In a back corner and against the sidewall beside an old coat hanger with metal arms like a tree, was another open entrance into what seemed like an extension of the crowded room. This portico however, was frameless and strangely rectangular- so sharp in its angles, that it seemed as if someone had taken a giant pair of scissors and sheared right through the wall like it was art paper.
Grover went up to this doorway and was about to turn into it when alas! a fearsome creature made a sudden appearance on the other side and made Grover jump out of skin! Terrified, he leaped out of sight of the monster and hid to the side of the old coat hanger. Struggling to hear his breathing over the deafening pounding of his heart, Grover willed some calm diffuse into his being. What was that ogre! What was it doing inside their home? And how did that other room exist in their home, which he’d thought he knew as the back of his hand? Grover’s mind swirled with questions and nauseating alarm. Yet, despite his dread, a dangerous courage seeped through Grover’s consciousness, fed by his overriding curiosity. Taking a deep breath, he crouched low and started inching towards the opening again.
Grover crept on all fours until he was right beside the sharp edge of the entrance. Like a turtle, he extended his neck past the edge, and peered into the opening. What he saw completely startled him! Grover gritted his teeth and bravely held his position. All tensed up and wide- eyed, Grover found himself gawking into the very face of the beast. It was truly a face of hideousness. And the creature was staring right back at him! Grover and the ogre seemed to be locked in a critical game of who-blinks-first. Barely in a whisper, Grover asked, “Who are you?”
Astonishingly, the brute’s lips moved at exactly the same time as when Grover spoke, and he seemed to ask the same question! Grover asked again, this time more audibly, “Who are you?” and again, the other creature moved its lips as if it had spoken simultaneously. Sensing a certain confusion and curiosity in the creature’s mottled face, Grover thought to reach out with an act of friendship. He made to extend his palm toward the creature for a handshake, but his fingers knocked into a cold, hard surface, and Grover’s arm jerked back in shock as after contacting something scalding. He glanced around furtively, from his hand to the creature, from the creature to his hand, barely registering that the creature was doing the exact same thing. Trying again, he reached out toward the ugly being, and finally noticed that the other was also doing the same. Again, his fingers met a cool, smooth surface, just a few indistinct inches before it would have met the beast’s fingers. Grover placed his entire palm on what seemed like an invisible wall of melting ice, and smiled at the creature who had done the same. Had he found a friend behind a glass door?
Grover then attempted to find a handle or doorknob or even slight gap between the glass and the surrounding walls so that he may tug upon the surface and squeeze onto the other side. He traced the edge of the glass with his finger and to his pleasure, managed to dig his fingers into a space behind the slim material. Grover pulled on it and peeked into the space he was unraveling. However, what he saw was just a dark portion of the same wall! Utterly bewildered, Grover went back to the front of the glass, and saw his new friend. He then looked past his hands holding the glass, and again was met by solid wall. Grover placed the bizarre slab back in place against the wall, and faced the creature again.
Tentatively, he brushed his fingers down the icy smooth face of this material, marveling at its wondrous character. He moved this way and that, blinked this eye then that. The creature, which he noticed was also dressed in the exact same clothes as Grover, mimicked his every twitch and turn. It was not long before realization crept like a shadow upon his innocent mind.
Stroking over the face of the other being again, unconscious tears suddenly sprung into Grover’s eyes, as he saw himself in all his unsightliness, for the first time in his life.
A soft breeze brushed ripples across the silky top of the calm lake. It jostled Grover’s wispy brown hair over his crown and left goose pimples where it caressed his arms coolly. Yet, Grover could not feel the wind kissing his face for his mask had become a part of his skin and blocked all elements of the world from ever guessing at his looks.
It has been two years since Grover’s first encounter with the mirror. Ever since, he had insisted on wearing a mask around- from his waking minute everyday, till his head lay on the pillow in the dark again. It was strange how dedicatedly Grover wore it. It was questionable even, if his own sister and parents could recall the features of his face. Indeed, that was Grover’s very intention; he wished to never have anybody know what he actually was. “Better a mystery, than a mockery,” he thought.
He sat upon a rock next to the gently lapping water of the lake. It was his favorite spot in the woods, a good thirty minutes hike away from his house. Grover had long abandoned any concern for his mother’s rules or idiosyncrasies. He now went wherever he willed, mingled with whomever he wanted, and did not do either whenever it struck his whimsy. The naïve, lighthearted child that he had once been, quickly transformed into a brooding, nostalgic character. The daily battle he fought with the rest of the world after donning his armor mask rarely left him feeling human at the end of the day. He often wondered if there would ever be a single day, when he could get by without overhearing passing comments, skirting suspicious looks, or feeling constantly under the spotlight in a globe- sized theatre. He wondered if he would always remain an alien.
Suddenly snapping out of his reverie, Grover heard a faint crunching of twigs and dried leaves in the distant. Someone was there! Looking around, Grover spied a girl in a summer dress with long wavy hair stomping away past the other side of the lake. Her back was facing him, and he could see her auburn hair swaying down almost all the way to meet the tallest green reeds that she was sifting through. Seemingly lost in her own world, the girl’s distant humming floated over to Grover. He stayed stone still, praying she would pass by without knowing of his existence. As fate would have it, Grover did not belong in luck’s books. The girl turned.
Raised into standing, Grover’s mouth dropped open in surprise behind his mask. The girl as well froze in her tracks. In the middle of the woods, on either side of the glassy lake, stood two figures. Both masked.
Kate and Grover had become inseparable. They were almost like twins, intuitive in knowing each other’s minds despite the absence of visible facial expressions. They went to different schools, but classes were eternally more enjoyable knowing that they would see each other soon enough after the last bell. They knew almost everything about each other, it would seem. Almost.
Sitting side by side in the moist grass back at what has now become their favorite spot amongst the evergreens, Grover turned to Kate. “If I let you see me, would you let me see you,” he asked quietly, unusually timid. Kate’s mask faced him, and then turned away, obstructed by a glinting curtain of red hair. “Sorry! I’m sorry,” Grover whispered blatantly, “I was only asking, I won’t ever again if you don’t want to!” he said, placing a hand on her arm.
Kate peered out at him from under her guise. “Only if you promise to keep it off then, whenever we meet and are alone,” she replied softly. Taken aback but willing, he complied.
Together, they reached out towards each other’s masks, and gently lifted the second skins off. Kate didn’t flinch a muscle as her gaze rested tenderly on Grover’s face. On the other hand, Grover balked openly at her appearance. His breath caught in his throat and he thought he might run!
Standing before him, was the Aphrodite of his age, the most dizzyingly beautiful girl he had ever looked upon. He stood agape, willing consciousness back into his lightheaded mind. Her emerald green eyes shone out like opals from a face chiseled from marble. Her lips were the color of dawn blushing pink across a clear sky. If one were to hold her flawless face, surely it would melt like the butter it represented. It took a while before Grover’s look of pure shock was slowly replaced with that of a furrowed confusion. Rapidly feeling as though he had fallen prey into an immensely cruel trap, Grover made to turn and leave, but Kate was too quick and grabbed his wrist before he could escape. “I wear a mask for the exact same reasons as you… There aren’t many people I can be entirely myself with, like I can with you! The world hounds me more without the mask on than with it!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide and glittering. Transfixed at her etherealness, Grover wrestled with the million emotions inside of him, as she slowly buoyed onto her tiptoes and sealed her lips to his.
It is a sky so deeply blue, Sophie feels she is falling upward when she puts her head back and gazes up. Only her arms are bare but all of her feels as light as the clear day. The grass seems uncommonly vivid and swirls silently from time to time, giving away the shy wind’s disguise. In the mini intersection much further down the currently desolate alleyway, a mini streetcar slowly slides its red body past the mini glass storefront with floral designs that remain un- wilted throughout the long winters. Far away from that mini world of patterned everyday motion, a not- so- mini Paul grips each handle behind Sophie’s shoulders.
He funnels in air from the eternal sky and all at once, Sophie’s neck snaps back as she is propelled forward. Her head backs into Paul’s black knit sweater as her golden hair splays out and dissolves into the scenery rushing past her. The air that seconds ago lay dormant as her patchwork quilt in her empty bed, now buffets Sophie as she speeds down the asphalt road alongside the field. Her heart rate shoots up inside of her, eyes widen into awe- struck globes, and hands clamp down onto the armrests of her throttling wheelchair.
Lips parting, the first expressions of glee escape her pure and untouched soul. “DADDYYYYYYYYY…!” Sophie shrieks, with her eyes crinkled at the edges and smile wide as the wings of her joy in that moment. Laughter erupts form her elated face as she holds on for dear life. Paul could not help himself either. He pounds the ground with all the force he can muster, while bouts of precious breath sneaks out of him in boyish giggles.
From an unnoticed spot in the shades, in the opposite side of the glowing field, a surprised passerby freezes in his path as his eyes follow the man racing an exultant child in a wheelchair to the end of the road. It feels like chancing upon a stolen moment in a stolen day. Paul pushes his legs to their utmost possible uncooperative limits, until he is just at the edge of losing control of them entirely.
Too soon, the end of the road is rushing up at them. He locks his elbows in and reverts his weight backward. His legs shuffle intermittently to an uncoordinated gallop before they slow to a jogging pace. The mini intersection that moments ago seemed like a distant portal into common life is now looming over Sophie and her Dad. The shop front with the everlasting floras now reflects a panting man with thinning hair hunched over the wheelchair of a girl. Her bouncing, laughing face could not fail to quietly replace the furrowed expression on the homeless man bundled upon the steps of a dilapidated home, with a forgotten smile that remains unnoticed, but feels unusual. Sophie is gasping for breath through her unending fit of hysterics while Paul gasps for air between his overflowing waves of emotions. Having had to come to grips with the unfairness of it all a long time ago, these bursts of intense affection and protectiveness for his daughter still catch him off guard.
“Aaaaaand once again! It’s Sophie Arella who claims the Gold! And she’s set a whole new world record too! Her peers are powerless in the wake of this new force! Give it up for our Soooophie everybody!” Paul bellows as Sophie does or does not listen while she continues laughing away like a tinkling waterfall.
Later in the evening, Sophie gives Paul a tight little hug, whispers Thanks Daddy, and hides herself underneath the cover of her quilt. Meanwhile, Paul sits beside her with her cherub- like face shimmering in the moist of his loving gaze for a moment as eternal and everlasting as that day’s sky.
Under the aquamarine dome of that glorious Sunday morning, Lara walked spiritedly, jingling loose change in her pockets. She walked with a bashful pride borne from being granted the freedom to head out by herself. It was only across the familiar street that she was heading, towards the familiar barber’s shop she always visited. Yet, she felt the acute difference between being led there by an adult and going all by her very own self, like a proper lady. She was Morning Glory unraveling her dewy petals to the bright warmth of the sun after an especially long night.
Lara was widely aware of her route as she went- the weekenders in colorful gear, the scents of exhaust mixed into the humid summer air, the shimmering silver of pavement she stepped on. She crossed the road cautiously, being sure to look both ways first, very responsibly, and took a right turn upon reaching the Super- mart. On she went until she came to the small car- park littered with a few glimmering pop cans and some floating pieces of grocery bags. She crossed the empty parking lot, eyeing the barber’s shop up ahead.
Old Mr. Oliver’s pale, papery face hovered to the surface of Lara’s mind. She remembered how he always welcomed her mother and her with wide blue eyes crinkling at the edges and a smile that must’ve once caused the ladies’ hearts to flutter. All the ladies and their children were automatically directed towards Mr. Oliver in this particular shop; under the direction of his practiced hands, any girl or woman’s hair, no matter how utterly disobedient, would manage to mold into the most flattering positions. The familiar faces that somehow seemed transformed entirely, would shock friends and relatives of Mr. Oliver’s customers. They would wonder how they could have previously dismissed these friends as ordinary, not blessed with any attributions of the aesthetically charming. A slight smile played upon Lara’s lips as she spied Mr. Oliver’s white wispy hair through the wide, arched brick entrance to the shop.
“Hello my dear, how are you?” he exclaimed warmly as Lara trotted in. “I remember you. Lovely to see you again, my dear! Where’s your mother, sweetie? It’s time to retouch her roots, isn’t it?” Mr. Oliver’s sparkling eyes swept the empty parking lot. Lara softly explained that it was just she today, and Mr. Oliver beamed knowingly. He led her to the huge reclined armchairs by the hair- washing basins, all the while proclaiming various observations about her hair and how she may have it done this time.
Lara laid back onto a leather seat and let her head fall back into the wide mouth of the basin. Mr. Oliver flayed her dirty blonde hair out and ran his strong, veined fingers through her tangles. He started the showerhead and waited a while for it to warm to the right temperature before bringing it above her head. The warm licks of water sent tickling, trickling sensations down from her crown all the way to Lara’s toes, and she fought from bursting into giggles. Mr. Oliver next lathered some shampoo into her hair and Lara breathed in the tangy scent of a countryside field filled with green apple trees. Mr. Oliver’s tough and seasoned hands worked their way all around Lara’s head, kneading and rubbing out knots she wasn’t even aware of. Her mind drifted here and there as she approached the beckoning shores of sleep. She remembered with a jolt where she was, and forced her eyes open. She hadn’t realized that some water had slid down the nape of her neck and dampened her thin cotton shirt. Mr. Oliver’s hands had also spidered down to her shoulders, and were exercising their skill from the top of Lara’s skull down to her shoulder blades. They went up and down like elevators for a time long enough to make Lara restless. Yet, Mr. Oliver took his time, circling and pinching her skin with his fingers and palms, keeping to a personal steady cadence. Through his repetitions, Lara’s shirt had gotten swept taught across her front and creased into a bunch along her spine between Mr. Oliver’s wiper hands. She was suddenly very aware of the damp cloth smeared to her skin, and his close proximity to her.
When he had finally decided that she’d had enough shampooing, he washed off the suds and led her to the barber’s chairs. She hoisted up into one and Mr. Oliver lobbed a cape fluidly around her. “Let’s see now,” he mused, taking her chin in his fingers and turning her face slightly to various angles, watching her face keenly in the mirror. He started combing her glistening hair, and got to work. Bundles of her hair were swept this way and that, pinned up here and there, all in between quick successions of blurry, silvery snips of the old man’s scissors.
Mr. Oliver, always gentle, directed Lara’s head to positions he required. A couple of times, she had the back of her crown leaning up against his soft, round belly as he lifted her bangs up and sheared them above her head. Slowly, he worked his way around her, adding shape and layers to her previously lifeless head. He came around to her right and cupped her head towards his belly again. This time, her forehead was placed where she thought his belly button might be. As he raked his fingers through her hair, and plucked and pulled at strands, Lara’s head bounced helplessly against his gut. Mr. Oliver’s belt buckle filled her focus of vision, just a few inches below her nose. Mr. Oliver’s hand cupped the base of her head where her hairline yielded to the pale, soft skin of her nape. He held his hand there, and to Lara’s sudden horror, he seemed to gently apply pressure. She could feel the cool metal of his belt buckle on her face, as she was slowly pushed closer and closer to the dark of his trousers below his belt. As soon as Lara stiffened in shock and fear, Mr. Oliver let go and resumed his position behind her back.
He again propped her head back into the cushion of his belly, and combed a curtain of hair in front of her face so as to shield her sight. He continued combing her hair, down and over the sides of her face and shoulders. Lara sat statue, her heart having quickened tenfold in her chest. Mr. Oliver combed until the back of his hands brushed Lara’s budding breasts. Down he brushed, applying more and more pressure with each stroke. Lara dared not move nor make a sound. She felt her face burning red hot. Underneath the cape her legs were locked tight, thighs squeezing so hard together, one ankle over another; they were on the verge of almost cramping. On their last few strokes of the comb, Mr. Oliver’s hands even scraped her chests on their way back up, cupping for a few milliseconds that to Lara seemed eternal and seared into her unknowing mind. She struggled to control her breathing. Her pupils swiveled as far as they could go, trying to ascertain if anyone else had seen. Sadly, the others seemed wound up in there own affairs.
At the end of what seemed a lifetime, Mr. Oliver casually finished up with his usual beam and friendly voice. “You like it, sweetie?” he enquired. Lara glanced at her reflection without internalizing her new look, nodded curtly and made to get out of her chair. However, Mr. Oliver’s heavy hand pressed onto her left shoulder, sinking her small body further into her plush seat. “We could make you even prettier by styling your hair now. You want to come with me to the styling room, sweetie?” he probed, as friendly as a fox. Lara shook her head frantically and slid out of his grasp. She scurried to the payment counter, placed whatever change her mother had given her onto the shiny top, and walked out of the store like a zombie, tears of shame, disbelief and scandalized innocence clouding her vision. She stood beneath her apartment building for an entire hour before she could gather her wits again to head back up home, where she showered in scalding water for another hour straight, before falling into bed and into the sweet darkness of oblivion.
The air was infused with the sweet and heady scent of tea- leaves. Almost like incense, it welcomed those who entered like the smoky fog of prayer sticks. Those familiar with their teas could sometimes sniff out distinctly the nectarine flavor of the hibiscuses from the earthy smell of black teas, the flowery tints of the herbals from the bitter tang of green teas. Yet always, the multitude of fresh aromas from the various different leaves would somehow float and mix together in a choreographed blend of olfactory delight. Oftentimes, when the sunlight streamed through the high panel windows near the ceiling, tea dust and floating fibers could be seen swaying and swiveling around in a mid-air dance, other- worldly and hypnotizing. A bed of fine twigs, dried leaves and little buds crunched underfoot unless the floor had a recent sweeping.
Sachi walked into the delectable room and paused for a bit, taking in the calm and familiar scent. Despite being thinly separated from the outside by a layer of plain bamboo beaded curtain, the essence of the tea- room enveloped her and she felt transported away from the clamor of reality. Soothed by her workspace, Sachi gathered up the tasks ahead of her.
There were sacks of newly fired leaves from the oven lined up against the wall and waiting for her obediently like freshly chastised school kids. Her tools were also lined up neatly where she had left them before, on the lopsided wooden table- top under the windows. There was a neatly piled stack of sieves with meshes of various diameters, a bulky weighing scale with its platform heavily scratched and discolored, a box of polyethylene bags and wide white stickers to put on those, a few large shallow metallic dishes, and lastly, an exercise book wrapped in brown paper with a blue ball-point pen placed over it. Taking in a deep breath and jiggling her hands loose by her side, she went over to the table to grab her first pick.
Lightweight yet larger than her face, the big sieve with the largest holes was awkward in her petite hands, as were the other sieves. She went over to the nearest sack of dark leaves, placed a large shallow dish on the earth beside it with the sieve on top, and tipped over the sack of leaves. Out flowed the dried and curled up leaves, a dark downpour of various sizes. They rained down upon the sieve and dish, creating a loud pitter-patter that Sachi delighted in.
She knew the sound of waterfalls from the one or two times she had watched them, bewitched, on scenes from movies in the little TV her neighbors owned. Closing her eyes and placing her palm under the stream of tea, Sachi almost believed that she was under a waterfall, or inside the TV.
Smiling slightly, she paused pouring before the dish may overflow, and squatting beside it, she lifted the sieve and started shaking. Back and forth, sideways and circular, shaking and occasionally tapping, Sachi got lost in the long and repetitive task of separating the leaves into their various grades by size. The material that passed through the first sieve with the largest mesh size was sieved through the subsequent mesh size, while the retained tea leaves were packed into a bag. On and on, the process was repeated, each smaller gradation of sieved particles singing a smoother, higher pitched choir on the metal dish beneath, until the last remaining bits consisting of the smallest cuts of leaves and tea dust gushed down the same way as sand and twinkled its rhymes against the plate.
Eventually, the sacks of tea were replaced by polyethylene bags of tea- weighed, recorded, and labeled, separated by consistent grades. It was past noon by the time Sachi’s stomach reminded her of break-time by way of a painful ache, and the sun was scorching down from her high sentry in the sky. Stretching with her arms interlocked above her head, Sachi stepped outside into the blinding light. Squinting and shading her eyes with her small palms, Sachi gazed out into the paramount sight before her.
Acres and acres of rolling green plains receded out as far as her eyes could see. Drinking in the sunshine, the infinite sectors of land all radiated a luminous emerald. Valley winds blew freely, causing ripples across the jade sea like shallow waves racing towards shore. In the midst of the vast tea plantations, numerous dark figures dipped in and out of sight, mere ant figures from Sachi’s viewpoint. Somewhere out there, one of those figures was her mother. She almost always skipped her afternoon meal, saying that she preferred to eat at the end of the day, once all tasks were completed and she could be fully relaxed. Sachi knew this was not completely true; her mother chose to work through lunch time so she could pick more leaves, and save up to occasionally buy an extra loaf of bread, or a snack for Sachi from the sweets shop in the town square nearby.
Sachi wanted fervently to join her mother and the others in the tea- picking out in the field. She had gone with them many times and knew exactly which leaves to pick. Albeit she was much slower than the rest, she came so close to almost matching Milli didi’s speed the last time she went. She couldn’t wait to go down into the fields and compete with the other women again. The speed with which their hands flew from plant to basket, like the blurry blades of a propeller, was utterly mesmerizing to Sachi. It was boring up here in the workshop where she felt caged in, but she was given strict instructions. Children under the age of ten should not be picking tea, she was told whenever she complained. So she was stuck indoors with the other “children” although it irritated her that Milli didi was only one year older but working in the fields. Yet, even Milli didi along with the other older “children” were not allowed to work on many particular days. Days when the rich tourists visited in their cars and bright clothes. Or days when the fat policemen drove by in their noisy jeeps and faded, stained uniforms.
On those days, warning shouts would ring through the camps and fields, urging the children to run back indoors and pretend that they never picked a leaf in their lives. If any child gave anything away, Raviji, or Badha Dada as he was better known around his lands, would ensure to visit the child’s living quarters, and leave the family in such a state that they would be afraid to say anything for days afterward, and some even had trouble moving about with full mobility. “Wouldn’t want to be working in the fields now, would you Sachi?” her mother would whisper to her after such episodes. “You are too small to understand, poor child. You should want to go to school instead of into the plantations…” Sachi’s stomach growled suddenly, distracting her from her thoughts. She made her way over to the canteen.
The canteen was really just an open area with some dried up banana leaves tied together across a few poles to create shade. Sachi spied Manoja didi sitting in a corner and chewing on a piece of stale looking roti. She skipped over to her side and took a seat beside Manoja didi on the dry, dusty ground. Manoja didi smiled at the child and nodded her greeting. Sachi opened up the small paper- wrapped parcel she’d brought along from home and bit into the lunch her mother had prepared. It was also roti, but rolled with some ghee and dried daal. After finishing, Manoja agreed to play a game of marbles with Sachi before she headed back outside and to more picking. Sachi liked Manoja didi for her bashful ways, and her acquiescent attitude when the children asked her for games and things. After they parted ways, Sachi returned to her workroom, only to be greeted by more bags of tea that had been dropped off for her while she was eating.
The distant call of a rooster and nearby rustling about by her mother and father woke Sachi up next dawn. It was still dark outside, but the stirrings of a new day had already begun. She could hear the splashing of water as her neighbors washed their drowsy faces with cold water outside their doors. Freshly brewing tea eluded its sweet fragrance into the misty dawn air and it wafted into Sachi’s nose and up into her mind, pushing away the drowsiness. Rolling over in her stiff mat, Sachi forced open her heavy lids and awakened to yet another day.
After having doused her face in some cool water, changing into her day clothes and drinking her cup of morning tea with a couple of biscuits, Sachi grabbed two empty water pails and started on her daily trail towards the local water tap. No matter how early she reached the tap, she always ended up having to join a long line of patient waiters. Once she had even reached before the time that the tap started to dispense any water. Yet even then, there was a crowd of early risers blocking her way. When the first spills of water sputtered out of the tap opening, the crowd exclaimed their soft delight as one. If water could have been drawn from the tap anytime during the day, the queue would not have been as unbearable. However, water only came to this tap twice a day and sucked the dwellers to it like clockwork. When running, the tap would be a prime attraction in the village. Frequented incessantly by women and men filling up their pails and pots with water for cooking and washing, by children who bathed in its splashes and sloshes. When the water failed to gorge out however, the tap could have been mistaken as a lonely pipe wrongly plunged into the wrong place on the ground.
By the time she had filled her pails and was returning back with them hanging from each stiffly held arm, the sky had lightened into a blushing rouge. Some tea- pickers were already making their way onto the shadowy fields so as to avoid the sun’s wrath later with their woven bamboo baskets hanging and bumping on their backs. Sachi returned to find her father had already left and her mother scrambling to be out the door quickly too. “Thank you beta,” she said with a quick peck on Sachi’s cheek before filling up her little plastic bottle with water from a freshly filled pail and bounding out to join the march towards the fields. She’d left Sachi her lunch on the steps, roti rolled up in paper again.
Taking her time, Sachi sauntered towards her workshop. Thinking that today might just be different, she decided to stop by the outhouse and check if things had changed since the last time she was there, a couple of days ago. Before even approaching the doors of the latrine, she knew that nothing had changed. The foul smell of defecation and urea made her wrap her scarf over her nose, and she caught sight of the overflowing, stomach-turning mess surrounding the steps to the latrine before turning away. Sighing, she realized that she’d just have to do it in the fields again. Even though that was not allowed, the villagers complained about the state of the toilet and just went about their business in the fields amongst the plants instead.
Sachi took a detour through the fields. She found a spot where the plants were almost as tall as her and where no plantation workers had come to yet, and disappeared beneath the bushes when she squatted. Re-emerging after finishing, Sachi decided to walk through the plants in the direction of her workshop instead of taking the well-trodden and more direct path. She brushed the leaves with her hands as she walked, and sniffed at the evergreen buds, relishing the soft soil supporting her underfoot as opposed to the pebbled dirt road she usually took. She hadn’t gotten far when she heard a rustling nearby. Pushing away some of the branches ahead of her, Sachi saw that she had come up behind another woman who seemed like she was also about to go about her personal activity unaware. Sachi was about to look away and retreat quietly, but something about the woman seemed off.
She had gathered up her skirt and petticoat into a bunch and held the bundle up in front of her midriff such that her dark, sinewy legs were bare and glistening in the soft morning sun. However, she made no move to bend her knees or descend towards the ground. Instead, Sachi saw her back remain upright, and a shimmering, yellow stream arced its way down toward the soil. It dampened the soil and flickered off a few leaves, up until when the jet of liquid ebbed and waned to some drips, and then nothing at all. The woman moved away from the spot and released her fabrics to unfurl and cover over her bottom half again, but not before Sachi glimpsed the dark, bulbous parts of the person, the parts that women did not have.
The person looked around shiftily, hoping to reconfirm that no other soul was there, but when she turned her eyes found and glued onto a shell- shocked Sachi. The person was Manoja.
“Sachi!” Manoja gasped. It was hard to determine whose eyes were wider at that instant. Manoja seemed to shiver in downright fear, shrinking in front of a girl distinctly smaller than her. Meanwhile, Sachi was rooted to the ground, eyes round like the moon and sparkling in disbelief. Manoja took a step forward reached out a shaky hand towards the child, but Sachi stumbled backwards.
Raising her palms in helplessness, Manoja made no more effort to approach the child. But after a whole two minutes had passed of both of them standing motionless in the middle of the softly swaying field, Manoja started softly speaking.
“Sachi, meri beti, my dear child. I’m sorry you had to see that. It was meant to forever be my secret, but now you also know. Perhaps I would’ve told you if you were a little older, I know you can be a good friend and this secret is truly a hard one to harbor all by myself, always alone.
‘Some of us in this world, grow to be happier in a body that they were not born with, beti… I am one such person. I may be like your father, brothers, uncles, child, but actually I really just want what you have. Please don’t hate me for this wish, beti, please…”
Manoja’s face was streaked with tears by then, and she was having trouble choking out her words. “Do you remember when I first came to this plantation to work, Sachi? Do you?” she enquired.
It was a broken and faded vision, but Sachi suddenly had a snapshot in her mind of Manoja’s arrival to the village. She remembered. She shuddered.
Manoja had arrived at the village a couple of years ago with blood running down her face and her feet cracked and blistered. Her hair was a frenzy with twigs and dried leaves stuck on, and her arms were cut and bruised black and blue. “I remember,” Sachi replied, “You had run away from the hands of some naughty men and had walked for 3 days straight until you found our village.” The villagers had taken pity on her state and allowed her to recover in their estates as well as take up work in the fields.
Manoja nodded her head, but also snorted a barking laugh that confused Sachi. “I had run away from home, child. It was my mother and father who had beaten me like that, not some brainless men. Although no doubt they would’ve done the same if they knew too. I am lucky to even be alive. My own mother and father were so ashamed when I gathered the courage to tell them that they wanted me dead.” Manoja suddenly sank to the ground and stared into the roots, dazed and glossy- eyed.
After what seemed a lifetime, Sachi slowly crossed the distance and placed a small hand on Manoja’s shoulder, over the soft drapes of her saree. “I won’t tell anyone,” she whispered.
The initial shock flowed and ebbed with time to become a distant but natural comprehension in Sachi’s mind. She became more comfortable with the nature of her knowledge, and discovered more about Manoja bit-by-bit, question-by-question. On some days when both their lunch times would coincide, Sachi would look around and ensure they weren’t being paid attention to by anyone before voicing her curiosities in an undertone.
“When did you know?”
“When I was about your age.”
“Do you get the monthlies too like Mama?”
“No child, it doesn’t work that way.”
“You’re really happy now?”
Although she could not fully comprehend why Manoja would do what she was doing, Sachi’s discovery came to change nothing. She still played marbles and board games with Manoja, and oftentimes she could not even remember how Manoja might be any different. All that mattered was that she had a friend.
One sultry night, Sachi was aroused by the sounds of a strangely agitated crowd of neighbors. Oil lamps were being lit all around the quarters as villagers awoke and more and more squinty- eyed people emerged in their slippers and sleepwear to seek out the source of the commotion. Sachi’s father got up gruffly, commanded her mother and her to stay while he went out to figure out what the heck was going on. The females stayed behind, but hovered just outside their doorstep with ears strained for information.
By the time her father returned, streaks of pink and orange were already pooling above the distant fields. Distraught and heavy- footed, he approached the women bristling impatiently for news. With a look that screamed he would rather be anywhere else, he stuttered, “It… It’s Manoja. She…” Her father balked, his rumpled features screwed up into a harrowed look. “ She was a he. Some thugs… Her body was found hurled upon the steps to the latrine.” He shook his head form side to side like a droopy old dog. “The police are here now. They have Badha Dada with them. Everyone is saying there will be no picking today.”
Raising his forlorn eyes to glance at Sachi, he took her clammy hand in his warm, rough ones, attempting to offer some reassurance. Sachi suddenly felt bone- cold, and hollow inside. She snatched away her hand from her father’s grasp, and without a second thought, she ran.
She chopped and pushed at the murmuring crowd in her way and tore through the squalid quarters until she found the beaten dirt road leading away from the village. Processing neither any of the shouts ringing after her nor the sharp pricks of stone under her bare soles, Sachi knifed through the air, hot blood pounding in her ears. A figure fast receding into a blood orange sky, she ran and ran without an end in mind, but the echo of her fiend’s voice inside her head, saying that once, Manoja used to be known by the name of Manoj.