The Barbie dolls are asleep. We switch off the lights in the playroom, shut the antique doors and hurry down the stairs, for dinner. We never look back.
Mama and Papa are having an argument. Papa storms off to have dinner alone, with the telly. Mama doesn’t want to eat, so we share the extra baby corn and chicken.
At night, beneath a grandma-knit patchwork lavender-scented quilt, we huddle close to Mama. She is telling us a story of an ancient goddess who accidentally steps on the eggs of ants and how, as punishment, she has to watch each of her hundred sons die.
We ask her what happened to the goddess.
She died, Mama says.
Where is she now, we want to know.
Beneath the earth, all dust and ashes, she replies, sleepily. She turns the other side, taking most of the quilt.
It is a winter’s night, but we’re too numb to feel the cold. We pray to god, to not turn us into dust and ashes, amen. Before we fall asleep, we change the tale, let the goddess or some of her sons live. We always do that. We always let someone live.
We decide to not like the Moral Science teacher. She is too full of contradictions. Yesterday she told us, nothing is impossible. She made us write ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’, fifty times to practise our cursive writing. Today she says, we go to heaven after we die, only if we’re really good.
But we don’t want to go heaven. We want to remain here on earth and play with Barbie dolls and go to the zoo on weekends and taste black forest ice-cream from the local shop down the lane. We want to fall asleep listening to Mama’s stories and wake up to bird song and car horns.
If nothing’s impossible to a willing mind, why can’t we bring the dead back to life, we ask her.
Don’t act so clever, she replies, eyeing us like a hawk. She is talking about the love of Jesus, but we have stopped listening. We have learnt a new lesson: never question facts.
We remember our great grandma, a tiny hunched-up skeletal thing, who was cremated last week. She whispered to us, a long time ago, that sometimes when you light the funeral pyre, the dead come to life and sit all erect and straight, as if ready to deliver a sermon.
But the dead don’t talk.
When we discover the secret to life, we tell no one. The secret grants us special powers. We can be at two places at once.
Sometimes we are inside a sky-walled classroom, winter sunlight filtering through unwashed curtains, the steady sound of chalk writing instructions on the board. But we aren’t really there, at least not in the ways that matter.
We are walking barefoot through a medieval forest of pine and cedar, sunlight casting strange shadows on the mossy ground. There’s snow or chalk dust in our entangled hair. There’s only the sound of our careless laughter and distant sheep bells and strange singing. We chase our shadows till the sun or moon swallows us up.
We never trust facts, we never believe in what they call the unchanging truths, we wear our hearts on our tattered sleeves and run like the demented, whimsical wind.
The silver unicorn we meet only once, tells us that we are children of the air, blown into this strange world from the ends of a far-away dying rainbow.
Mama and Papa don’t visit us here, in this attic room. They’re too busy arguing about the grocery or the plumbing or the news headlines.
This is our secret hide-out, our sacred space. We have an ancient view master that brings to life our favourite fairytales- the silver tinsel on Cinderella’s gown, the glittering petals of Thumbelina’s home, the old once-rat-infested city of the Pied Piper. We rewind those crude slides again and again, till the images, like our names, are burned into our hearts.
We have a rosewood trunk filled with other treasured curios: love letters written in parchment with fading, scented ink, a gramophone that croaks and stutters the Beatles’ early singles, second-hand postcards and vintage nat geos that smell of faraway places, broken porcelain dolls too precious to play with and spangled, frayed dresses from Mama’s school plays.
We wear them and dance together in the glimmering dust. We are half ourselves and half the people we pretend to be, people who do not exist till we bring them to life with our songs and stories.
Even the ghosts on the wall pause to watch us dance.
Mama is baking a fruit cake. We can smell the nuts and berries and the vanilla essence all swirling into something magical. She is telling us, in her syrupy voice, to go and make friends, to bring them over for dinner. We protest. Papa doesn’t like people coming over; besides, we have each other, yes.
We don’t like playing games with the other kids. They teach us words we later realize are expletives. They invent games and change the rules at will, so we always lose.
Today, they’re playing a twisted version of Snow White. Mirror mirror, on the wall, they chant, whose the darkest of them all. They then point towards us. They grab our arms and compare our skin tones to theirs. Dried walnut shell next to peachy-pink-white. They win and the next round begins.
We walk away. We aren’t fair enough to play with them. We share the fruitcake, steal a bit for our Barbie dolls and keep the rest in the fridge.
Mama wants to know if there’s anything wrong. We ask if we are beautiful.
Yes, she agrees immediately, eyes shining, yes you are, you always were.
Yes, we were always too beautiful for this world. We hold onto each other, even as we fall apart.
Yes, you are. You always were.
Which of us, did she refer to?
Let’s look into the mirror.
Something in this world cracks. It cracks without sound, without warning, without promise. It cracks and the pieces fall invisibly. No princess gathers those shards to her heart and kisses them whole. No handmaiden sweeps them away from the tear-glazed floor. And they still lie, waiting in the dust, like claustrophobic ghosts, in a room of forgotten things, waiting to be remembered.
We look for each other in rooms both real and unreal, battle the minotaurs in the labyrinths we stumble into. We look under the beds where our monsters lie, inside dusty cupboards and antique almirahs, in all the lonely corners of the world.
We wait till the last bell rings and all the children leave and then we call for each other to the wind and sky. We slide down stone slides and swing to strange places on rusty swings.
We cross mountains and oceans, caves and caverns in the hinterlands of our soul, looking for the other half of the mirror, the other half of us.
But the emptiness in the sprawling rooms, in the sunset-stained playground and in the goodbye-shaped hole in my soul is so stifling.
I am nine years old and Mama is going to have a hysterectomy. I visit the hospital after school and see her strapped to the bed, stitched up with needles and syringes, like a rag doll. I touch her cold fingers hoping my heart can warm them.
Papa ruffles my hair, asks about homework and if the pizza we’ll share for dinner will have extra cheese. He says I’m brave for not crying.
But it isn’t true. I am crying. I am always crying.
He doesn’t notice that the backseat of the car is wet with silent tears. But somewhere else, atop a rocky cliff piercing the stormy sea, I am howling like a werewolf to the moon. I am covered with scars, as though a nocturnal beast had ravaged my body and devoured half my soul. I bleed, like the sky stuttering with rain and thunder. I bleed endlessly.
When Mama gets well enough to come home, she arranges a grand birthday party. But I don’t come home. I can’t ever come home. I, or a part of me, is still trapped there in the dark world. The invisible scars I’ve tattooed my half-soul with, hurt like phantom limbs.
Mama still makes fruitcakes, though she is paler than before. But I haven’t stopped crying. The fruitcakes don’t taste like childhood, anymore.
I am dying and I’m nine years old and I realize this as fact, as truth, not a story I can change.
The first and the only story I write is about a girl who needs (not wants) to kill herself because she is worthless and misunderstood by the world. She meets a boy who hates himself but sees something beautiful in her. He asks her out and she hesitantly agrees. But before the first date, she spots him with another prettier girl. She misunderstands and instead of going to the date, she buys more sleeping pills. The next day, just before she’s ready to die, she is distracted by a headline in the newspaper. The boy has killed himself (or tried to).
There are two endings to this tale, but that is not the point. This is the story of every story I write, of the tragedy in being so close, yet invisible. I cannot write or change stories like we used to do, a million years ago, back when we danced in the dust together.
In this world, the events play like clockwork.
In our world, we were goddesses.
In this world or the other, we make a mistake without meaning to.
A cloud-ribbed sky. Careless laughter. Dew and dust. This is how we meet.
A cloud-ribbed sky. Careless tears. Dew and dust. This is how we leave.
We used to relish that our lives, unlike the other kids’, weren’t always linear, that we didn’t have to be born, live and die in that same order, that we were like myths or goddesses, dreamed-up and dreamed-in, endless as the wind that bore us here.
But everything is happening or has happened all at once, and when I hide under the lavender-scented patchwork quilt, there is only me, dying in the darkness, writing love letters to black holes and dead star dust.
I bury my pet rabbit today.
But I can still see her, out of the corner of my eye, a white shadow disappearing down a black hole, her dirty fur still smelling of earth and green, her ancient red eyes still looking for things that are not there.
When I whisper goodbye, I yearn for her and everyone else I’ve lost, to hear me, if not in this world, then somewhere else, in the medieval forest of childhood, where the stately unicorn still walks amidst silver-tipped petals and pools, her silver horn gleaming in starlight.
I don’t understand. They say you were never here, that I dreamed you up, a fistful of moonshine. But they are lying. I would, I mean we would, we would, never dream up someone who would die. We always let someone live.
You did not really die, did you?
You were there when Papa pushed Mama against a wall, punched her breasts and pulled her hair, shattered glass.
You were there when we almost ran away.
You were there that night and every other night.
You were there long before I began to die.
You were always there in the mirror, in the shadow, in the shifting half-light.
You did not die. You only left. Tell me there’s a difference.
Isn’t there a difference between dying and leaving?
The day before my final exams end, one of the seniors kills herself, drinking acid. I never knew her, but she was a beautiful singer. I’d hear voice every day at assembly, till yesterday. They say, she loved another girl and her parents said it was unnatural.
We loved each other, but that wasn’t unnatural. No one ever called it unnatural, or was that because they never discovered the truth about us, and now they never will?
In my mind, she isn’t dead yet. I still follow her shadow in the corridors, still see her phantom in everyone I meet till it’s someone else. Somewhere else, in that medieval forest perhaps, she is still singing, a winter breeze, trailing a ghostly lullaby.
She leaves in their hearts, a gaping hole, but in mine, a shadow.
Thirteen is an unlucky number to be born on. Mama says I’m too old to believe in such superstitions as she changes the tulips by my hospital bed.
I wait, till she leaves before counting the sleeping pills I’ve been collecting the last three months and carefully hiding away. I know it’s time for me to leave. But then, no one ever dies. Really. They are always alive in some world or the other, in some memory or the other, as phantom limbs we can never amputate.
I was only nine when I started hating hospitals. The smell of disinfectant and linen and medicines is so stifling.
The doctor wants to hear my story (again). I tell him that stories are suicide notes that readers discover when it’s too late. He makes a note on his clipboard, purses his lips and says quite laconically that my memories are warped.
I sigh, remembering the sky-walled classroom, the rusty swings, Cinderella’s tinsel gown in a broken view master held to the light. The images swirl and clamour like the restless ghosts of childhood.
We are running (again) too fast for mirrors to catch our reflections, to tell us fact. There is starlight in our hair. In a minute we will meet the unicorn who will tell us that we are children of the air. We stumble over a root, catch our breath and run again.
This is the last image I have of you.