Zoya was always the daydreamer. I don’t mean to say she had no grip on reality because no, of course, she did. Her grades were as good as mine, that is to say, just shy of being ‘good enough.’ But she never succumbed to the guilt that was my constant companion. The shrill scoffs of family and community alike were mere pebbles she swiftly kicked into puddles. Whereas for me, the taunts were like mosquitoes. Buzzing, biting, itching bumps all over my person.
I never had her fortitude, you see. Nor did I have a mind rampant with make belief.
Even back then, when we were kids running through the groaning branches of the forest at the back of our house, she insisted the ancient banyan tree was a residential tower for magical beings. I’d sit against the trunk, listening with half an ear. She’d lay on her back beneath the sweeping green canopy and point out the respected addresses of various species.
That thick, twisted story on the right, the gnarled bark crawling with poisonous ants, was rented out by goblins. (They didn’t like visitors and fiercely guarded their treasure.) The branch above the Goblin Floor belonged to the fairies, of course. Smooth enough to walk, strong enough to hold tire-swings and free of yucky ants. Fairies were good people and loved cupcakes. Which is why I baked them in spades.
“But shouldn’t the goblins have the top floor, then?” I’d ask with the intuitive cynicism of a twelve-year-old. “The higher off the ground they are, the lesser the chance of people climbing up, be it visitors, or thieves.”
Her brows would pluck in the center of her forehead and she’d frown like a frustrated hummingbird with a crooked beak. “Oho, how will they jump down to go to the market if they were on the high floor? The tree’s got no stairs and everybody knows goblins have no wings. Silly, Aapa!”
I’d heave a not-so-subtle sigh that left little doubt I was merely humoring the immaturity of my younger by eighteen moons sister. “Whatever you say, Zo.”
She’d giggle that laugh of hers, delightful but slightly rough like sprinkles on frosting, turn up Ijaz Bhai’s rickety radio and run off to splash in the stream, leaving me to my homework. The half bar of Dairy Milk and the joy of RD Burman advance reparations for Mom’s upcoming scolding at letting her get wet.
Sadness, too, is like chocolate. It can fill a soul with its aroma, a body with its weight. The taste of it lingers on the tongue long after the wrapper’s been chucked away.
A crumbled candy wrapper is what I felt like the day she left.
Whose fault was it? I saw lizards on the wall, not descendants of dragons. Grey clouds were the bearers of storm, not airborne castle kingdoms celebrating laundry day. An upside-down tanker in the sea was a pollution hazard, for God’s sake, not a man-made boulder for tired mermaids to rest and sing to the bloody moon!
I wasn’t the dreamer. The playful mischief maker or awful singer who refused to stop until Dad laughed. I was the obedient one. The older sibling. A friend. A pillar. A trusted confidant. A bloody coward.
I was also the one left behind to broom the dust of her footsteps. But my Zoya wasn’t like that. She always had more brawn than brains. No, wait, let me rephrase that. Perhaps the right thing to say is that she had both in equal measures.
“Success comes from the heart, Appa,” she told me when she was all of twenty. “It is to look in the mirror and know that you are yourself and no one else.”
“But what if you don’t know yourself? Isn’t the reflection hollow, then?”
“But you do. Look, can’t you see?” She pointed at our joint reflections in the mirror. “You’re an alchemist. My magic is in my mind but yours is in your hands. Use it.”
I had turned away from her then. Turned away from myself. “Desserts are frivolous. You can’t build a life on chocolate.”
“And yet dreams are sweet, and sugar is the only taste humans are born craving.”
I had looked at her then. I remember because I had looked at her and thought, so wise, so brave. So not me.
“I have to go study.” I escaped her disappointed eyes. Escaped me.
It was the last time I saw her. The last time I saw myself. The last time Dad laughed.
Success leads to more success, my father told me in the years to come. If you shift the path because you fell once or twice, you’ll never reach anywhere. I would nod like the obedient daughter I knew myself to be, excuse myself and then go spend hours staring unseen at medical study guides.
I wondered why they were called guides when they offered little wisdom. I also wondered why I couldn’t tell Dad that sometimes people fall not because they’re weak but because the path is wrong.
But then, I wasn’t the writer. I never had words. They were trapped inside me like I was trapped inside me. Like air bubbles in a cake batter. Small. Invisible. Unbecoming. As I became.
I sit with my back to the tree again, its bark rough yet pleasant. The stream has long since dried up, the radio is now an iPhone. RD Burman, thankfully, remains the same.
“Is it okay to sometimes dislike, resent the people you love?” I asked as she spread the blanket and laid down on it.
The silence seemed to stretch for weeks. A cricket sang, a frog croaked.
“I missed you, too, Aapa.” She laughed like sprinkles on frosting and held out a half-eaten Dairy Milk.
P.S. I wrote this story for a competition a couple years ago and it’s been sitting still since then. I thought it was time to let it out…