“What does Sebati mean, didi?” asks Sana, Sebati’s ten-year old sister. She flaps her folded legs like butterfly wings, and squashes the little grass that grows beneath the apple tree.
Sebati straightens the woolen waves extending off her knitting needle, well aware of Sana’s growing restlessness.
“Want a ride?” she asks, tapping her wheelchair.
Sana raises her sticky-green palms above her head instead, and tries to gather little pecks of gold within its filigreed folds.
The sun peeks through the branches for what seems to them like a few quick seconds and hides, once again, behind a mask of cumulus clouds.
To Sebati’s amusement, Sana gets up and runs round and round the tree, her dirt-crusted fingers trailing over the ribbed bark, dead grass and dirt falling off her frock like magical dust of an impish fairy.
“Here, child,” says Sebati, dropping another stitch onto her knitting needle. “Be careful or you’ll fall down the cliff.”
Sana stops in her tracks; a look of concentration — wrinkled brows, puckered nose — overcomes her robust features. Sebati is all too familiar with that look. It warns of impertinence. It either demands: “I want more ice cream” or chides: “how boring; would this sleep-fest of a story ever really end?”
Sebati can provide her with a two-line story — “two shoes, a lonely pair” will do just fine by her. But ice cream — in the winter, on the hills, through the irate and moody weather — that for her is an unattainable feat.
Fortunately for her, Sana is still mulling over the previous question: what does her sister’s name actually mean?
“It means chrysanthemums,” replies Sebati.
“What? How did you know I was going to ask that?”
“You already did.”
Sana shrugs. “Did I? Oh, very well. But don’t chrysanthemums blossom only in winter, and not in spring or summer or in rain?”
“You’re learning,” replies Sebati, poking Sana’s protruding tummy with her knitting needle. “Mama would be very pleased.”
“She’d be pleased if I would marry rich, too. But that doesn’t mean I’d marry. And that, too, to a stranger with a potbelly and a mustache the length of…Sahara? No way.”
Sebati laughs at her sister who stands pigeon-chested and cross-limbed before her. “Don’t you mean the Nile? Anyways, who says that the stranger has a potbelly and a mustache the length of–?”
“Surbhi says so. She says only a man who’s blind or hideously ugly would consider marrying you.”
“Well, that isn’t very civil of her, is it,” says Sebati, putting away her needles and a block of knitted strip into the chair’s back pocket.
“Come inside,” wails Mrs. Verma from the courtyard. “You’ll catch your death in the cold.”
“Coming mama,” shouts Sebati. She grows stiff under her weathered beige overcoat at the sight of Surbhi, her younger sister, who emerges from within their wooden cottage and joins their mother outdoors.
“Coming mama,” mocks Surbhi, miffed that her sisters can afford an afternoon of leisure while she has to slog away with the day’s chores. She snaps the dried sheets off the clothes line and squashes them into a laundry basket. “Maybe she’d make a prettier corpse,” she mumbles loud enough for her mother to hear. “She certainly wouldn’t make much of a bride to a handsome groom.”
“Enough from you,” says Mrs. Verma to her middle-born, “don’t test my nerves.” To her eldest and her youngest she yells yet again, “come inside, you two. I’m not going to say it again. And I can’t care for sick people anymore.”
Sebati begins to wheel her chair for an about-turn but Sana sits on its armrest and jams the wheel’s free movement. “It’s positively mean,” she says, “and I told her so. Don’t you worry, didi, I’ll save you. I’ll kick that guy’s butt and crack his skull. We’ll fight with guns…no… bamboo sticks and he’ll run away to his mother.”
“Oh, he’d run away all-right! He’d run away at the sight of you, he’d be such a coward. But, dearest Sana, I so wish if he wouldn’t be — coward or hideously ugly. You know what, he’d be a prince; he’ll sweep me up in his arms and take me to his palace over that hill.”
“To the right. And I’ll send you a magical swan so that you can come and visit me anytime you like.”
“Anytime?” asks Sana.
“Any time,” nods Sebati.
“Then we’ll go on long flights over our fields and mama won’t call us in. She’d be too busy fluffing her emerald green gown and bossing the cook or the maids or Surbhi if she wants.” Sana rests her head on Sebati’s shoulder then and whispers: “winter would soon be gone. Would you be gone with it, too?”
Sebati frowns; her warm breath rushes upwards to fog with the chilled noon air. “It’s not up to me, Sana. But I don’t think so.”
“If you do, didi, I want you to know I’d miss you the most.”
That night Sebati has a dream, like the dreams she has had many nights before it. But it isn’t herself that she sees. It is a stranger — inhabiting her form, her features, but not her space. Not her wheelchair.
A mistress of the land, Sebati garners fidgeting in her sleep, punching Sana on her dimpled chin. Born to the land, she reckons, and pledged to it till time itself comes to an end.
The woman with her face is walking; walking through the barren fields cracked open like the skin on her dirt-crusted heels. Her heels, but they were smooth and clean before she climbed into her bed. She didn’t check but it wasn’t like she walked bare feet all day.
Her hands — ghastly pale she notes — lead the way, caressing the still winter air where once flowers had grown in abundance, and to such heights.
Her feet — her feet — grab at the earth, yearning for its hardened crust to yield to her coaxing touch. Her arms, cloaked and thin, span the width of the hills and the overcast sky. They long to fly along with her, over the valley of flowers.
Fly; before disease set in and ruined her family’s prized flower stocks, and her fortunes with it, for good.
She closes her eyes to the saddening future that lies before her. As certain as dawn is to follow dusk and dusk is to follow dawn.
With her eyes closed she’s a siren again, sprawled on the rocks overlooking the floral sea. Her songs echo through the valley. It captures the souls of all creatures that trespass into her fields. It teases them with the promise of a never-ending spring.
She immerses herself in the pool of hollyhocks and daffodils. She swims through its waves as cool as the north wind that races through the mountains on a chariot tethered to seven haloed beasts.
The petals crush under her fingertips. The scents — of oranges, buttermilk yellows, and burgundy reds, linger on her palms like rare filigreed jewelry. It seeps through her skin, blends with the blood and the water that channel through her self, and releases into the air, like pollen grains, to travel far and wide and seek its mate.
But it rains and snows before the scent can travel to places that sprawl beyond her imagination’s realm.
In that moment, as she stands on the cliff’s edge, beneath the scorched apple tree, she seems very much like the cottage she stands against — burnt and lonely. And then she sees in her hands that no longer move like a bird’s wings, bulbs, dirty and nodular that if planted will blossom into white chrysanthemums in spring.
Sebati sits knitting in the drawing room, next to the window seat and its view of the snow-stenciled valley. She looks up occasionally at the hint of a parting cloud or the sound of hooves rushing past the forest overhead. But a patch of blinding snow is as elusive to her as the mare with a chestnut coat. She returns to her needles and a ball of glittering red wool, distracted and forlorn.
“So did she wait for spring?” asks Sana, bouncing on the stool that once had accompanied a piano. She bounces like she used to on their father’s lap, while he sat on the stool and played them forgotten melodies from yesteryears.
“Be still, child,” commands Mrs. Verma, tugging at her hair with a comb. She tries hard but the tangles in Sana’s hair refuse to make way for the cascading falls that Mrs. Verma and her middle-born, Surbhi, wear with such palpable pride.
“I don’t know,” replies Sebati, dropping a stitch on her needle. “Why would she? She’s lived on a flower farm all her life. She would know better than to wait.”
“Who told her anyways, such a silly thing?” asks Sana. She’s in no mood to obey her mother’s express wishes to oil and comb her hair at least once a day.
“The wind, maybe,” replies Sebati, “how should I know? It was a dream.”
“Tell me the story, didi, tell me the whole tale.”
“Oh child,” implores Mrs. Verma, frazzled by the knots in Sana’s hair. “Look straight and stop bouncing, will you?”
“There’s nothing to tell. It was a dream and I woke up.”
“Tell me, please, please, tell me! What did she do with the flowers? Did she make bouquets out of them or wore them as garlands or…”
Mrs. Verma stops combing and stands with her hands on her hips. The comb dangles in Sana’s hair like a jewel. “You better tell her the story or I won’t get any work done today.”
“All-right,” says Sebati, dropping another stitch on her needle. “Be quiet and I’ll tell. But don’t you stop me in-between or else–”
“I won’t, I promise.” So says Sana and resumes her place on the stool, kicking its legs with her worn-out heels.
“White they bloomed as promised,” says Sebati, “and she plucked them all. And kept them in a basket lined with cinnamon birch and a strand of her long, black hair. In the atrium of her burnt wood cottage, that was lined with engraved pillars and rows of burnt-red tiles, beneath the naked willow darker than the burnt woods of her home, she placed a giant vessel and filled it up with water from a natural spring. And to it she added the cinnamon, and chrysanthemums, and the strand of her long, black hair. She was dressed in a creamy…off-white…”
“Mama, look what I found in the attic,” gushes a voice down the staircase and breaks Sebati’s train of thought.
“Isn’t it beautiful,” it says with a final thud.
Surbhi storms into the drawing room in a lemon yellow gown with delicate lacework and matching slippers. She pirouettes: till the room before her swoons along with the couch, her family, and an imperial telephone, and she feels the breakfast, of oatmeal and apple juice, rising in her mouth along with thoughtless words.
“That’s for your sister, Surbhi,” says Mrs. Verma. “Take it off and don’t let it stain or rip or I’ll kill you.”
“But ma…why should she have it?” asks Surbhi.
“Because it’s for me,” says Sebati, dropping another stitch.
“For you…I don’t see your name written on it. Besides ma, what good is it on her? Look at the lace on its hemlines; she’ll never be able to show off its artistic worth? If she managed to wriggle into its pinched waistline, that is.”
Mrs. Verma slams the comb on the table. Her voice thunders in the barely furnished room. “Go upstairs,” she says, “change back into your clothes, leave this dress where you found it, go to the kitchen and chop the apples; and don’t…don’t ever question my judgment.”
For a moment it seems Surbhi will cow down and let it rest. But then Sebati speaks. She says, “Let her have it if she wants it so much. Besides, mama, it may even give some respite to her shallow complexion.”
“And bring out the dark circles under her eyes,” giggles Sana.
“My complexion?” fumes Surbhi. “And you’re one to talk. You ugly beast. All day you sit in the chair and knit that hideous red thing while I help mama with the chores. Why shouldn’t I have the dress? I deserve it.”
“That’s unfair,” chips in Sana. “She takes care of me, and she cooks, and takes care of herself, too.”
“Horseshit,” spits Surbhi. “Who’ll marry her, mama? She’s not even handy to have as a housemaid. You should think of marrying me off. I’m nearly twenty-two. Yet all you think about is her…who’ll take care of her, who’ll love her…who’ll marry her.”
“Watch your tongue, miss,” says their mother. Her veins — on her face, her neck, her wrists — are so taut that she grows purple in the span of a few seconds.
“You know what,” says Surbhi, thrusting her chin out in defiance. “I’ll wear this dress when Uncle and his nephew come to dine with us. I’ll let my hair fall loose, and I’ll sit next to the fire. Next to him. And when the music plays, I’ll dance with him. We’ll do the waltz and cha-cha and whatever else he knows. We’ll go out on a stroll in the moonlight and I’ll kiss him under the apple tree you love so much. And he’ll never give you a second look.”
Before Surbhi could finish off with her self-congratulatory premonition, before she could exhale triumphantly at her ease of success at finding herself a trophy groom, Sebati rams her wheelchair into her legs and shoves her onto the wooden floor.
Surbhi stares aghast at her elder sister; and at the dress that has ripped at her curves. “I can’t wait to get out of this shit-hole,” she says. The red woolen ball wobbles its way to her side as if it too is laughing at her plight. She runs upstairs to her bedroom and slams the door shut. “I hate you all,” she says from within. “I wish you all were dead and dad was here.”
Sebati sighs. She rolls back herself to the window seat, the woolen ball dragging behind her like a lifeless pet.
Mrs. Verma leaves the room soon enough. Sana, not sure whether her words would ripple into gigantic waves, quietly rolls the unwound wool over her fingernails that clutch the ball.
“Is this for me?” she asks.
Sebati nods. She does the itsy-bitsy spider song on Sana’s back and then repeats it on the knitted column. “See, it’s perfect.”
“It’s too wide.”
“It’s too long.”
“It’s a slumber-time overall.”
“You’re not very good at knitting, are you?”
“Not exceptionally, I’ll grant you that.”
“You know what, didi,” whispers Sana with an attempted wink, “you’ve punched me, too, on the chin.”
At first Mrs. Verma dismisses Sebati punching her little sister’s face while dreaming of chrysanthemum bulbs as a case of aberrant dystonia. It runs on her father’s side, fits like hers, she tells herself when the lights go out and she is left alone to ponder the fate of her family and farm. But when the whinnying and the smacking starts, and becomes quite a recurring feature on their list of daily chores, Mrs. Verma begins to suspect that evil spirits, and not a weak constitution, are at work. Why else, she asks of herself, would her eldest born nod off into a bowl of blistering chicken soup and snort, or flip back in her chair like a frightened horse scared at the sight of her own knitting needles scattered on the floor?
What is she to do? wonders Mrs. Verma. Hang fresh garlands of lemons and green chilies before their cottage’s main door? Or fumigate all the rooms with roasted red chilies on a bed of red hot charcoal?
She tries them all but Sebati’s neighing refuses to halt.
Garlic, she reckons, would do the job. It has to, for there’s no more tricks left in her mother’s bag of occult. She places the cloves around Sebati’s slumbering head and waits by the bedside for the smell to drive the spirits off; for her whinnying to cease, for her lips to stop muttering words vile like lust and need. But when no good comes of it, too, Mrs. Verma retires to her room and prays to all the gods she knows.
Elsewhere in the house, however, Sebati’s afflictions draw a different response. While Sana giggles when hit on her back, Surbhi, who sleeps upstairs in the room next to her mother’s, rolls her giddy eyes and turns away from the bolted door.
While they all see Sebati whip and neigh, no one, not even Sana dares to ask what affects her so. Her mother has warned them against it. “She’s worried about the dinner, that’s all. No need to bother her with such trivial details.”
So, at lunch, they watch Sebati from the corner of their eyes, waiting for her to drop into a plate of piping hot rice and mashed potatoes.
Mrs. Verma, with her hands folded before her, chants prayers after prayers while the food on her platter freezes into inedible stones.
Sana, on the other hand, believes in proactive measures. She kicks Sebati under the table, hoping her legs would kick hers back in revenge. If her legs moved, Sana reckons, Sebati will have nothing to worry about, not even the dinner mother says she fears. And then she can ask her anything, without offending or hurting her or miffing her mother.
Surbhi, who sits on the farther-most seat, chews on a carrot, and smirks like a buzzing bee. She laughs within at her sister’s plight: Go on, she thinks, neigh all you want, big sis. Neigh even before the man who’ll come to seek you as his bride the week after next. And then there would be no need for me to be the vamp in this sty. He’ll ask my hand in marriage and I would gladly oblige.
No deny, she checks herself, think, sound as if you would rather he married Sebati and not you. And only, only when they plead, for the family’s sake, for love’s sake aye, only then concede your will. Even then be demure, be ladylike and — oh what I won’t give to see the look on her face when he will go down on his knees and draw a giant stone from his vest pocket…he will, he will.
“I beg your pardon?” says Mrs. Verma. “Who will what?”
“Nothing,” replies Surbhi and returns to her half-chewed carrot with visible glee.
Had they stopped from their private inquisitions and asked Sebati what bothered her first, even then, perhaps, her answer would not have seemed satisfactory enough. For when she sleeps, she no longer dreams of herself. She dreams of a man on horseback blazing down the countryside, fading into the darkness that surrounds him.
Church bells chime in his wake. Crescent moons blur into rivers, and ponds, and streams that he traverses with a single leap. In the veil of the night, in the darkness of her dreams, he is the land and the land is his.
She knows a mysterious scent draws him further: words wrapped in scents of spices and flowers, beaded into a sonnet of the earth and not quite of it. Peace, she somehow knows, too, would evade him till he discovers the source of his affliction; till he rides through its essence and immerses himself in its free will.
The day they had been waiting for, whinnying and conspiring, finally arrives.
The floors are scrubbed. The furniture dusted.
Food cooked and ready, the set table befits a King’s dining hall.
Candles wait on the bulbs; wild flowers loom in the corners, set in chipped earthen pots.
A pyramid of logs keeps watch outdoors, for guests to arrive so they too can crackle indoor.
All done, they sit in the drawing room, dressed in their finest of clothes. Their hair styles, much like their upholstery, have gone out of fashion decades ago.
Mrs. Verma twirls the edge of her handkerchief and glances at the clock. Six, it’s six already, they would be here soon, she notes. Everything looks perfect. Yes, it does, she nods. Tea: that may need warming. But cookies and cakes look just fine. Wish we hadn’t sold all those nice old paintings and the piano Mr. Verma loved so much, she reproaches herself for the hundredth time. Maybe they won’t notice. Maybe I see it because I know something ought to be there. Ah, and here, my girls, she gleans. They all look so nice and pretty. Nice, young, polite ladies – -reading, and knitting, and scratching themselves.
“Sana,” she shrieks, “stop scratching yourself. You’re ruining the whole effect. And here,” she says, “put away that…that…knitting of yours.” She withdraws a half-finished tablecloth from a drawer and flings it towards Sebati sitting by the window. “Pretend you’re working on this. And remember, you all are accomplished ladies. Even you Sana. You know languages, you can sing, and dance, and read, and sing, and cook, and play musical instruments, and do almost everything asked off.”
“But I don’t grow,” says Sana.
“That’s it,” says Mrs. Verma, “you’re the mute one in our family.”
“Could I be deaf, let Surbhi be mute.”
“Dear child, please do keep quiet. I may have a headache.”
Sebati gives Sana a mock glaring look. Sana sits back on the couch and fakes allegiance to her mother’s matrimonial goals. She swings her legs and glances around. Characters in a Jane Austen novel, that’s what they are, she thinks. From the one initialed P&P that Sebati reads aloud to her sometimes on the cliff, when the sun is out and the grass is green.
They are accomplished ladies, they are, sitting not in some shabby drawing room but a well-lit parlor, doing nothing but looking prim and proper for the expected suitors to storm in through the main door and ask their hands in marriage. While Sebati had said it was often very awkward for the ‘young gentlemen’ to do so in presence of curious tongues, Sana believes they were quite articulate in the novel though articulate is not the word she had used at the time.
Sana giggles. She remembers. She’d said artichoke.
Mrs. Verma jumps in her seat. Somebody has arrived outside. But instead of banging the door knocker, they’ve thrust themselves into the weak four-paneled door. Mrs. Verma wishes they had maids, if only for the effect they’d have, but answers the door herself.
She returns disappointed to the drawing room. “It’s just the gust,” she says and resumes her position on the couch.
“It’s not just the gust, mama,” says Sebati, “it’s a blizzard.”
Snow sweeps across the landscape. It piles before their very eyes; everything disappears within its ensnaring folds.
“They must be delayed then,” says Mrs. Verma.
“They must be at the inn down the road, waiting out the storm,” adds Surbhi who has long since abandoned her book and now joins her elder sister by the window. Sana, too, rushes towards them and kneels on the window seat. Her palms leave paw-prints on the glass panel as she peers closer, as if she can see through the spreading white; see something move or breathe.
“You think they are coming?” asks Sebati.
“They are, they are,” replies Surbhi, “Uncle always keeps his word.”
“Yes, he always has,” says Mrs. Verma, nodding her head. “He could have forged your father’s signature, showed us a fake will, and kicked us out of our own home if he willed. And no one would have doubted him, such character he bears. He’s a public figure back on the plains, you know. And besides, you’re only girls, and the law would rather have a man inherit our land than a bunch of girls good for nothing.”
“But I’m a good singer,” says Sana, snapping away from the window.
“Hush, child,” says Mrs. Verma. Before she could banish Sana from the room itself, the phone rings. Its shrillness stuns them all, so unaccustomed are they to its unnatural tone. Surbhi, the first to recover from the jolt, answers the call and hands the receiver over to her mother. She whispers, “It is Uncle; he sounds distressed.”
“Must be flu,” replies Mrs. Verma, with one hand smothering the mouthpiece.
“Are you at the inn,” she asks, “there’s quite a blizzard going on up here.”
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” booms his voice through the phone. Despite their mother’s waving handkerchief, which is her signal to keep away, her three daughters surround her and listen to his every word. They needn’t have been so dramatic; their uncle’s voice could carry across oceans, unmitigated by any storm.
“I need to tell you something. It’s awful, the whole affair,” he says.
“What can I say, I have been trying to avert, and when I couldn’t avert, trying to avoid this whole subject. But I know I owe you an explanation.”
“For standing you and your daughters up, what else.’
“But you’re at the inn, aren’t you?”
“Inn? What inn?” asks Uncle, confused. “No, I’m home. Now, where was I…what were we talking about?”
The daughters strain their ears for sounds that punctuate their Uncle’s silence. Is it leaves being crushed, or papers being turned, or some people whispering and hushing each other they couldn’t tell.
“Yes, here,” says their Uncle, as if he found the cue he had left on. “I’ve tried, Sheila; I’ve tried. I’ve even tried to find another groom for your daughter but no one wants to wed any of your kids. You have nothing to give them.”
“But our land–”
“It’s worthless, to them. As it was to my nephew.”
“But you had said–”
“I know what I had said. I had told him of your offer, that he could have half the earnings of your farm in return for marrying Sebati. He even agreed to your proposal, God-damn-it. But somehow that fool — that cunning fool — found out the farm’s true worth and chose to wed the widow of a rich industrialist instead.”
“Between you and me, Sheila, we know your farm isn’t doing very well. And you’ve used up most of your savings. There’s no one to till your lands, or to sow the seeds, or reap the harvest. You can’t hire anyone; you can’t even pay them their daily wages.”
“Sheila, Sheila, listen to me. You have three daughters and yourself to take care of. You can’t manage the farm on your own. The orchards, the flowers…it’s just too much to do. Too much time and money is needed to rebuild the place.”
“I was hoping–”
“I know. You were hoping that my nephew could run the farm for you. That too with his money and good name. But it isn’t to be.”
“Surely, there are other men who may find my offer enticing.”
“Good lord, woman, haven’t you heard a word I’ve said to you. No one wants it. But I know you’re in need of money.” He pauses for what seems like eternity to the ladies huddled around Mrs. Verma. “Listen, I have thought about this a great deal and this may be your last resort to get out of your fix.”
Mrs. Verma sighs. “Sell the land; is that your big idea?”
“Well…yes. Sell it. Sell it to me. That way the land shall stay in the family. I’ll pay you a good price, too. Then you and your daughters can move to the plains and lead a life of comfort.”
“And what would you do with our land, Roshan? It’s not like you know anything about farming yourself.”
“Who said anything about farming, Sheila? We’ll build hotels and service apartments there. It’s a big business down here. You can stay there for a while if you feel like. We can surely work out a membership plan for you.”
“You want to bulldoze my home, and destroy my farm, and you have the audacity to offer me a stay at your lousy hotel on a discount!”
“Now listen, Sheila–”
“You’re overreacting. I understand you have a certain attachment to the place but–”
“Our ancestors are buried here.”
“But we need to change and grow–”
“And I’ll be buried here, too. So long as you live, Mr. Verma, don’t you ever set your sight, or your feet on my land again.”
Mrs. Verma bangs the receiver onto its cradle and exclaims, “I forgot to tell him to place an ad in tomorrow’s papers.”
“About what ma?” asks Sana.
“We’re going to have help.”
Surbhi bursts into tears. “But who would come and work for us? We can’t even pay them anything.”
“We can give them food, and shelter, and a sense of home. I’m sure there would be someone who’d need just that to survive.”
“Like us, you mean,” says Sebati, wheeling her way towards the dining room. “Come, everyone, food’s growing cold. Let’s eat.”
At the dining table they sit, holding each others’ hands. Mrs. Verma offers a prayer to the “Food God” as Sana likes to call him and they serve themselves what was meant to be a great feast.
Sana kicks Sebati under the table. Sebati doesn’t stir or look up from her plate. Sana kicks her again. Sebati, unconcerned, takes a spoonful of rice and stares at its shape. Tired of this under the table coercion, Sana flicks a pea at her that instead hits Surbhi who is wedged between Sebati and their mother.
“What the…” swears Surbhi.
“It was for her,” says Sana.
Sebati looks up. “What?”
“The story, tell me the story,” says Sana. “The one you were telling me a week ago.”
“The one about white chrysanthemums and…”
“Don’t be such a tease,” says Mrs. Verma. “A story will cheer us all.”
“All right,” obliges Sebati, “where was I?”
“The woman, she stood in a creamy…off-white dress,” replies Surbhi, “or something like that. I don’t know. It’s not like I could hear you from the stairs or something.”
Sana giggles and presses her lips together when reproached by Mrs. Verma.
“That’s right,” says Sebati. “So, this woman…this girl, dressed in a creamy, off-white gown, leans on a bamboo stick stirrer and waits for the snow to fall and fill her vessel.”
“But the vessel was already full. With water from a natural spring,” rebukes Sana. “Wasn’t it?”
“No it wasn’t,” replies Sebati.
“Yes, it was,” says Sana, refusing to concede the point.
“No, it wasn’t,” says Sebati again, slowly, stabbing each word across the table.
“Yes, it was,” hum the three expectant listeners in unison.
“I heard it through the chink in the roof,” adds Surbhi with a sheepish grin.
“Very well,” says Sebati. “As this woman stood before the vessel, her gown, dirty at its hemlines and loose on her thin frame, floated in the breeze. Her long, black hair plunged off her bare shoulders and dipped into the vessel filled with water, chrysanthemums, cinnamon and…a strand of her hair.
“A small flame flickered beneath the vessel and the water evaporated into the…sky. She didn’t stir. All day long, she waited for the water to return to her as snow. And soon enough, snow fell. Like fine Chinese silk: over the burnt tiles, the flowerless willow, the dung-coated floor, and her bruised skin. It also fell into the vessel that bore the secrets to the future of her barren fields.
“She stirred till the snow melted; till the petals broke free from the buds; till the locked scents released and entered the cold, winter air. You could see the scent rise up the atrium, through the sieve of falling snow, and carry with it her words scrolled on cinnamon barks to far away lands and distant shores.”
Sana shifts in her seat. She wants to ask a question but the other two listeners, intent on hearing the story till the very end, shoot her down with a glare.
“On the first day of spring,” Sebati continues, “when the last snowflake on the strand of hair clinging to her lips melted and the melted snow vanished without leaving any trace of cinnamon or chrysanthemum in the vessel, she stopped stirring and looked up at the cloudless sky. A swarm of yellow butterflies flew down from the forest and lifted the soggy robe off her scalded skin. But you see the snow had healed her skin. She was radiant. Beautiful again.
“So this girl, now healed and beautiful, walks out of her cottage, dressed in a smock of golden butterflies. There’s grass growing everywhere. Even through the cracks. The fields are no longer barren. She walks barefoot, tugging at the grass that gets between her toes. Her fingers unclenched. You see, the grass is real. It doesn’t uproot or melt away. It’s not in her head.
“On the cliff’s edge, she draws her loose hair into a knot, and shuts her eyes to the world. She spreads her arms as if they’re wings and waits; she waits for spring to arrive on horseback — in full bloom.”
In the last few weeks of winter, a strange calmness descends on the Verma household. Strange for it is tinged with a secret fervor that blazes within each listener, and yet it stays silent, nudged ever so slightly by Sebati’s skidding wheels.
Mrs. Verma, as if willed on by her dead husband himself, places an ad for ‘Help Wanted’ with the local newspaper. But that alone fails to ease her restless spirit. So she puts on her husband’s boots and his work hat, and marches down the fogged lane that leads to the fields. She walks till her feet ache from stomping the snow, and then she rolls down the snow-packed hills like a polar bear to hasten her walk. She pushes on, for days and weeks, till she plots and re-plots the entire farm and decides what is to be sown, how much, and where.
Surbhi, too, loses her acid tongue and gains a dreamy glaze in her otherwise bottom-less black eyes. Every time she thrashes the sheets on a stone, or kneads the dough on a tray, or reads a novel while stirring the beans in a pot, she turns suddenly and looks out through the window, half-expecting someone walking up the road. She does all the chores asked of, without any arguments, a mean word, or a curse.
Sana, left to her own devices, realizes she’s too young to marry, and too old to snooze. So she settles for a pony that she would find in the forest by herself and call it her own. Each day, till the last day of winter that is, she goes to the edge of the forest and sprinkles bread crumbs as a trail to their home. She beats rocks against her knee caps and hits the roof of her mouth with her tongue. She even neighs like her eldest sister and waits for some response to come.
Needless to say — much like their luck with prospective grooms — no one answers their ad, or walks up the road with a knapsack slung over their back, or brings a pony along.
On the first day of spring, when all the snow melts and leaves the ground slushy in parts, Sebati decides it’s time to stop. She bites off the woolen thread, knots the last line, and wraps the incomplete sweater around her neck like a shapeless stole.
She wheels about on the cliff for an hour, but the wheels keep getting stuck in the mud. She twitches, she bounces, she tries to drag herself out, but her movements only make matters worse. She yells, “Help me someone”, she cries, “I’m stuck.” She even flaps her arms in despair. But her family, so wrapped in their daily pursuits, fails to hear her voice.
And then the strangest thing happens of all. She gets off her chair and floats in the air like a bird. The noon sun shines down on her face; it lights the freckles on her neck and the bronze in her long, black hair. She’s flying; she’s flying and there are yellow butterflies everywhere. She can’t help but laugh, and her laughter echoes through the valley like a freshwater spring.
“You’re all right then,” says a man’s voice. He has a beard, wears a pinched hat, and his vest smells of musk deer.
“Yes, I’m quite all-right,” replies Sebati, tightening her embrace around his shoulders. I am the rare kind of chrysanthemum that even blossoms in spring.