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By the time they got her out and calmed her down, Bela murmured in low tones how devastated she was that she could not be Sora’s brother anymore.
In 2019 our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month gets bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry.
The writing cue for May 2019 is these lines from Victorian poet Christina Rossetti from her most famous poem Goblin Market.
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”
The first winner of our May 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Manisha Sahoo.
She tucked the t-shirt in tight before she pulled some of it out till it ballooned around her waist. She brushed her fringes back with her fingers and grinned at the reflection. Her lanky legs stood parted, her shorts like huge tunnels surrounding them.
“Bela, coming or not?”
“Yes, mama!” she called back and pirouetted on her heels.
Bela owned several pairs of pants and if not for her school uniform, she would not have skirts at all in the almirah. She had shirts and t-shirts, no frilly tops at all. She did not want them either. Occasionally – and they were rare occasions – she felt like wearing a frock or a dress, but not always. Added to that her not understanding how one sat “properly” when wearing skirts, it seemed like nature’s way of saying she was made for the pants.
Being five and staring into the mirror before going for a family picnic, was one of the earliest memories Bela had of her childhood. Some bits and pieces before that existed too, but she could not compile them into a proper image still.
“I’m going for a coffee, I’ll call you back after,” she said into the phone before she pushed back her chair and stood up, putting the receiver back into its slot. Her legs wobbled and a sharp electric pain travelled up the length of her limbs. Not just coffee, she needed a short walk too to wear out the numbness.
As a six year old when she first experienced the feeling of “legs falling asleep”, she nearly cried from the strange sensation. Her mother instructed her to keep her legs straight, it would wear off soon. Bela, however, had little patience to wait.
Especially when her sister burst into the room and exclaimed, “A sparrow came to the birdhouse! Come, quick!”
Away were flung the homework books and notebooks. Bela scrambled out of the bed, jumped to the floor and ran after Sora to the backyard where they had built a mangy little thing out of the hard covers of some old books, and put a small bowl of water in front of it.
Not one bird had come there to their knowledge till that date. Other than grabbing Sora’s arm in excitement and watching the sparrow drink the old water, she remembered the electric pulses that originated whenever her feet made an impact against the floor – not that she could feel the concrete; the whole race from the bed to the back yard had been a long flight on a charged cloud.
Bela beeped out of the office room, her cell phone in the other hand. Soon as she stepped into the corridor, humidity slapped her face. Somehow, it was better than the freezing temperatures inside – she always felt like putting on a cardigan while at her desk, no matter the season!
It was someone from another team sharing the same office space. They sat across from each other, separated only by the low dividing wall. Until six months ago, they had been strangers – now, awkward acquaintances.
“Feeling sleepy,” Bela replied and they exchanged a courteous laugh before she took her leave and heard him scan his ID card at the door. If a call from his client had not accidentally landed on her extension instead of his, they would have remained strangers for good.
Not that it mattered to her. It did to Sora though. Anytime she called and enquired the dreaded thing – “And so how many people you’ve actually talked with in the office by now?” – Bela winced.
She did talk to others, joined in fake laughs, took part in those “fun events” they put up every now and then, but no, unlike her sister at her workplace, she had no friends to speak of. Her friendship genes seemed to have dried up once she graduated from high school.
But she had been an eager little thing back in school, even as early as elementary classes. There couldn’t have been a single person in the class who did not know Bela. Sora, on the other hand, had been very reserved. Their school had more boys than girls back then, and with her tomboyish manners, Bela found it easy to mingle.
Sora did not. She had two very close friends – and according to her, that happened because both the students were new students. Her awkwardness and their awkwardness brought them closer.
Bela, only two years younger than the three of them, was part of their group after school as well. Always laughing, always “being a monkey” (as their mother called it, before she launched into a muttered monologue of how their father had spoiled her). Nine by now, finding comfort in her trousers, her shirts and her t-shirts still. And the short hair too, unchanged in all these years.
Once their mother had suggested her to grow it out like Sora had. But the moment the hair began to stick out over the ears and caused a constant itching, Bela raised a ruckus and ran around the house, demanding for a haircut or she would pull it all out.
“Heh, that’s my little brother!” Sora had declared with a crooked smile and a snort. Bela had grinned back at her.
“What? It’s a joke, mama!”
. . .
Bela stretched her arms and bent her body from left to right to left and straight again. No wonder they advised to move around at least five minutes every hour. She yawned and scratched at the back of her head, dragging out strands stuck to her nails and creating a mess in her ponytail. She pressed once, twice, thrice at the elevator buttons like they would arrive sooner with each click, and stood back. One hand played with the escaped hair while the other brought her cell phone in front of her face.
Her finger hovered over the icon titled “So-So” for perhaps one second. And then the phone buzzed. Bela nearly dropped the device at the sudden vibration.
So-So – flashed in bold letters.
Bela had just turned eleven not too long ago. Sora had recently grown quieter and tamer than before. She might not have had it easy making friends outside, but she had been a total riot at home.
Since a few months though, she had grown sombre. Sora’s physical features had begun to change since a couple of years; it was as girls should change, Bela knew. But more than that, it felt as though her sister was keeping some secret or the other from her. There was a weird distance between them even while they still did everything together as before.
Only difference in “everything” was that it involved more indoor games than outdoor.
The worst thing to happen, however, was one day when Bela noticed similar changes in her own body. She had burst out wailing.
“Crazy girl! How on earth are you?”
“Pretty much the same as yesterday,” Bela replied to the chuckling voice, “when we last spoke.”
“Please, like anyone else ever calls you!”
“Dude, I’ve got friends!”
“Who you text with, rarely call,” pat came the reply.
Bela opened her mouth to retort, but stopped. Instead, she took a breath and said, “Yeah well, that’s good enough.”
“But could be better.”
There was a moment of stalling and Bela swayed on her heels, letting her hair go at last. Something struck odd all of a sudden.
“Wait a minute, what’s with this working hour call anyway?”
“Hmm? Oh! Ah, that’s just…” Sora’s laugh rang out on the other side. “I don’t know why I suddenly remembered how you had cried so, so, so badly when you discovered you could no longer pretend to be a boy.”
Bela chuckled and shook her head. Her voice came out level against her sister’s chirpy tones. “Believe it or not, I was thinking about the same.”
“Shut up! Really?! What are the odds of that!”
“Very, very low, I suppose? No, wait, odds are supposed to be high for rare things?”
“Umm… no, low is correct I think.”
“Let me see… ‘the odds are stacked against us’… that means there’s more chances of things not working out, right?”
“Yes, yes, but the point is not that exactly, is it?”
“Is it not?” Bela scrunched her face and tried to recall the original use of ‘odds’ in their conversation. What had they been talking about just now? Oh right –
Their mother had come rushing to the bathroom and rapped on the door loudly. Sora had followed her too.
“Bela? Are you okay? Why are you crying, sweetheart?”
She could not reply right away. By the time they got her out and calmed her down, Bela murmured in low tones how devastated she was that she could not be Sora’s brother anymore.
“Why are you worried about that, honey? You’re a girl and you’ll always be Sora’s precious sister. Why do you want to be her brother?”
“Be…because… because she…s-she said she wanted… wanted a brother…” And Bela began to wail again.
“Anyway!” Sora exclaimed, slamming something. “The odds don’t matter! We were talking about your little episode back then when your chest began to change!”
Bela cringed at the description and pressed her lips together. The elevator dinged then and opened up, three people already inside. She looked at the half-filled steel box, the flashing light behind the elevator button, at the phone in her hand, and she shook her head at the occupants, turning away from them. She heard them sigh loudly and mutter something in irritation.
She moved to the windows in the hallway and looked out at the other office buildings in the area.
“…took so, so, so long to calm you down, and explain to you that I was a kid back then and said whatever came into my head. That I didn’t mean anything by it. That I did like you as my sister. Odd little ball as you were, I did adore you…”
Sora had not ceased talking in the meanwhile, she realized.
“And luckily that evening, papa came back with ice creams and we forgot about the incident,” Bela interjected and wrapped up the tale.
“Well… ‘forgot’ is a strong word. We did end up teasing you every other year.”
“Yeah, like that embarrassing episode was something whose anniversary just had to be celebrated!”
Sora was laughing uncontrollably by now. Even Bela could not help but crack a smile.
“To-to be fair, Bel, I found it extremely sweet, what you said then. Who knew you’d pretend to be a boy just to fulfil my wish for a little brother? I knew you were a keeper then.”
“Ugh, you’re getting too senti. What’s wrong really?”
“Oh, nothing… nothing at all,” Sora murmured. She became quiet for a moment before she added, “I don’t know, I was just missing home today.”
“Strangely… me too.”
“Let’s plan the next holiday together then!” Sora’s chirpiness was back as though it had never left. “We haven’t met in so long, dude!”
Bela walked to the fire exit and pushed the door inwards. “Perfect. Oh, I remembered that sparrow too, by the way.”
“You know the one who came to our scraggy birdhouse? You were…let’s see, eight, I suppose?” Bela heard her voice echo off the walls as she climbed the stairwell.
“Oh dear lord! I literally forgot about that! But ugh, that water was so dirty! Why did we never think of changing it?”
“Beats me. I was only six.”
“There you go. Your excuse all ready for everything,” Sora hissed out.
Bela laughed. The echoes of it, she loved it. “Why are there no sparrows in this godforsaken city, huh?”
“Tell me about it! I can’t find one here either!”
“You forgot about sparrows, not two seconds ago!”
“Excuse me, I forgot the incident, not the bird!”
“Yeah, yeah. Sounds the same to me.”
Manisha Sahoo wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: pixabay
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Clumsy. Awkward. Straight-forward. A writer, in progress. A pencil sketch artist by hobby.
“I Will Stand By My Sister No Matter What!”
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Stepping Out Of Those Shadows With You, Sister!
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