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Mom tells stories about how, when I was a baby, she was perpetually afraid that I would fall from whichever high surface I’d clambered up. It was as though I was always reaching up.
“Good news, folks! The fine dust levels in the city have fallen by about 10 per cent since last week, which is the best news we have received all week. People are already planning to venture out for a little while to enjoy the sunlight…”
“Lucky them, huh?” scowled Eiji, stabbing at his eggs with viciousness.
“Don’t make that face,” said Moon from the other end of the table, “or you’ll be stuck like that forever.”
I ignored my siblings to focus on serving myself more stew.
“What about you, Ubi?” asked Eiji, now busy stuffing his face with toast. “Any plans to go Aboveground today?” he wriggled his caterpillar-like eyebrows. “Visit your boyfriend?”
“Keep your voice down!” I hissed, wildly looking around for our mother.
“Don’t worry, she’s in her lab,” said Moon, rising to put her bowl away. “But you know you’re going to get caught if you keep this up, right? It’s dangerous to go Aboveground as often as you do.”
She was right. No matter how tempting the radio news reports might make it appear, it was definitely dangerous for someone like me, who had been born and raised Belowground, to venture up. The air pressure made me sick for hours afterward, and my eyes hurt from exposure to the sunlight, faint as it was. The air, though not as musky as it was at home, was difficult to get used to because of all the fine dust in it. In some ways, we were considered the lucky ones, but in my opinion, I’d give up anything to feel the Sun or the rain on my face for more than a few hours. For some inexplicable reason, the sunlight felt like an aphrodisiac to me – a dangerous thing that would kill slowly even as it gave pleasure. Mom tells stories about how, when I was a baby, she was perpetually afraid that I would fall from whichever high surface I’d clambered up. It was as though I was always reaching up. Up, to our dark ceiling and somewhere beyond. Perhaps that was why my parents named me Yeoubi. An old word for sunshower. I had to laugh at the irony.
“Oh, there’s been a mole infestation in the potato patch,” I informed my sister, glancing at my beeper.
“Fuck!” she exclaimed, dropping her head onto the table with a thud. “I’m going to kill those things with my bare hands, just you wait.”
Moon and I were crop scientists in the farms Belowground, having shared the same interest in agriculture and horticulture since we were children. The family liked to boast that both of us inherited our grandfather’s green thumb; nothing we had ever grown had failed to thrive. We were proud to hold the position of youngest ever assistant crop scientists at the Sub Terra Crop Research Institute. However, even we couldn’t keep away a colony of determined moles if they chose to strike.
“We’re making the rounds today, aren’t we”? I asked Moon as we put away our dishes and grabbed our backpacks. “Dr. Rao said that the Rhizanthella orchids need a check-up. I’ll do that!”
“Of course you would,” laughed my sister fondly. “You and your flowers.”
Although we had generalized roles, we each had our own specialities. Mine was horticulture – looking after the high-value ornamental flowers, fruits and vegetables that were in high demand even Aboveground. Moon was into more mainstream food crops.
“So,” she said as we called goodbye to our brother and mother and set out to the Institute, taking the more secluded tunnels along Sector 42. It took longer to get there, but we loved to look at the pretty geodes embedded in the stone walls, glinting with the light from the electric torches. “Is everything okay with Kai?”
I sighed, a long-drawn-out thing that carried the weight of everything that had been keeping up the past few days. “Mom has been haranguing me more than usual,” I replied, sounding glum and whiny even to my own ears. “She doesn’t understand. How do I make her understand?”
“Why, what is she saying now?”
“Oh, the same,” I sighed again. “About how we come from different worlds, be practical about the future, Yeoubi, you’re almost twenty six!” I imitated our mother, making my voice high-pitched. The sound echoed back at us, bouncing off the tunnel walls, making me wince. “Last week, she was on my case for swimming with him. Like we had been for the last twenty years!”
“To be honest, you’re now more than best friends, so she has good reason,” sniggered Moon.
I went on, ignoring my sister and the blood rushing into my cheeks. “And she said, ‘Oh yes, I knew, I always know when he’s here, and what-all you’re up to, but you must understand that you’re older now. Just like childhood ended, and school ended, and college ended, your childish ‘best-friendship’ with that boy also has to come to an end.’”
Moon hummed, sounding thoughtful. “She’s just worried about your future. Maybe you can arrange a meeting with his parents and Mom. Make her understand that you both are serious about this.”
I stared at my sister in incredulity. “That’s a death wish, Moon! We know she is sceptical about anyone from Aboveground. Especially anyone as rich as Kai’s family is.”
She probably did have a good reason for that too. Mom had lost her grandparents to the War; they’d died of hunger and disease whereas those Aboveground had had access to resources we could only have dreamed about, and refused to share. Things were much better now, since major environmental problems forced us to cooperate, but old scars remained.
Kai and I had met years ago when we were children. Though the Aboveground was a fascinating place that made people sigh in wonder and covet its pleasures, there was one thing we were envied for – our pools. The Belowground was dotted with gorgeous natural emerald pools and geysers – both hot and cool – beautifully framed by stalactites and shimmering rocks that were rare in the world above. Though famous for their aesthetic beauty and as relaxation spots, scientists had discovered a few decades ago that the natural minerals and medicinal properties of the self-renewing water was probably what kept us healthy enough to live underground instead of wasting away without sunlight.
The pools soon became popular tourist destinations for those Aboveground. And the rich, like Kai’s family, could afford to visit every few days to take a dip in the expensive private pools. Kai had crept away from his family one fateful day when we were both six, finding one of our family pools, and me in it, playing with geodes. We’d been best friends ever since, meeting every single time he came down, though school and college, vacations and holidays. We bonded over books and magazines from his great-great-grandparents’ time when the world was less populated and the concept of living underground was alien. As time passed, much to my mother’s disapproval (which she liked to voice loudly), we irrevocably became something more.
“Whatever,” I muttered in frustration. “She liked him just fine when we were kids. It’s because she believes I should marry one of her friend’s kids and stay Belowground forever. Ugh!” I kicked an errant rock hard enough to hurt.
My sister made a sympathetic noise. “Mom is just worried you’ll leave her one day.”
“Not permanently!” I said, shaking my head. “We’d make trips up and down all the time. She just has to get to know him!”
“I know that,” sighed my sister. “You just have to convince her. Make her meet him. That boy is a charmer. He’ll convince her.”
“Hmm. It’s also because I’m a girl, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said my sister frankly. “She’s already worried that work is too much for you.”
“You’re a girl too!”
“Yes, but I don’t have a boyfriend from Aboveground.”
“She just needs to trust me to make my own choices.” Decades after gender had stopped determining capability, some things were still a struggle.
“And she will. Give her time.”
The blaring chime of my satellite phone interrupted us.
“Ubi? Is that you?” came Kai’s frantic voice through the phone. Immediately, I was on high alert, the hair on my neck standing.
“Kai? What’s wrong? Are you okay?” I asked, as my sister looked on wide-eyed. He sounded like he was wheezing.
“You… get out of there,” he gasped. I could make out the blaring of a video in the background. “Can you hear me? Ubi, get out of there. Get out, NOW! …carbon monoxide fume breakout…Sector 45…”
But I had heard enough, I grabbed my sister’s hand and ran.
I nudged my mother as she narrowed her eyes at Kai. He was hosting us until it was safe to go back down, since we knew no one else Aboveground.
“Ahem. Kai. Thank you…for having us.”
Kai bowed. It was the fifth time he was doing it. I rolled my eyes a little.
“Wow, is that a 21st century manuscript?” called my sister from where she was ogling at a vast array of bookshelves on the far side of the living room.
“And you have a vintage computer! You’re my favourite now,” announced my brother, already half tangled in wires at Kai’s desk.
Kai laughed. “I’m honoured, Eiji.”
“I want to talk about you and Ubi,” said my mother suddenly. I groaned.
“Please, not now, Mother.”
“No, that’s alright,” said Kai. “You’re free to ask me anything, Ma’am.”
“She is going to get married one day.”
“Oh my God-”
“She is a girl, and I’d like to keep her Below, where she will be safe-”
“Stop. I’m leaving-”
“With all due respect, Ma’am, you’re from the Horangi tribe, aren’t you?”
My mother looked startled. I looked at Kai with a frown, wondering why he was bringing up her clan. It hadn’t been spoken aloud since my father died; it had been his favourite nickname for my mom.
“Well, yes, although I don’t see how it is related-”
“I have good reason to believe that the Horangi clan was – is – a fighter clan. Your great-grandmother and your grandmother both fought in the Wars, didn’t they? Your grandmother was also top of her class in environmental forensics and was awarded for inventing the N34H mask, was she not? And your mother was one of the leading researchers in underground geology. Besides, aren’t you too leading a research project on developing new medicines from the Belowground water?”
My mother looked a tad astonished. Kai was a charmer. I chuckled quietly.
Kai continued. “So I’m sure, given how she was brought up, Ubi will be just fine, with or without me. She can take care of herself and be responsible for her choices. I would just like you to acknowledge them and give me a chance.”
Pride, amusement and relief warred for dominance over my mother’s face. She had liked him when he was six. Looked like it wasn’t an impossible task now either.
“Okay?” I echoed. “That’s it? You’ve been at this for years! And this was all it took to convince you?”
“Well, I had to see how much this meant for both of you. I wasn’t going to let you go without a fight.”
“Horangis are fighters,” smiled Kai.
“Her dad used to say that too,” Mom smiled back at him. “He would have liked you. But-” she pointed a finger at him. “You’re not off the hook yet. I can guess what you did in those pools – ”
“- so you better watch it, both of you.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he grinned.
“It was just swimming!” I yelled.
She turned to the books. “So do you have a copy of the Pandemic Papers of 2020? I’ve always wanted to read a hard copy…”
“Sure! This way…” they walked away, heads together, discussing Kai’s work in the Disease Control lab.
I smiled. All was well.
This story was shortlisted for our April 2021 Muse of the Month short fiction contest.
Image source: kentoh for Getty Images Free for CanvaPro
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Prashanti Chunduri is studying for a masters in English at EFLU, Hyderabad.
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