Lesley D. Biswas | July 2022
‘Must be refreshing to see other birds rather than crows, isn’t it?’ exclaimed Jenny, picking her head up for the first time that morning and looking at Sammy, yet not really wanting to divert her attention from what Sammy noticed had become Jenny’s daily chore – feeding a bald chicken. Somehow, the bird’s head appeared too large for its body. Perhaps it was the baldness that made it starker.
Sammy smiled. ‘That’s why I tell you to visit our place at Kolkata. You really don’t believe me when I tell you I saw a golden oriole upon the mango tree outside my bedroom window. Now do you Jen?’
‘Of course I do! Why wouldn’t I want to believe my big sister?’
‘I don’t know Jen. Living here alone, all by yourself in this ruined house. You are so stubborn. Yes you are,’ Sammy repeated, sure that Jenny would protest. Jenny lowered her gaze and continued her feeding.
‘Why don’t you take a break? Nothing’s going to happen to your chickens and dogs and squirrels and goats and God knows what all you live with. They’ll survive. They are animals. They are born to fend for themselves. And still if you’re concerned, get someone to fill in for a couple of days. Come with me. There’s a world outside this house.’
‘You’re saying this even after you know the current servant crisis here,’ scoffed Jenny.‘ If getting someone was as easy as you speak, you wouldn’t have to come home to a bedroom covered in cobwebs.’
Then, as if reading Sammy’s mind, Jenny reasoned, ‘Sukri barely comes a couple of hours in the morning and gives them their food and does some cleaning around the place.’ As Jenny spoke, she flung her arms aimlessly about her and they flew over her head as if disjointed from her main body.
‘Then it’s all upon me. Their food and their food,’ Jenny repeated, as if repetition would lend more credibility to her responsibility which Sammy had just belied by terming it a job anyone could do. Even a servant.
‘And most of the time Sukri’s lying drunk under some mahua tree. Makes me wonder if the shade of the tree can also cast a drunken spell,’ chuckled Jenny.
‘Exactly Jen. You can’t manage all this by yourself. It’s not possible. Now I have a much smaller place at Salt Lake. And the days my house-help takes off, my back breaks with the housework. Here, you have endless place to clean. Beyond the house, there’s the garden, the jungle. How can anyone expect you to do it day after day, year after year? It’s been seven years since dad…’ Sammy’s voice fell to a whisper. ‘For seven years, Jen. That’s an awfully long time alone. You need to make a decision.’
‘Like the one you had made and tried to use Dad’s sickness as an alibi.’ This time Jenny looked Sammy straight in the eye. It was a different look altogether. Not the trusting, infant gaze she would give her older sister when Sammy fed her cereal while their mother lay reeling from the pain of another nasty migraine. This was of complete mistrust. Undeserving for a sister who had carried her upon her hip so long, the spot had become blue and tender, and still sometimes throbbed, if at all that was possible.
‘Don’t start there again,’ snapped Sammy, her words spilled out before she could reign in her emotions. ‘You very well know, had we sold the house, we would have give dad a couple of months more.’
‘And then, what? No home. Even Dad didn’t want to sell our home. It was you who kept on insisting. Sell the place, sell the place,’ mimicked Jenny.
‘I only insisted because we needed the money for Dad’s treatment. Don’t you make it look as if I don’t have any fond memories of this place. Why do you always make me out to be a heartless daughter, and you, the martyr. You know what Jen. You are the selfish one. You knew…’ grunted Sammy, and then paused, unsure if she should go on. Unsure if she wanted to hurt Jenny back the same way she pricked at her, like an old scab, making it bleed, each and every time they met. ‘…You knew Charlie could never give you a roof over your head. That’s the only reason why you didn’t let Dad sell the place.’
A silence ensued. Both sisters were aware of their false accusations. They sat, looking in opposite directions. This was the reason Sammy didn’t like to visit Jenny. Every time she returned home, they would have bitter arguments. There were endless issues to fight over. Perhaps, this was the way they loved, thought Sammy, and comforted herself.
Sammy looked at the green moss coated walls of the house. Damp and smelling of mildew. The ivy seemed to outgrow its inherent nature. Even the bright sunbeams that streamed in through the broken wooden windows strewing warm glow over the damp walls, couldn’t soak up the dampness. The dampness had reached the soul of their home. Sammy was afraid it would get to Jenny too.
‘Have you noticed what’s happening to the house,’ asked Sammy, hoping to make her see what evidently Jenny chose to ignore.
‘It’s perfectly okay. Nothing at all!’ snapped Jenny, more defiant than incoherent.
‘For once spare a thought for the poor house. If you don’t repair it, it will fall apart. The roof’s flaking off. And the kitchen… It’s so black with soot, even in bright daylight you need a light to cook.’
Jenny didn’t say a word. With a medicine dropper she sucked up some water from a saucer and fed the chicken a few drops into its mouth. Some trickled into the nostrils and the little chick began shaking its bald head, vigorously. It sneezed a couple of times. Jenny soothed its head with a light finger, so lovingly that Sammy wished she’d save some of that tender touch for her. Jenny allowed the chick to run away and join the rest of the batch in a rudimentary enclosure, her own handiwork. A skill she’d acquired from their father.
As children they had never seen an electrician or a plumber. Whenever an electric line had to be switched or a faucet changed, their father did it. He had a garage full of tools, where he’d often lose himself. Some were really rare ones, and he prided himself for being the only person around to possess them. He hated it when neighbours came to borrow his tools. It wasn’t that he disliked helping anyone. That, he was sometimes overzealous in doing. And he’d rather go along with his toolbox and fix the problem, than allow them to misuse his tools.
If they returned the secateurs with green leaf stains all over it after pruning a mehendi hedge or a lilac bush, he’d rue their carelessness. Or sulk if someone had been disrespectful to leave fine, microscopic filings on the wood file after they had done a filing job. According to him, it was imperative that a person respected his tools. It reflected the person’s character!
Sammy often thought that he overdid it when he sweated hours in the muggy fan-less tool-room, sparkling them up. Admiring each tool like a new penny. Jenny would be at his heel, passing one after another to him, for scrutiny. Jenny had taken after him. She too would sweat over meaningless things.
‘Sammy, you come here after a year, and stay for two or three days, at most. Why are you so bothered?’
‘Bothered! It’s called concern, Jen. You might have forgotten that I’m your big sister, but I have not. And if you end up bedridden, no one else is going to take care of you. I will. Had you made better life choices I wouldn’t have to bother about you.’
‘You always were the smart big sis, weren’t you? Everyone knew that. And I was always the silly baby sis. You made that known to everyone as well.’
‘Stop talking rubbish. Get a hold on your life. You are still not very old. Just a few years over thirty. Many people start life afresh. You too can come along with me and I’ll get you some training. Perhaps a teachers training course. Or a hairdressers one.’
‘Oh! Of course Sam. I’m the only one ruffled feather in your family. You got to set me right.’
‘Jen, don’t make things difficult. I always want the best for you. Even when you and Charlie were dating. I had warned you. Even Justin had warned you then.’
Jenny grew silent. Her face withdrew into a frown. Her eyes turned small and sad, as if she was about to cry. She sighed deeply. Sammy watched her get up from the veranda stairs. Jenny stood motionless there for about an entire minute, as if undecided whether she should go inside or take a walk in the garden which looked irresistible and inviting in the morning sun. Like a promise of a new day. But instead she went back inside. Into the confines of the dark kitchen, and began to break lumps of hard coal with a hammer. Sammy followed her inside and watched her hands, black with coal stains. The same hands that twirled the locks of Sammy’s hair whenever she tried to put her to sleep. Her soft hands were now bloodless. Lifeless. Like her existence.
‘Jen, why don’t you take a gas connection. It’s so much more easy, and efficient. I’ll pay for it.’
‘What all more will you pay for, Sam? You’re already doing more than a sister would do, bringing up my girl. Let me have some dignity at least. Don’t take that away too.’
‘Why do you misconstrue everything I say? I really, really want to help you.’
“In that case, don’t pity me and don’t try and make me pity myself. I’m fine. I have an orchard that gives me a regular income, besides my farm. I have my own fresh vegetables from my kitchen garden. My hens lay more eggs than I can eat. So I get some money from there too. And you know Sam, now-a-days more and more people come looking for my hens eggs. And out of the new batch of chicks, quite a few have turned out hens. So more eggs, you see. I’m not that badly off as you might think. Or, I may appear,’ Jenny chuckled, looking down at her shabby skirt. ‘Only for work.’ She patted it with her dusty hand. ‘Now I can’t be dressed in my best and go about feeding the chickens and breaking coal, can I?’ Jenny let out a peal of laughter. Jenny always had a dazzling laugh. Even when their father was ill, he’d say half his pain just disappeared hearing Jenny laugh.
Sammy wished their father had said things like that for her too. She had always worked hard to help him on his farm and orchard. She never pestered him or their mother for new clothes even though little Jenny always got a new set as she outgrew her old ones. Since Sammy had stopped growing, she understood that. She made sure she behaved like the sensible elder sister, because that was what was expected of her.
But perhaps their parents took her to be one of them. And that’s when Sammy realized Jenny was living the childhood she couldn’t. She could play with the chickens, without having the responsibility of locking them up in their coops. She could sit in aunt Polly’s lap, whenever their aunt visited from Goa, and listen to her tell them stories of how their cousins Lucy and Carron enjoyed themselves on Sundays at Baga beach. She didn’t have to help the cook in the kitchen prepare dinner.
Back then she had reasoned that once Jenny grew up, she too would be assigned with regular chores. But Jenny never grew up. Their parents didn’t let her grow up. Rather, she didn’t have to grow up. Sammy was always there in the family. The grown up daughter. Her big sister. And Jenny conveniently remained the pampered baby of the family.
How could someone just skip all the hardships their family went through when she was a child? Then all of a sudden she grew into an adult and one summer evening she declared her love for Charlie as she stood with her arm tucked into her boyfriend’s elbow, threatening if their father didn’t allow her to marry Charlie, they would elope.
Elope! Sammy’s heart sank. How could Jenny not care about their family reputation? Selfish girl! What did she think? That her sister’s heart was made of stone. It didn’t flutter! Or that she wasn’t worthy of someone falling in love with, and she married Justin, the first boy their parents chose for her.
Sammy blamed it on their parents. Had they made Jenny put the chickens back in their coops after playing with them, she would have thought twice before taking a rash decision like wanting to marry Charlie. But then their mother had not even allowed Jenny to close the bedroom windows to stop the rain from beating in and onto the bed, in case she got her pretty little fingers jammed. If she had seen her coal streaked, blistered hands, she’d wash them with her own tears.
Sammy shuddered to think she had failed their mother for allowing Jenny’s hands to get blistered. Sammy left her there in the black soot-layered kitchen, breaking away at the hard rock of coal, and ran inside, into her bedroom, where her travel bag sat, still unpacked.
Maybe, she thought, the things she had brought for Jenny would alleviate her guilt. The jam pouch, the mixed vegetable pickle, the mustard sauce and the dress she had brought for her, for Christmas. Sammy carried the edibles to the dining table where she noticed a half empty bottle of pickle.
‘Jen,’ Sammy craned her neck to look at her lighting the fire in the kitchen. ‘Did you not like the mango pickle I brought for you last year? I see there’s still half left in the jar.’
‘Oh no, that’s not the same one you brought, Sam. I made that pickle.’ Jenny’s voice was taut with pride. ‘It’s one of mom’s recipes. The one with the yellow mustard and the green chillies. Good you noticed.’ Wiping her wet hands on the sides of her skirt, Jenny walked into the dining room. ‘I’ve kept a bottle away in the wooden cupboard for you. You always bring pickle for me so this time I thought of returning your jar with some.’
‘Oh! You have mom’s recipe book and I was wondering what became of it.’
‘I found it with her things. It’s in my room now. With my stuff.’
Jenny returned to the kitchen and began fanning the fire. Sammy sat down on the dining chair and drew the bottle of pickle towards her. From outside, through the crushed crystal pickle jar it was difficult to make out the difference between the pickle she had brought and their mother’s recipe. But as she unscrewed the lid and lifted it up she was overcome with a surge of nausea. That familiar aroma made her feel as if their mother from somewhere, either the kitchen or the bedroom, where she was cooking or knitting, would yell, ‘Sam, put the lid back on, or it’ll spoil.’
Sammy quickly replaced the lid, aware that it had been over a decade since she’d heard their mother call out to her name.
‘Sam, would you like another jar?’ Jenny startled her from behind.
As Jenny rustled in the cupboard, behind her, Sammy didn’t dare turn to look. As if she wasn’t sure who to expect. Jenny brought out another jar of pickle and placed it on the table besides the things Sammy had brought for her. Sammy noticed her eyes stop over one particular item. Then she chuckled.
Sammy didn’t know what had amused Jenny, until she picked up the mustard sauce in her hand and began to twist it wildly, the way customers do to check a products expiry date. Sammy looked at her as she chuckled a second time.
‘What? Is there something wrong with that sauce?’ She knew Jenny could pick out things that escaped her careless eye.
‘No. Nothing.’ This time she laughed out aloud. ‘This is a pair, isn’t it. You got it for free, with another sauce.’
Sammy didn’t want to respond to Jenny’s accusation, but her way of implying was so corky, she replied, ‘Yes. But this isn’t the free sauce, Jen. This is the product I purchased for you. I kept the free one for myself.’
Jenny shook her head as if she didn’t believe Sammy. ‘No harm, Sam. Both, the same thing.’
‘Do you know how difficult it is to provide for a family of four?’
Sammy’s words made Jenny thump the mustard sauce bottle down onto the dining table and dash off to her bedroom. Sammy followed her, but met with a bolted door.
Who would say she was a mother of a teenage girl? Sammy shook her head and decided to leave her alone. She went into the veranda and sat down on one of the wooden chairs. As she rested her elbows on the armrests, she felt them gritty with grime.
Exhausted with Jenny’s morbid existence, she thrust herself up and went outside into the garden, the only space where life blossomed. Besides of course the coops and the pens where the animals lived. And the dark corners of the rooms where spiders and mosquitoes bred. After a while she felt the urge for a cup of tea and glanced over her shoulder to see if the smoke from the chimney had cleared. There was a thin, transparent shimmering glaze that made the leaves of the banyan tree behind the kitchen quiver. Without difficulty, Sammy located the tea leaf, milk and sugar containers. Jenny never changed them or their place. The tea was still stored in the same container which had their mothers handwritten tea, scribbled on it, in cursive.
Sammy took the kettle from the hot plate and poured the steaming water into a saucepan and dropped two spoonfuls of tea leaf into it. It was so much easier to just dip a teabag into the cup of hot water and add sugar and milk. But Sammy had all the time in the world. She waited for the leaves to soak and release their flavour. As she strained it into the tea pot, and began to pour herself a cup, she heard a click. She took down Jenny’s blue mug from the rack and filled it up to the brim.
‘Save some for Sukri,’ Jenny called out from her bedroom. Sammy returned some of the tea from Jenny’s mug to the teapot, and replaced the lid. She waited for Jenny, but Jenny didn’t come out, so holding two mugs in her hands, she walked into Jenny’s room. She found Jenny seated on the bed, feet tucked under her. She stretched out her hand as if she had known Sammy would bring her tea even after she’d misbehaved with her. Her usual way of implying that it had all been Sammy’s fault.
Jenny took small sips of tea and swallowed reluctantly, not wanting to let go so easily of her grouse. Sometimes, Sammy thought, Jenny’s anger was misdirected. Even after what Charlie had done, impregnating her, she refused to blame him. She also refused to acknowledge that he was the father, and a coward who committed suicide when she told him of her pregnancy.
Jenny let out a soft giggle as she sipped the tea. So subtle, one could easily ignore it as the outcome of some whimsical thought that might have taken seed in her head. Like a wisp of smoke. If unnoticed, it would appear never to have been. But Sammy knew it was meant for her. To poke at her conscience and make her terrified in wonder at what might have lead to that giggle.
‘Jen, Is there something wrong with the tea?’
‘No no…’ She tossed her head carelessly. ‘Don’t be so silly, Sam. What could possibly go wrong with such a simple thing as tea? At most, it would either be too strong or too weak. More sweet or less sweet. Too milky or not milky enough. That’s about all that could go wrong with tea.’
Jenny let her neck arch back, loosely. As she waited for Jenny to speak again, Sammy noticed Jenny’s cheekbones had become more prominent. As if now they were the main feature of her long face. Her hazel eyes or brown hair were no longer noticeable.
‘Do you really want me to visit your place in Salt Lake?’ She turned and faced Sammy, somewhat taking her by surprise. Sammy felt a prick in her right eye, and her face flushed red.
I don’t want that slut to step into my house. Justin’s words, thundered years ago, flooded back. Then, Sammy had pleaded with her husband not to use such words for Jenny. But she knew she should have done much more than just plead. There was no way Jenny would come to know what Justin thought of her. But it stuck in Sammy’s heart. She only realized it years after she’d begun to take sleeping pills.
Even through Jenny wasn’t aware of that particular argument, she knew instinctively she should stay away.
‘Jen, this time, let’s go back together,’ said Sammy, reaching out across the bed for Jenny’s hand and cupping her cold, hard hand in hers. A warm sensation overcame her body, so comforting that she didn’t want to let go of Jenny’s hand anymore. Even though Jenny never showed it, Sammy knew she too felt good, because she never pulled away. At least, not abruptly.
And then, Jenny smiled at Sammy. Whenever Jenny smiled, things seemed to fall into place. She called out to Sukri. And what she told Sukri made Sammy laugh. Jenny too laughed.
‘You’ll never leave eating plain potato, will you?’
‘What’s wrong with eating plain potato?’ asked Jenny, half smiling, half-frowning.
‘Nothing. Just that you ate it when you were a child. When you couldn’t tolerate the heat of chillies.’
‘Now I make it with chillies, but it still tastes like the same plain potato. Like the one you would make for me.’
And then Jenny looked at her big sister with tenderness for the first time that day. It was enough to make her offer. ‘Jen, would you like me to make plain potato for you?’
Although Sammy had always been the one doing things for Jenny, which she seldom appreciated, it did not seem enough. Perhaps she’d only stop the day Jenny thanked her.
‘I make the same plain potato for Shimon and Lisa. And they enjoy it. Just like you do,’ added Sammy.
‘I want to give Shimon Charlie’s guitar.’
Like a flash of lightening, Jenny’s words struck Sammy, instilling in her a fear of what might follow.
‘Why, Jenny? Why do you do this to me, over and over again?’ Sammy pleaded. ‘I don’t want Charlie’s shadow to touch my daughters.’
‘Your daughters!’ Jenny arched her eyebrows in the same way she did as a child when Sammy would claim their mother to be her mother, too.
‘Yes, my daughters.’ The coldness in Sammy’s tone came from the rock her heart had turned into. ‘Even when I tell Shimon that I am her aunt, she will remain my child. Always. In the same way she’s yours. Always.’
Sammy walked out of Jenny’s room into the breezy veranda. The sun had moved from being a tender and graceful morning blessing to its real business. Sammy heard Jenny instruct Sukri to make the plain potato.
Then, Jenny came over and what she said, surprised Sammy.
‘On second thought I’ll keep Charlie’s guitar. Since Shimon will never know I’m her real mother. It’s all I have in this world.’
‘Why don’t you just throw it away, Jen?’ Sammy didn’t care for her sister’s sentiment.
Jenny didn’t seem to mind her resentment, and continued… ‘I strum it. Sometimes, in the evening, when the sun sets behind the hill and the bird calls become so loud, I feel the silence surrounding me difficult to bear. Especially Charlie’s absence. Then his guitar gives me company.’
Sammy noticed Jenny’s eyes cloud over. She couldn’t fathom why Jenny never ever blamed Charlie for the pain she’d suffered. It had always been her long-standing resentment that Jenny didn’t open her heart to her. So she had no way of knowing the magnitude of the secret Jenny concealed in there.
The only person whom Jenny had confided in about being raped and impregnated by Justin, had committed suicide after he’d asked her to choose between marrying him and the baby, and she’d chosen to keep the baby.
But his death engulfed Jenny with guilt. She slipped into depression, making it impossible for her to care for a new born baby’s needs. Sammy, who had almost mothered Jenny when she’d been little, couldn’t bear to see the baby suffer. She took over Shimon and raised her alongside her daughter, Lisa.
‘Will you just keep an eye on the chicks. See that the hawk doesn’t get them while I clean their pens?’
Sammy nodded, allowing Jenny to escape indoors to compose herself.
Sammy watched the little chicks graze, picking out things from the grass as a hawk circled overhead. The big, bald headed one, Jenny’s favourite, was among them. It was slower than the others. And wobbly.
Then there was a deafening screech. The chicks took cover under a stack of planks. Except for the bald headed chick. Sammy watched the hawk swoop down and pick it up in its talons. A tear ran down Sammy’s cheek as she watched the hawk flap its wings and fly away.
Author of three children’s books, Unlucky Chumki (2019), Chumki and the Elephants(2020) and Chumki and the Pangolin(2021), in her twenty-five year long freelance writing career Lesley D. Biswas has published several article and stories for both children and adults in newspapers, magazines and online. She grew up in McCluskiegunj and is now based in Kolkata where apart from writing, she enjoys gardening, photographing birds and watching cricket.
Photo via Unsplash
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