This short story won SECOND PRIZE INR 1000 (~US $20) in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
Shama’s day started with porridge. It didn’t taste so good. She’d rather eat chocolates, or a creamy pie. She wished she had all those for breakfast every day. But she was seven and didn’t have a choice in these matters.
“Shama, stop playing with the spoon.” her mother said from across the table. “Look, Dolly has finished hers.” Dolly was her five year old sister.
“I don’t want it.” Shama said, her eyebrows contorted in a frown. “I want to go to the lake. We go there on Sundays.”
“We can’t go today, dear. A storm is coming.” Shama made a face. Dolly looked up at Shama and then quickly averted her eyes. She was mother’s favourite. Always doing what she was told and never placing a foot wrong. Sometimes Shama hated her. But she was her younger sister, so she couldn’t do anything about it. And she wasn’t that bad.
So the lake was off-limits. Maybe she would play with her Barbie. Or draw, perhaps. She loved drawing. She would draw Mom with Dolly and herself, going over the lake on a boat with beautiful fishes swimming around them. People shouldn’t fish; they are lovely creatures.
A sterner warning from Mother broke her reverie. She swallowed a spoonful of porridge with some difficulty and made a face again. Mother walked towards her and took the bowl away. “Now go and play, dears. Mom is not feeling very well.” A clank of utensils came as she dumped the bowls in the kitchen sink. Shama watched her washing her hands, waiting until she was done. She loved the rushing sound of water. That was why she loved the lake too.
“Shama,” Dolly whispered, leaning as close to Shama as her small frame would allow her while still sitting on the chair. “Let’s go.”
“To the lake, where else?” This was a surprise for Shama, the daring suggestion coming out of Dolly’s mouth.
“Mom doesn’t want us. There’s a storm coming.” Shama said in a barely audible whisper, watching her mother going upstairs.
“No there isn’t. Mom just doesn’t want us to go. Let her be fast asleep, then we’ll tiptoe out.” Shama’s face broke into a smile. She wanted to see the red fish. It was a peculiar fish, and she had seen it coming to the shore every Sunday. Maybe she came on other days too, but there was school on other days.
“Are you sure? Mom will be mad if we get caught.”
“We’ll come back in time. Mom sleeps tight.” Dolly gave a mischievous smile. Just then the clock struck eleven. The plastic sparrow came out of her home at the base of the clock and started its routine of chirping. Dolly kept staring at the clock. She counted eleven chirps. This habit of hers irritated Shama. Dolly would come running out of her room every hour just to see the bird. She was such a kid.
But she had just started grown-up talk. It would be an adventure, both of them sneaking out. It was an exciting idea. She had never done such a thing before. Dolly had talked like she did that all the time. But when?
Someone spoke loudly. The sound was coming from Mom’s room upstairs; the sound of a woman screaming. The Helpers had started and it meant that Mom was in her room, watching the sitcom. She would go to sleep after that. Sundays were always like that.
“Just hope that Mom hasn’t locked the front door.” Shama said.
“Come with me.” Dolly slid out of her chair. Shama followed her out of the kitchen into the drawing room. It was dark compared to the kitchen; the one window over the oak cupboard was closed and the shades were on. The front door, just opposite to the cupboard, was shut too. Dolly was bare-footed so she didn’t make any sound as she went near the door to double check. Shama had to walk a bit more carefully.
“Damn it,” Dolly said. The door was bolted.
“Where did you learn that?” Shama was curious.
“A boy keeps saying it in school. Seems like a cool thing to say, doesn’t it?”
“No, it doesn’t.” Shama replied, reproachfully. Dolly disregarded her and ran towards the window. The window was at least two feet above her and there was the cupboard too. But she easily maneuvered the climb by placing her left feet on the lower-drawer handle and the right on the upper drawer. In seconds she was sitting on top of it and peeking through the shades.
She looked over her shoulder, that mischievous smile again on her face. The window wasn’t locked.
Shama found the climb tough. She slipped for the first two times, but didn’t get hurt. Once, she made a loud tapping noise as her knee bumped into the drawer. For a second both the girls were still. Shama’s heart thumped madly as she waited for Mom to come storming down the stairs. She caught the slightest of sounds.
But it seemed that The Helpers was too interesting today. Shama managed on her fifth climb. But as soon as she got ready to open the window, Dolly jumped down and ran away. Shama couldn’t shout out her name. Why did she do so? Did she get freaked out?
But she came back a moment later. She was holding a plastic bag filled with water. Peepy the goldfish was in it.
“Why did you bring Peepy?”
“We will release her. Now, c’mon, hold it.”
“Why are we going to release her?” Dolly didn’t answer the question. Shama leaned over carefully. Her heart started thumping again as she held the plastic bag. She was somewhat mad at Dolly. She had given Peepy as a birthday gift to her. But she won’t ask her. It was her pet and she was allowed to do whatever she wanted with it.
Dolly climbed up and took Peepy from her. The goldfish swum round and round, her tiny black eyes glinting. For a while Shama did nothing except stare at it. The fish looked sad, Shama thought. Maybe she missed being with others of her kind. Maybe releasing her was a right thing to do. Maybe Dolly had realised this thing earlier than her. Maybe…
“Open it, already.” Shama undid the wooden clasp on the window and pushed it. A cool gust of air hit her face. Dolly jumped out. Shama closed the window behind her and jumped after Dolly. She landed with a soft thud on the moist grass below.
It was pleasant outside. The sun was high above in the sky, shining brilliantly. Random, cool breezes kept the weather from growing too hot. It was obvious to Shama that no storm was coming and Mother just didn’t want them to go out. The lake was not much far away from their cottage home. The window was east facing, so they had to go straight towards a thicket. After that a narrow road started which culminated into a rough, pebble strewn area. The lake started after that.
Dolly was quick on her feet. Shama had to run to keep up with her as both of them zigzagged between the tall trees. Usually, Shama feared this part. The thicket looked creepy to her and god knew what lay to the south where it went deep into the woods. Today she felt confident and totally forgot about all her fears.
When she came out of the thicket, she saw that Dolly was already standing amidst the wet pebbles, splashing about water. Shama ran upto her, eager to see the lake in its fullness.
The huge water body welcomed her. The water on the edge felt cold against her feet. She loved to wiggle her toes inside the water. She could see the mud rise up through the gaps in her toes and mingle with the water.
“Isn’t it lovely?” Dolly said.
“Yes. I wonder why Mother wouldn’t allow us.”
“Hey look!” Dolly said. She was pointing towards something in the water. Shama followed her gaze. A school of small fishes was coming in their direction. They swam in an arrow-like pattern. It was a beautiful sight.
Then Shama’s eyes lit up. She saw the red fish, swimming lazily behind the other fishes. It always came to the edge, as a routine. She knelt down to observe her closely. The red fish started swimming around Shama’s feet, as if enjoying itself.
“It is restless. It needs a friend.” Dolly’s voice came from behind. She knelt beside Shama and opened the plastic bag. Peepy looked excited. Dolly poured out the water and Peepy fell into the lake with a faint splash. It was then when Shama realised that the red fish was also a goldfish, of another type. Peepy first started swimming around aimlessly, then joined the red-fish. Both of them went back into the lake.
Dolly grew sad. A trickle of tear ran down her cheek and dropped on the water below. Shama held her sister in an embrace. “Come, let’s go. Peepy is happy and she wouldn’t want you to be sad.” she said, caressing Dolly’s shoulder. While walking away, she looked at the lake over her shoulder. The surface of the lake shimmered like gossamer, as if bidding her farewell.
It was magical.