This short story is selected as Story of the Month August’2012 and won INR 1000 (US $20)
Editor’s Choice: Family Short Story – Anagram
It’s was the first day of spring, when the earth had finally woken up from a deep slumber given birth by the winter coldness, the white starkness and placidity of the world now wiped away. The sunshine wafted its way gently, filtering through the pine trees that filled the air with an effervescent smell that lingered in your breath, made you smile and filled you up with a crisp freshness.
And it was on this beautiful day that Olive decided to die.
I closed my eyes as my mind drifted down the cobweb lined and dark path of the past to the earliest memory that I had of Olive.
She was eleven and I was five. It was the summer of ‘86 and school was over and two months of vacation stretched luxuriously in front of us. I was contentedly slipping down one of the slides again and again, my mind not tiring of the monotony that the game brought. Arms raised in the air, my hair disheveled and a grin that was permanently plastered over my face I slid down once more screaming at the top of my lungs before falling into the sand pit on all fours.
“Time to go” Olive’s quiet and soft voice spoke from behind.
“We are going to play for a while longer” Anita had just slid down the slip and now stood beside me.
“It’s late. Come on Em” Olive continued as if she hadn’t heard Anita.
“But I want to play…” my voice trailed off, and I stamped my feet blowing up a cloud of dust.
“Who are you to tell her what to do?” Anita screamed from behind, all geared up for a fight if required.
“I am her sister, that’s who I am”
“No you are not!”
Olive stared at Anita. I could see her swallow and she blinked rapidly several times and then turned and walked away in the opposite direction. Anita had a vindictive smile on her face and her eyes gleamed of success.
And now Olive, my unacknowledged sister, was dead.
The thought finally slithered down my brain to my heart. The tears were at the brim, resting momentarily on the lashes before making their way downstream.
The first time I noticed that we were not like the other siblings was when I was ten years old and it was parent’s day at school. Father had grudgingly agreed to come along with us. The school had the festivity of a gala, there were colorful tents put up along the boundary wall, banners and balloons floated breezily in the air. There was music that blared over the ground and the area was packed with bored parents and excited children.
We walked towards a makeshift Welcome desk manned by two senior girls to get our entry passes.
“Hello” spoke my father gravely, “We like to get our passes.”
“Hi” they chorused. “Please fill this form out. “
Father nodded his head, his hand busy scribbling down the information. Once done he handed the paper back. The girls looked at it, a surprise shadowing their face and they looked at me first and then Olive and then at father and back again to the form. My dad shifted his feat and I glared at the girls for delaying our entry. Olive was looking pointedly at something between her feet.
“Are both of them your daughter?” She asked incredulous.
“Yes” came my father’s curt reply.
The girl appeared puzzled. “She looks different” saying which she stared at Olive. I followed her eyes and looked at Olive, who was continuing to look down and for the first time I saw Olive the way the rest of the world had been seeing her.
Olive had a thin frame and an unruly mop of hair that try as much she could never restrain it within clips and crunchies. Locks of hair would be dangling from her forehead grazing her ears – like a tendril looking for an anchor. Unconsciously I ran my hands through my straight silky hair and my fingers slipped through it. It would never happen with Olive’s hair. We often joked that if a bee were to get caught in her head, it would probably never escape out alive. I had dark skin, like coal that has been brushed generously with oil. I looked at my father and his skin glistened as well in the hot summer sun. We appeared to be in stark contrast – like the spots on a Dalmatian. She had the most amazing green eyes that I had ever seen and I was jealous of her because of it. I hated my boring black eyes. Lying snuggled underneath a comforter on the cold winter nights after an early dinner (when the four of us could still squeeze into a single bed) I had often during my ramblings expressed my desire to have eyes like Olive. And for some reason it led to an uncomfortable silence after that and everyone would pretend to be fast asleep.
But for the first time, on that parent’s day, I saw her eyes differently. Not like father or mother. My thoughts declared a riot as I tried to draw a conclusion for this aberration. I remember feeling hazy, and being dragged away by my father to a tent that had a ‘Ring a Gift’ banner and his over eager voice, urging us both to go ahead and take shots at winning the prize. I remember how quietly Olive and I had obliged him. Neither of us won anything that day, but we definitely lost something.
I got into my Beetle, and drove absent mindedly into the merging traffic on the freeway. I drove for hours and hours, leaving the city behind me, crossing the tall and looming mountains with their tips still covered by snow, driving through the afternoon and navigating into the darkness of the enveloping dusk till I swerved sharply into a narrow road that lay hidden by a dense overgrowth of pine trees. I drove through the darkness, guided by memory and the senses as my beacon.
I slowed down the car in front of one of the driveway and I turned my head to look in the direction of the house that was plunged in an uncharacteristic darkness. A symbol of Olive’s lost childhood. I got out of the car and slowly walked towards the entrance. The door was thrown open even before I reached it. My mother stood there, dressed in black. Her eyes were red. It surprised me. I had not expected her to mourn Olive’s death. Yet, here she stood in front of me, her eyes swollen and she looked shriveled up, older, tiny and fragile as if shouldering the burden of an illegitimate child had finally taken its toll after her death.
I hugged her, and she wept quiet tears while I stood there confused. Then holding her gently, I led her into the living room, turning the switch on and plunging the room into bright, unwelcome light. My father lay sprawled on the couch, his bald patch was prominent now, big bags of pockets had taken permanent residence below his eye, and he had lost a significant amount of weight.
He turned towards me, gave a nod and then looked away. I felt hatred rushing up like bile from my stomach to my throat, a blind anger for the injustice that we had to face because of his indiscretion – especially for Olive, who, her whole life was treated as an outsider – by me and by society, scorned upon, made fun of, ridiculed and torn apart ruthlessly on the inside, for no fault of hers.
I sat down, cold, unfeeling, staring at him.
“A car hit her as she was returning from the grocery store to her apartment” he said, staring at the picture that hung on the wall.
“She died the day you brought her into this world” I spat the words out unable to control the anguish and the tears flowed down freely.
He started and looked in my direction, a quizzical expression on hi s face which after a while dissolved when the meaning of my words dawned on him.
“Your mother brought her into this world, I brought her into the family” he said quietly, his eyes were back to staring at the framed photo.
My whole body froze, a tingling sensation ran back and forth in my arms and I suddenly shivered, my breathing had become rapid, my pupils dilated. I felt claustrophobic. She was my mother’s child. The thought rang in my head again and again, and I could not make sense of it.
I ran out of the room, running up the staircase all the way to our room – Olive’s and mine. I sat down on the bed trying to calm my thoughts. I discerned my mother standing at the door, and her apologetic silhouette slowly made its way into the room.
I stared outside the window. My thoughts were drawn to the night I had spent at her apartment during a stopover. Somewhere in the night, I woke up, my full bladder nudging me out of sleep. After having relieved myself, I stumbled my way back hitting my legs with the coffee table, causing a book that had been kept at the edge precariously to fall down. I picked it up. On the first page in neat cursive letters she had written ‘Oliveu’. I assumed the “u” at the end was a typo, and thought nothing of it (although it did seem strange for someone to spell their own name incorrectly). I gazed at the coffee table. There were a couple of books on it. I picked up another book and opened the first page. It too had ‘Oliveu’ written on it. I flicked through the other books and the same thing was neatly printed on each of the first page. It was deliberate. I was puzzled and toyed with the thought for the remainder of the night in a semi state of wakefulness.
Early morning at five, Olive got up and headed for the kitchen to make her morning tea. I was already up and waiting for her to bid adieu before I left.
‘What is Oliveu?’ I could no longer contain my curiosity.
She started, and then turned red, embarrassed.
‘It’s an anagram’ she said finally after a prolonged silence.
‘An anagram for I-love-u’, she said not looking at me.
I love you? What did that anagram she used imply? A replacement for the love she never actually got? It struck me forcefully, the innocuous anagram and the message that lay hidden in its depths.
‘The funeral is tomorrow’ my mother’s voice brought me back to the present.
It was a simple and short ceremony with just us – We didn’t know any of Olive’s friends and no relatives had wanted to be associated with her even in death. Next day, mother and I decided to walk our way to the grave, as she had wanted to put a bouquet of flowers. A fresh flagstone had been erected, engraved formally with her name and years of birth and death. The coldness of that message stung me.
Suddenly an idea struck me. I saw a sharp pointed rock lying a few feet away. I clutched the rock and began chiseling on the flagstone. My mother stood with a horrified expression on her face at the blasphemous act that I was committing.
After a while, my work done I stepped back to look at it. I hoped that it was an apology that was apt and Olive would approve of it. The “U” at the end of her name looked crooked yet the word now made the whole flagstone come alive. I smiled and shouted out loud to the heavens above- OLIVEU.