This short story is participating in Write Story from Picture India 2012 – Short Story Writing Competition.
I knew when we reached that summer cottage by the lake, I’ll invariably see her. She would drop in for one of our gossip sessions. Once we were inseparable as best friends-twins they use to call us, though she was younger to me by six months.
Our folks were neighbors and we were always in each others company. As kids, we use to go for summer holidays near the lake Falguni, at the border of Arunachal Pradesh nearby North Lakimpur, Assam.
“Maya catch me..” she would giggle and swing her arms at me as we splashed on the edge of that huge lake, while folk rested under the bright umbrellas on the sand.
There is a photo of us together of that era, in swimsuits occupying the pride of my mantelshelf in the living room back at home in Gauhati- I was dressed in green pastel coloured one piece swimsuit and she in pink panties. She had lost her red top on the sand and we had to search for it later. Our sunburned backs were turned towards the camera, a blue clip tight on her curly hair, head bend towards my straight-haired one… as she whispered in my ear… we were giggling at what we would do soon.
She kept watch as I stole from Maa’s purse as a dare… to do something we both were forbidden to do. Well you know seven year olds.
We bought the doll later from the shop which also sold fruits, soft drinks, dry coconut slices (our favorite) and jellybeans. We admired her golden ringlets and her winking blue eyes and later buried her in a shallow grave few yards from the lake.
When she entered the room I didn’t bother to smile at her-no point in social etiquettes with her. She never got the message-headstrong that she is… that we have outgrown us.
I got up and walked up to the table and poured myself another cup of tea from the flask. The cottage felt stuffy. Vivek has gone out for a drive to the city. He wanted to buy his special brand of roasted coffee not available in this shanty of a town.
“So how are you Bidisha?” I stretched my lips into a parody of a smile. “It’s been some time since I last saw you. I had no idea you’ll visit me so soon. I arrived only yesterday.”
She rubbed her hands as if they were wet. “I’ve come to say hi…You’re still my best friend Maya. I always got along with you. You may have forgotten me but see not me. So where is hubby dearest?”
“He has gone out to the city. Look why don’t you sit down? I know you’re dying to question me again. So make yourself comfy.”
She was dressed in a beige salwar kamez with poppy flowers and long curly hair loose like gypsy curls.
She sat on the opposite couch and hugged a cushion close to her breast looking defenseless like a baby, taking me back again to the memories of the lake.
Its water use to feel like first ice creams drops, on bare skin from a one just taken out from a freezer…
I use to sit on the steps to the lake, half submerged inside it and she would join me. We use to search for water bleached pale pink and white stones, add them to our collections to take back home and make other friends envy us. I helped her to plait up her thick hair into two plaits. Sometimes she dozed on my shoulder and I kept it steady not to disturb her.
I jerked back to reality and gulped air like an underwater swimmer on breaking the water surface when I heard her voice.
“Maya it’s true I pester you,” she said. “Sure I come to catch up with you about your life in Gauhati, talk about our childhood and laugh about it. But I do have questions and … maybe you’ve the answers. We can make peace with each other.”
“There we go again to our favorite topic… him.” I braced myself for her screams of rage. “He came to my life much before than yours, you know. He introduced himself to me at that party thrown by Nandita. I called him Vivekda then… We use to recite poetry together. Then I introduced you to him after a month. And it was as if I was erased from his mind… All files deleted.”
She smiled. “He fell in love with me. It’s not a crime.”
I couldn’t understand it. Why did he love her? Why not me? I was fairer than her and taller. Everybody said I looked an angel when I wore my mekhala chadors in my favorite blue colour with Maa’s pearls. Plus she had a mole on her cheek… isn’t that considered ugly?
My hair broke loose from my bun and strayed to my eyes. “So what Bidisha? You use to dance Kathak those days when we were young- I started to learn it too. I’m an artist now. But you know what… I don’t like it. I just did it to attract him from you.”
This fight was pending since ages and hung between us like a foul odor. I went to window and stared out of the window… the sun’s last rays played hide and seek on the deck of this cabin over the lake, creating an magical world with multihued colours.
The water used to gleam blue green under the blazing June sky. The local lore said that there was a huge python inside the lake with four heads. It gulped down people especially noisy little girls and we feared it more than anything else. We added our spins to the tale and told it to each other.
In the evening the mosquitoes would play out primitive sopranos against the wire meshed windows of the holiday home as our fathers drank –and our mothers gossiped while cooking food for us.
I took a deep breath and looked back at her. “You became dark as we grew older. So I tanned myself to be like you. Maa thought I was crazy. But I failed….he had eyes only for you, never mind my tears every wretched night.”
I made a move towards her but stopped as she shook her head at me.
“Yeah that’s it- spill out all the bad blood,” she said “Come on you owe it to our friendship. We’re meeting after a long time.”
“We met every year in secret,” My smile was bitter. “Sure the first few years we were not civil to each other. But how could I shut the door on my best friend? It’s been ten years. Only I’m tired -so tired of seeing your face and you intruding in my privacy. Don’t you get it-we don’t share anything now in common.”
“Well isn’t he a common factor?”
“So am I suppose to always grovel at your feet because I snared up your ex flame?”
Her hazel eyes were like trigger on my forehead.
“Anyway where was I? I sank my nails in my palms. “Remember I told you he was trying to seduce me whenever your back was turned on him. It was all lies….. to make you leave him.”
She got up and threw the cushion at the wall.
“You bi**h! I thought about it for nights…,” she said. “My mind churned out horrible thoughts about him and you. But there was something wrong but I couldn’t figure it out. And then I left him and rest is history.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Why didn’t you tell me that you loved him? Are you happy with him? I could have asked you when we had met before…but I didn’t have courage for it.”
My bra straps felt like jabs from a knife on my back and I shrugged to get some relief from them. Tears hung from my lower lashes but would not come out.
“I don’t know …. He still loves you. I was just a second choice and will always be that.” My throat choked with the weight of unshed tears. “I’ve lost Bidisha-I lost…. Are you happy now?”
My shoulders shook with my effort not to cry in front of her. She stared at me…..
I sighed and got up and redid my bun. “You better go now. He’ll be back at any moment.”
She nodded her head at me. “Okay I’m going. Maya can you relax please. It’s good that you shared your heart with me and it calmed with my rage against you. Perhaps I’ll come back after some days to chat again.”
As she walked towards the door, she turned to look at me with her head bend sideways as always, of all the emotions I was expecting to see in her eyes-rage or hate…..her eyes shone with untainted pity.
God anything …………but not that awful pity.
“You know Maya-neither of us won in the end,” she said. “Hope one day we can be friends again.”
And she walked out.
The tears which clung pernicious on the edge fell down hard like bitter rain and……… …..like an ancient ritual they burst upon me, as I punched my breasts again and again and howled into the evening.
The lake had a new secret since some years….
On that fateful evening by the lake on our last day of our holiday together as adults, before her marriage to Vivek and a new life, when I couldn’t convince her to leave him….I shoved her from the deck of our rented wooden cabin into the lake’s deceptive surface. She was standing there alone, clearing her head after our big argument, paying no heed to the rain-as I crept behind her back.
She had never learned to swim -I watched her struggle for life. Her beige salwar kamez turned muddy brown by the water as it attempted to swallow her. The livid storm and the treacherous waves did the rest of the work and dragged her away. The wind blew away her screams as she stretched her arms towards me. When my hands reached out for her, envy my real twin grasped them tight and pinned them behind my back. I watched her die screaming at me to help her-thrashing her arms in desperation and eyes popping out in terror.
And then she floated face down in the steel gray waters of the lake that twilight-her long black curly hair spreading out like dead snakes……
Much later I ran in the rain to the nearest police station to report about my missing friend, whom I couldn’t trace after coming back from a hike. The cops were kind to me- poor lamb with no friends or relatives to share her pain in this tourist place. And they ruled that she must have gone out into the open in the storm and slipped on the moss covered floor of the deck- as I lived out my role of a heartbroken friend. But it was not acting. I really wept for her. How I wept for her and me- most of all for us.
In the beginning she was mere wisps of smoke in the air but with every annual pilgrimage to this lake town by Vivek for his lost sweetheart, my touch on that photograph of us as kids by the lake and most of all with guilt as my constant lady-in-waiting- her shape and voice grew stronger and stronger and came out real as I see her now.
I wonder whose cross is heavier-she the lost waif who still wants to meet her friend and cry for life or me who is damned to meet her and weep for all lost goodness inside me. She is right-my childhood friend……
We both lost life that twilight.