by Samran Ramzan
Every time my mother looks out the window into the back garden, that glint in her eyes, dictating a life before I was born, stares back at me. We watch as Baba props the ladder against the guava tree. He shakes it, making sure it’s sturdy.
Filled with unripe guavas, the branches droop to the ground. I think it’s cruel to pluck them before they’ve ripened. Before their golden colour seasons them with the sweetness. But Baba knows she likes the raw ones, the way their tartness puckers the mouth.
At least twice a day, Ami gazes at the guava tree. As if it holds a secret only she has the answer to. Baba sets the basket on the kitchen table and Ami hands him a rag.
“I’ll pick the rest tomorrow morning.” He wipes the sweat off his forehead. “Ahmad, here,” says Baba and I catch it inches from the ground, but Ami snatches it before I can take a bite. Baba winks at me and goes upstairs. Minutes later, he’s out the door. It’s the sound I’ve heard growing up.
Baba is an electrical engineer. Last winter, we barely saw him. There were always blackouts. Pipes froze, tree branches fell on power lines. And the phone would ring late at night. Moments later, the only sound was of a key turning in the door.
Ami washes each guava in the basin and separates the green ones from the ripe. Joining me at the kitchen table, she slices one into thin pieces. I put one in my mouth, poking the sour seeds with my tongue, lodged between my teeth.
At night, while Baba snores, Ami walks into my room. She kisses me on the forehead, sits at the edge of my bed, and tells me the story of the two lovers and a guava.
I’ve heard it countless times, but she never gets tired of telling it. I search for the glint in her eyes I’d seen that morning. We never admit to one another what the story means, but somehow we both understand its secret. As if in that brief moment, I have the power to look into her past, to swallow it up.
When she begins, I imagine the sparks, the faces, the garden, all grown up with me over the past twelve years. Yet, I listen to her as if it’s the first time. As if I’ve become her sole audience. Like an umbilical cord between two worlds.
Sakina dusted her blue uniform as she boarded the Suzuki. Her Ama had ironed it that morning, so she was careful not to stain it. The girls sitting beside her giggled and sang, making it difficult for her to hear. They paid no attention to her, so she cupped her hand behind her ear and listened for the electric sparks.
Baghzadah bazaar was known for its welding shops and gardens of guava trees. At the sound of burning metal, Sakina pulled the tarp covering the back of the Suzuki. Holding her niqab, she found Rasheed hiding behind a welding shop. At the sight of her, he craned his head out.
Rasheed still had three hours before he parked his wooden cart outside Sakina’s school. He’d convinced his father it was the best place to sell guavas. But he’d wake up early, rush down to the crowded chok only to catch a glimpse of her.
She never understood why he did it, but she lifted her niqab and smiled. He respectfully nodded his head in return. Sparks from burning metal flew toward him and she worried they’d burn him one day.
On Saturdays, she took her dolls to the pond with her friend Naila. Rasheed was also there, always hiding behind something; a tree, a wall, a lamp post. He’d sneaked them into the garden hundreds of times where guava trees stood in neat rows.
Rasheed’s father doubted his son’s honesty when an entire branch was empty. Rasheed blamed it on the crows and in return, he got ten lashes for his negligence.
“Does it hurt?” said Sakina, seeing the red lines from last week. He shook his head, pulled his sleeve down, and said, “I’ve had worse.” But she felt each one as if drawn in like henna on her arm. Rasheed giggled and stuffed his mouth with guavas.
He handed her the sour ones. She liked the raw taste, the way it puckered the mouth. If she took a bite, it meant another ten lashes for him. But as always, he insisted.
When Naila left, they spent the day folding paper boats at the pond, pretending to sail the ocean.
Across the road from school, Zahoor, with his greasy hair, stood sipping sugarcane juice. Sakina pulled her niqab tighter, fingered the beaded bracelet around her wrist. Next to him, Rasheed was shouting.
“Fresh guava! Fresh guava!” He’d filled a plastic bag with the finest pick of the day for her. Sakina pulled out five rupees from her pocket, but Rasheed shoved the bag in her hand.
Smiling, she pulled one out. The stem and leaf were still attached as if picked moments before. He snatched it back, rubbed it on his sweater, and handed it back to her.
Zahoor stared them down. The palm oil in his hair reeked, but no doubt, he was a bright student. He could solve any equation within minutes, but it didn’t matter. She’d ignored him ever since the start of the school year, but his eyes were fixed on her.
She bit into the guava. As the juice ran down her chin, Zahoor rubbed his hairy chest, the top buttons of his shirt unfastened. Sakina forced herself not to look, but his icy gaze pierced a hole through her body.
When she came home one day, he was sitting in the drawing room with a bearded man, chatting with her Aba. At first, she’d mistaken him for someone else. His posture wasn’t hunched. He’d pulled his hair back, brushed his mustache, but she smelled the palm oil from the doorway.
Her Ama was frying samosas. Sakina begged her to send them home, but Aba stood in the doorframe. Her mother fixed her chador, eyeing Sakina as if secretly trying to tell her something.
For a moment, Sakina imagined it was Rasheed in that drawing room and that he’d brought her a basket full of guavas. Raw, crunchy. She felt the tears forming, but blinking repeatedly, refused to let them fall.
“Bechay, this isn’t your home. You’re a stranger to us the minute you’re pulled out of that womb,” said Aba.
“Aba, please,” said Sakina. He held her gaze, silently studied her. Always taught to never look a man directly in the eyes, she lowered her gaze. The beaded bracelet around her wrist tightened. It burned into her skin. Sakina wanted to stare into Aba’s eyes, but she didn’t have the courage to admit she loved a boy that sold guavas for a living. And he didn’t have the heart for such news.
“You’re nearly sixteen and it’s best I lift this burden off me now,” said Aba. He swatted a fly with his hand, narrowing his eyes trying to follow its flight pattern. She forced herself to say something that might change his mind, but her lips trembled. She’d heard it from Ama, but that day she knew what it felt like to be powerless in front of a man. Ama stroked the fire through a blowpipe and hurried to get the tea out.
Sakina laid in Ama’s lap that night. Her eyes were swollen. Her mother stroked her hand through her hair.
“My dear, your future is long decided in the womb.” She pulled Sakina close to her bosom. “But you’ll never be a stranger to me. Never.”
A week later, Baba’s on the ladder again. He inspects every branch, lifts every leaf, searching for a raw one for Ami jan, but they’ve all ripened.
Ami takes the basket and carefully washes each one. Baba reaches into his pocket and pulls out a guava.
“Here, it’s the only one I could find.” She extends her hand, but he pulls it away, rubs it on his shirt, and places it on her palm.
Ami holds it to her chest and Baba’s already halfway up the stairs. That rare glow on her face, buried deep down, resurfaces.
Ami sinks her teeth into its green skin. The glint in her eyes glows sweeter. She sucks her cheeks in, tastes the raw crunch, the way it puckers her mouth. The golden seeds shatter between her teeth. I imagine Sakina. The sparks of her past have welded the same shape over and over again in her mind. The shape of the boy she loved, seared like a scar that would never heal.