The Bar-Headed Geese

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Ritapa N.

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Meghana swam through her mother’s make-up collection, swishing off specks of silver as they burned into her skin. I warmed the flat iron and twisted each lock of my straightened curls. Steam spiralled through the air, clouding the room with the slow, subtle patience of cream in coffee. The sun blazed in the background, hot lava in the middle of the purpling Portland sky. Sunglasses couldn’t have warded off the climbing degrees. Heat puddled through the windows, forming sweaty spots on the backs of our necks.

Our mothers packed suitcases downstairs, only stopping to gossip over quick sips of Darjeeling tea. All the milk and honey in the world couldn’t weigh down the ebullience of their conversation. If we weren’t able to catch TV-worthy snips of sarcastic Bengali phrases behind our closed door, we may as well have been in another universe. Meghana hummed to our track of Top 40 hits, and the break between ninth and tenth grade never seemed shorter. You could pinch it like a grain of cane sugar. It would crumble in seconds.

And Meghana would be gone in a minute. I wondered if it’d feel like she went on vacation, or if she’d turn into a distant memory. I still thought of the move as a joke, because Dallas didn’t seem like a real place. It might as well been a million miles across the ocean. I imagined Meghana’s brand-new house, tall and stucco and surrounded by an all-American picket-fence. The backyard probably had a pool, flag-themed benches, a complimentary Slip N Slide. Her new friends would have blonde highlights, honey, lemon and bronze from constant calefaction. They’d carry confidence, smarts, and satisfaction like Vikings, or Roman soldiers. They would know all the right places for $5 Tuesdays: movie theaters, thrift stores, restaurants, the seedy city dive bars that might let them in.

But maybe they wouldn’t know the Willamette Valley like I did. I could nap in the slopes of the Cascade Range, mountains bordering each side of my shoulders. And if I timed it just right, a couple hours later I could slip into the wind of the shipwrecked coast, flying through the salt-scattered breeze. The hills would holler on the horizon, calling from a smattering of thin, smoky fog. Draped over woody families whispering secrets to weeds beneath their roots, the mist would wrap me up in a blanket, a quiet reminder of the months rotating ever so slowly.

“I’m going to miss you and your white T-shirts,” Meghana told me, twisting her hair into a quick knot perched on the top of her head. We climbed into my parents’ black van. The mauve of the evening had disappeared, painted with a glistening sweep of twilight instead. Our mothers started the engine, still awake with the excitement of a slumber party. Oblivious, they basked in the forward motion of the clock.

Meghana and I seeped into the plush of the car-seat. Time turned in reverse, tracing each second like a stray leaf in a pond, sailing through surface tension.

Somewhere in the sunset the stars turned away to glance into the past, when everything but the constellations had been similar but not the same. In the distant warmth of years ago, shimmering palm trees soared over terracotta and stone, new walkways paved by footsteps, the sound of wheels churning over worn paths in the frenzied air. Anjana remembered the clang of pots and pans in the kitchen, drafting the beginnings of a ten-course meal with in every subsection of the food pyramid. Beneath her feet were the soft, muted chatters of floors and floors below, freckled with the frazzled yelps of street dogs, goats, and kittens of a dizzying metropolis. It had been permanent, until it was not.

Of course, in that moment, it did not seem like the world would disappear. If anything, it could only grow bigger. The speckled white trails of airplanes in the clouds symbolized a road never seen before with a certain kind of hopefulness: airtight lungs, a suspenseful smirk, a sharp inhalation of breath. Anjana basked in its precariousness, collecting all the signs in the sight. Down the part of her hair shone a vermilion streak of red, fiery in the glimmering peak of a summery West Bengal.

The fire spread with zeal, igniting prayers through her bones. It was a careful reminder that no one could predict what would happen next.

Anjana stepped into the kitchen, wary of the cramped space. Her eyes drifted over the wafting steam of boiling dal, the shrill screams of the pressure-cooker. A shadowy, contemplative figure stood over the collaboration of melded spices, admiring the simplicity of habit. Nails cut short, calluses stained with turmeric, she lifted the handle of a silver serving spoon, scooping rice with slow, dampened motivation. With her back facing the entrance, her daughter had not yet reached her view.

Despite the weight of the universe balanced on her body, Nandini could sense the room had welcomed something new. She laid down the ladle, wondering if this could be a distant dream. Hadn’t Anjana left the night before? Or was that a distant dream as well? The hours felt long, trapped in an anxious, liminal space, and her mind was left to wonder if time could ever be kind. Her chest felt heavy with words unsaid. Her heart felt heavier with all the words that would remain unsaid.

Overlooking the doorway, she smiled at her cautious child.

“The bar-headed goose could never stay still,” Nandini declared. “Fear her, for she can survive anywhere.”

In the slow movement of trees -- evergreen and banyan, maple and bayur, white fir and kapok -- the universe may have shifted slightly into alignment. If not for our dependence on a surefire axis, I may never have noticed a change was taking place. Suburban houses lined streets of vines and roses, and the same wiggling worms climbed into crevasses deep within the earth, slipping beyond view. If I’d looked harder, I’d have seen the same ants and roly-poly bugs tumbling through the grass, keeping an eye out for the lawnmower day after day. They’d lived there so long, I could learn their names.

Outside my own small Oregon home, Meghana stretched her legs from the van, dragging her toes like gravity could hold them back. She breathed the watery breeze, all but unhappy in her white-denim shorts and polka-dotted flip flops. My mother watched us both, calm as the stream of the Coquille River. Melting in the moment, I hugged my brown, brown legs, considering the many perspectives in which a camera could capture the angles of a scene all in one take. The three of us floated between the atmosphere and the clear promise of morning, counting every single second simmering in the sauna of pre-September equinox, unaware that the moon transformed each day to the next.

Meghana dismounted her seat and knelt, picking at a four-leaf clover. She pulled it from dirt near the road, tossing the plant on gravel, returning to her scavenge to find me one more wish.

The lone clover rested with ease, dreaming of another story. I picked it up and imagined its roots reaching into the soil in a last attempt, desperately grasping for an anchor.

Fruit flies swarmed the air. Anjana reached over and touched my shoulder.

“This isn’t the last time,” she said.

I knew I had to believe her. Cassiopeia glittered above, flickering hushed, whispered light on the silvery stones of the driveway. I listened to its call and gulped the memory of a glaring sun for hope. Cracks in the sidewalk grew bigger and bigger, quaking for dinner, hungry for a soul to swallow. The breeze became wind with the last falling seconds of midnight. If the ground hadn’t caught me, I was sure I could do it, too.

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