published: (updated: )
by Harshvardhan J. Pandit
She woke up with a loud yawn. Still keeping her eyes closed, she stretched her hands above her head. Satisfied that they had gone as high as they could, she opened her eyes, and exclaimed, “Presents!!!!”. With an enthusiastic roar, she jumped off the bed and ran straight towards the boxes gathered on the table. A single stream of light was falling on the ones that had managed to sneak away to the couch. She decided to go after them first. She took a present in her hands, and waited a customary few seconds, guessing what was inside. But the very act of guessing made her feel as if she was robbing herself of a surprise. Giving up quickly, she sat on the floor, and started opening the presents. She gave shouts of glee, as she liked the things she was unwrapping. The morning light had spread to the rest of her room when she finally finished. She got up to go downstairs for breakfast.
As she walked the stairs, she was greeted by a chorus of the birthday song, and she smiled at her family. She went and hugged each one of them with delight. There was her nanny first, who made the world’s most delicious cakes. Then her nanna, who could tell the most fun stories she had ever heard or seen anywhere. Her brother, younger than her, was grinning and teasing her. She punched him lightly on the shoulder, but smiled all the same. Her mama had tears in her eyes, but was still smiling at her. She knew she was missing her papa, who was no more. Years ago, he had gone in the woods, and had been stuck in the snow there. Everyone thought that her papa had caught the plague, and that’s why had been unable to return. She preferred not to think about it. It always made her sad, and scared her to the point that she could never go further. She went to her mama and wiped her tears and stretched her lips into a crooked smile. Her mama laughed and hugged her. They all sat down at the table for breakfast, and because it was her birthday, she said grace.
Later in the afternoon, she went to the hills on the outskirts of their village. She always went there on her birthday. It had been that way for years, beyond the time when she could remember, or count. She always went to the big oak tree, withered and alone in the snow. There was nothing for miles here, only this tree, and it was easy to find her way even though it was still snowing.
Once she had reached the tree, she stopped and sat down, panting. It wasn’t easy climbing a hill filled in snow. Adjusting her scarf more tightly around herself, she got up and went to the other side. The tree had a hole, half-filled with the falling snow. She scooped up the snow and threw it out. A few more times, and she reached the bark underneath, and her hands found a chrysanthemum.
She picked up the flower and took it with her. She had never bothered to question who had placed the flower there or why. For years she had been coming here, she had always found the flower, safe in the bark, waiting for her. It was almost as if she knew of its existence and had impulsively taken it out. Her eyes travelled to the wood above the hole, where a crude knife had cut through to make a small girl. Her hair was tied in a pony-tail, just like hers. And she wore a skirt with big circles on it. She looked very happy and was probably dancing in a garden of chrysanthemums.
To another person, the statue would have looked nothing like her descriptions. It was almost as if her mind knew what to make of the cuts and crevices in the wood, and she had merely believed the first image her mind came up with. But somehow, she had believed that the girl was real, and she knew her, perhaps in another life. Before turning back home, she brushed the snow off the wooden girl.
As she walked a few more steps downhill, she paused and frowned. Turning back, she ran to the other side of the hill. An old man was trying to climb up. He struggled against the fresh snow as it swallowed his legs and his wooden stick. She freed him of his captivity, and helped him to the oak tree. Leaving her hands, he tightened his coat against the wind. The coat was nothing more than a collection of rags. He felt the immediate warmth in his lungs as she put her scarf around him. She watched him look at her in surprise, and saw warmth in his eyes.
When he was near the tree, she watched him go over to the statue and pause. Being greatly intrigued, she didn’t move at all as he removed a chrysanthemum from his coat pocket. He lay the flower gently in the hole, and moved to the statue, running his hands over the girl. Hot, warm, tears streamed down his eyes, as he held the tree for support. She moved near him, holding him. He was crying, saying “Martha…” over and over again. The name triggered a great deal of broken memories in her. She saw the girl come alive, saw the garden of chrysanthemums, and saw a wooden house behind. She saw the old man, now younger, play with the girl, as she ran out in the garden. She felt her head grow dizzy and held the tree for support. She now heard, a great many shouts, in the woods, calling her name. She was a little girl, crying alone in the woods. She was now eating hot porridge, with the other girl beside her. She was playing with the other girl in a chrysanthemum garden.
Barely breathing, she panted, as she struggled for air. She watched the statue again, and saw herself there. Her hair tied in a pony tail, her blue skirt filled with big red dots, as she laughed and ran through the chrysanthemum garden. She saw the old man chasing her, gasping for breath, saying, “Martha, wait!”. She fainted.
As she fell in the snow, she welcomed the cold as it numbed her head. It removed the pain, and filled her with darkness. She was helpless as the darkness broke away a dam of memories. They seared through the cold, and her head hurt again. Lying in the snow, she watched herself and her childhood come alive.
She was Martha in this other life. A small girl who loved chrysanthemums. Every year her father and mother planted gardens of flowers in the hills. She laughed, and played in them, watched over by her grandpa, while her parents went selling the flowers. One day she got lost in the woods, and came across another girl, crying, tugging the hands of a man fallen on the ground. She had approached her cautiously, and known that something was seriously wrong with the man. He wasn’t moving, and he was not asleep either. Not knowing what else to do, the two girls had sat beneath the tree, hand in hand, scared. Hours later, her grandpa had come searching for her. He had taken both of them home, and bathe them in warm water. She and the other girl sat on the table, eating hot porridge in wooden bowls. The other girl started to live with them. She became her friend, and played with her in the gardens. When her parents had returned, her mother had clutched the two of them together, and cried. Her father had gone with grandpa back into the woods. They had returned smelling of oil and smoke.
Months later, her parents had grown sick and never moved from their beds. The little girl was sick as well. She had cried for weeks. One by one, they all had stopped moving, just like the man in the forest. And she and her grandpa used to lay awake at nights, crying in each others arms. Neither of them could have survived the loss of the other. The snow had started melting, and her grandpa had taken her to this very hill. He dug graves for her parents, and the little girl, and planted chrysanthemums over them. Then going to the oak tree, he placed one chrysanthemum in the hole. He removed his knife and cut the girl on the wood. She had asked him who the girl was. And he had said, “It’s you Martha. So that you are always with your mama and papa.” And she had cried all the way home.
By the time summer came, her grandpa had lain on the bed, his skin too hot to touch. She hadn’t known what to do except carry on somehow.
One day, he had called her, and with great difficulty, explained, that she had to leave. She hadn’t understood what he meant by leave. He asked her to go by the river, and to keep walking until she met someone, and to go with them and never come back. She had refused, and had run away from the room. This happened for days, as the old man used his last energy to cajole her, prepare her, just so that she would survive. She had finally agreed, tears streaming down her face.
The next day, she set out early morning, with food and water, and had walked by the river. On the way, a bear had appeared in front of her, and she had ran away screaming in to the woods. Soon she was lost, and could not fathom which way the river was. She walked till her food was over and her water bottle empty. Somehow, she had ended up in this village, and had dragged herself over to a house, and fallen unconscious at it’s doorstep.
The family had taken her in, taken care of her, and after a while, adopted her. She had soon forgotten her old life, her mind suppressing the trauma of losing everyone in her world. She had soon learned to accept the truth, which was, whatever her new family told her. By fate, it had been the other girls family, the one who had played with her, and died with her parents.
The new family took great pains to help the traumatized little girl. For the mother, she had a daughter back, and she raised her as her own. When they learnt that her mind was too fragile to handle the loss, they told her she had always been here, in their home, safe amongst them. That her father had died in an accident in the woods, and that she was and would always be safe with them. Somehow, she had believed them, and this had helped her live. But somehow, through all those years and miseries, she had remembered the chrysanthemums.