by Aleena Kuriakose
The evanescent red-orangey hues of the sky were beginning to morph into an inky night as the Sun started to set. It was monsoon season and the clouds moaned, flooding the land beneath them with their tears. All was silent and tranquil besides the heavy downpour and the occasional white flash and boom of thunder.
Amir made his way, trudging along the slippery slopes of a cracked road path on the way to the pottery shop and he covered his head with his arms to shield himself from the rain. After a few more minutes of careful walking, the young man abruptly stopped for a moment in his tracks and he inhaled the earthy smell and the humidity around him. The trees swayed slightly as a gentle breeze blew and it made Amir pleasantly shiver. Despite the incessant torrent of rain, he put his arms by his side and gazed at the gray sky that had scanty patches of blue here and there. He closed his eyes and he let the rainfall on his hair, droplets dripping down on his forehead and streaming down his olive-brown face. His clothes were soaked but he was nonchalant about his wet, dripping state. Instead, he was overwhelmed with a peculiar sense of satisfaction, one analogous to that of intoxication as he just stood there oblivious to all but the heaven’s deluge.
Amir had always loved the rain. He liked the sunshine and rainbows too, but the rain always provided him company. As a young boy, he loved to play in it and found amusement in the sky’s adrenaline. And now as a young man, he found solace in it as his tears would always be camouflaged by the empyrean’s grieving, for in times such as these, a man cannot cry. He simply cannot. And, best of all, Amir loved the rain because it always washes away everything, eroding away the rocks. Amir sighed and he shook his head and continued along.
Alas, he arrived at the pottery shop. He smiled as he pushed the door open, hearing the customary ding ding noise from the bell whenever someone entered. If there was one thing Amir loved more than the smell of soil after it rains, it was the fresh aroma of clay when a potter is at work. He scanned the shop and saw the usual pots, in various shapes, sizes, forms, and designs scattered everywhere. His eyes rested on the quiet but sagacious potter. She was old and blind but a sharp woman. At the sound of the bell, she perched up and she raised her hands, covered in clay from the turning of the wheel below her.
“Amir, dear. Is it you?”
Amir chuckled and walked toward her. “Yes, Heloise. It is me. How are you?”
Heloise attempted a feeble smile but it withered away as fast as it came. “It’s getting worse,” she whispered. Her hands reached out toward Amir, trying to feel his presence. Amir took her calloused hands that were surprisingly tender and knelt down before her. He looked at the old woman. Her gray hairs were turning white and the stress had accentuated the wrinkles on her face over the past few months.
Heloise gently touched Amir’s face. “Amir, if there’s ever such a thing as both a blessing and a curse, it would be blindness. Most times, it’s a blessing, but every now and then, like when the bell dings and you enter, oh, it’s a curse.”
Amir shook his head and held her hands. “Heloise, you don’t need to see me,” he reassured. “I’m always here.”
Heloise sighed. “It’s getting worse. Much worse,” she said, worriedly. And then she gripped Amir’s arms firmly and if she had sight, she would have looked at him gravely. “Amir, you must be careful.”
“I will,” said Amir. “I promise.”
“Liya, is that you?” asked Heloise.
Amir got up. “Yeah, it is. Hello, Liya.”
Liya shut the door and closed the shades. “It’s getting worse,” she whispered frantically.
Amir nodded his head in acknowledgment. “I know, Heloise just told me.” Amir widened his eyes as he saw a trickle of scarlet ooze from her arm and started to approach her. “Liya, are you bleeding?”
Liya stepped back and withdrew her hand. “Don’t worry I’m fine.
“I’m fine Amir! Amir, I’m fine. Nothing to be surprised about anyway, these days. Also, you have much more important matters to tend to!”
Amir sighed and shifted uneasily. “The taxes are getting worse, aren’t they?” he asked softly.
The silence was deafening as both Liya’s and Heloise’s heads hung down in dismay.
“I brought you flowers,” said Amir, winking, holding them out. “They kind of got wet, though,” he said, laughing nervously as Liya stared at the drenched plants.
“Thanks. I’m flattered,” she said flatly, putting them in the vase Heloise made. Even Heloise managed a sly smile.
Amir glanced at Heloise. She started to work on molding another pot. His eyes then lingered on Liya. Her eyes were weary.
“Liya, are you okay?”
She turned her gaze toward him. “Yes.”
Amir smiled. “Don’t worry. Every broken pot can be mended into something beautiful. Even the most shattered ones,” he said, beaming, holding up a clay ceramic.
As Amir bid his valediction to Heloise and turned around, ready to return home, Liya called him.
Amir turned around. “Yes, Liya?”
Liya looked down, her lips wavering. “But before mending, it must break,” she whispered.
Amir silently and slowly nodded, unsure of what to say. He began his way from the pottery shop back to his house and embraced the rain once again. He let his mind wander for it was the only place he truly felt free. As he daydreamed about how beautiful the Yarrow flowers on the green pastures he farmed on were, an electric feeling zapped through him as someone lashed his back with a heavy blow.
Amir gritted his teeth in pain, trying not to cry out. He fell face flat on the ground and his white shirt was now smeared with dirt and grass. Amir coughed and someone lashed him in the back again.
“AH STOP. WHO ARE YOU?” he yelled out, hoarsely, coughing.
“Who am I?” mocked the voice. “Don’t remember me, Amir?”
Amir could barely breathe and he scrawled on his arms trying to stand up despite the sting. When Amir got up, his face went pale and his hands balled into fists.
“Taxes, Amir. Taxes,” Jezebel said in a mockingly playful manner, tapping his nose with the stick in her hand. She was wearing her ugly black uniform and her green eyes glared down at Amir maliciously. She held an umbrella over her head, shielding her from the rain. A breeze blew by and Amir’s stained shirt ruffled in the wind.
“I paid them last week,” he grunted.
Jezebel stepped closer, breathing heavily. “And this week?”
“That’s not fair,” said Amir, trying to keep his voice steady. “You can’t expect us to pay taxes that we can barely even pay and then steal the food we break our backs-”
Amir was met with another blow – this time with an agonizing smack. He thudded against the ground once more. Jezebel’s nails were so long that it dug into his flesh and he instinctively ran his fingers along his cheek. Amir bit his lip while his back and face throbbed.
“How dare you call me a thief,” whispered Jezebel sharply. And then she started laughing. “You should be grateful that you’re even breathing. Unnecessary souls that simply pollute our society. The very least you can do is pay for your existence,” she scoffed, thumping her stick against Amir’s chest. And then she muttered in such a low, disgruntled voice, but Amir heard it, causing his heart to race. “And for our disappearance.”
“Without us,” said Amir, resisting the urge to seize the stick and strangle the woman, “you would not survive.” Heloise’s and Liya’s words rang through his head. Amir, you must be careful. But before mending, it must break.
Jezebel smirked. “Your temerity astonishes me. I will decide who survives,” she threatened. She wrinkled her pointy nose and made a noise. “Next time I lay my eyes on you and you do not pay, you will not live. Off you go now.” She marched away, with each stomp killing the life that prospered on the ground.
Amir bent down and placed his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. He ran his hands through his hair, pushing it back and pulled the dhoti he was wearing up to his knees. As he limped back home, he rubbed his temples, attempting to recover from the shock of the tormentous blows he endured. When he was finally at the door of his house, he straightened himself up. He dusted off the dirt on his shirt, wiped away the specks of blood, and put on a relaxed smile. He might as well have shook the pain off, the rain washing it away.
He opened the door.
“Mira, Mira, Mira,” Amir billowed, as if it were a lullaby. He closed the door and walked inside. “Miraaa,” he called out.
He went up to her and stroked the tendrils of his wife’s hair. He had a soothing voice and it reverberated throughout their small living room. There was a fire burning, something cooking, and the sweet aroma of a lit candle disseminated throughout their cozy hut. Amir’s white cotton shirt was damp and Mira placed her head on his chest.
“Elijah, Elijah, Elijah,” Mira crooned, with her delicate hands placed on her swelling stomach.
“Oh?” Amir drawled playfully and placed his hands over hers. “Then who will sing my name?”
Mira smiled and her eyes, wide and mesmerizing almond drops, fluttered open. She locked eyes with her husband and her mother-to-be heart blazed. “Elijah will.”
Amir looked at his wife with loving eyes. The doctor had said that the young couple was blessed with a baby boy.
“I’m hungry,” murmured Mira. All of a sudden Mira gazed at Amir with despondent eyes. “Amir, how much longer are you going to work in the fields-”
“Shhhhhh,” whispered Amir gingerly, placing his finger to Mira’s lips. He smiled and kissed her on the forehead. He slowly got up and went to the kitchen and started to cook. The young couple listened to Amir’s rhythmic chopping of onions.
“Amir, you come back so late now for the past few months.”
Amir simply smiled and continued chopping onions.
“Aren’t you going to say anything?”
Amir stopped chopping and looked up and smiled.
“So you’re just going to smile like an idiot.”
Amir smiled even more and shook his head up and down, his hair flopping.
Mira sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Don’t worry about me, Mira.”
“But I worry,” she said.
“Why?” asked Amir. He started to boil the water.
“I don’t know. I just do.”
“Why?” asked Amir.
Mira stared at him. “Oh my gosh, you’re acting like a child.”
“Preparation, dear,” he said, winking.
Mira smiled but was also worried at the prospect of becoming a mother. “Will things change,” she asked, “when the baby comes?
“Of course,” said Amir. “But change is good.”
“I’m scared,” said Mira.
Amir stopped what he was doing and went to the couch, sitting across from his wife and took her hand. “It’s okay to be scared.”
“What if something goes wrong?”
Amir shook his head. “It’s okay to be scared, but don’t let that fear seize your heart, Mira.” He came closer to his wife and hugged her. “When fear flows through your veins, let your heart pump bravery.”
Mira nestled her head under Amir’s arm. “You are my heart.”
Amir closed his eyes in tranquility. If he was his wife’s heart, she was his soul. Yin and yang, Mira and Amir. His wife was his candle’s flame, never extinguishing.
“Our son will be a king,” murmured Amir with an inexplicable sense of defiance raging within him.
Mira smiled sadly. “At heart, he will. They already take so much from-”
“No,” said Amir, shaking his head, sliding his palms to Mira’s shoulders. “He will be a king. We will move to another place. A place where the rain is beautiful, where the sun shines, and where flowers grow. Where there is nothing to worry, nothing to be scared of,” said Amir, hugging her in a dream-like trance. “Where there are no taxes.”
Mira could barely bear Amir’s stained white shirts and bruises when he returned every day late at night. She could not handle a broken heart. “No taxes,” breathed Mira, wanting to believe it with all her soul and nodding her head.
“No taxes,” said Amir softly, looking off into the distance.
Liya bandaged herself and put pressure on her arm in an effort to prevent blood loss. She walked up to Heloise and hugged her goodbye.
“Liya, deliver the vases, but be careful.”
Liya nodded. She would deliver the coveted ceramic pots. She looked at them. They were so beautiful. As she started walking, she heard those familiar footsteps. Agonizing footsteps. Footsteps that killed her and then resurrected her, just to kill her again. Her grip was so tight on the ceramics she was carrying, she was afraid that she would break them.
“Liya.” It was the same voice. The same voice that strummed the strings of her heart, no matter how hard she tried to shut it off. A voice that crept inside her. For most people, it would have unlocked a key, swept past a barrier. But for Liya, it formed a wall that she never knew could exist – a maze that she keeps trying to solve, trying to hide within. But despite the efforts to conceal herself, the voice always reaches the other side before her, leaving her dazed and damaged. The voice itself was the maze and Liya was lost in it.
Liya wanted to continue walking, but then she stopped. She always did. And she hated it everytime.
“Liya, why won’t you talk to me?”
Her back was turned to him, but she could already see the tears rolling down his cheeks – she could feel them. Or, maybe it was because they were her tears. And then without thinking, she let the palms of her hand unfold. She did not flinch when the ceramics below her shattered into a million pieces. She did not flinch when the Water hemlock flowers spilled out on the lifeless ground. She did not flinch when a shard struck the skin of her foot. She did not flinch when he jumped.
“Liya, are you okay?!”
But then why did she flinch at simply his voice?
“Liya.” He came closer. She could feel his breath against her neck. She tried to take a step forward, but he gently grabbed her arm. “Please don’t go.”
Liya turned around and her voice broke. “Why-why do you do this?”
“What do you-?”
“WHY AKSHAY? WHY DO YOU DO THIS TO ME?” Liya screamed. She could not help herself. The emotional turmoil within her exceeded her capacity to contain it. She fell to her knees, pretending to sweep the useless fragments of the vase. Because of course, every broken pot can be mended into something beautiful. Even the most shattered ones.
Akshay kneeled beside her, not knowing what to say. “I want you to know I hate my life.”
Liya looked down.
Akshay’s voice trembled. “I never asked for it. I would be happy working in the fields, so long as I am with you. But life is unfair. I never wanted to be who I am. I hate it.”
Liya did not say anything and thus he continued.
“I’m always looked at with fear. You know how much that hurts?’
Liya nodded. “I do. We can’t be, Akshay. Please don’t talk to me.”
Akshay nodded with pain surging through him. “Okay,” he said, his voice shaking. “But at least allow me to help you. And then I shall leave you.”
“For good,” said Liya firmly.
“For good,” confirmed Akshay, weakly.
Akshay’s hands reached for the flowers but Liya put her hands over his. “No, let them be. Take these instead,” she said, handing him the Yarrow flowers Amir gave her.
Liya stood up and brushed herself. And then somehow she looked into Akshay’s eyes. “Goodbye, Akshay,” she exhaled and she walked away without somehow looking back, leaving Akshay with the withered flowers in his hand.
Akshay sighed and he started to walk home when he remembered today was the one year death anniversary of his father. His mother would be outside the graveyard. As cruel as it seemed, Akshay could not help but be relieved that his father died. His absence comforted him. If only it could hold true for his mother as well. He walked to the bleak and dreary graveyard. Sometimes the concept of mourning bewildered him: lost souls grieving for diminished souls. But it felt right. He looked at his mother, plagued with the incurable disease of nostalgia. A disease that he was immune to.
“He was perfectly fine before,” said Jezabel, her lip quivering. “He went to the pottery shop and he was fine. And then-then…” she trailed off into her tears.
It took a moment for Akshay to realize that she was talking about his father. Akshay sighed. He took the Yarrow flowers Liya gave him and laid them at his father’s grave. There was no use holding on to them anyway. He cried. He cried a lot. But not the loss of his father, but the loss of an unattainable thing, as he thought about Liya.
He promised her he would leave her but he knew it was a lie. After all, he was known for breaking promises.
Amir woke up to Mira sweating, clutching her stomach.
“My water broke,” she gasped. “I thought I wasn’t due for another month!”
“Mira, don’t worry. Everything will be alright. Let me-let me find help,” said Amir, his eyes wide, rushing and stumbling all over the place.
“Amir,” breathed Mira, trying to sit up.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be right back,” said Amir, speeding out and rushing as fast as he could to find a doctor.
Amir did not even realize that the rain continued to pour, soaking him. However, the sky was a light yellow-blue as the sun dawned from its peaceful slumber. Even in his rush, he could make out the black silhouettes of the birds carved into the sky as they flew, the rustling of leaves as he ran, and perhaps even Mother Nature’s silent cheer, rallying him on. He hurried along in desperate search for a doctor. The nearest one was past the pottery shop and as he ran, he ran into Liya.
Liya was startled at Amir’s frantic state. His usual neat hair was uncombed and his shirt was half buttoned. “Mira,” gasped Amir, trying to make out words but his usual retorting tongue was held back.
Liya’s eyes widened in understanding. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I will take care of everything.” Without another word, she quickly went into the pottery shop and gathered her things. And then she ran as fast as she could to Amir’s house.
After Liya left, Amir went into the shop to see Heloise.
“Mira,” he said. “The baby.” He blinked.
Heloise smiled. “Oh, please bring him – Elijah – to me. I know he will be delightful.”
Amir breathed heavily.
“Don’t worry, Amir,” said Heloise softly. “A child is a beautiful gift.”
Amir smiled at the thought of his family. He took out the cash he secretly stashed in a vase and tied a Yarrow flower with a rubber band on the stack. He gave it to Heloise.
“Please give this to Liya. She is helping Mira when there is no time to find a doctor. I am going to check on them now.”
“Bless you, Amir,” said Heloise.
Amir stopped in his tracks and looked back. “No,” he swallowed unbearably. “I do not deserve to be blessed. I’ll see you Heloise.”
Amir yet again was racing in the rain. However, he was stopped again.
“Okay, pay up now Amir. I don’t want to waste my time.”
Amir’s heart dropped. He completely forgot and he gave all his money to Heloise. But he did not regret it. “Please, let me go once more. My wife is in labor-”
“PLEASE! Who cares if your wife is in labor? YESTERDAY WAS THE MEMORIAL OF MY HUSBAND!”
Amir looked up and he saw a boy not much younger than him.
“Mom, please let him go. Why do you have to be exactly like father? Torturing these poor-”
“It’s not torturing,” raged Jezebel, “but an expression of loyalty to our duty. Your father, he was an honorable man.”
No he wasn’t thought, Akshay and Amir.
“Please,” begged Amir. “I need to be there for Mira.”
Jezebel smiled a cruel smile. “You know what the law is Amir if you cannot pay. Akshay,” she ordered her son, gesturing with her head to Amir.
Akshay thought of Liya. His feet were firmly rooted on the ground. “No,” he whispered, defying his mother for the first time in his life.
Jezebel was shocked but recovered in a fraction of a second. “Akshay! There are repercussions for you too if you disobey!”
Akshay started shaking. He has killed so many but for some reason he could not kill this man before him. He was unlike any he had seen. There was a fire in his eyes, a zeal that churned within him – one that Akshay could not comprehend. It made him respect him. Amir was shaking, but Akshay could tell he did not fear death.
From Akshay’s reluctance, Amir knew that if Akshay refused, there would only be two deaths. The only difference is that there would only be one funeral.
“W-what’s your name?” asked Amir. The rain seemed to feel like rocks pounding against him.
“Akshay,” he whispered.
Amir tried to smile. Akshay. Such a young boy thrown into fire. “Listen, Akshay. You are a good soul with a good heart. But do what your mother says. It’s okay.”
Akshay was perplexed. He looked at Amir. His eyes were sad and he could not tell if Amir was shedding tears. He kneeled before him ignoring his mother’s beatings. “Why?” It was all he could muster.
“Because,” said Amir, “you have good intentions. But the world we live in is a cruel one. And she’s right. I did not pay my taxes.”
“But,” Akshay’s voice broke, “why do you have to die for that?”
“There’s always a price to pay. For everything,” said Amir more to himself. “If you ever come in contact with my wife, her name is Mira. Tell her that I love her and I love Elijah.”
Akshay did not understand what Amir meant and he suffered a blow to his head from his mother.
Akshay placed his palm on Amir’s shoulder and a blade to his stomach.
“I am so sorry.”
“There we go,” said Liya soothingly, placing her palm on Mira’s forehead. “He’s beautiful.”
The wails of the newborn baby – Elijah – flooded the room.
“Let me go get Amir,” said Liya.
Mira beamed. All of a sudden all seemed possible. Her husband’s gentle voice echoed in her mind. We will move to another place. A place where the rain is beautiful, where the sun shines, and where flowers grow. Where there is nothing to worry, nothing to be scared of. She smiled, silently crying exuberant tears. She cradled her precious son in her arms. Finally, there will be no more taxes to pay.
“No more taxes,” she said to herself, incredulously.
She could not wait for Amir to see Elijah, to raise him up in his arms and sing his name with her. She caressed Elijah’s head and sang a lullaby in effort to alleviate the cries. Suddenly, she heard footsteps. Mira smiled in excitement and she could not describe the thrill that surged her. Already, she envisioned Amir’s face. He always smiles for her, but she knew that smile was a facade that masked his pain. She could not wait to see the happiness that would flood through him.
Liya walked in.
“Liya, where’s Amir?” asked Mira, desperately.
Liya brushed her fingers through Mira’s hair and knelt down before her.
They say that the eyes are the windows to one’s soul. Liya’s eyes drooped down and she was shaking.
“Where’s Amir?” asked Mira, smiling. “Is he still working, even today? Gosh, sometimes I-”
“Mira,” said Liya, shaking her head.
Mira looked down at her arms, wet with Liya’s tears – an unspoken story with a thousand words, each one a bullet to Mira’s heart.
And alas, Elijah was not the only one that wailed.
Liya helped Mira up and took Elijah in her hands. Before going, Mira insisted that she brew some tea. Afterward, Liya led her outside and Mira, in utmost sorrow, did not bother to ask where they were going. Direction meant nothing to her anymore. All she could think about was Amir.
And Akshay. Her blood boiled. Liya had gently told her everything.
“We’re here,” said Liya, solemnly.
Mira looked up and saw it was a pottery shop. She went inside.
“This is where Amir and I worked,” whispered Liya.
“Mira?” asked Heloise.
At the same time, Akshay entered the shop.
The world spun around Mira. The tea that she did not sip once had gone cold. Liya took Mira’s hand, grasping it. Akshay walked in, his head hung low. Mira set the tea down and simply cried because she did not know what else to do. She turned to Akshay.
“ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?” she screamed. “Amir and Liya work so hard everyday, and me as well before I was pregnant. And yet you horrible people keep asking for more,” she whimpered. “What more do you want now? WHAT MORE?” screamed Mira, the pain inside of her spilling out like a fountain of ink.
Liya could not bear to look at Akshay and sat beside Heloise, who hugged Liya. Mira went outside and Akshay fearfully followed. He wanted to tell Mira how sorry he was but he knew it would never be enough. Nothing can replace a lost life.
Mira sharply turned around. “What? Following me to still pay those taxes? You should have just killed-” but Mira stopped because Elijah entered her mind. No, she could not die, she had to live for Elijah. It is what Amir would have wanted.
Akshay cleared his throat, stained with Mira’s melancholy. “I am so sorry. I didn’t want to kill him. I promise,” he said, desperately. All he wanted was just to be understood by someone. And the only person whoever understood was the one he killed.
Mira did not say anything.
Suddenly, the air was filled with a terrible shriek. Heloise. Mira and Akshay rushed inside.
Heloise screamed. “LIYA! MIRA, WHAT’S HAPPENING?” The blind woman kept her hands on Liya’s face.
Mira fell to her knees. She felt Liya’s hand but it was too late. She felt her hand and it was icy cold. And Mira pounded the floor in tears when she saw that in Liya’s other hand was the cup of tea that Mira brought.
“HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?” screamed Akshay, trying to wake up Liya’s lifeless body.
Shame probed through Mira’s soul and she buried herself in her arms. “The tea,” she said, her voice shaking. “The tea was for Akshay.”
Akshay stepped back, realizing. “It was poisoned,” he said, to no one in particular. But Akshay felt no hatred against Mira. “Why didn’t you give it to me?” he cried. “Why did Liya drink it?” He was on the floor now. He could bear anything except for losing Liya.
“Liya didn’t know,” said Mira, shaking. “I lost Liya.”
“We,” whispered Akshay, running his fingers along Liya’s palm. “I never came to tax you. I wanted to apologize,” he whispered.
Heloise mourned somberly. “My dear ones, it is dangerous to mold hardened clay with a hardened heart. The clay must be hard but the heart must be soft.”
Mira took Elijah and cried outside. If only her heart was not hardened.
A FEW DAYS LATER
Mira held Elijah and stood beside Akshay and Heloise, before Liya’s and Amir’s graves. They were buried next to each other.
“They were brave souls, Liya and Amir,” said Heloise. Heloise reached for Mira’s hand and Mira took it.
“Amir didn’t want you to know but you might have noticed why he came back so late. It was because he and Liya were busy delivering vases with water hemlocks to government officials.”
Mira’s eyes widened and Akshay gasped. His father died after coming from the pottery shop.
Heloise pressed cash tied with a Yarrow flower into Mira’s hand. “Amir wanted Liya to have this for delivering Elijah.”
Akshay saw the Yarrow flower, the same one Liya gave him.
“If I may, may I have the flower?”
Mira nodded numbly.
Akshay took the flower and placed it on top of Liya’s grave.
Elijah squirmed in Mira’s hands and beamed a toothless smile, unaware of anything.
“Well,” sighed Mira. “Here you go,” she said, handing Akshay the cash. “For the taxes.”
Akshay refused it. “No Mira,” he said, a tear rolling down.
He forced a smile as he looked at Elijah, the one seed sprouting in this barren land.
“The taxes have been paid.”
About the Author:
Aleena Kuriakose is a tenth grader in Bergen County Academies in the United States. In her free time, she enjoy sharing and writing short stories and poetry.