THE LAST TIME we went on holiday as a family, I was eight years old. I spent my days following my older sister around. We didn’t do much. We sat on sun beds and drank orange juice, and swam with our father occasionally. Anji would read, or talk to her friends on her new cellphone. Sometimes I’d ask her to play a memory game or a guessing game with me and she’d say yes.
We weren’t allowed to go swimming in the afternoon. I would have gone if my sister had. I would have gone into the water if she had, but she didn’t. I remember her lying on a sun bed one day, under one of those beach umbrellas with logos of beer brands printed all over. Anji, six years older than me, fourteen at the time, was lying on her belly, a Meg Cabot novel face down in front of her. We’d gone swimming with our father in the morning and Anji’s hair fell over her salt-caked shoulders in stiff curls. It was her first time wearing a two-piece swimsuit, I remember, and she was a little self conscious. She had balanced her phone carefully on the spine of the book, and was talking to her best friend back home, Trisha.
I was playing with the ants that had made their way over from the beach shack, not ten feet away from us, where our parents were sitting. My mother, drinking a pina colada, and my father, asleep in his chair. They had been very quiet on the drive to the beach that morning. They were very quiet those days.
I couldn’t keep up with a lot of what my sister talked about with her friends, but I liked being near, looking up when they laughed, interjecting with my own often unrelated observations. They were indulgent teenage girls, never impatient, always waiting for me to finish what I had to say, answering my questions with sincerity.
“Anji, why is there so much dust on you?”
“It’s the salt from the sea. The water goes away but the salt stays. Look, you have it too,” she ruffled my hair, breaking up the hardened clumps of it, and I watched the powdery grains of salt fall out. I reached up to touch my hair, amazed, and my sister turned back to her phone.
“Has he said anything?” Trisha’s voice was tinny over the phone, some of her words drowned out by the sound of the sea.
“I don’t know, actually. Let’s see.”
They both giggled, but Anji’s face fell a little when she scrolled through her messages. She shrugged, “He’s probably in his math tuition right now. He goes every Saturday afternoon.”
“Who?” I asked.
“A boy she loves,” Trisha teased.
“Shut up!” Anji laughed as if she couldn’t help herself. She shook her head, “No one, Arsh.”
I put my head down and went back to watching the ants. I was tracing paths in the sand with my fingers, hoping to help them with whatever it was that they were doing, wherever it was that they were going. I liked watching them follow each other, singleminded, unfazed by the obstacles I tried to create, unimpressed with the assistance I attempted to provide. I felt an inexplicable satisfaction in observing their routine. They seemed to have found so much purpose just in the act of following each other.
“Can I ask you something?” Trisha asked.
“Mhm.” Anji was squinting at the shining water as she fidgeted absentmindedly with the corners of her book’s cover.
“If he kissed you,” Trisha paused for effect, “would you let him?”
Anji reacted slowly, soaking in the enormity of the question. I’m not sure how much of what was asked — or her reaction to it— made sense to me, but I saw her shoulders stiffen as she played out the scenario in her head, still looking out into the water. I ignored the ants and watched her. The waves crashing against the shore seemed to be saying something, Anji seemed to be listening. When I think about her in that moment, I imagine her pupils dilating in spite of the burning afternoon light. She covered her face with her hands and nodded, “Yeah. I would.”
“Really?” we heard Trisha gasp over the phone.
Anji giggled, still hiding her face.
Trisha lowered her voice, “Would you use tongue?”
That made Anji look up again. She considered the detail seriously. “No,” she decided “I don’t think I’ll ever kiss with tongue.”
Rolling my own tongue around in my mouth, perhaps acknowledging for the first time that it was there, I started to dig a hole in the sand, unearthing small, patterned seashells.
“Me neither.” Trisha said, “What do you even do with it? There isn’t enough room in my mouth for two tongues, you know?”
“Maybe only people with bigger mouths kiss with tongue.”
I separated the broken shells from the ones that were intact, collecting the latter in a delicate pile at the head of Anji’s sun bed, by her feet. I explored the nearby territory, venturing further away from her but not so far that I couldn’t hear what they were saying. I was kicking up sand to see if all the shells had the same patterns when something caught my eye.
I got down on my haunches and inspected it closely. Hard, scaly, with five arms. I picked it up and ran to my sister. “Look!”
Anji sat up and turned it over in her hands, “You found a starfish, Arsh.”
“Is it alive?” I asked, leaning against her arm.
“I don’t think so. Why don’t you show it to Mama?”
“What is sand made out of?”
“Old shells, fish bones, glass bottles…all kinds of broken things I think. Okay, Arsh, I’m on the phone. Don’t you want to show mama the starfish?”
I took the starfish from my sister, licked her cheek on an impulse, and ran towards the shack.
“Arsh!” she shrieked, which delighted me.
My father was still asleep, cane chair sunk deeper into the sand than my mother’s. My mother’s eyes were unfocused. She held her almost-empty glass in her lap and chewed on her lower lip. Even though it was the middle of the day, it was dark in the shack. The pop songs they were playing in there were loud, but it seemed to me as though neither of them could hear it.
She blinked, “Yes, baby?” She put the glass down and reached her arms out for me.
I crawled into her lap, getting sand all over her dark green sarong. She didn’t mind. She didn’t notice. “I have a present for you,” I held the starfish up very close to her face.
She held my hand, the one holding the starfish, in hers so that she could see it properly. She looked at it for a long time.
I said, thinking maybe she didn’t recognise it, “It’s like from the stories.” My mother used to read me the same story before bed every night, one about a beautiful, lonely fish that swam endlessly through the ocean not realising it was all alone until the end.
“Yes, like from the stories. I know,” her voice was soft. Her breath heavy and bitter with drink. “It’s precious.”
“It’s for you.”
Her hand closed around mine, “Thank you.”
She held me, squeezed me gently. I rested my head on her chest, I thought about the way it rose and fell, the way she always smelled the same, regardless of where she was or what she was wearing. Here on the beach, under the notes of hot skin and sea breeze, she smelled like she always did, faintly of cigarette smoke, and like her clothes: the herby, woody scent of her closet back home. I could hear her heartbeat, although the sound was so soft I thought maybe it got shy because it knew I was listening.
MY FATHER snored next to us. I turned to look at him. He was wearing only his swimming trunks, his white shirt draped over the back of his chair. He was sleeping with his mouth open. There were a couple of flies nearby and I wondered how many of them had flown in and gotten lost in his mouth already.
“I want to show Papa.”
“Okay, darling,” my mother said, her arms still wrapped tightly around me. I tried to pull away but she said, “Stay for two more minutes.”
“Mama!” I squirmed and tried to wriggle out of her hold, “I want to go now.”
“Alright, alright,” she let me go, holding out her hands protectively as I steadied myself. I went to my father’s chair. She returned her hands to her lap and asked the waiter for another drink.
My father was a giant to me for most of my life. I stood next to him as he slept and I stared at his stomach, the enormous, protruding curve of it, the hair on his chest like a lonely island. I placed the starfish on top of his belly button and stared for a few seconds, to see if anything interesting would happen. Nothing did. I picked it up and put it on his head. Nothing. I lifted it again, hesitated, and carefully placed it on his open mouth, balancing it on his parted lips.
He scrunched up his nose as he inhaled and brought his hand to his face, slapping the starfish away. It fell onto the sand.
“Arsh!” My father swung his arm out, trying to catch a hold of me.
I ducked, picked the starfish off the floor and ran back outside.
“What nonsense!” He complained to no one in particular, rubbing his mouth with the back of his hand. My mother didn’t react.
The afternoon softened around the edges, on the brink of a sunset. My sister was sitting up on the sun bed now. She was hunched over her phone. I climbed onto the bed and peered over her shoulder to see if she was watching something funny. She ignored me. It was just text messages on the screen. But she was holding the phone in her hands and looking at it as if it was a dead animal she had hoped to save.
Trisha’s voice from the phone asked, “Are you okay?” I hadn’t realised she was still there.
Anji said, “It’s fine.” But she didn’t move. She kept looking at her phone that same way, “I feel stupid.”
“He’s the one that should feel stupid, Anji! He’s an idiot—”
“No he’s not.” Anji didn’t say it harshly. She said it like it was common sense. She stood up like she’d just remembered she had somewhere to be. The shells I had piled in the corner fell off the bed. “I’ll, um, talk to you later.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Trisha asked.
Anji hung up. She turned towards the water and blinked.
I followed her gaze. “Are you going swimming?”
She started walking towards the sea.
“Anji?” I slid off the bed and followed. Her legs were much longer than mine and she was walking fast. It was difficult to keep up with her. “Mama said we can’t go in the afternoon,” I tripped as I trudged through the soft sand. I was so focused on catching up with my sister I don’t think I realised how hot the sand was. Anji didn’t notice either. “Anji, can I come swimming with you?”
“No. Stay here.”
We heard our mother call out to Anji from the shack. I turned and saw her stand up, call Anji’s name again. Anji ignored her.
I felt a twisting sensation in my stomach (I used to get stomach aches often then). I ignored the pain. We quickly moved past the soft, scorching sand and reached the part of the beach that was wet. The sand was firmer there, it was easier for me to find my footing. “Anji!” I steadied myself, then ran after her. “I want to go swimming!” I grabbed her hand.
“Stop it, Arsh!” She pulled her arm away and pushed me. Not hard, but it took me by surprise and I lost my balance, falling and dropping the starfish.
That made her stop. She turned around, her eyes so big and clear it was impossible to miss the hurt in them. It was the shock of seeing that expression on her face, not the fall, that made me cry.
“Shit.” She crouched down next to me. “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry…” She began dusting the sand off of me, wiping my tears.
But I had her attention now. I balled my hands into fists and pressed them into my eyes. “It’s hurting.” I said.
“Where? Show me.”
I pointed to my knee.
“Arsh, you fell on your bum, not your knee.”
“It’s hurting in my knee!”
“Okay, okay.” She sighed. She knew this game well. She sat down cross-legged on the sand and and pretended to pull something invisible out of my knee. “See? I’m pulling all the pain out.” She tugged at the “pain” and threw it towards the horizon. “Pain, go!” She commanded, shouting it into the air. And again. She kept pulling the pain from my knee and flinging it into the sea shrieking, “Pain, go!” Every time. Then, when she and I were both satisfied, she wrapped the last strands of it around her knuckles, holding the pain taut, and used her free hand like scissors, cutting them loose with finality. She bandaged my knee with air. “Better?”
“Idiot.” She turned, facing the sea. She hugged her knees to her chest. The sand stuck to her thighs, pieces of brittle, bleached seashells embedded in her skin. The wind blew her hair out of her face.
It was so hot I thought that if I looked behind me I’d see the sun pressing into my back. I dug my nails into the cool, wet sand, grabbing fistfuls, and caked it onto my shoulders, shuddering with satisfaction.
I looked at the disturbance I had caused in the otherwise perfectly even sand around us, set in place repeatedly by higher tides. I pushed my hands under the surface until they were hidden from sight and tried to see how far I could make them travel without being discovered. Then I sat back to take my mess in. The beach undone around me. I was covered in it, my arms, my stomach, my knees and shins in glittering, broken things.
I looked over to where my sister was sitting, unmoving. I cupped some of the loose sand in both my hands and covered Anji’s toes with it. I patted it down so that the sand fit, “Like shoes.”
I beamed. “I can make a hat also.” I started to get up.
“No, no.” She held my arm and pulled me back down, “That’s okay.” She rested her cheek on her knee and looked at me.
“Are you angry with me?”
“No.” She was quiet for a moment. Then she said, “I just wanted to swim.”
“Mama said we can’t go without Papa.”
“She said the sea is dangerous.”
“I know.”A gust of wind washed over us and the afternoon turned with it, the sun began to set. Pink and orange started to stain the sky, blot and spread across the sea. “It’s not.”
I didn’t say anything. I just looked at her and listened.
“The sea’s not dangerous, Arsh. Mama’s just scared,” she was almost stern in the way she spoke, using the tone she took when she wanted me to behave or be quiet. It had an urgency, it demanded that I understood what she was telling me.
The waves crept closer every time they fell. They said something, Anji listened. I strained to listen too but to meit just sounded like someone taking a deep breath, beginning to say something, and then changing their mind and deciding to stay quiet instead. Thinking about that image of Anji now, it reminds me of how, growing up, people would always comment on how mature Anji seemed for her age. I never thought so. I took for granted that Anji knew things about the world that others just couldn’t know. She just paid more attention to her surroundings than most people ever do.
My father called out to us. He was in a better mood now, getting ready for his evening walk on the beach. “Arsh, Anji, are you coming?”
I stood up, “Are you going to go till the ship today?” There was an abandoned ship, Princess Harmony, at the end of the beach. We’d see it stranded on my father’s evening walks every year. I would be briefly enamoured by the wreck every evening. “Is Mama coming?” I asked. Anji watched me run to our father.
My father said, “If you can keep up with me, of course we can go till the ship.”
I turned, “Anji, come!”
She shook her head.
My face fell. My father started to walk along the shore.
“Come na. We’re going till the ship.”
“You go. See if you can touch it.”
I hesitated, “You’ll come later?”
“Maybe, Arsh. Go quickly before you lose Papa.”
“Okay… See how fast I am!” I ran, caught up with my father, grabbed his hand and turned to see if Anji had seen me. She raised her arms, giving me a thumbs up.
I walked backwards, holding my father’s hand to keep my balance. I watched my mother come out of the shack. She moved slowly, her steps unsteady. I watched her as she made her way to where my sister was, the edge of the sea. She sat down next to her. They both sat the same way, stared out into the sea the same way.
When our parents’ friends would meet Anji and me, they’d say that Anji looked exactly like our mother. Whenever we met any of our parents friends they would look at Anji and tell her she was growing up to be so beautiful, and that she looked so much like her mother. It always irritated my sister when they said that. She hated it. Sometimes she’d smile and do nothing except clench her jaw, but I remember seeing her roll her eyes at a few adults and disagree, “No, I don’t.”
I understood it to some extent. Sometimes people told me I looked like my father and I didn’t see that either. He was fat and hairy and always tired. On the beach that evening, walking with my father, I thought about how different he and I really were, even just in that moment. He was facing the abandoned ship, I was facing my sister.
But watching Anji and my mother sitting on the beach next to each other like that, getting smaller and smaller with every step I took, I could see the resemblance. I made a mental note never to tell Anji. Just the thought of her looking at me the way she looked at those adults made my heart sink.
THE COLOUR of the sun deepened. The orange swallowed everything. My mother and my sister, they looked like they were glowing in the evening light. I looked down at my own arms and the sun-bleached hairs on them seemed to be glowing too. Then my sister stood up, not looking away from the water. My mother stayed sitting. Anji stood still as she put something together in her head, then she ran into the sea.
She squealed as the cold waves hit her belly, wading in until she was waist-deep. She watched an approaching, rising wave, swam towards it, and disappeared under it momentarily. The wave rolled smoothly over her, unaffected. When she came up for air again, rubbing her eyes and pushing her hair out of her face, she laughed so loudly I could hear her clearly even though she was barely larger than my thumb by then. I could see her in the water, swimming and splashing around, the seawater putting her together and making her shine. In the middle of the sea, in the middle of the evening like that, Anji looked like she had turned to gold.
Rabia Kapoor is a writer from Mumbai. She is currently putting in her ten thousand hours to master the craft.