Last week, after a trek to the Daoodhi hills with Joji, who is Mum’s distant cousin, Lillie discovered the discarded saplings in the shadow of a boulder, all wilted. Their plumes must’ve been carried away to the town across the hills, or blown under the cacti bushes strewn around the bareness. There are hardly any trees here. Lorries like Joji’s ply on the highway slithering below, relentlessly carrying away poplar, teak, and sandalwood logs.
Joji said the boulder is an ancient yogi who sits meditating, waiting for the wandering mythical sage to break his curse, return him to human. Then he laughed at the weirdness of his own story, saying he’d like to meet the yogi, ask him how he sits that long.
Later, recalling that trek, Lillie thinks she isn’t particularly amused by the yogi story. She can only think of the saplings, relieved to have finally discovered where Mum dumped them. She barely can sleep at night wondering what they’d grow into if they had a chance, and how to source more seeds, for the seeds Dad left them are all lost.
Joji’s girlfriend has been informed; she’ll join from Singapore. Someone will go to pick her up after she travels two hours in the slow suburban train from the airport. Ill-luck she has to come at all, she once called this back-of-beyond place “trashy”.
Lillie can’t bear to piece it all together. According to Mum, the yogi rose, hurtled down the hill slope right upon Joji’s log-laden lorry as it passed below. Why? What if it had been Mum cycling then, as she always does?
Lillie’s brothers, Foel and Sundar, huddle in their bedroom. Sundar wants to go to town one of these days, look for the seeds, or at least identical ones. They debate if the supermarket there would stock the right ones. Pity Dad never told them the seeds’ name, or why they should grow them.
Lillie is shocked they aren’t discussing Joji or why he had to die.
She’s thinking of going to the place where the boulder had been.
“Cent per cent. The seeds were under it.”
“And the boulder?”
“Just so.” Like it had never moved, never rolled down the hill to kill Joji.
“Really?” Foel isn’t convinced.
Sundar jumps off his bed. “You got the seeds, of course?”
“Ha! No!” Lillie tells a lie whenever she must. Just so to feel superior to the boys. And she humors herself that boys are such fools.
“Don’t believe this!” Foel says resignedly, finally dismisses his sister.
Lillie has the seeds, just a handful of them. The ochre color caught her eye. She discovered them near the boulder, like brushed under it, but only almost so.
Lillie thinks they were revealed because the yogi boulder had returned to his spot, but not exactly so.
The seeds are in her skirt pocket. But she’ll not show them. Not yet.
“I think you got them,” says Sundar. “Show, I say!”
“No!” Lillie is adamant. She runs away and hides behind the water-tank in the courtyard. The boys snap at each other, like angry birds, because they can’t decide if Lillie is being truthful.
Mum, wary of the sibling fights, enters the room, and they hush up.
Dad, I must, mustn’t I? she mutters on her way back.
She’s planted a neat row, under the shade of a dune, and just about concealed by a huge ant-hill. She waters them every day on the way to school. Treks on Sundays to be with them, like little babies she must nurse to health.
The plants are due now, and she awaits what color plumes they’ll have.
Sundar was old enough when Dad died. He realized how drought had hit them, how Dad was fighting against the mafia, how hard he worked. Sundar wants to forget those days. He wants to be rich, drive a car, be gone from here.
Sundar hopes Savi in the courtyard will notice the nuisance, notice him. He wants her to be angry, so she will rush up the stairs to get into an argument with him. Then he can tell her his real feelings.
Savi skips on the parallel lines drawn with a stick on the dirt. She squeaks: one, four, six, back. She pays no attention to Sundar.
I’ll ask Lillie to talk to her, Sundar thinks. But Lillie can never be found these days. He wonders where she escapes. Perhaps she’s found someone more interesting than Kapil, her last boyfriend.
The sporophytes are florescent green. Tomorrow, Lillie hopes, she’ll get to see the plumes.
After the last incident, the dozen or so remaining trees are spared, none dares to cut them. Lorry drivers have called a transport-strike. The cut logs spilled from the flattened trailer stay abandoned at the foot of the hills.
“I just wanted to let them grow. Live. If we talked—if Mum got wind of it—”
Sundar, Savi, and Foel stand in a semi-circle around Lillie. Lillie kneels. The row of just-emerged plants sway in the light breeze.
The leaves will soon be transformed into bird-wings, layered and light like plumes. But they are leaves now, as on a central stalk, prominent midrib, distinct veins crisscrossing the lamina. The leaves nod, and whisper to each other, like a community of kindergarten children. They giggle and raise a racket.
Minutes late, they unfurl like prayer flags. All four of them watch in stunned silence.
When they turn into feathers, Lillie checks the color excitedly: golden!
Sundar, Savi and Foel cheer and clap. Then they kneel to take a closer look. The gentle air causes the plumes to fall off, and they are brushed towards the anthill.
“O, look!” Foel shouts.
They gape as the plumes gather, shape themselves into fledglings. The young birds flap their wings—once, twice. Little goldfinches. They peck at each other as though in greeting, then fly away in hard-earned freedom.
The gazes of the friends follow only the birds’ flight, in deep awe.
“The seeds are a curse. Mataji—your grandmother—she warned me. Your Dad was killed the day he brought them home—murdered by the sandalwood smugglers.” Mum shouts. Agony in her voice making it shake.
“Mum! “Foel blurts. “It’s Lillie. She did it.”
Lillie does not hide from it. She advances a few steps and stands directly in front of her mother, locking eyes with her. “Yes—yes, me! Mum, I beg of you!”
Their home at the edge of the hills is enveloped in a verdant green now. All hues of green mingling in the backdrop.
“It was only the first time, Mum! The goldfinches drop the seeds now! Not I, I did it only once.”
Mum drops on the chair.
“There are hundreds of goldfinches now, Mum! From the ones that first grew out of the seeds I planted. Their leaves grew into birds. Now the birds bring in their own seeds that grow into bird trees—goldfinch trees! The birds sow them, so the hills grow green again, like… like it was. So we have rains.”
Mum gapes and listens. Her face is of one who is emerging from a state of daze and into the realms of wondrous discovery.
“I see them flap and fly, together! Such a lovely sight—the gold sitting on the branches, against the green leaves.”
“And the yogi? Are you sure he…” Sundar throws the question at Lillie.
“Yes, yes, he always returned. He punished those people who traded in our trees. And it’s the meditating yogi protecting the trees. He will not let someone like Dad die again trying to save the Daoodhi Hills.”
Mum glances from one boy to the other. Then her eyes rest on Lillie, before spilling with tears. “Joji!” Mum lets out a scream. “Joji, I told you not to, even if the contractor insisted. Why did you not listen to me?”
Mum looks to the heavens and it begins to rain.
Soon, the goldfinches will swoop down again, and come to be in their midst, cooing to celebrate the return of their habitat.
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