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The Flowering Quince
When I stepped off of the plane in the city of Bombay, India on the Arabian Sea, I thought living in India would be fun and exciting. My father had told me before we left about the tigers and tarsiers and peafowl that lived in India. Bombay was crowded and busy, and when I heard that we would be driving out of the heart of the city to more rural areas, my excitement began to grow. A van picked us up to take our family to the house that we would be sharing with two other families from my father’s science team. I sat on the edge of my seat, peering out the window and looking for tigers.
My excitement began to fade as we drove further and further out of the city, until we found ourselves in a little rural community. The dusty road led only to more disappointment. Our yard was little more than a bare patch of dirt with a few struggling weeds and a thorny little bush off to the left. Our house itself stuck out like a sore thumb in the little village. It was fairly modern with several large generators, well water, and a septic tank. The back overlooked the canopy of a large forest growing at the bottom of the steep hill that our house rested on. My father was excited, and looked out the window, pointing all sorts of different trees and birds. He had already identified the bush in the front as some sort of quince, and had unpacked his aviary books and botany supplies. I had always known that I did not share my parents’ talent or love for science, particularly ecology, but all I saw looking into the forest were trees. Trees, like what had been in Indiana, with branches and leaves and roots.
We settled in relatively quickly. My father spent most of his day working with the other parents. Most of the children, including my kid brother Carter, were young, and they quickly became friends with the local kids, despite the language barrier. There were no other American children my age, so I was generally spent my time keeping an eye on them as they played their games in the road. Sometimes I tried to join in, but at thirteen I had outgrown tag and hide-and-seek. A few times I had taken out a volleyball and tried to show them how to play, but they had little interest, and I always wound up sitting alone on a neighbor’s porch, watching to make sure that nobody wandered into the woods or any fights broke out.
Sometimes I tried to hang out with my sister, Carla, and Shauna, Mr. Pearson’s daughter, but the six- and seventeen year old girls didn’t want me listening in on their conversations. Even the local girls and I couldn’t seem to get along. They were pleasant, but the language barrier caused great problems for us, and they had work of their own to do anyway. My mother had taken to tending a garden, trying desperately to grow the vegetables that she had brought with her from Indiana. Local women occasionally stopped and tried to help her, and she even befriended a few in the mean time, but her plants always ended up dying or wilting. However, my mother continued to stay and work in the garden whenever Carter and I were outside. I often looked up to see her keeping an eye on us herself, as if she couldn’t trust that we wouldn’t end up like Carla.
Most of the time I ignored my mother, and she smiled and looked away if she ever noticed me watching. But sometimes I grew angry. Not with my mother, but with Carla. When I was ten and Carla had just turned fifteen, she began to get involved with what my parents described as “the wrong crowd.” I was too young to understand why my parents were worried all the time. They didn’t tell me until I was older that she had been caught skipping school and had stopped doing her homework, and by the end of her freshman year her grades had predictably slipped. I do remember that that summer was miserable. She started coming home late, sleeping all day and yelling at my parents. Carla lost weight, quit piano lessons and left her volleyball team without explanation. She was always in a bad mood, not wanting to play or talk or even see me. At eleven, I thought that she was mad at me, and my mother had to explain to me several times that I hadn’t made Carla angry, that I shouldn’t worry. Of course, it wasn’t until she told me not to worry that I knew something was wrong.
Then things seemed to subside during the beginning of her sophomore year, and our family almost returned to normal. My parents assumed that whatever trouble she’d had the previous year had subsided. Then in May my father received a phone call at work saying that Carla had gotten into some sort of trouble at a party. It was then that my parents learned about the drugs and alcohol, although we don’t know how much she was actually involved in. She assured us that it wasn’t much, but nobody really knew, and certainly nobody trusted her. Once we had settled the legal issues, my father decided to accept the offer to go to India that had been given to him three years in a row.
I was too young to understand drugs and alcohol and the whole mess, but I did understand that my sister had gone to jail, the simplified version of what had happened that my parents agreed was safe to tell me. That summer we left for India. At first I loved the idea of going to another country to live, but it wasn’t long until I began to miss Indiana and all the things that went with it. I couldn’t take piano lessons or play volleyball or hang out with my friends. We had given our dog to my grandparents to keep until further notice, and of course there were no dance classes or school plays. I kept in contact with my friends for a while, but I didn’t even know how many miles away it was from our little village to Lafayette, Indiana, and I wasn’t even angry when their letters became more and more infrequent, and eventually stopped.
I tried to take an interest in my father’s work, but I didn’t share his love and passion for it. Sometimes I would borrow Shauna’s bike and ride down the hill towards the little farms, but after taking the same ride a dozen times I tired of looking at the poor, emaciated cattle. I eventually resigned to my babysitting duties and helping my mother with chores around the house, and even watching my six goldfish swim around in their tiny tank by my bed. In fact, I did this so often that I learned their slight markings, unique features, and even their swimming patterns. My mother asked me once if I liked living India, and I told her I did, so as not to worry her further. However, without anybody to talk to I became resigned and secluded, but nobody seemed to notice. Even that didn’t particularly upset me though. I had grown used to being alone.
One particularly slow afternoon I meandered into the kitchen to get a drink. Carla and Shauna were sitting together on the stools by the counter, and the younger children were tussling about on the rug in the living room with their native friends. Carla barely acknowledged me as I entered the room, her long, stick-straight blonde hair falling over her small shoulders as she turned back to her conversation. She had gotten much better since we had moved. I don’t know where she would find Marijuana or cigarettes or alcohol in our remote little village, but her recovery had still been slow. We had been in India for a year, and she was just beginning to talk civilly to my parents again. She had gained some weight, but was still thin, and often times her mind seemed to be somewhere else. Although we were home-schooled, she had been expected to pull her grades up by herself, and she was managing to do it. She was beginning to go to bed on her own accord, and was starting to get up early again. She had always been a morning person. However, she still refused to break off relations with some of her old friends and still wouldn’t go into details about the full extent of what had happened.
One particularly drab evening I sat on the front porch watching the world happen. People came and went as they always did. The younger children, including Carter, were playing their usual games in the street, and Carla and Shauna had left earlier on a walk. My father would not be returning home for at least another hour, and my mother was working in the garden again, this time with a small, old Indian lady called Aabha. The two sat talking quietly in a combination of English and Hindi. I had seen this lady helping mother in the garden many times before, and she acted like a grandmother too all of the small children, making sure that they were home on time each night and occasionally giving them small gifts.
A herd of cattle was driven through the street down towards the farms as a brief breeze blew through the village, rustling the leaves and carrying faint smells of the jungle. The little flowering quince quivered in the faint wind, it’s newly bloomed, bright red flowers dancing precariously on their thin stems. Aabah finished helping my mother in the garden and rose to leave. However, instead of turning and walking up the driveway towards the road, she ambled slowly over to the porch and sat down beside me. She didn’t smile or even look at me, just followed my gaze out to where the younger children were playing, their happy shouts drifting over to us. I felt as if I should say something, but I didn’t know what, so I held my habitual silence.
“You like my country?” she asked slowly after a few moments.
“Yes,” I answered automatically, not giving the question much thought.
“No,” she said, unsatisfied. “You want America.”
“I like India,” I insisted. It was true, I did like India. I just missed Indiana and my friends and my school and all that was normal in what had become a seemingly new-fashioned life.
“Come walk,” she said, rising. I followed her as she approached the small flowering quince. The only sign of life in out bleak little yard, it seemed almost flamboyant. “This little plant,” she said, fingering one of the bright red blossoms, “It would not survive in America. Not until it grow more.” She released the little flower and the branch bobbed slightly as it lost the support of her fingers. “You know this first time blooming?” I shook my head. “Yes. It has done well. But to take to America, it would not live. It need more time.” She looked down at me expectantly. I looked from her to the blossoms, my brow furrowed, trying to understand what she was suggesting. “Your sister, she need more time, yes? But she blooming now, just need water and sun and time. She will grow.” I nodded in understanding, then sighed, almost inaudibly.
“You think you can’t grow in India,” the she said. “You like mother’s vegetable. You grow in America. That is where your roots are.”
“The vegetables won’t grow,” I said simply, missing her point.
“But let me show you,” she said to me. I followed her out of the yard and onto the road. Our feet, hers bare and mine in old sneakers, created little clouds of dust as she led me away from our house. A few houses down, she led me into a yard. There were several trees and a fairly large garden beside the house. “Here,” she said, pointing down at little green stubs poking up through the soil. “From America. Your mother gave me. They can grow in India.” I knelt beside the little plants and peered at them. “They will make it,” Aabah said behind me. “Maybe one day they will go back to America, but maybe not. Right now I just watching to see what they are and what they grow to be.”
I rose again and stood for a moment watching the fragile little plants hunkered between rows of larger, flourishing vegetables. They were difficult to see behind the other plants, but I doubted that they would be for long. The sun slipped beneath the horizon, making the sky visibly darker in only a matter of seconds. Were silent as we walked back to my yard. The village had become quiet. Most of the children had been summoned by their parents or older siblings. The rest were dispersed throughout the streets as they made their way back to their homes for supper. Aabah gently touched her hand to the back of mine. “You just remember only difference of India and Indiana is that little ‘an,’” she murmured.
“There’s a lot of miles on that little ‘an.’” I replied sadly, looking up at her.
“And to little plant is a lot of miles to sunlight.” We arrived at the edge of our driveway. Through the glass door across the yard I could see the parents laughing and preparing food together in the kitchen while the children played in the living room. The lights were on, and for the first time in what felt like forever, I thought the house looked warm and inviting. “One day,” Aabah said as I stood at the edge of our yard looked in the window, “One day you go back to America.”
“When all the plants are in full bloom,” I said, still looking through into the kitchen. Then I turned and smiled at her, and she smiled back. As I walked across the yard, a wave of flowery scent blew up from the jungle and enveloped me, and I thought India to be the most wonderful place in the world. When I reached the base of the porch I turned back, but Aabah was already gone. I could faintly hear the jovial voices and sudden, loud laughs emanating through the door as the families prepared to dine above the loud racket of the waking insects. I stood still for a moment, listening, then took one last, deep breath of the warm, Indian air, and went back home.