Arshiya picked up the small teddy lying on the top of her closet. It had turned pale brown over the years. Her father had gifted it to her on her sixth birthday, about twenty years back.
It was one of the few memories she had of him. It was the last happy memory she had of him.
She couldn’t part with it. She couldn’t find the courage within her.
She placed it in the corner of her suitcase, which was slowly getting filled with things that she would need in her new residence.
She felt a presence near her. Her gaze drifted to the figure leaning against the doorway to her bedroom. It was her mother.
She had her arms crossed against her chest, and a fake celebratory smile pasted on her face. Her wet eyes conveyed the truth.
“I am not going forever, you know. After I complete my studies, I will get a job and call you to Boston. I will never leave you alone, mom.”
“What makes you think I want to leave Trista…and this house?”
“The fact that your only family alive will not be here anymore…ever.”
Her mother’s brows furrowed and she couldn’t hold back her tears anymore. They flowed wetting her soft pink cheeks.
“Don’t say that, Arshiya. This house…I can never leave this house. It is everything to me. You have been trying to run away from this place for the past twenty years. Your father and your sister would not have dreamt of it ever.”
“How can you be so sure? You know they would have been alive if we weren’t staying in this godforsaken island.”
Her mother felt silent. It was an endless loop of a conversation they had had many times over the past two decades.
Arshiya Malik was born in the island of Trista, in the Pacific. Twenty years back, the Maliks were a family of four. Arshiya had a sister, three years younger to her, who had died on that ominous day, with their father. It was shortly after Arshiya’s sixth birthday.
Trista was a small pear-shaped island in the Pacific, just about fifty miles long and twenty miles wide. It was covered with hills on the southern end and beaches on the three sides. Life here was pretty simple. Everyone knew everyone. Tristans were simple people with dreams and ambitions that didn’t run sky-high. They focused on good education for their kids and relied on fishing for trade. It had been a scantily populated country always.
Twenty years back, the population was even less than today. There were hardly 500 families in the whole island then. One night, her father was driving her sister to the hospital, who had injured herself while playing with a glass vase. They had just left their house on the hills when suddenly, he lost control of the car. Their vehicle dived off the cliff, hit the rocks and dashed straight into the water. There was not a soul present nearby to witness the accident, or hear their cries when the car plummeted off the edge.
Two days later, three fishermen had found some remains of the car on the rocks where it had struck before crashing into the water. The divers were called. They had searched that area and found mangled remains of the car at the bottom of the ocean. The bodies of Arshiya’s father and sister were still inside the car, their seatbelts stuck. They had to cut their seatbelts with knives before pulling out the bodies.
Everyone assumed lemurs were to blame. The area had lots of lemur families and they often used to suddenly appear on the road, causing a lot of accidents.
Since that fateful day, Arshiya had lost the emotional connect with the place. She blamed Trista for snatching away her father and sister so early.
‘Only if the hospital wasn’t at the other end of the island.’
‘Only if lemurs didn’t infest the island.’
‘Only if they didn’t live in the godforsaken island.’
‘My family would still be complete.’
Arshiya had been pushing her mother to leave the place ever since. Her mother, whose three generations were born and had spent their lives in Trista, never agreed.
Arshiya had spent twenty years planning to leave the island. Looking for a reason so strong that her mother would willingly agree to leave the place. She wanted a better future for her mother and herself.
And she had found the reason in education. Arshiya was very good at studies. Her love for reading was attributed to her father. She genuinely intended to pursue higher studies, in Geology, outside Trista. Her criteria was simple.
‘Anywhere, but here.’
And now she had got it. None other than Harvard. Her scholarship letter had seemed more than just a blessing. It was a dream come true in every sense.
She had got the opportunity to study her preferred subject in one of the best schools in the world. She could leave Trista forever. She could build a bright future for her mother and herself in a place far better than Trista.
She had got the opportunity to leave the place of her father’s and her sister’s untimely demise.
But there was one thing she couldn’t pull away from. Their house.
It was built by her father and mother, together. They were both in their early twenties when they got married, against all odds. Their families hadn’t approved of the union and so, they had to elope.
Well, kind of.
Not that they had an option of leaving Trista to settle elsewhere, but they had gotten married secretly and announced, just to earn the ire of their parents.
They had gradually started building their lives together at the hilltop, more than forty miles away from their families, who inhabited the north.
They had built every inch of the house from scratch, investing penny after penny in it for two years.
Arshiya’s favourite place was the backyard. Her father had planted a mango tree when they had started building the house. When Arshiya was born, he had created a small hatch right next to it in the ground. It was more of a secluded reading corner. But Arshiya used it to hide every time she wanted to cut off from the world, which happened quite frequently. After her father and sister died, she hadn’t left the hatch for four days straight, refusing to eat a single morsel of food. Her mother had pulled her out after she had lost consciousness lying there.
Arshiya’s flight to Boston was booked for precisely twenty-four hours later. She knew she will have to leave her mother alone till the time she completed her studies. Not that she didn’t want her mother there with her for the duration of her three-year course. But she knew she will have to settle down there before calling her mother, which would be a battle for another day.
She tried hard to be happy, but euphoria eluded her. Feeling rather desolate, she went down to the hatch. There were bookshelves built on the three sides, filled with old books kept by her father. She never replaced them or got any new. She never wanted any of it to change. She knew every inch of the hatch by heart. She always sat on the wooden stairs and read the books. She had read every one of the 112 books at least three times.
There was a feeling tugging at her heart. She shoved it away. She couldn’t let bereavement creep in, yet again.
Not now when her childhood dream was just twenty-four hours away.
Arshiya got up and started pacing around within the hatch, which was square in shape and just seven feet wide. She wanted the desolate feeling to end.
‘Why am I not happy?’
Fighting back tears, she came to a halt next to the stairs. She leaned herself on the wall, closed her eyes and tilted her head to the side. She couldn’t look at the books right now, but she couldn’t leave them either. Each one of them had her father’s handwritten notes. She always felt comforted by them.
Soon, she will not have them to comfort her. She couldn’t pick any one of them to take with her as she couldn’t discriminate. Thus, she had decided to leave them here until she found herself a big enough place in Boston.
‘That could be years away.’ the thought had crossed her mind several times, and was probably the cause for that feeling of bereavement.
Few minutes later, after successfully fighting back tears, she opened her eyes. Her gaze fixated on a small wooden patch underneath the top of the staircase. It look like a hatch, but was hardly two inches wide.
With a crease between her eyebrows, she reached out and pushed it. It opened into a tiny wooden pocket with a paper within.
‘How did I miss this all these years?!’ she was shocked at the revelation.
She carefully opened the paper. It was very old and felt dilapidated.
It was dated two days before her sixth birthday.
The first three words made her skip a heartbeat.
“Dear Arshiya and Aahana…”
It was her father’s handwriting. It was clearly a letter written by him after her sister, Aahana, was born.
And before the accident.
Eagerly, she continued reading.
“I want you to know that I love you both too much. You are the reason why I am still alive and kicking...”
Arshiya’s eyes welled up at the first sentence. She missed her father too much. Time had failed to heal that wound within her.
Soon her mind processed the second statement and questions arose.
‘Reason he was still alive? What does he mean by that?’
She continued reading further.
“I guess, by the time you find this letter, I will be long gone. I haven’t mustered up the courage to tell your mother yet and I know you are too young right now to understand. Hence, I am writing this letter in the hope that one of you will find this letter one day. A letter of my confessions to you.
I have been diagnosed with stage IV brain tumour.”
Arshiya’s hand shot to her mouth. Her tears got a life of their own. They flowed down her scarlet cheeks freely. She felt dizzy, but a million more questions arose in her head. She had to continue.
“Doctors here at Trista have given me about a month to live. Trista doesn’t have the medical infrastructure to cure such a disease.
I had never felt so much regret at being a Tristan ever. Now, I often wish we were not living in this godforsaken place! I would have fought tooth and nail to be able to see both my girls grow up.
But Trista is not giving me a choice. I have been feeling pure hatred towards this place welling up within me for the past few days.”
Arshiya felt the hatred towards Trista within her shoot up manifold.
‘This rotten island had another plan in place to snatch my father away from us in case he survived the crash. I can’t wait to leave Trista now.’
Her determination was renewed, but the letter wasn’t finished yet.
“But hatred is not good for health, my girls. Yesterday, Aahana had her first day at playschool. That made me and your mother realise that it was amongst the many firsts of our lives in this place, in this house, in Trista.
Our love was the first ever for your mother and me. If that lemur hadn’t appeared in our lives, we would probably never have met!
Yes, you read it right. A lemur.
I was twenty years old then. One morning, I was roaming the forest area when a female lemur attacked me out of nowhere. She bit my leg and I cried out in pain. I shook my leg furiously throwing her a few feet away. I had just pulled out my gun (yes, I had one!) and was about to shoot that damned primate when a scream stopped me midway.
It was your eighteen-year old mother. I had never seen a more beautiful girl in my life. She stopped me from shooting the female, who was just protecting her infant. The lemur had thought I was there to harm her infant who was hiding in the woods.
Your mother was explaining all that to me, but I could hardly register anything. It was love at first sight for me, the first of many firsts to come.
While our love pushed our families away from us, it gave us a lot more.
It taught us to fight for what you hold dear. It taught us commitment and courage. It gave us the reason and the strength to build this house from nothing. It gave us the means to create a life together. It was love that gave us the two most beautiful girls in the world.
And we found that love in this place. Trista.
Did you know that Trista means full of sorrows? Well, it gave us a lot of that surely, but it also gave us the strength to fight for happiness.
Your mother and I would never have been the people that we are today, if we were not Tristans.
We would never have found the will to fight for love if we were not Tristans.
We never would have built this abode anywhere else, but Trista.
We never would have had you, if not in Trista.
Over the past few days, ever since I got to know how little time I have left, I have been reminiscing every single day of my life on this island.
I now laugh at how determined I was to leave this place for any reason, be it education, job, or anything else.
That was until I met your mother.
And that could have happened nowhere else, but Trista.
So, girls, when you find this letter, when I am long gone, I have a feeling you might start to hate this place. But remember, we wouldn’t have been in each other’s lives anywhere else, but here.
So cherish the memories we have created together. Who knows, what love and strength this island might have planned for you.
Arshiya, my baby, I speak to you directly now. You are turning six in two days! That’s my big girl! Take care of your mother. She will never come to hate this place. She strives to find the good in everything, no matter how horrible it might be. She is a true Tristan at heart.
I will be watching over you three always.
Love you three to the moon and back,
A Tristan forever”
The letter was wet with Arshiya’s tears. The old ink had started to smudge in places.
She knew the reason behind that feeling of bereavement now. It was not the books with her father’s handwritten notes tat she had to leave behind.
It wasn’t even the house her parents had built together.
It was Trista.
She knew what she had to do now.
And what she no more needed to do. Which was, leaving this place, full of sorrows, forever.