It’s my favorite time of the year. Dark clouds lose their battle to the sun, roses manage to take a peek at the victorious sun, and the wind gently brushes past the curious roses.
My twin brother walks alongside me. Compared to me, he’s like an immense tower with black hair and dark eyes. We both walk about a mile every day to get to school.
I glace around and see a bird with blue wings landing on a branch. The bird’s long feathers have strange patterns on them. It catches the attention of a young boy playing in the mud. He runs up to it. The bird doesn’t move. Instead, it chirps. The bird sings a peaceful melody, while the boy’s laughter disappears into the wind. The bird’s morning song is jovial and relaxing. A man notices the bird and clamps his hands over his ears. I hear him curse a little under his breath. How could he not like the music?
He strides up to the musical bird and quickly clutches it in his hand. The bird’s song turns into a plea for help. The chirps are filled with panic that travels around the grassy field. The man walks away, grasping the squirming bird. It tries to screech hopelessly in his ruthless hand, but to no avail. The boy starts screaming and crying. All the bird wanted to do was sing.
We both keep on walking to school. My shoes are broken, so I leave traces of blood in the dirt. I glance at my brother’s feet. His feet are probably unscathed in his perfectly-sized shoes.
If only I could afford an auto rickshaw. As we approach the small building, the boys crowd around me. We’re all trying to squish through the door. I’m the only high-school girl in my school. The rest dropped out to follow in the dull footsteps of their mothers. I enter a room and sit down by my tarnished desk. My brother sits by his friends. I place my school books on the ground next to me. They’re all ripped. My teacher gives me the ripped ones. Maybe it’s because I’m a girl.
Then, the teacher walks in. I stare outside the window looking into the morning sunrise. The teacher says something about notes, so I pull out my sheet of paper. It’s tattered because I found it on the ground. I don’t have enough money to buy new ones. He points his finger on the chalk board and begins class.
“Show me Saudi Arabia on your maps. You all should know where you live.”
He checks to see where everybody pointed, except me.
“Good job. Now Prashankt, tell me why India…”
Prashankt gets the answer correct, as usual. He picks on every single person in the room, except me. It’s as if I’m invisible every since class. I’ve always been used to it, but I can’t tolerate it anymore.
“Sir, why don’t you ask me?”
The entire class laughs. Even my brother. I can feel my cheeks turning red. The teacher pulls out his ruler and smacks one boy on his hand. The sounds of laughter disappear.
“Areya, these boys need practice when they go into the real world. Since you’re not going to college, you don’t really need this. I’m sure that you’ve thought of marriage already.”
“…But I want to go to college. I don’t want to get married now.”
I freeze. I just angered him. My words seemed to have attacked him and started a war. I place my right hand on my left hand to stop it from quavering. What have I just done? I should have just stayed quiet. I feel my throat becoming dry. I can’t speak. I shouldn’t have spoken at all.
My brother doesn’t say a word.
“If you don’t pick on me in class, I’m leaving.”
The entire class gasps, and the sound echoes in my head. The teacher doesn’t say anything. I quietly pick up my things and begin to head toward the door. As I reach to pull down on the door handle, he says, “Leave your textbooks.”
The textbooks aren’t the only thing I leave behind.
The weeks swallow the days. I wake up to the sound of my mom flinging cold water in my face. She yells, “Areya, clean the house and wear some nice clothes. We have a suitor coming by to see you.” I sweep, brush, and wipe away my dreams for the future.
Then, I stop. The broom in my hand is not my legacy. I glace around me. My mom hums to herself while she washes the dishes. I can’t do this anymore. I throw the broom to the ground. On the table, I see my book. I quickly grab it and storm towards the door. My mom roars like thunder. The last thing I hear is the sound of the door closing. I purposefully leave my hijab.
I run as fast as I can until I get to school. Through the windows, I can see that class has already started. I sit by the grass next to the door. I pull out my book and start reading. The pages are like birds flying out of a cage. The words on them calm my uneasy mind. Then, the school door opens. My teacher walks over to me and pulls me up harshly.
“What are you doing here? Get lost. Your hair’s not even covered. ”
His eyes are bulging, and I hear his heavy breathing. My mouth runs by itself.
“I’m not leaving until I get proper treatment at this school.”
He lifts his hand and slaps me right across the face. My face stings with pain. I taste the blood dripping into my mouth. I try to stop my inevitable tears, but I can’t. He has a grave expression on his face.
“I’m calling the police.”
He goes back into the school. Some of the boys sneer at me from the classroom. Then, he comes back out. Nothing has changed, except the tears on my face have dried. In the distance, I hear sirens wailing. A black car pulls up in front of the school, and a man wearing a uniform steps out. He has a gun in his holster. The teacher points at me and says, “She’s the one.”
The officer walks up to me and tells me to hold out my arms. He has handcuffs. This isn’t fair. I shouldn’t be the one getting arrested. I should be able to do what I want to do. He completely ignores the scar on my face. If this had happened to my brother, then my teacher would surely have been arrested. In the corner of my eye, I see people from other neighborhoods pointing and staring.
I step into the car, and I accidentally drop my book on the way in. It lands with a thud on the ruddy road. The officer chuckles to himself and kicks the book, smudging the cover. He closes the door of the car, leaving the book to lie in the middle of the road. The engine rumbles, and the school shrinks to the size of a flea as we disappear into the mountains.
The officer continues driving in silence. We approach a giant gray structure. It’s about the size of a hundred houses. He opens the door again and walks me inside. I see prison cells everywhere. He unlocks one, removes the handcuffs from my hands, and pushes me inside. When I turn around, he fumbles with the keys until the door is shut. From outside the dingy cell, he says, “Consider this a punishment for not yielding to your teacher, a man.”
I sit down on the stone floor of the cell. The ground is damp. I notice a girl sitting on the opposite wall from me. Her eyes are filled with anger. She has rugged hair and emaciated arms and legs. I can’t see much besides her faint silhouette. It’s too dark. She glares at me, as if I’m the reason she’s in prison. Then, I hear my stomach growling. It’s so loud, even the girl next to me hears it. She finally stops staring into empty space.
“Get used to it. I’ve been in here for a month. It only gets worse.”
I almost jump up after hearing her speak. Her voice is extremely crackled and dry. I ask, “What did you do to get in here?” She sighs and reaches for a tiny cup. A small drop of water lands on her tongue.
“I went outside without my father and refused to go back.”
I stay up for hours staring at the wall in front of me. An officer slides in a piece of bread and water in from under the door. The water tips over and spills on the ground. I touch the bread. It’s stale. I pick it up and place it in my mouth. I chew slowly, embracing the sour taste and making it last forever. It’s better than nothing. Before I know it, the bread is gone. My stomach is still empty. I lie back on the stone wall and close my eyes, venturing into a deep sleep.
I dream about my family. I wake up and see my brother and dad at the table. My mom and I are serving the food. I try to say something, but no one can hear it. I cry, I yell, I shout. Everybody acts like I’m not there. I scream at my brother for not standing up for me, but I know he can’t hear me. Suddenly, my brother says, “Stop mumbling, you’re disturbing me.” My eyes open, and I see the girl shaking my shoulders. She moans, “You woke me up.” Then, she crawls over to her side of the cell and continues sleeping.
The months swallow the weeks. I probably lost half of my weight.
I awake to the sound of people fighting. The girl next to me wakes up as well. I immediately jump to my feet. My entire body is sore, and my feet are numb. I try to hear as much as I can.
“We don’t have enough space here. The thieves have to be transported 40 miles.”
“Let’s just release the girls in cell 23.”
A man unlocks the prison cell.
“Consider this your lucky day. You both are going to be discharged. Cover your heads with this and get out.”
He hands the girl and me two hijabs. I put one on and climb into the car. The girl cries tears of joy. I don’t know what I feel. I imagine my mom scolding me until I have kids. She probably thinks I’m dead. Maybe it’s better that way. Before I realize it, the car travels past the mountain side and into the village. I look outside through the window. The sky is blue, and the sun is shining.
Then, I see something shocking. I squint my eyes to get a closer look. A crowd of girls are sitting in front of a village school. They’re reading books and holding signs. I see them smiling and laughing. I wish I could hear them. It’s been a while since I’ve heard someone laugh.
One of the signs has the word, Areya on them. Are they here because of me?
We pass another school. More girls are protesting. I see them writing letters right in front of the school’s front entrance. There’s too many to count.
One of the girls sits alone by a tree. She has a basket of seeds in her hands. She reaches into the basket and throws them on the grass. A group of blue birds fly where the seeds landed. I can almost hear them sing. The girl sees me inside the car with the officer. Quickly, she gets up and points, but the officer drives away.
He rolls up to a small house, which is more like a hovel compared to the mansions by the mountains. He opens the car door, and I take a step outside. The fresh air overwhelms me. Slowly, I place one foot in front of the other until I reach the door.
Before I knock, it opens.