A warm gust of September air swelled through the city of Kolkata in West Bengal. Pass the marigold flower market, swarmed with crowded heads, and over the taxi filled bridge, lay hidden Hazra Road. Toward the end of the road stood a cream home with a motionless porch swing.
Aria, a girl just short of 10 years of age, sat upright on her bed while her doctor placed a silver spoon in her mouth.
“Can I go play now?” Aria questioned, swallowing her medicine.
“Not yet,” the doctor concluded, “You still have a fever and your cough.” The doctor began to pack away the medical supplies.
Aria finally asked, “Do you know when I’ll get better?”
The doctor caught a glimpse of concern in Aria’s eyes, and reassured her, “Soon. Now rest. I’ll come by tomorrow.”
As she watched the door close, Aria was once again alone in her room. Nothing but silence grew louder. It had been this way for a month. To ensure Papa, Mama, and her older brother Rohan did not catch her illness, she was quarantined in her room.
While sitting on her bed, Aria observed a sunbeam that peeked through one of her two windows. In the beam’s light, she noticed little dust particles prancing around. Unfortunately, her windows were above her height - she couldn’t quite see through them. However, after being alone in her room for so long, Aria recognized the routine noises outside her window.
Aside from the cacophony of honking and motorcycle engines, Aria made out some distinct sounds. Across the street sat a Chai Wallah serving hot tea. Every now and then, Aria heard the tea splashing into little glasses. And, in the bookstore down the road, Aria heard a bell ring on the door every time it opened.
Alone in her room, listening to the bustling outside, Aria remembered how much fun she used to have with her brother before she fell ill. They would run, play outside, and spy on the Chai Wallah. Rohan, on his way to and from school, rode his bicycle up and down the road. Aria remembered how she loved decorating Rohan’s bicycle - adding flowers, beads, and vibrant fabric scraps.
Aria missed her time with Rohan. Just thinking of the fun she had with him made her smile. But she knew one thing for sure. Once she got better, she could go with Rohan again. Rohan was the sole beam of sunshine in her now stormy present.
As Aria reminisced about her past, she heard little bells clanging. It was unusual - the bells stopped right in front of her window. Suddenly, she heard the Chai Wallah scream with panic and a motorcycle scurrying away.
She heard a distant siren. It was getting louder. And louder. It was right outside her window. Frightened, she leaped out of bed and sprinted to her door. Placing her ear against the door, she heard her parents’ hushed voices.
“Mama! Papa!” Aria hollered. There was no response. She reached for her brass doorknob. Twisting it both ways with all her strength, Aria remembered it was locked. Helpless, she paced back toward her bed. Panic continued to encircle her. It was outside her window and outside her door. She was in the eye of a hurricane.
Powerless, she laid her head on her pillow. Closing her eyes, she fell asleep.
The next day, as the sun painted the morning sky, Aria awoke to the doctor walking into her room and placing a silver spoon on her nightstand.
“Swallow this.” The doctor ordered.
Before placing the spoon in her mouth, Aria noticed something unusual in her room. In the corner, by the closet, and above a little table, hung a golden cage with a bird inside.
“Is that Neela?” Aria wondered, gulping her medicine. Her face lit up as she watched the little blue bird flutter around.
“It’s a gift from Rohan,” the doctor mentioned, “he thought it would make you feel better. I hung it in your room last night while you were asleep. I’ll come back and check on you in a few hours.”
“Please tell Rohan thank you,” Aria requested. Nodding, the doctor gathered the supplies and walked out.
Aria walked toward Rohan’s little blue bird, Neela. She had always been jealous of Rohan keeping Neela in his room. She gazed at Neela’s luscious blue feathers that complimented her red beak. Peering out through the cage’s bars, Neela inspected Aria.
Neela observed Aria’s braided black hair, green tulle skirt sprinkled with golden beads, and deep blue and red top. Most interesting to Neela was Aria’s shimmering jewelry. On Aria’s ears hung two beaded earrings, and, around her neck, she wore a gold necklace. And there were also Aria’s warm brown eyes, which, to Neela, looked identical to Rohan’s.
Facing the bird, Aria spoke to her.
“Hello there little Neela,” Aria whispered, delicately petting Neela’s head.
“You know Rohan? You used to live in his room. I’m glad you get to come live in my room now. I hope you like the teal color, it’s a little more vibrant than Rohan’s yellow,” Aria continued, watching Neela.
“Neela, when I get better, I can go back outside and play with Rohan. Rohan said that one day he’s going to teach me how to climb the big banyan tree and how to ride a bicycle once I’m old enough. And then, after we do that, I agreed to teach Rohan my special sandesh recipe!” Aria reminisced, “But until I get better, I must wait.”
Meanwhile, outside Aria’s room, Mama paced through the kitchen while Papa sat in a dining room chair.
“Should we tell her?” Mama began, taking a seat left of Papa.
“No. It will only make her worse,” Papa determined.
“Don’t you think she has a right to know!” Mama exclaimed.
“Yes. But not right now. Believe me,” Papa calmed, placing his hand on Mama’s.
As Mama and Papa reached their decision, Aria continued to play with Neela. As she sang to Neela, the bird chirped along. She’s lovely, Aria thought, listening to the bird’s song.
Aria heard the creaky doorknob turn. As she looked over her shoulder, the doctor walked in. Neela’s chirping ceased.
“Seems like you’re getting better,” the doctor said while looking at Neela and unpacking the supplies, “Come have a seat, I’ll check your temperature.”
Aria walked back to her bed and took a seat, all while gazing back at Neela. Aria felt the doctor’s cold metal thermometer on her tongue.
Anxious, Aria quietly asked, “Am I better now? Can I go play?”
“You’re temperature’s all gone,” the doctor exclaimed.
Filled with joy, Aria’s face lit up with one big smile. Leaping up from her bed, Aria ran to her door.
“I can go play now?” Aria checked, before leaving the room. The doctor nodded.
Sprinting out her door and through the hallway, Aria beamed with joy. “Rohan!,” she called, “I’m all better! I can play now.”
Excited, Aria continued to run throughout the house and eye the walls, carpets, and furniture she hadn’t seen for a month. She continued to call, “I’m all ready Rohan! Let’s go play. You can teach me how to climb the banyan tree and ride the bicycle.”
There was no response.
Puzzled, Aria continued to the kitchen. “Rohan!” she called, “Rohan?”
When she reached the kitchen, Aria noticed Mama and Papa sitting at the dining room table and came to a halt.
“Mama! Papa! I’m all better now and I can go play!” exclaimed Aria as she walked toward the table.
“We’re so glad you’re better Aria,” Papa said, giving Aria a hug.
“You know, we love you very, very much,” Mama added.
“Where’s Rohan?” Aria asked.
Mama and Papa exchanged glances, their smiles fading. Looking Aria in the eye, Mama whispered.
“Aria, Rohan loves you dearly. He really, really does. A few days ago, a motorcycle crashed into his bicycle,” Mama responded, breaking into tears.
Finishing the rest of Mama’s thought, Papa added, “Aria, he didn’t survive the accident.”
Devastated, Aria ran. A swell of sadness splashed upon her. Tears fell down her soft cheeks, like a monsoon showering down. She remembered the joy Rohan brought her.
As soon as she entered her room, she gazed at Neela. Neela’s sweet eyes and beak turned toward her. Slowly, Aria wrapped her fingers around the cold golden bars on the cage. Lifting Neela and her cage off the hook, Aria held the cage in her hand.
Steadily, Aria balanced the cage and walked outside. Standing on the edge of Hazra road and outside her window, Aria exchanged a glance with Neela.
As she opened the door to the cage, Neela flapped her wings and flew. She flew higher than she ever did and sang with chirps of joy.
Watching Neela fly away, Aria whispered, “Fly. The spirit of Rohan will always be free.”