Scents of Sisterhood – Areej Quraishi

It was a misty day, the best kind for a picnic, Shaheen thought. So it was a good thing her parents were finally taking her on one. She had been looking forward to it for all kinds of reasons. One was because school had been very irritating all week (they’d started learning fractions, which was almost worse than Jason making fun of the pakodas she’d brought for lunch on Tuesday). The second was that the picnic had been in talks for almost a month but kept getting delayed. The third reason was because Jamil was going to be there. He was her favorite family friend because he was nice, and quiet most of the time, so Shaheen liked talking to him. But the most important reason of all, and she always liked saving it for last because of how giddy it made her, was that this was going to be the baby’s first picnic.

“Mamma,” Shaheen called from the backseat, “can I still feed her later?”

“Ji, amma, I made a bottle for you,” her mother responded. “Just wait till we get there.”

They were in the car and Shaheen was using her finger to draw smiley faces in the windows. It was one of her favorite things about days like this, when the glass would mist over and create a perfect canvas for her. She looked over at the baby and wondered how long it would be before they could both draw together. What would she draw, Shaheen wondered?

Her little sister was seven months old now, seven months to Shaheen’s seven years, she liked saying. It would be the last time they could ever use the same number for their ages, so this was a special month. Shaheen knew something big was going to happen, and she hoped it would be today.

She was buckled up next to the baby’s car seat. It was backwards-facing, so no one but Shaheen could see her for the whole car ride. She leaned over and peeked in.

“She’s still awake!” she said.

Her father laughed. “Are you excited, Shannu mamma?”

“Yeah, I want to play with her when we get there.”

“Don’t wear her out,” her mother murmured, but Shaheen was barely listening. She was still watching the baby, how her eyes were wide open and staring straight into the back of the seat. She was so glad she wasn’t sleeping yet. That increased her chances of being awake for the whole picnic. And then they could take lots of pictures with the camera Shaheen made sure her father had brought. Maybe she’d give one of the cute smiles she’d learned to do recently. Shaheen had learned how to use the camera just in case she did. She reached into the cradlelike seat and gently rubbed her silken head, hoping to make her do it now. Instead, the baby’s eyes swiveled over onto her face.

A honeyed delight filled Shaheen’s body, and she sat still, watching back with bated breath. She loved when the baby looked at her. She had the biggest, cutest eyes, they were almost half the size of her whole face. They were usually brown, but in some lights they looked golden. Shaheen realized a while ago that their mothers’ were just like this when she’d caught the baby staring at her in the mirror and her first thought was, What are Mamma’s eyes doing in the middle of her face?

With the same finger she’d used to slice through the mist on the windows, Shaheen slowly stroked the baby’s cheek in circles, leaving streaks of shine on them. She had such round, plump cheeks. As round as her head, Shaheen thought. She saw that her pink cap, the one their mother had knit her, had slipped off to the side, so she picked it up and carefully readjusted it back over her downy black hair. Shaheen had had one as a baby too. It had been purple. She actually would have preferred pink, but that was okay because at least the baby got to have it.

She was still quietly staring at Shaheen, as though inspecting her face. She was so clever.

“Yaara,” she whispered, quietly enough to where neither of her parents would hear her over the car. “Do you know me? I’m your apa. Apa.”

They parked the car and started unloading the trunk, her father first unsnapping the car seat and adjusting it into a carrier. Shaheen pulled the baby bag out, checking to make sure the bottle was in its sleeve.

Their family friends had already arrived and spread out the picnic mats, one of them was even using the grill. Smells of salted cooking meat filled the air. Shaheen politely said “Salaam” to the aunties and uncles, stood stiffly as some of them kissed her, then promptly sat down on the mat next to the baby carrier and pulled the camera out of the bag. Her mother was on the other side of it, her face turned to one of the aunties’. Some of the kids were playing catch or tag. The adults conversed in jolly fashion, the uncles’ raucous laughter filling the air. This park was nice. Most of the people who came here looked like them and spoke Urdu. This was the only outdoors place her parents acted like they did at home.

“What are you doing?” Jamil had come over. He flopped himself onto the mat.

“Taking pictures,” she answered. “This is the baby’s first picnic.”

“I know. She’s so big now, woah!”

“Not that big,” Shaheen said swiftly. She hated whenever aunties said that. “She’s still just a baby. Did you know we’re the same age right now?” she said, coy. She wondered if he’d get it.

Jamil snorted. “How?”

“We’re seven years and seven months. Respectedly,” she added, proud at having remembered that word.

Oh. That’s cool. Hey, did you see Aladdin yet?”

“No. But our class might see it soon for a trip.”

“How soon? I think my mom’s taking me, Khalid and Najma next week. Wanna come?”

Shaheen was trying to aim the camera at Yaara properly, making sure she got the perfect angle of her in her little frilly yellow romper. The cool, damp air had blown a slight appley flush into her cheeks.

“I don’t know.” Jamil was quite a bit more talkative today. “I have to ask my mom.”

“You could ask her now,” he said.

Thankfully, her mother took that moment to say, “Aao, bachaon. Food’s ready.”

Shaheen pulled the milk bottle out of the bag. Thankfully it was still warm. Jamil ran off to get a plate of talawa gosht.

“Tum bhi khao, amma,” her mother said. “You can feed her afterwards.”

But Shaheen knew that meant her mother would just feed her while she was eating. She must have looked sad as she put the bottle down, because her mother suddenly said, “Acha, Shannu. I’ll feed you while you feed her. Okay?”

She took Yaara out of the carrier and gently placed her in Shaheen’s lap, covering her in a blanket. Then she uncovered the bottle and gave it to Shaheen, who slowly inched it into her mouth. Yaara started suckling away, making Shaheen think once again of how clever she was, knowing how to do that. The baby felt so warm on her bare knees. She felt heavy too, but not uncomfortably so. It struck Shaheen that the reason she felt so heavy was because babies weren’t like other people. When they were in your lap, they were all in your lap. They let themselves be as heavy as they were because they didn’t know how not to be. Whoever was holding them, they trusted to hold them properly, and right now that was Shaheen. Her face was very close to the baby’s, close enough so that she could see her own reflection in her eyes. She could smell milk emanating from her dewy cheeks, tinged with some faint jasmine too.

“Here.”

Her mother had sat behind Shaheen and pulled them both into her own lap, using one hand to hold them in place and the other to mix some food in the plate next to her into little round balls. This was a pleasant surprise. Her mother had been so busy since Yaara was born. It had been a while since she’d done something like this. It was a good thing Shaheen was a big girl, or else how would she have taken care of them both? The smell of jasmine grew stronger as she settled into her mother, and Shaheen wanted to close her eyes but made sure not to. She let her mother feed her morsels every few minutes as she alternated between eating them herself. Her arms were numbing. Yaara’s eyes were getting droopy.

“Mamma, I think she’s falling asleep,” Shaheen whispered, dismayed.

“Let her, Shannu. She’ll wake up again.”

“The picnic will be over.”

“At least you got to feed her. We’ll come back many more times, you know.”

“But I wanted to take pictures of her,” Shaheen tried saying calmly, blinking fast and praying inwardly that Yaara’s eyes would stop closing. She hadn’t even smiled today.

“You can take pictures with your friends, mamma. They were waiting for you. When she gets bigger, she’ll remember these things better.”

Shaheen swallowed and nodded.

“You took such good care of your sister, Shaheen. Go and play with them now.”

Shaheen decided she would. But later. Yaara’s eyes weren’t closed all the way yet. Being in her mother’s lap still felt nice. For now, she would stay until Yaara fell asleep, smelling of milk and baby powder, their mother’s scent of jasmine that she’d missed for a while floating about them like a veil. When Shaheen later learned that the sense of smell was more closely linked with memory than any of the other four, she would think of this moment. She went back to it seven years from now, when Yaara became her age and their mother had died. She would go back to it every year that followed.

Even after she had married Jamil, who would realize that he could no longer run away from his wife’s sister when she monopolized her care and attention. Even when Yaara never stopped running from Shaheen once their mother was gone and their father’s failing health took him to India, leaving Shaheen wishing that someone had warned her how sisters you raised tended to believe you didn’t really want them. Or the times Yaara would look at her and Shaheen was stunned to see their mother’s eyes in the middle of her face. The times she was plagued with guilt for spending the whole second half of her time with her mother in loving and wanting Yaara more. She would miscarry a child and bear the second one while fearing that it would drive Yaara even further away, resenting herself for resenting the thing that should have mattered more than a sister she should never have had to mother. But always, before the pain could transform into worse, she would go back to now, to the baby with the big drooping eyes who trusted Shaheen to hold, feed and love her as their mother held them both on this misty day.

The bottle was empty; she handed it up to her mother. It was time to burp the baby after which she would nap, but her gaze was fixed on Shaheen again.

“Mamma,” she whispered, “I think she’s watching me.”

“Api,” said Yaara.

Areej Quraishi

Areej Quraishi’s fiction appears or has received accolades from Entropy, Glimmer Train Press, CRAFT, Salamander Magazine and New Millennium Writings. She holds an MFA from the University of Washington-Seattle and is a BMI fellow and PhD candidate at UNLV. She is the Fiction Editor for Witness Magazine.

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