Story

Sticky Fingers

Sita says nothing but puts on her most polite smile. Of course, she’s always been good at that. The practised, stifling politeness of these gatherings.

The Greenhouse sits upon the crest of a hill, beneath the shade of an oak that was once my grandfather. The trail to the Greenhouse is dug out, the ground salted. No weeds grow here. Sita keeps her hand entwined with mine, perhaps afraid if I let her go, she will truly be on her own here. Still, she holds my hand without a single complaint. With my other hand, I hold the glass dish filled with Gulab Jamun. I hold it close to my chest, hoping it’ll protect me in the way I hope to protect Sita. 

The Greenhouse is older than all of us. It is built out of sandstone bricks, weathered by time and history. Inside, it is warmed by the kitchen hearth and the heavy scent of chai and my mother’s curry. I smelled it as I approached the Greenhouse, all the memories of childhood intertwined in the scent of cooking cumin seeds and turmeric. The main room of the Greenhouse is filled with a wooden table decorated with a red table runner, brass bowls, and dozens of candles. My sister’s favourite incense burns at the centre of the table. 

Sita takes my hand again as the sound of mother’s voice echoes from the kitchen. Her fingertips press into the palm of my hand, and oh how I wish I could take all her fear and hold it over the open flame of one of these countless candles. My Sita is gentle as she is beautiful, with asters that run down her throat and the pale birch of her skin. She knows my own fears and keeps them close to her heart, so that I might not bear any burden on my own. My sister rushes out of the kitchen, laden with copper bowls of curry, relish, dahl and roti. She looks at me with round brown eyes, then a smile slips. Her skin is a soft brown bark, sprouts growing from every crack along the surface. Honeysuckles circle her wrists, the curved petals bright as her shy smile. 

Father sits at the head of the table and sips his chai. My sister sits across from me, flustered. 

Then, she enters. The light from the hearth makes her shadow stretch, cloaking me. It twitches as the flames dance. She sets the chicken curry down on the table. 

“Ah, Juhi, you made time to come. And you brought your friend! I always love having another of your friends enjoy my curry,” Mother says. She smiles and pats Sita’s hand. I should be grateful, it looks like the best mood she’s been in for a while. Yet I can’t quite relax, with Sita so tense. Mother takes her place beside father and begins to serve out the meal onto his copper pan. 

“Of course, I made time, Mother. I always come home for the Winter Solstice,” I say, hiding the slight tremor in my voice well. 

Sita says nothing but puts on her most polite smile. Of course, she’s always been good at that. The practised, stifling politeness of these gatherings. I tear a piece of roti and begin to eat, pinching the curry and some of the okra and tomato between the roti. 

“How’s your family, Sita dear?” Mother eats daintily, not a single drop of curry staining her ash tree bark. No sprouts emerge from her limbs, only the amaryllis flowers clustered around the crown of her head offer any vibrancy. Sita swallows and clears her throat. 

“They’re well, thank you for asking. We’ll be seeing them tomorrow to celebrate the Solstice,” she says. Her words are braver than she knows. Mother says nothing but wrinkles her nose. A courage blooms in my chest. I slip the lid of the dish off, eyes locked with Mother’s. 

I don’t need to say anything, really. The sight of the dish is enough. For it is not my dish. These sweets, decadent and sticky as they are, are the bargaining chip of my childhood. It was never my place to make them, it has always been Mother’s. Sister, ignoring the remains of her okra, takes one and plops it into her mouth with a grin. 

Just like that, the unspoken rule is broken. 

A snarl creeps onto Mother’s lips. “I was going to make your favourite tomorrow like always, little Juhi. But since you’re going to your friend’s house, over your own family’s, I suppose there’s no point,” she hisses. The Winter light filtering through the windows dims as a flurry of snow descends. I sit back and meet her challenge. 

“I’ve already made dessert, so there’s no need to stress,” I say, motioning to the dish. I take Sita’s hand in mine and kiss her cheek. 

“And Sita is more than my friend, you know this. You’ve known this for a while, Mother. Her family is mine as well, now,” I say, louder than I ever have before. Silence settles over the room, thick and suffocating. Mother merely looks exasperated, like I’m a child that has slinked home covered in mud. 

“I remember, Juhi,” Sister says, softly. I give her a grateful smile and a nod. It was always hard for her, standing up to Mother. Sita tugs at my arm. 

“Maybe we should just go, Juhi,” she whispers. For a moment, I welcome the idea. Leaving would be so much easier. I’m pulled from the daydream when Mother’s chair scrapes across the sandstone, and she escapes to the kitchen. I curse under my breath and follow. 

I find her by the hearth, a terracotta cup in her hands half-filled with chai. She sits with her legs folded, the same way she would sit when she brushed my hair as a child. I settle beside her. 

“Why do you always forget her?” I ask the hearth. An ember hisses in reply. 

“I do not forget her…but perhaps I wish to. It would be easier, I think. Your sister wants to move out to her own Grove, but I choose to forget this too. I miss hearing your father speak, but I choose to forget it rather than waste time mourning the loss of his voice. Memories cannot hurt me, little Juhi, not if I bury them. The soil can remember for me,” Mother says. For the first time, I truly see the tiredness in her eyes. No malice, no condescension. Just a woman not willing to see reality, worn down from fighting the truth of things. 

Something else blooms in my chest, right beside the courage. 

“Come with me, tomorrow, Umma. Bring Father and Sister. Learn who Sita really is, and her family too. Know her and remember her.” 

Umma takes my hand and holds it. She nods, and it’s small and barely there but it is everything to me. We sit for a while and drink chai together, enjoying the warmth of the fire and tea. 

We sit in a silence that for once, is comfortable.

This story was about: Lesbianism Parenting Sexuality

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Isabelle Quilty (she/they) is a non-binary writer and poet from regional NSW, Australia. Most of their work is based around LGBTQ+ topics, working towards a greener future and works inspired by their South Asian culture. They’ve been published by a variety of magazines including Spineless Wonders Queer as Fiction Anthology, Kindling and Sage, Mascara Literary Review and Demure Magazine. They also have a bachelor’s degree in the Creative Industries and love a good oat milk iced latte.
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