Noor accepted the blame. But not nearly fast enough to prevent it being shoved on her. She heaped prodigious amounts of it on herself, but not nearly enough to bow under the weight of it, so others did their heaping and she did her bowing. And through it all she had the satisfaction of finally hearing out loud what she had held in silence till then. The noise and thrill of being found monstrous by an entire building full of concerned animal-loving neighbours was a relief after her own silently chanted “pincher, kicker, spiker, shouter” and the even softer “careless” Haseena had flung over her shoulder.
They came knocking the next day. The early risers, stumbling in toward the bathroom at the end of the corridor, could not see in the dark, and so they stepped on the broken bodies. People reported with relish – thirteen dead.
Later in the morning the cat was observed licking its paws on the sun-splashed ledge that ran the length of the corridor. But then this was the customary time of day for the cat to sunbathe. Talib’s friend, the cat’s owner – Ashish – claimed this as fact. It couldn’t have been his cat.
Noor hung her head – it wasn’t the cat’s fault.
Even if she had never seen the cat on that ledge before, even if the cat were there to revel in its crime, it was only doing what was in its nature. It was Noor’s fault. She was the one who had failed to secure the thirteen pigeons in their coop the night before. Failed to do it even after her mother had called her to – and Noor could hear her mother’s instructions quite clearly now:
“Noor?” her mother had called to her from inside. “Spread your brother’s quilt and sheet for him. Dinner is ready. Let him sleep as soon as he eats. He has to be at work later tonight.
“And Noor don’t forget to lock the pigeons up. Your brother flew them earlier this evening. He isn’t going to want them out for any reason now. Not with that cat about.”
“Yes, Ammi,” she had replied, never paying attention to what she was agreeing to.
At 7 am the gory mess was still spread about. Morning light shone bright, allowing those in line for the bathroom to skirt the area around the charpai. Ammi sat by the stove, her head in her hands. She refused to light the stove, refused Baba tea when he asked for it. Noor was frightened. Should she step out with the pail and cloth, to clean the floor before her brother returned from work? But how to touch those mangled bodies?
Baba headed out the door to forestall Talib, and met him rushing up the stairs. Talib had already been told the news. Neighbour children had lain in wait for him eager to see what would happen to the expression on his face when he heard. He had heard them out with unchanging eyes and only on reaching the stairs did he react – he took the steps in twos and threes. At the front door, he reached around his father to slap his sister. Noor danced from his reach.
In the past such an encounter would have been accompanied by squealing and pleading on her part. But she was silent now. And so was Talib. Silently, he batted at her while his father held him off, then breaking free he turned to the dead birds. He counted – piecing together torn wings and limp bodies, scraping up clumps of feathers to confirm what everyone had already guessed – yes, all of them, all thirteen, gone.
“Not one left,” he kept repeating disbelievingly. Neighbours tut-tutted.
“Was the latch not properly secured?” they asked solicitously. Though of course, by now everyone knew the facts of the case – Talib had reared these birds, starting with his first pair when he was a boy of eight or nine. Among his pigeons were lal and kala chapka, white kagdi and kasni kasak, some pigeons sleek and grey and trained to fight, others pure white and fan-tailed, trained to dance. All of them trained to fly together, trained to come when Talib called.
He searched in the mess for his favourite – his only Neelam kaathwa – he had raised with a bottle dropper and mutton fat when its mother refused to feed it, pecking it and pushing it from her nest.
The neighbours knew the birds had been left out overnight. That it was Noor who had failed to count them off and lock them up – this after she had let them out to play with them, let them out from the safety of their home, the coop Talib built for them and had secured them in earlier.
No, it was not the failure of a loose latch, it was the failure of the girl, a careless child. Though old enough to have some sense of responsibility, she was seen running around the neighbourhood, head uncovered and wild, when she should be home helping her hardworking mother, or at the least applying herself to her studies.
The tut-tutting was endless. It included in its scope her unlegendary marks at school, her altogether unamazing record as a talentless child (she could not sing or dance or cook or mend a ripped seam), and even her unremarkable looks that everyone agreed could be summed up with “too thin, too dry, altogether ordinary.”
Noor relished all of it – her eyes hard, her fists bunched where she had tucked them under her armpits – she scowled fiercely at the ground. Now everyone knew what she had known all along. She, pincher, kicker, spiker, shouter, whirler of arms, and most recently, pigeon killer, was a careless girl. Care Less. Without a care for others. Wasn’t that what Haseena had accused her of yesterday?
Noor banished herself to the darkness under the stairs.
But soon enough it was time for her to head to school. Someone must just have cleaned the mess because when she tiptoed upstairs, the corridor outside the front door was shining wet and the smell of disinfectant hung heavy in the air.
Baba was long gone. Ammi put her finger to her lips. Talib never looked up. Noor went to the corner, pulled the curtain around her. When she stepped out in her uniform, Ammi was waiting with her lunchbox and a rolled up roti for her breakfast. Noor left as silently as she had entered, skirting at the last the bucket and cloth by Talib’s feet.
When she reached the spot near the kooradan where she had stopped the previous day to write to her aunt, she pulled the letter from her bag and ripping it to pieces she threw it from her. The bits of paper clumped together, then came apart and hardly travelling a foot from her, landed all around her. Of this she was sure: she did not deserve a bicycle.
She surveyed the mess all around her. Yes, she would give up her bicycle dream. Maybe she should go to Haseena and tell her that she would be happy to live without a bicycle if it meant Haseena could be happy. “I’d give up anything for you,” she rehearsed her apology to Haseena. Noor knew how stupid she sounded and how unrelated to Haseena’s happiness or her brother’s unhappiness her green bicycle was. And the truth, she admitted to herself, was that her bicycle dream was just a dream. Giving up the dream was not the same as giving up an actual cycle.
She wondered if she should pick up the pieces of paper. Maybe they could be pieced together and she could recopy the letter on a fresh page of her notebook. She bent down to a scrap of white that had swirled back to stick to her socks.