The Banyan Tree

Leanora’s needle pushed up through the thick canvas Teacher Raina gave her to work with, its sharp point coming out at the wrong angle and piercing her skin. Blood bubbled up on her fingertip, a round ball of it, growing larger and larger by the second. Beckoned by the cry of pain that escaped her lips, Teacher Raina’s eyes fell upon the blood-stained canvas in her lap.
“Again, Leanora?” she sighed, the frown lines on either side of her mouth coming out of hiding. She grasped the ruined canvas, pulling the edge of it with great effort until a strip tore off clean. She tied it around Leanora’s finger, fashioning it into a makeshift bandage. With no canvas to work on, Teacher Raina dismissed Leanora to lunch.
Dark clouds floated above, their bellies heavy with the day’s rain, groaning and threatening to unleash their mighty storm upon the Earth. Leanora’s food went untouched. The gray mash of vegetables Mother prepared for her sat out in the open, free to be feasted upon by the greedy insects that crawled beneath the dirt. She sat on the grass far away from the other girls.
Poor Leanora, they chanted. Little Leanora. Oh, how plain you are!
Mother told her to pay no mind to them, but their laughter could be heard from across the courtyard no matter how far away she sat. Heat rose up in her cheeks like the opening licks of a flame just before it raged out of control. Knowing they could see her reddening only made it worse. She hid her face out of sight, praying that the clouds would open up soon to put the fire out.
The other girls were beautiful, with hair like flowing black curtains carried by the wind. Each of them wore a long braid entwined with pretty golden ribbon on one side. Leanora once asked if she, too, could wear a long braid entwined with pretty golden ribbon. Mother sat at the kitchen table, a pot between her feet to catch potato shavings, her hands busy peeling and grating and chopping. Her hands were always busy doing something. She gave her daughter a disapproving sniff and said, “If you want to keep Hira waiting over a silly braid with silly ribbons, then let it be so.”
Leanora never mentioned it again.
Mother didn’t like the school much. Or Teacher Raina. She said they didn’t teach what really mattered. The important stuff. Which is why each morning, just as the sun peeked out from behind the trees of the forest at the start of a new day, Mother took Leanora and her brother out to the Banyan Tree for lessons. Leanora grew accustomed to the daily routine, no longer complaining at having to rise early while everyone else slept on in their warm feather bunks. The journey, which used to give her great difficulty, she now made with ease, the bottoms of her bare feet toughened from traveling the trail of rocks and twigs that led to their safe haven.
Leanora sat beneath the Banyan Tree, its trunks towering up from the earth and crisscrossing overhead in an intricate design that could only be a creation of the Gods. She listened to Mothers lessons. Tales of the God Hira and the Blessed Beings of Earth. The Fire Beings were Brother’s favorite. But hers were the Water Beings.
Leanora closed her eyes tighter than she ever knew she could. She imagined the Water Beings fulfilling their ritual as Mother described it. Opening up the clouds and releasing the God Hira’s tears. They were beautiful, as only the most innocent and pure souls could be. They looked much like regular people, at one point having been just that: God Hira’s creations of Earth looking up to him and praying to be chosen. They each took up a golden basin, a treasure given to them by Hira’s wife, Raffi. She forged them herself, spending tedious hours etching the distinct black markings on the outer surface to tell the unique story of how each of them came to be chosen. The Water Beings held up their golden basins to Hira as he wept, catching the holy teardrops before they were wasted on the unworthy. Leanora kept her eyes closed long after Mother finished her lesson. She could see them. Fragile, glowing bodies moving above her with an inhuman grace.
A deafening thunder clap filled the air and Leanora awoke from her day dream. The smallest of water droplets fell on her cheek. The other girls ran away from the rain, seeking shelter inside. Leanora smiled as the Water Beings opened up the clouds, washing away her impurities. This was what the Water Beings were created for, Mother said. To protect innocent souls. To keep them pure. Droplets trailed down her face, across her lips, and she parted them. The water dripped down to rest on her parched tongue, salty tears, and her heart swelled. Stay pure, Mother said. It was the only hope of being chosen.
Poor Leanora, they chanted. Little Leanora. Oh, how strange you are!
Leanora could hear them as she came in from the rain, looking no better than a drowned rat. Teacher Raina dragged her inside, going on and on about her catching cold as she handed her a spare set of clothes to change into in the washroom. The other girls sat perfectly dry in their flowing yellow dresses with their pretty golden ribbons in their hair. They were beautiful. But they would never be pure.
The Water Beings’ basins would never be emptied upon them.
As night fell, Leanora met with Brother at the fishing docks. His eyes found Teacher Raina’s spare uniform, kept only for the clumsy and accident prone. The material was thin, the color a faded orange that washed out her skin tone. It was most unnaturally plain, with no distinctive characteristics whatsoever. No decoration, no beading, no embroidery. No beauty. Just plain. It was the fifth time that month she met Brother after school wearing it. She expected him to comment, but he said nothing. Instead, he wrapped his warm arms around her and pulled her into a tight embrace. He whispered to her a mantra, words spoken in their family as a reminder to look to Hira in times of hardship.
“Head high,” he said.
Leanora’s heart fluttered at his words and her eyes cast toward the sky. The clouds had purged themselves of most of their weight. A light sprinkle fell, barely discernible through the crisp air of night. Little pinpricks of cold hit her face, working to wash the day away. And there in Brother’s arms for the briefest of moments, the world went quiet.

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