Rain had fallen the night before, a heavy, soaking rain that forced the Roses Alley inhabitants to lock themselves inside their homes since early afternoon, fearing this yearís spring had started off on a wrong foot. But to everybodyís delight the morning dawned shiny and beautiful. Nobody had ever seen their alley immersed in such vivid colors and flower perfumes before.
Happiest of all without a single doubt, was Tut, the street pauper, who made a habit of sleeping at the corner of house number 14, covered with old cardboard boxes and rags. He yawned and stretched happily, pulling away the heap of dripping plastic covers that had sheltered him the night before. Smiling at the red roses that hung from the surrounding house walls he began singing a low tune.
Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! The sun is here again!
Rainy days are over aní nothing will be the same!
Then he jumped to his feet and started an odd thanksgiving dance going crazily round himself, creating even odder figures with his arms and legs. His voice now rose to a high pitch:
Hooray! Hooray! Hooray! You evil, wicked rain.
My heart is full of joy Ďcause yí wonít hurt me no more!
At that precise moment the front door of house number 14 flung open and an elegant woman in a dark suit rushed out. She stumbled on the doorway, bumping into dancing Tut, and in the twinkling of an eye both of them were hurled to the ground.
The purse the woman was carrying fell open. Sheets of colored paper, pencils, pens, candies wrapped in tinfoil and other merry-looking knick-knacks scattered all over the place, fascinating Tut who made no efforts to spring to his feet. So much stuff coming out of such a small purse! That was something Tut could talk about for weeks with the next blockís popper.
"My Goodness, Iíll miss the plane," the woman complained, hurrying to collect the scattered things.
"Dara!" Tut let out a piercing cry. "You told me the rainy season would finish precisely today. And it did. You were also right when you advised me against changing location. How would you know that place was haunted? Well, I have always loved ghosts, but in that case I was not amused. And, hey! What about my sandals?"
"What about them?" the woman seemed bothered.
"How would you know they hung on a tree? I had never hung my sandals there. I hadnít even seen that tree before. You hit the nail right to the head once more. I wonder," he whispered, "How is it possible you are never wrong? You know what?" He took a solemn posture. "I promise to always be your humble servant. You are the greatest magician of all time!"
"Tut, get over that." Daraís voice sounded harsh. "Youíd better help me out with this."
"Yes, boss!" Tut rushed to collect the scattered sheets of paper.
"This is not a good omen." The woman was thinking aloud. "No sir, it surely isnít. And that dream of last night..."
"Boss whatís this?" Tut lifted from the ground a wooden five points star inside a circle. Dara snatched it from his hand and put it in her bag. She threw a quick glance at her wrist watch.
"My goodness, the conference, I am so late."
"Boss, your star has been broken." Tut held the tiny wooden piece out to her. Daraís eyes grew larger with terror. Without saying goodbye she turned and hurried back to the house.
"I hold the belief," Tut said, shaking his head in disapproval, "this woman, Dara, is a bit nuts. And what is more she shows no signs of respect. They are right to say all professors are nuts."
"And now," he screamed, approaching the dumpster situated just below the sidewalk "letís see whatís in this dumpster for Tut today."
House 14 had a nice front patio full of vases of different sizes and shapes. Amazing flowers and the rarest of plants grew in these vases. Dara had always had a green thumb. But while she was rushing to get inside, she unwittingly tumbled on a bluebell plant and overthrew a pot of young mint.
On any other occasion she would have stopped to take care of the mess but now she was in a hurry. She pushed opened the glass door and run upstairs to her daughter Niís bedroom. She had to make her way through a huge pile of packages tied with colorful ribbons to get to the bed, where Ni was busy unwrapping presents. It was Nirupaís tenth birthday. Nirupa was a thin child with flaming red curly hair and a freckled face which went well with her gleaming grass green eyes. She had a turned-up nose which made her look disdaining, but really Nirupa was a good natured little girl and very polite indeed.
Nirupa took after her father, the same red curls. Her mother Dara had long jet black hair. When she combed it the hair would take shades of electric blue. What else had Nirupa inherited from her father? She couldnít tell. Nirupa had never met him. Heíd left when Nirupa was still in diapers.
Nirupaís mother, Dara, was an archeologist who traveled the world. During an expedition in India ten years ago, Nirupa, now called Ni, was born. Dara adored India. Although she had not returned since Nirupaís birth, she had never forgotten India. For years Dara had lulled Ni to sleep with wonderful bedtime stories about India. Some were true stories of adventures that had happened during expeditions. Others were magical stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Dara knew great stories of princess and princesses, of kings and queens, of wise monkeys, of Gods and Goddesses, of the little Ganesh who grew up to be a wise and benevolent God even though he had to carry the head of an elephant instead of his own. That was the story Ni particularly liked and Dara never tired of telling it to her daughter. Ever since she could remember, Nirupa and her mother had traveled. Ni had grown into a young lady without calling any place home. But the travelling came to an end the day Dara received an invitation from the Littletown University. She was to be professor of Antique History and Pagan Pre-Christian Religions. The university staff had pleaded with her to join them. This convinced Dara to make one final move. But there was another reason why Dara decided to move to Littletown along with Nirupa. Dara had decided it was time to give her daughter a real home and a quiet life.
So they moved to Littletown, to Roses alley. Nirupa and Dara immediately fell in love with the house, the roses and the creeping ivies that covered the walls.
Now, less than a year after their move Dara and her daughter agreed that moving here was the best decision ever. Nirupa pulled her nose out of the mountain of boxes and looked at her mother in amazement.
"Why did you come back, Mom?"
"Hey baby," Dara began. "Maybe I shouldnít go at all. Itís your birthday today. I shouldnít leave you alone today."
Nirupa sighed. "Yeah, right," she said. "You are not used to leaving me alone. Donít forget I am ten now." She frowned. "Iíll be okay, and you shouldnít miss the conference."
Dara hugged her daughter. "Promise youíll behave yourself. Be good to Lisa. Sheíll be here any minute now. Donít climb on walls or the roof. Have breakfast. Donít walk barefooted. DonítÖ"
"I promise," Ni said. While she was speaking, a thick book came off the shelf and swooped towards her bed softly resting in Niís hands.
"Nirupa!" her mother said. "Havenít I told you not to play such tricks? We are a respectable, normal family"
"Sorry, Mom. I forgot."
"Keep your self-control," Dara insisted. "I am not at all sure I should go. Iíll go only if you promise me to be good. I give you my word weíll celebrate tonight on my return."
Nirupa nodded. "Iíll be fine," she said. You can tell me when you come back all about the new hypotheses on Atlantis. And, oh, Mom," Nirupa leaned forward and grabbed her momís hand, "Can I keep your ruby ring, just for today? Please?Ē
Dara looked down at her hand. The ring shone suddenly with a bright flare. "This is your grandmaís ring. Itís not a toy."
"Yeah, yeah! So when I grow up, it will be mine, whereas now I may lose it. End of the story. You wonít let me hold it." Nirupa knew she sounded upset. As long as she remembered her motherís ring had always been outside her reach for a reason or another.
"Right!" Dara smiled, gave her daughter a kiss on the cheek, and still a bit hesitantly she stood up to go. It was her first time to travel without Ni. The conference was part of a long study on lost civilizations. Dara, being an expert in the field, had the status of a special guest.
"My little girl has grown up," she thought to herself, "so I should give her more freedom." So reasoning she swallowed down the lump of anxiety inside her throat.
Upon hearing the front door close, Nirupa jumped from her bed. "At last, alone!" she thought happily. Now for the very first time she could spend the whole day doing whatever she pleased. She rushed into her motherís bedroom and pulled all her clothes out of the wardrobe. She began to try them on in front of the mirror. She imagined herself a princess locked away inside a doorless tower by a wild dragon, waiting for her prince to rescue her. She tried her motherís beads around her neck, and each kind of lipstick. But soon she was bored with it all. What a disappointing birthday! At least last year, when they were still living in France, her mother had taken her to Disneyland. Her motherís best friend Lisa had come. Theyíd dined at the cottage of Andrika, the witch. The walls of the cottage were built of thick milk and almond chocolate, the windows of sugar flakes. Candies hung from the walls and ceiling and Nirupa remembered grabbing some and popping them into her mouth.
But then Nirupa remembered the ride she took on the ghost train at Disney Land. During the second cycle the train had suddenly slipped off the tracks while passing by the house of the Bloody Henchman. It turned to the left moving toward a wide hatchway that opened up under her feet in a flash of light. At first, Ni was thrilled at the thought of being a passenger, but later when she realized they were off course and passing through an uncharted tunnel, she was terrified. The train increased its speed, and Nirupa felt the breath of someone on her face and heard a weak voice calling her name. She closed her eyes tightly expecting the calamity to happen. She was surprised a few seconds later when she found herself outside at the station with her mother and Lisa laughing and waving at her. When she told Dara what had happened, Dara went to look for the train manager. Ni recalled how the Frenchman gawked and made a wry face.
"Madam," he said indignantly, "the train moves along a fixed trajectory, and each part of the phantom city is mere cardboard, you know, Áíest une fiction, pas de danger 1."
The other passengers confirmed that nothing strange had happened though the ride itself was so frightful that made your hair stand on end.
Ni remembered thinking it weird that Dara didnít argue. The next day, they left France forever. This disappointed Ni because she did love her school and had made many friends there.
Nirupa sighed, "Thatís what an only child has to go through."
Her greatest wish was to have a sister or a brother. But if she didnít have a father, how could she have a sister or a brother? Ni knew that babies were not brought by storks or found under cabbages.
Nirupa was lonely. Dara, obsessed with Niís safety, didnít grant her the slightest bit of freedom. Ni always envied the other kids who played with other kids, climbed the trees, run, laughed and made their clothes dirty, things her mother would never allow even if she lay flat on the floor sobbing her heart out. Nothing like that would have worked with her mother. Thinking these sad thoughts, Nirupa thought it would have been better not to have been born. Just when she was about to burst into crying that would please every pore of her soul, a tiny white shiny thing landed on at the tip of her nose.
"Mmmeh," Nirupa exhaled. "Mom has smashed the bluebell off once again!"
She rose to her feet, grasped the two pleats of her nightgown with both hands, bowed with great reverence, and extended a hand to the tiny light.
"Dear Madame," she spoke, "would you be so kind as to land on my hand so that I can take you down to your palace?" The tiny light immediately landed on Nirupaís palm, and the girl went down to the garden.
"I knew it," Nirupa said. "Once again Mom has smashed Miss Bellís home." She tried to straighten the root her mother had broken, but every effort failed. Then Nirupa thought of something. She crouched over a nearby healthy bluebell flower and breathed in its smell. Nothing happened. She again breathed in its smell for such a long time it almost made her cough.
"Miss Xeel," please come out now and donít pretend you are not hearing me because I know very well you are there," Nirupa spoke with determination, but still kindly. "Donít be mean. Miss Bell is homeless now, and it would cost you nothing to give her shelter for a few days until her plant grows up again."
The tiny light flew from her hand and next to her ear.
"I know, I know," Nirupa said to her when she gibbered something at her, "but we can do nothing about it. Besides," She raised her voice," I believe Miss Xeel will love the turquoise earrings I just received for my birthday. They are so shiny." Nirupa giggled cunningly.
At that moment, another tiny light of light violet color came out of the flower and flew around Ni.
"Okay, weíve made a deal now," the girl said. "The moment Miss Bell goes back home, Iíll bring you the earrings. Itís not that I donít trust you, but thatís fairer all around."
"Nirupa, honey, who are you talking to?" Nirupa heard a voice behind her back. Lisa, who had come to stay with Nirupa, stood behind her carrying shopping bags in both hands.
"The fairies," Nirupa said, without thinking. "These plant fairies are so stubborn I am running out of ideas to make them stop falling out on each-other."
"Aha, with the fairies," Lisa smiled. She saw no tiny light of any kind, but knowing Nirupa since she was a baby, Lisa had become used to her flights of fancy. Ni was always seeing or hearing things. Once, for example, she had sworn by all that was holy she had seen Cleopatra, the Great Queen of Egypt, in her room, hiding inside the Chinese flower vase. Dara got angry whenever Ni told her stories, and made her promise to stop, but Ni couldnít seem to keep her promise.
"Well," Lisa thought, "it isnít easy for a little girl whoís grown up midst antique civilizations, legends and fantastic journeys. Why shouldnít she live in her own world?" In Lisaís opinion, Dara was overreacting. Nirupa would give up her fantasies in the course of time.
"Iíll be in the kitchen," Lisa said stroking Nirupaís hair lightly. "Do you want anything special for dinner? Iíll make the chocolate cake the way you like it because today is your birthday.
Nirupa nodded dreamily. "Lisa, I wish I had a friend. My Mom never lets me go anywhere alone."
Lisa sighed. "Why do you say so sweetie? You have so many friends at school. Call one of them to come over!"
Nirupa jumped to her feet and folded her arms. "Ever since the day the eel got out of the aquarium and I made it turn inside just by gazing at it all the kids at school stay away from me. They donít like it when I make my books fly. I think they are all afraid of me. When I go past them they whisper and call me names. No one would come if I invite them over. And donít forget, Lisa, Mom doesnít want me to bring anyone over either." Ni grabbed Lisaís hand looking anguished. "Lisa, do you think I am a freak?"
Lisa hugged Ni, sniffing to hide the turmoil of her emotions.
"Nirupa," she said. "You are the sweetest, the wisest and the most un-freak little girl I know."
"Then why does all of this happen to me? Why can I do things other people canít"?
"Listen to me." Lisa grabbed her shoulders and pushed her away enough to look into her eyes. "Yours is a gift, Nirupa. You are so lucky to have it. Donít you listen to what they say."
"Iíd rather have a close friend," Ni said. "I donít want to be lucky; I just want to be like everybody else."
Lisa rose to her feet.
"I am going to bake the cake," she said. "If you like, come and help me. You can beat the eggs."
Ni saw Lisa wiping her eyes as she stepped inside the house. Lisa and Dara were childhood friends. Their friendship went back to elementary school. They had also attended the same university and both graduated in Ancient History Studies. When Dara left for India, along with the archaeological team, Lisa had broken off a very good labor contract in her home country and went along with her. She had been Daraís maid of honor at her wedding day and was Nirupaís godmother as well. She had not abandoned her friend even when Dara had had to leave India together with her baby daughter following a painful and complicated divorce.
Lisa herself had never married probably because her job took all her time or possibly because she felt whole with just Dara and Nirupa.
Nirupa stepped out of the doorway. She looked over at the road. The first thing she noticed were Jane Howard and Violet Holt, sitting a little further down on the low ledge protecting the public flower garden, talking and laughing with each other. Nirupa, Jane and Violet went to the same school, but only Jane was Nirupaís classmate. Jane and Violet were close friends, and everybody knew that. They also were two haughty little girls because both their families were extremely wealthy.
Jane was always picking on Nirupa in school, saying that Nirupa was into black magic. And Daraís meeting with the headmistress hadnít changed a thing. Nirupa knew the best thing to do was stay away from Jane.
Nirupa was about to get back inside when she caught the sight of Claire Rench, Fiona Heaney and Melissa Benson coming in her direction. Melissa waved at her from the distance. Melissa was the only girl in her class that still talked to her. Melissa separated from her friends and ran toward Nirupa.
Nirupa glanced at the others, who stood back, whispering with each other. Poor Melissa! She would get the empressesí revenge. They would not forgive her for greeting Nirupa, for being her friend. Melissa was the best pupil of the class. She was living with her grandmother since her parents had passed away in a road accident. Melissa was somehow difficult to figure out as she never took sides and always spoke her own mind.
"Hey, Ni, whatís up?" Melissa bent to kiss Ni on her cheek. Nirupa did the same, concealing her great astonishment, whereas the other girls glared in the distance.
"Why are you here alone?"
"Well...," Nirupa began to speak, "today I must stay home ... and my mom has gone to a conference..." she was already stammering.
"Stay home on Sunday morning?!" Melissa looked astonished. "Weíll skip rope. Come join us."
Nirupa felt her heart beating at neck-breaking speed, without knowing what to say. "I canít...ícause todayís my birthday, and I have to help Lisa bake the cake."
But Melissa insisted, and pulled Nirupa along with her by her hand.
Lisa, watching out the window, looked happy that Nirupa was going out to play. "Donít worry! I wonít tell your Mom!" She crossed her fingers smiling. "Honey, come on, go play with your friends, but just stick around. Dinner will be ready within an hour." The other girls seemed rather astonished of Nirupaís courage in joining them. All eyes turned at Jane. But before she could say a thing, Melissa did. "With Nirupa, weíll have two complete teams with three players each. We wonít have to wait for Emma whoís certainly still asleep."
"Demalastro, do you really think you know how to skip rope?" Jane asked. It was clear she was seething with anger inside. She could not get back at Melissa now; she needed Melissaís help with those complicated math problems at which Melissa excelled.
Nirupa clenched her fists. Jane had called her by her fatherís last name, which she didnít use. How that viper had come to know about it was a mystery.
Nirupa didnít like to talk about her father. She didnít know him. She knew he was a foreigner Ė a Spaniard Ė and that he and her Mom had met at the same archaeological expedition in India.
In Nirupaís imagination, her father was a tall and handsome man with red hair like hers and eyes as green as grass. She always dreamed as though she met him and they took together long strolls along the lake, talking about everything that might come to oneís mind. Nirupa would ask him why he had not come before and he, caressing her curls, would answer that it had been impossible for him to come earlier, although he missed his little daughter a lot. But this time it was for good, he wouldnít leave home any more.
Nirupa had no photo of her father; she didnít know where he lived; she had no idea whether she had grandparents or uncles from his side, therefore she imagined him as she pleased it, truly believing her father would come back home one day. It was just a matter of time. Unfortunately, all the wedding photos were burnt to ashes when their home in Mumbai was destroyed by fire; more or less, by the time her mother had left India for good. Her mother had told her only a few things about her father and, whenever Nirupa inquired about him wanting to know more, she would tell her that her father loved her, although he didnít know her, and that would end the conversation. Why her parents had divorced was a secret Dara kept fanatically. Nirupa didnít use her fatherís last name because, being a foreign last name would arouse curiosity and she didnít want to feel uncomfortable by peopleís questions.
But Nirupa didnít react to Janeís jibe. She gave Melissa a grin, and joined her team instead. They tossed up to decide who would go first.
What good luck! Jane would spin the rope, and Nirupa would jump first. Jane caught the rope angrily. Nirupa saw as Violet whispered something in Janeís ear, but Melissa too was determined to stir waters a bit.
"Today is Nirupaís birthday." Melissa poked enthusiastically.
"What? Today is the thirteenth of the month?" Violet replied wickedly and the rest of them burst into laughter.
"Or," Claire went on, "itís the year six hundred sixty six." And she laughed wildly at her own words. Jane looked at her angrily.
"Claire, youíre a dolt." She whispered.
Both Melissa and Nirupa laughed.
"But years do change, girl," Melissa said to Claire. "What about your birthday then? Wouldnít you have a birthday falling on the Year of the Beast too?"
After that the rest of the morning passed smoothly. Although hostility was in the air, Nirupa enjoyed herself just a bit too much. For the first time she had a friend on her side, and she didnít care at all about those who wished her ill.
They went on playing until noon and then the girls stopped and sat on the ledge of the flower garden. Violet and Fiona, the last to spin the rope still held the ropeís handles, while the rope rested on the pavement like a dead serpent.
Lisa appeared at the door.
"Nirupa," she called out. "Lunch is ready." Nirupa sprang to her feet,
"Iíll come in a minute." Lisa disappeared inside the house again, and Nirupa returned to sit at her spot. While moving toward the ledge, she crossed the lying rope and jumped over it. At that precise moment, Jane and Violet exchanged quick meaningful glances and the latter pulled the rope just when Nirupa was dragging her leg. Niís foot got tangled up in the rope. She lost her balance and fell to the ground. Melissa and Fiona screamed, but Jane, Violet and, after a while, Claire burst out laughing. Nirupa tried hard to rise to her feet, holding her bleeding knee with her hand. Her palms were scratched too, but her knee was badly injured. But she didnít feel the pain. Her anger blocked any kind of sensitivity in her. Melissa gave Nirupa her own clean handkerchief to stop the bleeding. Jane was still laughing.
"Sorry, Demalastro, I canít help it. You have no idea how funny you look. Boom! Like a sack of potatoes."
"Jane, stop it!" Melissa cut her off. "Canít you see Ni is hurt?"
"So? Is that my fault? Why doesnít she mind her steps?" Jane glared at Melissa.
"We all saw Violet pull the rope." Melissa glared back at her. "You should be ashamed! All of you."
Violet made a face. "Once upon a time witches were burnt on the stake," she said. "How merciful has world become since!"
Before Melissa had time to reply, Violet received a punch to her face, swiftly delivered by Niís right arm, which made her mute for a few moments.
"Yours is a freaksí family," Violet howled once she was able to pull herself together. "Thereís no wonder you donít have a Dad. No normal human being would ever live with you and your Mom."
"Donít ever mention my Mom, or youíll be sorry!" Nirupa clenched her hands tight to keep from pulling Violetís hair. She was feeling outraged. Her attempts at ignoring the wickedness around her had abysmally failed and Ni felt she was ready to fight.
"So what?" she heard Jane taking Violetís side. Melissa grabbed Nirupaís hand and squeezed it hard. She was sure a fierce fight would follow. But, strangely enough, Nirupa calmed down completely.
"Youíll see." Nirupa said. "Youíll all see." Pointing her index finger at Jane, Nirupa mumbled under her breath.
Hathi aya, Hathi aya.
Soond hilata hathi aya
Chalta phirta hathi aya
Joom joom kar hathi aya
Kaan hilatta hathi aya
"I just cursed you!" she said. If I were you I wouldnít sleep tonight." Nirupa turned around and limped away, secretly satisfied to see the terrified look on Janeís face. Her wounded knee had started to hurt a lot. Slowly Ni staggered home. Tears of rage rolled down her cheeks. If only she really could curse Jane! But all sheíd done was chant a nursery rhyme in Hind language, one her mother used to sing to her when she was little.
Lisa was upset when she heard. She made Nirupa sit in an armchair and began to dress her wounds. Ni sobbed, not because of pain; but because of her anger and her wounded pride.
"I shouldnít have let you go out alone. Itís all my fault," Lisa said. "Donít move, honey! Just wait a little, and Iíll be done. Iíll make them pay through the nose. I swear. Stupid children! Theyíll see!"
"No, Lisa. Donít say anything to them!" Nirupa pleaded. "And donít tell Mom. Nirupa wiped her tears with the palm of her hand. "Iím fine. Letís forget about it because today is my birthday. I donít want to worry about anything."
"Yes, of course, honey," Lisa replied "Letís have lunch. Letís try my masterpiece--your birthday cake."
Nirupa set the table. She laid out the silver cutlery because it was a special day. The dinner looked delicious; roasted potatoes and green beans on a white sauce. But Nirupa didnít feel like eating at all. Neither of them ate much. Nirupa couldnít get the happenings of the day off her mind however hard she tried. Lisa was quiet all through the meal. Finally Ni swallowed a small piece of chocolate cake, only because Lisa had made it especially for her. "Iím going to my room to draw."
"I almost forgot," Lisa said while Nirupa was washing her hands, "a while ago another birthday package arrived.
"A package?!" Nirupa asked. "Who from?"
"No idea," Lisa replied. "The name of the sender was not written on it. Wait a minute. Iíll go and get it. Lisa left the room and returned carrying a parcel of an average size, wrapped in a simple blue paper and tied with a golden ribbon.
"Oh look," she said, "I didnít notice it before. The package came from Spain. It is quite strange indeed."
Nirupa untied the ribbon with impatience and tore the wrapping paper. Under the first one, she found another second plastic wrapping, glued properly.
"It must be something important," Lisa observed. "Otherwise, why pack it so well?"
The wrapping was so hard to tear that Lisa brought the scissors from the kitchen to open it.
Finally Nirupa was holding a strange-looking, book. The leather cover was black and the sides of the book were golden tipped. On the cover there was a five pointed star turned upside down and placed inside a golden circle. Below the star there was something written in a foreign language. Nirupa opened the book. Her mouth fell open. All the pages contained handwriting in the same foreign language. The book was full of symbols, hieroglyphs and mysterious signs, some of which left the impression of cooking recipes, but, of course, in a language Nirupa was unable to understand.
Still astonished, she looked again at the front cover.
"Lisa what does El libro de las sombras mean," Nirupa asked her, "what language is this?"
She raised her eyes to look at Lisa, but the latter had completely frozen with her goggled eyes as though she had seen some kind of ghost.
Ni pulled her by her hand. "Whatís the matter, Lisa?"
Lisa pulled herself together in an instant.
"Oh, nothing. Nothing to worry about," she stammered. "I donít know what those words mean. I think they have sent it to the wrong address."
Nirupa shook her head. "How could that be the wrong address when my name was written on it? How many Nirupas do you know around here?"
"Anyway, I think weíd better show it to your Mom first," Lisa said snatching the book from Nirupaís hands.
"Itís mine," Nirupa cried stubbornly. "Lisa, give it to me!"
Lisa pretended as though she had heard nothing and turned to go away carrying the book with her. But Nirupa didnít give up. She followed Lisa crying as loudly as she could that the book was hers and she wanted it back immediately.
"Shug," Lisa tried to calm her down, "you saw it yourself that the book is in a foreign language. You donít need it. It must surely be for your Mom, but the name on it is just a slip- up. You know your Mom doesnít like other people to touch her things."
"Okay," Nirupa agreed. "Give it to me so that I can look once more at the language itís written in." Ni was being sneaky. She was surely feeling intrigued by the book, but Lisaís insistence on withholding it from her was just increasing her curiosity ten folds. And Ni wanted to know what it was all about.
"Very well, here it is," Lisa said, "but I wonít give it to you. Look at it while I am holding it." She lowered the book so that Nirupa could see it better, but didnít allow the girl to touch it.
Nirupa bent over the book in those few seconds Lisa allowed her to satisfy her curiosity, and then something strange happened. The letters of the book moved from their places. They really moved, swirled around, twisted, and mixed with each other and when they finally set in order again Nirupa could clearly read on the leather cover: "The Book of Shadows".
"Lisa, it translated by itself," Nirupa whispered.
Lisa leafed through the book anxiously, whereas Nirupa stood on her tiptoes to have a better view.
Indeed, the book was no more in that foreign language and could be clearly read in their own mother tongue.
"Give it to me!" Ni pulled the book from Lisaís hands, but Lisa wouldnít let go.
"I wonít give it to you until your Momís home. Donít even think of it!"
"Itís mine, I want it!"
"We already settled that, Nirupa. No discussion!"
Lisa wouldnít let go of the book, but Nirupa had gripped its corner, and didnít intend to give up. They both tugged insistently at the book, which would have torn to pieces had it not slipped from of Lisaís hand. Ni, who was vigorously pulling at the book, was hurled against the cupboard. She collided with it falling on the ground. The cupboard shook and wobbled and the china teacups, those with a flower design on upper sides that Dara particularly loved, fell from the cupboard on the floor with a great rumble shattering to pieces. The book made two swirls in the air. Its pages wide-open before it fell on the floor. As for the china teacups nobody could do much anymore, so both of them ĖNi and Lisa, rushed toward the book. Lisa was the first to reach the book. She raised it from the floor and pressed it tightly against her chest with both hands. She failed to notice that something had slipped out of the book. A white envelope rested on the floor just at Nirupaís feet. Ni grabbed it.
"Itís for me," she cried reading her name on the envelope.
"Nirupa, give that to me right now!" Lisa ordered.
But Nirupa did the one thing Lisa didnít expect. She rushed inside the bathroom and locked the door.
Lisa pounded on the door. "Nirupa, come out right now."
Lisa kept on banging on the door furiously, but Nirupa ignored her. She sat on the closed toilet lid and tore open the envelope. She pulled out the yellowish letter inside. It took her several moments to get used to that spiral handwriting.
"My dearest daughter!"
When you receive this letter I will not be with you for sure. I would have liked to give you in person the gift of your tenth birthday and be with you so that I could hug and kiss you as I have always wished to do, but such is life for me; unpredictable and with so few joys. Strong reasons keep us apart, none of which has anything to do with my loving for you. You are the most precious gift of my life and, although you have never seen me, be sure that your father loves you very dearly. The day will soon come when we shall be together. After that nothing will ever come between us, and you will be given the place you deserve and live the destiny that has been predetermined before you were born.
Ten years old is the age when many crossroads open up before you and the time to choose your path is rapidly approaching. This is precisely the reason why I am sending you this precious gift. I ask you to treat it with respect and love. It is the key to your life and will help you understand who you really are. You should know that you are the birth of a new age, the predetermined prophecy that expects to be fulfilled to change the face of the world.
Keep the book next to you and whenever you work with it, think of your father. Until we are together again it will be my worthy substitute and your trustful guide. Once more I wish you A Happy Birthday!
I send you a kiss and a hug.
Carlos Hechizo Demalastro
Lisa continued banging on the door. But the world had gone blank for Nirupa. She read and reread the letter until she learned it by heart. She couldnít believe it; her dream was coming true. Her father, in person, was promising to come to her before long. He had sent her a birthday present. She was overjoyed but she couldnít help weeping. "Nirupa, open the door..." Nirupa did. Lisaís hand froze in the air as Nirupa came out and sat on the floor, silent. Lisa walked slowly over to stand by her. Nirupa handed her the letter, Lisa read it.
"Will you now explain me the message my daddy means to send through this letter?" Ni asked her. I am sure you and my Mom know things you donít want to tell me. Otherwise why should you hide them from me? What is that book, Lisa? What does ĎI was born with predetermined destinyí mean? What does ĎI am unlike the other childrení mean?"
Lisa raised her eyes from the letter to look at Nirupa. She had a haunted expression on her face. Speechless, Lisa sat down on the floor next to Nirupa.
"I donít know how to answer you, yet you have the right to ask questions." Lisa said. "I think your Mom will have to explain to both of us."
When Dara returned home that evening, the house was swimming in darkness. As no one bothered to switch on the lights, Daraís first thought was that Lisa and Nirupa were out dining. She pushed open the front door, entered the house and switched on the light in the hall. Tired as she was she took off her shoes and threw them aside. Dara stepped inside the sitting room, switched on the light there and jumped on the sofa. There was comfort in the thought that she wouldnít be forced to go out that evening. Because they were already out she wasnít breaking her word. It would be fine even if she slept a bit. Just then, when her eyelids were heavy and the sight blurred her tired gaze fall on the broken teacupsí pile, Dara let out a sharp scream jumping to her feet only to see Nirupa and Lisa sitting on the floor, leaning against the shelf, watching her in silence.
"Whatís the matter?" she placed her left hand over here heart, panic stricken. Then she saw the book in Lisaís hand.
"Who sent it?" she asked, her voice faint.
"It came this afternoon," Lisa replied, "And donít look at Nirupa like that. She already knows everything. She read the letter that was inside the book. I couldnít stop her."
Dara felt her limbs numb. What she had feared had happened.
"I suppose, now youíre waiting for an explanation." she said to her daughter.
"I am also waiting for an explanation", Lisa said. "Well, Dara, I love you like a sister. Together, we have spent days of rain and sunshine. And Nirupa is my little daughter as well. I saw her come into this world; I held her in my arms when she was "just a newborn. I have never asked you about anything; I have suffered in silence because I could never understand exactly what was happening. But I have no patience anymore. What is going on? Whatís all that fuss about her father?"
"You donít understand me," Dara sighed. She burst into tears.
"Exactly, I donít understand you. I trust you, but donít forget that I have personally known Carlos. We were close friends, the three of us. Remember? And Dara, I have never known a better or more committed friend than he. I never understood why you ran away from him in such a way. You had a wonderful family, and he was crazy about you. I will never forget the night you came into my room, so angry, sobbing your heart out, and asked me to help you. And then leaving India in the middle of the night. Little Ni cried during the whole flight, as if the poor thing understood you were taking her away from her father for good."
Lisa paused here, remembering. She sniffed and started again. "You never divorced him. You abandoned him, and you have been hiding from him for ten years now. Donít you understand that he has the right to sue you for kidnapping his child and take Ni to live with him? Any court would rule him out right."
"My daughter is in danger," Dara sobbed.
Nirupa, who had kept silent during all that time, came near her mother and began to caress her hair. Dara raised her head, hugged Ni and went on crying.
"Mom," Nirupa said softly. "Listen to me for a little while."
Dara continued sobbing with her head leaning against her daughter.
"Look here," Nirupa said, taking the folded letter out of her pocket. "Take it! You can keep the book as well. I give you my word that I will never ask you questions. You know the things better than I do, Mom. You are a grown-up. You are wiser than I am. You always want my best interest. I give you my word I will never ask you any questions. I donít need a father. I have you. We have always been together. Just donít cry, Mom. Donít cry because I will be very sad."
Listening to those words, Lisa started sobbing. The situation was becoming unbearable, but Dara managed to pull herself together. She pressed her daughter tightly against her chest and watched her lovingly. "Nirupa, sit at the table please!" she said. "Lisa, do the same thing. It is high time to talk about this. I must tell you a story that began the day you were born, Nirupa. No, wait..." She paused, and then spoke. "Iíd better start from the very beginning, when your grand grandmother lost her ruby ring."
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