(Published in the World Folktales Series, A Hundred Ravens Press, 2011; Keystrokes vol. 2, 2011 )
In the long, lazy afternoon, under the shade of a wide-leafed coconut palm, a brother and sister were quarreling. This was nothing new; Arun and Ziya had been born in the same moment, under the same star. Their exhausted mother would tell anyone who asked that they had been fighting ever since that day. Oh, they would unite quickly enough against a common enemy — Raju the Thief, for example, who had a habit of sneaking sweetmeats out of their tiffin tins. But in the absence of a common enemy, they made do fighting each other. Both twins liked nothing better than a good argument — and if a bit of hair-pulling or arm-twisting served as punctuation, all the better.
Today’s disagreement was typical; they fought over which one was better. Not better at anything in particular, just better. Ziya was a sturdy, broad-shouldered girl, who at twelve years old was already taller than her father, and stronger than him too. She’d earned the nickname Elephant in their village, and wore it with pride. Ziya had inherited her great-grandmother’s farming physique, and loved nothing more than lifting heavy objects and dropping them in Arun’s way.
Arun, by contrast, was slender and small. He couldn’t lift the things Ziya carried with ease, but he had his own methods for dealing with her. He was agile and quick, and often before she had time to put, say, a boulder in front of his bedroom door, he was up and over and out — taking a high window if need be, or even going over the roof. Everyone called him Monkey, and it suited him well.
"Strong is better!"
"Quick is better!"
Their arguments rarely offered much in the way of nuance, but they did have the advantage of great enthusiasm — and volume.
"Elephant! Monkey! What is the matter with you? You are giving your poor mother a terrible headache."
Their mother, looking even more tired than usual, fixed them with her most threatening gaze.
"She started it!" Arun proclaimed.
Their mother frowned. "I don’t care who started it — I want to know who will finish it!"
Ziya said, "But Amma — we can’t agree. I think it is better to be strong — "
Arun interjected " — and I think it’s better to be nimble and quick!"
Their mother sighed. "Well, I will tell you what, my creatures. I am hungry, and if you go over to the orchard and pick me a perfectly ripe mango from one of the trees, I will tell you the answer to your difficulty."
The twins quickly agreed, because the only thing they liked better than an argument was an adventure, and they had never been allowed to go all the way to the mango tree by themselves before. Their mother turned and went back inside to find a nice book, and before six blind men could guess at the shape of an elephant, the pair of them were off.
They had no trouble running down the hill, through the jungle, to the riverbank. But when they reached the river, they discovered a dilemma.
"Do you think Amma knew the bridge had been washed away?" Arun asked, hesitated as he looked down at the tumbling muddy waters.
"No, of course not," Ziya said scornfully. "She knows that you’re too weak to wade the river in full flood."
He bristled. "Oh, and you think you’re so strong."
"I know I am," Ziya said calmly. And with that, she tied up her skirts and began wading her way across the river, not looking back at her brother stranded on the shore. Ziya planted her feet firmly, letting the water rush up against her, deeper and deeper, climbing up legs and belly and chest, until it was almost to her chin. Only then, at the deepest point, her toes digging into the silty bottom, did Ziya turn to look for her brother. Who, at that very moment, whipped past her, laughing, clinging to a swinging vine. "Wheeee!!!!"
Arun landed safely on the other side, in a stumbly tumble of limbs, and Ziya joined him a few moments later, wringing out her skirts as she came. "I would have carried you, you know. If you’d asked."
"I didn’t need your help," Arun replied.
"Fair enough," Ziya said. And they went on. Up up the slope, across the rice paddy, through their father’s grape arbors, until finally they reached the stand of mango trees. And there they found another problem.
"How are we supposed to get them down?" Ziya asked. The fruit hung just out of her reach, and there were only a few spindly branches to climb. If she tried, Ziya knew, the branches would crack beneath her weight.
"I can do it," Arun said. He ran back a few feet, turned, took a running leap, and made it into the branches. Then, like the Monkey he’d been named, he swarmed up the tree until he was safely tucked in among the ripe fruit. He pulled his knife out of his back pocket, picked the ripest, glowingest of the mangoes, and began to peel it.
Ziya didn’t bother to remonstrate with her brother, to remind him that they were supposed to be bringing a mango back for their mother. The scent of ripe mangoes was heady in the air, and she couldn’t blame him for giving in to temptation. She would do the same, if she could only reach the succulent fruit. No way up. Not for her. But if she couldn’t come up — well, the solution was simple, wasn’t it? The mangoes had to come down.
She had just enough fellow-feeling for her sibling to pick a tree in which he wasn’t ensconced. She stepped back a few feet, just as Arun had, took a few thundering steps forward, and SLAM — into the trunk went the meaty part of her shoulder. It hurt, but not as much as her stomach hurt, craving those mangoes. Ziya pulled back, and then slammed again. And again. And on the fourth slam, it happened. The trunk cracked, the top half came tumbling down, and a flood of mangoes rained down on her. Aaahhhh….
By the time they had both eaten their fill, the sun was coming down, and the last of the mangoes were gone. They were both too full and too tired to fight anymore; they had found a rare moment of peace. When Ziya and Arun felt like this, they rather liked each other, and sometimes, they could imagine a future when they were old and tired enough that they liked each other most of the time. Right now, they leaned against each other, in a messy, sticky nest of tree branches and peeled mango skins.
"Do you think this is what Amma intended all along?" Ziya asked lazily.
"I doubt it," Arun said. "She probably wanted us to learn some lesson about working together. I could have let you carry me across the river, after all."
"And I could have picked you up at the trees, so you could reach high and pick a mango for her."
"She would say that we’re better together than we are separately." Arun frowned. "Do you think she’ll be terribly disappointed, that we didn’t learn the lesson she wanted?"
Ziya shook her head. "Don’t be silly. We haven’t bothered her in hours. Our mother will be thrilled."
"Oh, good," Arun said. "A happy ending after all."
"Yes," Ziya agreed. And as the sun slipped under the treetops, they closed their eyes, snuggled a litte closer, and cheerfully fell asleep.
And the moral of the story is:
If you raise children smarter than you are, you may regret it, or
Be grateful for a little peace and quiet, however it finds you, or
There are never enough ripe mangoes for everyone.