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The longest summer of my youth. Heat slicked shirts melted to our backs. Squinted eyes and brazen smiles, tanned skins and freckled cheeks. I remember running miles and miles along the stretch of the vineyard playing hide and seek with my sister. Our lung capacity upped to the max. We thought we could do anything.
Baba, for as long as we could remember, would carry the belt that held his grafting and pruning tools. The worn-down sun hat he used to wear always drawn low. Whenever I aimed a smile at him he would match mine with his own.
“Aisha! Sunaina!” Baba’s voice broke in between our random bouts of laughter one fine day to call us over. We ran towards him, stopping just in time to not crash into the trunk of the tree. Baba gave us a warning look but softened as his eyes traced our faces. He was tender-eyed and gentle. All his stern looks were rendered futile in front of us. He was always too soft on us.
“Come on,” he beckoned us to follow him. “The fruit is ripe! Today I’ll show you how to harvest it.”
We trailed behind him, our adrenaline-fueled bodies heaving from all the running. When we were kids we thought the world started with Baba and ended at his feet. Our own little haven.
Trudging towards a particularly tall tree, Baba huddled and hushed us underneath it as if our laughter would pierce the skin of the fruit and turn it rancid. Our eyes bulging and throats parched, we paid attention to every minute detail. Our childish eyes could not begin to fathom the life in front of us, the grapes nurtured by the hand of our father. The yin and yang of sweet and sour in perfect harmony. A balance brought by the curve of Baba’s love in the lines of his hand. He beckoned us closer to where the fruit hung dusted yet its plum-soaked color heavy on the eye. Ripe and ready to devour. I reached for the fruit.
“No!” Baba’s hand was quick to stop my own. “Not like this baba ki jaan.” Not like this, daughter dearest. My hand mid-air, my eyes zeroing in on my father. I watched as he unbuttoned a pocket of the pouch on his belt and unhooked a tool. A pruner! I yelped internally, remembering a previous lesson on the tools Baba carried on his belt when our curious minds and inquisitive eyes wanted to know everything there was to know about Baba.
With years of use the pruner had dulled but it was matched with the care my father took with it. He cupped the fruit to retrieve it from the hooks of the vine. It broke free from the cusps of the branch and landed safely in his palm like a traveler coming home to his mother. We thought Baba’s hands had magic woven in-between his fingers. We were in awe.
He broke free a smaller bunch of grapes and we immediately set our palms out towards him. Saccharine, sweet and tangy. Our mouths churned the ripe juice as it trailed down the length of our throats. My sister and I smiled at each other and then our gazes landed on our father. His expectant eyes heavy like we were the only critics that mattered on how his harvest turned out to be. Maybe we were. Kids our age used to wish on falling stars and comets maybe, but my sister and I used to wish on the seeds of the grapes our father grew. Our own sanctuary built on the grounds of our baba’s love and sweat-trekked hard work.
Our mouths buzzing from the taste of the juice of the ripened fruit. Our father’s smile and his rough-edged hands ruffling our hair into a welcomed mess.
“Okay,” he motioned us with his hands, “You can go play now.”
My sister buzzed off as soon as he said that, but I stayed there. My feet grounded like gravity’s pull wouldn’t let go of me just yet.
“Baba,” I said, “Show me how. I wanna do it too.”
His smile, I remember, so bright and warm that it felt like summer was about to make its rounds again. I locked away that smile in a glass case in my memory. Something only for me. That afternoon Baba showed me how to cup a fruit as if you were holding a life in your palm. How to not hurt the edges, how to salvage the fruit. Not to hinder its taste. How to pick fruit in the best possible way. I remember our shared glances and his lips smothered down into kisses on the top of my head. Our little secret. Like somehow he knew the years that were to follow. Like he chose me to look after what he loved. A man can rarely, if ever, nurture something from the palms of his hands. Maybe my father’s hands did have magic in them.
Seven summers later, I stood near that same tree. The same sun still hung up above me radiating a warmth I felt nowhere close to. Baba was taken away from us three summers prior. Grief had made a home amidst the long stretch of the vineyard I had once mapped out in my heart. A heatstroke. As mundane as that.
My sister got married and I cried long after I saw her silhouette leave my side, not because she was gone too, but because Baba was not there for it. And here I stayed under the branch of the same tree. I cupped my hands to shield the ripened fruit in my palm, my father’s pruner clasped in the other. I stay and carry on with my father’s duties.