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Fireflies and Fiery Fatherly Love: An Excerpt from What About Meera by ZP Dala

What About MeeraWhat About Meera by ZP Dala is a novel about a young woman who runs away from her abusive husband, to work as a care-giver for autistic children in Ireland.

It is a story about a woman who sinks to her lowest, and then attempts to take back control of her destiny.

The excerpt below is about Meera’s last night before her marriage. She is with her father, who loves her deeply, but cannot share his most heart-felt emotion with her.

Read the excerpt:

 

* * * * * * * *

 
He sat on a wooden chair in the garden underneath the hundred-year-old thorn tree. His daughter sat quietly breathing near him. The crickets began to sing love songs, the swallows that flew north for the winter now revelled in the December dusk and came home like obedient children to roost in their muddy homes. Not so far away, in the shacks, fires burned and their wood smoke brought a fragrance to the night. The dew had not even begun to fall yet.

He looked with a side glance at the wild-haired child he had fathered. She seemed lost in the world around her. As always, she sat with one foot dangling off the stool and one tucked underneath her. His limber, tiny-boned girl. The daughter he knew nothing about, knew not how to talk to. He knew only that his heart would always betray him in her tiny presence. The little place-shape she took in the big wide world.

‘The swallows came back, Papa,’ she commented, breaking the silence. He breathed out loud and wondered why this child was lingering around him tonight.

‘Yes, they have come home,’ he replied and continued into his favourite time of day. When day gives herself to night.

‘The old lady who lives in the shacks was selling roasted mealies today, Papa,’ she said, speaking to him again.

‘Hmmm,’ he grunted, not knowing what else to say. Again, he wondered why the child was seeking out his presence with mundanities. The air around her asked her father a million uncomfortable questions. But she insisted on small talk. Any talk.

‘I wonder why we don’t see fireflies any more, Papa,’ she said again, whimsically. And he recalled a day when she was five years old, as gangly as she was now, and he had taught her to catch fireflies at night and put them into empty pickle jars so they would glow. He remembered with vividness how seriously she’d set about it, chasing fireflies, how her high cheekbones would rise to the heavens in her smile when she trapped one. And how she would watch the trapped insect for only a moment before opening the lid and giving it permission to go home to its ‘mummy and daddy’.

He felt assaulted by her quiet presence near him. He felt a bitter pill at the back of his throat.

Her bright yellow dress and traditional billowing pants irritated him, angered him, saddened him. A child. Barely a child still.

In two days’ time, he would give her away to another man. Perhaps a man who could explain softly to her why we don’t see fireflies any more. Perhaps a man who would explain nothing to her at all.

He hated himself. For giving her away. For wanting never to give her away. But she had to go. It was her time. She had bought time by a year after she finished school. She had done well at school, well enough to get into a college. Inside his heart he wanted her to be a teacher. But rules are rules. And he was the beloved of the Holy Man, who told him she must go. Young, fresh, freshly pinched and fondled, not even nineteen years old. With a sharp mind, a kind soft heart, and a beauty that only a father could see. She must go.

She shifted her legs, dropping the folded one to dangle in the dust, and folding the dusty one beneath her warm body. A ripple of sand dunes from a desert breeze swayed through his heart. A ripple of self-hatred gripped his insides.

He did what he always did best when he was deeply emotional. He turned on her. His daughter. His child.

‘Meera! Go inside! Now! What’s this? Young girls with open hair sitting under trees at night just a few days before your wedding day? India Swami would be furious if he saw you. Go! Just go from here—’

‘But Papa …’

Meera knew all too well what India Swami’s fury would bring her. She shuddered. Her father took the shudder for a chill in the air, or an ill-omened wind that blew over her.

‘Meera!’ he said gruffly. ‘Get from here. Go inside with the ladies and help to clean the rice, and also … tie your hair, and also, put on some shoes, and also learn to sit like a proper lady and also … Go from here. Now.’

She looked first at her dusty bare feet as she stood up. She looked hurt. She lingered still. And then, with those eyes that he loved and dreaded equally, she looked straight into his. A million questions were asked. A million secrets were told. If only. If only Papa I could tell you. If only Papa you would believe me.

But he turned his face away. Too quickly. Too sharply. And he heard her bare feet go padding away from a perfect moment he would never be given again.

He leaned onto the hard back of the wooden Globe Chair and pulled out a cigarette. And a firefly flew benignly past his nose.

On the sweltering, stinking day he handed her over to her new husband, he cried. Behind a pillar where no one could see him. He never saw the way she turned around in all her bridal itchy fake-golden finery, looking for him as the bridal Mercedes-Benz drove away. All he saw was the mistake he had made.

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