We are looking at a girl.
She is small and waif-like, arms sinewy and collarbones noticeable. Her head is tilted up, eyes wide, her mouth slightly pursed as she listens and then speaks. She is talking to a jackfruit tree.
We know it is a conversation although we cannot hear it. It is a quiet picture. If you want sound, you will have to imagine it. Leaves brushing against clouds. An engorged moon, heavy in the sky. The smallness of a girl sitting before a tree, so small that she is no more than a dot at the bottom of a picture, and we have to sweep our eyes across the forest floor to find her.
She is familiar.
We have never met her before, but we feel as if we have known her all our lives – for longer than our lives. This, we realise, is Wisa. The lost sister. The hidden story. Laleh feels her insides twist; she wants to drop to her knees and touch her forehead to the ground. She wants to shout Great Wisa! and have her creator look at her, hold her, bless her.
But this Wisa is only a girl. No more than eleven, maybe twelve. She has a mischievous energy to her that sits alongside an eerie stillness. This is a girl of contradictions; she is uninterested in coherence. She is smiling as she talks, and although this is still a silent picture, we realise she has done this before. Talking to trees is an everyday activity for Wisa. The trees talk back.
And so Laleh does neither of these things: fall to her knees or call out Wisa’s name. She drinks in the girl who knows more about the whale of babel than anyone else, the person who has given Laleh and Myung comfort in impossible times. She revels in the joy of finally seeing her, even if Wisa cannot see her. She focuses on Wisa’s features, making mental notes so that she may draw her when she wakes up. Wisa, she murmurs – and then she laughs with the joy of it, of having found someone you didn’t know you have spent your whole life looking for. Wisa turns slightly, as if she can hear Laleh, but then focuses on the tree again.
Sound, when it does arrive, comes all at once. Wisa and the tree are speaking of different landscapes. We hear places that are not this twilight forest. The rush and gurgle of waves. The clamour of a family piled into a cottage. Singing as hands work the fields, the bubble and hiss of metal as it melts in a shallow pan – and then the quiet pours back in, broken only by the rustling of the forest’s leaves.
She flows to her feet and runs towards a cluster of houses we glimpse between the trees. A colony. The houses are simple; they are built from abandoned rocks and wood, each with an overrun garden, piled high with vegetables and fruit trees. The colony was not made with any sort of design; houses spring up like a patch of wild mushrooms, clustering together. Some houses are connected to each other while others stand alone. Short trees grow into these structures, roots digging into walls and doors. The occupants of these houses seem to like this. They have hung coloured cloth from these branches and decorated them with stone chimes and shells.
It is so rudimentary that it is hard to believe we are in Esi.
But we are.
There is a flavour to this island – a tang in the air that speaks of more than what meets the eye. Even here, even among these simple houses, you sense an invisible power. This is the magical allure that travellers speak of when they write about Esi. This undeniable feeling that you are in a place not quite docile and with more history than your mind can comprehend.
But the houses here are not the wonders of craft described in the travelogues. This is a luddite colony. These are the only people on Esi who do not practise craft, having shunned it as unnatural and against the laws of nature. They build their houses instead of growing them and they do everything the hard way. Hunt, eat, live. The craftless luddites, the drifters call them. These luddites wake up and toil in their fields to the rhythm of song; they let their houses disintegrate with glee so that they may rebuild them, over and over. This is how it should be, they murmur; we are small enough to be engulfed. The zealous luddites, the crazy ones. The people who say to Esi, oh, we want no part of your craft and so suffer, quietly, in the limits of their humanness.
Wisa runs through these houses with the surety of a mapmaker – someone who has swept these same alleyways onto the page with smooth ink, and so knows them inside out. She sticks to the shadows. She doesn’t want to be seen. She runs so fast, we are losing her. As she grows smaller, we see more. The whalebone mountains in the distance. A thorny, tangled forest reaching for the heavens. Giant roots that snake among the grass and curl between cottages.
Someone else is running behind us.
Another girl. Taller than Wisa and better built too. This one is used to working in the fields; she has muscle to her. She is not as good at sticking to the shadows, but she does not want to be seen either, so she is trying. Up ahead, beyond the crooked cottages, Wisa pauses and so the other girl stops. She presses herself into the shadow of a tree, aiming for stealth.
When she pushes the hair off her face, we get a good look at her.
It is Magali.
But it is Magali so much younger and so different, it is difficult to recognies her. There is no sourness at the corner of her lips, no bitterness in her eyes. She is young, curious, and with an edge of self-righteousness she will carry into her old age. She is still staring at Wisa and so we stare too, swooping in until Wisa grows larger.
Wisa is crouching, her ear pressed to the ground. Crawling forward a little, Wisa parts the weeds to reveal a long gash in the ground. She looks up, left, then right, and drops in.
Magali waits for a few seconds, then sprints forward, finds the crack and jumps in too.
We are in a cave. Wisa clambers down the sides, once again an ant in the enormity of the cavern. She moves with deftness, like she is part monkey, part girl, part bird, although you cannot see her wings. She drops lightly to the floor and we look up with her.
Instantly, we see what she has noticed. Along the walls of the cave, high on the ceiling, down stalagmites and up stalactites, someone has etched a delicate pattern, a tracery that runs one inch into the stone. These are not like the straight lines of a floor plan. These are irregular and interwoven, more roots than lines, growing into a pattern we cannot see as a whole – we are too small – but that feels entangled and sprawling. The pattern glints. It has been filled with gold.
Wisa glances behind her, into the shadows. Directly at Magali. Magali Kilta knocks her sister in the stomach; Wisa kicks at her, and they both fall to the floor. They tussle as siblings do, using their nails and teeth, pulling hair. Magali is older, about fourteen, and she pins her sister to the uneven floor, triumphant.
I knew, she says. I knew there was something strange about you. But Wisa isn’t struggling. She is smiling, that wide and gleeful smile she gets when she cannot contain her joy. She winks at her sister.
You’ve been lying, she says.
Magali is startled. She says: About what –
But Wisa has already wrapped her legs around her and tipped into a back roll. We fall forward, into a memory.
Excerpted with permission from Mad Sisters of Esi, Tashan Mehta, HarperCollins India.