I got out of the car and approached the worn blue gate, remembering the day my father had put it up. He told us it was for the animals in case they were to escape, but we all knew the real reason. Nevertheless, it had stood long and proud for so many years. Father had always locked the gates after sunset, opening them again at the glimpse of dawn. One day it was to be locked for three decades only to be opened by me.
I turned back to our ride. The children were fully awake now, but reluctant to open the door and face the humid air. Everything around me had changed; the roads, the bushes, the neighbours. My neighbours. I didn’t want to think about what may have happened. Father had told everyone to come with us, but they couldn’t leave. Years of farming, building a home and a family had given them a certain comfort to which they were too scared to leave behind. They waved us off in the middle of the night and wished us well on our journey, each one of them kissing my forehead as I sat confused, clutching onto a bronze coin at the back of a horse cart.
We all promised to write to each other and so we did for a few months. Father would let me write words from the new language I was learning. They would write back infrequently, and only in a code father understood. One day the letters stopped coming. Father told me they may have moved. I told him they could write to us from anywhere. When I said that, he twitched; tears filled up in his eyes. I wondered for many years for what may have happened until one evening when I sat to watch the daily news with father. As the screen flickered, I saw quantities of men and women walking thousands of kilometres to find a new home. Some lying on the side of the roads to rest, their children standing over their rested bodies. I realised then that this may have been the fate of my neighbours but remained hopeful. That was twenty five years ago.
It was noon now and the sun’s rays had now taken full advantage of my now tender forehead. The silence of the village was interrupted by the loud start of an engine, I presumed the children wanted the AC back on and probably wondered how they could spend an entire month here. I wondered that too.
I remembered the days when the older children would take me to the lake where we’d swing off weeping willow branches that were toys to thousands of children before us. We spent entire afternoons in the lake, cooling down in its waters and taking shade under the old willow. The older children would take turns to lift me up the trees as my small legs couldn’t reach, comforting me each time as I was afraid of falling.
‘Keep climbing!’ they’d shout, ‘We’ve got you’
They taught me to fish and build fires. I was always allocated to find the twigs, they said I had a good eye for finding the best ones. When it was raining, we’d take shelter under banana leaves and watch the grass turn green and the flowers bloom until there were specks of white, red and yellow across the fields. When the rain stopped, we’d run to pick them, being weary of snakes that were hidden away underneath the tall grass prairie. I always gave my bunch to father who placed them in a tumbler next to the photo of mum.
They went away one day, the older children. They told to that it was to protect me and everyone in the village. One of them placed a coin in the palm of my hand and closed it very tightly. He said something after that but I was too distraught to listen. I don’t remember their name or even their faces, but when they left that day I remembered a feeling of emptiness. I can’t bear to imagine what he felt when he came back to find my father and I gone. If he came back at all. That same day I went back to the lake and tried to climb the old willow. I clambered up with my small bare feet, a few branches up or so, forgetting they were not waiting to catch me fall. He had always told me to put my foot into the small ledge to push me up to the top. But that day the ledge was filled will twigs and wet leaves; the scaffolding to a birds nest. I misplaced my foot and slipped downwards, scraping my hands against the ever so sharp twigs and landing forcefully onto the soft, damp ground. I cried and screamed in frustration and pain, lying on the ground, sobbing as my bleeding hands were covered in thorns and dirt. I fell asleep in the tall grass, not minding the snakes or the tigers.
I can’t remember who found me, but they cleaned and dressed my wounds. I was bathed, fed and well rested until father arrived home from work. That night he hugged me tightly and promised that he’d keep me safe. We left a few months later, taking nothing but a bag full of clothes, the photo of my mother and a key.
The key I was now holding as the sun continued burn against my scalp. I reached for the padlock that had been unbothered for so many years, now coated in rust. Placing the key into the lock and hearing the ‘click’ of it as it opened. I greeted my children who were now staring at me wide-eyed from the car, welcome to my home.