The world is a loveless place.
We have been asking for anything people can spare. Food, water, loose change. A prayer, even. Anything. We’ll take anything, I kept saying. I think I have said it more than a thousand times in the past week, and all that anyone ever did was lift their nose and pick their way around us. I can’t imagine keeping this up any longer, because with every attempt my stomach plummets into a deeper and deeper abyss. I know I shouldn’t give up. My little sister depends on me. So long as I survive, she survives. But we are both reduced to sticks. What is frightening me even more is that I haven’t heard her complain even once. She is only six, but I suppose she has always been stronger than me. People like us cannot last long in this selfish world, but I could never accept it. I do now.
I accept it, and give up.
We scrape every atom of energy left in our hollow muscles and crawl back to our little spot at the corner of the pavement. I sit down and give my lap to my sister and tell her to rest. We can only wait out the end now, maybe go peacefully in our sleep. She always likes it when I skim her hair, but I cannot find the strength to even do something that simple. I cannot even lift my hand. But because she is so weak, she drifts off before I can move to make an effort. For the past few nights the beast living in my stomach would keep me up, clamouring to be fed, but I cannot even feel the hunger anymore. I cannot feel anything. That makes it easier to forget, and I try to slip away too.
Then, it happens.
Just as my eyelids are about to give way, perhaps for good, I hear the sound of footsteps. I jerk awake to see that near my feet a plastic bag has arrived out of thin air. I think there are shadows walking away from us, but it is too dark and my eyes are so dry I cannot be sure of anything. But the bag is here. I know that much. I am sure of that much.
I wake my sister up, whose eyes go wide, shocked by this strange, last-moment answer to our prayers. We don’t say anything to each other, nor waste a second. With all the desperation of a hundred starved lions, we pounce onto our prey.
The bag is ripped to shreds. And inside: leftovers; bread, rice and something like soup.
I split everything into two halves, give my sister her share. Then, there is no time to think. Only do. There is no taste to what we are eating, and even if there is our taste-buds have long forgotten what they are supposed to do. But none of that matters. We are not eating flavourless food. We are eating exquisite delicacies, every imaginable sensation bursting in our mouths. We are gorging on the food of the Gods and Kings, brought down from the heavens. Tonight, we are feasting on a miracle.
In less than a minute I wolf down my meal. But my stomach is still rumbling, the sleeping beast awoken from its slumber. It begs and cries once I swallow for the last time, feeling deceived, thinking it was going to get more than what I had to give. My sister, on the other hand, has hardly eaten. She tells me she is too tired and wants to rest and have the rest of her meal later. She places her head on my lap and I find happiness in the fact that I can now skim her hair for her like I always do, till she closes her eyes.
But the thing is, I don’t think I can sleep now. My stomach won’t let me. It has gotten a taste and it wants more. It starts demanding, commanding, forcing me to eat. But eat what?
It suddenly occurs to me, and I am disgusted with myself. How could that even cross my mind? I see it there, my sister’s share, waiting to be eaten. But I could not do that to her. I cannot. I have had what was mine. I cannot be greedy. This is her food. She will be miserable when she wakes up to find it gone. I love her too deeply to betray her like this. She needs every grain she can get. I don’t. She needs to get strong again.
But, I think, she has always been stronger than me.
The beast inside me roars, screams and hisses and snaps, claws at me from the inside. I want to cry out loud. I feel I need to tear out my own hair to make it stop, just to feel something other than this all-consuming hunger. I have to do something about it, and right now there is only one thing I can do about it. Just one thing. But I am not that kind of person.
Except that I am.
With a black heart, I give in. The beast wins, and my sister’s share becomes mine.
The next morning, when she wakes up, I say I had safely kept her share aside, but someone must have stolen it while we were asleep. My sister’s tears starts to pour like rain, and it surprises me that a stone-cold heart can still feel something, that I am still able to drown under tidal waves of guilt. She doesn’t deserve a sister like me.
I try to get her to blame me, to hate me, because that is what I deserve. I insist that I was careless; it is my fault her food was stolen. But, between sobs, she tries telling me something instead: she is not sad because her food is gone. She was worried about me. She is only crying because someone else is eating what she wanted me to have.
And now, I don’t deserve her.
© Amaan Khan, January 25, 2018.