for Jennifer Walkup
apricity, n.: the warmth of the sun in winter
Tejal peered out the window at Marseille. The day was gray, a rarity for the normally sunny city. Not the reassuring gray of an old sweater or even the sky on an autumn day, offset by the trees in all their fiery foliage, but the dense gray of thick fog. All her mother’s colorful fabrics and carved wooden antiques were so out of place in the gray, they made her flinch.
The cloud wall cracked open just slightly, and a single ray of sunlight stole through, landing on her shoulder, butterfly bright—too bright. Too yellow. Too happy.
She shrugged it off and pressed her lips together as if that somehow would stop her heart from seizing up. Everyone thought great art came from suffering: depression, that infamous artists’ affliction. How very romantic, they said, sighing dreamily at the image of tortured painters locked away in a garret, splashing acrylics onto canvas without stopping to eat or sleep. Of writers sitting in cafés, weeping into cups of scalding black coffee while scrawling feverishly into a fresh Moleskin journal. I wish I could do that.
What crap. It was the ugliest idea in the world. It made her want to spit.
There was nothing romantic about this sorrow, not its roots in sickness nor the weight with which it sat in her chest, smothering her. It hurt. It hurt, it hurt, it hurt. Tejal bore flash burns of that ache in every cell, scars only she could see, and she wasn’t even an artist.
The sunbeam had sneaked its way back onto her shoulder, circling and nuzzling. Now it stroked her cheek just the way Masi used to. Tejal shuddered and shoved it away, her skin rubbed raw with memory.
She didn’t want to be here, in this house. She’d come to pack it up before finding a lodger for the year—after all, who else was there to do it?—but now, standing in the empty kitchen, all she wanted was her family. Maman, Papa.
Véronique had offered to come with her, but Tejal had refused. Véronique, a stranger to her parents, standing over Tejal’s shoulder while she paused to read through letters and sort old photo albums. Véronique’s curious gaze roving over the cloth paintings of Radha and Krishna, the solid bronze statues of Shiva and Shakti, the cabinets full of art books and curios. Her tapered fingers skimming the tightly sealed jars of spices, herbes de Provence and garam masala as fragrant as the day they were purchased, and her chef’s mind picturing all the ways to transform bland vegetables into delicious sabzis and biryanis.
No. Even a close friend couldn’t be allowed that close.
Tejal would get through this alone. And definitely, she thought, swatting at the brazen ray now winding about her neck, without any fickle sunshine getting in the way. You’re nothing but solar radiation.
Tears sprang to her eyes, stinging, but she blinked them back. All she had to do was pack up the house. It would be one less thing for Maman and Papa to worry about while they settled into the family flat in Delhi. Maybe a year with Tejal’s grandmother would help Maman in a way Tejal and Papa had not.
Better that than what had happened to Masi.
Tejal remembered what her therapist said about imagining she was already where she wanted to be, that her list of daunting tasks was already done. She was here as a housekeeper, with no attachments to anything but tidiness.
Then, remorse pricking her throat like the thorns of a rosebush, she headed into her parents’ study.
The sheer amount of paperwork Maman had sitting around left Tejal dazed. Before, Maman had always been meticulous about shredding old documents and filing away others, but the study was laden with receipts, bills, invoices from her embroidery and tailoring business . . . Tejal’s head spun just looking at them.
Crammed into a drawer were Papa’s old letters, worn blue aerograms from the ’eighties and ’nineties, his family back in India catching him up on the latest news in tiny script, always scolding him for not writing or calling enough. Papa would read them aloud in funny voices, then take Maman and Tejal out for ice cream at their favorite neighborhood glacier, La Maison du Bec Sucré. Tejal always got blueberry-lavender and raspberry-rose in a freshly made crêpe cone.
Maman would sing afterward, Hindi film songs from her childhood, Édith Piaf and Francis Cabrel songs from the radio, until everyone in the house, family or friend, joined in. Maman could do little more than carry a tune, yet the sheer joy with which she sang was a spell all its own.
And after that, when it was just the three of them again, Maman would take Tejal down to the secret closet, hidden away behind a door made to look like a bookcase. The sunshine closet.
Tejal intended to put organizing that off for last, if at all.
When she was ten, one particularly sunny summer afternoon had practically begged her to join it outside. The sky was so brilliantly blue, it could have been cut glass, and the trees swayed in the light breeze, verdant leaves turning tiny pirouettes. Tejal’s neighborhood friends were already out in the honeysuckle-scented air, drawing sidewalk rainbows with chalk and riding bikes and watching the bumblebees collecting nectar in their parents’ manicured window boxes.
But above all, it was the uplifting feel of the sun on her face Tejal needed. It was her friend; it made her want to curl up and nap and also skip and play.
She called out that she was leaving, and Maman wished her a fun time. Seconds later, Tejal crouched on the sidewalk, snagging her own piece of chalk from a pile on the ground. She’d grabbed white, so she proceeded to sketch out a daisy, then two.
The sunlight was a blanket enfolding her, safe and snug. Tucked under it, she worked on filling in the outlined petals. When she pressed down too hard on the chalk, it broke and left smudges. Irritated, she wiped them away.
Something warm touched her, sliding just beneath her skin, just for an instant. She jerked back, dropping the chalk, but the heat remained. She could see it now—a translucent shaft of buttery sunshine grazed her fingertip, then glided over her thumb before returning to the sidewalk. Tejal giggled. It felt like feathers, maybe from a phoenix. A magic bird!
She tried to make the yellow light leap up again, but it didn’t, no matter how many more flowers she or her friends drew.
For the next couple weeks, small ponds of sunshine would reach out for Tejal as she walked past windows or blaze brighter out of the corner of her eye, yet no matter how she strained, she couldn’t quite connect, not in that deep underskin way of recognition. She hated that; why wouldn’t it just come to her?
Maman must have noticed; not long after, her older sister arrived from Düsseldorf for a visit. Masi brought with her stories of pirates and sirens and apsaras, which she would narrate like the stage actress she was, imbuing each syllable with immediacy, rendering each voice distinct, until Tejal was sure the characters would be right there if she just turned around. Like her maman, her masi was that bright, that alive.
One gorgeous day, ripe as the red currants they’d just picked in the backyard for making jelly, Masi pointed to the sky. “What’s that?”
Tejal put her hands on her hips and frowned. “The sun. Duh, Masi. I’m not a little kid.”
“And what does the sun put out that warms us up?” Masi continued, undeterred. “What makes it possible for us to see?”
Tejal could barely contain her impatience. “Sunlight!”
Masi laughed. “Very good!” She bent to whisper in Tejal’s ear. “What if I said you could pick it the same way we picked those berries?”
“Pick sunshine?” That was exactly what Tejal had been trying to do. She just hadn’t had the words for it. “Show me!”
“I will,” Masi said, “after we have a snack.”
Once they’d munched on slices of toasted baguette smeared with creamy rosemary-flecked chèvre, Masi took Tejal into the parlor, where sunlight spilled through the wavy glass of the window to pool like treacle on the white rug. A thick golden syrup she could eat, if only she could touch it.
“Pick it up,” Masi said, her smile kind.
Wonder bloomed in Tejal’s heart. Could she really do it?
Kneeling by Masi, she squeezed her eyes shut in concentration and reached for the bright yellow warmth. Surely her fingers would go right through it like always?
At first, they did. Tejal opened her eyes. She could feel the light resisting her, but Masi motioned for her to keep trying.
How? It was like trying to hold air.
Masi dropped to her knees and swept the sunshine into her upturned palm. “Like this,” she said.
Tejal stared in awe. Masi had actually done it! If she could do it, so could Tejal.
She thought of how the light in Masi’s hand looked like water. Like lemonade. She closed her eyes again and pretended she was drifting in a sea of honey-sweetened lemonade. Everything was liquid and bright. Everything flowed into her, around her.
Suddenly, from one breath to another, the light shifted. Now Tejal could feel it not just flitting over her hands but surrounding them. She opened her eyes to find her cupped palms full of sunshine, full of joy and heat. It was every perfect string of summer days woven into one, all the golds and greens and blues of lying back in gilt-touched grass and gazing up at the endless cerulean canopy stretching overhead. “I did it!” she cried, clutching the impossible fistfuls of radiance to her chest.
She was touching sunlight! Really, truly touching it, magic feathers and all, and it wasn’t going away. No, she realized, better than feathers. Just plain magic, and all hers.
Her smile grew so wide, it threatened to break free and fill the room in a shower of golden sparks.
When Tejal was twelve, Maman told her a cherished bit of lore, the story of how she’d met Papa. Hearing it made Tejal feel cozy, the way the neighbor’s cat twining around her ankles did.
“I charmed your papa,” Maman said, laughing. “It was a cold, blustery sort of day. Gray and sad. Papa had come straight from India to start his degree at the university and didn’t know what to do with this weather. He walked into our house, and I could see him rubbing his arms, sneaky but trying to hide it. So while our parents were talking in the parlor, I took him into the kitchen and offered him a yellow ‘cloak.’”
Masi grinned. “Ah, yes, the ‘cloak.’ Just like a hug, I believe he said?”
“I didn’t tell him what it was,” Maman went on, “just hung it over his shoulders. The chill melted right off him, he got this surprised little smile, and he said he thought maybe he could handle studying here after all.” She touched her lips. “He told me later that was when he knew he would marry me, this family friend he’d only just met.”
Masi stage-whispered, “But our parents were ready to kill her when they saw. How did your maman know she could trust him?”
“How did you know?” Tejal asked Maman. Her heart fluttered at the idea that she might not have been born if Maman hadn’t trusted Papa with their secret.
Maman shook her head. “Sometimes you just do.”
Tejal didn’t think she’d ever know. Boys were annoying, not to mention gross.
Every few months when Masi visited, they would cut long strips of sunshine, warm and golden—like Papa had said, as comforting as a hug. Wearing one left Tejal feeling like a cookie baking in the oven, browning at just the right temperature. She wanted to hold onto the feeling forever, and if forever was a mountain range extending blue and hazy in the distance, well, she was content right here in her buttercup-dotted valley.
Years passed that way, winters warmed by precious lengths of summer sun, tenderly amassed on the floor of the sunshine closet and cascading off hangers. Tejal often stole behind the bookcase and dropped down into the luminous peaks and valleys. She wrapped herself in them, forming sparkling dresses and coats that lost their shape as soon as she put them down. When she picked up a translucent swatch and brought it to her cheek, she could pinpoint the day it had been harvested, could hear the laughter of her mother and her masi woven into it. If sunshine had a taste, she thought, it would be dandelion wine.
It was only the days when the light seeped out of Maman’s face, leaving her zest for singing and dancing dim, the days when she retreated to her room, that soured the wine. Papa would hover outside, anxious, trying to distract Tejal with jokes and word games.
And if Masi was sometimes less than exuberant, or if she canceled her visits altogether, well, acting was not an easy profession. There were agents and auditions and critics to deal with. Anyone would get stressed. Anyone would find it harder to smile.
Yet those times were few, at least, and easy enough to forget with so much sunlight to make Maman and Masi radiant again. Everyone got sad from time to time. Even Tejal did.
That was why she had her sunshine closet.
“We store what we pick down here,” said Maman that day when Tejal had first picked sunlight, pulling aside a bookcase to reveal a door Tejal had never known was there. A secret passage!
Unable to wait, she raced in before Maman and Masi and found herself in a white closet lined with hangers and shelves. There was no decoration, nothing but mounds of diaphanous yellow filling the shelves and covering the floor like neatly folded blouses and suspended on the hangers like saris.
Her eyes opened wide. So much sunshine, all for her! An entire closet of it! Well, for Maman and Masi, too.
Maman smoothed Tejal’s hair with a soft hand. Tejal loved when she did that; it made her feel like purring. “Our special place.”
“There are rules,” Masi said. “First, only our family can harvest sunshine, and only the women, so it’s our secret. Second, we always harvest in the summer. Winter light’s too weak to do much for us.”
Maman nodded. “Sometimes you have a hard day or the world makes you sad, and you need to recharge.” She sighed. “And sometimes the things that hurt most come from inside you. Hopefully not, but this closet will always be here, stocked with the summer harvest. Our heart’s balm against dark days.”
But Tejal wasn’t really listening. All she could see was the endless supply of sunshine. All she could feel was the way it caressed her cheeks, the way it sang under her hands. What could possibly hurt her? She could never be sad, not here.
She leapt into the luminescence, burying herself in its warmth. It soaked into her skin, saturating her, familiar, loving. No, there was no way she could ever be sad.
Something rustled next to her. Tejal lifted her head long enough to see Maman’s beautiful face next to hers, disappearing into the layer of yellow. “Let’s go for a swim, ma petite, shall we?”
Now Tejal did purr. With all this sunlight, she thought, inhaling its invigorating citrusy tang, with Maman by her side, the world could never be anything but bright.
Her parents’ landline rang, startling Tejal. She stared at it, mistrustful. Whoever was calling couldn’t possibly know she was here. Indeed, she’d been gone for so long—seven whole years—that she might as well be an outsider now. A visitor in the house where she’d grown up.
She left the handset in its cradle until the voice mail button flashed.
As she strode toward the telephone, a shining silver ribbon brushed her from overhead. Tejal glanced up, catching the gentle light on her face. She’d stepped right into the moon’s path. Though pretty, it was nothing more than a faint ghost of the sun. Nothing to warm her.
The sun itself was nowhere to be seen. Of course not; it was night. No wonder she felt alone. She was alone, and so small, and never mind that she’d turned thirty-one last month. Never mind that she’d carved out a life for herself of cold Parisian stone, far from the house where the sunshine closet waited.
She was still dark inside.
That shouldn’t have been so strange. She’d been living in gloom ever since she’d first left home. Even after she’d found Véronique and Gaël and Haitian expatriate Jean-Baptiste. A chef, a florist, a journalist—they’d been the perfect distraction from the gaping closet. From the sick sadness claiming first Masi, then Maman, sunshine closet or no. From Tejal’s failure to save them.
For a second, Tejal sank back into the mire, letting the old barbs pierce her, the familiar twisted vines hook into her veins.
Then she pulled herself free. No.
She had work to do.
Tejal picked up the handset and listened to the voice mail message. It was from a prospective renter, a man who had seen her ad and thought the house sounded perfect for a young couple like his girlfriend and him. How soon could they look at the place?
Her stomach tightened, and she deleted the message.
Whenever her friends giggled over boyfriends and girlfriends, love and lust, Tejal just nodded. At sixteen, she no longer found all boys disgusting, trading that sentiment for shared glasses of merlot and lengthy starlit kisses. Still, delicious as those things were, she certainly hadn’t found anyone she wanted to drape a cloak of sunshine over.
Maman and she kept harvesting, and Papa kept looking on in discreet approval.
But that was also the year Masi truly started to wilt. First her visits stopped altogether. Then phone calls and letters and e-mails went unanswered. Concerned, Maman even flew to Germany to see her. When she returned, it was with empty hands and a smile that had grown brittle.
“Her closet’s empty,” was all she would say.
After that, Papa watched Maman closely, his expression pensive. He took Tejal aside for an ice cream outing, just the two of them. “I want you to use your closet always,” he said, tapping the back of her hand with the bottom of his cone. “When you’re sad, you come here first thing.”
Yet no matter how much Tejal asked, Papa would not explain what was going on. It was as if Tejal was too small, too stupid to understand. As if by keeping their mouths closed, they could shield her from the onslaught of thoughts heavy as sodden blankets—the things that came from inside.
Now, in the living room of her childhood house, Tejal let herself remember.
She’d sat by Masi’s hospital bedside in Düsseldorf seven years ago, two days after Masi had been let go from her latest play for too many missed rehearsals. “Maybe,” said Masi haltingly, squinting out the window at a dusk-brushed sky, “maybe the things we think are so important are really just silly.”
“What do you mean?” Tejal asked, turning a pen over and over. “Things like what?”
Masi gestured at the world beyond the window. “All that.” She sat up in her bed long enough to turn off the overhead lamp, then turned her back to Tejal.
Like worker ants feeding their queen, Tejal and Maman harvested all the sunshine they could, armfuls upon armfuls, storing it in Masi’s bare closet, spreading it over her like a cheery coverlet. Balm to heal aching hearts, as Maman said. But Masi shrugged it off day after day, leaving it to crumple on the floor.
Then one day, she could no longer touch it, not the way she’d taught Tejal to. Seeing the sunlight bounce off her masi’s skin made Tejal ill.
Trembling, she recalled Maman’s occasional dark days, how Maman, too, would withdraw somewhere Tejal couldn’t follow, leaving her drowning in a surfeit of daylight.
Her fist jammed into her mouth, her lungs choking, she watched Masi recoil deeper and deeper into her shroud of shadows, far beyond Tejal’s grasp. There was nothing she could do to bring her aunt back to the surface, nothing at all.
If the sunshine closet couldn’t save the women of her family from the thunderheads looming over them, then Tejal didn’t want anything to do with it. It was false, a glittering distraction, just like Masi’s smiles.
She’d fled then, fled far, all the way to Paris, where she’d stumbled into a job at Gaël’s florist shop and later into his arms. Through her new lover, she’d met the others and flung herself into their life of late-night concerts and weekends spent skiing and hours whiled away in cafés over blackberry tarts and coffee. Busy, always busy. There, she could let the sun just be the sun, a ball of gas that separated day from night.
And she’d reveled in it, sitting by the Seine like a tourist, skirting the tour Eiffel like a local, always so busy that shadow and sorrow could only skulk in the background.
For seven years, it had worked. The sun had done its dance with the earth, round and round and round again. Tejal stayed close to Paris, arranging flowers, filling orders, forgetting. Her shoulders dropped, and she breathed out. A good seven years they’d been, too. Maman and Papa had come to visit her in the twelfth arrondissement, where she lived with Gaël and a roommate, but she ignored their hints that they missed her at home.
She’d been safe in Paris. Even if she had the occasional blue day, where things were difficult or surreal. Even if she had a bleak thought or two. Everyone had those. Everyone. She was safe, so safe.
Untouchable, or so she’d thought.
She’d bolted from her flat after last week’s call with Papa. The news that Masi had passed at her own hand, that Maman was succumbing to despair—it shattered her safety. It weighed her body down, all those hefty stones piled on her, until her legs had buckled and she’d collapsed on a wrought-iron bench.
When at last she’d sat up, shivering, tendrils of sunlight streamed down through the clouds. They burrowed against her neck, rested in her hair, balmy and familiar, inviting her to remember.
How had she rejected the sun for seven years? Her hands yearned for its soothing light, its heat. She’d been cold the whole time, no matter how much she feigned otherwise, and she ached to be warm.
But Masi. The sunshine had betrayed Masi, and Tejal couldn’t forget that. She couldn’t leave it up to the light to save Maman.
That evening, Tejal packed a bag and hopped a train home.
Maman’s eyes were bloodshot and puffy. The same storm clouds that had overtaken Masi now cast their pall over her. They lay below her skin, the ugly yellow-purple of bruises. Such a tangled knot they’d made of her heart.
Tejal knew it was a dream, but it didn’t matter. She could see her mother weeping in the hallway of their house in Marseille as clearly as if they stood there in reality.
How, Maman wondered loud enough for Tejal to hear, how did normal people keep going when everything cost so much energy? After the clouds arrived, it grew harder to find a reason to get out of bed. She’d done it, over and over until the days blurred into sludge, but she was dissolving.
If this was even a fraction of how Maman felt every day, Tejal couldn’t bear it.
“Maman,” she said, holding out her arms, “I’m here.”
Maman embraced her, her head only reaching Tejal’s shoulder. “Ma fille, you came back.”
Somehow Tejal towered over Maman now. When had that happened? “I did,” she said, her voice quiet.
There was only one place to go. She led the way, her bare feet padding over the burgundy Persian-style runner.
At last she stopped before the bookcase, which Maman had filled with the novels Tejal had pored over and over as a teenager. Fantasy, thrillers, suspense, adventures in American high schools—all dog-eared and crinkled with use. And there in a corner, a framed photo of the three of them, Maman, Masi, and pigtailed Tejal missing a tooth.
“It’s a dark beast that haunts our line,” Maman said, stroking Tejal’s hair. “But the sunshine is our defense against it.”
“Then why didn’t it save Masi?” Tejal protested. Guilt for what might have been seared her stomach. “You knew she was depressed. Why didn’t you do something?”
Maman tilted her head helplessly. “I tried! We all tried. You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to live.”
“But we gave her the sunshine,” Tejal repeated. “How was that not enough?”
“Even our magic has its limits.” Maman closed her eyes. “We all have to choose to keep going, and your masi chose something else.”
Tejal gripped her mother’s hands tight, but she was already receding. “You can choose, too. Choose to stay here with me.”
“She went so far into the dark, even the light couldn’t reach her,” Maman whispered. She wore her confession like a cape, vanishing into its deep folds. “I failed her.”
Tejal tasted the words in her own mouth.
No, you didn’t, she tried to say. But she didn’t know who she was saying it to.
She woke to see the sun climbing its way into the heavens, and the first beams of light trickling onto the new-fallen snow, turning it pink.
Maman rested uneasily on the edge of the wing chair in Tejal’s tiny, green-walled Parisian flat, listening as Tejal told her about an odd customer at the florist shop. She wore the silky purple scarf and chandelier earrings Tejal had given her for her birthday, and her deep red lipstick complemented her smooth brown skin. Her mask of politeness mirrored Tejal’s carefully crafted one. But for all that, she looked out of place.
Maman should be home, wearing yellow. She should be swathed in sunshine.
Tejal tried to dismiss those thoughts, tried to dismiss the way Maman toyed with the clasp on her purse. If she kept talking, maybe Maman wouldn’t ask, and she wouldn’t have to say no.
The handful of steps separating them could have been the Channel separating France and England. “She couldn’t believe we don’t carry black roses like they have in Turkey,” Tejal babbled. “Just in one tiny part of Turkey, too. And even if we could get them in, who would buy them?”
Maman’s laugh was hollow. “Some people are never satisfied.”
Tejal racked her brain for another pointless anecdote, but the well had run dry.
“Mon petit chou, I’m glad you’re happy here.” Maman tried to smile, but it was dim, a lightbulb flickering. “But do you think you might at least come home for a visit? The red currant bushes are growing wild with no one to prune them.”
A corner of Tejal’s mouth turned up before she caught herself. The bushes were doing no such thing, and she knew it. Maman was as thorough in her gardening as she was with the details of her business, everything orderly, everything extraneous trimmed and discarded to the melody of her singing. She believed music spared the plants the sting of their “haircut,” and maybe it did. “I’m sure they’re just fine. Though I do miss the jelly.”
“Have you been harvesting?” Maman glanced around. “I don’t see where you could store it.”
“Ma, please don’t start.”
Maman opened her purse, then closed it. Opened it, then closed it. “But you need to be harvesting—”
“No, Ma!” Tejal shook her head hard, making her own earrings swish. “No more sunlight. Not ever.”
Maman didn’t say anything, but she didn’t need to. The flat was too small for the three of them: Tejal, Maman, and the unspoken thing.
“I’m sorry,” Tejal said, hoping to chase it away, “but I’m staying here.”
“Your papa needs you.” The rawness of Maman’s expression made it clear he wasn’t the only one. “I know you’re busy. Maybe a weekend trip?”
Tejal could feel home even now, even hundreds of miles away: the tart berries, the vibrant trees, the liquid topaz light. Worse, the closet was calling, waking Tejal’s memories, sending glimmers of warmth up her arms like the hug Papa had once mentioned.
It would be so easy, so natural, to say yes.
Except she hadn’t forgotten how that same sunny light ultimately abandoned Masi. She couldn’t trust it again. She wouldn’t.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, “but you know you’re always welcome here.”
Maman finally opened her purse to display two shimmering yellow squares. “Tejal, tell me honestly: are you hurting? Inside?”
“No,” Tejal replied before the question was even fully out. “Of course not. So please don’t tell me I need to harvest. Or that I need those things. Because I don’t.” Forcing a smile, she stood. “Should we go see that movie?”
Tejal pushed aside the bookcase to expose the hidden room. She stood on the threshold, taking in the abandoned closet, its shelves and hangers nearly vacant but for a few bits of golden light.
Good—Maman hadn’t given up completely. It wasn’t too late.
Not like Masi.
Bruises like clouds puddled in Tejal’s chest. If she had stayed, maybe she could have saved Masi. But she’d run, and her auntie’s ashes had been scattered to the four winds. Tejal had left Maman and Papa alone to deal with Masi’s struggles, with Maman’s sorrow, just as she’d silenced her own, leaving it to fester into something murkier.
The dark days she’d denied, drowning them in coffee and fleeing them in the flower shop. If she turned around now, they would swallow her up.
Yet Maman’s dream words lingered in Tejal’s memory. We have to choose to keep going.
What would Tejal’s choice be?
After gulping down a cup of tea, she donned her woolen coat and scarf. Then, hands and head still bare, she rushed out the back door and into the crunchy snow. It crackled beneath her boots, crystals cracking in the ash-colored light.
The sky had grown overcast, shrouding the sun. Tejal’s dry skin began to itch, and numbness crept through her fingers. She rubbed them together but resisted the temptation to stick them in her coat pockets. It was so cold!
Instead, she forced herself to feel it all, to stand next to the dormant berry bushes and search for the warmth buried in the ice. Closing her eyes, she inhaled deeply. The scent of citrus, the feel of lemonade. She envisioned those things, how her skin knew them. How she could pluck and wear them at will.
Next she pictured Maman clothed in a sari of sunlight, yellow and supple as beaten yolk, blurring the lines of what was and what might be. Always glowing from within, like her closet. Maman, she knew now, would be fine.
Finally Tejal pictured her own cloud-bruises, clotting around her heart. Her nose stung and started to drip, perhaps from the sharp cold, perhaps with old tears.
Sunshine was never gathered in the winter. That was the rule—harvest during the summer so it could be expended during the winter of the year, the winter of the soul.
But Tejal wondered if that was a symbolic rule, not a seasonal one. Maybe it was about choosing the light even amidst the dark.
We have to keep going. All of us.
Four years after Masi divulged their family secret, Tejal went to Germany to see her star in Der blaue Engel. Despite her brown skin, Masi had won the role of pale, blonde Lola Lola, and she performed to packed houses. If Masi hadn’t reserved her a seat, Tejal wasn’t sure she could have gotten one.
For an hour and a half, Masi held her entranced: the way she embodied Lola so well, the way she crooned the lyrics through fire-engine-red lips as she strutted about the stage in feathers and a sequin-studded gown, the way she literally outshone the rest of the cast. Tejal’s heart swelled and quailed and pounded. She peeked at the rest of the audience, who eagerly drank in every movement her masi made. Tejal allowed herself a smile of pride, her mouth stained the same scarlet as Masi’s.
Later, at the cast party, everyone surrounded Masi to tell her what a splendid job she’d done. She posed for pictures, smiled at would-be suitors, sipped strawberry champagne, and introduced Tejal as her favorite niece. But only Tejal noticed anything unusual about the sun-bright shawl arrayed over Masi’s shoulders. Tejal had a matching square tucked into her handbag, which she would furtively dip into for warmth and reassurance.
Masi tilted her coiffed head and winked one glittery eyelid. “Our little secret,” she mouthed. Tejal grinned.
Deep into the night, they went back to Masi’s apartment and sat on the balcony, where they nibbled on chocolates and gazed down at the sleeping city. “Our family is special,” Masi said. Her shawl had dissipated, yet even without it, she was radiant. “Most people have shadows, and we have light. Give them hints, and they will follow you anywhere.”
Tejal nodded, impressed. “The way they follow you.”
Masi crumpled up a bonbon wrapper. “Something like that.” Her voice distant, she launched into a tale about a journalist who’d used an interview to propose to her.
Tejal couldn’t help laughing. Masi was so glamorous and worldly and wise. If anyone was made of light and not shadows, it was her.
She was the most amazing aunt in the world.
Tejal extended her hands, palms up, and imagined the sun’s rays collecting in them and spilling over. She sought the seed of summer nestled in the heart of winter.
The clouds parted just a handspan, enough for the first gilded light to flood through. It gleamed in the chilly air, golden cords waiting to be caught, and Tejal plucked it all. She arranged one cord around her neck as a makeshift shawl, basking in the cookie-baking feel of her childhood, beaming as the haze of melancholy steamed away.
She plucked, and she gathered, and she reaped until her hands thawed and the snow at her feet had softened to water. I should have seen, I should have known—the old refrain melting under the February sun, then evaporating.
Once morning turned to afternoon, Tejal hauled her harvest indoors. She folded part of the sunshine into stacks as high as her shoulders. The rest she heaped on hangers, doubly and triply layering the light.
Hot tears swept down her face, and she let them. I miss you, Masi.
When she stood back to survey her work, every centimeter of the closet, even the walls, shone brilliant yellow, the yellow of summer, the yellow of merriment. Her heart blazed with it, driving out the gloom, the doubts filtered in gray.
Masi had made her choice, and now Tejal was making hers.
Maybe she would stay and care for the house until her parents returned. Maybe she would start her own closet in Paris. Maybe she would even drape a cloak over Gaël and entrust him—and Véronique and Bruno—with her secret.
For now, however, the light in this closet was all hers.
Tejal dove in and swam through the sunshine.
Shveta Thakrar is a writer of South Asian-flavored fantasy, social justice activist, and part-time nagini. She draws on her heritage, her experience growing up with two cultures, and her love of myth to spin stories about spider silk and shadows, magic and marauders, and courageous girls illuminated by dancing rainbow flames. Her most recent publications can be found in The Toast, Faerie Magazine, Uncanny, and Strange Horizons. When not hard at work stringing prose into delicate chains suitable for wearing out, Shveta makes things out of glitter and paper and felt, devours books, daydreams, bakes sweet treats, travels, and occasionally even practices her harp.