One of the hardest things is to pretend there is nothing special about your day when you have plans for the biggest adventure in your life. The two friends had to wait until Chandru mama and his workers left to do their work. Then each girl carried her bag of supplies and hurried to the well.
The thick tree cover near the well made good hideouts. They lay flat on two thick branches, well above the ground, and waited. The sun was directly above them when the woman walked over. She took a rope out of her bag and tied one end to a tree trunk. Then she threaded the other end through the pulley and swung her legs over the well. Zulfika and Gita held their breath as they saw her disappear into the well. So that’s how she did it!
“The bag must have some answers. I’m going to take a peek. Watch out for her, okay?” Zulfika whispered and climbed down the tree trunk.
“Hibiscus flowers, amla, a bottle of oil…what is all this?” Zulfika looked puzzled.
The rope trembled, and the pulley creaked. Gita hissed at her friend anxiously. Zulfika put everything back and ran to her hiding place.
“Look at her face! Look! She is cross. I wonder what happened down there!” Zulfika whispered to Gita. The other girl shook her head to silence her.
The woman untied the rope, rolled it into her bag, and left the place with a swishing of her saree pallu. It was a while before the two girls moved. There was no sight of human movement as far as their eyes could see.
Zulfika pulled out a long braid from her bag.
“Is that real? Was your hair THAT long?” Gita couldn’t take her eyes off the braid. “It’s a long story. We’ll wait until this is all over,” Zulfika told her. She tied the braid to the same tree trunk the woman had used and let the braid roll through the pulley. Down, down, down it went into the well. Zulfika hopped onto the wall. “I must do this first. You keep a lookout, okay?” She tugged at the braid as Gita pulled out a ring of keys from her bag. There were big keys, tiny keys, iron keys, brass keys, and every other type of key you could find in the world. “I got this from Chandru mama’s room. We must go back before he misses it,” Gita said.
“I will be back soon,” promised zulfika. She tied the heavy key ring to her skirt and let herself into the well.
Zulfika’s arms were starting to tire when her foot touched something. A slab stuck out just a few feet above the water. She put one step on the slab to test it. Then the other foot. Would it take her weight? She didn’t fancy a swim in the deep waters. Who knows what grew there? Zulfika had been so busy looking down at the slab that she didn’t see what lay in front. She almost let go of the braid when she made out the grill gate, a heavy iron lock hanging from the bolt. Hanging on to the braid with one arm, Zulfika pulled the keyring out with the other. She had to trust the slab to hold, for she needed both hands to use the keyring. “Not this one, not that one,” she muttered until a fat old iron key twisted in the lock. Her “yeah” echoed off the walls, and Gita smiled. Zulfika opened the gate. It creaked! “Oh no! that was so loud,” she worried. A flight of steps stopped at another metal door. Zulfika felt the door with her hand until her fingers dipped into a keyhole. Once again, she tried one key after another to see if any would work. And then, a click echoed loudly, but the door swung inwards.
It was the smell that hit her first. A sickly haze blanketed the air all around. What was it? A flower? Oil? Zulfika peered inside. A faint yellow light on one side showed the tall ceiling. With her hand on her nose, she tiptoed into the room as if afraid to wake anything within these walls. The smell was more pungent as she made her way to the light to see what lay ahead. There were noises too. Metal running over metal. Pop, pop, pop, bubbles bursting. It was so hot. “Who are you?” Zulfika’s heart nearly stopped! A man was mashing a gooey sticky mix on a flat stone with a large smooth rock, using it like a pestle. A tray of dried flowers sat on the table next to him. There was a woman in the room too. Sweat ran down her face as she stirred something in a round pot. Her thick long hair was tied back, and her saree looked greasy.
“I…I….I’m…?” Zulfika stammered.
“Are you the wicked woman’s maid? She didn’t say anyone was coming today,” the man pointed at her accusingly.
“No, I’m not the wicked woman’s maid. I followed her this morning and found my way here,” Zulfika said.
“Why would you follow her?” The man put the stone away and got up.
Zulfika stepped away from him, and the flames from the stove lit her face up.
“Zulfika? ZULFIKA?” The man’s voice rose.
The spoon fell from the woman’s hand. “No! It can’t be!”
Zulfika turned to run. But her feet came down hard, and she stopped. How did the man know her name?
She looked back. The two people stood like they’d turned into stone.
The woman moved first, “You are the image of my mother! Oh!” she broke down sobbing. The man moved over and held her tight.
“My parents!” Zulfika’s mind was filled with wonder. This was not how she had imagined she’d meet her parents.
Everyone talked at the same time.
“I have to go. I’ll be back,” Zulfika whispered as she shot out of there.
“Shhhhh! Please… I must lock you back in if I have to come back,” Zulfika stumbled at the door.
“Hey! It will be okay,” the man told his wife. He pushed the heavy door shut, and Rapunzel locked it. Then she ran to close the grill gate, but the braid, who was drawing her braid away?
“Oooaaaaoooooaaaa,” the strange sound made no sense, but she knew she had to do something quickly. She locked the gate from inside and swept up the steps. “Pleeease,’ she sobbed as her fingers fumbled with the keys. When the door swung open, Zulfika threw herself inside. “I think she’s coming back!” The man closed the door once more, and they waited. And waited.
Gita hadn’t been idling up on the tree. She was the one who pulled the braid off the pulley. When her friend slid down into the well, Gita had scampered back up the tree to keep watch. It had been a good idea to hide up there. One could see for miles in all directions. When she first saw the dark blob coming from the direction of the village, she thought nothing of it. But as it came closer, it began to look more and more like a cart. Some instinct told her that it was coming this way. That’s when she knew she must remove the braid.
Gita held her breath as the cart pulled up next to the well. Would she go down? No, she didn’t! The old woman jumped down and tied the horse to a stump. There was no reason for her to check if anyone was watching her. She was so sure that she had been very clever and secretive. Then the woman bent down and pushed on a brick on the wall of the well. Gita bent low to get a better look. The wall opened to show a hideout filled with tall jars. The woman hauled them one by one and placed them in a wooden crate on the cart. The woman slid the wall back into place when all the jars were loaded and rode away. Gita stayed on the tree until the woman was a distant speck.
“I better go get Zulfika, if she hasn’t turned into a rock down there!” Gita told herself as she climbed down the tree. When she found herself at the grill, the sound of the squeak gave her away to the people inside. Her heart pounding in her ears, Gita came to the door. “Zulfika, it’s me. Are you alright?”
“It’s me? Who is me?” a gruff male voice asked as the door opened.
“My friend! It’s my friend! It’s okay,” Zulfika shouted. A woman screamed, “It is a little girl.”
Gita gulped when she saw a thin, lanky man throw down a stone.
“That was for me…” she shivered.
Zulfika hugged her friend, “We thought it was her. My braid was missing when I came out.”
“I had to pull the braid out because she came back,” Gita sighed.
Then she told them she saw the cart from her hiding place on the tree and ran down to grab the braid. Her eyes fell on the jars stacked up against the far wall. “The woman took many jars from that hideout. What’s in these?”
To be continued…