“But I don’t want to. I like it up here.”
“You will fail, Shanti Singh. You need the winning. As yourself, you are not enough.”
Shanti the Kite wobbled and dipped. She feared that the wind might upend her and she would crash to earth and break into a million small splinters. Everyone would see. In a frightened voice, she called to Mrs. Mirabov. “Hold me up!”
“Only if you do as I tell you.”
“Okay,” Shanti agreed.
Mrs. Mirabov tightened her hold on both the string and the kite’s tail, and the kite went taut. Shanti felt it as a stabbing pain between her shoulder blades.
“I’m going to break,” Shanti gasped out.
“Nonsense. You are only as good as what you can do. Remember that you are not likeable, Comrade Singh,” Mrs. Mirabov called.
“I know.” The pain in Shanti’s back sharpened. It was unbearable.
“It is important for girls to be likeable.”
“But why?” Shanti asked.
If Mrs. Mirabov had an answer, she wasn’t sharing. “Come down this instant and we work on interview portion. You can tell story of how much you wish to be mother someday. People like to hear about your future plans for ovaries.”
Carefully, Shanti inched her way down, but the wind resisted. “Let go,” it whispered.
“I can’t. I’ll crash,” she said.
“Everybody crashes sometime.”
“Comrade Singh, there are other girls who would not keep me waiting. Other girls who want it more.”
“She’s the best,” Shanti tried to explain.
The wind was warm. It caressed Shanti’s skin. It wanted to play. “We will hold you for a while.”
And for a moment, Shanti wondered why she needed Mrs. Mirabov when she already had the wind.
“I’m sorry,” she called down. “But I have to do this on my own. Thank you. And good-bye.”
“You will fail, Comrade Singh!” With a scowl and a blast of Russian, Mrs. Mirabov let go of the string connecting them. As Shanti soared higher, her handler shouted, “You are on your own! A girl without a tribe is no one. No one!”
“No one,” the wind said, laughing. “No one,” it sang like a round. “No one,” it repeated until it sounded like the ringing of a temple bell signaling something sacred, some great happiness, a moment freed from attachment. “No one,” it chanted, and all Shanti heard was Om.
Petra sat by the river’s edge listening to the night sounds and watching a frog hopping along the marshy, muddy bank. When Petra was little, her mother used to tell her a bedtime story. Now she found herself inside the story, which went as follows:
Once upon a time, when magic was not questioned and the miraculous showed itself in every dewdrop and moon shadow, there lived a frog. The frog had fine, strong legs and a wonderful, full-throated croak and was the pride of its mother and father. They loved the frog’s jolly temper, its warm greeting to the sun each morning, and did not mind at all that the frog thought itself a princess.
When the frog said, “Once I am grown, I shall have the most beautiful golden hair,” they said only, “To match your beautiful heart.” When the frog asked, “When shall I become a princess?” they answered, “When you are ready.”
And so it went, the frog cheerfully insisting to all in the meadow that it was a princess-in-waiting, until one day, a real princess strutted into the meadow, proud and vain.
“Hello, sister princess,” said the frog happily, for it was certain this was a sign that the time for its transformation had come.
“Why do you call me sister, little frog?”
“I’m not a frog,” the little green creature laughed (and Petra felt it deep in her belly). “I’m a princess, like you.”
“You?” laughed the girl. “You’ve no long golden hair like I. You’ve no alabaster arms and delicate feet with toenails painted a sweet pink. You’ve no honey-sweet laugh like mine. You’re just a lowly, croaking, ugly frog.”
“You’re wrong,” the frog said.
“I will show you,” the princess said. She led the little frog to the clearest part of the river. “See for yourself. You are a frog. And I am a princess. And nothing, nothing on this earth, will ever change that.”
The frog gazed at itself in the cursed water as if seeing for the first time and saw that what the princess said was true, and its sadness was beyond measure. In her dream, Petra felt warm tears on her cheeks.