Manuela let me in on a secret some time ago. She showed me something she had been doing that she wasn’t supposed to. “Don’t tell Mother,” she had whispered in my ears as she showed me. I didn’t understand. The secret was beautiful. Mother would want to know. She hadn’t smiled in forever. She was too busy trying to feed us both and buy medication for Grandma, she’d always complain. There was no time to smile. But I knew this would make her smile. But it was a secret I wasn’t supposed to share. Because then, she’d punish Manuela. And Manuela meant no harm. So I kept the secret.

But it was like we forgot. Mama has a way of finding out things. Once I left the door unlocked and someone came in to steal the TV. The one thing I enjoyed in this drab apartment. When Manuela and I came from school and I realized what I had done, I broke down, crying. But Manuela, always the level-headed one, had searched for a stone and broke the handle of the door to make it look like it had been opened with force. But Mama found out. I don’t know how she did it, but she found out. And then quietly, she withdrew Manuela from our school, and sent her to some vocational school to learn sewing. It was cheaper there, she said. Besides, careless girls did not deserve anything. 

And now Manuela wanted me to hide the fact that she wasn’t going to the school from Mama. But how could I? She was using the tuition money to buy canvas, paints and brushes and she had been painting in her room. Excitedly, she showed me some money she’d kept, explaining to me how she made it hawking her paintings. She wanted to give it to Mama, but didn’t know how. Because Mama would suspect something, and then Mama would get angry not because what Manuela was doing was wrong, but because she had kept it from her. If there was anything Mama hated it was secrets. But she had her own secrets. Like for instance the whereabouts of Daddy, a man she refused to talk about. Grandma used to tell us stories about him. But since her stroke, all Grandma did with her mouth was drool. Manuela had painted her, and what I liked about Manuela’s painting was that the colours seemed (for lack of a better way to put it other than in this cliché form) to come alive. They sort of gave you an inner perspective of who the person really was. It may come across to you as a poor description of her work, but know that I cannot describe her work at all. I can only describe how I feel about it. So, maybe you’ll understand my usage of the word ‘beautiful’ to describe the feeling.

But if you also know Mama, you’ll understand my predicament. Because every time Mama asks me where Manuela has been going during the day, I can feel her acute senses being made aware of my slight hesitations before I answer. It’s only a matter of time before she gets the truth out of me. 

But till then, Manuela’s secret is safe.

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