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The Apiary – A Short Story


The Apiary

Apis cerana indica. Sonali knew that was Latin for “Indian honeybee.” “Shehed ki makhi” in Urdu. But in her own language, she called them “my best friends.”

Not that she had anything against people, of course. She thought that humans behaved like bees. Some were workers, like her, an ayah who cooked and cleaned from sunup until sundown. Other bees were queens, like the memsahib that she worked for. Then there were drones, like her husband, a man rarely found doing things inside of the house. Or, as Sonali liked to think of it, the Hive.

The Hive was her work, and their home. It was one of the many cream-colored British residences in colonial India that bathed in yellow when the sun rose. The verandas and other rooms were constructed like combs, perfectly measured and angled. Victorian, named after their queen-of-queens.

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Unseen, there was venom. But some workers tried their best to make honey. Bearded repairmen would ask for a few moments to pray as their turbaned compatriots would carry out the rest of the task. After burying seeds and pulling out weeds, women washed their hands and feet together. Then they would readjust one another’s veils.

How did it look when they all went home? Sonali imagined them casting off the white for red bindis and colorful saris, the men trimming out their black mustaches and the women combing their braids.

The daydream would go further than that. They might all sprout wings and bumble atop one another just to finish their work faster. But if they could have flown away on their own wings, they wouldn’t have stayed in the Hive in the first place.

Sonali had no choice. Well, limited choice. She could have chosen the gardens instead, like so many of the other ladies. Even her husband had chosen the gardens, in order to pay for something called a “mahr. He had insisted on it, going so far as to completely reject the dowry her family had prepared for her wedding.

“After all,” he had argued, “Sonali means ‘made of gold.’ That is dowry enough for me.”

Chatta” was the word he had taught her next. After his duties at the Hive were fulfilled, he rushed back to their village to tend to his bees. There were crates of them. No refined hives, just simple crates that he had fastened with a lid and fitted with frames. The base was a shelf that could be drawn out, as a brood box.

Humble lodgings, like their bungalow. Later, she would learn that apis cerana indica were the easiest to keep without fancy structures. In a backyard, even. Sonali thought that there was something enchanting about it, seeing workers thrive outside of a hive. Happy. Working together.

“What’s your colony like, Dost?” she asked the queen of them one day. They all had their family name, apis cerana indica. It only made sense that they should have regular names, too. Saheli was another queen, in a different box in their backyard.

“I know you have a hierarchy. But if you have a queen, I wonder if that makes me the empress. What a thing, to be in charge of others.”

Her husband laughed. “They live in a democracy, actually.”


“Yes!” He placed a hand on one of the frame’s edges. Out came the threaded comb, dripping with honey and cloaked in wax. His finger pointed at the bees there. “It’s the workers that make the decisions. They look around, all around, and choose a new home for themselves. Isn’t that amazing?”

Sonali raised her eyebrows. He laughed again at her expression, which was all the more amusing as she tried to work carefully. The gloves on her own hands made her clumsier rather than confident, and her tasks took twice as long to complete. Adnan preferred to work barehanded, finding the equipment utterly suffocating in the heat. “And besides, life’s full of stings,” he had commented once, “there’s no point in trying to avoid them.”

As he closed the lid of the box, she peered into the bottom shelf. The brood box, where tiny hexagons protected larvae and showed the intimate display of workers feeding the babies.

“That will be you, insha’Allah,” he said softly.

Another word he had taught her. She had already begun to say the same prayers that he did well before their marriage, contradicting the ones her Hindu parents had taught her, but she still had much to learn. 

Rather than think of a new name for herself, the two of them decided to spend their time coming up with one for their child. His prayer became true: his wife did feed their baby, but for only a few weeks—and sadly, he didn’t live long enough to see the sight. A short while after, daughter became like father, and Sonali was left only to feed herself. Then the memsahib expected twins. 

Sonali was soon hired as their worker; nurse, nanny, and mother.

No matter what time of year it was, the family would wear glowing whites. It was all the more pronounced when the memsahib met with other queens of other hives. Sonali would try not to stare at women and their children longingly as she served them. Keeping herself busy was the cure to yearning for a queen’s life.

The three of them grew close. They began to tell her their frustrations and anxieties. One was that their mother never read to them. She thought that fairytales, especially, were silly. Here, Sonali saw an opportunity to change her own fate. Craft her own story. 

Instructions on reading began the way any children’s lessons should: as a game. She pointed to random objects and named them in Urdu. They understood, and replied in English. Sometimes, they would even start the vocabulary exchange, little sailors taking after their father’s trade.

“William,” and then, “Jacob.”






In private, she began referring to them only as that—“beta.” It confused them at first, and they kept repeating their names. Then something inside of them clicked. After their mother had caught wind of the game, she, too, tried to join.

“Ayah,” she stressed to them.

“Sonali,” they both replied.

The queen lost this game over and over again. With no duties confining her to the house, or to her children, she would visit the bazaar and other memsahibs. Entertaining others became her own game.

Meanwhile, the trio soon ran out of words inside. The two boys urged her to take their exercise outside. As to be expected, their mother was hosting someone—this time, their aunt. They hardly paid her any mind.

“Honeybee!” they exclaimed as soon as they saw it.

A small hive was in plain sight, dangling from the tip of one of the garden trees. It was a wonder that it hadn’t been struck down by one of the other staff.

Softly, Sonali responded. “Shehad ki makhi.”

She tilted her head towards their mother and aunt. They protested at the suggestion,

the apiary - honeybee


pouting faces making them seem baby-like in their ivory suits. She thought to make the moment into another lesson.


Chatta, chatta!” They tried on the word like they did their clothes that morning. The two giggled, and continued.

“Hive!” William chirped.

Now, Jacob had to counter this move. He had to prove that was worthy of being read to. That he would revere the words told to him, and to offer a better word in return.

He cleared his throat. “Apiary.”



The two boys erupted in sounds of triumph as soon as she repeated the phrase, as though she had performed a magic trick. They only became quiet when she added, “Apiary stings. Come.”

Under the veranda’s shade, their mother eyed the display with feigned curiosity. The aunt, her fellow queen, was too absorbed in conversation to notice. But Sonali understood the message. She shushed the twins gently. If they were too loud, especially in front of guests, it would reflect poorly on her. Better that they were all inside while the memsahib entertained.

“I don’t know how you all have managed so long, Charlotte,” her sister said, as the three of them passed by. “I’ve only just married. And you’ve been doing this for… what has it been now, six years?”

Seven, Sonali thought, a boy’s hand in either one of her own, hardly believing her own statement. Had it truly been that long since she had been widowed? It was phenomenal, how two young boys could fill days with joy instead of grief for a grown man.

“Seven,” Charlotte said. “Though, you’re right, Gabrielle. You know, it’s getting to be a bit much. If only you’d delayed your wedding a few months!” She sighed, giving dramatic pause for effect. “I would’ve been able to attend.”

Gabrielle gaped. “You’re coming back to England?! Oh, whatever shall you do there?”

Sonali would have readily answered “Not much,but she knew her presence was already barely tolerated around a conversation like this. The two women must have doubted how much she could understand. She thought to let them keep doubting her.

Beekeeping, she thought instead, allowing the boys to eventually gasp in the discovery their mother had laid out for them. She waited, on standby, for when they would be all waved inside.

Charlotte chose instead to wave her fan lazily instead. “Gardening is… well, you know, it’s not really the most enjoyable pastime for me… and knitting is practically useless this time of year.”

Queens always drew out their words. They were afforded the time to. English, too, was a strange language. It always required embellishments. Enjoyable. Practically. And on top of that, to enunciate the words you were using to give power to the rest of the sentence.

“And with the ayah here, I haven’t had much of an inclination towards the kitchen. Although the boys have. Their appetite grows as much as their bodies do! Isn’t that right?”

The twins answered in harmony. Sonali echoed a sigh in her mind. Beekeeping.

“And reading just takes up so much time.” Time that you have. “I used to love it back home, to lounge in the salon, but, oh, it’s such a wait for anything to arrive from home. So I’ve thought about something that might even be educational for the boys as well. Beekeeping.”

Beekeeping?!” Charlotte exclaims.

Jinx. A word from the boys. Perhaps if Sonali had said it aloud, she would be owed something.

“Yes. Beekeeping.” The two queens sounded like bees, too, with the repetition of the word. As though they were syncing their hums. “We’ll get some lovely honey out of it. And it’ll give them something to do. The ayah takes care of pretty much everything else. I don’t want them to be completely at a loss when it comes to maintaining a home.”

Too late. Even now, they would once more need to be reminded not to drag their dirty shoes inside of the home, though even the adults were guilty of that. Sonali herself refused to wear shoes inside, even though Charlotte had always allowed her to.

“But Lottie, I do worry for your boys. What if they’re stung? As sick as they get with colds, I doubt allergies will do them any better.” Gabrielle had fallen ill as soon as she had moved here with her husband. Sonali knew, because her sister had asked to procure the finest honey for her.

“Oh, the ayah will take care of them.” Charlotte looked back at Sonali. “She always does. Don’t you?”

The twins answered “Yes!” at the same time, gazing at her with an adoration Sonali rarely saw. This caught her off-guard. Was their mother talking about the children, or the eventual bees? 

Sonali realized it did not matter. She nodded, and the queen waved them all away.


The queen and her drone would have their bees, and Sonali would have her work. But not until after a long journey.

For Charlotte, it was one inconvenience after another. How sick her twins were, how sick her husband got, how sick she got. Sonali spent most of her time nursing them all back to health. At first, it was overwhelming, all three of them—but decided that it was for the best. It allowed her to do her job in silence, without others hovering around her. Moreover, it kept her busy. If she had been idle for a second, she thought she might fall ill too, consumed by the anxieties of being uprooted.

The boys, when they recovered, could not be separated from her side. Unable to play on the ship as they used to in the Hive, they fervently read whatever books they’d brought. There was a wide array of new vocabulary, mostly from picture books and maps. “Suez Canal,” “Egypt,” “London.”

Thankfully, they moved on from geography. Their mother had prepared somewhat for their adventure-after-an-adventure. A book about bees was their next read. “Hierarchy.” “Worker.” “Queen.”

Charlotte made a slow recovery. Her lips pursed when she saw Sonali walking around with her twins. It bothered the ayah at first, but then she assumed that the mother would do the same if she wasn’t with them at all. 

She must miss her hive, she thought. The ship, after all, wasn’t hers to command.

But soon, all of them would be in England. What kind of life would be there waiting for her? Caretaking both sets of hives and houses, bees and boys. But not all staff from the Hive had come to join. There was no question as to why Sonali had gone with the family to England.

“Where are your parents?” William asked her.

“At home.” A simple answer to a complicated question. Marrying a Muslim was one thing. Becoming one had been another.

That didn’t satisfy Jacob at all. “That’s all right. You can have ours.”

“No, thank you.”

The boys burst into laughter. She allowed herself a smile for their sake, even though she rarely saw the memsahib’s husband enough to form an opinion of him. Then her heart sank. That meant that the boys hardly saw him, either.

After three weeks, Sonali entered the house with the apprehension that she would be the only one to uphold it. To her surprise, other workers were there, wearing black instead of white. It was as if they were observing a different kind of funeral for lives they could have had, outside this hive. 

England is colder, she thought, it makes sense that they would wear darker clothes. Sonali wondered when she would receive her new outfit, the irony being that it wouldn’t truly be hers at all.

“You’ll be tending to the apiary, ayah.” 

Charlotte’s tone was less informational and more instructional. Here, she was queen again, and Sonali was her worker.

In this new hive, the boys were quickly exhausted with their own kind of obligations. They had seven years of relatives and friends to catch up with. Often, they’d glance back at Sonali before they left the house. She was a part of their family, they’d argue. Why couldn’t she come? And the response always was, “The ayah will stay where she’s supposed to: the house.”

It was hard, at first, to be separated from the boys she had raised. From their birth, they’d been inseparable. She dressed mechanically in the beekeeping outfit they had bought for her, and returned to the hive outside. Here, she felt a little of her old home. Hands felt the familiarity of the frames, combing gloved fingers over combs. Workers of all kinds conducting their rituals. Tending to their queens. And ultimately, to their hive.

Sometimes Sonali dared a pause to look at the window behind her. The boys spent much more time inside since the move. Pouring over books, ones that their mother had assigned. Certainly not fairytales. Charlotte would hover above them, her gaze as piercing as a bee’s stinger.

Sonali talked less to the bees, then, fearing that she might be heard. But the venom remained, the same way it had in the Hive. The boys were well on their way to becoming drones, instructed on tone and speech. How to compose themselves. What to talk about to others. Their queen did the same for Sonali, too, even when there was nothing to be said. Drilling her, inquiring if this or that had been done. And if it had been done, to do it again.

Only English was allowed, as they “weren’t in India anymore.” The day came where she proposed referring to Sonali only as “ayah,” or even worse, “the ayah.”

Jacob corrected her immediately. “That isn’t her name.”

“Right! It isn’t! She told us what it meant!” William crossed his arms. “It’s quite lovely, Mother. Jacob, tell her!”

“Made of gold.”

 Sonali couldn’t find a word that described the noise that the queen made, in Urdu or English. A thinly-veiled noise of surprise, laced with a scoff.

“Oh, I’ve forgotten how smart my boys are. Two languages. Everyone else will be so jealous.” She gave them both a pat on their heads, and Sonali noted that both of them hardened against their mother’s touch. “What say you both, that we come up with a new name for Sonali? Ayah Sofia?”

“I don’t like it at all.” William remained disapproving. Jacob frowned, only looking more upset. Why, Sonali didn’t know, but she didn’t think to question it. She held on too tightly to the queen’s other phrase. Who was this “everyone else,” and why would they be jealous?

“… The boys are tired, ma’am.” Her voice sounded small, even more so in a tongue that hers didn’t speak fluently. “I will put them to bed.”

Surprisingly, the suggestion smoothed over the queen’s face. “That’ll do. They’ve a long day tomorrow.”

Jacob and William skulked. They hated bedtime, so Sonali thought to combine it with something better: storytime. She had gotten better at understanding the sentences, and the boys were so lively that sometimes she thought she could grasp what the characters were actually saying. 

That night, they told her of a woman named “Cinderella.” It was a strange name, even for one in English. “Cinder” was for the ashes, they said. “Ella” could be short for Eleanor, or a name in itself. The possibilities went on. Like their imaginations.

That’s when she chided them both for stalling their sleep. William looked disappointed, as though his plan had been foiled. Jacob seemed proud. He almost wanted to be found out, like a criminal having devised his plan so that a hero could foil it.

Jaagori in the morning?” yawned Jacob. 

“Insha’Allah, beta.”

William groaned. “But we adore them.” 

She couldn’t help but grin, try as she might to resist. They knew that a jaagori was a lullaby told to children as they woke up. And more importantly, they knew that “insha’Allah,” wasn’t a yes–it was an implied maybe. But, if she said yes, they knew that sleep would give them something to look forward to. 

“Will you, Sonali, please?”

“Yes, please?”

She swept the hair from their eyes—it was time for them to get a haircut—and they softened. “Yes. Insha’Allah.”

They all knew to speak in whispers, especially with words like “jaagori” and “insha’Allah.” Sonali waited until their eyes had shut before going to open the door.

The queen was waiting for her.

“Ah!” she exclaimed. “Peace and quiet!” 

Sonali’s eyes twitched. The boys were trying to sleep, for God’s sake. But perhaps their mother wanted them to hear this confrontation. She pictured them pressing their heads to the wall to eavesdrop. William urging Jacob over, too much worry in his young eyes.

The memsahib smiled, the one that Sonali recognized was drenched in venom and not honey. “There’s only one night left, and I can’t wait.”

Some questions were meant for Sonali to answer. Others were not. It felt like Charlotte was a fisherman, dangling a wriggling worm. Hoping that her prey would bite the bait.

“Wait for what?”

Boarding school.” 

The words stung harder than any insect bite. The twins—her boys—away from home, now? Leaving her alone with the queen and no one to keep her company but the bees? 

“… I will get them ready in the morning, ma’am.”

“There’s no need. You’re being dismissed.” 

Sonali gaped.

All the questions she had, now—the ones about the journey home, her pay, her livelihood, were answered in one quick, dismissive statement.

“You’ll figure it out. You always do.”


It was time to say goodbye to her boys and the bees, her best friends.

Sonali wanted to keep her promise to her boys. The queen might have dismissed her from her worldly duties in the morning, but there was one obligation for her to fulfill first.

the apiary - prayer mat

PC: muhsin ck (unsplash)

Fajr. Her favorite prayer. When she was married, it was one of the only two that they could share together. Ẓuhr, ‘Asr, Maghrib, ‘Isha. Sleepy, yes, but also serene. Before everyone else’s voices would wake, bombarding her with orders and demands, it would just be hers reciting Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) Words. The most intimate conversation, gently commanded to be recited out loud, as opposed to the three silent prayers that came after. No one else could ask anything of her during this time. In a strange way, the prayer prepared her for a day of just that – being talked to.

The best part was that she could take her time with it. Ẓuhr and ʿAsr were often rushed in between her day-to-day tasks. Maghrib, too, was hasty, as she would be preparing the twins for bed. ʿIsha was slow, too, but more from exhaustion. After a night’s rest, Fajr was less like a gale and more like a breeze.

She concluded it with supplication. This too was a relief; moments of freedom with her Lord, outside of the confines of the English’s cages. There was nothing for her to hold back, or rethink.

“My Lord. I have lost everything I lived for. I can’t–” 

A sob choked her. 

“I can’t clean or cook anymore. I don’t know how I can provide for myself.”

The house was long spotless from the other maids. Instead of relief, she felt used.

“I can’t take care of these boys. I can’t take care of the bees. And I have no home. Please.” Desperate now, running out of words. “Please.

She packed all of her belongings, left the room as tidy as she was expected to. As clean as it was, the air was stifling. Her throat was dry and her lungs begged for clean air.

The queen and drone slept peacefully as their worker flew down the hallway, tiptoes allowing her to creep down the hall and stairs. Like a fly on the wall.

The apiary outside seemed to have waited for her. It was dark, but she knew exactly where she was. She had spent so much time there, more than this new Hive, even, and for a moment, she felt like her prayers had been answered. That she was home.

“Goodbye, my friends,” she whispered.

“Quite the play you put on! More drama, more drama, I say!”

Sonali gasped. Something the size of her index finger buzzed and flitted around her, glowing like a firefly. Were they out this early? It couldn’t be. Not with all of the homes around. 

She stepped back, swatting, realizing all too late that she had forgotten her beekeeping outfit.

“Left—right—oh, so close!” The voice was high-pitched and lilting, like a bell tinkling inside of a corner shop. “Really, now! We know each other! And with how you are—so observant—you should know me!

“… The queen?” Sonali asked.

“Close.” A laugh. “Fairies have their own queen.”

A fairy?! 

“A worker,” she said, circling Sonali in an act of inspection. It was as if she was responding to the question in Sonali’s head. “A lot like you!” 

She flew closer to Sonali’s face. The fairy was the exact picture from the twins’ books of fairytales. She looked human, but tiny, with skin the color of summer peaches. Her outfit was clearly handmade, stitched and sewn of marigold petals. Four wings sprouted from her back, not unlike a bee’s, iridescent and mesmerizing. Her eyes were pools of ink, entirely and disconcertingly black. If Sonali stared too long at the fairy’s gaze, she feared she might tumble forward and into those endless pools, drowning within them.

Cinderella had a fairy too. Sonali cleared her throat. And she had been helpful.

“… Hello, fairy. How do you do?”

“How do you do indeed! Finally, some manners.” The wings buzzed as she hovered to perch on Sonali’s outstretched hand. “But I don’t blame you. Because you’re not really you right now. We’re hardly ever ourselves when we’re sad.”

Sonali sighed.

“Alas! It’s usually a joy to be right, but not so in times of sorrow.” She rubbed her tiny palms together impishly. “But what causes it? You have a house. You have people to be with. A family to forever have fun.”

“The Hive—the bees—the boys—they are all I am.”

Oh!” The fairy puckered her lips. It was a childish imitation of sympathy, but strangely, Sonali didn’t think it to be less sincere. “You were thrust away from your Hive!”

Sonali nodded. The fairy was more human than the queen had been.

“And you want to be a part of it again, don’t you? Ohh… Ohh… I’m so sorry—I feel the same! When the people you raised decide to make a tragedy out of your comedy…”

Comedy? I might never laugh again.

“You might never laugh again, it feels like,” the fairy continued, and Sonali was startled.  Was the fairy reading her mind? “Maybe I can help you! Outcasts have to stick together. What is your name?”


She gave her name without thinking, not remembering the ominous warnings of the fairytales she had read aloud so often, and there was another tinkling laugh – but this one filled with venom again, not honey. 

The worker realized that she had not only given her name, but handed over the key to unlock her entire being. She took a breath to protest the tricksy imp’s wickedness, but before she could so much as open her mouth, her body froze.


Rules had always been a part of her life. There were intricacies and customs to both of the cultures she was now familiar with. Whether it was her parents’ bungalow or an English residence, each set of humans valued certain things: timeliness, respect, and silence.

But the fey operated differently. They felt the same emotions that humans did: sadness and happiness. What they did to achieve their goals was a little more mischievous, if not always completely malicious. The fey thrived on trickery, tripping up the unsuspecting, teasing the unwitting into giving up one of their most precious possessions: their names.

To give the fey one’s name meant to give them control over one’s own body. It was a rule that the twins found imperative to impart upon her. They had been puzzled at first by her immediate comprehension, and she couldn’t bear to explain why. Jinn were similar. Adnan had warned her that they, too, could take a human form—projecting one and also puppeting one.

With no control over her body, she revisited the conversation for a clue.

A worker… Just like you…

You were kicked out!

When the people you raised decide to make a tragedy out of your comedy…

The fairy interrupted her thoughts, cackling and launching herself to the top of her charge’s hair, commanding two strings of hair as though they were the reins of a horse. The worker resisted, but it was no use.

“We’ll have to be very, very convincing,” mused the fairy. “They need to need you. So we’ll need to make a mess that you can clean! But I’m too small to make a mess. And besides… I don’t have permission to enter.”

Sonali had to admit—it felt good. To dirty up the pristine Hive, to subject the executives to janitorial work. The worker knocked over pillows from the couches. She tore some of them open, feathers flying everywhere. It was like a bird had lost its wings.

Then she darted towards the kitchen. Switched the labeled lids of the spice jars, opened cupboards and rearranged their contents. Concocting a mix of her own, silverware soup and disorderly dishes.

And the best part—at least, according to the fairy—was rearranging the supply closet. Broom pans were tucked into awkward corners, rags stuck to the very top of the shelves, liquid containers knocked over to the floor.

It was like scratching an insect bite. Pleasure at first, and then only more pain. What was she to do? She felt helpless under yet another’s control, restrained more than ever by invisible chains.

Any minute now, the queen would start marching down. The worker’s heart began pounding in her ears. It was the only part of her body that felt like it was her own. How could she be expected to stay? And even then, after the mess had been cleaned, would she be unscathed? She had faced the queen’s wrath before, but now the drone would have something to say to her as well.

Somehow, the queen and the drone continued to sleep through the noise. The worker wasn’t sure whether she should be grateful or afraid, try to resolve this, or succumb to the fey logic. They’d know she had been the perpetrator—no amount of pleading on her part would ever change that. She had already been relieved of her duties, but could there even be a worse fate than that? She wouldn’t put it past them. Her mind, still struggling with the overwhelming possibilities of what would happen next, sought to resist.

I am not your worker! she thought furiously in the fairy’s direction. 

The fairy’s voice replied to her. But I am your queen.

Hopeless. Sonali began silently reciting what few supplications of protection that she knew. Her mind filled with the prayers, and when she ran out of the ones she had memorized with her husband, she began with supplications of her own. It was a repetition of that morning, the same things she had asked for while sitting on her prayer mat. The word finally came to her, what she had intended to ask for all along: freedom.


The boys, still in their pajamas, were in the hallway. Their ayah’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. Her hands were frozen. One held a pot, with a pan in the other, threatening to strike.

“What are you doing?” William asked.

“She’s making a mess, obviously,” Jacob said. “She’s trying to stay.”

She tried to shake her head, but the fairy held her still. Instead, she darted her eyes to the top of her head. A silent cry for help.

William sniffed, looking around him. “She wouldn’t do this, though, Jacob.”

“No. No, she wouldn’t.”

“Are we in a dream?”

Jacob reached over to pinch his brother. “There’s your answer.”

“I’ll give you an answer!”

The boys grabbed at each other. Jacob shoved William’s shoulder, and William yanked at his hair. 

The fairy cackled. Catching sight of the little fey perched on Sonali’s head, the boys grinned mischievously. Sonali felt a grin of her own creep onto her face. They understood! Of course they would, how could she ever doubt them? It was their fitrah, their nature as children, to always believe in the innocence of others. To not subscribe to the prejudice that the adults had.

“Get her the honey, William!” 

“No, Jacob!” William took his brother by the hand and leapt in front of their ayah, remembering the lessons of their bedtime fairytales. “Say her name! We have to take her name back from the fairy! Show her that it doesn’t belong to only her—it’s ours too! Everyone who meets her, knows her, loves her!”

Jacob gasped and followed suit.

Sonali!” they cried a second time, in unison, as though they were part of the same hivemind. She felt her limbs release. Just in time, she kept her grip steady on the handles of the pot and pan. She joined them for the third time, as all of them understood, now, that delightful things happened in threes.


“Aww.” The fairy emerged from the tresses of hair, as though she were a bride trying to get out of her wedding dress. Then she stamped her foot on Sonali’s head. “You stole it!”

“They can’t steal what isn’t theirs.” Sonali’s voice was raspy, but it belonged to her again. “And neither can you. My name is Sonali. I am no one’s worker now. I have no queen.”

“Can’t I stay longer?” the fairy begged. “Neither of us have a place to go. And you all still have a mess to clean. I can help!”

Jacob fervently shook his head. “She’s made of gold, not marigold. And she’s our family.”

Not you!” William said.

The fairy pouted once more. With a sly look at the boys, Sonali captured her with the pot and pan. They darted to the back window and released her, as though she were nothing but a troublesome insect.


The fairy was right about one thing: there was still a horrid mess. The boys urged her to leave before their parents could see the mess, insisted that they would cover it up for her as a tantrum on their part. But Sonali knew better. They couldn’t reach the high shelves, nor did they know where everything went. And she would still be blamed for it, anyway. 

“I have nowhere to be, now,” she said, separating forks and knives.

“That’s not true!” William hushed her as he stuffed feathers back into pillows. “We found a place in the phonebook.”

Jacob’s face flushed, and he nearly knocked off one of the replaced pillowcases back on his brother. “It’s called Ayah’s Home.”

The name struck her immediately. What they told her seemed like just a fable. There were other Indian ayahs, like her, abandoned by their English employers. It was expected that the Home would be full towards the end of the summer, but come autumn, she might have employment with another family here, or on a return voyage back.

It still seemed too good to be true. As she continued to tidy, it almost felt like nothing had happened. There were hardly any traces of the fairy left. Maybe it had been a dream, as William supposed earlier.

“This feels like magic,” Jacob said in wonder. 

“Oh!” William tugged at her dress. “What’s ‘magic,’ Sonali?”

It took her a few seconds to understand—he wasn’t expecting a description, rather, a translation. “Jaadoo. But this, this is not magic. This is barakah.” They didn’t ask for an explanation, and she didn’t have the time to give one.

The two boys were just as cunning with the queen and drone as they were with the fairy. They told their parents that they had awoken early and sent their ayah away with instructions themselves. Technically, they had. A map. Directions. But also, the additional allowance their parents had given them for the train.

Sonali met them inside one of the train’s carriages, and they ran into her arms.  She wondered if she should tell them that she was considered their mother too, at least according to her tradition. But with the way they held her, perhaps, they already knew.

“We promise to write to you.” Jacob’s eyes welled with tears, while William already sniffed a leaking nose.

She smiled. “I can’t promise that.”

Jacob was shocked, but William laughed. “Because she can’t write yet!”

“Oh.” Relief washed over him. “Maybe someone else can! Just tell them what you want to say, and they’ll write it for you. Can you do that?”

“Insha’Allah, beta.”

Ayah’s Home wasn’t a Hive, but it felt like one at first. The structure was modest, not like the residence. It was brown, more like a tree, and occupied by far fewer people. However, it was the people that mattered: Muslims and Hindus both, from all over her country. They all welcomed her, sympathy in their eyes, understanding of the situation. Cooking the same foods and speaking the same language. Some were seasoned sailors, well experienced in the journey from England to India. Others were Madrassi ayahs, like their governess counterparts, as sophisticated as queens. All abandoned but found again, in a Home instead of a Hive.

“It’s the workers that make the decisions. They look around, all around, and choose a new home for themselves. Isn’t that amazing?”


We miss home. We miss India, Jacob wrote to her. We keep saying that we’re homesick, but Mother doesn’t believe us. Just like she didn’t believe us when she said we wanted to read stories.

William’s handwriting continued on the rest of the page. Sonali can imagine them bucking their shoulders together, vying for a place on the paper. Some words were recognizable, others were not. She tried to read the words as they were told to her.

Yes! She says that she was homesick in India, for England. But doesn’t she know that it can be the other way around? She doesn’t understand. But we think you do. It feels like seasickness, but different. Worse, even.

We feel as though our family has been torn apart. We miss our ayah and our mother. 

Do you miss us? How is the Home? You must not have too many lessons. But if you do, we hope that they are fun.

Sonali, there is another word we want to know. Joy. But not just the word. We want to know its definition. And how we can feel it again.


Jacob and William


The letter ended. Immediately, Sonali urged the other ayah to write on her behalf. She spoke to her in Urdu and prayed that the English would capture it all.

Dear Jacob and William,

I remember when you showed me the dictionary for the first time. The entries were like this: Joy, noun. And there were more words after. If I could be a dictionary, I would say this: “Joy, noun. Can be found, or made. But not defined.”

My parents taught me how to tend to a home, to find comfort in cooking and cleaning. My husband, may Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) have mercy on him, taught me to look after bees for happiness. And then I looked after you boys, made you smile. All these things, I did because I thought I had learned how to do them, and I knew nothing else. But I realized I continued to do them because I loved them. They all brought me joy.

To feel joy again, you must do what it is that you love. It may be that someone else introduces you to it, or that you find it on your own. But what matters is that you do it as often as you can. 

My advice: You both tell wonderful stories. I would love to read them. Not just on my own. But to the new children I will be taking care of this fall.

May you feel joy.

The other ayah paused in her transcription. She sniffed, looking at the paper for any mistakes. The bindi in the center of her forehead relaxed as the crease in her brows released. It reminded Sonali of her mother. Then, with a smile, the other ayah rotated the letter on the table and pushed it towards Sonali. She stared at it blankly.

“You want me to read it? I can’t—not much English.”

“No, beti, sign it. It’s your letter.”

Sonali swallowed. The last time she had signed something was in her marriage contract. It seemed as though it were another promising document, the beginning of a new chapter, a roadmap to newfound joy.





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Hannah Alkadi is a lawful good social media master, cat mom, and total nerd. She began writing in the pixels of online threads with friends since she was 13. Now, she continues in the pages of essays, short stories, and poetry. Her work has been published in Amaliah and Muslim Youth Musings by the grace of Allah ﷻ.

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