He did not know what made him go back there that afternoon or every other afternoon after that.
He told himself that it was because he had nothing better to do, but he knew that was a lie. He enjoyed those afternoons and he enjoyed sitting with the old man and watching the sun sink down below the horizon with him. It was like having a friend, only one who was older and did not wait for him to always say the first word and did not mind if he said nothing at all. He had never had this before, he had never had someone who made him want to just sit and listen. But he found that he quite liked this new friendship, it was new and different and so less exhausting.
Some days they would just sit and not talk at all and the silence still wouldn't press around them, forcing out words that were unnecessary and added nothing to the moment. Other days, they would talk and he would listen until the stars came out and they both retreated to their respective worlds.
The old man loved to talk, he realized this one day as he watched him recount the old days. His face would light up and the boy would know a lame attempt at a joke was coming just from that slight gleam in his eyes. He wondered why he had never noticed this in other people, why he had never stopped to guess what they were going to say by just looking at their face. But then again, he was quite new at this.
So he did all his guessing and wondering with the old man. And the old man continued to tell him stories of his childhood and of days gone by. He made them sound as if they were something worth remembering, something worth preserving, and the boy got the distinct feeling sometimes that he would rather be there and then than here and now. He wondered if that was why he kept coming back to the lake - to relive his childhood in him. But he never asked, just like the old man never asked why he kept coming back. It was an agreement between them that they had never made and for that he respected the old man and tried to understand.
Of course, he never understood the little things like playing cricket in the rain, or breaking your mother's vase and burying the pieces with your sibling in the garden. He never understood because he had never recognized these little moments in his own life, he had never deemed them important enough to remember. But the old man had so many of them and he held on to them with such reverence and longing that it made the boy wonder.
"Did you have any siblings?" he asked that afternoon.
They had been sitting in the bench for a while and watching the slight ripples in the water as it responded to the wind.
"Four?" he shuddered. "How are you alive? I have only one and I feel like stuffing a rug in his mouth every time he opens it to scream."
The old man laughed. His laugh was just like his smile - kind and gentle.
"Living with siblings can get rough. Especially when you are used to being the sun of your parent's solar system. I remember when my little sister came along, I used to dream about hiding her somewhere in the attic so that I could have my parents back again and things could go back to normal. It was alright at first when she was cute, but then she started growing and walking and I just could not understand everyone's fixation with her," he smiled.
"So one day, while we were playing hide and seek, I took my revenge. I was supposed to look for her and I had just got started when a friend of mine came along to invite me for a game of carrom at his house. I thought it was finally my chance of achieving my childhood dream of hiding her away somewhere. So I left with my friend and did not remember about her until I returned home and found my mother running around the house and calling her name. I had thought that she would come out once she realized I was gone, but I had forgotten the fact that she was just a child and this was all just a game to her."
The boy swallowed. "What happened then?"
"We found her in the attic," he laughed, "Curled up in a corner and fast asleep. It wasn't just because she never uttered a word about our game that I hugged her and kissed her that day. It was because I was tired of my unreasonable resentment against her for something she had never done. I had always held her responsible for stealing my parents away from me but it was so stupid! She was just a little girl who needed her parents and her big brother. And instead of being what she needed me to be, I was letting my insecurities turn me into someone I never wanted to be. So I got over it, and yes, you will too," he added, looking over at him with pointed eyes.
The boy sighed and looked at the water as the fading sunlight hit it at an angle that caught the ripples in it's golden halo, so that the entire blue surface sparkled like diamonds. Gleaming white diamonds.
"I don't know about that," the boy said. He wished he knew how to do what he did - let go. But so much was in the way and so much of it was him, that he did not even want to venture that venue of thought.
"You are brothers," the old man said, "You will find a way."
He wondered if it made him a terrible person for not wanting to try. It was so much easier to be selfish and uncaring and blame his infant brother for making him that way. In some corner of his mind, he realized his need for attention, he just wasn't ready to accept it yet. But he did not want to forget it either; he did not want to start from scratch and go through all that resentment on his own. So he made some space in his mind and let the thoughts just remain for the time. You will find a way, the old man had said. Maybe someday he will.
He looked at the sunset.
"What do you see?" the old man asked suddenly.
The boy was startled by thee sudden question put in front of him. "What?" he asked, confused.
The old man didn't look at him as he asked again, "What do you see? When you look at the sky?"
He said that very quietly and for a moment the boy was sure that he had lost his mind. He wasn't sure if normal people asked questions like that, but then he looked ahead and sighed, and wondered if he was the one who had lost his mind. For despite himself, he found himself speaking.
"I see..." he said, "I see the sky and it is wide and open like an endless canvas of blended colors. I see the sun and it is a brilliant ball of red and orange, inching slowly towards the ground, further and further away behind the trees and the bushes. I can see the birds, flying towards their home in great flocks across the pale sky. And if I try really hard, I can see the stars, points of white light speckled across the great canvas of the sky."
It was quiet for a moment after that and the boy felt as if he could feel every breath that came in and left his body.
Then the old man sighed, "That was good. You could be a writer."
"No," the boy said, "I am going to be a painter."
"Really?" the old man asked at the confidence in his voice. "When did you decide that?"
"About a minute ago."
And then he laughed. Because he realized it was true and because it was the first time in his life he had thought about something he wanted to do, something that was important, to him and to the world. He wanted to capture this moment and many more like this for the rest of his life, and in the fading light of the last rays of the sun, he believed that he could.
The old man confused him him with his casual admission of being weak and his talk about enjoying the climb while reaching for the mountain peak. He did not always understand him, did not always agree with him, but he was the one person in his life who gave him the thing he had never had - the space to think and listen; and for some reason he did not know, he respected him for that.