by Carrie Esposito
The girl bounced past the paan stands drowning in shouting men and the boys shoving postcards of the Taj Mahal up her nose. She smiled at them like they were holding out flowers for her to sniff. But she didn’t buy any, and what use did they have for her smile?
I hadn’t seen her before, but I knew she was on her way to Crystal Bar, where my three children and I watched the foreigners come and go from our prime spot in front of the bar. Her matted blonde hair was bunched on top of her head, and she looked around, her blue eyes excited like the eyes of a goat who has found a string of grass in the slums. Shyam, who was always trying to sell his green elephant statues, jumped in front of her. He thrust some into her hand, and she looked at them like they were treasures instead of junk.
I didn’t understand why people like her came here at all. It’s the last place anyone should go skipping around, when they could be anywhere else, maybe on a breezy mountain, by the cleanest river, like in a story my father used to tell us, where children could jump in and drink the cold, cold liquid, without dying from the stomach curses. But enough of that.
Two-year-old Laxmi, my youngest, dropped her head in my lap. My mother called me a fool for naming her after the goddess of wealth. But she was born a girl in a tin-roofed shack, so what else could I do?
Her eyes were closing. I lifted my hand. I resisted stroking her silky black hair, and instead curled it in my palm, pulling her up by it. She blinked and rubbed her eyes, and though my chest burned, I ignored it. It was the time when all the foreigners were going for their late in the day drink, and her brown eyes, shiny like fine jewels, made us the most. Besides, if I didn’t tell her not to sleep when survival was at stake, who would?
That blue-eyed girl frowned at me now. I’d thought she was too busy paying for her elephant statues to notice. I pulled my lips in and dropped my eyes. It was my most money-making doomed look, the look that asked, but what can you expect from me, a woman who sits with three luckless children on a blanket? Her frown uncurled.
When she was almost on top of us, she crouched down. Her baggy dress brushed the dirt. These foreign women wore shapeless, too-big clothing, like they had something to hide. Or, to protect.
Instead of giving us money, she reached out and tickled Laxmi’s chin. Laxmi giggled. I had been like that once too, pleased by any attention. As I got older, I tried to fake that feeling. But my mother had seen it was impossible for me to be sweet, like my youngest sister, while we begged, so she told me at least I could not act like a goat about to knock the knife out of its slaughterer’s hands.
I glanced at Shivshankar, who was eight and my oldest son. “Tell her how you speak English.”
I sometimes sent him to beg on his own, and he came back with money, but also words. Precious words he had a gift for learning. And the more he could speak to the foreigners, the more they gave. Lucky for us, if a begging boy was a sad thing, that same boy with a special mind was too much to bear.
Shivshankar told her, and she clapped like she’d found out we were going to sing and dance for her, then let out a string of words in English.
He stared at her blankly, then lowered his head. “I don’t understand her American.”
I tapped the back of his head. “Listen again. It is English either way.”
She looked back and forth between us, then spoke more slowly. Shivshankar’s mouth started to move in the way that happened when he understood. When she stopped, he said the name of his sister, and then his younger, less clever brother, Ramadhuta, who was six. I’d named the boys after the most powerful gods, in a burst of pride for which my now dead husband had insisted we’d be punished. I’d laughed and said the gods had done all they could already.
“Maan, she told me her name is Amber. Isn’t that name so nice sounding?”
She balanced the elephant statues on her palm, while speaking to Shivshankar.
He looked at me. “She flies here to give things to everybody.”
This sounded like some kind of nonsense where people like her hopped around like the monkeys that sniffed and chattered while we emptied our bowels in whatever private place we could find.
Amber said something else, and he smiled widely.
“She wants to play with all the children. She says this will help the children do very good.”
I looked past her. She had wasted enough of our time already.
“Tell her to go away.”
“Can’t we play with the elephants? Please?”
Ramadhuta’s eyes, which almost never seemed to move, flicked over to the statues. I told Shivshankar fine, and Amber gave an elephant to each of them. Ramadhuta’s teeth showed as he and Shivshankar crashed theirs together, then zigzagged them apart. Laxmi laughed.
A camera gleaming in the front pocket of Amber’s dress caught the sun, then shot it back into my eyes. She asked Shivshankar something, ducking her head.
“She wants to take a picture of us.”
I didn’t ask why. All I needed to know was what it was worth to her.
I pulled Laxmi into my lap, feeling the warm lump of her through my frayed skirt and then the pressure of Shivshankar’s hand on mine. I held Ramadhuta’s ankle, because he didn’t like to be touched anywhere else. A click came from the camera each time Amber pressed a button on the top. It was a strange sound because now foreigners had phones attached to their palms, taking pictures of things like the man in orange who played for the cobra he’d stolen the venom from. But never of us. Most people didn’t want to look at us, even when they gave us money, so why would they want a picture? Amber, though, looked like she’d won a prize as she clutched the camera and babbled to Shivshankar.
He nodded at her, then said to me, “She says thank you. Herfather tells her to put everything inside the camera she loves very much.”
Amber rocked on her heels and still offered nothing, so, seething, I put my hand out. She blushed and pulled out a small wallet. She put a few rupees in my palm, but didn’t get up.
If she was waiting for thanks, I never gave it. I was sure the rest of her money was hidden somewhere. What she’d given me was nothing to her—a speck of dirt on a cow’s behind.
Someone scavenged a television once from the dump near our slum and found a way to get power to it. We all flocked to it like dumb beasts. A show blinked on for a few seconds, before power was lost. But it was enough time to see a bright green lawn with this house towering behind it, and these two beautiful foreign women, laying on chairs, who looked nothing like the rag-draped foreign women I saw here, but everything like I thought they should look.
Finally, a man poked his head out of the bar and whistled. He grinned at Amber like my husband used to when he felt like doing things to me in the dark while everyone else slept. Her steps dragged now like she didn’t want to go to him, but then why go? She could do whatever she wanted.
My children stared until the man took her by the arm and pulled her inside. The cool air that had leaked out was cut off. Shivshankar and Laxmi watched the closed door like they could will her to come back out, and Ramadhuta frowned. This was both troublesome and a relief, because his face hardly ever gave a feeling.
I counted the money. It was enough for some rice and chappati, but nothing else. At night, while my children snored and drooled, I dreamt of sending them, especially Shivshankar, to school. But even the uniforms they made you buy or one skinny book would cost too much.Besides, if I were senseless enough to come out here without them, I’d be stepped over or worse.
Though they never said, I knew they wanted to go. Their eyes, especially Shivshankar’s, followed the children in the morning who walked past us on their way to school. I had hoped for it too. When I was ten, I saw a sign taped to the wall near our slum. It was red and smooth, with a picture of a girl sitting at a desk reading a book. I put my next oldest sister in charge of the rest of my sisters, and idiot that I was, I went there, as if magic existed in this world. But before I got too close, I saw nothing but one man standing in the dirt, talking to a group of girls, and I knew it was a plot to trap girls like me. So I’d run away, so fast my eyes were blinded by dust that rose and rose and rose.
More foreigners went by on their way to Crystal Bar, but none stopped like Amber. A few dropped coins from their pockets onto our blanket, while they looked straight ahead, as if it had been an accident.
When Shyam started rolling his elephants in a blanket, it was time to go. That day, I’d told only my mother about the fake school while she cleaned the tears from my face and the mud from my legs. She’d talked to me about Lakshmi’s lotus flower, which Lakshmi stood on like a throne. It floated endlessly on the surface of the water without getting pulled into the sludge below. What my mother was trying to say was that we weren’t supposed to try for more than we had.
Yet she’d named me Banhi, meaning fire. I made of that what I could.
The next day, Amber hurried toward us, around that time the sun does its little trick by going down but making the air get thicker and hotter. Nothing better to do with no one to worry about but herself probably—no children or ill parents, like mine, who were counting on me, their first-born of eight and the only one still alive. All girls, much to their misfortune.
My children stared at her like she was the prime minister coming to visit. Amber sat down like I’d once seen a camel do, raising her behind and dropping her knees first. She showed my children the back of her camera. Our shrunken, bony faces looked like they should be staring up from a funeral pyre. Amber murmured to Shivshankar, and his eyebrows creased in worry.
“What is she asking?”
“To be with us in the camera I think.”
This would have to be worth more than the other one, so I nodded. She handed me her camera, and I closed my fist around it. I could sell it to the man who came hunting around our slum for things like this. But if I ran with it, my children would not be quick enough to follow.
Amber took Laxmi into her lap and put her arm around each of the boys. Ramadhuta didn’t even move away. Did she think she was their auntie? I gritted my teeth and held the camera close to my eye, but saw nothing but black. Amber laughed and moved the camera so I looked into a window that showed them far away and smiling on the other side. Her laughter made my hands shake as I felt along the top for the button.
“It’s the shiny round one there,” Shivshankar said.
I crushed it with my finger. Click, and again, a piece of us was hers forever. I suddenly wanted to claw the camera apart and take it back, but knew that was impossible.
She handed me some rupees. But then, she didn’t stand, and instead spoke to Shivshankar while keeping her eyes on me. I wondered what she could want now. Maybe for us to stand on our heads so she could have a funny picture to bring home.
“She says me and my brother and sister smile so much and she wants to be in our very good life. She will sit with us forever,” Shivshankar said.
I almost choked. Something poked my eyes. I clenched my teeth when I understood it was tears wanting to come, since I’d stopped crying after my youngest sister died.
I wanted to tear every hair out of her head and hollow out her belly and put hungry children on her shoulders to kick and scream and moan, and then silence them, so she would know the sound of silent children was the saddest sound of all.
I shook my head. Disappointment flashed in the eyes of my children, but they knew not to argue. Amber tilted her head as she spoke.
Shivshankar looked at me. “She wants to tell you there is a god who sits very still by a big stick. He has a belly like this.” He held his arms out in a circle. “And he is like you, she says.”
I’d never heard anything about this god who does nothing all day but grow fat. But if something looks like cow feces being eaten by flies, that’s what it is, and you don’t go around telling someone you see something else.
She asked Shivshankar if she could come back tomorrow. I busied myself undoing the knots in Laxmi’s hair until Amber walked over to the bar with her head bowed and went inside.
Amber appeared earlier the next day, jostling through the crowds with two gray plastic bags slapping against her long dress. She held the bags out to me, her face pink and her breath rushed. When I didn’t take them, she spoke rapidly to Shivshankar.
He turned to me. “She says rupees are not good for us and clothes are very nice and not too nice that everyone will sell them.”
She dropped the bags at my feet and pushed them toward me with her toe. The plastic snapped in a rare wind. That’s when everything came together. The clothes and the camera. Lakshmi’s front left hand—the one that showered golden coins—dangled.
I gathered the bags into my lap and told Shivshankar to ask her if she’d come back tomorrow. Glee made my voice higher pitched, but I didn’t need to hide it. Amber would never guess why. She nodded and did this clumsy curtsy-bow before going toward the bar. At the door, she looked to me. Lakshmi’s red smile sliced her lips like a gash. One cannot choose the forms the goddess takes.
Ramadhuta pinched the edge of one bag, pulling it back to look inside. I swatted his hand away.
“This is evidence. Follow me.”
I held Laxmi’s hand, soft and feeble as a flower on a prayer garland, and the boys trailed us to the police station, Shivshankar sometimes whispering to Ramadhuta to walk faster. The cheap plastic of the bags melted to the skin of my other hand.
My husband would have told me not to go, but he was a coward. He’d gotten himself killed during the construction of a foreigner’s office building by falling off the shaky sticks climbing its growing walls. He left me a widow, even lower on the ladder than I was already. But now, the time had come when I would fight my destiny.
The police station was stuffed between stores and tea stands, which leaned this way and that, all fighting for a spot. No one was inside the station, so my children and I squatted on the concrete floor to wait. Ramadhuta pointed to the chairs, but I swatted his finger.
“Do you want them to knock you to the ground?”
He lowered his head. Finally, the door swung open. The policeman who came in wiped sweat from his forehead.
“Go away,” he said. “This isn’t a place to get rest from the heat.”
I rose, but kept my head down. I had to show I had important business, but also that I recognized I was a fly to him and he could crush me if he chose. “I need to see Mukesh. He will be sorry if he misses this opportunity.”
Mukesh was an officer who came to our slum sometimes. He would work with anyone, if it would make him money.
The policeman sighed and went through a door, slamming it closed. He was fooling himself to think it was better in here. The trapped heat was worse than outside. But we knew not to move more than we needed. Laxmi lay her sweaty cheek on my shoulder.
Mukesh finally came out of the back and snapped his fingers. I lifted Laxmi and pressed her to my chest as we followed him outside and through the crowded streets until Mukesh turned into an alley. I stood against the damp wall and lowered Laxmi next to Shivshankar. He cupped his hand over her eyes as Mukesh faced me. The space was so narrow that I smelled his breath.
Mukesh fingered his pitiful moustache. “You better not be wasting my time.”
Before I could say anything, he reached out and gripped my neck. I struggled to breathe. Laxmi wrapped herself around my leg, pressing her face into my thigh. Shivshankar circled Ramadhuta’s waist, holding his younger brother’s arms to his sides.
Finally, the muscles in Mukesh’s fingers loosened, and some air made it down my throat, before he let me go. I choked out a breath. He sometimes beat the people in the slums that he worked with, just to remind them of his position, so I’d gotten off easy.
Shivshankar pulled Laxmi off my leg, and Ramadhuta stared at me. I told them to go to the end of the alley and wait with their backs to us, then told Mukesh about Amber.
I tugged on my earlobe. “I’ll do this when I see her tomorrow. And I must come to the station so I can know I’m getting my share. I can get more like her if you work with me.”
He nodded. He could, when the time came, still cheat me, but I had faith in his greed.
All that next afternoon, the minutes passed like the movements of a cow. When I used to beg with my sisters, we would sometimes play a game to see who could move her body as slowly as one of the cows around us. My youngest sister always won.
When the sky became darker, and Amber still hadn’t come, Mukesh glared at me every time he peeked his head out of a narrow alley across from us. I felt the pressure of his hands on my throat, knowing he only would have had to squeeze a little bit harder for all the air to go.
Then Laxmi’s nails dug into my skin as Amber walked toward us with that strange way she had of looking like she was floating. I had to force myself not to jump up as I pulled my earlobe. Mukesh ran to her, grabbed her tiny wrists, and cuffed them. She screamed, and a shudder rippled down my back.
Laxmi curled her fingers around my wrist. “Maan, no!”
My veins throbbed under her hand, but I shushed her. Mukesh dragged Amber through the crowds that parted and murmured, then came back together. We followed them, slipping through the crowd’s cracks. Laxmi was squirming too much in my shaking arms so I handed her to Shivshankar, who held her tightly against his ribs.
Mukesh pulled Amber inside the station, and we waited a few seconds before going in too. Amber’s pleas traveled down the long hallway. We followed the noise to a boiling office crammed with a desk and two chairs. Mukesh was forcing Amber into one of the chairs and cuffing each of her wrists to a chair arm. He pointed to me.
She turned as I squatted with my children against the wall. Her mouth trembled as she spoke.
Shivshankar whispered, “She asks you to tell him she helps all the time.”
I steadied my mouth from curling into a smile.
She looked up at Mukesh, who stood over her, swinging his keys and telling her in English what she’d done.
Shivshankar inched away from me. “You told him she put new clothes on us and took pictures of us doing the disgusting things?”
Ramadhuta began humming softly.
I stared ahead. One day they would understand. Amber twisted to face me. Satisfaction spread through me as I watched her realize I wasn’t who she thought I was.
Mukesh snapped his fingers and leaned toward her, speaking in English, as he rubbed a rupee note between his fingers. I licked my lips. A dusty fan didn’t stir the air.
Amber squawked, and the smell of urine dampened the air. I bit my lip, twisting my head toward the door.
But this would be over soon, and she could go back to her big house and green lawn and lay on a chair in the sun. And my children and me. We would eat samosas and gulab jamun. Then, I would tell the boys they were going to school. They would blush, but would be too solemn to smile. They would take their due from Lakshmi’s left hand, that I, and only I, had managed to turn in our direction.
Amber’s voice pierced the hot, quiet room.
Shivshankar spoke to the floor. “She has zero rupees.”
I slapped my leg, impatient now. Why was she playing games with us? I sprang up. Even though she wouldn’t understand, I said, “Don’t be stupid! Indian jails are no place for someone like you.”
Ramadhuta tapped his head against the wall. Mukesh lifted the keys, and I flinched, thinking he would gouge her cheeks with them, something to show her she should give in before this got any worse. But coward that he was, he only let them fall.
She didn’t turn to look at me. Her body rocked from side to side as she spoke to Mukesh. The chair legs that were a little shorter on one side tipped and tapped. Tip. Tap. Tip.
And then it was silent. She was still, except for her shaking shoulders. I squeezed Shivshankar’s arm.
He wouldn’t look at me. “She used her rupees to get far away. Then something about cold and ice and her father. Something that makes her sad.”
I closed my eyes so the room would stop spinning and saw Lakshmi’s hands, all four of them now, waving before they closed into fists.
I opened my eyes to Mukesh baring his teeth. The never-satisfied wanting that Lakshmi warned against flashed in his eyes, and dread rose in me as I saw how his life must be—a wife who complained for better jewelry than her neighbor, and friends who drove past his house with their bigger cars, and children who laughed at their father when he couldn’t buy them everything they wanted.
He collapsed the keys from one hand to the other, then yanked the camera from Amber’s pocket. He turned it in his hands, saying it was worthless, even as he placed it on his desk. She moaned, soft and low, like a cow calling for us to hear how it suffered.
I strode toward Mukesh with my hand up, wanting to stop him from whatever he planned to do with Amber now. He pulled me by the wrist to where Amber could see, then slashed his keys down my cheek, before pushing me away.
Mukesh raised his baton. “Go. Now!”
I went to my children and picked up Laxmi, who was crying without a whimper or sniffle or even a quick breath. She rubbed her cheek against mine, her tears a stinging river running down my cut skin. A river in which I might have drowned if it wasn’t for how I needed to hold her above the surface.
When we got back to our spot, Shivshankar walked past our blanket and to the entrance of Crystal Bar. I didn’t stop him, even though I knew the foreigners would cough and pretend not to notice his smell, and some might even laugh at him as he tried to explain in English how Amber needed someone’s help. A waiter might even kick him out before he got to say anything. No matter the shame, he had to try. He held his shoulders back as he went inside.
I sat in my same place on the blanket with Laxmi in my lap. Ramadhuta sat in his same place too, but with his back to me. With the end of my faded red shirt, I dried Laxmi’s face. She stood up and watched me without blinking, as if there was something she was hoping to see. There was mud on her cheeks from the dust on my shirt mixing with her tears, so I picked it off, piece by piece, until she, at least, was as clean as I could get her.
Carrie Esposito has had short stories published in The Georgia Review and in Mused, and she has received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train for one of her stories. She is working on a novel No Way to Fall Off This Earth, set in Brooklyn and India. You can find out more about her work at www.carrieesposito.com.