You’re My Huckleberry
I’m not a bad person.
At least that’s what I tell myself over and over as I wend my way through the marketplace, past the vendors selling spiced meats and bright fabric, incense and rare birds. Not a bad person. Not a bad person. It’s a mantra I’m hoping will loosen the knot of dread that has been twisting in my stomach all afternoon.
It’s not working.
I lift my hair off the back of my neck and yearn for a breeze that fails to materialize. It’s hot today; far too hot for my waist-length mane, but Gopal took one look at my hair this morning coiled in a tight knot at the back of my skull and groaned. “No, Marinda,” he said. “The boy will favor the hair down.” His sudden concern about the preferences of any boy—especially this boy—struck me as laughably ironic, but I didn’t argue. I just took out the pins and let my hair tumble around my shoulders. “Better, rajakumari,” he said. “Much better.”
The meeting is supposed to happen near the fruit vendor on the other side of the market. The streets are thick with people—women balancing baskets of laundry atop their heads, men pulling heavy carts loaded with bags of rice and tea, children chasing each other between vendors.
I feel a tug on my skirt and whirl around. A fortune-teller sits on a bright blue carpet surrounded by cards. Her hair is braided in intricate coils, and gold hoops dangle from her ears. She shows me her teeth—it’s meant to be a smile, but it looks more like a challenge. “Let me read your future,” she says, her fingers still clasped around a fistful of my sari.
“No, thank you,” I tell her, and I have to take a step back before she lets go. Gita says that most fortune-tellers are frauds and a waste of good money. Even if she’s wrong, it doesn’t matter. I have no interest in knowing anything about my future.
I continue pressing through the crowd and I start to think about the boy I’ll find waiting for me at the fruit stand. It’s a bad habit, one I’m trying to break. I hope I don’t like him. It will make it so much easier to walk away without feeling guilty. And I’m always the one to do both—the walking away and the feeling guilty. I wonder what he’s been told about our meeting today. What does he expect from me? What does he know?
A quick glance at the sky tells me I’m early. I’ve been walking faster than I realized. I slow in front of the spice merchant to admire the neat rows of pails overflowing with the rich colors of the earth—spices in hues of deep brown, clay red and golden yellow. A woman with lime-green fingernails scoops the spices into brown paper bags and balances them against a small stone on a copper scale. It reminds me of the ancients who believed we get ten tries at life and then, after our final death, our hearts are measured to determine our worthiness—weighed on a giant scale, balanced against a feather. If the heart is as light as a feather, the person can enter the afterlife. If not, the heart is fed to a wild beast.
My heart will sink quickly even against a brick.
I move to the next vendor to reach for a colorful scarf and I notice my hands are trembling. I need to stop thinking. If I’m nervous, I will ruin everything. I clasp my hands behind my back and teach them to be still while I study the tapestry hanging at the back of the booth. It depicts the Raksaka—the kingdom of Sundari’s four guardians—bird, tiger, crocodile and snake. The giant bird, Garuda, hovers in the sky above the others, her jewel-toned wings spread across the entire length of the tapestry. The tiger and the crocodile face off in the center, each of them looking ready for battle. The snake is coiled at the bottom, and no matter which way I tilt my head, his beady eyes seem to follow me. A shiver prickles at the base of my neck, but my hands are steady now and so I release them back to my sides and move on.
I arrive across the street from the fruit vendor with a few minutes to spare, so I duck into the shade of the stone archway and watch for the boy. Gopal said I would find him near the mangoes, but I don’t know how I’ll ever spot him in the throng. The fruit stand is crowded—boys, girls, men, women, children, dogs. But I shouldn’t have worried. He turns up, and he sticks out like a fly in a bowl of soup. He is dressed too formally for a market day, and he shifts his weight from foot to foot without moving anywhere. He is lingering near the mangoes, picking them up, sniffing them, putting them down. All the while his gaze darts from side to side.