Guess what? I am number one in English. Ok. So I am not really number one. But I am almost number one. I came number 12 in the exam. Are you proud of me? I know you are proud of me.
I will write again soon.
Our place Sarni is in Madhya Pradesh and that is in the up-north India. So beautiful you cannot imagine even in this English language that has so so many words. It is the mountains and the Shiva temple on top of the mountain and the streets are big like London and New York.
Shaj is fifteen. She is three years older than me but she is my sister even though we are not in the same family. But we are sisters because we are best friends. Shaj and me go to school together and we always walk in the main streets and pass by the chicken sellers and the man who roasts the peanuts. Shaj says watch the road and watch the stalls and watch the places behind the stalls because there are badmash and they are everywhere. Sometimes the small kids walk near us. They hold her dupata or even her salwar pants. Me I would not let those kids touch my clothes. But Shaj would never make anyone go away, even these small dirty street kids. And when we arrive at the school they look at her like she will tell them what to do.
I talk about Shaj we are doing this and we are doing that even though it has been two months since we walked to school together.
I will tell you about Mustafa with the bad lip and one short leg. He painted all Chaubey Auntie’s chickens pink and chased them into the street. Mustafa ran fast even with the short leg but the chickens were faster and they ran everywhere. Auntie waving her soup pot and running after Mustafa and the chickens. I will kill him he is a goondah and his mother is a whore. Remember we saw one outside Sejal Internet Café? That one was very tall. Perhaps she was trying to get a husband even though men do not like tall girls.
I am a medium girl. You are a small girl. A too small girl.
I will go now.
We love dancing, Shaj and me. We get the new moves on the internet café. Sometimes we can watch over someone’s shoulder because everyone watches YouTube and Vimeo. We practice the dances at Shaj’s house because she has her own room. I like the modern dancing where you shimmer your shoulders and hips like a wave. I like to think of being a wave that can just run away into the sea.
Shaj is very good at wave dancing. Much better than me. She can wave her body like a silk scarf. She would be a beautiful flag on top of the highest building in Delhi. She is the best wave I have ever seen.
Shaj does traditional dances at weddings with the other girls but she doesn’t go for the dance competitions even though they have prizes, like money or movie tickets. I would like the movie tickets so I could see the Tom Cruise movies, even though he is very old.
When we fetch the water, Shaj tells silly jokes that we find on the internet and I forget how heavy the jerrycan is.
–Who can jump higher than your house?
–I don’t know.
–Anyone. Houses can’t jump.
Sometimes the badmash come and say they will help us to fetch the water but the aunties chase them away.
The badmash make me nervous. They are men with the moustaches and the beards and the dirty fingernails.
We never look at them Shaj and me.
Last year we went to Gagana’s wedding. Amma says fourteen is too young and I am happy because I want to be an astronaut. It is the nearest thing to being a wave, because you can be in the sky and send astronaut blessings to everyone. And that will all go phut if I am married. Amma wants me to go to university but it is a secret because Dadda is against university for girls.
Shaj said she didn’t mind about not going to university,
–I’m not brainy like you, Ahu.
–You’re absolutely brainy. You can easily get into a top class university.
— I’ll just wait until I get married.
–And then I will never see you because you will have too many kids.
We were sitting on the bench outside the internet café sharing a donut. It was Shaj’s turn to pick, and she got us a pink icing one. The pink icing one tastes like the stars.
–How do you know about pink stars? I’ve never seen that. The stars are yellow or white.
–There are stars that are pink because they’re shining through a nebula cloud. It’s on the internet.
–Ahu, you have your head in the internet clouds.
–When I’m an astronaut I’m going to take my own pictures and put them on my Facebook. And I’ll tag you.
–I will not see your pictures because I cannot have a Facebook. And you cannot have a Facebook—
–I will when I’m an astronaut—
–You will be married long before that. Like Gagana.
We thought about that one. I picked crumbs off my front,
–Do you want to get married quickly?
–It isn’t up to me. Umma says we will wait until I’m eighteen.
And I saw her married with a short bald husband and bald babies that cried and hung onto her, and the husband was angry that the dinner was not hot.
It made me sad, so I had to change the subject quick-quick,
–There will be so much dancing at Gagana’s wedding. What are you going to wear?
Gagana was bursting with gold necklaces and bangles and nose rings. You could hardly see her red sari.
We ate samosas and chicken tikka and danced for hours and Shaj’s pink sequins salwar and my blue satin salwar stuck to us. The wedding tent felt like we were dancing inside a big white oven. We had to go outside under the trees to wave our arms so we could dry our armpits. Many others were outside, too.
Shaj and me stood near the fence to get the breeze coming from the river.
–Eh, girls! Beautiful girls! Eh, pinkie! Come here!
Shaj and me didn’t look to see who was calling but we knew. The badmash from the well. We went back inside.
Guess what? I have a kitten! He is white and grey with a little brown dot over his beautiful nose. I took a photo with Harsha’s phone but I can’t send it to you because you don’t have a phone, so I drew this picture. I carry him in my pocket like a little warm secret.
I got him yesterday when I went to fetch water. He was half way down the well, hanging on to the stones and crying! So lucky I went early before the others came. I got the bucket next to him and it took such a long time before he jumped in. I thought he was going to jump out into the water, but then I pulled him up quick-quick. He was shaking so hard. I put him inside my salwar and told him to keep quiet.
Umma shook her head and Dadda wanted to kill him. I will get the sack to drown this animal, but I made a terrible noise and I wouldn’t stop. Dadda said This child is spoiled. Let her get married soon and that will take care of it. Umma wobbled her head, What harm can it do? It can catch the mice. Even Dadda thought that might be a good idea.
I am very careful to do my chores and my schoolwork and offer extra help to Umma and tell Dadda about my good marks in class. And then I am quiet-quiet no one can hear me at all like. I am a ghost. Sorry. Bad joke.
I miss you.
I will write again soon.
And then everyone was getting married. Mrs. Shamji’s two girls, bing bang, only eight month apart. Then the Varmas’ eldest boy. Next was Gagana’s older cousin. They had to find someone fast because it would bring shame on the family to keep her unmarried after Gargana was already married. People would say they can marry this one but not that one—what is wrong with her? That is how it is with us.
In our family there is only me. My two brothers can marry whenever they want. But they are only five and eight. They have millions of years to go. So, it’s me next on the chopping block.
Amma dressed me in my best blue salwar. I had to stand still while she combed my hair hard until I thought my scalp was coming off. And she put flowers in my hair. That’s how I knew they were looking for a husband.
It was because of the motorbike business.
Shaj does big-eyes,
–My Ahu. You cannot be a jungli girl anymore.
— But it was in a field. No traffic. Nothing. I only borrowed it from Harsha’s brother. No one saw only Big Skirt Auntie who was spying.
–Your parents want you to be safe only. That is why they want a husband.
–I don’t want a husband. All they do is sit around and call for food and drink. And then you have to wash their disgusting socks and some of them make you clean their ears. And then you have to do other things. Night-time things.
I heard Amma talking to Chaubey Auntie. My poor Ahu. What will she do when the man wants—you know—in the night?
–You understand what that is?
–Of course. You have to get up and bring more food. Men. So stink. And how will I be an astronaut? No one can be married and be an astronaut.
Shaj knows I am telling the whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth,
–Never mind, Ahu. Maybe you will get a nice man who won’t ask for a lot of food at night.
–But I still won’t be an astronaut. It is so unfair.
And that was all I could think about in my blue salwar with the flowers pinned to my head. But Gagana’s cousin looked even more uncomfortable. They had put her hair up in a big ball and she had flowers all over and gold beads and what-all I don’t know. It looked so heavy. And the bridegroom was grinning at her with his yellow teeth. Such an old man. Shaj said he was forty-three. I hated him. I bet he wouldn’t bow and grin if he had flowers pinned to his head.
Shaj was wearing a pink and yellow costume because she was doing a traditional wedding dance with the other girls. I held her green salwar so she could change afterwards.
She followed the others outside so they could practice.
All the time I was thinking about being an astronaut and scowling so no man would look at me. Some of the small girls wanted drinks so I took them to the table for cups of juice. All of them did a little curtsey and said thank-you-auntie and I was laughing. Me an auntie! I looked up and this old big-stomach man was staring at me so I bent my shoulders and pushed out my lower lip and did my best scowl.
Shaj and the dance girls came back in. Someone was playing a tabla and someone else was shaking bells and someone was playing a flute. The girls lined up and did the usual rolling-wrists and twitching-hips and what-all. But I was watching Shaj who was sparkling in her pink and yellow. She stamped and jumped like everyone else, but it was like a cloud was stamping and jumping. So delicate. So beautiful, like the desert gazelle. All the old men were going waah and clapping.
I kept my eyes on her so I could tell her: Remember how you danced like a cloud at Gargana’s cousin’s wedding? And everyone was cheering so loud we all thought the tent would go boom? I thought this would be a good memory for when she got married and had all the bald babies and there was no more dancing.
One of the small girls came back to ask for another drink and I filled the cup and handed it to her. I turned around to see the pink and yellow dancers being hugged by their families. A few were going outside so they could get cool. That dancing can make your whole body turn into melting jelly. I knew Shaj would be looking for me so she could change into her salwar, but I couldn’t see her.
She wasn’t in the tent. I went up and down the tent, asking, Have you seen Shaj? I went outside and many people were standing and not one of them had seen Shaj. And Shaj’s umma and dadda were running up and down, Where is our daughter?
And all of us were searching even though it was a wedding. Shaj’s umma was crying because by then all of us knew.
Here is the picture of my kitten. His name is Shiva because he destroyed my best sandals. I had to hide them so Amma didn’t see.
My drawing is not so good, but you can still see he has grown very big now. You would love him. Even though he chewed through my sandals he is very gentle with me. He caught his first mouse and I am very proud. He is only young, but he is a good hunter. Umma says that Shiva must keep his dead mice out of the house, but I know she is pleased really.
I wish I could show you Shiva—how you would laugh. We play with a piece of string and he jumps high in the air. Teacher says that cats are faster than snakes, but I hope Shiva doesn’t play with a snake.
I am not going to the well anymore. Umma must go and I am sorry for that. It is hard for her to fetch water because of her hip, but I clean the house and make the meals. She is even afraid for me to go to school but Dadda says I can go and he comes to get me after school is finished. Dadda has changed his mind about university. He says that it will be a good thing for me to go away from Sarni.
Oh! I almost forgot. When I was waiting for Dadda after school last week one of the small street boys came and sat on the steps next to me. I told him I was not going to cross the street so he must find someone else. But he moved close. And then he put his hand in my pocket, but he didn’t look at me. And then Dadda came and this small boy went off. I think he was looking for you Shaj.
I wish you could come to university, too.
There is a special place in Sarni that Shaj and I like very much. Pinkee’s Tea Stall and you can get ice cream all the flavors. Pistachio and chocolate and mango but my favorite is peach and cardamom and Shaj likes the honey one with the flowers.
And Shaj and me, we always say we are going to get five ice creams, but even if we try very hard we can only eat one-and-a-half.
It is a long time since I have been to Pinkee’s.
They found Shaj. She was in the forest. They saw the pink and yellow costume first. They said it was all torn like an animal had chewed it up.
We had a procession and flowers and the drums.
I did not have to see Shaj. I know how she looks, and it is not a torn-up puppet.
They say the badmash were arrested. I thought they would get hanged but nothing happened. They are still with us. There is a police that stands near the well. But he cannot stand there all day and all night. Umma says the badmash don’t come so much anymore but if they do the women spit at them. I want them all to die. I know that it is bad thing to say. Even so I want them to die and die and die.
A famous professor came to our school with a big telescope. We all took turns looking. I asked to see the pink nebula, and the professor said there was a famous pink nebula in deep space called Orion. How wonderful: Orion from Deep Space.
He showed me the picture on his laptop. I looked very hard. That nebula is dancing, even if the famous professor says it is gas and dust only. But I saw your shining eyes, so I know where you are now. I won’t tell anyone, Shaj. You will be safe there and you can send me your blessing.
Shaj, now that Baba has said yes-for-university I am studying hard-hard. I will make you very proud Shaj. And one day I will come to visit you in my astronaut suit, and you will show me how to dance like a wave with all your pink scarves.
Sandra Hunter’s stories have won the 2018 Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, 2017 Leapfrog Press Fiction Award, 2016 Gold Line Press Chapbook Prize, and three Pushcart nominations. She is a 2018 Hawthornden Fellow and the 2017 Charlotte Sheedy Fellow at the MacDowell Colony.