by Ingrid Haring-Mendes
The snow tipped mountain range looked down through a layer of heat on a mango tree and a girl with two thick black braids who came to pick its fruit. They hung from the end of long green strands; she used a stick to reach up and pluck only those mangoes whose green was on the cusp of change. With a knife, the girl slit the stick, widening its head, so that it separated into four. This way the fruit could sit in a forked vessel and she could lift it from the tree without a single bruise.
The girl collected the mangoes into her wide-mouthed basket to take to market. The road was a dusty one in the dry season, and during the rains its mud smeared the rubber chappals she wore. She had found them abandoned by the riverbank which ran, a few metres apart, alongside the road. Sometimes the girl would veer off and walk through the tall grasses and brush and reeds to the river to bathe. She’d spotted the chappals shining by a rock. The heel of one had a jagged edge, a section missing, but still, she thought, she would be able to wear them for many years to come.
The girl’s mother questioned her about where the sandals had come from. Did you steal them? And why is the dress dirty?
She had got the dress from her mother, who worked with the men from the tannery. Her mother came home every morning, trailing the stale stench of slaughtered goats, pigeon dung and fermented brew. She would remove a roll of notes from between her breasts and place it under their fading mattress. The girl would put a blackened pan on the fire, and boil sweet tea and cook soft flat-bread. On a particular morning the mother returned with a dress. This is for you, she said.
The fabric was the cream of a fresh laid chicken’s egg. The edges lined with light blue frills. Like the sky.
Where did you get it from? The girl asked her mother. It radiated such beauty that she couldn’t bring herself to touch it.
From one of the tannery men, the mother said. As a gift for you.
You have a daughter who sells fruit at the market? The man had asked the mother. Take this for her.
The men of the tannery were rough, their muscles hard from stirring bundles of animal skins in the vats of cow urine and quicklime and color, from walking under the bare sun, arms outstretched, each weighted with piles of wet leather, too poor to spare anything other than a few notes. Far too poor to waste any money on a little girl’s dress. But the mother had turned her eyes sideways to the floor and laughed. You give me gifts for my daughter now? Where did you get it? You have only sons.
I found it. She’ll sell more fruit and bring home more money for you if she isn’t wearing rags.
The girl wore the dress to the market. The top part buttoned over her new breasts, hardly formed yet, still as small as limes, to the top of her collar bone. And the bottom pleated out over the corroded skin of her knees. Before she reached the mango tree she pulled the elastic bands from the end of her two braids and untangled the strands, and hoped her friend would come today.
She had met her friend five rain seasons ago when he was yet shorter than her. His head had been too long for his body. Oblong in an uneven way so it looked like a stone had knocked a lump over the right part of his forehead. The dense growth of dark hair which sprang from all ends, made his head appear even longer. Chalky patches smudged his skinny arms and legs. She had seen him once, near dusk, at the mango tree. The boy had been rounding up the fallen branches and longer twigs. With the sharp edge of a stone, he split the branches in half lengthwise and then in half again. She’d watched him.
“You can use my knife,” she said. And she took it from her basket and handed it to him.
“Thank you,” he answered.
“Why are you collecting these?”
“To tap the goats when they try to stray.”
He was a goat herder. One of the many boys who tended the goats grazing near the tamarind trees at the edges of the village.
Everyday at the hour before dusk, the girl and the boy started to appear at the mango tree. She had never felt this before – another child who’d wanted to play with her. The other children kept their distance, scolded by their own mothers to stay away from the girl.
“Who is your mother?” she’d asked the boy.
“I don’t have one.”
The boy’s mother had died on the bare floor, from blood-loss at childbirth, leaving him with his six older brothers. In his first two years, an aunt had taken him in, but she, too, had had too many mouths to feed and not enough food in her home. After he’d learned how to walk, she’d returned him to his father’s house. The boy’s father worked in the tannery.
The rains came and went and the boy grew to the height of the girl. Her name was Priti and his Arun. He’d shown her the trick of fraying the branches until they became almost as fluid as rope and then winding them around each other, so the goat’s skin would sting and quiver, but keep from bleeding. They shaped cars out of wire they’d found, with two wheels, a body, and a handle that reached up to their waist, and raced down the dirt path to see whose could go faster. In the months when the sun withered the grass to tan and the goats tore their food from the branches of the low lying thorn trees, Priti and Arun ran to the river together, away from where the other children played.
Once, they stole to the school-house and raised their eyes level to the concrete window sill to peep at the children in uniforms. After that, their favorite game became school. She was the teacher, he the student. With a long stick in hand, she marked squiggles and lines on the dusty earth under the mango tree. He made up the words as he read. Invented stories that captivated her attention. Of animals so fierce that they took over the village by creeping into homes at night and chasing the inhabitants screaming never to return. Of long boats that came floating up their river with strangely colored people rowing at their sides, they snatched a girl and boy who bathed by the banks, and carried them off to a faraway jungle where tigers prowled the trees, and then to a town with houses so tall that they reached the clouds. Sometimes he told funny stories, of a mad man who wore a wreath of flowers as a crown, who fancied himself a prince, and who entertained the village by dancing on the trunk of an elephant – but sometimes the mad man would topple and land hanging from his arms, like Priti and Arun did from the branches of the mango tree. And the crown would bounce onto the elephant’s head. Priti squealed pearls of laughter.
One day, Priti approached the mango tree, her basket on her hip, empty from the day at the market. Arun was already sitting there. His back up against the trunk, his head bowed, hidden between his knees. Her mouth broke into a smile. Her legs moved faster. Arun hadn’t seen her; she whistled. “Wheew, wheew…” He looked up.
Her smile vanished.
His eye was swollen, only a slit remained for him to see from.
Priti ran to him. Purple stains had spread across his cheek, its sharp bone lay raw, a blood crust forming.
She dropped to her knees beside him.
“Who did this to you?”
Priti took him to the edge of the river and crushed Neem leaves into a paste to lay on his eye.
The day before, a goat had run away. The owner wouldn’t pay the boy until he worked off its worth. When his father asked Arun for what the he’d earned that day, there was nothing to give. If he didn’t bring in money, his father shouted, fumes of rice-brew on his breath, he would kick him out of the house. It was time for him to start work in the tannery like his brothers, like a real man. The father mentioned the girl.
He knew Arun spent his spare time with her; he’d seen them. How much do you pay her? Is she as ripe as her mother?
Arun lunged at his father. But his fists were too small. The impact was a fly’s. His father’s a bull’s.
He went to the mango tree and curled himself by its roots. The burn in his ribs turned the night even darker.
The next day with Neem paste over his eye, he told Priti that he would never go home. He would sleep under the mango tree every night from now on. What about the pythons? She asked him.
The next day was the day the girl’s mother brought home the dress.
It took her four days to wear it outside. She was shy of what her friend would say, also happy; she thought he would like it. But Arun didn’t appear, nor the day after. He had reported to the tannery. He worked there now with the other men. She saw him once in the distance as she passed by the lines where the hides hung to dry. And she returned his wave. She had started to take another path on her way to the market – the one that wound past the tannery – because of the dress. On her second day wearing it, as she’d reached the houses with tiled roofs and curtains over the windows, one of the school-uniformed girls had spotted her.
“That’s my dress,” the girl had screamed from her doorstep. “Mama, look, she’s the one who stole my dress.”
Priti’s legs took her running as fast as a thief’s. All the way to the market. Her basket had toppled off her head. The mangoes rolled to the ground, scattering into the ditches, into grass, under thorny shrubs nearby. She’d had to stop to pick them up. Some she’d lost. The other girl almost caught up to her, she grabbed up fists of sand and pebbles, flung them at Priti – “Give it back, you thief!”
That day at the market, the mangoes had lain on the burlap sack, bruised and battered.
Her mother soaked the dress in a pot of boiled turmeric root and stained it bright yellow.
Still, Priti started to take the road past the tannery to the market, away from the houses. Sometimes the men whistled, but it was safer than being chased like a dog who’d stolen food.
Near sunset Priti went to the quiet river to wash her arms and legs. She’d lain the yellow dress on one of the boulders that sat on the bank. Nearby, between the reeds, a flock of little bitterns pecked the damp soil in search of worms. She waded into the shallow edges where she could stand, and dipped in her thick hair; it ran down her head like a shiny stream.
Footsteps rustled the undergrowth. In a swarm, the birds took flight.
She saw four men appear a little down river. They laughed together. The stench of sweat and dead animal carried to her.
The four men approached the rock where she bathed.
One man lifted the yellow dress. “What a pretty dress, young girl.” His teeth showed gaps; two had fallen out.
He was tall. “Where did you buy it?”
Her gaze remained on the water. “My mother gave it to me.”
“We know your mother.” All four laughed.
“We’ve come to the river to wash ourselves. But we’ll move downstream to leave you to finish bathing.” He laid the dress back down.
Her heart beat faster than it usually did. She could still see them. She waited until the water covered their ankles, and they’d bent to scoop it over their heads. She came out in her underwear and put on the dress, and walked away from the river quickly, through the tall grass, away from where the men stood.
She hadn’t reached the road yet, when their laughter, their voices, from close behind sprang on her. And they were walking beside her.
“The dress looks even prettier on you,” the tall one said. “We must be careful not to spoil it.”
The next morning the girl’s mother found blood stains on the blue and white stripes of their mattress.
“Your first bleeding has come early,” the mother stated, “I didn’t get mine until I was thirteen.”
The mother showed her how to place the folded cloth strips in her underwear.
The girl made sweet tea and soft flat bread before leaving to pick mangoes.
At the tannery, the boy overheard his father and brother boast that they were feeling particularly strong that day. Last night they had spent their seed in a virgin cave.
“My son,” his father called over to him. “It’s true, your friend – she’s as ripe as her mother.”
The boy never came to the mango tree again. Never to the market to buy a guava. They saw each other only once – on the day all the people of their village gathered around each other to celebrate the good harvest. Amidst the joyous dousing – the sprays of red, yellow, orange and bright blue water, they lowered their eyes, and moved away. The girl stopped walking past the tannery. She wore her old clothes, and took the road where the houses held their tiled roofs.
Ingrid Haring-Mendes has lived in East Africa, Europe, and Canada. In her writing, she takes inspiration from her experiences around the world. She is currently working on a coming-of-age novel about a gifted painter and the trials she goes through to claim her artisthood.