I could not help imagining how it would feel to press my small dirty face between those clean folds of her skirt, to rub my palms on the whiteness of her gloves. I pictured my wild black hair coming smooth beneath the answering strokes of her fingers. My heart would quiet to a purr as her foreign voice poured over me. I loved her foreignness. I adhered to it. I did not believe she would rescue me, but I believed that she could if she so desired.
At the same time, I did not desire rescue. Rescue, as it is understood in the red-light district, simply means greater suffering and risk. Oh, I had heard of girls who were "rescued" by husbands and lovers and caring friends, but I also had seen the deadness in their eyes when they returned. And Indrani made sure I knew all the many, many reasons why other less fortunate girls never returned.
Mrs. Shaw could not know these things. I imagined that her kind dreamed in black and white, as I was told they lived. Black was the dirt, the baby, the fly, the water she would not touch. White was the disinfected palace where she must sleep at night and the other firenghi home to which she would flee when her time in India was over. Home for Mrs. Shaw must be a refuge, while home to me meant a dark place filled with blood and cries and madness.
For I, too, was a foreigner, my homeland also a world apart from Delhi. But I dreamed not in black and white but in colors bright as the waters of Holi. Fertile greens and dirt red, glacial blues and gold, these were the hues of my vision of myself, my life, my possibilities.
These colors I had seen not only streaming in the riots of festivals and the bloodletting of India's Partition, but during my travels long ago away from that first place of fighting and death and what love I could recall. By the time I met Mrs. Shaw I did not remember the place or the journey, only those colors and the sounds that accompanied them. Sounds of thrusting rivers and wind, skittering rocks and rain, but also the throat-swell of men's voices, the partition of vowels and guttural sighs, the language of my keepers. Whenever one from the hills came into the brothel, I would know it instantly and engage him with words from a buried poem, a song, a voice that once lullabyed me to sleep, a voice that had lost its face. And the man from the hills would roar. He would pull on his beard, cup his hand about my neck, and grope me with his eyes. He would talk at me a little and laugh, then set me down with a shake of his head, and Indrani would jerk her thumb for me to get back to my sweeping or go to the pump or fetch Mira or Fatya or Shahnaz for the hill man before he grew ill tempered. But then for a night or two my sleep would blaze with pink and gold, and the sounds would haunt me.
An odd thing happened after I claimed Mrs. Shaw. Hers became the face of my dream voice, and the dreams themselves colored pale as her skin. Looking up through the yellow veil of her skirt I would see her head bent, the shadow shape of her nose and lips, that mane of hair. She would sing me the lullaby of the hills in low-drawn tones with a catch of the throat, and I would rock to and fro with her tenderness.
Some days later she returned to our lane. Her dress this time was a speckled orange like the petals of a tiger lily, her hair swept back under a man's hat, her pocketbook shouting out red. Her steps, too, were louder than before. This time when Bharati's child ran forward with her grimy palm outstretched, Mrs. Shaw extended a gloved finger to brush the flies from the little brat's eyes. Immediately, the Indian servant gestured his disapproval. The two exchanged words. If you brush the flies from one child's eyes, he seemed to be saying, you must brush the flies from all. But even as he spoke, Shanta pressed closer, touching Mrs. Shaw's skirt with her cheek and crying softly, grasping. The escort tried now to hurry Mrs. Shaw away, but she reached back and dropped three paise into those pleading hands. When Shanta ran over to show off her treasure, I knocked her into the dust. Indrani, who had been watching from the doorway, dug her nails into my arm and lifted me off my feet, screaming that I should learn such skill from Shanta and then maybe I would be worth the fortune she wasted to keep me.
Copyright © 2003 by Aimee E. Liu. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher.
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