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I don’t know what I can make for dinner. We ran out of the good stuff, like meat or fruit or vegetables, on Tuesday. My eyes dart around the small room looking for something, anything really, that I could prepare. Mama will be home soon, and I’ll be in trouble if I don’t have dinner ready. Lifting the ripped rag that covers one of our food boxes, I spot a lump of what looks like bread in the corner. I reach down, my hand searching for a possible meal. As soon as I touch it, I remember that it got moldy weeks ago. Stupid bread.
After checking all of the boxes, I realize we’re out of anything edible. I open the curtain that leads outside and peer around, looking for Mama. There’s nothing but desert: rocky, dusty, desert which seemingly goes forever. I can’t see her anywhere, which means that I have more time to figure out how to make dinner with no food.
I shut the curtain behind me and step outside. My feet warm as soon as they touch the sand. I wish I had a pair of shoes, but my priorities need to be kept straight. Food first, shoes later. I slowly look around, until I spot an irregular shape next to one of rocks. My feet scrape against the stones as I run over, praying for something I could eat.
“Yes!” I yell aloud, then kick myself. Lying in the sand was a dead bird, but it hadn’t been dead long enough to go bad. Mama’s going to be thrilled; we didn’t eat yesterday or the day before, but we’re not the only ones living hungry in this desert. If I yell out, others will come take the food for themselves. I scoop up the bird and run, not stopping until I get home. This bird is mine. Mine and Mama’s. My feet beg for mercy, but I don’t listen. I never listen to pain if I can help it.
I’m cutting the bird’s meat when the curtain flies open, and in walks Mama. Sands swirls into the house with her, and she hastily closes and ties the curtain, leaving the desert wind to pound the fabric door. As she looks around, she notices the meat I’m cutting and raises one eyebrow.
“Khari?” she asks.
“Where did you get that meat?”
I turn to look her in the eye. “I didn’t steal it.”
“I promise.” I say, and apparently I’ve convinced her as she sits down and smiles weakly at me. I smile back, and pass her a piece of meat.
“Is this too much?” I ask, not wanting to eat too much of the meat when we have so little.
“Don’t worry about it,” she responds, “I know where we can get more.”
I roll my eyes a little, thinking she’s kidding. There’s only one place we can get food like this normally – the traveling bazaar. “Mama, the bazaar isn’t here.”
“It’ll be here tomorrow.” She says, never looking up from her plate. I spring to my feet, excitement pumping through my veins.
“Will it really?” I breathe.
“Yes,” Mama says, “And get some rest. We’ll be up early to go.”
~ ~ ~
“Come on Khari, time to leave.” Mama says, gently shaking me awake. I groan groggily, then remember that the bazaar is today. I leap to my feet and shake my head, waking up my sleepy body. Mama chuckles, and goes to find a bag. I pull down my blanket, eager to use the thing I’ve been saving for the last five months. Three shillings gleam back at me from the ground, and I scoop them up. Tucking them in the pocket of my shirt, I smile happily. I found them a few months ago while I was exploring the rocky hills about a mile away from home. I’ve never had money to bring to the bazaar before. With my three shillings, I’m not poor anymore.
We walk to the bazaar with Mama humming happily every step of the way. I restrain myself from skipping, not wanting to seem strange to the others and instead settle for a smile. Ahead, I can see the shops and colorful fabric of the bazaar, and I can smell wax burning from the candlemaker’s shop. I pick up my pace, eager to explore the bazaar’s wonders.
“All right Khari, promise you’ll stay with me.” Mama says, seeing me walk quicker. I slow my pace and nod, gazing at little bottles of spices, and the glowing lanterns hanging from posts. People crowd the aisles, bustling in every direction towards the different stands. The warm smell of bread wafts through the air, and I lick my lips a little, wishing I could taste it. I wonder if we have any bread like that at home, and remember the moldy bread. Shuddering a little, I close my eyes and imagine tasting the baked good. I think of it as being soft to touch, and fluffy when cut. Anything can be put on it, absolutely anything, and all of it tastes good because the bread is fresh and delicious. When I open my eyes, in front of me is a stand full of dresses in so many colors they could take the place of the sunrise. I know I couldn’t possibly afford anything so beautiful, so I look away, not wanting to desire what I can’t have.
The wind begins to pick up, and many people pull hoods over their heads for protection. Mama and I, used to the desert’s abrupt winds, continue on to the baker’s stand. I realize Mama’s been saving for the bazaar as she pulls out a handful of shillings to purchase some of the baker’s goods.
Ahead, a father and his daughter walk together, and I hear the father tell the girl to put on her jacket. I wish my father was here to tell me things like that. The girl, perhaps feeling my stare, turns to look at me and smiles. I glare back at her, momentarily furious with fate. Why can she have her father, and I can’t have mine? Frowning at my stony gaze the girl looks away, and puts on her jacket. I wrap my arms around my body. I don’t have a jacket either.
I walk over to Mama, who’s purchasing a bag of wali. I smile at her and she smiles back, handing me the bag. I can imagine cooking the wali for dinner already. A foreigner walks up to the booth, and I stare at his strange clothing. The man’s wearing what I know to be a tee shirt, and around his neck is a black strap with what some foreigners call a “camera” attached to it. The man points to the bag in my hand and asks, “Is that rice?”
Eager to answer his question, I respond in my native tongue. “Yes sir, it’s rice. We call it Wali here. It’s very good!” The man stares at me, confused. Realizing my mistake, I try to remember the English my father taught me a year ago. “Yes… is rice. Rice good.” He nods, and I smile with pride at his understanding. I want to speak the same language as everyone in the world one day. Perhaps I already do. Thinking about that, I straighten my posture, smile a real smile, and squeeze Mama’s hand. She squeezes back, and we walk away from the man and through the next few stands together, in a silence that speaks for itself.
The butcher’s stand is next, and Mama releases my hand to pull out the rest of her money. She turns to look at me, then at the meats, then back at me. “Which one would you like, Khari?” she asks warmly. I’ve never picked before; that was always Dad’s job.
There are many kinds, and I don’t know which is which. Squinting a little, I recognize one of them one the corner of his stand as beef and point to it. Mama grins at me, and I feel a wave of pride. I picked well!
“That’s my favorite too,” Mama says. “You have good taste.”
While Mama pays for the beef, I turn to gaze at the other stands. A farmer calls out, eager to sell his produce to the bypassers. Across his table lay exotic fruits I’ve never seen before. One of them is the color of a flame of roaring fire, with bright green leaves. It smells sweet, and I lean over to get a good sniff of the wonderful scent. The farmer quickly leans over and pushes me away.
“You want to eat it, you gotta buy it, girl.” He says, frustrated. “Move along. If you ain’t got enough money to buy anything, you’re wasting my time.” In response I stare down at my ripped little blue dress, and the messy patching Mama did for me. I don’t want a new dress - I want to buy the fruit. I want to buy it so he won’t think I’m poor. I want to buy it so I will know if the fruit is juicy like an orange, or if it has a texture like a banana. Mama reaches over to grab to my hand, and pulls me away.
“But Mama, I want to know what that tastes like!” I protest, pulling against her grip.
“Khari, please. We’re not here to buy everything in the place.” Mama answers, and releases me. I stumble, but catch myself before I fall into the butcher’s booth. I run back to the farmer’s stand, and look him right in the eye.
“How much?” I ask, intent on tasting the funny looking fruit.
He glares at me, his eyes full of ice. I feel like I’m shrinking into the ground, and my posture turns a little less bold.
“For that one? Five shillings.” He snarls meanly, almost teasing me. “You got enough, girl? Or are you just gonna beg me for it?”
My fists tighten, and my gaze hardens. Reaching into my pocket, I pull out my three shillings and place them gently on the table. I want to know what that fruit tastes like. The man smirks at me, and shakes his head not at all apologetically.
I bite my lip, not wanting him to know he hurt me. I gather myself and turn hard on my heel, preparing to walk away. It happens fast: one minute I’m striding boldly away from the booth, and the next I’m on the ground as a boy no older than twelve runs into me. I take a sharp breath and cover my head, coughing as the cloud of dust my fall created engulfs me. The boy grabs wildly at the shillings I left on the table and runs.
“Hey!” I yell. “Those are mine!” But the boy is long gone, running straight into the desert winds. Tears fall out of my eyes, and I wipe at them furiously. I’m better than this. Slowly, I get to my feet, still coughing. On the table lies one of my shillings, now dusty and dented. It seemed worth so much earlier, but now it feels like almost nothing. I tenderly reach down to take it, brush myself off and walk away, my head down. Mama grabs my hand, and without saying a word, leads me through the small crowd of onlookers.
Once we’re away from the others, she turns to look at me. “I’m sorry, Khari. But you know better than to turn your back on your money, especially at a place like this.” I nod, not wanting to answer.
“Use your words,” my Mama prods. “They’re the most powerful thing you have, far more valuable than a few shillings.”
This time I make eye contact with her. “I know Mama.” I say, feeling like I’ve betrayed her in some way. “It won’t happen again.” She gives my hand a quick squeeze, and I feel a little better.
We walk through the rest of the bazaar, picking up a little more food along the way, and some water. I offer to pitch in my shilling, but Mama refuses to let me help pay. An hour later, we’ve almost reached the end when Mama sees something that sparks her interest.
A small booth rests at the end of the bazaar, with three lanterns hanging from its sides and little bouquets of flowers on table. The blossoms, cactus flowers, don’t grow close to my home but I’ve seen them before on a trip with my father.
Mama strokes the petals, and I see that her eyes have grown misty. “Your father used to bring me home these flowers when he returned from long hunting trips.” she says, both happiness and sadness in her tone. I lean into her, and hug her gently. My father had died on his last hunting trip, and he would never again bring another flower home to Mama. I reach over to touch the petals. Gently, my fingers brush against their edges. Mama takes a quick breath, and smiles faintly at me. She turns abruptly to look at a clothing booth. I stay, staring at the little white flowers. They stare back, unafraid. Looking up, I meet the shopkeeper’s eyes. Instead of asking I put a single shilling on his table and look at him, hope decorating the edges of my eyes. I’m going to give Mama the flower my father never will. He shakes his head, and brushes the shilling off onto the ground. I lean over, dust it off, and look at the man. I do not glare. I will not glare again. I will not do it because I’m stronger than that.
Mama’s voice echoes in my head: Use your Words, Khari. Meeting his eyes, I open my mouth to speak. “Make some money, sir. But don’t let money make you.”
Mama’s eyes meet mine, and she looks at me as if for the first time. “That’s my girl.” Now my own eyes begin to mist at the compliment, of which Mama so rarely gives. I close my eyes, wanting this moment to last forever. Mama takes my hand and her eyes look towards the desert before us, most likely trying to decide how long our journey home will be. But before we turn to leave, someone taps me on the shoulder. I whirl around, and hold tightly onto my shilling. The flower shopkeeper stares gently at me, and I stare back. In his hand is a small white flower, so intense in its color that it could rival the moon. Its little petals seem to be smiling at me, and the stem is short, but strong. He extends his hand toward me, but I don’t move a muscle. It’s not meant for me to have. But the shopkeeper’s eyes insist, and he gently places the little white flower in my hand. I’m unable to move my eyes from the blossom for a minute, but then reach into my pocket to take out the last of my shillings. I place it on my palm, and reach my hand out, ready for the dusty metal to touch a different hand. But when I look up the shopkeeper’s gone, disappeared into the desert winds.