By Swathi Desai
The Man has come to visit almost every day of Kavita’s summer vacation. He says he comes to visit her uncle, Dilip Masa, but he spends most of his time with Amita Masi, the pretty aunt. The Man makes Kavita laugh, he tickles her, he says funny things, makes her feel special, says she looks like a lady in her finery. “Everyone will be watching you at my sister’s wedding, she will be so jealous of you,” he teases.
Her uncle teases her, too, but he never looks at her like The Man does, like the boys back home who stare at girls on Main Street at night without smiling or even saying anything. Sometimes they call out strange names to the girls as they pass. She doesn’t understand what the words mean, but the girls giggle when they hear them or sometimes yell bad words back at the boys hanging out the car windows. The Man is younger than her father or he would be married and have kids now. And he must be older than Dilip Masa, because her uncle is still in school. The Man seems to exist somewhere in between college and marriage.
Kavita wears her new clothes to the wedding, running her hand over the saffron colored silk, fingering the little mirrors encased in red thread like a frame. Kavita hears The Man shout, “Lady,” when he sees her in her new party clothes. She doesn’t feel like a lady, she is still a girl, almost ten. When she doesn’t turn to look at him, he whistles long and slow, like she has heard the boys do to the high school girls back in California. She pulls her shawl around her shoulders and bends her face down, managing a smile, she doesn’t want to seem rude. “Lady,” he shouts again, louder. “You look like such a pretty lady.” He laughs and nudges his three friends, who all look like him: slicked back hair, big black mustaches, wearing silk kurtas over matching pants that look like baggy pajamas.
The wedding is loud, chaotic, thrilling. Under the wedding canopy, the pundit spouts words in a language she doesn’t understand, throwing colored powder at the fire. Kavita thinks she can see every single star in the night sky. She has been given special permission to stay up late because the astrologer has deemed the most auspicious time for the wedding to be just before midnight. There will be fireworks, too, her Masis have promised. Her most favorite holiday is the 4th of July. Suddenly she misses California, her friends, her bed. After a long time of waiting, her aunt, the nice Masi, tells her the ceremony is almost over. The beautiful bride walks slowly, keeping her head bowed as she follows her betrothed around the fire, carefully walking the seven steps, mirroring the seven vows.
“Why does she look so sad?” Kavita asks.
“Because she knows, soon she will have to leave her parents for her mother-in-law’s house, never to return.”
“Well, not never, it’s symbolic.”
“Brides are just sad, I guess,” she says. Her aunts giggle.
Sleepy and bored, Kavita wanders past the wedding canopy, near a group of men who all look like The Man with their big mustaches and slicked back hair. They look drunk because they are teetering about, tripping and laughing hard. It reminds her of a New Year’s Eve party at her house; one of the uncles was dancing strangely and her father tried to get him to sit down. “Drunk!” The uncle’s wife shouted after he threw up on the floor. If she can find someone familiar, they might be able to tell her when the fireworks will begin. Turning to go back to the canopy, she sees The Man. He will know where to find the fireworks.
Kavita is flying, hovering above the wedding canopy, a specter floating in the wrought iron sky, humming the song the women below her have gathered to sing. The tune can’t drown out the sound of The Man panting in front of a young girl’s frozen form, his breath ripe with the odor of bhang and liquor. Though she can still hear the women singing, she can’t comprehend all the words. But she understands the nature of the song; a bride must let go of her parents to be with her beloved for the rest of her life. The song’s lyrics are not enough to make her shed tears, it is the melody, the atonal pitch that calls to her and binds her spirit in its melancholy. The Man’s cries penetrate the tapestry of the women’s folk song. She floats above the scattered groups of the wedding guests, searching for someone, anyone who can save the girl. All the familiar warm faces are hidden from her as she drifts further away from the girl below, powerless to stop the anguish.
She wakes up alone, all the beds on the terrace empty, unmade. The sun burns her face and arms, the only extremities outside the bedsheets. The heat, heavy on her eyes, becomes almost intolerable, prodding her awake. Under the sheets, the cold, damp urine clings to her underwear, the sheets, soaking all the way through to the mattress. She is too old to be wetting the bed. Maybe her mother won’t be angry with her. She feels eyes looking at her, spying upon her. The three mammoth vultures balance on the terrace ledge, their shiny black feathers slick and formidable, their red gristly necks and beaks terrify her and keep her cornered on her bed, paralyzed. She hears quick footsteps on the terrace; her mother shouts, screams for the predators to get away. She hits the beasts with a broom, the thick straw makes a dull thudding sound as she beats them. They do not think anything of her assault and the violence does nothing to shift their focus. Unfazed and unimpressed with her theatrics, they coolly await their prey.
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