“One ought not to cause offense to people,” said Old Fazyl. “I try never to offend anyone. And one ought not to quarrel with people; it is dangerous to speak unkindly to them. Even if you are their master, you must not curse them, especially if they do not consider themselves guilty.”
“Because God will punish you?” asked little Hania.
“God’s punishment comes through the hands of the insulted,” said Fazyl, sighing. “Well, now go on, run off home. Listen, your mother is calling for you.”
“Ha-ni-a!” her voice rang out in the street.
Hania ran out of the house, listened carefully to the cry, and then bolted in the other direction.
“Ha-ni-a!” The voice reached her from far away, becoming softer and softer.
She ran to the edge of the village, her hands clapped over her ears, passing by the boys playing at jacks—the same ones that constantly teased her and shouted ugly things after her—, scrambled to the top of the hill, where a view on the entire village opened before her, from the first house to the last, and then made her way down to the river, which smelled of fish and manure.
Achmet the herdsman was driving his small stocky horses upstream against the current.
“Hello!” Hania shouted to him. “Happy trails!”
Achmet smiled and nodded hello.
“Aren’t I smart!” thought Hania, waiting till the herd turned the bend in the river and then pulling down her dress and climbing into the water. The ice-cold water burned her skin, and she struggled to catch her breath. Walking in almost to her waist, Hania bent over to scoop water up in her palms to wash herself. She put her foot down carelessly on a slick stone and felt the current push below her knee. Hania tried to right herself but couldn’t, and fell into the water with a scream. She broke the surface and continued to shout as she made her way to shore on all fours, grasping at the stones on the river floor with her fingers and scraping her wrists.
“What are you doing here swimming by yourself?” she heard someone say from behind her.
Hania lifted her eyes and saw a tan, bearded man with a smirk on his face who didn’t look like a local. He watched her with interest. Regaining her senses, Hania grabbed her dress and started to pull it on over her head. The dress stuck to her wet skin as she rushed to get it on. With her head stuck inside and unable to see anything, she cried out helplessly. She felt a pair of strange, strong hands unentangle her with a downward pull. Straightening her dress and pushing the hair out of her face, she saw that the stranger was still watching her and grinning.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
“None of your business,” said Hania, but then remembered the words of Fazyl and became unsure of herself.
“My name is Bahadur,” said the man, “Lal Bahadur. And I’m looking for Farida. Do you know her?”
Hania peered at the stranger, considering whether or not she could trust him, and eventually said:
“There are two Faridas in the village. My mother and Old Farida, the one who lives in the last house on the outskirts of the village. Women go to her when they want to get a baby.”
“I see,” Bahadur said, thoughtfully scratching his beard. “And how old is your mother?”
Hania frowned in concentration.
“Very,” she said finally.
“I see,” repeated Bahadur. “Will you take me to her?”
“No,” said Hania.
Hania remained quiet while they walked along the slope on the side of the village, turning the present from Bahadur about in her hands; a small ring with a shining stone in it. She liked how the glint of light from it jumped around the ground and up in the leaves, which Hania herself would never in her life have been able to reach. Bahadur was quiet, too, thinking to himself, and occasionally smiling at something in his thoughts. Hania took his hand, as though this made it easier for her to get by the large rocks that they came across on their path. His hand was warm and strong and Hania liked feeling the proximity of his strength and the sense that she was somehow complicit in it. She felt as though a confidence was filling her thin body from his hand, like Bahadur’s arms were a weapon that belonged to her. But as they approached the village, she pulled up her palm and hid the ring in her mouth. She was scared that the boys would taunt her, but they only watched the stranger in silent amazement and then picked up their game once more.
“Well, where is your house?” asked Bahadur.
“There’s Mama!” said Hania, and shouted, “Mama!”
A tired young woman collecting water in a pitcher from a pump some distance away looked up at them.
“Where have you been?! I’ve been looking for you all day!” she shouted, and then saw Bahadur standing next to Hania.
“Greetings, Farida,” he said.
“This is Lal Bahadur, Mama,” said Hania. “He’s been looking for you.”
“So you’ve come to see me?” asked her mother, raising an eyebrow. “Well, come in. And you, go for a walk,” she said over her shoulder to her daughter.
“But I’m hungry!” shouted Hania.
“You’ll wait,” said Farida as she and Bahadur entered the house.
“Ooh, I wish you’d all . . .” In her anger Hania nearly swallowed the ring. She quickly extracted it and put it on her finger. She went around the house and walked out onto the terrace, where there were crates filled with fruit ready for the market. With difficulty she toppled one of them, collected the scattered dates into a pile and dragged the crate over to the window. She turned it over, stood on it, and looked through the window into the room. Bahadur and Farida were sitting at the table. Hania saw Bahadur caress her mother with his strong hand and, smiling, quietly say something to her. Farida smiled, too, but tears were running down her cheeks. Lal Bahadur put a hand into his pocket and pulled out a ring just like Hania’s, only bigger and more beautiful—yellow, with a heavy, gleaming stone.
Hania climbed down from the crate and tore the ring off her finger, meaning to throw it away. But she changed her mind, secreted it again in her mouth and then dragged the crate back to the pile of fruit. The air was still and thick. The sun had nearly set and there was a sweet smell of smoke in the air. The chickens that had gathered had started to feast on the scattered figs, quietly but indignantly clucking and pressing each other away from the crates. Curled up next to the fruit, warming itself in the last rays of the sun, Hania saw a thick, shining viper. A thought suddenly occurred to her. Moving as quietly as she could, she walked up to the snake. The snake turned its head and hissed lazily. Using all her strength, Hania raised the crate, dropped it over the viper and sat down on of it. She could feel the snake’s strong, lithe body writhing and beating against the sides of the crate beneath her. She waited for the initial rush of its fury to wear off, and then slowly dragged the crate to the front door of the house.
Achmet had long since gone by, bringing his herd in for the night, and there were already too many stars in the sky for Hania’s fingers, when, at last, the door opened. Farida gathered her tousled hair. Lal Bahadur smiled.
“There you are!” he said happily, seeing Hania. “Did you get tired of waiting for us?”
Hania smiled, but it was dark, and Bahadur couldn’t make out the expression on her face.
“I’m not tired at all,” she said, and got up off the crate. “Look, I even made you a present.”
“Really?” said Bahadur, surprised. “How interesting!”
He walked over to the crate and turned it over. The viper hurled itself at him, landed softly, and then struck out at Farida. Bahadur shouted and jumped to the side, covering Hania’s mother with his body and, with a blow of his boot, sent the snake, hissing angrily and spitting poison, into the bushes. Hania watched for where it fell and then ran out the gate.
She ran through the village. The boys were no longer at their game of jacks. There was a light burning in the window of almost every house, but there was no one to be seen. Only when she ran past Old Fazyl’s house did he come out into his doorway, stopping to watch as she went by.
© Ilya Odegov. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Rohan Kamicheril. All rights reserved.