“Imbecile! What would a poor widow—all alone—do with so much meat! Where did you come by it, by the way?”
“I wish I knew,” he mumbled. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember how the fresh meat—all chopped and clean and fragrant—came to be in his possession.
“There she comes," Ammi teased, leaning over her counter, nodding toward three burqa-clad women walking their way, skipping over sleeping mongrels and fidgety cockerels. “The houris of paradise.”
“Welcome, Salam Alaikum,” Ammi said, as the women salaamed her and moved on, except for one, who lingered at the far end of the shop, away from Kemal. “What can I get you, Fatima Bi?”
“Some salt…rice, Ammi,” Fatima said, tracing the aluminum beading on the wooden counter with a plump white finger.
Kemal never failed in recognizing Fatima, though always covered in a black veil from head to toe, from the tinkling silver anklets he’d bought her from the fair and the voice like mellow fluty notes of a brook in the fields.
“How much—or should I guess myself,” Ammi asked, grinning.
Fatima glanced, pleadingly perhaps, at Kemal and then nodded, stepping away out of sight of Ammi. Kemal, speechless at this chance encounter, was pinching his pencil mustache and crimping his eyebrows in line. As soon as Ammi disappeared into the dark bowels of the store, he strutted over to Fatima, who receded into a corner set away from the street.
The air suddenly seemed intoxicated with the perfume of green, watered fields and the squalor of the street became suffused with the mellow yellow glow that bathed the street. Fatima giggled; swaying slightly, and the day came alive with the cheeping of birds and the crackling of sunbeams.
“So, how are we this morning…”? Kemal began, edging as close to her as he dared in broad daylight. “How did you know you were going to find me here?”
Fatima shook her head, and bit the edge of her niqab. “I know you feed at Haji’s on Sundays...and mother wanted—.”
“I know, rice and salt—you look so…beautiful…ethereal,” he said, grabbing her hand and stroking it. “You are smooth…like the soft underbelly of—“
Before he could wax eloquent she snatched away her hand as a Bhishti, a water carrier man, passed by carrying a dripping goatskin bag.
“Be wary—what if someone should see me,” she said coyly.
“Only I may see you—though you might hide behind miles of shrouds, my aafreen. I long for Eid when I visit Abba Jaan and plight our troth. Is everything in place?”
“It is—except, be prepared for a long queue. And…and—”
“I know—your infernal tribe of first cousins and rich overlords—don’t have teeth, but will have more wife. Don’t worry, I too have saved a fat dowry for you—haven’t spent a penny on myself for months. And I’m confident the old man means well for his daughter—he surely will give her hand to me—how many graduates do you know of in this wretched place,” he asked, tugging his collar. “Or suitable boys with prospects—might I presume to be the most eligible bachelor in this neighborhood?”
His prospects presently consisted of being surrounded with colorful vats and sprigs of mint leaves that he held under his nose to ward off the pungent smells of soaking and drying leather. His small office lay under a steeply pitched roof and two small smokestacks belching forth huge tufts of smoke, spreading soot over the neighborhood, and befouling the clothing, newly washed and strung on lines on rooftops. While in open fields nearby, newly tanned half hides brown and wet, draped on racks for drying exuded the characteristic tannery odors. But then all that was about to change once Fatima became his, and they would move out to Bombay, or Delhi, where bright young men like himself could eke out respectable pelf.
“And you said and—and what,” he added, after a pause, realizing she was telling him something.
“And…there is a problem…”
“He…he’s upset…he may not entertain suitors for his daughter that day?”
“Something inauspicious happened—his goat got stolen last night.”
“Wha—I told you, don’t tie it outside your house! Who tempts misfortune to visit his door like that? Proud he was—you’d said—wasn’t he, of such a fatted beauty—this was bound to happen!” Kemal kicked a pebble on the street and stomped around in despair. An orphan, a frugal man, all he ever wished in life was to wed Fatima, his lodestar, the one thing that made his crushing loneliness and isolation bearable. “But everyone knows everybody here—who would dare—someone must be out of their mind!”
Suddenly, Kemal froze. Memories of the previous night came flooding back and smack, all became clear: there was no time to be lost. “Don’t let him call it off,” he urged Fatima, gripping her shoulders. “I’ll see you then,” he said and rushed off down the bustling street.