Jataka lived in faith’s golden glow, oblivious to the twin treacheries of doubt and dread. When her brother, Saaras, died of a cancer in his brain she did not grieve, but instead rejoiced that he had exchanged agony for the peace of the garden above the clouds. She went on with her life.
One day her mother came to her. “Daughter, your father has decided it is time for you to marry.”
Jataka’s first impulse was to shake her head like a dog after a storm, to run screaming from the house and drown herself in the irrigation ditch with its slow, muddy swirls. She was not ready for her childhood to end, to belong to a man. Who was it? The bearded net-mender whose breath smelled of fish? The middle-aged bricklayer whose skin resembled mortar? None of the men her father had entertained suited her. These are not the old times, she thought. A modern daughter has a say in the choice of her husband. She opened her mouth to say these things.
The tautness of her mother’s expression, the slant of those brown cheeks, the inward pull of dark eyes, stopped Jataka cold. She might be seeing a mirror in this moment, a portrait of herself in twenty years, drained of youthful exuberance, exhausted with the day-to-dayness of life, praying her daughter will understand how it is and answer ‘yes’.
Jataka looked at her lap. “Who?”
“The butcher’s son,” her mother said.
Jataka glanced up, animated by a frantic burst of fear. The butcher’s son was a blob like his father, rounded shoulders, rounded face, rounded fingers like little logs of dough. She shivered at the thought of those fingers touching her.
“Is there no one better?” she said.
“Times are difficult,” her mother said. Jataka saw a flash of commiseration that at least confirmed she was not crazy for loathing the butcher’s son. Father must be in dire need of money.
“I will marry him,” Jataka said without inflection.
Her mother nodded. “You are a good daughter.” Water glistened at the edges of her eyes. She was thinking of Saaras, the son who would have brought pride to their family. The most Jataka would bring was a bride price, and not much of one if they had decided to marry her to the butcher’s son.
The marriage was a simple affair with skimpy garlands. The incense was so poorly manufactured the smoke carried hints of burned fat. It brought tears to Jataka’s eyes, but her betrothed, whose name was Kapi, did not seem to notice. As they knelt to pray, the tails of their garments tied into an inescapable knot between them, Jataka found herself wishing he would find a mistress sooner rather than later. It was a mean thought, but she could not help it. God had put her in this position. Surely He would forgive a small amount of rebellion. She vowed to be more tolerant for the wedding night. In truth she was the slightest bit curious as to what that might involve. Her mother’s staid rendition of duties had left her dry.
She was to discover that it involved a great deal of grunting and watching flies buzz around the ceiling fan’s swaying tassels. As Kapi pounded her ever deeper into the mattress, she recalled her brother’s death, the confusion in his gaze, the glisten of saliva on his lips. It had taken three men to hold Saaras down, and the violence of it had made her look away.
And then it was over, and Kapi was rolling off her, tearing the wedding sheet from beneath her wounded body, waving it out the window. “Come to the store tomorrow!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. “Every cut will be half price!”
Jataka dragged discarded clothes across her nakedness, and thought of God’s grace. The ceiling fan seemed to slow. Its light smeared to her burning eyes. She turned her face into the pillow. If only she had watched more closely, she might have witnessed Saaras’ soul emerge and lift to heaven. She might have observed a path to follow when the weight of this greasy, grunting man inevitably smothered her spark.
Stephen V. Ramey‘s work has appeared in a variety of places. He also edits the Triangulation anthology from Parsec Ink, and trapeze, a twitter zine. He lives in New Castle, PA USA, where he regularly visits the odd ducks that live along the river.