Shape Game

The Iowa Review - - NEWS - N. michelle aubu­chon

o slowly,” I said to my sis­ter the first time she cut my hair, but I still screamed, and she cov­ered my mouth to hold back the sound. You can see the mark where I bit her, or where one of the girls bit her, or where we all bit her. What I’m try­ing to tell you is that in Mum­bai, my sis­ter and I were not the only ones like us. We be­longed to a gang of girls that sold pi­rated books at the Haji Ali junction. Lak­shmi was our leader. She was the old­est, a true four­teen, with the rest of us, seven to thir­teen, say­ing we were of age to work. The seths were the ring lead­ers. They looked for boys to sell their books, be­cause boys could run and dart through Mum­bai’s maze of cars while car­ry­ing ten books or more. Lak­shmi con­vinced our seth that we were boy-like enough. She made prom­ises. She cut our hair and said, “Twenty more push-ups be­fore bed.” We went to sleep on the books that didn’t sell and begged for strong arms and quick feet in our dreams. We were dirty and for­got­ten. We were motherless, fa­ther­less, pride­ful, and stub­born. We slept un­der a tarp-and-bam­boo tent on the street. We were a fam­ily of messed-up girls. We hoped. We dreamed. We thought, This for just a lit­tle longer. Dur­ing the day, we danced through traf­fic, pok­ing our heads into open win­dows, say­ing, “Buy this book, lady,” and “It’s all for you. Spe­cial price.” We spit through our teeth into the dirt. We dared each other to touch the girls with the alabaster skin. We pushed each other and fought. We had ears full of street sounds and a puls­ing voice in­side of us scream­ing, Just a lit­tle faster. But the melan­choly night had a way of hand­ing out per­mis­sion slips for sad­ness, which is a way of say­ing that most nights I couldn’t keep my­self from cry­ing. To dis­tract me, my sis­ter would say, “Look at me, Dahlia. What is the shape I am mak­ing with my face?” And Lak­shmi would think of a square or a cir­cle or a tri­an­gle and imag­ine her face tak­ing this shape. And I would look at my sis­ter, her chin jut­ting out, her eyes askew, her mouth reach­ing or soft­ened, and guess the shape—a silly game that dulled the hunger and made the thought of the men on the other side of the tent dis­ap­pear. The game was Lak­shmi’s way of calm­ing us down. She sat with us when we cried, and pretty soon we were one loud gig­gle rip­pling up from be­neath a blue plas­tic tarp. And some­where in all of that cry­ing

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