Three women work side by side
The first, dimpled cheeks dusted with freckles
Red hair streaked with gray, pours liquid
From one brown bottle to another while the second
Moves from behind mountains
Of paper tearing scraps with stubby fingers,
Sticks them onto shining curves then,
Wielding a black pen,
Slashes and stabs words,
Inking labels with identification:
Coltsfoot Cleavers Codnopsis Mullein;
The third dances between counters
Knee high combat boots daintily pirouette
Shuffle and twist over the tiled floor
While she flicks her wrists and rolls
Avocado and cucumber
Were I to empty myself out
It would be into amber rounds
One ounce, two ounce, and four ounce
Bottles with black tops.
Two women spar in a muddy field
They lunge and leap, hips jut out behind them,
Knees spread wide one grabs with stubby fingers
Grappling shoulders, neck, red hair streaked with gray
Down together they roll, legs locked,
Then apart they spring up, bouncing
On the balls of bare feet,
I’d leave the shining bottles unlabeled
For future reference,
Their contents known through taste;
Nostrils by aroma.
One woman unlaces her boots
Peels the black hide from her legs where they cling,
Second skin, lays them to the side and rises
Striding into the mud pit armed with swords,
A long stalk of Mullein in each hand,
She crosses them and bows,
The two women across from her pause then
She says, En garde!
And they rush her.
A young woman returns to the cloth bazaar with a bundle. She sets it on the counter of a corner shop with bolts of chikkan, lawn, muslin, and georgette’s displayed on shelves. Pouring down the walls alongside the counter are chiffons and silks. Under the counter in rolls are beaded braids and embroidered trims in all colors of the rainbow, silver, gold, and copper. Two men are seated behind the counter, and she opens up her bundle, addressing the black haired one with gleaming black eyes, ringed with kohl; he reminds her of a raccoon she saw once on a road somewhere.
“Bhai Saab, you sold me these malmal’s and they’ve ruined my skirts! See here what’s happened.”
From her bundle she retrieves once white skirts, now muddy hued and streaked with red, blue, and green; spreads them on the counter. Beside them she places three muslin petticoats, a red a blue and a green one.
He looks at the display and runs his hands through oiled black hair then tosses his head nonchalantly.
“What’s it to me?” he asks, “Seems like you don’t know how to do your wash.”
He pops a piece of betel nut leaf into his mouth and chews it casually.
“Listen bhaya, you sold me these muslins without mentioning that they’d bleed in water, the colors have all run! I thought they were pakka, instead you sold me kachaa raw dyed cloth with no word about washing them separate. I suggest you replace them to make amends, and also the white fabric to stitch new skirts with!”
His insolent gaze turns incredulous and he stops chewing his betel nut leaf. Then he turns to the second man, the spectacled one who’s been listening quietly to the interchange from beside him.
“Wah jee, listen to this foreign return bewakoof woman! She doesn’t know how to do her wash anymore after living too many years in vilaayat, and now she expects me to give her for free more of the same kachaa cloth plus chikkan to fix her bewakoofee! What next!”
To the woman he says, “Listen Bibi, not my problem, buss.”
She glares at him and leans forward, “Bhai Saab, in this world there are, as you have pointed out so clearly, bewakoof women like me. Being as wise as you are and observant to boot, why don’t you spell it out for us:: Bibi colors run, take care to wash separate hmm, what does it cost you to tell us this? Save us the hassle and you the trouble of having us show up here with our cloths; don’t tell me this hasn’t happened before! Besides, in vilaayat the muslin all comes from here, better quality, always pukka rang, how come you sell this here instead of what gets sent overseas? Under your nose it’s made and produced, yet you accept this quality and sell it with no word of warning! How come you don’t tell suppliers, give us the good stuff, hmm?”
He shakes his head and says with a smirk, “So what? Like I said, not my problem Bibi, no money back guarantee here, no exchange, no replacement; only free thing for you is a lesson, buss.”
She stamps her foot and shouts loudly. “Not your problem? Not your problem? Is that so, oho! Okay we’ll see about that!”
The other shoppers are watching curiously from behind curtains of silk, voile, and satin, staring openly at her freckled face; flushed red with agitation.
The second man, the quiet spectacled one, suddenly speaks up.
“Bibiji, don’t listen to my brother. Come, what if I replace the three muslins at no cost for not mentioning to you the cost of washing together, and half price for the skirt materials?”
She turns to face him, folding her arms across her chest, and considers.
“No, I don’t want the muslins replaced. Money back for those and replacement white chikkan for the skirts.”
“Money back for muslin and sixty percent discount on anything else you buy today.”
“That’s fair,” she says finally, “In the future kindly consider us bewakoof begums who forget things that you remember, and remind us; otherwise so what if you see clearly?”
She makes her selections while his brother, the raccoon eyed greasy haired one, pours tea. He turns to her with a sly grin and asks, “Begum Babyji, chai for you, or should I say Teeee?”
She laughs at his audacity, says, “Only pakka doodh patee chai, no tea bags.”
His brother adjusts his spectacles, begins making cuts from bolts of cloth; one yard, two yard, four yards.
Three women lay flat on their backs
Watching clouds gather.
Soon it begins to rain, a warm rain,
They stand as one rinsing off
Rivers of mud in the downpour
Around their feet
Hundreds of Mullein seeds are tamped into the earth;
Dainty hands pick up black boots by their laces,
To mountains of paper
A platter of sushi.
I empty myself out
Into amber rounds,
As simples and compounds;
They keep well in cool, dry places.