The house spoke English, but after some exploration of its options menu, Michael discovered it also had personalities schooled in Hindi and Tamil. He activated the Hindi personality, then set about introducing it to the girl. That wasn't easy. She had said nothing so far, and the house needed a voice print as well as a visual image to accurately recognize her.
With two hands, Michael beckoned her away from where she huddled on the floor by the couch. She looked very frightened, but she followed him. When she stood in full view of the tiny cameras mounted in the corners of the room, he held up his palm, asking her to stop, to wait. "Hark," he said. "In Hindi-version, ask her to say hello."
Lilting words spilled forth in the soft voice of the house. The girl hunched, trembling. Her gaze searched the walls.
The house repeated its request. This time she looked at Michael. He nodded encouragement. Hesitantly, she placed her palms together. "Namaste," she whispered.
Michael smiled. "Ask her name."
The house spoke again, and her eyes grew wide with wonder. In a barely discernable voice she said, "Rajban."
"Rajban?" Michael asked.
She nodded. Michael grinned and tapped his chest. "Michael," he told her. Then he bowed. When he looked up, her cheeks were flushed. Her lips toyed with a smile. She started to reach for her sari, to pull it across her face, but when she saw the mud on it she scowled and let it go.
Michael asked if she wanted more food. She declined. He told her someone was coming to help her. That brought a such a look of fear that he wondered if the house had translated correctly. "Why don't you sit down?" he offered, indicating the couch. Rajban nodded, though she remained standing until he left the room.
Returning to his bedroom, he took a quick shower, waiting all the while for the house to announce the arrival of the charity worker. No announcement came.
"Link to the office," he instructed the house as he shaved. "Check Rajban's name and image against census records." It wasn't exactly legal to access the records for personal use, but this wasn't exactly personal.
The house started to reply in Hindi. He corrected it impatiently. "English for me," he said. "Hindi for Rajban. Now, continue."
"No identity or residence can be established from available census data," the house informed him.
Michael swore softly. So Rajban was a nonentity, her existence unrecorded by his intrepid census teams. Which meant she was either new in town or a resident of one of the reticent fundamentalist neighborhoods.
"What does my schedule look like?"
"Daily exercise in the corporate gym from seven to eight," the feminine voice recited. "Then a breakfast meeting with Ms. Muthaye Lal of the Southern Banking Alliance from eight-thirty until ten. A staff meeting from ten-fifteen"
"Can the SBA thing be postponed until tomorrow?"
"Inquiring. Please stand by."
Michael finished shaving. He cleaned the razor, then reached for a toothbrush.
"Ms. Lal is unable to schedule a meeting for tomorrow."
"Damn." He tapped the toothbrush on the counter. "This afternoon, then?"
"Inquiring. Please stand by." The response came quickly this time. "Ms. Lal is unable to schedule a meeting for this afternoon."
Michael sighed. No surprise. Everybody's schedule was full. Well, Ms. Muthaye Lal worked with poor women, through the SBA's community banking program. Perhaps she would have some advice for Rajban.
After Michael dressed, he looked into the living room. Rajban had fallen asleep on the floor beside the couch. He told himself it would be all right if he left for a few hours. The house would take care of her. And if she decided to leave
His jaw clenched. That would be the easiest solution for him, wouldn't it? If she just disappeared.
"Call the charity again," he told the house. Again, the woman on the other end of the line promised to send someone by.
He waited an hour. No one came. Rajban still slept. Michael wished he was sleeping too. His eyes felt gritty, his body stiff. His brain was functioning with all the racing speed of a third-generation computer. He wondered if Jaya was awake.
In the bathroom medicine cabinet there was a box of Synthetic Sleep. Michael didn't often take metabolic drugs, but he'd been up all night, and if he wanted to get through this morning's meetings in coherent condition, he had to do something to convince his body that he'd had at least a few hours of rest. He peeled open the casing on one pill and swallowed it with a glass of water.
"Take care of Rajban," he told the house. "Teach her how you work. And call me if you have any questions, any problems. Okay?"
Rajban woke with a gritty throat. Her muscles ached. Her joints ached. Her heart was beating too fast. "Namaste?" she whispered.
The house informed her the man had gone out.
He had not hurt her. Not yet.
She looked around the room, unsure how she had come to be here, knowing only that it was shameful. Mother-in-Law would never let her come home now.
It was Mother-in-Law who had sent her away.
She padded through the house, not daring to touch anything. She even worried about the carpet under her feet.
Turning a corner, she found the great double doors that had sheltered her last night. Her heart beat even faster. Were the doors locked? She half hoped they were. Out there, the horrible street waited for her. Nothing else. Yet she could not stay here. Hesitantly, her hand touched the latch, just to see if it was locked. She pressed on itonly a little!and the latch leaped out of her grip, swinging down on its own with multiple clicks. The doors started to open. A razor of light streamed in. Frantically, Rajban threw herself against the doors. She held them, so they stood open only a crack. The day's heat curled over her fingers, while outside, women talked in cultured, confident voices.
Listening to them, Rajban trembled. She did not dare show herself in such company. Leaning forward, she forced the doors to shut again.
Back in the living room, she stood beside another set of doors. These opened onto the courtyard. She stared through their glass panes at a half-dead garden surrounded by high walls. Potted banana trees stood on one side like dry old men. Bare skeletons of dead shrubs jutted between the weeds. Yellow leaves floated on the surface of rain puddles.
There was no one outside, so again Rajban tried the latch. These doors opened as easily as the others. Steamy air flowed over her, laden with the smell of wet soil and unhappy plants. Cautiously, she stepped outside.
A paved path wound between the weeds. She followed it, discovering a servant's door in the back wall, but it was locked and would not open.
The path brought her back to the house. She crouched in the open doorway, lost, not knowing what to do. Why was she here?
Clean, frigid air from the house mixed with dense, hot, scented air from the sweltering courtyard, like dream mixing with reality. Rajban struggled to separate the two, but they would not untwine. Hugging her knees to her chest, she rocked on her bare feet, seeing again the blinding flash of the morning sun reflected on the metal circles sewn into the hem of her sister-in-law's green sari. She squinted against the glare, and hurried on. Hurry. Her skin felt so hot. Her heart scrabbled like a wild mouse in a glass jar. Her veil kept slipping from her face, but she didn't dare stop to fix it. Sister-in-Law's bare brown heels flashed beneath the swinging hem of her sari. Rajban struggled to keep up, fearful in the presence of so many strangers. In the two years since her marriage she had not left the house of her husband's family. The borders of her life had been fixed by the courtyard garden and the crumbling kitchen where she helped Mother-in-Law prepare the meals.
Last year her husband went away.
In the months since, Rajban had often been sick with fevers and chills that no one else in the family shared. Her work suffered. Now Mother-in-Law was sending her away. "We have found a family in need of skilled hands to keep the house. They are a respectable family. You will serve them well. Gather your things. It is time to go."
There wasn't much to take. An extra sari. A necklace her mother had given her.
Before she left, Rajban slipped into the garden with a cloth bag from the kitchen. Fruit trees and vegetables thrived in boxes and tin cans and glass jars with drainage holes drilled carefully in the bottom. It had not always been so. When she first arrived in the household, the garden had been yellow and unhappy. But Rajban tended the soil as her mother had taught her, on their tiny farm in the country. She dug up patches of the courtyard with a heavy stick, mixing the dirt with chicken droppings and sometimes with nightsoil, but only when no one could see her, for her husband would never take her to bed again if he knew. When it rained, she caught the water that dripped from the rooftop, ladling it out over the dry days that would follow, praying softly as she worked. She turned the soil until it became soft, rich black, and sweet-smelling. One day as she turned it, she found a worm. Life from lifelessness. That day, she knew magic had flowed in to the soil.
A sickly mandarin tree grew in the cracked half of an old water barrel. Rajban teased away several handfuls of surface dirt, then gently she mixed the black soil in. Within days the tree rejoiced in a flush of new green leaves.
Rajban mixed the old dirt into her pile. She dug more dirt from the hard floor of the courtyard. She stirred the pile every day, and every few days she repotted another plant. The garden thrived, but it was not enough to keep Mother-in-Law happy, so Rajban was being sent away. Quietly, she filled her cloth bag with handfuls of the magic soil. Then she smoothed the pile so no one would know.
A few minutes after following Sister-in-Law out the door, Rajban could no longer guess the proper way home. Fearfully she watched the step-step of Sister-in-Law's heels, the swing of her sari, the fierce flash of the sun in the decorative metal circles. And then somehow the green sari slipped out of sight.
Rajban wandered alone through the afternoon, not daring to think too hard. Night fell, and fear crawled in with the darkness. Respectable women were not found alone on the street at night.
Her fever saved her from rape. She's dirty, the boy who stole her mother's necklace growled to his companions. A dirty, infected, dying whore.
Now Rajban crouched in the courtyard doorway, shivering on the border between warm and cold, light and shadow, past and future, the dying garden on one side, the rich house on the other. An unexpected fury stirred in her breast and flushed across the palms of her hands.
Am I dying?
The possibility enraged her. She did not want to die. Emphatically not. Not now.
I want a baby, she thought. I want my mother. I want my own garden and a respectable life.
These things she would never have if she let herself die now.
· · · · ·
Rajban is fifteen.