Bailey Bridgewater helps college students learn the conventions of grammar by day, but her passion is writing short stories. Her work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Nanoism, As You Were, The Molotov Cocktail, The Eunoia Review, SubTerranean, and FIction on the Web. She is a Max Ehrmann Poetry Award winner. She can often be found kayaking or hiking in another country while actively avoiding other human beings. When she's not on the road, she likes to hang out with her cat Gandalf in Terre Haute, Indiana.
The mother appraised the girl carefully, turning her around and around, wiping her skirt with her hands, pressing her black hair into place, pulling back her gums to examine her teeth. She looked at the girl’s feet skeptically.
“No. We will wear the other shoes.”
“But they pinch my toes when I walk.”
“But if they make your feet look small enough, perhaps you’ll never need to walk again” she chirped enthusiastically, drifting into the other room to fetch the shoes.
The girl turned to her father. “Why do my feet have to look small?” He laid a calloused silversmith’s hand gently on her head.
“It is one of the physical perfections of the Kumari. She should have dainty feet, just as she should have shining dark hair and a full set of teeth.” He looked at her feet, hesitating. “But I don’t think we should wear small shoes to make your feet appear petite. This is a trick. If you are Kumari, there should be no need for deception.”
Mother glided back into the room, one embroidered slipper in each hand. “What are you telling her? Of course she is the vessel of the goddess. You know our daughter. She has the goddess’ spirit and will, as well as all the physical perfections. She glanced back at the girl’s feet. “Well, enough of them anyway. The goddess will occupy our Adesha.”
Father looked past the mother’s unusual grey eyes, which seemed almost transparent when the light hit them as it did now. He focused on the family portrait hung over the kitchen table as he talked. “We should be going soon. The streets around Kathmandu will be murky with people. We do not want to rush.” Father’s deep, even voice seemed to take a minute to reach throughout the rest of the room, flowing like a thick honey. It soothed Adesha. Soon father was pulling shut the door, placing them in a long stream of cars headed out of the village and down the sloping road towards the city.
Adesha’s mother eyed every young girl she passed suspiciously, even if she was plainly dressed. When she saw the beautiful seven year old Mishti, in silk that made her look like a rare orchid, she clicked her tongue. Her daughter’s eyes went wide as she controlled the impulse to run towards her favorite friend.
“Mishti looks beautiful, doesn’t she?”
“I suppose it is a nice outfit. I wonder what they paid for it.”
“Do you think she will be the Kumari?” Adesha knew that her friend desired it more than anyone.
“But she’s smart and brave and calm. And everyone says she’s the prettiest girl.”
“Perhaps, but she does not have one of the most important perfections.”
“But her eyelashes are like cows and her mom says her thighs are just exactly like a deer! Her teeth are good, right?” Adesha had paid attention when the other girls quoted descriptions of what the Kumari should look like.
“It’s not that.” The girl looked at her mother inquisitively. Mother glanced down, then simply reaffirmed what she so adamantly believed. “Our Adesha is kumari.”
The girl looked down at the embroidered slippers, worried about their collecting street dust as they shuffled along with the crowds towards the city square.
The girl found it hard to focus on the colors, the smells, the bells and noises of the festivities. She knew that something difficult may await her after the parade if she was to be selected. Her mother had told her about the trials the Kumari had to endure to prove herself worthy. She knew that the Kumari had to live apart from her family in Kathmandu, where she gave advice to the people and was worshipped. While Mishti embraced the idea, Adesha didn’t like the thought of being away from her father and her village friends. She loved the feel of running the steep stone steps, plunging down the mountain until she reached the suspension bridge that led to her favorite bakery. She liked the quiet of the terraced fields and the way she felt immediately cold just glimpsing the peaks of the Himalayas, no matter how sweltering the day. Kathmandu was dusty and perpetually surrounded in a shroud of pollution. Her lungs hurt here, and her eyes stung.
As the parade ended, a man in formal clothing approached her family. He glanced at her for a long moment. “Adesha? You and your parents should come with me.” Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and moved briskly across the street to a small, square building. Adesha noticed other well-dressed girls of her age making the same journey with their families, all converging with the men leading them to the same door. The girls were escorted inside. Mother smiled broadly as she motioned Adesha forward, but father looked worried, even as he nodded for her to go ahead. She turned away from her parents and followed the other 8 girls. She came alongside Mishti and leaned into her lean and muscular arm. They locked eyes. Mishti’s mouth remained neutral, but the excitement was all over her face.
They entered a perfectly symmetrical room with no furniture or décor whatsoever. A woman stood in the center with a basket full of some sort of plant Adesha hadn’t seen before. She wore gloves and held the basket out from herself. The girls naturally spaced themselves in a circle around her. One of the formally dressed men joined the woman and began calling the girls’ names, one by one.
“Mishti.” Her friend approached the woman, who held out the plant to her. “Take it.”
Mishti obeyed, holding it against her mostly bare arms.
“Place it near your mouth and nose.”
Mishti held it in front of herself. She choked instinctively and Adesha wondered if the plant was the cause.
“Closer.” Mishti obeyed, though her face contorted as she did so. She turned pale and choked again, trying to conceal the noise. Her breath came in short wheezes. Soon she could no longer face the plant and turned her head to the side, her watering eyes smearing the make-up her mother had so carefully applied. The woman rushed forward and took the plant from her. “That’s enough”.
The man said another name and a girl Adesha didn’t recognize approached the woman, cautiously now that she had seen Mishti’s reaction. She flinched as she received the plant. The woman snatched it back. “No worry. You do not need to take it.” The girl looked confused and alarmed.
“No I will take it.” But her face naturally drew away from the plant.
“Please go back to your place, my child.”
“Adesha”. The girl paused upon hearing her name and mentally checked her body, making sure she wasn’t visibly shaking. She breathed through her nose deeply. The woman held out the plant to her. Without a word, she accepted, holding it close to her face as she had seen her friend do. She intentionally forced herself to take shallow, well-spaced breaths, but even so she could feel her chest constricting. It felt as if her throat was swelling. She felt sweat beads forming along her hairline. As long as it didn’t drip, the woman wouldn’t notice. Perhaps it was alright even if she did notice, as long as Adesha kept her composure. After what felt like ages, the woman retrieved the plant. She simply nodded when Adesha opened her eyes.
“Rosel”. The next girl approached with more confidence, having seen Adesha seemingly pass the test. But the girl’s reaction was stronger than Mishti’s had been, and when she opened her eyes wide, silently pleading with the woman, the woman quickly took the plant away. She did not need to tell her to go back to her spot.
After each girl had attempted to hold the plant, the man stepped back into the middle of the circle. “I will need the following girls to come with me. Saili, Safari, Mishti , Kali, and Adesha. The rest of you may return to your parents.” Adesha watched respectfully as the girls who had shown fear of the plant left the room. Mishti could barely contain her excitement. Adesha crossed the room to join her friend, and silently they followed the man with the other three girls. At the end of a low hallway they entered a small room with a blanket-covered table in the center. There was another woman, this one much older and wrinkled.
Her voice reminded Adesha of bullfrogs when she said “I will need you to come in one by one. You will remove your clothing for the inspection. I will touch you as little as possible, and I promise nothing will hurt. If you have ever had an injury or sickness, you must tell me. If your parents told you not to, please know that I will find out later anyway, and if you lied it would bring great shame to your family. First will be Saili.” A girl who appeared to be the oldest, possibly 9 or even 10, went to the woman.
Adesha wanted to chat with her friend, but instead she just squeezed her hand behind their backs. Mishti’s eyes crinkled up in a smile. She had thought she was done with the selection process, but here she was, just one of five girls who might be Kumari, and even more beautiful than the others. After about 15 minutes the door opened.
“Kali”. A girl who was tall for her 8 or so years entered the room almost at a run. Her inspection took longer.
“Mishti”. Adesha squeezed her hand one more time as she floated away in her silk.
She re-emerged just 4 minutes later, and her eyes were watering openly. Adesha drew her brows together as she caught her glance, but her friend looked down, her face red. She had no time to even consider what had happened as her own name was called.
The older woman smiled at her politely. “Please remove all your clothing. If you need any help, just let me know.” Adesha disrobed quickly.
“Now lay on the table, please. I will examine all of you. If you are ever uncomfortable, please just tell me so.” The girl already knew that she would say nothing.
The woman moved her hands over the girl’s arms, then lingered on her chest, checking her heart rate. They moved around her neck, measuring its length, and through her hair. She checked her earlobes, then instructed her to open her mouth. She shone a light in and pulled on her teeth. She looked into her eyes, rubbed and pressed on her stomach, and then stopped, addressing her again.
“I must look at the parts of you that make you a woman. This is probably something only your mother has done, and I’m sorry if it is uncomfortable. It is necessary.”
It was over in only a few seconds and without much discomfort. The woman nodded and moved onto squeezing her thighs, then calves. Eventually she arrived at the girl’s feet. Adesha held her breath. The woman noticed and made a light chuckling noise.
“They are strong feet, and calloused. You are outside without shoes a lot.”
“I like to walk barefoot in the river and run down the path to school without my shoes.” As soon as she said it, she wondered if she shouldn’t have. Surprisingly, the woman smiled.
“It is good to want to explore and to be in nature. Running is healthy.”
She prompted Adesha to turn over so she could examine her spine. Finally, she urged her to sit up.
“Have you ever been very sick?”
Adesha thought carefully.
“Once I ate a stew my friend’s mother had made, and for the whole night I threw up. Then there was once that I was walking in the forest through some plants that I didn’t know were poisonous, and I had red spots all over my legs for….3 days?”
“Ah yes. Are there any other times you want to tell me about?”
“No, but I don’t remember when I was a baby. You could ask my mom.”
“Yes indeed. Have you had any injuries that caused you to go to the doctor? Have you broken a bone or had any bad cuts? I did not see any scars on you.”
“Is there anything very bad that has ever happened to you that you want to tell me about?”
“Excellent. You are free to go out into the hall.” Adesha breathed a sigh of relief, but when she re-emerged, Mishti still looked distraught. They all waited while the last girl was examined. The man moved down the hall with the old woman, and they conversed briefly with their heads close together. The man came back to them.
“Adesha, Safari, and Saila, I would like you to come with me. Mishti and Kali, you may follow the nurse back outside.” Mishti gasped. She started to speak, but then stopped herself. She looked at Adesha with small tears in her eyes. She turned to the nurse.
“But…. Wh….can we ask why?”
The nurse gazed at her sympathetically. “I’m afraid most girls simply don’t have all 32 perfections. It is an honor that you have most of them.”
“But which one don’t…?” Her voice trailed off. She knew that woman had sent her away after examining her reproductive places. “It’s ok.” She hung her head and started to follow the woman, but then quickly spun on her heel and returned to Adesha’s side, grabbing her hand, squeezing it, and releasing it in one quick motion.
As they walked down the hall, Adesha could see through the windows that dusk had fallen. The sky was navy blue and the few scrawny trees outside the building stood stark black against it. The man stopped in front of a closed door that the girl guessed led outside. “All three of you will walk through the door into the courtyard. If you need to come back, you may knock on this door. I will be here.”
It took Adesha’s eyes several seconds to adjust to the low light. But before she could even see, she noticed the smell of wet fur and meat with which she’d become so familiar at her aunt’s farm. She was comforted by the thought of animals in the courtyard. She thought she could make out the shape of a sheep facing her. She approached it. The sheep’s eyes were level with her and they did not move. She was only several feet away when she realized the sheep lacked a body. It was affixed to a wooden stake in the ground. The girl breathed in, but made sure not to gasp, for she felt sure she was being watched. She stood still in front of the sheep while flies buzzed in its tear ducts, forcing herself to hold its gaze. In her head, she apologized to it and thanked it for the meals it had provided, as she suspected this sheep had been consumed during the feast. She bowed her head slightly, then went on to see what else awaited her in the courtyard. Several yards away from her, she heard another girl bump into something. A pause followed, then a quick scream that was quickly muffled by the girl’s own hand.
There must have been 100 animals here, many piled up together. Insects buzzed all around her, some of them landing and biting Adesha’s exposed arms. She could feel the other girl following behind her at a distance. She looked back to see her covering her nose with one hand while she shooed away the bugs with the other. The other girl moved on quickly, without pausing. Adesha resumed her inventory, taking note of the others only when the gasping girl brushed past her and took up a spot in an empty corner, from which she didn’t move until after the other two had finished their rounds with the deceased animals.
After what seemed like hours, the sun long since disappeared entirely and the stars attempting weakly to shine through the smog, the door creaked open.
“You may come back in now.” Adesha moved slowly towards him. When she reached him she turned and saw a shadow emerging from the corner where Saila hid. Eventually all four of them were back in the lit hallway.
“Adesha and Safari, I would like you to remain here. Saila, I will escort you back outside to your parents.”
Adesha and her remaining companion watched them disappear around a corner, then the girl Safari turned to her. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
“No. My aunt has animals and sometimes I’m around when they’re killing them. I didn’t like it, but it wasn’t that bad.”
“I wonder what’s next.”
Before they could continue the conversation, the man was back.
“We will go somewhere new now. But one at a time. Safari, please wait while I escort Adesha.” Adesha nodded at the other girl, then down a twisting passage that eventually led to rough and uneven stone stairs.. She descended in darkness.
The man stopped so suddenly that Adesha almost collided with him. He reached beside him and turned a knob, pushing open a door that emitted a moan like lonely ghosts. “This is your room for the night. You will sleep here alone. There are no lights and no windows, but there is a candle. If you are too afraid, you may bang on the door and a guard will let you out. Rest well.”
She stepped into the room and felt the cold draft as he swung the door behind her, bolting it from the outside. She listened to him until his footsteps could no longer be heard in the corridor. There was a candle on the other side of the large room, and she moved towards it cautiously, for all she could see were vague outlines of strange shapes. The animal smell was here too, but more rancid this time. She picked up the candle, examining the small table on which it sat. The posts of a bed made themselves visible in front of her, but as she approached she noticed 3 large masses on either side. She stepped towards one. It was a slaughtered pig, its throat slit. It had been propped up so that it overlooked the bed. Next to it was a goat. There were many such animals arranged around the room. The girl closed her eyes. This would be ok. Dead animals were nothing to fear. She carried the candle around the room and did a full inspection of her surroundings. After all, if she knew exactly what was there, how could she be afraid? It was only the unknown that might scare her. In her head, she assigned gentle personalities to the animals, then she crawled into the bed, careful not to bump the pig’s head, and pulled the covers to her armpits. She extinguished the candle and tried to sleep.
There was a light knock on the door the next morning. The man was there again, alone. “The night is over. It’s time.” She wasn’t sure what he meant, and she wondered where the other girl was. This question was soon answered as they climbed back up the stairs and into the light of a spacious, well appointed room. Safari was there with her family, and Adesha’s family was there too. The other girl was smiling, looking pleased with herself. The man led Adesha to her parents, her mother looking unabashedly delighted and her father looking concerned. He placed his hand on his daughter’s hair.
The man moved to the center of the room and addressed them all. “Both of your girls have performed very well. Both are strong-willed and brave, with many physical perfections. Both are from good families and make fine examples of what a young lady should be. But the goddess needs only one vessel. That vessel is Adesha.” Adesha’s mother squealed and grabbed her hair. Her father’s hand went stiff on top of her head. There was no sound from the other family. Safari met Adesha’s eyes. They conveyed her disappointment. Her parents thanked the man, then the family left of their own volition. As they did, the parents forced smiles upon Adesha. “It is an honor to be in the presence of Kumari.” She did not yet know he proper answer, and so she smiled as they turned their backs.
“We must now present you to the people, and after that we will clean you and bring you to Kumari Ghar, which will be your home. The goddess will take control of you there, and your parents will return to their village. This is the last time you will be alone with them for many years, so I will give you some moments, but I will be here, just outside the door, when you are ready.
Adesha nodded, and her parents followed suit. As soon as the man had disappeared just out of earshot, her mother grabbed her into a firm hug. “I am so delighted! I knew you were kumari all along! Now the goddess will possess you and you will be divine!”
Adesha pulled herself away from her mother’s smothering and turned to her father, whose expression was not nearly so enthusiastic. He looked worried. He did not speak for a moment, and when he did, each word weighed 1000 pounds.
“You are Kumari now. You must remember to always respect and love your people. We have raised you to be good and to be humble.” She continued to look at him, for it was obvious there was something else he wanted to say.
“We will miss you, Desha.”
She sighed. The thought of being kumari had been exciting, but she had barely thought through the part about leaving her parents.
“I will miss you too!” With that, she abandoned the neutral façade she had forced on herself and practically jumped onto her father, who caught her in his muscular arms. He squeezed her tightly while her mother rubbed her back. She could hear mother starting to sniffle.
“We should go or we will become a sad and weeping mess, and that is not for a Kumari.” She said it through tears that were already forming.
Father hesitated, but then released his only daughter. “Yes, your mother is right I’m afraid.”
The girl tried to cling to him, but knew it was not the right behavior.
“When will I get to see you again?”
“We will be able to visit every month or so, but there will be a care-taker there as well. Our visits may not be long, as you will have many other people to see.” The girl could not hide her disappointment.
“But know that any time I am in Kathmandu to sell wares, I will stand outside the ghar and look at your window with the crowds.” Her father. “But now if I see a glimpse of you, I will be blessed.” He chuckled. “I suppose I should have realized this was true before today.” He blinked rapidly, and he and mother made their exit.
As soon as the last note of her mother’s perfume had followed her out the door, the man re-entered.
“You are ready?”
“You should know that this walk we will take to greet the people, it is the last time your feet will touch the ground for many years.” She knew it was so. From now on, any occasion to go outside would see her carried by her servants.
“May I…?” Her voice trailed off. She wanted to know if she could walk without her pinching, confining shoes to feel the ground beneath her feet for a last time. But the thought of a new Kumari walking to meet her people barefoot suddenly seemed foolish. “Nevermind. It’s alright.”
“Ok. But remember that you may always ask what you need of me. Or of anyone.”
As they wound back down the narrow passages, well-toned servants fell in on all sides of her. The sunlight as they opened the door was a shock after all that dark. A wall of noise hit her like a wave when the river was particularly rough as the people erupted into sound at the sight of her. She blinked and smiled demurely, nodding her head slightly. The man turned to her. “You may wave.”
As she waved, with much restraint, she scanned the crowd. Her parents were there to her right side, and not far from them was Mishti with her parents. The others were a mass of color and city smells.
“Now we will proceed to the Ghar.” Without touching her, he closed in near her elbow to lead the way. The crowds followed as a single entity, people pushing people to get as near to her as the guards would allow. She looked at as many as she could, unsure whether it would even bring them luck yet. She was glad to arrive at the square building that would now house her, though she made a special effort to pay attention as her left foot left the ground for the last time and landed inside the threshold.
She was told the goddess would possess her upon her taking residence at Kumari Ghar, but the girl felt painfully like herself for the first weeks. She missed her father and Mishti. She missed the freedom to run along the path to school, and even school itself. She had her own teachers now, and they introduced her to the internet and all the knowledge that she could find there, but even the hours spent looking at pictures of different countries and their people couldn’t stop her loneliness; in fact, they made her confinement feel worse
The first time she saw another child in the Ghar, she could barely hide her excitement, though she was expected to hide her own, Adesha’s, personal feelings at all times now. The entire country thought she was possessed by a goddess, and she felt obligated to act as if it were true. Still, the sight of the young boy and girl, maybe 5 and 8, filled her with joy. She wanted nothing more than to talk to them. She addressed the woman who was currently brushing her long hair.
“Jass, who were those children I passed in the hallway?”
“Kumari, those are the servant Kamal’s children. He sometimes brings them here to the ghar after they are finished with school. Does their presence disrupt you?”
“No no!” She realized she had shown too much excitement and regained her composure. “I just….am I allowed to speak with them?”
“Of course Kumari! You may speak with whomever you like.” Jass looked at her face closely. “Would you like a formal meeting with the children, or are you wishing to simply enjoy their company as other children?”
She sat upright with excitement. “Yes. That. I want to spend time with them outside my meeting room if I can.”
“Yes you may. I will go fetch them as soon as I’ve finished dressing you.”
The children looked nervous standing in front of Adesha in the large room that Jass led them into.
“Kumari, this is Aayusha and Bibek. They are brother and sister, and they live here in Kathmandu with their mother and father.”
“It is nice to meet you!”
The children blushed in unison at her greeting and simultaneously said “it is our pleasure to be in your presence, Kumari.” Then they looked at their feet, unsure of what to do next. Adesha did not know herself. She looked curiously at Jass, whose laugh only slightly broke the tension.
“You are all children, even kumari! You are free to play. I will be just in the adjoining room reading my book if you need anything. There are toys and games if you would like any of them. Just ask.” With that, she retrieved a paperback that Adesha had somehow never noticed from a mysterious fold in her dress. The girl caught a glimpse of a shirtless man on the front before Jass closed the door behind her.
The siblings continued to take a keen interest in their feet.
“What kinds of things do you like to play?” She felt it was her responsibility to take the initiative, but she certainly did not feel possessed by the assurance of the goddess now, faced with children who were clearly afraid of her.
The girl Aayusha cleared her throat. “Goddess, my brother likes to play with trucks and blocks, as he is still young. I like to play teacher and servant games.”
She paused before adding. “What does…. What….. do you play games, kumari?”
“I haven’t got to since I’ve lived here because there is no one to play with. The servants are always busy and usually I’m meeting with people who come to visit. But when I lived with my parents, I liked to play games outside and to have tree climbing contests.”
The boy chirped excitedly. “I also like to climb trees! Can we do that?”
Adesha looked at her own feet. “I can’t. I can’t leave the ghar without being carried. That might make climbing a tree kind of funny if Jass has to carry me up it.”
The boy looked embarrassed, and Adesha was quick to jump in with “But that’s ok! I like building things with blocks too, and playing teacher is my favorite. I think I might like to be a teacher when I’m not kumari anymore.”
The girl looked skeptical. “But how do you know? You don’t go to school.”
This hurt Adesha, but she couldn’t have explained why.
“I used to, before I became kumari. I liked school a lot. I miss it, and I miss sitting next to my friend Mishti.” And then, to her horror, she found her breath starting to heave as if she would cry. She breathed in sharply, trying to stop herself, but she could tell Aayusha had noticed.
“I…I’m sorry to have made kumari sad. I beg your forgiveness. I didn’t mean it.” But she looked more afraid that sorry.
“It’s alright. I just miss being home sometimes, though” she was quick to add “I love my life here in the palace, and I love the presence of the goddess.”
An awkward silence followed while the children remembered that they were in the presence of terrifying divinity, and while Adesha remembered that she was supposed to be filled with terrifying divinity.
Aayusha broke the silence. “Maybe Ms. Jass can bring us a chalkboard and some books. And maybe some blocks for my brother.”
“That sounds fun.” And Adesha went off to find her.
Later, talking to Jass, she recounted the awkward play that had followed for the next hour.
“Jass, can I ask you something?”
“You have helped other kumaris before, right?”
“Yes I have.” She smiled proudly. “Two others before you.”
“Did they….. were they….. do you think they were like, the goddess, like all the time? Or did they just feel like themselves sometimes?”
Jass smiled reassuringly, as if she knew the question would come eventually.
“You are worried, kumari, that the goddess has not possessed you as she should.” Adesha’s fearful eyes gave confirmation, and Jass was quick to reassure her.
“This is alright. The goddess possesses you when she feels the whim to. When you meet with the citizens she possesses you.” Adesha wished she was better at hiding her facial expressions. Jass just laughed. “Right now Adesha, you, are fighting with her a little when she tries to possess you. This is natural. You are not comfortable with her yet, but you will be. All kumari have this struggle in some way. This is because we choose humble kumari, and they sometimes feel they do not deserve the goddess. But the longer you are here and the more you hear the needs and troubles of the citizens, the more the goddess will assert herself within you.”
“Then will I eventually be just the goddess?”
“No no. The goddess is kind. She will only use you when she needs to. The rest of the time you are simply Adesha. It must be so. Otherwise you would not know who you were when the goddess leaves you and finds another child.”
Adesha breathed a sigh of relief. “But the other kids do not understand.”
“No.” Jass sighed herself. “This is true. They have been taught to respect and honor kumari, so it is a rare child who will make the kind of playmate you were used to before. “
“How can I make them less afraid?”
Jass thought carefully. “I’m not sure that you can, kumari. You may tell them to be comfortable, that they can fight with you or play rough with you, but everyone else will tell them this is not so. They may even be convinced that it is the goddess playing a trick.”
“Jass, could I see my friend from before?”
Jass smiled. “I was going to suggest it. Your good friend is Mishti, right? From your village. The beautiful girl who was part of the selection.”
Adesha’s face lit up at just the mention of the other girl’s name. “Yes! Mishti! Can I see her?”
“You certainly may. I can contact her parents and, if they do not want to come to Kathmandu, I can send an escort to bring her to you.”
Adesha thought about how much her friend would love having a special escort from the palace arrive in the village to bring her. She also remembered how much she dreaded being around her father – how she never wanted to go home when the sun set.
“Can we just send the escort? Mishti doesn’t really like to go with her parents.”
Jass’ face inexplicably darkened. “Yes. That is a very good thought. Perhaps that is the thoughtful goddess possessing you.” She blinked and her face cleared again. “Or maybe Adesha is just a thoughtful girl.”
Mishti’s visit was arranged for a month after Adesha’s request. Jass informed the kumari that her friend’s parents had asked for it to be that far away. Adesha was impatient, but composed herself as the kumari should and decided that she could wait. Besides, she was busy enough. Every day there were people to visit her who were in need and had requests of the goddess. It saddened Adesha to see so many with lives so painfully different than hers had been in her village. Some of those who visited were grotesquely deformed or terminally ill. Some had lost their homes or their possessions to accidents or the earthquake. Many of those who had lost their homes to the ground’s violent seizures complained that the government had promised them money to rebuild, but had never produced it. Adesha couldn’t help but start seeing the government as a villain in the story of her people.
Thankfully, these depressing meetings did offer distraction while she waited for Mishti, and as she became more comfortable meeting with the people, she noticed a stir in herself when she sat down across from someone with tears in his or her eyes. Once in a while, at those moments, she would feel Adesha begin to recede, and a force of sheer confidence would take her over. When she felt it happening, she would focus hard on allowing the goddess to overtake her, but sometimes in focusing so hard, she drove her away. Quickly the fear that she would not return was squashed, for Adesha knew she was the only vessel.
The day of Mishti’s arrival was exceptionally hot. Adesha woke at 5am, sweating through the thin sheets. Once awake, she was too excited to sleep. Hearing her toss and turn, Jass came into the room looking groggy, but she smiled. She was happy for Adesha’s reunion and went about washing the girl’s hair in the dim sun rising through the Eastern window. The light illuminated flecks of dust that fell around them as Adesha chattered happily about all her childhood memories involving Mishti.
Shortly after breakfast, the companion of all her best stories finally arrived. When Mishti entered the room, Adesha automatically jumped off her cushion to embrace her friend. She was shocked to find Mishti’s beautiful face cold and smooth. Her arms didn’t fly up to wrap around her waist. Her eyes looked at the floor instead of crinkling around the corners as she held her gaze. Adesha couldn’t hide her astonishment, even with Jass still in the room.
“Mishti what’s wrong?!”
Mishti looked warily at the servant, then at Adesha. “I… well…I don’t know what you mean!”
“Aren’t you happy to be here?”
“Well yes of course! I just…..” she glanced at Jass again and Adesha waved her hand in a clear gesture of ‘it’s ok to talk in front of her’. “I just don’t know how I’m supposed to act with you now.”
Adesha flopped down in her chair dejectedly.
“How you’re supposed to act? Like usual! Like always! It’s not different because I’m the kumari.”
“I…no I guess not. It’s just….well this isn’t exactly like running up the side of a mountain, is it?” She laughed as she gestured at the palace around her.
Adesha had to laugh. “Yeah. No I guess not”. And she was struck suddenly by how quickly she’d apparently acclimated to her surroundings. They failed to strike her as really that unusual anymore. She leapt out of her chair again and took her friend’s hands. “But forget about it. Tell me everything about home!”
With that, Mishti melted a little and sunk into her seat, slowly letting all the gossip of the village seep out of her like water leaking luxuriously from a pump.
Mishti was only allowed to visit every few months. When she did, the two girls never spoke about Mishti’s failure to be selected kumari; in fact, they both actively tried to forget that the goddess even existed, much less possessed one of them from time to time, as they chatted and played ecstatically. The times between their meetings were like strange filler for Adesha as she felt the goddess guiding her more and more. Now there were times when, meeting with a villager, she would seem to almost black out, only to have a vague memory later of leaving the meeting, falling asleep, or crying at their story. Jass assured her it was because the goddess was fully in her. Adesha was often embarrassed of those times she fell asleep with an audience or became angry, but she was assured that the goddess was always right in her responses, and that the girl must trust the woman there within her.
When she was not giving out advice or walking past her window in hopes of bestowing luck to those below her or, more frequently, scanning those in the square for a glimpse of her father whom Jass told her was too afraid to visit for fear that he wouldn’t recognize his daughter, Adesha read and researched far-flung places on the internet. She started crafting elaborate daydreams about the places she would visit when she was no longer kumari, even as she came to expect Jass there to wash her hair, the cooks to create her perfect meals, and the children to play whatever board game she might like at the moment. But nothing compared to the days where Mishti would visit, though she could only ever stay for a few hours. Those hours were the landmarks in Adesha’s routine; everything else simply filled time.
The month after Adesha’s 10th birthday, Mishti came to visit looking pale and even thinner than usual. She was becoming rather tall, and Adesha couldn’t help but feel jealous of her friend’s perfect form. But Mishti didn’t look satisfied. It was as if, in all her beauty, she was instead trying to camouflage herself against any surface she found herself near, whether it be papered or human. When anyone but Adesha was in the room, she studied her long fingers nervous, picking invisible dirt from beneath her papery nails. When Adesha asked for the news, she hesitated and dropped her friend’s gaze.
“Oh, not much has been happening really. Just the same things as before.”
Adesha prodded her by asking about particular former school-mates and family members.
“Oh they’re ok.” She was clearly elsewhere.
“Mishti?” She snapped briefly back into focus. “Is everything ok?”
“Oh! Yes. Well, I don’t know what you mean.” Her eyes wandered to the corner of an area rug and hung there despondently.
“Something is wrong.”
To Adesha’s surprise, her friend burst into tears. Adesha was glad Jass had left the room so she would not even have to hesitate in going to embrace Mishti.
“What is it?”
It was the first time Mishti told her about the abuse her father and uncles had been committing against her since before Adesha had even left home. The physical results had led to Mishti’s being rejected as the kumari, but this was the easiest of the repercussions for her to handle now. Adesha asked if her mother knew. She did, but she remained silent. After Mishti had cried for what seemed like days, but for what could only have been mere minutes, the girls attempted to devise a plan. Mishti would stay in kumari ghar. Adesha would send the police to the village to take away Mishti’s father and uncles. As quickly as Adesha formulated a strategy, Mishti shot it down. Mishti would not be allowed to stay in the ghar, no matter what the circumstances. It was for the kumari and those who served her, and Mishti was not old enough to be a servant. If Mishti’s father and uncles were taken, there would be no one to support the large family. Adesha’s temptation was to try and wield her power as the goddess, but even she could not do so without leaving Mishti’s family in an impossible bind of poverty and shame. In fact, Mishti wanted no one to know; she turned flaming red even as she spoke about it to her best friend.
Before either girl had time to collect herself, Jass and the driver appeared in the doorway. It was time for Mishti to go home. She shot Adesha a look of dread that Jass seemed to pick up immediately. The driver was oblivious. She was gone.
That night as Jass prepared Adesha for bed, she asked how the visit had been. Adesha, not sure yet how to speak about it if she did at all, kept her lips held tightly together.
“Did Mishti say anything…unusual?”
Adesha could not lie to her ally Jass. “Yes. She…something bad is happening at home.”
“With Mishti’s family?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“There were rumors after the selection.”
Adesha hung her head, embarrassed for her friend.
“It is nothing for Mishti to be ashamed of. It is not her fault.”
“But what are we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Is there something we can do? I want to bring her here with me.”
“You know it is not possible.”
“Can’t we separate her from her family?”
“But she is only 9. How would she support herself?”
“I….I don’t know.”
“It is a difficult situation, but one that faces many young women.”
“I am a goddess. Why can I not do something?”
“Because you are merely the vessel of the goddess. The goddess may offer advice and guidance, but she does not act.”
“Only Adesha the girl can act.”
Adesha turned this over in her brain as she flowed in and out of sleep like a tide onto sands so fine they slipped through her fingers as she tried to hold on.
Only Adesha the girl could act. And she must. When she woke the next morning, Adesha the girl felt the goddess strongly within her, riling her to action, compelling her to do what they both knew was right. Adesha would take her friend away from the village. She would steal her away in the night, hide her safely in Kathmandu, and use her many resources to ensure her friend was cared for until Adesha’s first blood, when she would be free to go and stay with her friend. By then they would be nearly teenagers and old enough to care for themselves. Jass saw the resolve on Adesha’s face immediately.
“Kumari, it seems you have devised a plan.”
For a second, she was torn between wanting to trust Jass and fear that she would try to stop her. Trust won, and she told her how she was plotting to flee the gar and travel to the village in disguise. After all, she would need Jass’ help with make-up and hair so that she would not be recognized and stopped.
Jass looked unsurprised.
“Your absence would be realized almost immediately. I could claim you were ill, but…”
“No, you would be released from your duties. You would have to tell everyone I had gone missing.”
“You would have only 12 hours or so to get out of the city, and even then everyone would be hunting you.”
“What would happen if they caught me?”
“You would be sent back here immediately, and you would be stripped of your place as kumari. Another vessel would be chosen.” She looked at her with great intention.
She thought hard about this. Without even realizing it, she had been growing to love the presence of the goddess, to love the people who came to her with their tears and their anger and their desperation. She had loved the look of calm and peace that crept across their faces as the goddess blessed them and reassured them, sending them back to their children and donkeys and sheep. Even though she had been here only a year, it was hard to imagine life without the goddess. What a shell she would be, a girl abandoned by the most powerful of women and left alone without even a childhood.
And then she remembered Mishti. Mishti, running through the terraces, destroying the crops under her bare brown feet. Mishti, twisting her hair into braids that looked like the scaly tails of dragons, singing under her breath without even knowing. Mishti, climbing the snowy paths over an avalanche as if she was a mountain goat. The mountains. Adesha gasped at the memory of them. It had been a year since she’d glimpsed the blinding snow or felt the fine powder fall on her face. A year since her face had grown numb in the cold as she gazed up at those impossible peaks. A year since she’d run up those slopes as if it was nothing. She touched the muscles in her legs – she could not run up them now. Unexpectedly, this thought infuriated her. She loved the goddess, but where had Adesha gone? Where was that girl who could herd the animals as competently as her father? Who could carry an injured baby goat the whole way home.
She would take Mishti away from her family. She would bring her here, to Kathmandu and they would work in the palace until they were old enough, serving the new girl who would be Kumari. Who better to serve her than a previous vessel? They would get strong and clever and older. And then they would go back to the mountains. But not back to the village. They would join the porters. There were women porters now; they escorted the white women who came to climb, but who didn’t want to be surrounded by foreign men of dubious intent. Mishti could be around all other women; she would feel safe then, and Adesha would be by her side. They knew the mountains. They would make names for themselves. She would be in the mountains always, traversing the jungles, picking leaches off legs as she showed them to people from around the world; her home, the roof of the entire world. The place that dictated whether it would rain or snow in any part of the globe. She would pray to the goddess, but she would not be her. It was ok that way.
“The best time would be after your last meeting, before supper. I will do your make-up. I will say you’re eating in your chambers. You will have 15 hours before anyone knows you are gone. Then they will begin looking for you.”
Adesha merely nodded.
“Are you sure this is what you want? You will lose the goddess forever.”
Adesha’s face remained passive. Her mind was already in the mountains.
Jass was a master with a make-up brush. When she looked in the gilded mirror, Adesha found herself neither the girl she was, nor the goddess. She was something else entirely. She was any child on the streets of Kathmandu. Her hair looked disheveled, her face slightly oily and stripped of the make-up she’d grown so accustomed to. She looked as if she’d been running down dusty streets through the sunset pollution, chasing after school mates. She did not know where Jass had gotten the clothing she changed in to, and she did not ask. They could have come off any clothes line in the poor part of the city. She felt immediately dirty just looking at them, and she laughed at herself as she flinched pulling them on. Soon she would be back amongst donkey dung and horse flies. When she was finished, they waited together for the sunset. Jass gave her advice on what sorts of vehicles to look for. Ride only with women, she said. Foreign women if possible. It doesn’t no matter where they’re going, even if it’s the wrong direction. Just go away from Kathmandu. Women who looked like they had children would be best. If she got stuck, bring on some fake tears and plead with every passing family that she was lost and needed to get back to her village.
Then the sun had collapsed in the sky, folding in on itself through the strips of murky orange that hung around the city, and it was time. Jass helped her out of a one-story window silently. The guards were changing and no one noticed. It was not the stealth endeavor Adesha had imagined; she simply walked away from the ghar.
Once she was out of sight range of the palace she reached down and removed the simple shoes Jass had given her. Her soles were soft now, lotioned and susceptible to every pebble, every shard of glass, the bite of every tiny insect. She didn’t care. The street dug into her heels until she could feel it up her calves, and she closed her eyes to enjoy it. She wiggled her toes, displacing a thousand shreds of unsavory materials. She dug her manicured toenails into the dirt. Then she remembered and went on her way.
She didn’t have to wait long for a woman with a teenage daughter to pick her up. She clambered into the back of their tiny vehicle and asked where they were headed. It didn’t matter. She’d say she was heading just a couple miles from that destination, as long as it was out of the city. It wasn’t far on the outskirts, but it was good enough. They rode in silence, the teenaged girl frowning while the mother tried to make small-talk with them both. Adesha smiled politely but refused to open her mouth more than necessary, afraid the goddess would gush forth unwittingly. The woman dropped her off at her signal and Adesha looked for another ride on the road the led towards the mountains. Many men stopped, but she backed away, staying close to any available lights. She was thankful for the bustle of the outskirts even this late. Eventually a very old man in a truck stopped. She asked if she could just sit in the back of the pickup. He smiled, understanding, and she ducked down with her head on her knees as they rumbled over potholes so large she had to hold herself down to keep from flying out. They whizzed up the narrow roads passing brightly colored buses adorned with scenes from popular movies, common sayings, and dashboard sculptures of Buddha. She could smell the air changing and dust stopped assailing her bare face.
By the time the sun rose, she was miles outside Kathmandu in a small town near the foothills. She had found a garden shack to sleep in, and chickens clucked and pecked at her. She didn’t mind. As she wandered aimlessly around town, anxious to find something to eat, people began whispering, then shouting about reports of a missing kumari. She kept her tangled head down. No one even glanced twice as the women beat their garments clean and hollered to each other their inquiries into what if meant if a goddess went missing. Had the higher powers abandoned Kathmandu? Perhaps it was a political statement.
She found a trio of American women hikers, and they got her close to home, asking her questions the whole way about the culture and the people of Nepal. They could not believe in such a thing as a kumari, and she laughed when she told them the legends about selection rituals and thighs like deer. Even as she spoke, she could feel the goddess abandoning her. The gravity that had held her adventurous spirit in place so that she could fulfill her duties began to lift, and beneath it, Adesha the girl stirred. As she watched the mountains approach out the open window, her heart gave a series of small jumps and her stomach turned around on itself.
They left her at a suspension bridge, and she jumped lightly out of their jeep. She looked up at the whiteness above her. This was where she belonged. She paused for a moment to breath the air. She pulled her shoes from her feet and wiggled her toes. But she was here for a reason, and she proceeded barefoot across the bridge towards Mishti’s house. It was still light, and she would need to wait until nightfall to lead her friend away from the village. For now, she stayed out of sight, hiding herself beneath rocky outcroppings and wading in the river.
When the moon had climbed over Annapurna, reflecting off the sullen starkness of that mountain that claimed half those who attempted its peak, she headed into the village. She found an appropriate pebble and aimed its trajectory just right to hit Mishti’s window, as she had so many times before. Her arm, it seemed, had retained that muscle memory perfectly. Mishti glanced out and her expression changed instantly to one of awe. Her eyes grew rounded and her mouth broke into the grin that seemed to literally drown her entire face in warmth. She was in the window for only a split second – she seemed to know exactly what was happening. Why else would the kumari be at her window? Yet when she appeared before Adesha a minute later, she held no possessions. Her hands were empty until she threw them around her best friend. Adesha motioned for quiet and grabbed her hand. They re-traced the goddess incarnate’s footsteps along the bridge and back down the mountain. It was a challenge to pick their way along in the dark, where slipping would be catastrophic, but their feet were sure and they were patient with one another. Hours passed as they made their way towards the road, but they hardly felt them as focused as they were on getting safely away from the village, and on talking to one another whenever they weren’t in earshot of a house.
Mishti caught Adesha up on all that had happened since her visit, good and bad, without the normal time constraints of a goddess schedule. When they finally got to the road, they had to wait until sunrise for a truck to appear. As they walked up and down the dirt path, Mishti asked what would happen when they returned to Kathmandu.
“We’ll go to the ghar. After that, I don’t know. Maybe they’ll say I’m not the vessel anymore and then I’ll just be a regular girl again. Or Jass says they could maybe forgive me and continue to let me serve as the vessel until I become a woman. I don’t know.”
“If they say you aren’t the kumari, what will we do?”
Adesha shrugged her slim shoulders. “Maybe they will let us stay in the ghar to serve the new kumari. I could help out a lot with her adjustment and all, and you’re so good at sewing that I bet they’d let you work with the seamstress.”
“That sounds ok!” She smiled shyly, always modest about her talent. But her face clouded over suddenly. “But what if the goddess leaves you and they won’t let us stay at the ghar? What will we do?”
“We’ll work in Kathmandu for a few years until we’re strong enough to be guides, or maybe porters for women hikers. Would you like that?”
“Oh we’d make the best guides! We know all about the mountains and the wildlife and how to get the best views of the sun coming up over the peaks. But we would guide together, right? Or carry bags together if we had to.”
“But, Adesha…..” As Mishti spoke, her eyes traveled to the dirt between her bare toes. “Won’t it feel painful for the goddess to leave you?”
Adesha looked far away for a moment, her face to the mountains. The goddess might leave her, but in that moment, she would know a freedom no one else could possibly understand. To not only be Adesha, but to be Adesha in a wide world now known to her where no one recognized her, where no one understood what it was to be just a girl after being a goddess. To be Adesha, a strong young girl who had been a woman and come back, and to be what she was in these mountains that were the home of where all the weather was made.
As a truck bounced along the potholes headed towards them in the rising sun, Adesha turned one last time to glimpse the white peaks before the hustle of Kathmandu obscured them. As the driver slowed to a halt, she turned to her companion.
“If the goddess needs me, she will find me again in the mountains.” And they climbed into the bed of the truck and asked to go to Kathmandu. When the kindly driver dropped them just outside the Ghar, Adesha faced the building without fear. She contemplated the slippers in her hands, and she paused. Then she put her shoulders back and walked boldly forward barefoot, towards whatever fate unfurled to meet her and her goddess.