The ayah hurried through the marketplace. She had only minutes to find what she wanted but every stallholder she approached gave her the same denial. Some were more apologetic than others. Some appeared outright offended. One made the sign of the evil eye but one more gave her directions. In a corner of the square, where sunlight never seemed to penetrate, a rickety cart stood as though abandoned. Its awning hung in tatters, its gay colours faded and dirty. The ayah shook her head. She had been misdirected. That stallholder was having a joke at her expense.
“How may I help you, lovely one?” A cracked voice made the ayah spin around. A small figure was smiling toothlessly at her; it was the height of a child but whether male or female, the ayah could not determine – many old women have wiry white hairs sprouting from their chin.
“I’m sorry – There’s been a mistake.” The ayah clutched her headscarf around her throat and made to leave.
“I don’t think so, dearie,” said the little old person. Her eyes were like raisins and her brown face a paper bag. “You will find what you seek on my cart.”
“I don’t think so. I had better be going. The memsahib will be home shortly and I have chores.”
“Here!” the little old person lifted a dusty sack from the back of the cart and delved a gnarled hand inside it. “This will solve all your problems or you may call old Suki a liar.”
She was a woman, then. The ayah was a little reassured but not by much. Old Suki withdrew her hand from the sack and uncurled her fist. The palm of her hand was like a nest of dried twigs and in it a golden egg gleamed. The ayah stared at it.
“Place this in the room of the afflicted one,” Old Suki pressed the egg into the ayah’s hand. The ayah tried not to express her revulsion at the old woman’s touch. “But let it not be seen. No one must know it is there.”
“I cannot afford gold…” the Ayah protested but she could not take her eyes off the egg.
The old woman cackled. “I don’t want your money, my honey.”
The ayah frowned. “Then what?”
A sandpaper hand took the ayah’s wrist. The old woman led her into the shadows behind the cart. “This won’t take but a minute,” she said.
The memsahib looked through the house but there was no sign of the ayah, in the kitchen, in the pantry.
“I’m sorry, memsahib,” the ayah came down the stairs. “I was cleaning in your son’s room.”
“An endless task!” the memsahib clucked. “What’s for dinner?”
“I’ll get right to it.” The ayah kept her head bowed and went to the kitchen. The memsahib followed.
“You don’t have to wear your headscarf in the house, you know,” the memsahib reminded her. “I know my son has been troubling you. He’s at that difficult age…”
The ayah kept her back turned as she chopped some coriander and garlic. She would never show her face unveiled again. The golden egg, now concealed in her tormentor’s bedroom, had come at a terrible price. The prominent veins and spots on the back of her hands could not go unnoticed for long, and the aches in her swollen knuckles would soon prevent her from performing her chores.
Across the city, a rickety cart trundled towards the gates. There would be other markets in other places. Young Suki stood straight, pulling her cart with vigour. She took in deep lungfuls of air and grinned, showing perfect white teeth as bright as stars. How good it was to feel so young and alive once more!