She saw him steal the necklace. The men smoking beedis at the corner yelled, “Hey!” and the woman raised a startled hand to her neck. He sprinted through the guava sellers and hooting cars, his rubber slippers slapping the road.
At dusk, he came to her house. She was bent over the kerosene stove, stirring rice with a twig and nibbling the raw skin around her fingernails. She heard him clear his throat and spit betel juice before lifting the sun-beaten curtain to the room. Long shadows stretched from his feet to the walls, coming closer. Swiftly he stroked her head and yanked her hair. He bit her neck. Then he made her drop the twig she was clutching and opened her fingers. Thin gold poured from his fist to her palm.
He said, “Like it?”
Her chest caught with fear. She brought the warm chain to her face to look. It smelled like the rice at the bottom of the sack. She said nothing, thinking of the woman’s frail fingers at her bare neck. Her face had dissolved in her mind.
They could hear the neighbours complaining about the water supply when he grabbed her throat and pushed her on the bed. While he unbuttoned her blouse at the back, his thorny chin pressing her breasts, she said with her eyes on the ceiling, “Where did you get it?”
Someone peed into the drain that ran between the houses. She listened to the trickle.
“If you don’t like it…”
“That’s not what I mean.”
Spit dripped on her nipple. She lay still. He stopped and sighed.
The watery rice was bubbling, dirt floating in the foam on top. She pushed his thighs away and swung her legs to the floor. “I have to finish cooking.”
He watched her from the bed, chewing betel nut with his mouth open. When her grandmother hobbled in, asking if dinner was ready or if she would have to cook it herself, he smoothed his vest over his dark belly and left. He walked with long strides, passing by children in dresses that hung open, men screaming at their mothers, the sour smell of liquor brewed from jaggery. At home he lay on a thin mattress, feeling the anxiety of giving seep into his jaws again. She had lain still with her sari hiked up to her knees, the necklace growing hot in her palm, aloof to his hungry body. He should have clasped the necklace tenderly at her throat. She would have liked that.
After a plate of rice and eggplant, the grandmother lay down, complaining of a pain in her legs that, she said, would finally kill her. She sat by the old woman and pressed her calves, trying to soothe both of them. Her own fingers tingled with knowing. Her eyes ached.
In the morning she took a bucket to the borehole and waited in line for two hours. She would have to tell him, she thought, because there was no other way to begin returning it. With straining arms she carried the bucket back, spilling water on the ground as she went. Her grandmother was sitting on the bed, shaking her head at some private discontent. They did not speak.
He would return from the garage at six, his fingers stained black and smelling of diesel. She slipped the necklace under her blouse and left at five-thirty. At the edge of the houses, where the main street curved, she waited, watching people shake themselves free of crowded buses, their hair sticking up and their clothes pulled sideways. The necklace could belong to any of them. A woman’s shoe slipped off a foot, and the bus roared away with it. It could be hers.
But the police station was not far. They could stand before a potbellied policeman and say they had found it by the sewer. In a few days the surprised woman might even send them a reward—something small and glad.
Or maybe the policeman would interrupt them to ask his dozing colleague at the next desk if the chai boy needed an invitation these days, and they would stand with sweating armpits under a wheezing fan. They would look around at heaps of folders succumbing to termites until he turned to them again. “So?” he would say smilingly, burping up his egg curry from lunch, “No, you tell me, what am I supposed to do?” Then he would drag a folder onto his desk with a thump, lick his finger to turn the pages, and tell them to go home.
Everybody would hear. The necklace would be bunched in her cold hand, and she would feel her pulse in strange places like her ankle. They would be humiliated in the room, more humiliated than the thin boy drooling blood in the corner.
He would not talk to her until she began to watch the doorway every evening and sit awake for another hour, hoping. He had closed his mind and listened to the hard fall of his heels on the potholed road, had seen the glittering necklace that she would wear because she had never worn, even held, gold. He felt dizzy with fear. The sun was too white.
The light turned grey, then black. When headlights began to swoop across her face, she stopped picking her nose.
The gold meant something because her hand had been opened, ring finger first. He had let it slide into her palm. He did not know many ways of giving, but he had tried, with plans kept from her, or a seething in his chest one afternoon. He had given her this.
When would he come? Maybe she had missed him in the sequence of buses and the deepening evening. Her grandmother would be waiting on the raised bed with the stove underneath. She would be waiting in the dark, because her hands shook and she could not light the lamp. The neighbours would gather around a doorway, as if pausing only for a minute, but spending a whole hour by the end, talking about how thieves shoved somebody’s cousin out of the four o’clock local because he would not give them the folded notes tied in his lungi. Then they would disperse in the nighttime lanes with armfuls of dirty plates and their children’s worn clothes (the girl’s soiled skirt tucked in the middle of the roll).
There went the woman whose husband once slapped her so hard she was deaf for a week.
The streetlight turned on. She took out the damp necklace and laid it on the back of her hand to see how it looked on her skin. Insects hit the bulb like pebbles, and a few dropped on her arm, but she tilted her hand gently, this way and that, watching each gold link catch fire in the light. It made her aging knuckles pretty, prettier than—
He came striding out of the darkness and clamped a hand on the necklace. “What are you doing?”
She laughed. “Waiting for you.”
“What for? I was coming to see you. Someone could’ve picked it off your hand, standing here like this.”
They turned to walk between the rows of houses crouching like a purpling bruise among the city lights. He said, “Let me see you wear that.”
She said, “I can’t. The clasp is broken.”