She cupped her hands and exhaled into them, breathing life back into her frigid fingers. Her gloves were too old, the wool too worn. But she could not complain when surrounded by those who wore hand-sewn leather coats as their only shield from the cruel desert wind. It must hurt to see without goggles protecting their eyes, but the children beamed at her, anyway. They were elated to have a visitor. Even the adults were elated.
Only the camel seemed apathetic. Then again, if one's skin clung to their ribcage like that, they wouldn’t give a shit about anything either.
“Where’s Azmi?” one woman shouted, a basket of moss and grass on her head.
“She’s out, she’s out, absorbing the scenery or some shit.” Azmi’s brother, having said this, pulled his head back into the warmth of the tent.
Today was the girl’s last day in the Salted Plains.
She took the binoculars dangling from her neck and peered at the vast emptiness. Sand infused with salt glimmered a sickly silver-gold. Dust whipped by the wind coated the sky in a film of gray. High above the sea-levels, in greater proximity to the sun, one would think it would be warmer. But the round disc hung in the horizon, useless save for the light it provided. And even that would disappear soon.
“Can you see Azmi with that?” A hand yanked on the tether of her binoculars. A kid with a trail of crusty snot stared up at her, or more so at the instrument she held.
“Here, take it.” Where someone could go in this barren land, she didn’t know. “What do you see?”
“A rat. And a snake.” The kid giggled, then groaned. “They disappeared.”
“I’m sure they’ll pop back up soon enough.” Most likely, the rat would be eaten, and the snake would sleep off the meal, thankful for another day without starvation. “Come on, let’s go inside.”
“What about Azmi?”
“She’ll come, but now she wishes to be alone.” The tent tempted with puffs of smoke rising from the center. The scent of meat being roasted brought them inside, followed by others who had dallied outside.
A bowl of hot soup, sheets of bread drier than paper, and charcoal grilled meat. The food before her disappeared as if she had imagined them. Without the supplies she’d given them—spices, flour, dried meat, dried and pickled vegetables—the meal would be smaller than this. Yet it paled to the luxuries in the city where crumbs would remain on her plate. Where sometimes she would throw leftovers gone sour away.
Plucking strings with frail fingers, a hunch-backed matriarch sang as they ate. Singing praises during meal time supposedly brought fortune. A tradition that had never waned despite the growing harshness of the plains. At the height of the monsoon, a decade ago, they would have received several showers. Now, these people were fortunate to see two or three.
Her mind wandered, the minor notes in the song coaxing her thoughts to darker places. When she came to, she found the chatter in the tent had gone up a decibel. Azmi sat between her parents, receiving well wishes. A simple girl—double braids, a pimple or two, short, young, thin. Would she survive in the capital? Again that nagging doubt came chewing into her consciousness. Sure, the girl swore she could handle it, but other than being able to read and write, and do basic arithmetic, she had no other skills. Trains and cars had replaced horses and camels. Machines existed for sewing. But she, a forger, had come knowing all these.
When the circle broke around the fire and some left for their tents, she took the girl aside. “Are you sure?”
“As the blood in my veins is red.” Her answer was always the same, a spark blazing in those small eyes.
“The city isn’t for the weak.”
“Neither are the plains. I can survive.”
She inhaled and looked away. The fire, fueled by shrubbery and moss, had dwindled to a worthless orange. The cold seeped in, unresisted; everyone had taken a second layer of camel skin. “The demands are different. The pain is different.” She faced the girl again. “Your heart will ache for many reasons, one of them will be for the family you cannot reach.”
“I know, but I must.”
Must, in this instance, under this roof, was not an exaggeration. Synthetic salt, imported sea salt, both cheaper than the traditional salt from the plains, left these people with a year’s income comparable to three-month’s pay in a textile factory. “Then let’s go over this again. When you reach the city, you are no longer Azmi, but Lena. You will say little, answer only when spoken to.”
The girl nodded, ears soaking every word to prepare for a hurdle she had never faced.
“You will get rid of that accent.” She made sure her facial expression revealed nothing, but she hated saying that. “You were left at the footsteps of an orphanage, a random date selected for your birthday. Your current age is 18.”
The girl looked no more than 15. Even the first time she had heard these instructions, she had not flinched. In the silence of neglect, these people could read the hatred, the invisible violence leveled against them. She knew she would face prejudice.
National ID card, birth certificate, elementary school diploma (laws ruled the upper levels not mandatory), they were all sitting in a leather pouch. Not camel leather, or the shabby synthetic stuff from sweatshops, but real leather. The bag should last. A gift from her to the girl.
“There’s no need.” If not for the entrenched nepotism, the favoritism, the discrimination, outcasts would not need forgers like her to fabricate an entirely new existence for them to work. Yet the realities were so. “This is my job.” She made her money making forgeries for criminals, so she would not need to charge those who needed her services. That was her justification, anyway, for her trade.
“I will go sleep now.”
“You better do. The journey will be long.”
“Night.” But the forger didn’t take her own advice. She stayed up, listening to the snores, some gentle, others gruff owing to their dust roughened lungs. Cramped living spaces, a hungry stomach, the reasons she had left her own family came flooding back to her. But her heart was apathetic, and the waters passed without bursting the banks.
When morning came, she exhaled on her fingers and glared at the sun. The last farewell played out in the rear-view mirror, a mass of leather coats, fur hats before a canvas of gray. A knock had her peering out of her window. It was the kid from yesterday, holding up an orange-yellow stone native to these lands. She wound the window down.
“What do you have for me?”
The stone glistened like honey dripping, pooling in the full rays of the summer sun. The size of a mahjong tile, its edges had been rounded. “You found it?”
He nodded. “For good luck.”
She kissed her palm and placed it on his head, a gesture she’d thought she’d forgotten for lack of use. “That’s thank you where I’m from. And—” she took the binoculars from her dashboard, “—from me to you, for good luck.”
He took it as if it were an antique vase, eyes wide, lips trembling on the cusp of a smile with reverence. She tilted her head toward the crowd that had split to let the girl pass. “I think your mother’s waiting for you.” A short woman stood at the rear of the jeep, watching them, a scarf hiding the lower part of her face. The kid ran to her without another word, holding up the binoculars. She wound her window up as the girl got in.
“Do you have everything?”
The girl nodded, gaze fixed on the side mirror where her people appeared small like in a photograph. And she kept looking till the glass showed nothing but the empty plains. Then she crumbled into the seat and cried.