She was burning up. The sun bore down on the alley, making her feet sting as they pelted the simmering gravel. Her hands, which clung to the large metal egg, throbbed in objection to the heat. Her only relief were the few sharp shadows that projected inwards from the walls, where families had slung fabrics from window to window in an attempt to liven up the crumbling lane.
“Kyra!” she heard the eldest boy shout down the alley. The raspy giggles of the others came soon after. They were far away, but not as far as she would have liked. “Kyra Gupta!” the boy sang out with a pernicious edge to his voice.
She pressed the egg closer to her chest, the metal warming her skin through the fabric of her gown. The further she got from the market the heavier the egg felt in her arms, the more her legs felt as if they were going to buckle and betray her.
“Why are you running?” the boy teased.
“What have you stolen?” added one of the girls behind him.
Nothing she would have said The merchant gave it to me would have been her reply, but she didn’t have the air left in her lungs and she knew they wouldn’t believe her, wouldn’t care. She hadn’t stolen anything. But merchants didn’t usually give things away for free, and there she was running away from the market as penniless as she’d came, with something extremely valuable clutched between her dirty fingers. She ran past gaping doorways and Sunday afternoon glazed over gazes, knowing that she couldn’t really blame them for chasing her.
She would wander through the markets alone, though she used to have someone there to hold her hand and lead her. She didn’t have that anymore, that towering man to guide her through the crowd. Instead she started ducking and weaving, finding her own way through the nooks and crannies that adults left behind. There was only one person who acknowledged her.
He wore a white and black pagri around his head and nodded at her when she walked by. She always found him standing in his booth with both palms planted on the tabletop. In all the times she had crept past him she never could figure out what he sold. Indescribable things, she guessed. Trinkets, bowls, charms, blankets, clocks. None of it looked like it did what it was supposed to do. And none of it was ever sold. As far as she could tell the towers of stuff were always the same heights and widths, the draping fabrics never had to be replaced. The orderless booth stayed chaotically static.
That was the beginning of her purpose. She would push past the other stalls with might, her trajectory always aimed towards the centre of the market where she would give a silent nod to the merchant and leave the market feeling accomplished. What would usually follow would be a nod in return, and the beginnings of a smile. It was the day of the chase when he finally moved his hands, peeling them from his all too familiar stance and waving them towards her.
“Where are you going to go Kyra?” the boy yelled.
She ducked under a clothes line, which blocked the end of the alley from view, though she knew exactly what was on the other side. She had heard the voices of the street and she knew that the mess of sounds had belonged to a crowd. Instead of cowering away from the mob she pushed into it, forcing herself past the elbows and knees that cluttered her surroundings and further into the darkness that the mass of people created. She knew the streets well, but she was better at finding places to hide. The children’s’ mocking voices were overridden by the unintelligible chatter, and though the air was thick and warm the shadows gave her relief.
She had stopped in the centre of the street, earning jostles from passers-by, and looked down at the metal egg. The gold still shone in the shadows, and the details of its pattern weren’t hindered by the darkness. It still looked like it was glistening and reflecting the sun, and felt just as warm. Someone in the crowd jolted her as they passed and the egg bounced in her hands. She gripped it tight and held it against her before pushing past the throng of people once more.
The egg had looked the same deep in the market place where it sat on a stand behind the merchant. Even with his invitation she approached him with caution. She saw a glint of the golden egg glittering in the dull sun. The merchant tilted his head and smiled down at her, knowing exactly what had caught her eye.
“Would you like it?” he asked her, articulating each word with care. Her eyes focused back on him. There was a colour in his pagri, a golden yellow weaved between the usual white and black.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It is the sunshine, my dear.”
She burst back onto the sun drenched pavement and scrambled to leave the stream of people behind her, running into a wide lane that she thought would push her further away from whoever still followed her. A tall set of buildings, strikingly blue, bordered the lane and hindered the sun’s rays, giving her a strip of shadow to run along. The lane was steep and she couldn’t see to the end of it, only to the next sharp turn created by the crooked buildings. She had regained her breath and her feet had cooled, but the slant of the lane forced any thought of comfort out of her mind. Her legs burned and her arms were tired—she was holding the egg with the last of her strength and the last of her energy was reserved for anticipating what was going to be around the next turn.
“It’s warm,” she breathed as the egg was placed in her widely cupped palms. The merchant laughed, flashing his too white teeth, watching in amusement as she weighed it in each hand.
“Well of course it is my dear.”
“I don’t have anything to give you for it.”
“I know,” he said, his smile faltering.
She moved to hand the egg back to him. He shook his head.
“You’ve lost someone, my dear. I can see what is missing.” As he spoke his eyes wandered to the empty space beside her, “I want you to have this, and I ask only one thing for it,” he paused. “A smile. That is enough. Give me that and it is yours.”
She was perplexed, but that amused her. She broke out into a smile. It was small but it was warm. He smiled in return, and said,
“When you need to, open it.”
They were there when she turned the corner, arms crossed, fists tight, all eyes on her except for the boy. He had his eyes on the golden egg in her hands. She could feel her heartbeat in her palms, burning now with the heat of what she held. There were no busy streets to run to, no kind merchant, just tired feet and a barrier of cruel kids. They were tiny, like her, dirty and bare footed too; they couldn’t afford what she held. They hadn’t lost what she had lost and so they didn’t have what the merchant had accepted from her—a spark of light, a smile in the midst of grief. But that wasn’t something kids understood, so it made them angry.
“Give it to us,” the boy said. Kyra held tight.
“No,” she replied.
“Give it to us or we’ll take it,” he warned. The children behind him snickered, their grimy faces breaking into chittering smiles.
Her feet burned, along with her palms and her lungs, her legs and her cheeks, but she wasn’t concerned by it. She used it. She took the pain and did exactly what the merchant had told her to do. The boy grinned and took a confident step forward as she held the golden egg out towards him. She undid the latch and let the egg fall open.
Golden light exploded from the egg before she had the chance to see the smile drop from the boy’s face. It bathed them all in a bright light; the children all shielded their eyes as if looking directly at the sun. It crackled like fire and sputtered like burning wood, shot like lightning and poured like lava, and all of it came from what she held in her tiny hands. It was all just light, but it was brilliant and terrifying. She squinted, held the egg out in one hand and let the other dangle by her side until she felt the warm pressure of a familiar hand. She squeezed it, hard, and flipped the egg closed.
The boy was on the ground rubbing his eyes. The others stood in a daze and mimicked his movement, all blinking furiously. Kyra hugged the golden egg to her chest, finding comfort in the way its warmth sunk into her skin. She bent towards it until her lips were so close that her breath left a fog over its shiny surface.
“Thank you Daddy,” she whispered, before turning away and running.