We walk by the girl bathing in the pond. My cousin, a boy, doesn't look.

But me, I do. I give her a hard, unabashed stare. Matted hair, kohl-lined close-set eyes, and skinny shoulders. She dribbles water over her head with one hand and smiles at me. Her teeth are horrendous. 

The next time I see her, she is clothed. Even her head is covered with an off-white cheesecloth fabric held fast by two bobby pins slid onto oily black hair. She stands by the door to my grandmother’s sitting room, flashing a scary smile.

“She’s rich,” my cousin, a girl, whispers. “Don’t fall for the trick.”

“What trick?” 

“Her I’m-so-poor trick,” she says. “She’s not. Her father is a mill-ion-aire.”

I nod and we run outside to play, leaving the pond-girl’s treachery behind.

The next day, as I skip rope in the yard, my mother and grandmother sort my clothes into Giveaway or Keep piles, and the only way I catch them is when a flash of red, my favorite Canadian skirt, waves at me through the bars of the window. The words, these are too small, give them to Hawa, send my skipping rope skittering across the flagstones.  

I run in and scream. It’s decidedly North American in tone and my genteel Indian grandmother nearly falls back into the room—the skirt, two undershirts, and a t-shirt jumping from her arms to splay on the floor. 

The red skirt returns to my suitcase and I stamp outside with a question. Tell me, oh boy and girl cousins, why does wealthy Hawa with the horrendous teeth need my holey undershirts? 

They point to her pond. Her pond. Who owns a whole pond to themselves? Especially a kid? Plus, no one else bathes in it. 

“No one else wants to bathe in it,” a girl cousin clarifies. “It’s full of lice and her germs.” 

I know India is a world away from home, and our family just arrived at my grandmother’s house last week for vacation, but still, I cannot believe the world is upside down here and that if you’re rich, you’re gross, a pariah with your own pond.

“But she looks poor,” I say. “Her skirts are ripped at the bottom.”

“That’s the clothes she chooses. To look poor,” says a boy cousin, the eldest of those who still play with us. “Ha, you fell for her trick.”

He points at the lane edging the front yard and I turn. She’s there, standing by the gate, smiling like the picture of the Baba Yaga witch in Fairytales from Around the World, a book I used to read over and over. 

She lifts her fingers and waves them at me. 


At night, while trying to fall asleep, I’m worried. Every time she smiles, it’s a beam meant only to reach me. Even in a whole room of people, she faces those teeth to me. 

I can’t shake the feeling she knows something. About me, about the way I really am. 

It’s like she knows the truth.

* * *

I line my toiletries on the window ledge in the room I’ve been sharing with my little brother. With the door locked so no one else can barge in on the Canadian things I’m unpacking for their eyes only, it’s me and two of my girl cousins. 

“Mmm,” the cousin my age says, sniffing the peach-strawberry shampoo I passed her. 

“That’s the smell of fruits you probably haven’t tasted. Peaches,” I say. “And strawberries.”

She passes it to the other cousin, younger than us, whom we let in because she was the only one courageous enough to steal us some dried pickled mango skins, sourer than the powder at the bottom of a bag of sour gummies. She’d braved climbing the counter and leaning across on her tip-toes to reach for the shelf above the washbasin, to grab a handful—when the kitchen was empty of mothers, of course.  

We now rip the orangey-brown leathery strips with our teeth, making faces in unison as the intense sourness hits our mouths and extends its reaches to almost numb our brains. 

I swallow in delightful agony and hold up a bottle of perfume, Anais Anais. My first bottle of perfume ever.

“Anas Anas,” the younger cousin reads. “Such a pretty bottle. The flowers!”

“It’s Ané Ané,” I clarify. “It’s a French word. My mom’s friend gave it to me. On my birthday.”

I spray a tiny bit into the air, and the cousins close their eyes and lift their noses, the older one with a dried mango strip hanging out of her mouth like a wilted cigarette. 

When they open their eyes, it’s to look at me with wonder. 

At my richness. 

* * *

But I am not rich. 

I’m the poorest of the poor in Canada. 

I live in half of a basement apartment that we share with another family. 

The bathroom has democratic timings so that all twelve people splitting it feel the fairness. 

My mother doesn’t buy me anything extra because everything extra goes into the bank.

So we can buy plane tickets to return to India every three years to visit my parents’ families. 

So we can visit my cousins in a tiny village.

Where they’re impressed by my richness.

* * *

The peach-strawberry shampoo is from an airline kit they gave the tween-looking girls on the flight over, when they were handing out toys to the little kids.  

In my democratic washroom, we use a no-name shampoo that smells like dishwashing soap.

* * *

I tear into another piece of sour mango, and move fast through the French-perfumed air to reach between the window bars to close the shutters to our room. I almost feel the presence of Hawa lurking nearby, ready to gaze in and ruin everything with her smile.


* * *

I turn to my cousins. “Now tell me why you don’t like Hawa. The real reason.”

They exchange glances, eyes on the verge of rolling, as if they’re exasperated at my question. But they fall short of judging me because of who I am. The rich girl from Canada. 

When they don’t answer, I cross my arms. 

“I told you why the first day we saw her,” the older one says. “Because she’s RICH.”

“And she shows up at our houses to beg as if she’s NOT rich,” the younger one says. 

“And then we have to give up some of our things.”

“Like my mom gave her some of my Eid bangles.”

“She could have bought her own, you know?”

“Yeah. She has more money than us.”

“Why didn’t her dad give her the money to buy her own?”

“When we ask our moms and dads this, they shush us because of the story.”

They glance at each other again. But this time the older one shakes her head slightly.

“What story?” I uncross my arms, curious, eager. “Tell me?”

“We can’t until your mom says it’s okay.” It’s my older cousin who pronounces this with confidence and finality, so I nod, satisfied that I’ll find out what I want—no, need—to know soon. 

We share another round of mango skins and I forget to ask why I haven’t seen Hawa beg even once. 

* * *

The next morning we—my mother, grandmother, aunts, the whole deal—walk to the mountain. It’s supposed to be a special place, being the mountain the village is named for, and it’s supposed to be hard to climb, but all the cousins complain about the simplicity of it. They want a dramatic, life-risking cliff. I pretend I’ve conquered icebergs in Canada. “This is nothing, your feet don’t even slide off this. It doesn’t even freeze your toes off.”

We pant upon reaching the view at the top. Everyone jostles to point out places. My grandmother shows us Hawa’s house. I peer to see the mansion. 

“I don’t see it.” I’m on my tiptoes. People point, all in the same direction, but I don’t see anything. 

“You didn’t bring your glasses,” my mother clucks. “It’s that brown spot.”

I blink and it comes into view. A mound of mud.

Hawa’s mansion? 

“It’s the only home her father would make for her, poor little child,” my grandmother says.  In response, my aunts shake their heads and my mother sighs—all of them with the same slow heave of sad-shoulders. 

I search my mother’s face for more explanation, but she nods at me to join everyone else. They’re making their way to the path leading off the mountain. 

I don’t speak on the way down. My cousins are playing tag but I spin a time-out cocoon around myself. 

* * *

She’s waiting at the bottom with her smile, beckoning us to her home.

There’s a room and another one. No stove, or fire-oven. Just a mat on the ground and my undershirts, t-shirt, and a brown skirt hanging on a clothesline strung across the room. The walls are mud with two holes for windows. 

We stand around and pretend we’re visitors. My grandmother finds some biscuits in a cloth bag she brought up the mountain and the pretense deepens as we pass them to each other—guests serving guests. Hawa laughs, biting into her biscuit and, in a rush of giddiness, says her first words to me, “I’m so glad you visited me. I’ve always wanted to meet you.”

 My mouth doesn’t respond and a girl cousin puts her arm around my shoulders, claiming me back. 

* * *

On our visit, Hawa didn’t beg at all. 

Same like me. Like I never begged once in Canada. Not for anything, ever. But then I’d still get things, like airline kits.

And perfume bottles.

* * *

When we leave, I run ahead to my mother and demand to know the truth about Hawa. The cousins gather around and my mother nods at them in permission. 

They all take turns telling the story. I glance behind me during the pauses and, each time I look, she’s still at her door, oozing happiness. It reaches its tentacles to me—urging me to fly away, to go back to where I came from, all the way back home to my basement in Canada, back to the truth of who I am.

* * *

Once there was a very rich man. He married a woman and was mean to her. She gave him a baby and then something happened to her brain. The rich man made a small mud house for her and her baby, and brought them to it. All the neighbors took turns looking after the baby when the lady couldn’t. The rich man didn’t come much. He kept his millions in a bank, only giving a little to help take care of his wife and child. Then the lady’s mind turned completely off and she ran away from home, from her daughter, and the man stopped giving them anything. You know the naked lady that hangs around the village market? That’s her. That’s the mother. And you know all that money in the bank? That’s Hawa’s. She’s rich. 

* * *

When I leave India, I give her the red skirt. I give her my peach-strawberry shampoo. 

I even give her the bubblegum pink round compact mirror from the airline kit. 

But I don’t give her my Anais Anais

I’d found it in the garbage bin of our basement bathroom, thrown there by a member of the other family sharing our apartment. I’d knelt by the bin, shaking the bottle, the most beautiful flowery container I’d ever seen in my life, a smile growing on my face as I’d heard the slight remains of liquid jostling in reply. 

On the plane back to Canada, I rotate the perfume bottle between my hands, realizing I had fallen for Hawa’s I’m-so-poor trick. 

Maybe it was her house. And my old clothes, now hers, spread on a clothesline. 

Or maybe it was that, in opposite ways, we were the exact same. 

* * *


I think I just fell for her smile. It was a smile that knew who I was.

{ Edited by Trisha Tobias. }