I told him to smother the fire with wet burlap to hide the smell. He looked up when I stopped at the door. “You will take care of this?” I said. I had meant it as a question. He took it as an order. It was hard to trust him, but there were things to do, people to take care of.
Outside, everything was normal. Nobody had seen smoke or other signs of a fire. People laughed or argued, depending upon where they stood in the crowded market. The midday sun hid each face in a shroud of deep shadows. If people knew about the fire, they didn't show panic. The flute-seller was picking his teeth near the Annapurna temple. He was leaning against his bamboo pole crowned with three hundred flutes. If it weren't for the crowd of hawkers and their colorful wares, saris and brass lamps, the hands of a thousand gods, he would have stood out as a magician or a trickster. When he bared his teeth to sweep up the muck of his mouth with a pink tongue, I thought he grinned at me.
Because I thought he grinned at me, I walked up to him with a smile. He let a trickle of spit fall on my shoes before looking at my face. “Didn't realize it was you,” he said with the same grin. A punch of foul breath pushed back my head. “You saved the flowers?” the flute-seller said. I took it to be a question. He might have said it as a statement of facts. He tugged at his collar to get comfortable inside his yellow shirt.
The flowers became even more beautiful in the sunlight. The mauve and the pink, the stray buds of white, muted verdure of dry herbs and around their edges a dusting of fine red earth: colors leaped from my hands into the air, as if sprung from a cold lair. The flute-seller wasn't impressed. He crinkled his nose and looked away, at nothing in particular, but at a pocket of disapproval.
“Did you bring the sacks?” he asked.
“I told you I wouldn't,” I said. By then, he had huffed off, bobbing the crown of flutes some height above us. Air passed in or out of the flutes with every stride . Although they couldn't sing, they sighed or whistled staccato notes. “I would never bring the sacks,” I said. He turned around sharply with flared nostrils and a line of sweat seeping across the shut mouth. Pigeons resting on the roofs of shops along the street leaped from their perch and flapped lazily before resettling to peck and mount and nuzzle. I paused to stare a hole into his back, my head bobbing in anger and a gilded, venomous curiosity studying his gait to find a chink in the armor.
“I can smell it on you,” he growled over his shoulder. “You burned my sacks. I can smell it in your breath.”
“It was an accident,” I was becoming defensive. The strap on my sandal broke again. I stood on one foot to push the safety-pin through the strap and the mangled edge of the sandal. He waited to let me catch up, but he didn't turn around. He grabbed a thin, shrill flute into which he breathed in anger, pursing his mouth into an ugly pout, no doubt. Immediately as my sandal slapped the ground, he set a martial pace with the flute for me to follow.
I have no idea where this was headed. Now I sit down for another session of fruitless meditation.