Chapter Four
 

  “I miss school,” Swati said quietly.  “I never thought I’d

say that.”


  The water had helped – Tharani had managed to wash herself in a

minimal fashion, which made her feel a little better.  Then there was

nothing more to do but come back to the main room.  Hours passed, and

Tharani spent the time talking with Swati, learning about the girl’s

life.  They’d switched into English partway through, once Tharani

realized that they both spoke it, and none of the others did.  It felt

a little like the secret language she and Vani had made up as girls

together, to say naughty things about their brothers and sisters…


  “I liked school too,” Tharani said, “What were you studying?”


  Swati smiled.  “We’d just finished reading King Solomon’s Mines.  It

wasn’t what we were supposed to be reading, but Sister Agnes had just

read it, and she said it was so exciting.”  She dropped her voice a

little for the next bit, “We were supposed to skip over the scandalous

bits, but I read them all.”


  Tharani laughed.  “I’m sure she knew you would.”


  “I was good at maths too – algebra, geometry, trigonometry.”


  The child had gotten farther than Tharani had, and she was briefly

jealous – though how ridiculous it was, to be jealous of such a thing

now.


  Swati smiled wistfully.  “I love poetry.  We memorized quite a lot.  I

wandered lonely as a cloud…”


  “That floats on high o’er vales and hills…”  Tharani smiled.  “Yes, I

learned that one too.”


  The girl grinned, mischievously.  “A bit treacly, I always thought,

though Sister Agnes would rap my knuckles if I said so.  I like

Shakespeare better.”   She declaimed, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and

tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last

syllable of recorded time.  And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

the way to dusty death…”  Her voice drifted away.


  Tharani winced.  “Not the cheeriest of company, our Will.”


  “No.”  The girl fell silent for a long moment, then asked softly,

“What do you think will happen next?”


  Tharani’s throat tightened, and she wished she could tell the girl,

everything will be all right.  She had said as much to her little

brothers and sisters enough times, when they’d woken in the grip of

nightmares, or fallen and scraped a knee bloody.  Had comforted them

through the pain with hugs and sweet words and the occasional snuck

piece of sweet jaggery or milk toffee.  They’d never faced anything

like this.


  Still, Swati was strong.  She had come from a wealthier family than

Tharani’s, had had six siblings, all of them already married.  She’d

been the baby of the family, until she’d had to grow up too early, too

fast.  She’d had the strength to defy them.


  Tharani offered, “You survived your father’s beating.  You’ll survive this too.”


  “I couldn’t stop him,” Swati said, her voice full of shame.  Oh,

Tharani knew the sound of that emotion, its bitter taste on the

tongue.


  She made her voice strong, definitive.  No room for questions or

regret.  “Of course you couldn’t.  I’m guessing he was twice your

size.  But when you saw an opportunity to fight back, you took it.”


  Swati whispered, “All I did was run away.”


  Tharani hesitated, then said, “Sometimes, running away is all you can 

do.”


  Did she really believe that?  Maybe.  She’d said it in as comforting a

tone as she could offer.  Maybe it would be enough.


  Tharani changed the subject then, and Swati let her.  They spoke of

small things – favorite foods, and games.  Swati’s hoarded collection

of seashell animals, gifts from her aunties, that she’d had to trade

away for food a few weeks after her flight.  The child was perilously

close to ill from lack of food, and Tharani wanted to scream at the

aliens for taking such poor care of her – was forcing the girl to

breed more important than her survival?  The creatures had promised

them a better life!


  Except not really.   They had never said better.  They had

just offered work, a new life.  There had been no opportunity to read

the fine print; it seemed that each of them had been desperate, in

their own way, and had jumped at any chance to escape.  And here they

were.


  ***