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Authors: Lynne Kelly

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BOOK: Chained
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“I suppose that’s all right,” says Amar. “But don’t take too long.”

We finally arrive at Naresh’s café. A laughing figure of Ganesh sits in the window, holding a tea glass. A ringing cowbell announces our arrival when Yusuf pushes open the door.

The few customers in the café sit at round wooden tables while they talk, eat, and drink tea. One man wipes off a countertop with an old rag while he talks with a man at the table near him. My stomach reminds me how hungry I am when it growls at the smell of spices and bread and brewing tea.

Yusuf motions for me to follow as he approaches the man behind the counter. He sets the tea rack down and removes the money from his left-hand pocket. He hands it to the man, who must be Naresh. Yusuf does not touch his right-hand pocket, which holds the extra coins the samosa vendor gave him. Naresh puts most of the money away in the cash register, then hands a few coins back to Yusuf.

“Who’s your friend?” he asks.

Yusuf introduces me to Naresh and Timir, the man who sits at the table. I feel like I’m staring at a skull—his face is thin and pale, as if he hasn’t seen the sun for a long time. He seems older than my mother. Some gray streaks his long hair and black beard. But his hand that rests on the ivory handle of his cane looks soft and smooth, like the skin of a new calf. The sunlight through the window catches the red stone in his thick gold ring.

“Hastin is looking for a job,” says Yusuf.

“Yes, I need to work so my mother can go home,” I say. “She works for a man named Raju Sharma.”

“And how does a boy like you plan to get your mother away from Raju Sharma?” Timir asks.

I force my eyes away from his steaming cup of tea on the table. My mouth would be watering if it were not so dry. “She is working for him because my sister is sick, and he paid for her treatment. If I get a job, I can help pay him back and my mother can go home sooner.” My stomach growls out loud.

Timir smiles. “Naresh, bring a cup of tea for each of the boys. And a basket of samosas.” He points to the chairs across from him, inviting us to sit down.

“So, about your sister,” says Timir. “What happens if she’s well enough to go home, and you and your mother are both working?”

I can’t believe I didn’t think of this. If I find a job, both Amma and I will be away from home until we earn enough money to pay back Sharma.

“My neighbors in our village will take care of her.” I try to answer as if I’m sure of myself and have everything planned, but it ends up sounding more like a question.

“I need to hire a boy,” says Timir. “Years ago I ran a circus, and I plan to bring it back, starting with the elephant show. I’m looking for someone to care for the elephant. But it is hard work. Do you have experience working with animals?”

“He’s an expert in camel care,” says Yusuf.

“How much does your mother owe Sharmaji?” Timir asks.

“Four thousand rupees,” I answer.

“That is a lot of money.” Timir takes a sip of his tea.

“I just saw a man pay fifteen thousand for a camel.”

He laughs. “A fair price. If I were talking to a camel right now I might offer him fifteen thousand rupees myself.”

I look down at the table.

“But it will pay better than any job you can get around here. And more of an adventure!” Timir leans forward. “Think of it—living in the jungle! No more desert sand blowing in your eyes.” He pauses while Naresh places cups of hot tea and a basket of steaming samosas in front of us.

“Don’t forget the people from all over the world,” Yusuf says.

“That’s right!” says Timir. “From all over the world, they will come see the elephant stand on its head, walk through hoops, give rides—lots of tricks. And you will have the most important job—taking care of the star of the show!”

I smile at Yusuf, then at Timir. “What’s the elephant’s name?” I bite into the edge of a samosa, using only my teeth, so the hot filling will not burn my tongue.

Timir looks over his shoulder before answering. “We have to catch one. That will be your first job when you get to the circus grounds.”

“I have to catch an elephant?”


Chup!
You fool!” He hushes me. He leans in so close I can’t escape his piercing glare. “Keep your voice down about this.”

He leans back but keeps his voice in a low whisper. “I’ve hired workmen to dig a trap in the jungle. Every day you’ll check it and let me know when we’ve caught an elephant.”

I don’t like the idea of capturing an elephant from the jungle, but I know I cannot work as an elephant caretaker without an elephant.

“I am a hard worker,” I say. “But—how much does the job pay?”

Timir leans back and stares up at the ceiling of the café. “Like I said, it will be hard work, and you will be away from home for a long time. I think five thousand rupees is fair.”

When I feel my eyes widen I look away and hope Timir does not notice my disbelief. I stare at a spot on the wall while I pretend to consider the offer. Out of the corner of my eye I notice Timir’s grin. Yusuf leans toward me and kicks me under the table.

Timir adds, “Of course, I will provide all your food and living quarters.”

I nod. “Five thousand rupees. Yes, I suppose that would be enough. I’ll do it.” I take a drink of my tea.

“You’re sure a year isn’t too long to be away from your family?” Timir says.

My sip of tea feels stuck in my throat. I hadn’t thought to ask how long I’d have to work to earn my pay.

“A year?” My hand reaches for the stone in my pocket.

“Yes, I am paying a lot of money for your service. It’s worth more than a year of your time. But if you’re not sure…”

“No, it’s fine. And I’m sure I’ll come home to visit now and then.”

“The circus is too far away. You’ll be too busy to leave anyway. But you’re right, I should not ask a young boy to leave home for so long. I’ve seen plenty of older boys around who could use a job.” He stands and grabs his cane.

“No, please!” My chair falls over when I jump up. “You don’t need to ask anyone else. I’ll do the job—I want to do it.”

“This is a big responsibility,” Timir says. “If I hire you, I have to know I can depend on you, and that you’re not going to make any trouble about wanting to go home.”

“No, I won’t be any trouble. I can do the job. I just worry about my mother missing me too much.”

Timir leans over so he is eye to eye with me, and the hair on the back of my neck stands up. “Honestly, your mother would never say this to you, but think about how else this will help her. One less mouth to feed.” He straightens up and holds out his hand. “So we have a deal?”

I shake Timir’s hand. His long fingers curl around my hand, crushing it in his grip, and his ring digs into my palm.

“So what do we do about Sharmaji?” I ask when Timir lets go.

“I will take care of that. You go home and pack. I’ll bring your mother home to you tomorrow morning and pick you up then.”

I thank Yusuf and say goodbye to him and Naresh before leaving the café.

As tired as I am, I start running down the street toward Raju Sharma’s house to tell Amma the good news. She is going home! I’m able to help my family after all, and already I feel more grown up.

*   *   *

Early the next morning at my village, I sit inside Timir’s truck as he talks to my mother. “Don’t worry, Parvati,” he says. “I’ll take good care of your boy. He will be quite happy, I promise.”

“Give me one more minute, please,” Amma says, wiping tears from her face.

We have said goodbye many times, but she approaches the open window of the truck once again. She takes my hands and places something in my palm.

I feel the smooth wood of my father’s pocketknife. The knife he used for his carvings. “Amma, are you sure?”

“Baba wanted you to have it. I was saving it for when you were older, but…”

“Thank you. I’ll be careful with it.”

Amma nods. “Now, be brave, and be a good worker. Do what Timir says.” She lets go of my hands and steps away from the truck. “I will see you next year.”

The truck rolls past my home, Raj running alongside and barking. I turn to the back window to watch Amma, still standing in the road. As we drive farther away she grows smaller and smaller, her face just a dot of cinnamon and the green of her sari blowing in the wind.

 

6

Between the ages of six and fifteen, male elephants must begin caring for themselves, away from the herd.

—From
Care of Jungle Elephants
by Tin San Bo

The cloth rice bag on my lap holds all that I own, except for the stone from Baba. I take it from my pocket now. I shield my eyes from the sunlight as we start the long ride to my new workplace.

During most of the drive, Timir brags about the circus he used to run. “The elephant show is the first step in bringing the circus back to life. My circus was the best around, before it was closed,” he says. “We had the greatest animal acts—bears riding cycles, and a dancing bear who wore a dress. We had trained tigers and lions, and so many clowns—”

“Clowns?” I ask.

“Yes, men who paint their faces with makeup and do tricks—”

“Makeup?”

“Yes, makeup. You know, like women wear, but clowns wear a lot more.”

I shake my head.

“Maybe you’ve seen women on television wearing makeup.”

I’ve never seen television. “No,” I say. “Did the clowns wear dresses, too, like the bears?”

“No, you’re missing the point!” He slaps the steering wheel. “The clowns dressed funny and did tricks that made the audience laugh. And the monkeys—they have arms and legs like people, but are much smaller—”

“I know what a monkey is.” Now my new boss must think I’m stupid, so I do not ask him if the monkeys wore clothes, too. I stare out the window and listen quietly while he chatters away about his trapeze artists, acrobats, and tightrope walkers.

I don’t ask what those things are, and I don’t ask what I am wondering most of all. If Timir’s circus was so great, why did it close down?

*   *   *

We leave the sands of the desert behind us. Brown has turned to green during our drive, at first with a lonely tree here and there, then clumps of them standing closer and closer. Now they’re so thick there’s nothing but trees on either side of us.

Timir pulls off the treelined road, then parks the truck next to a barbed-wire fence that surrounds a large clearing.

“Here we are.” He opens the door and steps out of the truck. I climb out, too, clutching my rice bag, and follow Timir through a large wooden gate. He leads me to a fence made of rotten wood, tangled with vines, that encircles an area filled with tall brown grass. So many posts are missing, the fence reminds me of an old person’s teeth. The trees are thick behind the fence, so I can’t see what’s beyond.

Timir beams at the rotten wooden benches, vine-wrapped fence, and frayed ropes hanging from high wooden poles like he’s a father showing off a new son. There must be some mistake. This cannot be what Timir has been bragging about during our whole trip.

“So—this is your circus?” I ask.

“It was.” He turns to me. “And it will be again. The elephant act is the start. As we make money from that, we will add other acts, until we have the full circus running.” He steps onto a bench, then stumbles when it falls apart beneath him. He glares at the bench, as if he is angry at it for crumbling. “You’ll need to build new benches before our first show.” He points to the fence. “And fix the arena fence. Follow me.”

Timir leads me away from the arena and through the trees to a building that looks like the shack Amma lived in behind Raju’s house. It’s bigger, but made of wood, and it has a flat roof and peeling white paint. Inside is a desk piled with stacks of papers and a brown sofa against one wall.

“My office,” says Timir. “You’re never to enter without permission. I’ll call you when it needs cleaning, or if you’re in trouble.” He smiles down at me and puts a hand on my shoulder. “But you don’t plan on causing any trouble, do you?”

I feel like backing away from that smile, but his grip on my shoulder is so strong I can’t move. My throat tightens up, so I shake my head to answer Timir’s question.

“Good. A smart boy.”

I rub my tingling shoulder as soon as Timir releases it and turns away.

“Come, I’ll show you the cook shed.”

We stop in front of a large building that’s open on one side, so it has only three walls. The high thatched roof and walls made of mud remind me of home. I wonder if I can sleep here.

An old man in the cook shed is kneading roti dough on a countertop lined with spice jars. Next to him is a clay stove, its chimney sticking out through the roof to let the smoke outside. On the other side of the room is a long wooden table with a bench on either side.

Timir points to the man. “You will help our cook prepare meals each day and clean the cook shed.”

I can’t imagine when I will have time to take care of an elephant with all the cleaning, cooking, fence repair, and building of benches.

The man looks up from the counter.

“Ne Min,” he says. He nods his head once and smiles at me.

“I’m Hastin.”

Ne Min isn’t much taller than I am, and his hair is thin and white. The lines around his eyes look like they’re used to being wrinkled up from smiling, but I think there’s something sad about his eyes, too.

“Where are you from?” I ask, because I’ve never heard a name or an accent like his before.

“Burma,” he says. “But that was a long time ago.” He turns back to the dough. Yes, there is something sad about his eyes, and I wonder why he’s so far from home.

Outside, Timir shows me a small wooden building behind the cook shed where I’ll find all the tools and cleaning supplies I’ll need. Beyond that is the barbed-wire fence and another wooden gate. This one is narrow and opens to a dirt path that stretches into the woods. Parked behind the fence is a mud-splattered white truck.

“This way to your sleeping quarters,” Timir says. He leads me past a row of rusty metal cages to a box-shaped building, taller than any of the others. Like the arena fence, it is made of logs. A trough and a stack of hay bales sit near one wall. A metal bucket hangs by its handle on one end of the trough.

BOOK: Chained
6.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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