“You are a pearl little girl,” said the hag on the road.
Mahira hadn’t been called “girl” in quite some time. She balanced the tray of food carefully on her cart, pushing it into the bazaar.
“Wait,” said the hag. She reached into her filthy satchel and extracted a stone. Her muddy fingers extended it to Mahira. The young woman cringed, and her nose crinkled at the sight of the hag’s fingernails. Jagged, stuffed with dirt.
She walked reluctantly closer, willing herself to look at the red ruby seated in the center of the offerer’s wrinkled palms.
“This is for you,” the hag smiled with teeth yellow and breath rancid. Mahira swallowed her disgust and smiled with discomfort.
“It’s okay. Thank you,” she said softly. Why would she take a gemstone from an indigent?
“A ruby for a pearl. It’s poetic,” the hag nudged the stone toward her.
“I can’t. I think you should sell it. Maybe you can get some money,” Mahira urged.
“I am selling it,” the old woman smiled widely. “I see you each day, carrying a tray of your cooking to town. The delectable smell fills my nose as you walk past. I am not allowed where you sell it due to my station. Can you set aside a plate for me? Let’s say, for one month?”
Mahira paused. “If anyone finds out that you have partaken in this food, they might not eat it.”
The hag looked down. “Yes,” she said, “There is that risk.”
Mahira looked at the woman’s hopeful eyes. She considered her own livelihood.
“I don’t want your ruby,” Mahira said decidedly.
The hag closed her fist. Her fingers quivered.
It was now Mahira who said “wait” as the hag retreated. “Each day, I eat after I have sold my food. Will you join me from now on? Your cost will be your company.”
The hag faced Mahira. “Oh, I am very good company.”
“All I ask is that you bathe. My home is open to you. Your smell is…overpowering.” Mahira pinched her own nose.
The hag threw her head back and laughed.
“I will find you soon,” Mahira said, wheeling her cart toward the bazaar.
She stopped several feet away and looked back at the hag, who was still smiling exuberantly at her.
“I am sorry for the state of this world,” Mahira yelled.