With painted face and painted hands, gold flashing at one nostril, Niya stood before the small house built at the foot of the mountain. The village had turned out, with dishes of sweet meats and rice, bright fruits and vegetables on platters, jugs of wine and water and milk. The grey and white-bearded old men led the ceremony, dull daggers thrust into the sashes they used in place of belts. Behind her stood her parents, her mother's hair already streaked with grey; her father's face lined and locked in its eternal scowl. Dirty-footed brothers brought up the rest of the family party, aunts and uncles and cousins all keeping their space with the rest of the village folk. A bald-headed man with bright robes and kindly eyes said the words, just as if it was a young man and woman of flesh and blood standing before him.
The feast was thankfully short, and the goodbyes shorter.
A stream came down from the mountain, where legend says a lonely girl had drowned herself after her husband-to-be had died. Niya washed her hands and face, and stood before the empty house. There was no door, only a light curtain of blue cloth; drawn away, the afternoon sun showed a main room, with a stone-lined pit for a fire, which some thoughtful person had filled with charcoal. Around the walls were the accoutrements of living: pots and pans, a small loom for weaving, a household shrine, tools of iron and wood held in place by pegs. Roots and herbs hung from the ceiling - little more than bare rafters holding up the shingled roof. Chests looked to hold blankets and clothes. Holes gnawed in the walls by rats were stuffed with newspaper and wedged tight with stones. Niya's eye caught on a knife, sharpened so much that it seemed to bow in the middle, laid neatly in a groove on a flat square of stone.
A loop of rope lay near the edge of the doorframe, and Niya lay the curtain through it, letting the light in. She stalked left of the central pit, to where another cloth lay, and pulled it aside. Beyond was not another room, not really; it was simply an extension of the main room, barely wide enough to fit the thin pallet. A bare shelf on the back held a collection of rotting books; half without their covers. Niya took them down, one by one, the paper soft under her fingers. Poems, scripture; here and there a pressed flower that stained the pages. A small manual, English she guessed, with a picture of how to work the hand-loom. The woman in the illustrations work a skirt with apron, and strange square-toed shoes. At the back of the impromptu library, half-hidden by the books, was a metal mirror in a leaden frame.
Niya looked at herself in the mirror. Behind her, through the doorway, she could see the disc of the sun peeking above the looming bulk of the mountain - and then it was gone, and the house got much darker.
The wind blew toward the mountain that night, so the village never saw nor smelled the smoke until dawn, when the farmers were already at their work. By the time the first buckets arrived, the roof had already collapsed, and even though it was a small house, it took some hours for the ashes to cool down enough to search it thoroughly. Niya's father was slow to arrive, and when he saw the ruin, he gave it only a bare glance, then turned to stare at the mountain, with its forested slopes. There were still tigers on that mountain, the men in the village said, and nothing beyond it but more mountains for miles. He left without a word, gangly sons following behind him.
Some miles up the mountain, Niya never glanced back at the village, or the little curl of smoke rising from its foot.
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