Just outside the gates to the 8th Division Garrison, Gulab waved a sympathetic goodbye to the grumbling guard stationed at the gatehouse for the first night shift. She walked a little ways down the road, toward a bench shaded during the day by a small tree. As the sky turned orange and purple, marking the sun’s descent, the street fell under a gloom. Beneath the bowing shadows of nearby buildings, Charvi sat on the bench, waiting.
“Sorry! I couldn’t find my dress uniform! I had to get a new one issued!” Gulab said.
Charvi nodded her head and waved at her. “I’m not in a hurry.” She said.
She rose from the bench, and ambled over to Gulab without expression.
Standing on the edge of the empty street for a long minute, the pair looked past each other and fidgeted in place. Their respective uniforms shared dark green garrison caps and jackets, but Charvi had a skirt uniform, heeled shoes, and a different set of pins and honors befitting her higher rank. Gulab had long, light brown pants and dress shoes.
“Say, why’d you get the skirt?” Gulab asked.
“I don’t know. My uniform was just like this.” Charvi replied.
“Ah. I specifically asked for pants. I’m not that comfortable in a skirt.”
Charvi’s eyes wandered away, and her shoulders tensed.
“You look very–” She paused for a second. “Professional.”
“You look very professional. Upstanding. Capable.”
Not the adjectives that Gulab really wanted to hear.
After all, one could be professional and be a bony, horse-headed girl.
Nonetheless, she smiled and took it in stride. “Well, thanks.”
Charvi clapped her hands in distress. Gulab realized she looked quite lovely.
Her lips and eyes glistened with a touch of pigments under the faint, vanishing light of the sun. Her brown cheeks were touched with a hint of red, and her pale hair was shiny and smooth. Gulab had washed and redone her signature braided tail, and used some talcum powder on her face to make it soft and to counteract the ruddy slickness that developed lately when she trained. Her face was always fairly soft and sleek, at the very least.
Compared to Charvi’s radiant makeover, however, she was just plain ol’ Gulab in a nicer military suit. She supposed even if Charvi had a way with words, she would have found it hard to compliment her. Gulab was just boring old Gulab who looked like Gulab.
“Well, then,” Gulab awkwardly began, “let’s get moving.”
“Wait.” Charvi said.
“You look winsome, Gulab. Comely. Arresting. Fetching.”
Charvi raised her hands and held them within a few centimeters of each other to clap.
Gulab smiled and clapped her own hands instead to preempt her.
“Of course I’m fetching. Anyway, let’s go.”
She took Charvi by the hand and led her down the street and toward Ocean Road.
There was a much greater spring in her step now that she received proper adjectives.
For them, the festivities would have to wait. Gulab had made a promise the day before, and so she led Charvi past Ocean Road and into Silver Road, on the adjacent blocks. There were parade floats making their rounds through the road here, but compared to Ocean Road the scene was much less lively. They made their way up the street to a little plaza with a flag of Ayvarta flying from a pole, and a dismal little building, beige and orange, stucco and masonry, with small windows. On the front was an envelope symbol.
Charvi stared at the depressing structure with a contemplative gaze.
In lieu of a smile, perhaps, her mouth hung slightly open.
Without warning she hurried inside, and Gulab took off after her.
Though the doors into the post office were open, there was nobody inside.
Long rows of personal boxes and drop-off boxes lined the walls. There was a sliding glass pane that had been shut, alongside the locked door into the back office where the postal workers spent their days. Charvi seemed to quiver inexpressively with muted despair, until they found, tucked in a corner behind a potted plant, a large brown box.
It was an old stamp vendor box, with a slot for coins, and several different stamp books to choose from. Charvi searched through her pockets feverishly, pulling up shell paper bills but struggling to come up with a single coin. She looked between the machine and her jacket and pants with increasing frequency, as if it would cause coins to magically appear.
Sighing audibly, Gulab handed her some coins out of her own pockets.
“You’re lucky I had canteen duty this morning.” Gulab said.
In reality she had gone out of her way to get some change, just in case.
Charvi did not need to know the whole story.
She seemed elated enough just thinking the coins were a happy accident.
“Thank you.” She said.
Her voice was just a touch more affected than her usual monotone.
That was enough to know she was over the moon about this.
Coins in hand, she approached the machine, leaned into it and deposited several in the slots. At the turn of a crank, the machine pushed a stamp book out of a little slide with a satisfying ka-chunk! noise. Charvi picked up the stamp books, and admired each of them, turning their little pages with alert eyes and a hanging jaw. She was so drawn into her treasures that Gulab had to look over her shoulder to get a peek at them.
There was one book with several monuments-themed stamps, such as the Shining Port, and the 8th Division Base, Ocean Road, Ocean Theater, and the governor’s building. Another book contained stamps with little landscape images like the hills and woods outside Rangda and the waters of the harbor. There was a memorial stamp for Old Rangda, and several stamps with important people from Rangda and Tambwe.
It was a real treasure trove of stamps.
Charvi turned them over in her fingers while Gulab stared over their shoulders outside.
“Take your time putting them in your book.” Gulab said. Time was not being especially generous to them, but she did not want to hurry Charvi, even if she did want to see the festival proper. This was her little moment, and nobody would spoil it for her.
Surprisingly, Charvi had other ideas. She put the stamp books in her jacket.
“No, I can do it later. I want to see the festival with you.” Charvi said.
She clapped her hands softly together.
Gulab felt a little flushed, hearing her say with you. It changed that whole statement.
“Let’s go get something to eat, then we’ll play around.” Gulab suggested.
Charvi nodded her head stiffly, and the duo retraced their steps through Silver Road and back out to Ocean Road. They sped across the street, running in front of a parade float, and rejoined the crowd, ambling casually through the festival and looking through its offerings.
Gulab was particularly keen on finding something fatty and fried, and preferably savory, but Charvi seemed to show more interest in the sweets. She paused to stare at the gulab jamun, little syrup-coated balls of milk solids that whimsically shared a name with her companion, but did not purchase any. She seemed drawn by the halva and yogurt too.
At the sight of a cart with a large ice box, however, Charvi became more decisive.
“Gulab, let’s have kulfi. I want the mango flavor.” She said.
“Sure. You’ll have to buy though, all I had was those coins.” Gulab said.
Charvi nodded stiffly in response and approached the vendor, paying for a pair of cone-shaped kulfi ice cream sticks. She bought herself the bright yellow mango flavor, while Gulab received a bright pink rose flavored kulfi, studded with pistachios. Gulab licked the tip of her popsicle and found the flavor very appealing, sweet and rich. Kulfi was dense and creamy, and she felt that her tongue was not even making a dent on the stick as she sucked on it. It was nothing like the syrup-flavored snow she had as a kid up in the mountains.
“I’ve never had this before! It’s so good!” Gulab said.
Charvi nodded her head, her lips closing around the ice cream stick.
“I ate them regularly as a small child.” She said.
Gulab sloppily lapped up the ice cream. It brought her an innocent joy.
Standing on the edge of the street, eating her ice cream and watching the big flashy floats go by under the vibrant fireworks, accompanied by a fetching comrade who thought that she was fetching too, Gulab felt more alive and free than she ever had before.
This was the promise of leaving the mountain, of leaving behind the restrictions of her birth. It was the fruit of self-determination. She was no longer trapped, hunting and fighting and hardening her heart to the cold and hiding the pain her face showed for fear of a man seeing it. She was free. Being her own person, the person she wanted to become.
Nobody here could tell her to work like a man or to be more masculine or to act her birth. Nobody could tell her not to cry or not to laugh or not to dream and dance and dress and look the way she wanted. She decided everything for herself now. Wearing a woman’s hair, cleaning herself like a woman, dressing like a woman, laughing, eating, loving, being flighty; being a woman. Having a woman’s face; no– the face she had always had finally being seen as her face. She was always here, she was her, under the open Ayvartan sky.
There was more to do, perhaps. But at least one person at her side saw her as she wanted to be seen, and for now that was enough. She was the girl that she chose to be.
That was something none of the men of her family could take from her.
She didn’t have to live forced into a contorted shape by their ideas any longer.
In a rush of emotion, she took Charvi’s free hand, drawing her attention.
“I’m so happy to be here, Charvi. Thank you.” Gulab said.
Charvi nodded her head. “Yes. This is fine.”
“Only fine?” Gulab laughed.
“I am okay with the events unfolding.”
Gulab cracked up a little, while Charvi remained perfectly serious as usual.
She looked down at her ice cream stick, which had not even begun to melt.
“You know, the best way to eat kulfi is to stuff it whole in one’s mouth.” Charvi said.
“Oh, well then. Sounds fun. Let’s try it together.” Gulab said.
At once, the pair mindlessly stuffed their kulfi sticks whole in their mouth and waited.
Within seconds Gulab felt an intense chill digging into the roof of her mouth, down the roots of her teeth, and going straight into the brain. Judging by her somewhat more strained expression, Charvi felt it too. Both of them shut their eyes, removed the kulfi from atop their tortured tongues, and grabbed hold of their heads in pain. It was as if the ice cream stick had become lodged into her skull. Not a pleasant sensation.
“Why did you do this to me?” Gulab moaned, her head throbbing fiercely.
“It was a joke. I joked you.” Charvi replied, inexpressively rubbing on her own head.
“It’s called a prank, and it’s not clever if you get caught in it too!” Gulab shouted.
“I will take that into consideration next time.” Charvi tonelessly replied.