Baji

Baji collects wood. His eyes dart and he catches the blood and mahogany glint. Ironwood is scarce, but with enough small, weathered pieces and some wire gingerly coiled in his pocket, he can fashion a reasonable necklace in trade for a bowl of rice or slhani from a vendor. Shade in the afternoon finds him examining his collection on a frayed scarf.

Baji takes his spot at the edge of the market on most days. Here, sun drops behind the rampart of a stone wall. Vendors without carts gather and sell wares in the shade, calling prices to casual shoppers. If the curious want to barter, the custom is to rattle a poke of gemstones or offer up an earlier purchase of equal value. Baji sits and bores wire into the smooth fragments. The ironwood is hard and nearly fossilized, the harder the better. Customers are known to bite pieces before buying, and a necklace with teeth marks is considered poor quality. Baji is not concerned with the market goers—he has a customer already. With a well strung necklace, Baji can find payment in rice. If he saves enough rice from his meal, he can trade for more wire tomorrow and begin collecting another necklace. He’s an orphan and an eight-year-old entrepreneur.

Few notice the small boy, and if they do, it’s assumed he’s the scruffy offspring of another stall keeper. A tea vendor wanders with a ocher gourd to the row of makeshift displays, pausing in front of Baji.

“Good pieces today,” she offers in conversation.

“There were too few for this necklace, so I used some I saved.”

“Any gems?”

“Not today. Covered by sand—no wind.”

Tourists seek out dark, glassy stones that are remnants of an ancient meteorite. Heat and pressure from the impact left crystallized beads strewn for a 50 kilometer radius. As sand shifts on the horizon, the gems reflect the sun and lead a lucky treasure hunter to an exposed patch. A single fist-sized sample can net a week’s pay for the vendor.

“That necklace should make up for it. You should charge double.”

“It is already sold—to the Master Klaones.”

“Klaones! He doesn’t pay fairly. He only deals for profit.” The woman sniffs at the air and shuffles the heavy gourd to her other hip, “You’d do better to walk to Almagro. You can get a good trade for your necklaces.”

“No,” Baji protests, “sometimes I cannot find enough wood, but still Master Klaones pays me the same. I am never without. We are in business.”

“You would do better in Almagro.” The woman moves on and begins clacking a tea cup on the gourd, “I know these things—cool tea! Cool tea!” she calls. “Don’t be so trusting, Baji.”

The old tea lady wanders up a row of wares, dickering with vendors sitting before shawls and blankets.

Baji continues threading the small pieces of hardwood until each hangs from wire. The largest is positioned in the center and at each end of the metal strand he bends a loop, places it around his neck, and clasps his handiwork together. He gathers his scarf and satchel, leaves his cool workspace, and walks to the far end of the market where an enclave is fashioned into the rampart stone. This is the area for shops. Each vendor has a nook to stow goods on display and leaves their tent up for the duration of the market.

“Baji!”, a well-dressed man calls from a yellowed, linen awning.

“Master Klaones! I have a good one today!” The boy runs to the man and stands thrusting his chest to capture waning sunlight on his necklace.

“Let’s look at this one. Yes, there are some good pieces on this work.”

Baji unhitches the wire and gently hands the wooden jewelry to the merchant. The elder rubs his weathered thumb and forefinger over the centerpiece then abrubtly brings it to his mouth and bites. Baji winces, but leans closer to examine the result. The shard is smooth and unmarked. It’s quality ironwood.

“Well done,” Klaones taps a stick on the flagstone floor. A servant appears.

“Get Baji his rice—and some slhani.”

Klaones passes the necklace to his servant and turns to smile at the boy.

His aide regards the jewelry and hesitates, “Same?”

“Same, same,” Klaones directs, “he will not take more.”

“Only what we have agreed,” states the boy.

“And some days you offer less, but your need is the same. Is that not so, Baji?”

“Yes, Master Klaones.”

The servant returns and pours a sleeve of rice onto Baji’s unrolled scarf, setting three shoots of slhani on top. The boy folds the ends and collects the trade into his satchel. He bows once and turns to walk past the few mingling vendors as the sunlight dips below distant sand hills.

“Good luck tomorrow, Baji!” Klaones calls after him.

Before he leaves the market, Baji returns to his spot in the shade next to the stone wall. A lone vendor remains. The man has no blanket of wares and sits on a small mat. A walking staff is set at his side. He is blind with cataracts and offers no reaction. Then the man smiles as light footsteps approach in the gravel.

“Yes? Yes? Did you make a good necklace today, Baji?”

“I did, Master Sanu, there’s enough wood nearby.”

Baji opens his satchel and unfolds his scarf. He apportions a third of the rice and one shoot of dark green slhani onto the old man’s mat.

“My ears count no less than a thousand grains! You’ve done well,” The elder grins and lines grow into crevices around his eyes. “I have done well, also.”

The old man uncoils a long length of yellow wire from his satchel. “I found this one today. It should make a fine bracelet.”

“It’s good wire—thick,” comments the boy.

“Was near the shops again, this one sang to me. I kicked it in the gravel. We eat tomorrow.” The man pauses, and his voice grows solemn, “Thank you for sharing your meal, Baji. I was a proud once, now I stumble. You’re a good boy.”

“Without the wire, I have no necklace to trade, Master Sanu.”

“We are good company, we are.”

“Yes, Master Sanu, we are.”

The two friends rise. Baji escorts the old man back to his village a few kilometers east. Passing the last of the shops, Baji can see Klaones still sitting under his awning. Baji waves before the two travelers turn to the road, finding a path next to the cart ruts that lead from the market.

Klaones does not notice the boy. He inspects a parcel set upon his lap. Mail is delivered from the railroad junction in late afternoon and he is intent, untying the thin fastener that holds the letters together. He carefully coils the metal strand and rises to walk along the stone rampart towards a patch of shaded gravel. He drops the wire, and with his shoe, covers the glint with sand, then returns to read his letters under the awning.

“Will your father join us for supper?” asks a servant.

“No. He is stubborn to see that boy stays out of trouble.”

 

Baji © 2011 Gaboo. Read more stories and observations by Gaboo, click his tag.

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