3,000 years later...
“There goes the baker with his bread like always,” I sang quietly, reaching for the spatula I had left discarded on the marble countertop. “The same old bread and jam to sell.” I pinched my fingers together, gathering the short amount of salt that I needed and popping it into the wooden bowl I was using. I dipped the spoon into the bowl, mixing slowly.
“Damn, Belle had such an easy life,” I grumbled, the rest of the lyrics to the song fading in my memory. “All she had to do in the village was read and complain.”
I added more effort into my mixing, just as my dad had told me the night before. I think some of the hidden resentment that I had for Belle further increased the amount of strength I used to mix the batter for the bread I was making. In only a few seconds, I had the bubbly yellow batter ready for the oven.
“There. I can only hope Mr. Fanchise will like it,” I said, wiping my brow. “This is, what, his fifth loaf of bread from the shop today? How much bread does his family eat?” The questions were rhetorical, but I couldn’t help but wonder them. How much bread did his family eat?
Shaking my head, I dusted the excess flower from my hands, sighing in fatigue. I reached for a rubber-band besides my spatula, wrapping the dark locks of my hair into a messy ponytail. I had no time to check a mirror to see what I looked like, so that was going to have to suffice. I blinked the flour from my eyes, nearly positive that my eyelashes were coated in the powdery, white substance.
I was a rarity in my village, despite the majority of Indian’s having brown eyes. I had a dark shade of brown, not chocolate, but not regular either. They held an undercurrent of violet, something visible only in the sunlight. I didn’t bother too much about it, though. It was only the shading of the sun, nothing more, nothing less.
I picked the wooden bowl up from the countertop, glancing up at the door to make sure nobody had walked in yet. Business today was slow, something I knew my father would berate me for later, despite it not being my fault.
The spatula lifted into my hands with a sharp clatter, and I winced as the sound resonated loudly in the house. Luckily, Dad was upstairs, and probably wouldn’t be downstairs until he was finished looking like a millionaire.
I rolled my eyes at my own comments on my Dad. He wasn’t a millionaire, everyone knew that. He liked to carry himself as such, though, and while there was nothing wrong with that, he also liked to believe that he was superior to the other people living in our small village, which he wasn’t. We weren’t in the slums, but we also weren’t in the city, either.
I, using the spatula, helped the batter into the pan I would be using to create the loaf of bread. The cups of berries sat patiently by my side, and with a quiet chuckle, I sprinkled the juicy fruits over the bread, carefully placing it into the hot oven I had preheated earlier in the day.
Once again, I wiped my brow, the summer heat pounding on my back. My dad had absolutely refused to get an AC, even though I knew that we had enough money to afford one. I didn’t resent my dad for it, but I did wish he would stop being so cheap for once so that I could actually sleep peacefully.
I looked around the shop, my eyes dulled from the fatigue that had crept on my back, a burden on my shoulders. It was a small shop, resembling the bakery shops in America, which my Dad spent much of his money on.
The walls were dark and bright pink, the strips of paint repeating throughout the square corners of the shop. The door behind the counter led to the rooms my dad and I stayed in, although nobody really went there except us.
Around the shop were display cases filled with cakes and other bakery goods that I (on my own) spent the whole day making. My dad had been too cheap to hire someone else to help in the kitchen, so I was forced to learn how to cook and bake, which took my mind off of the piles of debt my Dad drowned in but tried to hide.
I always told him: Dad, the debt is going to come back and bite him in the butt one day. But does he listen to me? No, of course not. I’m just his daughter who went to four years of college and has a degree in literature and cooking. Of course, I wouldn’t know anything.
I played around with the spatula in my hand, cleaning it and the bowls I had used to make the bread. Mr. Fanchise was a regular in our shop, and Dad always said that if I didn’t make a good impression, he wouldn’t come back.
I don’t know why Dad was so insistent on me making a good impression on Mr. Fanchise. I hardly knew the man! All I knew was that he had a wife and a son from America, Gabriel.
I toyed with the curly tendrils of hair that tumbled onto my chest, twirling the strands as the timer ticked on the countertop. I decided to start mixing the coffee and tea for other people who came into the shop, just in case they needed some.
“Man, I wish I had a Prince Charming,” I mumbled under my breath, biting my lip. The tune to Belle’s song from Beauty and the Beast returned to my head, the lyrics a mumble on my lips. I used the tune to block out any other thoughts I had, my mind focusing on the beautiful ballroom dance Belle and the Beast shared.
Unlike many other girls in my village, I didn’t want an exact Prince Charming. I didn’t want the prince from Cinderella; I don’t want a guy to only remember me by my foot size! The Beast was a broken man, a man who needed to be fixed, who needed to be loved. It was a children’s movie, one of my favorites (despite my dislike for Belle).
The sharp, condescending tone of my name on my Dad’s tongue brought me out of my fantasy, the bowl I was rinsing clattering against the metal of the sink.
“Hey, Dad. What’s up?” I asked, wiping my hands on the apron I was wearing and turning the water tap off.
My Dad’s eyes narrowed, the nightly dark orbs reminiscent of a tiger’s. “What’s up? Radha, have you finished baking the bread? Mr. Fanchise will be here any minute!” He adjusted his tie, smoothing the brown suit that he insisted on wearing every day; brushing his chiseled jaw and running a hand through his gelled hair.
“Dad, bread doesn’t bake in one second. Relax! There’s--” I paused to glance at the timer, “two minutes left. Then I can ice it and it’ll be ready to go for Mr. Fanchise!”
“Two minutes. Of course, you’re late, again,” Dad grumbled. He dragged his thumb over the counter that I spent an hour to clean, and I swallowed the tick of irritation that had formed in my throat.
“I’m not late,” I said just as the timer dinged. I gave my Dad a pointed look and he huffed, looking away in annoyance.
Giggling to myself, I gently pried the bread from the pan I had baked it in, reaching into the cabinets to grab the cup of icing that I had made months ago. I took a spoon from the container on the counter and spread the thick, creamy white icing over the bread, wondering how a man could enjoy eating his carbohydrates with something as sweet as icing.
Dad tapped his knuckles on the counter, glancing from the bread I was holding to the clock above the pink and magenta door. He huffed.
“Are you done?” He asked.
I didn’t answer him, only giving him a pointed look. He looked away, his dark eyes narrowed, and I took the opportunity to slide the bread into a dark pink box with our bakery logo on the side. The logo was something my Mom had made; the whole bakery had been her idea...
I shook my head, feeling my Dad’s eyes drilling holes into my skull. Scoffing, I slid the pastry box on the glass part of the counter just as Mr. Fanchise appeared in the doorway, the bell jingling to make his presence known.
Mr. Fanchise was a large man; the CEO of some factory company in the city. He was fat, not as much as to be obese, but just enough to have his belly protruding from his shirt. He always wore suits, his mustache rivaling that of Ranveer Singh’s. He sighed a lot, too. Almost like a moan. It made my stomach churn, but since he was my Dad’s best customer, I was, like many women, told to zip my lips and remain quiet.
He had an American wife, a shocker, but not too shocking. She came with luggage, in other words, her son, Gabriel Fanchise. I shuddered at the name.
“Good morning, Mr. Mohan, Radha,” Mr. Fanchise boomed, his loud voice shaking the pictures on the paint-chipped walls.
I grimaced, but my Dad shushed me before I could speak. “Mr. Fanchise! Welcome back! Your usual, I presume?”
Mr. Fanchise laughed, rubbing his belly. “Wouldn’t you know it, Karan!” He chuckled. Because of the high amounts of money he paid for his bread, he was the only man allowed to call my Dad by his first name. Believe me when I say anyone else that does is promptly added to the blacklist for our bakery.
“Radha, can you give him the box?” Dad asked, nudging my elbow slightly.
I swallowed the sigh that had threatened to bulge from my throat and plastered a fake smile on my lips, handing Mr. Fanchise the box of bread that I had just made. He eagerly took it, his warm hand brushing against my fingers for a moment too long.
I pulled away quickly, offering a weak smile and ignoring my Dad’s stern glare. If Mr. Fanchise noticed, he didn’t say anything. Instead, he opened the box, taking a large, and very loud, whiff of the bread.
“Delicious, as always, Radha,” he said, his sleazy eyes framed on my chest. I couldn’t tell what exactly he was looking at, but I so badly wanted to slap that over-eager grin from his lips. I clenched my hands to keep them from carrying out my desire, however and smiled at him again.
“Thank you, sir,” I replied, my voice almost robotic.
Dad laughed nervously. “Ah, well, have you heard of the recent activity in the forests? I hear it’s getting dangerous to travel...”
“I have heard,” Mr. Fanchise replied, his face stuffed with bread, raspberry, and icing smeared on his lips. I resisted the urge to vomit as his thick tongue slipped from his mouth. “But I wouldn’t worry about it too much. The elders are just making a big fuss over it. Monsters and other childish gibberish, you know?”
“I do,” Dad agreed. He glanced at me. “Actually, Mark?”
“You probably know by now, but Radha is twenty and still single...” he gritted through his teeth. “Do you have any...suggestions?”
Here we go again, I thought, grasping my hands to keep from shaking.
“Ah, of course!” Mr. Fanchise belched loudly. “There are many eligible young men, Radha. Why don’t you pick one of them? Even my Gabriel is of marriageable age now.”
I knew what he was insinuating, and it disgusted me. Gabriel was ten years older than me, and I was in by no means interested in marrying the likes of him, unlike my father, who believed I was simply too caught up with tales of Belle’s Prince Charming.
“Thank you, Sir,” I laughed in a sickly sweet voice, “but I am still looking for the right man for me to marry, and--!”
“What my daughter means to say,” Dad interrupted, leveling yet another glare at me, “is that she is still considering her options between the men in the village, your Gabriel included, obviously.”
Mr. Fanchise smiled, pleased at Dad’s answer. “Of course! Marriage takes time, does it not?”
You mean planning your dowry payment takes time, I thought in my mind. Dad nudged me again, this time, rougher, and I snapped my head up, nodding.
“Y-Yes, of course! I-It takes a lot of planning and choosing!” I stammered, hoping Mr. Fanchise didn’t mind my slight pause.
He, thankfully, nodded, waving a slight goodbye and handing the bag of money before leaving, the door once again jingling with his departure.
“Forests and monsters,” Dad grumbled under his breath once the CEO was gone, dropping the sack with a thud on the counter. “Pay attention to Mr. Fanchise next time, Radha! Do you hear me? We almost got in trouble!”
“...Sure, whatever,” I mumbled, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. Mr. Fanchise’s words on monsters had intrigued me, but then again, I was obsessed with The Beast! How could I not be intrigued?
Something dropped against me, and when I looked at Dad, he was dangling my bag from the nape of the rope, his eyes already dropping to his phone.
“We need more supplies,” he said. “Go out and get some.”
Thank god! Anything to get away from you, I thought. I didn’t say anything to him, though. I took the bag with no hesitation, slipping out of the door and into the village streets.
The village I lived in, Mukhauta, was named after some old kingdom centuries ago. I couldn’t;t believe that it had once been a kingdom, though. I mean, what kingdom would have piles of garbage and waste piling in mountains higher than the huts in front of them? What kind of King would let his city prosper like a slum?
The markets were pretty easy to find; they were usually men from poorer families wandering the streets with baskets on their heads, carrying fruits and other goodies. Flour and bakery needs were sold in stalls closer to the forest, to the place where Mr. Fanchise had been spreading his rumors of monsters.
Pathetic myths, I thought, despite the pang that sparked through me. Deep down, I guess I had hoped that monsters were real, that I’d get my own Beast to my Belle.
I walked quickly past the families on the streets; past the crying, food-deprived children and the pleading mother’s in their ripped sari’s. It reminded me too much of my mother, of everything she had done for me, and that was a thought that I did not want to remember.
I swallowed thickly, pulling my dupatta closer towards my cheek, trying to cover my face from the beady eyes of the sick and hungry families. Dad would kill me if I helped any of them, despite the strong urge to give them bags of food. Sometimes, I did, but it was always when Dad was out of town, the only time when he couldn’t monitor whatever I did.
Speaking of monitor...
For what seemed to be the fifth time that day, I swallowed the urge to groan and slap the nearest person in my annoyance, plastering my sickly sweet smile and turning to face the one man I was hoping to avoid crossing paths with.
The thirty-year-old, “handsome”, hunter and son of Mark Fanchise. He had dirty blonde hair and murderous blue eyes, the same blue eyes that he used to narrow on an innocent animal and shoot the life out of, and the same blue eyes that looked on me with a lust that made my food crawl up my throat.
“Gabriel,” I forced through my throat. “Hi! How are you?”
Gabriel smiled, his cigarette stained teeth sparkling in the sunlight. “I’m doing very well now that you have crossed my path, beautiful,” he murmured, his dark eyes seeming to rape me.
I squirmed under his gaze. “Well, that’s great! I’m glad that you’re having a good day!” I said, eager to end our conversation.
Gabriel was having none of it, however. He reached for my elbow, his thumb smoothing along the bone, his sleazy eyes still raping me. “You seem to have grown even more beautiful by the day.”
I giggled nervously, all the while wondering if I’d go to jail for smacking a man. “T-Thank you so much! Um...I actually have to go; get some supplies for my Dad.”
Gabriel nodded, hesitating as he released my elbow from his rough fingers. “Ah, well, I understand. I will see you around though, yes?”
“Yeah...” I drawled, praying to the lord and back that I wouldn’t cross paths with him again. Gabriel seemed to think that the world revolved around him. He walked with a stiff, royal poise, as if he were a King looking down on ants. He also seemed to believe that even though I hadn’t consented, I was already being groomed to be his wife, just because his father was influential in our village and the main sponsor in my Dad’s bakery.
I shivered at the thought, the fear crawling along my spine. Never, ever, would I become Mrs. Gabriel Fanchise. I would rather die than marry the likes of Gabriel. I’d bet my life that he wouldn’t give a damn to anyone else in the ceremony and rape me on the spot, his dark eyes already peeling at my wedding gown before I would have been able to wrap the garland around his neck.
Sooar, I thought, cursing him. I stomped on the sticky mud to the bakery shop, blindly gathering the items that I needed and leaving quickly, hoping to get away from the place before Gabriel, or Pagal, his follower, caught me again.
I looked up at the sky as I walked back, my dupatta blowing out behind me, my hair gently brushing against the nape of my neck and lower. I looked towards the forest, toward the flurry of crows, towards the dark mountains that nobody had ever dared to explore, for fear the monster caught them.
Will I ever get more than this provincial life?
So...we meet Radha! And we meet Gabriel, who will be coming on a lot throughout the book, and we meet Karan, Radha’s father!
Published: July 4th, 2020