Gift Cards of an Ex-Goddess
by Melissa Embry
When the child in Mrs. Chaudray’s womb turned a somersault, Mala knew her time as an avatar running out.
“So, do you think this will be the one?” Mrs. Chaudray asked, turning from side to side to catch a glimpse of her reflection in the silver votive images, “do you think this will be the one?”
She had come to the temple to consult the avatar, as had dozens of other pregnant women and mothers of young daughters. Everybody could see Mala becoming more nubile daily, and by the custom older than the memory of anyone on the holy mountain, the goddess must soon seek a younger maiden to inhabit. So the women lined up at the temple doors, each asking if her baby would be the new avatar, the girl who, instead of being a burden to her family, would be supported by the temple until ready to marry in her turn.
Some avatars might take this rush to name their successor the wrong way, Mala thought, contemplating Mrs. Chaudray’s glowing face. It wasn’t like people were rushing her into her grave. Just out of the only life she could remember.
Despite all the hopeful women she’d seen lately, no other of their flaunting bellies sent a chill run down her back like this one did. No others had given her a queasy feeling in her own belly.
That night Mala stripped the temple of its treasures.
By the light of the temple’s butter-filled lamps, painted eyes of gods and demons watched her survey the offerings accumulated in the thirteen years of her tenure. Or was it fourteen? Maybe she’d ask the guardian how long she’d been her. The guardian was good with numbers.
They’ll miss me when I’m gone, she thought. I dare the next avatar to do this good.
Into her open suitcase, the shabby one her unknown parents brought with her when she entered the temple as a baby, she tossed a necklace of gold so pure she could scratch it with her fingernail-–a present from a grateful starlet for landing her career-making role. Followed by a wad of dinar notes, a handful of gift cards. . .
Gift cards? Gift cards for answered prayers? She’d hardly noticed before, but the rectangles of gaudy plastic were everywhere. She added them to her suitcase.
At the top of the temple’s staircase, a skeletal figure materialized from the shadows and descended toward the young girl. Step by step, it crept nearer. One of its toes caught on a loose tread and tore free, clattering down the last steps to the temple floor. The skeleton cowered against the wall in the darkness as Mala looked around.
“Goddess,” she whispered, “I’m jumpy tonight.”
Seeing no one, she wadded a stick of gum into her mouth and resumed her task.
The skeleton slunk out of hiding again. It stepped closer. It was near enough to the girl now for its breath-—if it had had any–to set the gilded ornaments in her hair trembling.
The lamps flickered, filling the skeleton’s hollow eye sockets with reflected flame. One step more. It laid a hand on the young girl’s shoulder.
“What do you think you’re doing, goddess?” it asked.
The girl turned and popped her gum in the skeleton’s face. “Don’t call me ‘goddess’ anymore. The name’s Miss Pretty Devine from here on.”
The skeleton pouted as much as an undead being could. “I knew I shouldn’t have let you download those trashy films. I never used to worry about goddesses shopping on-line.”
“Better luck with the next one.” Mala tossed a jeweled Rolex after the gift cards. “And what am I doing? Clearing out while I can. Before I lose my divinity. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“It is my business.” The skeleton drew itself to full height–half a head shorter than the girl. “I’m the guardian–”
“I know, I know,” Mala said. “Placed under a curse eons ago.”
“Two hundred and fifty-seven years ago,” the skeleton muttered.
“. . . to protect the temple against thieves,” the skeleton finished, gritting its teeth.
“Protect away. It’s not theft to take my own stuff. People gave this to me.”
She pulled out a brooch set with pink diamonds. “See this? The king’s daughter-in-law gave it to me after she had twins. Both boys. You don’t think that took some doing?”
“By you or the princess?” The skeleton’s thumb and forefinger clicked around the diamond.
“Naughty, naughty,” Mala said.
The skeleton dropped the diamond with a yelp as its finger bones burst into flame. A stench of scorched bone mixed with the temple scents of burning butter and incense.
“As long as I’m divine, this all belongs to me,” Mala said while the skeleton beat out the flames of its burning fingers against its breastbone.
She pinned the brooch to the front of her dress. “Got a mirror?”
The skeleton rifled through the treasure and found one to hold up for her. “How much longer?”
“Weeks, maybe less. Women are already asking if their baby will be the one. Just today–”
In the dim recesses of the temple, a pile of coins toppled. Mala froze, listening.
“Only a rat,” the skeleton said. “They come for the butter.”
“Anyway,” Mala said, “I’m not hanging around to find out. Not that it hasn’t been a good thing, being an avatar. I’ll miss it. I’ll miss you. You were the only one who stayed with me. Kept the rats away.”
“Broke you of sucking your thumb.”
Mala stepped back and cocked her head, surveying the skeleton. “Somehow, I always thought you were taller. Guess people were shorter when, well, you know.”
“At least you’ve got a choice,” the skeleton said. “Not like me. I’m stuck here forever. Or until my curse is lifted. What’s the chance that will happen?”
Its bones rattled in indignation.
“You think I had a choice?” Mala asked. “I got incarnated. Did I ask for that? Then, just when I’m old enough to figure things out, the goddesshood passes to some drooling infant and I’m out on my tush.”
“You can marry,” the skeleton said. “I’ve seen a lot of ex-goddesses married out of this temple. The feasting, the dancing –”
“I can marry any yokel whose family scrapes up a dowry? Thanks, but I’ve got other plans.”
“No avatar ever had plans before,” the skeleton said. “They accepted. I just accepted. But it’s not fair!” It stamped its foot, displacing a pile of gift cards.
“For goddess’ sake,” Mala said, “act your age.”
“Either you break my curse or I’m calling the priests to thwart your little plans.”
Mala scooped more gift cards into her suitcase. A pink one with a Hello Kitty face caught her eye. “You probably say that to all the avatars.”
“Just to the ones caught with their hands in the till.” The skeleton folded its arms over its ribcage.
“On the other hand,” Mala said, “I’m always happy to help out an old friend. How, exactly, do we break this curse of yours? But I warn you, if it involves kissing, you can kiss your bony butt goodbye.”
“You wouldn’t have to kiss me, exactly,” the skeleton said. “You could touch me with something that’s touched your lips.”
Its eye sockets turned to her mouth as she chewed her gum. Its posture, if not its face, expressed hope.
“I don’t think you should be talking to me like that,” Mala said. “I’m underage.”
“You’re a goddess. You’re a million years old.”
“How can you say that?”
“All right, half a million. I don’t know why women have to be so sensitive about their age. Come on, now. Just one little taste.” It held out its hand.
“That’s disgusting,” she said. She swallowed, hard.
“Not fair!” the skeleton shrieked. “You’re a deity. You’ve got to listen to your worshippers’ prayers.”
“Listen, yes. Answer, no.”
In response, the skeleton unhinged its lower jaw and held it out. “Here, just touch this to something you’ve kissed.”
Mala backed away.
“Take it,” the skeleton said. Its voice moved to the jawbone, vibrating as it lay on her open palm. The skeleton closed her fingers around it. “In case you change your mind.”
“Why would I want. . . ”
The skeleton began to smolder. “Because I do have one way out. And I’m going to take it. Only remember, every part contains the whole.”
“What does that mean?” Mala stared in horrified fascination as the skeleton’s frame began to blacken and crumble.
“If even a single one of my bones, touches something you’ve kissed,” it whispered, “I can regenerate.”
“You can’t do this,” Mala said. “You can’t leave me alone. Not yet.”
But the skeleton, all except the bone in her hand, disintegrated into a pile of ashes. With a sob, she knelt beside all that remained of her friend, dropping the jawbone to the floor.
“Goddess! What’s going on?”
Mala jumped to her feet at the voice. A woman had entered unnoticed during her argument with the guardian. She picked her way to the front of the temple, skirting the piles of offerings.
“I come to give you thanks, and what do I find? You, stealing from the temple.” The woman’s eyes fell on the jawbone and pile of ashes at Mala’s side. “And what have you done to the guardian?”
“I didn’t do anything to him.” Mala scuffed out the skeleton’s remains with her foot. “Mrs. Chaudray, isn’t it? You were the one who–”
“Yes. And you answered my prayer. The signs are all here.” The pregnant woman patted her belly tenderly. “You’re looking at the next goddess. And she’s not coming home to an empty temple. My baby deserves everything!”
Mrs. Chaudray snatched the Hello Kitty gift card from Mala’s open suitcase.
“How dare you?” Mala demanded.
“I think she’s got the right,” the jawbone chattered from the floor. “Her hand didn’t even catch on fire.”
“Who’s that?” While Mrs. Chaudray’s gaze swept the temple in search of the speaker, Mala seized the jawbone and swung it. Mrs. Chaudray backed away. Mala charged. Mrs. Chaudray grabbed the jawbone, trying to wrest it from Mala’s grip. In the struggle, the antagonists tripped over a multi-armed statue and fell sprawling, dropping the jawbone into the suitcase open on the floor.
Mala was the first to break out of the scrum, a bruise starting to throb on her forehead. Pushing back her disheveled hair, she slammed the suitcase closed, paused only long enough to be sure Mrs. Chaudray, prone on the floor, still breathed, and staggered out into the night.
At the foot of the temple hill she stopped, still half dazed, unsure where to go, what to do next.
“There should be a bullock cart track somewhere around here.” A voice twittered at her feet.
“Hey,” the voice said, “it’s me, in your suitcase. There should be a bullock cart track right about here.”
A train tore past. Avatar and suitcase spun in the wind of its passing.
“Things change in two hundred years,” Mala said.
She dashed to the platform and shoved the gold brooch through the ticket window as the next train to the lowlands paused at the tiny station. In the darkness, someone panted behind her. Mala leaped into a third-class car, shoved past an old man dozing with a crate of chickens on his lap, and dropped onto the wooden bench. The train lurched out of the station.
A fist beat on the compartment’s window and Mala looked up to see Mrs. Chaudray dropping back from the side as the train gathered speed.
“We’re not on a bullock cart, are we?” the jawbone asked.
Mala woke with a jolt the next morning, to the crowing of the roosters held by her fellow passenger. She and the chicken farmer no longer had the car to themselves. At every station down the mountain, the train had picked up more passengers. The dawn light on the grimy windows illuminated men, women and children packed into the car. Mala slumped against a rank-smelling boy who had squeezed between her and the window. Another boy, younger and still smellier, crouched at her feet.
She craned her neck for a look outside. She could just see the holy mountain she had fled from hovering above the clouds, visible in a corner of the window as the train rushed away from it. A plain shrouded in mist dissipating in the morning sunlight whizzed past. Her back was stiff, her face sticky. She felt smaller, younger, less divine, somehow, than she had yesterday. She needed to pee.
“Where’s the toilet?” She nudged the chicken farmer awake. But his reply was unintelligible over the racket of the crowd.
Huddled men, women and children packed the corridors shoulder to shoulder.
“Tip, lady?” the boy next to her asked. “Me and my brother will guard this so nobody gets your place.” He patted the suitcase.
“Take your hands off me!” the jawbone shouted.
The boy jumped.
“Shut up,” Mala said.
“I didn’t do nothing,” the boy whimpered. “Ask anybody.”
“Of course you didn’t.” Mala tapped the suitcase warningly.
The train shuddered and slowed, swaying from side to side. The passengers stirred and gathered their belongings. Mala tried unsuccessfully to force her way toward the door.
With a screech of brakes, the train stopped. As one, the passengers rose and forced their way toward the exit. Mala staggered under the impact of the massed humanity elbowing her aside.
“Stop her!” It was a too-familiar voice.
Wriggling toward Mala from the rear of the car was Mrs. Chaudray. “Stop her,” she shouted. “Stop, thief!” With arms crossed before her, she shoved a path through the crowd.
Mala pushed frantically against the mass of passengers.
“Stand back!” the jawbone shouted. “That woman’s an escaped lunatic!”
At the jawbone’s order, muffled though it was in the suitcase’s depths, a minute bubble of space opened in the bewildered crowd. Mala slipped through the car, half-falling down the outside steps, and ran.
When she dared look back, she saw her enemy gesturing from the door as the train sputtered and started again. The din of its departure drowned Mrs. Chaudray’s yells.
Mala pushed her way off the platform to the line of waiting taxis and leaned gasping against an open window.
The driver flashed a bored glance at her-–a young girl in dusty clothes, clutching a battered suitcase.
“Out of service,” he said.
Mala waved a gold coin in his face.
He clicked his meter on. “Where to, miss?”
“Take me to a shopping mall. Whichever one rich people shop at.” She settled herself on the cracked vinyl seat as the taxi swerved into morning traffic.
Several hours later, Mala, nails and lips the same pink as her chic knockoff dress, plopped into the chair the car dealership’s salesman held for her.
“Something to drink, miss?” he asked.
He set a Coca-Cola before her and excused himself with a murmured apology. With a sigh of relief, Mala slipped off her high-heeled sandals.
“You got any idea what you’re doing?” the jawbone inquired from the depths of a designer handbag that had received the remainder of the old suitcase’s contents.
“Perfectly,” Mala said. “I’m a graduate of the A-ABC Virtual Driving School. I got top marks in my class.”
“That salesman–you know he’s not coming back, don’t you?”
Mala sipped her drink.
“You signed the papers ‘Miss Pretty Devine,’” the skeleton said. “You don’t think that will make him suspicious?”
“Like I could use my real name.” Mala stiffened. “You saw that?”
“Looky, looky, your divinity.” The handbag teetered back and forth.
“You gnawed a hole in my new purse!”
“Wake up, Mala. You paid for a car with handfuls of thousand dollar gift cards. The salesman’s probably calling the revenue department right now.”
As Mala gripped the heel of a sandal to whack the handbag, a too-well known voice boomed from the outer showroom.
“There you are.” Mrs. Chaudray staggered into view, blocking the doorway, hair straggling over her shoulders, clothing torn and wrinkled, bosom and belly heaving.
Mala leaped to her feet, but Mrs. Chaudray stretched both arms across the door as the girl tried to escape. Mala recoiled, feeling power drain from her. The air between them crackled with electricity.
“You shouldn’t be doing this in your condition, Mrs. Chaudray.” Mala threw out her hand, but only a feeble spark clung to it, fell to the floor and expired.
Mrs. Chaudray threw out her belly triumphantly. A rumble like a kettle drum shook the room.
“For goddess’ sake, Mrs. Chaudray,” Mala said, “think what this is doing to your baby!”
But Mrs. Chaudray, laughing in a way that boded horror for the reign of the next avatar, bounced Mala, spent and mortal, into a corner.
The car dealer’s employees and customers huddled terrified at the far end of the room.
“You,” Mala said, “you with the blue tie. Call an ambulance. Can’t you see this woman’s having a baby?”
Mrs. Chaudray screamed and clutched her belly.
Freed from her opponent’s spell, Mala yanked a cell phone from her purse and threw it. “Call 911! Call a midwife! Call the hospital!”
One shoe off, one on, Mala hobbled out of the confusion and onto the parking lot as an attendant pulled up in a Cadillac convertible whose pink finish matched Mala’s fingernails.
She threw herself in and fishtailed onto the street, not glancing back until the wail of faded in the distance. She drew a deep breath at last when traffic at a red light, and reached into her purse for a lipstick. She was free. She was mortal, and she was free.
She touched up her lipstick-—her favorite shade of pink-—and started to cap the tube. And then–why not? She pulled out the jawbone, drew a line of pink X’s and O’s on the age-smoothed bone, tucked it back inside her purse, and tossed it into the back seat.
“I owe you, guardian,” she said.
The light changed; horns blared. The erstwhile avatar stomped the Caddy’s accelerator. Please, goddess, she prayed, I know he’s not tall, but could you at least make him good looking?
“So where do we go from here, goddess?” asked the reedy voice she had heard as long as she could remember.
So this is how it feels. Unanswered prayer. She adjusted the rear view mirror.
“Oh, my goddess!” she screamed at the sight of what sprawled in the back seat. “You’re naked! And you’re just a kid!”
The former skeleton looked down and smirked. “I never thought I’d see that again.”
“Put the purse over it,” Mala said. “I don’t want to see that again. How old are you? Ten?”
“Nine and a half,” the boy said, “plus two hundred–”
“. . . and fifty-seven years,” Mala said. “I can’t believe I’ve been watched over by a kid.”
“I don’t have to watch over anybody anymore. You broke the curse.” He extended a grubby hand.
“You’re not-–oh, no, you’re not gonna be my boyfriend!”
“I’m not your boyfriend anyway,” the boy said. “I wouldn’t be your boyfriend if you were the last goddess on earth.”
“Don’t touch me till you’ve washed.” Mala waved away his hand. “And stop calling me ‘goddess.’ The name’s–”
“Yeah, I know.”
“We better find you some clothes before we both get arrested,” she said.
“And food,” he said, licking his lips. “I haven’t eaten in–”
“Don’t say it,” she ordered.