We never know when the market will come, though it comes twice a year; a stretch of three days, or five, or seven or nine, but never more. Overnight, the sound of wood and nail and turning wheel in the fields that are never plowed, never grazed, where no brambleberries grow, and in the morning the market is there, stalls and stores on well-trod rows, a maze of everything a soul might desire.
Three days, or five, or seven or nine, and then it is gone.
But for those days, it sprawls among us, booths with green-hued rooftops and shutters the color and sheen of peridot. The market might gleam in the sunlight. It might. Perhaps it does, in the far-off places when light filters through feathered clouds, when the sky pales to blue, and the pavement warms underfoot. My fingers itched with the desire to imagine it so, to mix colors that would convey the shimmer and glaze, the rampantly-hued flavors, the rainbow of sounds.
They frown on that, though. No pictures, no drawings. Come to the market and buy what you will, but you may only carry off what you pay for.
Even memories fade, once the market is done. We only keep what we pay for.
Today, the stands are wrapped in fog, water dripping from fringed overhangs, sellers clad in oilskins and rugs to keep the chill from their bones. We are more accustomed to it, only light hoods over our hair, and sheeting over our baskets.
It is the second day; we might have all the time in the world, or none.
My list is short: new chalks, in colors only they sell, and the thread Mother loves, that holds hems and seams better than any we could fashion. If it were only for me, I would be done and gone.
“Look at the fruit!”
My sister tugs at my free hand, all eagerness and excitement. She has her first spending money, this market, and cannot decide where to spend it. I’ve promised to help her choose wisely, but Mother and I both know it is a lost cause. Your first market, you do nothing wisely. That’s half the fun.
And all of the danger.
“All right,” I say, shifting my basket to rest further up my arm. “Let us go look at the fruit.”
I have no interest in fruit; I know that the flavor fades once we leave the market grounds, and it leaves a hunger that local fruit cannot ease. I will remain content with the apples and pears that grow nearby, rather than pine for exotic tastes that do not linger.
Mother calls that wisdom, I think it more common sense. In any case, it is nothing my sister, at eleven, understands.
If I could keep her from the market, I would have.
So why do I return, when they set their tent poles and drape their bunting against our ever-present rain? Not everyone does. Half the town is hard at work today, their backs turned toward the commotion, their heads turned to their chores. But for every soul who turns away, two are here, it seems. Three days or nine, the market will remain, and then they will be gone.
A glittering green drop trembles at the edge of an overhang. It falls, and I raise a hand to catch it. But when it splashes against my skin, the water is colorless once again.
No chalk can catch that shimmer, no memory holds it for long. Nothing in this place shimmers like that once the market is gone. But the chalks the market carries, with those I can at least try.
Try, and fail. Try again.
Uncomfortable, I wipe my palm against my sleeve, looking anywhere but the crystalline haze overhead. The aisle over from the fruit-sellers is filled with heavy-set bodies, muscles flexing under leathers and cloth. The tool-workers must be there. My uncle has a hammer he bought at market one year. Twenty years later it still rings like a chime when it strikes iron, and there’s not a single crack in its surface.
I’ve never seen him use another tool.
He chose wisely. You do better buying something solid in the market, something practical. Something you can hold, and own.
My sister is all wide eyes and excitement, and the vendors eye her with predatory affection. I shadow her, silent, trying hard not to judge.
How can I judge, when it was me, not so long ago.
“Ohhhh…” Her fingers trail in the air over the slick sides of persimmons and clusterfruit, knowing better than to touch anything she was not prepared to buy.
Choose fruit, I urge her silently. Dream the rest of your life of lands you will never see, but knowing the taste will return, if you are only patient and save your coin. Fruit isn’t safe, but it’s wiser.
But her gaze rises, the breadth of the market yet to explore. Glimmering bottles of arrack and ichin rest on beds of chipped ice, drawing her attention briefly before she darts off to look at a display of hanging baskets, cunningly woven to look like swans mid-flight, or dragons curled around nothing but air.
It is good that she has nothing in mind, nothing that controlled her thinking, and yet this much distraction is dangerous in different ways. The market can convince you to make foolish decisions, if you are not wary. Every family has a story of one member who lost their way in the market, and never quite came home again.
It will not happen to her. I have promised myself that.
Her braid bounces along her back as she darts through the crowd, the red ribbons of her collar fluttering as she moves. She is safe here, perfectly safe: no one would harm a child here, no one would dare.
Let her choose something safe. Something that fits. Something she can take home and keep, and be content.
“I’m coming,” I say, lengthening my stride to catch up with her, only to catch my breath when I see where she has stopped.
This is the only aisle where the goods are not laid out in displays, but set back within each stall. You need to enter a seller’s domain to consider their wares.
But I keep it under my breath. You enter the market freely, you shop freely, and she is of age, if only just. I hurry to join her nonetheless, giving a polite nod to the seller who has come to greet her, wanting to warn them away, to grab my sister by the elbow and steer her somewhere, anywhere, else.
She turns to grin at me over her shoulder, then back to the objects of her fascination. “Look at them, Rais!”
I am looking. Straw cages, and ones carved of quartz or fashioned from glass. Containers with lids, and some without, each one with a set of eyes, staring back.
It is not unheard of to buy something living, at market. But I’ve never heard where it was wise.
Living things have shapes of their own.
She bends forward to investigate, dismissing one cage and then another, until she stops. Grey-black fur, and eyes the shimmering green of faraway mines.
“Oh.” The seller and I hear it at the same time. Only the seller smiles.
© 2019 Laura Anne Gilman