I shake my head to wake up, as if the pasar malam with its blue tarps and packed crowds and smoke from slightly burnt satay is just a dream. People fill every corner of the night market, streaming through the narrow path carved by riverbanks of easy-ups lining the street. Vendors shout and yell and their voices spiral like a bakery’s sweet aroma, their tables and carts overflowing with food that tastes like home.
Here, I blend in with my skin color, hair, eyes, language. No one would notice if I was swept away in this mosaic river of locals who brave this market rush hour everyday. My mom is surveying an assortment of crispy fish balls on sticks. My brother is next to her, sipping a grass jelly drink with boba. My dad is out of sight, lost in this ocean of people— he must be where the row of tents end, buying a bag of sweet rambutans.
White vans are closely parked behind each vendor’s tent. One trunk is open. Inside, an unkempt array of crates staggers under the weight of more crates, and dirty clothes, and rags, and buckets. A little girl leaps out and dashes to help her mother prop up coconuts on top of a crushed wooden box, ignoring splinters digging into calloused skin. Her cheeks are ruddy under thin streaks of ash. Her father rotates between flipping the food on the grill and barking at customers — time-pressed and time-weary.
From dusky sundown to moonlit-night, this street is a breathing torrent of bustling activity. It is all too easy to get carried away by the fluid motion of customers sauntering from vendor to vendor. I’m swerving through the flood of skin and hijabs when I notice up ahead the crowd parting as a rock divides the river. I move with the stream of people until I reach the rock I can’t see. That’s when I nearly step on him.
He is sprawled on the floor, belly flat against the tar of the road. His skin is brown and sunbaked and wrinkled, like tree trunks. His arms are stretched in front of him, hands like twisting branches clinging onto a tin can half-filled with dollar bills and spare change. Where his legs are supposed to be is only the tail ends of his dirt-covered shirt concealing two stumps.
People step around the legless, homeless beggar. Their eyes dart elsewhere—to the stand of socks, to the family buying Chinese yoyo’s, to the girls selling cheap jewelry. They swerve out of his way as if he is Moses parting the Red Sea, only he has no staff to give him dignity.
He is banging his head against the ground. Words have escaped this man. “Please,” he has learned, is not sufficient. The world has reduced him to the most primal form of begging because pity is not enough to halt people in their tracks and give him what they can. He has learned guilt is the best incentive of all.
I take a step away from him, and another. My mind can’t shake the image of him, but I am, like everyone, a creature subject to the laws of inertia. It is hard to stop our movement as we propel through life, or crowds, and before I know it, I am tents away from him. I spot my dad, and the same inertia propels my hand to tug on his sleeve. He takes out his wallet and gives me what I asked.
Turning around is much harder. Now I am the helpless one as I crouch in front of him and place the crumpled bill in the can. His eyes meet mine, and for a moment I think I may have stopped his vicious cycle of banging, but his head hits the ground again. And again. And tomorrow when the pasar malam returns with its tarps and smoke and people pressed in close proximity, he will still be here, gravel embedded in the creases of his skin. I wish I could give him more than money and a prayer. I picture myself catching his forehead before it hits the ground, stopping his inertia, holding him close until he stops shaking. I want to give him everything I have.
Instead, I stand up and push my way to my parents buying charred satay. I cling onto them tightly, wrapping my arms around them like a relentless tree branch as the crowd sweeps by.
Cassandra is a junior in the Creative Writing conservatory at the Orange County School of the Arts. She is an editor of her school’s award-winning art and literary magazine, Inkblot, and has been nationally recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards as well as the National Student Poets Program. Her plays are currently being produced by theaters across the nation. Her poetry, essays and reviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, TeenReads, Jet Fuel Review, Feminine Inquiry, Aerie International, and more.