Arjun stepped out of the wedding suite from the back entrance. It was unseasonably warm for late October. He had changed out of his cream-colored sherwani and now donned the orange and green checkered vest Maleda had brought back for him on her last trip to Addis Ababa. The setting sun reached his face with golden embrace. A wave of relief gently crashed down upon the shores of his mind. They had done it, he thought to himself.
Arjun walked over to the edge of where the vineyard began. He stopped in front of the neatly arranged rows of grapes. Maleda would still need time to change out of the crimson lehenga she wore to circle the fire into a dress that matched his colorful vest. Ahead, the sun dipped into the horizon. He played a game of hide-and-seek with its concluding rays. The orange light flickering between the branches. Beyond the dangling fruit, the foliage formed an autumnal mosaic. Arjun loved how the leaves burned the most brilliant red and yellow before making their inevitable descent. With hundreds of people waiting for them to celebrate, he closed his eyes, giving himself over to the rustle of the wind.
It wasn’t his idea to have such an extravagant wedding. Weeks upon weeks were spent solely debating the merits of marriage. There were concerns from his family that she wasn’t Indian. There were hesitations from hers that he wasn’t Christian. But the moment Maleda and Arjun’s mother saw the vineyard, their minds were made up. He figured if this was going to help bring their families together, it was worth it.
Thankfully, everything had gone according to plan. The pandit had kept his word and made sure the ceremony remained under an hour. The weather had cooperated, providing a cloudless, blue sky. In the end, there were no final objections from either family and no angry mob with pitchforks trying to storm the vineyard.
This last concern was mainly his. It was only a few weeks ago that the eyes of the entire country had been fixed on this small town that lay south of the Mason-Dixon Line. A demonstration had been called by various white nationalist groups to protest “the extinction of European culture in North America by the forces of immigration, integration, and multiculturalism.” In response to the planned rally, counter-protests had been organized.
It so happened that their final walkthrough of the vineyard was set for the day after the protests. Arjun coaxed Maleda to take the entire weekend off so they could join the public resistance. It would allow them some time together away from the daily stress of wedding planning, he insisted. She was hesitant to go. With only weeks until the big day, this was hardly her idea of a break. They argued for days whether it was wise to take such risks so close to the wedding. But Arjun was persistent. If they were going to host a multi-racial wedding in the same town, then they should at least lend their voices to the future they were hoping to create, he reasoned. After several heated debates, she eventually conceded. She was never very good at withstanding his supplications.
It was only a few weeks ago that the eyes of the entire country had been fixed on this small town that lay south of the Mason-Dixon Line. A demonstration had been called by various white nationalist groups to protest “the extinction of European culture in North America by the forces of immigration, integration, and multiculturalism.”
On the day of the rally, the couple joined thousands of people pouring into the streets. It was like a festival had come to town. Competing sound systems blared barely comprehensible speeches. Flags of all colors — black, rainbow, confederate — flew high. It seemed at first like just another protest, but it didn’t take long for things to get out of control. The rival demonstrations quickly devolved into pitched street battles. Throughout the day, the two sides clashed repeatedly amidst smashed windows and burning tires.
Arjun and Maleda tried their best to avoid the violence, but the smoke-filled chaos made the crowds hard to navigate. It wasn’t until riot police appeared, coated in black armor from head to toe, that they decided it might be time to leave. The cops had suddenly charged, wielding semi-automatic weapons and riot shields. Arjun had never seen Maleda run so fast. He shouted for her to follow him down an alleyway, but was drowned out by the sound of tear gas canisters being launched. Choking on the fumes, they stumbled through the city until a pair of medics doused them with milk, flushing out their burning eyes.
After the gas had cleared and the police had dispersed much of the crowds, the news broke that at least one person had died when a hooded man had detonated an explosive in the middle of the counter-demonstration. Arjun and Maleda sat along the streets in disbelief. Cradling one another on a curb, they wept openly.
“Maybe we’re making a mistake,” Arjun had said to Maleda that day. “How can we bring our people to this place? What if something happens?”
Maleda just looked at him. She wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked herself back and forth until the last light had departed. He watched as the tears silently fell down her face. Finally, in a voice heavy with anguish, she whispered, “They don’t get to win.”
Arjun shuddered at the memory of the protest. The fears of the past weeks gripped him once more before he pushed them from his mind. A sudden chill whipped through the vineyard calling the hairs on his neck to stand at attention. Opening his eyes to the forceful gust of wind, he could make out something moving in the distance. The silhouette seemed to suddenly spring from the retreating sun. Arjun grasped the kirpan dangling from his waist. Though the curved blade was only meant to be ornamental, a tribute to his Punjabi roots, he gripped the studded dagger all the same. From the parking lot beyond the vineyard there was someone walking towards him. From the sway of the approaching shadow he could make out it was a woman.
“Arjun! I’m glad I caught you,” the figure called out when she saw that he had noticed her. She was wearing an all-white dress with a purple and gold pattern that appeared across the waist and hem. He recognized the traditional Ethiopian design. She was clearly dressed for the wedding.
“Hello… Aunty,” Arjun offered, annoyed to have his only moments of solitude interrupted.
“Another guest you don’t know, huh? Well I am sure you’re used to that by now,” she said flashing a brilliant smile. Up close, Arjun could see the intricate rows of deep blue tattooed across the woman’s neck.
“I’m sorry I missed the ceremony this go around. It was a great time though.” Twisting her head from one side to the other, she absorbed the decorative splendor. Behind him, the façade of the reception hall was draped in string lights that had just been turned on. She smoothed her dress with her hands, looking past him. The last of daylight was finally creeping away. “Yeah, these were probably some of the last good days. At least y’all did it well,” she sighed shaking her head.
“Well, I’m glad you made it Aunty. Everyone’s inside,” Arjun said hurriedly, no longer bothering to conceal his irritation. “Why don’t we join the party?”
He started to make his way back, but before he could take a step, she grabbed his wrist squeezing it tightly. “I don’t want to say too much.” The words rushed from her mouth. He spun around while her nails dug into his skin. “I can’t stay for long. I really shouldn’t even be here. But I wanted you to know…” Her voice trailed off as her eyes narrowed, taking him in.
“You wanted me to know what?” He could feel the potency of her gaze. Her eyes were deep chestnuts trying to swallow him whole. He noticed that the hair that sat perfectly rounded atop her head was starting to gray. She held on tight.
“I’m not here to change where things are headed. I wouldn’t even know how. I am here because you and Maleda Aunty set an example for all of us,” she hesitated for a second. “It’s just that, so much happened and my memories of this place are still fuzzy. Not to mention, you look so damn young.”
“What are you talking about?” Arjun asked suddenly self-conscious. His hand hadn’t succeeded in freeing itself from her grip.
“I guess I am used to the uncle who speaks of honoring the ancestors. The one who insists on drawing from the different cultures in our community.” She smiled again. “But you wouldn’t even understand what it took to find this dress,” she let out with a dry laugh. “I would die if anyone saw me in it. But look at this!” she waved her free hand around pointing at the festivity. “It’s a bit criminal, don’t you think?”
Arjun frowned. “Sometimes you do things with the larger goal in mind. Not everyone understands what we are up against. They don’t realize that if we are going to make it, then we need to be ready to stand with each other. For each other. If it takes a party to bring them along, then that’s the price we pay,” he said defensively.
“That’s the spirit!” she beamed. “You know, it’s not nearly as nice where I’m from. But this is your wedding night. You should enjoy it. I mean, you will. There will be plenty of time for you to put the pieces together when it all goes to shit.”
“What are you talking about?” he repeated, his voice rising.
“All of this,” she continued, her stare piercing through him. “No one cared about rising temperatures or disappearing forests. They were more focused on deportations and corporate tax breaks. They wanted to take this country back to some golden age. They really thought they would become kings. But their kingdoms never extended beyond their own skulls. By the time the storms hit, the government was so corrupt, so dysfunctional they couldn’t do much. They said there weren’t enough resources to help. Maybe it was true. Or maybe they just left those people out there to die.”
Arjun stood frozen. His mouth sat agape while his head kept spinning. “Where are you from?” he finally managed.
“Not where. When. That’s what you are trying to figure out.” She let go of him now that she was sure of his attention. The same playful grin flashed in front of him again.
“When? Wait, what?” The words fell out incredulously. His stomach lurched forward. Was this some sort of prank? He peered into the face telling him the worst was yet to come. He couldn’t believe it. And yet, he could see she was serious. “But why? Why did you come here of all places?”
“You’ve always said the struggle would require the dedication of generations. Well, we’re here.” She laughed again. “I suppose I heard so much about it, I wanted to see what it was like. I have my memories, sure, but those are the memories of an eight-year old girl. An eight-year old who had no idea…” her voice trailed off.
“That things were going to get so bad?”
“Worse. Much worse.” Her bright teeth had disappeared behind the tightness of her plum lips. The gravity in her face sent shivers across his skin.
“There were tens of thousands of refugees all along the coasts. Entire regions were completely uninhabitable. People had to leave the only places they had known. When they began to flee south, that stupid wall they had built only got in the way. In the end, the people who demanded it were the ones who tore it down. Just to escape. After so much, the country sort of broke.”
“I-I don’t believe it,” Arjun stammered. “Broke? Like… apart? Into… pieces?”
“Like crows fighting over crumbs. Each to their own, skeptical of their neighbors. Quicker to shoot than to share.”
“So, what? Are there a bunch of separate city-states now? Like ancient Greece?” He wasn’t sure if he even knew what he was asking.
“More like ethno-states. Nowadays, people generally stick to what they know. The whites control the largest parts. They got newly-incorporated areas all over the Northeast and Midwest and parts of the South. Black people have succeeded in carving out a few territories too. They also control the Free City of Detroit. Indigenous tribes reclaimed plenty of land. They help most folks who are willing to accept their rules. It’s like that all over the country. Smaller communities trying to make it. In fact, this area here is one of the few that is surviving by the old traditions. It’s a place where Black and brown and white still try and live together.”
A sudden chill whipped through the vineyard calling the hairs on his neck to stand at attention. Opening his eyes to the forceful gust of wind, he could make out something moving in the distance.
Arjun swiveled his head to see the caterers setting up the buffet. Somewhere a violinist was serenading their guests as they drank champagne and ate samosas.
She put both of her hands on his shoulders. He staggered under the force of her words. “You understand that it’s because of you both, right? What you and Maleda Aunty did tonight was set down roots. I know this is a lot right now. But this is why this night is so important,” her voice had fallen to a whisper. She slid her hands down his arms, steadying his trembling fingers. He could feel the calluses on her skin. “When things start to fall apart, and people start to doubt you, you need to know that it’s the strength of community that will sustain us,” she continued.
He slowly nodded, trying to follow the movements of her mouth.
“You brought these families together. And in the future, even more so than now, we are going to have to depend on each other. Whether we like it or not, we’re going to have to fight –”
“– with an undying love for our people,” he cut her off.
Her hands dropped to her side as her gaze met his once more. Before he could notice, she blinked away the tears collecting in the basins of her eyes.
“So now what?” he asked despondent.
“Now what?! Now you dance like the future depends on it!” she roared.
“Arjun! It’s almost time! You coming or what?” Maleda’s voice suddenly called out from the suite.
“Damn, boy. She wasn’t lying when she said she killed it. She’s fine as hell!”
Arjun looked behind him to see that Maleda had changed into her dress and had come outside. The same orange and green checkered pattern on his vest curved tightly across her body. His heart fluttered and for just a second, he forgot about the impending collapse of the world he knew. Arjun could see Maleda was waving him over, but couldn’t move. The last rays of sunlight glinted across the gold jewelry adorning the braids in her hair. He let out a sigh before turning back to his guest.
“I guess it’s time to do this,” he said, his head still reeling. “You might as well join us. You’ve come all this way.”
She smiled and started in the other direction towards the parking lot.
“Well aren’t you coming?” he blurted out, a hint of desperation on his tongue.
“But I’m already there! Table 13, if I remember correctly,” she said with a wink before retreating into the night.
“Who was that?” Maleda asked appearing beside him. Her shoulders were draped in a black velvet cloak embroidered with intricate floral designs. In her hands she held a nearly identical one for him.
“Uh, I’m not really sure,” Arjun stuttered.
“Well, where is she going? The party is about to start.”
Arjun simply stared at her, unsure of how to respond.
“You know, you have got to do better at getting to know my family. They’re your family too now,” she teased him. “Come on, let’s go make this grand entrance.” She draped the kaba over his shoulders and linked her arm in his.
His heart fluttered and for just a second, he forgot about the impending collapse of the world he knew.
They entered the hall to a standing applause. Shedding their cloaks, they both turned to the crowd that had assembled to bear witness to their union. Staring into the sea of friends and family, Arjun thought about what he had just been told about the responsibility they carried. He nodded to the DJ and the music started.
With the first notes blaring through the vineyard’s hall, their feet took flight. Over the past months, Arjun and Maleda had been practicing a choreographed dance that blended their musical traditions. The beating dhol pulsated in Arjun’s ears, pushing him to do his best impersonation of the Bollywood videos he had spent hours watching online. Channeling tomorrow’s warnings, Arjun shook and shimmied to the fusion of sounds. He did his best to keep up with Maleda, his arms flailing in the opposite direction of hers, his legs trying to keep in step.
At some point in the evening, the honey wine that Maleda had meticulously brewed in their apartment was passed around while speeches and toasts were made. With the tej flowing, Arjun began to loosen up. Maybe there was still a chance to steer their ships on a better course, he thought. As the guests mingled and began to line up for dinner, Arjun made his way to Table 13. He recognized her eyes immediately, shimmering in the dim lighting. She was seated at the table, tepidly picking at a samosa. Pieces of flaky crust clung to her cheeks. He noticed her cropped hair, yet to blossom into the afro she would come to sport in later years. Her dress was marked by traditional Ethiopian crosses outlined in turquoise and black.
“It’s not so criminal, now is it?” He asked approaching her.
“Oh my god! You are so weird!” Her tiny face scrunched up. Through it he could see a familiar smirk take shape. She started to inch away from him, but before she could take another step, he grabbed her hand and pulled her onto the dance floor.
“Hey! What are you doing?” she squeaked.
“The future depends on it!” he cried, spinning her across the room into a fit of giggles.
This story was first published in Running Wild Anthology of Stories Volume 4.
Gaurav Madan is an organizer with Sanctuary DMV and editor for Up, Up with Liberation! His short stories have appeared in Jaggery, Terse. Journal, The Indian Quarterly (forthcoming), and Running Wild Anthology of Stories Volume 4. His words have also appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, Hindustan Times, VICE, and elsewhere.