Days fell together softly now, the calm before the next storm. Nela leaned into her shallow happiness gratefully, as Ranu flourished and Jackson grew stronger. The improvements in Jackson’s status could have eased Nela’s attention to his needs, but did not. Tasks multiplied, and even with Ranu’s help, Nela took over many chores. She personally saw to the cooking of Jackson’s food. “Mighty wifely of you,” he teased her.
“Mami is not trustworthy. She might over-spice, or knead an ant into the chapatti flour.” She defended herself as well as she could, knuckle-deep in dough. “I am being practical, not especially wifely.” She tore off a piece of cooled baked bread and handed it to Ranu.
“You are waiting on me too much,” he insisted. She had served him his food, and was now cleaning the cooking stone. “You are supposed to be on a research sabbatical,” he added, and pointed to the table piled high with half-finished papers. Ranu popped up between the adults and tugged the washrag from Nela’s hand. She began to clean with extravagant motions, to prove she was willing and able.
Nela, less annoyed than she might have been, took a seat and bent over her work. But she knew at the outset that it was no use. If there was a noise, she stopped to investigate. If Ranu happened to hum one of her little songs, Nela joined in at the chorus.
She was just not in the mood. “What shall we make for dinner, I wonder?” she said, a few minutes into her work session. The question signaled her intention to drive into town to shop. Jackson shook his head, and waved goodbye.
He would need her less and less from now on. That much was clear. The thought clenched Nela’s stomach. “Stupid!” she whispered. She drove along the path for a short while, and then a gathering of sheep blocked her way. After honking for several minutes, she parked, and proceeded on foot.
Even a battered truck was an object of curiosity here. She learned that the hard way, when she returned from the stalls to find not only four children sitting in it, but two monkeys. Ranu would have chased all of them out, and soothed Nela’s irritation at the same time. Nela missed having Ranu accompany her. She liked to see how much information about math and science she could weave into their conversation. Ranu always wanted more. “You’re a sponge, are you not?” Nela would say, between the girl’s why-why-why.
Nela chased away the interlopers. She was loading the back of the truck when a young boy happened to cross in front of her on a bicycle a size too big for him. He wobbled and kept losing his balance. Nela stopped him with a shout and a wave, and since he could not wave back and steer at the same time, he tumbled to the ground. “It is too big!” Nela observed, raising him up from the dirt.
“I won it,” the child said proudly. He stared at her without blinking to show he was not lying, but Nela had not intended to challenge him on that. The boy was more likely to be adept at cards than thievery at his age, so it was possible that the bike was not stolen.
Now it would be recycled. She smiled, and held out some rupees to the boy. He snatched them from her palm and scampered off like a monkey at a temple, leaving the bike, spokes spinning, on the ground. Nela picked it up and heaved it into the truck.
Ranu was stunned by the gift. She fondled the gleaming handlebars and tried to hug the object like a body. Jackson and Nela beamed parental smiles, and whispered together about where to find a wire basket and colored streamers. “Now she’ll be able to visit her relatives more easily. So much walking is pulling her spine out of alignment.”
“The curve is more noticeable lately. She is shooting up out of her skin, too.” The growth spurt had thinned her, and when she turned her back, it was possible to count the vertebrae.
When they saw how much the bicycle delighted her, the couple searched for other things that would make Ranu’s life better. Jackson said to Nela, “Where is my pack? I have something that might spark Ranu’s interest.” He had not asked for his pack before, and Nela wondered if he had forgotten that he had it. She pulled it from the top of the wardrobe, and sank down on the pallet with it. Jackson reached out to take the leather purse, and then rolled over on his other side to unzip it.
“What are you hiding in there, anyway?” Nela didn’t like the way his body shielded the bag so protectively. They had shared everything, and should be past small turf wars. She started to get up, annoyed again, but Jackson grabbed her hand. Passing a small silver computer into it, he said, “Do you think she’ll like it?”
“She will love this!” Nela exclaimed, and quickly added, “To play with only! You do not intend to make a present of it, do you? It will be stolen.” It was a fundamental truth in a place with so little, and the sooner Jackson realized it, the better.
In the morning, the couple awoke to see Ranu crouching close beside them, trying to work the silver machine. Jackson yawned loudly, and she dropped the delicate thing. “The proverbial hot potato?” he rasped, holding out his hand. She picked the computer up and limped toward him, head lowered as if expecting a blow. He spoke soothing foreign words she had taught him, and her tense expression relaxed.
Jackson fiddled with the little buttons while Nela pulled the child down beside her and began to braid her hair. “Ranu, did you ride your bicycle here today?” Jackson asked. His fingers moved over the machine as if he was practicing a card trick. To Nela he said, “We can use the wheels to generate charge for this. I want to show Ranu the way it works.”
Nela said a few words to Ranu, who immediately made for the door.
Jackson struggled heavily off the floor. By the time he reached the doorway, Ranu had wheeled the bike from its hiding place to the front step. He looked it over, and an expression of mistrust crossed her face. “We’re not taking it back,” Jackson reassured her. “We’re just going to make this gadget work with it.”
Nela repeated the same thing in words Ranu could understand, and her small face cleared. She smiled a little. She was missing a tooth, and tried to hide the loss with her hand.
So the morning passed with Ranu and Jackson bent over the bicycle, trying to charge the small machine with a bigger one. The two heads inclined toward each other, making science happen. Pedaling wheels that were not going anywhere filled Nela with a peculiar kind of melancholy. She turned to go inside to begin the day’s writing. The hum of activity just beyond her pen and ink reminded her of her bustling childhood home, and of cafes and airports. Ambient noise soothed her more than music, and when the air suddenly shuddered with Mami’s voice, demanding that Ranu get back to her chores, Nela rose from her chair and marched outside. She stood on the dirt path in front of the porch, opposite the other woman, mimicking her posture, staring her down. Mirror images, four hands on four hips, necks stretched forward, they challenged each other from across an ideological and physical abyss.
It was Mami who gave up first, scuffing her feet in the dirt as she withdrew into the house. Flush with victory, Nela turned to see whether Jackson and Ranu had noticed the easy win. They had missed the whole standoff. But the little computer was working! Ceremoniously, Jackson offered it to Nela. “Check your email,” he said.
Jackson’s strength had fully returned, but he seemed to be in no hurry to get back to his old life. He could have checked up on his old job with the engineers. He should have been making plans to commit to, or turn down, the teaching job back home. He did not move toward any of it. He barely bothered to answer his email, now that it was possible. Shuffling around the hut, humming contentedly, all he managed to do was exasperate Nela.
One morning, after she charged her laptop on Ranu’s bicycle, she typed up the previous day’s notes, the way she usually did. Her preference was to do to this in silence. But on this day, she mumbled throwaway comments, hoping that Jackson might pick up on one. She missed their collaboration, short-lived as it had been.
At the sound of her words, Jackson glanced at her sharply. “What? Am I thinking too loudly for you?” Nela said sarcastically. He smiled and shrugged and stretched like a man awakening, although he had been awake for hours. What had he been thinking about all that time? He ambled outside onto the veranda to watch the clouds.
A few minutes later, Nela felt his breath on her neck. She resisted the urge to look up from her work for fear of shattering his flicker of interest. She moved her papers so that more of her equations showed. She had been inching her way forward to a hypothesis about her pursuit problem, and she wanted his reaction, but would not beg for it.
“You’ve made a leap here, from pursuit and evasion to pursuit and cohesion,” he said, pointing out a line. She shivered. Memory glitches were common after malaria, so she willed herself to stay calm. He had no idea that they had made this hypothesis together, or that she had explained it all to him again, during his delirium. She explained it for the third time—the idea that we do not know if a bird is following another bird in a flock, or chasing it. Jackson drew up the other chair, and the two of them began to discuss the geometric patterns underlying pursuit.
Later that afternoon, voices hoarse with talking, they went for a walk. Nela scaled back her pace to accommodate Jackson, a concession that would have annoyed her once, but in this place, in these modest circumstances, she had recovered the ability to achieve calm, to accept things as they were.
“Look at the dog chasing its tail,” Jackson pointed out a cur in the distance.
“It thinks its tail is another dog,” Nela observed.
“Motion camouflage!” they said together. She slipped her hand in his. “Remember how Ashoke sneered at the phenomena when I first brought it up?”
“First discovered in certain flies, it has been suggested that missiles could use similar techniques to catch up to targets.” Was Jackson making fun of her? His words, mimicking her cadences, faded in the humming air. They had taken on a dry quality that made her ears itch.
“Not everything has to be used in the service of death,” Nela said, provocatively. She wanted to ratchet the discussion up fast, get the adrenaline flowing in either direction. This was what she did. Other people might see bickering where there was only heat.
By the time they got to the hut, Nela was yards ahead of Jackson, and in a fury. She jumped onto the porch, opened the door and slammed it. Jackson straggled in a moment later, looking bewildered. Her eyes flashed. “You can’t stay away from interesting problems because someone might misuse the results.”
Jackson might have wanted to agree, but instead he took issue, to lay out the opposite point of view. “Oppenheimer thought so, too, at first. Then look what happened—he wound up feeling responsible, and it nearly killed him.” Their voices carried all over the grounds, and out of nowhere Ranu burst in, trembling. The three of them stared at one another, words suspended in the air. Nela and Jackson reached out at the same moment to the little girl, with soft words and reassurances. She was so relieved, she cried. While Nela held her, Jackson looked around to find something to calm her. “Name as many collectives as you can,” Nela suggested.
Inhaling deeply, Jackson recited: “A covey of partridges, murder of crows, rafter of turkeys, brood of hens, fall of woodcocks, dule of doves, wedge of swans, party of jays, company of parrots, colony of penguins, cover of coots, sord of mallards, dissimulation of birds, peep of chickens, pitying of turtledoves, paddling of ducks , siege of herons, charm of finches, skein of geese, tidings of magpies, cast of hawks, deceit of lapwings, ostentation of peacocks, bouquet of pheasants, congregation of plovers, unkindness of ravens, building of rooks, host of sparrows, descent of woodpeckers, mustering of storks, flight of swallows, watch of nightingales, murmuration of starlings, spring of teal, parliament of owls, exaltation of larks, a kettle of hawks.”
The sound of the words made the child giggle through her tears. “She loves language,” Nela said, approvingly.
“Not as much as tech toys,” Jackson countered, holding out his hand held computer to her. She had already mastered many of the functions, and was becoming obsessed with the thing. “You may take it with you today,” Jackson said. “Keep it a secret, though,” he warned. “People might steal it.”
Ranu waggled her head, and solemnly promised not to say a word to Mami, Uncle, or anyone else. She retreated to her corner and in a moment was completely absorbed by the machine. Jackson looked down at the game she was playing. “You know, I read about people in America getting a whole group of their friends together by using this thing. All of a sudden, they’ll swarm the same place at the same time.”
“Like bees?” Ranu looked up from the gadget.
“Or birds. Or bats. Any of the groups I just told you about. It’s called a ‘flash mob’.”
“Could you get all your engineers here right now?” Ranu warmed to the idea. Jackson registered surprise. How did she know about his engineering crew? Nela only shrugged.
“Well,” he said to the child, “a tool like that has to be used carefully. People get mad if you impose on them.” The girl nodded, and went back to fingering the machine, whispering under her breath. Her broom leaned against the door, chores forgotten.