Thursday, June 09, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (10)

Chapter Ten

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  Nelas attention to his needs,  but did not. Tasks multiplied, and even with  Ranus 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 Nelas 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 Nelas 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 Nelas 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 girls 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 shell 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  Ranus life better. Jackson said to Nela, Where is my pack? I have something that might spark Ranus 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 didnt 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  shell 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. Were not taking it back,” Jackson reassured her. Were 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 days 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  Mamis 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.
Jacksons 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 Ranus bicycle, she typed up the previous days 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.
Youve 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 timethe 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 cant 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 happenedhe 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, theyll 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. Its 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.

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