Nela returned to the hut one afternoon to find an older woman with a baby on her hip, shouting at Ranu. Nela felt her anger rise. The girl stood before the crone with her head bowed, twisting her hands. Ranu had not learned that abject posture from her! Nela would not put up with it. She jumped down from the truck, but by the time she reached the porch, the woman had disappeared. “What did that woman want?” she asked. The baby, bundled at Ranu’s feet, began to cry, waving her tiny arms out to her sister.
“I watch Meera,” Ranu said. “Watch only? Not give away?”
Ranu waggled her head. Nela had to remind herself that the girl was still a very young child, too young to stand up to adults’ unreasonable demands, too small to talk back. What she needed were champions, people who could balance the unfairness of life with kindness, people willing to go far enough to make a difference. Nela was that person in Ranu’s life.
Jackson helped with practicalities, but Nela expected more from
him. They were partners, and when she thought he was backing away from Ranu, it irritated her. He did not know what she meant. “I never had kids,” he tried to explain. “I never had a little sister. An only child can’t know how to connect on every level.” Not good enough.
Nela could not make her objections understood, so she began to pick arguments with him. “Every time you make an improvement in the village, old Uncle thanks you with yet another burden,” she complained, pointing to Ranu, struggling through her chores with the baby in tow.
While Nela nattered on, Jackson fashioned a snugli out of canvas. He held the object up to her. “This might help, no?”
Nela took it from him. “Uncle’s gifting greatly benefits himself. The baby is a burden, meant to be taken off his hands. But she will fit nicely in your carrier.”
“I wonder who gave Ranu and Meera to Uncle in the first place.” “Mami, most likely. They use children as chattel here. They follow
their illegal customs, convinced no one has the right to interfere.” Jackson frowned. “Until someone does.” The slippery subtext
chilled Nela, but Ranu had ducked into the doorway with her sister, and Nela’s attention was once again diverted. She made room on the pallet for Ranu, and showed her Jackson’s carrier.
“T’ank you,” Ranu said, slipping the invention on her shoulders.“Wery good.” Nela picked up the baby, and plopped her in the canvas carrier, one pumping little leg at a time.“There,” she said. “It is like piggyback rides, isn’t it?”
When it was time to bring Meera home, Jackson and Nela decided to accompany Ranu. The girl accepted the idea. She could not have done otherwise, whatever secret price she had to pay. They took the baby back to the uncle who was not one, to the old woman who did his bidding. Nela carried a gift of sweets, and Jackson stuffed his pockets with small tools and smaller electronics.
The engineers greeted them at the site with enthusiastic whooping. “What have they been smoking,” Jackson grumbled. The men were about to break for supper, shoving tanned and newly muscled arms into their sleeves. It was surprising how fast they had acclimated themselves to the harsh conditions. The newest volunteers were the only complainers now, shaking the occasional fist against the insects and the rain. One made a comedic bow and pretended to usher them into Uncle’s tarpaper shack.
The air was redolent with welcoming spices, and the women were dressed in their best saris. Had they interrupted a celebration? Uncle’s wife scowled at them as Nela approached, sweets thrust out. “We have important company,” she hissed, and Nela caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar man seated opposite Uncle, smoking a pipe. He was dressed in a white kurta, indifferently listening to his host’s wheedling voice, occasionally cupping one ear, then dropping his fist on his knee. Some kind of deal was being struck.
Ranu had run off to the back with the baby, and could not have explained, even if she knew.
Uncle duplicated his wife’s frown when he noticed Nela, but his muscles relaxed when he saw that Jackson was with her. He jumped to his feet to introduce his visitor. The men bowed to one another. Jackson tried to ask some polite questions but was met with a series of theatrical, confusing gestures. After a few seconds of charged silence, the visitor turned to leave. He seemed displeased with Uncle’s rapid-fire imprecations, and they had no effect on him. He left with an offended air. Uncle and his wife wrung their hands, murmuring accusations as they paced up and down the small room. Suddenly, they halted, one a few paces behind the other, and turned to stare at Jackson. He apologized for coming in unannounced, and offered to leave. “No, no,” Uncle said. A glint entered his dark eyes. “Sit down,” he ordered, pulling Jackson down to sit beside him. He snapped his fingers, and the dinner meant for the other man was set before Jackson. “You like my girls,” he announced, tearing off apiece of naan and scooping up a puddle of dal with it.
Jackson countered, “They are not actually yours.”
“Their Amma left them to Mami. She could not take care. I rescue them. Now I cannot keep.”
“Why not? Ranu brings you money!”
The old man waved his bread around. “Food costs, medicines. I am too old.”
“So you want me to take them, is that it?”
Uncle waggled his head vigorously. Nela, standing like a statue in the door, held her breath. “I give you.” Jackson stared at him, waiting for the catch. He chewed noisily, but said nothing else.
Nela came fully in, and stood before Uncle. “They are not yours to give.”
Uncle ignored her and turned to Jackson. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “How much?”
Jackson stood up, toppling a plate of curry. “They do not belong to you,” he said. “If we take them, we will adopt them legally. No money.” The old man frowned, and barked a sharp command at his wife. She hurried into the back room, and Nela thought she could hear Ranu asking a question. She heard the sound of a blow, next,
and the child’s cry. She broke away from the men and ran to the back room. There was no sign of Ranu, just a heap of red silk on the floor.
On the way home, Nela said, “I saw a new red silk sari in the women’s room.”
Jackson raised an eyebrow. “And?” “Red is for weddings.”
After an uneasy sleep, Nela woke to the smell of smoke wafting from the village. She mentally flipped through the possibilities, but came up dry. It was too early for Onam, too late for Ratha Yatra. The present stood still and the future was obscured, a hand in front of the face, a shape unrecognizable in the middle of a monsoon. Nela stood on the porch and watched the smoke curl like a path to the settlement.
Jackson came behind her and wrapped her in his arms. “Look, a Von Karman vortex street.” The technical name of the configuration of smoke held no magic for her today. Nela stiffened under the weight of her worry and Jackson said, “Why don’t we drive out to the settlement? We can say we are there for one of the pujas the old man is always inviting me to.”
“But he did not invite you to one on this particular one,” Nela pointed out. “You can smell the holy fires from here. Uncle must be marrying off someone he has no claim to.” She did not say Meera. She did not say Ranu.
Jackson’s face tightened. “That old man thinks no one is watching him break the law. He’s like a cat stalking a mouse. He goes so slowly that it looks like he’s not moving at all.”
“Motion camouflage,” Nela said absently. They gathered a few things together hurriedly, and walked out to the truck. Rubbing the bruise that had bloomed on his hip during the night, Jackson said, “Look how restless you’ve been lately.” Nela frowned and stroked the purple patch gently. She had no memory of striking him, but there was no point in denying hard evidence.
They rode over the rutted road in the truck. The traffic was heavier than usual. Drivers of disreputable cars, old models held together with wire and rope, lurched from one lane to the other, grinding gears and honking horns. “Where the hell are they going?” Jackson swore at a family whose driver was barely visible in the filthy window. Nearer the shacks, smoke billowed even blacker and thicker into the air. The pit for the ceremonial fire had been built in the center courtyard, blazing at a dangerous height. A few dozen neighbors assembled around it, chanting and singing. Dressed in their best clothes, the women were adorned with dowry jewels. Somewhere an old radio crackled, and there were spicy cooking smells wafting through the grit.
“What’s going on?” Nela asked an auntie, as she hopped down from the truck. The older woman cast her eyes down and began to pray. Alarmed, Nela craned her neck forward, trying to take in the scene beyond the smoke. Two men walked toward the pickup, carrying sticks and scowling. Several stringy dogs trotted beside them. They quickened their pace, and in a moment they were upon Nela, asking, “What you want?” One dog began to growl.
“We are calling on Uncle,” Nela said, gesturing to Jackson to stay behind the wheel.
One man smacked his walking stick against his palm. “Uncle busy. Come back other time.” Just then, through a dissipating cloud of smoke, Nela caught sight of a small figure in red limping around the fire with an old man. He looked like the same man they had met at the hut, but more aged, weighed down with gold finery and leis of marigolds. He leaned on the little girl for support, and stopped every few minutes to argue with the bare-chested priests. “That’s Ranu!” Nela said, surging forward toward the man with the stick.
The man flicked his finger toward the ancient groom. “He is giving good bride-price.” He shrugged and began to imitate Ranu’s listing gait. The other men, slouching a foot away, laughed and egged him on. Nela lunged at him, but he danced away.
“Get in. Now!” Jackson shouted to Nela, pushing open the door. She could not hear him over the rush of blood in her ears. Flinging her body at the man, again and again, she pummeled his chest with her fists. It was a futile gesture, and made him laugh. He held his stick in front of his torso and it knocked the breath out of her as she fell against it. Jackson was screaming at her now, but as she turned toward him, the other man tripped her and she fell. She lifted her head to see Jackson lift his body out of the cab, and she raised her hand to stop him. She felt the men, their kicking feet, felt the dogs’ ’mad slobber. Somehow she scrambled up the door and heaved her body into the truck. Jackson floored the gas pedal and the landscape seemed to narrow to one red point. Sticks battered the sides of the truck and a shower of stones smashed against the windshield. Startled onlookers, dark eyes like holes burned in their faces, whizzed by in a blur. Jackson barreled through the profusion of flowers and food into the wedding fire. The flames began to spread, and people scattered.
“Get in!” Nela yelled to Ranu, leaning out of the cab as far as she could. Holding onto Jackson with one hand, she scooped the child up with the other, plucked her like a strawberry from a vine, and dropped her onto the cab’s floor. A terrifying sound from the mob rose in the air, and Nela tried to shut the door against it. It ripped off its hinges, and Nela saw a blade glinting in the sun. The sound of shouting. Barking. A world of animals, she thought, as she blinked back the sight of a silver edge slicing into the muscle of her arm. Her fingers uncurled, although her brain instructed them not to. Her sleeve, torn and tangled in the door. The smell of blood. Long, curved knives. Jackson pulling her under his arm. Ranu staring up at her, grabbing at her knees, clawing them.
Before she lost consciousness, Nela could see the land, smoldering like war, recede in the rear view mirror.