Sunday, June 12, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (13)

Chapter Thirteen

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 Ranus 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 adultsunreasonable 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 cant 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. Uncles 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 Nelas attention was once again  diverted. She made room on the pallet  for Ranu,  and  showed her Jacksons carrier.
Tank 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 Uncles tarpaper shack.
The air was redolent with  welcoming spices, and  the women were dressed in their best saris. Had  they interrupted a celebration? Uncles 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 hosts 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 wifes 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  Uncles 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 childs 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 womens 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.
Jacksons face tightened. That  old man thinks no one is watching him break  the law. Hes like a cat stalking a mouse. He goes so slowly that it looks like hes 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.
Whats  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. Thats 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 Ranus 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 cabs 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.

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