When she awoke, Nela sensed that she was in the makeshift clinic of Jackson’s engineering crew. The air stank of antiseptic, solder, and hot sun on molding curry. She glanced down the length of her body. White bandages curved around her arm like a shroud, and stitched flaps of skin oozed drops of blood through the cloth. Nela remembered, through her haze, hearing talk about a nicked tendon on a patient’s left arm. It was unclear the patient would recover full use of it. “What a shame,” someone said. “And she’s still so young.”
To keep down the panic rising in her chest, Nela turned her face away from her throbbing bound arm to survey the details of her surroundings. The room was nothing more than a tarp over stilts. Empty cots lined the opposite wall, and closed her in on either side. There was a zippered flap for a door, and beyond that, a grumble of men’s voices. She turned on her side toward the sound. She raised her body up on her elbow, playing with the idea of exit. Aware of the IV stuck in her hand, it did not especially trouble her. It was only one of many obstacles. She struggled to stand, wobbled in the air, and fell back into Jackson’s arms. “We’ve got to stop doing that,” he said.
She had not heard him come in. “Where are we? Are you OK? Am I? Where is Ranu?”
“I’ve been here, in the clinic, the whole time,” he said, carefully lowering her onto the cot. “Where else would I be? Ranu is being looked after by a family not far from camp. She’s all right, considering, and so are you. She keeps asking for you.”
“Bring her right away!” Nela ordered, as if the girl was breakfast. She tried to back up her tone with flashing eyes and a shake of her good fist. The gesture didn’t quite fit her flat-on-the-back posture.
She struggled to get up for the second time, but fell back against the pillow, exhausted. She dozed off for a moment. When she snapped to, she was raving. “They’ll try to burn us down. I have shamed them. For them, revenge is a matter of prestige.”
Jackson ran his hand over her forehead. She tried to focus on his face through a fog of fever and pain, but his features became slippery, a blur. One concern bobbed to the surface of her gauzy brain. “I left my computer back there. I have to get my work out of the hut. They will not understand it, but they will steal it.”
“I retrieved your laptop. It’s over there,” Jackson said. She followed his finger to the object, bent and beaten.
“It is broken!” she hiccoughed. “All my work is lost!”
Jackson leaned over her and pulled open his shirt pocket. There was her memory stick, a magic wand with all her research in it. “I’d never let that happen,” he said. She laid her head on his shoulder, and they were silent together for a time.
“Has the medic spoken with you?” Nela asked, her voice gone soft. Jackson did not answer right away, and gooseflesh rose on the back of her neck. Old guilt came back to her, a reminder of what she had done, and neglected to do, when their positions were reversed.
Jackson cleared his throat, twice. He began to form a sentence, then stopped, and started again. The information would come in bits and pieces, and Nela swallowed her impatience, trying not to crowd him.
Before Jackson could say what was on his mind, the medic swept in. A stocky man, he had massive arms, skin burned red with the sun and scarred with the aftermath of some disease. “Arm,” he ordered, without a greeting. Nela plopped the appendage into his outstretched palm. He bent to get a better angle. “This hurt? That?” When he spoke, punching the syllables, it was with an accent Nela could not place. Where do these people so eager to save the world come from? The fact that he did important basic work did not make Nela warm to him. In fact, she gave in to an impulse to mimic him. Her perfunctory answers to his short questions were delivered with an inflection close to his own. He looked at her to see whether she was mocking him, and quickly looked away.
This medic obviously did not expect warmth or gratitude from his anonymous injured, whom he would have admitted he treated like slabs of meat, had he been the talkative type. He was not. Maybe words had worked against him too often in his profession, all those poor prognoses, the dissipation of hope.
He took off her bandages. Nela gasped at the sight of her muscles laced up like a corset. The medic moved his hands quickly over her arm with another sterile bandage, not exactly shielding her from the sight, but not allowing the vision to sear into her brain a moment longer than necessary. It was all the empathy he could muster.
Nela noticed a holstered gun visible under the man’s dirty white coat. “Is that usual, for the camp to be armed?” Nela asked him. Her heart began to beat wildly. This was all her fault.
Jackson cut in with a softer answer than the one the medic might have delivered. “Everyone is scared,” he said. “The old man has spies and thugs to do his bidding. Our crew is not often put in the middle of things like this.” The medic grunted, and left the tent.
“I should leave. Do they expect us to leave?” Nela’s alarm prickled her skin.
“Not until we are able. In the meantime, there are four armed guards at each corner of the camp to keep things orderly. And we have spies of our own.”
Nela scoffed, “Who? Ranu?”
“A boy, not much older than she is, actually. He knows the area, and can get into places that escape our notice. We can know the old man’s plans before he has a chance to implement them.”
He knew nothing about shame and its tolls, but at least Nela could warn him about local methods of administering justice. “When I was a child, I saw a man beaten nearly to death by a crowd,” she told him. “They chased him for a good quarter mile, hit him with sticks and rocks, stabbed him, and left him for dead. Vigilante justice. Police did not intervene. There is no ‘orderly process’ here.” She looked at Jackson. His skin had paled, his shoulders slumped. “Blood is the language spoken in the region. They will do as they have always done.”
“Until they are no longer allowed to run amok.” Jackson lips tightened. Was stopping them to be his new cause? The villagers took pride in breaking the laws that struck at their customs. In a place where bride burning and dowry and child marriage had long been forbidden, the community continued to do what it had always done. “It is the only way,” elders would insist, as if tradition was religion and religion was law.
Nela realized that Jackson had been taught to interfere as little as possible with the people he helped. They only wanted certain practical things from outsiders. The rest was none of their business. But the idea that these people still sold children in marriage turned Jackson inside out. Nela could see it on his face. He had gone from being a well paid cog in the technological machine to a true altruist, in a short span of time. Transformations like that are always personal, Nela knew. Jackson had a clear sense of good and evil, and was optimistic by nature. He probably sincerely believed he could change the way things had been handled for centuries, if he could offer the people a better method.
Nela didn’t want to irritate him. It would be in her best interests not to, all questions of loving him aside. He was probably the only one able to protect her— not with physical strength, God no—but because Uncle still had need of him and the crew. The work on the village was not finished. That would be their leverage.
In order to make sure the job got done, Uncle would have to choose an action, some way to save face. He could plead that he had misunderstood the situation. He might pretend that Nela’s wound was accidental. “Excuse, forgive please,” she could picture him kowtowing to Jackson. “It was mistake only. We thought harm had come to the bride. We protect her from kidnap.”
Nela wracked her brain for more realistic possible outcomes. The crew, in leaving the job unfinished, had made it possible for the locals to pick up the work. That might be a positive thing, unless some clumsy accident occurred. Then, Jackson’s people would be blamed. The locals would charge the camp and hunt them down.
Nela had seen it happen before. When she was a child, a local tradesman had been repairing the school. At some point, he placed a can on a gas pipe to stabilize it. The pipe burst and fell through the roof of the schoolhouse, killing a child, and the crowd had beaten the repairman to death. But telling the story would only intensify Jackson’s desire to save the villagers from themselves, so Nela said, “We must make plans.”
“First you have to get well.”
“I am not sick! Cuts heal.” She cradled her wounded arm as if it was a separate being. “It is hopeless here. It is everything I had to leave. I want to go home. I will take Ranu with me.”
Jackson shot her a sharp look. They had a way of coming to the same conclusion at the same time, but this was not one of those times. “I should have thought you would want to topple Uncle, and make him pay for breaking at least established laws, if not the moral ones,” he said. “I certainly do.”
“For all your effort, it will never be enough. Some battles are not worth the struggle, and there are many other ways to make a contribution,” Nela argued. She looked at him with sorrow. “You cannot win the culture wars.”
“These people need us here if they are to progress.” His voice was pleading under a show of determination and strength.
“Someone else can build the schools and enforce the laws. I must take Ranu into consideration.” I, not we.
“Sometimes the optimal course is the less seemingly rational one.” Jackson said it like a question.
“This is not game theory. I cannot gamble with my child’s welfare.”My, not our.
They sat silent and motionless, together but more apart than they had ever been. The day’s waning light rubbed against the canvas room like a cat, and suddenly was gone.