Monday, June 13, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (14)

Chapter Fourteen

When  she awoke, Nela sensed that she was in the makeshift clinic of Jacksons 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 patients left arm. It was unclear the patient would recover full use of it. What a shame,someone said. And shes 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.  Weve 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?
“Ive 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.  Shes 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 didnt 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.  Theyll 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. Its 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.  Id 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 mans 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?” Nelas 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 mans 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 didnt 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 Nelas 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, Jacksons 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 childs welfare.My, not our.
They sat silent and  motionless, together but more  apart than  they had ever been. The days waning light rubbed against the canvas  room like a cat, and suddenly was gone.

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