At the airport, Nela held Ranu by her good hand while the child hopped alongside her, wearing her nerves like clothes. Jackson, loaded with suitcases and the battered laptop, calmly steered his family through the surging crowd. Nela suspected his demeanor was for her benefit—he had begun to grind his teeth at night, and during the day he had continued to disappear for hours. “Where have you been?’ she’d ask when he finally crept into the tent at night and stretched out beside her. “We have the documents, the guards are outside—why are you taking chances?” He refused to tell her where he had gone, or what he was after. She was strong enough to take bad news, now, so it wasn’t necessarily that he was protecting her. There was something else going on. Do we ever know our loved ones?
They walked three abreast to their terminal. “I need a little room,” Nela said as politely as she could. Jackson was guiding her again, fingers on her back. She had never liked the sensation of being corralled, and she pulled away from him. Reflexively, he leaned in toward her, then back again. “Sor-ry,” he said, sarcastically. To start an argument in front of Ranu was unfair, so Nela swallowed her irritation.
The trio continued along the scuffed corridor until they reached the line of travelers heading for the UK. It wound all around the chrome barriers, a necklace, a snake. Jackson stood quietly behind Nela, touching her lightly on the curve of her waist. She did not move away this time.
People reuniting or tearing themselves away from their loved ones were traumas not easily sloughed off by the parade of parting. Nela winced at the thought of her own last airport farewell. She had tried to say her goodbyes at Ram’s front door, dropping a quick kiss on
her mother’s head, but Amma had grabbed her hand and squeezed it with surprising force. “I come also.” A freezing wind had blown through Nela, but in the next instant she understood that it was a matter of pride, of “prestige,” that Amma see her daughter off. It was what family did. This terminal, crowded with relatives bearing gifts and packages of favorite foods not to be found at any foreign supermarket, newlyweds bravely separating from parents already beginning to wait for their return, and satchels of letters to be hand carried to relatives of relatives, all testified to that. Amma handed a stack of this same type of letters to her daughter at the gate. Bye-bye, bye-bye.
Ranu, who had been sitting quietly on a suitcase, began to agitate for her passport. “You’ve been watching the people at the counter, haven’t you,” Nela teased, digging into her bag for the passports. Ranu nodded solemnly, and received the document into her cupped palm.
It was damp with fingerprints by the time she showed it to the uniformed clerk behind the counter. He licked his thumb, and slowly turned the pages. He grunted, and Nela strained to listen for the
cross-examination sure to follow. But the man only twitched his mustache—perhaps the bristles hid a smile—and handed the booklet back to the little girl.
Next, they paused at the gate to take off their shoes. Ranu bent down to pull off one shoe with the toes of the other foot. Nela reached down to assist her, as mothers do. “There you go,” she said.
She pulled off her own sandals, letting Jackson steady her. She realized she had been ducking his glance, not wanting to read his face, the downward turn of his lips. She wished for the privacy of the dark, out of the range of hearing by onlookers, but then realized she would use no words for this parting. She turned to him and searched his face, hand at his cheek. Longing. Regret. Determination.
So, nothing had changed. He was not coming. They had not spoken about his plans since the night in the clinic when she had claimed Ranu as her daughter (my not ours, I not we), and edged him out of her life. The moment she realized another calling had taken hold of him, she had begun to distance herself from him, palms out, fingers splayed against his chest as he reached to encircle her. He wanted to fix the broken village? Fine. Let him follow his dharma. If he had only married her to help her accomplish her one unselfish act, well, it was the least he could do. She backed away from him.
“Go on,” Jackson was urging her, as if he were the one doing the distancing. “I have some work to do, but I’ll follow you. I’ll join you soon.” His words, staccato as a broken promise, unlocked her, and Nela practically ran to the gate. She did not look back at the raised hand and crumpled face of her husband.
Once she had hustled Ranu into the plane, Nela would not let the child put her satchel on Jackson’s empty seat. “Why Appa not coming,” Ranu worried.
Nela flinched. Her flesh prickled as she tried to unscramble the messages in her brain. “He would rather save the world.” Ranu cocked her head. “He will come next time,” Nela amended. There was no point in trying to explain the inexplicable to a child.
Ranu squirmed into her seat and began to play with her earphones, an activity that should have absorbed her for hours but did not. She soon tired of it, put her head on Nela’s shoulder, sighed and fell asleep. Nela tolerated the connection, barely. Her resentment for the child’s touch surprised and shamed her. “Motherhood is not for everyone,” Ashoke had once said, just after his wife had suffered a miscarriage. Nela thought the sentiment unnatural and cold-hearted at the time, but worthy of Ashoke. He was always looking for someone to blame, while she considered herself above such coping mechanisms.
“You can try again, or else you can adopt,” she told him at the time. He had frowned at that. “You don’t know where these kids come from,” he said. “As a scientist, you should know that they may have bad genes, with traits you will pay for in the end.”
There was no one to meet them at Heathrow, of course. Ranu swung her head from side to side, looking, looking. What are you looking for? Nela wanted to say, but kept her mouth clamped over her teeth while she herded Ranu into a taxi.
They had little luggage, a fact that seemed to puzzle the driver. He frowned above the trunk. “Zat all?’ A toothpick in his mouth made the words sound clenched and hostile.
“You got a problem with that?” Nela said in her best American accent, before turning her face to the window. The driver would not try to make small talk now. She pulled Ranu close to her, ready to point out the landmarks. The route was familiar, but altered somehow. New construction had sprung up around familiar buildings. “That building is where Christians worship,” orienting herself. “There is the famous fish market.”
“Like vendors at home?” Ranu wondered.
“No. But you will like it.” She said it like an order, not mere information, and the girl flinched at her brittle tone. It was the sound that worked here. English Nela.
Beyond her front door, a cloud of stale air and dust. It had thickened the surfaces of the furniture, and the rising motes caused Ranu to sneeze. Nela pulled a tissue from the box in the kitchen, and it disintegrated in her hand. How long had she been gone, anyway? She tugged her hair and made a quick calculation of its growth. She had been gone for twelve months.
The lights were off, of course. She hadn’t paid any bills. Nela made for the telephone anyway, and picked it up. Dead silence. “What else, what else?” She took out two candles from a drawer, lit them, and handed one to Ranu. In the flickering light, the child’s face was placid as a kettle pond. To depend on a candle was no real inconvenience for her. It was Nela who was less adaptable.
Tired as she was, she set to work righting the house, and Ranu shadowed her, picking up her rhythms, imitating her movements. They dusted and swept and scrubbed the layers of neglect off surfaces until they glowed in the candlelight.
“Hungry?” Nela asked when they were finished. The child nodded, and Nela opened the cupboards to see what was still edible. There was a
lone can of beans, a package of powdered milk, and a box of crackers. Her neighbor Ida had cleaned her out. The old thief must have carted off the goods one sinewy armful at a time— chickpea flour, the jars of pickles, a torn and half-used bag of fennel seeds.
She heated the beans and served them to Ranu, who sat in a kitchen chair swinging her legs. The little girl tried to scoop up some beans on a cracker, and promptly spilled them. Handing her a spoon, Nela coached her. “It is how they do here. You must try.” Ranu’s attempt left much to be desired. The harder she tried, the worse she did. Nela insisted she keep at it. “And remember to eat with your mouth closed. Like this.”
After the meager, tense dinner, Nela took Ranu by the hand into the room with the white board and its flaking equations. She yanked the curtains closed, and pointed out the cot. Ranu, as if accepting a punishment, climbed on it and closed her eyes.
Once in her own bedroom, Nela went to the window to close those curtains, also. She could not bear to survey the inevitable damage in the garden yet. She undressed quickly and made an automatic grab for the brush on her dressing table. Both the silver- handled brush and matching hand mirror had been moved out of
place. She picked them up and glanced at the background view of her down quilt. It seemed to have been hastily settled over the sheets. That bed is probably still warm, she said to herself.
The day she left, Nela had pushed the spare key at her neighbor, Ida only reluctantly taking it. Nela should have known her beautiful things would prove too much temptation for the old girl. Fences make good neighbors. Well, at least she hadn’t given Ashoke the run of the place, the man who thought every piece of mail in a relative’s house belonged to him, the man for whom every boundary was porous.
Nela sat on the edge of her bed and stared at the blue walls. She had insisted on the luxury of the silk, and had been willing to live on rice and noodles until it was paid for. What would the how-many- cousins-are-worth-one-brother folks think about that? She had nearly dissolved with hunger that first year. Examining the hollows under her cheekbones each night in the cracked bathroom mirror, he felt the pull of sacrifice, and the satisfaction of earning what she wanted. When she thought of her younger self sitting with a single bowl at the kitchen table, legs snaked around the flimsy aluminum frame of a chair, she smiled. We are all heroes in our own stories.
In the middle of the night she jolted awake. The air had taken on a chill. Ranu needs another blanket, she thought. Struggling to get out of the soft deep bed, she was stopped by a sound. An inhalation, a small snore. She turned in its direction and found Ranu lying on top of the bedspread. Nela looked at the girl for a long moment. Placing two of her fingers inside the open palm, she watched the small fingers curl around them.