Nela quickly established routines and rhythms in those first few days, despite jet lag and unfamiliar new features of familiar streets. The changes jarred her even more than her body’s tumultuous relationship to the clock, and in those first mornings, she would have been up for hours already. She’d lock the door behind her and walk to her neighborhood deli, which had changed ownership during her sabbatical. There was no greeting or easy chit-chat with the new owner, a stranger who barely lifted his head from the cash register while she paid for her groceries.
Hurrying home one day with the brown bag against her chest, she tried to ignore the year’s wear and tear on the neighborhood. A coat of paint, a bit of landscaping might bring it all up to snuff, but perhaps the neighborhood had begun a permanent slide downward. The sidewalks were already dotted with the desperate, hands thrusting from unraveled sleeves, grasping at whatever they could get. Houses seemed to cower behind chain link fences, and the only children Nela saw were framed in windows, not playing in yards. Home again, she plopped the groceries on the kitchen table.
Ranu took out a pastry and sat on the floor with it, as she would have done at the hut. Gesturing toward the chair, Nela seated her child at the table, a plate under her breakfast. Ranu, wriggling in the unforgiving seat. Perching cross-legged on the cushion. A jut of bony knees like elbows. Nela grimaced and turned to the sink before Ranu could notice. She began to scrub a few dishes, a useful task, unlike carping at the poor girl about manners and posture. Children adapt. Ranu would adjust in time.
Nela tossed a question over her shoulder. There was no answer. Pulse beating everywhere at once, she yanked open the door to the backyard. Ranu would not have run away, would she? She couldn’t have, not with her weak leg.
She had not gone anywhere. There she was, on her knees in the dirt, weeding the garden. She sees a need and fills it, Jackson had once said.
Nela went outside and knelt beside her daughter. She, too, began to pull out matted vines and stubborn creepers. Without raising her head, Ranu said, “Remember flowers at home? I make more for you!” Remembering how the girl had tried to water the scraggly blooms with drops from her cupped hands, Nela hugged her. Later, the two of them walked hand in hand into the house where diligent, exhausted Ranu tumbled into the charpoy in the living room and immediately fell asleep. The way her small bones folded in on themselves resembled a starling huddled against the rain. Nela hefted her child into her arms and carried her to the soft bed.
When she returned to the living room, she went straight to the whiteboard, chalk in hand. Dusk had settled in all around the house, tucking it in, and it was time to work. Pursuit and cohesion she wrote on the board. The magic words conjured not only to the mathematics of collectives, but also the pursuit of insights and the cohesion of the results. Two birds with one stone. You’re a mathematical samurai, she could still hear Jackson say. Let’s kill it, then.
At dawn, Nela put down her chalk, exhausted but barely able to breathe for excitement. She rushed out of the house on an excess of adrenaline into the orange morning. It was the most elegant work she had ever done. Now, it was time to get back to the university. Nela’s office had not been interfered with, much to her surprise, her abandoned books leaning wearily against one another under a layer of dust. She unlocked the drawer full of gyros, and gave Ranu a go-ahead smile. An afternoon of lining them up and spinning them, her belly on the floor, legs waving in the air like flags.
“What have they done with my mail?” Nela wondered, and Ranu looked up from her play. Seeing the question was not for her, she went back to the toys. “Stay here,” Nela ordered, and set off for the mail room. She entered the mail room, and her vision immediately clouded over with red. There was Ashoke, sliding mail from her box into his briefcase. “What is the meaning of this?”
He jumped, and the mail scattered all over. “See what you did,” he complained, bending over stiffly to scoop it up.
“Leave it. It doesn’t belong to you.”
“I was only taking care! Who can tell when you mean to come back?” His squashy features had already reconfigured into a conciliatory mask. He wiggled his black eyebrows.
“May I remind you, all that,” and here Nela flicked her fingers toward his eyebrows, “does not work with me.”
“Ha ha. Same Nela. Welcome home! I will fetch the rest of your mail for you.”
She grabbed his hand with the fingers of her strong hand. “One moment. I need you to answer some questions.”
Just then, Ranu slid inside the door. “Amma?” The color drained from Ashoke’s face. It only took a fraction of a second for a snarling smile to lift his cheeks.
“I did not know…” he began, but Nela interrupted him.“You know nothing!” she said, pulling Ranu under her arm. “I am waiting for you to return my letters.”
Ashoke handed them over, and hastily exited the mailroom. Did Ranu need an explanation? Nela saw that she did not. She had the capacity to begin again where she had left off, and as soon as they went back to Nela’s office, she sank to the floor with her toys.
A few minutes later, there was a knock on Nela’s office. She put her finger to her lips, and Ranu clamped her hand over a gyroscope to stop its spin. After the sound of retreating footsteps faded, Nela opened the door. A bag of mail fell in with a note stapled to it. Homecoming party at 8 pm. Be there or be square. Love, Ashoke and Priya