Thursday, June 02, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (3)



Chapter Three



Civil engineering instruments began  to appear on the table, objects Jackson brought over from his hotel for use in the workshop he was leading. He was moving in, a bit at a time. Although it irritated her to see his measuring equipment on the tables and  floors, Nela appreciated that he was careful  not to fingerprint the blue silk walls, or take her books out of their slots.  He was respectful of her things, but she did not make  it easy for him to share  her space.
What is this?” she wondered, drawing out a gadget with  a telescope on it, from behind a sofa cushion.
Thats a laser theodolite.” Jackson picked it up and  looked  around for a better place for it. Its handy for when you don’t have access to GPS.” He dragged out a chair from the kitchen and  stood on it, shoving the equipment onto the top book shelf.
And what is this thing?” Nela nodded at another contraption lying under her desk.
Thats a manometer. Jackson said. “It measures flow rate and pressure in rivers.” He carried  it to the closet. Nela heard the reshuffle of her cot, her boots and  coats, but did not comment. Why should she care where he put his things? It was only a temporary arrangement. He had a job that would take him far from her, although for the moment he seemed to have forgotten about all that.
She opened a drawer to find a ball of his socks stuffed in next to hers. It reminded her of motion camouflage in hoverflies. One doesnt even see the other until the first is right on top of the other.
Nela accepted Jacksons presence, but didnt change her habits  or methods of working to accommodate him. She had  fought too hard for independence and  the right  to put her work  above  everything. It would take more  than  one man  to change her priorities. As for his part,  Jackson seemed so eager - charmed and  intrigued by everything about her. He seemed proud of her drive.  You were  miles away,” he observed at breakfast after he had seen her working naked at the whiteboard for the first time. You didnt even know I was there.
Turning the sensation of being watched over in her mind, it washed over her again,  a slow moving wave, and she struggled once more  to keep her own secret. Of course  she had  sensed his eyes on her. She had  posed in the moonlight for him. She bit off a corner  of toast.  Oh yes, I did.
The interruptions in her days  intercepted her nights. One morning, Nela awoke in a panic.  She had had  a dream that had disintegrated and  she was convinced that only Jackson could  help her piece it together. She patted his side of the bed, but he was gone. She squinted at the clock. 10 AM already!  She pulled  on her clothes.  Birds. It was about collectives,” she mumbled, trying to sew her dream back together. There was a flock...and then  what?” She asked the empty kitchen. Surrounded by birds.   Enclosed in a circle.”  She bit into toast she had  mistakenly spread with relish instead of jam. She spat it out. Where are you, Namagiri?
She strode the route to the university, and walked with  purpose to Jackson’s cubicle, still mumbling. One bird broke  away,  and  the others flowed upwards.” What did it mean?  There was a message in the movement.
Jacksons voice and  the voice of the chairman of the civil engineering department tugged her along  the long hall, a cue, a direction. Were they arguing? The possibility barely  registered as Nela sat down beside Jackson, obscuring him from the other  man’s view, who scowled at her presumption. Nela shrugged. He was not her chairman.
Let x be she began,  taking Jacksons hands in hers. It was an unconscious gesture meant to help her focus, but so intimate that the chairman abruptly left the room.
Jackson and  Nela talked until  dusk. When  she rose to turn on a light, a sound resembling applause caught her attention. The window framed a passing murmuration of birds,  a dark  cloud  streaming through the sky in ribbons, in perfect  synch.  Nela put her hands on the glass. How can we tell whether a bird is being chased or leading?” She took up a piece of chalk and  began  to write  a formula.
Jackson asked, You mean,  are we witnessing pursuit and evasion, or is it actually pursuit and  cohesion?
Yes, and  does the leader know that only one other  bird is following it, a third following the second and  so on, until  the sky is crowded with birds?
We would have to trace the birds’ trajectories. We could  go up on the roof with  the cameras from the lab and  take a look,” Jackson suggested.Like Kaplansky said, When God whispers a theorem in your  ear, you should listen.
They entered the lab excitedly. Where are all the tripods?” Nela worried. Ive got one for my theodolite,” Jackson said. Shall I run  home to get it?
The sound of the word home in Jacksons mouth raised the hairs  on Nelas arms.  No, no. Here  they are. I found some,”  she managed to say. They gathered the equipment and lugged it onto the roof, set the cameras around, worked as one organism to pin down a new hypothesis.Calibrate and synchronize the cameras,” she reminded Jackson.
“I know, I know. Jackson bent over the machines. OK. Theyre on automatic now.” He stood up straight behind her, and put his arms  around her waist.  Nelas focus narrowed at once, on her own  labored breath and the breath of the man right  behind her. She tried  to remember the time before Jackson, what it felt to be alone  in an evening like this one, gathering in pinks  and  violets.  Night would fall and their excitement would mount. He would take her to bed.
Jackson was the first to speak.   “Its the Italians who have hypothesized that a starling pays attention to only a few of its neighbors. Have you read  those  results?
“I have the paper on my desk, she said.  She leaned into his body  and witnessed one bird break  away  from the flock only to be overcome by it again.  The couple stood on the roof for a long time watching the birds  act out the universal conflicts of independence versus the safety of the group. They witnessed the difference between leading, and being chased away.

After so long, Nela had  found what she was looking  for. She had  her juicy problem, and  she worked on it in a white  heat. Her days  became seamless, nights and  days  joined  together by the calculationsintricacies. In the mornings, before she even opened her eyes, shed put her arms  behind her head  and  begin where she and Jackson had  left off just before they fell asleep. Let X represent...” He brought her tea and  toast like a patient, brushed away  the crumbs from the bed, unplugged the phone when she was writing, thumped her back during convoluted thoughts that made her hold her breath. He got her to her classes on time, took her for walks  during which  she was not expected to chat, and canceled all her unnecessary meetings.
Youre neglecting your  own  work,  Nela  said by way of thanks. She had scribbled notes all through the dinner he had  cooked for her, and now  she pushed her notebook aside,  signaling her readiness to talk.
“Its not every  day a scientist finds a ground-breaking problem to work on. When  that happens, the scientist in question needs  an amanuensis.” He dragged out the word in a way designed to make  Nela laugh, and  to draw attention away  from the phrase she had  expected to hear: Wife. Besides, youd  do the same for me,” he said, drying his hands on a dish  towel.
Nela wasnt  so sure. It upset her to owe anyone anything, and  their relationship was becoming lopsided.  She knew  that Jackson had  come by his caring  nature genetically. He told her stories  about his parents, both missionaries, and he made their experiences sound idealistic and adventurous all at once. Nela was suspicious of passed- down values.  She had spent her life shucking off almost everything she had  been born  into.
To change the subject, she reached across the table and  picked up the paper Jackson had been reading. What is this?” she asked.
“Its a paper about Hamiltons Rule,” he said, kin selection and altruism. You know, the how-many-cousins-are-worth-one-brother question, how  biological relatives influence one another's ability to prevail.
Ah. A gene encoding a trait that enhances the fitness of the carrier should increase in frequency, while  a gene that lowers it should be wiped out.
Jackson smiled. However, a gene that prompts altruism may increase in frequency anyway, because relatives often carry the same gene. And there you have kin selection.
What about our case? I believe  I am correct in assuming that we would each save the other  in an ocean of relatives, and were not
even related by blood.”  She had  suddenly raised the stakes,  and both of them knew  it.
We exemplify a special  case called inclusive fitness, gene copies in unrelated others.” He turned from the sink and stood over her. He caressed her halo of hair.
She pulled  a pencil from behind her ear, and marked the back of his paper. So this is why  you will leave me to help your  strangers.” The words slipped away  from her and  she listened helplessly. Neither had mentioned his departure for India,  now  imminent, and  whatever sacrifices that would call for.
“I have to go. Theres a contract.” Jackson leaned down to hug Nelas shoulders. She shrugged him off, but he pulled  her up and  held her tighter, held her as close as if one of them  might be lost.
“I was fine alone, before you came, she said, her words muffled by his chest.
“I know, I know.” He tilted  her chin up and  kissed her. She tried  to pull away  from him, but could  not. Not because he wouldnt let her, but because she had lost the will to step out of the circle of his arms.
Nela thought she understood and  accepted his commitment to his job, but when Jackson closed the door to the cottage  the next morning, she was decimated. Hearing the lock on the front door click into place, she stood in front of the bedroom window and watched his cab pull away.  She did not move  for a long time.  In her mind, she let words she had  pushed down float up. She loved  him, and  vice- versa. But since she could  not define  “love with  any accuracy, she began  to second-guess her own feelings. Her guilt turned to anger, and  anger to guilt.
For the first time she noticed the ash tray on his bedside table had  not been used.  Had  he quit smoking for her sake? Sacrifices, big and  small.  She opened the closet. Then, all of the closets. Jackson had  left nothing behind. What did that mean?  “I must  go, but Ill come back,“ hed promised. She did not believe him, and  here was the proof.  He had  no intention of coming back. He had left nothing to retrieve.
What  did that have to say about love? She slammed the closet shut  and hustled back downstairs to make  sure the front door was locked.  Even if he turned around now, even if he rushed into the house convinced he had left something precious there,  it was already too late.
Nela moved through the kitchen, making tea. She sat down, first in her own  seat, then  in Jacksons, while  she waited for the kettles whistle. Jackson always kept his chair at a distance from the table to accommodate his long legs.  It had  bothered her, that disharmony in a small space. She tried  it his way, stretching her legs out under the table, flexing her toes.  Suddenly angry again,  she thudded her feet onto the floor and  banged into a piece of metal.
So Jackson had  left something behind! It was his theodolite. She picked it up and  held it on her lap for a minute. She felt the tug of magical thinking, the idea that if she kept  this equipment, he would have to come back to get it.  Nonsense! She got up and  carried  it from room to room, dropping it into each waste-paper bin in turn, but she was not capable of throwing it out. Instead, she tucked it into a drawer in her bedroom, and  buried it under her nightclothes like a piece of the past.



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