Nela soon found that the medical supplies from Jackson’s kit were almost gone. It was up to her to get more, which meant she had to leave him for an afternoon. “Well, I am not the patient. I can go,” she decided. She got directions to the apothecary’s from Ranu, patted the girl on the shoulder. “I leave him in your care, then, while I’m gone.” Pointing to the thermometer and the water glass on the table, she gave instructions. “Remember to give him sips every hour,” she said. “If he feels hot, record his temperature. I’ll administer the tablets when I get back.” She slipped the small bottle, into her bag. It was a long walk to the village.
Every minute spent away from Jackson wracked her nerves. It surprised her, the strength of her desire to break away from the road and run back to him. To keep her feet on course, she imagined him improving due to her ministrations, imagined becoming visible again in his life. At the moment, her value to him boiled down to an essence of survival. She did not really have to speak to him, to entertain, or understand him. All she had to do was be there, to “do the needful,” in the words of her family. There was no question that, of course, she would do that, and more. She would always save him first, above everyone.
She quickened her pace along the almost empty, pebble-rough path. At last she reached the crest of a hill overlooking a slightly more trafficked road. A cow lumbered across it, halting a line of unperturbed bicyclists. An auto-rickshaw driver came up close to her, and she signaled for him to stop. The vehicle would get her into town faster than her feet. She climbed into the back seat, grateful for small blessings.
All around her, there were signs of early spring. Along the road, women bent over pots of pongal, made in observance of the current four-day festival. Women also gathered in courtyards decorated with kolams, their festive pots of boiling milk and rice displayed in front of them. This was the day they cooked for the sun god while their men babysat and prepared the family meals. What would Amma say about such disorder of traditional roles?
“No charge today,” the driver told Nela as he halted at the apothecary, “in respect for the deity.”
The apothecary had not changed since the last time she’d entered it, more than two decades before. Tinctures in colored bottles lined the shelves, pastel pills for the ills of mankind locked in a cabinet of
tiny drawers. There were bins of neem leaves, healing roots and herbs scattered around the room. A broom made of stiff bristles leaned unused against a cobwebbed corner.
She bought her supplies, deflecting the curious glances of the other customers. A barrel-chested man of about sixty peered at her over his reading glasses, from behind the newspaper kiosk. He had a typical Keralite’s physique, one that Nela had seen thousands of times. He could have been an uncle or a cousin or one of her old teachers, for all she knew. The man took a step toward her, hesitated, and stepped back. He pretended to read his paper again, glancing up occasionally from behind rustling pages.
The clerk asked the question both men wanted to ask. “What is your good name, Madam?” She looked away, offended where there was no offense intended. If the men did not know her from her school days, they certainly knew a friend or relative who could recognize her by her “good” name. Nela would not say her name. She would not make one up, either.
“Where may I purchase a small truck or van?” she asked the clerk, instead, as she paid for her packages. The man blinked with surprise. Nela noticed that he bore a strong resemblance to the store’s first owner, who used to give her a free handful of horehound drops as a child. “And please tell me where I might find a good physician.” She said this as if it was the most ordinary of demands, a logical follow-on. The man’s bushy eyebrows moved rapidly up and down like a pair of masticating jaws. “I show you,” he said, and led Nela to a back lot of loose stones, where men in dhotis smoked by a crumbling wall, curs slinking across in front of them, cows crisscrossing through. It was a place where anything might have happened, but on this occasion, did not.
After the transaction had been made, and the store owner had taken his cut, he held out a piece of paper on which he had scribbled the name and address of a doctor. “You cannot ignore homeopathy,” he declared. Nela groaned. Not a real doctor, then.
Home, yet not home. A few yards from the hut, Nela cut the engine of her pickup, and coasted the rest of the way. She did not want the noise from the old muffler to wake Jackson, or encourage the motel customers to gather outside to gawk.
The truck bucked to a stop, and the door creaked open, swinging on its hinges. A myna bird obligingly drowned out the sound with its caw. She dropped to the ground, and patted the paper with the physician’s name on it, to make sure she still had it. Padding through the swept whorls of dirt to the door, she opened it quietly enough to allow Ranu, napping in the corner, to keep sleeping. Jackson was asleep, too, dwindling under the threadbare covers. Ranu stirred, and looked at Nela wordlessly, awaiting instructions. Nela put her forefinger against her lips, and gave a curt nod that indicated Ranu could go. They would speak later. The girl got up in a fluid motion and slid out of the room on dirty feet.
Nela laid out the supplies on the table. The apothecary had charged her for the driving lesson on the temperamental truck, but like his father or uncle or cousin, he had given her a packet of free horehound drops on parting. She had looked into his familiar- seeming eyes, convinced by this empirical evidence that we do inherit more than our parents’ DNA, like evolutionary biologists say. Jackson had told her, that night on the roof, how a grandchild can develop a reaction to his grandfather’s famine even if he never knew about the trauma. It’s there in his tricky wiring, an inheritance like eye color or temper. What unknown relative had done what she was doing now, she wondered, taking on responsibility for a man tangled in mosquito netting and fever-dreams?
Nela climbed onto the pallet with Jackson, who moved his arm slightly to make room for her. The space was narrow and Nela arranged her body to accommodate it geometrically. She had so much to say to Jackson, but she fell asleep, heavily and immediately. It seemed to be in a dream that, Jackson was smiling to himself, stroking her back.
Nela bolted upright, comically grabbing the sheet under her chin. “Are you ok?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.” “What do you remember?”
“I remember dreaming I saw you at a market. Before that, I had been setting up a power system in a village, feeling fine. The symptoms came on suddenly.”
“How did you arrive at the market? Nobody was with you.”
“I must have offended my hosts with my convulsions,” he joked weakly. Nela took his hand and held it loosely in hers.
“So they just threw you out with the produce?”
“Looks like it. I’m sorry I caused you so much trouble. How did you know where to find me? One bird follows only one other bird...” He closed his eyes again, and began to shiver. The episode passed quickly, and when he was himself again, Nela asked if he would like a doctor. Jackson, confused, asked, “Haven’t I been examined? No? How did you know what to do?” She pointed to the bottle of medication on the table, and the row of new tinctures lined up beside it. She could see him shuffle the information around until he came up with a palatable theory. “You’ve seen malaria before, I guess. And you figured this was an ordinary flare.”
She saw questions in his eyes she couldn’t begin to answer. Ashamed, she got up, took the van to Dr. Singh’s house, and returned with him a short while later.
The old man in the turban bent over Jackson, little black bag thumping against his sun baked thighs. Nela took it from him, opened it, and took out the objects he asked for. She held his instruments while he performed his examination, not from a desire to assist so much as the desire to prevent mistakes. How could she trust a man who only cleared his throat from time to time, but would not speak? Did he know what he was doing? He stepped back and reviewed the bottle of pills, nodding his head sagely. What was he agreeing to, with all that nodding?
Ranu entered the room with a pot of brewed medicine. “Herbs ground by hand,” she said proudly. “Ancient remedy.” She held the pot out to Nela, who took it reluctantly. The powder had been pulverized by who knows how many aunties’ mortar and pestles. The recipe had been handed down and blessed by a priest, probably. These people blessed everything. Nela stuck her finger in the unwashed pot, waved it under her nose, and coughed. The smell alone could wake up the dead. She opened her mouth and brought a finger slicked with its residue to her tongue, but couldn’t force herself to taste it. Anyway, what would her ability to tolerate odious things prove? Ranu saw her distaste and whined, “The formula is from the oldest aunties in the village.”
The doctor stopped his examination and peered into the vessel. He clasped his hands together in delight, then plunged in a thumb, though the solution was still bubbly. He licked the syrup off, like a cat. “Is good!” he exclaimed, showing a wide, pink-gummed smile. “Many healing properties! Administer daily. Much better than tablets!” Nela’s hands flew to her head and tugged at her bristly hair in frustration. She motioned to Ranu to take the man away. Let Mami arrange transportation for him. Nela was finished.
Of course, she wasn’t about to let Jackson have any homegrown remedy. As soon as they left, Nela emptied the cooking vessel of medicine, poured it in the dirt out back. “We’ll test the healing properties here. If a flower springs up on that spot, I stand corrected.”
For the next few days, Nela snatched what she could from Jackson’s lucid moments, constructing his history from small details. He never seemed to lose his place in their ongoing conversation, and spoke to her like a spouse about practical matters—where he kept his money, what she should do with his ashes. He never once called her by another woman’s name.
He held nothing back. “We’re like strangers on a plane, spilling their guts just before the crash,” he said just before his eyes rolled back in his head for the fifth time. Had he forgotten what had happened when they actually were strangers on a plane? When he tunneled back up from his waylaid consciousness, he said, “What day is it? Where am I? Who knew they should call you?” Just as Nela found it hard to believe that he had always planned to return to her, she was also amazed that he had chosen her as his emergency contact. She was his house.
One night, in his sleep, he began to touch her. His eyes were tightly closed, breath still slow and even. Nela observed him in a detached way, like a scientist. She would not allow herself to take his actions or her reactions personally. Sex was only a reflex, an urge. She could have stopped him at any point, but she didn’t. If it was dangerous to wake an ordinary sleepwalker, it might be doubly dangerous to wake Jackson. His breath was coming faster now, and hard. Still he did not awake. He entered her, dazzling her nerves, and rolled away again. She made a wet sound with her mouth against his shoulder, which tasted of salt, and made her think of the sea. She reached over to stroke his whiskered cheek, and as his sleep became more profound, she lowered it to his heart, checking, checking.