Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (8)



Chapter Eight


Nela soon found that the medical supplies from Jacksons 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 apothecarys from Ranu,  patted the girl on the shoulder. I leave him in your  care, then,  while  Im 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. Ill 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 shed 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 Keralites 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 stores 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 mans 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 physicians 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 grandfathers famine even if he never  knew  about the trauma. Its 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. Im 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, Havent 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. Youve seen malaria before, I guess.  And  you figured this was an ordinary flare.
She saw questions in his eyes she couldnt 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 couldnt 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! Nelas 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 wasnt  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. “Well 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 matterswhere he kept his money, what she should do with his ashes. He never  once called her by another womans name.
He held nothing back. Were 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 didnt. 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.

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