Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Rescuing Ranu (9)



Chapter Nine


Jackson  began  to regain his health, but at a pace much  too slow for him. He found his own neediness humiliating. You would do the same for me, Nela reminded him as she spooned his food into his mouth or bathed his thin body.  He nodded in agreement, but still showed impatience when she hovered too closely over him.  The knotted brows. The clenched jaw.
Didnt you come here to write? he snapped at her one day, dodging her touch  when she lingered at his shirt buttons too long. Nela dropped her hands at her sides like anvils.
Yes. I came here to write.  In peace. Alone.”  She flounced down at the table and  opened a book.
Now  it was Jacksons turn to hover.  He leaned over her chair and cajoled her. What are you reading?
“It says here that women bond with  their  partners because of chemicals in the sperm, Nela pretended to read,  holding the book at an angle  that made it hard for him to see the words. “Its all a biological trick, a trap  like the maternal instinct. It is in the pheromones. Once a woman gets a man  out of her nose, she becomes unattached. Many people say that what we call love is just a reflection of oneself seen in the lovers eyes.
Jackson laughed. Youre making that up.”  He assumed her attempt to wound him was a joke!  He trusts me, she thought, and  was instantly ashamed. Guilt turns to anger, anger to guilt. She slapped the book on the table, and  put head  in her hands.
Whats  really wrong?
“I am the cold fish,” she mourned.
Jackson laughed again.  What about your  temper? Thats quite  hot. He would not take her self-criticism seriously. She stared at him from a safe distance.
“I did not think  you would ever come back.”
“I know. Thats why  I left my measuring device. I thought you just forgot  it.
“I forget nothing.” He pulled  her out of her chair, and  she turned her face into his chest. They lay down together on the pallet,  and  kissed,  gently at first, then  greedily. Nela yanked at Jacksons clothes,  not caring  if she tore them,  not caring  about anything but filling her emptiness with  his fingers, his tongue, his sex. She pushed him down, and crouched over him to find he was ready for her. They each pulled  aside  barriers that separated them,  of fabric and flesh, time and distance. When  he called her name,  a shock juddered Nelas spine.
A few hours later, Ranu came in, arms full of water, strained plantains, crushed ice, and  another pot of medicine. She carefully set everything on the crowded table, and  stood there  silently  for a moment, rubbing her arms, her face fisted tight. She had  the look of someone who was keeping the kinds of secrets  that go from bad to worse. Nela realized that Mami had slapped information about Jackson and her out of Ranu.  It was clear from the clouded look in her eyes, and  the new bruises blueing her thin arms.  The sight riled Nela, and  she wondered why, of all the aunties Ranu had  told about her predicament, not one stood up to Mami.
It irritated Nela to think  that so many strangers knew  her personal details. She did not expect Ranu to be able to keep completely quiet, not at her age, but to tell her whole  village  things they had  no business knowing?  The solution to any problem rested in the hands of the group,  according to this particular group,  and  Ranu had been raised in that tradition. She did think  for herself  occasionally, making choices out of her natural empathy. At night,  she entered the sleeping porch from the back so as not to disturb the patient, for instance. And  when she came to the front door, she peered into the room before coming in. She must  have caught Nela many times in mid-mutter, anyway, whispering to a man who could  not answer. It must  have confused her, despite her wise eyes. How  could  she interpret all that to the aunties?
She thought again  of Ranus bruises. This would never  happen if she was my own  child, she complained to Jackson. How related we must  be for her to be able to depend on me?
You don’t. Inclusive fitness, remember?” Jackson said. Nela had  settled herself  cross legged  opposite him on the floor, dinner spread on her lap, and he was more  interested in teasing her with  his toes than  he was in talking.
Mami cannot see the forest for the trees,” Nela told him, leaning forward to spoon  milky rice into his mouth. He didnt need this particular service now, and  took the spoon  away  from her. He aimed it at her mouth instead, and  she swallowed the rice.  She has no idea who I am. If she did, she would try to extract  even more,  and  I would laugh in her face,” Nela continued on, oblivious that Jackson was trying to flirt with  her. He gave up, handed her the bowl, and  stretched out flat. He put one arm over his eyes. She took the bowl, but between bites, she continued to complain. Mami will probably just sit on the news  that I have a man here, while  she decides how  to profit  from it.
Jackson uncovered his eyes. Of course,  she will tack on a charge of more rupees for rent. Thats expected from a motel  keeper.  And she might manipulate your  increased need for Ranus help into more  rupees above  that.  So be it.” The edge  to Jacksons voice startled Nela.  He is still unwell, she reminded herself.  He cannot care about everything.
Jackson had fallen asleep again.  Nela pushed away  from the table. Maybe some physical movement would jar her out of her mood.  She looked  around for the clean towels  she had  asked Ranu to bring  that morning. The girl must have forgotten. “I will have to fetch them  myself,” she grumbled. She walked out of the hut, and  covered the distance to the main  building in a few steps. She did not intend to announce her presence. It would be better just to take what she needed, and  leave, without having to argue about the rent. Of course,  Jackson was right.  Nela couldnt blame  Mami for increasing it. It was what she and her family were here for, to make  a profit.  In a place of scarce resources, it was easy not to care about a strangers samsara in the face of ones own need. Beyond  the kitchen, the hum  of female  voices could  be heard, one high-pitched, the other,  low and sullen.  Nela cleared her throat at the archway to the dim living room. It smelled of incense,  and  she sensed rather than  saw a shrine in the far corner.  The family must  be celebrating some occasion.  What day was it again?  Nela rummaged in her mind for the dates  of the springtime festivals. It was too early for Vishu, too late for Shivaratri. Then her eye caught the piles of colored powders on the long rosewood table. The family was preparing for Holi, the festival  of color and  “togetherness.” Meaning, women were  more tolerant on this day of inappropriate lustful overtures. A secular, not a sacred, holiday. Nela remembered the celebration, neighbors tossing colored powders into the air, filling the sky with  red, orange, and  yellow  until  it seemed it was raining color. Children together, the celebrants were uninhibited and joyful. Nela felt a wave of distaste.“I will instruct you in our proper ways,  daughter,” Mami was lecturing a kohl-smudged young woman. She was too well dressed to be a servant. She must  be a daughter-in-law. Mami jangled the household keys she kept around her waist  at all times. She had not heard Nelas polite  cough.  Why  your  mother neglected you in training for marriage?” she ranted. “A spoiled woman is useless,  an unsuitable bride  with  too little dowry. Come along,  I must  teach you your place in joint-family.
Nela stepped fully into the room. There was a man,  probably Mamis husband, slouched on the low couch, watching his wife handle their  sons wife. He looked  at Nela with  both coldness and  curiosity, then leaned over and  spat betel juice into a saucer  on the floor.
Where is Ranu?” Nela turned to Mami, as if she had  only come into the house to find the girl. “I am paying you for her service, and where is she keeping?” Nela made a gesture belonging to Amma. It didnt fit, and  she grimaced.
You are keeping a visitor.  More work  for Ranu,” Mami said, beginning to haggle.
My husband is ill. He is only beginning to take food again.  Food is costly.
You can discuss with  my husband. He will want you to pay me for helping Ranu at the market. I am knowing how  much  food costs there.  Nela reeled  off the bargain prices  Ranu had  paid  for the groceries.
Mami began  to fidget,  shuffling her weight from one foot to the other, dismissing her daughter-in-law, who stood there  with  her mouth hanging open,  with  a flip of the hand. When  the girl was out of earshot, Mami said, I give you,”  and  pointed to the kitchen.
Nela took what she needed from the cupboards, paying no attention to Mamis suggestions. She shunted her to one side, and  delicately ransacked the place in front of her.
Once outside, Nela broke  into a run.  Something about the exchange reminded her of committee  meetings at the university, the capacity she had developed for deflating a man’s ego before he knew  what happened. What was Ashoke plotting right  now, with  her out of the way? Nela only hoped he didnt take his frustration out on his cow-eyed, dutiful wife. Nela slowed down and  scuffed  the dust in front of the porch. Daffodils were probably just starting to push through the ground in her garden at home,  unless Ida had  neglected the garden, even to steal from it. That was the more  likely scenario. It had  probably turned to mud, like the work  she had  abandoned to take care of a man  she barely  knew  and  a child who did not belong  to her. She kneed  open  the door, arms full of food. In the time it took to travel between buildings, Nelas mood  had come full circle. She was as irritated now as when she had  left. She glimpsed Jackson in the corner,  once again enduring a bout  of the shakes, damp hair stuck to his skull, eyes glowing with  fever. She waited for the expected twinge of sympathy. This time it came in slow and  weak. Another second passed before she realized that there  were two figures under the sheet. Ranu! She was holding Jackson in her thin arms, crooning a village song in his ear.
“How dare  you! Nela flew at the girl and  yanked her off the mattress by her braids. Ranu yowled as if a bone had  been broken, and  Nela swore  at her in every language she knew.  The girl sobbed  and  pleaded with  Nela, grabbing at her legs, reaching up for her with  her spindly bruised arms. Jackson, oblivious, continued to sleep it off like a drunk. Nela, shaking her fists at the girl, ordered her out of the house. She could  not bear the sight of her, although the girl clearly hadnt understood what her crime was. She had  only imitated Nelas ministrations to Jackson, imitated exactly every  detail  of posture and  word like a child who, when playing with  a doll, shows the culture of the household.
Alone now with  Jackson, Nela filled the empty space beside  him. They both shivered, one with  rage, the other  with  fever.  At last, Nela sunk  into an uneasy sleep. She dreamed of the masked mattress cleaners in her childhood, who ripped open  the family cots and  pillows and  pulled  out the tufts of cotton and  feathers to fluff them  before sewing them  back into the fabric. For days,  bits of white  stuffing would float about the courtyard, clinging to bushes and  trees with  surface  rough enough to make  them  stick.
Nela rose in the dark,  overcome by a nameless foreboding. She pulled the girl back into the house from the dirt on which  she had  sobbed herself to asleep.


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