Friday, September 12, 2008

Diminutive Planet

Having received the summons to India in February, Irene Howell arrived only shortly before the excavation was to resume in earnest. After spending a day in Lahore to shop for supplies, she hailed a rickshaw only to find it already occupied by one of her old acquaintances: none other than the shy but fashionable Peter Cox!

Peter was somewhere between average and handsome. His eyes were blue behind his spectacles and his dark blond hair was slicked back against his skull with pomade. His frame was tall and sturdy, and his face bore classically Anglo features. Though he was plainly dressed in utilitarian clothing, his neck sported a silk scarf that he appeared to have acquired locally.

As for Irene, she wore a stylish dark blue pants suit, remarkably clean in light of the fact that she had been wandering the streets shopping. Her hair was very similar in style to when Peter had last seen her; preferring to keep it short so as not to have to worry about it. She was certainly an attractive young woman, especially if one cared for dark-haired, willowy women. (She had been told that she looked like Louise Brooks, but was more annoyed rather than flattered by that, as she had the hairstyle before the actress.)

Irene's memory for faces did not fail her, nor did it seem that Peter had forgotten hers (though, with some embarrassment, he struggled for a brief moment to recall her name). After finding it he said, "Miss Howell? My word!" He scooted aside to make room for her on the seat beside him and exclaimed, "What a small world we share!"

For her part, Irene looked truly shocked to see a man she had met in Egypt sitting in the rickshaw that she had just hailed. She paused for a split-second before stepping up and taking the empty seat. She carefully arranged the parcels that she was carrying on her lap and put a protective hand on top of them. "A small world indeed, Mr. Cox," she replied with a warm smile. "Why, I cannot tell you how surprised I am to see you, but I am always happy to meet an old friend in an unexpected place. Are you here for work or for pleasure?" It did cross her mind that they might be in India for the same reason, but she did not dare suggest such a grand coincidence, lest she be wrong.

Peter reciprocated Irene's smile with one of his own, though it was somewhat more awkward than hers. "Work," he answered, "with the Archaeological Survey of India. There are two Indus sites to be excavated shortly, and Mr. Car--" He quickly corrected himself, hoping to circumvent a tender subject. "Er, it was recommended that I join the Mohenjo-daro enterprise," he said simply. Then, quickly deflecting, he asked: "And you, Madam: have you been well? And is it business or pleasure that has delivered you to this hot, dusty corner of the Empire?" Noting her various parcels, he added in jest, "If I may say, you seem to have had no difficulty securing supplies for your visit!"

Irene's eyes flickered to the door when Peter accidentally mentioned Howard Carter, but she did not look upset. Mentions of Howard always reminded her of what a fool she'd been, and that is not a bad thing to remember. It was just not something she wanted to think about all the time.

Her eyes widened when Peter mentioned the very same project that she was helping to fund and was to be working on. "I am very well, thank you for inquiring. And, please, you must address me as Irene…especially since we are to be working together," she said with a bright smile. She disliked formalities among friends and, if she liked them well enough, acquaintances as well. "I have come here to work at Mohenjo-Daro as well. It was a quick decision, so I did not have time to acquire everything that I needed before I left Egypt, hence the shopping."

She frowned ever so slightly. "I am not sure how I will be received by the director, though. I do not know him personally, and I am sure that he will be unwilling to believe at first that I do actually know what I am doing." She may not have asked outright, but she clearly wanted to know what Peter thought about the man.

"Indeed!" Peter exclaimed when he learned that she would be joining the excavation. "Very good then," he said, then added, "Irene," experimenting with addressing her on a first-name basis. Picking up on her implied question, he replied, "Ah, the Major is a jovial enough chap, and he seems rather excited about the project. Between you and I, though, he is something of an amateur, and certainly not much of a laborer. Not once have I seen him so much as even pick up a trowel or sieve, lest his fingernails acquire dirt!" Peter then backed off, and so as not to disparage his boss too severely, attempted to redeem him by adding, "But, from what I have observed, he seems capable enough in his role as overseer, and excels at maintaining discipline among the workers. Being a rather traditional fellow, it may take him some convincing to recognize that you might know your way around a dig, but I've no doubt that your experiences in Egypt will assure him of your credibility."

Irene looked suitably disappointed to hear that the Major did not care to physically take part in the excavation. Even though a director was not always supposed to dig, he was still required to step into trenches once in a while in order to check out a find, or use his brush or trowel to clean a particularly important feature. There were too many men who preferred to be haughty overseers, but at least Peter thought that his fellow was a sensible man. Since she remembered Peter as being quite sensible himself, she was happy to trust his opinion.

Peter cleared his throat of street-dust. "So, Irene... would it be too presumptuous of me to inquire as to your recent purchases? I recall your highly refined taste in attire, and I'm curious what discoveries you might have already made in the marketplace. Admittedly, I lack the savvy to find anything that might flatter the female physique among this labyrinth of vendors; perhaps you might be able to direct me to something appropriate for a lady-friend?"

"You flatter me, my dear sir," Irene replied, "but I fear that these purchases are practical in nature. Let me see…I bought a new pith helmet, two pairs of sturdy gloves and several replacement items for my first aid kit," she recounted, tapping each package in turn as she spoke.

She recalled that Peter was divorced, and thus was pleased to hear that he might have found another woman to share his life with. Irene was not much of a romantic when it came to her own life, but she found love charming when it concerned others. Never one to evade an inquiry just because it might make some persons uncomfortable, she said, "I would be happy to advise you, but I would need to know just what sort of message you wish to send. For, as you surely know, a pretty scarf and a set of fine silver jewelry convey very different messages!"

As Irene surmised, her inquiry into Peter's personal life did appear to make him a tad uncomfortable. "Ah, hm," he stammered, "perhaps it is too soon to woo her with such gifts. I would not want to give her the impression that I am attempting to purchase her affection." He then changed the subject to just about anything else, talking about the other archaeologists working at the site - Humphries and Daniel - and prattling on about the illness he suffered when he first arrived on the subcontinent and his subsequent slow recovery. "Perhaps it was the Pharaoh's curse," he chuckled, alluding to the rumors making rounds in the press regarding the various misfortunes befalling those who were present at the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb.

Peter whittled away the rest of their ride with such idle banter, always steering the conversation away from discussions of more consequential matters. Irene listened politely, expressing her horror at his illness and her relief that he is once again well. She was more than happy to join in the friendly chatter until they arrived at camp. When at last the two arrived back at Ihsaan Waahaan, Peter escorted Irene to her tent and encouraged her to approach him should she require any assistance, offering to introduce her to the Major at her convenience.

Irene was pleased to see that her possessions had arrived safely ahead of her, though she did frown a little bit at the sight of the tent. She had been lucky enough to have a dig house available to her excavation team for the past couple years, and had grown used to that small but significant amount of comfort. She was able to rough it when necessary, though, so merely shrugged and smiled a little. At least she would not be bored. She thanked Peter for his delightful company on their journey and his offer and requested a short amount of time to get settled before meeting the Major, but was clearly eager to do so.


Early the next morning, Peter checked on Irene to make sure that she had settled in to her accommodations (humble as they were) and to bring her a cup of tea. "I trust you had a restful evening?" He inquired, deciding not to mention that a krait was discovered in the camp while they slept. "I'll introduce you to the Major just as soon as you are ready."

That day, Irene was wearing a long, tan skirt and a crisp, surprisingly unwrinkled white shirt. Her shoes were brown, flat and sturdy, and they did not look like anything that Peter had seen in a store window. They were specially made for Irene, and they offered comfort, support and durability in difficult conditions.

"It was a very pleasant evening, thank you for inquiring, and also for the tea," Irene replied with a chipper smile. She was most definitely a morning person and appeared as energetic as ever. "I hope that you also slept well. I for one find that I sleep better when I am so close to nature. Even the air is fresher and more invigorating here." She took a sip of her tea and smiled down at her cup, apparently pleased with it. When she looked up, she shrugged a little. "If you have no objection, why don't we seek him out now? I would not want him to think that I am hiding from him; that would not at all be appropriate, now would it? We only corresponded briefly and I want to be sure that there is a meeting of minds on certain important issues."

(text by Elizabeth and HomoDM)


HomoDM said...

"Let's go then," Peter suggested, eager to get back to work after the six-month hiatus. He began to extend his elbow for Irene, but then thought better of it; he figured it was important that the Major perceive her as no less capable and independent than Humphries, Daniel, or any of the other men working at the site. Irene would have to be able to stand on her own two feet, as it were, and any displays of chivalry toward her would only draw attention to her feminine frailty.

Irene Howell said...

Irene’s thoughts were much the same when she noticed that familiar extension of his elbow, and she was relieved when he drew it back of his own accord. It would have been quite embarrassing had she been forced to refuse and to explain her reasons. Happily, Peter was a smart young man and she was saved any such trouble.

After another sip of tea, Irene follows Peter to the Major’s tent. There is not one nervous bone in her body. She has been through numerous situations like this before, in which she must defend her talents to a man, and she feels the familiar surge of adrenaline run through her. This particular conversation is somewhat easier, for she has unmistakable leverage. If he does not treat her properly—by her standard’s, not society’s—then she always has the option of taking her money elsewhere. She would not do that unless there was a very great offense, though of course the man could not know that.

da solomon said...

Major McCormick's tent is farthest from the river, just on the side of the antiquities tent that is opposite to Peter's quarters. The front tent flap is open, and you can see the Major at work within. A usual, he is in uniform. He is bent over a tiny drawing table and seems to be bearing down on it with no small force as he writes.

As the pair of scholars approach, he looks up and smiles broadly. Placing his pen in a groove on the table surface, McCormick calls them in. "Here, Peter, come out from the sun – have you had tea? I was planning on a break just now, and Mandeep should be along in a moment. Oh – Miss Howell I expect! Very happy to see you! Take a seat, if you please."

After stuffing his unfinished letter into his shirt, the Major rises and fetches two folding chairs, which he arranges near his own. As he presents Irene's chair, he bends just enough to suggest a polite bow - which is already too polite. "Peter's been showing you around?" he cheerfully asks. "Have you gotten a chance to see the fruits, as it were, of our labors? A few ancient bricks as of yet – but what interesting bricks they are, according to Jim and Daniel – ah, Sergeant Ahluwalia, just set it down here." The turbaned soldier – a big, strong man who seems a bit overqualified to be carrying tea – places the tea set on the drawing table.

McCormick begins to serve Peter and Irene. "And then there is our Pushpati amulet. 'Lord of the Beasts' – ha, well, yes, 'Pride of the Dig' is more accurate. Daniel may be jumping to conclusions with his Rudra connection." He pets his long moustache. "'Pushpati.' It's Sanskrit, but you knew that, Miss Howell? A learned lady as yourself should have quite a time touring about our camp before returning to Ihsaan Waahaan. Speaking of that, where have you found quarter?"

HomoDM said...

"I had my tea earlier, Sir," Peter says, doffing his sola topee and taking a seat as the beverage is served, "but surely no ill can come from enjoying another cup in good company." He adds two lumps of sugar as he fans his face with the helmet, which is already beginning to shine with perspiration in the heat of the morning.

Irene Howell said...

“Very pleased to meet you as well, Major,” Irene said politely, and then added, “Thank you,” when he set up a chair for her.

She balanced the saucer and cup neatly on her lap. “I have already had one very good cup of tea, but would certainly not refuse another,” she said cheerfully.

His behaviour was as she had expected, gentlemanly to the unfortunate extreme. She wondered if he had a wife and children, and could imagine that if he did then she and any daughters must surely be subservient, meek creatures. Well, he would simply have to learn to live with a very independent Irene Howell because she was not about to change in order to reinforce his stereotypes. The first hurdle was right in front of her, and Irene was positive that she could clear it with room to spare. The money did help, she had to admit; without it, she would have twice as much trouble wherever she went.

“I have not seen the artifacts yet, Major, but I hope to do so very soon. As you may remember from our brief correspondence, I have a particular interest in amulets. After my visit to this lovely country last year, I have added Indian symbolism to my studies. I do not claim to be an expert, of course, but another set of eyes can only help.”

She put on her best, most charming smile and answered his last question, “I was told by the men when I arrived that you had an empty tent, and how fortunate too! I had ordered one that is to arrive within the week, but I would have been sad to be kept away from the excavation until then. It is much easier not to have to commute to one’s place of work.”

And then she took an innocent sip of her tea, leaned back in her chair and waited for his reaction. She was ready for an outright challenge, but hoped he would be surprised enough that he would not argue with her.

da solomon said...

McCormick brought his teacup to his lips. He took a very long sip, but did not allow his eyes to drift away from Irene. There was no malice in his look, no anger, not even anything that might clearly be labeled concern. He was not surveying her – not in that masculine way to which all women must become accustomed. Just looking, gazing – perhaps not seeing. But what stifling influence this man's gaze could wield! For a moment, the only things in the tent were his two blue eyes, a tilted teacup, and a tangible silence.

He exhaled through his nose into his cup, and steam rose. Finally he lowered his cup to reveal his waxed moustache and then his mouth, and sighed. It was almost a verbal 'harumph'. "Let's see the artifacts, shall we?" The Major rested his cup on the tray and stood. He moved to assist Irene from her seat, and offered his elbow to her.

Regardless of whether or not she accepted his gesture, the Major took his time in replacing his chair, and leading Peter and Irene to the antiquities tent. He did not speak.

The front entrance to the Major's quarters was facing the back of the antiquities tent. Two guards stood at threshold. Inside, Humphries was seated at a table; before him lay a notebook and a brick and around the table were crates marked "MOUND". Too immersed in the work of recording bits of data about the remarkable piece of masonry, the Canadian barely noticed the trio as they entered. "Look sharp Jim!" barked McCormick.

Jim looked up. "Hello Major. Mister Cox. Ma'am." With no further bother, he returned to his work.

"Very well, then, Jim. We're just going to take a look at Pushpati."

Humphries was not paying attention. The Major moved to a pile of crates to Jim's left. "Most of these boxes are still empty, I'm afraid." On top of the pile was a crate the size of a breadbox. Inside was a slightly smaller steel box with a lock. "Of course, this and the rest of the most precious finds will be sent to Lahore as soon as possible, and from there to ASI HQ in Shimla." He unlocked the box with a key in his pocket. "After that, perhaps to London. Ah, and now The Lord of the Beasts."

Looking upon the piece, it occured to Irene that McCormick had been misnaming this amulet all along. She has no idea what 'push-' might have meant – nourishment, lotus, expellant? – but if he meant to call it 'Lord of the Beasts," then the name clearly should have been 'Pashupati'.

Likewise, it dawned on Peter that Pushpati was a woman's name; in fact, the name of one of his nurses from the previous Autumn. The Major must have been mistaken - or perhaps Daniel was, but this is much less likely.

(Irene passed her Sanskrit check. Peter passed his Hindi/Urdu check.)

HomoDM said...

Peter clears his throat. "Pushpati? Are you quite certain of its nomenclature, Major?"

He explains: "When I was ill last summer, one of my nurses was named Pushpati - and though she was a homely, large-boned woman, I would not be so unkind as to call the poor lass a lord of beasts!" He chuckles to buttress his weak little jest, and to soften any insubordination that the act of second-guessing McCormick could imply.

Bending down to examine the amulet again, Peter wonders aloud, "It bears no small resemblance to the antlered god depicted on the Gundestrup cauldron, does it not? I shall never cease to be amazed at the ubiquity of certain mythological archetypes!"

Irene Howell said...

Irene did accept the Major's arm; she did not mind little gestures like that and did not aim to be rude in her independence.

She picked the amulet up gently, but confidently and brought it close to her face so that she could better examine it and then placed it carefully back into its box. Her eyes stayed glued to its surface for quite some time, though, because something was bothering her. Soon, she realized what it was: someone had made a mistake, one she had not noticed because she had not been expecting it, but had merely trusted that the Major knew what he was talking about. But when she read the words, they did not come out as “Pushpati.” And now she had a dubious honor of pointing it out. She really did not want to do it—for who would believe a woman who was primarily an Egyptologist?—and thus she was grateful when Peter spoke up. After his comments, surely her opinion would not be disregarded.

“Mr. Cox has an excellent point,” Irene said. “‘Pushpati’ does not translate as ‘Lord of the Beasts.’ That would be ‘Pashupati,’ which is indeed what has been written. But beyond that, I can be of little immediate help. It really is a distinctive figure, though there are indeed some striking similarities to the younger antlered figure on the coffin.” She leaned in again, and squinted. “Why, it almost looks like it has three faces, but that might be a trick of the carving.”

She straightened and smiled a little, “In any case, I am happy to offer the books I have brought with me as resources, and any that we do not own among us I will begin acquiring this very afternoon.” She firmly believed that one key to a successful dig was having every relevant book and article available for reference.

da solomon said...

The Major coughed. "Miss Howell! Of all the . . . What are you talking about?" He seemed offended Irene's assertion. At first, she was taken aback (but truthfully unsurprised) by the military man's indignant tone. Oh, his poor children, to be berated with such sanctimoniousness. Irene could only imagine the patience or self-loathing of Mistress McCormick.

As she looked once again at the amulet in her hands, however, Irene realized that the Major's tone may have been less a matter of insult and more one of surprise.

The words on the amulet were entirely unreadable.

What she had read as Sanskrit words – indeed, what she had seen, understood, and spoken as the language of the Vedas and the Indian epics – were a collection of runic figures as unintelligible as chicken scratch.

She gasped.

"What book did we learn to read that from?" The Major raised an accusatory eyebrow to Irene and coughed again. "Regardless of our pretensions, this connection with Gundestrup is about as clear as the one with Rudra. Which is to say, without substance - for now."

McCormick scanned the pair's faces.

Though she was still recovering from her own astonishment, it was now perfectly obvious to Irene that the Major had been rattled by their linguistic corrections. His dismissal of the similarity between the Sindhi amulet and the Danish cauldron was plainly – to the young dilettante – a misplaced attempt to reassert his qualifications. Yet, the Major's blunder was still incomplete. "Wouldn't you agree, Miss Howell?"

(In order of occurrence: Irene passed her sanity check after her little shock. The Major failed his archaeology roll regarding the cauldron. Peter failed his psychology roll, but Irene passed hers; thus Irene has insight into the Major's mindset, but Peter does not necessarily. Irene's archaeology score approximates Peter's so we will assume that she is also familiar with the Gundestrup cauldron and its quite obvious surface similarity to the horned figure on the amulet.)

HomoDM said...

Peter surreptitiously shot Irene a sympathetic look, recalling the less-than-flattering estimation of the Major he had presented to her the evening before.

Indeed, McCormick's ignorance of the Gundestrup cauldron (not to mention his deliberate refusal to even consider opinions that differed from his) only diminished Peter's evaluation of him further, from that of invested amateur to borderline dolt.

But Peter was not about to say so, at least not to the Major's face, and instead replied in an amicable tone.

"Well, sir, I expect there'll be plenty more discussion on the matter in the days and weeks to come!" He said, smiling.

"Especially once Banerji and Sir Marshall return from Harappa," he added, as if to remind McCormick that his was not the ultimate authority on the subject, nor at the excavation itself.

"Hopefully, Miss Howell's charitable expansion of our working library will suggest some answers in the meanwhile. Or, perhaps another clue may be uncovered with some additional rooting in the earth."

"On that note, I suppose I should get back to it! Thank you so much for the tea. Miss Howell, Major." He replaced his pith helmet and turned to leave.

Irene Howell said...

Irene’s face turned bright red, and that was not something that happened often. She was also speechless for a moment, also a strange occurrence. Her eyes were fixed on the amulet, and she realized that the Major was right, that she must have been imagining things. But she was certain that she had seen…goodness, she had probably just looked at it for too long and her eyes had decided to play tricks on her. Or perhaps the heat was getting to her. Little things like this happened to other people, right? Surely she was not going mad! But she would not have blamed Peter and the Major for thinking that was indeed the case.

“Ah, I would say that there are obvious similarities between the horned figure on the cauldron and the one on the amulet, all the more striking because I can think of no other parallels. But that does not mean that there are any literal ‘connections’ between the two figures,” she said, recovering her composure. Not wanting to be too harsh on him, she added, “We must not make any hasty assumptions, but neither should we dismiss any possibilities.”

She appreciated Peter’s helpful words and the fact that he had not looked at her as if she was a crazy person. There was not a chance that she was staying here with the Major, so she was quick to get to her feet. “I believe I will return to my tent now, for I have a little more unpacking to do before I take a tour of the site. Thank you for the tea, Major, and please call upon me at any time of day or night if you have need of me. I assure you that I am comfortable with a myriad of different tasks.” She doubted that he would take her up on that offer, at least not at first, but perhaps someday he would see her as an equal.

“I suppose you must think me quite mad,” she said quietly to Peter as they left the tent. “I think I must have had a brief hallucination. I saw the writing and then… Well, I will not defend myself for I was clearly not thinking clearly. It will not happen again,” she said firmly. She was not sure why she wanted to convince him of her sanity, but she didn’t want anyone she worked with and liked to think ill of her.

HomoDM said...

Peter looked at Irene quizzically. "Hallucination? I'm not sure I follow."

Looking around to make sure they were out of earshot, he continued, "Though I was not able to discern the meaning of the markings on the amulet, I think your translation was probably quite a bit more accurate than the Major's. Pushpati, indeed! What a fool." He paused to look Irene in the eye. "I would hate to think that McCormick's blustering might cause you to second-guess your abilities."

Sensing that she was still unsettled, Peter offered tentatively, "Shall I walk you to your tent?"

Irene Howell said...

Irene was about to explain to Peter that the script she had first seen and read was not what was actually on the amulet, but then she realized just how mad that sounded. It had been a strange moment—beyond strange, in fact!—and she did not want to dwell on it any longer. The sooner it was far in the past, the better. Although she was determined to forget all about it, she knew deep down that she would be thinking about the incident and replaying every moment of it in her head for days and months to come.

“You are very kind,” she said with a smile, grateful both for his belief in her abilities and his offer. “I will find my own way back, for I do not with to trouble you, but I will join you at the excavations very soon. I am itching to get my hands dirty again.”