Saturday, January 10, 2009


I. The Middle of the Night

Irene stayed with Peter as long as she was able, watching over his pallid, comatose form as the nurses did their best to clean and tend to his wounds, until at last she was chased from the room by Doctor Ayub, who immediately went to work stitching Peter's mangled wrist and repairing the sutures in his abdomen that had come undone in the course of his tangle with the jackals.

In the next room, attended to by a single dreary-eyed nurse, Ashan seemed to be resting on a cot. Irene was too tired by now to disturb either the nurse or Ashan, who was in all likelihood in the same poisoned state suffered by Mohan and Peter.

II. Morning, 25 April 1924

Peter had seemed in grave condition indeed, which is why Irene was surprised when she came to his room the next morning to find him up and about. He and one of the nurses had been conversing about something, but fell silent when they noticed Irene in the doorway. "Come in," Peter said to her before dismissing the nurse, who closed the door on her way out. They were alone. Peter gestured to a chair, inviting Irene to sit, but he remained standing.

"I'm leaving," he declared, his arms crossed.

"I'm... I'm sorry I did not come back for you," he stammered nervously. "I was..."


He wiped his forehead and looked at his shoes. Then he looked up at the ceiling, then toward the window. He seemed to look everywhere, except at Irene.

"I... I'm not a superstitious man. Nor an especially godly man, heaven knows. But there are ungodly things at work here. Last night, at the well... there was a light, and a voice... I swear it was giving the jackals commands... and then I looked within, and there was a face! A man's face, by God!"

His hands were shaking. Peter fumbled for a cigarette. He struggled to hold the match steady long enough to light it.

"I don't know what happened next," he continued. "It was like a dream or vision, in which I was trapped... I was in a library... no, not a library, but something akin to a library, only much more... no, grand is not the right word. Vast? Monstrous... some dark and awful repository of knowledge, Irene, knowledge not of this world. And there was a book of some kind before me, and strange letters on mineral pages... and I couldn't look away, I could only keep reading..."

He extinguished his cigarette, barely smoked, and immediately reached for another.

"I still don't have the words for what I saw in that book. I can only barely grasp it now, and the more I try the more elusive the images and sensations become. But I have no doubt that these things shall be fodder for nightmares for the rest of my days."

"This cult, whoever they are... I am convinced their power is real, Irene, and there is nothing in all my experience or education that has prepared me for it, no logic or reason, nothing in my mind or soul that can defend me against it. And I am afraid, Irene, so afraid that digging into their mysteries will be just like reading that hellish book, and that my life will become a terror from which I cannot awaken, cannot escape..."

"So, I am leaving this accursed land and its damned jackals and death cults," Peter reaffirmed, his voice stronger as he articulated his plans for egress. "I'm going somewhere safe, where perhaps in time my sanity and my spirits will recover. In fact, I shall be departing forthwith; the nurse who was here when you came in will be accompanying me, which is what she and I were discussing. We still have some details to hammer out, so I must regretfully excuse myself. I will return to camp today and collect my effects and perhaps take some notes to occupy me during my travels. I'll wire you once I have arrived, if you like, but I should hope that you not linger here much longer, either."

(text by HomoDM and da solomon)

(End of Act II.

Peter: +8 anthropology, +3 occult, +8 Urdu
Irene: +5 listen, +8 persuade

Please continue freely in this post. Action will resume when the truck arrives from Mohenjo-Daro at noon on the 25th, in a new post.)


Irene Howell said...

Irene was silent for a full two minutes after Peter spoke. She spent that time looking at his face, at the floor, at her hands, her gaze lingering on each long enough so that it became unfocused and betrayed the fact that she was really thinking deeply of something else entirely and was not at all examining anything in the room. At last, she stood up from her chair and turned away from him, and at that moment she spoke.

"You obviously have no reason to apologize," she said calmly. Her voice was strangely detached, though there was kindness in it.

She paused again, fighting with herself. Why did she feel the urge to be stern with him rather than to fawn and beg? Was that the right course? She wasn’t sure. All she knew was that she was not leaving. She was well aware that her bravery was only due to the fact that she had not had this terrifying experience that Peter had been through; under other circumstances, she might very well be the one fleeing. But she wasn’t. And therefore she had to be the strong one for now.

"I believe you, Peter, I really do," she said with a little more feeling, though her back was still to his face. "And I am very sorry for what you had to go through. I cannot imagine what it was like. I am sure that I would be just as frightened and unsure had I seen what you did. What we cannot explain is always terrifying. Though, as we’ve seen in history, sometimes what we think at first that we cannot explain might have answers, if we look deeply enough."

At this point, she turned back to face him. There was not a great deal of emotion on her face. Her eyes were kind, but her jaw was set so firmly that she looked much more determined than pitying at that moment. It wasn’t that she thought that Peter’s feelings were meaningless or unworthy, but something about them struck a chord with her, and it was a harsh one.

"When we spoke yesterday, Peter, you were so animated…so confident and capable, despite the fact that we knew so little about what was really going on. I didn’t tell you then, because I didn’t know how to phrase it, but the change in you was breathtaking. If you want to woo your ladyfriend," she added, referring to their first conversation in India, "then all you need do is channel that self-assurance and that passion." She smiled then, but only briefly.

"I cannot tell you what to feel or how to act. But I can tell you that I do not think that the man from yesterday is entirely lost. You’ve had a great shock, Peter, and if you act so rashly now you may very well regret it in the future. However, if you are truly content to leave without knowing what was done to you and what it means, then I will bid you a warm farewell. But I will stay. And I ask that if you do leave, you put your experiences in writing, for I may need to refer to them in the future."

Had that been too harsh, too unemotional? Irene hoped it hadn’t. She wasn’t the type of woman who found it easy to charm a man into changing his mind, unless it was absolutely necessary. And in this extreme case such a tactic would certainly not work. Only an appeal to whatever was left of Peter’s curiosity and knowledge-hungry mind could have a chance of success. Or at least that was what she was banking on.

HomoDM said...

Irene was not trying to be unkind, Peter recognized this much; but it was clear by her words and manner that she was disappointed in him to a degree, as it seemed he now lacked the confidence and passion that she had previously found so admirable. The unspoken implication that he was behaving in the manner of a coward, that he could and should do better than to leave her to unravel these mysteries alone, hung heavily in the hazy air between them.

But none of that was news to Peter, who had come to the same conclusion on his own, though it had not been sufficient to change the course of action upon which he had decided. For there was a fine line between bravery and insanity, and he had been fortunate to cross it and come back more or less intact. He could not be certain that he would be so lucky the next time, and was not willing to take chances.

"Thank you for your understanding," he murmured, "even if you cannot fully understand. I hope, Irene - I pray - that you never do."

He opened the door for her to leave and said, "When we are back at camp, I would like to take a few more notes of the artifacts. Perhaps, when I am feeling more like myself, I can assist from a distance." This, at least, gave Irene a glimmer of hope. "I will also copy down some of what I've collected and give it to you."

"Oh!" He exclaimed, adding, "I had almost forgotten: Ashan brought the antidote for the poison powder that was used to incapacitate Mohan. Please do not fail to collect it from him before we leave here, as I expect you will have greater need for it than I."

Irene Howell said...

Irene stepped dutifully towards the door, but she was unable to step through it—not yet. She was frustrated that nothing she’d said had seemed strike a chord with Peter, but the irritation was directed at herself rather than at him.

The situation had now progressed to 'desperate' in her mind and thus she wasn’t able to stop words from pouring from her mouth: “Peter, if you leave now I don’t know if there will be a continuing investigation,” she said, allowing the distress she was feeling to creep into her voice a little bit. It was her eyes that really betrayed how worried she was, though; they were wide open and full of uncertainty. Right then she looked like a frightened schoolgirl rather than a capable, independent woman. “What I can do on my own pales in comparison to what we could do together. Not only will I not have another mind to bounce ideas off of, I will be without a lifeline. None of the men at camp are fully trustworthy,” she said, though she hated to admit it. “I will do what I can, but do not get your hopes up too much.”

She really wasn’t trying to guilt him into staying, though she was aware that it sounded like she was. “I am saying these things because they are true, not because I want you to feel any worse than you do right now.”

Still, she could not quite bring herself to leave. This encounter felt much too impersonal and she could only think of one way to fix that. Quite suddenly, she threw her arms around him and gave him a brief but genuine hug. Normally, she wasn’t overly demonstrative, but the dire circumstances of late had left her feeling rather alone. Perhaps Peter needed a little human warmth as much as she did.

“I know that leaving cannot have been an easy decision for you,” she added in her most understanding and reassuring tone. “No doubt you are already blaming yourself more than you should be, so do not add any other weight to your shoulders. Promise me you’ll not think any less of yourself for leaving…and that you won’t think any less of me when I turn up on your doorstep in a few weeks time,” she joked lightly, trying her best to make him feel better.

HomoDM said...

"Perhaps," Peter whispered gently, "it would be best for both of us to let this go. To stop pretending that we are detectives, acknowledge that we are in over our heads, and accept that life will go on even if we don't have all the answers."

"Sometimes it is wiser to simply allow a mystery to remain a mystery. And besides, the world surely abounds with mysteries no less compelling, though much less dangerous, than this one."

He smiled. "You are a magnificent woman, Irene, and I cannot imagine that which would make me think any less of you. Though I would not wish it upon you to have to appear on my doorstep anytime soon."

Peter cleared his throat so as not to choke.

"I'll be checking myself into an asylum," he explained, his face reddening with shame. "It is not the kind of environment that would suit you... I, however, need a safe place and the assistance of experts to process.. to get me through this."

"I'll wire you once I arrive," he repeated, eager to change the subject. "Now, shall we check in on Ashan before we pack? The truck will be coming for us in a short while."

Irene Howell said...

Irene knew that Peter was thinking more clearly than she was, despite his fear. He had stopped and had reflected on everything, which she ought to have done as well. Instead, she had spent her time going over and over the information they had and plotting their next move, so to speak. And now she did feel a little ashamed about that; she ought to have thought more about him and how he might feel after his experience.

“Perhaps that would be best,” Irene agreed quietly, admitting that he had a point and trying to reassure him again that his actions were not unjustified. Obviously, though, she was not going to change her mind.

She noted his blush and put a hand on his arm reassuringly. “Peter, you do not need to justify your decision to me. You do whatever it takes to feel like yourself again. There is no shame in that, none at all.”

She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Yes, let us go to see him. I suppose that I might communicate with him while you are gone, though I would not blame him if he wanted nothing more to do with this mad investigation.”

And now she did at last step out of the door and walked over the the one next to it. She knocked three times and listened carefully for any response; she didn't want to bust into the room if Ashan was trying to rest.

da solomon said...

A new nurse, a round lady wearing a white sari in lieu of one of the uniforms worn by the others, answered the door. "Ma'am?"

Behind her, Irene could see Ashan on the bed, resting. His belly and his copious beard rose and sank with his breath. The nurse looked over her shoulder. "I think he's resting now."

The nurse stepped to the right and Irene shifted into the doorway, where she could see Ashan's face. His hands were folded easily upon his chest, his mouth was shut, and his lips were relaxed - but his eyes, his eyes were wide open.

And bulging, staring upwards. Past the ceiling.

"Do you want to try to talk to him?" she said, resigned. The woman's affect told Irene that she had little confidence that any conversations were going to take place.

The nurse stepped to Ashan's bedside and dribbled a tiny amount of solution into his eyes.

HomoDM said...

"Did he have anything upon him?" Peter asked the nurse. "Some herbs, perhaps, or a powder? He said he had brought some medicines with him."

After receiving her answer, he politely asked the nurse to wait outside and give him and Irene a moment alone with Ashan.

Once she had gone, Peter moved to the bedside and sat down, taking one of Ashan's meaty hands into his. "Ji," he murmured sympathetically, "where are you?" He feared he knew the answer only too well.

Peter's eyes glistened with tears. Turning to Irene, he said, "Look at him, Irene, look at what they've done to him! This man, stronger than either of us, wise to the ways of our enemies - if this could happen to him, do you see now the danger we are in by staying here?"

He replaced the wrestler's hand upon his chest and whispered, "Thank you, Ashan-ji, and forgive me for involving you in this. I pray your gods will bring you safely back to this world."

Irene Howell said...

Irene stood back a little ways, allowing Peter to go to his friend’s side. She didn’t know Ashan like he did, and even though the man was still in a strange state of being, she didn’t want to crowd him.

Peter’s words struck her heart most painfully. She felt guilt for what had happened and guilt for wanting to stay. Besides that, she was assaulted with a mixture of fear and curiosity that tugged her in opposite directions by the second. Stay and she might very well end up like this; leave and she would always wonder if she could have deciphered those glyphs and could have helped people because of it. It was no longer a mere mystery…enough people had died and been hurt that it was clear that this cult was indeed a danger. And at this point, who could say if their violence knew any bounds, geographical or otherwise? And few people would believe what she and Peter did...few would heed their warnings. Was it not her duty to stay behind as long as she could and do all she was able to in order to protect the ignorant and innocent?

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, talking mostly to Ashan, but to Peter as well.

After a moment, she added, “If there is anything that I can do, now or later, I...let me know,” she said, again speaking to both men. She wasn’t sure how aware Ashan was of what was going on.

She couldn’t think of anything else to say. Despite how Peter’s words had sharply reminded her of her own vulnerability and the stupidity and potential futility of remaining here, she couldn’t change her mind. Perhaps in a few days after she had time to reflect she might reconsider. But she didn’t think so. But flaunting her decision seemed wrong at this point. She wasn’t proud of what she was doing. It was the only thing she could do, at least when it came to being true to herself.

da solomon said...

Before the pair left the room, the nurse handed Peter a cloth parcel. Unfolding it, Peter revealed several little packets made from leaves. Instantly Irene and Peter both recognized the objects. "I don't know," the nurse said apologetically, "but perhaps these are his medicines? This is all he had. Do you know how to use?"

Assuming the outlanders' ignorance, she took one in her hand and opened it. The inside of the leaf was sprinkled with white powder and bits of broken nut. "You chew the leaf after the nut." She replaced the packet, half-folded, in Peter's hands. "Mind where you spit. It's just paan. I think the soldiers took two, three."

da solomon said...

(New post in 1920s India. But do continue or wrap things up here as you see fit.)