Saturday, January 17, 2009

In the Light

At noon, a small crowd of soldiers and others had gathered at the front gate of the hospital, expecting the truck from Mohenjo-Daro. It was hot and there was little wind, but everyone waited, stuck there at the gate in the sun on account of their separate and respective desires to move away from the events of the previous evening. Everyone was dressed in light clothing and light colors, which reflected the sunlight - from a distance, through the inevitable heat distortion, the group might have resembled angels, or devas, waiting at a rural bus stop.

Irene was wearing the clothes that she had arrived in, and at her feet there was a small case containing the books and personal effects that she had taken from camp. Nearby, Peter was as empty-handed as the night he had arrived. To replace his torn pajamas and the hospital clothing he had been wearing, he had been outfitted with a freshly pressed kurta-pajama combination. His heavy boots stuck out incongruously from beneath the long shirt - but aside from this, his height, his lack of a beard and a proper taqiyah cap, his light skin and European features, and finally the fact that he was smoking, Peter was the doppleganger of Doctor Ayub, who waited beside him.

It was not long before the cloud of dust could be seen rising above the scrub and few visible buildings in the vicinity. From a distance, the group could easily see that the approaching truck was filled with people. In the front passenger seat, Irene recognized Professor Humphries, and behind him several soldiers and workers – but no John Daniel. The truck, a relatively new and already worn Depot Hack, rattled and rolled to a stop at the gate, grinding the road. Humphries was the first out. He scarcely greeted Peter and Irene, and immediately, as though the relief of saying it could not be forestalled any longer, he said, "McCormick's postponing the dig."

"Why?" asked Ayub. Soldiers and workers were hopping out, the boots clopping onto the ground. Irene noticed that they were stepping around something on the floor of the automobile.

"He feels it is unsafe. Something happened last night." Humphries looked to the truck bed. "Doctor? This is John Daniel, he's been injured." The soldiers began to carefully pull John from the Hack, feet first. Humphries turned to Peter and Irene. "I think it's just temporary, but you'll have to get your things from camp. With you, Peter, this is two of our people who have met with serious injuries." Looking back at John Daniel, Humphries added, "I think he's been scared out of his wits by something. I don't think he can talk. I don't like it." He paused, considering what he had just said. "The artifacts will be brought up tomorrow. By then, Major McCormick wants archaeological personnel off the site. Miss Howell says he can make arrangements for your boo-"

"Well, tell me, man!" interrupted Ayub. "What happened to him?" The soldiers brought the stretcher to the group. Apart from his mouth and the hint of his English-style moustache, nothing could be seen of John Daniel's face behind the wrappings. Perhaps padded with cotton balls, his eyes seemed to bulge beneath the dressings.

Humphries answered, "I found him like this in his tent this morning. He said he fell from the riverbank in the night and crawled his way into camp. But since then, he's been unresponsive."

Ayub leaned over John and peered into the bandages. "How do you feel?" he asked. John, apparently conscious, turned his head away from the doctor. "We have another unresponsive man inside. You see, something happened here, too . . ."

Peter's attendant, Bhakti, had been standing quietly by. She clutched her satchel tightly on her shoulder and stared at the ground.

(Image of a 1920 Depot Hack, not filled with people, from the Model T Ford Club of America.)


HomoDM said...

Peter consciously avoided looking at Irene as Humphries informed them that McCormick, despite all his stubborn militarism, had come to the same conclusion as he: that it was simply too unsafe, and therefore unwise, to persist in their endeavour. Although it confirmed a number of his fears, he did find some reassurance in the fact that he was not alone in his judgment, and was no more a coward than the Major; and he was also relieved that Irene should no longer have any reason to insist upon remaining in this place. The matter, as far as he could see, had been decisively settled, though it was regrettable that it took the loss of John Daniel (who, though alive, was most assuredly lost, at least for the time being) for this to happen.

Perhaps now McCormick would also be more open to considering the existence of a native cult and their role in the series of grisly tragedies that had at last resulted in the dissolution of this archaeological enterprise. But in this fantasy of vindication, Peter derived no satisfaction, for his objective now was only to escape as quickly as possible, and he was the first to board the truck, offering a hand up to his nurse and then to Irene, if she would consent to take it.

Irene Howell said...

Irene felt the absence of Peter’s gaze as strongly as if he had been staring right at her. This news wasn’t enough to make her leave the country, but it was enough for her to concede that they all needed to take a step back and regroup. Her stomach turned over quite unpleasantly, but after seeing Peter the other night it was difficult to imagine anything as terrible.

One comfort was that she did not need to worry that McCormick and Humphries would think she and Peter were insane. But…there was still her previous suspicion to deal with: the possibility, nay the likelihood, of an informer in the camp. She had suspected John because he had found the brick, but now it was obvious that he was innocent. At least, that was most likely the case; would anyone do this to themselves to escape detection?

Irene ignored Humphries, though she did listen to his words, and she went to John’s side. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I can’t imagine what—” She cut herself off, realizing she was going to babble. What she wanted to do was reassure him that when he was ready to talk, that she and Peter would understand, but she couldn’t find a way to phrase it that seemed right. Therefore, she merely put a hand very, very lightly on his arm and fell silent.

She was feeling guilty for not telling him more about her suspicions, though at that time she hadn’t had any real evidence that something this dangerous was afoot. Then her mind wandered a little and she wondered why his only words had been so mundane…why hadn’t he said anything about what he had seen? Or perhaps his mind was in shock, was refusing to admit seeing things that it could not explain.

At last, she turned away and addressed Humphries, who was looking much more in confident than last time she’d spoken with him. “I would like to return to camp today and pack my things personally, and I would also like to oversee the movement of the artifacts,” she said. She’d phrased it as a statement rather than a request on purpose. She had a feeling that they didn’t want her to go back, but she needed to be sure that the artifacts were packed and transported safely. The material culture was key to understanding what made the cult tick. If there was a spy somewhere in the crew, who was to say they would not try to tamper with the bricks? “But, yes, I definitely agree that it is the safest and wisest course to postpone the dig. We don’t want to invite any further danger.”

da solomon said...

"Oh, I expect that Major McCormick might appreciate the help in moving the artifacts. These men," Humphries glanced around at the soldiers, and lowered his voice, " don't exactly have gentle hands." He rocked on his heels once. "Well. I see you have your bag and that you're ready to go, Miss Howell." He pulled his own bag from the truck and added, "I'm not going back myself."

"Sir," interrupted Ayub, after directing a few of the men to bring Daniels into the hospital. "What is the nature of his wounds?"

"You'll see for yourself." The doctor leveled his gaze at Humphries. His beard and cap leant him the serious airs of both a doctor and a mullah. "Ah, well," the Canadian continued, "It looks as though, when he fell, our friend landed entirely on his face. He's quite cut up. Gopala there" – he indicated one of the men bringing Daniels into the hospital – "tended to his wounds, and is of the opinion that they are not serious."

Ayub looked doubtful. "A man does not just 'land on his face' and call it a light injury!"

Humphries' tone took on a sharp edge of defensiveness. "I assure you we brought him here as soon as possible! If he hadn't been hiding in his tent all night – from God knows what – we might have had him here even sooner!"

HomoDM said...

Peter was plainly impatient to leave. Although he felt badly for John Daniel, he was not at all curious to see the extent of his injuries, and he felt confident that the man was in good hands (as he could personally attest to Dr. Ayub's skill at surgical repair). What more there was to the story of what had happened at camp last night he was perfectly content to hear on the ride back.

But then something stopped him in his tracks.

"..landed entirely on his face.."

"..hiding in his tent all night.."

The face in the well: it did have a terribly familiar cast to it! And had not Ashan dropped an armful of heavy rocks onto the dreadful visage before it had a chance to disappear?

Peter looked down at the bandaged John Daniel, and a horrible certainty began to materialize in his mind.

His realization was made all the more unbearable by virtue of the fact that he could do nothing, for to accuse John Daniel of sorcery would invite ridicule and doubt as to the soundness of his intellect.

To his own surprise and dismay, Peter found himself considering a far darker course of action; for he was now sorely tempted to finish the job Ashan had started, and it was only the threat of imprisonment that stayed his hand.

My God, he thought despondently, is this what I've become?

In the end, Peter said and did nothing about John Daniel, for now more than ever it was imperative that he find his way back to a safe place, and be restored to a safe state of mind. The cult and its doings, he resolved, would detain him no longer.

da solomon said...

(Please feel free to continue conversations here, or to, at least, make a brief accounting of your characters actions before the next scene. The next scene assumes that Peter and Irene, along with Mukherjee and several of the soldiers who have been at the hospital - guys the characters know by now, like Kiran, Saagar, and so on - will be returning to camp. The next scene will go up in th emain India blog soonish, but if you feel like your characters would have done something (at the hospital) before it takes place, it's no problem to retro-con those actions by playing them out simultaneously in this post.)