Thursday, January 22, 2009

Resolve and Resolution

What great noise the truck made as it traversed the dirt track that served as the main thoroughfare to camp. No one spoke, but there was no such thing as silence. There was the grinding of stones and dirt under rubber, the creaking of stiff suspension, and the growling of the truck's engine as it pulled its human load over the land's low rises. Birds fled before it, chirping their agitation. A group of nomads were resting near the track, and the noise roused their camels, who showed their disdain for the interruption by bearing their teeth and uttering their strange camel noises. The nomad children chased after the truck, throwing stones and yelling, "Booree nazarwalee, hamen mat dekh!" One child removed his sandal and tossed it ineffectively down the road.

Neither the stones nor the shoe ever came anywhere near the Hack. As the children disappeared behind a rise, Peter looked down into his empty hands and then to the floor. What few virtues Peter dared to count as his own seemed to be threatened by this place. It was these virtues – his decisiveness, his confidence in matters of human history – that bound his resolve to go out into the world, and if they were loosening, then his will to be a part of it, let alone to subject himself to the hardships of life in the very fringes of the Empire, would fall to tatters. He wanted to leave very, very much. "Evil eye guy, don't look at me!" the children had cried. He had wished he had a rock or even the impudence to heft his own boot at the children. Five hours at camp – only five more hours, and he could take himself and his things away from the Mound of the Dead, and under the careful guard of Bhakti, he could return to a place where he could recuperate in peace.

While Peter collected his things, Irene headed to the antiquities tent to oversee the packing and ordering of the finds. The Major was already there. "Ah! Miss Howell! I'm happy to see that you remain undiminished!" he said, smiling earnestly.

"There has been some new mischief in camp – ah, so, Professor Humphries gave you word. Very good – I mean, it is a pity, but a temporary hold on operations seems to be the best course of action. What can be gained by continuing on with a dig that's cursed?" Before Irene could offer an answer – for she surely had several – McCormick clarified himself. "I mean it metaphorically, of course . . . but the sentiment is popular among the men right now. If I don't call things to a halt," he said not entirely unapologetically, "I'm sure the laborers will abandon us anyway. They insist that something preternatural has been happening here. This very problem is ubiquitous in the minds of the Crown's tropical subjects, as I'm sure you know. Yet this time the case is that unfortunate circumstances, crime, and native hokum have conspired to make continuing here more trouble than it's worth."

"I suppose you have only our well beings in mind," Irene suggested, charitable as ever. She moved to the table and took the catalog in her hands.

"Yes, I do – first Cox and now Daniel. About Professor Daniel: He said that there was an accident – this much he passed to Humphries before going mum. Humphries is convinced that something has disturbed the man into silence, and I tend to agree with him. I don't mean to alarm you, but in my opinion, Professor Daniel has met with foul play at the hands of some person in camp. I think that Daniel refuses to speak for this reason: he fears retribution at the hands of the laborers.

"Indeed," McCormick continued, "we have our suspect in captivity at this very moment. Yes! He's all tied up in the sick tent. A man named Navid. You see, it had occurred to me that while all of my men were accountable during the theft, the local labor was not. So, Sergeant Ahluwalia and I set about questioning each and every worker on the payroll. I say, unless all fifteen of them are acting in concert, they were indeed all accountable the night of the intrusion. But, my questions didn't end there! I asked them about last night, when Daniel was injured. One of them claimed that he was in camp. But no one could remember him there. I confronted the man with this and he silenced himself. I think that this man attacked Daniel. He may even know something about the vandalism!" McCormick was pleased with himself – it was obvious to Irene that this had been the source of his earnestness in greeting her. He had wanted to show off.

"Of course, it all would have been much easier to accomplish if the professor would only have had done the fingering himself – but these Bombay babus are squeamish if nothing else – and, besides, he may know something that we don't."

Could it possibly be as simple as this? Irene knew better - and surely the Major knew, too, that this was an imperfect resolution to the affair.

McCormick noted the concern on her brow. "It's a temporary hiatus at worst. Nevertheless, it is time to move what we have to some safer place. I've already been over the catalog there, and I believe everything is in order. If you like, you can give it another look. But do be ready to leave at seven o'clock."


HomoDM said...

Peter went straight to his tent. He would not require five hours to get his belongings in order, for he was practised in the art of expeditious travel. Quickly, he changed into something more utilitarian, leaving the hospital garb in a rumpled mass on his cot.

He then found his pistol, checked it, and placed it in a holster which he then clipped to his belt, resolving not to be caught so ill-prepared as he was on the night at the well. For good measure, he slipped his folding knife into his pocket.

He then picked up some blank sheets of paper and rolled them up to fit within a leather map-case, along with a piece of charcoal. Although eager to depart, there was a matter of unfinished business to which he had to attend, and he did not plan on leaving empty-handed.

Thus equipped, he made for the antiquities tent to find Irene.

da solomon said...

As Peter closed in on the antiquities tent, he was intercepted by Sergeant Mukherjee. "Peter-ji. Ek minute rakhana. Major has arrested the man responsible for Professor Daniel's injuries - he believes that they were not accidental injuries. Would you care to see the man - maybe you will recognize him? He is just over there in the sick tent. His name is Navid."

HomoDM said...

Peter received the sergeant's bulletin with mixed feelings. On the one hand, little else would have made him more glad than to learn that John Daniel was not involved with the cult or its heathen sorcery; on the other, if he was indeed correct as to how Daniel had received his injuries, then it meant that, not only would he escape without consequence, but that an innocent man would be punished in his stead.

Surmising that Irene's business in the antiquities tent would likely occupy no small amount of time, Peter accepted Mukherjee's offer. Moreover, he figured, it would likely be only opportunity he might have to speak to the fellow, Navid, alone.

Peter surreptitiously took note of how many men were guarding the sick tent before he asked Mukherjee, "I assume the suspect is bound or restrained somehow? I would like to ask him some questions in private, if that would be allowed."

da solomon said...

One man stood guard outside the tent, and one man inside. Respectively, their names were Ravi and Rakesh, if Peter remembered correctly.

A few feet from Rakesh's feet, there was a young man, seated in a chair. He wore a simple red shirt over a white dhoti. His feet and hands were bound to the legs of the chair, and his head hung low. Some of his long hair hung over his face. He was resting for now, but his brows were knit tightly and his strong arms were tense - there was a desperate energy in him, waiting for the right moment.

"He is securely bound, you can see. But: things have not been normal here," Mukherjee explained. "You will remember what happened to Saagar last night. You have already been wounded enough, I think. If your aim is to see if he will divulge any secrets to you that he would not to us, then I am thinking that your efforts will be in vain. You are a ferenghi – what will he tell you?" He stroked his beard, which was tied into a knot beneath his chin. "But perhaps you can tell us if you have seen him about at all."

No, Peter did not recognize him from anywhere.

HomoDM said...

"I have not," Peter said. He stepped outside the tent to light a cigarette and motioned for the sergeant to follow, walking a short distance away before speaking to him quietly.

"Sergeant, I cannot help but feel that something odd is going on here. I was very surprised when you told me that Daniel had been attacked, for I was informed earlier today by Humphries that, when questioned about his injuries, John Daniel said he hurt himself in a fall from a riverbank. He made no mention of any assault against him."

"I am at a loss as to why he might omit such a vital detail. I suppose one possible explanation is that his injuries rattled his brain and he was merely confabulating, or perhaps he simply did not want people to panic. Yet another, more troubling possibility, is that he had something to hide."

Peter's voice assumed a somewhat conspiratorial edge as he said, "I should advise you that what I am about to say strains all credibility and requires something of an open mind to fully consider. Can I trust you to listen without prejudgment, Sergeant Mukherjee?"

Peter continued, "I have sources, whom I am unfortunately not at liberty to reveal at this time, who believe that a cult is behind the attacks on our party, and who further believe that John Daniel is affiliated with this cult. Now, ordinarily I would dismiss such talk as superstitious nonsense, but I have learned and experienced things in recent days that have forced me to revise my understanding of what is possible in this world."

"Do you remember the jackals, Sergeant? Would you think it possible that, last night, a jackal made it into the hospital and into the very room of the man who stabbed me and chewed out his throat? For that is exactly what happened! Miss Howell bore witness to the aftermath, if you need to corroborate my report."

"One hypothesis of mine, and it is only a hypothesis, is that Daniel sustained his injuries during the course of some occult activity. As far-fetched as that may sound, I have my reasons to suspect he is involved, and it also introduces some serious doubt in me as to whether your captive did that of which he is accused."

"Granted, I do not know what evidence your men have against him, or what motive you have identified for his alleged crime, but I am curious to know what he might say in his defence were he to be given the opportunity to be heard by a sympathetic listener, and whether he might independently provide any details that would either help to support or disconfirm my hypothesis."

"But most importantly," Peter concluded, "I do not want an innocent man to be punished for something in which he had no part." He threw the butt of his cigarette on the ground and rubbed it into the dust with his foot. "So I ask again: may I question him? You would be present, of course, but I think the fewer people that are involved, the better."

da solomon said...

"Evidence? We are looking for it. Navid refuses to answer our questions, and he cannot be accounted for last night. We already know that he was not in camp. Professor Daniel's silence suggests to the Major that he is hiding something, and the Major thinks that what he is hiding is that he was actually attacked." Mukherjee grunted. "I do not know. Both of us are quite sure that something unusual has happened. Major McCormick is doing what he can to resolve the matter."

Mukherjee grunted a second time. "I will dismiss the men, but I will be there with you."

He led the way back into the tent and the guards away. He ordered them in Urdu. "Do not go far."

HomoDM said...

Once he and Mukherjee were alone with the prisoner, Peter situated himself across from him and gave his best disarming smile.

"They tell me your name is Navid," he said in Urdu. "My name is Peter. I am not a soldier. I am an archaeologist, which means I learn history by studying that which people left behind long ago."

"They tell me you are suspected of attacking one of our men. This, I do not know. I myself think it is possible that he was hurt some other way, and I feel it would be wrong to punish you if what happened was not your fault."

"If you can convince me that you are innocent, then I would be willing to speak to the Major in your defence, but to do that I need to hear your story of where you were and what you were doing when our man was hurt."

"Please, Navid, tell me all you can remember about last night, even if you think I might not believe you. Perhaps you saw or heard something strange, and you are afraid that people will say you are lying. But I have seen and heard many strange things here myself, so I may be more open to believing what you say."

"Will you talk to me, Navid? Help me to help you."

Irene Howell said...

Irene was surprised to see the Major looking so cheerful. That hardly seemed proper considering the events that had happened in quick succession. John Daniel was in the hospital in shock and all this man in front of her could say was that there had been “mischief?” Why, it was unbearable! The Major did not give her time to argue or voice her opinion, which was probably for the best. If she had stopped him, the conversation would have been much more difficult. Besides, McCormick was a wealth of knowledge and he flowed most freely when uninterrupted. And she was much more interested in all the little details he was throwing out than what he would ever guess, no doubt.

When he went on to mention what exactly John Daniel had said to Humphries, Irene listened very intently, her brow furrowing slightly as she became more intrigued and also more perplexed. An accident… John had lived here all his life and was no doubt familiar with the culture and religions; perhaps he was more familiar than anyone had ever guessed. What if he had suspected that supernatural forces were at work (Irene wasn’t sure she believed that, but she was not counting it out!) and he had…done something. To try to help, of course. It was hard to believe that he would do otherwise! After all, if he had been an “inside man” for their enemies, then why would they jeopardize everything with a bumbling theft? It just didn’t add up…

Irene wondered if she ought to have stayed at the hospital and encouraged John to talk. She would not likely have any more influence than Humphries, but it was possible that she could gain his trust. But she supposed that she could attempt the feat at a later time. Perhaps Peter would have some advice. Before he left, that is…she had nearly forgotten that, or perhaps her mind simply refused to accept it.

As soon as McCormick mentioned a suspect, Irene groaned inwardly. They’d already seen what happened when anyone involved with this cult was captured. If this man had any information, if he was any sort of threat, then she expected that a jackal would be coming for him very soon. Had McCormick never heard of tact? Of keeping an eye on a suspect, of following him and letting his actions be his own downfall? That was the best way to gain information, at least it was in a case like this one. Once it was obvious that a person was a suspect, it was much harder to extract the information without becoming brutal. And talk under torture was not always truthful talk. Of course, Irene was being uncharitable, for McCormick surely didn’t know about Mumbles when he’d taken Navid into custody. But still…she feared that his mind did not work in the right way, so to speak, not for this case. He was too much military at heart, too singleminded and not interested in pesky complications. He saw a straight line where there was a series of overlapping circles!

When McCormick smiled again, it became obvious that he was babbling on and being so cheerful about it because he was patting himself on the back. Pride in one’s self was a good thing as long as it was not carried to extremes and was merited. In this case, Irene wasn’t sure if the Major should be quite so pleased with himself. But he had spotted an anomaly and that was the best he’d had to go on at the time. Still, his suspicions rested on very thin ice.

Squeamish? she thought, frowning ever so slightly. Good Lord, could he be anything but condescending? Now was not the time to quibble about cultural imperialism, though. She had a feeling it would be like talking to a brick wall if she did ever decide to try it.

As much as Irene was tempted to go and talk with Navid, she suspected that Peter would take the opportunity to do so. He spoke the language well and, besides that… Oh, it was a selfish thought, but Irene thought that if Peter became involved again, if he spoke with someone who was affected by this mystery, then he might change his mind about leaving. Best that she left him alone and saw to her own work. It was a good deal more boring, but necessary all the same.

“I will look everything over,” Irene said, determined to see as much as she could with her own eyes before they had to leave. And if she was not ready, they could hardly leave without her. That was another selfish thought, but Irene wasn’t going to sacrifice looking for clues or double-checking the inventory because McCormick had picked an arbitrary time to leave by.

She was about to let him leave, but then a thought struck her. “Are any of the men who worked under John’s supervision on the dig still around?” she inquired. She tried to think of a way to disguise her true intent, but decided not to bother. She’d simply soften it. “I could use a little help moving some of the crates, and could take advantage of the time to ask a few questions.”

Since she knew McCormick wasn’t going to admit that she, a mere woman, could get any useful information out of the workmen, she added a smile and a little shrug to the end of her sentence, as if indicating that she wasn’t really serious in her intent.

da solomon said...

(Wherein Peter passes a persuade check and a history check.)

"Ji, I know what you do. I have been working here for several weeks. I broke the law, but I didn't hurt anyone. Tell Sirdar to get lost, maybe we can talk."

Peter looked to Mukherjee. The Sergeant frowned and swiveled his head. "I will be right outside. Do not take long."

"There, he has left," whispered Peter. "It is very important that you tell me the truth now."

"I am telling you the truth. I did not hurt the other historian. He got himself hurt."


"Sahib, if I tell you this, you will tell the army guys that I was there, and then I'm finished."

"If you don't tell me, McCormick will surely send you to Kala Pani. Have you heard of that place?"

"Bhai Parmanand was there. There are sharks. I know. I can read the newspaper when there is enough anna." Navid swallowed. His head sagged even more. "Kala Pani is my karma, but I will tell you this more . . . I want to tell someone. I did see the other historian last night. The cuts on his face are his karma."

Peter implored him, "You must tell me more. I cannot help you with just this."

Navid looked at Peter squarely for the first time. "I do not think he is your friend, because you are English and he is Indian. It will not help either of us, but I will tell you more.

"He sat on the river bank, as if meditating. It was him. He repeated something, but not a mantra. It was longer, poem-like. Then I saw his lap shining. There was something in his lap. After a while he was finished with the poem, and he whispered into the river. There were splashes. I think he was talking to the Big Worm."

Though he was vaguely familiar with the genre of the water dragon or the malevolent water spirit, which existed even to that day in the minds of the more rustic of his own countrymen, Peter had never heard of any such legends with regard to the Indus River. "So, to the Bara Kira you say?" he asked with considerably more credulity than he would have only a few days before.

"You know Big Worm? It lives in the river and eats cows. This is what old women say. My uncle has watered his cows in the river for forty years, and he lost a cow on two occasions only. One time it was a lion, the other a crocodile. The Hindu people say that the ghosts of the Danavas live in the water. Maybe the same thing." The Danavas Peter knew. They were among the demons mentioned in the Hindu epics, having been defeated by the gods at some point much closer to the beginning of the current universal cycle. More recently Indologists had identified them as a tribe defeated by the Aryans. One author - Peter could not recall his name, a doctoral student at Banaras University perhaps - had proposed that the Danavas were those responsible for building Harappa. The article had been summarily dismissed by later letters to the journal - yes, it was in the Bombay Indology Society's publication where he had read this. The rationale for the dismissals had been that the claim was unverfiable. This was true, but there had also been a subtext: Peter felt that the doubters had been motivated by a desire to claim Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro as the work of Aryans, whom many high casted Indians claimed as their own ancestors. The academic debate was at any rate, moot.

"I am Muslim and there is one God and Muhammed is his prophet, alayhis salaam, and I do not believe in spirits and demons." He bowed his head again. He bit his lip and continued, "I did not believe there was anything until I saw the water undulating so . . .

"The whole river swelled when the thing in the historian's lap glowed. He spoke at the water." Navid lifted his eyes to Peter. "I didn't understand what he said, but he was commanding it.

"The water worm must not like being commanded this way. After a long time, I saw the water shoot - as if . . ." He made claws with his fingers. "Throwing itself, the water was throwing itself and it hit him in the face!" Navid jerked his curled fingers lightly against his bindings as if demonstrating the talon strike of a bird of prey. He paused. His eyes were determined. "Then he fell into the mud." He swallowed. "I mean, the historian fell into the mud, and the worm went away. The water stopped moving.

"That's what I saw. Yes, I was at the river, but this is not a story that the army guys will believe. I said too much, because now you will know I was at the river last night. It's fine: send me to Kala Pani."

HomoDM said...

Peter reached out and clasped Navid's shoulder firmly. "I believe you," he said, "and I will do what I can to convince them not to imprison you. I cannot promise anything more than this. May your Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) guide your steps and guard your path."

Peter left the tent and once again took Mukherjee aside to quietly share what he had learned. "He says he saw John Daniel casting a spell by the river, that he was speaking commands to the water, and then something came out of the water and hit him in the face."

"I must tell you, Mukherjee, that his story - as idiotic and laughable as it may sound - is consistent with my experience." At this, Peter unwrapped the bandage on his wrist, and showed his new sutures to the sergeant.

"As you can see, the man who stabbed me was not the only one who met a jackal last night," Peter said, "for I saw many of them gathered around the hospital well. There was a strange light coming from the well, and a voice was giving them commands. In my foolish need to know, I went closer to look inside and was attacked - and I swear saw the face of John Daniel in the water! The Siddhar who was with me, a friend of Dr. Ayub, saw the face also, and dropped several large stones into the well, whereupon the image vanished."

"If the water-spell Navid witnessed could carry John Daniel's face to the well, perhaps it also carried those stones from the well to his face? As implausible as it seems, it would explain everything."

"I was not going to say anything about it, because I know full well how mad my tale sounds, and I would just as soon have forgotten it. But Navid's peril has moved me to speak. He thinks it is his karma to go to prison, but I do not believe in karma; I believe in justice, and it would be unjust to punish Navid for something he did not do."

"If Navid is a liar, why would he not at least come up with a believable lie? Perhaps Navid is crazy, which must mean that I too am crazy. But how could it be that we had the same hallucination, and at the same time, when we have not even spoken to one another before today?"

"I do not expect you to believe me, Sergeant. I would not have believed it either, had it not happened to me. And the Major, he is a good man, but he is also stubborn, and he will certainly not take me seriously. He thinks he has captured the culprit for the attacks against us, but I know to my soul that he is mistaken."

"So I ask you - nay, I implore you, Mukherjee: if you have any respect left for me, if you have any love for justice in your heart, if you have any regard at all for that part of you that can believe incredible things - please, do not deliver that young man to the cruel fate that awaits him at Kala Pani!"

"While I would never dishonor you by offering you a bribe, you can be certain that I would be very grateful for your help, and willing to compensate your kindness in any way that you need. Perhaps there is something to karma after all?"

"And, really, so much could happen. Perhaps the ropes binding Navid are old and worn, or perhaps he has friends waiting to free him at night... there are many ways he might regain his freedom, for which no one could be blamed. Stranger things have certainly happened here, yes?"

da solomon said...

(Wherein Irene passes a series of idea checks, an archaeology roll, a skill that she didn't know she had, and a sanity check.)

Mukherjee looked at Peter for a long time. He was thinking; his lips pushed and pulled against each other under his beard. "Peter-ji," he finally said. "We can only hope that God or the King has mercy on Navid." And with that, he turned to the soldiers and told them to resume their positions. "Thank you for the information."

A bit put off, and entirely unsure as to Mukherjee's intentions, Peter could only return to the task that he had originally meant to accomplish, and to do that, he would have to go to the antiquities tent.

The Major's cheeks bunched, his moustache lifted, and he gave Irene a toothy grin. "Naturally you will. I will send some of the men here shortly – there are at least two at this very moment standing around doing nothing at all! In Urdu, they have a word for it, Miss Howell, kaamchor, which means 'work thief' – and by God they'll not be thieving on my time!" He nodded almost perkily as he left.

It was not long before the men arrived – the Major had found three kaamchore, it seemed. All three of them were dressed in kurta dhoti combinations, and two of them wore little turbans tied in the style of Sindhi muslims. At first the three men stood in the doorway and stared. It was not, as the newspapers would claim of a rustic Indian, the stare of a pervert. Nor was it (at least, not entirely) the stare of curiosity, which Irene had grown used over her time "in the field". Rather, their expressions were those of persons compelled to enter into dialogue with an other, of whom they could have no expectations of understanding. It was a look of resignation and the expectation of some kind of failure.

"Hello. Come in," Irene told them, trying to break the communicative threshold. The eldest of the three men, a sullen faced, unshaven fellow, came as close to Irene as he felt safe, and raised his hand in greeting. "Koi kaam hai?" Irene intuited the meaning of the man's question, but too slowly. "Verk? Verk?" he explained in his best English. "You haf verk?" His change of tongues momentarily stalled Irene's thought process even further.

"Verk . . . Work! Yes! I have work." She directed them as best as she could to the crates. Through a mixture of pointing, pantomime, body language, and phrasebook Urdu, Irene managed to communicate most of her plan for the crates and their contents to the men, who set about preparing the artifacts for transport and shifting the boxes according to Irene's directions.

She gave conversation with the men a heroic effort, but it was frustratingly difficult. "You know," she asked at one point, "a man called Navid?"

They recognized their fellow's name. "Navid, jes, jes." One, a dark-skinned teenager waved his hands in front of his face. "No, no, bad." The other men laughed.

"Bad? Why is he bad?"

The men looked amongst one another, trying to decipher her words. The youngest seemed genuinely disturbed. "Bilkul samlingi hai Navid!" Immediately the older man barked a note of harsh disapproval at him. The third man quit working too, and broke out laughing, his bushy moustache spreading wide across his face. The eldest barked at him as well, and both of the younger men were quickly quieted under a string of scolds and evil-looking glances. They returned to their work.

Well! She had struck a chord with them, to say the least. But, about what? – Irene had no clue. At least it was a measure of rapport. Perhaps now was the moment to ask about John Daniel. Irene considered this and let her hand drift to the fragments of brick on the center table. They were the very same fragments broken several nights ago, and she had taken them to the table to prepare them for travel – and to take them in one last time.

She looked down upon them and, to her own surprise, their broken forms made a sort of morphological sense. She pushed the fragments nearer and nearer to one another until she had nearly reconstructed two long halves of the brick. In one half, for the first time she noticed a shape, like a relief in reverse. Irene traced the inside of this lower half of the brick with her finger – indeed, there was a long, hollow there, about the same size and shape as a cigar.

Excitedly, she flipped through the catalog and – Behold! This could explain the odd weight of the brick, as recorded by Humphries. Yet, this brick was heavier than the others by two and a half ounces, and that could only mean that there had been something denser than fired stone in the hollow. Hoping to find traces of the buried object, she moved to the other half, and started slowly turning the pieces over one-by-one, but she stopped herself. She comprehended something even more shocking now: the meaning of the runes. It was as before – the clarity of the letters' message had crept unnoticed into her brain, and now she was caught off-guard by her own ability to understand them.

They were BULL and DOOR respectively. Irene consciously shut her mouth to keep from making any sounds. She looked to the workers, who were at that moment busy carrying crates of packing and bricks outside, which would later be retrieved by a truck.

Several workmen were carrying crates from the antiquities tent. Worried that he had arrived too late to complete his work before everything was moved to a location even farther away from Berlin than Mohenjo-Daro, Peter rushed ahead into the tent. He was relieved to see the crate with the amulet resting near the work table in the center of the space. Upon the table, another relief: the bits of broken brick from the intrusion lay on the table.

Over this still life of shards and broken fragments stood Irene. Something in her expression was flaring. She squinted as though trying to make out some distant, poorly resolved form.

HomoDM said...

Peter reassured himself that he had done his best to advocate for Navid's liberty; after all, he had told the God's honest truth of his experience - but what good was the truth when it was impossible for sane men to believe? He could only hope now that what he had said to Mukherjee would strike some deep chord with a resonance stronger than his loyalty to McCormick; either mercy or greed, as long as it ultimately worked toward a just end.

Upon entering the antiquities tent and finding Irene within, he interrupted her fey reverie by declaring, "We need to talk."

As one of the turbaned men entered to continue his labors, Peter held up a hand. "Give us a moment alone, please."

da solomon said...

"Ji," said the kaamchor, as he pulled a bidi and some matches from his head wrappings and stepped back into the sun.

Irene Howell said...

Irene was thrilled with her breakthrough, though she did her best to look as if she were doing nothing special. These men didn’t seem sinister, but she still did not want to give away anything more than she had to.

And then, just like earlier that week, something strange and inexplicable happened. It was as if Irene had tapped into a portion of her mind that she did not even know existed. How could she look at the brick and just…know?

I’m going mad…again. That’s the only explanation.

She couldn’t have just looked at the symbols and suddenly been able to read them as clearly as if they had been written using Latin letters! Was her mind playing tricks on her? To believe that would make things easier, would not be nearly so frightening as the alternative, which was that something unnatural was happening to her mind.

But, despite her internal protests, she knew that she was reading the glyphs. It wasn’t a trick of her eyes or of her mind. She couldn’t have explained exactly how she knew, but she did. But who could she tell? Certainly not McCormick! Peter, of course, but he would soon be leaving…

Then, just as Peter had entered her thoughts he also appeared before her. Irene looked startled to see him, but then smiled a little, amused at the prospect—erroneous though she knew it was—that her thoughts had summoned him there.

Irene merely nodded at his statement, not trusting herself to speak yet. Her news could wait. She kept her mouth shut and her eyes focused on his face.

HomoDM said...

Peter waited for the sounds of the workman's footfalls to recede before whispering, "The Major has captured the man he believes is responsible for the attack on John Daniel."

"But McCormick is wrong. John Daniel wasn't attacked; he was injured when Ashan dropped those heavy stones into the well, for it was Daniel's face I saw there in the water last night!"

"I have spoken with the suspect, Navid, and he independently confirmed my suspicions. Without any input from me, he said he saw Daniel at the riverbank last night, that he had some glowing thing in his lap, and he was chanting and speaking commands into the water. Later, something flew from out the water and struck him in the face."

"I have told this to Sergeant Mukherjee also, in the hope that he will find it in him to help Navid to freedom, but I don't think he believed me. I can hardly blame him for that. Similarly, I am certain it would be futile to attempt to sway the Major, for the man doesn't even respond to the obvious, let alone the incredible."

"Anyway," he said, "I came here to ask a favor. Let me take the Pashupati tablet with me to Europe and have it examined by experts on language and lore. This will allow me to assist you without having to be here amidst this mess of murder and madness - and now magic, too, I suppose. It will also prevent the cult from obtaining it, if such was their goal when they invaded our camp."

Irene Howell said...

Peter’s explanation of the events that led to his and Ashan’s catatonic-like experience took Irene completely by surprise, so much so that her mouth fell open. She was more than a little annoyed that he hadn’t mentioned that he’d seen John Daniel’s face in the well before. All of her assumptions of the man’s innocence were now called into question…though not yet torn apart completely. Her irritation caused by Peter’s reticence as well as her admiration for John joined forces to combat the acceptance of the most simple, logical approach: that John was unquestionably guilty of…something. Perhaps he had tried to do something good that had gone very wrong.

She decided to answer Peter’s question first, in case she forgot it in the midst of the things she had to discuss with him.

“Peter, your intentions are good, but I am not sure that removing the tablet is a very good idea. The more people you show it to, the more people who will be put in danger. There is no guarantee that Europe will be a safe haven, either from physical or…magical attacks.” There, she’d said it as well. She couldn’t ignore it anymore, for as much as it confused her and messed with her preconceptions of reality, there was a mystical force or forces (for how else did she explain her knowledge of the ancient writing) at work here. “If we could find a way to send the tablet safely away from here, one that would not raise suspicion—for surely they will think of your leaving and wonder what you are taking with you—then that would be ideal. Copies could be made, of course, and perhaps a cast of it as well. At least then the information would be preserved…”

But she was rambling on and so she stopped herself. Besides, now was a very good opening for what she had to say. “In any case, Peter, I am not sure that language experts will be needed. I do not claim to understand how, but as I stood here in front of the brick, I just…just knew what the symbols meant, as if the information had been implanted by some invisible force! Though I could never give you a scholarly explanation of the glyphs, I know that they read ‘bull’ and ‘door’ as surely as I know my own name. So if I can read these, then I can, or should be able to in the future, read the Pashupati tablet.”

She paused slightly, then ventured, “Perhaps the supernatural forces at work here are not all on the side of our enemies. I do not know if there is any mythological parallel for this situation, but it seems that someone or something is helping us.”

And then, before he could respond, she held up a hand. “One more thing, before I forgot the phrase that the workmen spoke… I heard about poor Navid and I asked the men a bit about him,” she added, lowering her voice out of habit, though she knew they’d not understand her. But they would understand the next thing she had to say. “One of them said something…'bikul samlingi hai Navid,'” she repeated, though she knew her accent was terrible. “Then one looked angry and one laughed. What does that phrase mean?”

HomoDM said...

Peter did his best to translate Irene's imitation of the workers' speech. "Er, um.. if I understand correctly, they may have meant that Navid is a man who has sexual intercourse with other men. Or perhaps they were forecasting his fate once he is imprisoned."

"While I am at a loss for an explanation as to how you are able to make sudden sense of the Pashupati characters, I'm highly skeptical as to whether there are supernatural forces working in our favor. They certainly didn't do Ashan any good, and he is a holy man. Perhaps you can ask him," he added dryly, "assuming he ever recovers."

Still speaking quietly, Peter continued, "As for the tablet, I should probably confess that this would not be the first time I expatriated an artifact on my own initiative. Since we know that there are thieves about, it would be easy enough for McCormick to conclude that it was stolen by some local brutes. At any rate, its absence would not be noticed until all the artifacts were once again unpacked, which probably would be some time from now. By then, the tablet and I would be long gone, and I would be very much surprised if the cult's arm is long enough to harass me where I'm going; jackals are scarce in Germany, after all."

"Your new facility with the tablet's markings aside, I imagine that experts in Europe would be able to tell us much more about it than we could ever hope to learn here. They could tell us more about its date and mode of manufacture, for instance, or even use an X-ray machine to see if anything is hidden inside it. Specialists in the fields of anthropology and folklore might also be able to shed additional light on the mythological and cultural significance of Pashupati."

"Why don't you come with me?" Peter ventured. "With the dig suspended, you will not have much else to do here to stave off boredom, other than continuing to investigate the cult. And this, I fear, would only make you that much more of a target. Surely Europe holds its own mysteries toward which you could apply yourself; adventures to be had, vistas and spectacles you have yet to behold?"

To their mutual surprise, Peter took her hand. "Come with me, Irene. Let us save ourselves together."

Irene Howell said...

“Oh,” Irene said, nodding a little bit. “That would indeed explain the reactions.” Too bad it hadn’t been more relevant…at least not in any way that she could divine.

She had to admit he had a point about Ashan, but still... “If there are supernatural forces, there must be some sort of balance to them. I would like to think that we can combat them with science and reason alone, but…” Irene trailed off, not wanting to pursue the subject right then.

When he returned to his plan and elaborated upon it, Irene listened silently, though her eyes widened a bit when he mentioned that he had taken artifacts before. Now wasn’t the time to quibble about what and why and whether that was right, so she held her tongue. When it came to the amulet, it seemed that they had a “right” to take it, a justification that went beyond admiration of its aesthetics or interest in it as a piece of material culture. If they could figure out its secrets, they would surely save lives.

Still, Irene was reluctant to agree to Peter’s proposal that they regroup in safer and more familiar territory. Part of her just irrationally and pigheadedly refused to leave, believed that to do so was to give up on a potential source of information, or even to show weakness in running away. As a woman, Irene was always conscious, sometimes too much so, of how her actions were perceived by others and by society. It was no slight to womankind if she did leave, she knew that, but she really had to convince herself deep down that it was indeed okay, both when it came to feminism and personal standards. She could do that, she was sure of it.

The best argument against leaving was the question of whether they could they really remove themselves from India and still solve this mystery. Irene didn’t think so. However, she had to admit that at least part of the affair could be investigated from the West, for what Peter said did make sense. And besides trying to elicit more information from persons here, Irene knew that she’d not be of much other use, at least when it came to their resources at this moment in time.

When Peter took her hand, Irene looked quite surprised and a bit confused as well. Her male friends didn’t take her hand like that and, furthermore, Peter wasn’t a very demonstrative person. Obviously he believed very deeply in what he was saying and was doing all he could to show her that it was for the best. How could she let him down now?

“I don’t know if we can expect salvation,” she said at last, staring down at their hands, though it was if she were looking past them or through them, “for what we might find out may only perpetuate our sleepless nights. But," and at this point she raised her eyes to his face, "I do know that we are partners in this enterprise and that we cannot ignore our complementary skills. We work well together...indeed, I will go further and say that we must work together. And so we must leave here together. You are very right.”

She smiled a little, partly apologizing for her early reluctance to listen to him and partly assuring him that she was wholeheartedly—or as close as could be—committed to this new plan of attack.

Then, quite suddenly, her smile widened and she almost laughed out loud. Normally she would never have thought of this, but since Peter had mentioned it… “Do you think we might be able to purloin one other artifact?” she inquired, her eyes flickering to the brick that had once had something inside of it.

HomoDM said...

"Splendid!" Peter cried, beaming. It was the brightest smile Irene had seen from him in days, and she recognized in it both delight and no small measure of relief.

Following her eyes to the broken brick, Peter noticed then the small, empty compartment within. He picked up the pieces and examined them more closely before asking, "Did you mean we should include this? Hrm."

"It would seem its most interesting part has already been taken by someone else," he remarked, setting the earthen fragments down on the table. "I suspect it might be found among John Daniel's belongings, though I have already determined that these were taken with him to the hospital. If our journey happens to take us past there, we might be able to retrieve it - but I will not consider it too great a loss if I never again pass through those particular doors."

Peter handed the leather map-case to Irene. "Here is some paper and charcoal. In the event we are parted from the tablet, it might be prudent to make several rubbings to share with experts. I will leave this to you while I find a stone similar in shape. Then, we simply have to substitute them; while you wrap the stone and pack it in the crate with the rest of the artifacts, I will carry the genuine article under my shirt to my tent and secret it in my trunk. It has a false bottom, but we must take care that it not seem too heavy should the customs officials examine it; the fewer items we take, the better our chances of not being discovered."

da solomon said...

As Irene started work on the prescribed rubbings, Peter set out to locate an appropriately sized and weighted stone. Just beyond the mound itself, he found the perfect spot, a pile of rock rubble left by the workers. Here, it was no difficult task for Peter to locate the right stone, almost perfectly tile-shaped, to replace the Amulet of the Horned God.

As he tested the replacement amulet's weight in his hand, he let his gaze fall upon the mound. Four workmen had gathered there for their chai, graciously provided by the cook. Two sat facing the mound with their legs in the trench, and two more sat on the opposite side, with their backs towards it.

That quiet lump, but a slight rise in the contours of the earth - Peter dreaded it. At that moment, the men seemed incredibly ignorant to him, not only for their lack delicacy on the trench, but for being so blase as to its potential dangers. Peter knew it: whatever lay beneath the mound was dangerous. And these fellows! Cheerily having their tea and sitting about; they looked no different from any other hired hands passing time at the entrance to a quaint village home, or at the gate to some wealthy sahib's house. The front porch was always a place where one could relax. The remainder of one's home was more and more private as one penetrated deeper and deeper into it, demanding stricter and stricter decorum. Much had been made of this point in the ethnographic literature on subcontinental village life, but it was not really all that different from the way Westerners regarded their own private spaces. The main interest was the material component of this gradation from public to private, namely the fact that most homes in India were built on this principle: from porch or courtyard to antechamber to parlor to bedchambers.

Peter could imagine there between the men, a gate. The mound probably had been no one's home - and even if it had, no one could know how old such notions of privacy were, and therefore whether or not they applied here. But, the question was there: If this was the porch, then what would be in the parlor?

Irene had identified the amulet as bearing two words, BULL and GATE. Had it not been an amulet after all, but a sign? It seemed far-fetched that those who had built the structure beneath the mound would have required directions to the door. Then again, the needs of religious persons were often strange, and in such contexts language could be so much more than a label.

He considered scolding the men for a moment. Nevermind, he thought - no one would be coming through this door.

HomoDM said...

Peter wasted no time making his way back to the antiquities tent. He dismissed the kaamchore outside, thanking them for their hard work and assuring them that he and the woman would be able to handle the remainder of the packing themselves. Stepping inside, he handed Irene the ersatz "amulet," collected the rubbings she had made, and carefully tucked the real artifact under his shirt and jacket.

"Well?" He asked her, "How do I look?" He wanted to make sure that his silhouette betrayed no evidence of his cargo.

Once he was confident of his concealment, he said, "I'll be back soon. Should the Major or his men appear in the meanwhile, and you would rather they not linger, you might be able to distract them by revealing the truth of Navid's aberration. Not only would this go a long way toward plausibly explaining his reluctance to disclose his whereabouts when initially questioned, I am also sure they would find some reason to quickly excuse themselves, as most men are made rather uncomfortable by frank discussions of such matters."

With a wink, Peter stepped back outside and made for his tent with as much alacrity as his deliberately nonchalant gait would permit.

da solomon said...

(Continuity note: Irene had read the marks on the brick and not the amulet as "bull" and "gate". Peter's reverie, relevant or not, should pertain to the brick.)

da solomon said...

(Action continues the next evening in Karachi.)