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."

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.)

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.)