He sat against the earthen wall, hungry and exhausted, with his knees pulled up in front of him, as if they could somehow shield him from what was coming. The wall was cool and damp behind him. It made him ache, the cold seeping into his bones the way water freezes inside rocks and cracks them apart.
Night sounds: wind in pines, the peep and rasping of insects, subdued human voices, fires popping. From higher up the mountain came the clack and heavy rumble of a rockfall; the dirt floor quivered with its subtle seismic waves. He was alert, by now, to any sound that might promise deliverance, but the slide had probably just been set off by gravity or by one of the myriad little temblors that rattled the mountains.
He drifted in and out of sleep. Dream images seemed to appear on the hut's dark walls. He was back in California, walking with his daughter in sunlight. They passed under a tree, and leaf shadows danced across her face. She smiled at him and asked a question, but she spoke in a language he didn't understand. He tried to make out her words. She grew frustrated, then, and finally strode on without him. When he tried to follow, he found that he had taken root there. He watched her walk away for what seemed hours, until she was lost, a speck on a smudged horizon.
"Peter," said a voice. He shuddered. "Try to stay awake." It was Devi. "We don't have much time."
He dreaded sleep, and he desired it more than anything. "Right," he whispered. Even more than sleep, he wanted water.
As the dream receded, he saw reflected firelight playing on the wall, and he could just make out Devi's silhouette and shadowed face. Alex, his daughter, lay curled on her side, asleep, her head in Devi's lap. Her skin was covered with grime. He and Devi had decided to wait, to awaken her as close to the end as possible.
Devi's eyes gleamed in the darkness. She sat cross-legged, her right hand on Alex's shoulder, her left on her own knee. She was strong, formidable even in stillness, her face serene. She was only a year older than Alex, but the troubles of her life had tempered her to a degree that was becoming fully evident only now, when others would have broken and she did not.
Ten or twelve people crouched or lay in the hut, people who had presumably been here far longer. There was quiet moaning, though it was impossible to tell if it came from those who slept or those who were awake, whether it was due to hunger, or cold, or thirst, or dysentery, or indeed some combination of all these, to the general deprivation and depravity of the place.
Teenagers with rifles loitered outside, smoking and laughing. The hut reeked from unwashed bodies and from the plastic five-gallon bucket in the corner that served as a latrine. During the day, a cloud of flies hovered over it, and there was, of course, no toilet paper. Everyone's clothes stank of shit. Peter had averted his eyes, a couple of hours earlier, as Alex squatted miserably over the bucket, her pants around her ankles, emptied by diarrhea until her bones seemed to grow through her gleaming, sweaty skin.
She finally crawled back-but to Devi, not to him. She would be eighteen in three weeks. Would have been eighteen, that is, if things had not gone so quickly and catastrophically wrong. Civilization's comforts had turned out to be a thin crust of ice over deep, cold waters, and it had taken only a couple of days to reduce the three of them from their comfortable life in Kathmandu to this.
Soon they would have to clump together to hold off the cold. The camp sat in a valley at twelve thousand feet, choked with rhododendrons and mist. Someone lit a kerosene lantern outside, and its yellow glare pressed into the hut, filtered into tiny specks by the tattered burlap hanging in the doorway. An avalanche of cool air gathered at the head of the valley and began to roll down, stirring the trees. Peter heard it for fifteen or twenty seconds before it finally blew into camp, flapping canvas and filling the air with dust. The lantern swayed, splashing light around drunkenly. Somewhere a piece of corrugated tin made a woofing noise and a dog barked back. The door curtain billowed in, and outside stood a short, skinny kid with a Kalashnikov half as tall as he was. He glanced in at them, looking indignant that he had to be there at all, barefoot in the night. His eyes had the contemptuous glare of most of these soldiers, kids who had been forced from their families by hunger and fear, who couldn't afford the softnesses of childhood.
After a few minutes the wind died as fast as it had started. Outside, a boom box came on, playing American heavy metal.
Peter cursed himself, remembering his conversation with the commandant. He'd been outflanked without even realizing it. Now he was trembling as much from fear as from cold. He wished he could believe in something comforting, but he was long past trying to convince himself. Anyway, when they came for them, what difference would it make? So what if you wept, begging, as he half expected to do? A couple of minutes later it would all be the same.
Someone shouted outside. Peter pulled himself further into wakefulness and looked around. Devi hadn't moved. Alex breathed softly. He'd missed a leech inside his boot, he was sure of it now, but he was too exhausted to go rooting after it. Scratching at the bites just made them bleed, anyway.
In one way the feeling of relinquishment was a relief, as if he'd been pulling an oxcart his whole life and had just walked over a cliff into free fall. He didn't know how to reconcile this feeling with all the others-with the dread, with the regret and guilt about his daughter and Devi. His mind seemed to be fracturing into prisms, like a piece of quartz struck with a hammer. Each piece refracted the world differently, and cohesion had become impossible. Was this really new, or had he just failed to realize it until desperation and despair made it plain? There was argument inside his head, even a kind of war, as if the violence outside had finally kicked down the doors and stormed in, knocking everything askew.
He'd hold out hope until the very end, he couldn't help it. And even though he probably wouldn't pray, he wasn't above a little bargaining. If you took man to be made in God's image, this made more sense, anyway. Mercy was in short supply, but commerce was common as dirt and understood by everyone.
He formed the offer in his mind and sent it out: Kill me, then. I'm all I have to trade. But let Alex live; she's worked hard, and she's young, and she deserves to see something come of it.
As if this thought had somehow penetrated her sleeping mind, Alex stirred and murmured. "Dad?" she said.
"Here." His voice a dry rag in the wind, caught on some nail.
She crawled toward him. He met her halfway and helped her to his little section of wall. She draped herself across his lap, facing out, toward the doorway, and he stroked her hair. He'd always done this when she was a child.
She whispered, her throat parched, "Will anyone find out what happened to us?"
He knew what she meant by this; she meant her mother. He doubted anybody would ever know. He wasn't sure Cheryl would care, anyway, at least about him, but there was no reason to point this out. "It might be better if she didn't."
Alex lifted a hand, then touched her fingertips to the packed earth, as if testing its solidity. "I guess so."
She adjusted her position. Her ribs pressed on Peter's thigh, and his foot was going to sleep. He wanted her to be comfortable, so he held still; he wouldn't be needing the foot, anyway, once the sun rose.
Beneath the odors of sweat and shit, Alex smelled the way she always had. The scent was like a small, shy creature, something he'd loved since she was a baby, and that hadn't changed as she grew. She had been a beautiful child and then, as a young woman, slender and smart and athletic, her hair the color of wheat and her blue-green eyes as melancholy as a late-autumn sky. The ordeal of the past day-the long march at altitude with almost no food, the bad water, and now the diarrhea-had utterly drained her strength, though, and her mind was blurring toward a forgetting that might have been more frightening had it not also been merciful.
"I want to sleep some more," she mumbled. "I hope they won't take us too early."
He stroked her hair. What world was she inhabiting? Was she delirious? She was hot with fever. In any case, it would be cruel to remind her. "Sleep as long as you like," he said. Her breathing evened out and slowed.
She curled tighter around him as the night grew chilly. A little while later he could see that Devi was still sitting up. "Are you cold?" he asked. "Do you want to come over?"
"I'm all right," she replied. "Thanks."
He felt relieved at the final word. He didn't want her to die hating him. Another thing that didn't matter, of course, but in some way it did.
"I'm sorry," he said again, quietly.
Devi exhaled. "You did your best. You just misjudged."
He lay back against the wall, shivering. What could you do with six hours? Nothing but wait.
Off in the distance someone rang a bell, and from all around the village dogs began to howl.
The plane turned into its final approach to Tribhuvan Airport, cutting down through a cottony sheet of cloud, as the sun dropped toward the western ridges. A moment of vertigo: the fuselage sliding in the air, the land tilted beneath them. An orange laser of sunlight penetrated the windows and burned through the cabin, briefly igniting faces as hands came up, reflexively, to shield eyes. They crossed a last, low range, the wings swung back to level, and the Kathmandu Valley spread out before them, green and brown, geometric with fields. The flaps came out and down, then the plane dropped so sharply that people gasped. Alex gripped her father's hand as if she were hanging from a cliff, her pupils dilated with fear.
"It's okay," Peter said. "Just how they do it here."
"How would you know?"
He shrugged, as nonchalantly as he could, because he didn't know. To the north, the great matriarchs of the Himalayas rolled into view, awash in alpenglow as the pink remnants of the season's monsoon clouds spurled beneath them.
"Look," he said, to distract her, and she peered nervously out. His eyes were on the mountains, hers on the earth rising rapidly to meet them.
"The stupa," she said suddenly, pointing at the dome of the temple in Boudhanath. "My God, it's huge."
| | |
They caught a cab into the city as the valley fell into evening and lights blinked on around them. A warm breeze pushed in through the open windows, carrying the scent of flowers, of human sweat and animal dung and diesel. Two- and three-story buildings, with shops below and living quarters above, pressed close to the sides of the street. Oil lanterns threw giant human shadows against medieval-looking stone walls.
"How you doing?" he asked.
"I'm glad to be on the ground," she said. "At least, I think so."
She turned back to the window, and he saw her fine nose, the elegant profile. Her hair picked up what little light there was. She leaned back, arranging her long limbs as best she could. It had been hard for her, cooped up so long.
He knew, of course, that there was more to it. She was far from convinced that she wanted to be here at all. He felt his own mix of emotions, stirrings of pleasant anticipation tempered by the apprehension that grew from experience.
The cab dodged through narrow streets full of people and dogs and cattle, bikes and motorbikes and three-wheeled contraptions-tempos, their cabdriver said-as well as the occasional bus. They drove on the left; Peter kept flinching at head-ons that didn't happen.
After the third or fourth time Alex looked at him and managed a tight smile. "Want to hold my hand?" she asked.
"Thanks," he said, and took it. He was gentle at first, but he gradually increased the pressure. She fought as long as she could, then she laughed and pulled her hand away.
"Now you know how it feels," he said.
"Now you know how it feels."
She was right. For her it was planes, for him traffic-and for both of them, too often, it was life in general. He didn't so much mind dealing with anxiety, though, because he knew that on the other side of it lay despair, and it wasn't a border he liked to cross. Fear was an easier land to inhabit, one for which reliable medications were available.
They swung through the neighborhood the driver identified as Naxal, then turned north, through a dark world of mooing and whistling, car horns and bicycle bells. They finally reached Bhat-bhateni, the district where Peter had rented a house. The driver found the address and pulled in to the curb. They got out and hauled their bags from the trunk. Peter counted out a stack of rupees, unfolding them one at a time, the paper worn and slick as it passed his fingers.
"Thank you very much, sir." The driver beamed, looking a little surprised. He placed his hands together in prayer position. "Namaste."
"Namaste," said Peter. The one word he'd learned.
They hauled their bags toward the door and, when the driver was gone, Alex said, "You got took."
Peter affected indignation. "Apparently you missed the fact that he worships me."
She swung her head from side to side, a display of mournful tolerance. "Dad, Dad," she said. "Took, took, took."
The house was built of bricks but with an ornately carved wooden door and window frames. A high wall surrounded it, topped with broken glass to discourage thieves. Peter found the door unlocked, so they wrestled their stuff inside.
Alex shivered. "It's freezing," she said. Peter went hunting for a thermostat. There was a light on in a room at the back of the house. As he moved toward the room, a small figure burst through the doorway and nearly collided with him. Peter jumped back a step, startled.
"Forgive me, sir!" said the woman excitedly. "You certainly good reflexes has!"
Alex laughed.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Exiles by Cary Groner. Copyright © 2011 by Cary Groner. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.