Shes waiting out a sudden shower of fifty kilo bags of rice, a gathered clutch of angry chickens flapping like their heads are off. Its raining rolls of razor wire and wooden crates of tangerines, a blood-red set of luggage for a couple on their honeymoon. The driver honked through eighteen hours of blindly climbing hairpin turns; the bus hit every dog that dared to cross the road from Chandigarh. Marys so exhausted she can barely stand among the crowd - shes praying that her bags are there, the one box in particular. At last she sees her canvas duffel sailing through the mountain air; she waves and yells to get the man to treat her box more carefully. But his ropy muscles flex and stretch across his shirtless arms and back, the sun gleams off the lines of sweat that trickle down his dusty flank. He doesn't look or heed her shout before he drops it to the ground - the box lands in the mud and dust: the sparkling sound of broken glass.
Trying not to get upset, shes swallowing her rising bile: stupid idiot! she thinks, though not referring to the man. She feels like everything shes touched has shattered in the past six months; can't even get a goddamn-box of medicines down off a bus. She knows that things are different here, shes not back home in Baltimore, but seven thousand feet above the plains of Northern India. The sun is beaming overhead, the sky the blue of early May; a soft breeze swings the evergreens, the mountains oh-so-beautiful. But the bus keeps belching diesel smoke and noise so she can't concentrate; three men are shouting in her face, each claiming his hotel is best. She'd like to turn around and leave, go find someplace to sit and cry - shes desperate for a private place to drop her pants around her knees. She has to shift from foot to foot, she hasn't gone since yesterday; the few times that the driver stopped, there wasn't any ladies room. Every muscle in her back is on the verge of spasming: sudden shooting, stabbing pains enough to take her breath away.
The closest man before her has a cancer growing on his lip; in all her years of practice she has never seen one half as big. Trying not to stare she shouts, "I'm staying at the hospital!" She sees the hope drop from his face, the pearly tumor glistening. The three men turn away as she attempts to gather up her bags; she thought, perhaps, there'd be somebody waiting for her when she came. She feels like she can't focus, like theres nothing under her control: a nauseating moment when she steps in something soft and dull. A half a dozen porters want to help her with her duffel bag, but all she sees are wasted arms on men who must weigh less than her. She doesn't want to feel this way, she thought that she had come prepared: she read the books and travel guides, the passages on culture shock. But shes never been so far from home or traveled overseas before; shes following her husbands ghost that led her to this wretched town. She makes herself meet one mans eyes, a porter with a crooked smile, her random choice because his shirts the only one not torn with holes.
They are high up in a little town where tourists come to see the snow; the valley walls with peaks of ice are lined with fruiting apple trees. Her map shows that the road ends here, the last real town before the pass -- further north are only arid mountains going on and on. But this towns rimmed by forests filled with evergreen deodar trees that rise up from the duff to try to imitate the mountain peaks. The buildings stand two stories high, their walls are mortared brick and stone; the town is just a couple blocks of alleyways and market stalls. The alley that they're walking down is filled with tourists from the plains: long-haired Western travelers and newlyweds with hennaed hands. The hotel signs are lettered in a half a dozen languages: Stay Here for Your Honeymoon and Best Place for the Hippie Freaks; Hindi, English, French and several others she can't recognize. But Mary doesn't have the time or energy to look about for anything except a place to let her aching bladder down. She'd like a clean, well-lighted place where she could trust them with her bags, a disinfected toilet and a sink to wash her face and hands.
Reprinted from Himalayan Dhaba by Craig Danner by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © Craig Danner, 2002. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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