The alleys paved with graveled rock, the sunlight bouncing off the dust, and Mary has to squint to see, the restaurant was dark as night. The porter is still waiting with her bags beneath the dhabas sign; she tells him with her red-rimmed eyes that shes feeling better than before. Now that she has peed and cried and hasn't lost all her supplies, this tiny village doesn't seem as awful as at first it had. The porter has a friendly face, his eyes are sparkling with life; she shows him once again the name of Doctor Vikram's hospital. She knows its likely he can't read, especially her English script; his head moves in a way that Mary can't quite tell is no or yes. So she mimes as if she has a cough, walks like someone with a limp, finally rifles through a bag, pulls out her shiny stethoscope. The porter rolls his eyes and laughs, her destination obvious.
"Achhaa-ji," he says, and picks up Doctor Marys dusty bags.
He leads her from the restaurant, it isn't very far at all; he takes her down a winding maze of gravel paths and alleyways. As they walk shes looking round, a half a world away from home; she watches someone scrub a pot with dirt scraped straight up off the ground. But the sky today is cloudless and shes almost at her journeys end, anxious to meet Doctor Vikram, another one of Richards friends. Shes having a rare moment of her optimism blossoming: maybe she will like it here, this busy little tourist town. Her husband talked about this place, he worked here when he finished school: spent two months in these mountains just before they met in internship. He'd told her of the hospital, of Doctor Vikram Vargeela, a man from Southern India who runs the place all by himself. Richard called the man a saint, said Vikram had a magic touch - so long as you ignored the surgeons tendency to preach too much. Rich said the place was beautiful with lovely terraced valley walls, a temple in the forest and the Himalayas all around. But he didn't mention how it smells, the nasty open-sewer stink, the beggars with their pleading palms and exudative skin disease. This is why shes come here, though, so useless since her husbands death: her love cut down in prime of life, a stupid biking accident. She cried herself to sleep for weeks, then made herself go back to work; just couldn't care enough about her aging patients chief complaints. Her partners bought her practice for a price that was quite generous; she banked it with the million from the life insurance Richard kept. She contemplated suicide, but wasn't really serious; she tried to think what Rich would do if she had been the one to die. Thats when Vikrams card came with his yearly Christmas newsletter which hinted for donations for his hospital in India. A way to keep her husband near, it felt like such a good idea: supplies are low, the wards are full, could use a doctor volunteer.
The compound has seen better days, with patchy bits of weeds and grass - she recognizes everything from Richards color photographs. The buildings haven't changed at all, with roofs of rusty village tin, the windows glazed with wavy glass, the walls in need of plastering. She thought that this would feel familiar, as if she'd been up here before, but really it was Rich who worked here back a dozen years ago. Like all the buildings in this town, they're brick and rock and wooden beams - a painted sign in English points the way to the X-ray machine. The wards are both two stories high with wooden stairs and balconies, the courtyard beaten free of grass by years of patients trampling feet. In the center of the yard there is a stunning, ancient walnut tree: massive trunk and spreading limbs, its canopy blocks out the sky. The porter drops her bags beneath it, speaks to her in Kullui; Mary doesn't know the coins so lets the porter keep the change. The man gives her his crooked smile and brings his hands before his face. Bowing he takes one step back before he turns to take his leave.
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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