The hospital is tiny, with the buildings scattered randomly, dwarfed from east and west by massive Himalayan mountain peaks. She smells the sweet deodar smoke of someone cooking over fire, reminding her of camping in the pines of western Maryland. She wonders where the patients are, the lines that Richard once described - Vikram wrote that there was never time enough to see them all. It is sometime in the afternoon, perhaps the staff has gone to lunch; she set her watch in Delhi, though she could have turned the dial wrong. But someone should be hanging round, she knows they are expecting her; she sent a message yesterday: arriving soon as possible. The last time Vikram wrote he said theres always so much work to do - the clinic runs four days a week, with surgery the other two. Sunday is his day of rest, he preaches in the little church; she sees the tiny, empty building: a steeple and a crucifix. She tries to think what day it is, she left the States on Saturday; spent one night in the Delhi Hiltons musty air conditioning. Shes guessing that its Tuesday and it must be close to three o'clock - unlikely Doctor Vikram would take off to play a round of golf. So she leaves her bags beneath the tree with leaves the green of early spring, and wanders through the courtyard, through the echoing dispensary. The only sound she hears is someones distant whistle off somewhere. She follows it in through a door, a painted sign to Surgery.
The hall is almost black inside, the walls are stacked with limp supplies: boxes with their lids cut off, the dust has never been disturbed. Shes thinking its incredible, the storerooms loaded with antiques: surgical contraptions no ones used in half a century. She takes a cloth mask from a bin and holds it to her mouth and nose, then opens up a door thats marked the entrance to the surgery. It should be draped with braided rope, an old-time surgical museum: an overwhelming ether stink is sickly sweet and volatile. The table has a dozen cranks, a sheet draped over stainless steel; above it hangs an ancient lamp: a giant metal buttercup. Nobodys there, but still she hears the funny, tuneless whist ling - and then a ringing echoed laugh, a soft and high-pitched giggle. It comes out from a little room, the next door that she opens up; she finds a tiny woman, someone Richard once had talked about.
"Doctor-ji! Namasté!" At last someone expecting her; she sent a photo of herself and Richard the first time she wrote. Padma can't be four feet tall, her body nearly bent in half: Rich had said he liked her best of all the people working there. Mary is amazed at how she looks just like her photograph: tiny little angel face and eyes benignly mischievous. Her spine has got a nasty twist, perhaps a childhood accident, but Marys never seen a face as beautiful and radiant. Padma climbs down off a stool, her wrinkled apron stained with red from washing blood off rubber gloves so that they can be used again. She wangs her hands before her face: palms together, fingers straight; a man stands from a wooden bench: hes the source of all the whistling. She wonders if this could be Vikram - pleasant smile and slender hips - but he hasn't got the features of a man from Southern India. His face is more Tibetan-shaped, his eyes a little wide apart; in very broken English he says Tamding is his given name. Mary only knows a couple phrases of the dialect, studied from a worthless book, a numbing set of language tapes. Shes not sure what his job is but he does what Padma tells him to: he helps her with her bags and shows her to the rooms that shes to have. They cross the dusty courtyard past the one-room missionary school; Tamding might be speaking English, but she doesn't know for sure. Hes pointing out the landmarks, making jutting gestures with his chin; Mary only smiles and wonders anxiously where Vikram is.
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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