Steven Hunley "
"Like the Bhavacakra?"
"Oh, most certainly, yes."
Taylor continued to take pictures and moved the viewfinder from one pile of bright spices to another.
The little girl was laughing when he turned the camera towards her.
Just then he looked up and saw a truck speeding down the narrow street. The ball was rolling towards the door and Lakshmi was right after it. He saw the future through his lens. Death. The child crushed under its wheels. It was inevitable. He flew from his seat.
Wheels and brakes screeched. A woman screamed. He scooped up the child and his heavy camera slipped out of his hands and under the wheel instead of the child. One thing traded for another.
A crowd formed immediately and the driver nearly fainted. Billy Fish ran out and took charge of Lakshmi. Taylor looked sadly at his Nikon ground into the pavement. Everyone was upset except the baby. To her it was if is nothing had happened at all, as if she was a goddess, invincible.
After they went back inside the only sign that anything had happened was a flattened blue ball and a child's tiny footprints in the dirt by the door. Almost forgettable. But Billy Fish was not one to forget.
"It's getting late, and I'm leaving early tomorrow Billy. I think I really should go."
Billy tugged on his coat and went to an antique cash register and began to dig in the drawer.
"Oh Billy, I can't accept money."
He handed him a thin-folded piece of paper.
"It's the spice of life. A very ancient and special mix with a noble pedigree I assure you."
Billy's eyes glittered. Not like before, like a gold-sequined gown, but like the Golden Nebula.
"What's it for?"
"You'll know when you need it. But when you do, take it all. It's made for your weight."
Taylor slipped the packet inside his coat pocket next to his Pilot pen where it would be safe. He wrote his address on a card. He was proud of his card. I was a picture he'd taken on Easter Island, one of the sacred statues after dark, lit only by the stars and the reflections off the white foam of surf behind the platform of rocks and a single hand-held flash. Impressive.
"Thank you, Billy. Here's my address. Maybe you'll visit the States someday."
"Oh my, no Sir. Too much hustle and bustle for my sort of person."
Billy looked at the picture on the card and wondered about it, then placed it in his pocket.
They shook hands again and parted. Taylor went to his hotel room. Lakshmi to her little bed and Billy slept in a chair beside her. The sea breeze from the Bay of Bengal made sleeping easy that night in Calcutta. The city fell into a hushed kind of silence that was rarely heard during the day, if ever heard at all.
Taylor could not sleep. He lay back on his bed and considered. Two months' worth of pictures down the drain in a Calcutta alley. That Nikon had been with him everywhere. From the cold and damp of Katmandu to the sand and heat of Rajasthan. And Agra, where he'd discovered that one in a million shot of the Taj Mahal. It wasn't a shot of Japanese and Euro tourists milling about, talking on cell phones, snapping their snapshots, distracted, dressed so twenty-first century. Missing the beauty, not listening to the silence
It was later, at dusk.
There was a young girl and an old woman dressed in saris, both brown and armed with glittering gold bangles, standing near the reflecting pool in front of the Taj. A flock of white doves flew behind them in a pattern and circled. That shot could have been taken one hundred years ago, stealing their souls with a view camera on a tripod or taken one-five-hundredth of a second ago at F16 with a 35mm digital wonder. Memories you couldn't tell. Timeless. Irreplaceable.
And that crowded street during the wedding. The front of the Rolls first, the chromium hood ornament lady second, then the uniformed driver, then the couple in the back seat. Both dressed like royalty. He had just lifted her veil and they were kissing. Thank God for motor drives. He'd caught them all in four rapid-fire images as they sped past. It was like a sporting event. So much cheering and shouting going on, so much confusion. They passed by so fast he didn't have a chance to find out their names. Now he never would.
Now his visual memories of the Grand Trunk Road were reduced to a small heap of expensive Japanese steel and glass, crushed into an Indian sub-continent gutter, reduced to tiny bits of techno-trash.
On the other hand, tonight there was a two year old girl named Lakshmi sleeping snug in her bed, dreaming of her blue Vishnu appearing again, as he did most every night. Even more timeless, even more irreplaceable.
He fell asleep only after he felt contentment. He knew karma-wise he'd made out on the deal.
It was easy to identify the Hokaido Maru. Her name was painted on the bow in red which
contrasted with the black on her hull. The anchor-chain port was rusted orange.
They were still loading her with pallets of valuable exotic woods in the main hatch. He had time to observe the port. There was plenty of business going down on the water. Sampans taxiing sailors and selling all sort of things. A few Arab dhows were anchored nearby, captained by modern-day Sinbads. Slim customers every one of them, running gold from the East Coast of Africa. Always trying to evade the duties by keeping a lookout for customs men, usually sharp-eyed, bearded, tall-turbaned Sikhs.
Many freighters, multi-nationals, loading and unloading, were about. The smell in the air was the sea and fish and diesel exhaust. It was as crowded on the water as on the streets of the city itself.
He could have seen it all at a glance. Instead he saw, standing on the dock not fifty yards away, only one thing. A girl. She'd caught his eye because of her brightness. The hem of her white diaphanous dress was fluttering on the sea breeze. Then her hat, with its wide brim, flew from her head. She screamed and like lightning took a step and caught its' blue ribbon. This accident revealed hair the color of flax. It came past her shoulders and shined like three hundred Spartan shields in the sun. Movement, sound, and light are what catches a man's eye. His had been captured in this fashion.
"She's a warrior."
That's what he thought. Men have the strangest thoughts about women they don't know and even stranger thoughts about women they do. Familiarity breeds secrets, not contempt. And secrets breed strange thoughts. She climbed the companionway to board and when Taylor did ten minutes later they were the only two who got on with tickets in Calcutta.
It would be only fair to mention there was one other who boarded their ship. He snuck on quietly that night when no one was watching, slithering from one shadow to another and instead of making his way up to the main deck. he avoided the paying passengers and crew and climbed below in the hatch to find a place to hide. Hunted most of his life, he was used to being an outcast in the society of men and now he was a stowaway. His cold calm eyes worked well in the dark and when he found a place in the teakwood where there were bamboo leaves he fashioned a bed as best he could and slept like a king in exile.
At dinner that night Taylor was the last
to arrive in the small dining room. At one table sat the captain
and the first mate. At another table was a couple, looking very
prim, most probably missionaries. He didn't want to be converted
just then so he kept searching for an empty seat at a
A man in uniform sat alone at a table that had two empty places. When Taylor asked if one of the seats was taken he stood up. He was short and middle-aged, slightly grey at the temples. His eyes were sharp as tacks. "I'm Bones, the ship's doctor. Best sit with me. You may need me," he smiled, "before this trip's over."
'My name's Taylor, and I'd be happy to share your table and your company."
Bones looked him over, as if he'd started his examination. Within seconds he made an observation and diagnosis. He knew just what the boy needed.
"You'll be even happier when you see who our dining companion is."
Just then a steward placed a plate on the third spot.
"Where's the lady gone to, Bones?"
"Where they always go Ollie, to the powder room. But the wine is hers and the cognac is mine and you?"
He looked at Taylor.
"I'll have a Heineken. And whatever the doctor is having to eat."
Ollie adjusted the towel on his arm and disappeared.
Bones took a sip of Hennessey.
"There's a girl about your age on this trip. Quite a beauty I'd say. Gives good conversation too.
He motioned somewhere behind Taylor with his cognac glass while he swirled it. Taylor turned around and saw something shimmering across the room. It was a mirage, a lovely mirage at sea swinging straight for them like a miraculous green-sequined storm.
"See what I mean?"
All Taylor could do was swallow. Then he composed himself and took a breath. It was the girl from the dock. All dressed up. The first dinner on board looked mighty good to him, and he hadn't even tasted a morsel. Bones stood up an announced formally,
"Miss Paige , Mister Taylor. Mister Taylor, Miss Paige.
"Pleased to meet you," he said out of habit. He was nervous as a man with a toothache outside his dentist's office. But he was sweet as sweet can be.
"Charmed, I'm sure." she syrupped back. Her voice flowed like autumn honey.
"How long were you in India?" asked the doctor.
"Eight weeks. But only two days in Calcutta. I just got off the Grand Trunk Road."
They turned to the girl.
"I'm on my way to Angkor Watt to photograph and record Khymer architecture. From 968 to 1001 AD. Jayavarman V reigned there. At his court lived philosophers, scholars and artists. He built new temples. The most important is Banteay Srei. Some people think it's one of the most beautiful and artistic of Angkor." said she.
Bones looked at both of them. He admitted, as he took a hit of Hennessey,
"Angkor reminds me of that hidden city overrun with the monkey people in the movie Jungle Book I saw when I was a kid."
And he sipped a sip once more.
She looked alert and proclaimed, "I love Kipling."
Taylor nodded and stated enthusiastically, "The Korda Brothers made brilliant productions. I like The Man Who Would be King too."
"I found it rather puerile!" she exuded playfully and broke out laughing. Then sobered,
"But Jungle Book is a classic. I agree."
Either she was enthusiastic or the wine had hit her. Her eyes glittered,
"I liked it when they fell into the treasure room in the hidden city where the piles gold and jewels were protected by an ancient cobra."
"Now that was India!" Bones roared, his Hennessy taking full effect.
Taylor stood up and raised his Heineken. He was feeling the barley and malt and maybe his wild oats too.
"To India, and Kipling" she added, and touched his bottle with an audible "clink" of her glass.
She liked clinking her glass in public.
"To both of 'em!" stumbled Bones, who was now quite tipsy. Yet he soldiered on with her interrogation,
"And what's your story? How did you end up on a freighter with two pirates like us for companions? Why aren't you on a cruise with a group of stuffy old tourists?"
"I'm my father's daughter, that's all. My mother's been gone since I was two. My father worked on oil rigs all over the world and drug me everywhere he went following oil strikes. Before he died he made enough to send me to Stanford. I've been around the blue marble more than once. Now for my thesis on the Khymers I'm off to Angkor Watt."
"A blonde crazy-beautiful grad student with me on the Indian Ocean, and close enough to touch. What could be better?
Dinner was spiced by good conversation. Only one day, one hour, and they were shipmates. Sometimes there's a storm and the sea gets rough. The wireless goes out. The satellite link may go down. People depend on each other for amusement and support. Good shipmates make for a good voyage and lucky ones are even better. Every sailor knows that.
After eating he returned to his cabin and decided to make an entry in his journal before falling asleep. His pilot pen was missing from his pocket. So was the packet of spice. A quick search turned up nothing.
"Damn," was the last word uttered before he fell out, and even then he had trouble sleeping. He'd developed a fever. Not from a bacterium or a virus you understand, but by the flame Paige carried the moment it touched his heart.
The stowaway woke up hungry. There was no way he'd reveal his presence and dine with the crew or the passengers. He was like he always was, solitary and on his own. His pantry would have to be the hold. He smelled monkeys nearby. When they spotted him they squealed and screamed monkey alerts. Lucky them, protected by a cage and a lock. Just then a fat rat scurried by disturbed by their chatter. Problem solved. This was no time to be particular about your eating habits.
Within days they were into routines they
never had anywhere else in the world but on a freighter in the
Indian Ocean. Taylor and Paige enjoyed each-other's company
immensely. Was something brewing? Or was it, according to Cole
Porter, "Just one of those things?"
When they collided on deck it was because he wasn't looking where he was going. Something smelly was wrapped around a chopstick in his hand. He was looking at his watch instead. Slamming, as it were, into her.
"What's that you've got?" she said, re-adjusting her bonnet.
She ate pickled herring in Amsterdam once herself, across the canal from Anne Frank's house. Strangely enough she was holding a banana.
"Where you going with it, if I might ask?"
"Up on deck, come on."
They walked down the stairway then out on deck.
The reflections off the spotless canvas
roped to the rail and the shimmering sunlight on the water were
both blindingly bright. Her lashes, even half-closed, touched
each other like black-mascaraed peacock feathers, but still
weren't quite enough.
They strolled to the fantail and stood near the rail. He looked at his watch. It was almost eleven. The wind blew her golden curls in her face. Then, from nowhere, a huge albatross appeared.
"They're a sign of good luck," he informed her.
"Or bad luck if they're mistreated," she replied, "I've read my Coleridge."
"I'm not going to shoot him. Watch
He waved the chopstick in the air towards the huge bird like conductor at a symphony until it slipped off. The lucky winged creature caught the fish in midair.
"He's done it three days in a row now. I haven't the slightest idea how he knows what time it is.
It started off as an accident. But now it's our routine."
She was amused no end.
"Let me do it tomorrow?"
He looked in her blue eyes and laughed,
She gave him a look he'd never seen
before, and before he could react, stepped towards him and placed
a sweet kiss right on his mouth. Her flavor was incomparably
"Since you've shown me yours then I'll show you mine. Come on."
She led him through several hatches and down flights of stairs, deeper and deeper into the ship. Finally they reached the main hold. It was dark and filled with a consignment of exotic teak and rosewood. An open space held an animal cage. When the animals heard her approach, they started chattering, well, like monkeys.
"These are Hanuman Langurs, off to some zoo in the States. Aren't they something?"
There's something about an informed woman that's appealing. Paige was a young sexy Barbara Walters. He tried to stay calm but his blood was up.
"They certainly are. I had no idea there were animals on board."
She liked being with a man in the
darkness, sharing secrets, and admitted,
"They went wild over the bananas, and sometimes I bring them grapes."
"Be careful, they might bite."
"I've never been bitten by anything, and I'm not about to start now. Besides, I think these are used to people. They're quite friendly."
"They probably caught them around a temple. They act like they've been hand fed."
So that became their routine. He'd feed the wild albatross that followed the ship and she fed the captured tame Langurs trapped in the hold. The ship slowly inched across the blue water. They played cards with the doctor who admitted he often had little to do. They read books from the ship's library while sitting in deck chairs and soaking up the sun, and eventually turned from pink sponges to lobsters.
When they stopped in Bangkok for a week it allowed the couple cross to Cambodian overland and see Angkor by moonlight. In order to light the sculpted faces of the Buddhas on the buildings they bribed one of the night guards and tied flashes to long bamboo poles, coloring the lights with cellophane. The guard had an ancient ghetto-blaster that took a dozen batteries and a tape from the old super group Cream blasting away.
It was surreal but so real. The guard was only nineteen, while the song, White Room, was forty-five years old and the ruined city almost one thousand. Its' faces of Buddha were caressed and then captured by the roots of fig trees nearly as old as the ruins themselves. Somehow it all fit. When she looked at him she noticed,
"Silver horses ran down moonbeams in your dark eyes."
And when he looked at her,
"Yellow tigers crouched in jungles in her dark eyes."
To make their dreams come true they decided to,
"Lie in the dark where the shadows run from themselves."
The setting did wonders for their romantic inclinations. Making love in a lost city hidden deep in the jungle, drenched in sweat in return for their passionate efforts, then showering together at the hotel, watching cool rivulets writhing down the sides of each-other's hot smooth bodies, as if the whole thing had been an erotic dream. Even time would find it impossible to wash away such memories. The Hokaido Maru, a simple island of rust on the ocean, could never be as dramatic.
Next it was Singapore, then Hong-Kong, and finally, Yokohama.
One afternoon in the salon they were playing a game of gin-rummy.
"You realize of course that we're following the route of Philieus Fogg," observed Bones.
"As long as it doesn't take eighty days," Paige replied.
"Not if we get off in San Francisco," Taylor said, and put down his cards on the table.
"Gin. This last bit to Frisco will be the longest leg of the trip so far."
"Really, I don't mind it taking time at all," Paige cooed, and placed her hand on his knee.
"I hope it takes all the time in the world," Taylor agreeably understated, "All the time in the world."
Bones looked at them both and reasoned,
"Oh, by George, yes. My diagnosis is correct. They have it bad."
The next day at breakfast the doctor announced,
"You two might want to go light on your stomachs. It looks like we're in for a blow."
"What, a storm of some sort?" Paige questioned.
"Yes, and if it bothers your stomach, I have Dramamine. That helps."
He said it so matter-of-factly he roused Taylor's suspicion. When they'd finished he held him up at the door.
"Will it be easy for the ship to weather? This ship is so big."
"Not as big as you think. I've looked at the radar. The word they're using is typhoon. Stay in your cabins, together if possible, and hold on to your hats and remember your where your lifejackets are."
"I see," then he thought of his charge.
"Then we should leave right now. I've got a bird to feed."
"There's isn't enough time."
"There is, if we hurry."
Out ran the cook from the kitchen. He'd been listening all the time. One herring on a chopstick and one bunch of red grapes. Once on deck they saw a huge bank of dark ominous clouds in the south. The wind was up and whitecaps appeared on the waves. At the fantail the albatross wasn't there. They ran down the stairway into the hold. The light in the hold was flickering, about to go out. The monkeys knew something was up and were panicking. When she got too close one reached out, knocked the grapes from her hand, scattering bunches all over the floor.
He went to the left and she to the right, nearer the teak consignment.
The old iron hull began creaking, the monkeys chattering, and sparks spit from the overhead light as it swayed back and forth. Then he heard,
"Oh my God."
And that was all.
Sparks flew in irregular bursts like machine gun fire and rained down in various parts of the hatch, making irregular patterns like cheap fireworks. The forward cargo hold, large as it was, seemed suddenly wet and cramped.
He saw her standing quite still. He stepped to one side to see what was in front of her. It couldn't be much; her thin body was blocking whatever it was entirely. Then he froze too.
At her height exactly, standing straight up, was the largest King Cobra he'd ever seen. It was twelve feet if it wasn't thirteen. Now moving his deadly head rhythmically side to side as if hypnotized by a flute he could never hear. His eyes glowed like twin emeralds of questionable value mounted carelessly in his black-shadowed face by the Devil himself. His dark forked tongue slithered in and out of his mouth.
His evil thoughts overcooking in his reptilian brain made him hiss like a tea kettle.
Paige couldn't take her eyes off the cold-blooded reptile.
"He's picking up our scent and tasting us, eyeing us."
Its gaze was cold and impartial, deadly as a Russian sniper in Stalingrad. Measuring and calculating their every possible move, like a grand master playing chess.
Then a roar so loud was heard through the steel-plated skin of the ship it echoed below decks. A flash blasted through every opening and hatchway, lightning so close they smelled the ozone. The overhead lamp sparked too. The monster struck. It hit her so hard on the shoulder it knocked her off her feet. The light flickered off again when thunder vibrated down the hull of the ship like a cat's evil purr from head to tail. When it flicked on he was gone.
Taylor held her in his arms.
"Are you alright?"
"No, I'm not alright. I hurt right here."
On her pale shoulder were two puncture wounds inches apart.
He gathered her up and began the climb the stairwell.
"Bones will know what to do."
It wasn't so much a statement as a prayer.
But when he looked down to see the hope it might inspire in her eyes they were closed. She'd already fainted. To take her the shortest way he cut across the deck and got drenched in the process. He could hardly think straight. Bones would have anti-venom, wouldn't he? Did ship's doctors carry such medicines?
He placed her down in the bunk and told Bones the story.
"Are you sure it was a cobra?"
Yes, Doc. And it was large.
Doc took her pulse and examined the wound.
"You can never tell. Sometimes they bite and don't inject venom. But the marks are there. So we know she's been bit, but we don't know how much venom was delivered."
He started an intravenous drip of Ringer's solution.
"The trouble is we've no antivenin. It takes between one and ten bottles. We don't even have one. We have to watch and pray. He put on his stethoscope and checked her breathing. It was slowing. Perspiration beaded on her forehead and cheeks.
"Not so good."
She opened her eyes. "Ooh, I'm sore."
"Sorry Paige, no morphine, it will compromise your breathing."
Her eyes took on a look of terror.
"What's going to happen to me?"
This time her voice sounded strained and constricted.
"I don't know, we'll just have to wait and see. There's how much you weigh to consider, and how much poison he delivered. What kind of shape you're in counts too.
"She doesn't weigh a thing," Taylor added. "And she's fine and healthy. She's a warrior."
He checked her breathing again, it was still slowing. Not good. Soon it would cease altogether.
"We can only treat the symptoms. It's going to be rough."
Bones took Taylor aside and said quietly,
"That's what cobra venom does, it stops your breathing, constricts your throat and suffocates you."
Just then she opened her eyes. They were as blue as ever but glazed, and when she spoke, you couldn't make out what she was saying. She put her thumb and first two fingers together and made circular motions in the air. It seemed to take all her effort.
"She wants to write something!"
Taylor reached into his inner coat pocket by habit for his Pilot pen. When it dawned on him it was empty he took the wet coat off and threw it in the corner. Bones picked it up and noticed something hard down by the bottom, caught between the lining and material.
"There's your pen," he said, and handed it back. "You must have a hole in your pocket."
Taylor felt inside and noticed the hole, then the pen, then something else.
A packet of paper. He handed it to Bones.
"It's just what she needs. Remember the story I told you, about the Spice man and Ayurvedic medicine?"
"This is it?"
"I'll know when I need it," he told me. "Use it all, it's measured for you."
"If you think I'm pinning my hopes and the fate of this girl to an Indian street-merchant pharmacist, then lay down beside her right now, because you've gone crackers."
"You're trusting your patient to a system of medicine over three thousand years old, my intuition, and your own common sense. You said yourself the guy knew his medicine. It's time to trust yourself and me too."
Bones didn't say a word.
"How's she doing?"
Bones looked at his patient. She was white as could be, her lips were turning blue, when he listened to her breathing it was so slight it could hardly be heard through his instrument.
He knew she didn't have long, and that was a fact.
He examined the diploma that hung on his wall. Then he listened to the ship creaking and the wind howling outside like it wanted something from him, as if it were demanding to hand something over.
But not Bones. It wasn't his nature. He'd taken an oath.
He wasn't about to give anything up. Not the oath, not the girl, neither one. Sometimes he felt downright stubborn.
"We'll make an infusion of it, Taylor. She'll never be able to get it down her throat now anyway."
The two of them got busy. They boiled and strained it and filtered the remains then took a large syringe and plunged it into the mainline drop by drop. By now she was still but unconscious. She lay there pale and quiet as if she were a blond Snow White waiting for her crystal casket. The casket would never crystalize if these two men were to have their way.
Then they took her pulse every two minutes and listened to her lungs with the stethoscope. She started tossing hopelessly from one side to another. Her muscles were starved of oxygen.
Outside the wind howled like a hungry monster being deprived of its food. Rain hammered the sides of the ship like Agamemnon's steel-tipped arrows pelting the walls of Troy. The seas grew to enormous proportions and tossed the ship from side to side like a toy boat in a bathtub. Restless, ever restless, were the waters.
Bones took a bottle of Hennessy out of his medicine drawer and poured two glasses.
"Now," he said, "we'll wait and see."
Paige was in the bed lying still, but in her mind she was another place altogether doing thing after thing after thing. She was with the Calendar Prince, and found out from the lips of Princess Scheherazade herself, who although she told tales, never lied. She was sitting on a green silk pillow brocaded with red poppies. She felt detached and floating, like on the Sea and Sinbad's Ship. The Prince ordered the sail set to the Palace of a Thousand Delights. The wind in the sails of the dhow snapped rhythm with the canvas, and the lines were strumming sweetly like fifteen ouds. The song, hauntingly familiar. White seagulls darted in every direction. Their patterns of flight were choreographed by Rimsky Korsakov and no other. Then it seemed as if a mist had fallen. She couldn't see anything, but she could still hear the Prince's voice. At first, distant, and later, closer with each calling.
But wasn't she The Princess Paige?
"Paige can you hear me?"
Taylor and Bones scrutinized her intensely. Her eyelids fluttered. The tiny beads of perspiration were disappearing from her cheeks. Taylor placed the back of his hand on her forehead then turned to Bones and shook his head back and forth.
Bones took her temperature. It had plummeted back to normal. He listened to her lungs. The breathing seemed easier and stronger. She was sick, she looked like she'd been to Hell and back but she's wasn't dying, that was the thing.
Bones looked at the clock and noted:
"Start of recovery within four hours after crisis."
He reached for his Hennessey and poured Taylor a shot. They slumped back in their chairs.
When Bones woke up to go to his bunk he noticed Taylor was still holding her hand, though quite asleep himself, and she was breathing calm and steady, resting just as she should.
He suddenly noticed the quiet. He opened the hatch and stepped out on the deck. His eyes hurt from the light. But that was it, it was clear and bright, and the sea was calm as glass.
"How curious. Where did the storm go?"
He never did find out. And he really didn't care.
Three days later the Golden Gate was right where it always was.
Once they went under the Golden Gate Bridge things took a different turn. Like many lovers they moved in together. Their neighborhood was called the Western Addition and from the upstairs window they had a view of the bay.
When they first moved in together everything about the house was good. They liked the high ceilings. And the antique tub with the claw feet was a monument to white porcelain, they both agreed. The sink was a pedestal straight from Priam's palace and the floor was octagonal patterned black and white tiles laid out like a game board. What fun.
Stairs, they loved having stairs. There was something about stairs.
The bed was her first bed ever that was really hers. It had a curved headboard that was upholstered in leather. A pillow-top mattress with one million pillows. When she was at school he missed her. When he was home alone he'd lie on her side of the bed and look out the window seeing only blue sky, smelling the scent of her perfume on the sheets and pillows and taking comfort in that. During the day he'd work on the book but it was missing many of its photographs meant to accompany the text.
While she was at school her thoughts drifted to him and no one else. It was hard to keep her thoughts on her work. Her GPA dropped half a point in response.
They had a maple table with three chairs. The forth was lost long ago. They had a CD player and a TV that nobody watched except for the BBC news and a program simply called House.
The view of the bay and the other houses, all designed in another era, their cupolas and stained glass windows, made them look exotic and the shingles on their sides overlapped like leaves or fish scales and gave them texture. White columns supported their porches like slim Russian ballerinas gone pale from long sunless winters. Their bottoms were red brick painted white.
On hot summer nights they'd drink mint tea on the porch and smell the night-blooming jasmine. They'd lie in each other's arms on the porch swing that creaked a lullaby as it swung them to sleep.
Pacific sunsets, their reflections broken by the restless bay waters, made silhouettes of ships and bridges and buoys. They were memorable and dream-like at the same time, contradictions in both beauty and nature.
She spent her day at her classes and he would write his book that no longer had any illustrations. Then he'd send out query letters and wait for a positive reply. They never came, and rejections slips filled up most of his bottom desk drawer.
Yet as happy as they were at first, later the couple were changed. A kind of sadness crept into the house and they began to notice how damp it was, especially when the heat was off when it hadn't been paid. How cold it got in the early morning before dawn. The something about stairs was that they squeaked. The ancient fixtures in the bathroom leaked. The many many windows with romantic views were drafty and let in the wind. The doors stuck here and there, and the windows stuck too. Because of the cold they stayed in the bed to keep warm. That and for other reasons.
One year later a little girl was born. They'd planned her of course, but miscalculated on some minor point and she arrived early. They named her Lakshmi. She had his dark hair and her blue eyes.
He'd look for work every day. There were always possibilities he'd say. But not enough probabilities. Months went by. He grew despondent. She felt his stress and suffered herself due to her empathetic nature.
The neighbor next door was a woman whose son was a paparazzi in India. It was a large corner house and he sent her enough money to afford the mansion. When the neighborhood was first built it was exclusively Victorian mansions owned by single families with money. Now the buildings were divided up into apartments for people with less in their pockets. The woman lived in her large house alone and lonely, or as John Lennon once wrote, lonely alone.
She was grey-haired and traditional, wore colorful saris, a nose-ring and bangles and cooked food the way she liked it, which meant curried in many cases. She would blast Bollywood musicals every afternoon and night. Paige heard them from her kitchen. One day she went over to borrow tea from her neighbor. Ambika, an astonishingly beautiful woman in her youth, had been a homicide detective in Mumbai and lured many murdering demons to their deaths at the end of a rope. Paige noticed a photograph on the mantle mounted in a silver frame. It was of a young pretty woman in uniform, very prim and proper, being awarded a medal by a thin brown man wrapped in a toga of some sort, wearing wire-rimmed glasses. It was signed near the bottom in ink, "For services rendered, our thanks, Gandhi."
"They were convicted of homicide," she confided to Paige. "It was the law."
She made her sit down and watch an hour of the latest movie called Ravana.
"Look at that star," she'd say. "My son took his picture."
"You must be very proud of him."
The next week when Paige went over to borrow some rice it happened again. In a month or so the woman turned Paige into a fan of Bollywood musicals, and taught her how to make Saag, Tandoori chicken, Saffron rice, and for desert, Paan, which is Betel nut.
In the meantime, due to the constant rejections, Taylor's words grew bitter and then even more bitter, as if there were pennies in his mouth.
"There's nothing worse in the word than wasted talent," he confided one night over dinner.
"Yes darling, I agree," Paige would say and patted his hand. Hand-patting is fine but it doesn't pay the rent.
One afternoon when she was returning from school she saw a large enveloped stuffed in their mailbox. It was eight by ten inches and marked "do not bend please."
"Look Tay, we've got mail."
"It's nothing, just bills and rejections slips and junk mail, why bother?"
Paige was sick of his attitude. It needed an adjustment. She kicked the leg of his chair and threw the envelope on his lap.
"Not this one."
It wasn't heavy, just some papers and a lump in one corner. But the stamp and return address was interesting. It was labeled, "Premchand Chaterjee Lahiri Tagore, Calcutta, India. Taylor ripped it open.
"It's from Billy Fish!"
Here are some pictures I know you'll enjoy. The camera was a total mess but the chip was only slightly damaged. A few pictures came out. I had them processed so you could see. I lost your address card and didn't find it until last week! One thousand apologies, old man. But, by George, I think you'll find they're jolly good pictures!
Lakshmi sends her love and blessings.
There were five in all. Lakshmi kicking the ball was first. The pictures of the wedding were next. The photo of the Taj Mahal at dusk was last.
Taylor was examining the one of the women in front of the Taj by the reflecting pool.
Paige was hypnotized by the ones of the wedding. She seemed to recognize the couple. She grabbed the photos and ran down the stairs to next door. Next thing you know the Indian woman had them in her face.
"Oh yes! These are pictures of Aishwarya and Abhishek on their wedding day! In India they are more famous than Brad and Angelina. I've seen all of the pictures of the wedding but never these! My son told me that the Rolls Royce was supposed to take a certain street for the photographers, that the route was all worked out, but then it cut down an alleyway and disappeared."
"So this picture is unusual?"
"Rare is more like it! One of a kind! My son said that if he had got it, that first kiss after the ceremony, he'd be rich and wouldn't have to work for a year!"
When Paige told Taylor he was elated.
They sold it to the Times of India, The Mumbai Mirror, Pune Mirror, Bangalore Mirror, and the Ahmedabad Mirror. Then, again to the Navbharat Times. And lastly to The Hindu and Hindustan Times.
It made Taylor's reputation. Job offers floated in and so did book deals. The picture of the Taj Mahal was on the cover of the National Geographic a month later.
In the end I guess you could say they suffered a happy ending. It looked that way to me.
So what's in a name anyway? Wikipedia says:
Makes you want to consider carefully the name of your child doesn't it?
(" Taylor thought, but kept it to himself.Oh no, by gosh, I understand.". The tourist left on their buses.
Taylor locked his notebook in his suitcase and peered out the dirty window. The street below was narrow, the end of the road. His time spent wandering the Grand Trunk, the road Kipling called, "the road of Hindustan" where "all India spread out left and right" was over. Now it was Calcutta and the trip home. Adventure over.
He hung up his pith helmet and noticed the linen was still fairly white, but the brass pins which held the linen in place on the cork were rusted green from the climate. Two months in India trying to establish his credentials as a photo-journalist were hardly enough. Now there were only the notes left to work on and the film chip to be downloaded and printed. Back to the nasty computer. Days of trying to be the twenty-first century Kipling were finished.
He'd signed aboard a slow steamer, the Hokaido Maru, a rust bucket by any honest man's description. Not a slow boat to China mind you, a steamer to San Francisco that stopped at several ports along the way. The fare was cheap, food included. Food full of iron from the rust in case you were feeling a little anemic. But that was tomorrow.
Now he was hungry and down to his very last dollar. He cut it too close this time. He decided to look for a cheap food stall. To get there he crossed a street lined with spice sellers. Piles of unidentifiable stuff surrounded him like a beautiful constrictor. Ever since he was a child, since before he could walk, he'd been intrigued by piles of unidentifiable stuff.
"I like the look of these piles of stuff."
Twenty-two years later and he still hadn't changed. Sometimes he'd wander through junk yards taking pictures of unidentifiable car parts. But this stuff was different. These piles didn't smell like rusting metal and rubber and black dirty oil. These were colorful and fragrant. He turned the corner and wandered into a street even more stuffed and narrow with all kinds of goods smelling good to take a closer look.
And why not? He had his camera.
People everywhere schlepping. Mostly men with plump heavy sacks balanced on their shoulders and heads. Endless bicycles. Tiny trucks with corrugated iron roofs piled high with more sacks of spice squeezed between one thousand and one motor bikes slipping between them whenever they got a chance. Rickshaws pedaled by strong brown paper-thin men. Dark-haired women with even darker eyes wearing colorful saris. Here, shopping and evaluating. There, looking ,smelling, tasting and touching. Then, both closely watching the weighing. Click.
Dark-haired men in tropical suits with sweat-stained armpits abounded. Their hands grasped scuffed brown-leather briefcases. Attorneys on their way home from court were always prepared to haggle with shop-keepers until they dropped from the heat. Click.
So many textures and shapes and smells and colors. It set his head reeling. He was weak from a bad case of Delhi-Belly and had to sit down on a small wall. He felt faint. He couldn't even think in whole sentences. His eyes closed.
"Cup of tea?" a voice offered.
"I can't afford…"
"No charge sir, it's only a cup of herb tea. Cardamom and Turmeric. Good for the belly."
He opened his eyes and there was a man. Age had peppered his hair. He was short and exuded power, even though he wasn't what the novelist call "powerfully built." His eyes sparkled with goodness.
"If you're sure there's no charge…"
"Oh by gosh, no sir. This is what you American's call, on the house. Here, sit here please."
The short fellow took him in hand and led him away
from the street. It was suddenly quiet. Now he was drinking dark
sweet tea from a porcelain cup with a chipped rim that he felt on
the tip of his lip. It tasted good, whatever it was. He was
sipping tea, but taking a breath of fresh air at the same time.
He felt refreshed and alert.
A small baby girl, just a toddler, was playing with a blue ball one half her size. There were plump bags stacked against the walls and piles of colorful spices and herbs displayed neatly on white linen squares on dark wooden tables. Click.
"Is this your shop?"
"Yes Sir, forever."
"Oh my, no," he said clearly flattered, "My granddaughter, Lakshmi, Sir."
Toddlers can be charming. She wanted the ball but each time she approached it her toes hit it long before her hands could reach and forced her to chase after. The ball was teaching her to walk.
They turned to each other. When their smiles met, he noticed a certain amount of pride in the man's brown eyes just past the sparkle.
"But, forgive my rudeness and allow me to present myself."
He stepped closer, stood at attention and offered his hand.
"I'm Billy Fish."
"And I'm Taylor, Mr. Fish."
"Just call me Billy. I was born Premchand Chaterjee Lahiri Tagore. But everyone here finds that hard to pronounce, much less remember. I'm a Gurka you know."
He dared not give the full name a try and remarked,
"I see what you mean. Well then, Billy it is. But why Fish?"
His face took a serious turn. "Oh, because I like fish very much. It is a fact. I like them steamed with lemon and garlic, or fried with chips then wrapped in a page from the Times."
"I see. You know this tea is very good. I've been traveling and I picked up a bug somewhere. My stomach feels fine now."
"Ah," he said, "That would be this,"
He pointed at the pile of Cardamom in the corner.
"It is called the Queen of the Spices. It has a calming effect and is good for the digestion. And I add a pinch of this."
He pointed to a yellow pile of Turmeric.
Sweet brown carob pods sat in a bowl.
"Then I add Sarsaparilla root and ginger for flavor. You know Sir, it's very true what Mary Poppins once said, "A spoon full of sugar makes the medicine go down."
" I agree. You certainly know your spices and herbs."
"By gosh yes. I have studied. It's all based on Ayurvedic medicine. They're not my formulas you know, they've been around for over three thousand years.
He heard a note of pride in his voice. It wasn't a personal pride, like his eyes showed about his granddaughter. It was the pride of a man in his culture.
The toddler was kicking the ball here and there, all around the shop.
"Even in the world of medicine, there are fads. Some things come and go. But these herbs and spices have been here before. They are here now and will be here in the future. These plants are much older than us."
They looked at each other and then to Lakshmi.
She'd made three circuits of the shop while they were talking.
"Like her," Taylor said. He felt quite lucid now, no longer fatigued. "Playing in a circle."
"Yes, Sir, in a circle. We're all in a circle of some sort. Like the wheel of life.Sanskrit: लक्ष्मी [ˈləkʃmi], Tamil: Hindu goddess of wealth, prosperity (both material and spiritual), light, wisdom, fortune, fertility, generosity and courage; and the embodiment of beauty, grace and charm. Representations of Lakshmi are also found in Jain monuments. Mahalakshmi is said to bring good luck. She is believed to protect her devotees from all kinds of misery and money-related sorrows..லட்சுமி letchumi) is the lakṣmī,Hindi pronunciation: