Winner of the 2015 J.F. Powers Short Fiction Contest
Anthony Lusvardi, S.J.
There once was a man named Jesus. He taught people many things, including a prayer, which those who learned thought they should teach to others too.
There once was a contractor working on a dam project for the Indian government. He realized he could save money by substituting sand for cement in the footings of the dam.
The actions of both of these men might have answered the question Marshall Jensen found himself asking one monsoon morning as he stood in front of an assembly of Indian schoolchildren and contemplated the fog creeping through the mountains behind them like vines across the floor of the jungle: how did I ever get here?
“If it won’t delay you too long—” the Indian priest had said the previous night. “Our children have never seen anyone from your place before.”
Marshall had agreed to speak at the morning assembly, and that too explained how he came to be listening to the Lord’s Prayer in clickety-clackety Indian English in this village with a name he did not know. That, and the mistress of the government contractor, and their child in Itanagar, whose tastes were not exactly exorbitant, but were not cheap either, especially when one already had a family to support in Delhi.
One of the schoolchildren, the leader, put a papery white scarf around Marshall’s neck and another handed him a bouquet of orange and red flowers, still damp. Marshall’s job meant visiting what seemed an endless rotation of third world schools, all poured concrete, smiling dark faces, welcome songs, and bright, if slightly fraying, uniforms. He had a collection of stock phrases to recite at such occasions about friendship and the future and studying hard.
And then, schoolchildren waving behind him, he was back in the jeep, grateful to the priest for letting him stay the night in the school when they had found the road through the valley ahead flooded. The storm had been worse than usual, lightning and sheets of rain when normally, he was told, the rainy season meant just a steady drizzle punctuated with showers for three or four months. The road through the mountains had turned to muck, and by evening his driver was exhausted. Stopping added a day to the trip back to Guwahati, but he didn’t mind. Bumping the flight from Guwahati to Delhi back a day meant less debriefing with Greg, and he was fine with that. He was beginning to suspect that Greg had flown him in to consult just so that he wouldn’t have to make the long wet drive through the northeast himself. The subcontinent was certainly not Marshall’s area of expertise.
What caused all the rain? Marshall wondered. It must have something to do with moist air from the Indian Ocean running up against the Himalayas. He had been to India only once before, to Rajasthan and Delhi and Darjeeling, as a tourist with his wife, but that was already more than two decades ago. Marshall was now East African director of Methodist World Relief, called in by Greg, the South Asian director, to evaluate a proposed multi-village health and sanitation project in Arunachal Pradesh. The site visit was behind him, and mostly he just wanted to be home. More than that, he realized that morning, as he woke up sticky and damp in the storage room of the school, he wanted to be back in America. He and his wife had a nice house on Tank Hill in Kampala with a patio and a view, but for the first time in decades, he was thinking of America as home again. His youngest, Kerri, had just finished her first year of college and was spending the summer at his mother’s house in Wisconsin. They were to have a family reunion there at the end of July.
The jeep rumbled to a stop. Marshall followed his driver to inspect the blockage in the road. The driver was a good sort, a Nepali named Gopina who lived in the state capital Itanagar and was that day wearing a pink shirt that looked comically cheerful under the despairing face he turned to Marshall. The mountain above had simply broken off and slid onto the road. It looked like a giant wad of brown gum studded with boulders and tree trunks. Gopina took out a handkerchief and mopped his forehead. Marshall placed a foot against a boulder, but this wasn’t just a blockage; the road had disappeared. He removed his cell phone. No bars.
Gopina nodded toward the mountainside. “Staying here dangerous,” he said, and Marshall got back in the vehicle.
Marshall watched the phone for any flicker of bars. When they arrived back at the village the priest wrung his hands apologetically.
“In our place no phone. If we want to call, we have to drive to the JANGA dam, but now—.” The JANGA dam was the name of the project that had flooded, an acronym that stood for something Marshall couldn’t remember but reminded him of the children’s game that involved removing wooden blocks from a tower until it collapsed, an association which seemed not at all inapt.
“You can stay in the school until the road is cleared,” the priest said, “and eat with us in the boarding.”
“When will they clear the road?” Marshall asked.
The priest chuckled nervously. “Maybe two weeks. The longest has been three months.”
Marshall wanted to hit him.
“The mountains here are very young,” the priest explained.
Dinner was rice and dahl on a metal plate. The kitchen girls arranged a stool in front of Marshall for his plate and set a spoon next to that, though the Indians didn’t use utensils.
“These girls are from a different place, Nagaland,” the priest said. “They have no education, but you see they work very hard.” The girls avoided eye contact with Marshall, whispering back and forth in their throaty language until Father said something teasingly to them and they broke into laughter. Marshall was embarrassed that he did not remember the priest’s name and had to ask him again.
The kitchen was smoky from the fires the girls cooked on. The boarders ate in the other room, the teachers in the kitchen. Except for Father Alphonsus—that was the priest’s name—the people’s features were more Asian than Indian. A boy with big glasses who came to the kitchen asking for more dahl reminded Marshall of the Dali Lama.
“I told the girls not to make yours too pungent,” Fr. Alphonsus said. Marshall glanced at a mound of crimson chilies on a tarp by the wall. Even the mild dahl made him gape like a fish. Kerri would have loved it; she was always complaining that the college food was too bland.
“We drink only boiled water,” the priest went on, though Marshall noticed that the kitchen girls were washing the dishes in a cement basin with water from a hose. He also noticed that the girls had placed a boiled egg on his plate, though nobody else had one. He felt the churning of guilt in his stomach—special treatment always made him uneasy—though it would be rude to protest, and the egg was the only thing that night which didn’t scorch his tongue and throat.
“You must have a missionary’s stomach,” Fr. Alphonsus declared jovially.
The next day he was sick.
He had gone out to observe the morning assembly again, the hundred-fifty or so students lined up for inspection in neat rows in the school yard, praying and marching in place and doing calisthenics and singing the Indian national anthem and receiving an exhortation from Father. The morning’s theme seemed to be personal grooming and school uniforms. “Sanjay, where are your black shoes? Karo, you put your belt through the hoops, not on top. You older children must help the little ones. Veer, what is this spiky hair? Korean hair, is it? You are a porcupine, is it? Your shoes must be washed, and only black shoes…”
Fr. Alphonsus was intense, Marshall thought. And then he felt the rumbling in his bowels—bacteria, not guilt—and headed inside.
The night before Marshall had asked Fr. Alphonsus about toilet paper. The priest paused nervously. “We have, yes,” he said. “In India. But not in our village.”
It could have been worse. The toilet was cement, which kept out the rats, and connected to the school building, though he had to go through Fr. Alphonsus’ room to get to it. He followed the progress of a dark leech-like creature along the wall all morning but didn’t have the energy to squash it. It eventually disappeared down the drain.
Even after all his years in the third world, he still had trouble balancing while squatting over the hole, especially when weakened by diarrhea, but he kept himself level by gripping the cement footing of the sink. Back in his twenties, a Peace Corps volunteer, he would have relished the challenge of it all. Back then it was a competition. You always felt a little guilty if you had running water or electricity, as if you were selling the experience short, and you always felt a little superior too—though you couldn’t say so—whenever you could claim a harsher hardship than the other Americans. But at some point the squat toilet had ceased to be a symbol of solidarity and had turned instead into a hole in the ground that stank. There was no romance left in poverty anymore; none of the poor wanted to be that way. Many would steal to avoid it.
At lunch, Fr. Alphonsus came into his room. “You must eat something,” he said. “For your strength.”
Marshall imagined the walk through the mud, up the slippery slope to the boarding house, all for a plate of curry. No food on the entire subcontinent appealed to him right now.
“Not now,” he said. “Maybe dinner.”
The priest frowned anxiously and left.
He tried to read a bit that afternoon and write up notes for his report. He’d probably end up recommending the project, though he had his doubts. He had his doubts about everything these days. He opened a report he was neglecting from Uganda. Maps on facing pages showed that the regions of the country NGOs had been working in the longest had the lowest food security. Decades of encouraging farmers to grow cash crops meant they had stopped growing what they ate; when demand fell on the international market, they could no longer feed themselves and became dependent on foreign aid purchased in Europe and America.
In northern Uganda they had taken to puncturing holes in the tops of cans of cooking oil to make them more difficult to steal in bulk. How many blankets and food pallets and crates of medical supplies had he seen confiscated at checkpoints by rebels or government soldiers—it really didn’t matter which—and used to buy guns or landmines or booze? Just booze didn’t seem all that bad anymore. How much aid had gone to the Hutu génocidaires in refugee camps in Zaire while their victims died of starvation and cholera across the border in Rwanda? How many times did encouraging women to start their own businesses give their husbands one more reason to beat them? And here in India, if he approved the project for roads and sanitation, wouldn’t that just give the government another excuse to write the problem off—somebody else was handling it—and spend its money elsewhere, on tanks for the Pakistani border? How much of everything he had done in his life had really amounted to nothing? He thought he had a fever.
And he did, as it turned out that evening, after he had refused another meal and Fr. Alphonsus had returned with two of the little brown-habited nuns he had noticed scurrying around the school and inspecting the rows of students at the assemblies.
“A slight temperature,” said the sister who introduced herself as the infirmarian in a lilting voice that made every sentence seem like a song. “I will give you an antibiotic,” she said. “Will you take a glucose drink?”
Marshall knew from experience that these little rural dispensaries tended to overprescribe antibiotics, but a fever usually meant infection, so he didn’t protest.
He felt awkward and unwieldy sitting in his greasy shirtsleeves in front of the little nun. He really didn’t want all the attention. He could hear worried whispering back and forth in the other room between Father and the other sister, who was boiling water for his glucose drink. Students must have gotten diarrhea and a slight fever all the time without meriting this sort of attention.
Sister Infirmarian returned with a pill and the drink and made the Sign of the Cross as he swallowed the antibiotic. He hoped that didn’t reflect on the pill’s effectiveness.
The next morning the exhortation’s theme was paying attention during Mass. “Do you think I don’t see you, Sadia, looking out the window, isn’t it? I think the young ones do not know the prayers. Arman, do you know the prayers? I confess— No, don’t know, isn’t it? I confess to Almighty God— Do not know? If the little ones do not know the prayers, it is because the older ones have not taught them. Yes, that’s right, Dundu. I blame you. You need to teach your brother, not all the time looking out the window or pulling on Sadia’s hair. Yes, that’s right, Father does see what you are doing at Mass, yes, Dundu…”
Marshall had not ventured outside, but he could hear the speech from his room. He managed another glucose drink and even some ramen noodles, sans spices, to the great relief of Fr. Alphonsus and the nuns. The priest was chatty that morning when he saw that his guest was sitting in the living room, really another storage room with a television and three plastic lawn chairs. “The children are asking about you, if they can come and visit you,” Fr. Alphonsus reported with a chuckle. “I told them to wait until you are better.” He sat down across from Marshall and launched into a description of all the difficulties that the school faced.
“The biggest problem is finding teachers,” he said. “They come for one year and then leave. To be honest, I hire anyone who applies. Nobody wants to come to someplace so remote. I am lucky to have the sisters. For us, it is our vocation, no problem, but for others to come here with low pay, no communication—very difficult.”
Marshall had the feeling that the priest was grateful for the company. When the roads were open he said Sunday Mass at an army base a few hours away and in a couple of outlying towns. Now—he just shrugged.
In the afternoon, Alphonsus was back, knocking on Marshall’s door. “We have current,” he said. “Come.” He had pulled the sheet off the television and found a British version of ESPN. No telephone and sporadic power, but they had satellite TV, Marshall thought. He had noticed the Dish poking out the windows of bamboo shacks on the drive north.
“The World Cup,” Fr. Alphonsus announced. “In America you say ‘soccer,’ isn’t it?”
Marshall’s girls had played soccer, but, despite his years in Africa, he had never followed the sport. Soccer, he thought as he watched, was too arbitrary for Americans, too much determined by fate, victory almost always decided by a single goal, most of the game futile passing back and forth, opportunities for scoring coming from mistakes or penalty shots or just dumb luck. This game, a rebroadcast of the Netherlands and Brazil, was an upset. When it was over, the commentators seemed upset themselves, indignant that the Dutch had knocked off the favorite. So much for rooting for the underdog.
Fr. Alphonsus went back and forth between the game and his office. He was driven, the young missionary. He had used that word this morning—“missionary”—to describe his work, which to Marshall’s ears sounded outdated. Marshall had never been a zealot, but he had read theology in college, quite a bit in fact, though now he couldn’t remember the difference between sanctification and justification and wasn’t sure how much it mattered anyway. He’d been raised Lutheran but attended Methodist services, as much because of his job as anything. He and Pat had brought up their kids as Christians because it was important for them to believe in something, but if Kerri someday decided to become a Jew or a Catholic or a Buddhist, he wouldn’t love her any less. Just as long as she didn’t become a fundamentalist.
At one point he told himself that they had moved to a higher plane of Christianity than the missionaries of old, to a purer, more spiritual charity, where the externals of dogma and ritual didn’t matter anymore, where what mattered was just giving and letting be. But he had begun to doubt that too. Was development really nobler and more spiritual? Or was he selling something different, no longer “Come, worship our god,” but “Come, buy our refrigerators”?
He found himself missing Kerri again.
After the game, he managed to eat some rice, to Fr. Alphonsus’ great delight.
He had recovered his strength, but that only made him restless. He paced back and forth on the concrete walkway in front of the school. There was no telling how long it would take the government to open up the roads. Greg must have contacted the authorities by now, though that didn’t mean a search was on. The mountain roads in Arunachal Pradesh were so narrow and perilous, the jungle so thick, that one could slip off the side at any point into the green abyss below without leaving a trace behind. They would be better off sending in a helicopter than waiting for the government to clear the roads, though Greg was such a cheapskate he might not spring for that. Gopina probably knew people in Itanagar who could charter one, in which case he’d just send the bill to Greg from the airport Sheraton. But he had no way to make a call, and the power had gone out again so there was no World Cup to watch either.
The village was a smattering of shacks raised on stilts above the ground, chickens and goats nestling underneath, the wood dark and damp. He had no real desire to explore. Fr. Alphonsus recounted stories about living with local families before the school was built, trying to learn Aka, waking up in the night with toes bloody from rat bites, his books and suitcase all chewed up along the edges. Marshall ate the food that was given to him but had to admit he didn’t care for Indian cuisine. He wondered if his wife and daughters had begun to plan a memorial service for him and whether they would hold it in Kampala or back in the States.
He really might not make it back, he thought. Wouldn’t it be ironic if, once the roads were finally cleared, he was swallowed up by a mudslide on the drive down to the plains, or if Gopina nodded off and the jeep slipped off a cliff, or if some other driver failed to sound his horn on a curve and they collided, as had almost happened twice on the drive up?
What was he doing in India, anyway? Africa might not be more advanced, but at least he knew the continent, would have known enough not to schedule a wild goose chase like this one in the middle of the monsoon. Kerri was dying to come to India, he knew, and so many of his colleagues had fallen in love with the country. He had not, though he had tried. It was like a Petri dish of cultures, exotic fauna—the one-horned rhino, the Ganges dolphin, the Asiatic tiger—and garish gods—like the temple of the rats he had visited with his wife all those years ago, the sacred little vermin scurrying over their feet. Back then he would have been thrilled to discover a jungle village in which no Westerner had ever set foot. Now he would rather doze off in an Adirondack chair on the deck of his mother’s house in Wisconsin.
Nothing was happening. Some of his clothes had begun to sprout mold. He would miss his family reunion. He had not brought enough to read. The best part of his day was breakfast in the convent, which the sisters kept immaculate even in this climate. The Catholic Church may have been backwards in many ways, but any institution run by nuns, he had learned, would always be clean and humane. Their table and chairs were plastic—more lawn furniture—but it was nice to eat at a table once a day instead of on a stool.
Sister Florence, the infirmarian, was eager to give Marshall more antibiotics, but he managed to fend her off, insisting he had allergies and not an infection. The nuns and the priest talked about house blessings and baptisms and the father of a student who wanted to become Catholic but had four wives. They asked Marshall what it was like to fly in an airplane and whether there were any sisters in America. They asked him if he missed his country, and he talked about his daughter. The brother of one of the sisters had died earlier that year—tuberculosis—and she had only found out a week after it had happened when a Jesuit seminarian from one of the other missions had driven in to bring her the news. They had to drive out to the dam site so she could call home.
“Is the short-cut path open?” the youngest sister asked.
Fr. Alphonsus bobbled his head back and forth in the way Indians show tepid affirmation. “Yes, but only to the dam. The JANGA place is all flooded. The buildings, everything is flooded.”
“But there could be mobile service there, yes?” the sister said.
Father’s head continued to bobble.
Marshall felt his pulse quicken. “How far is the short-cut path?” he asked.
“It is three hours to the JANGA,” Fr. Alphonsus said. “But it is only walking. When the dam was open our people took the short-cut path to work.”
“It is so slippery,” said Sister Florence.
“But you use a walking stick, it’s okay,” said Fr. Alphonsus.
“I’ll try it,” Marshall said. “I’ll try.” For the first time since arriving in India, he felt elated.
“Maybe it won’t work,” Fr. Alphonsus cautioned. “But, yes, try.”
The next morning was lightly drizzling, and Fr. Alphonsus suggested that Marshall wait to try the short-cut path.
“We haven’t had a sunny day since I got here,” he replied. “It will be September if I wait.”
Two boys from the older class had been assigned as Marshall’s guides. Marshall had fully charged his cell phone using the school’s solar batteries. Fr. Alphonsus gave him his mobile too. “If one doesn’t work, you try the other,” he instructed. One of the teachers at the school had carved a walking stick for him, trimming off the branches and whittling the base to a point. Sister Florence handed Marshall an old Altoids tin filled with salt in case they got leeches crossing the streams. “They also jump from the branches,” Fr. Alphonsus warned.
“Don’t worry,” one of the boys told Marshall as they began their descent from the village. “Our people take short-cut path all the time. Also carrying many things on heads.”
One of the boys, named Veer, said he was fourteen. The school only went up to class five, he explained, but he had started late. “Before Jesuits, only government schools here,” he explained.
“Government schools very bad,” said the other one. “Many teachers, no teaching.” Marshall had already forgotten the second boy’s name; when he introduced himself, he said that the name meant “plumpy and great.” His cheeks were round but Marshall would hardly have called him plump.
“How long from your place to here?” Veer asked.
“Oh, more than twenty hours in an airplane, I think.”
The boys exhaled in admiration.
“Do the windows open?”
“On the airplane?”
“No, they don’t open.”
“Where do you spit?”
“Spit? Well, I suppose you can spit in the bathrooms if you need to.”
“Bathrooms on the airplane?” the other boy said. He whistled.
They asked Marshall about his family, and when they paused at a stream he showed them a picture of Kerri from his wallet.
“Oh, very beautiful,” Veer said.
“Yes, very beautiful,” agreed Plumpy and Great.
“She is very tall, yes?” said Veer.
“Yes, I suppose so. Five-nine.” He indicated her height with his hand.
“Oh,” said the boys.
The drizzle had let up by mid-morning, and Marshall was covered in sweat; even his belt was soaked through. They stopped again to sit on some rocks.
“You are Catholic?” Veer asked when they had resumed walking.
“No,” Marshall answered, and hesitated. “Lutheran.”
“Your god is Jesus, yes?” Plumpy asked.
“Yes.” Marshall smiled. “Also Jesus.”
“Oh, very nice,” said Plumpy.
The temperature had risen by a few degrees as they neared the bottom of the valley. Marshall considered the relatively good health he had enjoyed for most of his life. He needed bifocals now and had added a tube of Preparation H to his travel kit, but he’d had no serious health problems. His mother was pushing ninety and still living on her own. Even so, the hike was a strain, and he felt his knees starting to hurt.
“Going up easier,” Plumpy and Great said, as if reading his thoughts.
As they neared the flooded construction site the ground grew muddier. The water must have already begun to drain, he thought. A faint putridity stuck to everything, and he saw a dead fish trapped in a bush at waist height. He followed the two boys as they scampered from rock to rock for a foothold. They had made the whole journey in flip-flops, but it was Marshall who was sliding and slipping in the muck.
The jungle ended suddenly in a neat edge, everything beyond a plain of thick glop. The construction site looked like a child’s collage painted with shades of brown—long puddles, heaps of wood caught against boulders like misplaced beaver dams, water eddying around dump trucks and piles of crushed stone. A stream had run through the middle of the valley before, and he could make out the flow and direction of the water, but he was surprised how lazy it seemed, no more than waist-deep in most places. He was also surprised at how few of the structures remained; when he had driven through earlier the JANGA dam shantytown had been larger than the village above it on the hill, with loiterers gathered around fires and storefronts selling chips, soda, and beer. Now only a few poles rose from the ground at irregular angles.
“Like Noah,” said Plumpy.
Marshall’s hands shook as he took out first one phone and then the other.
He didn’t say anything, and the boys knew better than to ask; they could tell just from looking at him.
After several minutes had passed, Veer suggested moving around to check for reception. Each of the boys took a phone and ran along the edge of the muck, and then, on stones and boards and little plateaus Marshall had not even noticed, they picked their way into its midst, as far into what had once been the shantytown as they could manage, each holding the phone above his head as if lifting a torch in the darkness. But Marshall knew if they had not gotten reception yet, it was out for the whole area.
They sat for a while in silence, recovering their strength, and he could see the boys were afraid to talk. They removed the food they had packed in their lunch pails, shiny aluminum cylinders that made Marshall think of the dockworkers in Duluth, and they passed chapatti around. The cliff on the opposite side of the town had been cut away; it was sheer, with parallel lines running vertically down its face. A giant culvert, twenty feet in diameter, stuck out from the middle of the cliff with a mass of broken cement, twisted rebar, mud, and stone chips splayed out underneath, as if belched from inside. The project, as Fr. Alphonsus explained it, involved channeling water through tunnels beneath the mountains to turbines farther south; the collapse had taken place in some other location, and Marshall guessed that the floodwater had come through the culvert. Now the flow had been reduced to a trickle.
It was easier on his knees going uphill than down. The boys tried to cheer him up with more questions, but Marshall was morose. He imagined he should have been sorry for all the workers who had lost their jobs, for the resources squandered, for a whole region’s development plans set back years, but he only thought about how much he wanted to be home.
It made so little sense that he should be there, missing work, missing his family, spending his days checking his laundry to see if it had attained an acceptable level of dampness to wear. The students had become less shy of him, especially Veer and Plumpy and Great, and groups now gathered around him asking questions whenever he ventured outside during recess. How much point, he wondered, was there in getting to know the students when he would be leaving as soon as he was able? The whole situation was futile.
He attended Sunday morning Mass in the village and sat in the back with the other men from town, who packed so tightly onto the bench that Marshall thought they were trying to squeeze him off. Veer and three others from their class played the guitar and drums, and the students sat on a large tarp rolled out over the cement floor. The building was the old schoolhouse, now rather dilapidated, with torn pieces of plastic covering the windows.
Marshall tried to pray. There was something familiar to the whole service, something touching in the glint of gold from the altar amid all the weathering wood. But all Marshall prayed for was to get home. He figured it couldn’t hurt. He prayed for Kerri, too, and his wife. He had been away almost two weeks: what if something had happened to them? Veer translated the homily into Aka from Father’s mix of Hindi and English, and both he and the priest were animated and emphatic. The people knelt on the cement, the altar boys rang bells, Fr. Alphonsus chanted in Hindi, about half the people went to communion, and he realized that these people really did believe in everything they had been taught—that they could speak to God, that God was present on their tongues, that they should kneel before him. There was something beautiful about it all, in a sort of abstract way. But, he thought, what does it matter when you’re stuck in the hills thousands of miles from home and unsure where home even happens to be anymore? Everyone else was happy leaving the Mass; everyone else felt better. He felt grumpy.
But he did feel better—at least he started to—as the kids gathered around him on the way down the hill. It was drizzling, but not hard enough to need an umbrella.
“You will come to the boarding for lunch?” Veer asked, and he agreed. After lunch the younger ones accosted him, tugging at the hair on his arms and demanding, “You will stay? You will stay?”
He had nowhere else to go, really, so he followed them into the room where they ate their meals; the mats had been cleared off the floor and the boarders were clustered around chess and carrom boards on the ground. A round-faced third-grader, the one who wore his belt over his belt loops, quickly moved to give up his space on a bench for Marshall to sit on. And then the children were massed around him, firing off questions: why is your skin so white? Do you use cream? What language do you speak at home? Do you know Shakira? Jackie Chan? Pope Benedict? The Rock? Any movie stars? Do you like wrestling? Do you watch WWF? What is your mother tongue? Do people speak Hindi in America? Are all people in your place as white as you? What color are the uniforms in America? Do you have one wife? Do men have many wives in your place? America is very rich, yes? Do you eat curry in your place? Do you eat cow? Monkey? Elephant? Tiger? Rat? Do you have mithun? Peacock? Who is the prime minister of America? Do you know Barack Obama? Is this watch from America? How much does it cost? Do you know Kapil? Sachin? There is no cricket in America? Why not? Do you have robots in America? Is our place nice or no?
One of the sisters came in and rang a bell, signaling the end of games and the beginning of study hall. Marshall was picking his way through the kids to the door when Veer, marching into the room with books in hand, said, “You will help us with our homework?”
Marshall sat down again, and this time, the older kids crowded around him, leaning on his knees and climbing over his shoulders to see what he was writing. “You know maths?” somebody asked.
“Well, it wasn’t my best subject,” Marshall began, but soon the math textbook was open, and he was working problems in a notebook, explaining when to carry numbers and the purpose behind rounding. Then they were flipping back in their notebooks for problems from previous lessons they had not understood. “Sir does not explain,” one of the boys whispered conspiratorially to Marshall. “Only doing problems, no teaching. Your teaching very nice.”
“American teaching very nice, yes?” he heard Plumpy and Great say to a classmate. Sister came back into the room and smiled at him.
The bell rang again, and the afternoon was over. He managed to make his way outside, amid tugging and questions. Plumpy was squatting by the door, washing his hands in a bucket.
“Oh!” he said, standing up. “Your teaching very good, Sir Marshall.” And then he announced a revelation. “I think God sent you here to teach us maths!”
He could still hear the chattering inside—not quite time for dinner—as he made his way down the hill to the sisters’ convent, oasis of whitewashed walls and trimmed flowerbeds. For the first time since he had arrived in India, he felt sadness—not frustration, not anger, not disgust, not despair, but sadness, loss.
Damn it, damn it, he thought, he would miss the kids and the sisters and even Fr. Alphonsus when he left.
It was dark already, just a hint of dusky light at the horizon coloring the clouds. The gate of the convent was open, but the door of the chapel was bolted shut, secured by a padlock with an image of Ganesh, the many-armed elephant god, stamped imposingly on the front.
He turned to leave, but the youngest of the sisters appeared from nowhere with a key and then with a shy smile slipped silently back inside. He didn’t think anyone had heard him approach.
He sat cross-legged on a cushion, as the Indians did, the only light in the room the red glow of the vigil lamp. He started to pray again for cleared roads and a way out, but then he couldn’t, could only pray, could only think, a question: could it be? Was it possible?
He could hear Kerri’s voice as clearly in his head as if she were speaking on the phone, but he could not tell what she was saying, and he thought how aching, how unbearably aching love always is, and he thought—was it really possible? A love that great? A love that ached like that for all, for the whole world from Wisconsin to Uganda to wherever the hell he was, a love greater than what the world held, a love so great, so vast that it could make what Plumpy and Great said true: “I think God sent you here to teach us maths”?
He was crying and could not remember the last time he had cried, probably after Kerri had left for college—he’d held it together until she was gone—but face in hands, on the floor of that dark and silent room, he wept again that night because he realized for the first time in years, or decades, or perhaps for the first time in his life, that, yes, it could be true, yes, it was.
After two more days God decided that the children of St. Xavier’s School had learned enough maths, and bulldozers began to arrive at the JANGA dam site. Their jeep still could not get through the morass, but Marshall and Gopina and several of the workers from the village took the short-cut path down to the construction site and managed to wade through the water and pick off the leeches and catch a ride on a truck down out of the mountains. At a hotel in Tezpur Marshall was able to call his family and check his email and catch up on the world’s news.
Not much had changed.