E
Oct/Nov 2005 fiction

Strange Cabbages

by D.A. Taylor


In just ten minutes he'll be across the breakfast table from you, with his earnest milkdud eyes, effusing about cowpeas, the hope for Sri Lanka ("It's the nitrogen, you see...").

Nothing wrong with that, exactly. Except that you're here, in part, to crush his hopes. So right now just gather the calm of the hotel room around you. Sit on the rumpled bed in your boxers, and look down through the wall-sized hotel window. Try to recall the dream that has you so rattled.

Far below, two figures walk on the footpath between the rice fields. They stop. The feathers of early morning mist are dissolving—this is clear from the growing contrast between the path and their pale clothes. Soon they're distinct: a boy and a girl, dressed in the long wrapper of the Sinhalese.

The bedspread's gold fringe twirls along the floor in the breeze from the ceiling fan. Get dressed. You must prepare for the vice-chancellor's breakfast onslaught. Deliver the bad news and end this charade with all the grace you both can muster. Like Jenny said in bed back in Delhi (just two days ago?), If you don't believe in this dependency game, then not feeding his hopes is the best thing to do.

But why do those two stand so still? After five minutes, your eyes are surely playing tricks—something about the distance down into the valley. And yet the lines of their feet on the rice bund, the folds of cloth, are magnified as if they were close enough to hear you breathe. Just beyond them at the edge of the field stand gangly palms, feathery albizia trees, and jackfruit as straight as muskets.

On the dark wooden desk, with its copies of What the Buddha Taught and the Gideon Bible, the conference papers lie in two piles. In one pile sits the grant for the vice-chancellor, earnest 20-lb bond paper, innocent of the insult it brings. Why you? The boss is a bastard.

The arcs of your white shirttails sway as you step into the bathroom and spread white cream on bristling jaw and neck. Scrape it off. You brush your teeth, nose wrinkling angrily in the mirror. (Trac II, Colgate, Oral B, Mennen: all the brand names look exotic here.)

And how will you smoothe things with the vice-chancellor?

Walk back to the window, toothbrush foaming in your mouth. The two haven't moved. Well damn them! Who are they waiting for? Is this some kind of act? Kandy is a long way from any Tamil Tigers, supposedly. Still, it's strange.

The first odd moment came as soon as the red-eye touched down yesterday. Standing in the boxy ground transport, one hand clutching an overhead loop, you watched three people carry floppy vacuum attachments—the cleaning crew—up the steps to the empty plane. They were stopped and frisked. Their white coveralls pulsed yellow in the ghostly predawn strobes.

Your argument with Jenny drowsily replayed itself. It had started with a taxi ride, and quickly funnelled to Jenny's announcement: she's going home. It all went back to exhaustion with Delhi—the loneliness, the suffocating traffic, the suffocating expats.

"Just hold on a few months," you pleaded, "we could get a new posting. We could get Bali."

"Oh Daryl," she said. "That's pathetic. It'd be different if you still believed in it all."

Why frisk janitors? you wondered as the transport crossed the tarmac. Then the answer: bomb squad. Who ever thought of the daily routines of civil war?

Inside the terminal, the vice-chancellor paced in gray slacks and a pale sports shirt, eyes shooting darts around the waiting area. He looked the part of a rising university official—the black hair going silver at the temples, a contrast with his lively eyes, golden teak complexion, profuse dark eyebrows.

Next to him, his driver—a small, thin man with bloodshot eyes—looked dead on his feet in the predawn fluorescence. The driver held a cardboard sign announcing you to yourself: "Mr. Daryl Somers."

They waited on the other side of customs. The vice-chancellor paced a trough in the floor. Then an hour's drive to the hilltop hotel. Kandy still dark.

Within two hours, five Land Rovers thick with scientists bounced out over a rutted path, on the way to an unsuspecting farmer's field in the hills. Sandwiched sideways in the back seat (you insisted on the back), you grew nauseous. But the driver stopped and you lost breakfast on the grass without too much loss of face.

From the rigid pattern of these conferences you knew that at the farm, someone would blare over a megaphone about tillage methods: what worked, what didn't. The vice-chancellor would interrupt with questions for everyone to consider. The farmer and her husband would look defenseless and puzzled before the circle of predatory scientists.

As it turned out, the morning's target was a village collective, a steeply cropped hillside with prickly hedges, banana plants and young citrus trees planted on terraces.

"Keep your eyes open, Daryl," the vice-chancellor said. With a fellow researcher he'd know how to joke, but you're just the project communications guy, so he's not sure. It sounded condescending.

The scientists followed him up a path. At points, they clustered to identify a species of thrip or a rill in the soil. "Erosion!" cried a pompadoured old gentleman, like a star pupil.

The technical debates raged on. You wandered across a row above the others, and stopped only once, behind a lone girl of about fifteen who stood on a high terrace in the quiet breeze. She stared down on the Land Rovers, a bundle of grasses cradled against her hip. She seemed to be marveling at the caravan, the scientists' gobbling voices, the pageantry. Her photo would be perfect for the annual report. Her back, her arm cradling the grasses—these spoke of hard times. The vista signalled hope for progress. Nice tension. The image appeared on the page in your mind.

Just as you framed her, a hand landed on your shoulder.

"So, what do you think?" boomed the vice-chancellor.

You turned. "Very impressive."

"Quite something for these slopes, eh? But we need to tease the data—yield, labor, financial return." He was ticking off his fingers. "To offer people here a better way. That's where your new computer center comes in." The vice-chancellor laughed merrily.

"Well." You remembered to laugh.

There is no good news about his request for a computer center. But there's also no need to paint him a picture of the director cackling, "Chance in hell! We give him a printer grant and some seeds."

The red eye's trance of sleeplessness seeped in. The world melted into a Dali montage with two motifs—the odd malleability of time and the bizarre nature of all speech. In a fragrant parking lot at the Tea Research Institute, an exchange between two of the Land Rover drivers floored you:

"You're shortening your life," said a man with bad skin. He held open a box of cigarettes.

The other—the dozy driver who met you at the airport a few hours before—took a cigarette. He said, "No. I'm lengthening your life, my friend. It's my charity to you." He grinned with the cancer stick at a jaunty angle. The first driver grunted.

The vice-chancellor approached, and they turned away with hasty nonchalance.

In this new rubbery reality, their act was like a close-up of wheat growing on the moon's tundra—in their words you saw grain heads wobbling toward each other in the lunar breeze, then apart. The moon's silence. Jenny standing in the hallway naked, wagging her finger, smiling. Saying, "You're a pastry, you are."

Packed into the Rover again, you focused on the passing landscape to settle your stomach. Another beautiful, sepia-skinned woman flashed past the window, sheathed in a wet wrapper and long, thick black hair. Your sphincter tightened, as if bracing for a swim upstream, black seaweed drifting across the current, in the body of a dolphin.

Jenny again. All the things you can't say at moments when a word will ignite a fight, or regret. The past gets locked up that way, under the weight of the present.

Sandwiched against a rural sociology professor and her husband. Dr. Perera, a slight woman with a thick black braid falling over her peach sari, had eyes that started out with every sentence. She and her husband launched into an unsettling simultaneous transmission.

"It is at the household level, you see—" Dr. Perera began.

"—where the real decisions are made," said her husband.

"Yes, the real decisions."

Whether to stay in Delhi, or return to the States. Whether to live in a house in the Vermont woods, or pursue—

"Because you can legislate policy on high and stake off lovely demonstration farms—"

"—but how farmers actually live is very different," she said.

"Completely different," he said.

You tilted your head, wondering at their trick. That performance feeling.

"The Vee Cee has been slaving on this conference for months," Dr. Perera said. Vee cee, vice-chancellor.

"Very hard," her husband frowned.

"He likes to have everything just right—"

"Perhaps that's why he remains a bachelor!" the husband giggled.

"A very eligible one."

"Most eligible."

By the end of the afternoon you're once again on the brink of nausea.

That evening's opening ceremony, just 24 sleepless hours after you left Delhi, passed in a fugue state. The hotel's conference room rimmed with deep red curtains and filled with rows of metal-backed chairs. As the funding agency stooge, you sat on the dais beside the agriculture Minister, the VC and two others. Someone set up klieg lights on one side of the room. You'd be on t.v. Oh, to be back in Delhi, at grassy Connaught Circle with Jenny on a Sunday evening! To feel her laughing at your side, watching all the Indian families snapping their instamatics.

That evening, Dr. Perera began her presentation on farm household decision-making as you brushed crumbs of the light yellow cake from a trouser leg. She showed great poise, and patiently constructed a picture. She showed slides of her interviewees—unsmiling men and women, poorly framed by the camera. As she concluded with the fundamental importance of household decisions, you leaned forward, lips parted, as if hearing some truth for the first time. She replied to questions afterward in rich, confident tones about rural people and their reality.

But one questioner—the older pompadoured gentleman who had championed erosion on the field trip, with a glasses-case fastened to his belt—he wouldn't relent.

"But you see—" he said. He fired off three crisp points of biophysical evidence he claimed negated Dr. Perera's conclusions. She adjusted her answer to preserve decorum. She accommodated the old pompadour.

You asked the vice-chancellor, in the next seat, who the man was.

"Dr. De Silva," the VC replied, "animal science."

"Does it ever seem," you whispered, "that science is a debate where the most convincing speaker wins?"

The VC bowed his head, as if focusing on your words. He nodded, then began to applaud. On the stage, Dr. Perera was being thanked by the session chairman.

"Yes indeed," said the VC curtly.

You instantly regretted saying anything.

So here you are the next morning, still seated on the bed looking down at the two mystery figures by the field's edge. The last trail of mist dissipates behind them. What are they waiting for? Put the tie on, tighten the knot.

Suddenly, the dream breaks over you: you and Jenny in a cold city. Pick up a newspaper and read in a yellow text box on Page 1 that Bob Dylan has drowned at sea. Reading the article aloud to her, you're startled by a frog in your throat. Tears blur the newsprint. You turn to her and see that she's speechless too. You both hate celebrity worship. But you can't help the grief.

"I need a drink," you say. Someone argues, with a flourish of South Asian rhetoric, that the headline actually said "Man Drowned at Sea," that there was no proof that it was Bob Dylan. You object that you read it clearly.

You feel wrung out. But the dream has also freed you somehow. It was heartfelt, as opposed to the starched obligation that dictates your movements outside this room—the need to watch your words, take notes, manage tiny grants for research on poor farmers. These have an important place, clearly. But for this one moment stay free from that, free to like what you like. At this moment, there's only the first daylight on the yellow bedspread, and its fringe, twirling along the floor.

The moment passes. What an extravagant waste life can be!

You should stop at the gift shop off the lobby, buy some postcards. Tell Jenny about the dream, a surprising aside to help patch things up. Maybe at the front desk they will have a message that the VC has been swamped by a scheduling mix-up. No breakfast meeting.

At the lobby, he bounds up the front steps in a suit and a narrow black tie. He looks dashing, the searsucker highlighting the silver at his temples.

"A good night's sleep," he says in his clipped, resonant voice, "at last?"

The two of you take a round table in the hotel's restaurant, overlooking the same landscape as the bedroom. The vice-chancellor bursts forth like a brook about educational policies that will revitalize his country's universities and youth. He's riding a wave: "—the great potential of these part-time students."

"Provided—" He lets the word hang on the tip of his forefinger while he takes a sip of coffee. The clink of china, a moment of suspense. "—that we can give them the tools. For Sri Lanka to become competitive we must have multipurpose students, let us call them. We must," he re-arranges the salt and pepper shakers and a knife on the bright tablecloth, "have curricula that can be adaptable, and equipment to support them."

It's his voice that conveys his intensity. Imagine a font of intensity somewhere. Imagine a stroll down the hill, to the lake. To the Temple of the Tooth.

"I was pleased with the idea in your speech yesterday," he says.

That brings you back, eyes reeling upward with the effort of dredging an idea from your speech.

"Exchange programs!" he prompts. "That's precisely what we need. Exchanges. The new computer center will help lay the foundation."

It's time. "That reminds me!" You bend down to your briefcase. "The director asked me to give you this." Hand him the grant. "You can sign one copy and give it back to me before I leave. No need to do it right now."

"Certainly," he says, but he immediately starts flipping pages. His lips make a flat line that shows he's seen the dollar amount. "But," he says incredulously, "there's some mistake. This is insufficient."

His mouth works the air as if you've just tossed your eggs onto his shirt. "Completely inadequate."

"But—" His look stops you. Start again: "With a printer—" It's no good. All you can do is look at him as if he will say more.

He does.

"People were being murdered," he whispers. "Two posters went up," he raises his hands in the air, "and the whole town ground to a stop. Two printed sheets. Stating they would kill us if we set foot on campus. When we went to bed at night, we didn't know what we would see in the morning. It was terrifying, I can assure you!"

"I can't—" you say. He's talking about the violence a year ago, you grasp that much. The Delhi papers had run something on it, passing references to intimidation, another round of brutal murders by the Tamil separatists in the north, but no details. Here in Kandy?

"I came to work one morning and there were fourteen human heads. In a circle around the campus pond. Like, like some kind of horrible cabbage! After that, we couldn't get to campus at all. Dr. De Silva couldn't look after his chicks. They died in the incubator. Nobody could water my cowpeas for fear of their lives—"

"Terrible."

"Yes! And what are we doing to change that landscape, Daryl?" Before you can speak, he continues, "Dr. De Silva showed me a photo of a beautiful woman. She was so beautiful! He said she was the one, the executioner, who sliced off the heads with one slice. They stole his sheep and slaughtered them that way. For practice!"

With his right arm, he performs a sweeping backhand.

"Where did she learn to do that?" His eyes widen.

"Very strange," you whisper.

"It showed me. That beauty is only skin deep, that it could hide her cold heart! That is why I never married! You talk of Dr. Perera—"

"No, you mustn't—" you object.

"I do not want to be dictated," says the VC. "I will not be dictated!" His hand comes down on the table, probably harder than he intended. He is shaking.

"Can you tell me," you say, clearing your throat, "what those two down there are up to?" It's something Jenny would do.

"What?"

"Those two down in the valley haven't moved for thirty minutes. More."

His head swings around. He looks. You've broken his momentum.

"I have no idea." He snorts. "Is that what you've been pondering?"

"No. I just noticed—"

He cranes around once more. "Perhaps they're waiting for help." The last word ends in a puff of air.

You both look down on the scene for several seconds. The two figures, so still, they are mesmerizing.

"Daryl, please excuse the outburst," says the vice-chancellor at last, running a hand over his hair. "It was quite out of place. This week has been... I apologize."

"Not at all."

"Well." He looks at his watch. "I'm sorry, I have one more appointment before the conference resumes."

The vice-chancellor has an excellent smile. After shaking hands, you sit down again as he negotiates the white oval tablecloths to the door. With the grant. It's like a Pontiac has been lifted off you. Check the window again, and the figures in the valley have vanished.

 

Previous Piece Next Piece