In the birthing room of a tiny clinic, in a town in Southern India, holding the hand of another man's wife, Michael Fielding felt chaos rise quietly through the world. Like the gentle flood of an untamed river, it seeped into his life, dissolving the past, laying down the mud that would grow the future.
Jaya's hand tightened on his. Her lips parted, ruby-red jewels set against her cream-coffee skin, their color that of a tailored strain of bacteria cohabiting in her cells.
"Another's starting," she whispered. Exhaustion feathered her words. "Michael
all the old women lied
when they promised it would be easier
the second time."
"You're almost there," he assured her. "You're doing terrific."
Sheo's voice backed him up, speaking from the beige picture frame of the open portal, sitting on the rickety metal table at the head of the bed. It was a voice-only connection, so the portal's screen displayed a generic sequence of abstract art. "Michael's right, my love. You are wonderful."
"Sheo?" Jaya's dark eyes opened. She turned toward Michael, but she wasn't looking at him. Instead, her gaze fixed on the lens of his net visor that concealed his eyes like gray sunglasses. She seemed to search the shades for some trace of her husband. Her expression was captured by tiny cameras on the shades' frame. Processors translated her image to digital code, then shunted it to Sheo's mobile address, across town or across the continentMichael had lost track of how far Sheo had progressed in his frantic journey to meet his wife.
Jaya should have been home in Bangalore, enjoying the services of the finest hospital in the country. She did not belong in this primitive clinic, where the obstetrician was a face on a monitor, checking on her through a stereoscopic camera that pointed between her legs.
Of course it was Michael's fault. He'd been in-country two weeks, the new district director for Global Shear. It was an assignment he'd coveted, but with only five days' notice before his transfer from the Hong Kong office, he had not been ready for it.
Jaya took pity on him. Claiming her maternity leave might otherwise end in terminal boredom, she took a train to Four Villages, to help Michael find his way through barriers of language and local custom.
He and Jaya had both interned at Global Shear, members of a five-person training team so cohesive that, ten years after the course work ended, four of them still met almost daily on a virtual terrace to exchange the news of their private lives and their careers. When Jaya stepped off the train to embrace Michael on the dusty platform, it was the first time they had ever met in real space
and it hadn't mattered. If they had grown up in the same house, Michael could not have felt any closer to her.
Now the baby was coming three weeks early.
Everything happened so much faster these days.
Sheo's voice crooned through the portal speaker, calm as a holy man preaching peace and brotherhood. "You're strong and you're beautiful, Jaya. And you've done this before. Our beautiful Gita"
Fury heated Jaya's black eyes. "That was six years ago! Now I am old! And you're not here."
"I've got a zip," he explained quickly. "I'm leaving the airport now. I'll be there in just a few more minutes."
"He'll be here," Michael whispered, fervently hoping it was true. With a white cotton cloth, he daubed at the sweat gleaming on Jaya's forehead and cheeks. The clinic's air conditioning had been shut off at midnight. It would not be restored until after dawn, when the sun rose high enough to activate the rooftop solar tiles. Windows had been thrown open to the night. In the distance, a train murmured, base whispers interrupted by rhythmic thumps that went on and on and on until Michael felt the train must surely run all the way to Bangalore.
Jaya's eyes closed. The muscles in her face emerged in severe outline as the contraction climaxed. Michael dipped the cloth in a bowl of water and wiped at her forehead, until she growled at him to leave her alone.
Down between her legs, the midwife, who spoke excellent English, sighed happily. "Ah, he's almost here. Gently now, lady. Push gently, so he doesn't tear you."
"Where are you, Sheo?" Jaya cried. "It's happening now."
"I'm here!" The calmness in Sheo's voice had cracked. "I'm outside."
A screech of dirty brakes and the growl of wet pavement under tires testified to the arrival of his zip. "Get your ass in here, Sheo," Michael growled.
Jaya gasped. From the foot of the bed, the midwife cried, "Here is the head! He's here
just a little more, a little more
there!" And Jaya's breath blew out in a long, crying exhalation. "There my lady, now only his body to come, easy, easy."
Sheo stumbled past the curtain, struggling to pull an old set of surgical scrubs over his beige business shirt. A nurse followed after him, her face stern as she fought to grab the gown's danglings ties.
Sheo still wore his own shades, and as he cried out Jaya's name a whistle of feedback snapped out of the portal on the bedside table. Michael leaned over and slapped the thing off. Then the baby was there. The midwife had the child in her hands, but as she gazed at it, her happy expression drained away. Her mouth shrank to a pucker. Her eyes seemed to recede within a mantle of soft, aging flesh. The stern nurse saw the change. She leaned past the midwife's shoulder to look at the child, and her eyes went wide with an ugly surprise.
For a dreadful moment Michael was sure the baby was dead. Then he heard the tiny red thing whimper. He saw its arm move, its little fingers clench in a fierce fist. Was it deformed then? Impossible. Jaya had employed the best obstetric care. If there had been a problem, she would have known.
Sheo crouched at Jaya's side. He whispered to her, he kissed her face. Neither of them had noticed the midwife and her distress, and for that Michael felt thankful. But he had to see the baby.
At his approach, the midwife looked up warily. She pulled the baby close to her breast as if to hide whatever damning evidence she had seen.
"No," Michael said. "Let me see."
She seemed ready to resist, but then she sighed, and held the child out.
The little girl was a mess. White goop filled a sea of wrinkles. There were downy patches of dark hair on her shoulders, and her face was flushed red. Michael grinned. A typical newborn. He turned to Jaya. "She's beautiful. A beautiful little girl."
The doctor on the monitor agreed, and still Michael felt as if a shadow had swum sinuous through this night, drawing all of them a little deeper into the haunted past.
· · · · ·
Michael had been warned about the strangeness of this place.
It was not quite three weeks since the wall screen in his Hong Kong office had opened on an image of Karen Hampton, smiling slyly from behind her desk, with the Singapore skyline visible through the window at her back.
She'd asked if he still had a taste for challenges, and he'd risen like a shark on blood scent.
Karen Hampton was in her sixties, and Michael could only think of her as classy. Her skin was fair, her features petite, her manner of dress stiff-Gotham-uppercrust; but when she laughed, Karen Hampton sounded like a trucker bellied up to a bar. She was laughing now. "That's my Michael! Still hungry." Then her face grew stern. No longer the sympathetic mentor shepherding his career, she transformed into the unflappable director of Global Shear Asia. "I want you to be the next site director at Four Villages."
He could not believe what he was hearing. "Karen! Hell yes. You know I've wanted this from the concept stage."
Her gaze didn't soften. "I know, but nevertheless, I'm advising you to think hard about it, Michael. This is not so much a favor as a chance to ruin your career."
Four Villages was a quiet experiment that could change the path of development in impoverished regions throughout the world. Global Shear had won a ten-year contract as civil administrator in the districtand not as a glorified cooperative extension service. They had been hired to overhaul a failed bureaucracy, and to that end, many traditional government functions, from real property inventories to taxation, had been placed in the corporation's hands.
"You aren't going to show a positive balance sheet for at least five years," Karen warned him. "Maybe longer. We have been hired to grow an economy. Within ten years, we must develop four essential aspects of a sustainable trade system: infrastructure, information, financing, and trust. I put trust last not because it is the least important but because it is the most important. Only when trust is firmly established, and our presence here welcomed by a majority of residents, will we begin to see a profit."
Global Shear's contract would be financed partly through the World Bank, but primarily through a carefully defined flat tax, so that the corporation's income would rise with economic activity. In a region of sixteen million people, the profit potential was enormous. So were the challenges, of course, but if the job was easy, it would have already been done.
"We will be wrecking traditional relationships between farmers, landlords, and business people," Karen warned. "We will be stumbling through issues of religion, caste, and gender. We will be accused of corrupting traditional culture and it will be true. To many, we will be the enemy. But at the same time, if we deal honestly and enthusiastically with everyone, self-interest will convince the majority that we are performing a right and proper job. The poor are the majority here, Michael. Your goal is to change that fact. Your biggest challenge will be your own preconceptions.
"You've worked in Sarajevo, Kurdistan, Rangoon, Hong Kong, but nothing you've experienced will leave you feeling as displaced as you will feel after a few weeks in Four Villages. This project is not about New Delhi. It's definitely not about Bangalore. It's not about the educated, westernized Indians you have worked with in our offices around the world. It's different. Remember that, and you might make it through your first month. It's also utterly human. Remember that as well, and you might outlast your predecessor, who succumbed to culture shock in less than a year."
Karen had warned him, and after two weeks in-country, Michael knew she hadn't exaggerated. If not for Jaya he might have been lost, but even Jaya was a foreigner here. How many evenings had they spent in despairing laughter, trying to decode the bizarre demands of a merchant or a farmer or a local police officer? Or the medical staff in a rural hospital?
In the clinic's dimly-lit hallway, Michael met the stern-faced nurse, pulling fresh sheets from a closet. He approached her, driven by a need to understand. "Why did you look that way, when you saw Jaya's baby? As if something about her frightened you?"
The nurse's face was hard, like well-aged wax. "I don't know what you mean, Mr. Fielding. It's as you said, a beautiful baby girl."
"Please." Michael moved half a step closer. At six foot one, he towered over the nurse. On some level he knew he was using his height to bully her, but he had never had it in him to look away from a bad situation. "You saw something. Please tell me what it was."
The moan of another woman's labor seeped from behind drawn curtains. Anger flashed in the nurse's eyes. "I saw that she is a girl."
"Of course she's a girl, but what's wrong with her?"
"That is enough." The nurse slipped past him with her burden of sheets.
"Wait," Michael pleaded. "I don't understand."
She looked back at him. Had her expression softened? "It is nothing, sir. Just a surprise. Mostly, these women have boys. When they have girls, it is usually a mistake."
"I am glad it's not a mistake this time."
· · · · ·
Later, Michael walked the dim corridor with Sheo, while the nurses tended to Jaya and changed her gown. "They were shocked you had a daughter."
Sheo's lips pursed in a long sigh, while outside, rain pattered in peaceful rhythm. "The old ways are dying out, but change doesn't happen everywhere at once. This is my second daughter, and I would not wish it any different. But for a family living a traditional life, a daughter is not an asset. For the very poor, she can be a financial disaster. Illiterate, subservient, she is of little use. It will cost her family to raise her, train her, and then they will have to pay another family to take her in."
"The midwife said most ladies here have boys."
"Did she? Well. There is always talk."
"Infanticide?" The word softened, set against the rain.
"It starts much earlier, I think." Sheo shook his head. "But don't talk of these things now, Michael. Not on my daughter's birthday. She's beautiful, isn't she? As beautiful as her mother."