The Fifth House of the Heart
The yellow air was thick as feathers, stuffed with dust and smoke and exhaust fumes and the stench of the river Mithi. There had been no monsoons that year to flush away the filth.
Mumbai, an island city ten times the size of Manhattan, with twelve times its population, relied on the wind and rain of the monsoons. They washed away millions of tons of industrial waste, excrement, and refuse for which there was otherwise little infrastructure. Without the weather, the city became a stinking pressure cooker. People prayed for rain and hoped they wouldn’t get war. The god Indra was associated with both.
The sky hung low and overcast, but there was no rain.
This had no effect on business. Despite the ongoing malaise in the major Western economies, India continued to expand as a commercial power. Its motion picture output, particularly, was becoming more popular every year, with vast audiences in Britain, Germany, Eastern Europe, and even South America. It dwarfed Hollywood.
Bollywood, as Mumbai’s entertainment industry was wryly called, was becoming the dominant power in storytelling around the world.
If you wanted to succeed, if you wanted billions of fans and not mere millions, you came to Mumbai. The squalor and the hustlers and the noise and the foul air were nothing—merely the grime that collects on well-fondled money.
The only thing success could not relieve was the accursed traffic. However many country villas one could afford, however fine one’s automobile, getting to the former in the latter was nearly impossible. Even the burgeoning helicopter business was little help—it was still a drive to the airfield.
Neelina “Nilu” Chandra was an item girl. She had started out as an extra in the innumerable crowd scenes called for in Bollywood movies. Eventually she became a dancer, performing choreographed routines alongside several dozen others in the background behind the stars—item numbers, these musical interludes were called.
Now Nilu had the lead in an item number of her own, in a production called Kaun Hai Woh Pagal Ladki? She was playing the part of an anonymous club singer; her job was to dance and lip-synch a filmi song that echoed the hero’s emotional condition as he pined for the heroine (the “pagal ladki,” or “crazy girl,” of the title). The stars would be involved in the number. Nilu had no fewer than five routines to perform with the hero in the course of the song.
The heroine was supposed to be sitting alone at a table in the club, ignoring all romantic entreaties, so Nilu wouldn’t have to compete with her for screen time. It was an ideal opportunity that could result in more item numbers with Nilu as the lead dancer, which could bring about a proper dramatic role with dialogue. From there, it was in the audience’s hands. If they liked her well enough, she would become a star.
Nilu had some good features, she knew. Aside from her body, which was the result of good genes, dancing, and not eating anything
containing ghee, Nilu also had the nose of Kareena, the brows of Kajol, and eyes that were all her own. She couldn’t sing particularly well, but that meant nothing; neither could any of the stars. The songs were always dubbed by voice-over specialists called playback singers. So Nilu had a fair chance.
The problem wasn’t what she did on-screen, but what she didn’t do offscreen.
There were certain trapdoors built into the entertainment business. Some were shortcuts to heaven, some to hell. The price of access was one’s honor. None of the most successful actresses had fallen into that trap (or at least, none had confessed it), but the temptation came to them all. A girl could do very well in this town if she gave up a little pride and a lot of chastity. The question was, would such compromises keep her from the very top? The Indian press thrived on scandal, and the public feasted on it. An actress was easily ruined.
So far, Nilu had been careful. There were forces, however, conspiring against her better judgment. Tonight she would confront one of those forces in the guise of the film’s producer, Mallammanavar Jagadish.
His nickname, “Jag,” was appropriate, as it suggested the supreme being. Which, in cinema, Jag certainly was. He was a second-generation filmmaker and also produced television commercials. In commercials, his specialty was working with professional athletes. When it came to film, his specialty was actresses. Jag’s affairs were conducted with perfect secrecy. His discretion was legendary. I do not hunt tigers for their skins, he once said.
The problem was not him or even his household or familiars, but the diabolical skill of scandal hunters for the tabloids. They could deduce a romantic connection merely by observing who disappeared, and when, and for how long. The parties involved need never be seen
together. Verification came from studying the credits of Jag’s next film; when it came to women, promotion was a sure sign.
Nilu had made sure to let several people know where she would be that evening and who would be there. That way, the tabloids could only unearth facts with which Nilu herself would agree. The problem was that Jag was notorious for ending a dinner party early, clearing an hour or two in the evening to study the latest script or budget. During that time, a woman might find herself delayed, perhaps to discuss an upcoming role. Upon such hours entire careers might hinge. Nilu had a feeling her hour would be tonight, and she didn’t yet know what she would do when it arrived.
The afternoon shoot went well. Nilu spent the entire morning warming up and doing her routines alone; the rehearsal was a single run-through, and then she was on camera, singing and dancing with Sunil Kumar. He was a professional and got everything right. Nilu kept up. She was nearly an inch taller than him, but he had shoes for that.
By the end of the day they had filmed the entire dance number, except for some insert shots of the actress brooding at her table in the club. Nilu had not spared a moment’s thought for the evening until an hour after the shoot was wrapped. She was changing into her civilian clothes, fashionable distressed jeans and a backless frock of pistachio-green chiffon. The green was especially suited to Nilu’s skin, which was a few shades darker than the current pallid mode. Bangling gold at throat and ears, a cascade of gold bracelets at the left wrist: enough. She was ready. Sexy, but not brazen, she hoped. She tucked her feet into a pair of cork platforms and strode out of the communal dressing room she shared with eight other dancers. Maybe in a few months, she would have her own dressing room.
Maybe in a few months she would disappear, as so many girls did, back to their home villages, another starstruck hopeful ravished and sent away in shame.
Nilu wondered what had happened to some of the girls she had known. For example, a very pretty dancer named Deepa, with whom she had been fairly close. Although Deepa was her competition, Nilu liked her. It helped that Deepa wasn’t as good a dancer, of course, but she was also quite charming. She seemed vulnerable in a way Nilu could only pretend to be. Deepa had a way of looking at people that suggested she was waiting for an approving word but didn’t expect it to come. This quality vanished once she was dancing on camera, however, and she was just another sexy silhouette, the same as all of them.
Had Deepa been able to harness that vulnerable quality for her performances, she might have become known. As it was, Deepa had gone on some dates with film executives and above-the-line people—a director, an executive producer—but never had she been invited to dine with Mr. Jagadish. Someone had gotten through her defenses, in any case, because after one of these dates, Deepa was not seen again. Speculation in the business was that she had become pregnant during a previous encounter, confronted her lover with the news, and that very night was sent packing back home. As with so many people in Mumbai, where “home” was, nobody knew. Mumbai was home enough for the whole world.
Nilu splurged on a taxi to the corner of the block on which Jag lived, then walked the rest of the way to his gate. Several fine automobiles were parked on the gravel inside the palm-forested compound of his three-story house. The wrought-iron gates were geometric in design. There were no photographers or strangers lurking about anywhere on the street. She took half a dozen deep breaths, then went to the small gate set into the wall beside the main gates. There was a guard at the gate in a red peaked cap. He ushered her through, and she
went up the illuminated path past a glowing blue fountain and into the mansion.
The evening went by in a whirl of moments. Jag himself answered the door. He was a very handsome man, and taller than most. He had a long, structural face and perfect teeth. He radiated strength. His house was enormous and brand-new. The entrance hall was the size of Nilu’s parents’ house, with a cantilevered staircase in African slate curving up to the second and third levels. A chandelier like a vast bursting firework hung in the center of the space, glittering in the icy-dry breath of the air-conditioning. The décor had all been assembled by a professional—it was impersonal but rich, with acres of bone-colored walls enlivened by slabs of abstract canvas and broad, baronial timbers. There seemed to be dozens of lamps in every room, so no matter where one stood, the light was flattering to the skin. The interior didn’t suggest anything of Jag’s personality. It merely said he was a man of enormous wealth and taste enough to hire a good decorator.
There was a variety of people at the dinner, held in the wintery-white dining room: Nilu recognized a couple of aspiring actresses who had entered the business through the dramatic side, rather than dancing. Junior artistes, such people were called. Seated opposite Nilu was a retired judge, who now held large tracts of working farmland, and his wife, once an actress who had worked with Mallammanavar Jagadish’s father. Beside them were a noted architect and his spouse, a fashion designer who had made a fortune in prewrapped, fitted saris for Westernized desi girls.
A big, white-haired Russian with a diamond wholesale business in Surat sat to Jag’s right. At the opposite end of the table was a director of photography who was known for his action sequences back in the 1970s and whose memoir had been quite successful. He was a very
funny man—it turned out he’d once been a comedian in films, then discovered he preferred life behind the camera.
It was an interesting party, enlivened by Jag’s impeccable skill as host. He knew how to keep things moving along. The popular image of the film producer as a demanding boor was entirely out of place with him. His sense of etiquette and propriety could not be faulted. Nilu thought she detected the mode of his sexual conquests: he was so equally interested in everyone that the other two young actresses were competing for his attention. Even Nilu found herself doing it. They all wanted to shine just a little more than the rest, collecting laughter and smiles from the party like gambling chips scooped up from the center of the gleaming mahogany table. It wouldn’t take much before one of them carried the competition to the bedroom.
At some point, Nilu realized the formula for success in this setting. Concern for her reputation had kept her from throwing herself completely into the “brightest young thing” contest; the taller of the two actresses was winning that category, as it happened. But it was precisely Nilu’s reserve that caught the eyes of them. She observed it was the girl who least often jumped into a conversation, and spoke only thoughtfully, who most fascinated the men. At first she wasn’t certain how to amplify the effect: after all, a girl who is too quiet will come off shy or stupid. But Nilu found she didn’t have to speak so much as listen.
If she nodded her understanding of the perils of land management when the judge spoke, Jag and the Russian watched her instead of the actresses, who could scarcely feign to be listening at all. But to really make an impression, she couldn’t just listen—she must speak. However, she knew little of the subject.
She scoured her memory for something and recalled an article she had read on a bus the previous year. Something about women’s rights and the system of village governance. Yes! So she asked a pointed ques
tion about the panchayati raj system and land ownership for women, and the judge went off into a lengthy, fairly technical explanation of the issue. Although in truth Nilu had very little idea what he was talking about, the fact that she had composed an informed-sounding question earned her admiration all around.
Eventually Jag announced he was going to have to break up the party earlier than he wished; there was a script that needed revising and Jag had paid the writers enough already. He would do the work himself. Nilu’s heart beat faster. If there was to be some kind of assignation, it would be soon.
The party lingered awhile. Nilu watched Jag for signals. She didn’t know what they would be, or how she would respond. She wasn’t a virgin, but neither was she particularly experienced. She didn’t know how they did these things in the swinging world of real players.
The judge and his wife left first; shortly afterward, the fashion designer towed her architect away, although he had been hoping for more drinks. The rest of the party retired to the great room with its vaulted ceilings and tall, stacked fireplace of rough stone.
Jag poured cognac for the Russian and the young women continued on with their Californian white wine. He made a whiskey and water for himself. They sat at intervals on the white leather sectional, which formed the margin of a conversation pit set lower than the rest of the floor. Nilu admired everything, smiled and laughed as the others did, but she was still afraid. She felt like a contestant in a game show she wasn’t certain she wanted to win.
Jag checked his ashtray-sized Panerai watch and clapped his hands together.
“Another few minutes,” he announced. “Then we must part ways.”
To her surprise, Nilu realized the Russian was observing her closely. She hadn’t paid much attention to him; he seldom spoke throughout the evening, and when he did, it was with an impenetrable
accent. Apparently she had made an impression. She studied him with brief glances as the conversation fluttered around in its last phase.
His name was Andronov, which he pronounced yendronew. His eyes were dark gray, and even the whites of them were gray, as if there was a shadow that fell eternally over them. His hair was white and stiff, like cats’ whiskers, and swept back over a monumental skull of such strength that his features seemed merely to have been draped over it. His face was complex and mobile, shifting with expressions that Nilu could not read.
It was as if she was seeing him through slightly rippled glass. He had large, hard hands with thick fingernails. She could not guess his age. In some moods, he appeared to be around fifty; in others, he could have been a hundred years old. There was something ancient about his eyes. When he looked at her, he caught Nilu staring. He smiled, just a little, and seemed almost to light up from within. Nilu wanted him to smile at her again. He was so masculine, his face more expressive even than that of the actor Sanjay Dutt. She had danced once with “the Deadly Dutt.” He was tall, but not as tall as the Russian.
It might have been the wine, but Nilu found herself less wary than she had been all night. She was still on the alert for trouble, but she believed now that trouble could be handled. It could be shaped. She could stop things whenever she wanted. There was more to be discovered tonight.
The junior artistes twittered and cooed and the short one all but asked if she might stay behind. Jag dismissed them both, and the old director of photography went out with them. Nilu felt light-headed but well. She made her good-byes, knowing the next move was not hers to make. Jag glanced at Andronov. The Russian was staring fixedly at Nilu. Jag turned his eyes back to her.
“You made a good impression,” he said. “Please stay a few minutes longer. I am interested to hear what sort of a career you have planned.”
Nilu felt like she had leapt off a cliff and soared into the air and flown upward toward the sun. Tonight it was all happening, that moment when things would go right. For most people, that moment never came. For those few who got such a chance, some were not ready, or not paying attention, or didn’t have the courage to proceed; they would wake up ten years later to discover they had not realized their dreams. Nilu felt blessed: She was aware. Now her life could truly begin.
Jag smiled at her and she smiled back, although the smile somehow missed Jag and landed in the Russian’s cognac.
“I’ll go get the latest sides for the new show,” Jag said, and put his glass on a console table. He walked out of the great room, leaving Nilu and Andronov alone. Neither of them spoke until the ice stopped turning in Jag’s glass.
“You are an item girl,” the Russian said. Nilu blushed.
“Only a dancer. But I want to take dramatic roles,” she said. Her ambitions suddenly seemed very small in her mouth.
“It’s a competitive industry,” he said. “Even with diamonds, it’s nothing so competitive. There are always so many more diamonds than people believe. There are thousands of tons of them in warehouses all around the world. They’re common.”
He removed a ring from the small finger of his left hand and tossed it to Nilu. She caught it in both hands, slopping her wine. It was an enormous flashing stone in a plain gold mount; the thing had looked petite on his finger but was as big as a door knocker now that she held it. She noticed the metal was cold, although he’d worn it all night.
“Talent,” Andronov continued, “is far more rare than diamonds.”
Nilu offered him the ring back. He dismissed it with a puff of his lips. “Keep it,” he said.
Nilu was ashamed of her own suspicious mind: now she wondered if he was offering her the price of her body. It wasn’t unreasonable to
be concerned about such a thing. She didn’t know what to do with such a valuable gift. She couldn’t keep it. It would be seen to influence whatever else happened.
She found the Russian hypnotic. In fact, she wanted him to have her for nothing. He excited her. Fifty? He was in his midforties, seething with virility. He looked older because he was so pale, as Europeans were. She wondered if his body was like his face, a powerful frame harnessed with muscle, and if he was so large everywhere as he was in the hands.
The blush sprang up her face again. She was thinking immodest thoughts. She might joke about such things with the other dancers concerning an especially fine male specimen amongst their colleagues, but it was only coarse talk, without the heat of desire. They never spoke in that way about the leading artistes, the stars with whom they danced, or about strangers, for that matter. Now she was experiencing real lust, her mouth flooding with it. A ridiculous fear caught her off guard: What if the Russian could tell what she was thinking? Could he see her thoughts reflected in her eyes? He would see himself naked, then. Nilu laughed aloud in spite of herself.
“You look happy,” Andronov said.
“I feel happy,” Nilu said, and knew it was idiotic. She carelessly set the ring aside.
She laughed again, abandoning her nagging self-observant monkey mind. An aching orb of pleasure was swelling inside her, honey flowing in the nerves of her belly. Laughter and light was the thing. Touch and spill and tangle. Her joy flew into a million glittering fragments. She could hear tinkling bells somewhere above her, a golden tintinnabulation that matched the sparkling light of the room, waterfalls of gold. Diamonds. It was the sound of diamonds she heard. But she saw gold, flowing in bright rivers.
It was blue dark and quiet when she awoke. Her body was sore, her groin so tender she could hardly move her legs. Her breasts ached. Even the light satin bedsheet abraded her nipples. There was a throbbing in her womb. She remembered some of it now. The Russian, Andronov. He’d taken her. His skin was cold and hard as stone, corded with veins. Pale and translucent. His mouth was cruel.
He had done more than violate her—he had made her want it. She remembered begging him to defile her, but it wasn’t desire she felt then. Only fear. He had taken her, teasing unwilling orgasms from her like a magician with a volunteer from the audience: an endless supply of climaxes, from here, from there, from anywhere he chose, until Nilu was weeping with exhaustion and the pleasure had turned to agony. Wave upon wave of profound sexual release, electric spasms crashing down upon her until it was the same as drowning. It came from outside her and rushed into her. It was terrifying, like snake poison. She felt herself dying, draining away. Her strong dancer’s muscles were torn and bruised, cramping from the paroxysms of release that flooded through her body.
She was in ruins. He had literally fucked her half to death.
Nilu rolled on her side and was sick on the floor. She’d been drugged, certainly. She had no idea where she was. A bedroom. She didn’t know where. There were shutters on the windows. Faint light crept between the slats. She could hear distant traffic sounds. She was still in the city. Perhaps still in Mallammanavar Jagadish’s mansion.
Andronov was not there. She felt his absence. There was a power that radiated from him when he was around. It left behind a stale note, like ozone, when he was gone.
It occurred to Nilu that he might return. Panic strobed in her mind. She tried to get out of the bed and fell to the floor instead, the sheets clinging to the vomit on the cool marble. She needed to find her
clothes, or anything at all she could cover herself with. She was getting out of here, away from danger—wrapped in a curtain, if need be.
She crawled to the wall, where the dark rectangle of a doorway loomed in the shadows. She pushed herself up the wall and her fingers found a switch. The room lit up behind her. Suddenly she knew he would be there, sitting naked in a chair with a drink in his hand, waiting for her. Then he would begin his attack again, and soon she would be dead.
She spun around. The room was empty.
There was the ring, sparkling on a side table. She stumbled across the floor on trembling legs and snatched up the bright circlet. It smelled like the Russian. Like the ocean, she remembered. Like wet earth. His mouth tasted of cold flint. Nilu cast the ring on the floor.
There was a wardrobe against the wall. She made her way to it, lurching from one piece of furniture to the next, and was afraid to open it. Andronov was inside, waiting for her. She opened it despite her fear. A long white terry-cloth dressing gown hung inside, and wire hangers in paper jackets. She pulled the gown over her naked body, her arms sore and protesting as she thrust them into the sleeves.
Nilu staggered, and sometimes crawled, and eventually made it outside. She was not in Jag’s palatial home; it was a private bungalow on the grounds of a large hotel she didn’t recognize. There were a dozen such cottages arranged at discreet distances from each other in a densely landscaped part of the property, a hundred meters removed from the main bulk of the hotel.
There was a doorman beneath the brightly lit porte cochere of the hotel proper. Nilu thought to beg his help, but even now she held some faint hope that she could salvage her future. If she sought aid, she would be identified. She would become a sensation. The public would sympathize with her plight, a poor beautiful item girl drugged and raped by a foreign madman. But it would also label her a whore. Then
she would have to remember where her home was, because it would no longer be Mumbai. She would have to live in what little of her past she could reclaim. The future would be gone.
High walls surrounded the hotel grounds. There was night traffic beyond them. Nilu pulled the dressing gown tight around her and left the hotel by the driveway entrance, her bare feet slapping on the pavement.
The police found the young woman lying in the street at three in the morning, dressed only in a white cotton robe. They transported her to Saint Mary’s Hospital near the Victoria Gate. She was not a beggar or a slum dweller. She was too well maintained, her hair handsomely cut. So they took good care of her at the hospital and placed her in a semiprivate room, in case her family should turn out to be wealthy.
Nilu lay in her hospital bed and listened to the din of the Mumbai traffic coming in at the window. It was daylight. The room smelled of exhaust fumes and phenyle cleaning solution, a sweet tarry stink. Without turning her head, she could see an old-fashioned glass intravenous bottle on a chromium stand rising up on the right side of her bed, some sort of beige electronic machine on a cart to her left. There was a green curtain on a rail and a ceiling fan overhead. She couldn’t see the window itself, except as a bright patch beyond the flexion of her eyes. She couldn’t turn her head at all. Her neck had become stiff.
Because there was nothing else to do except listen to the traffic in the street below and stare straight ahead at the wall, Nilu reassembled the events of the previous night and studied them in her mind. It was as if she had memorized individual pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle, their shapes and the fragments of pictures upon them, but the
puzzle would not remain in its finished form. Each time she wished to examine the picture, it had to be rebuilt. There were pieces missing. She yearned to conjure them up but also feared them.
The picture was ugly and terrifying, worse than the vividly painted tableau of the goddess Durga Maa she had found so fascinating when she was a child: opposing an army, the many-limbed deity sat astride a lion, her fists full of bloody weapons, the battlefield littered with dismembered corpses spewing gore that flowed like long hair.
A nurse stepped into the room and the puzzle flew apart again. The woman crossed through her field of vision, small and dark in a white half-sleeved smock and starched cap. The traffic noise diminished as the nurse closed the window and latched it. Nilu shut her eyes against a wave of pain from trying to turn her head. When she opened them, the nurse was gone. She hadn’t heard the door close. The blades of the ceiling fan were turning now, stirring the warm air. The darkness came then, and swallowed her up. She dreamed of hard, white bodies and probing fingers and long, snakelike tongues. She itched and burned. The Russian sucked at her flesh and she felt her soul draining away.
It was nighttime again when Nilu returned to consciousness, flailing through slimy folds of nightmare back to the stifling-hot hospital room.
Andronov was standing at the foot of her bed. Fear flooded her veins. His face was impassive, the flesh lifeless except for his eyes. He seemed about to speak but thought better of it. Instead, he glanced toward the door of the room, then stepped around the foot of the bed until he stood beside the chromium IV stand.
Nilu was terrified, but she made no move or sound. He had come to kill her, she knew. She could not resist. Her life was his to take. Now he would finish the project.
He stretched out his large, waxen hand and touched Nilu’s face, kneading the flesh like a doctor palpating for hidden flaws. Then he bore down, and the cold fingers became hard, and Nilu’s neck screamed with pain but there was no voice to it. Water spilled from her eyes. He had his cool palm across her nose and mouth. She began to suffocate. He stared into her eyes, and what she saw there was more terrible than hatred or glee. It was boredom. She forced her arms up and clawed at his fingers, but they were as unyielding as stone. Bursts of light filled her vision. Her empty lungs burned.
Then there was a loud, sharp bang and a flash of light that leapt up yellow along the underside of Andronov’s jaw, his nostrils, the hollows of his eye sockets. He stumbled backward. Nilu gasped for breath. Her neck scissored pain, but she had to breathe.
The same nurse emerged from her place of concealment beneath the bed. She was holding a sawed-off shotgun. She was a tiny figure compared to the enormous Russian now pressed up against the wall. He was clutching at his groin, and from there a vast crimson stain was spreading. He raised his bloody hands and bent them into claws, snarling at the nurse. She cocked and fired the weapon all in one convulsive gesture. The Russian’s face imploded, his nose and jaws gone, blown into the back of his head.
But he didn’t die. He threw himself at the small woman instead. She fired the gun again and a dark red peacock’s tail leapt out of the Russian’s back, all over the walls and ceiling. Then the Russian collided with her and both figures fell on the bed, bearing down suddenly on Nilu’s legs. The intravenous bottle toppled and shattered on the floor. The pain was such that Nilu thought her head was tearing free of its foundations; she wanted to die.
The combatants rolled off the end of the bed, and Nilu was slipping toward the floor. She gripped the sheets and hung at an angle, as afraid as if she might fall ten miles, not two feet.
Shoes clattered in the hallway. People were coming. There was another bang, another flash. The Russian rose to his feet and roared, a gurgling cry of rage and pain made shapeless because he had no features, no lips to make the sounds, only a single rolling eye beneath his tattered forehead. The woman had shot him point-blank in his face a second time. He swung his head, drunk with wounds, first at the door, where fists hammered on the other side of the panel, then around to look with his single red eye at the window.
The nurse was on her feet, now injured herself, swiping a hand at the braid of blood that spilled from her nose. She got her back against the wall and shoved herself along it, away from the Russian. She pulled a second weapon from its concealment behind the green curtain, a long-handled bludgeon with a spiked hammerhead. The Russian saw this thing and lurched for the window.
The nurse charged with a hiss of rage and swung the weapon. Nilu could not see it strike the Russian from her skewed, upside-down angle. He hulked on the edge of her vision as a blur of struggling darkness. But she heard the brutal spike go into his back, and she heard his bubbling scream of agony. The window shattered. The Russian ripped the entire sash out of its frame and flung it into the room, tearing the curtain down. Traffic noise clamored in again, and exhaust fumes.
Andronov was gone through the window. The nurse leaned out to see down into the street below. One of her feet rose into view as she flipped it up for a counterbalance: she was shod in military canvas boots with toothy rubber soles. Not proper footwear for hospital personnel. Then she was looking down into Nilu’s face, a finger to her blood-jellied lips.
Silence, the gesture said. But Nilu understood what was really meant: Say nothing. Nilu saw that the woman was North Asian, Chinese perhaps, or Japanese. She had lost the small, stiff nurse’s cap. Her black hair was cut short.
Moments later, the nurse crossed to the door and opened it, and doctors and orderlies rushed in. Questions were flung around, arms waved. A tremendous cacophony of voices filled the hot, blood-stinking air. Several pairs of hands found Nilu at once and worked to stabilize her on the bed; through the gaps in the crowd she saw the nurse, bloody faced, against the wall, shaking her head as a doctor demanded to know what had happened. Then the crowd shifted, there was confusion, and when Nilu could see again, the doctor’s attention was elsewhere. The nurse had gone.