Friday, March 18, 2016

The Holy River

The Holy River
Bobby Derie

I was a child of the Empire, in every sense that mattered. My forefathers in Dover and Cornwall had sent out their sons to strange lands, and when they returned at all it was with brown wives and queer-eyed children. My grandmothers had come from India, Egypt, and South Africa, nor were they princesses or noblewomen, as so many others in the orphanage schools would claim. My line had a talent for languages and danger, and took their service in the army or the diplomatic service, whichever would have them, and none more exemplified both than my father, who claimed he crossed swords with Burton and died from a jealous husband's dagger in Bombay.

East, west, north, and south were mixed within me, but there was always the house in New Delhi, which one or another of my grandfathers had built, and which had become by general consensus the hitching-post of the family. It was to Delhi that uncles appeared, bearing odd swords and strange books, and it was to Delhi that wives and grandmothers retired, awaiting husbands and sons. My own mother kept the house now, with two of my aunts, each of them half-British in their own right, and a great-aunt who was pure Indian and chewed betel. They were caretakers of the family lore, and growing up I more than half-thought my aunts were witches, for though they had been married in the Church of England, neither had given up the hijab, and could name demons and spirit in at least four different languages.

I myself washed up on the steps once again, not for any love of home or family, but in desperation. I had first felt the madness in the Sinai, where I had been on a mission of some importance, a mission made all the more difficult by a touch of fever that had kept off and on for weeks. It had welled up and over me in a sudden surge, and I blasted all the laws of hospitality in a single bloody night, emerging shaking and wild-eyed into the desert, wishing to put distance between myself and my crime. By the time I had walked the twenty miles to the railway station, I was composed - enough to buy a ticket, at least, and discharge my mission to the Colonel. The old man must have seen something in my eye, because he approved my request for leave to India without a fuss; or perhaps he was simply tired of looking at me, and welcomed a chance to dispose of an officer that could mix too-easily with the locals.

The journey by sea was a test of patience. The madness could not come on me unawares, now, and I was determined to fight it. There was a student of psychology on board, and we talked long into the nights, but after some days I became sure that whatever welled up within me in that tent was nothing that Western alienists had any experience with: as well to ask a berserker if he had ever dreamed of his mother, or drank in more than moderation. The chaplains on board were somewhat more helpful; there was one among them that had the beneficent calm of a Buddha, one of those for whom the offices of the Church were little more than their function in life, who could mechanically move through the rotes of baptism and blessing, marriage and death with an imperturbable calm, so long as there was a drop left for the glass, and he was not called upon to do many baptisms. It was this chaplain to whom I finally confided, slightly and leaving out the red-handed end of the matter, the madness that had stolen upon me.

"The Church does not sanction exorcism," he said, after some contemplation. "Nor, in this case, do I think it would be terribly effective. If we were in Calcutta, and you were a native, I would advise you to take pilgrimage to the Ganges. However, given your current state of belief - or perhaps I should say disbelief - I do not think you would find that terribly effective either." The chaplain pondered the bottom of his glass for a while. "If, as you say, you grew up in a household of dybbuks and ifrits, where djinn and rakshasa rubbed shoulders with the faeries and bogies of Britain, then you will need a solution that fits your unique situation." He laid a kindly hand on my arm, an it was all I could do not to bite it. "Go home, wherever that may be, and place your salvation in those whose wisdom and authority are greater than your own. After all, that is no less than anyone else does, whatever their creed."

So saying, he sank into an easy sleep in the chair, and I left him there with his throat unbloodied. For I felt a little lighter in the soul, and thought perhaps he had set my mind to the path that my heart had already followed when I had booked the trip to Delhi.


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