Survival

by

Meghashri Dalvi




The knock on the door woke me up. I rubbed my eyes and looked around. It was still dark. Was the knock real?

It came again, and I got up.

Outside the hut Shunu and Tippi waited for me.

"The Chief is not well." Shunu said politely.

"Yes," I answered, put on my oversheath, and came out with my pouch.

They had torches to show me my way. They themselves could have done well with the moonlight alone.

It took us about seven minutes to reach the Chiefís house. It was a bigger hut and was decorated well.

The Chiefís family welcomed me and took me to his bed. His big frame was lying on a thick straw mattress.

I touched his forehead. Not many in the tribe had this privilege. I took his pulse and checked his irises in the dim light. He had a mild fever.

I opened my pouch and brought out four leaves. "Grind these and feed the juice to him now," I told Shunu. "Then again at sunrise. Iíll come and check later."

He nodded obediently. Once again I felt the pangs of guilt and avoided looking at him.

Back in my hut, I could not sleep. The gullibility of the tribe had taken me by surprise yet again.

####

It was about six month back that they had found me by the riverside, a stranger in soiled clothes. They had mild interest in their eyes when they approached me. I was scared of the savages, not knowing what theyíd do to a delicate woman like me. But they simply looked me over, uttered a few words, and politely waited for my answer.

I had not understood what they said, but my distressed look had sent the message. A big young man picked me up and started walking. Their group continued in one direction while he took me to another. I kind of expected them to kill me as a witch or demon, cursing me and my damn machine.

But he had taken me to their settlement, handed me over to the elderly women and had just left. That was Shunu, as I came to know later. I always looked at him as my saviour, though he seemed to be unconcerned about that.

The women had tended me, fed me, and tried to talk me. That they had no problem with an outsider had startled me. But they were simple minded and took everything calmly and naturally.

Over time they had started treating me as a member of their group. Of course, I had not all the rights and accesses like others, but I got my share of food, and was allowed to sit with the women. They even respected my habit of covering myself with clothes, which was so unlike their half-naked norms.

The men hunted. The women gathered. The elderly women and nursing mothers stayed back while the other women gathered fruits, berries, and nuts. I learnt to shell nuts and weave makeshift sheaths for myself. The young women marvelled at my fine skin and silky hair -- but had no jealousy or spite.

The men and women regularly chose mates. I was afraid of being picked up, too. But somehow they had preferred to leave me alone. Maybe my slender frame did not appeal them as the childbearing type.

There were lots of children, dark, chubby, bow-legged, and with a big forehead. In my time I would not have called them cute. But in their time they were preciously cute. They played with me, scratched me, and in turn kind of accepted me.

I learned their language fast. It was a piece of cake after mastering German, Welsh, and Finnish. But this was more important to me; it was my sole survival link to their world.

When I gathered courage, I asked the old ladies if they found me different.

"Well, your skin is all wrong," they said. "It needs tanning. Our men wonít look at you with this fair skin." They sniggered.

This was of course a blessing for me.

"Do you see others like me?" I had asked.

"Not like you. But then all groups are different anyway," they had said nonchalantly.

The tribe met other groups occasionally -- four times while I was there. They met, spoke a little, shared food, and then went their own way. Sometimes they asked for our women, and sometimes they gave their women. It was always a polite and peaceful exchange. This took me by surprise --because my knowledge of pre-historic times told me that these savages always fought. How wrong I was with all those notions!

####

The sun rose in about two hours. I came out of my hut and walked to the Chiefís house. He was now sitting up, visibly better.

"Thank you, Doctor," he said politely.

I was embarrassed. I was no doctor in my own time. But here they revered me for that.

I took out some more leaves and handed over to his wife. "Grind and give him the juice -- now and when Sun is right overhead." I was surprised at my own commanding voice. About a month back I would not have dared look in her eyes.

She nodded and thanked me again.

I came back to my hut. Habitually I cleaned it every morning. There was not much to clean -- about sixty square feet of levelled mud surface and couple of earthen pots. I took water from one pot and washed my face.

A quick look at my reflection in the pot told me that I looked all right. Every day at this moment I longed for a mirror. It was not customary to carry your vanity bag in a time machine, and so I had none when I arrived in this stretch of time.

A rebellious thought rose in my mind -- polishing a stone to make a reflecting surface like a mirror. But I knew the price of such rash act. I must respect the timeline and the speed of evolution. Already I had made a mistake of introducing them to the herbal medicines. It was just a matter of time for this news to spread over to other groups. It gave me shudders to imagine the effect.

The machine. My Time Machine. My genius invention that had landed me in this mess.

The day began to feel hot. I went out to meet the other women. They greeted me as usual. I joined some young ones to fetch water from the river. Some older boys were fishing there. They caught nice small fish. My mouth watered with the thought of barbequed fish I ate in my time. Again I had this mad urge to teach them seasoning -- but I held back. I had to be content with the natural taste of the fish to survive.

Tippi was there with the boys. He was actually considerably older, but unlike boys of his age, he hung out near the settlement. He rarely left it to go hunting, but the tribe tolerated it as they did so many things.

He waved at me. "Doctor, please sit here." He was offering me a cleared place. His respect once again humbled me. I sat down and watched them all fishing. Soon Tippi caught a big fish and they all were happy.

I had begun to like this laid back lifestyle. Hunt, eat, savour the time, and if bad time falls on you, just surrender to it. Like the law of nature. Like how it was for a long time. Until our technological advances made us the spoiled brats of Creation.

I tried to recall the hectic life of my time. The rush always -- to reach the institute, to complete the research, to work hard and party hard. I thought of my girlfriends and boyfriends. Did they miss me? Maybe not. They would have hardly noticed that I was no longer around.

I bit my lip and looked around. The river water was flowing quietly. The women were talking animatedly. The kids were splashing water. Tippi was swimming and teasing the younger boys. Some young girls were learning from their mothers. A really happy and content picture-perfect group.

We made fire and roasted the fish. Some smaller fish we ate raw. Tippi had caught a few tadpoles and the kids relished them. The sun was now moving westwards. Probably five more hours and the long night would fall.

####

The nights gave me a long time to reflect. About my work on history, about my research on technology and my secrete time machine.

John and I were partners for a long time, and we had a dream of making a time machine. All our spare time and resources we had spent on that. We made a crude version and actually succeeded visiting a hundred years in past. Our theoretical understanding had told us travelling forward in time was near impossible, but travelling backward was rather easy. So we had always aimed in that direction.

We celebrated our first success behind closed doors. But we longed to make it public and started refining our work. Before we attempted the second trip, John had died in a road accident, and I was left alone.

Johnís absence had actually disturbed me for some time and I had spent a lot of time indoors. My friends had managed to get me back in the circuit, but there was no one with whom I could share the joy of time machine.

After about a couple of years, I resumed the work alone. I tried four hundred years, and later even went and watched knights and yeomen setting out on the Crusades of the Twelfth Century. Each visit was short, lasted about a day in their time, which allowed me to maintain my secret. But then I turned ambitious and aimed at prehistoric time. I guess it was too premature. I landed here, promptly lost my time machine, and got stranded in this time in the history.

The warm night made me drowsy and I thought of John. Of John and then of Shunu.

It was a weak moment when I had accidentally revealed my knowledge of herbs. Shunu had cut his ankle and was bleeding profusely. I always thought Shunu had saved me and I saw it as a moment to return his favour.

That was a costly moment nonetheless.

In the next few days I had treated a child for a big wound, a woman for her stomachache and an elderly woman for her leg pain. It was not at all difficult. The herbs grew abundantly and my little knowledge of their medicinal properties helped.

I could see that the tribesmen watched me gather herbs. I wondered if soon theyíll learn which herbs healed what. Then maybe Iíll be no longer the Doctor. But surprisingly, neither did they attempt to pick the herbs themselves, nor did they steal my medicine pouch. I remained their doctor for quite some time.

Now I had treated the Chief. They trusted me to heal their leader, which was a great sign. But it was scary, too. I didnít know where all this would lead.

####

A few more days passed. I had actually lost count of the days -- it was probably nearing winter. Almost eight months since I was found.

We had moved to another river and here there was a rich growth. The green grass had given me an uncontrollable urge to rear pigs and cows but I had let it pass. There were several wild animals and the river had many fish. We ate well and the winter made us feel more relaxed.

Often we would sit around at night. Talking, watching the stars, and generally being peaceful. I kept my knowledge of stars in check, and called them whatever my tribe called them. Yes, now I had started calling them my tribe.

Had I lost the wish to return? I guess so. I had always been pragmatic and knew that I could not make any sort of time machine here. My only wish now was not to upset any balance of history. I knew that my medicinal skills must have disturbed the evolution cycle somehow, but I did not want to do similar mistake again.

The first time I healed Shunu, they had asked me if I had special powers. I did not want to compound my mistakes, and had casually said that it is just common knowledge. They had again asked politely if it had special name. Somehow I had let it slip -- Doctor. Since then they always called me Doctor, dropping my earlier name -- Pale Woman.

Winter meant cold nights. I found the hut unbearably cold and thought of making some sheets from the palm-like long leaves. Yet the thought of introducing one more new thing to them was too daunting, and I decided to abide for some more time.

The days passed idyllically. Almost every alternate day I helped someone or the other in the tribe with my medicines. The women especially had started liking the fragrance of some crushed leaves and flowers. They had begun experimenting with leaves, I noticed. Lavender in particular.

The lavender brought back memories of my time. John, our togetherness, our love, and the joy of working together on our pet project. How I wished I could get my hands on that machine again! At least as a keepsake --

####

It was a dark gloomy day when the other tribe came over. I was sitting with the women when I saw them coming. They were the fourth tribe I had encountered. There must have been about twenty men leading the group. Many more women and children followed them leisurely.

Our people welcomed them and some of their loud greetings reached us. Their chief came to our chief and they both sat don near the Chiefís hut.

One young man from the other tribe noticed me first. He then suddenly turned to their chief and started pointing towards me.

"She is bad -- why is she with you?" the man was saying.

Our chief firmly declared -- "She is good. She helps us a lot."

"No. No," the other Chief now almost shouted. "Some time back we saw her near the river. She had a glittery big thing with her. That thing had stars shining on it and some moving things as well."

My God -- he was talking about my time machine.

Our chief was a bit perplexed. But he kept good humour and said. "She has powers. Good powers to heal us. She is doctor to all of us."

The other Chief completely ignored it. "We took that thing away from her and opened it. I tell you what -- it was moving on its own! And blinking -- like stars. She is a witch. Get rid of her."

Now Shunu moved forward. "She makes our wounds heal. She is no witch. We like her -- why should we leave her?"

"Because we kept that shiny thing and it started disturbing our folks. We threw it in the river in pieces. It is evil. This woman is evil."

So they had ripped my time machine apart and dumped the remains. I was numb from that mental picture. Though I knew I could not get my machine back, its horrible fate at these dumb hands had stunned me.

The women near me heard all this conversation, too. For the first time they had suspicion in their eyes. One young girl came close to her mother and asked, "What is a witch?" Her mother threw a frozen glance at me.

I was not sure where all this would lead -- but suddenly I was afraid.

One hotheaded young man from the visiting tribe started marching towards me. Shunu jumped and blocked his way. They started fighting. The older men shouted angrily. Some more young men joined the fight. I was now really frightened. The tribes had fought for the first time -- and the fight was about me.

I cowered from the scene and wanted to get back to my hut. But my legs had frozen and my body icy cold from the shock.

About six men were hurt by the time the Chiefs stopped the fight. Shunu was still fuming. So was that man from the other tribe who had started this fight.

"This time we do not want your women and your food." Their Chief declared. "You are corrupted by that evil woman." He gathered his people and started moving away from our tribe.

Shunu came to me with the other hurt men. Silently I applied the medicines on their wounds. No one spoke to me for the rest of the day.

Maybe it is time for me to disappear, I thought as I rested in the night. Where would I go? Any place in these times, I would stand out from these primeval groups. I knew it was not really safe to wander on my own, and I had absolutely no survival skills.

The comfort and safety of the tribe was too much to give up. But the burden of tinkering with the history was greater. The offended tribe can mount an attack on our tribe -- or they can spread the news of the evil white woman -- or they can even abduct and kill me -- my thoughts were wandering. What do I do? The dark thoughts were unnerving and I couldnít sleep at all.

####

Early morning Tippi came over to take me to the Chief. I walked quietly to his hut. The important men from the tribe were gathered there.

"Is all that true?" The Chiefís sharp eyes were searching me. "All that those men said yesterday?"

I was not sure what to say. I just kept my head down.

"Did you carry anything evil with you? Do you have evil powers?" His quick glance was well contrasted by his gentle words.

How straightforward was he! I was again startled by the honesty and modesty of the tribe.

Then it suddenly occurred to me -- I could easily use the modern virtue of lying and get away with these simple people.

"Yes, Chief." I spoke with the confident air of a shrewd liar. "I had that shiny thing with me -- but it was not evil. It had my doctor knowledge in that shiny thing. These people destroyed it -- that is a loss to all of you. I had hoped to find it one day and help you more. But now it seems it is gone forever."

Shunu smiled at my admission. "I thought so. They were bad people -- wanting to kill you." He said tenderly. His eyes shone with the pride of backing the right party. "Chief, let us protect the Doctor with all our strength. She is no evil -- she is good to us. Has always been good to us. Instead of people running away from her, let all the tribes come to her. She can help with her doctor knowledge."

The Chief acknowledged cheerfully.

That instant I knew that I had won. I could easily manipulate these humble minds with all my advanced society instincts. My own survival was now no issue at all. Their skills with spears or their better sense of smell had always intimidated me and I was embarrassed not possessing them. But no longer. I had not realized at all that I had better skills. The psychological skills. manipulation, negotiation, power play -- all those modern survival skills.

It was a decision in a flash. The distorted history and its ripple effects could wait.

I smiled after a long time. Then I raised my head like a winner.

"Yes, Chief. I can help all of you, and also your other friends. Not only medicines, I know so many other things, too. I can teach you all."

They looked at me mesmerized like having found a hidden treasure. I looked at Shunu and said, "Perhaps I can begin with you."

He came forward like a blessed disciple.

And so was born this great legend of the Doctor in the prehistoric times. The Doctor who would make spices and who could cultivate land. The Doctor who appeared frail but had mammoth powers. The Doctor who knew how to shape metals and how to focus sunrays to make fire.

Now I need not worry so much about my survival. They protect me beyond their own life. But I wonder: if I could salvage my machine, how different would things be in my own time? Or was my world always the result of this one-way journey into the past?

I will never know. Better to sit, and talk, and watch the stars.

THE END



© 2005 by Meghashri Dalvi

Bio: Meghashri Dalvi is a well-established science fiction writer in India. Her stories are published in a number of Indian regional languages, and have been included in several anthologies. Her short stories have won numerous prizes. Ms. Dalvi is a technical documentation specialist by profession and enjoys popular science writing, too. Her first book about machines and their history has garnered praise from a number of authorities.

E-mail: Meghashri Dalvi

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