Katya and Andrew have reached northern India. Unfortunately, Andrew has come down with an unfortunate illness and Katya is trying her best to look after him.
The roan lifted his head and whickered. The other horses stirred. Katya took a deep, hiccupping breath when she heard the shuffle of hooves on loose stones. She wiped her eyes with her sleeve and glanced up. A small caravan of pack horses moved along the track. A small, rotund man in Uighur dress rode behind the string, singing to himself as he sat on a small grey pony. The packhorses were laden with all manner of boxes and sacks and Katya felt a faint stir of hope.
The rider whistled to his horses and they halted. Katya watched him dismount with an ease that belied his bulk. She struggled to remember what little Uighur she had learned.
The man smiled and returned the greeting. Katya wasn’t sure what he said. She’d just about exhausted her entire Uighur vocabulary. Her mind was a tangle of fear and frustration, somewhere the word ‘help’ was lost in there. She held up one finger and struggled to find the right phrase. “ er… yardem bersingizqu?” Help me please.”
He reeled off a long sentence in a birdsong lilt and then nodded.
Katya put her finger to her lip and beckoned for him to follow. She led him to the doorway of the hut where Andrew was sleeping. Katya pointed at him. “He’s sick.” She told him, wishing she knew how to tell him. Irina’s dreadful parties always involved charades at some point in the evening, a game Katya loathed because she hated standing up in front of strangers and making a fool of herself. Now, she had no choice. She pointed into the hut again and then bent double, clutching at her stomach and screwing up her face in, what she hoped, was a convincing portrayal of agony.
To her relief, the man nodded.
Katya took his arm and led him away from the door. She bent over again and pretended to vomit.
Again, he nodded.
It was no time to be embarrassed, she told herself. She would never see the man again. Katya pretended to squat and with one hand near her bottom, fluttered her fingers in a fluid, liquid way. She couldn’t think of any other way of portraying diarrhea. She held her nose with her other hand.
“Ahhhh!” Her visitor smiled, nodded and said something. He beckoned her to follow him, still chattering. Katya nodded and walked behind him. At the edge of the track, he paused and looked at his horses as if he was trying to remember something. Then, another “Ahhhh”. He started sorting through the sacks tied to a thin and weary chestnut, whistling to himself.
Katya watched him, listening to his lilting monologue and nodding in what she thought were the right places. After a few moments, he untied a sack and lowered it to the ground. After a few minutes of rummaging and whistling, he stood up with a grunt and produced a small muslin bag. He opened it and sniffed and grinned, before tying it up once more. He handed it to Katya and said something.
“I don’t understand.” She shrugged and hoped that she looked bewildered enough.
He cupped his hand, and with the other, held three fingers together, as if he was taking something from the cup, a pinch of something.
Katya opened the bag. A strange, sweet, bitter smell rose from a pale, brown powder. She recognized the scent of aniseed, but little else. Tiny fragments of bark and seed were mixed in with the powder. She looked at the man, once more. He curled his hand into a circle, like a cup, like a mug, and with the other, dropped the invisible pinch of stuff into it. Then, he held his free hand high and pretended to pour something in.
“Like tea?” Katya pretended to hold a tea cup to her lips. “Chai er… qay?”
He grinned and nodded.
“Rahmet sizga. Thank you.” Katya grinned back. “Thank you so much. Bahasi khanque?”
He waved his hand at her and shook his head.
“I must give you something.”
He shook his head once more.
Katya wanted to cry again. “Rahmet sizga.”
Another smile as he said something else. Katya suspected it was probably Uighur for ‘Good luck.” He walked back to his horse and climbed back into the saddle. “Hox.” He reached down and squeezed her shoulder. “Hox.” ‘Goodbye.
“Hox” Katya repeated, clutching the tiny bag. She waved as he whistled to his horses and he waved back. The horses moved placidly away, disappearing around the bend. Katya waited until they were out of sight and hurried towards the hut.
Andrew was still asleep. Katya put the kettle on the fire and waited. She hated to wake him, but he needed this. When the water boiled, she poured water into the cup and added a pinch of the powder, wrinkling her nose as the odor of bitter bark overpowered even the scent of aniseed.
“Andrew.” Katya touched his face. “Please wake up.”
He stirred and swatted at her hand.
“Andrew. I have medicine.” She shook him gently. “Wake up.”
He groaned and writhed. “What medicine?”
“A Uighur just gave some to me. He was heading to China.”
Andrew sat up, slowly. His eyes were red rimmed, his skin pale.”What?”
“Just drink this.” She held the cup out to him.
He wrinkled his nose. “It smells disgusting.”
“It’s supposed to make you feel better.”
His hand shook as he held the mug. Katya cradled his head and helped him to hold the cup. She watched him as he took a sip.
“Christ!” He gagged. “What is this?”
“Medicine.” Katya repeated. “Bits of bark and aniseed. I know it’s disgusting, but you have to drink it. You have to try.”
His stare was mutinous.
Katya stared back. “Please, Andrew.” She didn’t want to cry again.
He sighed. “All right, I’ll drink it. For you.”
Katya held the cup to his lips and his hand covered hers as he swallowed the tea. It took a long time since he paused between gulps to grimace and wipe his mouth. Eventually, he handed her the empty mug and leaned back against her. “That was horrible, Katya.”
“I’m sorry but if it makes you better, it’s worth it.” She stroked his hair. She loved the warm weight of him. She was sad that only his illness made her cling to her as he did.
“Thanks.” He closed his eyes. “Can I sleep now?”
“Yes.” She tried to ease away from him, to let him rest.
His arm crept around her waist. “Stay with me.”“Yes.” She whispered, knowing she could be nowhere else.