The bridge is out. No: it has never been in. Danielle nudges the gearshift into neutral, splays her legs out on either side to support the motorcycle, and stares disbelievingly. The road before her continues smoothly for some sixty feet, then unravels into a leprous mass of concrete, from which a tangle of rusted girders reaches across the Tungabadhra River towards a similar span on the other side. It fails to arrive by forty feet.
Whoever did not finish this bridge's midsection neglected to inform the National Geographical Survey of India, whose map of the state of Karnataka, currently tucked into Danielle's day pack, claims that the bridge successfully traverses the dark river below. The next nearest crossing is fifteen miles away, along gouged Indian roads that would eat up at least an hour, and it is already afternoon, and Danielle isn't sure that she can reach her destination at all from the other bridge. For a moment she feels defeated.
Which is fine. This is a chore, not a mission. A favour to a friend, and one she already wishes she had not accepted. A valid excuse to back out would be a relief, and how much more valid can you get than this impassable ruin of an incomplete bridge?
But wait. She sees motion. Something stirs in the water by the opposite shore, next to the pillars that hold up its third of a bridge, and then what looks like a large floating wicker basket shaped like an inverted dome, maybe ten feet in diameter, emerges from the shadowed water. It carries two men. One uses a leaf-shaped paddle to propel the basket-dome – coracle, a distant corner of her mind informs her – towards the south side of the river. The other man waves and points somewhere behind her. His smile flashes white against his dark skin. Danielle looks over her shoulder and sees a little dirt trail, about a hundred feet back, that separates from the road and falls steeply to a muddy landing on the riverbank.
They cannot seriously be thinking of ferrying her motorcycle across. It's a small bike, but still a heavy machine, and their overgrown basket looks like it has all the structural integrity of a banana leaf. But here is another coracle, coming behind the first, and this one moves slowly, because it is loaded with a half-dozen Indian villagers, several heavy sacks of grain, and a man sitting on a motorcycle much like hers. This coracle bobs low in the water but amazingly does not sink.
Danielle reluctantly decides she cannot abandon her errand just because the river must be crossed by fragile-seeming ferry instead of bridge. She wheels the bike around and steers down the dirt path to the riverbank, controlling brake and throttle gingerly; she has no helmet, it has been years since she spent much time on a bike, and low-speed motorcycle maneuvers are always potentially treacherous. When she gets to the landing, a flat patch covered by shallow mud, she turns off the engine and looks towards the approaching coracle ferry. The paddling has stopped. Both men gape at her with wonder and bewilderment.
For a moment Danielle doesn't understand. Then she realizes. They thought she was a man, thanks to her close-cropped hair, and the truth has struck them dumb. She is probably the first woman riding a motorcycle by herself that these men have ever seen, and an exotic white woman at that. And this is the sticks. Yesterday's journey, Goa to Hospet to Hampi, was a route that sees plenty of white women travelling solo, but although Hampi with its many Western backpackers is only ten miles away, this broken bridge is definitely off the beaten track. This is real rural India. A whole different world. She doesn't feel threatened by their stares, not with the sun beaming down, and several women visible in the other coracle, and a handful more now watching her from the opposite shore, but she does feel distinctly uncomfortable.
She wonders if this is what being a movie star is like; everybody wordlessly watching you, knowing that you belong to an infinitely glamorous and more exciting world than theirs. She wishes she had brought a male companion. Not that that wouldn't have created its own set of problems. But suddenly those problems seem better than feeling like a target. A target only of attention, right now, but such attention makes her nervous.
The empty coracle, a woven basket of thumb-thick branches lined on the outside with plastic wrap, reaches the shore. The non-paddling man steps out and motions her to get off the bike. She doesn't want to. She suddenly wants to turn around, ride straight back to Hampi, email Keiran and tell him he can find someone else to run his international errands for him. But Danielle has spent the last few years of her life systematically forcing herself to do exactly those things that make her uncomfortable or frightened. She knows she is mostly the better for it. She wonders, though, as she stands back and allows the man to straddle her motorcycle and expertly roll it onto the coracle, whether one day this constant struggle for self-improvement will propel her into disaster.
The vessel's interior is wet, but the motorcycle's weight distorts the flexible hull enough that all the interior water pools beneath the bike's tires, and Danielle stays mostly dry. She sits crosslegged on the surprisingly comfortable wood, avoiding the ferrymen's unflagging stares, and watches the unearthly landscape around her.
The wide, fast Tungabadhra River, lined by tall coconut trees, carves a path through jumbled ridges of colossal reddish boulders that somehow look both crystalline and water-warped. Roads and villages are built in the shadow of these boulders, which look like handfuls of fifty-foot pebbles dropped by the gods, balancing and leaning on one another in seemingly unnatural ways, as if child-giants had used them as playthings, piled stacks and mounds of them, then abandoned them here when they grew bored. It's hard for Danielle to shake the notion that this place was meant for creatures of far greater scale than mere human beings.
And then there are the ruins. Most human constructions here are ancient, the bones of the Vijayanagar kingdom that ten centuries ago ruled all of south India. Half-collapsed stonework; still-intact ziggurats densely carved with Hindu gods and idols, some of their features worn away by the centuries, but still enormously imposing; high ornate walls standing forlornly in tilled fields; kilometre-long pillared colonnades. Once these were royal residences, temples, elephant stables, public plazas. To the west, Danielle can make out the crumbling remains of a massive stone bridge that once spanned the palm-tree-lined river. This thousand-year relic doesn't seem much more ruined than the rusted iron and cratered concrete above her.
A few squat concrete boxes have grown around the northern end of the modern bridge, and clusters of thatched huts are visible in the distance, between the hills and ridges. Dots that are men and women can be seen cultivating small oblong properties, brown fields of grain and deep green banana plantations. A large whitewashed temple to some Hindu god is visible at the top of the highest hill. But the modern buildings, roads and plantations look wildly out of place.
As they approach the northern bank Danielle winces, realizing that she forget to agree a price before embarking. She expects a demand for some outrageous amount of money, and she is not in a good position to argue; a woman on her own, on the wrong side of the river that only these men can help her cross. But the man asks her for only twenty rupees, less than fifty US cents. His accent is so thick, and the price so surprising, that he has to repeat it three times before she is certain she understood. She wonders why, unlike just about everyone else in India, these men do not see the central goal of their interaction with a foreigner to be the acquisition of as much wealth as possible by any nonviolent means available. Maybe so few tourists come here that these men have not learned how to be usurious.
Or maybe they are frightened of foreigners. If Keiran is right, they have good reason to be frightened.
She wonders what time the ferry stops. Surely she can get back before nightfall. Even if not, surely she can pay someone to paddle her back across. And even if that fails, surely some family will put her up for the night. She has money, after all, and a white woman's glamour. Even in the worst case, it will be an adventure. Danielle kicks her engine into life, shifts into gear, and starts north.
YOU ARE READING
Invisible ArmiesMystery / Thriller
In a world where security cameras prove what you have done and databases define who you are, the few who know how to manipulate the technology can play God. They can change the future; they can alter the past. They can make big money, they can save...