The boy is waiting, so James takes a hundred-li note out of his wallet. The twelve-year-old grins, straight white teeth gleaming in his nut-brown face, and holds out the feather.
Money and feather change hands; the transaction is complete, and the kid tucks the worn paper bill in his shorts pocket and scampers away.
"Tai-fu, Mister Doc!" he shouts over his shoulder. "Tai-fu coming!"
"I know," James calls after him. "Thanks!"
The boy laughs as he disappears back into the forest.
James turns the feather over in his hands. It's close to a foot long, rich mottled-brown with black bars all along its length. The quill is almost the thickness of his little finger, but the tips of the vanes are soft to the touch.
"What is it this time?" Don de Cristo asks. The other man is looking over James's shoulder at his prize. "Wow. That's huge. What's it from -- a pterodactyl?"
James smiles a little. He's glad it was de Cristo's turn to rotate up to the outpost today.
"Pterodactyls didn't have feathers. Must be from one of those giant hawk-eagles the Taka hunt sometimes. You know -- pterodactyl descendants." He brushes the feather gently, using only the tips of his fingers. "Nice of Jodo to bring it -- they use these for their religious ceremonies, I think."
De Cristo snorts softly.
"Yeah, and I'm sure the hundred li had nothing to do with it." He regards James curiously. "You're going to send it to House, aren't you?"
When James doesn't answer immediately de Cristo turns away with a sigh.
"It's been two years, Jim," he says. "Two years without a word."
James refuses to rise to the bait. He doesn't feel like arguing today.
It's beginning to rain, fat drops splashing in the dirt. The clearing here at the edge of the forest will soon be a mire of mud; it's time they got back to the outpost and a roof over their heads. The rain picks up quickly, and the two men sprint the last few feet to the waiting Jeep.
The skies have opened, and rain is pounding against the windows of the sturdy wooden building. James and de Cristo go from room to room, closing and locking the protective shutters. At the big front window James pauses for a moment; he can barely see the flagpole which stands guard outside through the barrage of rain and blown sea foam. Looking up, he notices the blue and gold banner of this island kingdom sodden and snapping in the relentless wind. He knows from the local government reports and the BBC World Service that the typhoon is supposed to strike them only a glancing blow, but it's still a dangerous Category Four storm. He wonders what the Taka are doing as he and de Cristo muscle the heavy shutter into position.
James sits at his battered teak desk, reading the latest set of statistics on the cholera outbreak in the north. The feather rests on an old cotton t-shirt spread out on one side of the desk, drying out from the mild, soapy bath he's given it to kill any mites or other bugs that might've been nesting in the barbules. Later he'll wrap it carefully in a length of the beautifully patterned, brightly-colored cloth the Taka weave, seal it up in a strong packing box, and send it off with the next mail run. To House.
There's a clatter from the kitchen as de Cristo drops something. James sighs and rests his head on his hand, thinking back on his friend's comment.
It's true. Over the past two years, all attempts at communication have gone unacknowledged, disappearing like flickering candles into a black void. He can't say he's surprised -- it was the last thing House had said to him.
"I never want to see or hear from you again."
House hadn't even shouted at him; he'd simply spoken in his usual gruff tone, but the words had had all the force of a fist to the chest.
When de Cristo had come over from Princeton General and put the start-up files for the World Health project in front of him, James hadn't needed much persuading.
"I'm going, Jim," he'd said. "They need thoracic surgeons. Pediatricians. Cardiologists. Lab techs." De Cristo had smiled. "They could probably even use an Oncology Department Head."
James had picked up one of the manila folders, flipped through its contents.
"You need to get out of here," his friend had said softly. "Let's go save some lives."
And James had gone. De Cristo was right. There wasn't much at the hospital for him anymore.
Since then there'd been no word from House; not a note, not a signal, not a peep. Not even a message in a bottle, tossed onto the waves.
He's keeping the packages, though. At least some of them. James knows it.
Lisa Cuddy is the one person he still regularly communicates with at Princeton-Plainsboro now that House's fellows are gone. She's kept him up to date on the goings-on, the politics, and the gossip. He knows that Cameron is now in Boston at Mass General, while Foreman is in Santa Monica at the Richardson Clinic. Chase has relocated to the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. She's told him Brenda Previn has been named Head of Nursing and that the Diagnostic Department has four fellows now. And she's told him the fate of each of the packages he's sent to House.
He hadn't sent any the first year. After his attempts at contact had been rebuffed so thoroughly, he'd simply shut down. Throwing himself into his job, he'd run clinics in three different field stations, organized vaccination drives, overseen the establishment of the first modern oncology ward in the island's only hospital. Thoughts of Princeton-Plainsboro, of New Jersey, of the United States (of House), had slipped farther and farther away as he worked fourteen-hour days to keep up with the workload. And then, one day six months ago when he'd been wandering through a local market it had all come rushing back.
It was because of the cane. Really, what else could it have been?
It was black, carved from the wood of the koba tree and polished to a high gloss. Strange, snake-like creatures, peculiar to the Taka mythology, twined the length of the shaft. The flat handle was wrapped with leather made from shark skin, providing a secure, slip-resistant grip.
He'd bought it, bundled it up carefully in layers of cloth and styrofoam peanuts purloined from the station office, and sent it off with a short note.
House had thrown it off the balcony.
He had grinned as he read the email from Cuddy.
Cameron said it went sailing like a javelin -- we're just lucky it wasn't or the bastard would've impaled some innocent bystander. Anyway, she retrieved it and brought it to me. It's propped against my desk right now -- I know House has seen it but damned if he'll say anything.
After that he'd sent smaller things, hopefully less dangerous as projectiles.
The hammered silver protection charm landed in the University fountain. House's newest fellow, who had already learned his boss doesn't make wishes, fished it out and gave it to Cuddy.
The blackstone carving of a puppy vanished. It wasn't until he got a puzzled thank-you note from Cameron a month later that he knew what'd happened to it.
The koba-wood chess set was the first thing House kept.
He knew this because Cuddy had taken a picture of it with her cell phone -- it was on House's desk, the white knight advancing in prescribed, crabwise steps across the board. The black pawns were defending, but it was clear the knight had the advantage.
Outside the wind is rising, and James can imagine the rain sheeting sideways against the station walls. The windows rattle with the roll of thunder, but inside it's safe and warm. The scent of cooking tomatoes and garlic is drifting from the kitchen, along with plummy British accents. De Cristo is making spaghetti again and listening to the BBC.
James opens his laptop and powers it up. Their electricity should hold; last month their communications grant came through and the government was able to pony up enough money for an upgraded emergency generator and dedicated InterNet service. As he waits for the PC to run through start-up, he thinks about the last package he sent to House a month ago.
Jodo had brought them -- a linked set of twenty-seven small wooden spheres, strung together on a thin leather thong.
House, he had written, I think these are prayer beads, but I'm not sure. The Taka don't talk about their religion with anyone who's not a Taka, which pretty obviously lets me out. The kingdom's information agency tells me they have nine major gods and eighteen minor gods (godlets?) so I think it's a good guess on my part. Ha.
A lot of the things normal with the rest of us are taboo to them besides religion, including sex, death, and funbags. Just kidding, but not about the other stuff.
Jodo won't even tell me the word for love -- if he says it in front of me I'll have stolen his soul and he'll be turned into an owl. Same for any conjugation thereof, like "he loves" or "they love", or even "I love you." So I won't say the words here. I don't want to be an owl; it's hard enough being me right now.
Hope all is well --
The PC blinks, and he opens Outlook, wishing for an email from Cuddy, from his brother, from the outside world. Suddenly very tired, he rubs his eyes and leans forward, looking at the table of messages. His breath catches in his throat.
There's an email from House.
For a while he just sits, listening. Normally at this time he can hear the sounds of the forest -- the harsh coughs and calls of the night hunters. Linsangs. Owls. The sea is close by, and on quiet evenings he can usually hear the waves crashing against the rocks. Everything is drowned out tonight by the wind and rain.
De Cristo is puttering in the kitchen, there's the sound of plates and silverware being gathered. Dinner must be almost ready.
The air is heavy and humid. Outside, the storm rages on, unabated.
He opens the email.
From: ghouse at ppth dot edu
Sent: December 24, 2008 11:59 PM
To: jwilson at whoun dot org
Subject: You're an idiot
Do you think I don't know what you're doing? You and your stupid metaphors. You're not forgiven. Arriving next military flight. Be prepared for my wrath.
James takes a deep breath, remembering Jodo's warning.
Tai-fu, Mister Doc!
Yeah. A tai-fu, indeed.