Author: Tardis Traveler
Professor Margaret MacDonald was beginning to doubt her faculties of late. Strange things had been happening this past week and she wasn't sure if she had just imagined it all or not. Oh, they hadn't been major life endangering occurrences... mainly minor... missing objects, feelings of being touched, of being observed, of feeling not alone. However, sometimes it was the small inexplicable things in life that could be the most disturbing. It was distracting her from the work she had come here to do, so she was concerned.
Mac, as she was called by her friends, was sitting around the evening fire with the other members of her team. It was customary for them to end the day writing down their field notes while enjoying the warmth and glow of a blazing fire. So far she had only recorded two sightings and those lacked her usual detailed observations and comments. Her mind was busy trying to analyze and reach some conclusion regarding the strange events that had plagued her all this week.
Professor MacDonald was the Head of the Ornithology Department at Cambridge as well as a member of the Royal British Ornithological Society. She was a middle aged widow with salt and pepper colored hair and a sparkling infectious sense of humor. Her boundless energy and enthusiasm was what her students admired most about her. Before his death, she and her husband had enjoyed summer field trips all over the world. This was one they had both talked about for years and now she was finally here, but without her beloved husband.
It was the RBOS that had funded her share of this field study trip to Sumatra. She was accompanied by eight carefully selected graduate students who made up her team. Their purpose was to spot and observe endangered species of birds and in some cases try to make a count. Photographic documentation was also encouraged if it did not endanger the birds.
Mac's long time friend and Cambridge colleague, Professor Joan Jones, was also there with a team of her own. She had gotten funding to study the very rare Sumatra orangutans; so they had pooled their money and combined the two expeditions into one. They had arrived in Sumatra in mid-May, the start of the Dry Season which really just meant there wasn't daily flooding.
The expeditions had set up a Base Camp at Toba Lake which was nestled between two volcanic mountain peaks. From there they took treks into the forests and jungles that this area was noted for. Toba Lake had proven to be an excellent location for R and R times and for procuring supplies. Four local Indians had been recruited as guides and their knowledge of the area had proven to be invaluable. Up until this week both teams had met with great success.
JJ, the nickname Professor Jones preferred, and her team had actually managed to spot a group of three orangutans and spend several days observing and filming their behaviors before the shy creatures disappeared back into the depths of the rainforest.
JJ was younger than Mac and much more reserved. Her longish brown hair was always tied back in a loose ponytail and while she had a beautiful smile it rarely graced her face. She was very much a workaholic although she would deny it always giving reasons for spending most of her free time at the University. She and Mac were devoted friends which only lent credence to the expression that opposites attract. Many of the faculty had speculated that it was most likely a "mother/daughter" type of relationship.
Whatever the attraction, they did make an excellent team. JJ‘s expertise was organizing all the material facets of the expedition while Mac was the expert at handling and dealing with people. Both were highly skilled intelligent professionals who balanced each other perfectly. It only seemed natural that their study trips would be successful.
Mac and her team had spotted most of the birds on their endangered list including several Salvadori's Pheasant that JJ had sighted in the same area as a male orangutan she had been photographing. They hadn't seen any Hornbills, but this wasn't really their normal territory anyway. This past week they had been looking for the Sumatra Cochoa and the Graceful Pitta... both highly endangered. They had all gotten quite ecstatic when Josh thought he had sighted a pair of threatened Spot-necked Bulbul, but so far they hadn't been able to confirm it.
This had been the team's last long trek for the summer. Tomorrow they would prepare for their departure to base camp where they would relax for a couple of days before returning home. Until this past week, Mac hated that the time had gone so quickly and that they would have to leave this peaceful green paradise. Now she was eager to get her team back to Toba Lake and that annoyed the hell out of her. She hated that something had tainted her trip!
She and JJ had each selected four of their best team members to go on this particular trek that was to take them higher up the mountain then they had previously gone. It would be new territory, but Lokai and Yulin, their guides, had assured them that they could get them there safely.
It had taken them three days to navigate their way upwards through the thick virgin forest and lush vegetation. Their stringent efforts were rewarded with spectacular water falls and cool clear refreshing mountain streams. The flora and fauna had been beautiful and plentiful. JJ insisted that she had never seen so many different species of butterflies all in one area before.
At the end of the third day the team set up a temporary camp. It was that night that the first object disappeared... it was a pair of binoculars.
Mac glanced up and noticed that the others had finished their record keeping and were just watching the dancing flames of the roaring fire. She hadn't mentioned her strange experiences to anyone but JJ, who had been patient, but not real sympathetic. It was now or never... she had to ask or forever wonder if she had the start of senility.
"May I have everyone's attention for a minute," she asked in a loud voice?
Immediately the team members turned to look at her.
"As this is our last night here, I would like to give us all an opportunity to talk about this past week. I don't mean discuss our work here, but anything else that any of you may have experienced here this week."
J.J. looked at her and frowned. The others looked rather puzzled... not quite sure what she meant. So, she inhaled a deep breath and took the plunge!
<Okay, I can do this. So what if they all just think I'm a crazy old lady.>
"What I mean is... did anyone notice or experience anything out of the ordinary while we were here? I would really like to know. Please don't feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. It would be helpful to me because I have and quite frankly I'm wondering if I've gone a wee bit batty."
That remark brought a chuckle that took the edge off the group. There were several moments of silence before Liz piped in.
"What kind of things do you mean," she asked in a soft voice?
<Guess I have to be brave and start this... here goes... out of the pan.>
"Well, for one thing, I have had quite a number of objects go missing... my torch, my comb, my binoculars... that kind of thing and I was wondering if..."
"I've lost all my pencils and a sock and a bottle of repellent," added Liz.
"I can't find my Swiss Army Knife anywhere," said Josh.
The dam had been broken much to Mac's relief. It turned out that every member of the team had at least one missing item. They had each thought it was due to their carelessness, but now they weren't so sure.
Urged on by these revelations, Mac felt comfortable raising the next issue.
"Did any of you feel as though you were being watched," asked Mac?
"Oh yes, thank god... I thought it was just me," cried out Piper! The other day while out in the field... it was so creepy. I kept having the feeling that someone was staring at me. I was going crackers. I thought maybe it was an orangutan at first."
"I woke up the other night and I could have sworn there was someone in my tent," said Robert.
"Yah, you probably thought is was Liz," Phil joked.
"You wish," teased Liz.
"Don't be cheeky Phillip! No really... it was the oddest feeling," replied Robert.
The team started to get excited now with everyone having a story to share. Again, every member had experienced times of feeling watched. They also agreed that it was just this past week that these things had occurred. It was something about this place.
Mac glanced over at JJ who had remained silent during the discussions. Her face was contorted now as though some internal struggle was raging inside her. She finally looked at Mac and mumbled something then lowered her head shyly.
"Please...quiet everyone," ordered Mac.
"JJ did you want to say something?"
JJ covered her face with her hands and just sat for several seconds gathering up her courage. Everyone around the fire waited patiently for her to speak. Mac whispered encouragement and finally the words came out in a very hesitant voice. When JJ looked up at the team she could tell from their faces that they hadn't heard her.
"Something touched me," she sputtered.
Immediately everyone's attention was focused on JJ as she struggled to continue.
"I was scanning the treetops with my binoculars when I felt someone tap me on my shoulder. I thought it was Liz, but when I turned around no one was there. I thought maybe she was playing a joke on me, but it has happened several times since then."
"Okay, since we are all sharing," stated Cindy, "I swear I felt someone touch me and pull my hair too!"
Just as before, everyone had a similar experience to share. Mac was so relieved that she had brought the topic up she almost cried.
<I'm not going senile! Thank god!>
Soon the conversations turned to questions about what it all meant.
"Well, I can't believe that this is a case of mass hallucinations," stated JJ.
Mac and the others agreed. That just added to the mystery. The team got quiet as each of them tried to figure out what was happening. Finally Josh offered a solution.
"Philip, you've been very quiet through all this... that's unusual for you. It makes me wonder if you don't have a hand in this. You are the number one prankster on the team. Is this your idea of a joke?"
"Hell no! Oh, sorry professors. Heck no, I've lost things too and felt like I was being watched. I'm just as confused and frustrated as all of you are. Really"
"Let's not turn on each other," exclaimed JJ much to Mac's surprise. JJ seldom spoke up especially in situations such as this.
<Poor thing, she must be quite unnerved by all this! I wish she had confided in me.>
"If one or more of you have been doing this as a lark, now is the time to fess up. No recriminations or punishments will be leveled. I think we would just all be greatly relieved to discover it was someone from the team. So, please speak up," continued JJ.
An awkward hush fell over the group as they looked from one to the other and slowly rocked back and forth. An uncomfortable silence lingered as no one came forth to claim responsibility for the incidents. It might have continued indefinitely if nature hadn't interrupted them.
A long rumbling noise overhead followed by a bright flash caught everyone's attention.
"Damn, just when we were getting somewhere," complained Mac. Better call it a night... looks like we may have rain coming our way. But, I want to finish this conversation tomorrow so everyone try to think of a logical explanation for all these strange going ons. Alright?"
Everyone mumbled their agreements and their good nights. Then they headed for their respective tents.
Mac and JJ had no sooner entered their tent when the sound of rain pelted the canvas top. The only noise in the tent as the two women prepared for bed was the droning splat of the pounding rain. Once they were on their cots in the safety of the darkness, both women relaxed.
"JJ, thanks for backing me up out there. I just wish you had told me sooner. I might not have felt so alone and vulnerable if you had."
For several seconds only the plopping raindrops answered her.
"Sorry Mac. I was scared... you know? I get frightened when I feel out of control. You know that."
"I do... I just thought... oh, never mind. It doesn't matter anymore. Goodnight"
"Night... what do you think it is?"
"I really have no idea JJ."
The two fell silent and eventually the pitter patter of the rain lulled them to sleep.
The next morning Mac lay on her cot listening to the sounds of the birds welcoming a new day. She had awakened from her best sleep in over a week. The realization that she was not alone in this had lifted a great burden from her. Now instead of questioning her wits she was trying to use them to solve this mystery. Her musings were interrupted by JJ.
"Morning Mac... you slept well!"
"Ha, don't tell me you heard me?"
"No, I was awake off and on and noticed you were in a deep sleep. Is it time to get up?"
"I haven't heard the alarm, but it seems about that time."
Mac rolled over and reached for the alarm clock that should have been on the nightstand... but wasn't. She quickly scrambled off the cot and searched the small table and the ground around it for the travel clock.
"JJ the clock's gone...the bloody thing was right here last night and now it's gone! You know what that means don't you?"
"Maybe you just..."
"Don't say it; I've had quite enough of being made to feel as though I'm barmy! It was here and that means that someone came in here while we were sleeping and took it!"
Before JJ could reply, they both heard a loud commotion outside. Lokai and Yulin were screaming in their native language sounding very upset about something. The two professors reached for their robes and headed to the entrance where they nearly collided with Liz and Piper.
"Professors, come quick you've got to see this," they shouted.
When they got outside they saw the two guides and the rest of the team huddled together. Everyone seemed excited and agitated. They were all looking down at the muddy ground around their tent.
"Professors hurry up, look at these," cried Josh.
Mac and JJ maneuvered through the group and glanced down to where they all seemed to be staring. What they saw made their eyes pop wide open and their mouths fall agape. They were speechless... dumfounded... astonished!
There, in the mud, were several gigantic footprints! Everyone kept staring not knowing what to do. Finally Mac recovered and took charge. Her years of scientific training took over and her emotions were put on hold while the need to collect accurate data became of foremost importance.
Mac had everyone move back and then roped off the area. Everyone except the two professors and the team leaders were sent away to wait for their findings. JJ took group and individual pictures of the footprints... which were feet. When Mac felt that they had enough pictures, the team leaders carefully took measurements and recorded the information. Mac still wasn't satisfied. She desperately wanted a cast, but couldn't figure out what they could use.
She went to where the others were patiently waiting and told them of her dilemma. It was Liz who saved the day. One of her hobbies was making candles and when sand candles had been "the rage" she had learned how to make them. It would be easy to make a cast if they had enough wax. So all the team members scrambled back to their tents to get any candles they still had. Piper and Cindy even removed the ones in their lanterns.
Fifteen minutes later Liz was busily melting the candles over the fire, while Mac selected the best of the prints to preserve. When the wax was melted, Liz carefully poured the liquid into the dirt mold. Then all they could do was wait for it to harden.
Everyone returned to the fire pit area to wait and share their findings. It was only then that JJ noticed that the two guides were missing. Mac went to look for them and found the two arguing outside the mess tent. Yulin seemed to have all his gear packed up like he was ready to leave.
"Lokai, what's going on? Why aren't you with the others?"
The two looked surprised by her arrival and a little sneaky too.
"Mrs. Mac, Yulin want go. I stop."
"Why do you want to leave Yulin?"
"He afraid... me afraid," Lokai replied.
"What are you afraid of? Do you know what made those footprints? Is that it?"
The two men fell silent and averted their eyes.
"If you know what made those prints you really should tell me. We are all scared, but I am even more frightened because I don't know what it is. I only know that they are too large for an orangutan or a person and they are not from a tiger... so what else that size could be in these forests?"
Lokai opened his mouth to answer, but Yulin shook his head.
"Please Lokai, please tell me. I thought we were friends."
"Foot from Orang-Pendek. "
"An Orang-Pendek? What is that Lokai?"
"It very tall... much hair... orange... like a man. Live in mountain... never see. That why scared. Why it come out... why it here?"
"I can't answer your questions, but they haven't hurt anyone so far so I don't think we are in danger. We will be leaving here today. I promise."
The two guides looked at each other and exchanged a few words.
"Lokai, we need a guide to take us back to Base Camp. We really need one of you to stay with us...please. If we all stay together in a group, I'm sure we'll all be safe."
"No worry Mrs. Mac. I stay."
He spoke a few more words to Yulin, who finally nodded his head, but looked displeased.
"Both stay... leave today."
Mac smiled and nodded repeatedly saying thanks.
Finally she and the two tense guides returned to the fire pit where everyone else was sitting and speculating about the creator of the footprints. Mac brought it all to a halt by giving orders to break camp explaining that their two guides wanted to leave as quickly as possible. Since there were no objections, everyone began to quickly pack up. Liz took responsibility for securing and transporting the molds.
An hour and a half later the frazzled group disappeared into the depths of the dense forest. The long trek home would provide each of them the much needed time to come to terms with what had happened to them on that mountain. The only evidence left behind that anything unusual had occurred in this remote forest were the footprints preserved in the dry mud. Within minutes of their departure these had been destroyed obliterating any proof that Orang-Pendek had been there.
Less than a hundred yards up the mountainside, five gigantic hairy Orang-Pendek slipped behind a curtain of swiftly falling water into a small natural cavern. One of them shuffled over and dropped an alarm clock onto a small pile of human tools: binoculars, combs, glasses, etc.
Like zombies the hairy giants formed a line and waited for their next orders.
<The test results are excellent... better than I anticipated! My adjustments worked perfectly. I think I am now ready for the next step. How fortunate they were not seen. Now I can let them live... they may be needed in the future so it benefits us both.>
"Ah my children, you performed very well. I am extremely pleased... so much so I am going to reward you. I give you your lives. You may return to your home with no memory of our time together. You may even have these trinkets if you desire."
The dazed creatures grunted their approval and shifted restlessly from side to side.
Their controller picked up a brown leather box the size of a briefcase and walked swiftly from the damp cavern. Once outside, the controller turned and aimed a remote control device in their direction. A raised red button was pressed and held for about five seconds before he turned and continued walking up the narrow trail.
It was almost dawn when three awestruck women stood under the entrance archway gazing at one of the wonders of the modern world, the Taj Mahal. They each wore a salwar-kameez... a colorful long loose tunic worn over pajama type trousers gathered at the waist, but instead of being gathered at the ankles they flared out like bell bottoms... a more modern look. As was fashionable in India they were adorned with dangling earrings, necklaces, and several glass, wood, and gold wrist bangles. It was only their faces and perhaps the color of their hair that revealed them to be Westerners and not natives.
That they blended into the Indian environment so well was due to Tara's efforts. She loved to immerse herself in different cultures which meant researching the history, philosophies, food, dress, and customs. On their arrival in Agra, Tara had given Willow and Ace a small wardrobe of Indian clothes and accessories to wear while they were touring the sights. Willow just beamed when someone complimented one of them for their attire and always was sure to identify Tara as their fashion coordinator.
Willow took special delight in her Mangalasutra necklace that matched a similar one that hung around Tara's neck. They had both worn them constantly since they first tied the three knots... representing the Holy Trinity: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva... that secured the necklace around their wife's neck.
Willow stood fondling her necklace and suddenly her thoughts returned to that wonderful romantic night.
She and Tara had just completed a ritual of thanks to the Goddess on the six month anniversary of their Tardis days. Their room was bathed in warm glowing candlelight and they were cuddled snugly on a pile of large pillows. Willow was purring as Tara held her in her arms and ran her fingers through shiny red hair. She loved these romantic times together laying peacefully in her wife's loving arms listening to Tara's beating heart.
They were idly talking about the ritual they had just performed when Tara mentioned another ritual she wanted to do. Willow had felt a bit upset thinking that Tara had planned something without including her. Of course that feeling only lasted about three seconds because Tara said it was a surprise for "her Willow" and that she was a very necessary part of the ritual.
Willow‘s heart overflowed with love and pride when her wife explained the ritual to her. Tara had stuttered a little when she explained it, which was something she always did when she got very emotional. Besides adoring the stutter, Willow absolutely loved the cute pinkish cheeks that accompanied the stutter and that childlike look of innocence and utter trust that shone in Tara's eyes. It always made Willow feel like wrapping her arms around that magnificent being and never letting go. Willow loved her wife more than her own life and even more wonderful than that was knowing Tara felt the same way about her.
Tara had reminded them both that Willow really had died and left her. So, ever since Willow had been resurrected Tara had felt deep inside herself that they should do something to honor their love and renew their vows to each other. Her inspiration came while doing some research on Indian customs. She had come across an old marriage ritual called Mangalya-dharana and decided that they should do something similar.
In the ritual the Groom ties the Mangalasutra, a sacred gold pendant necklace, around the Bride's neck. The necklace symbolizes the gift of safety and security that he promises his wife for her agreeing to share in a long and happy married life with him.
Since in a way they were both grooms and brides, she had designed a necklace for each of them to present. It would be like renewing their wedding vows. Willow had tears flowing down her cheeks when Tara finished her heartfelt explanation and readily agreed to do the ritual. That made Tara cry tears of joy then too.
Tara lit some Jasmine incense and a few more candles, while Willow spread out the pillows and put on a Ravi Shankar CD. The room was so romantic it exuded love... the golden orange glow of the candles... the sweet aroma of jasmine... the soft lyrical sounds of the sitar... and the playful flickering shadows overhead. It was breathtaking!
They didn't have their wedding gowns, but they did have their long silk nightgowns and Tara even had a white one for Willow. In their beautiful silk gowns they knelt on the pillows facing each other... their hands clasped together. They were merely inches apart from each other. They could feel the heat of their love radiating between them and the warm breath of their love's on their face.
They knelt before each other in their perfectly created ecosphere... frozen in time and place. All that was the universe was here in this small room...on these pillows... in that beautiful beaming face... in those hypnotic eyes. They might have remained there for a lifetime... blissfully happy and content, but Tara had a ritual on her mind.
She left Willow's gaze just long enough to reach down and pick up two rectangular felt boxes; one red and the other blue. Tara kept the red box and gave Willow the blue one. Then they smiled at each other for a few minutes longer.
Tara then opened her box and showed Willow the golden necklace inside.
"I kind of cheated a little," she shyly confessed. Instead of just making a pendant, I made a locket... it has a picture inside."
She opened the gold locket and showed the picture to Willow. It was a photo of Tara taken on their wedding day. Tara held the picture up a little longer for Willow who suddenly smiled when she realized that this was half of their wedding picture. The Willow half was missing, but she had a pretty good idea where to find it!
Before she could confirm her hunch, Tara placed the necklace around her neck. She held the pendant in place and gazed lovingly into her wife's sparkling green eyes.
"My Darling... my wife, please accept this necklace as a symbol of my undying promise to always love you... protect you... care for you in times of illness and hardship... and make your life with me better than your life without me ever was. May we be bound together as wife and wife in this world and the next."
She leaned forward and gently pressed her lips on Willow's tear stained waiting lips. It was not a passionate kiss... it was a loving wedding kiss... a promise of things to come. When she pulled away their eyes remained locked and Tara whispered her love to her wife.
She stood up and knelt behind Willow asking her to hold up her hair. As Tara tied each of the three knots, she added a kiss for good measure. When she finished, she wrapped her arms around her wife and pulled her close to her resting her head on Willow's shoulder.
"Thank you for being my wife and my life. After you left me, all I wanted was to join you...there was nothing left for me to make life worth living. I have searched for the words to adequately convey how much I love you, how blessed I feel that we have both been resurrected, and how happy you make me. I haven't found them yet... so the best I can do is... I really really love you!"
She hugged Willow a few more minutes not in any hurry to break the tender moment. Willow however wanted her turn and said so. Tara chuckled and then resumed her former position on the pillows.
Willow now removed her necklace and held it up for Tara to view. She opened the locket and smiled when she saw that is was indeed the other half of their wedding picture... the Willow half.
"I wish you had given me an advance notice so I would have had a chance to compose something special," whispered Willow.
"Just say what's in your heart, my Darling. You show me every day just how much you love me," replied Tara.
Willow placed the necklace on Tara and with her help repeated the vow that was just made to her minutes ago. Then she too went behind her wife and tied the necklace on. Afterwards she rose and knelt in front of her love and gently placed her hands on either side of Tara's face and stared into deep blue eyes. She stroked her warm flushed cheeks before kissing each eyelid, then her nose, and finally her waiting red lips.
Just as the kiss began to get passionate, Willow slowly pulled back and gazed at her wife basking in the love exuding from her soul mate.
"You know Honey, everyone talks about how much Prince Khurram loved his wife and how her mausoleum the Taj Mahal is a monument to eternal love. Well, I think you have Mumtaz Mahal beat hands down. The Doctor, a Time Lord, loved you so much that he gave me his body so we could be together. And if leaving Heaven to be reunited with your wife isn't the epitome of love I don't know what is!"
Willow paused to give Tara a quick kiss.
"The only true happiness in my life has been the times we've spent together. You are the "wonder of MY world". I love you so very much. Maybe I can't build you a "Taj Tara," but for right now I can give you a night..."
A passing flock of noisy green parakeets brought Willow's thoughts back to the present. She smiled and clutched the locket to her heart.
Since that night of the ritual, she and Tara had both worn their managalasutra necklaces everyday. Several times they had received compliments from strangers which pleased them and made them wonder as well. They often delighted in speculating what the reaction would be if it became known that they were married to each other and not some man! It was their little secret.
How fitting it was that they were ending their stay in Agra with a final visit to the Taj Mahal, the very symbol of true love.
When Willow looked up Tara was smiling warmly at her and mouthing, "I love you". Willow was overcome with emotion. She kissed her locket and winked at her wife before returning her, "I love you".
The trio then slowly strolled towards the majestic structure silhouetted against a clear pale blue sky. From here the Taj looked like it was made of delicately woven French lace. They paused to admire the hypnotic view of an upside down Taj in the clear expanse of water in the reflecting pool.
As they walked down the tree lined walkway ever closer to the mausoleum, they were overwhelmed by the calm and peaceful atmosphere. Dozens of green parakeets serenaded them from the leafy treetops. Butterflies silently flittered over the flowers and tiny chattering squirrels scampered beneath the trees looking for handouts.
Willow instinctually sought out Tara's hand and their fingers intertwined on contact. She was normally more careful when out in the public, but she was caught up in the moment. Willow needed to feel her connection with Tara and besides it was barely dawn and the area was fairly deserted.
Tara squeezed Willow's hand gently and smiled at her... she felt the same need. It was Ace however that choose that moment to sum up how they were all feeling.
"Every time we've been here I can't help but feel how ironic this place is," stated Ace.
"Here we are visiting graves and instead of feeling sad or solemn this place makes me feel so alive and fresh."
"You're right Ace. That's how I always feel here too. But maybe that was what Prince Khurram was really trying to convey with all this... that true love makes a person feel truly contented and alive," added Willow.
"That's how you always make me feel," whispered Tara.
"Me too, Baby," agreed Willow.
She raised their clasped hands up and kissed Tara's fingers lovingly. They gazed into each others eyes until Ace reminded them that they needed to hurry if they wanted to see the sun's first rays falling on the coffins.
So the three contented travelers scurried on to the mausoleum for their final views of this magnificent building.