A short preamble before I start the actual material in this post. This is a slightly different post than what I usually put up here. A story that has been in my mind for the last two and a half years, which I somehow couldn't forget, nor jot down properly and completely. I had bits and pieces of it scribbled here and there in my diary but that too on days when I had the same recurring dream (or nightmare if you will) linking to this story that I am going to tell. As far as I am concerned, it is completely fictional and created out of my thoughts mostly, and partly out of my dreams and/or nightmares. And I wish nobody has to come up to the situation portrayed in the story and not be able to do anything about it. Anyway, I must stop here before I start babbling away too much. The story begins/continues below. Enjoy!
...and a lot more.
As it is often the case, he is some way ahead of his team-mates, not feeling slightest of difficulty in walking or in breathing. Turning back, he could see his friends trying to catch him - huffing and puffing. He decides to slow down a bit, to let them catch him. This slow-hike isn’t his cup of tea but now he has no option but to slow down for the “group”.
She is suddenly at his back giving him a scare. When he didn’t notice her when he had turned back to check his friends’ progress, he had thought she would probably be at the end, and not at the front and away from the others as he now finds out. Now he has a companion for slow-walking, which he absolutely seems to need. Walking at his pace, as he was doing before, he didn’t have time, energy or the desire for a chat. At this slow pace, he thinks it’s better to sit down than to walk, unless you have a companion to chat with and forget that you are slow-walking.
They hold hands and try to squeeze in the narrow trail - they chat, they walk. He is quite liking this struggle of trying to stay on the trail, without squeezing her out. In fact, he now finds this harder than his usual-pace-hiking. The struggle wasn’t even past a hundred yards, when they both suddenly stop and look at each other.
“Did you hear that?” was the question in each other’s eyes and their expressions even though not a single word was muttered.
“Of course I did” was the silent reply in both pairs of eyes.
The sound was definitely coming from further ahead, but they couldn’t believe what they had just heard. They both want to hear it again. First, to make sure they are definitely hearing something, and not some random wild sound. And, that what they’re hearing is what they think they are. They didn’t have to wait for much longer before they heard it again - a distinct cry of a baby.
How could they hear a baby’s cry in this middle of nowhere? They had to find out.
They let go of each others hands and revert to their usual walking position and pace. They then rush towards the source of that cry, at a pace which could be described as half way between running and walking. After another thirty yards or so, the cry becomes clear and as distinct as it gets. They look around.
Some five-six yards to their right, down from the trail they could see a hut. From afar, it looks dark and dingy. The source of the cry. They feel like it is the hut itself that is crying for care. They cautiously move towards the hut, holding each others hand - for support, but more so to gather strength.
Seeing a baby, wrapped up in a thin cloth at one corner of the hut doesn’t surprise them anymore, for they had already heard its cry from far. What surprises them the most is the condition of the hut and how the baby is left in it, unprotected, barely covered, and most of all, it seems unfed for quite some time.
The hut is cold, damp, and without a closing door.
He moves towards the baby at once and tries to hold it up in his arms. She stops him, by holding back his hands. She is more cautious, and probably more sensible too. The baby hasn’t stopped crying altogether but it does seem a bit more comfortable in their company. It must be very hungry, for when she takes her hand near its face, the mouth opens wide, probably with expectation of getting some milk. Using warm water from their thermos and some milk powder, he wants to prepare some milk right away. She says she will prepare the milk and starts to open his backpack.
While she prepares milk mixing the powder with hot water, he plays with the baby. Somehow the baby manages to get hold of one of his fingers and starts to suck it, which he lets it do. Suddenly he has a better idea. He takes out the chocolate pouch, dips his now wet finger into the powder and lets the baby suck his chocolate-covered finger. She warns him if it is appropriate for such a young baby to have chocolate, but inside she is pleased seeing him able to provide comfort to the baby and play with it, and even make it smile occasionally.
The milk is ready. Another obstacle - they have no milk bottle to feed the baby from. He searches for the smallest spoon from his belongings and they both start feeding the baby. Now she lets him hold it on his lap. So far they haven’t even tried to ascertain the baby’s gender. Now that it is in his lap, she lifts the thin cloth wrapped around its body and peeps in.
“It’s a boy”, she gasps.
“What were you expecting? A girl?”
“Of course. They are known for not wanting girls in this part of the world.”
“Now you know they don’t want us boys either” he teases her with a grin in his face.
It is clear they are trying to get over the enormity of the matter with some humour, without much success however. They have soon to decide what are they going to do with the baby. Both suddenly remember they had left their friends behind. She rushes back to the trail to find them. She shouts out their names, and is very relieved to hear them respond from behind. They soon join her and she leads them to the hut, explaining the incident on the way.
Four friends peep in through the shutter-less door of the hut one by one. Every one of their faces bears startled expression on seeing their fast-walking less-talking friend holding the baby on his lap and feeding him the milk like a mother. A couple of them pass on generous comments towards him, while the remaining two just smile. He asks them all to come inside and gather around him to discuss what is to be done about the baby.
She was already by his side and is the first to have her say.
“I don’t think we should even be thinking of doing anything with the baby”, she starts.
“We are feeding him, keeping him warm for a while, we can may be wrap him up in one of our warm blankets and leave him here. By the afternoon, wherever his mum or dad has gone should be arriving anyway.”
“How can you be so sure his parents will return by the afternoon? Only a while ago you were entertaining the thought of an abandoned baby”, he responds pouring another spoon-full of milk into the baby’s wide open mouth.
“That was when I didn’t know it was a boy.”
The other friends support her case.
“This looks like a shepherd’s hut. His parents must be herding their sheep or the yaks and they should return by the evening”, one of the friends adds.
He suddenly feels all alone in his case to do something more for the baby than just to feed well and abandon him again. He points out to the dark and dingy nature of the hut, its dampness and to the fact that it seems to have been left unused for a long time to have anyone inhabiting with a baby.
“They could have just arrived here a day or two ago”, she says.
“And what is in your mind?”, she asks him now.
Now he finds the opportunity to express what he is really thinking.
“I want to take him with me.”
He could sense not only surprise, curiosity and disapproving looks in all of his friends including her, but also an eagerness to dismiss his plan altogether. He continues speaking regardless.
“Look, we don’t know who left him here, and whether they are coming back to him later in the day. He could very well have been abandoned by a mother who didn’t want to have a child or for being a child out of a marriage. And who would in the right sense of their mind leave a baby like this in the middle of nowhere? In this doorless hut, he could have been attacked by a wild animal long before we came. Good fortune, we found him safe, and now that we are here, keeping him safe is the right thing to do. We can only be certain of that if we take him with us, or stay with him here.”
“We can’t stay here for long”, comes the chorus of replies.
“The weather is bound to turn nasty by the evening, and if we don’t get to our camp by the evening, we could be stuck here for the next two days at least.”
“So we are taking him with us then?”, he repeats.
“What if his parents come back later, only to find their baby gone? That wouldn’t be right thing to do, would it?”, she responds with more questions.
“We could leave a note here saying we have taken the baby and could be reached at our camp.”
“You are assuming that the parents of this baby could read and write. There is less than a quarter of a chance for that to be the case”, says one of his friends.
“So you are all saying we just abandon him here, assuming he will be safe from all the bad things that could happen in a place like this?”, he says with a cracking voice.
“We could try to make this hut a bit safer” comes the reply.
“We will prepare a temporary shutter for the door to keep the wind out and any danger too. It is better we don’t let our emotions rule our rational decision. Until we are certain nobody is coming back for him, we can’t take him with us. We can try to keep him safe where he is and move on”, she speaks again. This time for her and the four others as well.
She instructs the other four to gather some branches to prepare the shutter for the door, and to gather some dry branches as well to make fire at one corner of the hut.
She now looks at him feeding the baby. She feels bad seeing pain and sadness in his face. He seems to be in his own world, only intent on keeping the baby warm, comfortable, and full. She keeps staring at him, but he doesn’t lift his head once. When he finally looks at her, she tries to console him.
He tells her, he wasn’t expecting her to be so rational in this case, not just being a woman but being the one who has always wanted to have children of her own. She now remembers their discussions about the future, about his plan to adopt children, and about her own wish to have children. They all seem remote at this point in both their lives, and she tries to run away from such thoughts now.
“We could come back tomorrow to check if he has really been abandoned”, she tells him all of a sudden. Even she is surprised at what she has just spoken.
His face lights up suddenly. “Really? Promise?”
“Yes, only if the weather permits.”
“It could be too late by then, you know.”
Their friends have by then prepared a temporary shutter for the hut and gathered some firewood. She lights the firewood at a corner away from the baby. He asks her to take out a blanket from his backpack. He uses it to wrap the baby up neatly. Making sure its warm and comfortable, he puts him on the floor, struggling slightly to let go of him. He prays for the baby and for the weather to stay good so that he could come back the next day. And he wishes for the day to end at that very moment.
She has already repacked his backpack and everybody seems ready to leave. She helps him get on his feet and they leave the hut closing the shutter behind. He has a last peep at the baby through the hole, before she pulls him away from the hut.