The passive dawn heard the muffled footsteps of two blanket-clad men approach a thin pale shepherd on the outskirts of the village.
“She shouldn’t survive,” said the first man, as he bore his dark eyes on the sleepy face that now laid in the arms of the shepherd.
With that, the two men left with a casual gait. The shepherd saw the moroseness in the child’s eyes as she saw them leave. Then, she shifted her attention to her holder… to nothing but his eyes. He felt a shadow of guilt lurch somewhere in his heart.
“Azad kaka?” the girl chirped.
“Yes, Guddi… your father says we’ll go for a small hike… Here, sit on my shoulders. It’s better that way,” he said, speeding his words and his footsteps. He felt relieved to be away from her gaze but a strange fear gripped his beating heart.
The early morning sun had never been this cruel as it felt today. The cacti-ridden hillside gave him no relief. Azad knew he wouldn’t get water for the next three hours. There was only one well on this stretch of The Aravallis. And he’d never satiate his thirst from the death well that bore the tears and blood of the countless girls who were abandoned by the families of his village.
The little beads of sweat, formed on his forehead, tickled down his beard. He wiped the sweat on his sleeve and paced faster.
“Do you know you have a boomerang on your head?” Guddi said.
“Yes, its shape… did something hit you here?” She ran her small finger on the mark.
After a few silent seconds, Guddi spoke with a heavy tone. “My sparrows would be waiting for me.”
“Home. I feed sparrows every morning with bajra and water. They are such nice birds. Colorful… and they sit in pairs and sound so funny. Sometimes it sounds like they are calling my name.” Getting no response from Azad, she continued, “Have you ever seen them eat?”
“No,” he said, surprised at her exuberance.
“They walk funnily specially when they are full. They eat, then drink then eat and drink some more and then sit for a bit making pairs and talk to each other and then they fly away… so far.” Her voice became morose. “Can I ever become a sparrow?”
Azad simply shook his head.
She studied the passing trees in deep contemplation. “I wonder how small baby sparrows would be when they are born.”
Azad couldn’t contain his laughter. “Quite small,” he began, “but not as small as you think.”
“How small do I think they are?”
“A sea-shell’s size? I used to think the same when I was your age,” he spoke, perked up.
Their laughter echoed softly in the rocks.
Guddi’s weight became heavier with each step Azad took towards the death well. He had come here many a time in the past but never had the journey been this torturing. He was tired, scared, guilty, angry… but more than anything else, he was in pain – physically and mentally. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that the girl he had so loved since her birth would soon be no more. The gentle hands that had cradled her would become a murderer’s weapon.
Kishan, Azad’s close friend and Guddi’s father, had left the village four years back; he wanted to earn more money and, thus, fled to the town. None in the village knew that Kishan had been kept unaware of Guddi’s existence. They felt a wave of change; most of the villagers thought it was for the better. There had been far less killings of the female babies in the last four years.
Now that Kishan was home, his fury had taken everyone in the family by their throats. The village panchayat, too, had decided in his favor, “Now that Kishan does not want the girl, she shall not live.”
As a punishment of keeping it hidden from his own friend, Azad was given the task of drowning ‘the unwanted girl.’
“Had you killed her on her birth, it’d have been less painful, Azad. I hope you enjoy doing this now,” Kishan had mocked in the panchayat.
Azad sniffed. But he knew he had lied to his friend; he had taken a decision on his behalf when practically he had no right to do so.
He hardened his jaw; he had a task to execute. The girl was to be killed.
As they reached the death well, Azad winced at the wasteland this part of the rocks had become over the years. It seemed like the village practice had not only taken the lives of the girls but had obliterated each sign of nature, too.
His mojari felt uncomfortable. He put Guddi on the well’s sidewall and felt his sore feet. Maybe God was the perpetrator of his blistered feet; maybe He didn’t want another girl smothered to death.
“Kaka, let’s go home… Ma will apply her haldi mix on your feet. You’ll be alright.” She hesitated for a moment, “But how will I lift you, Kaka? We’ll both fall down.”
Azad smiled weakly.
He closed his eyes. The dark flashes of an eight year old Azad blinked before him. His mother was crying and a new born baby girl was being taken away from her to be thrown in the death well.
He felt infirm. Curbing Guddi in his arms, he said, “My sister is in there, you know.”
“Down? What is she doing there?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Azad said as he looked deep in the confines of the brick-laden hell.
“Wouldn’t it be difficult to breathe down there?”
“It would have been more difficult to breathe outside.” Azad felt his anger drip from every pour of his body.
The realization of the truth suddenly dawned on her. “Kaka, is this the death well?” She asked, scared.
“What death well? And who told you about this?”
“Baba was saying last night. He said that he’ll drown me in the death well and that I’ll di… I’ll die?” Her voice choked.
“No! What, no! It’s not the death well… I mean, it’s named as death well but you won’t be drowned in it... I’m here, my child.” Azad embraced the scared baby in a tight loving hug. Several emotions screamed to him for mercy, for humanity. He could not cheat a four year old’s trust.
He thought about his village. The people down the hill might never forgive him; they might abandon him; his decision might not change anything but letting her die did not seem to be an option anymore.
“Look, my girl, I cannot take you home but we both can stay together. We might not have anyone with us; you might not get to meet your old friends and it might be a little bit different in the beginning but I promise… I shall keep you as my own heart,” he beamed, “Will you come with me?”
Azad held his hand out for her; she took it with a beatific smile.
Guddi’s small hand held Azad’s finger lovingly. They walked down a few steps to sit beneath a tree and revel in the company of the most mellifluous birds and the loveliest breeze that hovered around and played on their smiles. There was nothing more precious Mother Nature had held since a long, long time.
Copyright © 2012 Vaishali Jain
Copyright © 2012 Vaishali Jain
This story has been awarded the 2nd Runner Up prize at WriteUpCafe. Go check out other awesome entries.