The bus rattled as it flew along the dark highway. The lights of the big city had twinkled into the distance.
I was too uncomfortable to sleep. I hugged my backpack and rested my head. Out of the window, all I saw was my face reflected on the glass. The brightest lights for kilometers around were the dim lamps onboard.
I was in my first year of college in Vizag, heading home for winter break. My parents lived in a small, frosty, town called Lambasingi, a few hours away. They had taken early retirement and moved there from Vizag, soon after I joined college. They wanted to trade the big city life for something slower.
As we climbed higher up the slopes, the winding roads slowed down our progress. A thick, cold mist enveloped the bus. Well-lit four-lanes had melted into skinny mountain roads. I pulled on my jacket, grateful I had remembered to pack it.
I took out my phone to look at the time. It was close to midnight.
Out the corner of my eye, I saw someone watching me. A man a few rows behind me. He was staring, unaware that I could see him in the reflection. I bristled at his audacity, cursing all lecherous men under my breath. I turned and glared at him. He looked away hurriedly.
He was skinny, wearing square glasses, and a white woolen cap. He held a worn leather briefcase across his lap. He didn't seem threatening in any way. Maybe, he was just curious. Wondering what a young woman was doing traveling on her own.
My thoughts wandered as I dozed off to the gentle swaying of the bus.
I was startled awake by the loud squealing of brakes. The driver was calling out the name of the stop. It sounded like Lambasingi. I panicked, gathered my stuff, and got off.
The bus stop was a battered bench lit by a single street lamp. One of those old-school tungsten lamps that flickered eerily. There were no houses nearby, only dirt paths winding into the dense forest. The few shops around had been shuttered for the night. I peered at the name of the stop, still not fully awake. It was not Lambasingi.
The people who got down with me walked off purposefully into the dark, and I was left all alone. This was not my stop. It was a Vizag to Lambasingi bus. So my stop would have been the very last one. I had gotten off too early. Idiot!
I took out my cellphone to call my father, but there was no network. I checked the time— I was 10 minutes away from where I should have gotten off, if the bus was on schedule. The only thing to do was to walk in the general direction the bus had gone, and hope my parents were waiting for me.
The wind began to pick up. It started to snow. I was walking alone, on a cold winter night, in the only town in the whole of South India that ever got snow. Miserable, miserable, me.
I spied a street lamp around the bend in the road. But my relief was short-lived. It was not a bus stop. It was one of those small-town supermarkets that stocked everything. From onions to cigarettes to pastries to menstrual pads.
The snow was coming down in increasingly opaque sheets, so I was grateful for any shelter. I ducked in. There wasn't anyone at the counter.
“Hello? Sir? Madam? Anybody there?” I said. "I am trying to get to Lambasingi, but I got off here. Do you have a phone I could use to call my parents? Hello?"
I was getting hungry, so I gathered a soda, a chocolate bar, and a bag of chips. Still nobody. I felt a stab of irritation. What if I just walked out with this? I wasn’t going to, but I could.
Standing around was making my feet hurt, and my bag was weighing painfully on my shoulders. Serves me right for bringing all my books home like a stupid dedicated student. As if I was about to spend my holidays studying!
I put the bag down by the door, behind a box of potatoes. I pushed a sack of onions in front of it, just in case anyone turned up and had ideas. I sat on an upturned crate and ate some chocolate. I immediately felt better. By the time I had gone through the chips and washed it down with soda, the night looked positively rosy.
It was 12:30. The bus would have reached Lambasingi without me. My parents would be getting worried. I decided to leave a note and money for the shopkeeper, and head out.
As I was rooting though my bag for a pen, there was a crash and all the lights went out. I just stood there, frozen in the dark. Until the rational voice in my head said, "Its a blizzard. A tree must have brought down some power lines, and the nearest transformer blew out.”
Over the soft swish of driving snow, I heard a rustling. Like fabric brushing against legs.
I was torn between calling out to the mysterious person, and being absolutely still until they went away. Then I heard the rustling again, louder. Maybe it was just a rat, but I was not about to wait for it to come any closer.
I switched on my phone's flashlight. It threw enough light to see the back wall a few meters away.
There was a rustle again, closer. I stepped back, alarmed, and tripped. I hit my head on something. A sharp pain, and a flash of flight.
I don't know if I lost consciousness, or whether I was just dazed. But I think I lay there for a couple of minutes.
I heard the rustle once again. This time there was a sound, like a cat crying.
I sat up. My eyes had adjusted to the dark. The world outside was white and faintly luminous. There was a moon somewhere, hidden behind the clouds. The wind had calmed down a bit, and the snowfall was thinning.
I had better get going. I stood up to get my things and nearly tripped over a bag of potatoes on the floor.
The bag moved.
I yelped out loud, certain it was a whole family of rats. Instead, an arm popped out. A baby's arm. What?
I cautiously bent over the bag. By the faint moonlight, I could see that it was indeed a baby, swaddled in layers of cloth. It was the most serious baby I had ever seen. It wasn’t crying anymore. It just looked at me with large solemn eyes. It appeared unhurt.
I looked around, wondering where on earth it could have come from. Who would leave their baby on the floor of a shop?
I really had to get going before the snow got heavier again. But I couldn’t just leave it there. To be an easy meal for the rats, of which I was certain there were a few. I picked up the bundle and put it on the counter.
But what if nobody was coming back till morning? What if the baby rolled off the counter?
I decided to take it with me. My parents would know what to do.
I picked it up and gently tucked it into the front of my jacket—unzipped halfway— and wrapped my arms around it. I carefully swung my bag on my back — one arm at a time. I stuffed a few more chocolate bars in my pocket, for later. God knows how much longer I’d be walking.
My sneakers sank into the powdery snow outside and my socks became soggier with every step. Even though my companion was a baby, I was glad to have company.
“Don’t worry baby, I got you. We are going to find a way home.” I said to it, with more courage than I felt. I trudged through the snow for what felt like hours but may have only been minutes.
The moon had come out and was illuminating a block of stone structures ahead. Clinical and institutional, with snow-laden coconut trees framing them on all sides. A cross perched on the top of a spire. The sign on the tall green gates read Saint Mary's Academy and Convent.
Should I stop here and get help? Maybe they could call my parents for me?
The gate was open. I walked up the driveway, to the stone stairs that led up to a great wooden door.
I knocked loudly. I waited for what seemed like an eternity and knocked again. Behind me, I heard urgent footsteps crunching through the snow-covered grass. I spun around, front and back bulging, and nearly lost my footing.
It was a skinny figure. It looked like the man from the bus, except he carried no bag and wore no hat. Was he following me? I swatted that unreasonable thought away. It was probably an entirely different person.
The door opened a crack, and the alarmed face of a nun peeked out.
“Sister, I’m so sorry to disturb you. I need help, I need shelter. I have a baby.”
From where she was standing, she must not have seen the baby’s face. She probably thought I was grotesquely pregnant, because she held my elbow, put an arm behind my backpack, and ushered me in, tutting.
“Sister?” The man was right behind me, “Please, I have been robbed.”
He looked like he'd been in a fight. A huge bruise swelled over one eye, there was blood on the corner of his mouth, and his glasses were cracked.
The nun, bless her, didn’t skip a beat. She smoothly shut the door behind us. We were brought warm drinks. My jacket, shoes, and socks toasted by a fireplace, and the feeling slowly returned to my toes. I told them my name, and that I had found the baby in a shop up the road.
“That’s not my baby,” I told them, repeatedly. They were nodding their heads pityingly, as if they didn’t believe me, but were too holy to contradict me outright. They probably had countless unwed mothers bringing them their children.
I said my name again, and that my parents lived nearby and asked if I could call them to come and pick me up.
The nun, Sister Agnes, told me that all the phone lines were down. When I asked if they had a cellphone, she pursed her lips and said they couldn't afford such extravagances. She conferenced with some others and carried off the baby to be changed. Or fussed over. Or whatever they thought was necessary. I was relieved.
When I stretched out my aching back, I found I was truly tired. The warmth lulled me into a dreamless sleep.
Bright light seeped through my eyelids, and I could feel a gentle warmth on my face.
The sun was streaming in through the stained-glass windows. It took me a moment to remember where I was. I sat up with a dull ache in my head.
“You’re awake!” a plump nun said cheerfully, "I'm Sister Prema. What's your name child?"
I told her. And asked her if the phone lines were working now.
"Of course they're working! When were they not?"
I was confused. I asked her about the baby.
"What baby?" said Sister Prema.
"The baby from the shop." My tongue was sticky with sleep and my head was throbbing.
"The shop? I don't know about any baby, but Ravi, the shopkeeper up the road, brought you in late last night. Unconscious. He said he found you on the floor, with a big bump on your head. And your cellphone lying next to you, all broken."
She held out my phone. The screen was cracked, and it wouldn't switch on.
Sister Prema busied around me, folding up the blanket I had been sleeping under. I felt a growl of hunger. I remembered the chocolate bars I had stuffed in my pocket last night. But they weren't there now.
“Could you find out about the baby, please? Sister Agnes will know.”
“Sister Agnes?” She followed my gaze to the portrait that I hadn’t noticed before. It was a familiar face, with the words Mother Superior written along the bottom. “No child, that’s Mother Agnes.”
Behind me, the doors burst open, and I heard voices.
“Sister, they found a girl, unconscious—“
I turned around at the familiar voice of my father. He was standing at the door, my mother right behind him.
My father stopped mid-sentence upon seeing me, and relief flooded his face. In a flash, his arms were around me.
“We so worried. We waited at the bus stop. The driver said he remembered seeing you. That you had gotten off at an earlier stop, but he wasn’t sure where!” he said.
“We tried to look for you, but it was snowing too hard.” My mother said, fussing over me, inspecting the cut on my head.
“We took care of that madam,” said Sister Prema, proudly, “She’ll be fine in no time.”
I assured my parents that I was ok. I turned to Sister Prema again. “Where is Mother Agnes? She’ll know about the baby. She was there.”
My parents looked shocked. My mother threw a helpless glance at my father, “Mother Agnes told her?”
My father sat down, his brow furrowed. “We didn’t want to tell you until you were ready. This is not going to change anything. We love you.” He addressed me by my sweetest diminutive and kissed my forehead.
I must have looked idiotic with confusion because he said “You found out, right? That you’re adopted?”
I clearly hadn’t, so they spilled out the story, all haphazard. My parents had been married for a few years and found out that they couldn’t have kids. My father was visiting a relative, right here in Lambasingi, on a snowy night. He got lost in a blizzard, was mugged and beaten up. Fortunately, St Mary’s gave him a warm place to stay the night. A young mother had also found her way there. All my father could remember was that she was wrapped in something red, and kept saying her name and that the baby wasn’t hers, over and over again. She was probably trying to hide the shame of being an unwed mother. Come morning, she had disappeared. Mother Agnes decided to settle the child at an orphanage. My parents later adopted that child and gave her the woman’s name. My name.
My head was spinning. I wasn’t sure if it was from my injury or from what my parents were telling me. I didn’t know what to say.
Just then Mother Agnes swept into the room. She greeted my parents warmly. She looked older and greyer than I remembered from last night.
My father said, “Mother Agnes, I’d like you to meet our daughter."
“Ah!” breathed Mother Agnes, her eyes lighting up. She started to say something, but hesitated, looking at my parents, enquiringly.
“It’s alright,” said my mother. “We just told her.”
Mother Agnes nodded approvingly. She clasped my hands affectionately, “You're all grown up now! I remember when you were just a—." She stopped abruptly, confusion clouding her eyes. “My, you look just like her!”
My parents were gathering my things, insisting I go home to rest, and promising that I would be back to visit properly.
Mother Agnes and Sister Prema stood at the top of the stairs. as we walked towards the car. I felt a chill in the air and reached for my red jacket. I draped it around my shoulders like a shawl and turned to wave goodbye.
Mother Agnes stopped mid-wave.
She stared at me —standing there wrapped in red— her eyes wide with shock and recognition.