“Really!? You’ll take me with you? Promise?”
“Promise! We’ll leave at 3 am and be back before the break of dawn. Be ready.”
Anuj was elated. Krishna had finally agreed to take him along. Now that he was 14, he too will work and bring home the bread like Krishna did. After their father died mysteriously about four years ago, Krishna’s 14-year-old shoulders were burdened with providing for the family of six including himself.
Anuj was up and waiting near the horse cart. The sky was clear with little diamonds scattered all over. There was ample time for the sun to arrive and wake up the small town of Baramulla set in the pristine Greater Himalayas. The air at this hour in October is crisp and chill. Anuj tugged on to his sheep wool cap and yak wool overcoat. He missed his cozy bed by the fireplace. But he was more upbeat about accompanying Krishna; that was to be the checkpoint of him qualifying as the ‘man of the house’.
“Let’s go”, said Krishna hopping on to the horse-cart.
The mare, Neela, neighed aloud and strutted in its place. She seemed agonized about something. Perhaps she too wanted to sleep a little more. Krishna caressed her back and rubbed her ears. He spoke to her lovingly and requested her to ride to the orchard. She was suddenly silent and started trotting. He then tied the reins to the hook under his seat and sat back.
“Neela knows the route so you don’t have to man her”, Krishna started teaching Anuj about the tricks of the work.
“But what if she is hungry and stops somewhere or chooses to go astray?”
“She won’t. Horses train well and they don’t need to be manned every time. Especially if the routes are the same. Like now, at this hour, she knows we are off to the orchard. So she will follow the route that she has been trained to follow. Then at 10 am when I go to the market, she knows that route too. So you won't have to worry about that either.”
“That’s amazing! So she will just take me and I won’t have to whip her? It is like automation.”
“Yes, how else do you think I get to read so many books? You too can study while on your way to the market”
“And sleep while on way to the orchard”, Anuj chuckled.
“Well, in case she decides to go astray, you might find it tough to find your way back”, said Krishna laughingly.
Anuj’s sleep-laden yet curious eyes kept his enthusiasm alive.
As the cart trotted down the valley and through the moors, Anuj and Krishna looked up at the skies. The biggest diamond was their father. Amusingly, Anuj felt his warmth embracing him. His brown eyes twinkled knowing that his father was guiding him from above.
A little smile broke out at the corner of his lips when he remembered how his father guided him with his school lessons.
I missed you baba. But now I know you are there, always watching me, and you are here with me.
Neela slowed down to cross the wooden bridge with caution. Anuj was bespectacled at the clear gurgling water in the stream which danced as the diamonds from the sky reflected on it. He looked at Krishna with wide eyes filled with amazement.
“Wait till we cross the hill”, Krishna smiled at him.
Right after the bridge, the cart took the S-bend and rode uphill. The moors were replaced by tall pines. The civilization was left far behind and so was the heat from the fires. The air was cold and wet here. Both, Krishna and Anuj adjusted their overcoats and caps. Neela trotted off unflinchingly.
“Is this what you were talking about?” Anuj looked around befuddled.
“Not really. But this too is a spectacle, isn’t it?” said Krishna, happy that his little brother enjoyed the journey.
Watching the fireflies play hide and seek in the pine grove was fascinating. Anuj watched along with child-like joy. There were so many of them; perhaps more than the stars in the sky. It was as if nature replicated the sparkling stars and created sparkling bugs, and gave them wings so that no human could capture them.
A gush of nascent, cold wind hit Anuj’s face from the right. He turned over to see and what he saw rendered him speechless.
A silver carpet interspersed with neatly pruned cedars greeted him. The carpet spread across thousands of acres. The fresh snow shone silver in the clear sky. The diamonds above, perhaps, stole their gleam from here. The scene was straight out from a picture postcard. It was surreal. And ethereal.
Anuj kept turning his head to not let go of the heavenly sight. He wanted to stop and just be there glaring at it. But there was work to be done and learned by the to-be man of the house.
A few more kilometers downhill leaving the glittery pines behind, Krishna raised his hand to point in the left direction, “There, you see that little yellow light? That’s where we have to go.”
Krishna pulled the reins signaling Neela to slow down to finally come to a halt just a few meters before the gates. Krishna and Anuj got down, Krishna tied the cart to a pole. They picked up their baskets and walked quietly through and then past the gates.
About an hour later, the cart was loaded with crates of Red Delicious, the commercially successful and widely relished apples in Baramulla and surrounding districts. Neela had had her share of fresh greens and was ready to trot back home.
“So that’s how it is done. At 4.30 am, the guards are deep asleep and no one pounds on you. But you have to be really careful and quiet lest they break your leg”, Krishna paused for a second and continued, “are you thinking whether stealing the apples for a living is good? You see, the apple season here lasts two months. So it isn't our only means of income. Most of them are harvested and packaged for different parts of the country and world. These must only be a small fraction for the yield. Yeah, stealing may still not be justified, but I guess even they are casual about it. Why else would they never lock the gates? Think of it as our supplement income aside from the dairy produce. And we sell it at a lower price so, in essence, we are really doing some good karma.”
The sky was still dark and Krishna couldn’t see Anuj’s expression. But Anuj was convinced. More so, because that was what was needed to be done for the house. He asked about more tricks of the job and what would he do if he ever got caught and why don’t they grow some apple trees behind their shed then they won’t have to steal the apples.
Their chat continued as they rode back uphill passing the silver carpet, the glittery pine grove, the wooden bridge over the sparkling stream, and the moors, all whilst the clear diamond-studded sky changed its hues from dark to navy to cobalt.
As Neela slowed down again and quietly approached the house, Krishna jumped down the cart, asked Anuj to carry the crates inside the house, and said, “Well, I kept my promise”, before disappearing behind the shed to bathe the cattle. Neela neighed aggressively again.
Anuj pulled the cart towards the pole near the shed and tied it.
‘People got up pretty early today? Or is it me who always gets up
late?’, he thought looking at his neighbors who had gathered around.
He then lifted the crates and placed them on the rolling cart to take them inside the house.
“Anuj??? Where were you? And where did you get these apples from?”, asked Anuj’s grandma who was visibly shocked to see him. She cried as she ran towards Anuj and hugged him.
His mother wept profusely sitting on the floor and resting her head on the wooden pillar.
Confused at the hullaballoo, he looked around to see Krishna lay on the floor shrouded in white sheet.