The ground below the trees was covered with autumn leaves, gently crunching and breaking under her feet. Trees were still shedding, creating a dreamy scene. Stirring up the leaves whenever wind blew past them making them fly. They flew around for a while like butterflies before settling down.
Snigdha looked around her. Most of the trees were shedding. They looked sparse like an infant’s head, with light hair. A deep sigh escaped her lungs. It had been more than ten years since her marriage, and years of trying bore no result. Now her heart had accepted the truth that she would never have a child of her own.
She loved children so much! She so very much wanted to have a child of her own – her own flesh and blood! But fate had some other plans! A plan she was soon to discover.
The woods opened up on the banks of a small pond. The water was blue like the sky above. Rocks small and large were scattered all around the placid water. Snigdha selected a comfortable one and sat down. Soft wind caressed her flushed cheeks after stirring the pond’s water playfully.
There was a small hut across the pond. She could see no movement outside. But a thin smoke was rising out of the chimney.
She started walking towards it, curious about people who lived there. She had been away to her mother’s for a month, and when she left there was no hut there. Now there was one. She heard a baby crying when she reached closer. She called out. But no one came out even after she reached the small porch and knocked on the door.
The door was open.
“Hello!” she knocked again and called out, “Is someone here?”
There was no answer. She stepped in hesitantly.
A small baby, barely six months old was lying in a crib. His tiny face was red with anger and frustration.
She picked him up and held him against her bosom. He was hungry. She could tell that, so she started searching for milk and found it in the kitchen. She fed him and he fell asleep.
She placed him back to the crib and waited for the mother. Soon it was evening, but no one showed up.
She picked up the baby. She left a note with her address, requesting the parents to collect the baby from her home. That was barely an hour’s walk from the hut.
“From where did you get the child?” Mahim, her husband was shocked.
“You will land us both in jail.”
“No! I already talked with the police. I have left a message in that hut too, in case someone returns they can take him from us.” Snigdha said explaining the circumstances in which she found the baby, “I could not leave him there! What if a wolf or some other animal heard him crying?”
“Sorry darling, I guess you did the right thing.” He said with a sheepish smile.
Snigdha grinned back. The child was sleeping peacefully as if he belonged to her, he was a beautiful child- very beautiful to be precise. He was fair complexioned with a head full of tight curls of brownish red colour.
“He does not look like an Indian, does he?” Mahim asked after a little time. “Look at his skin, his hair!”
No one came to claim the child, so Mahim and Snigdha assumed that either they were dead or he was deserted. Most probably born out of wedlock! Lot of foreigners frequented their little hill-station. Very often they had flings with local girls, sometimes boys too.
So . . .
He was named Aranyak by Snigdha and Mahim after they adopted him. It was not very tough. Mahim had his connections that quickened the pace of the otherwise complex procedure. He started growing up under Snigdha’s loving care. His parents doted on him and fondly called him Aru.
Little Aranyak was everyone’s pet. He was a sweet, playful and loving child, about to turn three on the following month. Aru’s parents celebrated the day he was found as his birthday.
But not everyone was that happy. Snigdha and her husband had quite a nice amount of land and other properties. Both were above fifty and a handful of their relatives were hoping for their early demise or the chances of their adopting one of their children, leaving their property to them.
Everything went downhill when Snigdha returned home with the child and adopted him. Quite a handful of relations sulked inside but maintained the façade of good relations
It happened on his birthday. Aru was playing in the garden with some of his friends. Then he disappeared.
Snigdha and Mahim combed the garden. Then the neighbours joined them. They combed the entire area inch by inch, but there was no sign of him. It was getting dark when they reached the forest.
Most of the neighbours took their leave, not really wanting to venture into the woods after dusk. But some stayed with the frantic parents. They entered the woods, calling Aru’s name.
All of a sudden they heard a song – a divine song! No one had heard it’s like in their entire lives. It filled up the forest, a sound that couldn’t be described by words. It rose and fell like wind, mesmerizing the group. They followed the song. They hoped to find the singer and ask her if she had seen Aru. If she was brave enough to move around the forest in darkness and sing, she might have noticed him.
They reached the hut where Snigdha had found Aru. The song abruptly stopped when they started climbing the steps to the porch. The door was open. Just like before, a candle was burning inside. It showed that someone was there. They stepped inside – Aru was sleeping on the floor. But the hut was empty, like the day Snigdha found him.
Snigdha picked him up and hugged him tightly. She thanked God that the child was unharmed and in the heart of her heart she thanked the invisible singer who led them to Aru.
They returned home. They became more cautious about the young one. Time started passing normally after that short and strange hiccup.
Sometimes, late at night, she often thought she heard someone singing from Aru’s room, lullabies in a sweet voice in a strange language. But whenever she went to his room to check out it was empty, except for Aru sleeping peacefully, a happy smile on his face. The windows were nicely bolted from inside.
Aru was one of those children that never made a fuss. Snigdha never had a single second of discomfort because of him. All those stories she had heard about children’s tantrums and their fussy ways seemed surreal to her.
There were only one or two things that bothered her, just a bit. First was the voice that sang him lullabies! Even though she was half convinced that she dreamt about them;. The second thing was a little more nagging – Aru’s imaginary friends seemed more real than the imaginary friends of other kids his age.
After all, he was barely four years old now. How could he imagine about imaginary friends as if they were really around him! She heard him talking with them – playing with them, laughing, pouting – as if there were real human beings around him, but invisible!
He treated them so casually that sometimes she feared that she may end up seeing them . . .
It was Aru’s fifth birthday.
Snigdha went to his room. They were about to take him to one of the most auspicious temples in a nearby town to have him blessed. The room was empty. He was not in the room. She went out and checked the entire house. He was nowhere. This time something told her where he was. She went straight to the hut.
He was sitting on the porch when she reached there. He stood up and ran to meet her when he saw her nearing the hut.
“What are you doing here Aru?” she asked hugging him gently. She was relieved that he was where she assumed, unharmed.
“They asked me to come here!” he answered calmly.
“Who asked you to come here son?” She asked, already guessing his answer.
“My friends . . . !” he answered.
“Where are they?” Snigdha asked, playing along. She wondered how he got there. They have never brought him here. In fact, they have avoided the woods altogether. Woods are not playgrounds for kids. How could he find his way to the hut was certainly puzzling!
“There . . . there and there . . . ” He pointed his chubby fingers towards at least half a dozen spots nearby.
A sense of uneasiness entered Snigdha’s heart. A shiver ran down her spine. “I can’t see anybody Aru . . . There is no one here but us!” For the first time she suspected there was more than that met her eyes, was Aru clairvoyant? He could see and communicate with ghosts?
“You won’t be able to see them mommy.” Aru answered solemnly.
“Why son. . . . ?” Snigdha asked. Her heart was beating fast.
“They don’t want you to see them!” He said.
“Oh! Let’s go back home son.” She grasped his chubby arm firmly.
“Okay!” he smiled and then turned his face towards the hut, “Bye!”
She looked at his angelic face, he was so beautiful! He did not look like a creature of earth – glowing skin, a head full of curls, huge eyes, perfect face and body – all he needed was a pair of wings to join Cupid’s cherubs.
Later that night she and Mahim were having dinner, Aru was asleep after the exhaustions of the day. It seemed he has been playing with his “friends” all the time after reaching the hut.
“Mahim I am really a bit worried! Is something wrong with Aru or something is really stalking him?” She told him everything that has happened.
“I had a bundle of imaginary friends when I was a child. I too used to make excuses, pass the blame of my mischief on them!” he shrugged.
“He talks so naturally with them, about them, as if they really are there.” She said, memories of morning flashed in her mind. A soft shadow of apprehension hovered on her happy face.
“Don’t worry yourself to real problems Snigdha.” He patted her arm softly. “If his imaginary friends were real you would have seen some sign by now, have you seen anything unnatural but his prattling? You know, things flying or moving about on their own?”
She agreed that she saw nothing unnatural. With that, her sense of calm returned.
Two years went by without further excitement. With time, Aru became secretive about his invisible friends. But he still was not over them. Sometimes, when she surprised him by suddenly entering his room – or any other place where he was alone – she caught him talking with them.
She stopped asking about them. He pretended that they did not exist. It was his seventh birthday. He was not in his bed when she entered his room to wake him up for school.
She went straight to the hut.
She stopped at the end of the clearing in the forest, around the hut. The hut has transformed. It was surrounded by a garden of exotic flowers, flowers she has never seen, brilliantly colored and perfumed as if they were brought from heaven’s garden.
Then she saw them – small boys and girls with flimsy, transparent wings! At first she thought that they were small boys and girls. Then she realized that they were adults, but small in size.
They were dancing around Aru, holding hands and singing that divine song that helped her find Aru when he was lost on his third birthday.
They stopped and looked at her and smiled. They displayed no sign of fear or hesitation. They waited for her to reach them.
“Mommy…!” Aru came towards her running.
He wrapped his tiny arms around her and she stared at his wings.
“Snigdha . . . . ” She instantly recognized the voice (so many times she has heard her singing lullaby to Aru) and turned to face a young woman – sorry – fairy!
She was beautiful beyond words! She was so beautiful and pure, that it seemed that the place lit up merely from her presence.
“Thank you for taking care of my son!” The fairy held both of Snigdha’s hands in her own soft, velvety hands. They felt like petals of flowers and a sweet fragrance of unknown flowers enveloped her body. It was if she was made of them. She was a little taller than her companions, somewhere around five feet, her friends on the other hand were more or less four feet.
“Come!” Aru’s mother guided her to the hut. They reached the hut, and two thrones of flowers appeared on the porch.
“Please sit down.” The fairy gestured to one of them.
“I am the only daughter of the king of flower fairies. My name is Iris.” Aru’s mother smiled.
They sat there watching Aru playing with fairies in garden. Iris continued her story.
“I fell in love with my father’s arch enemy. He was so angry with me that he cursed me. I lost almost all of my powers and became invisible after Aru’s birth. He cursed me that if I went anywhere near my beloved, he would die! None of my friends dared to invite my father’s wrath by informing my beloved about Aru, or my invisibility. Instead, they promised that they would hide Aru from my father and take care of him, till the end of the days if that must be!”
“That day when you picked him up, my friends were out for just a few minutes, to bring something for the birthday boy! I was there, but could not show myself to you!” Iris said.
“That’s why he was crying. He could not see any of us. I was always invisible but my friends kept him company.”
“We did not stop you from taking him, but kept a watch on you. We thought that it would keep him safer too. Had my father found out about him my friends would have landed in deep trouble. But your raising him was the best cover up! We maintained a strong vigil on you, In case you turn out to be one of those humans . . . ! He was blessed to have you in his life for seven full years.”
“My friends brought him here on his birthdays, and we celebrated them here for a little while. I don’t know what to call it, but you too celebrated his actual birthday!”
“Finally, my father’s heart had melted and he has forgiven me and my lover. He has revoked his curse and given me permission to be with my beloved and my son.”
“Now, if you will allow me, I will take my son.” Iris requested.
“He is your son!” Snigdha said, suppressing a sigh.
“He is half yours . . . ” Iris held Snigdha’s hand with both of her hands. Her eyes brimmed with gratitude.
Tears welled up in Snigdha’s eyes and started to roll down her cheeks. She knew he was not, it was only Iris’s generous heart that was trying to console her broken one. She knew that there was no place for Aru in human world, with his pair of wings. But the thought of losing him crushed her heart!
“Please don’t cry Snigdha!” Iris said gently wiping away her tears. Then she smiled a little and touched her belly with both her palms. Snigdha could feel a strange power coming from the little fairy’s body, entering hers.
“Now we must go my sweet human friend!” Iris said. She touched Aru with her wand. He shrank until he became a fairy child. Then they all disappeared along with the garden and hut. They left Snigdha in a small clearing filled with daisies and sunflowers.
Suddenly her eyelids grew heavy, and she could no longer keep them open. She fell asleep there on the soft grass. When she woke up, it was noon. The sun was shining brightly. The hut, fairies, and Aru were gone, without a trace!
She returned home and told Mahim that Aru had gone. She told him everything that had happened. They searched the entire area. They combed every possible place, but finding him was out of question. There was no question of Mahim’s not believing her. Not anymore, for he too went to the clearing where the hut was. There was no sign there that a hut stood there for at least seven years! A merry group of daisies and sunflowers greeted them.
A month later Snigdha’s doctor confirmed her that she was pregnant. The child took birth on Aru’s birthday. He looked like an identical twin!
“It seems like Aru came back to your womb!” Mahim tightly hugged her.
She laid her head on his chest and closed her eyes with a heart full of happiness and gratitude.
“Not him! But maybe his brother! Maybe his brother . . . ” She softly whispered, her face hidden in her husband’s chest.