Once upon a time in a land far-far away, lived an old woman. Her small but cosy cottage was in a niche of the mountain wall that protected it from unruly winds. The northern side had a little patch of land that she used to grow vegetables and fruits. The western side had grass and bushy plants growing haphazardly. The cottage walls had not been painted in twenty odd years…yet it did not have a desolate feel to it.
Nature’s Paradise, as it was fondly nicknamed by the village folks, was ten minutes away from the nearest market. The old woman had a cute little red car that she drove to the market once a week to get her supplies. One of the oldest residents of the village, everyone knew her and conversely, she knew everyone. That was perhaps one of the reasons she had never left the village even after her husband had died.
Mrs. Gill, the lone resident of Nature’s Paradise, had moved to the village with her husband, a year after her marriage. A shy little girl, in the forty years she had lived in this house, she had come to think of Nature’s Paradise as her very own oasis. She also had a son whose face she hadn’t seen in eleven years.
As a young boy, Sean had loved the cottage as much as his parents. During his growing years, however, he often dreamt of leaving the “peasant-like” existence for the more exciting life that he read about and heard about from his father. His parents hadn’t taken him too seriously. That perhaps had been the mistake.
Some days after his eighteenth birthday, Mrs. Gill had found a note on her son’s table saying,
Dear Mom and Dad,
The life at the cottage stifles me. It may be your destiny, but I am going away in search of mine. Please don’t come looking for me. I know where to find you. I hope you find it in your hearts to forgive me.
Yours for always,
On that day, the happy Mr. and Mrs. Gill had been lost forever. His departure had left in its wake a couple who were bitter that their son hadn’t trusted them enough to share his dreams with them. They often had fitful dreams of their son returning home. But none of the dreams had come true.
When Mr. Gill died, Mrs. Gill had lived on at Nature’s Paradise nurturing the hope that her son would come back to her one day. I know where to find you, were the words her son had written in the letter…how could she possibly leave?
One fine August evening, Mrs. Gill decided to have her customary cup of tea sitting in the portico on her husband’s favourite rocking chair. She closed her eyes and listened to the gentle rustle of the leaves, the chirping of the mother bird to call a wayward child to the nest, the soft scampering of the squirrels.
After some time her thoughts inevitably turned to Sean. She looked into the reddish-pink sky and yearned. She did not know how long she could exist like this. The village folks called her a fool for still holding onto a good-for-nothing son who had so easily forgotten and abandoned his parents. Their advice to her was simple – forget about Sean and move on with life. She laughed at the well-meaning advice. What would she move on to?
In her melancholic mood, she almost didn’t hear the splash that came from the vegetable garden. Mrs. Gill ran towards the garden to see a boy, barely five, standing in front of her, dripping with water. He had fallen into the puddle of water created by the pipe Mrs. Gill used to water her garden. For a brief moment she thought she was looking at a five year old Sean. She shook her head, put a smile on her face and approached the shivering boy.
The boy looked up at her and stammered, “I a…m so…so…sorry. I di…didn’t mean to ca…ca…cause any trouble…”
Mrs. Gill kneeled in front of the little boy so that her white head was just above his jet black head and said with her hand extended, “Hi. I am Rupa. What’s your name?”
The boy looked at Mrs. Gill’s kindly, wrinkly and smiling face and shook her hand saying, “Hi Rupa. I’m Yash.” He was smiling up at Mrs. Gill, unafraid of talking to a stranger, forgetting all the good advice his father had given to him.
Mrs. Gill took Yash by the hand and led him into her home. She gave him a freshly baked chocolate-chip cookie and went to her room to find some of Sean’s old clothes. Thus fed and changed, Mrs. Gill sat down beside him and asked, “Where did you come from Yash? Where are your parents?”
At the mention of his parents, Yash became upset. “I had a fight with papa. I wanted to go fishing. He wouldn’t take me. I was trying to catch the blue and purple butterfly when I slipped and fell into that puddle…I swear I didn’t do anything…” said Yash, pleading.
Mrs. Gill laughed and said, “Don’t you worry darling. I will tell your papa that you didn’t do anything.”
Contented that his new friend believed his story, Yash curled into himself and went off to sleep.
Rupa felt her heart swell with love for this innocent, unknown baby boy. It was curious how quickly she had connected to him and how she didn’t want him to leave.
“Honey, have you seen Yash anywhere?”
“No. I thought he was with you…didn’t you take him fishing?”
“I did take him to the lake but we couldn’t actually go fishing. I told him we will go next time but he got angry and ran away. I thought he must have come to you.” Looking at the worried expression on Priya’s face, he hastily added, “Don’t worry. I’ll go look for him. You stay here.”
He went back to the lake and looked for his son. He tried the tree Yash had taken a fancy to, the attic, the boat, everywhere but Yash was nowhere to be found. He was getting worried now. The sun had set and he knew Yash was afraid of the dark. He cursed himself for losing his temper with his son. Why did the boss’s secretary have to call him just then? Hadn’t he told them he was on a vacation?
He returned to the room, shocked to see Priya sitting in the same position in which he had left her. She had been crying. She turned to look at her husband and seeing the defeat in his eyes she jumped out of her bed and ran towards him.
After playing around with her dinner for as long as she could, she got up and went to the front desk looking for the hotel manager. “I would like to file a missing person’s report. It’s my son, Yash. He is four and a half years old with black hair and a mole above his right eye. He was wearing blue shorts and a green t-shirt. Here,” she said handing over Yash’s photo.
The manager wanted to tell her that nothing could be done until twenty-four hours had passed but seeing the look on her face, he decided not to argue. He took the photo from her out-stretched hand and said, “Ma’am we will do whatever we can. I will call the police first thing tomorrow and file an official report. If there is anything else I could help you with, feel free to ask.”
The search for Yash began early the next morning. The police with the village folk and a few hotel staff spread across the area to look for the boy. The parents had been asked to sit in their room, in case the boy returned.
Unable to sit still in their hotel room, Yash’s parents had taken turns to search the country-side to find anything remotely related to their son. In a desperate attempt, Priya had called up the officer-in-charge but had got the same irritatingly calm reply, “Ma’am, we will call you as soon as we have something.”
When she returned to her room after a fifteen minute walk, she saw her husband sitting on the bed, gently caressing an old worn photo in his hand. At first glance, she thought it was Yash’s photo but on closer scrutiny, she realized it was a woman.
“Who is that?” Priya asked Sean, sitting beside him and taking the photo from his hand.
“That,” said Sean, “is my mother…or at least how she looked eleven years ago.” He got up and went towards the window. “She lives close by you know. I had told you she is dead but…oh my god…I don’t even know if she is alive!”
He angrily shook his head to stop the tears of guilt from falling. “I left my parents in search of a future. I had always meant to come back but…I got so caught up in living my life, I forgot…”
“Sean,” said Priya getting up from the bed. “I think we should go find her. Maybe she is still here.”
“The officers are doing everything they can and if I have to sit in this room for one more hour I think I will go mad! We should go find your mother.”
“You think so?” asked Sean. He was glad she had said it. He hadn’t had the courage to say it himself. “I mean I want to but will she even look at me after all this time?”
Sean had thought the journey to his childhood home would be difficult but to his surprise, it was easy. After eleven years, Sean was finally going home. He was excited and he was scared, scared of what he might or might not find.
During the ride he talked about his childhood, his home, his parents, all the things he hadn’t spoken about in the past six years. He showed Priya all the shops he and his father had frequented, the shops that sold the best bread and his haunts, away from his mother’s prying eyes. He was surprised that he still remembered everything from his childhood.
Priya and Sean had left their car standing under the shade of a tree and were wandering in the village market. After an hour of stalling, she took his hand and said, “I think it’s time for us to go home…”
Sean led her towards a dirt path, a short cut that would take them directly to his house. As they neared Nature’s Paradise, Priya let go of Sean’s hand. A few yards away from the house, he broke into a sprint and reached the cottage slightly out of breath. What he saw made him choke back a sob.
On the porch sat his old mother, looking every bit like the photo he had of hers, rocking in his father’s favourite chair. In her arms was Yash, blissfully asleep.