Badlands V: The Hatching
(© Biswapriya Purkayastha)
"We could stop for a little while, mother," Santi replied,
knowing it would do no good.
It did no good. "We canít spare the time," Aanjn said. "Even
when we get to the pass, itís only halfway down. Tomorrow weíll have to start
"If we donít get through the pass tonight, what happens?"
"It might be blocked by tomorrow." Aanjn threw a look over
her shoulder and shuddered. "Besides, remember what old Kirtee said last night.
I donít want to spend the night on the slope if...thatís...around."
Santi snorted expressively. "Mother, Kirtee cooks up tales
to make herself sound important. You really donít believe that the thing she
said really haunts the slopes on winter nights, do you?"
Aanjn glared at her. "Kirtee is the oldest in the tribe,"
she reminded, as though it needed reminding. "Sheís seen things nobody else now
living has. Donít mock her."
"But she didnít even say she saw it," Santi argued.
"She only said that when she was a child, she heard of it. Itís like one of the
stories you used to tell me to make me go to sleep."
Aanjn began to frown angrily, and then broke into a laugh.
"Youíre right, in a way," she said. "Thereís no way of knowing if anything she
said is true. But weíre still going to keep going until we get to the pass, and
nothing you or I think makes a difference to that."
"Faster," someone shouted from the head of the line. "Youíre
straggling. Come on, move faster."
"Faster, itís always faster," Santi muttered to herself,
grabbed hold of a fistful of Aachiís fur, and leaned into the wind.
was well into the night before they finally reached the pass.
By then, everyone was so cold that nobody even attempted to
grumble, because that would mean opening oneís mouth and letting the freezing
air in. Even the herd had fallen into silence, and just trudged through the
snow, as leaden-footed as the humans pulling them on. By then, Santi had
completely stopped noticing her surroundings. It was only the hunger she
noticed, that and the cold.
The pass was still open, fortunately enough. The tribe made
what camp they could, pulling the loads off the herd, feeding them hay and
lighting a few small fires. The rocky slopes on either side reflected the glow
of the flames back, so it looked much warmer than it actually was. Aanjn
roasted a little grain for herself and Santi, and fell asleep without even
finishing her share. By then Santi was already fast asleep.
The fires were still fitfully burning when Santi woke. She
lay curled up on her side, the skin cloak pulled over her, obscurely thinking
something was amiss. There was something missing that should have been there.
She ran her hands over her belongings, but they seemed to be where they should
be. She reached further, to make sure Aachiís load was all present, too.
Then her questing hand hesitated. Aachi wasnít there. The
calf, who should have been lying snug by her side, was gone.
At first she wasnít too worried. The calf would be somewhere
close by. She couldnít possibly be far off, not in this night and the cold
wind. She would be with the string of animals Aanjn had been leading, which had
long since finished chewing their hay and had settled down in a huddled heap.
"Aachi," she called quietly, certain that the calf would
come bouncing up as usual. "Aachi, come to me."
There was no response, and no Aachi.
Then, with shock, Santi realised something: she didnít
remember unloading Aachi, didnít remember feeding her.
She didnít even remember leading her into the pass; by that
time sheíd been so frozen with cold her hands had been frozen numb and sheíd
been too exhausted to see, so if the calf had gone missing somewhere up the
slope, perhaps fallen behind or wandered away to snatch a mouthful of grass,
she might well have gone on without her.
The cold of the hillside seemed as nothing to the cold which
filled her at that moment. Exhaustion forgotten, she jumped to her feet and
looked anxiously around the encampment. Among the huddled forms in the
flickering light, she could see no trace of the calfís shining golden-white
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