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Shadows in the Snow - Chapter 9
by Swapna Dutta

Continued from Chapter – 8

I sat up most of the night wondering what I should do, where I should go and when.

There was no point walking out in broad daylight and getting caught immediately. And Nibbler should not give me away by barking either. I debated whether or not to take him with me. Would it be right? He didn’t actually belong to me. Miss Milli had brought him for Madam. I had merely been entrusted with his care, for looking after him and that too because I had badly wanted to do it. But Madam did not love Nibbler although he belonged to her and I loved him although he wasn’t mine. A strange state of affairs! But surely he’d prefer to be with someone who loved him rather than someone who didn’t? And surely Madam wasn’t thinking of taking him abroad with her? She’d merely give Nibbler away to someone, anyone who volunteered to have him. Madam would be happy not to have to bother about him, just as she’d be happy not to have to bother about me. We were both unwanted – Nibbler and I. it was only right that both of us should leave together.

I wondered for a moment if I should ask Madam for Uncle Aneesh’s address. Then I decided against it. It would merely make her suspicious. Besides, uncle Aneesh might not want to be bothered with me either right now! I could not take him for granted simply because he had been kind to me. People like him were kind to people no matter where they were. Perhaps it didn’t mean anything special, just as Madam had said. I sighed. If only I had someone of my own!

Finally I made up my mind to slip out in the afternoon, soon after lunch was over. Madam would be having her siesta then. All the guests would be resting too. No one would miss me until tea time and I’d be far away by then. I’d walk up to the bus stand and take a bus to Darjeeling. My plans as to what I should do there were hazy. I’d find a place somewhere, I kept telling myself. I’d find a job too. People changed jobs all the time! It couldn’t be all that difficult to find one, surely? But would they allow Nibbler in the bus? Would I be able to keep him quiet? Just then a new thought struck me. How was I to pay the bus fare? I had no money at all. I did get tips along with Saila and Jethi but I gave it all to Madam immediately. She kept it for me and bought things I needed with the money – clothes, shoes and things like that. That’s how I wanted it to be, except for rare occasions when Madam handed me some money to buy sweets with.

I paced about the little box room trying to think of a way out. From where could I get some money? Just enough to reach Darjeeling? I’d merely borrow it and pay it back some day. My eyes fell on a little sketch stuck to the wall with a drawing pin. The sketch of an igloo done by Kancha. Yes, I could borrow the money from Kancha. He always seemed to have plenty of pocket money and wouldn’t mind lending me some. I could pay him back as soon as I found a job. I cheered up at the thought. He’d understand why I wanted to run away. He might even have some plan about where I should go.

But luck was against me that afternoon. I slipped out quietly, a few things packed inside an old bag and Nibbler at my heels, and made for Hotel Snowflakes. I stood outside the gate and asked their watchman to call Kancha. But he looked me up and down and said that Kancha was not at home. He was visiting a friend in Kalimpong and would stay there for the weekend. I wondered if I should get it confirmed by Mrs. Lama and decided against it. There was no reason why the watchman should tell a lie. But it was a real blow!

“It looks like we’ll have to walk, old boy” I told Nibbler

“Woof!” he cried joyfully at the word ‘walk’, “woof, woof!”

I was carrying all my warm clothes, a few biscuits, part of my lunch that I had saved and a bottle of water. I flung my rain coat over my shoulder and prepared to tackle the journey. There was no question of my losing the way. There was only one path and it led straight to Darjeeling. But what if Madam woke up sooner and missed me? She would be sure to send Joseph after me and he would overtake me in no time as he’d be cycling. I decided to walk on the railway track instead. No one would think of looking for me there. If I heard a train coming I could easily climb down and cling to a tree and not look down. I thought of the dizzy drop and shuddered. Especially when I thought of the bridges with what looked like bottomless depths yawning below. I was afraid of heights despite living here all my life. And I’d be terrified when I had to go through the dark tunnels. But there was no point funking it after having come this far. I’d just have to risk it. The last train had left about half an hour ago when I was walking out of Villa Alpina. There wouldn’t be another for hours. I’d get to the path well before that.

I climbed down to the rail track carefully, Nibbler beside me. I thought of Villa Alpina. It had been my home for so many years that I could scarcely remember that it wasn’t really mine. I thought of the rose garden in the terrace cut around the house and the roses swaying in the breeze. I thought of the lemon trees which made a border for the roses. I remembered how the garden looked when the clouds threw their shadows on it and how it looked in the bright sunshine. Would the garden, the villa and the people I worked for forget me as soon as I was gone? Perhaps they would! After all, I did not belong to them.

I saw the waterfall rush down as I walked amidst the pinewood. I shall never look for begonias under its boulders again, I thought wistfully, nor feel the water spray drenching my face. The stream with its clear ice-blue water splashed below the railway track. I saw a prayer wheel peeping out of the water. I climbed down carefully until I reached it and turned the wheel with my hands. “Please God,” I prayed, “please let me have a place of my own from where I may never have to leave. Please give me a home where I may really belong.” I turned the wheel again and again until my hands felt numb, repeating the same prayer over and over again. I did not need to pray for the well being of others. The wheel would do it of its own – if at all it carried my prayers to their destination.

Nibbler was barking from above, not knowing what I was doing. “Here I am, old boy” I said hugging him. I was beginning to feel numb inside me and also a little afraid and uncertain. I knew that as it got darker and darker and I felt more and more tired, cold and hungry I’d want to cry my heart out. Had I done the right thing? I was no longer sure.

No, I told myself firmly, this won’t do! I must keep up my spirit or I’d never have the courage to carry out my plan. “Woof,” said Nibbler licking my hand as if agreeing with what I thought. I took out some biscuits and shared them with Nibbler. Then I whistled one tune after another as I walked on steadily, trying not to look down through the tracks into the gaping void below. Nibbler didn’t seem to mind the heights. Possibly he didn’t know what it was like to feel giddy!

I don’t remember how long we walked or how far we were from home. I was already feeling tired and very hungry. I had hardly slept last night and I had saved most of my lunch so that I might bring it along with me.

“Let’s have a rest, Nibbler,” I said, sitting down on the tracks, “picnic time now.”

I spread out the dried up chapattis and vegetables on a piece of paper and began to eat hungrily. Nibbler finished his share in a single gulp. I took a little longer. I wished I could have brought more as we were both still hungry. I also longed to shut my eyes for a while. Just a little while. But I knew it couldn’t be done. It wouldn’t be safe. A train might come along any moment and if we didn’t walk on further we’d have no place to stand. The hill on one side was far too steep and there was a dizzy drop on the other. I was beginning to feel that it was indeed quite foolish of me to have chosen to walk along the rail tracks and more than a little dangerous.

“Come on, Nibbler,” I said, “let’s walk ahead and find a place where there’s a slope along the hillside and we’ll get off the tracks and rest a little.

We walked along looking at both sides carefully. Then, after crossing a horrid tunnel that seemed to go on forever we suddenly faced a broad ledge. The trees made a kind of railing and there were a few flat stones. I thankfully stepped out of the track and sat down on one. A train could come along now. It wouldn’t have to go over us! I spread my raincoat on the stone and lay down using my bag as a pillow. Nibbler curled up against me and we were both asleep in no time.

I don’t know how long we slept. When I woke up I was shivering with cold and Nibbler was moaning in a queer voice, as though he was afraid of something. For a moment I didn’t know where I was. I blinked hard but I could see nothing. Nothing at all! There was no rail track, no steep hillside, no sheer drop, and no cluster of trees. Nothing except the trickle of a waterfall far away. A thick white fog had come down stealthily while we were asleep and blotted out everything. There was just me and Nibbler and a white swirling mist all around.

“We’re lost, Nibbler,” I said hugging him close, “we’re lost and there’s nothing we can do about it. I put on all the warm clothes I had stuffed into my bag and my raincoat over it. And yet I shivered with cold. We sat huddled up together, Nibbler and I. a train might come along soon. I wondered if we could jump into it if it didn’t go too fast. But there seemed no reason why it should go slowly at this point.

The veil of white mist which surrounded us grew darker. Suddenly the darkness was upon us. A solid, clammy, eerie and silent darkness. The wind whistling through the dark pinewood above made weird, whispering sounds. It was a strange, unknown world. I held Nibbler tight and thanked God that he was there with me. Although I hated to admit it, I was afraid. Running away no longer seemed a brilliant idea. In the throttling darkness it seemed to be the silliest thing I had ever done. And it was very wrong of me to have dragged poor little Nibbler into it as well.

I hate being a cry-baby but tears pricked my eyelids and streamed down my cheeks. I couldn’t stop them. Nor did I want to. What was going to happen to me? To us both? Would I ever find my way to a known world and meet old, known faces? Then I remembered that I had climbed down and turned the prayer wheel inscribed with a million prayers. Had the prayers also lost their way like me instead of reaching their destination? Had I been forsaken and forgotten by God as well?

Just then I suddenly heard voices across the pinewood high up above. Then I saw a light flashing in the darkness.

“Vandana,” cried a familiar voice, “Vandana, are you there?”

Continued to Shadows in the Snow Chapter -10

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