The baby coughed.
A little boy heard the noise and turned his head in surprise. It was early Wednesday morning – a Poya day – and the streets had seemed deserted when he’d slipped out of the house to have a secret run around before his mother called him in to help her around the house.
It was his fifth birthday today but it was noting to celebrate. The opposite in fact – his mother constantly bemoaned the fact that he was growing and needing more and more to eat. He tried to reassure her by refusing the extras she nevertheless tried to transfer from her own plate onto his. His stomach rumbled at sight of the morsels of food in her fingers but he still said no and was gratified by the tight smile of thanks on her face.
Still, it was his birthday. He thought he deserved a little extra play time. So he woke up early and crept past his parents’ sleeping figures on the floor near him, standing stock still when his mother shifted restlessly in her sleep, pulling his baby brother protectively closer to her. Relieved that she didn’t wake, he put on his shorts and ran out onto the open streets.
The usual traffic was non-existent so the road was refreshingly free of dust. The sun was just starting to rise and he ran top speed, trying to catch the elusive rays as they blinked periodically between rooftops and tree branches.
That’s when he heard it. He knew the sound well – his brother, just a few months old – coughed like that all the time when something irritated his nose and throat.
The boy scanned the streets quickly, wondering at the sound, for he couldn’t see any adults around. There it was again! Where was it coming from? He started walking slowly, combing the area ahead of him carefully, curious now. The five year old energy in him nagged to be exercised further and he was painfully aware that traffic was increasing with every precious minute that passed. But something made him keep looking.
Then there she was. An impossibly tiny little thing, lying on the side walk on her back, giving hacking coughs as massive cars drove by, stirring up the dust around her. His pace picked up and he was soon running towards her, her coughs spiking his urgency to reach her.
When he finally did, he stopped and stared. She was so, so tiny. He remembered his brother looking like that when he was first allowed to see him, about a week after his birth. Remembered his mother’s exhausted smile and outstretched arm as she beckoned him close to introduce him to the new addition, yet another mouth to feed. He had peered curiously at the baby, extended a hesitant finger and poked the plump little cheek, surprised at its softness.
His brother had been dark. This little girl was white, despite the layer of dust that had coated her and sullied her once creamy dress. Her nose wrinkled as she coughed again and a tiny fist rose to rub at her face. Her marveled at her dimpled fingers and full head of jet black hair – his brother had been bald.
He wondered who had left her there. Even at five, he shuddered at the horror of such a tiny child abandoned in such a manner. He crossed his arms over his chest and squatted down next to her, wondering what to do. He gently stroked her hair and she opened her eyes and stared at him.
He smiled at her. “Hello”, he said and she coughed in reply, reminding him of the urgency of the situation. He had to get her to his mother. When he made to hold her, she kicked her bare little feet and yawned adorably at him. He tried hard to remember how his mother had taught him to handle his brother and picked her up, supporting her head and cradling her to him.
Half forgetting the fragility of the little bundle he was carrying, he started to run back home but stopped abruptly after hearing a small sob of protest from the baby. Trying to find a balance between a brisk and smooth walk, he hurried towards his house.
His parents were just waking when he got there. His father was sitting up and rubbing the sleep out of his eyes while his mother was tending to his brother. They looked up as he entered the room and when he met their surprised gazes, he started to cry. He didn’t know why, but suddenly he felt exhausted. A terrible sadness welled up inside him for the small girl in his arms – a baby nobody wanted, a baby that was possibly one mouth too many to feed, completely alone after only a few days in the world.
He couldn’t speak, but just stood there, shoulders shaking as he cried in front of his family. He looked down at the child who had snuggled up to his chest and was sleeping peacefully, her small chest rising and falling smoothly, finally free of spasms now that she was away from the dust. One of his tears fell on her cheek but didn’t wake her.
His father rushed to take the baby from him and the next few hours passed in a blur. The boy looked on numbly, preferring to sit by his small new friend while the bustle went on around them both. The baby slept on but he was hypnotized by her movements and the entirety of her tiny self.
The nearest hospital was notified and someone came in to take the baby away. He didn’t ask what would happen to her. A wisdom beyond his years kept him from asking the question, knowing he wouldn’t like the answer.
When no one was looking, he dropped a quick kiss onto the baby girl’s cheek. She stirred slightly and opened her eyes to look at him.
He smiled at her one last time and, in a matter of minutes, she was gone.
* * *
He blinked and sat down on the ground, felt his mother gather him up in her arms and heard her whisper to him how proud she was of what he did. “You saved her life”, she said and hugged him tight. He wondered if that was true.
He rubbed his eyes, suddenly tired, wanting to sleep for a long time. “Happy birthday” his mother told him, but he hardly heard as he drifted off. There was nothing to celebrate.
*Inspired by a newspaper article about an abandoned baby girl, left on the side of the road, just ten days after her birth.