“Vasu!” the woman called out anxiously. “Vasu! Where are you?”
The cot was empty and she peered around. The child was not well. Where could he have gone?
“He’s here with me, Radha. Why, were you worried?”
She jumped in alarm as her husband came inside, carrying the young child in his arms. The child was around five, and lay pale and listless.
“I was worried,” she said. “How’s his fever now?”
“He’s no longer hot,” said the man as he laid the child on a narrow cot. “The medicine given by the vaidya has helped.”
“I am so worried about him,” Radha pushed a lock of hair away from the child’s forehead. “He’s never well. He’s always so ill, with his cough that never leaves and frequent fevers.”
“He’ll be fine once the climate changes. He never has any illness during Greeshma.”
Radha nodded as she tucked the child in a blanket. “Greeshma is still a long ways off. Varsha has just started.”
“He’ll be fine,” said Atiratha. “The Vaidya said this is a mild fever. He’ll be all right in no time.”
“I hope so,” said Radha, shaking out another blanket to wrap around the sleeping child.
“I have to go,” said Atiratha. “The King and his bride are reaching today. I am part of the escort chariots.”
Radha nodded. “Go, then. Try to come back early. He’ll need more medicine.”
Radha sat near the child, watching him for a while after Atiratha had left. She knew she ought to be finishing her chores. She also ought to be decorating her house and should go out to greet the royal couple from the streets. But she did not feel like doing anything. Her child’s illness had driven all thought out of her mind.
She felt the child’s forehead. It was no longer hot, but still felt dry. She sighed in sorrow. How she had longed for a child! And yet, when she got one, it was of such delicate health. But then, it was not to be wondered at. No one knew that Vasu was not their son, but that they had found him. The river had given him to them.
Radha still remembered that day. Her husband had found a box, half buried in the reeds, and inside they had found a baby, half drowned, almost dead. They had thought he was dead, but Atiratha had detected the faint heart beat.
The vaidya had asked no questions when they took the child to him. The oushadhis he had given had saved the child, but the vaidya had warned them that the child could always be ill. And in the long Hemanta and Sisira that followed, Radha had feared the baby would not make it.
But little Vasu had survived the Hemanta and the Sisira. And when the seasons gave way to Vasanta and then to Greeshma, he had started to thrive. It seemed that being in the sunlight was enough to heal all his ills. And even when Greeshma gave way before Varsha, Vasu still remained strong.
The first gusts of Sharad had sapped his health again, and by the time Hemanta rolled by again, Radha was spending almost every waking moment nursing him and praying to all the Gods. Atiratha’s duties as charioteer in the royal palace meant that he had little time to spend with his wife and child, but it also ensured a steady supply of food and medicines.
And thus had the cycle continued. For Radha, the cycle of seasons now revolved around the times that Vasu was ill and the times that he was healthy. But this time, his illness seemed unseasonal. Varsha had started, but Vasu generally succumbed to his illness only during Sharad. And the last year, he had fallen ill only in the depths of Sisira when even the sturdiest of boys fell prey to illnesses.
Radha rose and went into the kitchen. She could not neglect her duties. She had to prepare food for her husband and a broth for Vasu. A warm broth was all he could eat when he fell ill.
Radha stirred the pot and at such times, her mind invariably returned to who her Vasu was. The box was an ordinary wooden box. There were some gold coins scattered inside the box. One of them was lodged in the baby’s fist and he seemed to have been sucking on it. The blanket he was wrapped in was made of silk, which seemed to indicate that he was the illegitimate child of some noblewoman. But there was no identifying marks anywhere on him or on his clothes. The coins were also ordinary, of the kind used in transactions all over Aryavarta, with nothing distinguishing their origin.
It was good that they didn’t know, thought Radha. That meant that Vasu was theirs. If no one knew where he came from, no one could take him away. And no one could tell him any tales either. She knew that if anyone came to take him away, they would not be taking him to a better life. They would be taking him away to kill him. After all, they had attempted to drown him when he was a baby. How could they keep him alive now?
Vasu coughed from the other room, breaking into Radha’s gloomy thoughts.. Radha dropped the ladle and went into the other room. Vasu was tossing and turning and the blanket and bed clothes were all tangled together. Radha could see the sweat beading his forehead. She touched his forehead, wiping away the sweat. She poured him a glass of water. He drank thirstily.
“Ma,” his voice was a thin thread of sound. “My head is paining,”
“I will bring a medicine now,” she said. “You just lay there quietly.” She stroked his forehead.
“The… light… hurts…”
She closed the window and the door, plunging the room into gloom. Going into the kitchen, she found the herbal paste that the vaidya had given for headache and came back into the room. She applied the paste lightly on to his forehead, using her fingertips to smooth it over. After washing her hands, she came and sat next to him, stroking his hair and face till he fell asleep again.
Muttering a prayer of thanks to the Aswins, she went back to the kitchen. She still had lots of work left. Only Vasu’s broth was ready. Perhaps she could decorate the front of her house too and join her neighbours for a while in greeting the king and his new queen after she had finished her other works.