A bird had laid eggs just above the cornice in Keshav’s house. Both Keshav and his sister, Shyama, would watch the bird intently, as it flew back and forth. First thing every morning, the two would come and stand in front of the cornice, rubbing their eyes, barely awake. The pleasure they drew from seeing the two birds was so great that they even forgot about the joys of milk and jalebi. Numerous questions rose in their minds: How big were the eggs! What colour were they? How many! What did they eat! How would the chicks come out of them? What is the nest like! But there was nobody around to answer their questions. Ma had no time from the housework and Babuji from his books. The two children had to comfort themselves by asking and answering each other.
Shyama: ‘Tell me, Bhaiya, will the chicks fly away as soon as they come out of the eggs?’
‘No, Silly: Keshav would reply, proud as a scholar. ‘First they have to grow wings. How would the poor things fly without wings!’
Shyama: ‘What would the poor bird feed her little ones?’ This was a tricky question for even Keshav to answer.
A couple of days went by and the children’s curiosity increased. They were eager to see the eggs. They were certain they had hatched by then. The question of what the chicks would eat now weighed heavily on their minds. Where would the poor bird find enough grain to feed her brood! The chicks were sure to starve to death.
This thought left the siblings very anxious. They decided to scatter some grain on the cornice for the bird to pick. Shyama said happily, ‘Oh! Then the bird won’t have to fly anywhere in search of food, will she?’
‘Oh no!’ said Keshav .’Why would she?’
‘But won’t the chicks be really hot up there?’ a new worry crossed Shyama’s mind.
Keshav had not thought of this problem until then. ‘Yes!’ he said. ‘They are probably dying of thirst up there. There is no shade above them even.
It was finally decided that a makeshift roof would be erected above the nest. The proposal for a bowl of water and some grain of rice was also approved.
Both children began to work in earnest. Shyama quietly brought some rice from the clay pot. Keshav secretly emptied the stone bowl of its oil, scrubbed it clean, and refilled it with water.
But where to get the cloth for the shelter? And how to make~ the roof stay up without support? Keshav puzzled over the problem for a while before it was finally resolved. ‘Go and bring the garbage basket.., make sure Ma doesn’t see you.
‘But it’s got a hole in the middle! Will it keep the sun out!’
‘First, bring the basket,’ Keshav said with slight irritation. ‘I’ll take care of the hole.’ Shyama went running and returned with the basket. Keshav stuffed the hole with some paper and rested the basket against the branch of a nearby tree. ‘See, how the shadow of the basket falls on the nest! The sun can’t get through now!’
Shyama thought admiringly how clever her brother was. It was the month of summer. Babuji had gone to work. Having put both children to sleep, Ma had lain down to rest. But the children were nowhere near sleeping. Eyes shut, they held their breath and waited for the right moment. As soon as they were sure Ma was asleep, they got up quietly, unlatched the door, and crept out. Soon they were making preparations to safeguard the eggs. Keshav brought a stool from the room, but it was still not high enough to reach the cornice. He then brought a small bathing stool to place under the first and gingerly climbed on top.
Shyama held the stool with both hands. Its uneven legs made it rather wobbly, and it tipped slightly, whichever way the pressure increased. Only Keshav knew what fear, what dread assailed him at that moment. He would grab the cornice to steady himself, and scold Shyama under his breath, ‘Hold fast or I’ll come down and beat you nicely: But poor Shyama’s attention was taken up by the cornice. Time and again her mind veered in that direction, and her grip on the stool slackened.
The moment Keshav’s hands reached the cornice, the birds flew Away Keshav saw some twigs scattered on the cornice, and three eggs lying on them. There was no nest like the ones he had seen on trees. Shyama asked, ‘Can you see any chicks, Bhaiya?’
‘There are three eggs; the chicks haven’t come out yet’
‘Show me, Bhaiya! How big are they?’
‘I will. But first bring some rags to lay under the eggs. The poor eggs are lying on twigs and straw.’
Shyama ran out and returned with a piece of cloth torn out from an old sari. Keshav leaned to take it from her, folded it a number of times to make it into a cushion and placed it under the eggs.
‘I also want to see them, Bhaiya,’ Shyama pleaded.
‘Yes, yes. I will show them to you. But first bring the basket so that
I can make a roof,’ replied Keshav.
Shyama handed the basket from below and said, ‘Now you come down, it’s my turn.
Keshav rested the basket against the branch and said, ‘Go, bring the water and grain. Let me get down and then you can have a look.’
Shyama brought the bowl of water and rice too. Keshav placed them both under the basket and climbed down softly. Shyama begged once again: ‘Bhaiya, help me climb up too so I can see!’
‘You’ll fall down.’
‘I won’t fall down, Bhaiya! You hold the stool.’
‘No, No, No, if you fall down, Ma will make chutney out of me. She will accuse me of helping you up. What will come out of your seeing them, anyway? Now the eggs are comfortable. When they hatch, we’ll both look after the chicks.
The two birds would approach the cornice only to quickly fly away again. Keshav wondered if they were scared and he took away the stools. Shyama was tearful. ‘You didn’t show me: she complained. ‘I’ll tell Ma.’
‘I’ll bash you if you tell Ma.’
‘Then why didn’t you show me?’
‘And what if you had fallen down and broken your head?’
‘So what! Big deal! You just wait, I’ll tell Ma.’ Just then the door opened and Ma came out, shielding her eyes from the blazing sun. ‘What are you two doing out there in the sun!’ she asked. ‘Who opened the latch? How many times do I have to tell you not to come out in the afternoon?’
Keshav had opened the latch, but Shyama didn’t say that to Ma. She was scared that he might get a beating. Keshav was afraid that Shyama might squeal. He hadn’t shown her the eggs, and so didn’t trust her. Whether Shyama was silent out of love or because she was party to the crime is a matter of some conjecture. Perhaps it was both.
Ma scolded them and took them both back inside the room. She latched the door and started fanning them softly. It was only two o’clock in the afternoon and the hot summer wind was blowing outside. Soon, the two children were sleeping soundly.
Shyama woke up with a start at four o’clock. The door was unlatched. She ran to the cornice, and looked up. There was no sign of the basket. She chanced to look down, ran back to the room and shouted, ‘Bhaiya, the eggs have fallen down, the chicks have flown away.’
Keshav ran to the cornice and saw that the three egg; lay broken on the floor. A slimy white and yellow liquid was oozing out of them. The bowl of water was also lying upturned.
Keshav went pale and stared at the ground with gloomy eyes.
‘Where have the chicks flown to?’ Shyama asked.
‘The eggs are broken,’ Keshav said sadly.
‘And where have the chicks gone?’
‘Where do you think!’ he replied with some irritation. ‘Can’t you see the white liquid coming out. It would have turned into chicks in a few days.
Ma shouted from behind, ‘What are you two doing out in the sun?’
‘Ma! Ma! The eggs are broken,’ said Shyama.
‘You must have fiddled with them,’ said Ma angrily, looking at the broken shells.
Now Shyama didn’t pity her brother. He must not have put the eggs back carefully enough so that they had rolled of~ He ought to be punished.
‘He touched the eggs, Ma,’ said Shyama.
‘Why?’ Ma asked.
Keshav stood tongue-tied.
‘How did you reach there?’ Ma asked again.
‘He kept a stool on the bathing stool and climbed up,’ Shyama said.
‘Weren’t you holding the stool?’ Keshav charged.
‘You told me to!’ replied Shyama.
‘You are a grown-up boy, Keshav: said Ma. ‘Don’t you know that when you touch birds’ eggs they become tainted, and then the birds don’t hatch them anymore?’
‘So the birds dropped the eggs themselves!’ Shyama asked her mother fearfully.
‘What else would the birds do!’ Ma said. ‘Keshav you have done a terrible thing. Oh my God! You have taken three lives.’
Keshav looked pained. ‘I only cushioned the eggs: he said quietly.
That made Ma laugh, but for quite some time after that Keshav was pricked by a guilty conscience. In trying to protect the eggs, he had destroyed them–this thought would even make him cry at times.
As for the two birds they were never to be seen there again.