She had been found by an army rescue team. She was wandering in the ruins of her village after the great storm and waves. She was brusied and tired. She wore a torn shirt and a pair of shorts and carried a square of cotton, the color of mango, just large enough for her to use as a blanket.
These were all her possessions.
The Sisters of Mercy Orphanage provided her with a cot, a mattress, two meals a day and the offer of love and saftey. Her cot was one of thirty in a large room. Thirty cots for thirty new orphans. Three rows of ten cots, each girl alloted a space large enough to store her donated change of clothes, a pair of donated shoes, a bar of soap and a cloth to wash her body in the cold-water showers in the morning and in the evening. A quick look was all that was needed to know which cot belonged to the new arrival.
Tidy. Neat. Everything in its place. And the mango cloth covering her pillow, folded into a triangle so to use as a shawl whenever she went outside to the play yard or on excursions with the Sisters into what was left of the village to fight or beg for food for the children or when she needed to use the latrine in the middle of the night.
When she arrived at the orphanage, no one knew her name. She had not spoken a word, so no one knew what to call her. They took to calling her, “Girlie”. “Girlie, come here. “Girlie, come to chapel.” Girlie, it is time to eat.’ Once though, she heard a visiting priest preach about bread. “The Bread of Life”. “Cast your bread upon the waters and it will come back to you”. And the priest said their word for bread was “Naan”, like the naan mothers baked for supper, in homes where there was a mother.
When she heard that word, “Naan”, she stood up in the the chapel, turned to the seated orphans and proclaimed, “I am Naan! I am bread! My name is Naan!” Two months of silence and then, “Naan!”.
Sister Shoba rushed to Naan, held the shaking girl in a tight hug and whispered, “Yes. Yes. You are Naan.” And all the girls started shouting “Naani! Naani! Naani!” and the befuddled priest gathered himself together enough to say, “Welcome, Naani! Like Naani cast on the waters, you have returned!”
And Naani said, “Yes. Yes. I returned.”
wondered the sisters and the teachers and the children and the priest.
Returned from where?
All the other children had their stories. But those stories had been told. Or had been uncovered. All but Naani’s. It was as though Naani had been born to the soldiers who had found her. As though she had emerged from darkness, without a past. Just, there she was. And so, she became known as the girl who named herself.
Sister Shoba continued to ask her questions about what she remembered of the time before she was found. Naani talked of roaring waves and screams. But never in a coherent way. Splashes of memories. Peeks into a past she could not remember.
Then, one morning, alone with Naani in the chapel, Sister Shoba asked again.
“Tell me, Nany. Is there a time, a moment you can recall? Something to help us know who you are.
“I am Naan, I am Naan. I have returned.”
“Yes, dearest child, you are Naani, but….”
Then Naani said, ” I remember the man with the barrels.”
And the dam broke.
” He had many, many barrels. He used leather cord to tie the barrels together, all twisted around on the ground. For a paise, he would let me crawl through the barrels, around and around until I did not know which way was out. We all would crawl over each other and try to find a way out.”
“Where there other children in the- maze- in the barrels with you? Where did they get their paise?”
“From their Daddies.”
“And where did you get your paise?”
“From Auntie Swinitha”.
“Why didn’t your Daddie give you a paise?”
“Because he was at the bakery.”
“And your Mommie?”
“She works at the bakery as well. Auntie Swinitha gave me my paise.”
And there, at last, was a clue. The possible beginning of a solution to the puzzle of this little girl, Naani.
Sister Shoba persued the thread.
“What did the barrel man do when it was time to stop playing?”
“The barrel man would look into one of the ends of the barrels and call to us to come out. He would warn us that it was time to come out and if we didn’t come out right now, he would scold us and close up all the openings and we could never go back home. So we all were afraid and we would come right out!”
Then I had a bad dream one night and Auntie Swinitha woke me from it. She said I was crying and what was the dream about and I remembered and told her. The barrel man closed up the barrels and we couldn’t get out and when he finally laughed enough and all the parents were yelling for us and at him to open the barrels and he did and he opened the barrels but we were gone and no one knew where we were and we were not in the barrels even though the daddies tried to find us and the barrels were empty so I never went into the barrels again even if Auntie Swinitha had a paise for me, I wouldn’t go in…”
And Sister Shoba’s eyes grew round and she asked,
“Naani, were you in the barrels when the great waves came?”
And there was a silence.
Then Naani said, “Yes. I wanted to be brave. Daddy said not to be afraid of bad dreams and to be strong. And I wanted to be his brave girl, so that day, I asked Auntie Swinitha for a paise and I went in. And then the waves came. I heard the screams and I was turned over and over and the other children were all around me and then I was alone and then there was only silence and dark in the barrel and I think I slept. Then I heard the soldiers calling. And I found a hole and I climbed out into the muddy water and day light.”
Two weeks later,
when the records of the shattered village were pieced together again, the presence of a bakery owned by the Pandit family was confirmed. Ranjit and Anjuli Pandit, bakers. Naans parents. And a brother to Ranjit, Rajiv, husband to Swinitha, two survirors of the murderous sunami.
Auntie Swinitha was first to be located and informed of the survival of her little niece, named Naani. There were unanswered questions and hopes and many tears when Swinitha and Rajiv came to the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage to claim, perhaps, their missing niece.
Sister Shoba greeted them in the office.
“What is your nieces name?”
“Rekah,” Swinitha said.
But when Naani was brought to them, and was recognized and tearfully embraced by her auntie and uncle, repeating the name Rekah over and over in joy, the little girl stood back from them and said, “No, Auntie. I am Naani. I am bread that has returned. I am Naan.”
And there would be much more crying when all the sad truths were revealed.
when all the papers were signed and the child was released to her relatives, Rajiv and Swinitha walked out of the gate,
walking in the middle of them,
grasping each of their hands in hers,