This year was especially hard. It was sowing season and every available pair of hands would be needed in the fields. Muthavva should be in her mother's home, not bending over the paddy, not when her belly swelled round and full with another child. It had been a difficult pregnancy, the dribbles of blood in the early weeks, the pain in her back as her stomach grew. His brother Bopu had offered to take his place at the lookout post, but Thimmaya had refused. Bopu had his own family to feed, and besides, Pallada Nayak would not have approved. He sighed. If the price for cardamom fell again this year in Malabar, the family would have to tighten their belts.
He was sitting there, lost in his thoughts when he started. Someone was running through the jungle calling for him. ""Ayy. Who is it?" he shouted, grabbing his matchlock and peering through the branches.
The runner came into view, and Thimmaya recognized him with a pang of alarm. It was one of Pallada Nayak's cattle hands. "What happened?" he asked tersely, jumping down from the machan.
"The child...," gasped the Poleya, wiping the sweat from his face. "The child is coming."
Thimmaya's face tightened. The baby was not due for many weeks, wasn't that what Muthavva had said? Why had the pains started so early?
The men crowded round him as he laced his sandals and tucked his dagger into his cummerbund, slapping his shoulder and telling him not to worry. He barely heard them, all his energy focused on reaching his wife as soon as he could. He loped off along the trail toward the Pallada village, the Poleya struggling to match his pace. "Please Iguthappa Swami," he prayed, over and over. "Please."
He reached the village just before nightfall and went first to the Pallada house to pay his respects. The evening lanterns were being lit, casting the Nayak in silhouette as he strode up and down the verandah. "Ah, Thimmaya, have you come?" he said, pleased, as Thimmaya bent to touch his feet. "It is good, it is good. Now go to your wife." Thimmaya nodded, unable to speak. "There is no cause for worry," the Nayak reassured him. "All is well."
Thimmaya nodded again, his chest still tight with foreboding. He touched the Nayak's feet, then hurried toward his own home, yet a good six furlongs away. It was dark by the time he got there. The lamps had been lit, the dogs fed and let loose for the night. They rushed barking toward him as he stopped at the kaimada, the ancestor temple in the courtyard. "Ancestors of the Nachimanda clan," he prayed, passing his palms back and forth over the flickering lamps. "I will sacrifice a fowl to you, please let my woman be well."
And then his nephews and his son were running out to meet him, and his mother, laughing, her arms extended. "Uyyi! You have come, monae."
"She is fine, they are both fine, monae. Come in and see your pearl of a daughter."
They brought hot water from the fireplace for him to wash his hands and feet, and then he headed for the bedroom, where Muthavva lay flushed and spent upon their cot. His mother put the baby in his arms. He gazed down at his wriggling daughter and the knot in his chest came finally undone, dissolving into an emotion so strong he had to blink to stop the tears.
Muthavva never told Thimmaya about the herons that had heralded the baby's birth. The labor had started so quickly, the pains so insistent that her brother-in-law had hoisted her onto his back and run all the way home from the fields. The baby was in such a hurry to be born that the midwife had barely been summoned before she thrust her way into the world. As the women bustled about, looking for the brass gong to announce the birth of a girl child, and the servants were sent to distribute puffed rice and bananas in the village, Muthavva made up her mind. She had birthed six babies before this child. Six healthy, squalling boys, of which only the oldest, Chengappa, had survived infancy. She touched her finger to the tip of the baby's pert, perfectly formed nose. This daughter, she knew in her heart, was special. Why cloud her birth with talk of omens or portents? No, she decided, she would tell nobody about the birds.
Excerpted from Tiger Hills © Copyright 2011 by Sarita Mandanna. Reprinted with permission by Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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