Kathmandu – Debora C. Martin

The baby lay still on the sidewalk, eyes closed, and the woman patted his cheek with force.  She was almost slapping him.  On every other day, the woman sat with the baby, her hand held out to those who passed, signaling she needed money.  But today, her hand was busy with something else.

Tom passed by quickly each day, holding one side of his suit jacket over his nose and mouth, shielding himself from the Kathmandu dust and pollution.  He knew he should wear a mask, but he didn’t bother.  Today, he hurried by as usual, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw the baby lying on the sidewalk, the woman slapping his cheek, the baby not moving.

When he reached his hotel, Tom stopped at the bar and ordered a large bottle of beer.  He  pulled a folder from his backpack and studied its contents, eventually ordering dinner and continuing to work.  This was his pattern since arriving in Kathmandu two weeks earlier to serve his second stint as engineering consultant for the drinking water project.  When he finished dinner, he went upstairs to his room, called his wife to inform her he’d be home in two days, and went to bed.

Tom rarely dreamt, but that night he dreamt about the woman and the baby—the woman, the baby, and himself.  In the dream, he saw the woman trying to revive the baby and, in the dream, Tom stopped immediately.  He picked up the child and helped the woman to her feet.    “Come with me.  I’m taking you to the hospital.  Don’t worry, I will help you.”

In the dream, he flagged a taxi and ordered the driver to speed to the hospital.  His put his arm around the woman, his hand holding her shoulder, while she held the baby and both rushed to the emergency entrance.  There were no vacant chairs and several people sat on the floor or stood, but Tom pushed through the crowd, speaking loudly to attract the nurse’s attention.  In Nepali, the woman frantically explained her baby’s situation.

The three were whisked into a curtained room and a doctor arrived.  Tom, now holding both of the woman’s shoulders from behind, backed the two of them up, allowing the doctor to examine the child.  He continued to hold her, though outside of the dream, he’d been told physical contact in public was frowned upon in Kathmandu.

There was a cough and a cry and a small respirator was placed on the baby’s nose and mouth.  The doctor spoke to the woman in Nepali and then to Tom in English.  He explained that the child’s lungs had been overcome by the dust.

“There is more dust these days because of the construction of the drinking water system.  He will be fine, but he must wear a mask if he is outside for more than fifteen minutes.”

Both Tom and the woman smiled.  Tom thanked the doctor and asked where he could pay the woman’s bill.  As he left the room, the woman bowed in thanks repeatedly, her hands in  prayer position.  She was still bobbing in thanks when Tom exited the dream and entered the dark early morning.  He lay awake for hours, unsettled.

Tom’s work day proceeded as usual.  He discussed plans for construction, relocation, and traffic pattern changes with his colleagues, forgetting about the dream until he returned to the hotel and noticed the woman and the baby were not sitting on the sidewalk.  He drank several beers with his dinner, and though he’d placed his reading material on the bar, he didn’t touch it.  He said nothing to the bartender, keeping his dream and his lack of sleep to himself.  After dinner, he called his wife and told her he would catch a flight late the next afternoon, and arrive in Minneapolis the following morning.  Exhausted, he went to bed early and slid quickly and deeply into sleep.  Then he began to dream.

It was the same dream, but different.  In this dream, he stopped when he saw the woman trying to revive the child and pulled a bottle of mineral water from his backpack, gently pouring water on top of the baby’s head, as if to baptize.  The woman stopped slapping the baby’s cheek and Tom gently lifted the tiny head from the sidewalk, slowly pouring drops of water into the child’s mouth.  The child’s lips moved.  He showed his miniature tongue when Tom gave him more.  Then he opened his eyes and cried, no longer dehydrated.  Tom handed the bottle to the woman.  She held her hands in prayer position around the plastic vessel and bowed over and over again in thanks, until Tom realized he was awake and it was the middle of the night.

After work the next day, Tom taxied to the airport to catch his flight.  He was exhausted and grateful his company paid for business class seating.  He drank a glass of scotch, ate his dinner, adjusted his seat to the reclining position, and fell asleep to the rhythm of plane engines, content to be away from Kathmandu.

The dreaming did not end when Tom boarded the plane, but the plane dream was nothing like the others.  Tom was not in the dream.  The woman and the baby were on the sidewalk, the woman trying to revive the baby.   In this dream, she stood up, carried the baby down the street, and entered the door of an old brick building.  Then, a procession emerged from the building and everyone on the crowded, noisy street became still and silent.  Two men carried a small stretcher on their shoulders, a stretcher with a bundle wrapped in a pinkish orange sheet on top of it. The woman walked behind the stretcher.  The procession made its way to the Hindu temple, to the section where the poorer people were cremated after their heads and feet were washed on a stone slab next to the river.  The small head and the small feet were washed.  Then the tiny body was placed on a pyre, covered with straw and sticks, and converted to dust.  The woman watched with her hands folded, bowing repeatedly.  Tom’s heart was beating in his ears when he woke up.  He ordered another scotch.  And then another.

In Minneapolis, Tom encountered his wife in the baggage claim area.   She said she thought she’d surprise him.  She smiled broadly and said she had some news for him.  “It’s happened,” she said over the noise of the conveyor belt.  “We’re going to have a baby!”  Tom returned the smile, but he was not happy.


debora C. MartinDebora C. Martin worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 24 years.  She currently writes fiction and creative nonfiction, and assists organizations involved in homelessness and affordable housing.

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