Nabeeha hummed as she dusted the bookshelves in the library adjacent to the schoolhouse. Sweat slithered down the teenager's back and she patted her face and neck with the white cotton scarf draped over her shoulders. The door creaked open, and a younger student handed Nabeeha a book which she returned to a crammed shelf.
“Read this one, Roocha.” Nabeeha thrust a worn paperback at the girl who left smiling and clutching the treasure.
Moments later, Roocha burst back inside. “Nabeeha, Sister. Your cousin-brother is very sick.” Nabeeha ran down the dusty path to her uncle’s house. In the distance, a peacock screeched signaling dusk.
Several people had gathered outside, muttering and hoping for some morsel of information. Nabeeha pushed past them, slipped off her sandals and entered the house. In the front room, Varun lay screaming on a straw mat spread on the dirt floor. His left leg was swollen and there was a large boil near his ankle.
“What happened?” Nabeeha asked her aunt who trying to rub a green paste across the boy’s sweaty forehead.
Auntie waved her niece away. “See. More bad luck. Ever since you came, we have had nothing but problems.”
The village healer arrived with a bag of black rocks which he placed all over Varun’s body. “I heard a snake bit the boy. These stones will help.”
“That won’t work. He needs to go to the dispensary,” Nabeeha said.
“What do you know? If you had stayed at home, you would know the proper thing to do. Get out of here,” Auntie barked. Her sharp eyes flung invisible darts of poison at her niece.
I have to get Uncle. He will listen. Nabeeha ran out to the rice paddy beyond the village. Last year, when she had completed the eighth standard with the highest marks, the headmaster approached the girl’s uncle with an offer for her to attend the secondary school for free. In exchange, she would work in the school’s library.
While her uncle had supported the idea, her aunt’s sharp words had stung Nabeeha’s heart. “What does she need more schooling for? She needs to learn cooking and sewing so we can get her married and our responsibility can end.”
Nabeeha struggled to keep the tears inside. Varun can’t die. He can’t.
“Va- Varun. Snake,” she stammered at her uncle. The two sloshed through the paddy toward the village.
The crowd outside the house had grown. Uncle went inside while Nabeeha dashed to the library. The fading daylight did not hinder the girl who had memorized the location of every book in the tiny room. After locating the volume on animals, Nabeeha flipped through the pages, scanning for the section on snakes.
Armed with the information, Nabeeha returned home where she translated the text for her uncle. He stroked his mustache and listened intently. Varun’s screaming had subsided into whimpers. Nabeeha squatted beside her cousin and showed him the pictures in the book. He grunted when she pointed to the photograph of the cobra.
“He needs to go to the dispensary. The healer’s stones will not work,” Nabeeha said.
“Roocha’s father is outside. Tell him to bring the ox cart,” Uncle ordered. Within minutes, and over Auntie’s protests, the men scooped the boy off the floor and loaded him onto the cart.
“It says to wrap the wound carefully.” Nabeeha pointed at an illustration on the page.
“Come. You can do that while we go.” Uncle said, pulling his niece onto the cart. As the ox lumbered onto the main road, Nabeeha removed the scarf from her neck and tied it onto Varun’s leg.
At the dispensary, the doctor rapidly assessed the boy and injected him with anti-venom. “I gave the child medicine. He will be fine in a few days,” the doctor informed them. His voice softened. “Most people try to cure snake bites themselves. How did you know to wrap his wound and come here?”
Uncle pointed to Nabeeha. “My niece works in our village library. I told her to study hard and make us proud. She has done that today.” He reached over and patted her on the head.
The physician said, “Keep studying. One day I expect you to return to this clinic as a doctor.”
Nabeeha felt a door flinging open in front of her. She hugged the book and smiled.
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