Asha flipped the pages of the magazine, stopping at a picture of the Indian flag. “Stripes are simple,” she murmured. “But the twenty-four-spoked wheel...” Tearing the page from the magazine, she added it to her pile.
Sliding a picture of a mango from the pile, she began folding it into a tiger. “Make it like the cat,” she instructed herself, “with a longer nose. And round ears, like the bear.”
Suddenly Kala twirled in, singing. “My mama’s coming to get me! My papa’s coming to get me!” She bounced to all eight beds in the Girls’ Room.
“Here, Kala,” offered Asha. She held out a paper-folded butterfly. “Take this with you to your new home. A gift from me.”
Kala took the butterfly and twirled back into the playroom.
You’re five, Kala, thought Asha. You’re cute. You dance. Of course you get a family. You’re at this orphanage three months and you’re adopted. I’m twelve and I’ve been here two years. Even the foster parents ignore me. Don’t tell me about your mama and papa.
Neelam knocked quietly. “Busy, Asha?”
“Just paper folding, Teacher. Do you want me to check the little kids’ arithmetic?”
“No, child,” answered Neelam. “I want to thank you for changing three broken cribs into one safe crib. Three newborns can share a bed. Director said you did all the work, and he only helped lift. Where did you learn to repair things?”
Asha stared at her hands. “I used to watch my father. Long ago.”
Neelam touched Asha’s shoulder. “Let’s hang your tiger from the playroom ceiling with the other paper animals.”
As Asha fastened string to the tiger, Director entered the room. A man and a woman followed him. “Neelam,” announced Director, “this is the couple I mentioned.”
“Welcome,” Neelam greeted them. “Feel free to talk to the children and play with them.” The couple strolled about the room. Soon they sat on the floor with Ravi and raced toy cars.
Asha frowned. How many times has this happened? she thought. Twenty? Forty? How old is Ravi ‒ seven?
Why did grownups always want the youngest children? Infants found homes so quickly. Poor families placed babies in the swinging cradle outside the front door and rang the bell. The orphanage brought the babies in, named them, loved them.
Toddlers and young kids came with police, who found them crying in the streets. Sometimes the children were lost. Sometimes their parents couldn’t feed them or didn’t want them. Half the children returned to their families. Many got adopted by people from Delhi or far away. Asha, older and taller, stayed behind.
“Asha?” Four-year-old Dayita yanked Asha’s shirt. “Asha, the door fell off.” Asha inspected Dayita’s cardboard cupboard. Of the fourteen toy cupboards Asha had built from the big brown carton, three had lost their doors. “I’ll redesign the hinges, Dayita. For now, let’s tape the door.”
Minutes later, Kala’s new parents arrived and left with Kala, holding her hands. Asha folded a paper butterfly for Ravi.
The next day, Asha began paper folding an Indian flag. The stripes proved easy. She closed her eyes, imagining the twenty-four-spoked wheel.
Someone coughed softly. Opening her eyes, Asha saw a gray-haired woman seated across the table. The woman wore a red and yellow sari. Her arms rested on the table, and her lips smiled. “Hello, Asha,” she said. “My name is Manasi.”
“Hello,” Asha whispered. “I was planning a wheel.”
“Neelam says you folded those animals hanging from the ceiling.”
“She also told me about the cribs and cupboards.” Manasi paused. “How did you learn to paper fold?”
“I don’t know,” shrugged Asha. “I make it up as I go.”
“You don’t have a book?”
Manasi raised her eyebrows. “I use origami ‒ paper folding ‒ in my classes.”
“You’re a teacher?” asked Asha.
“A math teacher,” Manasi replied. “Geometry. Shapes, sizes, lines, curves. Paper folding helps my students understand geometry.”
“Are you here to teach geometry?” guessed Asha.
“No,” Manasi answered. “I’m here because I have no children. I live alone and I’m not young anymore. My knees can’t crawl on the floor with toddlers. But I’ve always wanted a child.”
Asha regarded Manasi’s deep-brown eyes.
Manasi continued. “What do you enjoy besides paper folding?”
“Making things. Fixing things.”
“You know,” declared Manasi, “problem solvers are usually quite smart.”
One corner of Asha’s mouth rose.
“Anything else you do for fun?” inquired Manasi.
Asha shifted in her chair. “I like eating outdoors. But I don’t do it much anymore.”
Manasi leaned forward. “Asha. Maybe I could come again next weekend. I could bring lunch for the two of us. We could eat outside on the porch. What do you think?”
The corner of Asha’s mouth rose again. Her fingertips fluttered. “I’ll be waiting,” she said.
© Suzanne Werkema