We gathered, as we did each day, an hour before sunset, to walk along the riverbanks our bare feet had known since we took our first steps. Now grown, our own children were learning to walk in the rich, warm, vast land we called our home.
Today, the leaves were beginning to turn golden. The wind had begun to blow just a little stronger and as the weeks went by, we could detect the crisp smell of change in the air. We had started to labour a while longer each evening, the time of harvest ticking like the old grandfather clock I’d seen a painting of once.
We shared stories of the day, the light and shadows of the colours of our lives interwoven like the twigs we used in the baskets we made; a bond which no-one could break.
The crystal clear river felt like an old friend. We knew its smooth, rounded pebbles, its water bluer than Savannah’s eyes on the day she was born; the soft, swaying reeds pointing the current towards its end.
As we walked, delighting in each other and the warm evening shine, reflecting on the day gone by and planning our tomorrows, Aiyana she saw something that stopped her steps more suddenly than we at first understood.
A little baby, floating on its back – but not in the way we did on warm summer’s days – inanimate, was making its way down the river. Yoki, who was by far the quickest of the group, ran into the river, which came up to her waist, and snapped the baby up from a terrible fate.
Tapping his back gently, my youngest sister Takchawee emptied his mouth of the water it was close to swallowing and managed to awaken, or bring back to consciousness, this naked baby boy whose lips were the colour of blackberries. We wiped him off, wrapped him in bright yellow shawl I had draped around my shoulders, and we turned back, heading towards our families to bring them this news, and this baby.
Yoki glanced back, instinct calling her to do so, and let out a cry: there was another baby making its way toward us. And then another. And so we all approached the river, forming a chain to welcome the babies to safety – lifting them out, tapping their backs, cleaning them off, clothing them in whatever we had with us, keeping them warm.
I cannot tell you how long we stood at the river for. I remember each detail so vividly, apart from the time it took which felt like several days. Well into the night, the babies kept riding down the river to us and we kept rescuing them. For some, it was too late. But we kept going. Others from the village, worried by our absence, had come to find us and joined our task. We sang lullabies. Chayton lit a fire. Some of the children ran back to gather supplies. Aiyana’s brother Milap carried several babies back to the village.
My eyes, arms and heart weighed heavy. The sombre mission laid out before us and the piercing darkness of the night made every smell and sound more alive, whilst making the light of dawn seem like an unmet stranger.
When 30 or maybe 40 of these littles ones had been brought to shelter, I saw Lequoia join Motega in the river: but instead of helping him bring the babies to the arms of the others who were waiting to envelop them in soft linen, Lequoia strode upstream.
“Wait! Where do you go, sister? Can you not see the great need before us?”
Lequoia’s eyes were bright. In them, a fire I thought I knew well burned more strongly than it ever had. With unwavering strength in her voice, she told us that she was journeying against the current to discover where the babies were coming from.
“I’m going to ask why. I’m going to find out why the babies are in the river. I’m going to find out who is throwing them in. I’m going to find out where these babies are coming from, and I’m going to stop it.”
“When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they have no food, they call me a Communist.” Archbishop Helder Camara
*This story is based on one told by abolitionists Cherry Smiley, handed down to her throughout the generations as per Navajo tradition.