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Chapter 1: The Ship at Shore

Zheng He Babu Little GirlThe drawing fell into her lap out of the sky as she sat on the pavement trying to hide from the world. She didn’t know why but she felt it was important to keep the sketch, that somehow it would help her later. Carefully folding it, she then hid it in her pants pocket underneath her long shirt and coat, hoping to make it safe in a world that so far had been nothing but unkind to her.

--

Had she not been so focused on rummaging through the trash for food, she would have noticed a yellow labrador approach her hiding place.

Sniffing with nervous concern, the labrador looked around for its master as if to say something was amiss and needed rescuing.

Latching onto the little girl’s stash of rotting fruit, the labrador promptly brought it back to the docks and waited patiently at the edge of the jetty, never even once trying to taste the food it had found.

--

Wagging her tail furiously at her approaching master, the yellow labrador seized her treasure trove of rotting fruit and presented the sack with glee.

“What have you done Babu?” the old woman took the sack away. “This belongs to someone, Babu. Someone has carefully gathered and kept this. We must return it! Where did you find this? Where?”

And with a nod of understanding the yellow labrador Babu led her master to the little girl’s hideout as if that was her intention all along, to get help for the poor child huddled up in the cold.

--

Little Girl Babu

And sure as if Babu the Yellow Labrador had known her all her life, she led her master to the little girl huddled in the corner, failing at shielding herself from the pouring rain.

Her umbrella was filled with holes and all the things she had gathered had become sopping wet. She looked like she had given up but had no choice nonetheless.

Babu’s master approached her gently and asked her if the sack of rotting fruit Babu had found belonged to her.

--

“Are these your fruit my little one?” The old lady showed the sack to the little girl. Startled, the little girl lowered her umbrella to protect herself when she saw through its holes that the old lady was in fact holding her sack of fruit that had gone missing.

She didn’t understand what the old lady was saying but she certainly understood her actions. As the old lady set down the sack and prepared to leave, the little girl saw her open, tired palms, dirty with grime, worn out from living.

And yet, something about the weary palms calmed her. They were the gentlest hands she had ever seen.

--

After the kind old lady and labrador had left, the little girl took the sack and hurried off to one of the alleys she felt safer in.

The sack seemed heavier than usual and it’s usual pungent odours were gone. Perhaps it was due to the rain and all the other scents in the air, she thought. Or maybe the old lady replaced her fruit with rocks and trash like the boys did to her once.

Several minutes after settling herself into her hideaway and assured no one was following her, she opened the sack and was shocked to discover that all her fruit had become whole. Pomegranates, apples, oranges and even grapes which she could never get unless she stood by the restaurants before the plates were cleared, filled her sack to its brim.

“Why would the old lady do this?” she thought. “How did she know this was mine? Why did she replace them with good fruit? Who is she?” These questions could wait though, for now she was going to eat to her fill and then she had to find a new hiding place for her sack, one even the yellow labrador couldn’t find.

--

Eyeing the steep narrow alley away from the docks, the little girl quickly tied her sack securely, checked for holes, and started to make her way to her safer hiding place. As she climbed the hill, she found herself struggling and stumbling on the old uneven cobblestones.

Her sack had never been so heavy before and her slow pace gave her away to the boys at the docks. They started following her, darting around corners so as not to be seen, eager to steal whatever she had found. And it must be good too, otherwise she wouldn’t take all that trouble to hide it.

As she rested every few steps, the little girl would turn around to make sure no one was following her. But so focused was she on looking out for the labrador she overlooked her real enemies. Finally she made it to her safest hiding place. Content with her work, she opened her sack and checked on her beautiful fruit again, not realising that her new found treasure had also become her burden.

Throughout all this time, Babu the Yellow Labrador was watching her, her eyes full of concern. As her master called her repeatedly to head to the docks and on to their ship, she stood her ground resolutely. Babu had an important job to do and she was determined to see it through.

--

Sniffing into the air, she turned and turned, distinguishing and eliminating the thousand scents to locate the boys who wanted to steal from the little girl and perhaps cause her harm.

Once Babu latched onto their scent, she immediately put her nose to the ground, and followed the boys steps as quickly as she could.

Where did they go? What were they planning to do? Was the little girl still safe?

--

After a few turns down small alleyways, Babu the Yellow Labrador knew she was close. The scents of the boys at the docks, the little girl and the sack of fruit hung heavily in the air.

--

Running away from Babu

Swoooooooosh! Just then Babu the Yellow Labrador saw the boys run past her. They had the sack of fruit her master had given to the little girl. Thankfully that was all they wanted. After they noticed Babu on their trail, they hurriedly grabbed the sack where the little girl had hidden it and took off as fast as they could.

But where was the poor little girl? Was she ok? Babu sniffed into the air and could tell that she was near.

--

Babu the Yellow Labrador found the little girl high above a stack of wooden crates. She had clearly been watching all along.

She must have noticed the boys following her at some point and left her heavy sack on the ground, barely hidden, as she made her way to safety.

Exhausted and unable to fight, she resigned herself to having her stuff stolen again. Anger grew inside of her as she watched the boys steal and run with glee. But what could she do?

She was small, she had no weapons, she was only one. She couldn’t understand what anyone around her said. She couldn’t read any of the signs. In fact, she didn’t even know her name and she didn’t know why.

Looking down, she saw the yellow labrador looking up at her and wondered what it wanted. Why wouldn’t it leave her alone?

But then as she looked at Babu’s kind eyes, she wondered if it might be hungry just like her. And her anger left. And she came down. And then without hesitation, she took out the one last apple she had saved in her pocket and gave it to Babu.

--

Babu loved apples so she took it from the little girl. But just as she didn’t touch the sack of fruit, she did not bite into this apple but gently cradled it in her mouth. For but a brief moment the little girl tried to touch Babu but she just as quickly changed her mind and turned away.

In the adjacent alleyways two panicked voices could be heard calling out “Babu! Babu! Where are you? We have to go!”

--

Old couple and Babu

As Babu heard her name again and again, she decided to leave the little girl and make her way towards her masters’ anxious voices. Once she saw them however, she turned around as if urging them to follow her.

Strangely, the old couple did just that, as if they sensed that this was an important matter. Every few feet Babu would turn and wait for them before she went ahead again.

When Babu’s nose finally led her to the little girl once more, she was no longer frightened by this strange dog that keeps following her. And yet worry filled her face as she saw the looming shadows around the corner. With barely a second to think, she decided to flee than to wait for whatever danger was coming. Babu watched helplessly as she waited for her masters to catch up, the apple still between her teeth.

--

She was used to trouble but today was especially rough. First, her carefully stashed fruit was stolen by the dog at the docks. Then it was returned in full but only to be stolen again by the boys who kept meaning her harm.

Now this big yellow dog, for reasons beyond her, refuses to leave her alone, following her everywhere even after she gave it her last apple to eat.

And now, more people are coming which can only mean more trouble. Not knowing what else to do, she held her body as tightly as she could and remembered her mother telling her to pray when she was too scared to sleep alone at night. So she closed her eyes and prayed and prayed and prayed for the day to end and for the yellow dog not to give her hiding place away.

--

Despite her best efforts to disappear, other things were in store for the little girl. In mere minutes, Babu the Yellow Labrador had located her and gently nudged the tarp. She set her apple aside and sat next to her while she patiently waited for her masters to catch up. When they were finally in view, Babu jumped up and wagged her tail furiously to let them know this was the important matter she was alerting them about.

The old lady turned to her husband and whispered gently, “this is the little girl Babu wants us to help.”

--

But what did the old lady want? Did she want her fruit back? The boys had stolen them, she had nothing to give. So she stayed inside her tarp and pretended no one was there. Closing her eyes as tightly as she could, she tried to wish herself away.

Babu, sensing her fear, lowered her body to the ground and crawled towards her. Ever so slowly she inched closer to the little girl until their faces touched. “We are friends,” she seemed to be saying, “old friends who got separated. Please come out so we can be together again.”

--

Knowing the little girl could see them from inside her tarp, the old lady took a little toy ship out of her pocket and showed it to the little girl.

“We live on a ship and we sail to many places in the world. You don’t belong here. Let us help find your home.”

And she set the toy ship down next to the apple Babu had dropped at the girl’s feet. And the old couple decided to wait despite more pressing matters back at the ship. To them, there was nothing more important to do in the world.

--

Familiar and unfamiliar at once, the little girl looked at the toy ship with a mix of fascination and dread. It wasn’t only the picture of the same ship in her pocket that she recalled. She suddenly felt a surge of memories come rushing. She had been on a ship before. In fact, it seemed she was on a ship for a very long time because she could still feel the rolling waves underneath her feet and waking up to crashing waves in the middle of the night.

Maybe that was why she stayed near the docks despite its dangers. Was she waiting for someone? Were her parents supposed to return for her there?

Babu looked at her in earnest, as if reading her thoughts as she stayed hidden behind the tarp. “Come.”

--

“We are friends,” Babu nudged the little girl. “Let’s journey together to find your home.”

--

The little girl thought about her situation for a while. She couldn’t understand what they were saying and what they wanted but she could sense their care and worry for her well being, especially the strange yellow dog.

As Babu nudged her again and again, she started to find Babu’s push comforting, and even began to enjoy Babu’s warmth next to her.

Slowly she came out of the tarp, unexpectedly reaching out to Babu as her shield. Sobbing into her, she whispered into Babu’s ear, “Please help me find my home.”

--

It was a beautiful sight to behold and although the girl had seen it before, she was stunned by how it made her feel this time. The sea was calm, the seabirds had long gone home and the only sounds in the air were the waves lapping against the sea wall.

She looked at Babu who she had been holding to all this time and whispered, “my mother used to tell me that we must always have hope. Do you think this is what she meant?”

--

“Where is the ship?” The old couple looked at each other with grave concern. “They were anxious but I don’t think they will leave without us,” the old lady tried to assure to her husband.

“You’re right, the ship’s goods are worthless except to the buyer. They know that,” the old man tried to shake off his worry.

As their failing eyes searched the dark horizon, Babu the Yellow Labrador started barking for their attention. She had found one of the crew and he was bleeding from a blow to the head.