I hadn’t seen another soul since I started my ascent some eight hours earlier and despite the scenery my solitude had shrouded me in a melancholy mood. I was thinking about a lot of things at once, and mostly not good things. There were no clouds in the sky but many in my head. I shook the mist from my mind and noticed that the man was staring at me from his perch on the wall, he turned his head back round to the gorge with the grace of a sleepy owl.
I walked closer and came up to the edge of the wall. I gave the man a half smile and focused my attention on the rocky path that was now steeply winding its way upwards. According to the map I checked twenty minutes before, I should be arriving at a guest-house in the next hour where I could spend the night and hopefully get a warm meal. And more importantly, a cold beer.
As I walked on by, the man turned to face me and winked. I slowed down, taken very much by surprise, I smiled again and raised my eyebrows but kept on walking.
He winked at me again so I stopped and said, “Hello,” raising my hand in a little static wave of acknowledgement. The man didn’t reply but instead started at me with an expressionless face.
“Hello,” I said again, “you just winked at me, that was a little weird.” He didn’t reply so I gave my little wave again and said, “OK, see you then.”
I started walking and he winked again but this time turned his head back out to the view afterwards.
I stopped and turned around and walked the few paces over to him. He was obviously a very strange man but I was intrigued.
“Hello,” I said for the third time, “Namaste,” I tried.
He didn’t reply again but I figured I could use a break. I shrugged off my bag, set it down on top of the wall and sat down next to him.
“Can you speak English?” I said, to no response.
“No? Shall I just have a conversation with myself then?” He turned and looked at me with an inscrutable face but said nothing.
“Well my name is Pete, what’s yours? Oh wait, you’re going to let me do the talking aren’t you? Well, I’m pretty tired. it’s been a long slog so far and I want to make it up a bit further before I get on with my hike.”
He stared at me with a glint in his eyes but no movement in the rest of his face. He tapped the spent tobacco out of his pipe with the palm of his hand, reached into his pocket and pulled out a Hessian bag. He teased out some leafy strands of tobacco with his cracked fingers and pressed them into the bowl of his pipe, before folding the flap on the bag and returning it to his pocket.
“Here,” I said, passing my lighter over to him, “use this.”
He ignored me completely and picked up a box of matches from the top of the wall, struck one and lit his pipe. The tobacco rustled and glowed orange as he inhaled a few times and puffed out a thick plume of white smoke that turned a muddy brown against the sky.
I shrugged, now feeling quite comfortable, and lit up a cigarette with my lighter. I breathed in greedily and the smoke felt good in my lungs.
After a time I said, “So where are you from?”
He just sat there and puffed away at his pipe. The air was getting a little chilly as the sun went down do I untied my coat from around my waist and put it on.
“Not gonna tell me huh? I haven’t seen anyone all day and the first person I come across is a local man, who winks at me suggestively and then refuses to acknowledge my existence. You’re making me feel used.”
I chuckled to myself but quickly felt myself gloom over again.
“I’ve been looking forward to this trek for months, and you know what? I feel awful. I’m really not enjoying myself. Look how beautiful it is. Are you from around here? If you are I guess you must see this every day. Do you ever get bored? I think I would, eventually. There’s only so long I think I could spend on the edge of a valley.”
I paused my one sided conversation for a moment to take a few drags on my smoke. A few sparks popped out the end and it reminded me of the welders I had seen working in town causing sparks to fly everywhere down the winding alleys.
I continued, “She left me. She was supposed to be here but she left me. But that isn’t it. I want it to be, I want it to be her. I’m allowed to be sad right? Everyone is allowed to be sad when things like that happen. It’s been brewing for so long though and it really was for the best, so that isn’t it. It’s something else. Somethings else maybe.”
He just puffed away and I finished my smoke. Careful to extinguish the tip on the stones and put the end in my pocket.
“You have a great life out here eh? The simple life. Do you have a wife? Kids? What do you do for a living? Farm? Herd? I really want to know. I wish you would talk back to me. I guess you have problems too. It must be a hard life out here as well I should imagine.”
I didn’t get frustrated and for some reason found it comforting to talk, seemingly to myself. The man didn’t seem to mind and was quite content sitting there on the stony wall occasionally regarding me and smoking his pipe.
Two birds flitted down from the trees above us and landed on the opposite wall. They hopped about twitching and chirping in the manner of little birds. The man pulled out another Hessian bundle from his pocket and unwrapped a bread bun. He ripped off a piece, put it in his mouth and without offering me any ripped off another piece and tossed it in front of the two birds. They seemed to look at each other with cocked heads before suddenly swooping down to battle over the bread. Despite the piece being too big for either of them to swallow alone they performed a tug of war dance before the victor broke free and flew away with the spoils. The other left on the path, alone. I watched transfixed at the scene and it brought upon an overwhelming feeling of aloneness. The world was a big place.
After a pause I stood up, stretched and said, “Well it was nice meeting you, but I think I better head off before it gets too dark.”
The man moved his arm and gestured for me to sit back down. I was a little baffled but I immediately followed his instruction. He put his hand to his mouth and flung it away in a gesture for me to continue speaking. So I did.
I told him everything that came into my head. I told him about the time I cheated on an exam by writing a little note on the inside of my pencil case, and was so ashamed I feigned illness for days afterwards. I told him how I hated fish but really wished I loved fish. I told him that when I was a child a bully had pushed my younger brother off his bike, I was so angry but couldn’t do anything about it because he was bigger than me. I told him my insecurities, my hates, my loves. My memories of moments in time, some I had forgotten or pressed deep down, others that I held on to and ate away at me whenever I thought of them, came up and flowed out of me; a searing hot pan bubbling over with angry water. He just sat there and puffed away on his pipe.
Finally the rushing torrent of my words dribbled to a stream until they petered out completely. I was so caught up in my words I hadn’t noticed the sun sink down over the ridge. It was cold now and it was starting to get dark. The man nodded his head, collected his things and jumped down off the wall. He looked at me and beckoned me over. I hadn’t noticed before but a few paces down the path a narrow staircase made of stone slabs wound its way up the hill and into the bushes. I looked left and right and back to the stairs but already the man was walking up them. I shrugged my shoulders and figured what the hell.
I followed him up the steps and in a short while we reached a clearing carved into the side of the hill. There were vegetable plots and a pool of rice growing tall out of the water. The sun was all but gone now but there was still enough light to see the surroundings well enough. Behind the plots sat a little stone house, covered in ivy and blooming flowers. It was beautiful. He pushed open the door and I followed him in. I noticed that he wasn’t wearing shoes, so I bent down, untied my boots and left them outside by the door.
Inside, the room was centred around a stove which was full with logs and burning with a roar, a chimney lifted the smoke up and out through the middle of the room. Woven drapes and animal skins lined the floor and walls among pots and pans and drying meat. It was cosy, and warm and comforting. There was another door to my right that suddenly swung open and out tottered a little boy who couldn’t have been more than two years old. He was carrying a little wooden horse. He looked up and noticed me. He stopped dead in his tracks and stared at me in wonderment with wide eyes. I waved and he ran over to find his mother who had just come out from the door behind her son. She saw me too and smiled a big beautiful smile.
The man sat and the woman gestured for me to sit down too, so I did. She busied herself with some pots on the stove and started to serve up some dinner into wooden bowls. The little boy, though still weary of me seemed more comfortable now and sat down as well, playing with his horse, making it gallop over the rise and fall of the blankets. She gave a bowl to us all in turn and then she sat and between mouthfuls spooned some to the boy on occasion. The meal was a delicious stew and I ate until I was full and content.
Once we were finished the man cleared away the bowls and I stood, pulled out my wallet and started rooting around for some money I could give to the woman. She looked horrified and vehemently refused my offer. She pointed for me to sit back down, so I did. Full and warm and very happy.
She walked over to her husband, brushed his hair to the side and kissed his forehead. The moment was tender and affectionate and personal. I was embarrassed to have witnessed it and felt like I really shouldn’t be there. Not for the first time I thought about leaving. Instead, the old man’s wife turned and beamed a smile to me before scooping up her son, little wooden horse and all, into her arms. She walked gracefully into the adjoining room, the boy hanging over her shoulder giggled and gave me a little wave as she shut the door quietly behind her.
I felt warm and the fire seemed to roar with pleasure in response to the contentment coursing through my veins. I stood, ready to get myself together to leave.
Suddenly the man turned and grasped my shoulders in a fierce grip. Before I could even understand what was happening he forced me to take steps backwards. He let go almost as suddenly as he had grabbed me. He thrust his finger outward at my feet and shouted one of the few Nepali words I knew, “chaina!” No. The first words he’d said to me since I came across him, perched on the hill looking out into the distance.
He grabbed me again and forced me backwards so that I took four or five more steps behind me towards the wall. He was incredibly strong, his body hewn from the earth itself. Again he pointed at my feet and shouted no. I was so taken aback by his actions I stood rooted to the spot, my heart beating fast. He stared deep into my eyes and then his face creased into a smile. He nodded to me and pointed at the collection of woven mats and animal skins in a pile next to the fire. He picked up his pipe and without another word opened the door to join his wife and son, it didn’t make a sound on its hinges as it closed behind him.
I stared after him and looked down at my feet. I took a deep breath and walked over to my cosy sleeping place. I took off my jacket but left the rest of my clothes on. I laid down and pulled some rugs and furs over my body and listened as the fire crackled away to a dim glow. I fell into a peaceful and undisturbed sleep.
Feeling refreshed and alert, I awoke the next morning to the sound of a cockerel scratching and clucking outside the door. The smoky scent from the fire lingered in the air and the sunlight burst through cracks in the door, catching specks of dust as it pierced the shadows of the house.
I stood and put on my jacket. The room where the family slept was open and empty. I peeked in but couldn’t see anyone. I slipped on my boots and fastened the laces pulling them tight. I felt clear and strong like the sun rising into a cloudless blue sky. I shrugged on my rucksack and opened the door. Squinting in the morning light I looked around, saw no one, and negotiated my way down the steep steps back to the path. Once I reached the bottom I looked to my right and saw no sign of the man but instead saw his wife sitting in the same place he had occupied the day before. She caught sight of me and smiled. I put my palms together and said, “Thank you.” She smiled again, nodded and pointed off down the path. I waved, and feeling light of heart, set off on my way.