Craig Cliff

Himalayan White

Two days to drive from Thimpu
we must abandon our jeeps and GPS
and wait for amenable weather.
My host’s name is Pencho. I try to ask
him the name of his silent daughter.
Pencho just laughs. I look away.
‘There are many ravens,’ I say.
Once more he laughs.
I am woken by the insistent spinning
of a prayer wheel at the edge of the village.
From my window I watch men and beasts
jangling up the slopes toward a cool summer.
The following day it is our turn to climb
into the thinnest air. We are soon possessed
by the desire to suspend
our sentences.
I crouch in a forest of prayer flags,
surrounded by the colours of the five elements
and the susurration of prayers being peeled
from flags by wind, but it is hard to believe
in the existence of other sentient beings
in need of blessings. It feels as if we
are the first rush of mortals into the mountains,
and over the next ridge we will find deities
constructing another impossible dzong.
After a storm, the huddled yak are parted
to reveal a capsized bull, hoarfrosted
but jelly-eyed. It mewls. Someone must
break its neck. The rest of us distribute
its load among the survivors. A squinting
guide delivers what may be a proverb:
Although my eyes are open, they can also close.
Days in, a running stream defies reason;
provides the ghost of a mirror; diminishes
its own miracle with our rough reflections.
There is an argument. Nothing is explained.
As always, my understanding is incidental.
Upon our return, the women pretend not
to care: we have only been walking.
It is in the village rather than on the ascent
that I truly appreciate the difficulty
and simplicity of life at altitude:
it is as if every dying wife takes with her
one piece of Life that does not do
what it says it will on the label.
After a hot stone bath prepared by Pencho’s
daughter, I find my host in a grand mood.
Later there will be a village fête of some sort.
For now we sit by the light of butter lamps,
sipping fearsome moonshine. His daughter
serves us buckwheat noodles, looking bored.
We three eat in silence until there is a clang
outside the window. Curious, I rise and see
a young boy standing over a dropped dramyin.
Pencho’s daughter is at my shoulder. I turn to her,
and she to me. Her cardboard mouth
contorts into a music-loving smile
and I join the yak-line for love.

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