They had not gone far before Miri heard a strange noise emanating from Beena’s pack. She stopped and loosened the bonds to the bundle and Hanuman’s head popped out from between the folds of the outer covering. He blinked at her and smiled.
“What is it?” asked Maitreyi, and in reaction to her voice Hanuman screeched and scooted onto Miri’s shoulder.
“We can’t take him with us!” cried Maitreyi. Hanuman chattered and bared his little teeth at her.
“It is too far to take him back!” said Miri.
“Damn these animals!” shouted Maitreyi to the sky. “I am plagued by them all!”
Hanuman jumped from Miri into Maitreyi’s arms.
“He seems to like you!” she said.
“I hate them!” grumbled Maitreyi, but the corners of her mouth turned up in an unwilling smile as Hanuman stared beseechingly at her. “You can come!” she said to Hanuman sternly, “But no monkey business!”
After that Hanuman attached himself to Maitreyi. It seemed he adored her despite her reluctance to return his affection. As they traveled, he would switch to riding on Beena who walked behind Mitreyi. Biha always kept her nose close to Bala’s flank and Bala followed Beena by three steps. Miri usually took up the rear, or walked beside Maitreyi if they decided to talk. After a few days, the donkeys followed them with no prodding at all. In comparison to traveling with Kubera, the new
animals seemed to be a gift from heaven
The road before them had become a river of mud. The monsoon rains had softened and soaked the earth so that it could no longer maintain its integrity. At its best, the mud squeezed up between their toes as they walked, and at worst, they sank halfway up to their knees. It seemed as though the very ground beneath their feet fought against their pilgrimage and was pulling them back. Where they were free of quagmire, the road became so slippery their feet could not grip the road. At the end of their first day, they had fallen for one reason or another so often that both Miri and Maitreyi as well as the donkeys were the same colour as the ground beneath their feet. Hanuman seemed to be able to keep himself aloof and unsoiled. When it rained, he usually dropped from his perch on Maitreyi or Beena and quickly harvested a leaf from the surrounding forest to use as an umbrella and returned instantly to perch on Beena’s back with his green parasol held above his hat. He was so fast that he never seemed to get wet.
“We should have waited for good weather!” declared Miri squeezing out her shawl.for the tenth time.
Maitreyi laughed. “It’s Barkha! Monsoon season! That is good weather here!”
Hanuman was also a blessing in disguise. Almost everyone they met wanted to give him fruit, nuts or a treat, and he made a habit of storing the food he didn’t eat in a fold in Beena’s pack. Whenever they stopped to rest or water the donkeys he always made a point of sharing his haul with Maitreyi and Miri. At one point Maitreyi tried to help herself to a piece of fruit from his stash, but he snarled and screeched angrily, running at her, his teeth bared. She stepped back in shock, and the moment she backed off, he calmed down and handed her the same piece of fruit she had tried to take.
As they moved further north along the Gandak River, the land rose above the Ganges plain and mountains began to close in on the trail. Rain became more sporadic. Eventually the road turned to the right and as they reached the summit of a higher pass, Miri stopped and shaded her eyes.
“What is that? She asked pointing at a solid line of clouds on the horizon.
Maitreyi squinted and gasped. “The Himalayas!”
“Are they marble?” asked Miri.
“That is snow!”
Maitreyi nodded. They stood and stared at the line ahead of them. Finally, Maitreyi took a deep breath and strode forward. Miri hesitated, not wanting to break her reverie, and followed.
The valleys that met them were small and extremely varied. A single mountaintop separated jungle from desert, forest evergreens from scrub pines, wet from dry, cold from hot. The clothes they wore no longer seemed to protect them from either the heat or the rain. It seemed to Miri that no matter how far they traveled, village after village, the Himalayas were walking away from them, and that they would never reach the white wall ahead. Then, one day the woods gave way to rocks, and massive giants of stone surrounded them on all sides and they found themselves in a deep and narrow gorge through which a frothing and foaming river raged. The stone trail was slippery, and the women tied leather scraps to the donkeys’ feet to give them a better grip on the steep road. The constant climbing and descending on the narrow winding path was tiring and their progress seemed to be up and down instead of forward or back.
“I’m hungry!” whined Maitreyi. “We must find food!”
“A feast fit for a Queen!” exclaimed Miri.
“Peacock tongue!” countered Maitreyi.
“Goat Vindaloo and Chicken Marsala and saffron rice!”
They passed the time trading recipes and then improving upon them. Unfortunately they had no oil left or wood with which to light a fire and the valley in which they were traveling was dry and made completely of stone.
As the narrow gorge opened up and widened into a breathtaking mountain pass, they came upon a small round stone hut. They stopped for a moment, wondering what sort of inhabitants dwelt within.
“Hello?” called Maitreyi, but her words echoed from the rock walls about them. At that moment, a drop of rain fell upon Miri’s cheek. Maitreyi stepped forward decisively, her hand upon her dagger. Hanuman leaped from her shoulder and huddled nervously on Beena’s back. Mitreyi called out again. Still there was no answer. She knocked upon the small wooden door. It fell inwards with a clatter. She turned to face Miri.
“Abandoned, I think!” She smiled broadly, and beckoned.
Miri pulled on the donkey harness and stepped forward, just as something dark exploded furiously on Maitreyi’s head. Both Miri and Maitreyi screamed, and Maitreyi fell to the ground in a cloud of feathers. Hanuman screeched and flew to her aid and became embroiled in a wrestling match with what later turned out to be a large black chicken. Maitreyi deftly caught the chicken by its bright red legs and while the hapless bird flapped helplessly upside down trying to fend of Hanuman, with a quick flip of her wrist, Maitreyi tossed the chicken back inside the hut.
“Dinner is served!” she announced and, hanuman wrapped securely about her neck, followed the chicken into the hovel. The rain suddenly burst from the skies. Miri quickly tied the donkeys to the doorpost and slipped inside as well. It did seem abandoned, but there was something amiss. She shook off her shawl and looked about. The chicken was strutting, indignantly clucking, at the back of the hut.
She sniffed the air. Not smelling anything, she ran her fingers over the stone floor. No guano. There were no bird droppings from the hut’s only occupant.
Maitreyi looked at her quizzically.
“The floor is clean,” Miri whispered, and both women stared at the chicken.
“Is she a demon?” asked Maitreyi in a whisper.
Miri shook her head, “I don’t think so.”
“I’m not sure we should eat it. It has to be an omen!”
The chicken stared back at the women, cocked its head and began stalking about as if it were alone once again. Hanuman glared at it, but remained on Maitreyi’s shoulder.
“Your Chicken Marsala sounded very tasty though,” said Miri. “We should unpack the animals and bring them in from the rain!”
They ran outside into the cold rain, quickly unwrapped the baggage and tossed their belongings inside the hut. The slate roof was intact and did not leak, though some water dripped down the eastern wall. As their eyes became accustomed to the dim interior, it was apparent the hut was not abandoned. Though it had no furniture, the stone walls were fashioned into stone benches and in the center of the hut was a stone fireplace.
“Everything here is made of stone!” said Maitreyi.
“It’s like living in King Midas’ Valley.” Said Miri.
“King Midas?” asked Maitreyi, “Who is he?”
“A King in a country called Phrygia. A Greek poet wrote of him in ancient times. He was granted one wish by the gods and he wished that all he touched would turn to gold.”
“Ah, I see, and all he touched turned to gold, and I am sure he regretted his wish!” said Maitreyi. “Why is it every tale we are told, the person who is granted her wish always come to regret their desire? I am sick of such morality where desire is denigrated to such lengths! Are we not each of us driven by desire? What would be the point of life if we did not want anything from it?”
“True,” admitted Miri, “I had not really thought about it.”
“Right now I would like a warm fire and some hot food!” declared Maitreyi. “Should that be turned with an ironic twist? Would I suddenly be roasted and eaten if I were in a fable?”
“You’d end up in a cold hut with a chicken you can’t cook!” laughed Miri.
Maitreyi smiled wanly and shivered, drawing wrapping her arms about herself. “It is getting very cold!” she said despondently. It was true enough. Miri’s wet clothes were not drying. In the lowlands, wet clothes dried quickly, but it seemed to Miri that she had been wet for a very long time, but now for the first time she was cold. The stone floor sucked the warmth from her feet and the bench numbed her bottom.
“We must take off these wet clothes and put on something dry,” she said. They stripped off their clothing and hung it along the rafters.
“There are not even insects in this place.” Said Maitreyi, “It doesn’t feel good to me.”
“We can’t go back out into the rain!” replied Miri “It is dark and the mountain road is steep and unpredictable.”
“I don’t like it!” replied Maitreyi.
They unpacked their baggage and found some dry clothes, but still the air was cold. They tethered the two donkeys together and threw the baggage covers over the backs of the two animals, forming a tent. Other belongings, they as a mattress sat huddled between the donkeys.
“Do you notice anything?” Maitreyi whispered. They stood perfectly still, and the raindrops drumming on the roof was no longer there. The sound had been replaced by an insipid hissing.
“What is that noise?” Miri whispered. The hissing surrounded them. Not just from the roof but against the door. Outside the wind moaned. Maitreyi crept to the wooden door wedged into the door jam and peered through a small crack in the wood.
“Oh my!” she cried. Miri pushed against her and stared through a different crack.
“Snow!” whispered Maitreyi, “Now we are truly in the Himalayas!”
Surely enough, millions of tiny snowflakes whirled about their refuge in a mad frenzied dance.
“I have never seen anything like it!” whispered Miri. She was awestruck. Each tiny white flake whirled about as if inhabited by a tiny sprite, each dancing to her own rhythm, yet in an altogether synchronized motion, swirling this way then that in concert with the blowing wind.
“It’s beautiful!” she whispered.
Mesmerized by the sight of the whirling snow, they watched the snowflakes until the cold intruded into their reverie. Snow had begun to seep into the hut through unseen cracks. It now took a sinister nature, for it seemed to be a living anamorphous thing patiently probing the stone walls for the smallest of openings; then slipping silently through. They retreated to their makeshift shelter and huddled together. The cold penetrated so deeply, their bones felt chilled. They tightened the tethers on the donkeys to draw them together, and crouched between the animals for respite from the cold.
“I hope to the gods, they’re house trained,” muttered Maitreyi, but to be safe, they both chose to sit below the north end of the donkeys, and the animals gave off enough heat to offset the cold a little. However, the women’s robes were of cotton and offered little comfort against the cold. Maitreyi warmed her hands against Beena’s belly and shivered.
“I’d give my soul for a bundle of wood!” said Maitreyi. The chicken decided to alight upon her lap at that moment much to Hanuman’s consternation and both he and Maitreyi let out a squeal of surprise, but the bird ignored their reaction, ruffled its feathers and settled into her lap. Hanuman poked at the bird but it quite deftly pecked his hand and he decided to leave it alone.
“You have a way with animals!” said Miri.
“I hate them all!” declared Maitreyi but made no move to remove the bird from her lap ot the monkey from her shoulder.
At that comment, Beena who stood above her decided to lie down, and Maitreyi shuffled quickly over to avoid being crushed. Miri laughed, and, Bala, who always followed Beena’s lead lay down heavily as well. The baggage covers descended noisily onto their heads and shoulders, and the musty smell of the animals closed quickly about them. Following her companion’s lead. Biha kneeled down as well. They were squished together, hemmed in on both sides by the donkeys, and the air under the covers suddenly warmed. A cold draft still seeped into their covered bed, forcing them to awken from time to time to adjust the covering to shut out the cold that infiltrated their living cocoon.
The night had passed fitfully and neither Miri nor Maitreyi were rested when they were woken by a strange grunting sound. Maitreyi sat bolt upright.
“What in the name of¾” she cried.
Miri threw off the heavy covers. Beena and Bala sat facing the door, their ears straight up and alert. Biha seemed to be asleep. The chicken clucked indignantly at being moved, but somewhere just outside the hut, something was moving. Not just one thing, but more than one. Through the small cracks in the wooden door and the closed shutters on the window, they could see dark black shapes shifting back and forth.
“Stay put!” whispered Miri to Maitreyi. She stood quietly and tiptoed to the door. She put her face to a crack and stared out. She couldn’t see anything. Whatever was outside filled her entire field of view.
“What is it?” whispered Maitreyi.
The animals outside grunted and snuffled about the hut.
As if to answer the door pushed inwards and they both backed quickly away from the entrance and a huge wooly snout pushed into the opening. Beena let out a loud challenge and the creature jumped backwards.
“Cows!” cried Maitreyi. “Big wooly cows!”
Under a large wolly hat, a grinning face poked into the hut.
He said something to them. His tone was friendly and he didn’t seem threatening. He said something else. It was a question.
“I don’t understand you,” replied Maitreyi. The man nodded as if he understood her and stepped backwards to allow Miri and Maitreyi some space and privacy. They looked at each other, shrugged and stepped outside. They were blocked in by three huge black wooly bison with enormous horns. The cowherd smiled broadly at them.
Thankfully he and Mitreyi had a language in common for he had traveled to The Ganges for the cattle market at Sonepur. With a great deal of gesturing, Maitreyi determined he had raised his cattle from wild stock and they now followed him wherever he decided they should travel. He explained he thought they would make fine pack animals in the mountains where donkeys and mules couldn’t travel.
“It’s where they live!” he said, “Friends think I’m possessed!” He broke into peals of maniacal laughter. He pointed at a large animal carrying large baskets. “I am taking woolen clothes of my wife’s to market!” He pointed down the snowy path in the direction Miri and Maitreyi had come. He looked them both up and down. “You will buy? Made from sheep wool. Very Good!”
Miri reached out and felt the wool and leather coat the man was holding out. She raised her eyebrows at Maitreyi.
“You hold!” said the man and dug into his baggage for another coat for Maitreyi.
The coats were fine and quite heavy, but after the long cold night both Maitreyi and Miri could not wait to bury themselves in the welcoming clothes. They did, however, have to maintain a certain distance from that desire in order to bring about a fair price for the clothing. Some haggling was required and Maitreyi brought out a bolt of silk and madras cloth that she knew that the man knew that his wife would die for. And she threw in the black chicken as well.
Miri and Maitreyi tried on two or three coats and made the man work for a sale. The coats were quite becoming, for they were lined with sheepskin and the outer edges of the garment including the collars and cuffs were also longhaired sheepskin. They each chose to buy the most embroidered of the samples. At length though, they traded for several items including matching hats and some wild yak dung cakes in order to light a fire. It was the first of many trading encounters along the way that multiplied until even the donkeys had wool blankets to keep them warm, and they were better equipped for the rarified cold air in which they now found themselves. Hanuman sported warm baby clothes a village woman had given him for she thought she could see the soul of her departed child in his mischievous eyes.
At the summit of each mountain pass, there was set there a stone cairn, sometimes quite ornate and sometimes quite haphazard. It wasn’t until they came upon one that was set as an altar that they realized these were places of worship. Scattered about some of the more popular shrines, were other piles of stones, usually in threes, and all about these were attached bits of prayer clothes or offerings to whatever god might inhabit the pass. Once they encountered the first, they began to view the landscape with a different eye. The formations of stone that surrounded them no longer seemed to be placed in a jumble, but took on a very planned aspect, as though every rock, every tree, every blade of grass had been set there either by human thought and inspiration or the will of the gods. Everything was just so.
Most popular were the altars that showed a spectacular view, and there, when the wind blew, The white carves and prayer cloths flapped noisily as though the wind were reading the words written there. Many were written in scripts neither woman knew, but occasionally they would find a prayer written in Sanskrit or Greek and they would read them to each other. They enjoyed the stories they found in the few words of prayer, and even added their own flags to the shrines.
Some places, poles were set with offerings attached. Lamps seemed to be common. They had seen other pilgrims placing lit lamps on the shrines and walking about the altars and pillars, sometimes in opposite directions. It appeared quite comical when pilgrims circumambulated in contrary directions, for it seemed that each was convinced their direction was the correct and proscribed manner to achieve their goal.
“Perhaps they want different things from life,” said Maitreyi, and smiled as a devout and barely clad old man passed by on what seemed an endless circle. So immersed in his ritual the old man never acknowledged the presence of the two foreign women passing on their knees in the opposite direction.
“Mother and daughter!’ said Maitreyi. They were older and younger, and the younger glanced shyly sideways at Miri and Maitreyi on each pass. They were distracted by the cry of vultures above their heads. Miri squinted into the clouds, and far above, she could see a flock of vultures gathering above them. She looked quizzically to Maitreyi and the wind brought the faint sound of chiming bells to their ears. The two women perambulating about the shrine stopped and stared down the path to the North.
“What is it?” asked Maitreyi. The older woman heard her and replied in Sanskrit.
At that moment, they heard the low hollow beat of drums, and strange designs at the end of poles appeared and revealed themselves to be the standards of an ascending procession. Priests and subalterns chanted as they approached, waving incense burners about them. Two boys tapped out a doleful funereal march on leather-topped drums hanging from their shoulder by red embroidered straps. The procession was headed by mourners in frightful red and white gold-trimmed demon masks. They were flanked by a number of soldiers in full ceremonial battle armour who shouted rhythmically in time with the chanting priests and brandished their huge axe-shaped spears this way and that to ward off evil spirits.
The place did now seem to have become possessed, for the wind picked up on the arrival of the procession, and now it seemed that the winds were actually demons tugging at the robes of everyone on the summit. The mourners carried a bier upon which laid a man’s body wrapped in a funeral shroud that was even now being picked at by the restless spirits carried by the wind. As they reached the altar, a number of men and women busied themselves and prepared a shrine away from the altar where the body lay. They covered it in offerings.
“They are setting out offerings to distract the demons,” said the woman beside them.
“Demons?” asked Maitreyi as she glanced about, fearing that just by mentioning them their words would bring a horde of demons upon them.
“Yes!” declared the woman touching a talisman hanging about her neck. “They must distract the demons so they will not seize the body and bring it back as the dreaded Ro-lang!”
“Ro-lang?” asked Maitreyi.
“Shhh!” whispered the woman, “You may bring Ro-lang toward your own soul!” The woman touched her hands to Maitreyi’s lips. “He, mother protect us, can enter the corpse before the ceremonies can be performed, and make the dead man into a zombie that eats only human flesh!”
The young woman moved closer to her mother for protection. The villagers set fire to juniper and fat on the small shrine that they had built to distract the demons from the dead man and the flame fluttered valiantly in the wind. Fragrant wood smoke filled the air with the sharp smell of juniper and incense.
A circle of poles thrust into the brown earth and festooned with colorful prayer flags flapped in the sporadic breeze. A man stood beside each pole, unmoving and the high priest, ceremonial dagger in hand called out to the wind. His sualterns unwrapped the naked body and the priest began to dismember the corpse, piece by piece. Leaving the bright red pieces on the altar, the mourners disbanded and retreated back down the mountain.
Maitreyi let a small laugh. “Look! Our holy man is still walking!”
Sure enough, the old man had continued his perambulations throughout the entire funeral ceremony. Only one woman remained from the funeral entourage, and she sat silently, some distance from the altar, her head covered by a black robe.
“She is watching to see the pieces are all consumed!” said the woman.
“Consumed?” asked Miri.
The old woman pointed above her head. “The servants of Great Tengri, the God of the Sky, will come for his soul!” She herded her daughter away from the shrine and started off on the path to the South.
Sure enough, now the crowd had dispersed, the vultures swooped lower. They were cautious for the old man still chanting under his breath, had not ceased his proscription. Hanuman chattered nervously at the sight of the birds for they were large enough to carry him away, and he sensed that they would have no compunctions in doing so.
Finally one of the birds landed, wings outstretched and uttered a shrill demonic cry. He flapped away, and seeing the old man had no interest in her, landed again. Another landed, and they began to pick at the meat of the man on the altar.
“Let’s go,” said Miri, not wishing to witness the rest of the vultures’ dinner.
Well rested, they moved on. After the funeral, they noticed ceremonial poles were also erected on every hill and mountain peak. Here also were prayer flags. And everywhere, villages and monasteries clung magically to the sides of precipitous mountainsides, and in every place, Hanuman received offerings from the friendly mountain people. Once engaged by the monkey, people chatted, though mostly through hand signals, with Miri and Maitreyi, and everywhere the two travellers asked the farmers, herders, monks, nuns and priests, whoever they could find, where they might find Shambhala and to a person they all laughed and pointed toward the Northern sky.
Finally they reached the village of Khatmandhu. They stayed for several days and asked about Shambhala. Everyone had a different opinion, and Maitreyi poured over the guide book she had liberated from the brahmin, but nothing made sense until they were both seated in an inn, and they overheard one of their fellow travellers mention the Mother Goddess of the Universe.
“Where can I find the Mother Goddess of the Universe?” demanded Maitreyi unceremoniously. The man was taken aback by her zeal, but seeing to such attractive foreigners, he smiled and opened his arms.
“Chomolangma, it is the name of the great mountain to the North.”
The very next day, they headed East, asking everyone for the Mother Goddess of the Universe, and within days, after the road turned North again, a monk pointed at a distant peak. Their first glimpse of The Mother Goddess of The Universe. Now all they needed to do was keep her to their right hand side. Which was not hard for the road led them that way anyway. Still nothing in the guide book seemed to point them toward Shambhala. Miri began to doubt their mission for the land got bleaker and colder the further they traveled.
Their path stretched ever higher and always there was another mountain pass ahead of them. They encountered a hundreds of pilgrims along the way, but no one seemed to be traveling in the same direction or even for the same purpose. The Himalayas swarmed with itinerant people who wandered about randomly seeking enlightenment in every direction including up and down.
They changed direction again after visiting a nunnery perched on a high cliff by a river white as milk. A feeble but very pleasant old woman her sisters said was over a hundred and twenty years old, told them she had once visited Shambhala. She said they must find the Pabong Tang, The Abode of the Dakini and circumambulate three times starting in the East and moving North to West to South. She wrote magic words to recite on a prayer cloth for Miri and Maitreyi.
“You must find a third who is on the same quest as you in order for the magic to be in place.”
“How will I know her?” asked Maitreyi.
“How do you know it’s a ‘her’?” The old woman covered her mouth and giggled.
After they left the nunnery, Maitreyi muttered under her breath.
“I am so sick of riddles!”
The snow lessened for several days and the air during the day, though cool, was not uncomfortable. They were surrounded by spruce, pine, and snow. The midday heat was strong enough to melt snow and the edges of the road became muddy. Suddenly, they heard a commotion ahead and a small group of Tibetans hurried past them, their little laden ponies trotting at such a brisk pace, Maitreyi laughed.
“Oh my!” she cried as she watched them disappear down the trail behind them. Miri took a more sober approach and strung her bow. Something had spooked them.
“Look!” cried Maitreyi pointing to the mountainside on the other side of the valley. A hug cloud rose and they watched the entire field of snow high in the mountains slipped down the side of the valley.
“Great Mother!” cried Miri awestruck.
Trees and boulders as large as houses tumbled into the river below them. The ground shook slightly, the cloud of snow settled and the valley echoed with the disgruntled roar of the dislodged debris. Hanuman chattered nervously from his perch on Beena. Miri glanced above their heads at the mountainside on their side of the valley, and realized they would have no chance to avoid the displeasure of the mountain gods.
Maitreyi looked at her. “Do you think they know something we don’t?” she asked.
“The next shrine we leave a bigger offering,” Miri said.
Around the corner, they encountered a pleasantly smiling, portly bald man of curious countenance resting by the wayside. He smiled as he caught sight of them and chuckled.
“What a wonderful day this has become!” Using a large dragon-headed walking stick as support, he rose to greet them. “My name is Luk-Fok Sau!”
Miri and Maitreyi introduced themselves. “You are traveling light,” remarked Maitreyi. It was true. Was wrapped in a cloak, but other than the small bag hanging from his waist, he carried only the dragon head walking stick.
The old man smiled. “Unfortunately, my porters have abandoned me, and threw my possessions over the precipice as they fled from the creature in the road!”
“Creature?” asked Maitreyi, “What creature?”
Luk-Fok Sau’s smile broadened, “I cannot say! It stood taller than I, shaped like a man and appeared to be covered in red-brown fur.
“A bear?” asked Miri.
Luk-Fok laughed. “I think not, though he was the color of a red panda! This creature walked as a man. Here!” Luk-Fok led them to the side of the road, and pointed with his stick. There in the snow and mud at the edge of the path were the imprints of someone with extremely large feet.
“You see,” he said, “There are five toes! A definite sole and heel. I would say this creature is very much like a man!”
“How is it you did not flee with the others?” asked Maitreyi.
“I am old,” replied Luk-Fok, “and the creature passed between I and the porters! So, you see, my servants had the choice between the giant and home. I had the choice between two unknowns!”
“He did not harm you?” asked Miri.
“I did not sense any danger from him. He sniffed the air for my scent, stared at me for a moment, and continued across the road. He disappeared into the mist. I decided I should sit and wait should my servants return. So far they have not!”
“They didn’t look like they’d be back soon!” declared Maitreyi with a laugh.
“I suppose not! I think they thought my trek to the Palace of Hsi Wang Mu, the Mother Queen of the West.”
“Where is that?” asked Maitreyi.
Luk-Fok sighed. “I am afraid I don’t know. At first I thought she lived in the KunLun Mountains in the North, but she was not to be found! I have a guide book!” He dug into his leather satchel. “You see!” he said, brandishing a wooden covered book.
The writing looked to both Miri and Maitreyi like chicken scratches on paper, but Fuk-Lok’s finger pointed to the page.
“There is a jade mountain, surrounded by a wall of gold. In that land is a jewelled lake, and beside that lake is a tree.”
“A tree?” asked Miri.
“It blossoms every three thousand years. In another three thousand years it bears fruit. And every six thousand years, the Hsi Wang Mu invites the Immortals to a feast beside a magic fountain, and they partake of the peaches, and thus guarantee themselves another six thousand years of life.”
Both Miri and Maitreyi exchanged glances.
“Then I heard a story from a hunter who said the place I sought was Shambhala!”
“Great Mother!” gasped Miri.
“You know where Shambhala is?” asked Maitreyi, unable to contain her excitement.
“He is the third person!” said Miri excitedly. “He is the one we need to complete the circle of the Pabong Tang!”
“Tara be praised!” cried Maitreyi, “Fuk-Lok Sau, we too are traveling to Shambhala! But we are not sure of the way!”
“Nor I,” replied Fuk-En, “I do have an old document I had purchased from my guide, but alas, I am afraid I cannot read the script.” Luk-Fok produced a tattered scroll from his leather bag. “It may help you if you can read it, but I fear I may slow your progress. I am not as fleet of foot as I once was.”
“We shall see what we shall see,” said Miri as she passed the scroll to Maitreyi.
“It is Sanskrit!” said Maitreyi slowly, “But I am not familiar with this particular writing. It is very strange, but I can understand the gist of the text.” She looked up at Miri, “I can tell the subject matter, but not the opinion of the scholar regarding it.”
“No matter,” said Luk-Fok, “We can form our own opinions no doubt!”
“Have you eaten?” asked Miri.
The old man smiled, “Only that which I was carrying.”
Miri squatted beside the man and reached into her pack and retrieved a rice ball and handed to Luk-Fok Sau.
“How is it you came to seek Shambhala?” asked Miri.
Luk-Fok bit into the rice ball. “When I was a small boy, my great grandfather, an old, old man, told me of a mountain made of jade. He said his great grandfather had visited it when he was a young man. And he gave me this¾”
He produced a small jade carving of a monkey.” He smiled. “This monkey came from that jade mountain.”
Maitreyi reached out and took the small carving from the old man. She examined the monkey closely, fascinated by this relic of Shambhala.
“This came from Shambhala?” she handed the carving back to Luk-Fok Sau.
He smiled. “My great grandfather told many tales,” he replied, “And I think he enjoyed the awe and wonder his stories produced in me.”
“Yet you are here.”
Had they not asked, they would have passed by Pabong Tang. The Abode of the The Dakini, Kandro Sangwai Yeshe was actually a very large boulder in a field of boulders between the road and the river. The rock was extremely large and covered with prayers, poles and piles of stone. Reading the prayer the old woman had given them, miri. Maitreyi and Fuk-Lok Sau walked about the circle of magic stones around the Dakini’s Abode. Hanuman, quite excited by the procession ran about in a quite haphazard manner, muttering a mantra of his own.
The proscribed ceremony over, the three travellers stopped and looked at each other.
“So, did you get anything from that?” Maitreyi asked Fuk-Lok.
He smiled benignly, looked from Miri to Maitreyi to Miri, and then to the East.
“No,” he replied finally. “Nothing!”
“Me neither!” said Miri.
“Riddles!” declared Maitreyi disgustedly.
“Does your guidebook say anything about this?” Miri asked Fuk-Lok.
He sat on a boulder and opened his leather case.
“What is that?” asked Maitreyi, pointing at a strange circle divided in half by a curving line, each segment marked with a dot.
“Ah,” said Fuk-Lok, “That is the Ying-yang symbol! It the symbol of the Universe. Symbol of the Earth. Symbol of Life. Do you know the stars?”
Maitreyi shook her head.
There is a series of stars we call the Dipper. Astrologers observe the sky, looking for signs. Long ago, they began recording the Dipper's positions and one man recording the positions also spent his days watching the shadow of the Sun from a pole in the center of a large circle on the ground, and marking each day its shadow in a circle. This is how the ancients determined the four directions. The direction of sunrise is the East; the direction of sunset is the West; the direction of the shortest shadow is the South and the direction of the longest shadow is the North. At night, the direction of the Polaris star is the North.
As the seasons change, and in the spring, the Dipper points to the East. In the summer, the Dipper points to the South. In the Aurumn, the Dipper points to the West, and in winter, the Dipper points to the North. They divided the year's cycle into twenty-four segments, including the Vernal Equinox, Autumnal Equinox, Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice, using the sunrise and Dipper positions.
The shortest shadow is found on the day of Summer Solstice. The longest shadow is found on the day of Winter Solstice. By connecting the lines and colouring The Yin Part from Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice white, the Sun chart looks like this symbol.
The light color area which indicates more sunlight for longer days is called Yang for the Sun. The dark color area has less sunlight and more moonlight is called Yin for the Moon. Yang is like man. Yin is like woman. Yang wouldn't grow without Yin. Yin couldn't give birth without Yang. Yin is born at Summer Solstice and Yang is born at Winter Solstice. Therefore one little circle Yin is marked on the Summer Solstice position. Another little circle Yang is marked on the Winter Solstice position. These two little circles look like two fish eyes.
So for those that know of such things, the Yin Yang symbol is a Chinese representation of the entire celestial world. It contains the cycle of Sun, four seasons, a tweny-four segment Chi, the foundation of the I-Ching and the Chinese calendar.”
He opened his book and Maitreyi examined the Sanskrit cloth. Each would read a passage and look up for some clue or vision that would match the words.
Miri was distracted by Hanuman who climbed a nearby tree and pelted Beena, Bala and Biha with small pine cones. The donkeys had no awareness whatever of the assault from above as Hanuman’s aim was terrible. Most of the pine cones bounced harmlessly off their packs. The day was ending and as usual, the sun set quickly in the mountains.
Then, there, beyond the trees, in the far distance, the setting sun struck a range of distant mountains and Miri knew suddenly where they were.
“Look!” she shouted,” The Wall of Gold! The wall of gold around Shambhala!”
Fuk-Lok and Maitreyi stood up and shielded their eyes. Sure enough, the tips of the entire far mountains shone like gold in the setting sun.
They embraced each other and danced in a happy circle. They had found the edge of Shambhala. Once their initial exuberance dissipated, they set to making camp. They chatted excitedly about the campfire over a wonderful meal of barley and rice. They snuggled into their tiny woolen tent. It was a very tight squeeze with Fuk-Lok inside, but they were warm inside their woolen cocoon. The cold awoke them before dawn. They kindled the fire and made some sweet tea with yak butter and honey, and thus fortified, at dawn, began the long trek toward the mountains to the north east.
As they left the valley and climbed the next ridge, the mountains of the Golden Wall disappeared from view. It was of no matter for the clouds and the snow closed in on them. It was the beginning of an arduous walk.
The snow deepened in the passes and reached further down the mountainsides and their passage became slower and harder, until finally, caught on a high mountain pass in the midst of a raging blizzard, Miri stumbled and fell exhausted into the snow. Dutifully, Bala and Biha stopped beside her and within a heartbeat, Maitryi, Beena and Luk-Fok Sau disappeared into the blowing snow, still forging ahead and oblivious to Miri’s collapse.
She had no sense of how long she had laid in the snow. The cold was intense. She covered her face with the hood of her cloak, and pulled herself into a fetal position. Her body began to shake uncontrollably. At first she tried to stop it, but gave up. She no longer wanted to keep traveling. She no longer wanted to find Shambhala. She just wanted to stop and let herself drift off. She sensed she was about to die in the frozen wastes, and that her entire life had brought her to this place and this time, and that time was over. She thought of the places she had traveled and how many other times she had sensed she was about to die, and in that instant, she was alright with her death. Here, at least, she would be frozen and preserved for all eternity. Her life, her suffering, was over. Whether she died here or in Egypt or Israel, it really didn’t matter, for her life was her life. She had made all the decisions that brought her to this final resting place, and she was content with that.
The contentment was short-lived. She must have lost consciousness, for she was being shaken awake by Maitreyi. It was still snowing for she felt the biting snow granules biting into her face. Miri’s eyes were caked with congealed ice and snow, and she could not open her eyes. She could hear Maitreyi calling her, but she had no ability or desire to respond. Maitreyi shouldered Miri and threw her over Bala’s back. Miri felt the ropes lashed about her and sensed the Bala’s jogging gait. He had an old injury on his right foreleg and every once in a while he slipped on that leg and jerked hard to recover. This she knew. But she cared nothing for all she sensed. The world slipped in and out of her heart, and despite all she had seen and heard, she realized that Death only brought oblivion. There was no afterlife. No gods. No God. Only a beautiful and unending nothingness.
And she embraced it with her soul.
Miri blinked in the morning sun. She opened her eyes. She was in paradise. A small river wound past to a sparkling emerald lake. Her camp was set in a verdant pasture filled with gloriously aromatic plants ringed by a thick dripping green and purple-blue-pink rhododendron jungle. Beyond the trees on all sides craggy mountains stretched to summits lost in clouds far above her head and the air about was misted by waterfalls falling from the rock faces. Beena, Bala and Biha grazed calmly nearby. The sight of the two donkeys jolted Miri into full awareness.
Maitreyi smiled at her.
“Where are we?” asked Miri.
Maitreyi shrugged. “I have no idea!”
“Where is Fuk-Lok Sau?”
“He has gone to see if he can find another way out of this valley.”
“How did we get here?”
“The snow drove us here. We found shelter in a cleft in the mountainside, and inside it was larger than we expected. It was a cave. A crack in the heart of the mountain. The further in we moved, the warmer it became. We passed over a lake of boiling water on a long narrow causeway!”
“Hand made! But I have no idea what hands fashioned it. At the far end of the causeway we passed through a portal with strange brightly coloured inscriptions. And we came to this!” Maitreyi spread her arms wide, encompassing the valley.
Maitreyi laughed. “It does not match my guidebook!”
“Are we still on course?”
Maitreyi shook her head. “The book I followed was a false guide! I don’t think the person who wrote it had been to Shambhala. It was a forgery designed to fleece the brahmin from his precious coin! Besides I lost it.”
“You lost it?” screeched Miri. “When?”
“Just after we left Katmandu.”
Miri was speechless.
“I remember most of it,” said Maitreyi hopefully, “I thought we would be there by now! When Fuk-Lok finds another way out, we will leave!”
Miri said nothing. She did not relish a continued trek to Shambhala without even as much as a guide full of riddles.
“Can’t we go back the way we came?” Asked Miri.
Maitreyi shook her head. “The way is closed.”
“When we left the tunnel, the hole closed behind us.”
“A rock slide?” asked Miri.
Maitreyi smiled thinly. “No, it closed! As an open wound is closed by skin over time. Only there is not even a scar in the rock to mark the way by which we came. The entrance disappeared!”
“That’s impossible!” declared Miri.
“Yet it happened!” replied Maitreyi in exasperation. “That is why Fuk-Lok is searching for another way out! The mountain walls are too difficult for the donkeys, and as sure-footed as they are, they cannot climb straight up. Besides, both animals are suffering from a lung disease. You see the shrub plants that cover the pasture in which we’re camped?”
“Spikenard,” said Maitreyi, “The whole valley floor is covered by it. We should allow them to feed upon it for it will cure their breathing. If we left them here, they could recover their breath and health. We can come back this way from Shambhala and collect them. I think they’ll be safe here.”
“We shall stay the night, then and recover with them,” said Miri who did not relish the thought of climbing again into the cold mountain ranges. So they set camp and boiled a tea from spikenard root and burned juniper branches in the fire for their curative aroma. Miri’s cheeks and hands were chapped from the constant cold and freezing wind of the high mountains.
Hanuman slept like a baby inside the folds of Maitreyi’s coat, and they curled up together and fell asleep by the fire, warm and content with the moment. It seemed to Miri as she fell asleep that they had found paradise, whether it was Shambhala or not.
“There is no Shambhala!” declared Maitreyi flatly.
“Perhaps we have just been following the wrong directions,” suggested Miri.
“Of course the directions are wrong!” replied Maitreyi, “There is no such place! No one has ever been there! No one ever will! The only place it exists is in our dreams!”
“Yet we are here,” said Miri, “Surely we could not have come this far unless we were to find Shambhala?”
“We are chasing dreams and illusions!” snapped Maitreyi. “Do you not see that?” We stopped at an Abode that is not an abode. We raced for a Wall of Gold that is not gold! We came through an entrance that is not an entrance. And now¾”
“Now, we are trapped in a valley that is not Shambhala!”
“We have come too far to turn back!” argued Miri, but she realized she had no heart for continuing. She longed for home.
“You and I have lived lives far beyond that into which we were borne already,” said Maitreyi quietly. “Others have died with far less road beneath their feet than we two!”