Wang mo sat on the pouffee as she dozed. She swayed dangerously, about to be unseated from her warm spot, when she jolted awake from her slumber. Her mother had started spitting again. This time it was a pregnant woman. “Thu thu thu thu thu thu thu thu…,” her ama la went on, cupping the woman’s face in the palm of her hands and spraying it with spit.
This was Wang mo’s favourite part. She would get up each morning, drag herself from the bed in the excruciating cold, much before her father, much before Akaru even stirred from his usual spot under her bed, only to witness this spectacle. She wouldn’t miss it for her neighbour Deki’s finest douru, because for some reason it made her laugh.
Though she was not allowed to do that in front of the village folk. “Healing is noble work Wang mo, we cannot disrespect it,” the reprimand sounded over and over in her mind as she tried to hold in her snigger. She was also not allowed to administer this ‘healing’ to her brother, Tse phun. Ama la worked the woman’s back and moved on to her hands. “Thu thu thu thu thu thu…,” the rhythm lulled her to sleep again. Akaru trotted in and sat close to her, drawing heat from the many threadbare furs she wore.
“Go on, go along, the two of you! Go outside and play. I am almost done here,” said her ama la, all business like, gathering up her supplies and dusting the ornate cushion on which she had sat. The little room had very few items to dust, so ama la was done in a minute. Akaru intimately nuzzled his cold nose between Wang mo’s feet to rouse her. Grudgingly she got up.
Outside her father sat casually on a pile of barley husk; a rolled cigarette smoldered between his fingers. Wang mo fell in the hay and Akaru, taking this as an invitation, ran around them playfully, scattering hay everywhere. “Pah la, are you going to the field today?” she asked.
Jian zhang did not answer immediately. He sat pondering at his daughter’s question. The fields. The produce. Things to do. But there was nothing in the fields anymore. The drought had made sure of that. And the sun was spectacular today. It gave him much needed respite from the cold that ached his bones. “A traveler is coming today. He wants to go to the mountains. He asked me to take him,” he replied, staring into space and also patting his daughter absent mindedly.
Wang mo’s eyes became rounded with awe and also with fear. “A man? A China-man? Can I see him? Can I come with you? But pah la, what if the yeti comes? It will get you and the china-man. It lives in a cave in the mountains and eats bones and wears skin. Tsultrim told me it has red eyes, as red as burning coal, and teeth as long as the sickle ama la uses for hay,” she shuddered.
Jian zhang laughed. “Not every traveler is a china man Wang mo. And the yeti won’t get me. The yeti only gets kids who don’t bathe and don’t clean their nose. Look at my nose. Can you see any dirt in it?” He pulled up his nose with his fingers and lowered his head into Wang mo’s face.
“I can make a better face than that!” she retorted, now competitive, and suddenly forgetting everything about the yeti. They sat there, in the winter sun, father and daughter, pulling faces at each other, one trying to be more grotesque than the other.
A man walked towards where they sat. He was white and pink and had golden hair unlike what Wang mo had ever seen before. He waved at them, and pah la got up, dusting his trousers, trying to make them less shabby.
The man walked fast, or was it just that his stride was bigger than Dawa, who jogged behind him, trying to keep up. Dawa had brought along his son, Tsultrim, who went to school with Wang mo. Seeing her pal, she ran to him, wondering what he was doing there. ‘Don’t people go to the fields anymore?’ she thought.
The newcomer spoke in a strange tongue only Dawa understood. The three of them stood together for a long time, speaking in turns. First the new man, then Dawa and then pah la.
Together Tsultrim and Wang mo went to see her brother. He must be done with his morning session by now, she thought. Tse phun, had taken up Buddhist spiritual practices for over two years now. He was still the youngest apprentice at the monastery, but he was a good apprentice.
Everyone at the monastery was sent home at the time of harvest to help their families out. This year however, there was no harvest. He was home nonetheless. Wang mo didn’t miss a day of being with her elder brother. He doted on her and she loved the attention. Tse phun sat on a mat, his feet folded under him, eyes closed in concentration, when his sister entered. “Up already trouble maker? What’s on your list today?” he joked.
“Pah la is going to the mountains, I’ll smuggle myself up there somehow. Have you been up there?”
“I went once with the monks to meditate. We had the best sour berries you could ever taste. They were juicy and tangy. Did you practice your meditation from yesterday?”
Her face fell. “Oh but I couldn’t!” she stomped her feet. “I tried but my feet hurt and Akaru kept licking me. I won’t do it anymore Jho la,” she folded her little arms with defiance and glowered at her brother.
He couldn’t help but smile. Wang mo was never easy. The village school could not tame her. Her teachers could not train her. She refused anyone or anything that put a stopper to her spirit. She might be the village prankster but Tse phun was too smart for his own good. He knew that the trick was to trick her.
“Hmm, I should’ve known a girl would not have the patience. Especially a little girl.”
The effect was immediate. She scowled so intensely, the wrinkles in her eyebrows threatened to engulf her eyes, which were now slits. Her demeanor, so forced, seemed to hurt her. She jumped on to the mat and assumed a meditation posture as best she could. Eyes shut tight, “I’ll show you”, was all she said.
Tse phun, eased her still wrinkled eyebrows and unfastened her fists. “Breathe. No raced breaths. Easy,” he instructed. It was so rewarding to manipulate her, he almost smiled. He taught her about ‘Wang’, the energy monks often stored within, to be released at will. “It’s were you get your name from,” he explained. After a few hours, she was snoring, her head bent to her chest. Tse phun, picked her up gently and put her to bed.
That night, a disagreement erupted at dinner. Disagreements were hard to come by at their household, with everyone much too occupied with their own engagements. But with the failed harvest, things had taken a turn for the worse. There was no barley to be husked, no money to be earned, no beer to be brewed, and pah la had to look for other distractions.
“Where is that glacier? It sounds farther than the little mountain,” ama la asked, concerned. The little mountain was anything but little. It was however, dwarfed by its majestic brother mountains that surrounded it, hence the name. It was not often frequented by the village folk, but sometimes people would scale it for rare meats and teenagers, to win bets. No one had ever gone farther than the little mountain.
“We will camp at the foot of it tomorrow evening, and the next day, will be a short trek, halfway to the top. You know I would never ask to bring Wang mo along if there was any other way out,” pah la explained. He seemed older by the minute. He was exhausted by this conversation and wanted to go and plan for his trip.
“Absolutely not! I must go to visit my sister. She is awfully sick. Can you not go a day later? You know Wang mo does not have travel papers, otherwise I would have taken her. Tse phun has to go back as well. The Panchen Lama’s visit is looming and he will be needed for the preparations.”
“The English man has to leave in two days. We need to finish this. He promised me good money in return. If we do not show good hospitality to them, they will stop coming back. This is the only other income we have right now.”
Ama la was not convinced. “How are you planning to take a ten year old halfway up the little mountain? On your back?” she asked, infuriated.
“That’s exactly what I am going to do. She will not have to put a foot in the snow. You know the base is just on your way back. You can take her from me then. She won’t have to trek with us. Don’t you think I have the best interests of our only daughter on my mind?” he shook his head.
After many heated exchanges, it was decided that Wang mo would indeed accompany her father to the base of the little mountain and her mother would bring her back home, before he started up the mountain. That night Wang mo hardly slept at all.
Her father carried her easily, but the strain of being bobbed up and down constantly, was too much for her. She kept trying to focus on moving objects which got her nauseated. Two vomiting episodes later, her father put her down and encouraged her to walk. This lifted her spirits considerably.
She finally had the opportunity to study their foreign companion. “Roj-jah, Roj-jah!” she tried to pronounce his name. It was tough. Every time she tried, he would pat her back. Elated, she would try again, only to receive yet another pat on the back. The journey was challenging, even without having to cross valleys, they were now on one of the least travelled trails.
They often had to cut down branches that blocked their path, branches laden heavily with snow. After hours of travelling came a welcome relief in the form of lunch, which was a serving of dumplings they had brought with them, and some fish they had freshly caught.
They did not dare touch some of the greens that grew in the forest. Inviting though they looked, no one knew what could be poisonous. As they neared the foot of the mountain, the temperature dropped considerably and they were met with several small spells of snow.
They camped next to their trail, so that they could start where they had left, next morning. Dawa helped Jian zhang put up a tent, and a red flag on a long pole, “So that ama la finds us,” he explained to Wang mo. “She knows the way?” she asked, incredulous. “She knows the way. All mountain folk know the way. You will too, once you grow up,” he assured her.
They made a fire and skewered the fish they had caught earlier. Everyone ate in silence, except Wang mo, who wanted to hear scary stories. Jian zhang expressly denied her request, but did break out into song later, which both Dawa and Wang mo clapped to. The English man took pictures with his camera.
Wang mo woke up suddenly. Was it the bitter cold that had woken her? Or was it the way the wind howled against their tent, threatening to rip it to pieces? She was vaguely aware of a snow storm that had just passed. It had been violent and very noisy and she had been stirring uncomfortably in her bed.
She realized she had woken up because she had felt the need to pee. “Pah la, pah la get up! I want to go out.” But pah la did not get up. Pah la was sound asleep. Wang mo, gathering up her furs stepped out. She was still groggy which made walking difficult. But the need to pee kept her going.
After she was done with her business, she made her way back to the tent, except, there was no tent. She could not see it. She tried to open her eyes and gape around. The ground was covered in a sheet of white. Trees surrounded her, tall trees that might have been hauntingly beautiful by day, but seemed terrifying now.
She stood there all alone, in the unfriendly night. The dark was deep, like an abyss, and the stark white seemed other worldly. She was wide awake by then. Her father had said that all mountain folk knew the way. But she did not know the way. “You are too young, too stupid!” she cursed herself. She tried to remember the way back, but couldn’t.
She had been too fast asleep when she had walked into this clearing in the forest. She walked further and got more lost. In desperation she screamed out for her father. But she knew it was futile. If he had not heard her in the tent, it was impossible for him to hear her squeaky voice now. The cold from the ground crept up her legs, freezing her feet through her boots.
In a moment of strength she decided to spend the night there. “Pah la will just have to come find me when he gets up,” she said to herself. She took off one of her furs and laid it on the ground. Just when she was going to lie down, it stated snowing. It was a blizzard like no other. Blinding her, numbing her senses.
In moments her shoes were covered with snow and her face was wet. She was panicking now. She backed into one of the oldest, most gnarled tree and rested her back against its trunk. It was then that she heard it. A low rumble, so sinister, it seemed to reverberate around the clearing. She squinted her eyes and saw something in the distance.
“It cannot be!” she squealed a terrified squeal and backed up further only to fall over a knotted root of the old tree. The roots had made a small cavern on the forest floor. She scurried inside it in a hurry and chafed both her knees and palms. “Oh dear God, not the yeti. It’s going to eat me. Yeti’s eat kids, especially kids with dirty noses.”
She dug out her nose relentlessly, making it bloody, but was not satisfied. Tears lined her face and the cold made her teeth chatter. She was delirious by now. She sat there, in silence, chiding herself for her labored breathing. She heard heavy footfalls approaching the tree where she had taken refuge. She heard the yeti bend down and smell the entrance of the cavern, its raspy breath coming in slow but forceful drafts that made her hair fly.
Suddenly the roots were being torn apart. The roots made a deafening cracking noise at being ripped from the ground. The entrance seemed to become wider, letting in the frigid night air. Wang mo backed up further, but there wasn’t much room left. A hand the size of a small elephant emerged from the opening and started groping around the cavern, only just missing her.
She was screaming at the top of her lungs and the hand groped with more urgency. The talons, mere inches from her face were sharp and black. But no matter how hard it tried, it could not reach her. The hand backed away, out of her haven. She stopped crying. Surely the yeti had not given up so easily. She stopped screaming.
She knew she was going to die there. All alone. She did not want to die. She wanted to be with her mother and play with Akaru one more time. She missed riding on her father’s back and most of all she missed her brother. He was always kind to her, so funny and patient and loving. He had tried so hard to teach her to meditate. ‘It gives you strength when you most need it.’
Well, she needed it now. She was going to die, but she did not want to give up just yet. She wanted the ‘Wang’ he had so passionately talked about. She closed her eyes and took a deep calming breath. She gathered all her strength and searched for her inner peace. She was in a meadow. The sun shone bright and the summer breeze was in her hair. It was peaceful.
She sat like that for a long time. Her fear tried to bring her back from her happy place. She became mildly aware of the ripping of roots that had begun again. But she held on. In her last moments, she wanted to think of her brother and it gave her strength. Someone had entered the cavern and was moving towards where she sat. She opened her eyes; the last thing she saw were a pair of ember eyes full of malice before submitting herself to oblivion.
“Wang mo…Wang mo…” The calls came from different people, faint at first and then loud, more panicked. “Thak.. thak…thak” they banged the ground with bamboos. Wang mo crawled out from the cavern. The yeti was gone. It was morning and her father was looking for her.
“Pah la…” her voice broke. “Pah la…Pah la” she shouted with all her might. She ran into the arms of pah la and sobbed. “The yeti.. we must leave! Oh pah la!”
“Calm down Wang mo. What happened? Are you all right?” concern lined his face. She explain everything to him in between sobs. “Don’t cry little Wang mo. There’s no yeti here. We are here for you,” he consoled her. She took some time to calm down. “Let’s go,” she finally said.
It would be a while before she would joke about that incident and a long long while before she would realize that it was only her resolve that had saved her from her own demons.