Johannan continued to wade through the muddied banks upstream until the waters became calmer. He felt the heat of exhaustion and the warm sensation of moisture trickling down his forehead when he stood still to examine a smoke-flavoured scent in the air. He pointed his nose to the sky, filling his lungs. The scented air carried the aroma of roasted fish and vegetables.
He used the flat of his right hand to shade his eyes from the sun’s intruding glare, trying to focus further on ahead. After exploring for some time, he saw a small boat and a cheerful man, who was nodding his head as he whistled an upbeat melody. The man was stooping down on the riverbanks. He was wearing traditional Tibetan clothing in the form of a male gown. He held both corners of the garment and continually fluttered it like a bird flapping its wings in the direction of the flames. Grey wafts of scented smoke escaped into the atmosphere and dispersed over the river. Johannan moved briskly towards him.
The man turned his head to face Johannan with an ear-to-ear smile.
“Whoa—a traveller!” The man leapt up to his feet, wiping his hands on his clothes. “You’re far out into the nothingness.” At first glance, he could see the dryness around Johannan’s mouth. “You look hungry, my friend. I’m surprised the wild dogs aren’t stalking you for your bones.”
He grabbed one of the skewers with roasted fish. “Here, take this. I just caught them, so they’re fresh, and there’s more than enough for the two of us.”
Johannan reached out and accepted; the fish looked crispy and succulent. “Thanks to you, that is most kind of you, sir.”
The fisherman swatted the air with his hand. “Come now, don’t mention it, my friend. You are hungry, and all this fish here will go to waste if someone doesn’t eat them.”
Johannan smiled. The man beckoned him to come over and stoop down next to him. Johannan fixed his eyes on the small boat; that was what he needed to get to the other side. The man passed him a helping of his fish, serving it on a wide leaf. Johannan took several bites into its crispy texture, nodding his head with a full mouth to hint that it tasted good. The man squinted and beamed with pride.
Johannan pointed at the fish in his hand, “This fish tastes really good.”
“Thanks, glad you like it. It’s my wife’s secret recipe.” He turned away for a brief moment and mumbled, “Passed down to her from her miserable mother. I was lucky to be able to find most of the ingredients here.”
“Your wife must be a brilliant cook,” Johannan said, pretending not to hear the words “miserable mother.”
“Well, she learned from her mother.” The man shook his head, gazing into the river. “God, I can’t stand that woman,” he continued in a tone above a whisper.
Johannan gawked at the man. “You hate your wife!”
The man chuckled, “Oh no, not her—my mother-in-law! She’s so . . . ah, forget it.” He handed Johannan some roasted vegetables. “Those unruly children, I can’t say anything to them when she’s around. The only time I find peace is when—well, when I’m here, miles away from them all. I keep telling her to take those brats and get out of my house!”
Johannan could see that the man’s mood had changed as soon as he mentioned his home and family. He remembered Mama Jala as soon as the man mentioned his mother-in-law. Mama Jala was a good cook too, but she was really bossy and complained for a long time when you didn’t do what she wanted. Anything Johannan did to upset Ayushi when they were younger would trigger trouble— Mama would pick up her rolling pin and chase him around the village.
“So, you have a girl?” asked the man.
“Yes, she’s at home now . . . in Nepal.”
The man gawked at Johannan. “In Nepal? Goodness, that’s worlds from here. Worlds, my friend. She must be giving you hell to drive you all the way into mainland China without eating. You’re so young too. Shame on her.” He inhaled deeply, shaking his head and tutting, “What a pity! What a pity!”
Johannan laughed; it had been a while since something made him happy. “No, it’s nothing like that, sir. She’s blind, and I’m searching for a cure.”
“A cure in China?” The man’s eyes fully sprung open. “Are you serious? There is no tea in China that can cure blindness, my young friend, you’d better be on your way . . . back home, that is.”
He glanced at the sky and sniggered, then slapped his forehead. “Travellers, only travellers—they seem to be getting younger.”
He released a loud wheezy laugh at Johannan’s expense, “Oh, the gods are generous to show me such a kindness, they must be taking pity on me.”
Johannan felt like an idiot—there was no way he was going to let the man think this of him.
“No, no, not a tea medicine, but a Great Spirit that grants wishes. They say he lives in the deserts north of here.”
“Well, aren’t you full of surprises. A Great Spirit in the north of China, who would have thought.”
The man sat still for a while, then he turned to Johannan and stared at him as if he had suddenly sprouted wings. “Hold on—just a minute, my little friend,” he said, leaning back and wagging his finger. “You are not going off that silly old folk song about the nomads in the desert that were cured by a Great Spirit, are you? It’s just a song, you know.” He laughed, wheezed, and coughed. “Travellers—rich people pay a lot to hear things like this.”
“Tell me about this song.”
The man waved his hands, “Fine, fine, but I’m not singing it. Almost everyone in China knows it. It’s about an old man and his entire family. They were a group of sickly nomads in the Mongolian desert. One day, they met a great wandering spirit who cured them. That’s it.” He stretched to yawn. “Those people were meant to have moved from the desert way of life to settle in the mountains of Altun Shan. It’s all rubbish, though, nothing but bandits up there, my young friend. I think you came out here for nothing.”
The man noticed that Johannan was staring at his boat. “So, you want to use the boat, my friend?”
Johannan grinned, scratching the back of his head. “I need to get to the other side of the river.”
“That’s not a problem, I’ll take you there as soon as we finish eating.”
“Thanks to you, I’m most fortunate to meet someone like yourself on my journey.”
“Don’t mention it, I’m only too happy to help. I’m just grateful for the company, to be honest. I’ve been fishing for hours; just having running waters for company can get boring after a long time.”
They finished eating the fish, and the man took Johannan to the other side of the river.
“Thanks to you once more, perhaps we’ll meet again,” Johannan said, standing on the sides of the bank.
“Perhaps we will.” The man was about to turn around but sprang back as if he had forgotten something. “You know, I’ve been thinking: if you meet that Great Spirit—not that I believe in such things or anything—get him to come to my house and rid me of that howling beast.”
Johannan gawked at him, “Your wife?”
“I know, I know, your mother-in-law. I was just teasing,” said Johannan, stretching his arms out to pat the air below his waist.
“Ah, so you’re a bit of a jester on a full stomach!” grinned the fisherman.
Johannan laughed, “It hurts to laugh on an empty one.” An expression of contemplation covered his face, and he held onto his jaw. “Say, have you ever tried just talking to . . .” He thought about what he was going to say. He imagined the man’s response would be something like, I’ve tried that and shouted too. Johannan shook his head, “Never mind—I’ll see you again, perhaps. Who knows, maybe you will be a lot happier next time.”
“Who knows, my friend, I could go back and she’s taken those children and left, or . . .” The man shivered with guilt, “No I shouldn’t say what I was about to say.”
Johannan covered his face to hide a chuckle while the man kept talking. “I had an idea once. I wanted to find someone to come and take her away, but I can’t find anyone I hate that much, not even a bandit. Would you believe?”
The man released a sigh from his stomach. “But we can dream, aye? We—can—dream.” He nodded as a form of goodbye and started to row the boat.