The man on the cloud stood still long enough for Johannan to admire his glorious appearance. His sparkling white hair swayed with the upper winds; every time he blinked, a split second of dimness blanketed the night sky like an eclipse. His robes displayed mottled shades of blue-violet that glinted like the sun on an evening tide. Johannan wondered what he was thinking; he knew that the man had heard him.
“I am most pleased with you, persistent Son of Nepal. You have overcome the challenging trials of the Ambassadors, and you did so because of your strong love for your betrothed.” A resounding and clear voice echoed down the mountain terrain. Johannan needed to hear what he had to say, but between the earthquake and the Great Spirit’s tone, he didn’t know which he preferred.
“The trials that were set before you can only be overcome with love, and it is with love that you have found me. Many others before you have attempted to seek me out and have failed not long after they started, but your love, Johannan, has brought you here before me.”
There were others? Johannan could see why they had given up; he had entertained the idea of turning back himself. The Great Spirit was right: if it wasn’t for the love he felt for Ayushi, he would have not even entered this barren place to begin with.
The Great Spirit continued, “Today, I will give you the power to restore your beloved Ayushi’s sight, but first you will travel the land and complete the tasks I have for you. I will be your guide and your defender.”
Then his eyes became brighter and his voice denser. “Call out to me in times of trouble, and I will slay all your enemies and punish those that stand in your way.”
The man stared into his clenched fist with a frightening countenance. “I declare it, that not even the sea will flow against you, Johannan of Nepal! Go where I tell you to go and do not falter, and you will remain with the power to restore Ayushi’s sight.”
It was a surprise to Johannan that he mentioned Ayushi’s name, but he was delighted to know that she was going to be able to see, especially for their wedding. He brought his hands to a clasp. “Oh, thanks to you, I am very happy, Great Spirit.”
But what is it that the Great Spirit wants me to do, that he cannot do himself? Johannan didn’t feel comfortable with the idea, but he would do anything for Ayushi. The Great Spirit seized the silence to further introduce himself.
“I am the Eternal Soburin, the be all and the end all, the Asian Manifest. I have seen the beginning and the end. I heard the first cry of the earth the day it was birthed into your reality from the realm of spirits. I have seen death pleading for life and vast oceans of the world almost drowned in the power of the Muhandae.
I was there when the garment of the sky was stitched together. When the land was formed with fire and cooled, so that all beasts may walk upon it.
I was there when the first creature stumbled as it took its first steps on the land, and the moon watched in wonder. When the stars gathered around the earth. When the grounds pleaded from thirst, and the first cloud was formed to comfort the lands.
I was there when all the names of mankind had been written, and the earth was charged to nourish man and beast alike.
I was there, when the first mountain goat ran to the peaks to greet the eagle as it soared past. When the first whale was taught to swim, before rust sought the comfort of iron, and when the last number was hidden—I was there.”
Johannan, in a deep trance of reflection, suddenly came to a halt after days of wandering through the desert.
Why is the ground rumbling? He inspected the area but didn’t see anything that resembled a stampede of animals or a landslide of some sort.
He caught his breath. “An earthquake! That old man on the camel never said anything about earthquakes out here!”
There was nowhere to run, and he was trapped like a hunted animal, with no escape. Johannan felt the earth shudder as the hands of nature panned the Gobi of its golden pyramids. The vast structures of sandy hills were humbled to lie as low as the valleys they once towered over. Johannan screamed at the top of his lungs, his feet paddling against the loosened sand. His voice snapped like a high-tension wire, leaving him hoarse. He fell down so many times that he decided to stay on the ground, but that felt even worse. He had been through storms and disasters many times before, but he hadn’t realised how much comfort it brought to hear other people screaming. A comfort he now understood he had taken for granted.
The tremor released its firm clutch on the land. Johannan’s body was weakened from fear. He was still trying to catch his breath—the idea of having nowhere to run in such a situation made him wonder if he should have taken the old traveller’s advice.
“Johannan,” ebbed a voice. Johannan scanned around his surroundings, the sky was still vacant apart from the invading glare of the sun.
The long, jagged edges of the desert that touched the sky had now become a long, straight line that surrounded Johannan. It was almost as if the land was stripped of all its garments, and he was standing on a colossal plate of sand.
“What do you want, Son of Nepal? Why not consider turning back and leave me be?”
It was the voice he longed to hear. The fear that weakened his body departed, his heart fluttered. Johannan was disorientated. The words—I’ve lost the words again. What was I going to say? Quickly, Johannan, think!
He attempted to get up, but a lingering dizziness forcefully held him to the ground.
“I—I have a request for you, Great Spirit.”
“A request?” bellowed the Great Spirit. The dense chilled presence of the spirit began to thin. Johannan could sense what it meant. He slapped his forehead, “No—No. Please don’t do this! Don’t do this again—the least you could do is listen to me!” Johannan was exhausted. The spirit was very stubborn and unwilling.
How can I get him to see my plight. What will it take?
Any normal man in his right mind would have given up by now, but not Johannan. So far, the Great Spirit had appeared in a sandstorm and an earthquake. Johannan did not like either of them, but the earthquake was far more terrifying.
Johannan felt that it might be a difficult task trying to get the Great Spirit to listen to him, judging from the ridicule in his last response. He trod through the sand for days and halted as soon as he noticed the long, straight line of the horizon dancing. He gasped, “Another sandstorm—could it be the Great Spirit again?”
Johannan didn’t panic like he did before, and his heart didn’t race; he knew what he must do. He most definitely preferred a sandstorm to an earthquake.
But what am I going to say this time? Perhaps I should just come right out with the question as I never get a chance to make it known.
He tucked his head down by his knees and wrapped himself in his long cloak. The clouds of brown engulfed him. He couldn’t see past the pitch dark of the storm from under the covering of his cloak. He felt a breath of cooling breeze circulating him.
“Speak, Johannan!” The Great Spirit returned, but this was not what Johannan had expected him to say.
“M—My fiancé is blind, and I heard that you can help restore her sight. Can you do this, Great Spirit?” he said, trying to speak as clearly as he could through the wailing gale.
“Come, Johannan, find me up the mountain.” When the Great Spirit had finished speaking, his chilling presence vanished. Johannan felt the heat of the desert invading, increasing like a fanned flame.
‘What does the Great Spirit mean by “the mountain”?
He was confused—he hadn’t see any mountains nearby before the storm. As a matter of fact, it had been weeks now since he had seen anything that even resembled a mountain, especially since the earthquake.
The sandstorm disintegrated at a steady pace. The azure skies and the blazing scowl of the desert sun returned after a few hours. When the flying sand had settled, and the desert became a little more visible, he noticed, to his astonishment, a colossal mountain less than half a day’s walk ahead of him.
Pressing onward, harder, Johannan was adamant he would find the Great Spirit, wherever he might be. He gazed far into the stretches of gold. The still, jagged outline of the boundless horizon began to dance. It seemed like the land was rising into the sky. Sandstorm!
He panicked, but plunged the balls of his feet into the sand; he was ready. There was nowhere to run or hide, just hopeless stretches of endless desert dirt. The whirling dusts of gold clambered to the heavens to cover the face of the sun, patches of thick sands turned the light to darkness, simulating a nightfall over the terrain. Johannan remembered the old man’s advice. He had to surrender to the swelling, golden clouds to proceed.
He tucked his head down by his knees and covered himself with his cloak, and the spiralling brown clouds enveloped him not long after. The whistling Gobi winds blew around him, and he struggled to keep his fluttering cloak on the ground. It was like nothing he had ever been through before. Suddenly, the whistles of the gale were blotted out. There was an eerie silence.
“Johannan.” The voice faded into the heavens—Johannan hastily searched around, groping the air as he was shrouded within a wall of darkness. Is my mind playing tricks on me? He was certain that he had heard someone call his name. But no one knew who he was out here, not even the old man on the camel. I must have been hearing things.
The voice returned to call him in its ghostly tone, “Johannan, Son of Nepal, why do you bother me? Seeking me out against all counsel?”
Johannan trembled; this voice knew him by name. He knew who he was and where he had come from. This had to be the Great Spirit. He probed the barren land for him, risking his life. He never prepared himself for what he would say or do if he actually had an audience with him. His doubts were beginning to surface. Perhaps deep down he never thought he’d find him.
“Johannan, Son of Nepal, why do you bother me? Seeking me out against all counsel?”
The question asked a second time gave Johannan no time to think about an answer. He was short of words.
“I am here—”
He clenched his fist and pounded the ground. That’s not what I wanted to say. But what do I say? He just came out of nowhere. I must come up with something before he departs, or else it would all be for nothing.
“Is—is that you, Great Spirit?”
There was a cooling presence in the atmosphere. Johannan felt a tightness on his skin, giving rise to thousands of goose bumps. He knew he was still near, but the voice didn’t respond to his question. “I’m in urgent need of your help.” Johannan clenched a handful of dirt, tightening his grip as the sand slid through his fingers. He was not happy with himself; he believed he could have expressed himself much better. “I’m in urgent need of your help.” Why did I say that? So long, I’ve been out here, and that was the best I could come up with?
The sands began to hiss, “Leave me!”
Johannan stretched his hands out in the darkness as if to hold on to something. “No, please don’t go! I—I need you.” He held his head down in distress. “She needs you.”
The noise of the whistling winds returned, and the shivery presence of the spirit had departed. Johannan was very disappointed with himself. He could have responded quicker, for a start. He let the spirit get away—he was so close to making his request known. Against all the advice he was given, he found out that the Great Spirit actually existed. This was something to be happy about. He decided to search for him again, but this time he would waste no time making his request known. He was not going to let down himself or Ayushi.
He smiled, “I can’t believe I’ve met him—wait till Nanda hears about this.” Nanda loved stories of the supernatural. Johannan thought about home: Mama Jala was probably waiting at the village gates for his return, ready to ambush him as soon as his shadow reached the entrance. “She can’t do that now. Not when I return with the cure for Ayushi’s blindness. She’ll be happy that I left to begin with.”
He continued his search for a few more days, only to collapse again from total exhaustion. Time went by, and he was still out in the sun when he heard the sounds of rattling tins and the grunting of that miserable old camel nearby.
The old traveller was passing by again. He saw Johannan in the distance, and being already acquainted he wasted no time. He nudged his camel to increase its speed towards him. The old man quickly went through the motion of pouring water into one of his pots and splashed it over Johannan.
Johannan groaned, and the man laughed in relief. “That’s right. Get up, boy!”
The camel grunted. Johannan knew who it was, but what was he doing back out here? Nonetheless, Johannan was happy to see him again.
“You’re making a bad habit of this collapsing-thing, aren’t you, whelp. You know, I’ve tried to tell you this earlier, but this place isn’t a place for young, inexperienced pups like you. Come back with me, and I’ll take you to a good village,” suggested the old, croaky voice. Johannan was only too happy to see him again, even though he had no intention of following him back.
This old man seems to have an endless supply of cool water. Where is he getting it from? And, how is he coming out this far with nearly all his water skins filled?
Johannan wasn’t about to tell him what happened, especially after the man’s last response. Not even a hint, in case the man dragged it out of him again.
“I—I can’t go back,” Johannan said as he got up on his feet. The old man responded with an expression on his face as though Johannan was crazy.
“You know, the next time you decide to take one of your midday desert naps, I may not be here to pour water over your hot head, pup. Now, let’s get back. I’ve got some camel cheese—you can have some if you want.”
“No! I can’t, I must move on. You wouldn’t understand.”
The old man swatted the air. “Suit yourself, whelp, you’re only going to catch your death out here in a place like this.” The man reached to his side. “Here take this with you,” he said as he chucked two full water skins at Johannan. They pounded against his chest as he caught them. “Make them last, whelp. They don’t grow on trees out here, you know.”
The man began to depart, leaving Johannan. Johannan thanked him and continued to trudge along the sandy dunes. He was empowered with a surge of enthusiasm by the vision that his beloved Ayushi would be able see his face when he lifted her veil on their wedding day.
Hours had passed, and Johannan was still knocked out, his roll down the sand dune had completely wrapped him in his cloak. The clattering noise of many empty tin pans knocking against each other intermingled with the complaining grunts of a camel. An old traveller had spotted him as he was trotting by. He watched Johannan lying on the ground motionless. The traveller rubbed the sweat from his face and shook his head. “Another one out here about to die.”
He reached to the side of his groaning camel to grab one of the pots and filled it up with water from one of his water skins. He prodded his camel to move a bit closer to Johannan and poured the water all over Johannan’s head and the rest of his body. Water vapour escaped into the atmosphere as the liquid touched the ground.
Johannan head started to move, almost burrowing face down in the sand. There was a few silent mumbles spitting of sand followed by a loud, excited voice as he recognised he wasn’t dreaming at all, “Water! It’s c-cold!”
The sudden feel of water all over his head and body had cooled him down from the heat that sapped his strength. His energy began to climb up his body. It was like a heavy animal sitting on his back and slowly easing itself off. He got up and rubbed himself all over as the old man generously showered him with more water. The stranger found it humorous as he watched Johannan rubbing himself down like he was trying to extinguish a fire.
“Here, drink!” the old croaky voice said, chucking a large water skin towards him. Johannan caught the skin and gulped its water down in no time, wringing it for that last stubborn drop.
“It’s obvious that you’re thirsty, whelp! Here, have another!” The man chucked another water skin at him. “What is a young pup like you doing out here in the Gobi desert without water?” Johannan was about to answer, but the man interrupted, “Are you trying to catch your death, son?”
Johannan pondered, This man is very abrupt and quick to tell someone off. Perhaps it wasn’t the best of ideas to say exactly what he was looking for. He could only imagine being ridiculed for investigating the whereabouts of this stubborn spirit. His thoughts drifted onto the fisherman he met earlier by the Yarlung Tsangpo River. He was kind, but his response had been bad enough.
“I’m searching for someone.”
The man paused as though he had heard the strangest noise he’d ever witnessed. “You are searching for someone—out here?” He stared up into the sky. “Young man, you can’t, you just can’t be serious. Are you all right?”
“Well, I blacked out until you came along and poured water over me. Thanks to you.”
“Oh, you misunderstand me, whelp. I meant that there is nobody out here apart from me and you. If it is not me you’re looking for, then you should turn around and go home.”
Go home. That’s the second person to tell him that. I’m glad I didn’t mention that I’m out here in the torrid plains risking my life to seek out the Great Spirit. The way the old man’s expression changed as soon as Johannan said he was looking for someone was an obvious sign that it wasn’t going to go down too well with him.
“I’m curious to know who this person might be you are searching for.”
Johannan sighed, “Never mind, you wouldn’t understand—no one has so far.”
“Go on, tell me,” the traveller sing-songed. “You’re crazy enough to come this far without enough water; why can’t you be just as crazy to tell me who this person might be? Perhaps I’ve seen something that may be of some help.”
“I doubt that very much.”
“Go on boy, tell me. What have you got to lose? I gave you the water and saved your life, didn’t I?”
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.
Nights of shivering from the cold and days of walking had gone by, and all he could see was the endless forest greenery yielding no signs of him getting any closer. The rich landscape filled with collections of pistachio and jade greens almost seemed to discourage him. He knew he was the only living thing to cross the lonesome wilderness for months. The sounds of his long cloak trailing behind him and flapping in the winds were the only sounds that broke the lifeless silence of the open. Johannan knew he still had far to go, and he hadn’t even reached the tall grassy plains of Tibet yet. He could vaguely see the muddy foothills that led to the plains, and time was closing in on him.
He wasn’t going to let anything get in his way. The clouds gathered over the empty ether, and it began to drizzle lightly. Hundreds of tiny crystal-clear droplets settled on his face, and he squinted his eyes to protect his blurred vision. He was getting wet and cold, but he couldn’t rest, nor was he interested in finding shelter. His heart continued to speak to him, driving him to go out further. His lips were chapped from not eating or drinking, and his frame ached all over.
Johannan’s ardent desire hid all the pain and the discomfort. He continued his travels for weeks, feeding on fruits and roots to fill the recurring hole in his stomach. Ayushi was on his mind. He could see her clearly in the sky when it rained against him. He could hear her in the wilderness where he was all alone. She was there beside him in his heart.
He crossed over the slippery slopes of muddy foothills, concentrating hard on each step and clenching his legs tightly together to stop him from slipping and toppling over.
Johannan made it to the plains of Tibet after a full day of walking through the foothills. The inside of his legs ached badly from clenching them together over a long period, but he was ignorant of the pain. The relief of making it to the plains in one piece made him smile with joy. Now he had to journey to the Yarlung Tsangpo River further north.
Thoughts of how to cross the gushing river troubled him for some time. He had to come up with a way to overcome this vast obstacle, to avoid having to go around the whole river, which would significantly increase the number of weeks in the journey. He decided to take a risk and search for a small fishing village along the muddy banks of the river; if he was lucky enough to find one, he could employ a fisherman to take him to the other side of the river.
Johannan trekked for months on end, and finally he could hear the loud hissing of rushing waters; he was there. He smiled when he thought about his achievement.
Johannan faced a battle within himself, one person against an army of guilt as he felt the tremble of her slim body in his embrace, every shudder like myriads of soaring needles penetrating the membrane of his soul. He held her even closer and whispered in her ear. He could sense a change, almost as if she had given up on him coming back. “I will return to you, my love.”
Ayushi adjusted her head as if to stare into his face. He had never called her my love before; something was different. He grabbed her hands and pressed them firmly against his heart. It pounded faster than ever, overflowing with passion and life like the river after heavy rainfall. “My beloved Ayushi, you are always with me, and you live in here. I’ll take you with me wherever I go.”
Johannan felt that the strong, intense love he had for her would give him the unstoppable desire and strength to return to her. Just that inner vision of them living together, happily, with a small family of their own, made him feel invulnerable to pain and unflinching towards all challenges ahead. He pictured himself playing the flute to settle their firstborn while Ayushi gently rocked their baby to sleep. It was an amazing thought, two childhood best friends sharing something so special and so unique. Creating a family and taking care of one another. He stared at his hands, clenching his fists tightly against all the bad fate that may befall him on his travels, as if his will to survive was manifesting itself in the tightness of his hands.
“I must—I will return to you, Ayushi.”
He went to briefly visit Ketan, Nanda, and Raman to tell them that he would be back one day to share his adventures and to listen to the mischief Ketan had gotten up to while he was away. After a short while, he departed for the Gobi desert, knowing that if he stayed any longer it would just be too challenging to leave. Ayushi cried while everyone else followed behind him as he progressed past the last two huts in the village. She couldn’t stand up, the grief and distress sapped the strength in her legs. She fell to her knees clasping her hands, her face shimmered with tears.
Raman and Ketan stood on opposite sides of her and supported her onto her feet. The door to one of the huts swung open, and a voice of an older woman shouted his name.
He stopped; it was Mama Jala. He knew she would come out sometime and demand that he come back. He could hear Ayushi weeping, and it tugged on his heart. Mama Jala rushed over to console her. He knew she would—it was just like her to be so predictable. He could hear her voice.
”Quiet, my child, he will be back.”
Mama knew how intense Ayushi felt about him. She shook her head in disappointment.
Mama was so protective of Ayushi. He knew she was going to shout at him for disappointing her, but this time he couldn’t listen to her. She didn’t understand what was going on inside him, the day-to-day struggle with his desires. No one did, not his friends, Mama Jala, or even Ayushi.
“Are you really going to leave her like this, in this horrible state, Johannan?”
Discharges of pain ran from his eyes, he couldn’t turn back. But he knew she had just fallen to the ground, and if he turned around, that would be it; he’d rush back and abandon everything.
“Don’t turn around. You must do this,” he ordered himself under his breath.
His nose was almost beginning to run. He could imagine Mama Jala pointing at him with her rolling pin. Johannan didn’t know when he was going to return, but when he returned, he was adamant that he would have the cure with him.
It was the day it all began, when he took up another challenge to search for a cure for his beloved. His deep love for Ayushi burned ardently in his spirit. He couldn’t rest until this torment, this burning desire was quenched with the waters of fulfilment. He saw a vision of her sitting down and laughing with him, listening to his humorous adventures with Raman, Ketan, and Nanda. “Ayushi,” he said as the sorrow from missing such happiness burdened his heart.
“When—when will the Soburin lead me back home to you? It has been three long years already. I don’t know how much of this I can endure,” he said, adjusting himself to lay comfortably on a rock and tucking his hands under his head. He could see a group of bar-headed geese soaring around in tight circles upon the small gyres of wind. He knew what the gyrating wind was: the Master was present, watching over him, keeping the great promise he made that day.
Perhaps the Master is listening to me. Perhaps he may feel compassion if I just vent my feelings. Perhaps he’d let me go home.
Johannan opened his mouth and poured out his heart into the air, “Master, I feel so alone.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I miss her, and I can’t wait for the day when I can go back to her. I remembered the day you took me away years ago. To us, you were just a spirit that was last seen in the wilderness of Gobi, hundreds of years ago, but I dared to look for you—the only one who can cure my Ayushi. Please, Master, I miss my home.”
He stretched his hand to the sky, “Let me—let me return home to my family and friends.” His hand fell to cover his face as he began to weep. The responding silence made it feel as though his words were falling on deaf ears.
Johannan played it through his mind, fresh as the day it happened, the very moment he left her. He pictured himself talking to her and getting all his supplies ready. She was sitting down on the old wooden stool by the front of the door. “Ayushi, I have found a way that can cure your blindness. I was told that a spirit with great healing power was last seen in the deserts of Gobi near mainland China. I must go and seek him out.”
Ayushi just wanted Johannan to stay and not to worry about her so much. What if some sad fate befell him when he was away on one of his journeys to find this cure? Johannan was unshakably convinced that one day she will be cured from her horrible blindness. He couldn’t leave her like that, not even at her own request. Ayushi, being so used to her blindness, didn’t share the vision as passionately as Johannan did; after all, she was born blind. She never experienced what it was like to see. She couldn’t let him go, especially if it could cost him his life. She refused to imagine what it would be like to live without him, being in the world and knowing he was gone forever. The idea was so frightening, it was like standing on the edge of a crumbling precipice whilst peering into a bottomless abyss.
Johannan was driven by the picture that glowed so beautifully in his mind. The vision of them getting married and Ayushi being able to see. The whole village celebrating and throwing flowers over them on their wedding day. The loud sounds of banging drums and great, rich smells of roti, herbs, and dal. He imagined himself with Ayushi, breaking the roti and, as tradition stipulated, dipping it together in a single bowl. It was that vision that drove Johannan away from his home, to places he had never been before, to search for a cure. As long as it was there, haunting him, terrorising him, and burning ardently and infinitely in his heart, he could never settle down.
Just this thought alone caused his body, his mind, and his soul to unite and flow in one direction with one goal. There was no stopping him. He was getting ready to set out of the village, but not before they tearfully said goodbye to one another. Ayushi tightly embraced him, refusing to loosen her grip. He could feel her slim fingers gripping the midsection of his back and right shoulder. She rested her head against his chest. His clothes had just been washed and dried by Mama Jala on the riverside. She could smell the waters of the river on his cloak and hear the fast beating of his heart pumping away, ready to go on another quest. If I let go, it will almost be like letting a caged bird escape; he may never return to me. She couldn’t bear for him to leave again. There was the sudden appearance of a lump in her throat, a sudden strong sensation of discomfort in her body. She tried to swallow the shiftless lump before speaking, “Please—stay. Don’t go.” Her face glistened with tears—Johannan cringed at the idea of leaving her like this, but questions needing answers caused his face to tighten under tension. If he goes and doesn’t return to me, I will lose my soulmate, my best friend, my everything. Oh Johannan! Do not be a fool, searching for truth in the myths and the fables of the elderly. I’ll forever be in a darkened abyss, never to know happiness again because of you. How can you be so cruel?
High up in the Himalayas of Nepal, the whistling cries of the falcon proclaimed its dominion over the sky as it scanned the wilderness for food. The lands of Asia welcomed the heavens where the blend of delicate blues met the dapple greens of nature along the horizon. The coarse organic outlines of the great mountains, crowned with a diadem of sparkling white snow and a halo of clouds, were a symbol of benevolence from an almighty god.
The herds rested sound in the bosom of the hills not far from the winding serpent of crystal that crafted the afternoon river.
Charged with the protection of life, the vast moving islands of vapour shielded the eyes of the earth from the sun that demanded respect from those that gazed upon him.
There, high up in the Himalayas where the earth reached for the sky, was a free spirit. A wandering young man, an Ambassador of the Soburin, who scarcely was caught in the same place more than once. The young man went by the name of Johannan.
His eyes locked on the clusters of white clouds leisurely floating through the azure sky. The clean smell of crisp mountain air cooled his throat as it filled his lungs.
Weary from his travels, Johannan rested on a smooth rock while nibbling the stem of a length of grass. The towering blades of green and brown bowed before the majestic shrills of the upward drafts. He recalled his travels on the lands beneath, and how long it took him to climb to the summit. Places that took days to travel seemed only to be minutes away when he gazed into the everlasting greens of the lands below.
For hours, Johannan had been fixed in a tranquil state of mind, but the sudden noises of bashing hooves from the mountain goats clapping against the rocks broke a spell of stillness over him. He turned and saw a tribe of goats feeding on the wild grass as the young ones played with each other. The scene strummed on the strings of his memory, reminding him of all his childhood friends and all the loved ones and wonderful things he had left behind in his village. He could smell the warm, dense, spicy fragrances of dal bhat that Mama prepared, the hot wisps of vapours that escaped and filled the room when he broke into the skins of the unleavened bread that she baked. Johannan licked his lower lip; he could almost taste the memory. It had been a long time since he had tasted some good home cooking.
He longed for the days of waking up to the clapping echoes of Mama beating wet clothes against the river rocks. The noises annoyed him back then, but it was something he’d gladly welcome back. The simplicity of his life then was something he took for granted. Mama often warned about the comforts of love and the danger that lies in taking it for granted.
Johannan reminisced about Nanda, the storyteller, and Raman, the giggler who always found humour in his jokes. He remembered partaking with the mischievous Ketan in his silly antics. Ketan was always getting up to no good; he was remarkably skilled at aggravating his elderly father. He recalled a time Ketan decided to hide his father’s goats from him, and another scenario where he dyed his father’s chickens bright blue with the dye his mother used for cooking. He turned his head as if to focus more on another area of open sky, and he envisioned . . . her. He breathed in as much air as he could. She was the reason he was out here, far away from home, travelling the wilderness night and day. She was the reason he met him, the Soburin.
The vision was of a young, beautiful Asian woman sitting on a small wooden stool. His eyes opened wider with an expression of awe and his heart raced.
An upward gust of Himalayan glory covered him, the blade of grass he chewed on arched, and his long charcoal-toned hair loosely danced like a blown flame to the wails of the passing winds. He could see her long, black hair falling to her waist, a benevolent smile on her face. The subtle aroma of rose oils that Mama massaged into her skin filling the house with her presence. Despite the cool brushes of the wind, he could feel the waves of heat from his heart moving within him. He hugged himself, gripping his shoulders; he could almost feel her gentle embrace. Johannan stretched his hands to the sky as if to touch the vision of her with the tip of his finger. My beloved Ayushi, you mean so much to me, and I have been gone for years, so long. I wish my journey would come to an end, so I could be with you again.
He closed his eyes and gently placed his hands over his heart. When I return, your sight will be cured as he promised me, and we will get married as I have promised you since we were children playing by the riverside. Johannan stared at the goats playing with each other so blissfully, enjoying a freedom he longed for.
Even the wild animals are with their loved ones.
A deep sigh of sorrow escaped his lips, and a tear freed itself and swivelled down his cheek. I wonder what she’s doing now. Probably home, outside playing away on that old flute I made for her when we were little.
He reminisced about how they used to play the flute together. Raman and the children of the village would dance to their cheerful melodies. He caught the escaped tear with the hem of his cloak. The wails of the winds fell to a silence. It would be the greatest manifestation of joy if my Ayushi could have her sight by our wedding day.
He remembered how he felt when he first met the Soburin—the excitement, the adventure, and the beginning of his greatest sorrow.
“I remember the day I left home,” he said just above a whisper.