5 Stars! This intriguing novel, The Son of Nepal, by author J.J Sylvester, is a fascinating and uniquely beautiful story. It is told with a Middle Eastern flair for story-telling, that I found utterly enchanting. When a novel can transport the reader to a different place and time – that is extraordinary. It is beautifully written, with a lush cadence like prose that moves brilliantly through the entire novel. Johannan, our hero, is very brave in his pursuit to find a cure for his beloved’s blindness and gives himself over to be used by a Great Spirit, such is his desire to return the gift of sight to his beloved. What is Johannan to learn from his quest, as he searches for months on end to find the magical cure, but only a true heart…
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 wasted no time and began his journey towards the mountain. His heart pounded with expectation and excitement. He didn’t want to get ahead of himself, but he couldn’t help it. His heart wouldn’t keep silent, it kept declaring within him that his travels would soon be coming to an end, that his beloved, Ayushi, would be healed.
The ground’s texture soon began to change. It felt harder, sturdier, giving Johannan a great sensation of balance. He knew he was approaching the foot of the mountain. Johannan glanced upwards. All he could remember was the pain and the hunger to find a cure for her vision. Every moment that he stared into Ayushi’s face, he wanted her to be able to see him. His enthusiasm reminded him of all the people that discouraged him, telling him to go home and that the Great Spirit never existed.
I must bring an end to this burning desire and finally snuff its fires.
With eagerness, he took up the challenge to climb the mountain; things were beginning to turn around. He clambered up the treacherous cracks and landings, and after many hours, he finally got to the summit. He waited there, refreshing himself with the streams of waters that flowed in-between its brooks. Apart from the gushing waters in the brook, there was not a sound to be heard. He expected to hear the fluttering of birds or any other signs of life. There was nothing, no sign of the Great Spirit. Just the usual empty sky. Where could he be? The sun was beginning to descend, the gentle night winds increased, and the bright, luminous full moon took its place in the sky. Johannan sat on a rock with his chin in both palms.
A slight whisper freed itself from his lips, “He has forgotten me.” He began replaying his journey through his mind.
Anyone else would have turned back by now, why am I out here risking my life? But, I can’t return empty-handed. What would Mama say?
“Johannan!” A loud tone breached the stillness. Johannan’s heart rolled like a drum as he vaulted to his feet. “I—I thought you had forgotten me.” He was delighted—finally he was here. “Where are you, Great Spirit?”
Johannan scanned around only to find large rocks and mountain rubble.
“Look up, Son of Nepal,” echoed the Great Spirit. Johannan gazed upwards and saw nothing. The full moon was all he could see in the sky until, after a while of searching, he noticed a single white nimbus cloud floating by. It was so small. Johannan frowned. Surely, he can’t be on that. He studied the small cloud as best as he could. There was an odd shimmer and a flame burning next to it—it must be him.
The cloud drifted forward. Johannan’s hands dropped to his sides as he gaped at two entities coming towards him on the cloud. One was in the form of a man, and the other was a giant lion with a mane of flames. Glowing cinders whirled up into the night sky like fireflies before a storm. The moon’s luminous face was distorted behind a window of haze. Johannan began breathing heavily, and his heart began to pound; this was too real. Perhaps coming here was not a good idea after all.
The appearance of the Great Spirit was frightening. Johannan’s fear insisted that he make tracks, but his sense told him that he’d never escape. He preferred the Great Spirit’s manifestation out in the desert as a storm or an earthquake—at least those things were natural. He had no option but to stay in one place, just like what he did before in the sandstorms, surrendering to his fate.
The same question kept popping up in his head. What is he going to say or do?
The entities drew closer with their piercing eyes of light that were focused on him. Johannan’s attention was undivided, so much so that he didn’t notice a change in his own appearance. His long, black, bushy hair began to lose its jet-black appearance. The roots of his hair glistened, transforming into a glowing white colour. This change of colour gradually extended to the tip of his hair. The colour of his eyes also changed from brown to blue-violet. The few strands of hair that grew below his nose and on his chin became more apparent as they were not exempt from the transformation. When the bright colour had covered all of the hair on his head, he resembled a man that had been crowned with stars.
Johannan, still not noticing the dramatic change in his appearance, fell to his knees as the Great Spirit drew closer.
“Well done, Johannan of Nepal, who has persistently travelled the wilderness of Gobi and has succeeded in the trials of the Ambassadors. In you, I am delighted.”
The lion fixed his gaze on Johannan. But Johannan hadn’t come all the way out here to complete a trial for some hero’s reward or the glory that came with it. All he cared about was his beloved Ayushi. Even through the shocking awe of the entities’ presence, he never forgot what he came for, and the thudding of his heart reminded him of that.
“Master! Great and powerful Spirit, I beg of you. Please restore sight to my fiancé’s eyes.”
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.
Hundreds of miles from Nepal, trapped in the immeasurable sands of the Gobi desert with a prying old man and his miserable grump of a camel. Despite the situation, Johannan felt a deep sense of gratitude budding within him, but the old man and his camel seemed to be quite the characters.
The stranger pushed hard to find out who Johannan was looking for, digging hard with questions that made Johannan feel outpourings of guilt.
The old man was right about one thing, though: he did save Johannan’s life. The unbounded blaze of the atmosphere around Johannan became cold and small. He felt like he had no choice but to tell him everything. As soon as the old man heard what Johannan was searching for, he laughed so hard he nearly fell off his camel. The camel released a series of grunts that would have led you to believe he was laughing too. This was the reaction Johannan was trying to avoid.
“A blind girl and a great spirit,” the man coughed in laughter. “Listen, child, go home! That girl is going to become a widow before she’s even married.”
Johannan’s gaze dropped to the ground. He felt ashamed and very silly. He didn’t care what the stranger thought; he was still going to continue his search. The old man would probably think he was extremely stupid if he continued, though.
“Listen, whelp, I can take you back to the nearest village. There’s food and water, and you can rest until you’re ready to go home.”
Food, water, and rest sounded good to Johannan. It sounded like the right thing to do. The man displayed an ear-to-ear smile at Johannan, bouncing his eyebrows as if to prompt him to go for the idea. “Return home and have a big wedding. You and that girl could have lots and lots of children.” He released a hearty howl of laughter, “Sounds good, no?”
As Johannan heard the man say “wedding,” a vision of Ayushi appeared in his mind. It was the same one that had driven him into the desert to search for the spirit. He saw her sitting on the ground next to him. The whole village threw flowers over them; they were cheering and dancing. A red veil with golden patterns covered her head, and he could faintly see her image underneath. The drums were loud, and the children ran around with colourful strings. There was a mild smell of sweet oils and food being prepared. He turned to her and lifted the veil from over her head, his friends cheering him on. Her smile grew as she saw her young husband looking handsome in the fine clothes Mama had proudly made. But, the greatest thing of all was that his beloved Ayushi could see. Mama cried with tears of joy. She was finally proud of her boy.
“Yes, it is all I ever wanted,” whispered Johannan, breaking from the trance-like state. “I will find this Great Spirit. I know he’s out here somewhere, and somehow I get the feeling he knows I’m here too.”
“Fine!” A sharp tone of disappointment severed the atmosphere. “If you won’t take me up on my offer, then suit yourself. I’m not going to force you to come back with me. You youngsters are stubborn these days.”
He chucked another two water skins at Johannan, knocking the air out of his chest. “Here!” Johannan caught them before they dropped.
“Thanks to you, again.”
“Thanks to me?” the old traveller laughed, staring into the scenery as if to plan his journey. “You are a stubborn whelp. But it’s the least I can do if I can’t convince you to come back with me. Without help, you are going to die out here. To be honest, you’re probably going to die anyway.” The man paused and hesitated like he shouldn’t have uttered what he just said. “Go on, whelp, be careful.”
“I will. Take care, sir.”
The camel grunted and began to move in the opposite direction. “The pup tells me to take care. I’m the one that found him on the ground half dead with no water, and I’m the one he tells to take care,” Johannan overheard him say.
“Don’t worry about me, I will find him,” Johannan said, waving goodbye.
“I will remember you, whelp, you are a funny one. Don’t panic too much if you get caught up in a sandstorm; they are not as bad as they look. Just cover your entire face and don’t breathe in the air directly—otherwise you’ll end up with a mouth full of sand. With all this scorching heat, you don’t need that.” The man laughed out loud, “You’ll wish then that you took me up on my offer, you stubborn boy!”
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 on his journey to the cold mountains of Altun Shan. He was always weary of mountains because of the rumours of them being used as a strategic point for bandits to steal and to abduct travellers. It bothered him that at any moment the ruthless mountain bandits could ambush him. His eyes were under stress from being wide-open and staying alert for anything out of the ordinary. He kept moving, trying to maintain a low profile in the treacherous mountains of Altun Shan. He must get to Yumen.
Yumen was the beginning of the Gobi desert. The atmosphere was silent with no sign of life. Could a spirit really be living out here?
It had been months since Johannan had left his home, and he travelled hundreds of miles through forests, rivers, and villages to come here. The real challenge was to keep believing. His feet plunged into the cracked clusters of sand and mud beneath him. The sky was a vacant blue, and the land spared a few shades of brown. That was all he could see. He couldn’t imagine a Great Spirit living out here in such a barren place, but he also knew things were never as they seemed.
The light from the sun charged the ground with a scorching heat. He felt the acidic burn from bulbs of salty sweat that had gathered on his forehead and trickled into his eyes. He held a long rope behind him, just dragging along the earth in a straight line to make sure he wasn’t walking around in endless circles.
He visualised himself back home with Ayushi, together, up in the hills. They went up there sometimes to get away from the village and enjoy one another’s company. Johannan held her soft grasp within his, “The weather is good today, Ayushi.”
She stretched her arms out, “I can feel the wind, like veils of cool silk brushing against my hand.”
He smiled. From the top of the hills, you could see the entire village and the pillars of smoke billowing from the clay ovens. You could hear the gushing sounds of the river and Comet, the goat, bleating away with the others.
“Tell me about the colour of the sky, Johannan, how does it look?”
“It’s a deep blue with lots of full, white clouds. The grass is a rich green and looks healthy.”
“Yes, the grass feels so soft.” Ayushi pointed her nose to the sky and filled her lungs. “Mama is cooking dal bhat; it smells good.”
“You can smell that all the way up here, Ayushi?”
“Yes, Mama loves to cook with different herbs. It’s her way, and besides that, I can always smell them up here.”
“Wait here,” said Johannan, rushing off. He came back panting with a flower in his hand, “Touch this, can you feel what it is?”
She rubbed her fingertips against it and chuckled, “Of course, it’s a flower, Johannan.”
“Yes, it’s the one Mama crushes to make the sweet scent in your hair. There’re so many up here.”
“Don’t tell her that, or there will be none left,” said Ayushi.
Johannan tittered, “Hold still.” He fixed the flower just above her ear. “There.” Johannan stood back up and admired her beauty. If only she could see her reflection in the waters of the village.
He broke the moment with a loud snicker.
“What is it?” Ayushi responded, with an unsure smile.
“Mama is by the river again; she’s beating the clothes against the rocks.”
“Can you really see her from here?”
“Yes, you can’t miss Mama. That woman is really big!”
Ayushi chortled, “Johannan, if she ever heard you say such a thing, the clothes won’t be the only thing she will be beating. You know she would chase you around the whole village again.”
“Yes, but she never catches me. You know that.”
Ayushi giggled, holding onto his inner arm. “She will catch you one day, you know. I hear her plotting to herself sometimes.”
Johannan shielded his eyes from the sunlight as he gazed into the village. “Mama has stopped washing the clothes now. She seems to be looking around the village.”
“Is Comet tied up?”
“Yes, I did it myself this morning.”
Ayushi gasped, “She’s probably wondering where we are.”
“Oh goodness, I wasn’t thinking. She’s cooking and dinner is ready! I’d better get you back before I get into trouble again. You know Mama would complain for days . . .”
Ayushi laughed at Johannan’s tone fading with worry and she went straight into her impression of an angry Mama chasing Johannan around.
She clenched her fist into the air. “Boy, you get back here, you slippery little eel! Don’t you worry, I will catch you. You can’t run that fast when you’re asleep. Ooh Johannan! I’m going to give you such a sweet walloping when I catch you.”
Johannan burst into a fit of laughter, “You know, you do a very good impression of her—too good.”
“Well, I have no choice but to listen to you two, almost every day. Chickens flapping their wings and clucking, probably trying to defend themselves. Pots kicked over and old Comet getting angry, because you knocked him down again while trying to escape from Mama.”
The two of them laughed, and Johannan had to stop to catch his breath.
Johannan still couldn’t distinguish a difference in the scenery from a full day of travelling in the desert, but nothing was going to stop him. He wondered how Ayushi would respond when her eyes were finally opened and she saw him for the first time. The entire village would be astounded. He pictured everyone congratulating him on his success, gathering to listen to his stories. He knew Mama Jala would be happy. Finally he would have done something good to make the old woman proud.
Time was going by, and after days of travelling, his enthusiasm to find the Great Spirit outweighed his supply of water. There was no way Johannan could make it back alive—there was not enough water to last him the journey back. Even if he could go back, the thought of going back empty-handed after putting Ayushi through so much grief only made him think about how many times Mama was going to hit him for leaving to begin with. She’d never let him out of her sight again. And every time he made a mistake, she’d bring it up how he deserted Ayushi to chase some silly fantasy.
She had a strange way of viewing things and making you regret your mistakes by bringing up the past. He could only imagine the laughter of Raman, Ketan, and Nanda overhearing her plans of what she was going to do to him when he returned.
Johannan shook his head, “Going back is out of the question—that spirit has got to be out here—for my sake.”
The soft sand beneath his blistered feet was a relief. The stubborn scenery was beginning to surrender, hundreds of golden, unblemished pyramids of sand scattered from east to west. There still wasn’t a sound to be heard for miles, not even a bird in sight. Johannan almost felt like he was the only man on earth or, much worse, the only living thing. He compared the differences in the plains behind him. The cracked, brittle grounds just behind him made it seem like his journey had just begun.
Taking a glance at his waist, he saw the three shrivelled water skins. He had wrung them out completely for traces of water that may still be sitting inside. There was one full one left, as precious as life itself. I have to make this one last, he vowed to himself.
He came to a wobbling stop, using the back of his hand to wipe his glistening forehead. I know there is truth in that song the fisherman spoke of. The Great Spirit must be here, but where is he? Surely he knows I’m out here searching for him? Perhaps he’s hiding, watching me from afar, waiting for me to die of thirst. After all, there’s no reason for him to care that I’m out here. He seems to be quite the heartless kind if he’s not testing me.
He stared deep into the scenery and frowned. What was the point? Why search so hard? It’s all the same dammed thing. It’s always the same thing, nothing’s changed. If Mama were here, she’d say I’m a wandering fool.
“Show yourself! I know that you can hear me!” The desert mocked him by throwing his words back. He fell to his knees and a tear freed itself and slid down his face. He used up his very last bit of strength, and he wasn’t even that far into the collection of sandy pyramids.
Johannan unceasingly pressed on for another two days. His water had run out, and he began to feel faint. He staggered with each step. The cracking skin on his lips pained him when he opened his mouth to breathe. He felt nauseous, like something was hitting him in the stomach.
Am I finally going to die? Is this the end? He questioned himself as he took one more step forward, joggled, and collapsed face down. His body rolled and slid down one of the steep hills.
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.
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