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.