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.
“Master, you promised that you will keep my people from harm. You promised me!”
“And have I not spared your people for the sake of that which was promised?”
“Wicked people have increased in the land, and Teki will have the case he needs to chasten the lands of Asia. The good will pay for the deeds of the unjust—unless something is done.”
“What is it that you are asking of me, Aliqxis?”
“Send one of the two sons that you promised to me and my people a thousand years ago. Send him that they may restore balance, or Teki will destroy my beloved people.”
“You have asked much of me.”
“Forgive me, my Master.”
“I have weighed the heart of a youngling in the lands to the south, one with your blood flowing through him. He will be the one, but he is not yet ready.”
“Master, if nothing is done soon, we will lose them all: men, women, and our children. Will you forfeit all for the sake of one?”
“Very well, Aliqxis, I shall hasten his destiny. I shall go into the land and afflict the youngling with a burden for the sake of your people. He will become a man of great sorrow and pain, at your request.”
“Yes, Master, this is the way it has to be.”
It was a fair morning as usual. A woman stood in the river washing her clothes with her little boy. From the sides of her eyes, she caught the ambling movement of the old traveller, the same one who visited two years ago. He wore a hat so wide that it sheltered the basket he carried on his back.
“You again!” said the woman.
“Oh?” reciprocated a deep tone. The old traveller chuckled, “How is the boy treating you?”
“He’s getting on well. We were just washing our clothes together. He seems to enjoy helping me—don’t you, son?” The little boy nodded, and the old traveller closed in and laughed, extending his arm to ruffle the boy’s hair.
“See, I told you he would settle down.”
The woman stood on the balls of her feet and angled herself to peep over his shoulder. “So, what have you got in the basket?”
“Someone special. She’s here to meet your little one.”
“So that’s it, you have brought me another child.”
As he was about to remove the basket from his back, the old man paused, “A blind girl. You do not want her?”
“Oh no, no! I will take care of her and treat her as my very own. The poor thing, where did you find her?”
“On a roadside, far from here—abandoned, of course. Plucked this little flower up from the ground and threw her into the basket of beans. We’ve been travelling companions for many weeks now.”
The woman expressed a confused demeanour. “But she’s such a pretty child, isn’t she? Why would . . .” She extended her hands to embrace the child. “Just give her to me. Me and Johannan will take good care of her, won’t we, Johannan?” The little boy smiled and nodded with enthusiasm.
“He seems quite excited about having a new playmate.”
“What is the child’s name?” said the woman.
“I’ve grown accustomed to the name Ayushi.” The traveller kneeled down to take the girl out of the basket. “Say hello, little Ayushi. This woman will be taking care of you from now on.” Ayushi gripped onto his forearms and remained quiet. The traveller chuckled, “Err, perhaps she needs more time. The two children are quite the set, they have some kind of special bond. You may not understand this, but it was the will of the heavens to bring her here. You three belong together for some reason of fate.”
“The will of the heavens? I’ve never heard of such things before,” said the woman.
“Yes, as soon as I picked her up, the wind began to blow in the direction of this village. You have to see it to understand: the grass, the trees, everything bending and pointing in this direction. And the moment I got here, it stopped.”
The woman repaid him with her most delightful smile, “Well, I will raise them as my very own. You can be sure of that, old traveller.”
The man’s wide sedge hat tilted up towards the sky. “I know you long for a family, but these two children are very different; they will not be like brother and sister. I can sense it—it seems to be the will of the heavens.”
“Let’s get her out of the basket. Come, Johannan, come and introduce yourself to Ayushi.”
Johannan walked over and took hold of Ayushi’s hand, and they both giggled. The woman clasped her hands in admiration. “Wonderful! They like each other.”
The old traveller swivelled to face them and caressed his bearded chin. “Perhaps she doesn’t need much time at all.”
The nearby trees began to clatter; the rapid movements of the woman’s eyes exposed that she was surprised. “That’s a very strong gust of wind. We don’t get winds like that round here.”
“See! Did I not tell you?” The man pointed to the sky. “It is the will of the heavens. The sky is rejoicing that you are finally together. It could well be that the heavens have been waiting for this day to come.” He wagged his finger at her, “Great fortune I predict.”
He hoisted his basket onto his back. “Well, that’s my job done then. I shall be off.”
The woman laughed, “Just like that. You are a very mysterious old man.”
I was a little girl, aged seven, when I first met him. The old man with long, white hair who came to our village. No one knew who he was or where he came from. He used to sit under the old paulownia tree, nearer to the river, out of everyone’s way. I suppose it was his favourite spot to sit and watch the villagers hard at work. He didn’t enjoy talking and seemed quite irritable. He didn’t eat much, and he rarely moved from under the covering of the tree. The people of my village thought he was strange. I remember them believing he was a travelling monk on a pilgrimage.
It wasn’t long before we became friends. It happened the night my parents invited him into our home. I remember my father being anxious. He thought he was sullen, and, cautious of offending his guest, he hardly spoke that evening.
The old man loved my singing, and I loved to sing for him. I remember seeing the faces of my parents in a silent shock as he smiled for the first time. From that day, I sang to him daily and we became best friends. His name was Mr Mengi—or that is what I called him because I couldn’t say “Mr Menguisai” properly.
One day I found Mr Menguisai at the village entrance about to depart with three of his companions. My heart disintegrated. I remember thinking I wouldn’t have anyone to enjoy my singing, but as he left he made a promise to come back. That was, if he found what he was looking for….
I was fourteen when Mr Menguisai returned. My father had died the year before. My heart was bitter—I loved my father so much, we were always together, farming in the fields. A loosened boulder crushed him and some others during an earthquake. I remember the land quivering earlier that day, and when it ended, I thought nothing of it, ignorant that it took my beloved father away. His fellow workmates rushed to our home with the bad news later that day. They said his last words were to tell his daughter and her mouthy mother that he loved us and would continue to do so.
My mother couldn’t cope with the loss, and she began to drink more wine, staying at home most of the time in her dark room.
At night, all the nocturnal sounds, crickets chirping and winds wailing, were things I had never noticed before, but after his death my ears were unclogged. I remember he was the only one who had time for me—he and, of course, Mr Menguisai.
I still relive the taste of sour and dryness in my mouth. I lied to my mother and had not eaten for days. It wasn’t a hard thing to accomplish, seeing that most of the time she was barely sober. My strength was failing me, and it almost felt as if something was choking my throat, but I didn’t care. I stood by the river, singing that song I sang to Mr Menguisai that evening in my house. I remember the feeling on my face. It felt sticky and almost dry. I can remember feeling alone even when everyone was there. I couldn’t look at my mother because she reminded me of him—my father. I wished my father was still there with my mother enjoying one of their silly arguments and playfully mocking one another. The song was my only solace when that memory burned so fresh.
I remember the cold grip from a strong draft that morning and the dry leaves brushing past my face. I turned around and there was someone standing near, staring at me from the old white tree. He was shrouded, and his hat covered his eyes. My heart raced, could it be him? After all these years, he remembered me.
My tears seemed to have hardened in the wind as I ran towards him. It was Mr Menguisai, he had come back!
As I approached him, I slowed down. I thought maybe he didn’t feel the same way anymore, may that’s why he left me. But I was happy to be wrong. Mr Menguisai reached out and hugged me, the same way my father used to. He had missed me, and I felt joy once more.
“Mr Menguisai, you’ve returned!”
He chuckled, “Do you recall a time you couldn’t say my name properly?”
I laughed, his question had caused me to revisit my childhood.
Again, we were always together. I sang, and my mother joined in— when it pleased her. I remember brewing him some tea. He commented on how I made wonderful tea, like my father—except, no person in his correct mind was keen on my father’s tea, apart from my father himself. My father would have been happy to see him once more, though he was always silent around him.
It was the third quarter of the night. I couldn’t sleep because the noisy wind had caused small stones to beat against the sides of our house. Mr Menguisai was outside, standing by the river.
What I saw next was impossible. Were my eyes deceiving me? The river was cleaved into two parts to reveal a walkway; that I remember as clearly as our river water. Today , many years later, I know Mr Menguisai was not who the villagers and I thought he was. He was something greater. I can remember what he said to me by the river.
As he was about to walk through the pathway, I ran out and shouted his name. He turned around and smiled at me.
“Do you recall what happened at the village river after I departed, when you sang with the other younglings?”
I reminisced on what happened, the adults spoke about it for months. How could I have forgotten?
“The river turned from green to blue, and the adults said it was safe to drink from it, once more.”
“Well said,” he replied. “I purged the river as you sang.”
I was astonished, but in a weird way it all began to make sense.
I did as he told me, and that’s what happened but….
“H-how?” I stuttered.
“Never mind how,” he said, pointing his finger to the sky. “Cast your glance aloft, into the heavens, Aliqxis. Tell me, what do you see?”
I gazed up and saw a colourful vision across the sky. There where people doing marvellous things. I saw a man point to the sky, and fire fell down and consumed his enemies. I saw a child pick up a huge boulder that had landed on her mother. I saw a man turning water to ice by just touching it with the tip of his finger, and a woman who could see into the future when she sang.
“H-how is this all possible?” I said.
“These are my Ambassadors. Some have not been born yet. You, Aliqxis Juara, shall be my first, and when you call out to me like you did that day many years ago by the river, I will come to you.”
There was a sudden tremor in the ground. Mr Menguisai snatched my arm, “Make haste! Stamp the ground, Aliqxis!”
I did as he told me, and the tremor stopped. I gaped at my surroundings—I doubt I even knew what I was searching for.
“W-was that me?” I was lost in shock.
“Indeed. Today I shall bestow upon you the Majestic of the Earth. Sing to me and request anything concerning the Earth, and I will honour that.”
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