Lunwali consisted of a dozen box-like wood houses with stone shingle roofs clustered in no particular pattern among potato terraces above the Sonjal Nala. Smoke from early morning cook fires drifted over the campsite downstream from the houses. A young woman carrying an umbrella and a bag on her back paused to stare at the yellow tents. Ansel Trager, lying in the door of his tent, stared back. She did not look like any of the women he had seen in Kashmir, Instead of the long drab woolen cloaks, she wore trousers, a burgundy jacket, and a bright blue vest. With her broad Mongolian face, she could have been Lakpa's sister. The woman's eyes locked on Trager's, and she called, “Julaiy, sahib! Ab kahan jate hain?”
“Harry, there's some beggar woman in the camp,” Leslie's voice came from the next tent. “Do you have a pen or something to give her?”
Boots appeared by Trager's face. Sonam knelt with a tray of coffee mugs, and Lakpa took one off for Trager. The sirdar said, “Woman is ask, ‘Where going?’ You say, ‘Doda.'"
“Doda,” Trager called, wincing as pain laced his forehead. A headache that had been lurking behind his eyes began to throb.
“Doda! Achcha, sahib!” the woman grinned.
“She says, ‘Good!’” Lakpa told him. “Now you say, ‘Kahan jate hain?’"
“‘Can jahnty?’” Trager said, in his best approximation.
“Kawapatri, sahib,” she answered. She gave a casual salute, and headed down the path, walking with short but rapid steps.
“Forget it, Harry,” Leslie said. “Ansel got rid of her.”
“Why are you getting us up?” Trager asked. “Isn't this supposed to be a rest day?”
“We go Doda, sahib. We stay Lunwali, pony-wallah is maybe strike, go Kawapatri.”
Trager tried to imagine the party shuffling along carrying the company’s duffel bags. He leaned out on the frosted grass. The young woman was moving steadily, leaving a dark track behind her where her plastic shoes scuffed the frost.
“How can she be going to Kawapatri?” he asked. “All she's got is that little bag on her back.”
Lakpa stood up from delivering the Macintoshes’ coffee. He called to the woman, and they exchanged a few shouts across the intervening terraces.
Lakpa stood up from delivering the Macintoshes’ coffee. He called to the woman, and they exchanged a few shouts across the intervening terraces.
“No need camp,” Lakpa said. “She is Ladakhi. Tonight she is already in Kawapatri.”
Trager stood up slowly, dragging his pack with him so that it would not be rolled up in the tent that Lakpa already had half collapsed. He had put on a pair of light wind pants, leaving his breeches repair for later. The thin fabric was easy on his abraded leg, but not at all warm. The valley was grey and cold. The great range to the northeast was still in deep shadow, backlit by white sky where the sun approached the crest. Across the river, the snowfields and peaks leading up to the Sonjal La were just being colored with ruddy light. A cluster of higher peaks at the head of the valley shone like beacons in full day. Trager felt better, but he took no chances, standing as still as possible to watch the sun come over the mountains.
Harry paced around the camp, shooting pictures. The rest of the clients were coming out of the tents that the Ladakhis were dismantling around them. Pratima and Sundown were slow and withdrawn; Leslie seemed jumpy and mad. All three stood with faces buried in the collars of their jackets as Sonam served porridge. Trager took a bottle of aspirin out of his pack and placed it on the red tarp like a condiment along with the sugar and instant milk.
“Short day, fifteen kilometers,” Lakpa said. “Lunch today at Doda camp.”
“In that case, I guess everyone can walk at their own pace,” Trager announced. “Just make sure the ponies are ahead of you at noon. Where are the ponies, anyway?”
“Other side Lunwali, sahib. Pony-wallah is sleep in village,” Lakpa said. “Long time. I think maybe you go now, take money to Doda. Then he is coming.”
Trager did as he was told. He was not a climber any more, just a paymaster. The track did not go around Lunwali, but instead dissolved into several narrow paths between the huts. Trager found himself wandering across porches and stoops. Lunwalis carrying water and firewood paused in their chores only to say namaskar, as if it were normal to have traffic through their homes early in the morning. In one narrow alley, Trager met the Kashmiri drover leading his ponies back to the camp. Trager pressed into a door way to get out of the animals’ path.
In the fields on the far side of the village, Trager picked up the woman’s footprints in the frost. A few minutes later, he heard heavy breathing behind him. It was Harry Macintosh, walking fast, his cameras bouncing in their padded cases.
“I got . . . to talk to you,” Harry said between breaths. “Like to do it . . . before the others get here.” He paused to catch his breath. “I want . . . to make this trip. But if you think I can't do it, I'll go back.”
Trager appraised Harry for a moment, gauging the older man’s respiration rate against his own. “I know you’ve had a harder time than the others, and if I thought you or anyone couldn't make it, they'd go back. I’m thinking, if you're fit enough to go over the pass and get altitude sick with everyone else, there's no reason why you can't enjoy the rest of the fun. I won't send you off this trek unless you ask to leave.”
“Thanks,” Harry said. “Now if you'd go on ahead. I want to get a shot of you and these tracks.”
Trager walked carefully a few feet to the side of the trail. At the head of the valley, the right and left ridges seemed to merge into a solid wall. Trager knew it was probably an optical illusion caused by distance and the dim light. The valley simply turned there, and the buttresses on either side overlapped. Still, it looked forbidding, and Trager wondered how the woman had negotiated the high country with just plastic shoes and an umbrella. She was not just going from Lunwali to Kawapatri in a day. She had started from above the village, possibly even from Doda. He began to walk again, faster, wondering just how far she had come. Long before he found the start of her trail, the evidence disappeared. As the sun hit the floor of the valley, Trager watched the crystals on the path sparkle, then thin and fade until the footprints evaporated before his eyes. She had left no mark on the packed trail beneath the frost.
Trager sat on the edge of a rock terrace to rest. The big walls across the valley were only a silhouette against the rising sun. Most of the peaks have never been climbed, he recalled Freya saying. He would take care of that. Trager began to walk again. His headache was gone, his cold boot linings had softened to his feet, and his stiff leg had loosened up with exercise. The temperature in the valley was rising quickly, the air trembling as the sun heated the open fields. Sweat began to burn the abrasions on his thigh.
I need to get cleaned up, he thought. A half mile ahead of him, the terraces ended in a forested ridge that extended from snowline clear down to the river. He made for the trees, not stopping until he was walking in their shade. The wood was cool, and the pitchy air seemed clean and clear after the animal odors of the farmland. Above the trail near the crest of the ridge was a large boulder the size of a small cottage. It sat propped between tree trunks as if it had just fallen from the sky. Trager scrambled to its uphill side. Ignoring his leg, he made a couple of acrobatic climbing moves that brought him to the top, overlooking the trail.
He took off his pack, parka, and pants and inspected the livid scrapes on his leg. Trager carried with him the entire group first aid kit. Lakpa had first shown him the medical supplies at the hotel in Kawapatri. They came in a large metal artillery box and included intravenous fluids, an oxygen tank, scalpels, syringes, and a variety of catheters, sutures, and injectable drugs. Trager was unnerved at the thought of the spectacular injuries and diseases he might be expected to treat. Finally he decided to take only what he knew how to use from his ski patrol training—compresses, adhesive tape, aspirin, and various topical ointments. He also added an antibiotic and some codeine, although the expiration dates on the bottles suggested they might be little more than placebos. As soon as the excess equipment was returned to hotel storage, he forgot all about it. Lakpa, who saved the price of one baggage pony, approved.
As Trager finished bandaging his wound, he heard voices. Sonam and Lakpa came walking together, talking and laughing. Close behind were the ponies. The driver whistled and called to his animals, and birds in the branches of the pine trees seemed to answer his calls. A few minutes later, Sundown walked slowly up the trail, followed by his daughter. They were five minutes apart, out of sight of one another, but they seemed to Trager to walk in the same bubble of silence. Both had their thumbs hooked under their pack straps in exactly the same position. Both kept eyes on their boot toes as they hiked.
Trager exchanged his torn climbing pants for shorts, his boots for running shoes. With his rucksack repacked, he edged carefully to the lip of the boulder, found his handholds, and swung over the edge. He found himself dangling by his arms just above Leslie Macintosh. Her shirt was off, and she was just about to release the hooks of her brassiere. Trager could see his reflection stretched across the mirrored lenses of her sunglasses as she looked up at him.
“Ah, sorry,” he said. “I didn't hear you coming.” He dropped to the ground.
Leslie watched him get to his feet. “Well, you're a grown-up,” she said, and shrugged the bra off her shoulders. Trager felt he ought to say something. Or nothing. He looked away at the forest, then decided it would be better to watch, and pretend it was nothing unusual. Leslie had now stepped out of her hiking pants, and was standing in only her underwear, opening her pack. From her fitness, Trager had expected Leslie's body to be firmer than it was. Her breasts were large and low, her stomach rolled where she folded over, and the flesh of her legs bulged around the edges of her panties.
“Help me with this, would you?” she asked, looking up.
Leslie was holding a cotton halter against her chest with both hands. Trager hesitated, then took the ties in his hands. He managed a bow behind her back, but to get the neck strings, he had to reach around in front of her. His hands met hers, and she shifted her grip, so that for a moment his fingers brushed across her soft breasts. He thought he touched the firmer button of a hardened nipple, and felt an involuntary tightening in his groin. “You'd better hurry,” Leslie said; or maybe it was, “We'd better hurry.” Trager was not sure what he had heard, and it made no difference, because just then Harry Macintosh yelled, “Hold it right there.”
He was standing on the path, taking their picture through the trees. “Hold it—help her with her pack again,” Harry called. “Wait a minute, I want to change lenses. That rock is fantastic!"
“Oh, for Christ's sake,” Leslie muttered, reaching up to take the halter strings out of Trager's hands. She tied them herself, and quickly stepped into a pair of walking shorts. Harry had moved closer on the path, and spread his equipment on the ground. He stood up with a long lens on his camera.
“Do what he wants,” Leslie said nodding toward her pack. Trager held it for her while she put her arms through the straps.
“Great!” said Harry. “Cover of Backpacker.”
When Trager climbed down from the path, Harry said, “You didn't have to wait for me, you know.”
“I wasn't,” said Trager. “I wasn't waiting for anyone. I mean, we were just changing . . . . I was just changing clothes. My leg was killing me in the heat.”
He pointed at the bandage on the inside of his thigh. Leslie stepped onto the path and looked critically at his crotch. “That little Indian girl did quite a job on you. Sure she didn't damage anything else playing down there?”
Trager forced a laugh. “I hope not,” he said.
“Well, you ready to go at it again?” Leslie said.
“I think I'll walk with Harry,” Trager said. “Give my leg a rest.”
“Fine,” Leslie said. “If that's what you need.” She walked off down the path, her breasts jiggling out the sides of her halter.
Trager waited for Harry to pack his gear and then they walked together down through the woods and out into hot terraced fields. He expected Harry to say something about the scene at the rock, but the man walked in silence, sweat dripping onto the toes of his hiking shoes. Up the slope from the trail, men were plowing with oxen, calling rhythmically to their animals as they worked. Two young boys sitting on a terrace wall called out, “Ap kahan jate hain, sahib?”
“Doda,” Trager replied.
“One pen,” one of the children said.
“One pen. One pen. Please give me one pen.” the boys chanted.
Trager recognized what must have been a slug of dialogue from a language class. “Können Sie mir sagen, wo das Kino ist?” he said.
The children looked at him in puzzlement. Harry opened one of his breast pockets and gave disposable ball point pens to each of the boys. The pocket was full of pens. “Same thing in Nepal,” Harry said. “I wonder why it's always pens.” Trager walked ahead while Harry took pictures of the children. He needed to talk to Harry, to tell him that nothing had happened by the rock. But nothing had happened, and Harry didn't seem to think it had. It was Leslie he really needed to talk to, to confirm that it was just an embarrassing mistake. He finally decided he did not really know what had happened at the rock in the woods, and would ignore the event, leaving it behind as he had the catheter set and oxygen bottle.
The sun shone now from the southeast, hitting the mountains at an angle that emphasized every ledge, chimney and crevasse. Trager stopped walking and inspected the range from end to end. There were four major summits in the massif across the valley. From the map, Trager knew that most of the ridge was over nineteen thousand feet. That made each of the peaks around twenty thousand feet—higher than any mountain he had ever seen outside of Alaska. Trager tried to piece various routes together, but every line either crossed an avalanche path or ran out in blank rock. Seen head on like this, every feature seemed vertical.
"Harry? Can I look through your telephoto a minute?”
Harry hurried up the trail towards him. “What have you got? An eagle? I'd love to get a picture of an eagle."
"No eagles. I just want to look at the mountains." Harry attached the same lens he had used to photograph Trager and Leslie. "Here, try the three hundred," he said.
Trager held the camera and heavy lens awkwardly. It took him a moment to aim. Fields and forested hillsides swam in the viewing screen. He tilted the camera up, and suddenly he was there: a green meadow, where bright tents could flutter in the wind . . . a gully in the face above . . . light catching on the ledge where they might bivouac . . . and the corniced ridge where they would emerge, breathless, and look down on this pasture from the top of the world.
“I've got to get a shot of this,” Trager said, fumbling for his little camera in the pocket of his pack.
“Just take the picture with mine,” said Harry. “Go ahead. I'll send you the slides when I get back. Or prints, if you'd like. Let's put it on the tripod, and I'll set the exposure for you.” With Trager's ignorance of sophisticated cameras, it would have taken him five minutes to shoot two or three photographs. With Harry's expertise, the job required half an hour. He insisted on bracketing exposures and retaking the pictures with three different lenses and two different filters, in color and black and white.
A man coming down the trail stopped to watch them at work. He wore a peaked cap, a suit jacket over pajamas, and carried a canvas military haversack. As Harry finally began to put his cameras away, Trager turned to the man, trying to recall his rudimentary language lesson of the morning “‘Can jahnty’?” he tried.
To his amazement, the man responded, “Lunwali.”
“Achcha,” Trager said. He pointed at the mountains. “Men climb? Climb? Up? You know?”
The man squinted at the peaks for a moment. “I think not,” he said. “A couple of French chaps had a go at the one on the right last year, but the weather was just pissing and the poor Frogs had to bugger right off.”
“Hey, what do you know?” Harry said. “Where'd you learn to speak English so good?”
“The same place I presume you did—my mother's proverbial knee. You don't think the British could rule India for three centuries without leaving us the King's bloody English?”
“Sorry,” said Trager. “We just get used to not being understood.”
“Quite all right,” said the man. “A universal condition. I myself came damn close to failing my own examinations in Hindi. That is one reason why I am now a forest officer afoot in Upper Sonjal instead of a bureaucrat being chauffeured about the parks of Delhi or Bombay.”
“Doesn't look like such a bad place to work,” said Trager.
“I tell you, it is no place for a man from the city. Not even for a forest botanist. Where is my bloody forest, I ask you? The only trees are up there among the cliffs a thousand meters above the valley. It is otherwise these stinking potato fields. I have had a devil of a time getting these locals to refrain from cutting off that little stand behind you for fodder and firewood.”
“In America, you'd have the Sierra Club in here in no time,” said Harry. “Where are all your conservationists?”
“At tea, probably. One needs a full stomach to be a conservationist. It is most difficult,
because the local people need the fuel and fodder today, and every day. I personally believe
the answer is not in forestry, but in money. Your money. Tourist money. That is the profitable way to treat these valleys that have been logged off for a century. Instead of closing them up
to foreigners as we are doing in Ladakh just now, we should be opening them up to people such as yourselves in order to irrigate them with your money. I assume you are members of the party above.”
“Right,” said Trager. “I'm the leader.”
“Oh, really? In that case, you might just have a word with that large woman of yours, the one with no clothes. The local people working in the fields are already quite scandalized by her nakedness. She would cause something of a riot if she were to enter a village in such dress.”
“Just like Nepal,” Harry said. “Go ahead, give it your best shot. She sure won't put on her shirt for my sake.”
Trager left before Harry had finished packing up. He did not relish the idea of confronting Leslie, but he saw a chance to make clear that her halter top and her method of putting it on were nothing but a nuisance to him.
The trail began to climb through the terraces. Above the fields, the slope was thick with brush just beginning to green. Trager saw that he was about to begin a series of switchbacks that climbed to a bench near the lowest snowfields. The corners of buildings jutted over the edge of the bench a thousand feet above the river. The ponies were already out of sight, probably in the village. High on the slope, a small figure that might have been Pratima Busco was climbing steadily upward.
As Trager gained elevation, he turned to look across at the mountains he had photographed with Harry. The perspective had changed, but that only made them more familiar. Trager climbed the gulley and the cornice with his eyes several more times. The bivouac ledge was not visible to the naked eye, but he was sure there would be room for them both. The descent would require a large number of rappels. Trager wondered how much technical climbing Freya had done. And for the first time he realized that in his mind he had been climbing the mountain only with her.
The trail skirted a large slab. It was decent climbing rock, some kind of granitic gneiss, glacier-worn, but with enough nubbins and cracks to provide holds. The village was hidden by the contours of the mountain, but he knew he was close from the trail litter: a worn-out rope sandal, a pot shard, a paper airplane. Trager stopped, surprised. He picked up the airplane, and saw that although the paper was faded and cracked at the edges, it was crisply folded, obviously just made. As he contemplated the toy, a cool breeze blew down from the snowy ridges and across the village, bringing with it the smell of wood smoke, and the sound of people shouting.
"Oh, shit,” Trager swore. “Leslie!” He jogged up the last stretch of trail onto the bench, his pulse hammering. Doda was much more of a settlement than Trager expected. It was as large as Lunwali, with enough level ground for two uneven rows of mud and timber houses. The packed dirt space between the buildings was almost wide enough to qualify as a main street. In the middle of this lane Sundown Busco stood in a crowd of screaming children, holding a paper airplane above his head. He launched the glider in Trager's direction, and Trager had to jump aside to avoid the stampede of children that followed it.
Pratima appeared at his side. “Would you stop him? Would you try? He won't listen to me.”
“What's wrong with paper airplanes?” Trager asked.
“Do you have any idea how valuable paper is in a place like this? The kids are taking pages from the shopkeepers’ ledgers. They're taking their teacher’s writing paper.”
The children were back around Sundown, some of them thrusting scraps of paper in his direction. Trager walked over, with Pratima following.
“Hey, Ans, what's happening?” Sundown said.
“I'm not sure,” said Trager, “but hold off making any more of those. How did all this start?”
“I was just sitting in the tea stall here waiting for everyone to show up, and these kids came around, asking ‘one pen,’ you know. So I decided to show them something. Pratima used to really get off on paper airplanes when she was little.”
“There was always computer paper all over the floor when I was little. This is different.”
“What do you mean you were waiting for everyone to show up?” Trager asked. “Where's camp?”
“Beats me,” Sundown said. “Where did you come from? I thought you were ahead of us.”
“This is Doda, isn't it?” Trager asked. He looked at the children. “Doda?”
Pratima repeated the question in Hindi. The children giggled and pointed in several directions. Pratima turned to Trager with fierce eyes. “They say no. There is no Doda.”
The village headman was named Chandra Lal. He sat in one corner of the tea stall entrance, punctuating his conversation with noisy drags on a tiny bidi. Next to him the shop owner hovered over his primus, ragged shirt sleeves rolled out of reach of the flame. He flapped his arms from time to time to drive back the crowd of men and children that craned to see the foreigners sitting on the bench against the back wall.
“Chandra Lal thinks the others might have gone to a place down by the river,” Pratima translated. “There used to be a village there called Doda. He says it went with the snow. I suppose that means an avalanche. This place is called Gulpathar, and it's now the last village in the Sonjal. The country gets steep above. In fact, Chandra Lal thinks it's too early for ponies. Too much snow.”
“Ask him how far Doda is from here,” Trager said. “Could we make it this afternoon?”
“He thinks so. The villagers do it . . . .” The tea stall owner interrupted the translation.
“Achcha dak bungalow hai, sahibs. You stay.”
“There's some kind of travelers’ bungalow here,” Pratima said. “Kahan?” she asked. “Where?”
The man grinned and pointed to a loft above the trekkers’ heads. The headman and other villagers laughed. “Tell him thanks,” Trager said. “But we should find our own camp.”
There was more shouting outside. Hopefully, Trager walked to the edge of the flat, where he could look down on the switchbacks. Harry Macintosh was plodding slowly up the steep trail. Below him, the path was empty.
“This is getting worse,” Trager said. They met Harry at the top of the trail. The shop owner was along with his pot, and poured Harry a glass of tea right where the trekker collapsed against the first terrace wall.
“I've had it,” Harry said between breaths. “I thought this was . . . supposed to be an easy day.”
“We took the scenic route by mistake,” said Trager. “There's a turnoff somewhere down by the river that we missed.”
“Oh, no,” Harry said. “How did Lakpa manage that?”
“He didn't. He's not here. Neither are the ponies, or Sonam, or Leslie.”
Harry stared at him, then down the long trail below. “Shit,” he muttered. “Just let me sit a minute.”
“Take your time,” Trager said. “We're staying here tonight.”
“I can make it down,” Harry said. “Don't worry about me.”
“It's not you, Harry. I was just thinking, if we go down to Doda, and no one's there, we'll be in real trouble. Pratima, tell the man we're taking him up on his hospitality.”
“It's not hospitality,” Pratima said. “The people are joking about how much money he's going
“But what's Leslie going to do?” Harry asked.
“Leslie has the food, the tents, and the cook. She's probably going to do a lot better than we
“One paper, please give me one paper,” a boy called.
Harry reached uncertainly for his pen pocket.
“What they want is your notebook,” Sundown said. “Friendly place. You'll see.”
Harry gazed for a moment at the deep valley, then turned and walked slowly with Sundown into Gulpathar, a gang of children skipping after them waving paper airplanes. Trager followed with Chandra Lal and Pratima. The headman said something to him.
“Since we're staying,” Pratima said, “Chandra Lal wants to know if you can come see his mother. She's sick.”
“How sick? I'm not a doctor.”
“I told him that. He says he knows. Doctors never come to upper Sonjal. I don't think you have a choice. He's the headman, and it would be an insult to turn him down.”
“You'd better come with me.”
“Do you think I'd trust you alone?”
Trager left his pack at the tea stall with Sundown, taking only the first aid kit. He and Pratima followed Chandra Lal through the village, watched from doorways by women’s faces that vanished as they passed. Trager felt the strangeness of the country pressing in on him.
“I hate pretending to be something I'm not,” Trager said.
“It didn't stop you from leading this trek.”
“I didn't pretend I knew where we were going,” Trager said. “I just made a mistake.”
They walked in silence a few moments, and then Pratima said, “I hate this too. I hate this about India. Why couldn't they have some decent medical care? The people they assign up here are probably like that forester on the trail today. Smart-ass guys from the city who can't wait to get out of the hills. I went to school with boys like that.”
“You mean in Delhi?”
“Dehra Dun. There are girls’ and boys’ boarding schools. I haven't seen much more of my mother the last four years than I have Sundown.”
“Was that tough on you?”
“Hardly,” Pratima said. “It's the only thing that made it bearable.”
The headman’s house was a two-story structure. Trager and Pratima stepped over a low threshold into a large room with a packed dirt floor. Hand tools, boxes, and burlap sacks were stacked around the sides. In the center, near the light from the door, stood a small loom and spinning wheel. A flight of rough wooden steps led through the ceiling. The room had no furniture except a low wooden table with two gleaming brass primus stoves and an array of aluminum basins and kettles. On a faded carpet in the center of the room sat the oldest person Ansel Trager had ever seen. She was a small woman, but her size was magnified by the large cloak she had draped around her sloping shoulders. The skin in her face was folded and refolded into a wilderness of ridges and valleys. Her corrugated cheeks were further accented by smooth silver hair pulled tight around her ears and dark, shining eyes.
The headman showed them a place to sit on the carpet in front of his mother. Trager put down the first aid bag and settled on the rug. He started to spread one leg in front of him, but Pratima snapped, “Pull your leg back in! It's an insult to show someone the sole of your foot.”
Trager grimaced, and hauled his sore leg in with both hands. “What's the matter with her?” he asked. As if she understood Trager's question, the headman's mother held out her arms toward him. Large silver bracelets dangled from her thin wrists, and her bony hands hung like large baubles, drooping, the gnarled fingers flexed into claws. She cried out in a loud voice, and shook her hands, making the bracelets clatter together. The skeletal hands twisted, the finger turning talon by talon in front of Trager's eyes.
“This is making me nervous,” said Trager.
“It's her hands,” said Pratima. “She says she used to weave rugs, but now has a hand sickness.” The woman held out her hands again toward Trager. He took them hesitantly. They were warm and dry.
“Ask if she can move and feel her fingers,” Trager said. “Has she had an injury?”
Pratima said, “No, no injuries. And she can feel in all her fingers. The joints just hurt.”
“She's probably got arthritis. So does my Mom. There isn't anything I can do about it.”
“I didn't think there would be,” said Pratima. “But I've got to tell her something. What does your mother do?”
She complains, Trager thought. She's younger than this woman, and her hands are white with Porcelana, and she lives in a house with a Jenn-Air in the kitchen, and she complains. The old woman was watching him expectantly, her eyes shining out of her weathered face. He set her hands down gently in her lap.
“Let's try this,” he said. He found his notebook in the top of his pack, and tore out a page. Folding the paper, he poured a handful of aspirins into the crease. “Have her take two of these at meals and bedtime,” he said.
Pratima and the woman spoke to each other. “She wants to know, with hot water or cold water?”
“Doesn't matter,” Trager said.
“She seems to think so.”
“Okay, tell her, hot water.”
The woman nodded seriously at the advice, and Trager said, “As soon as she starts the pills, she should try to weave again, and keep weaving as long as she can, even after the pills are gone. Maybe another trek will come along with some more aspirin before her joints give out again.”
“What do you think you're doing?” Pratima asked. “Trying to trick her into feeling better?”
“Why not?” Trager asked. “It's all they did for my Mom.”
The girl glared at Trager, and then spoke in Hindi. The old woman took the pills from Trager's hand. She pressed the pills and his hands together in hers, and raised them both to her forehead, and made a low bow of gratitude. Trager hesitated, and then bowed in turn. When they straightened up, the woman grinned and began to chatter at Pratima. The girl answered with an unsure smile.
A few minutes later, as Chandra Lal escorted them out onto the path, Trager asked, “What was all that giggling you girls were doing?”
“Nothing,” Pratima said. “Let's get back.”
As they walked through the village, Trager looked over at the profile of the girl next to him. From this angle the sharp features of her father's face were evident, only softened by some rounder curves. When she relaxed her frown, Pratima also had her father's sadness around the eyes.
“I guess this trip hasn't really worked out for you, has it?” he said. “It doesn't look like you and Sundown are doing much talking.”
“Perceptive of you,” she said.
“You're being sarcastic,” said Trager. “It's none of my business, but that might be part of your problem. You never give anyone a break in a conversation. Even when my parents were getting a divorce, they still could be polite to each other.”
“Is that right? And so why did your parents get divorced?”
“I don't know the whole story. I was only ten. But my Mom always wanted to do things her way, and so did Dad. But they didn't argue about it. In fact, things just got quieter and quieter around the house, until Dad finally left. And then I got out, too. In my own way“
“At ten years old?”
“Twelve. My scout troop took up climbing, and my head was pretty much in the mountains after that.”
“And you're saying that's the way to run a family? Angry silence, followed by escape?”
“Worked for me,” Trager said. “At least I was able to accept it.”
“Maybe that's because it wasn't your fault.”
“What wasn't? The divorce? No, of course it wasn't. Do you think you caused your parents to break up?”
“They act as if I did. I was in trouble in school, so Mother took me back to India to get me away from California. Of course the way she puts everything, it's her fault for not keeping a closer eye on what was going on. But it still adds up to my having messed things up. And it's all just a stupid excuse.”
“For your parents not getting along with each other?”
“Yes! And even Sundown admits it. All I want is for him to tell Mother I'm not the reason we're in India. To tell her there isn't any reason for my being here.”
“So you can go back to California with your Dad?”
“Never. Sundown is impossible to live with alone. He's so spaced out on his computers he forgets you're alive. I don't know how my Mother managed before I was born. And my Mother! She worries so much about other people she's really crazy. There's no other way to put it.”
“So go back on your own,” Trager said. “I got out of the house when I was eighteen.”
“I can't,” Pratima said. “I don't have the money, and even if I did, I wouldn't go back alone. You probably won't understand it, but my family is different from yours. No one ever escapes.”
As they approached the tea stall, Trager realized that the women in the buildings were no longer hiding. They stood in their doorways, smiling. One of them called out some comments that Pratima seemed about to answer. But then she just put her hands together, nodded to the woman and walked away.
“What was that?” Trager asked.
“She thanked us for what we did Chandra Lal's mother.” Pratima paused.
“How would they know? It just happened.”
“They know. Also . . . these people seem to think you're my husband. She says I trained
They spent the night on the floor wrapped in horse blankets, dressed in every piece of clothing they owned. Trager woke cold and sore, with his sinuses congested with dust. He also had an enormous erection. He had just left a dream. Freya Martens crouched next to him explaining something on a map. As her hip nudged his, Trager became aware that she was naked. He hesitated to look, knowing he would find she had the lumpy body of Leslie Macintosh. But when he turned his head, he found that it was Pratima, sleek and brown, watching him with angry eyes.
It took a minute to orient himself in the tea stall loft. He lay against one cold mud wall, below the single tiny window. Pratima really was next to him, curled in a tight ball with the blanket around her face. She had rolled off the rug she shared with her father and had Trager pinned. Trager could see a gap between the girl and the snoring heap of Harry Macintosh. Sundown was gone.
Trager slipped the corner of his blanket out from under the sleeping girl. His leg had stiffened up again, and he groaned as he stepped over her. Pratima stirred, but only burrowed deeper under her covers. She was so small, so childlike, he wondered how she could have worked her way into his erotic dream. Her angular features were not particularly pretty to Trager, and her assertiveness had a pushy adolescent quality to it. Her preoccupation with her family relations seemed like a kind of nervous hysteria. He did consider if the taut body he had dreamed up for her was like the real thing, but he tried not to dwell on the image. Pratima seemed like someone who longed for care. Outside his narrow responsibilities as a climber, he had never taken care of anyone but himself. Not even those few other women whose bodies he did not have to imagine.
The shop below was empty, but the tea seller had already taken down the boards that closed the front during the night. The sky was streaked with pink snakes twisting out of the west. The air was warmer than at Lunwali, despite the higher elevation. Sundown was not in the lane or at the latrine behind the tea shop. Trager walked out to the terraces above the trail, and looked down at the river.
Two switchbacks down the slope the track disappeared around the slab where Trager had found the paper airplane. It occurred to him that a few climbing moves might actually be good for his stiff leg. He walked carefully down the steep trail.
Sundown was already on the rock, ten feet off the ground. His cheek was pressed close to the slab, his seat stuck out over the trail, and hands groped above him for a hold. It would have been a comical, if Trager had not recognized the stance of a climber about to fall. Sundown looked down at Trager under his arm.
“Hey, man, how am I doing?”
His voice was raspy. His legs trembled.
“There's a lower hold for your right foot,” Trager said. “Then get your hands on the footholds you're using now. That would let you swing low enough to jump to the ground.”
“But, man, I'm trying to go up.” He lunged, straightened for a moment on his feet, slapped at a hold over his head, and slid down the rock. Trager jumped to spot him. Sundown landed on flexed legs and toppled toward the edge of the trail. Trager caught him by the sleeve of his windbreaker.
“I almost had it,” Sundown said.
“Do you know what would happen if you even sprained an ankle? How do you think we'd get you out of here?”
“Hey, don't get bent out of shape. That's the second time I've been up there. Anyway, didn't you come down here to climb?”
Trager let go of the Sundown's sleeve. “I did, but let me show you how to do it so you don't get hurt.”
Sundown stepped up to the rock again. “OK, help me out,” he said.
Trager watched him make the first few moves. “Why'd you break up with Kamala?” he asked.
Sundown took another step. “I was talking about this climb.”
“I know,” Trager said. “But I was just curious.”
“You been talking to Pratima.”
“She thinks it's her fault that Pratima left. Or thinks you think it is.”
“What is this bullshit?” Sundown said. “She sounds like her mom. ‘All my fault, all my fault,’ ‘til you feel so sorry for her you want to go out and kill yourself.”
“She just wants to hear she's not to blame. She figures if you say that, there's no reason you can't all go home together.”
Sundown jumped back to the ground. “Sure. As long as she's not to blame, then everything's cool. Well there's a whole shitload of stuff that she doesn't understand, and neither do you.”
“I guess not. I just wondered what you'd say.”
“How about if we just deal with this rock?” He stared Trager down.
“Okay,” Trager said. “You're reaching with your hands first. Place your feet first, and just use your hands for balance. Like this.” He stepped up on the nubbins, climbed a few feet, and waited for Sundown to follow. When they reached Sundown's high point, Trager traversed to the side on a thin seam so that Sundown could climb up next to him.
“What do you think?” Sundown asked.
“Looking good,” said Trager. “You know, a lot of people say the test of a real climber is knowing when to climb down.”
“Like now. We just reverse the moves. Get your hands low, then step down. I'll go first.”
Trager looked down to plan his route. His gaze travelled quickly to the ground and beyond into the depths of the valley. There was the sound of harness bells. Trager straightened on his holds and repositioned his feet. He could make out Lakpa and the pony-wallah guiding the lead animal around one of the switchbacks. Behind the ponies, light flashed off the pots and stoves dangling from Sonam's rucksack. And in front of them all came Leslie Macintosh, pumping hard, bush shirt open, the pink morning sky heightening the flush on her wide bosom.
Trager always felt awkward watching hikers approach on an open trail. There was a long period when the two parties inspected and judged each other but were still too far away for any communication. Trager had never felt more awkward as he watched Leslie Macintosh climb up to Gulpathar. Her eyes were fixed on him where he stood with Sundown at the top of the switchbacks. He wondered what she had dreamed about the night before.
“Hold it! Look up, Les! Look this way!”
Harry Macintosh danced across the edge of the terrace, eye pressed to his camera.
“See that?” Sundown said. “He misses her, man. She gives him a lot of shit, but some people get off on that.”
“You guys!” Harry called. “Step back about five feet. I want to get you in the foreground with Les just coming around the corner below. Good! You too, Ans.”
Pratima walked out from the village, along with a small crowd of Gulpatharis eager to see the newcomers. She reached her father's side at the same time Leslie arrived at the top of the trail. She strode up the last pitch, ignoring her husband's instructions, and stopped close enough to Trager that he could smell her odd mixture of cologne and sweat.
“You idiot!” she said. “You went to the wrong Village.”
“Don’t I know. But we had to gain this elevation today anyway. The people here say we can take a high trail from Gulpathar to the next camp.”
“So why does our itinerary have us go to that godforsaken Doda? It looks like a bomb hit the place. There isn't even a flat spot for a tent.”
“Mellow out,” said Sundown. “I was the one who missed the turn.”
“And we had to stay,” Pratima said. “Ansel had to help sick people in the village.”
Leslie took the three of them in at a glance. “This isn't the first trek I've been on. It's not like I don't know the difference between someone who's competent and someone who doesn't know his ass from a hole in the wall. And don't think I won't tell your company which one you are. I'm not paying for a leader to play great white doctor. And I'm sure as hell not paying for him to chase some teenager's ass.”
She strode toward the village, Harry hurrying alongside, trying to take her picture.
“Hey, lady!” Sundown cried after her. “You're out of line!” But Leslie did not even turn her head.
The ponies walked through, guided by the scowling pony-wallah, urged on from behind by Lakpa and Sonam. The animals spread out quickly on the grassy flat to graze. Lakpa was as dapper as ever, his knee socks absolutely straight on his calves, his pack strapped down smooth and tight. Sonam had added brushwood to his ungainly pack, and had to turn sideways to keep from hitting Trager and the Buscos.
“Thik hai, sahib?” the cook asked.
“All okay?” Lakpa translated. “We worry last night.”
“I think I'm more worried this morning,” Trager said, watching Leslie walk into the village. A gauntlet of children had formed to ask for paper, but Leslie brushed them aside.
Lakpa tipped his head. “Problem client always difficult.”
Suddenly it was better. There was a label that explained Leslie, just as it explained Weston Ferndecker to Freya Martens in Ladakh. She was a problem. So in their own ways, were Harry, Sundown, and Pratima. And Trager could deal with them all, if he only watched his step and kept his balance.