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Houseboat Golden Victory 

Nagin Lake 

Srinagar, Kashmir

Dear Ansel:

I try not to worry about you. The District Commissioner's office said you were a military problem. The military would not see me. J&K Tourism was sympathetic--I don't think they get along with Central Government. But they don't have influence with the Army. Lakpa says Freya Martens will take care of you. I hope that is true. She saw us off on the bus to Srinagar. Such a nervous woman.

Come to us if you can. I want to show you I can be more than the brat I was in the mountains. I made Sundown and Kamala save you the room next to mine. That's right--we're all here together. The worst should be over by the time you arrive.

Love, Pratima

There were only a few parties at breakfast in the Kara Koram, all apparently lowland Indians in safari suits or saris. Trager re-read the letter over coffee. He could just imagine Pratima arguing with clerks in office anterooms. He wondered if she could really have managed to help him if Freya had not done it first. It seemed to Trager that for all Pratima's ironic aggressiveness, she was extremely timid. She had told her version of the Busco family crisis long after her father, and then only in a state of delirium. The two of them with Kamala would be a sight to see. Pratima's mother was obviously both a link and a barrier between the girl and her father. She had been the discoverer of both their lovers and apparently the keeper of both secrets. Trager had only met the woman for a few moments, but he could imagine how it was. His own mother wasn’t that different. Sure of her own agency, and for that reason always responsible, she would decide what was proper, then act. Others could flee--as had Trager and his father--or be pulled along, as was Pratima. But whatever happened was her doing. Sundown and Pratima had not escaped Kamala by going on the trek. They had brought her along.


As Trager was contemplating the logistics of a bus ride to Srinagar and back, Roger Kaul entered the dining room, and detoured past Trager's table. "I trust the Kara Koram suits you better than the Darcha Rest House," he said.


"Believe me," said Trager. "Have you seen Freya? She didn't come home last night, and I've got some things to discuss with her."


"Home?" Roger exclaimed. "Freya is at home anywhere in Kargil, where everyone has something to discuss with her. I should not worry."


"Okay, I won't. I take it you're one of her backers."


"Oh, by no means," Roger said quickly, holding up his hands. "No, I believe she has some investment from America."


"I see. I just wondered who I was really working for now."


"Do any of us know who we really work for?" Roger asked. "I am fond of thinking I am my own master here, but let there be another airline strike in San Francisco or London and I am quickly reminded that I am merely a servant to airline passengers on the ground. My advice is, never worry about the source of your orders. Worry about the source of your customers."




When Trager returned to the bungalow, Lakpa and Sonam were closing the wide double doors of the living room. "Sahib, we go bazaar for some trekking things. I lock this bungalow. Or are you stay?"


"I'll go with you," Trager said. “I've hung out in bungalows long enough."


Sonam led the way down the steep lane into the bazaar, wearing a necklace of plastic fuel jugs tied together with string. The cook seemed to like his loads loose and noisy. Lakpa carried a nylon gym bag, and looked as if he were on his way to a handball workout.


"You climbed with that Leftenant Nazir on Everest, didn't you?" Trager asked Lakpa.


"Yes, sahib. Very serious man, very strict."


"But he got along well enough with you to let you take the trekkers to Kargil last week.“


"I think, he is not wanting to feed us all. But he is a good man. On Everest, other Army men tell Ladakhi porters and Sherpas to carry every little thing. Nazir carries loads like porters-- thirty kilos."


They stopped in front of a stall labeled Gupta Stove Work. Sonam left them there, vanishing into the stream of people flowing through the street. A mechanic stepped up to a rough workbench to examine two primus stoves Lakpa took from his pack. The two men discussed some problem in Ladakhi, ignoring Trager. Trager found himself becoming impatient. He had tinkered with similar stoves many times, and probably knew a great deal about the issue at hand. And yet he could only watch the sirdar's conversation from afar. Lakpa still had one job; Trager had another. And it seemed to Trager that if he did not take some action immediately, the climb of Murghi-II, and every trip in the future, would be exactly like Springtime in Kashmir.


"What else do we have to do down here?" Trager asked. "Give me part of your shopping list, and I'll get to work."


"We buy some cooking things, some dahl . . . but this man is finish soon."


"No, I've shopped for plenty of trips at home. We always just split the list and do it in half the time. Dahl—lentils—how much do we need?"


“Fifteen kilos. But just wait."


"No, I'll get it. I'll meet you back here." He dodged into the crowds before Lakpa could object again.

The central bazaar was a swirl of noise and dust. Trager's senses, used to the sparse environment of the mountains, were overwhelmed by detail: incense and tobacco; bright piles of spices; women in purdah like walking tents; the chatter of vendors and bleating of goats. Every minute or so, the crowd scattered to the gutters as a truck or bus trundled through, then swept back together. Trager passed the grain merchant's stall three times before he noticed the bins of legumes.


"Dahl. Fifteen kilos," he said to a boy in the stall.


"Achcha, sahib. Red dahl? Yellow dahl?“


The boy waved at bins that contained six or eight varieties of peas, beans, and lentils. Trager had no idea what Lakpa wanted, but he pointed at some brownish lentils that looked most familiar to him.


The boy weighed the dahl out on a balance. "Now give me bag, sahib," he said. He pointed at the sheets of newspaper he used to wrap his sales. The only way he could wrap thirty pounds of lentils would be in a stack of small packages, and then Trager would still have no way to carry them. "Bag is from tailor-wallah, other side," the boy said.


The tailor, a wizened man sitting with a hand-driven sewing machine held between his knees, spoke little English. A young clerk passing by had to intervene. "The man does not have any bags. He makes them on the spot, once you have provided some cloth. Cloth merchants are at the other end of the bazaar. But please, may I presume you are with Miss Martens? Yes? Congratulations on winning the Restricted Area permit. This was a good piece of work.“


"How did you know about that?" Trager asked, surprised.


"Oh, it is all over. Some are saying it should have been let out to an all-Indian company, but for my part, I suspect you chaps are preferable to one or another Bombay travel-wallah who would have only bollixed the job."


Trager thought other people were looking and pointing at him as he made his way to the end of the bazaar. He picked out some plain muslin and rolled off what he thought would be needed for a large sack. The fabric cost only a few rupees, but that created a new problem. Trager had only hundred-rupee notes and the vendor could not change them. Trager went back to the middle of the bazaar to the one bank in town. A line of western tourists extended out the door and down the street. He decided he was beaten.


Lakpa was gone when Trager got back to the stove stall, but the mechanic pointed toward the end of the bazaar where a side lane meandered down toward the Indus River. Leaving the main shopping alleys, Trager passed through a warren of sheet-metal shacks ringing with sounds of grinding and hammering. He guessed that this industrial quarter was where Sonam had gone to fill the kerosene jugs. He wandered among forges and car repair stalls without seeing either of the Ladakhis, until he found himself at a grove of trees along the river. It was a pleasant place, despite its proximity to the workshops, cool and shady. A small crowd of men and boys had gathered at the edge of the grove, and Trager wandered close enough to see what they were looking at.


The men were watching tourists camping. Bright orange and red tents sprouted among the willow trees. A half dozen young tourists lounged in front of the tents, ignoring the onlookers, sunning themselves in the bright spaces between the leaf shadows. They were almost naked, men and women in sleek swim suits. One girl lay face down with her bikini straps open on either side. She formed the centerpiece for the spectators, who jostled to get a better look.


"Hallo, hallo!" a voice called from inside the camp. "Ja, you there! Komm, komm, komm!" A round-faced, athletic-looking man in a crisp white sport shirt motioned to him. Trager recognized the tour leader whose group he had crashed at the Srinagar airport. The Ladakhis had already turned to see who the man was waving at. Reluctantly, Trager walked through the crowd, and into the grove. There was no fence, but he felt as if he had passed through a barrier that no one else in the road could have crossed.


"So! You are looking for Freya, ja?" the man asked, with a toothy smile. 


“How did you know I was with Freya?"

"Ha!" The man slapped him on the back, too hard. "You are famous. The mysterious young man who appears in Freya's jeep yesterday. So! She sends old Max packing in one direction, drives up to Darcha, comes down with a new one. So! I am Viktor Axt, tour leader for Vogeltur, out of München."


"Ansel Trager," he said. "We met in Srinagar. Where are you trekking?"


"Ha! This is a good question. We are hoping to be in the Murghi this year, but your damn Freya has already the permit. No one will have another chance for another year. Then maybe some bribe, some baksheesh, and we will see. But now we just go over to Leh, to see the monasteries. So! But you will enjoy your season at the top of the hill. Max did, when he was there. But where is Freya?"


"Couldn't tell you," said Trager. "She was away last night. I guess obtaining trekking permits is late work."


Viktor roared with laughter. He spoke in French to the people on the towels. They laughed, too, and the girl with her top off raised on her elbows to get a better look at Trager. The crowd murmured in the lane.


"So! You are with Freya, but not at night. You have taken over Max's place, but not all of his duties. Poor Max! I am seeing him in Srinagar last week. Absolute drunk! You would say, shit-face. Ha! This is from thinking with the balls, not with the brains. But this is always a problem, ja, even on the trek."


He flicked his eyes down at the sunbathers, and grinned. "I have in Nepal one woman, she comes with her husband on the same trek. What could I do? Her man, he goes crying to Vogeltur in München, and next thing they are wanting to give me Afghanistan. Only the mujahedeen fighting saves me. We are the ones who take always the blame, and we hope the shits in the office are not losing the business from under us. Where does Freya have her money from? Do you know? No--this is the big secret. So take care. And take my card, here. Next year, I am my own company. No more shit out of München. When this business with Freya is not working, you call. I will need some man in America.”


Trager started to break away, but Viktor said, "Please! We are just having some lunch. These are some of my party, this is Monique, and Rudi, and this . . . ." A cook slipped a bottle of beer into Trager’s hands. As Viktor steered him farther into the compound, the girl on the blanket rolled over to get a better look.

"Ansel!" Freya's voice cut the sultry air. The men in the lane parted to let her through.


"Ah! Meine liebe, schöne Freya! Wo hast du . . .”


"Genug! Ansel, let’s go.”


"Freya, your boy was simply lost!”


“And you, you darling, are helping him find his way."


"Ha! As one helps another in the mountains. So! You will join us?"


“Ansel and I have work to do." She slipped her hand around Trager's and towed him away.


"I am certain this is an important time for you," Viktor called after them. "Plans to make. Debts to pay." Freya stepped over the sunbathing girl and headed for the road.


"What happened to you last night?" Trager asked.


"One meeting after another. I haven't been back to the bungalow, I haven't been to sleep yet, and I'm in no mood to discover you at a Vogultur camp in front of half the town. Will you put down that beer?"


Trager set the half-full bottle on the side of the road. “I was looking for Lakpa and Sonam. I was helping them with the shopping.”


"I know," Freya said. "The bazaar is talking about it. When you don't know your way around, stay with those who do.” She took a deep breath. “Right now, a hundred feet in front of us there's a wave of news saying that Freya Marten's climb leader is in business with Viktor Axt. What did he offer you?”


"Lunch," Trager said. "And he gave me his card. He said he might need a man some day in America."


"Viktor needs a man every day, wherever he is. Look-- he was using you, parading you. He needs to have people connected with the only people allowed to run treks in the Restricted Area. You have to be careful. We have the permit, tomorrow they could take it away.”


Two men were waiting at the base of the steep road that climbed up to the Kara Koram. One of them, a large balding man regarded them through dark sunglasses.


"I found him," Freya announced. "Ansel, you remember Colonel Battarchaya?"


The Commandant of Kawapatri wore a civilian suit, but Trager still recognized the smooth voice. "Mr. Trager, so good to see you again," the Colonel murmured. "I understand Freya has needed to rescue you once more from the clutches of the military. You really should mind the company you keep."


"Please tell him, Ravi," Freya said. "When I found him just now he was about to have lunch with Viktor Axt."


"Oh, dear God," the Colonel sighed. The young man with him giggled, and the Colonel frowned at him in irritation.


"Ansel, this is Gulam Rasheed," Freya said. "He's the J-and-K State tourism director in Kargil."


Rasheed sprang forward. He was not much older than Trager, with long hair and a stylish sport coat. As he pumped Trager's hand, he said, "Very good to meet you. I was just saying how pleased we are to be able to have you up the Murghi. You know, it was close thing to get the Restricted Area open at all. The army chaps are quite keen to have all of Ladakh restricted again. They would have each of us in our own assigned place. Then they could shoot anything that moved.”


The Colonel wheezed, and Trager sensed that Rasheed had made this remark too often. But Rasheed ignored him and went on. "Call on me if there is anything I can do to facilitate your climbing, or . . . any other concerns that will increase the tourism potential of Jammu and Kashmir." He seemed to expect some response.


"Great. That's great," Trager said. "Thanks."


"Very good. Well, I am off." He bounced down the road into the bazaar.


"Bastard," the Colonel muttered. "But he is powerless."


“Do you see, Ansel?" Freya asked. "Rasheed is already working on the angle that you and Viktor are going to come up with a challenge to me. It's only a matter of time until he tries to use that as some kind of lever."


"He'll be out of luck," Trager said. "I don't have anything to do with Viktor."


"Well put," the Colonel said. "Freya, you have the advantage in this matter of loyal companions, both Mr. Trager and your Ladakhis. In fact, Mr. Trager, I should look to your sirdar for guidance until you get the hang of things. You should not have left him in the bazaar today. Remember that he also is a guide. Profit from his guidance. Learn from him. He is invaluable, and an honest man."


"I know," Trager said. "He brought back every unspent rupee from Springtime in Kashmir. Had each expense written down in a book, and didn't even pay himself."


"Certainly he has expensed himself somewhat, though," the Colonel said drily.

"In any case," Freya said, "we should pay the boys off tonight."


"Am I one of 'the boys'?" Trager asked.

"I beg your pardon?" Battarchaya said.

"In Kawapatri, our agreement was four hundred dollars. That would be about thirty-two hundred rupees and change."

"Now, see here," Battarchaya began, "the situation is . . . ."

"Ravi!" Freya interrupted. "I will take care of this."


Battarchaya looked sharply at her, then at Trager. "Well, see to it," he said. "Best of luck." He shook Trager's hand and walked away toward the bazaar.

"Let's get back," Freya said. "I'll explain on the way." she waited until they were halfway up the hill to the Kara Koram and well away from the bazaar traffic. "The 'situation" Ravi was referring to is this. I don't have a way of paying you in dollars right now. Two weeks ago, you contracted with Holz Overseas Trekking, which doesn't exist. I can give you rupees from the trek--you earned it--but it won't do you much good. When your visa runs out next month and you have to leave India, you can only get dollars for ten percent of what you converted to rupees when you were here. So unless you spent three grand on your bus trip, you'll forfeit all your money from Springtime in Kashmir."

"So what am I supposed to do?"

"Trust me. No! Don't make that face! Look, you have no expenses as long as you're here. Food, equipment, Roger's scotch--all on the house. When we get back and I can write a check, you'll get everything you earned."

"We? You're coming back with me?"

"Probably. I have to leave every six months to keep my own visa, and there's a trade show in Vancouver. But in any case, I'm asking you to stick with us through this climb and trust us to make it worth your while."

Trager walked in silence for a minute. Then he asked, "Who is the "us?" Is Battarchaya one of your investors?"


"No. More like a consultant. It was his influence that really got the Army to accept my application."


"Why wouldn't he do the same for Max? I thought they were old friends."


“They still are, as far as I know. But Ravi is a good enough friend to realize that with Max, you can't combine business and friendship."


"You did," Trager said. "You were more than friends, weren't you?"


Freya's eyes flashed. "Was that just a guess?"


"Viktor made some remark about my filling Max's place."


"Viktor," Freya sighed. "But what difference does that make to you?"


"Nothing," Trager said. "Really."


They were both silent for a few paces. Then Freya said, "You know, in this job, all that matters--whether or not our clients climb their mountain or finish their trek--is that all of them feel a little better about themselves after its over."


Trager waited for her to continue. “OK. And so—“


"And so when you ask a woman about her love life, and she tells you, and then asks what difference it makes to you, don't say ‘nothing.’ Never say ‘nothing.’”




Freya slept through the afternoon, and Trager did not see her again until she met him and Lakpa in the bungalow living room in the evening. The floor was packed to the walls with the trekking and climbing equipment, but they cleared a circle under the single-bulb ceiling light. They sat on duffels facing each other with schedules and equipment lists strewn on the worn woolen rug between them.


"I'm sorry I wasn't here last night," Freya said, "but I got a lot done. “The main thing is that I got permission to put the base camp by the gompa below the Murghi Glacier."


“The monastery?” Trager asked.


"Yes, sahib, Buddhist monastery," Lakpa said. "Many gompa toward Leh. But this side Ladakh is all Muslim. Murghi gompa is only one. But very far from Murghi-II."


"It's not a base for Murghi-II," Freya said. "We'll find a spot for a climbing camp on the glacier. No, the gompa will be more than that. It will be permanent. Some trekkers won't even want to walk in any further--they'll just come to see the monastery. It will be a place for climbers to wait out bad weather, and it means we won't have to move all this gear into the mountains for every trek."


"Memsahib, no good camp by gompa," Lakpa said. "Too small."


"It's the only place the government will let us have," Freya said impatiently. "We'll just make it work."


Lakpa's face assumed an attentive blankness that made Trager uneasy. He had seen it before in the Sonjal.


Freya picked up a sheet of paper from the floor and thrust it at Lakpa. "This is what Ansel and I will need for our reconnaissance of Murghi-II. Pull that gear out first. We'll be leaving as soon as we're packed. You and Sonam can put the base camp in with ponies while we're up on the glacier."


"Memsahib," Lakpa said. "I think, I go with Trager, and find the climbing route.”


"No, you're putting in the camp," Freya said. Her voice was tense. "You'll be needed there, and I want to see the mountain for myself. It's not the way Max would have done it, but Max is gone, and things are going to be different now. Get started on the equipment in the other room. You can work in here as soon as Ansel and I are finished.“


After the sirdar had left, Freya said quietly, “This might be harder than I thought."


"Maybe he really wants to find a better camp site."


"Ansel, what Lakpa really wants is your job. Max never let him have a trek of his own, and he thinks now that Max is gone, he automatically has a new position."


"Why shouldn't he?" Trager asked. "He knows what he's doing better than I do."


"Not necessarily. On the trek, sure, of course he does. But you already know that's only part of the business. When clients get nervous over here--about the food, the customs, whatever--they want a westerner in between them and India. Just to take charge. To repeat directions without an accent. To laugh at the same jokes. Another Indian--even one in jeans and Nikes--won't do."


Trager was about to object, but he remembered his own assumptions about Vasant Bagchee. He chose his words carefully. “I don't want to talk myself out of a job, but . . . if the clients want an Indian adventure, why shouldn't they get used to having an Indian guide? I mean, Leslie Macintosh did."


Freya laughed. "OK, Leslie is a different kind of adventurer. Very few of our people are really adventurers at all. They just want the trappings." She waved her hand across the air, as if erasing an invisible slate. "But of course, you're right. Lakpa should get his own treks. Once we get busy, there won't be any choice. But not right now. There are some things that have to be explained to him, and there simply isn't time. We're all going to be on the run from now until the moment the Murghi-II clients arrive."


"Oh," Trager said. "I was going to ask about going out to Srinagar for a day or two."


"Before the climb? Forget it. I need you here."


"I was thinking before the recon. I could take the bus . . . ." He did not bother finishing. Freya's face had turned to stone.


"Do you think this is some ski area job where you can pack up and drift away anytime you want?"


"I've never done that," Trager protested.


“Then don't start here!" Freya began to collect her papers. "What's in Srinagar?"


"Pratima--and her family--from the last trek?--she sent a letter with Lakpa and invited me to stay with them. It would just be for a day."


"It could be for the rest of your life as far as I'm concerned,” Freya said. "I'm pretty damned disappointed. I thought you were serious about the mountains, but it turns out what you're really interested in is an adolescent nymph."


"Freya, I just want to see how they’re doing."


"You need to make a decision. Me or them. Her—whichever it is."


"Are you—jealous?” Trager asked.


"I am, a little," Freya said. "And I'm mad. I'm mad that I misjudged another man. I'm mad that I have to argue about your girlfriend at a time like this.” She stood up. "You go over that pass, you can stay over. With Pratima, with Leslie--with Viktor, for all I care. One way or another, you're packing your bag tonight. You decide whether it's for a bus trip or a climb. I have everything I call mine invested in these mountains, and I won't risk that for anyone's sake. Certainly not for yours."


She walked to the door and called for Lakpa and Sonam.




When Trager was a teenager, he had saved to buy one carabiner at a time. Now he had never seen so much climbing gear in one place. Once they had dumped out the duffel bags and crates, there were thousands of feet of rope in coils on the rug, hundreds of aluminum carabiners clipped together in long chains, and ice screws tied in spiny bundles like steel sea urchins.


She’s bought me off, Trager thought. He was not going out to Srinagar. He could not imagine why he had brought it up. He was on his way to a Himalayan climb at last, and there was no going back. At the same time, he had the panicky feeling that among all this plenty, with his dream about to be realized, he had already managed to offend Freya to the point where she was ready to wake him up and send him away.


"Memsahib, what climbing things you take for recon?" Lakpa asked.


Freya just looked at Trager. "Our climbing leader ought to decide that," she said, by which Trager understood her to mean, if he still is our climbing leader.


“That depends," said Trager. "Is it just a glacier walk to get a view of Murghi-II?"


"Maybe steep glacier,” Lakpa said.


“Didn’t you climb the Murghi glacier on the last trek?"


"Not very far," Freya said. "We had Ferndecker with us."


"Never see Murghi-II," said Lakpa.


"Are you sure the mountain is there?"


"Why?" Freya asked. "Are you looking for a reason not to go?"


"No! I'm looking for a reason not to walk up the wrong glacier. Like you said, we don't have much time. Sorry, but you did a recon on the last trek that went only so far, and it wasn’t far enough. If we’re going to take people up there, I want to see the whole thing. I don’t want to get . . . .”


Freya put her hand on Trager‘s arm. ""You don't have to go on. I'll show you everything we've got, since you're going to be with us." She left her hand in place for a moment, then got up. "Start on tents and camp gear until I get back. Then we'll decide on the climbing."


She returned a few minutes later and handed Trager a thick book with a worn cover. "This is from Roger's library. Burlington Richardson's Routes in the Mountains of Kashmir and Ladakh. Look at Route 53." Trager opened the heavy volume. The pages were yellowed and printed in an archaic type face. Route 53 was titled, "Indus- Zanskar, via Murghi." There followed a list of villages, with mileages between, starting with Kargil, and including Darcha and Murghi Gompa. Beyond the gompa, the list ended with a short narrative.


Proceed, except where impossible, up true left bank, whence crossings may be accomplished on occasional bridges of snow. Three kos from the main track, a narrow gorge is traversed, emerging below the Gompa. Murghi monastery is a poor place, offering little in the way of provisions. Its chief attraction for the monks who reside there is its very wildness, which explains its being overlooked by the Dogra adventurers who overran Ladak in 1834. A range of spectacular snow peaks is visible S from the gompa roof. These appear to be accessible only from the large glacier divulging into the Murghi some six miles upstream. The pass to Zanskar is reputed to lie two or three stages above this confluence.


There was a sketch map showing the layout of the valley. The peaks south of the monastery were indicated by small triangles labeled with roman numerals I-IV.


"This is what you’re basing a climbing expedition on?“ Trager asked. "It's almost as bad as the recon report for Springtime in Kashmir."


"It's exactly as bad as the recon report for Springtime in Kashmir. Look at route 14."


Kashmir-Ladak, via Janavar Gali and Sonjal La


Stage 1 - 9 miles -- The track from Kawapatri is steep but fit for ponies through forest, marg, and maidan. Camp at Gujar site 2 kos NNE of third nala.

Stage 2 – 9 miles – Ascend to treeline, thence north to a broad marg SE of Janavar Gali, which would be seen to the NW but for intervening ridges.

Stage 3 - 11 miles -- Cross Janavar Gali (13,262), descending to Sonjal at Lunwali, where provisions are not available.


Trager flipped back to the Murghi description. "This doesn't tell us much of anything."


"That's not true," Freya said. "It tells us the Murghi peaks are hard to find, and we can guarantee we're giving our clients a first ascent. True, Max should have waited until we did our own reconnaissance before selling the trip. But Ravi Battarchaya told us the army climbed Murghi-I last year, so we know it’s there. He’s the one who suggested it."


"But we don't know if it's rock or ice. Whether we need bivouac gear or fixed ropes."


"The rock in the Murghi is terrible, so we have to find an ice route," Freya said.


"And clients always use fixed rope," Lakpa said.


"Ansel . . . ."


"I know," Trager said. "It's an adventure." He surveyed the mounds of equipment again. "Okay, we'll take one rope and a rack of ice climbing equipment on the recon. Inventory everything else and take it all up to base camp. We'll know what we really need when Freya and I see the mountain."


He looked at Freya, and she smiled. She turned to Lakpa. "Do it," she said.


They worked together after that. Trager ran ropes through his hands foot by foot, pulling out ones that had obvious damage to their covers or lumps in the core that indicated broken strands. Trager selected a small rack of ice screws and carabiners, and managed to locate a modern ice axe and ice hammer for his own tools. Freya selected out a compact nylon mountain tent.


“I’m the last person who used it,” she said. “I know it’s in good shape. Small, but it’s light. Your load.” She tossed it to Trager. 


At midnight, Freya said, "Enough. Let's start again tomorrow. Ansel, would you take Roger's book back for me? He's very jealous of his collection." Trager carried the book back under the dark trees of the orchard. The moon was just beginning to wane, and he had no trouble following the path. The library was another matter. No lights worked--Trager suspected Roger turned them off at a breaker to save electricity. Only the white-bound volumes of the Himalayan Journal were distinguishable on the wall, and Trager decided to slide the guide on top of them for the night. Then he remembered the one reference to the Murghi he had found, and realized he was holding the "Richardson" the officers had followed on their way to Zanskar, decades ago. He wondered just how old the guide really was. He carried the book to the window, and turned to the end papers to find the copyright.


The original publication date was even older than he suspected--1875--but that was not what caught Trager’s attention. On the inside cover, the previous owner had affixed a bookplate:


Ex Libris

Weston Ferndecker


When Trager returned from his errand, the bungalow was also dark. He almost tripped over Lakpa and Sonam in sleeping bags on the porch. "Watching door," Lakpa said. "Many things loose now to steal. Good night, sahib." Trager got lost in the living room. Where the door of his bedroom should have been was a pile of duffle bags. He cracked his shins on the corner of a box, and stopped within an inch of impaling himself on an ice axe. A light flickered in another doorway.


"Ansel? In here," Freya said. She sat cross-legged on the bed, a loose flannel night shirt draped around her. The candle she had lit on the nightstand painted one side of her face in a rich yellow light, heightening the shape of her long nose and high cheekbones, the darker undertones of her light hair, and the curve of her breast. "Thank you," she said. "For staying with me."


The room faced south. Although the night was cool outside, the building still held the warmth of the day. Trager took off his windbreaker and carefully, self-consciously, folded it under the flap of his rucksack. “How did my pack get here?" he asked.


"The other room is full of equipment. There are crampons all over the bed. The boys brought your things."


"Did you ask them to?"


"No." Freya laughed lightly.


"I must have a reputation," Trager said. “In Lunwali, they had this song . . . .”


"I heard about it," Freya said. "And in Gulpathar they told stories about you and Pratima," 


"It wasn't true," said Trager.


"I know that too." She shook her head at him. "But that's not good enough for me."


She blew out the candle, but the room seemed actually brighter without the flame. The moon shone directly in through this window, as it had at Darcha, replacing the warm glare of the candle with a cool, blue, shadowless light that softened Freya's features as she shifted, arched her back, and stripped the long shirt over her head. It was hard to believe this was the same moon, the same sky.


Freya was direct, efficient. She asked him about condoms. Trager was sure he had some in a corner of his toilet kit, but the thought of turning his rucksack out on the floor and rummaging for rubbers seemed ridiculous. He said so, but there was no need. Freya quickly produced her own, laid out close by on the nightstand.


As Trager fumbled with buttons and zippers, he thought every dream he had ever had in his life was coming true, and yet he was thoroughly intimidated. Only when they were actually together on the bed starting to fit against one another‘s unfamiliar bodies, did Trager discover that Freya was the awkward one. She was not exactly bashful, but had a mechanical way of holding him that seemed overlearned and not responsive to what he did. For the first time in his life, he asked a woman to slow down. He laughed to make it a joke, but she pulled away from him.

Her face was in shadow, her neck and shoulder in white light, her head propped on one arm. "Don't make fun of me," she said. "Do you think this is something that happens every day? You've seen the people we work with. How much experience do you think a person would want to get with them? If I'm falling love with you, it's because you're something different."


"Then relax," Trager said. "You're making me nervous."


"I never relax." But she did. She let her head drop back to the pillow. As she began to respond to his movements, Trager's own nervousness melted away. He could not say that Freya ever really lost control; but a small cry in her throat, and a smooth, sudden bending of her body against his made him think she enjoyed giving him the opportunity to do something for her.

Springtime in Kashmir ©Talbot Bielefeldt 2020.

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