Read part 1 of “Thinking Like a Hog Deer in the Himalayas” here.
ng doesn’t stand a chance. He never even hears me approaching. I flap my wings while he is lost in prayer. Snowflakes swirl around his face. I am the first thing that he sees when he opens his eyes.
“Lhamo,” he says in a reverent voice. “Goddess.”
I don’t correct him.
“I need your help,” I say. I try to look commanding. “I need you to help me escape.”
He looks confused. “Escape from what? You are a goddess of the mountains.”
This gives me pause, but I don’t show my own uncertainty. “I need to get back to the Sundarbans. If you help me, I will give you anything you want.”
His eyes latch on to that sentence. Anything. I can see him turning the word around in his mind. Snowfall dusts the smooth prayer stones of his gompa. I know from the way he kneels there is something that he wants.
I nod. “But you have to get me out of here. And you can’t tell any of the other girls.”
“Girls!” He snorts a little, blowing out small, white puffs of air. To him we are not girls we are monsters.
High pitched yips rise up over the mountain pass and we both shiver.
“Will you help me?” I ask.
Ang locks eyes with me. There is something between us in our stare. “I am loyal to Pomegranate. I don’t want to anger her.”
I shrug. “If you don’t help me then I will tell Rani about you. Pomegranate will be thrown out of flight school. Then you will anger all of the Astomi. If you help me, no one has to know anything. We will keep each other’s secrets.”
Ang’s face pales. The snow swirls. Another Sherpa calls out from close by. He jumps to his feet as I retreat back into the swirling snow.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” I tell him.
He doesn’t answer.
hen the girls return I search Pomegranate’s face for some sign of Ang’s betrayal. As the days pass I don’t find any.
One night I am lying in my bed scratching at my wings and thinking of crocodiles when I smell Pangboche on the breeze. Ang is waiting at the window.
“I thought you’d never come,” I say.
He grimaces in the moonlight. “We have to be quick. My father is dying.”
Despite his somber tone I follow him out into the snow with feet like flower petals. I am so happy I could dance on the breeze. Literally.
My note to Rani says not to search for me. I thank her for her kindness and say that it is something in myself that makes me so unhappy. I know the story of my mother’s scarred back will support this claim.
Ang leads me carefully down the side of the mountain. He walks like a grief stricken mountain goat. He says nothing and the moonlight fills in his silence.
Crunch. Crunch. Boots over snow. Flutter. Flutter. My wings are straining for autonomy from my shoulders. My toes are skimming the soft snow drifts. My footprints are no more than a suggestion beside Ang’s heavy bootstep.
The sun is rising when we reach Pangboche. It is my first time ever in a Sherpa village, and Pangboche is the oldest. It contains secrets and mysteries that only the mountains know. We walk through forests of birch and rhododendron. We pass potato patches, curling rivers, grazing yaks, and houses built into the sides of the mountain. The immediate terror of the other moth girls fades under this landscape of rural domesticity.
Ang’s face is still tight. His chin slants upwards towards the rising sun. “He needs you now,” he says.
I follow him to the house where his father is dying.
There is a butter lamp burning on the doorstep. The smell of sickness comes from within. Ang picks up the lantern and goes inside while I wait on the threshold. My wings flap about my back uncomfortably.
After a moment he appears in the doorway.
“Come on,” he says. “It is time for you to do your magic.”
I follow him in, my heart thudding in my chest. Bouncing off my ribcage. Clacking across my conscience. His father is lying beside piles of turnips and dried yak dung. Ang throws some wood on the fire, feeding the flames with hot hopes and ancient prayers.
“Here is the Astomi,” he says.
The old man’s yellow eyes turn towards me.
In that moment, I am renounced as a fraud. The Sundarbans seem small compared to this. A dying father.
“Do something,” Ang urges.
My wings begin to stir.
“Astomi,” whispers the old man. They both look hopeful.
“Leave us alone,” says the old man. His voice is raspy.
Ang stares at us both for a moment before shuffling back outside. I am weak with the responsibility that has fallen on my shoulders.
“So,” he says. “You have come to find out about your mother.”
Whatever I thought was going to happen still leaves me unprepared for this. My mother’s image floats before me. Beautiful and sad and strong. In the Sundarbans they called her witch. Her life was solitary except for me and the marsh animals. I can see no connection between her and an old, dying Sherpa.
“No,” I say. “I came to help Ang. In return he will help me. I am on my way home.”
It is hard to recognize any expression in the bed of wrinkles that is the old man’s face. There may be sorrow or surprise. I can’t tell.
“My son’s name is Pasang,” he says. “He was born on a Friday.”
I don’t say anything.
“Ang is the name that you Astomi give to all the Sherpa’s. Your mother called me Ang.”
Suddenly I am wishing for sky rather than this closed in space on the side of a mountain. I feel trapped. “How do you know my mother?”
“I can see her in your features,” he says. This time I am sure his face wrinkles into a thirsty smile.
“She was very beautiful. I was already married to Pasang’s mother, but I still noticed how beautiful she was.”
Of their own accord my wings are flapping. They are pounding at the air with a pattern I have never heard before. The wailing of a secret wind.
“Who is your father?” he asks me. His voice is papery. Dusty. It splinters on the motion of my wings.
Not you, is what I think to myself. “He is a Sundarban chieftain.” As I say it, I envision it and tell myself it must be so.
“It was such a long time ago,” Ang’s father says. He sighs like he has stored up that sentence forever.
I know what he is trying to tell me and I don’t accept it. I square myself up against him even in his weakened state. “My mother had one love and that is me,” I say. “She did not cut off her wings for some old, married Sherpa.”
In the Sundarbans, most of the animals exist in groups of mother and child. Anything else is too precarious and unsteady to be trusted. Even the hog deer forgo their normal species mode of herd survival and live in pairs of two. I don’t know how to tell Ang’s father this. My wings are angry. My skin is scalding hot.
“Maybe not,” he says.
We stare at each other for what could be hours. It could be minutes. Although he doesn’t say anything more, his eyes tell me a story. I see my mother young and unafraid and powerful. I fill in the spaces that led her to the dangerous sanctuary of the ocean forest.
“Were you there when she did it?” I ask. Cut off her wings is what I mean.
“She killed my wife,” he says. “I had a son to raise with no mother.”
I don’t believe him. He stinks of death and lies. I call for Ang to come back inside. The Sherpa’s hovel looks rank and diseased. Filthy. I try to go outside but the old man thrashes about on his mattress. My wings are still flapping and the ripples from their motion seem to soothe him.
“Please,” Ang says, touching my arm. “Please help him.”
I don’t do it for the dying man. I do it for his son. The Sherpa that led me down out of the mountains. Though I am furious with the suggestion that my mother gave up her wings for a man, I let these thoughts fuel my flapping. Inside the hut, the fire blazes to life, washing us all with warmth and the scent of the rain lily oil that Rani had rubbed into my wings the day before. Ang’s hair blows back from his face, and I can feel my own swirling in a cloud above me.
The old man’s face is washed with wing gusts and torrents of faded moonlight. He smiles and Ang’s expression smoothes into something recognizable. I see my own longing for the ocean forests. I see my mother when she was my age standing in this very place. I see abandonment and isolation. I see Rani with her limp wing. Instinctively I reach for my onions, however, I absconded into the night with Ang so suddenly I forgot to pack them. I feel myself growing weak and light headed. I feel myself begin to swoon.
When I wake up Ang is brewing sherpa tea in a wooden churn with salt and melted yak butter. He pushes a mug in front of me. It smells like hiking boots and old vomit. The old man has died in the night but Ang is not angry at me. In fact he seems relieved. Lighter somehow.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I’m not, although somehow I had not expected it would be over so quickly.
He smiles at me with small, chipped teeth. His face creases like oiled animal hide. “You helped him,” he says. “My father had renounced the mountain spirits. My mother died in an avalanche.”
My head is reeling from all of the strong smells of earth and animal and man.
“You took away his fear,” he repeats.
I gag on the tea.
“Do you want something else?” Ang asks.
“I wouldn’t mind some onions,” I tell him. “And maybe some coffee. Plain coffee.”
While Ang is busy with a tin of instant coffee I stretch my wings and look around the small house. It is built into the side of the mountain. The walls are cold earth stuffed with herbs and old rags. The old man’s corpse is in the corner, covered with a white shroud so that only a vague outline is visible. That outline is enough to make me shiver.
Ang hands me two onions and I grab at them desperately, taking big greedy gulps of the scent while he watches me with raised eyebrows. It smells heavenly.
“What will you do with your father? It must be too cold for a burial.”
He nods. “Tradition says he will remain in the house for some time. That is how the spirit likes it.”
“But I haven’t forgotten my promise to you,” he says. He looks very sincere. “I will help you get back to the Sundarbans.”
I watch Ang closely as he makes dough cakes over the fire and waves burning juniper wands through the small space to dispel the death smell. I clutch at my onions and try to find similarities in our faces. Ang is sharp and slanted. His body is pure muscle, compact and energy efficient. He is pulled in close to himself. I suppose there is something of the hog deer in him.
“What makes you like Pomegranate anyway?” I ask.
Ang shrugs. “She picked me. I don’t know. She is Astomi. And she’s not like you.”
He shrugs again and my wings shuffle and rearrange themselves. The initial spotted ochre pattern has faded and they are pure moon white now. Dazzling. I don’t have to imagine myself as a goddess anymore.
I leave him with his dough cakes and go outside where the snow has fallen fresh and clean. The air is ripe with the spicy scent of conifers and shivering yaks. Ang follows me outside with a mug of coffee.
“Your father upended my world,” I tell him. I sniff the breeze for some indication of what to do. “I don’t need your help anymore.”
He looks crestfallen and relieved. “Will you return to the Astomi?”
My wings are slow, steady flapping. They are building up to a new level of strength and speed. I can count the scars on them from the months in Rani’s boarding house. I can see the soft patches of new fur where the other girls shaved me. They are beautiful nonetheless. Perhaps the most beautiful wings in the Himalayas. Certainly the most beautiful wings born in the Sundarbans. I think they are worth the weight of the stories of the past.
Ang helps me load my pockets up with onions and we say an awkward and secretive goodbye.
“I haven’t decided,” I tell him. In truth, I haven’t. My homing sense is utterly disoriented. Something else has taken its place. Something that is bigger than my mother, or Ang’s father, or flight school. I wonder if I will return to see Ang again, and if I will tell him about his father and my mother. It would make us less alone.
“You can stay here for a while if you like,” Ang says. “Pangboche is good at keeping the mountain’s secrets.”
Already my wings are flapping. This pattern is different than any I have felt before. It is strong and rhythmic. Every muscle in my body strains as they open out to their full breadth and thwack at the sky with an ancient and powerful rhythm. Ang is knocked back into a soft drift of powder snow.
I forget all of my training immediately and listen to my instincts. As my wings get their first real breath of mountain air and I launch into full flight, I am not thinking of any of the things that could go awry. Instead I am thinking of my mother.
She died on a day full of rain and saline waters. She was eaten by Bengalese tigers.
In the mornings, my mother liked to bathe in the salt water lagoons. She felt like she was one of the animals. Not separate. Never in any real danger. Sometimes, nearby villagers would come to her for advice or good luck. My mother always sent them away with too much information. Things that they didn’t want to hear. Things that they couldn’t hear. They called her a witch. And when she died there were very few who mourned her.
There were many who should have.
My mother was buried in the driest part of the ocean forest, where the sea just creeps up to the edge of the mangrove trees. Her grave is marked with the hoof prints of stubborn hog deer.
Her wings are buried somewhere apart from her.
* * * * *
Kimberly Lojewski is an MFA candidate in UMass Amherst’s Poets and Writers Program. She has her MA in English from Florida Gulf Coast University, and comes from the swampy parts of Florida, where whippoorwills sing and alligators crossings are commonplace. She has been published in Mangrove Review, PANK, Aesthetica Creative Works, and has work forthcoming in Gargoyle, TOAD, and Blood Lotus. She is also the founder and Editor in Chief of Belletrist Coterie, a new Literature, Arts, and Culture magazine that focuses primarily on storytelling through different artistic mediums.
Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.