Ghandruk placed each foot as carefully as a snow leopard stalking its prey. The ice covering the bare rock only needed one false step to pull his feet from under him, sending him off the cliff beside the trail. Yet every time he placed a foot and straightened a leg, the crest of the pass came a little closer. By concentrating on placing his feet and straightening his legs, he could forget the pressing weight of the sahib who lay across his shoulders and the ache in his neck from the basket strapped round his forehead.
He was near the crest now, and he allowed himself to look up to see the white tip rising beyond it. He smiled but looked back to his feet; he had no wish to give his life to the ice, or the life of the man whose salt he had sworn by.
Then Ghandruk was on the crest of the pass, and there was nothing between him and the white mass that challenged the blue infinity of the sky. His feet fixed themselves to the ground as his eyes drank in the jagged silver flanks of Annapurna, the himal that had watched over his childhood. He had not seen her since he had turned his back on her, with a thousand questions on his tongue and the joy of devotion in his heart.
Now he was returning to her from the other side, as a retainer of the Angreji, his questions unanswered.
She chastised him for having been away. She welcomed him back. She wished him success, but refused to promise it. She nudged his eyes up to the lammergeier circling above to remind him that her slightest whim could kill him.
He smiled back and told her that his life was hers to take, but she could not keep him from the Himalaya when he was reborn.
“Do you see her, sahib? Do you see Annapurna?” he said in Hindi, which the sahib spoke fluently. He bowed slightly to Annapurna, to apologise for using the foreign tongue within her hearing.
Ghandruk felt the sahib move. His breath sighed past Ghandruk’s ear as he struggled to speak.
“She’s beautiful,” said the sahib.
Ghandruk was pleased that the sahib used the word ‘she’. Most sahibs called mountains `it’, as though they were mere lumps of rock and ice. He lowered his gaze to see the trail opening out before him, leading down the side of the cliff and plunging into the deep green forest. Just above the edge of the forest, Ghandruk made out the red and white flicker of prayer flags flying from a stupa, and he suppressed a quiver of excitement.
“There is Radha’s stupa,” said Ghandruk. “We shall be there in time to eat our rice.”
He felt every muscle in the sahib’s body tense.
“You’re sure? You’re sure we’re really here?”
His wheezing voice belied the excitement of his words.
A movement on the trail caught Ghandruk’s eye.
“Sahib, someone is coming toward us. We should get out of the way.”
Ghandruk placed the sahib on the side of the trail away from the cliff, and placed the basket beside him. He crouched beside the sahib and contemplated his bloodless face with concern.
“How are you, sahib?”
The sahib smiled weakly.
“As though I spent last night drinking that raksi of yours.”
Cover by Manda Benson.