FATHER DIED SO HIGH THAT not even ravens could bury him. I don’t remember this. I wasn’t there.
When, instead of Father, Uncle returned home at the end of the summer, Mother tightened her jaw and her lips and her soul. I was three years old when her smooth brown face weathered to leather. Her hands grew hard from harvesting potatoes and churning butter. She didn’t remarry. She lived every day the same, teaching Samong, my younger brother, and me how to survive in the shadow of the mountain.
Light was so brief in the winter, the sun so low. Rays crested for a few hours over the summits, then disappeared again. It was too dark for much work, the moon not lamp enough without tempting a broken ankle or worse. So while Mother sat quiet in her rocking chair, swaddled in woven blankets, Samong and I sat by the fire with our cousins, and Uncle told us our favorite summit stories. Uncle was one of the biggest and strongest men in the valley. He kept his thick black hair shorter than most, and shaved his cheeks smooth every day, as though to show he was better than everyone else—razors were expensive. Every summer, he guided clients up the mountain. He said he’d been blessed by Jolichanga, the mountain goddess.
One winter evening, he told us how he rescued two foreigners. He guided them down from the summit into high camp. It was a good story, but not the one that lodged like dirt beneath my fingernails. It wasn’t how Father sacrificed himself to save Uncle. When I was old enough to understand, Mother told me that Father and Uncle had been trapped in a storm, high on the mountain, with foreigners they were guiding. Father was weak. He offered his own oxygen bottle so Uncle could get down with their clients, while he waited through the night up high—too high.
Uncle was Mother’s brother, and I believed this story of Father’s death. Except that sometimes I didn’t. Would Father really sacrifice his own life—give up climbing, give up the valley, give up ever seeing me again—for one man? My fingers traced the circle of Father’s ring. It was a small piece of plain silver, and it was too big for my thumb, but I carried it on a string around my neck. Father had left it with Mother every summer, swearing on it that he would return. When he didn’t, Mother gave it to me.
Like Uncle, Father was supposedly blessed by Jolichanga. He’d summited more than any man in the valley. Mother said he climbed so that we could move to the city, where people have lights that turn on with a switch, and doctors that give them bandages and pills, and good schools. Father knew that the climbing was dangerous, but because he loved us more than words, and because he was blessed, he thought that Jolichanga would let him return home.
Jolichanga didn’t know it—or maybe she did—but she owed me an explanation. Father was one of the best, and she took him from us. I swore to myself that I would meet her and make her understand, make her give me an answer.
I’m a girl. My breasts are small, my hips are narrow, and I beat Samong in our races across the fields, but I’m still a girl. A girl stays at home. A girl kneels with her mother to dig potatoes and put them in a basket to carry to market. A girl doesn’t climb mountains, and won’t ever have that talk with Jolichanga. Except that at fourteen, I was finally old enough to pass as a young man.
When the men gathered two months before the monsoons for the summer pilgrimage to the mountain, I took a knife to my hair. I chopped it short and tied what was left like a boy. I fooled myself in the mirror. Then I packed all my warm things. It was hot and wet in our valley, but there was always snow on the mountain, and I’d heard enough stories to know what I needed. I brought a pot and a spoon. I carried some dried rice and lentils, and I hoped I’d find more on the road. If I could hire on with a group, food would be provided.
I apologized silently to my sleeping mother as I eased out the door. I left one of her favorite yellow flower blossoms on my pillow, along with Father’s silver ring. I wouldn’t be gone too long, unless I was gone forever. I hoped she would understand. I hoped she would forgive.
I had to avoid Uncle, which was easy enough on the trek to the mountain. There were more people, more smells, and more things to carry than I had imagined. Payment was based on how much each porter carried, so I carried a lot. Maybe I carried too much. My back ached from the packs, and my neck was squashed from the weight of the head strap. When we’d practiced this for fun with Uncle at home, we’d never worked with full loads. I had no idea how hard it was.
I was also running out of rice. I had enough for that night, and the next day, and maybe the day after. But I would need to get some of my porter’s fee in advance and pay a cook for something to eat.
In the evenings, we stopped with the sun. I found a small fire surrounded by strangers, and I set about boiling rice and the last of my lentils. I shook the almost-last of my rice into my pot. It was a tiny meal, even by valley standards. Water filled a nearby plastic cistern, and it wasn’t mine, but no other eyes weighed it down. I was thirsty, and so was my rice. I poured some into my pot. So much easier than walking to a stream.
“You steal my water, you give it back.”
The voice came from behind me, and he sounded as mad as Mother when I raced with Samong instead of working. My fingers reached for Father’s ring at my neck, but of course it wasn’t there.
I turned slowly, my small pot of water heavy in my hand. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought it was for everyone.”
The man was almost as large as Uncle. He had eyebrows that looked like giant black caterpillars. His thick wool hat was red, which would make him easy for foreigners to recognize. They often couldn’t tell us valley people apart. His hands looked like they would break misbehaving children’s skulls without much trouble. The man clucked his tongue. “I keep my water and cooking for clients. Not thieves.”
My pot shook in my hand. “If you’ll give me a few minutes to make my rice, I’ll refill the container as many times as you need.”
“What’s your name?”
“Asha.” It was my real name. It was more common for girls, but boys were called Asha, too.
His caterpillar eyebrows drew together. “Fine. Refill it. Return it to me. I’m Lenzing. And if you do not honor your word, I’ll make sure you never see Jolichanga.”
Once my rice lay hot and heavy in my stomach, I refilled Lenzing’s cistern once, again, and a third time. I poured it into bottles for porters to drink, and into pots for boiling other people’s dinners. The stream was not close, and vines cut my pants and my legs. But this was a test. I would work hard, and Jolichanga would reward me.
When everyone finally tucked into their tents and blankets, and a huge blister oozed at the base of my thumb, Lenzing stared at me from the toes of my boots to my knitted hat. “You looked weak earlier. I never thought you would make three trips.”
I remained silent, my head tilted down, showing respect.
“I won’t pay in wages, but I’ll keep your rice pot filled. You get water every morning and evening for us.”
A fist unclenched in my stomach. Jolichanga had seen my work. I wouldn’t starve just yet.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Get one more for the morning,” he said.
My hands and spine toughened.
Two weeks of walking, carrying packs of foreigners’ stuff that weighed as much as I did, and collecting water for Lenzing left me exhausted. We were still at least a week from the mountain. What had I been thinking, coming all this way? I put the night’s fourth cistern of water beside the cooking fire and arched my back. I stretched my hands toward the darkening sky. Finally, nothing to carry except hope and air. A gust of wind brushed my hair from my face, and it felt like Jolichanga’s breath. Something in it was cold. My cheek prickled.
“Asha?” The voice was familiar. Too familiar. Uncle.
So sloppy. I shouldn’t have relaxed beside one of the main fires.
“What are you doing here?” His tone said he wasn’t looking for an answer. “You need to go home!”
My hands fell from the clouds.
He bent his huge form and seized my arm. He dragged me from the fire and down the path, away from the mountain. Other porters and climbers moved aside, thinking nothing of a huge man dragging a child.
“Your mother will be spinning rice about you! She’ll beat herself on the walls!”
Mother would only boil rice like a reasonable woman. She hadn’t beaten herself when Father died, and she wouldn’t now. She might never forgive me, but she would never give herself to death madness. Uncle had no sense of Mother, and he had no grasp of the need thrumming through my aching fingertips, and shoulders, and spine, and thighs, and feet. His hand on my arm tore something deep.
“No, Uncle.” I said. I hoped my face didn’t reveal my pain. “I must meet the mountain. I must see Jolichanga.”
“That’s nonsense. She—”
“Uncle, I’ve walked for weeks! Father taught you to climb. He sacrificed everything for you. Maybe so you could buy me these boots. Maybe so I could walk this way. Maybe so you could help me meet the mountain. He died for you. You came back to the valley while he froze on the peaks. And now you would stop me?”
His hand loosened. “You are cruel,” he said. He let go, turned, and walked back up the path.
As soon as he was out of sight, I sat hard on the dirt. I rubbed the pain from my arm.
As we trekked, the yellow and pink blooms of summer disappeared. The tall valley trees shrank to shrubs, dwindled to grass, and then faded altogether. All the color distilled to white snow, blue sky, brown dirt, and gray rock. The once-wet air cooled and dried. It burned my throat. A cough nested in my lungs. I wondered if I would die with it.
When we finally reached the first camp, tucked at the base of the mountain, I was almost too tired to care. My hands had bloodied through wraps from the constant carrying. My legs and back felt mashed. But from here, I could finally see the top of Jolichanga. She reared above everything, her white summit buffeted by so much wind that a plume of ice and snow shot into the clear blue sky. I stood there in the bold afternoon sun, my skin warm in its strange light, and I looked at Jolichanga until the mountain’s shape imprinted into my eyes. I saw her when I closed them.
“Asha!” Lenzing clucked his tongue at my marveling. “Water must be melted!”
Over the next two weeks, I melted gallons of water. I carried sewage down to where the shrubs grew tall and other porters would cart it farther away, so I could ensure a few coins from all this madness. Mostly, I went up the mountain at every chance. I climbed from the first camp—and returned—more than any other porter from the valley.
I knew from Uncle’s stories the importance of setting ropes to the summit, breaking paths in the snow, and establishing higher camps. I also knew that Jolichanga would meet me on her own terms, and I needed to give her as many chances as possible. So I climbed, both hoping to meet her and to make my presence on the mountain as useful as possible. I didn’t want anyone to say I wasn’t worth my rice.
I hoped she would appear soon. I hoped I would get a chance to summit with one of the many rich foreigners who lazed in their tents while I set ropes and carried their belongings high. I hoped I wouldn’t take mountain-sick and tumble off a ridge. I hoped my cough wouldn’t worsen into the bloody spit that sent porters and foreigners home immediately. All I had was hope. And my will.
As I climbed, step after slow step, hefting another load to the second camp in the warmer afternoons of the mountain, I kept my head down and my harness clipped to the rope. With what breath I had, I spoke to Jolichanga. I asked her to meet me. I asked her to explain what had happened with Uncle and Father. I asked her to keep me safe, and return me to Mother.
In the mess tent, one of the biggest tents at low camp, Lenzing nodded toward one of the foreigners. “He wants to talk to you.”
I glanced across the tent. The man was tall, hunched over his bowl of spicy foreign food, rehydrated with water I’d melted. His skin looked pink and chapped. His hair was the yellow of dried grass. His cheeks bulged. He wasn’t weathered and lean, like us.
“Why?” I asked.
Lenzing hefted a ladle in his hand. Asking “why” was wasted words, wasted breath, wasted spirit amidst this too-fragile air. He spooned me a bowl of steaming dal. It smelled different this high, made from melted snow instead of stream water.
Usually we ate separately from the foreigners, but I brought my bowl over to the man who’d asked about me.
“Sir?” I asked, trying to be respectful. I’d picked up a little bit of other languages. Words like tent, food, fire, and pain. He began in English, but when I didn’t react, he switched haltingly to the language of the valley.
He said he’d seen me during the past weeks. He said I looked like one of the strongest boys, and he needed to hire a porter. He said the winds at the top of the mountain were about to stop—the brief window that everyone waited for. He said he wanted me to help carry his things to high camp. He wanted me to help him reach the summit.
I did not interrupt him as he spoke. I wanted to stand, to yell my agreement. It seemed like Jolichanga was beside me, urging me upward, as though she’d summoned this man to help me meet her. She’d seen my strength, heard my prayers, and granted me permission.
I nodded at the foreigner. I still did not know his name. “I’ll go with you. I’m Asha.”
Someone must have told Uncle about my plans, because he huffed into the second camp, the day after David and I climbed in. He found me outside the mess tent melting snow, a storm beneath his brows. It was a beautiful afternoon. I’d taken off my hat and gloves to feel the sun kiss my skin. The summit loomed at my back.
“You’d kill yourself. Die. You think your mother would forgive you?”
“I’ve been to high camp. I’ve stocked it with oxygen and medicine and fuel to melt water. I’ve been up three times. And I’ve lived to tell about it. The summit isn’t so far beyond.”
“You don’t have what you need. You need hand warmers, emergency gear, blankets, headlamps, batteries.”
I had already talked through these things with David. He had extras, and I’d managed to beg or buy the rest. What I didn’t have—an extra oxygen bottle—I would have to do without.
“I know you love me, Uncle,” I said, instead of arguing. “But this I have to try.”
I could see muscles bulge beneath his ears as he ground his teeth.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” I asked.
He turned away, leaving me to melt snow in the white sun. I hoped this wouldn’t be the final time I saw someone from my family. We were to climb to high camp tomorrow. David said it was time. His gods, summoned through his satellite phone, told him it was the right moment. I said my own prayers to Jolichanga. My fingers traced and traced where Father’s ring used to sit at my throat. I wondered whether Mother rested in her chair by the fire. Did her hands follow the metal loop?
It was time for final offerings. I cut away a tiny piece of my inner shirt. I burned it in the cooking fire and watched the smoke plume into the darkening sky. Take this, Jolichanga, instead of me.
High camp was no longer new to me, but my wonder grew with each visit. Four small tents had been set over the course of the last month, each a different shock of color against the white snow and the impossibly dark blue sky. In the past, I loved climbing here and resting for a few moments, my legs stretched on the small ledge of snow, my back cradled on Jolichanga’s shoulder. I thought she would appear beside me as I gazed across other magnificent, snow-covered peaks, imagining Mother and Samong’s sore hands laboring in work that was once mine. The blanket of clouds lay beneath me here, and it seemed I might fall into it, and it would catch me as soundly as a bed of quilts.
David and I stuck to our plan of hiking early into high camp. We used the day to sleep and rest before we began our final climb. But we were the only people there. No one else had chosen to come today, which weighed my shoulders and slowed my legs. It was the same feeling I had the summer when Father didn’t return. But David was beside me, his smile so wide. I reminded myself that this was my chance to meet Jolichanga, who had been so generous all summer. Why would she change her mind now?
When the stars were at their brightest, David and I got ready. I had never seen high camp at night. Father had seen these same stars, on such a night, years ago. One seemed so close. I reached my gloved hand to grasp it. Had Father done the same? But of course, neither he—nor I—could hold a star.
It was so cold. I put on all my warmest clothes. Extra socks. Warmers in my boots and in my gloves. My headlamp over my hat, extra batteries in one of the easy-to-reach pockets of the dizzying foreign pack. Oxygen tank and mask working. Crampons on boots. Ice axe. When I left home, I walked with my boots and my pack full of rice and beans and my pot. Those things would be useful anywhere. Yet I had traded them for a preposterous collection that would be mocked in the valley. In the valley, Mother would be warm. Samong would be warm. Hopefully I would be warm again, too.
I looked again at the milky stars. They were indifferent to me.
I turned toward the black mountain. It was time.
The climb was hard, but I was willing. When you are prepared, when you’ve practiced every day of your life, imagining how difficult it will be, the actual doing doesn’t seem so impossible. The sunrise turned the sky grey, then golden pink. Jolichanga’s summit blackened against the dawn. The light swept across the other peaks, pinking their white snow and the clouds below. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Too soon, the sky blossomed its pure deep blue, so much darker than any sky I’d seen in the valley.
We were maybe an hour from the summit when the dark clouds came. I turned to David, securely clipped into the fixed rope behind me. He waved me on, and we continued over the snow, each step ankle-deep.
Go on, go on, I said to myself. Or something murmured inside of me. Or Jolichanga whispered in my mind.
But then the wind slammed me, and I could not move my feet. And then the sun winked behind cloud. And then the snow hit.
I couldn’t see David behind me. I couldn’t see the fixed rope beside me. I couldn’t see anything but white.
A figure touched me. David.
“Keep going!” he yelled in my ear.
I tried, keeping my hand on the fixed rope as a guide, but as we plowed against the wind and snow, David slowed. He latched onto my shoulder, almost like Samong used to when I raced ahead of him. When David’s hand grew heavier, it became too much to move both him and my exhausted body.
“Go on!” He repeated and repeated.
I managed one step more, then another.
I don’t know how long we went. It could not have been as long as it felt, because the world was still white and not the black of night, but it felt like days, years, one boot before the other. We trudged and struggled to breathe until David stopped. His words halted. I turned, my own breaths heaving, and David leaned, half-collapsed, on the fixed rope. His eyes closed. I moved around him and twisted his airflow to give him more oxygen.
For years since Father died, climbing up was the only dream. Now, struck by this sudden storm, fear crawled into my boots and down my sleeves and tightened around my chest and neck. I felt death watching. He perched over my shoulder. Something urged me down, toward safety. Toward the valley, and Mother, and chasing Samong, and potatoes. Did it matter that I didn’t understand Father’s death? He was dead, and now I was about to die.
There would be no second chance to summit this summer. I knew I wouldn’t have the courage, nor the physical strength, nor the oxygen or batteries or hand warmers. Would I return in a year to try once more to meet Jolichanga? I didn’t think I could leave my family a second time. I didn’t have Father’s resolve. And next year, I would be fifteen. My breasts would peek from under my clothes. My face would be rounder. I couldn’t simply cut my hair and pass again as a boy. I would never learn why Father had been taken, nor why Jolichanga had let me come so far.
But if I made it down, I might see Mother again. I might tell this story to Samong. I shook my head on the mountain’s shoulder. This had all been so foolish. Uncle was right. My hand moved to touch Father’s ring, but of course it wasn’t there.
Down was the only way.
When the storm lightened, the snow lessening and the wind halting its hate, I began to guide David down. But I had waited too long. Even down proved difficult. The new snow stretched past our knees. No matter my pleading, David would not make more than two steps before leaning on the rope. We went so slowly that we crossed maybe five meters. Then David unclipped himself from the rope, despite my hand covering his. He sat down.
No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get him up. He wasn’t yet taking off his hat or unzipping his coat, unmistakable signs of the freezing death, but he only muttered, “Leave me here. Leave me here.”
I couldn’t leave him there. David had helped me all this way. He’d given me so much so that I could be beside him on the summit. I couldn’t disgrace that honor. I tried to coax him to stand, or to at least inch closer to the fixed rope, but he pushed me away. He pushed me again and again, until I simply stood there, suffocating in the sky.
Eventually, he shifted so I could unzip his pack and get his radio. I called for help, for someone to help carry him down. Whoever answered kept saying, “Storm, storm.” I fumbled the useless black box in my gloved hands, and it fell into the snow. I didn’t have the energy to reach for it.
As the sun faded high in the mountains, it was so gradual that it was hard to notice, especially when I was past tired and the snow reached my knees and my climbing partner was welcoming death. But before the light really went that night, I took out our last hand warmers. I opened them all and tucked them inside David’s boots and coat. I slid two into each of my gloves. I turned on our headlamps and prayed that someone would come for us and our batteries would last. It seemed we were doomed to stay here. And if we stayed, we would likely die. The snow kept falling, almost a gentle thing. My headlamp sparked each flake against the black sky.
Guiding clients, stuck high in a storm, Father and Uncle had faced this same impossible question—this unforgiving, indifferent mountain. Shrouded in darkness and the wind’s fury and the swallowing snow, had Father felt about Uncle the way I felt about David? Indebted, grateful, guilty, and so foolish?
How silly I had been, coming here, thinking I would talk to Jolichanga. She was the goddess of the mountain, and the mountain itself, and she was around me here, but she would make no appearance. She existed before me and would exist after me and I was but a speck. She didn’t care for Father, either. He was no one, just another porter, another man with a family from the valley. And because she didn’t care about him, couldn’t possibly care about me, and death loomed over my shoulder, I pried off my oxygen mask and yelled.
“You brought me here!” The wind swept my words away so quickly that I could barely hear them. “You arranged everything for me! You knew I would come, but for what? To leave me to die? To become, like my father, a ruined lump of flesh, too high even to be carried by ravens? Let us go! We’ve given you enough already! Please! Let us go!”
“I try,” roared a deep, ancient voice that boomed like an avalanche or despair.
“You try?” I screamed back into the raging wind.
Whether heard or imagined, I received no further reply.
Against that night, my headlamp was a tiny circle of light. I stomped my feet, pretending to dance by the fire at home. Each time I grew tired and paused, Father yelled. I shouted at David to stay awake. My mother sang children’s songs, and I sang children’s songs with her. My hand reached to unclip myself from the fixed line, so I might lie down, but something batted my glove away. My headlamp dimmed. I wondered at this impossibility and marveled at my inevitable death. But I realized that the headlamp wasn’t darkening—the sky was shifting from black to gray ash.
I had lasted the night.
But when I forced my legs to bend beside David and reached my numb hands to his shoulders, his body was rigid as ice.
Uncle found me before I reached high camp and guided me down. He wrapped me in his arms and replaced my oxygen bottle with his. He did not ask what happened. I do not remember the two days it took to get to a medic’s tent at the base, but I know Uncle was beside me. As my hands and feet seeped in tubs of water, thawing, he poured hot tea into my mouth. His warm palm cradled my chin. Sorrow and pride filled his eyes. He sniffed but did not speak.
When I arrived home, Mother pulled me tighter than she ever had. Her shawl smelled like firesmoke and damp wool. When she let me go, she pressed Father’s ring into my hand. Samong wanted to see everything I brought from the climb. I gave him sunglasses, fancy gloves, and crampons. He could wear the sunglasses and gloves, but what use would the crampons be, here in warmth of the valley? He was jealous of my new toys and my adventures, until I removed my boots and told him what happened to David.
I never saw Jolichanga, but she did, in her way, answer my question. She stayed with me, sending me Mother and Father, protecting me from sleep, from falling into the clouds below. I believe she was beside Father, too. She did her best to send him home, but she can only shield so much wind and snow. She cannot create air. She cannot become smaller. She is a goddess, but she is also a mountain. A mountain protects, but she also devours.
Miranda Forman lives in Atlanta with one human and two canine companions, where she writes about disguise, the supernatural, and how we buy into (and break) the systems we live inside. Her fiction has been published in the Eckleburg Review, Hobart, and Word Riot, and her poetry chapbook, Atlanta Millennium, is available on Amazon. Find her online at mirandaforman.com.