A short story
I have no memory of Max astride a horse but they say he used to take me up with him when I was very small. We shifted camp in the late summer, just a month after I was born. I have a picture in my mind of a black tent falling in upon itself. I hear the muffled clatter of the precious slender wooden poles as the women roll them inside the heavy woollen skins.
They are singing. Their piercing highland chant, carries on wind that rises from below us in the canyon. It is their repartee to the preceding verse, sung by the men, who are now tightening cinches and swinging up onto their mounts.
“Wake up right now, you lazy fuckers!” they wail in piercing harmony. “We are going through the passes and you’d better get your wits about you. The long mornings in the sack are over. See, we have put away those long hard tent poles that you brought to us. We have no time for your nonsense now.”
The minor modal chill of their last descending tone freezes the big herd-dogs for a moment in their tracks. The already excited herd spooks, sending the menfolk scampering away from the horns and hoofs. The one who nearly fell from his horse has to compose the next verse, or be the butt of every joke for the whole journey down to the big winter pasture.
I know that the memory is a blending of perhaps two-dozen different moving-days when I was an infant and a boy, but there is no memory of Max on a horse. Something happened to his balance after the skinny Chinese woman rode out of the camp. That was long years ago, when he was no longer young, but a strong and full-grown man with a fair bit of snow growing into his beard.
He never spoke of her to me and since we still lived by the old ways then, no one ever questioned him.
Max was not from our place. He came from somewhere. Sometimes he said he could smell the sea of his youth off Glacier Lake when the wind was right. He learnt our ways but he was never one of us, even when he took a woman from our people who bore one son to him.
When the skinny Chinese woman rode away, Max sat down under the twisted tree that grew near where her tent had been. That is how I always remember him, sitting there under the twisted tree, telling his beads. I don’t remember her at all; I was just a child. The people say she came from the government of some place whose hinterland we sometimes camped in. It didn’t matter much to us; the passes were our borders in the old days, and the horsemen just smiled down at farmers, when they talked about who owned the pastures.
More than a dozen others came with her from the lowland capital, with their porters and their bearers and their cooks and tents and kitchen boys. They came to teach us how to farm. When they left, the skinny Chinese woman did not go with them. She stayed, sleeping in a small hair tent on skins with Max. She did not ride out until after the rains came. For nearly three months she hardly left the tent.
After she rode away, Old Max took to sleeping on the ground beneath the twisted tree. She had left him a golden-brown umbrella of heavy Chinese silk, with an iron ring on the tip. When the Little Rains came, he hung it from a branch as a shelter.
Old Max never shifted camp again. The seven-year drought that followed killed the twisted tree. The silk umbrella faded, then cracked in the sun. Still he sat beneath the dead tree with the umbrella’s bones swaying above him, wind tearing at the last tatters of silk. He sat there telling his beads like a patient man awaiting a peaceful death that would not come for him.
In the seventh year the umbrella frame fell to the ground and only the iron ring hung above him. That was the year I came into my manhood and left that life, to find the sea. That was the year my mother went off with another man, not so fine a man as Max had been, but better suited to her temperament. My mother gave me a small bag of money and her blessing. Old Max hung the small iron ring, from a cord, around my neck and kissed me. I never saw either of them again.
Many years later, after I heard that some government had made a road into that place, I went back there to visit, with my young wife. The people told me Max had sat for nearly 15 years after I went away. I made a gift of money to the people who had brought him food and water all those years.
The people said that on the very day the road came through (not the finished motor-road, but the narrow track that they cut into the side of the mountain to bring their workers in) a skinny old Chinese came riding into camp on a good, strong, tired mountain pony.
They could tell it was a woman by her thick white hair that blew out behind her like a horse’s mane. “Who has hair like that?” the people asked each other. From the richness of her clothes they knew she was a high-born lady. From their colour they knew she was a mourning widow. She was covered with the dust of her long journey, but they saw those mourning clothes were new and so they said, “Her husband has just died.”
She sat straight in the saddle inspite of the double weight of her journey and her years. She held her head high on her slender neck. Her empty gaze told the people she was blind. They knew she had trusted the pony to take her here, across the mountains and they wondered at the force of this frail old woman’s will.
She raised her face into the wind and seemed to sniff the air. Her tongue licked her parched old lips. “The sea,” she whispered, in a voice like old dry leaves. The pony turned, lowered its head, and headed down the slope, towards the twisted, old, dead tree. Old Max must have heard its hooves slipping on the scree behind him because he rose in an instant, like a young man, but he did not turn.
The strong pony caught its balance and came around in front of the old man. Old Max reached up and gently placed his prayer beads around the old blind woman’s neck. He took the reins and started walking south, leading them up onto the high plateau, where no one ever goes.
I hung the iron ring back on the old dead tree before I came away from there. People ride the bus two days down to the new bazaar, on the road now. There they can use a telephone. They tell me that the twisted tree sprouted new green shoots when the Little Rains came this year. I am sorry that my father never met my bride.