In the circa of the simian 1980 AD, the ninth year of the duodecennial cycle of the Chinese zodiac calendar, under the auspicious sign of metal of the five elemental symbols, an old and weary traveller found his final resting place on the banks of the nearly frozen Gurudongmar Lake at an altitude of 17,800 feet in the mighty Himalayas in the Mangan District of the Indian state of Sikkim. The etched crevices of his wrinkled epidermis stood a testament to a lifetime of journeying through the wilderness in some of the world’s highest, remotest, and harshest regions.
After many uncountable years of breathing the air, drinking the water, and consuming the food offered by mother earth, his mind had finally started to give in. He questioned the very meaning of his existence as only fragments of memories remained with him. A warrior, a lover, a poet, a philosopher, a hunter, a craftsman, a musician, he had perhaps been all, but now he could not remember. Flickering traits and sporadic muscle memories occasionally indicated what or who he might have been. Whatever he was, it was clear that he was a wandering being.
The wooden almirah he carried on his arched back containing bits and pieces of his life was more of an abysmal puzzle than a box of answers to him. Sitting beside an open fire under the dazzling night sky, he caressed an old Mongolian recurve bow. Though he knew that the weapon had a bamboo core, Saiga antelope horn belly, sinew back, bound together with animal glue, and wrapped in birch bark, he had no memories with it.
A single birchwood arrow with rare eagle-feather fletching tipped with a wide-metal-blade arrowhead in his shrivelling quiver was highly unusual for a hunter to carry. One never used such an arrow for hunting. It was simply not practical. Hunting arrows usually had crane-feather fletching with bone or wooden points. His metal arrowhead, however, had a hollow channel very similar to a whistling arrow, which hunters used to freeze their games with the sound they caused while piercing through the wind. This arrow was custom-built for something specific. What did he shoot with it? A scroll of parchment written by him in a script he no longer remembered or could read perhaps had all the answers he sought, but then he could not decipher it.
At night he dreamt about religion. Was he religious? At least he could not remember to be but spiritual he could have been, as he felt a strong connection with everything. Somewhere deep in his ebbing mind, he knew that religion was something that helped people find the meaning of things. Perhaps religion could help him decipher the meaning of his existence, but alas, only if he could remember who and what he had been. Somehow, he knew that the lake was also called the ‘Jewel of Sikkim’ and was considered sacred by the Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists.
Opening his eyes to the maiden rays of the next day’s dawning sun kissing the snowcapped mountains surrounding the magical lake, he wondered from which direction he had come. Did he come from the south of the Tibetan (Chinese) border, just five kilometres from where he was, but it was impossible to cross the mighty Himalayas from that side?
Then had he come from the town of Lachen via Thangu Valley in Sikkim. The route passed through the rugged terrain of a moraine, an accumulation of unconsolidated debris of regolith and rock, an ancient glacial till, with high alpine pastures covered with different species of Rhododendron trees. It was the only route that pilgrims usually took to visit the lake.
He wondered how he could remember such unnecessary things and not even recollect from which direction he had come. While nascent memories vanished fast, old recollections floated in his mind like the unbound pages of some ancient manuscript. Further, he could not differentiate which memory was a reality and which was a dream.
He remembered the folklore that Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, founder of Tibetan Buddhism, who visited the area in the 8th century, blessed a particular spot on the lake never to freeze so that it could provide year-round drinking water to the isolated mountain tribes. Funny that he felt that he was there when the guru performed the miracle, but how could that be; it must have been hundreds of years ago.
Then he remembered another story about Guru Nanak Sahib, founder of the Sikh religion, dipping his walking stick in the frozen lake to create the unfrozen spot at the request of local shepherds sometime in the 15th century. He felt he was there too. Did both of the events occur? Or was only one of the stories true? Which story was true, which false, did not matter to him? It was a blessing enough that that thawed hole provided year-round water for drinking, and now he could spend the remainder of his days here, where there was hardly anyone to question and enquire about his being.
As time passed, he lost track of the days and times. He could no longer remember when he had come to the lake and how long he had been there. Not being able to recollect what or who one had been was perhaps the cruellest thing to experience in the December days of life. After all, what are we without our memories? Are we even alive? He often wondered while strolling beside the pristine lake in this magical land of the divine.
“Wake up, old man, wake up,” screamed a little shepherd girl and woke him from sleep. “Can you help me retrieve my little lamb; it has wandered onto the ice,” pleaded the child as the old timer rubbed his eyes with his palms to get a bearing of what was happening. Cautiously walking on the thin frozen sheet, the ancient traveller slowly approached the lamb, clapped his hands, and made some noise to steer the helpless animal away from danger. Ignoring the dancing man on the ice as if he was not there, the lamb trotted towards safety, and a beautiful friendship started between an old and fading brain and a young and discovering mind.
The little girl started coming to Gurudongmar with her small band of sheep every day. Her parents always remained at a distance and left the oldtimer alone. They preferred not to disturb the hermit who lived in the yak-skin tent. They somehow did not mind their daughter pestering the quiet human being. It seemed like the family were nomadic shepherds who had landed in the region and had camped in the alpine pastures in Thangu Valley, a few kilometres from the lake.
The girl would speak for hours with him. Her young and sharp mind would pose millions of questions, many of which the ancient man could not answer. She would go through the contents of his almirah, try to read his precious scroll, and even play with the Mongolian recurve bow and the single birchwood arrow. As time passed, interacting with the girl, the traveller realised that he perhaps need not seek answers to his being. Religion, which tried to put meaning to everything, seemed unnecessary. He realised that life was to be experienced, one fleeting moment at a time. It was unimportant to hold onto things, but it was crucial to live the moment as fruitfully and helpfully as possible. The little girl was there for him during his last days on earth, and it was a moment of blessing to experience.
“Wake up, old man, wake up,” screamed the little shepherd girl waking up the oldtimer from sleep. “Bandits have raided our camp. They have beaten and tied up my father and are hurting my mother. Save my parents, save my parents,” cried the poor soul.
Picking his withered recurve bow and the single birchwood, wide-metal-tipped, eagle-feather fletching arrow, the forgotten man ran with the little girl towards her camp to save her parents.
They came and stopped beside a small Rhododendron niveum tree on top of a little hill. He saw that two men had pinned down the little girl’s mother onto a bed of straw while another stood on top to violate her. A fourth man skewed a skinned lamb on an open fire, preparing a feast to celebrate their pillage of the innocents.
At that instance, a sudden ocean of memory flooded the ancient man’s mind. He remembered who he had been and what he was capable of doing. Placing the birchwood arrow on the old bow, he drew it with every ounce of his remaining strength. Calculating the distance to be more than five hundred meters, factoring wind, speed, and several other little things within a fraction of a second, he released the arrow with all his might.
The projective tore through the wind with a shrill cry, and the bandits looked up towards the sky. They saw a single dazzling arrow with its metal tip reflecting the golden rays of the sun, appearing to be on fire, descending from the heaven above. Before they could react, the deadly projectile went through the chest of the bandit in the middle and lodged into a tree trunk behind.
Spontaneously the bandit put his hands on his chest to cover his wound but did not feel any pain. When he removed his hands from where the arrow had passed his body, there was no blood or gash, as if nothing had happened. The bandits looked at the arrow lodged into the tree behind them. They were too scared to think about what had happened. Lucky to be alive, they ran, mounted their horses, and galloped away.
The little girl’s mother quickly rose and untied her husband. Both of them went to the tree trunk, and when the girl’s father tried to touch the arrow lodged in the wood, it dissolved into a fog of mist. They turned and looked up towards the direction from where it was fired, and there on top of the hill above their camp, they saw the silhouette of their little girl and the old man.
Early in the morning the next day, the shepherd couple came and stood outside the yak-skin tent to pay their respect to the guardian of the lake, who had saved them. Inside the tent flopped the creaking pane of a wooden almirah, and inside it lay a scroll of parchment with the title “Memoirs of Sky Fire, the greatest archer in service of the Mighty Khan – circa of the simian 1200 AD.” On the floor beside a human skeleton lay a Mongolian recurve bow and the eagle-feather fletching birchwood arrow with the wide-metal arrowhead.
After that, the couple walked to a small heap of stones placed in a circle amidst a little grove in the valley. There they laid a bouquet of wildflowers on the grave of their twelve-year-old daughter, who had drowned and died in the lake trying to save a little lamb many years back.
Copyright © 2022 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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