Friday, December 18, 2020

Jungbu's Mother by Henri Colt

A fifty-year-old divorcee sips medicinal wine in a Nepalese mountain tent in Henri Colt's atmospheric tale.

"Three nips and a cup." The shapely owner of the Himalayan teahouse smiles after filling my reusable marmalade jar with chang for the second time. I take three sips and, according to tradition, guzzle all that remains of the sweet barley wine. An empty plate of Dal Bhat lays next to my plastic lawn chair, not two feet from a cast-iron stove in the center of the room. The Nepali dish of steamed rice and lentils did little to calm my churning intestines.

"Chang better than dal for upset stomach," the owner says. A lock of black hair thicker than a yak's coat covers her face when she leans forward to pour another glass. She brushes it behind her ear with a flick of the wrist and picks at her silver loop earrings. This time, she doesn't wait for me to drink, but returns to the kitchen, pausing to remove a dish from the golden oak table in the main room. A Tibetan wool carpet with blue floral designs covers a bench under the window. Rugs that used to be hand-woven are now machine-made and synthetic, purchased in bulk from China and carried by mule, yak, or human porter to the most remote regions of Nepal.

"She's beautiful," I whisper to Mingma, the Sherpa mountain guide sitting next to me.

"Yes," he says, "but she is sad."

The owner is peeling potatoes. She is small, maybe fortyish with broad shoulders and slender hips. A full-toothed smile stretching between high cheekbones ignites her brown complexion. Her face radiates health and intelligence. She doesn't appear to be sad.

"My uncle gave her this place after her husbands died," Mingma says.

"Did you say husbands - as in many?" I turn my head to follow Mingma's gaze toward the wood-paneled wall behind me. A jumble of signed photographs is tacked next to a portrait of the Dalai Lama.

"She comes from a region in Tibet where women have two husbands," Mingma says. "They are usually brothers. This way, the property stays in the family if one of them dies."

"So, she is Tibetan," I say.

"They were my cousins. They died on the mountain."

"What do you mean?"

"They climbed Makalu." Mingma points to a large color photograph of climbers smiling on a snowy ridge of what is the fifth highest mountain in the world. "There was a terrible accident," he says, "and now she is alone."

"Who is the kid?"

"The young boy outside making dung paddies? He is Jungbu, her son."

I look at the owner again, this time with curiosity and admiration. She is humming a Nepali folk tune as she adjusts a weighty pair of drapes that prevents cold air from leaking through the door into the teahouse. I wonder what it was like for her to sleep with two men, and if she knew which of them was Jungbu's father.

Mingma pokes my arm. "Many years ago, his grandmother - her mother - was killed by Maoist insurgents not far from this valley. It was near Ngozumpa glacier, on the trail to Gokyo Ri."

"My God, I know the place! My guide told me about it last year when we camped there." I sip at my chang, forgetting my glass is empty. Not wanting to ask for another drink, I study the old photographs. Several are of Sherpas who climbed Mount Everest. Some dirty expedition tee-shirts hang near a vertical row of Tibetan prayer flags. Mingma and I are the only guests.

The owner's son comes in, leaving a track of mud on the tiled floor. The aura of hardship is palpable now, made even more acute by my newfound awareness of his family's history. I feel insignificant - I am insignificant.

The little boy strains to lift the stove's cast-iron top with a pointed stick. His mother adds a handful of junipers to the coals. She pours some kerosene and drops in a dozen shriveled paddies of dried yak dung. An odor of freshly cut grass and lighter fluid, combined with the sudden heat, makes us back our chairs away from the stove. Feeling queasy, I unzip my down jacket and stuff my wool cap in my pocket.

I am still harboring symptoms of altitude sickness after failing to climb Ama Dablam. Avalanche risk from heavy snowfall, and intestinal problems, forced me to descend from high camp three days ago. Now that I am at a lower altitude and in the warm haven of a teahouse far from the trekkers' highway, I feel cowardly, wondering why I hadn't mustered the courage to summit.

Ama Dablam means "Mother's necklace" in Nepali. They call it that because the 6,857-meter peak is protected by two long ridges that surround a hanging glacier the way a mother's arms might cradle a child, and because the glacier has the shape of a dablam, the traditional pendant worn by Sherpa women. Far lower than Everest and its neighbors to the north, the mountain is a stunningly steep pyramid of ice that captures the gaze of anyone traveling through the Khumbu valley.

I had quit my job, and for two years, I had dedicated myself to climbing. I read books by mountaineers and world-class athletes for inspiration. I finalized my divorce to rid myself of harmful emotional baggage. I exercised daily to improve my speed, stamina, and strength. But, I was fifty years old and a relative newbie. My friends said I couldn't do it. Ama Dablam was no 8,000-meter peak, I told them, but it was my Everest, and like every hero, I would surmount any obstacle preventing me from my goal. I scaled Kilimanjaro and volcanoes in Mexico and Ecuador. I climbed Ben Nevis in the winter. I even trekked twice to Everest base camp before making a solemn ascent of 6,200-meter Lobuche East. Mistakenly, I thought I was ready.

Mingma raises his glass in a toast. He's smiling. He must sense a need to interrupt my negative thinking.

"To Ama Dablam," he says.

I touch my empty glass to his. "To Mother's Necklace."

The owner of the teahouse offers us more chang. I study her naturally full lips, ruddy cheeks, and twinkling, slanted eyes. A small, turquoise-laden jewel box dangles on a silver chain around her neck. It teases my chin when she reaches over my shoulder to pour my drink.

"You like her, don't you?" Mingma grins like a schoolboy.

"Very much," I say, "but like the mountain, she is beyond my reach."

Mingma speaks before drinking. "Only a madman pursues impossibilities," he says.

I wonder if we are toasting the mountain or if this forty-year-old veteran of the Himalayas just paraphrased Marcus Aurelius? I quote the philosopher-king myself. "How ridiculous to be surprised by anything in life," I say.

"Life is what our thoughts make it," Mingma jousts.

"And you, my friend, are a wise and learned Sherpa." The clouds over my heart lift miraculously. I lean toward the stove and raise its lid with a juniper branch, emptying my glass onto the coals. The sudden hiss makes the owner lift her eyes from the plastic bowl in her lap to look in our direction.

There she is, crouching now with her back against the wood-paneled wall; a widowed Tibetan wearing blue jeans, gold Adidas running shoes, and a tight-fitting red fleece jacket; a woman raising her son alone in the high mountains of Nepal, with no company other than an occasional band of crusty mountaineers.

I pull up an empty chair. "Come, join us by the fire."

She shovels a handful of rice and dal into her mouth. Jungbu sneaks out from behind the curtains. His mother pushes the youngster forward with a pat on his butt. He offers us a handful of sweets, then sits playfully at my feet.

Mingma sticks out his tongue the way Tibetans stick their tongue out in greeting.

Jungbu's laughter makes me smile.

"Maybe," Mingma says, "Ama Dablam is not so bad after all."

When the owner brings us ginger tea, she is carrying three glasses.

6 comments:

  1. Intriguing story, maybe the protagonist doesn't have to climb that mountain now. Good descriptive writing, pulled me into the story.

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  2. Enjoyed finding hope at the top of a distant mountain.

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  3. Enigmatic ending. Lots going on. Not sure what happened next.

    Very atmospheric. The author had full and consummate understanding of his unusual setting.

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  4. Good descriptions. Not sure who the story was about. The ending was puzzling.

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  5. I thought the writer did a good job of selecting details about the setting and characters to draw in the reader. The ending, optimistic and open-ended, worked for me.

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  6. Great job transporting the reader to a particular time and place, one can almost feel the warmth of the fire and taste the tea. Interesting title also, a statement perhaps on the characters and their perceived roles.

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