Chapter One from the author’s debut novel of the same name
I looked up from my feet. Gavin pointed excitedly at the shadow cast by a tall boulder, where a thin layer of this morning’s frost had not yet thawed. He was from South Africa, and never in his well-traveled life had he seen snow up close. I was originally from Canada and found the idea of a snowless existence nearly incomprehensible.
“No,” I said. “Sorry. Just frost.”
We moved on. The abandoned village was located on a ridge that jutted out above the Marsyangdi river valley like a peninsula. A few dozen low, small buildings of dark rough-hewn stones welded together by frozen mud. It seemed insane to me that people had lived up here. It seemed insane that anyone had ever even considered living up here. Not even the yaks came this high. Nothing grew but lichen, a few particularly stubborn strands of grass, and a thin knee-high layer of vicious thorn bushes. The wind howled ceaselessly, numbing my exposed skin, and even with the sun at its midpoint I could still see my breath. And the effort required to quarry those hundred-pound stones, probably from the Marsyangdi riverbed far below, and bring them up to this godforsaken overlook — mad, I thought, absolutely barking, as the Brits on the truck used to say.
Gavin hemmed and hawed over one of the buildings, inspecting its joints and shining his Maglite flashlight inside, while I stood behind and tried to catch my breath. I had been trying all day, and I was beginning to fear that it had gone for good.
“Imagine being born here,” he said, and I tried but failed. Some cultural gaps are simply too wide to jump.
He led the way through the village. We must have gone right past the body without noticing it. For a little while we stood on the edge of the cliff, which dropped a hundred sheer feet before easing off a little and tumbling down to the dry riverbed a thousand feet below. By now we were accustomed to precipices. I had lost track of how many times during the previous week I had scrambled across steep drops on narrow and treacherous trails.
Eventually I grew bored of contemplating my own mortality and turned around, intending to return to our lodge. Then I saw him. A fellow backpacker, sitting with his back against one of the village buildings, facing us. Even from a hundred feet away and with the cold dusty wind in my eyes I could tell there was something badly wrong with his face.
“Whoa,” I said, and narrowly prevented myself from taking a fatal step backwards in surprise. “What the hell?”
Gavin turned to look and said “Fucking hell.”
Canada & its place in the world. Published by
the non-profit charitable Walrus Foundation