Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
– W. B. Yeats, The Stolen Child
“You’ve always been my favorite,” he said.
Dried blood colored the white whiskers surrounding his lips. His teeth wore a buttery film and dark circles called attention to the liver-spotted skin pulled taut over his cheekbones.
“Rest, father.” I pushed him gently back down onto the bed.
He turned his head and moaned, squinting at the straw-packed wall of the hut.
“Was he talking to you or to me?”
I looked at my young brother and shrugged. “Probably neither.”
Thin clouds filtered the blurry light of the half-moon. The sun wouldn’t rise for another hour, but we had to set off now.
Dhonu and I stopped at the memorial outside of our sleepy village and visited two familiar mounds–a single pair among the hundreds. I set down our equipment, got on my knees, and kissed the stones which had been piled on top of each tiny lump of grass. The cold from the rocks felt like shocks of tiny lightning. I imagined the ashes which had been buried beneath them had long since been absorbed into the Earth.
Dhonu hesitated, always afraid to get too close. I grabbed his hand and gently pulled him over. He quickly kissed the markers as well, though I’m not sure his lips even made contact. He slipped out of my grasp and ran back toward the road.
I supposed I couldn’t blame him. He was too young to remember Mother and our sister, Gitika. I looked down to my left at the hole which I’d already begun to dig and realized we had better be on our way.
The Nepali forest never ceased.
Already, it was humming and bustling with activity. Brown-chested partridges chased each other around the trunks of the sal trees like quarreling children. While Dhonu twirled and flipped a stick in the air, I kept my eyes open for tigers and any rhinoceroses that might think sticking close to our well-treaded road was a good idea. Avoiding contact was the best option, but I traced my fingers along the hilt of the kukri in case that wasn’t a possibility.
“Remember what we talked about?” I said.
I stopped and dropped the wound rope that had been weighing heavily over one shoulder. “This isn’t a joke, Dhonu. If I didn’t need you, I wouldn’t have brought you along.”
He avoided my gaze.
“Do you remember what we talked about?”
He bounced up and down on his legs.
“Don’t leave your side. Don’t do anything stupid,” he spat out to the canopy of branches and leaves above.
He released an exasperated breath. “Do whatever you say.”
His eyes darted toward the blade hanging from my belt.
“Can I see it?”
“No,” I said.
He grunted and started walking away. “You’re a jerk, you know that?”
I picked up the rope, adjusted the pack across my back, and followed close behind.
“Yes, I know that.”
We were six miles deep in the jungle and at our destination. I was grateful for having stopped only twice so that Dhonu could pee.
Dawn’s orange sun illuminated the sheer rock wall. The cliffside never failed to intimidate me once I’d come face-to-face with it, always forced to crane my neck upward to try and find its end. Whenever I felt overconfident or arrogant about something, I only had to think of this cliffside. It’s one thing to see mountains in the distance, but when one’s entire being comes up against the jagged, ivy-netted rock like an ant on a boulder, it’s another reminder of our inconsequence.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to climb all the way to the top.
“Father took me here a few years ago,” I said, looking down at my brother. I don’t know why I told him something that didn’t really matter.
“For Mother and Gitika?”
“But it didn’t work,” he replied.
“It takes away the pain,” I said with a little anger in my voice. “But, no, it won’t save anyone.”
He shrugged away the thought and extended his stick outward as he spun in circles, his eyes closed and his face jutting into the air. Besides the cowlick on his crown, his dark hair fell straight and gentle over his skull. His skin was chestnut, smooth, and still unblemished.
Dhonu was a good boy, just naive. But who isn’t at his age and shouldn’t he have the right to be so? Soon enough, he’ll know and experience more than anyone ever should. I only hoped the pestilence would pass him by.
I think I made a mistake in bringing him here, I thought, even though I knew that wasn’t true. To leave him behind would have been the real mistake. Without him, we couldn’t help Father with what little power we had to do so. Yesterday, I had come on my own only to discover what I’d feared: the original climbing rope lying on the ground, one end completely frayed.
I let the new rope slide from my shoulder and I bent my head from side to side, working out the crick in my neck. I studied the wall.
“You see that thin crack running along the stone?” I pointed.
He nodded eagerly.
“That’s your first foothold.”
His eyes twinkled at the prospect of adventure and doing something potentially dangerous.
“I need you,” I said, “because my hands and feet are too big to fit anymore.”
He smiled and said, “Oh.”
Then, I held his shoulder and pulled him backward. I pointed at an outcropping fifty or so feet above us. “That’s where you’re going. When you reach the ledge, you need to be very quiet. Okay?”
His mouth hung open as he gazed. I gave him a shake.
I held up one end of the rope. “You’ll see a large boulder sitting just outside the cave. Tie this on just like I showed you, remember?”
He reached for the rope but I pulled it back. “Show me you remember.”
Dhonu issued a mumble of complaint, but he impressed me with his memory as he threw his stick to the forest floor and tied the knot exactly as I had taught him.
Satisfied, I tucked one end of the rope through his belt as he slipped out of his straw sandals and placed a foot in the crack. His fingers probed the opening and he began his ascent.
I hesitated briefly before grabbing his silk pant leg. “When you get to the entrance, you tie the knot, you pay attention to the cave, and you wait. You–”
“–don’t move. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t do anything. Blah, blah, blah. I know.” He yanked his leg up from my grip and scaled the cliffside as if he had been doing so for years without my knowledge. I was a bundle of mixed feelings. I feared for my brother, but at the same time, I tried to hold back a smile, remembering how I had once bristled at very similar words.
The saapgaryo were nocturnal, so they should have recently settled down to sleep. They mainly fed on rhododendrons growing on top of the mountain. The flowers made them drowsy near daybreak. Excepting Dhonu’s perfectly sized hands and feet, that docility was the only other reason I allowed him to be up here alone until I climbed the rope. Father must have felt the same when he had sent me only a few summers ago.
As I sat at the entrance, stretching my burning arms, Dhonu peered into the cave. One hand pinched his nose.
“This place stinks!” he said through a nasal voice.
“Quiet!” I hissed. “They’re sleeping, not dead.”
He rolled his eyes, but turned back to the blackness.
I reached into my pack and pulled out a torch that had been dipped in pitch. I lit it with Father’s flint and steel.
“Come on,” I said. “Stay behind me.”
The stench grew with every step. Dhonu pretended to gag, stopping only when I turned and gave him a stern look.
“Breath through your mouth,” I whispered.
We turned a corner about twenty yards in and came across their chamber. I spotted them instantly. My hand moved to cover Dhonu’s mouth just in time to catch it opening.
There was only one adult saapgaryo with four younger ones laying against her teats, nestled just under an extended wing. All were resting within a nest of sticks and sal leaves. The little ones stirred for a moment, but seemed to settle back down to sleep.
I raised the torch slowly to get a better view of the room. In one corner was the pile of excrement from which the smell emanated. Why the creatures lived and slept so near to their feces, I’ll never understand, but at least it made it easy for us to find what we were looking for.
I pointed at our target and handed the torch to Dhonu. I held my finger to my lips. His oversized teeth looked even bigger as he grinned against the flame. We tiptoed to the corner as I kept a constant eye on the sleeping family and I quietly removed the bag strapped to my back.
Father had made me do this job last time. Part of me felt I should let Dhonu take over, but I decided to do it myself anyway, hoping he’d never have to.
The saapgaryo crap was green, slimy, and all around the worst thing I’d ever had to make physical contact with. But there was magic inside and it seemed to me that some good things came wrapped in not-so-good things. Imagining how Father would feel tomorrow made the task a little less painful.
I’m sure it only took a minute to gather it all, yet loading the sack felt like watching mold grow. My eyes would dart between the poop, Dhonu, and the creatures while I tried to quietly scoop with my hands and filled the bag. The torch would inadvertently lower every once in awhile as my little brother stared in fascination at the creatures he’d heard so much about.
I’d forgotten what it was like to be unfamiliar with their long beaks and pointed ears. Dark gray feathers lined their bodies. Laying down in slumberous sleep, they didn’t seem that fierce–maybe they were even a little cute, especially the small ones–but when they were awake with their wings expanded, shrieking like something unholy, they inspired panic.
We were so close to avoiding all that.
It was my fault. In a hurry to get us out of the precarious situation and back to the village, I didn’t pay attention as I should have. We had just turned around when I accidentally kicked a small rock across the cavern floor. It landed square in the ribs of one of the young saapgaryo which yelped in surprise and scrambled onto its wobbling talons, waking the others. The sound of their dissonant squealing frightened Dhonu, causing him to drop the torch.
Then the big one woke up.
There was no way we were going to make it out of the cave and down the rope with a protective mother in pursuit.
Five pairs of beady, yellow-green eyes glowered at us.
I threw the sack of poop into Dhonu’s hands, shoved him behind me, and pulled out the kris. “Run for the rope.”
“Go!” I yelled, trying to be heard over the tumultuous howls. I didn’t want to turn my back to the mother, so I could only assume he listened to me.
Thankfully, the torch was still aflame and I could see them all. With the blade raised in front of me, I expanded my chest and stood as tall as possible. Because I wasn’t big myself, the mother was just about equal in height, appearing menacing while bounding back and forth in front of her babies. Her wings spread wide and I felt as if they could wrap around me and keep me trapped forever.
I slowly backed away towards the entrance, remembering when something similar happened to Father and me. I couldn’t remember the details, other than by the end, he had scratches all over and was covered in blood. How he managed to climb down after me, I don’t know. I do know that my legs and arms didn’t stop shaking until late into that night.
As I begin to smell the outside forest, I realized my first mistake was actually my second. I should have paid better attention to the ground coming into the cave. My clumsy heel snagged on a thick root running across the cave, sending me tumbling onto my rear. The kris flew from my hands, chinking against the wall and somewhere onto the floor.
Mother saapgaryo saw her opportunity.
Her brilliant eyes rose and fell as she bounded toward me.
It was either clamber onto my feet or try to find the knife.
My fingers searched the ground and just as my fingers found the blade, I screamed. A sharp burn radiated through my forearm as the mother’s claws tore at my skin. Instinct drove my hands toward my face. Her breath was hot, panting, and the sound that emanated was a frightening mix of growl and screech. Her beak drove forward, piercing my palms with incessant pecking.
I fell onto my back, thinking I could use my feet to kick her off. She flapped her wings wildly. Now her talons dug into my hamstrings, ripping away bits of my flesh.
Among the chaos, I heard a shuffling sound by my ears: one of the babies coming to see what all of the fuss was about, I assumed. I hoped Dhonu was at the bottom of the cliff by now.
I continued futilely kicking, but the saapgaryo didn’t seem to care. My lungs tried to keep up, tried to catch gasps of air. I was growing weary, already losing my will to put up a fight.
Then came a scream which at first I thought was my own.
It was Dhonu.
My stomach dropped and something took hold of me within. I kicked at the mother with all of my strength. Her weight was lifted from me and I found myself back on my feet. I could have sworn that my heart was going to pump itself out of my chest. I saw the big saapgaryo half-running, half-flying frantically towards her nest, away from the portal of sunlight behind us.
I looked for my brother and saw him holding himself up on the cavern wall beside me.
“Are you okay?” I yelled, grabbing his face and trying to look over every inch of him.
“Come on!” Dhonu said. His voice was choked with tears.
I squinted and scanned the ground. “Father’s kris,” I said.
Dhonu grabbed my arm. “I used it. Come on!”
It wasn’t until we were on the ledge before I realized what he had done for me.
I was proud to have made it halfway to the village before my sudden burst of will had drained. As the exhaustion increased, so did the pain. It flowed out from my chest to my fingertips and toes.
“We need to stop,” I said, already collapsing onto the muddy road.
Dhonu said nothing. His tears had dried up and now he only looked at me.
My breathing was ragged. “What?”
“You’re a mess,” he said.
I frowned, but then I looked at the stains of blood and dirt covering my arms. I imagined the rest of my body looked the same. Despite the throbbing, despite my weariness, or maybe because of those things, I began to laugh. And then so did Dhonu, until we were both finally out of breath.
“Yeah,” I finally said. “I guess so.”
Dhonu removed the sack that was hanging loosely from my back and held it in the air. His face scrunched. “Do you want some?”
“No,” I said. I rose slowly and painfully to my feet, realizing we needed to get back. I reached my hand out for the sack, but my brother put it over his shoulder and began to walk away.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s go take care of Father.”