Read an Excerpt
What Goes Around
I killed the rat. Even though the woman who swept the courtyard told me I would bring bad karma upon myself. The rat was menacing the bunk room. It was an oily sewer rat. Every night it crept into the room after we were asleep and clawed into our backpacks, gorging itself on our extra food. One night it leapt onto the face of a Danish girl and got its claws tangled in her long blond hair and she woke up screaming. Enough is enough.
The Tibetan woman who swept the stone courtyard wore a traditional gown, trim and dark, and plaited her raven hair into a thick braid. She was slight and beautiful. She came from a remote village and was a devout Buddhist. She looked into my face and told me no one sold rat traps in Lhasa. In the market I found almost everyone sold heavy, serrated, spring-loaded metal rat traps. I bought one and baited it with a cube of yak meat and placed it under my bunk. I heard the loud snap around midnight, desperate thumping, a final jerk. I pulled my sleeping bag over my head and slept soundly.
In the morning the woman was solemn and anxious, but the other travelers staying in the bunk room were relieved. Killing the rat is how I became friends with Maury and Brigitte.
"Thanks," said Brigitte. "No one else would have done it."
"I know I wouldn't have," said Maury.
Brigitte was a Canadian physics student and a climber with round, light blue doll's eyes. Her name was pronounced Brrigeet. She was traveling alone. She carried her Tibetan phrase book everywhere she went and despite all the laughter she provoked, she was actually learning Tibetan. She would eventually return to Canada to ace her undergraduate work and be invited to Geneva to earn her Ph.D.
Maury, a tall, beach-blond Aussie and former lifeguard, was an itinerant carpenter currently hailing from Vancouver, who built decks half the year and traveled the other half. He loved to dive and knew every brilliant blue-water lagoon from Honduras to Hong Kong.
That evening, with a ratless night to look forward to, Maury and Brigitte and I went out together to celebrate. On the way to the restaurant Maury bought a case of bottled beer and carried it lightly on his shoulder. We laughed so hard and stayed out so late we were locked out and had to pound on the great wooden gate to get in.
The next day, hanging out in the courtyard in the cold sunshine, I asked each of them if they were up for something illegal.
"What do you think, mate?" said Maury, breaking into his habitual smile.
"Always," said Brigitte. I didn't know if this was true or not.
I wanted to go to Lhamo Latso, the holiest lake in Tibet. I'd been hearing about the lake since my first journey to Tibet in 1984. In the slums of Delhi, where the beggar children with limbs broken backward by their parents peer up from the ground, I had found a book titled The Power-Places of Central Tibet for sale, hiding between an Indian tome on sexual positions and a photo biography of the Beatles. In it there was a description of Lhamo Latso: "It is a Tibetan belief older than Buddhism that every individual, every family, and an entire country, possesses a 'life-spirit,' called la. This la is embodied in natural phenomena, such as mountains, lakes, trees and so on. When the place of residence of the la is damaged, the individual, family or nation suffers directly. Thus when a lake that is the home of the la dries up, this omen of death or disaster can inflict the terrible result that is presaged. The life-spirit of Tibet is identified with Lhamo Latso."
Lhamo Latso is also the geographical life-spirit for all Dalai Lamas. It is a surprisingly small lake, a tiny oval barely recognizable on a map, located a hundred miles southeast of Lhasa near the head of the Metoktang Valley. Over the centuries, most Dalai Lamas made a pilgrimage to this oracle. By staring into its cold, lapping waters each Dalai Lama could divine essential clues to who his reincarnation would be. When the thirteenth Dalai Lama died suddenly in 1935, the Regent of Tibet made a pilgrimage to Lhamo Latso, where, transfixed by the turquoise water, he had a vision that gave exact details for finding his spiritual leader's reincarnation, Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth (and current) Dalai Lama a heretofore unknown two-year-old boy living in a lost yak-dung village in central Tibet.
I had food, tents, and camping gear left over from an aborted expedition, but neither Maury nor Brigitte had come to Tibet prepared to live out in the cold, so we went shopping. In lieu of a Chinese army slicker Maury thought too expensive, he bought himself an enormous white plastic gunnysack. We cut out holes for his head and arms, and he pulled it on and tied a rope around his waist.
"You look like a priest from the Middle Ages," cried Brigitte, delighted.
"You know it gets cold above 15,000 feet," I warned.
"No drama," said Maury Aussie for "don't worry" and donned a green felt fedora he'd purchased instead of a Tibetan sheepskin cap.
Brigitte borrowed my fleece long underwear and bought herself a Tibetan scarf and a floppy wool cap. She would stay swaddled in them for the next two weeks.
The Chinese were requiring foreigners to hire a guide, a driver, and a jeep and to obtain (i.e., buy) three or four permits for any travel outside Lhasa. We couldn't have received permission to go to Lhamo Latso in any case; it was deep inside an off-limits chunk of Tibet the size of Texas, and four days of hard mountain hiking from the nearest road.
We snuck out of town before dawn, catching a lift on a local bus overloaded with Tibetans bundled up like Inuit, the bus driver eyeing us in a shard of mirror. We hid under the seats at the police roadblocks. Where the bus U-turned we jumped out and started walking away fast, not looking back, not turning around, expecting to be stopped and questioned and perhaps jailed, but it didn't happen. We negotiated a ride with a well-connected local, sardined into the back of his jeep, and he drove us straight through every dusty roadblock with a grin and a wave.
At dusk the jeep dropped us near the mouth of the Metoktang Valley. We slipped across the Tsangpo River on a tank-wide suspension bridge that was inexplicably unguarded, hiked up into the canyon, and pitched camp in a muddy field encircled by apricot trees. I couldn't believe how lucky we'd been. Lying in my bag, I must have said so out loud.
"No such thing, mate," whispered Maury from the other tent. Brigitte was already curled up asleep beside me.
"No such thing as luck."
In the morning, mist wreathed the valley. To either side, treeless slopes reared up a mile in the sky. We walked the hard-frozen track in the shade and watched the sunlight coming for us like castaways watch an approaching ship. When the light finally sailed into the bottom of the valley, the temperature leapt fifty degrees. In minutes winter metamorphosed into summer. The river began to cough and jerk and then run free, the pastures turned from frost-white to green, and shouting shepherd kids sprouted on the hillsides. That's how the world works above 15,000 feet. Of course, it could just as easily have been snowing.
"So, Maury," I said. "You don't believe in luck?"
He had his pants hiked up, revealing the funny laceless, ankle-length boots called Blundstones that Aussies are partial to. He'd taken off his fedora and was strolling hat in hand. "Luck isn't something you can believe in," he said. "Luck is the word used by people who don't believe."
"Good things happen and it's not just a matter of luck?"
"Nope. They were supposed to happen."
"And bad things?"
"Same." Maury was practicing twirling his fedora on the tip of his finger and catching it. "Everything happens for a reason, Mark."
Brigitte was just ahead, practically skipping even with a heavy pack. Like Maury, she was implacably gay. You couldn't get either of them to say a bad word about anything or anybody if you tortured them.
"So you must believe in karma."
"They go together." Maury flashed a smile and flipped the fedora up into the air. It made several slow circles and landed perfectly on his head.
To me, it seemed like the oddest coincidence that I should wind up walking to Lhamo Latso with a man who actually believed in reincarnation. But then Maury would have said that that's because it wasn't a coincidence at all.
That night we camped in the bleak medieval village of Tseqgu. Brigitte danced among the snot-faced urchins practicing her Tibetan until they clutched our fingers with their dirt-blackened hands and pulled us into the squalor of a stone hut. We had to stoop and could see almost nothing in the tenebrous light. We were led through a wooden fence separating the goats and sheep from the humans but allowing the animals' body heat to half-warm the cramped black space. An old man plunging a yak butter churn greeted us with gnarled hands and invited us to sit on a dirt bench beside a glowing hearth. Small steaming potatoes were poured into a basket on the floor. The children squatted on their haunches, wiped the green mucus from their faces, and we all ate together.
The next morning there were three inches of snow on the ground. While we were packing up the tents a shivering, barefoot boy, ragged and filthy, passed by carrying a heavy water jug. I looked at Maury.
"OKay, mate, if it's bothering you so much, this is what I believe: Every thought, every word, every action produces karma. Our karma carries on from life to life. It's a spiritual progression. Bit by bit, act by act, life after life, we create our own karma. Acts of kindness in this life beget gifts of kindness in the next. Acts of cruelty in this life beget suffering in the next. It's self-fulfilling retribution and reward. It's a spiritual quest for learning, and we all have a choice as to what path we will take."
Brigitte asked Maury how the actions of others affected an individual's karma.
"Depends on how you respond," he said. "It's up to you."
In the honey light of late afternoon we reached the forlorn but still magnificent Chokorgyel Monastery. Chokorgyel was built in one of the ancient geomantic hot spots of Tibet a vast triangular plain at the confluence of three rivers and surrounded by three mountains symbolizing the perfect harmony of three elements: earth, water, and air. The monastery's castlelike walls form an equilateral triangle, a quarter mile to a side. Gendun Gyatso, the second Dalai Lama, founded the monastery in 1509 as a place of rest and worship for all those making the pilgrimage to Lhamo Latso.
We popped up the tents outside the walls of the monastery across from the black wool tents of the Tibetan nomads. Lion-dogs immense mastiffs with the solid bodies of rottweilers but the matted coat and lion ruffs of chows were staked outside these tents barking themselves hoarse.
The Chokorgyel Monastery, or gompa, was razed by the Dzungar Mongols in 1718, rebuilt, then destroyed again by the Chinese in 1959. Inside the walls were the beheaded skeletons of hundreds of stone buildings, including several temples. Before the tanks and dynamite, there were 500 monks at Chokorgyel; now, we discovered, there were only two: an old man and a young man living amidst the ruins, quiet and transparent as spirits. They thought we were pilgrims and we were, although I didn't know it then. To reach Lhamo Latso, they told us, follow the wide stone path leading northeast from the monastery. We would find the way.
The lion-dogs barked all night, lunging and snapping taut their heavy chains, mistaking attacks of wind for intruders. We collapsed the tents in the predawn dark and dragged them through the huge wooden gates, leaving them on the broken stones of the former temple as the monks had suggested. Slipping back out below a whistling sky, we moved along the wall past the piles of stone tablets all engraved with the same hypnotic chant om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, "hail to the jewel in the lotus" as if the wind itself were using the tablets as a hymnal.
To stay warm, we hiked swiftly. By the time we crossed the Metoktang River it was light enough to switch off the headlamps. The monks had told us Lhamo Latso was a four-hour walk from Chokorgyel. When we reached a cluster of cairns, we were to turn due north, passing through a yak herder's camp.
The cairns were covered with snow. In the camp there were great black yaks snorting columns of white steam and a woman in angular swaths of black fabric milking a yak with a red bell. Brigitte went over to speak with her, but the woman fled to her black tent.
It was steep going up into a hanging valley and then level again. Cold squalls kept coming and going. I was making my case for the irrationality of reincarnation and waiting for Brigitte, the scientist, the physicist, to chime in.
"Matter cannot be created or destroyed, only re-formed," she said at last. "I guess I don't see why it should be that different for the spirit."
"Well, Mark, I don't."
Maury was walking ahead of us with his arms crossed, his hands inside his sleeves, and his fedora pulled down over his ears. "We not only come back in a new form," he said. "I believe we choose the form we come back in."
"What!" This was too much. "Who would ever choose to come back as that dying, barefoot child we saw carrying water yesterday morning?"
"I don't know," said Maury, his tone implying not that it couldn't happen, but that he himself didn't have an answer.
"C'mon Maury, this is preposterous. Forget about coming back as a beetle or a rat; just take a child who dies of starvation or AIDS or malaria. Who would choose that life? For that matter, take any kid who is abused by his parents and tell me he chose to be reincarnated into that kind of suffering."
Maury glanced back over his shoulder. "I suppose it depends on the kind of lives, the hundreds or thousand of lives he's lived before."
It was too cold to talk anymore. We eventually reached the 17,300-foot pass overlooking Lhamo Latso, "a sharp cragged ridge," according to The Power-Places of Central Tibet, "upon which is built the Dalai Lama's throne, and from this eminence the divine rulers of Tibet once sat to gaze into the lake...to divine the future." The throne was buried beneath untold thousands of prayer flags frozen into an icy mound, and the wind was cutting us in half. The sacred lake was a blue mirror set down inside a ring of mountains. It didn't look sacred. It looked just like a thousand other inhospitable high-altitude tarns found everywhere in Tibet.
Maury and Brigitte and I tried to stay up high and stare down into the oracle-lake because we all want a vision, we all want something mysterious and inexplicable and full of portent to happen to us especially those of us who doubt such things can happen. We braced ourselves amid the creaking flags and peered down into the hard blue lake until our eyes blurred and our faces froze and our feet began to slip. To me it was just like standing on the summit of a mountain: no divination, no enlightenment, just the howl and bite of cold doing all it could to freeze solid the blood in three beating hearts.
That night bullets of snow strafed our tents and the lion-dogs yelped and the monastery stood silent as stone. The next day we crossed Gyelong Pass in a whiteout, the tower of prayer flags on top guiding us like a lighthouse. The day after that we woke to eight inches of snow, and more falling.
By now we'd each settled into our roles, which of course were not roles at all but who we really were, so there was harmony. I was the navigator, plotting our course over the earth and through the mountains on small-scale, declassified military maps, reading between the brown lines. Brigitte was the bubbly, fluid linguist who got us invited in for boiled potatoes and yak butter tea by every Tibetan home or tent we came near. And Maury was the incorrigible optimist, the man who quipped merrily no matter how deep the snow or how hungry we were, even when it got so cold we were forced to cram into one tent and sleep in a pile to keep from freezing to death.
One evening we followed a mule cart stacked high with hay into the village of Woka Taktse. There was a dirt road trickling out of this village and a jeep for hire, and so our journey would end. The Tibetan women in their bright blue tunics and heavy wool aprons were on the flat roofs of their mud homes, beating stalks of barley and singing softly in the twilight.
Brigitte the pied piper was ahead, surrounded by a pack of jubilant urchins. Maury and I were sauntering side by side talking. I was telling him how lucky I was to have been raised in a big family where everyone was loved.
"No such thing."
Maury hooted. "Luck, mate. Luck!"
"What about you, Maury? What was your family like?"
"It was a learning experience."
"What's that mean?"
Brigitte was now being led by the hand of a bowlegged old woman. It was almost dark but the air was still warm. Maury doffed his fedora and ran a hand through his scarecrow hair and told me that he had lived in terror as a boy because his father was a drunk. A mean-spirited drunk who all through Maury's childhood beat him and his mother.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Jenkins
Douré is striding along the edge of the escarpment, a thin figure silhouetted against the lavender dawn. He is nimble, his pace swift and economical. A Kalashnikov is slung from one shoulder, carried easily, almost as if it were not real. The path arcs along the curve of the precipice, a 3,000-foot drop just inches away, but Douré is surefooted, singing quietly to himself, insouciant. This dry, deeply riven country is his homeland.
We are hiking through the Simien Mountains of northern Ethiopia. Douré, our armed scout, Mulat, our guide, my wife, Sue, and me.
The first look over the escarpment, even if one is accustomed to the vertigo of mountains, is shocking. In a nanosecond the eyes gauge the fantastic drop, the mind imagines the plummet to death, instinct secretes a warning into the blood and the body recoils.
There are chasms of air beside us. The scalloped rim presents a series of sheer walls ahead and behind, but to our left there is an utter falling away, a dropping and dropping until a dissected badlands finally looms up. The black shadow of the escarpment cuts jaggedly across the netherworld far below.
"It's like the Grand Canyon," says Sue. "Like looking off the South Rim without a North Rim on the other side."
Douré and Mulat stop and pass the binoculars back and forth, glassing the walls. They are searching for ibex. They find nothing and we continue along the escarpment. The trail drops down a hundred feet, paralleling the scythelike curve of the canyon rim, then begins ascending.
There is something ahead of us on the trail: a shaggy mane silhouetted against the skyline.
"Lion baboon," Mulat whispers.
We move forward in a crouch, halting behind a bush. It is a troop of baboons, perhaps fifty in all. They are warming themselves in the morning sun, picking lice from each other's fur, cavorting, chewing handfuls of grass.
"Gelada baboons," Mulat says. "We name them lion baboons, or bleeding hearts."
The males have great lionlike manes of tawny fur. "Bleeding heart" refers to a distinctive triangle of bare pink flesh on the chests of both males and females. Unlike baboons in other parts of Africa, lion baboons are afraid of humans. As soon as Sue and I try to approach, the dominant males curl their lips back and bare their teeth. We freeze immediately, but now they are agitated. The males are nervously cocking their heads. They begin to scream. It's a signal suddenly every animal in the troop flies to the edge of the precipice and flings itself off.
We're speechless. It seems they have committed suicide en masse. I spring to the edge, drop to my hands and knees, and peer over the rim. I expect to see several dozen primates flailing down through thin air.
Instead, they are all perched on tiny ledges along the sheer face of the cliff. I can't understand how they have landed safely. Then one of the baboons spots my white face. Shrieks echo along the cliffs and the entire troop again leaps into space revealing their fabulous secret.
Each baboon vaults into midair, allows itself a free fall of ten or twenty feet, then reaches out impossibly powerful hands, grabs hold of tufts of grass, and gracefully swings itself back into the cliff. It is the most dazzling display of agility and sangfroid I have ever seen in my life.
The Simien Mountains stretch from east to west across the far north of Ethiopia, seventy-five miles south of Eritrea, 100 miles east of Sudan, 350 miles west of the Red Sea. The range is actually a wildly incised plateau with a vertical, north-facing escarpment.
The Simiens have had a battlement view of the interminable war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In 1962 Ethiopia attempted to absorb Eritrea, precipitating a thirty-one-year civil war. Although Eritrea eventually prevailed, declaring itself an independent state in 1993, sporadic fighting continued. Last July a cease-fire was negotiated, and in December, Eritrea and Ethiopia finally signed a peace treaty. No one knows if it will last.
Since working as a newspaper reporter in Kenya in the mid-1980s, I had been dreaming of a trek in northern Ethiopia. For the Simien Mountains, one of the most striking ranges in all of Africa, are not only home to an enclave of ancient Amharic farmers, but they are also one of the last pinpricks of habitat left for three endangered mammals: the gelada baboon, the walia ibex, and the Simien wolf.
Gelada baboons and their relatives once roamed the African savanna from Ethiopia south to the Cape; today they live only in the Afro-alpine ecological zone of Ethiopia. They are the only primates in the world that subsist on grass, and they have more manual dexterity than any monkey on earth.
The walia ibex exist only in or near the miniature (sixty-nine-square-mile) Simien National Park. The walls of the escarpment are their final redoubt. At last count, only about 400 animals remain.
As for the Simien wolf, it is one of the rarest and most endangered canids on the planet. There are none in captivity; the total population in the wild is less than 500. No more than fifty and perhaps far fewer individuals survive in their namesake range.
The spillover effects of war, coupled with overpopulation, disease, and poverty the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse that have ravaged so much of Africa have left the wildlife in the Simien Mountains balanced on the brink of oblivion. In 1996, the United Nations designated the park as an endangered World Heritage Site, and it is one of the few places on the planet that desperately need foreign visitors their money and their encouragement.
A month after the peace treaty was signed, Sue and I flew to Ethiopia.
We arrived in the dust-choked village of Debark after two days of flights and four hours in a grinding local bus. The headquarters of the Simien Mountains National Park is a tin-roofed bungalow on a steep hillside.
The cost for a week of trekking in the park for two hikers plus a scout, a guide, a muleteer, and two pack animals (all mandatory) was roughly $200. An hour after we paid, our packs were already cinched onto two small, slight Ethiopian horses; our white-turbaned muleskinner-cum-holy man had murmured prayers for the safety of our journey; Mulat had filled his army canteen with water; Douré had filled his clip with thirty shiny bullets; and we were off.
The trail sliced up through an erosional landscape of mesas and gorges where the bird life was stunning.
"Over 830 species in Ethiopia," said Mulat, "sixteen endemic to Ethiopia."
Mulat could name every bird we encountered: red-winged starling, blackheaded siskin, kestrel, white-backed vulture, thick-billed raven. I pointed up at an enormous, rufous-colored, sharp-winged raptor circling above us.
"The lammergeier," said Mulat gravely, "the bone bird."
The lammergeier is a mythical creature to the Ethiopians, for it feeds on marrow. Living on the edge of precipices, it will raise skeletons high into the sky, dash them onto the rocks, and then extract the marrow with its curved beak. Legend has it that the lammergeier will sometimes dive at animals, even humans, trying to scare them into falling off the escarpment.
While I walked with Mulat, Sue walked with Douré. The two of them developed an immediate, intuitive rapport. Because Douré did not speak a word of English, Sue practiced her fledgling Amharic.
"Dehna neh Douré?" How are you, Douré?
Douré's regal face, very small and chiseled and refined, with pointed cheekbones, a prince's nose and topped by a purple skull cap, crinkled in delight. "Dehna!" I am fine. He had the highest voice of any man I'd ever met.
I asked Mulat why Douré carried a machine gun.
"For protection," said Mulat.
"Leopards," said Mulat.
"Leopards do not attack grown humans," I argued.
"Hyenas don't attack humans."
"Okay. Humans," Mulat said finally. "Humans do attack humans."
Who? Rebels left over from the war with Eritrea? Bandits? Opportunists? I was unsure what he meant.
"Are there humans in this park that would attack us?"
"Then why are we required to hire an armed guard?"
There was no easing into this trek. In four hours we covered twelve miles and gained 3,000 feet. Much of the land was intensely cultivated, a dry quiltwork of barley fields and hayfields and pastures shorn down to the dirt by goats and sheep. When the Simien Mountains National Park was established, in 1969, the region was populated, the plateau thoroughly agrarian. Only the face of the escarpment was free of humans. Encroachment by farmers and livestock was already decimating the park's wildlife. Still, local tribesmen were given the opportunity to work for the park as scouts. Some of their families had lived here for 2,000 years this was their habitat as well.
On every slope we met shepherds and farmers, their knobby-kneed legs hardly thicker than their canes. Douré greeted all of them. They were his kinsmen and his neighbors and we shook their hands. At dusk, we reached the lip of the escarpment and camped.
The next morning we encountered the flying trapeze troupe of lion baboons. They made such an impression on Sue and me that, while the muleteer and packhorses beelined for the next camp through the tilled fields, we insisted that the four of us hike along the escarpment for the rest of the journey. Because of the denticulated architecture of the rim, with its numerous and perilous lookouts, this would add countless miles to the trip.
Douré was silently skeptical. No ferenge (Amharic for "gringo") had ever walked the rim. That trail was for the wild animals, and the locals, people who knew how to walk. But, by the third day, we had proven ourselves.
There is one sure way to gain the respect of a village African: walk with him. NGO workers are chauffeured around in white Land Cruisers. Soldiers roar by in military trucks. The untouchably wealthy blacks and Indians cruise past in Mercedes sedans with tinted windows. But rural Africans walk. Their legs are their life. You can give them food or money or praise or pity and you will hardly get a thank-you. But just once, step out of your automobile and volunteer to walk with them, at their pace for as long as they walk and as far as they walk, without whining or judging or condescending, and you have earned their respect for life.
Ethiopians go only by first names, which often have meaning.
Tesfaye means "Hope." Terunesh means "Wonderful." Ababa, "Flower." Halfway through our trek, Douré rechristened Sue "Madame Gobez." Madame Strong.
I was the first to spot the walia ibex. We had left camp before it was light and hiked out to a point called Imet Gogo, the Great Cliff. It is a blade of rock that glides straight out into nothingness. In places it is no more than three feet wide: imagine a long, narrow diving board sticking out from the summit of El Capitan. We cautiously tiptoed to the end and sat down.
We were inside the dawn. The radiating purples and pinks and oranges were not over there, on the horizon, but all around us. We could stick a hand out into it as if the sky were liquid.
I wouldn't have seen them without the monocular a group of four, one male, with the distinctively tall, black, backward-arching horns, and three females. They had intelligent faces, dark brown coats, and white socks. They were skipping along a sheer face, occasionally leaping into space and landing perfectly balanced on a lower ledge. It didn't seem possible.
They were masterful, almost gay, in their footwork. Springing up or down, trotting along rope-thin trails, wheeling and knocking heads with never less than a thousand-foot death sentence for one mistake.
We watched them, spellbound, until they disappeared around a buttress. Like the baboons, the ibex had somehow learned to defy the odds. We saw three more bands of walia ibex that day, the last of which was so close we could watch their playful bounding with the naked eye.
The last night, we camped outside a village called Gich, a collection of round thatched huts. This was Douré's home. Where he had been born and raised and lived today. Each hut was surrounded by an intricate brush wall. Inside the wall was a carefully tended vegetable garden and a few head-snapping chickens.
We put up the tents and Mulat started a small fire. Just after dark an old woman hobbled into camp. She had gashed her leg splitting firewood. By firelight, Sue cleaned the wound and I dressed it. We gave her antiseptic cream and painkillers and she vanished back into the dark.
"That was good of you," Mulat said. "It was not a bad wound, but she is old."
"It was pretty deep."
Mulat shook his head. "That is not deep."
Then Mulat told me how he had been taken from his home by henchmen of the Mengistu regime, beaten, and sent to the Eritrean front. He had survived three years in the trenches. He was only released after being wounded in the leg by shrapnel.
"It was very, very, very bad," he said.
"Did you have friends die?"
"Many, many, so many. It is normal in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, if you are in army, you die."
"Somehow, you didn't."
Some minutes later, he said: "It is better to die than be forever damaged. Then you only suffer once."
Later that night, Douré invited Sue and me into his mud hut for dinner. We sat on goat skins in the dark in the wood smoke around a flickering fire. He introduced us to his wife, Taggusunnat "Patience." She was squatting by the fire wrapped in scarlet cloth, her shoulders draped in a soiled blanket. She was young, a tattoo of a cross on her right temple, lustrous brown eyes. She shook our hands with both of hers without standing up.
We had injera and coffee. Injera is the Ethiopian staple, a platter-size crepe made from teff, a grain similar to couscous. (And coffee, of course, is native to Ethiopia; the word may have derived from the ancient southwestern province of Kefa.) Douré tore off chunks of mud-colored injera while Taggusunnat poured cup after cup of high-octane coffee.
We talked through sign language. Douré is forty-two. Until the age of thirty, he went barefoot. Now, as a scout, he wears plastic sandals. He carries no backpack and wears the same jacket in all weather. He carries no water and only a chunk of bread in his pocket for lunch. He carries the AK-47 but has never fired it. He has never been sent to war. He has never been sick. The Four Horsemen have not yet found him or his wife hiding high in the Simiens.
That night, lying in sleeping bags, Sue and I heard the ululating of the women of Gich, a celebration of some unknown event in the life of the village. The joyful trilling rose and dipped and rose again.
Douré is striding along the escarpment through a lavender dawn. It is the last day of our trek. The trail moves in a straight line down through boulders and across incipient wadis. The stars are vanishing, details in the rugged landscape resurfacing from the depth of night. Douré is humming, Sue and Mulat silent.
We are moving in single file at a distance-devouring clip. Douré's eyes are scanning the horizon when he abruptly stops. His small head spins sideways.
"Ky kebero!" he whispers, his voice as high-pitched as a girl's.
I try to look precisely where he is looking but see nothing. Mulat spots it and points.
Douré swiftly pulls a pair of binoculars from his jacket pocket and hands them to me. I pan, stop, back up to a flicker of motion.
"What is it?" Sue asks.
I see it now. "A wolf!"
The wolf is loping across the plateau, head down, moving quickly. It is a slight, ephemeral figure, more the size of a jackal than a wolf. Reddish fur with flicking white socks. It is bounding over the frosted grass, weaving through the giant lobelia.
I pass the binoculars to Sue.
She glasses the exact place but sees nothing.
"I am sorry," says Mulat, "Ky kebero gone now."
It is then that I remember. I'd completely forgotten: I heard them last night.
At first the distant yipping and howling had been in my dreams and, beginning to wake, I'd thought I invented it. That is what you can do in dreams create a world you wish existed. But then the choral yelping had separated from the hypnopompic images and I realized that the singing was real, echoing in the surrounding darkness.
I'd pulled my arm out of the warm sleeping bag and pressed the light on my watch. Four-fifteen. I'd lain back and listened. The faint call and response and refrain, like a faraway psalmody in some ancient language, had cheered me immensely. Somehow, through everything, they were still alive. They were out there, even if we never saw them.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Jenkins