A HERMIT IN THE HIMALAYAS
begins to appear again on the route. Hanging trees clothe the slope.
Branches occasionally nod downwards over the path, forcing me to
brush their leaves aside. A few firs fleck the brown height with green,
but oak and pine are the predominant growths. Then I pass through
an avenue of cactus plants, which grow to the height of small trees.
Their leaves are held out like sharp swords flourished in the air.
But now sunset nears its end, the last light gets dimmer and
dimmer; I realize that we must hasten. The path broadens for a few
yards to admit a dozen houses which have been built on its side. The
mountaineers squat reflectively on their doorsteps chewing coconut
husk, that strange Indian substitute for tobacco. Behind one of them
sits his wife nursing a baby. She is a woman with pronounced
Mongolian features and by birth no doubt half-Tibetan. She has
adorned her nose with a silver pendulous ring and her ankles with
silver bangles. Her eyelids are painted with black antimony. She Has
a serious calm face and wears a pink saree around her body.
I try to press the horse to quicker pace, but the animal is already
doing its best. The zigzag shape of the uphill trail gives us six or
seven more miles yet to cover, with darkness already catching up to
our heels. Will it not be wiser to take shelter in one of the huts for
the night, than to climb unknown slopes during darkness? No, the
journey must be completed today, must come to an end before I
dismount for the last time.
The twilight finally melts into blackness, which gives to the cliff-
side trees a thousand fantastic forms. Nevertheless, the horse is
surefooted and moves unhesitatingly, for this track is an old
acquaintance of his. I must perforce trust my life to it now, for the
sheer drop below the right edge of this path would swiftly take us
both to immaterial existence. It is a strange feeling, this, of complete
surrender to a simple four-footed creature, and creates an extra-
ordinary sense of unity and fellowship between us. I pat its shoulder
encouragingly as it struggles upward and onward through the still
starless and moonless night.
But one must move through this whole Himalayan region with
trust, for one is ever at Nature's mercy here. Every year, at this
season, pilgrims lose their lives through landslides suddenly tearing
away part of the path and precipitating them into space.
Within the hour the first stars show themselves and by their
pallid glow the slope becomes faintly visible. We pass a group of
enormous boulders, which stand near a bend in the trail like gigantic
milestones. What planetary upheaval has cleft them from the main
body of mountain and set them up, like a fragmentary and miniature