Excerpt from The Howling Tree
The expletive reverberated out into the perfect hush of the watching forest like a falling stone creating ripples around itself in a lake. But any potential echo it may have given rise to was instantly smothered by the loud cracking sound of rock sliding on rock, accompanied by the frantic scrabbling noise of hiking boots scrambling for a foothold atop a relentless stream of downward moving mountain scree.
“Not again!” Kim thought as her feet shot out from under her, and her bum hit the ground hard, forcing all the breath out of her lungs in an involuntary whoosh. She slithered helplessly downwards on her back for several painful yards, arms flailing uselessly, a rising plume of red dust behind her marking her trajectory.
Finally coming to a halt where the mountain side reached something of a plateau she remained completely still, dazed, and momentarily unable to move, lying on her back like an overturned beetle powerless to right itself, just where gravity had unceremoniously dumped her. The dry, powdery earth felt warm and surprisingly pleasant beneath her hands. She flexed her fingers, feeling the dust run between them.
The last of the mini avalanche caused by her fall bounced and skittered past her and was gone, taking with it the noise of pebbles and small stones ricocheting off the mountain and far out into the still, clear air surrounding it.
She sighed, and began to mentally assess the damage.
Actually, there wasn’t any, at least nothing physical. No more than grazes and bumps. The damage, as always, was to what remained of her pride.
The noisy kerfuffle created by falling rock, scree, and amongst it all a human body, faded quickly, replaced once again by the relentless silence that permeated the ancient rhododendron forest which covered the remote mountain side. Kim thought, not for the first time, that it seemed as though the forest simply consumed all sound. It drank it in, and spirited it away. The resulting silence was so heavy that it breathed down your neck, and was almost tangible, almost perceived.
But no amount of sound- smothering could block out the noise made by the two guides as they scrambled and slid their way quickly down to where Kim had landed, arriving in a flurry of falling pebbles and dry mountain dust. They were anxious, unsure if she had really hurt herself this time.
“I’m OK guys,” she told them, opening her eyes and blinking as their faces came into focus leaning over her, “I’m not hurt at all.”
They smiled, obviously relieved, and helped her to her feet. One of them retrieved Kim’s hat and handed it to her. She brushed the dust off it before putting it back on. They were kind and considerate and seemed to understand that Kim was far outside her soft, western world comfort zone.
Unsurprisingly she lacked their ability to leap nimbly from one dangerously fragile looking outcrop on the side of a mountain to another. Actually she doubted that she could do any leaping across mountains, even at sea level, but up here, at roughly eight thousand feet, she felt as though she was carrying lead weights in her backpack and boots.
The altitude turned every step into a sweaty effort, and robbed every breath of half its oxygen content, leaving her constantly gasping, fish-like, to pull more air into her screaming lungs. Her mouth hung open most of the time, and was uncomfortably dry as a bone.
She had had a nagging headache all day, and her shirt was stained with drops of blood from her nose. She hadn’t even known it was bleeding until one of the guides told her.
“Altitude,” he had said, sounding genuinely apologetic, pointing to Kim’s face. She was shocked, and a little frightened, when the tissue she used to mop her nose came back soaked in blood. She was suddenly sure that this was Nature’s way of telling her she didn’t belong at that height. She had no business climbing higher than most birds flew.
Well, it seemed her body had a mind of its own, and had obviously decided it was time to take action, to point out that it wasn’t happy at that altitude. Kim hoped fervently that it hadn’t decided to work its way through what was, according to the guides, quite a long list of ailments attributable to what they called ‘mountain sickness’.
There was dizziness; coughing; an inability to focus the eyes; chestiness; fatigue; the list went on and on…. She sighed, and coughed. She hoped she was going to be able to do this.
There was no way Kim was going to tell these two veritable mountain goats that she had fallen awkwardly this time, and twisted her left leg, or that her right elbow had taken the brunt of her fall and was letting her know that now. It throbbed viciously beneath the cotton sleeve of her trekking shirt.
“Let’s just take ten minutes?” she said, attempting a smile in their direction. She turned and made her way slowly and cautiously across the plateau to a boulder which was large enough to provide some area of shadowy respite from the razor sharp sunlight that beat down on the mountain; the same sunlight that narrowed the eyes and turned the distance into a hazy, shimmering desert.
With not a little difficulty Kim sat down with her back to the rock, wincing as she straightened her left leg in front of her. It was sore, and she rubbed her knee gently, tutting as the red mountain dust on her hands made streaks on her once beige coloured trousers.
The two guides wandered off laughing and chatting together, and smoking. Distance dulled their voices and jumbled their words, but the occasional wisp of cigarette smoke crept back to Kim’s nostrils on the warm air. She grimaced. Not her favourite aroma, but the hypocrisy of the once heavy smoker stopped her mentioning that fact to the guides. They would not have understood. Smoking was a way of life in Nepal.
She moved her head back slowly until it touched the rock behind her. Her hat tilted forwards and covered her eyes, bringing relief from the over bright daylight. She sighed, smothered another cough, and let her tired body relax.
“It’s a fine time to start wondering what the hell I’m doing here,” she thought, without any trace of irony.
‘Here’ was half way up, or rather, half way down a mountain in a remote part of the Everest Region of Nepal, and no matter which direction she went from ‘here’, she would have to trek for the better part of two days to reach any semblance of ‘civilisation’.
But she was not headed towards ‘civilisation’. She was headed for a small village which was almost untouched by any twentieth century, Westernised comforts. In fact the village, situated in a remote valley, had probably not changed much at all since the first crudely constructed shelters grew into a group of dwellings there, clustered together for security and mutual help, more than a thousand years ago.
Kim had arrived in Nepal from the UK nine days previously, flying in to the capital Kathmandu, and realising within a matter of hours that she had never been anywhere else that even remotely resembled that city.
She had never liked the expression ‘in your face’, and the real meaning behind it had evaded her, until now, that is. Now she fully grasped its meaning, because Kathmandu was most certainly a city you could best describe as ‘in your face’. Actually, it was ‘in your eyes’ and ‘in your ears’ too.
Kathmandu, that noisy, colourful maelstrom of a city caught you up in itself, assaulted each one of your senses, and took your breath away.
But a week spent wandering through the chaotic magnificence of that crumbling, yet once noble city, had not left Kim with an intense dislike of Kathmandu; far from it. She absolutely loved it.
She enjoyed the urgency of the speeding, ramshackle taxis and dashing, constantly overloaded motorbikes. The colourful masses of mixed humanity squashed together, and crowding the streets and sidewalks did not frighten her; and the constant, nagging attentions of the all too pushy shopkeepers did not bother her at all.
She knew this newfound love of the crowded and unfamiliar city was way out of character for her. In fact, it was distinctly odd.
At home in the north of England Kim used to avoid Manchester city centre as much as she could, fearing a repeat of the panic attack that had once brought her to her knees in front of an astonished, and mostly unsympathetic crowd, just inside the door of Marks and Spencer’s. And she had once actually fainted in a packed shopping centre, unable to cope with the swathes of noisy, last minute Christmas shoppers pushing aggressively against her.
Kim was most certainly not at ease in a crowd. She never had been. She dreaded the proximity of any large group or gathering, at any time, in any place.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, somewhere at the back of her mind a little voice had questioned her sanity as she explored Kathmandu.
Why was she here, in this city of crowds? Here, where a breath taking one million people struggled to survive, shoulder to shoulder, side by side. Was she insane?
She could still hear her sister Jan begging her not to go.
“Kim! For Heaven’s sake woman, anywhere else but Kathmandu! You’ll hate it! You won’t be able to cope there. It’s an ‘in your face’ type of place, and you know you don’t like crowds, especially noisy ones! Look, there’s a whole world out there. Come on! Show some sense! If you want to go abroad you don’t have to choose Nepal!”
But Kim did. She had to. There was no question.