The Bones of the Earth
By Joel Tagert
Art by Peter Kornowski
Published Issue 099, March 2022
Even among his own people, Lhakpa Tshering was known as a great sojourner and famous guide. This reputation was the natural result of summiting the murderous peaks of Kanchenjunga, Nanga Parbat and many others, but he had also travelled to India, Siam and even the island of Java. And so, when he sat drinking chaang late into the night at Pemba Lhambu’s inn, often the other villagers would ask him not about the mountains with which they were so familiar, but about the ocean, which they knew only from the dreamy invocations of the shamans. Was it very beautiful? Did it swarm with terrible monsters? Was it warm as milk?
Yes, it was beautiful, he would tell them, especially at sunrise and sunset. There were sharks and such, but they were not usually of much concern. Sometimes it was warm and gentle; but it was also fierce and unpredictable. It could pick up a whole ship and smash it to splinters, as if a giant were to grab a house in one huge hand and drop it to the earth.
Then he might tell them of a harrowing voyage on a fishing vessel out of Sebangka, or if they asked, of the furred giants, the yeti that had once roamed the deep mountains. Lately, with expeditions sparse, he had been drinking more and more chaang, and so when the foreigner sat down on the bench across from him Lhakpa was already loose lipped and pliable.
The man was tall, blond and clean-shaven. His name was Neilson and he would have looked boyish but for the weathered texture of his skin. “I hear you speak English,” he said.
Lhakpa nodded. “That’s true. I guess you don’t speak Sherpa.”
Neilson laughed. “Afraid not. How’d you learn it?”
“The English like to climb mountains. So we have that in common. Really Frederick van Camp taught me.”
“You knew van Camp? Heard he was a crazy old dodger.”
“Of course he was crazy. Only a crazy man would climb Kanchenjunga.” He squinted. “So I guess that makes me craziest of all.”
Neilson laughed again at that, and waved at Pemba for another round of drinks. He seemed like the sort that laughed easily, and Lhakpa warmed to him. They drank late into the night, and eventually – perhaps inevitably – the talk wound around to the yeti. “I suppose you believe in them like everyone else?”
Lhakpa nodded seriously. “Of course. No question.”
“Have you ever seen one, then?”
“No, no. Actually I’m not sure there are any left.”
“So you don’t believe.”
“I believe they used to exist. Now, who knows?”
“How can you be sure?”
“He saw them?”
“No, not alive. But he saw the bones. He even told me where they are.” And that’s how the expedition started.
The next morning Lhakpa felt real regret telling Neilson about the grave of the yeti, somewhere on the east face of Tenguma, a hundred miles away. The yeti were powerful spirits, maybe the most powerful, and disturbing one of their graves would be very bad karma. Also it was late in the climbing season and dangerous to make the attempt. “There could be avalanches,” he protested. “Early storms.”
“There are always avalanches and early storms,” Neilson cajoled him. “I thought you were the great Lhakpa Tshering. Conqueror of a thousand peaks.”
“More like a little child begging mama for permission.”
“Well, I’m begging you. If you’re telling the truth, then prove it.”
“I’m telling the truth,” Lhakpa said, offended, which of course was the point. Now it was a matter of honor. Besides, Neilson had money and offered Lhakpa plenty of it. Also Lhakpa had always wondered about the words of the old man. His grandfather had been very specific in describing the place, as though he wished to pass on the knowledge. Surely he’d done so hoping his grandson would return there.
Lhakpa consulted a shaman on the matter, and the fur-clad, greasy-haired hermit dropped several kinds of ill-smelling substances into the fire, rolled the bones and agreed. “You will find the grave of the giant,” he said. “When you do, make an offering and leave. Above all else don’t disturb the body. Otherwise the ancient spirits will eat you alive.”
In just seven days they set out: Lhakpa, Neilson and six others Lhakpa had recruited. They went by foot and yak, heavily laden, though they would buy more food at a store the sherpa knew of closer to the peak. He pushed them hard and they made the journey to the base of the mountain in six days, the men grumbling all the way. When they reached what would be their base camp, they stood and surveyed the challenge ahead, Lhakpa pointing at the mountain.
“We make the approach on the snow fields on the west slope,” he began. “We’ll leave Tsurim here at camp; everyone else goes. We’ll have to be careful of crevasses, and it’s a long slow trek, but really it’s the easy part. We make camp there, on that rocky shelf.
“Day two we start circling around the south side. It’s difficult climbing on varied terrain, ice, rock and snow. But there’s nowhere good to camp, so we must keep going until we reach the southeast spur. Twelve, fourteen hours hard climbing.
“On the last day we ascend the east face. Maybe twelve hundred feet of cliff. We camp at the top and pray to the gods that the weather holds.”
“So far the gods are smiling,” Neilson grinned. “Blue skies and sunshine.”
“Don’t count on it,” Lhakpa cautioned. “When the gods smile, men tremble.”
But in fact the gods kept smiling their blue smiles, though not without a strong and near-constant wind, usual at these elevations. As they progressed Lhakpa kept an eye on the foreigner, noting his short breath, but Neilson kept pace with the sherpa, a testament to his experience and months of acclimation in the Himal. They moved slowly up the snowy east slope, tied together and poking in front of them with their walking sticks.
As they made their way, Lhakpa found himself thinking of his grandfather, Lobsang. While according to village lore Lobsang had been a hard drinker and fighter in his youth, in his old age he had become increasingly devout, constantly muttering mantras and making daily offerings at a small shrine a shaman indicated was favored by the spirits of his ancestors. For a time he insisted on dragging Lhakpa and his siblings along with him on these devotional outings.
Once, irritated at being pulled away from his friends to stand on a cold, exposed hilltop, Lobsang had dared to complain. “I don’t see what’s so special,” he said. “It’s just a few flags and a pile of rocks.”
His grandfather looked at him sharply and Lhakpa was sure a blow was coming. But the old man just settled into his squat and gazed with something like awe at the cairn. He said, “In ten thousand thousand years the wind that moves these flags has never stopped blowing. And these rocks are the bones of the earth.”
The second day of climbing was much harder than the first, with several dangerous traverses. Lhakpa kept glancing nervously at the steep snow field above them, which to his experienced eye looked dangerously unstable. But the only real accident came when a lip of schist shattered under Neilson’s boot. The Englishman lost his grip and fell, his weight dropping onto the safety lines. The anchor Lhakpa had set a minute earlier held, but there was enough slack in the line that Neilson bounced with some force against the rock face.
To Lhakpa it looked like careless climbing, but of course it could happen to anyone and he had seen it a hundred times. With much grunting and gasping Neilson regained his place in the line and they continued upward, defying once again the vast gulf beneath their feet.
When they reached the five-foot ledge that would serve as their camp for the night, they discovered the sole casualty of the accident: Neilson’s camera, which, placed in his backpack, had taken the force of the collision. “Damn,” Neilson said.
“Can you fix it?”
“Maybe, but not here.”
Day three dawned clear once again, but a tonal shift in the wind had Lhakpa staring critically at the horizon. Were clouds massing there? “What do you think?” asked Neilson, seeing his doubt.
“I think we may be okay for one more day. But if a storm comes it could be bad. It would be safer if we turned around.”
“If we wanted safe, neither of us would be on this damn mountain.”
Lhakpa just nodded and turned to the three others with them. “You can come or not,” he said in Sherpa. “You will be paid either way.”
“Is it true that you’re looking for the grave of a yeti?” asked one.
“Then I’ll stay here. Bad karma if you ask me.”
With this view clearly stated, it seemed to give permission to the other sherpas to stay as well, and thereby avoid a difficult and dangerous day’s labor. “They’re not coming?” Neilson asked, disturbed.
“This is a straight up and down climb anyway. Barely any advantage in having more hands. Maybe even more risk, if someone slips. You and I can do it in eight hours.”
“From your lips to God’s ears.”
This was the hardest kind of climbing, especially given the bitter cold and wind. Lhakpa set aside an uneasy feeling in his stomach and ate as much as he could. He was as inured to the elevation as it was possible to be, but even so he had slept little, as had they all. Well, the sooner they went up, the sooner they could come down, and then he could relax. Maybe with the money he earned he would even travel south for the winter: find a beach in Thailand somewhere …
He shook his head. He had no time for daydreams now. He faced the cliff, squared his shoulders, and set his hands to the rock. A hold here, and there; a crevice for his left boot; a small ledge for his right; and up he went.
It would be wrong to say that the rock yielded to him; rather, he yielded to it, body bending to its every variation. He thought of nothing but the quality of the stone, its curvature and convexities, its points of contact at hands, feet, hips, chest. Whenever he saw a suitable spot, he would pause to hammer in a piton and reaffix his safety line. Then he might stop to catch his breath, laying his cheek upon the cliff’s breast as though listening to its heartbeat.
Without looking down, he knew Neilson had followed and was ascending steadily below him. Up, up, up, rising like the mountains themselves from the earth’s crust, each motion sure and steady. Eight hours, he had said, but it might have been forever, or only a moment. He forgot himself.
At last, with no great fanfare, the slope softened and he found himself standing in the snow again. He tramped carefully still to the nearest rock face and hammered in a final piton. Then he turned and looked to the uneven edges of the earth.
He enjoyed it for a few moments before allowing his judgment to overtake him. The great mass of gray clouds to the east was unmistakable. They could not stay here long.
Half an hour later Neilson appeared at the edge of the precipice, his face red. When he found a safe spot he fell to hands and knees and stayed that way for some time, gasping. “Congratulations,” Lhakpa said. “From here it’s an easy walk to the summit.”
“A Sunday stroll,” said the other man, rising. “With some bones along the way, hopefully.”
To their complete astonishment, they did.
Any skeleton at all would have been surprising at that height; but the size of it! The creature must have been thirty, forty feet tall. Its skull alone was larger than a man; it could have torn one of them in two with a bite. It had died on its back, gazing up at the sky, hands on its lap. As one would expect, its body had then frozen, slowing its decay, though the elements had finally had their way, exposing the bones. Even so, parts of it were still coated in ice, including its hips, which bizarrely held its enormous femurs upright. Looking closely, one could also see bits of grayish flesh and yes, fur, clinging here and there.
“My God,” Neilson kept saying. “My God.” But what Lhakpa thought was, Grandfather, grandfather.
Joel Tagert is a fiction writer and artist, the author of INFERENCE, and a longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword.
Peter Kornowski is a PNW artist specializing in imaginative realism, magical nightscapes, strange encounters, the unexplained & more. See more of Peter’s work on his site, where he also offers commissions. Follow him on Instagram and on YouTube.
Check out Joel’s February Birdy install, The Queen of the Wild, and Peter’s, City Inspectors, or head to our Explore section to see more from these creatives.