There were three of us, walking briskly toward the city as early evening cast long skinny shadows down narrow streets. The man in the middle kept a careful watch on the boy and I as we made our way through steady streams of cars and motorbikes. Western tourists and stray dogs mingled among bicycles and young children in the alleys where we turned right, then left and around another corner. Rickshaw drivers shouted out for new passengers as they crawled through traffic jams, clamoring to be heard above the constant honking horns. Silhouettes of satellite dishes and water storage tanks perched on rooftops darkened against the pale, golden-pink sky as faded prayer flags fluttered in thefaint breeze.
We passed street vendors stirring large black pots full of curry and daal bhat. Alternating wafts of incense, spices, exhaust fumes and fried goat meat layered the warm twilight air. I looked wistfully at the vegetables sizzling in hot pans coated with mustard seed oil. Taking long, deep breaths, I secretly hoped the aromas would fill my empty stomach, but my hunger only grew more intense.
The streets were lined with endless rows of small shops selling hand woven carpets,thangkas, silver jewelry, artifacts, trekking gear and colorful scarves. We came to a shop with dozens of enormous, brilliantly colored carpets hanging from the ceiling. The man stopped.
The carpet that first caught my eye was a strikingly beautiful snow leopard. Its thick, milky colored fur glimmered under the light of a full moon that shone brightly against the rich blackness of the Himalayan sky. Its tawny golden eyes were intense and piercing, yet strangely beckoning.
Next to that carpet was another one filled with delicate red, pink and white rhododendron blossoms. They looked so real I could almost smell the familiar fragrance.
“Look at these splendid carpets,” the man said. It was the first time he had spoken since early afternoon when we stopped to eat.
The boy and I stood there, silently marveling at the hand woven rugs.
“Work hard, and someday your carpets will hang in these very same shops,” he said.
These very same shops. His words lingered in the air and I felt a tingling sensation in my fingertips. Could it really be that I would learn to weave such magnificent pieces which would someday hang here for everyone to see? He pointed at another carpet with delicate, tawny tiger butterflies flittering against a clear blue sky. I could almost feel the silky softness of the golden yellow threads against my fingers. How wonderful it would be to weave something so lavish and beautiful.
We started walking again, this time more quickly. I could hardly wait to get to the carpet factory. I pictured a large room with lots of windows and sunlight streaming in like a spotlight on rows and rows of colorful spools of thread next to grand wooden looms, the room echoing with our songs. At night we’d sit by a campfire, laughing and telling our favorite stories, just like we did at home. And, I would earn ten rupees a day! I had some very special plans and knew exactly what I wanted to do with that money.
I looked up at the tall buildings along the sides of the street. Young children peered down at the traffic and crowds of people going this way and that. They stood behind carved wooden balconies perched high above the shops. I envied them, wondering what it was like to grow up in such a modern, yet ancient city. My father knew it well and had promised to bring me here. He’d told me many stories about Kathmandu and the tourists he’d accompany on treks to the Himalayas.
By now the golden pink sky had darkened into shades of lavender and blue. A silvery, crescent shaped moon appeared faintly on the horizon as we continued towards the outskirts of the city. The street noises began to fade and the cool night air felt refreshing. It seemed strange that only a few stars sparkled against the blackened sky, since I remembered seeing so many more from my village home.
We crossed a street and stood in front of a gate in between a fence stretching into the darkness. The gate was made of thin, metal bars. A skinny black dog stood on the other side, growling and barking as we approached.
Moments later, a young boy came and opened the gate. The dog was on a leash, and the boy reached down and held him by his collar as we entered. We followed the boy to the front door where a single candle flickered in the corner of a room. A woman in a brown tattered dress stooped over, sweeping the floor in short, halting movements. She stopped, turned to us and straightened only slightly then shuffled out, disappearing into a dark hallway.
We stood there quietly. My heart was beating faster now. I beamed with excitement as I looked at the boy. His name was Nischal, but had not said much during our journey. I thought he must be shy, like one of my cousins. They were probably about the same age. I smiled, holding his gaze for a second until he grinned halfway.
A heavyset man with a flattened nose came through the dark hallway.
“What took you so long?” he said in a loud voice, scowling at the man. “You were supposed to have them here two weeks ago! What kind of naike are you?”
“Namaste, Raja-ji,” the man said, bowing slightly and pressing both hands together. “I had some problems getting to the villages. Maoists blocked the road,” he said.
“Maoists!” Raja snorted in disgust. “I was expecting five more, and you bring me only two?”
“They’ve been very active lately. I’ll have to find some new villages,” the man said evenly. “I’ll bring the others in a few weeks.”
Raja stared at the man, his eyes narrowing and skeptical.
I’d heard adults in my village speaking of the Maoists rebels before, but always in hushed tones. From the fragments of conversation I overheard, I knew they were a violent band of men and sometimes women who roamed the villages surrounding Kathmandu. They threatened anyone who didn’t do as they said. I’d even heard of young boys from villages near mine being forced to leave school and join them. I didn’t know why or who they were fighting.
Raja turned to me and the boy. “Let’s see your hands,” he said gruffly.
I glanced at the boy and slowly raised my trembling fingers, trying hard to keep them steady. But in a swift and sweeping gesture that reminded me of how eagles would sometimes swoop down on their prey, he reached and grabbed my hands, pulling them close to his face. He squinted and frowned as he examined them but said nothing. Then, just as quickly he let go and did the same with the boy.
Finally, Raja reached into his pocket and pulled out a fistful of rupees. He counted out a few hundred and handed them to the naike.
“You’ll get the rest when you bring the others,” he said.
The man looked disappointed, but said nothing. He turned abruptly and left, without so much as even a parting glance in our direction.
Raja called out, “Norbu, come and take them to kotha, upstairs.” A young man with thick black eyebrows appeared from the darkened hallway. His nose was flattened like Raja’s. He stared at me, then the boy.
“Follow me,” Norbu said.
He led us down the hallway and up a narrow stairway to a large room lit by a few flickering candles that cast dancing shadows across the walls. There were rows and rows of girls, some sitting on straw mats and talking while others slept. Norbu looked at me and nodded his head towards an empty space not far from the doorway where we stood.
“The morning bell rings at six. Don’t be late,” he said, his thick eyebrows gathering into a line. His steady gaze made me feel uneasy and I was relieved when he turned around and led the boy out and up another flight of stairs.
I looked around the room and saw a rolled mat propped up in the corner. I took it and spread it out, covering it with the thin blanket I’d brought with me. This new and unfamiliar place was now my home. I kept my bag close to me, it contained everything I owned. The girls next to me were already asleep.
My dusty feet were heavy, still throbbing from two days of walking. My calves and thighs were aching too, but I was grateful that at least the intense hunger pangs had subsided. It felt strange to be so far from everything I’d ever known. The last two days seemed like a lifetime.
I laid down and looked up at the ceiling so high above my head. In the small bedroom I’d left behind, I could easily reach up and run my fingers across the woven straw ceiling.
I wondered if I would ever go back to my village again. Perched high on top of a hill that gracefully sloped down towards the valley below, we had striking views from the flattened top of that hill. In every direction there were lush green terraces, looking as though they’d been formed by the fingers of a deity who reached down and gently carved them from the mounds rising majestically from the valley floor.
After the monsoon rains of summer, the emerald green terraces turned golden with mustard blossoms and shimmered when gentle breezes blew across the valley. Far off in the distance, the soaring white peaks of the Himalayas stretched from one end of the horizon to the other. It made me sad to think about the Himalayas because they reminded me of my father, Buwa. How I missed him.
But I was here now, about to begin my new life. I’d make new friends, learn to weave, spin and sing new songs. I looked around the room once more before closing my eyes. There, in the doorway, was Norbu’s shadow.