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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 6, Number 4, December 2012

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Sonam Chhoki
Thimphu, Bhutan


Barefoot in the Clouds

full moon night—
the deer carry around
shadow of the pines

It is one of those days when the sun takes a while to burn off the clouds. My brother, Dorji and I are on an errand to the old shaman’s cave.

Our family has been dogged by illness. We barely recover from hallucinatory fevers when grandfather goes down with a severe bout of uncustomary lassitude. Our well dries up. Soon our rice terraces become barren.

‘Wait until the shaman finishes the offering. Bring back his amulets,’ grandfather says.

From each bend of the mountain path we see the glinting twist of the river in the distance and, above us, the jagged peaks. There is no wind. A stillness bears down on us. In a yak-hide bag we carry sandalwood incense, fresh butter, fruits, a khada* and some money. The shaman’s cave is a shrine. We have eaten no food on this pilgrimage. We share a cane jar of water.

The only sound that accompanies our trek over the ridge is the tingling-tongling of yak bells in the folds of the slope. We can hear ourselves breathe.

Dorji strides steadily ahead of me. My lungs hurt and my heart thumps in my head.

‘Nearly there,’ he says and disappears behind a boulder.

The sun is aloft on the mountain. White light blazes off the rocks. A griffon** glides low overhead. Its cackle echoes around us. In a darkening swoop it uncurls its talons and grabs the yak-hide bag on Dorji’s shoulder. Dorji hangs for a long moment at the edge of the vertiginous cliff.

My feet seem fastened onto the rock. I open my mouth but no sound comes out. Noiselessly the griffon drops the bag at the entrance of the shaman’s cave.

The shaman kneels before the hovering bird and cries: ‘The gods have accepted your offerings. Your family has nothing to fear. Return in peace.’

almost dark
from the oak to the bamboos
a leaf with silent wings


Author's Notes:
* Khada (KA-DAG) -White ritual scarf used for offering in temples, prayer rooms and monasteries and also for honouring high status persons, lay or religious.
** griffon vulture: The Himalayan griffon vulture is native to mountainous regions between 1500 and 4000 meters.

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