This article first appeared in Rock and Ice’s annual issue, Ascent, 2020.
I make my chai from scratch, fresh ginger root, cardamom pods, cayenne, and more. I pound the cinnamon sticks to splinters with a framing hammer. All told it takes two days, so I brew a few gallons at a time.
People ask where I learned it. “Nepal,” I say. The name alone used to be exotic, a spice in itself. “It was a long time ago.”
An age of giants. I don’t say that.’ It’s just a cup of chai, after all.
But some want more provenance. “Everest,” they guess. “Sherpas. Monks. A yeti!”
I check the time. Because this is a ghost story, and you can’t go halfway with such a thing. I often leave it at that: tea at basecamp with a monster. Close enough, in a way.
But there is tea, and then there is chai, and then there is this that we are drinking. If the hour allows, I pour a second cup.
“It was after an expedition,” I tell them. “I got arrested.”
My guests pause, doubtful. This is the point of no return. I confess. “It’s a leper’s chai.”
They pull the cup from their lips. Every time. They look, as if some horror might be floating in there. It’s an instinct.
Then they catch themselves. Some smile. I must be joking. I’m not. I shrug. We can stop. But they can’t.
They take another sip.
1977 – Badrighol Prison, Kathmandu
Deep inside the monsoon, in my third month, in my third jail, I was watching by the window. Its wooden sill was carved with gods and animals and flowers. With no bars or glass to hold it back, blue fog spilled across my thighs. It was quiet.
Behind me, beneath shrouds of hanging mosquito nets, my seven cellmates lay sleeping on the clay floor. A lightbulb pulsed with rusty light. The chickens were stock still and bug-eyed in the cold. For a while longer the hour belonged to me. I could conjure up my escape.
A century ago, the prison had been a luxurious Rana palace. Its fairytale ruins jutted in the mist like quiet blue islands. Peacocks and elephants once wandered the compound.
Now it caged a strange jumble of inmates: from murderers, thieves and grifters to high-minded political prisoners. Some 500 souls shared this place.
The foggy yard stood empty. I could continue ascending my make-believe mountain. It was a vast thing out there, clad with rock and ice, and north, always North.
The fog smelled medieval: rice, ash, curry and stale piss. Wood smoke drifted over. Each cell had its own fire pit and designated “boy” to wake early, stoke the banked coals, and prepare the first tea.
The sun was coming.
The silence was about to tear. The roosters would thaw out. The tattered dogs would pick up yesterday’s fight. Hundreds of prisoners would line the sewage ditch.
I clung to the silence, rehearsing the trails to the passes to the glacier.
Thirty-five feet away—I had paced it off—a monkey sat watching me from an empty gun tower. What did she see crouched in my window: a fellow climber, a gargoyle, a god, a chump to be robbed? Or just another monkey.
Then the blue sea parted.
Pieces of a man assembled in the mist. A leg teetered out, then two arms folded to hide their maimed hands, and finally a face, or its remains. It was one of the lepers. His lion mask was nearly complete: the frozen eyelids, the missing nose and lips.
The lepers occupied their own adobe compound at the bottom of a hill, a prison within the prison. Shy, mute, and forbidden, they rarely ventured among us. There were 12 of them, all charged with the same murder. Justice had nothing to do with it. Like everyone else in this kingdom ruled by a god-king, they were subjects of divine forces.
A large pair of red plastic sunglasses materialized from the mist: a second leper, Elton John. Leprosy does more than eat your body. Finally too terrible to look at, you become invisible. There was no mistaking Elton John, though.
From the safety of my second-story aerie, I studied the melted faces and bared teeth and plastic stubs of hands and feet. How did he keep his sunglasses on without a nose and ears? At the same time, I was dissecting my repulsion, trying to sort out my taboos and facts, and to humanize these men.
The lepers horrified me. It wasn’t polite. It felt wrong. I had never seen one, even on my three previous trips to Nepal. They stayed out of sight in colonies, like Charlton Heston’s sister in Ben Hur. Jesus supposedly cured a few. It was a bacteria. Armadillos carry it. An ayurvedic doctor—a kindly, educated inmate—warned that a single glance could infect you.
A third leper appeared wearing a burlap-bag poncho with a “Jai Nepal” button. They squatted against the wall, shivering. Pieces of red twine adorned their skinny left wrists.
We take our mountain literature for granted, but should not. Without it, there is no ascent, just pullups and beer.
One lit a tan bidi, took a deep drag, and carefully passed it along. The red ember danced in the fog. Elton John dropped the bidi and the tobacco fell out.
A guard stepped from the fog with a WWI rifle and fixed bayonet. It might hold one bullet. Every shift, they traded off their weapons, uniforms and Chinese sneakers.
An officer appeared, his swagger stick warty with thorn knots. He barked an order at the guard who barked at the lepers, who stood and limped off into the fog. They returned carrying a corpse rolled in a straw mat. Bare feet stuck from one end. A rag covered the head.
Hieronymus Bosch sprang to mind, his hell paintings with fiends and freaks, and especially his painting of the blind stumbling after the blind.
Either too weak or lacking fingers to get a proper grip, the lepers dropped the bundle. The head hit with a coconut thud. The rag slipped off, and what stared up at me was not a Dark Ages pauper, but a smiley face. Like a graffiti artist, the disease had drawn a great joyous smile with wide open eyes.
The guard jumped back, colliding with the officer. The swagger stick went flying. Time stopped. No one moved. The dead man lay in the mud, a punchline on a cheap postcard.
It was plain what would happen next. The officer would shout at the guard who would shout at the lepers, who would lift and drop and lift their load from the mud. The dogs would wake. The big chickens would peck the little chickens.
The scene was suddenly unbearable. This was my hour, my window. They were trespassing on my mountain.
Before it was too late, before the loudspeakers began blasting us with All India radio, before the faucet came to life, before the vast throat of them spoke, I put on my sandals. I descended the stairs and tunneled through the fog. I had no plan. It was forbidden to leave our cells this early. The path was slippery.
My sudden appearance stunned everyone. It stunned me.
I bewilder myself sometimes. It’s as if a stranger is trying me out in various predicaments. Falling can be like that. Inch by inch, one best decision after another, you climb to an exact spot on the stone. You know precisely where you are in the universe, right up until the banana peel. You slip. You fall. Freefall. It’s liberating. It’s terrifying. You feel lost, but also intensely found, right smack in the middle of everything.
There I stood in the fog. No map. I had just made myself a target. A big target. I’m tall. The officer was short.
It was a three-way Mexican standoff. Everyone feared what the other might do. The officer had no weapon. The guard had one bullet, or none. The lepers were frail, but toxic. And last of all there was me.
My size aside, I was a Westerner. None of us knew what that meant, but it made me a special case. It wasn’t that I was diplomatically immune; to the contrary, they had mutilated my passport. I was officially a man without a country. But also, I was not your run-of-the mill inmate.
The monkey was watching.
I backed a few inches lower down the slope, trying to loom less. And then—good idea—I fetched the officer’s swagger stick for him. The tension eased a notch. But the standoff continued.
It was an accidental crossroads. Our feet were muddy, we had that in common. And the body lying in our midst.
But I had set something in motion. Even if I walked away, the incident would be reported. I already had a five-year sentence. They could add more time, confiscate my books, stick me in a “dark” cell, their solitary, or send me back to the really bad jail.
A few months earlier I had been climbing on Makalu. After my arrest and the string of jails, I thought I had reached rock bottom. I had fashioned an imaginary mountain and started climbing back to the sun. My reconnaissance was done. The wall was memorized. My wooden pegs were squirreled here and there. But suddenly I was falling all over again.
I picked up the body.
I didn’t mean to. I didn’t ponder over the contagion. There was nothing saintly or Christian or enlightened or compassionate about it. I wasn’t trying to lead by example. No one ordered me to do it. It was simply the only thing left to do.
The leper weighed as much as a child. A bundle of sticks, I told myself. His hair smelled of curry and woodsmoke. His eyes stared at me.
The officer was appalled. I had just polluted myself. He was ashamed for me. The lepers were astonished. I was holding an untouchable. We stood there, all of us confused and frightened.
Then something magical happened. Maybe it was the fog. The world, the mysterious world, returned to normal.
It got simple. Elementary. The officer had been assigned to remove a corpse. The Westerner had volunteered to remove it.
With a gesture, the officer dismissed the unwanted lepers. They sank into the fog. He tapped me with his swagger stick. I started up the crumbling red brick stairs with my load.
This was the first weight I’d carried in a while on anything resembling a mountain trail. It should have been easy. Back home, I was a stone mason, used to lugging a ton or more per hour. The leper weighed no more than a cement bag or a mountaineer’s backpack.
But suddenly it was all I could do to mount each step. My condition alarmed me. I was so weak.
The swagger stick tapped me, a fly alighting. I labored up the stairs, pausing to breathe and hoist the body closer. He smiled that smile.
We entered a black tunnel and reached a crisscross of iron straps and wet chains, the prison’s sole entrance. They set to opening the old clock-sized locks.
The smell of rotting vegetables pushed through the fog. A cart trundled into view. They were throwing the leper away with the garbage. The swagger stick tapped. I circled around to offload my cargo.
It stunned me, what waited in the cart. A blanket made of white and turquoise and black-striped feathers lay spread across the wooden floor. Beads of water sparkled like jewels. It was fit for a king
Then here and there a wing fluttered. It was a mass of dead and dying pigeons thrown on top of the garbage.
The grain at a temple had gotten contaminated. Bird-loving monks and nuns and pilgrims had inadvertently wiped out an entire flock. It was terrible, but also beautiful.
I lowered the leper onto the bed of soft wings. His smiley face was full of joy. The swagger stick tapped. Back I went into the abyss, my beautiful abyss.
An Age of Giants
It was an age of giants. Every generation makes the same claim. But ascent in the 1960s and 70s really did read as legends for the tribe. Like Achilles, mindful of his glory, mere mortals were building names to last forever.
Messner was at large. His alpine style on 8,000-meter peaks was twisting reality, his book The Seventh Grade was blowing minds. American alpinists like Jeff Lowe and John Roskelley hungered to usurp him. Fritz Stammberger, a German-American printer in Aspen, was racing Messner to solo Everest without oxygen. You could feel the heat of the sun standing next to them.
I was never more than a witness to the giants. I loved their wild company. It could get dangerous. You had to look after yourself.
Summits never mattered to me, though. Probably that’s why I survived that era. I could climb well enough. I knew how to tie the knots, use the gear, weather the storms, and tiptoe on my shadow on the mountain. But there is a difference between competence and virtuosity. My talent was writing. My pen was all that justified me at their camps. Sometimes they built huge bonfire and danced like savages in the sparks.
We take our mountain literature for granted, but should not. Without it, there is no ascent, just pullups and beer. The tale of Willi Unsoeld, Barry Bishop and Tom Hornbein cutting loose of earth changed the world. In the midst of the Cold War space race, they were astronauts with ice axes. Their boots portended the first footprint on the moon.
I was still finishing college when Fritz invited me to join his 1974 expedition to Makalu’s unclimbed south face. I was a 22-year old rock climber with little ice experience. But Fritz saw glimmers of himself in my youth and fever.
We climbed for two months to within one day of the summit. Then a storm and a basecamp revolt ended our season on the mountain. Bitterly disappointed, Fritz obtained a permit to return in 1977, and invited three of us—an Austrian, a Slovenian, and me—to join him. It amounted to a blood oath.
Death intervened. Fritz disappeared while soloing Tirisch Mir, and then the Austrian, Arnold Larcher, was killed by lightning. Makalu ’77 seemed terminated. The permit languished.
Birders have a ritual called the “big year.” They leave their jobs and family and go off to see birds to fill their “life list.” I had no family, and my stone masonry was just a rambler’s job, easily shucked. It struck me. Makalu could be my big year.
In the summer of 1976, I took over the permit. It was a big step, a giant Fritz-sized step, and almost too late. With only months to organize, recruit and raise money, I pulled together an international team. What ensued was a gonzo stab at Makalu’s untouched west face.
The leper weighed as much as a child. A bundle of sticks, I told myself.
My vetting process came straight out of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, a psychedelic traveling road show of artists, musicians and rabble rousers dedicated to “blowing your mind”. I invited climbers, friends, and total civilians … girlfriends welcome. Many had never stepped out of the States. I envisioned a sort of perpendicular revolution, an experiment in alternative ascent, part low-budget, hardcore ascent and part madcap fair.
We had snowball fights at 18,000-feet. A few support members spent the trip stoned on hash and reading comics. Our “national” flag featured a cartoon duck, the mascot of a community free school in Boulder.
On the serious side, we were attempting a truly savage face. The south face had been climbed, so we trained our sights on a direttissima up the uncharted west face. It demanded giants. We had a few.
The climbing team included world-class climbers, chief among them Matija Malezic, a Slovenian version of Messner. This was his third crack at Makalu. He and his partner, Boris Krivic, did most of the route finding. Geof Childs, a Vietnam combat vet, helped shove the high point to 22,800-feet. Mike Lowe was a powerhouse until HAPE struck him out.
Some climbers came and left without even strapping on a crampon. Our sole female mountaineer, Margaret Young (look her up, a pioneer) got sick of the basecamp testosterone and quietly left, a shame, our shame.
At the end of a month of quixotic route finding, our upper camps were obliterated by a stove fire, rockfall and avalanche. Matija, Boro and Geof Childs were hit. Before anyone got killed, I pulled the plug.
Everyone went home except for me. I wanted to immerse myself in Nepal, learn the language, understand the newspapers—the politics, the street, the daily plight—and to explore the mountains. And write.
I had a typewriter and a camera. Over the coming year, I hoped to produce a bestselling coffee table book about the Himalaya, and document the CIA’s Tibetan guerrilla operation. I landed a job teaching the Nepali army how to climb, which meant a 12-month visa. A friend invited me to join his expedition to Manaslu the following spring. On top of it all, I was falling in love with a beautiful anthropologist.
Everything was coming together at breakneck speed. Nothing seemed too wild. It was fun to be a giant.
They arrested me.
It was that abrupt. I was at the airport, sending oxygen regulators back to the States. Suddenly the room filled with police. To make a long, strange story short, one of “my” climbers, an early reject, had been muling for the Indian mafia. As the expedition’s leader, I was answerable for his crimes.
Around 2:00 in the morning, they triumphantly concluded my interrogation. A set of colonial-era irons was fitted onto my ankles and wrists. They straightened the black topis on their heads and stood in a stiff row behind me for the official trophy shot.
A big empty public bus ferried me through a maze of streets. The city was blacked out. You could see the stars. It was a lovely night to be in soul shock.
We reached a courtyard where more guards waited. A swagger stick poked me to enter a five-story building. The ground floor was flooded to the doorsills with raw sewage. The mosquitoes were so thick I inhaled them. My cell was bare: no bed, stool, blanket, lightbulb, or how-to pamphlet in English for new inmates.
Just that morning I had been writing my diary in a wicker chair in the garden of the Kathmandu Guesthouse. Draped in scarves and incense, gypsy women glided across the green lawn. Wind chimes hung among the prayer flags.
As the door creaked shut, I spied a gecko clinging to the bare wall. A fellow climber, I thought. Then the candlelight faded away.
I had always pictured Nepal as a happy Oz with spectacular peaks. The police strolled about with flowers in their hair and held hands. The kingdom floated on a cloud of prayers. But every fairytale has an underbelly.
I had been so eager to know the real Shangri La. Be careful what you wish for. They sentenced me to five years and a quarter-million dollar fine.
One jail led to another and then another. It became possible to arrange them like camps on a mountain, each with its own distinct personality and vistas. That helped me to weather the ugly days. Every storm will pass, I told myself. Keep climbing.
They finally allowed me a pen. I used notebooks, envelopes, stained newspapers, pages torn from books, handmade lokta, and toilet paper (my Western quirk; everyone else used a can of water and their left hand.) Every detail was vital. My escape was going to depend on the particulars.
There were a thousand miseries, and it was odd how much they felt like déjà vu. The rat slithering out of the latrine hole: the sundial creep of shadows: the bandit nursing his wounds: the foul smells. Something would scurry up the wall or rattle its chains and sigh, and it would feel like I had already seen that movie.
To my surprise, there were also a thousand wonders, things unexpected, and very often beautiful. I loved the ruins in blue fog, and the cosmology carved into my window sill. The morning ragas bewitched me. I practiced the Tibetan alphabet for the sheer art of it, doodling letters into little sketches of mountains, real and imaginary.
Every few days my notes got bootlegged out, wrapped around the glass tube inside my Chinese thermos.
After they shipped a raving schizophrenic back to Germany, I was the sole Westerner in the system. Even in solitude, or especially then, I was never lonely. Sorry for myself, yes, piteous and despairing. Lonely was impossible, though. I had landed on another planet. Discoveries waited around every corner.
In my first jail, two prostitutes occupied the cell across from mine. They were charged with murdering a taxi driver. Amina liked to practice her English with me. Her 16th birthday was coming up. The other girl, Laxmi, was 14. Pretty and petite, they were pimped to embassy and foreign-aid workers. They cried when the guards borrowed them in the evenings. Otherwise they stayed cheerful, singing and combing each other’s long black hair, and keeping their saris clean.
Our neighbor was an obese Brahmin. An important minister was squeezing him for a bribe. The Brahmin kept his nipples bare and constantly daubed with salve, because they had been shocked with a live wire one night. The memory made him weep. “They are animals,” he told me.
What finally pushed him to the breaking point were the lowly whores. Their singing and gaiety infuriated him. “Their fathers would die from shame,” he thundered to me.
“It was our fathers that sold us to the gangs,” Amina dared to retort, and in English for me to hear. It was more than daring. It was courageous. She was a woman. A girl. And she had lost all status.
“Your village is disgraced,” the Brahmin cursed her. “One day you will eat rat poison and go to hell. I see this like I see my very hand.”
After that the girls were as silent as birds with broken wings. Then a miracle: the murdered taxi driver appeared at the front gate, alive and well and quite confused. No one could explain the mistake. Joyful as children, the girls went free.
My second jail was a bad place, a dumping ground for common criminals and the insane. Barbwire and broken glass crowned the walls. One morning the prisoners killed a boy who had been buggered by a farmer. It took hours. The guards watched from above, laughing and spitting on us.
The monsoon crept up from India. The rain helped to break the blast furnace nights. I dreamed about deep shadows in Eldorado Canyon. El Cap Meadow would be green.
Then it was off to another jail. Yet again, they perp-walked me through the streets in shackles. We passed cobblers, porters, bright umbrellas, and vendors hawking carrots, onions, orange-dyed goats heads, and Tiger Balm. Towering above my escort party, I felt silly. I was too physically large to belong in their power. If this were a movie, I would already have escaped.
It took a few days to adjust to my third jail. Then a prisoner came over to shake my hand. In perfect English, he said, “Thank you for Jimmy Carter.”
I said, “what?”
I had washed onto a strange island, like Gulliver, or a character in James Hilton’s Far Horizons. I was surrounded by political prisoners—lawyers, intellectuals, professionals, and university students—who had been beaten and tortured with electricity, primitive thorn whips, fire, chili powder, farm tools, and rocks. They were still alive, they swore, because of President Carter’s pronouncements about human rights. How amazing that a peanut farmer could become the leader of the free world! Over and over they thanked me, an educated American voter. I kept secret that I had been too busy bouldering last November to cast my vote.
Things got stranger. I was taking a leak in the sewage ditch when a pair of arms bearhugged me from behind and started shaking me like a rag doll. Piss whipped back and forth. It was Rara, a big Khampa warrior with his black hair coiled and tied with red twine. We had met in my first prison. He thumped me on the back and said, “Colorado.”
We went to his cell for some butter tea. Inside sat the last surviving leaders of the Tibetan guerrilla movement. During the 1960s, the CIA had armed, funded and trained them, including in the Colorado Rockies. Here, in the flesh, were men verging on top-secret myth.
An almost monastic calm replaced the cutthroat temper and suffocating night quarters of my earlier jails. The old palace grounds sat on a terraced hillside. High walls plunged and meandered and rose again. A century of prisoners had trod a crooked circle around the yard. The Tibetan called their circuits kors.
At the bottom of 53 stairs, where everything drained, lay the latrine and the volleyball field, pounded hard as ceramic by a million bare feet. The leper compound was down there, too, shut inside four walls. Like geese, inmates would cry the alarm if a leper dared to appear.
All day long, even sitting in the shade, the prisoners circled, endlessly discussing politics, ideas, and business. Guards watched from above, but the walls were free of barbwire and broken glass. The prisoners behaved like citizens, not the damned. They were clear-eyed and resolute. No one wanted to be here, but it was no accident that they were. Mountains have storms.
I had come to expect monsters. Now I began to sense giants.
I shared a cell with seven other prisoners. They had a ritual. Each afternoon a different man would present his family’s special chai to the rest of us. They took turns: seven men, seven chais. You could name the days by the different tastes. They never expected, nor probably wanted me to attempt a pot.
It was up to each prisoner to obtain his own ingredients. Once a week his wife delivered spices, fresh from the markets, at the gate with the chain. All next morning and early afternoon you could find the man nursing his brew.
Every cell had a firepit in the clay floor with a grate to hold a pot. The prisoners pooled their money to buy kindling and pay for a bhai, or hired boy, to keep a few gallons of water heated all day for washing or shaving. On chilly mornings, they squatted around the little flames.
Each chai had a distinct character. Some dared you with peppers, some were exotic, some retiring and sweet. All followed the same general order of creation. It was like watching music being made.
First the spices were boiled into a soup. The bhai mixed milk from powder, twirling the bamboo whisk between his palms. Last of all black tea leaves were sprinkled in. Five minutes later—no more—the mash was strained through a sock, the same one used every day. The concoction was ready.
The Great Escape
Some nights, when the city was blacked out and the moon was high, I could see the Himalayas glowing like spirits. Out there, Makalu was waiting. That’s where I planned to make my great escape.
Climbers would feed and clothe me. I could scavenge the trash pits on the glacier. Old ropes would carry me into Tibet; nomads would hide me from the Chinese soldiers; I could winter at Rongbuk monastery … the fantasy wove itself. It was my secret, of course. This was a solo.
I grasped for inspirations: Heinrich Harrer and his seven years in Tibet, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, The Count of Monte Christo. The monkeys taught me how effervescent the jail walls were. All day long they bounded back and forth. In and out were all the same to them. The wall was a state of mind.
I would wait for a storm to short the power grid. The guards always took cover from the rain. The cells had no doors to lock. They did a single headcount at bedtime. I wouldn’t be missed until next morning or later.
Round and round, I scoped the walls for finger cracks. The most vulnerable—the most climbable—section stood at the bottom of the stairs. Some odd gouges looked readymade for footholds. Tusk marks, a prisoner told me, very old, left by royal elephants.
I used some wooden stairs for pull-ups. Before the expedition I could manage 18: upon arrival here, three. I was down to zero. That’s where experience would pay off. I began collecting stubs of wood to peg my way higher. It was going to be the first ascent of a lifetime, and barefoot, too.
Once I reached the crest, things got even more hypothetical. It would be pitch black and pouring buckets. The wall might drop 20-feet or much more.
The whole thing was one big jump anyway, a leap of faith, all except for Makalu. That was the only part of my escape scheme that didn’t give me nightmares. The mountain was real. Every morning Makalu was waiting for me in the fog.
The Leper’s Invitation
The leper’s invitation came to me indirectly. I walked in and found my cellmates in a circle on the floor.
“Please, sit.” They were grim. I braced for bad news. “A certain Mr. Thapa has asked you to tea this very afternoon.”
I didn’t know a Mr. Thapa.
“The man is a leper.” They shook their heads in shock.
It surprised me. Two weeks had passed since the incident with the body. No one had mentioned it since.
“He is plainly seeking to exploit your kindness,” someone explained.
“The disease is not a divine curse,” another rushed to assure me. They were modern men, he meant. “But certain superstitions have a public benefit. It is a form of quarantine, isn’t it?”
“I’ve never met a leper,” I said. I had carried one, but this was different.
An embarrassed silence followed.
“Obviously you must decline, sir.”
It was very hot. The yard lay empty. Clouds were beginning to pile against the mountains.
Over the years I have tried to figure out my true reason for going down into the leper compound. In the end, it was simply a vertical urge. I had come this far. Why not climb a little deeper?
“What time did he say?” I asked.
“You see,” one of my cellmates said to the others.
And then very suddenly, the afternoon flipped upside-down. Their gallows mood switched to cheerful excitement. I was going for tea! They sprang to preparations.
“Mr. Thapa will offer you chai and Britannia Tiger biscuits. Excellent for digestion.”
I asked how they could know.
It seemed that over the past week, Mr. Thapa had been receiving the necessary supplies from his beautiful wife, or perhaps his lover from long ago. That part was a mystery. He never went to the gate himself. It would have been permitted at certain times, but he refused. The little packages were delivered to the leper compound.
“She also brought a new kettle. Unused.” Unpolluted, they meant.
It sank in. “For me?”
“It would seem so.”
They returned to the woman. All agreed, she was demure and pious. And very beautiful, that could not be overstated. For two years she had been visiting while performing puja at shrines and temples. Her devotion was as heartbreaking as Mr. Thapa’s refusal to show his face. It was Beauty and the Beast in the flesh. “He knows his station,” someone said. “He is an honorable man.”
Once upon a time Mr. Thapa was a Gurkha officer with the Indian Army. He had been wounded while fighting in Malaysia, and perhaps also in Ladakh against the Chinese. “He has killed men in the line of duty.”
“And outside of it,” someone darkly added.
They looked at me. They had a secret. They never discussed one another’s crimes, but this was important for me to know.
The lepers had come from a colony in the Terai jungle. One day, Mr. Thapa and a dozen others had been herded through the gate like goats. They were accused of a mercy killing of one of their own. None would confess, so all were considered guilty.
“They put a man out of his misery,” I said. “Is that bad?”
“A spirit is now wandering in some village.” Not that they believed in such things.
A small bar of chocolate magically appeared, donated by a neighboring cell. A little sack of rice arrived. News was spreading. Someone propped an umbrella in one corner to protect me from the imminent downpour. It seemed I had become their ambassador.
To be clear, the event was still no larger than a cup of tea. A gecko was right where it had been on the wall five minutes ago, its little lungs pulsing. But suddenly the day felt crucial. Somehow, I had reached a crux. It was time for my white shirt.
A tailor had custom made it for me just before our expedition left for Makalu. Starched, ironed and folded in a plastic bag, it had never been worn. I had carried it from jail to jail, carefully rolled up in my jhola, or satchel, saved for my release someday.
But with so many eyes on me today, I could think of no grander occasion for the shirt than tea with their monster. I laid it out on my mat.
“A magnificent shirt,” someone remarked. “It would be a pity to get it dirty.”
I tried it on. It startled me. I held out the loose chest and shoulders. Those were my brown hands sticking out of the sleeves, but the shirt hung on my bones. Next morning, I would weigh myself on the hook scale for sacks of rice. At 6 ’4”, I had dropped to 62 kilograms, barely more than Miss America.
“It will soon rain,” someone announced.
I tucked in the shirttail, buttoned the sleeves, and filled my jhola with the gifts. An orange had materialized. I grabbed a year-old Newsweek magazine and a novel. As I headed out the door, a cellmate stopped me. He handed me my tin cup. “For the chai you must not drink.”
The first time I saw a climber missing digits from frostbite, it jolted me. It sort of disturbed the peace.
I followed a faint trail to the leper compound entrance. A terrible stink poured from the gateway. Right on cue, thunder rumbled.
What was waiting for me in there? Victims of a different kind of oppression? An old lion with war stories? A saddhu in a cave? Another Elephant Man driven mad by his deformity? A zombie, a Lazarus?
Before my nerve failed, I ducked into the inner yard. A small red tomato hung from its stem. The prison’s open sewage ditch ran under one wall and out the other. A drowsy figure squatted on the stoop. “Mr. Thapa?”
The man peeked out from his burlap hood, stood, and gestured inside. Stepping wide across the ditch, I followed. A candle flame twinkled in the darkness.
“Welcome, sir,” a voice said. Balancing in place, not daring to touch a thing, I waited for my eyes to adjust.
A slight man with wire-rims was standing against the back wall. He didn’t offer to shake hands. “Mr. Long.” He indicated the seat of honor, a three-legged stool with a square of muslin as white as my shirt. Shadowy figures vacated to another room, leaving us alone.
“It’s going to rain.” I didn’t know what else to say. I opened my jhola and started laying the gifts on a little table. It was covered with white muslin.
“The Alexandrian Quartet,” he read aloud. “I visited Alexandria once. I was training in Israel.”
I didn’t know anything about the military. Or old Egypt. Or new Israel. I stuck with the book. “Lawrence Durrell,” I said. I was nervous. “Sometimes I copy a page just to feel his words going through my fingers. If I could write like him… . ” I shrugged at the impossibility. “Maybe next lifetime.” I stopped myself. Next lifetime. Enough already.
“Ah.” Mr. Thapa moved on. “An orange.”
It was quiet down here, away from the loudspeakers and crowds. Someone was coughing in the next room. He sounded bad. Raindrops began bongo drumming on the front stoop.
We sat in silence, two gentlemen on a voyage. His vest was threadbare. He had a peach-colored topi. I was glad for my white shirt.
The first time I saw a climber missing digits from frostbite, it jolted me. It sort of disturbed the peace. Mr. Thapa still had three fingers and his thumb on one hand. His nose was creeping into his face. He held his chin high.
In medieval Europe, a person infected with leprosy would be brought to the edge of town to stand in a grave while the priest prayed for his or her soul. Then the leper would be belled to alert travelers on the road. After that he could never return home.
The walls were bare, not even a calendar with blue-skinned Shiva. By comparison, my cell had flypaper strips and mosquito nets and a window for a breeze. And a mirror.
Lightning cracked. The sky opened up. The rain dumped down like rocks. Immediately the air cooled and the stink vanished. “I was wishing for rain,” said Mr. Thapa. Then he added, “in this lifetime.”
I relaxed a little. It sounded like a river outside. “Fine weather for chai,” he said.
My cellmates had warned me. It was very important. Don’t drink the leper’s chai.
“You brought your own cup,” he observed.
Was it an insult? I started to blame my cellmates, but took the hit. “I did.”
He stared at me. Or maybe it wasn’t a stare. “Who in his right mind would drink from a leper?” he suddenly asked.
Was he testing me? I dodged it. “They said your wife brought the spices.”
His chin drew back. “My wife?”
“To the gate.” I didn’t mention the kettle. I didn’t tell him that she was their muse.
“My wife has been dead 10 years,” he said.
So much for small talk.
“She also brought a bottle of Fanta,” he said, “if you prefer.”
I was trying to keep up with him. The lepers were the poorest of men in a so-called fifth-world country. This man had bought spices and a kettle to make a cup of chai for me. And who was she?
The roof was leaking. Water snaked down the wall. “It’s good weather for chai,” I said.
“Bhai,” he called over the noisy rain.
A pane of muslin—more of that ghostly immaculate muslin—closed off the next room. An old man emerged with a shiny tea kettle. He had a limp, plus ramrod posture. Perhaps he had been a soldier, too, or a valet. Or a raj. Yet more muslin covered both the kettle handle and his ravaged hand. He poured with grave care.
After all the chais that had been shared with me, this should not have been the first chai I ever tasted. But it was. It was truly excellent. Mr. Thapa was watching. “Ginger,” he said. “Ginger is the ticket. But don’t tell the chef’s secret.”
We talked. I was half his age. Did I miss my home: I didn’t really have one: you will. Had I started a family: not yet: you must.
Mr. Thapa brought out a photograph. He was wearing a uniform and a Gurkha hat cocked to the side. Like him, his wife was not smiling. Like her, their daughter was wearing a sari, but she was modern and smiling. Still in her teens, she was indeed as beautiful as an actress. Here was the muse.
“A medical school in India accepted her,” Mr. Thapa said. “She refuses to go. It is so far away. Who would take care of me in this place? I told her, ‘become a doctor and then take care of me.’ But every week she comes to the gate.”
And every week he refused to see her.
He looked up from the photo. “Do you know what it is like when you can no longer be a hero to your daughter?” he said. “Your hands become empty.” He looked at the remains of his hands.
To this day, I don’t understand why Mr. Thapa chose me, of all strangers, to be his witness. I had just finished telling him I had no family. I was young. I could not imagine watching myself dwindle away. What was he saying?
Then, from out of the blue, an officer confronted me with four guards and a full set of shackles.
I know now, all these years later. For one thing, I have a daughter, and she is my hero. But also, on that rainy afternoon, I wasn’t supposed to know. He wasn’t asking a question for me to answer.
The old leper returned with more steaming chai. Mr. Thapa brought my attention to the little row of medals. “Choose one,” he said.
He was giving me a medal? I graciously protested. He insisted. I pointed. “That one,” he said, as if recognizing an old friend. “Do you know what it means?”
I folded my hands, embarrassed. He had caught me. It was a token on a ribbon, no more. A souvenir.
“There was a battle,” he said. “I saved my men. They put my name on a plaque to be remembered forever.” I heard irony, but no bitterness in his voice. Each medal represented a great moment. He was showing me his life, a whole cordillera of summits.
He didn’t wax on. He didn’t have to. His wars, my mountains: they were not nothing. Once upon a time we went off to slay dragons. The story had changed, that’s all.
We finished our chai. The sick man kept coughing. The rain was not letting up.
“I should go,” I said.
“One more minute.” Mr. Thapa placed a blank paper on the tabletop. He drew a line with an X above and a big circle below. The line was the prison wall. The X was us. I nodded. Then it began to dawn on me, the larger implication. It was a map. He was drawing my secret, unsaid, never-drawn map.
He touched the circle on the far side of the wall.
Makalu, I thought. Did he know that, too?
“The headquarters of the Royal Nepal army,” he said.
I quit breathing. Mr. Thapa had seen me eyeing the wall. Then I realized, it wasn’t just Mr. Thapa. They all knew.
I made some sort of a reply. A question. A deflection. The sound of rain returned.
“Rubber bands,” Mr. Thapa answered.
I said, “what?”
“If you have any to spare.” He took off his glasses to show me the rubber bands tied to the arms. That was how he and Elton John kept their glasses from falling off.
I stood and slung the empty jhola on one shoulder. I was in a daze. We both said thank you. We didn’t shake hands.
No one asked about my tea with Mr. Thapa. The rain was too loud. It was cold. My cellmates crouched around the firepit like cave dwellers. Or a tribe of climbers.
The city blacked out. The guards fled from the walls. It would have been the perfect night to escape. That silly fiction. I went to bed early. I clung to my straw mat as if it were a life raft inside my mosquito net. What had I been thinking?
Mr. Thapa’s revelation shook me. Even if the wall were possible, I would have been jumping into worse captivity. I felt hollowed out. The dream—the grand adventure—was dead. I wondered what was left of me.
The sun came up and it was like the morning after Noah’s flood. One of the terraces had collapsed. Mud buried the stairs. The yard smelled like the inside of a monster’s bowel. People emerged hesitantly. The chickens came out and began pecking each other. Slowly the world started over. One footprint at a time, the circular path resumed.
My mother had taught me to always give extra thanks. I put together a little package with three rubber bands, some Newsweeks, a couple of BIC pens, and an unused toothbrush. Then I added my white shirt. It didn’t fit anymore, and Mr. Thapa could probably make two shirts out of it. Our bhai left the package at the lepers’ gate.
A few mornings later, another body was carried up through the fog. That would be the leper who could not quit coughing. The guards hurried the procession along. Today was Father’s Day, a major event.
Even before the roosters crowed, the palace came alive with early cookfires and voices. My cellmates bustled around, putting on their best clothes, and fussing in the mirror. I had a birds-eye view as prisoners streamed toward the front gate.
I had the cell to myself. There was no chai hour. From a distance their harmoniums and drums and wailing sounded like Cajun music.
People began returning at dark. They had thick tikas on their foreheads and bundles of food. They looked happy, even the ones with tears running down. Their stories bounced back and forth in Hindi.
Then one of them noticed me, and his smile shrank. “Your friend has died,” he said. That was how they were telling it: my friend. “The timing was unfortunate. His wife learned the sad news as we were celebrating. Now she is a widow and searching for his body.”
They still had no idea that she was Mr. Thapa’s daughter. While they were celebrating Father’s Day, the young woman was hunting through the garbage pits.
Terrible as that was, Mr. Thapa’s death was a mercy, and even—it struck me—as the escape I had wanted. He was freed from his slow disintegration.
A whirlwind struck in my fourth month. August had finished. The monsoon was ebbing. The sun was pleasant. I was circling the yard, minding my own business, no more covert glances at the wall. Then, from out of the blue, an officer confronted me with four guards and a full set of shackles. He was angry. I offended him.
Ordinarily the guards called prisoners to the gate, away from the crowd. Ordinarily they used a pair of handcuffs. He scorned my questions and brandished his stick. The guards fumbled with the ankle irons. He shouted at them.
The prisoners kept their distance. Something was very wrong. Had they found the wooden pegs for my escape? Or a scrap of my notes with names, places and tortures? I was so careful. I felt sick.
“They are taking you away immediately,” someone murmured to me.
“Better not to speak.”
The swagger stick jabbed me. Hard. Between the ribs. That was different. I started up the stairs. Three of my cellmates watched from the second-floor balcony. I knew them well enough to read their fear. Fear was the whole idea. For reasons not yet clear, I was getting perp walked in front of the political prisoners. This was a declaration of the king’s control.
The chickens scattered. They were sending me back to the bad jail, I was sure of it. The prison was swirling around me. This had become my home. I turned to get a last look. No more misty ruins. No more green hills crowned with temples. These weren’t my band of mountain brothers. But they had shared their chai. That sounds so small.
As I was marched to the front gate, some prisoners came to say goodbye. I took one last look around.
Down at the bottom of the hill, a single leper had dared to come out of their compound. There he stood with his wire rims and wearing my white shirt. He had pulled it on in an obvious hurry. Buttons open, the tails fell to his knees. It was Mr. Thapa.
He did not wave goodbye or snap a salute. It wasn’t a goodbye anyway, but the inside-out of a secret to keep for another day, like ginger for my chai. He had switched identities with another leper’s corpse. I had no time to reckon the meaning until much later, and it’s still catching up. He had willed away his existence. With the only treasure left to him, his name, he had bought his daughter’s freedom, not from a monster but from him. He had slain his final dragon. Like that, giants whisper.
The officer barked. The guard gave a tug.
They led me through the tunnel. The chain lowered for us to cross. It was blinding out there.
The officer halted our little detail and gave an order. The guards frowned in confusion. He shouted it this time. They unlocked my shackles. He flicked his stick at me as if I were a beggar at his door. I was free. It was that abrupt.
I started walking, not daring to look back. I tucked my elbows against my ribs, willing myself smaller.
Jeff Long is a New York Times best-selling author. He has written 11 books including Angels of Light. Long was the recipient of the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and the Banff Mountain Book Festival Grand Prize.