by Sonam Chhoki (Bhutan)
waterfall of lichen
deep in the mountain forest
a musk deer calls
Each winter solstice when we meet for our New Year, we retrieve a cache of family stories. The favourite one has a disputed provenance. My sisters insist it is our great grandfather. I recall it being his brother.
Our ancestor is a herder on the high pastures dotted with primula and dwarf rhododendron. That year the early snow surprises him. The calves born in late summer are not yet strong enough to make the descent to the village. His yak skin bags hold sufficient buckwheat flour, tea leaves and salt. Unfazed by the turn of the weather, the yaks graze calmly. He is filled with unease. The stack of firewood in the stone hut is low. He must bring in the pile gathered on the slope. He pushes open the door, his breath billowing before him. The air stings him with a rush of fusty odour that makes him gasp.
At this point, our cousin interjects with footprints of a large biped in the fresh snow. ‘The big toes were splayed unlike a human’s,’ he says with staggering certainty. I prefer our ancestor sensing a palpable albeit an invisible presence. The smell is like that of an unwashed body festering with sores. He peers into the growing darkness. Larches on the ridge shiver points of light as the sun goes down. The miasma settles with snow flurries around the hut. It is recognisably not that of the yaks. Didn’t the elders say the mi-gye/snow creature exudes a stench? He breathes painfully trying to marshal his thoughts. Fire! His grandfather swore the mi-gye fears the fire. Will the mi-gye harm his herd? The yaks ruminate unperturbed.
He bolts the door and stokes the fire. Removing the hunting knife from its sheath he holds it in his right hand and winds a thick yak hair lasso around his left hand. With his back against the hearth he faces the door. A plaintive howl rises. His heart thumps like a pestle pounding buckwheat in a large mortar. The cry is so raw and piercing as if the very heart of the creature is being ripped out. He intones:
I prostrate before you,
Help me!’ Protect me!’
The keening outside changes to a moan that rises and falls in melancholy cadence. He finds himself reciting the hermit Milarepa’s admonishment to the hunter:
‘Whatever you fear you see as your foe.
But in past lives this creature was your own mother.
Your arrow will kill the deer
But not the Five Poisons within you.
Slay your hatred and be free!’
Our ancestor drops the hunting knife with a clatter. His chanting and the ululation outside mingle and echo in the night. He feels a deep calm.
New year sunrise –
snow blowing around the peaks
like silken kha-da
Note: kha-da is a ceremonial scarf. Ed. note: Milarepa is an C11th Tibetan yogi-poet
An (Cottage) Prize
by Doris Lynch (U.S.A.)
Two weeks after my husband and I arrived in this arctic village for a year of teaching, our neighbor, Oscar Swan invites us to take language lessons. The next afternoon after the Inupiat third graders have shuffled out, we join him at the little desks. On the other side of the triple-paned windows, the Chukchi Sea has begun to slow into a deep blackness. “Another month,” Oscar says, “and the sea will freeze over. Better ugruk hunting,” he laughs. “Seals. You’ll see.”
He hands us each a xeroxed book with many pictures (mostly of sea mammals and low arctic plants). There are few words, most of which look impossibly long, such as, sikungipaktaktuk meaning “to blink.”
Oscar’s wife, Ethel, always joins us. She brings beautiful handmade objects, some of which she models on her small round frame. “Atikluk,” she announces as she twirls across the tiled floor in a flowered parka bordered with appliqued hems. Another day she displays a pair of freshly made mukluks. “You touch,” she encourages eagerly. We slip our hands deep inside the caribou boots and feel their incredible warmth.
Two weeks later as frazil ice forms on the Chukchi, we dance to the rhythms of Oscar’s traditional skin drum. Each class, Ethel and Oscar bring us Inupiat delicacies: paniktak (dried seal meat) or kuak (raw frozen fish). Today Ethel arrives late—halfway through our lesson. As she unpeels layers of towels, I catch a sweet and vaguely familiar scent. “Whale oil donuts,” she calls. “Ever try?” We each reach for a sugared circle, still warm to the touch. They taste like the sea brushed with the sweetness of snow.
at each village house
men beg secrecy
flurry of knit and purl
Note: Inupiat is the term Northwestern Alaskan Eskimos prefer for both their language and their people. It means the “real people.”
An (Cottage) Prize
A Cycle Ride
by Shrikaanth Krishnamurthy (India/U.K.)
I am riding along the usual route I take to school. Aged 12, I feel a hero as the wind whips my hair, caressing me, goading me along the five miles. Not yet five minutes from home, I notice black specks in the sky further along the road. The specks are circling, hovering and swooping down. I see a lorry on the road verge, partly tilted. As I get nearer, the specks take the shape of vultures, awkwardly landing on the ground next to the road verge.
I am quite curious as I have not seen any free-roaming vultures before. Much closer now, I see an upturned bullock cart, broken, its wheels still. And not far from the cart, two dead oxen, their stiff legs pointing skyward, their blank stares accusing nobody in particular. And the vultures, no longer clumsy now, are ripping into the bellies, squawking, jostling for space, their beaks and bald heads smeared crimson. The legs of the oxen are splayed open, invitingly so for the vultures.
The cart driver’s body has been quickly claimed by his near and dear to perform the last rites. Now that the vultures have claimed the oxen, there is only the cart left. And the local kids are already working on it, unmindful of the sudden shower.
in the crucible–
Ed. note: in India, the jewellery of a widow will soon be melted down and made into new jewels.
An (Cottage) Prize
by Barbara A. Taylor (Australia)
azure skies again
eyes of gloom focus
on the forecast
No stockman can live without his mate – a dog is truly loyal. Through crumbled earth and lashing rains, it listens, watches for his master. At each command, the kelpie swiftly follows through, moving back, then forwards and around to keep all heaving beasts on track. There’s nothing new, they both spend their days just herding steers from here to there in search of clean potable waters. At night by a campfire the dog keeps him warm. Jack sits by a steaming billy on coals, rolls thin smokes. He can’t think of a time when he’s not on the land, his heart would truly be broken. But misfortune has come for the drought’s been severe, there’s no feed to be found. No income for his beer, or his addiction to tobacco, and this year he’d promised himself a new Akubra.
a bullock’s horn
in red dust
“Bloody climate change,” he moans. At Jack’s feet his panting dog agrees. Local graziers now receive hand-outs. Suicide rates increase. Every day seems hotter. And every day they wait … This drover is idling for time, when blue skies reappear, and he’s back once again in the saddle with his mate at his horse’s heels. How Jack yearns for the glitter of stars, the smell of gentle rain on eucalypts and the shrieks of silver cockatoos. He loves the wide-open spaces, those vast velvet skies, blazing sunsets, and the freedom: to be far from any madding crowds. But sadly today, he’s stuck here in this country town’s pub, propped on a bar stool, posing in front of a young city artist, still dreaming on the sounds of cattle … his only reward: a truck ride back home to the station, and free schooners for his trouble.
on the canvas
in splashes of paint
his trusty canine
Ed. notes: kelpie is an Australian breed of sheepdog; Akubra is a bush-hat; billy is a portable lidded can used for cooking; schooner is a glass of beer.