The horn trumpeted as if the bus were a giant soprano mallard flying along the dusty Himalayan roads. Little red tasselled balls dangled from most of the ceiling space and accentuated the condition of the road and the lack of suspension underneath us. The bus had been making stops in every small, roadside village, sometimes to pick up passengers, sometimes to allow the wallahs to run to the side of the bus. Everyone spit in the dirt and dust kicked off in all directions.
I coughed as the brown dust cloud blew through the windows and settled on everything inside. I was removing my sunglasses and fending off baskets of sweet bananas and mango thrust through the window frame when I first saw her, standing by the side of the road. She stood on the embankment, squinting above the golden haze in a pale blue salwar. She held a white shoe box in her hand and wore small white loafers under her wide, flowing pants. She tugged the tight black braid that hung down past her waist, glanced once to the back of the bus and followed an older man around the front.
Mountains are the old men of the physical world. Wrinkled and bent, with curved peaks they look down, watching the lost trying to grasp something, at the base or the summit, a sense of place or meaning. They lie back in the arms of the sky, as if in a wide, sagged hammock. The white and silver ledges shine like laugh-lines, hardened under the sun, wind and ice. Cracks, veins and scars show in the moonlight, revealing lines to the giant heart lying just under the surface.
The clear night painted half of everything in shadow and set clouds aglow as they retreated down to the darkness of the valley. I sat on a wall of uneven stone near the trail listening to the squeaking of a loose prayer-wheel sawing in the wind.
Double seats, spilling arms and legs into the aisle, lined the right side of the bus, while smaller single seats lined the left. The older man stepped to the top of the steps with a grunt, wiped the sweat from under his Topi and looked left. He shuffled down the aisle, glaring at each reluctant, single-seat occupant dismissively, until he finally dropped himself on the unlucky man directly behind me. Balancing the box in one hand and holding her hem in the other, she stepped slowly aboard. Everyone made room on both sides of the bus.