Otherspect

(a blog)



latest entry 2020 2013-19 2012

Unthawed

October 18th, 2021

Unthawed

The gray sky hung low and motionless over the stony moors. The first snowflake of the year seemed to bring with it a soft silence, a stop to time itself.

Crio, feeling old, watched the tiny white speck fall. It drifted through the late autumn air, dipping, turning, ever in search of a path of least resistance. His eyes followed, caught in the dream until it ended abruptly against the cold black bark of a protruding daggermoss twig. There the snowflake clung to life and form for an instant, and then was gone.

Already, more of the skyborn ice particles were spiraling down to a similar fate, each freezing a new spot of earth or branch, throwing themselves as if in communal sacrifice so that other snowflakes might find purchase on their sisters' corpses and remain unthawed.

"Hesha, three riders have been spotted crossing the Salt. They have the look of Lowlanders," said the man named Belar, addressing Crio by the traditional title of respect, as did all those loyal to him and many who were not.

Crio nodded, his gaze lingering on the new snow. "Let them come."

Belar bowed from his saddle and trotted off to tell the sentries not to kill the riders.

The old man stood, his knotty forearm muscles bunching as he gripped the shaft of the ancient dorzhak with fingers that were hard and unyielding like the alloy from which the kingweapon had been forged. Dalba, daughter of Crio's surviving son Torvin yet already ten times the man her father had ever been, moved quickly to fetch her grandfather's horse.

Crio took the proffered reins and handed her the dorzhak to hold for him. After mounting, he leaned down to whisper into to the sixteen-year-old's ear. "Stay close. I need you ready for anything."

"I understand, Hesha," Dalba breathed.

He straightened and stared deep into the young hunter's eyes, recognizing a spark not unlike one from his younger days. She stared right back into his, confident and steady. From anyone else, the word "Hesha" was but a formality, a habit; sometimes even a stomach-turning adulation. But coming from this fierce young woman for the first time ever, from this clear-eyed granddaughter of his, those two syllables were packed with meaning: You can count on me. I am your blood; I am your zezla. To the death.

She passed him the weapon and mounted her own horse, and together they rode across snow-powdered rocks to greet the new era.


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Pelicans

October 11th, 2021

Illawarra Pelican by Fiona Post
Photograph taken by Fiona Post. All rights reserved.

After my brother graduated from college, he headed out west to San Francisco for a while (a year or so?), and then lived on the other side of the Bay for a couple more years. My parents and I visited him while he was still in the city, and I later spent most of a summer ('95) out there with him.

It was a magical summer for me, full of emotional growth. I worked briefly for an Argentinian landscaper, played music on the streets of Berkeley and SF, slept in a shed under the emerald green boughs of a big old fig tree, and got to know my sibling from a perspective impossible in childhood. We were men now—young men, sure, but men—each trying to find his place in this world, each feeling a bit lost (and way more than a bit, at times), each full of wonder and curiosity and adventurousness. And grace, too, which is a word I don't use much due to the religious connotations it tends to have. But yes, grace. Not to say we were perfect, of course; we both had some serious issues, and those butted heads against each other more than a few times that summer. We were also at very, very different stages of life, each dealing with various challenges; at times, right as one of us was poking his head out of his shell, the other would be sticking his head in the sand, or vice versa. But those few months were a time I’ll never forget, full of memories I’ll forever cherish.

One was of day in perhaps late July, when my brother and I drove down to Point Lobos. We hiked all day along the cliffs and enjoyed the sights, including a late morning view of a little cove in which a couple of very cute sea otters rode the gentle kelp-strewn waves on their backs while cracking abalones against flat rocks they had balanced on their tummies.

At the end of our day hike, we plonked ourselves down in the sand of a little secluded beach not far from the car and fired up the camp stove for a meal of ramen noodles and Sierra Nevada pale ale. By then the wind and waves had stopped; the ocean surface was practically glass. Circling over the bay right in front of us were several brown pelicans that dove repeatedly for fish in the blood orange glow of the setting sun.

I read somewhere that most pelicans of that species end up dying from starvation; after a lifetime of plummeting straight down and smacking the water with their faces, they go blind and eventually can’t feed themselves anymore. I have seen eagles dive, too, and hit the water like a truck, though they more often skim down at a shallower angle to nab the fish with their talons, seemingly barely breaking the surface in their grace. But sometimes even a glorious eagle will plummet, too, and go almost completely underwater. I’ve seen it happen.

We soar and soar and soar, wherever we go, wherever our minds and hearts take us. Occasionally we might crash out, completely missing what we were aiming for, or even temporarily lose our sight. It can take a while to pick ourselves back up.

But we do. We don’t starve. Because even after blindness, there is vision to be found; and even over the distance of thousands of miles and dozens of years, that sense of wonder and camaraderie and adventure returns. It happens; it has before, and it will again.


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Zygote

October 4th, 2021


It keeps... happening. I think I'm still me. But now I'm more of me.

I remember Jasper touching the bubble thing and how it grew. I yelled at her What are you doing but she ignored me and suddenly it had her hand inside it like it was sucking her in. I screamed again but she didn't make a sound she just stood there and then she was gone. I swear I didn't know whether to jump in after her or try to get away. I wanted to jump but I was too scared.

Then the bubble thing bulged and that set the hairs on my neck on end so I backed up against the concave wall and tried not to move. There was nowhere else to go. How did they put us in a room without a door. It makes no sense.

When there was nowhere left to go and the bubble had bulged up to my foot I knew I was done for so I just kicked and kicked and wished I had a metal pipe or a burning stick. Anything. Then it had my legs and then I felt it rising past my hips and I must have blacked out.

I'm... simpler now. It's like I have a body, only I don't, because it keeps... dividing. I keep dividing. But I'm still me, only there are more of me now.

I still haven't found her. But if she's dividing, too, then maybe eventually one of me will find one of her and then I can tell her. How I really wanted to jump in I just couldn't. But that I wish so much I had.


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Flat Roads

September 27th, 2021

I remember when I lived in northern Ohio, which is rural and flat as a board, you could stand in the road at night and watch a car pass, and then smoke a cigarette... and several minutes later when you were done with that cigarette, you could look down that same road, and you would still see those same red taillights of the car that passed, tiny now in the distance. That's how flat and straight some of those roads are up there. Most of my memories are of snow or gray and cloudy days and nights. Sleety, icy, yellow streetlight nights.

A friend helped me do a project for "winter term" one year, an extra credit that could be added as long as you had a professor sign off on it. I got the go-ahead from my ethnomusicology professor to go down to New Orleans and play music on the street for a few days. Well, we needed a place to stay, so I obtained a print-out of a list of alumni living in the area, and began to call them, working my way down the list.

The first eight numbers I called were dead ends… several of them quite literally; they had either died or were dying. A few others had moved to whereabouts unknown. It was starting to feel eerie.

The first person to answer the phone who was actually a person on the alumni list was a friendly guy named Shawn (name made up to protect his privacy). As soon as I told him I was calling from northern Ohio, he interrupted me, saying, “Wait, okay now, let me guess: Right now it’s cold and gray and either raining or snowing outside.” I looked out the window, and sure enough, it was a mixture of rain and sleet.

We had a great time staying with Shawn and his wife Jenny (another made-up name), and I’ll forever be grateful for their generosity and hospitality and for being exposed to their uniquely cheerful perspective on the world. They showed us around and gave us our first ever New Orleans New Years experience (which deserves a blog post all to itself!). I’ll never forget it.

The roads around here are not so flat. Sure, there are beautiful mountains and trees and all that entails, but there’s something very quiet, something utterly lonely and profoundly awesome, about the flatness of northern Ohio. You can see for miles and miles. Powerlines and roads and property divisions draw into each other like an artist’s exercise in perspective.


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Green Inside

September 20th, 2021


Don't be stupid," the old woman told me. "The forest can kill you. Go around." And I should have listened. But time was short, and in my heart I knew I would be fine. So straight through it I ran: underneath the barrier trees, over the mossy morel banks, into dense thorn thickets and out the other side

Not twenty minutes later I was smiling, for I had already glimpsed the light from the fields shining golden between a last line of tree trunks ahead. And then it happened: My hand brushed past a reaching bramble, and one of its tendrils snagged at my fingers.

Ever since, something has been... in me. Something growing. I can actually hear it.

At first there was only a slight itch, under the skin between my knuckles. Scratching did nothing; on the contrary, my efforts seemed to aggravate it further, for within moments the itch had traveled to the base of my wrist and become quite maddening. I quickened my pace but immediately regretted it; the faster my pulse throbbed, the more... excitement I felt emanating from the trespasser.

I broke out of the forest and the sun's rays warmed my sweating scalp. A bitter taste had fouled my tongue and y ears were buzzing. The thing inside me was growing faster now; I could feel it charging through cartilage, winding around bone, pushing aside tendons and penetrating muscle tissues, relentlessly seeking a pathway of least resistance. Then a sharp ache deep in my shoulder brought me crumpling to the ground, and I knew it had found an artery.

I lie here at the edge of this field, my vision too darkened to see the sunlight anymore. I can feel the intruder still branching, still spreading through me, still taking over. The buzzing noise is deafening now. My chest is tight, but I can't cough -- I can't even throw up; the thing will not let me. I can feel its tendrils sliding into position, sending out hundreds of tiny roots to dig deep into the flesh of my heart like so many planted flags, readying for a final squeeze.

I am green. I am conquered. I am gone.


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Overlap

September 6th, 2021


This is my nineteenth attempt. The lag is making it even harder. But I've got this: If I can just get luck and skill to both line up at the same time, the fucker's gonna blow. I'm sure of it.

The last Overlap happened more than a decade ago, back when I was twelve. After talking it over with their families, my dad and uncle knew exactly what they had to do. So they gamed the system and got posted to rig duty. I like to think their brave sacrifice is a major reason the rest of us are still here.

Now it's our turn: mine, my little sister Deb's, almost everyone we know.

Earlier in the night, in typical Deb fashion, the dumbass went charging in the instant we linked up to the Main. She didn't even wait for the rest of the team to gather. I gotta admit, it was actually pretty hilarious; she blasted a tunnel right through the first two layers all by herself, hollering the whole way down. The others were stunned speechless for a minute, but that little performance of hers ended up doing wonders for everybody's morale.

I mean, this was some scary fuckin shit we were about to face, and boom there goes my little sister, rushing in, one hundred per cent fearless. We big muscly types had no choice but to man up after that! I mean, right?! Pfft. We were idiots. Hindsight 20-20 and all that though.

It was good though. Fear has no place down here.

Anywho, Deb kept on going, and while we were trying to catch up one of the layers reclosed behind her and cut us off. Now she's out of communications range, and I'm trying to blast through as fast as I can to get to her. But the Intelligence--our name for the invaders that engineered the Overlap--they seem to be on to us; they keep reinforcing the layer, making it harder and harder to find the right resonant frequency.

Carl Griegsohn gave the order to backtrack and hit it from another angle, in a spot half a click east of here. I ignored him and he shouted at me. So I told him Fuck off, it's my sister down there. He sputtered and threatened to disconnect me from the Main. I knew he wouldn't so I just kept working. A few seconds later he was racing back up tunnel, collecting stragglers, all snarls and bellows fading in the distance.

I'm almost there; this thing's gonna blow, I know it. Maybe Carl's proposed flank attack will be enough to distract the Intelligence from my mosquito efforts. Maybe attempt number twenty will be the magic number. Maybe Deb's on the other side, trying to work her way back through to my position.

Not bloody likely. My sister's probably already inside the Core by now, either dead or somehow still alive and about to place her charges right in the middle of the goddamned thing's brain.

Either way, I've got to blast my way through. I've got to find her. I've just got to.


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South

August 30th, 2021


The first slabs to go were usually the most spectacular, so nesters from all five valleys tended to get there early to claim the best of the available viewing perches. The unavailable ones, of course, had already been reserved; their haughty occupants would fly in at their leisure, arriving just in time for the midday games to begin and often later than that

Spotting an empty stretch of branch between a nester family and a pair of hunters, Sye'sral tucked her wings and dove. Just as she broke momentum and her talons came in contact with the deeply scarred wood, a third hunter swooped up from below, roaring territorially right in front of her. Talons scrabbling for purchase and wings flapping violently, they glared at each other for several heartbeats.

"Buzz off," one of the other hunters hissed.

The newcomer's nostrils flared, inhaling Sye'sral's scent. Suddenly the snarl froze on his face. Sye'sral narrowed her eyes at him and turned to go.

"Wait!" he mewed, moving aside while batting at her with his paw in a gesture of sundued apology.

"Oh, you smell that I'm 'in season' and suddenly there's room on the branch for both of us, is that it?" Sye'sral smirked and let go of the branch. Typical, she thought, as she dropped in a wide arc and glided over to the other side of the Greatree.

She landed on a mostly empty branch this time and made herself comfortable, preening while craning her neck to glance at the gaming sphere. The view here was quite terrible, but at least no horny males were trying to shove her off the branch.

A nearby cub yowled at his sister and copped a gruff paw on the nose from their mum. Sye'sral smiled, settled on her haunches, and reveled in the warmth from the sun. It was a beautiful day for it, if she closed her eyes and pretended she wasn't actually here to kill someone.

The trouble was that any time she left her eyes shut for any length of time these days, that annoying pull would come back, as if emboldened by the darkness. It had been getting stronger over the past month or so; it would sometimes even manifest in her dreams. There it was like a vague rope or vine, always dragging at her from the same direction:

South, it seemed to command, in a whisper formed from neither lips nor words.


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Breaks

August 2nd, 2021

Sometimes you need breaks even from the things you love most, from the things that define you. It’s baffling. But it happens. And it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.

For most of my life, up until a couple of years ago, I read every night in bed, pretty much without fail. If I didn’t read one night, it was because I was extremely tired or drunk or (when I was much younger) stoned, but even then, out of habit, I’d usually open up whatever book I was reading and get through at least a page or a paragraph or even just a sentence or two before conking out.

This continued until about two and a half years ago, when I suddenly just stopped. I still can’t tell you exactly why, because I myself don’t completely know, but it happened; I completely stopped reading novels in bed, and started playing ipad games or browsing online news instead. It wasn’t the games or the news that made me stop, to be honest. I had just stopped, and then I allowed those things to fill the vacuum. Eventually my wife started commenting on it, and I would acknowledge that I should be reading a book instead of staring at my ipad, but my head just couldn’t get into any book. I did resume reading in fits and starts, but nowhere near as much as I had been before. I think I probably read, oh, maybe a novel every six or nine months for those two and a half years. I’m naturally a slow reader, but that was extreme even for me!

And now, suddenly, beginning just month or so ago, I’m reading again.

I don’t know why. I suppose I could try to psychoanalyze myself and go into some very personal and autobiographical stuff here as to what happened, but the short of it, I think, is that trauma and ptsd played a big part in the why of my long hiatus from reading, and it seems that perhaps now, through processing grief, my fairly recent realization of just how short life is has gradually brought books and stories, and the desire to make them part of me, back into my consciousness, until I’ve suddenly felt a need to read again. In short, I think maybe I was paralyzed for a while, but now I’ve woken up. If that makes sense. And so, I want to spend what time I have left focusing on the people and things that are important to me. And reading books is one of them.

Anyway. I’m saying all this is because perhaps something inside you occasionally might need a break from reading, or whatever it is you’re in the habit of doing and which you wish you were still doing, and that’s why you are spending so much time watching youtube, scrolling through facebook or instagram or tiktok or whatever, playing games, watching tv, doing busywork, reading the news more than you really need to, staring at your navel, etc etc. It happens. Everyone needs downtime. Everyone needs breaks for various reasons.

So don’t beat yourself up if you happen to have stopped doing something you love for a while. It doesn’t mean your brain is rejecting reading or books or whatever else it is that you consider, for you personally, to be healthy and constructive; whatever those things are, they are clearly things you love deeply and always will. It simply means your brain and heart need time to reset and/or sort something out, perhaps on a deep, subconscious level. You just need time to let your subconscious mind unravel the knots. There is nothing wrong with you. I promise.

I tell you what though, I am very happy to be reading regularly again. It soothes the soul… and that reminds me of some advice a man I greatly admire once gave me: “Take a deep breath and read. It’ll calm you.”

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Fire Tower

July 26th, 2021

There was this fire tower when I was growing up in Nashville. My friend and I came across it while out driving around one day; I think we had just started our senior year. This was long before 9/11 inspired strict enforcement of laws regarding climbing on public equipment.

From the top, you could see for miles in every direction; off in the distance were the skyscrapers of downtown, the hills forming the vast basin on all sides, even the ridges around Radnor. We went there that first time on a weekend, a Saturday I think, and we were so awed that we immediately decided to go there first thing Monday morning to watch the sun rise before school.

Monday morning came, and my friend met me at the bottom of my driveway (so as not to wake anyone). It was still dark and the stars were out. He was driving his mom's big brown Oldsmobile, and had brought coffee. I can’t remember if it was in plastic insulated mugs from home or takeaway cups from a convenience store.

Anyway, we drove to the fire tower and got to the top just as the sunrise was starting. It was absolutely amazing. Sailor, take warning! The morning air was cold, especially with the occasional gusts of wind. We sat there in total silence the entire time, just staring into the east, taking it all in. The horizon erupted like a slow-motion volcano.

Reluctantly, without having said more than a word or two to each other the entire time, we gave the view a mental goodbye, and made our way down West End toward school.

This early-morning trip became a ritual for us; we did it every Monday for what in my memory was a good chunk of that school year, or at least until life got in the way. I took a girlfriend up there once or twice, and those times were beautiful and special, too. In my heart of hearts, though, the fire tower will always belong to the connection between me and that friend. The ability to sit with someone in quiet awe, without feeling a need to fill the silence with words… priceless. Rare. Wonderful. Thank you, my friend.

Sadly, access is no longer possible to the tower, last I saw. But it's still a pretty drive and brings good memories.


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High School

July 19th, 2021

Hume Fogg Academic High School


A few weeks ago, while I was up at the open mic, someone asked me what I was like in high school, what sort of stuff I was into, etc. It took me a minute to respond. It’s not that I don’t remember; as with most people, I bet, some of my most vivid memories are from when I was a teenager, especially starting around the age of fifteen. It’s an age that concretes your sense of individuality, to say the least. But I hadn’t thought about it in a while, so it took me a moment to answer.

What was I like in high school? Hmmm. Well, I think I was a more positive, confident person back then, especially starting sometime in the 10th grade. I was lucky, though, to go to a really great school. It was a public school, but its focus was on academics (rather than football or something like that), and you had to have a B average to even get in, so most of the kids tended to spend at least a some of their time head-in-book, even if it was just to cram for some test or other. There also weren’t really any of what you might call bullies and hoodlums. Not while I was there, anyway. Part of the reason for this was the school’s relatively small size; when I graduated, there were only about 400 students across all 4 grades (9-12), and my graduating class only had 88 members I believe. The majority of the teachers loved their jobs and had a passion for teaching, so it was an inspiring place that allowed us to blossom. There were of course plenty of teenage challenges to overcome.

What was I into? I had a tight-knit group of friends from about year 10 on. Prior to that, I had a couple of close friends from the neighborhood, and plenty of school acquaintances, but it was in high school that my social life exploded, same as with most people. We did everything together, especially after we one by one got our drivers licenses. I didn't own a car, but my parents had two, so were able to let me use one of them on occasion. My friends and I were into camping, music, swordfighting, Renaissance festivals, creative writing, dinners at each other's houses, taking long drives in the countryside, getting up to no good in terms of substances and shenanigans and whatnot. But we weren't really into alcohol at all (though my brother and a neighbourhood friend and I were, especially when I was 13-15, though we never were idiots about it… well, maybe a little hehe), and we tended to maintain a modicum of common sense in general. We were nice kids, empathetic, mutually supportive. I was, however, told years later by a classmate that we were “pretty cliquey”. That took me aback. Perspective is strange though.

What was I like in high school? I was terrible at math and science (because of being terrible at math). I did well in English, despite the weird topics I tended to freewrite about. I guess my essay-writing skills made up for those.

I remember this one time, some friends and I were hanging out in some place, um... I think it was this place that used to exist called Derryl's. Or maybe it was the Loveless Cafe. Not sure. Anyways, my buddy Shawn gets this bright idea to tip out all the black pepper into a pile on the table in front of him (we were still waiting for our food; only had our drinks at that point). Then someone says something not actually very funny, but which Shawn thought was hilarious, and he guffaws and makes all that pepper go POOF all over the table and into our eyes, noses... mouths.... Fun times. It's a miracle we didn't get kicked out. That time, anyway.

What was I like in high school? I was a grumpy shit half the time, especially at home. I don’t know how my parents and brother put up with me. I was selfish, self-centered, self-conscious, and a bunch of other self- things. I meant well though, most of the time, and tried to be nice to people. I loved nature and the out-of-doors; I’m grateful that that is something that has stayed a part of me, ever since early childhood.

I was into creative writing, and even tried my hand at poetry (inspired by my big brother, no doubt). Here’s one I wrote:


When Coyotes Hunt

by Gaines Post


Padding to the allegro rhythm of hunger,
Whimpering in eagerness as they slip
In and out of night shadows,
Their shapes blend in the starlight
With desert shrubs, crawling
Like hidden roots between dry rocks.
A magic hangs in the air
As the stillness before a storm,
Flowing past everything in the valley
From the sweet fragrance of cactus flowers
To the moistness of dew on an ant mound.
A shadow's weight squeezes
Cool dirt between its toenails,
Nostrils flared and muscles tense
With a patience that is fueled
By the perpetual thought of food.
Five bodies leap a barbed-wire fence,
And screams tear through the silence.
Bloody feathers drift to the ground;
The magic tension has broken.
The burrow owl,
The jack rabbit,
Even the hills
Turn to listen.
Three sharp blasts from a shotgun
Ring out the news.

Dawn clears the misty confusion of night,
Revealing peace.
Dripping skins write the coyote's tale
On a barbed-wire text.


...And here’s another, written in 10th or 11th grade:


The Man Who Is Part of Me

by Gaines Post


While I sit here in class so still,
Twiddling and scribbling and rotting away,
There is a place upon a high hill
Where free leaves dance and shadows play.
A maple grows green with branches galore
Which could support the most agile boy,
Swinging and clinging and yelling like Thor,
High in the treetops of joy.
Below waits a fireplace, old and cracked,
Its history in six inches of coal.
Each rain the soot and ash are packed,
Each Fall leaves fill up the hole.
Beneath the ceiling of sassafras
A tattered tend stands bare,
And beneath its canvas a grisly man rests,
Picking his toes and breathing sweet air.
Not a care in the world worries his mind
As a fly buzzes in the lapse of the wind;
The sun is his clock, and life is his time,
And sighing with Nature, he whispers,
Amen.


So, hmmm. What was I like in high school? I am still not really sure how to answer that question. I guess I was a daydreamer. There are parts of who I was back then that have faded or are hidden from me. I wish I could get them back. Perhaps I can. Perhaps we all can.


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Markam

July 12th, 2021

I was not supposed to be here; Markam was strictly off limits to “foreigners”. And yet here I was, after a several days of walking and hitchhiking on precarious mountain roads that wound over steep mountain passes and along deep, cliff-strewn ravines.

It was not a very large town, but it was not a mere village, either; there was a central paved boulevard lined with buildings that were in places as many as five stories high, and even a few restaurants, though not at all of the sort I’d seen in the country of my birth. The truck I’d caught a ride on, having brought up a huge haul of fresh cabbages and pumpkins from farmlands in the valleys of northwestern Yunnan, was ending its run in Markam. We pulled in at just after nightfall, and there were streetlights painting the main drag yellow—the first streetlights I’d seen in over a week.

The other “hitchhikers” were locals coming home to the region from work or business trips; the long-distance busses in this part of eastern Tibet were too infrequent and expensive for that to be a reliable form of public transportation, so most people paid haulers like our truck driver, either with barter or money, to get from town to town. In my case, I had nothing to trade and no skills deemed valuable up here, so I paid cash. It was still dirt cheap, from my perspective.

My comrades of the last couple days’ ride said their goodbyes, mostly in Khams Tibetan but one or two of them in the Lhasa dialect; only one of them spoke Chinese—the driver—and he spoke it only to me, since I spoke virtually no Tibetan at all. He also was the only one wearing the typical Chinese-style army green duds you see in the countryside all over the place, “the uniform of the people” or “peasant clothing” it’s sometimes called, and which is often dark blue instead of olive drab, though he was also Kham and had mentioned he'd grown up in the area. He was kind enough to point out the local zhaodaisuo for me, which are a bit like a travelers’ motels. Sort of. Anyway, I needed my student I.D. to stay in one, which I had (that was back before I’d lost it). I thanked him and said farewell in Tibetan (the Lhasa dialect, I later learned), shrugged my heavy bag onto my shoulder, and made my way up the street to the sign he’d pointed out.

The elderly married couple running the zhaodaisuo looked very nervous and more than a little alarmed when I walked in the door. With good reason: Never mind that fact that I was likely the first foreigner they’d seen in Markam in years, or perhaps ever; most importantly, this region was off limits to foreigners back then, as I mentioned, so I was breaking the law by even being there. They were therefore very reluctant to let me check in, as they would be breaking law, too.

They told me to wait in the foyer, such as it was, while they went back into an office of sorts and conversed in low tones in a regional Chinese dialect. I only caught a few words.

At length the husband came out to address me; his Putonghua, or Mandarin, was more fluent than his wife’s. Speaking very slowly so that I could understand, he told me normally they would say “no”, given that it was illegal to house foreigners, but that it was going to be a cold night and there were no hotels in Markam, so they would allow me to stay one night—provided I left before sun-up. My Chinese was not very good, but after repeating some of those points a few times, I got the gist of what he was saying. He also said he would have to keep my passport and give it back to me in the early morning when I left, for security reasons. This was normal, so I handed it over, thanking them both profusely for allowing me to stay. It occurred to me that I really would have been screwed if they’d said “no” (I had not exactly planned this journey ahead very well). The wife smiled and led me up to my room. It was a very small one, out of the way, at the very end of the hallway up on the fifth floor. There was a clean single bed and a desk with a small chair next to the barred window that looked down onto the back courtyard. After I’d gotten settled, she brought me a large thermos full of hot water for tea (all zhaodaisuo rooms have green tea leaves provided, as well as a mug and a thermos of hot water like this).

I found an eatery a block or so away that let you choose which vegetables you wanted in your dishes; I had youcai (canola greens and flower buds I think?) with rice, and another dish of scrambled eggs with chunks of fresh tomato. It was delicious, and familiar; I’d had fare like this in Yunnan a lot.

That night I fell asleep to the faint sound of drunken karaoke singing, somewhere down the street. It did indeed get cold, and I covered my head with the faux-silk-covered comforter. When the proprietor came up to very apologetically wake me up at around 4:30 in the morning, the stars were out and there wasn't even a hint of sunrise on the horizon yet.

He handed me back my passport, wished me a good journey in Chinese, and I said thank you and set out. There was no one else on the street as I hurried along the main drag, and soon I’d left the streetlights behind and was out on the vast plain, high above tree level (which I had been for days). The sky was jaw-dropping; I could see the stars and dust of the Milky Way so clearly there were colors. The dirt road was covered in patches of ice where the water had drained across it during the day, and my feet crunched loudly as I walked. A little ways out of town, I was beset upon by a pack of dogs.

But that’s a story for another time.


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