fishtail-mountain

Fishtail Mountain

Dorje, a ten year old Tibetan boy living in Kathmandu, loves flying kites. He makes a kite to impress his father but it is faulty and will not fly. Disappointed by his lack of skill, Dorje wants to throw the kite away. Then a tiny face appears in it and begins to utter mysterious words. Soon the kite disappears and Dorje seeks the help of his friend Lama Geshe, a wise Tibetan monk.

Will his friend, the Lama, be able to give him satisfactory answers to his numerous questions? Is his kite as mysterious as it seems? Has Dorje crossed some inexplicable boundary? Will his life ever be the same again?

On his quest to find his kite - and himself - Dorje is drawn into a world of strange encounters, animal sacrifices, sacred Buddhist texts and secluded mountain monasteries. But along the way, Dorje will have to confront something much deeper. He will have to learn to trust himself.

 

 

You can also read the first chapter of the book below:

 

FISHTAIL MOUNTAIN

 

I

'My kite this year is going to be better than Sangye's,' Dorje told his father. They were going to buy some lokta paper from the market in the centre of Kathmandu.

     'Oh, yes? Why do you say that?' his father replied, tugging at his moustache, watching his son from the corner of his eye.

     'Because I'm ten-years old.'

     His father laughed and shook his head.

     'You boys! When will you and your brother stop competing with each other?'

     'He started it!' Dorje exclaimed. 'Just because he's three years older, he teases me all the time. I'm always too young or too small to do anything, so I'm going to show him that I can make a better kite than his.'

     'I'm sure Sangye isn't teasing you.'

     'Yes, he is! This morning he told me he couldn't wait to see the mess I'd make. He said it would look like a girl's kite.'

     His father chuckled.

     'Well, let's start by buying the paper, then we can go home and make it together.'

     Dorje stopped in his tracks, looked at his father's jutting teeth, and shook his head.

     'No. This year I'm going to make it all alone.'

     His father stopped walking, too, and turned to look at his son.

     'Are you sure?'

     'Yes, I know how to do this. All my friends make their own kites.'

     His father shrugged and continued walking.

     'All right, if you feel ready to do this, then I'm sure you'll do a good job.'

     Dorje nodded as he followed his father.

     After a ten-minute walk through muddy, tight, winding streets, they reached the market and found the paper stall; a whole array of colours piled up before them on the wooden stand. Dorje's fingertips tingled with excitement, his lips parted. All that paper! All that wonderful paper in every imaginable colour - fiery orange shades, rusty browns, mossy greens and steel blue hues danced before his eyes. He wiped his palms on the side of his trousers and started handling the sheets of lokta.

     Dorje spent a long time sifting through them but, in the end, he decided on red. He liked red. In fact, he liked red a great deal. And this particular red had thin fibrous strands of gold running through the weave of the paper that caught the sun as he picked it up.

     'This is the one I want,' Dorje held up the paper for his father to see. 'It's thick. It won't break with the wind.'

     'This looks very much like the lokta I used one year when I was about your age,' his father said, taking some coins out of his pocket, handing them to the owner of the paper stall.

     'Really? You used lokta too?'

     'Oh yes, always. There's no better paper for making kites.'

     'Did Grandfather Jiang Jup use it, too?'

     'No, they didn't have lokta in Tibet. He only discovered it when his family took refuge here, in Nepal.'

     The stall owner gave them the change, and father and son made their way home through the soggy, dirt-covered streets.

     It was now the beginning of September and the weather was mellow, the sky a crisp aquamarine; the wind cool and refreshing. Colossal raindrops had fallen relentlessly throughout the summer leaving behind them dirt-infested puddles, gaps in the road like split pomegranates. Dorje jumped over one of them, nearly dropping the red paper on the damp road.

     'That was close,' his father said raising his eyebrows.

     'Yes, it was.' Dorje glanced at the red paper, tightened his hold on it. He could already imagine the kite he'd make.

     This year, for the harvest festival, Dorje wanted to show his friends and his brother that his was the strongest, fastest kite of all, able to swoop, rise, fly alongside the very best.

     They walked through winding streets flanked by countless little shops – the greengrocer, the copper pots and dishes shop, even the dentist's. Dorje flinched as he saw the glass shelves behind the display window full of dentures; he always thought they looked like ghosts grinning at him. He could see a lady sitting inside, head bent back, hands in a tight ball in her lap, mouth open wide. The dentist in his white gown examined her teeth. Every building they went by released its own smell: garlic, turmeric, cloves, frying onions, butter. The smells of cooking made his mouth water.

     They reached their small red brick house. His father left him at the doorway and went to his clothes' shop to work. Dorje sat on the grey stone kitchen floor and touched the red paper with the tips of his fingers. He rubbed his chin and wondered where he should start.

     He picked up two sticks of equal length that he had found leaning against a wall, in a pile outside one of the monasteries on Swayambhu Hill. He put them together, tying the sticks with a bit of string to form a cross. He surrounded the cross with sticks, fixing them one piece at a time, until he'd formed a diamond shape. So far, his kite looked as it should.

     Next, he unrolled the paper he had bought with his father. Dorje placed it on the diamond shape. The rough, grainy paper felt like thick cotton. He glued the sticks to the paper and held them down so the kite would not come apart. He attached a string to the centre of the cross. This led to a big reel with two spools either side.

     His kite was ready.

     He left it propped up against the kitchen entrance wall, where he knew his father would see it. He narrowed his eyes and smiled. Yes, his kite was perfect.

     A little before lunchtime, his father came home and took off his shoes. His mother, who had been cooking rice, dhal and meat momos in the minuscule kitchen, came into the low-ceilinged living room to greet her husband. Dorje watched her as she wiped her wet hands on her stripy apron, smoothed her black hair back and smiled at her husband.

     Dorje, who was sitting on the kitchen floor again, remained seated.

     'Ta-shi deh-leh, my husband.'

     'Ta-shi deh-leh, Kamala.'

     'How was your day? Did you sell anything?'

     'Yes. Four silk chuba dresses, three chuba shirts and three aprons. Everyone is getting ready for the harvest festival.'

     'That is good,' his wife replied. She turned her head to where the kite was resting and walked over to her son. She rubbed his cheek gently with her hand; her fingers were small like a child's but rough from all the work she did in the house.

     'I think someone left something for you,' she said with a faint laugh, and left the room.

     His father's eyes sparkled like small ebony beads as he noticed his son's handiwork. He picked it up and examined it from every angle.

     'What do you think, Dorje? Shall we try it out?' his father asked him.

     Dorje hesitated for a moment, then got up and together they went to the roof of the house.

     There was a slight wind. Dorje gripped the kite, while his father held the large reel of string.

     'Hold it up as high as you can. Make sure your grip is firm, until you feel a strong gust of wind, then let it go.'

     Dorje nodded, curled his fingers tighter around the kite. He felt a tug and glanced at his father's anxious face.

     'Now!'

     Dorje let go.

     His kite swayed from side to side then fell abruptly to the ground.

     'Let's try one more time,' his father said as he picked up the kite. He handed it to his son. 'Hold it higher.'

     Dorje tightened his fists and gritted his teeth with the effort. He was about to let go when his father stopped him.

     'Wait a minute. Something's not right with the string. It doesn't seem even somehow.' His father creased his eyebrows as he studied the kite. 'I wonder why I didn't notice this before,' he said, and tugged at the string pulling it this way and that, but it wouldn't settle in the right position. His father gave him a gentle smile.

     'This is a good effort, Dorje! It's a strong kite, but we just need to reposition the string or else it won't fly. And it could do with a tail.'

     Dorje's body stiffened for a moment and his breathing became rapid. Then, without a word, he ran downstairs and out of the house. He could hear his father calling after him.

     'Hey! Where are you going? Come back, and we'll fix it together! Dorje! Come back!'

 

Dorje burst through the front door, ducking to avoid the thick wooden lintel, and found his grandfather sitting outside the house on a rickety stool, gazing at the people going by. His grandfather opened his arms wide.

     'My little Dorje! Come here so I can hold you! I don't see you for a few hours and you grow up to look like a man!'

     He fell into his grandfather's arms, burying his head in his chest. His grandfather pushed him away lightly and looked into his dirty tear-stained face.

     'What's the matter, my Little Thunderbolt? What are these tears for? Tell your old granddad what's making you so sad.'

     The boy told his grandfather about his kite, and the old man looked at him for a moment and sighed. His long, thinning white hair fell over his shoulders in a frail pony tail; it was dishevelled. His turquoise and coral earrings hung from his droopy ear lobes; they had stretched over the years and made Dorje think of melting clay.

     'I'll never be able to make a kite. I'm useless. Pa Lags was right to tease me, and Sangye will never stop laughing! If only I were a few years older, I could make a kite that actually flew!' he cried.
'Ah, Dorje, if only all problems were this simple. Of course you can make a kite! You must go back and fix it. Your father wasn't teasing you. Ask him to help you. I'd help you out, only my fingers aren't as nimble as they used to be.' He wiped his grandson's cheeks with his palm. It felt warm on his cheek. He gazed at his grandson with watery eyes.

     'No, Grandfather Jiang Jup, I want to do this alone.' The boy got to his feet and sprinted away towards the Bagmati River, where he always went when he was upset. He stood on one of the river's bridges watching the brown-coloured, murky water floating underneath him until he was calm.

 

Before lunchtime, Dorje went home. His grandfather was no longer sitting outside the house. He entered the empty living room. He stood beside the kitchen entrance for a while, listening for noise. He couldn't hear anything so he crept into the kitchen to see. It was empty. The meat momos, like inflated crescent moons, waited on a plate ready to be steamed. They were luminous, doughy, inviting. He walked up to the stove. The pot of dahl simmered rhythmically. Dorje lifted up the rough metal lid and peeked inside. It smelt good, and he felt hungry. He looked at the orangey-brown colour of the lentils bubbling up and down, replaced the lid and searched around for something to munch on.

     Dorje found a dried piece of chapatti bread, left over from the morning, which he quickly nibbled. However, he was still hungry, so he went in search of something else to eat, but instead of food he noticed his kite. The red stood out against the grey kitchen floor.

     His little fists curled tight, his lips gathered together at the centre of his face, his breathing became loud.

     Why didn't it work? Why?

     He walked to the kite, picked it up in his hands. He would throw it to the ground. That's where it belonged. He would stamp on it; grind it to fine red powder. Dorje held the kite high above his head, ready to smash it, when something inside the actual grain of the paper caught his eye. He squinted.
That's very strange, he thought.

     He moved his face in closer to the kite, so that his nose almost touched the paper.

     'Ah!' he cried, dropping the kite to the floor. 'There's a face in the kite! And it's smiling at me!'

     Dorje stood very still, unable to move for some minutes.

     What had just happened? Did he really see what he thought he'd seen? He couldn't have, could he?

     He bent over the kite and studied it. Could his kite be in some way special?

     'No, no, no,' he muttered. 'I'm useless. So is my kite. I just imagined it.' He shook his head and continued staring at the kite. It looked normal. Nothing unusual or strange appeared in the paper.
The boy picked it up again and climbed the narrow wooden stairs to the room he shared with his older brother. He sat on his bed, holding his little failure tightly. He thought he should sulk for a bit.
He threw the kite to the floor, pushing it with his feet. Dorje rested his chin in his hands, and just sat there. He didn't do anything.

     'My brother will laugh at me,' he thought. 'He can make kites. He knows how to make perfect kites and he's bound to tease me in front of my friends.'

     'Why am I so stupid and clumsy?' he grumbled.

     This was a terrible disaster. His brother would never let him forget about his failure. That's all he could think about as he sat on the edge of his bed, feeling sadder and sadder with each minute. He would have sat there all day, oblivious to everything, were it not for the muffled sound he heard somewhere in the room. It was small, dry, scratchy. He couldn't make out where it was coming from. It startled him.

     'What was that sound?'

     It resembled a voice and yet was not like one. He listened closely to see if he could hear anything.

     'I'm imagining things. That wasn't a voice. Probably cats outside fighting over a mouse.'

     He lay down on his back and closed his eyes. Soon he was asleep.

 

For a few moments, Dorje didn't know where he was. He rubbed his eyes. The paper face loomed up in front of him. He could see its every detail. The red, scrunched-up paper mouth grinned at him, the wrinkly paper eyes blinked a few times.

     Was he dreaming?

     The voice told him something, a strange poem, almost like a chant, but it didn't make any sense. The voice said:

 

Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form.
Form is the same as emptiness, Emptiness is the same as form.
That which is formed is empty, that which is empty has form.
So it is also with sensation and thought and activity and consciousness.

 

     He felt his body rising but he wasn't willing it to. Was he really moving? Dorje felt like he was gliding without any effort at all.

     'I must be dreaming,' he barely whispered.

     A box materialised in his hands and he rummaged through it. He found a piece of paper and a pen, and wrote down the words he'd heard. He read them over and over again, but he could not make out what they meant.

     Suddenly, his body lifted off the ground, making him lose his balance.

     'What's happening?' he cried, but no sooner had he spoken than he found himself flying beyond the Kathmandu Valley on his red kite, towards the centre of Nepal, to the city of Pokhara and over the Annapurna Range, to Macchapuchre Himal, "Fishtail Mountain".

     Dorje's knuckles appeared white and angular as he held onto the edges of his kite, which had risen very high now. He glanced back over his shoulder at the mountain's two summits.

     They really do look like a giant fish's tail just above the water's surface, he thought.

     The face appeared in the kite again mouthing something. Dorje tightened his grip and tried to make out what the paper face was saying, but he couldn't.

     He felt an abrupt pull and the dream snapped away from him, like the heavy lid of a box shutting tight.

 

 Covered in sweat, he woke up, his breathing quick and uneven. He got out of bed and searched for the kite. It wasn't where he had left it. He looked towards his brother's bed. Nothing.

     Dorje went downstairs to the kitchen and saw his brother sitting on the floor eating with his parents and grandfather.

     'Finally, you've woken up!' his father exclaimed. 'We tried to wake you but you were snoring so loudly it made the house shake!' Everyone laughed, even Dorje.

     'Has anyone seen my kite?' he asked his brother, parents and grandfather. They all shook their heads. No one had seen it. Dorje's eyes narrowed as he looked at Sangye.

     'Are you sure you don't know where it is? A red kite with golden strands in it. You haven't seen it?'

     Sangye shook his head once more, his eyes round and open. 'Why would I need to take your kite. I've made my own.'

     Dorje looked at the floor.

     'Well, I left it on the floor by my bed and now it's gone. Where is it if no one's touched it? I want to fix it and I can't do that if I can't find it. A Ma, you didn't pick it up, did you?'

     'Why would I take your kite, Dorje?' his mother said, sitting cross-legged on the straw mat. Her colourful striped apron covered her knees.

     'Never mind,' he replied, and got up to leave.

     'Where are you going?' his mother asked. 'Aren't you hungry?'

     Dorje shook his head. 'No, I'll eat later. I'm going out for a walk.'

     He could hear his grandfather sipping the momo juice as he left the kitchen, went in search of his friends, but on his way to their house he changed his mind. They would, no doubt, be flying the kites they'd made and would ask him where his was; he didn't feel like telling them about his failure of a kite.

     Besides, there was only one person he felt like talking to right now. So he went to Swayambhu Temple.