TILLISHA
© 2002 by Wotan

TILLISHA - © 2002 by Wotan

It was perhaps the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. The turboprop moved towards the cloud-shrouded tops of the Himalaya, mysterious, and ghostly. Far below was the patchwork green of fields, and the tattered remnants of the forests of northern India, and southern Nepal. He could see the odd glow here and there of morning cooking fires fueled by yak dung. He could well imagine the people around those fires raising their eyes in the deep, bruised blue of the early morning light to the airplane high overhead, buzzing its way northward, like some sort of angry, giant wasp.

The closer one got to the Himalaya, the later that full morning light would come. Presently, he saw the sun finally appear between two far off peaks, almost instantaneously bathing the land far below in a warm, golden radiance, and crowning the peaks with a halo of gold that hurt his eyes to look at. He lay back in his seat, sipping at a coffee, and steeling himself for what lay ahead. The most important question entered his mind, quickly followed by others born of doubt. Certainly you find this beautiful now, but how will it feel six months from now, a year from now when you know you can't leave until the research is complete? When you are hours from the nearest village, and you know that any serious illness or injury will likely mean your death? Will it be beautiful then? He violently shoved these thoughts from his mind, and tried to think of the weather, the price of supplies, the availability of porters, anything at all. The problem was that every other thought seemed to lead directly back to the doubtful ones.

You know you can still back out. All you have to do is book a plane back to Delhi as soon as you land. I'm sure that the University will be understanding, and allow you to work on a different thesis. Face it, you are no George Schaller, or even Peter Matthiessen for that matter. Schaller, Matthiessen, the Hillards; they were all tough people, who could deal with this sort of thing. The most hardship you have ever had to endure was Scout camps where everything was provided, and you were just outside towns or villages. He took another sip of his (now cold) coffee, and did his best to clear his mind. It turned out that he didn't have to try.

At that moment, the intercom crackled, and the captain announced in his wooden tones, overlaid with the thick accent of the Indian Merchant caste, "Attention to all passengers. We will be approaching the Kathmandu Airport in less than twenty minutes. We will be needing you to fasten your seatbelts momentarily."

The landing was far smoother than he had expected; the only real hardship he had to deal with once on the ground was spending almost three hours with Nepalese customs. He showed them every scrap of paper he had brought with him from the University, as well as from the zoological society funding his research. They slowly, leisurely examined every document, talking amongst themselves in a native tongue that he couldn't possibly understand, pausing to ask him repetitive, and inane questions interspersed with dire warnings of the activities of Marxist/Maoist rebels in the Mustang region, and how this area was currently closed to tourists.

"Mr. Otis, I am not sure that you are fully aware of the delicate political situation this country is currently in. Since the loss of the Royal Family last year, most of the remote areas of this country have become quite dangerous. We may not be able to allow you to leave Kathmandu. As well, even if we do, you will have to have someone from the Royal University assist with your studies, this is the law." They continued, "Your letter states that Dr. Gyatso will be assisting you, if this is correct, we can allow you to leave once he arrives."

"Well, if you would allow me to call him, I am sure that his arrival here could be expedited somewhat."

"I'm afraid that that will not be possible. If you have made prior arrangements with him, I am sure that he will soon arrive. In the mean time, are you fully aware of what the Marxist rebels do to tourists that they capture? You will be their unwilling guest unless someone can pay a rather handsome amount of money for your release. Or more likely you will simply be shot."

He patiently explained to the agents once again that he was well aware of all of these things, and that his University had made arrangements months before. Their next question made him groan.

"Sir, your full name is Arthur Charles Otis, correct?"

Arthur repeated for the fourth time, "Yes, sir it is."

With the documents from his University, stating the purpose of his trip in their hands, they asked him for the fifth time, "And what is the specific reason for your trip to Nepal?" Mercifully he didn't need to answer this time, as Dr. Gyatso finally arrived.

A little while later, Arthur was sipping at traditional Nepalese tea with yak butter in a street café, seated across from Dr. Lopsang Gyatso. Gyatso was a small, slender man, about 5' 6" in height, with typical Sherpa features, the almond eyes, and skin as brown as a walnut. He sipped on his tea, speaking in low, almost melodious tones, his words clipped and precise. "I have arranged hotel rooms for both of us for several nights. Since I have been told that you have never visited Kathmandu before, it would likely be best if we always are to meet one another there." Gyatso took another sip at his buttered tea, and continued, "I'm afraid that the closest we will be able to get to the study area is Pokhara. If we are lucky, we can take the Tuesday flight on an Army supply aircraft. This gives us several days to purchase supplies. I trust that you have a fair idea of what you will need for the amount of time we will be in the area?"

"Unfortunately, Dr. Gyatso, since I have never been involved in such an undertaking before, I haven't much of an idea what is needed, or what I need to do for that matter. I had kind of hoped that you could give me a bit better of an idea as to those sort of things."

Gyatso looked at Arthur somewhat incredulously. "You mean to tell me you were sent over here with no real idea as to the hardships one could expect?" Gyatso sighed, and said, "This is very, very bad. I almost feel that I should contact your University, and inform them that this study cannot be done, that I will not be involved with it unless they are able to send a man with some proper wilderness experience, regardless of what academic qualifications he may have."

Arthur looked at Gyatso, unsure of what to say in response. After a moment, he tried the first thing, which came to mind. "I understand your concern, Dr. Gyatso. And I suppose that I have no real control over what you decide. Nevertheless, I find that I have reached the point where I care quite deeply about seeing this research performed. You can contact my University, and request another researcher, if that is what you feel needs to be done, and I suppose I will be on the next plane home. I myself have had many second thoughts about this, especially while on the flight here, but I feel that it can be done, and I also feel that I have the capability within myself to handle the physical rigours of this study. If you have me removed from this study, you know as well as I do that the bureaucratic hurdles that will have to be jumped over in order to get another researcher assigned to the project will take months, likely into the heavy snow season. I may not know as much as you feel I need to about the physical conditions I can expect once we are in the study area. However, I feel that I know enough to safely say that requesting another researcher at this stage will effectively delay the project for at least a year. Especially when one takes into consideration that the way into or out of the study area is likely to be impassable due to heavy snow for at least part of the year. I have my doubts that wild snow leopards can afford any more time wasted on their conservation efforts these days, especially with the current political situation in this Country."

Gyatso glared at Arthur, and replied, "Mr. Otis, you come from a wealthy, privileged country. You have little or no idea of the struggles of the simple people who live in deeply poor countries such as this one. I see many young westerners such as yourself come over here, as scientists, or students, or with aid organisations, or as tourists, telling us that we cannot live in certain ways which displease your sensibilities. You know nothing of my country, or of my people. You feel that there is an easy answer to saving wildlife such as snow leopards. You are taught to blame the decimation of the species on poor people who shoot them out of desperation for income; yet it was your people, people of western countries which ensured that poaching of these animals for their fur was profitable in the first place." Arthur opened his mouth, about to answer, but the look, which Dr. Gyatso gave him, made Arthur quickly close his mouth again. Gyatso wasn't finished speaking. Not by a long shot. "I was incredibly lucky that I was able to get into the Royal University, much less be able to pay for my education. The degrees I received, which I worked very hard for are neither recognised, nor accepted in any privileged, western country such as yours. I had to learn to speak English better than most for whom the language is their native tongue, just to even be able to get researchers from the more prestigious western Universities to speak to me. So, here I am right now, where I am supposed to be incredibly happy that I have been given the privilege of studying the wildlife of my own country. Under a foreign researcher from a foreign University no less, who hasn't the slightest clue of what to expect here, much less what he needs to do. Well, it seems that we are both in an untenable situation here. I wish to have this opportunity to study the snow leopards, yet through a foreign University, and under a green, inexperienced, rich boy, is the only way I will have this opportunity." Gyatso sat back, sipping at his tea, with a very sour expression on his face.

Arthur finally spoke again. "Dr. Gyatso, I won't insult you by claiming that I could ever fully understand your concerns. It would just be a waste of my time, and of your time. And I suppose that by the standards you are used to, I am indeed rich, privileged, and soft. I will tell you though, that at home, in my own country, I am far from rich and privileged. But as you so rightly point out, that is a different reality from your own. And if you want to despise me for what you think I am, that is also strictly your choice. My main concern was to have an opportunity to benefit wildlife. And certainly it is wildlife of your country, and perhaps you are correct in the idea that only people of your own country should study it. In an ideal situation, perhaps that would be the case. I have no interest in arguing, or fighting with you. My main interest here is performing research, and hopefully aiding conservation. And really, this is all that I can offer to you as any sort of defense, or explanation of my position. I just hope that you will think long, and hard about this before you make any sort of rash decision, which would delay, or scrap the research."

Both men sat in silence for a good ten minutes, finishing their teas, neither willing to break the silence, or give up their pride. Finally, it was Dr. Gyatso who spoke once again. "Very well, we will proceed with the study as planned, though I will tell you that I have very grave reservations about the whole situation. As well, you will have to learn to deal with the realities and hardships of the mountains very quickly, and pretty much on your own. I cannot, and will not divert my energies from the work required for the study to help you cope, nor will I expend any extra effort to save you, should you get into serious trouble. If you cannot save yourself, or find a porter to take enough pity on you, you will simply die. And this fact is viewed differently by my people than yours. We accept the very real possibility of instant, or lingering death with no hope of help as a reality of our life here. You will have to not only accept it, but fully understand it as well. For example, if you happen to fall while out in the field, and you shatter your leg, don't waste any of your energy in screaming for help, because it is not likely to come. Unless you believe in the Yeti, and you certainly don't want to attract him. No, you will either find a way to save yourself, and get back to camp, or you can spare yourself a great deal of pain, and use your hunting knife to cut your own throat."

Arthur did not respond this time. He realised that there was nothing more that he could say. Instead, he simply waited for Dr. Gyatso's next question.

"Now, Mr. Otis, if we want to make fairly decent time at getting things ready for the Tuesday flight to Pokhara, I would suggest that we start purchasing supplies immediately. As for hiring porters, I would suggest that we wait until we reach Pokhara. Anyone we hire here in Kathmandu would expect the prices that those who come here to climb Everest willingly pay. I doubt that your funding could maintain that level of cost for very long, am I correct?"

"As I am not sure what the going rate for porters is, Dr. Gyatso, I will have to take your word on that."

A bit later in the day, Arthur was given a reason to feel better about his situation. He had left Gyatso with enough money to purchase some of the supplies he judged that they would need for the next six months, Gyatso giving Arthur a long-suffering look that was very close to a sneer. Arthur had reasoned that things would be easier if they split up. In truth, the real reason was that he needed to get away from Gyatso for just a little while. Though he knew most of Gyatso's concerns to be totally correct, nevertheless, he found himself having lost a great deal of respect for the man. And on top of all of this, Arthur was feeling guilt at the idea that perhaps he had no right to such feelings in the first place. He aimlessly wandered the streets of Kathmandu, taking in its rich pastiche of smells, and sounds. A thin haze of smoke hung everywhere, smoke of yak dung, or incense, of cooking foods, and it wafted through his very being, underlain with more subtle scents of flowers, and fruits left as offerings in many of the temples he passed. The street scenes were the chaos of vendors beckoning him with their wares, milling people, colourful trishaws, beggars, and young women, girls, and boys giving him beckoning looks that informed Arthur that they offered more exotic, and lucrative services. Ones he had no doubt that many of the rich, bloated, white westerners of his country, and others like it were only too eager to purchase. Arthur was beginning to realise just how deeply, and effectively Gyatso's words had seared onto his mind. Everywhere he looked, he was unable to enjoy the things he was experiencing, rather he felt that he must look incredibly disgusting and flamboyantly rich to most of these people.

After a few moments, another vendor caught his attention. This vendor was not loud, and brash, like many of the others had been. Instead, he stood with a quiet dignity behind his table, underneath a maroon coloured parasol. As Arthur approached, the man grinned at him, showing teeth that were impossibly white against his walnut-coloured, heavily lined face. The look was enough to draw Arthur out of his sinking, depressed reverie. Arthur realised that he was close to one of the many temples, and Dharma Centres scattered throughout the city, and this vendor was selling white silk scarves, presumably to be offered as blessings within the temple. Arthur shrugged his shoulders, and decided to buy one. With no idea how much the vendor was asking for one of the scarves, he pulled out some rupees, and hoped that the amount would be enough. From the wide smile that the vendor gave Arthur when he handed over the money, Arthur guessed that it had been more than enough. The vendor said something to him while handing over the scarf, but Arthur was not able to understand it. He blinked once or twice, and the vendor motioned towards the nearby temple, smiling again.

Arthur draped the silk scarf over his left arm, and strode purposely towards the temple. He believed that he had once heard such temples referred to as "stupas". The stupa was a good size, topped with a dome, and a four-sided spire, colourful eyes of the Buddha below the thirteen steps of the spire staring outwards from all four sides. Long streamers were strung from the spire of the stupa to the sides of the dome underneath, and these streamers were festooned with hundreds of colourful prayer flags, each covered with inscriptions in Sanskrit writing. Arthur noticed a goodly number of people walking clockwise around the stupa, and spinning prayer wheels which were located on each pillar around the outside of the stupa. Arthur joined the people in their circumambulation of the stupa, and noticed that many were carrying silk scarves like he was, or other gifts of fruits or flowers. Arthur did his best to clear his mind of all distractions, and outside thoughts; joining the others in the chant, as he reached out to spin the first prayer wheel: Om mani padme hum! Om mani padme hum! The "hum" was drawn out as a meditative note, making it a true onomatopoeia. Arthur was unsure of whether he was beginning to attain enlightenment, as he continued his circumambulation of the temple, spinning the prayer wheels. He noticed that he was feeling something. Whether it was things he had brought with him, or it was the scents of incense and flowers surrounding the stupa, or whether it was the first spark of enlightenment, he couldn't guess. Nevertheless, the anger and frustration, as well as the guilt that Dr. Gyatso's words had placed within him seemed to melt away like spring snow, and in its place, Arthur felt the stirrings of a calm acceptance. With this acceptance, Arthur found that he was looking forward to going into the field, hardships or no hardships. The vision which came to him as he finished his clockwise walk around the stupa, and spun the last prayer wheel was an image of a snow leopard set against the snow, and stark grey rock of the Himalaya. The image had the quality of a professional photograph, an almost "over-real" quality to it. Arthur swore that he could discern every single hair on the cat's body, count its whisker spots, and even discern its unique, musky but pleasant odour. Though he had never touched one of these cats, he could feel its incredibly soft, fluffy fur under his hand. Om!

Arthur came back to reality moments later, realising that he had entered the stupa, the white, silken scarf still over his arm. He found himself removing his shoes, before he realised what he was doing, likely having noticed the neat rows of shoes lined up just inside the entrance. The scent of flowers and incense in here was quite thick.

Presently, Arthur found himself in a large room that was a step up from the entrance way where he had left his shoes. The ceiling maroon and saffron draped, and at the rear of the room was a wooden carving of the Buddha, which Arthur guessed to be 25 feet tall. The people ahead of Arthur were performing a series of three prostrations in front of the Buddha statue, and afterwards, they were moving towards a monk that Arthur assumed was a teacher, who was seated in the lotus position upon a meditation pillow. Those who had silken scarves were giving them to the teacher, who was in rare cases accepting them, but in most cases, he appeared to be blessing them, and returning the scarves to the people, draping them over their necks. As Arthur got closer to the altar, a nun approached where he was standing, and without thinking, Arthur reached out, and attempted to place some rupees in her hand as an offering. He immediately regretted doing this, as the she very quickly backed away from his touch on her hand, and gave him a polite smile, and bow of her head. Seeing the money still in Arthur's hand, she quickly motioned to one of seven offering bowls lined in front of the altar, before scooting out of the main room to a study, which Arthur noticed off to the side of large room. Feeling that everyone was looking with derision at the stupid foreigner, Arthur sheepishly made his way to the line of offering bowls, and looked for one, which had money in it. It was his luck that that wound up being the last in the row of seven, the others containing fruit, flowers, incense, and other items. Determined to try and salvage this experience, Arthur purposely attempted to clear his mind once again, and then he dutifully performed three prostrations before the Buddha.

Arthur knelt before the teacher a few moments later, his faux pas with the nun almost forgotten. Instead, he found himself thinking of the snow leopards again. The teacher had a kind, and wise look in his eyes, his lined, dark face breaking into a small grin as he took the silken scarf from Arthur's outstretched hands. The teacher held it for a few moments, meditating over the gift, and he then returned it to Arthur, draping it over his neck. Arthur left the stupa moments later with his heart light, and his mind clear, and accepting.

Arthur caught up with Dr. Gyatso back at the hotel several hours later. The silken scarf, which had been blessed by the teacher, was still around his neck. Gyatso looked at the scarf, and then gave Arthur an indulgent smirk. "Superstition." Gyatso muttered, "My family rejected those superstitious beliefs years ago, and I think we are better for it. But I guess that you are like most westerners who come here, who need their slice of exotic culture to make them feel better about themselves."

Arthur only smiled serenely, and shrugged his shoulders at Gyatso, still feeling the influence of the stupa within his mind. His first words were to discuss the supplies, which he had purchased today, and had arranged to bring to the airport on the day their flight was to leave, and to solicit Gyatso's opinion on how much more was needed. Gyatso may have insulted Arthur a few more times in the course of this, but Arthur was no longer paying attention. It was also possible that Gyatso noticed that he was no longer bothering Arthur with his words, and had merely lapsed into terse, factual answers.

The morning that the flight to Pokhara was to take off found Arthur standing near the runway next to a mound of boxes, crates, and bags containing enough to hopefully last himself, Dr. Gyatso, and their hired help eight months. When Arthur saw the army cargo aircraft that was to fly them to Pokhara, he felt real fear for the first time since visiting the stupa. The aircraft looked like it must be at least thirty years old, perhaps even older, and those years had obviously not been kind to it. It was a "sky-van", and as Arthur peered at it, he told himself that such an aircraft couldn't possibly get off the ground, and even if it did, it was sure to crash into the mountains long before the would reach Pokhara. Gyatso noticed Arthur's worried expression while he looked at the plane, and Gyatso grinned widely, and clapped Arthur on the back.

Arthur asked, feeling a little queasy, "Couldn't we just rent a truck, and drive to Pokhara?"

"It's five hours driving through the mountains, on a good day, and the roads are scarier than the flight. Trust me on this." Gyatso continued, "Just look at it this way, Mr. Otis. A good scare will bring you enlightenment quicker than a week inside a stupa! We could have taken one of the tourist airplanes, but they don't have room for all our gear." Arthur consciously ignored this, preferring instead to try and get back the serene state that the stupa had induced within his mind. He was only partially successful.

The sky-van did indeed take off eventually, and a little over thirty hair-raising minutes later, it bumped down on the newly paved runway of Pokhara. When Arthur exited the aircraft, he looked decidedly green, serenity or no serenity. When the supplies were unloaded, Arthur was able to look upon Pokhara, and explore it, such as it was. Kathmandu had not prepared him for this at all. Arthur wasn't quite sure what to think about what he saw around him. His only notion of Pokhara had been from old books he had read: books that had prepared him for a small, dirty, dusty town that was stuck somewhere in the seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries. He was prepared to see a quaint, stereotypically primitive Nepalese "Shangri-La" on the shores of Phewa Lake, with the beauty of the Annapurna peaks all around.

Instead, what Arthur saw was a curious mixture of what Pokhara had once been, and a bunch of new hotels, and resorts for western tourists, as well as stores, and bars; all sprouting up like poisonous toadstools. In a way, he found it gaudier, and harder to take than Kathmandu had been. Walking through the town a little later, after the gear had been stowed, Arthur saw at least a dozen western backpackers walking around town. The backpackers' new gear, flamboyant colours, loud talk, and laughter a jarring contrast against the visible poverty he saw that still existed in many parts of the town. He felt a little ill once again, to realise that he was basically the same as the loud, tacky backpackers. Just as visibly rich, just as western. And definitely no better, (what he felt was) his good intentions aside.

He was ruminating on these thoughts when Gyatso caught up with him, stating that he had hired porters, and that they would leave first thing in the morning. They would not go as far as Mustang itself, but to some wilderness areas to the southwest of that ancient city.

The morning dawned dull, and mysterious; a mist had come down from the Annapurna, and settled around the lake, and the town. The mist gave Arthur a very mystical feeling as he walked towards where he was to meet Gyatso, and the porters in preparation to leave. Arthur had shouldered a large pack, as ugly, and colourful as that of any other western tourist, and he had a gnarled staff to support him, should he need it in the trail. Presently, Arthur met up with the others. Gyatso stood in front of thirteen porters, all shouldering packs of varying sizes, the smallest packs on the backs of Hindu porters, who naturally considered themselves a higher caste than the Buddhist porters. Gyatso had a very surly expression on his face, and was snarling something at two of the Hindu porters, presumably in their own tongue.

Gyatso swung his withering gaze to Arthur, and said, "Perhaps you could learn to start arriving on time?" He jabbed at the Hindu porters with his thumb. "These sons of bitches are used to the money that the tourist backpackers throw at them, and have informed me that they won't take so much as a single step until we double the rate of pay that they had already agreed to when I hired them last night!" Gyatso said, a little loudly. The two Hindu porters began to expansively gesticulate, and argue with Gyatso in their own tongue, causing him to shout something at them in return. As soon as Gyatso shouted, both began to remove their packs, all the while loudly arguing with, and apparently cursing at Dr. Gyatso.

"Hey, both of you!" Arthur shouted at the two Hindu porters, his voice barking out above both theirs, and Gyatso's angry words. Arthur continued, "Do either of you speak English?"

"Of course we do. We couldn't make money serving the tourists unless we were able to speak," the porter on the left said. He was slightly older, and taller than the other Hindu porter who had been arguing, currently standing to his right was.

"Well, this is the problem," said Arthur, "You have to understand that we are here on a scientific study, and because of this our funding is limited. No one is forcing you to take this work, and we simply can't afford to pay you any more. If you aren't satisfied with the rate of pay we have offered you, we will just have to find new porters."

Gyatso glowered at Arthur, and said, "We don't have time to find new porters! We needÖ"

Arthur cut Gyatso off. "Dr. Gyatso, you know as well as I do that the funding is limited, if it comes down to it, we'll just have to make time! It is either that, or let the study suffer, and you have already told me that you are not prepared to do that, and neither am I," Arthur said, starting to get angry himself. He looked back at the porters, and addressed them once more; "It makes no difference to me. You can leave, or you can stay. We are already wasting precious time standing here and arguing about this. If you aren't interested in the pay, go now, because I need to spend the time finding new porters, rather than arguing in that case."

The younger porter on the right looked at Arthur, and said, "Alright, fine. I will carry this load for you as far as Kusma, the next town. But I will go no further than that without more money." He once again shouldered his pack.

Arthur looked at the other. "And you?" He asked.

The older porter shouldered his pack as well, and said, "You are in my country here, and have no right to talk to us like that! It is not right that people such as you should come over here, and take such advantage of us, by offering us such insultingly small amounts of money. I will only go because I need the money to support my family, but I will only go as far as Beni, which is the next town past Kusma. Unless you can give me more money there, I will have to come back here, because I can make more off of the backpackers."

"As you wish, then," Arthur sighed, "But I will explain to you, that the money we have was given as grants to perform this research with. This means that it doesn't belong to us. If it was my own money, and I was paying you from that, I would give you what you feel your services are worth, but I can't do that when it is not my money."

So the fifteen of them set off, the Hindu porters grumbling louder, and louder, the further along the trail they got. When they reached Kusma the next day, both Arthur, and Gyatso had had enough, paid the two Hindu porters, and told them to leave. Arthur felt a pang of guilty conscience at this, but realised that there was little else he could do. They lucked out into finding two Buddhist porters in Kusma, who were happier with the rate of pay, which Gyatso, and Arthur offered.

The four remaining Hindu porters started to complain, and demand more money as soon as the group left Kusma. By the time Arthur, Gyatso, and the others reached Beni, towards the end of the day they had left Kusma, Arthur again found himself hiring more porters. This time, he decided to stick with Buddhist porters, if any could be found. Again, luck was with them, and they were able to find four Buddhist porters in Beni, who seemed satisfied with the rate of pay offered. Arthur sincerely hoped that they would be, as the next town would be Jamoson, which was at least a five day trek north along the Kali Gandaki River, with the Annapurna at their right the entire way, and the Dhaulagiri at their left.

A message for Dr. Gyatso was also waiting when they reached Beni. It seemed that the Government had now forbidden them to use the original study area near Mustang, as it lay within twenty-five kilometres of the Chinese (Tibetan) Border. This area was now closed to all foreigners due to the ongoing political instability within Nepal. Gyatso was informed that they would have to shift the study area away from Mustang, and closer to Tscharka, or Muktinath. Arthur threw up his hands upon hearing this.

"Well, I guess it doesn't matter which area we go to, as long as it has some sort of snow leopard population," Arthur sighed. "Which of the two would you recommend, Dr. Gyatso?"

In the end, Gyatso decided that the Tscharka area would provide greater opportunity, as it was slightly wilder than the Muktinath area. So, with this decided, and hopefully with the last major roadblock behind them, the party set out on the five-day trek to Jamoson.

During the five days, Arthur was completely awed by the rugged, natural beauty around him. The Kali Gandaki River cut its way along a deep, flat-bottomed valley for most of its course, and the group followed this valley, finding the trail relatively easy for the most part. The main sounds to accompany fifteen pairs of feet tramping up the trail was the far off tittering of birds, and the lowing of occasional herds of yak or buffalo grazing the sweet grass of the river valley.

The sounds of the river itself would vary, between the low, quiet chuckling of the open, slow flowing stretches, to the full, throaty roar of the rapids. Occasionally, Arthur would see foreign rafters or kayakers come thundering down the river, braving its rapids. Such intrusions were quite jarring in the usual stillness.

Some days brought fluffy clouds overhead that sometimes turned the sky the purple of a fading bruise, and Arthur began to get his first real idea of how brutal the winter weather was likely to be higher in the mountains. The mountains, the earth and the sky themselves began to personify the snow leopard as a being for him. They possessed the same stunning beauty, yet not far under the surface there was the promise of teeth, of claws, of extreme fury.

Arthur still wore the white scarf, which had been blessed by the Holy Man back in Kathmandu, which now seemed like a lifetime ago to him. The scarf was no longer white, but where it touched the skin of his neck, the scarf had become a yellowish brown, as the grit, and sweat his body produced transferred to the scarf, and the ends of it were starting to fray, and turn a yellowish-grey colour.

True to their faith, the Buddhist porters stoically bore their loads, and did not complain. Arthur found himself spending more and more of his time speaking with the six or seven of them who spoke the best English, and less and less time walking alongside, and speaking with Dr. Gyatso.

And truth be told, Gyatso didn't mind this arrangement at all. It suited him just fine to limit his talks with Arthur to matters, which directly concerned the study.

Arthur found himself glad that the sheer amount of supplies they had to bring for the study had made them unable to take the flight directly from Pokhara to Jamoson. Even with the time, and the hardships of the trek on foot, he realised that he would have missed a great deal of the beauty of the trip.

The evening of the fifth day found Arthur, Gyatso, and the others in Jamoson. Jamoson was far less touristy, less western than Pokhara had been, but Arthur was still shocked to see an Internet café in the midst of ancient, Nepalese buildings. He was shocked indeed, but when Gyatso walked into the Café, plunked down some rupees on the counter, and began to check his e-mail without batting an eye, Arthur sighed, and did the same. Gyatso noticed Arthur's shock at the fact that Jamoson not only had electricity, and telephones, but Internet access as well, and he chuckled nastily.

"So sorry that you were still expecting the Stone Age here, Mr. Otis, but not to worry, you will soon have more than enough of that for your tastes. We will be staying here for two days so you can get used to the altitude. When we turn west towards Tscharka, we will be going up at least 1,500 more metres. If we were to leave today, I can guarantee that you would get severe altitude sickness. So, you may as well enjoy your electricity, hot showers, telephone, and Internet access while you are here, because this will be the last you see of any of this sort of thing. This is where we will see how tough you really are, Mr. Otis." Gyatso chuckled again.

Arthur didn't let Gyatso's words bother him, but he nevertheless took Gyatso's advice, and once getting his Hotel room for the night, he had a hot shower, made several quick telephone calls home, a leisurely meal, and Nepalese tea. The reality was finally sinking in that this would indeed be his last contact with modern civilisation for months. Arthur even watched some news on television for a little while, before turning the TV off, sighing in depression.

Arthur woke up in the middle of the night with his nose gushing blood. Cursing, Arthur staggered into the bathroom, and stood over the sink, pinching it for almost fifteen minutes before it stopped. Gyatso had not been exaggerating about the effects of the altitude, it seemed.

The next morning, he found himself visiting the local stupa with several of the porters, and with another white scarf. When Arthur presented the white scarf to the Holy Man, this time the Holy Man kept the scarf. Arthur was momentarily confused, but one of the porters explained to him was very good karma indeed.

For this reason, Arthur found himself in high spirits on the morning of the third day, when the party set out on the mountain trail towards Tscharka. The first few hours of the trail were by far the hardest. It went steadily higher, and higher, and Arthur found himself increasingly short of breath. Around noon, Gyatso shouted at him with disgust that his nose had started to bleed again. It was decided to stop for lunch while Arthur stanched the flow of blood.

Arthur was just finishing a sandwich when he saw it. Gyatso was nearby, and Arthur harshly whispered "Quiet!" and pointed about one hundred metres down the trail. Arthur heard Gyatso, and all of the porters stiffen as soon as they saw it as well.

Standing in the middle of the trail, and looking at them curiously was a snow leopard. Arthur could tell by the shape of its head, and its regal bearing that it was a male, and likely the local territory holder. The cat looked watched them for a moment, and suddenly Arthur sucked in his breath with a hiss.

The cat looked at them for a moment longer, and it then sniffed a rock close to where he was standing. The cat licked, and cheekrubbed the rock, and then he swung his body around, and lifted his tail. Arthur got confirmation that the cat was indeed a male a second later, when he could see the cat's ping pong ball-sized, fuzzy testes hike upwards, and the cat shot a fine jet of scented urine on the rock. As soon as the snow leopard did this, he promptly vanished off to the side of the trail.

Without thinking about what he was doing, Arthur got up, and walked over to the rock, where the snow leopard had just scent marked, and he bent over, and sniffed at the wet patch, drinking in the cat's musky scent. It was a scent, which bespoke wildness, and pure sexual power to Arthur. He turned back towards the group, to see Gyatso looking at him with something, which resembled disgusted amazement.

"Care to tell me why just you did that?" Gyatso asked, still looking at Arthur as if he might be an insect under a magnifying glass.

Arthur said the first thing, which came to mind, which also happened to only be about half of the truth. He replied, "Quite simple, Dr. Gyatso. Back at the University, my Supervisor Professor told me quite some time ago that the secret to success in field research is observation. He said that very early on, you should judge which of your senses is strongest, and concentrate on using, and improving that sense. In my case, my sense of smell has always been my strength. You may not believe this, but now that I know how this cat smells, if I find more scent-marks during the study, I will be able to determine whether they are from a male or female cat."

"Bosh!" Gyatso spat. "If you really believe that, you are a moron. No human's nose is sensitive enough, and besides, that could never be considered scientific data."

"I didn't say that I intended it to be, Dr. Gyatso." But what I did mean was that I will find it useful for predicting the home ranges of each study cat. Give me a chance to prove it to you, and you will eventually see I am right," Arthur stated. Gyatso's only reply this time was an explosive guffaw.

Arthur couldn't tell Gyatso the full truth. There was no way. The full truth was that when the male snow leopard looked at Arthur, Arthur suddenly felt its greenish-yellow eyes seem to bore right into his soul, and Arthur felt for a moment that the cat was trying to tell him something. But of course, that was silly, wasn't it?

Nevertheless, Arthur couldn't get the thought of the cat out of his mind for the remaining day and a half before they finally reached the study area, and began to set up camp.

The snow leopard had seemed to say within Arthur's mind: I will be seeing you again soon. He could not say that the thoughts had been in English, much less in words at all. It was more like images. Nevertheless, Arthur had understood the thoughts for what they were trying to say. If Gyatso noticed Arthur seemingly brooding for the rest of the afternoon as camp was set up, and the porters were paid, and sent home, he didn't say anything. In fact, he may have relished it. Nevertheless, Arthur was able to convince two of the porters to stay on as cooks and/or research assistants, explaining to Dr. Gyatso that the funding allowed this.

The first two weeks of study were mechanical drudgery for Arthur, and mostly involved mapping out the study area, and checking for scrapes, droppings, urine marks, and/or the remains of kills. Though Gyatso was far more at home in the terrain of the study area: treacherous cliffs, mountainous ravines, and rocky crags, it was Arthur who seemed to have far more luck in finding signs of cats. When he would find a urine spray mark, Arthur would sniff it, and tell Gyatso whether the cat was male, or female, and whether he felt that it was a territory holder. For the first three days, Gyatso spent most of his time ridiculing Arthur's efforts, but as Gyatso began to see that Arthur seemed to actually be correct in his instincts, Gyatso's laughter, and ridicule was slowly replaced with stony silence, and perhaps a little irritation.

Arthur and Gyatso began working separately at this point, and only sharing observations with one another at the end of each day. The almost palpable tension in the camp lessened somewhat with this understanding.

Each passing day now was bringing more and more ponderous, grey skies, and Arthur knew that the snows would soon begin to hit. He found himself huddled deeper in his sleeping bag each morning, as the chill of early morning this high up in the mountains seemed to settle right into his bones.

There came one particular morning, after the first, fine snows had began to fall, that there had been a light dusting of snow during the night, and Arthur awoke early, with an aching bladder. He threw on his heavy, winter clothes, as well as his fur-lined parka, and boots and he stepped outside of his tent. The first thing he saw in front of the tent flap made him stop dead with wonder.

Clearly outlined in the snow was a perfect set of snow leopard tracks, which led directly towards his tent. The tracks stopped right in front of his tent flap, where the tracks showed that the cat clearly stopped for a moment, and sniffed at his tent flap and/or looked in. The tracks then moved to the front corner of the tent, where they stopped again, turned around, and there then were two long trenches dug in the snow, obviously by the cat's rear paws. Frozen to the nylon fabric of the tent was a splatter, and downward runnel of liquid, which made a small, frozen, yellow pool in the snow.

Slowly, dreamily, Arthur scooped up some of the yellow snow, melted it in his palms, and brought the urine to his nostrils. Although, his nose really didn't need to tell him what he had already instinctively knew. The spray mark had been made by the same male, which they had seen on the way into the study area.

By this time, Arthur's bladder was screaming at him, and could no longer be ignored. Moments later, he made his own scent mark against a tree. What he didn't know was that the cat was still nearby, watching him, and less than a minute after Arthur zipped up his fly, and began trudging back to his tent, the male appeared, as quickly, and as silent as a phantom, and overlaid Arthur's scent mark with his own.

When Gyatso awoke about a half-hour later, and saw the tracks, and spray mark around Arthur's tent, he would joke that Arthur had been claimed. He had no real idea how correct he would turn out to be with that.

After a camp breakfast, and Nepalese tea, Arthur, and Gyatso set out for their daily round of observations. When Gyatso returned later that afternoon, Arthur had not yet returned. Nor had he returned by dinner, or by the time he would usually retire for the night. The porters were immediately concerned, but Gyatso told them that there was no sense in worrying until morning. Arthur probably just got lost, or found himself unable to come back to camp before nightfall, and hence had to find shelter. It had already happened to himself once since the study began, and twice to Arthur. Every time so far, they both had managed to return to camp by the next day. Realising this, the porters were satisfied for now.

Arthur had left the base camp that morning, and had decided to explore the core area of what he felt was the male's territory. He found several scrapes, droppings, and spray marks during the morning, but nothing else of note. He could tell by the smells of the spray marks that two of them had been made by the territory male, and three others had likely been made by a female, likely one of the mates to the territory male. Her scent lacked the musky sweetness that Arthur somehow, instinctively knew would be the mark of her oestrus. Arthur had no idea, and no sense that he was being followed, and observed the whole time he was walking through the male's territory.

One thing still bothered Arthur, though. He and Gyatso had now been in the study area for over two months, and had determined that the territory of the stud male was overlapped by at least three other females. They had also determined that there was at least one sub-adult male in the vicinity, yet neither he, nor Gyatso had yet come across evidence of a kill. They had seen blue sheep aplenty, and other mountain ungulates, which the snow leopards were likely feeding on, but not so much as a scrap of crow-pecked bone and hair anywhere.

All of these concerns weighed heavily on Arthur's mind as he finally decided to stop for lunch, sitting on a boulder, atop a steep slope of rocky scree, which led down into a steep ravine with a small, mountain stream running through it.

Arthur sighed, and began to eat one of the sandwiches he had brought with him, and he was chewing on his third bite, when he suddenly felt something furry brush against his back, and then something cold, and wet touch the back of his neck. Arthur jumped up, his lunch flying, and looked around, directly into the eyes of the male snow leopard, who had crept up behind Arthur as he sat on the rock, and was currently standing with his front paws up on the boulder.

However, Arthur had moved, and turned a little too fast, and his right foot slipped in the rocky scree. Arthur's ankle suddenly turned over with a sickening, silver bolt of pain, and he fell, rolling, and tumbling down the slope, his body being battered, and bruised, and his clothing torn. He landed in a heap at the bottom of the ravine, the lower half of his body in the icy water of the stream.

Arthur gave a sobbing moan, as he grabbed his injured ankle, and he looked up to see the snow leopard bounding down the slope after him, its paws causing miniature landslides in the rocky scree with each bound. As the cat came closer, Arthur felt its thoughts once more, and this time there was no mistaking whatsoever what the images signified.

Now, that was very silly. The snow leopard said to Arthur.

Moaning in pain, Arthur sent back a similar thought, without really trying to, much less thinking it strange that he should be able to do so. Not that you were any real help! Arthur snapped back at the cat.

The snow leopard responded by moving over to where Arthur lay, and gently nosed and licked Arthur's injured ankle. The cat then nuzzled, and cheekrubbed Arthur's chest and neck. Without thinking such an act perhaps quite foolhardy with a wild predator, Arthur ran his fingers through the snow leopard's velvety, fluffy fur. The cat looked into Arthur's eyes again, and sent a thought that simply said, "Sorry."

Arthur could feel his ankle swelling, and he knew that he wouldn't be walking anywhere at all for at least a little while, much less climbing out of this ravine. He proceeded to remove his boot, and sock from his right foot, remembering that someone told him in his youth that that was exactly the wrong thing to do, as he would not be able to get his boot back on after the ankle finished swelling. Screw that, Arthur said to himself, Whoever said that didn't know how damn much this hurts right now.

Arthur winced in pain at the action of pulling his sock off of the foot. After his foot, and ankle was exposed, he rolled up the pant leg, and stuck his right foot in the icy cold water of the stream, hissing a little at the feel of the bone-numbingly cold water on his swelling ankle. While he was doing this, the snow leopard stuck close by in seeming concern. Arthur sent a thought to the cat again.

"Well, whatever your intentions may, or may not have been, I'm injured now, and I won't be able to climb back out of this ravine for a little while," Arthur said to the snow leopard in the manner, which he was now becoming accustomed to. "I don't think my ankle is broken, but I'm pretty sure that it will be at least a few hours before I can properly walk on it again, and when you startled me, I left all my food at the top of this ravine. I wish I had it now, but I suppose that it will feed the crowsÖ"

Before Arthur had finished this thought, the cat had bounded away again. He returned down the slope moments later with Arthur's lunch bag held in his jaws.

"The crows hadn't found it yet," the snow leopard said to him.

"Good, I really appreciate that." Arthur thought for a moment, finding himself in a more conversational mood, now that the icy cold water was doing its work, and had numbed the pain of his ankle. He asked the cat, "Why have you been so interested in me?"

Arthur found the snow leopard's thoughts a little easier to understand all the time: they were becoming more like complex language within his mind. The cat answered, "I have seen quite a few of your species come here into my territory in the past, and some of them came to study me, and my mates. So, I decided that I would like to study you. From what I can see of your physique, and smell from your scent-marks, you are a prime male specimen of your species, and likely would be a territory-holder if you were not clearly a nomad right now."

Arthur was just about to protest that what the cat was telling him was downright silly, but the realisation suddenly struck him like a thunderbolt: the cat was stating back to him some of the very same opinions, and attitudes, which humans used to view, and study other species. The snow leopard came closer to Arthur and cheekrubbed him again, and then looked directly into Arthur's eyes. Arthur decided that it would be prudent to speak to, and deal with this animal like the sentient, intelligent being he clearly was.

The snow leopard laid down in front of Arthur, and Arthur found that he had a close-up, and clear view to the cat's fuzzy testes again, and the black tip of his sheath right underneath the scrotum. Arthur could see a small, pink spot in the centre of the cat's black sheath tip, and Arthur suddenly found that he couldn't take his eyes off of this. The cat looked at Arthur with what might have passed for amusement, and as Arthur stared at the snow leopard's genitals, for some reason, he started to feel a heat growing in the lower part of his gut, and slowly spreading to his groin.

There was perhaps some subtle change in Arthur's smell, and the cat did not fail to detect this. As Arthur continued to look, he saw the pink spot in the centre of the snow leopard's sheath tip grow larger. He then saw the tip of the cat's pointed, pinky finger sized penis emerge, slowly, majestically stealing its way outwards, poking its smooth head out of the sheath, and the prepuce rolling back, as the cat's member became erect.

The snow leopard's penis suddenly flicked, and lurched, and Arthur saw a jet of clear, watery pre-ejaculate spray from the tip. Still looking at Arthur bemusedly, the cat cocked his back leg behind his head, and began to sensuously lick at his now fully erect penis. The heat in Arthur's groin grew, and he was surprised to find that his own penis was as stiff as a rail-spike. Without thinking about what he was doing, Arthur tried to move forward, and touch the cat's erect penis. However, as soon as Arthur moved, his growing arousal ground to a screeching halt, as the movement caused another bolt of pain from his injured ankle. Arthur moaned, but not in pleasure. The snow leopard stopped licking at his penis, lowered his leg, and began to lick at the pads of his front paws.

Feeling a little foolish, Arthur decided to try, and restart the conversation. "So, what interests you most about human males?"

The snow leopard raised his head from his current business with his front paws, and moved with an eerie, fluid speed, which was almost impossible to follow. The cat bounded towards Arthur, and suddenly buried his muzzle firmly in Arthur's crotch. The cat sniffed, and licked at the front of Arthur's pants, and then pulled his head back, performing flehmen, with his mouth slightly open, and his tongue hanging out. Almost against his will, Arthur's arousal returned despite the renewed throbbing in his ankle, and another groan escaped him. The answer that the snow leopard then gave him didn't really surprise Arthur.

"I want to find out more about your sexual behaviour," the snow leopard told him, and Arthur could have sworn that if the cat had been human, it would have been laughing.

The snow leopard reached out with his front paw, and hooked one of his claws over the waistband of Arthur's pants, and said, "I would like to start with an examination of your external genitalia. Let's have a good look at them."

Arthur gave a sobbing moan, and scrabbled to unbutton, and unzip his pants, pushing them down towards his knees, no longer noticing the angry twinge his ankle gave at this movement. As Arthur lowered his pants, and underwear, his penis was pulled downwards by the waistband of his pants, and when it was free of them, it sprang back upwards, slapping against his lower belly. The cat responded by jamming its muzzle directly against the shaft of Arthur's penis, sniffing, and licking upwards towards the head.

"OhÖ God," Arthur moaned.

"Interesting. Penis, and testes are not fur covered, and the penis is not protected by a sheath in your species," the snow leopard said, while sniffing, and licking at Arthur's scrotum, and then working his way up the shaft again." Arthur could only groan again, and reach down with his right hand and fuzzle the snow leopard's right ear. He could feel his orgasm start to slowly approach, as the cat sniffed, and licked at his penis a little more, its raspy tongue causing lightning bolts of sensation through Arthur's entire system.

"Penis is far larger, and thicker than that of my own species, and the length of stimulation prior to ejaculation seems to take longer." The cat nuzzled, and gently nibbled at Arthur's throbbing member, causing Arthur's moans to become louder.

"The male makes strange vocalisations as his orgasm approaches, reminiscent of a blue sheep ram in rut," the snow leopard said, and at that moment, Arthur's orgasm exploded through his consciousness with the force of an atomic blast. He gave a sobbing, gobbling cry, and shot thick ropes of semen all over the snow leopard's muzzle, which the cat licked away with apparent relish.

"Semen is thick, with a gel phase, similar to that of blue sheep, and the male human loudly vocalises at orgasm." The snow leopard licked his chops; "In taste semen is similar to that of male snow leopards, but milder in taste, and a little less salty."

The cat moved away from Arthur's now rapidly wilting penis, and put his front paws on Arthur's chest, looking directly down into Arthur's eyes. Arthur suddenly felt sickened, and guilty at what had just happened, what he had allowed to happen. He was about to say something to the snow leopard, but the cat cut him off.

"Human males show strange, unexplained self-loathing at variations in their own sexual behaviour, not realising that these same behaviours occur in other species."

The snow leopard laid down beside Arthur and manoeuvered his body, so that his fuzzy testes and decidedly wet sheath tip brushed against Arthur's right hand. Without thinking, Arthur cupped the cat's testes in his hand, and stroked the cat's sheath, causing the snow leopard's penis to leap to life in Arthur's palm.

The cat looked at Arthur, and said, "I got some of the information I needed, now it is your turn, since you came here to study snow leopards, after all."

Arthur didn't need any convincing, and he strangely didn't bother to make any observations as he wrapped his lips around the snow leopard's smooth, pointed, pink penis. Although he did note the tangy taste, and the watery, milky consistency of the cat's semen seconds later.

Arthur raised his head moments later, and asked the snow leopard, with a wicked grin on his face, "Have you learned all that you wished to, sir?"

The cat gave Arthur a naughty look, and sent him a thought in answer, "No, I believe that I need more time to properly conduct the study." The snow leopard then gave Arthur a confused look, and said, "Although, I am not sure why you would call me "sir", as that's not my name. I am called Dharma Tillisha." (For some reason, the cat's thoughts translated to those two particular words in Arthur's mind.)

"I understand why you would be called Dharma, but why is Tillisha your second name?"

"I was born there. And it is a very long way from here. I had to travel for over a year before I found this territory. I am happy here." Dharma rubbed his fluffy, velvety fur against Arthur's side again, and asked, "Have you learned everything you wanted to know?"

Arthur's answer startled him. "I think you have taught me more than I have learned in an entire lifetime." Arthur smiled, and sighed, scratching at Dharma's ears, bringing a growling moan of pleasure from him. "I think I want to stay with you, and teach you everything you want to know."

Dharma gave no response, except to lick at Arthur's chin and nose, and somehow, nothing more needed to be said.

Arthur had been missing from base camp for three days now, and both of the porters were almost constantly suggesting to Gyatso that perhaps they should at least make some attempt to search for him. The only response Gyatso would ever give either of them would be to impatiently wave them away, stating, "We don't have the time or the resources to waste on that. The study is our most important concern right now. If he is capable of moving, he will eventually return, or find help in some other village. If he is dead, the Army can find him in the spring. Why should you worry about some stupid, rich boy who doesn't know this Country?"

The porters had decided that they would begin to look for Arthur tomorrow, no matter what Gyatso might say to them. The loss of the steady pay which they had been receiving, as Gyatso had clearly stated would be the penalty for such disobedience would hurt them deeply; especially since it was more money than they would see most years. Nevertheless, the "superstitious beliefs" which these people held, and which Gyatso so mercilessly scorned told them that to leave an innocent man to die was incredibly bad karma for them.

The next morning dawned, and the two porters were ready to leave to look for Arthur. Gyatso came out of his tent, and looked at the porter, who had become the cook.

"Why haven't you made breakfast yet?" Gyatso asked, standing in front of the cook with his hands on his hips, "I can't start on my day's work on an empty stomach."

"You can make your own breakfast this morning, Dr. Gyatso," replied the cook defiantly, "We are leaving to look for Mr. Otis. It's bad karma to leave him out there, no matter what condition he may be in."

"Fine, go!" Gyatso shouted, "You're both dismÖ" Gyatso trailed off as Arthur suddenly limped into the camp, his clothing torn, and filthy.

"What the Hell happened to you?" Gyatso asked, disgustedly.

"I fell down a ravine, and twisted my ankle quite badly," Arthur replied, "It took me some time before I was able to climb out again."

Gyatso threw up his arms, "This is why I told my superiors that the study should only be performed by people who were born in, and know this country well."

Arthur winced at his ankle, and said to Gyatso, managing to give him a serene smile, "I don't think you should fire the porters. You will need them to help you finish the study. Otherwise, you'll be by yourself for the rest of the winter. Even with your inborn knowledge of this country, I think I can safely say that that would be a very bad idea."

"Just what do you mean?" Gyatso asked

"What I mean is that I agree with you. I will not hinder this study any longer. You are clearly more capable at this work than I am. And besides, I now have all the understanding that I was really after. My future learning lies in a different direction than yours. Goodbye, Dr. Gyatso, and good luck." Arthur turned to leave.

"You're insane!" Gyatso sputtered. "It's winter now, and you will die in the snow before you reach Jamoson! And how dare you leave this project!"

Arthur took a few more steps towards the trail, in the opposite direction from Jamoson, and then turned, as another thought occurred to him, "I'm not going to Jamoson. And by the way, the remainder of the research funds are in a strong box in my tent." He fumbled in his pocket, and tossed Gyatso a key; "This will open the box. Feel free to take, and use any other of my possessions that take your fancy."

Gyatso looked thunderstruck. "But what am I supposed to tell the research committee next time I speak with them?"

Arthur chuckled at Gyatso, and replied, "Tell them whatever you want. Tell them the truth: I disappeared. Or, if you wish, tell them that the Yeti ate me because I chose to believe in superstitions. Goodbye, Dr. Gyatso, and again, good luck to you."

Arthur turned, and continued walking from the camp, with nothing but the clothes on his back. Gyatso was about to say something else, but what he saw next made him close his mouth in wonder.

As Arthur reached the far edge of camp, suddenly a large, male snow leopard appeared, walked over to Arthur, and rubbed against his leg. Arthur reached down, and playfully scratched at the cat's ears. Gyatso rubbed his eyes, refusing to believe what he had just seen. When he removed his hands from his eyes a second later, both Arthur, and the cat were gone. Gyatso looked at the porters and he saw that they were smiling, wonderment twinkling in their eyes.

Gyatso suddenly remembered some of the Buddhist teachings he had heard in his youth. Teachings he had rejected. And Gyatso had no idea what think, or say any more, except for the words that spilled out of his mouth, totally unbidden.

"Om mani padme hum" He felt the porters pat him on the back, and soon Gyatso began to smile too.

THE END.