Part 4 here
During the day that followed, young Praful could hardly contain her excitement from Yanai’s story. She poked and prodded her meager dinner with her slender fingers until her father, angry at the waste, took it from her. Praful hardly noticed. She floated on clouds of imaginings to her small room and lay down to a fitful night’s rest spent staring at the full moon and wondering what it must be like to fly to it. By the time the dawning sun awakened the great cities of China to the east, Praful was standing at her watering hole, bent at the waist, and gasping over muddied feet from her sprint through the woods. To her great delight, but no surprise, Yanai was already there, fully an hour before they would normally meet.
“How did you know I would be here early?” she asked.
“Perhaps I was awakened by the growling cats that probe the forest through which you ran,” Yanai answered.
Praful frowned and turned to peer into the dark thatch of trees behind her. “Don’t be silly. There are no cats here. I’ve never seen one and I come her every day.”
Yanai probed the soft earth at her feet with his proboscis. “Then what do you call those?” Carved into the mud, in a straight path that intersected precisely where Praful stood, were the footprints of a large tiger. “Male, from the smell of it,” Yanai said, his voice curling with indignation.
The single word was enough to shatter the air’s warm embrace and send shivers along the girl’s spine. With no more than a whisper, the elephant bent to his knees, allowing his companion to grab his ear and sit astride his back. Praful managed the ascent with the grace of a seasoned mahout. She sat there, eyes wide, before a broad grin seized her face, squeezing their muscles into a smile that risked causing her an ingestion of pre-dawn insects. Yanai turned, strode purposefully across the edges of the growing lake, and headed east toward the soon-to-be-rising sun. It took several minutes of this journey for it to register with Praful that they were moving, and the years of protocol in sitting quietly by the watering hole was being broken. She had never been so high, had never ridden on an elephant, indeed, had never been invited to do so. She’d long thought it an indignity to even ask.
“Where … where are we going, dearest Yanai?” she finally asked, as the lowest branches of trees tussled with her, trying to rid the elephant of its rider.
“That way,” he answered, pointing ahead with his trunk.”
“Well I can see that. I meant why are we going that way and what is there?”
“I thought it better to show you my uncle’s journey rather than continue to try to describe it. Besides, it is not safe for you here. The tiger looks for you. We must find another place.”
Praful was filled with two immediate gusts: one of excitement in seeing the story that had begun to grip her personified. The other was dread; she had responsibilities and the morning was short.
“But I cannot go with you,” she said. “I will be late for school.”
“School is for foolish, naked monkeys. You are neither.”
Praful again thought to object, but Yanai’s words were true. She was tired of being in school, tired of pretending not to be much more clever than the others so that they would not grow angry, tired of never making a friend lest she be discovered. Indeed, she was tired most of all of being a boy. Instead of giving voice to her rising fear, she closed her eyes and held tightly to her friend’s neck with her long legs. She was free, if only for a moment.
Before long, she came to the edge of what had always seemed a low hill in the distance. Up close, it was immense. “What is this place?” she asked.
“This is it,” said Yanai. “This is the path my Uncle Rajan took.” He tilted his large head to look up the slope. “It holds great promise and mystery … at least that is what my mother told me.”
“Have you never been here?”
He shook his head. Reflexively, Praful mirrored the movement.
“What … what is it called?” she asked. Several hundred meters along the path a dense body of fog claimed the ground, seeming to pull the sky lower. She began to feel much too close to it, sitting there on the back of her elephant. With a dancer’s grace, she slid from his back, using one of his large limbs to brace herself. Yanai seemed not to notice. His eyes were closed and he continued to shake his head as if all the no’s in the world needed telling.
“Dearest Yanai.” She caressed his trunk and his movements stopped, his small eyes blinking open at her. “I am so blessed that you have brought me.” She turned, taking in the grandeur of the structure before her. “What is this place called?”
“We call it the path Uncle Rajan took.” When Praful gave him a sour look, he explained. “We elephants are spiritual, but we are also a very pragmatic lot.”
“Yes … yes, I suppose that is the best name for it then.” She took a few steps up the path but stopped short upon seeing the dark fog ahead. “Will we be going on then?”
“Not yet. I thought I should tell you the remainder of Uncle’s story. Then you can decide if you wish to go with me there, or whether I should take you home.” He looked toward the west from whence they’d come. By now, the sun was midway between the horizon and its summit. Even at these higher elevations it had begun to grow hot. The lower regions would be unbearably so. “I am certain the tigers have left the watering hole by now in search of a shady spot in which to rest if you wish to return.”
With his customary silence, Yanai began walking, not up the mountain path, nor precisely the way they’d come, but through a patch of trees that bent at a sloping right turn that hugged the mountain’s base, disappearing into the dense brush. Praful, thinking he’d taken a shortcut toward her village, called after him. “No, please! I cannot go back.” Praful slumped to the ground where she’d stood, her legs curled below her on the dusty path. “At least not now.”
With the sky now bent low enough that she could feel its breath at the nape of her neck and fog sliding down the mountain’s slope like an oily snake, Praful never felt so alone in her life. She stood and bolted into the trees, following her friend. Through cutting vines and biting brush she ran, carried along by some dim instinct. She ran for minutes, perhaps hours, until the jungle grew dark and dense, with only the barest bits of sunlight breaching its bosom. She stopped, her slim chest heaving with exertion … but no longer fear. No, not fear at all. Though she’d never been this way before, and never so far from home, Praful felt a calm flood her veins like a warming liquid. This was home: the bird calls were familiar; the chirping of the insects was a song whose words she knew. Even the mottled light that freckled her hand when she held it before her was the same light that pierce the trees at home. She needed no guide. She knew where he’d be. With an abrupt left turn, Praful pushed aside the branches of a dying peepal tree and was blinded by a gust of piercing light. She stood, her hand before her, allowing her eyes to adjust. As her personal fog cleared, she saw a opening lit by the mid-morning sun. She’d entered a verdant lagoon, lost within the forest and fed by a trickling stream that ended in a sun-warmed lake. The water was clear and calm, a counterpoint to the soothing violence of the stream’s noisy trek down from its peak. At the lake’s edge, half-immersed in the water, shaded by a robust fig tree, was Yanai.
With no words, as none were needed, she approached him, walked into the lake, and knelt, laying the flat of her palm against his forehead and her own upon that.
“Will you not be missed?” he asked.
“Aunty will miss me, but she will understand. Appa will only miss his son.”
“And are you not his son?”
“I cannot remain his son if we are to make an elephant-headed child. You said so yourself.”
“He would be magnificent,” Yanai agreed.
“And brave like you,” Praful added.
“So, you have chosen to become a girl?” he asked.
“I suppose that the girl has chosen to become me,” she answered.
Time passed, then more time, and more, all the while with silence dancing between them and the song of the mountain’s river calling them to peace. When the music was done and the sun took its place directly overhead, illuminating the lake into crystal brilliance that rivaled the nighttime sky, Yanai lifted his trunk from the lake and spoke.
“And so, if we are to continue our trek, I should continue my tale, dearest Praful.”
“Please do, dear Yanai. Please do.”