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In high places, a single storm takes many forms. A wise traveler knows to be wary of what the clouds and the mountains are saying to one another. So when Li Du observed a raindrop strike his mule’s bridle and bounce into the air instead of slipping quietly down the leather, he stopped and looked up with some trepidation. Through dripping branches, the sky was like rough silk stretched tight across a frame.
A gust of wind pulled at the tops of the trees. Li Du’s mule shook her head, upset. The wind had loosed the flap of a saddlebag. It fluttered and snapped at her flank. Li Du freed one of his hands from his coat sleeve and stepped carefully around the animal, aware of the precipitous drop to his right where the edge of the path fell away through gnarled oaks into a deep ravine. At its base, cascading water frothed and pooled around boulders and forest debris.
Once he had secured the saddlebag, Li Du patted his mule’s shoulder and tucked his hand back into his damp sleeve. It had been precipitating since dawn, an irresolute rain that was now assuming the colder, sharper guise of sleet. Ahead, the trail rose steeply, slick stones and black mud churned by booted feet and shod hooves. He resumed his progress, stepping automatically into the footprints that were already there.
Li Du was a small man of middle age with a smooth, oval face, unassuming square eyebrows, and eyes that smiled when he did. It was his tendency to walk with his head thrust forward and his chin slightly tucked, as if he was scanning the ground for a lost item. His rumpled wool hat was worn and faded. His long coat, cinched at the waist by a belt, had been mended many times.
For Li Du, there was a rhythm to each day of mountain travel. In the mornings, he opened his eyes to the blue half-light of dawn with a feeling that he had become part of the cold dirt beneath him. Later, after a hot breakfast and the effort of packing up camp, his fatigue left him and he was eager to set out. There followed a pleasant interlude of walking and noting with interest the varieties of vegetation, the vistas, and the birdsong.
By midday, the morning’s energy was spent. Small pains broadened into aches, breath became an exhausting necessity, and fears of injury insinuated themselves into his thoughts. Fortunately, on all but the most difficult days, this discomfort passed and Li Du settled into his own steady afternoon pace, content in the knowledge that nothing was expected of him except that he match his slow stride to that of his mule until the caravan stopped for the night.
This afternoon was different. Li Du was anxious. Over the last ten days, they had not seen anyone outside the caravan except for a single farmer in a distant barley field who, upon observing them, had hurried out of sight. The air had been growing steadily colder. That morning, Li Du had witnessed a worried exchange between Kalden Dorjee and his men as they discussed signs of an approaching storm.
Li Du was nearing the top of the ascent when a sound reached him. He gave a little sigh of relief as he recognized the bells of the caravan’s lead mule. He crested the rise and, blinking away stinging ice, peered down. In front of him, a steep declivity led to a wide clearing on the bank of the stream, where the caravan had halted.
The sleet imparted a wraithlike uniformity to the shapes of the men, but he knew them. Bundled in their coats and hats, the six muleteers stood among their laden mules. Li Du had often remarked that, in dismal weather, the bright red plumes affixed to the lead mule’s bridle seemed lit by remembered sunshine. They were clearly visible now, despite the precipitation.
He took hold of his own mule’s bridle and began to make his way down. The bells jangled again. He looked at the clearing. The animals had shifted, and he could now see a narrow, flat bridge over the stream. On the far side, a spur path disappeared into the forest.
Distracted, Li Du stepped onto a loose rock and slid forward. He flung out an arm to stop his fall. His hand found an overhanging branch and he clung to it. When he had recovered his balance, he released the branch. As it sprang back into place he felt a pull and heard a rip as part of his sleeve tore away. He made a quiet sound of exasperation as he looked up at the threadbare strip of wool, now a forlorn pennant.
Down in the clearing the lead mule shook its head impatiently, and the bells rang for a third time. It was then that Li Du discerned another figure beyond the clustered men and horses. The stranger—a monk, judging by his crimson robes—was sitting cross-legged on the bridge, his back to Li Du. A disciplined ascetic, Li Du thought, who would meditate here, far from a hearth, with a storm coming.
As Li Du lowered himself from a rotted tree trunk down into the clearing, he felt the air become colder. He could no longer hear the skittering sleet. Not one of the muleteers raised a hand to him in greeting. Li Du’s eyes were drawn to the man on the bridge. He approached to where he could see the figure clearly.
The seated monk was still, his head drooping forward. His robes, crimson and saffron, hung in sodden folds around a thin body. As Li Du tried to make sense of what he was seeing, snowflakes began to collect on the shaved head and crimson cloth. Still the figure did not move. This was not a man meditating on the bridge. It was a corpse.
Copyright © 2016 by Elsa Hart