“And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.”
— Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
Shaan knew something was wrong when the wind chimes rang but the dog remained silent. He squinted but couldn’t see the part of his shop that was open to the street. A flap of orange curtain at the back of the stall led to a dimly lit inner sanctum where he was currently attempting to do accounts. Shaan fronted everything from Chinese medallions to Venezuelan rolling paper to diaries made of llama skin. Inside, he sold everything from Bubble hash to Malana cream to Colorado mix. While he looked like a wizened Sherpa, with leathery skin, wiry muscle, and a moustache to rival a Rajput, his stink placed him somewhere between the bottom of a fish barrel and the damp top of cow dung. His lungs, from what he had seen ten years ago at the local village clinic, resembled two tar pits.
Again and again he cocked an unsteady head, blinking rapidly to clear the grey haze from his eyes. He finished a week of numbers and spat in a steel bowl to keep the saliva from dribbling onto the ink. The wind chimes that were attached to the curtain rings sang again and he remembered that the dog hadn’t barked. He went outside to check. Under night’s sky and the light of a wispy street lamp he saw a puddle of what seemed like dark ether and bent down to sniff it. Blood. He couldn’t see the dog, he couldn’t see the dog, he couldn’t see — he stepped in a different puddle and stepped out of it. More blood.
Where was the dog, where was the dog, where where was — “Or! ‘Ey Or! Shalom ach shely!”
Shaan’s shop was one of the first on a long street and at the corner that began the market stood a tall, lean man in camo pants and puffy jacket. He shouldered a hiking backpack featuring the star of David that might’ve been blue but now looked like snot. It was at him that Shaan shouted, with abandon and no regard for the silent orgies raging in the apartments that perched on the roofs of almost all shops. He ran up to Or, his breath coming out in white whiffs and disappearing into the cold night. He was aware of his shoes staining blood on the kachcha road, his heart pounding it out through his fat toes and soles and eventually to the risen earth under it. The short walk to Or was on a hilly incline and as Shaan reached him, the Israeli had to hold the old man’s arm so he wouldn’t collapse.
“Or, ach shely,” Shaan gasped and sat beside him and puked, his dinner of mutton and kush and wine, and strudel spilling onto the glittering pebbles of the road in front of them. He held his head in his hands and saw the infinite armed, naked Shiva before the image exploded into radiant splotches and he curled up at Or’s feet, rolling in some of the refuse, tears coming out of his eyes as he screamed “Where is the dog?” over and over again. Or just swayed and looked at him, rolled cigarette in a hand while the other made a curled fist, wanting to help him up but refusing to. He settled for bending towards the snivelling to ask Shaan what happened and the regret was immediate; he bent to the other side and emptied his meal of shakshouka and chai. Heaving and spitting, he stubbed the cigarello, storing it away in his belt bag, and then fished around in his backpack for a bottle of water. Shaan had started a keening of “dog dog dog dog where is DOG“ while Or rinsed his mouth. He noticed that the old mountain man was sobbing openly now, back flat on the ground, upturned face spewing corpulent tears and blubbering at the nose and mouth. Or poured the rest of the water on Shaan’s face and watched as he choked and sat up. Shaan ran a hand over his face and wiped the water and grume away. Some of it flew on Or’s pants, and he cursed the man. The pants were sacred. When he could stand the crying no longer, he nudged Shaan’s back with his knee and talked to him.
“What happen, Shaan, my achi?”
The old man looked up at Or’s face and asked him, “Or, ach shely, you see dog? My dog? He gaddi and he black and white with star on —” he pointed at his forehead. “He just there, at shop, now gone, now blood. Where is dog, Or? Where is dog —”
“I don’t know, achi,” Or said. “I see nothing. Is too dark now.”
Shaan sat in seiza and rubbed his palms together as he begged for help and begged again, voice in rising pitch until the occupant behind them opened the store’s window and asked them to fuck off before he called Andrea’s men. Or finally hauled Shaan to his feet and dragged him out of the corner and onto the main street, where it was brighter and several more people lounged about on store patios and shabby cafe porches and sidewalks. They stopped at a water fountain where Or refilled his bottle and dunked Shaan’s head in the excess pooling in the basin. Shaan coughed and gurgled but otherwise seemed better so Or took him to the German bakery on the side of a nearby alley and bought a slice of ciabatta and some yak cheese and almost forced it into him. He was hungry too; his funds were running dangerously low; he shouldn’t have splurged on food that took him back to Tel Aviv and tasted like someone had scooped it out of the gutter; his last two-thousand rupee note should not have been spent in the arms of a zaftig, hairy woman who’d already bartered away her last hash; he should not have come to the fucking market at night without expecting to run into at least three crazies and one thieving local. He felt like he’d made a wrong turn somewhere between Rome and Vietnam, influenced by fellow backpackers into abandoning the route in order to experience the freshest side of nirvana on this side of the universe.
When Or had first landed in the capital of Delhi he’d been overwhelmed by the people and the smog and the unremitting noise of India; he’d walked caste-segregated streets at night and slept with a turbaned, white guru for warmth, and he’d caught the first rickety yellow bus in the morning that would take him to famed North. In the first place Or hadn’t known why he’d wanted to get high. He’d never wanted to be robbed of phone and passport and wallet in the overflowing van that would take him to the Himachal foothills. He hadn’t wanted to look at snowy peaks and yearn for peace and fuck the world if he hadn’t wanted out of his too-taught mind that kept signalling him he should’ve been either dead or a greasy glutton running his father’s packaging business; he should not have been the emaciated, bearded, grimy ascetic he looked like now as he thumped Shaan’s back, having known him long enough to know his slow shudders were a result of a potent mix of hallucinogens.
Shaan had no family; no friends; he befriended whomever came to him asking for shelter or drugs or trinkets for their loves; he was a figure well known in the bazaar and the poppy fields and the brothels and village homes, well known by the Italians and Israelis as a crazy motherfucker who minded his own business; he was recognized by his smile full of broken and stained teeth and a woollen pattu that magically washed itself once a month. Or had known him for two months, during which he’d been able to glean the river in his heart that only flowed upstream and outwards through hands that gave, gave, gave. He watched Shaan as he finished the bread, unable to touch the cheese, so Or shrugged and helped himself to it and almost threw up again.
“Or,” Shaan said, in broken English, because what else would an Indian man speak, “You stay good. You stay more than most. I like you, Or. Help me? Remember I give you good price for cream? You help Shaan, yes? Help find dog?”
Or had decided he would the moment he’d seen Shaan’s shoes covered in dark liquid. He let out a breath and asked Shaan the name of the dog.
“Name?” he repeated, looking befuddled, the poor sop, “I no give name. You know me, yes? I no give name to anything. My shop name ‘Shop’.”
“You say he is gaddi?” Or asked, also in broken English. Really, they were not so different, Shaan and he. Gaddis were your mountain dogs, your shepherd dogs, your big hairy floofs who’d probably migrated from Afghanistan and mated with local street dogs, reproducing abundantly.
“Yes, pure gaddi, ach shely, pure, such beautiful gaddi you never see. He has star on face. I said, yes?”
Or nodded. He thought back to the day before, when he’d gone to buy some weed at the Shop. He hadn’t noticed any dogs there. Sure, there had been some on the streets but none near Shaan or the store. He stared at some passing motorbikes and cars as he contemplated the dilemma of the dog. His high had receded a while ago, his mind sharp enough to stray to different points of chatoyance on the streets instead of focusing on just one. It was entirely possible that Shaan had imagined the existence of the dog, but seeing that there were dark stains on his trainers and that his face held genuine grief and lack of pride, Or wasn’t sure. He was bored as a plebe anyway and was in no shape to refuse the old mountain man as he sat on his knees and prayed to him as if Or were a reincarnation of Vishnu himself. The worship in his eyes soon made Or uncomfortable and he maintained a feeling of helpless compassion — a new sentiment. And so his boredom gave over to a feeling of abandonment to adventure and he said what he felt to Shaan.
“Yes, achi. I will help. But I not at fault if we don’t find your gaddi, yes?”
To this Shaan wept more and wiped his eyelids on Or’s pants. The latter tried to move his pants away but figured the salty stains would wash off easy so he let the it be. When the stares of passers by got too much to bear he lifted Shaan up by the shoulders and guided him out of the main street and back towards the dingy bazaar they’d come from. They walked shoulder to shoulder down the incline and reached Shop. The entire street was flooded with water, and Or cursed because he should’ve known the locals would choose this very moment to wash the streets of their grime and dust. They could see no distinct puddles anymore, and even as they were about to enter the inner sanctum, the window above opened and the tenant poured a bucket full of soapy water down on their heads, and then gasped and screamed as she realized she’d thrown it on two humans. Or heard a thundering of steps and the tenant came down; a woman of indeterminate age, she held her hands to her mouth and apologized profusely in Hebrew; her glass bangles and hair beads clashed and could be heard through all the sputtering and cursing. Or thought he’d been dunked mid-river, and his eyes stung from chemical and salt and dirt. He could see rainbows as he opened his eyes and the dim light helped somewhat, glancing off the mirrors in the woman’s skirt and the blonde in her dreadlocked hair.
“Are you okay?” she asked. Her hand touched his shoulder in a comforting gesture, and Or was about to say “yes” before he saw his soaked pants and shouted at her to check on Shaan.
As she murmured to Shaan, who was pulling at his eyes like he wanted to tear them off, Or saw a bowl of clear liquid and splashed it on his face. It was a little slimy but it did the job and he was able to see the nidus of the trouble. The woman, now that he could see her clearer, looked like she was maybe thirty, with a slender body and face full of laugh lines. Shaan saw her also; he saw colors reflect off the goddess and so he grabbed her hand and screamed “dog” at her over and over again. The woman looked offended before she smelled him and realized he was probably not coherent. She was not conventionally beautiful, Or thought. She wasn’t. He only saw her age and her wrinkled nose and thought how inconvenient it was she was from his country. He blinked before realizing she was talking to him.
“You spoke Hebrew just now, didn’t you?”
“Oh good. You weren’t too clear.”
“And whose fault is that?”
She looked properly contrite but explained how she honestly hadn’t seen their approach, and that she’d just washed her clothes, and couldn’t keep the bucket full of dirty water in the room overnight. Shaan had passed out, and all they could hear were his soft whimpers. With silent agreement they lifted him, the woman at his feet while Or carried him under his arms, and together they took him up the rickety stairs to a one-room lodge where a couple of pallets lay next to a rusted boiler plate. A dirty suitcase lay in the corner while the dresser beside it stood overrun with all sorts of bongs and hookahs. The only light came from the street lamp outside at the level of the window that had been lined to hang wet clothes. It reflected on the fallal of her blouse and bounced off the copper in her ears as she covered Shaan on one of the mattresses with a frayed pattu. She stoked the fire in the boiler and cleared her throat. Or stared around the room, swaying still. His high had receded. He decided they’d pick up the search for Shaan’s dog in the morning, assuming he was still alive. The woman cleared her throat again, and Or looked at her.
“So, what’s your name?”
“Cool name. I’d love to offer you my room but there’s just one mattress left, and I don’t know how close you are to Shaan, so…”
“How long have you been here?”
“About two weeks now. And you?”
“I’ve been around.”
Or swept a gaze around the room again, trying to place her as a fellow Israeli citizen. He concluded she was a vagrant, just like him.
“Around. I see,” she said. He missed her sharp gaze.
He turned his back to her and was about to head downstairs when the woman called out to him, her voice cutting through the stale air, “Do you want to smoke?”
That was how Or discovered that Gershon’s monster lived inside the woman’s roof and rained ashes on their face. He swept his hand up to shoo it away and heard her giggles. He was terrified of sins manifest and the room of some stranger was not an ideal place to encounter them. It wore the face of his father, his army sergeant, his doctor, his brother, his niece — the changing of faces was making him dizzy. Still, the woman laughed. He thought she was mad. The monster was naked, stuck to the ceiling, with the legs of a goat and torso of an emaciated woman. He threw a brass medallion with the face of a bodhisattva at the monster and still it persisted. Having determined it was harmless except for its ash depositing in his throat, he swept a final hand at it and went back to inhaling from the fluorescent green bong. It had a pungent, burnt taste, like marshmallows dipped in salt and then roasted with burnt vegetables. What was this?
“What are we smoking?” he asked.
“Good, isn’t it? Andrea himself gave it to me. Some untested, new variety of hash they’re developing. A mix of cream and gold, or so they say. Maximum high, minimum aftertaste, zero hangover, apparently.”
“Bullshit. This tastes like ass.”
“I know!” she giggled again. “What are you staring at? Is there a golem on my roof?”
“No, it’s the monster.”
She laughed. A Bollywood song played next door, and the woman hummed along to it. Or raised an eyebrow.
“I’ve picked some Hindi up,” she said, looking at his face. “Ends up happening when this village is practically an Israeli colony with Italian mafia. I’ll admit I’ve had a little help understanding these songs. I like this one.” The song was full of the rhythms of sitar and a string instrument he could not identify and a subdued Indian baritone. Or closed his eyes. The woman continued.
“The song is called ‘Chaandaniyan.’ The lyrics go something like this: ‘Moonlight showers, but even then, my hands are in the shadows/Without you, O higher one, my days and nights are incomplete …'”
Or started humming with her. Her laugh was clear, her speech clearer. She asked him what they’d been doing before she got them all wet, so Or told her about the blood and Shaan’s grief and how he still did not know how to help him. How the fuck was he so high? Where the fuck could Shaan’s dog be? Where was his dog where was Shaan’s dog where where — she put her hand on his knee, and he forgot the dog and Shaan who slept a pallet away and shared his unwashed body and ash-covered tongue and growing insouciance with the woman, unable to satisfy himself even as he acted more violently than he ever had. He grabbed and pulled and made something bleed but he did not know what, did not care, as he stared at the monster and spilled himself inside the woman. He should’ve been careful. For some hours at least, that was his last thought.
Shaan shook him awake while it was still dark outside. His high had receded, and the calls of parakeets and bluebirds sang high notes somewhere in his temple.
“Dog,” Shaan said.
“Good morning,” Or replied.
“We eat, find dog, yes?”
They went down to the stall and out to the market where bleary-eyed small business owners were already milling on the streets. Shaan held Or as they stumbled down the street and towards the looming base of the mountain at the end of it. On the way, they stopped at a laari and ate some chicken momos and eggs. As they licked the dewy masala off their fingers, the sun came up to their right and splintered off the river running beside them, trailing sunlight on the women who did their laundry and orange babas who stood in it with hands folded, heads bowed. Or was alive. He let Shaan pay for the food and followed him to the public baths. They washed themselves and their clothes, and without drying them off they put them back on and sat in the rays on the sidewalk outside the baths. Both didn’t speak for a while, and after a few moments Shaan left him saying he needed to go to the tailor’s two streets across.
“I’ll wait,” Or said.
Shaan said he wouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes so he settled in for a nap and two minutes later was woken up by a slap. It was the woman. In the morning light she looked like she was closer to forty and her hair was actually a deep brown. Her clothes looked garish, her eyes the black of inferno; the spell of the night and the drugs had faded, and Or let the sting on his cheek sink in like absolution. A few people stared but mostly went about their business.
“That was for last night,” the woman said. “Who the hell do you think you are, to be so rough? Do you know how much I bled because of your dirty-as-fuck nails on my stomach?” She lifted her blouse and showed him the marks.
Or did not react. The memories of night returned with mind-numbing shame, and he let the guilt dig into his own stomach. He felt like throwing up again. He wasn’t high anymore, but wished he were. A head from the lodge above where he sat popped out and cackled in Hebrew: “You should apologize to her, achi.” All around he heard shouts of humorous agreement. The woman raised an eyebrow at him, but he refused to move a muscle.
“Anyway, that doesn’t matter,” she said, and at this Or looked at her again. “I was about to tell you this before you started your god-awful seduction last night. Shaan is dying, Or.”
Or stared at her, wanting to dismiss the joke. Some of the anger leeched out of her eyes and pity replaced it, and Or stood up and started to walk, but the woman caught his elbow. He stared at the yellow reflecting on her skirt and heard the koels chirping and smelled the eggs frying and felt the cold of the mountain air seep in his bones. He was freezing, he realized. But the woman wasn’t done with him. She talked, softer now.
“I came to Shop two weeks ago and found him lying in a pool of his own blood. He was high as a kite and probably doesn’t even remember going to the clinic with me. It’s colon cancer, the doctor said. Too advanced. His neighbour told him I helped him so he’s been letting me stay with him for free.”
And Or looked at her again.
“There’s no dog, is there?”
The woman shook her head slowly.
“I’ve also been keeping an eye on Shop for Andrea. He’ll probably install a goon there once Shaan is dead. Just thought I’d let you know, so don’t start getting any ideas about moving in.”
The fire was back in her eyes. She let go of his arm and started walking back. Or sat down again and waited for his ach shely to come back. When he did, Or asked him where he’d found the dog.
“Where I find him?” Shaan asked. Or nodded. “It is near flat ground on mountain. You think he is there, my gaddi?”
Or figured he was talking about the small plateau halfway up the other side of the mountain facing them. “Shaan, achi, let’s go?”
Shaan smiled his stained tooth smile and patted his moustache.
They started walking, and Or was happy to realize he still carried his backpack. They crossed the barbershops and the cafes and bakeries that were opening for the day. A few Israelis called “Boker tov”s to Or and a few locals threw “Good morning”s and “Namaste”s to both. Or remembered the time he’d gotten off the van and arrived in the hillside town for the first time. He’d been greeted by air and sun and hills of green and then, as he turned a corner, tripped trying to get out of the way of a giant, felled pine. Someone had helped him up and sent him on his way to the market, correctly assuming that he’d needed to get high. His first meeting with the locals had been pleasant, his second meeting with a town that seemed more Israeli than Indian even more so; now, as he passed the many joints, boarding houses, that one cafe that refused to serve Indians and got closer to the edge of the town, he realized how much he wanted to stay here, and how much he could not.
They stopped at the end of the road, where a sign said ‘Danger: Landslides. Keep Clear.’ Shaan led him to the side where a narrow, pebbled path seemed to lead all the way around the mountain. If he walked all the way until the end, Or was sure he would see hundreds of kilometres into the distance: rolling hills covered in green and clouds as far as human eyes could go. They walked for some time, one side to river and open air and the other to jagged ochre rock, before taking a break and continuing the journey. Around midday when their stomachs complained and joints ached, they sat at the beginning of a steep incline. It turned out that the path did really spiral to the very peak, where few ventured. Suddenly, Shaan hit his forehead with his palm.
“You OK?” Or asked.
“No. I forget to bring food. I sorry.”
Or grabbed his last can of beans and packet of dried fruits out of his pack.
“You is good man, Or!”
And so they went on, and on and on until Or couldn’t feel his legs. He did not know how the other man could climb so much; his back hurt and his breath came in short, violent heaves and every few minutes his eyes swam. They navigated through horse dung, patches of path muddied by random waterfalls, a line of sheep crossing their path that lasted for more than ten minutes, sporadic mountain dwellers going about their business and ceaseless wind and heat. Locals had told Or that people still lived until halfway up the mountain, where they raised cattle or grew fruit or worked on poppy fields. And as much as the people who lived in the foothills became flush with opium money, the field-workers stayed the same, partaking in the drug only when the pain in their joints became too violent to be handled sane. They passed a graveyard for trees, only wide stumps visible for an acre. The view there was fantastic, Or thought. Without the great cony bodies, they could sit on their corpses or in a hollowed out section of a great pine and smoke from Shaan’s stash or stare at the drizzle floating from the waterfalls and over the side of the mountain. Abandoned huts, distant moos of cows, colder air, thinner air, croaking, cooing, splashing, and then — silence.
“We are here, achi?” Or asked.
Shaan nodded, and collapsed. Or picked him up and carried him to an empty hut nearby, parts of its roof missing, remnants of life decades old cluttered in one corner: an unrecognizable, broken piece of rotted, wooden furniture, shards of glass, metal pipe and surrounding it all, dirt and dust and weeds. Or lay on the floor across all of it with his back to the wall and the old mountain man leaning on his shoulder. He dozed off and woke up in the darkness, disoriented and panicked, before a soft pressure on his leg announced Shaan’s presence. They lit a fire using the broken furniture; everything outside was too wet. A steady fog filtered moonlight through the holes in the roof, and both men sat and stared at the flames.
When Or looked up after a while, Shaan had tears in his eyes, his moustache shaking as he tried to clench his teeth.
“Is okay,” Or said, his quiet voice piercing the stillness with more compassion than he had held in his body his entire life, “We find dog tomorrow, achi.”
“Dog … Not here,” Shaan replied, blowing his nose on his sleeve and conquering the next sob.
Or didn’t say anything. He’d known that, hadn’t he? So why was he here? What did he need?
“You … Good man, ach shely,” Shaan said. “You come here, to family home, you give old man smile. I … is sorry for dog. He real yesterday.”
This was where Shaan had grown up, it seemed. Or could not visualize this man as a child, but from his mumbling, worded hallucinations he could see the smiles of his parents, he could taste the butter that would be churned fresh every morning. He could taste the mountain air, cloggy due to abundance of trees and he could feel the cold, devoid of poppy pollen and forest fire.
“Was good house?” Or asked him.
“Top class, Or,” Shaan said, holding his index finger and thumb and curving them to form the eye. “Your home good too, I know.”
“I run from there,” Or whispered.
“Is OK. You can run back,” Shaan smiled. He continued, “You run back to Shop in morning and get secret money behind board of Kenyan ear jewellery and you buy phone and ticket and you run home, Or.”
“And you?” Or asked.
“I am already home, brother,” he replied. “Main ghar hi hoon, bhai.”
Or fell asleep again to the echoes of those soft words and when he woke up Shaan’s body was cold to the touch. He bowed to him and left him to the mountain. In dawn’s wake he began his descent.
Shalvi Shah is a writer and editor based in the United States and India. She is currently an MFA candidate at Columbia University’s School of the Arts in Creative Writing (Fiction). She loves traveling, eating, and confessing her deepest secrets to her golden Labrador pup.