Eight years earlier — so, two years before Orville was born — I was in Nepal, on the rooftop of a guest house in Kathmandu. It was two or three in the morning. Ten years before that night, almost to the day, I had been crushed in a jeep wreck in the Himalayan foothills just west of this same Kathmandu valley. I once read about a psychiatric study that determined that some kinds of brain damage make people repeat whatever it was that did the damage. Some people were driven to repeatedly drinking gasoline. Others jumped off cliffs. Others electrocuted themselves. I don’t know if the knock I took on the head that night helps account in that way for why I kept going back, but long before my pulverized bones healed, even before my damaged short term memory came back, I knew I’d be going back to Kathmandu, and I did. Often. Kathmandu became a second home to me.
That day, I rode into town on an old Enfield Bullet motorcycle. The rear fork had cracked, so the wheel wobbled and riding it was more like hauling it, especially in knee-deep ruts of mud and monsoon rain. I could have pulled into a welding shop on the way but didn’t. This cracked fork was only its latest outrage, its last-ditch attempt to maim me after many others had failed. This motorcycle was my enemy and I hated it enough not to mind making it crawl on the way to its execution. I wasn’t even sure I would do it the honor of so much as putting it on its kickstand if I ever dragged it back to Kathmandu instead of just letting its carcass keel over in the mud and letting the scrap pickers have at it. The bike was only part of the trouble. I was exhausted from a case of dysentery I had finally gotten over by taking large dosages of codeine to tighten up the gut. The skin on one of my arms had been sheared off by a truck or a rock a trucker steered me into as part of the national Indian trucker’s sport of killing motorcyclists. In some desperate market town, a quick-thinking young woman, eyeing the potential for profit in a foreigner, had swung her baby onto the blade of the license plate on the front fender in order to accuse me of killing him and I had been stretched a little by the crowd. I wasn’t sure that if I stopped to get the bike fixed that I would have the heart to ever get going again.
The Kathmandu Valley is on the south side of the long Himalaya range, made of the youngest, and highest mountains on Earth. To the north of them is the Tibetan plateau, the flatlands of which, at around 15,000 feet are higher than the highest peak of the American Rockies. Winds originating in the Arctic and from Siberia and Mongolia aggregate in vast traveling oceans of cold air on the plateau, and from there, they are channeled southward over and through the mountains until they meet the superheated air masses rising from the overfried skillet of the subcontinent armed with millions of megatons of potential in the form of moisture drawn from the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Backed up against the wall of the Himalaya, this creates one of the greatest areas of meteorological turbulence on the planet, and any unspent hell collected along the way has to come down there. The result is thunderstorms of a gargantuan scale, orchestrated and amplified in an acoustical environment that echoes them in ways unique to the Himalaya. Getting to hear them is a little like having some of your questions about the stars above answered. All the holy paintings of the region are filled with roiling clouds that serve as homes to the gods. It reflects an unavoidable, and universal, inspiration. I wish everyone could see it once before they die, because it is not so much violent as it is magnificent.
I was staying at a guest house that belonged to a Manangi gangster I had become friends with over the disposition of a good hat I once had and that he liked and which I gave to him. Because of that, he held what was generously called the penthouse for me. Apart from its private terrace, it was a room like all the others, with concrete walls, thin mattresses on a couple of plywood plank beds and a few cheap Tibetan decorations. On this night, the terrace was coming in handy because I was spending most of it outside the room because of a roommate I was putting up, a Japanese stringer for Asahi Shimbum. When I met her in Kathmandu a couple of weeks earlier, she could not be talked out of the idea of heading off into the countryside to try to get a scoop on a murderous Maoist rebel group. It was an idea so bad that I had given up on it myself even after getting away with others like it before. She left on a bus and something happened that rattled her badly and she made it back to Kathmandu just before I did. She was waiting, asleep under a shawl in a wooden chair, in a corner of the brick lobby of the guest house when I got there. My Manangi friend, wearing the fedora we had in common, greeted me with a bottle of Khukri Rum that he placed on the reception counter and told me that it was the last bottle anyone would be seeing for a while because a general strike that had been declared had escalated into rioting, and the police had responded to that not only with the customary tear gas, but with a few thorough beatings administered with lacquered bamboo canes so that everyone would understand what they meant when they said there was a curfew on. Even if the shops weren’t all shot down, in times of trouble, nothing goes into short supply as fast as liquor and candles.
She asked if she could share my room and though she never told me what happened to her, it had been bad. Of course she was welcome to the other bed. She took it and was asleep instantly.
I sat on the terrace with the bottle of rum and a shortwave radio that wouldn’t tune anything in over the static and was out there when the storm came. I always loved a good storm and would have gone out to watch it even if I had the room to myself.
This storm began as if it had been set off by the splitting of an atom. Vast tonnages of water were dropped, as if a tectonic plate at the bottom of an ocean had been made to give way by the explosion, but other than that deluge, this was a celestial spectacle. Colossal webs of lightning bolted from cloud to cloud and illuminated intricate, fast-moving turbulences without wasting more than a breeze on the ground. Low bass tones on the scale of the mountains themselves rumbled for three or four minutes at a time, before they subsided enough for next waves to follow them, punctuated by what gunshots would sound like if they were fired from a rifle three miles long during barrages of supersonic rockets grazing the treetops from Tibet to India. Cracks and crackles zapped everywhere as if all the power stations in the world were a pack of firecrackers set off for the hell of it. Cymbals as wide as the sky collided and sheared, their halves ricocheting. It seemed unlikely that buildings would not vaporize. It was like the creation of a galaxy, raging without stop for hours, and any time I lowered my eyes to ground level, I saw the silhouettes of pagodas and branches of the old trees in their courtyards and the outlines of the rim of hills surrounding the valley, all in light so white that it became blue.
There was no better observation tower for this superstorm than my terrace. If you had been given the schematics to this storm in advance in order to work out the perfect vantage point to observe it, the calculations would have yielded my terrace. Not only was it precisely in the right place, it also offered the comfort of a wicker chair and table out of the rain under a concrete overhang. In the lightning silhouettes I saw no one else on other rooftops. That wasn’t surprising. There was no such thing in those days as night life in Kathmandu. On the best of nights, the power rarely made it to ten. This storm was mine. I knew it was. I alone was in love with it. Later, everyone else would only complain how it had ruined their sleep or made life hell for the rickshaw drivers under the burlap sacks or Chinese blankets they tented over their machines as they tried to sleep under them, soaked and blasted, not sentimentalists who could sacrifice what little sleep they needed to watch a storm. This storm, I felt I could be excused the grandiosity of believing, was mine. Even mine alone.
It seemed impossible to get the full effect under the concrete, so I stepped out into the rain. The drops hit like an asteroid shower. I stood there — drunk, it’s true, but I would have stood there anyway if I wasn’t — as wet as I would have been had I been chained to the spillway of a dam. I had never been as energized. It felt like the voltages being dispensed were accumulating in me.
At one point — an exact moment — everything stopped. The lightning stopped. The thunder stopped. As the last of the rumbling faded, the sudden silence returned the night to its usual accompaniment, the sound that had been overpowered the whole time: hundreds of homeless pye-dogs, barking and shrieking from every direction and at every distance, in the streets and alleys and temples the way they do there all the time, but were driven to the most frenzied heights of it by the violence of the night. It was like the moment someone might experience at the instant their soul is freed after a firing squad has fired and the gunsmoke clears.
I stood dazed and drenched and watching the sky and hearing the dogs, hoping — it might have been the same thing as praying — for more. I saw a hint of light, no more than a dusting of silver at first, begin to appear in the sky. In seconds it became bright enough to see that one single hole was appearing where the clouds were drifting apart. Moonlight was beginning to shine through. Being a pilot and formally in love with the sky above all else, though never more than then, I marveled at the crazy turbulence I could see up there. Shearing winds, moving in opposite directions at the same altitude, were making the clouds move like curtains, drawing away in halves to reveal the moon.
The Moon — our Moon — was full. And there, motionless, behind the parting clouds, as positioned to light a stage before it and presented now by the parting of the curtains, was the head of a dog, rising, in unimprovable symmetry, through the silver disk.
And what a dog. A magnificent creature made of storm and light and mountains and sky, his head raised upward, as if accustomed to flying with gods. The word awe is overused. I make a point of not using it. I can’t think of another time I have. But no other word measures up to what I felt. What I had been feeling for hours approached it, but this was a moment of awe. Because of a dog. A dog in the clouds.
I was in the habit of always having a camera with me. Earlier, when I left the room, I had taken a ghostly picture of the stringer sleeping in her bed and brought the camera outside in one hand when I took the bottle of rum in the other. The stringer had looked so eerie, like a corpse with the sheets drawn back from her face so she could be identified in flashes of lightning, lying on her back, sleeping naked (not because of me, but inspite of me, because her clothes were all too damp and filthy).
I ballparked the exposure and took a picture of the dog in the clouds. I tried a few more, but in no time the apparition blew itself to shreds up in the Himalayan winds as quickly as it had come, and was gone. The next frames on the contact sheet from that roll of film show nothing that look like the first. They are just a clearing night sky, a retreating moon and the last wisp of its own impermanence.
[End of Part 2. Part 3 to follow.]