issue 191 - January 1989
The Snow Girl
A story from the mountains of Nepal
by Anna Robinson.
The snow was undisturbed; huge heavy layers on all the trees, which groaned and creaked under the weight. Everything was thick with white, and silent. I was nearing the top of the forest and could see the sun through the trees. It had been a hard climb, the last three hours through waist-high snow. Every step had taken a great effort to lift my leg high enough to get out of the last 'hole'. The path had disappeared with the snow but my way had been marked out by the footprints of the only other person to have crossed this way. Where the snow was shallow enough, I could see the prints were that of a naked foot. I shivered to think of crossing this mountain without shoes.
I had just started downhill when I heard a rustling. There were rumoured to be bears in these parts so I looked up quickly and peered through the bushes. I could see something moving. A small figure. Yes, it was a girl, a young girl, standing with her back to me. I called to her. She turned round and stared at me with wide frightened eyes. I beckoned to her to come over. She was only about 10 years old, dressed in thin cotton and no shoes.
The girl came over, visibly shaking from the cold. I spoke to her in Nepali, asking where she came from. She pointed vaguely down the mountain. 'I came to the jungle to look for the buffaloes.' She must have got stranded when the snow came.
'Where did you spend the night?' I asked, amazed that such a small girl could dare to sleep alone in the jungle.
She smiled and shrugged her shoulders. I asked again but she looked back blankly as if she did not understand. She was hopping from one foot to the other and I realized the pain that must be attacking her feet now she had stopped walking.
We started downhill again. The slope seemed steeper than before and I felt even more awkward, trying to keep my rucksack in balance. The little snow girl skipped lightly ahead of me, hardly seeming to touch the snow, turning round occasionally to see where I had reached and to wait for me to catch up. She seemed to find my clumsy attempts to keep upright quite amusing. But I was grateful to her for waiting and could at least feel confident that I would not lose the way.
After a while the smile vanished from her face and I began to realize that the daylight was fading fast. She looked at me impatiently, anxious to go on ahead but still not willing to abandon me. We had to reach the village that night as there was no other shelter.
At last the snow girl stood still. She seemed to be listening to something. The tense look went from her face. It was cow bells, ringing quite close by: a sure sign that we were nearing a settlement. The thought sped me on and soon the snow had become a dirty brown then had disappeared, to be replaced by the familiar green paddy fields and the comforting sight of women hurrying home with their huge baskets of grass for the cattle.
In the village the usual crowd of children gathered round to stare at me. A foreigner was rare in these parts and it was some time before they plucked up the courage to ask me questions. Where had I come from? I pointed up the mountain. They were surprised - no one had passed that way for days. Did I come alone? No ... I looked round. There was no sign of the snow girl.
I gratefully accepted a family's offer of hospitality. Sitting in the darkness of the kitchen, watching the mother cook over the fire, I had almost forgotten the snow girl. Suddenly there was a banging at the door. The father leapt to his feet, taking a log from the fire as a torch.
Outside there was a group of men. Their faces lit by torches of burning wood, they looked excited. 'Quick, come!' they muttered, and the father went out into the darkness, still holding his torch.
'What is it?' I asked the mother. She shrugged her shoulders and carried on cooking. I slept with the family next to the fire. The father did not come back that night but the mother seemed unperturbed.
Next morning I heard noises down below and looked out to see the father returning home. He looked tired but excited, shouting up to his wife. I could not understand much; his speech was so jumbled in his urgency to call her out. She hastily put on her sari and was quickly caught up in the excitement.
From outside came the sound of drums and singing. The rhythmic beating came nearer and nearer. 'They're here!' I heard the father say. It was a wedding party - still too far away to see anything other than the red cloth covering the bride. In this region they carried the bride lying on a stretcher of two poles with a red sheet tied over her. The banging of drums became quite deafening as the group approached.
The red blanket passed right in front of us and from within I thought I could hear sobbing. The poor bride was probably a young girl being taken miles away to an unknown husband's house. There were signs of struggling from within the blanket and the cries became more and more persistent. The drums stopped and the stretcher bearers put their weight down for a minute to uncover the girl's head.
I looked with fascination. For the first time, the red bundle they carried along had become a real person. Then the bride's eyes met mine and I caught my breath. I could not believe it. The bride sitting on that stretcher was the same young girl who had led me over the mountain. 'But she didn't say.' I murmured to myself. She really was no more than 10 years old.
The girl had now stopped struggling and a flash of recognition in her eyes was all that was left of the bond that had existed between us. I longed to go and help her, set her free, but all I could do was stare impassively as she was borne along to her future husband. She had lost her determined look and seemed cowed, beaten. She had given up the fight. The snow girl was no longer. They covered her face again and the wedding procession wound up the hill slowly. We stood watching until the beating of the drums faded away.
We went inside and the mother continued to cook our meal. She was unusually silent. I asked her about the procession. Where did the girl come from? Whom was she marrying? She answered me at first in monosyllables, giving me the names of villages I had never heard of. Then, gradually, she became more open in her urgency to let me know the full story.
Her husband had gone out last night with the men from the village to find the young bride. Apparently the procession had started over three days earlier, but during the first night the girl had mysteriously disappeared. That was the night of the first snow and, as the weather worsened, she was given up for lost. Then last night she had been spotted leaving the village at dusk.
So she had been trying to escape. I saw again the young girl's face as she plodded determinedly barefoot through the snow. I now understood her courage alone on the mountain. I shuddered to think how she must have suffered before we met each other. And now she was back. She would be carried to her husband's house and start the life of drudgery as daughter-in-law.
The mother had stopped relating the story and was grinding the spices with renewed vigour. I watched, not really taking in the scene before my eyes but pondering on the snow girl's story. The mother abruptly stopped grinding and looked up. 'What to do?' she said and started grinding again.
Anna Robinson worked for a year as a teacher trainer in rural Nepal.