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The Goose Woman

March 27th, 2015 · No Comments · on foot

Sometimes a frequently-asked question creates a bridge between worlds, as Shelley Buck learns during a chance encounter in the Himalayan foothills.

I’m on a hillside not far from the Tibetan refugee village in Northern India, climbing through the forest on the mountain’s flank on my way to somewhere, when I meet a tiny old woman in the forest. She’s herding geese. The birds are scattered among the trees, pecking busily at morsels only a goose could love.

She’s not Tibetan like the refugees in the village down the hill, and I wonder if she has always lived in this place.

She has tied up her clothing so she can scamper more easily along the slopes after her flock, for growing old here does not mean one can sit home and rest while others work. But she isn’t poor. Around her neck hang heavy strings of coins and beads, pierced wheels of opaque yellow amber, her family’s wealth on display. Clearly there is little fear of muggings here on this mountainside. The bunched-up fabric at her hips makes her look a bit goose-shaped herself.

“Husband?” the elfin woman queries me in her local language. “Baby?” She makes a cradling gesture with her arms, and the meaning is unmistakable.

Such conversations often happen on the Indian trains, with the questions usually coming in rapid-fire barrage, but here, on the sloping side of a tall mountain, the inquiry is more companionable. I’ve been sizing her up. The goose woman is trying to place me, too. She deserves a response.

I shake my head, somewhat regretfully. The answer is no to both questions. For a few seconds, we gaze at each other across about a thousand years.

I realize I like her.

Then I walk on, wondering if I have somehow tumbled into a fairy tale. But no, my feet – still in heavy hiking boots – are firmly under me. They carry me sturdily forward.

Later, I will be unable to remember where I was going.

©Shelley Buck Used with permission. Shelley Buck is the author of the travel memoir, East: A Woman on the Road to Kathmanduavailable from Indiebound, independent bookstores, and online. You can read more about her travels in India in the Winter, 2015, edition of Narrative Magazine.

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