Winter has arrived in all its frost and fury marking the passing of yet another year. The nomads have returned from the summer pastures and the feeling of desertion in the valley lifts with the bustle of humans and animals. The village seems a little smaller and the streets a little narrower as flocks of sheep and herds of yak meander through them. Norzin and I trudge up the road to our house. She shoos the sheep aside and picks her way expertly through them, until suddenly she stops in her tracks. She slips nimbly behind my back and peaks out from behind, pulling me as she clutches my coat tightly.
“Can you sit still!” I exclaim in annoyance as I almost fall on the slippery snow of the newly paved road. A government project brought new cement roads throughout the village. All summer we cursed the influx of construction workers, the dust, the noise and the bulldozers but now we are thankful for not having to trudge through mud and slush. Maybe one day we could hope for salt or sand on snowy days but that’s probably asking too much.
“It’s there,” Norzin shouts, pointing frantically in the direction of our neighbor’s house. I look over just as Rako jerks his head in our direction and scans the contents of the road. If Norzin hadn’t moved, shouted and pointed frantically she might have slipped by without Rako noticing. But it’s too late, the sheep has spotted a child’s small figure. Rako’s jerking head freezes at the sight of Norzin. He takes a step back, lowers his head in a ramming position and charges with his small sprouting horns aimed directly at Norzin.
“No!” Norzin shouts and drops the tail of my jacket with a sudden jerk, sending me slithering on the slick road. She runs up the remainder of the path, slipping and sliding frantically. The sheep follows in close pursuit while I stand half shooing Rako, half laughing at the scene before me. The other sheep seem unfazed and go on grazing. When an adult approaches, Rako tends to muzzle them affectionately, but his patience is thin when it comes to children. At the sight of anything on two legs and under 5 feet, Rako gets into his ramming position and sends children flying in all directions. Usually it’s the kids who chase them, not the other way around, but Rako is special, different. Rako is our elderly neighbor’s little treasure.
My neighbor Acha Choekyong is drawing in on her eighth decade. We’ve had many passing conversations with topics ranging from the weather to the old days. A gruff old lady, she spends much of her time sitting on the hillside staring down into the valley below. Some days she sits on the hill above the atelier, other days she perches herself over the village, staring at its contents, a splatter of red-shingled houses spilling out below her. Unlike the other older people of the village who obsessively spend their final years in an accumulation of merit through prostrations, circumambulations and recitations, I have never seen Acha Choekyong anywhere near the monastery. When I asked her best friend why she didn’t seem pressured like the others to accumulate more merit, her friend answered with a shrug, “Maybe she didn’t do anything she regrets.”
Acha Choekyong lives with her daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. For years she lived in solitude as her son and his wife, both teachers and thus government employees, were stationed in schools in far off villages. Five years ago, her daughter-in-law got a teaching position in the local village and she moved back with their daughter, a chubby little 8-year-old. Soon after, she gave birth to a son, who’s now four-years-old, and while Acha Choekyong grumbles that he is far too naughty for her taste, he served as her sole daytime companion for the last three years when the rest of the family was at work or at school. But this past year her grandson started attending the local pre-school, leaving Acha Choekyong to once again spend her days alone on the hillside, and that’s when she adopted little Rako. Rako is the affectionate name given to orphaned lambs adopted by nomads as pets. These pet sheep become accustomed to humans, never return to the flocks and grow up as a part of the household.
As a lamb, Rako followed Acha Choekyong around affectionately until he discovered our house, where he befriended our large Tibetan mastiff, Tops. Tops and Rako spend hours on end together, a relationship that makes our guests coo with delight. Rako helps himself to Tops’ breakfast and lunch, and Tops waits his turn patiently, eating only when Rako has had his fill. Sometimes they get into a friendly tussle that sends Rako bleating off on a quick run around the house. But mostly they just lie together in the sun. Rako appreciates something warm to cuddle and Tops, having grown gentle with age, is happy to oblige. Acha Choekyong is not happy about Rako’s friendship with Tops and often grumbles that that dog will one day eat her little treasure. She herself does not dare approach the mastiff and has to satisfy herself with standing at a safe distance by the gate coaxing her Rako to return to his mommy.
“Have you seen my Rako?” asked Acha Choekyong one day as I headed down to the atelier. She looked distressed. “He didn’t come home all night.”
“No. I haven’t seen him but he could be in our backyard.” I tried to be helpful but I was late to work and didn’t have time to help her look for Rako.
“He can’t be at your house. He would have come home last night,” Acha Choekyong answered a little indignantly. “I think he’s lost, maybe stolen,” she added.
“Well, I’ll let you know if I see him,” I call out over my shoulder as I continue making my way down the hill, leaving Acha Choekyong looking helplessly after me. I know that the sheep is in our backyard. It’s been spending most of its days there recently but Acha Choekyong would rather believe that it’s stolen than accept that it voluntarily abandoned her. An hour later, I hear her voice as she walks through the atelier asking everyone if they have seen her Rako. Finally I ask our guard to shoo the sheep out of my yard and into Acha Choekyong’s.
“Don’t let Acha Choekyong see though,” I warn. Despite her stubborn ways, I don’t want to hurt her feelings. The guard laughs.
Trudging home that night, I see Acha Choekyong on her doorstep with her beloved Rako munching something by her side. Due to my short height, Rako still hasn’t made up his mind whether to put me in the category of something to be butted out of the way or something to be given a friendly muzzle. He decides on the former and charges over in ramming position but I grab his horns and give him a confident little slap at which he backs up immediately.
“He returned, did he?” I ask.
“Yes, he found his way home,” she beams. “I guess he wandered farther than he intended to.” She gives me a sidelong glance as if threatening me to challenge her version of his disappearance.
“He’s smart to have found his way home,” I say and Acha Choekyong beams and turns to her Rako. “You are a smart little thing aren’t you. You found your way home, now don’t run away again, ok?” She gives his head a little pat and keeps gushing at Rako as I continue up the hill.
In the meantime, Rako seems to have made it his own personal mission to attack Norzin whenever he sees her, much to the delight of pretty much everyone except for Norzin, of course. In the mornings, he mulls around our gate and Norzin is forced to leave home armed with a rock. She doesn’t dare throw it at him though and mornings find her running to school chased by a sheep. Evenings, she peers out of her classroom window and sure enough there is Rako waiting to chase her up the hill again. Much to Norzin’s annoyance adults stand watching the scene in amusement rather than coming to her rescue. Nobody wants to mess with Acha Choekyong’s little darling.
“Your daughter was telling me that she couldn’t come out of the guest house because of a sheep that waits to attack her,” a guest tells me. “I didn’t believe her until I saw her running up the hill chased by a sheep.” My friend looks a little bewildered.
“Oh that’s just Rako,” I say.