This House Is Unguarded
by Jeffrey Greene
At three miles high, the air is so thin and sharp in the throat that even when sitting and reading by the light of the kerosene lantern, I’m a little out of breath and altitude-sick. Alone in this alpine cabin, my supply of food and firewood laboriously hauled on the backs of sherpas, the black, snow-covered massif rising nearly a mile above me, I await the promised arrival of the yeti, the chosen representative of his people, as I am of mine.
Centuries of legends, hoaxes, and failed expeditions have had to pass before the runes, found a decade ago scratched into a granite rock face just below nineteen thousand feet on one of the less-celebrated mountains in the Himalayan chain, were finally translated, and at last even some scientists began to believe that the yeti was neither a myth nor some solitary, beast-like primate, but an ancient, estranged cousin of man, with a highly developed brain and a culture and language far older than our own.
The translator scratched a greeting to the yeti in their own runic tongue, and a year later, the answer was found carved under his message: “Send one man to an unguarded cabin on this mountain at the highest altitude he can stand, and let him wait there for our ambassador.”
So here I sit, gasping for breath in the clean, cruel air, waiting many days now for the arrival of my counterpart, a storm lantern by the window to light the way of he who may come tonight, tomorrow, a week from now, or never. Specifics tend to be lacking in messages written in stone. But if the yeti exists, I think he will come.
The sherpas who guided me to this cabin told me that when they climb above eighteen thousand feet, they leave jars of honey at the edges of their campsites as offerings, and that the jars are always gone by morning. They say no sherpa has ever been harmed by a yeti, even those who don’t leave gifts, and although they sometimes find massive footprints in the snow, no one in the memory of their people has ever seen a live yeti or found a dead one.
Taking the hint, I have brought a jar of the finest mountain wildflower honey, and left it in plain sight on the table. I have no weapons. My intentions are peaceful. I hope to establish a dialogue with the yeti, to explain to them that we have no wish to destroy or capture them, only to exchange knowledge, and to learn some of the secrets of our shared, distant past.
The competition for this great honor was fierce, and I won out over some more qualified than myself, but the deciding factor may have been my abilities as a linguist. It took me more than a year to acquire a working knowledge of the yeti language, if only on paper, since no human has ever heard it spoken.
Another factor in my favor, I believe, was my lack of emotional attachments. I have no wife, no children, no living parents to mourn my death. I am, therefore, both invaluable and expendable. I live for the success of this mission, but am also keenly aware that the yeti are risking much more than we are by finally agreeing to meet after so many centuries of occult existence. We vastly outnumber them, and the more we know about their habits, the less chance they will have of remaining hidden from the expeditions that have sought them in the past.
I have been asked to persuade my counterpart to submit a sample of his DNA, if only a clipping of his hair, but I have no intention of making such a request at this crucial moment in the history of our two peoples. The yeti may have already changed their minds, and I could hardly blame them if they let me wait here for weeks, until my provisions run low, and I’m forced to leave. I don’t know; I can only wait, gasping through the days as my body futilely tries to acclimate to this altitude, sleeping fitfully and waking often from dreams of suffocation, threat, and encirclement.
I have tried to rid myself of all preconceptions as to the physical appearance of the yeti. It’s impossible, of course. Popular culture is pervaded by images of the creature also known as Bigfoot, Abominable Snowman, meh-teh, kang-mi, Sasquatch, skunk ape: eight feet tall and covered with fur, a kind of huge, upright gorilla of the snows.
But even the skeptics can agree that the pressures of survival in extreme cold and high altitude would favor creatures with a dense coating of fur over a thick layer of body fat, huge, splayed feet to better negotiate the deep snow, gigantic lungs, and a larger than human size, since big bodies hold heat more efficiently than small ones.
Perhaps the yeti is really short and squat like the Inuit, whose body type is better adapted for cold than the tall, thin bodies that thrive near the equator, and we have been misled by their oversized footprints. One anthropologist, an outlier in the field, suggests that the yeti are an ancient tribe of extremely hirsute men, bearing the same genes as Jojo, the Dog-Faced Boy of freak show fame, a small population driven from the human world millennia ago by a genetic difference that made them seem like fearsome throwbacks, yet which proved an immense advantage in surviving the cold of the high mountains, and through natural selection the hirsute gene, and a larger lung capacity, became dominant. These essentially human yeti, he thinks, keep the myth alive by planting giant footprints to cover their own modest tracks.
None of these theories can be verified without a living or even a mummified specimen available for study, and why no forensic evidence has turned up anywhere in the world where sightings have been reported, no artifacts beyond the aforementioned runes scratched on a rock face, no confirmed sightings, remain the most troubling questions.
This apparently perfect record in keeping their existence debatable to the present day implies one of two conclusions: that the yeti is merely a persistent myth, endemic to wilderness areas, of a near-human wild man, a kind of primal shadow from our collective psyche, and therefore the runic messages discovered not far from where I now sit are an elaborate hoax. Or, that the the yeti is a living example of parallel evolution, a primate more closely related to Homo sapiens than we are to chimpanzees and gorillas, existing in small numbers in the most remote, inaccessible places, with a zealous commitment to secrecy impossible to achieve without a high order of intelligence.
As an interested skeptic, I perhaps incline to the former conclusion. I want to believe, because our world would be a richer place if we could know beyond doubt that the yeti exists, that it’s possible for beings not unlike ourselves to inhabit this world humbly, almost invisibly, and leave so few traces, instead of the ever-expanding swarm of locusts that we’ve become.
That nothing has happened for over a week now worries and depresses me, but I can’t say that my faith has been shaken, since I never had any in the first place. I wait to be convinced. Every morning I examine the new-fallen snow around the cabin, looking for footprints and finding none, and each night I refill the storm lantern, light it and set it in the window. I wonder, as I eat my simple meals, read by the dim lantern light and write these pages, if I’m being tested in some way.
If they exist, are they making me wait in order to gauge the strength of my will, my commitment to this historic détente? What must I do to prove myself? Outpacing my boredom and frustration is an anxiety that waxes and wanes with the coming of night and morning. I feel oppressed by this place, with its constant, freezing wind, its terrifyingly black nights and its indifference to the life of one aging man. I might as well be marooned on Mars, and like an astronaut and his lifeline of oxygen, my existence here hangs on my supply of firewood, the layers of insulation protecting my body, and how much food is left in the pantry.
And, too, my faith. I said earlier that I had none, but I wouldn’t have risked everything to come here if I didn’t believe in the possibility that something is out there in the darkness, something that watches and waits, weighing in its unknowable thoughts the decision whether or not to trust us, the eternally untrustworthy, the scourge of the lowlands. Why should the yeti give up its greatest asset, its mystery, for the dubious gain of a dialogue with the human species? Don’t we infect and destroy everything we touch, even creatures we want to save?
I may be indulging in prelapsarian nostalgia here, but what has always attracted me to the idea of the yeti is the purity of its wildness. That wildness will be compromised as soon as the first words between us are exchanged, when the mountain man begins to hear the siren song of the seducer. I’m not sure I can endure a world in which the yeti have cellphones, snowmobiles, and insurance policies.
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey Greene