This House Is Unguarded
by Jeffrey Greene
Part 1 appears in this issue.
Almost two weeks have passed now, and I’ve come to understand that I’m indeed being tested, physically and spiritually. The weather has worsened, and my supplies of both food and firewood are dangerously low. I’ve had to ration my dwindling stores to hold out, and the muscles of my back and chest ache with the constant effort to breathe. I’m cold, hungry, discouraged, yet more determined than ever to wait until the last possible moment. I’ve seen nothing, heard nothing, yet I have the sense of being watched. Is it my death they want? Or just proof of my willingness to die for the success of this mission?
At most, I can hold out for another week before I become too feeble to travel. What they can no longer doubt is that I came in good faith and waited, as per their instructions. There are no hunters with nets and stun guns hidden in the rocks, no nature photographers. I’m totally alone, and they know it. I’m prepared to get even colder and hungrier, but I won’t starve for them. They must come soon, or I’ll be forced to descend the mountain and report my failure.
Something incredible has happened! I awoke this morning to find the jar of honey gone from its place on the table. I hadn’t touched it since placing it there fifteen days ago. I looked for evidence of an intruder: footprints in the snow, water or mud on the floor, but there were no obvious traces. It could have been a sherpa who stole the honey, but I don’t think so. Is it possible that my counterpart actually came last night, and then removed all traces of his tracks in the snow? The idea that he stood in this very room, watching my sleeping form while he quietly picked up the jar, makes my weakened heart beat faster.
But having accepted the gift, will he be back? He must. It would be terrible if my long wait were to end like this. In a way, I’m glad he took the honey. Almost delirious with hunger now, my thoughts turning constantly on food, my gift to the yeti was becoming an irresistible temptation. It’s strange, but only now that I’m really ill and confined for hours a day to my bed, do I feel most optimistic about the meeting actually taking place. They must know by now that I pose no threat to them. Why won’t they show themselves? Why do they torment me?
For the past three days an unrelenting gale has battered the cabin. Huddled in my rocking chair pulled close to the fire, wrapped in blankets but still shivering, eating my rationed portion of ham and beans, I wait for the storm to pass. When the weather clears, I will start down the mountain, though I may have delayed my departure too long, and the unusually rapid onset of winter will strand me here. I’m very much afraid that if a rescue party doesn’t come soon, the first ambassador from the human race to the icy realm of the yeti will not survive the mission.
It was agreed that if I hadn’t returned in three weeks, a search party would be sent to the cabin, and eighteen days have now passed, leaving me three, possibly four, days to wait for my counterpart. I’m weak, dizzy, hypothermic, sleep-deprived, and have developed a wracking cough. Sometimes, in my near-delirium, I think that the yeti’s arrival is imminent, or that he called on me and I was out, missing my chance forever, or that he already came and went and was a perfect gentleman, conversing with me for hours in excellent English, until we departed friends, or that he is never coming, never existed, and I’m an old fool for believing in the most transparent hoax ever perpetrated.
From one minute to the next, I seesaw between wild hope and abject despair. My sleep is a broken series of micro-naps that often end in nightmares. Maybe it’s the long starvation diet of oxygen that’s done this to my brain, or the solitude, or both. At sea level, I was always known for the steadiness of my temper.
I woke up in my chair a few minutes ago, shivering uncontrollably. It was four a.m. The fire had died down to embers, and the room was freezing. At first, I thought it was the cold that woke me, then I became aware of an acrid, overpowering smell in the room. There was in it some of the musky, pungent amalgam of odors that one always associates with the zoo: matted fur, hay, urine, feces, yet it was alien in its sheer intensity and contained something human, as if the familiar locker room stink of junior high school, the monkey house and a sweltering afternoon on the subway had been combined and distilled into the concentrated essence of simian body odor.
I’ve never smelled anything quite as unpleasant, yet I knew it intimately; in a strangely personal way, it made me ashamed. The only possible conclusion was that I’d had a second visit from the yeti. I can’t explain why there was no smell in the room after the first visit. I made a quick search outside for footprints, and again found none, nor was there any water or mud on the floor, but when I closed the door and turned around, I saw something so shocking that I tottered, and might have fallen had my back not been pressed against the door. The jar of honey was back on the table.
After bolting the door — for the first time since I’d been here — I reached out to pick up the jar, and jerked my hand back as if it had been burnt. The glass was warm, almost hot to the touch, and looking more closely at it, I realized that, although the amber color was close enough to have fooled me, it no longer contained honey.
I lifted the jar, shook it gently, then opened the lid and took a quick sniff, before crinkling my nostrils in disgust and closing it tightly. The jar had been refilled with urine and, judging by its temperature, quite recently. I put it down, backed away, then set about rebuilding the fire, my thoughts in turmoil.
I had given the yeti a gift of honey, a rare and precious commodity so far above the tree line, and their gift to me — if it even was a gift, and not some dire yeti insult — was a quart of urine. At first it made no sense to me except as a gesture of contempt, and I fought a losing battle against my anger and hurt feelings.
I’d sacrificed so much for this mission, and they hadn’t kept faith, coming instead like intruders in the night, denying me even a glimpse of them. In the human world, urine becomes a bacteria-laden waste product outside the body, useful only in medical testing. Were they giving me a sample of their DNA, offering themselves for study? It seemed unlikely that creatures with, one presumes, no science or technology would have the awareness to do such a thing.
But then it occurred to me that, in the frozen wastes of the high mountains, among creatures that have learned to survive in constant, bitter cold, a jar of urine, having come from inside the body, where warmth resides, might really be their idea of a gift. Maybe the yeti were saying: here is the most precious thing we have to give: our body heat. Hold the jar in your small, naked hands and be warmed by it. Whatever the truth was, I chose to accept it as a gift. I warmed my hands on the jar, and also planned to take it down the mountain for study.
But the storm did not pass, and the three weeks came and went without any more clandestine visits from the yeti. My food and firewood are almost gone, and my cough is much worse. I don’t think I could travel now even if the weather cleared, and the search party won’t be able to start up the mountain until it does.
With the last of my strength, I carried the jar of urine outside and smashed it against a boulder. I’m writing this from my bed, too weak now to get up. If the rescue party comes in time, I’ll report my failure, having painfully come to an understanding of my real mission. If they don’t, I can die in the satisfaction of knowing that I did my duty.
The mystery of the yeti is preserved.
Copyright © 2019 by Jeffrey Greene