Prayer flags drifted on the wind like long strands of kelp in a current. The sun sank low and orange in the west. The trip was ending? No, couldn’t be. Impossible. Sophia and I walked our clockwise circles, again and again, not really believing that in a handful of hours a plane would rise from the Kathmandu Valley and we’d be on it.
We’d been traveling in Nepal for five weeks, through sweaty jungles and mountains bright with snow and claustrophobic markets where old, hunched men sold metal beads, spices, cheap digital watches, hunks of raw water buffalo. There’d been elephants, monkeys, a man-eating tiger, and a moonlit horse nuzzling our tent with his big velvety nose. Countless children asking for chocolate. A gorgeous one-eyed woman.
Now we were back in Kathmandu making a final stop at the Tibetan Buddhist neighborhood called Boudhanath, site of the largest stupa in Asia. As we circled, gazing at the flags, it felt as if we were swimming underwater, holding our breath. Six egrets flew overhead, tracing an invisible path across the rooftops. The stupa glowed a soft, warm white.
Really? The trip was ending?
We followed the egrets, wandering a maze of hills and alleys, lost and happy-sad, wishing aloud that the sun would give us one more hour of light before we closed our eyes and woke up back home. Sure, there’s magic in America, but too often it’s hiding underground, unwilling to show its face for fear of being bought and sold, reduced by science, stifled, sucked dry. In Nepal, at least from what we’d seen, magic still lived in the surface world, jouncing along with the rickshaws and mopeds, burning in the night like incense. Enchanted—that’s how a friend had described Boudhanath before we left the States.
Five lefts, two rights, another couple of lefts—a harmony of car horns. We passed a garage where guys built hand drums by hand and a shop where women hawked bright folded sweatpants stacked in towers. Lanes became paths between walls and hedges. More rights and lefts. An open gate. By accident we entered a monastery compound and found ourselves in a courtyard surrounded by rainbow-colored buildings.
Was this okay? Were we allowed to be here? The familiar tourist anxiety crept up on me, the icky feeling that we were eavesdropping on religion and culture, gawking, stealing souls with our photographs. But the buildings were mesmerizing, like architectural kaleidoscopes, and there were no souls around to steal anyway. The place was empty. Not spooky-empty but peaceful-empty. At rest. Inviting.
We inched through the courtyard, spinning prayer wheels with a soft touch, taking care not to scuff the quiet with talk or heavy footfalls. I climbed a steep metal stairwell to a lofted patio with a view across the city. At the patio’s end was a little glassed-in library, a simple, clean space with windows on three sides and books shelved along the back wall. I brought my face close, cupping my hands around my temples to shield out the sunset glare.
And then something struck the glass.
Shit. A sparrow.
Actually, it was two sparrows, an unraveling double helix of feathers and glinting eyes. The birds crisscrossed back and forth, smacking the windows, flaring their tails, smacking the books, fluttering their wings, smacking the windows. I tried the door to let them out. It was locked. Sparrows in a library-prison. Shit indeed.
Intent on finding somebody with a key, I went back down the stairs. A long five minutes passed before I saw a strolling monk—stocky, bald, smiling—and flagged him down. Of course, he spoke no English, not a lick. I made my hands into a book and nodded in the direction of the library. I flapped my arms like wings and struck my head against a glass wall between us, miming for all I was worth. Sophia came over to help, but it was no help. The monk held up a finger and disappeared around a corner, returning moments later, still smiling, with a 13-year-old boy in tow.
The boy was dressed in robes, spoke near-perfect English, and had no key. No key? I asked how long he’d been at the monastery and he said since he was 4. He was wearing lichen-green Crocs, the foam clogs sometimes used as camp shoes on backpacking trips. Sophia and I followed him up the stairs. The smiling monk drifted away like smoke.
Working as a team, we tested every window, hoping to jimmy one loose. Meanwhile, the birds kept pinging off the glass, their beaks making the sound of ice against ice. I was scared of breaking a pane, so I didn’t pull too hard; the boy-monk pulled with his whole body, though, and eventually yanked one window half-open. He squeezed through. He was a skinny little guy beneath his robes.
To my surprise, instead of unlocking the door from the inside and letting the birds find their way out—as I would have done, as I assumed anybody would have done—the boy chased the birds: frantically, madly, playfully, exuberantly, chaotically, joyously, with passion and verve. His robes billowed and swirled. His Crocs slid. His arms flailed. Before my very eyes he became a third sparrow flying crazy loops around the room.
Entranced by his performance, I pressed my nose to the glass. He leaped. He whirled. He spun and lunged. The birds zigged and he zagged. The birds zagged and he zigged. He rushed at the bookshelf and—
Yes, he had caught one. His body stilled. His small hands caged the trembling bird. The hands floated to the cracked window—to my face—like a cloud. They lifted up. The cloud opened.
Flash of brown.
A sparrow cutting across the sprawling, enchanted city’s vast, empty sky.
And just like that—so fast—the boy was back at work, running up the walls, dancing that second bird closer and closer to his hands. I wondered if upon releasing it he would let himself out through the door or, for the sake of playground fun, climb back through the cracked window. But there was no time to hang around and find out.
I believed it now—the trip really was over. We were headed home to America to search out the magic hiding there under our own native ground, flying around our own libraries, burning like incense in our own nighttime streets. We all but jumped down the stairs. If we didn’t hurry, we really were going to miss our plane.
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