After dreaming of London for so long, Myra returned to the city with the goal of earning a PhD in Evolutionary Biology1. For years, she had carried around the version of London she had seen as a child. In her fantastical memories, sidewalks glistened with rain, bright shop signs beckoned her inside, cars roamed the streets like wild horses, and the sweet smell of bread and cooked meat infused everything. But Myra had only been in the city for a day. Her aunt had met her on the dock2. Then, they walked a little way to the bus station where they boarded one bound for Dover3. As they passed out of the city, London passed into the realm of fairy tales.
Now, however, Myra understood that she had been mistaken. Childhood memories are nothing but romanticized versions of dull reality. London was like any other city: dirty, busy, expensive, and lonely. She had limited funds, so her only option for living arrangements was a small university dorm apartment. For the first couple of months, she only went from her dorm to the biology building, to the curry takeout place, to the library, and then back to her dorm. It had always been hard for her to make friends—a remnant of classmates mocking her accent until she never spoke to anyone unless she absolutely had to—and despite common interests, her fellow PhD candidates were absorbed in their own studies. Whenever they did go out for a pint, they always forgot to invite her.4
Even worse was the lack of family. Myra’s mother was back in Dover. Although she called almost every day, it wasn’t the same. There was no popping over to do laundry. There was no sitting down for a home-cooked meal. There was no spending a Saturday night watching the BBC together. Distance was a cruel mistress, and Myra now understood how her mother had felt when her family had been so far away.5
However, it was Myra’s lack of a social life that led to her discovery. She had been roaming the halls of the library, not looking for anything in particular but not wanting to leave yet. It was a bright, sunny afternoon,6 and the thought of walking home, passing all those happy Londoners out for strolls or coffee or meeting friends was unbearable. Even though she had already finished her paper on Elephantfish,7 Myra continued to prowl through the library, trying to look busy and hoping the librarian wouldn’t ask if she was all right again, as to her eyes, Myra always seemed very tired and sad.
“It’s just my face,” Myra had said the first time the “all right?” question had been posed.
But the librarian didn’t seem to believe her and had since taken to inquiring often.
Dodging the librarian and scanning the shelves, a familiar name caught her eye: Florence Kensington.8
Among the two books by Florence Kensington that Myra was intimately familiar with, there was a third she had never seen. Myra pulled the slim volume from the shelf. Not nearly as dense as the other two, the cover was a plain, faded blue with the title—On the Origin of Grief—embossed in gold.
Myra felt as if she had suffered a loss without even knowing it.9 Feeling completely out of sorts, she headed to the check-out counter and then returned home. How was it possible she didn’t know this book existed? She should’ve known. She just should have.
Without taking off her shoes, she collapsed on her bed and turned to the first page.10 The opening paragraph began like so:
There is no right and proper way to write it down. So, as plainly as I can, I write these words: My daughter is dead. There. That will make it true. She died of a fever. She was only three months old. I was a mother. Now, I am not. The one thing left is the question of how I come to terms with it all.1
1 What a ridiculous question to set out to answer. As if there even is an answer. How high and mighty I think myself. But I’m only a scientist now and this question is my only child.
Myra stayed up all night reading, marveling at the intimate and detailed nature of the text—so unlike her first book. Florence Kensington didn’t shy away from any thought that passed through her mind. There were chapters solely about the genus Panthera—which included the snow leopard of the Himalayas—and in painstaking fashion, Florence Kensington compared and contrasted characteristics of the African leopard, the Siberian tiger, the West African lion, and other big cats. But she never worked her way to any thesis. There was just facts and observations. Yet, at the end of the chapter, Florence Kensington wrote the following footnote:
31 So, in the end, I see that all things share something in common. But wasn’t that something I already knew? Did I somehow forget? Still, despite my lapse, I know it to be true. I’ve proven it to myself. We are all the same, sharing the same heartaches. I need to be cognizant of that fact when it comes to Benjamin.
Although Myra had thought she knew all there was to know about Florence Kensington, she was wrong.11 Myra never knew she had been married to a man named Benjamin, let alone had a child. None of what Myra read in On the Origin of Grief was present in Florence Kensington’s biography.12
Then Myra came across a disturbing section:
Something has happened. Something I’m not even sure I should put down in writing. Perhaps, my mind has finally left me, and this is the proof. But, no, I must write, if only to make sense of it. I was on my morning hike—the one I take every day at the cusp of dawn when the animal life is still active. My usual route takes me through the Homkhani Forest and into the wide valley of Dhel Thatch. This day, I hiked up farther than usual to a goddess shrine on a mild peak—the shrine being only some humble red flags and cloths atop a pile of stones. I surveyed the land before me.
Then I saw it.
There was some creature a little below me. I couldn’t name it straight off like I can the other animals. It was not a snow leopard, a tahr, or even a deer. It was upright. I wondered if was it another human, but it walked with such a long, gaping stride that I discounted the possibility of it being a hiker. It crossed the valley, paused, then looked in my direction. Some unspeakable understanding passed between us. Then, with three strides, it disappeared into a grouping of trees.
What creature was this? 119
119 This footnote is being added weeks after the encounter. Only now can I fully admit the truth of what I saw that day. I, of course, have heard the stories from locals. Their tales speak of a man-like creature living high in the Himalayas. I never believed them. The most likely explanation was that, if they saw anything, it was a bear. But I did not see a bear that day. As a scientist, I know observation is the first step to understanding. And what I observed was a yeti.
A yeti? Florence Kensington believed she had seen a yeti. An animal that only quacks and crazies believed in. Myra felt betrayed.13 The basis for Myra’s life had been the love she had for Florence Kensington—a woman who believed in yetis.
No one noticed or cared that Myra’s life had been uprooted by a single book. Over the course of the next week, Myra stopped paying attention during labs and lectures. She blew off an important paper. Every minute of the day was filled with the sickening weight of impending doom that had settled in her chest—right over her heart—and never went away. A few times she snuck off to the bathroom to make herself throw up.14 As she kneeled on the bathroom floor, Myra, from somewhere remote, watched herself be sick. She felt sorry for this pitiful little girl who had swallowed all this grief only to have it turn on her.15 In those sweet moments after emptying her stomach, Myra almost felt normal again. But invariably, the sickness in her heart would return stronger than before.
With nothing to hold onto, Myra turned to what was both a comfort and a trigger: On the Origin of Grief:
I think that there is nothing that remains of me. How can that be when I once contained so much? I was a mother. I was a wife. Now, I’m neither. The unfairness of it all is a bitter taste on my tongue that I can never be rid of. Nothing grants relief. Before, I could turn to science. I could pour myself into a text and savor the new knowledge. I once spent all night tracking a snow leopard through treacherous terrain and never tired or thought of turning back. But since losing my daughter, there are days when the only thing I do is wander the house hopelessly, too restless to sit, too lethargic to dress.
Am I lost for good?
Is there anything in the world that can save me?
Two weeks after discovering On the Origin of Grief, as Myra aimlessly walked the London streets, she saw Florence Kensington, who was standing in front of a bakery, dressed as if she were on an expedition: khaki pants, a large-brimmed hat, and a full pack at her feet. Their eyes met. Florence Kensington then reached for her pack, picked it up, and made her way across the street as if she had been waiting for Myra to show up.16
As Myra stepped forward to meet her, a passing bus obscured Florence Kensington from sight and she didn’t reappear.
In that moment, Myra’s mind17 was made up. She was invigorated by having a clear course of action again.18 The next thing Myra did was board a plane headed for Delhi, India. She didn’t call and tell her mother.
It was a strange kind of homecoming. On the train to Chandigarh,19 everyone she encountered assumed she knew their language. Yet, when she actually spoke, her perfected English accent came through and whoever she was talking to would nod as if to say sorry for her loss. Myra didn’t bother exploring Chandigarh. She hopped the next bus heading to the Himalayan National Park.
As she bypassed the beautiful country, Myra took out On the Origin of Grief, which she had failed to return to the library. She opened it to the last chapter and began to read:
Here, in the absolute absence of my past life, I have been returned to myself. The wildness of this mountain land is where I truly and solely belong. There are times, however, when I am sorry for what I left behind. Benjamin was a good man, and I loved him the best I could, but the loss we shared was too much.219
In the Himalayas, I wake each morning with fresh air in my lungs. I catalogue the plant life. I study the animals. I am consumed by nothing other than my observations.
At last, I am what I was meant to be: a scientist and nothing more..
219 There are times when the only prudent course of action is to unravel yourself from what you have so tightly clung. So, I am unraveled.
The sight of the Himalayas was almost too great to take in.20 Myra only saw it in small pieces: a towering mountain, the expanse, the greenery, another mountain, the sky opened wide, a far-off winding river. Myra had bought camping and hiking gear before she left London and signed up for a park trek that passed through the Homkhani Forest.21 The guide, an older man who was burdened with making sure those in his charge didn’t fall off a cliff or slip down into a valley or get themselves injured in any number of unimaginable ways, kept a close eye on her as if he sensed she was the weak link.
And, indeed, Myra kept trailing far behind the others and, worse yet, wandering off.22 The guide kept doubling back to politely tell her to keep up or that they weren’t going that way but this way.
On the third day of the excursion, the guide sat next to her after the other group members had eaten dinner and were padding off to their tents.
“Long day, yes?” the guide said.
Myra nodded and turned back to On the Origin of Grief, which she was reading by flashlight.
She hadn’t bothered to get to know anyone on the trek. Besides the guide, there was the American husband and wife who constantly bickered, a woman retiree from Australia who oohed and awed a lot, and a group of four other Americans who were very serious about their birdwatching. No one had asked her any personal questions, and she hadn’t volunteered any information. On the first day of the trek, the Australian had tried to engage Myra, but her one-word answers and nods got the point across—she wasn’t in the Himalayas for the company.23
“Your first time on an expedition of this kind, I think?” the guide asked.
“How’d you know?” Myra said, hoping it wasn’t too obvious.
“I see all kinds,” the guide said, and then he glanced at her book. “The Lady Kensington!”
“You know of her?”
“Oh, yes, yes, my grandmother told stories of her. She knew her when she was a child and Lady Kensington was an old woman.24 She lived not far from here for many years, in fact.”
“She’s why I came,” Myra said.
The guide, his face rough and inquisitive, seemed to be deciding something. “We pass by her old cabin. Maybe you will see it from a distance.”
Two days later, as they passed out of Homkhani Forest and into a large open field, the guide lagged behind the group and approached Myra.
“There,” he said, pointing to something far off. “Lady Kensington’s cabin.”
Yes, she saw it: a small cabin with a pale green roof nestled midway up the incline of a valley. But the group bypassed the cabin and continued their trek for another couple of hours before stopping for the night.
The guide seemed to think glimpsing the cabin was enough.25
When Myra was sure everyone was asleep, she laced up her hiking boots and left her tent. She had memorized the route the best she could, and with only a flashlight and the half-moon above her, Myra retraced her steps, thinking it wouldn’t be so bad to get lost in the Himalayas. It was, perhaps, the stupidest thing she had ever done. But there was no undoing it. Forward was the only direction.26
Myra crossed the valley and entered a small grouping of trees, which was denser than she remembered. Yet, maybe she was just tired. She stopped to rest. Her muscles ached, and she had cuts and bruises on her arms and legs from when she had slipped and fallen earlier that day. She hadn’t taken a proper bath since she arrived in India, and her hair was a matted mess.
A fog filled her head, and when she sat and leaned against a tree, she fell asleep. Who knew how much later, she woke with a start when someone yelled her name.27
“Shut up,” Myra said. “You’re the whole reason I’m here in the first place.”28
“There’s something she wants to tell me,” Myra said.29
“You haunt me even more than she does,” Myra said. “So just leave me alone.”30
Myra stood up and carried on.
The trees thinned then ended. The morning sky emerged, erasing the stars that had blanketed the expanse. Myra must’ve taken a wrong turn because before her was an unfamiliar long, low valley filled with mist and to her right was a small outcropping.
As expected, Myra had gotten herself lost.31 This would be the time to panic, but Myra felt only a strange sense of relief and calm.
Then Myra saw it.32
Just above her on the rocks, moving steadily, was a large creature with white-gray fur. It was unlike anything she had ever seen but she knew a yeti when she saw one. Florence Kensington hadn’t been crazy. Without warning, the yeti paused and bellowed a soul-cowering scream that echoed through the mountains. It began to move again, taking elongated, easy strides down the outcropping and into the valley.
Without thinking, Myra followed.33
The yeti had disappeared from her sight when it had descended from the outcropping, but it had left a trampled trail through the tall grass. The mist cleared as the sun reached its zenith. The valley came alive, purple monkshood appearing everywhere. A gentle incline led her back up. Then, as if it had been placed to block her path, Florence Kensington’s cabin appeared. There was no door, so Myra stepped right inside.
Although it was once cared for, the cabin had fallen victim to the hands of time. The smell of decay—heavy and a little acidic—greeted her right away. It was as if Florence Kensington had gone out on her daily observation walk and had forgotten to come back. All was as it had been, except for the way time eroded all things. Moldy books were piled on a table next to the one broken window and still more were tucked beneath a rusted bed frame that nestled a torn sleeping pad. The wardrobe in the corner contained yellowed shirts that were once white, a large-brimmed hat, and two pair of half-decomposed boots. A large desk with broken back legs leaned against the wall for support, creating a V that had collected faded papers and an assortment of glass jars filled with long-dead animals, only their skeletons remaining.
The cabin had become a shrine to Florence Kensington and her love of science.
Myra was examining one of the jars when a noise from the doorway startled her. She expected it to be the yeti.34
It was Florence Kensington.
“Oh, hello, dear, I wasn’t expecting visitors today,” she said. “Would you care for some tea?”
Myra tried to find some flaw, some proof that what she was seeing wasn’t real, but Florence Kensington was in full color and completely manifest. Every detail, from the strands of her hair to the light in her eyes to the dirt under her fingernails, spoke to a living body. Making tea, she moved around the cabin as if it wasn’t a relic, pulling objects from seemingly nowhere, fetching water from outside, standing in front of a collapsed fireplace as she waited for a nonexistent kettle to boil. When she passed Myra her tea, what had been a perfectly beautiful teacup with blue flowers became an empty, broken cup in Myra’s hands. Yet, Florence Kensington sat in a sunken chair that, nonetheless, held her weight and very much sipped steaming tea from her own unbroken cup.
“Yes, loss is a hard thing to understand,” she said as if they were in the middle of a long conversation. “If I could tell you the key to surviving it, I would. Some days, I feel as if I’m okay, then others I know I am not. I try to focus on what is around me.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” Myra said, looking around the dead cabin.
“Oh, you’ll learn,” Florence Kensington said. “You’ll find things to fill your life with. Me? I choose the yeti. Ridiculous, maybe, but it reminds me there are still mysteries we don’t understand.”
“I don’t understand what’s happening to me right now.”35
Florence Kensington set her teacup on the sloping top of the broken table and it somehow stayed upright. She gave Myra a searching look then asked, “Who did you lose?”
Although Myra didn’t want to say it, the words were pulled from her throat: “My sister.”
“Well, there’s your trouble. You won’t admit your yeti is real,” Florence Kensington said. She got up and rifled through the decaying bookshelf next to the bed. She pulled out a book that was no longer there and held it as if it was real. Her whole being had become faded and thin. “You cannot relegate your monsters to the footnotes. You have to make them a part of the story proper.”
Myra recognized those words as part of the last footnote in On the Origin of Grief. She hadn’t understood what Florence Kensington had meant. Or maybe, she hadn’t wanted to understand it.
“Here, for you to keep,” Florence Kensington said, holding out Myra’s own copy of On the Origin of Grief. Myra took the offering and when she looked back up, Florence Kensington was gone.
Hours later, the guide found her asleep in the cabin with On the Origin of Grief opened to the last page. When they returned to the others, nothing was said about her disappearance, but the guide never let her out of his sight again.
Through the rough, long days of the return hike, Myra grew more and more tired. But she was awake in other ways. The beauty of the Himalayas surrounded her—mountains hiding ancient shrines, flower-filled valleys veiling secret trails, and rocky rivers obscuring unknown depths. So much was hidden to her eye. But she wanted, for the first time in so long, to meet every mystery. The yeti was out there somewhere, a creature of inexplicable hope. Florence Kensington was out there in her old cabin, a ghost of what once was. Her sister was here, an unspoken36 grief. But Myra couldn’t let her sister become a footnote in her life, so to the heights of the Himalayas, she spoke her sister’s name at last: “Padma.”