Authors: Eliot Pattison
“Lha gyal lo,” the herder in the vest whispered, as if to cheer Shan on.
Lokesh touched the warrior’s arm. “It is difficult for one so young to understand these things,” the old Tibetan said. “You should return with us to the hermitage and see.”
“Unlike Drakte, I obey my orders,” the man snapped. “I am needed elsewhere.”
Lokesh raised the bamboo tube in his hand. “Then look now,” he suggested, extracting a roll of cloth from the tube. As Lokesh straightened it Shan saw that it was an old
one of the cloth paintings used to depict the icons of Tibetan Buddhism.
When the purba’s light hit the painting the man grimaced and retreated a step. One of the dropka guards moaned loudly. It was the image of a fierce demon, with the head of a bull garlanded with human skulls, surrounded by swords and spears and arrows, holding a cup of blood. The flayed skins of its victims lay at its feet. Lokesh studied the image with a satisfied grin, then motioned the purba forward.
“Look carefully,” the old Tibetan said, pointing to the head of the terrifying image. “This is what we are doing. This is how we win without violence. This is how the artifact will be returned, how that deity is going to be repaired. Because this is what he is becoming.”
“Who?” the purba asked, the anger in his voice now tinged with confusion.
In the dim light Shan thought he saw surprise on Lokesh’s face, as though the answer were obvious. Then Lokesh gestured from the skull-clad demon to Shan. “Our friend. Our Shan.”
The spell cast by the words silenced the purba and the dropka, all of whom stared uneasily at Shan. Shan searched Lokesh’s face for an explanation, but his friend just grinned back expectantly, as if he had given Shan a great gift.
Suddenly another desperate cry split the air. The guard at the top of the ridge frantically stumbled down the slope. “A patrol! Knobs!” he cried, meaning the soldiers of the Public Security Bureau. The purba and Shan leapt up and moments later gazed down at a troop transport half a mile away, edging its way slowly toward their position.
“That helicopter spotted us,” the purba said. “Last month they used infrared to find an old hermit who only came out at night to pray.” Shan sensed the fierce determination rising in the warrior’s voice and shuddered.
At the river three of the dropka were in a cluster around the lamas, facing outward, as if preparing to engage the knobs with their staffs. The fourth, the man wearing the fleece vest, stood apart, staring into the black water. As the purba marched purposefully toward the lamas the herder in the vest spun about and hurled himself on the purba, shoving him to the ground, then just as abruptly pulling away. In his hand was a large automatic pistol.
“You fool!” the purba spat. “They have to be taken away! We can’t fight those knobs.”
Shame crossed the herder’s face as he looked at the pistol in his hand, and he held the weapon clumsily, fingers around only the grip, not touching the trigger. “You see that one,” he said, nodding toward Gendun, who still communed with the river. “My mother stays at that tent by the hermitage. She calls him the Pure Water Lama. You know why? Not just because he never registered with the bastards at the Bureau of Religious Affairs, but because he took his vows more than fifty years ago, before the invasion. Before the Chinese scoured our land and changed it forever. He has never gone into exile, never been captured. His words are uncontaminated, my mother says, because they flow from a stream the Chinese never discovered.” The man spoke slowly, with a tone of wonder, as if he had forgotten the knob patrol. Beside him two of the herders knelt at the river and began collecting pebbles.
“I need my gun,” growled the purba, still sprawled on the ground. He was scared, Shan saw. Sometimes traditional Tibetans hated the purbas as much as the Chinese. “We need to get them out of here.”
The herder shook his head. “I have never done anything with my life,” he said in a hollow voice. “The Chinese would not let me go to school. They wouldn’t let me travel. They wouldn’t let me get a job. I’m like a little stunted tree that can never grow, and that one, the Pure Water Lama, he is like the towering survivor of a forest where everything else was leveled.”
He cast a smile toward Gendun, then looked at the purba, his face hardening. “Here is how we protect such men,” he said, and he threw the gun into the black water. The two herders at the river’s edge rose and stepped to his side, pulling slings from their pockets. “We have heard how to do this from others. We will smash their searchlights and fill the air with stones. If we are lucky they will not see us. Chinese soldiers get scared in the night. They hear stories of demons.” He glanced at the thangka, still in Lokesh’s hand, then at Shan. “The lamas must fill the jar,” he said to the purba, “and then you will take them back. My younger brother knows the way,” he said, gesturing toward the remaining herder. “If we do not stop the patrol, you are the one who best knows how to evade the soldiers.”
When the man lifted his sling his hand shook. “Patch the deity,” he said in a rushed whisper to Shan, then faded into the shadows with his companions.
As Shan helped the purba to his feet the man looked into the darkness, in the direction the herders had gone, a mixture of anger and awe on his face. “That artifact,” he said in a hollow voice, “I hear it’s just a little piece of stone.”
* * *
The events of the night haunted Shan during their long trek back toward the hermitage, and stayed with him as he lay restlessly on his pallet finding it impossible to sleep. It was nearly dawn when he stepped into the little chapel of the hermitage, the
and settled cross-legged before the altar. Before its cracked wooden Buddha, flanked by butter lamps, sat a jagged piece of stone, six inches long and curved along its front, where a faint circle of red was centered, a dim remnant of an eye that had once been painted there. Just a piece of stone. But it was why the dropka had risked their lives the night before. It was why Lokesh said Shan was becoming the demon, why the purbas were so upset that Shan and his friends lingered at the hermitage, why they had gone to such lengths to bring Shan there.
He and Lokesh had been slowly returning from a pilgrimage to Mount Kailas, in southwestern Tibet, walking on remote trails, sometimes daring to ride an hour or two on trucks bound for central Tibet. One night the truck they had been traveling on had been abruptly stopped by a horse cart drawn across the road. Several young men sprang from the surrounding rocks, running not toward the driver but toward the cargo bay, closing in on Shan and Lokesh before their feet were on the ground. Shan recognized Drakte instantly, a tall lean Tibetan with a double looping scar on his forehead, received from a knob riot squad that had wrapped barbed wire around their truncheons.
“We’ve been looking for you,” Drakte had announced and studied the two men peevishly, as though Shan and Lokesh had been deliberately avoiding him.
“We’ve had a pilgrimage,” Lokesh offered brightly. “We’re going back home, to Lhadrung.”
“No, you’re not,” the purba had insisted. He spoke briefly with the driver, handed the man a
a prayer scarf, and as the man sped away Drakte had gestured them into a smaller truck that emerged from the rocks.
For three days they had driven through the rugged mountains and valleys northwest of Lhasa, skirting the town of Shigatse on roads that were little more than rutted game trails, then heading north through small barren villages and onto the
plateau, the vast wilderness land of north central Tibet, before turning east at the mining town of Doba. As they sat around their campfires Drakte had spoken of his beloved changtang, and many other things, but never of the reason he had intercepted them or where he was taking them. On the fourth day, when they had been met in a canyon by dropka horsemen leading two mounts, Drakte watched Shan leave with a strange longing in his eyes.
“Do this thing for all of us,” the young purba said to Shan as they parted. “When it is time, I will come to take you,” he promised, and Shan had thought he had seen the stirring of friendship in the man’s eyes.
For two more days they had ridden, the dropka never speaking of their destination, until finally they had crested a high windswept ridge to find a group of ragged buildings in the small hollow below. Three of the largest had been repaired in a patchwork fashion, with plywood, tin, and cardboard fastened to the packed earth and stone walls of the original construction. Inside the compact stone building that housed the lhakang, he had discovered Gendun. Along with a middle-aged lama and a nun he sat at the altar before the jagged eye, reading long narrow sheets of text, unbound pages from a traditional teaching book. Gendun, whom Shan had last seen over four months earlier hundreds of miles away in the western Kunlun Mountains, acknowledged him with a serene smile and gestured for the two men to sit in the empty space beside him, as though they had been expected. It had been more than two hours later, as a meal of roasted barley and buttered tea was being prepared, when Gendun had finally introduced Shopo, and Nyma, a sturdy woman of perhaps thirty.
Nyma had burst into an excited greeting. “We’ve waited so long,” she exclaimed, “and now at last you have come. All these years,” she sighed.
“Years?” Shan asked in confusion as he had studied the young woman’s leathery face and strong shoulders. But for her robe he would have taken her for another herder. “The purbas found us last week.”
The nun laughed and pointed toward the lhakang. “Many decades ago it was lost—stolen and taken out of Tibet as a trophy.”
“The eye?” Shan asked, remembering what he had seen on the altar. “That broken stone?”
Nyma nodded enthusiastically, moving up and down on her toes, barely in control of her emotions. “From the deity that guards our valley. Only five years ago did it return to Tibet, and only a few weeks ago was it freed from Lhasa,” she said, as though the stone had been in prison. “We knew he must have his eye returned, we always knew it would come back eventually. But no one could find the way back for it. Now we have you. The things he will see,” she added ominously. “The things he will do then.”
After they had eaten that first night Shopo had explained that three months earlier, before news of its recovery had even reached the valley, an oracle in the Yapchi Valley, where the eye belonged, had declared that the eye could only be returned by a virtuous Chinese, a certain Chinese of pure heart. Gendun had been on his way to Lhadrung when this news had reached him, and he had instantly changed his direction to find those who had been debating the words of the oracle. He had known whom that Chinese must be.
Shan had not pressed the Tibetans with questions. The story of the stone had to come out at its own pace, in its own way. He had learned long ago that there usually were no words for the things most important to the Tibetans, and even when they might find words, they were wary of speaking them. To people like Gendun and Lokesh words were treacherous, imperfect things, capable of connecting people in only the most tenuous ways. If the eye were truly important, they would teach Shan not about the eye as such but about how to think about the eye, how to fit the eye into his particular awareness.
Yet after so many weeks with it, Shan thought he would have understood it better. The stone eye seemed to mock him, still caused an ache in that part of the old Shan that would not die, the investigator who could not stop asking questions. Why were Tibetans willing to die for the stone?
Outside, a voice shouted in excitement, then another. In an instant Shan was at the doorway. The middle-aged dropka woman who watched over the hermitage with her brother was on the ridge above, pointing over the buildings to the opposite slope. Several of the dropka who had pitched a tent two hundred yards away had taken up the call. Shan darted to the back of the building and to his relief saw a familiar figure in a long brown robe.
It was Nyma, who had left the hermitage the week before to retrieve the special vermilion sand that was found only in the bed of a spring near one of the high glaciers. Nyma turned and swayed as she descended the trail. She did not believe anyone was watching, Shan realized, and she was dancing; dancing because, he sensed, she was filled with joy, because she was bringing the last of the sands they needed.
Nyma could not stop smiling as the inhabitants of the hermitage sat with her ten minutes later, encircling the pouch of sand she had brought from the glacier. “The stream was frozen,” she said, explaining why she had been gone several days longer than expected. “So I sat and waited.” Slowly, ceremoniously, she used both hands to remove the derby that covered the braids she kept pinned over her crown, set the hat on the ground and folded her hands over her lap. “On the second day a warm wind came, and the ice began to melt. On the third I watched as a hole opened, just big enough for my hand to fit through.”
Shan gazed about the circle at the three men who sat with them. Lokesh offered his lopsided grin, made crooked years earlier when the boot of a knob had broken his jaw. He looked from Lokesh into the smiling countenance of Gendun, who solemnly nodded at Nyma, then at Shan, as if to confirm that yes, this would be the night, yes, despite the torment raging elsewhere in Tibet, in their little remote outpost all was right with the universe.
Beside them, in a tattered maroon robe, sat Shopo, who had tended the illegal hermitage since being driven from his monastery twenty years earlier. “It has all become the right thing,” he observed serenely. Nyma’s contribution was the perfect offering for completing their work, made all the more powerful by the reverence she had shown the mountain. She had not taken the vermilion sand, but had waited for the ice to melt, had waited for the mountain to offer it to her.
Shopo lifted the pouch and reverently poured its contents into a clay pot. As he raised the pot toward the sky, a tall man with a narrow, downcast face appeared around the corner of the nearest building, carrying a large leather sack over his shoulder. It was Tenzin, who had been at the hermitage when Shan and Lokesh had arrived, carrying his day’s collection of the yak dung they used for fuel. Tenzin stared woodenly at the clay pot, placing one hand over his
the silver prayer amulet that hung from his neck, then nodded and continued toward the hut where he stored the fuel.