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Authors: Eliot Pattison

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BOOK: Bone Mountain
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The Golok cocked his head at an odd angle toward the mandala, as if seeing the lamas and the circle of sand for the first time. He frowned, then bent to his knees, briefly lowering his forehead toward the floor in reluctant homage. As he rose he muttered in surprise, his gaze having fallen on the altar. He quickly stepped past the mandala to stand in front of the stone, staring at the jagged eye, crouching in front of it. He was far more interested in the stone fragment than in the lamas or the mandala.

Shan had known Goloks during his years in prison. No, not known them, for they had refused to speak with him, always just stared with the silent malevolence reserved for their enemies. Even many of the Tibetans avoided them, for the Golok tribes had been known for centuries as a wild and brutal people notorious for their banditry. The Goloks would have tried to kill Shan had he not been protected by the monks who shared his lao gai barracks. He knew of two Chinese prisoners who had been attacked by Goloks, one found in his bunk with a screwdriver driven into his brain, the other castrated with a sharpened spoon. During his early days in the slave labor camp, Shan would have welcomed death by such men. But that had been a different Shan, a different incarnation—the Beijing Shan who had entered the gulag had wanted nothing more than to be released from the constant pain and fear that had seized him after weeks of Public Security interrogation.

Gendun turned and looked toward Shan expectantly. Nyma had finished her tree on the sand wheel. Shan returned to the lama’s side and accepted the chakpa, refilled with white sand. He closed his eyes a moment, leaned forward and began tapping the funnel, this time to make three curving mountains. Shan worked in silence, Nyma and the lamas contemplating the nearly completed wheel, the wind moaning over the rooftop, the butter lamps flickering, Lokesh’s whispered mantra rising and ebbing like the wind. He focused his entire being on the grains of sand falling from the chakpa. They seemed to glow; white like fresh snow, white like the deities who lived in the clouds. Finally, finished with the mountains, Shan pushed himself away and stepped back to sit beside Lokesh and Tenzin as Shopo raised a chakpa of blue sand to paint a monk sitting in Shan’s mountains.

Shan labored to keep his focus on the mandala. But the Golok moved restlessly about the rear of the chamber now, looking at the jagged eye one moment, then leaning forward, staring at Shan. Shan knew what the man was thinking. Shan had shared the same question for weeks now. Why Shan? “Because you know the ways of the demons that wish to keep the deity from seeing again,” Nyma had declared when he had asked her, meaning, Shan sadly realized, that he knew the ways of the Chinese government. “It is your reward,” she had added. “People know how you have restored the balance when violence has taken it away. You find that which has been lost.”

But surely the local people must know where the eye belonged, Shan had suggested to the nun one morning when they had gone for water together. No, Nyma had replied, with round, sad eyes. Once the deity had been blinded it had retreated deep into the mountains. Yapchi Valley, where it had resided for centuries, was over two miles long and a mile wide with great ridges surrounding it on three sides, ridges riddled with chasms and caves. The deity could be waiting anywhere.

Four more times Shan took the chakpa of white sand, four more times he added images of clouds and mountains, then watched as the others worked on the wheel. Time passed without measure. Tenzin silently relit sticks of incense. For a brief moment hail rattled on the tin roof. Lokesh kept up his mantra, without ceasing, until it seemed just one more tone of the wind. The Golok settled cross-legged before the altar, his head constantly in motion, twisting and turning as if trying to see the eye better.

But Shan refused to let the Golok’s strange behavior disturb him. He felt an unexpected warmth and tried to remember the last time he had felt such contentment. It would have been before his years of lao gai imprisonment, before he had been made Inspector General of the Ministry of Economy, before he had married a senior party member and started working for those who ran the government in Beijing. This was an important night, he realized, an initiation of sorts, a night of discovery. A night, Lokesh would say, when they were all living close to their inner deities. A night when he could tell himself with confidence that in all the universe, here was where he was meant to be, here among the lamas who could forget that a million Tibetans had been killed by his Chinese countrymen, could forget that nearly all their treasured monasteries had been crushed under Beijing’s boot, could forget that still—after fifty years—they lived in an occupied land, could forget all the suffering because here, in this lonely, forgotten, wind-battered hermitage, a few reverent souls endured to complete a mandala dedicated to compassion and wisdom. And now, as they began the final round of painting with the chakpa, they had entered the perfect hour of this perfect night.

As he looked up into Gendun’s eyes, a grin tugged at Shan’s face. Perhaps he had been reading too much into their strange quest to return the eye, perhaps this was all it was about, keeping such moments alive, protecting the lamas and the traditions, preserving the seeds. Suddenly he couldn’t imagine anything more important in all the world than returning the eye to its deity.

Gendun’s head twisted and the lama bent an ear toward the outer wall. The wind had turned sharper, rising into a long hollow tone that had a strangely metallic quality. Shan sensed sudden movement and glanced away from the mandala to see the Golok rise on his haunches, looking warily toward the door. The long hollow sound came again, pitched lower this time. Shan heard a scramble of feet in the corridor. The old herder who was guarding the lhakang was running outside.

The herdsman and his sister alternated shifts, one in the hermitage, the other on the ridge to the west, overlooking the valley that led to the outside world, armed not with a gun but with an ancient, dented
dungchen,
one of the long telescoping horns used in temples. The new sound wasn’t the wind, Shan realized, but the dungchen, sounded in warning. The Golok stood and shot out the door, his hand on the hilt of his long knife. Shan rose and took an uncertain step in the same direction. Lokesh paused in his mantra and tilted his head as though to listen, then cast a weary glance toward Shan and continued his prayers, at a slightly faster rate. The horn sounded again, more urgently, but the lamas gave no sign of having heard. The knobs could come. They could bring machine guns. They could bring truncheons and the electric cattle prods they used to subdue Tibetan crowds. They could bring manacles for a lao gai prison, where Gendun and Shopo, as unlicensed monks, would be certain to serve at least five years. Nothing would rob the lamas of their joyful moment. Their mandala was almost complete.

The Golok reappeared, breathing hard, and grabbed Shopo by the shoulder, trying to pull him away. But the lama seemed immovable, as though he had taken root in the stone flags of the lhakang floor. The Golok muttered angrily, and tried Gendun, likewise without effect. Shan took a step toward the door, listening for the metallic rumble of a helicopter, even the pounding of knob boots. Shan would not be arrested as an illegal monk but as a lao gai fugitive, for his release from his Lhadrung prison had been unofficial, a favor from the local commander. The knobs would only have to check the number tattooed on his arm to discover that while Beijing had condemned him to lao gai, it had not approved his release.

As the horn stopped sounding, Shan stared at the alarmed Golok, who cursed now, confusion and fright in his eyes, his hand still on his knife hilt. He paused for a moment, wondering why the Golok did not simply flee, then stepped beside Lokesh and slowly sat down, cross-legged, forcing himself to gaze upon the painting. The lamas continued to work on the mandala. It would be time for Shan’s white sand soon.

Suddenly the herder who had been in the corridor reappeared, panting, but wearing a pleased expression. The Golok quieted, and stepped toward the shadow by the wall, his hand still on his knife. The sturdy woman who had been stationed on the ridge stepped in behind her brother, followed a moment later by a tall thin man who crept around the doorframe, holding it, leaning against the wall as he stepped inside.

The man’s face was clenched tight as he gazed about the chamber. Shan recognized the ruin of the man’s forehead, the looping slash of scar tissue above his eyes. It was Drakte, the purba who had delivered Lokesh and Shan to the dropka with the promise that he would return. Drakte, who had been missing. But it was a pale, hollow Drakte, without the hard, proud glint that Shan had always seen on his features before.

“That one is coming,” Drakte declared in a hoarse, strained voice. “There’s no time.” The young Tibetan seemed overcome with fatigue. He pressed his right hand against his abdomen and stepped toward the circle on the floor, turning his head back and forth as though searching for someone in particular. He looked into the shadows where Tenzin sat and paused for a moment, before he settled his gaze on Shan. “Take the eye,” he said with a rush of breath. “Take the eye and run.”

Nyma sighed and continued with her chakpa, outlining a mountain with blue sand. But Shan saw that Gendun stared at Drakte, his head slightly cocked, his eyes drawn, as if there was something about the purba he could not comprehend.

Lokesh stood and took a step toward Drakte, who raised his palm, arm outstretched, to warn the old man away.

“He doesn’t care who has to die,” Drakte groaned. “He wants to find the stone. He kills the thing he is. He kills prayer. I saw him kill. He can’t be stopped. Just run,” he repeated, the words coming out like a sob. “All you can do is run now. Save the eye. Save yourselves.” He looked plaintively at Shan with these last words. “I’m sorry,” he moaned, as though he owed Shan something.

Shan stood, chilled by the purba’s words, uncertain what to do, and stepped to the edge of the sacred circle. He was about to reach out and steady the purba, to offer to take him away for a bowl of tea so they could speak more calmly about his fears, when the dropka woman gasped and dropped to the floor on her knees, bowing her head close to the floor in the direction of the door. The Golok groaned and darted behind the circle, toward the altar. Nyma looked up and let out a muffled cry, forgetting her chakpa, blue sand spilling in a small heap onto the mandala.

A grotesque creature stood on two legs in the doorway, its huge frame filling the entire space, its eyes wild and glaring at the purba. It was a man, Shan told himself, or had once been. He was so accustomed to Tibetan tales of demons, so familiar with the lamas’ efforts to visualize deity demons, that for a moment he was not wholly certain whether the thing he saw was real. The second dropka called out the name of blessed Tara, protectress of the faithful, and dropped to the floor.

The intruder had a huge head in the shape of a man’s but somehow bestial, with blackened cheeks and greased hair tied in a tight bob at the crown. The thing’s shoulders were wider than the doorway and it had to twist and bend as it entered the chamber. One arm, protruding from a sleeveless brown robe, was wrapped above the elbow with a red cord, its hand holding a long staff nearly as thick as Shan’s arm, ending above his shoulder in a gnarled knot of wood.

Shopo stood and extended his hand, palm outward, as if to greet the intruder. But before the lama could speak the stranger lashed out with his staff, striking Drakte in the belly and shouting at the purba. He spoke fast, and so loud his voice drowned out the wind. The dropka clamped their hands over their ears. The old schools of Tibetan Buddhism taught that there were evil mystics who spoke words of power that could enslave those who heard.

But the huge black-faced intruder seemed not to notice the dropka or even the lamas. He continued shouting at Drakte in his deep demonic voice, stabbing at the purba with his staff, hitting the young Tibetan in the belly, the arms, the thighs. Shan tried in vain to understand the words. They were Tibetan, but unintelligible to him. Perhaps it was old Tibetan, like that used in ancient teachings, or one of the many dialects spoken in Tibet’s remote regions. He understood only the name of Yamantaka, Lord of the Dead.

Drakte’s face drained of the little color it had left. The anger that filled his eyes for a moment was quickly replaced with fear. His hand went to his chest and he stepped back, trying to avoid the reach of the staff until, as Nyma gasped, Shan saw that the purba was standing in the center of their fragile mandala. Shan desperately looked about the room for a weapon that might be used to defend the purba. Drakte, his lips trembling, his eyes fixed on the demon, began reciting the mani mantra, invoking the Compassionate Buddha.

Abruptly, the intruder stopped speaking and stared malevolently at Drakte, shaking his staff in short jerking motions. The only sound in the room was that of the purba’s mantra, until it tapered off into a low whimper. Drakte began to sway, as if a strong wind blew upon him. Shopo turned toward the young Tibetan and Drakte began to raise a hand as if to ask for help. But the hand trembled and slowly fell, and Shopo moaned. Shan followed the lama’s gaze toward the mandala and shuddered. It was changing before them, its colors mixing, a dark cloud spreading over the intricate pattern as though something evil had overtaken it.

Struck dumb by the sight, unable to comprehend anything that had happened in the last few moments, Shan could only stare as Nyma, then the dropka, uttered forlorn cries and pointed at the swirling mandala. With a sudden stab of pain Shan understood. It was blood. Dark red blood was pooling around Drakte’s feet, streaming out of his right pant leg, covering their precious mandala.

Shan took a hesitant step forward, then another, to reach out and help Drakte. The purba seemed to sense his intention and turned his hollow, confused eyes toward Shan. But in the next moment the swaying man toppled, dropping to his knees, then falling heavily onto his face, his jaw making a sickening crunching sound as it slammed against the stone floor.

BOOK: Bone Mountain
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