Authors: Eliot Pattison
Shan looked back toward the door. The demon had disappeared.
“It’s no good,” the dropka woman sobbed loudly. “We are ruined.” Tears streamed down her face as she stared at the mandala, over which they had labored for two months. She meant the sacred painting was contaminated. The mandala was ruined. The deities would abandon it, and perhaps abandon them.
Lokesh darted past Shan and knelt by Drakte, cradling the purba’s head. The old Tibetan’s face sank, and with a low rapid murmur he began a different kind of prayer. Lokesh had recognized what Shan had seen in the young purba’s glazed, unfocused eyes. Drakte was dead.
“The basic nature of your mind is luminosity and emptiness,” Gendun intoned softly as he sat beside the young Tibetan’s body. “It dwells as a great expanse of light beyond birth or death.” He had begun reciting the Bardo ritual the instant he had seen Drakte’s face, quietly offering the ancient words as the two dropka reverently straightened the body on the floor. There was no time to lose. The Tibetans believed Drakte was now sensing a great falling, a rush of wind, and the flashing of brilliant colors. He had not been prepared for the loss of his body and would be confused.
“Rinpoche,” Nyma said to Gendun in a numbed voice, “the mandala for the—”
Gendun paused a moment, surveying the ruined mandala, the jagged eye, then Tenzin, who had rushed forward to kneel by Drakte, before finally settling his gaze on the dead man. “This is where the Compassionate Buddha has taken us,” he declared, and continued the ritual. “You will leave this body of flesh and blood and know you are at peace,” the lama recited from memory, his eyes nearly closed.
The dropka produced a blanket, onto which they lifted the body. With Gendun walking alongside still reciting the death rite, Lokesh and Tenzin slowly carried the dead man into the hut next door. As Nyma lit butter lamps they arranged the body in the traditional fashion, in a sitting position, leaning against the wall. Shan sat for a moment with the lama, his heart still pounding loudly, desperately trying to understand what had happened. Then he rose and stood at the door, looking outside. The Golok and the two herders were nervously pacing the perimeter of the small compound, the dropka woman was calling to the adjacent encampment, spreading the alarm. Shan looked back inside the hut. It appeared in the dim light that Gendun and Drakte were conversing.
In the lhakang Shopo began a second ceremony at the mandala. One by one, with Nyma and Lokesh sitting on either side, the lama began to address the images invoked in the sand painting, uttering to each a low prayer that had the sound of an apology. Shan sat with them for nearly thirty minutes; then, his confusion giving way to fear again, he stepped outside, to the doorway of the second hut, where Gendun still spoke to Drakte. He stared at the dead man, recalling the first time he had seen him in the Lhadrung valley, gathering food for families of prisoners. Drakte had worn the robes of a monk for several years before being forced out of his
his monastery, when Beijing’s Bureau of Religious Affairs had established strict limits on the number of active monks. In another age Drakte would have passed his life in a robe, learning and teaching the ways of compassion. But those who controlled the world Shan and Drakte lived in had told the young Tibetan he was not allowed to sit in a gompa and share the wisdom of the lamas.
He had been wrong, Shan told himself, to think they could be safe in their hidden hermitage, wrong to have let himself be drawn so deeply into the mandala ritual when danger lurked so near. Perhaps it had even been wrong for him to have become so focused, obsessed even, with the mandala and the hope it embodied. Shan had often listened as the lamas spoke with men like Drakte about the importance of letting compassion become the weapon of their struggle. Most of them replied that if they tried to defend their cause only with compassion, eventually all the compassionate would be dead.
He found himself wandering, walking as if in a daze, finally reaching his meditation place by the rocks. A cloud passed over the moon. The terrible scene kept playing again and again in his mind’s eye: Drakte’s life blood oozing over the mandala, Drakte staring helplessly at Shan. He restlessly watched the dimly lit horizon, then ventured toward the death hut again, thinking of entering. But the door was closed, and as he stepped closer he heard the Bardo, not in one voice but in two. The second voice was not that of Nyma, or Lokesh, or Shopo, all of whom remained in the lhakang. Someone else, a stranger, had joined Gendun. The second voice was almost like an echo of Gendun’s soft, seasoned voice, but deeper—the voice of someone long schooled in the traditional ways, the voice of a teacher like Gendun. Shopo had told him other lamas sometimes came to meditate in secret at the hermitage. Or perhaps one of the dropka from the encampment knew the ceremony. Shan backed away. He could not bear to interrupt. Somehow he felt he had made it hard for Drakte to live. He didn’t want to make it harder for him to die.
At dawn Shan asked the dropka woman to take him to the ridge and show him where she had first seen Drakte the night before. He followed her in silence through the grey light, up the steep switchback trail that connected the hermitage to the outside world. At the crest the dropka sank to the earth and warily inched herself forward to survey the valley beyond, as if expecting an ambush. After a long moment the woman pushed herself up and signaled for Shan to join her, but she did not wait for him. She jogged along the path at the crest for two hundred yards to the highest point of the ridge, where a rock cairn had been raised. When Shan caught up with the woman, she was busily adding rocks to the stack. The base of the cairn was ancient, thickly covered with grey-green lichen. But during the past weeks, while the dropka had been standing guard on the ridge, the herders had added several rocks a day, building it to a height of over six feet, to gain the attention of the local deities. Now the woman was gathering rocks at a feverish pace, her face drawn with worry. If the dropka were not permitted weapons at the hermitage, at least they could add rocks to the cairn.
Shan lifted a large rock as he approached and set it near the top of the stack. A sad smile split the woman’s leathery face and she pushed back the red braided headband she always wore, then silently retrieved another stone.
“I can’t stop thinking that I caused it,” she said at last, studying the valley with a haunted expression. “Maybe what I did brought that thing that killed him. I blew the horn when I saw Drakte coming, before I recognized him.” She stared at the horn, laying on a cloth near the cairn. “Maybe my dungchen attracted it somehow.”
“No,” Shan said, trying to sound more certain than he felt, “this thing was already after Drakte, already after the stone. Drakte came to warn us.” But the purba had also been coming to help them start their journey with the stone eye. The purba’s last words haunted him as much as the image of the young Tibetan’s blood soaking the mandala. Had he apologized to Shan for something he, Drakte, had done? Or because the journey would be impossible now? Perhaps both, because he had unleashed the demon on them.
“And died for it,” the herder said. She grimaced in pain and clutched her chest, as if something inside had torn. “I knew Drakte. He was born in this county, to herders living only a day’s walk from here. His mother was so proud when he became a monk. He helped rebuild this hermitage years ago. He always knew which families had members imprisoned, and brought others like him to help in their places. Drakte even brought me messages from my son, who is in prison near Lhasa for sheltering a monk years ago.” She touched the headband, braided of red cloth. “He brought me this from my son, made from the robe of a monk who died.”
The woman stared out over the long valley as the dawning sun washed over it. “But the thing he came to warn us about did not harm us,” she said in a confused tone. “It just killed him and left. It could have taken the stone but it didn’t. I heard Drakte say it will kill for the stone. We saw it kill him.” The dropka searched Shan’s face. “It must be waiting somewhere in the mountains to return. Now that it knows. Tonight. Does it only do its killing at night?”
Shan only shook his head sadly. He extended a hand toward the head of the valley. “How did you see Drakte in the dark? You must have sounded the horn because you saw him. Was it only him?”
“There was nearly a half-moon. I have sat with our herds on many such nights, watching for wolves and snow lions with my sling. In such light, without clouds, I can see a great distance. I knew someone was coming. By the time he reached the valley floor I could see him plainly where he passed through patches of snow. Only him. But first I heard the dogs.”
“From down the valley. Dogs barked from where the valley bends, where there had been no dogs for all these weeks.” She pointed toward a large set of outcroppings nearly a mile away. “I began to watch more closely. At first I thought it might have been Tenzin.”
“Tenzin?” Shan asked in surprise.
“He goes away at night sometimes. Two nights ago, and one night last week. I think he goes to places where he can pray in the moonlight. There are prayers that should only be said at night, and things that are perhaps best said only to the moon.” She looked at Shan pointedly then shook her head and looked back down the valley. “I never suspected it was Drakte. I wouldn’t have sounded the warning. He would always stop to talk with dogs he met, they wouldn’t bark like that. And I knew his gait. He always walked straight, proud, like a warrior. But last night he acted so strange, trotting in plain sight in the moonlight, then sometimes stopping at rock outcroppings, as if trying to hide, like for an ambush.”
“Or to see if he were being followed.” In his mind’s eye Shan replayed Drakte’s entry into the chamber, followed moments later by the intruder. No, the purba had been shocked to see the huge man with the staff. He had not expected the intruder, had not expected to be followed. There had to be another reason he had been pausing at the rocks, another explanation for his strange behavior.
“When he finally climbed the ridge and he saw you what did he say?”
“I recognized him when he reached the crest, and waved. He said nothing, just pointed toward the hermitage. I went down with him, because I had blown the horn and didn’t want the others to be alarmed, to think trouble was…” The words choked in the woman’s throat. She had gone down from her post to assure them no one dangerous was coming after all. But while she was away from her post something very dangerous indeed had come.
“That thing. It was a powerful demon, to make us see the spear that way.” The woman’s voice was nearly a whisper.
“Spear? There was no spear.”
“Of course you didn’t see it, none of us did. But we all saw how Drakte was stabbed. That demon made the rest of us see it as just a staff.”
Shan stared at the woman, considering her words, until he saw that the dropka had begun to stare past his shoulder. He turned to see Shopo cresting the ridge, walking down toward the long valley below, a cloth bundle slung over his shoulder.
“Blessed Buddha,” the woman said in her mournful voice. “The sand.” She touched the gau on her neck as she spoke. “He has to return the sands to the nagas, to the water deities.”
“But in daylight he can be easily spotted by the patrols,” Shan said in alarm, taking a step forward as he considered whether to run and stop the lama. “He could be arrested. Can’t he wait?”
The dropka looked at Shan, gazing plaintively toward the mountains across the valley, as if asking the deities why she had to be burdened with such a Chinese. She shook her head. “All that blood. And just as they were finishing, after all the weeks of prayers. At least it hadn’t received the final consecration,” she said heavily, as if an even greater catastrophe had been narrowly avoided. She gazed down at the solitary figure descending into the empty valley, and shook her head. “When they had finished Shopo would have gone to thank the nagas and tell them what a beautiful thing had been done with their gift, how it had been used to begin patching a god. Think of what he’ll have to say to them now,” the woman whispered, and a tear rolled down her cheek.
Shan watched the lama’s retreating figure a moment in silence. “If there were dogs,” he said, “maybe herders were at the head of the valley last night. Maybe someone could find them, and ask them what happened. I must stay with Gendun, but we need to know what happened out there last night.”
When the woman gave no sign of hearing, Shan wandered back toward the switchback trail, leaving the forlorn dropka alone, stacking rocks again. He paused before beginning the descent to the hermitage, surveying the vast rugged landscape. Beyond the low spine of mountains on the far side of the valley he saw another range, higher again, the air shimmering behind it, its peaks snowcovered and lit a dazzling white by the early sun. It was how he felt. No matter how he tried, how hard he climbed, whenever he reached a new height, a new understanding, a new connection with his teachers, another mountain rose up, another obstacle presented itself, another mystery blocked his path. Once Lokesh had described it to him as the burden of being Shan. “Things we see as inevitable turns in the path of our lives, you see as enigmas you must stop to understand. It is the way you have of teaching yourself,” his friend had added with a tinge of curiosity in his voice. But teaching implied learning, advancing with new knowledge. And Shan’s path seemed to be relentlessly telling him how much he did not know.
As he began to turn toward the hermitage he caught movement on the valley floor. A black figure moved impossibly fast along the trail—on foot—so fast another pang of fear stabbed through Shan. Was it the same unnatural creature that had caught up with Drakte in the lhakang? Shan crouched in the low grass and watched in alarm as, far below, Shopo stopped and stared at the approaching figure. The dropka at the cairn groaned loudly and grabbed her horn, then stared at the figure in confusion. Old Tibetans told tales of mystic runners called
who could travel hundreds of miles in a day by summoning superhuman strength and training their bodies to ignore fatigue.