Authors: Eliot Pattison
The figure slowed momentarily as it passed Shopo, then resumed its unnatural gait to ascend the ridge where Shan stood, toward the hermitage. The dropka lowered the horn. The intruder had not harmed nor even challenged the lama with his bundle of sand. Shan sat down on a rock near the path and waited. The runner, clad in a black-hooded sweatsuit, saw Shan from fifty feet away, slowed, then silently approached and sat across from him, cross-legged. After a moment the stranger produced a water bottle from a belt under the sweatsuit, briefly drank, and flipped back the hood.
It was a young Tibetan woman with a thin face and intense black eyes. “You must be the Chinese.” She spoke in a stern voice, breathing deeply, though not panting as she should have been after such an arduous climb. After studying him a moment, she reached back to release two braids of hair which had been pinned close to her ears and arranged them, as if suddenly concerned about her appearance. “I am looking for Drakte.”
“You’re a purba,” Shan suggested.
“I am a schoolteacher,” the young woman shot back.
“There are no children here,” Shan observed quietly.
The woman fixed Shan with a cold, challenging stare. “The Chinese said go to university to become a teacher, become a model for Tibetan youth,” she said when he silently returned the stare. “So I went to university. They said run on the track team so we can have a Tibetan endurance runner to compete in China. So I did. I won medals in Beijing and I returned to my home district to be that model citizen.” She spoke loudly. She was relating the story to taunt him. “But after a year of teaching they said no more classes in Tibetan. Only speak Chinese, only use Chinese books. And I said no, I will speak to Tibetan children in their own tongue. That is what a model Tibetan citizen does.” She raised the bottle and drank deeply. “One day I came to my school and a Chinese teacher had taken my class. They had emptied my office, even took all my medals.” She gazed down at the hermitage, then looked back at Shan. “But they didn’t take my legs.”
“So now you run for the purbas.”
“I can go places horses and trucks can’t.”
“A purba lunggompa.”
The woman gave an impatient shrug and pursed her lips in a frown, as if to emphasize that she was not impressed with his wit. After a moment she glanced back at the trail she had climbed.
“Are you being followed?” Shan asked.
“I need to see Drakte,” she said.
“He’s—” Shan’s tongue seemed to grow heavy. He looked toward the buildings below.
Without waiting for another word the woman sprang up, bottle still in hand, and descended the steep ridge with the long leaps of an antelope.
Shan caught up with the woman in the death hut. She was leaning against the wall, drained of color, clutching her belly as she stared at the dead man. Her water bottle lay by her feet, its contents trickling onto the floor. Lokesh and Tenzin sat by the body with a bowl of water and a cloth, reverently washing Drakte’s limbs. The brother of the woman on the ridge was lighting sticks of incense. Gendun sat in the shadows, softly continuing the Bardo rites, his eyes closed.
Shan lifted the water bottle. “Did you have a message for him?” he asked in a near whisper.
The woman did not reply. She approached the corpse and knelt, then slowly extended her fingers toward its face, as though to touch Drakte’s cheek, but pulled them back before reaching his skin. “Who?” she asked in a cracking voice. “Who saw this happen? Who did this?” Her eyes shot toward Shan. Everyone knew who killed purbas.
“We all saw him killed,” the dropka said with a shudder. “A curse was put on him and his blood poured out.”
“No one,” Shan disagreed. “No one saw him killed. We just saw him die. An intruder came and hit him in the belly with a staff. But not hard enough to make him bleed that way.” He returned the woman’s icy stare, until she raised a hand to wipe away a tear. “Our sentry above said Drakte was acting strange,” he said more softly, “stopping along the valley floor. I think it was because he was already hurt.” Shan approached the body and knelt by Lokesh, then lifted the bloodstained shirttail. He had been too shocked to investigate the body the night before. But now he had to understand. He raised the shirt and folded it back to expose the right abdomen. A four inch gout of tissue lay open, surrounded by a stain of congealed blood that ran down his hip. Now he remembered how, when he helped lift Drakte onto the blanket the night before, the purba’s abdomen had felt unnaturally hard. Because he had been hemorrhaging internally.
“He was stabbed!” the woman groaned.
“Not last night,” Shan said, and pointed to several threads extending from the sides of the wound, where it had been crudely sewn together. “This wound was made earlier, slicing deep into his organs.” The makeshift sutures had burst apart, no doubt when the intruder pummeled Drakte with his staff.
The woman made a wrenching sound—half groan, half cry—then cut it off by clenching a knuckle between her teeth. “Last year,” she said after a moment, her voice trembling, “Drakte slashed his arm when we were climbing some rocks above an army base.” She knelt and rolled up Drakte’s left sleeve, exposing a rough six-inch scar on his forearm. “He laughed when I said, Go to a doctor. He said it was too hard to find a good Tibetan doctor. He said bad things happened to Tibetans in Chinese hospitals. So he just sewed it up himself. No painkillers. Just a big needle and some yak hair thread he borrowed from a dropka who was repairing his tent.”
Shan remembered how weak Drakte had appeared when he had arrived the night before, how he had leaned against the wall for support before stumbling toward the center of the room. The dropka guard said he had lingered at outcroppings as though watching for someone. He hadn’t been watching, Shan was certain now, he had been resting, nursing his wound, summoning his strength to reach the hermitage. Drakte had thought he was free of his attacker, had even taken the time, hours earlier, to sew up the wound.
The purba runner leaned closer to Drakte’s head and seemed to whisper something in the dead man’s ear. When she straightened more tears were streaming down her cheeks. Shan remembered how she had tended to her braids on the ridge.
They sat in silence, watching as Lokesh gently washed the blood from the wound and replaced the shirttail. Tenzin continued to help, holding a bowl of water, but then he suddenly halted, his breath catching, and he set the bowl down with shaking hands as he studied the dead man again. He pushed back and leaned against the wall, grief abruptly twisting his face. The woman’s eyes glazed and she seemed to forget the rest of them. Her hand rose again and she traced with one finger the long curving scar on Drakte’s forehead, cupped her palm around his cheek then absently traced the scar once more. The motion had an intimate air, like a gesture of affection Drakte might still recognize.
“You would have been such a lama,” Shan heard her whisper. “You would have lived to be a hundred and carried on the true ways.” She laid her palm on his cheek. “Who will be the old ones when you should have been old?” she asked the dead man. Slowly her hand dropped, and when she turned, though her eyes brimmed with moisture, her voice was cool and steady. “What do you mean he was cursed?” she asked the dropka.
“A demon came and spoke words of power,” a voice interjected from behind Shan. The Golok stood in the doorway. “We know why,” he said in a taunting tone toward Lokesh and Gendun. “It’s because that demon won’t have another Chinese taking the eye.”
Shan’s gaze shifted from the Golok to Lokesh, who seemed as confused by the words as Shan himself. Lokesh shrugged at Shan, looked at the man and frowned. “Not a demon,” he said. “A
If it were a demon he’d be back for someone like you, who speaks with such disrespect around the dead.”
Shan gazed with surprise at his old friend. It was not like Lokesh to rebuke anyone. The Golok answered with an exaggerated wince then stepped back and left the hut.
They finished cleaning the body as best they could, lit more butter lamps, and went outside. Shan lingered for a moment at the door, longing to speak with Gendun, to make certain the lama would be ready to flee with them. But Gendun continued the Bardo, staring now at one of the flames near Drakte. Gendun had lived in a hidden hermitage, carved inside a mountain, almost his entire life. The first Chinese he had ever met had been Shan, the year before. The first time he had left his own hermitage in decades had been only four months earlier. The thing he could not get used to about the outside world, he had sadly confided to Shan, was how many good people died without having prepared their souls, as if they had not taken their gift of human incarnation seriously.
As he stepped outside, Shan was relieved to see the Golok preparing a short grey horse for travel. The dropka guard squatted at a small fire between two of the buildings, protected from the wind, working a churn to mix buttered tea, casting anxious glances toward the ridge where his sister still stacked stones. Lokesh, Shan, and the purba runner squatted by the man as he poured out bowls for each of them.
“I don’t understand,” Shan said to Lokesh. “You know who that was last night? A dobdob you said. It is not a word I have heard before.”
“Not who, but what he was,” Lokesh said with wide eyes. “A monk policeman. A dobdob enforces virtue, enforces respect for the lamas. All the big gompas had them when I was a boy. First time I saw one I thought it was a monster, too. The cheeks darkened with ash. The big shoulders. They put special boards on their shoulders sometimes, under their robes, to make them look bigger than life. I hid behind my father, that first time, until the dobdob was gone. I hadn’t seen one for forty years at least,” the old Tibetan added with a distant gaze. As a former member of the Dalai Lama’s government Lokesh had spent nearly half his life in a gulag prison. “They kept order in the ranks at large assemblies. Enforced rules of the gompa’s abbot. Helped monks adhere to their vows with their staffs and their yaktail whips.” He raised his fist and brought it down with a sudden jerking motion. “If a novice was speaking out of turn, one tap with a staff on his skull would shut him up fast.”
“But here,” the purba said. “Last night? It’s impossible. They don’t exist anymore.”
“The ghost of a dobdob,” the dropka said, not with fear, but a certain awe. “He just appeared, punished Drakte, and evaporated, the way spirit creatures do at night. He doesn’t want us here. Next time,” he said to the runner in a somber tone, “next time the purbas need watchers here, they can ask someone else.”
“A ghost didn’t slice open his abdomen,” Shan said. “A ghost didn’t attack him and chase him over the mountains.”
“Drakte warned us, said he saw him kill,” the herder whispered. “We saw the one he meant, and minutes later Drakte himself was dead.”
The purba woman gazed into her bowl. “Drakte was the one who had the idea about runners,” she said in a distant voice, as if she owed him a eulogy. “He arranged for me to train others. He had been in prison for leading a demonstration in Lhasa on the Dalai Lama’s birthday. I met him that day, sang songs with him, saw him get dragged away by the soldiers. Later I visited him in prison, and was there the day he was released. For the first month all he did was find food and bring it to the families of each of his cellmates.” She looked up from her bowl. “What will happen to him?” Her eyes brimmed with tears again.
“We are making arrangements.” The dropka put a comforting hand on her shoulder. “There is a
on top of a mountain overlooking the sacred lake. When the time comes we will take him there.”
A durtro. The herder meant a sky burial site, a charnel ground where the
the body breakers, would cut the body up and feed it to vultures. Three days after death, when the body was properly blessed, Drakte’s remains would be carried to the durtro and chopped into pieces to be returned to the circle of life. Even his bones would be pounded into a paste to be eaten by the birds.
“Don’t let the Chinese get him,” the purba said in an urgent, pleading voice. “Don’t let them know.”
The dropka nodded gravely.
The woman stared at Shan but quickly looked away as he met her eyes. “My name is Somo,” she said nearly in a whisper. It was her way of apologizing, he realized, to show that despite what she thought about other Chinese, she would trust him with her name because Drakte had done so.
“I am called Shan.”
She nodded. “I heard about you even when you were in prison.”
“Were you with Drakte in Lhadrung?” Shan asked.
Somo shook her head. “Usually in Lhasa. He spent much of his time there, and the lands north of here, where he was born.”
“When were you last in Lhasa with him?”
“Nearly three months ago, the last time,” the woman said warily. It had been more than two months ago when the eye had been brought to the hermitage, and weeks before that it had been stolen in Lhasa. “Drakte said you did things in prison to help the old lamas there. There was an old official from the Fourteenth’s government you got released.”
Lokesh gave one of his hoarse laughs and looked at Shan with amusement.
Somo studied the two men a moment. “You?” she asked Lokesh in disbelief.
The old man nodded. “I was going to die in that prison,” he said, still grinning, “but Xiao Shan found a different path for me.” Xiao Shan. Little Shan. It was Chinese, but Lokesh sometimes used the term of affection from Shan’s childhood, one used traditionally by an older person addressing a younger one, as Shan’s long-dead uncles once had done.
Shan stared into his bowl. “I was already dead, and they brought me back to life,” he said, and gazed back at the hut where Gendun still sat with Drakte. The Bardo had to be recited for twenty-four hours after the purba’s death. In their lao gai prison, when an inmate died the oldest lamas took shifts of four hours each, even while breaking rocks on their road crews, reciting the words from memory. Always the oldest, because the younger monks had had their education cut short by the Chinese and did not know all the words.