Authors: Eliot Pattison
“There is no one else,” Lokesh said, as if reading Shan’s mind. “I only know the first hour of the ritual. We have no text to recite from.”
“I heard someone else, last night,” Shan said. “We can’t wait a day.”
“There is no one else,” Lokesh repeated.
Shan looked toward the death hut in confusion. It was true. He had seen no one else. Had it been some strange echo, or Drakte trying to reach out to Gendun?
“But you can’t stay,” Somo protested. “Whatever Drakte was trying to warn us about—” she glanced at Shan, “it’s too dangerous. That’s what he was telling you last night.”
As if in answer, Lokesh rose and walked into the small lhakang. Shan followed him inside. Nyma was there, praying by the altar in a low, nervous voice. It sounded almost as though she were arguing with the eye, which had been pushed to the front edge of the altar toward a small wooden box, lined with a felt cloth, which lay open on the floor below.
When the nun saw Shan her eyes brightened and she rose to stand by the altar, gazing expectantly at him. When Shan did nothing she gestured at the box.
“Are you scared to touch it?” Shan asked.
“Yes,” the nun said readily. “I pushed it with a chakpa to the edge,” she explained, as if that was the most she could be expected to do.
Lokesh sighed and bent to pick up the box. Shan stepped forward, glancing uncertainly at the nun, and set the jagged piece of stone in the box. Lokesh folded the felt to cover it and closed the lid.
“But we have time,” Shan said. “Rinpoche will not be done until late tonight.”
Lokesh stepped outside without reply, still clutching the box. The Golok was near the door, tightening the saddle on his sturdy mountain horse. He was leaving, and Shan had never understood why the man had come. But then, to Shan’s dismay, the Golok stepped to a brown horse that now stood beside his own, opened its saddlebag and extended his hand toward Lokesh just as Tenzin and one of the herders rounded the corner of the farthest hut, leading more horses.
“We should have left at dawn,” the Golok said with an impatient gesture for Lokesh to hand him the box. “Didn’t you listen? The killer is out there, he’s coming for the stone, that purba said so. And you wait around like old women.”
Shan looked pleadingly at Lokesh as the Golok set the box in the open saddlebag.
“I do not understand much of this,” his old friend said with a despairing shrug. “But I do understand we must go.”
“But Gendun,” Shan protested. “He must come with us.”
Lokesh shook his head sadly. “What he must do now is stay with Drakte. He will go to the durtro, then if the deities permit, he will join us.” He turned and pulled something from the saddle of one of the horses, extending it to Shan. It was a broad-rimmed felt hat, Shan’s traveling hat.
“I am staying with Drakte also,” Somo announced, her tone strangely defiant. “I will see that your lama is safe. The herders from that camp above are making piles of yak dung in a ring around the hermitage. Tonight they will surround us with fires.”
As the dropka extended the reins of the brown horse to Shan, the Golok stepped away from his own horse and, arms crossed over his chest, fixed them with a pointed stare as if they had forgotten something. “I was going to be paid,” he said sourly. “A guide has to be paid. That boy who died said I would be paid. So far I haven’t received a fen.”
Shan stared at the man with a sinking feeling. The Golok had finally explained why he had come to the hermitage.
“I have nothing,” Nyma said in alarm. “Drakte had nothing, nothing but an old account book and a shepherd’s sling.” They had found the battered ledger in a pouch hanging from his belt, with entries that had the appearance of accounting reports. “It must mean those at your destination will—”
“I told that Drakte,” interrupted the Golok. “I don’t face patrols unless there’s profit.”
Somo reached into her small belt pouch and produced an object wrapped in felt, extended it toward the Golok. “Here,” she said in a reluctant voice. She shook the cover away to reveal a finely worked silver bracelet set with lapis. “Drakte gave this to me last month,” she added. Her gaze shifted to Nyma, then Shan. “He would want your journey to continue. That was why…” She looked back toward the death hut without finishing the sentence.
The Golok grabbed the bracelet and studied it with a frown. “Hard to convert this to cash without going to a damned city,” he complained, even as he stuffed the bracelet into his pocket. “I’m not going to a city again for a long time.”
The purba runner reached into her pouch again and produced a complicated pocketknife with many blades, even a spoon folded into one side. “I got this for Drakte,” she said in a tight voice and extended the knife toward the man.
The Golok snatched the knife and the reins of his horse almost in one motion.
“We don’t even know your name,” Shan ventured in a hesitant voice. He saw that something else had appeared in Somo’s hand, out of her pocket: a small turquoise stone which she began kneading with her fingers. Something else given her by Drakte, Shan suspected, something she would not part with.
“Dremu.” The Golok fixed Shan with another frown. “My mother called me Dremu,” he said, as if he had been called many names in his life. Shan and Lokesh exchanged a worried glance. Dremu was the name of the great brown bear that had once freely roamed the Tibetan ranges. Hunted to near extinction by the Chinese, it was a symbol in Tibetan folklore of one who harms himself through excessive greed, for the animal would tear into the burrows of its main prey, marmots, pulling out stunned animals and piling them behind it until the burrow was destroyed. More often than not, the marmots would recover their senses and flee while the bear still dug, leaving it still hungry and angrier than ever. Sometimes the Tibetans used the term for the Chinese.
As Tenzin and Nyma led their horses toward the trail, Shan poured a bowl of tea and stepped inside the hut where Gendun sat with the dead man. He stood for a moment in silence until the lama looked up and acknowledged him with a small nod. After another minute’s recitation, Gendun rose and stepped back from the body.
The lama accepted the bowl and drank deeply before speaking. “It wasn’t anguish he felt at the end,” Gendun declared, looking at the body. Shan had never known a voice like Gendun’s. The lama’s words often came in a whisper, but his whispers were as clear and powerful as a great bell. “It was only sadness at leaving important things uncompleted. It is very difficult for him to give up.” The Tibetans believed that there was a period after death, sometimes lasting days, when a spirit was confused and would not accept that its incarnation was extinguished, when it might struggle to reanimate the lost body, to continue unfinished work.
“Rinpoche,” Shan said, “the stone eye is packed on a horse.” His gaze lingered upon the dead man. “But I cannot do this thing without you.”
“Drakte will learn to leave his body behind, my friend. So must you.”
“Drakte lost his life. That thing, that dobdob, could come back.” Shan looked away, into one of the small flames, and felt a sudden sense of desolation. Only hours before he had decided there could be nothing more important than returning the stone, for he, like the Tibetans, had come to see it as one of the seeds to be planted to keep the wisdom and compassion alive. But everything had changed when Drakte had arrived at the lhakang. Although Gendun and Lokesh would resist, would say Shan was denying his own deity, he had to solve the mystery of Drakte’s death. Because as important as returning the eye may be, there was something else, something he would sacrifice even his inner deity for, and that was keeping the old Tibetans safe.
“And a valley of people lost their deity,” his teacher replied. He let the words hang in the air a moment, until Shan looked back into his eyes. “It will be your greatest test. Look forward. Look inside. Not behind you. You must stop being the seeker you were and become the seeker you want to be.”
It was a topic of many conversations between them. Shan’s biggest spiritual handicap was his obsession with the workings of what Gendun called the fleeting, unimportant mysteries of the surface world when he should be looking to the mystery of his soul.
“You must stop being a seeker of fact and become a seeker of truth,” Gendun said. “That is how deities are repaired.”
“Rinpoche, after the durtro, don’t try to find us,” Shan said abruptly. Gendun looked at him, and Shan’s face flushed. The words sounded like Shan was bargaining, as if he were asking Gendun to at least acknowledge the danger that he always ignored. “You must go back to Yerpa,” Shan said, referring to the secret hermitage inside a mountain above Lhadrung, where Gendun was the principal teacher to a handful of monks. “Please.”
“My boots.” Gendun nodded toward to his feet, where the soles of his old work boots had split open at the toe. “My boots are tired,” he said, as though agreeing. “But first I must deliver the earth part of Drakte back to the earth,” he said quietly, looking at the dead man a moment before turning back to Shan. “May the Compassionate Buddha watch over you,” he whispered.
A single dried, brown leaf blew into the doorway. They watched in silence as the wind carried it out again, past the cluster of buildings and up into the air, until it soared out of sight. They both stared at the empty place it had been; then, as if the leaf had been a signal, Gendun turned toward Drakte, pausing to fix Shan with a brief gaze that somehow expressed worry and hope at the same time. “Beware of the dust and air,” he said with a note of finality, then sat and began reciting the Bardo again.
Beware of the dust and air. It was one of Gendun’s customary farewells, a way of saying pay attention only to the essence of what you encounter.
But something made Shan turn back as he reached the door. Gendun paused and slowly brought his eyes back to Shan’s. There was an exquisite silence between them for a moment, and Shan fought the urge to go to Gendun’s side and not move until the Bardo was done.
“The deity you find, Shan, will be the one you take with you,” Gendun said quietly, punctuating the words with another long stare before he turned back to Drakte.
As Shan stepped outside he realized the hairs on his arms were standing on end. He stood perfectly still a moment, looking at his hands, which trembled. Slowly, stumbling over his own boots, he stepped toward his horse, ignoring the Golok’s impatient gestures for him to mount. As he lifted the reins he looked back at Somo, who stood at the door to the lhakang now. “You never did tell us what it was, the message you were carrying for Drakte,” he said.
The woman frowned. “It was a purba message.”
“It was about the eye,” Shan said, “if you were coming here.”
“The lamas. The government is sweeping the mountains for unregistered lamas.”
“No. We knew that already.”
She glanced back toward the death hut, then hesitantly stepped to Shan’s side. “All right. We didn’t think Drakte knew. He had to be warned before he started for that valley with you. They’re moving north, a headquarters unit from Lhasa,” Somo declared cryptically. “That was my message. A small unit.” She bit her lower lip. “Platoon strength, that’s what I was to say to Drakte.”
“I’m sorry,” Shan said, his throat suddenly bone dry. “I don’t understand.”
“I guess it means you must move quickly now. This Golok must know secret trails.” She saw the confusion in Shan’s eyes and glanced at Nyma. “No one told you about the struggle over that old stone eye? Someone else thinks they own it. It was taken from them in Lhasa. They want it back.”
“Who?” Shan asked with a sinking heart.
Somo bit her lip again, then answered slowly, in a chill tone. “The 54th Mountain Combat Brigade of the People’s Liberation Army.”
They rode not north, as Shan expected, but west, climbing the high ridge on the far side of the long valley, then descending toward the second snowcapped range of mountains beyond it. As he rode over the crest and out of the valley that led to the hermitage, Shan reined in his horse and watched Dremu trot off to scout ahead. He looked back to the ridge where the dropka had stacked rocks to protect the lamas, toward the hermitage. Gendun had been sheltered inside his own secret hermitage above Lhadrung until Shan had discovered it. Gendun might never have been exposed to the outside world except for Shan.
“When we arrived there, before the mandala began, I talked with Shopo,” said Lokesh, at his side. The old man had an uncanny ability to read Shan’s emotions. “They didn’t know Gendun. He just arrived and sat in the lhakang for hours contemplating the stone eye. Then he drank tea with Shopo and said he knew that eye now, and he knew who would return the eye, as certain as if he had read it in a book where the future is written. Shopo said he hadn’t been sure himself, but Gendun would not be swayed. He knew it had to be you. He said not only did you have a pure heart, you had a big heart, so big it was a burden to you.”
So big its pain almost overpowered Shan. If the killer was stalking the eye he had no choice but to take it away from the lamas. And going with it was the only way he would find the killer. He could only protect the lamas by leaving the lamas.
Shan cast an awkward glance at Lokesh, who grinned back, leaned over like a mischievous uncle and pulled Shan’s hat brim down over his eyes, then trotted away toward a clump of flowers. It was how Lokesh always traveled, not in a straight line but from flower to flower, or rock to rock, stopping to examine the shapes of nature in whatever form might capture his curiosity. He turned toward the Golok, who was moving so quickly away he seemed to be fleeing them. He did not trust the man. But Drakte had, or at least Dremu wanted Shan and the others to believe he had. Dremu knew about the eye but none of the others left alive knew about him. Drakte had apparently known him, but from where? The only logical answer seemed to be from prison. Shan checked the binding on his saddlebag, then reluctantly urged his horse forward.
Three hours later Dremu waited for them at the crest of the lowest ridge in the second range, their mounts following a winding goat trail through patches of snow. The air beyond still shimmered, as Shan had seen from a distance, and as they reached the crest he discovered the reason.