Read an Excerpt
Leaving Mother LakeA Girlhood at the Edge of the World
By Yang Erche Namu
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2004 Yang Erche Namu
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Lifetime of Tears
My mother doesn't remember when I was born. She does not remember the year or the month or the day. All she knows, she tells me, is that I cried too much. "From the moment you were born, you were trouble."
But I insist: "Ami, just try."
So my mother takes a sip of butter tea and says: "Ask Dujema, she was there."
Dujema is our neighbor. She is also my Ama's best friend and they spend a lot of time together, working and singing to keep their spirits up, and after coming back from the fields, sitting by the open fire, drinking butter tea and talking. Usually they talk about the weather and the crops but just as often they talk about men. Dujema is tall and strong and very beautiful, and she has many lovers. When my mother and Dujema talk about men, they laugh or they cry. Or both.
Right now Dujema is laughing, and in the glow of the fireplace, her beautiful brown face is shining like polished amber.
I slide on my hands and knees over to her side and sit close to her. "Tell me, Ami Dujema. What was it like when I was born? Do you remember?"
"Oh, yes, I remember," she says.
And I nestle under her arm, and she tells me.
It was the year of the horse, and early in the winter. The mountains were already white but my Ama did not feel the cold or hear the stillness settling over the snow-covered fields. Nor did she hear my sisters bickering and giggling on the other side of the fireplace. My Ama was aware only of one thing: the boy inside her stomach stubbornly refusing to come out.
Dujema knelt on the grass mat on the floor near the fireplace, where my mother was lying. She wiped the tears from my Ama's face and smoothed her brow. She ran her hands over the tight belly to make sure the baby was in the proper position. When the pain became unbearable, she put a driedup corncob in my Ama's mouth and told her to bite on it. When at last my Ama was still, Dujema added wood to the fireplace and stared into the bright flames, and the same frightening thought again came to her. "This is her third child. It should be much easier." And when my Ama spat out the corncob and turned onto her side and clutched at her belly with trembling hands, Dujema said: "Latso, you know that boys always hurt more. This one must be a very big boy."
My mother closed her eyes and held back her tears. "Yes. A boy. It's worth the pain," she said. "It's worth the pain."
This went on for a whole day and a whole night.
The next morning, shortly after the rooster called for the sun to rise, Ama suddenly groaned louder and she gave a big push, and then another, and Dujema cried: "That's it, Latso! I see the head!" She laughed with relief. "It's a big head. A big boy's head!" Then she pulled me kicking and screaming into the narrow ray of dawn filtering through the opening in the roof, just above the hearth.
"Is he all right?" Ama asked anxiously. She tried lifting herself on her elbows to see me, but she was too weak. She fell back onto the mat and closed her eyes, leaving Dujema to examine me more closely by the warm light of the open fire.
"Yes, the baby is all right," Dujema said, covering me with a blanket and turning to silence my curious sisters. Awakened by my mother's groans, they had gotten out of bed, and they were now pushing against each other to get a better look at their baby brother.
Dujema gathered her long skirt from underneath her and stood up, her knees creaking from the long hours she had spent squatting near my Ama. She smacked her lips impatiently and shouted to my older sister to hurry and fetch the scissors from the sewing basket. Then she reached into the fireplace for a piece of kindling to light the holy sagebrush she had readied in the big iron pot almost two days before.
The sagebrush crackled. Thick, scented smoke drifted slowly throughout our log house and then upward through the opening in the roof and toward the gods in the heavens. And while the smoke cleansed every corner and crack of the house, Dujema ladled warm water into our blue enamel basin. After such a long labor, there was no time to waste in separating me from my mother. Dujema took the sewing scissors from my sister, passed them through the sagebrush smoke, and then cut the umbilical cord. After that she dipped me into the enamel basin.
"All is well, all is fortunate," Dujema chanted above my newborn screams. "The room is cleansed. The baby is well. The water is pure. All is in harmony."
When she had washed and dried me, Dujema anointed my forehead with a little pat of yak butter. She placed a cloth diaper between my legs, bundled me up in the traditional square cotton cloth, and tied a tiny red-and-green cotton belt across my belly.
And then she handed me over to my sleepy mother.
"It's a girl, Latso," Dujema said.
My Ama opened her eyes. "A girl?" she repeated, hoping she'd misunderstood.
Dujema looked at my crinkled little face and smiled above my tears. "Yes! It's a little girl!"
My sisters started giggling again. "Yes, it's a girl," they repeated. "It's a big girl, with a big head!"
And now I too giggle as I press my face into Dujema's skirt. "So why did it hurt my Ama so much to give birth to a girl?" I ask.
"Maybe you didn't want to come out and disappoint her!" she jokes.
My mother laughs. With her sleeve, she wipes little Howei's face, who is happily burping up his milk, and she takes another sip of butter tea.
MY MOTHER'S DISAPPOINTMENT at my birth was unusual. For we Moso tend to favor daughters over sons - which is why the Chinese call our country the Country of Daughters. Among us it is women, not men, who inherit the family house and rule the household. But a family needs sons as well as daughters. We need men to herd the yaks in the mountains, to travel with the horse caravans to trade in the outside world, and to make the long journey to Lhasa to study the holy Buddhist scriptures and become lamas. Without our lamas we could not name our children or send the souls of the departed on to the next cycle of life.
There were no men in our family. We had no uncles, no brothers, and no sons living with us. But also we had no grandmothers and no aunts. We did not even have relatives nearby. Our family was unlike any other in the village, and all this because, years ago, my mother had broken with Moso custom.
According to our tradition, a family should never divide. Daughters and sons should remain with their mother and other maternal relatives for their entire life. Ideally, all family members should die in the house where they were born, the house of their mother and grandmother. But when my Ama was a very young and very beautiful girl, she ran away from the house of her grandmother. She was curious and restless and she wanted to see the world, the marvelous world where her uncles traveled with the horse caravans. But she did not go very far. She stopped only two days' walk away on the other side of the mountains, in the valley of Zuosuo, where she lost her heart to a handsome young man and soon abandoned the dreams that had beckoned from beyond the mountains. When her belly was round as the full moon, she decided to build a house and raise her own family near his village.
A few months after our house was built, my oldest sister, Zhema, was born. Then, not long after Zhema began to walk, my mother sang the courtship songs again, with another handsome young man, and some months later she gave birth to another daughter, Dujelema. Then she fell in love with another man. His name was Zhemi and he was from Qiansuo, where my grandmother lived. He often passed through Zuosuo when he traveled in Tibet with the horse caravan. Zhemi was tall and he had the finest and most beautiful hands. Many times my Ama told Dujema that she fell in love with Zhemi when she looked at his hands.
Zhemi was my father.
Among my people this is how families usually live together. Women and men should not marry, for love is like the seasons -it comes and goes. A Moso woman may have many lovers during her lifetime and she may have many children. Yet each of them will perhaps have a different father, and none of the fathers will live with his children. Moso children should be raised in their mother's house and take the family name of their maternal ancestors. They should grow up side by side with their cousins -the children of their mother's sisters. The only men who live in the house are the brothers and uncles of the women. So in place of one father, Moso children have many uncles who take care of them. In a way, we also have many mothers, because we call our aunts by the name azhe Ami, which means "little mother."
When I was born, my father was away at his own mother's house in Qiansuo, and since we had no relatives living with us, there was no one to help my Ama. There were no sisters to help chop the firewood or cook dinner and no uncles to hold her newborn baby. So when Dujema had fed her enough eggs and chicken soup and corn gruel and my Ama was strong enough to stand up, she bound me to her back, and with my two sisters trailing behind her long skirt, carried me with her everywhere she went as she cooked and cleaned and tended the chickens and the pigs.
I soon proved quite a burden.
From the moment I was born, I cried. I cried all day, and often through the night as well, week after week, month and month. No one could understand why I never stopped crying. My mother tried everything. She sang me lullabies. She cradled me in her arms and bounced me softly on her shoulder. She nursed me until her breasts emptied.
When she could not stand my crying any longer, she sometimes bundled me tightly into a goatskin and placed me under the kang, the wooden platform where the family sits at night around the hearth. Then she covered her ears with her hands and rushed into the courtyard, where she shouted at the pigs and the chickens. And when she was done with shouting, she paced back and forth until she felt calm enough to retrieve me from underneath the platform-still crying and kicking.
One night when she left me crying alone under the kang, I wriggled my arms free of the goatskin and reached out to the bright embers that had fallen between the cracks from under the stove. My tiny fingers closed around the glowing coal, and I screamed with all the force of my baby lungs. My Ama rushed back into the house, but already my hand was horribly burned. To this day, when she sees the scar on my right hand, my mother's eyes fill with tears.
After I burned my hand, Ama decided to seek some help. She snipped a corner of my clothing and set off with a large bunch of wild sagebrush to consult with old Lama Ruhi.
The holy man shooed away his chickens and piglets, and my Ama stepped through the wooden porch and into his courtyard, where, as custom requires, she respectfully undid her headdress and kowtowed three times, each time touching her forehead to the cold earth. When she stood up, she straightened her long skirt, picked up her things, and followed Lama Ruhi across the yard into another interior court, enclosed on two sides by the women's bedrooms and, at the far end, by a little chapel. There Lama Ruhi directed my mother toward a large clay burner next to the chapel wall, where she piled her sagebrush and the old man struck a match.
The twigs crackled and the smoke rose up the chimney and into the sky.
Lama Ruhi stared at the smoke for a while before he led Ama upstairs and into his little chapel cheered by the perfume of sagebrush smoke and burning incense and the glow of tiny flames dancing in the butter lamps on the altar. Again Ama lowered her forehead to the floor, this time to honor the portraits of the yellow Buddhas gazing in serene benevolence from above the altar. When all these formalities were finally over, Lama Ruhi sat himself on a large red cushion while my mother knelt in front of him, on the bare floor, and politely joined her hands together with her fingers pointing up toward heaven and her thumbs touching her heart.
"Uncle Lama, how is your health?" she asked. "How are your fields?"
"And how is your family in Qiansuo?" he replied, smiling. "Do you have news from your mother? And your sisters and brothers?"
"Thank you for asking, Ape," she said, "but the horse caravan has not arrived and we have no news."
"There was hail in Qiansuo this summer," he told her. "Did your family manage to reap a good harvest?"
"Thank you for your concern, Ape. Everyone is well. But I have not come because of my mother or sisters or brothers, or because of the crops. I have come because my third daughter won't stop crying. I have enough with the noise of the pigs and chickens and cows. I can't sleep at night. I am so tired. I am afraid I'm going to lose all my hair. She cries and cries. No matter what I do she will not stop."
My mother undid her hands and reached under her belt for the little piece of my clothing. "Please, Uncle, help me," she pleaded.
Lama Ruhi leaned over, took the cloth from her, and brought it to his nose. He sniffed it, closed his eyes, and sniffed again carefully, and then he looked at my Ama and asked, "When was the baby born?"
Ama hesitated. "When the rooster crowed."
"Yes, and what is her zodiacal sign?"
Ama frowned. "Well, it is a horse year, so she must be a horse...."
Lama Ruhi laughed. "What do you mean, she must be a horse? Don't you know when your daughter was born?"
Ama lowered her eyes. "I know that it's time she had a name. Maybe she's more than two months old already. With four mouths to feed and the pigs and chickens and horses to tend and without brothers or sisters to help me, I don't even remember my own birthday!"
The old monk repressed a smile. He half closed his eyes and began chanting a sutra in a deep, low voice. When he finished, he gazed calmly into my mother's face and said, "Latso, your third daughter has a very special destiny awaiting her. But to solve your problem, you must first of all find a suitable name for her."
"But how will I find this name?" my mother asked eagerly, at once relieved to hear that there was a solution and anxious to find it as quickly as possible. "Why don't you give her a name, Uncle?"
"On the fifteenth day of the month," Lama Ruhi answered gravely, "you must leave your house before the cock crows and take this baby to the crossroads at the center of the village and you must wait there. You will ask the first person you meet to give her a name. Then she'll stop crying."
On the fifteenth day of that month, Ama got up well before sunrise. She wrapped me up tightly and tied me over her back, slung a canvas bag filled with food over her shoulder, and set off down the road. At the crosswalk she spread a goatskin on the ground and placed me on it.
Excerpted from Leaving Mother Lake by Yang Erche Namu Copyright © 2004 by Yang Erche Namu.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.