Read an Excerpt
They called it taking four. The tall, gaunt monk hovered at the lip of the five-hundred-foot cliff, nothing restraining him but the raw Himalayan wind. Shan Tao Yun squinted at the figure to see better. His heart clenched. It was Trinle who was going to jumpTrinle, his friend, who just that morning had whispered a blessing on Shan's feet so they would not trample insects.
Shan dropped his wheelbarrow and ran.
As Trinle leaned outward, the updraft pushed back, ripping away his khata, the makeshift prayer scarf he secretly wore around his neck. Shan weaved around men swinging sledgehammers and pickaxes, then stumbled in the gravel. Behind him a whistle blew, followed by an angry shout. The wind played with the dirty scrap of white silk, dangling it above Trinle's reach, then slowly twisting it skyward. As it rose, the prisoners watched the khata, not in surprise but in reverence. Every action had a meaning, they knew, and the subtle, unexpected acts of nature often had the most meaning.
The guards shouted again. But not a man returned to his work. It was a moment of abject beauty, the white cloth dancing in the cobalt sky, two hundred haggard faces looking upward in hope of revelation, ignoring the punishment that would surely come for even a minute's lost time. It was the kind of moment Shan had learned to expect in Tibet.
But Trinle, hanging at the edge, looked downward again with a calm, expectant gaze. Shan had seen others take four, all with the same anticipation on their faces. It always happened likethis, abruptly, as if they were suddenly compelled by a voice no one else could hear. Suicide was a grave sin, certain to bring reincarnation as a lower life form. But opting for life on four legs could be a tempting alternative to life on two in a Chinese hard labor brigade.
Shan scrambled forward and grabbed Trinle's arm just as he bent over the rim. Instantly Shan realized he had mistaken Trinle's actions. The monk was studying something. Six feet below, on a ledge barely wide enough to accommodate a swallow's nest, lay a glittering gold object. A cigarette lighter.
A murmur of excitement pulsed through the prisoners. The khata had scudded back over the ridge and was plummeting to the slope fifty feet in front of the road crew.
The guards were among them now, cursing, reaching for their batons. As Trinle moved back from the edge, now watching the prayer cloth, Shan turned back to his upset wheelbarrow. Sergeant Feng, slow and grizzled but ever alert, stood beside the spilled rocks, writing in his tally book. Building roads was in the service of socialism. Abandoning one's work was one more sin against the people.
But as he plodded back to accept Feng's wrath, a cry rang out from the slope above. Two prisoners had gone for the khata. They had reached the pile of rocks where it had landed but were on their knees now, backing away, chanting feverishly. Their mantra hit the prisoners below like a gust of wind. Each man dropped to his knees the instant he heard it, taking up the chant in succession until the entire brigade, all the way to the trucks at the bridge below, was chanting. Only Shan and four others, the sole Han Chinese prisoners in the brigade, remained standing.
Feng roared in anger and shot forward, blowing his whistle. At first Shan was confused by the chant, for there had been no suicide. But the words were unmistakable. It was the invocation of Bardo, the opening recitation for the ceremonies of death.
A soldier wearing four pockets on his jacket, the most common insignia of rank in the People's Liberation Army, trotted uphill. Lieutenant Chang, the officer of the guard, spoke into Feng's ear, and the sergeant shouted for the Han prisoners to clear the stack of rocks discovered by the Tibetans. Shan stumbled forward to where the khata lay and knelt beside Jilin, the slow, powerful Manchurian known only by the name of his province. As Shan stuffed the scarf up his sleeve, Jilin's surly face took on an air of anticipation. With a surge of new energy he shoved aside the rocks.
It was not unusual for the lead work team, assigned to clear the largest boulders and loose surface rocks, to encounter the unexpected. A discarded pot or the skull of a yak was often discovered along the routes surveyed by the engineers of the PLA. In a land where the dead were still offered to vultures, it was not uncommon even to encounter the shards of human beings.
A half-smoked cigarette appeared in the rubble. As Jilin snatched it with a purr of delight, a pair of brightly polished boots appeared beside them. Shan leaned back on his haunches and watched as Lieutenant Chang's expression changed to alarm. His hand jerked to the pistol at his belt. A shrill outburst died on his lips, and he stepped behind Feng.
This time, the People's 404th Construction Brigade had beaten the vultures. The body lay outlined by the rocks that had covered it. Its shoes, Shan saw at once, were of real leather, in an expensive Western fashion. Under a red V-necked sweater, a freshly laundered white shirt glistened.
"American," Jilin whispered with awe, not for the dead but for the clothing.
The man wore new blue jeansnot the flimsy Chinese denim for which street vendors sold pirated Western labels, but the real thing, made by a company in the United States. On the sweater was an enamel pin of two crossed flags, American and Chinese. The man's hands were folded over his belly, giving the impression of someone lying in repose at a guesthouse, waiting to be called for tea.
Lieutenant Chang quickly recovered. "The rest, dammit," he snarled, shouldering Feng forward. "I want to see the face."
"An investigation," Shan said without thinking. "You can't just"
The lieutenant kicked Shan, not hard, but with the motion of one accustomed to dealing with troublesome dogs. Beside Shan, Jilin flinched, reflexively shielding his head with his hands. Lieutenant Chang impatiently stepped forward and grabbed the exposed ankles. With a peevish glance at Feng, he jerked the body away from the remaining rocks. Instantly the color drained from Chang's face. He turned away and retched.
The body had no head.
"Idolatry is an attack on the socialist order," a young officer barked into a bullhorn as the prisoners were marched toward a line of decrepit gray troop trucks long ago retired from army service. "Every prayer is a blow against the people."
Break the Chains of Feudalism, Shan silently bet to himself, or Honoring the Past Is Regression.
"The dragon has eaten," called out a voice from the ranks of prisoners.
A whistle blew for silence.
"You have failed to make quota," the political officer continued in his high-pitched drone. Behind him was a red truck Shan had never before seen at the construction site. MINISTRY OF GEOLOGY, it said on the door. "You have shamed the people. You will be reported to Colonel Tan." The officer's amplified words echoed off the slope. Why, wondered Shan, would the Ministry of Geology need to be there? "Visiting rights suspended. No hot tea for two weeks. Break the Chains of Feudalism. Learn the will of the people."
"Fuck me," an unfamiliar voice muttered behind Shan. "Lao gai coffee again." The man stumbled into Shan's back as they waited to climb into the truck.
Shan turned. It was a new face to the squad, a young Tibetan whose small rugged features marked him as a khampa, from the herding clans of the high Kham plateau to the east.
As the man saw Shan his face instantly hardened. "You know lao gai coffee, your highness?" he snarled. The few teeth he had left were blackened with decay. "A spoonful of good Tibetan dirt. And half a cup of piss."
The man sat on the bench opposite Shan and studied him. Shan turned the collar up on his shirtthe tattered canvas that covered the rear of the truck did little to shield them from the windand returned the stare without blinking. Survival, he had learned, was all about managing fear. It might burn your stomach. It might sear into your heart until you felt your soul smoldering. But never let it show.
Shan had become a connoisseur of fear, learning to appreciate its many textures and physical reactions. There was a vast difference, for example, between the fear of the torturer's bootsteps and the fear of an avalanche descending on an adjacent work crew. And none compared to the fear that kept him awake nights as he searched through his miasma of exhaustion and pain, the fear of forgetting the face of his father. In the first days, during the haze of hypodermics and political therapy, he had come to realize how valuable fear could be. Sometimes only the fear had been real.
The khampa had deep scars, blade marks, on his neck. His mouth curled with cold scorn as he spoke. "Colonel Tan, they said," he growled, looking about for acknowledgment. "No one told me this was Tan's district. From the Thumb Riots, right? The biggest son of a bitch in an army of sons of bitches."
For a moment it seemed as though no one had heard, then a guard suddenly leaned through the flap and slammed his baton against the man's shins. A grimace of pain twisted the khampa's face, fading into a spiteful laugh as he made a small, twisting gesture toward Shan, as though with a knife. With studied disinterest, Shan shut his eyes.
As the flap was tied shut behind them and the truck groaned into movement, a low murmur rose in the darkness. It was nearly imperceptible, like the sound of a distant stream. During the thirty-minute ride to their camp, the guards were in the truck cabs, and the prisoners were alone. The fatigue in the squad was almost palpable, a weary grayness that dulled the ride back to camp. But it did not relieve the men from their vows.
After three years, Shan was able to identify the men's malas, their rosaries, by sound. The man to his left fingered a chain of buttons. On his other side the bootleg mala was a chain of fingernails. It was a popular device: one let the nails grow, then clipped and collected them, until reaching the required one hundred and eight, on thread pulled from blankets. Some rosaries, made only of knots tied from such thread, moved silently through callused fingers. Others were made of melon seeds, a prized material that had to be carefully guarded. Some prisoners, though, especially the recent arrivals, were more concerned with the rituals of survival than the rituals of Buddha. They would eat such rosaries.
With each seed or fingernail, knot or button, a priest recited the ancient mantra, Om mani padme hum. Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus, the invocation to the Buddha of Compassion. No priest would recline on his bunk until his daily regime of at least one hundred cycles was completed.
The chants worked like a salve on his weary soul. The priests and their mantras had changed his life. They had made it possible for him to leave behind the pain of his past, to stop looking back. At least, most of the time. An investigation, he had said to Chang. The words had surprised him more than they had the lieutenant. Old ways died hard.
As fatigue pushed his consciousness back, an image pounced on him. A headless body, sitting upright, fidgeting with a gold cigarette lighter. The figure somehow took notice of him, and reluctantly extended the lighter toward Shan. He opened his eyes with a gasp, suddenly short of breath.
It was not the khampa who was watching him now, but an older man, the only prisoner with a genuine rosary, an ancient mala of jade beads which had materialized months earlier. The man who used it sat diagonally across from Shan, with Trinle, on the bench behind the cab. His face was worn smooth as a cobblestone except for the ragged scar at the left temple where a Red Guard had attacked him with a hoe thirty years earlier. Choje Rinpoche had been the kenpo, the abbot, of Nambe gompa, one of the thousands of monasteries that had been annihilated by the Chinese. Now he was kenpo of the People's 404th Construction Brigade.
As Choje said his beads like the others, oblivious to the lurching of the truck, Trinle dropped a small object wrapped in a rag into his lap. Choje lowered his rosary and slowly unwrapped it, revealing a stone covered with a rust-colored stain. The old lama held it reverently, studying each facet, as if it held some hidden truth. Slowly, as he discovered its secret, a great sadness filled his eyes. The rock had been drenched with blood. He looked up and met Shan's stare again, then nodded solemnly, as if to confirm Shan's sense of foreboding. The man in the American jeans had lost his soul there, in the middle of their road. The Buddhists would refuse to work the mountain.
As the trucks pulled to a stop inside the compound, the rosaries disappeared. Whistles blew and the canvas was untied. Through the gray light of dusk the prisoners plodded in silence into the squat plank buildings that housed them, then quickly emerged with the tin mugs that served each man as wash basin, food plate, and teacup. They filed through one side of the mess shed to have their mugs filled with barley gruel and stood in the dusk, coming to life as the warmth of the gruel reached their bellies. Prisoners silently nodded to each other, offering tired smiles. If anyone spoke, he would be sent to the stable for the night.
Back in the hut, Trinle stopped the new prisoner, the khampa, as he moved across the room. "Not here," the monk said, pointing to a rectangle drawn in chalk on the floor.
The wiry khampa, apparently familiar with the invisible altars of prison barracks, shrugged and moved around the rectangle to an empty bunk in the corner.
"By the door," Trinle announced quietly. He always spoke in the same worshipful tone, as though in awe of his every waking moment. "Your bunk would be by the door," he repeated, and offered to move the man's kit.
The man seemed not to have heard. "Buddha's breath!" he gasped, studying Trinle's hands. "Where's your thumbs?"
Trinle cocked his head toward his hands. "I have no idea," he said with a tinge of curiosity, as though he had never considered the question.
"The bastards. They did it to you, didn't they? To keep you from your rosary."
"I still manage. By the door," Trinle repeated.
"There's two empty bunks," the man snapped. He was no priest. He leaned back on the straw pallet as though challenging Trinle to move him. The fiercest resistance fighters ever to oppose the People's Liberation Army had been those from Kham. They were still being arrested in the remote ranges for random acts of sabotage. Outside, a khampa from the southern clans, who had resisted the army long after the rest of Tibet was subdued, was still prohibited from possessing any weapon, even a blade of more than five inches.
The man removed one of his tattered boots and with great ceremony removed a slip of paper from his pocket. It was a sheet from one of the guards' tally pads, which sometimes blew open in the wind. He held it up with an exaggerated smile and pushed it into his boot for added insulation. Life in the 404th was measured by the thinnest of victories.
As he rewrapped the rags that served as his socks, the new arrival studied his cellmates. Shan had seen the routine more times than he could count. Each new prisoner first looked for the chief priest, then for the weak who would make no trouble. For those who had given up and those who could be informers. The first was easy. His eyes quickly settled on Choje, who sat lotus fashion on the floor beside one of the central bunks, still studying the rock in his hand. No one in the hut, no one in the entire lao gai brigade, emitted such serenity.
One of the young monks produced a pocketful of leaves, sprouts of the weeds that had begun to emerge on the mountain slopes. Trinle counted them out and distributed them, one leaf to each prisoner. Each of the monks accepted his leaf solemnly and whispered a mantra of thanks toward the man whose turn it had been to risk punishment for gathering the greens.
Trinle turned back to the khampa as the man chewed his leaf. "I am sorry," he said. "Shan Tao Yun sleeps there."
The khampa looked about and settled his gaze on Shan, who sat on the floor near Choje.
"The rice eater?" he snarled. "No khampa lets a damned rice eater beat him." He laughed and looked around. No one joined.
The silence seemed to inflame him. "They took our land. They took our monasteries. Our parents. Our children," he spat, studying the monks with growing impatience.
The monks looked at each other uncomfortably. The hatred in his voice was like an alien presence in their hut.
"And that was just the beginning, just giving them the time they needed for the real fight. Now they take our souls. They put their people in our cities, in our valleys, in our mountains. Even in our prisons. To poison us. To make us like them. Our souls shrivel up. Our faces disappear. We become nobody."
He turned abruptly to face the opposite bunks. "It happened at my last camp. They forgot all their mantras. One day they woke up, their minds were blank. No prayers left."
"They can never take the prayers from our hearts," Trinle said, with an anxious look toward Shan.
"Shit on them! They take our hearts. No one passes on then, no one goes to Buddha. They only go down, drifting from one form to a lower one. An old monk at the last camp, they fed him politics. One day he woke up and found he had been reborn as a goat. I saw him. The goat got in line for food, just where the old priest had been. I saw it with my own eyes. Just like that. A goat. The guards bayoneted him. Roasted him on a spit in front of us. Next day they brought a bucket of shit from the latrine. Said look what he's become now."
"You do not need the Chinese to lose your way," Choje said suddenly. "Your hate will be enough." His voice was soft and fluid, like sand falling on a stone.
The khampa shrank back. But the wildness stayed in his eyes. "I'm not waking up as a damned goat. I'll kill someone first," he said, glaring again at Shan.
"Shan Tao Yun," Trinle observed quietly, "was reduced. He will return to his bunk tomorrow."
"Reduced?" the khampa sneered.
"A punishment," Trinle replied. "No one explained the system?"
"They pushed me out of the truck and just gave me a shovel."
Trinle nodded to one of the young monks sitting nearby, a man with one milky eye who instantly dropped his prayer beads and moved to the khampa's feet.
"Break one of the warden's rules," the man explained, "and he sends you a clean shirt. You appear before him. If you are lucky, you are reduced. The immediate elimination of everything that provides comfort except the clothes on your back. The first night is spent outside, in the center of the assembly square. If it is winter you will leave your body that night."
In Shan's three years he had seen six of them, carried away like altar statues, frozen in the lotus position, clutching their makeshift beads.
"If it is not winter, the next day you may return to the shelter of your hut. The next your boots are returned. Then your coat. Next your food cup. Then the blanket, the pallet, and finally the bed."
"You said that's the lucky. What about the others?"
The young priest suppressed a shudder. "The warden sends them to Colonel Tan."
"The famous Colonel Tan," the khampa muttered, then abruptly looked up. "Why a clean shirt?"
"The warden is a fastidious man." The priest looked back to Trinle as though uncertain what more to say. "Sometimes those who go are sent to a new place."
The khampa snorted as he recognized the hidden meaning of the priest's words, then warily circled Shan. "He's a spy. I can smell it."
Trinle sighed and picked up the khampa's kit, moving it to the empty bunk by the door. "This one belonged to an old man from Shigatse. It was Shan who got him out."
"I figured he took four."
"No. Released. He was called Lokesh. He had been a tax collector in the Dalai Lama's government. Thirty-five years, then suddenly they call his name and open the gate."
"You said this rice-eater got him out."
"Shan wrote some words of power on a banner," Choje interjected with a slow nod.
The khampa studied Shan with a gaping mouth. "So you're some kind of sorcerer?" The venom was still in his eyes. "Gonna work some magic on me too, shaman?"
Shan did not look up. He watched Choje's hands now. The evening liturgy would soon begin.
Trinle turned with a sad smile. "For a sorcerer," he sighed, "our Shan hauls rocks well."
The khampa muttered under his breath, and threw his boot to the bunk by the door. He was conceding not for Shan, but for the priests. To be certain, he turned to Shan. "Fuck your mother," he grunted. When no one took any notice, a gleam entered his eyes. He moved to the bare planks of Shan's bunk, untied the string at his waist, and urinated on the boards.
No one spoke.
Choje slowly rose and began cleaning the bunk with his own blanket.
The sheen of victory left the khampa's face. He cursed under his breath, then, nudging Choje aside, pulled off his shirt and finished the job.
There had been another khampa in their hut two years earlier, a tiny, middle-aged herder jailed for failing to register with one of the agricultural cooperatives. Alone for nearly fifteen years after a patrol picked up his family, he had finally wandered into a valley town after his dog died. He had been the closest thing to a caged animal Shan had ever seen, always pacing back and forth in the hut like a bear behind bars. When looking at Shan his face had been like a small fist clenched in fury.
But the little khampa had loved Choje like a father. When one of the officers, known as Lieutenant Stick for his affinity for the baton, had taken his stick to Choje for spilling a barrow load, the khampa had leapt on the Stick's back, pounding him, screaming profanity. The Stick had laughed and pretended not to notice. A week later, released from the stable with a limp from something they did to his knee, the khampa had ripped strips from his blanket and begun sewing pockets to the inside of his shirt. Trinle and others had told him that even if he stored up enough food in his new pockets for a flight across the mountains, it was futile to consider escape.
One morning, when he had finished his pockets, he asked Choje for a special blessing. At their mountain worksite he began filling the pockets with rocks. He kept working, singing an old herder's song, until Lieutenant Stick moved near the edge of the cliff. Then, without a second's hesitation, the khampa had charged, hurling himself at the Stick, locking his arms and legs around the officer, using the extra weight to convey them both over the cliff.
Suddenly the night bell rang. The single naked bulb that lit the room was extinguished. No talking was permitted now. Slowly, like a chorus of crickets claiming the night, the liquid rattle of rosaries filled the hut.
One of the young monks stealthfully moved to keep watch by the door. From a hiding place under a loose board Trinle produced two candles and lit them, placing them at either end of the rectangle of chalk. A third was placed in front of Choje. The flame was too dim even to reach the kenpo's face. His hands appeared in the light, and began the evening teaching. It was a prison ritual, with no words and no music, one of the many that had evolved since Buddhist monks began filling Chinese prisons four decades earlier.
First came the offerings to the invisible altar. Choje's palms were pressed together facing outward, his index fingers curled under his thumbs. It was the sign for argham, water for the face. Many of the mudra, the hand symbols used to focus inner power, still eluded Shan, but Trinle had taught him the offering signs. The bottom two fingers of Choje's disembodied hands withdrew into the palms and the hands aimed downward. Padyam. Water for the feet. Slowly, gracefully, Choje deftly moved his hands to offer incense, perfume, and food. Finally he closed his fists together, the thumbs extended upward like wicks from a bowl of butter. It was aloke. Lamps.
From outside a long moan of pain punctuated the silence. A monk in the next hut was dying of some internal ailment.
Choje's hands gestured toward the invisible circle of worshipers, asking what they brought for the glory of the inner deity. A pair of thumbless hands appeared in the light, the index finger of each hand touching at the tip, the other fingers folded. A tiny murmur of approval moved through the room. It was the golden fish, an offering for good fortune. New hands appeared, each after sufficient time to silently recite the dedication prayer that accompanied the prior offering. The conch shell, the treasure flask, the coiled knot, the lotus flower. It was Shan's turn. He hesitated, then extended his left index finger upward and covered it with his right hand flattened. The white umbrella, another prayer for good fortune.
The room filled with the tiny, remarkable sound, as if of rustling feathers, that had become a fixture of Shan's nights, the sound of a dozen men silently mouthing mantras. Choje's hands returned to the circle of light for the sermon. He began with a gesture Shan had not often seen, the right hand raised with palm and fingers pointing up. The mudra of dispelling fear. It cast an uneasy silence on the room. One of the young monks audibly sucked in his stomach, as though suddenly aware that something profound was happening. Then the hands shifted, clasping together with the middle fingers pointing upward. The diamond of the mind mudra, invoking cleansing and clarity of purpose. This was the sermon. The hands did not change. They floated, unmoving, as though carved of pale granite, while the devotees contemplated them. The message could not have been more intensely communicated if Choje had shouted it from a mountaintop. The pain was irrelevant, the hands said. The rocks, the blisters, the broken bones were inconsequential. Remember your purpose. Honor your inner god.
It wasn't clarity that Shan lacked. Choje had taught him how to focus like no teacher before. Through the long winter days when the warden kept them innot for fear of losing prisoners, but for fear of losing guardsChoje had helped him reach an extraordinary discovery. To be an investigator, the only job Shan had ever known before the gulag, one had to have a troubled soul. The exceptional investigator could have no faith. Everything was suspect, everything transitory, moving from allegation to fact to cause to effect to new mystery. There could be no peace, for peace only came with faith. No, it wasn't clarity he lacked. In moments like this, with dark premonition weighing heavy, with his prior life pulling him like a man tangled in an anchor line, what he lacked was an inner god.
He saw there was something on the floor below Choje's hands. The bloody rock. With a start, Shan realized that he and Choje were thinking about the same thing. The kenpo was reminding his priests of their duty. Shan's tongue went dry. He wanted to blurt out a protest, to beg them not to put themselves at risk over a dead foreigner, but the mudra silenced him like a spell.
He clamped his eyes shut but still Shan could not focus on Choje's message. He kept seeing something else each time he tried to concentrate. He kept seeing the gold cigarette lighter hanging five hundred feet above the valley floor. And the dead American who had beckoned to him in his daylight nightmare.
Suddenly a low whistle came from the door. The candles were extinguished, and a moment later the ceiling light switched on. A guard slammed open the door and moved to the center of the room, a pick handle cradled in his arm. Behind him came Lieutenant Chang. With mock solemnity Chang extended a piece of clothing so that no prisoner could mistake it. It was a clean shirt. He jabbed it toward several men as though feinting with a blade, laughing as he did so. Then he abruptly flung it at Shan, who lay on the floor.
"Tomorrow morning," he snapped, and marched out.
* * *
A sharp, chill wind slapped Shan's face as Sergeant Feng escorted him through the wire the next morning. The winds were harsh to the 404th, which sat at the base of the northernmost ridge of the Dragon Claws, a vast rock wall rising nearly vertically behind it. Updrafts sometimes ripped roofs from huts. Downdrafts sometimes pelted them with gravel.
"Already reduced," Sergeant Feng muttered as he locked the gate behind them. "Nobody already reduced ever got the shirt." He was a short, thick, bull of a man, with a heavy stomach and equally heavy shoulders, his skin as leathery as that of the prisoners from years of standing guard in sun and wind and snow. "Everyone's waiting. Making bets," Feng added with a dry croak Shan took to be a laugh.
Shan tried to will himself not to listen, not to think of the stable, not to remember Zhong's white-hot fury.
Zhong's temper was in control for once. But the warden's gloating smile as he paced around Shan scared him more than the expected tantrum. He gripped his upper right arm, which often twitched in Zhong's presence. Once they had connected battery wires there.
"If he had bothered to consult with me," Zhong said in the flat nasal tone of Fujian province, "I would have warned him. Now he will have to find out for himself what a damned troublemaker you are." Zhong lifted a piece of paper from his desk and read it, shaking his head in disbelief. "Parasite," he hissed, then paused and scribbled on the paper to record the insight.
"It won't be for long," he said, looking up expectantly. "One wrong step and you'll be breaking rocks with your bare hands. Until you die."
"I constantly endeavor to fulfill the trust the people have bestowed in me," Shan said without blinking.
The words seemed to please the warden. A perverse gleam rose on his face. "Tan's going to eat you alive."
* * *
Sergeant Feng had an unfamiliar look, an almost festive air about him. A drive into Lhadrung, the ancient market town that served as county seat, was a rare treat for the 404th guards. He joked about the old women and goats who ran from the side of the road, spooked by the truck. He peeled an apple and shared it with the driver, ignoring Shan, who was wedged between the two men. With a spiteful grin, he repeatedly moved the key for Shan's manacles from one pocket to the next.
"They say the chairman himself sent you here," the sergeant finally said as the low, flat buildings of the town came into view.
Shan didn't reply. He bent in his seat trying to roll up his cuffs. Someone had produced a pair of worn, oversized gray trousers for him to wear, and a threadbare soldier's jacket. They had made him change clothes in the middle of the office. Everyone had stopped his work to watch.
"I mean, why else would they put you in with them?"
Shan straightened. "I'm not the only Chinese."
Feng grunted as though amused. "Sure. Model citizens, every one. Jilin, he killed ten women. Public Security would have put a bullet in him except his uncle was a party secretary. That one from Squad Six, he stole the safety gear from an oil rig in the ocean. To sell in the black market. Storm came and fifty men died. Letting him have a bullet was too easy on him. Special cases, you from home."
"Every prisoner is a special case."
Feng grunted again. "People like you, Shan, they just keep for practice." He stuffed two slices of apple into his mouth. Momo gyakpa, he was called behind his back, fat dumpling, for the curve of his belly and the way he was always scavenging food.
Shan turned away. He looked over the expanse of heather and hills rolling like a sea toward the high ice-clad ranges. It offered the illusion of escape. Escape was always an illusion for those who had no place to escape to.
Sparrows flitted among the heather. There were no birds at the 404th. Not all the prisoners were fastidious in respecting life. They claimed every crumb, every seed, nearly every insect. The year before there had been a fight over a partridge that was blown into the compound. The bird had narrowly escaped, leaving two men with a handful of feathers each. They had eaten the feathers.
The four-story building that housed the government of Lhadrung County had a crumbling synthetic marble façade and filthy windows in corroded frames that rattled in the wind. Feng pushed Shan up the stairs to the top floor, where a small gray-haired woman led them to a waiting room with one large window and a door at each end. She scrutinized Shan with a twist of her head, like a curious bird, then barked at Feng, who shrank, then sullenly removed the manacles from Shan's wrists and retreated into the hallway.
"A few minutes," she announced, nodding at the far door. "I could bring you tea."
Shan looked at her dumbfounded, knowing he should tell her of her mistake. He had not had tea, real green tea, for three years. His mouth opened but no sound came out. The woman smiled and disappeared behind the near door.
Suddenly he was alone. The unexpected solitude, however brief, overwhelmed him. The imprisoned thief suddenly left alone in a treasure vault. For solitude had been his real crime during his years in Beijing, the one for which no one had ever thought to prosecute him. Fifteen years of postings away from his wife, his private apartment in the married quarters, his long solitary walks through the parks, the meditation cells at his hidden temple, even his irregular work hours had given him a hoard of privacy unknown to a billion of his countrymen. He had never understood his addiction until that wealth had been wrenched away by the Public Security Bureau three years before. It hadn't been the loss of freedom that hurt most, but the loss of privacy.
Once in a tamzing session at the 404th he had confessed his addiction. If he had not rejected the socialist bond, they said, there would have been someone there to stop him. It wasn't friends that mattered. A good socialist had few friends, but many watchers. After the session he had stayed behind in the hut, missing a meal just to be alone. Discovering him there, Warden Zhong had dispatched him to the stable, where they broke something small in his foot, then forced him back to work before it could heal.
He examined the room. A huge plant extending to the ceiling occupied one corner. It was dead. There was a small table, polished brightly, with a lace doily on top. The doily caught him by surprise. He stood before it with a sudden aching in his heart, then pulled himself away to the window.
The top floor gave a view over most of the northern quarter of the valley, bound on the east by the Dragon Claws, the two huge symmetrical mountains from which ridges splayed out to the east, north, and south. The dragon had perched there and taken phantom form, people said, its feet turned to stone as a reminder that it still watched over the valley. What was it someone had shouted when the American's body was found? The dragon had eaten.
He pieced together the geography until at last, across an expanse of several miles of windblown gravel and stunted vegetation he discerned the low roofs of Jade Spring Camp, the county's primary military installation. Just above it, and below the northernmost Claw, was the low hill that separated Jade Spring from the wire-enclosed compound of the 404th.
Almost without thinking Shan traced the roads, his work of the past three years. Tibet had two kinds of roads. The iron roads always came first. The 404th had laid the bed for the wide strip of macadam that ran from Lhasa, beyond the western hills, into Jade Spring Camp. Iron roads were not railways, of which Tibet had none. They were for tanks and trucks and fieldguns, the iron of the People's Liberation Army.
The thin line of brown that Shan traced from an intersection north of town toward the Claws was not such a road. It was far worse. The road the 404th was building now was for colonists who would settle in the high valleys beyond the mountains. The ultimate weapon wielded by Beijing had always been population. As in the western province of Xinjiang, the home of millions of Moslems belonging to central Asian cultures, Beijing was turning the native population of Tibet into a minority in their own lands. Half of Tibet had been annexed to neighboring Chinese provinces. Population centers in the rest of Tibet had been flooded with immigrants. Endless truck convoys over thirty years had turned Lhasa into a Han Chinese city. The roads built for such convoys were called avichi trails at the 404th, for the eighth level of hell, the hell reserved for those who would destroy Buddhism.
A buzzer sounded. Shan turned to find the birdlike woman standing with a cup of tea. She extended the cup, then scurried through the far door, disappearing into a darkened room.
He gulped down half the cup, ignoring the pain as it scalded his throat. The woman would realize her mistake and take it back. He wanted to remember the sensation, to relive the taste in his bunk that night. Even as he did so he felt demeaned, and angry at himself. It was a prisoner's game that Choje warned against, stealing bits of the world to worship back in the hut.
The woman reappeared and gestured for him to enter.
A man in a spotless uniform sat behind an unusually long, ornate desk lit by a single gooseneck lamp. No, it was not a desk, Shan realized, but an altar that had been converted to government use.
The man silently studied Shan while lighting an expensive American cigarette. Loto gai. Camels.
Shan saw the familiar hardness. Colonel Tan's face looked like it had been chiseled out of cold flint. If they were to shake hands, Shan thought, Tan's fingers would probably slice through his knuckles.
Tan exhaled the smoke through his nose and looked at the teacup in Shan's hands, then to the gray-haired woman. She turned to open the curtains.
Shan did not need the sunlight to know what was on the walls. He had been in scores of such offices all over China. There would be a photograph of the rehabilitated Mao, pictures of military life, photos of a favorite command, a certificate of appointment, and at least one Party slogan.
"Sit," the colonel ordered, gesturing to a metal chair in front of the desk.
Shan did not sit. He examined the walls. Mao was there, not the rehabilitated one but a photo from the sixties, one that showed the prominent mole on his chin. The certificate was there, and a photograph of grinning army officers. Above them was a picture of a nuclear missile draped with the Chinese flag. For a moment Shan did not see a slogan, then he saw a faded poster behind Tan. "Truth," it said, "Is What the People Need."
Tan opened a thin, soiled folder and fixed Shan with an icy stare.
"In Lhadrung County the state has entrusted the reeducation of nine hundred and eighteen prisoners to me." He spoke with the smooth confident voice of one accustomed to always knowing more than his listeners. "Five lao gai hard labor brigades and two agricultural camps."
There was something Shan had not seen at first, fine wrinkles below the close-cropped graying hair, a trace of weariness around the mouth. "Nine hundred and seventeen have files. We can tell where each was born, their class background, where each was first informed against, every word uttered against the state. But for the other one there is only a short memorandum from Beijing. Only a single page for you, prisoner Shan." Tan folded his palms over the folder. "Here by special invitation of a member of the Politburo. Minister of the Economy Qin. Old Qin of the Eighth Route Army. Sole survivor of Mao's appointees. Sentence indefinite. Criminal conspiracy. Nothing more. Conspiracy." He pulled on the cigarette, studying Shan. "What was it?"
Shan held his hands together and stared at the floor. There were things far worse than the stable. Zhong didn't need Tan's permission to send him to the stable. There were prisons where inmates never left their cells except in death. And for those whose ideas were truly infectious, there were secret medical research institutes run by Public Security Bureau doctors.
"Conspiracy to assassinate? Conspiracy to embezzle state funds? To bed the Minister's wife? Steal his cabbages? Why does Qin not trust us with that information?"
"If this is some sort of tamzing," Shan said impassively, "there should be witnesses. There are rules."
Tan's head did not move, but his eyes shot up, transfixing Shan. "The conduct of struggle sessions is not one of my responsibilities," he said acidly, and considered Shan in silence for a moment. "The day you arrived, Zhong sent your folder to me. I think it scared him. He watches you."
Tan gestured to a second folder, an inch thick. "Started his own file. Sends me reports on you. I didn't ask, he just started sending them. Results of tamzing sessions. Reports of work output. Why bother? I asked him. You're a phantom. You belong to Qin."
Shan gazed at the two folders, one with a single yellowed sheet, the other crammed with angry notes from an embittered jailkeeper. His life before. His life after.
Tan drank deeply from his teacup. "But then you asked to celebrate the chairman's birthday." He opened the second folder and read the top page. "Most creative." He leaned back and watched the smoke wisping toward the ceiling. "Did you know that twenty-four hours after your banner we had handbills circulating in the marketplace? In another day an anonymous petition appeared on my desk, with copies being passed around the streets. We had no choice. You gave us no choice."
Shan sighed and looked up. The mystery was over. Tan had decided he had not been punished sufficiently for his role in Lokesh's release. "He had been imprisoned for thirty-five years." Shan's voice was little more than a whisper. "On holidays," he said, not knowing why he felt the need to explain, "his wife would come and sit outside." He decided to address Mao. "Not allowed closer than fifty feet," he said to the photograph. "Too far to talk, so they waved to each other. For hours they just waved."
A narrow smile, as thin as a blade, appeared on Tan's face. "You have balls, Comrade Prisoner Shan." The colonel was mocking him. A prisoner did not deserve so hallowed a title as Comrade. "It was very clever. A letter would have been a disciplinary offense. If you had tried to shout it out you would have been beaten into silence. Your own petition would have been burned."
He inhaled deeply on his cigarette. "Still, you made Warden Zhong look like a fool. He will always hate you for it. He asked for your transfer out of the brigade. Said you were a saboteur of socialist relations. Couldn't guarantee your safety. The guards were furious. An accident could happen to Minister Qin's special guest. I said no. No transfer. No accident."
Shan looked into Tan's eyes for the first time. Lhadrung was a gulag county, and in the gulag, prison wardens always had their way.
"It was his embarrassment, not mine. Releasing the old man was the right thing. Gave him a double ration book." Smoke drifted out of the colonel's mouth. He shrugged as he caught Shan's stare. "To correct the oversight."
Tan closed the folder. "Still, I grew curious about our mysterious guest. So political. So invisible. I wondered, should I worry about the next bomb you might throw our way?" He took another drag on his cigarette. "I made my own inquiries in Beijing. No more information, they said at first. Qin was not available. In the hospital. No more data on Qin's prisoner available."
Shan stiffened and looked back at the wall. The chairman seemed to be staring back now.
"But it was a quiet week. My curiosity was aroused. I persisted. I discovered that the memo in the file was prepared by the headquarters of the Public Security Bureau. Not the office in Xinjiang that arrested you. Not in Lhasa where your sentence was entered. Over nine hundred prisoners, only one has a file prepared by the Bureau's Beijing office. I think we never appreciated just how special you are."
Shan stared into Tan's eyes again. "There's an American saying," he said slowly. "Everyone is famous for fifteen minutes."
Tan froze. He cocked his head and continued to stare at Shan, as if he wasn't sure he had heard right. The knife-edge smile slowly reappeared.
There was a rustle of small feet behind Shan.
"Madame Ko," Tan said, the cold smile still on his face. "Our guest needs more tea."
The colonel was too old to be on the promotion lists, Shan decided. Even at his exalted level, a post in Tibet was a post in exile.
"I found more about this mysterious Comrade Shan," Tan continued, shifting into the third person. "He was a Model Worker in the Ministry of Economy. Commendations from the chairman for special contributions to the advancement of justice. He was offered Party membership, an extraordinary reward for someone halfway through his career. Then he did something even more extraordinary. He declined. A very complex man."
Shan sat. "We live in a complex world." He saw that his hands, unconsciously, had made a mudra. Diamond of the mind.
"Especially when you consider that his wife is a highly regarded Party member, a senior official in Chengdu. Former wife, I should say."
Shan looked up in alarm.
"You didn't know?" Tan asked with a satisfied smile. "Divorced you two years ago. Annulled, actually. Never lived together, she said."
"We"Shan's mouth was suddenly bone-dry"we have a son."
Tan shrugged. "Like you said. It's a complex world."
Shan closed his eyes to fight the sudden pain in his gut. They had finished the final chapter in their rewriting of his life. They had managed to take away his son. It wasn't that they were close. Shan and his son had spent maybe forty days together in the fifteen years since the boy was born. But one of the prisoner's games he played was fantasizing about the relationship he might have someday with the boy, about somehow creating the sort of bond Shan had shared with his own father. He would lie awake, wondering where the boy might be, or what he would say when he met his father again. The imagined relationship had been one of Shan's last slender reeds of hope. He pressed his palms against his temples and leaned over in his chair.
When he opened his eyes Tan was staring at him with a pleased expression. "Your brigade found a body yesterday," he said abruptly.
"Lao gai prisoners," Shan said woodenly, "are acquainted with death." No doubt they had told the boy that Shan had died. But died how? As a hero? As a disgrace? As a slave used up in the gulag?
Tan opened his mouth and watched the smoke rise languidly to the ceiling. "Attrition in the work brigades is always to be expected. Finding a decapitated Western visitor is not."
Shan looked up, then turned away. He did not want to know. He did not want to ask. He stared into his cup. "You have confirmed his identity?"
"The sweater was cashmere," Tan said. "Nearly two hundred American dollars in his shirt pocket. A business card for an American medical equipment firm. He must have been an unauthorized Western visitor."
"His skin was dark. Black hair on the body. Could have been Asian, even Chinese."
"A Chinese of such a rank? He would have been missed. And there was the business card from an American company," Tan reported victoriously. "The only Westerners allowed in Lhadrung are those operating our foreign investment project. They are too conspicuous not to be missed. In two more weeks American tour groups will begin to visit. But none yet." Tan pulled on his cigarette one last time before crushing it out. "I am pleased to see your interest in the case."
Shan's eyes drifted past Tan to the slogan. Truth Is What the People Need. It could be read more than one way. "Case?" he asked.
"There will have to be an inquest. A formal report. I am also responsible for judicial administration in Lhadrung County."
Shan considered whether the statement was intended as a threat. "My squad did not make the discovery," he said tentatively. "If the prosecutor needs statements he should talk to the guards. They saw as much as we did. All I did was clear a few rocks." He shifted to the edge of his seat. Could he have been called in error?
"The prosecutor is on a month's leave in Dalian, on the coast."
"The wheels of justice are accustomed to moving slowly."
"Not this time. Not with American tourists on the way and an inspection team from the Ministry of Justice arriving the day before. Their first inspection in five years. An open death file could give the wrong impression."
A knot began to tie itself in Shan's gut. "The prosecutor must have assistants."
"There is no one else." Tan leaned back, studying Shan. "But you, Comrade Shan, were once the Inspector General of the Ministry of Economy."
There had been no mistake. Shan stood and moved to the window. The effort seemed to sap him of strength. He felt his knees shaking. "A long time ago," he said at last. "A different life."
"You were responsible for compiling the two biggest corruption cases Beijing has ever known. In your time you sent dozens of party officials to hard labor camps. Or worse. Apparently there are some who still revere your name, even those who fear it. Someone in your old ministry said it was obvious why you were in prison, because you were the last honest man in Beijing. Some say you went to the West and you're still there."
Shan stared out the window, seeing nothing. His hand was shaking.
"Some say you went, and the Bureau brought you back because you knew too much."
"I was never a prosecutor," Shan spoke toward the glass, his voice cracking. "I collected evidence."
"We're too far from Beijing to split such fine hairs. I was an engineer," Tan said to his back. "I commanded a missile base. Someone decided I was qualified to administer a county."
"I don't understand," Shan said hoarsely, leaning against the window, wondering if he could ever find strength again. "That was another life. I'm not the same man."
"Your entire career was spent as an investigator. Three years is not so long."
"Someone could be brought in."
"No. That might demonstrate a certain ..." Tan searched for the words, "... lack of self-sufficiency."
"But my file," Shan protested. "I have been proven ..." His words drifted away. He pressed his hands against the glass. He could break it and jump. If your soul was in perfect balance, Choje said, you would just float away to another world.
"Proven what? A thorn in Zhong's side? I grant you that." Tan opened the thick file and rifled through the papers. "I'd also say you have proven yourself shrewd. Methodical. Responsible, in your own way. And a survivor. For men like you, surviving is the supreme skill."
Shan did not have to ask what Tan meant. He stared into his callused bone-hard hands. "I have been warned against regression," he protested. "I am a road laborer. I am supposed to think in new ways. I build for the prosperity of the people." It was the last refuge of the weak. When in doubt, speak in slogans.
"If none of us had a past, political officers would have no work," Tan observed. "Failure to confront the past, that is the real sin. I want you to confront yours. Let the inspector live again. For a short while. I do not know the words the Ministry expects. I do not speak the language. No one here does. I want a file prepared that can be quickly closed. I am without the benefit of the prosecutor's thinking. It is not something I will discuss with him on the phone two thousand miles away. I need the matter framed in terms the Ministry of Justice understands. Terms that will not attract further scrutiny. I wager you still have the Beijing tongue."
Shan sank into the chair. "You can't do this."
"It's not much I'm asking," Tan said with false warmth. "Not a full investigation. A report to support the death certificate. Explaining the likely accident that led to such an unfortunate demise. It could be your opportunity for rehabilitation." Tan gestured toward Zhong's file. "You could use a friend."
"Must have been a meteorite," Shan muttered.
"Excellent! Precisely what I mean. With that kind of thinking we can wrap this up in a day or two. We will think of an appropriate reward. Say, extra rations. Light duties. Assignment to a repair shop, perhaps."
"I won't," Shan said in a very still voice. "I mean, I cannot."
Amusement lifted Tan's face. "On what grounds do you refuse, Comrade Prisoner?"
Shan did not reply. On the grounds that I cannot lie for you, he wanted to say. On the grounds that my soul has been worn to a few thin threads by people like you. On the grounds that the last time I tried to find the truth for someone like you I was sent to the gulag for my trouble.
"Perhaps you have been confused by my hospitality. I am a colonel in the People's Liberation Army. I am a party member of rank seventeen. This district belongs to me. I am responsible for educating the people, feeding the hungry, constructing civil works, removal of waste, custody of prisoners, supervision of cultural activities, movement of the public buses, storage of communal food. And eradication of pests. Of any variety. Do you understand me?"
"It is impossible."
Tan slowly drained his tea and shrugged. "Still, you are not permitted to refuse."