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BEFORE BEING CONDEMNED to the Tibetan gulag, Shan Tao Yun had never known there were so many ways of dying, so many words for death, had never considered how the wonder of death could be as great as the wonder of birth. Tibet was a land steeped in riddles, and, for Shan, none was greater than how, in a place where living was so difficult, dying could be so perfect.
For more than five days now, the elderly man on the pallet in front of him had been sitting cross-legged in the lotus position. Shan's former cellmate, Lokesh, now his friend, had told him this upon Shan's recent arrival. Though death hovered nearby, something in the elderly man's spirit kept it at bay. He was in a place few attained. After the first two days, the people of the remote village had replaced the death-rite objects at his side with offerings of fruit and small butter sculptures. Some believed that if a patch of his skin was peeled away there would be only blinding light beneath.
Gendun, the aged red-robed lama who sat at the head of the pallet, intoned an unfamiliar mantra, invoking a deity Shan did not recognize. Lokesh had accompanied Gendun from their illegal, secret monastery to this remote village when summoned. Shan, who had been away at the time, had been sent for when they realized the nature of the problem. Now Lokesh settled beside Shan and rubbed his grizzled jaw. A woman waved a stick of incense over the inert form on the pallet. "They say he is in a state of spiritual perfection," Lokesh declared in a flat voice.
Shan studied his two friends. Gendun, his face as worn as a river stone, acknowledged Shan with a nod, not breaking the rhythm of his prayer. Lokesh, gazing at the peaceful countenance of the man on the pallet, squeezed the prayer beads in his hand so tightly his knuckles were white. Shan knew he had not been urgently summoned over nearly a hundred miles of treacherous mountain trails to witness an unknown farmer's miracle.
"Except?" he asked.
Lokesh cupped his hands around his beads and stared into the hollow they made. His whisper combined wonder and melancholy. "Except he is a murderer."
Shan sank back against the wall, his eyes now locked on Gendun. If the old lama, abbot of the outlawed monks Shan had lived with since leaving his gulag prison, had sat with the man for so many days, by now he would understand things about the stranger no one else could, in ways no one else would, though he would never express them in words. Gendun, like many of the old Buddhists, distrusted words, considering them only awkward, incomplete links between humans. He would not speak directly about the peculiar mix of fear and awe that seemed to hold the village in its grip. But Shan knew his teacher well and had seen the moment's hesitation in his nod. He surveyed the villagers sitting along the wall of the smoky dirt-floored chamber who were anxiously watching the man on the pallet. Gendun and Lokesh weren't engaged in this uneasy vigil because of a killing but because these impoverished farmers were trembling in their souls. They depended on Shan to cope with the murder — his province, not theirs.
Shan's senses had been dulled by fatigue when he had reached the village. He had rushed through the mountains, barely keeping up with the taciturn young shepherds who had come for him, frantic with fear that disaster had befallen the two men who had become like family to him. Seeing they were safe, he had relaxed, closing his eyes for a few minutes, listening, letting Gendun's soft, resonant words pour into him. Lokesh's announcement burned away the remnants of his fatigue and, alert and alarmed, he studied the old stable as he would have when he had been a Beijing special investigator. An oxlike man stood guarding the door. A cracked plank lying near the foot of the comatose man's pallet held several charred sticks, the remains of incense. In front of the incense sticks stood a row of small torma, sculptures molded of butter and barley flour, images of sacred signs, one of them artfully worked into a goddess with graceful bent arms. On a nearby wall were smudges of chalk. Shan studied the faint marks. Someone had chalked in the mani mantra, the prayer for the Compassionate Buddha. Someone else had rubbed it away.
A sturdy woman in a black dress stooped in front of Shan, extending a bowl of the buttered tea that was a fixture of Tibetan hospitality. His nod of gratitude froze as his gaze met hers. Her forced smile did nothing to conceal the grief etched on her features. The thin layer of soot on her face, common to those who illuminated their homes with butter lamps, was streaked with the tracks of tears.
The man on the pallet was tall and lean, his ragged black hair tinged with gray. He shared the weathered skin, the hard, muscular hands, the worn clothes of those sitting along the walls. He wore a soiled fleece vest that matched those of several of the farmers. Had the villagers preparing the man for the death rites bared his feet for washing, Shan would have assumed he was one of them. But now Shan saw his heavy cleated leather boots with finely worked metal fittings that reached past his ankles. They would have cost half the annual income of any family in the village. The man before them, perched like a god on an altar, came from somewhere else, from down in the world. Perhaps from Lhasa?
A dozen questions sprang to Shan's mind about the stranger on the pallet, but the deepest mystery was that of his own friends' actions. The man was wedged against the back wall, loose blankets at either side arranged to hide other, rolled blankets that held his legs in the meditation position. Yet Gendun and Lokesh must know that the man was unconscious, not meditating.
Shan sat, studying Gendun and the stranger on the pallet, watching the nervous way the villagers approached when the lamps had to be replenished, not missing the wary looks they cast toward Gendun. Few of them, he suspected, had seen a real monk in years, the younger ones perhaps never. Beijing had scoured the land so harshly it was difficult for new growth to find a hold.
He leaned toward his old friend. "Who rises?" he asked in a whisper, knowing Lokesh would understand.
"Red Tara," came the hesitant reply. The mantra Gendun recited was an invocation of a fierce form of the Tibetan mother deity, called upon to fight demons and obstacles to compassion. Shan again gazed at the faces of those gathered in the stable. The lama's mantra was not for the man on the pallet, but for the villagers.
Lokesh was strangely restless, leaving Shan's side to help with the lamps, taking a seat away from Shan near the door, then rising to stand in the doorway and look outside, sitting again to work his mala, his prayer beads. Shan had seldom seen his friend so unsettled. The one time he returned Shan's gaze there was something Shan had never seen before in his eyes, not even in their gulag days — a terrible desperation, an anguished helplessness.
When Lokesh stepped outside, Shan rose to follow but halted, retreating into the shadows. A new figure had appeared, a stocky man in a black sweatshirt with its hood pulled low over his face. He angrily pushed past the guard and marched toward the pallet. Shan sprang forward but he was too late. The intruder raised his hand and slapped the face of the unconscious man. The woman in the black dress moaned. An old man beside Gendun cried out in alarm but as he tried to grab the intruder's arm he was knocked to the ground. An instant later the guard and another burly farmer each seized one of the intruder's arms, pulling him backward.
"Stickman!" The intruder spat the word as if it were the name of a devil as he wrestled his arms free. "We know the face of death on this mountain!" The guard picked up a short, stout plank and threatened the man with it. The intruder responded with a sneer. "Bloodwalker!" he snarled, then reached into his pocket, threw something at the man on the pallet, and turned toward the door. But before he reached it, he halted, darted to the torma offerings, bent over them, and tossed something else at the pallet. The men dragged him outside.
The woman who had offered Shan tea rushed forward and lifted something from the end of the pallet. She hid the objects in her dress, but not before Shan recognized them. They were from the little goddess sculpted in butter, which was now mutilated. The intruder had ripped the arms off the image and thrown them at the man on the pallet.
Gendun had paid no heed to the intrusion, continuing his mantra. His soft tones calmed them, and soon it seemed as if the intrusion had never taken place. No one seemed to notice when Shan bent to retrieve the little bundle that had bounced off the comatose man's chest. It was composed of four straight twigs, their bark peeled, each twig bearing three thin stripes near the top, one blue, then two red. Bloodwalker. The word tugged at his memory, as if he should recognize it.
Shan stuffed the sticks into his pocket. Lifting his tattered hat from the peg where he had left it, he went outside. The brilliant late-afternoon sunlight exploded against his retinas. He jerked his hat down and staggered, nearly falling as a rush of small hooves surrounded him. By the time he recovered his balance, the sheep had sped by, led toward the grassy slope above by a herder. Neither Lokesh nor the intruder could be seen.
The village was called Drango, Tibetan for Head of the Rock. It consisted of perhaps forty structures, most of them built in the traditional fashion — compact two-story houses with quarters for livestock below and humans above, each with a rear courtyard defined by crumbling rock walls, many of which contained goats cropping at weeds. The whitewash on most of the houses was faded, their maroon trim bleached to pinkish gray. Two round stone granaries for storing barley stood near the paths to the fields. Beyond the houses lay the stone foundations of a much larger building inside of which vegetable gardens had been laid out, a familiar sight in the mountains. The Chinese army, deeming such places too remote for infantry, had allocated enough aerial bombs to such hamlets to ensure that each local temple was destroyed.
Shan wandered along the paths between the buildings, admiring the lotus blossoms carved on a roof beam, the small richly colored rug hanging half completed on a well-used loom, the stack of handmade baskets awaiting the grain harvest. No motor vehicle could reach closer than fifty miles, and taking goods to market would mean a backbreaking trek with yak and mule. The village must feed and clothe itself, as it had for centuries. He followed a small maze of winding walls past a forge, an oven, storage bays for dung and wood, and rows of large clay jars holding pickled vegetables. The pungent scent of yak milk being churned floated in the cool late-summer air, intermingled with the earthy scents of soil, dung, and tea.
Drango village was remarkable for what he saw and for what he did not see. It was frozen in time — a proud, peaceful community little changed in fifty years. But the only evidences of Buddhist tradition were a small strand of tattered prayer flags flapping from a rock cairn above the village, faded emblems painted beside half a dozen doorways, decrepit wooden altars at the rear of a few houses, and a huge pile of dried juniper, the fragrant wood burned to attract deities, at the end of the only street. There were none of the prayer flags that often hung between buildings in such hamlets, no prayer wheels, no effort to rebuild what the Chinese army had destroyed when it invaded Tibet decades earlier. With increasing foreboding he paced around the back of the village, studying the wide circle of packed earth at the end of the street, devoid of rocks and barley. It could have been a place for winnowing grain. It could have been a helicopter landing pad. He felt an uninvited twitch, the stirring of the old instincts that refused to die, honed by twenty years as special investigator for the inner circle of Beijing's top officials.
From the shadows he studied each of the houses. At first glance he had seen a dozen empty poles from which prayer flags would have traditionally hung. But then he saw that the pole beside the largest, best maintained of the houses had a radio antenna strapped to its side. He continued to wander among buildings until he encountered two boys of perhaps four years of age playing on the stone step of a house. His stomach went cold, and he retreated. They were playing with small clay figures of Buddhist saints, lifting them one at a time and pressing them with their thumbs until the heads popped off, erupting with laughter each time. The headless bodies were lined up on the step.
Shan found Lokesh sitting cross-legged on a long, flat rock fifty yards up the slope, a perch that offered not only a view of the entire village, its fields, and the stream that flowed past them, but also of the lower mountain ranges that cascaded toward the south and west. Shan paced around the rock as he reached Lokesh, taking in the long view before turning toward the huge rugged peak that towered over them, the highest point for dozens of miles.
Lokesh seemed to read his mind. "They call it the Sleeping Dragon. It is a sacred peak," he declared in a tired voice, "home to a powerful land spirit. Some of the villagers say it is why they are so blessed." It was the kind of announcement that Lokesh normally would have offered with great excitement. The last time he and Shan had visited such a mountain they had spent a day climbing toward the top, making rock-cairn shrines along the way, then meditating near the summit as the moon rose. But the children of this mountain laughed as they snapped off the heads of saints.
"They were surprised to see us when we arrived," Lokesh said abruptly. "Chodron, the headman, said no one had sent for us. He was angry when an old woman declared it was destined we should be there and led us into the stable. Since then, Gendun has left his vigil only for a few hours' sleep while I stayed to continue reciting the mantras. Whenever I go outside, the villagers follow me with tea and tsampa, as if to tempt me away from something. They will not speak of what happened. All they say is that two men are dead and they blame the outsider in the stable. Chodron barely lets us out of his sight. He has posted that man near the stable door to watch everything we do."
"But someone did send for you," Shan stated. He had been on a solitary meditation and had returned to their secret mountain hermitage to find both his friends gone. Later, two teenage herders had arrived, panting from their race across the ranges, with an urgent message from Lokesh for Shan to accompany the youths to Drango.
Shan sat beside his friend, wondering at the weakness in Lokesh's voice, worried that he might be ill. He followed Lokesh's gaze along the rock wall that enclosed the nearest field. Nearly two hundred feet away, where the wall turned to accommodate a windblown juniper, was a sight so strange it took a long moment for Shan to comprehend it.
A woman in a traditional aproned dress was feeding a man of perhaps thirty, patiently placing small morsels in his mouth, pieces of fruit perhaps, or clumps of tsampa. The man was incapable of feeding himself because his arms were clamped by a five-foot-long beam of wood that encircled his neck.
"A canque," Lokesh explained. "I have not seen such a collar since I was a boy. Until now that man has stayed on the slope above town." A large brown dog, one of the mastiffs used to guard the sheep, appeared from behind the canque-bearer, gazed at Shan and Lokesh, then toward a small flock on the slope above, before settling beside the man.
Shan had never seen such a device but had heard of it in the tales prisoners in their gulag had told on long winter nights. Old Tibet had had no prisons, and almost no criminals. When punishment had been necessary it varied according to local practice. Lesser criminals were sometimes locked into such devices, then released, to carry their prison with them. "Surely," Shan said, "it can't be ..." His question died on his tongue. Can't be real? But he saw it, was witnessing the ordeal the man faced to avoid starving. Can't be permitted? The government paid little attention to such remote communities.
"Crime is rare in Drango," Lokesh said. "But when a crime is committed, the headman decides on the punishment. He has an old book he consults. Thieves are sentenced to the collar."
Shan was beginning to understand his friend's anguish. "And killers?"
"There has never been a murder in anyone's lifetime. They consulted their book. They are not fully decided but they are making preparations."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Prayer of the Dragon"
Copyright © 2007 Eliot Pattison.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
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