The Tibetans are terrified, the notorious Public Security Bureau wants nothing to do with the murders, and the army seems determined to just bury the dead again and Shan with them. No one wants to pursue the truth–except Shan, who finds himself in a violent collision between a heartbreaking, clandestine effort to reunite refugees from Tibet separated for decades and a covert corruption investigation that reaches to the top levels of the government in Beijing, China. The terrible secret Shan uncovers changes his town and his life forever.
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By Eliot Pattison
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Eliot Pattison
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If you would know the age of the human soul, an old lama had once told Shan Tao Yun, look to Tibet. Here at the roof of the world, where humans were so battered, where wind and hail and tyranny had pounded so many for so long, it was a miracle the human spark remained at all. As Shan gazed at the old Tibetan herder beside him, knee-deep in mud, grime covering his grizzled, weathered face, and saw the eyes shining with the joy of life, he knew that he was looking at something ancient and pure. In Tibet souls were tried, and souls were tormented, but always souls endured.
"Put your back into it, Chinese!" the old man gleefully shouted, revealing two missing teeth, then twisted the tail of the yak in front of them.
Shan leaned into the dank hair of the animal's hindquarters. With a loud bellow the huge yak strained at the mud that trapped it, then sank back.
The four Tibetans he was with were called ferals, not because the old couple, their granddaughter, and her son exhibited the wildness of their remote mountain home, but because they numbered among the few Tibetans who refused to register as citizens of the Chinese government. Their precious bull yak had become mired in the soft mud of a river crossing uncomfortably close to the township's main road, and Shan, standing up to his knees in the ooze as he pushed the gentle, massive creature, did not miss the worried glances the old Tibetans began casting down the road.
"Gyok po! Gyok po!" Trinle, the old grandfather, shouted to Lhamo, his wife, who was tying the lead rope to Shan's truck. Desperation now crept into his voice. "Hurry! Hurry!"
The young woman in the battered truck eased it into gear, tightening the rope around the animal's chest, propelling such a shower of mud onto the yak and Shan that the boy in the back of the old pickup burst into laughter. The rope tightened, the yak snorted, and Shan and Trinle strained against the hairy haunches. A single yak, provider of hair for the felt used in tents, blankets, and clothing, milk for nourishment, and dung for fuel, could mean life or death to such impoverished nomads during Tibet's harsh winters.
The yak grunted and leaned forward, the truck's wheels found traction, and with a mighty heave the animal broke free, so abruptly that Shan fell facedown into the muck. He rose to the laughter of Trinle and his great-grandson, who leapt from the truck to give an affectionate hug to the gentle beast. In a moment they were all laughing, the old woman Lhamo pointing to Shan's mud-covered face, the grandfather scooping up a mud ball and playfully throwing it at his wife. Yara, the woman at the steering wheel, leapt out, her beaded braids swinging, relief shining on her face. "Ati," she gleefully called out to her son, "when we clean him you can ride him up to the meadow by the —"
A shadow fell over her and she froze.
An army truck, its cargo bay hooded with canvas, was braking to a stop. A young Chinese officer emerged from a gray sedan behind it and studied the faded insignia on the door of the pickup. "I seek the constable of —" He hesitated, consulting a map in his hand. "— Buzhou," he finished. "We have ..." his words drifted away as he took in the yak, now docilely grazing; the old woman, who had fearfully grabbed the boy and began pulling him toward the slope above them; then the two mud-covered figures still standing in the river. As Shan moved upstream to wash in the clear water, the officer decided to address Yara, who was still standing by the vehicle and the only one with clothes that were not filthy. "I am Lieutenant Jinhua," he announced. "Constable?"
Sensing disaster, Shan gave up trying to rinse away the mud and threw himself into the frigid water. With a shudder he stumbled across the stream to the side of Trinle, who stood still as a statue, murmuring hasty mantras.
"Yangkar," the young Tibetan woman corrected him. "The town is called Yangkar."
Shan gazed at Yara in disbelief. Had she not recognized the officer's gray uniform? Did she not know she was arguing with a knob, an officer of the dreaded Public Security Bureau, whose own patrols had replaced all the road signs with ones that displayed the new Chinese names given to the remote Tibetan towns?
"No, I am certain it is Buzhou," the officer countered, seeming oddly flustered. He turned the map toward her, then aimed a finger at the Chinese name. "Like I said. Buzhou, Lhadrung County. And my directory says you have a jail."
Yara's eyes flared. "Prisoners?" Her gaze moved toward the frightened Tibetans now visible in the rear of the truck, most wearing the fleece coats of the dropka, nomadic shepherds like her own family.
Strangely, the lieutenant took off his hat. "Mere detainees. They are being transported to a facility outside of Lhasa to start a better life. Too far to travel before nightfall. We just need to keep them together, under control. Accused of no crime."
"Accused of living a life too far from Beijing's grasp, you mean," Yara shot back, in the scolding tone of the schoolteacher she had been before tearing up her identification papers.
Shan urgently pushed Trinle's shoulder. The old Tibetan turned and saw that his wife and Ati were now leading the yak up the wide grassy slope, away from the road, and hurried after them. "Yara!" he called in a voice full of fear, then turned and ran up the slope. Shan headed to his truck and grabbed the dark blue tunic lying in its bed.
"I have some tea in a thermos," the Chinese lieutenant offered.
"Good," the young woman replied, gesturing toward the prisoners, who crowded at the back of the truck, looking out with fearful expressions. "They look thirsty."
To Shan's astonishment the officer grinned. "My name is Jinhua," he declared again. Perhaps thirty years of age, he had a slight build and an almost boyish face, except for its restless, calculating eyes.
Shan slipped on the tunic, straightening it over his still-dripping back as he stepped beside Yara. She turned, saw her retreating family, and slowly backed away, the officer's eyes still fixed on her. For the first time, it occurred to Shan that the slender Yara, with her high cheekbones and deep, brilliant eyes, was a strikingly handsome woman. He stepped closer, blocking the officer's gaze.
The lieutenant's disappointment was obvious. "You?" He frowned. "But you were in the mud."
"The mud was where I was needed." Shan, only three months in office, had dreaded contact with Public Security, had even begun to hope that the knobs didn't even know about his remote hamlet high in the mountains. "How may the constable's office serve you?"
"We will never make it to Lhasa by dark. The roads are too dangerous at night, so we would have to make a camp in the wind and the cold. But then I saw Buzhou on the map. When I stopped at the turnoff for the town to ask some farmer where I could find the constable, he said you were working down the road."
As Shan opened the door of his truck, he glanced back at Yara, who was running toward her family now. On the long grassy slope beyond her, a rider on horseback was galloping toward the shepherd family. He pointed to his truck to keep Jinhua's attention away from the ferals, who otherwise might end up with the prisoners.
"I have two cells designed to hold two prisoners each. You have at least a dozen."
The lieutenant shrugged. "Through mutual sacrifice our nation will reign supreme," he replied, reciting the slogan from Beijing's latest propaganda poster.
Shan pulled his truck onto the macadam, and Lieutenant Jinhua tossed his keys to one of the soldiers and climbed into the cab with Shan. As they threaded their way up the long switchbacks that led to Yangkar's high valley, the knob looked out the window with the gaze of the inquisitive tourist. After a few minutes he lifted the little Buddha carved of stone that sat on the dashboard.
"Look at the belly on him!" the young lieutenant cracked. "What a curious thing. If they're going to make an image of their god, why make him so fat and ugly?" he asked as he tossed it from hand to hand. Shan considered snatching it from him. The little figure was a gift from an old hermit, and it was centuries old. "He looks like some lazy old gardener who just woke from a nap."
Shan, not sure if he was being baited, stared straight ahead. "What a curious thing," he repeated. "A solitary Public Security officer with half a dozen army soldiers." Jinhua held the Buddha still and stared at Shan. "A quarter-hour north of here," Shan said, "you passed the road that would have taken you through the pass to the Lhasa highway. If traffic was light you could have made it to Lhasa by dusk. Even if you hadn't, there would have been much larger towns, larger jails, and plenty of guesthouses."
"Blocked by a rockslide," Jinhua explained, then pointed as they crested the ridge and the ragged little town came into sight at the center of the valley, a pocket of run-down structures framed by barley fields and pastures. "A junkyard at the end of the world. Comrade, you must have really pissed someone off."
Shan slowed to pass a donkey cart full of yak dung. "Not the end of the world, the top of the world. A paradise of four hundred thirty-two souls. We are so high and remote we escape the shadow of the rest of the world."
"Four hundred thirty-two Chinese grateful that Beijing is so far away," Jinhua said, as if correcting Shan.
"More precisely," Shan rejoined, "four hundred nine Tibetans and twenty-three Chinese, most of who would gladly leave tomorrow if they could. But they took money from the government to be pioneer settlers, and no one can afford to buy out their contracts." As the knob officer, seemingly not listening, leaned out of the window to watch mounted Tibetans in broad-rimmed hats herding sheep toward the summer pastures, Shan reached under the steering wheel and switched on the flashing light on top of his truck. "Cowboys in China," the young lieutenant mused. "Who knew? What other miracles do you hide in your township, constable?"
"Life here is just one miracle after another," Shan said. "You just need to know how to look for them." He glanced uneasily at Jinhua, who had pulled a map from the dashboard and was studying it. Shan knew from painful experience never to trust a knob who behaved so casually. Even a junior lieutenant had the authority to throw someone in jail for a year on his signature alone.
He slowed as they reached the outskirts of the town, crawling past the large official sign announcing BUZHOU in Chinese characters, with a hand-painted one, in the only language most of the inhabitants could read, fixed below it, declaring BLESSED YANGKAR. Half a dozen Tibetans on bicycles, having seen Shan's warning light, rode hurriedly by in the opposite direction. The mechanic in the town's only garage paused in repairing a tire to stare at their little convoy. Ahead of them in the small town square a young nun halted her work on a little onion-shaped structure with a steeple on it, a small chorten shrine, and rushed to the curb, trying to see inside the truck as it slowed.
Passersby stared silently. All activity in the town had stopped. Suddenly a gunshot broke the silence. Frightened onlookers darted into buildings and alleyways. As Shan slammed on his brakes and leapt out, the soldiers erupted from the prison truck, cocking their weapons and aiming them toward the few remaining townspeople before looking toward their sergeant, who had darted twenty feet away from the truck before stopping.
"Someone threw in a device!" he shouted at Shan. "Lit the fuse and ran!" He waved his still-smoking pistol toward the Tibetans on the street. The sergeant was an older career soldier, probably well aware that Tibetans in the remote mountains had once waged a dogged resistance against the Chinese. "Don't go up there, you fool!" he warned as Shan climbed in among the prisoners. He watched as an old woman walked along the two benches, pausing by each of the occupants to touch them with smoke from the bundle of incense sticks she now held in her hand.
"Grandmother," Shan patiently asked, "when you are done may I have that?"
The old woman replied with an uncertain smile. When she handed the bundle to Shan, he cupped the fragrant smoke over his own face before turning. Jinhua stood at the tailgate, studying Shan with an intense curiosity. "Not a device," Shan called out to the nervous soldiers. "Just some incense, to summon protective spirits."
He tossed the bundle to the sergeant, who let it drop to his feet, then angrily stomped it with his boot.
Shan guided the truck to the front of the one-story stucco building facing the center of the town square. A small cordon of residents had already assembled by the station's door. He recognized Mrs. Weng, proprietress of the town's largest store, Mr. Hui, the town dentist, and Mr. Wu, the town clerk. They had anointed themselves as the Committee of Leading Citizens, an adjunct of the township Party apparatus. All were Chinese.
Shan ignored their approving nods as he led Jinhua inside. He passed through a sparse outer office into the darkened room beyond, where two cell doors hung open. Switching on the row of naked light bulbs that ran down the center of the ceiling, he lifted a uniform cap from the table and tossed it at the figure lying on one of the cell cots.
"Customers!" he called out. "We'll need more blankets, more spoons, more bowls. More of everything. Bring some pallets from the guesthouse."
The middle-aged Tibetan on the cot rolled over, rubbing his eyes, then shot up as he saw the soldiers behind Shan. He grabbed the tunic stuffed between bars of the cell and hastily pulled it on.
"My deputy," Shan explained. "Officer Jengtse."
Jengtse straightened and awkwardly saluted as Lieutenant Jinhua approached, followed by the army sergeant, then flushed as the sergeant jeered at him and gestured to the prisoners. "Six to a cell," the sergeant ordered the deputy.
Jengtse, who had served twenty years in the People's Liberation Army, mostly along the Russian border, dutifully hastened to retrieve the keys from the table.
Jinhua lowered himself into the chair at Shan's desk and watched with an amused expression as the office, crowded with prisoners and soldiers, gradually assumed a degree of order, with the frightened Tibetans being herded single file into the cells and the soldiers bringing their packs from the truck into the office.
"There is a government guesthouse behind us," Shan explained to the sergeant as he realized the men were intending to sleep in the station. "More than enough beds." He saw the skepticism on the man's hard face. "The cells will be secured. The prisoners are in our care for the night."
Jengtse locked the cells and turned to Shan with a despairing expression. They had both seen the tags pinned to the clothing of each prisoner, even the two children. Yi, er, san, si. One, two, three, four, and on up to twelve. The prisoners had lost their names. They were part of the wave of displaced persons coming off the high plains, where army patrols had been sweeping, scouring away the nomadic families who had lived there for centuries. When they arrived at the internment camp they would be given new, Chinese names. After a few weeks of reeducation focused on the ever-correct ways of the motherland, the adults would be sent to factories in distant provinces and the children to boarding schools, not to see their parents for years, if ever.
The small door at the back of the cell block suddenly opened. "Shan! Constable Shan!" called the woman even before she had stepped inside. "The dead are rising!" It was Yara, whom Shan had last seen escaping toward the mountains. Tears stained her dusty face. "You must —" Her words choked away as she saw the soldiers. She looked at the prisoners and visibly shuddered. Her eyes welled with moisture and she backed away, leaving the door open as she fled. How could she have made it to town so quickly, Shan asked himself, then remembered the rider who had been galloping toward her.
A surprised murmur left Jengtse's throat, and he bent to pick up something Yara had dropped. He studied it for a moment, then looked up at Shan in alarm, glanced at Jinhua, and stuffed it in his pocket.
Shan retrieved a key ring from his desk and tossed it to the army sergeant. "The long stucco building along the wall of the rear compound. Washroom toward the rear, bedding in the closet just before the washroom. Our guesthouse."
The sergeant eyed the keys uncertainly. "The prisoners are in my charge."
"The prisoners became my charge when you put them in my cells," Shan rejoined. "You can see they are going nowhere. If you prefer to take them back to your truck and make a camp in the mountains, feel free to do so. But you'd better hurry; you'll need at least two hours."
Excerpted from Skeleton God by Eliot Pattison. Copyright © 2017 Eliot Pattison. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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