Written by Tashi Pelden
Translation by Yangdon Dhondup
Published in Mānoa 12, no.2 in 2002
He drove his ox and his shaggy donkey, loaded with sacks of dung, along the rough, winding mountain path toward the little village that lay on the hill ahead. On his own back he carried a sack of sheep dung. From the neck of the ox hung a copper bell, from the donkey’s neck an iron bell. With each lumbering step of the animals, the bells rang a contrasting harmony, splendid in the mountain stillness.
The cord of the dung sack cut into the sun-darkened skin on the back of Kelsang Tashi’s neck. He had looped the crimson tiestrings of his winter hat into a knot like a flower beneath his chin, so it swayed from side to side like the bells hanging from the animals’ necks. Pearls of sweat sprang from his forehead and temples and ran down his cheeks, onto his jaw. When the trickling sweat stung his eyes, he wiped them with the cracked palm of his dirty hand.
For fifty years he’d been carrying loads up and down this rough mountain path. Now his knees were swollen, and he hobbled like a cripple. He so accepted his body’s declining strength that he didn’t give it a thought.
Long before the first cockcrow, Kelsang Tashi had gotten out of bed, scooped some tsampa into his leather pouch, and gone out into the pitch dark. Trotting through the still of night with his ox and donkey, he had only taken a couple of hours to reach the pasturelands where the nomad herdsmen grazed their livestock. Everything was asleep, except for some mountain sparrows hopping about and some voles running playfully through the grass. He filled the large sacks with yak dung, and the smaller one with sheep dung. Hungry, he took out the t s a m p a from his pouch, only to discover it had frozen into lumps of ice.
It was cold, and Kelsang Tashi’s stomach ached with hunger. He forced himself to gnaw one of the frozen chunks. Though he could hear his teeth grinding the ice, he couldn’t taste a thing. He stuffed what was left of the tsampa back into his leather pouch, loaded the ox and donkey, swung the sack of sheep dung over his shoulder, and hurriedly set out on his way home .
Save for the steady clomping of his ox and donkey and the ringing oftheir bells, the familiar road was silent. The mountain was still a black shadow in the east. Smoke from cooking fires rose from the chimneys of the little houses in the village where his neighbors were boiling water for tea and cooking their morning gruel. Nobody had come out yet to drive sheep and oxen to pasture. The sky gets light so early now, he thought to himself, and I’m already back from the pastureland with my load of dung. He felt so happy, so proud!
Like many young men, Kelsang Tashi’s elder son had gone to the city to work as a construction laborer in order to save money to get married. Last year there had been a long drought, so the harvest had been a very poor one. It had been difficult just making it through the winter, so he hadn’t been able to afford to get his son married and to bring his bride into their home. He felt remorseful and remembered a proverb: “If last year’s crop was poor, this year’s will make up for it.” He regretted the way he’d gone about his work last year. Resolving to put more energy into it, he’d begun e a r l y, just a week after New Ye a r, gathering dung with fervor. He had a goal. No matter what happened, this year he would have a good harvest and bring a wife for his son into their home. Mother had suggested sending their elder daughter out into the fields to help him, but when he imagined her working out in the bitter cold, he rejected the idea. “Never mind,” he said. “It’s too cold today. There’ll be plenty of work for her when the time comes . ”
Two weeks after New Year, the other villagers went out to work in their fields. They saw how he rushed about, but nobody outside his family knew the hour he woke up or went to bed.
Returning early now, he unloaded the sacks of yak dung onto the manure pile in his field, covered the pile with a layer of earth, and then carried the sack of sheep dung to the house. As usual, his older daughter came out to take the sack from him so that he could rest his back.
As soon as he stepped inside the door, he drank off the rice wine his wife had ready for him—three bowls, one after another.
“Father, you didn’t wash your face,” his daughter reminded him. “It’s all sweaty. ”
Kelsang Tashi just laughed, said nothing, and wiped off the sweat with his hand. His wife brought him a bowl of freshly kneaded t s a m p a in one hand and a bowl of warm tsampa porridge in the other, only to see him already twisting sheep’s wool into yarn. It seemed to her that his hands always itched for something to do.
To save time, he wolfed down the t s a m p a and gulped down the porridge. Then he picked up his farm tools and went back out to his field, followed by his elder daughter and younger son.
The sky was overcast, melancholy. The wind blew in cold gusts, and their frozen bones ached. Plowed last autumn, the soft soil swirled in the wind, forcing them to close their eyes. They wrapped strips of cloth around their faces, but their eyes were left uncovered and unprotected. They rubbed their watering eyes continually. By the time they went home for lunch, their clothes and hair were covered in pale, white dust, and a layer of it covered their faces like makeup. Anyone who saw them would think they were stage actors. But there was nothing comical or happy about their appearance. They formed an image of hardship long endured.
Every day Kelsang Tashi and his children tirelessly dashed back and forth across his field, spreading manure, watering, plowing, sowing, and weeding. Often, he rose long before cockcrow and set off with his donkey to collect manure and firewood at the top of the mountain. Occasionally, at his wife’s urging, he would take his elder daughter with him. He would always arrive home at dusk, just as the village herd boys were driving their livestock back in from the pasture. He would put away his tools, drive his sheep into their fold, and put the ox and the donkey into their shed with hay and grain for them to eat. When his wife saw him go on working after he came home, she would say with feeling, “Kelsang Tashi, first come drink a bowl of hot tea, won’t you?” He would look up at Pema Dolkar and calmly reply, “Don’t worry, I’ll be finished soon.” However, as soon as he completed one chore, he would find another to do; thus, he never drank his bowl of tea until the sun had gone behind the mountain.
The first thing he would do when he finally walked in the door at the end of the day was say, “B r r r , it’s cold,” rubbing his hands together as hard as he could to warm them. But no matter how cold the weather, you could never tell it by his face because there was always sweat on his forehead. He would go to the kitchen to stoke the fire, then light the kerosene lamp, rub the dust out of his eyes with his sleeve, take the wet cotton cloth his daughter handed him, and give his face a wipe.
His family was known in the village for always eating supper after dark. A doctor would have said that eating so late was unhealthy. Busy with their work, the whole family sat together by the light of the kitchen fire until there was no sound outside but the occasional bark of a dog. His little daughter liked to snuggle up against her mother’s breast as the woman sat with her older daughter, twisting sheep’s wool into yarn.
Once, when his younger son sat watching idly, hands folded around his knees, Kelsang Tashi said to him, “Sitting with your hands folded, looking around—what fun, eh?”
Half – jokingly his son replied, “But if you don’t have any thing to eat, your guts will stick together!” He looked at his father and burst out laughing.
As it grew late, the children would doze off. “It’s getting cold,” Mother would say, tired herself. “If we don’t go to bed soon, we’ll have to burn more firewood. Isn’t it better to go to bed now? ”
“If I don’t get work done when the nights are long,” he would reply, “how will I get everything done in spring, when the nights are shorter and there’s even more to do? If a man just eats and sleeps, he’s no better than a corpse.”
Kelsang Tashi resolved to bring in a good harvest this year so that he could get a bride for his son. When spring came and the nights grew shorter, he still made his younger son and older daughter get up before dawn, just as if it were winter, to go out and spread manure on the field. When his neighbors saw the manure spread out, as if it had been defecated by a passing flock of migrating cranes, they were absolutely astounded. “That manure didn’t run onto the field all by itself, did it?” they whispered to each other. “Kelsang Tashi must not have slept all night! ”
An old proverb says, “If you don’t make the dust fly working in spring, autumn will bring you no shiny, dark grain.” Whenever Kelsang Tashi saw anybody performing his spring work casually, he recited this proverb. His mother had given him only two hands, but if he didn’t work as if he had more, wouldn’t those two hands be useless if there were no harvest?
The surrounding hills were still overcast and gray, as though not yet awake from their dreams, and the grasslands and trees around the village looked like his hair, streaked with the white of the remaining snow. But the time for spring sowing had arrived, and while his hair was getting whiter and whiter, it would not be long before the gray of the earth would be turning green and vital—newly alive.
Swiftly, he walked to the field with an old-fashioned wooden plow on his back, driving his ox with the bell around its neck. In keeping with tradition, he festooned the horns and tail of the ox with red tassels and a flowered nine-eyed belt. He gripped the plow handle, broke into an old mountain song, and began to plow. Behind him walked his daughter with a leather seed bag slung over her shoulder, scattering the seed into the furrow.
She didn’t know how many hours had passed or how much ground they had plowed when she saw the exhausted ox begin to pant and drip white froth from its mouth. The sound of the tinkling bell grew fainter and fainter. Father himself was worn out, dripping with sweat under the burning sun. He had already taken off his jacket. Now he stripped off his dusty, sweat-soaked shirt, threw it aside, hitched up his woolen trousers, and trudged ahead, naked to the waist and oblivious to the sun. His feet sank deep into the mud with every step, and beads of perspiration ran down his jaw. He raised his whip to urge on the old ox and sang out in a hoarse voice a plowman’s song:
If the ox doesn’t stick to the edge of the furrow,
I follow behind the plow in sorrow . . .
When he had finished singing, his weariness and melancholy seemed to have vanished. The song’s melody gave voice to his work. But no matter how he urged his old ox on, it could continue no longer. Finally, it lay down on the earth like an old man who had carried a heavy load across the grasslands without anything to eat—too weak even to stand. Thrust deep into the earth, the plowshare stood motionless. The yoke lay still across the animal’s neck. Kelsang Tashi raised his whip and lashed the ox’s rump for all he was worth while his daughter tugged on the harness to pull the ox to its feet, but the animal was oblivious to its master’s cries. He became disheartened and angry. Then he looked up and saw, not far off, the young fellow with whom he had quarreled at the irrigation canal the previous day. He remembered that when he returned home after the argument, he had regretted it. There just wasn’t enough water for everyone’s field. He blamed h i m s e lf: why didn’t he have the power to somehow find water? Today, that young fellow seemed terribly pleased with himself, grinning and jeering. He sang loudly, plowing swiftly behind a powerful young ox. Kelsang Tashi grew all the more angry and lashed his ox fiercely, then flew into a rage and began kicking the animal—all for nothing. His daughter felt sorry for the ox and pleaded with her father; finally, he stopped. Father and daughter unharnessed the ox and took off its yoke, and the old animal rolled over, exhausted, on the ground. In its eyes were bean-sized tears.
Kelsang Tashi sat on the ground, staring apathetically across his field as he wiped the sweat off his face and neck with his dirty shirt. He at last drank from his plastic bottle of c h a n g in a single gulp. Taking a pinch of snuff, he anxiously noticed how dry the soil was under the blazing sun. He had no second ox to harness. If only I were an ox, he thought to himself.
The young lad had quickly finished plowing his field. When he saw old uncle Kelsang Tashi sitting helplessly, he walked up to his daughter and said straightforwardly, “Kunsang, get your seed, and I’ll help your family plow the rest of your field!” The young fellow lashed his ox onward, and Kunsang fell in step behind him, casting the seed. Talking and laughing together, they soon had the job done.
Kelsang Tashi was in a quandary. The young man saved me from disaster, like hot coals in a snowstorm. I should be grateful. But do I have to depend on someone else to finish my spring plowing? Did I give up? Am I good for nothing? It’s degrading! I’m so ashamed! Of course he knew that spring plowing is critical. If the land isn’t plowed in time, it means disaster. Suddenly an old proverb came to mind: “Why complain that your belly’s bloated after a good meal?” And this gave him comfort.
The sown fields changed color, and the green seedlings began soaking up moisture. The women busily hoed and weeded, enabling the men to relax for a few days.
Hearing “Cuckoo, cuckoo” in the woods, people said, “The cuckoo has cleaned out the poison that the squirrel and the woodpecker put in the water! All the animals can drink the water now and get strong again after winter.” The poets rightly call the cuckoo the herald of spring.
The sky, as if jealous of the multiplicity of colors on Earth, became a deeper azure. You could see far into the distance, just as in autumn. The clouds — clear, white, lazy, and carefree—floated high up in the sky. But the sky spirit refused to send rain. It was the beginning of the spring drought. The villagers put on straw hats or wrapped cloth around their heads to keep the heat off. Even then, the sunlight reflecting off of the ground scorched them.
The cuckoo’s call seemed to turn mournful, like a long, tragic sigh. Kelsang Tashi complained, “Go on and cry! Your coming has turned the sky blue and frightened away the clouds.” But he never cursed the bird. Though it and the drought arrived at the same time, the cuckoo couldn’t know the sky spirit’s will.
In the dry heat, under the broiling sun, each family relied on its tiny daily ration of water from the village leader to irrigate its field. They watered the young plants at night, even when there was no moon, dipping buckets into the water that trickled in their irrigation canals, then groping their way along familiar paths in the dark to get to the plants’ thirsty mouths. They took care to not waste a drop and forsook food and sleep in their struggle to save their dry, young shoots. Even when the village leader allotted him no water, Kelsang Tashi couldn’t stay inside. He walked around his field, inspecting the dying seedlings, and racked his brains like a man trying to save a dying person. Tormented by anxiety, he paced his field and sang a song passed down through generations:
The sky spirit wears a blue suit
But the seedlings wear monk’s yellow.
Turquoise rain dragon way down south,
What’s distracting you!
It was a melancholy song, sung from the bottom of his heart—a tragic cry of expiring hope.
Sometimes a rain cloud would appear, a shower would wet the mountains, and hope would spring up in Kelsang Tashi’s heart. Then he’d be busier than a weather forecaster, praying to the Three Jewels for help: “Ta k e heed and send rain to save us farmers.” But the rain would lurk among the mountaintops like a wily animal reluctant to come down to the lowlands, and wind would scatter the black clouds. At these times, Kelsang Ta s h i ’ s chest filled with hopeless rage and he cursed the vast, cruel sky: “Ah! The weather’s never been so hot! You want to play the devil and burn us to death—go ahead!” Obsessively, from sunrise until sunset, he scanned the s k y, which was always clear and azure—not a cloud anywhere.
Days, the sun was blazing. Evenings, a chilly wind blew through the village, making it difficult for the people to sleep. Kelsang Tashi knew that these were the signs of a drought. If the weather went on like this much longer, there would be no hope for a good harvest. Still, he wouldn’t surr e n d e r. Early each morning, he took his younger son and elder daughter to see if the village leader would allot him water for his seedlings, which were wilting in earth as hot and dry as sand in a frying pan. Water is more precious than gold or silver, he thought to himself in despair.
Sagadawa, the mid-April festival of the full moon, arrived, and the villagers prayed to the earth spirit for rain. That afternoon, rain fell on the mountaintop but still refused to descend to the fields. Some men caught a frog and a scorpion and set them fighting. If the frog beats the scorpion, says an old proverb, it will rain; if the scorpion wins, the drought will continue. Meanwhile, crowds of villagers walked three miles to the creek. Boys and girls splashed each other, men threw women into the creek, and everyone chased each other in the water until they were all soaking wet, like birds after a bath. Some women grabbed Kelsang Tashi to throw him in. The wetter he got, the better for the weather, he thought, so he didn’t resist, hoping that it would bring rain. Many girls were soaked, and he chased them around.
The villagers played and splashed for hours under the scorching sun. That afternoon, as they walked home from the creek, the sky—as if jealous of their game—grew dark with clouds and began raining heavily. Kelsang Tashi couldn’t suppress his joy. He believed that their splashing each other had worked. That night he couldn’t sleep. He gazed out at his field, wondering whether the rain would last through the night.
Early next morning, when his wife saw that he was awake, she looked up from her housework and said to him in a kindly way, “Husband, don’t go out this morning. Stay at home and have a good sleep.” But Kelsang Tashi’s mind was on how the crops were thriving after the rain. How could he sleep when he felt as elated as a child at New Year? Not hearing what his wife was saying, he jumped out of bed, climbed into his trousers, pulled on his shirt, and ran outside to see the change in the fields.
He couldn’t hold back a cry of amazement. The trees and grass were pale and yellow no longer. In a single night, the crops had changed color. Everything gleamed with moisture. In the fields and on the hillsides, the green plants swelled with energy and life. Kelsang Tashi’s laughter was sweet.
As usual, that day his face ran with sweat, like the waterways in the grasslands. His hands were covered with dirt. More than once his wife urged him, “Take some time today and give your hands and face a good wash.” He raised a hand to his face in his usual way, gave it a careless wipe, and laughed. “Yesterday we splashed each other in the creek,” he said, “so I don’t need to wash. But I’ll do it to please you, Mother!” He wiped his face with cold water and washed himself quickly, then rubbed his face with oil, sat down, opened his snuff pouch, tapped some snuff onto his fingernail, and raised it to his nose. The only time he ever relaxed a little was when he savored his snuff; but today he could spare no time even for this because from outside his home a voice shouted that each household had to send somebody to a village meeting right away.
“Those people manage to find out the one minute I have for myself !” he exclaimed. He inhaled his snuff so hurriedly that he left half of it clinging to his nostrils, then he jumped up and ran out.
The rain filled Kelsang Tashi’s heart with joy. He felt that the happy day when he would bring his son’s wife into the home was close at hand. He imagined the wedding. They would hold the ceremony there in that room. Everything decorated, his friends all gathered for the celebration, he seated at the head of the table, holding high his wineglass and offering toast after toast to the couple. Much singing and dancing—a day to remember!
The drought had passed, but crops have many enemies who will attack without warning. A local soothsayer, an expert at preventing hail, explained a secret preventative method to the villagers: “Drive wooden stakes into the corners of the field. When summer hail comes down from the mountain, it will bump its nose on the wooden stakes and come no further. ” Because the villagers believed in the soothsayer’s power, they thought his method would work. Kelsang Tashi and everybody else drove stakes into the corners of their fields. And no hail came.
Now, the men’s work was done. Kelsang Tashi’s wife and elder daughter went out to the field every day to pull weeds, and he looked for something else to do. It was the season for picking medicinal herbs, so he saw many villagers going up into the mountains to gather them. My son’s wedding is this year, he thought to himself. I don’t have any other income, and I’m going to need a lot of money, so it would be a good idea for me to go too. Once he’d made up his mind to do this, nothing his wife or his daughter said could dissuade him. His younger son said, “Father, you don’t have to go alone. I’m young, I’m strong. I can help you! ”
And so Kelsang Tashi and his son climbed the snowy peak five thousand meters above sea level. From morning to night, they risked their lives picking herbs. When they were hungry, they ate a few handfuls of the dried tsampa they’d brought with them. Every time they found a plant, they went wild with joy, as if it were a jewel. They stretched their hands into cracks in the rocks and turned boulders over until their fingers were cut and bleedi n g. The herbs grow above the snow line, where even in July there is heavy snowfall, torrential rain, and sleet. During storms, the shivering herb gatherers sought shelter in the gaps between the cliffs and worked hunched up against the freezing wind. When they slept, many of them crammed into a nomad’s tiny hut . Everyone had come from far away, and no one had brought bedding. Each night, they huddled in coarse woolen blankets on the bare earth floor, keeping their clothes on for days, until their bodies were covered with lice and they itched so much they couldn’t sleep. Kelsang Tashi had brought with him a precious antidote, which father and son diluted with water and washed with every day.
After braving danger for a week on the steep cliffsides, Kelsang Tashi took his dried herbs to the traders, who graded them medium quality and paid him one hundred yuan for seven kilograms. This was the most money he had earned all year. Ecstatic, he bought five bricks of tea leaves, enough for the whole family for several months; for his two daughters, four meters of cloth to make blouses with; and for his younger son, a pair of running shoes. The rest of the money he kept for his older son’s wedding.
This year’s harvest would be better than last year’s. His crops had withstood the spring drought, and though the plants were not large or plentiful, he was satisfied. He felt grateful for the protection of the Three Jewels. After returning from gathering herbs, he placed a ring of bricks around the field to protect it from flooding.
From spring planting to autumn threshing, weather is the farmer’s enemy. Even if there is no drought, there might be downpours, hail, frost, or prolonged drizzle—one possible calamity after another. From earliest times, humans have wished to control the weather, but the sky has always resisted.
As the time for the horse-racing festival drew near, the crops turned golden yellow, and faith and hope filled Kelsang Tashi’s heart.
One day, when the setting sun’s rays shone through clouds above the mountain, the whole sky suddenly grew black, thunder rumbled, the wind howled, and lightning flashed across the heavens. Kelsang Tashi fidgeted as if there were a stone in his shoe. The last thing he wanted was hail. He gazed at the sky. Rain began to pour. He shouted, “Beat it!” If only his words could control the heavens! But they had not the slightest effect. He turned once more to the Three Jewels, praying for their protection. At this very moment, he heard an enormous crackling sound and something hard hit his face. The villagers rushed out of their homes, dazed and bewildered. The mountain peak had turned white. The soothsayer famed for preventing hail shouted at the clouds from the top of his house, “Scat! Scat!” An elder cried out, “If these women keep screaming, it will bring down the hail!” and told the women to be quiet and stop cursing. But nothing—not the stakes in the corners of the fields, the experienced soothsayer, or the screams of the women—had the power to restrain the great hailstones that poured down like a warrior host from the sky. Miserably, the terrified villagers smelled the crushed grass, trees, and crops. Kelsang Tashi heard the sound of sobbing.
Though the hail finally stopped, the rain kept pouring. A vast sheet of water stretched in all directions. The men went to check their fields. Some searched with flashlights for the source of the floodwater, but in vain. And since they didn’t know where it came from, how could they stop it? With a few other older men, Kelsang Tashi staggered back from the fields. Soaked and torn, his clothes hung from his arms and legs.
His wife rushed out and asked, “The crops? The crops?”
“Finished,” he replied, heartbroken. “Nothing in sight but the flood.”
“If hail and floods come, what can we do?” His wife tried to console him. “As long as people are safe.”
The water gushing over the fields resounded in Kelsang Tashi’s ears all night. He thought of his plans, his hopes, his futile efforts. He didn’t sleep all night.
At dawn, his head felt heavy and his body weak. Groaning, he said, “What’s wrong with me?” He struggled out of bed and pulled on his soaking clothes. Though the sky was gray and rain still falling, he ran to his field. He saw the near-ripe crops battered and crooked, as if trampled by a herd of animals. He stared vacantly, listening to women weep as if their families were dead. Then his mind went blank, and he started to faint. Suddenly he heard his daughter Kunsang call his name. He came to himself. He was crying, but he wanted to spare his daughter his suffering. He gazed at the twisting, rugged mountain road in the distance and said to her, “It’s no use grieving. When a wife loses her husband, he’s lost forever. When we lose a year’s harvest, we can make it up next year. It’s no good grieving. There’s a saying, ‘Tomorrow’s weather will be better.’ If we throw ourselves into our work and fight nature, we’ll have a great harvest next year. Wait till everybody sees the great luck we’ll have then!” And so, everyone waited for the next year’s good fortune.