Written by Tashi Dawa
Translation by Herbert J. Batt
Published in Mānoa 12, no.2 (2002), 96-113
Ugyen walked into the camp: forty or fifty tents squeezed together on a stretch of ground that looked like a garbage dump. It had just rained. The blazing sunlight heated the steaming odors inside the tents and drew them out: human piss and shit; dog piss and shit; damp, moldy leather; horse dung; the musty stench of damp sheepskin; the sour smells of fermenting beer and human sweat; gasoline and plastic; dog carcasses; the rotten breath of death from old people’s bodies; cheap perfume; rotting leftovers. The camp made Ugyen feel sad.
Something flashed above him and he looked up. An airplane soared over the city, leaving behind it a gigantic roar. Then, as if the roar of the plane had sucked up every other sound, the entire earth was marvelously still. There was not a soul’s breath. On the ground lay the body of a dog covered thickly with flies. The empty, lifeless, dirty, ramshackle camp was no ideal hiding place. At this very moment, someone could be watching him, peering out through a slit or hole in a tent. He paused beside a waterlogged hollow. In the back of his mind, something rang like a bell. It was a premonition. A boy scurried out from someplace and walked up to him. The boy’s head was wrapped in a filthy towel. Over his shoulders he had draped a grown-man’s coat, which fell past his knees. Ugyen could see the boy’s stomach was covered in mud. The boy had a cigarette in his mouth and a red firecracker in his hand, which he raised to the cigarette. He walked up to Ugyen. Ugyen saw the hissing, smoking firecracker fly toward his face. With a sweep of his hand, he snatched it as if he were catching a fl y. The twisting, burning fuse prickled his palm like a fly beating its wings. Before he had time to open his fingers, the firecracker exploded and Ugyen ran in circles, waving his hand like crazy. He felt something wet in his palm. He thought it was blood. A clear yellow liquid smeared his fingers. He sniffed it. It was urine. He pressed his burning hand to his trouser leg and ran after the boy, searching here and there, but the kid must have ducked into one of the tents.
Holding up the tents were vast networks of criss-crossed cords fastened to wooden stakes and metal pegs driven into the ground. It had just rained, so the ground was a quagmire and some of the pegs and stakes had been loosened, cords had gone slack, and sides of tents had collapsed. Ugyen began pushing stakes back into the ground with his foot, but this was futile. Still damp and slack, the cords couldn’t hold up the tents. He raised the door flap of one tent after another, but found no one inside. Finally, he found an old woman sitting cross-legged, her back bent. She leaned over some ancient coins. When she heard Ugyen at the door, she plunged her head between her knees and froze as if she’d been caught doing something shameful. In another tent, someone lay with head covered, asleep. In another, a girl lay on a cowhide rug playing with a dirty, ragged pack of cards .
“Hey there, kind man,” he heard a voice say from inside a tent. Ugyen went over and raised the burlap bag that was its door flap.
An emaciated woman lay on a bed cushion, her hair in disarray. Her sunken eye sockets created dark rings around her eyes. Her body was covered in various scraps of old clothes. A swaddled child lay beside her. A strange, powerful odor—like the stench of some weird, monstrous beast— suffocated Ugyen.
“Brother, I’m thirsty,” said the woman, pointing. Outside the door a pot stood propped on three rocks—some tea at the bottom of it.
“It’s cold,” he said.
“Doesn’t matter. Here’s a bowl.”
He dipped out some tea and gave it to her. “A boy or a girl?”
The woman didn’t reply.
“The smell’s unbearable. You haven’t changed the baby. ”
The woman didn’t reply.
Ugyen held his nose as he talked. “I, the hero, didn’t come in here to give you tea, ma’am. I’m looking for someone.”
“My man left a long time ago! ”
“I’m not looking for your man. I’m looking for somebody named Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo.”
“What do you want with him?”
“It’s nothing to do with you, woman.” He let go his nose, took a breath, and held it again.
“The one you’re after—he’s my man. Left a month ago!”
Ugyen knew she was lying. He saw beside the woman a square black tray with a black-tasselled awl. He realized that it was for black-magic rituals and that the woman was a witch. If he made a false move, she could make thick black blood gush from his nose. He saw the child stir and a head appear from the swaddling clothes. Between its eyes was a tiny green horn, and its face was covered with wrinkles, horribly ugly. The sickening odor must have been coming from this little monster. Ugyen covered his nose, terror stricken, and backed out of the tent.
Three men stood by the waterlogged hollow where Ugyen had been standing a moment before, every one of them tall—well over six feet—and stalwart. The tallest had black tassels coiled around his head. A younger man had a fierce, savage face. The third man played with a ring on his finger. They were looking at him.
“Say, brother, can you tell me . . . ,” Ugyen called to them.
They stood motionless as statues, looking him up and down with narrowed eyes.
“If you’re not going to open your mouths, just forget it,” he said. Ugyen sensed the three were bored, looking for a reason to start a fight. He didn’t want to stir up any more trouble.
“The doors of our ears are not closed,” said the one with the black tassels.
“Where’s Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo live? ”
“He died,” the savage-looking one said after a while.
Ugyen was confused. In the back of his head a dog barked. He gave himself a knock. The sound disappeared. “How long’s he been dead?” he asked.
“Oh, four or five months . . . so I heard,” said the one playing with his ring . Ugyen didn’t ask any more questions, just kept blinking his eyes as if a bug had flown into one of them. He turned to go.
“You’re his relative?” the one playing with the ring asked.
“No. You saw him?”
“It’s what I heard. Everybody wants to find out something about him— isn’t that right? ”
“There’s nothing worth finding out about him.”
The youngest one growled malevolently, yawned languidly, and started walking off. Ugyen felt there was something wicked about him: he’d said Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo was dead.
“You’re Ugyen?” the one with the tassels asked in a somber voice.
He didn’t know how to reply, so he just nodded.
“Evening the day before last, the police were back again, searching the place. With your photograph.”
“Three days ago, Ngawang Melong,” corrected the one playing with the ring.
“It doesn’t matter,” said the one with the tassels. “Where were you that night? ”
“Robbers’ Forest,” Ugyen replied.
“That’s what I guessed,” Ngawang Melong said, nodding. “My grandpa hid out there in the old days. Did nothing big. Ran off with some Nepalese peddler’s radio. Never seen a radio before. Tore the thing to bits. Never found the little guy inside who did the talking.”
“The police won’t come tonight,” said the one playing with the ring.
“I don’t care.” Ugyen stared off.
“Find someplace for him to hide, Dhargye,” tall Ngawang Melong told the one playing with the ring.
Dhargye gave Ugyen a look. Dhargye seemed to like this murderer, standing out in the open while the police were running around hunting for him. “You’re not going to be carrying your victim’s head back into my tent in the middle of the night, are you?”
“Listen , I don’t like that kind of joke.”
“Right!” Dhargye said with a grin.
“Hey there, time to go,” the youngest one said, waving from a distance.
“Find tent fifty-three,” Dhargye said. “Fix yourself something to eat. If you’re tired, sleep on the bed by the telephone.”
“You’ve got a telephone? Where’s it hooked up?”
“Up my asshole. I picked it up and put it there for looks.”
“Remember, don’t let the gatekeeper get a look at you,” Ngawang Melong warned. “He’s the eyes of the police.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Ugyen waved impatiently. “I didn’t come here for orders.”
“Right , you came here for Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo, murd e r e r, but he’s dead. So I hear.” Dhargye winked. He was an optimistic, uninhibited young guy.
When the girl in blue jeans and a low-cut blouse heard he was looking for Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo, she shook her head and said she’d never heard of him. There was a guy named Sonam Rigzin, but he didn’t have a pockmarked face and he didn’t look like somebody from Gonjo. She pointed to a young man in a suit sitting over by the wall. Ugyen rushed into the crowd, his mind blank. Just inside the entrance, red neon lights swirled in dazzling, incomprehensible letters. They seemed to soak everyone in fresh blood. On a wall by the door hung a sign embossed with regulations in a foreign language. Somehow or other those few lines of foreign words and those neon letters burned themselves into Ugyen’s mind so that he’d remember them for the rest of his life. During the subsequent investigation, he recalled them exactly, reproducing every last detail—to the bewilderment of the police—and triggering the fatal denouement.
The people coming into the bar were dressed in flashy clothes. Their walk was rough, their laugh crude. All of them looked like foreigners. The bar had an unusual odor, a disgusting atmosphere. Red and green lights flashed to the beat of the music and made people look like they were swaying back and forth. Ugyen stood in the aisle, staring all around. A couple of grim-faced, hefty guys in motorcycle jackets walked towards him, helmets in hand. Ugyen was a tough Khampa with a knife stuck in his belt, but they shouldered him aside. Everybody here acted like a fearless desperado. Nobody paid him any attention.
Sonam Rigzin was sitting alone at a table with a cup of strong black coffee in front of him, looking bored, as if his friends hadn’t shown up. He certainly seemed to be a regular. Ugyen sat down opposite him and coldly stared him in the face. He wasn’t sure this was Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo. The fellow was dressed immaculately, like a real city gent. Ugyen couldn’t make out the color of his suit in the pulsating light. All he could see was that the material had fine, almost invisible stripes. The tailoring was exquisite, a perfect fit. His tie was embroidered with golden thread, in a pattern suggesting the eyes of wild beasts glaring in the dark. His jetblack hair was combed neatly and elegantly. He was probably the only other Tibetan here. Ugyen never thought it would be like this. He’d always thought he’d be facing a Khampa who looked like himself. He didn’t like facing this clean, tidy, stylish guy.
“Mister,” Ugyen said, leaning closer and striking up a conversation. Perhaps from his work, Sonam Rigzin was used to meeting all kinds of people. In a very friendly way, and even with interest, he replied to Ugyen’s questions one by one.
“Right, I’m the one you’re looking for.” He stroked his face, laughing with embarrassment. “So, after all these years, there’s somebody who still remembers my nickname. Only somebody from my hometown could remember it.” How could people have given him that nickname? There wasn’t a single pockmark on his face. “Maybe I had pockmarks when I was little—I don’t remember. Right, I’m from Gonjo County. Like something to drink? You don’t like coffee? How about a beer? Sure.”
Ugyen phrased his questions carefully, and Sonam Rigzin verified his identity as Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo.
“Tell you something about my father and mother? Ha, ha, you’re a funny one all right. You must be one of those relatives of mine who’re always creeping out of the woodwork, eh? Every damn one I run into, just as poor as you. What’s your name? Ugyen, is it? What do you want to know about my father and mother for? Dad’s name was Abo Delang, right. Mama’s was Drachang Chodon. Yes, they were minstrels. You seem to know all about us. You know, I’m thinking of writing something about them. The old days are vanishing!”
Sonam Rigzin propped his cheek with his hand, shut his eyes, and, carried off by a sudden impulse, recalled the trials and feats of his father. Abo Delang was a wandering acrobat, famous everywhere. Stirring up thick clouds of dust, the minstrel troupe’s wagons would come into town and children would race out to meet them, shouting with joy. Dogs ran behind the wagons, barking. Young girls stood shyly on the roofs, watching the merry minstrel troupe singing and dancing. Then would come Abo Delang’s elegant performance: the one-legged whirlwind. Seventy-two coins formed a circle on the ground. The whole clan beat drums and rang bells as his father balanced on one leg and sprang face up at the sky like a great eagle, a giant writhing dragon. Seventy-two times he would soar and whirl, snatching one coin after another till not a single one was left in the dirt. Cries of praise and wonder poured from the villagers.
But these endless roving performances made for a dangerous life. In the loneliness of a desolate mountain valley, a gunshot reverberated glorious and eternal, shattering the dream of little Sonam Rigzin there against his mother’s bosom. Opening his eyes after the gunshot, he saw the white clouds in the blue sky, the yellow valley, the minstrel-troupe horsemen in single file along the little winding path on the valley floor. When the sound of the gunshot died away, it was deathly silent all around, just as before. Then came the urgent rocking of the horse that set the tiny bells on its neck to jingling—and another gunshot, glorious, interminable, resonating throughout the valley. His mother screamed and held him close. As her powerful hand thrust him back under her robe into the drowsy moistness of her bosom, he saw a man in front of her fall softly off his horse. Only many years later did he learn that this was his uncle. In the excitement, he got pushed so far down his mother’s bosom that he couldn’t breathe. A roar filled the silent valley, the horse neighed in fear, people whispered curses, bullets whistled by. Oblivious to danger, he forced his head out of his mother’s robe and stared wide-eyed at the gun battle. He saw tiny figures of men moving high up on the hills. From all around him in the valley burst a cry full of wild power: “Ah – hei – hei!”
His father, Abo Delang, was not only a master acrobat but also a crack shot. He saw his father calmly roll over behind a rock, coolly raise his rifle, aim at a black figure on the hill, and pull the trigger. The tiny figure swayed and toppled to the ground just as his mother’s hand shoved him down into her bosom again, this time so tight he couldn’t wriggle out to watch more of the battle. It was only much later, after years of seeing his father bent over as if looking for cow dung, that he realized his father had been injured in the gun battle with the bandits. The wound in his father’s back got worse and worse. The man who’d always braved the itinerant life died regretting that he’d never pass his skills on to his son.
Ugyen knew that all Sonam Rigzin had said was true. What he’d felt during the battle was more or less the same. He too had witnessed an unforgettable scene from his mother’s bosom high up on the valley rim. Ugyen walked around the table. Sonam Rigzin stood up, watching him in helpless panic. Maybe if this son of the minstrel clan sitting before him had learned his father’s unique trick, he could have dodged the mortal knife that Ugyen calmly, coolly, effortlessly thrust into him now. The long knife in Ugyen’s hand plunged through the layers of Sonam Rigzin’s clothing and into his stomach with as little effort as if they had been sheets of paper. Ugyen thrust upward with all his might, probing for the heart. He heard bone crack, saw the bloody tip of the blade come out through Sonam Rigzin’s clothing, behind his shoulder blade. Ugyen had thought it would be difficult to plunge a knife through flesh. Now he knew he had strength enough to drive his knife through two bodies at once. Half of Sonam Rigzin’s face twitched to the left, half to the right. He groaned a cold laugh, his head dropped, his body collapsed. The bar went quiet. The patrons were either used to this sort of business or frightened out of their wits. In silence they stared at Ugyen. No one moved. At last, one man tossed down a card with a practiced hand, jabbed his neighbor with an elbow, and tapped the table, meaning by this gesture, Your play. The man’s neighbor looked at his own hand and pulled out an ace of spades. When Ugyen wiped his knife on the dead man’s suit, it left no bloodstain. He thought the suit must have been blood-red. He’d never seen anyone wear a suit that color. He walked o ut of the bar, knife in h a n d. Nobody stopped him. Maybe the girl wearing the blue jeans and low-cut blouse and leaning in the doorway hadn’t seen what happened. She paid no attention to his knife, just stood with a cigarette in the corner of her mouth, arms crossed, glancing indifferently out of the corner of her eye. It made him think of a girl he’d seen in a movie. “Dirty whore,” he muttered.
There were no streetlights. No one ran after him, and no one tried to stop him. All around him it was dark. He heard a roar. He thought a crowd of people must be applauding in a big square nearby. As he walked aiml e s s l y, his head rang with the awesome undulating melody of a gunshot in a lonely mountain valley. Nobody in the future would ever hear such a stirring sound. Now he was finished with all that. He felt light and easy. He’d searched painfully all these years, worn out so many pairs of shoes, worn himself out, gone without sleep. Now that was all finished. In the future, whenever they mentioned his name, people would give an admiring thumbs up in tribute to him. He didn’t care if he never saw them do it. Suddenly, h e sensed a vast crowd of shadows following him. He turned to look. An expanse filled with green stars glimmered behind him, flashing like the stitching on the dead man’s tie. A pack of stray dogs lurked close behind, ready to pounce and tear him to pieces. Could his victim’s soul have turned into a stray dog and come after him so soon? He hefted his knife, ready for a fight to the death, then looked down in confusion. The knife he’d clutched since he killed his victim had turned into a shank of dried mutton. He raised it to his nose and sniffed: it stank of bloody human flesh. He threw it away in disgust. In a flash, the pack of dogs pounced on it. A warm , putrid stench swept past him on the breeze. From where he’d thrown t h e shank came the yapping of dogs fighting over food. Ugyen heaved a sigh of relief. The knife he’d carried all these years was no good to him now. He sure didn’t want to kill a second man.
Hey! Those dazzling magic letters—what country could they be from? Coiling and twisting together, they made you feel like dancing, like getting it on with a woman. When Thome Sambhota created writing, he sure wasn’t thinking of those letters. And that writing on the sign—what was it, anyway? If he had the chance, he’d go back to that bar. Just for a drink. The beer wasn’t bad. And if the stinking whore at the door . . . He started reckoning how long it had been since he’d slept with a woman.
Early in the morning, the Khampa vagrants came out of their low, cramped tents and greedily sucked in the fresh, clean air. Men and women with swollen faces and dishevelled hair stood at their door flaps, pulling on their clothes, doing up their belts. Puffs of blue smoke rose, laden with the pungent smells of rubber, oil, and chemicals. The old people had gotten up early and already finished circumambulating the Potala Temple. The old Khampa vagrants always tried to be friendly and chat with the old Lhasa people they met as they walked together around the city, spinning their prayer wheels. But for centuries there had been bad blood between Lhasa residents and the people from eastern Kham. The old Lhasa people led on leashes cute little Pekinese dogs and fat, tame sheep they’d rescued from the butcher. They wanted nothing to do with the grizzled old vagrants, who had nothing in their travelling bags and who once might have been robbers, swindlers, bandits, or horsethieves. Feeble now and shaking like candles in the wind, the old vagrants didn’t care what the Lhasa residents thought. They worshipped the same Buddha as the city folks, they walked the same road, they prayed the same. And as for the bliss of the life to come, well, they thought, we’ll just walk along, spin our prayer wheels, and see. At every turn, they prayed for blessings on the holy Potala Te m p l e . Then, still spinning their prayer wheels and murmuring prayers from dry throats with parched tongues, they turned back toward the campground.
Around breakfast time, a blue police car with a flashing red light on its roof entered the campground gate. Five policemen jumped out. The vagrants who’d lived in the campground awhile were used to the gentlemen of the police force bursting in at any time. Whenever anything happened in the city, the manhunt would always start here. The police usually carried out their raids at night. Piercing sirens would wail. Policemen with urgent, hectoring voices would flush naked men and women out of their tents. The police would gape in amazement at the stolen items they found: automobile engines; tires; all kinds of auto parts; brand-new motorcycles; new and old bicycles; a dark-green safe, still unopened, full of cash; rolls and rolls of cloth; countless boxes of canned food. They found a maternity-ward birthing chair and a high-tech flush toilet from a hotel’s restroom. They even recovered a golden-haired, green-eyed European baby that people say was stolen from some foreign tourists—who knows what for? The police nicknamed the vagrant camp The Launch Pad. In a cold, majestic voice, a policeman in dark glasses announced through a loudspeaker their reason for coming. He commanded each family to leave one person behind to watch its tent. Everyone else was to line up and go to Cultural Palace Square to witness a mass public trial.
Many people wondered what the trial had to do with them.
“It’s to scare us so that we’ll behave here in Lhasa,” Ngawang Melong said. He was tying on his boots. “They’re going to kill somebody!” he cried out with a swipe of his hand across his neck.
“It’s a shame,” Shega said. She poured Ngawang Melong and their savage-faced brother, Dorje, bowls of tea, put a little leather bag of tsamp a between them, and set a spoon on top of it.
Dhargye hadn’t arrived yet. He lived in tent number fifty-three, the one with the telephone.
“How come you didn’t put butter in this tea?” Dorje grumbled to his sister.
“I had to save some for Buddha Tsuklakhang’s lamp.”
“Don’t give me that. ”
“Where’s Dhargye—doesn’t he want his tea?” Shega asked.
“Kill somebody—hunh!” Dorje said.
“Shut your mouth!” she spat. A couple of policemen walked up to the tent, bent over, and looked in. One of them pointed to his watch. “Hurry up. You leave at eight thirty.”
“Dog!” Dorje said.
The policeman didn’t hear.
“Who’ll stay behind?” Ngawang Melong asked.
“No. I’m going with you,” she snapped.
“Listen, you,” Ngawang Melong growled, “my fist’s just aching to let you have it. ”
“And who’s going to beg for your lunch then, huh?”
“You stay here,” Ngawang Melong conceded. “We’ll come back. Just make tsampa for lunch and some tea.”
Dhargye was at the door. He bent over, looked in, and said, “Hey, we might see Ugyen on the platform today.”
The others didn’t make a sound.
“The guy’s going to die today,” Dhargye said, entering.
“Don’t talk like that,” Shega said.
Dhargye gave Shega a nod in greeting. She returned his surreptitious smile, passing him a bowl of tea. With no butter in it, the tea was clear. When Dhargye drank the first mouthful, he discovered phantom images appearing and disappearing in the bowl. First he saw a pile of white rocks with a prayer flag thrust in it and then a mani cairn wrapped in wool. Next he saw strange, twisted, luminous letters drifting up out of a still, green lake, then the mark of a human body left on the sand of a pure-white beach.
Trembling, with the bowl in his hand, he rushed off to old Longna’s tent. In her youth, she’d been a village soothsayer. Now her toothless mouth uttered curses against the times. “It’s an age,” she said, “when hoards of demons arise and stir up trouble, when the bodhisattvas fall silent and even the awesome heavenly guardians can’t hold back the demons’ power. Oh yes, the glittering golden temples around Lhasa still celebrate solemn festivals, and the deep resonance of the lamas’ long copper horns pulsates back and forth over the city, and fierce, scarlet-robed lamas in yellow cocks – comb hats, their shoulders padded so they look like sparrow hawks, strike rhombus-shaped clubs of bronze-inlaid iron against the earth over and over, terrorizing pious pilgrims from the countryside till they don’t dare look up from the ground”—old Longna closed her eyes—“but they don’t vanquish the evil spirits! It’s just for foreigners to take pictures now.” Then she would cover her nose with her sleeve and mutter about the sinister dust polluting the air of the holy Tibetan plateau. Or she’d throw dust that she’d combed out of her graying braids into the fire, where it crackled and sparked. “That’s a few more demons dead,” she’d say, laughing in delight. Folks said all she’d killed were a few of her lice.
She stretched out a long fingernail now and stroked Dhargye’s face in a sign of welcome, then listened, eyes shut, as he told her why he’d come. The two crouched shoulder to shoulder: two pairs of eyes gazing into the tea like people staring at a goldfish in a bowl. There were definitely some strange images in that tea, but Dhargye couldn’t decipher them. Longna took a crystal lens out of her bosom, spat on it three times, wiped it on her sleeve, and began a vague incantation. The images in the bowl gradually became more distinct. She gave Dhargye a little pat on the back and pushed him into the bowl. A hot breeze swept the desolate pastureland. Foul, mosslike grass knit the dusty yellow soil in place. An indistinct trail stretched away among the slopes that rose and fell off to the horizon. Traces of the moist odor of horse dung drifted on the air. Dhargye listened. He could hear the faint tinkling of a bell like celestial music, swinging from the saddle of some distant, lonesome traveller. He set off into the wilderness, searching for this ephemeral ringing.
The wilderness vanished—or had he reached the end of it? A dizzying abyss yawned at his feet. Out of the canyon blew gusts of cold air. Far below, a river churned and swirled. Looking over the precipice, Dhargye saw Dorje and a woman walking to the temple, followed by Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo. Dhargye looked carefully. The woman was Shega! Around her neck she wore a sacred jade unicorn. Dhargye recognized it as the one the Chinese emperor had presented to the Fifth Dalai Lama, who had preserved it in the Potala until somehow it had found its way onto Shega’s neck. And Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo had spotted it! As Dhargye watched in impotent rage, Sonam Rigzin slid his lustcrazed eyes from the jade unicorn hanging from Shega’s white neck and down over her breasts, down to . . . But her brother Dorje was right there watching, and when he saw Sonam Rigzin slip his hand around Shega’s waist, he reached for the sheath at his belt. Dorje and Sonam Rigzin danced back and forth, waving their knives. One quick slash of Dorje’s blade, and Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo lay dying in a pool of blood. Shega ran to the dying man, embraced him, raised him up! As Dhargye looked on from afar, Shega took off the precious jade unicorn and hung it round Pockface Sonam Rigzin’s neck, then touched her forehead to his.
Dhargye couldn’t get near them. Dhargye wanted to run to Shega, but it was as if a glass door stood in his way.
Brother and sister didn’t even glance at Dhargye, but floated off, propelled by some invisible power. In a flash they were gone. Now Dhargye was standing next to the body of Pockface Sonam Rigzin, lying on the sand. A shepherd and some peasant girls passed, spotted the body, then eyed Dhargye suspiciously. Dhargye got flustered. He didn’t know how to explain that he had nothing to do with the murder.
And right then who should burst in but Ugyen! In the corner of his tent Dhargye was gazing at Shega’s white neck, sliding his arms down lower, slipping his hand around her waist—and Ugyen didn’t pay attention to what the two of them were doing, just walked in and pulled away a pile of worn felt carpets and a sheet of plastic, then lifted some wooden planks to reveal an enormous hole, big enough to hide a yak, filled with stolen goods, mostly scrap metal. Ugyen was rummaging for something. Dhargye heaved a sigh and let go of Shega. She straightened up her hair, did up her buttons, spat out, “He’s just a jinx, damn him!” and walked out of the tent.
“What the hell are you looking for?”
Ugyen didn’t reply.
Who did Ugyen think he was, Dhargye shouted, a pillar of the community? The police were looking for him all over, and here he was, swaggering around in broad daylight where anybody could spot him. Dhargye muttered something about reporting him to the police if he kept spoiling his fun with Shega like this.
“Where’s that camera I left here?” Ugyen asked him.
Ugyen put the planks back down over the hole and sat on them. “How much did you get for it? ”
“Is that all?!” Ugyen scratched his head, dejected. “You saw how I almost got caught grabbing it off that foreigner.”
“You told me to sell it.”
“You think it was junk, worth just three hundred?”
“The guy said one of the parts was broken.”
“He robbed you.”
“What did you want with it? ”
“I made a deal: I give this guy the camera, he’ll tell me where to find Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo.”
Dhargye pushed him away from the hole, pulled the carpets back into place, picked up the telephone from where Ugyen had knocked it to the ground, and solemnly replaced it on the empty soapbox by the bed. “He’s dead,” Dhargye said.
“He’s not. I know.”
“I saw him die myself,” Dhargye said, “I think.”
“Maybe . . . ,” Ugyen said, lost in thought, “there’s nobody named Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo.”
“Can you see him clear?”
“Seems like the third one on the right.”
“No, it’s not. You can’t see that far.”
“I don’t like this. What a crowd! My head’s bursting.”
“The bodhisattvas aren’t happy about this.”
“The wind will come up in the afternoon.”
Tall and robust, Ngawang Melong, Dorje, and Dhargye stood outside the meeting ground, their hands on each other’s shoulder. They looked as if they were standing around Tromsikhang Market to barter jewels. A policeman came over and told them in a low voice to get inside with the rest of the crowd. They paid no attention to him. Police began to surround them. People near them became nervous. Ngawang Melong could tell from their green uniforms that these were military police. Usually when the three of them stood around, they rested their hands on the handles of their knives, but the police made them check their knives with the officers who stayed back at the camp. Now that they didn’t have anyplace to put their hands, they just swung them idly back and forth.
The police herded the two hundred Khampas into the square. Fond of a joke no matter what the occasion, the native Lhasa people saw this confused gang straggling in, staring at everything, and immediately cheered and applauded as if the Khampas were the honored guests. The Khampa men appreciated the joke and started laughing too. One of them complained that his seat was so far from the platform that he couldn’t see anything. “Hey, mister! What’s the show? ”
“The Last Judgment.”
“Never heard of it. Something about a goddess?”
This silly question started the Lhasa people laughing again.
A row of criminals stood on the platform. Three of them had already been sentenced to death. When the public sentencing ended, they would be taken to the execution ground outside of town. One was a Lhasa teenager who had shot and killed a policeman; the second was a peasant who’d stolen three hundred thousand yuan from a bank; the third was the murderer and escaped convict Ugyen. In a valley outside of town, the police had found a body. From the testimony of a shepherd and a couple of peasant girls who identified Ugyen and from evidence discovered at the scene —fingerprints on the handle of an English-style bayonet, the accused’s hair under the victim’s fingernails (which indicated that there had been a struggle before the murder occurred), and footprints found near the scene—as well as from the relationship of the victim with the accused before the crime, it was conclusively established that Ugyen was guilty of premeditated murder. The victim was Sonam Rigzin, also known as Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo. The motive: a revenge feud that originated with the murder of Ugyen’s father by the father of Sonam Rigzin.
Ugyen knew nothing of legal procedure. As soon as he was captured, he admitted committing a murder, but the time of the crime, the location of the crime, and the victim were different from those in the case under investigation. He simply and straightforwardly confessed all the details. The time—one evening. The place—a certain bar in the city. The victim—a man wearing a suit and called Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo. In addition to describing the bar, Ugyen recounted in precise detail—and even drew—each stroke of the letters in neon lights inside the bar’s entrance and on the sign. The police didn’t recognize the place. They felt the case was getting complicated. They began to wonder if he’d committed a second murder. In a police car they drove Ugyen up and down every street and byway of Lhasa without finding the bar. He said the incident happened at night and he couldn’t remember what part of town he had been in.
The police concluded that the crime Ugyen was describing was nothing but a fiction invented to confuse the investigation. First, they reasoned, no other murder had been reported. A murder before so many witnesses, such as Ugyen had described, would surely have been reported. Second, the letters Ugyen was talking about . . . the devil knew what they meant. Maybe just some nonsense he dreamed up. And as for neon signs . . . never mind shady, low-life bars jammed with mobs of people—even the luxurious, modern Lhasa Hotel didn’t have neon lights. There wasn’t a single neon light glittering in all Lhasa.
Ugyen was confused. He admitted committing one murder, but the police said that it was all a hoax and that he had committed a different one, which he didn’t know anything about. He didn’t understand law, he didn’t understand science. All he knew was what he had seen and what he remembered. So he broke out of jail to try to find the bar and prove it existed. He lived underground. But before he could find it, they caught him and put him back in jail. Maybe he could have avoided the death sentence, but everything he’d done had only added to the weight of his crime. At last his name was put on the execution list.
“They’ve got it all wrong.” Dhargye shook his head.
The three men had been herded to their seats among a sea of spectators. The sun shone straight down. People held newspapers, books, and handkerchiefs over their heads to block its rays.
“It wasn’t Ugy e n who killed Sonam Rigzin. I know,” Dhargye said, giving Dorje a significant look.
“I suppose that crazy old Longna put all these ideas in your head.”
“She pushed me into the tea bowl, and I saw it all clearly. What I still can’t figure out is why they’ve never mentioned the jade unicorn. But I know who killed Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo. It was you!”
Dorje gave him a strange look up and down. “You’ve got a problem in your head.”
“You knifed him, then Shega threw her arms around him, and hung that jade unicorn around his neck as he died,” Dhargye said in a low, tense voice.
“Damn! I’ll knock the shit out of you.”
“Go ahead, knock the shit out of me.” All of a sudden Dhargye pointed stealthily at Ngawang Melong. “What’s he up to?”
Ngawang Melong had squeezed himself up against old, white-haired Longna. The two of them had their heads together. It looked like they were hatching some secret plot.
“He knows Ugyen killed somebody,” Dorje said, “but that Ugyen is innocent of the crime they’re accusing him of, and he wants to save him.”
“There’s always a way,” Dorje said mysteriously.
Ngawang Melong left the crowd and walked up to the magistrates’ platform. In about fifteen minutes, he returned. He had told the police he was Ugyen’s friend and asked them to give him a ride to the execution ground so that he could take care of the body when it was all over. A couple of friends, he added, would come along later to help him. The police knew Ugyen didn’t have any relatives in Lhasa, so a policeman agreed to save Ngawang Melong a seat in one of the vans.
Soon the assembly ground grew noisy. The sentencing was over. Crowds of people walked around on the sun-baked mud, stretching their aching backs. They mobbed the platform, trying to get a good look at the three criminals bound for execution. Ngawang Melong said he was going with the motorcade straight to the execution ground and told Dhargye and Dorje to follow on foot.
Police and soldiers were everywhere. Guards escorted the condemned men onto an open truck. The motorcycle police started their engines and pulled into formation, ready to clear the road. Pious men and women thronged the truck, pleading with the soldiers not to sin by taking the condemned men’s lives. Guards lined the perimeter of the truck bed, their rifles at the ready. People in the crowd spat at the soldiers and military police on the truck, clapped their hands in derision, cursed them. A few rocks came flying, thrown by stealthy hands. The soldiers stood motionless, stiff as ramrods. The police kept order along the road, pushing back the crowd. Up ahead, the formation of motorcycles was cutting through the crowd like the prow of a ship slicing through the sea. The long motorcade followed behind. In its wake came a dozen motorcycles—the fellow gang members of the policeman’s murderer, his funeral procession. At the execution ground, the peasant bankrobber’s family already had a tractor waiting for his body outside the police cordon. Dhargye and Dorje had no transportation, so they had to walk as fast as they could.
Dark, rolling clouds blocked the sun and covered the mountains. Soon the wind would rise. The two men talked on the way to ease their sorrow.
“I’m moving back home in a few days,” Dorje said. “How about you?”
“I want to stay. If I settle down here, my children will be Lhasa people.”
“I’m taking Shega, but she doesn’t really want to go. She likes you. Everybody sees it. Someday, if you really want, come to our town— we’ ll have a wedding.”
Dhargye stared fixedly at the road ahead, pondering. “Maybe some incarnate lama used that bowl Shega gave me my tea in, and it was his power that made me see all that stuff.”
“Holy treasures of heaven!” Dorje said. “Maybe I really did kill somebody. Maybe I did it in a past life.”
“Maybe everything I saw is going to happen in the future. Who knows? ”
“We don’t know anything. We’re stupid as donkeys.”
“Ugyen! That guy owed me three hundred yuan.”
“It’s not fair!” Dorje shouted angrily. “He’s unarmed. His hands and feet are tied. He’s a man, not a sheep!”
“We’re all just sheep. I heard an incarnate lama say that Compassionate Bodhisattva Chenresig is shepherd of the Tibetan people. He came to earth to gather us into the safety of his sheepfold, and as long as there’s a single sheep outside the fold, he won’t leave us and go back to heaven.”
“Hail, Three Jewels, present everywhere.” Dorje turned back to the Potala Temple, rising far off in the distance. He joined his hands and closed his eyes, murmuring, “Holy ground, supreme wisdom, protect us travellers far from home.”
They walked a couple of hours before they reached the execution ground, a bare, sandy slope at the foot of the mountain— empty, silent, lonely. It was all over: only hawks remained, circling in the sky. Far off they saw Ngawang Melong sitting next to Ugyen’s body, which lay on the hillside in a pool of blood. He waved his broad-brimmed hat over Ugyen’s face to drive away the flies. Dhargye and Dorje came up and stood silently behind him. The setting sun cast their three shadows far out across the desolate hillside. In their shadow, the pool of Ugyen’s congealed blood looked like a patch of oil on the ground.
Ngawang Melong’s face was without expression—no grief, no suffering. His outstretched hand continued to fan Ugyen’s face. He looked like a shashlik vendor fanning the flames beneath his skewers of meat. He murmured, “It’s ok . . . it’s ok . . . one bullet and it was over . . . didn’t say a thing . . . just looked at me as if he never expected me . . . sure I came . . . these filthy flies . . . ”
The wind rose. Swirls of sand blew past their feet, rushing at Ugyen’s body as if to hurry it off the face of the earth.
Far off, amid the swirling sand, riding toward them on horseback came a vague, terrifying figure. He looked like a wandering hero: the brim of his hat was pulled down over his eyes, and he wore an indomitable, haughty expression on his pockmarked face. His jaw worked as if he was chewing a piece of dried meat. He glanced at the three men, then at the body of Ugyen, hands tied behind his back, lying in the pool of blood, and smiled faintly. “Don’t even think of trying to kill me,” he drawled.
“Hey! Are you Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo?” Dhargye called out boldly. This wasn’t the man Dorje had killed!
Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo gave a contemptuous laugh, jerked the reins, and kicked his horse. The chestnut stallion neighed shrilly, and the man raced off into the depths of the hazy, windswept desert.
The medical examiner who checked the corpses found a piece of paper inside Ugyen’s shirt. On it the dead man had printed some foreign letters and, below them, a couple of lines of foreign writing. At the bottom, Ugyen had written LOOK EVERYWHERE. THIS PLACE EXISTS. The examiner immediately passed on the piece of paper to the detective who’d been in charge of Ugyen’s case. The detective’s wife worked as a translator in a travel bureau. She took one look and knew the foreign writing wasn’t English or French. An interpreter from Beijing who happened to be in her travel bureau immediately recognized it as Spanish and translated it for her. The flashy letters read BLUE STAR, and the script underneath, 57 AVENIDA DE LA PLAYA, CALLE. It looked like an address. With the help of his son, a high-school student, the detective pored over countless maps of the Spanish-speaking world until they discovered that Calle was the name of a port on the Peruvian coast. Blue Star was probably the name of a bar. The words underneath must have been the bar’s address. What mysterious connection could there be between this Peruvian address and a routine Tibetan revenge murder? Unless Ugyen had gone to this seaport bar in Peru and killed somebody there . . . But that was absurd, preposterous, impossible. The riddle continued to trouble the detective. He knew he would never solve it. “But even if Ugyen went to his death denying that he committed the murder in the valley, this bizarre address doesn’t prove his innocence,” the detective reassured himself.
The gunshot in the valley long ago determined the vagrant road Ugyen was to travel as a man, the holy mission out of ancient myth that he would take upon himself, solemn, tragic, a road stretching on and on over the endless Tibetan plateau, following the spirit of ancient ancestors, pointed and hardened into the tip of a steel knife blade . . . lonely, self-reliant, resolute, throwing down the gauntlet to this modern society catering to foreign tourists. At the pulsating sound of that melodious gunshot, he saw the rifle fall from his father’s hands. His father turned. A strange light glittered on his twisted face. With an enormous effort his father seemed to twist himself into an iron rod. A froth of yellow snuff smeared his sparse beard. A rope of saliva hung like a muscle from the corner of his pale lips, stretching, contracting, dropping onto his chest. He staggered, collapsed on the ground, rolled over, then miraculously stood up, raised his slackening feet, and, with his dying strength, walked, then fell to the ground again. He fixed his eyes on his wife, standing before him with their child at her bosom, motionless as a stone. He’d been beaten, struck down by the shot of that wandering acrobat down in the valley. He should never have set out to rob those wandering minstrels. He never imagined the famous Abo Delang was such a crack shot. He had fought his last battle with his robber clan. He would never train his son to be a famous bandit. His young wife shook her head in pity for her dying husband. He crawled to her side and marked a bloody cross on their son’s pure-white forehead. With a laugh, he spoke his last words: “Damn. Killing everywhere. With knives. With guns. That’s life.” Ugyen watched his mother pull his father’s knife from his belt and solemnly lay it on him there inside her robe, passing on the legacy to him. The icy blade on his face made him shudder as if he’d gotten an electric shock. The cold steel of the knife pressed against his chest so heavy he couldn’t breathe. His father stroked his face, laughed contentedly, and then died.
Twenty years later, on a hazy afternoon, in the final seconds of his life, as the executioner took aim at his heart, Ugyen felt that of all the sorrows of living in this world the greatest was not defeat, not death, but his entanglement in an enormous unfathomable riddle: why had he set out to kill Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo when he’d never even met him? Whether he really killed him or not . . . whether he killed anybody . . . whether or not the bar with the neon lights really existed . . . what he really desired . . . All at once he understood—a man’s greatest desire in this world is to have a son. The overpowering desire to survive and reproduce exploded through his body, tied hand and foot. With a tremendous howl, he leaped like a lion. His every nerve, artery, bone, muscle struggled to free himself.
The gun roared.
With his last ounce of strength, Ugyen sprang forward violently, his wide-open mouth panting. Then everything went dim before his eyes.
Sssst. Someone struck a match and raised it to a half-burned candle. Between him and Dhargye, the telephone without a cord was ringing loudly, shuddering on the soapbox. The two of them gazed at it suspiciously. Dhargye picked up the receiver, trembling. “Hello?” He passed it to Ugyen. “It’s for you.”
Apprehensively, Ugyen took the receiver. “Who’s there? ”
He could hear the sound of someone’s peaceful breathing. Instinctively, Ugyen knew who it was. After a moment, a voice said, “Still searching for me? ”
“No. Not anymore.” Ugyen shook his head.
“Then what do you want now? ”
He thought a moment. “A son.” When he’d spoken, he hung up.
“Pockface Sonam Rigzin from Gonjo?” Dhargye asked.
Ugyen didn’t reply.
“We met him. At noon, on the execution ground.”
“I’m not dead?” Ugyen asked, at a loss for an explanation.
“Go ask Ngawang Melong and old granny Longna. They’ll explain.” Dhargye cradled the telephone in his arms, checking all around it. He gave it a pat and said, “Funny telephone. No cord, still rings.”
Ugyen folded his hands behind his head and looked up through the narrow slit in the tent roof at the crystal-blue stars. The execution ground appeared vividly before his eyes. He didn’t know if he was alive or dead, but he knew he could still think. And he had one idea. He wanted a son. He felt this was a good thought.