Truth and legend, a Buddhist metaphor [locations: China]
The Motion of Waves
Two princes of Heaven fell from a cloud; the king sent soldiers to close their eyes so they wouldn’t see how dirty and cruel the earth was.
At sunset, the small battalion of soldiers descended to Earth outside the Pilgrim’s Way in Xiahe, China. At night, 10,000 feet above sea level, it got very cold. They huddled together for warmth.
The next day at sunrise, they split up, setting off in all directions to look for the princes. But the earth was a much bigger place than they realized, and time passed quickly with no sign of the little boys. The king grew anxious. Until the soldiers were able to close the children’s eyes, the young princes would remain forced to endure the earth’s ugliness.
As the dispatches from the soldiers came in each day with no news on the whereabouts of his sons, as the soldiers wandered farther and farther apart from one another like spokes on a wheel from the hub of Xiahe, the king became frantic. He didn’t want his children to see the insatiable hunger haunting the land into which they’d fallen—the hundreds of millions of people starving to death, lining the roadsides like weeds, left in piles on the city streets where they came to sell their children for a morsel of food. He had tried to shield the princes from knowing of the naked and deformed men pulling boats upstream against the current of the mighty Yangtze, men whose lives were deemed unworthy of clothing. He didn’t want them burdened by the sight of millennia of unspeakably cruel and tyrannical emperors, of senseless beatings justified as a “cultural revolution,” of the horrific deformity of women’s feet, every bone in them broken and bound into useless appendages of unending pain. What the king feared most of all was that the princes would learn the length of history, the breadth of deprivation and poverty that had held the land in the perpetual shadow of sorrow.
One day, at his wit’s end, the king sent messengers to his soldiers.
It was chilly but pleasant enough as my husband and I sat on the rooftop drinking local beer and Tibetan tea—a tall glass filled with leaves, sticks and berries, and things that looked like rocks. Below us, as the sun set behind the walled city of monks, local artisans and sellers packed up their goods from the ground and rolled them into large blankets for overnight storage. The sprinkling of tourists was thinning; they headed inside for dinner, as we had done. But a steady stream of the humble, the seekers, continued around the monastery’s perimeter along the Pilgrim’s Way, turning prayer wheel after prayer wheel. Scattered up the mountainside above the monastery walls were small, white-washed hovels where monks stayed for solitary meditation. One man after another, lifetime after lifetime. I wondered how many of them were fading into darkness alone with their chalice of silence while I drank my bottle of beer.
The Labrang Monastery is the most populated of the Buddhist Yellow Hat sect—the sect to which the Dalai Lama belongs—and one of its six most important monasteries. Red-robed men and boys fill the streets in Xiahe, the small town built around the monastery, their tennis shoes sticking out from beneath the folds of traditional cloth and cell phones in nearly every pocket. Inside Chinese-occupied Tibet, the Chinese government has instituted caps on how many monks can reside in any one monastery, fearing the potential for revolt. However, Labrang is inside China proper, nestled in a valley beside the thick, cold Daxia River, high in the mountains of Gansu Province in the Gannan Tibetan Nationality Autonomous Prefecture, so it is not subject to this cap.
Built in a crook of the Daxia River three hundred years ago, it sits at the foot of Phoenix Mountain, facing Dragon Mountain. If you stand quietly alone in this scenery, in this legendary portrait of Chinese iconography—the phoenix and the dragon—you can imagine yourself on the canvas of a painting as an accidental, inconspicuous droplet of ink where the artist meant to sign his name along the bottom.
Large Tibetan monasteries like Labrang are not solely compounds for meditation and spiritual contemplation. They are, in fact, like universities. Labrang has six colleges. The nearly fourteen hundred resident monks can choose a specialized education in any of these colleges which represent the cultural continuity of traditional Tibetan knowledge, such as traditional medicine, advanced Buddhist theory, and astronomy based on the Tibetan calendar system, as well as schooling in the Han (Chinese) calendar system. Teachings in governance are reserved only for high officials such as the Dalai Lama. The monks also operate their own printing shop.
Underlying and suffusing everything at the lamasery is the dedication to the Buddhist doctrine and practice. Walking through the large, dimly-lit meditation hall, I tried to imagine what it must smell like when the long rows of cushions on the floor are filled with close-shorn men seeking enlightenment from within their own intuition and self-reflection. A series of skylights and high windows allow natural light into the hall, but it’s absorbed by the rich-colored draperies and circular banners. The heavy material bulges with the weight of the light spectrum, leaving the air thin and anemic.
The various side rooms that hold the Buddhas and other deities have no windows; the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, cast in smooth, silky gold, sit on the cusp of light as if they have just been born into a new world—as if light is still being formulated, the calculation begun but not finished. Despite the elaborate gold-work inside these windowless rooms displaying the statues and statuettes and offering tables—a trove of visual brilliance—the niches are solemn, hushed into austerity. To stand quietly in these dim inner recesses borders on the magical. The Buddha is softly illuminated by tiered rows of shallow golden dishes, each holding aloft a golden, oblong flame on a pool of clear yak butter. Here, the air is heavy, absorbing stillness and quietude. The flames flicker in this dusky atmosphere with an ethereal clarity, licking the dim light as crisply as if they were hand-bells piercing an eon of silence.
Nearly two miles above sea level, even in the middle of summer, any air not directly warmed by the sun carries a chill. (The air is cool enough year-round to support the monks’ yak-butter sculptures, which remain solid inside an exhibition room until, at year’s end, the butter is melted in a ceremony and new sculptures created.) While we were there in August, the Daxia River ran icy cold; all the nooks and crannies and pockets of shade reminded us that we were inching toward the top of the world. I had put on as many layers of clothes as I could fit—T-shirt on top of T-shirt, pants on top of shorts—and yet I shivered at dinner, at tea, in our hostel room. And particularly while trying to take a shower, an adventure I decided to embark upon the second morning of our stay in Xiahe.
Posted hours for hot water in the communal showers were nine to eleven a.m. and eight to ten p.m. Figuring the “hot” would be marginal by the end of the two-hour period, I got up one morning at precisely nine a.m. I imagined an ancient hot water heater with a little on-off switch, excruciatingly slow to warm water and costly for the proprietor. I imagined he probably flipped the switch at the crack of dawn to have the water heated by nine.
I was alone in the shower room, which consisted of three large, square shower stalls with thin curtains. I took the middle one, peeled off the layers of clothing I’d worn to bed, and stood naked in my rubber shower sandals while water fell from the pipe above my head onto the cement floor. It was ice-cold. I figured there must have been a significant length of pipeline the heated water would have to travel before reaching my shower stall, so I huddled in the far corner where the water couldn’t touch me, and waited for a sign of steam.
I shivered violently in the corner, staring helplessly at the clouds my own breath created. I glanced at my watch from time to time to monitor the second-hand creeping across the numbers.
My breath was the only thing condensing on the walls of the shower. I was small and vulnerable, like a newborn rodent birthed on a winter’s night, tiny and hairless.
I was now a painting separate from myself. Rather than being inside the stall with my eye looking at the walls and the water coming out of the pipe, I saw the whole scene from outside and above, as if looking down into a diorama. The scene was ghostly: my pale, blood-starved skin inside the gray cement stall, white breath, icy-clear water. I was a plastic doll in the corner with a dollop of red paint on my feet—the pair of red rubber sandals I had bought for two bucks at a Yulin City grocery store the previous year, when I had first come to China. I stared intently at them; they were the only suggestion that color existed in the world. The cold and the red intertwined, infiltrated each other, and grew inextricable as a philosophical representation of existence. They were the key to triggering the hot water. If I’d been wearing brown or green, things would have been different. Instead I was frozen in red. I began to fear it would be my tomb. It was undignified for my spirit to exit the world through a lonely shower stall, yet I was strangely attracted to such a humble and inevitable death. When molecules slow down and stop moving, temperature drops, eventually below that at which a human form can sustain the enigmatic thing we call life. Brilliantly simple.
I decided the hot water was a hoax, but I was so cold I didn’t know if I could get my clothes back on. I wondered if my husband would come looking for me at some point if I didn’t return. He was still fast asleep on the other side of the courtyard, up on the second floor.
I struggled to move toward my clothes, which were hanging on a peg next to the curtain. Like a sleepy sloth, I took two steps and extended my arm to brush weakly at them. A piece of paper fell from a pocket onto the cement floor. I had picked it up the day before outside the monastery. The writing was indecipherable, and yet I had kept it. I contemplated pushing it toward the drain, letting the water carry it down through the dark pipes that burrowed through the earth beneath the city. Behind my chattering teeth, the taste of salt and sulfur suddenly rolled down my tongue, and I perceived a sign of warmth in the water. I stood still as the water grew warmer and warmer, until finally it sputtered steam into the crisp air. Overtaken with relief and joy, I left the paper where it was and entered the clear stream. I was back inside the scene, my sandals squishing in the water; I stared blankly at pockmarks in the cement wall in front of me as the water hit the base of my neck and streamed over my shoulders, down my back and chest, following the contour of my legs down toward the red, bouncing off my rubber feet and splashing onto the floor.
Finally clean and reasonably warm, I dried myself, got dressed, and put the piece of paper back in my pocket, then went to wake my husband. We went down to breakfast at the hostel dining room next to the lobby. Afterward, crossing the courtyard back to our room, we came upon a tiny tractor emptying a load of coal in the corner of the yard. A bucket brigade of women handed the large, black, angular chunks of coal to each other down the line until they reached the furnace room, where a sweaty man with a large poker stirred the yellow-hot coals in the open furnace and made room for the new chunks as they were dumped in. I thought back to my shower and widened the aperture to see beside my cold, huddled body a line of women dressed in blue, handing over coal into a raging fire. There was no little switch. While I had waited in intense cold, somebody had been working in intense heat trying to reach me.
That night, I dreamed of red: red skies and earth, red clouds and grass, trees and insects. And I was a paper dove. White and light, I couldn’t cut through the air; I had to float on the shifting currents. I rose with the heat and sank with the cold. In a moment of stillness, I tumbled from the sky, fearful, as the ground below me undulated and morphed, forming into a skull, and I plunged through the black space of an empty eye socket. Inside the skull, I could hear the gentle lapping of water, like the sound of a forgotten river disappearing into a cave.
The Pilgrim’s Way is a covered corridor nearly three kilometers long that encircles and encloses the Labrang lamasery complex. The entire length of it is lined with prayers wheels, each one five feet tall and over a foot in diameter, mounted upon a continuous cement shelf a couple of feet high. The four handle-poles of each wheel are painted bright orange on the top half; in the middle they are gray-black with the grime built up from countless human palms gripping them; the bottom third is bare wood, the paint having eroded over the years from the brush of clothing. The square-sided cylinders themselves are painted with geometric and iconic images in orange, blue, green and gold, the Buddhist mantra om mani padme hum lettered in gold on each of the four sides in the ancient Indian Ranjana script. Thick lines of black oil stream down the cement from the bottom of each prayer wheel, as they are turned so often they need to be oiled constantly.
This was the primary reason I had chosen to come to Xiahe as part of my second journey through China: I wanted to see a sacred place; I wanted to see the “pilgrims” and their prayers spinning on wheels. I don’t have this spirituality myself, so I like to watch it in other people.
The majority of the pilgrims were Tibetans, fingering beads and turning each of the wheels purposefully while softly chanting. Old women, with silver hair hanging in braids down to the small of their backs and tied together at the ends, shuffled down the streets and along the Pilgrim's Way, turning the hundreds and hundreds of prayer wheels. Old men in tall, padded felt boots made their way around, too, along with elderly Tibetans who limped and hobbled with crutches as healthy monks in red robes wove in and out among them, the perpetual procession like a wave in motion across a boundless sea.
As my husband and I sat on a rooftop drinking our beer and tea in the evenings, I studied them all from afar as they grabbed a wooden pole on each wheel and set it spinning clockwise, hurling the painted words, om mani padme hum, into the air like a whirling dervish. I imagined a huge xylophone with six tones set up along the length of the corridor, with each syllable of the mantra striking one tone of the xylophone whenever it faced squarely outward into the corridor. With all the wheels spinning around at different speeds, it would sound like the beginning of the universe, like the birth of chaos, from which we would eventually be distilled and separated from Heaven.
Two princes of Heaven fell from a cloud. The king sent down soldiers to close their eyes, but the soldiers couldn’t find the princes. So they closed the eyes of everyone on earth.
“Everyone!” The messengers relayed the king’s instructions to his soldiers. He thought the princes, wherever they were, would be safely sheltered in blindness until the soldiers could find them.
What the king didn’t realize was that his children were naturally curious. The princes had fallen from their cloud in the first place while peering down at Earth. Many of the other children regularly snuck down from Heaven to poke around. The king had no idea. So when he ordered the eyes of everyone on Earth closed, many of his children were lost in the darkness and could not find their way back to Heaven. Stranded, they cried out for each other, trying to gather into one group. The soldiers couldn’t recognize their voices from the din that perpetually rose up from the Earth. But the siblings knew each other’s voices intimately, and they stumbled toward one another, groping, shouting one another’s names, and when at last reunited, in a unified voice they yelled up to Heaven, “Open our eyes!”
But the king had long ago closed his ears to the mournful torrent of earthen sounds.
Eventually, the children decided to split up and search for the stairway to Heaven. Whoever found it was to call out to the others. Alone, each child wandered the Earth blindly, silently, searching for the way home, while the soldiers gradually spread out across the land.
Our first morning in the Tibetan enclave of Xiahe, my husband and I had climbed the hill across the river from the Labrang monastery. We could look down on the whole complex. The pilgrims making their way around the perimeter became too tiny to see. The gold cap of the grand sutra hall gleamed intensely in the sun, unearthly above the small city of whitewash and red brick, of sparsely green mountains whose colorful prayer flags were barely visible on the summits.
As we climbed, we came across pieces of white paper, about two inches square, with line-art drawings of horses in black ink. They were scattered sparsely on the ground, like haphazardly discarded tickets. I thought at first it was litter. As we walked farther uphill, there were more and more; great clumps of them were caught up in tufts of grass. They were paper wind-horses—printed on the monastery’s printing press and released during prayer, left to the wind to carry the thought. Untethered, unlike prayer flags, they were free to find their way anywhere at all, to seek out new nooks and crannies where power and spirit might lie.
We stood in the middle of three tiers of prayer: prayer flags high up above us, prayer horses on the ground next to us, and the prayer wheels at the bottom of the valley.
We stopped to rest along the western edge of the ridge and looked out across a wide gully populated with tall pine trees. Two raptors circled in the air, almost level with us in the empty space above the gully, gliding and riding the air currents. Around and around, silent and smooth, gradually spiraling downward through the crisp air. One of them landed in a tree and we heard a chorus of chirping. The other continued to circle, working his way back up and sometimes disappearing briefly over the ridge opposite us. I wondered if the birds used some of the wind-horses to build their nest, puncturing them with their beaks and talons and nudging them in among the sticks.
I log-rolled my body down a small section of the mountain, as it is my strange goal to log-roll all over the planet. When I came to a stop and stood up, my pants and shirt were smeared with grass stains. My husband promised he’d wash them out for me, but the grass seemed to stain my skin and muscle as well, and to turn my blood a bluish-green. That was beyond soap. It was as if the earth had heaved up so violently, just as I laid down on it, that it pressed its maiden colors all the way into my core, like a thumb pressing into soft clay. With green blood coursing through my veins, I could feel my eyes bluer than ever. The babies chirped, and printed horses rustled beneath the pressure of the wind.
We came back down to the monastery. When we crossed the river, a family of tiny black pigs foraged along the riverbank. Suddenly the world lifted, briefly forcing us to tread in our respective realities, while an arduous momentum passed beneath us, beneath all of us there in the valley. Few people, if any, seemed to notice. Outside the monastery, a steady stream of people moved along the Pilgrim’s Way, turning wheel after wheel. Some of the younger people spun the wheels in latex gloves, isolating themselves from the grime of the countless meditations that had been chanted before them. I was dizzy for a moment from the motion I had felt. Not even my husband seemed to have noticed it. Before me, on the ground, the corner of a yellowed piece of paper rested on my hiking boot. I picked it up. It was a hand-written note, but I had no idea what it said or even what language it was written in. The characters that filled the space were like nothing I’d ever seen. I tucked it into one of my pockets.
Outside the south corridor of the Pilgrim’s Way, near the river, a man had consigned himself to some enormous number of kowtows. In order to keep doing them without bloodying his palms and knees, he knelt on a small padded mat and had outfitted his hands with little skates, strips of smooth wood with four wheels on the bottom, strapped to the palm of his hands. So when he put his hands on the ground after kneeling, he could roll his hands out in front of him until he was prostrate, and then roll them back to his kneeling position, from which he stood up and began again. He was there all day, as we passed by him occasionally in our meandering. How many days had he already spent there, and how many more would he? He was not a young man by any means. As I watched him, I felt conspicuous and irreverent, a gawker, but the man had no notion of anything going on outside the length and breadth of his own body. Chanting in an earnest mumble, his mental focus was tangible. The kowtows passed the time while he concentrated on his mantra. His heart was beating inside his mouth, pumping blood through the veins of his words.
Many of the pilgrims at Labrang make an excruciating three-kilometer journey around the Pilgrim’s Way, prostrating themselves over and over every few steps. This humble sincerity of prayer was almost embarrassing to watch. I felt curiously hollow as a witness. The thing about spirituality today in a place like China that makes it utterly different from its practice in a place like America is that many of our Christians, and even our Buddhists, can financially afford insincerity and hypocrisy. Few things, if any, have humbled them to a state of unbounded sacrifice. They have the luxury of being indifferent to things that other people desperately want and more desperately need—not just nonessential things such as a chance to acquire even a rudimentary education at a rural primary school, or of more important things like having health restored by miracle rather than money, but need of the most basic of necessities required to lift one out of demoralizing poverty: a pair of shoes, a well with water in it, enough food to keep from selling a child. I have this privilege also. I turned the prayer wheels for the novelty of it. In my own way, I felt a solemn purity of purpose; I forced a simulation of spirituality to the surface to grip the prayer wheels with. I don’t normally have much to pray about. For me, spirituality is an academic reflection on the nature of our existence.
But the man with the hand-skates particularly touched me. I couldn’t let go of him, though he was not unlike others. I knew this man, or I began to know him, or I remembered having once known him. At first, I thought I hadn’t suffered enough to know him. I was snagged on the notion of time, of duration, but time measures nothing; it is merely a construct defined as that which we measure: minutes, hours, days, eternity, simultaneity. I shivered in a shower stall during the same time the man kowtowed with his skates, separated from him by fathoms, not hours. I desperately wanted hot water—not just any water, not the cold water of the sea, but the warm water of the belly. I was past creation; I needed to develop, to grow, to reach out from the static. I needed heat to loosen the bolts of time and self.
In that moment of ashen gray when my skin was white like wood ashes, tucked in among the thousands of prayers being sent heavenward at the monastery on wheels and paper horses, I had sent my only prayer whirling into the air on the color red. The arched piece of silver pipe perched on top of the cement wall had stared down at me like a gargoyle while I chanted my manta, not om mani padme hum, but please hot water, please hot water.
We left Xiahe one morning in the darkest, coldest hour that precedes dawn, catching a ride to the bus station from our hostel in a tractor wagon. On the bus, a family of three occupied the two seats across the aisle from us, and the young child had a scrawny pet kitten. It had no leash or carrying container; I was sure it would spend the ride roaming the bus. But it never left the family. The young boy was terribly carsick and vomited quietly into a bag his mother held open for him. He neither cried nor whimpered, nor even spoke a word. His mother held him in her lap while he held the kitten in his, and he puked his little guts out in silence while the bus carried us down from the heights of the monastery, following the Daxia River. I wondered what they had prayed for.
I dozed on and off in my seat at the back of the bus. I opened my eyes occasionally as we passed vast fields sprinkled with peasants wielding hoes and spades; in places along the road, women dressed in pretty, flowered blouses, polyester pants and loafers shoveled road-grade into empty spaces in the pavement. Had I opened my eyes and awakened, or had I opened my eyes into a dream? The kitty and the little boy sat like sentinels at the gateway of consciousness. I felt haunted, pushed, weighed down; but was I haunted by a nightmare in my sleep or by a ghost while awake? Something in the sky rested on top of me, as if I’d walked away with the roof of Xiahe, or pulled the clouds down for a cloak, something peculiarly formed to my back, to the contours of my spine and mine alone, for the pilgrims were all too laden to carry anything more. I searched through the layers of my clothing for the piece of paper I’d picked up outside the Pilgrim’s Way. Even though I couldn’t read it, I kept searching until I found it bobbing in my cargo pocket. As the four wheels beneath me lurched forward over the rough road, I held the message between my fingers.
I rode into the valley, down, down into the valley on the narrow rim of a coin that seemed to flip between two murky realms—fuzzy heads and fuzzy tails. I stretched and arched backward to mold to the circular shape of the currency. Pulled down by gravity, the illusion of self poured down my crescent-moon body; the Beginning dripped off the tips of my fingers and the End off the tips of my toes.
Two princes of Heaven had fallen from a cloud.
The tragedy of his missing children turned the king very old. He took to his bed and didn’t move for years. He ordered barricades built around Heaven so the remaining children wouldn’t leave to search for their siblings.
Eventually, feeble and frail, the king descended to Earth himself. He had no idea where his children or soldiers were, but he thought if he came down the stairway he might pick up their trail. He was startled by the beauty all around him: the mountains that rippled along the valley beyond sight, the crystal river, the golden rooftops glimmering in the sun outside, the rows of golden butter flames nestled inside, the wall of brightly colored prayer wheels that appeared to stretch on all the way to the end of the earth. Monks passed by him in silence. He drew his breath in sharply. Pilgrims—ordinary people—were humbling themselves in earnest to be worthy of the smallest desire. The blindness hadn’t deterred them; as long as they could feel another wheel ahead of them, they trod on. Thousands of hand-painted wheels spun mantras into a giant web of prayer, so silky-thick he felt he could lean his body backward onto the edge of his heels and not fall to the ground.
As he watched a wind-horse flutter down from the sky and land at his feet, he suddenly feared that the Earth wasn’t as terrible as he once thought. Perhaps blindness was not the blessing he had assumed it would be.
Stunned and terrified by this possibility, he set out walking and soon understood the magnitude of the soldiers’ mission. Distraught at the earth’s vastness, hopeless, in utter despair, he again summoned messengers to try to locate the soldiers. The king ordered everyone’s eyes open again, and another league of Heaven spread out across the land laden with the urgent decree. Then the king lay down next to the Daxia River while a constant stream of pilgrims trod clockwise around the divine Buddhas sequestered deep inside the monastery walls.
Here, he waited for his children.
Down into the valley. Down the Yellow River, on bus, plane, and bus again, down. I traveled down into the countless folds of the convoluted topography of China’s northern Loess Plateau. Here the peasants live much as they have for thousands of years. It is an ancient land. A simple land. One I have always known. The inhabitants coax meager crops from loess silt, raise a few sheep on hay and grazing grasses, dig up Chinese medicinal plants from the hillsides, collect scorpions to sell to the pharmacists. They walk across the main valley to collect water from a spring and carry it home in buckets. Their houses are man-made caves—yao—dug into the benevolent hillsides and insulated by the earth, with beautiful lattice-work windows facing the south or east, according to the advice of the feng shui master. In their courtyards they grind millet, soy beans, corn and potatoes into fine flour on a stone mill pulled by donkeys or by a pair of people. The fields are dotted with small family cemeteries amid the crops and the wildlands, the placement of which has also been advised by the feng shui master, who analyzes the lay of the land and the forces of wind and water within it to bring the greatest benefit to the ancestors. The tombstones are all built with tablets for offerings, where descendants lay food and water and burn tissue paper and spirit money. The village temple sits on top of the highest hill; its doors are never locked. At any time the villagers can kneel before the Holy Mother of the Ninth Heaven, who inhabits the temple wall, manifested in brightly colored paint, and ask her to pass their prayers to her eminent son, the Dragon.
In the daytime, people call out to one another across the gulches and valleys; sometimes they sing a folksong. At night, the village is intensely quiet. There are two hideouts, one built to hide from the Mongols, and one built to hide from roaming Muslim tribes. Though the peasants seldom think about it, the land is dramatic in its shape and color. They have wondered why they have been condemned to live in such a hard environment, with rough lines, steep pitches and damaging weather. As a visitor, I gazed with a different wonder at the splendor of the bi-colored land: deep, rich red on the bottom, rusty from iron suffused throughout the soil of the former seabed, and a thick cap of golden yellow loess on top, the color of ripened wheat, blown in from the northwestern deserts. The land has been shaped by wind and water into a profusion of gullies and spires, with as many fantastical shapes as clouds suggest in the sky: animals, ships and castles of exposed, compacted dirt tower over the valleys. It’s a landscape very different from the Buddhist strongholds of Tibet and Xiahe; here, Dragon Gods control the rain and fate, and Land Gods the soil.
This was the second summer I’d come to the peasant village to point my camera at the villagers’ faces, to watch their hands, and to scribble their words into my notebook, trying to explain to them the concept of “ethnography.” They smiled and nodded vaguely and complied happily with all requests; they hadn’t dealt with foreigners before and didn’t yet feel self-conscious and cheapened; they were just as curious about me. In the little village, I walked around a bit by myself. I explored abandoned yao, of which there were many. Remnants of the peasants’ existence still littered the floors: clay pots and jars, hardened leather satchels, scads of hemp shoes, children’s school papers, an old bicycle. On the high road north out of the village, there is a hillside of old abandoned yao, bereft of doors and windows, that look like keyholes in the steep hillside, as if God keeps his treasures hidden inside that hill, as if he has a set of giant keys that fit into the black holes: a quarter turn to the right – click – and he pulls back a thick slab of compacted dirt. What exactly God would hide, I couldn’t fathom. Maybe lost children, to keep them safe.
From the high road, following the curve of a section of plateau, you can see all around the complex topography: the endless terraces of crops banding the hilltops, the sharp spines of dirt exposed by the millennia of erosion, and deep valleys carpeted in dark green crops. It is a maze of long-winding valleys and dead-end gulches. Blind musicians traverse the countryside, visiting village after village to solicit their entertainment in return for a night’s room and board. How did they navigate this terrain? I wondered. If they walked below in the valleys, they could get lost in the mazes. If they walked on the plateau, one step too far off the path and they could tumble down a steep cliff.
And in this epic country, how on earth could a soldier ever find a blinded child?
One day, I walked along a dried-up seasonal riverbed with a handful of village children. We were just exploring. From quite far away, we could see that there was something incongruous with the sand in the riverbed, and that, from the peculiar texture of white, it was probably a bone. Getting nearer, we could see it was a bleached round hump, and soon we could discern the zigzag sutures across the top that indicated human cranial plates.
One of the children found a stick nearby and started digging in the damp dirt, exposing more and more stitched bone of a cranium. Another child joined in and as they dug around it, deeper and deeper, it became obvious that there was going to be quite a bit more to the artifact than what had been visible on the surface. Yet, when the children finally were able to wedge the stick completely beneath it, no one was prepared as the whole thing popped out onto the valley floor. We all gasped. A perfect human skull stared up from the ground. Its eye sockets were packed with dirt, which made them seem alive and brooding. Dirt was packed into the roots of its upper teeth, as if it had just been feasting on the interior of the earth. Only the lower jawbone was missing.
The soldiers were too late. By the time the king had ordered the eyes opened, his children were already hopelessly lost in the thick of the land.
The Earth eventually tucked the orphans into her bed, and this prince was folded into the river sand.
I circled around and around the head while the village children pondered its random appearance well outside of any known family cemeteries. An ashen skull in the rust-colored dirt. White entombed in red.
I was lifted up in a gentle swell, and again had to tread in the buoyancy of time and self. I reached for the weight I felt on my back, flailing my arms behind me to knock it off. But the weight fell through my body, like water falling through a sieve, and pooled at my thigh. I unzipped my cargo pocket, pulled out the yellowed piece of paper and read the hand-written message. This time, I could decipher the text. But it wasn’t meant for me; that’s why I couldn’t read it before. It was merely the debris of another episode, flotsam in the cycles of rebirth. As though one huge, powerful wave had passed through, a wave so laden with emotion, so violent and impassioned that it had scoured the ocean floor like a hurricane, throwing matter into the sea of energy. I had passed beneath the written note as it lay floating on the surface, littering the sea with its insufferable sadness.
Open their eyes!
Willow leaves fluttered in the breeze, reflecting the sinking sun’s light. Piled up from one autumn to another, the leaves carpeted the ground like paper horses. The king’s missing children had died lost; soldiers had died searching; the king had died after having given up the search and surrendering to his grief; and I had finally found one of the princes of Heaven. It had taken someone outside the story to close it, someone heaved and pitched forward from the same hub—from the prayer-soaked banks of the Daxia River. I had had only one single prayer, one brief mantra, a deficit that formed a cup deep enough to hold the overflowing despair, and I passed beneath the flotsam like a charged current pulling down a divining rod.
The wind lifted the message from my hand. I watched it gallop toward the west into the setting sun, hundreds of miles to reach the eternal corridor of the Pilgrim’s Way, dissipating bit by bit as it traveled in the late day’s warmth.
The ancient hills of seabed and silt loomed above the dry riverbed. Giant gargoyles grew out of them in the deepening shadows. I continued down the valley, leaving the skull to stare up at the sky with its earthen eyeballs.
That night I dreamed of clouds, as white as snow, and of golden hues like butter flames. I was a paper dove, lifted up and up by the motion of air, by the breath of dragons, higher and higher until I could no longer see anything around me. I awoke in the morning, chanting blue.
Published in The Indiana Review