I live on a pinnacle of rock that overlooks the holy lake. Up here it is hard to breathe. It is always cold. The eagles cast themselves into the wind and I watch from above. They spread their wings, their muscles coil, their back feathers stream. They are gone. From here, they say, we may ascend directly to Heaven, unless we are already there.
I am not in Heaven. Nor am I a monk. I am a painter. I paint the Lord Buddha into life. It is an important job but the salary is not enough. The monks say nothing is ever enough; we must satisfy ourselves with sufficient. I will never be a monk.
I build my fire directly on the floor of the monastery’s chapel, using goat dung. The monks do not like this but, being fatalists, they understand it is necessary. The chapel is never, ever warm. My coloured oils are frozen hard and every day, day after day, I have to melt them before I can paint the statues, and the chapel walls, and the prayer wheels. Goat pellets are hard and round. They do not burn for as long as yak dung but they make less smoke—which is important; smoke has to be painted away again. One side of my hand blisters from the cold, the other from the heat.
Our chapel is unfinished, still under construction. New beams of rough wood are stacked outside its door, smelling strongly of resin and sawdust. The cultural revolution was a long time ago but we are still rebuilding from it. Each time we get close to completion, some patriots come in the night and burn the chapel down again. Building one chapel can take your entire life.
What a waste.
The old lama, Pinzo, comes by every few days to shout at us. I do not blame him. We have only done a dozen statues before this, never a whole chapel, and artists are not as mindful as monks. Our work space is a mess. Toasted barley crunches underfoot. Bowls of paint and bowls of tea are mixed up and scattered. Some get knocked over and leave long dark stains on the dirt floor. Others have chunks of dried paint at the bottom. More waste. As we work, Nanjar chews tobacco. Guru sings Hindi pop songs in falsetto. Sometimes—I cannot deny it, the evidence is there—we prepare our watercolours with tea.
My brothers are indifferent to Pinzo’s complaints. They discard them, kick them like pebbles downhill, a small movement that provokes so much more.
Falling into the unknown.
Our chapel is not on a hill one can easily kick pebbles down. This is a cliff. It is a refuge for pariahs, and plumed birds, and hermits who have lost themselves between the holy lake and the holy mountain and the sky. When my back is cracking from the work I like to stand on the edge of the cliff with my hands on the rocks and watch the lake waters change from aqua to magenta to black. Watch the villagers hustle to and from the barley fields and line up at the hot springs, their laundry buckets cocked against their hips. Watch the ravens turn in circles. Their shadows ripple like scars down the terraced slopes.
Before, I would look over this edge and think of greatness or good food or going home. Simple thoughts. Before.
My father has a shop back in Amdo. I used to have to wake up early to grind the tsampa. In between customers I would sketch what I saw. Red cardboard bowls of instant noodles. A cracked saddle with silver tassels. A strip of single-use shampoo packets, floating in the breeze in the shop doorway. By the time I was of age, I had taken small commissions—a sign, a room, a shrine—but had yet to break out as an artist. When I would complain, my father would remind me I needed the proper conditions. My original cause, my karma, had created my present, and now I must be patient with my earlier selves. I would be successful when the time was right.
And if the time was never right, then I had my mother’s treasure box.
It started when we were sitting on the floor of the unfinished chapel chewing rocky hunks of bread—Jia Zuo, Nanjar, Guru, and I. A young woman walked in, out of breath from the climb. The wind had mussed her braids. Her eyes were dark with green centres, like a living lotus. I had been in the village for two months by then and I had thought I knew everyone. But she was new.
“Have you seen my brother?”
We had not.
She frowned and searched the chapel anyway, stepping around our pots and blankets, her forehead a network of vines. “My mother will kill me.” “Stay. Have tea. If he ran by, he’ll have to run back eventually. You can sit here where it’s warm.” Jia Zuo moved the bowl of ashes for her.
He opened his arms. “Stay.”
Lotus-eyes sat where the bowl had been. She folded her legs and arms. “Amdo manners.” She made that sound like a good thing. “I only take tea that is hot, hot.”
Guru built the fire under our kettle. Nanjar spat his tobacco out the door and swept up. There was nothing for me to do. She never even glanced my way; no, she was too busy laughing with Jia Zuo, tugging her earring, telling him her name. Norzom. I wanted to kick the wooden beams, the sacks of sand, the Buddha.
Jia Zuo sat up tall and let his hair down, shaking it so it caught the candlelight. She pretended otherwise, but Norzom was watching him. His locks fell past his waist.
I grabbed our jug of cooking oil and pulled my hair from its knot on the top of my head. It wasn’t much, hardly past my shoulders, but a vigorous combing turned it shiny and black. I rubbed the oil from roots to tips, a handful at a time.
Her little brother scampered in with wind-burnt cheeks and a handful of feathers. He caught her around the waist, jostling her tea. “A black bird,” he shouted, “bigger than a wolf and he wanted my eyes but I ran. Is that tea?”
Norzom held the cup to his lips.
“Hey.” I stood in front of her. “You want to paint?” I had decided not to smile unless she smiled first, and however much she smiled, I would smile less.
She laughed. I pressed a hand to my chest, and I laughed too.
On that day, I was painting the fires beneath Guru Rimpoche’s bier. I showed her how to make the red centres that, later, I would turn into flames.
“Is this right?”
She looked up at me but I was lost, already, so I couldn’t answer her. My eyes showed too much. She flinched. I turned away and bent over my work. Guru handed her a fresh thermos of tea. She seemed not to care that it was splattered with paint.
We passed the brushes back and forth. I sang songs—love songs, but Norzom pretended not to understand the words. “That Amdo accent, wow.”
She painted with confidence. She might have been an artist, had she not been a woman. Her wrists moved up and down like water.
A few nights later, when we were down in the café drinking barley beer and watching a kung fu VCD, Norzom came in with two other girls. I hitched over, making space on the floor beside me, but she sat next to Jia Zuo instead, between him and the wall. He turned towards her. They talked and giggled through the whole movie. Loud enough to be annoying, not loud enough to hear what they were saying.
We might have gone on ahead, Guru and I, but we chose to wait. The movie was over and the café was closing. Everyone was going home. Still Jia Zuo stood toe to toe with Norzom, one tiny light above their heads. Then that, too, was switched off, and they stopped whispering. We waited in the darkness; we waited in the silence.
We were halfway up the cliff when I threw the first punch. I got him flat on the side of the head. Jia Zuo stumbled, nearly pitching over the edge. Guru grabbed him and leaned back, shifting their balance just enough so they fell against the cliff face. “What the HELL,” said Guru, but Jia Zuo said nothing, just shook his head like a wet dog and came for me, his wide hands fisted. He had grown up fighting horses and yaks, I knew. Men were easy meat. I dodged the first two punches and landed a kick to his kidneys. I was laughing. I was fast; I had never shown them how fast I was. Then somehow we got locked together, staggering, trying to get elbows in. I felt my toe snap. He clunked my head and my vision blurred. I roared. We swerved and tipped. I glanced against the cliff face and hit a protruding rock. The pain is never immediate. I knew I was done; I hit him as hard as I could, and we unlocked.
It was Nanjar who was screaming. He had heard the fight and run down to stop us. Now he and Guru stood with their arms around each other, looking over the cliff. Jia Zuo never screamed. I often think about that.
The villagers were not unkind, but it was their efficiency I remember. We were foreigners. They did the minimum. The novices swaddled the body and hefted it up to the sacred ground. It was a sunny day. Pinzo stood at the edge of the circle and mumbled his hocus-pocus.
It ought to have been a priest but they were short-handed; it was planting season. Pinzo said it would cleanse my karma if I performed the sky burial myself.
“You are not a monk,” he said, “but you have always lived among us. And.”
“The and is for later.”
Nanjar sharpened the axe. Vultures floated overhead. They did not cry out. Why waste their energy? Jia Zuo was coming.
I chanted as I hacked. The blood did not flow; it was cold and dry and hard inside him, just one of the colours in his quilt. But his hair went everywhere. His beautiful hair. Birds do not eat hair, so we had cut most of it off, but we had not shaved him, and now the last tufts blew about. Nanjar fought the wind to recover them. I tossed Jia Zuo up in pieces. The birds snatched him with their talons. Some of him they ate while flying. Some of him they brought home to their nests. When he was gone, I said the prayer they had taught me in school. It was hard; I kept wanting to laugh.
Nanjar found Guru at the café, where he had been drunk since the night before. They turned the music up. I stayed back in our room, alone. No one wanted to see me. I did not want to see myself.
It was a cold night. I started a fire with yak dung. I over-stoked the hearth and unrolled my mat in the farthest place, the coldest place. It was a small gift; my brothers might not even notice it. I did not know what else to do.
Our work continued. There is death, and there are contracts. Monks are the world’s most practical people. We painted in silence. Every now and then we took breaks outside in the sunshine, swinging our limbs to warm them and stretch them. The statue of Guru Rimpoche was almost complete. The walls were coming along nicely.
We were standing there at the cliff one day, smoking cigarettes, when we saw Pinzo climbing the path toward us. He beat his walking stick against the ground, hitching and swaying like a man poling a barge.
“What of the eyes?” he asked me. He stamped his walking stick into the earth. It stayed there, upright.
“We are just now coming to that point, master,” I said. “As your Excellency knows, that is always the last—”
He smacked my calf with the walking stick. It hurt. I dropped the chunk of barley bread that I had been munching. A raven caught it smartly in her beak and whooshed away.
“You’re too impure to paint a god’s eyes.” He spat. “You think I came to tell you to hurry? No! I came to say don’t think about it.”
I clenched my fists.
Since his death, I had felt the imprint of Jia Zuo’s hands on me. Each place he had touched, each place he had hit. The prints were hot, like fresh brands. Each finger and knuckle articulated. Now, waiting for Pinzo to fire me or beat me, I thought of the great Milarepa who had left his palm and head prints on the floor of our great cave of wonders. Could it be that Jia Zuo was great, like Milarepa; or could it be that that does not matter, that there is no difference?
“Filthy boy. Nothing boy. You lost your power. You gave it away. Lifetimes of waste. You can’t give life to a god now, you’re empty, and I don’t have time for you to balance yourself. The lama is coming from Shigatse for the harvest.” Pinzo raised his stick again. I waited.
The eyes are where God sits. Not every artist may attempt them.
One must be righteous and good, one must be on the path. For a cheap painting, or for a common, commercial statue, and above all for anything having to do with the Chinese, the eyes are irrelevant. They are just drops of pigment; nothing lives there.
A chapel is different. In a chapel, and especially in a chapel attached to a great cave of wonders, to paint the eyes of a Buddha is an honour. In the normal order of things, with Guru Rimpoche all but complete, this was the time I should have begun my preparations. I should have meditated and fasted for one week. I should have bathed in the holy lake. I should have sought a blessing from the lama.
I had not begun any of that because after what had happened, what I had done, I was lost. I disliked Pinzo—I despised him, actually—but I needed him to tell me what to do.
“Walk.” Pinzo scowled at the lake. “Perform a kora. If Manosorvar lets you return,” he took a breath, “then I will as well. You have a duty.” I left at daybreak. No one rose to see me go; it was a gentle censure. I tromped down the cliff path, scattering stones as I went—too many stones, for spite. With every step we take we erode the Earth or we make it firmer.
I have always considered myself an artist. In those days, though, my art was that of Shiva: the destruction of extremities in the search for the essential.
A kora is at least one circuit, but often three, and sometimes 333. I did not know how many koras I should make but I thought a single turn around the lake should be a few days of steady walking. The monks only paid on delivery, so without Guru Rimpoche’s eyes I had no cash. I carried paper and pencil. I would sketch for my meals. I carried a prayer wheel, too, and for the first few kilometres I spun it and chanted. Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum.
I walked by one village and three nomad tents. Otherwise, I was alone.
On the fourth day a caravan overtook me. They were loud; I heard them for a half an hour before I saw them. Indian pilgrims in three trucks, the first painted with Ganesha, the second with Krishnamurti, and the third with Kali. They were singing loudly, happy songs. Their trucks farted rings of black smoke. I stepped aside. They waved out the windows. I waved back, embarrassed.
I have heard that Indians burn up when they die. That their ashes sink into the rivers, and that the people they have left behind drink them and wash their feet in them. Thinking on this, I lost the thread of my chant.
After they had gone, the lake shore was silent, watchful. Then a tern rose from the water. Cicadas rattled. I resumed walking. It was hot. The oil in my hair trickled down my scalp and stained my collar. I rinsed my mouth in the holy lake.
I caught up with the Indian caravan at dusk. The pilgrims were staying at an inn, in a row of rammed-earth rooms. They flitted back and forth with paraffin lanterns. Laughter, the swish of loose nylon sleeves and billowing trousers.
I climbed the slope beyond, in search of a cave. An owl swooped low overhead, hunting. Monks had tramped all over these hills, walking kora after kora for one thousand years. The cave I found was deep and high, its walls painted with scenes from the sutras. Demons and sinners dancing, rutting, and eviscerating one another. All sightless, all blind.
What would it be like, I wondered, to paint a demon’s eyes?
Mt. Kailash glittered on the horizon, untouchable and untouched. He seems a peak of snow, and beneath that rock, but I believe that if you were to approach his face and stretch out your hands to him, he would not be cold.
I rolled out my bedding. The pilgrims were still singing. I poured yak butter into a bowl of tsampa, rolled it into balls, and ate.
I had not often been alone like this. Now, as my own companion, as the one observing myself—the observer and the observed and the chronicler of the observation—I felt even more lost. How many were we, exactly?
My mother had waited until my father was out, then she had shown me the hole.
“If some day I don’t come back, take this and get out.”
Take it where? Get out from what?
Passport, money, a necklace with gemstones. We had buried it together and I had never told my father. It had stayed underground. But then there were immolations every week, and then every day, and I got the job with Pinzo, so I dug it up for safekeeping, heart to heart. I had no plan to use it. I did not know how. Because look: They never returned her body. It’s hard to accept without a body. I needed to see her consumed by the sky.
In the morning the pilgrims slept late. Their cooks had set up a kitchen tent and as I passed it, recovering the path, I smelled chapatis and dhal.
I looked back. The man at the tent opening held out a chapati to me. He grinned. I hitched up my bag.
The cooks worked as one being with four hands. They rolled dough into discs, and then spun those discs on an iron plate over a yak dung fire. The bread puffed up and mottled brown. Stacks and stacks of chapatis. Weightless, steaming in the cold morning air.
They passed me a bowl of tea that was spoiled with hot white cow milk. I sipped it to be polite. We spoke in pantomime. They invited me to join the caravan; there was space in Kali. I might have agreed but at that very moment, Norzom walked past the tent door. I spilled my tea in my haste.
“Norzom.” I caught up with her. I reached out a hand; she stepped back.
She was thinner, with violet dents beneath her lotus-eyes. If she was doing a kora, she was walking in the wrong direction.
“Of all people,” she said, and I shrank from her disgust. “I’m sorry.”
“For who?” Each word a slap. “For him? For me?” “For.”
“Better to be sorry for yourself.” She adjusted her bag and motioned for me to step aside. “You need it more.”
The thunder shattered her words. We looked up. I swear to you, until that moment the sky had been clear. Now it was masses and masses of sheep, of carcasses. Lightening bounded hoof to hoof and struck the lake. The goddess’s blue smoked to black. Rain shot down in icy pellets. I ducked into the tent, Norzom behind me. She was shivering. The cooks hurried to pour her a bowl of milk tea.
“This is disgusting,” she said to me in our language.
The cooks covered the basket of chapatis in plastic and ran into the downpour. The pilgrims were awake, and hungry.
“Where are you going?” I asked Norzom. “And why?”
The rain was loud. It isolated us. I had never been so alone with a woman. That is to say, with a woman other than my mother. Norzom never looked at me. She stared out at the rain, at the wall of wet. Her light, watery fingers played with her hair.
I was about to try a different topic, when she said, “They won’t stop talking. I was his lover, they say, and your lover too, I was the lover of every yak on the mountain. Wicked girl, destroying three people’s karma. They said I couldn’t work the fields anymore; I might curse the barley. My father threw me out. My fiancé dropped me. What else should I do? Maybe if I can make it to Lhasa. That’s what I was thinking. Get a job in a restaurant. Or.”
“It’s not safe for you to travel alone.”
She laughed at me. Her lips curled in a lemony way. “Thank you for letting me know that.”
It would have been right for her to cry, then, to have tears in her eyes. I suppose because I wanted to cry myself and it can be hard to separate, to know the difference, between what you feel and what the rest of the world, in all its carnival diversity, might be feeling.
“There’s something I’d like you to have.” “You can’t fix this.”
“Do you know anyone in India?” “Everyone knows someone in India.”
“I’ve an uncle who got out. He’s always saying to try, but you know it’s impossible.”
I took a breath, opened my backpack, and gave her my mother’s treasure box. The hinges were rusty. Norzom gasped.
“I can’t use the passport anyway,” I explained. “It’s a woman’s picture.” “Ka Tsen.”
I was glad she knew my name. She put her hands on mine because the lake and the mountain cannot be separated, though we are all immortals.
“I’m ashamed to ask you to do this for me,” I said, “after I harmed you. But.” I looked down at our hands. Her fingers had slipped between mine. “My mother believed in me. She wanted me to be an artist.”
“It’s an immense gift.”
“I hope so.” I cleared my throat. “Look, there’s an empty seat in Kali and from here they’re turning south, to the border.”
“I don’t know.”
“You’d have to talk to them about the shitty tea.”
We smiled at the same time. No separation. When the storm cleared, she boarded Kali, and I resumed my walk. When she waved out the window, through the rain-smeared glass, she really did look like my mother. Eight years ago, but also today. No time.
I made the kora many times, more than once but less than thirty. One evening I approached the monastery again, when the lake was the colour of pearls and the terraced fields were sprinkled with dew, and I decided to stay. Herders were returning to town. Kitchen fires were being lit. I passed the café. The door was ajar. Children were crowded around the TV.
The monks were already in bed. No one greeted me. Nanjar and Guru did not stir when I rolled out my mat.
I awoke at sunrise to the bell. A novice squatted in our doorway, a golden bowl in his lap. Pinzo waited beyond, his neck wrapped against the cold.
I crossed the rocky yard and knelt, eyes lowered.
“You have a talent. This is a gift you prepared for yourself in a previous life and you ought to make the most of it. We are human and we err. We clutch too tightly to samsara.”
“The eyes,” he commanded. I kissed his ankles.
I live on a pinnacle of rock. I live beneath the skies that ate my ancestors and I am surrounded by the mountains where God lives. I drink every day from the sacred lake. I create fragile gods of impermanence.
And I do not mind, anymore. I do not.
Dara Passano is the author of The Guardian UK’s Confessions of a Humanitarian series. Dara’s work has appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, Anomaly, The Apple Valley Review, Ruminate, Arcturus, Meridian, Typishly, Crack the Spine, The Manzano Mountain Review, The Tishman Review, Points in Case, and elsewhere. Dara lives out of a suitcase that is most often in sub-Saharan Africa. Find Dara on Twitter (@DaraPassano).