Vagabond Spirit
"He knew his task now was to dream. In the middle of the night he awoke with a start to a bird's mournful cry."
Borges, "The Circle of Ruins"
(i) Lord Chimi the Second

For my readers' sake, I'd like to shift the dates of this story from the Tibetan calendar to the international calendar. My story is short, but it covers a long period of time.

He's a character from the Barkhor in Lhasa. He has no job, no notion of looking for one. He's the main character of my story. He's my friend. His name is Chimi. I don't know his exact age, but I guess it's somewhere between twenty-seven and seventy-two.

How Chimi and I got to know each other—that's another story. I won't go into it here. It all happened by chance.

Chimi is poor, really poor, one of whom it can truly be said he has nothing—no wife, no family at all, not even the ability to work. He's a cripple. One side of his body is deformed: his mouth is twisted, his left eye looks askew, his left leg is lame, and his left hand is clutched in front of his chest like a chicken claw.

That a Tibetan like Chimi speaks Mandarin Chinese—that's nothing surprising. What's remarkable is that he speaks fluent English. He's one of the vast swarm of beggars on the Barkhor. But Chimi doesn't sit there intoning Buddhist sutras or spinning a prayer wheel—doesn't seem like a Buddhist at all. He's the old Barkhor itself. He claims he's lived on Lhasa's main street for a hundred and ninety years and that five generations of his ancestors lived there before him.

He took me down the second alley off the Barkhor's seventh corner. Twenty meters down, we came to the great gate of a house with a big courtyard. He said it used to be his family's, that his great-great-great-grandfather bought it for twenty-seven silver Tibetan coins, that inside there's a two-story stone house, that ten years ago he sold it all for twenty-seven silver Tibetan coins.

"That was my great-great-great-grandfather's command in his will. His name was Chimi too, so, according to the English custom, you should call me—ha! ha!—"
Chimi is really cute when he laughs—his whole face becomes perfectly symmetrical. "—Lord Chimi the Second!"
"Okay, Lord Chimi the Second." I didn't want to spoil his fun.
"Mine is a noble family—noble, you understand? Noble! Believe me? I'll give you proof. Two proofs. Okay?"
"Okay, then," I said, "two proofs."
"It's a deal. Let's not stick around here. Inside that courtyard there's a big watchdog, as big as a donkey, black. Let's go somewhere else."

"All right, let's go."

"Your place, okay? Is it far?"

"No, not far. My place then. But I don't have any barley wine."

"Chinese white liquor? That'd be okay too."

"I have some grape wine—white grape wine."

He pondered this a minute, weighing the matter. "Okay," he decided, "let's go see your family."

"My family?" "Oh . . . your place—okay?"


(ii) The Sixty-first Year of the Reign of the Illustrious Qianlong Emperor


When we got to my room he solemnly undid the top button of his shirt, and to my surprise he revealed a cat's eye stone, long as your finger. I understood what the market value of such a treasure would be, but I'd never seen one so big. Before I knew it, I stammered, "Is it . . . is it real?"

"Sure it's real. Not every noble owns a treasure like this. Look at its quality—none finer."

I don't know anything about the quality of precious stones, but I enjoy admiring them and stroking their ice-cold surfaces. "How much is it worth?" I asked.

"Priceless," he said.

I stood facing the window, examining it carefully. It felt heavy, as if there was some connection between its weight and its value.

"Have you seen the Dalai Lama's palace at Norbu Lingka Garden?" he asked. "You must see it! The statue of Buddha is gold. The throne is gold too, with all kinds of jewels. It has cat's eyes as big as this . . . maybe almost as big."

I'd been there. I'd seen the gold pedestal of the Buddha's statue in the main hall, all inlaid with precious stones. It was the epitome of wealth and power—what more can I say?

"So you believe me now?" he said with a tinge of self-satisfaction.

"Believe you . . . about what?" I said, confused.

"I come from a noble family. Only a noble could own such a treasure!"

Then all at once I remembered. "Didn't you say you had two proofs? What's the second one?"

Suddenly he became dejected. "Nothing."

"Nothing?" I got an inspiration. "Okay, forget it. I'm not going to believe all your sneaky talk. All those peddlers on the streets selling cat's eye stones—are you telling me they're all nobles?"

My disdain wounded his pride. Blood rushed to his face. "You're comparing me to them! Them, in their short robes?" I knew Lhasa nobles wear robes below the knee. Only the common people wear short robes. I couldn't help laughing to myself. He'd fallen for my ploy.

"All right!" he cried. "I'll show you. You'll meet my precious coins. They'll open your eyes, shock you, keep you awake at night, give you nightmares, send you to a horrible death."

He seemed to be pronouncing a curse over me in spite of himself. But what surprised me was that he'd said "coins." What's so special about a coin? All over the Barkhor, spread out on peddlers' carpets, all kinds of coins, a few yuan each. What's scary about coins?

He fumbled in his shirt and brought out a cloth bag, rolled up tight. As he undid it, his every movement displayed tremendous reverence. I confess that by the time he'd opened it, the coins in that bag held more than a tinge of mystery for me.

Twenty-seven tiny silver coins, Tibetan script on one side, Chinese characters on the other. I could make out the Chinese: "Sixty-first year of Qianlong".

"So these are the coins you sold your house for?" I asked him.

* * *

Ballad of the Himalayas
Lingda is a little village, a dozen
families of Lopa people, amid the lush
vegetation of the Himalaya foothills,
precise location 94 degrees north latitude,
29 degrees east longitude.


Little Norbu's heart was full of bitterness toward Daddy. Months ago, Daddy had promised to give him a gun. Of course this was a big affair for Norbu. But if Daddy was really going to give him a gun, why didn't he give it now? Weren't they going together into the mountains to hunt? But Norbu didn't dare complain to him.

Tall Daddy galloped ahead full of eager anticipation. Listless and cranky, Little Norbu followed him into Lingda. Daddy dismounted, tossed Norbu the reins, told him to wait outside, and hurried off into one of the low wooden doorways. There was a delighted scream inside the house. Little Norbu could tell it was a woman's scream. Norbu couldn't understand what she said, but he knew she was happy. At first she just went on talking, then she started to laugh like a duck quacking, and it gave Norbu a strange feeling. Then she began to groan in a funny way, on and on, but it didn't sound like anything was hurting her. Norbu felt his heart jump. He didn't wait there to figure out why the woman was moaning. He led the horses away from the cabin. Now he heard the woman cry out, "Ah! Ah!" in a voice full of pleasure. He rushed away, his heart in turmoil.

Half an hour later Daddy came out of the doorway. The woman followed him. She was beautiful. When Daddy turned back, she threw her arms around his neck, stood on her tiptoes and bit him on the chin. Daddy wrapped both hands around her bottom and squeezed it to him. Norbu heard someone coming. It was a little man in hunter's dress. Norbu saw the face of the woman hanging on Daddy's neck change color. She hurriedly dropped the hands that held Daddy. Daddy looked around, his two hands still on the woman's rear. Then he let her go and walked off, almost brushing against the hunter, without glancing at him, a proud look on his face, almost like he wanted to pick a fight, head up, looking off at the mountains. Norbu followed him with the horses, looking back over his shoulder. The hunter didn't look back any more than Daddy had done, just went straight into the cabin without a glance at the woman, who stood dazed at the door, staring at Daddy as he walked farther and farther away. Norbu didn't peek back any more. He caught up to Daddy in a trot. They passed over the open ground behind the village and into the dense forest.

Two days later Daddy shot a red deer with his musket. Daddy had tracked the deer half a day. At last it was unable to leap out of Daddy's sights. The dying deer's chest puffed out spurts of foamy blood as it madly crashed its enormous antlers against the trees until the antlers lay shattered on the ground. Then it lay down calmly and elegantly closed its beautiful eyes, noble and solemn. Watching, Norbu was filled with fear. He discovered he didn't like Daddy at all. It was strange. He couldn't forget the expression in the deer's blinking eyes before it died, full of tenderness and content.

His right eyelid began to twitch. He got all worked up. He felt something dangerous was coming. There wasn't a sound. Why was he so nervous?

Daddy skinned the deer with a practiced hand, spread the hide out on a frame of cut branches, and lashed it high up in a pine tree to dry. Norbu stood under the tree, picked up Daddy's hunting knife, wiped off the traces of blood, and carved a woman's head in the tree bark. Daddy climbed down from the tree, saw the shreds of bark on the ground, saw the woman carved on the tree, and laughed oddly at little Norbu.

Daddy and Norbu picked up some dried branches, preparing to light a fire and roast some of the deer's meat. Little Norbu hesitated and hesitated, and finally told Daddy something was going to happen.

"What do you mean? What are you afraid of with me around?"

Norbu didn't know what he was afraid of. Daddy's one remark shut it all back up inside him.

Another day passed. Again night fell. They were still camped in the same place. It started to snow, and soon the snow lay piled deep.

With Daddy there, he didn't need to be afraid of anything.

Next morning the sky was clear, extraordinarily blue. When he woke up Daddy was still snoring. He didn't want to disturb him. He sat up quietly.

Now he knew his premonition hadn't been wrong. He saw it.

It had been the spots like black pennies that caught Norbu's eye. Against the pure white background of the snow, its white fur looked a dirty, messy gray. It was like a big cat, calm, peaceful, with a cunning look. It stood thirty paces away, looking without malice at Norbu and Daddy.

Maybe its expression confused him . . . little Norbu wasn't afraid. He felt unusually calm. He poked Daddy lightly with his toe. The snoring stopped. Daddy mumbled something in a dream. Norbu went on bumping him until he finally woke up. Norbu didn't dare say anything, just signaled with a glance. Daddy understood too. He rolled over and saw the snow leopard.


The Black Road
Mirrors and sex are unsanitary. Both increase the population.

Old Dwarf Sengye

Nobody is more prone to fantasy than the eyewitness to a murder. That's why somebody with the luck I've had usually gives self-contradictory testimony, until at last they turn their whole statement inside out. It's not from cowardice or lack of nerve. The facts are never real. From firm belief to wavering belief, then on to delirium, then to groundless fabrication. First you disbelieve your eyes, then you start to disbelieve yourself. I can tell you my own personal experience.

I don't have to appear in court as a witness, because as far as the police are concerned this murder case doesn't exist. Why should I fling myself into a case there's no way to solve? My whole life long, I mean to avoid anything to do with courts.

I can't tell why I try so hard to forget this case. There have even been times I've succeeded, but only for a while, never more than two dreamless nights. In that drowsy time just before dusk on the third evening I start getting edgy, and I can't stop myself from going over the whole bloody drama in my mind again that night. This drama repeats itself until I'm filled with terror. Every single detail is always the same. I couldn't say how many times it's repeated itself.

It all happened long ago, a year or two, maybe more. When I set out on the trail it was pure inspiration. Autumn. The grasslands were an endless expanse of dry yellow, so poetic. I'd rented a skinny, strong-legged chestnut horse. Setting out across the Samten grasslands from Samten Temple in the morning, I followed a gradually rising mountain track, leaving behind the yellow earth and the herds of black yaks. The young lama who did odd jobs around the temple told me I'd make it to the pass before dark as long as I didn't stop along the way.

"You can see the holy lake from the top of the pass. So big you can't see the other side, bluer than heaven. But you'll have to travel a long way from there before there's anywhere to stay. This horse knows the way. Give him the reins, and you'll be all right. He'll take you where there are people." He also told me there could be snow in the mountains.

After crossing the snowline, I followed all kinds of twists and turns before I made it to the pass. By then it was dark. Really cold! I didn't arrive where the lama said there were people until dawn. As I came down the pass a large whitewashed wall faced me. It was covered with three black words: "Heaven Lake Inn." You could see those words a long, long way off. Two mud buildings, the kind you see in the grasslands, solid and squat, one right next to the other, about twenty paces between them.

The little path by which I came and by which I would leave passed right in front. Further on a beach stretched along the shore of the lake—"the sea," they call it here. This vast beach was already blanketed in new snow. Behind the buildings a low wall stretched round a big snow-covered pasture—not a stalk of grass or a bit of earth visible. The first building was the kitchen and guesthouse. The innkeeper and his livestock lived in the other building.

The innkeeper was a tiny man, so short he was almost a midget, old and swarthy, his face a mask. His warmth and attentiveness made you uncomfortable. I couldn't make out if he was Tibetan or Chinese. He spoke good Chinese, but so do lots of Tibetans. The sign on his inn was written in Chinese.

He showed me to a room in the first, larger house. I slept that whole day. While I was sleeping, another man arrived—him—the main character of this story. Before dark I woke and discovered him. He wore Khampa dress—a red turban with tassels—so I knew he was Tibetan. He had a scar down his left cheek, almost to his chin. Apparently he hadn't been there very long when I woke up.


The Spell of The Gangtise Mountains
Selections from 1. THE HUNT
Believe it or not. It's all up to you.
Nobody can make you believe a hunting story.


You're different from your father. He spent his life hunting lynxes, but you prefer bears. You didn't inherit your father's huge, bearlike physique, so maybe that's why you like bears. You know how clever and nimble these huge animals really are, though they appear so stupid and clumsy. So this time you thought at first it was another bear. Only a bear would act like that. And that's what the herdsmen thought too. They sent for you as a bear hunter.

"It was a big bear—as tall as this." The villager who was speaking raised his hand as he stood on tiptoes to show how tall the bear was.

"It was thin, but stronger than an ordinary bear. It had big paws."

The bear had given this poor fellow a good scare. That's what you thought. You knew more about bears and their paws than he did.

"I heard the cattle give a start, and all of a sudden I got scared. I picked up my musket and looked all around. By the time I saw it, it was too late. Before I could even raise my musket that bear smashed it away. I saw it so clearly! Its fingers were that much longer than mine—mmm, that much longer."

He held up his own finger and said the bear's were twice as long. He'd had an awful scare, this simple, honest fellow.

"It ran so fast. Far away, then suddenly right in front of me. I didn't even have time to lift my gun."

He'd been really frightened, and no wonder. You knew better than these herdsmen how fast a bear can run when it's chased . . . and when it's chasing. "It snapped the stock of my firelock musket like a tree branch. It even bent the barrel."

You weren't going to ask him to bring out the broken gun to show you. Of course you knew he wouldn't have it. He could always say the long-fingered bear tossed it away into the brush. Then he turned back to his tent and came back out with it, the stock snapped, the barrel bent, and gave it to you. You were stunned. You hadn't expected this. The way you explained the bent gun showed how experienced you are: you reckoned the bear must have smashed the firelock against a rock—because there's nothing a bear hates worse than a gun. But you didn't tell him this. You didn't want to make him blush. After all, plenty of people are afraid of bears, and there's nothing wrong in being afraid, but he was ashamed. He was afraid the other shepherds would laugh at him. That's why he made up all these fairy tales.

He said it was strange that the bear didn't hurt him. "It turned around, rushed into the herd, and grabbed the horns of my biggest yak. That yak had long, thick horns, and when it started bellowing and twisting its neck with all its might, I thought it was going to gore the bear in the stomach. The bear just twisted the yak to the ground, grabbed that yak's horns, and pulled them apart with all its strength, and the yak's head split open. An eyeball as big as a fist popped out. Brains and blood trickled down the yak's neck." You didn't know why he'd made all this up. Herdsmen usually don't chatter like this.

"That bear picked up the yak by the two hind legs, swung it up on its back, and walked away. The two halves of the split head were hanging behind his rear end with blood and brains dripping out. That yak weighed seven or eight hundred pounds. Two weeks later, Phuntsok found the two halves of the skull at the bottom of a cliff with the horns still on them. The leg bones were all broken and the marrow was eaten out of them."

What he told you all happened two months ago. He was one of the witnesses who saw this tall, thin, long-fingered bear. According to what he said, this bear never went on all fours, but always walked standing up. He hadn't seen the bear rise up on its hind legs before it rushed him. He wasn't the only witness. Four other people had seen it in the last two months.

"Just like he already told you, that bear ran up so fast, it was in front of me in a flash. It grabbed the staff out of my hand and snapped it, and then in a wink the bear was gone, as fast as it came. This tall, standing straight up, and then all at once it just wasn't there."

"Just like he already told you, that bear ran up so fast, it was in front of me in a flash. It grabbed the staff out of my hand and snapped it, and then in a wink the bear was gone, as fast as it came. This tall, standing straight up, and then all at once it just wasn't there."

"We've had trouble with bears around here before, but I've never seen a bear so thin—thin and tall, and with long fingers. The young people had been talking about it. If I hadn't seen that bear with my own eyes, I'd never have believed it. At midnight the dogs all started barking at once, and I could tell by the sound of them something was wrong, so I went out. I'm almost seventy, too old to let anything scare me. I knew it had to be a bear. There was a moon that night. I've never seen a bear with fingers before, just like a big hand. When it saw me the bear snatched a sheep and just walked away, not a bit scared, slowly, not like they say, running fast. Oh, he was too thin, he must have been starving!" . . .


You followed them into the mountains where they showed you a pile of broken rock. You saw what they wanted you to see: the foreleg of a horse, covered with reddish-brown hair, its round hoof sticking up out of the rockpile. They told you this was a horse the bear had carried off. Probably the bear couldn't eat it all at once so it buried it here in these rocks, and left the leg sticking out as a mark so it could find the meat next time. They said they'd just discovered the leg that morning, and come right away to get you. They took you as their protective god, blindly worshiping you, believing you could kill that skinny bear for them.

Naturally you could kill it. They'd left behind a couple of men with guns to help you. You sent them back. It doesn't take a lot of men to kill a lone bear. The more men, the more chance someone would get killed. You remained behind alone, hidden close to that rockpile where the dead horse was buried. You knew that after so many people had been there, the bear would catch their scent, so it wouldn't come for a good while yet, but when it got hungry and couldn't find anything else to eat, it would come here.

You didn't dare doze, or you'd be handing yourself to that skinny bear for its next meal. Their words sounded again on your eardrums. You didn't believe any of what the first one said, but what the others said about the bear really amounted to proof of what the first one had told you. Could you refuse to believe them all?

So if there had to be some kind of mistake, was it yours or everyone else's? You couldn't work it out, you just couldn't work it out. "When it comes I'll understand. When I've killed it I'll know if it has fingers like the fingers on a hand" . . .


Selections from 1. THE HUNT

Now I'll tell another story. First let me make one thing clear: it's not really certain there's any such person as Yao Liang. But there's no reason at all why a Yao Liang couldn't come to work in Tibet.

So you could imagine that Yao Liang came to assist the Tibetan Autonomous Region for three or four years as a teacher. That's settled. And Lu Gao is assigned as a secretary to the Tibetan Physical Education Commission.

Next door to the Physical Education Commission is the compound of the Economic Planning Commission. Lu Gao goes over there from time to time to take care of business, so he knows there's a very beautiful Tibetan girl there. He only knows she works in that compound, but exactly what work she does and in what department he doesn't know. He hasn't asked anybody. Probably he feels embarrassed. Lu Gao is thirty. Usually his hair and beard are a mess, but in fact, if he'd tidy himself and dress up a bit, he'd be absolutely handsome, over six feet tall.

Yao Liang sometimes comes over to Lu Gao's office, and he discovered the beautiful Tibetan girl too. "Hey, where'd that girl get skin so white? Where does she work? I never saw a Tibetan girl with skin that white before. You see how her jade earrings pull her earlobes down? My grandma used to say good jade is worth more than gold."

The Economic Planning Commission had an auditorium where they showed movies. The Physical Education Commissioner phoned them to set aside a few tickets for them. Everybody else was out, so he sent Lu Gao over to pick them up. That girl was in the office!

"Can I help you?"

"Well . . . I'm from the Physical Education Commission."

"I know. You just graduated from university and came to Lhasa. You're here for the tickets. Would you like to sit down?"

"Uh, not necessarily. Your boss . . ."

"Where are you from? They say you're from the Northeast."

"Liaoning. You're Tibetan, aren't you . . . Comrade?"

She laughed with graceful restraint, and nodded.

"You speak Mandarin very well," Lu Gao said. "I studied in Beijing for seven years. Wouldn't you like to sit down?"

Lu Gao took a moment to observe her fine eyebrows, her slender nose, her pale makeup. Her hair was caught up on top of her head with a silver net, which made her little earlobes with their green earrings all the more striking. The girl's mouth was small, with thin lips, her neck long and slender. She was slim, and wore her lavender cardigan pulled down over her backside, setting off her hips. She said little, and acted serious. Lu Gao felt there was some nervous energy in her voice, something deep down in the pupils of her eyes that she wanted to express. He felt himself getting carried away, so he took the tickets, said good-bye, and left.

After that, the two of them considered themselves acquainted. If they bumped into each other she always gave him a little smile, but he could never catch what it was deep in the pupils of her expressive eyes that she wanted to say. He knew he had to make some response, so he automatically nodded.

Yao Liang suggested they go see a sky burial. Everybody thought it was a good idea. Lu Gao had seen photos of the sky burial of an old man and an old woman. Sky burial is unique to Tibet, extremely holy. The dead one is accompanied to the burial site by relatives. Before dawn the burial master slices the corpse (bones included) into pieces, then he lights the marrow to attract flocks of vultures. When the first ray of morning sunlight strikes the ridge, the dead one has already been carried to heaven by the holy vultures. A solemn ceremony of regeneration, of faith in the future, a ritual in praise of life. The dismemberment takes place before the light of dawn. The photos weren't very clear, but the dissected body's internal organs were still visible. Like a medical student after his first cadaver, Lu Gao felt like vomiting, but soon he got over it. He knew that he and everybody else were flesh and blood: in the end we all have to die. He thought he would like to have this kind of burial when he died. He didn't believe the legends about sky burial, but he liked the magnificent image. The ceremony fascinated him.

The sky burial site was in the outskirts, five or six kilometers from town. Where he worked Lu Gao found a driver whose name was Little Wang, who hadn't seen a sky burial either. So it was a deal. But just then the commission chairman sent Lu Gao off on assignment for a couple of days to the countryside. They decided they'd go to the sky burial early in the morning the day after Lu Gao got back. He was gone one week.

Something happened that week. There was an accident and the Tibetan girl in the compound next to Lu Gao's was killed.

It was a typical traffic accident. The driver had been drinking. Little Wang said her whole face was smashed to a pulp. He said she was the daughter of an important personage, Paling, a big aristocrat and lover of the Chinese motherland, she and her mother and father had come back from Norway in 1977, and she'd just graduated from Beijing University.

The Commission of Economic Planning was going to hold a memorial gathering for the girl tomorrow afternoon.

That evening Yao Liang came over, and they went looking for Little Wang.

"Are we still going tomorrow?" Lu Gao wanted to know.

"Isn't that what we said?"

"We've got to get up early. Little Wang, you'll have the jeep ready?"

"I'll sleep at your place so I don't have to pick you up in the morning, all right?"

"We'd better get to sleep early."

"I've got an alarm clock," said Yao Liang."I'll wake you up. Four-thirty, okay?"

It began to rain, and before they fell asleep it was coming down hard.

"That girl died, did you hear?"

"I heard," said Yao Liang.

"She was the most beautiful girl I ever saw."

". . ."

"I wouldn't have thought it if it had been anybody else."

"Thought what?"

"She shouldn't have died," said Lu Gao. "Anybody else, not her. I heard about it, but I didn't want to go over to see. I didn't want to see the way she looked."

"Hey, what's up with you?"

"You mean was I in love with her? No. She was so beautiful she was above me, above everybody. She was a symbol like a flower, an eagle, the ocean, a snow-capped mountain, a symbol of something spiritual. To look at a beautiful girl tells you life is real, precious, it means something. That's putting it too abstractly. Sometimes I feel it's only because of women, especially beautiful girls, that the human race carries on, develops . . ."

"Go to sleep," said Yao Liang, "go to sleep."

"Sorry, I forgot," Lu Gao replied, "we have to get up at four-thirty."

Just as Lu Gao felt himself dozing off, Yao Liang started talking.

"You asleep? I just thought of something. They probably won't have her body at the memorial gathering because she was Tibetan. I wonder if it's her sky burial we're going to see tomorrow . . . Hey, you asleep?"


Hey There, Gimme a Hand

It's no easy thing for a writer to earn his bread in a little city. After I write a story, everybody starts guessing who I wrote about, whether I based it on some event (and not just one!), whether I falsified the facts. People call me to account for writing about them. Others come around worried that my next story will be about them—and to forbid me beforehand to write about them.

That's the kind of little city Lhasa is.

But there are exceptions. One is my friend who goes by the name Bull. (My name, Ma, means horse, and his name is Bull, so I guess it's natural that we should hang out together.) At first I didn't understand why he went on telling me all his dirty business. Didn't he understand I'm a writer? Didn't he know I write about the people I know and what happens to them? Yes, he knew. He had no illusions about it, but he wasn't the least bit afraid.

And since he knew, and still went on frankly telling me all the details, I couldn't help suspecting he was up to something. Well then, I was going to help him achieve his goal, whatever it was. Just to be sure I'd gotten him right, one evening I decided I would discuss the matter with him openly. As luck would have it, he appeared at my door ten minutes later. Of course he hadn't come to talk about that. He'd come to slap together some dinner.

Men who are on their own in Lhasa have to make their own dinner. Good friends get together. It's simple logic—many hands make light work. Bull comes over on average five times a week. This day he'd arrived about ten minutes before dinner time.

"Had dinner?" I asked him. Of course I knew the answer perfectly well.

"I was just going to ask you the same thing."

"What if I haven't? Let's go over to your place to cook. How about it?"

"I'll invite you out. Let's go to Come On Back."

Come On Back was a Sichuan restaurant, just opened, the latest craze. But what was this? Bull inviting me out? Was the sun coming up in the west?

"Today's my birthday," he said. "I'm thirty. So I'm inviting some friends for drinks and a big meal. Come On Back has genuine Sichuan cooking. Let's have a real feast."

"I mean . . . how much money have you got on you? You know how much a big spread will cost you?"

"What's that to you?"

"Who else did you ask?"

"Listen." He leaned toward me. "How many friends have I got worth a special treat like this?"

"Just me?"

"Sure. Who else do you want?"

"Didn't you just say you were inviting some friends out for drinks and a meal? How many do I count for?"

"All right, all right, forget it. Why nitpick? Are you coming or not? If you don't want to, I'll find somebody else."

Why shouldn't I go? It was the perfect chance to talk everything over with him. Besides, Come On Back's chef was first rate.

When we got there, he asked me to do the ordering. I ordered six dishes, plus five bottles of beer. When the bill arrived, he looked in his wallet and whispered, "Ai! I'm a little short."

"How much is the bill?" I asked him.
"Twenty-seven yuan, ninety-six."

"And how much have you got?"

"Looks like . . . about . . . ten . . . ten sixteen . . . no, wait. Ten eighteen."

"You have ten eighteen. And if I don't have any money?"

"I'll have to give him my ID."

"Your ID is as good as cash?"

He told me in all sincerity that no, an ID wasn't as good as cash, but you could leave it as a deposit until you came back with the cash. He'd done it several times.

I pulled out my wallet. "Freeloader," I muttered.

He wasn't the least bit offended, but gave me a cheeky grin. It was only then I realized I'd forgotten to ask him about what was on my mind.


Big Sis

Not so easy to write about me, huh? I guarantee you I'll do my best to cooperate—give you all you need. Let me stay over. I can tell you stories all night. Over a midnight snack.

Don't frown. We'll just call it an early breakfast. How about it? Your royalties will be enough to eat at Come On Back for a whole month. If I knew how to write up all that's happened to me, those royalties wouldn't go to you.

What do you want to hear about? Drinking, smoking, whoring, gambling? Except for opium, I've done it all—swindler, spy, embezzler, thief. No bullshit. That's what kind of guy I am.

Okay, some details. First—women, okay? If you don't believe me, just leave it out. I know you won't believe it, but so what?

One night I went to the Victory Theater for a movie. I remember it was one of those ancient costume films. I was in such a rush I forgot my smokes, and I didn't have a cent on me. I got so edgy for a cigarette I couldn't sit still, so I went out into the lobby. Just my luck, there was only one other person there, a woman about thirty-five, real thin, standing in front of a movie poster, smoking. I just walked right up to her. "Hey Big Sis, I forgot my cigarettes. Give me one, will you?"

She turned and eyed me, then laughed. I could tell from that laugh she was a wild one. She pulled out a pack of cigarettes and held them out to me. I reached out and took one, and lit it off hers.

She blew out a stream of smoke that enveloped her face and asked me, "Where you from?"

"Northeast of Beijing. How about you, Sis?"

"Ha, ha! You little fool!"

She had this uninhibited laugh. I didn't know what I'd said that was so funny.

"Can't you see I'm Tibetan?" she said, laughing as she spoke.

I started to laugh too. How stupid—only then I realized she was Tibetan. Only a Tibetan woman could laugh so . . . so . . . I can't find the word for it.

We sat down on a sofa and smoked a couple of cigarettes, chatting. Didn't I want to watch the movie, she asked me. Boring, I said. Anyway, it didn't matter, I said, I was just killing time. She paused a minute, then invited me to her place for Tibetan yak butter tea. Didn't she have any barley wine, I asked her, joking.

"How much can you drink?"

"Not much."

"I've got barley wine," she said. "Plenty. All you can drink. I don't live far."

We left together and walked south down a little lane. A couple of times I thought to ask her who else lived at her place, but I didn't.

You know, all that area southwest of the Victory Theater is the Barkhor. We weren't far from the open air bazaar. There were no lights along the way. We turned into an unlit courtyard. We groped our way up the stairs and along a corridor. She took out a key and opened a narrow little door.

It had been pitch dark the whole way. When she turned on the lights in the room, I couldn't help shutting my eyes. When I opened them, I knew right away she was the only one who lived there. There was no bed, just a Tibetan sleeping cushion. You could sit on it or sleep on it. Next to it was an old-fashioned Tibetan table.

From outside she brought in a plastic bucket of barley wine, poured me a cup and one for herself. "Come on, drink up." We raised our cups.

You know I can't drink much. Two beers and I'm a goner.

I started showing off. As soon as she downed a cup, I emptied mine. I don't remember how many I drank. Anyway her pail was empty. Everything was swaying.

I like them fat, but she was skinny. My whole body felt paralyzed, turned to jelly, but I never went to sleep. I remember she made me lie down, stuck a pillow under my head and took off my shoes. Then the light went out. I don't know if she switched it off, or if the electricity went off. You know how they always shut off the electricity in Lhasa.

She got started, and pulled off my pants. My energy drove her crazy. To start off I had plenty of strength; later it was no good, but she still wouldn't let me go to sleep. She said she hadn't even smelt a man for half a year. I was worn out. I was half asleep, and she was squirming, rolling me back and forth. Maybe I got to sleep for a little while, I don't know. Finally she settled down, snuggled up between me and the wall and fell sound asleep. I was wide awake, couldn't get to sleep again. I felt empty. I got out of bed as quietly as I could, put on my clothes, and looked back. She was still asleep.

I put my ear against the door and listened. Not a sound outside, so very quietly I opened the door. At the bottom of the stairs a dog inside somebody's room started barking and scared me. Luckily nobody came out. Like a thief I tiptoed out of the yard. When I got out on the street it hit me—had I shut her door or not? If I hadn't shut her door . . . But I couldn't worry about that.

I saw her for six weeks or so after that. She was so hot, three of me couldn't have satisfied her. I remember she said I was no man, said what a woman despises most is a fake man like me, a man who has a beard on his face for nothing. Damn, she didn't realize I'd only been in Tibet for a couple of months. My body still hadn't gotten used to the high altitude. Finally she left, went to India. I heaved a sigh of relief. Exhausting. No man could stand that for long. If she hadn't asked me back every day, I'd have stopped coming. Once or twice, okay, but what she wanted was more than I could give. She was really affectionate too. When she left, she gave me a big ring, pure gold, four loops around my finger. You've seen the kind Tibetan men wear, a thousand yuan apiece in those secondhand shops on the Barkhor. I didn't have to spend a penny that whole month, smoked all the cigarettes I wanted. But the cake she gave me was no good. I couldn't eat much of it, just drank milk and ate yogurt. She was a nuisance all the time she was here, but when she left I sort of missed her. Funny, huh?

I sold the ring. Got better than six hundred for it. You know I'm always short of cash. Any cash I get, I use to buy coins.

Turning Cash into Coins

What a bum! Not three sentences of it true! He had more to say about that woman, all dirty. Unrepeatable. I let it go in one ear and out the other. None of our friends takes anything he says seriously.

Before midnight he started moaning he was hungry, so I fixed him some instant noodles. As soon as he ate he got drowsy and couldn't keep his eyes open. Just my luck, I had to put up with that funny smell of his all night long. As usual I got to sleep pretty late.

As soon as it was light, he shook me awake. He said he had to go to the school in the northern suburb where he worked.

Rubbing my smarting eyes, I asked him what the hurry was. With an air of mystery he replied, "I'll tell you later."

He left and I went back to sleep. I was still sound asleep when a knock at the door woke me up. The knocking got louder, faster. I opened the door in my undershorts. It was our Tibetan friend Tashi, all out of breath, panting.

"Hurry! Bull! A fight! He's covered in blood! Hurry!"

"What are you all out of breath for? What's that about Bull?"

"The hospital!"

I dressed in a rush and pedaled out my gate, following Tashi on his bike. On the way to the hospital, he told me what happened.

* * *
Selection from THE MASTER
I'll Mention It Once

The Little Man of Lhasa is my invention. I'm going to apply for a patent . . .

"Master" is a term for an outstanding chess-player or painter. Here I use it to write about a young painter who was willing to serve as one of my Little Men of Lhasa.

He Didn't Feel Too Good About It

But this painter said he had misgivings because I made it clear I wouldn't conceal a thing. He got scared and wanted to run. I knew all about that dicey business. He regarded his marriage as a black mark. He was afraid people would psychoanalyze him. He forgot he'd already spoken of his motive for getting married . . . spoken about it to me. Why shouldn't a master have weaknesses? Can't a master smell of humanity?

Her father the old painter was so sick no medicine could save him. The old gentleman was the greatest thangka painter since the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama. His works were more valuable, square inch for square inch, than Picasso's. He had been the official court painter for the thirteenth and fourteenth Dalai Lamas. He was probably over a hundred years old.

They said his life's work consisted of more than thirty paintings, that the fourteenth Dalai Lama has seven of them, and another dozen or so were circulating in the hands of great art museums, big art dealers, and the wealthy few. He'd kept eleven of his thangka paintings for himself, besides the last one, on which he had been working for over ten years. His eyes were still good, and he had full use of his hands.

It was hard to imagine how such a fossil could have begotten and raised a thirty-year-old daughter. She was his only living relative. They said he'd been suffering from a form of myelitis for nearly half a century. His legs were slowly petrifying from the feet upward. First he'd lost the feeling in his toes, then his feet went numb, then the skin of his legs lost all its resilience and went stiff as his bones. The symptoms had developed gradually, relentlessly. Maybe this was how he'd had time to beget that one-eyed daughter.

He lived in a narrow, secluded courtyard in Trephungkhang, Lhasa's Muslim quarter. He and his daughter lived on separate floors, he upstairs, she downstairs. A great willow tree in front of the house cut them off from the outside world. For a long time no one even knew that there was an old man living there.

There wasn't a hair left on his reddish, glistening skull. He had no beard either. When he was sitting up he appeared to be an extremely robust, tall old man. The thangka he'd been working on for ten years was mounted on a magnificent sheet of satin embroidery, its four corners stretched tight. He painted it where it hung on the wall. His upper body and arms were supported in a seat like a barber's chair, with a high adjustable back. When he wanted to rest, he rotated a wheel with one hand and lowered the back, turning the chair into a hospital bed.

His masterpiece was almost finished, but his son-in-law, the subject of my story, said that at his current rate of progress it would take him another three years to finish.

"Can he live another three years?" I asked.

"Hard to say."

Private Man-Talk

Of course you think the old gentleman's the master, but in my story the master is his son-in-law. This young painter had almost no friends. I was the only living soul he'd taken into his father-in-law's house. He knew the worth of the thangka that the petrifying old man was painting, otherwise how could he have borne sleeping under the same blanket with that frightful woman?

When he first came to Lhasa, he was head over heels in love with a girl, his classmate at his art institute back in Sichuan Province. She'd agreed to come to Lhasa to marry him. In the picture he showed me, she had a nice air about her.

He was quite handsome, not tall, but solidly built and well proportioned. His baby face had no trace of a beard, clean and smooth as glass. Like lots of young painters, he'd let his hair grow long. He was neat and tidy, and washed his hair so often it was fluffy. He was already thirty-three, but to look at him you'd think he was ten years younger.

He moved to Lhasa from Sichuan about two weeks before I arrived here from Northeast China. The day I got off the plane, I found a room in a hostel. He knocked on my door and asked me to come out and play basketball. That's how we met four years ago.

As far as women go, all men share certain ideas. I can't discuss mine for fear my wife might get after me, so I'll talk about his. He used to come over to my place and we'd slap some dinner together. (This was before he got married, of course. My wife hadn't arrived in Tibet yet either.) By the time we finished eating it was usually late. Sometimes he didn't feel like going back home alone—said the silence there made him lonesome—so he stayed over. My bed was pretty big. We made it do for two. Nights like this we barely slept. We talked on and on, mostly about women and sex.

"So that's women . . . different faces, all the same below the waist. I don't care about the face. Sichuan women are the best. Whenever I go to Chengdu I go looking for as many as I can find. . . . cheap too. You just give them a call, they come right over."

"A wife doesn't need to be beautiful, but she has to be faithful. Absolutely. A lover, the wilder the better. My girlfriend (the one from his institute) does whatever I say. In four years at art school, she never picked up a bit of that feminist stuff."

"You going to get married?"

"She wants to. She's set on wearing a white lace wedding dress."

"She doesn't care that you have other women?"

"Sure she cares. I fool around a little, she just overlooks it. What else can she do? But she loves me, and she knows I love her." This topic of conversation belonged, of course, to the period before his marriage to the painter's daughter. Then suddenly his ideas changed.

He said he'd written his girlfriend not to come. He said was marrying a Tibetan woman.

As the reader already knows, his bride-to-be was that one-eyed thirty-year-old Tibetan. I bumped into them together on the street one day. She'd lost an eye, but didn't bother to wear a patch over the empty socket.

Not long after that he married her and moved into her house. I didn't get an invitation. "We're not having a ceremony. Her father's not well. She didn't even invite her family."

I couldn't figure it out. But if he didn't talk about his reasons for marrying her, I could hardly ask.

Later, he explained. "Marriage should bring you material profit. Otherwise what's the point of getting that big red-framed marriage certificate? A wife is to sleep with, cook your meals, and have your children, right? If she doesn't have children, so much the better. My woman hasn't explained why, but it looks like she can't have them. Doesn't look nice, but not bad in bed. If she can't have children besides, so much the better. I'll take you home sometime. You can take a look at the old man upstairs. Be sure not to stare."

It was only when he finally invited me that he let on that his father-in-law was an artist-god. "Feast your eyes," he said. "There's nothing in the whole world like the old man's thangka paintings. A big art collector, an American lumber baron, offered him thirty million U.S. for them."

"Your wife scares me. That day we met, when she stared at me it gave me the creeps."

"At first I couldn't take it either. You get used to it. After a while I discovered she has a certain charm. A style all her own, different from any Chinese girl's. To tell you the truth, I couldn't get along without her. I'd want her even without her father."

I couldn't make head or tail of it.

* * *
Selections from Three Ways to Fold a Paper Hawk

March third is Tibetan New Year. My co-workers came over in the morning to wish me Happy New Year and got me drunk on Tibetan barley wine until I didn't know up from down, went to bed at noon, and didn't wake up until dark. When I got out of bed and splashed cold water on my face, I found a little boil on the right corner of my mouth. Just something tiny, I thought.

Half a week later this boil had swollen incredibly, and started oozing sickening bloody pus. A scab the size of a walnut formed at the corner of my mouth, my cheek began to swell up, until my whole face was a mess. Traditional medicine calls the corner of your mouth "the triangle." From there, they say, the pus can flow through your veins straight into your brain. You can laugh if you like, but I was crying from the pain. Now this wasn't something tiny.

I ran to the hospital.

In Lhasa, Tibetan New Year is a big holiday that lasts for fifteen days. My friends were out celebrating and here I was alone in my work unit dormitory, where I'd crawled into bed to read a novel. It's tough for a man all alone. What could I do to while away the time, doomed as I was to a state of perpetual loneliness? But I wasn't willing to go on being lonely. I have ways to make time fly. Reading novels is one. Or, for another example . . .

At sundown I sometimes walk outside and look at the shattered clay pots and bowls people leave lying all over the street. I watch the long-haired dogs chase each other playing. Sometimes I go to a sweet-tea shop, sit for half an hour and drink up the last fifty cents in my pocket. Then I take a walk to the south side of Medicine King Mountain to see what Buddhist worshipers have left behind. Any prayer flags with the image of Sakyamuni? Any stone tablets engraved with verses of the scriptures? Any little clay Buddhas?

Or I could draw the curtain (my only spare bed sheet, white with blue checks), shut the door, turn on the lamp on my little three-drawer desk, and spin you a story.

Of course it's a good story . . . at least I hope so.

It's times like this my imagination is especially active. I can call to mind things that happened and things that haven't happened. Before I write a story I always rack my brain—"What should I write? How should I put it?" The same old problems. If my Tibetan pal Little Kelsang hadn't come by and told me what his criminal investigation squad was up to, who knows where my imagination might have galloped off to? Little Kelsang had just joined the police department last year, a raw recruit. This case had him worked up. I told him to unbutton that stiff uniform collar, take off that visored policeman's hat and relax a little, while I poured him a cup of tea.

Let's talk a little about the Barkhor. The Barkhor is a gigantic marketplace that runs in a circle around the famous Jokhang Temple, with streets and alleyways crisscrossing all over. Somebody reckoned that more than thirty thousand people come here every day to buy and sell and to worship Buddha. It must be several times that number on Sunday. You can see people here from almost every country on earth. The array of goods on sale puts to shame anything you could imagine. This is China's greatest antique and jewelry market. Millions change hands here every day. A solemn peddler of indeterminate nationality surreptitiously slips a jewel from his sleeve to show a foreign tourist. With a smile neither condescending nor servile, he holds up his fingers in token of offer or counteroffer, a thousand yuan a finger. From a peddler's rug on the street's second crossroad I bought an emerald-green turquoise, about as big as a couple of whole peanut shells. It weighed fifty-two grams. I thought it was pretty good quality. Well, actually, I don't know anything about the quality of precious stones. I just liked its shape and color, so I bought it. At first he wanted sixty. I offered him thirty. He laid out his rug at this same spot every day of the year. You couldn't reckon his age. Seventy was as good a guess as thirty-five. I'd been going over to the Barkhor for quite a while, so by now we knew each other on sight. From his face I decided he must be from somewhere in South Asia. Nepal maybe. Or else India or Pakistan. He spoke Chinese clearly enough that I could make out what he meant. We struck a deal at thirty-eight. That was last year, August twelfth—my desk calendar confirms the date.


You remember that little street that runs off the Barkhor's southwest corner, right?

(In fact I didn't understand what street Kelsang was talking about. Once I'm on the Barkhor I can't tell north from south.)

You remember how muddy it used to get there in the summer? They've been repaving it with concrete paving stones.

(I nodded. I didn't mean I remembered how muddy the street used to get. I meant I was listening.) They widened it too, so they had to cut into the courtyards on both sides of the street . . .

(I still couldn't work out what Little Kelsang was driving at.)

. . . and the city Works Commission started tearing down the courtyard walls. In one courtyard, where nobody lived but an old lady, they dug up a man's body, not even decomposed yet. The turquoise peddler, the one who used to have a stall on the corner. You've noticed there's a different peddler on that street corner now, a Khampa woman selling sheepskins.

(I didn't even think of telling him I had, in fact, noticed . . . I didn't want to interrupt his story.)

This old woman who lived in the courtyard had caved-in cheeks, not a tooth in her head. She said she didn't know the dead man. She had no children, she said, no regular occupation, but kept body and soul together by buying and selling used clothing on the street. She used snuff, no other unusual habits. The neighborhood committee told us that she'd moved to the Barkhor after the 1957 Lhasa uprising, a little over twenty years ago. They had no precise information about what she did before that. On the Barkhor, people are always moving in and out. It all gets so confusing. When we started to question her, she just stuck to her story. But after we threatened her, she spilled everything…


She said the dead turquoise-peddler was her lover. He'd left her all his things to look after. She'd sold them all. She said he had a nine-eyed cat's eye. (A top quality stone with just five eyes will bring in better than a thousand yuan.) He kept it on a cord around his neck, never took it off. She'd asked for it more than once, she said, but he always refused to give it to her. All he'd given her were a few ordinary turquoises. So she got him drunk. Then she got two itinerant Khampa peddlers to help her strangle him with a cord, buried him, and then, after all, she said, she didn't get the jewel. The two guys grabbed it and took off. How could she stop them? Cheating an old lady! Her father was Chinese Muslim, she said. She'd been a jewel-trader herself.

Three times we asked for a description of the two Khampa men. Each time she gave them a different description. We asked her their names and where they came from. She said in business you don't ask questions like that. You don't ask where goods come from, or where they're going. But she said by the sound of their accents they were from the Tibetan district of Sichuan Province. Well, could you believe her or not? She'd been here in Lhasa twenty years, and nobody knew anything about her. Who could say what she'd been up to in the past? There she sat, not a tooth in her head, her mouth all puckered, hollow cheeks—her face the portrait of a lifetime of hardship.

(And then?)

We went over her statement. Not a word of truth in all she said, I reckon. We figured she might have made up the two Khampa accomplices as a red herring. Imagine—thousands of Khampa traders up and down the Barkhor, how could we track them down with no description? And on top of that, she said they'd left the Barkhor, left Lhasa! Still we're going to dispatch a couple of men to search in the Tibetan district of Sichuan.

* * *
Selection from A FICTION
Gods are all alike: blindly self-confident . . . whence their egocentric faith in themselves. Each god believes himself extraordinary, unique. In reality they're all alike. In creation myths, for instance, their different methods are as similar as peas in a pod. The method is perpetual refabrication.
From an Apocryphal Sutra of the Legalist School

I'm Ma Yuan, that Chinese writer. I like to ride my celestial horse across the sky.

Some people say I went to Tibet for my writing. It's a fact I went to Tibet. It's also a fact that I've written hundreds of pages about Tibet. I talk about the people, the land, the stories that might happen in the land.

I've written about men, about women, about what they do together. I've written about brown eagles, bald vultures, paper kites, about bears, wolves, leopards, other dangerous animals, about little animals, some dangerous (like scorpions), some docile (like lambs), some neither dangerous nor docile (like foxes and marmots), and about my own species, about ways to live, ways to die. I've put it all down in my own extraordinary form. In fact I'm really not intrinsically different from other writers. I go observe something, then use the fruits of my observation as a basis to make something up. The celestial horse galloping across the sky assumes a prerequisite horse . . . and a prerequisite sky.

To write this story I risked my life by spending seven days in Machu Village, a forbidden zone quarantined by the government. I wanted to use this leper colony as a setting. A number of writers (and even more would-be writers) who have a rough time finding knockout material can only envy my nerve. I'm not like Hemingway, venting his spleen with an "Isn't it nice to think so." When I thought of it, I had to do it, and I did it.

Another writer might abandon writing rather than take the risk I took. Well, don't take it! I'm now residing in the Peace and Quiet Convalescent Hospital. It's called a hospital just to reassure the public. People in the know realize it's a mental institution. Here's where I live and write. The room is clean, about twenty square meters, with six beds. The maximum incubation period of leprosy is twelve years. I left Machu Village three months ago. I don't have any symptoms—yet.


. Lama: a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

. Khampa: a group of Tibetans who speak a distinctive dialect of the Tibetan language. The Khampa people dwell in Kham, the eastern region of Greater Tibet, lying partly in the eastern part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, and partly within Sichuan Province of the People's Republic of China.

. Sakyamuni: Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563 B.C.–c. 487 B.C.), the Buddha

. The author's family name, "Ma," is the character for "horse." He is literally Mr. Horse.

. The closing line of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.