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"Sift the sand to find the seeds of the universe."
The voice that came to Shan Tao Yuri through the night was like wind over grass. "Let them reach the original ground then plant them," the lama said as Shan's gaze drifted from the white sand in his palm to the brilliant half moon. He knew his teacher Gendun meant Shan's original ground, the seedbed of his soul, what Gendun called Shan's beginning place. But on such a night he could not shake the sense that Tibet itself was the true original ground, that the vast remote land was the world's beginning place, where the planet, and humankind, never stopped shaping themselves, where the highest mountains, the strongest winds, and the most rugged souls had always evolved together.
Ten feet farther down the river's edge Shan's old friend and former cellmate Lokesh chanted quietly, beads entwined in his fingers, his mantra almost indistinguishable from the rustle of the water. Shan breathed in the fragrant smoke of the juniper branches they had brought to burn at the water's edge and watched as a meteor flew over a low distant shimmering in the sky, the only hint of the snow-capped mountains that lined the horizon. It seemed he could reach out and touch the moon. If the earth had a place and a season for growing souls this was surely it, the chill moonlit spring of the high Tibetan wilderness.
Shan watched as though from a distance as Gendun gently opened Shan's fingers and lifted his hand toward the moon, then lowered it and turned Shan's wrist to empty the sand into the small clay jar they had brought from their hermitage ten miles away.
"Lha gyal lo," a voice murmured on Shan's opposite side. It was the caretaker of the hermitage, Shopo, his voice cracking with emotion. "Victory to the gods." They had arrived at the river at dusk, and only now, after the lamas and Lokesh had spent two hours speaking with the nagas, the water deities, had Gendun decided Shan could begin collecting the special white sand.
"Lha gyal lo!" an excited voice echoed halfway up the slope behind them. It was one of the four dropka, Tibetan herders, who had escorted them to the river and now stood guard, nervously watching the darkened landscape. Gendun and Shopo were outlawed monks engaged in an outlawed ritual, and the patrols had grown aggressive.
Without even sensing the movement, Shan found his hand back in the water, and when he lifted it out it was full of the white sand again. In the moonlight he saw Lokesh's eyes widen and gleam with excitement as, slowly repeating the motions Gendun had shown him, Shan washed the sand in the moonlight then emptied his palm into the jar.
Gendun's face, worn smooth as a river stone, wrinkled with a smile. "Each of the grains is the essence of a mountain," the lama said as Shan's hand dipped into the water once more, "all that is left when the mountain has shed its husk." Shan had heard the words a dozen times during the past two months as they had ventured into the night to collect sands from places known only to Shopo and the herders. In their turn each of the vast peaks that lined the horizon would be reduced to such a grain, Gendun explained, and so it would be for all mountains, all continents, all planets. It would all end as it began, in such tiny seeds, and humankind in all its glory could never match the power reflected in a single grain. The words were a way of teaching impermanence, Shan knew, and of showing respect for the nagas from whom they borrowed the sand.
Shan sensed a distant drumming noise in his ears and the moon seemed to edge even closer as he gathered another handful for the jar. His hand reached toward the clay jar then froze in midair as a frantic voice split the stillness.
"Mik tada! Watch out! Run!" It was one of the dropka sentinels on the ridge above. "The fire! Dowse the fire!"
Shan heard feet scrambling over the gravel of the slope above and looked up to see two men silhouetted in the moonlight, realizing in the same moment that the drumming was not in his head. It was a helicopter coming in low and fast, the way Public Security operated when raiding Tibetan camps.
One of the guards, wearing a black wool cap, darted to the water's edge, futilely pulling on Lokesh's shoulder, then moving to Shan's side to tug on his collar. "You have to go patch that god!" the man shouted. "We must flee!"
Shan let himself be pulled to his feet, his spine chilling as he looked first toward the helicopter, then at the lamas, who only smiled and continued their homage to the river. Gendun and Shopo were accustomed to risking imprisonment for simple acts of reverence. And though Shan and the dropka might be disturbed by the increased pressure from Public Security, there was only one mystery that ever concerned Gendun, the mystery of growing and strengthening souls.
"If it is Public Security they will drop soldiers over the ridge to surround us!" the sentinel groaned as he kicked sticks from the small fire. "They will have machine guns and devices to see in the night!"
Shan studied the man in the black cap warily. He had more than a mere herder's grasp of Chinese weapons and tactics. Shan suddenly realized that he had not seen the man before, that he had not been part of their escort.
Gendun replied by raising a finger to his lips, then gestured toward the water. "There are nagas," he observed quietly.
"The sand will be useless if you are arrested," Shan whispered, his hand on Gendun's shoulder.
"There are nagas," the lama repeated.
"It's only sand," the stranger argued, casting a tormented glance in the direction of the approaching helicopter. Public Security had its own ways of teaching impermanence.
As Gendun turned back to the water Lokesh was suddenly at the stranger's side, pulling him away from the lama. "We are creating something wonderful with that sand," Shan's old friend whispered, the white stubble of his whiskers glistening in the moonlight. He placed his hands on the man's shoulders to be sure the young Tibetan was listening and gazed into his face. "When we are done," he explained in a solemn, confiding tone, "it will change the world."
The man in the black cap illuminated an electric lantern and aimed the beam into Lokesh's face as if doubting he had heard the old Tibetan correctly, then, as the sound of the helicopter surged to a crescendo, he snapped off the light and dove to the ground. A moment later the machine was gone. It had skimmed the ridge above but had been traveling too fast to deploy troops.
The man in the cap lit his lantern and muttered under his breath, casting an accusing glance at the other guards, who had gathered behind Lokesh with sheepish, even embarrassed expressions. He aimed the light beam into each man's face, settling it on Shan's, which he studied with a frown. "You are supposed to be delivering an artifact," he said to Lokesh, his voice heavy with impatience. He did not move the light from Shan. "We are," Lokesh agreed. "We are preparing for the journey," he added with a gesture toward the two lamas, who continued to speak over the swift dark river.
"Preparing?" the man scoffed. "What have you been doing for two months? You're not preparing, you're taking root! You will ruin us!"
Shan stepped beside Lokesh and pushed the man's lantern down.
"Those who brought the artifact agreed that the lamas will decide the proper way to return it." He knew now the stranger, like those who had brought the sacred artifact to Shopo's hermitage, was a purba, a member of the secret Tibetan resistance.
"You mean Drakte agreed."
"Drakte is one of you," Shan asserted. He and Lokesh had met Drakte nearly a year earlier aiding prisoners in the gulag camp where they had served. It had been Drakte who had intercepted them two months ago and taken them to Shopo's hidden hermitage. "We will go when the lamas and Drakte are ready. He is coming to show us the way. A few more days at most."
"We don't have a few more days," the purba groused. "And don't expect Drakte. He's not keeping his appointments."
"Missing?" Shan noticed a bulge under the man's jacket, at the waist, and looked back at Gendun. If the lamas thought the man had a gun they would insist he leave.
The purba shrugged. "Not where he was asked to be."
"And you've come in his place?"
"No. But I was hoping to find him at that hermitage. There is news. And I brought something he had asked for," he added in a peevish tone. "He said the lamas needed it. He said if we did not agree to retrieve it he would go himself, all the way to India if necessary." The purba lowered a long, narrow sack from his shoulder and produced an eighteen-inch-long bamboo tube, which Lokesh eagerly accepted.
"What news?" Shan asked.
Before he replied the man pointed to one of the herders, then to the top of the hill where the guards had been watching the road beyond. The herder sprang up the slope. "A man was killed. An official, in Amdo town," he said, referring to the closest settlement of any size, nearly a hundred miles away. "Public Security will sweep the hills and detain people. When they interrogate, they will learn of the hermitage." He cast another frown toward the lamas. "You may call it sacred, what you are doing, but they will call it a crime against the state." He took a step toward Gendun as though to try again to drag him away, but a herder in a fleece vest stepped forward with a hand raised in warning.
"Do you have any idea how dangerous this is?" The purba's hands clenched and unclenched repeatedly. He seemed ready to do battle with them. "No one told us you would wander around the mountains like this. You could go to prison, all of you. For what? You can't fight the Chinese with sand and prayers."
Lokesh uttered a hoarse sound that Shan recognized as a laugh. "I have known Chinese prisons," the old Tibetan said. "Sometimes sand and prayers are the only way."
The purba fixed Shan with a bitter stare. "You are the famous Chinese who fixes things for Tibetans. You know better, but still you let them do this."
Shan paused to study Gendun and Shopo. "If these lamas asked me to jump into this river with my pockets stuffed with rocks," he said quietly, "I would thank them and leap in."
"Llia gyal lo," the herder in the vest whispered, as if to cheer Shan on.
Lokesh touched the warrior's arm. "It is difficult for one so young to understand these things," the old Tibetan said. "You should return with us to the hermitage and see."
“Unlike Drakte, I obey my orders," the man snapped. "I am needed elsewhere.”
Lokesh raised the bamboo tube in his hand. "Then look now," he suggested, extracting a roll of cloth from the tube. As Lokesh straightened it Shan saw that it was an old thangka, one of the cloth paintings used to depict the icons of Tibetan Buddhism.
When the purba's light hit the painting the man grimaced and retreated a step. One of the dropka guards moaned loudly. It was the image of a fierce demon, with the head of a bull garlanded with human skulls, surrounded by swords and spears and arrows, holding a cup of blood. The flayed skins of its victims lay at its feet. Lokesh studied the image with a satisfied grin, then motioned the purba forward.
"Look carefully," the old Tibetan said, pointing to the head of the terrifying image. "This is what we are doing. This is how we win without violence. This is how the artifact will be returned, how that deity is going to be repaired. Because this is what he is becoming."
"Who?" the purba asked, the anger in his voice now tinged with confusion.
In the dim light Shan thought he saw surprise on Lokesh's face, as though the answer were obvious. Then Lokesh gestured from the skull-clad demon to Shan. "Our friend. Our Shan."
The spell cast by the words silenced the purba and the dropka, all of whom stared uneasily at Shan. Shan searched Lokesh's face for an explanation, but his friend just grinned back expectantly, as if he had given Shan a great gift.
Suddenly another desperate cry split the air. The guard at the top of the ridge frantically stumbled down the slope. "A patrol! Knobs!" he cried, meaning the soldiers of the Public Security Bureau. The purba and Shan leapt up and moments later gazed down at a troop transport half a mile away, edging its way slowly toward their position.
"That helicopter spotted us," the purba said. "Last month they used infrared to find an old hermit who only came out at night to pray." Shan sensed the fierce determination rising in the warrior's voice and shuddered.
At the river three of the dropka were in a cluster around the lamas, facing outward, as if preparing to engage the knobs with their staffs. The fourth, the man wearing the fleece vest, stood apart, staring into the black water. As the purba marched purposefully toward the lamas the herder in the vest spun about and hurled himself on the purba, shoving him to the ground, then just as abruptly pulling away. In his hand was a large automatic pistol.
"You fool!" the purba spat. "They have to be taken away! We can't fight those knobs."
Shame crossed the herder's face as he looked at the pistol in his hand, and he held the weapon clumsily, fingers around only the grip, not touching the trigger. "You see that one," he said, nodding toward Gendun, who still communed with the river. "My mother stays at that tent by the hermitage. She calls him the Pure Water Lama. You know why? Not just because he never registered with the bastards at the Bureau of Religious Affairs, but because he took his vows more than fifty years ago, before the invasion. Before the Chinese scoured our land and changed it forever. He has never gone into exile, never been captured. His words are uncontaminated, my mother says, because they flow from a stream the Chinese never discovered." The man spoke slowly, with a tone of wonder, as if he had forgotten the knob patrol. Beside him two of the herders knelt at the river and began collecting pebbles.
"I need my gun," growled the purba, still sprawled on the ground. He was scared, Shan saw. Sometimes traditional Tibetans hated the purbas as much as the Chinese. "We need to get them out of here."
The herder shook his head. "I have never done anything with my life," he said in a hollow voice. "The Chinese would not let me go to school. They wouldn't let me travel. They wouldn't let me get a job. I'm like a little stunted tree that can never grow, and that one, the Pure Water Lama, he is like the towering survivor of a forest where everything else was leveled."
He cast a smile toward Gendun, then looked at the purba, his face hardening. "Here is how we protect such men," he said, and he threw the gun into the black water. The two herders at the river's edge rose and stepped to his side, pulling slings from their pockets. "We have heard how to do this from others. We will smash their searchlights and fill the air with stones. If we are lucky they will not see us. Chinese soldiers get scared in the night. They hear stories of demons." He glanced at the thangka, still in Lokesh's hand, then at Shan. "The lamas must fill the jar," he said to the purba, "and then you will take them back. My younger brother knows the way," he said, gesturing toward the remaining herder. "If we do not stop the patrol, you are the one who best knows how to evade the soldiers."
When the man lifted his sling his hand shook. "Patch the deity," he said in a rushed whisper to Shan, then faded into the shadows with his companions.
As Shan helped the purba to his feet the man looked into the darkness, in the direction the herders had gone, a mixture of anger and awe on his face. "That artifact," he said in a hollow voice, "I hear it's just a little piece of stone."