The deity floated on a throne ringed by fire. His face, which was pinched into an angry frown, displayed large, keen eyes, puckered lips, a flared nose, and enormous ears that stuck out like butterfly wings. His robes and headdress were gaily decorated in a profusion of colors, flowers and beastly images. When Sigourney looked at his feet, she saw the legs and paws of a tiger. She asked the deity where she should go, but a great roaring sound filled her ears, and she couldn’t hear his reply. Billowing, white clouds surrounded the deity. She found she could step from one cloud to the next, but when she approached him, he floated away from her. The deity pointed towards a mountain range that had appeared in the distance. Then, he rose into the sky and disappeared.
Sigourney blinked her eyes and shook herself awake. The image of the deity was gone, but not the mountain range. It rose above the valley floor to her left, and she realized that was where they were going. Up there, into those mountains. She was astonished at this revelation and would have liked to ask the driver about it, but he spoke no English. Besides, he was too busy trying to avoid the Chinese authorities to be distracted right now.
It had been a harrowing ride. They had taken endless back streets to avoid the main boulevards where the police were watching. Eventually, they had popped out onto a paved road and they were now roaring along at a swift pace, passing a large monastery that sat like a medieval fortress against a rocky outcrop in the hills to her right. She suspected it was one the monasteries she was scheduled to visit with her group, but that was in another lifetime when she was only a tourist. Now, she was a fugitive, and the idea of exploring monasteries was as elusive as the deity in her dream.
The driver slammed his brakes, sending Sigourney thumping into the passenger’s seat in front of her. He pointed at two police cars stationed less than a mile up the road and said something in Tibetan. She didn’t need to understand him to know they were in trouble. He turned onto a dirt road and headed for three farm houses grouped nearby. Dust billowed about them when he stopped behind the nearest house. An elderly man emerged from the doorway and spoke to the driver. The situation wasn’t good. There was no sign of an alternative road that could circumvent the road block, and there was no place to hide for very long in the flat, open farmland surrounding them.
Sigourney knew she should be more frightened, but her senses had been dulled by the emotional upheavals of the past few hours. At that moment, she wanted nothing more than to find a quiet place to rest her tired body. She briefly considered handing the manuscript to the Tibetan farmer and walking down the road to the waiting police cars. What a tempting thought! It would put an end to her fears and avoid the hardships she knew awaited her. She was astonished to find the idea of surrendering so comforting. Was this how fugitives felt when they were on the run, she wondered? Did they have a subconscious desire to be caught? Probably not. She was just tired, hungry, and dehydrated. She hadn’t eaten since last night, nor drunk any water since rising early that morning.
But, she wasn’t just hungry; she was alone. John had been her support system, and now he was gone. She looked across the cheerless fields and fought back a sudden urge to weep. She wasn’t certain how she was going to face her ordeals, but she knew she must find a way.
An old woman using a crude stick as a cane stepped out of the nearest house and motioned to Sigourney to come inside. She got out of the car and followed the woman into a small room with a cement floor and open stove. The walls around the stove were covered with smoky grime. The woman pointed to a wooden chair and set hot, butter tea and cooked bread dough on the table. Sigourney assumed the dough was tsampa. The unusual taste of the tea reminded her of a rich soup that had just started to turn rancid, but she hungrily devoured it along with the dough, then looked guiltily at the wrinkled woman standing in front of her. The woman leaned on a handle strapped to the end of her pole and smiled, revealing a mouth missing most of its teeth. Her dirty dress and faded yellow cap told the world how poor she was.
Sigourney hastily removed some of the coins John had given her and offered them to the woman, but she only laughed and shook her head no. When Sigourney tried to insist, the woman gently wrapped her hands around Sigourney’s and pushed the money away. The woman lifted her cane and tapped the valise, which hung from the chair. Sigourney could see in the woman’s unwavering gaze that she knew whom she was.
Sigourney was tempted to show the old woman the manuscript, but the driver burst into the room shouting and motioning for Sigourney to leave. When she emerged from the house, she saw that the police cars were gone! She waved to the old woman and hastily piled into the car. The driver was already gunning the engine. They shot down the dirt road and back onto the pavement like a cannon ball.
Sigourney watched the landscape whizzing past her window. Big, woolly yaks adorned with red ribbons were pulling wooden plows through the rough earth, just as they had done on the vast, wild plains of the Tibetan plateau. That part of her journey was like a dream to her now. A different woman had made that trip, a naïve woman who expected to waltz into Lhasa, deliver the manuscript and fly home. The new Sigourney was scared out of her wits but still determined to fulfill her quest. She pulled John’s phone from her jacket and nearly pressed the red button, before remembering he wouldn’t have a replacement for at least three days. He was supposed to be her lifeline to the outside world, and she couldn’t reach him.
Her thoughts were interrupted when the driver abruptly turned off the paved road onto a dirt one aimed at the mountains she had seen earlier. Their new route was not so much a road as a teeth-rattling series of rocks and cavities which made normal progress nearly impossible. The car banged and thumped along as the driver maneuvered over and around the road’s obstacles. Sigourney gripped the seat with both hands and tried to prevent her head from bouncing off the ceiling.
The road became marginally better as they entered a narrow valley and began to pass tiny villages. Goats, pigs, and yaks roamed freely along the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains. Mounds of wheat stood like golden igloos in the fields. Peasants pitched the wheat onto wooden carts, filling each cart until the grain hung over the sides. They reminded Sigourney of the busses packed with people in Kathmandu.
They were climbing steadily, and soon, a thin layer of snow appeared in irregular patterns on the fields. The spring-like morning Sigourney had left behind in Lhasa turned into a bone-chilling, sleet-gray day. The snow line crept relentlessly closer, until the entire valley was blanketed in a winter-white coat. She could see that winter came early to this bleak valley, if it ever left at all. It made her wonder about the journey that lay ahead.
She thought about John sitting behind her empty seat in the van. She should be there with him, instead of plunging into this unknown world. It wasn’t too late to turn back. John had said the Karmapa was the most important religious leader in Tibet. She could leave the manuscript with him and return to the hotel. The Chinese might be angry with her, but without the manuscript there was little they could do. She could see John again. She could take a hot bath and forget her fears. It was a compelling idea. She would wait until she met the Karmapa, before making up her mind.
The valley narrowed, and the mounds of wheat were replaced by hundreds of yaks wandering through the snow foraging for food. Near the far end of the valley, a series of prayer flags stretched across a nearly frozen stream, signaling their approach to the Tsurpu Monastery. They rounded a bend, and she saw the monastery’s roof line tucked against a hillside of tortured rocks. What a happy sight it was! She leaned forward like an excited child on her way to Disneyland.
To her surprise, the driver stopped the car and signaled for her to get out. When she hesitated, he pointed to his eyes and said something that sounded like “spiis.” It took her awhile to understand he was saying spies. He was telling her she couldn’t go any further by car, because spies would see her. He pointed to the side of the road. She had to wait there, but for what? For someone to fetch her? For dark? She pulled her jacket around her and looked at the icy landscape outside her window. She had dressed warmly enough to visit the Potala at dawn, but she hadn’t prepared herself for this. When she opened the car door and stepped outside, thousands of tiny icicles assaulted her face and lungs. She shivered and frantically looked around for a place to escape the wintry air. The driver pointed to a small cave in the rocks by the stream, and she gingerly made her way down the icy slope to its entrance. Sigourney looked back in time to see the driver put the car in gear and drive off towards the monastery.
Panic flooded her, and she clambered part way back up the slope, before resigning herself to the fact that she had been abandoned. She watched the car disappear around the mountain before returning to the cave. Sigourney peeked into the dark opening, half expecting a bear or other wild beast to leap from the shadows and devour her, but only an eerie silence greeted her. As her eyes adjusted to the low light, she was relieved to see that the cave was empty. Cautiously, she stepped into the small opening and sat down on a rock near the entrance. The air crackled with an icy edge that made her shake uncontrollably, and her breaths hung in the air in a series of ghostly shrouds. She wanted to move about to keep warm, but she had to stay hidden from the road. The cave was too small to walk around in. All she could do was wave her arms and hug her chest.
A grinding noise shattered her solitude, and she heard the whine of a truck’s engine being shifted into a lower gear. Her spirits rose, and she poked out her head, expecting to see her driver returning to rescue her. Instead, she saw the mottled green and brown colors of a military truck and quickly ducked back into the cave.
Her shivering finally subsided, and she thought about Anne’s experience when she nearly froze to death on that mountain pass. Was that beginning to happen to her? Probably not, she surmised. She was still too miserably cold. Sigourney bent forward, wrapped her arms under her legs, and waited.
Other than a tiny gurgling sound from the nearly frozen stream below her and the occasional whispering of a light, fitful breeze, an incredibly deep silence seeped into the pores of her world. There were no sounds of animals or birds. Nothing moved. The valley was as still as a cemetery.
The white snowscape outside her cave slowly turned murky gray, telling her that dusk had arrived and that night wasn’t far behind. Her mind was dulled from the insistent cold, but she had made up her mind. Once it was dark, she was going to walk up the road to the monastery, spies or no spies. She couldn’t stay where she was much longer.
A new sound broke through her consciousness, the sound of crunching snow. Someone was slogging through the snow outside her hiding place! No sooner had she realized this than a figure filled the cave’s entrance, causing Sigourney to squeak with fright and jump to her feet, banging her head against the rocky ceiling. She froze, her heart hammering like a piston, and waited for the figure to do something.
“Miss Phillips?” a voice breathed into the growing darkness.
Sigourney started at the sound of her name. “Who are you?”
“I am your guide, Sukhang. Come with me, please. We must hurry to monastery. Many people looking for you.”
Sigourney nearly slumped to the ground, thankful that the mental battle she had been waging for the past few hours was over. Someone had come for her. Someone who knew her name and would help her. She still emerged cautiously, ready to retreat back into her hole at the first sign of trouble. I’ve become a frightened animal, she thought as she stretched her stiff back. She had to look closely in the failing light to make out Sukhang’s features. He didn’t look Chinese--his eyes were too round and his complexion too dark--so she assumed he was telling her the truth, that he was there to help her, not take her prisoner. She had little choice but to follow him. Where else could she go? If she stayed where she was, she’d be dead by morning.
Sukhang handed her come clothing. “Put on over your clothes. Wear this hat. Make you look Tibetan.”
Sigourney smiled inwardly as she slipped on two layers of dresses and a jacket with sleeves much too short for her long arms. Each step in her journey was bringing her closer to Anne. All she needed was some oil and charcoal on her face to complete the transformation. The clothes immediately made her feel warmer. She carefully strapped the valise under her dresses, then nodded to Sukhang that she was ready to go.
“Many soldiers,” he told her as they began walking along the road. He took quick, busy steps that gave him the appearance of scampering. “Is the same everywhere, I think. At all monasteries. Everyone looking for you, for your book. We pretend to be peasants but not enter monastery. Go to monks’ sleeping rooms.”
The weak lights of the monastery half a mile away beckoned to her. Walking felt incredibly good after her cramped isolation, and she quickly fell into a rhythm, matching two of Sukhang’s hurried steps to one of her own. Her aching muscles began to stretch, and she felt so warm she couldn’t imagine that less than fifteen minutes ago she had been close to freezing to death. Night had fallen around her, filling the road with deep shadows that forced her to keep a keen eye on where she stepped. Sukhang proceeded with the confidence of a mountain goat, and she followed closely behind him. Stars filled the sky like swarms of fireflies, telling her the heavy blanket of clouds that had followed her up the valley was gone.
Three soldiers were talking and smoking cigarettes near the entrance to the monastery. Their casual vigilance gave her hope that she could slip into the monastery unnoticed. Sukhang walked right past the gates without looking at the soldiers. Sigourney remembered how Anne had described her humble demeanor, and she did her best to emulate her. She stuck her hands in her pockets to hide her long arms, lowered her head, and trudged modestly behind her guide. One of the guards said something in Chinese, and his companions laughed raucously. Sigourney understood it was a belittling remark about them, and she had to fight the urge to stop and confront the rude man. Nearby, a group of nomads had set up camp, encircling their campsite with a wall of large, burlap sacks to protect themselves from the wind. The glow of a small fire danced off the interior walls, and murmuring voices floated into the night.
Sigourney was relieved when she turned a corner and lost sight of the guards. Sukhang approached a small door in the wall. It was opened by a monk who smiled and invited them to enter a colorful courtyard lined with potted plants. Half-a-dozen doorways covered by cloth flaps led to the monks’ living quarters. Sukhang pulled back one of the coverings, and Sigourney followed him into a smoky sitting room with a metal stove in one corner. Heat radiated from wood burning in a hole at the stove’s base.
“You sit there.” Sukhang pointed to a wooden lounging chair covered by thin padding. He pushed his hat back and scratched his head near his right temple, as if trying to decide what to do next. It was her first chance to see him clearly. She guessed from his leathery skin that he was middle aged. His face was round, his nose flat. Not a handsome face, but a kind one. His black eyes shone with an intensity that gave him an eager look. He was so much shorter than Sigourney, she had to resist the impulse to rest her elbow on his shoulder.
She sat down where he directed. “What do we do now?”
“Wait for Karmapa. Go to him. It is great honor.” Sukhang took an old tea pot, swirled it to check for water and shoved it on the stove.
“Can you tell me about him, Sukhang? Why is he so important?”
“Karmapa complete cycle of births and reach Nirvana, but he come back and help others. Karmapa like Dalai Lama. His spirit move from person to person. This Karmapa’s spirit found when he seven years old.”
Monks entered the room from time-to-time, and each smiled warmly at Sigourney as they prepared more tea and left. She marveled at how serene they looked, despite the Chinese soldiers outside their door and the harsh climate in which they lived. She needed to find such serenity in her own life. It was something she would work on when she got home. Home. The word brought images of Debbie to mind. Sigourney had expected to see her daughter in three more days. She still could if she left the manuscript with the Karmapa. All the more reason to do so, she thought.
The chair wasn’t particularly comfortable, but she found the exhausting day taking its toll, and her eyes closed.
Sigourney became aware of something nudging her shoulder. When she opened her eyes, she discovered Suhang shaking her.
“It’s time,” he said.
Sigourney looked at him in a groggy state of confusion. Then, she remembered. She was waiting to see a boy god in a monastery somewhere in the mountains of Tibet.
Sukhang handed her a white scarf. “When you see Karmapa, you give this.”
She took the scarf and followed her guide into the courtyard. A number of people were entering and leaving through the main gate. She glanced nervously at the soldiers, but they paid no attention to her. A broad stairway led to the monastery’s entrance, where a monk waited at the top of the stairs. He greeted Sukhang and led them inside. They passed the deserted assembly hall and climbed a steep, wooden stairway to a small audience chamber on the second floor.
When they entered the chamber, Sigourney saw a teenage boy placidly eyeing them from his seat on a raised platform. Sukhang immediately fell to the floor and prostrated himself. Sigourney wasn’t sure what she should do, until she noticed a number of white scarves draped on the railing in front of the platform. She walked forward and added her scarf to the others. The boy stared at her without blinking, his face as impervious as a stone chorten protecting a mountain pass. Only his dark eyes moved as he observed his visitors.
A monk in flowing robes strode into the room just as Sukhang stood up. The monk began talking to him in a strident voice. Sukhang nodded several times before turning to Sigourney.
“Karmapa wishes to know why you come here. Say you bring soldiers. Cause much trouble.”
Sigourney looked at the boy in surprise. His eyes burned into hers with such astonishing force, it took all her strength to hold his gaze. Hadn’t he been told about her mission, she wondered? About her flight from those very same soldiers? An unexpected tension darted helter-skelter through the room like a wayward spirit. She had expected to be greeted with warmth, or at least understanding. Not such a confrontational remark. She paused for a moment to gather her thoughts. He must know why I’m here, she thought. Perhaps, he wants to hear from me. I must show strength, if I expect his help.
Perspiration damped her brow. An hour ago she had been freezing. Now, she was uncomfortably warm, but she didn’t know if she was permitted to remove her jacket. The boy never moved a muscle or changed his serious expression.
Sigourney turned her attention to the monk who had spoken. He stood with hands on hips, making it clear he was unhappy. Instinctively, she knew from his assumption of authority that he must be Tsurpu’s head monk. “Please tell the Karmapa it is not my intent to cause trouble,” she said in a halting voice. “I am hiding from these soldiers so I can return a very important manuscript to the Tibetan people. To the Samye Monastery.”
Sukhang spoke rapidly to the monk, who glared at them both. Sigourney was beginning to feel rather foolish standing there. Surely the Karmapa already knew this. Otherwise, why would he have accepted her visit? And why were they not permitted to talk to him? They were forced to talk to this other monk, instead, and it was clear that he wasn’t very sympathetic to her circumstances. To make matters worse, she had no idea how clearly Sukhang was translating her words. She knew enough about languages and interpreters to know the true meaning of a dialogue could easily become lost under such circumstances.
The monk spoke angrily to Sukhang, who shifted his feet uncomfortably. “Karmapa say you leave manuscript with him. He see it get to Samye.”
There it was. The moment of truth. The Karmapa was willing to take it off her hands, just as John had suggested. All she had to do was hand it over and high tail it back to Lhasa, before further damage was done to her already fragile situation. She could be home with Debbie in a matter of days. But could she be sure the manuscript would be safe? Sigourney was trying to understand the misgivings she had felt ever since the robed monk had entered the room. She could feel a wayward spirit flying about her, looking for a place to land.
Before Sigourney could decide how to respond, the voices of the chanting monks began to rumble inside her valise. The manuscript was speaking to her, warning her of danger. She watched the Karmapa’s eyes. They blinked. He heard them, too! A hint of movement caught Sigourney’s attention, and she turned her head in time to see a dark shadow fall across the monk’s face. Sigourney tried to breathe but couldn’t get enough air. The darting spirit was stealing her air and suffocating her. She opened her mouth and sucked at the oxygen in the room like a baby at her mother’s breast. At last, she caught her breath and stared at the monk. The shadow was gone, but she had seen it. It was the same warning Anne had described in her diary! This was Tsurpu’s head monk, and he was the source of danger she had sensed. In that instant, Sigourney knew her fate was sealed. She had no choice but to continue her quest, to turn away from home and plunge further into the icy unknown. She gripped the wooden statue in her pocket and took several more deep breaths. The spirit had landed, and her breathing returned to normal.
“Please thank the Karmapa for his kind assistance, but I must take the manuscript there myself.”
Sukhang hesitated, pushing back his cap and scratching his head. His pained expression made it clear he was uncomfortable with her reply and didn’t want to confront the Karmapa. She nodded to him, and he finally spoke in his most beseeching voice.
The monk speaking for the Karmapa glowered at Sigourney and yelled at Sukhang, who hung his head and nodded vigorously.
“Karmapa demand you turn over manuscript now,” Sukhang translated. “Say it too dangerous for you to deliver.”
Sigourney stared at the monk. His angry posture and haughty behavior told her he wasn’t used to being disobeyed. Power radiated from the man. Whatever his motives, he wasn’t to be trifled with. Silence grew like a malignant tumor around her. Her nails dug into her palm as she clenched her fist around the statue hidden in her pocket. The voices continued to chant, but she realized the head monk couldn’t hear them. Only she and the Karmapa knew of their presence.
What had she gotten herself into by coming here, and what should she do? How long could she defy this belligerent monk? Sigourney looked back at the Karmapa and saw a tiny smile playing at the corners of his broad-lipped mouth. He knows the manuscript is warning me, she realized. As soon as Sigourney understood this, another insight manifested itself in her consciousness. The head monk had his own agenda, an agenda that put other interests ahead of hers and the book’s, and the Karmapa knew it. She drew another deep breath.
“I want to respect the Karmapa’s wishes, but I think it would be more dangerous for monks to transport the manuscript to Samye than it will be for me. The Chinese are watching every monastery and searching every monk. I can go disguised as a pilgrim and slip past them, just as I did coming here. I will cover my skin with charcoal and butter oil and dress as a poor pilgrim who is visiting the monasteries. I will protect the manuscript and never let it out of my sight, just as I have done for the past five days.”
Sukhang translated as she spoke, hesitantly at first, then with greater strength as he felt the power of her conviction. When he finished, the head monk opened his mouth to speak, but the Karmapa raised his hand.
“Enough,” he said. He spoke English! Had he understood everything she had said? “I know very little English,” he continued in answer to her question. “You have honored Tibet and done a great . . . “ he turned to Sukhang and said something.
“He say you do a great deed for Tibet,” Sukhang translated.
The Karmapa spoke rapidly in Tibetan.
“He say you are wise and brave. He say he trust you. He agree you take book to Samye Monastery. He arrange it.”
Sigourney exhaled, releasing the tension from her body like steam from a pressure cooker. Even the glare of the head monk couldn’t affect the burst of happiness she felt. She bowed her head and smiled. His smiled broadened in return, and he spoke again to Sukhang.
“We stay here tonight,” Sukhang said. “Tomorrow we join caravan. I go with you, be your guide.”
Sigourney took another deep breath. There was more she wanted to say, but not in front of the angry monk. “Sukhang, please ask the Karmapa if I may have a private audience with him, with you acting as my interpreter.”
Sukhang was so startled by her request, he couldn’t speak. She realized she might be committing a serious breech of protocol, but she didn’t care. She didn’t trust this other monk, and she had to make her feelings known to the Karmapa. She wanted to be sure her quest wouldn’t be compromised by spies or hidden agendas. At last, Sukhang spoke, and the Karmapa nodded his head knowingly. He talked quietly to the head monk, who immediately stalked from the room.
Please forgive my impertinence,” she said once they were alone. “I do not know who to trust, other than you. I believe it is best if no one else knows I am here. The manuscript is warning me of danger. I hope you will understand my fears.”
“I share them,” he said in English after Sukhang had translated. He continued in Tibetan. “The monk you met is very trustworthy but concerned about the dangers the book may bring to my people if the Chinese find it. Only the most trusted monks will help. Tomorrow, you will leave with the caravan camped outside. I will ask them to change their route. They will take you over the mountains to the Samye Monastery, not through the Yarlung Valley. That will confuse any spies. I will say many prayers for you. Once you return the book, your name will be written in our history forever.”
With that, the Karmapa rose and strode imperiously from the room while Sukhang prostrated himself once more. Sigourney was amazed that a boy of fourteen could be so mature. His training the past seven years had been very effective.
The head monk returned. His manner was now conciliatory, but Sigourney couldn’t shake the feeling of danger surrounding him. He ordered a young monk to take them back to the sleeping quarters, where she was shown to an empty room with a simple bed and chair. The bedding looked old and heavily used. She cringed at the idea of sleeping on it, but she was much too tired to debate the subject. Before she undressed, the young monk returned with butter tea, meat and tsampa. She had been so focused on her meeting with the Karmapa, she’d forgotten all about her hunger, but when she saw the food, her stomach turned summersaults. She devoured the food like a starving refugee and collapsed on the bed without removing her clothes.
She was about to drift off when she remembered the manuscript’s warning, and she forced herself to get up and look around the room for a safe place to hide the valise. Nothing looked promising, so she removed the manuscript and slid it between the thin mattress and rope webbing under her bed. Then, she placed the valise on a wood stool next to the bed and lay back down. Soon, she entered a dreamless void that was so dark and silent, she couldn’t remember anything about it the next morning.