The Vulture Maiden


The abbot Gelek Thargey stammered and lied and contradicted himself throughout the first part of his interview. Judicious use of an electric cattle prod helped strengthen his memory and increase his eagerness for self-criticism, but ultimately Zhogmi had to admit that the abbot knew nothing about the misappropriated funds, and was simply concerned with hiding certain noncelibate activities that might have been frowned upon in feudal Tibet, but that were scarcely his concern—especially since he carried orders for mandatory sterilization of two-thirds of the village women, with the additional proviso that 80 percent of existing pregnancies would be terminated immediately. Thus, the counterrevolution would be cut off at its source, and the Tibetan population reduced to a manageable level. He dismissed the abbot, who needed some help returning to the central hall; his shit-spattered legs could scarcely carry him.

More coherent but equally damning was the testimony of Tomo Rochi, the monastery’s nierba, or treasurer and storeroom keeper. Having heard his abbot’s screams, he threw the monastery’s books wide open for Zhogmi’s perusal. It quickly became obvious that most of the funds allocated for restoration had never reached the monastery. Because the DMC was responsible for disbursing all moneys, he understood that he must turn his real attention to the officers themselves. There was nothing more despicable in his eyes than a corrupt administration. Jowo Tenzin was, of course, his first suspect, but it would not be so simple to subject him to direct questioning. Those who had appointed Tenzin were still in power. Zhogmi dare not accuse him without undeniable evidence.

He instructed his team to continue interviewing the monks, confident that more obvious and easily crushed dissidence would be uncovered among them. Even such small-scale victories boosted morale. By nightfall the work team—except for a small contingent that had remained in the village—was fully situated in various drafty cells of the main temple. The monks were housed in the main dormitory—already prisonlike and easy to patrol; a few others were charged with feeding them. The fractious monk who had incited the Spring Festival uprising, the first one shot, turned out to have been the head cook. Zhogmi would not vouch for the quality of the food the cook’s frightened assistants prepared. It was another demonstration of the principle that criminal activity injured mainly the criminals themselves.

Zhogmi took a chamber in the main temple for himself. After preparing a bowl of noodles on a small camp stove, he sat huddled on his cot, wrapped in blankets, trying to keep from freezing. The stone walls and floor sucked all the warmth from the air; his oil-burning heater was useless against the endless chill. The work team’s voices and laughter echoed through the building, but scarcely filled it. Still, it was a more reassuring sound than the mournful, morbid chanting of the monks would have been. His mood was black. He kept thinking for no good reason of the old man he had shot, and the paintbrush, and that chipped wall smeared with blood of exactly the hue that had tipped the brush.

After a restless hour, in which sleep began to seem ever less likely, Zhogmi rose—still fully dressed and wrapped in a blanket—and took a lantern into the hall. Night had turned the temple into a cave; he feared a wrong turn might lead him into the bowels of the earth. Then he saw on a threshold the tear-shaped pattern left by a paintbrush, with a few bristles caught in the dried red pigment.

He stepped slowly into the room and played his light over the wall, looking for the suggestive outlines he had seen that morning.

The light trembled in his hands.

For a moment he thought it was an illusion, but he held his breath and moved forward to examine the wall. There was no mistaking it. A painter had been at work. In defiance of his orders, the restoration had continued!

What this morning had been a few curved outlines, now formed a solidifying shape. The figure looked almost feminine, but there was something grotesque about the shape of the head. He knew it was not unusual for these barbaric figures to possess a multitude of arms, but here the shoulders and limbs were blurred—probably through the artist’s haste—and poised in a position that made little sense in terms of human anatomy. Where before, the figure had been hollow, with no inner color other than that of the wall, now it was a deep, rich red, as if the old man’s blood had soaked into the stone and spread to neatly fill the contours.

None of these details surprised him nearly as much as the sheer fact that it had been painted at all. Who would have dared? And how could they have managed it, with the temple occupied all day by the work team?

Some rogue monk must be hiding in the temple, or coming and going by an unknown entrance. He backed out of the room and began calling for his men. No one would sleep until they found their culprit. This suited Zhogmi, as he knew he would find sleep impossible in any case.

The members of the DMC dwelt at the edge of the monastery grounds, in a row of small prefabricated houses. At first, Zhogmi intended to rouse them all, but he decided to strengthen his relationship with Jing Meng-Chen alone for now.

Jing Meng-Chen came out uncomplainingly, instantly cooperative, though he looked puzzled when Zhogmi explained the reason for the search.

“I don’t see how that could be. Painted, you say?”

“Clearly by one of the monks, and not one we had in our custody.”

“All the monks have been accounted for. They are all in your charge.”

“Then some other artist—a layman working with them.”

“Not to contradict you, but—”

“Speak your mind. I’m sure your thoughts run close to the truth.”

“There’s no one qualified to continue that work. We requested other artists from some of the larger monasteries to help with the painting, but never received permission. Gyatso Samphel was to do all the major work himself. Few in this area are sufficiently trained even to follow his instructions.”

“Some clever rascal must have managed to hide his skill from even you.”

“Can I see this restoration?”

“If you think it will give you some idea of its author, yes.”

As they hurried across the compound, shouts from the dormitories told them that the monks were being roused for questioning. Zhogmi asked Jing Meng-Chen whether there might be any overlooked entrances to the temple, and he admitted that there were a few small apertures through which even a child would have trouble squeezing. Then they reached the mural.

Jing Meng-Chen’s surprise was no greater than Zhogmi’s. In the brief interval since he’d last seen the wall, the restoration had continued still further!

The red body of the goddess now was dotted with dozens of colored specks, like an array of violet, green, and golden stars just coming into focus in a telescope. And she had eyes now. . . round black eyes gleaming wetly in that troubling, incomplete face. Jing Meng-Chen ran a finger over the wall, looked at it. “Dry,” he said.

“Someone’s inside the temple!” Zhogmi cried.

Jing Meng-Chen turned toward him with an amazed look. “I’m telling you: no one here could do this.”

“What skill does it take to wave a brush?”

“Sir, we weed out potential subversives early on—that means the intelligentsia, anyone with talent. Once, the best Tibetan minds might have studied in the monastic colleges, but today that would be an explosive situation. Talent is discouraged. This is how it must be.”

“You’re saying that all the monks are morons.”

“No, most are simply mediocre because uneducated. We want them that way. Thus, the tourists—if they ever come—will see what appears to be a functioning, vital monastery, and they will contribute generously to its operation; but meanwhile, the words the monks chant are meaningless to them. When the Tibetan tongue finally ceases to be spoken, then the texts will seem even more nonsensical … and the religion will naturally die out as planned.”

“All this happens slowly, Jing Meng-Chen. Many still remember the old ways, and will engage in subversion to restore them.”

“But this. . . .” He raised his hands to the wall painting. “This goes far beyond subversion. This is the work of a skilled and knowledgeable artist. I tell you: I know each of the monks here; I know them intimately. None is capable of this. I was raised in that village out there, and there are no artists in it. Gyatso Samphel was the last!”

“Then what are you saying? That this image is painting itself?”

Jing Meng-Chen’s face grew pale. “Certainly not!”

Zhogmi regretted that he had even expressed this fanciful impossi­bility, for it made him appear as superstitious as the locals. He turned away from the wall. “There’s a rational explanation. Someone in our midst who comes and goes without attracting attention. Tell me. . . .”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell me about Jowo Tenzin.”

Jing Meng-Chen hesitated. “He is a good man, devoted to the Party, determined that the monastery function in accordance with official policy.”

“So it would appear. He is full-blooded Tibetan, is he not?”


“And can we be certain where his loyalties lie?”

“I think so. He’s not a religious or superstitious man. Nor does he have any artistic skills I am aware of.”

“Nevertheless, I am convinced he is practiced at deception. His record books are a tangle of what I believe to be deliberate obscurations, disguised to look like mild incompetence.”

“Are you saying he steals from the monastery?”

“Not from the monastery, from the government! The monastery has no money of its own. If I prove this crime against him, it is likely that he will be suspected of others.”

Jing Meng-Chen looked pained.

“No one likes to hear such things about his superiors; but I have reason to think Tenzin soon may be leaving his post. Would it please you to lead the DMC yourself?”

“I’ll happily serve the Party in whatever office is entrusted to me.”

“But you can tell me nothing more of Jowo Tenzin?”

“No. I did not realize the accounts were in such disarray. I am sorry to hear that he is under suspicion.”

“Not only for theft.” Zhogmi gestured toward the red figure. “This is also a serious transgression.”

A member of Zhogmi’s work team appeared in the doorway. “Nothing,” he said.

Zhogmi felt an overwhelming futility and exhaustion. Dismissing the man, he turned back to Jing Meng-Chen.

“I’m sorry to have interrupted your rest,” he said. “It’s obvious we’ll learn nothing more tonight. But please . . . no word of my suspicions to Jowo Tenzin.”

“Of course not.”

Jing Meng-Chen bowed sharply, then hurried from the chamber.

Zhogmi listened to his footsteps receding, then faced the mural and marveled at the audacity of its creator. There was something seductive about the creature it depicted. Her curves were sinuous, openly erotic, as were in a way the eyes. He was well aware that the old gods of Tibet were often portrayed in a manner to arouse the lust of celibate monks—to keep them more firmly bound to their religion by infusing it with sensual snares. And all while they denied the importance of the body. Such hypocrites, these Buddhists!

He moved back to the far wall and sank down, retrieving the blanket he had dropped there earlier, drawing it around him. The red figure seemed to waver as he stared at it, but that was fatigue, making the whole room swim. He would guard the wall himself tonight; no further restoration would be allowed. It seemed strangely important that the renegade artist not be allowed to finish, as if to complete the painting were an act of revolution.

The painted jewels glimmered like actual stones. His eyes watered, but he forced them open. His mind wandered along the lithe lines of the figure, the suggestions of firm, small breasts, a dancer’s hips and thighs. If only the face and head were clearer—he could almost imagine a pretty woman’s face materializing around those eyes. She seemed to smile in greeting, though her mouth was oddly proportioned—too wide, too stiff. . . . And then he realized why the arms were held so strangely, and why they appeared blurred. They were not arms at all, but wings.

Outside, he heard a stirring of air. He fought to keep his eyes open, to stay on guard. But he felt drugged, betrayed. Ceasing to struggle, he slept.