The Vulture Maiden


On the far side of Shining Hill, just below the crest, lay a broad slab of brown-stained granite where Jing Meng-Chen worked quietly and quickly with a sharp curved knife, cutting deftly through tendon and muscle, ripping cords of sinew, twisting bone from meat. A woman’s thin brown arm came loose from her shoulder; he laid it on the rock beside its twin, then started in on the legs. While he worked, he whispered the few words of the Bardo ThodolThe Liberation Through Hearing—that he remembered, wondering if the woman’s spirit could hear him, wondering if she saw the vultures that circled overhead and waited just out of reach on the flat rock that formed their table. Toward the edges of the rock, some were already feeding. Broad-winged shadows crossed over him again and again as he worked, stitching patterns on the stone that were, in their own dark way, reassuring. Some things, at least, had not changed; some traditions, when disguised as necessary surreptition, could still be carried out. The elaborate rites of the Bardo Thodol were well on their way to being forgotten, but the vultures would never lapse in the duty nature had given them.

Five more bodies lay in a row on the rock behind him. He had sent away Zhogmi Chhodak’s men when they’d finished carrying the bodies up to the rock, and they had been eager to leave when they saw what he intended. And Jing was grateful to be alone, to mourn in his own fashion, as he cleanly cut the lines that had attached him to these lives.

As he worked, he gathered small identifying articles from each victim—a turquoise ring, a string of mani beads—which he would give to their families later. Only Gyatso Samphel, whose body was the last in line, had no living relative. Jing Meng-Chen had been closest of any to the old artist.

Jing Meng-Chen was not Chinese; his Tibetan name—the name his parents had given him—was Dorje Wangdu. His family had lived near Shining Hill for generations, following old ways of life, with some of their sons joining the monastery, some daughters going to the nunnery, which survived only as a bomb-blasted heap down in a cleft of the hill below the table rock. Most of his ancestors had been trained in the necessary rites of sky burial. It was the rock of the Vulture Maiden.

Shining Hill had for ages been known as the “Shining Hill of the Vulture Maiden,” but that name had been considered too unsavory by communist officials when they came through with their maps seeking likely tourist sites, applying new Chinese names to places that already had ancient Tibetan ones. The Vulture Maiden was a revered local deity, an ancient goddess traditionally associated with this peak, this specific rock. The early Bonpo sorcerers had appeased her with magic and traded offerings for her favors. The great Indian saint Padmasambhava had challenged her to a magical battle on the condition that if he defeated her, then she must become a defender of Buddhism. The Vulture Maiden, failing to injure him, had become a ferocious protector of the faith. Today her powers were more spiritual than temporal, but it had not always been so, according to the stories old Gyatso Samphel had told Jing Meng-Chen when he was a boy:

“Many hundreds of years ago, a band of Mongol brigands attacked our village,” the old artist had once told him. “They plundered the stores, then assaulted the nunnery on Shining Hill. There was no monastery in those days. The Vulture Maiden was worshiped there by twelve nuns. In fact, her incarnation dwelt among them as a beautiful girl. It was she who met the marauders as they rode over Shining Hill. The chief robber was stunned at the sight of her, not knowing that she was a goddess, thinking her nothing but a lovely maiden. He vowed that if she willingly surrender­ed herself and became his bride, he would spare the other nuns. She agreed in order to spare her sisters suffering, but of course he was lying. No sooner had he put her on his horse than the chief robber ordered his men to take the nunnery. The Vulture Maiden rose straight up in the air, huge wings appearing from her shoulders, and into the nunnery she flew, locking the gate behind her. The furious robbers set fire to the building—which in those days was made of wood. As the smoke and flames began to rise, cries came from inside the nunnery, but gradually these cries became hoarse and strange, until finally the roof collapsed in an explosion of sparks and clouds of smoke. At that moment the brigands saw thirteen huge vultures rising from the pyre, circling into the sky. The Vulture Maiden, you see, had reverted to her proper form, and taken her devotees with her. And since that day, the vultures have watched over Shining Hill.”

“What of the robbers?” Jing Meng-Chen had asked.

“Ah, they fled the wrath of the Vulture Maiden, but they couldn’t run fast or far enough. Eventually, unable to eat or sleep for fright, they toppled from their horses and died where they fell. And then . . . they were eaten by the nuns!”

Today, as Jing Meng-Chen worked, there were substantially more than thirteen vultures in view; it was as if they had come from all over the mountains to this offering. They were all shaggy, weather-beaten birds; any one of them looked ancient enough to be one of the original thirteen. But which, he wondered, was the Vulture Maiden? Gyatso Samphel had said she could take any form—that, in fact, the beautiful maiden and the hideous bird were really the same thing . . . for the dead, when offered up in a sky burial, perceived the vultures as beautiful women coming to carry them to heaven.

Jing Meng-Chen hoped that these innocent dead, villagers and monks, might find some beauty in their last sight of earth. They had seen such ugliness in recent decades. If only the Vulture Maiden had turned them all into vultures when the occupying armies flooded into Tibet; when, instead of one nunnery, thousands were destroyed. As vultures, they could have circled above their land, screeching out the vanity of conquest, reminding the Chinese that one day they would stagger and fall, and the waiting birds descend.

But no miracles had aided Tibet in recent years. The Vulture Maiden and the Buddhas and bodhisattvas, the dakinis and spirits of water and rock and sky, all had stood helpless before the weapons and overpowering numbers of the Red Chinese army. In the late 1950s and into the early ‘60s, the crushing might of the mainland had been brought to bear on the peaceful, unprotected people of Tibet. Their ragtag army, equipped with ancient muskets and rifles that they were scarcely trained to use, fell quickly. The physical devastation of war and occupation was horrible, but even worse was the constant psychic torture.

Shining Hill was far removed from the centers of fighting. Dorje had been a toddler when the troubles first reached his village, though there had been a Chinese prefect in the region for several years, his authority nominal and his attempts at enforcement halfhearted. Then one day a cadre of enthusiastic young Communists had arrived to commence the village’s reeducation. For a time the populace had grudgingly conceded to the demands of the cadre and learned to spout socialist maxims; but they soon grew to hate and resist the fanatical lessons, which were full of attacks on their beliefs and traditions, undermining their cultural identity. The core of this resistance came to be located in Shining Hill monastery, a huge and sprawling brother to the smaller but thriving nunnery on the far side of the hill. The monastery was a village in itself, patrolled by gangs of vigilant dob-dob, or fighting monks, who for years, though studying side by side, had fought for narrow margins of advantage within the monastery. With the arrival of the Chinese, the gangs had joined as allies. It was they who launched the first and last open demonstration against Chinese rule . . .

Little Dorje Wangdu had heard the thunder from Shining Hill and seen the plumes of smoke and dust. He joined his family in running to witness the battle. The monks had slings and stones and a few old rifles, but raking machine-gun fire kept them from the ramparts of their best-defended buildings, and cannon soon blasted even the thickest walls into rubble. The weapons of the army formed an impenetrable wall below the monastery, keeping back the villagers; no one could have ventured into that field without being crushed. The people watched in helpless horror. Occasionally, chips of shattered stone, flung by the fury of an explosion, stung their faces. For Dorje Wangdu, the sight itself was a cruel shard that buried itself in his brain, never to be dislodged.

Nor were the months that followed any easier to forget. The vultures stayed thick as snow clouds over Shining Hill. His father and older brother spent days dragging bodies from the ruined monastery and nunnery, taking them to the rock table, doing their accustomed work. They came home in shock, their faces stretched taut by a grief they dared not show before the soldiers for fear of being punished as sympathizers. For the eyes of authority, they wore masks of stone—visages hewn from the bedrock of their rage and sorrow. They managed to look neutral, even obedient. Jing Meng-Chen had molded his own features in their likeness, and the imitation of obedience had served him well ever since.

One terrible night, leaders of the cadre had come to rouse Dorje’s family for an emergency thamzing, or struggle session. These were regular features of village life under the cadre, but never had Dorje’s family been the target of the session—and never had the child himself been forced along. He was scarcely old enough to understand when his parents were accused of conspiring with monks and nuns to read from the forbidden Bardo Thodol while performing sky burials; there were other charges he did not understand. Some accusations, his parents and brother denied; others, they silently accepted. The villagers were forced to join in the accusations, to criticize the family’s betrayal of socialist principles. Many were in tears as they stammered out condemnations at the cadre leader’s prompting. Finally Dorje’s father flew into a rage, screaming at his old friends and companions, demanding they stand up to the Chinese and fight as the monks had done.

The meeting hall grew quiet. Jing Meng-Chen still remembered the fear Dorje Wangdu had felt in that silence, and the way the cadre leader had smiled very patiently, as if he understood everything; he still remembered how the cadre leader had taken out his gun and knelt beside him, whispering very soothingly to Dorje Wangdu as he fit the shiny gun into the little boy’s fingers.

At first, Dorje Wangdu did not understand how or why he had come to be the center of attention. The gun glittered very prettily, and it felt cold and heavy in his hand. He had always wanted to hold one, so he did not understand why his parents’ faces suddenly filled with dread.

The cadre leader showed him how to aim the gun, directing the boy’s arm until it pointed at his father. Dorje Wangdu looked into his father’s eyes and saw that they forgave him, but he didn’t know why he should be forgiven, or what he was about to do. Then the cadre leader’s finger gently pressed the boy’s finger, which lay lightly and nervously upon the mysterious trigger. And there was a sound. . . .

A sound. . . .

Dorje Wangdu died in that moment. Died as his father died. His soul stepped away from his body and watched his father fall. The disembodied spirit watched the cadre leader instruct the sad, dead little boy to repeat this action twice more, so that his mother fell, and then his brother. And the cadre leader, being very pleased with the boy’s uncompromising adherence to principles, thereupon adopted him and gave him a shiny new Chinese name, which was necessary because Dorje Wangdu was dead, and his body needed a new name to suit the lifeless force that inhabited it.

He had dwelt in the village, but apart from it, ever since. The cadre leader had eventually transferred to another village, but was not permitted to bring along a Tibetan child. Jing Meng-Chen remained behind, living on the welfare of the villagers, which was sparing—for though many pitied the orphan, their fear and mistrust were greater. He had lived too long with the Chinese.

Only Gyatso Samphel had reached out to him.

On the table rock, Jing Meng-Chen came at last to Gyatso’s body. Soon his work would be done. It was grisly work, yes, but it was honest and necessary, and not nearly as grim as the work he would continue when he had finished here, when he would return to the monastery to do the bidding of Zhogmi Chhodak.

He laid the old man gently on the stone. Dusty black birds flapped around him, impatient for him to finish; they were already busy feeding elsewhere, tearing strings of raw meat, circling up with bloody bones they sometimes dropped when fending off others with snaps of their black beaks. But the vultures were far less fierce and agitated than his thoughts. . . .

Jing feared he had betrayed himself when Zhogmi Chhodak shot Gyatso Samphel. He had been unable, in that moment, to suppress a cry of grief; and afterward he’d had to force himself to wear a mask thrice as emotionless as any he’d ever adopted, in order to dampen Zhogmi’s suspicions. Nor had Jowo Tenzin’s look of disgust been easy to ignore. Tenzin knew how much Gyatso had done for him. But there was no other way to survive among the Communists; that much Jing knew. One must be even colder, even more extreme than the worst of them, in enforcing regulations; one must pretend to a bottomless servility in following orders; and one must finally feign utter stupidity or else risk being branded an intellectual . . . and thinkers, under this regime, rarely survived. If the villagers and the monks and his fellows on the Democratic Management Committee considered him coldhearted, ruthless, servile, and stupid, all this was to his credit in the eyes of the overlords. And in the end, through such deception, he might better serve those who neither loved nor trusted him, but to whose service he had devoted his life: the Tibetans. His people.

So I serve you now, Gyatso Samphel, he thought, as the curved knife sliced through flesh, snagged on sinew, twisted in deep sockets of bone to sever the stubbornest points of attachment. I free you from the suffering of this earth and offer you up to the Vulture Maiden you loved.

Gyatso Samphel had spent his youth in the Shining Hill monastery, training as a religious artist, painting murals and thangkas. After the destruction of the monastery, he had been the lone survivor with exact knowledge of the Vulture Maiden’s iconography. As he told Jing Meng-Chen, each image was precisely and geometrically constructed, her limbs always in certain sacred proportions and configurations, the hues of her skin and feathers always mixed to a precise shade of red. There must be so many jewels precisely arranged in her ornaments, and the sacred weapons and flowers and bells she held in her many hands must be thus and thus without exception, since each possessed a deep significance to those capable of understanding and explaining the illustration. Gyatso Samphel had not studied long enough to learn the significance of each ornament, but it was enough that he could reproduce the image exactly. Others might be versed in its analysis, but if none of them had the skill and training to reproduce the Maiden properly, she might still be lost. He had carried her image in his memory and nowhere else for three decades, since the destruction of the temple, when the soldiers had chipped the Vulture Maiden’s image from the one wall that had escaped annihilation in the shelling. When permission and funds finally came to restore the temple, money was set aside specifically for Gyatso’s restoration of the Vulture Maiden mural. First the temple itself had been rebuilt around that remaining scarred wall. When the outer structure was complete, Gyatso—excited almost beyond his ability to bear—had begun ritually to prepare his paints. Only today, on the auspicious occasion of the first Spring Festival allowed in the prefect in decades, had he begun the actual painting.

A few fine outlines were all he had committed to stone. And now the image of the Vulture Maiden, which Gyatso had preserved for all these years, was lost forever. What remained of her was decaying in the head that Jing Meng-Chen now severed from the frail shoulders, the sunken chest. Gyatso had been ill for the past year. Only the dream of completing his Vulture Maiden had kept him alive—but dreams could not stop bullets.

No inner strength could finally keep Jing Meng-Chen from collapsing. He hugged the pathetic head to his chest, pressed his own cheeks to the old man’s lifeless ones, weeping helplessly. Hearing a rattle of stones on the hillside behind him, he spun around frantically, fearing discovery.

But it was no one. No one but a great vulture, the largest he had seen today, sitting at the crest of Shining Hill. It raised its wings and rose into the air, screaming hoarsely, blotting out the sun.

Jing Meng-Chen was seized by a sorrow that might have belonged to Dorje Wangdu. Something inside him came loose with a tearing pang, and he offered it up in a kind of sky burial, just as he offered the head of his last and only friend.

The vulture swooped low and snatched the round head from his fingers. He watched the creature rise and rise, spiraling upward until she was a tiny speck vanishing like an ash into the sun’s pyre.