The Vulture Maiden


Jing Meng-Chen shivered with fear as he hurried back to his house. Restoring itself, Zhogmi Chhodak had blurted. Impossible—but no more so than his other explanations. There simply was no one in the area versed in such painting—and no one who knew the attributes of the Vulture Maiden as thoroughly as Gyatso Samphel.

As he approached his house, he received an additional shock. Someone hurried out of the shadows, seizing him sharply by an elbow and drawing him around the corner. He knew from the man’s huffing breath that it was Jowo Tenzin, even before he spoke.

“Jing! Where have you been? What’s the commotion?”

“Zhogmi Chhodak believes someone is continuing the restoration work on Gyatso’s mural.”

“Painting? But that’s impossible.”

“I told him as much, but still—the work speaks for itself.”

“You’ve seen it?”

“Yes. Skillfully done, and quickly, too. It looks just like Gyatso’s work.”

Jowo placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know how close you were to him, Jing. You—you were practically his son.”

Jing did not feel comfortable confiding in Jowo Tenzin, especially after Zhogmi’s warnings. He merely nodded and said, “I must be alone now.” Jowo stood aside, and Jing went on into his tiny home.

He threw himself down in the dark, hoping to escape the mesh of anxious thoughts. Sleep, however, would not come. He kept hearing the morning’s gunfire and feeling the bullet graze his shoulder; he remembered the cry of the vultures and the way his knife had parted limbs and ligaments. He could not shake the sight of the Vulture Maiden. She seemed to brighten and solidify on the inside of his eyelids, as if Gyatso Samphel were alive within him, painting her there, imbuing the image with his own lost life.

It was further thoughts of this nature that sent him from his bed and across the monastery, stopping once near the temple entrance to answer the challenge of a work-team guard. He made his way over the gravelly hillside, into the warren of old cells that had once housed monks and supplies. The little structures were all crumbled and open to the elements, save for the one that Gyatso Samphel had restored, patching the roof and supplying a door that lay open tonight, creaking in the wind. Inside, he found and lit a candle stub. Gyatso’s few belongings were in disorder; no doubt the work team had considered this a likely hiding spot for their supposed rebel artist. Gyatso’s brushes and pencils lay on a small shelf, with vials of colored powders and various sorts of paper. Gyatso had collected scraps of all colors and sizes, using them as blank surfaces for sketching. Jing rummaged among them until he found what he sought on the back of a packing slip. His breath lodged in his throat when he smoothed the sheet against the wall.

It was the Vulture Maiden, beyond any doubt. She was lightly and rapidly sketched, but still exquisite, complete with all her ornaments and delicate gestures of arms and wings; her slyly cocked head and gaping, curved beak gave her the look of life. She matched almost exactly the goddess now taking shape on the temple wall. This was one of Gyatso’s preliminary sketches, a hasty packing-slip thangka.

Jing folded up the paper and slipped it into his jacket. If he got the chance, he would compare it to the mural, and prove to himself that it was precisely the design Gyatso had carried in his head. But more than that, he took it with the thought that it was the most precious thing Gyatso had possessed, and therefore the most meaningful token of his friendship.

Looking around the barren cell, he was overwhelmed by thoughts of all the hours he had spent with Gyatso here and in the village. After the cadre leader abandoned him, Gyatso had taken him in. Young Jing had loved the old man; it was the only emotion he had allowed himself. He gladly would have learned the painter’s craft had Gyatso not persuaded him that his own family’s trade was a necessary one, and must not be lost. Gyatso had insisted that he keep on in his family’s tradition, knowing the boy needed some means of clinging to them. He had arranged for Jing to spend part of each year in a neighboring village, apprenticed to a man who performed the sky burial. The Communists did not officially condone the practice, but they appreciated its utility in disposing of their victims. He learned to recognize the signs of abuse on many of the bodies—places where the flesh had been torn by dogs, or burned, or otherwise tormented; he saw the shattered skulls and crushed ribs and evidence of rape; bullet holes and knife thrusts and marks of strangulation. These encounters in his profession helped him hold an unaffected demeanor in the face of other horrors, which quickened his promotion into official positions. He came to be considered a man in whom confidence could be placed.

Gyatso Samphel had been the only one who understood Jing, who knew his troubles and his secrets, and that his aims were not the obvious ones. None of this was ever discussed, but the understanding went beyond words.

And now it was gone. His last connection with any person—severed.

He extinguished the candle stub and hurried out, once more crossing near the temple, once more enduring the questions of a guard who didn’t recognize him. This time when he reached his bed, he collapsed and slept until the reflected glare of Shining Hill woke him. There was no kangling call this morning. Shouted drill instructions echoed from the dormitory. He could not bear to face the work team, and besides, he had a grim errand to run in the village. He started down the road before the sun had cleared the mountains.

He spent the morning knocking on certain doors, returning the tokens he had collected from the dead. His appearance at any house was an occasion for grief, extinguishing the final, feeble hopes of those whose loved ones had not already returned from the monastery. For once, he felt their grudging respect. They knew he had conducted the sky burial according to tradition, preventing further desecration and dishonor. But this was little consolation to Jing Meng-Chen.

By noon he was on his way back to the monastery, making his way down a narrow street at the edge of the village, when a truck pulled up, and someone shouted for him to stand still. He looked up to see one of the work-team men holding a gun on him.

“Get in,” the man said. Another member of the ledhon rukhag leaped down and waved him into the covered bed of the truck.

“What’s wrong?” Jing said as he crawled up. The man jabbed his calf with the barrel of his gun; Jing gasped and sank down, rubbing the bruised muscle.

“Trying to get out of town?” the man said, grinning at him. “There’s no way out for you.” The gunman squatted across from him, aiming his gun at Jing’s groin, one finger playfully stroking the trigger. Jing doubted the man would harm him, not without express orders—but he didn’t know what orders might have been given.

When they reached the monastery, the truck halted directly in front of his house. The gunman bid him leap down, and Jing was glad to do so—until he saw Zhogmi Chhodak coming out of his house, followed by soldiers. When Jing saw his face, hope deserted him.

“I am very disappointed in you, Jing Meng-Chen.”

Jing was afraid to say a word. He knew how innocence, viewed from the proper perspective, could look exactly like guilt. He looked away from Zhogmi’s eyes, which offered no mercy in any case, seeking clues to his situation.

Zhogmi motioned for Jing to follow him around the back of the house, where a large rock had been rolled aside to reveal a hole freshly dug in the earth.

“There is no point in evasion,” Zhogmi Chhodak said.

“What was in it?” he allowed himself to ask.

The other man’s mouth grew sterner. “I had hoped you would cooperate. You’ll only make things harder on yourself.”

“Please. . . .”

“This morning I removed from beneath that rock a small chest full of gold coins—purchased, no doubt, with temple funds.”

Jing said, “And how did you come to be looking under rocks?”

“That is none of your concern. Suffice it to say that there are progressive Tibetans who will undermine all subversive activities, even though they may not oppose you openly.”

“I know nothing of gold,” Jing said, knowing that it was a pointless admission.

“And I suppose you know nothing of this, either.”

Zhogmi reached into his jacket and took out a folded scrap of paper. It was Gyatso’s sketch of the Vulture Maiden. He had left it beside his bed.

“That’s mine, yes. I took it last night from the old man’s cell. I wanted to check it against the mural. Ask your own guards; they saw me.”

“You were seen crossing the compound late at night—no doubt using a secret entrance to the temple.”

“Why should I do such a thing?”

Zhogmi’s face grew dark. “To finish the mural, against my orders!”

Jing suddenly realized that the work-team leader was terrified. He scarcely managed to hide his fear behind a professional rage.

“It’s finished?” Jing whispered.

“You deny it?”

“You think I did it?”

“I was in that room myself,” Zhogmi said. “You drugged me, didn’t you? Then you must have painted all night—a superhuman effort that will gain you nothing and cost you more than you know.”

Jing could think of no response. He was absorbed in thoughts of the Vulture Maiden. He longed to see Gyatso’s work completed.

“Come,” Zhogmi said. “Before we work out the details of your confession, I have a task for you.”

With three soldiers behind, and Zhogmi striding before, Jing was taken to the temple. Shafts of afternoon light scarcely warmed the shadowy stone corridors or the desolate central hall. Jing felt as if the building itself were in mourning, its stillness a lament for absent voices, silenced bells.

Zhogmi thrust Jing Meng-Chen into the chamber of the mural.

Suddenly he understood Zhogmi Chhodak’s fear—he felt some of it himself, though his awe and admiration were far stronger.

The Vulture Maiden loomed large on the wall, her bright body red as polished ruby, her eyes like wet onyx, her beak diamond-sharp and poised to snap, her wings so powerful and brilliantly drawn that he could almost hear the air cracking as they cut it. She fulfilled all the promise of Gyatso’s sketch, but went far beyond it in execution. In the paper sketch, she hung alone on a blank background. Here she hovered and danced in the air above Shining Hill. The crag was done in what looked like liquid gold, intensifying what meager light was already in the room. The sky was green and blue, and of a translucence that entirely concealed the stone beneath it. Where the Vulture Maiden wore feathers, the wall seemed made of feathers; where she was flesh, the wall looked soft and alive. In the air behind the Maiden were a dozen of her consorts, the vulture nuns, each as lifelike as she, each poised to dive—or perhaps just rising. In their claws, some carried struggling bodies in dark blue and drab greenish brown. The blue was a traditional color symbolizing the ego, but the green reminded him of nothing so much as the soldiers’ khaki uniforms. Perhaps it bore a political message, after all—though the artistry was transcendent. On the crest of Shining Hill stood a lone human figure holding in one hand a knife curved like the new moon, and in the other a severed head. The figure was small, but, like all features of the painting, intricately detailed. Jing leaned forward to see its face, but Zhogmi roughly pulled him back.

“What you created with a brush, you shall destroy with a hammer,” he said. There was a pile of tools on the floor—hammers, picks, chisels. Zhogmi picked up a heavy sledgehammer and thrust it at him; Jing could only stare at it.

“But why?” he murmured.

“It’s intolerable! Your old friend the painter was poisoned with primitive beliefs. He worshiped vultures—birds of death! Such supersti­tions will destroy you!”

“The vultures eat only what is already dead,” Jing found himself saying. “We are the ones who kill.”

Zhogmi must have seen the hate unveiled at last in Jing Meng-Chen’s eyes. After so many years of hiding his emotions, keeping his thoughts always in reserve, he knew that this tactic had outlasted its purpose. Further concealment would gain him nothing now that he was suspect. Your old friend the painter, Zhogmi Chhodak had said. Which meant that someone had betrayed him to Zhogmi; the same person who had planted the gold behind his house, and convinced the work-team leader that Gyatso Samphel had taught Jing how to paint: Jowo Tenzin. Jowo had taken desperate steps to remove suspicion from himself. But Jing could not really blame him. To Jowo, he must have seemed a terrible traitor—to his people, his parents, to all Tibet. Who better to sacrifice than the collaborator? The resemblance to justice was almost irresistible.

“You can’t make me do it,” he said.

Zhogmi’s eyes poured scorn on him. “You’re a disgrace to the Republic! A traitor to your race!”

“Yes,” Jing admitted, “I have disgraced my people—but only by pretending for so long to be one of you. I am Tibetan, Zhogmi Chhodak. Tibetan!”

Zhogmi looked dismayed. “But—”

“What confused you? My name? I’m surprised you haven’t Sinicized your own by now. Wouldn’t your superiors permit it?”

Zhogmi shifted his grip on the hammer.

“If you won’t destroy the wall, then I’ll destroy you.”

“You’ll do that anyway.”

Zhogmi’s lips curled in a snarl. He thrust Jing into the hands of his aides and advanced on the mural with the hammer raised. “Weep for your precious wall, then. Superstitious fools—how easily you cry over stones.” He swung the hammer in a wide arc, bringing its weight crashing full on the crown of Shining Hill.

The whole earth shook beneath the hammer’s blow.