The Vulture Maiden

Zhogmi dropped the tool and staggered backward. It was as if a gong had been struck deep in the hillside and continued to vibrate. The walls and floor rippled like silk flags in a thick wind. The work team stumbed into the hallway, dropping their guns. A rain of dust hid them from sight. Throughout the temple, Jing could hear explosions of glass, the crash of falling masonry. He crouched in the doorway, which seemed a point of calm in the chaos. Zhogmi knelt in the center of the room, staring up at the Vulture Maiden.

The wall was shattering. Cracks spread from the peak of the painted hill, reaching through the glowing sky, quickening around the forms of the Vulture Maiden and her nuns, loosening them from the wall like separate pieces of a puzzle. As the wall crumbled, daylight came pouring into the chamber—but a richer, more golden and liquid light than Jing had ever seen. Its eerie intensity seemed to purify everything it touched. Shining Hill burned with the brightness of a thousand Tibetan dawns. The sky looked unreal, like the sky in a thangka. In that boundless heaven, thirteen fragments of the wall still floated.

The vultures of paint and stone hovered on a high, cold wind whose agonized keening embodied the suffering of Tibet. The twelve consort birds tipped their wings and began to descend, skating rapidly down the sky while the Maiden waited.

Figures in uniform fled across the hillside, running from the shaking buildings, seeking shelter. Rocks tumbled down the slopes, but the men ran heedless of earthly danger. Stretching shadows reached for them. Some turned and squinted at the sky, raising guns to fire—but the guns made no sound, and the vultures did not falter. They snatched up the men in golden talons, and Jing could hear no cries.

As the earth began finally to settle, Zhogmi Chhodak regained his feet, leaning on the hammer like a crutch. He raised it to aim another blow at the sky, as if he believed this entire scene were an image painted on stone; as if they had fallen into the wall and somehow, by brute force, he could smash free of it. Seeing such fanatical determination, Jing doubted his own vision of reality. He feared that his mind had shattered at the hammer’s first blow—that Zhogmi alone had pierced the illusion and broken through to the truth.

He couldn’t bear to see Zhogmi proven right and himself proven mad. A hammer might destroy the Vulture Maiden, but a bullet would certainly stop Zhogmi Chhodak. He could preserve this vision—at least for himself. If it were a dream, then it was one he could live with forever—it didn’t matter that no one else saw it. This was his truth.

The Vulture Maiden’s huge pinions flapped once, gently, as she began her spiraling descent. The monastery was in ruins; the room lay open to the sky, tumbled stones blocking every avenue. Zhogmi held the hammer poised for a killing blow. Jing reached for one of the fallen guns.

Down she swooped, passing through the ranks of her rising consorts as they pushed up toward the heights. Down she came, screaming—

Jing paused, remembering the last time he had fired a gun. This time he would kill an enemy. Would the death of a foe cancel out those of his family?

Then the Maiden cried again. She swooped over Jing Meng-Chen, opened her claws, and dropped something. Jing let go of the gun, threw up his hands—and caught it.

It was Gyatso Samphel’s living head.

As the Vulture Maiden soared up again, Jing stared in amazement at his old friend’s face. The eyes were bright, the mouth smiling.

“Dorje Wangdu,” said Gyatso, calling him by his true name, “this is not our fight alone. The gods are threatened, the faith, the land itself. Don’t despair—our defenders are beside us. Today the Maiden comes for Zhogmi Chhodak. You see? You need not kill him. His soul is already dead.”

Jing looked over at Zhogmi Chhodak, standing staunchly with the hammer cocked, waiting for the Maiden to descend. There was animation in his body, but no life. Jing felt as if he were seeing himself as a child—but far gone. It was death that held the hammer. Death held Zhogmi rigid, a robotic semblance of a man, soulless and obedient. Jing could smell the stench of a rotting soul. He felt a moment’s pity, and then only a professional calm.

The Vulture Maiden swooped again, avoiding Zhogmi Chhodak, and dropped a final gift to Dorje Wangdu.

It fit his hand like another finger. He felt the air humming around the curved blade as if the metal surface were one with his flesh.

The Vulture Maiden waited.

Dorje Wangdu walked up behind Zhogmi and placed a hand on his shoulder. At first, Zhogmi Chhodak didn’t move—his full attention was fixed on the Vulture Maiden. Then his shoulders slumped, all the sickness flooding out of him, deserting his body. When it departed, there was nothing left to animate the flesh. He surrendered at last to his culture.

The Vulture Maiden came only when invited, but she did not have long to wait. Dorje worked quickly. And when she was done, the sky swallowed her up as if she had never been.

Dorie Wangdu knelt on the hillside in the ruins of the monastery as the glow went out of Shining Hill, and the sky lost some ineffable part of its luster. Gyatso Samphel’s head had vanished, as had the sacred knife. Nor was there any evidence of Zhogmi Chhodak to incriminate him in all the long investigations that would surely follow.

After a time he heard voices calling, and a familiar head appeared over a mound of broken masonry. It was Gelek Thargey, the abbot. He let out a cry on finding someone alive in the rubble.

“The ledhonrukhag fled,” he gasped, helping Dorje climb up. “They left us alone in the dormitory. By a miracle, none of us was harmed—many of the soldiers have been crushed! But you survived.”

“Yes.” He came out unsteadily. Monks were combing the wreckage of the temple. He saw no uniforms.

“We will have to rebuild again,” Gelek Thargey said in a resigned tone of voice, limping along beside him. “At least it was a natural disaster—and not man-made. Do you think we’ll be able to find the money, Jing Meng-Chen?”

He put a hand on Gelek Thargey’s shoulder.

“I think the DMC will help you, yes. But you must call me by my true name. Dorje Wangdu.”

The abbot regarded him intently, searching his eyes; then he began cautiously to smile. “Sometimes the whole world must move to shake an evil loose,” he said.

There was a cry of dismay nearby, as another body was discovered in the rubble. Dorje felt an ambivalent pang when he recognized Jowo Tenzin. He sank down beside him, closed the staring eyes, hoping the Vulture Maiden had come in a sweet form—but fearing that with Jowo’s guilty conscience, it might have been otherwise.

“Do you still know the rites of the Bardo Thodol?” he asked Gelek Thargey.

“I keep them up here.” The abbot tapped his brow, then leaned over the corpse and began softly to chant.

Dorje Wangdu closed his own eyes and let the words wash over him—a river of sound, deep with meaning he scarcely fathomed. He let it take him, hardly sensing the shadows of birds that passed over his face.

For at the peak of Shining Hill, thirteen vultures circled in anticipa­tion of more burials. Finally, as if weary of waiting, the flock dropped down on the ancient, eroded walls of the nunnery below their rock table. There they cawed and beat their wings and clattered their beaks merrily, like a group of old women telling tales of the distant days, marking time while they waited for the feast being laid out in their honor.

* * *

“The Vulture Maiden” copyright 1992 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, August 1992.