The Dongfeng truck rolled over the desert dunes causing yellow sand to rise up and fly from east to west. The truck was laden with cargo covered with grass-green tarpaulin. I was alone in the cab. Overcome with weariness, I yawned several times.
Holding the steering wheel with my left hand, I took a cigarette out of my bag with my right. My hand was so fat that I couldn’t see my joints. I pressed on the lighter clumsily and exhaled a cloud of white smoke, which diffused slowly through the cab. In front of me was a vast expanse with invisible borders. Weariness spread out from my arteries to the rest of my body. All I could do to stave of this affliction was smoke greedily. In just a few moments the cigarette was completely exhausted.
As I reached into my bag again, I suddenly noticed a creeping black shadow at the edge of the horizon. Was it a person or an animal? I stepped on the accelerator, driving toward the black spot. As the distance between us shortened, the shadow took on a clearer form. I could see now that it was a single figure carrying a sleeping bag on its back. Someone possessing such steady determination was surely on pilgrimage. I sped up toward him.
Hearing the roar of the truck, the man stopped and stood facing east. I looked through the glass of the window; the man seemed so small, so desolate, so helpless amid the vastness of the world. Suddenly, I felt an urge to do a good deed and give the man a lift. As I pulled up alongside him, he raised his arms and shook them vigorously. The man was slim with black, braided hair, a long knife tied around his waist. I stopped the truck abruptly next to him and waved him over. The man opened the passenger side door, threw his soiled sleeping bag and blackened aluminum pot on the seat, and squeezed in beside them.
“Leave your things underneath the seat.”
He tucked the bedding under his feet and stomped down hard. This was a Khampa man with a dark face and raised cheekbones. His face was slippery with sweat. His leather shoes were discolored, the toes worn out. I restarted the engine, and the truck picked up the yellow sand along the endless dunes. The Khampa stared out of the window. All he could see was the barren and boundless desert. Occasionally, some persistent bramble bushes flashed across his line of sight, and a slight, almost imperceptible smile flickered across his face.
“Hey, Khampa, are you going on a pilgrimage?”
The Khampa turned to face me and swallowed, then averted his gaze to the indifferent, borderless landscape.
“Are you going on a pilgrimage or are you a trader?” I was growing impatient and raised my voice.
“No. I am going to Saga County.”
I was satisfied with this answer and smiled. “Then you got the right guy. I’m going to Ngari, so I can take you all the way.”
The Khampa smiled gratefully. There was a harmonious atmosphere in the car. I lit another cigarette, smoking it with a long face. I wasn’t sleepy anymore.
“What are you doing in Saga?” I asked, staring at him.
“I am going to kill someone.”
The Khampa’s words really surprised me. I took a moment to calm myself, then smiled heartily, “You’re a funny guy, even though you don’t look it. I don’t believe you at all.”
The Khampa brushed some hair out of his face and stared straight ahead, “You don’t believe me? Well, I can’t do anything about that.”
He swallowed hard again, and I noticed his lips were chapped.
“A man killed my father sixteen years ago and fled the region. I have traveled the lengths of the Tibetan Plateau for the last thirteen years. Thirteen years of fruitless pursuit.”
I glanced at the Khampa and felt a tinge of sadness in my heart. In my imagination, a man with a vendetta should be tall and burly. A person in all black, wearing sunglasses and a pair of pistols at his waist. The man next to me, with his cold, unsmiling face, confused eyes, and a long silver-handled knife hanging at his waist, did not have the bearing of a killer. I was disappointed. I didn’t look up at the empty sky. All you could hear in the truck was the wearying sound of the engine.
“When will we reach Saga county?”
I threw the cigarette butt out of the truck window and replied lazily, “Before dark. Are you that eager to kill somebody?”
The Khampa looked at me fixedly. It wasn’t just contempt in his eyes, but also a glimmer of provocation. My whole body grew uneasy, and my hands began to sweat.
The Khampa gritted his teeth. “I’ve wait patiently for more than ten years, you think half a day makes a difference?”
I didn’t take his words lightly and continued to stare straight ahead.
After a while, I could see the outline of a tall mountain in the western horizon; the red sun reflected in the rearview mirror was descending from the east little by little. I looked at the Khampa man sitting next to me, staring into the distance ahead of us dreamily. His tranquility, his silence, and his unwavering resolve all scared me.
I tried to break the tension. “We’ll be there soon. There’s a road that takes us around the side of the mountain, and once we get to the other side we will be there.”
Hummmmmmm! The hum of the engine drowned out the Khampa’s response. The truck soon arrived at the foot of the western mountain, and we drove along the winding path.
“We’re here.” There was relief in my voice.
It was almost dark now, and the wind was howling. There was a fork in the road in front of us, and there the scenery began to blur. The sky and the earth were about to merge. The Khampa clumsily opened the door, and the black, cold wind rushed in, causing us both to shudder. He pulled his sleeping bag and cooking pot from under the seat, flung them over his shoulder, and walked off in the direction I had pointed out. Immediately he became engulfed in the endless night, and I could see him no longer.
The sand picked up around my windswept trouser legs. I could picture him taking step after step out there beyond the glass of my window. The wind crashed kacha kacha against the truck window, and the tarpaulin covering the goods was almost swept away. The sandstorms around there are really frightful.
I honked a few times into the dark, the sound carried away by the wind. I wonder why I did this. Was it to give him a little courage, or was it to bid him farewell? I still don’t know what I meant by it. From there I continued driving toward Ngari in the thick of darkness. My high beams on, the truck was a solitary figure in the dark expanse.
I was stuck in Sengge Zangbo for four days and carried an empty load on my return journey. Back on the road, all I could think of was that Khampa man. Was he able to avenge his father? I imagined all the different outcomes. When I reached a fork in the road, my hands unconsciously turned the steering wheel toward the road leading to Saga.
The noonday sun was blazing, and the road was lifeless. The truck followed the path of a river. The white waves crashing against the rocks sent a chill down my spine. Apart from some prickly bramble bushes there was no vegetation to be seen upon the mountains on either side of the road. Behind these bramble bushes, I’d occasionally see one or two skinny sheep. This was a really desolate place.
I saw single-story houses in the distance. They were gray and looked bereft of life, the smell of the past lingering in the air. A single road through the county. I parked the car outside the county guest house. Lunch was settled at a tea house. The tea house was very rudimentary, with a few wooden tables and a few rough, wooden stools. The ground was uneven. I ate very simply; a thermos of sweet tea, fifteen steamed buns, and my stomach was stretched as round as a ball. My belly satiated. I thought of the Killer. I was getting impatient.
“What else do you want?” The waitress looked annoyed. She must have thought I was ordering more food.
“I’m looking for someone.”
“Who?” There was a smile on her face now.
“A Khampa who came here a few days ago.”
“That skinny guy? I thought he was a beggar at first.”
“Did he make any trouble?”
“No. He was looking for Madra.”
“Did he find him?”
“He found him.”
My heart almost burst out of my throat. In my mind, I pictured the Khampa pulling out his knife and stabbing Madra in the chest. Blood soaked Madra’s shirt. It looked like a rose was blooming on his chest.
“Ah, let me tell you.” This girl liked to chat. No wonder, since that day it was only the two of us in the tea house.
“That day, the sun was high in the sky, and the townspeople suddenly saw a strange Khampa carrying a sleeping bag on the county road, wandering in the scorching sun. Our town is small and you can see its entirety at a glance. Only a few buildings line the roadside, and there are only a few pedestrians on the road. He looked tired. I could tell from his bloodshot eyes. The Khampa swaggered in and sat by the window facing the street. His eyes fell on me, and I saw his cracked lips and ragged clothes. And the knife was so beautiful!
“I was holding a thermos and looking at him from across two tables.
“‘Is there a man called Madra in this town?’
“I could tell he was looking for someone. I told you I had him down as beggar. I stepped around the table and stools, pulled out the bottle stopper, and poured a stream of milky sweet tea from the mouth of the bottle, filling the white glass.
“‘There is a man called Madra in the west of the county. He runs a general store,’ I told him.
“‘Is he from Gongjo? About fifty years old?’
“Grinning, I asked, ‘Are you here looking for a lost relative?’
“‘Is he from Gongjo?’ he asked again impatiently.
“I was getting a little bored at this point. ‘I don’t know if he is from Gongjo but he’s almost fifty years old and has been in town for two years. He often goes to the monastery and turns his prayer wheel, a man of great faith, so everyone in the county knows him.’
“The Khampa’s breath quickened at this and his face looked hot.
“‘Happy to find your long lost relative?’
“Suddenly tears streamed out of the Khampa’s eyes as he began to weep. His cup of tea was cold.
“‘Finally I’ve found him found him!’
“The Khampa was so excited. I sat across from him in shock, a table in between us, and noticed the sweet tea in his glass was covered with a thin film of darkened milk that had congealed on the surface. The Khampa had calmed down at this point, wiping away the tears flowing from the corners of his eyes as he looked out the window at the street. There were only a few people out there, and from their unhurried gait you could tell this was a sleepy town. Then the Khampa turned his head to look at me sitting opposite him, still staring. He broke his gaze and picked up the cup of tea.
“‘You are different from other Khampas.’ I told him.
“His stiff face twitched, and he poured the last few drops of tea onto his tongue. I refilled his tea.
“‘Do you have Tibetan noodles?’
“‘Get me a bowl.’
“I pushed past the curtain and walked into the kitchen.
“‘Your noodles are ready.’
“The Khampa stared at the thick noodles submerged in greasy bone broth in the porcelain bowl. There was a spoonful of chili oil on top. He salivated and began to lick at the bowl with his sallow tongue. I could see his saliva on the rim of the bowl and felt sick. I left the Khampa to his own devices.
“It wasn’t long before he had wolfed down the entire bowl of noodles.
“‘Can my I leave my things here for a while?’ he asked.
“I nodded. ‘You go and find that family member of yours and come back later.’
“Then he left.
“Hey, look! His quilt and cooking pot are still here. He never came back. If he was still in town, I’d have seen him. I think he must have gone somewhere else.”
Indeed, that was his sleeping bag and aluminum cooking pot. Where had he gone?
“Is that Madra still here?”
“Yes. He’s got a small shop out front.”
I didn’t think the Killer had met his end at the hands of Madra. There was sense of foreboding in my heart. Well that’s just me. I get thirsty when I’m stressed, and at that moment the strings in my head were about to snap. My wife used to always badger me with the Tibetan saying: Don’t be first in line to break up a quarrel, be first in line at the gas station!
“Give me a bottle of beer.”
“What are you drinking?”
The beer dripped down my throat and settled at the bottom of my stomach. The taut string relaxed. I have to find the Killer, I thought to myself.
“Get me a cupful of barley wine,” a man with a lame leg barked, as he sat across from me.
“Who is going to mind your sheep?”
“It’s none of your business who minds my sheep. Go and pour my wine.”
I could tell he was a shepherd. He smiled at me, and I handed him a cigarette. We talked. He had seen the Khampa.
“I didn’t know that he was a Khampa at the time. I was driving the cattle and sheep along, when all of sudden I really needed a piss. You know that feeling, when your bladder’s about to burst. You understand, right? I brought the animals to a halt and ran off east to the mountainside to relieve myself. It was only then, on my way back, relaxed, that I was paying attention to my surroundings. I saw a person sleeping soundly on a rock. Don’t believe me? Well he was snoring away. I thought he was a hermit and didn’t disturb him. Maybe I woke him up when I was rustling the cattle on my way down the mountain.
“When I reached the main road, I saw that he’d woken up and was standing atop a rock. The sun had just come out from behind the hill, and rays of golden light poured on him, warming his body. He stood there stretching and breathing lazily. He kept staring at me. I was surrounded by yaks, walking leisurely along the road. In my left hand I had some yak yarn and in my right hand I was turning my prayer wheel. We were making our way slowly and peacefully.
“Occasionally, a few wayward yaks would try to break free and run off the road, but all I had to do was pick up a stone and fling it near them and they’d soon be back. Wagging their tails lazily, they would quickly fall in line with the rest of the cattle and sheep. The Khampa was staring at me the whole time. Perhaps he thought it was a pleasant scene. Later, I saw him descend, carrying his aluminum cooking pot and slowly following the steep path along the riverside. The river was turbulent, and the tumbling sound drowned out all the noise. The Khampa took off his shirt and, bare-chested, he washed his face and neck with cupped handfuls of water. He wiped himself off with his jacket. He looked left and right, and eventually selected a flat, blue stone. He put his pot of water beside the stone and began to sharpen a long knife. As he sharpened his knife, he poured water onto the surface of the stone. The sound of the sharpening was muffled by the torrential sound of the river. The Khampa sheathed his blade and set off along the road with a fresh potful of water.”
“There is no and then. I never saw him again.”
The shepherd had finished his story. Three bottles of beer were empty. The afternoon sun beat down on the empty streets, and it was completely silent. I was a little bit drunk and my balance was slightly off. I decided to set out straight for Madra’s general store to the west. The shop was on the roadside, right by a small Sichuanese restaurant.
The closer I got to the general store, the more nervous I became. My face was burning, and I was finding it hard to breath. Am I the Killer now? Or am I merely following the Killer’s footsteps? I thought to myself. I walked to the window of the general store and saw a woman in her thirties sitting by the shelves. She was dressed very ordinarily and had a pale complexion. Seeing me, she smiled.
“What can I get for you?”
I stared at her for a while, calming myself.
“Is this Madra’s shop?” My voice was a bit unsteady.
The woman stood up in surprise. “Do you know my husband?”
“I don’t know him.”
“Oh—” Madra’s wife sighed. “Well you’re not the first to ask. Somebody else came a few days before you. He’s been restless ever since.”
“Is he home?”
“He’s gone to the monastery. Should be back in an hour. Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea?”
I went around the shop and entered through the back door. There were two wooden beds squeezed into the room, a low table in between them. The lighting was dim. Piles of unfolded cardboard boxes lined the walls. The building was divided into the living area and the shop space.
“From the sound of your accent you’re not a Khampa yourself.”
“I’m a local.”
“So how about that Khampa who came to visit?”
“Well, he came in, sat for a while, and then ran out crying.” The woman had begun to churn the yellow butter.
“Why was he crying?”
Madra’s wife didn’t answer.
“Are you a friend of that Khampa?”
“No. My name is Tsering Norbu, and I gave him a lift to Saga.”
Madra’s wife was busy pouring tea for me, and my tight heart gradually began to relax.
“I’m back.” A crisp voice rang out from outside the shop. The unexpected voice gave me goosebumps and all of a sudden I was short of breath again. A little boy about four years old was standing in front of me. His little-boy eyes bulged as he looked at me in surprise. He turned and fell into his mother’s arms.
“This man’s come to see your father. Where is he?”
“He’s out back.”
Then the door was pushed open again, and a man stepped in. The man’s body was already bent with age, his hair gray and his forehead wrinkled. He looked at me wide-eyed, and stuttering, he asked, “Who are you? Who are…”
“I’m Tsering Norbu.”
Madra’s face was blue and his lips were trembling.
“Madra, what’s wrong?” the woman asked.
“Nothing, I’m just out of breath. So, you’ve been looking for me?”
“I’m here to ask if you met a Khampa a few days ago.”
“Yes, he said he’d come to see me. He gave me a once over and started shaking his head. Said I wasn’t the person he’d come for. I asked him to stay for a cup of tea, but he ran out crying. Haven’t seen him since.”
“Well, I’ll be on my way then. I’m going after him…”
“How will you find him?”
I didn’t answer. What a waste of time, and a waste of gas at that! I had to get out of there quickly.
I drove out of Saga. I thought I might encounter the Killer on the road.
Out there in the middle of the wilderness, my tire burst. I fell asleep in the cab. At Madra’s house, his wife and child ran outside. Madra and I looked at each other, and the air in the room suddenly began to freeze. My right hand felt strong and virile, and my fingers gripped the hilt of the blade firmly. My mind was empty of complications, fixed solely on stabbing Madra to avenge the death of the Khampa’s father. The pattern on the hilt of the blade was intricate, the lines smooth and supple, and its weight comforting in my hand.
“I pray to the Bodhisattva’s every day to atone for my sins. I have no fear in my heart. I just didn’t expect you to come so quickly. Vengeance is a natural desire. Go on.”
The blade flashed, plunging into Madra’s chest. I pushed him against the wall with my full weight. Blood was pouring out of the wound. My hand was covered in hot, sticky blood. Madra’s eyes were serene. Before he died, he gave a steely grin. I pulled out the knife, and Madra fell to the floor like a bale of hay.
I woke up. The sun was shining outside the truck. The light was hot and white. I struggled to open my eyes. Better change that tire, I thought to myself.
Tsering Norbu. “Sha shou” from Xizang Wenxue, Issue 4, 2006.
Image by Thomas Colligan.