Authors: Tom Martin
Tom Martin lives in Oxford.
Also by Tom Martin
First published 2009 by Pan Books
This electronic edition published 2009 by Pan Books
an imprint of Pan Macmillan Ltd
Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Rd, London N1 9RR
Basingstoke and Oxford
Associated companies throughout the world
ISBN 978-0-330-47991-2 in Adobe Reader format
ISBN 978-0-330-47990-5 in Adobe Digital Editions format
ISBN 978-0-330-47992-9 in Mobipocket format
Copyright © Tom Martin 2009
The right of Tom Martin to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
You may not copy, store, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
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To Kuhn Sucharitakul
And to JK, il miglior fabbro
When everyone thinks something is good
it becomes evil.
Lao Tzu, Chinese sage, fourth century
Litang monastery, Pemako jungle, Tibet
No one knew the man’s name. He had arrived at the monastery gate slung over the back of a mule, his hands and feet tied under the animal’s belly. He was alone.
For three days now the rains had swept through the jungle, transforming it into a shining, living ocean that was forever attempting to wash over the sides of the monastery walls. A giant caterpillar rippled on the branch of a tree, its inch-long spines rising and falling as it flowed forward. Something stirred in the depths of the forest. But the slight noises, the sounds of something creeping, of shuffling through the undergrowth, were drowned out by the persistent drumming of the rain. Even the hoots of the spider monkeys sounded ghostly and remote, smothered by the force of the water.
In the monastery’s central courtyard Dorgen Trungpa, a novice monk, was splashing through the water. The Abbot had asked him to go to the village. His sodden robes clung to his limbs as he ran but he did not mind the rain, even as his bare feet sank deep into the mud.
Though he was young and strong, that day Dorgen Trungpa ran no further than the monastery gate. There he saw the man on the mule and terror fixed him to the spot. He had never seen a white man before. The pallor of his skin was strange enough to the young monk, but this alabaster skin was also covered in enormous leeches. For a moment Dorgen Trungpa simply stood in mute incomprehension, not knowing what to do. Then, his heart thumping and with a sense of foreboding, he slowly moved towards the stranger.
At first he thought he must be dead, so waxen and ghastly was the skin, and then there was the blood – the blood-coated hands and the blood across his ragged clothes. The rope had gouged deep into the man’s wrists and ankles. His face was turned towards the belly of the mule, but Dorgen Trungpa did not dare to lift the man’s head. He imagined his eyes, staring blankly, and the leeches sucking on his dead skin.
Dorgen Trungpa backed away slowly from the man, as if a sudden movement might disturb him, and then when he had retreated some distance he turned. He ran, gasping with fear, and didn’t look round until he arrived back in the flooded courtyard.
A man, he told his fellow monks. A man with skin like alabaster. A terrible man, leeches sucking his skin, tied to a mule. Come quickly, he said, and two other monks followed him, shaking their heads and saying this would bring only evil.
In frightened silence, rain lashing at their thin robes, the monks struggled with the body, cutting it from the mule’s back. A small sodden canvas bag was slung over the man’s right shoulder, hooked tightly under his left armpit – it seemed to be the only possession he had.
Even now Dorgen Trungpa assumed they were bearing a corpse, that no man could be so waxen and terrible and yet living. With their heavy burden they wrestled their way up the cart track, sliding in the mud, their sweat mingling with rainwater.
In the courtyard they laid him on the stones. Somewhere in the ancient monastic complex a bell began to ring out over the rooftops with a slurred atonal sound, as if it was ringing underwater. And now a distant bellow of thunder rumbled across the mountains.
Tentatively, the three monks set to work tearing the leeches from the man’s cheeks, leaving welts on his ashen skin. Dorgen Trungpa felt inside the man’s mouth, and withdrew his hand holding a bloated monster. His gorge rising, he threw it into a puddle, where it squirmed violently.
Now the Abbot appeared in the doorway to the prayer hall. A man esteemed among his monks, the senior lama of Pemako. At seventy years of age, he was thin to the point of malnourishment and yet he glowed with energy. When they heard his footsteps approaching across the courtyard, the young monks ceased their activity and let the limp body slide to rest on the courtyard floor.
The Abbot held worry beads in his left hand. Click click, clack clack, the noise of the beads was steady though muffled by the rain. Behind him was a short, anxious man, with short black hair – the Abbot’s deputy. At the ruined body the two lamas paused, and then crouched down. With the tips of his fingers, the deputy felt the white man’s throat for any signs of a pulse. A second later, he looked up at the monks and muttered a single word.
One monk began running immediately he heard him, and vanished quickly through a low doorway in the far wall. Click click, clack clack, went the Abbot’s worry beads, as he leaned towards the man, searching his face for signs. With his callused fingers the deputy delved under the flap of the bag and pulled out the contents: a pipe, some opium and a weatherbeaten, black-covered book, written in an unknown language. The two lamas inspected the items, mystified, and then returned them to their pouch and smoothed the sodden flap back into place. For a moment the Abbot held his hand suspended above the man’s heart, as if seeking thereby to draw out his secret.
The deputy was the first to speak. He moved his mouth close to the ear of the Abbot so that neither of the younger monks would hear. His voice trembled as he whispered:
‘His sherpas must have abandoned him at the gate when he caught a fever . . . He is on the verge of death . . .’
He glanced back down at the white man and then muttered almost to himself:
‘. . . but how did a Westerner travel into Pemako in the first place? And why?’
When the Abbot spoke his voice was thin and resigned.
‘This man brings a dark augury. His arrival signals the end of our monastery. By nightfall I will be dead and our gates will lie shattered.’
The rain pounded on the courtyard floor and gushed down the tiled roofs of the ancient stone buildings. Now the young monk reappeared with the doctor, who knelt before the stranger and began to examine his limp body. Water streamed down the Abbot’s face but his unblinking eyes betrayed no hint of fear or panic.
‘A terrible evil is coming from the forest . . .’
‘But what can we do?’ said the deputy, in a hoarse and frightened whisper. He was staring in horror at the stranger. The Abbot reached out and touched his arm.
‘Do not be fearful. The devils that are coming are merely shadows sent to perplex you. Go immediately to the Cave of the Magicians. If you are pursued, then enter the tunnel network and go into Agarthi. Do not come back for seven days. Take everyone with you, this stranger included. We must care for this man who has found his way to our door, and protect him from danger.’
A look of grave concern crossed the face of the Abbot’s deputy:
‘But if he is a harbinger of evil, then surely we should have nothing to do with him?’
‘No. That is against the vows of our order. He must be cared for. He must go with you. I will remain here. The forces of darkness must be met with compassion. Whilst the stranger lives, he is our responsibility – have the doctor do the best he can. Leave at once through the back gate into the jungle. You must go now.’
The Abbot took one last look at the stranger. Clad in rags and slick with rain, he seemed like a shipwrecked sailor cast onto a lonely shore. The Abbot felt a profound sense of compassion for this man, who had been broken by the forest and the darkness he had found there. He nodded slowly to his deputy, who was still ashen-faced and hesitant. Then the Abbot turned and walked slowly away, bent under the force of the storm.
In the gloom of the prayer hall the Abbot’s beads went clack clack clack. Slowly he walked into the ancient chamber. In front of the stone statue of the Saint Milarepa, the founder of his order, he settled into the lotus position and began the chant of compassion for the souls of those who, as surely as night follows day, were coming to destroy him.
Om Mane Padme Hum
The Jewel is in the Flower of the Lotus
How many minutes or hours passed the Abbot did not know. He chanted his prayer of forgiveness and compassion, and felt his soul grow light. He was deep in reverie when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Dorgen Trungpa was whispering in his ear.
‘Abbot, please forgive me for disturbing your meditation . . .’
The old lama’s eyes opened to the semi-darkness and his deep-throated chanting stopped. Dorgen Trungpa was shaking with fear. He could barely speak, and he struggled to explain:
‘There are Chinese soldiers on the road outside. They will break down the gate.’
The Abbot stood up and shifted his damp robes over his shoulder. With a look of deep pity, he placed his hand on the young man’s trembling shoulder.