by Eliot Pattison
Minotaur Books, 2004
There are sounds in Tibet heard nowhere else in the world. Hollow
moans inexplicably roll down the slopes of snowcapped peaks. Rumbles
like thunder course through valleys under cloudless skies. On moonlit
nights in the mountain wilderness Shan Tao Yun had heard tiny ringing
tones floating down from the stars.
At first, lying on his gulag prison bunk, Shan had felt fear at hearing
such eerie sounds. Later he had decided they had to be the workings
of the thin, high altitude atmosphere and the wind, of shifting ice
formations and temperature changes between summits and valleys, had
concluded there were scientific explanations. But after five years
Shan was no longer certain. After so long in Tibet, he had abandoned
most of his prior beliefs about the workings of the world.
Certainly the wrenching sound that now rose across the bowl in the
mountains could have no explanation in the physical world. A young
woman standing near Shan groaned, clapped her hands to her ears, and
ran away. The first time he had heard the sound that came from the
red-robed man sitting thirty feet away, Shan, too, had shuddered and
wanted to flee. Throat chanting, the monks called the strange grinding
moan, but Shan preferred the description used by his old friend and
former cellmate Lokesh. Soul rattling, Lokesh called what Surya, the
old monk, was doing, explaining that in the world below, souls were
often so undeveloped that the only time the sound was heard was in
those near death as the soul struggled for release. But in Tibet no
one spoke in fearful tones of the death rattle. Here the sound was
for the living. Here the devout had learned to make souls speak without
Shan watched the woman retreat with a pang of sorrow. It was a day
of great joy, but one of even greater danger. The outlaw monks Shan
lived with, who for decades had remained hidden in their secret hermitage,
had decided not only to reveal themselves to the hill people but to
lead the strangers in illegal rituals. This would be a day of wonderful
surprises, Gendun, their senior lama, had declared, one of the days
when the world was changed.
Shan had warned the monks about the danger of bringing these particular
Tibetans to the ruined monastery. Gendun had replied by dropping onto
one knee and turning over a pebble, invoking a teaching the monks
sometimes used. The world could be changed by the subtlest of actions,
so long as it was pure, and even the smallest of actions was pure
so long as it was free of fear and anger. But these herders had been
conditioned by fear all their lives.
Beijing had dealt harshly with the people of the rugged lands of southern
Lhadrung County, who had stubbornly resisted the Chinese occupation
long after Beijing’s army had seized Lhasa. The ruins they now
stood among were all that remained of Zhoka gompa, the monastery that
for centuries had served the people living south of the county’s
central valley. Forty years earlier it had been attacked from the
air by the People’s Liberation Army, one of the thousands of
gompas annihilated by Beijing. The brave, devout people who had futilely
tried to defend Zhoka and the way of life it represented had been
dispersed, destroyed, or simply hollowed out.
“We’ll be arrested!” a woman in a tattered red vest
had warned when Shan and Lokesh had met them on the grassy ridge above
and motioned them to descend toward the half-mile-wide tract of ruined
“It’s haunted!” another herder had protested as
Lokesh had stepped into the maze of crumbling stone walls. “Even
the living become like ghosts here!”
But when Lokesh kept walking, singing an old pilgrim’s song,
the man fell in behind his companions to enter the ruins. They had
followed in an uneasy silence until they had emerged in what had been
the gompa’s central courtyard.
“A miracle!” the woman in the red vest had gasped as she
clutched at an old woman beside her and gazed at the ten-foot-high
shrine, obviously newly constructed, which stood in the center of
the yard. The two women advanced hesitantly, watching Surya, who sat
in front of the shrine. They touched the brilliant white structure,
skeptical at first, as if not believing their eyes, then reverently
sat before the monk. Others had slowly followed, some touching strings
of beads that hung from their belts.
But now, as Surya’s throat chant began, several of the hill
people retreated toward the shadows. Those who remained seemed paralyzed
by the sound, staring wide-eyed as Surya joyfully threw his head back,
“Godkiller!” The shout came from nowhere and everywhere,
echoing off the ruined walls. A stone flew past Shan’s shoulder
and bounced off Surya’s knee. “Murderer!” the same
fearful voice cried. The monk’s chant faltered, then stopped
as he stared at the stone that had been aimed at him.
“Godkiller!” As the word was repeated Shan spun about
to see a short, leathery-faced man in the tattered clothes of a herder,
pointing at Surya with rage in his eyes.
By the time the herder raised another stone Shan was at his side,
clamping a hand around the man’s wrist. The man resisted, twisting
his hand, pushing Shan. “Flee for your lives! The murderers!”
the herder cried out to the others who lingered in the yard.
A tall, lean Tibetan, a stubble of white hair on his scalp and jaw,
appeared at the man’s other side and the herder, studying him
uncertainly, stopped moving. Lokesh pried open the herder’s
fingers, letting fall the pebbles they held. “Surya is a monk,”
he said quietly. “He is the opposite of a godkiller.”
“No,” the herder growled as Surya’s chant started
anew. It was not anger, but despair that now filled the man’s
eyes. “The government puts men in robes to trick us, to get
us to act out the old ways, then they arrest us, or worse.”
“Not here,” Lokesh said. “Not today.”
The man shook his head then, as though to refute the old Tibetan,
gestured into the shadows between the crumbling stone walls behind
A woman appeared, her hands behind her, gripping two corners of a
rolled blanket. Two boys, the oldest no more than ten, walked behind
her, solemnly carrying the other end of the long burden inside the
blanket, their eyes gaunt and weary. As the three reached the herder
they lowered their heavy load, the boys darting to the woman, burying
their heads in her heavy felt skirt, the youngest releasing a long,
As Lokesh knelt and slowly pulled back an edge of the blanket, a hoarse
groan escaped his throat.
It was an old man with a thin, wispy beard. His left ear hung loose
where it had been nearly ripped away, the left side of his face was
caked with blood and sagging where his cheek and jawbones had been
ravaged. His lifeless eyes seemed to look up at the sky in question.
“They beat him to death,” the herder declared in a low
whisper, still eyeing Shan and Lokesh warily. “Just beat him
and left him like that.”
Shan bent and pulled the blanket down. Both the man’s legs appeared
to be broken, one turned at an unnatural angle, the other bloody at
a tear in his trousers that exposed a piece of bone. “Who would
do such a thing?” he asked, looking at the empty brown eyes.
“His name was Atso,” the herder said. “Over eighty
years old. He lived alone in a hut at the base of a cliff two miles
to the east, toward the valley.” The herder’s eyes filled
with pain and he paused for a moment, as if struggling to control
his emotions. “Of all the people in the hills he was the one
who knew most about the old ways.”
“Someone killed him for following the old ways?” Shan
The herder shrugged. “They kill for a word in these hills,”
he said in a hollow, matter-of-fact tone that sent a chill down Shan’s
spine. The man extracted a knife from his belt and with the blade
pushed a twig of heather from Atso’s hair. The Tibetans were
loath to touch the dead. “The only way he would let strangers
near him would be if one wore a robe,” he said in an accusing
tone, casting a worried glance toward the woman and boys, who moved
toward the throat chanting. “Murderers are among us,”
Excerpted from Beautiful Ghosts by Eliot Pattison.
Copyright © 2004 by Eliot Pattison. All rights reserved.
Posted with permission of the publisher.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without
permission in writing from the publisher.