The Buddha's Remains

-the fragment of meta-novel “The Wings of Dying Bird”-

The Old Man of the Mountain came several times after the gold had been returned to Shar-Ganga (Yellow Canyon). This was before the cave had been completely ransacked, before the pious might go there secretly and say to one another in their distress, “The cave’s empty!”…
Always the night had fallen, and always he returned before the whitening of dawn. One time, he gave my father a small book .
“I replaced the gold which was founded for your children. This will be compensation.”
The Old Man of the Mountain undid the cloth wrapping and fingered one of the corners. He opened it as though he would divine it, he held onto the pages. From within the text, a bunch of colored sheets fluttered and fell. The Old Man of the Mountain collected the text together and handed it back.
“Please give this to your kids when they’re grown up. Just this. There’s no end to these extra pages - whenever I open the text, they keep falling out. They can decide for themselves what they want to do.” This is what he had said to father.
He also said, “Throw the pages which fell out into the fire.” But mother kept some sheets back, thinking they might entertain me.
It was because I had these illustrated pages and, especially, because I sat playing with them under the gaze of agents who had come from the city, that my childhood came to an abrupt halt.
My father was summoned on important business to the nearby town. We learnt that he had been taken to the main town of the aimag, and from there that he had gone to Ulaanbaatar. People who went to Ulaanbaatar brought back attractive and interesting things, so I was happy that he had gone. But father did not come back.
“Where did he get that American money? America’s threatening to blow up the world with their capitalist atomic bombs! How did he get involved with spying in this backwater? How much money does he have, anyway?” And I stopped taking notice of people other than the representatives from the work units who kept on pestering mother like this.
For many months after father went away, when someone came in a car, they would sit and talk with mother for some time, and then they would leave. And, after they’d gone, mother would say,
“Father will be back soon.”
But father didn’t come. In return for the Old Man of Mountain’s strange book, mother and I received not father, but only a flimsy sheet of paper marked with the word TELEGRAM.
“Why didn’t I throw those wretched pieces of paper onto the fire?” mother moaned sadly, tearing at her hair.

From the waterfall in Orkhon there flow lots of minor waterfalls. But the waterfall I’m going to talk about is bigger than the one in Orkhon-river.
You don’t need to go there on horseback, you can go on foot. There are more petroglyphs there than in the cave of Khoid-Tsenkher. They’ve got bucks mounting roes, elephants and dinosaurs, mountain goats and people bearing spears – it’s all there.
It’s a circular recess, like a ger. There’s just a single entrance. Not exactly a door, rather a way of gaining access, like under the flap of a ger. A long, utterly dark tunnel. Having gotten in, you crawl for some time and then, suddenly, you want to turn back. Pitch darkness. But think of turning back, and you’re too late. Inside the cave, you can’t turn your body completely around. So, although you don’t want to crawl on any further, you have no option. Close your eyes or go further….Generally it’s so dark that your eyes can neither see nor distinguish anything. So dark that, once inside the tunnel, you inevitably get your bearings even while you’re crawling along. Slowly an unbelievable grey light comes towards your eyes, as you fumble along inside the cold narrow tunnel, as you think Am I entering Hell? Some time passes, you’re thinking, on the one hand, Am I going to get out? and, on the other, Am I imagining this? And then, little by little, like the coming of dawn, there’s a pale glow and you’re at the mouth of a little pit. Whether or not there’s a way out through this pit, there’s a brightness, and a beautiful, colored cavity comes into view before your eyes.
Crawling along inside the cave, slowly the sound of water becomes clear and, when you come out into the bright opening, you see a tumbling waterfall, and it lifts the heart. In this cavity, you see rainbows in a thousand droplets of the gentle waterfall. Truly, this is the land of Shambhala!
This was where the Old Man of the Mountains lived. But I didn’t know whether it was true, it was just what people said.

I came out, I spent some months in preparation, waiting for summer to come. I wanted to say to the Old Man of the Mountain, “Why did you give this wretched book to my father? Whatever it was that came out of the book took my father away. Now, please bring him back.” But how could I say these words, except to myself?
In the end, mother showed the Old Man of the Mountain’s book to the people who kept promising that my father would be coming back, they asked where these strange green pages had come from and she handed the book over. Three years went by. There was no sign of father. I had no other option but to go there myself. But then I couldn’t pray to the Gods.
…slowly the sound of water became clear, and when I came out into the bright opening, I saw the tumbling waterfall, but it did not lift my heart. In the cavity, I saw rainbows in a thousand droplets of the gentle waterfall. As I gazed absent-mindedly at the beauty around me, the tears shed for my father’s absence dried up.
After wandering about for some time, I came upon an indistinct track. I wandered around amidst the rainbows and, as the sun was setting, I found a cave. At its entrance sat a huge black condor. I thought to hurl a rock at the bird to scare it away but it was looking askance at me in a most unpleasant manner. I walked along the path, keeping the bird well in my sights.
The cave was quite small. There were three dark sooty rocks at the entrance, I peered over into the old man’s brazier. There was a smell of smoldering, with here and there many large corpses lying about. There were what looked perhaps like the severed body parts of wild animals and, in a pile of yellow fat, what appeared to be the plucked feathers of a great bird. The smell of the yellow fat had attracted a fox or a wolf and, just as it was peering about, the condor flew at it, throwing up a chaos of small shards of food. A bit further on, at the center of a large and well-ordered collection of cased books, I was startled by a swathe of long waving hair.
The Old Man of the Mountain was asleep!
“Grandpa!” I said quietly. “Old man, sir!”
I hesitated a little and then went inside, towards the old man. His head, with its long grey hair, dropped away from the books which served as a pillow. The Old Man of the Mountain was dead.
The condor was peering at me at the entrance to the cave, watching me as though smiling strangely. It was precisely the smile with which our chickens now watch me. In fact, have you ever noticed the scornful gaze in birds’ eyes?
I rushed at the condor and it leapt aside to avoid me. I ran straight ahead, towards the waterfall. I gathered a little from the edge of the tumbling water and doused my head. I went back into the tunnel and crawled towards the darkness. The sound of the waterfall grew more unclear, I crawled amidst the unseeing darkness. “Father passed through here and then he died. Now there is no hope for this life - you don’t usually get any support.” I could barely feel this thought in the depths of my brain, like a milk-white light, vaguer even than the closest wall of the cave.
I got back some time after midnight.
“The Old Man of the Mountain passed away,” I said to mother, and I slept then.

The pious people said that they would bury their teacher from the Mountain and, led by experienced guides, they went off to the cave. Everything was as it had been when I saw it, except that the Old Man of the Mountain’s corpse was missing.
“The condor your son saw was a God, it took him to heaven”, a woman from a neighboring family told my mother. I was lying down, looking away and pretending to be asleep. To me it seemed that that condor, with its ugly expression, was a messenger of the Devil rather than of the God. I think, that the believe in the God is also the believe in the Devil. I didn’t know whether it had been the God or the Devil who had in fact taken the Old Man of the Mountain’s body. No doubt, this man had been lying unconscious, as though dead when, later, a hunter had been out for a walk among the snowy peaks of the Mountains and could, in all truthfulness, say what he had seen through his binoculars.
“There’s no path going up there. If he didn’t ride on a condor, nor on a ram…”
“He was on a condor?”
“There was a ram fallen a bit higher up. There’s no way he could have fallen from a bird and stayed alive.“ The hunters were arguing down on the ground.
“It might have been that he was just sleeping really deeply”, I said, doubting what I had seen. Still, I knew that what I had seen had been real, but I also know that the hunter was not telling lies about what he thought he had seen, that he was in fact the sort of person who would clear up lies.
Later on, there was a slight earthquake in my region, and the mouth of the gorge through which I had crept was blocked, and so the information about who had been living there crumbled away. Father’s contemporaries erected an ovoo (batch of stones) close to the blocked mouth of the cave. They used to say that there was someone calling from the very top of the hill, but it might have been the wind. However, people stopped regarding the ovoo as anything special, they paid less and less heed to the Old Man of the Mountains and no-one apart from the birds came to look, and it was said that the great ovoo on the cliff held the Buddha’s remains….

In the twilit room, the old man’s talk seemed to be coming to an end. The breathing of the three people slowly added to the stifling silence.
“There was no reason for your mother to take them away, they were your toys. Is it really true that those unlucky green sheets of paper were dollars?” - Yevgeni Yefimovitch, sitting and listening to everything that was being said, suddenly opened his mouth.
Old man’s eyes sparkling. “Are these the ones?” he said, and he pulled from his wallet a ragged five dollar bill. The dollar he had taken out, in the light of the candle on the table, seemed to show the date as 1950-something, but the final numbers were indistinct.
“Is that real?”
“There’s no such thing as real where money is concerned.” It’s just like life…like leaves pressed and forgotten in the pages of a book, they are objects without value. I told myself that, in saying to me that he recognized them, the Old man of the Mountains had abandoned them within the magic book of my dark infancy, and so they were no longer there. It’s just like life… So, the Old Man of the Mountains was not here man. It was even conceivable that that old man had ridden upon a flying condor. We couldn’t see, but right now he was probably riding a mountain goat, or a large bird, soaring across the mountain peaks, his beard flying…”
The old man took out the dollar he had carefully stockpiled, brought it up to the lighted candle and from it, very slowly, he lit a cigarette. Up until that moment, five dollars bill had been a symbol of his own sad memories, but this fine quality paper, embossed patterns upon its thin faces, now became transformed and fell, twisting, into an ashtray.
M-hh…
I imagined how my childhood might have been the old man’s childhood. In fact, everyone’s childhood is similar after a fashion. Sometimes the ancients do not recall anything special from when they were young, and it seems that it has been like this at every step of their life. Ideas about the man who flew with his flowing beard meld with the clinking of beer glasses, and I feel each and every finger of that little girl, her little wings, her fingers frozen where she stood upon the snow.

 

[1] The reader should note that the book mentioned in this story is not a regular, bound book, rather it is a Buddhist text, an unbound set of long, narrow rectangular sheets, wrapped in cloth, according to the Tibetan style.