Brother Ron

I wrote this story while a graduate student at Hunter College’s MFA program. With support from my professors Peter Carey and Column McCann, and my fellow students, I feel it got close to what I wanted. It won first prize in the Glimmer Train Magazine fiction open, which was very exciting. I don’t have the final version in digital format so this is a draft, close to what was published.

Brother Ron

Jigme Wangchuk leaned against his minibus chewing a wad of betelnut, waiting for the American.  The weather is strange in Bhutan, often the air is hot and cold at the same time.  Today it was mostly cold so Jigme Wangchuk welcomed the heat coming off the gravel of the parking lot, although the midday brightness irritated his eyes.  His sunglasses were in a ditch somewhere in Thimphu and he had no money to replace them.  No work for a month until today. He’d buy a new pair of shades first thing he got paid. His cousin-brother Chencho, supervisor of Thunder Dragon Tours & Travel, had hired Jigme to bring the American from Paro Airport to the Druk Hotel in the capital. A two-hour drive, small talk.  Later tonight the man was to attend a performance of traditional Bhutanese song and dance at the Royal Academy of Music.  Jigme would do whatever was required. Bowing and smiling, sitting through a performance he’d seen a thousand times before.  Given the choice of hanging around the mud puddles out in the dark with other drivers or partaking in the pageantry inside the Royal Academy, the Royal Academy was the better option. The fluorescent lights and cold metal folding chairs would keep him alert. Outside would be more interesting but a little pull off some other driver’s home brew and he’d be waking up in another ditch, late for work again. 

After a bit of fumbling—big fingers on little buttons, wires tangled with cuffs—Ron, the American, settled back into seat 9A of Royal Bhutan Airline’s flight 207, stared at the highest mountains on Earth and waited for music to start. The many voices of South Africa’s most prized choral ensemble channeled through his ear buds. His eyes misted over. They were a Scottish blue, a color his wife had found easy to match when she shopped for his neckties, back when he had a wife to please and a dress code to follow. He wore no tie today but his shirt was pressed and buttoned high. 

The Africans’ voices punched through silence, forming a perfect chord. Homeless… homeless… midnight sleeping on a moonlit lake.  He sat still but his face trembled.  His stomach shifted, searching for gravity.  He hadn’t felt on solid earth since he’d left Salina, even when earth was ground into his broken skin.

That morning, before his flight, Ron had scraped his knee as he scrambled out of a Hindu temple.  He’d been watching a woman offer a bowl of sweet milk to a shrine centered around a stone phallus at the end of a series of crumbling archways in Pashupatinath.  She stepped away through an arch, barefoot, bells on her ankle bracelet, before he could snap her photo.  Suddenly from the trees a gang of wild monkeys descended upon the shrine, fought over the milk, tossed the bowl aside and sauntered off, snatching quick looks here and there. They upset Ron.  Reminded him of teenagers who desecrate cemeteries back home, although no one would notice if a stone was tipped over in Pashupatinath.  He’d never seen such a disorderly holy place.  There were no neat rows of polished gravestones, no graceful statues of angels. The monkeys reigned supreme.  Ron waited for them to clear a wall before he approached to put the bowl upright but as he bent down, one extraordinarily large male tore through the old vines, teeth bared, and Ron fell.  Like his wife had fallen.  Only he got up again.

His wife’s stone angel was still in the shop.  The peat over her grave at Bunty and Brown Cemetery still showed seams where it had yet to weave into the lawn around it.  Her body was there, buried, but she still occupied a phantom space by his side, weighty enough that he was, from time to time, tempted to drape his arm around it. 

She had fallen in the woods behind the house.  They’d been walking off lunch with their old boxer, Goose. Jean was telling Ron about a book she’d read but his mind was on the mess. The forest was messy. During the night’s heavy rainstorm, the trees had discarded parts of themselves, carelessly, like drunk girls stripping their clothes before passing out.  Their dropped branches had junked up the scenery along the path from their house to the pond.  Jean in her pea coat played with Goose, chasing him while Ron walked more gingerly to avoid the soft marshy spots. Ankles could be twisted, eyes poked, socks soaked. He was a steady man, meaty but refined, carrying his large frame with delicacy. Fish bones in pudding. Not one to be moved to exertion.  

Jean tricked Goose into running the wrong way around a tree.  Caught off guard, he stood stock still, only his pinto coat twitching, his wet nose responding to a thousand different inputs with its delicate musculature.  Jean laughed at the dignified creature as she sometimes laughed at Ron.  Ron made a whistle with his thumb and ring finger, attracting the dog’s attention.  He grabbed a stick and whipped it cracking through the trees. Goose tore into the woods after it, forgetting Jean. 

A flight attendant stopped at Ron’s row and offered some candies from a large shallow basket. Coming back into his body from his reverie, Ron sensed a salty wash in his nasal passage, wetness in the corners of his eyes, and a pounding in his chest. He wondered if he had sneezed while lost in thought and hoped that if he had, that he’d been polite about it. His hunger roared. He prayed that Thunder Dragon Tours & Travel had made arrangements for a meal upon arrival and that the meal would be something familiar and comforting for a change. He took out his earbuds and selected a mint from the basket.

Jigme Wangchuk was enjoying the familiar sweat that broke when he clamped his teeth on the betelnut. Heat spread with an upward flush from the leaf juice and red lime powder. It entered his throat and ears and scalp. For several minutes he’d been half watching an ant laboring over the gravel with the dried out shell of another ant on its back. He collected spit, took aim, and shot a red measure of betel juice into its path, not intending to harm. Just to watch. The ant paused, rounded the bubbly red juice and continued scaling the mountains of gravel. 

With less intention but similar doggedness, another measure of red—in the form of a hematoma—was making its way along one of Jigme Wangchuk’s ventricles toward his basal ganglia.  That soft spot at the base of his skull.  

He watched the sky, the Friday plane was often very late.

Ron could see details on the face of Mount Everest—recesses and craggy cliffs and an angel wing of airborne snow that extended in the wind from its famous peak. If instead he had been flying over his home in the heart of Kansas at the present cruising altitude of 29,000 feet, he would’ve looked straight down nearly six miles to farmlands, acres reduced to geometric patterns the size of matchbooks. Those miles between the belly of the jet and the cornfields would be an empty void. But here, at 29,000 feet, he was eye level with the highest point on Earth, the point closest to the ozone layer and farthest from the sea. Closest to God, he thought, waiting for the comfort of these words to settle. But no comfort came. Why would the place closest to God be so inhospitable, uninhabitable? 

He looked away and began leafing through the in-flight magazine, a glossy thing filled with misspellings.  He read that the forty-five minute flight from Kathmandu to Paro passes the south face of seven of the worlds highest peaks, from Annapurna to Kanchenjunga. Instead of sloping back down on the northern side, the Himalayan range gives way to the high altitude plateau of Tibet.  Ron looked out again, he could see land in the gaps between peaks, laying in wait like water in a dam.

Since his wife’s death, Ron had found most of the world doing the same. Holding back, leaving him alone in his thoughts. In this quiet he had begun to hear things he’d been telling himself for years, things that had been drowned out by the noise of making a life. 

The notion of a voyage, a holy land tour of sorts, came to him in this solitude. 

For twenty-eight years, he had taught children at St. Paul’s Catholic Elementary School to read sheet music and occasionally coaxed them into making something beautiful. The job suited him; he had the ability to remain calm even when subjected to a  young violinist’s maiden screeches. People assumed the music lessons and record collecting would keep Ron company now that he was alone. While his pastimes did keep him occupied, they did not keep him company. And they certainly couldn’t put a flaky mincemeat pie on the dinner table the way Jean had. They didn’t put his slippers by the door. Loneliness left him hungry and without rest, unable to sleep, unable to stop haunting the house Jean had spent her life filling and fussing over, unable to stop treading its faded olive carpet. 

One afternoon, coming home from the vacant school after discovering it was only Sunday, he saw his mortality taking shape in the shadows of the den. He realized death didn’t come like a trick-or-treater with sickle in hand; death was shifty.  It collected like sloughed skin and hair in the bend of a room, harmless as a dust bunny until it had enough mass to overtake a man. 

He wasn’t ready.  He wouldn’t know what to do at Heaven’s gate.  There was no guidebook or instruction manual to study and memorize. So he decided to take a journey elsewhere. Out into the world, he would experience what it was like to be on the threshold of the unknown. Maybe if Jean had had some practice stepping into the unknown, she wouldn’t have been so afraid at the end. 

Jean standing under a sumac tree.  Shocking red leaves, lips pursed and hands on hips.  He had ended her game with Goose and then caught up with her and pulled her close.  Her body heat warmed him. He’d assumed their usual walking position, his arm comfortably around her shoulders. She’d tilted her head away and, after a few steps, shrugged his arm off so that she could massage her neck.  “Did you ever think how much an arm weighs?” Her tone had not been playful.

“Less than a leg, I guess.” He’d tried to remember if he’d forgotten an anniversary or an errand.

“It’s like walking with a log on your shoulder, you know?”  She stopped walking.  “Throws off your balance. Did you ever think about that?”

“What did I do?”  He puffed out his chest like a child.  The dog came bounding toward them with full abandon, slobber like yo-yo strings. Jean turned away.

“You wouldn’t put up with it,” she said loudly to the trees.  “You wouldn’t adjust yourself.  I’m always bending. You have no idea.”   

Then the falling on the leaves.  He couldn’t recall a crackling of branches.  Just a soft thud under blue skies. The expression on Jean’s face as she transitioned from alive to dead on the hospital gurney sent him here to the farthest reach of the planet.

He designed an itinerary around music. At each stop he would take in the holy sites as well as the sounds: The Italian boys choir in Rome; Gregorian chants in Poland; Sufi music in Turkey; ragas in India. He had some sense of where to go based of his vinyl collection. He believed himself to be a connoisseur. A purist with an ear for authentic sounds from far away places. This was the spice to his pudding. With closed eyes, he could absorb an Inuit lullaby and feel the ice beneath his feet, smell the tears of a pure blooded Eskimo baby. 

He preferred ordering albums from catalogs. On his field trips to the record store in Salina, he saw himself among the other collectors, surreptitiously fingering the LP jackets with a studious lust, and it did not sit well. He was not a deviant.  Although it could be said that Ron’s purism drove him to acts of rebellion. To Jean’s deep embarrassment, he would get up and calmly leave a restaurant if the music didn’t agree with him, even after accepting a menu and a glass of ice water.  Jazzy Celtic harp piping through the sound system guaranteed they’d have to rethink dinner.

The albums were meticulously arranged in a blond-wood shelving unit in the den. He used only the very tips of his fingers to maneuver the arm of the needle. He polished the black disks with velvet.  Jean sometimes touched their spines when she dusted but never when Ron was hovering.  He didn’t graduate to digital until students and parents had pitched in to buy the MP3 device for him as a farewell gift. They had loaded it with selections they thought he might enjoy, gravely mistaking his love of world music for something that might include the likes of Greek new age phenomenon Yanni.  Jean had made the same mistake once.  In her effort to share Ron’s passions, she said she’d discovered some wonderful Irish music, said she found it soothing and mysterious.  Ron had been dismissive and had maybe even teased her. When he was sorting through her belongings after she died, he discovered a cassette tape of Riverdance in the pocket of her blue apron and wondered if he had caused her to feel shame about the things she loved.  

“Good thing to take a little time for yourself, brother, see the world,” Father Denning had said when Ron offered his resignation. “But sometimes congregating is the best medicine. You find it too lonely, you come back.”

“Well, Father, you know I will.” They shook hands and that was the last time Ron touched someone he knew. 

Ron began his journey in the Pope’s country.  Choir boys and cathedrals.  But he quickly realized that he’d overestimated his ability to actualize the zigzag line of magic marker that connected the dots on his map. Anxiety brewed in his stomach alongside an intestinal bug that he caught on the first day in Florence. 

He’d separated himself from a tour of the Uffizi Museum so that he could pass astonishing volumes of gas in private.  The sound echoing off the palace walls was not lost on Cimabue’s Madonna who shielded baby Jesus in her arms and raised a Byzantine eyebrow at him and from her throne. He was left to steal out, alone, through the streets of Florence. His new walking shoes killed his feet, rubbing blisters into the skin of his heels. Christ’s crown of thorns must have dug like this, he thought. But Christ did not crap small amounts in his pants.  Christ did not have to hide soiled underwear in the garbage and suffer the cold eye of the maid. 

In a hotel in Istanbul, he ran out of band aids and decided to skip the concert.  He clung to his pillow, sagged like a cheap tent, and fell asleep with visions of dancing patty melts from Denny’s.  

He entered Asia via Israel. A drab presentation of folk music at a kibbutz outside of Bethlehem left him dispirited. His wounds stung like a thousand bees as he lay suspended belly up in the bitter salts of the Dead Sea. He imagined he was floating in a lake of tears. 

And he was only half way. 

But, he told himself, there would be no turning back then either.  

“Then” being when he was dead and crossing over.  

He pictured Jean’s dying face, how the whites of her eyes surrounded her corneas.  The fear.

His spirit was replenished one night in Varanasi.  Despite everything else—the moldy hotel room with its squat toilet and not dry sheets, the impossible front desk manager whose obsequiousness betrayed the full-sized joy of fleecing an American, the half-dead dog in a gutter just outside the entry— Despite all this, he found what he’d been looking for. In the parlor at the Ganges View Hotel a little boy opened his mouth and the voice of an angel filled the room. 

With the anticipation of a drunk to a bar, Ron flew from Varanasi to Kathmandu, hoping for more voices, more angels. But he didn’t enjoy so much the dancing girls with their bangled feet.  Without music to lift him, he sank into the chaos of Kathmandu—hippie emporiums and Israelis buying hookahs, stoned college students in search of yoga highs, monks with shaved heads talking on cel phones at the pizza parlor.

 He was still hopeful about the Kingdom of Bhutan, the final stop on his tour. He chose it for being described as a hidden Shangri-la, kept isolated until the 1960s. Even Mrs. Angela the geography teacher had to look it up on the globe when he showed her his itinerary.  It sounded about as close to heaven on earth as one could get. Except that it wasn’t a Christian country. 

Jigme heard the engines, felt the low buzz, a good minute before the jet entered the valley. The vibration disturbed several birds of prey who broke from roosting and took flight. The plane rounded the cliffs. He punched the number of his cousin-brother into his mobile.


“Where are you,” said Chencho.

“Your client will be landing shortly, I can hear the plane.  Can you hear it?” he raised the phone to the sky. Chencho’s voice squawked in the receiver like a man caught in a bottle.  Jigme put it back to his ear.

“— can’t hear anything.  How much have you had to drink today.”

“Brother!  I’m sober as a newborn baby.”

“Then how many lies have you told today?”

“Only one.”

“Jigme, I’m going to kill you.”

“You want the bad karma, Chencho?  A guaranteed rebirth in the hungry ghost hell realm?” Jigme waited for jab back but Chencho was silent on the line.  “Joking Joking-la.  Relax.”  More silence. “So sorry-la, who likes to be told to relax? So sorry-la.”

“Jigme, today you are working for me.  Today no jokes.  No drinks—“

“I wasn’t lying. No drinks. It was just a habitual tendency, like all experience—”

“No drinks, no preaching, no eating, nothing except you picking up the American. To the hotel and then the Royal Academy,” said Chencho.

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a piece of land the size of Pennsylvania anchored in the jungles of Bengal, tilted at a 90 degree angle, and propped up against the Himalayas, Nepal on one side, Assam on the other, the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China to the north. The landscape transforms from elephants in banana groves to yaks scaling tundra to uninhabitable frozen mountain peaks in a single degree of latitude. From those peaks, great rivers of snowmelt crash southward – turquoise and freezing, sometimes carrying massive boulders, sometimes diverted into European-built hydroelectric power plants, before joining the great Bramaputra and flowing into the Ganges delta. 

Finding a spot to build an airport in such terrain was not easy but, for lack of a better option, the narrow Paro Valley along the country’s midsection was chosen and the nation’s first airstrip was laid in 1961. Even a skilled pilot from the industrialized world needs special training to navigate through the mountain range and fall into the precise approach that the short strip of Paro’s runway demands. Safe landing requires a tight angled starboard bank followed by a rapid decent. Jigme never tired of the performance. 

The pilot politely forewarned the passengers but his announcement did not prepare Ron for the plummet. His guts responded to the sharp shifts and gravitational pulls. The movement of his organs a reminder that the material of his body was wearing out in a very real way.  His innards crested at his spleen. There was a small round of applause when they touched ground. The plane lurched on the runway. 

Ron stepping to the hull. What he noticed first was the movement of the clouds in the blazing sky. So unbelievably fast. Full bodied, brilliant clouds expanding like shaving gel, with clearly defined silver edges. Clouds lit with halogen brightness, speeding by, compact, almost within reach. It was as if he were still flying and looking outside his window, a thought that made him dizzy. Next he noticed his feet clad only in the pair of shabby flip flops he’d bought from a Nigerian at a market in Rome. He wore them sometimes when the blisters became too much but he’d forgotten to switch back for the flight. This recognition of absentmindedness sucked the air out of him. He gripped the railing. The metal steps rang out like the cymbals. To lose his balance, to tumble down the staircase onto the tarmac, to expire in a heathen country—too fathomable. 

Even as he turned away, the clouds kept their pace and new ones developed out of the emptiness. 

The scale and simplicity of the airport, its large windows, the chrome and pale tile, reminded Ron of the cafeteria at his school, which had also been built in the early sixties. 

“Point of embarkation, Sir?” The woman behind the glass at the counter wore a pair of cosmopolitan black rimmed glassed perched on her nose and her hair was bobbed at the chin but otherwise her dress was traditional—a tubular swatch of fine woven fabric over a colorful wide-sleeved blouse, cinched tightly at the waist. 

“Kathmandu,” he replied. 

“And have you visited any other countries prior to Nepal, Sir?”

Where all had he been? How quickly the present becomes the past. He blinked at her, weeks of his existence reduced to almost nothing. Whole days distilled into a few seconds. The vestries and sacristies, the retching in a foreign toilet, the children making chase down cobblestone streets, lepers, lamas, surly taxi drivers. The barking dogs at night, the smoke of trash and incense, the old faces of refugees and pilgrims, rivers of spit and mud, mountains of turquoise beads, a red headscarf, a checkered apron, the lapping of water. These snapshots were all that was left. Some days had evaporated entirely. In fact, whole years blended into others, becoming “eras.” The era of his marriage, the countless first days of school, his childhood, the entirety of his life experience, now mere concepts stored in his mind. Was everything stored some place like a master tape at a record company? Who can prove that it ever really existed? Jean’s constant babble had kept their shared history fresh, but she’d taken all of that with her when she died.  He’d buried all of his vital reference points in a plot at Bunty and Brown.  The idea frightened him and exhilarated him like drinking ice water and sipping hot tea at the same time. 

“Sir?” said the woman behind the counter.  “Have you forgotten?”

A man came and lead Ron to a small office where he was told that his belongings had been offloaded in Nepal to make room for the Queen Mother’s mangos and bottles. It was only a small suitcase but it contained his medicines, his informational binder, batteries, and size 46 walking shoes, none of which could be obtained anywhere in this country of smallish people who do not spend much energy catering to the outside world.  Ron wondered if this is how Jean felt to be stripped of her personal belongings and dressed in a paper gown.  She had become fixated on retrieving her housecoat but there hadn’t been time.  He would have had to leave her side.  But maybe the housecoat would have been more comforting.

Jigme Wangchuk, watched the airport exit judiciously. He never knew what oddity would appear in this doorway. The westerners came in some very odd shapes and forms.  Jigme himself had met the man who sings “Jumping Jack Flash” when he visited the country. The man had a mouth the size of a demon’s, looked very thin, and moved like a monkey. 

Another driver made a comment about bare feet and Jigme spotted an old pot-bellied man in shower shoes standing like a ghost in the parking lot. 

“Mister Ron, Sir, from Kansas?”

The old man had very bright blue eyes—clear jewels set in white clay. The eyes contained some wisdom perhaps but the expression all around them! Like a baby deciding to laugh or cry. And his toes! White as a pickled pig’s hoof. Jigme Wangchuk’s cousin’s auntie by marriage had a neighbor who was born with a bunged up back and spent his life in bed, never setting foot on the ground. This old man had soft unused feet like that but ten times the size. A marvelous creature. 

 “Welcome, Sir! I am called Jigme Wangchuk of Thunder Dragon Tours and Travel.”


“Jigme, sir, yes. With a g.”
“Nice to meet you, Jimmy-ji.”

Jigme accepted the name, why not. “You carry no luggage, Sir!” He tried not to stare at any one part of this man for too long so his eyes jetted up and down. 

“No sir,” the American voice creaked like a broken axel. “They said it’s still in Nepal. The Queen’s luggage took up all the space.”

“The Queen! How delightful. Very auspicious. You gave them your details for retrieval?”

The man nodded and looked at his feet the shower shoes.

“But these are not my shoes. And my batteries…”

“There is another flight on Tuesday, Sir. I’m quite sure they will delivery your goods straight away. My cousin-brother will take good care until then. The shops in Thimphu are well stocked. You have no need to concern.”  

As he said this a bolt of pure pain shot into Jigme Wangchuk’s temples.  His vision went black for a split moment.  Then it was gone.  Perhaps a side effect of sobriety. All things are temporary he thought.  The clear bright jewels in clay fixed on him.  

The road from Paro to Thimphu follows a broad river. The water was a color unlike Ron had ever seen in the natural world except maybe when copper turned green with corrosion. On the left, a cliff pitched straight down at least 100 yards. On the right, dense foliage – rhododendrons and pines and lush vines extended straight up. No shoulder. A succession of waterfalls broke from the steep forest and cut into the mountain, creating an extreme curvature along which the narrow highway had been built. 

In India, the roadside forests had been messy and thick with dust like a dead man’s bedroom but Ron noticed that the leaves in Bhutan were orderly and bright; they caught the light as if they had been individually washed and polished. He saw three monkeys at one bend. Four more at the next. Not the brown ratty kind he’d seen in Pashupatinath, these were elegant creatures with black bodies and white heads. 

Jigme Wangchuk flipped a heat-damaged cassette tape into the dashboard–the soundtrack from a popular Hindi movie warbled. He swatted the steering wheel off tempo. To Ron it sounded like ten teenage girls whining in unison. Tonight he hoped to experience exaltation at the Royal Academy of Music the way he had at the Ganges View Hotel. Some authentic Bhutanese lute. He would also try to find a phone to call Father Denning. Just to check in. To see if that side of the planet still existed. His hands felt so light that he had to make a conscious effort to keep them on his lap and not floating up to the perforated padding above his head. 

“The clouds sure do move fast here,” Ron said.

Jigme adjusted the radio and flashed his red, betelnut-stained teeth in response. The cliff dropped sharply, the forest rose steeply. Ron was dizzy and thought of dosing. Had Jimmy said Tuesday or today? They look the same on the lips. What day was it anyway? He fought against the weight of his lids.  Sunlight burst intermittently into the car like a strobe through the trees. Jean on the gurney crashing headfirst through swinging doors.

Through half-closed eyes he caught a flash of bright red on the road ahead. A figure dressed in maroon robes stood on the roadside across the way. They rounded the switchback and slowed to a full stop. It was an old monk with a dirty yellow satchel and a giant grin. As he approached, Jigme sucked in his gut and whispered, “Lama Kyeno!!”  His round face shining with sweat.

He leapt from the car and prostrated himself at the old monk’s feet while the lama protested, finally kicking Jigme Wangchuk so that he would stand. He scrambled to his feet but kept bowed and covered his mouth with his sleeve.  After what appeared to be a cheerful exchange, Jigme leaned into the window and said with some excitement, “Mister Ron, this is Lama Godi.  Lama Godi is quite a famous yogi from these parts. We shall give him a lift up to his village.” It wasn’t a question.  He then tussled with the old man, trying to get him to take the front seat. But the monk prevailed. He got into the back seat next to Ron in a cloud of odor—old cheese and twigs and socks.  He turned to Ron and ducked his head as if dodging spitballs, a naughty toothless school kid’s expression to match. Ron understood this as a greeting. 

His stomach rumbled. The level of concern marqueed across his face. “I’d like to find some proper shoes before going anywhere Royal.” 

“Oh no need to concern!” Jigme laughed and shutting the sliding door with a guillotine rush. “The village is just up the road here, it won’t take but a few minutes.” 

The lama grinned and nodded then turned back to gazing at a middle distance.  Ron felt a chemical spill into his blood stream, something that made his heart race and his palms sweat.

Jigme took a moment to regroup behind the minibus.  Thoughts were breeding in his mind so quickly he had to close his eyes. He said a mantra under his breath and dedicated the merit of this moment to all sentient beings. Clinging to his good fortune would only make it pass through his fingers. After only one week and three days of sobriety and good behavior he was being so richly rewarded. Lama Godi was one of the most powerful wandering yogis alive today. By offering a ride, Jigme had in some small way established a karmic connection with this master.

“Jimmy-ji.” The American leaned out of the bus.  “Jimmy I don’t know about this.  I’d like to check into the hotel first if that’s okay. Jimmy?”  

Thimpu was out of the question.  Miles from Lama Godi’s village.  Jigme approached the window. “It is music you are looking for, yes?” Hushed, as if they were conspirators.

“Yes, I—” the American said.

 “The Royal Academy is all right, Sir,” Jigme leaned in further so Ron could smell his hair oil, “but in Lama Godi’s village there are women who sing who have the voices of angels.” He saw skepticism and hope balance on Ron’s face. “They don’t sing for just anyone, but if we come with Lama, they are sure to sing for us.”

“Can we still make it in time for the real performance?”

Jigme’s laugh was girlish. “There is nothing more real than what I will show you.  We will make it to the Royal Academy, yes, but after you see what I have in store for you, you will be spoiled, you will then see that pageantry for what it is.  Where do you go in America to hear authentic music?  To the government halls?  The grand arenas?”

Ron thought of his recording of Appalachian banjo.  

“Voices like angels you say?”

Jigme hopped back into the driver’s seat.  He could find someone to sing. Some village girl can cough out a tune.  Maybe this would be the perfect distraction so that Ron would not have to know the true nature of their visit to the village of Haa.  

From what Jigme gathered, a baby had died in the village and Lama Godi was going to perform a ceremony.  He was known to possess the linage tradition of a very special burial ritual. He was the holder of many secrets. It was not a small thing to be escorting him to such an event. Some people believed he could fly.  How else to explain a man born under the first king traveling from region to region, Thimphu to Dewatang, sometimes in the matter of only a day. Jigme Wangchuk began reciting a mantra quietly so that Lama Godi might see that he was a good and humble practitioner.

In giving the ride, he was also accruing a little bit of karmic debt to the old man in the back.  And there was a good chance he would lose his job with Chencho. Chencho could even lose his job. Chencho was a businessman who put little stock in the teachings of the Buddha and likely would not agree that Jigme Wangchuk could not pass up such an opportunity. Maybe Chencho wouldn’t have to know.  Haa was only a few hours out of the way if they didn’t stop for tea. Jigme Wangchuk rubbed his chin; despite all his good fortune, he was beginning to develop a sustained headache. 

The drive was taking considerably more than a few minutes.  Ron’s stomach muscles had become sore from the effort of keeping his body upright while the little van swerved along the bypass. The lama finally broke from his muttering and rosaries and motioned for Jigme Wangchuk to pull off at an inconspicuous bend in the road.  Ron watched as a man with a small horse climbed out of the brush.  Jigme opened the sliding door but Ron stalled in his seat.  Jigme made an impatient gesture, and Ron saw clearly now that his wellbeing was no longer the guide’s primary concern.

“Come, come!  Lama Godi will take us just up a little way and—” 

“I believe we’ve gone very far out of the way already,” Ron interrupted.

“The ladies will sing.”

“If it’s all the same, I think I’ll just rest up here till you get back and save myself for the Royal Academy.”  The shoulder was narrow and dropped down to a ravine whose depth was obscured by cool evening mist. The afternoon sun was weak, about to slip out of range for the night. 

 “Sir, if you please. The road is dangerous. And I promise you, there are angels.”

Jean on the gurney, choosing between two evils, wait or operate.  It could be.  It could be here that music liberates him.  He stared down into the swirling abyss.  A military truck suddenly careened around the corner and roared by rocking the little van and shaking the entire valley.  Ron hugged the sliding door, his heart pounding.

“Come,” Jigme had said.

Behind the brush was a twisted horse path that cut up into thick forest.  They hiked for nearly an hour. It forked and forked again ten times, across streams and along thick growth until leading to an opening where stood a two-storey house that leaned against a steep mountainside. Ron unbuttoned his shirt.  Wet leaves and pine needles stuck between his toes.  He began to pray.

If there was anything more to Haa than that path and the house it led to, Ron never saw it.  The house looked somewhat promising at least, almost Swiss with its white wash and sturdy black beams. Brightly painted frescos decorated the shutters. Jigme and the old monk turned to him, their faces reflecting blue shadows.  They pointed to the warm light just beyond the threshold. 

Inside the illusion of a household crumbled.  The walls held nothing but a humble barn, musty and smelling of hay. Ron, at six feet tall, had to stoop to avoid the ceiling. There was a sharp whistle and several women of various ages with bowl cuts and bodies wrapped in traditional dress shuffled to their feet.  Everyone made a show of trying to bow deeper than the other, Jimmy-ji and the old monk and the ladies.  They exchanged dirty white scarves that they pulled from their sleeves. Then they laughed at each other and hot chunky drinks were served. When his eyes adjusted to the dim room Ron saw that the walls were papered with newspapers. He scanned the wrinkled pages for a familiar face or a recognizable word but the script was Tibetan and all the faces were Asian. 

Jigme Wangchuk chattered away with the man of the house and the old monk. The women cluttered the dark space and watched Ron like a zoo animal. Their dresses were spun from a coarser thread than that of the young lady at customs. They smiled huge smiles with shocking red teeth, stained from years of betel lime. Ron sipped at the steaming bowl, it tasted like rot gut and was thick with rice and what seemed like egg drop. It did not go down easy. What alcohol he could swallow went straight to his bloodstream. He looked at the pumping vein of his wrist thinking it should change color and realized he’d lost his watch. 

Jigme had a watch but did not glance at it and made no eye contact with Ron. Ron hoped, prayed, that Jimmy would look at his watch, make eye contact and say, “OK time to go.” He didn’t even care if he missed the angels. Another hour passed. The women in the other room began chanting, a sound that was not beautiful.

“Are the ladies preparing to sing?” he asked.

This made Jigme Wangchuk raise his arms to make space for an uproarious laugh. 

The laugh gave his blood pressure an extra kick, just enough to send the blood clot to its final resting place in the base of Jigme Wangchuk’s brain. He clutched his heart and then his head and then keeled into a chest of drawers before hitting the floor.  They ladies fetched cold water and fanned him.  It was the old lama who checked his pulse. 

At last Ron was alone in the world. No person in the house knew his name, they did not know where he was supposed to be. There was no brochure. There was no telephone, no watch. Only a single socket to provide electricity for a bare bulb and even that was flickering in and out.  Jigme Wangchuk did not flicker.  

Sometimes after a summer rain back home in Kansas, dense fog collects like a wall over the Sayer Bridge, waiting for the innocents and the unsuspecting. On such a night a driver has to rely on memory and instinct and prayer to get to the other side. The blacktop suddenly disappears, headlights illuminate only whiteness. There is no reference point beyond the dashboard-lit interior of the automobile. If someone loses faith, the pileups can be deadly. 

Ron recalled the Sayer now as he heaved along a mountain ridge without a guide and far from the plains of home. The footpath ascended several hundred feet in front of him before disappearing into an uncompromising cloud cover—a sky-sized ceiling made of grey wool. The sheet of cloud sliced off the peaks of the more formidable mountains along the range. Desperate to keep his footing, Ron didn’t raise his eyes to these beheaded giants. He was turned inward and was aware of little other than the air stabbing at his lungs and the squeaking of skin against his slippers.

Twenty-four hours had passed since Jigme pulled over for the monk. 

In the night, a young woman had tried to translate Lama Godi’s words. “When wood finish, fire also finished. Every element finish same time. Like this is death. Like a rainbow finish in the sky, there is nothing to…,” she mimed grasping, trying to explain. “Nothing to take.”

It had taken a moment to register that he was hearing English, then Ron lunged to standing. “Can you drive?” In lunging he had knocked the bulb hanging from the ceiling with his head so that harsh light and shadows rhythmically keened across the room like the arms of a grandfather clock. She was very young, maybe twenty, the only fresh face in the room. His address startled her.  She shook her head no.  

“No, you can’t drive?  Can someone here drive?  We need to get back to the airport. There is a dead man.”

Inflamed with embarrassment she took to minding the kettle that had been placed directly on an open fire. He followed her. Eyes followed them. “Is there a telephone?  Can you help me?” 


“But we need to take care of his body.”

“We take care first my baby. Tomorrow we give to the sky.”

He had not slept and tomorrow took forever to come.  Jigme’s body remained wrapped in a blanket.  Before daybreak the household began to rise.   A thick tea was served and it was communicated to him that they were all leaving.  He had a choice of staying with the dead man or following the living so he decided to go.

The crones back had not been able to help him with footwear but they had lent him a scratchy blanket, the one he laid awake under in a room with two other men. They showed him how to wrap it around like a robe so that he could be warm and still move freely. The yak hair chafed, capillaries were broken along his arms and neck where it rubbed his skin.

But he was grateful for it. Without it he would’ve frozen on the mountain where they had hiked. The damp, the angle of the trail, the ridiculous flip-flops–it was like trying to run up a waterslide. His nose ran and his stubble was wet with mucus and sweat. The old monk was far in the lead, stepping with the assurance of a mountain goat, nearly reaching the point where the path disappeared into the curtain of fog. Ron was slammed with nostalgia for safer unknowns, butt deep in the easy chair watching Let’s Make a Deal, Jean setting down her knitting to holler at the contestant. Monty Hall giving a coy look. Behind curtain number one…! 

Oh, the dumb anticipation. Eagerness for a sexy new washing machine. Fear of a broken lawnmower or a single dollar bill. How puny it was in the face of the white nothingness that swallowed up the end of this treacherous mountain path. Behind this curtain, eagerness for life, fear of death. At a certain point, maybe the other way around.

He reached Lama Godi waiting on the path.  The boundary of the cloud was less defined up close, there was no clear point of entry. Fog clawed around them.  The old monk’s cheekbones lead to great chasms, his eyes grottos, his grin a cavern.  Ron felt like a skyscraper in an approaching storm.  Mist engulfed his top floor. They had entered the cloud. He couldn’t see his feet. He stumbled forward, now using his soft hands on the rocks to feel his way. For a moment he felt the tilting of the earth on its axis. He couldn’t remember what it was that kept things from flying into orbit and all he could do was clutch stones. He wheezed and remembered that it was the angels who would guide him. He tried not to breath too sharply so as not to swallow any seraphs, the way a child on a bicycle inadvertently swallows gnats. But he was old and wheezing and could not temper the movement of his lungs. “I’m sorry,” he said to all the little beings he was inhaling. “I’m so sorry.” His pulse throbbed from his eye sockets.

And just like that, they reached the other side of the condensation.  They were above the clouds. The sky was eclipsed by the gigantic sun; its rays reached across the horizon. An assault of brightness after the protective cover of clouds. The ridge was now a small rocky island like other neighboring mountain peaks that poked out from the cloud table. If Ron’s lungs weren’t pierced with pain and his feet hadn’t been numb with cold, he might have appreciated the heavenliness, the absolute silence. From the silence came a shriek. 

Buzzards seemed to recognize the old lama. They cried with expectation when he appeared on the path above the clouds. Ahead, several other figures in red robes were settling at a clearing. They waved. Ron smelled incense. Saw a fire. The shape of the smoke dictated by the cold air. The lama stepped lively then paused to check on Ron. Large fingernails, Ron noticed. Like plates. He scanned the small plateau for the girl who spoke English.  

He saw her crouched with her back to the fire undoing a bundle. It was her baby’s body. The buzzards grew in number and traced loose figure eights in the sky. Threatening. Encircling the bluff. Watching each other like betters at a track waiting to see who will score. The bluff was absent of any primary color—only white stones, brick earth, small sturdy vegetation—so the blood could be seen for miles in the sky. Nothing stirred but the mist and the wind. The plants had no leaves to rustle, they crouched in positions that anticipated the gusts as they have done for countless seasons.

The girl turned quickly and moved to where the four old ladies sat on a piece of rough fabric behind the monks.  The buzzards began picking at the body of the baby, taking bits of flesh in their beaks and flying.  A sky burial. They women didn’t weep or wail or beat their chests.  

If the birds turned on him, Ron though, they could take him piece by piece into the air and he would no longer be on this threshold.  He would be the one closer to heaven.  His body would be filled with the molecules of angels. He could not deny that there was some stirring harmony in the monks’ chanting, but his heart was racing with a dread only the devil’s ilk could inspire.  As if at the mercy of a snarling dog, he didn’t want them to smell his fear. Nor did he wish to be discourteous. So he stretched his face into a smile. He turned his Scottish blue eyes to the sky and prayed to his Lord God like he had never prayed before. He prayed to Jean and to his grandfather, to all his ancestors, the Picts and the Gaels and the Britons whose blood he carried and whose comings and goings brought him to this unforgiving place. And last he prayed for Jimmy, that he might be reborn in a place perhaps farther from heaven but closer to God.  

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