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from the August 2015 issue

The Agate and the Singer

The singer’s name was Yangchen Pema and before she died, there were many stories told about her. People said she had an abortion at some hospital, that the child’s father was some big shot county chief who bought her an apartment to make up for it, and that his family’s tantric master, a black magician, had blown puffs of air into her mouth that sweetened and strengthened her voice, not to mention that while stealing another singer’s lover, she had also stolen the singer’s voice, and so on.

Last New Year’s, when she sang a song called “My Sweetheart” at a concert organized by the TV station, this song not only spread from cities to towns to rural villages, but there was even a young man, a youth who gambled the whole day away at hotels, who said, “If I could only sleep one night with Yangchen Pema, I wouldn’t regret it even if I had to die the next day.” When a trader told him, “I am financing Yangchen Pema’s next album,” he followed the trader around for many days, serving him like a lackey, and the incident became rather famous.

If you listened to those who worshipped her passionately, they even told how if you were to call her name from the rolling pastures or from the canals dug into the fields, she would appear in front of you like a divine goddess versed in the art of enchantment.  

A herder named Tsering had a dream in which a goddess carrying a golden vase suddenly appeared beside a clear stream. Upon waking up, he said that he found himself reciting the songs of Yangchen Pema. About a week after he told this story, Tsering fell prey to a sudden and serious illness from which he emerged speaking like an idiot. At times he would say “Yangchen Pema is my wife. Our child’s name is Yangtruk.” At other times he would utter “Don’t let me go. I can’t go alone.” He abandoned his herd and became a beggar, crying out “Ki hi hi!” and telling unending stories outside a dance hall where Yangchen Pema had once performed.

At any rate, by the end of a spring during which men’s desires grew wings, every household in the land had a DVD of Yangchen Pema’s songs, and the phones of those who rode horses and those who rode motorcycles, of businessmen as well as workers, were full of photos of Yangchen Pema.

One day, a college student named Dorjee lay asleep late into the afternoon, sleeping off the previous night’s intoxication, when someone pulled at his blanket. Waving his hand, he said, “You bastard—go away. I need a little more sleep.” Then he felt a cool, silky hand stroking his hair and heard a woman’s voice in his ear saying, “Wake up and look around. It’s going to be a new day today.” Blinking the sleep out of his eyes, he saw that there was a woman in a red shirt in his room. Her smile brightened the whole room like a ray of light. With a sense of panic like none he had ever felt before, he rose to his feet and the woman vanished.

Saying that the woman was Yangchen Pema, he became the first person since the spring to claim to have seen her.

After that incident, people argued and discussed why Yangchen Pema had gone to the young man’s room and most of them agreed that it was because of a precious nine-eyed agate stone that had been in Dorjee’s family for many generations.

According to the wanderer Tawang, if Dorjee’s family were to lose its agate stone to Yangchen Pema’s tantric master, then Yangchen Pema would transform into the goddess Saraswati in this lifetime, and the music of Saraswati’s sitar would enchant the people of the world and even cause them to sing their words rather than speak them. Tawang’s story spread swiftly from one person to ten people and from ten to a hundred till it reached the ears of Dorjee’s mother. She spent a long night in doubt and anxiety and then hid the stone under one of the stakes of the family tent.

Dorjee was majoring in mathematics. The night he saw Yangchen Pema, he thought that the numbers that had made him suffer for so many years had nothing else to do but bother people, like the flies that hovered around toilets. He felt that the sum of all that accounting had no basis, the way the joy derived from intoxication had no basis, because no amount of addition or subtraction could produce something like Yangchen Pema. Thinking these thoughts, feeling as if he had lost the heart in his ribcage, he got up and thought about talking a walk, but it felt like there was no longer anywhere to go.

His schoolmates surrounded him and asked him various questions about Yangchen Pema until finally he said, “To be honest, I was sleeping at the time. I saw her only in my dreams.” A female classmate, consumed by jealousy, said, “Why are you all gasping in surprise? Yangchen Pema is also a person. Do you know what a person looks like? A person has a mouth, a nose, and a tongue, like Dorjee.” At the students’ mocking laughter, Dorjee flushed from head to toe, and without paying any heed to the teachers—let alone the students—he walked past the school gates with his bag and left.

This is what the female classmate wrote in her journal about Dorjee’s departure from school: “When he left, it didn’t look like he was walking on two feet but rather, that he was on all fours. Will he still have two hands when he comes back?”

All around the perimeter of the school lay a large field that looked like a chessboard, and the sunlight, which could not be gathered again, instead dispersed like powdered color over the crops that grew in the field. Much like the animal his classmate described in her journal, Dorjee sought out his destination but found himself circling and circling the same area. He grew thirsty and felt a desire in his body that he had never known before. When he thought of Yangchen Pema as he had seen her that day, it seemed as if her red shirt held the dew drops that could slake his thirst and he felt that were she to touch him again, he would surely lose his seed.

That evening, he reached a town where dogs were barking. He asked for lodging from a local family. Their walls were decorated with Yangchen Pema’s pictures. His cross-eyed hostess said to him, “This woman’s fame has spread far and wide. But there’s a thread running from her back, and at the tip of this thread is a fat man, and were it not for him, who knows if her beauty would dim and even her words fail her. He thought that this fat man could be none but the tantric master he’d heard others speak of.

When he was settling for bed, his hostess gave him a blanket as dark as the night, and all night long he felt as if the dark was pressing down upon him. When it became difficult even to breathe, he thought about getting up but found that his body lacked the strength. He realized that the house he was staying in was a juncture where the real world met the dream world. Just then, he saw the fat man his hostess had mentioned. There were many wrinkles on his face, and he had fat lips with a flat nose and extremely tiny eyes. His left hand gripped a thread as his right hand clutched a fistful of notes.

No matter which way Dorjee looked at the thread, it streamed and gleamed deceptively like an endlessly long river and he could not see the end of it. The fat man said, “Look here. At the tip of this thread hangs Yangchen Pema. And in front of her there are all the people of this world. Ha ha ha.” He looked far into the distance and continued, “Young man, don’t you see?? That dark shadow up there is your family’s black tent. Beneath one of the stakes holding down that tent, your mother hid that which Yangchen Pema had lost. Your people may have thought they were keeping it hidden, but it looks to me as if they just left it out in the open.”

The fat man made Dorjee hold the thread and led him to the tent, where he pulled the stake from the ground and snatched the agate stone underneath. He wiped the dirt from the agate and then, taking out a silver needle, stabbed each eye of the agate stone, cleaning out the defiling particles. He brought the agate to his mouth and blew, and then there was a sweet sound of music as if the wind were helping him. Yangchen Pema appeared before them and the thread in Dorjee’s hand went slack. The fat man gave her the agate stone and said, “Daughter of Brahma, you have suffered.”

Dorjee held on to the thread for a while until there was nothing at the other end but only a woman’s skin.

He woke up at that point. The day’s newspaper carried the following headline: “Famous Singer Yangchen Pema Dies Suddenly.” At the scene of her death, the police found a Louis Vuitton bag. In the bag were a plastic brush, a small mirror with the photo of a some famous singer on the reverse side, a CD of her latest, the lyrics of a song titled “White Snow Mountain,” an eyebrow pencil, and some lipstick. 

Read more from the August 2015 issue
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