In this short story by Tibetan author Pema Bhum, set at the time of Mao Tse-tung’s death, a man’s family is redeemed by the chance actions of his ailing infant son.
It seemed that even the birds nestling atop the rafters of Tenpa’s house were tiring of the rain. They sat perched in a line along a wooden beam and watched the rain drizzling down. Cocking their heads this way and that, the birds crooned softly. A steady drip of water fell gently and steadily from the eaves of the house, the sound carrying throughout the courtyard.
Tenpa entered the gate carrying Darmar in the folds of his chupa. The birds resting atop the gate fled into the courtyard flapping their wings. Tenpa was wearing trousers that he had folded up to his knees. He was barefoot. Raising first one leg then the other, he washed the mud off his feet under the water dropping from his roof.
“Did the doctor look at the child?” asked Lhamo, who was picking out stones from a spill of grains on the balcony.
“Oh, oh. Darmar is throwing up.” Without answering Lhamo’s question, Tenpa hurried out into the courtyard at a near-sprint. He had a limp.
Lhamo understood that Tenpa had no good answer. She picked up Darmar from out of Tenpa’s robes, cleaned up the bits of vomit from Darmar’s mouth and chin with the end of her kera, and then propped him up on the floor among the folds of some sheepskin chupas. Lhamo gave Darmar a kiss on the blue veins of his forehead and said, “Poor darling, Aba and Ama will take you to see the doctor very soon. And the doctor will give you a sweet candy pill.”
Tenpa took out a needle from his right collar and, using it to pull out a thorn embedded in the heel of his right foot, said, “When I said Darmar’s name, he almost took a look at him but when he heard my name he withdrew his hands.”
When Darmar gave a small cry, Lhamo placed in front of him Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung and a button with Chairman Mao’s face on it, both of which he had been playing with earlier. But Darmar continued to cry and raise his hands to her, so Lhamo opened the book and showed him the picture of Chairman Mao, whereupon Darmar instantly stopped crying. Darmar grabbed the book with his hand and brought it to his drooling mouth.
Lhamo said, “If we sell these goatskins, it might be enough to buy his medicine. That old cleft-lipped Chinese buyer doesn’t come here anymore. Can’t we take them somewhere else to sell them?”
Heeding the proverb that a chewed-up thorn will not prick one again, Tenpa chewed at the thorn he had pulled out of his foot as he said, “Who knows where in China they sell these goatskins? And here I am, from one of the four bad elements, without the freedom to even go to the lower valley—” He broke off as someone opened their door. It was Gonpo, the leader of the work brigade.
“Today he has an important message to relay,” Tenpa thought to himself. During holidays and special occasions, as well as on days when work had to be halted because of rain or snow, it was the duty of the people belonging to the four bad elements to relay messages between the production team and the people. But this was the first time that the leader of the work brigade himself had come to Tenpa’s house.
Leader Gonpo was wearing a greenish raincoat and a pair of shining black rain boots. He entered the balcony and unbuttoned his raincoat as he said, “Looks like the skies have been torn apart. If we get two more days of rain like this, there is danger of the harvest going to rot. The sheaves of grain are already starting to heat up.” He took off his raincoat and put it on the balcony wall.
It seemed impossible that the leader of the work brigade should be at the home of a bad element but Gonpo was not only in their home, he was speaking so kindly to Tenpa and Lhamo that they couldn’t believe it was happening. They just looked at each other, without the faintest idea of how to respond to him. In fact, it didn’t even occur to them to offer him their welcome and greetings.
“Are your walls all right? Because of the rain, Aku Namgyal’s back wall has collapsed in one corner.” Leader Gonpo of the work brigade tried once again to strike up a conversation.
Aku Namgyal was Lhamo’s father. To ensure that Tenpa’s status as a bad element wouldn’t harm Lhamo’s family, he never visited Aku Namgyal’s house. Tenpa stuttered a reply, “Oh. Oh. That’s . . . that’s fine then.” Then he said to his wife, “Won’t you offer even a cup of tea to Leader Gonpo?” He pulled out a rug and insisted that Leader Gonpo sit on it.
“The weather may be very bad, but I have some very good news to give you,” said Leader Gonpo as he lit up a cigarette. “From today onward, you are a comrade of our revolutionary ranks. We have decided to take off your black hat of the four bad elements.” He patted the floor next to him in a signal for Tenpa to sit down.
Tenpa had never even imagined that the taint of his crime—using torn pages from Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung as kindling for fire—might dissolve like this within a few short years. Uneasy as he sat shoulder to shoulder with Leader Gonpo, he kept only half his rear on the rug. There was a pause, but he could not even think of what to say to thank Leader Gonpo.
Leader Gonpo did not wait for Tenpa’s response. He continued, “The political reeducation work team came here and for six months we examined your behavior and your thoughts.” Leader Gonpo coughed up a piece of phlegm, which he spit out into the courtyard before continuing. “When we first heard that your son’s name was Darmar, Red Flag, then we felt that you were atoning for your crime—”
Tenpa felt that now was a chance to ask for some medicine for Darmar. “My son has been sick for some days now.” He didn’t even realize that he had interrupted Leader Gonpo as he said in a trembling voice, “We couldn’t take him to the doctor because we don’t have the money. But maybe now I can request some medicine for my son?”
But Leader Gonpo, it seemed, just wanted to finish what he had to say. Without answering Tenpa’s question, he said, “But just your son’s name alone wasn’t enough to take off this black hat of yours, that I don’t even need to tell you. As you well know, your ancestors’ crime of exploiting the poor masses was no small crime. We struggled with you and reeducated you, as you remember well.” He fixed his gaze on a scar on the right side of Tenpa’s head. He'd earned that scar from a struggle session.
Tenpa felt his scar beginning to itch. He found nothing to say in response to Leader Gonpo. The rain still fell steadily in the courtyard and rainwater drained continually from the roof.
“Comrade Tenpa,” thus Leader Gonpo addressed Tenpa. “Don’t sit there with that long face. Tomorrow we’ll announce the good news at the village assembly.”
Tenpa thought again about his son needing a doctor and said, “Mr. Leader . . . uh . . . uh . . . My son has been sick for three days . . .”
“I see, I see. Your son needs medicine . . .” Leader Gonpo started to say, but then another thought struck him. “Oh, no, when we take off your bad hat of the four black elements, then you will be just like anyone else. You won’t need to pay for medicine when you go to the hospital, will you?” he said, looking at the sky. The rain had stopped and the sky was just clearing.
Lhamo came out of the kitchen to pour some tea for Leader Gonpo and her husband. She had Darmar strapped on her back and she carried a thermos in her right hand and two cups in her left. From the kitchen, she must have heard what Leader Gonpo. Her eyes were red at the edges. Darmar held a wet piece of paper in his hand, which he put into his mouth and gurgled.
Lhamo bent down to pour some black tea for the leader of the work brigade. In a low voice, she said, “We don’t have any cows or dris . . .” but Leader Gonpo interrupted her before she had finished. “Not at all, not at all. The black tea is a good match for this black weather,” he said.
As Lhamo was pouring tea into Tenpa’s cup, the wet piece of paper in Darmar’s hand dropped down in front of Leader Gonpo and Tenpa. It was the picture of Chairman Mao torn from the pages of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. The picture was not only sodden with Darmar’s drool but on the right side it was torn from the eye to the shoulder. The remaining part of the eye stared out at Leader Gonpo and Tenpa.
From his perch behind Lhamo’s back, Darmar waved two small hands at Leader Gonpo and Tenpa and gurgled at them. He didn’t look sick at all. Leader Gonpo started to smile but then suddenly his smile vanished. He stubbed out his cigarette, paused for an instant, then stood up and left. When he reached the courtyard, he came back to the balcony, grabbed his raincoat, and without saying a word or looking at them once, he slammed the main door behind him and left. From the cigarette stub that he put out on the ground rose a thin blue smoke.
“I took Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung away from the child. It never even occurred to me that Mao’s picture had torn and Darmar still had it in his hands,” said Lhamo with tears in her eyes as she threw out the leftover tea from Leader Gonpo’s teacup in the courtyard. Tenpa didn’t say anything. He just stared into the courtyard. The water had stopped dripping from the roof and it was silent now. Here and there a bubble burst in the puddles collecting on the ground.
Tenpa was awake but remained in bed. He lit his pipe, inhaled, and asked, “What time is it?” The dim lamp hanging from the pillar by the hearth flickered. Beneath the lamplight. Lhamo was wrapping up three porcelain bowls in a dishrag.
She replied, “It’s hard to say. I can’t see the stars because of the clouds. But the cocks have yet to crow.”
Putting the bowls in a shoulder bag, she said, “Do we really have to leave in this way? There are so many copies now of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung that a lot of families don’t know what to do with them and throw them in the trash.”
“Whatever people did with Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung before the Line Education Movement, do you think that it’s OK to do that now during the Line Education Movement?”
Tenpa asked Lhamo the question but answered it himself in a loud voice, “No, it’s not OK!” He woke Darmar, who was sleeping next to him. The child gave a low cry, and Tenpa stopped talking and put his hand on Darmar. Moving his lips a little, Darmar fell back asleep.
Tenpa continued speaking, but in a very low voice now.“That’s why that shit Leader Gonpo left so suddenly yesterday, because it’s not OK. Didn’t you see yesterday how furious he was when he left? Didn’t you hear how furious he was when he slammed our door?” Tenpa’s voice rose again as he was speaking.
Lhamo knew that when Tenpa felt as if she was challenging him, his words not only became harsher but he could even raise a hand to her. Usually when Tenpa became very angry, Lhamo kept quiet but this time she could see that the end result of their flight might well be that they’d have nowhere to go and no home to return to. Instead of backing down as Tenpa got angrier, Lhamo kept trying to put off their escape.
“Of course I would go if I can get to Ogya County and get that Chinese doctor to look at the child, but who knows if we can get him to her? Who knows if she’s even there . . .” said Lhamo as she pinned the Chairman Mao button on her undershirt in the hope that it might help to keep Darmar quiet on the way.
“The child . . . After I have been arrested, will you still stand there asking when can we get the child to a doctor?” he said and sucked at his pipe.
Lhamo began to cry. Darmar woke up and began to cry as well. As they both cried, Tenpa found it difficult to stay angry. He gave a small cough and said, “Before they catch me, I must try and get Darmar to a doctor or . . .” He choked up and could not finish his sentence. Just then from a distance came the faint crowing of a cock, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Then, from another direction came a clearer and stronger crowing. Then their neighbor’s cock also began to crow.
Tenpa put his pipe away in his tobacco pouch. He put on the fur-lined coat he was wearing as a blanket. As he got up from bed, he said to himself, “May the Lamas save us and keep us from meeting anyone on our way!”
“May the Lamas save us, may the Lamas save us! In the last few days, that’s all you have been saying, ‘May the Lamas save us!’” said Lhamo as she unhooked the lamp from the pillar and brought it near Tenpa. She held the lamp aloft and they both looked at Darmar’s face for a moment. She continued, “Didn’t you use to say that Ogya County is so advanced and that in Ogya County no one says ‘May the Lamas save us’? They only say, ‘May Chairman Mao save us!’”
Darmar’s eyelids fluttered and then closed in sleep again. A soft snore came from him. His lips were dry and a little cracked, and a couple of thin blue veins stood out on his forehead just below a tuft of hair. A small wooden parrot with a broken beak lay to the right of his pillow. This parrot was Darmar’s only toy, one that Tenpa had carved by hand from a piece of wood. Although Darmar used to play with this toy constantly, ever since he became sick, he cried whenever he saw it.
“His fever hasn’t gone up but I wonder, what if it rises at night?” said Tenpa as he briefly touched Darmar’s forehead with the back of his hand. He roused Darmar from his sleep and bundled him into the front fold of Lhamo’s chupa where her dress made a deep pocket at the waist and took the lamp from her hand. Darmar began to cry again but Lhamo, rocking and shushing him with her body, put a breast in his mouth and he quieted down.
By the time Tenpa dipped his fingers two or three times into the tsampa bowl and finished the breakfast that Lhamo had prepared for him, the cocks had crowed again. “Let’s go, let’s go. The cocks have crowed a second time,” said Tenpa. He slung the bag on his shoulder and went to the door.
But Lhamo, instead for going for the door, made her way toward the shelves on the wall. She picked up two porcelain bowls and a wooden one and placed them on the hearth. Coming toward Tenpa, she took out the bundle of butter from his bag and put a dollop of butter into each bowl. Then she poured tea that was still hot from a kettle into the bowls, one by one.
“Come now,” Tenpa said. He stood in the doorway waiting for her. Lhamo watched the butter melt slowly in the bowls. Lhamo wanted to say something but she didn’t know what. She felt her throat close as she teared up. She picked up some soot from the chimney with her fingertip and marked Darmar between the eyes with this soot to protect him from harm and evil spirits. Then she blew out the lamp and followed Tenpa out the door.
They walked out of their main gate. They heard a dog bark in the village, and then a dog appeared suddenly in front of them. Inside Lhamo’s robes, Darmar started to cry but stopped right away. Perhaps Lhamo suckled him. The stray dog approached them. As it neared them it stopped barking and whined instead and rubbed against Tenpa and then Lhamo with its head and licked them. Then other stray dogs appeared and did the same, rubbing against them with their heads and licking them. Lhamo said to herself, “Poor dogs. They must know that we are going far, far away.”
“Oh, we are here,” yelled Tenpa as he realized that the crowd of houses clustering in the center of the green plain that stretched out in front of them was the seat of Ogya County. Perhaps Lhamo didn’t hear her husband because she gave him no answer. At one end of the back of the tractor, Lhamo had covered Darmar’s head with the end of her kera belt to keep the dust out of his face and she was holding Darmar tightly against her body so that he wouldn’t be jarred too much by the tractor’s rattling. It wasn’t necessary to answer, anyway. In a moment, the tractor that was carrying them came to a stop and went quiet. When Tenpa got up to check, they had arrived at the town. He saw two soldiers from the People’s Army with rifles in front of the tractor, but just then a storm of dust rose and obscured everything around them. When the dust settled, he saw that the soldiers were speaking to their driver.
“But how did they know that we were in this tractor?” said Tenpa to himself, assuming that the soldiers knew they had run away and were there to seize them. Lhamo, in answer, held Darmar to her mouth. In her arms, Darmar’s eyes were wide open as he stared up at the sky. The soot that Lhamo had laid between his eyes that morning was no longer a line between his eyebrows and was now smeared all over his forehead and his eyebrows. Lhamo put some spit on Darmar’s forehead and tried to wipe the soot off with the end of her kera.
One of the armed soldiers came to the rear of the truck and said to Tenpa and Lhamo, “Get off. Get off. Go that way,” he said, pointing. Tenpa began walking that way with Lhamo following him. The soldier walked behind Lhamo, still carrying his rifle across his shoulder. They had no idea where the soldier was taking them.
Tenpa looked back. The tractor still idled by the side of the road. The driver and the other soldier still stood there by the car. Darmar was crying now in Lhamo’s arms, giving out a low wail every now and then.
The street where they stood was the town’s only street. The street ran very wide and very straight. All the administrative buildings of the town were built on either side of this street. From the loudspeakers mounted on electric poles along the sidewalks came a music that neither Tenpa nor Lhamo had ever heard before. The people who were on the road walked silently without speaking to each other. They all wore black armbands on their upper arms and white cloth flowers pinned to their chests. Rows of armed soldiers were posted along intervals on the street.
The soldier led Tenpa and Lhamo, who were trying to make sense of all these things, into a yard. The yard was basically a grassy meadow with three houses in the center. Perhaps it was because the soldiers kept animals outside this meadow, but here the grass grew long and yellow compared to the pastures outside the meadow. There were ten or so people loitering by the houses. They seemed to be strangers to each other. A man next to a grazing yak sat smoking his pipe. When Tenpa saw him, he felt the itch to smoke too and he touched his pipe.
“Wait here for a moment,” said the soldier to Tenpa and Lhamo, leaving them at the door of the first house. The soldier was just about to knock on the door when the door opened. Out walked a man who seemed very drunk. He kept his eyes carefully on his feet and swayed as he walked. Another armed soldier took this man by the sleeve and led him toward the group of people on the right.
Inside the house, Tenpa and Lhamo could no longer hear the loud music of the street. But they could hear another sound now, the banging and hissing of a metal stove. Tenpa was reminded of the day a few years ago when he came to town as a stable-hand for some Chinese horse traders. After herding the horses that the Chinese traders had brought down from the mountains, they had gone into someone’s house, and Tenpa had heard the same banging and hissing of the metal stove then.
Darmar began to fuss and cry into Lhamo’s chupa. Lhamo tried to suckle him again to make him stop but although Darmar suckled at the breast in his mouth, he still sobbed through his nose. He closed one hand on the button of Chairman Mao pinned to Lhamo’s chest. When Lhamo tried to loosen Darmar’s hand from the button, he let the breast slip from his mouth and gave a loud wail.
A man sat at a table facing them and smoking. The soldier who brought them into the house went toward him. This other man, obviously an officer or a superior, had the same black armband and white flower on his chest. A small handgun in a leather holster hung from its belt on the wall behind him. Below the handgun was a marble bust of Chairman Mao on a stack of four books, all collections of Chairman Mao’s speeches and writings. The bust seemed to be looking down at the chief’s table. The soldier said something in a low voice to the officer. The officer looked at Lhamo. When he blinked, the muscle of his cheek twitched in a tic. Lhamo wondered if Tenpa was mad that she had pinned Chairman Mao’s button on her chest and hid it from him. But Tenpa didn’t seem mad at all. Still looking at Lhamo, the officer slowly got up from his chair. The muscle of his cheek twitched faster and harder; his cheek now twitched twice in one blink of his eye.
Tenpa was going to confess it was him who had pinned Chairman Mao’s button to Lhamo’s undershirt in order to keep Darmar quiet. The words “It was me” were on the very tip of his tongue. Tenpa had expected to hear the officer rage and thunder at them, so when the officer said in a low and sad voice, “Our peerless and wonderful leader Chairman Mao has passed away today,” he wasn’t sure he had heard correctly. “Can Chairman Mao actually die, after all, like other people?” he thought.
The officer gave each of them a black armband and a white flower made of cloth. “This is to symbolize our mourning for Chairman Mao’s death. If you are seen out on the street without wearing these, another soldier will bring you back here. If you come in here a second time, I can’t allow you outside again. Then we’ll put you with those other detainees we are holding over there.”
Tenpa let out a breath as he realized that their being brought to this house had nothing to do with their flight. He remembered the man next to the young yak who was smoking a pipe, and feeling the itch to smoke again, he raised his hands to touch the pipe in his chupa. Seeing the black armband and the white flower in his hands, he wondered, “But is a bad element allowed to mourn Chairman Mao’s death?”
Just then Darmar gave a small cry and Tenpa, starting as if he had been woken from sleep, stared at Darmar. Darmar’s eyes blinked open and closed, his lips also opened and closed. His lips were dry and Tenpa could see a little crack on his lips.
“Poor kid,” the officer said. “See how his tiny hands grab at Mao’s button. Even though he can’t even speak yet, he knows in his heart that something terrible has happened.” He patted Darmar on the head and said, “When did he begin doing this?”
The picture of Chairman Mao from yesterday, torn and soaked in Darmar’s drool, flashed in front of Tenpa’s eyes. He said, “Early this morning.”
“See,” said the officer. “Even though Chairman Mao passed away last night, the sad news was not circulated until this afternoon. It seems your son knew something had happened even before the announcement was made.” His cheek twitched again.
Tenpa and Lhamo went outside the house. The loudspeakers were still broadcasting. But instead of the same loud music from before, now the speakers were loudly broadcasting something in Tibetan. “The Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of China, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China . . .” The names of the governmental bodies were being read out loud very slowly and clearly.
The soldier who brought them into the compound brought them back to the gate, pointed to the left side of the street, and said, “Look up there. Go and join those people up there.” Tenpa knew that that was where the town hall was. When he had been in that town all those years ago to herd horses for the Chinese traders, he had come here often to watch movies. But he could not even begin to guess why they were supposed to go there now and why people were gathering there. However, the county hospital was just beyond the town hall.
There was only a wall between them. Tenpa remembered the gray-haired Chinese woman doctor who cared only about people’s health and not at all about their class status. Wearing her glasses on her nose, she had pressed the stethoscope to his chest and his back and listened carefully. This was all those years ago, during the time Tenpa worked for the Chinese horse traders, but he remembered it as if it had happened yesterday.
Tenpa had brought his family to Ogya County because of this hospital and this doctor. Now that they were here, why did they have to go inside the hall? How long would it take inside? In any case, was the gray-haired Chinese doctor even at this hospital? Tenpa wondered. He wanted to ask the Chinese soldier but he was nowhere to be seen now. Instead a horse carrying an antelope on its back trotted into his view. He could see a scattering of dried blood on its shoulder. A soldier wearing two long rifles on his back led this horse. In front of them walked a strong-looking fellow in a new sheepskin chupa and a pair of black sunglasses; the man’s hands were tied behind his back with a rope, the end of which rope the soldier held in his hands as well, leading both man and horse.
“How pathetic of Chairman Keldo,” said one of two women walking next to Tenpa and Lhamo. She looked around and then said to her friend, her voice dropping lower as she spoke, “He must have wanted some delicious antelope momos tonight. How would he have guessed, even in his wildest dreams, that Chairman Mao had passed away?” She looked again at the horse carrying the antelope. The other girl said, “Aku Tseten too, not knowing that Chairman Mao had kicked the bucket”—she immediately stuck her tongue out, looked around, then continued—“not knowing that Chairman Mao had passed away, he was drinking up by the Sho River when they arrested him.”
Tenpa remembered the drunken man that he and Lhamo saw earlier in the compound, the one who could only stare at his feet. Just then, Lhamo gave a low cry and Tenpa turned around to look at her. She held Darmar closely to her breast, watching him as she walked. The veins in his forehead were bluer and his cheeks redder than before. As Darmar blinked his eyes, weakly opening and closing his eyelids, Tenpa noticed that his eyes looked paler and whiter than before.
They heard a voice saying, “Step in, step in. Don’t block the way.” Tenpa assumed that they were now where the soldier had said they should go. Two lines of soldiers from the People’s Army stood watch as two long lines of people weaved between them, one line going indoors and another coming outdoors. Tenpa and Lhamo were in the line going indoors and they found themselves pushed into the hall. As they entered, the loud music they had heard earlier from the loudspeakers filled their ears again. Then Tenpa saw the huge portrait of Chairman Mao hanging from one of the walls. It was a black and white portrait, not color, and it had a black border drawn all around it. Heaps of white cloth flowers were scattered in front of the portrait, making a round rosary as tall as a man. Two soldiers stood at attention, stiff and unmoving, on each side of the portrait, rifles on their shoulders and eyes fixed in front of them.
The line moved, sweeping Tenpa and Lhamo toward the portrait of Chairman Mao. Even though the hall was huge, the music being blasted from the speakers was so loud that it almost felt as if the hall couldn’t contain this music. No one in line spoke or said anything, but the sounds of sniffles and sobbing came from both in front of them and behind. At times someone would wail in a loud voice. Tenpa felt a little uneasy that neither he nor Lhamo felt like crying.
He watched carefully to see what he should do when he got in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait. The majority of the people stood there for a moment then bowed three times before leaving. A woman who looked Chinese bowed three times very quickly as soon as she came in front of the portrait, then pressed her hand to her mouth, probably to stop herself from crying, and left. An old woman, supported by a young man, exclaimed in a loud cry as she stood in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait, “Oh, Red Sun!” She bowed in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait and then, instead of straightening like other people, she stayed there bowed from the waist. “Oh, this fate of ours,” she said as she began to cry and wail. “Oh, Red Sun of our hearts, how could you go and leave us behind?” She gave a terrible scream. Just then Tenpa felt Lhamo tugging at his clothes. Darmar’s mouth was open wider than before, and his eyes looked even whiter and paler than before. When Tenpa held his ear to Darmar’s nose, he heard a thin, wheezing breath. Tenpa pulled Lhamo out of the line. The old woman, now supported by two young men, also pulled out of the line and came near Tenpa and Lhamo. “Kema! Kema kehu!” she was shouting and her cries were even louder than before. “Oh Chairman Mao, you . . .” she could not get the words out.
“Mother, mother,” said one of the young men helping her as they led her toward the gate. Tenpa and Lhamo followed them. Lhamo, holding Darmar closely to her breast, sobbed as she walked behind Tenpa. As they reached the exit, the lines moving in and out the door stalled as people made way for them to pass, staring at Tenpa and Lhamo as they let them through. When they made it outside the hall, a man wearing a camera around his neck ran up to them and said, “The hospital is this way!” Then, running in front of them, he began to take picture after picture.
When the doctor took Darmar from Lhamo’s arms, his tiny right hand was still clasping the button of Chairman Mao at Lhamo’s breast. They pulled his fingers open one by one to loosen the button. This time he didn’t cry. The photographer wove in and out, moving this way and that way, taking endless pictures of them. The flash of photography lit up Lhamo’s chest again and again. As soon as Darmar’s mouth let go of Lhamo’s breast, she unrolled her undershirt to cover herself.
“Ama, Ama! Look at his face!” Lhamo gave a cry of wonder. Whenever Lhamo was happy, she easily cried out in wonderment over such small matters. Two days ago Darmar began to eat tsampa and in those two days, Lhamo gave many cries of delight and wonder. Darmar sat with a small porcelain bowl full of tsampa porridge in front of him, with tsampa smeared all over his hands and his mouth. It was this sight that caused Lhamo to burst out in delight.
“All right, this is it,” said Tenpa, looking out the window.
“What is it?” asked Lhamo and she went to the window to look out too.
Outside, the nurse who checked Darmar’s temperature was speaking with an official from the Public Security Bureau and another man. She was pointing out their room, the sick room where Darmar was kept, to the men.
“They can go ahead and arrest me,” said Tenpa, looking out the window. “The child’s getting better now. But how will you two get back to our village?”
“How will we go back home without you?” Lhamo cried, interrupting him.
“Pa, pa, pa . . . da, da, da . . .” Darmar’s babbling dried Lhamo’s tears. His face and his right hand smeared with tsampa again, he continued making his nonsensical sounds.
A man entered their room, calling out “Comrade Tenpa” as he did so. It was the man Tenpa had seen from his window, the man with the Public Security Bureau official.
The PSB man entered the room after him. The official had a smile on his face, but he stayed silent and didn’t say anything.
The other man said, “I heard that your child had taken ill. But I wasn’t able to come and visit before because the last few days I have been so busy arranging the mourning ceremonies following the departure of the Red Sun.”
The PSB official, noticing that Tenpa and Lhamo looked completely bewildered, explained, “This is Chairman Keldo of the Revolutionary Committee of Ogya County.” He looked at Chairman Keldo and then said, “It was the chairman who ordered that your son should be well looked-after.” He looked toward Chairman Keldo again.
“Yes,” Chairman Keldo said, “when I heard that such a small child was so inconsolable at the death of Chairman Mao, I felt such concern and sorrow for him.” He looked around at the hospital room and said, “How is the room? Is there anything that you are lacking?” Before Tenpa and Lhamo could answer, the PSB official said, “Oh yes, this is a special room Chairman Keldo ordered for you. Otherwise, that’s where you would be staying right now.” He pointed out the window at the hospital’s yard.
The yard was full of cotton and felt tents. By the door of one tent, an old man picked lice from the sheepskin chupa spread out in front of him. Near him two naked children played.
Chairman Keldo sat down on Darmar’s bed. He stretched out his hand to pat Darmar on the head but this frightened Darmar, who cried and held out his hands for Lhamo. As Lhamo prepared to pick him up, Chairman Keldo took out a plastic Chairman Mao button from his shirt pocket and showed it to Darmar. Darmar stopped crying as soon as he saw Chairman Mao’s smiling face.
“I have pulled out the pin from the button,” said Chairman Keldo, looking at the Mao pin on Lhamo’s chest, and, seeing Lhamo flex her hands, he looked at Darmar again and said, “When you grow up, I will buy you a Red Army uniform and a Red Army hat. Then, with a button of Chairman Mao pinned to your lapel, you will look like a proper soldier indeed.” Darmar looked back at Chairman Keldo and, raising the Mao button in his hand, said, “Pa, pa, pa . . .da, da, da.” And it seemed almost as if he were saying something in response to Chairman Keldo.
“I read all the news. It is no ordinary thing when a child of such tender years is so grieved at the passing of Chairman Mao that he actually falls ill,” Chairman Keldo said. He unfolded the newspaper tucked under his arm and showed it to Tenpa and Lhamo. Both Tenpa and Lhamo were astonished when they saw the photos in the newspaper. The first picture they saw was of the old woman in the hall. Her body was still bowed but she was lifting her face, her hair clumped together from her tears and her eyes closed. Her mouth was open, to mutter prayers, and they could see clearly where her teeth had fallen out. To the right of this photo was a photo of Darmar, with his mouth still fastened to Lhamo’s breast, holding on tightly with one hand to the Mao button on Lhamo’s chupa. When Lhamo saw her breast in the picture, she couldn’t help pulling up the collar of her chupa. There was a lot of writing beneath the two photographs. Tenpa slowly read the large caption “A one-year-old . . . infant . . . to . . . a seventy-year-old . . . mourn . . .”
“It appears that on September 9 Darmar held on to Chairman Mao’s button and began to cry for two whole days and nights, is that right?” Chairman Keldo asked them.
Lhamo, who had no idea how to answer this question, looked at Tenpa. Tenpa was also flustered. “Yes, yes. But he is now getting better. He even ate some tsampa porridge yesterday.”
Although Tenpa’s response didn’t quite answer Chairman Keldo’s question, he just said, “How would such a small child have so much devotion to Chairman Mao without the good influence of his parents? If our county had a family such as yours, they would be the jewel of the county.” Tenpa and Lhamo were completely astonished. Lhamo just looked at Tenpa. Tenpa wanted to say something in response, but the words were stuck in his throat.
When Chairman Keldo saw how dumbfounded the couple was, he said, “We were hoping that we can get your family to stay in our county. We went ahead and assigned you to the production team, and, from the Revolutionary Committee, we got a tent and some milking and pack animals for you.” He looked at the PSB official.
The PSB official took out some documents from his shoulder bag and said to Tenpa, “Please stamp your fingerprint here.” Tenpa, confused and bewildered, just stood there in shock.
Chairman Keldo said, “The production team isn’t far from the center of town. A journalist will come to see you the day after tomorrow.” He opened the hospital room door and left.
The PSB official took Tenpa’s finger, pressed it into the inkpad, then pressed it on the document and said, “Tomorrow evening I’ll come to take you to the Production Brigade.” He closed the door behind himself.
Tenpa was still in shock. The door opened again and the PSB official stuck his head inside the door and said to them, “There’s no need to tell anyone that you are not a native of this village. No need to tell the journalist, either.” And again he closed the door behind him.
The tip of Tenpa’s finger, which had been dipped in the ink pad, felt cool and chilled. He looked at the red pad of his finger—underneath the red ink, to his great surprise, he could see in his fingertip the image of a white conch that coiled to the right. At least once a day Tenpa looked at his fingertips when he was eating tsampa porridge and he wondered why he had never noticed this white conch on his fingertip before.
Just then, Tenpa caught a whiff of a distinctive odor. And he heard Lhamo utter another one of her joyful exclamations of wonder, “Look at this little demon child!” When Tenpa looked at Darmar, he saw that this time Lhamo’s joyful exclamation celebrated no small thing. Darmar had loosed on the bed a soft pile of stool rounded like a coin. His mouth drooling, he was dragging the Chairman Mao button through this soft stool and babbling the same nonsensical sounds, “Pa, pa, pa . . . da, da, da.”
This was the first time in a great many days that Darmar had passed stool. At the sight of this, Tenpa felt a smile appear on his face, the first smile in a great many days to grace his face. Then the smile disappeared swiftly. Tenpa quickly locked the door from the inside. Lhamo hurriedly took the button from Darmar’s hands and, taking a large sip from the leftover tea in the teacup, spit the tea out over the button. But most of the tea she spat out missed the button. Where a drop of tea fell on the button, it cleared up one smiling eye of the Chairman. As Tenpa and Lhamo looked at the button where Chairman Mao appeared to have one eye open and one eye closed in a wink, it seemed to them as if the Chairman were sharing with them a playful and secret sign.
© Pema Bhum. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Tenzin Dickie. All rights reserved.