David Gilbert ~ Stupa

When we were with­in an hour of the stu­pa, Thurston final­ly showed me the pho­to of it.  We’d stopped so he could take a nitro­glyc­er­in tablet from the bot­tle he’d bought in India.  He looked toward the top of the moun­tain and smiled despite his dis­com­fort and short­ness of breath.  He no longer sang his Bollywood influ­enced songs that he impro­vised about the stu­pa we would find at the top.

After we’d made it to the pass, Thurston sat next to the stu­pa under the net­work of prayer flags blow­ing about over­head.  The stu­pa was mod­est, a pile of flat rocks recent­ly white­washed with all-see­ing eyes.  This was cer­tain­ly not the grand stu­pa we’d seen in the pho­to but he sat for a long time sat­is­fied that he was where he want­ed to be.  Then he slumped over again­st the stu­pa.  I tried to revive him but he was dead.

Thurston was too heavy to car­ry back to Kathmandu, so I straight­ened him so he appeared to be sit­ting with his back again­st the stu­pa.  I returned to the vil­lage to talk with the guide who had want­ed to take us on an extend­ed tour of moun­tain stu­pas and monas­ter­ies.  He seemed like the local fix­er.

I found him stand­ing out­side the wall of his com­pound with a beer in hand and his foot restrain­ing a mean-look­ing mas­tiff.  

Where’s friend?”

I thought of the guide North after his North Face parka.

My friend just died at the stu­pa.”

He’s dead?”  He made a com­i­cal sad face.  “Let’s go get him.”

He’s very heavy.”  I tried to ges­ture great girth.

Yes.  Big man.”

North called for help in an angry voice.  Two men came out of the com­pound with stout poles and rope.  They had the look of hav­ing car­ried bur­dens in the moun­tains, pow­er­ful legs. A teenager fol­lowed behind dressed in gar­ish west­ern clothes.

We start­ed out at a brisk pace ascend­ing along a river then up the side of a moun­tain.

The teenager, Adit, asked me if I was from California.  He had grown up near a British field hos­pi­tal and had learned English from the staff. I made the effort to talk to him think­ing he might help me get through the day, if he could hear me through his walk­man and had any influ­ence with North.

Adit trans­lat­ed what he thought North need­ed to know, then let me ram­ble on with my impro­vised memo­ri­al, at least what I knew about Thurston from our sev­er­al weeks in the moun­tains togeth­er after meet­ing on the trail.

Thurston could only be under­stood by his claim that the sound of stock cars raced around inside his head, a sound he had heard all his life because his extend­ed fam­i­ly lived next to a busy track.  The sound, which he demon­strat­ed, was awful but it helped con­ceal, he claimed, the ter­ror he had for his uncles and their end­less cycle of jail and parole. All the adults seemed to be uncles, even the wom­en.  They stole and chopped cars and didn’t care all that much for “music boy” play­ing his piano and tak­ing lessons. When Thurston made it into a pres­ti­gious music school, he found that he could only hear stock cars run­ning in the prac­tice rooms.  He with­drew and used his col­lege mon­ey to trav­el in Asia.

When we got to the stu­pa, North laid Thurston out and his men bound the body to the poles.  They found his size and weight both a curios­i­ty and a load as they took the ends of the poles and start­ed back down the trail.  Thurston sagged and strained again­st the ropes. I car­ried his back­pack full of smelly clothes.

As we got close to the vil­lage, the bear­ers stopped abrupt­ly and turned on the boul­dered trail like acro­bats until North faced me.

Need mon­ey.”

Adit tried to explain.

They want to burn the body. Wood is expen­sive.  Your friend is big.

I tried to retrieve Thurston’s mon­ey pouch, but the rope trapped it inside his pants. North inter­vened with a knife and freed the pouch.  North count­ed the mon­ey but  want­ed anoth­er fifty rupees, which I had.  North hand­ed me the pass­port.

The bear­ers turned again, then car­ried the body through a stand of trees into a small  char­nel ground.  An old vul­ture tried to fly away but had trou­ble get­ting off the ground so it wan­dered into the bush­es.

As a wood pyre was pre­pared, I began to plan my leave. There was no rea­son to hang around and fall into the vagaries of explain­ing a death to a third-world bureau­cra­cy. I didn’t think Thurston had fam­i­ly that would grieve.

As the fire reached the con­sum­ing stage, the bear­ers began lay­ing wood on top of Thurston.  North took Thurston’s back­pack to put into the flames.  

Wait,” I said a bit to dra­mat­i­cal­ly. I removed a score Thurston had been work­ing on.  I didn’t know what I would do with it but I couldn’t burn cham­ber music just yet. I stepped slow­ly toward the fire and put the back­pack and pass­port into the flames.

Go now,” said Adit.

North nod­ded and waved me away.

 

As I returned to the vil­lage, I met anoth­er trekker, Rene, who had been to the pass while I was at the cre­ma­tion, and seen Thurson sit­ting in what he called samad­hi.  He swore that Thurston looked like his teacher, a Tibetan lama, and decid­ed to return to his teacher.  Samadhi was a bit much but I wasn’t about to say any­thing.  If it were true, we’d just cre­mat­ed a man in a trance, an over­sight no doubt. With that unset­tling thought, we con­tin­ued our ani­mat­ed con­ver­sa­tion as we walked down the val­ley.  Darkness forced us to take lodg­ing in a small vil­lage. We were now a good dis­tance from the char­nel ground.

~

David Gilbert’s sto­ries have appeared in Mississippi Review Online, Blip, New World Writing, In Posse, First Intensity and oth­er mag­a­zi­nes.