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.