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.
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.
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.