Before the Chinese burned Jyeko village, a tax official from Lhasa stayed there. For years no revenue had reached the capital from that remote corner of Tibet's eastern province of Kham. So, in 1948, Lhasa sent its own collector. It was a four-month journey into ever more resentful districts. But the zealous young man brought his wife and baby daughter, declared his intention to stay for as many years as it took--and was generally hated.
The Lhasan family rented a large but gloomy house in an alley off the marketplace. They had no true friends: the family was not welcome in the better houses, and the husband was too proud to consort with anyone else. So they lived in isolation. The tax official rode about on business with his nose in the air, intruding and questioning, making demands and enemies of the Khampa people. His young wife cared for their baby, the only living thing that returned her natural warmth. She did her best to spin out barely civil conversations with the market traders, and grew sad and quiet at home.
In their second autumn, they heard from Lhasa that her parents had died. Her husband announced that they should make a pilgrimage to a lamasery several days' travel to the northwest, near Chamdo. They took two yaks to carry the baggage, while husband and wife traveled on smartly tacked ponies. Their daughter, now a timorous toddler, rode in front of her mother.
Their departure from Jyeko was observed by a number of people who bore the tax official no love. The little caravan left the village on the Lhasa trail, out past three votive shrines and then through a scattering of small vegetable gardens. Beyond these were stone animal pens. Here stood clumps of squat wind-twisted firs and larches, picketed in sparse pockets of soil and thrusting their roots under boulders for purchase against the gales. Beyond this point, no trees grew, only sorry little barley fields on terraces from which tons of rock had been lifted over centuries.
They moved steadily upstream toward the stark snowfields, traveling alone. Turning northwest, they passed through the shadow of the Grey Ghost, the peak that reared like an enormous hook above Jyeko. On they went, following the steadily narrowing valley floored with smudges of dark green moss among the rounded pebbles.
On the second day, they came to a gorge in which the trail flirted with a precipice above a river. Where the dirt track reached the entrance to the gorge, balks of timber had been laid in rudimentary steps to a narrow rock shelf. This ledge, halfway up the perpendicular cliff, was the only possible means of passing onward above the seething river. It had been used for generations, and the rock face was scratched with imploring prayers. The gray-green surface was damp, greasy with perpetual spray and centuries-old lichens. The ledge was so narrow that the ponies and yaks had barely sufficient room to place their hoofs, and the loads snagged on the wet stone.
The woman had no liking of heights. When she saw where she was expected to ride, her nerve failed and she began to get down from the saddle, the child inside her coat. Her husband turned to see what she was doing, and shouted a curt order to remount immediately, to keep her eyes out of the depths and to follow him. He called that the ponies were used to it; they were more surefooted than she, and should be allowed to find their own way. So she climbed back up, her strength diminishing as rapidly as her nerve. The pony moved ahead, and she managed to raise her eyes and fix them on her husband's back as he rode proud and silent before her. But she could not help seeing ahead of him, to where the ledge gave out. There, for twenty yards, the way consisted of nothing more than slippery tree trunks laid on stakes driven into the rock. She felt sick with fear, a clammy sweat adding to the cold river spray as she fought to keep her eyes up and her hand tight on the rein. They passed beyond the timbers, back onto the rock ledge, and her heart began to steady.
Then she heard, over the boom and hiss of the gorge, a deep scraping sound among the rocks overhead. Before she could comprehend it, her husband and his pony were smashed off the ledge by a clattering swarm of black boulders. He disappeared instantly into the cold billows to their right. A second later, she was struck on the head and the leg, and thought that she, too, was dead, but the blow knocked her in against the rock wall. Her pony, in a spasm of terror, launched itself backwards and vanished, legs flailing, over the edge after her husband.
When her wits returned, she heard her little girl screaming. She tried to stand upright on the slippery ledge to find her child but collapsed. Her leg was broken in two places, crushed by boulders.
She reached Jyeko two days later, draped over one of her yaks. She had somehow contrived to tie her daughter on with ropes so tight that they cut her flesh. The little girl was mute with shock, the woman barely conscious. For once, the villagers were merciful and brought her to the monks. Many weeks later, as the first winter storms were gathering, she and her daughter were back in their house, alone with each other.
The young widow's name was Puton. It was acknowledged privately in the village that she was as good-looking as any woman from Lhasa could hope to be. The Jyeko people, however, had remarked that her brows joined in the middle, a dark smudge of soft down meeting above the bridge of her nose. Before the accident, they had not been sure of the significance of this. Now though, they were certain: she was marked out as dangerously ill-fortuned.
They took Puton to the physician-lama at the monastery. The monk saw the barely suppressed disdain in the villagers' faces and protective pity ran freely in him. His name was Khenpo Nima. He was in his early middle age, a tall, powerfully built man with a shaven head. With gentle ease, he lifted her from the animal while bellowing at the novices to prepare a room in the outbuildings.
For two months he cared for her. The leg was smashed: it would never be good again. Splinters of bone spiked into the nerves of her right thigh, so that, at its slightest movement, her face contorted in agony. Khenpo Nima bound and stretched the limb with wooden splints, laying it on a thick, oily sheepskin. He prepared for her quantities of his best cures, principally an infusion of a rare blue poppy that caused bone quickly to set firm. It was a remedy he alone in Jyeko used: that species of poppy was only known to grow in one near-inaccessible valley beyond Moro-La, so it was expensive to make. But he did not stint its use for Puton.
For several days she was delirious. In the cold, sucking marshes of pain, she surfaced and sank again, terrified of her helplessness. Often, as she came to, she saw the open smile of Khenpo Nima looking down at her. She knew that she was defenseless and dependent; sometimes her hand fastened on his deep-red robe. He brought two village women to tend and clean her when she fouled herself. He saw to it that the little girl was cared for, and brought her each day for Puton to clasp tightly. So they came to trust Khenpo Nima, and when he said it was time for them to return home, Puton went without a murmur of protest. He sent food each day, and told her to rely on him.
Slowly, she recovered her strength, but her spirits seemed gone for good. The old house hardly enlivened her. It was tall and teetering, three stories of wooden rooms clustered like barnacles to a mud-brick core, with steep ladders everywhere, their timbers rotten. Puton could never keep the storeroom clean enough to discourage hordes of crisp brown cockroaches. They rustled across the floors and the sacks of grain, and climbed the walls and ladders to the living room where she would find them running over her daughter's cot. In the barn, flies bred in the animal dung, and swirled up to the family rooms above.
Puton did her best, sweeping clumsily with one hand, opening windows, rubbing at the iron kettles and brass jugs on the shelves. But her leg hurt dreadfully, and she had little courage for cleaning. There was a crude mural of the Lord Buddha daubed on the whitewash behind the fire, and she stared at it while the barleymeal simmered.
The house was at the back of town against the mountainside. The upper rooms were dark, the windows small, the panorama restricted to the neatly framed summit of the Grey Ghost. In summer these rooms were sweltering as the sun beat down on the flat roof through the thin air. In winter they were cold, with only rough boards to close the windows, and keen drafts everywhere. So the young widow who was unwelcome in the village hardly knew where to sit in her own house.
Only when the monk Khenpo Nima came to visit did she relax and smile. He would sit with her in the upper chamber, admiring the view of the Grey Ghost's beaked summit. She listened to his advice and laughter, his news and stories of the world from which she hid. But when he left her--alone except for her little girl, in almost constant pain--she brooded helplessly and became the prey of fear.
When she had first come from the capital, Puton had thought Jyeko a miserable little hole. She had not expected a city, of course. In all the turbulent province of Kham there was only one town of any size: Chamdo. Poor little Jyeko had a small, scruffy monastery jammed onto the hillside, no more than two hundred citizens and a few dozen houses. The homes of the poor were dens of stone rendered with mud, the roof of one story leading to the door of the next, with notched tree trunks for ladders that resembled saws from a giant's toolbox. The better houses were wooden and gloomy. No one had any furniture, except perhaps a crudely squared log near the fire for a table. The village lanes were stony and narrow, steep and twisting, full of rubbish and excrement. By mid-afternoon, when the sun was strong, an odor of urine and burnt juniper hung in the air. There was no order in the place, no controlling hand. The Khampas were too wild, too horse-crazy, too brigand-blooded to ever make a civilized town. That, anyway, was what Puton had grown up hearing in Lhasa.
She had told herself to be patient. But when she saw the sorry little marketplace, its handful of traders in tea, tinware, radishes and mutton outnumbered by the dogs, she sighed for Lhasa.
Jyeko had one small claim to importance. The village stood on the banks of the Wi-chua river and it had a bridge, made of iron chains slung from two stocky towers of timber packed with stone. It was narrow, and swayed alarmingly in the autumn gales. Beneath it, the water ran rapid and deadly cold. Minuscule ice crystals, washed from the glaciers, gave it a milky opacity. Jyeko parents warned their small children, "If you fall in, we shan't see you again." Though Jyeko was ill-kempt and the houses dilapidated, the villagers took care of their bridge. The cords and boards were scrutinized by everyone who crossed, and promptly repaired. This was a trade route, albeit a minor one. On the far side lay Sikhang--and the infinity of China.
There was just one building on the far bank. It was as large as the largest house in Jyeko, but squat and forbidding. The four-square outer walls were of smoothed mud, the small windows strongly barred; the double doors were reinforced with iron. Above the main block a flag hung, blue and red with a white sun. On rough wooden benches under the outer walls, soldiers of the Nationalist Chinese Army sat smoking. Unless there were passing tea merchants for them to pester, they had nothing to do. Trade had slowed to a trickle, near-throttled by China's civil war.
The people of Jyeko regarded the soldiers with contempt. They were miserable conscripts a thousand miles from their homes and were reputed to be opium addicts. None could sit straight on a pony, and none appeared to know which end of a sword to hold. Puton was wary of them, but felt curiosity and pity too. She heard whispers of terrible beatings in the barracks. She wondered what their homes were like. She recalled her uncle's unfashionable opinion: that the Chinese were capable of remarkable things and had vast cities full of green ceramic dragons.
Then the talk of war grew. It was not Tibet's war, thank goodness. The Chinese were tearing each other's eyes out, the infrequent traders reported, unimaginably vast armies swept back and forth across plains of smoking towns and rotting crops, of ditches filled with the corpses of animals, of roads choked with panic-stricken refugees. Few in Jyeko had much idea who was fighting whom. Puton's husband said that the more wars they fought in China, the more secure Tibet would be. But to Puton it seemed that the soldiers across the river grew more sullen daily. When she overheard the talk in the market, she turned cold. She wished in her soul that she was safe in Lhasa.
After her husband's death, she grew more fearful still. Sometimes she would wake in the night thinking she heard gunfire, or dragons swooping, or barbarian cavalry roaring through the town. But it was only the cracking of ice or the slither and crash of a rockfall in the gorges. It was not a Chinese military assassin creeping through the bedroom that had startled her, but a pair of cockroaches scuttling. She would sit up in bed and stare across the room at her daughter. The child slept undisturbed, and Puton told herself not to be so spineless. Still, she woke every night in the cold sweat of fear.
Khenpo Nima made her crutches of wood and leather. She attempted to walk unsupported across the upper room, and Nima beamed encouragement at her, but her balance was poor. She fell repeatedly with a resonant thump onto the gritty wooden boards. The pain shot through her thigh, and she sobbed. Her little girl cried in sympathy. Nima would frown, and pick up Puton easily with one powerful hand. He held her by the back of her tunic, as though it were the scruff of a kitten's neck, and she tried again.
Excerpted from Blue Poppies by Jonathan Falla. Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Falla. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.