Prologue: Tibet, March 1959
At first light, Selpo Rinpoche woke to the roar of his monastery’s warning gong. Thinking fire, the young abbot threw open the shutters and scanned the temple, the library, and three stories below, the labyrinth of monks’ cells. But it was movement outside the walls that caught his eye. A monk was running barefoot down the mountain, maroon robes flying, blood staining his trail in the snow.
Later, while he and his lamas tended the monk’s wounds in the warmth of the great kitchen, Rinpoche listened as the monk relayed the news from over the Iron Snow Range. A Red Army unit had corralled laypeople and monks in his monastery’s courtyard and demanded the senior lamas renounce their faith and bow down to China’s ruler, Mao Tse Tung. When the lamas refused, soldiers shoved pistols into the hands of the novice monks and ordered them to kill their teachers. But the boys, in keeping with their vows, turned the weapons on themselves. In response, the soldiers emptied their guns into the crowd, then dragged the women and girls to the temple, laid them on their backs under the statue of the Buddha, and raped them.
All that day, Rinpoche walked the halls, rallying monks and villagers as they passed supplies and relics hand-to-hand out the Eastern Gate to the parade grounds. There, porters loaded a caravan of yaks. Close to midnight, he waded through the crowd in the moonlit courtyard and mounted the horse his attendants had packed for his escape south over the Himalayas.
Reins in hand, he peered through the juniper smoke at the ancient square—the raised plaza where he had learned to debate the fine points of wisdom, the prayer wheels he’d turned as he circumambulated the statuary hall, the banners and gargoyles, and on the roof, the golden Wheel of Peace. He saw, too, tomorrow’s courtyard awash in blood. Centuries of labor and devotion were about to be swept away.
He’d had no time to think of what to say to the multitude now pressing around him. Upturned faces and wind-scoured cheeks. “This life we cling to is . . .” In the sphere of light he saw his little brother in the arms of his uncle; and the old boot maker, Dundrup; and there, Chintso, the girl who once inspired him to question his monastic vows, now pregnant, leaning into her husband Gyaltsen, the handsome salt trader. “This life we cling to . . . is a dream. It can’t be grasped.” The words weighed on him like a lead cloak, and he steadied himself on the horse’s withers. “Those who harm others don’t know they are tightening the ropes of their own suffering. So when the soldiers come, show your compassion.”
As all the people Rinpoche loved bowed their heads in honor, his old teacher, Lama Dawa hobbled toward him, breathless. “Rinpoche, my heart son, we cannot leave these here.” He raised a small bundle in both hands. “The Chinese won’t understand their power. They’ll just melt the gold for their teeth.” He peeled back the brocade to reveal the Scepters of the Lineage. The sight of them made Rinpoche draw his breath.
He had only held the scepters twice. The first time, he was three years old. Lamas from the monastery had come to his parents’ nomadic camp and laid them before him alongside perfect counterfeits. “Choose the ones you held in your previous life,” they’d said. The task was easy. The real ones spoke, and the copies lay dead. Couldn’t these wise lamas tell the difference? He’d broken into laughter lifting the real Dorje, and the lamas had celebrated the discovery of their deceased abbot, reincarnated.
The second time was five years ago. The scepters had been coming to him in dreams, and though his vows prohibited him from even seeing them, one night he sought them while the monastery slept. In his hands, they became hot, as if protesting his disrespect. Frightened, he’d put them back. And for a fortnight, in meditation, his mind churned.
“You should be on this horse,” he told Lama Dawa, “not me. You have the polished wisdom.”
The old man shook his head. “I can’t change what’s coming. The prophecies are clear: The slaughter of monks, and more, the violation of women in the temple mark the beginning of the Dark Age. The world to come desperately needs the skills of our lineage, and though you are young, you’ve mastered them all. It’s time for you to take your place in the flow of things.” His toothless gums appeared behind a smile. “I’ll stay here to help in the morning. So go, my son, and don’t look back.”
Knowing argument was futile, Rinpoche slid the bundle into the pouch inside his robes. “I’ll keep them safe, but they belong here in these mountains.” All around him, monks and villagers were still bowed, peeking up with their dark eyes, straining to hear. He raised his voice. “They belong here, in these mountains, in the hands of the Enlightened Ones. When this chaos ends, I will return them. Somehow I will return them.”
Rinpoche leaned low from the saddle, and his teacher’s bony hand hooked the back of his neck. As they pressed their foreheads together, Lama Dawa whispered, “Find an heir and train him well. Don’t let these teachings be lost.”
Ninety-six years later, in the year 2055
After cinching the saddlebag belt under Coco’s belly, Zhampa watched him wheel and bark in anticipation of setting out. The dog didn’t understand they wouldn’t be coming back. One last time he looked around the courtyard where he’d lived for all of his forty-eight years, then felt behind his arms to make sure old Rinpo’s lineage scepters sat snug in their holsters. In the narrow view they were two small objects, five pounds of gold and silver, and he was simply their porter. But Rinpo had convinced him they were the key to ending the misery that The Unraveling had unleashed on the world. The lamas at the foot of the Naked Red Lady Mountain in Tibet were waiting for him to return them. They’d been waiting for almost a century.
The farmhouse door opened and candlelight spread across the last of the snow. When Zhampa turned, Celeste was leaning against the jamb the way her mother used to on summer evenings. Backlit, her hair glowed red and she seemed to be cradling the old cat in her arms. But when she raised her head to speak, her hands were fingering the knife sheathed between her breasts. “It doesn’t seem real, leaving here separately.”
As if to quell her worries, he smoothed the tarpaulin on the cart in which he’d hidden tools and cookware under bags of seed, on the off chance one of the Valley Folk was on the road after midnight. “If one of our own saw us together with loads like this,” he said, “they’d know we were leaving.”
All winter, Zhampa had avoided suspicion by keeping to his routines, but that afternoon he’d opened the corrals and pasture gates, freed the chickens from their house, emptied the grain barrels onto the barn floor, and hooked the great doors back. Everything else he owned he’d left laid out in the house like at a bachelor’s wake. For those from the village who would come looking, he’d hung a sign on the door: Take the livestock. Share the rest with your neighbors.
“You know what to say if you run into anyone,” he told Celeste. “We’ll be waiting for you up there.” With a shake, he aligned the straps of the harness. After working his shoulders into the yoke, he touched his palm to his chest and extended it to Celeste. She hesitated, then mirrored the gesture. Glancing at the rising moon, he slid his head into the pulling strap, whistled to the German shepherd, and leaned forward like a beast of burden. The old bicycle wheels of the cart creaked into motion. He didn’t look back.
At the first turn, when the three-year-old Suffolk ewe trotted alongside as if intent on joining them, he stamped and bellowed to drive her through the gate into the high field, knowing the other sheep would follow her bell. Her bewildered look haunted him all the way down the road that led out of The Hollow.
When he came to the river, he followed it south through what had once been the most productive land in The Valley. With the farmers gone, poplar and sumac engulfed the carcasses of tractors that had died when the oil stopped coming. Now, cherry, birch, and oak stood twenty-feet tall in the cornfields, and Vermont farmhouses lay cracked open like husks of hickory nuts, their ancient, hand-hewn timber frames dissolving in the rains.
Soon spring would harden the ground and pulling the cart would be easier, but as Zhampa settled into his labor, he chewed on what lay ahead. Over the years since he’d fled college in North Dakota to return home, stories that travelers brought had harped on one common theme: How unpredictable the danger was.
Across from the old landfill, he turned west up the mountain, and where the stream worked close to the road, he shed his harness. The water still tasted of slate and hemlock, and spring floods hadn’t budged the steppingstones to the grove of ancient maple. Decades before, when boys in the village school had tormented Zhampa for his Asian eyes and olive skin, Rinpo had taken over his education and used that grove to teach him to stand like a tree, to walk like an elephant, and to listen like a deer to the voices of water.
It was here that Zhampa had seen the Dorje for the first time. On his eighth birthday it had just appeared in Rinpo’s hand. As he pointed it at the water, the stream reversed course and ran uphill. During another lesson, Rinpo waved the Phurba, and the deep green leaves of seven maples manifested their brilliant fall colors. They remained that way until he clapped his hands three times.
Working himself into the harness again, Zhampa shrugged off his humiliation. His efforts over the winter to access any of the scepters’ magic had been a total failure.
Higher up, where frost and rain had freed great sections of pavement, the wheels of the cart jumped and rattled in fresh-cut gullies. “It’s a good thing we’re leaving here,” he said to Coco, “or soon I’d have to start repairing roads.”
The Valley Folk had long stopped believing in roads. In the early part of The Unraveling, during the famines that came with energy rationing, roads only made it easier for their young people to flock to the cities and join the rebellions of the underclass. Precious few of them returned. Under martial law spawned by the pandemics, soldiers had used these same roads to snatch people in the night. Later, wildcat militias had roared through, mowing down Valley Folk when they raised hunting rifles to defend their homes. In the years since, while foraging in the hills for medicinal plants, Zhampa had found crude encampments littered with skeletons of the old and weak who had frozen or starved, trying to escape that savagery.
But to return the scepters, Zhampa needed roads, roads heading west, always west. He checked the progress of the stars and guessed he would reach their rendezvous point on Homer’s Ledge by sunrise.
He was the first of the four to arrive. Sitting cross-legged on the stone precipice, he watched sunlight spill like honey over the top of an old hedgerow into the field below. Addressing the God of Beauty, he said, “Give it up. You can’t change my mind.” Coco raised his head a moment and looked at him, eyebrows twitching.
The name the Indians had given that part of Vermont was The Hills Like Women Lying Down, but that only conveyed some of the truth. Yes, the contours were seductive, but the slopes were rugged and the climate unpredictable. During The Unraveling, people dogged enough to scratch out a life in the absence of power grids, commerce, and government, and stoic enough to not incite murder in their neighbors had found it a passable place to survive deprivation and violence. The isolation of his farm in The Hollow, the rough road that wound up its grade, and the missing bridge were blessings that had saved Zhampa’s family many times over.
He looked across The Valley at the bench of earth on which his parents had carved out their farm, land he’d presumed he would work until he died. The night before, he’d sat under the hundred-year-old oak that stood guard over the three graves he’d dug and listened for his loved ones’ advice on what he was about to do. He’d heard only coyotes.
From that distance, the cave in which Rinpo had lived his last years was a mere deformity on the cliff face above the farm. Rinpo had become a spiritual mentor to Zhampa’s parents. And when the government began rounding up all non-Christians and putting them into camps, Zhampa and his father, Eric, found themselves in a unique position to hide the old man. They’d spent a summer making the cave into a habitable space.
In the autumn just passed, a gesture his mother had made as she lay dying inspired Zhampa to climb to the cave for the first time in thirty-five years. There he’d found Rinpo’s scepters waiting for him, along with a letter in which he ordered Zhampa take them home to Tibet.
Unbuttoning his shirt, Zhampa freed the holster tops and laid the scepters in his lap. On each end of the Dorje, the Indestructible One, a cluster of lightning bolts curled together in the sign of unbridled power at peace. These were joined through the heart of a lotus flower that fit perfectly in the palm of the hand. Extending his index finger to support the Dorje’s eight-inch length, the way Rinpo had shown him so long ago, he turned it, watching its intricate surfaces reflect the sun. He wondered how many people had held it in the last 1,200 years. And he wondered how Rinpo might have used it during his escape from Tibet.
The Phurba, the Sacred Knife, had a horse head handle. Its ruby eyes glinted in the light. The neck tapered into a dagger. Snakes wound up the surfaces of the silver blade. In his text, the Letter of Command, Rinpo wrote that one thrust of the Phurba into the heart liberated the victim from greed, anger, and indifference. And when withdrawn, it left no mark.
The scepters, Zhampa thought, were like Rinpo himself, rich with history, dense, and exquisite. And according to Rinpo, when returned to the Naked Red Lady Mountain monastery in Tibet, they had the power to rout suffering from the world, to bring an end to the Dark Age, of which The Unraveling was part.
Placing them back in their holsters, he recalled Rinpo’s pith instructions: Take your place in the flow of things. Though it was a simple line, he was troubled that its meaning remained opaque. To distract himself, he contemplated the countless landscapes that lay ahead. Since he’d benefited from relatively good fortune in those tumultuous times, he saw it as just that he spend his last years fulfilling Rinpo’s wishes. Only death or bondage would stop him now.
Pulling aside the thick horsetail of his hair, Zhampa grabbed the handle of his machete. It lay flat and concealed in its sheath along his spine. He’d slit and reinforced his shirt and vest to allow the blade to come out in a hurry. And he’d ground the edge sharp enough to shave hair.
His machete had no sacred qualities. It would leave a mark. And he prayed he would only need it to cut away brush and branches that blocked his path.
Though Zhampa was scanning the forest, he failed to hear Oakley climbing the steep slope below, failed to see him moving through the trees. Oakley’s skill in the woods far exceeded his own, and he’d kept his route confidential—his way of coping with uncertainty. Now, hearing a chatter of gravel, Zhampa looked over. Eighty feet below, Oakley was free-climbing the rock carrying a huge pack, supported with a tumpline over his head.
Smells of rancid animal fat and sweat wafted up. Then a gnarled, blackened hand with the ring finger gone hooked the stone near Zhampa’s feet. A head of matted hair appeared, then an Abenaki nose atop a triumphant grin. Years before, Oakley had left his front teeth on a barroom floor and without them, his smile had a cobra look. He dropped his pack on the rock and hunkered down, barely winded. Raising a finger for silence, he pointed to the woods below. Zhampa turned to see a black bear crawl out of a den, stretch, take a few steps, and sit on the slope like a dowager on a Sunday bench. Stroking her chest with a paw, she raised her snout in the four directions.
“First trip out?”
Oakley nodded. “She’s woozy.”
As the bear lumbered off, Zhampa noted the intent of summer in the first swelling of a trillion red buds. He would miss the seasons of this place, would miss lying in the sheep meadow watching geese wedging the sky on their way to the Chesapeake, as if dragging the snow. “Days like this,” he said, “it’s easy to forget all the hate this country has seen.” When no reply came, he looked over to see Oakley grinning. The man was a minor miracle, always appearing at the right moment. In return, Zhampa had stitched up his wounds many times.
(End of sample in the middle of Chapter Two)