Everything Burns

Here is a story I really enjoyed recently, written by my very talented sitemate Todd.

By the will of the Eternal Blue Heaven the sun often shines in Mongolia, but there is no sunlight without shadow. In 1921, following more than two centuries of Chinese rule, the Mongolian people, with the aid of their Russian comrades, secured their independence. At the time, there were as many as 941 Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia and 25 percent of all adult males were Buddhist lamas.֩ However, the elections of 1924 marked a new era as Mongolia submitted to the reign of another foreign master, this time under the auspices of communism. The communist ascension to power brought orders that places of worship be destroyed and any followers arrested, exiled, or executed. For their part in the collective endeavor to eradicate religion from communist controlled territories, the Mongolian people were encouraged to drown any lingering pangs of conscience with Russian vodka. And so it remains. After centuries of foreign domination, the people who once spread religious tolerance to the far corners of their vast empire are beginning to record a new chapter, while still coming to terms with the bloodshed of a not so distant yesterday.

Time overlaps itself. Shortly after the party’s rise to power, orders arrived from afar that all places of worship were to be destroyed. A young captain was charged with leading a patrol of soldiers to the site of an ancient monastery located on an isolated hilltop in the central region of the country. The squadron was expected to destroy the monastery and arrest any worshipers they encountered. However, the young captain, eager to prove himself worthy of command and solidify his reputation within the ranks, secretly vowed to make an example of this remote monastery to demonstrate his loyalty to the cause. Under the cover of darkness, the young captain ordered his men to barricade any exits and set the building ablaze. When asked about the lamas still residing inside, the young captain grimly replied, “Everything burns.” And so it was. News of the young captain’s impromptu command spread within the ranks until it caught the attention of a severe general. The general, infuriated by what he considered blatant insubordination, ordered the man be relieved of his command and banished from future service. The general would have bestowed a harsher punishment; however he found no fault with the young captain’s cruelty, he simply could not tolerate failure to execute orders. Distraught by what he considered an accursed fate, the young captain returned to the countryside to rejoin his father as a herdsman.

And after that the entire incident was dead and buried and forgot; like so many other days and nights of terror and bloodshed that passed over the land, the ancient monastery that once crowned a steep hill, and all the disciples who searched for enlightenment therein, were entombed as nameless faceless lifeless statistics by the tides of time—but time is the justice that examines all offenders. The former captain whose ambition surpassed his rank retired his youthful pride and resigned himself to leading the life of a herdsman amidst the vast countryside. Seasons changed and years passed. The young captain took a bride, raised a family, grew old, and died. His sons remained in the countryside to carry on tradition—train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he shall not depart from it. His children raised sons and daughters and their sons and daughters raised sons and daughters and the seasons continued to pass by the will of the eternal blue heaven.

So it was on a calm, wintry evening in late February, when upon returning home to his ger, Father noticed an old lama descending the south side of the steep hill. After settling his herd and greeting Mother and Daughter and baby brother, Father rode out to meet the strange man and inquire about his pilgrimage to this remote area. But when Father approached the lama to bid glad tidings, ‘Cain ban yy, ta,’ the old lama continued on his trek seemingly oblivious to Father’s being. Taken aback by this perceived slight, Father returned home convinced the old lama must suffer from a sort of hearing defect. He did not speak to Mother of his curious encounter with the old lama that evening—strange dreams assailed Father’s sleep that night—the offspring of strange thoughts still lingering in his mind the next day. Father arrived home with his herd early the following afternoon, so as not to miss the lama in case he should return to the hilltop. And much to his surprise, when the sun reached the proper position in the western sky, the old lama was seen descending the hillside in the same manner as the previous evening. Once again Father rode out to greet the lama, this time with a fresh canteen and foresight to project his voice to overcome the man’s hearing defect. ‘CAIN BAIN YY, TA,’ Father said, as he extended the canteen to the lama. But much to his dismay, once again the old lama continued on his way without acknowledging the greeting.

Father returned home from his second failed attempt angry and confused by the old lama’s affront. He told Mother about the strange lama who twice refused to acknowledge him. “Stupid old lama,” he said, “Foolish old lama. What will he do if he falls ill or snows return? Where will he go? He will not find shelter here – useless old lama.” Another restless night found Father rising earlier than usual the following morning. While he was out collecting wood to revive the smoldering fire, Father noticed the old lama approaching the hillside from the opposite direction he traveled the previous evening. The lama’s evening path led west, yet he was now seen approaching from the east. The idea of the old lama’s lengthy pilgrimage astounded Father, as he was familiar with the difficult terrain and knew there was no shelter for many kilometers in any direction.

Father awoke early several consecutive mornings to gather wood and dung to stoke the dying fire and observe the old lama. Each morning the lama appeared in the same yellow robe, on the same westbound path, and silently and calmly ascended the steep hill as the sun was beginning to rise in the east; and there he remained until the sun reached a certain position in the western sky, at which time he silently reappeared and calmly descended the hillside on the same path he traveled yesterday and tomorrow. Although pride prevented Father from attempting to address the lama again, he and Mother watched with intrigue evening after evening as the old lama continued his journey toward the horizon. Sometimes Daughter, who had lived only 33 months in the ger, also watched; perhaps wondering in her own way who he was—and where he was going—and why he always followed the same path.

Yet consistency makes even the most peculiar events and extraordinary people seem commonplace in time. So it was with the young family and the old lama. Weeks passed and Mother and Father no longer watched the final spell of the old lama’s daily pilgrimage. Father busied himself with the herd, birthing season would arrive soon and he had much to prepare—a herder’s work is never finished. Mother continued to nurse their two small children, prepare meals, fetch water, wash clothes, milk the cow, chop wood, collect dung, stoke the fire, look after the ger—a mother’s work is never finished. baby brother began to smile more frequently—he grew strong from Mother’s milk. Daughter helped console baby brother when he fussed and watched Mother do her chores. From time to time Daughter still wondered about the old lama and watched him journey down the hillside and travel along the same path toward the setting sun.

One afternoon, while Father led the herd, Mother decided to fetch water from the well for dinner and evening baths. The weather was too cold and windy, and her children were too young to accompany her on the journey, so as is customary for isolated herder families in the vast countryside, Mother tied Daughter and baby brother’s right ankles to the bedstead to keep them safe while she was gone. She put on her warm coat boots scarf and gloves, stoked the fire to ensure the ger remained warm in her absence, kissed her children, loaded the containers in the push-cart, and began the 4 kilometer trek east to the well. Meanwhile, Father moved the herd north to return home. The strong wind prevented the only evidence of unfolding doom from ascending over the rolling hills. Upon clearing the final rise overlooking the shallow valley, Father saw the burning ger in the distance and charged ahead, but his horse, still emaciated from the harsh winter, collapsed under the strain and sent its rider crashing to the earth. Father returned to his feet, disoriented from the fall, yet compelled by an innate instinct to save his home. He covered the remaining distance on foot. When he finally arrived, the ger was an inferno. He frantically sought the water containers, but once he found the cart was missing, he realized the flames had consumed more than his home. Anger gained more and more mastery over him, especially as his eyes fell upon the steep hill overlooking his accursed fate.

“What a coward! What a beast! What cruelty!” Father said to himself, seething with rage, as he raced up the steep hillside to confront the man he convicted for the deaths of his children—grief strengthened the wrath of his vengeance with each passing stride. Father unfettered his knife from his deel and clutched it in his right fist as he proceeded up the slope. When he reached the summit he nearly collapsed from exhaustion, but his anger refused to grant his body relief. “My ger has burned!” he shouted, as emotion and fatigue continued to restrict his breath. But the old lama made no reply. “MY GER HAS BURNED!” Father repeated, further incensed by the old lama’s continued refusal to recognize him. “My children are ash scattered in the wind. You watched them burn and did nothing!” Father’s knuckles shown white as he choked the handle of the knife – he swore if the old lama failed to acknowledge him this time he would bury the blade in the man’s breast.

Then, without opening his eyes or stirring from his position, the old lama calmly replied, “Everything burns.”

Scorched with rage by the old lama’s indifference to his apparent tragedy, Father raised his knife and charged at the old lama who remained situated on the barren ground, gripping a rosary in his right hand—but before Father could plunge the long blade into the man’s breast, a severe pain stabbed his chest and dropped him to his knees. Father struggled for air as he continued to choke the handle of the knife with his right hand. The distance between the old lama and the young father was no greater than a single meter.

The old lama opened his eyes and spoke directly to Father for the first time, “I do not need my eyes to see the anger burning in your heart, nor do I need my ears to hear the grief strangling your voice—your anger is your hell, and your grief is for yourself, not your children. Let go of them, and when you are ready, perhaps you will discover what you seek. The difference between heaven and hell here and hereafter is no greater than a single thought.”

Father awoke minutes later. He gasped for air as he lay prostrate on the barren hilltop beneath the eternal blue heaven; the bright sun overhead momentarily blinded him as the events of the immediate past came rushing back to blackened eyes. He slowly rose to his feet. The sharp pain in his chest was gone, as was the old lama. The wind had calmed and black smoke now rose like a tower against the heavens. Father went into a dream as he watched his hope and fear rise and fade into nothingness; he collapsed to his knees once more, though it was an altogether different pain that brought him back to the earth. He rested his head in his hands, “What use is a father who can’t protect his children?” he said to himself. Next to him lay the knife he had intended to bury in the lama’s chest, now the blade appeared to be his only salvation. He reached for it, but before the weapon was in his grasp, he thought about what the old lama had said just before he had lost consciousness. Father rose to his feet once more and searched the western landscape, perhaps expecting to find the old lama walking his familiar path—but the old lama was never to be seen again. Instead, what he discovered filled him with an ecstasy that defied belief; Daughter, dragging baby brother away from the burning ger, on the same westbound path that led toward the horizon.