Tentzin urged his yak up the mountain before dawn, high above the prayer flags and incense cauldrons of the staging grounds. It was spring, but too early for funerals to be conducted. Those who died over the winter would need to be brought up the mountain soon, or the weather would get too warm.
He brought flour, salt and tea for the family at the top of the mountain. During the peak season, his cargo would be the dead and their offerings. But the food would still be eaten in whatever form it came.
Travelling alongside, cheek-to-cheek, were trains of chariots carved into the rock. Readying their bows at fleet-footed goa, the riders allowed their horses to lead the way. Every creature depicted—man, horse or antelope—ran unbridled from the earth.
In the stories that his ancestors told, the mountain was a stairway to the Great Plains beyond. It was the home and sustenance of the living, so that they could climb ever higher into the clouds. His job, ushering the dead to their final resting place, was little more than giving away what was no longer needed.
Nesting even farther above him, in the crevices under the sharpest cliffs, the griffons guarded their newly hatched young. The growing chicks would soon be hungry. Within weeks, the first corpses would be very much welcomed.
Before midday, the land before him broadened into a plateau edged on three sides by the sky. Coarse grass thrust out of the last snow, yellowed as the mud-crusted bones that poked out of the landscape here and there.
A sound like cracking wood caught his attention, rising and falling in tandem with the plodding of the yak. The path they followed smoothed to a plain dirt rut. By the wayside, a young man squatted above a pile of bones, a large leg bone in one hand, which he used to hammer and split the smaller bones at his feet. Some of the splinters were old and hollow. Others were leftovers from the start of winter, still with frostbitten meat clinging to the edges.
“Dolgo,” he called. “Already at work this early?”
Dolgo looked up with a wide grin, guffawed loudly as he nodded, and cheerfully resumed cracking bones.
“Where’s your father? At home?”
Dolgo nodded with a grunt, this time not bothering to look up.
Further up the path, the caretaker’s stone hut huddled against the flatness. The scratches in the door were so old they had smoothed down into the wood. A skin hung from the lintel, heavy with milk. Next to the hut stood a shabby lean-to for the goats, a wooden pole to tie up the dog at night, and the half-frozen sticks of last year’s kitchen garden.
From the hut emerged the last bride Tentzin brought up the mountain, the only other provision he had ever brought here. The bride was an orphan who came of age just as the caretaker’s previous wife died. Tashi was flat-faced and ruddy-skinned, with a sharp nose and bright eyes. All the way up here, she was a beauty.
“O Tashi, wife of a good man. How fare you this morning?” he called.
“I am well. Has your season been good?” she replied. Her voice was papery as sand. As always, she barely smiled.
“The season has been kind. Has the spring been peaceful for you?”
She shrugged. “The sun has been warm and the skies clear. How fares your family?”
“They are well. How fares your family?”
“They too are well.”
The requisite greetings out of the way, Tashi helped him unload his yak in silence. Off in a distance, the clacking of bones continued.
She had not been thin, but Tentzin thought she seemed plumper than when he last saw her. Many things could happen in three months. Maybe it was the extra shawls she wore over her robe.
“Where is your husband?” he asked.
“He led the goats to pasture this morning,” she said, hoisting the bag of salt onto her shoulder. “Come inside and have some tea. You have travelled far and will have more to go.”
Indeed, the goat pen was empty, and he spied the herd’s small shadows not far away, occasionally circled by the family’s squat, fuzzy-headed dog.
Tentzin shook his head. “I wouldn’t wish to be a bother.”
“A cup of tea is the least I can do.” She pushed the skin aside, nodding towards the open doorway. “Come on in.”
Gruff as she seemed, Tashi was a kind girl at heart. Smiling warmly, he replied, “If you insist, I would be grateful for the respite.”
Inside, the hearth was red and the ceiling black from years of smoke. As they did further down the mountain, the family would sleep around the fire at night. But for now, all the bedding had been set aside. Cushions surrounded the hearth. A bright copper kettle filled with tea sat warming there, alongside a stack of freshly grilled bread. At the far edges against the walls, Tentzin noticed the wooden chests that held the household’s supplies.
His hostess laid down the supplies by the door, keeping one of the bags of salt in hand, and motioned him into a seat. Removing the lid of the kettle, she tore a hole in the bag and added a small crust of salt to the tea. “We just ran out today! Your timing couldn’t have been better.” Giving the tea a quick stir, Tashi picked up the hot kettle carefully with the edges of her sleeve.
On cue, Tentzin took his cup out of his pocket and held it out to his hostess, who filled it to the brim. There was not much he could say to another man’s wife. On her wedding journey, she had kept still and straight on his yak. Winter had just begun, so she was wrapped thickly in her wedding clothes—a well-mended felt robe and fur-lined hat from his daughter’s own wardrobe. In the saddlebags were a small sack of grain and the same copper kettle from which she had just poured. As an orphan, her dowry was the kindness of a poor village and the promise of a good husband.
It fell upon him, Tentzin, the usher of the dead, to give her away.
When they arrived, Nurgu was waiting for them outside his hut. All the animals were safely penned for the evening. Pitch black eyes catching the moonlight, the dog guarding his goats eyed Tashi warily as they approached. Nearby, the rhythmic clacking of bones could be heard.
Always a compact man, Nurgu looked doubly short as he squatted over a lamp by the doorway. From what Tentzin could tell, he was wearing his New Year’s best—a robe of fine goat hair that bulged slightly at the buttons and seemed unreasonably clean for a recent bachelor. Perhaps it was the same robe he wore at his first wedding. Tentzin could not remember that far back.
With his customary high-pitched tenor, the groom practically squeaked in excitement to help his bride dismount, loudly declaring, “Come, come. Welcome to your new home.” Entwining his arm in hers, he turned to Tentzin and added, “She’s a beautiful girl. My good fortune is doubled with her arrival.”
Like all well-bred girls, Tashi’s only response was to keep her head down and not be heard.
Bride, groom and guest crossed the threshold into the hut. The curtains were drawn over the sleeping areas, and cushions were laid around the blazing hearth. Upon it, an old iron pot kept tea warm, with a wooden lid half askew. In a corner was a basket of fleece, a spindle lying next to it in readiness. A shallow copper tub filled with water was haphazardly pushed into the same place, possibly what Nurgu washed with before their arrival.
Then as now, her first duty as Nurgu’s wife was to serve them all tea. Because of the late hour, her wedding feast was a simple affair. They stirred handfuls of flour and butter into the dregs of their cups, and seasoned with powdered cheese. A goat on the spit would have to come later.
Out of politeness, Tentzin finished his food and declined more. It was rude to stay too long on a couple’s marriage night.
Nurgu, of course, was obliged to say he could stay, even as he cast increasingly eager glances at his wife, and even as he led his guest out the door.
The two man clasped arms, brothers in occupation, before Tentzin set off down the mountain, delighted he could tell his family of a match well made.
And so it was that he returned at the start of the year, eager to hear how his friend enjoyed the local company.
Tashi poured a cup of tea for herself as well and asked, “How about some food? I made some bread, and there is stew from last night.”
“No, no. That would be too much!”
“Absolutely not,” she insisted, looking sharply at the older man. Upon seeing his alarm, she offered much gently, “You have done us a great kindness this day.”
“I suppose,” he said tentatively. “If you insist.”
“Excellent. We will share breakfast,” she replied, breaking into a toothy smile.
The bread was laid between them, and the stew, filmed with fat and swimming with meat, did seem hearty. Setting out two bowls and a spoon, she doled generous helpings for both of them. She smiled again, gesturing over the food. “Eat as much as you want. And tell me about the village. Tell me everything I’ve missed!”
Surprised as he was by the change in her mood, Tentzin could not refuse her request. News was scant in these parts after all. Taking a moment to consider the events of winter, he began, “Kadakh safely delivered her second child after you left. My grandson was waiting for me by the time I returned . . . ”
By the time he recounted his latest grandchild’s first laugh, and the number of yaks they’d lost over the season, it was high noon, almost too late to travel back down the mountain. Nurgu still had not returned from herding the sheep, and Tentzin long ago left his cup full, unable to swallow more. The stew was tender, flavored heavily with chilli oil and mustard seeds. His hostess did not skimp on the meat, serving him chewy chunks of heart and lung to sop up with the bread.
As he finally downed the lukewarm brew, Tashi packed more bread and cheese for him in a skin. “Here,” she said, handing him the thin parcel, “this will be useful if you get hungry.”
“You’re far too kind, my dear. I’m full enough to last through dinner.”
“I’m sure Nurgu would insist as well.” She added, “What a shame it was you could not stay. The men will appreciate the tales I can tell later.”
“Thank you. Your hospitality will be remembered.”
“May the skies stay blue behind you.”
On the way out, he bumped into Dolgo coming in for his midday meal. The lad barely noticed him in passing, heading straight to the hearth and sitting down with a gurgle. There was never a more enthusiastic undertaker than Dolgo. In him, the dead had a friend and good cheer to the last.
Tashi set down her pestle and wiped her brow. By mid-spring, the pain from long hours of pounding had become a part of her limbs, just as the griffon chicks grew into their darkening wings. Her sleeve was flecked with blood, and when she wiped it on her forehead, so was the skin between her hat and her scarf. Even with layers of undershirts, she felt cold.
Across from her, Dolgo hacked at a shoulder blade, his hatchet expertly splitting tendon from muscle. He wore a thin shirt with a light coat, left unbuttoned, the sash nowhere in sight.
“Dolgo,” Tashi called out. “I’m going to fetch some tea.”
Dolgo looked up briefly. He squinted in confusion.
“Tea time,” repeated Tashi, speaking slowly through the scarf.
Dolgo’s face lit up, as he nodded empathically.
It was hard on Dolgo to always see her face covered. Tashi suspected that in the same way household animals reacted to sudden changes in their masters, the thick clothing bothered her stepson at some instinctual level. Perhaps it was not being able to see her face all the time, or that he was threatened by the bulk of the clothes. Even their sheep dog held back when she approached.
The short walk home resounded with the crunch of gravel and new grass. Little rocks scraped the curved toes of her boots. There was milk to be had each morning from the goats, and butter and cheese to salt and keep. On her way in, she made sure to swing the skin hanging over the door. The bulging pouch made a good sloshing sound. Just when the days were about to get too warm, there would be buttermilk to drink as well.
Inside the hut, the air was blessedly still. Embers glowed sluggishly on the hearth as the kettle warmed tea for the day. The hooks dangling from the ceiling were weighed down with cuts of salted meat and strings of sausage, each carefully wrapped in skin and tied with sinew. Tashi took down one of these, checking for mold and the smell of rot. Firm and compact, the piece she chose yielded savory slivers tinged with a crimson paste of spices. They were still not fully hardened, the mark of a good cure, but nonetheless were a good accompaniment to the buttery tea and a balm for the barley flour dumplings. She also picked up a pile of old stock bones tied with black rags—a little extra for Dolgo to smash.
With the food and bones in one arm and the tea caddy slung over her shoulder, Tashi marched back towards Dolgo, perhaps a little faster than she did before. It was easy to feel light with the prospect of refreshment. However, as she turned past their garden patch, she managed to feel a slight tinge of regret. The only thing left undone that season was the planting of new things.
In a distance, on the opposite end of their small plateau, the family’s goats grazed. The dog occasionally padded up to keep them in line, but for the most part sat at attention and kept watch. So faithful a creature deserved an extra rib at dinner, Tashi decided. Little by little, she would gain its trust.
They lit no fires out of doors on the plateau. All the incense was burned at the staging grounds beneath them. Dolgo had stopped work and wiped his hands clean by the time Tashi returned. He took out a small wooden cup from his jacket, which Tashi promptly filled, then Tashi took out her cup filled it by turn.
Paradoxically, resting her haunches made Tashi feel even more tired. Perhaps it was true what the old men said, that the balm of hard work was simply to work twice as hard. At any rate, her stomach rode up over her thighs and settled uncomfortably there, a heavy, churning feeling languishing within.
They sipped their tea slowly, fortifying themselves against the hours still left in the day. When each cup had a small pool of tea remaining, they stirred in the barley flour with their fingers. Tashi took out the packet of meat, laying out the slivers so their translucent edges glistened in the sun.
Dolgo enthusiastically dug in, but Tashi nibbled on her piece, sucking the flavor out of each bite to help quell her nausea. These days, only the saltiest cured meat, preferably with the most fat, would serve this purpose. It did not surprise her when Dolgo finished eating first, and immediately went to pick up his hatchet.
“Dolgo,” Tashi said, “wipe your hands. The grease will make the hatchet slippery.”
Dolgo turned to her solemnly and nodded, wiping his hands on his jacket.
“And here,” she continued, holding out the bundle of bones, “for when you have time.”
At this, Dolgo made a big smile. Of course, he ignored the half-done corpse they’d left before lunch, all legs with no torso. If there was one thing Dolgo loved more than chopping, it was splitting bones. A mysterious peace fell over him when he did this, an aura of sacredness that Tashi thought must come from his birth. The old people said when a child like this was born, it was a blessing. Here was someone whose life would always be pure, free of the strife and emotions that put their karma at risk. Dolgo was closer to the griffons than humans, the chick born to the perfect nest.
Watching long leg bones crack and splinter, listening to the rhythmic pounding while she sucked on a new sliver of meat, Tashi felt more at ease. The churning in her stomach slowed, responding to the monotony of the sound of bigger things fragmenting into smaller ones. It was easy to believe that in that moment, all their problems were as insignificant as little shards of bone.
As the warmer months reached their zenith, work grew brisk on the mountaintop. Juvenile griffons with their bronze-brown wings kited alongside their parents, basking on the rocks above Tentzin’s path. More would be waiting at the charnel grounds, where every bird feasted until they had to be cajoled into nipping off the last scraps.
Perhaps they knew that the carefully wrapped bundles on his yak were more food for their benefit. Tentzin was never sure, staring up at their drooping heads, if they saw him as just another thing waiting to die.
The yak was more sure-footed than he during their climb, even burdened as it was with the corpses and sacks of funerary offerings. At every funeral, the yaks that carried the bodies to the staging grounds were set free, and roamed the upland meadows in shaggy herds. But they never ascended to the top, where the sparse grasses were the province of Nurgu’s animals alone.
Naked under their perfumed shrouds, the corpses were respectfully hidden from the eyes and nostrils of the living, an arrangement for which Tentzin was grateful. While corpses did not frighten him, he still found the sight of them unpleasant. He had no idea how Nurgu endured it, never mind how Dolgo could perform his work so happily.
As he crested the mountaintop, he heard the boy humming over the dull thud of his chopper. Nurgu beat the time with his pestle. Flocks of griffons rattled and hissed a short distance away, waiting for their meal. Nurgu patiently ground and mixed the scraps Dolgo handed to him with butter and flour sent up by the mourners, rolling them into balls. These he threw at the griffons. The birds swarmed over them in a mass of feathers, polishing off their treat before he had a chance to roll the next ball.
In spite of the dry, hot climate, Nurgu’s robe stretched over layers of undershirts, and a stiff hat was jammed over his brow. Both Dolgo and Nurgu usually wore scarves over their on the lower halves of their face to shield their mouths and noses. But Nurgu wore two scarves today, tightly wrapped rather than hanging loose at the bottom like Dolgo’s. He narrowed his eyes as he prepared the griffons’ food by rote—as though something in the air disagreed with him.
The carcass before them was headless. Most of the upper chest was rib bones and ribbons of oily pink. In spite of the hungry griffons around them and the rhythm of their work, there was still much to go.
Tentzin kept a wide berth from the birds, far enough away not to startle them, but close enough to yell. “More parcels for you, Nurgu. These are all for today.”
Nurgu raised a red hand in greeting, and gestured to a pile of smelly old cloths a few feet away.
Taking the cue, Tentzin began untying the bodies. As each bundle sagged and leaked a trail as he moved them, he felt as though something was missing. Nurgu used to join in his son’s melodies, sometimes repeating nonsense words just to make the sounds right. He’d been up here when the two would stop for lunch, offering him some of their bread or flour. As a fire would aggravate the birds, Nurgu’s wife would carry the food and tea from the house. It was a mutually enjoyable break from their shared profession.
When the stream of corpses began this year, it struck him that Nurgu had grown pensive. It was almost as though his second marriage took away all his cheer. Was Tashi not to his liking? Tentzin kept so busy trying to make each day’s deliveries that they hadn’t been able to talk.
“Nurgu,” he yelled abruptly, “how are you doing, kindest of friends?”
The other man looked up, a little flustered, and shook his head. He was so muffled by the scarves that Tentzin had to walk closer to hear him. In an uncharacteristically scratchy voice, Nurgu replied, “The season has been bad. Bad cold. Bad throat.”
“I see,” said Tentzin smartly. “I hope Tashi is keeping you warm at night.”
Nurgu gave him an evil glare.
Tentzin quickly backtracked, adding, “That is to say, I hope she is well?”
“She is well.”
“Is she at home, then?”
Nurgu nodded, and returned to his pounding.
Though defused on the surface, Tentzin felt as though a chasm opened between them that would take far more than two bodies to fill. When he was done, Nurgu still had not said a word.
Tentzin turned his yak back toward the village with a sigh, tightening the ropes around its barrel-shaped body. Giving the two men on the ground a final glance, he raised his voice to both, but Nurgu in particular. “Fare thee well, old friends. May the sky stay blue over your heads.”
Nurgu did not look up, and Tentzin could not tell if he was nodding or simply moving his head to the rhythm of his pestle.
Hopping about with clumsy feet, the birds patiently stared.
Yet, as he set back down the mountain, dimly, from behind his back, he thought he heard the wind mutter, “Safely home.”
It was the middle of fall when the cry arose at the staging grounds. A contingent of mourners bearing up the body of their dead stumbled upon a man wailing under the prayer flags, not far from the road to the peak. Tentzin arrived as soon as he heard. There, at the center of concerned elders and sniggering youngsters, he found Dolgo. Someone had the good sense to offer him tea, but his puffy eyes and wet nose would not stop running. Dust covered his pants and shoes. It was clear he had made the trek down on foot.
“Dolgo, good son. Why are you down here?” Tentzin asked.
Dolgo violently shrugged off Tentzin’s hand, pointing upwards in salute at the sky. The sky was blue, clear like the water of a bottomless lake. A vulture passed overhead in a circle, lazily dropped a bone, and dove after it.
“Make sure he is fed and warmed,” he told the onlookers, relieved when a few aunties came forward with blankets and more tea. The youngsters backed off, only slightly guilty-looking. It was time, Tentzin thought, to face the worst.
He hurried his yak upwards, too distressed to chase after the ancestral hunters in the rock face, yet acutely aware of every stone in his path. There was a part of him that felt chastened by not asking after Nurgu’s health more forcefully, or conveying his worries to Tashi when he had the chance. It was true he had not seen the girl for some time, but she was young and strong; everyone thought her capable of caring for her new family at the top of the mountain. Surely, if something had happened to her, Nurgu would have ridden down the mountain himself rather than sending his son.
The plateau was flat and yellowing, bumpy piles of bones scattered here and there that either the griffons or Dolgo had yet to attend to. Tentzin was slightly heartened to see smoke rising out of the hut’s chimney. The animals were penned, and the dog sat tied to its post with a dried haunch for its breakfast. Not bothering to tie up his yak, he hurried inside, unconsciously remembering to knock the skin over the doorway as he passed.
A low fire smoldered with cindered rags and dung in the empty hearth. The fine weave of black goat hair was still visible on the edges of the cloth. The smell of bloody meat seemed to follow him wherever he turned.
One of the beds was made and its curtain pinned up—this must have been Dolgo’s, since his hatchet was still propped against one end. The other curtain was shut tight.
Tentzin called out, “Nurgu! Tashi! Is anyone home?“
The hut was warm but silent, just waiting for its occupants to awaken.
Gently, he shook the closed curtain. “Tashi! Nurgu!” he called. Behind the curtain, he heard a muffled squeak. If the occupants were sick or dying, now he had to know. Pushing the curtain aside, the smell of fresh meat rose up thick. The bed was visibly soaked with dark blood, gathering in still-wet pools and streaks. There, wrapped in a scarf, lay an infant, its mouth stuffed with small cloths, like the rags on the fire.
He pulled away the cloths from its mouth and touched the child, who was hot and sticky. When he picked it up and nestled it against his shoulder, it began to cry.
“Where are your parents, little one? Is that your brother down below?” he chanted, half song and half wonder. The hut was truly empty, save for the child. As he surveyed the room, he noticed that one of the large chests sat with its lid thrown open. It must have been the salt chest, as scatterings of the stuff were spilled on the floor. Peering in, he immediately jumped back. He knew Nurgu’s face from even that brief look, wrinkled and grayed that it was. He would see it everywhere now, for the rest of his life, gazing out in horror. There were things at the edge of his vision he was already trying to forget: bones, rags, human flesh—cut and dried out. But the head had been intact.
Now truly desperate, he ran back outside, still carrying the infant, looking to the horizon, seeing nothing but that flat expanse. “Tashi!” he called, somehow knowing that only the baby would return his cries. It was the heaviness of his heart that dragged him back into the house. He grabbed the blanket from Dolgo’s bed and wrapped the baby in it. He did not bother to see if the hat his daughter had given Tashi was anywhere to be seen, or her thick felt robe and copper kettle. With the swaddling secured over his chest, Tentzin remounted his yak, whose patience and sureness he could surely rely on to take them down. The ancestors would stare at his back from their high perches, and the griffons would circle overhead waiting for their deaths. It was not their lot to hate their task, so for now, neither would he.