I think this short story was written in 2008. I had lived in China for some years previously, but it was a few years after leaving before I could even think of it without bitterness. I had met a really nice Canadian couple in my travels who had been to Tibet, and the man told me he’d been a pilot in the Korean War. I wrote this as an exercise in voicing disapproval without becoming a ranting maniac, and once again in practicing writing about love and tragedy.
It was the shooting in the streets that first alerted me to the carnage that was underway outside. I heard the dull thump of cannon fire and the sharp cracking sound of rifles, all intermingled with the sounds of screaming and dying. It was 1959 and the Chinese Army had rolled its forces into Tibet.
I had overstayed my visit for only one compelling reason: I couldn’t get out. I originally went because of a recurring dream in which, as I was later to discover, I’d seen the face of a female Buddha. It was a dream I was at odds with for a long time, living as I did in a Christian-based society, although neither professing to nor recruiting for that cause. I’d never even really seen a Tibetan person except once or twice, I think, in a National Geographic magazine or something of the sort. However, the dream wouldn’t let go of me and so it was that here I was, fully four years after the onset of the dream and having decided that I’d come for a ten-day packaged holiday, which were just taking off at the time. No one except me, it seemed, was very interested in Tibet as a holiday destination in those days so the nightmares began. I’d have taken my money back in a heartbeat but they assured me the tour would go ahead. Stupidly, I relented.
I had a uniformly bad time in Lhasa, the capital city. The thin air up there in that mountainous country meant I had a non-stop headache. The food was revolting to my tastes and the yak butter tea was awful. If I could have I’d have come home early and put it all down to a still sometimes boyish sense of adventure. It was on the eighth day of my over-stay – somehow my bus had not arrived and I was trapped here – that I met her. She was one of the very few people, in fact the only person I had met there who could speak even a modicum of English. I quickly told her that my bus hadn’t arrived and that my visa had expired, and also that I’d probably lost the money I paid for my return flight home. Then, with much gesticulating, raised voice and slow pronunciation I had to tell her all over again. It was all such a headache. She asked me to wait, so I did.
He was a beautiful-looking man! I wished I could have understood what he said. Headache; I knew that word. I went to the market to get him some medicine, hoping he’d still be where I left him when I got back. I had only seen white people in some old books, and I had never really been sure they were real. Now I had seen one! I ran back from the market to my home and mixed the powdered herbs into some buttered tea. They tasted really bitter without it. Then, with a still-steaming cupful that I was managing to spill no matter how carefully I walked, I went back to where he had been, and he was still there! I handed him the tea and then watched him closely. He looked surprised but he took it, sipped it, and spat it out. I laughed. I know I shouldn’t have, but I did.
An odd sort of a girl; I asked her for help and she brought me the most foul-flavoured drink imaginable. I spat it out, of course, which seemed to delight her no end. I could see that whatever time I had to spend here was going to feel like a long imprisonment. I did my best to make her understand my situation but her constant smiling and nodding was a bit off-putting. After what seemed like hours I think we’d agreed that I’d best wait for the bus at the pick-up point early each day. What no one here knew at that time was that the Chinese had already closed the border and were even now racing toward us.
His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, had just been informed of the advancing Chinese army. The almanac, from which the wisdom and predictions of previous Lamas was drawn, had spoken of this in some detail but still he had difficulty believing it was coming true. He knew what he was to do but he rebelled against it. His flight across the border into India was, he knew, necessary to keep the spirit and hopes of the people alive in the coming decades of destruction, but his heart was with his people and he didn’t want to leave them; he was torn. In the end it wasn’t his decision to make; they physically grabbed him and rushed him from his country, a country to which he knew he would never return.
The whole place was in uproar; there was screaming and moaning and the air was thick with smoke and the smell of gunpowder and explosives. He sat, rigid in shock, until a shell came a little too close for comfort and he was up and away, running out into the street, having no idea at all which direction safety lay in. There were bodies everywhere, some dead, many alive and groaning or screaming in agony. He ran past a small girl of perhaps eight or nine and stopped dead in his tracks as the reality of war hit home. Her legs had been blown off, and what was left of her right one was a piece of exposed bone as long as his forearm. An old man hobbled over and swept her up, and for a few seconds she opened her eyes and looked at the strange white angel. He saw the life go out of her eyes.
Overwhelmed, he staggered on after the old man, who kept looking back over his shoulder and saying something unintelligible. His steps faltered, which is what saved his life, for as the old man rounded the corner into a narrow lane there was a deafening explosion and a shock of oily flames from the alley. The old man, now free of the girl, seemed to be sitting against a wall some fifteen yards from the alley entrance. Shocked into action he raced over only to discover the old man had been almost completely blown in half. Those eyes that had grown old seeing thousands of people walk the streets and alleyways of his hometown would see no more.
Some of the houses were alight, adding choking smoke and ash to the already war-laden air. He didn’t know where to turn or what to do, so he did his best to follow the human tide that was pushing its way forward. He joined them and was in turn joined by others, so that he became lost in a wave of flesh. And that is probably what saved his life. Rapid machine-gun fire rang out from all sides and in moments people were again screaming and falling where they had stood. Blood poured down the slight incline of the street and he felt it underfoot, slick and red. He turned to run but slipped instead and was trampled by the feet of those around him. His face and clothes took on the colour of the blood and he was repeatedly kicked in the body and head. The sound of the gunfire had changed. There were no more staccato blasts of machine-gun fire; now it had become the cruel and deliberate fire of single shot sniping. Bodies toppled over him, smothering him, and he had the good sense to stay where he lay.
She had heard the shots on the way to the market, had immediately thought of him and, just as immediately, forgot him as the tanks and armoured cars came around the corner. Running for her life, she felt a searing pain in her calf but kept on moving. She had to get home; she had to warn her parents. But the soldiers were between her and them. Instead she went up. Scaling the old stairs she reached the second floor rooftop and as she burst through the door a sliver of shrapnel burst through her stomach, just above her left hip. The hot lead, nearly molten, it felt, seared her and made her cry out in pain. She was sure they’d hear her so she bit her lip and stayed as quiet as possible, with only the occasional whimper to witness that she was still alive.
The fighting moved on and after a time she rose up, clutching her stomach. Grabbing some washing from a makeshift line, she bunched it and pushed it against her; it became instantly bloody from her fingers and she became frightened by it. Breathing deeply, she told herself to settle down and then inspected the damage to her calf. The small-calibre bullet had passed clean through, just under the muscle. From its angle it had probably been a ricochet.
She made it home, eventually, but wished she hadn’t. She found her father half-lying under a bed. He had a look of horror on his face and a single bullet wound between his eyes. The blackened face told her that the shot had been point-blank; it had seared his skin and whitened one of his eyes. Her mother was in the next room and even at a glance it was obvious that she’d been brutally raped and sodomised. Her breasts had been cut off, and she had bled to death. So this was the work of the mighty People’s Liberation Army. She wondered which people they were liberating as she pulled a blanket off the chair and restored a modesty in death that her mother had not known when her life was being taken.
It was hunger that drove him to movement. He felt he had slept, but wasn’t sure. After the troops had moved on he disentangled himself from the mass of dead and dying bodies, stepping lightly across them until he could no longer bear the occasional moans this elicited. He did what he could to help, and it seemed like many hours later and under the cover of full darkness he finished. Others came, searching for loved ones. Some moved on, intent upon finding their loved ones; others stayed, intent upon helping their countrymen or perhaps having already known their families were lost to them and not knowing what else to do but this.
He sat against a wall, exhausted, his head bowed and his hands shaking. And then the tears came; grief, fear, anger. He had seen war before as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force in Korea in the early fifties, but apart from some dead and wounded soldiers he’d transported he’d never witnessed such death, such carnage. The scale of it rocked him to his soul and he wept loud, wracking sobs until he ran out of tears. Perhaps he had slept again; when he looked up at last the sun was beginning to cast its glow on the horizon. Weakly, he stood, his back to the wall for support as dizziness and nausea overtook him and his head once more began to pound. He felt small but strong and calloused hands take hold of his sleeve and pull him upright. An old woman with an incredibly wrinkled face made wordless, clucking sounds, pulling him forward. He followed her, never letting go of her hand; it was his one tenuous lifeline back to the world of innocence lost. She made him tea and smoothed his hair as she sat quietly, tears streaming down her face. Whoever it was she had lost, she was relieving her grief in this simple way. It wasn’t a fair trade for her, but there were none better to be made.
She sat in a corner for hours, silently rocking, staring intently at the statue of Buddha and the picture of the Dalai Lama. She was like that when they found her, and she struggled violently when they touched her, but finally she was brought under control and the cousins of her neighbours took her out of there. At their home, bombed out but still standing, she again rocked and stared into nothingness as they cleaned and bandaged her, refusing to even acknowledge them or the food and drink placed in front of her. When exhaustion carried them off into the land of disturbed dreams they were sure to find in sleep, she quietly left.
She spoke to the Buddha and had dialogues in her mind with the Dalai Lama. She saw the foreigner there, too, and spoke to him. He wanted to leave and he asked her to go but she couldn’t seem to step outside of her homeland. She watched him go, saddened, but this was her country and her people and their future. Hours later her rescuers once again found her, wandering about aimlessly, speaking in a language whose few words they recognised as English.
The next day passed in hiding as sporadic resistance broke out and was quickly suppressed by gunfire and mortar. The might of a nation was ranged against unarmed civilians who, at their core, followed the teachings of one of the greatest men of peace ever to live. It was an uneven contest, and they paid the price with their lives whether they fought or not.
Cautiously, movement began again as food supplies ran low. Rumours and stories began to circulate and it wasn’t long before the whereabouts of the foreigner were made know to the survivors. That was how she heard about it; it was how she knew the dream had meaning, and it was why she stole out again.
He had been busy. As people came to see the old lady there were those amongst them who could speak a little English, and after much whispered discussion they formed an opinion about what he was asking about. They sent the word out and it came back remarkably quickly. Yes, they said, and fairly close by but guarded. He set his plans in motion.
She stepped into the house as he was about to leave it, and they fell into each other’s arms at the sad joy borne of seeing a familiar face in such circumstances. The old lady brought them tea and again held his hand as they sat and he tried to get through to her what his plan was. He wasn’t sure if she really understood; she said yes to everything he said. He stood, the old lady standing with him, and hugged her. Something inside him broke, and he sobbed as the greatest outpouring of love he had ever felt washed over and encompassed this dear old lady whose name he couldn’t even pronounce. He called her mother; she called him Sogyal, and told the girl, Shunyl, that he had always been a good son. He asked her to say that he loved his mother beyond words, and then they left.
The runway, if it could be called that, left no margin for error. Incoming light aircraft had only 50 yards to pull up before the runway ended in an upraised cliff face. On the opposite end, there was a drop that looked miles high. They had told the truth, a battered old four-seater plane sat there, its doors removed and with under-inflated tyres. There was a small fuel dump to the right of it and a crazily leaning guardhouse of sorts next to that. It alarmed him that even at this distance he could see cigarette butts littered around the fuel drums. The wire gates that marked the entrance were open, and looked like at least one of them was incapable of being closed.
It was a long and numbingly cold night, and he constantly worried that the steam of their breath would give away their position, but they remained unchallenged. He wanted to dart out and check the fuel levels in the plane but she refused to be left behind. It was just too dangerous to take her with him so they stayed where they were. At midnight and then again at three the guards changed. There was some muffled laughter, the occasional smell of rice boiling, and once or twice a voice raised in anger. Guards came outside at intervals, lighting a cigarette, relieving themselves, but never once checking the plane or the grounds around it. Just before the sun began to show its presence he stood, hunched over, and tried to pull her to her feet. She refused to move. In low whispers he tried to explain what he was doing but she refused to be swayed. Just at the point when he had decided to abandon his plan and take her back, she relented. They snuck across the small field and ducked into the seats in the front of the plane.
Working in that darkest time before the dawn was difficult, and he’d never seen a plane of this sort so he had to feel his way around, sometimes guessing at what a button or lever might do. As the very first wisps of light crept over the horizon he tried to read the fuel meter but it was either broken or the plane was dead empty. He eased on the fuel advance, smelled the faint odour of aviation fluid, and decided there may be some in the tank. Either way, there was nothing he could do about it. The guards were stirring and their time indoors was obviously coming to an end. One of them casually strolled over to the rear of the plane and slapped it loudly on the tail before laughing. The occupants nearly died of fright. The soldier walked back to the hut, a matter of only some forty yards, and exchanged some laughing conversation with someone inside. In only a few moments a man walked out in a very old fashioned pilot’s suit, clutching a sack in one hand. It was now or never.
It was now or never. Keeping as low in his seat as possible he fired the plane up from a cold start, never a good thing to do in a modern plane and perhaps impossible in a vintage one such as this but, Good Lord!, it started, belching clouds of white smoke as it coughed, backfired repeatedly, and nearly died. He rammed down the brake and it seemed seconds of sheer bloody hell before it moved and the pitch of the engines spluttered higher. There were voices raised and the sound of two shots and then they were moving and the edge was approaching and, my God, they weren’t at anywhere near the speed they needed for takeoff!
The plane sluggishly rolled off the edge of the cliff and went into free fall; the pitch of its engines now rising to a high whine as the power once transferred to the wheels had nothing on which to bite. He fought for control as the plane began yawing over, wanting to end its days on its back or in a terminal spin. He ruddered hard and felt the nose beginning to respond. They fell hundreds of feet before the plane began to right itself. He was busy with switches and buttons; she stared pensively out of the plane at the land a thousand feet below them.
“I want back.” she said. He was shocked, but tried to explain that there was no going back; they’d be shot on sight. “I want back.” He shook his head ‘no’.
She thought of her country, her Buddha, her parents. Who would bury them? Who would help the old mothers and the young babies? Her world was Tibet and no matter what the invaders did it was her home.
“More to life than just die.” she said as she clutched his hand. She looked into his eyes; he saw the eyes of the Buddhist goddess of his dreams; she saw the wisdom of the Dalai Lama.
And without another word she turned and jumped.
The plane rocked from side to side as he belatedly reached for her. She was lost in the expanse of the sky, and then in the wilds of Tibet. He brought the plane down in an inhabited valley somewhere near the border; he’d have never made the height or survived the cold and lack of oxygen had he tried going over the mountains.
It’s said that he went back into Tibet and ran many missions for the budding resistance there before he was caught and killed by firing squad in the town square of Lhasa. Others say he was never caught and eventually followed the Dalai Lama’s lead across the Alps into India. Either way, it was a lifetime ago and they are together again now.