Khandro leads and I ride behind her up the long hill. The cool morning air slaps my ears and hands. Halfway up, a marmot stands up on his hind legs and stares at us with its empty black eyes as we pass. Near the top, we see the travelers’ horse and cart. Gyatso is already there, too, taking apart the dead body with tools and opening up the flesh to make it more irresistible to the vultures. It’s hard to believe it was a living, breathing, human being only yesterday morning. It looks like an animal carcass now.
The band of travelers stand just over a small ridge. From that vantage point they can see the work being done, but the body itself is mercifully out of view.
Overhead, a few of the huge birds circle.
“He was a medium-sized man, so Rinpochey called twelve vultures last night,” Khandro said. “It is a positive sign if every part is devoured.”
Khandro walks over the rocky landscape toward the grieving widow. The woman whispers to the man next to her. He pulls out a white silk scarf and hands it to her. The widow drapes it over her two hands and presents it to Khandro when she comes to a stop in front of her. Khandro places the silk around the ragged woman’s shoulders, bumps her head to hers, and speaks to her in a soft voice. The woman presses her hands together at her heart. Her eyes lock on to Khandro’s.
Gyatso walks away from the remains, leaving the bloody axe leaning up against a rock. He must be done. Six giant birds swoop down and rip at the skin. The regal tufts of white feathers on their heads make them look like princes. They’re so beautiful, yet the fresh blood on their fronts and their ferocious hunger—
A salty taste comes up into my mouth. My head swims.
Khandro recites mantras softly and gazes at the indigo sky. Over the ridge above the mourning travelers come six more impressive vultures. They race to the ugly scene, like runners hurdling toward a finish line, and pounce on the remains, claws first.
“Everything’s going fine here—we can go back down,” says Khandro. She looks down and rubs her hands together briefly, like she’s brushing away invisible dust.
She walks back over to the family and talks to them again, retracing the path that the birds had taken in the sky with her index finger. They follow the path her finger traces with their eyes. The widow mouths, “la so, la so,” and nods.
Our horses place their hooves with care on the bumpy steep trail as we ride back down the slope in silence. I survey the grassy valley below.
I did it. I watched and didn’t throw up. I didn’t cry or faint. I lift my gaze to the sky above the chain of mountains across the valley and take a deep breath. I still have the body of a child, but I’m not a child.
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