Even in the nightmare, I knew it was a dream.
I was trudging, exhausted, up an endless slope, a mountain of corpses, its bounds obscured by freezing twilight. Many were war dead, bits hacked off, or plague victims, covered in pustules and vomit. They squished underfoot. At intervals, new bodies fell from the dull gray sky, or roof, and thudded onto the mass. In the gloom only the nearest corpses appeared clearly. I was dead tired and could barely struggle up the slope. Damp chill seeped deep into my body.
I had no time for this horror. What was coming gripped my mind instead. I knew how the nightmare would end. I would come upon Sukhi, only her face showing, the rest buried in the heap of decaying dead. Her eyes would flick open in terror, and I would kneel to kiss her. Her eyes would bulge and burst, spraying my face with glop and gore.
I absolutely could not bear to experience that. Somehow, I had to escape the dream.
I remembered the nightmare in the charnel ground: the horde of the dead, the slaughter-pit stench, how I had realized it was a dream, that I had to wake up, but I couldn’t, couldn’t stop the oncoming army.
I have to wake up! My body must be cold, it’s the chill giving me this dream. I have to wake up and jump around to get warm. WAKE UP!
My eyes opened. I was freezing. I was freezing because I was entangled, naked, arms and legs, with the cold, dead, naked body of the vetali.
And now, finally, I understood. The vetali was not a princess. It was a monster. My vision in the charnel ground had deceived me, though the dakini had tried to tell me: “She is a beautiful woman, but—”. The dead ogress lured men to its cave and ate them.
The ghoul had told me itself: “A vetali is a corpse, reanimated by a demon.” It had deceived me too: I had made love to a cadaver, in the shape of Sukhi.
The corpse groaned. I pulled myself up out of its stiff embrace. Eyes still closed, its tongue shot out, as long and sharp and rigid as a dagger.
I looked around: I was in the cave, and there was the kartika on the wall. I could behead the monster with one swift blow. I stood to reach for it, and the vetali’s arm shot out, grabbed my ankle, and pulled me to the floor. I landed on my back, and the monster leapt on top of me.
She was kneeling, naked, straddling my belly, her legs against my sides. It was just as when Sukhi began to make love to me, but it was not Sukhi. Now I remembered the chill of my palm against the monster’s heart.
I tried to throw her off me, but she caught my hands and pressed them to the floor. I tried to kick her, and she hooked her feet around my shins so I could not move. She lowered her face toward mine.
“I HATE Y—” I started, and she shouted:
Stunningly loud, cutting me off. I was paralyzed in shock. Her face filled my view, watching me, unmoving. Time froze.
When time restarted, I opened my mouth to—
Again a timeless suspension of roaring silence.
“Next time you die, pay attention!” she said.
“How could you?” I demanded. “You made me think you were—”
“I can because I practice a lot,” she said. She forced my hands together above my head and held both wrists with one of hers. She touched the index finger of the other to her chin. Pink bloomed from the point of contact, lighting up her sallow gray complexion. The sagging folds of loose skin tightened. Her heavy misshapen jaw contracted into the delicate form of a girl’s. Her lips reddened. The vulture-hook of her nose receded, her lips filled and glistened, and her philtrum—
“NO” I yelled. She was turning her face into Sukhi’s again. It stopped.
I filled with revulsion and despair. And desire.
I was pinned by a demonic corpse with half the face of my dead beloved, and I wanted to kiss her and to kill her. I wanted her to complete the transformation so we could make love forever, and I wanted to run and escape and never, ever have to remember again.
I struggled against her grip. I started to yell, but six things wanted to come out at once, and I produced only anguished strangled squealing.
She slapped my cheek and I stopped—though I could feel tears starting.
“You said you were on a Quest to learn the Meaning of Life and Death. I have shown you more of life and more of death in a few hours than most people learn in a lifetime. Will you wallow in your hatred and hurt, like a whiny little boy? Or will you snap out of it and learn more?”
“So this story is about the Secret of Life and Death,” said the young monk.
“And about Shantarakshita, and the Dark Lord, and everything else I promised you,” said the old man. “I am trying to tell it in order, and to remember to leave out the parts that haven’t happened yet.”
I snuffled and squeaked for a bit, and she just looked at me. I was too enraged and confused to answer her question. I was supposed to be on a Quest, even if everything had gone wrong. But making love to Sukhi, who wasn’t Sukhi, overshadowed it completely. The Quest seemed now like a dream, a distant memory. Why did it even matter? Because… because Sukhi had died. Where was the real Sukhi now? I did have to know that.
I realized I had come to the Second Test.
Gradually I calmed a little and my breathing slowed.
“What is the difference between the living and the dead?” she asked.
I said nothing. I was just lying there. The dead are drenched in blood, and I am not, I thought.
“Come on, this isn’t hard,” she said.
“Eating and shitting and fucking; that’s life,” she had said, a month earlier. “There’s no mystery in that.” “I have shown you life,” she had said now. Now I knew something of “fucking,” but it was not less mysterious than before.
“The dead just lie there,” I said.
“You are just lying there.”
“I’m breathing,” I said.
“A sorcerer can paralyze you so you can’t even breathe,” she said. “But you aren’t dead.” I remembered when my uncle had done that. “What do the living do when they can’t move or breathe? What makes them not dead?”
“So find out what it is like to not think.”
“That’s impossible. I’d have to be dead.”
“When I yelled HAH, what happened?”
I thought about it. “It was very quiet. I… wasn’t thinking.”
“So it is not impossible. Now I will let you up and you will go and stop thinking for a while.”
“To enter the Between, you must learn to die.”
“I don’t want to die!”
“You are on a Quest. You should expect to die; that’s how Quests work. Wanting doesn’t enter into it.
“Now. Go sit below the rock shaped like a vulture’s beak. Stop thinking. Do not think at all. Use any method you like to banish thoughts. When the day is over, return to me with word of your experiences.”
She let me up. I glared at her. I looked again at the kartika, and decided not. I left the cave.
I found the rock shaped like a vulture’s beak a little up the gorge from the vetali’s cave. It hung over a hollow in the cliff face. At the bottom was a natural bench of stone, and on it a shallow pile of worn furs. I sat on it—and began the Test.
For the space of two breaths, there were no thoughts. I’m not thinking! I thought. This is easy. Then I realized that was a thought. I won’t think again. I’ll go back to not thinking. Right, I’m not thinking now! Oh.
What’s the point of this anyway? Something about death. An image flashed in my mind, the memory of Sukhi naked, covered in blood, dying. Does that count as a thought? Sukhi naked last night, straddling me. The shadow-shape her nipple cast on her breast, flickering in the lamp-light. That wasn’t Sukhi! I don’t want to think about this! STOP THINKING!
I started over. I won’t think now. I took a deep breath and decided definitely not to think. Not thinking isn’t being dead, anyway! She said so herself: when she yelled HAH, I stopped thinking and I wasn’t dead!
I yelled HAH! as loudly as I could. That did stop thinking for a second! HAH! HAH! HAH! Each time, it worked less well, but I hahed for a while. I got out of breath and my throat got sore. Also I realized I was already half way through an elaborate, familiar fantasy of marriage with Sukhi if she hadn’t died, which I hadn’t noticed I was re-thinking.
I will not think about Sukhi, it’s awful. DON’T THINK! … I wonder what became of my mother’s kartika charm? NO! DON’T THINK! I clenched my fists and scowled as hard as I could. I will NOT THINK! … Why did the dakinis—NO, SHUT UP! … My uncle—NO! My uncle had—NO! My uncle had an urgent message, I wonder—SHUT UP!
I shook my head violently to get the thoughts out of it.
Anyway, what am I going to do now? About the vetali? Is it even possible to kill a corpse? I want Sukhi so much. She was so—THAT WASN’T SUKHI, STOP THINKING THAT!
It was intolerable. My chest was on fire with rage and longing and I couldn’t sit any longer. I got up, disturbing a vulture that had settled nearby without my noticing. It had been watching me. I glared at it and it flapped its wings without taking off. Ugly creature. I paced back and forth at the base of the cliff below the vulture-shaped rock.
The task was obviously impossible. She must have known. This wasn’t a fair Test at all. No one could do what she demanded.
What to do now? I would spend the rest of my day hobbling around the gorge to burn off the feelings, and then I would go back and tell her that I had done as she said, and sat there not thinking, and passed the Test. And then what would she do? She must know how to raise the dead, I thought.
“You would raise her as a vetali? That is a terrible thing,” she had said. Would it be so bad? I needed answers. I had to grit my teeth and stay with her until I could get them. So I should go back and pretend to have passed the Test.
I remembered that the old dakini had known whether I was telling the truth. Supernatural beings usually do, in the stories.
With no coherent plan, seething with resentment, I returned to the vetali’s cave.
“Back so soon?” She had her ugly face on again.
“This isn’t fair! It’s an impossible Test! No one can stop thinking!”
“Indeed? … Since you gave up so easily, I will give you an easier task, then. Go back and sit there for the rest of the day, which is practically all of it, and don’t stop thinking. Allow absolutely no gaps between thoughts. Don’t come back until nightfall.”
I went back to the vulture rock. I was not going to think about what had just happened. I would think about something easy. I thought about my foster-brothers. Who would they marry? The older one… why couldn’t I have married Sukhi? No, don’t think that. I remembered the path to her village—and the fork that led to the charnel ground. What had happened there?
None of my own story made any sense. It was a mass of loose ends. Although…
I remembered suddenly that I was supposed to be thinking without stopping, and—there had just been a gap. I knew there was a thought coming, about the dakinis, and I had stopped and waited for it to emerge. I had just been waiting, I hadn’t blacked out, I wasn’t dead, and there was nothing in mind, yet.
Although: the old dakini had asked what my Quest was, and I told her, and she sent me to the vetali. And, the vetali had given me a Test, which she seemed to think was somehow about Life and Death, and she was dead, so she must know about that. So maybe the dakinis hadn’t deceived me after all?
There was a gap, again. Fill it!
The dakinis didn’t deceive me… didn’t deceive me, didn’t deceive me, where’s the next thought? Oh, so, they showed me the vetali as a beautiful girl. That must be the form she takes to lure men to her cave, and then she eats them, and leaves their bones scattered about. Why didn’t she eat me? Just bit my neck. I fingered it. It was sore, but I couldn’t feel a wound. What had happened then?
The vulture was watching me again.
I had spent a month in her cave, and she hadn’t eaten me. She’d just talked nonsense and insulted me. The pain in my ankle had made it hard to think, and everything she said was insane gibberish, and I was scheming to trick or force her to take me to the vetali. Who was supposed to tell me the Answer to Life and Death. I’d paid no attention to her babble… now I replayed what I could remember of it. That counts as thinking, doesn’t it? … She hadn’t eaten Dharmakirti, either. Uh, I did. That wasn’t my fault, though!
She was cruel and insane, and she had the answers I needed. Maybe. If I could pass her Test. Or if I could bully her into telling me anyway.
… what was I thinking? I forgot what I was thinking! Was I thinking, a moment ago? I can’t even remember that. It just happened and I can’t remember it! What’s the difference between thinking and not thinking?
“Dragonflies are like memories,” Sukhi had said. “They zoom in from nowhere. They land and quiver. And then they take off and disappear without a trace.”
What is the difference between life and death?
I tried to think very hard about that, because something was starting to make sense, almost. “The between,” she had said. Between what?
Some while later, I realized that I had gotten up from the bench to ponder that. Now I was peering over the edge of the cliff at the stream below, vaguely expecting an answer to appear. I wasn’t thinking, just looking and listening.
I went back at nightfall, as the vetali had commanded.
“Well?” she said.
“It wasn’t a Test,” I said. “You didn’t say it was. You… wanted to show me something… about Life and Death…”
“It was a test. Every instant is a test. You cannot succeed, or fail. You can choose to take the test, or you can run away. You can choose to be alive, or to be dead.”
“I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, and I couldn’t make myself think, either. Not always.”
“I was staring at the river and I vanished and the river vanished but we were both there in the sound.”
“And at the same time noble Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva mahāsattva, while practicing the profound prajñāpāramitā, saw in this way: he saw the five skandhas to be empty of nature.”
“… what? Para-what?”
“What does that mean?”
“‘The Perfection of Wisdom.’ … He called me that, you know. It was his pet-name for me.”
“Why did he call you that?”
“Because I am perfectly wise, of course!”
She laughed. “I was younger then. Beautiful, carefree, and stupid, and in love with The Smartest Man In The World. Or so he thought.”
“Who is Nagarjuna?”
“He was an idiot. But so was I.”
The next day, she sent me out to the vulture rock again.
On my way out of the cave, I noticed that the coiling black thorn bush by the entrance had sprouted a single blood-red flower.
I had thought it was completely dead.
The metablog post “Roaring Silence” explains the genesis of this chapter—and of the novel overall. The post suggests further resources to make sense of what has happened in the story—and what may have happened when you tried the Test yourself, if you did. (Did you? You still could, you know, even if it would have been better to have come to it without preconceptions.)