Today's Reading

The warden seemed oddly relieved as the man named Yankay Namdol obediently bowed his head, as if he had feared the graduate would behave disrespectfully in front of Tan. A soldier dropped a soiled drawstring bag at his feet, then the warden handed him his diploma and little red book. Yankay bowed his head to the gathered officers then backed away as he extended a hand into his bag, extracting a tattered coat, one of the sheepskin 'chubas' favored by herders. The scores of witnesses watched with a strange, silent fascination as he put it on over his pajama-like prison tunic. He turned toward the brigade of prisoners, held the book over his head and made a deeper bow to them, raising a murmur of amusement in the ranks. Then he waved toward the woman at the gate and began walking in her direction, then paused to watch as several dogs ran out of the storage sheds behind the office building and began barking. A team of mules hitched to a cart of night soil bolted, their teamster running down the road after them. Shan saw the hint of a smile on the old man's face, and when he continued toward the gate his limp had nearly disappeared.

Shan did not fully understand the little drama he was watching. He bent toward Tan. "What was his crime?" he asked.

"He killed two soldiers."

Shan stared at the colonel in disbelief. A Tibetan who killed two soldiers would not even be alive a year later, let alone be walking out of a light duty education camp.

Tan frowned. "There were complications," he added.

But Shan only half-listened, for he was now watching the strange motions of the Tibetan. Thirty paces from the gate he paused and pulled from his bag a bundle of dried sticks. He extended the bundle to each of the four directions then dragged his heel in the dirt, inscribing first a six-foot-wide circle then a series of short lines like tangents along its edge, before continuing on. The warden cursed under his breath and leaned toward a subordinate, pointing toward the circle in the earth and sending him to erase it. But at a sharp command from Colonel Tan, the young officer halted.

Every man in the compound watched in silence as the gate opened and Yankay climbed onto one of the horses as the young woman mounted the other. No one moved until they began trotting away.

"Return to assigned duties," the warden said with obvious relief, and the young officer conveyed the order through the megaphone. The prisoners had begun to file back behind the inner wire when several shouted and pointed. Some were indicating the released prisoner, who had dismounted on a nearby hill and was doing a strange dance along its summit, again waving the bundle of twigs over his head. Others were pointing to the tall wooden flagpole in the center of the wide yard. The pole had started to sway.

As Shan watched in confusion, the pole snapped and the Chinese flag fell into the dirt. Then the ground itself swayed.

It was not a large earthquake, only one of the minor tremblers that struck parts of Tibet every few weeks, but prison staff began running in panic out of the administration building. One of the junior officers gasped and ran frantically toward a guard tower. Two soldiers leapt off the tower stairs as the support struts split with a loud crack. The tower toppled onto its side, followed by another loud crack behind the stand. Shan turned to see that the posts holding up the short roof over the entranceway to the administration building had snapped, slamming the stubby roof into the door, blocking the entry. Then the earthquake ended as abruptly as it began.

The prisoners, filing back toward their barracks, began to sing. The song had the rhythm of one of the work songs used when prisoners were digging ditches or breaking rocks in roadbeds. But after a few verses Shan realized it had been adapted to sound like such a chant to please the guards. The words were those of an old song that gave thanks to protector demons.

He became aware that the warden, standing in front of them now, was speaking. Tan was still staring in the direction of the now-empty hill where the released prisoner had danced. "Sir?" the warden repeated.

Shan touched Tan's elbow and the colonel turned toward the warden, then looked past him at the toppled guard tower. To Shan's surprise, the look on his gaunt face was not anger but rather fascination. "Carry on, Major," he said to the worried warden, then added, "Have the flag back up before nightfall."

Tan had the driver stop his car a hundred yards past the gate. Without a word he opened his door and began climbing up the hill where the prisoner had danced. Shan paused as he opened his own door. "Who was that prisoner who was released?" he asked the driver, an old sergeant who had served Tan for most of his career.

The sergeant gestured to the fallen tower. "A sorcerer," he replied in a worried voice. Shan remembered how when they had first met years earlier, the driver had always spoken of Tibetans in dismissive, deprecating tones, as Tan himself had. Neither did anymore.

Shan caught up with the colonel at the summit of the hill, where he was sitting on a large flat boulder, smoking another cigarette. There was no sign of the Tibetan sorcerer other than a dust cloud in the direction of the northern mountains.

Tan inhaled deeply on his cigarette then emitted twin streams of smoke from his nostrils. "There's going to be trouble," he declared.

Shan sat beside him. "What kind of trouble?" he asked, gazing at the cloud of dust. To the north lay his own remote jurisdiction, the town of Yangkar and its surrounding township, and he saw with relief that the track of the horses was veering east, out of his domain, toward the tallest of the distant snowcapped peaks.

"Your kind of trouble."

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