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The Benign Abductor of Souls

The Benign Abductor of Souls

by Michael McGarrigle

 

The Benign Abductor of Souls

by Michael McGarrigle

 

Cover Design by陳秋芬(Chiufen Chen)

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious context. Any resemblance to actual people, events, or places is entirely coincidental.

Michael McGarrigle asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

First published by Michael McGarrigle in June 2015

Copyright © Michael McGarrigle 2015

A copy of this book is available from the British Library

ISBN: 978-0-9933004-0-0

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored on a retrieval system, or be transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the author.

Thank you for respecting the work of the author.

Learn more about the author at: michaelmcgarrigle.com

 

For my wife and son,

for whom there are no chores

 

Table of Contents

Blurb

Part 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Part 2

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Part 3

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Conclusion

Chapter 48

Survival

About the Author

 

The Benign Abductor of Souls

The fourteenth Dalai Lama is nearing the end of his life. He has long been a thorn in the side of the Beijing, so a secret Chinese military cabal that many believed to be defunct decides to eliminate the next Dalai Lama before he is discovered. As a conclusion to his active service, a very appropriate Chinese agent makes a convincingly genuine flight to Daramsala, in northern India, which is the home of the Tibetan government in exile. He must kidnap or kill the child who will become the next Dalai Lama.

When the great holy man dies, a callous reign of terror is visited upon the lives of each of the three emissaries who will begin their search for the last Dalai Lama, two years hence.

The next Dalai Lama has been chosen partly because he will be living within a Han society, in Taiwan, where he will learn about the character of Tibet’s greatest enemy while his spirit guide chaperones his transition from novice to leader. On the small Island, it is assumed that he will be insignificant and safe from the attentions of both the media and the Beijing government, which could never imagine that its greatest enemy would be hidden among its own kind. However, the child’s future becomes so uncertain that even his spirit guide doubts their chances of survival.

 

Part 1

 

The penance of the immigrant is to be apart in three places and times:

In the past, there,

in the present, here,

and in the future, in some undetermined limbo.

Introduction

Junction of Zhongshao Road and Min Zhi St,

Jonghe City,

Taipei County,

Taiwan,

Saturday October 10^th^ 2014,

10am

The irate bus driver’s face is the colour of a ripe aubergine: -

“If he had not saved him, it would be cheaper. The force of the crash would have killed him and I would have to pay maybe three million dollars to his family. If I did that, I would be free. Now two lives will be crippled; he is going to live a long life without a leg and I will be crippled with debt all of my life and pass the debt on to my children. Only when he dies will we be released. Damned foreigners should stay out of Taiwanese business.”

“My husband is a foreigner. He does not even speak Chinese very well, but his heart is good and he will always try to save a life. Irish people learn this from their parents. Maybe you should be thankful that you did not kill the young man.”

“Thankful? You think I should be thankful for the lifetime of poverty and debt that your husband has given me? If he’d left the man, I would be able to pay three million in a few years of hard work? I am not thankful. I curse the day your husband left his stupid parents and came here to act like some American superhero. Your husband is a disease. You should find a cure for him, for everyone’s sake.”

 

[ * ]

This is turning into a day to remember, for all of the wrong reasons. A half hour ago, I was sitting at the desk of a registry office, signing my name on a contract of marriage. My new wife is Huang Hsiuling, a Taiwanese woman whom I have loved since the moment we first met, two years ago.

We were each travelling in Southern China. We were leaving Li Jiang, in Yunnan province. We were both five minutes late for the 10am bus to Zhongdian and fifty-five minutes early for the 11am. I sat next to her, for the eight-hour journey. We got along well, although neither of us could have imagined that marriage was a possibility.

A half hour ago, Hsiuling was beaming at me. Behind us, her elderly parents silently beamed their approval of their daughter’s choice of an Irish groom. All was right with the world. Now she is haranguing a bus driver who almost killed a scooter rider.

Today is a national holiday, but according to Hsiuling’s mother it is a lucky day to get married, so the registry office is open for business. In Taiwan, luck is calculated with cunning calendar reckoning; in my native Ireland, it is courted with less scientific charms and rituals. Based on the evidence of the last five minutes, Taiwanese calculations in the specific matter of luck are shaky at best.

My new bride and I are standing next to the shattered remains of small motor scooter. This is not such an unusual sight in Taiwan, where almost everyone owns a scooter and almost no one knows how to drive properly, because the driving test takes twenty seconds. This scooter has suffered a collision with a bus. Taipei buses are driven by frustrated fighter pilots, who could not get into flight school because of a surfeit of aggression and a psychotic lack of empathy. A free roller coaster ride is available for the price of a bus ticket, anywhere in Taipei.

As we drove from the registry office to our apartment, in the back of Hsiuling’s father’s car, we both watched the bus run a red light. It pushed the scooter and its rider along the road, for about forty metres. The rider’s legs were trapped beneath the front of the bus. The edge of a rotating flange, on the front axle, eventually severed one of the legs, at the knee. I freed myself from the childproof rear of Hsiuling’s father’s car, yelled back for her to call an ambulance and ran to the injured man.

A small, silent crowd was gradually drawing closer to the rider, until his sudden, painful screams drove it back to a more contemplative distance. Since the man was lying, untended, on the road, gushing blood from below his left knee, I presumed that the crowd contained no medical professionals, so I followed my father’s advice and opted for action over inaction.

I am an engineer, so I know little of the details of medicine, but I do know that the flow of liquid from a flexible pipe can be stemmed by constricting that pipe. In this case, the flexible pipe was a vein and the tool for constriction was a tourniquet. I ripped the sleeve of my new cotton shirt, specially purchased for my marriage. Twisting it tightly around the rider’s left leg, slightly above the knee seemed to cause the pool of vermillion liquid to expand at a decreased rate. The pained screams became groans. The feedback seemed to be positive.

The ambulance arrived within minutes. The paramedics told Hsiuling that I had probably saved the man’s life. That statement started the conversation about the bizarre nature of Taiwanese compensation customs and the unwelcome intervention of do-gooder foreigners.

I understood little, because my Chinese is barely sufficient to order chicken or pork from a very patient food vendor, but Hsiuling gave me a blow-by-blow account, later.

If the driver had killed the man, he could have negotiated a payment of about 3 million Taiwanese dollars, as compensation to the man’s family. Taiwanese are the epitome of Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic, in that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. A Taiwanese life seems to cost about US$100,000. The man’s survival, due to my feckless altruism, meant that the driver was now responsible for the life of the survivor, until his death. If the driver died first, his children would inherit the compensation plan and be burdened with a debt that they did not deserve.

Ninety per cent of the small crowd are in sympathy with the driver. One or two have placed a compassionate palm on his back and are commiserating with his ill luck. Only my new bride and a couple of high school students consider the value of a life to be superior to its price. An accusatory pool of blood from the severed lower leg seeps from beneath the bus. In Ireland, the bus driver would be the accused, but in Taiwan, it seems that I am the guilty party. Even the five policemen, who are eyeing the blood suspiciously, have not asked the driver anything about the cause of the accident. No one has asked for the statements of witnesses. There is a general wish to be done with the horrible inconvenience of the unnatural survival of one of their countrymen, despite the best efforts of a valiant assassin who uses a bus as a blunt weapon.

One of the onlookers is shrugging his shoulders and talking quietly to the driver. I imagine that he is cheering the driver with the hope that the ambulance might crash on its way to the hospital, killing the patient who should be a corpse. Maybe the wound will be so badly infected that the young man will have a painful death in the near future. Never give up hope.

This is one of those times when the immigrant knows he will never be part of the society that he has come to. The group telepathy that exists in every society that is not his own will be forever beyond his ken. The assembled natives stand and shake their heads in disbelief.

Hsiuling takes the arm that still has a sleeve and guides me back to the car. Only then do I realise that the front of my new shirt is streaked scarlet, like a butcher’s apron. My body moves willingly under the soft guidance of her clean, slender arm, but my head swivels back to the bus, the blood pool, the high school students and the commiserating onlookers. One of the policemen is taunting a bone fragment with a baton, as if it were diseased. I try to reason with my new wife: -

“But sweetheart, I’ll have to give a statement. I saw what happened. It was the bus driver’s fault.”

Her tone is placatory. It is a tone I will know often, in this strange society.

“If they want us, they can call us. We should go home now and try to forget this. You did your best, dear.”

The police did not call us. Wisely, Hsiuling waited until I was relaxing with some wine before telling me about the conversation at the scene of the accident. Shock turned quickly to confusion, but even Hsiuling could not explain how it is possible for someone to prefer to be a careless murderer than an accidental mutilator. I am her husband now, but there are times, in Taiwan, when I feel like her somewhat dim-witted child.

The rest of our special day is spent in denial of the ten minutes of madness that will define it in our memories, despite our efforts to expunge it. Before we go to dinner with Hsiuling’s family, we call the hospital. The young man will live, although the severed lower leg cannot be attached.

Now, we are joined by Hsiuling’s family at our wedding dinner. We are quiet, because the incident has opened another rift between us. Even this dinner was an occasion for a standoff with Hsiuling’s family. Normal Taiwanese wedding feasts have three or four hundred guests, all of whom bring a red bag, containing cash. The cash is a contribution towards the cost of the dinner, but the married couple normally make a healthy profit from these donations.

A couple of elderly aunts are normally assigned to record donors’ details and the value of each contribution in a thick ledger, so that the happy couple can remember how much they have to contribute when they attend the weddings of the donors’ families. Strippers are still a feature of quite a few wedding celebrations. Naked women bring in the guests, who swell the coffers with red bags. The spectacle of grown women raunchily removing their clothing, before an audience of goggle-eyed males between the ages of three and ninety, maiden aunts and an embarrassed bride is not the sort of activity we want to see featured in the photographs of our special day.

Our wedding dinner is probably a little dull for some of the guests. Hsiuling and I are having a small, intimate gathering of close family and friends. This dinner is our gift to our guests, who are expected to contribute only by having a good time. Hsiuling and I are the only people in the room who understand the philosophy that not every successful transaction requires financial gain.

As a child, I learned that money was the root of all evil. In this society, it is the root. It is openly coveted. It is the sole measure of personal worth and achievement. My new wife is the only Taiwanese person whom I have met who does not worship it.

I no longer speak my reservations aloud. I harbour a private frustration, because giving voice to my qualms raises Hsiuling’s defensive hackles. She feels honour bound to defend her countrymen’s idiosyncrasies. Hsiuling not only feels responsible for the bus driver’s callousness, but also for her inability to explain it to me in a way that makes it comprehensible. The story of the foreigner and the bus driver has circulated widely in the present company, but no one is mentioning it in our hearing. My misguided charity has made us both outsiders. My new wife is smiling, but I fancy that I can see a hint of regret in her distant gaze. It is a less than ideal start to our first celebration of married life.

 

[ * ]

I hate this feeling of responsibility. I do not know where it comes from. My new husband, Mark McGrath is coping quite well with the change in culture between Ireland and Taiwan, but today shows me just how large is the gap between our experiences. I sometimes wonder if we are ever going to be able to build a past that we can share in the same way. Will we ever look through the same eyes, or are we always going to be unable to understand a smile or a tear, because our lives have been so different?

I love Mark because he is different from Taiwanese men; he is honest and passionate and he tells me what he thinks, before he has a chance to consider if it is what I want to hear. I love his passion for life, but sometimes I just wish that he would stop and consider that he is not in Ireland and cannot expect everyone to react like the Irish.

Buddhism teaches us that life is a pilgrimage and that we should think of others before ourselves, but Han people, the Chinese from whom we are descended, do not obey all of Buddha’s teachings, especially those which get in the way of making money. The key to making a good pilgrimage and having a worthy life is to keep doing the things that are right, even if they are difficult, and letting the imperfections pass by. There are more imperfections than perfections in any society, so there is more tolerance than satisfaction. You just do not hear about the tolerance, because tolerance is quiet.

Mark can only see the things that are different from his own society because his eyes and ears are not accustomed to the detail of Taiwan yet: – they only sense the coarse differences from his home. When he calms himself, I hope that he will be able to notice the quiet tolerance and kindness around him and learn to love Taiwan like I do, despite its many imperfections.

It is our wedding celebration. The evening is cool and the small, private room in the restaurant is filled with my family. My mama and papa are smiling. They are sitting beside us and accepting the congratulations. It is a tiny wedding celebration, by Taiwanese standards, but they are happy because they think that I am happy. I am neither happy nor unhappy, but I think that I can see happiness in the future, when my husband and I have more common memories and share more than our love, a bed and an apartment. Love seems such a small thing on which to pin all my hopes. I hope that we do not put too much strain on our love and I hope that, some day, Mark will know when he is ruining our happiness with his questions.

I do not want to be responsible for all of Taiwan, but when he asks me about something that he does not understand, I feel defensive for the whole nation, as if Mark were some invading army. It does not make sense, but the things that destroy love rarely do make sense, just as love does not make sense when too many questions are asked of it.

On my right, my papa’s eyes are staring at Mark. When I turn to my left, I find that Mark’s eyes are on me and his face is wearing a worried look. I smile, but not with my eyes. His frown deepens, as his hand gently reaches for mine beneath the drapes of the tablecloth. His hands are soft and the impression of the rigid gold ring, between his skin and my bone, suddenly reminds me that we are married and that life will be different in future. Despite myself, I smile briefly with my eyes. He seems satisfied.

It is not his fault that he does not understand Taiwanese culture and yet neither is it my fault. My anger does not make any sense, especially now, on this special day. I am frustrated because the day was spoiled by the accident and because I should feel happier that Mark saved a young man’s life. Instead, I am angry that my father sympathises with the bus driver, but seems to instinctively realise that he cannot express this to my new husband, which confirms this foreigner’s isolation, even within my own loving family.

My husband is isolated in my country, but if I am his wife, I fear that I will be isolated in this country and in his, for I always feel the need to explain my culture, while he accepts his easily and without question. Some part of me believes that I have made a big mistake in marrying him. I need to rediscover my love for him.

This is my wedding night. I am caught in the worried gaze of my husband, who is unaware of the gaze of my father, because he loves me and cares too much about my happiness. To preserve this love we must learn to ration it, as I must learn to ration my sense of responsibility for my country.

I smile with my eyes, again. Mark returns the smile with such longing intensity that I immediately want to cry, because our happiness seems to be totally my responsibility. Instead, I avert my gaze to my papa, who has sensed my eyes coming towards him and looks away. He is a shy man, but his eyes are clear of worry and his profile shows his smiling cheeks. He is blissfully unaware of any unhappiness. How could a bride be unhappy on her wedding night?

Sometimes, the only way to cope with sadness is to try to forget it and to find some new source of happiness. Tonight, I cannot find happiness in Mark’s love for me, because it is too much a reminder of our differences. Too many hopes hang by the slender thread of this love. It will not support one more hope. I need familiar things to resurrect the memory of happiness.

My papa’s cheeks, high under his eyes, are an old memory of happiness. Watching them for a few seconds makes me forget the big leap that Mark and I have made, with only love to bridge the gap between misunderstanding and happiness. My cheeks rise, like my papa’s. Mark is still smiling.

While we remember how to smile, we can remember how to be happy. This is my hope.

 

Chapter 1

Starbuck’s Coffee Shop,

Close to the North West exit of Dongdan metro station,

Beijing,

People’s Republic of China,

Saturday, October 10^th^, 2014 6pm

It is difficult to imagine a less Chinese experience than this. It is an American bubble in a boiling Chinese kettle. I hate these western enclaves, with their Chinese lackeys speaking English to anyone who will allow them to practise the language of the barbarians. I am an unreconstructed son of the revolution. These places represent all that is wrong with our country; here is where the Chinese soul is purchased for the price of a small cappuccino.

My countrymen outnumber the round-eyed, big-nosed tourists, who come to these places to get away from Chinese culture. The tourists are disgustingly unwilling players in our epic drama: they are doomed always to be banished to the audience. They pay small fortunes for their airfares to my beautiful, if flawed land and then ignore its bounty of rich experiences, preferring the food in these replicas of their own culture because they cannot read a menu or do not trust the Chinese to provide what is written on it.

I am dressed in a grey suit from a European chain store, so that I can look like the sort of thirty five year old Chinese man who frequents these places in search of escape and glamour. This is the Beijing of the few. This is China for those who hate China: it is packaged for them in a familiarly lurid style and disinfected of character.

It is a suitable place for this meeting to begin, because the actions that ensue from that meeting will surely help to reverse this strange hold that the west exerts on the greedy cowards who have thrived in comfort, while peasants starved on the desolate plains of Qing Hai or the drought-ridden slopes of Yunnan.

Mine is an uncomplicated view of our country, as befits my role as its simple servant. I work for people whose aims exactly match my own. The future, the domain of refuge for the masses, is ours to shape. The masses will never know of our efforts because our actions will be forgotten in the glare of their consequences. Such is the anonymity of real power.

My contact has just walked in, clutching the map of this shopping area in the same hand as a red leather handbag. The handbag probably cost more than six months’ salary for a simple peasant. Her well-tailored, red dress is just short enough to attract my eyes for more than the second needed to identify her. Her ease in this environment is too convincing. She must have been born in Hong Kong, for no Chinese girl who knew poverty could ever blend in here as this one does.

She orders her iced chocolate to go, in lightly American accented English, which would dispel any suspicion on the part of the serving staff: wealthy Chinese are more dangerous than foreigners, for they wear their wealth ostentatiously and use it to punish the society of which they were once a part. They are difficult customers and mean tippers. The fake American is treated to a genuine smile from the young man in the ridiculous apron, who takes her fifty-Yuan note and passes back the change on a tray. She takes the notes and leaves the coins, which broadens the young man’s smile. The accent and the behaviour are American, but she cannot be American, for her position would not allow it.

The 8341 Unit Central Security regiment was famously disbanded, after Mao Dze Dong used it to facilitate the arrest of the Gang of Four in the Chinese year 65, which was the western year of 1976. The regiment worked directly for the Chairman, monitoring the nation for signs of resistance to change and improvement. Its methods were famously brutal and its disbandment sent the message to western governments that China was becoming a kinder, more western society. It is typically naïve of the western governments to believe that such a powerful and loyal group could ever be disbanded.

Such a waste of experience and knowledge might be allowed in western countries, but China is a land where power is never wasted. After the Chinese year 65, The 8341 Unit Central Security Regiment was suddenly able to fulfil its duties to the nation much more efficiently, because no one could object to a regiment that did not exist. Now, it is the most powerful intelligence organisation in modern China and beyond, working only for the few senior Politburo generals who know of its existence.

The woman leaves and walks west along Dongchang-An Street, as she has been instructed. I leave a half drunk coffee on the wooden table. My stride is purposeful and flustered, because I have just checked my watch and am going through the motions of hurrying to a forgotten appointment. Anyone following me will have to move quickly, which will be easily noticeable.

My body traces a frenzied Brownian motion through the dense crowds on the pavement. I squeeze past the woman, who is clutching the paper cup in one hand and the red handbag and the local map in the other. She is looking straight down at the pavement and holding the map, exactly as she has been ordered.

Behind the glossy curtain of hair, her face wears an expression of detached concern, as though she has forgotten something that she knows to be important. When I pull it, the map slips from her grasp easily. She barely notices. She is not a professional. She has been chosen because she is a nobody who works for a somebody. If the map passes into the wrong hands, she will be punished cruelly by her employer. The map contains a tiny hard disk, which contains details of my mission.

By the time she has realised that the map is gone, she sees nothing but the jacket of a grey suit, flapping in the humid, stinking air into which it disappears. Her punishment will be cruel at the hands of her employer. Her bruises will be adequate testimony to her failure to pass a simple map to a contact in seat 15 of the ninth row of cinema 2, in the nearby Oriental New Century cinema complex. In her pocket is a ticket for the adjoining seat.

She will report the failure to her American handler, who is watching her from across the road. He has not seen me, or the transfer, but the message that brought me here told me of his existence and the girl’s relationship with him. He will fuss over the bruises that her employer bestows on her and he will promise paradise in California or New England. Then, he will make her go back to her cruel employer and report everything that that man arranges for her to see and hear. Pretty secretaries are useful for more than their beguiling looks.

The 8341 Unit performs only special duties that cannot be undertaken by the conventional intelligence services of the People’s Liberation Army. Because the unit does not exist, it can have no physical contact with any official organ of power, other than the senior generals. Even they do not know the details of the organisation.

No one can have seen me take the map, but I will spend the next hour making sure that I am not followed. When I am sure that I am unobserved, I will return to the public washroom where I left my old clothes and collected this suit. It is in a part of Beijing where the Starbuck’s people never go.

I will make the difficult, three day journey home, to Zhongdian, in the far north of Yunnan, near the borders of Sichuan and Tibet. I will use the cheapest trains and buses. I will go unnoticed. Only when I am in the cellar, protected from observation by the metre-thick concrete base of my home, will I open the hard disk and read the files that detail my mission.

In Zhongdian, I am a simple guesthouse owner, who knows nothing of violence or the death that it brings. I will forsake this pleasant life for the last time. This is to be my last mission.

 

Chapter 2

Northern Ireland Spring 1988

One night, in south Armagh, near the border with the Irish Republic, I watched a British soldier of the second parachute regiment force my cousin from his car and use a rifle butt to coax the young man’s legs apart. The roadblock was well camouflaged and we almost drove over them, because the brakes on the old car were not so effective.

The soldiers were more relieved than angry when my cousin eventually managed to stop the old Ford with weak brakes, but the anger rose quickly in them. The soldier who pulled him from the car shouted that I should get out too, after I had switched off the car’s headlights and killed the engine. A face smeared with black camouflage cream appeared at my window. A long thin rifle barrel filled the dark space between his face and mine. I raised both my hands and then reached with my right to move the switch that would turn off the headlights. The ignition key was on the right side of the steering column, so I had to lean and crouch beneath the column to twist it and kill the engine.

My cousin, Fergal, and I had retarded the ignition timing on the old Ford’s engine that afternoon, to make it run more sweetly on illegally smuggled, poor quality petrol from the Irish Republic. This was our test drive.

We had driven less than three miles from his home. The car was not insured, taxed, or tested, but the army never checked such things, so I was relaxed. Fergal was well used to the belligerence of the British soldiers who were banished to this killing field and regularly vented their frustrations on the local youth.

The engine died. The sound of shuffling feet came fleetingly from the darkness before the world collapsed in white light and a clamour of cracks, shouts and screams.

Like any big mistake, it was the mongrel progeny of many small mistakes. The ignition had not been retarded enough, so the engine backfired spectacularly, a millisecond after I twisted the key to turn it off. The safety catch on the soldier’s rifle had not been activated when Fergal was dragged out of the car and thrown across the ground. The soldier was holding the rifle with one hand, instead of two, because he was relaxing, after the horror of almost being run over by an old car with weak brakes.

The backfire made the soldier start. The start travelled to his trigger finger. The gun fired a single, three-shot burst into Fergal’s abdomen. The soldier’s screams of invective began a millisecond before Fergal’s. More gruff shouting began to converge on the car. Vague shapes populated the frame of the driver’s window, above me, as I crouched.

I slowly raised my head to the end of the long rifle barrel. The eyes at its base were white balls of fear. We stared at each other along the barrel for what seemed like a lifetime, before my end dipped and retreated. I allowed myself to be frisked, fighting for self control amid the rising panic within me. Fergal’s screams formed my name. When the rough hands of the soldier on the end of the barrel had finished pawing me, I made my way around the front of the car slowly, hands in the air.

My shoes stuck to something, as I padded lightly towards my cousin. Drying blood covered the road like purple glue. An abdominal wound is the worst kind because it empties the body cavity of blood so quickly. Fergal’s jumper was black with blood. Even the oil stains from the afternoon’s tinkering were invisible in the glistening, black-plastic-bag-sheen of the bloody wool. The soldier who had shot him was still screaming that it was an accident. His superior, a sharp-eyed young man, growled that he should get a grip of himself.

I leant down to touch Fergal. I put my hands over the pulsing gout of liquid that had established itself in his belly. I felt the life drain out of him. Two pulses later, the torrent of blood became a trickle and the pathetic whimpering halted in a last, exasperated exhalation. The face was completely unmarked, relaxed; the eyes were closed. I remember thinking it amazing that the evidence of this abdominal carnage ended at his neck. The face was perfect, in repose, as if he were taking a nap.

I spent five days in a stinking cell in Newry police station, answering the same questions. No visitors were allowed. The Special Powers Act gave the police the right to detain me without access to a solicitor for those five days. I missed Fergal’s funeral. The police did not let me wash, so his blood was still on my clothes and under my fingernails when my parents drove me home to Belfast.

The case was in all of the papers for a week. The soldiers were acquitted a month later; the hearing was a closed military tribunal. The officer who advised the soldier to get a grip of himself invented a great tale of derring-do, involving a mystery gunman in a nearby field and a tragic case of misguided horseplay, which implied that I had rigged the car to backfire at the roadblock, as a distraction.

I did not join right away. My analytical character does not allow me to leap without looking. I waited for three months. When I approached a thug whom I knew to be “involved” and gave him the message that I wanted to do something, I had no passion. I was a machine, like all of the other machines that I had learned to fix, including my own psyche. Like any machine, I needed fuel and input. A manifestation of hatred and the guidance of murderers were what I chose.

Libya was the fashionable place to learn about weapons. The IRA had a number of training camps in the Sahara desert. The problem with those camps was that if I knew about them, then the British knew about them and those who used them. I was not interested in becoming a suntanned target for a British soldier, on my return. A much less popular camp had been established in eastern Siberia. I could not tell you who trained me. Their English was poor, but they knew their stuff when it came to rifles, handguns, explosives close combat techniques and evasive movements in a hostile environment. There were American military handbooks, covering evasion methods and camouflage, fast driving and planning. The speakers of poor English took care of the practical side of all of those disciplines, during eighteen-hour days.

After three months of late winter and early spring, I came back to Belfast with no suntan, but with the tools that I needed for vengeance. I had no patience for the IRA’s priorities. I devised my own training mission. From a dead drop in a Belfast cemetery, I stole a Czech-made Kalashnikov AK47 and ammunition. One of these was my constant companion on the Siberian tundra. Using resources that I had discovered by listening to the gossip of other volunteers, I tracked the soldier who thought that it was a good idea to concoct stories at his tribunal. As a reward for his murderous industry, he was serving a second tour of duty in Derry, a much easier billet than south Armagh.

He knew who shot him. I separated him from his patrol by waiting in plain sight. He could not miss my silhouette on the roof of the line of domestic garages. The AK47 would have been clearly outlined by the setting sun behind me. He probably thought that he was dealing with another of the fools.

The arrogance of the prey is the tool of the predator. I doubt that he even called in the sighting. That sort always goes for the easy kill with the maximum glory. He was probably imagining the free beer that he’d be drinking in the mess later. I switched position quickly, when he moved out of sight to get into the ideal firing position. He pissed and soiled himself when I came up behind him and almost cracked his spine with my boot. His screams choked, because my hand was fastened around his neck. He saw a rifle, so he was expecting to be shot. He was not expecting a close quarters, physical attack. Both of his hands were gripping his rifle, so neither was free for defence. Surprise is the oldest weapon in any killer’s arsenal.

He had forgotten me, but there was time to remind him about that night in south Armagh. His eyes bulged in exactly the same way that those of the soldier on the end of the barrel had bulged after the backfire and the shots. He did not die quickly. I slit his vocal chords neatly and slipped the noose of barbed wire around his neck, just as I heard the distant calls of his comrades. The noose, tied to a strong length of hemp, was already draped over an overhead beam.

He did not even notice that his firing position had been arranged as his death chamber. By the time his comrades found him, the noose had bitten hard into his carotid artery and blood was spurting across one shoulder, in much the same way that blood had spurted from Fergal’s abdomen.

It was an eight-man patrol. The radio officer was calling for help. The rising whine of the off-road tyres of an approaching personnel vehicle echoed through the deserted space around them. None could drag their eyes from the dangling, spurting body, in the last throes of life. It was the last sight that the radio officer saw. The bullet lodged in his neck and he toppled. The others went down equally quickly: – the AK 47 on three-shot burst at a range of less than ten metres is a formidable weapon. Four soldiers died. I was over the roofs and away by the time the whine of the off road tyres stopped and the confused, Yorkshire accented shouts rose from the killing zone.

I became bored with the “organisation” very quickly. My Siberian skill set was sought by petty thieves who wanted to rob post offices and cowards who wanted to put bombs in Women’s Institute buildings. I went backpacking in Asia for six months and returned to virtual anonymity. I disappeared in London. I lived a quiet life as a carpenter, then studied for a while and returned to Belfast as a mechanical engineer. I found a job in the aircraft factory and a life that was safe and unremarkable.

My part in the murder of the soldiers was the subject of widespread circumspection, but nothing could be proven. I conjured none of the manifestations of regret for the crime of killing four young men in military uniform, because my crime was unobserved, so I had no obligation to falsify an emotion that I did not feel. I merely felt a momentary relief from the constant stress of the demands of those around me for emotional fluency.

I am autistic. I experience emotional dyslexia. While I register emotions on some philosophical level, I have no ability to express those emotions. The part of my mind that registers emotion and controls its expression has been disconnected, since birth. As a child, I learned to disguise my condition and feign the humane emotional fluency that surrounded me by observing other’s reactions and copying them at what I thought were appropriate moments. I can register an emotion and demonstrate its effects without ever feeling it, but if there is no audience for this performance, I forsake it. Since no one knows that I killed those young men, I sense no compulsion to display a reaction to my act.

I don’t know if it’s because I’m autistic or callous, but I have successfully separated that brief segment of my life from what passed before and came after. It is an anonymous sequence of events that I feel no need to acknowledge. I am heinous, by my own standards, yet I cannot feel hatred for myself, since I cannot feel emotion. I deal in symptoms, not feelings.

Perhaps, the true reason that I care so much for my wife is that she is the only person I have ever met who could never commit any act of violence. She will never belong in a world where violence has currency. If I stay with her, I will never have to return to such a world.

 

Chapter 3

The Dalai Lama’s annual classes

Sanarth, near Varanasi,

Uttar Pradesh Province,

India,

Wednesday, January 14^th^, 2015

8am

This one is calm.

Some begin to panic a little when I leave them for short spells, as I must do when I am searching for a new host, but this one has learned well. He long ago accepted this fate. He is prepared for this time. When I leave him, he meditates on the coming end and prepares himself for the unknown, which his mind tells him is known, so that he may remain calm.

When they are like this, I want to express my pride, but our communications are not so straightforward. I do not bid him goodbye, when I go. I do not wave silently. These are the affectations of his kind. Only when I return and feel the warmth of the body around me again, do I feel the welcoming void that I have left in this humble man, who has carried me loyally for his lifetime.

My time is short now. I have had fourteen hosts, known to their kind as the Dalai Lamas. The next host will be my last. I must be sure that he is strong enough for the tasks that are required of him. He has not been conceived yet, but I have just felt his mother’s warm hand, on this cool morning. Its grasp is gentle and firm. She has no suspicion of the message which that grasp transmitted, or of its consequences. That is as it should be.

Even though he is not yet conceived, I know that he will be almost perfect. When the host put his frail hand into that warm cup of palm flesh, we both felt kindness, strength and perseverance. Her presence far from her home, where she pays homage to the host and his teachings, shows her willingness to follow the path of the wise.

The connection was instantly binding. My host concealed his reaction well. I felt his heart race. His eyes lifted only once, to register the smiling face of the woman, which turned itself towards the Great Mother Earth. Panic brimmed as a solid meniscus within him. Only his smile, which lingered a little longer on this one than on the others in the long line of faces, could have been interpreted as a clue. As he walked to the waiting crowds beyond this human line, his smile did not fade and the deep chuckle that always heralds his presence floated over the avenue of bowed heads.

For a man facing his unborn executioner, this one is heroic. Our last five years have been spent preparing for this day and what must follow. He has prepared well for this denouement. I am more ready than he is, for I do not face his trauma. This is our last great journey together. In the future, I will leave him more often, following her to her place. I will guide the birth and then I will steal her son.

To her, I will be the benign abductor of souls. To the boy inside her, I will be firstly the invader, then the silent friend in the lonely, soft, warm globule of amniotic isolation, then the saviour who leads him into the chaos of the brightly coloured universe and finally his guide in that universe. I will become him and he will become me. It will be as it has always been, for fourteen emanations. When the envoys come to find us, we will be one. He is the last, the most special. With him, I must accomplish much.

Before this new emanation can begin, I must desert this loyal one. That path to separation will be slow. I have travelled it before. I will guide this one, as I have guided the thirteen others before him. Only at the end will he go before me and I will feel the momentary envy of the one who must stay behind. Only at the end will he leave me, as I must increasingly leave him, between now and then. When we finally part, it will be unexpected and traumatic for him, expected and liberating for me. That is the way it must be, because that is the way it always is.

She has recently found a husband. Unlike her, he will not concede willingly. Through his son, I must slowly gnaw at his resolve, until he is tired. When he is tired, he will accept the tangle of destinies in our little group. His stubbornness will be an asset in my new host, who will inherit some of his father’s obstinacy.

Before I joined with the present host, I knew little of the strange peoples who abide far from our cool land, who greet the Sun that leaves us. Their habits were revealed slowly, as this host was forced to roam the Great Mother’s surface like no other before him. These strange people of the western lands, with their juvenile, linear logic and capricious loyalties, will be our unlikely saviours, as I will be the unlikely saviour of this unborn soul. As I must win his parents’ trust, so must he win the trust of these powerful, childish entities. It will be no easy task, but the course has been dictated since I first came back to the Great Mother’s sphere in this form, hundreds of thousands of cycles ago.

The mother is perfect, but without the father, there can be no child and this father is so unpredictable that I dare not risk conception until I can be sure of him. He is confused now. I have seen it before, even in many of the subjects of the cool kingdom.

Marriage is a difficult vocation for these males. In the early days they must learn to set aside loyalty to their kin and make a place in their new family. Fear must be overcome by courage and uncertainty must be subsumed by faith, before they can leap into the new reality of themselves and assume the mantle of responsibility.

This child will come when the father is ready. He must find his true vocation. This mother is ready now. She can help her husband, but I will need to assert my will if the future is to unfold as destined.

Now, she is sitting beside him. They have gained their places in the crowd that is listening to my host’s words. She is receptive. He is not unreceptive, but there is a cunning unwillingness to prostrate himself before the truth. She is reciting the heart sutra. This beautiful sutra is most beautiful in her tongue – the tongue of the invaders of our cool lands from the north. When written with their strange pictograms, it is truly concise in its expression and beautiful to behold. She calmly recites the sutra while he observes the others in the crowd.

His eyes leave her only to register the presence of others. He is attached to her, sometimes willingly, but mostly beyond his control. These beings strive for logic in all things, but the force that binds them, which they cannot control, defies all logic. They call it love, but it is much more than that. It is as inexplicable as faith, perhaps because it is the ultimate faith.

He is an outsider here, comfortable in his displacement and childlike in his curiosity. Around him, calmness flows in the hearts of the faithful, but it does not touch him. It merely becomes an object for his examination, much like an interesting trinket. The calm affects him, but it is not part of him. His wife slowly succumbs to a meditative peace, oblivious to her surroundings and to him. He will become bored soon, for he is searching for intellectual meaning in an article of faith. It is time to return to my kindly host. The warm, welcoming void that I will fill is comfort enough for a traveller.

 

[ * ]

This is my honeymoon. I dreamed of this time almost as long as I dreamed of my wedding. Our simple wedding was perfect for both of us, but lacking in tradition and therefore imperfect for my family, who would have preferred something a lot bigger. We had just three tables at our dinner in a good restaurant, with ten people at each table. Unlike every other wedding I have been to, everyone in the room knew each other and there was a relaxed flow to the evening. I was happy to bring this new experience to my family, but I’m not sure that they appreciated the gesture.

I had some trouble explaining to my new husband that, in Taiwan, the purpose of a large wedding is to preserve face for the parents of the bride and to give them and their generation of relatives a good party. It has absolutely nothing to do with the wishes of most brides.

In my memory, our celebration went beautifully: – everyone enjoyed themselves. It was perfectly imperfect, in the way that most of the best things in life are. Our honeymoon is also perfectly imperfect, although the weeds of imperfection are threatening to smother the flowers of joy, which bloom ever more seldom on our path through India. I have always wanted to see this country. The mountains of the north, near Dharamsala, where we spent our first week, were beautiful. Even the twelve hour overnight bus journey to get there was not so bad.

Dharamsala was interesting, but not very Indian. It is like every other backpacker den that I have visited. There is alcohol, cake, real coffee and a hundred other things that have nothing to do with India and that are irrelevant to most Indians. Dharamsala is the home of the Tibetans in India. I went there, carrying the hope of seeing the Dalai Lama. He was in France when we went, so it was not to be.

The Buddha teaches us not to be expectant, so that we can avoid disappointment. I accepted that I might never meet this man whom I admire. When I accepted my present, I received the gift of another future. It was a happy coincidence that we met a grandfather and his granddaughter, walking on a mountain track near the village. I was glad to see them because my husband walks very quickly and the excuse of polite conversation with the kind, slow moving couple gave me a chance to catch my breath and to relieve the stitch that had been growing in my side.

The old man was Tibetan, but spoke some Chinese. His granddaughter spoke perfect Chinese, because she lives in Lhasa. I told her that I really wanted to see the Dalai Lama and her grandfather understood and told me about a series of classes in Sanarth, close to Varanasi, where the Dalai Lama would teach. The date of the classes fell right in the middle of our planned stay in India. Fate had delivered a second chance. It was up to my husband now. The old man relayed the information in English.

My husband loves me and I am touched every time he wrestles with the future, to smooth our path through it. As we walked, I watched his focus fail, as he calculated dates and travelling times, while keeping up some small talk with the old man.

My husband’s mind is strange to me. It seems to work in straight lines and tries to anticipate as many problems as possible. In Taiwan, I have never met anyone like this. We prefer to take care of the present and let the future take care of itself. Almost every westerner I know seems to look on the future as a challenge, but we do not consider it at all, other than to occasionally wish for more money, or better health, when we reach it. Our relationship with the future is not so combative. We prefer not to fight what we cannot see.

Later, my husband and I were eating cake and drinking good coffee in a small café when he began to change our plans. Actually, they were not our plans; they were his plans. I do not like plans, because I think that they are a waste of time. It is better to wait until life happens and then react. This philosophy takes a lot less energy than predicting every possible future for two people on holiday in a strange country. No matter how it happened, fate provided me with another chance to see the Dalai Lama. I do not try to debate this philosophy of acceptance with a man who really believes that he can shape the future.

After many long, uncomfortable journeys around India, we came here, to Sanarth, to enrol for the Dalai Lama’s classes. I do not believe that my husband is really interested in these classes, but he is here because it is what I want and he wants to support me. It is a simple kindness, which touches me deeply and is more valuable than the beautiful dress that he bought for me in Delhi.

Yesterday, we saw the Dalia Lama in his private garden as part of a small group of South East Asian pilgrims. Today, we came to see him as part of a group of European pilgrims. I was allowed to go in because I was with Mark. When the Dalai Lama asked us all to come for a group photograph, I was very lucky to be by his side. I tried to touch his robe, but the Indian security guard pulled my hand away. It did not matter, because I had finally come close to him.

When the photograph was taken, I saw my husband’s smile. His eyes were sharp and swept away from me to the Dalai Lama, who was walking towards the big tent where he gives his classes. When I ran to join him, he suddenly pushed me into the crowd that was lining the path to the classes. When I looked left, I saw the Dalai Lama coming closer.

The Dalai Lama – the man I most admire – actually put his hand into mine. It was warm and rough. He leaned on me when he moved forward. His hand shook a little. It was as warm and brittle as new bread. It is impolite to look straight into someone’s eyes, so I looked down. The westerners in the line looked straight into his eyes. I do not think that they know it is impolite.

The hand reminded me of my grandfather’s, which folded over mine when I rode on the front of his motorcycle as a little girl. Those rough palms covered mine, as I gripped the handlebars. They kept my hands warm and dry. My grandfather’s hands shielded mine from a Taiwanese typhoon. While the cool, stinging rain streamed over my face and through my hair, the motorcycle buzzed beneath us. It is one of my happiest childhood memories.

My husband and I compliment each other. He watched the Dalai Lama leave the group photograph and plotted his course through the crowd. Because he plots the future so diligently, I was able to hold the Dalai Lama’s hand. When we came into the class, my husband was smiling when he told me that I would never have held the Dalai Lama’s hand without his planning.

I have not the heart to tell him that if fate had not decreed that we meet on a bus, in Yunnan Province in southern China, two years ago, he would not have had the opportunity to show me how brilliant he is. He is content beside me. I think that it is as good to be at peace as it is to be right.

 

[ * ]

Hsiuling is an instinctual Buddhist; I do not even have enough faith to declare myself an atheist, but we exercise patience in our dealings with each other. We map the circumference of our respective notions of truth and establish radials of kindness and tolerance, to bridge the path between our centres. That is why we are in cold Sanarth and not on a beach.

For yesterday’s group photograph, Hsiuling won the Sanarth heat of the Asian Buddhist “you-first” challenge. She was at the back, happy to be there because that meant that she had put everyone else before herself. In the group photograph, half of her face could be seen beaming from the very edge of the group. Today, she was accidentally pushed to the Dalai Lama’s side. I do not think that I’ve ever seen her smile so wide as it was in that photograph, not even at our wedding. I’m a bit jealous of this Dalai Lama guy.

Once the photo shoot had finished, I got the chance to be a husband. Sometimes being married is a pain in the neck. A boyfriend or fiancé gets the chance to be right occasionally; husbands are always wrong.

Hsiuling has a real problem with any type of forward planning. This morning, I had to practically manhandle her into the Dalai Lama’s path so that she could hold his hand. We messed up our whole schedule to be here, so I was not going to let the opportunity of a perfect touchy-feely moment go by.

It was a victory for the forward planning department when she held his hand. When I mentioned this later, she just went all inscrutable on me and kept her own counsel. Now she’s wearing the same contented look that her cats have when she comes home and I have to let them back into the apartment so that they can break more of our CDs and scratch the furniture.

I have a feeling that the explanation that her particular brand of logic has cultivated to explain meeting the Dalai Lama does not take any account of my forward planning, which always seems to mar our harmonious relationship with the fates. Even when I’m right, I’m wrong.

 

Chapter 4

Jonghe City

Taipei County

Taiwan

Friday, March 20^th^, 2015

In India, even though the conditions were not good, we stayed together and sorted things out, as a couple. I do not care as much about romance as I do about the practical ability to cooperate with each other for the rest of our lives. Our less than idyllic honeymoon made me more confident that we would still be together until one of us passes away. When I was first married, I worried that we would ever see the world in the same way. Now, I know that this is impossible, because we are too different. I am not worried about those differences any more, because we have found ways to make bridges between those differences and to live our own lives within this marriage.

Now, we are beginning our life together in Taipei. Our life is simple. I go to work every day in the office of a medical NGO: – I am producing a television documentary for them. The work is a little boring, but every day I come home to my husband and we kiss and say hello and spend the evening in our apartment, or go out to eat. Mark is going to start an engineering consultancy. Taiwanese believe that everything foreign is better than the Taiwanese version, so Mark can charge more for his foreign advice than a Taiwanese person can. He already has some foreign clients, which makes it much easier to attract the Taiwanese businesses.

When our lives are stable, we are planning to have a baby. I am 35, so if I want a child, I need to have it soon. Mark is 45, so that means that he will be at least 67, when our child graduates from university. That is very old. I worry that he will not make it, but I do not tell him that.

I am happy most of the time, because Buddhism teaches us to be happy with our lot. Change or stagnation will happen whether we want them to or not, so ambition and future predictions are irrelevant. If we try to change the future by ourselves, we might destroy an opportunity for greater happiness in another future as easily as we create one in the future that we create. Human happiness comes from acceptance of the present and ignorance of the future.

I know that this logic is difficult for Mark, so I accept this imperfection in our relationship and do not try to change it. Sometimes, I think that my happiness makes him frustrated, because he can see it but cannot copy it. At first, he was suspicious of my self-contained happiness, but now he is inspecting it, like a scientist. Sometimes, I resent this inspection: – Mark’s idea of privacy is physical, but Taiwanese respect the privacy of the soul.

 

[ * ]

No sane human being would willingly subject themselves to the traumatic experience of migration, but people with autism are often willing émigrés. Their sense of isolation, which is the result of their private knowledge of their strange otherness, is compounded by the comfort with which those around them seem to fit in with the society into which they have been born. The material evidence of their physical and cultural otherness in the new place, where no one expects them to belong, is more comforting than the inconvenient evidence of their sameness in the old place, where they cannot belong.

To live in this society without the experience of being raised in it is mind-boggling. There are absolutely no common touchstones or references. The writing and speech is unintelligible to the point that entering buildings or opening food packets is always a prelude to adventure.

Even the frequent small kindnesses that I encounter cannot permanently assuage the grinding frustration of my novitiate status here, as I falter through every second of each day. In this closed world, where the outside world exists primarily on television screens, my inability to communicate fluently is taken as a sign of stupidity. I am surrounded by fluent experts in this culture, whose honest tolerance can seem patronising because it assumes my stupidity before it conceives of my confusion.

Taiwanese people are usually warm, but the places where they live are stark and functional. They seem to notice no trappings of comfort. The Chinese language – Taiwan’s official tongue – has no words for home or cosy. The word for house denotes any dwelling in which people live and the word for comfortable describes all experiences that are not uncomfortable. Since all language derives from the requirement to define the landscape of life, there must be no landscape that is native to Chinese speakers which requires a word to categorise it as a home or as cosy. Even when the temperature is over thirty degrees, Taiwan can seem a very cold place.

Taiwanese people seem to prefer not to touch. Shaking hands, a universal gesture of friendliness, is only ever practised with westerners and is usually accompanied by self-conscious giggles. Goodbyes are waved. Hellos are often omitted and there is rarely any eye contact. Their privacy of the soul is a factor of the crowded living spaces, where internal privacy is the only type that is practicable.

The privacy of the body seems to be a factor of that same crowding. Constant close proximity seems to dull the thrill of touch. Most Taiwanese have never hugged their mothers. Touch is not a function of love. Love is not a function of touch or closeness. Love pertains only to the soul – not to an occasion, or action, or place.

I learned to understand this lonely pilgrim spirit in India, where an old Tibetan woman was selling those little string bracelets that Buddhists are always wearing, to give luck on a journey. The old woman was using the profits from the bracelet sales to fund her journey home. I wanted to ask her how much the ticket cost and give her the money. It was a typical act of coarse magnanimity from a well-heeled dilettante to a sorry peasant, doomed to sail forever before the wind of fortune. My ambition for her was for her to take control of her destiny.

Hsiuling had another take on my charity. Like every Buddhist, the old woman was a pilgrim; pilgrims are very lucky in that they have a path through the world. To divert them from that path would be a sin against the pilgrim and against the world that they moved through with such trust. It was much better to help her in the way that she asked.

For an engineer, tinkering with processes in the search for greater efficiency is a hard habit to kick. The lesson that my wife elegantly taught me was that one person’s inefficiencies in the eyes of another are often the very traits that define them as a human being. Honing is not always advantageous. She explained, in her gentle way, that if a pilgrim chooses the long way home and makes substantial efforts to take that path, the pilgrim is not at fault. Pilgrims have no schedule, so they have no need to efficiently dispose of their time. They have only a destination and a philosophy. I admired my wife even more. We bought two bracelets and wished the smiling old woman well.

Hsiuling embodies the Buddhist belief that others should always come before self. For her, true happiness comes from a sense of satisfaction in the heart, not from physical comfort or self-aggrandisement. If I live to be a hundred years old, I will never attain the deep happiness that she daily derives from the tiniest quantum of kindness, or from an opportunity to help another soul in distress.

There are times when this gets right up my nose. Being last in line means that your husband gets second last position and I’m not sure that my upbringing prepared me for second last in anything. Hard work and kindness are ways to the head of the queue where I come from, not the back of it. Hsiuling’s determination never to put herself before others makes for a frustrating life for someone raised to aspire to ambitious goals, amid a philosophy that good deeds or hard work attract rewards. Hsiuling says that I must try to adopt the pilgrim spirit.

I only know of two people who think of everyone as a pilgrim: my wife and John Wayne in “Rio Bravo”.

 

[ * ]

On this island, my new host will learn about the marauders from the north, who stole our cool lands, because their language is spoken here and their culture is also the culture of these people, who came from the land of the marauders many cycles ago. This is a good place for him to grow.

The female is calm, modest and has impressive powers of perseverance. She finds wisdom and patience in her suffering and puts others before herself. The father is driven by a force that does not understand, but his energy and commitment to his chosen path will be an asset in my new host, his son, whose form I will inhabit for approximately 30,000 Sun cycles. That form will need patience, but also aggression, for his enemies will be aggressive.

This mother will provide my new host with comfort and love in the early days, when he is suspicious of the stranger in his soul. She will leaven the periods of panic with gentleness and cheerfulness. She will be my accomplice in the benign abduction of her son.

 

Chapter 5

McLeod Ganj,

Dharamsala

Himachal Pradesh Province

India

Friday, March 20^th^, 2015

Sunrise

I was born about thirty kilometres west of Deqin, which is in the north of Yunnan province in south west China, but my home was actually just inside the border of Tibet. I grew up speaking Tibetan and my Tibetan name was Chogyal. In the isolated valley, our village was forgotten by the world and by Beijing. I did not learn Chinese until my parents sent me to live with my father’s older brother in the town of Zhongdian, which was a week’s walk to the south.

I studied diligently and earned good marks, so that I won a place in the Young Reformers’ and Planners’ College of military science in the provincial capital of Kunming. There, I applied myself to the theory and practicalities of military service. Because I spoke Tibetan and had excellent Chinese speaking and writing skills, I was chosen to join the 45th Pioneer regiment in Tibet, based in the place which my father called Bomi, but which our Chinese maps identified as Nyingchi prefecture.

Nyingchi was my first experience of the power of my great country and my time there marked the last time that I communicated with my family, who professed allegiance to an out-dated feudal lord. They called him the Dalai Lama and made a disgustingly meek show of touching their heads deferentially when even his name was mentioned. In Kunming, I learned the truth of how he had exploited his people and betrayed them into believing that their life of serfdom, the same serfdom into which I had been born, was the only way to save their souls. I hated his teachings, which were in my soul, and his legacy, which poisoned the high lands in which I was stationed.

The great power of China was demonstrated when we raided Ganden monastery, outside Lhasa. We killed the maroon cloaked purveyors of the old lies who doomed their comrades to gruelling poverty and numbed their minds with chants and prayers to imaginary gods. When we left the monastery, after two hours, the white, dusty winding pathways between the cells and the temples were marbled with blackened blood that trailed from maroon robes.

Before breakfast, we had rid a grateful community of its mental oppressors and were bouncing into the glorious grey mountains in the back of our blood-spattered trucks with three of the principals. Later, they cried for their gods as we pried the details of their networks of subversion from them.

When I opened the files on the mini disk, I smiled, for my world had come full circle. Only a fool or a slave of the West dismisses the cyclical life in favour of linear progress. Cycles allow the wise man to apply the lessons that he learned the last time he faced similar circumstances. They provide a lacuna, in which he may consolidate himself. The folly of linear progress can only exhaust a man, because he is always at the edge of his strength and experience and can never consolidate his resources. His past has limited usefulness, as a reference; his future is never predictable. He is vulnerable because he must defend his present actions from all angles.

The great oppressor of the people will die eventually, but his mysterious successor will continue to exercise influence over the peasants like those with whom I shared my childhood.

The files showed the extent of the motherland’s penetration of the so-called Tibetan government in exile. The disk detailed the names of the three envoys who are most likely to be chosen to seek out the new Dalai Lama, along with contacts within their government who have been recruited as spies. The agents of China are efficient and thorough.

I detest spies. A person who betrays their comrades to me for reward is not a person to be trusted. When I progressed to the 8341 Unit Central Security Regiment, from the 45th Pioneer Regiment, I was a reluctant recruit because I believed that the Unit specialised in espionage

The regiment’s principle role was to hunt the spies within our country and hand them over to other agencies that were better able to use them or eradicate them. I have never been a spy, although I use the techniques of a spy to disguise myself, as any good hunter does.

I must establish myself in the lair of the great liar, so that I can find the child successor who will become the new Dalai Lama and return him to China. I will endeavour to return him in a healthy state, although my orders allow for his disposal, should his live delivery prove impossible. It is a grand task, for which I am to be rewarded with retirement from duty and a generous pension.

I have a German bank account and a passport in the name of a Tibetan businessman who is now resident in Germany who is temporarily on an extended pilgrimage to India. His financial statement records modest withdrawals from various ATM’s around India, in towns known to have large Tibetan communities. Those withdrawals were made by a low level employee of the Chinese embassy in Delhi, who holds a card that is identical to that which I carry in a plastic pouch, taped to my stomach.

For the purposes of my mission, I am a poor Tibetan from the hills close to Deqin, in Yunnan. I speak Tibetan, but it is accented by the Chinese that I was forced to use daily. I am a devout Buddhist who has spent three months in a Lhasa holding cell. I was tortured, along with the three monks who shared the cell and who were arrested for the sole purpose of witnessing my devotion under torture.

When we were released, our quartet fled to the mountains to avoid further Chinese brutality. My monkish companions were only too pleased to vouch for me when I had guided us to Sikkim. Our onward journey to Dharamsala was paid for by the Norbulingka monastery, where we are housed at present. I have assumed an air of modesty, shunning the praise of the three monks whom I helped and thus substantiating my legend as a trustworthy nobody, whom circumstance has thrust into the role of a hero.

As Chogyal, the saviour of monks and the stoic sufferer at the hands of Chinese torturers, I have courted quiet notoriety. In this bizarre little village of McLeod Ganj, my face is well known: the best place to hide is almost always in the open. The Tibetan government in exile applied for asylum on my behalf by. That asylum was granted while I travelled between Sikkim and Dharamsala. I can now travel through India as a Tibetan or a German.

The salient information from the case files now resides in my memory. I know the names and faces of the three monks who are most likely to be chosen to find the new Dalai Lama, three years after his death.

The world of the monk is a very male one. No female cunning leavens the easy confidences of this exclusive boys’ club. In the absence of crises and the incredible boredom of a life of study, gossip is usually the only source of entertainment. In McLeod Ganj, Gossip is rife and openly frank. Unearthing information requires little more than dropping a vague reference into a casual conversation with the right person, or someone with whom the right person shares gossip.

A hero recently escaped from Lhasa is courted by many who strive to purchase his friendship with information. I have allowed one man to feel himself chosen. At 33, he is the youngest of the prospective trio who will seek the next Great Liar. The other two have decamped to the southern Indian town of Mysore, where they are attached to the new Drepung monastery that has been established in the city. They are older. Both came to India with the Great Liar in 1959 and lived in the rarefied world of the Great Liar’s residence. They will be soft. If it becomes necessary, they will yield quickly and quietly to the skills of the torturer.

I leave tomorrow on the bus to Pathankot, the nearest city with a railway station. From there, I will change my identity, purchase new clothes and buy a train ticket to Bengaluru, in the name of my German alias. Foreigners who purchase a train ticket must produce a passport and my Tibetan self does not have one. The German should use his passport occasionally, in order to lend credence to his legend as a pilgrim.

In Bengaluru, the Tibetan hero will purchase a bus ticket to Mysore, since this purchase does not require a passport. He will arrive at dead of night and be given a covered place in which to unroll his bed. Then, Chogyal will study at the feet of two monks who share his reverence for the teachings of Go Khugpa. He will study the most holy Guhyasamarja Tantra and he will make arrangements for their last journey, years hence, to an anonymous house in the mountains of Karnataka province. In that house, chemical and physical inducements will be used to make them talk, not of Tantric rituals, but of the next great liar.

Even though it will not be required for years, arrangements for the delivery of equipment to the torture location have already been made. Only one man knows of the request and he will establish the impromptu torture chamber alone. His signal to do so will be the death of the Great Liar. The traffic accident that will kill him, once he has completed his task, has already been arranged. He will become one more of the thousands who die every day on India’s treacherous road system. The man driving the other car will not know the identity of the driver whom he will kill in the collision.

Now, perched on a stone sill, I look past the polished panes of the high window of my cell at a wall of crimson rock, illuminated by the early sun. My newest friend, Jampel Gyatso, sits beside me, his knees hunched to his chest under the thick woollen folds of the maroon robe. A maroon woollen hat is pulled tightly over his shaved head.

He fears the early morning cold, which I face bare-headed and clothed in the thin rags which have been the uniform of my ostensible humility since I arrived here. How can a man who is afraid to let the morning air touch his skin defend himself against torture? He has already betrayed his secret and his new king with bourgeois weakness. He disgusts me.

 

[ * ]

He is a reluctant hero, this man who sniffs the morning breeze as if it were his last taste of life. He is all the more likeable for that reluctance. In this peaceful little village, such a man rises quickly. Most would exploit this opportunity to live in the limelight, but he remains reclusive. He is the first to arrive at the daybreak meditation and stays long after everyone else has gone.

It is almost as if he is afraid of the recognition that awaits him in public places. Such a man, who saved three monks’ lives and seeks nothing but the opportunity to study and meditate, is a fresh example to us all. His self-imposed isolation makes him, at first blush, a suspicious presence, but he has all the attributes of a trustworthy confidante. Chogyal is a man about whom we all think twice, for he is one man and yet he is so many men. He is one of us, but he is not of us. The final decision to trust him is inevitable for us all. To trust him is to affirm his action and to admire his philosophy of cool remove and passionate engagement.

The friendship that he has bestowed upon me and only me, among us all, would have seemed too haughtily granted, had I not offered my own credentials. Now that they are known, it is a friendship of equals. Perhaps that is why I told him of my venerated position as a member of the inner court of the fourteenth Dalai Lama. I am sure that he would have discovered my status eventually, for little in this community is an absolute secret.

Between two such respected men, there can always be confidences, for those confidences are the constant verification of their positions of elevated equivalence. Lonely is the head that wears the crown and loneliness is a powerful disincentive to isolation.

He leaves tomorrow for the south. He has some tiny sum of money with which to travel, but no papers. He says that he will disappear among the Indians and travel on buses, so that his papers will not be requested. His journey is a pilgrimage of study and he puts his faith in his own destiny, which, he says, matches his destination. He seeks two fellow members of the inner court. I have sent my private greeting on his lips, so that he will be properly received by them.

Chogyal is my friend – a man to be trusted and helped, as he helped the strangers whom he found in a Lhasa cell. Because I too survived the long path from Lhasa, but could not save my companions, I am proud to be a part of the achievement that is his continuing survival and growth.

 

[ * ]

Evil is wished for me. I am sought as a quarry. I have felt it before, when the negotiations with the marauders were in progress, but now its intensity is consuming. I have not experienced such concentrated malevolence since my tenth host was murdered.

Evil shadows us here, in our mountainous refuge, in a land which is not our own. The host knows of it, for I have conveyed my sense of it. Like me, he is powerless to oppose it. He must await its physical manifestation and trust in the Great Mother’s plan for our salvation.

 

Chapter 6

Jonghe City

Taipei County

Taiwan

Friday, November 25^th^, 2016

It is time.

My host is ready for my leave-taking, as he has been for a long time now. I feel his tiredness, which is greater because our journey is almost without purpose now. He is the faithful servant, waiting to be dismissed by a demanding lord. Across the great Mother’s surface, the new host’s parents are stable. The female’s cycles are regular. Her body is ready for my new host. This time, when the moon is right, I will not prevent that life from starting.

When the being is established in his mother’s womb, I will have this host prepare his followers. He can feel my purpose and I feel his relief. When he prays alone in the darkness of the early mornings, his sadness is leavened by this relief. Our time together is short. He must prepare those who serve him for my absence from them. Almost a thousand cycles after his death, his envoys will begin to seek my new host. He will direct them, before he passes from this dimension. When the envoys come, the new host will be ready. The envoys will quell the parents’ fears. Soon after, I will be back among the devotees, who will have to cope with a very different host.

My destiny is mapped as surely as the progression of the stars across the night sky. There is no schedule, merely a sequence of events that must unfold as surely as the daily sunset that colours the mountains each day. When my next emanation ends and I finally leave this world, my duties to the fifteen beings who will have hosted my spirit will be fulfilled, just as they have fulfilled their duties to me. Our lord Buddha serenely awaits us all. Destinies that were plighted aeons ago will finally converge. This next phase is the most uncertain. I have the power to make the host a male and to influence matters, but his attributes will finally depend on the Great Mother’s selection of his father and mother’s talents.

The world that we inherit is imperfect to a degree that I have never experienced in fourteen incarnations. This new host will extend the boundaries of our influence to places where the message of moderation will be understood. The beings of the coming age will know penitence and regret.

 

[ * ]

Other Taiwanese want to work all day and all night and spend their money on jewellery and cars, but I like to paint and sing and be part of the world. Before, I had no one to share these thoughts with, but now I have a husband who thinks this way. I do not feel awkward talking to him about my dreams, in the way that I would if I were talking to a Taiwanese man.

I want a baby. Now is the time when I can give most to another human being. I have experience of life and love. Living with Mark has shown me that I can cook and look after myself and a husband. Why can’t I look after a baby too?

I hope that he has his mother’s heart and his father’s brain. Mark frustrates me because his mind never stops working. If only he could order his heart as well as his thoughts, he would be a happier man. On the other hand, if he could order his heart, he might not have fallen in love with me. It is better to be grateful for what we have than to wish for more.

Most days, we make love for a long time before sleeping. The pleasure of knowing that I am so wanted by a man is not something that I had ever anticipated. Taiwanese men are distant and haughty, but Mark is like a gardener in my heart, tending me and trying to understand me. I love being part of a couple. I love having someone to come home to, to come home for. Every evening is like a date. Every day is as exciting as a day with a date at the end. We have romance, good food and the warmth of each other.

My menstruation is almost a week late. I have not spoken to Mark about it, but I know that he has noticed. His mind only works in regular patterns and routines. If I do not put the coffee or tea back into the place where I found it, he cannot find it. Only his superstition – he says that Irish people are generally superstitious – saves him from being a robot. I like this. Everything else about my husband can be explained very logically, but his superstitions have absolutely no logical explanation.

We still make love every day. It is a habit now. Neither of us objects to the amount of time this habit takes. Our lovemaking is gentler, though. I think that Mark is afraid of damaging the baby that we both know is growing inside me. I do not know how to introduce the subject so that we can talk about it and celebrate. It is almost 8pm. Mark will be home soon.

In Taipei, autumn has the best weather. It has been sunny and warm all day. A heavy shower cleared the humidity about an hour ago. Now, our apartment feels fresh. Dinner is cooking in the oven and I am lying on the big red sofa, listening to Nick Drake and thinking about what music our baby will like.

In case the music he listens to in the womb is important, I want him to listen to good music for the nine months that he is inside me. I did not even think about this until Mark mentioned it, after we had made love a week ago. He wants to have someone to share his love for Irish traditional music. If I have to share a house with two fans of screaming violins and flutes, I will probably go mad. Nick Drake is a good alternative.

We have waited for two years for this gift of a child. I am more relieved than happy, at the moment. Now the future has a shape and purpose that I can recognise, because the future looks like my childhood. Everything will be fine. Mark always says that, but now I really believe it.

 

[ * ]

The standard Taiwanese solution to any problem is to ignore it and pray that it will disappear. I know that Hsiuling’s menstruation is a week late. I cannot concentrate at work, I’ve broken three plates in a week at home and on the two occasions that I’ve cooked dinner, I’ve burnt it. Hsiuling must know that her menstruation is late, but she will not talk about it. Her solution is typically Taiwanese: – she is doing nothing until someone else does. I do not have the patience for that tactic.

That’s why I’m in a pharmacy, trying to explain that I want to find the specific pregnancy testing kit that I researched this afternoon. It’s supposed to be the most accurate kit, as recommended by several pregnant women. I’m not sure if the recommendation is due to accuracy or the ability of the kit to give the good news of positive results. Women’s thought processes are a mystery to me.

None of that concerns me now. I am asking the owner of the pharmacy if she can help me to buy this particular brand of pregnancy testing kit. Her English is quite good, which is a blessing because my Chinese can still be inadequate in specialised situations such as this.

The pharmacist is a nice woman, but she has difficulty focusing on the task at hand. When I first explained my mission, her reaction was to giggle and clap her hands in front of her face several times. Now, she is gushing about the cuteness of children born of mixed race parents and guiding me away from the women’s aisle and towards the shop’s collection of accessories for new-borns. She does not realise that buying anything for the baby before the child is born will cause instant bad luck. That might be an Irish old wives’ tale, but I’m not taking any chances

There is a hat with bear ears, a hat with rabbit ears and a hat with cat ears. Each of the hats has a matching one-piece suit in bear brown, rabbit blue or pink and tabby stripes. Nobody is going to clothe my child in one of those. We do not even know if the child is here yet and she has constructed a Brad Pitt lookalike in a rabbit outfit that would not look out of place in a heroin trip. I pay for the test kit and run.

I’ve planned my pitch. I’ll wait until after dinner. It’s rosemary chicken tonight and I do not want to spoil it if the chemical oracle professes itself unconvinced of conception. I just need to concoct a suitable lie to explain why I am fifteen minutes late.

This is a feature of marriage for which I did not bargain. Single men arrive early or late, without interrogation. If a married man veers from his stated or expected schedule by more than 2%, there is an inquisition worthy of Cortez. I’m not the world’s best liar, so I need a story that is as close to the truth as possible. I’ll say that I had to stay behind after work to answer some questions. I do not have to mention that the questions came from a pharmacist.

The smell of rosemary, roasting chicken, garlic and honey is reaching beyond the closed door of our fifth floor apartment like an olfactory siren call. I have hidden the testing kit in the inside pocket of my jacket, wrapped in a bulky envelope.

The door swings outwards toward me and the warm light from the living room throws a broadening yellow trapezium across the white tiles of the gleaming balcony floor. Hsiuling has been cleaning.

The food smells intensify, as the rattling of the rice cooker’s lid in the kitchen becomes slowly evident above Nick Drake, who is working his way through “Thoughts of Mary Jane”. At least the child will have good musical taste. If it ever turned out to like this Taiwanese sentimental rubbish that fills the airwaves daily, I think I might disown it.

My jacket is in my hand. Hsiuling is reaching beyond the door, asking if she can take it. There is no electronic security check as thorough as my wife’s casual examination of my clothing when I arrive home. I try to be as relaxed as possible, when I hand the jacket past the gaping door and into the nimble hands of my wife. I’m bent over, standing on one foot to take my shoes off. She swoops down to kiss me and gauges the weight of the jacket in her hands, like a bomb disposal officer.

“What’s this in your pocket?”

I keep my eyes fixed on the balcony tiles as I fiddle with my shoelaces.

“It’s just some paperwork.”

Damn, I have prepared a lie to explain why I am late, but not to explain the bulkiness in my inside pocket. She has noticed the hesitancy in my voice and is allowing her fingers to press the offending pocket.

“There’s something else in here. I can feel something solid. What is it?”

To an innocent observer, her tone of voice would seem casual. To her husband of two years, the tone has all the informality of an SS interrogator, prior to pulling out a pair toenail pliers and a dental drill. The moment that it takes for me to react to the question might as well be six months. The next time she complains that I do not give her surprises, I will cite this incident as proof positive that surprises are impossible in the face of her frequent suspicious vigilance.

This will either be the best Rosemary chicken ever or the worst, depending on the colour of a plastic strip. I hope that she can pee before dinner. I do not want to sit through delicious rosemary chicken, worrying what this contemporary rune will reveal. If it is negative, the rosemary chicken will cheer us up. If it’s positive, I can drink more wine, because a nine-month ban on alcohol will be imposed on the cunning detective whom I have married.

“It’s a pregnancy kit. I couldn’t wait any longer. I have to know. Can you pee? Do you want me to watch the chicken while you try?”

It’s hardly the most romantic sequence of offers, but it is practical. I potter around the kitchen, trying to take my mind off the prospect of imminent fatherhood and thinking of nothing else. Minutes later, Hsiuling’s radiant smile lights up the kitchen.

“I’m pregnant, Mark.”

Oh God, I hope it’s not a girl. Until now, I really wanted a girl, but girls have to have boyfriends and I would probably have to murder at least one of them. Boys are an easier prospect. Please let it be a boy.

My face does not betray these wishes. Instead it emits a beaming smile, while my arms encircle the body of my wife and our unborn child, hopefully a son or a lesbian.

We hug for a very long time. The hug is followed by a very long kiss. The kiss is followed by rosemary chicken, rice and baked broccoli in garlic. There is also a generous Bordeaux for one. It is the best rosemary chicken ever. Eventually, Hsiuling decides that the alcohol ban can wait another day.

In an unusual triumph of female, Taiwanese logic over male, European common sense, she reasons that since she has been drinking alcohol irregularly since the conception, one more glass will not be terminal. I have no defence for this circular logic, so I pour her a half glass and refill my own. We sip the wine and entertain our private dreams in silence.

Maybe a nun with an early inclination towards chastity – say, at three years old – would be nice.

 

Chapter 7

Jonghe City

Taipei County

Taiwan

Friday, January 27^th^, 2017

Chinese New Year’s Eve

Being pregnant is beautiful. A life is growing inside me. I feel that I am a little fatter, but Mark does not seem to have noticed. I do not drink alcohol or coffee, because they are harmful to the baby. I do walk more, because exercise is good for the baby and for me. I do not ride my bike, because my mama thinks it will bring on a premature birth.

I want to make a comfortable home for all of us here, in this small apartment, and have a gentle pregnancy, so that my child can be warm and happy and comfortable.

Last week, I had my first scan. Mark did not want to ask the doctor about the sex, but there was another surprise.

 

[ * ]

This is the most imperfect of my fourteen transfers between hosts. The parents are unstable; they disagree much more regularly than is normal. The land, in which I will spend the period before the envoys come for me is unstable in the extreme. The Great Mother Earth shakes regularly. The lords who control this island are very close to the marauders who usurped us from our land, many cycles ago. I fear for the safety of the host, if they discover his identity.

At least, I am sure that the next host will be male, which is the most important aspect of the regeneration. As he grows inside his mother, I feel her strength and kindness. I also feel his father’s sense of purpose in him. The dulled sounds from beyond the warm pink cavity where he is forming are forming him. He likes music, although he does not know why. The music calms him.

The sound of his mother’s voice comes in the song of her strange, melodic tongue. Sometimes, the flat monotone of the father’s tongue seeps into his world. The father’s voice is not so strong, but the way that it makes the mother feel is evident in the rhythm of her heart.

The father’s voice calms her, so it calms the child. The child will be a happy one. That will make the task of leading him easier, for his present happiness means that he will be born to trust.

He feels my presence, but he does not yet sense my purpose. Now is not the time for that. I can only bind with one human at a time. Since I continue to be bound to my present host, I must wait to bind with this one. It will not be long until we are one, for my present host is even now preparing himself and his aides for his last great journey.

His envoys will know how to find me. Their search will be brief. When they come, I will be ready for them and we will fly to the land that we have inherited and the landscape that I know.

 

[ * ]

I was born in the year of the Tiger. Mark is a rabbit. Our son will be a rooster. Our daughter will also be born a rooster.

When the doctor passed the scanner over the liquid on my stomach, I asked him to tell me the sex of my child, but quietly, because my husband prefers a mystery. I asked him using the Taiwanese language, because although Mark’s Mandarin Chinese is becoming pretty good, he still has no knowledge of Taiwanese.

The picture on the screen was confusing. Then, fate intervened. When the doctor turned on the speaker, we all heard the second heart. We are to have twins. The news of twins made Mark forget about my chat with the doctor. His face looked worried at first, because he always thinks of disadvantages before advantages.

One is a boy and the other a girl. I feel awkward, now that I know and cannot share the information with anyone, but it is a small burden to carry and I must only carry it for seven more months.

Tonight is a special night. The New Year begins tomorrow and everything suddenly seems possible. Tomorrow, we will go to Hualien, on the east coast, to celebrate the New Year. My family has arranged to rent a guesthouse. My older brother and older sister will be there, with their sons and daughters. My unmarried sister will also be there.

My mother and father love this time. For two days we will be a big family again. Taiwanese companies do not allow many holidays, so we have to take advantage of the few holidays that we get. My family is very important, so I love spending this special time with them.

I wish that Mark enjoyed it more. He is mostly bored, but he disguises it well. He hates karaoke and it is our favourite entertainment in the evening. New Year is my favourite time. Maybe some day, Mark and I will be the mother and father who are glad to see their children and grandchildren for a couple of days.

That thought feels like warm rice porridge inside me.

 

McLeod Ganj,

  • Dharamsala,*

Uttar Pradesh Province,

India,

Friday, February 27^th^, 2017

These past two years have been lonely, without my friend, Chogyal. I am a simple monk. My temporal life has been a straight line from my birth in Markham, in the land of the Khamba, in eastern Tibet, through the monastery of Ganden, outside Lhasa, to McLeod Ganj. My spiritual path has been elliptical, as I constantly veered between apogees of acceptance and perigees of rebellious selfishness.

Twelve years ago, after a Chinese pogrom in Lhasa in which five of my brother monks disappeared, I travelled over the mountains to Dharamsala with two older monks. That journey of two months, through winter’s worst storms, cost me two toes on my right foot and the end of each forefinger. The numbness of frostbite was more frightening than any cold that I have endured. Feeling, even pain, is a statement of life and its loss can only be a precursor to death. The fear for my own life was a perigee. I did not even have the faith to pray for acceptance.

Both of my older companions died on a glacier, when we lost our way. The ice crusted robes that I took from their hard bodies kept me just warm enough to reach a green valley. When a local woman found me, huddled by a tree, she spoke the language of Sikkim. When she left, I was certain that I would die soon. When I next awoke, the diaphanous yellow light and familiarly sour reek of butter fat candles was as welcome as the low hum of the diamond sutra, which was being chanted by the six monks who surrounded me.

The warmth of the dark room could not penetrate my skin. My body trembled for days; whether it was with fear or cold I will never know. A frozen kernel of the winter storm that killed my brothers lived in my body and has always remained there, perfectly preserved by the ice that raised it. That cold within me is the force that has driven me on a path of study that others mistook for acceptance, but which only I recognise as the malevolent vigour of guilt.

When the Dalai Lama met me, as he does all those who cross the perilous mountains, I could not speak; I could only cry. I do not remember what he said, for my sobs drowned his comfort. Others may have seen my tears as an emanation of my relief, but I wept for the loss of my soul and the loss of innocence, when my brothers died and I lived. I wept for the growing guilt that swamped a spirit too feeble to forgo life and accept death, as the Lord Buddha taught.

The zeal with which I attacked my studies was interpreted as a wholesome thanksgiving for my deliverance. My fiercely uncompromising diligence in my rehabilitation became an example to teachers and students in Dharamsala. My ostensibly exemplary discipline came to the attention of my superiors and I gradually attained more senior status in the Norbulingka monastery, which had taken me in when I arrived.

The next time that I had an audience with the Dalai Lama, the great man invited me to join the inner conclave of devotees who serve his office. It is the highest honour for a humble monk and the most inappropriate of gifts for an unworthy, inadequate wretch, such as myself.

I am a man to be respected, only because of the patronage of one who commands greater respect. I thrive in a shadow. While he is not here, I am exposed to the witheringly truthful glare of direct scrutiny by my fellows, whose respect I crave, whose indulgence is demanded by the weaknesses of my past.

 

[ * ]

I am back in Dharamsala. In Mysore, I have studied with the elderly teachers for nearly two years. My legend is secure. To know Chogyal is to know a diligent and indulgent student of the two old teachers, who has a glorious past as a saviour of maroons in Lhasa. When the Great Liar summoned my teachers from Mysore to this den of pious intrigue, it was natural that I should accompany them.

The Chinese spies in their government have come to know of the Great Liar’s preparations for death. The two old fools and the younger coward have been summoned to his side, recruited as hunters for the new Liar. This pathetic threesome will guard his secret for two years. The great liar will wait until the end to impart his information. I will linger here, until he is dead and I am sure that the information has been passed. Only then will I strike.

I hate these pitiable drones with their arcane rituals. I hate their pathetic philosophy of forbearance, but I must don the same forbearing mind-set, as I wait among them for the Great Liar to choose my victims.

 

[ * ]

The Great Mother Earth has been kind to me. When I first detected the other life sharing the warm space with my new host, it was as if the future had been erased and a new truth would need to be constructed. Now, I see that the presence of the other only reinforces the inescapable destiny that I will face with my last host.

When the time comes for him to be separated from his parents, they will have the consolation of another child to comfort them. The other is a female. She will not remind them of their lost son as intensely as a second son might. The Great Mother Earth is kind – both to me and to the parents.

 

Chapter 8

Jonghe City

Taipei County

Taiwan

Saturday, April 29^th^, 2017

This malignant presence still inhabits my destiny. Somewhere, evil is meant for me. That evil will be visited on the new host. I must push him to a place of greater safety. I must impart this presence to the spirits of the parents, so that they can remove the new host to a haven. They already have plans for such a move. I must find a way to hasten their actions, so that the new host can be born in a safer place.

The mother is calm. She is governed by her acceptance of the Great Mother’s plan. She lives in peace with her guiding spirit. Their bond is difficult to break. The father’s relationship with his spirit is not so balanced. He lives in confusion because he is in conflict with his wiser guide. He seeks reasons to be unhappy. I will exploit his confusion and channel it for my own purposes. Both he and his spirit will react to the fear that I will share with them. He will explain his reaction as his own preference, for he has long ago forgotten that greater forces shape all destinies.

 

Teách mo Mhámaí

10km north of Hualien City,

Taiwan, East Coast,

Monday, June 5^th^, 2017

When the babies are born, my mother can help us for a month. This is our Taiwanese tradition, called Yue Dze. For a month after the birth, I will not wash my hair and my mother will come and cook special food for me. She will also help Mark and I to look after the babies for the first month of their lives. It is difficult to have a new baby and my mother has had four, so she must know more than us. Mark has decided that we need to move to Hualien now.

We have been very lucky. Two years ago, almost as soon as we began to look for land, we found this perfect place just outside the city. We used the profits from Mark’s consultancy business. Now we can build a guesthouse with a large garden. The new guesthouse will be called “Teách mo Mhámaí”. The name means “My Mammy’s house”. It’s a Gaelic phrase, but when it is translated into Chinese characters it sounds very cute. Because Mark is Irish, we want the place to have an Irish theme. It has always been my dream to have a guesthouse or a coffee shop.

I always thought that it was a great idea to move to Hualien. I just do not think that now is the right time to move. The old house where we are living is fine for a short time. It is very ugly, but Taiwanese never build pretty houses. It will probably take four months to complete our guesthouse. Once we complete it, we can knock down the old house. I just do not think that we should be doing this while we have to look after very young babies. It seems that we are making a difficult situation even more difficult.

We could not even talk about it. When we tried, I could only think about what my mother would think about her daughter moving away, two months before the babies were due, and I wanted to cry for her and myself. She must think that we are trying to get away from her. Because I could only think about my mother’s reaction, I could not argue well with Mark. Because I could not argue, I said nothing.

By the time I was able to cope with the initial shock, it was too late to do anything about the move. The papers to change the purpose of the land were signed within two weeks and we paid the fee in cash. Some of the materials for the new guesthouse had already been delivered. If we did not go, they would have been stolen.

I think that Mark feels trapped in my family. It is the only reason I can find to explain why he dragged us away from them, to this place, 200km away. We are friendly people. My family does not have many rules. We welcome people and we never ask for anything in return. I do not think that he trusts that. He once told me that people only appreciate what they pay for and that the more they pay, the more appreciative they are. My family’s friendship comes free of charge, so perhaps Mark does not appreciate us. Maybe if we made things more difficult for him, he would be forced to find a way to fit in with us, but that is not our way.

Mark needs rules. I think that it’s a symptom of his autism, which forces him to seek order and patterns. Without these, he is without any reference and without reference he cannot make his plans. My family do not have any rules, so he feels lost around us. I feel sorry for this lonely man who does not know that an offer of friendship comes without conditions. He really needs to relax and discover that rules can be ignored in a friendship. Until he does, I fear that he will always be lonely.

I do not love Mark because he is perfect. I love him because he is imperfect and I think that I can help him. Today, he is making it very difficult for me or anyone else to help him. He seems to be caught in a loop, like a frozen computer. Until he pulls himself out of the loop, I have to go along with him.

Since the start of my pregnancy, life has been less stable. I was still working, even though my bump was really big. Mark still worked at home for his consultancy business. We had enough money, but we were not stable. We do not sleep enough any more, so we do not have energy to talk about our problems. At the end of each day, we shower and fall into bed, barely able to muster the energy for a good night kiss. Mark massages my back, which always seems to be painful, and I try not to waken him when I have to go to the toilet every hour.

I do not trust the silence. Neither of us knows how to break it. I do not know how to solve this problem. I wish that it would go away and allow us to enjoy the birth of our son and daughter.

When the present overwhelms me and I start to panic, I make myself think about which baby will come first. It concentrates my attention completely and makes me calm. When I am calm, the babies are calm. If I am stressed, they kick harder. I do not want them to grow up to worry all of the time. Mark worries about everything. Even thinking about how intense he is makes me tired. Now, it is my duty to remain calm for the four of us.

I am a vessel. I need to take all of this trouble and find a way to cope with it. I cannot change anything. When Mark is like this, he is a force that cannot be stopped easily. I just have to wait for him to get tired and then I can negotiate. I hope he gets tired before the birth.

A week ago, we drove from Taipei to here. The journey was uncomfortable, because we do not own a fancy car. It is a sixteen-year old Mini. Mark bought it in Taipei with the first profits from his consultancy business. The car is typical of our life. Mark is too tall for it. It is manual and I prefer an automatic car. But our little Mini is cute and makes both of us smile. It is completely impractical.

Taipei is one of the most humid, hot places in the world and we have no air conditioning. It was not even cheap, but it is part of us somehow; it speaks to us. Every time we travel through the summer heat, I want to complain and then I remind myself that I am lucky to have a car, at all. Mark never lets anyone else fix it. He disappears for a couple of hours once a month and returns with black arms and oil stains on his pants, but his smile on those days is beautiful. He is like a boy. Our little car is like a part of him and I love it for that alone. We adapt to this car, like we adapt to everything. We are like reeds in a river, bending before a greater force. This car is in us and we are in it. It seems like a part of our destiny.

During the long journey, I sat quietly and enjoyed the hot, humid wind in my face, the tiny windscreen that tightly framed my beautiful country’s landscape like a miniature movie screen and the slight smell of oil that never completely disappears and is my husband’s mark on the little car.

Today, the wind smells a little of the sea. Every day, it combs the green bushes at the kitchen window and makes them shiver. The air is fresh here and the nights are quiet. I thought that silence would feel lonely, but it floats above us like an umbrella. It lets the world come in at the sides. This is a good place to raise children.

It’s not so bad, living here. The old house is ugly outside, but inside our furniture makes it seem like a home. Mark painted the living room and the bedroom on the first day. He has been very active, since we arrived.

Every day, since last Monday, when we arrived, Mark has woken at 5.30 and worked non-stop until sunset, at about 6.30, when he cooks dinner for us. He has painted every room a different colour, cleaned the kitchen so that it shines, mended the windows, set up our big western stove and even cleared all of the weeds from the balcony so that I can sit outside in the afternoons and drink cool lemonade in the shade. I think that our life here will be better than our life in Taipei, eventually.

Because he works all day and cooks breakfast and dinner, he is exhausted at bedtime, so he sleeps all night. Even when I get up to go to the toilet, he just keeps breathing deeply. In the mornings, he wakens before the alarm clock chirps and makes me cinnamon tea, before he goes to work. It is like living with a stranger, sometimes. I have never seen him, or anyone else, work this hard. I love him for his passion and now he has a new project about which to be passionate.

He has spent all day constructing an apology for his behaviour and now he is ready to punish himself with it. He did not even come back for lunch. I do not think that he has eaten all day. I wish he would not do this to us. I hate confrontations. This type of apology is a confrontation. He thinks that he has done wrong by dragging us both here and that he will make things better if he makes himself look as bad as possible. I do not need that. This is for his benefit. It makes me so angry. If I did not know that he thought that he was doing this for my benefit, I would go ahead and scream at him.

Mark once told me that, because he is autistic, the only method that he has to moderate his behaviour is to watch others’ behaviour and repeat it. I can only assume that, somewhere in his past, he watched this behaviour and assumes that it is the safest way to apologise.

My husband is a strange and difficult man. He is, more than anyone else I know, totally defined by the sum of his experiences with humanity. He has no internal reference that allows him to react. He will learn my behaviour, my needs, but first he must set aside the memories of others’ needs.

Because of his condition, my husband remembers others’ reactions to emotions that he cannot express. His memory is his soul. He must sacrifice a part of his soul, when he sacrifices a memory. That decision must come slowly. I must be patient with him, as he struggles with the parts of his life that he must forsake so that he may learn the new routines of his life with me.

Mark appreciates memory more than kindness. I must respect that and try to improve my own memory, to be worthy of his, as he tries to be worthy of my soul. To be kind to him, I must never forget that we keep our souls in different parts of our bodies. When I forget this part of our relationship, I become angry because I forget that he is a slave to his memory, not his heart. My need to scream lasts only as long as it takes to remember that my husband is not like me, just as I am not like him.

So I will not scream. I have learned that I always lose when I scream. I scream, because I forget about his condition and I bitterly regret the scream when I remember. I will be silent for a few more moments and look at the floor, while I remember. I have no interest in the floor, but I do not want to look into his eyes, because I do not like to feel the power that their pleading gives me. Please let this finish soon and we can have dinner and get back to normal.

The twins have suddenly become still. They were playing basketball in there while I was lying on the sofa. I am not complaining, because the most wonderful experience of my life is to feel three lives inhabiting my body. Now, I am sure that they are listening to this exchange and using it to learn about their father. I want them to be kind to him, so I must be kind. Pay attention little ones.

“It doesn’t matter, sweetheart. It only matters that things are better now. I think that we are going to be OK. Don’t worry.”

I won’t tell him that the past four months have been very worrying and stressful for me, because I have had to remain calm and agreeable, for the twins’ sake. I won’t tell him that I must swallow a lot of the words that I want to say, because saying them would do neither of us any good. I will be silent and enjoy the feel of his arms around me and forget about the past. The twins are shifting into a more comfortable position, or maybe it is a better position to feel their father’s stomach press against mine as he holds me.

“Did you feel that?”

Of course I felt it. Does he think that I do not feel what goes on in my own body? If he can feel it, doesn’t he realise that I must be able to feel it? Are all men this stupid?

“I felt it too, dear. I think they are hungry. I know that their mother is. I bought some river fish at the market. You can make your sauce and then have a shower, while it’s baking.”

And it is over. Four months of tension and circling each other like courting porcupines is finished. With few words, we are back where we started, except that we now live in a different place and our lives are about to change beyond any recognition. I suppose that it is right that we should wipe the slate clean. The twins will sleep before dinner. I think that I will too.

 

[ * ]

Our arguments are always like this. Because we are both still struggling with expressing ourselves in our own language and thinking about how it will sound in another, we find that it is easier to say less. Misunderstandings multiply with the amount of words we use.

I made a tall stool for her today, so that she can sit while she cooks. I saw how difficult it was for her to work last night. The varnish has not dried yet. I enjoyed making it for the pure joy of constructing something, but mainly because it is solving a real problem. I’ll put it in the kitchen tomorrow morning, before she wakens. She’ll like that better than a big ceremonial presentation. So will I; we are well suited to each other.

Hsiuling is asleep, as I prepare dinner. A collection of piano sonatas is playing on the CD. It’s a good musical influence for the kids. The smell of coriander is creeping around the room as the fish bakes. The rice cooker is rattling manically. The olive oil hisses, when I throw the garlic into it. These sounds and smells are the familiar touchstones of my new life.

I think we’re going to be alright.

 

Chapter 9

Dalai Lama’s Residence,

  • Dharamsala,*

Sunday, August 6^th^, 2017

11.10pm

It is time. This body is ready. His spirit is totally prepared.

As the breast falls for the last time, the eyes register the horizontal ring of angst-ridden faces, above the bed.

His spirit recoils in the body, when it recognises me. It does not know what to do. The force that beckons it onward is insistent. I can sense it, even though I am not influenced by it.

We face each other for the first time since his birth. He feels my enthusiasm for the new life as keenly as he senses his own relief to be done with this one.

The moment vanishes between us. Time becomes immeasurable in a physical sense. It becomes the very substance of our existence. We are the tiny divisions of the cycles that measure the Great Mother’s path.

He is gone and I am gone. In the same instant, he is defined by the precise end of his life and I am already my next self. The body begins its slow decomposition. The faces around it show no real understanding.

 

Inside the Mini

Highway 9 to Hualien hospital,

130kph,

Sunday, August 6^th^, 2017

11.10pm

In my new body, there is life and energy that I have not felt in many cycles. This instrument of my duty is pulsing with purpose. The body beside us feels my presence and is wary.

She is wise, perhaps wiser than her brother. She will be the last to leave the warm confines of her mother’s womb. We will be first.

There is an insistent percussion of hearts. Three rhythms are struggling for supremacy. The mother’s painful cries are just outside our world. Now, I am the guide. I am in control.

We are shaking. We are moving very quickly across the Great Mother. There is another pulse – a precise rhythm that can only come from a machine. The father’s voice is clear and calm, through the thin, stretched drum skin of her abdomen.

He guides the machine, as I guide his son. Our destination is one. It is the last time that my birth can happen. The mother is whimpering softly now. We all feel her pain. The sister, the host and I are consumed by the imperative to exist.

It is time.

 

Hualien Hospital

Monday, August 7^th^, 2017

12.40am

The world outside the contorting tube is white and featureless. The single pulse is cacophonous after the constant arrhythmic hammering of the three pulses in the womb. The suck and ebb of the sound is distinct now. The host is gripped with panic, as he forces his way along the tube. In a short time we will be free of the tube. The female is pushing us into the world.

The first feeling is cold. After the constant, comfortable warmth of the mother, the shock of it is frightening. An almost unbearable constant prickling of the host’s flesh is concentrating our attention. How could I forget this shock? How could the memory have receded, beyond recall?

There is still no vision beyond the white cold blur, but there is a gradually developing confusion of sound. This is the territory of control. The host must learn about control and I must exert control over him. These few instants will define our relationship for the remainder of our existence together.

Be calm, little one. Acceptance will come. The cold will abate and you will be subsumed by the feel and smell of your mother’s skin. I am with you, so you will not be alone. This will pass. In a moment you will hear the sound of your own cries, from within. They will drown the sounds from outside this carcass in which we dwell.

He is suddenly distracted by my strange communication. He knows me and yet I am an unknown being. Just as suddenly, his cries fill his body, as I promised they would. He finds comfort in their staccato.

Through the cold, the cries, the blinding white blur and the new smells of not-mother, the feeling of not-inside, he clings to my calmness, as we wait for the mother to hold us again, wait for her smell and her soft sound.

The mother is occupied with the second being, who is forcing her way into this maelstrom. The mother is crying loudly. He knows that it is her voice and he responds with his, but she cannot take him, because the second one is coming.

Now there is another new feeling, as something is passed across our skin. The wetness abates with the passing and with it some of the cold, but still we are catatonic in this world.

The coming of the second one is a gift from the Great Mother Earth. She has given me time to be alone with this being.

Now, comes the cry of the second one. He immediately knows the noise, even though it is unknown to him. He is not listening to me. Suddenly, we are not one and it is my turn to feel panic, as he seeks the familiar and abandons the mysterious.

He turns his head and writhes, feeling the new air prickle his torso and crying harder for her, for both of them. I am alone, cast out from this threesome of beings who seek each other and only each other.

I must be calm. He must feel my calm, my authority.

The second one is there, next to the mother’s skin, when we finally touch it. She is gasping and wet. The wetness smears this body and the prickling cold returns. He does not care. He only cares about what he needs.

The mother’s soft sound is soothing my host and the other. Now there is calm, once more, except for the noise of this place, which dins inexorably and echoes with the singing tongue of the marauders from the north.

There is loneliness in this confining blur of white and noise, but belonging, in the smell of the mother, belonging such as I cannot offer. I can only offer guidance and dependence.

Until the host is separated from this group, I can do little but wait and watch. The envoys will come all too soon and we will be alone, my host and I, in the company of the group that I have assembled for my last duty. It is my duty to the beings who deserted the cool lands, so that I might be safe.

This emanation is the last karmic exchange of my time wandering the Great Mother’s skin.

 

Hualien Hospital,

Monday, August 7^th^, 2017

12.50am

The pain was terrible. I cannot describe it, in English or Chinese.

The worst of it is over now. I never want to be in that much pain again. I can still feel my heart hitting my bones. There is a great emptiness inside me. The placenta is coming. It is soft and warm, so there will be no pain. I know this and yet I still dread it. My lower body is shocked into numbness. I feel as though I have shit myself. I do not want to look at the doctor’s eyes; I am so ashamed. The sheet is so covered with liquid and blood that no one seems to care what else is on it.

The babies are on my chest. They feel heavy. How could I not notice their weight for all these months that they were inside me? The afterbirth is coming quickly. I will be clean soon.

A salty layer of old sweat covers my skin. I cannot remember what it feels like to be clean. Mark is smoothing my hair, but it does not feel comfortable. It feels as though he is pushing the sweat that sticks to it back inside my body. His hand is too strong. I want to move it away, but my arm will not move. I am exhausted.

The babies are so heavy. They are moving. I hope that someone is holding on to them, because my arm does not feel like a part of my body. The nurse is raising the bed slightly. Now I see my arm, wrapped around the babies, my babies. It must be a reflex. I do not remember putting it there.

The world inside my body seems so far away from the world outside that I wonder if the two worlds will ever connect again. There is just me, the babies and the remains of the huge pain, gathered on the edge of a cliff. Everything else seems to have fallen over the cliff.

In an instant, I fall off the cliff and join everything, again. The world is collapsing on me, or I am collapsing on it. After the short time of imagined silence and peace, there is a wall of sound, immediate wetness and coldness between my legs and under my bottom. The doctor and nurses are talking happily and Mark is laughing like a maniac.

Only the tiny second of eye contact with the baby on the right shuts out everything else. I feel guilty that I do not know which baby is which, or even their names. They are two little strangers, clutching me, unable to see the reaction that their eyes make in mine. I want to be alone with them, to feel them and nourish them.

“When can we go home, Mark? I do not like this place. I want to be at home. Bring us all home.”

I cannot see anything now. Tears are making the world a smear of colour and white light. I have no words to describe what I’m feeling or the expression of those feelings. Are the tears for relief or joy? I do not know. I do not mind if we do not go home. I just do not want to be in this inhuman hospital room, under its fierce light, perched on its rough sheets with my new babies.

This is no way to come into the world. I want to curl up on the sofa and hear the rice cooker rattle and smell new bread in the oven. I want my babies to feel welcome in this world, not frightened. This place frightens me, so I think that they are petrified. For once, I am glad that I am married to an arrogant westerner.

 

Teách mo Mhámaí

Monday August 7^th^, 2017

11am

The babies were born at 12.40am and 12.43am. Dára, our son, came first. Aoífe, our daughter, came second. His name means second born, but I like the sound of it, so he will have to live with the inaccuracy.

Aoífe is the Gaelic form of Eve. When we try to say it in Chinese, it sounds pretty and the characters are very feminine. We named them both when we were driving home from the hospital. My mother has been trying to convince us to let her name the babies, on the advice of a shaman. The right name can bring luck and wealth.

The doctor was angry with us for leaving, but I do not care. It is right for us to be here, where we can give our children a comfortable place to learn about the world. We did not even have a safe place to keep them on the drive home. Because Mark was so superstitious about buying things before they were born, we have very few of the things that we need. It does not matter. Dára only seems to need milk. Aoífe does not drink so much. My breasts are sore. No one told me that they would be so sore.

Now, we are all resting on the big red sofa. At my right side, a bright, green cushion, the colour of a guava, braces us from falling. In the kitchen, Mark is unpacking a box of clothes, which he picked up this morning at a small store in the city. I paid for them, but did not bring them home, so that Mark would not worry about the bad luck that they would bring.

He has just made some coffee and he is heating some scones that he baked yesterday. For us, this is the smell of home. I have not been able to drink coffee since I discovered that I was pregnant, but I still love the smell. Mark normally drinks tea; he only drinks coffee when he is really tired. I do not think that he has slept at all. He says that he’ll take a nap, if we all stay asleep, so I am making myself calm so that the babies will not waken.

I love being a mother. It feels like the realisation of my destiny. Mark is taking longer to get used to the idea of being a parent. He struggles against everything. It’s almost as if he doesn’t want to yield to anything that does not completely destroy or overcome him.

The pain of the birth is behind me now. Only its aftermath remains. I want to make the experience of parenting worth that pain. I am going to enjoy being a mother, with all of my heart. I hope that Mark can somehow make himself enjoy our children. I am afraid that he will begin worrying soon and that their childhoods will be gone before he realises that he should be enjoying instead of worrying.

Dára is wriggling closer to Aoífe. She is perfectly still. When he touches her arm, she nudges it a little closer to him. This is my daughter’s first act of kindness to my son, who seems to like to get his own way. He is like his father. She is like me. I love getting to know them like this. They are strangers as much as they are old friends. There is nothing to do but observe them.

I can see Mark finishing up in the kitchen. He is pointing at a scone, covered in the fresh guava and apple jam that I made last Saturday evening, just before the contractions began. I nod that I want it.

The contractions lasted for almost thirty hours. I did not measure the time, but Mark did. When he has a number to attach to something, it seems to make more sense. He is very precise. He drove us to the hospital when the time between contractions reached exactly four minutes. We decided, long ago, that we wanted to spend as little time in the hospital as possible. I went to see the delivery room, as part of our pre natal classes. It was a beautifully warm, summer afternoon, but the room felt cold and inhospitable. It had probably been designed by a man. Our home is cosy and warm. There is softness everywhere. That is what babies need.

 

[ * ]

It feels like the first day in a new job. I’m running around trying to find things to do. Hsiuling feeds the babies and I try to feed Hsiuling. I picked up new clothes for them and ordered two car seats for the Mini. When I came home, the house was clean, so I heated up some scones and brewed some coffee.

I’m really tired. I have not slept since I awoke early on Saturday morning. I’ve been awake for 53 hours, but I did not give birth to twins in that time, so I’m in no position to complain or expect any sympathy.

They’re sleeping on Hsiuling’s stomach and breast. I used to do that. They learn the good positions early.

The birth means a whole new life for the four of us. When I look at these two little strangers who cling to their mother and wriggle suspiciously when I hold them, I do not feel part of them. I feel responsible for them, but I feel a distance between us. I do not see that distance between them and their mother, thank God.

I wish that I knew what was wrong. I can look after Hsiuling, without problems, but I do not seem to have a role with these two. I am superfluous. I cannot talk to Hsiuling about this. It will just have to work itself out. I hope that it works itself out soon: Hsiuling’s mother is coming tomorrow and then the divide can only grow. I’m going to have a snooze on the floor beside them. Maybe sleep will clear my mind.

 

[ * ]

How can a mere infant cause such distress? It has never been this difficult to coalesce with the host. On fourteen occasions, I have successfully intervened between the host and his mother and assumed the role of spiritual guide with ease. This one is struggling. He has great strength, even at this early stage. He is wilful and he looks to his sister for support against me. She is suspicious. She still feels my presence as an intrusion.

In time, she will forget me, as will the host. I will become a distant but authoritative voice within him; a voice that he will assume to be his own. She will forget me as an imagined presence.

The host is attached to her in a way that precludes any attachment to me, at present. This situation is confusing. I am at an impasse. Destiny has decreed that I be here and yet the conditions for the completion of my task are impossible to create.

As they sleep together on the mother’s body, he reaches for her and she responds with the slightest touch. He is elated by the reaction. He is weak in a way that I cannot exploit in my present form. She is strong in a way that I will never defeat. They are two halves of one whole. They are dependent on each other and on the mother. The mother is dependent on them.

This dependence should weaken each individual, but the impenetrable nature of its bond makes them strong. I cannot commit a cruelty, so I cannot break that which defines them. I have no experience that allows me to best this situation. I can only meditate patiently and wait for my opportunity to assert myself.

Destiny is a powerful force, whose path is not always the one that we would choose for ourselves. The host and I await the unity of souls, but I can learn much during my wait. I will observe, while he contemplates the gift of our destined path.

 

1pm

I know that Aoífe needs me, but I feel that Dára needs me more. He was alone for three minutes, while his sister was coming into the world. For the first three minutes of this life, he had no one. I cannot imagine what it is like to learn about loneliness so young.

I feel guilty. It is not my fault, but I feel guilty anyway. I love Aoífe and she is sure of my love in return, but what about poor little Dára? What does he think of a mother who squirted him into that room and then abandoned him for three minutes?

I am still holding them both, waiting for Mark to waken. He is asleep on the floor. He will jump if I try to leave the sofa. It is like having a very big guard dog.

I am stuck on the comfortable soft red island of the sofa. I can feel Aoífe’s arm, draped across mine, but I feel Dára’s strong grip, like a soft claw. He needs me. To be needed is a beautiful and honourable feeling. Need brings people together and keeps them together. The one who is needed must be kinder than the one who needs. I will always be giving to Dára and he will always take from me, or his sister.

We are the lucky ones because we can give and there is no end to our giving. I am grateful for a daughter who can do without me sometimes and a son who cannot. How would I cope if they both needed me, all of the time?

Nature has a wonderful way of helping.

 

Part 2

 

With surgical caution, connivance congeals the membrane of secrecy

that blurs the intruder’s form and makes an obscure myth of fear.

 

Chapter 10

McLeod Ganj,

Monday August 7^th^, 2017

  • Dharamsala,*

India

It is sixteen hours since the spirit of the Bodhisattva Chenrezig, whom the Indians call Avalokiteshvara, left this place, to be reborn in strange and perilous circumstances.

Even chanting his name, Hom Mani Bei Me Hom, repeatedly will not stop my mind from racing to an image of his future murder. This vision of his final death manifested itself in my mind as soon as I saw the last compression of the frail breast, beneath the saffron coloured robe.

I am charged, along with two of my fellows, with finding the next emanation of the Bodhisattva. We will follow the strange instructions that this Dalai Lama gave in his last days. We are to observe certain characteristics and make certain overtures that will allow us to identify the Fifteenth emanation and allow him to make himself known to us.

If it were not for the wisdom that this great man exhibited during every moment of this existence, I would have thought him to be exhibiting mild senility in his last hours. I am unsettled. I seek acceptance in the chanting of the Bodhisattva’s name. Let my vision be an aberrant whim of imagination.

Yet, even now he is beyond our care and the benefits of our sacrifice. He is truly alone and temporarily unmatched to the challenge of the world he inherits. Unwittingly, I have framed my solitary meditation in a prayer for his deliverance from evil. For the first time in my life, I know real fear for another being. My heart is consumed, not with love and acceptance of the role bestowed on me, but with guilt. To leaven this burden of guilt, I cultivated hatred for the Chinese barbarians, who forced us to flee, caused the death of my companions and cost me my soul.

Along with two others, I will go forth from this place on the eve of the year of the pig, which is the second year of earth and is in the second month of the western year 2019. At that time, the Bodhisattva Chenrezig will have attained the power to assert himself and to recognise some aspects of his past emanation. When he reveals himself to us, we will bring him to McLeod Ganj, where the process of verification will be enacted. Only then will my two brothers and I be released from our duty of care to ourselves and to our secret.

We will not meet again until the day that we begin our journey. Our separation ensures that at least one of us will remain alive to make the search, if any calamity should affect us. Only we three know the secret of the new emanation’s place and the means of his accession. My two brothers are worthy men – more worthy than I. If any trouble should befall us, please let it fall on my head, my soul. My release from this most holy of tasks, for which I am pusillanimously unworthy, into the arms of death or the depths of disgrace would be a fitting end.

Even as the Dalai Lama’s old body is smuggled back to a small village in the shadow of the holy mount Khailash, west of Lhasa, to the private place of burial, so the new body begins its equally perilous journey. As the old body is dissected and offered to the birds of prey in the ancient Tibetan rite of Jhator, so that its energy can return to its origin, so the new body is offered, whole, to consume the energy of the earth with gracious poise.

The Chinese have appointed their own Panchen Lama, to take the place of the Dalai Lama. This appointment is not recognised by Tibetans, because he is a puppet. The real Panchen Lama disappeared a long time ago. He is either dead, or rotting in a Qing Hai prison camp.

The helicopters stopped clattering overhead at dusk. The camera crews, which sought the pictures of the corpse, floated in vain on the same mountain currents that will carry the distant, natural instruments of that corpse’s consumption. Only a few will witness the funeral, as was decreed many years ago. No record of the ceremony will exist. It is the final act of humble defiance of the barbarians who occupy our lands.

The scriptures tell of an approaching age of spiritual enlightenment, but many believe that atonement must precede the enlightenment of those who shield their souls from it. Let me be an instrument of that atonement.

 

Teách mo Mhámaí

Tuesday August 8^th^, 2014

5am

The twins are sleeping again. They are facing each other in the rocking cradle that Mark has made. Dára is lying under Aoífe’s right arm. Her little, fat limbs are barely controlled and yet she uses the small skill that she has to make sure that her brother feels safe. Her body shakes sometimes, as if she has suddenly realised that she has limbs. She makes a little noise that sounds like the squeaking door of our bedroom, but she sleeps beside her brother, who shuffles every time he seems to remember her touch. I should go back to sleep.

Mark is still asleep on our white bed. When he sleeps, his expression is between smiling and forgetting something, so that he seems just about to waken. I am always careful to be as quiet as I can when I see that expression, because I do not like to destroy peace.

I am watching television. One of the good features in this house is that our bedroom leads directly onto the living room; if the door is open, I can see the television from my side of the bed. Mark hates television and says that he will start to sleep in the garage if we have one in our bedroom, but I find television relaxing. I have just slipped back beneath the sheets with the remote control, so that I can catch up with the world.

It has been four days since I have seen any news. At times, I feel like I am falling off the edge of that cliff again: the same cliff that was there on the night that Aoífe and Dára were born. I am separated from the world beyond my body and my home and I need to connect with it, again.

Luckily, I can mute the sound; a lot of Taiwanese do not understand Mandarin Chinese very well, so every programme has subtitles. Now it’s time for the news digest. I can connect myself with the big world outside this house and feel like an independent adult again.

Married politicians are still sleeping with other people’s wives and pop idols are still crashing their cars and taking drugs, but there is one piece of truly terrible news that will change the world: – the Dalai Lama is dead. According to the subtitles, he died at around 8.30pm on Saturday night, in Dharamsala. The press seem to be angry because they have not been allowed to film the funeral ceremony. Dharamsala has been completely closed to anyone who is not Tibetan.

The television reporters seem to have forgotten that the world’s kindest man has died. They are complaining about racism and Chinese-style censorship. I think that Mark will want to see this. One finger on his cheek is all it takes to bring him into this world with a start.

He is confused for a second, but when he focuses on me his smile lights up his face. I did that. I will never tire of the effect that I have on my husband.

 

[ * ]

Every time I waken to Hsiuling’s smile, I have a split second of what I fancy to be unconditional happiness, when the part of my brain that has been disconnected by autism, momentarily feels connected and I can react to what I believe I feel.

When I waken, the first thing I see fills my consciousness, until the world begins to encroach. It takes no more than a second for memory and surroundings to register, but for that iota of singular concentration, my entire reality consists of what lies within my immediate focus. The time in which this happens is so brief that it only ever seems to properly exist in memory. My favourite object of focus is my wife’s face, arranged in the habitual, unlined shape of her smile. The times that I experience that smile in this flicker of time still define happiness for me. In that single infinitely concise moment, bounded by its own centre, I fancy that I feel for a moment what Hsiuling and other normal people feel for periods of their lives that are long enough to have a beginning and an end.

A flickering light is playing across her cheeks, its harsh fluctuations only heightening the drama and sensuality that smoulders in her eyes. For a moment, I forget that I am a father and she is a mother. I am a husband who has been woken early. The only reason that we used to waken early was to make love. This time, Hsiuling’s voice is soft, but the husky tones of lust are missing. Her gaze has already left me and is resting on the source of the flickering light. I crane over to her side of the bed to look at streaming library footage of the Dalai Lama.

Streaming library footage always means death. The Dalai Lama is dead. I am still very slow when it comes to reading Chinese and the subtitles are moving too fast. Hsiuling whispers the time and date into my ear. He was not in pain and the death was natural. The remote control is resting in her hand. I press the button for BBC World and increase the volume to just audible.

The presenter is a rotund, blond woman with too much makeup and a strident, Home Counties accent. She is complaining that no live feed is available from Dharamsala due to the heavy-handed reaction by Tibetans there. Helicopters had been buzzing the Dalai Lama’s residence since early on Sunday morning, but no pictures of a corpse, or even a ceremony, had been forthcoming. The media is in a huff.

In the absence of any comment from the Tibetans, the analysis, in fine television tradition, is being conducted with the minimum of data and the maximum of imagination. I cannot watch this. I mute the television, return it to the Taiwanese station and roll out of bed silently, so as not to waken the babies.

 

[ * ]

It is a terrible day for the Tibetans. Not only did they lose their leader and country’s father, but they are also losing support in the rest of the world, because they would not let the foreign media film the funeral. I know about the media, because I’ve worked in all types of television for fifteen years. It is an ugly profession. The people in control are very arrogant.

It’s easy to cut one interview to show the interviewee as either a wise man or a fool. A big story is happening in Dharamsala and no one can tell it accurately, because no one can see it. That causes problems for the journalists and even bigger problems for the news editors in television studios, who have no footage to illustrate the journalist’s words.

Because they cannot cover this story, for which there are no pictures, they are covering the story for which they do have pictures. Frowning, silent Tibetan guards blocking the road to McLeod Ganj are the new face of Tibet. The Tibetan government is making a big mistake. Before, they were the peaceful patriots who looked good against the Chinese bullies. Now, the only Tibetans on camera are the frowning guards who stand between the Indian soldiers and hide the truth from the journalists.

I arrange the soft blanket around my babies. I can smell our breakfast cooking. It is my favourite. Mark has filled large mushrooms with goat’s cheese, tomato, coriander and garlic, covered them with olive oil and he is baking them in the oven. The smell is incredible. There is also coffee brewing, but I cannot drink it while I am breast-feeding. I will have lemon and ginger tea. I can smell the lemon and ginger now, as Mark cuts and grates them.

The sounds from the kitchen are lovely little muffled tinklings, as knives touch stone and cups are lightly rattled with spoons. Only the pictures on the television bring the unwelcome world into this little haven. Even I have forgotten about the Dalai Lama’s death for a short time, while I try to follow the story that is rolling across the subtitles in the language of Tibet’s greatest enemy.

 

[ * ]

The host is receptive now. The panic of birth is past us both and he is accommodating the three sources of comfort open to him with increasing relish.

The mother is always my principle competitor in these early days, but I also have the added complication of the female who shared the womb. She is stronger than the host now and he taps that strength. He will learn perseverance from her, for her spirit is sustaining and enduring, like the mother’s.

In these early days, I do not seek to compete or to impose my thoughts. I merely exist as a presence. In time, he will come to ignore me, even as he listens to me. As more time passes, he will not even realise that I am the voice in his head, reasoning, goading and comforting. As he becomes accustomed to my presence, so he will teach himself to disregard it and accept it. Even now, the female is teaching herself to ignore me, as the world presses around her and distracts her.

This tiny, taut sheath of skin that covers the host seems barely enough protection for the world that we face. It seems too sensitive. Touch is a sensation that I have not noticed since my last host was this young. To feel the world beyond the sheath with such immediacy and bewildering detail is overwhelming at times.

The mother’s touch can stimulate a reaction of such intensity that it would be painful to the adult form of this species. My anonymous time in waiting will be spent rejoicing in the sensory clarity of this brief, irresponsible novitiate.

 

New Drepung Monastery,

Mysore, Karnataka Province,

South West India

Sunday September 3^rd^, 2017

Now that we are back in their home, I will study the Guhyasamarja Tantra at the feet of the two old monks. I will wait for confidences to drip between us. I am the trusted, diligent student, who listens well and maintains a trustworthy silence. They will pour their trust into this silent vessel. When I learn of the clues to the Great Liar’s whereabouts, they will be allowed to die quickly. Otherwise, they will die slowly and horrifically in a torture chamber that is being prepared by a man who will die in a road accident. Death is the ultimate guardian of secrets. Only death can be trusted.

 

Teách mo Mhámaí

Sunday September 10^th^, 2017

2pm

My mother-in-law is waving furiously from the right side of the large four-wheel drive truck that her husband drives. I’m not sure if she’s relieved that she does not have to squeeze herself into the compact surroundings of our Mini or if she is trying to conceal her disappointment at being wrenched from her grandchildren.

Hsiuling’s mother’s meals are delicious and prodigiously proportioned; I am sure that both Hsiuling and I have gained too much weight while consuming the mountains of the especially tasty food that Taiwanese new mothers seem to require. Cleaning up the kitchen when she has finished cooking takes about three hours every night, though.

Her presence has really taken the pressure off both Hsiuling and I and has actually allowed me to spend more time with my children. I delight in the miniscule refinement of their limbs and the scant moments of eye contact. We are a much more relaxed group for having had Hsiuling’s mother to stay, but the timing of her departure is propitious, for the excessive cleaning duties were beginning to place murderous thoughts in my head.

I finally feel that I know Aoífe and Dára a little better. Dára will not have too many problems in life for he already has his big sister wrapped around his little finger. Aoífe will be a worry though. I have a feeling that she is going to be a real heart breaker. I have already told Hsiuling that the proper time for her to be entertaining boyfriends is after my death. Hsiuling is silent on the matter.

 

[ * ]

The tradition of Yue Dze, meaning month, means that the new mother must eat special food – mostly soup and fish – five times a day for the month after the birth. The food stimulates the production of milk and is very nourishing for the mother’s recovery, after a birth. She cannot wash her hair or go outside her house for a month. My mama is very superstitious, so I had to lock myself in the bathroom when I washed my hair.

The month is finished now. I am ready for the world. We are a stronger family now than we were four weeks ago, when my mama arrived and wreaked havoc with Mark’s organised kitchen. Mark seemed cold towards the babies at first, but the time that he would have normally spent cooking meals for me was free, because my mama cooked, so he could play with them.

Now, they recognise him. It is odd to think of the babies and their father as total strangers. The babies have always been with me, as a part of my body, although I did not see them until they were born. Meeting them was like being able to use a suddenly useful, secret limb that I always knew was there, but kept covered, so that no one would laugh.

For Mark, the first real experience of our children was at their birth, whereas birth was the second stage of my experience. For mothers, parenthood begins as a private experience in the seclusion of their body, but for fathers, parenthood is an immediately public experience, so their relationship with their children is constantly witnessed. It can never be as intimate as a mother’s. Poor Mark.

 

Chapter 11

Teách mo Mhámaí

Chinese New Year’s Day

Friday February 16^th^, 2018

2pm

The three Irish cottages are complete, thanks to my new friends, Jie Min and Alilai.

After a week, I admitted defeat in trying to get the local builders to follow the expensive plans that we had an architect draw. In Taiwan, plans do not have the biblical authority that they enjoy in the rest of the world. In keeping with the concept of harmony, they are more like a nudge in the right direction. I know now why every house in Taiwan looks almost the same as the next and why they are all equally illogical and ugly.

Han Taiwanese builders only seem to know how to build one house. They probably learnt the design from a great grandfather. Unfortunately my design comes from the time and place of my own great grandfather. In Taiwan, if you want a specific type of house, you must find the builder who builds the house closest to your desired design and then take what he gives you. Every time I left them, the gang of builders whom I hired returned to the Taiwanese, not the Irish, great grandfather’s master plan. I dismissed them all. When they left, each side was equally mystified about the other’s behaviour

To them, this behaviour was part of the great game of comic harassment that leavens the boredom of Han lives and entertains each of their invisible audiences. Han people love theatrics. Every conversation is conducted as though an invisible audience is hanging on every word. Slapstick over-reaction, hands covering fake giggles, melodramatic gasps and false guffaws seem to be compulsory. These performances are wholly for the benefit of the invisible audience that each Han person trails in a wake of imagined adoration.

My gang imagined that when they had exhausted my patience and driven me from the site, they could revert to the speedy, shoddy workmanship that would earn them the maximum amount of money in the shortest time. My understanding of trust, honesty and pride in a job well done was alien to them. The pursuit of easy money was their sole objective.

For most foreigners, the single most draining aspect of this society is the Han philosophy of just a little more, which pervades every aspect of daily life and grinds at the patience of anyone not raised to cope with its constant, gnawing harassment.

In this land of ugly architecture, I wanted to create one small oasis of beauty, a haven, where eyes can rest on a building and not be offended. Its exterior would not sport the ugly innards of air conditioning units or the myriad vines of plastic pipes, which festoon all Taiwanese structures and declare to the world that nothing about them was planned. This philosophy was anathema to my Han builders, who saw the world only in terms of a profit sheet.

Alilai turned up on the fourth day after the construction gang left. He stopped his bicycle on the lane outside and watched me for a full hour, before ambling through a gap in the wall and offering his services. Alilai is 70 years old. He is a carpenter who knows how to read a plan. He is not Han. He is an indigenous Taiwanese man. His eyes are round and his skin is pale. He likes to solve problems and he does not seem to bother with an invisible audience. I think that he may be a gift from the heavens.

He brought his neighbour, Jie Min, on the day after. Jie Min is Han. He is 24 years old and has spent the last six months wondering why he spent the previous two years studying for a Masters degree in architectural preservation at an American university.

***

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The Benign Abductor of Souls

The fourteenth Dalai Lama is nearing the end of his life. He has long been a thorn in the side of the Beijing, so a secret military organisation that many believed to be defunct decides to eliminate the next Dalai Lama before he is discovered. As a conclusion to his active service, a very appropriate Chinese agent makes a convincingly genuine flight to Daramsala, in northern India, which is the home of the Tibetan government in exile. He must kidnap or kill the child who will become the next Dalai Lama. When the great holy man dies, a callous reign of terror is visited upon the lives of each of the three emissaries who will begin their search for the last Dalai Lama, two years hence. The next Dalai Lama has been chosen partly because he will be living within a Han society, in Taiwan, where he will learn about the character of Tibet’s greatest enemy while his spirit guide chaperones his transition from novice to leader. On the small Island, it is assumed that he will be insignificant and safe from the attentions of both the media and the Beijing government, which could never imagine that its greatest enemy would be hidden among its own kind. However, the child’s future becomes so uncertain that even his spirit guide doubts their chances of survival.

  • ISBN: 9780993300400
  • Author: Michael McGarrigle
  • Published: 2015-09-07 06:20:11
  • Words: 146834
The Benign Abductor of Souls The Benign Abductor of Souls