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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 10, Number 1, March 2016

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Sonam Chhoki
Thimphu, Bhutan


Mining Memories

waterfall of lichen
deep in the mountain forest
a musk deer calls

Each winter solstice when we meet for our New Year, we retrieve a cache of family stories. The favourite one has a disputed provenance. My sisters insist it is our great grandfather. I recall it being his brother.

Our ancestor is a herder on the high pastures dotted with primula and dwarf rhododendron. That year the early snow surprises him. The calves born in late summer are not yet strong enough to make the descent to the village. His yak skin bags hold sufficient buckwheat flour, tea leaves and salt. Unfazed by the turn of the weather, the yaks graze calmly. He is filled with unease. The stack of firewood in the stone hut is low. He must bring in the pile gathered on the slope. He pushes open the door, his breath billowing before him. The air stings him with a rush of fusty odour that makes him gasp.

At this point, our cousin interjects with footprints of a large biped in the fresh snow. “The big toes were splayed unlike a human’s,” he says with staggering certainty. I prefer our ancestor sensing a palpable albeit an invisible presence. The smell is like that of an unwashed body festering with sores. He peers into the growing darkness. Larches on the ridge shiver points of light as the sun goes down. The miasma settles with snow flurries around the hut. It is recognisably not that of the yaks. Didn’t the elders say the mi-gye/snow creature exudes a stench? He breathes painfully trying to marshal his thoughts. Fire! His grandfather swore the mi-gye fears the fire. Will the mi-gye harm his herd? The yaks ruminate unperturbed.

He bolts the door and stokes the fire. Removing the hunting knife from its sheath he holds it in his right hand and winds a thick yak hair lasso around his left hand. With his back against the hearth he faces the door. A plaintive howl rises. His heart thumps like a pestle pounding buckwheat in a large mortar. The cry is so raw and piercing as if the very heart of the creature is being ripped out. He intones:

“Lotus-born Guru
I prostrate before you,
Help me! Protect me!”

The keening outside changes to a moan that rises and falls in melancholy cadence. He finds himself reciting the hermit Milarepa’s admonishment to the hunter:

“Whatever you fear you see as your foe.
But in past lives this creature was your own mother.
Your arrow will kill the deer
But not the Five Poisons within you.
Slay your hatred and be free!”

Our ancestor drops the hunting knife with a clatter. His chanting and the ululation outside mingle and echo in the night. He feels a deep calm.

New year sunrise—
snow blowing around the peaks
like silken kha-da


Editor's Note: Kha-da, a ceremonial scarf. Milarepa is a 11th century Tibetan yogi-poet. This haibun was first published on the blog Ice Box.

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