Chapter Two. The Monastery
Late the following morning, Mr. Barnard found me lying in bed staring up at the ceiling, wondering how long the trek back would take. Provided the place wasn’t an elaborate Chinese trap, I figured I’d stumbled into probably the only place in Tibet that would help me get back over the border into India or Pakistan. I figured they’d give me provisions, and maybe even a guide. Working our way by night, moving with someone who knew the terrain, I figured five nights, maybe. I couldn’t get over the good luck that had brought me safely here. Assuming that the place was what it seemed.
And suddenly there was Mr. Barnard at the door. “Well,” he said, beaming benevolently down at me like a Buddha with a mustache, “when I looked in on you a while back, you looked like you were working hard on catching up on your sleep. How are you feeling now?”
I stretched and sat up in bed. “Pretty good, considering. A little stiff from all that walking yesterday.”
He nodded. “Sure. Did you have trouble figuring out where you were when you woke up?”
“Yeah, I did. I woke up and saw this tiny room, all this stone and all, and I said `where in the hell is this?’ I sort of woke up expecting to be in — where I should have wound up yesterday.”
He nodded again. “Well, it ain’t where you expected to be, that’s sure. But you could have done worse.”
“Oh, I know that. Even if I don’t know yet where I am or what I’m involved with here.”
The corners of his eyes wrinkled, and his mouth shaped itself into a wry half‑smile. “I told you I’d answer questions, and I will. But I reckon you’re going to have to choose. Do you want to hear where you’ve wound up, or would you rather have breakfast first?”
That was an easy choice: I was 26, and I’d always been a hearty eater. Mr. Barnard laughed out loud when he saw my face. “We missed the regular breakfast, George, but I reckon we can rustle up something on our own. Come on.”
I put on my shoes and followed him into the corridor. We went down several corridors and wound up in a moderate‑sized kitchen. No refrigerator, no freezer, but a large wood‑fired cookstove and many wooden cabinets of food and utensils. No one was around, but the stove was hot — was kept hot all day, as I later discovered, except in mid‑summer. I sat on a stool in one corner while Mr. Barnard padded around fixing us some breakfast.
“What I’m going to make is called tsampa. Roasted barley meal. I like to think of it as oatmeal. It ain’t, but it’s maybe close enough. Anyway, it’s breakfast. If you’ll look in one of those drawers there, you’ll find a knife, and the bread is over in that cabinet. Cut us a couple slices, would you?”
He knew what was on my mind. Without turning around from the stove, where he was stirring what did look like dried oatmeal into water, he started to answer the questions I hadn’t asked.
“The fact that we didn’t meet anybody between here and your cell — your room, I mean — don’t mean the place is deserted. We keep our own schedules, and right now pretty nearly everybody else is tied up.”
“And how many people is that, all together?”
“Well, there’s about 60. Fifty monks and seven postulants. And some servants, but they come and go.”
“So this is a monastery, then?” The bread loaves were heavy, solid. They resisted the knife.
“That’s what it is.”
“In the middle of Tibet.”
“Has it been here long?”
“Pretty long. Since long before I got here.”
“Isn’t that a little —”
“Well, strange, but — isn’t it . . . I mean it’s sort of unbelievable. Don’t the communists object?”
He turned toward me and smiled sardonically. “I imagine they would if they happened to know about it. So far they ain’t found out.”
“I don’t understand. The Chinese have been in Tibet since — when? 1949?”
“Close enough. 1950. Twelve long years.”
“And they haven’t found this place?”
“Does it look like they have? We ain’t exactly on the beaten track, you know.”
“No, but still. Twelve years!”
Mr. Barnard shrugged. “Twelve so far. With luck it’ll be quite a while yet.” He turned and saw my skeptical expression. “George, it’s like I said last night, maybe you don’t remember. Suppose this place was in the middle of Alaska somewhere, or Greenland. How long do you think it might be before somebody official came stumbling onto it?”
“Well —I just did.”
“Yeah, you did, and you’re the first. And since you won’t tell them, and we sure won’t, how do they find out? And if they don’t know we’re here, why should they come looking? There sure ain’t much else around for them to come looking for. We figure to keep to ourselves a good while yet.” He turned back to stir the pan. “That’s why we’re so interested in picking the pieces of your airplane off the mountain, and why I wanted to be sure you hadn’t been spotted: Once you know something’s in a certain area—no matter how big the area—you’re going to find it. So for us, the big thing is to keep ‘em from ever having a reason to start looking.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
“Sure it does. It’s just a matter of being careful and having God on our side.”
“Well, being a monastery, you ought to.” We smiled at each other. “But you don’t look like my idea of a monk, Mr. Barnard. Or should I say Brother Barnard?”
He spooned the tsampa out of the cooking pan into two wooden bowls, left the spoon in the empty pan, poured water into the pan and put it back onto the stove. “Makes it easier to clean,” he said, reading my mind by watching me watch him. He brought the bowls to the table I was resting my elbow on, and pulled up a stool. “Spoons in that drawer behind you, George. I don’t look much like a monk? Well, that won’t come as big news to anybody around here. How do you like your first taste of tsampa? Taste like oatmeal?”
“Not very much like oatmeal. A little, maybe.”
He nodded as though I’d confirmed an old suspicion. “It’s been a good while since I’ve had any of the real thing, and I couldn’t remember if the taste was close. But I had a feeling maybe it wasn’t.” Without a pause he continued. “Just because a place is a monastery don’t mean everybody in it is a monk. You ain’t one, for instance. And neither am I. But most everybody else here is. Except there’s some servants here, too, but like I said they come and go.”
“Come and go where? Oh, down to the valley, I suppose?”
“Right. Some of the younger men take turns working up here a few weeks at a time, except for a couple who stay here. But don’t worry about that, it ain’t important. I aim to give you the nickel tour when we’re done here. Probably it won’t look like much, next to what I suppose you’re used to. And when you come right down to it, what a body’s used to is pretty near everything, ain’t it?”
It didn’t take long to show me around.
“You see, they made it pretty easy to get from one building to the next. Lots of the monks are old, and in the winter they don’t hanker for any extra dose of the weather. And, at that, there ain’t so much of the place.”
Nor was there. A large room he called the refectory, which was clearly a dining hall. The connected rooms (or, viewed another way, the one large room divided into alcoves) with walls lined with books, a small part of which I had seen the night before. (I saw now there were pieces of statuary on various tables.) Various rooms that appeared to be galleries of a museum of sorts, many of which we did not enter. Two smallish rooms apparently set aside for the playing of musical instruments. (How had they brought a piano into this inaccessible building halfway up a mountain in northwestern Tibet?)
We’d already seen the kitchen. He brought me past a pantry, past the “facilities,” past several bath rooms — rooms for bathing — and past a little infirmary. We looked into a sort of chapel that was without ornamentation of any kind, and we passed rooms that he said were servants’ quarters, monks’ cells and meditation cells. We entered none of these.
Down the hall, and to my surprise we were in a workshop filled with various hand tools, most of which I could not identify. “I spend a good deal of time here,” Mr. Barnard said. “Lots of the furniture here I made: that bed you slept in last night, for one.”
He opened the next door and I gasped with surprise and pleasure. We walked into a little room half‑full of flourishing plants. He smiled broadly at my delighted reaction. “My special hobby,” he said expansively. “I planned it and built it onto the outside of the building.”
“It’s terrific,” I said. The entire south wall was panes of glass, and within a room not more than 8 feet by 15 he had packed an incredible number of vegetables and flowers.
“This here is where we get our salads in the spring and fall,” he said. “It’d take too much to heat it between mid‑December and mid‑February, but it’s nice to have, and in the winter it still makes a nice place to sit, daytimes.”
The room was chillier than the other rooms had been, but the incoming sun was beginning to warm it. I looked through the window to the rock formation on the other side of the chasm we perched on. The contrast between the sheltered room and the barren mountain was comforting, but almost overwhelming. Somehow it reminded me of our isolation. “I’ll bet looking at the sky from here is a treat,” I said after a minute.
“Yeah,” he said comfortably, “but it wasn’t any treat getting all that glass up here from outside, I can tell you.”
“No, I guess not.” I wondered (but did not ask) how they had.
The greenhouse room was the end of the tour. I told Mr. Barnard that the cluster of buildings seemed small for 60 people.
He shrugged. “Like I say, it’s all in what you’re used to. When I was a boy, there was a Trappist monastery out in Kentucky and the folks there didn’t even talk, let alone go visit places. At least, that’s what the story was, and people pretty much believed it. I never could see living that way, but it does appeal to some. Every man to his own tastes, I say. Besides, the monks here have the valley if they ever want to get out and about.”
I couldn’t imagine anyone choosing such a life. I wondered if I’d get any insight into that mentality before I got away.
Mr. Barnard’s room was much like mine, except that it had obviously been lived in for some time. Two small Chinese‑looking pen‑and‑ink sketches of great delicacy were hung on one wall. A small two‑shelf bookcase contained perhaps 50 books and what looked like a bound manuscript. A small wooden wardrobe occupied one corner. Instead of a bed, a bedroll neatly tied in another corner. Nearby lay some cushions about three feet square and nearly a foot thick in the middle. Otherwise the room held only a wooden armchair (which, it turned out, Mr. Barnard had made in his workshop) and next to it a little table two feet high bearing a glass oil lamp. I thought the room austere.
“Austere?” Mr. Barnard laughed. “You wouldn’t call it that if you got a look at the monks’ cells. You wouldn’t find all these cushions, for one thing.”
He sat in his chair and I sat on the floor, leaning against cushions propped against the wall, an arrangement surprisingly comfortable.
“We got other places to sit and talk, George, and it won’t be long before you get to know ‘em all. Except for the meditation cells and the monks’ own cells, you’ll be able to go pretty much wherever you want. It’s just that today it would be better if we didn’t run into anybody until they been warned we got a new face. When you’re as old and set in your ways as some of the brothers are, you appreciate it if people break surprises to you kind of careful. That’s why I took you around just when I did: I knew there wasn’t liable to be anybody around. But if we’re going to talk, this is the place for it, at least today. I gave you the nickel tour, now you get the ten‑cent history so you can see what you’re involved in.”
“That’s fine with me,” I said. “I can’t understand how this place survives in the middle of Chinese territory.”
“Well, that ain’t the strangest part of the story, I can tell you. You comfortable there? This is going to take a while.”
“There’s some things you ought to know right off. First thing, this ain’t some last‑minute addition to the landscape. It’s been here since the 1700s. Longer than that, if you count the oldest parts of the buildings. They were part of a lamasery, back time out of mind. But the 1700s is when the abandoned buildings started to get fixed up and rebuilt and turned into a monastery.”
“A Christian monastery?”
“Right. Catholic, in fact. And that’s the second thing you need to know. The rebuilding was done by a monk out of Luxembourg, name of Perrault. He’d wandered into the valley, half‑dead.”
Mr. Barnard grinned at me. “I know. Don’t seem like it would be very easy to just wander in, does it?”
“Especially not in the 1700s.”
“Right. But that’s because I’m leaving out half the story. He was traveling with others, all the way from Peking, and by the time they got into the neighborhood the others had died and he wasn’t far from dead himself. The only reason he didn’t die was, he got lucky. At least, luck is probably what you’d call it. Anyhow, he could see clear enough that, as hard as he’d found it in, it was going to be worth his life to try to wander back out again. So he didn’t even try. He stayed, and spent his time converting the natives in the valley from Buddhism and Lamaism to Catholicism.”
“I wouldn’t think he’d have much luck at that.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised. He sounds like he was one of those iron‑willed folks that once they set their minds to something, they just keep at it. And it ain’t like he had any real strong opposition. This place couldn’t be any more isolated, and it ain’t like the natives had Buddhist missionaries dropping in as reinforcements. Old Father Perrault did okay on converts. Besides, it ain’t like he was the first. Tibet used to have a Christian community, you know, even in Lhasa.”
“Did it?” I shifted positions. “I didn’t know that. I thought Tibet kept foreigners out.“
“They did, but not everybody. And they didn’t work all that hard at it. Mostly they relied on all these mountains.”
I didn’t need to be persuaded on that point. The row after desolate row of mountains I’d seen from the air were fresh in my mind. The idea of trekking across the bleak terrain was not attractive. Which reminded me: “But Mr. Barnard, how did you get here? You didn’t come on foot!”
He waved the question aside. “That’s getting ahead of the story, George, but I’ll tell you this, and it’s going to surprise you: Most of the monks here came in from outside. I’m the only American here — was till you showed up, anyway — but a good number of the others are from Europe. Couple of Chinese.”
I couldn’t make sense of that. “From Europe. How did they all get here?”
“Oh, lots of ways. Some got lost, and some got invited, and three got Shanghaied and stayed on.”
“So they didn’t all come at once.”
“Oh, no. Mostly one at a time. The most that ever came at one time was four, and that only happened once.”
I shook my head involuntarily. “That doesn’t make sense. That many Europeans got in here, one and two at a time, and the Chinese never found out about it?”
“Oh, that was a long time before the Chinese came to Tibet. Came back to Tibet, I suppose I should say.”
I pushed back into the cushions, scratching my head. “But — before 1950? And after the war, I suppose?”
“Only a few . . . . Oh, you mean the second war, I reckon. No, nobody since 1931. I was one of that last bunch, in fact.”
Mr. Barnard looked to be in his 50s, at the latest. “You were hardly out of your teens, then. And you’ve been here ever since?”
“You’re still ahead of the story. I’m trying to give you an idea of the history of the place.”
“Okay,” I said, smiling, “I’ll shut up.”
He met my smile with another. “You don’t have to shut up, you only got to remember that you’re talking to an old man, and old men are better at talking than at listening. And they like to tell their stories the way they got them in their mind. Anyway, like I was saying, back in the 1700s Father Perrault got himself some converts and he rebuilt the lamasery, turning it into a monastery. And the world turned around some, and eventually he died, plenty old. But before he did, he’d set the place on its way, and it ain’t deviated much since.”
“Mr. Barnard’s eyes had drifted to considering the ceiling; they returned to me. ”You understand, I’m leaving things out. Important things, but this ain’t the time to go into them. I’m just trying to tell you enough to give you the general idea. No point in trying to give you the whole story in one day: We got loads of time for that.“
I thought he meant several days, perhaps a week or two. I was prepared to stay that long. I stretched out a leg and burrowed sideways against a cushion. “I still don’t get it. What’s the point in maintaining a monastery behind communist lines? Why didn’t you all just pick up and leave a dozen years ago before the Chinese got here?”
Mr. Barnard paused. “Sonny, that’s a real good question, but I can’t give you the answer just yet. We saw it coming, but we couldn’t move. There wasn’t any place to go.”
“Couldn’t you have gotten to India or Nepal or somewhere?”
He shook his head decisively. “Uh‑uh. The way wasn’t open to us, take my word for it.”
I didn’t understand, but dropped it.
“What I’m trying to get across to you is that this place goes way back, and those of us living here got a responsibility to keep it going. I may not be a monk, but I’m still part of the place. That ain’t so hard to understand, is it? It’s just basic loyalty.”
“Sure,” I agreed. “And besides, it’s your neck.”
“Right. That’s why we’re going to all the trouble of rounding up the pieces of your airplane and getting them out of sight.” He looked at me, searching my expression as he dropped his bombshell. “And that’s why we got to ask you to stay with us till Springtime, George.”
I didn’t get it.
“Too close to winter. It could snow any time.” He said it as if the conclusion followed too naturally to require explanation. Looking back now, I suppose that was a piece of very subtle manipulation, directing my attention away from the hand putting the pea under the shell.
“So it might snow,” I said, taking the bait. “So what? It’ll just make it a little harder, is all.”
He shook his head decisively. “Uh‑uh. You mean you don’t see it?”
“Two things. One, having to fight your way through snow means there’s that much more chance the Chinese catch you, and catch whoever we send out with you. You get hit by a bad storm at just the wrong time and you’re buried, snowed in maybe a day or two from the border. How long can you survive without a fire? And if you build a fire, how long till somebody sees it you don’t want seeing it? That’s one thing. And even if you don’t get stopped by it, still you’re leaving footprints. You see?”
“The footprints would lead them right to me — if they see them in time.”
“Yeah — but we’re kind of more concerned that they’d start asking where you headed out from.”
I nodded. It made sense.
“Like I said, we don’t ever want ‘em to start looking for us.”
I ran my fingers through my crew‑cut, thinking. “Of course, if they didn’t happen onto my tracks right away, the next snowfall would cover them.”
“True enough,” he said, nodding in turn. “But nobody here is real inclined to take the chance. You can see why.”
“I can. But I don’t much like the idea of holing up here all winter. Let me get out of here now, today, while we still have a good chance there won’t be any snow. I figure five days will do it. Three, if I’m extra‑lucky.”
Again he shook his head. “George, no. You’re still all stiff from yesterday, I can see it in the way you were walking. You really think you’re in shape to hike out of here? Besides, it’s too big a risk. There’s only so many places to cross over in the winter. Don’t you think they’re all watched?”
“Yes, but —”
“Mr. Barnard, my flight is already overdue. They probably put people out looking for me.”
“No, not over Tibet; and not over China. But where it’s safe to go, they’ll go. And that means some of them may wind up risking their lives looking for me. And if I don’t show up in a few days, they’re going to think I’m in prison, or dead.”
“And if you try to get over the border and get caught, that’s just where you will be, one or the other.”
“But I can’t just sit here and let them look for me!”
“Why not?” He asked it calmly, simply.
I found it hard to make a convincing answer. “Well, for one thing, it isn’t fair to the guys who’ll be looking. And suppose they send another U‑2 this way and the Chinese see it?”
“U‑2? That the number of your airplane? What if they do send another one? The Chinese missed you, who’s to say they see the next one?”
“Yes, but what if something happens to that pilot?”
“That sort of thing happen to your airplanes real often?”
“No, not often, at all. But if it happened to me, it could happen to somebody else.”
He nodded. “Maybe so.”
“I owe them better than that.”
“Well, maybe, or maybe you could look at it like the best thing you could do is lie low and let ‘em think you got killed. Then they won’t fret over you maybe being a prisoner.”
That stopped me. I looked past him at the carpeted wall behind him, considering it. “That isn’t what would happen,” I said finally. “They’d list me missing and wonder if I was sitting somewhere in China.”
Innocently, casually, he asked if they’d be able to find out if the Chinese had captured me. I considered some more. I couldn’t see how.
“Well, neither can I. I can’t see your bosses calling up the Chinese army and saying, `By the way, have you picked up any of our spies lately?’ and the Reds telling them one way or the other. So how are they going to hear about you?”
“You’re making my argument for me. That’s why I have to get back. Until I do, they won’t know what happened.”
“No, I don’t suppose they will. But tell me this one thing, George. Which do you suppose they’d prefer? You out of sight for the winter, but safe, or you slapped into prison because you got impatient and got caught trying to get across before it was safe?”
Thus neatly turning the “duty” argument against me. The pattern on the wall hanging was fairly elaborate. It looked like a Persian rug I’d seen once.
“You see how it is?”
I sighed. “Yes, I suppose I do, Mr. Barnard. You really think the chance of snow makes it that much riskier?”
“I do, George. And not just me. So do the folks who live here, the ones whose families have lived here forever. They know these mountains like you and me never will. None of them would risk it on their own judgment.” He added as an afterthought: “They’d do it if we asked ‘em to.”
“Okay, I said, ”I give up. I’ll wait till Spring. But it’s hard, Mr. Barnard. It’s hard.“
He shot me a hard, probing glance, and his face softened a bit. “It ain’t just your Army friends you’re thinking about,” he said.
“Air Force,” I said automatically. “No, it isn’t just my friends.”
“You left somebody behind? Don’t tell me if you don’t want to.”
“No, it’s all right. My family, of course. They’ll get a notice that I’m missing and when I don’t show up in a couple of weeks, a month, they’ll figure I’m dead.”
Mr. Barnard was watching me carefully. “Yeah, probably they will. But if you show up again in the Spring, they’ll know you ain’t, so what’s the odds?” Quietly he added, “You’re pretty young to be worrying so much about family. Someone else?”
I nodded. He didn’t press me.
I had carried her letter zipped into a pocket of my flight suit. I have it before me now.
Yes, I agree with you, Peshawar is a long way from Washington, D.C. And yes, of course I miss you too. I miss our long phone calls! And I miss—oh, so many things. Do you remember, back in college, how we used to go to the Sunday concerts at the National Gallery of Art and sit on folding chairs under their little trees and listen to string quartets? And then go out for ice cream afterwards? I thought about that last Sunday. I went, but it wasn’t the same.
And I remember so many other things from that year, your senior year. We were really happy, George. It wasn’t just what people say later when they look back and say “oh yes, we were young, so of course everything seemed wonderful.” WE, you and I, WERE HAPPY. Happier than I have been since, and you too, I think. I suppose it’s getting out of school that changes things. You don’t have as much time, you have to think about making a living, you get involved in different things. And before you know it, you don’t have as much to talk about as you used to. Maybe we should have gotten married right away. Maybe you were right. But I thought: If I don’t finish school NOW, who knows what will happen? If I start having babies right away it might be 20 years or more before I can go back and finish, and by then who knows if I’ll have the time and the energy and the money and the motivation.
George, I know you know all this, I’m just rambling on to myself. And of course my parents wanted me to finish school first. But suppose I wasn’t two years younger and we’d graduated together. Would it have been the right thing to do?
George, I DON’T want to hurt you, and you know I do love you — I’ve loved you for five years, since our second date, if you want to know. But sometimes you make me want to cry out loud: “Where did my poet go?”
Do you remember we would sit on the mall and you would read to me? The Wind in the Willows? Great Love Poems? All that poetry of Keats and Shelley and Auden and Eliot and dear Archibald MacLeish and Robert Frost? And Yeats, who I rarely understood? Do you even remember that you wrote poems too? Some of them were excellent, George. Publishable, I thought. They showed that aware, sensitive side of you that you were usually so careful to keep hidden. That’s one reason I loved them so.
That side of you must still exist, George, but where is it? Did the Air Force make you bury it so deeply that you can’t feel anymore?
Dear George, I’m not mad at you and I’m not finding fault or placing blame. Please don’t get all defensive. (I can feel you getting all defensive when you read this, and I haven’t even mailed it yet!) I am not saying anything is your fault. I am only saying I miss my poet.
Your last letter shows me (perhaps more clearly than you intended!) that my seeing David really bothers you. I know he irritates you, George, but really he is very [Here she had crossed out and blotted over a word. By looking closely at the opposite side of the sheet, holding it obliquely to the light, I had been able to make out the impression the pen had made first. It was the word “sweet”.] nice. He doesn’t have your mind, George (but my God, who does?) and really I don’t think he’s serious enough about life. He has always had his father’s money to fall back on, and so he has never had to work hard. But he is talking now about writing a novel, and I think maybe he really will. I have told him it is high time he got down to business and did something with his life. Sometimes I wish I could give him some of your seriousness and give you some of his—.
No, you don’t need anything from David, George. You just need to remember all of who you are. Sometimes I get so angry when I think what the Air Force has done to you I start shaking. It makes me wonder if they affect everybody that way.
No, no, I know that isn’t fair. Getting into flight and doing well in it was a terrific accomplishment, and I’m as proud of it as you are. But George, as much as you love flying, you paid a price for it. Was it—is it—all necessary? Can’t you have both? Can’t you be a hot‑shot pilot, which I’m sure you are, and still be a poet? Still feel things? Still be alive inside? My father spent 26 years in the Navy, you know, without being ashamed of painting. And nobody ever thought less of him for it, I’m certain.
God, now we’re to the point where I can’t even write you a letter without it turning into an argument. Probably I should rip this up and try again, but it’s late and I’m too tired to do that. I want to get this off to you so you won’t have to wait too long between letters. Probably if it weren’t so late, this would have turned out more cheerfully. Next letter will be strictly sunshine and optimism, promise.
P.S. I don’t know your physical or financial circumstances over there, i.e. whether you have room enough or money enough for more books. If you’d like me to buy you any, or mail you any of the ones you left with me (Yeats?) send me the titles you want.
I have wondered, sometimes, if she had a letter on its way to me when I disappeared. The timing would have been about right. Did it arrive at Peshawar and get held there for a time, until the Air Force decided I was a lost cause? If so, what then? Back to her? To my parents, with the rest of my things? And if that, then back to her?
I wish I’d written her a better reply to the one I brought here. But I hardly understood what she’d written, and what I wrote then was more or less the best I could do at the time, given what I was then. I would write it differently now. Of course, when I wrote her last I thought I’d be seeing her relatively soon, though two years seemed to stretch out ahead of me long enough, God knows. And anyway, there was little I could have said, little I could have known I felt.
I read and re‑read her letter many times as November became December, but it was many a year before her message finally got through.