Chapter Fourteen. Messenger
“Mrs. Bolton,” Mr. Petrov said politely. “Your dream. Mr. Chiari, you will listen inside.”
By now it was night. The table we sat around was illuminated by the two oil lamps on its surface. The room’s walls and ceiling had become shadowy, indistinct. The effect was not one of gloom, but of comfort, the sort of almost luxurious comfort you feel beneath warm covers in a cold room; the comfort comes from the contrast.
In lamplight, people speak more softly, observe each other’s faces and words more carefully, penetrate into their own thought, and the thoughts of others, more deeply. At the same time, they are apt to rediscover a part of their mind they normally ignore. As they listen to what is said, some inner day‑dreamer goes off on its own quests, and the messages from both parts interact, and reinforce one another.
Not that lamplight will make sages out of dolts, but dolts in Shangri‑la are in shorter supply than I remember them being in the world beyond. Or maybe it is that those who seem like dolts are only distracted, and we have fewer distractions here.
“P’raps you should have been the first to hear this dream, George,” she said, “rather than the last of those assembled here. It seems to concern you quite closely. As a matter of fact, it centers on you.”
It occurred to me that her dream, rather than my acquaintance with Dennis Corbin, might explain my presence at this meeting. Again I felt my pulse speed up.
“I saw you working in a roomful of scholars, translating an ancient medieval manuscript in a forgotten language, which I realized was much older than Latin or Greek. The others in the room were working on treatises on literature, medicine, science, politics, and history. Yours was a treatise on composting.”
In my nervousness I laughed, and my laughter rang through the hushed room. “Great!” I said. “My field of study is a pile of manure!”
She smiled. “You had been given that task because they knew you had been reared on a farm. I assure you, your work was held in high respect. They were quite anxious that you complete your work. But their chief concern was that you use darker ink. The copying room was well‑lit, but your manuscript was shaded, though there was nothing shading it. Your translation, though, glowed as though lit from within. It was too brightly lit. They continually implored you to darken your ink.”
“I don’t understand,” I said as she paused.
“There is more. Next I saw you working in a desert, building a compost pile, adding layers of garbage, and dirt, and manure, and a bit of fertilizer. Every so often you would wet it down and then would add more layers.” I wanted to ask where I was getting the garbage and the water in the middle of the desert, but knew not to ask, dreams having their own logic. “You were applying what you had learned from the manuscript you had translated, you see.” The briefest of pauses. “A manuscript Hugh had authored. I could hear you murmuring to yourself repeatedly: `Time‑tested. Guaranteed.’”
I cleared my throat to comment, but she forestalled me.
“Then dozens of us were in an airplane, flying high above the earth. Below, we could see vast areas of desert, lit only by a few flickers of light. There were great cities, but the cities were surrounded by desert, and the desert extended into the streets. Those who lived in this area were asleep, and some were dead. It seemed hours went by while we passed over this desolation.
“Then, as we were returning, dispirited, we saw, far below us, as though through a telescope, another compost pile. Or it may have been the same compost pile from the previous scene, grown much bigger. Vegetation was springing up around it, spreading in all directions into the desert. We could hear you, still saying to yourself, `Time‑tested. Guaranteed.’ Much time must have passed, for you were very old.
“We continued on our way, and we saw a few other compost piles like yours. Isolated, they were tended by lone individuals, most of them old, working alone, unaware of each other’s existence. And each of them was nourishing greenery that was spreading into the desert, reclaiming it.”
I had been aware of Mr. Conway studying me closely as I’d listened to Sunnie’s dream. “Do you understand the dream, George?”
Well, what is a manure pile but a way of turning refuse into new life? The man who tends a compost heap tends a fire that cannot be seen: dark fire, hidden in the midst of earth. And in this dream I had been studying, and then practicing, the lost art of tending dark fire, working alone to reclaim the desert that was overwhelming the world. Working in concert with other individuals who were also tending their own dark fires, but working essentially alone.
The image made me shiver.
I wondered, in a detached portion of my mind, what Dennis Corbin would have made of this careful consideration of dreams. I knew his tune, but would like to have heard the melody. Corbin, in his moments of outraged defense of science against superstition, could be amusing on several levels.
Who listens to dreams? Primitives. Biblical figures like Jacob and Joseph and Saint Joseph. Not modern man. Not scientific modern man. Or, if he does, he does so only as Sigmund Freud did, to try to catch half‑censored whispers from an individual’s unconscious self, to deduce what secrets a sick person is trying to hide. There isn’t anything constructive in dreams, certainly. Nothing objectively real about them. They are not reliable source of guidance, and no serious person would even consider basing his actions or decisions on so unreliable (so “unscientific”) a source. Thus Mr. Dennis Corbin, presumably, on dreams. He’d think we were all crazy.
The thing is, we know better. Unlike Corbin, we have had the experience of it. We know reliable guidance when we experience it, and we aren’t much troubled by the theory of it. Here in Shangri‑la, we are protected (by the closed nature of our company) from the two chief hazards of relying on dreams: fraud and self‑aggrandizing delusion. Neither of these corruptions could be hidden from the senior, most clear‑seeing monks. Perhaps more to the point, who in our company would wish to perpetrate fraud? Who would wish to linger in delusion once it had been brought to light? Except Corbin, of course.
No, I must be more careful in my judgments. Corbin has many valuable qualities. Frankness, courage, optimism not least. The things that irritate me about him are but the defects of those qualities: a tendency to oversimplification, to rash judgments, and to shallow, complacent thinking. Tendencies easily picked up from the civilization we both sprang from! Plus, he is so young. He and I appear to be more or less of an age, but 43 is not 26, and between us it is more or less true what Yeats said: “I am old and you are young, and I speak a barbarous tongue.”
I notice that Mr. Barnard does not seem to feel the same strain I do in Corbin’s presence. He had grinned at me when I asked if he did. He said Lord no, he’d used up his supply of frustration dealing with me, a dozen years earlier. But when I pressed him, he said he thought the problem between Corbin and me was simply that he and I were too much alike. “He’s more your age, he’s got more of your reactions—which, you may not care to admit it!—and so of course you find him hard to take,” he had said. “With you two, it’s like fathers and sons, almost. Him and me, it’s more like grandfathers and grandsons. Grandfathers got a lot of patience with grandsons, usually. Probably they learn it dealing with their sons first.”
“Well,” I had said, “I guess I’ll have to wait til my grandson drops in. That ought to be in about 17 years, if our schedule holds.”
“We waited 31 years for you,” he’d said quietly. “Worth waiting for.”
The sentiment was so unexpected that I had shot him a quick, startled glance, thinking he might be gently mocking me. But he wasn’t. “Worth waiting for,” he’d said again. He’d cleared his throat. “I can’t remember that you and me ever had words.”
I’d been tempted to pretend to misunderstand him and say we’d had nothing but words all these years. Instead, I merely agreed that we hadn’t. “But I haven’t had words with anybody here. Why should I?” My heart had been in my throat, and it had occurred to me for some reason that I hadn’t told anyone of the visions of marsh and sea and farmland that had been coming to me with some frequency, ever since Corbin had arrived.
“In your time here, George,” Mr. Conway said, “which no doubt seems to you a very long stretch of time, I have noticed that when on occasion your curiosity has elicited no response, or only a vague, non‑committal response, you rarely probed farther. Didn’t your mind tease at those loose ends, George? Weren’t you hungry for answers? How is it that you did not persist in your inquiries?”
I hadn’t ever thought about it. I’d just followed my instinct. “I guess—Well, I don’t know. I guess I thought if it was any of my business somebody would tell me.” After a few seconds I added, “I’ve never had a sense that you were concealing anything without good reason.”
“In short, you trusted.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s about it. Why? [I said as a joke] Are you finally going to tell me all your secrets”
“Yes,” he said seriously, “We are. Some of them.” And in that lamplit room, with the other monks watching my reaction, he began to tell me certain things I’d need to know, filling in certain blanks that had puzzled me all these years, and adding things I should have thought to wonder about, but hadn’t.
For instance, the monastery’s contact with the Tibetan rebels. He proceeded to tell me things about the history of 29 years of Tibetan armed resistance to Chinese occupation. [But of this he has enjoined me strictly to write nothing.] In the course of absorbing his précis of various rebel actions over the years, I suddenly realized where his knowledge had to have come from.
“Mr. Conway, you’re in contact with the rebels! How else could you know all this?”
“Yes we are,” he said. “That’s what I want to tell you.“
“But you always said you didn’t have any contact with the outside world!”
“We implied that, yes. And with good reason. Henry made something of a point of telling you how he closed the supply pipeline 30 years ago. What he told you was true, but it was not the whole truth. What he carefully did not tell you was that other, less conspicuous, less dangerous points of contact remained. We were careful to see that they did remain. Even before the Chinese overran this country, it had become plain that isolation would be more dangerous than carefully limited contacts.”
He told me some things about the young warriors who carried on guerrilla warfare against their Chinese overlords (things I am not to repeat), and talked of how the monastery maintained contact with them.
“You know our young men who guard the entrance to the valley. For nearly two decades now, they have competed among themselves for the honor of acting as couriers between us and the rebels of Mustang and, earlier, those of Chamdo, and other provinces. They enjoy danger. In fact, they contend for the honor of having performed the most daring exploits. As a matter of fact, we have had to remind them, more than once, that the greatest exploit is not the most reckless but the one that produces the most valuable results.” He smiled. “As you may imagine, they tend to receive such advice with the tolerance of the young, showing proper respect, but trying hard not to let their elders spoil their fun.”
That cleared up certain points! I had always thought it curious that Mr. Herrick and Mr. Barnard could have been able to keep up with the world outside strictly by listening to the radio. Radio broadcasts are so brief; they assume so much background information on the part of the listener. Could you really make sense of the world over a long period of time by reading the headlines and not the stories? That’s what I had half‑sensed that Mr. Barnard was leaving out. Which told me—
“Mr. Conway, if you can get men to the rebels, you could have gotten me over the border any time you wanted. That means that all this time, I could have been home!”
“That is true,” he said quietly.
“There was a girl I could have married. She’s in her 40s now, and I’ve missed her whole life. She probably married this jerk I used to know. Probably has grown children. Grandchildren, maybe.” Frustration boiled up within me. “Seventeen years! And my parents are all old now, maybe dead, and my brothers and sisters are middle‑aged, and I’ve probably got nieces and nephews I’ve never even seen! I’ve missed a huge portion of their lives. Of my life. And I missed having a family of my own.”
I paused, but he made no defense of their silent deception.
“Probably they’ve forgotten me!”
“I very much doubt that,” he said. “But it’s natural for you to have regrets.”
“Regrets!? Regrets?! Mr. Conway, I don’t see how you could do that to me!”
“I ask you to believe that we were well aware of what we were taking from you.”
“You took normal life from me.” Images appeared in the theater of my mind. “I suppose this is going to sound stupid to you, but I missed all those years of going to the shore—the seashore—and eating watermelon and fresh peas in the spring, and fresh corn in the summertime, and going canoeing. And even ice cream! I dream about ice cream, sometimes.”
“Lost your career, too,” Mr. Barnard said, unexpectedly.
“Yeah, I did. I really loved flying, and it’s been all these years since I could go up. If I’d stayed in the Air Force, I’d be pretty nearly retirement age. I’ve lost half a lifetime of normal, everyday living.”
“So you have,” Mr. Conway said gravely.
Another thought struck me. “I’ll bet some of you have been over the border and back yourselves! And probably more than once.”
“No, lad, you’re wrong there,” Mr. Barnard said. “Too much risk. That’s for the Tibetans, or for the real young monks—and you’re the only one of us young enough to risk getting delayed. You know how it is: If you go out, you get back inside of two weeks—a month, at most—or you all of a sudden catch up to your real age. Where do you think that would leave any of us?”
Dead, of course. Dead, or suddenly so biologically old that death would not be far behind.
But I could not get over it. All this time, I could have been back in the world.
“Mr. Chiari,” Mr. Chin said out of a stillness, “Shangri‑la is a place of few regrets. Perhaps this is because time brings clarity of vision, and clarity of vision dispels regrets.”
Mr. Chin’s face by daylight is all wrinkles. By lamplight his eyes—black marbles—dominate.
“Few have volunteered to enter this life,” he said slowly, “Mr. Conway perhaps one‑half excepted.” There were smiles around the table at this gentle jibe at Mr. Conway’s escape and return. “At a younger age, I indulged in the young man’s prerogative of rebelling against fate, of struggling against what must be. You will understand, I do not refer to struggle against odds, but of what must be. This is a young man’s reaction. But time delivers us from such compulsions. We learn to accept life as it comes. Nothing comes to us unmingled, neither good nor bad. Was it not an American poet who referred to triumph and disaster as two impostors, to be treated alike?”
“Hardly American,” Mr. Conway smiled. “Rudyard Kipling.”
“Near American, anyhow,” Mr. Barnard said. “Might as well have been.”
“Kipling. Very well. I hope that you, an American, will forgive my thinking an English poet American.” His eyes were drawing me into him. Such joyous eyes, luminous with compassion and transcended suffering. (“Their eyes, their ancient glittering eyes, are gay,” Yeats said.) “You were called upon to sacrifice your life here. Perhaps you may find comfort, as I do, in the fact that you were summoned here for reasons no one could know.”
“I have said this is a place of few regrets. I have lived here more years than I can remember, and my regrets are very, very few. However, I now have another. Little thinking that time might fail, I neglected to pursue your acquaintance, and now it is too late.” He repeated himself. “`Too late.’ Words not often heard within these walls.”
“As you know, we must send the world a messenger. We have no one able to return to the world but you.”
“You alone are young enough—as the world counts years—to return in full vigor. Mr. Conway, Mr. Barnard, would return as old men. Mrs. Bolton would remain young anywhere [I looked at Sunnie, smiling in the lamplight at her own expense], but she cannot go. Miss Brinklow is quite as old as Mr. Conway, and in any case would make an unsuitable envoy. And Mr. Corbin, as you very ably saw, is too young, too untrained, too little in sympathy with our message to be able to deliver it.“
“That leaves you, George,” Mr. Conway said. “And I can only say I regret the necessity. But you have it in your power to do much good.”
As it turned out, publishing this memoir was not to be the sole task, or even the chief task, entrusted to me. The monks of Shangri-la never thought to save the world with yet another manuscript. And in the end, without much argument, I said I’d do it, of course. There was no one else.
Odd, isn’t it? I had just experienced, to the fullest, my regrets at having been held here, apart from the world. And now, as soon as I was told I must leave, equally strong feelings of loss overwhelmed me at the thought of having to leave.
If I had left right away, as soon as I’d arrived, I could have fit right back into my life and never known what I was missing. But now—
“Nearly everyone who comes here learns to find our life very much to his liking—or her liking,” Mr. Chin said, with a nod toward Sunnie. “This has been true of you, I know.”
“Yes,” I said. “I missed a lot in the outside world, but I’ve been happy here.”
“Which is more than you can say for Dennis Corbin,” Mr. Barnard said quietly. “It’ll be many a year before that boy settles in here. He’s going to be a handful.”
“He couldn’t come with me, I suppose?”
Mr. Conway shook his head. “We considered the idea, George, but we cannot risk it. You know why.”
Indeed I did. Dennis Corbin in the outside world would be more dangerous to Shangri-la than Mallinson ever could have been., circumstances having changed so.
“He will find his fate,” Mr. Chin said. “You were summoned here for reasons none could know. Now you are summoned to leave, for reasons none can know. If it is one’s fate to be a wanderer, that fate will be fulfilled. If not, other possibilities will arise. One can only obey and hold oneself in readiness.”
At length I realized I was expected to respond. My valedictory. I spoke, not knowing what I would say until I had said it.
“I’m getting all choked up,” I said. “It’s embarrassing.” I took tight hold. “I’m not going to make a speech. I can’t think of all that much to say. All I know is this. Maybe I did sound, a few minutes ago, like I still regretted coming here. But I hope you all know that this is my home. When I go over the mountains, I’ll be going to the place I was born, and the people I grew up with, but it would be far more accurate to say that I will not be going home. I’ll be leaving home. This is where my friends are. You are my family.
“I came here as a kid, living in a shell. I had emotions, but I couldn’t feel them. I had abilities that I didn’t dream of. I had a hunger and thirst I never could have filled.
“You all—Mr. Conway, especially—showed me another world, and helped me travel to it, and live in it. How could I ever repay that?
“And Mr. Barnard, Sunnie, how could I ever put a price on the time we’ve spent together?” I felt tears welling up, but held them back. “I know that in a few months I’m going to look my real age, and feel my real age, and it’s hard to believe, I’ve been 26 for so long. So I guess I’ll never know what it would have been like to be in my thirties. But what have I lost? If I hadn’t been lucky enough [I smiled at Mr. Barnard] to come here, I still would have grown old, but I wouldn’t have had any idea how much I would have missed. You’ve all heard Mr. Barnard quoting that saying of his: `We grow too soon old and too late smart.’ Well: Here, we don’t.
“Mr. Chin, you don’t have to worry about my having regrets. I do have some, but they aren’t important. The only thing I’ll worry about it whether I can represent us creditably to the outside world.”
I looked down at the table. “If you don’t mind, I prefer to say my goodbyes to people in private.” My eyes were full of tears.
“You will represent us creditably, George,” I heard Sunnie say. “And you won’t be alone, ever. You’ll carry us with you.”