By Tsering Döndrup, translated by Christopher Peacock. First published in English in The Handsome Monk, Columbia University Press, 2019. Thank you to the author, translator, and publisher for giving us permission to reprint it here.
You can find the original Tibetan here.
Setting down this blank page before me to write the story of Ralo is not a pleasant task. As soon as I think of him, that thick yellow snot hanging from his nose starts to wave back and forth before my eyes.
Ever since Ralo came into this world, his mother was the only family he’d ever known. When he learned how to talk, some cruel men from the camp would have a laugh by asking him who his dad was. As far as Ralo was concerned, this was a question he had to put to his mother.
“Mom, who’s my dad?”
“Don’t ever mention that word again.” His mom dealt him a slap and then squeezed him tightly to her breast. Before long, however, a man began to appear at their house in the evenings. Later on he started to visit during the day too, and eventually he simply moved in with them. “Ralo, my darling, this is your dad,” his mother lovingly informed him. But, unlike the other dads in the camp, this man never gave his son a single sweet or a single kiss. On top of this, whenever Ralo came near him, he would recoil in disgust: “Hey! Look at that snot—get away from me.” Ralo’s snot was like running water: as soon as he wiped it away, it came flowing right back. “His brains are dripping out again,” his mom always said.
Before Ralo knew it he was fourteen years old, but the snot hanging from his nose was even thicker and longer than before. By this time all the other kids his age could ride a horse and shoot a bow and arrow. He was the only one who still didn’t dare ride a tame horse on his own—he had to ride in the saddle with his mother instead. “Ralo, you riding in your mom’s lap again?” the others would tease him.
One morning the family was preparing to move to their winter camp. As Ralo clung to the guide rope of the yak that his step- father was loading up, the animal started. “Hold on tight!” his stepfather said.
With a line of snot running from his nose into his mouth, Ralo grit his teeth, bit his lip, and clung to the yak for dear life.
“Oh ya! It’s always better to have a man than a dog,” said his stepfather with satisfaction. “Hold on tight, hold—” but before he could finish, the yak reared again and Ralo was tossed facedown on the ground, losing his grip on the guide rope. The old yak bolted like a thing possessed, causing the saddle to slip down to its belly. The family possessions were scattered everywhere and trampled beyond salvation.
“You’re angry at the yak, but it’s the horse that gets the whip,” as the saying goes. The stepfather charged over in a fit of rage and screamed, “You useless little snot! Can’t even hold onto a yak properly!” With that he delivered two hard slaps to Ralo’s face, causing the snot on the boy’s chin to drip down to his chest. “Don’t you dare hit my son!” called out his mother, running over to them. “If you lay a finger on my son again . . . you won’t have a home here anymore!”
“Ha! The only reason I stayed here in the first place was that I felt sorry for the two of you. I’m leaving.” And his stepfather did indeed set off on his way.
“Don’t let Dad leave . . .”
“Shut your dog mouth! What dad?” His mom slapped him and held him to her breast. Both mother and son burst into tears.
How many people there are in this world! But apart from his mother, Ralo didn’t have a single relative, just as his mother had no one apart from Ralo. And yet, the Lord of Death had not the slightest bit of compassion for the two of them. Like a wolf pouncing into a flock of sheep, he came to pluck Ralo’s mother from the multitudes of the world and lead her into the next life. Though Ralo and his mother had no family but each other, when the others in the camp heard about his mother’s death, there wasn’t a single dry eye. No doubt, this was out of compassion for Ralo.
In the summer of the year that Ralo’s mother died, a few decent folks from the camp got together and decided to send Ralo off to board at the district primary school. In reality, this was not so much in order for him to learn to read and write as it was to put a roof over his head.
As it happened, I started school that same year, so Ralo and I became classmates. But Ralo was five years older than I—in fact, he was older than everyone else in the class.
At first, Ralo was a great student. He memorized the thirty letters of the alphabet before any of the other students in the class, causing the teacher to declare, “Everyone should learn from Ralo.” However, a few days later when the teacher asked us to write each letter on the board, Ralo couldn’t even write the first one, reducing the class to hysterics. “No one should learn from Ralo,” the teacher said.
“No one should learn from Ralo.” This phrase spread through- out the school.
It turned out that we really shouldn’t learn from Ralo. By the time we moved up to the next grade, Ralo still couldn’t write the alphabet, so he was terrible at his studies; he had snot constantly dripping from his nose, so his hygiene was terrible; and he was always smoking, so he was terrible at following the rules. In the end, he was held back. But as far as Ralo was concerned, none of this was anything to be worried about because there was no one who would reproach him for it. The main things Ralo cared about were where he would stay for the summer holidays and how he was going to get cigarettes once all the teachers and students had gone home. As it was, Ralo got all his cigarettes in exchange for cleaning the teachers’ houses, washing clothes and getting food for the older students, and subbing for his classmates when it was their turn to tidy up the classroom.
Students from nomad areas had a bad habit of not coming back on time for the start of the term. At the end of the summer and winter holidays there was often a delay of five or six days before classes could begin in earnest. Ralo, however, never once took leave to go back home, and moreover he always arrived at school before the new term even began. On this point, everyone really should have learned from Ralo.
A few fights are always going to break out in any school, and ours was no exception. Some of the troublemakers would deliberately shout, “No one should learn from Ralo!” within his ear-shot. Ralo would chase them madly, but if one stopped to face him and looked like he was up for a fight, Ralo would say, “Teacher said I’m not allowed to fight,” and like that his nerve would be gone. But as soon as the boy turned to leave, Ralo would pursue him once again, butting him with his shoulder and demanding to know, “Why shouldn’t you learn from me?” One day, a student seven years younger than Ralo shoved him to the ground and jumped on his back. “Look how fast my horse is!” the boy yelled, bouncing on Ralo and pretending to ride him. “Ah—Teacher . . .” cried Ralo, his flowing tears mixing with his snot, which in turn glued together with the dirt on his face. No matter how much he bucked, he couldn’t shake the boy. From that point on, everyone knew that Ralo might be big physically, but he didn’t have an ounce of strength. And so the bullies multiplied.
When we moved up a grade for the second time, Ralo could just barely recognize the thirty letters of the alphabet and still couldn’t write any of them, so he was held back again. The third and fourth years were the same. But whenever the teachers needed a sheep slaughtered, Ralo was indispensable, so it seemed that there wasn’t any harm in keeping him back.
At the end of the fifth year I finished primary school and moved to the County Nationalities Middle School.
One morning in the middle of winter, as a typical snowstorm of the northwest highlands was dancing in the sky, I was in my office stoking a fire in the stove.
Suddenly, a nomad charged in without even knocking. “Is this the People’s Court?”
“Yes, can I help you with something?” “Well, well! Aren’t you Döndrup?” “Yes, and you . . .”
“Don’t act like you don’t know me!” He dragged a stool over to the stove and sat himself down. “You become a cadre and you for- get your old classmates, is that it?”
Wait, was this Ralo, my classmate from ten years ago? Ah tsi,
he really had aged. His forehead was lined with wrinkles and a cluster of uneven whiskers had sprouted about his mouth. What hadn’t changed was the thick yellow snot coming from his nose.
“Ah, well, of course I know you. Is something the matter?” “Of course something’s the matter!” Ralo sucked in his snot
before continuing. “Someone stole my wife. He’s called Sönam Dargyé. He’s the most no-good man in the camp. If you don’t believe me, just go down to Drakmar Camp—ask anyone there, and they’ll tell you the same. Last year the bastard stole Aku Rap- gyé’s horse, and this year he sold Ané Tsokyi’s old dzo to some Muslim! And then yesterday, he beats me up and steals my wife, like it’s nothing. Doesn’t your court have the power to punish him, or are you afraid of him? Is your People’s Court going to help Ralo the proletarian, or aren’t you? I want to know today!” As Ralo went on and on, the snot ran down to his chin.
“Of course you’ll get help, but this is the criminal court. You need to take your case to the civil court.”
“I don’t understand this criminal civil stuff.” Ralo was getting angry. “If you’re not afraid of Sönam Dargyé, then go arrest him and get my wife back! Come to think of it, you can arrest her too while you’re at it.”
“Don’t get all worked up.” I passed Ralo a cigarette. “Ralo, my old classmate. We haven’t seen each other in years. How about we catch up first? What have you been up to all this time?”
“Okay. All right then.” Ralo gradually calmed down and we started to talk.
What follows is a few events that had occurred in Ralo’s life since we parted ways. In order to give the story its own flavor, I’ve done a bit of adding and subtracting here and there, but apart from that it’s mostly all the truth—in this, dear readers, you can trust me.
Although Ralo still couldn’t write the alphabet, he had grown older than most of the teachers at the school and there was just no way he could stay on, so in the end he was expelled. The reason given was that he had knocked on a female teacher’s door one night. With no home and no family, what choice did Ralo have but to become a drifter?
At first, Ralo staved off the cold and hunger by stopping at any house he came across and volunteering to do manual work or put the cattle out to pasture. Once, an old man at one of these houses thought, Eh, it’s about time for our daughter to get a husband. This drifter Ralo can’t control his snot, but he’s not a bad herder, and at least he doesn’t have sticky fingers. If we get him as our son-in-law, we won’t have to get any betrothal gifts, either. Not bad!
For Ralo, this was most welcome indeed.
The strange thing was that Ralo, as if he’d been possessed, soon stopped doing any work at all, and wouldn’t even go graze the cattle. “I’m your son-in-law, not your slave,” he would say. This infuriated the old man. “Gah! The ingratitude of it! If I don’t teach that snot-nosed bum one hell of a lesson, then I’m no man!” Ralo paid the old man no mind and carried on doing whatever he pleased. Though there was nothing he could do about the snot, his cracked lips seemed to be healing and his face began to emit a red glow. Every day he combed his short, fine marmot-tail braid, and he drew out his speech in a slow drawl: “Ah . . .” “Oh . . .” “Really . . .” “Strange . . .” “I’ve never heard that before . . .” “There’s an old saying. . . .” You’d never have thought that this was the same man who’d been a snot-nosed drifter only a few days before.
But how could Ralo know that “one hell of a lesson” awaited him?
For a few days, the family had been stockpiling beer, cigarettes, and sweets, making bread, and slaughtering sheep and cows, as if they were preparing for a grand celebration. When Ralo asked what was going on, they said that a great lama was coming to visit.
“Oh, what good fortune for us!” said Ralo, combing his braid.
Ralo had a habit of getting out of bed very late in the morning. That day being no exception, it was almost midday before he was up. Putting on his fur-lined coat and exiting the tent, he saw a great many horses tied up outside and heard the sounds of raucous laughter and singing. Thinking to himself that the lama had arrived, he immediately fastened his belt and rushed over, but on entering the other tent he found everyone staring at him curiously. Puzzled, Ralo looked about and discovered his wife, decked out in her finest splendor, kneeling next to another young man. “What’s all this?” he demanded, even more puzzled now.
“Our family is getting a son-in-law,” his wife’s younger brother replied.
“Who are we getting a son-in-law for?”
“My sister, who else? He’s not for me.” Everyone burst out laughing.
“Is having two husbands allowed?” “What? What two husbands?” “Me, him.”
“Ha ha ha! A snotty little bum like you who gets drunk with- out even drinking? You’re the family’s sheep herder, how could you be her husband?”
“This is impossible! You can’t insult someone like this! If I don’t die right here in front of you, then I’m no man!” Ralo brandished his fists and leaped forward as the crowd struggled to restrain him. “You can’t stop a mad dog, and you can’t restrain a madman,” as the saying goes, and Ralo worked himself up into an even greater frenzy. “Haha! Have you never heard of the royal genealogies of the Ralo family? I come from a line of kings and queens! If I don’t bathe this camp in blood today, then my name’s not Ralo! I’m Ralo, you . . .” Ralo ranted on and on until the snot running into his mouth finally brought him to a halt.
The crowd, moved to hysterics by this absurd scene, let him go. Ralo didn’t dare raise his fists to the brother, so he just butted him a bit with his shoulder. “It’s my sister’s wedding day, so I’m not getting in a fight with a snotty little bum like you. Get a grip on yourself and piss off back to wherever you came from,” said the younger brother. But Ralo simply wouldn’t leave him alone and continued to butt him with his shoulder until the brother, his patience exhausted, grabbed Ralo’s braid and tossed him to the floor, pulling out the braid at the roots as he did so.
“Ah ho, my braid! It’s worth a whole yak . . .” Ralo rolled about on the floor in a fit. “If you don’t repay me for my braid then I’m not going anywhere!”
“If you don’t leave I’ll cut your ear off.” Unsheathing his knife, the brother stepped toward him. Ralo jumped to his feet and ran like the wind.
Ralo wasn’t worried at all about his wife getting married to some- one else. What he was worried about was how he could face other people without his beautiful braid. But before long his stomach was empty, and he had no choice but to return to civilization once more.
Ralo passed through many different camps and stayed at many different houses. At first, he would volunteer to do manual work or put the cattle out to pasture at any house he came across. But as soon as his belly was full, he’d give up his herding duties and start talking with that slow drawl: “Ah . . .” “Oh . . .” “There’s an old saying. . . .” Some houses kicked him out with a “Get lost,” while others he left of his own accord.
One day Ralo arrived at a monastery. As the monastery was in the process of being rebuilt, it just so happened that they were taking in monks.
There was never any point in drifting through the mundane world anyway, and since that asshole cut off my precious braid, I’ve really got no way to face people. I might as well become a monk; that way I can at least chant some scriptures for my dear old mom. With these thoughts in mind, Ralo shed his lay clothing and adopted the robes of a monk, taking as his Dharma name “Chöying Drakpa.” Chöying Drakpa didn’t miss a single assembly, and he memo- rized the Refuge Vows and other elementary chants before any of the other monks. This chanting scriptures business is much easier than what we did in school. This is my kind of studying! he thought. His continued devotion to his studies earned him the repeated praise of the disciplinarian, praise that almost reached the level of that phrase from his youth: “Everyone should learn from Ralo.”
But gradually Chöying Drakpa came to know of the “secret activities” and “open deeds” of certain lamas and monks. If that’s the way it is, then what’s the point? he thought. From then on, he was only at the monastery if there was something to eat and drink, or if there were families of the deceased offering donations to the monks. The rest of the time he spent in the nearby town watching movies, smoking cigarettes, and even drinking beer (which he called “fruit juice”), and so that other phrase from his youth once again reared its head: “No one should learn from Ralo.”
Worse than that, one afternoon a rumor blew through the monastery that Chöying Drakpa had been chasing after a girl from the camp across the river. Soon this rumor also reached the ears of the disciplinarian and some of the old monks. Chöying Drakpa might be lazy, thought the disciplinarian, but he has renounced worldly existence and turned his mind to the sacred Dharma, so there’s no way he could get up to such shameless things. Perhaps it’s nothing but lies and slander. I’ll believe it when I see it with my own eyes!
But there were two monks who did indeed see it with their own eyes. Chöying Drakpa, finding himself at loose ends, had gone down to the banks of the Tsechu to drink a “fruit juice.” It was a summer afternoon and the rays of the midday sun were streaming over Tsezhung County. Amid the soft green grass of the high- lands great bouquets of globeflowers were blooming—from a distance it looked just like someone had laid out a green carpet dotted with yellow. Through this whole scene the Tsechu River flowed gently. If anyone with even a single artistic bone in their body were to come here, then the strains of “The Blue Danube” would naturally drift into their ears, as no matter what angle you looked at it from, the Tsechu really was just as lovely as the beautiful Danube.
Just then a girl from the camp across the river came to fetch water. She truly was a beauty. As she drew water she cast a glance at Chöying Drakpa from the corner of her eye, and he fell like an animal into a trap. At the end of the day, the most beautiful thing in the world is a woman, he thought. Seized with a sudden impulse, he struck up a Malho love song:
Can a wild yak climb on the misty mountain?
Can a little goldfish swim in the emerald lake?
Can I have the company of the enchanting girl?
Without giving it much thought, the water-fetching girl responded with her own Ganlho song:
A black cloud with yellow rim is made up of frost and hail;
a monk neither clergy nor lay is the foe of Buddhist ways.
Because she sang quickly, Chöying Drakpa didn’t quite get the gist of the song, nor did he stop to give it much consideration.
Usually it’s pretty rare for girls to sing to boys, he thought, but this one replied to me straight away. She must be into me! Overcome with joy and completely forgetting both the disciplinarian and his vows, he plowed into the Tsechu without even taking his off his boots. At first the girl thought the monk was just kidding around with her, so she wanted to kid around with him, but when she saw
Chöying Drakpa rushing toward her, boots still on and snot running down to his chin, she thought, This monk must be crazy! Throwing aside her water bucket, she fled in terror.
When they witnessed this farcical scene, the monks who had been studying by the river couldn’t help but burst into laughter. At that moment, Chöying Drakpa came to his senses and stood, dazed, in the middle of the river.
The sun set, and the monastery became even more still and peaceful.
“The greatest burden in the world isn’t having work to do, but having nothing to do”—what an accurate statement. It was indeed as if Chöying Drakpa was suffering under the weight of having nothing to do. He got up late in the morning and couldn’t get to sleep at night. The water-fetching girl’s alluring features and that sidelong glance (which he took as flirtatious) refused to disappear from his mind. Heaving a sigh, he left his monk’s quarters.
The curved sickle moon hung in the southwestern sky like an old man leaning on his walking stick. The sound of dogs barking drifted over from the camp on the other side of the Tsechu, and looking in that direction, Chöying Drakpa could see each of the homes clearly. One place had a fi e going in the stove, and he could see it even more clearly than the others.
The face of the water-fetching girl appeared before Chöying Drakpa’s eyes like a film projected on the screen of his mind. He returned to his room, took off his monk’s robes, and put on his old fur-lined coat.
It was just over a mile from the monastery to the camp across the river, so Chöying Drakpa arrived there in no time at all. He turned toward the home with the blazing lamplight, and tiptoeing up to the flap of the tent he peeked inside, but only one person was in there. It was a woman, but sadly it wasn’t the water-fetching girl. She was sitting by the stove with her head in her hands, as though something was weighing on her mind.
Chöying Drakpa forgot about the water-fetching girl entirely and couldn’t help but enter the tent. The woman jumped up in fright, an “Ah ma!” escaping her mouth. After a moment she calmed down and asked who he was.
“I’m a passerby,” Chöying Drakpa answered with a grin. “Can I stay the night here?”
The woman sized up Chöying Drakpa in detail. He was tall and skinny with thick eyebrows and a purplish complexion.
“Ah tsi, of course you can.” She got up, and with a smile poured Chöying Drakpa a cup of tea. “Have a seat on the mat.”
Chöying Drakpa took a seat and examined his surroundings, and gradually his gaze came to rest on the woman. She was around thirty, with dark red cheeks and a high nose. She was plump and had a bulging chest. Chöying Drakpa felt his skin tingle with desire. “Is it just you here?” he asked her, flushing.
“Eh . . .” she sighed, a forlorn expression appearing on her face. “I had a good-for-nothing husband, but he left me and ran off to become a monk.”
“Ah, how terrible! Most monks are shameless like that. I can’t stand monks.”
“Absolutely. There’s no one in the world who loves to eat and hates to work more than a monk.”
Excerpted from The Handsome Monk and Other Stories by Tsering Donsdrup. Translated by Christopher Peacock. Copyright (c) 2019 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
“Oh—I mean those monks love to talk rubbish too.” “Do you smoke?” the woman asked.
“Of course not . . . oh . . . yes, I do, I do.”
“Give me one, would you? This loneliness has made me take it up.”
After expounding for a while on the joys and benefits of smoking, Chöying Drakpa fished around in his pocket. “Oh—too bad! I didn’t bring any today.”
Chöying Drakpa and the woman talked for some time, and now and then he would send some compliments her way. After a while their intentions began to align.
“Ah, ‘There’s no suffering in the recitation hall, but you have to sit ’til your butt’s numb, and there’s no happiness in samsara, but you can still dispel your troubles’—what a true saying!”
“What? You’ve been in a recitation hall?”
“I was before; it was pointless. What if the two of us could be together our whole lives, wouldn’t that be great?”
“If that’s what you want, then it’s easily done.”
“Of course that’s what I want! But we can’t stay here, because . . .” Chöying Drakpa recounted all of his troubles to her. After hiding out at her place for a few days, he helped her gather up all of her necessities, and under the cover of the moonlight they headed for Chöying Drakpa’s hometown.
When Chöying Drakpa was a monk, if someone called him Ralo instead of Chöying Drakpa he would get angry and butt them with his shoulder. Now that he had returned home, people once again called him Ralo and he seemed to like it, so we’ll go back to calling him Ralo too.
Ralo’s household registration was still here in the area, and his mother’s nomad tent and her belongings had been left in the camp storehouse. The Nomad Committee gave him a relief stipend and gathered some sheep and cattle from the community for him to tend, for which he had to sign a contract. At first Ralo worked diligently and his house really seemed like a home, but as soon as he had clothes on his back and food in his belly, the seeds of laziness gradually sprouted again. He stopped tending the livestock, stopped working, and went into town to idle around. Eventually his livestock contract was rescinded, and his wife lost all patience with him.
Ralo had been in town for a few days, and after his money had all dried up he returned home to discover that his wife was nowhere to be seen. According to his neighbors, she’d been taken away by Sönam Dargyé, so off he went to Sönam Dargyé’s house to fetch her back.
“This is my home now,” she said. “Ah tsi, are you possessed or what?”
“You’re the one who’s possessed!” Sönam Dargyé approached him. “She’s my legal wife, what other home has she got except this one?”
Ralo, incensed, started to butt Sönam Dargyé with his shoulder. “You’ll steal someone’s wife in broad daylight?!”
“If you think I stole her, then go report it to the police. Then we’ll see whose wife she is.”
Only then did Ralo remember that there is a place that can subdue tyrants and protect the weak: a place they call “the court- house.”
I took Ralo to the civil court and introduced him, then went back to the office.
The civil court summoned Sönam Dargyé and the woman to investigate the matter. “It’s true that Ralo and I lived together for a while,” she said, “but we weren’t husband and wife. If he says we were, then where’s the marriage certificate? Isn’t it against the law to live together without a marriage certificate? So my marriage to Sönam Dargyé is completely legal.” She produced a marriage certificate from her pocket.
According to the verdict of the court, the woman was Sönam Dargyé’s legal spouse. Ralo’s lawsuit had about as much impact as throwing a stone into Qinghai Lake.
Ralo now finally realized the importance of getting a marriage certificate. He felt a deep sense of regret that he hadn’t sorted out this marriage certificate thing before. He gave himself a slap on the face, and the snot ran down to his chin.
Ralo exited the courthouse and wandered aimlessly down the street. Coming to the door of a restaurant, he realized that he hadn’t had breakfast or lunch yet. He felt a wave of heat in his stomach, which emitted a long rumble. Unable to stop himself, he went into the restaurant, but unfortunately he didn’t have a penny to his name.
A lot of kids these days will eat without paying for it, but Ralo was not that kind of person—in fact, there was one time he returned four thousand yuan he found on the street straight to its owner without a moment’s hesitation. No one could accuse Ralo of having sticky fingers, unless they were talking about him picking cigarette butts out of the teachers’ trash back when he was in school.
Ralo stood in a daze, staring at the mouths of the diners. As he stared he found himself thinking back to his time as a monk: the faithful masses would always donate congee filled with more meat than rice, and there would even be raisins and sugar. If ever a family that wasn’t so well off substituted dates for raisins, the monks would very likely say, “Hey, they’ve put damn dates in here!” and with no hesitation at all upend their bowls on the table.
I really didn’t know the value of food in those days, he thought, sighing. Ralo swallowed a mouthful of saliva and turned to leave, but his stomach continued to emit the warning sign that he had to eat something.
Ah—what can I do? I’ve got to get some food, no matter what! Ralo cast about desperately for a familiar face. In the old days, he thought, I’d sell a sheep or a cow and drink to my heart’s content, then all my classmates and people I knew would be buzzing around me like bees. Where have all those people gone now? His thoughts turned to the old yak, the one he used to ride. That yak was the only one from his herd of livestock worth any money, as well as his only means of getting around. But what’s more important than your stomach? Don’t all living things, from the lowest ant to the noblest human, rush about madly just for the sake of their stomachs?
Ralo sold that old yak for seven hundred yuan. If he’d been an experienced trader, there’s no doubt he could have got more for it. But as far as Ralo was concerned, that was a most satisfactory sum, as never before in his life had he held so much money in his hands.
“I’m Ralo, and I’m rolling in it! Drink, drink, drink . . .” Ralo was a little bit drunk. He was in a restaurant, waving a handful of hundred-yuan bills in the air and drinking beer in the middle of a crowd. “As for Ralo’s paternal ancestry and maternal ancestry . . .” he began, snot running down to his chin.
It was dusk, and the restaurant was lit up. A woman kept peeking in through the doorway and looking around. As Ralo was coming back from taking a piss, he saw her and stayed outside for a moment to size her up. From the look of her clothes, she wasn’t a local.
“Where are you from?” asked Ralo, staring at her.
“Amchok,” said the woman, turning around to look at Ralo. She was just over twenty years old, her clothes were worn out, and she had cracked lips, but her deep-set eyes gave off a sincerity and a purity that called to Ralo’s mind the image of the water-fetching girl from the year before.
“Have you ever been to the Tsechu to fetch water?”
Not understanding the meaning behind his question, she stared at him in bemusement.
“You’ve definitely been to the Tsechu to fetch water.” Ralo continued to interrogate her as though he were a policeman. “What are you doing here?”
“I want to eat something . . . but . . .”
Ralo realized that she must have no money. “I know you. I’ve seen you before. Just wait a second.” He went into the restaurant and whispered a few words to a young man who had the appearance of an official. The man passed him a key, and he returned. “Come on, let’s go eat.”
The woman was hesitant and stayed where she was. “Don’t be afraid,” said Ralo. “I know you.” He tugged on her sleeve and she somewhat reluctantly went along.
Side by side, they went into a narrow alley.
“There’s no happiness in samsara, but you can dispel your troubles!” blurted out Ralo. On top of the proverb, he added: “Let’s get a marriage certificate.”
“Ah tsi! What are you talking about? I’ve got a husband.”
“Ah, but after we get a marriage certificate, you’ll be my legal wife. Then no one can interfere, whether you had a husband before or not!”
“Really! I had a wife before too, but she got a marriage certificate with some other guy so the court said she wasn’t my wife, but the other guy’s wife. ‘Chinese rely on writing, Tibetans rely on their word,’ as they say.”
“Then it’s up to you. I can’t get along with him anyway. If I could, then what would I be doing all the way out here, wandering around on my own?”
The strange thing was that, in this place, it was hard to get divorced but there were no procedural requirements at all for getting married. As long as both parties consented, that was it. So Ralo and this virtual stranger went down to the county government and got a marriage certificate, no problem.
Though there was no way that she could be the water-fetching girl, compared to the yellow-toothed wife—or partner—he’d had before, she was prettier and a whole lot nicer. So Ralo swore from the bottom of his heart that he would change his bad and idle ways and resolved to spend his days with this honest woman. He even swore off the drink before a lama.
Ralo genuinely fell in love with her. This love was something he hadn’t felt at all with the previous two women. For instance, when he went to the county seat to buy grain, he wouldn’t waste a single second messing around and would hurry back as soon as possible with a new shirt or some sweets for his wife. And as soon as she saw Ralo coming back in the distance, she would rush out the mile or so to meet him, bringing food and drink with her. Things were going well for the two of them. They used the old tent that Ralo’s mother had left behind to store dung, and the brand-new one they moved into was filled with the sound of laughter.
Some people said that this woman put Ralo on the straight and narrow. Others even said that she might be the reincarnation of Ralo’s mother. Either way, ever since they’d been together Ralo really had become a different person. There was even less snot on his upper lip than there used to be.
However, one day, two men from the Public Security Bureau showed up completely out of the blue and took Ralo and his wife away to the county seat.
According to the court, his wife had committed bigamy, so she was sentenced to six months in prison. Ralo cried until the tears and snot mingled on his chin. Coming up close to him, she said, “Ralo, don’t lose heart. Six months isn’t that long. I’ll always be yours.”
What sincere and kind words! These words gave Ralo a kind of courage and hope that he had never felt before. Wiping away the snot and the tears, he stood up straight and called out, “Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you!”