Elder Sister places pebbles to mark people in her sand village. She pats walls in place. She smiles in her know-it-all way as if to remind me that it is she who will marry the headman’s son and decide what our tribe does–all because she was born an hour before me. When she stands back to admire her work, I kick it in.
“Younger Sister, why?” She gives a mournful look.
“You hadn’t posted guards,” I mock. “A city is more than fields and huts and granaries.”
“Hmmm.” She flattens the sand and drags a twig to sketch a new plan, this time including watch towers. She cups her hands around moist sand to shape buildings again.
I hate it when she doesn’t fight.
She will take time to build anything worth kicking, so I turn to the Maasa river. The pebble I throw skims over the flat blue water, touching the surface once, twice, three times before it sinks. The air smells of river spray and fresh grass and ripe wheat—too peaceful for me. My dreams have soldiers flashing swords and cities full of buildings and the sounds of song and dance. In my dreams, I rule people.
My hand is moving to my bosom, as if that will stop the buzz of things I crave, when I notice Tribemother watching me. I straighten up; I do not want her to suspect anything. Tribemother’s face is so thick with wrinkles I never know when she is frowning. She must be over a hundred years old, because no one remembers her as young. They say she knows everything that can be known. They say she reads minds; at times like this, I worry it may be true.
Yet I have not done anything wrong. Not yet.
“Younger One, Elder One,” she calls out. “Come, I will tell you a story about a different tribe.”
Elder Sister looks up. “Are they like us?”
I had been about to ask, can we beat them in war?
Tribemother’s stories are stickier than glue.
When I was five and heard her story about a mountain bear, I smelled raw flesh on its breath, and felt coarse paws on my arm. Its teeth were barely a hand-span away from my face when I blurted out that I would return Elder Sister’s wooden doll to make it go away.
But right now, any story is good because it will stop me from imagining other things.
Elder Sister and I squat near her.
“This is the story of an orphan healer apprentice, Kushi.” Tribemother pauses to peer at us. “She was almost eight years old—like you girls—on the day the gods tore the sky open.”
Kushi was pulling out a medicinal plant wedged between rocks when the valley went dark. Thunder boomed in the air. The sky, blue a moment ago, was angry with black clouds. Alarmed, she ran towards the hut cluster. The men had rushed from the farms, some still holding hoes; the women gathered, babies dangling off their hips. Everyone—men, women, children—stared at the sky. The clouds split and the skies tore apart to expose an eye-burning white light.
And down floated a bright purple feather.
A feather gifted by the gods? Excitement tingled in Kushi. She had always assumed the stories to be ways to cheer younger children. Was it true, then, that the gods sent feathers to select leaders whenever the tribe was in trouble? Five hundred years ago, Khenpo, a feather-selected, foresaw an earthquake and made the tribe migrate just in time. And two centuries later, another chosen leader, Rigpa, averted a major split in the tribe by enforcing new laws for marriage and inheritance.
But why did the gods send a feather now? Food in the valley was sufficient even if not abundant. People were almost content. Kushi glanced at the headman Yeshe; his face was stiff with tension.
The feather hovered over a group of young boys who whooped and jumped to grab it. Then, boom! The skies sealed shut, the clouds vanished, and the feather shot into the hands of Bataar.
Kushi’s stomach lurched. Bataar? How could the gods select a boy who snatched bread from younger children, cheated in games, and slept during nightwatch?
Bataar raised his hand, fingers clutched around the shiny purple feather. “Behold the feather of the gods,” he shouted.
Everyone looked stunned. Some men shook their heads; some women muttered. “Indeed,” said someone with marked lack of enthusiasm.
Yeshe glanced at his deputy, Nawang, and then waved for silence. “Tribesmen! We are blessed that the gods have chosen Bataar though he is yet a tender ten-year-old. I will be honored to teach him so that I can hand over when he is wise enough.”
Relieved cries of “Well spoken!” erupted all around.
Bataar bowed stiffly. “I look forward to my rightful place,” he said haltingly. “And to learning whatever I need.”
“Already he speaks wisely,” someone whispered.
But Kushi could only stare at Bataar. He lowered his face, as if overcome by a sudden humility, but he was peering from under his eyelashes, and to Kushi, it seemed his face gleamed just as it did when he squashed a beetle or pinched babies to make them cry. Her skin crawled.
Within a few days, everyone was commenting on how Bataar had changed from a disobedient, stubborn pest to a model student who earned wholesome praise from the deputy headman, Nawang. And though Yeshe refused to comment on Bataar’s progress, Bataar stuck his feather in his headband to remind people that he had been chosen.
Kushi remained wary. Once, when gathering herbs in an isolated spot, she saw Bataar swoop down on a squirrel. Laughing, he threw it far into the gulch; then he mumbled to his feather. He held it near his ear, nodded, and grinned. Kushi, crouched behind a rock, felt cold all over: the feather seemed to approve his action. Yet, in front of everyone, Bataar acted gentle and controlled.
Was the feather teaching him to pretend?
That evening, she told Healer Bolormaa what she had seen, and added, “Should we tell Headman Yeshe?”
“No.” Bolormaa frowned. “Yeshe knows Bataar is pretending, and is looking for ways to refuse handing over. But the boy has managed to fool everyone else, even Nawang.”
“If I tell everyone what I saw–”
“Bataar is older, and chosen by the gods. No one will believe you. They remember how you scratched his face and said he hit Papo.”
“He did hit Papo.” Surely Bolormaa hadn’t forgotten that?
“Yes, but now Papo sticks to Bataar like a tail, and behaves like Bataar is a god. People will say you are jealous or possessed by an evil spirit.”
Kushi shuddered. The only time she had seen her tribesmen handle a possessed girl had been terrifying—the girl’s screams as the spirit was beaten out of her still pounded Kushi’s ears. But the thought of Bataar leading the tribe was even more frightening. So she went to Yeshe’s hut.
“Headman, Bataar tortures and kills squirrels,” she said.
Yeshe sighed. “Maybe the gods will give him wisdom and compassion.”
“They are making him worse.” Kushi’s voice sharpened with anger.
“That’s heresy,” Yeshe said. “And you can’t prove it.”
Kushi squirmed. They wanted proof—she would get it.
As an apprentice healer, Kushi was busy all day, but whenever possible, while gathering herbs, she chose the mountain slopes and ravines where Bataar went in his spare time. Light-footed and agile, she trailed him without rustling anything. She watched him maim and kill small animals while speaking to his feather. Sometimes he threw his head back and laughed like a jackal. Yet Bolormaa or Yeshe ignored her reports.
One day, Bataar caught a lizard and ripped open its stomach with a sharp stone. He scooped its dripping entrails and held them in the air. “Yes!” he shouted. “Yes!” Then he wrapped them in felt and punched the air with his fist. His face shone with excitement.
Kushi ran to Bolormaa.
“So,” Bolormaa said, irritated, “the boy wrapped the entrails instead of flinging the animal to its death. So?”
“His face twisted in an ugly way–”
“Don’t follow him if it frightens you,” Bolormaa snapped. “And don’t bother Yeshe—knowing about another dead creature won’t make a difference.”
Men and women danced and took swigs of beer from their gourds. Stew bubbled in cauldrons. It was the winter-begin day, the last festival celebrated before ice sealed off the passes. The elders had struck a good bargain with the nomads while bartering spare grain for ploughs and tools, and everyone was happy and relaxed. Kushi sat with the other children, breathing in the lovely smells, and imagining life in lands where people ate so well every day. Soon she would grow up and become a healer. She would marry. Her children would never feel as lonely as she had felt because she was motherless, though, of course, Bolormaa had been a kind foster mother and teacher and—
Kushi jerked out of her daydream. Bolormaa was running towards a group clustered near the fire; Kushi ran after her. Nawang lay writhing on the ground, foaming in his mouth. Yeshe knelt near him.
Nawang spasmed and stopped moving. Bolormaa examined his skin and eyes. She checked his neck for the throb of life, held her fingers near his nostrils. “Dead,” she whispered. She sniffed his upturned gourd, then spilled out the contents. A tangled lump fell out. She poked at it and her shoulders slumped.
“A poisonous lizard fell in the gourd,” she said, her voice heavy.
Those must be the entrails Bataar had been so gleeful about! Kushi couldn’t help herself—she glanced at Bataar. A mistake, she realized, because his gaze locked with hers. She knew her face was pale and eyes wide with horror, and in that awful moment she saw suspicion crowd Bataar’s face before he turned away.
As Kushi sidled away, she heard people whispering:
“Yeshe can use Bataar. . .”
“. . . chosen. . .”
“The boy will learn fast.”
Sick at heart, sick in her body, Kushi retched out her insides behind a boulder. She wandered aimlessly till the smells and sounds of the winter festival seemed distant, then sat on a rock. The skies were black, the stars faint, and the moon a silver sickle. Kushi’s stomach knotted with fear. To whom could one turn if the gods taught murder?
As the night deepened, Kushi’s fear became rage. “You gods!” she called out to the skies. “Stop troubling us.”
The skies ignored her.
“Why did you choose Bataar?” she shouted. “I am better with bow and arrow. I can heal. But I’m just a girl and—”
A bright red sphere had popped out of nothing barely a couple of hands in front of Kushi. It was so hot that the air around it shimmered; Kushi jerked back, scared. Wisps of smoke rose from the charred grass under it. Kushi opened her mouth to shout, but the sphere began dulling into a tired red, and then shrunk into an orange feather. The whole thing took barely a couple of heartbeats.
“I am cool now; pick me,” said the feather.
It was hard and stiff—made of metal, like the ploughs the nomads brought. She held it carefully. “When Bataar got his feather, the sky tore apart and there was lightning.”
“We need less energy to reach you,” the feather whispered. “We are the later gods.”
“We know about Bataar’s feather, but his feather does not know about us.”
She shuddered. “Bataar is horrible. If you knew—” She bit her lip. “Sorry. Gods must know him well.”
“His feather wants him to do evil. We will tell you how to stop him. Keep our presence a secret and learn all you can.”
Holding the feather gave her hope. She felt honored because the gods chose her to stop evil. She tied the feather in her waistband, and fastened the band around her sheepskin cloak. The righteous gods were with her.
Through the winter that followed, and the spring and summer, Kushi soaked in all she could learn.
From Bolormaa and other elders, she learned how to recognize herbs. She sewed sheepskin into cloaks, cut out yak skin shoes. She made weather-baked mud bricks and built huts. She cooked. She made butter-tea perfect enough for Bolormaa.
Also, she observed people. She watched them bargain with nomads. She saw lovers exchange signals, angry parents scold children. She understood why some children were liked more than others.
And she learned from her feather gods. They whispered tips on brewing herbs. They corrected her technique when she applied poultices and bandages, set broken arms, and helped women deliver.
But Kushi no longer mentioned Bataar to anyone. Bolormaa and Yeshe knew the truth; let them handle it as they could. If they didn’t, her feather gods would help her defeat Bataar’s evil.
Kushi’s gods often described lands beyond the forests and the valley. A river so broad you could not see the opposite shore. Blue water flowed gently and all the time; no ice lumps of glacier-melt after winter, no dry river-bed in summer. The ground was green with tall grass, and grain swayed in the fields, the crops so fulsome that no one went hungry. Ever.
“You will lead your people to this land,” the gods said.
“Do you know the future?” she asked.
“Yes,” they said. “You will make it happen.”
“If the future is fixed, why must I do anything?”
“Because Bataar’s feather comes from enemies of your tribe and wants him to create a future where your tribe will die.”
Kushi thought about it. “Can there be more than one future?”
“In the real and good future, Bataar’s plans will be defeated. His gods do not know this. You will make that future happen.”
Strange, but then Kushi could not expect to understand the ways of the gods. Luckily they knew the evil Bataar intended, and would help her stop him.
Then one day as she was gathering herbs, her feather whispered, “Today you will stop Bataar.”
“Stop him from what?” Kushi asked. “How?”
“Bataar will be looking down from a cliff. Rush at him from behind, and push him. He will fall.”
“But he will die! Why should I—”
“He is planning more murders. Do you want him to succeed? If he falls over a cliff, everyone will think it was an accident.”
She gripped the feather so hard it bruised her palm. “I am not a murderer,” she hissed. “I can tell Bolormaa.”
“Don’t waste time. Destroy the evil.”
She thought of how Bataar had always been a bully, and how gleefully he ripped open the lizard. She remembered Nawang’s death. But if she pushed Bataar off the cliff, would she be any better?
She spotted Bataar going towards the cliff.
“There he is,” whispered her gods. “Follow him.”
“I don’t understand. How can you—”
“Don’t waste time,” her gods shouted inside her head.
No! Killing was evil. If Bataar must die, why didn’t the gods kill him? If they could see the future, if they made the future, why ask for a young girl’s help? Why not make him fall themselves? Why did they sound so anxious? Could they do nothing but talk?
Had she been fooled by evil gods? Her head hurt from their shrieks. Her legs shook, almost compelling her to rush at Bataar. But she was not a murderer. No gods could make her one. She started running.
She was almost near the huts when she bumped into Yeshe. “What’s the hurry, child?” He peered at her. “Kushi, what happened?”
“Nothing. . . I mean. . .”
He patted her head and grinned. “Children, yes. Always running around. Too much energy, yes?”
She gave a faint smile and walked slowly, trying not to shake.
“Kushi, you are back early.” Bolormaa glared at her.
“Headache,” she mumbled.
Bolormaa touched her forehead. “You’ve got fever.”
A short while later, Kushi lay drenched with sweat, drowsy with the strong draught Bolormaa had forced down her throat. The voices in her head were faint and jumbled; the hazy dreams that came were full of dread.
She woke to the sound of wails. She stumbled out of the hut. Everyone was gathered in the central square. Bolormaa was talking to other elders, but where was Yeshe? Bataar’s face was smudged with tears. He spotted Kushi; his mask of grief slipped momentarily.
Men were talking:
“He knew the mountains so well, how could he. . .”
“Such a gentle headman. . .”
Kushi knew in a flash what had happened: Bataar had pushed Yeshe to his death. She rushed at Bataar, crazed beyond control. “You pushed Headman Yeshe!” she shouted. “First you killed Deputy Nawang and then you killed Yeshe.”
Someone slapped her.
Bataar smiled gently. “She is merely a senseless child, blind with grief. She does not know Yeshe was like my father.”
A few elders looked suspiciously at Bataar. Kushi’s rage died and became regret, like bile in her mouth. She should have spoken out earlier. Some people may have believed her. And even if they hadn’t, Bataar would have hesitated to murder Yeshe. It was her fault that Yeshe died. Her cowardice.
Yesterday, even after the feather’s warning, she was so busy saying she was not a murderer that she did not consider Yeshe could be in danger. She had thought only of herself. She touched her waistband, but it no longer buzzed.
“Bataar will kill me next,” Kushi said. “You will say I should have kept quiet.”
“No.” Bolormaa sighed. “After you spoke up, other elders also voiced suspicions. We formed a governing council to decide what to do.”
“My feather wanted me to kill him.”
“Your. . . what?”
“I got this the day Nawang died.” Kushi took out her feather. It had stopped talking to her.
“You should have shown this to me earlier.”
Kushi almost pointed out how that Bolormaa had often dismissed her. “The feather wanted to remain secret,” she said instead. “Keep it if you want; I think it is evil.”
“Bataar will not harm you right now.” Bolormaa caressed the feather, then tucked it in her waistband. “But once everyone forgets. . .”
“I should go away,” Kushi said.
Bolormaa thought for a while, eyes half-closed. “Stick close to me till I arrange something.”
The five nomads in the tent peered at Kushi.
“She is too young,” the chief nomad said.
“She is healthy and hardy,” Bolormaa said. “She can milk yaks and make cheese. She knows the mountains and herbs well, and I will give her medicinal herbs.”
The chief pinned Kushi with his stare. “The mountain passes are frozen and slippery and very windy. They are strewn with bones of men who perished while crossing.”
“I will be killed here.” Kushi said.
“We don’t want to be accused of kidnapping children.”
“Kushi often wanders in the mountains,” Bolormaa said. “An accident can happen soon after you leave. I may retrieve her belt which falls off as she tumbles down. We shall grieve Kushi.”
The men consulted in their dialect, then the chief said, “Come before dawn tomorrow at the end of the gorge. Bring nothing that will be missed.”
After they walked back, Kushi said, “Give Bataar a sleeping draught tonight, and I will steal his feather and destroy it.” She would have thought of this before, if she hadn’t depended on her feather for answers.
“Tomorrow, I will say I sent you to gather herbs,” Bolormaa said. “By the time people wonder why you have not returned, you will be far away. May the mountains be your friends.”
“And yours.” Kushi’s eyes stung with tears. She had never lived away from Bolormaa. But away from the tribe, she could begin her life afresh.
I wait and wait, but Tribemother sits back with a serene expression.
“Then?” I ask her.
“That’s all,” she says.
“You can’t end a story in the middle,” I protest. The story is like a dish without seasoning.
Tribemother turns to Elder Sister. “How would you end it?”
Elder Sister says:
The nomads traveled hard every day. They ignored Kushi other than giving her food. She sometimes stopped to pick up wild onions from places the men missed, or nettle spinach, or strawberries. She cooked for the men. The men were not kindly, but not unkindly, either. The youngest, a youth barely a few years older than her, sometimes smiled at her. At night, she slept in the corner of a yak-hair tent, amazed to find it warmer than the mud huts she was used to.
One evening, she was cooking when she heard the men shouting. She jerked upright. Past the smoke of a dim juniper torch, she saw a man carrying the youth. “Something bit him while we were walking back,” he said. “I tied a tourniquet but. . .”
Kushi rushed to examine the youth. His leg was a sickly yellow below a crude tourniquet. His face was bloodless, his eyes high, delirium-like. She looked around at the wide-eyed, helpless faces of the nomads.
“We must hurry,” Kushi said. “I have herbs that can help. Heat some water. Get clean cloth for bandage, or a soft sheepskin. A sharp stone, heated in a flame.”
The chief knelt near the boy, held his hand, and began talking to him to keep him awake. As the other men bustled around her, gathering what she had asked for, Kushi chose herbs from her medicine pouch. She scraped the wound with the heated stone, and slathered paste. The men exchanged glances. Her stomach hardened with fear; she breathed deeply to remove her nervousness.
“If my nephew dies, his mother—my sister—will never forgive me.” Tears flowed from the chief’s eyes. Kushi watched, amazed. A man, crying?
“He will recover if your gods wish it,” she whispered.
The boy stirred by noon the next day. When the nomads reached home some weeks later, the chief adopted Kushi as daughter. Later, when she was of age, he married her off to the youth, who was his heir. After some years, Kushi, as the new chief’s wife, looked after her new tribe using all she knew.
“Don’t be silly,” I say to Elder Sister. “Is this a love story or what? What about Bolormaa? Bataar? The real tribe?”
“This is Kushi’s story,” she replies. “I guess the gods would have punished Bataar for his mistakes.”
“Mistakes? The gods made him murder.”
“If the gods made him do it, they cannot be murders.” Elder Sister’s eyes are bright. This is the girl everyone calls gentle and loving—blinded by just the mention of gods.
“The tribe suffered because Kushi did not stop Bataar,” I point out. “Then she left everything to Bolormaa and ran away.”
“If Bataar’s murders are wrong, how could Kushi murdering him be good? Or do you like Kushi more?”
The words sting. It is true I liked Kushi, at least till she started acting like a scared fool. “Her feather told her she would lead her tribe.”
“Maybe Bataar’s feather also said something similar,” Elder Sister says.
“Bataar was a mean boy, feather or no feather.”
Tribemother turns to me. “Younger One, how would you end the story?”
To me, the story is about the whispers of gods, and when Kushi gives away her feather, the story shifts to Bolormaa. I picture her returning to her hut after bidding Kushi farewell.
“Everyone suspects Bataar when Kushi doesn’t return,” I say. “Bolormaa challenges him to prove he is still the chosen one. When he cannot find his feather, she displays Kushi’s feather and claims Bataar’s feather changed its color and came to her. Bataar is expelled and she becomes the leader.”
“But Younger Sister–”
I wave Elder Sister to silence. “Bolormaa swiftly becomes a powerful leader, and makes the tribe migrate to the greener lands using the feather to guide the way.” I pause to collect any dangling story threads. “She avoids contact with the nomads. She does not look for Kushi because she had expelled Bataar claiming he murdered her.”
There, that’s neat, a much better job than Elder Sister’s soppy story. I expect Tribemother to praise me but her eyes are closed and a gentle snore rumbles out of her.
Elder Sister returns to her stupid sand village; I let Maasa’s waters sweep over my feet and tickle them. The story has churned too many thoughts in my head. My own secret lies heavy in my bosom.
I suspect Tribemother knows much more than she shows, that old crone.
By evening, I am restless enough to shake Tribemother awake. “Why do gods send feathers?” I demand. “Why do different gods send different feathers and want different things done? If the future is fixed, it will happen as it must, won’t it?”
“Maybe there are many threads of life.” She shrugs. “Maybe each has gods to nudge us towards it. Now go and let me sleep.”
I imagine Tribemother as young Kushi, and wonder whether she regrets not killing Bataar. But it is difficult to imagine Tribemother as an eight-year-old girl, so I imagine her as Bolormaa, because Tribemother once led our tribe, and maybe she brought us to Maasa.
Or maybe the story is just a story. But why tell it today?
Perhaps Tribemother has a feather and it told her to.
So, should one listen to feather gods, or not? Bataar listened to his, and look how he got into trouble because he didn’t know there were later gods. Kushi’s gods ignored her after she refused to murder, but they helped Bolormaa. If the future was known and fixed, Kushi could not have disobeyed her feather.
What would Elder Sister do if she got a feather? Would she, too timid to shoo away a rat, lead our tribe to war if a feather told her to? I don’t think so. She is not brave like me. Will our tribe suffer because of the one hour difference that keeps me ordinary but will make her a headman’s wife?
But wait—Kushi was not born a chief’s wife. Nor was Bolormaa headman in the beginning. Yet they got themselves power. Had they really needed the feather?
It is only when the sun lowers into Maasa, a ball of red, that I reach into my bosom. Yesterday, as I had been throwing pebbles in Maasa, a feather drifted near my hand, small as my smallest finger, jade-green. I caught it and looked up to find the bird it came from before I realized that the feather was made of metal. And then, words and pictures had flooded my mind.
Now I grip the tiny green feather till it cuts into my palm, and its hum rings through my blood. Again, it hints that I can be a headman’s wife if Elder Sister is crippled in an accident. It reminds me that I can do brave and glorious things for our tribe—things that need to be done but cannot be done by a wimp like her. But do I need to be a headman’s wife for them?
As Tribemother said, there are many threads of life.
I can make my own.
I step into the rippling waters of Maasa and drop the feather; it glitters as it falls, and I hear shrieks of its protest as it sinks.