October 15, 2010

The Foreigner


The Foreigner
by Claire Ibarra

I watch from a bench at Barkhor Square, as the children play, chasing a stray rooster. Suddenly they are running up the road to greet a stranger walking into town. The foreigner walks up the cobblestone street with three sherpas and delights in the attention, handing out candies to the youngsters. I observe him as he gazes into every shop window, and to every street vendor he smiles and gives a nod.

It’s rare to see a visitor of his kind in Lhasa. He is unlike anyone I’ve ever seen before. His light sandy hair flows freely around his blushing sun-reddened face, aglow with inquisitiveness, with eyes glacier blue. He reminds me of a fresh gust of wind.

Now the foreigner starts bartering with a vendor selling apples. He has the sherpa take out a box of candies from his pack, which he trades for a bag of fruit. He tears into the bag, passing out apples to his fellow sherpas before taking a zealous bite.

Then his eyes wander. “A woman’s beauty doth have no bounds when born of mountains and the sea. But those born from the heavens doth have grace beyond these earthly planes, and greater than all mountains and seas combined,” he yells across at me as he bows with his hat held at his chest.

I run as quickly as I can up the mountain to home. Yet, the image of the man is not easily forgotten. I wonder where he has come from, how he has gotten here, and why he chooses to be in this remote land.

I see the foreigner again a few days later. It is approaching dusk, and he is setting up a tripod facing the majestic Potala Palace in the distance. He seems boyish and wears the same shabby safari hat. The smudges on his sunlit face give him an air of disarray and roguish charm.

With a distinctly British accent, he says, “I don’t believe we have been properly introduced. My name is William Moore, but I go by Will. I’m sorry for frightening you the other day. People are always telling me that I wear my emotions on my sleeve, and I’m afraid they’re right. I am also prone to banal poetic outbursts, though I’m a harmless enough bloke.”

He begins fussing and cursing at the photography equipment, as the spectacular glowing light dissipates.

“Here, can you hold this for a moment?” He hands me a camera with an extraordinarily long lens.

I tell him, “My name is Shakti.” But then I am struck mute, not knowing what to say after that. I feel awkward with the confident, exuberant man standing before me.

“It’s my pleasure to know you, Shakti. Have you been in the ‘Sunlight City’ for very long?”

I haven’t thought much about it before, but now I consider his question. How long has it been? Time passes differently here.

“I arrived a year ago,” is the answer I come up with. “Look over there toward that ridge. Do you see the rock structure at the base of the mountain?”

The light is fading, but he stares into the foot of the Tatipu Mountain. “Oh, yes, now I see it,” he says.

“That is where I live.” I tell him in a subdued manner, compared with his animated responses. I have the feeling that I may seem flat and muted next to this spirited character.

“You live within the grounds of a monastery,” he says to me and seems genuinely impressed.

He takes his camera and then shoots a picture of the mountainside, dark and misty, cloaked with an air of secrecy. Then he takes a photo of me, and I think that I can be described in a similar way: dark and misty with premonitions of what the future holds. I sense my light veiled in sadness, and when the photo appears some years later in an article about the Lhasa Rebellion and the barbaric acts of the Chinese regime, I will see that I was right.

I take Will to meet the clan—which has become my second family. Jetsun embraces the ‘white man,’ whom she believes to be a manifestation of some kind of hero, with true affection. The children jump on his back and he gives them rides. They are all impressed with his size, for he is tall and muscular, towering over everyone like a big, friendly bear.

Jetsun seems to enjoy doting on Will. When he visits, she serves him large portions of stew and she mends his well-worn shirt hems and buttons. She even makes him take off his boots one night after dinner, so that she can sew the gaping holes in his wool socks.

As Jetsun tends to his socks, Will only grins as the clan teases him for the manner in which his feet and socks display themselves so shamelessly to the family. I see him blush as I giggle along with the children.

Another evening, Will arrives at the clan’s home carrying a hard square case with a short handle. The family and I gather around him in excitement when he announces that he has brought us all a gift. When he opens the case there is a turntable inside. He takes a record out of a sleeve, places it carefully unto the round table, and turns the small handle. Suddenly, there is magic in the room, while at the oblong table the family gathers in reverence to the music.

The sounds of heaven float around us, as Schubert’s Serenade soars from the violins. The music emanates like nectar, sweet and viscous, turning the air into a substance that weaves the empty space into a cocoon of which we can all share in.

Will takes my hand and we begin to dance. At first I am self-conscious, and I watch my feet as they move in circles around the room. But then I begin to concentrate on Will’s arm resting lightly on my lower back, and the sensation of his warm, firm hand in mine as the music whisks us both away in twirls and gliding strides around the family looking on in great delight.

After we partake in gifts of Schubert, Will puts on another record. This time the music is unfamiliar to me. The rhythm is fast with a distinct beat set by drums and bass guitar. The singing voice is low and guttural, and the rhythm invokes something in the group entirely spontaneous.

Everyone is compelled to move, and the children jump around just like the ancestral ape and she-demon. Will takes Jetsun’s hands into his as he shows her how to swivel her hips and twist from side to side. Jetsun and I become quite good at the twist, as our knees almost reach the floor. We laugh as Will gives us lessons in swing dancing. The party goes well into the night to the tunes of Elvis Presley.

During the following days, Will shares stories with me about his travels through Egypt. His vivid descriptions of the mythical land carry me down the Nile, into the Sahara Desert by camelback, and traversing the great Gaza pyramids. His tales of the African savanna introduce me to the tall and slender Nilotes and the San Bushmen; herds of magnificent mammals like giraffes, antelope and zebras; and to lush, damp rainforests inhabited by gorillas.

As he tells me stories, I lead him into remote areas where cameras have never been seen before. Even though the Tibetans are shy of the camera, his photographs still manage to capture stories untold, shrouded from the world outside the ‘rooftop.’

I wait for our relationship to develop into unfaltering trust and only then do I find it appropriate to request permission for his visit to the monastery from the senior monks. Carrying his camera around his neck, he takes photographs of the gardens and of the curious, radiant monks. While trying to control his jubilant tendencies and humbling himself to the occasion, he is all the more endearing to his hosts. It is a special event to receive a guest such as Will; not many foreigners have been invited, nor been allowed inside the gates.

Now we walk through the rosewoods, as we discuss my duties in the monastery.

“Are you going to become a nun, Shakti?” he asks me on the forest path.

I know then my answer. I had realized some time ago that the monastic life was not my true calling. Then Will kisses me unexpectedly on the lips. My heart melts into infinite droplets of pure golden sunlight. I feel darkness and light passionately embrace, and this union is clarity, a new vision of truth and a piece of the path I have never before encountered. While I feel Will’s passion and exuberance swell up into my being, he in turn sighs and his eyes turn watery.

I have not been searching for it, but I did allow myself to dream it from time to time, even though I didn’t know what it would feel like. Now I just want to give into it, dive into the waters without fear and be buoyed up and carried down the currents leading me into a new direction, toward love and the gifts it delivers us.

A few days later, Will joins the family on our excursion to the river, where we elope to a carefree afternoon wading and fishing in the waters lined with willows and poplars. Will takes photographs and teaches me how to use the camera. He opens my eyes to a world of light and shadows, and I begin to see the subtle way that sunlight plays with everything under its rays. Will also brings a book to read to us, which tells a magnificent story of a boy named Pip and his adoption into high society. It differs so from our tales of snow leopards and discus tossing deities.

Then later that evening, Will and I sit inside a private cavern. We recline on the woven rug and discuss the worsening conditions and a course of action. Famine, repression and violence are taking its toll on the countryside as refugees pour into Lhasa.

“I’ve taken risks: I was swept up in riots, been sneered at for the color of my skin and crossed into borders where I haven’t been welcome. But this isn’t like anything I’ve been involved with before, Shakti. The conflict is escalating, and I don’t think the people of Lhasa can even begin to comprehend the ruthlessness of this army.” Will takes my hand.

“I fear for your safety, Shakti. I want to take you away from here. Would you come with me to England? I could show you London, my childhood home, and all of the extraordinary along with the ludicrous of the Western world.”

In the darkness set aglow by candlelight and warmed by our flushed bodies emanating heat great enough to dispel the bitter cold hovering outside the cavern, I melt under the caresses of Will’s soft hands, and this time my surrender is complete.

Our bodies, twisted and melded limbs, unite in such a manner that it seems we have transformed into a new being, mythological or extraterrestrial, originating out of the very first man and woman, like Adam and Eve before separation, when they had shared one body and their flesh and bones were still muddled and fused.

As time passes, I await our encounters feverishly. During these steamy communions we become the authors and inventors of our own rites of pleasure surpassing even that of the Kama Sutra.

* * *


* * *

Will is restless for adventure, and already the magazine is requesting he cover a story in Burma on the jade and ruby mining industry along the Andaman Sea Coast.

He brings the subject up to me one tranquil afternoon, as we lie together. He runs his fingers through my hair, then one finger traces down my arm. His large soft hand cups my own, and he lifts it to his lips and kisses my palm.

“This is my work, Shakti. I feel I have to go, but the thought of leaving you is unbearable. Why don’t we travel to Burma together? After that, we’ll go wherever the next story takes us. I can’t imagine a more fabulous existence, doing what I love to do with you by my side.”

“Although the thought of following you is hard to resist, I feel I must discover my own path. If I don’t, I’m afraid I’ll come to regret the decision and maybe even lament our love.” I am resolute but inside I tremble.

He tries to persuade me with all of the reasons we should stay together, even pleading at his most desperate attempts. Eventually he sees I’m right, and he admits that I am even more desirable because of it. We decide that we will travel back to India together, after which he will continue on to Burma and I will stay behind.

I will often reflect on that last good-bye with Will. Once at the airport, we sit for hours as he waits for his connection to Dhaka on a small passenger plane piloted by a team member from the magazine. It is February 1959, when we run together across the rainy tarmac hand in hand.

“Such a rare flower as thee shall not wither away from me, but in my heart shall blossom from this unspeakable moment until Utopia’s eternity.” Will hesitates a moment and then says, “I warned you from the first day we met, I’m still prone to atrocious poetic outbursts, forgive me?” He whispers into my ear.

We don’t speak much after that. Still, we hold each other close. I tell him to give me a little time, that I love him more than he could ever know, and to write me often. He nods his head in concession, smothers himself in my thick locks of hair. We kiss good-bye long, but gently as if massaging the muscles of our strained, languishing hearts.

* * *

I walk the bank of the Ganges, barefoot and wrapped in the simplest of cotton saris, my long hair piled upon my head, matted and tangled from the dried mud of the water’s edge. How much time has passed since my last hours with Will? Almost two years, and I now spend my days in meditation along the riverbank and rolling grasslands of the countryside without belongings, only my reflections on the work I led and the love I left behind. And my work and my love had both been extraordinary.

After over a year of establishing an orphanage, where I saw timid, distraught children transform into active, productive members of a thriving community, I began to feel a pull toward a different and elusive path.

When I had announced to the children that I would be departing, there was protest and tears, but in the end they threw me a big party with music, dancing and food. I departed with celebration and set out into the wild terrain.

Now I sit in a peaceful pose alongside the river, the chocolate waters and lemon grasses rousing sweet scents in the heavy air. The soft earth of fields and flowers are my bed, as I sit on a woven overlay with a simple wooden bowl for alms before me.

However, memories linger and seem to torment me in their fierce demand for recognition.

The memories of Will intermingle with the long grasses sensually caressing my inner thigh as the wind blows. They envelop me in the intoxicating scent of eucalyptus and mustard riding on the same wind. I pine for love, and yet it is all around me and through me, and in the same wind that contains the air I breathe. So that love is inhaled and then exhaled, only to be inhaled again then swallowed into my belly, setting it on fire.

I search for solace in nature, and as I take notice of the carnal, fervent world I see passion in all of creation. All of the creatures search to make contact. Insects search out alluring flowers to drink from their nectar, while the pollen from those lavish posies cling to their bodies to blanket the earth with color and beauty. Some creatures search out one another, randomly and chaotically, to mate in a fleeting moment and then lay fertile eggs before dying joined together; moth wings beating as one. Other animals search out a mate and with that single being live out their days in monogamous affinity; wolves inhabiting cold tundra keep each other warm. There are many creatures, which hunt and eat the flesh of others, for it is the drive of nature to unite all things into single flesh.

That is when I begin to encounter Will riding on the voluptuous winds, resting in the sensual grasses and looking at me through the eyes of desirous, hungry wildlife. Then an unexpected calm and a great peace fills me, because he is here in the vastness of God’s creations.

When I discover Will’s presence in the rapture of nature, my desires drop away into the earth; nourish the soil, and out of it springs marigolds. My anxieties meld into the sunrays igniting even greater warmth and brightness. My expectations shrink down into molecules, which break away and rebel from matter to become nothingness. I listen to myself singing while walking along the bank of the river, and I feel detached even from the simplest joy. Loneliness becomes my quiet companion, embracing me with its imperceptible touch…

I feel a light tap on my shoulder. It has been so long since there has been human touch; I don’t register it at first. There it is again, ever so gentle but real, a hand resting upon my back. When I open my eyes, there he is.

He is not wind, or blades of grass, or yearning wildlife peering through the forest trees, but the flesh of man. Our eyes lock and for a flash of a moment I can see the elusive truth of our mysterious existence. Then I open myself and Will embraces me as we find our way home.

* * *

Claire Ibarra’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Natural Bridge, Boston Literary Magazine, The MacGuffin, Moondance Magazine, The Copperfield Review, Quiet Mountain Essays and Amoskeag, among others. She is also a contributor to the upcoming anthology An Honest Lie: Delusions of Insignificance. Claire is currently at work on a historical novel set in Peru. To find out more, visit www.claireibarra.com.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?

I would remind writers that their stories are about characters first and foremost! I say this because it was hard for me to learn. Like most lovers of historical fiction, I am captivated by exotic places and situations, often more so than by the characters. For me, a wondrous setting can become a character onto itself. I also enjoy rich descriptions and historical details, but our characters are what make a story real and relevant. I learned this after my work was called didactic, which is never a good thing for a fiction writer! This also taught me that a writer doesn’t need to tell everything they know about a given historical period. Research and learn, and then let it drop away so that you write an authentic story with memorable characters.


Louisa said...

I was swept away! I hope the lovers are able to follow their dreams and remain together....

Louisa said...

I was swept away! i hope the lovers are able to remain together and still pursue their dreams...

Anonymous said...

Claire's depiction of romantic love has a beauty and grace that comes from having spent time with the One.