Incense smoke rises from the monastery into the low-hanging clouds of the same ominous shade, portending a quick-fire summer storm.
His standard-issue dark suit gives him away: even the Chinese tourists can tell he’s a plain-clothes. He watches the crowd’s every move, carrying the thermos mug that has earned him the “bitter tea” nickname. Like his Tibetan mother, he is addicted to Chinese bitter tea.
He pays close attention to the braided hairs of Tibetan maidens, determined to follow his Chinese father’s footstep in marrying one of them someday.
From the far end of Norblinka Road, a girl in white dress walks briskly toward the square. He cannot quite make out her face yet, though the dress says she is a Chinese tourist. But her stride and gait say she is a Tibetan pilgrim. Walking toward her projected entry point to the square, he paces himself so as to have a close-up look at her face.
Gradually, he becomes certain that she is a Tibetan pilgrim: the frost-bitten high cheeks with apple-red color, the dark complexion and the telltale, countless mini braids of her hair. She carries a re-used two-liter Sprite bottle under her left arm and what appears to be a pack of Marlborough in her right hand. The used Sprite bottle filled with water is not uncommon with the pilgrims visiting the monastery, but the cigarettes are a shocker. He rarely sees a young Tibetan woman smoke.
When passing him, she senses his tenacious stare and returns a faint, fleeting smile. Not the perfunctory smile to a policeman from a Chinese tourist. Not a subservient smile to an oppressor from a Tibetan pilgrim. Just an unassuming and guileless smile, from one stranger to another. Her glistening, amber eyes are disarming, and remind him of a deer, always on the run and easily scared.
He has once fallen in love with a Tibetan girl, in the cadre brat high school he went to. She was one of the few privileged Tibetan kids enrolled there. She had eyes of the same color, but they reminded him of an unruly antelope or a fierce lion when she stared at him, whenever he tried to strike a conversation. Ruthlessly, she snubbed him, as she did all the Chinese boys, hanging out exclusively with riffraff Tibetan boys from other schools. He has never seen her since and the memory is bitter when he thinks of her now and then. Being a halfie itself is bitter: he is never quite trusted on either side; and he resents the ambiguity of his ethnicity when the two sides are at odds. It is a subtle bitterness, akin to the taste of bitter tea; something he’s used to.
She burrows through the crowd and stops at the flag stone area reserved for the prostrating pilgrims. He sees her raise the Sprite bottle to her shoulder level and pour the liquid onto her chest. The crowd instantly backs away from her and his nostrils flare at the pungent smell of gasoline. He pushes past the rubber-neckers and dives to tackle her when he sees a cigarette lighter in her hand. The moment his shoulder slams into her hips he hears a click from the cigarette lighter.
The fireball engulfs them instantly, much faster than any last thought can travel in his mind. Their tangled, writhing bodies glow in radiant heat and become one soft mass, emitting black smoke and sizzling noise. Then, in an outlandish rage, thunder deafens the scurrying crowd and lightning tears up the indifferent sky.
The rain comes, only too late.
Henry Lu is a computer programmer by day and a writer by night. His works of fiction have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Sips Card, PseudoPod, Oyster and Chocolate and Fiction 365, among many others.
- Tibetan Self-immolates at Labrang Monastery in NW China (voanews.com)