Early the next morning the narrow trail opened into a boundless vista of dry grassland and shifting rock. The party came to a stop at the sight of it. Stretched out before them lay a vast emptiness: a bare canvas in shades of parchment bound by distant slate-gray mountains lorded over by steel-wool skies. An unrequited wind made their acquaintance, groaning like the somber song of a lone cello.
Kunchen watched Sheridan take it in.
“What is it?” Kunchen asked.
“I know this place,” Sheridan answered, as if held in a trance.
“No . . . this desolation.”
Kunchen understood, for he too had seen it in Sheridan’s eyes.
“Have you heard of the seedpods of Australia? Their shells are so tough they can’t release the seeds of life held captive within. Only when the heat of a bushfire forces the pods to spill out their seeds can the new life begin,” Kunchen said quietly.
Unwilling to break the bond he felt with the land, Sheridan gave an almost imperceptible nod of his head.
“Like the fire that frees the Banksia seed, the darkness has its purpose too. And one day, when the darkness parts, new life will bloom again.”
Sheridan turned his careworn face to Kunchen. His eyelids batted at tears that flooded his pale blue eyes. “What if the darkness never parts?”
Kunchen could hardly bear to see the pain written on Sheridan’s face. “The darkness will part when its work is done. Until then a Shambhala Warrior must not look for solace in the knowing but must be content with the .”
By midday the caravan had reached halfway across the featureless expanse when a distant roar awoke them from their mind-numbing march. All heads turned toward the source of the growing rumble. Peering into the distance, their worst fears were realized as they began to make out two dots quickly approaching.
“Chinese fighter jets!” Evan shouted. “We can’t let them see us!”
Mitch raced to a donkey and pulled a large weapon from its pack. It was a missile launcher. In one quick movement he loaded the barrel, lifted it onto his shoulder, and started to take aim.
Evan threw up his hands.
“What the hell are you doing?” He shouted, forcing the barrel of the weapon towards the ground.
“Got a better plan?” Mitch asked, wrenching the gun from Evan’s grasp.
Sheridan had his eyes trained on the approaching fighter planes when he noticed a flash of red in the corner of his eye. Spinning towards the sudden movement, he saw an unfurling of red fabric that rose into the air, curling up and over. The spiral of scarlet cloth mushroomed ever larger, drawing up dust from the valley floor with the draft of a rising wind. In an instant the wind picked up with such force that Sherpas fought to steady their terrified donkeys, while Evan and his men struggled to maintain their footing. And carried on the wind, all the dirt and dust of the great plain blew in, wrapping them in an impenetrable shell of living earth.
For a moment Sheridan could make out a shape in the center of the spinning coil: a bare arm swinging the loose fabric of a monk’s robe.
Suddenly the howl of the wind was drowned out by the deafening roar of jet engines as the fighter planes passed just overhead. With the thunder of jets fading, the wind abated and the earth-infused cloud cleared, leaving their caravan covered in dust.
Sheridan glanced about to see who else had discovered the source of the sudden wind. But no one had.
Thankful for a stroke of good luck, Evan quickly reassembled the expedition and continued the push across the broad plain.
Sheridan plodded along beside Kunchen, trying to digest what he had seen. He felt for the baton in his satchel and wondered if there was a connection.
“No time to chase illusions.” He thought to himself. “But still . . . “
He had to ask: “How do you do it?”
Kunchen knew the question was coming.
“First you make the water stop and now you make the wind blow,” Sheridan said with the cynical tone of an experienced skeptic. “How do you do it?”
“You speak to the elements with curses making them your adversary; I greet them with honor and acknowledge their blessings. The things of this world are neither your enemy nor your subject—they are the inspired tools of the hidden hand of the universe. You can choose to make them your partner or your opponent.”
“How do I go about doing that?” Sheridan asked dryly, not quite buying the answer.
“You must see yourself in all things.”
Sheridan is exasperated.
“And how is that possible?”
“By discovering the truth of who you are.”
The lone caravan pushed on toward the edge of the great plain. There it dead-ended into a towering escarpment of black granite that seemed to erupt from the featureless terrain. As the shadow of the mountain range fell across the procession, the ground soon was littered with glimmering flat Mani stones carved with Buddhist prayers and yak horns.
Their group followed the inscribed markers to a sparkling trail of etched stepping- stones. This trail became a shimmering path of mantra-laden cobblestones, paved with the glistening prayers of a thousand Mani stones. Arriving at the foot of the imposing cliff, they came upon two large mounds of Mani stones standing on each side of a narrow crevice.
With his shoulders shrugged and his upraised hands splayed wide, Mitch shouted at Kunchen, “Is this the only way?”
He conferred with Evan: “If the Chinese army tracks us to this oversized crack, we could end up trapped.”
Kunchen interrupted their huddle: “There’s no need for concern, no one can track us to this portal.”
Mitch took a step back, his face gnarled with incredulity, the tension mounting in his voice: “Won’t be able to track us? The entrance is practically lit up like an airport runway!”
An easy smile brightened Kunchen’s eyes.
“What entrance is that?” Kunchen asked.
“What entrance?” Mitch pointed angrily toward the crevice. “ . . . that entrance!” His face fell. The entrance wasn’t there. The giant gash in the massive wall of rock had healed without leaving a scar.
Mitch looked around in search of the glimmering Mani stones, but they too were gone. Sheridan watched the show, fascinated by the convincing illusion.
“This portal has concealed our secret monastery for centuries. It only revealed itself to you because I asked it to. You see?”
Kunchen motioned to the ground. Mitch glanced down to discover the road of Mani stones once again shimmering beneath his feet. Casting his gaze to the face of the cliff, he saw the portal revealed once more. Sheridan was amused.
“Shall we?” Kunchen asked as headed back to the front of the column. Mitch gawked at Evan in defiant disbelief.
“What the hell was that?”
“Some sort of Tibetan hocus-pocus, I imagine,” Evan suggested, dismissing it out of hand. “A place like this can play tricks with your mind.”
“If it’s a trick,” Mitch mumbled, his vacant eyes staring right through Evan. “ . . . it’s a damn good one.”
The entourage lined up single file behind Kunchen as he stepped through the portal. Then one by one, man and beast squeezed through the entrance and into the granite corridor.
As Kunchen looked over his shoulder to see the crew threading its way through the uneven walls of black granite, he was caught in Sheridan’s disapproving glare.
“You don’t expect me to buy that little yarn about a magic portal that you wove for Mitch back there, do you?” Sheridan asked, his weathered face refusing to yield to Kunchen’s crooked grin.
“But it’s true . . . there are portals everywhere . . . alternate paths, secret passageways, perfectly timed escape hatches . . . ”
“If only I believe?” Sheridan scoffed.
“If only you receive . . . the gift of the inner eye.”
Sheridan brushed him off with a nod. He knew all too well how one culture’s practices could seem like magic to an outsider, only to find there was always an explanation.
The enigmatic passage had bent and turned for more than a half hour when a sweet fragrance roused their senses, lifting their shoulders and rejuvenating their steps. Soon the tight crevasse opened into a wide canyon, a secret hollow brimming with fruit trees and gardens, bounded on every side by steep granite walls.
In the middle of the oasis a spring-fed pool gurgled with life. At the opposite end, just beyond the groves and gardens, a herd of yaks could be seen grazing in a field. Along the right side of the canyon, brightly decorated red columns held aloft a golden pagoda roof that served as a lavish façade for the cave walls of the ancient Wangdak monastery. Broad steps led up to a generous porch where a large bell of polished brass hung over the graceful entrance.
“It’s looks like a miniature Shambhala,” Sheridan marveled to no one in particular.
“It’s the last of four outposts that once served the kingdom of Shambhala,” Kunchen explained. “A way station for its traveling citizens and a lookout for Shambhala Warriors.” He pointed to a ladder of staggered steps cut into the canyon wall. “From atop the cliffs they could see the comings and goings from as far as a half a day away.”
A swarm of schoolchildren raced down the steps to greet the wayfarers, their rollicking voices dancing like raindrops on a tin roof. As he waded into the sea of colorfully clothed urchins, Kunchen was hugged and tugged, cajoled and heckled by more than twenty adoring children. He worked the effusive crowd like a rock star turned saint, soaking up the adulation, as he made sure each child’s affection was acknowledged and returned with a pat on the head or the pinch of a cheek.
A lanky seven-year-old boy with dirt-smudged cheeks was the first to notice. His sharply arched eyebrows lifted the front of his woolen cap at the sight of Sheridan’s steel-blue eyes. The attention-craving boy pointed wildly at Sheridan, shouting, “Mdongs, mdongs, mdongs!”
Peeking at Sheridan from behind the red folds of Kunchen’s robe, an adorable little girl with floppy pigtails and a shiny blue blouse let out a high-pitched scream when she saw his baby blues. Kunchen’s pumped-up fans quickly peeled from his side and poured around the curious white man with the pale eyes.
Looking over his shoulder, Kunchen answered the question posed in Sheridan’s furrowed brow. “It’s your blue eyes. They think you’re blind.”
Sheridan had to chuckle. Kunchen spun around to watch the children mob Sheridan with gaping gazes and apprehensive pokes. He watched Sheridan’s taut grimace melt away and his cowering eyes light up in shades of crystal blue. Then, with uncharacteristic abandon, Sheridan swung his head from side to side, staring each child down with a crooked smirk and a wide-eyed stare.
Taken up in the silly revelry, Sheridan played to the fine line between curiosity and fear that kids love to walk. He toyed with the daring red-cheeked boy with his ball cap turned to one side. He calmed the shy boy with unkempt hair who was on the verge of tears. He laughed aloud at the little girl with the big smile and missing front tooth. And the serious little lady, who watched from a distance with her arms crossed and her lips pouted, made him want to pick her up and give her a hug. Sheridan had been taken in by the toothy smiles and outstretched hands when he saw it—a Yankees baseball cap pulled over the shaved head of a little boy. It wrenched him back through time.
Sheridan stands in the middle of the rowdy Little League team he had coached for three years. Wearing a grin from ear to ear, a twelve-year-old boy, with a Yankees baseball cap on his baldhead, looks up at Sheridan. It would be the last time Sheridan would see him smile. He was too weak to hold the bat and too tired to run the bases, but the boys let him score four runs that day. All his friends are there. There’s Dallas, Paul, Reese, and Allen, who spent more time at their house than he did his own. Little towheaded Aaron shows severe signs of sunburn from spending the day in the outfield, and the cherub-faced Devin is ready for the pizza party. The ever-serious Aadarsh, who has always been better at art than baseball, is still hanging in there. And waving from the bleachers, where she sits next to his mother, Graciela, and his favorite nurse, Esther, is Amber; she’s had a crush on him since he was eight. They were all there to be a part of his last baseball game.
“Move it, Clark!” Evan shouted at the top of his lungs.
Kunchen watched it happen; the light in his eyes snuffed out, the color drained from his face. The children saw it too, the ashen transformation put a sudden chill on their revelry.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” Kunchen said, reaching toward Sheridan with a comforting hand. Sheridan snapped out of it at his touch.
“I’m okay,” he said, shaking off the sudden attack of déjà vu. Deep creases repossessed his brooding brow, casting shadows across his downcast eyes.
Kunchen eased to Sheridan’s side.
“You see? There are portals everywhere. Some that lead through walls of granite and others that carry us through the passages of time.”
Kunchen began to herd the children back up the stairs toward large red doors emblazoned with gold. While he wrangled the children, his arms spread wide like an experienced shepherd, Evan followed close behind, his hands lifted out of the students’ reach as if he were allergic to their enthusiasm. Kunchen held the door open for the kids to pass through.
“It’s time for their music class. They’re learning the ancient chants of Shambhala. Would you like to listen?”
“That’s more up Sheridan’s alley,” Evan said with a wince, his fingers grazing a patch of blond whiskers on his chin. “I gotta get a man to climb up that primitive ladder and see if we can get a signal to the truck drivers.”
Sheridan was distracted. He gave an absentminded nod. “Yeah, sure . . . ”