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Sky Burial
Aliki Barnstone

Snowlands Hotel. Before dawn in one of the dormitories
David is up first, moving from bed to bed waking us gently.
We mount our clanking Flying Pigeon bikes and ride out of town

On the dusty road, telling each other our dreams.
Traveler's word is, if a fire's burning there will be a burial.
The fire burns. We park our bicycles by a shallow river

And roll up our pants. Water so icy that I bend over
On the opposite shore, breathing slowly, coaxing my feet
From the pain. Already a silhouette of vultures

Gathered on the mountain above us. A monk in yellow robes
Bright in the half-light chants, hits a tambourine and cymbal.
A young woman in an animal skin coat nurses a child,

The boy and girl beside her talk and laugh like spectators
At a Chinese soccer game. An older man spins something
Like a large, long, extravagantly decorated hat atop a broomstick;

Colored rings and ribbons float up, chime, and relax
With each turn. Now six men stamp out the fire and cross
To a large boulder where they undo two squarish bundles.

Two corpses roll out in fetal position, naked,
Their gender and age unintelligible. Laying them out
On their bellies, the men start their work. Sun

Begins to show us color on the ridges of the mountains,
Spreading, illuminating this rocky valley
Where starting at the necks the corpses are skinned,

The sheets of skin tossed to the men behind,
Who cut them into small squares;
The muscles are pulled from bone, limbs disjointed from body,

Bones crushed in absorbing white powder with a rock.
It is like a butcher shop. Pounding, hacking, slapping,
Hundreds of vultures wait on the rocks or circle

Or, swooping down to the boulder too early, are shooed away
By the corpse-cutters. I cringe when they get to the feet,
And keep looking back to my bicycle, which is delicate,

Dark, pretty by the whitened river. By now it is light;
The city is awake: trucks and tractors rumble,
Loudspeakers have resumed broadcasting political homilies.

I pass my waterbottle to friends. Some of us sit alone and stare.
Some of us hold each other. A few look through binoculars.
Everything is clicking, rhythmic:

Chanting; voices directing from the central government;
Chopping; the river hisses; vultures glide or preen;
Small reverent, nervous, or revolted gestures of tourists.

Supports and resistances move. For now and perhaps
For a while afterward my fears are merely furniture
I can walk around or discard. I will be

Like those two—dismembered, insensible, incomprehensible—
But—lucky accident—my flesh aches and lusts.
At last the corpse-cutter wraps the head in a cloth,

Holds it up to the sky, prays, places it in a hollow,
And smashes it with a rock.
Two others cross to the flat where we stand

And drive us back a few steps. Bloody hands and bloody knives.
One of them taps me with his blade.
I check my sleeve for a stain, but I'm clean.

I've read the ground here, frozen most of the year,
Is no good for burial. There's too little timber for cremation.
When the soul is gone, the body means nothing.

Sometimes the Tibetans leave their dead
In a river to be eaten by fish.
We say dust to dust. This is flesh to flesh.

Vultures, symbols of peace,
The carnivore self that does not kill,
Circle huge, horrible, beautiful, black-white in the blue.

The white V's of their bodies and their wingtip feathers
Spread like black fingers in the sky
Of turquoise the Tibetans wear. The vultures eat.

I must get my visa at the Nepalese consulate.
As we ride back together Anna says, ``I felt we were no better
Than the vultures.'' ``Really?'' I say. I'm enjoying

The view of the Potala, people selling their wares,
My legs peddling, the clanking bike, the sun on my face.
I search for some guilt, but find nothing—

Only this happiness, wind, elation, breath circling.

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