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"The Night of White Bhairab"
by Lucius Shepard


The Night of White Bhairab
(Part Two)

Walking through Durbar Square—which wasn’t really a square but a huge temple complex interspersed with open areas and wound through by cobbled paths—always put Eliot in mind of his brief stint as a tour guide, a career cut short when the agency received complaints about his eccentricity. (“. . . As you pick your way among the piles of human waste and fruit rinds, I caution you not to breathe too deeply of the divine afflatus; otherwise, it may forever numb you to the scent of Prairie Cove or Petitpoint Gulch or whatever citadel of gracious living it is that you call home. . . .”) It had irked him to have to lecture on the carvings and history of the square, especially to the just-plain-folks who only wanted a Polaroid of Edna or Uncle Jimmy standing next to that weird monkey god on the pedestal. The square was a unique place, and in Eliot’s opinion such unenlightened tourism demeaned it.

Pagoda-style temples of red brick and dark wood towered on all sides, their finials rising into brass lightning bolts. They were alien-looking—you half-expected the sky above them to be of an otherworldly color and figured by several moons. Their eaves and window screens were ornately carved into the images of gods and demons, and behind a large window screen on the temple of White Bhairab lay the mask of that god. It was almost ten feet high, brass, with a fanciful headdress and long-lobed ears and a mouth full of white fangs; its eyebrows were enameled red, fiercely arched, but the eyes had the goofy quality common to Newari gods—no matter how wrathful they were, there was something essentially friendly about them, and they reminded Eliot of cartoon germs. Once a year—in fact, a little more than a week from now—the screens would be opened, a pipe would be inserted into the god’s mouth, and rice beer would jet out into the mouths of the milling crowds; at some point a fish would be slipped into the pipe, and whoever caught it would be deemed the luckiest soul in the Katmandu Valley for the next year. It was one of Eliot’s traditions to make a try for the fish, though he knew that it wasn’t luck he needed.

Beyond the square, the streets were narrow, running between long brick buildings three and four stories tall, each divided into dozens of separate dwellings. The strip of sky between the roofs was bright, burning blue—a void color—and in the shade the bricks looked purplish. People hung out the windows of the upper stories, talking back and forth: an exotic tenement life. Small shrines—wooden enclosures containing statuary of stucco or brass—were tucked into wall niches and the mouths of alleys. The gods were everywhere in Katmandu, and there was hardly a corner to which their gaze did not penetrate.

On reaching Mr. Chatterji’s, which occupied half a block-long building, Eliot made for the first of the interior courtyards; a stair led up from it to Mr. Chatterji’s apartment, and he thought he would check on what had been left to drink. But as he entered the courtyard—a phalanx of jungly plants arranged around a lozenge of cement—he saw the girl and stopped short. She was sitting in a lawn chair, reading, and she was indeed very shapely. She wore loose cotton trousers, a T-shirt, and a long white scarf shot through with golden threads. The scarf and the trousers were the uniform of the young travelers who generally stayed in the expatriate enclave of Temal: It seemed that they all bought them immediately upon arrival in order to identify themselves to each other. Edging closer, peering between the leaves of a rubber plant, Eliot saw that the girl was doe-eyed, with honey-colored skin and shoulder-length brown hair interwoven by lighter strands. Her wide mouth had relaxed into a glum expression. Sensing him, she glanced up, startled; then she waved and set down her book.

“I’m Eliot,” he said, walking over.

“I know. Ranjeesh told me.” She stared at him incuriously.

“And you?” He squatted beside her.

“Michaela.” She fingered the book, as if she were eager to get back to it.

“I can see you’re new in town.”

“How’s that?”

He told her about the clothes, and she shrugged. “That’s what I am,” she said. “I’ll probably always wear them.” She folded her hands on her stomach: it was a nicely rounded stomach, and Eliot—a connoisseur of women’s stomachs—felt the beginnings of arousal.

“Always?” he said. “You plan on being here that long?”

“I don’t know.” She ran a finger along the spine of the book. “Ranjeesh asked me to marry him, and I said maybe.”

Eliot’s infant plan of seduction collapsed beneath this wrecking ball of a statement, and he failed to hide his incredulity. “You’re in love with Ranjeesh?”

“What’s that got to do with it?” A wrinkle creased her brow: It was the perfect symptom of her mood, the line a cartoonist might have chosen to express petulant anger.

“Nothing. Not if it doesn’t have anything to do with it.” He tried a grin, but to no effect. “Well,” he said after a pause. “How do you like Katmandu?”

“I don’t get out much,” she said flatly.

She obviously did not want conversation, but Eliot wasn’t ready to give up. “You ought to,” he said. “The festival of Indra Jatra’s about to start. It’s pretty wild. Especially on the night of White Bhairab. Buffalo sacrifices, torchlight . . .”

“I don’t like crowds,” she said.

Strike two.

Eliot strained to think of an enticing topic, but he had the idea it was a lost cause. There was something inert about her, a veneer of listlessness redolent of Thorazine, of hospital routine. “Have you ever seen the Khaa?” he asked.

“The what?”

“The Khaa. It’s a spirit . . . though some people will tell you it’s partly animal, because over here the animal and spirit worlds overlap. But whatever it is, all the old houses have one, and those that don’t are considered unlucky. There’s one here.”

“What’s it look like?”

“Vaguely anthropomorphic. Black, featureless. Kind of a living shadow. They can stand upright, but they roll instead of walk.”

She laughed. “No, I haven’t seen it. Have you?”

“Maybe,” said Eliot. “I thought I saw it a couple of times, but I was pretty stoned.”

She sat up straighter and crossed her legs; her breasts jiggled, and Eliot fought to keep his eyes centered on her face. “Ranjeesh tells me you’re a little cracked,” she said.

Good ol’ Ranjeesh! He might have known that the son of a bitch would have sandbagged him with his new lady. “I guess I am,” he said, preparing for the brush-off. “I do a lot of meditation, and sometimes I teeter on the edge.”

But she appeared more intrigued by this admission than by anything else he had told her; a smile melted up from her carefully composed features. “Tell me some more about the Khaa,” she said.

Eliot congratulated himself. “They’re quirky sorts,” he said. “Neither good nor evil. They hide in dark corners, though now and then they’re seen in the streets or in the fields out near Jyapu. And the oldest ones, the most powerful ones, live in the temples in Durbar Square. There’s a story about the one here that’s descriptive of how they operate . . . if you’re interested.”

“Sure.” Another smile.

“Before Ranjeesh bought this place, it was a guesthouse, and one night a woman with three goiters on her neck came to spend the night. She had two loaves of bread that she was taking home to her family, and she stuck them under her pillow before going to sleep. Around midnight the Khaa rolled into her room and was struck by the sight of her goiters rising and falling as she breathed. He thought they’d make a beautiful necklace, so he took them and put them on his own neck. Then he spotted the loaves sticking out from her pillow. They looked good, so he took them as well and replaced them with two loaves of gold. When the woman woke, she was delighted. She hurried back to her village to tell her family, and on the way she met a friend, a woman, who was going to market. This woman had four goiters. The first woman told her what had happened, and that night the second woman went to the guesthouse and did exactly the same things. Around midnight the Khaa rolled into her room. He’d grown bored with his necklace, and he gave it to the woman. He’d also decided that bread didn’t taste very good, but he still had a loaf and he figured he’d give it another chance. So in exchange for the necklace, he took the woman’s appetite for bread. When she woke, she had seven goiters, no gold, and she could never eat bread again the rest of her life.”

Eliot had expected a response of mild amusement and had hoped that the story would be the opening gambit in a game with a foregone and pleasurable conclusion; but he had not expected her to stand, to become walled off from him again.

“I’ve got to go,” she said, and with a distracted wave she made for the front door. She walked with her head down, hands thrust into her pockets as if counting the steps.

“Where are you going?” called Eliot, taken back.

“I don’t know. Freak Street, maybe.”

“Want some company?”

She turned back at the door. “It’s not your fault,” she said, “but I don’t really enjoy your company.”

* * *

Shot down!

Trailing smoke, spinning, smacking into the hillside, and blowing up into a fireball.

Eliot didn’t understand why it had hit him so hard. It had happened before, and it would again. Ordinarily he would have headed for Temal and found himself another long white scarf and pair of cotton trousers, one less morbidly self-involved (that, in retrospect, was how he characterized Michaela), one who would help him refuel for another bout of trying to visualize Avalokitesvara Buddha. He did, in fact, go to Temal; but he merely sat and drank tea and smoked hashish in a restaurant, and watched the young travelers pairing up for the night. Once he caught the bus to Patan and visited a friend, an old hippie pal named Sam Chipley who ran a medical clinic; once he walked out to Swayambhunath, close enough to see the white dome of the stupa, and atop it, the gilt structure on which the all-seeing eyes of Buddha were painted: They seemed squinty and mean-looking, as if taking unfavorable notice of his approach. But mostly over the next week he wandered through Mr. Chatterji’s house, carrying a bottle, maintaining a buzz, and keeping an eye on Michaela.

The majority of the rooms were unfurnished, but many bore signs of recent habitation: broken hash pipes, ripped sleeping bags, empty packets of incense. Mr. Chatterji let travelers—those he fancied sexually, male and female—use the rooms for up to months at a time, and to walk through them was to take a historical tour of the American counterculture. The graffiti spoke of concerns as various as Vietnam, the Sex Pistols, women’s lib, and the housing shortage in Great Britain, and also conveyed personal messages: “Ken Finkel please get in touch with me at Am. Ex. in Bangkok . . . love Ruth.” In one of the rooms was a complicated mural depicting Farrah Fawcett sitting on the lap of a Tibetan demon, throttling his barbed phallus with her fingers. It all conjured up the image of a moldering, deranged milieu. Eliot’s milieu. At first the tour amused him, but eventually it began to sour him on himself, and he took to spending more and more time on a balcony overlooking the courtyard that was shared with the connecting house, listening to the Newari women sing at their chores and reading books from Mr. Chatterji’s library. One of the books was titled The Carversville Terror.

“Bloodcurdling, chilling . . .” said the New York Times on the front flap; “. . . the Terror is unrelenting . . .” commented Stephen King; “. . . riveting, gut-wrenching, mind-bending horror . . .” gushed People magazine. In neat letters, Eliot appended his own blurb: “. . . piece of crap . . .” The text—written to be read by the marginally literate—was a fictionalized treatment of purportedly real events, dealing with the experiences of the Whitcomb family, who had attempted to renovate the Cousineau mansion during the sixties. Following the usual buildup of apparitions, cold spots, and noisome odors, the family—Papa David, Mama Elaine, young sons Tim and Randy, and teenage Ginny—had met to discuss the situation.

. . . even the kids, thought David, had been aged by the house. Gathered around the dining room table, they looked like a company of the damned—haggard, shadows under their eyes, grim-faced. Even with the windows open and the light streaming in, it seemed there was a pall in the air that no light could dispel. Thank God the damned thing was dormant during the day!

“Well,” he said, “I guess the floor’s open for arguments.”

“I wanna go home!” Tears sprang from Randy’s eyes, and on cue, Tim started crying, too.

“It’s not that simple,” said David. “This is home, and I don’t know how we’ll make it if we do leave. The savings account is just about flat.”

“I suppose I could get a job,” said Elaine unenthusiastically.

“I’m not leaving!” Ginny jumped to her feet, knocking over her chair. “Every time I start to make friends, we have to move!”

“But Ginny!” Elaine reached out a hand to calm her. “You were the one . . .”

“I’ve changed my mind!” She backed away, as if she had just recognized them all to be mortal enemies. “You can do what you want, but I’m staying!” And she ran from the room.

“Oh, God,” said Elaine wearily. “What’s gotten into her?”

What had gotten into Ginny, what was in the process of getting into her and was the only interesting part of the book, was the spirit of Aim�e Cousineau. Concerned with his daughter’s behavior, David Whitcomb had researched the house and learned a great deal about the spirit. Aim�e Cousineau, n�e Vuillemont, had been a native of St. Berenice, a Swiss village at the foot of the mountain known as the Eiger (its photograph, as well as one of Aim�e—a coldly beautiful woman with black hair and cameo features—was included in the central section of the book). Until the age of fifteen she had been a sweet, unexceptional child; in the summer of 1889, however, while hiking on the slopes of the Eiger, she had become lost in a cave.

The family had all but given up hope when, to their delight—three weeks later—she had turned up on the steps of her father’s store. Their delight was short-lived. This Aim�e was far different from the one who had entered the cave. Violent, calculating, slatternly.

Over the next two years she succeeded in seducing half the men of the village, including the local priest. According to his testimony, he had been admonishing her that sin was not the path to happiness when she began to undress. “I’m wed to Happiness,” she told him. “I’ve entwined my limbs with the God of Bliss and kissed the scaly thighs of Joy.” Throughout the ensuing affair, she made cryptic comments concerning “the God below the mountain,” whose soul was now forever joined to hers.

At this point the book reverted to the gruesome adventures of the Whitcomb family, and Eliot, bored, realizing it was noon and that Michaela would be sunbathing, climbed to Mr. Chatterji’s apartment on the fourth floor. He tossed the book onto a shelf and went out onto the balcony. His continued interest in Michaela puzzled him. It occurred to him that he might be falling in love, and he thought that would be nice. Though it would probably lead nowhere, love would be a good kind of energy to have. But he doubted this was the case. Most likely his interest was founded on some fuming product of the dark stone inside him. Simple lust. He looked over the edge of the balcony. She was lying on a blanket—her bikini top beside her—at the bottom of a well of sunlight: thin, pure sunlight like a refinement of honey spreading down and congealing into the mold of a little gold woman. It seemed that her heat was in the air.

That night Eliot broke one of Mr. Chatterji’s rules and slept in the master bedroom. It was roofed by a large skylight mounted in a ceiling painted midnight blue. The normal display of stars had not been sufficient for Mr. Chatterji, and so he’d had the skylight constructed of faceted glass that multiplied the stars, making it appear that you were at the heart of a galaxy, gazing out between the interstices of its blazing core. The walls consisted of a photomural of the Khumbu Glacier and Chomolungma; and, bathed in the starlight, the mural had acquired the illusion of depth and chill mountain silence. Lying there, Eliot could hear the faint sounds of Indra Jatra: shouts and cymbals, oboes and drums. He was drawn to the sounds; he wanted to run out into the streets, become an element of the drunken crowds, be whirled through torchlight and delirium to the feet of an idol stained with sacrificial blood. But he felt bound to the house, to Michaela. Marooned in the glow of Mr. Chatterji’s starlight, floating above Chomolungma and listening to the din of the world below, he could almost believe he was a bodhisattva awaiting a call to action, that his watchfulness had some purpose.

* * *

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5