"Covet not a gold-threaded robe, Cherish only your young days! If a bud open, gather it -- Lest you but wait for an empty bough." The Gold-Treaded Robe by Du Qiuniang
“Welcome,” my mirror said, crouching, bringing himself at eye level.
I pushed on my hands to clear space between us. “Who… who are you? Why do you look so much like I do?”
He was an adult version of myself, tall and confident, dressed in a long white robe whose workmanship I couldn’t place. It didn’t look like the clothes worn by the few yak herders I’ve glimpsed in the rare occasions they would pass near my cave. Small braids tied with black jade jewels adorned his hair, and raindrop shaped onyx dangled from his earlobes.
“Do not fear me, my own, for I am you,” he said with a gentle smile. “It is not I who looks like you, but you who looks like me, for I was first.”
That made no sense. “How can you be me, if I am here in front of you?” I asked.
He offered me his hand. “Let me show you.” I eyed his hand, then his face. There was a nonthreatening aura glowing around him, and his smile and kind eyes managed to put me at ease. I took his hand and he helped me stand on wobbly feet.
I leaned on him, fingers curled in the soft fabric of his robe. “I can’t walk. My legs hurt.”
“Would you like me to carry you?”
“Piggy back ride?” I asked, perking up.
“If you want.”
Mother and I travelled around Tubo every year, changing caves, following the pathways used by the yak herders in the opposite direction, staying away from humans. Sometimes I would be so tired that I would drop on my side and shift to a wailing toddler, demanding to be carried. Those were the only moments I would use my human form. When I became tired, or restless, or frightened I would lose control of my shapeshifting, and lapse to my vulnerable state. She said that it was normal for my age, and that control came with time, so she would nudge me with her head to climb on her back, and off we would go.
I tied the tiger pelt around my neck like a cape, and climbed like a monkey on his back. After he made sure I was holding tight he began walking.
From this high up I could see into the distance. Everywhere my eyes could see, there was an abundance of flowers and fruit trees. The few birds and reptiles that could be seen on the way craned their neck toward his palms, asking to be petted. The grass took a fresh spring hue and it was covered in little white flowers. There were rainbows sprouting under my mirror’s feet when he stepped on the blossoms. With his white robe he seemed like a part of this place, a white blossom himself. We started upward, on a path that vanished into mist, on the left side of a mountain.
Close by, gurgled a spring filled with tiny silver fish and large snails, carving a small trench between our path and the rocky wall.
“Are you thirsty?” he asked. “Or hungry?”
I shook my head. “No.” It was strange because it felt as if I had been there for hours, yet I felt no hunger or thirst.
“You can drink for the spring, and eat the flowers. But do not kill any of the living creatures you encounter. They are resting souls.”
“Souls of what?”
“Of humans. Pemako is a place of pilgrimage for both the living and the dead. While the living seek enlightenment, the dead seek rest before their next reincarnation. We guard them and offer them solace to recover before their next life.”
“And the living?”
“The living don’t stay here for long. There is no death in Pemako, as drinking the water and eating the flowers gives them immortality. But the Wheel does not allow the ones seeking immortality to find the gate to this paradise, for they are driven from a place of ego. Only the ones seeking true knowledge and truth to better themselves, so they can help others, find the gates open.”
“But I am not dead yet. Am I here to find this… enlightenment?” I asked. Sounded like something difficult to find.
He smiled. “Your soul has already found enlightenment in one of your previous lives. We no longer need to learn that lesson.”
“Yes, my all. I told you. You and I are one. I am your Soul, and you are a piece of my soul experiencing a new life.”
I looked at him confused. “I don’t understand.”
“You will, my all. The Wheel will show you.”
“When? Right now?”
“Not right now. Your mind is not ready to fathom the celestial body of the Wheel.”
“So many questions,” he said gently.
We had arrived at what end of a plateau. I took one look at the abyss and jerked so much I almost fell down his back.
“Frightening, isn’t it?” he murmured.
It seemed we had arrived at the end of the world.
“What is this place?” I cried. It was a black chasm of nothingness, as if a painter had decided to stop his brush at the edge of the cliff, and splatter with dark ink what remained. It was shapeless and horrifying.
“This is the gateway towards your destiny. To meet the Wheel you will have to jump in the unknown. If you do that now, it will be dangerous for your mind, which might fracture. We need to take it slow.”
I wasn’t listening to him anymore for something in blackness had caught my attention.
Two giant purple suns opened like eyes and gazed at me. Dawa. Guardian, the choir chanted. Welcome. I could only stare, stripped of body, stripped of anything but consciousness. In front of those eyes the only thing I knew was that… I was.
I began my training under the gentle but firm hand of my… Soul. His name was Báihǔ, but I did not dare to call him anything but Teacher. The snow leopards became my brothers, and they were the ones who thought me how to hunt nightmares.
I do not speak about the years in Pemako, for they are sacred and I am under divine vow to keep the secrecy. And yet I am allowed to tell you this.
There are a hundred and eight gates to paradise in Tubo, and Pemako is right at the center, the most beautiful of them all. The Tsangpo River and its gorges surround it to the east, west and south, while the north is blocked by mighty ranges of snow mountains. It is a place one reaches with extraordinary difficulty. Trackless forests of oak and rhododendron surround the river and the mountains, teeming with wild beasts, venomous snakes, leeches and sucking ticks, hornets and flies. The Wheel does not permit access to the ones not ready to understand the truth about life, or those who still separate nature and human perception into two distinct realms.
When one still managed to penetrate the barriers, and overcame the physical hardship, the moment one reached the river, they would find the barriers of the mind. Manancing deities would appear from behind veils of water to play with their fears. Spirits feeding on suffering and death would sing their siren song urging one to jump in the river, making them think it was the way to reach the gates to Pemako.
If the fallen pilgrim had been a man or woman with bad karma, they would transform into a monster in three days, three hours and three minutes from death. It was the leopards’ job and mine to hunt such creatures. The Wheel allowed only the demonic spirits of the lowest order to hunt the gates of Pemako, for Teacher said it was a lesson those spirits had to learn in their path to evolution. Everything else was hunted and destroyed.
It took me two years to learn from Teacher how to transmute the darkness of the monsters I devoured into prana, the energy of life and creation that was the ambrosia of the gods. And when I became good at it, I felt like a god myself.