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ISSUE:  Winter 2003

It was a Tuesday afternoon in early June. School had been out for a week. Iris’s husband, Aaron, had settled a lamb roast in marinade, then taken the dog, Lulu, for a walk on the golf course. When the doorbell rang, Iris was reading Harper’s, working a toothpick rhythmically in and out of her teeth. From her kitchen stool, she saw two dark shapes through the wavy glass panel of the front door.

She rose and peered through the peephole, her line of sight issuing through the eye of the aluminum flamingo rampant on the screen door. Two bald heads tonsured with gray fringe swam into view, then two pale, placid faces and loosely knotted orange neckties framed by black lapels. “Yes?” she called through the closed door.

“Iris Hornstein,” they said in unison. They were both slight, and looked vaguely Chinese. One was much shorter than the other.


The taller one opened the screen door, withdrew a business card from his pocket, and held it up to the peephole. Mr. Lu Chanandra Sama. An address in Topeka. No, Tibet.

“What do you want?” Iris asked. She was suspicious of the matching black suits and limp, featureless white shirts. Mormon missionaries? Collectors for some charity she had never heard of? She pictured Tibetan orphans trudging up a snow-laced alpine trail.

“To speak with you.” Mr. Sama, the taller one, who seemed to be the spokesman, answered.

“I don’t contribute to charities without reading about them first. ” The rehearsed line, used for years with solicitors. “Do you have a brochure you could leave with me?” Her voice trailed off without conviction.

“We don’t want money,” the shorter one said, less patiently.

“Do we need an appointment?” Mr. Sama asked. “Oh, goodness, ” he fretted. “You are very busy at the present moment?”

The man was blushing, apparently at the thought that he had interrupted something important. Aaron would be back in a minute anyway. “No, I’m not very busy.” She slid the deadbolt back, opened the door, and gestured toward the rattan sofa in the living room. “Come in.”

“We bring you happy news.” A smile creased the taller one’s face, rounded his cheeks with a shine, and hung there like a banner in a stiff breeze. Bowing slightly, the two men made their way through the doorway and sat side by side. The smiles broadened into parades. Their eyes glimmered.

“How can I help you?” Iris asked, genuinely curious by this point. Were they selling condo shares? Sweepstakes? Was there a Chinese lottery?

“We have an annunciation for you.”

“You mean an announcement?” The correction was automatic. A speech therapist, Iris had spent her professional life listening to deflated vowels and blunted consonants, the pleadings of stutterers.

The men turned to each other, conferring with their eyes. “No. An annunciation,” Mr. Sama insisted. Iris watched with some alarm as he unbuttoned his suit jacket and reached inside a narrow orange sash at his waist. It was the same brilliant shade as his tie, as those Buddhist monks who had immolated themselves—in Vietnam? Cambodia? Iris could not place the footage, but it played vividly in her mind, the protean orange of the monks’ robe flying up in flames.

From the sash, he withdrew a colorful piece of cardboard, which unfolded downward, like a wallet pack of family photos. In a decorous tone, he began to read, glancing up periodically to make eye contact, as if he had learned public speaking from Dale Carnegie or the Toastmasters: “Based upon the words of the Dalai Lama, upon the sage writings of our Buddhist brothers and sisters, upon certain omens and signs given to us in dreams and in wakefulness, upon the mystical divination and divagation of soothsayers and mathematicians in Tibet, India, and Big Sur, California, and upon names and times written down with significance in his lifetime, it has been determined that Iris Hornstein is the reincarnation of the Great Adept, his holiness, the Saint Amarjampa.” He took a breath. “You will assume your place, receive training in the ways of a Tibetan holy personage, and share your spiritual enlightenment.” He jerked the paper accordion up, swatted it outwards, and trapped it in his hand like a card sharp. The two men looked joyous. “You are this Iris Hornstein.”

“I doubt it.” She eyed the open door. Where was Aaron? “There must be more than one Iris Hornstein.”

“Mother and father were Isador and Mildred Hornstein?”


“Born on February 13, 1942 in the city of Miami, in the state of Florida, in the U.S. of A?”

“Yes.” Iris suddenly remembered how the salesman had maneuvered her into buying her first car. She never had to say yes to the car itself, only to the features. She had bought power steering and sea green.

“At 2:53 in the morning?”

“Two-fifty-three? I really have no idea.”

“It is written on your birth certificate,” the short one said. “We have visited the courthouse.”

“Oh,” Iris said.

“Om mani padme hum,” Mr. Sama said.

“Mani padme hum,” Shorty echoed.

They rose and bowed, moving toward Iris like shy boys at a dance. Kneeling at her feet, they gently pried loose her hand clamped on the armrest of the chair and kissed it, closing their eyes reverently. When they opened them, they were full of tears.

Iris’s only connection to Eastern religion was her cousin Alta, who in the late ‘60’s had lived for a year as a disciple in the ashram of Meher Baba, an Indian mystic famous, paradoxically, for his humility. Baba had taken a vow of silence for 20 years, spoke briefly from his sickbed, then died. A photo of this avatar had hung for years in her cousin’s living room, looped with garlands of paper flowers and tin prayer wheels. Privately, Iris had mocked Baba, who reminded her of Danny Kaye with a goofy, mischievous gleam in his eye. In her cousin’s glossy eight-by-ten, Baba was turning toward the camera energetically, as if someone had just tapped him on the shoulder to deliver a telegram, the edges of his loosely woven robe still aflutter in the air, their focus blurred. His skin was taut and gleaming, his prominent, hooked nose a thin white ridge with sculptural hollows where the flesh had yielded to the fiercer determination of the cartilage. He was grinning gleefully, as if about to burst into song and dance, but his lips were pursed and a long, bony index finger pressed against them counseled silence in the interest of enlightenment or world peace or something which her cousin had never explained.

Iris didn’t know why Alta had chosen an Indian ashram for her soul-searching instead of one of the communes fermenting then in the States. She decided the ashram was probably full of middle-aged American women. She imagined her cousin in a long gauzy print skirt whisking along stone paths between huts while in the center of the enclave, native women dished up braised offal afloat in lentil soup. Everyone undoubtedly wore sandals and bound their hair with wooden sticks and leather thongs. Though Alta regularly sent Iris flimsy postcards that barely withstood the mails and grew yeasty in the Florida heat, she had never explained in detail what she had been searching for or what she had found.

Not knowing what else to do, Iris offered the men iced tea. “Or would you rather have Coke?”

“We cannot allow you to serve us,” Mr. Sama said, “Holiness.”

“Look, I’m flattered, but there must be a mistake. I’m not even a Buddhist. And I’m certainly not Tibetan, as you can plainly see.”

“You will learn whatever you need to know. Your soul is in a state of preparedness. You are full of wisdom.”

Iris remembered the momentary flashes at the health club she’d experienced lately while on the treadmill. Sometimes, during the endorphin rush, an assortment of hugely simplified statements or pert observations ticked across the screen of her mind, like headlines at Times Square. Toothpicks prevent gum disease. All concepts of honor are based on lack of birth control. Or was it, all concepts of honor are only a substitute for birth control. . . . Melons that smell ripe are rotten. That sort of thing.

“You are a well of spiritual guidance.”

“Then I hope you brought a bucket and a rope.” Iris laughed at her own joke. The men blinked.

Was it possible? Iris didn’t even believe in God, let alone reincarnation. “I don’t believe in reincarnation,” she blurted. At the same instant, the possibility that everything they had said might be true prodded at the edge of her mind, gently and hesitantly, like a kitten with its plump, soft paw.

Mr. Sama was not fazed. “It does not matter. Souls select their proper vessels. We shall teach you how to speak through the old soul and the new one together.”

Shorty nodded his agreement.

“I have two souls?”

“We will come to all that.” They smiled knowingly, affectionately, the way you might smile at a child who has mispronounced an adult word.

“I’ve heard the Dalai Lama is a wise, good man.” Iris conceded. She’d seen the Dalai Lama on TV blessing a throng in Dharamsala, India. An American woman in the crowd had reported a feeling of surging bliss when the Lama touched her hand. “But I’m Jewish,” Iris added.

“We know.”

Shorty went to the kitchen and found three glasses and filled them with cold water. He opened the freezer and took out ice cubes. In the wire basket hanging above the sink where Iris kept vegetables and fruit, he found a single shrunken lemon and squeezed it into the water glasses. Iris realized with fright that she knew all this, though he was working behind her back, out of sight. Then she told herself it was natural for her to know it because she could hear him and there was nothing else but garlic and onions in the basket, so it was only logical to assume the lemon was—

“You left the door open,” Aaron boomed, releasing the dog, Lulu, from her leash and closing the front door. “I see we have company.” He looked with bafflement at Iris in her chair and the small, dark-suited man kneeling at her feet.

Shorty said, “I will fix another glass of refreshment.”

Ten years younger than Iris, Aaron was her third husband, and the only man she’d ever dated who was shorter than she was. (At 5′10″ Iris had always felt unfeminine with shorter men.) He had a stocky body and curvy legs, like a Matisse figure, and lacked the competitive spirit and ambition that had destroyed her first two marriages. Back then, she couldn’t have tolerated a man who worked less frantically than she. In the years when her life was divided between raising a young child, attending graduate school, and teaching part-time, Aaron had been a hippie dropout. He made macramé hammocks and plant holders (he had since moved on to stained glass) and smoked a lot of dope. He did not aspire to make a mark upon the world; in fact, he’d told Iris many times that he was trying to move through it without leaving a trace. They were both political idealists: Aaron threw his votes away on the Greens, while Iris was a yellow-dog Democrat. Aaron was naturally patient (some might say lazy), while Iris scribbled endless lists and did everything as if she were killing snakes. After 12 years of marriage, the two of them moved through their days like greased gears, coming together briefly for domestic chores and pleasures. They no longer remarked on each other’s grating habits, though the irritation sometimes verged on rage. They had little left to fight about or, more accurately, little they were willing to fight about. This was the condition of their suffering and of their love.

Iris was not surprised that Aaron accepted the situation on its face, though he asked pointed questions: why had it taken the monks so long to locate her? (It was the second time in 300 years that a saint had been reincarnated outside of Asia and many of the documents were in foreign languages.) Weren’t most saints identified by the time they were eight or nine years old? (Yes. Iris was a special case. The soul had been jittery and discontented, like a cobra in too small a basket.)

After the two men left, Aaron told Iris that he was inclined to believe them because there were moments when she seemed otherworldly to him.

“Otherworldly?” Iris had echoed. “Do you mean I’m absent in some way?”

“No.” He looked hurt at the suggestion that he was backhandedly criticizing her. “I mean, this is really weird, but when we make love, there’s a kind of light that comes off your hair.”

“Thank you, L’Oreal.”

“I’m serious, Iris. Sometimes you look like you’re glowing.”

“It’s probably just your astigmatism. You don’t wear your glasses in bed.”

“This is different. It’s not a blur,” he looked around the room for something to match the phenomenon he was trying to describe. “It’s like the watery waves of light you see above the highway—mirage.”

Aaron’s stained glass panels with their broad trapezoidal bands of light and coronas shimmering around the bodies of animals and plants owed much, Iris thought, to William Blake. She’d always thought these were metaphoric blasts of enlightenment, or symbolic representations of the souls of living things, but now she wondered if Aaron had a neurological disorder, something like migraine auras, although he’d never complained of headaches. Was it possible that he actually saw these emanations of light? If he’d always seen them and thought it was normal, he might never have mentioned it. She remembered one of her clients, an eight-year-old boy who, after getting his first pair of glasses, asked what all the little green things on the trees were. Until that moment he’d seen the leaves as a solid blob.

“And it only happens when you’re having an orgasm.”

Lu and Wangrit, the Tibetan messengers, sat behind Iris in the charter jet, reading or quietly chatting. Incense burned in holders suction-cupped to windows on either side of the plane. At the rear, a shrine with statues of the Buddha and colorful cloth wall hangings had been bolted to the floor. A billow of saffron silk on a circular shower curtain rod enclosed the devout. Or was it merely the meditative? Iris wondered. She slept and read; Aaron plotted designs on graph paper and worked his way through six back issues of Art in America.A young Tibetan in loose pants and tunic offered food every three hours.

Though she didn’t believe it factually, Iris operated on the premise that the dead—at least her dead—were sleeping in another dimension when she wasn’t thinking about them. It was okay for them to sleep; she didn’t feel obliged to animate them, like a ventriloquist. Whenever they appeared, it was like watching a Technicolor movie, with extravagant period detail and surprising time-shifts. And so it was that for the 18 hours of Iris’s flight to Tibet, Great Aunt Tanta, wearing Uncle’s old black leather carpet slippers and a bargain-basement house dress, shuffled about preparing candied sweet potatoes for Rosh Hashana. The sweet potatoes clarified into a translucent orange sauce and then, like some miracle polymer, began to shine and solidify. Tanta giggled at the chemistry as Iris and her cousin Alta lobbed it from hand to hand, then walked to opposite sides of the room to stretch it into long coppery ribbons. When cousin Alta had to make an emergency visit to the orthodontist two days later to repair her mangled braces, no one blamed Great Aunt Tanta, whom the adults considered an incorrigible old greenhorn, but who, Iris and Alta knew, was only playing dumb for their benefit.

Iris studied the sky through her window of the plane. Something was different as she flew west from San Francisco into tomorrow. The sun set in seeming slow motion, its coral and pink banners awash in the clouds for nearly an hour. At last the sky turned ink blue; a few stars pierced it, then all was black.

“When we see the sun, we will almost be home,” Lu, the taller one, said. Iris had not noticed him standing nearby.

“What if you’ve made a mistake?” she asked.

“You do not have to think you are wise to be wise.”

“But what if I am really stupid?” Iris pressed.

“Perhaps no one has asked you the right questions.”

She thought for a second. “But then you, the questioners, are the wise ones,” she countered, “aren’t you?”

Lu touched her shoulder. He glanced at Wangrit, watching the interchange. The two men smiled at each other, then at Iris. It was a benevolent and soothing smile, in no way smug. Perhaps Iris did possess wisdom she was not aware of, perhaps it was waiting to be tapped, like a vein of precious ore, by the right sharp inquiry. Maybe age had something to do with it, conferring a sheen easily mistaken for mere wear, like the objects on Antiques Roadshow that seemed to change right before your eyes once they were set upon a baize-covered table and identified as antiques.

Now Tanta straightened the antimacassars on the seat backs in the plane, her breasts moving in their own rhythm a few beats behind, like a sign language interpreter. They were enormous breasts, mute and impressive as mountains. Iris suddenly wished she could write an ode to old breasts, but instead patted her own: though lower on her body than ever, they were still small, as if they had not yet fulfilled their destiny, unlike Tanta’s, which had developed into something very different—sagacious, more planetary. Tanta—she would have made a credible Tibetan saint. Who but a saint could have wielded a pointer for 30 years at the Orthodox Jewish day school while class after class of 15-year-olds gawked at her breasts swinging in the opposite direction? What but holiness could account for Tanta as she lighted the Sabbath candles, her breasts echoing the circling motion of her hands over the flames?

Tibet was a place of crisp air, bells, and snails. The mollusks threaded through every patch of green and brown, tacking like tiny sailing ships on slender silver currents. Above them, nothing fashioned by human hands challenged the soaring landscape. Herds of goats, sheep, and yaks grazed on the dewy grasses, moving as slowly as shadows as they wandered across the river valley and into the village.

Aaron’s only hesitation about going to Tibet was that he didn’t want to miss the baseball season, which, Iris knew, supplied the background music of his life for six months of every year. The Tibetans bought him a short-wave radio so that he could hear his Whitesox and Yankee games in real time. Iris, employed by the school system, was off for the summer, and had requested a leave for the fall term. Everyone but her daughter believed that Iris and Aaron had found a fabulous cut-rate vacation package to Thailand.

In a village far from Lhasa, Iris and Aaron were installed in a lodge once used for visiting foreign Buddhists. It was large, airy, and comfortably appointed, with pale yellow gauze curtains, bright area rugs and two indoor waterfalls. Massive half-timbers supported expansive glass walls. Next door, at the monastery, a small brotherhood cooked, prayed, and tended the grounds.

It was a lonely life. Iris’s identity was to be kept secret until she was transferred to the community in exile in Dharamsala, India. A half dozen young boys, recent refugees in Buddha, their newly-shaved heads still shiny, waved at her every afternoon from the courtyard, but otherwise the only people she and Aaron saw were Lu and Wangrit and the monks who served them. Lu promised that Iris would soon have more company than she knew what to do with. “You will greet the multitude,” he said.

Iris tried to picture this event: seated on a low gilt throne bracketed on either side with temple urns, she is the epicenter from which orange and yellow carpet runners stream in all directions, like sunbeams. She wears a brocade caftan and plumed turban. In her hand, variously, a scepter, a gong, a walking stick, a walkie-talkie. No. She would dress in her native costume: a three-season suit from Eileen Fisher and black leather boots.

She had expected to be deluged upon arrival with tracts on philosophy and religion, but not a single idea per se had been presented to her. Instead of catechism, she’d been given book after illustrated book from the large, eclectic collection of the Dalai Lama. There was no apparent method to the selections. Lu and Wangrit arrived every couple of days lugging boxes from the library. Just study the pictures, Lu had told her. In the first week, she had paged through European medieval strapwork, scent and snuff bottles, Roman coins, the fossil history of the horse and elephant, Neolithic burial sites, and the carved ivories and jades of the Far East. The second week brought antique sewing implements, orchids of West Africa, the ancient city of Cappodocia, the lives of bees, Renaissance costumes, a botanical survey of Antarctica, and Rotifers: The World in a Drop of Water.

She consumed this material while on a treadmill. Why not? Iris had thought, when Lu asked her if she desired anything special from home. Walking oxygenated the brain. Or as Lu had said, it “purified the breath.” As far as Iris could tell, the Tibetans regarded the breath with the same fearful reverence her mother had once reserved for the bowel movement: both were considered essential, had to be expelled regularly, and reflected the condition of the whole body—possibly even of the soul.

Each morning while temple bells rolled golden hoops of sound into the clear Tibetan air, Iris walked, never departing or arriving, leaving no tracks. Sometimes, to wipe the slate clean, she looked up from her books to gaze at the mountains resolving into shades of purple in the distance. At the end of each session, her mind, like a stomach after a huge repast, was uncomfortably full, roiling with distorted images of what it had devoured: lace made of Pacific krill; skyscrapers instead of stamens and pistils rising from the mouths of flowers. And, day after day, like an inefficient generator that is fed on the raw power of a lightning storm and gives back only minuscule sparks of electricity, her brain produced peripatetic fizzles of thought. The inventor of non-slip tile should receive the Nobel Prize. The cause of the Second World War was the First World War. Cookbooks make you hungry. In Scandinavia, do brunettes have more fun?

In the second month, Lu switched her from sight to sound. She heard soloists and choruses, orchestras and ensembles, the songs of whales and the crackling of insect traffic on the jungle floor, howler monkeys howling and the mechanical dither of mating dragonflies. Though Aaron sampled the books and tapes, he had nowhere near Iris’s capacity for absorption. She was becoming a sponge, a satellite dish, a receiver for all that could be seen and heard in the world. Great Aunt Tanta, shaped by the discipline of teaching school and the piety of keeping kosher had, in life, always been on the move. Now, though, when Iris thought her back into existence, Tanta was alone and unoccupied. She hovered near the treadmill or sat in a chair, her hands folded in her lap, her face expressionless.

At the end of the second month while Iris was listening to masted ships in the wind and the Turkish Mehter, the world’s first marching band, Aaron took a three-day guided trek out of the valley, onto the plateau. There, at 14, 000 feet, amid the arid, howling winds, he discovered the tents of the nomads hunkered down, patient and black as crows, their pointed tops sticking up like ruffled feathers. Wind and waterproof, they were woven of yak hair on the outside, while colorful embroidered plants and animals danced across the felt lining inside. The tents, Aaron told Iris excitedly, were going to be the first black objects he ever incorporated in a piece of stained glass. “I’m calling it “tent mandala,”” he said.

“But no light will come through.”

“Almost none. That’s how it is: no light, no sound. You’ve got to see it, Iris. Inside, it’s like a padded room.”

Iris sighed, the sound of a sawblade complaining in the wood. “I’ve been reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead.”

“Finally,” Aaron said. “Great!”

“Great? Have you read it?”

“I’m not quite sure,” Aaron said. That was what he always said when he wanted to avoid bluntly saying no. Sometimes it drove Iris wild. She waited while he checked his memory banks. She knew that in his hippie days he’d pursued a girlfriend through a brief flurry of Buddhism and taken a comparative religion course at Florida State. He’d already told her he hadn’t learned much beyond the superficial: Buddhist countries had more temples than telephone booths, big raft, little raft—nothing Iris hadn’t encountered in her speed-reading at the Leesburg public library the week before they left for Tibet. “No,” he finally said. “I don’t think so.”

“It’s instructions for dying. If your last thoughts aren’t right, your soul gets sent back to the wrong body.”

“Gee,” Aaron said.

On an afternoon so overcast the light looked like pure glare, the foursome sat in the lodge drinking butter tea, the national concoction, out of tin cups. Iris had been in Tibet for nearly three months and she felt no wiser than when she arrived. “When do I learn to be my saint?” she asked Lu and Wangrit.

“The Buddha became enlightened while sitting under a fig tree, doing nothing,” Wangrit told her evenly.

“You are learning already,” Lu said. “You are learning the world so that you can leave it with ease.”

“The world of elephant tusks and algae?” Iris heard the sarcasm edging her voice, but she didn’t care.

“Patience was never Iris’s long suit,” Aaron told the two men.

Aaron was right. She was energetic, not patient. But if they were simply testing her patience, why all the books and tapes? She flopped down in an armchair. She was sick of second-guessing everyone’s motives. “What’s this doing here, anyway?” she demanded.

“What?” Lu asked, alarmed.

“This stupid chair. What’s a stupid Cape Cod armchair doing in Tibet?” She felt her throat tightening. “What am I doing in Tibet?” Now, damn it, she was going to cry.

“Oh, Babe.” Aaron put his arms around her.

“I still know absolutely nothing about my old soul. Or my new one. Or Buddhism, for that matter.”

Aaron stroked her neck.

“None of you are any help to me.” Iris sniffed.

Lu and Wangrit, eyes glistening, cocked their heads ever so slightly. Like concerned cocker spaniels, Iris thought.

“Poor baby,” Aaron said. He looked distraught, as if he might cry. Sometimes Aaron’s emotions bubbled up too easily to count for much in Iris’s eyes. And in her blackest moods, she thought him something of a fool—too kind-hearted, liable to let people take advantage of him. What other 49-year-old man schlepped his friends to the airport and back? But this tenderness was also what she loved in him. She stifled her urge to tell him to shove his empathy.

“Oh! There’s a Buddhist pitch in baseball,” Aaron brightened. “I forgot about that. The knuckle ball.”

Lu and Wangrit inched forward in their chairs.

“Not even the pitcher knows exactly where it’s going. It depends on the wind. It’s all about release and loss of control.”

Iris imagined planet earth slowly wobbling out of orbit, like a bowling bowl headed for the gutter. “But none of the players are Buddhists, are they?”

“I wish Darryl Strawberry had become a Buddhist instead of a Christian. No, it’s the commentators. They like to elevate the game by throwing around philosophical terms. They talk about the Zen of baseball, too.”

Lu put his hands together in a prayerful attitude. “Desire is the cause of suffering, and enlightenment is the cure. That is all you need to know for now.”

“Or forever,” Wangrit added.

“That’s right,” Aaron recalled. “Buddha said suffering didn’t come from the outside world or an evil figure like Satan, but from the individual mind.”

Iris perked up a little. “That’s good. So you could say he was the world’s first psychiatrist.”

“There you go, Babe.” Aaron smiled tentatively at her.

“I better not find out he had a hundred wives while he was getting rid of his desire. But tell me,” she turned to Lu and Wangrit, “Why did the monks make a butter sculpture of the Buddha’s head yesterday?” She explained she’d seen one leaving the kitchen of the monastery. “It was elaborate, with long curls and an embroidered hat.”

“A real hat?” Aaron asked.

“No, a butter hat.”

“Weird,” Aaron said.

“Yeah,” Iris said. “It looked pretty wasteful to me. Wasteful and luxurious. And you can’t have luxury without desire.” The butter sculpture had upset her. She didn’t want to believe it was the Tibetan equivalent of an American televangelist’s gold-plated bathroom sink. “What I’m wondering,” Iris stared at Lu, then Wangrit, “is whether the monks are going to eat it,” she hesitated, her voice cold as ice, “or rub their feet with it.” Tanta stood on the treadmill, not moving, her good ear pointed in Iris’s direction. Lu and Wangrit regarded her without emotion.

“I want to show you something,” Lu said.

Everyone was sitting around the tea tray. Lu lifted the lid on a squat ceramic jar. “Look how much yak butter we have here.”

“Butter everywhere in Tibet,” Wangrit said.

“Butter is cheap.” Lu stirred a large dollop into the teapot. Iris watched it liquefy into small golden globules. “We eat it the way the Chinese eat rice.”

“So much butter we burn it in our lamps, rub it on our skin, ” Wangrit told her. “Women braid their hair with it.”

Iris felt suddenly ashamed. “I’m sorry.”

Lu said, “You do not have to apologize when you ask questions.”

Iris gave each of them a brief hug. It was the first time she had touched them. Their bodies were thin and cool through their saffron robes.

After returning from India, cousin Alta had moved on to other things, primarily appliances. Her house sparkled with gadgets to make life easier: blender, mixer, curling iron, bread machine, pasta, yogurt and rice makers, floor waxer, convection oven. “I have a right to be happy,” Alta had said. “That’s what I learned in India. I have a right.” Iris thought that if Alta used all these labor- and timesaving devices, she’d end up busy and miserable every minute of the day. But Alta didn’t use them. Instead, she admired them in the pristine state, like a stamp collection. Then, in 1980, something (Iris never learned what) had cast a shadow on the dull gleam of stainless steel and the serene sweep of clean countertops. Alta, never particularly political, packed her belongings into two suitcases and joined the campaign of the Independent presidential candidate, John Anderson. She worked on Anderson’s advance team, lining up hotel rooms and restaurants, buying balloons by the gross. She died in a car accident on her way to rent a sound system for a rally in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Iris’s moment with the multitude was at hand.

She, Aaron, Lu, and Wangrit flew to Dharamsala, then rested for a day. Lu calmed her. Expect nothing, he said. All she had to do was meet a couple of hundred people—lamas and monks, a few nuns, some lesser rinpoches—and accept the presentation scarves they would deposit ceremoniously at her feet.

Lu and Wangrit escorted her and Aaron into a large, tiled shrine room in the temple where the multitude had assembled. As she crossed the room, the crowd divided as neatly as the Red Sea to form a path for her, then closed behind her as quickly as it had parted. Am I glowing now? she whispered to Aaron, wide-eyed and joyous by her side.

It was customary for incarnated lamas to be higher than everyone else in the room, so a chair elevated on a dais had been arranged. But Iris towered over everyone and simply stood most of the time. They addressed her as Holiness. They didn’t test her or try to extract information. A palpable warmth suffused the room—something like love—and she rode it like a bird a thermal. I am honored to be among you, she repeated, bowing a little when they bowed. Lu translated for her, going on at length though she said only this. Tanta watched from a corner, puffed up with pride.

Then the four of them were whisked into a small chamber inside the gilt summit of the temple. Below, on the ground, pilgrims circled the building counterclockwise as they chanted om mani padme hum—hail the jewel in the lotus flower! Suddenly, the Dalai Lama was standing beside her, surrounded by men and women of all races. They enclosed him, moving precisely together, like a bunch of people inside an elephant costume. Chairs appeared and everyone sat. Tea was served, and small bittersweet cookies. The Dalai Lama spoke English, but occasionally addressed his cohorts in other languages.

He and Iris exchanged pleasantries about the weather in Florida, Tibet, and Sweden, where the Dalai Lama had just spent several weeks. He was forced to travel a great deal, especially since receiving the Nobel Prize. “They say you live in an airplane,” Iris said. “Is that true?”

He smiled. “I live in Tibet.”

She looked at him with disbelief. Everyone knew that he had been in exile since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950.

“There is a curiosity of language here,” he explained. “Do you know what the Tibetan word for Tibet is?”

“I’m sorry,” Iris said. “I really don’t.”

“It’s Bet. So then you see that your English word Tibet sounds to me as if it means to Tibet, or toward Tibet. On the way to Tibet.”

Something innately marvelous and sad was about to be revealed, Iris felt.

“So I could answer quite accurately, using your language, that I live in Tibet, whether I am on an airplane, or here in India, or in Sweden. I am always going toward Tibet, in one way or another. In my heart, certainly.”

Iris pondered the significance of Tibet in silence.

“We wish you also to live in the place of your heart, Iris.”

“Florida,” she said, without hesitating. “Oh, I like Tibet and India immensely—”

“That is our wish for you, too. You will be a bridge between the two cultures. Lu will interrogate and translate. He will be your bright eye. Wangrit will assist you both.” It was a question, not a statement. His face lay open, waiting for her reply. She agreed.

From the box of puppets in Iris’s office, Riley, age eight, chose a red plush dog with a happy felt mouth that opened and closed. Iris often used hand puppets in her sessions to distract the stuttering brain and give the voice a way out.

She placed a globe of the world in front of the boy. “Can the puppy say hello to England?” She pointed to a pink splotch. Riley touched it with the puppet. “Hell!” he yelled, “O England!” Riley moved the puppet across the world, nipping at the continents and seas. Tanta sat behind him in the sunlit alcove of the bay window playing solitaire. Through the window, Iris noticed that Aaron had left his studio door open. His huge Tent Mandala stained-glass resembled a flock of crows scattering into the sky.

Iris had devised a game for Riley, using words and pictures of foreign lands she had fashioned into flash cards. She began reciting the list Riley liked best because he thought the words sounded funny. Yak, she said. He repeated the word and collected the picture from the stack. Yurt, she continued. Snow, goat, tea. Buddhist, Temple, Tibet.

Riley stuttered twice, both times severely—long noisy chains of hard “G’s” dragged through gong and a salvo of “T’s” in temple.

“Riley, do you want to walk Lulu before you go?” Iris asked. The boy raced to the back porch, hooked Lulu to her leash, and banged through the door. Iris could hear him singing on the side walkway. That was one of the mysteries of stuttering: it disappeared completely in songs and in sleep. No one stammered in dreams.

She shifted her focus to the patio. Lu and Wangrit were lounging by the pool, listening to a game on the boom box. They had become Yankee fans. She had finally convinced them to wear American-style bathing trunks, though they had insisted on identical ones. Now Lu tipped his navy baseball cap to her. Tonight, after dinner, she would review her day guided by his questions—not a summary, but the way you might muse about a half-remembered dream, spinning out fantasies and significances. Lu would record everything in his lotus-paper notebook. In the pre-dawn, she might wake to find them chanting poolside, or munching on celery stalks with butter.

Iris gazed at the Florida sky, which was pale compared to the intense, deep blue of Tibet. She knew the difference had to do with the high altitude. Tibetan air was so thin that early explorers claimed to have seen the stars at noon from the highest peaks. But these accounts, like the reports of temples made of solid gold and sightings of Yeti, the Himalayan Bigfoot, turned-out to be just travelers’ tales.


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