Edition 20: The Drummers of Po Chu by Michael Anthony
The lowly traveler stood trembling in the shadow cast by the ebony stallion and its helmeted rider who sneered, “Old man, when will the Drokpa learn that even they must pay tribute to Chen Sheng, Lord of the High Mountains?”
The small figure struggled to keep his footing as the sweaty hindquarters of the soldier’s horse nudged him closer to the edge of the narrow mountain trail. Several more steps and there would be nothing between the aged leader of the Drokpa nomads and the valley floor far below.
“My people have but a few yak, some goats, the tattered tent in which we sleep and what scraps of food we carry,” the old man replied. “We trade not in jin as do the gold merchants along the road to the Gobi. When we near this end of our journey, we always pay our respects to your master by offering our best bull. But, this season, misfortune caused us to lose the best ones in the flood waters of the Tsangpo. Still, we will pay tribute. When we return next season we will offer your lord not one, but two young bulls.”
The semi-circle of horses tightened, forcing the old man back until his boot heel straddled the sheer ledge. Standing not far away, his wife, Bao Li, and twin daughters, Lu and Yuan, watched, silently praying he would be spared. The mounted soldiers responded to their captain’s order by drawing their long swords and hoisting them high above their heads. Together they swirled the blades and in blinding flashes brought them down upon the old man. The air around Chi Lai was a blur of silver arcs slicing at his arms and legs. The humble nomad dropped to his knees. Each saber had sliced his coat and pants, drawing crimson blood, but not cutting deep enough to kill.
“Let that be your warning.” The soldier scowled. “We return with tomorrow’s sun. You will offer suitable tribute or you will lose the hand you claim is empty. If you still refuse, then each of your tribe will lose one as well.” Turning to Chi Lai’s daughters, the captain grinned with evil burning bright in his eyes. “It would be a tragedy for such beautiful young ones to have but two hands between them.” With that, the king’s men thundered down the rutted trail toward a distant encampment at the far end of the valley.
“Chi Lai! Chi Lai!” Bao Li called to her husband who still lay on the ground near the brink. “Do not move, lest you fall.”
The small band of yak herders carried Chi Lai down to the yurt set amid a clearing in the tall grass and bandaged his wounds. Inside the shelter of tanned hides, Chi Lai was placed near the fire, over which a blackened pot boiled, filling the shelter with savory aromas and healing steam.
“The heat will help,” his wife said.
The others agreed and formed a circle around him as he slept. Their bodies blocked the cold while their prayers sought health for their leader.
That evening, over a meal of goat cheese, boiled mutton and tea sweetened with honey from the meadows to the west, the small band discussed how to avoid their impending doom. Some suggested escape; another wished to fight; while still others proposed surrender of the best yak.
Chi Lai woke and addressed the group in a voice weak, but with a sense of authority that had long guided the tribe. “Bao Li, while sleeping, a spirit told me what must be done. Take six burning embers from the fire and place them atop a stone that faces the tallest eastern peak. Scratch my name onto that stone. Do this before the bright star shines directly overhead.”
Though none understood the meaning of Chi Lai’s direction, neither did any challenge his wisdom, which had never before failed them. Chi Lai lay back, his wounds having drained his energy as well as his blood. As he drifted into a deep sleep, his fingers drummed lightly on the hard soil beneath his head, slowing until they no longer moved. Not once did he shift during the freezing cold night.
As the pre-dawn sky lightened into a pale violet behind mountains still cast in darkness, a menacing sound awakened the tribe. Even the kid goats that slept alongside Chi Lai’s daughters cowered. The air thundered and the nomads held their ears, trying to block out the incessant pounding, louder than any monsoon. The ground beneath their feet, their heads, and their prone bodies shook. The water in the pot vibrated, forming concentric rings on its surface.
Bao Li shouted, “It is the king’s men come for his tribute.”
“We are no match for their weapons,” one yelled.
“We must flee,” another cried.
All but Chi Lai clamored in terror.
“My friends,” Chi Lai said in a raspy voice, “that is not our doom, but our salvation.”
“The old one must be confused,” another shouted above the din. “How does he not hear the hooves bearing down on us?”
Chi Lai turned towards the young one who questioned him. “My age does not betray me; do not let yours betray you.” Then, he looked to the others. “Everyone outside. We must greet them.”
Though hesitant, they followed their leader who hobbled into the lavender light outside the yurt. Cold purple shadows painted the valley and slithered up the walls of the ravine until they disappeared over the western rim. Droplets of morning dew glistened on Chi Lai’s oiled leather boots as he shuffled towards the trail. The approaching noise grew even more ominous as it neared.
Chi Lai raised his hand, pointing to the sharp bend down the path. “There!”
Six small figures marched towards the campsite; each with a huge drum of tautly stretched yak hide hanging from his side. So large were these brightly tasseled instruments that they dwarfed the diminutive men who struck them in perfect unison.
One nomad likened the rumble to the groan of the earth when it quaked and the lands rose in great upheaval, leaving crevices as wide as they were deep. The echoes of those drums vibrated inside the chest of each herder. Goats scrambled up the mountain trail trying to escape the cacophony. The yak strained and pulled against thick ropes holding them fast to deep-set posts.
“Who are they?” Chi Lai’s daughter, Yuan, asked.
“Our defenders,” he replied.
“How can such small men who carry nothing but musical instruments defend us?” Bao Li asked, her voice ripe with doubt.
“Faith, my wife.” Chi Lai smiled. “With faith the smallest ant can climb the tallest mountain, but without, perishes beneath the paw of a dog.”
The six drummers marched straight towards Chi Lai, bowing deep at the waist. With a syncopated flourish, raised their drumming to a resounding roar, and with the swiftness of an arrow, stopped. The still air felt suddenly strange, as though the world had fallen mute.
The smallest of the six stepped forward, his ivory-yellow eyes quick, keen and penetrating. “I am Tenzin Umo. How may we honor you, Chi Lai?”
“It is I who should honor you,” Chi Lai replied, bowing deep in respect. “Please, eat with us and I will tell you why you were summoned.”
The women began preparing the morning meal of porridge, flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg. Everyone, including the children, crowded into the warm, humid tent to hear Chi Lai welcome the strange visitors.
“My friends, your presence heartens me.”
“Chi Lai, of all our friends, we owe you the most. Now, tell us, what troubles you?”
“Yesterday, soldiers of Chen Sheng, rode through our camp, demanding tribute for the king. In the past we have always offered our finest bull, but during this migration, we lost our best yak and many goats crossing the Tsangpo River. We need the remaining yak to replenish our herd for the next calving season. I tried to explain this, but they refused my reason. Now, they will return to secure tribute. If our offer is insufficient, they will sever one hand from every tribe member until our tribute is satisfied.”
The six drummers looked to one another, communicating only with darting eyes. Again Tenzin Umo, the smallest yet the apparent leader, raised his hand making several signs, his fingers bending in various ways. One by one the rest responded, signaling their agreement with a clenched fist, which they struck against their other hand in a sharp slicing motion.
Tenzin faced Chi Lai. “We understand your plight. Please, allow us to help.”
Chi Lai nodded, but another of the tribe questioned, “What can musicians do against the weapons of the king’s soldiers?”
“These are our guests,” Chi Lai chided his friend. “Do not show them disrespect.”
“Chi Lai, do you forget your own youth when you were quick to question, but slow to believe?” The drummer grinned,
“You are right.” Chi Lai bowed to the laughing leader.
“Chi Lai, when are the king’s men expected to return?”
“Before the sun climbs two hands above the eastern peaks.”
“Then we must act quickly. Have your people gather outside on the trail. Form a circle around us, but say nothing to the soldiers. We will offer your visitors a tribute befitting their manner.”
The tribe waited outside, their breath misting silver in the cold morning air. The first rays of the day’s orange sun spilled over the mountaintops and splashed bright on the faces of the nomads clustered about the six, who sat still as granite statues atop their ornate drums.
To the east, a cloud of ochre dust rose, signaling the return of the king’s men. As the horsemen drew near, the leader of the six drummers reassured the tribe, telling them to remain calm.
The captain’s horse galloped directly for Chi Lai who stood in front of his clan. Skidding to a halt, its rider shouted, “Old man, what do you wish for us to bring as tribute for our king?”
“Tell him you have no more than yesterday,” Tenzin whispered behind Chi Lai.
The nomad repeated the words, drawing the ire of the king’s soldier.
“Old man,” the captain shouted, his neck taut with rage, “life without a hand will be difficult, but who will marry a daughter who has but one? Is that your wish?”
The soldier dismounted his black charger and signaled for his men to do the same. Once on foot they unsheathed their swords and approached Chi Lai’s tribe with bloodlust.
“Grab the old man. Take his hand first. Perhaps the others will see the stupidity of the fool’s refusal.”
At his command, four soldiers started for Chi Lai.
They were but a few steps away when with the swiftness of a cat, the leader of the drummers leapt to his feet atop the drum. “Sir, is not your king the wisest man in these lands?”
“Who is this fool? A musician?” the soldier growled.
“I am Tenzin Umo, of the drummers of Po Chu.”
“A drummer with one hand is a drummer who starves. Stand back!”
Two soldiers grabbed Chi Lai and a third pulled back the sleeve of his jacket, exposing the leathery skin of the old man’s wrist. Another stepped close and swung his sword, ready to lop off Chi Lai’s hand.
“Last chance old man. Will your tribute to Chen Sheng be your hand or your prized bull?”
Chi Lai looked to Tenzin, hoping for an answer that would save him.
“Wait!” Tenzin called. The captain of the soldiers raised his hand, halting the blade ready to befall Chi Lai. “Which would the wise Chen Sheng prefer you bring him? The hand of an old man or the jin of gold traders?”
“The old man has already told us they have no yellow metal here,” the soldier replied.
“He was right. Neither he nor his people have any. But I and my fellow drummers know where gold which shines like the dawning sun can be found.”
“Then tell us or your friend here loses something he has grown quite fond of.” The soldier’s voice gave away his glee in terrorizing the defenseless.
Amid a knee deep sea of golden grass the tribe stood silent, believing that at any moment a massacre would ensue. Mothers hid infants beneath their heavy woolen clothing and pushed young children behind them. Husbands stepped before their wives ready to shield them from the savagery they sensed was upon them.
“You may have your jin on one condition,” Tenzin the drummer said.
“Fool, you are in no position to bargain. Either you have the gold or you don’t. Hand it over now!”
“The jin will be yours when you free the old man.”
No one moved. Tension crackled in the frigid morning air.
Out over the ravine, broad-winged gho, swooped and cried, in search of food for their young in high aerie nests. The gleaming lapis blue sky rivaled the stones that adorned the gates of Chen Sheng’s palace. The sun now shone fully upon the faces of the nomads and glinted off the armor of the king’s soldiers.
Finally, the captain spoke, “Musician, hand over the jin before I have my men sever your foolish head instead of the old man’s hand.”
“Sir, the jin is hidden within an altar of rock along that trail. There, by the snow line. See?” Tenzin pointed his drumstick to a flat spot halfway up the mountain trail.
“You must think I am a bigger fool than you, expecting me to simply take your word that gold is far up the path.”
“Send only two of your men. Let them check. If the gold is there, have them signal, then leave these people be.”
“And if it is not as you say?”
“You are the ones with the sabers.”
After a few seconds of reflection, the captain sent his lanceman and another to see if the tiny altar did in fact house the precious treasure. “A yellow streamer if there is gold, blood red if not!”
The tribe, the remaining soldiers and the drummers watched silently as the two horsemen made their way up the narrow winding trail. Its steepness and loose rocks slowed their advance. They covered the last hundred steps on foot. Stone by stone, the men dismantled the top of the pyramid. When it stood at half its original height, one soldier tied a saffron pennant to his lance and waved it back and forth.
“See,” Tenzin smiled, “as I said, the jin is there.”
“I did not assume this rank in the king’s army by being a fool. How do I know it is truly gold? Not just some shiny metal?”
It seemed to Chi Lai this soldier was more interested in bloodletting than in securing tribute for his lord.
Tenzin answered the challenge quickly. “Perhaps you should send your most trustworthy. One who knows true gold and whose word you believe.”
The captain dispatched his loyal first officer, leaving only himself and two others with the tribe. It was another slow-footed trek up the steep path until that soldier met the first two. After several minutes examining the small bars and coins, the officer tied a second yellow silk to the lance and waved it high.
Now convinced, the captain of the soldiers ordered the old man killed. “Let his people see what results from stubbornness.”
“But sir,” Tenzin intervened, “you gave your word, the gold for their safety.”
“Musician, you try my patience. Another word and you join the old fool in death.”
“Look!” Tenzin shouted, “your men steal the gold for themselves.” The soldiers were indeed filling their packs with the treasure. “They can do much with that gold and will be far across the mountains before you near the altar.
“After them! A share for the man who runs his saber through their hearts.” With that, the two remaining soldiers charged across the clearing and towards the trail. The captain pressed the tip of his sword to Chi Lai’s neck. “If they fail me, you die first!”
“Sir,” Tenzin said, “perhaps our drumming may give them a rhythm to ride faster.”
Chi Lai stared at the drummer, wondering why the musician was eager to help those who would surely kill him. Tenzin inclined his head at the old man and nodded for his men to begin.
As the captain’s last two soldiers neared the base of the trail, the drummers began chanting, their deep voices resonating throughout the valley. The echoes returned like some great vibrating stringed instrument. Facing one another in a great circle, the men pounded their drums, slowly at first, more slowly than the beat of one’s heart.
Driven by greed, the soldiers recklessly propelled their horses up towards the spot where the others still loaded their pockets. Rocks skidded beneath the hooves of their mounts. They were halfway between the Drokpa nomads and the gold, when the drummers quickened their rhythm.
“Chi Lai,” the drummer called, “tell your people to chant as we do.”
With that, the musicians raised their voices in a chest-rattling sound. The nomads followed. All across the deep cold valley, their voices knit into a single reverberation that echoed off the great shadowed cliffs.
With their ears pricked sharp, the soldiers’ horses skittered and bucked on the trail, refusing to go forward. Despite the soldiers’ spurring and whipping, they dug in their hooves, sending gravel flying over the edge. Fearing they might be thrown, the soldiers leapt from their horses. Riderless, the beasts shuffled about, neighing and snorting. The chanting terrified them until they could not be controlled. The soldiers ran towards the others on foot.
The drummers commenced a cadence that sent the soldiers’ horses careening up the trail, knocking the soldiers down and nearly over the cliff. The drumsticks of the six blurred as they bounced faster and faster off the taut skins. All the while their chant deepened until it no longer seemed part of them, but instead part of something far greater.
Chi Lai saw the pebbles around his feet begin to dance. Sensing danger, the yak broke free of their restraints and charged off to the west.
The ground rumbled with the harmonic tone of the chant. In unison, it became an unstoppable force. The drumming, the chanting and the shaking earth sent waves of fear through the soldiers who had little more than a narrow path of quaking soil between them and certain death on the rocks below.
The captain glared at his men in the distance as they plundered the altar for themselves. At that very moment, the huge black stallion upon which the captain had arrived suddenly reared at the unsettling noise and brought its forelegs down on the neck of its master, snapping it like a dry twig. Dead, the captain’s body dropped to his knees, remaining upright for a few seconds, eyes wide, before crumpling to the ground.
The drumsticks were no longer visible except for the leather wrapped heads cutting dark arcs in the air. Despite the chill, the drummers’ brows beaded with sweat, their breaths rising in a single gray cloud that hovered above.
One of Chi Lai’s tribe shouted, “Look to the mountain! The snow!”
High atop the sharp, blindingly-white peak, the heavy layer of ice and snow began to shift, sliding down the face of the mountain towards the horseless soldiers.
The crust cascaded, picking up speed as it roared to the floor below. The six drummers continued chanting and beating their drums furiously. The harder they pounded, the faster the snow careened down the slope. Still stuffing their pockets with gold, the soldiers looked up as they vanished beneath the great white shroud. The roar of crashing snow and ice amplified the ceaseless drumming. Faster and faster, the drummers worked until they reached such a fevered tempo that the drumsticks flew from their hands and sailed into the air.
Instantly, all was silent. No drumming, no chanting. Only the soft hiss of snow settling at the base of the mountain and the shrill caw-caw-kee cry of the gho vultures gliding on updrafts could be heard.
“My friends,” Chi Lai said, “you have saved us. What can I do to repay you?”
“You long ago satisfied your debt.”
“When did I do such a thing?”
Breathing heavily, Tenzin Umo rested against his wide drum, “Chi Lai, ask your people to let us speak alone.” The old man did as requested. When the tribe had moved away, the drummer continued, “Do you remember when you were a boy, traveling this very same trail with your father?”
“I traveled here with him often.”
“Once, when you wandered off to the top of a hill near Po Chu you came upon a snow leopard with her litter.”
His memory jogged, the old man answered, “Yes, I remember the sazik. She stared at me, all the while sheltering her young.”
“Do you recall what you did?”
“I only remember praying that if she would let me pass without attacking, I would not tell my father what I had found.”
“Yes!” Tenzin replied, “And because you didn’t, our mother was spared. I and my five brothers avoided wretched lives in the steel cages of the lord’s mountain palace.”
Chi Lai scratched his head in disbelief with the hand he nearly lost were it not for the intercession of Tenzin and the drummers.
“Chi Lai, all these years, we have followed your tracks across the Chemayungdung Valley to the great grazing land in the Martsang. We have stood ready to help.”
“You say you were the leopard kits I saw when I was a boy? How can that be?”
“Our destiny was sealed that day. We were to be your protectors for as long as you traveled the great mountain trails. We assume the image of men so that we do not frighten you or your people.”
Chi Lai bowed. “You frighten me now, my friends.”
“Our work here is done. But should you need us again, summon us as you did last night. Chi Lai, you are a good and fair leader. Your daughters learn from you and they will be wise teachers of your grandchildren as well. This tribe benefits much from your wisdom. We are honored to serve you.”
The six drummers of Po Chu gathered their instruments, bid farewell to Chi Lai and his people, and then struck out along the western trail, beating a slow rhythm that remained long after they disappeared over the horizon.
Chi Lai led his Drokpa nomads on fourteen more migrations. On each of those treks, six snow leopards could be seen perched high atop the mountains, following the caravan. And late at night, distant drums could be heard echoing across the wide Tibetan plains.
Michael Anthony is an American writer and visual artist currently living in New Jersey. He graduated Fairleigh Dickinson University and has published fiction, poetry and illustrations in various literary journals as well as having had two novellas serialized by Cappers Magazine.
Michael’s photographs have been exhibited by the American Labor Museum and he is currently working on a photo-fiction series of short stories inspired by images he captured in the late 20th century.