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Authors: Yang Erche Namu,Christine Mathieu

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Leaving Mother Lake

Copyright © 2003 by Yang Erche Namu and Christine Mathieu

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

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ISBN: 978-0-316-02930-8

First eBook Edition: September 2007

Designed by Iris Weinstein

Map by George Ward

Contents

Dedication

A Lifetime of Tears

Latso

Latso Comes Home

The Cultural Revolution

A Pair of Red Shoes

Two Chicken Legs and a Starving Man

Into the Mountains

Stories Around the Campfire

The Mountain Goddess

My Skirt Ceremony

A Knock on My Bedroom Door

A Song and a Trip to the City

The City

At the Center of the World

A Village on the Edge of Time

Love and Duty

A Scandal

Xichang Again

The Audition

Life at the Conservatory

Coming Home

Afterword

The Last Word

Authors’ Acknowledgments

About the Authors

TO OUR MOTHERS

A Lifetime of Tears

M
y mother doesn’t remember when I was born. She does not remember the year or the month or the day. All she knows, she tells me, is that I cried too much. “From the moment you were born, you were trouble.”

But I insist: “Ami, just try.”

So my mother takes a sip of butter tea and says: “Ask Dujema, she was there.”

Dujema is our neighbor. She is also my Ama’s best friend and they spend a lot of time together, working and singing to keep their spirits up, and after coming back from the fields, sitting by the open fire, drinking butter tea and talking. Usually they talk about the weather and the crops but just as often they talk about men. Dujema is tall and strong and very beautiful, and she has many lovers. When my mother and Dujema talk about men, they laugh or they cry. Or both.

Right now Dujema is laughing, and in the glow of the fireplace, her beautiful brown face is shining like polished amber.

I slide on my hands and knees over to her side and sit close to her. “Tell me, Ami Dujema. What was it like when I was born? Do you remember?”

“Oh, yes, I remember,” she says.

And I nestle under her arm, and she tells me.

It was the year of the horse, and early in the winter. The mountains were already white but my Ama did not feel the cold or hear the stillness settling over the snow-covered fields. Nor did she hear my sisters bickering and giggling on the other side of the fireplace. My Ama was aware only of one thing: the boy inside her stomach stubbornly refusing to come out.

Dujema knelt on the grass mat on the floor near the fire-place, where my mother was lying. She wiped the tears from my Ama’s face and smoothed her brow. She ran her hands over the tight belly to make sure the baby was in the proper position. When the pain became unbearable, she put a dried-up corncob in my Ama’s mouth and told her to bite on it. When at last my Ama was still, Dujema added wood to the fireplace and stared into the bright flames, and the same frightening thought again came to her. “This is her third child. It should be much easier.” And when my Ama spat out the corncob and turned onto her side and clutched at her belly with trembling hands, Dujema said: “Latso, you know that boys always hurt more. This one must be a very big boy.”

My mother closed her eyes and held back her tears. “Yes. A boy. It’s worth the pain,” she said. “It’s worth the pain.”

This went on for a whole day and a whole night.

The next morning, shortly after the rooster called for the sun to rise, Ama suddenly groaned louder and she gave a big push, and then another, and Dujema cried: “That’s it, Latso! I see the head!” She laughed with relief. “It’s a big head. A big boy’s head!” Then she pulled me kicking and screaming into the narrow ray of dawn filtering through the opening in the roof, just above the hearth.

“Is he all right?” Ama asked anxiously. She tried lifting herself on her elbows to see me, but she was too weak. She fell back onto the mat and closed her eyes, leaving Dujema to examine me more closely by the warm light of the open fire.

“Yes, the baby is all right,” Dujema said, covering me with a blanket and turning to silence my curious sisters. Awakened by my mother’s groans, they had gotten out of bed, and they were now pushing against each other to get a better look at their baby brother.

Dujema gathered her long skirt from underneath her and stood up, her knees creaking from the long hours she had spent squatting near my Ama. She smacked her lips impatiently and shouted to my older sister to hurry and fetch the scissors from the sewing basket. Then she reached into the fireplace for a piece of kindling to light the holy sagebrush she had readied in the big iron pot almost two days before.

The sagebrush crackled. Thick, scented smoke drifted slowly throughout our log house and then upward through the opening in the roof and toward the gods in the heavens. And while the smoke cleansed every corner and crack of the house, Dujema ladled warm water into our blue enamel basin. After such a long labor, there was no time to waste in separating me from my mother. Dujema took the sewing scissors from my sister, passed them through the sagebrush smoke, and then cut the umbilical cord. After that she dipped me into the enamel basin.

“All is well, all is fortunate,” Dujema chanted above my newborn screams. “The room is cleansed. The baby is well. The water is pure. All is in harmony.”

When she had washed and dried me, Dujema anointed my forehead with a little pat of yak butter. She placed a cloth diaper between my legs, bundled me up in the traditional square cotton cloth, and tied a tiny red-and-green cotton belt across my belly.

And then she handed me over to my sleepy mother. “It’s a girl, Latso,” Dujema said.

My Ama opened her eyes. “A girl?” she repeated, hoping she’d misunderstood.

Dujema looked at my crinkled little face and smiled above my tears. “Yes! It’s a little girl!”

My sisters started giggling again. “Yes, it’s a girl,” they repeated. “It’s a big girl, with a big head!”

And now I too giggle as I press my face into Dujema’s skirt. “So why did it hurt my Ama so much to give birth to a girl?” I ask.

“Maybe you didn’t want to come out and disappoint her!” she jokes.

My mother laughs. With her sleeve, she wipes little Howei’s face, who is happily burping up his milk, and she takes another sip of butter tea.

MY MOTHER’S DISAPPOINTMENT
at my birth was unusual. For we Moso tend to favor daughters over sons — which is why the Chinese call our country the Country of Daughters. Among us it is women, not men, who inherit the family house and rule the household. But a family needs sons as well as daughters. We need men to herd the yaks in the mountains, to travel with the horse caravans to trade in the outside world, and to make the long journey to Lhasa to study the holy Buddhist scriptures and become lamas. Without our lamas we could not name our children or send the souls of the departed on to the next cycle of life.

There were no men in our family. We had no uncles, no brothers, and no sons living with us. But also we had no grandmothers and no aunts. We did not even have relatives nearby. Our family was unlike any other in the village, and all this because, years ago, my mother had broken with Moso custom.

According to our tradition, a family should never divide. Daughters and sons should remain with their mother and other maternal relatives for their entire life. Ideally, all family members should die in the house where they were born, the house of their mother and grandmother. But when my Ama was a very young and very beautiful girl, she ran away from the house of her grandmother. She was curious and restless and she wanted to see the world, the marvelous world where her uncles traveled with the horse caravans. But she did not go very far. She stopped only two days’ walk away on the other side of the mountains, in the valley of Zuosuo, where she lost her heart to a handsome young man and soon abandoned the dreams that had beckoned from beyond the mountains. When her belly was round as the full moon, she decided to build a house and raise her own family near his village.

A few months after our house was built, my oldest sister, Zhema, was born. Then, not long after Zhema began to walk, my mother sang the courtship songs again, with another handsome young man, and some months later she gave birth to another daughter, Dujelema. Then she fell in love with another man. His name was Zhemi and he was from Qiansuo, where my grandmother lived. He often passed through Zuosuo when he traveled in Tibet with the horse caravan. Zhemi was tall and he had the finest and most beautiful hands. Many times my Ama told Dujema that she fell in love with Zhemi when she looked at his hands.

Zhemi was my father.

Among my people this is how families usually live together. Women and men should not marry, for love is like the seasons — it comes and goes. A Moso woman may have many lovers during her lifetime and she may have many children. Yet each of them will perhaps have a different father, and none of the fathers will live with his children. Moso children should be raised in their mother’s house and take the family name of their maternal ancestors. They should grow up side by side with their cousins — the children of their mother’s sisters. The only men who live in the house are the brothers and uncles of the women. So in place of one father, Moso children have many uncles who take care of them. In a way, we also have many mothers, because we call our aunts by the name
azhe Ami,
which means “little mother.”

When I was born, my father was away at his own mother’s house in Qiansuo, and since we had no relatives living with us, there was no one to help my Ama. There were no sisters to help chop the firewood or cook dinner and no uncles to hold her newborn baby. So when Dujema had fed her enough eggs and chicken soup and corn gruel and my Ama was strong enough to stand up, she bound me to her back, and with my two sisters trailing behind her long skirt, carried me with her everywhere she went as she cooked and cleaned and tended the chickens and the pigs.

I soon proved quite a burden.

From the moment I was born, I cried. I cried all day, and often through the night as well, week after week, month and month. No one could understand why I never stopped crying. My mother tried everything. She sang me lullabies. She cradled me in her arms and bounced me softly on her shoulder. She nursed me until her breasts emptied.

When she could not stand my crying any longer, she sometimes bundled me tightly into a goatskin and placed me under the kang, the wooden platform where the family sits at night around the hearth. Then she covered her ears with her hands and rushed into the courtyard, where she shouted at the pigs and the chickens. And when she was done with shouting, she paced back and forth until she felt calm enough to retrieve me from underneath the platform — still crying and kicking.

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