Winner: 2011: New Yorker Magazine Travel Writing Contest
It was a short drive from Mandalay to the Sagaing hills. In
Burma (Myanmar) even short distances bring a great deal. Every
turn of the road was graced by the view of golden stupas and idylliclooking
agrarian activities. Evening was approaching, and I was
treated to processions of straight-backed, saffron-robed young monks,
heads shaven, graciously collecting offerings for the monasteries and
temples from poor, pious farmers and villagers.
Sagaing, an ancient capital, is one of many pagoda sites in
the hills southwest of Mandalay. Luck took me to a beautiful, pure
white marble temple–a glistening platform surrounding a tall, goldplated
stupa with pavilions housing various images of Buddha and
ceremonial bells. The temple’s platform juts out with a full view of
the winding Irrawaddy River and the valley extending east across the
Shan Plateau to China.
I arrived at sunset, and the complex was ablaze with pink,
rose, and red and the sparking gleam of the golden stupa. I was one
of the few people there. I removed my sandals and walked barefoot
on the sun-warmed marble. I was thankful for the silence only
occasionally penetrated by the deep gong of a temple bell as a devotee
called forth divine attention before praying. Largely, all I heard was
the soft shuffle of a few other bare feet and the soft tinkle of the hti,
the gold-plated decorative umbrella topping the stupa.
I perched myself on the platform’s edge transfixed by the
magnificent vista. The brown Irrawaddy had turned pink, and the
sky glowed with a million minute flaming particles that make sunsets
in the Orient beyond words.
Lost in my thoughts that were heavily laced with an
imperceptible sadness, I sensed a presence. Silently, a huddled, tiny,
pink form, a nun, had moved discretely beside me. She looked into
my face and I into hers, her face made more pure by shaven hair,
large almond-shaped eyes, and the gentle caress of her pink robe. I
thought of my wife, Evie, rendered bald by the ravages of chemotherapy.
The nun held out her hands. At first I thought she was asking
for a coin, and I reached into my pocket. She shook her head “no,”
and I realized that her hands were cupped rather than open. By
motions, she indicated that I should do the same, and I extended
cupped hands toward her. She reached beneath her robe, brought out
a dove, and placed it in my hands.
The dove was warm, soft, and trembling. I was seized by
the wretched yet poignant memory of holding Evie–her beautiful
body hacked to pieces by cancer and surgery as the silence of death
After a moment, the nun lifted her cupped hands and parted
them. I knew that I was to do the same, releasing the quivering
bird. The bird took immediate flight over the Irrawaddy. Effortlessly
soaring and flapping her wings, she flew into a limitless horizon.
Timelessly, she said good-bye.
My eyes filled with tears, and I looked down. My silent
companion in this ritual of release had left me alone.