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Aug 02

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The Dove

Winner: 2011: New Yorker Magazine Travel Writing Contest

The Dove

(1999)

Photographer: Vicky Van Santen

 

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

progressed.

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.

 

Chapter from:

The Man in Nagasaki: Memories and Other Recollections

Trafford Press

 

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