There was an entire town, shops and all, shuttered, at the foot of the temple complex. Worse, though, were the shops with goods still inside, blank-faced statues of gods or guardians she could never even begin to name, temple offerings of candles and incense in neat pyramids along counters behind glass doors, as if the keeper had just stepped out for a drink, or a cigarette, lucky cats waving in endless futility.
They walk through the shops, her hands itching to reach out to the smooth marble faces or fabric frozen into a drape forever, to feel the reality of things under her fingers and dispel the vague sense of having stepped into a photograph. As they draw closer to the entrance, a nasal song rings out from hidden speakers, making both of them jump.
"Sutras," she laughs. "There can't possibly be monks here, though."
They prowl around the entrance to the temple complex, a vast pair of walkways under cedar-shingled awnings bracketing Brobdingnagian stairs, two guardian statues deposited in the center of the massive marble slabs. The intermittent rain had left a puddle here and there, with bits of pollen and dirt ringing each spot. She pokes at the pollen with her umbrella and skips up the stairs. Three steps across each leaving no way to jump stairs in her ordinary fashion, she settles for speed. The battered, creosote-weeping wooden doors stand open to the courtyard, and she ducks inside as if something is chasing her.
The hall is wider than anything she's ever seen, and almost empty. The walls are latticed and full of recesses that could hold almost anything, plaster and dark wood contributing to the cool that is such a contrast to the moist heat outside, the occasional showers doing nothing to tame the rising temperature. I thought it was supposed to be cooler in the mountains, she had snapped irritably on the walk to the temple. He hadn't even bothered to respond.
Now they were inside, all her annoyance absorbed into the awful emptiness of the mock temple. The distressing unmeaning of each building-sized bodhisattva, cruel mouths agape, an unpleasantly familiar oppressive feeling. She leans back to look up into their faces and finds herself retreating to the entrance, all the way behind the cauldron of sand and the neat pyramids of incense for sale, the main remaining income for this building that some call a front for the gangsters' money-laundering and others refuse to speak of at all.
Rooting around in her black bag, she pulls out some change and drops it into the slot next to the sand-bowl. She walks around each statue, feeding incense and coins and the roaring emptiness of her prayers to each one, thinking of poor Guanyin, left here to the simple housekeeping of medicine and mercy. She pauses in front of the Great Buddha, whose bland face fails to speak to her, and gives up her last handful of incense.
Behind her, more tourists wander in, the silence descending as the overbearing presence of the statues begins to work upon them the same way. She turns to leave, wondering at this building in the middle of the mountains, empty of every feeling and of anyone but the foreign and the lost.
On her way out, she lights a candle for Kannon, being sure to do so with the most recently tattooed hand, thinking of the goddess bodhisattva's face in the moon, peach-sweet cheeks drawn with pain. She waits for the peace of remembering the goddess to fall over her, thinking of that luminous face bowed, forced into listening for all the cries from this earthly world. She hopes Kannon will hear her heart crying out to stay in the jade-colored mountains, even as she adds up the sad little number of days she has left to live in her chosen home.
She leaves the temple of rumors and heads over to her partner, standing on the terrace, his face empty of awe or ruin, as empty of regret as she is full of the need to escape, the refusal to accept their shared country as home. She slips her hand into his and tries to press her sadness into his palm like a coin, to push it away from her and breathe the sweet feeling of being as far away as possible for a little while longer.