When Dystopia Gives Rise to Hope

On a moonlit Vermont night in the year 2055, Doctor Zhampa DiOrio harnesses himself to a cart like a draft animal and heads for the Red Lady Mountain monastery in Tibet. No matter that civilization has unraveled. No matter that the journey, if he survives it, will take years. No matter that he doesnt understand the power of the Tibetan relics he carries strapped to his back. Returning them, he is fulfilling the vow he made to his mentor, Rinpo, the abbot of the monastery who fled a hundred years earlier to keep his lineage’s most important scepters from Mao Tse Tungs genocidal army.

Zhampa endures the seasons, the distance, and the violence of others with the help of a hardened warrior, a wild-hearted hunter, and his step-daughter, Celeste, herself a skilled healer. As in every previous time, death comes without warning. The certainty of this drives their determination to deliver the tools that will give rise to a future free of war, bringing an end, finally, to the Dark Age.
text of The opening

Prologue: Tibet, March 1959


           At first light, Selpo Rinpoche woke to the roar of his monastery’s warning gong. Thinking fire, he threw open the shutters and scanned the temple, the library and the labyrinth of monks’ cells, until movement outside the walls caught his eye. A monk was running barefoot down the mountain, maroon robes flying, blood staining his trail in the snow.

          Later, while he and his lamas tended the monk’s wounds in the warmth of the great kitchen, Rinpoche listened as the monk relayed his news from over the Iron Snow Range. A Red Army unit had corralled laypeople and monks in the courtyard and demanded the senior lamas renounce their faith and bow down to Mao Tse Tung. When the lamas refused, soldiers shoved pistols into the hands of the novice monks and ordered them to kill their teachers. But the boys, in keeping with their vows, turned the weapons on themselves. In response, the soldiers emptied their guns into the crowd, then dragged the women and girls to the temple, laid them on their backs under the statue of the Buddha and raped them.

           All that day, Rinpoche walked the halls, rallying monks and villagers as they passed supplies and relics hand-to-hand out the Eastern Gate to the parade grounds, where porters loaded a caravan of yaks. Close to midnight, he waded through the crowd in the moonlit courtyard and mounted the horse his attendants had packed for his escape south, over the Himalayas.

          Reins in hand, he peered through the juniper smoke at the ancient square—the raised plaza where he had learned to debate the fine points of wisdom, the prayer wheels he’d turned as he circumambulated the statuary hall, the banners and gargoyles and, on the roof, the golden Wheel of Peace. He saw, too, tomorrow’s courtyard awash in blood. Centuries of labor and devotion were about to be swept away.

          He’d had no time to think of what to say to the multitude now pressing around him. Upturned faces and wind-scoured cheeks. “This life we cling to is . . . ” In the sphere of light he saw his little brother in the arms of his uncle; and the old boot maker, Dundrup; and there, Chintso, the girl who once inspired him to question his monastic vows, now pregnant, leaning into her husband Gyaltsen, the handsome salt trader. “This life we cling to . . . is a dream. It can’t be grasped.” The words weighed on him like a lead cloak and he steadied himself on the horse’s withers. “Those that harm others don’t know they are tightening the ropes of their own suffering. So when the soldiers come, show your compassion.”

          As all the people Rinpoche loved bowed their heads in honor, his old teacher, Lama Dawa hobbled toward him, breathless. “Rinpoche, my heart son, we cannot leave these here.” He raised a small bundle in both hands. “The Chinese will just melt the gold for their teeth.” He peeled back the brocade to reveal the Scepters of the Lineage. The sight of them made Rinpoche draw his breath.

          He had only held the scepters twice. The first time, he was three years old. Lamas from the monastery had come to his parents’ nomadic camp and laid them before him alongside perfect counterfeits. “Choose the ones you held in your previous life,” they’d said. The task was easy. The real ones spoke and the copies lay dead. Couldn’t these wise lamas tell the difference? He’d broken into laughter lifting the real Dorjay, and the lamas had celebrated the discovery of their deceased abbot, reincarnated.

          The second time was five years ago. The scepters had been coming to him in dreams and, though his vows prohibited him from even seeing them, one night he sought them while the monastery slept. In his hands, they became hot, as if protesting his disrespect. Frightened, he’d put them back. And for a fortnight, in meditation, his mind churned.

           “You should be on this horse,” he told Lama Dawa, “not me. You have the polished wisdom.”

          The old man shook his head. “I can’t change what’s coming, Rinpoche. The prophecies are clear: the slaughter of monks and, more, the violation of women in the temple is the beginning of the Dark Age. And you, my son, are too valuable. You carry all the skills of the lineage and the world needs them.” His toothless gums appeared behind a smile. “I’ll be here to help in the morning. Go, and don’t look back.”

          Knowing argument was futile, Rinpoche slid the bundle into the pouch inside his robes. “I’ll keep them safe, but they belong here in these mountains.” All around him, monks and villagers were still bowed, peeking up with their dark eyes, straining to hear. He raised his voice. “They belong here, in these mountains, in the hands of the Enlightened Ones. When this chaos ends, I will return them. Somehow, I will return them.”

          His teacher’s bony hand hooked the back of his neck. As they pressed their foreheads together, Lama Dawa whispered, “Find an heir and train him well. Don’t let these teachings be lost.”


Chapter 1


Ninety-five years later, in the year 2054.


           After cinching the saddlebag under Coco’s belly, Zhampa watched him wheel and bark in anticipation of setting out. The dog didn’t understand they wouldn’t be coming back. One last time he looked around the courtyard where he’d lived for almost fifty years, then felt behind his arms to make sure old Rinpo’s lineage scepters sat snug in their holsters. In the narrow view they were two small objects, six pounds of gold and silver, and he was simply their porter. But Rinpo had convinced him they were the key to ending the misery The Unraveling had unleashed on the world. The lamas at the foot of the Naked Red Lady Mountain in Tibet were waiting for him to return them. They’d already been waiting a long time.

          The farmhouse door opened and candlelight spread across the last of the snow. When Zhampa turned, Celeste was leaning against the jamb the way her mother used to on summer evenings. Backlit, her hair glowed red and she seemed to be cradling the old cat in her arms. But when she raised her head to speak, her hands were fingering the knife sheathed between her breasts. “It doesn’t seem real, leaving here separately.”

          As if to quell her worries, he smoothed the tarpaulin on the cart where he’d hidden tools and cookware under bags of seed on the off chance one of the Valley Folk was on the road after midnight. “If anyone saw us together with loads like this,” he said, “They’d know we were leaving.” All winter Zhampa had avoided suspicion by keeping to his routines, but that afternoon he’d opened the corrals and pasture gates, freed the chickens from their house, emptied the grain barrels onto the barn floor and hooked the great doors back. Everything else he owned he’d left laid out in the house like at a bachelor’s wake. For those from the village who would come looking, he’d hung a sign on the door. Take the livestock. Share the rest with your neighbors. “You know what to say if you run into anyone,” he told Celeste. “We’ll be waiting for you up there.”

          He shook the harness straps straight, and after working his shoulders into the yoke, he touched his palm to his chest and extended it to Celeste. She hesitated, then mirrored the gesture. Glancing at the rising moon, he slid his head into the pulling strap, whistled to the German shepherd and leaned forward. The old bicycle wheels of the cart creaked into motion. He didn’t look back.

          At the first turn, when the three-year-old Suffolk ewe trotted alongside as if intent on joining them, he stamped and bellowed to drive her through the gate into the high field, knowing the other sheep would follow her bell. Her bewildered look haunted him all the way down The Hollow road.

          When he came to the river, he followed it south through what had once been the most productive land in The Valley. With the farmers gone, poplar and sumac engulfed the carcasses of tractors that had died when the oil stopped coming. Cherry, birch and oak stood twenty-feet tall in the cornfields and Vermont farmhouses lay cracked open like husks of hickory nuts, their hand-hewn timber frames dissolving in the rains.

          Soon, spring would harden the ground and pulling the cart would be easier, but Zhampa agonized over what lay west. Since fleeing college in South Dakota many years ago to escape the chaos of war, he had gleaned one truth from the wild stories travelers told: the main threat would be the packs of survivors they ran into, their choices about civility, and what they might try to exact from his little band before letting them pass.


Reader Review – 2.28.2023

Will he/we Make it?

Following a hero through the treachery of a world that has unraveled and watching that hero navigate sometimes daunting, sometimes uplifting, experiences shine a bright light on how important it is to respond to the call, make the vow, and follow through. The truths of how we humans can destroy our world and then with true love and dedication repair what we have done is beautifully and articulately drawn by this author. Traveling alongside Zhampa pulled at my heart and my admiration for him grew with every mile. Oh that more of us could take up a challenge such as this with such determination. How our world would be transformed.