In 1959, a young Ch'an monk named Tsung Tsai escapes the Red Army troops who destroy his monastery and flees, hunted and starving, from his Mongolian home to Hong Kong. Almost 30 years later, in the eye of a snowstorm outside Woodstock, New York, he meets his American neighbor, a libertine poet named George Crane. The unlikely pair form a fast friendship based on their mutual love of Chinese poetry, and ultimately Tsung Tsai persuades his irreverent friend to accompany him back to Mongolia to search for his dead master's remains and help sew the seeds of a Buddhist renewal there. In this excerpt, Crane and Tsung Tsai have arrived in the monk's natal village and are seeking out people who may help lead them to the remains of Tsung Tsai's meditation master, Shiuh Deng.

About noon, hidden behind the mud walls of what was perhaps some ancient fortress long ago disappeared into lumps of soft decay, we came upon a low brick house. The air was heavy with smoke. It smelled as if the shitter had been set afire. Tsung Tsai shouted and rattled the iron gate to the courtyard. There was a basket of just-washed small brown potatoes, wet and glistening in the sun, and a circle of blackened stones where a fire had once been lit. Tsung Tsai shouted again. A large-bellied, chubby-cheeked woman came rushing from the house and opened the gate. She wore a man's overcoat, a brown-and-red-striped scarf tied around her head, and red argyle socks. The moment she saw Tsung Tsai, she gasped, fell to the ground, and kissed his shoes.

"Medicine woman," said Tsung Tsai, helping her up. "She knows who I am. She dreams me."

"Dreams you're coming?"

"Yes. She dreams."

Medicine woman led us into a large dusty room with a ceiling entirely tiled with flattened tin cans. It was empty except for a low table and k'ang. She set a pillow at either end of the table, patted for us to sit, added coal to the stove, and left the room.

"First we drink a little tea," Tsung Tsai said.

In minutes, she was back, carrying a tray with two jelly jars and a blue thermos. With an offhand flick of her wrist, she emptied the dregs of cold tea from one of the jars. The dregs spattered on the stove. Steam rose, leaving a faint smell of the sea. She poured the traditional Mongol salt tea, too scalding for me to drink. Tsung Tsai had drunk his tea in a rush and had begun to sip another while I was still blowing air over the jar cupped against my chin.

She has no photo," Tsung Tsai told me. "She had one once. Now she has painting of my teacher."

Medicine Woman rose. On the far side of the room she pulled back a gauzy brown curtain, revealing an alcove. Inside was her shrine. A crate served as her altar. On it was a brass dragon-footed incense boat, a box of strike-on-strike matches, a faded red paper flower, a candle stuck in half a ragged cut can, and a small framed picture of Mao Zedong. Nailed to the wall behind the altar, on a piece of corrugated cardboard, was her painting of Shiuh Deng. The master looked vaguely humanoid.

"Her husband made this painting. He's dead. Dead many years," Tsung Tsai said. "No good. Looks like nothing."

"Looks like an extraterrestrial," I said.

"What means?"

"Like a man from Mars."

"Little bit like Mars. More like moon man," he said.

I took a closer look. "Yes. Definitely, moon man."

"Teacher's picture burned by her husband. He must burn it when the Red Guards come. Too afraid. But they kill. Still kill him."

He sliced the air with a fast open-handed chop.

"Shy Ren you say?"

"Gang of Four."

"Yes. Gang of Four. They kill. Kill many."

He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead.

Medicine Woman went into the kitchen and returned with a bowl of sunflower seeds.

"She knows when my teacher dies," Tsung Tsai said.

With the beads that Shiuh Deng had given her draped through her fingers, Medicine Woman stood next to her shrine. She raised her chin, then her eyeballs rolled up and she began to speak rapidly in a flat voice. Tsung Tsai translated.

"Today I need go home," Shiuh Deng said.

"But teacher, your home is here!" she said.

The voice coming out of Medicine Woman became a growl. "This not my home," it said. "My home is Pure Land."

With those words she burst into tears and just as suddenly quieted. Her face, then her voice changed.

"Don't be said. Don't worry. Be calm," said the master. "Tell everybody that monks will come back to China. Nobody can control."

"Then my teacher go away. Just go. She never sees him again."

"When was that?"

"Yellow season, one-nine-six-seven."

Shiuh Deng went out into the desert and sat in the wind that always blows. He sat and let his life go.

"Just go to dying," Tsung Tsai said and closed his eyes and let one breath softly out. "Shhhh-hhhh," he sighed and breathed out no more. He seemed, to all appearances, dead.

"This moment very old," he finally said. "This moment my roots."

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