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The Tiger's Nest in Bhutan. Photo by Chelsea Ferrel.

Far from Funereal

My homestay sister assured me that the procession would wind all through the town before arriving at our house. When the hoots and hollers became louder than the lovelorn shouts of Ryan Gosling as The Notebook played in the common area, I asked if they would come inside. “All the rooms,” Ugyen answered, and we dashed to cover and tidy my things just before two men entered, saying my friends were outside—the source of the whooping, I’d discover. I ventured out into a night that smelled strongly of sulphur and singed hair, an aroma I became suddenly quite familiar with as, all at once, I was engulfed in flames. I sprang back into my cousin’s arms, mind flashing with terror as another blast warmed my legs, turning my pants from gray to orange. Initial shock subsiding, laughter of disbelief bubbled up to join my friends’ shrieks of joy.

With little urging I slipped on shoes that would prove much too flimsy for a pitch-dark rampage through ankle-deep mud and I ran with the children as they followed the drumbeats and grotesquely-masked torch-bearers from house to house, greeting each inhabitant as they had me. Down to the main road, through smoke and rain, past the general store and up to the suspension bridge. Over the rushing brown river, we spread our arms for balance, exhilarated by the bouncing, the sliding, the open space under the fencing, just wide enough to provoke imaginings of a slip down, down, down to the cold jaws of the water below. With a final jolt I landed on the other side and joined the circle of bodies around a bonfire.

This fire would carry the woman’s spirit, chased from each room in the village, into the beyond. The same powder used to frighten passerby was thrown on the fire in a grand shower of sparks. As an arrow was fired through the flames, the girl beside me shouted, “Run!”. Second to the bridge, I sprinted with abandon, the footfalls of followers reverberating through my body. On the other side I kept running, my friends catching up with explanations—if we had remained after the lama crossed back, we would be left, trapped with the spirits that dwelt in the fire and forests and fields, active on this night of ceremony and celebration.

Home again, I noticed small piles of white stones around my room, as well as the explosions in my own mind. Huddled in bed with a headlamp and pen, I spilled the night onto a page, my first words, THAT WAS INSANE IN THE BEST WAY, hoping that by laying my racing thoughts to rest, I’d somehow be able to get some sleep myself.