His hands the color of pitch he carries

Calloused beyond the dozen years he bears

Back and shoulders bent by forest’s weight

Carried each day to make a meal

Mother made frail by as many years of labor

Hair loosed now, brittle, a tangle of time

Beyond the scours of her life

She places faith, bright as copper,

In the boy borne of her blood and bone

For years they labored in tandem:

Four hands joined from dawn to dusk

Gathering wood for other fires

Only to return each night

To a stone cold hearth

They fostered in each other

The habit of huddling: one room house

Charcoal patina, itself a certain kind of womb

Each day they were reborn to labor.


A sky like stones the day she refused to rise

Child, I must burden you beyond your years

Go, go sparrow quick, and gather,

Lest we go hungry again this eve

And so the boy, feet bare but for leathered heels,

Raised his thatched barrel,

Strapped strange comfort to his forehead,

And headed out – out into what became

Brilliant morning; light poured from knotty pine

Recalling feathers and waterfalls

He walked with equal lightness

Even as the load he carried grew.


By midday, his was a tremendous thirst

This need for moisture greater than blighted soil

Bright pasture amidst wood nymph place

A refuge, mustn’t it be?Even flowers like stars

Colors as vivid as priest’s blessings,

Glittering like wedding garb

The boy bent down, loosed his forehead strap

Released from the weight of his subsistence

He blinked, then blinked again:

Rose white, for milk is just as sweet

A perfect pond of this blessed liquid

Appeared before his feet.


Imagine the smart: fear kneaded into courage

He drinks, then drinks again 

Indeed this lake springs milky sweetness

Too good, he things, for this village boy

Thirst quenched, drunk on milk and rest,

He sinks into sleep beside the godly lake

He wakes, resolved

Mother, we will no longer bear

The burden of the forest as our own

Bring me a pail, a tin worthy of nectar,

And I will bear out your life with sweetness

To match the bitterness with which you bore mine

Mother, speechless, found her son a pail

And off he went to fetch his fortune

Simple though it was: milk, the stuff of birth and tea

This libation would quench more than thirst

Each morning the boy dipped his pail

Into blessed lake, returning heavy-handed

To the village, where people young and old

Grew to crave, to clamber for, each drop

If a child in poverty can rise to riches with a pail

So it was for him.


Soon, though, rumors echoed like crows

A caw which caught the king

Even old age could not soothe that memory of iron

Shackled, bound, the boy knelt before his master

A mortal power, for all the ways

Royalty postures like a god

What is this milk you bring, boy?

A long-nosed leader crooned. Rags betray you.

The cow from which you suckle wealth

Must be another’s prize

The boy bowed; tears streamed from glacial eyes,

The take of his good fortune pouring forth

I have stolen nothing, my master, but the

Self-arising sweetness of a lake

Come, see for yourself the richness of your land.


And so the boy restrained became a guide

And the king bowed down, humbled, small as sands

Before the earthbound cloud

With worship, earth brought fourth

Three glorious forms; these became his gods

King weathered and grew wise under their guard

And a harrowed mother’s pain

Lifted like fog with age

And the boy became a man


Elder king, calves bowed from lakeside rituals,

Eyes smile-lined, a ring of hair

Like the ridge where rock meets snow,

Arrived one day to honor well-worn idols

And found them gone

King grieved as if he’d lost both mother and child

Twenty-four hours could not suffice for searching

A boy’s thirst now betrayed by an old man’s grief

The king staggered, faltered with the loss

Regal blood thinned by futile quests


East of this once-strong kingdom, and higher,

Higher still, another valley bloomed

Summer fresh and flowing

Water like medicine, springs to cure souls

Two nuns – hands locked in friendship

More than prayer – stumbled on the statues

As they might have a stone

But these were no ordinary stones

Women religious peeled wonder from their sleeves,

Hitched up their robes and ran

Prostrate before you speak.


They summoned silence, greeted the lama,

Then spilled the news:

We have been visited, jeweled one,

By creatures proud and marvelous

We know not from whence they’ve come

But they have rooted to our plain

The lama rose, followed his disciples to this spot

It is peace and veneration they seek

The lama in his grace decreed

Finding in the eyes of these divine apparitions

The tamed serpent, underworld naga,

Itself another sort of king


By and by the nuns worked mud into shelter,

Gave these idols a proper home

Time passed; news traveled west

When that other king arrived, red faced

In this ancient mountain abode

He smelled the sweetness of his faith

Before he looked upon

Long-lost emissaries of heaven and earth

At first anger scoured his majesty

Were these devoted hermits really thieves?

One word from the quiet lama’s lips

Quelled the tide of anger

In its place stood awe

How could they? But they could. Arrive here.

Not by chance but by a more-than-human will

This craving for moon and sky and wind

But the worldly king could not rest

With the thought of his protectors resting here

So far from the lush forests of his world


With lama’s blessing and a palanquin

Forged from what wood this land could spare

The king’s attendants foisted gods upon shoulders,

Made tracks down mountainside

Yet as the entourage made time, time slowed

The weight of these small statues

Redoubled with each step

Storm curdled sky; hail reigned triumphant

Upon the heads of men

Snow blanketed this land – forgetting summer –

As if warm wind were fantasy

The king, heady but learned, bowed again

To place and time

His fair gods belonged here now

The lama welcomed a party returned,

Defeat coloring the edges of a crystal sky

By sundown faraway king and nearby lama

Shared tea if not language,

And prayed together.


Many years hence, another kingly lineage

This time in feminine form

Drew upon her faith to figure pilgrimage,

Arrived breathless but content

To have reached such a blessed spot

By day the queen and her attendants

Spilled vermillion as if it were blood

Marigolds fancied wildflowers and dust

Demure, the queen blushed as she disrobed

Honeysuckle skin, singed under icy fire:

Water plunging from sacred source

By night, the queen dreamed of the Preserver

Great Vishnu, supine and sublime

And so it was that yet another royal decree

Brought kindred attention to this Buddhist place

And brought Vishnu here to rest. 


Now that adamantine stream splits itself

One hundred and eight times,

Pours forth from mouths agape:

Bulls whose hearts are open to the world

To cleanse if not to sanctify

As for a name, this place of water eyes

Of sky dancers and eternal flame,

Became what it is today: a place of liberation

As for the hollow where the queen

Laid her head and dreamed

It is named for such a queen


Years unfurl – a ribbon of time

Yet the people of that other land,

Forest-bound and fertile,

A place of origins and war,

Arrive in this cup of highland earth

Bearing an inheritance of loss,

Spill milky tears upon these mountain stones,

And depart bathed in history,

Sweet but for its sting.

-August 2, 2012, Rani Phowa, Mustang.


Sienna Craig is currently an assistant professor of anthropology at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. Sienna has published widely in both academic and popular venues, including The Explorer’s Journal, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Shambala Sun, Studies in Nepali History and Society, and European Bulletin of Himalayan Research. Her books/monographs include Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine(2012), Medicine Between Science and Religion: Explorations on Tibetan Grounds(2010), Studies of Medical Pluralism in Tibetan History and Society (2010), Horses Like Lightning: A Story of Passage through the Himalayas(2008). She is a recipient of various grants, awards, honors and fellowships. For more details please click here - Sienna Craig.