Today is the thirteenth day after my friend Mary’s passing. As I’ve written about before, this day marks the end of the initial kriya period, where the immediate family of the deceased observe two weeks of purification and austere ritual that instructs their food, bathing, clothing, sleeping, movement and prayer. It is during this time that the spirit wanders in its new world, perhaps hovering about in this one, finding its way. On the thirteenth day, a large meal is cooked, the family and community drink purifying bitter gaun, and life begins again.
I have decided to go back to Connecticut a week early for Mary’s memorial service. But I wanted nothing more than to observe this thirteenth day in my own way, here in Nepal, where I feel close to the sky.
In addition, there’s the baby buffalo.
Two weeks ago, on friday morning, I woke up to a misty dawn with my phone near my head, and rolled over to see how my friend had fared since some bad news had arrived in my email the prior night. There was nothing yet – it was now night time in the U.S. – but I had a bad feeling. And when I walked outside to wash my face, our very, very, very pregnant buffalo Lulu was shifting about uncomfortably in her shed. She was due any moment. Since I’ve arrived in Nepal this summer, I’ve been hoping to be at the house when Lulu has her baby – a phenomenon I’ve witnessed only once in twelve years, and will never forget.
For anyone who’s never seen a large animal like a buffalo very pregnant and approaching their moment, it’s hard to describe. You can feel, like a physical entity, the pent up power of nature, the imminent violence and miracle of birth. This animal that is normally so much bigger than you is so much smaller than what’s about to happen.
I left that morning for a meeting in Pokhara, already crying on the bus, where another little blue dot popped up on my phone – a new message saying things had not improved, that Mary was probably in her last hours back in New York. And I was on this strange road in Nepal, on a mountain, the mist close and threatening rain, and the buffalo shifting around uncomfortably in her shed under Aamaa’s watchful gaze.
I spent a surreal day in Pokhara, and called Aamaa late in the afternoon. The baby buffalo had been born and everyone was doing fine – the marvel of life. Twenty minutes later, I got a message saying that Mary had died.
So this little baby buffalo has been a source of wonder and comfort to me. I named named her O’Neil. When I came up to Kaski a few days later, Aamaa pumped me full of the nutrient-dense, sacred milk that the mother buffalo makes in the first few days after giving birth, because she wanted me to be nourished.
The birth of a buffalo is a ritualized affair that is, in some ways, the inverse of a death. For eleven days, we are not to eat the milk with food, or wash cups and bowls used for the virgin milk in the same impure space as the rest of the dishes. When I took a little burnt piece of something out of my milk one day and tossed it on the ground in the yard, Aamaa went and picked it up, lest it touch the bottom of someone’s foot. It is, essentially, an eleven day observance of the fragility of life and the gift of the milk that our Lulu will provide to her baby, and to us. Then on the eleventh day there is a puja, with a priest and everything, and on that day we cook rice pudding, putting the milk into our own “bread” and bodies. And the cycle goes on.
I had missed O’Neil’s birth puja because I was out in Dhading. So today was the first chance that Aamaa had to make rice pudding for me with O’Neil’s milk. And that’s how Day Thirteen began, with a rich and delicious celebration of the life of our little baby buffalo who was born almost the same hour that Mary died.
Then I climbed up to my favorite place in all of Nepal, a spot along the hilltop that leads to the Kalika Temple, for which Kaskikot is named. First I went to the temple, with flowers and incense from our house. I made my offering and rang the bell. Before heading back to my favorite spot along the crest of the hill to do my qigong, something made me think I should look around for some sign, something that would make me feel like Mary was here with me, and I was here with her. From the Kalika Temple, you can see everything, the valley on all sides, the lake to the southeast, the stretching falling foothills reaching to the horizon, and the soaring Annapurna range to the North, towering halfway up your field of vision. It is spectacular.
But the direction I decided to look was up.
I have taken hundreds – literally hundreds – of photos of rainbows in this village. I know where they show up and in what kind of weather. But I have never seen a rainbow like this anywhere on the whole planet.
I left the temple gates and ran through the grass in my flip flops, following the hilltop to my favorite rock. I kept checking behind me to see if this amazing rainbow was still there, and it just kept getting brighter and more extraordinary.
When I found my favorite rock, I lit incense and placed more flowers I’d brought from our house. I am so close to the clouds on this three feet of rock. I can see my little house looking like a toy in the hillside. Everything is far away and whole. I closed my eyes.
When I opened them forty five minutes later, the rainbow was gone.
. . .