Thursday, October 15, 2015


Ama Yangzes’ yultak was smaller than ours, shaded by a row of willows to the north and east. The trees were not thick enough to block the wind that blew up through the valley, the motion of their leaves like telltale ribbons on a sail. When we arrived a pile of threshed peas was waiting, neat, a rope laid out on its southwestern side across the yard. 

Ama handed us zar, beautiful rake-like tools made from five split lengths of rosewood on a willow pole. Zar means hand; the five pieces spread like fingers, narrowing at their bases into cut and fitted Vs, bound together with woven strips of hide and a single nail. Following her motion, we stood at the pile and tossed forkfuls of the peas and straw into the air, letting them fall with an upwind twist of the zar. As the wind blew, chaff moved off to the southwest, the heavier peas falling straight back where they came. Ama Yangzes whistled constantly—as you must— calling up the wind, warding off the dust of straw. When the wind dropped we would pause and rest, cheeks turned, waiting, attentive always to the rising of another breath of air. 

Slowly the straw crossed the rope and heaped there, finished. In time Jason began to gather it in sacks, carrying the phug-ma up to be stored for winter feed. The peas remained, our forkfuls growing heavier as we tossed them. Ama and I worked facing each other, her eyes shining playful and wicked, cheeks redder even than common in the morning chill.

After perhaps two hours the pile was finished, reduced to a dense mound of dark, round peas on the earth. Ama brought a huge, four-handed sieve, hundreds of pea-sized holes punched in a sheet of metal, nailed into a carved wooden frame. Jason and I worked this back and forth while she poured, sifting free what stones and chaff we could. The peas rolled out around our bare feet like tiny smooth sea-stones.

A mountain of unthreshed peas stood above the yultak edge; I thought it must be at least four times what we had just winnowed. “The same,” Ama told us. We poured the cleaned peas into sacks and swept the yard again, hands sweet with khampa smell. Only a small part of the crop remaining filled the sunken yultak, a pool of seed and vine for the dzo to trample. Ama Yangzes told us all of it would fit, added slowly as they circled. 

Ama and Jason took turns driving the dzo while I cooked lunch, harvesting vegetables from the garden and kneading dough for skiu. “You’re an ache,” Jason said, laughing. “You’re a woman of this village. Being asked to cook.” It was the first time I’d been trusted in this way.

Quickly the peas shrank, the tangled mass of plants shattering into a dense layer on the ground. I washed and chopped onions and greens outside, beneath the apricot tree, watching the work progress. Ama was right; all the peas fit. The skiu finished as the threshing did. We ate in warm, late August sun, chuli falling around us, golden and startling as we sat. The afternoon was silent, but for water, and for wind.

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