From the editor:In “Even the Mountains Are Not Forever,” an aging icon to her people seeks a successor for her lonely role: carrying insight across generations in a life punctuated by cryosleeps. Laurie Tom is a Chinese American author living in southern California.
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"They cannot see us from here?"
Though the red-painted walls were worn by years of children's hands, the classroom was new to Kunchen Tsering. It had not been here during her last revival, and the upper half of the southern wall was all dark-tinted window. Kunchen and Sonam Lobsang stood in the darkened hall on one side looking into the brightly lit room on the other where an assortment of students from ages eight to eighteen sat chattering with each other as they ate bread and yak cheese and drank cups of butter tea.
"The lighting prevents it," said Sonam, and though his tone was respectful, Kunchen did not miss a hint of impatience, as though she should have known.
Perhaps she would have, if she had been around. Every revival required her to learn, even simple things that others took for granted.
"I see," she said simply. Kunchen missed her previous abbot. The sad part of reviving was discovering who had passed on while she was sleeping. Gyaltsen had been a good man, middle-aged, and he had seemed like he was in good health when she had seen him last. She had no reason to think she would need a replacement. But then, nine years was more than enough time for cancer to develop and take its course.
Sonam had good qualities to recommend him, several people had told her of how he successfully renegotiated their isolation agreement with the other colonies, but she had hoped for someone more accommodating in her old age. He was very young, only in his thirties, so there was a fair chance he would be the last abbot she would ever have.
Kunchen looked through the window at the students, all of them girls, dressed in brightly colored coats, their dark hair carefully plaited into numerous braids; a few of the older ones ornamenting them with beads.
"I thought Dawa Kalsang turned out well," said Sonam. "Are you sure you don't want to reconsider? She has been training hard these last ten years. There is no doubt in anyone's mind of her dedication to giving the most to our people."
"Dawa loves to be loved," said Kunchen. "It is not a flaw in her character to want to make others happy. But she would be incapable of giving if she did not receive in return. She needs to be with the people she helps, always, so she can see the smiles on their faces and know what she is doing is making a difference. She could not survive as Kunchen, to sleep and wake once every ten years when few people can clearly remember what she did the last time she was there."
"How about that girl then? Palden Norbu." Sonam pointed to a girl of about ten, sitting on a bright wooden bench, swinging her legs as she watched the older girls at the next table over.
Kunchen liked the way Palden's eyes followed the older girls, not with envy, but with curiosity. The girl was likely a good observer, an admirable talent in a successor.
But Kunchen found herself drawn to a different girl in the room. This one was older, sitting at a table in the corner of the room, her back to the others. She had a pad out in front of her, presumably with her schoolwork, but Kunchen could see by how she occasionally raised and turned her head that she was observing as well.
"Who is that one?" she asked, pointing to the girl in the corner.
"That's Tashi Nyima," said Sonam. He dismissed her with a wave. "I wouldn't bother with her. She's already sixteen. By the time you wake next she'll be twenty-six."
"Aside from age, how is she?"
"Probably not the brightest in the class, though she is disciplined and hard-working. She doesn't socialize well. You never see her eating with her classmates, and she does not talk with them after school. She will likely have a fine place as a scholar after she graduates, where she can remain among books and other things that do not require her to talk to people."
"Does she not speak then?"
"Well, she does, but she does not like to."
There were other schools, other girls, and Kunchen saw many of them as she took her waking tour across the colony. People raised their arms to her as she passed, a figure in blue robes the color of mountain lakes with a face shrouded in white scarves and a head covered with a woolen teal cap.
Every child knew the story of Kunchen and how she had led her people millennia ago to a snowy world so cold that it was only possible to live in the mountainous equator. They named it Dunxu, and here they could live apart from others, to be their own people. They brought with them their prayer flags and their sheep and their yaks, and dotted the white mountains with color.
Dunxu was home and Kunchen its ever-guiding mother.
And a mother needed to be certain her children would be cared for after she was gone.
Kunchen watched the girls file through the altar room at the top of the Yongten Monastery, gazes turned reverently towards the door leading to an even smaller room in the back, which housed the cryogenic pod in which Kunchen slept. Though they knew she was not there and quite awake in some other part of the colony, they kept looking as though to catch a glimpse of her repose.
In the video room beside her, Sonam watched the girls with eyes that did not see. He was probably still thinking about Dawa, whose education he had overseen after Gyaltsen had passed. Sonam had probably hoped that the waking Kunchen would have been impressed by his work. Instead she had dismissed the candidate.
Dawa had not been the first. Kunchen was over eighty years if one counted the age of her body and not the time she had existed. She still had a few more revivals in her if needed, but she preferred to have a voice in her successor. Her predecessor, Kunchen the Third, had been unexpectedly elevated when the Second had died in a building collapse. The Third had told her that the people considered it a miracle that Kunchen and a few others managed to escape. They did not realize the Kunchen they now had was different from the one that had been in the building.
The Third had gone into cryosleep almost immediately after the accident, under pretense of needing rest after so harrowing an incident. In reality, it allowed time to pass, so when the Third emerged ten years later and studied her predecessor's voice and language, she was able to become the Kunchen that memories recalled.
Kunchen the Fourth did not wish to leave such a heavy burden on the Fifth. Far better she and the Fifth speak with each other while there was time for her to ask whatever questions she wished, as Kunchen the Fourth had done with the Third.
"Look at how she gazes," said Kunchen, pointing at the screen. It showed the girl, Tashi, from the first schoolroom Kunchen had visited upon waking. Kunchen had not forgotten her, and the girl lingered behind the others after their obeisance, eyes turned to the chamber beyond.
Sonam frowned. "If she tries sneaking in, the guards will catch her."
Tashi seemed to know that as well. Reluctantly, she turned around and followed the others out.
"Is Tashi really the only one that catches your eye? I can't imagine why you would want such an unsociable girl."
"I don't think she's unsociable." On another monitor, Kunchen watched Tashi jog down the steps of the monastery to catch up with her classmates. The girl stopped a few paces behind, close enough to be part of the group, but not so close she was intruding on anyone's conversation.
She must have heard something though, because Tashi scooted closer a couple steps and said something, but the other girls did not hear her, or maybe they ignored her.
Kunchen understood then. Tashi was not unsociable. She was lonely.
As Kunchen she learned to be alone. She had been born centuries ago. Her family was long gone, and while she knew she had descendants through nieces and nephews, she did not look for them, nor did they know she was now Kunchen. What good would it do when she would sleep and they would die?
But even cryosleep could not keep a person alive forever. Dunxu did not have to know that over time their Kunchen changed, because no matter who she was, she always looked out for them, to give them the wisdom and insight that could only have come from experiencing things in the past that those in the present no longer remembered.
The door to Kunchen's study opened, one of the nuns escorting Tashi inside. The girl was nervous, her arms moving stiffly like a doll's as she knelt on the rugs and bowed before Kunchen.
"I heard you wished to meet with me."
Kunchen knelt across from her and felt her bones creak in protest. She took her time settling herself down and said, "I did. Thank you for coming."
Tashi lifted her head, met Kunchen's eyes, and then hastily dropped her gaze back down to the rug on which she sat.
"You are probably wondering why I called you."
Tashi nodded without meeting her eyes.
"You did not do anything bad," said Kunchen, and she could see some of the tension sag from the girl's shoulders.
By tradition, Sonam should prepare Tashi without informing her of the position she was intended to take. Only a scarce few in the monastery knew the truth about Kunchen. Dawa would likely be given a good post and believe that role was the one she had been groomed for all along, and be no worse for it. But Tashi was older than most candidates, and Kunchen had already passed too many by. If the best choice was a little older than usual, then she would work around that. She could not choose any less.
Kunchen set a wooden bowl before Tashi and filled it with butter tea. The girl shuddered and then bowed, just barely missing the bowl in her hurry to show her appreciation at the honor. Kunchen smiled. Tashi was not such a bad sort.
"Can you tell me about your school life?" said Kunchen.
Tashi opened her mouth in surprise, but readily spoke about her studies, her grades. She did not talk about her lack of friends until prodded, but made no attempt to deny it.
"I suppose I'll never be a good abbess," said Tashi, "but I'm very good with books. I could probably be a teacher."
"You'll still have to work with people," said Kunchen.
"I don't mind. It's different. A child knows they are supposed to listen to their teacher. My classmates are not obligated to listen to me, so they don't. As long as I teach what I'm supposed to, no one would have reason to fault me, would they?"
"People can always find fault, dear Tashi. But it is good that you think you would like to teach."
From Sonam, Kunchen knew that Tashi was the older of two children, with only one surviving parent, her mother. Her family was from a small village and Tashi had been sent here based on her promise as a student. The monastery was paying for her education. She was not expected to return home, but to send money after she had found work.
It was unlikely that many would miss Tashi if she disappeared. A stipend to her family could easily be arranged.
"Tashi, what I'm about to tell you cannot leave this room."
The girl stiffened and nodded.
"I am not the first Kunchen. I was born Rinchen Pema, and at the age of twenty I was asked to become the fourth Kunchen."
And Kunchen explained how the knowledge passed from one Kunchen to another, keeping alive the memories of things others had forgotten; how each Kunchen underwent the sleep of her predecessors, to wake up every ten years to continue watching over the people the first Kunchen had led to Dunxu.
"I am old now," said Kunchen, "and it is time for me as the Fourth to prepare the Fifth. It takes a very particular person to be Kunchen. I think that could be you."
Tashi sat, bowl of butter tea trembling between her hands, and said nothing, her head turned down.
"Normally you would be trained for ten years between my revivals before I spoke to you, but you were six and not yet a student here the last time I woke, and ten years from now you will be twenty-six and too old to be held from moving on with your life. My only chance to know your heart, and your potential, is now."
"What . . . what makes me so good?" said Tashi.
"You are a good student, but I am sure you know that already. Beyond that, you are capable of understanding people without being a part of people. As Kunchen I am asleep for ten years at a time. Everyone I know dies around me. Their grandchildren die. Sonam's great-grandmother was a splendid woman and I knew I could always count on her, though I only was awake for five years of her life.
"Kunchen has to be someone who can live without attachment, but loves people enough to want to be with them."
"That is . . . terribly sad," said Tashi. "To pick the lonely girl who wants to be with people but never can." She shook and glared at the Fourth. "You're not even really Kunchen! The real Kunchen must have died millennia ago. Everyone believes in her, and she's long gone, only no one ever bothered to tell people! And now you want me to carry on pretending to be a dead person?"
"Even the mountains are not forever," said the woman who had been Rinchen Pema, and she set a gentle hand on Tashi's shoulder. "I am not the same Kunchen who led our ancestors here, but that is who I am now. Though I do not carry the original's memories, I can still tell you of the Ladoi Earthquake and the Five Winter Year, because I was there. When I am awake, I look around at what has changed, and if I remember something that was a problem in the past that people have forgotten, I remind them so they can avoid it in the future."
"But how can you live like that?" Tashi shuddered and hiccuped. "Don't you get lonely?"
"People do pass, and I miss them, but being Kunchen has meant so much to our people that I do not dwell on the sorrow. There is too much good that I do."
"I don't know if I can," said Tashi. "But I will think about it."
Kunchen had thought about it for months when she was still Rinchen Pema, using up nearly all the time Kunchen the Third stayed awake that revival. The Third had been so happy to retire, choosing to remain an anonymous nun in the monastery when Kunchen had taken her place. She had passed away before Kunchen the Fourth woke next.
But Tashi did not send a reply. Sonam finally came to Kunchen saying he had wrangled an answer out of her and it was: "I respectfully decline." Sonam then suggested Palden Norbu, the other girl from Tashi's school, since Kunchen still did not like Dawa.
Kunchen agreed to Palden's training, hoping that in ten years this new girl might turn out to be suitable. She had the potential, but Kunchen would have preferred Tashi. Still, it had been Tashi's right to refuse.
Before going to sleep again, she left two messages, one to Tashi saying that if she should change her mind she should speak with Sonam for training. The other was for Sonam, telling him that if Tashi should come to him for training, he was to teach her to the best of his ability and Kunchen did not want to hear a word of protest about it when she woke.
When next she revived, there were the usual monks and nuns around her cryopod with Sonam, now ten years older, standing at their head. Kunchen thought he did not look quite as sharp as he had what felt like only hours ago to her. Perhaps he had mellowed in the last decade.
"Welcome back, Excellency," he said, as he bowed to her.
Kunchen stood up, and attendants draped the blue coat of her station over her white gown, and placed a new woolen hat on her head. The previous one had probably deteriorated with age. Then they brought out her white scarves to wrap about her face.
"Thank you all for watching over me," she said. "If you would be so kind, I would like something to eat."
Sonam bowed and gestured for her to follow. "This way. We have your waking meal prepared, and there is a guest who wishes to speak to you."
Kunchen occasionally had visitors to share her first meal after waking. Cryosleep left her famished, and visitors could brief her on what she had missed while she ate. But she had not expected to see Tashi there. There had been no reason for her to remain in the monastery unless. . . .
"Greetings, Excellency," said Tashi with a bow. At twenty-six she was lovely. She now wore many beads in her plaited hair, and there was a fullness to her cheeks that had not been there before.
"Greetings, Tashi Nyima. I understand you are my guest this meal."
She bowed again. "Yes, I am. Please go ahead and eat. I can speak while you take your fill."
"Have you accepted then?" Kunchen could not resist asking that much, even as she reached for a bowl of butter tea.
"I have not, though I thought about it. Careful with the bowl." She reached over and helped Kunchen place it with unsteady hands back on the table. "Please, listen. I've had years to think, years you have been unable to because every waking moment you've had has been for us. What you give us is irreplaceable, but you are not the only one with irreplaceable knowledge."
Kunchen smiled. "I'm a little surprised Sonam let you in here as my first visitor." She glanced at where he stood in the doorway, and he shrugged before turning and walking away.
"Things have changed."
"They always do after ten years."
"What you give us is experience of having lived in times other than our own, but there are a lot of years you never experience because you're asleep. So I've become a chronicler. I record the stories of the elderly among us, who remember the years you are not here, so their experiences can also go forward for generations to come. Instead of you or another woman sacrificing herself to be Kunchen, I would like there to be thousands of little Kunchens all carrying their stories forward to another time."
Kunchen shook her head. "It is not the same though. Kunchen is living history that can speak up and guide people when they do not know they need guidance. No recording can do that."
"No, but for the times you can't be there, for the things you can't know, people will have something to turn to."
Kunchen sipped her tea. "So why did Sonam let you be my first visitor if you are not accepting?"
"Sonam told me what happened between the Second and the Third, and how the Third had to work to discover everything that she should have known if she had been Kunchen from the start. Perhaps even you occasionally wish you could ask something of the Third that you did not realize you needed to know before she passed. And I thought . . . that when you finally choose a Fifth, she may want to have a recording of you, something meant for her, for the Sixth, for the Seventh. . . ."
It was unfortunate that Tashi had chosen otherwise, because she could consider the well-being of her people so many years into the future, but Kunchen could not begrudge her that decision.
"When you are done eating, when you have time, would you mind if I recorded you?" said Tashi.
Kunchen smiled. "I can make time for that."
This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons.