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Chapter Sixteen

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, while Colt lay in bed imagining Bibi’s life, A Li held her ID card up to the scanner and entered the Nano Research Center. She walked across the lobby, past the security office and stopped to look at the brass plaque on the wall.

“You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

—Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA

It was a small, superstitious ritual. A Li knew Crick’s words by heart, but read them each time she went to the elevator. She believed in the power of science and understood it could unlock great secrets, but Francis Crick was wrong. The spiritual world was something apart. Her own Bon religion was based on life forces that lived in the mountains, trees, rivers and even in the sky. Both could exist in parallel universes and A Li had no problem reconciling the two. Each time she read the inscription, she sent Dr. Crick a mental rebuttal: There is more to life than science.

Riding up in the elevator to the third floor, A Li felt something was wrong. When Tanay dropped her off late in the afternoon after their trip downtown, she had been in a good mood. Her own birthday was of little matter, but A Mei’s birthday was always a joyous time when she feltparticularly close to her twin. By evening, her happy feeling had given way to a vague sense of anxiety and trepidation. She had never felt this way on A Mei’s birthday and searched her mind for the cause. She was anxious aboutDr. Murray and the progress of her research, but that was a continual worry. This was a new and different feeling.

She walked down the hall to the laboratory and unlocked the door. Tonight it was dark inside and she swiped her hand over a half dozen switches. Light erupted across the ceiling. A Li went to her workspace, laid out the bouquet of iris and the juniper branches and withdrew a plastic baggie from her pocket. She dumped the contents, rice grass from a natural foods market, on the counter next to the juniper.

A Li sat down on her stool, hooked her feet around the back legs and listened to the pulse of the lab. The insulation in the Center had the effect of trapping sound within each laboratory and conference room. She heard the air conditioning, the rumble of the refrigerators and the whistle from a fan left running in a fume hood. She also heard A Mei’s heartbeat, a memory from the time when they shared their mother’s womb. A Li remembered how it felt when her twin’s tiny hand touched her own as they floated in their warm amniotic fluid. Their DNA was identical. They were identical, but A Li was born two minutes later. A Mei was older and stronger. A Li was the follower. What fate, what command from the spiritual world, had guided A Mei to the left, closer to the road, the day the Mercedes sped by, hitting her and missing A Li?

Droonkher tashi delek. Happy birthday, sister.

A Li sat with her memories for a moment longer and then went to the back of the lab. She opened her refrigerator filled with beakers of reagents and other chemicals and a box of microscope slides with cross sections of mouse organs. She withdrew the package wrapped in butcher paper from the China Sun Market. It had been in the refrigerator since Tanay dropped her off several hours ago, and was cold to the touch. She took it to her workbench and opened it.

The goat’s leg, or what was left of it, was four inches long, weighed a few ounces and might have fit inside one of the large test tubes in the lab. A meat cleaver had made two clean cuts through the bone, one below the knee and one above the hoof, leaving a shank covered with white hair. A Li took one of the scalpels she used for dissections and cut away the hide and flesh until only the bone remained. She inspected it carefully. According to the ritual, not even the slightest bit of flesh could remain. She placed the juniper sprigs and the bare bone on a large ceramic dish and emptied the bag of rice grass on top. If she were home in the TAR, and the Awu Gungba was performing this ceremony, he would use the flint grass from the high plateaus, but rice grass was as close as A Li could get and it would have to suffice.

She wondered what Dr. Murray’s reaction would be if he knew what she was doing. She wondered what Master Miboche Shenrap, the founder of the Bon religion would think. What would they say to each other if she could have arranged for them to meet in the conference room?

A Li carried the ceramic dish and the bouquet of iris into the room with the fume hoods, raised one of the protective shields and placed the dish inside. She pulled a stool up in front of the fume hood, sat down and stared at the dish.

A Mei, I love you.

They knew each other as they knew themselves. As children, A Mei and A Li were devoted to each other. They were indistinguishable and spoke with the same voice. If one of them called out from another room, neither A Ma nor Pa Lags knew which twin was speaking. They had their own language—not Tibetan and not Mandarin. They whispered to each other, “Sister, I love you,” in the secret words no one else could understand. They saw things with the same eyes and loved the same colors and flowers. They ate and rejected the same foods. Neighbors could not tell them apart and sometimes they played a wicked game of exchanging identities. Their dresses, shoes and coats—every piece of clothing—were identical. Everywhere they went, they looked the same. Until the accident, A Li could not remember a time when she was not with A Mei. After the accident, A Li had twice as many clothes and until she outgrew everything, she never knew whose clothing she was wearing.

We’ve been through so much together.

A Mei granted her complete acceptance and unqualified love.

I am so glad I have someone who understands me. You give me strength because you are always with me. We are still one.

A Li thought of the day they sat in the courtyard in front of their whitewashed home built of stone and clay. The night before, A Ma had given them identical Yak bone pendants carved with OM, the first of the six syllables of the mantra of compassion. They drank buttered tea and admired their new adornments. Soon they exchanged them, and then again. Later, they strung beads of glass, bone and naga shell on silk thread and when they became bored, A Ma helped them arrange bright colored pieces of cloth in the shape of a rainbow. A Li remembered the warmth and happiness of that time—the feeling of contentment and security they had together.

A tear ran down her cheek. She brushed it away with her hand. What A Li remembered most clearly from all their time together was the ride to the hospital in the police van. A Mei lay on the back seat with her head resting on A Ma’s lap. A Li sat in the front and kept looking back at her sister. A Mei was badly injured and by the time they arrived in Lijiang, blood was everywhere, on her mother’s dress, on the seat and all over the floor of the van. A Li felt like she too was bleeding. She felt weak, as if it were her own blood spilling out. She knew her sister was dying and felt as though she was about to accompany A Mei on the journey to the next world.

A life for a life—that was the rule of law in China. Everyone knew whose car killed her twin; there was only one black Mercedes in the entire Province and it belonged to a high-ranking official. Everyone knew, but no one would investigate. The authorities ignored A Mei’s death. It was an injustice A Li would never forgive.

My sister, we are still together and I live for you. I will never leave you and I will never forget you.

She switched on the exhaust fan in the fume hood and lowered the protective cover. She put her hands into the gloves, which allowed her to work inside the chamber. She ignited the Bunsen burner and pointed the long blue flame at the goat’s bone. Under the intense heat, it began to darken and turn to ash.

A Li switched off the exhaust fan and directed the Bunsen flame at the juniper sprigs and the rice grass. Thick gray smoke swirled inside the hood as the vegetation vaporized. She thought of A Mei’s sky burial, so many years ago. Three days after A Mei’s body was wrapped in a white cloth and placed in a corner of their house, the Daodeng came to take her corpse to the burial site in the mountains, far from Zhongdian. The ritual required him to slice her small body, sever her limbs and scatter the pieces on the ground. He burned juniper and the scent attracted the sacred vultures, the birds that sensed death. Coming from miles away, gliding on ten-foot wingspans, the majestic birds arrived to peck at her sister’s flesh with strong, razor sharp beaks. When they finished, they took A Mei’s soul up to heaven. Later, the Daodeng collected the bare bones and brought them back to the village where they were cremated to prevent another soul from taking over her twin’s body. Afterward, A Li spread a handful of the ashes on a bed of Chinese iris growing near their farmhouse. She licked the dusty residue remaining on her hands and remembered the sharp, bitter taste of the ash on her tongue.

A Li recited the sutra for passing from one existence to another.

Phags pa srid pa pho ba zhes bya ba I mdo.

She pulled her hands out of the gloves and lifted the protective hood. She stuck her head inside the chamber and took a deep breath of the fragrant scent of juniper and rice grass mixed with the acrid smell of the burnt goat’s leg. She coughed as the smoke entered her lungs. She held her breath and felt the warmth spreading first through her chest, and then her entire body. When it reached her brain, she felt lightheaded. A Li looked into the smoke trapped inside the hood and saw her twin looking back at her. It was not A Mei the child. The face looking back was that of a very old woman. Her skin was loose and gray, her eyelids sagged, but her eyes flashed anger. It was a frightening face. A Mei’s lips were moving; she was saying something. A Li strained to hear what her sister was telling her. Her sister was unhappy; her words were sharp. The fluorescent lights in the ceiling of the lab flickered. A Li’s head spun and she fell off her stool. The room went dark.

When A Li opened her eyes, her cheek was resting on the dirty floor. She could see dust balls under the fume hood counters. The side of her head hurt and A Li realized she had blacked out and fallen. She had no idea how long she had been unconscious. She sat up and used the counter for support as she struggled to regain her balance. She touched the tender spot on her head and thought she must have hit the sharp corner of the counter when she fainted. A trace of her Bombay Blood showed on her fingertips. When she looked inside the fume hood, she saw traces of smoke. She remembered the fragrance of the juniper and the odor from the burning goat’s foot when she stuck her head inside. Her head was still spinning. Had she dreamed of her sister’s anger?

It was time to go home. She raised the fume hood again, dipped herfingertips in the ash and touched her tongue.

May the hundreds of thousands of suns of happiness and peace be upon you, A Mei. Happy birthday, my sister.

A Li swept the remaining ash into the plastic baggie. She sprayed an alcohol disinfectant inside the fume hood and wiped it with a damp paper towel, then dropped everything in the trash. She was hungry and exhausted. On her way out, before she turned off the lights, A Li stopped to survey the empty lab once more. She felt a distinct foreboding. Were the 21st century gods of stem cell science angry because she had performed an ancient ritual from a religion of demigods, spirits, hungry ghosts and beings from hell?

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