The Room

A short story by Pema Tseden, translated by Lowell Cook


The end of winter is about to arrive. Listening to the sound of the cold wind whipping outside, I really miss that room and its warmth.

I’m traversing the side-streets alone, tracing my way back to that room, but now, the room remains empty.

Yesterday, it snowed. With the snowfall, the weather has turned extremely cold. Not the slightest trace of warmth remains in the room which now lies empty. Meanwhile, a few dust-covered objects shiver from the cold. And, as for the room itself, it seems unpleasantly chilly now that the scent of people has long since faded.

Towards the end of winter last year, the room was still filled with warmth. That was only because he – my heart’s true love – was there. Whenever it snowed, we would set out along those little streets blanketed in snow and head back to the room. Even though it’d be freezing inside the room, the nights the two of us spent together there were full of warmth.

But now, when I make myself remember these things, it’s all just like a dream. That’s just how real life is, right – just one long dream? The life we shared last year with its abundant happiness and joy has now vanished without trace, just like a dream. Now, the room that was so full of warmth and laughter last year now lies empty. Even the things in there that used to give folks such joy last year now lie brittle and numb, as if they lost all their vitality.  

The life I enjoyed with him in that room was nothing like business partners or childhood playmates who lack a particular foundation in love. No, instead, ours had a very strong foundation in love. We had started at university that year and were in the same class. Slowly but surely, the first shoots of love between us began to sprout. During the course of our four years at university, we nurtured these first sprouts of love with single-pointed attention. Our love faced many challenges and obstacles during those four years but, always doing our best to overcome them, we eventually let those sprouts of love to grow and bear fruit.

Usually we were so caught up in romance that we were unable to squeeze much education out of ourselves during those four years. Each time we had to take midterms or final exams, we would both become stressed and just try to pass the exams, using a million different means. Now, all this is but a source of regret for the both of us. After these four years of university life came to an end, we hadn’t managed to get such great results and thus didn’t get the chance to stay on in the city, like our classmates. Hence, we had to return to our hometown – the capital city of a tiny county.

At the end of autumn, we went back to our hometown – that county capital – and registered our names. Getting assigned work there was very difficult. A number of other recent graduates from other schools were also waiting like us to be assigned work. Yet conveniently, the county’s elementary school for ethnic minorities was in need of a female teacher at that time. My father, in his position of authority, sent out a request from his office and I was assigned a job there.

My lover had already waited for two to three months without getting assigned work. He would occasionally fall into a harsh mood and get angry with me for no reason. I clearly understood his feelings and anguish in those moments and so, without saying anything, I would smile and do whatever I could to soothe his mind. Later, when he still hadn’t been allocated work, he would often become crestfallen, sighing heavily all day. I would try to console him again and again saying, “Why are you making yourself so depressed? At least, we’ve got my monthly salary coming in each month, so we won’t have any financial troubles.” However, he would always reply, “But aren’t people just going to ridicule a strong man like me for living off a woman?” And he would just heave another sigh, like before.

With the arrival of winter, the weather became colder and colder. I called up favor from a friend, and we were able to rent a room in a corner of the city. At first, he was reluctant to move there, but with my insistence he agreed. We bought a few simple items and then moved into the room. With that room, his emotional life gradually eased and a smile of joy began to shine on his face. Each time I’d come home from school, completely exhausted, he would be there waiting for me, looking at some book, with two or three types of vegetables already fried and a warm fire blazing in the cast iron stove. He’d first always take my bag before giving me a kiss on the cheek. Next, after pouring me a hot cup of tea, he’d smile and tell me to eat up while it’s still warm. It was during those moments that I would suddenly feel that I was the happiest girl in the whole world. Each time I came back home to the room, still carrying the day’s fatigue, I’d hear his affectionate words swirling with laughter and my heart would spontaneously fill with love.

On Sundays, we would often visit friends – mine, his, or common to us both – who also lived in the county capital. At first when we would all get together, it was great fun. But later, some of these friends began to make a few sarcastic remarks about him over tea or drinks and so he gradually lost all interest in such gatherings. But this clearly disturbed his peace of mind. Often I secretly watched him in his heavy sighing.

He loved literature during our university days. Even without studying very hard, he was able to get some quite noteworthy results. Throughout those four years, he published a rather large number of writings in magazines and newspapers throughout the Tibetan region. So, seeing this in him, I told him, “Now that you’ve got some free time, wouldn’t it be good if you put some effort into all this literature that you love so much?” But he never said anything one way or the other. I would go to bookstores and buy as many books about literature as I could. He usually loved reading works by Hemmingway, Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy, and so on. He would revisit those works again and again. He had also read as many works by national and international authors as he could. During that time, he was writing a number of short stories, essays, and poems that were turning out alright which made a smile grow on his face and his sighing diminish for a while.

One day, there was a heavy snowfall on our little county capital. All the buildings, streets, mountains, and valleys in that tiny city turned white, bringing out a beauty like never before. People put on their winter clothes and praised the snowy landscape. For my part, though, I had no thought to feast my eyes on such things at that time. I absolutely had to get back to the room and try my best with this life of challenges that I shared with my lover. When I arrived home, he was waiting for me, having already boiled up some hot noodle soup a while back. After drinking the noodles, I felt my body expand with a warmth like never before. However, we were experiencing some financial difficulties and couldn’t afford to buy coal at that time so it was desperately cold inside that room. Consequently, we got into bed earlier than usual. Around midnight, we could feel the cold wind whipping outside. It was the coldest it had ever been inside that room. He held my body tight all night, giving me warmth, and so I didn’t feel even the slightest hint of cold. From my perspective, it was one of the warmest nights that winter. I will never be able to forget that night for as long as I live.

But it proved impossible for us to peacefully maintain this lifestyle for very long with its mix of happiness, hardship, and scatterings of fun. One morning, my father came to school to check up on me. He said he wanted to see where I was living and so on, but I hadn’t yet told my parents about the situation between the two of us. So I lied. I told him, “I don’t have a place to live, at the moment. I’m trying to stay with a colleague at her place” at which he grew silent. He took me out to the Chinese boulevard to get something eat. Afterwards, he placed three hundred RMB in my hand and left. As I watched my father walking off into the distance, tears welled up in the corner of my eyes and I felt homesick for my kind and loving mother.

In the afternoon, when I made my way back to the room from school, I couldn’t believe it – there was my lover, who usually never drinks, with a liter of liquor before him, carelessly drinking! Seeing me, he glanced up but didn’t open his mouth. Not knowing what had happened, I stood there staring at him. At that point, he was clearly a little drunk, both eyes bloodshot. After a little time had passed, he suddenly got up and said, “What your father said is true. A strong man like me living off a woman is really something to be ashamed of. Tomorrow I’m leaving. I must find a path for myself.”

Hearing those words, I understood everything. My father’s aged and wrinkled face instantly appeared right before my eyes and a feeling of loathing towards him naturally sprang up in my heart.

Taking the liquor bottle up out my lover’s hand, I said a few words of comfort to him but it was of no use. He nabbed the liquor bottle back out of my hands and took a swig.

The next day, he set out on the road and left. No matter how I tried, I was unable to stop him. As he left, the only thing he said was this:

“After I’ve gone, please make sure to take good care of yourself. As long as I don’t find my life’s path, I won’t come back. Farewell.”

That was how he left. Without him, the room has become meaningless. If I stay there, it does nothing but create pain in my heart. Thus, I’ve moved to a room where I’m staying with another female teacher.

As for now, I’ve arrived at the end of winter one year later. When I go out alone through the streets, greeting the cold whipping wind, that warm room keeps coming to mind. However, the room still remains empty and he has yet to come back. Nonetheless, I’m absolutely certain he will. I hold a deep conviction in the love between the two of us. The day he discovers his own life path is also the day when he will come back. I will always stay here awaiting his return. When he comes back and we are together again, I’m sure the room will once more be filled with warmth and happiness.

Lowell Cook is pursuing a Masters in Translation, Textual Interpretation and Philology in Kathmandu, where he also translates Buddhist scripture. He enjoys writing in English and Tibetan and occasionally disappears to Amdo

This translation was first published in Tibetan Literary Arts

Also read another story by Pema Tseden on the Anthill, The Ninth Man