“The Learned Lama”–an excerpt from House of the Ancients and Other Stories

House of the Ancients and Other Stories, my forthcoming story collection (now available for pre-order from the publisher, Press 53), comprises 23 short stories set in a variety of locations, from Scandinavia to Vietnam, Hawaii to Virginia, and points in between. One of those stories, which originally appeared in Six Little Things, is “The Learned Lama,” which is set in Mongolia.


Snow fills the Ulaan Baatar morning. As arranged, Oliver meets Ganbat outside the hotel. The boy’s ruddy face is soot-streaked, and Oliver knows he has slept underground, relying on steam pipes to survive another bitter night. Like many street kids, Ganbat knows beggar English and has offered, for a thousand tögrög, to guide Oliver. Oliver’s here on business, but wants to do the right thing, to help, so he’ll employ Ganbat for one morning, and hope it is enough.

Oliver pays and they both enter the Choijin Lama Monastery. He thinks he sees disapproval on the gatekeeper’s face, but he doesn’t care. Ganbat leads him through the grounds, tries to explain the significance of the temples, but he has too few words.

Ganbat waits outside while Oliver browses in the monastery’s giftshop, a jumble of handicrafts displayed in a traditional ger. He examines a Mongolian woodblock—Buddhist scripture, the clerk tells him—and his eyes settle on a row of tiny bronze statues. He lifts the smallest, no larger than a molar, surprised by its heft. The clerk holds a magnifying glass and indicates the features of the diminutive Learned Lama: pointed cap, raised hands, enigmatic smile. Oliver pays a small fortune for the statue and carries it in his closed fist, sharp edges biting into his flesh. The snow is thick now, and wet. Ganbat waits for him at the gate, shivering. Oliver shows him the Lama. He presses the little statue into Ganbat’s hand and watches the boy’s eyes grow wide.

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