A litter of puppies plays in the dirt of the back room at Nai’s fight club. Two of them mock-battle, and their yipping tumble evokes warm chuckles from the handful of boxers gathered in the purple shadow and drifting dust under the thatched roof.
Garland’s eyebrows climb when he hears our plan. “But, today is the same as yesterday.”
“Nai, what do you care? Nothing points to you. Just tell us where we’re going and we’ll be out of your hair. Our friend is in danger.” I wave the wad of cash Jenny provided for the purpose: “I’ll give you fifty dollars.”
The other fighters, shades in the gloom, work through a ritualized stretching routine that gently turns their auras red.
Garland crosses his arms, but his aura shimmers that pale gold and the garland floats as if in clear water. “I no take money to kill you.”
I switch to my fractured Thai, saying as best as I can manage: ‘My friend is in Bitter Flower. She is in danger. We just need to see.’
He uncrosses his arms. When he speaks his own language, his voice is deeper, more authoritative and confidant. He speaks slowly and I can follow, even though I couldn’t have said it: ‘You don’t understand. To find it, you must know where it is. If I take you there, I will be responsible for you. You weren’t strong enough yesterday, and you aren’t today.’
“Maybe I’m not.” I look him right in the eyes. ‘When I mention Bitter Flower, you think of a woman in bangles, with a scar on her face. Who is she?’ My Thai is approximate, but I get the point across. His eyes widen. At his shoulder, the woman in question appears like a reflection in oily water.
Garland’s hands rise in an almost defensive posture, but instead of striking, he grins and glances around at the other fighters and Jenny. One of the other fighters kicks a bamboo roof pole with the top of his foot, shaking a little dust from the thatch and startling the pigeons nesting above.
Jenny’s found a puppy, but it worms out of her arms.
Garland whispers to me: ‘When we fought, was there a priestess watching? Did you see?’
“With pointed teeth,” I answer.
Jenny says: “My sister is in there, and she’s in danger. You’re our only hope for finding her. Please?”
He turns his smile on one of the puppies, and crouches to scratch its ears. ‘Alright.’ He says. “I take him, but not you.”
“Why not me?” says Jenny, sharply.
“Fought him.” He rolls the puppy over and it tries valiantly to chew through his thumb. “Just met you.”
Jenny looks away. “That was our plan anyway.”
“What’s your name, fella?” I offer my hand and the fifty dollars.
He shakes his head. “Nai. I am Nai. Keep your money.”
The streets wind right to the market I was sitting in before, now abandoned to early morning. We walk one of its five ways and into a narrowing road between the back sides of brick walled factories with few windows and many idle smokestacks like black, limbless evergreens.
At an alley marked by a kundrai tree, Nai pauses. The tree’s golden cascades of flowers rustle in the colorless dark, and its smell flows around us. Nai points with his chin to a spot a dozen paces down the alley.
The door is like any other, but red. Its brass knob is on the left and it opens inward. The door is probably two inches thick and sturdy. The wall around it is a hodgepodge of bricks stacked on top of an old yellow stone block foundation that was probably once an outer extension of the temple down the street, a rustic vestige now overgrown by the encroaching human jungle called Bangkok.
“Garland, Nai,” I say. “Your club is right around the damn corner.”
His face registers no emotion. “Once you know,” he says. “No ever far.”
On a bench next to the door sits a fellow in a linen shirt and shorts. A cigarette stub hanging out the corner of his mouth streams a tiny line of smoke up to a haze over his head like a zeppelin on a tether. The skunky smell of the smoke sends jitters racing across my skin.
Garland watches my face. When he sees me glance his way, he nods, as though confirming something.
“You don’t have to come in with me,” I say.
He smiles. ‘Then you would not get in.’ Then holds up three fingers and spears me with his smile. His next words have the premeditated air of a speech he’s been constructing in his head for at least as long as it took us to walk here. “Listen. Three rules. One: Respect. No talk big to Agafya, anybody. No swagger. Temple. Sacred. Respect. Yes?” He waits for me to agree.
“Respect Agafya, got it.”
He continues. “Two: you no offering, so you fight. Your fight is your offering. Understand?”
“Got it,” I say, and return the weighing look of the guy by the door.
Garland nods, though I’m not convinced he understood me: “Three: no fight Drydus or Wren.”
“Wren?” I perk up as a thrill of surprise shoots up my spine. “You do know who that is? Wait,” my eyes narrow, “why?”
He shrugs, turning his gaze to the door. “Agafya boss. He no fight you. Drydus nak mwy. Boxer. Athlete. Wren nak kha. Killer.”
Nak mwy might be translated to pugilist, or boxer – an athlete who fights for sport. It’s a common term in my circles and I recognize it. Nak kha takes me a moment to sort out. Kha means murder. Nak kha means murderer.
“You mean she fights dirty?” I ask, but he shakes his head.
“She no fight.”
I nod for lack of a better response. My stomach produces a double serving of acid, just to remind me it exists. Nai’s gaze skewers me for a moment longer and then he turns away to say something about lilies to the fella by the door.
The fella taps a funny pattern on the red painted wood with one lazy knuckle and it clicks as of a lock being drawn back. Then Garland, shirtless and shoeless, wearing only linen shorts, opens the door and slides through. I follow close on his heels.
Inside a tiny space goes one step deep to a hanging curtain, still rustling from where Garland passed under. Immediately to my left towers three hundred pounds of man with a beard down to his waist and some kind of ornate brass club. The big guy stands like a watchtower a half a step inside the door, and he nearly makes me drop ballast in my pants. His face twitches slightly in what might be a smothered smile.
“Hi!” I say, as brightly as I can, and move quickly through the curtain.
Past the curtain a small room hides in perfect darkness except for a doorway of fluttering silk, where Garland waits impatiently. He waves me forward and I go, but a smoky perfume smell like vinegar and sex stops me in my tracks.
Opium. Not a little. A lot.
“I can’t go in there,” I whisper, quietly, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice, trying to keep my fingers away from suddenly itchy wrists.
Garland pushes me forward.
There’s a rustle behind me and the lock on the outer door clicks shut, but I’m already, inevitably, walking forward through shimmering silk into the club called Bitter Flower.
A hall consists of three concentric rings rising in levels like a stadium. The innermost is a round pit almost as tall as I am but no wider than a boxing ring, with a sand floor stained red from areca nut spit and probably blood. Our door enters on the second ring – a polished wooden platform strewn with a dizzying color-wheel of pillows and couches, arranged like the petals of a lotus. The outer ring, above and around us, hides behind teak-wood screens carved with holes in patterns of eyes like peacock feathers. A cascade of stairs rises to that outer ring from a spot across the pit from our entrance. Opium smoke drifts in a dense, attenuated fog that should be grey, but instead shimmers with a thousand colors. Half occluded in that gloom hangs a huge bronze bowl from which dangle a dozen wicks throwing a dancing orange light.
Scattered across the pillows and couches of the second ring lay lovely naked bodies, in various positions of repose, their long limbs and lithe forms draw pale hieroglyphs among the colors and cloth. A glance reveals nothing of the distribution of men to women and I don’t feel like counting, but I do see lean and contoured muscle everywhere, and every pair of eyes rests open in the waking sleep, or closed in the deeper one.
Military uniforms of various flags mix with pieces of cloth that might be shawls or pillows and some things that are probably local garb, all scattered across the floor and among the pillows.
Silence rules the room except for the trickle of a fountain somewhere on the balcony above, the sluggish mutter of sleeping breath, and the slow, mournful music of some simple, plucked string instrument. The musician, invisible in the gloom, plays beautifully; the music conveys a tense longing and hunger. Gentle minor progressions lilt and waver, conjuring thoughts of a flower petal on the edge of falling from its blossom, longing for its reflection in the still pond beneath. I want to listen forever, but some movement catches my eye, and I’m back in my body, a body wracked with familiar sensations of arousal, fear, and the vibrating hunger of an old monkey, long lurking, suddenly twitching clammy fingers around my throat.
The sweet taste of the smoke recalls its ecstatic pleasure. I will not. Not yet. Not ever.
My eyes search for Sylvia while my mind lingers with the smoke, but I don’t see her among the pillows and skin of the lotus room.
A sleepy eyed boy wearing nothing unwinds from the pillows to our right and bats his eyes at us in dull curiosity. He stands, loads a silver tray, and then approaches on wobbly legs. His bare body is matte in the shifting gloom, but over the bronze-colored skin and undulating muscle is a spider-web of thin and well-healed scars.
The tray holds three dishes. One is a black stone bowl in which sit two red-skinned areca nuts wrapped in betel leaf, the popular stimulant which dyes the teeth and spit red. The second is a gold disk holding two wooden coins with blank faces. The last is a wood stand carved like a lotus blossom on which perch two wooden pipes, loaded with the sickly sweet smelling gunk of opium.
Garland takes the nut and leaf and places it firmly in my hand, which I’d left hovering near the pipe. He pops the other leaf-wrapped nut in his mouth and chews. So, so do I. My mouth floods with a bitter, milky flavor and a sudden abundance of saliva. The pain of my bruises flutters down to a dull throb, a silent rush of calm fills my lungs with air, and best of all, the itching, hungry need for the pipe seems less pressing. The boy sets the trey down and offers a silver spittoon, into which Garland spits a red gob, including his mouthful of stimulant. It’s tempting to keep chewing, but I’ve got a guide and I follow his lead.
The boy bows with a formal precision, then, setting the spittoon aside, gestures silently to the hall. His eyes search the upper deck, as though looking for a signal. If he sees one, he keeps it to himself, since he folds back onto the pillows from whence he arose.
Garland’s aura has turned a pale green that looks like fear. His gaze lingers on a blindfolded man as skinny as a spear and covered in what look like the scars of long healed dog bites, laying in apparent sleep at the stairs bottom.
“I don’t know what the big fuss was,” I whisper to Garland, “this place seems pretty dead to me. I bet it’s positively jumping on weekends.”
A gong sounds from across the hall, faintly, as though it too were sleepy, and a girl’s voice calls out like a bubbling spring. Garland turns his eyes toward the voice, which came from up the stairs at the far side of the lotus room. His expression hardens. The music stops. At the bottom of the stairs, the blindfolded man lifts his head.
“Come,” says Garland and starts around the middle circle, headed toward those stairs.
The music continues.
With no reason to argue, and feeling pretty swell, I follow. His feet move confidently among the tangle of bodies and cloth. I walk where he did, trying to watch his feet and what they’re dodging at the same time. A swan-limbed lady with ocean wave curves smiles beatifically at me, while an officer in a Japanese uniform, his shirt unbuttoned and sporting a brilliant black-eye, murmurs something which sounds incoherent. All these people, male and female, have bruises on their bodies. Garland doesn’t stop, but his eyes dart among them, looking for someone in particular. He ignores the blindfolded man, whose unseen eyes leak something crusty.
That blind-folded man leers at me as I pass. He runs his bite-scarred hand across his chest, leaving behind a ripple of angry dog teeth.
The stairs up are too short for my stride, more like a waterfall than a flight of steps. As we climb, the outer ring takes shape through the smoke. It’s mostly bare wooden floor, set at intervals with low-backed chairs and the rare cushion. The outer wall is alternately carved or painted with tableaus too complex to decipher quickly.
Against the wall at the top of the stairs stands a massive elaborately carved teak throne, so wrought to seem one huge piece of living wood which grows into a massive, many-layered lotus, surrounded by a conflagration of what might be branches or snakes emanating from the lotus heart. The carved lotus-throne seems to move in the curling smoke-air as if each petal were independent, overlapping, and floating in clear water. Behind the throne and on a curl of the carved tree sits a bronze bowl in which smolders a lump of incense the size of my head.
This isn’t an opium den. Nai wasn’t being figurative when he called this a temple. That lotus is an altar, but to what god I do not know.
Across that throne-altar lounges a bald-headed girl in a saffron smock, her bare feet dangling over one armrest. Her cheeks are round and her body small, but her fingers on the long-necked instrument in her lap invent with the casual perfection of a practiced master. I couldn’t place an age to her. At first glance she seems young, not out of her teens, but when the flickering light passes through shadow there seems an antique weathering in her features and the angles of her shoulder bones. The music lingers but her plucking of the meandering tune doesn’t absorb her attention: the almond eyes watch us.
Next to the throne on a low-backed seat carved into the same wood, with her black hair a storm about her face, sits Sylvia.
My heart stops and does a handstand.
She’s here. Here she is.
Whether she’s asleep or doped I can’t tell. Her eyes veil themselves in the wild mat of her hair. She sits in an itinerant slump, her hands between her knees. She and the girl on the throne are the only folk in clothes, the girl an orange piece of cloth like a Hindu ascetic which leaves her arms and legs bare, and Sylvia in cutoff trousers and a sleeveless canvas jacket that falls past her knees. They’re both sweating.
“Suwarika,” lilts the bald girl, with a dip of her head.
“I know you,” I respond, happy with the clarity of the thought, “you came to me during the tournament. You greeted me. I thought you were a boy.”
She spreads a white grin over even teeth and lets her robe sink down one shoulder, baring a faintly curved breast and pale nipple.
“What do you think now?” the words dance in melodic English.
I don’t know what to think. I don’t think it matters, except I get the impression I’m being toyed with, so I say: “Suwarika, I am Marcus Summanus. I greet you humbly, as one whose opinion does not matter. How should I address you?”
“Is it a game? I will no more name myself than will the wind. You decide, what you will.” Skillful fingers pluck a dramatic chord, but the player’s posture exudes faux boredom.
I glance at Nai, but his face is a portrait of horror as intense as any festival mask. He refuses to meet my gaze.
There’s something deeply feminine about the room we’re in, and this being fits here like they were made at one stroke, by the same hand, of the same stuff. The position of the pit, the shape of the lotus room around it, the lithe contour of waterfall stairs leading up to the throne – the arrangement makes a form of obvious and intense femininity.
“Do you like what you see?” says the singsong voice from the throne, as if reading my thoughts.
“I have never seen a temple so beautiful,” I reply with my diplomacy smile at full force, but there’s something very wrong here, and that wrongness has a name: opium. It tastes like poison in the watery air.
The bald girl in the carved chair meets my gaze with a rainbow light in her eyes and a smile of whimsy glittering on her lips. Then she follows my glance at Sylvia and the rainbows flash fire.
“You should not be.” She replaces her robe. “Leave or die again.”
“I uh…” I say, chewing a meaty tongue. I shouldn’t let them know I know her.
Sylvia stirs, her head tilts to level and her eyes drift open. When they focus past me, her fingers curl to fists. Her hands are caked with dried blood.
“What have they done to her?” I choke, my throat constricted and knuckles popping.
The sing-song girl laughs like the tinkle of bells. At the base of the stairs the blind-folded man barks once, loud and exactly like a dog, but it makes a word: “Agafya!”
The little one turns her bald head away and with a flick of her wrist she calls out also: “Agafya!”
Not two heartbeats later a door hidden in the elaborate woodwork slides open. The girl throws her arms back and stretches. Her lazy smile greets a huge man who steps from the hidden passage like a bear emerging from a mist.
The Agafya in my dream was smaller.
He’s at least two and a half meters of naked muscle, fat, and hoary skin, covered only by curled hair and the bristles of a black beard that looks like chain-mail. Though he must weigh four times what I do, his round belly is firm. Biceps the size of whole wild boars heave as he moves as if they’re held from more violent action by a thin chain of will.
This monument of nature steps around the throne to sit in front of it at the girl’s knee. His eyes, amber and intelligent, squint past a cake of sleep-sand at the two of us: Garland, and me.
The girl with the lute does a little swaying cobra-dance in her chair, babbling syllables that could be nonsense. She ends in an exaggerated gesture toward Garland and I. The big man watches with a lazy smile smeared across his lips. He plucks a betel nut from a curl of the lotus and pops it in his mouth. The girl watches his hand as if it were an adder.
He looks at me. A whirlpool of white and kaleidoscope color spins in his eyes, wild, yet contained. “Others sleep,” he says, with a thick Russian accent, “but you eat betel. You demand a fight at this hour?”
“That’s probably not necessary,” I say, turning the diplomacy grin up past ten, “I don’t want to be any fuss.”
He leans forward, palms on his knees, and the burning white in his eyes sears me.
“Offering?” he asks.
“I haven’t made any offerings… uh… yet,” I reply. Searching my pockets reveals the fold of dollars we meant to bribe Garland with. Someone’s breathing on my neck. When I glance back, it’s straight into the leering, blindfolded face of the dog-man, inches away. I fumble with the bills for a moment, trying to separate some out with sweaty, tingling fingers, then I offer the whole fold to Agafya.
He flicks one finger to the floor at his feet. I toss the bills and they separate like confetti. Lute-girl blows on one and it floats a moment longer, hanging in the air like a dead leaf in a whirl-wind.
“A promise from a distant government,” she says, amused, “it weighs a paper, a pinch of silver, and a sail.”
Agafya catches the floating dollar before it can hit the ground. With a sigh of mild annoyance, he tears it in half. The girl laughs while the two pieces join the rest on the ash and betel-spit stained floor.
The dog man walks through my shoulder as if I were an annoyingly placed tree-branch. As I stagger, he stalks out through the door behind the throne, leaving behind a growl and a curl of anger that wakes the fighting ache in my knuckles. Maybe it was me that growled.
“This is nothing, show me the rest,” demands the hairy one.
I pull my attention from the way the dog-man went and turn it at Garland. He gestures for me to remove my linen shirt. I do, leaving me in the homespun pants I purchased at the end of the day yesterday. Sweat chills my bare skin and the smoke seems to cling, itching, to my back and bare ribs.
“Also,” demands Wall-of-Hair, waving at my pants.
A pleading look to Garland returns no pity. The pants and shoes come off. I haven’t been naked in public since some skinny-dipping misadventures in college, and here my nakedness has lots of company, but everybody in this room has more muscle, more sun, and fewer bruises than me. It’s embarrassing. I resolve to eat more.
The Russian’s eyes roll over me, from shoulders to toes. His eyes linger an instant on my scarred knuckles. Then his expression shifts to a small, unimpressed sneer. The girl laughs yet again, apparently amused by my patchwork of bruising. I’ll assume it’s the bruising. Sylvia might as well be stone but her eyes glimmer, half-lidded in the dark of her hair.
I remember my dream, and I straighten my back.
The huge one leans to his left and nudges Sylvia with a wide hand. ‘Kill this garbage,’ he growls in Thai. ‘Feed it to the dogs. Do not waste my time again.’
The bald girl’s laugh seems a little cruel, a little deranged, and a little bit desperate.
Sylvia unwinds from her slouch like a puma woken from a nap on a tree-branch. As she stands, the smoke curls about her and my eyes have trouble following.
“Now wait one minute,” I say, backpedaling. “We can talk about this.”
But Sylvia is gone. I step into a fighting stance but before I’ve even got my guard up a cable-like arm slides around my neck and a palm against the back of my head make a perfect choke hold. The body pressed against my back is feminine, wearing a sleeveless canvas jacket. An overpowering opiate perfume cloying to her clothing and hair sends waves of ecstasy through my confused body. She drags me backward, depriving my feet of purchase against the floor. I fall against her and she catches me. The embrace of her arm around my neck swiftly squeezes a curtain over my eyes.
Stairs bump my heels. Garland talks at the Russian, but I can’t focus on his words. I try to grab her wrist with both hands but it’s too close to my neck. Twisting and kicking I try to grab anything that might let me loosen the pressure, but the dark has me, and all I’ve got is my fingers tangled in her hair.
Then the pressure on my throat relents and my head hits polished wood like a dropped bowling ball. Did she let go too soon? Air rushes into my lungs and right away the dark peels back. I try not to gasp too loudly, for fear she’ll notice her error and finish the job. I’m not fooling anyone.
Garland leans over me. He shoves my pants and shoes into my hands and then pulls me roughly to my feet.
“Go,” he says, somehow calm. The woman in bangles stands at his side in the flesh. Her eyes flash.
A dog barks, loud and angry, somewhere very nearby, maybe under the wooden floor.
“What’s happening?” I choke, struggling into the cloth and hopping toward the door at the same time.
But he’s not following. At the door I turn back to see him crouched at the edge of the pit, with a knife in one hand and the bangled girl whispering intensely in his ear. Sylvia’s silhouette is a dark slash against the color of the pillows and prostrate forms, some of whom sit up, woken by the commotion. The barking dog goes wild. Someone is hurting it, whipping it into a frenzy.
Garland glances over his shoulder and sees me hesitating in the doorway.
“What the hell are you doing? Let’s get out of here!” I nearly shout.
“Go, Summanus,” he says firmly, and his knife glints. “I fight today.”
Then he drops into the pit. Eyes pop open on all sides and interested faces rise to watch. A low door in the opposite side opens to admit a huge golden furred dog, already frothing at a mouth big enough to encompass my head. The dog surges into the ring with a single, crazed bark. Somewhere in the gloom above, the big Russian laughs, and the girl starts playing her lute.
I leave Garland and flee.