The tall man seems all elbows and knees and his long arms pull me aboard like a fishing rod reeling in a sea slug.
Then an inch of water laps against my back at the boat bottom, and I lay looking up at a painfully bright lantern and the man who pulled me out of the drink. He wears a kind of black priestly dress called a cassock – the square of a white clerical collar glows in the lamplight like a window to dawn.
Despite being so skinny, he has a double chin, and an incredibly deep voice. “So, how long have you been swimming in the Cho Phraya?”
“Not sure,” I reply. “What year is it?” I switch to Italian. He was speaking that before, but it took me a moment to notice. My command of the language is a few years rusty but it was once as good as my English. ‘I’m lucky you came along,’ I tell him, ‘I’m grateful.’
‘Your good luck and God’s grace,’ he replies, with the quirk of a surprised eyebrow. ‘We’re here because we heard the shells. I believe you’re fleeing from them?’
‘Good guess.’ I glance again at the boat’s cargo; several stretchers lean against one wall-hull-side, whatever you call it. ‘You’re bringing medical supplies?’
‘Yes,’ he intones, ‘I am the priest of a mission just downriver. God’s work includes helping the injured, and where there are shells there will be injured.’
Bugs chirp as I lay still and look him over. His flock of passengers reposition to start rowing. They all wear crosses, most hand-carved, about their necks.
Missionaries. Wherever there are brown people you’ll find white missionaries, and if you happen to be white, the missionaries are usually happy to see you. If you’re brown, then the missionaries are fond of you only if you’re buying what they’re selling. I’m not, and so they’re not. We have a mutually beneficial relationship in which I leave them alone. But the thing about missionaries: for lots of people they offer the only school in miles, and they’re not skimpy with the medicine when it’s needed.
I tell him: ‘I don’t know how many people are left to save. The attackers had a certain committed quality. They weren’t taking prisoners.’
‘Nevertheless, we will go,’ he replies and settles back on his heels. ‘I understand if you would prefer not to return to the scene of the violence. If you would like, we can leave you at the nearest dock. However, first I would like Somsak to check your injury, I’ve trained him in medicine. While he does this, will you tell me about the battle?’
‘Thank you,’ I say. ‘A thousand times, thank you.’
He shrugs, “You’re welcome. It is what we have come to do.’
Somsak has a round, gentle face, and wears a fine quality of homespun cloth that’s bleached to off-white and stained around the hems with dust and mud. He moves the lantern closer, and I grit my teeth as he examines the entry and exit wounds. The two are very close together on the meaty part of my outer thigh.
“Lucky,” says Somsak, as he gets to work.
“What did you see?” presses the priest, in English. “Also, what may I call you, and how is it that you speak Italian so well?”
“My mother was Abyssinian. Italy invaded when she was young and she learned the language so she could spy on Italian soldiers.” I grimace. “As for why I am here, I was visiting a family friend who was on a field trip exploring the ruins of Ayutthaya. His camp was attacked by a large number of riflemen who came by boat…”
I explain some of what happened, omitting the details of invisible warriors and mad prophets.
As I speak his left hand curls around his belt and his thumb strokes the leather. The movement has a particular, practiced character, as though it has been done often and with a purpose, even where none is evident now. My eyes are blurry with fatigue, pain, and dirt, but it’s almost like his left hand, curled around his belt, grasps the sheath of a sword and holds it ready to draw. I blink and squint: it’s there in his aura – a sleek two-handed sword with a cruciform hilt.
‘You saw the bandit leader?’ he asks, and his dark eyes glitter.
‘Interesting,’ he says, leaning toward me. ‘Who was he?’
I look into those eyes and see a sternness at conflict with compassion. His hands are broad and strong, but the skin seems soft and stained by what looks like ink. I decide to tell him the truth.
I don’t know why.
“A British research team had made a drug they called heros by boiling down something that looked like a diamond but wasn’t, which they found at a ruin in the Arctic. This heros drug gives a kind of permanent second-sight, which can lead to insanity. The last heros was stolen by a man named Agafya, who is currently head honcho at a temple to the goddess Maya in Bangkok. Agafya may have his own diamond-like source of heros. His people use the powers the drug grants them to watch places they can’t get to, to move about unseen, and somehow, to transport a lot of heroin and opium across international borders for sale in various places.”
The priest blinks. He sits back. He frowns.
‘This,’ he says in Italian, ‘is an unexpected abundance of useful information.’ Then after a moment he adds: “I have questions.”
“You and me both, buddy, but I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got for you. It’s all I know. What order are you from, anyway?”
He stares out into the dark for a few seconds, his eyes searching for something I can’t see.
“There are wounded on the battle-ground at Ayutthaya,” he declares. “While we wait, many may die. We have to leave you, but this chance encounter has been a great boon to me.”
They make short work of finishing up my leg and then deposit me on the bank. The dock is a tiny structure of tightly bound reeds, hiding deep among the river-rushes in an inlet that smells strongly of marsh, mud, and plants I can’t name. I might have passed a thousand such spots in the night and never seen any sign of them. Sooner or later I would have tried the shore, but that would only have led to a grim night sleeping under the trees and a long hike in the morning. I would have arrived dirty, tired, and nearly naked. As it is, my salvaged pants hang from my waist all wrinkled, wet, and missing most of one leg, and I’m still shirt and shoe free, but at least the bandages are clean.
The priest asks a fisherman named Sirichai to help me get back to the city. He’s got a face like a bunion tree and his back is shaped like a hook, but he hops out of the boat as spry and able as a mountain goat. The priest stands tall in the prow and directs his deep voice my way.
‘You asked me my order, and I did not answer. Nor do I know what name to call you,’ he says.
I have to think a moment before I decide how to answer. I’m getting used to it, and besides, it feeds the dramatist in me. Which is fine; I’m talking to a man whose memory of wearing a sword is so strong it lives in his aura.
‘My mother named me Marcus Summanus.’
‘I am Sir Evander Verus, Knight in Obedience of the order Apostle.’ He frowns. ‘Summanus is an old name, a bloody name. If she named you thus, then perhaps your mother was Semira Ase Senay, who also wore that name?’
“Glad to meet ya,” I wave one hand. “Did you know my mother?”
“And your father, but only by reputation. It is said she was a witch, he a liar, and they both served the devil.” He shakes his head. “I have learned to not believe such rumors, but I have one last question, Marcus,’ His fingers whiten on the leather of his belt, where hangs that ghostly blade. ‘You have said that this long-haired Russian, this drug trader named Agafya, has the dreaming diamond and rules in the Temple of Maya. Do you know the temple’s location?’
The sounds of night insects end, as though a switch were hit.
The night wears on. If I don’t rest before sunrise, I’ll be weary for days. I wonder what the priest is going to do.
He says: ‘I will not wrest this knowledge from you, Summanus, but if I have anything worthy of trade for it, you have but to name it and that thing is yours.’
My smile feels like road kill spread across moonlit pavement, but it’s genuine.
“You know,” I say in English, “you’re the first person I’ve met in a while who helped me because you could. I’ll make you a deal; I’ll let you in on where the temple is, if you’ll tell me why you’re wearing a sword.”
The color drains from his face, turning him a ghastly yellow in the dancing lantern light. His eyes flick over me from head to toe and while his left hand stays at his belt, his right drops to the hilt of that weapon.
‘I have underestimated you,’ he says in Italian, his voice a harsh whisper. ‘Who do you serve? What is your anointment?’
“Look, do you agree to my trade or not? The temple location for an explanation?”
He swallows, nods, and then finally answers: ‘I am of a militant order, vowed to fight those which oppose the highest power. We are well acquainted with weapons temporal and spiritual, though we as often fight ignorance as enemies. In these dark times it behooves the wise to keep the rod as well as the cross close to hand.’
‘I thought those who live by the sword die by it.’
‘I do not fear death, by the sword or otherwise, for Christ is my savior and The Apostle his witness.’
‘So you’re saying that ghost sword is functional. You’re not a fencing nut with swords on his mind and in his aura?’
He cocks his head and his eyes narrow. ‘No, Summanus, it is functional against enemies of a spiritual nature, such as liars, witches, and devils.’
‘So where can I get one?’ I ask.
‘It is not a thing to be gotten, but an expression of thought and purpose which has been lived into my soul. It is the manifestation of the energy of a life’s purpose to do battle with the darkness, given shape by will and teachings passed down from antiquity. It is not a hedge clipper, but a tool of the righteous for war against demons.’
‘Right,’ I say, scratching my chin. I switch back to English: “So it’s a thought sword that only works against invisible bad guys. I still think I need one. But thanks anyway. You’ll find the Temple of Maya in an opium den called Bitter Flower, nestled between factories down the hill from the market of five roads. Look for the golden shower tree, and turn to the left hand toward a red door. The city lowlifes are likely to know the spot, but it isn’t easy to find unless you’ve been there before. A word of warning: Agafya controls the place and he doesn’t care for squares. People go there to fight, fuck, bet, or get high. If you’re there you’d better be doing one of those or the temple will take exception. You don’t want that.”
‘This knowledge is of much greater value than my name or order’s name. You tell me this without worry for what I might do with it?’ his brow furrows. ‘It doesn’t concern you that I might lead others there, or claim the treasures for myself?’
‘You don’t strike me as the treasure hunting type. Besides, as I’m only concerned about one of the treasures in the Temple of Maya, and she’s… well you’re welcome to try.’
‘I don’t understand,’ he says, waving one hand, ‘but I thank you for your information, and for speaking the truth with me.’
‘You’re welcome. What will you do with it?’
He shrugs. ‘I did not come here to wage war with a drug lord. I am alone and ill-equipped. I will confirm your story and then return to my order and advise them of what has happened. I must be on about the Lord’s business, but I am desperate to know your mind, Summanus. What will you do?’
My hands feel loaded with more weight than my bare skin as I shrug.
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘I have a friend waiting for me in Bangkok. She’s going to want to free someone from the temple, but I’m out of ideas. Agafya’s too powerful for me to fight.’
He nods like he’s confirming a death sentence.
‘Then I will balance our exchange with this knowledge: my order records that the diamond in the Mahamaya Temple had a guardian, a spirit of a kind which is either tantric Asuri, or Maya-Devi. My order’s records are not certain which, but this spirit had power enough to repel my order when they sought to take the diamond a hundred years ago. If this spirit serves Agafya willingly then any attempt to fight him is doomed. But if he bound it by force, then when freed it will turn against him.’
‘Ah,’ I say, taking that in. ‘A spirit. Like a ghost?’
“A tantric asuri or maya-devi.” He repeats. “We aren’t sure which. Both are ancient, spiritual beings, like demons or lesser angels, respectively. Neither was ever human.”
“Alright. My catalogue of mythology is a little tattered. How do you free one of those?”
He shrugs. ‘It must depend on how the binding was done. If it was done with rope, cut the rope. If it was done with coercion, more difficult.’
He signals the oarsmen and they cause the boat to push out from the bank and float slowly away into the reeds.
‘Gratzi,’ I call. “Milla-Gratzi!”
‘Prego,’ he calls back, “But Summanus, repent of the sins of your parents and walk not their paths! That way waits the pit, and no escape from fire!”
‘Yeah good luck to you too,’ I say, but he’s already out of sight behind reeds. I turn to the mud path and the dark beneath the trees.
Stitches in my calf throb, rushes brush my ankles, and the priest’s voice whispers with the wind in the bamboo: ‘God be with you.’
We reach Bangkok as the sun rises, and find the city in flames.