Heavy is the dawn, heavy with unseasonal cloud, heavy with smoke, with premonition, with the blood of the night’s work. At first I took the yellow glow along the horizon to be city lights, but as sunlight turns the sky to shining red, pillars of deeper smoke stand out like monuments to ruin.
I watch those ghostly omens from the back of a rusty model T, bouncing down a cracked dirt road between avenues of bamboo. There was a tense mile-long walk in the dark with Sirichai, who seemed to know every farm along the bank by name. At last we arrived at a bigger house with the car under its eves and Sirichai got the driver out of bed. After some complicated and animated discussion, he convinced the fellow to make the drive all the way to the city. I never saw money exchange hands, but apparently the two know each other and I heard the words ‘priest’ and ‘god’s blessing’ bandied around a lot.
The car’s roof opens to the elements and damp hay covers the back seat. The pillars of dark amid the uniform grey cloud strike me as odd, but it’s not until we crest a hill outside the city and get a look down to the valley of the Cho Phraya that we hear the guns, popping like fireworks through the city streets.
The fiver rattles to a halt. The driver refuses to go further. I climb out.
A layer of damp dust gives way beneath my bare toes to the dry dirt of the road. A chill breeze blows, carrying a few fat raindrops. The driver and Sirichai consider me through dark eyes rimmed with sleep and fear. Sirichai rubs his chin. Fishing hook scars cover his hands and his teeth are askew. He says in Thai: ‘You’re going into Bangkok?’
‘Yes,’ I answer.
He looks down the road to where smoke and clouds meet, and the city struggles with itself like the mind of a madman. The old fisherman scrubs his knuckles. His hands shake and so does his voice. ‘Do you know what’s happening?’ he asks. ‘This battle? Another rebellion?’
Behind his words, the gunfire stutters a gloomy accompaniment.
‘No,’ I tell him. ‘But I know what I have to do.’
‘Are you crazy?’ he asks.
‘Yeah,’ I answer. ‘But there are people I care about down there.’
‘Hey listen,’ he says through crooked teeth. ‘This thing you’re looking for. Maya. Do you know what it is?’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘A temple. An opium den. A fighting club. A criminal’s base. A girl’s name. A place I have to go.’
‘Yes and yes and yes and also no,’ he says. ‘Maya is the illusion. Did you know? All this, everything everywhere is dancing illusion; the life, light, world, moving everything, this is Maya. Maya is god’s dream of the changing universe. The Temple of Maya is the body. This.’
He pinches the skin of his arm, pulling his soft flesh like dough.
‘This is the Temple of Maya, where you worship the illusion. To worship Maya, feel body feelings. Her devotees take drugs and sex, fighting, strong feelings. But those are the illusion too.’
‘So what’s the truth?’ I ask.
‘There’s no truth in Maya,’ he says. ‘Only lies. The lies of choice, of honor, of puffing yourself up, of power. There is no power, did you know? We are fish thinking we can push the river with our swimming. Just two years ago they had another big battle in Bangkok. Exiled Kings and greedy Generals, ribbons and medals and talk of honor… these are the lies of Maya. You want truth, don’t go to Maya.’
A bomb goes off somewhere in the city. The report reaches us like a distant drum. The driver puts his fiver in reverse and its wheels start turning. Sirichai tries to light a cigarette as he slides away, but it falls from his hands.
“Good luck,” he calls in English.
Empty the streets. Empty the windows. Worried the eyes watching.
It’s begun to rain. The soft touch of those fingers of wet chills me, running down my chest and back. My half-pants cling and squish as I walk, and mud coats my bare legs to the knee. My mind feels sharp, the world seems crystal clear between the tiny drops of rain. The road winds between thatched roofs, its brown face dimpled with puddles, cattle pies, and horse manure like confetti after a parade. Mud squashes between my toes.
To my left and right marches Bangkok. Hand-painted slats herald produce, product, and services from the second story balconies, but all the doors stand closed and the winding alleys empty. The rain makes everything seem to move. The thatch, the walls, the eves, the windows, all run with brown water. There’s something liberating about being soaking wet in the rain, walking with your head held high.
The scattered gunfire sometimes seems only a street-corner away, other times barely heard above the sound of rushing gutters.
A truck rolls past, moving fast. It splashes a three-meter wall of water from a puddle in the street. For a moment, individual drops seem to hang in the air. In the back of the truck crouch soldiers, their uniforms green and eyes hard. Some wear straw hats. Their rifles are modern. Then the truck is gone around the bend and I’m alone in the street again.
It seems to me that the city, rain, thunder, and guns are all signs of the language of decay – the fires in Ayutthaya, the wrath of Agafya, all are nothing before the scourging of the river of time. As I walk barefoot through the seeming empty city, I feel more alone than I did in the ruins, more at the cusp of the endings of things – watching as it falls apart.
A brass bullet-shell glitters in the mud. I lift it. A purple mar shimmers in its armored side: I could split it with a finger. Under the weight of my regard that mark shifts, turns, and then coalesces into a jagged empty-white crack like a premonition of pain – the same white Agafya called to hollow out the babpiper’s body, the same white I felt when I died. I brush that line with my thumb, and the shell falls apart as if it were made of egg-shell and held together by cobwebs.
A thought comes bright across my mind which had been hovering half-formed: I’m not seeing flaws that were there all along, I’m creating them with my gaze and will.
I turn to a hitching-rail outside a tailor’s shop with its shutters closed. The bamboo is green, splintered, thinned by friction with leather reigns but still as thick as my thigh and sturdy. A mar forms under my gaze – purple, drifting slightly like a boat keeping station – the mar doesn’t line up with the cracks or wear patterns but infuses the heartiest part of dry wood.
I press my thumb to the mar. Nothing happens.
I strike it with my knuckles and a closed fist, meaning to damage it or me. The wood dimples. Splinters bend to a bunch, but the beam endures.
I search out a new mar. One comes, where one was not before. Under my focus, it shifts, strengthens, contracts, and congeals into a crack – a split into some white place of entropy and seething void. The crack spreads. It reaches end to end down the pole and spreads through the supporting posts to the shopfront. That emptiness grows like a rotting fungus – the promise of annihilation written in a jagged language and inked with despair.
I’m not seeing flaws. I’m making them.
The shattered shell falls from my fingers.
I close my eyes and let the sight pass. The hitching-rail may survive our encounter. I don’t bear it any grudges. Besides, I don’t like how that made me feel: violent, and not in a sporting kind of way.
Garland’s club isn’t far. If he made it out he’ll be there, and it’s where I agreed to meet Jenny.
I come at it from an unusual way, angling to avoid the market of five roads up the street. I don’t want to end up walking past Bitter Flower. There’s no telling what that way holds.
As I walk, I try to shake off the jagged feeling left by seeking the hitching-rail’s destruction, but it won’t fade even as I sink bare feet in mud, and let the cold rain run down my body. The world seems faintly angry, like the city resents what I’ve just done, even though I never hit the rail. A thousand shuttered windows eye me as if waiting to strike or to flee.
A green car waits out front of Nai’s club. The driver, a young man, watches my approach through the smoke of his cigarette but doesn’t return my nod.
I push the wooden door open and find myself in the company of soldiers; Seven sprawl among the benches, wearing green uniforms and looking bored with rifles across their knees or against the bench next to them – the indolent postures of men simultaneously trying to look tough, rest up, and avoid real fighting. Their uniforms are Thai.
Jenny isn’t anywhere to be seen.
“Hark friends,” I say, as cheerily as I can muster. “Your wait is over.”
They all take up their weapons. The fellow by the bar straightens up last; his collar holds a rank pip and his clothes are pressed, but betel-nut stains his lips red. His aura is an ugly green and shows the image of a monkey clinging to his back.
“Are you Mark Simmons?” he asks, resting his palm on the grip of a revolver at his hip.
“Depends on who’s asking,” I reply.
“I am detective Praphasirirat, of the Thai Police department,” he says.
“Could have fooled me,” I tell him, “you look like a military man.”
“I need you to come with me,” he says. “To see your friend.”
“My friend? Which one?”
He shakes his head with annoyance. “A girl. She’s at the police station. You’ll come with me.”
I look a little closer at the other side of things. Fear yellows their auras which shake like flags in a strong wind. Around the officer I see smoke and flowers, floating like dead fish in a pool fouled by blood.
The door to the back room creaks open. Three of the seven men startle and half raise their rifles. Garland enters, his bandaged face a mess, his left hand soaked red with blood.
The electric lightbulbs in the fighting club flicker and a few seconds later a distant boom rattles the eaves.
The police officer says in Thai: ‘Go back in there. This is a police matter.’
Garland ignores him. “Mark, come. Drydus want to see you.”
“Nai,” I grin, “I’m glad to see you’re still alive but the champion fighter? Why now? Are you alright?”
Garland shakes his head. ‘Now, Summanus. Because now is when it happens.’
The officer draws his revolver but leaves it pointed at the floor. ‘I told you to go back into your room. This is a police matter.’ His flat voice expects obedience. ‘I’ve been waiting for hours. He’s coming with us, if you don’t like it, lodge a complaint.’
With that he dismisses Garland and ambles in my direction.
I give my friend an apologetic shrug, but his eyes are sad. He shakes his head again.
In Thai he says: ‘Drydus is here. If you want to argue with Drydus, he’s behind me.’
The officer stops halfway to me. His knuckles on the grip of his pistol whiten. ‘Drydus?’
‘Yes,’ says the fighter.
The policeman taps the gun against his leg. “You have five minutes.”
I nod a thanks I’m not feeling and then march past him to where Garland waits for me in the doorway into the training room. He pushes it wider as I approach.
‘What happened to you in Ayuuthaya?’ I ask him.
He touches his face where black veins spread from under the bandage. ‘Dogs. The dogs found our boat.’
‘Dogs?’ I wince. ‘Those dogs really have it in for you.’
‘Yes,’ he shrugs, but the movement looks painful and there are new bandages on his shoulder. ‘The dog keeper is an evil man. He makes the dogs evil. I can fight the dogs, but it is not their fault, and their trainer is beyond my reach’
His aura flashes with memory of that blind man surrounded by his flurry of snarling dog jaws.
‘I’m glad you got away,’ I say as he ushers me past.
He shakes his head. ‘Away from there, arrived here, which is better or worse?’
The door leads to the dirt floored room where the fighters train. Gray daylight filters in through the gap in the wall that leads to the yard, and around the woven leaves of the thatch, but with no electric lights it’s as dim as evening. The rows of bamboo poles are silent, battered sentinels. In the back up against a wall crouches a little bench, and sitting on it waits a huge, white-skinned man whose golden hair catches those glimmers of light like fireflies in jars. He wears cutoff slacks but no shirt or shoes. His body is a bunched mass of overlapping muscle. A trail of five round scars goes up his upper chest, over his throat, and ends where his left eye is a hole at the center of the same mark of Maya I wear on my chest. His right eye focuses on me.
He rises from his seat. This is Drydus, the champion fighter, but a different name for him was spoken in my presence once; Nash called him Hilda.
“Hello,” he says, his German accent thick even in the one word.
“Oh,” I say.
From the shadows to my left and right step two others: the bangled girl Nai called Papkao, and the black-and-white woman in her bronze armor.