The pit is not as deep as I remember. It’s not as long as I remember. Something moves in the dark, beneath the wide-leafed trees.
The dark swallows me, my descent less like a choice and more like a tide. The cudgel sings a war-song in my loose grip. The walls draw close. Rot and earth musk ooze from tree root fractures, spreading veins in the ruin of stone and mud.
Screams echo, meaningless, man and woman, husband and wife, father and mother. Words without form dart as shafts in a war between gods.
I breathe, and the living dark breathes with me. The trees whisper. “I know how this will end.”
“None know their end.” Maya answers from my elbow. Did she follow me? Was she always there, did she return, or was it me? Her hand on my arm promises comforts lost. Her fingers slide to mine but close my fist about the club. “Only now, never then.”
Back then, I went into the pit. He did not see me coming. The stick hummed when it hit his skull, broke his nose, crushed his fingers held up to stop it. My mother caught me. I would have killed him. The air smelled of pee and whiskey.
He fled. She would not look at me. Then she said: “Well this is the pits.” And she laughed.
“Someone had to stick up,” I tell her.
She recoiled, tried to smile, and then shook her head. “I can control him. Please don’t interfere again.”
Now, I will descend no further. The pit is time, and I’m going the wrong way.
Maya hums: “Return.”
A boy and a woman stagger out of the shadows as if born of them. He’s so young, this boy – hope and life held together by long bones and bright eyes. His hair is mostly grey. Eyes the color of storm swirl. Our mother fights free of him and he lets her. She lingers, runs her hands through her hair but he keeps walking, straight for me. We come eye to eye, the child myself and I. I’m a little taller. The storm-colored eyes match me, see through me. Was I ever this young? I was always this young.
Reflected in those storm-clouds looms the silhouette of a man like a crucifix against the sky. A shotgun is a long nail in his two hands. A hammer cocks.
The boy who was me moves in front of his mother with raised palms as though to deflect a charge. Concern of mortality leaves no mark on his young face, but hers is a death mask of frozen disbelief.
Father’s slurring drawl: “Out demon.”
The gun-flash splits the shadows. Corvids leap from every tower and tree; their black wings bring night.
Flayed flesh springs from my young body’s chest. I fall. My breath rattles long.
It was not rock salt. It was buck-shot.
Spurting blood from a beating heart ceases.
The muscle stills. The ravens call. The echoes end.
There is a word harder than all others, that cannot be repeated, performed, or forgotten. It is the word ‘no’ from a caring parent upon the death of her child. The great abomination – what should never have to be spoken. No greater curse may be cast upon the wheels of fate than this breaking denial. To hear it from my own mother rings me, and I know in that vibration that I heard it before at the end, and it echoes still in every gunshot since.
“Return,” whispers Maya.
Shock doesn’t still my mother. Her hands clap and from their sound spring black colors. Her foot stamps and the earth resounds a knell. The red of her aggression rises and strikes like lightning from earth.
His eyes have time to turn down to the gun with mixed surprise and horror before her blow fells him.
The moment passes, and she is all that lives among ruin. Her hand drips blood. It passed through him. The wound she left on his chest might have been made by a spear.
She chokes a sob, turns once and back between two bodies. Her ice spine breaks, loosing an avalanche contained in her body that overbears her to her knees. Weeping is insufficient to her need, and what comes from her is a stuttering incoherence of sobs and sound. Then, in a flash of too many colors for me to interpret, she raises her eyes to the sky and whispers: “Mahamaya of the lotus and wheel I call you, Maya dancing child of the eldest flame I conjure you, Mayadevi warden at the spinning prison, come to me!”
My mother dances. Her body makes contours whose edges reach beyond sight, a flickering glyphic language, like a moving picture. In the flash between the frames her two arms are six, the stones of the pit are all skulls, the mud is blood, and the roots forked lightning.
Maya speaks beside me: “I can.”
My mother answers: “The price?”
Maya’s sharp teeth split a bear-trap smile: “Service.”
“Done and done.”
Maya takes my mother’s hand to her mouth and splits the flesh with a bite. Blue power moves into and out of my mother in shapes that surely carry meaning. Then the Laughing Girl laughs, and says: “So be it.”
The pit walls leech of substance as if turning to mottled glass. Beyond them earth and stone tear like a seed under internal pressure to open into a night where a baleful sun like a pinwheel of too many colors burns too close. Its fire dances upon Maya’s shoulders and down her arms. Echoes of flame play among the glass-stones and circling birds. From her fingers, living white enters the spent bodies, still wet, and moves them to turn upon themselves, curl inward and self-consume until from the sunken skin they sprout, and grow upright and whole. A constellation of scars burns bright on my chest and my father’s also – a mandala of a peacock feather eye.
I turn away, and my stomach upends.
No more! The birds circle beneath me and I’m falling, falling from hot stone to the cold wind. I can’t clutch at anything solid though my nails carve furrows in moss and dirt. I wail and wind, curled upon myself. Maya capers in a leather robe, stitched of human skins, her head grows raven hair, her skin the color of a clear winter sky. Her eyes shine with pale light. Her laughter makes a song of looping lyric, round and round.
No more! I claw my way out of the pit with eyes closed and blind, chased by my father’s resurrected voice: “You’ll not have him. No son of mine.”
Maya answers: “He will return.”
No more. I crawl up the briar slope and into sunlight. Shifting sky yawns wide and endless. The towers of Ayutthaha’s stone wear living clothes of red fire like raindrops running over skin. I turn my eyes away.
“No more!” I recant and litany, but it will not end.
Garland sits nearby, his body a blizzard of overlapping memory. His hands combine the moments of ten thousand punches, striking sand or wood or flesh, and a million meals, and a billion moments of contact with other bodies; his heart beats in the glow of his mother’s touch, his feet sing the praise of his father’s stature, and the girl with the scar on her face holds his hand in a dark room. I could learn all he remembers of her by interrogating with my eyes this dense reef of his identity, but it’s too much and too intrusive.
I’m upside down, turning through visions too complex to accept. Focus. Concentrate.
A rock salt wound stings in the echo of the fires around me. It brings me back to a dark camp. Shadows are people, transparent but moving fast, the crew of the dig finally stirred to action.
They lift the stricken boy from the pit, and carry him into his tent. The camp medic, nearly flying and half-dressed, crosses the clearing to follow.
Wrong memory. I seek escape to normalcy, not more of these ghosts and specters. The campfire is a window into when the temple burned, with the city around it. Not that way!
Beyond the stone and alleys of ancient fire flows the ever-changing river, grey in its bank, whirling with a boiling time-fog. In the tops of trees lining the far bank stand six women, as comfortable on the moving branches as monkeys, but straight backed. It’s too far to see their faces, but each of them shines a lighthouse of life in the grey second-world, and each is armed. The shine of their weapons reaches me with a cold and evil intent. One shades her eyes, and points to me.
“Shit,” I say, then: “I don’t know how to wake up.”
But how can I speak when I haven’t got a body?
The rock-salt wound is not now, it was then, and it drew me there. I seek my waking self, feel for the mud in my shoes and the pain of split gums. They come.
Now. The present. This body.
I curl into a ball, but the world keeps turning.
The almost blister from rowing the boat. The sting of bug bites. The rub of ruined shoes against wet feet.
Slowly, I count the sensations of my body, and as I do I return to them, and they to me.
A breath fills my lungs. How long since I took a breath? It reaches to my ribs. Cold stone presses my shoulder and hip, sunlight my cheek and eyelids.
I open my eyes.
The courtyard is drenched in red light from a sun that’s wooing its way toward the jungle’s arms.
On a stone speckled with moss and glittering in that red light, Garland sits, eating a papaya. His brown eyes triple take – a from the papaya to me and back again – and acceptance rocks his head like a solid jab.
The sound of insects nearly deafens, and somewhere far away, a bagpipe plays a jaunty tune.
“Welcome back,” Garland says, with respect bordering on confusion. “How you do that?”