Sitting on a wall-top in a Bangkok market, the sun is like an overly touchy fat man pushing sweaty palms against my skull. A chicken pecks at my foot. I gently kick it away but it’s replaced a moment later by a mongrel dog with a patchwork of discolored scars who licks my bare ankles for the salt of my sweat. Rice noodles in a ball fit neatly into a palm leaf bowl in my left hand.
Eschewing the chopsticks, I eat with my fingers, savoring the slippery, flesh-like feel. The air churns with the scents of peppers and king-fruit, a local delicacy the size of a melon which emits a smell when you cut it open like what you would get if you made a milkshake out of butterscotch and rotten eggs. The courtyard is a confluence of five roads, where a maze of carts makes a haphazard bazaar.
Women in drab cottons made in England and wicker hats barter beside gentlemen in wrapped pants like diapers or western-style slacks and button-downs in equal number. Coins exchange hands over barrels of fish, sides of butchered pig and bushels of fruits. An elderly man with red crusted eyes and teeth, no hair and silk clothes sits near a cage holding a peacock. He and the bird may both be watching me. The babble of voices is impenetrable. Not even the fish smell can out-compete the king-fruit.
A little boy, of about six or seven, stares my way from just out of arm’s reach. He twists bashfully when I acknowledge his presence.
I finish my noodles, enjoying the spice they were fried in. The whole meal cost a tiny fraction of a dollar, which is good, because I’ve only got a few left. My hotel room is a brick cell on the first floor of a building near the river, where costs are cheap – a dollar a day cheap. At that rate, I will be out of money in four days and back to chewing on my handkerchief for sustenance.
It’s amazing how far a few hundred dollars can get you these days. I guess as far as Bangkok – any further and I’d be headed back from the other direction.
The little boy is joined by another, even smaller. They hold hands. The littlest one has a yellow shirt, chubby cheeks and a very serious aspect, his chin tucked down while he watches me through his eyebrows.
“Agafya?” I ask them, smiling. “Ever heard of an Agafya?”
The older boy, let’s call him Twisty, does his twisting thing and flops his arms. Little Serious McChubster doesn’t move at all.
“How about Bitter Flower? Been here almost two weeks and nobody I’ve asked has heard of them. What about you?”
Neither answers my question. The scruffy dog asks for more noodles so I drop the bowl. He’s immediately attacked by a larger dog and they tussle, yapping and barking.
“Your blood is not enough.” The voice is Sylvia’s.
My heart freezes in my chest. She stands four yards away, her coat heavy in the hot air, her hair a black storm of barbed wire.
“Break,” she says, “suffer,” her eyes are glass, her face waxen, “and see.” Then she’s gone.
The growling dogs roll against my ankles as I stand. Canine teeth flash in my peripheral vision. She’s not here. The fruit vender sells a melon and a mango to a lady one and a half meters tall. The fish vendor drops something and bends to recover it, but a golden monkey gets there first, grabs it, and darts away. There are people everywhere, but not Sylvia. She’s not here.
The children, startled by my sudden movement, take a step back.
“Was there a woman?” I ask, but their eyes don’t follow where I point.
“There! Was there a woman there?” I nearly shout.
They flee and don’t look back.
Problem #1: I don’t have any money. Problem #2: I’m hallucinating, badly, and I have been ever since Sylvia put that needle in my neck. Problem #3: My only accomplishment in days is frightening those small children.
The scruffy dog won the fight. The bigger black dog races away, nearly knocking over a cart of melons. The patch-worked fellow scoffs his prize, then looks up to me for more. He has a new wound on his neck. It will make another scar.
“Do you know Sylvia?” I ask him. “Make yourself useful and sniff her out.”
The dog does nothing but hope for noodles.
Oh, and problem #4: I have no idea how to find Sylvia, Agafya, or anybody. Nash said Agafya runs a fight club. There are a lot of fighting clubs in Bangkok. I’ve been checking them out, one by one, but people stay silent when they hear the names Nash gave me. Maybe it was a trip for biscuits, a wild goose chase. That’d be a real zinger. I’m starting to wish I’d stuck with Mitts and Loafer.
In lieu of a real lead, I’ve been following the color. The color swims everywhere, beneath the surfaces of things. It’s an ongoing trip I can’t quite work out. Brighter in some places, darker in others, it’s like paint poured into a clear river. I’ve let my feet take me after the trails, wandering me this way and that through streets of brick industry or thatch homes. The color keeps leading me back here: this market, with its five roads. Something tells me I’m getting closer, even though I’ve no evidence I could explain.
Even the peacock in the cage seems like a landmark half-remembered.
But sooner rather than later I’m going to run out of dollars, and I don’t have much in the way of marketable skills. Not in this part of the world.
I poke through the bazaar, hands in pockets, letting the trickle of sweat work its way down my forehead and sides. The glass cuts in my shoulder have almost healed in the two weeks it’s taken me to get this far, but they sting a little.
Adjacent to the bazaar stands one of Bangkok’s many shrines, inside a four-meter wall lined with broken-glass. The shrine is a tall stone spire carved to look like layers of tiny monkey godlings each holding the next layer on its shoulders – architecture more familiar to India than Thailand. A priest in a saffron robe and straw sandals bobs a bow at me as I mosey past the open gate. The yellow stones remind me of the ruins my father surveyed not far north of town. I wish I could remember more about it. The lost city’s name was Ayodhya, or something close to that. My memories are scattered: I recall my mother got an advance copy of Child White Hand in the mail and I had to give it away so my father wouldn’t find it. I also remember scrapping with a bunch of local kids who were studying a kind of boxing, and the incident in the ruins that ended my family. It’s a weird coincidence that Sylvia’s boss is in Thailand, of all places. This is the last place I ever saw my parents. Maybe it’s not a coincidence, but if not, I can’t imagine how it’s connected.
As I scratch a sweat-itch on my chest, I round the corner and come face to face with my father’s ghost. He’s walking out the front door of a building along the street, wearing his slate-grey suit stretched over broad shoulders, a fedora hat, with a cigarette clamped between marble-white teeth. But it’s not him. It’s a man in a suit. Colors explode before my eyes like every surface had fireworks packed into it. His body is a vibrating green tangle of vines. The air swarms with currents. His steps lift puffs of dust from the road.
The heat of the world hits me like a hot blanket as blood rushes into my face.
He walks right past me with a curt nod, and continues up the street. I pivot on my heel to watch him go. It’s not Father. This man is too young, his jaw is too sharp, his gait too light. It was the suit and cigarette and style of walking that got my heart hammering like big gun artillery. Screaming colors fade, but he’s left with a phantom knife clutched in his right hand.
I knew coming here would bring me face to face with bad blood. I didn’t expect literally. It’s been a little over a decade since that night in the ruin to the north, and I haven’t seen or spoken with my father in all that time. Maybe he’s dead. I hope so.
Unclenching knotted fists, I turn to the door he came from. It’s large and wood, painted bright green. A sign above it shows letters I can’t read and a closed fist. From it issue the muted sounds of drunken conversation. A bar. A drink sounds perfect.
There is a bar, but it’s tucked away in one corner of the big room revealed behind the door. Wooden benches in concentric half-circles fill most of the rest of the room, all pointing toward a raised platform with a three-rope fence around its perimeter and a gap in the thatch roof above it. It smells like old sweat, rice whiskey and dust.
About a dozen men lounge on the benches, all fit and dressed in an array of loose shirts and looser pants. By the bar a handful of men with higher than average belly content talk loudly, laughing, and waving mugs, unafraid of spilling. The ring is empty. A red cloud hovers around the place, like somebody’s been burning vividly red incense.
I make for the bar but there’s no one behind it. One of the bellies notices me and breaks off his conversation, chuckling as he goes around to the business end of the taps.
“Hello, what do you want?” he asks, startling me with business quality English. He gives his friends an in-the-know glance.
“You got cold beer?” I ask.
“Sure,” he answers and quotes the price.
“Is there a fight later?” I ask, as he fills a glass.
“Tomorrow,” he replies. “Today is sign-up for tomorrow. You fight?”
“Sometimes,” I admit.
“Tomorrow is an open tournament. Winner takes 40% of ticket sales, 50% if the last fight is KO,” he says, sliding me my beer.
“You fight more than once in the day?” I ask.
He nods at a tournament chart on the wall, tended by an older lady with a thin beard and a piece of chalk. It already shows six names.
“As often as you need to,” he says. “We stop it if it gets too bad for you.”
“That wouldn’t be legal in the United States,” I tell him.
“You aren’t there,” he replies with a grin.
The beer isn’t cold, but Nash did tell me to fight.
“You ever hear of a guy named Agafya?” I ask.
His smile vanishes.
“No,” he says. “I never heard that name.”
“You sure?” I ask. “It’s real important I find him.”
“Well good luck. I never heard of.” His language suddenly colors with a thick regional accent.
“That’s a lot of nervous for a name you’ve not heard before,” I say, setting my wallet on the counter. “Sure I can’t cool your worries?”
“I not tell what I not know.” He waves both palms at me and retreats to his group of friends. They clap his shoulder as he joins them, and he laughs, but shoots me an uneasy glance. He’s not the first to respond this way, but he’s a little more transparent about it than most, probably because he’s drunk.
I pocket the wallet again and take the beer to a bench. Lukewarm and watery, it hardly seems worth the sour flavor. I get it out of the way in a few quick gulps. The barkeep might not be willing to talk, but he knew the name. Somebody around here knows more.
The tournament-board tender, with her reedy beard and chalk coated fingers watches me approach through crusty eyes. Her teeth are red.
“Where do I sign up to fight?” I ask.
“English?” she asks, redundantly.
“Just the language. Where do I sign up?”
She waves at one of the fighters on the benches, who rubs his nose and shuffles over.
“English?” the fighter asks. He’s bald, and two weight classes above me. A garland of transparent flowers encircles his neck, floating slightly. They’re clearly not real. I said I was hallucinating.
“I speak it.” I reply. “You?”
“A little. You fight?”
“You fight before?”
“Not here, no.”
He translates this for the boardkeeper, who nods and poises chalk over the tournament chart.
“What’s your name?” asks the fighter.
“Marcus Summanus?” asks the fighter, his thick eyebrows climbing. “Like the hero?”
“You’ve heard of her?” I can’t hide my surprise. The character was only mildly famous in the states. I wasn’t expecting it to be recognized here.
“Sure. My dad know his dad.” He grins.
“No. Yes. Marcus Summanus’ Father ate at my Father’s… eh.. cafe.” He frowns, searching for the words. His fingers pinch the air as though trying to crush one of the petals of the garland which isn’t there.
“Sure. Marcus Summanus very famous in America. My father, he remembers.”
“Yeah. Alright. Except did you know that Summanus was a woman?”
“No… definitely a boy. Young boy. My father remembers.”
“It was his mother, actually. She made up the name and wrote the- You know what, can I sign up for the tournament now?”
“Sure,” he says and relates my name to the chalk-wielder, who writes it on the wall.
“Fight starts at mid-day. See you then hero!”
A carriage bounces down a back-country road built more for wooden-wheeled carts then the thin rims of the coach. In the shotgun seat a big-jawed American in an expensive suit argues with his driver. The driver’s face is a patchwork blur as though the scene were a film little worn around the edges. Alone in the sweltering box seat sits a little girl with dark hair. She must be about ten. A pink slip with lace around the collar hangs on her like a coat on a scarecrow. Her lips are turned down in a miserable frown, her body curled up against the window-frame with her legs cocked to the side and a paper-back book half open in her lap. Despite the bouncing, jolting car, she’s trying to read.
Dense green jungle ends abruptly outside the windows, revealing a vast earthwork of stone and water. The various apparatus of engineering lay about the churned and muddy landscape: half-filled wagons and machines with gas driven arms.
The carriage bounces to a halt on a kind of driveway between a small temporary looking hut with bamboo thatch, and the green wall of the jungle. Without hesitation, the broad bodied American leaps heavily from the vehicle, still jawing at the driver who returns the senseless vocalization without decrease of intensity or volume. The horses stamp and huff and shirtless men with tanned skin rise from repose in the building’s shade to tend them.
In the back the girl climbs to her knees. She watches the two men pick their way across thick mud toward the hut, and then she sits back down and opens the book fully.
The book title says “Child White-Hand.”
She sinks into her reading, though her face bears the signs of that contemplative boredom born of what seems to be a dull routine of waiting.
The door she leans against falls open, pulled from without, and dirty hands grab at her. A muffled gasp is all that escapes before the door closes, leaving the carriage box empty. Her little blue bag lays open on the floor, its contents kicked astrew – a fountain pen, a doll with golden hair, and a half-finished letter in a careful, elaborate handwriting.
I wake from the dream in a concrete box full of blue mist, and seething with annoyance. I’m annoyed at myself for remembering the dream; I’d had it a hundred times before and done myself the service of forgetting. It’s a stupid feeling, senseless, but potent.
Predawn light creeps through the pane-less window. When the sun rises it will be hot again, but in this moment at the tail end of the night’s dark, it’s deceptively cold. Kingfruit and urine are the smells outside my window, that and the indescribable scent of early morning. In a fugue of confused frustration I rise, pull the mattress off the empty cot on the other side of my two meter room, and layer it over me as a second blanket as I tumble back to my own cot. I’m no stranger to strange dreams, but that last didn’t feel like a dream at all. I have no-one to ask about that. I have no-one to ask about anything. The scabs on my shoulder itch where I broke my apartment window, back in Chicago. Desperation feels like heartburn. I hug the mattress and close my eyes, wishing sleep were more like death, and death more like sleep. If I asked around, I could find somebody who’d sell me a chemical dream, and I could forget all this.
I keep thinking of those blue eyes. Sylvia’s eyes. I wonder if Jenny’s already here in town. She would know more. I should have asked. I’ve made so many mistakes lately. I don’t know what to do, and there doesn’t seem to be a way forward.
I need help. I need someone to help me. I can’t do this on my own. I get out of bed and head back to the fighting club.
It’s time to do the thing I am best at.