I consider myself to be a creature composed along a divide between a part which seeks to forget what my father did to me, and a part which cannot. The first is responsible for my alcoholism, my fist fights, and my restless inability to refuse a cause. The second interrupts all of those actions with memories from the pit.
The pit is in the north.
I travel north.
Nai sits beside me on the bouncing truck’s bench seat. I found him in his club around the corner, sewing up a dog bite in his cheek with one hand while the other lay mauled in his lap. I helped him with first aid and he agreed to come north without preamble or complaint, strangely solemn and unsurprised. He didn’t have much to say. I told him about the Laughing Girl and her tip, and he said:
Then nothing more, but in his aura I saw a glimmer of fear, and the silhouette of a towering figure. It was gone before he finished saying the word, and I could think of no easy way to ask.
A fair amount of trade goes north out of Bangkok so finding a driver willing to take the detour was a short-term problem when I waved around Uncle Sam’s Universal Green Solution #1. The driver took the dollar and gave us a seat.
The ride is a flat-bottomed truck bound up-river for Bang Rachan, which is further north than I’m going, on a road that passes near enough to suit the purpose. The road we ride follows the big river, which dips in and out of jungle on our left, flirting with invisibility.
Here and there off the road lay little villages of thatched huts, and the waving lines of rice patties cultivated by dark skinned folk in the practical attire of South-Asian farmers.
Humidity blows in the open windows. There are a few automobiles in the big city, mostly old export model Ts, often converted to carry loads, but not many, not like Chicago. People seem friendly, cheerful, and impressively peaceful, with the exception of everyone I’ve had occasion to annoy. It strikes me I’ve found my way to a particularly beautiful corner of the world, full of perfectly ordinary people, and I’ve somehow gotten myself involved with the most rotten of them, who are almost all foreigners. It’s small wonder the world dislikes adventurers.
A little over an hour into the drive we turn off the road onto a little dirt track, beginning the detour that will lead us along the big river’s edge to where the ruin stands.
The river’s name is Cho Phraya, which means the great one, or the River of Kings. Its waters irrigate the rice patties, carry the trade of the kingdom, and quench the thirst of the people. Cho Phraya is the lifeblood of its country in much the same way the Nile is to Egypt.
We crest a hill and for a moment I catch a glimpse of Ayutthaya before the trees surround us again. The carved spires of Buddhist temples rising from the cloak of jungle are all that can be seen of from this distance, and most of what remain.
Ayutthaya was built on an island at the intersection of four rivers. Now it stands abandoned for a little over a hundred years, since it was sacked in conquest by Burmese soldiers. Before that day of fire it was the capitol of its own country for nearly half a millennium. It had embassies in France, India, and Persia and a scientific and artistic community the envy of the world. The journals which survive from that time speak of roofs weatherproofed with gold, vast statues, rooms full of precious gems, and a free and joyous people, ingenious in their artifice, beautiful in their art, and untroubled in their lives.
Five hundred years of culture and wealth were sacrificed on the altar of war, gone in a day, and left to the jungle. The kingdom of Ayutthaya lives on in Siam, now Thailand, but the city of Ayutthaya, its bones and ash, its honored dead, feed the creepers and the trees. The locals avoid the place and with good reason: it’s a graveyard.
As a child I once played there. It was a different time. My father was part of a team to survey the ruins. We lingered there maybe four or five months, bouncing back and forth to Bangkok, up and down this very road. It was almost a home. There were no automobiles then. We rode horses, or in the backs of wagons pulled by mules, bison or donkeys, or we walked.
“Nai,” I say, suddenly moved from old memory.
He turns his calm eyes on me. The bandages on the side of his face make a bloody cross.
“You said your father knew mine. Your father ran a café. I’ve been trying to remember that time. Which café? It seems like a crazy coincidence.”
“Again,” he says. “Slow.”
I try again: “I’m Marcus Summanus. Your father knew mine?”
He blinks, smiles. “Yes.” he says. “He wanted temple. Not strong. Not ready.”
A detective once told me that it is common for serial killers to enter an intended victim’s home and touch things before later returning to kill them. Nai’s statement feels like that; the information walks through my mind and touches everything. I know it’s there, I understand its intent, and I still say: “What?”
He repeats. ‘He was looking for Bitter Flower.’
Of course he was. Treasure hunting was his professional docket. “Did he find it?”
Nai says: “Unsure. Many seek. Some find, die. Some find, get, leave. Some find, take, stay.”
“Do you know Sylvia?” I ask him.
But he shakes his head no.
“Wren?” I ask again.
His eyes narrow. The smile falters. “Dangerous. Bad.”
“Tell me about her?” I beg.
“Dangerous. Bad.” He says again, and turns his gaze out the window. He takes a deep breath and adds: “Lucky skin.”
“White, like elephant. Before, not so many like that. She came. Very strange. Temple like. Temple keep.”
“Tell me about the temple?”
His shrug is made painful by the bites on his shoulder.
“Hard,” he says, then switches to Thai in an annoyed mutter. ‘It isn’t how it used to be. The drugs were a slave to the ritual. Now the ritual is slave to the drugs.’
I understand him well enough, even if I couldn’t have said the same thing. It’s easier to understand the language than to speak it. ‘Go on,’ I tell him, in Thai and he blinks at me in surprise.
‘You understand?’ he asks.
‘Yes. A little,’ I assure him.
‘Then I will say, I was never part of the temple. I fought there because it was the highest honor to fight there, but only when invited. The fighters there are the best. All of Bangkok, all of Siam, all of south asia, is a mountain with Bitter Flower at the top. But this is for good reason. They have tantra. Some say the temple is evil, it corrupts the soul, steals beauty. Some say that as long as you never lose you never age, never die until the fighting kills you. A hundred years fighting and you still leave a young corpse.’
It takes him the better part of twenty minutes to get all that across, half ends up in English and half in Thai, but the practice helps me. Dim memories of knowing his language grind and shed some rust.
In the end he shrugs.
‘Superstition, but it is true that many go in and do not come out. Especially now.’
“Since Agafya came,” I say, and he nods. “How did he become the boss?”
He shrugs. ‘I don’t know. Last time I was there it was to fight and he was a lieutenant. The kennel-keeper served him, Wren, and maybe a few others. They came from the north. They were different. They brought more and more people, and also heroine. This was a year ago, maybe a little more.’
‘Agafya brought heroine?’ I ask. ‘They didn’t have it before?’
His thin smile is a mixture of uncertainties. ‘Opium yes, a little, for the rituals. Heroine was new then.’
“Who was in charge before Agafya?”
But he shakes his head with an awkward shrug. ‘I don’t know. I’ve only fought there a few times. But I think…’ He has to ruminate for a solid minute before he continues. ‘I think Agafya is not in charge. Or if he is, then he shouldn’t be. There is a priestess. She is supposed to be responsible for the temple, or maybe the temple is for her. I am not sure. To me, it was a place to fight and a reward I wanted.’
I don’t have to read his aura to see the brand of pain seeking that reward left on him. It’s burned into the set of his shoulders, the sad circles of his eyes, and the bangled lady who waits where he cannot see.
“You didn’t seek that reward alone, did you?” I ask. “You went with the lady in bangles? But she stayed at the temple and you didn’t. Why?”
Nai shrugs. ‘She was better.’ As he says it, memory rises around him in a wall, and he turns his gaze to it, and will say no more.
The dirt track we’re on comes to an end in a turn-around carved by truck wheels from the forest floor. The driver, a thin man with a face almost as weathered as his European style pants and shirt, steps on his brakes and we grind to a halt. The engine groans. The driver waves his cigarette at a footpath which leads downhill through immensely dense riverbank foliage. If I squint I can see the glint of the afternoon sun off the water.
“This the place?” I ask, but the memory of it floats in my mind like way stones in mist.
The trees haven’t changed, but the path seems narrower. We had a tent to stage supplies on the level patch where now a red-flowering bush grows. There were once logs around the edge of the turnaround to keep the wagons from turning a wheel and tipping on the uneven ground, and I can see one of those logs poking, rotten, from the dirt among the underbrush a few yards back like an old wart. The turnaround has moved a little, shifted uphill.
I climb out the truck door. Soil squishes under my feet. The shoes I brought from Chicago sink and fill with mud. They may not survive this trip, but if that’s the only casualty I’ll still consider it a draw. The particular scent strikes familiar – the smell of this jungle, this place, a little bit of fish from the river, a little bit banana tree, and whole lot of stuff I can’t name or quantify.
My chest tingles. The path runs as a dark cave under the rushes and trees.
My ride roars as it turns around. Once it’s positioned to depart the driver leans out his window.
‘You good?’ he shouts in the Bangkok dialect. ‘If no one comes you wave at a boat. Straight downriver, fifty miles to Bangkok. Slower than a truck but, worst case you swim. Cho Phraya will take you there.’
‘Yes,’ I answer.
Nai stands next to me, gently rubbing with his fingers the petals of a garland he’s not wearing.
‘Sure you good? Want me to wait until your people arrive?’ the driver asks.
“No,” I say. “Thanks.”
‘If you have to swim, don’t drink the water. It will make you sick.’
The truck’s engine rumbles away down the winding track, and I’m alone with Garland and a cave of memory.
“Nai,” I say to him as our feet make imprints in the mud leading to the riverside, “Do you know why we’re here? Who is the Laughing Girl?”
His head moves in a slow denial, then he frowns as if a fact were surfacing from someplace deep, but doesn’t say anything.
“Why did you come with me, if you don’t know why I’m going or who sent me?” As I ask we emerge from the tunnel of trees.
The river runs wide and dark between us and the ruins of the old city. Canals of slow water meander between islands carved from the rushes by yellow stone walls. Above the girdle of dense trees and rippling flowers rise the towers of collapsed temples and the occasional second-story wall to a building otherwise gone.
Nai looks at the water’s face and his eyes darken to match. The color of the aura suffusing him is the same calm gold it usually is, even while fighting, but the fingers of his unhurt right hand tap against his palm. He rubs his bandaged hand.
“Hand hurt. Bad. Eye hurt bad. Drydus says, help you.” He shrugs. “I help you.”
The name rings a bell but it takes me a moment to place it.
“Drydus? The champion fighter who didn’t show up to the tournament? What does he care?”
But instead of answering Nai gestures to the river.
“Too many questions. Good question is, how we go on?”
Stashed in the reeds by the riverside we find a rowboat with a new coat of white paint. I turn it over. Underneath, half sunk in the mud and rotted beyond function are the ribs of an old boat, buried beneath the new.
Standing by the boat, looking out at those stone towers like old bones, we both pause as an intangible shadow steals over us.
Nai tries to voice it first: “This bad place,” he says. “You know?”
“Yeah. I know. What I don’t know is what we’re looking for.”
He shrugs. “Something you need, make you ready.”
“Ready for the temple?” I ask, amused. “Any idea what that might be?”
He thinks, then makes punching motions at the air. “Two, three years practice.”
“We might need more food,” I joke, and he laughs, but the sound has little mirth.
‘You said there were people here Agafya intends to attack,’ he says, switching to Thai, and I nod. ‘Who would come to a ruin like this, who may be a friend to us or to her, but not to Agafya?’
It takes him a couple of tries to get that last thought across. While his question collects itself in my head, the answer refuses to. There are too many things I don’t understand.
“I don’t know,” I tell him finally, “but if that person’s the key to driving a wedge between Agafya and the other fighters at Bitter Flower, then we need to keep them alive.”
He’s silent, considering that. Finally he raises his hands with palms toward the city and says: ‘But, why here?’
I don’t know. Faceless people, the fighting temple, the strange girl, Sylvia’s uncanny movements, their continent-hopping drug trade, it’s all whispering to me of something more than bad drugs and some tough customers. But I can’t shake that I’ve missed something important, something that’s been in front of me all along.
The boat, the river, and the ruin offer no obvious answers to these questions, but something waits over there, crouched amid the bracken and birds. We both feel it. Despite the sunlight, the ruin seems cold. Or maybe that’s my memory coloring the evening breeze.
Whatever waits there, my memory keeps it company.
Nai said it though, first with his fists and now in words. I’m not ready. I can’t protect myself let alone Jenny. I don’t even know what I’m protecting her from. The world Sylvia moves in is far beyond and above my own. She’s twice rejected my help. No wonder. I have nothing to offer.
Maybe it’s a new kind of heroine that woke me from the sleep of the dead. Maybe my hallucinations are drug powered intuitions. Maybe the faceless freaks are users too far gone.
But I don’t buy it, and if I’m right then Jenny’s action with the police is doomed to fail even if she manages to convince them to help. They can’t fight what they don’t understand.
So I step into the boat. Garland follows. Neither speaks.
Ayutthaya. The wind is a bell through empty towers of stone, rising from the tides of forest and time. We cross the river of kings to enter the dead city, the little hull rocking on glass waters with each pull of the oar.
Old stone quays line the river’s bank, overgrown with weeds. The wood has all long ago rotted from them, leaving platforms that rise like flat-topped walls from the water’s edge. I row upriver about a hundred yards while Nai sits in the stern, watching the banks. Then I turn into one of the old canals that crisscross the city’s heart, now choked with weeds and overhanging tree branches. Stinging insects rise from the still water in wave on wave, but we battle through them until we come to a square pool in the canal, the foundation of a once mighty house now sunken and filled with water. A mangosteen tree overshadows a mossy courtyard, half sunk. In the shadow of that tree we pull the boat ashore.
Air loaded with sunlight and overburdened with insects and the smells of fruit weighs like an oncoming storm, but there aren’t any clouds in the afternoon sky. Vines, flowers, and briars conspire with the monkeys and the flies to tear down and bury the tombstone walls. As a child I thought it was a wonderland for climbing and exploring. The death of those who came before had made way for me. As an adult, I feel the lost history in the wind, and see my own mortality in the ghostly faces only the stones remember.
Silent and on foot we climb over the remains of a fallen arch and pass a rubble wall, turning to walk in its shade and then following the gaps in the brush made by fallen stones or cracked foundations. At first we wander, but by and by my memory becomes a guide. It was by this tree we used to cross the river with our supplies, and by that road we walked to our base camp at the foot of old stone pillars like sand castles made from drips.
The old camp, my almost home for nearly a year. My feet are drawn there. The pillars we camped under were once the private temple of the kings of Ayutthaya, called Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Ambassadors to Ayutthaya record that the temple once held a statue of the Buddha forty feet tall and made of solid gold and countless other treasures of diamond, silver and the crafts of high art. Now remain stone and moss, the playground of snakes and crows.
The path I find leads down a long alley lined with gap-mouthed buildings, their wide windows toothed by beatific eyed monkeys and voicing the echoes of insects and the birds circling overhead. A bat is disturbed. It darts from a window to zig-zag into the sky.
I’ve changed, but this place hasn’t. Memory swims beneath every stone’s face.
There was a girl. We spent the day clambering through brush and briar. She had thea sticks, a sort of cigarette made from a local plant. She said she got them from her uncle, one of the boatmen who ferried supplies for our camp up the river from Bangkok. I was new to my teenage years, she was probably a year or two older, destitute, lovely and bored. Behind a golden flowered bush whose scent was like sweat we smoked a thea stick and played with stones. She made strange promises with smiles, and drew me to climbing on the stone towers and under briars. We sat together to watch a golden sunset, keenly sweetened by the taste of a yesterday and a tomorrow in which we’d never know each other. We spoke of past lives, and the transience of days, we made lies and promises. I kissed her. Or maybe she kissed me. In any event, I was aglow with delight when we came back to camp.
Our tent had the lantern turned down low. I guessed Father was with the other men, and I thought maybe Mother would have gone to sleep. It was quite impossible to sneak into her tent, even if she slept, but I still thought I might manage it.
As I got closer I heard them arguing. It was one of those fights when she was loud too. Those were the ones that ended in a cast. Her shriek, grating, shrill, came not from the tent but from a little ravine in the folds of the old city. It might have once been a basement or cellar, but it had been overgrown, its above-ground structure burnt and long gone. It was a pit, overshadowed with plants. Some of the porters used it as a latrine. She was screaming at him, down in there, in the dark beneath the leaves.
Our tent flapped open. White pages like leaves in an autumn wind tumbled on the moss, their surfaces stained with black ink. Inside the tent Mother’s typewriter lay on its back, an ink-stain smeared across the bar.
A couple of the porters, smoking cigarette butts in silence by the temple steps, wouldn’t meet my eyes.
Her screaming stuttered. The words are lost to my memory, only the sound of her anger, like breaks squealing before a crash, and the heart-wrenching silence one moment long that came when he hit her.
It had happened before. But that night a power came over me. Maybe it was the sunset, maybe it was the kiss, maybe it was the black stick, perfectly cudgel sized, sitting in the courtyard like some devil had put it there for me, or maybe I’d had enough.
I took up the stick.
I’d forgotten about the girl up until this moment.
My feet and memories take me down the winding path, over old yellow stone and green lichen to the place where I’d once sat with the girl to watch the sunset. The stone seat is a low wall at the edge of the temple structure. It seems utterly unchanged, still looking west across a tumble of old brick and mortar, a view now blocked by trees and weeds. At our back as we had sat rises an elevated courtyard with towers whose purpose I can only guess. I stand by that wall for a moment, remembering the girl’s lips. Was that my first kiss, I wonder? I don’t think so. I can’t recall. She said something to me, something I don’t remember…
‘Maya,” it’s Nai’s voice. I blink and shudder at the return to the present. He adds: ‘Her name was Maya. I remember now.’
I nod. “Yes, that was it.” Somewhere in the jungle, a peacock calls three times, like a mix between a cat and a crow. “Her name was Maya.”
Nai smiles, pleased with himself. ‘She is the Priestess, I think.’
“Hell,” I say. “She was there.”
The old campground isn’t far. I’m sweating now from the afternoon sun and the pain of a growing sunburn gently cooks my ears, but my stomach is a rock and my heart ice. I pocket my hands and kick a stone along the road. It isn’t far. I remember it being further.
A square courtyard opens before stairs rising to a platform that was once the foundation to the temple’s wooden pagoda. Round towers spike from that platform like the waters of a fountain turned to stone. No sign of my parent’s group remains. The moss on the temple steps grows a little bit greener and the stains of dripping water along the temple spire seem a little bit darker. Other foundations and old buildings fold over each other and vie with thick brush to the left and right. Gnarled trees and the half-buried skeletons of dead buildings crowd around the courtyard on all sides. Among those bones, the pit waits right where I left it.