Don't Hang Your Soul on It

Don’t Hang Your Soul On That: Chapter 1

by Robert Hilles

Prologue

When he’s ten, he’s in a serious motorcycle accident and is in a coma for two weeks. After he comes out of it, he can’t move his arms and legs and his parents have to take turns feeding him until he regains the use of his arms and hands a month later. He returns home then from the hospital but it’s another two months before he has feeling in his legs.

Then every day, his father carries him on his back to the field across the street from the house. There, the son walks behind his father but keeps his arms around his father’s neck for support. Eventually, he is able to walk on his own. By the time he turns twelve, he runs and plays like before and it’s as though the accident has never happened.

Chapter 1

Khon Kaen, Thailand
1970

By the time she selects a third papaya, he’s already certain that it’s no coincidence that she’s across the street from him right now. Even from here, he feels an instant connection. This means that they have known each other in a past life. His father has said that: The full influence of karma is only understood through dedicated, daily meditation.

He ignores those words and watches as she hands a papaya to the vendor who wraps it in newspaper and hands it back to her. She lowers it into a wicker basket and then turns slightly away from Tuum to pay. With her back to him, he notices that her skirt nearly touches the ground. She wears flat sandals and her hair is gathered in a single knot at the back.

She lifts the basket with one hand and with the other raises her skirt above her ankles and walks briskly north and doesn’t stop at any of the other vendors.

He pays for his meal and hurries after her, uncertain what he will say when he catches up with her but will come up with something. He works as a teacher so is used to thinking on his feet.

She is too far ahead of him to catch up, so he stops and watches her upright posture and quick steps and he wonders if she’s a dancer. She alertly pivots her head from side to side—likely to take in each vendor’s wares. When she reaches the main gate of the market, she vanishes in the crowd.

It’s a Wednesday in mid-June and for the next month he eats lunch in the market every day but doesn’t see her. He wonders if her long absence means that she lives in one of the neighbouring villages.

He twice dreams of her. In the first dream, she hurries past him riding an elephant. Any dream with an elephant means good luck. In the other dream, he’s departing the very bus she’s waiting to board. When he wakes from that dream, he tries to remember what bus he was on but can’t.

Then one afternoon he emerges from school after a day of many difficult pupils and pauses halfway down the front steps just as she passes, riding in the back of a samlortiip, or pedicab. She turns and looks in his direction. Her glance is brief but long enough to indicate interest. He hails another pedicab and follows hers and when his is a few lengths behind hers he asks his peddler to slow down.

Her pedicab stops in front of a large white cement two-story house with red ceramic roof tiles. An eight-foot high brick and cement wall surrounds the house and hides the first story. The house is significantly larger than any of the others on the street, most of those constructed from wood. The backyard contains four towering eucalyptuses and one massive yang na tree and behind those along the back of the property a tight row of taller palms.

He recognizes the house and has heard much gossip about it and its owners—a high ranking local official and his wife. He’d ridden past it on his bicycle only three months earlier for a salacious peek. He didn’t see her then and knows that the couple has no children so she must work there.

She pays her driver and gets out of her pedicab and comes over to his. She wais him and he wais back.

“You know where I live, but I can’t be seen talking to you,” she says.

He watches her hurry across the street and up the large tiled steps and through the metal gates and down the short driveway to the main door. She doesn’t enter there but goes around back and disappears behind a second wall.

He pays his driver and gets out and walks home because on his teacher’s salary he can’t afford a pedicab both ways.

The next day is Sunday, which he has off, so he rides his bicycle to her street but stops a block south and on the opposite side of the street. He knows enough about the house that he can’t simply knock on the main door and ask to see her. Nor would the local official take kindly to him loitering out front. So he walks as close to the house as he dares and sits in the shade of a tamarind tree.

In the late afternoon, she comes out of the main gate and walks down his side of the street and joins him. She carries a small basket and retrieves two plastic bags from it. One of them contains pork laarb and other hot sticky rice. She takes out two sets of forks and spoons from the basket and hands him a set.

She says that she noticed him from the second story window of the prayer room and brought leftovers from her mistress’s afternoon meal. He asks if she works as a cook there and she says she doesn’t but that her mistress likes some of her traditional dishes and insists that she prepare those whenever the mayor and his wife visit.

He learns that her name is Roong, which means rainbow. She tells him the village she is from. It is west of Khon Kaen and two villages away from his father’s village but Tuum has never been there.

“My mother died when I was fifteen and my father died last year. It’s his debt that I am working off,” she says.

He tells her that his father is still alive but his mother died when he was fourteen.

When they finish eating, she repacks her basket and says she must get back before they notice she is gone.

“I work from sunrise to sunset seven days a week. She gives me one day off a month and it’s usually a Wednesday or a Sunday. All other days, I’m only allowed out on errands.”

It’s another month before they spend a Sunday together. In the afternoon, they take a pedicab to Kaennakhon Lake in the middle of the city and sit on a bench near the water and eat chopped mango and papaya and a fist-sized ball of rice. Later they rent a rowboat and he rows them to the middle of the lake and they talk under the shade of the flowered umbrella she’s brought with her. This is a traditional courtship although neither of them talk about it that way nor have immediate family to please beyond his father. But Buddha specifies that lovers must maintain propriety.

The afternoon heat bears down on them despite the protection of her umbrella so he rows them to shore. The whole way back, she deftly adjusts the umbrella so it always keeps the sun off them. By the time they reach shore, he’s fallen in love with her.

The heat doesn’t wane when Roong and he are back on land. They escape it as best they can by sticking to the shaded side of each street as they walk back to her mistress’s house. They talk comfortably and laugh often.

When they are less than ten blocks from her mistress’s house, the street is less crowded, the houses bigger, many with gates and walls so high it is impossible to see over them. On a corner a woman sells Kai Pilow from a cart but Roong says that she gets a bad feeling from her so they don’t stop to buy any. Farther along, the street is lined with more vendors selling either hot food or Kha Nom Thai (Thai desert). They stop at one and he buys them each a bowl of coconut milk and chopped mango.

They sit on a low cement wall nearby to eat and after they finish she says that she’s ashamed to be working at her mistress’s and then tells him how she’s ended up there.

“One afternoon, I came home early from harvesting with my father. I wasn’t there long before she knocked louder than usual. When I opened the door, the first thing she said was, ‘Aren’t you lovely.’ Those were also kindest words she’s ever said to me. She then stepped back and asked where my father was. I told her that he was in the final rice paddies north of the house. She thanked me and walked in that direction. I watched her go and was struck by how straight and proper she walked despite wearing high heel shoes—better suited for sidewalks than our gravel road and the uneven footing of the rice paddies. That day, I’d thought she was a good and kind person.

“When my father finished work that evening, he told me that she’d seen me riding my bicycle through the village a week earlier and had asked after me. She told him that she knew people high in society and that she could give me a better life. She would pay for me to go to school and study to be a nurse and make sure I married someone well off. I told my father I wasn’t interested in leaving him or our village. He said he would think about it.”

Roong tells him how her mistress returned the following week. “This time my father introduced her formally to me. She spoke forcefully in Thai and not Isaan. She was very insistent that a wonderful life waited for me if I was willing to choose it. I remember thinking that her insistence made her seem less kind. After she left, my father said that she told him that she’d make sure I was well married and any debt he incurred would be a minor investment in my happiness. Those words should have been a dire warning to us. He told me then that what mattered most to him was that I was happy and had a good life.”

Not long after her mistress’s second visit, government agents appeared at their farm asking to do a full inventory of her father’s crop, something that hadn’t occurred in many years because her father kept meticulous records. He’d answered all their questions astutely from memory never once needing to consult his ledger, as most farmers would have done. The agents complimented him on this and said they could find no fault with his accounting. Her father had beamed for hours afterwards. Neither of them guessed that he only had a month to live.

The day her father died, she hadn’t gone to work with him as she usually did. Instead they’d both agreed the night before that she should stay behind to clean the house. They’d been working so intently on the harvest that the house hadn’t been cleaned in several weeks. She scrubbed the windows starting with the two in her father’s bedroom and then cleaned every room and finished with plenty of time to prepare dinner.

Her father didn’t come home for the evening meal and she waited a full hour thinking that he was working to finish harvest that day.

“When it got completely dark, I went in search of him. I hurried toward that final paddy and I shouted his name as I went but he didn’t answer. That wasn’t like him and dread quickly knotted in my belly. There was a full moon that night so I broke into a run and called his name as loudly as I could while running. When I reached where the harvesting stopped, I circled the area and shouted until I heard him cough and then moan to my right.

“I spun in that direction but it took me a few more seconds in the dark to locate him. When I reached him, he was lying on his stomach with his head turned toward me. He raised his head as much he could and I bent down and put my ear near his lips. He said thank you. I told him everything would be okay. He nodded. I’ll never forget how vague his eyes looked and how long they took to focus on me.”

Roong stops now and Tuum sets down his empty dessert dish beside him on the cement wall.

She eats several mouthfuls of her dessert and then closes her eyes and keeps them closed for several minutes and then opens them again. There are tears in them.

He wishes he could reach over and take her hand but that wouldn’t be proper yet. Instead he reaches in his pant’s pocket and retrieves a napkin he always carries with him and offers it to her.

She takes it and daubs below each eye and then straightens her back and squares her shoulders. She rests a hand on either side of her. After another long pause, she says that when she found her father she fully believed she could save him and that everything would be fine. Her father was the strongest person she knew and she couldn’t imagine anything harming him. She says that she wishes now that she’d simply stayed and talked with him at least they’d have had that time together.

Instead she encouraged him to sit up, which he did after much wheezing and coughing. She offered to help him stand but that proved impossible, so she suggested that he crawl the short distance to a mango tree. She then helped him to lean against it for support.

She told him that she wouldn’t be long and ran back to the house tripping several times in her haste. Each time she fell, she got right back up and kept running, not even taking time to catch her breath. At the house, she quickly located the wheelbarrow. It was full of rice harvested from the day before. She dumped that on the ground and pushed the empty wheelbarrow ahead of her. It bounced erratically over the uneven ground and flew out of her hands twice and turned over on its side. Each time, she grabbed the handles and righted it and pushed it even faster.

When she reached him, his head had lowered to his chest and his breathing was very shallow. She raised his head gently and he opened his eyes and fixed them on her. Even in the moonlight she recognized terror in them now. She’d never seen her father afraid before that day. His forehead was covered in sweat. She wiped that away with an edge of her skirt.

“He said, ‘There’s just one more day of harvesting left.’ I told him to save his energy and after a short rest I got him to crawl to the wheelbarrow and then I helped him lean in headfirst and I picked up his legs and rolled him the rest of the way inside. He had to pull his knees to his chest to fit in it and even then his feet stuck out the front of the wheelbarrow.”

Her father shook violently and she rubbed his forehead and told him again that everything would be okay. He smiled briefly but that quickly faded. Then he smiled a second time and said, “I haven’t always strived to be good, but you are my true goodness.” She thanked him but didn’t encourage him to say more, wanting him to rest but wishes now that she’d let him talk. Then she’d been solely focused on saving him.

She gripped the handles of the wheelbarrow and lifted it and pushed but the wheelbarrow wouldn’t move. Although her father was short and thin, he weighed more than she could manage in the wheelbarrow and she wondered how she’d ever get him back to the farmhouse. She lifted the handles a little higher and pushed again and this time she felt a surge of power enter her body and the wheelbarrow moved. At first the soil was so soft she made little progress even with that surge of strength. But she persisted and eventually she reached firmer ground and the wheelbarrow moved freely. She was running then and pushing the wheelbarrow as though it were empty.

At the house he shook violently and she felt the back of his neck and it was icy. She lifted each of his legs out of the wheelbarrow and then helped him sit up and asked him to put his arms around her neck and lean on her. This way she was able to lift him out of the wheelbarrow and set him on the ground. He then crawled to the house and up the two steps and inside.

He stopped just inside the door and leaned against the living room wall for support. He wheezed so noisily she wasn’t sure if he had the energy to make it to his bed. She got him a glass of water from the kitchen and he took several shallow sips and then handed the glass back to her and crawled on his own energy to his bedroom. He managed to lay his head and shoulders onto the bed and she raised his legs and rolled him the rest of the way.

“I then helped him onto his back and he put his arms at his sides and gasped loudly. I asked if he wanted anything to eat and he said no. I said I’d get help and he said that sounded like a good idea. He closed his eyes then and I thought he was sleeping. But he opened them again and said, ‘Don’t wait up.’ I said alright and left him there.”

She rode her bicycle to the nearest neighbour with a phone, which was a kilometer closer to the village. From there she called the local doctor who said she’d ride her bike over right away. Roong rode home and hurried to her father’s room. She remembers opening the door and sensing immediately how quiet the room was. She froze and couldn’t advance. She listened for his breathing but heard nothing. Eventually she sat on the bed and the mattress didn’t give much under her weight as though a heavy stone had already been set upon it. His forehead was warm when she touched it and she yelped and pulled her hand away. She sat there in that impossible quiet for a few minutes and then told him that she was sorry.

“I remember weeping until there was a loud knock on the door. I ignored the knock at first no longer in my right mind. The doctor knocked twice more and then called my name and I hurried to let her in. She must have seen the truth on my face for she lowered her head and said she got there as fast as she could.

“She went in to check on him and listened at his chest with her stethoscope and then came out into the kitchen and said there was nothing I could have done. She asked if I wanted her to call someone. I said my uncle and aunt were still alive and she could call them. I told her that beyond them, I was all he had.”

All the time that Roong has been telling him this they’ve remained sitting on the same wall. He feels such sadness from her story that he doesn’t know what to say. Instead he asks if she would like to chant for her father and she says that she would.

When they finish chanting, they slip off the wall and continue slowly toward her mistress’s house. They speak little these final blocks but walk close enough that their arms brush against each other from time to time.

Eventually they stop at the main steps of a school and sit again. He’s amazed that they both stop at the same time without verbally agreeing to it and he’s uncertain which of them instigates it. The street is busier this close to her mistress’s house and many people hurry in both directions.

They sit very close to each other and he notices that she smells of the lake. Her story has chilled him and he can’t begin to imagine the horror and pain of such a night. He also realizes from her story that she is fiercer and more determined and courageous than he is.

When it is fully dark, they continue on their way so she doesn’t get back too late. They walk faster now and when they reach her mistress’s house, it’s lit up and party noises spill out into the street.

They stop in front of a clothing shop across the street, now closed. In the darkened windows he sees several mannequins but their clothes are mere shadows covering their nakedness. He turns back to Roong and her eyes are fixed on him. They don’t waver.

“More people come by in the evenings,” she says. “The house can be very noisy then. That’s when I am expected to serve drinks or dishes of food. Whatever she decides is needed. That is not at all what she promised after my father died. She came to the farm two days after he died. She said that she’d lent my father a considerable sum of money recently to see him through to the end of the harvest and that he had yet to pay any back. She also said that his death didn’t wipe out that debt so now it was mine. She said that she had an easy way for me to pay it off and that I would see in time that she is a kind person and that I would be thankful for her kindness. I was a fool to believe her. When she told me how much he owed, I knew she was lying because the amount was too large and very unlike my father. It seemed like a made-up number. But before I even had time to think it through, she produced a contract and insisted I had to sign right then or I could be arrested.”

He stays facing her the whole time she tells him this.

Buddha says that kindness is the greatest power. His father has stressed that to him often and yet he hasn’t always seen kindness in the deeds of others or even in his father. He wishes right now he could free Roong from her debt, but his meager schoolteacher’s salary is no match for the size of debt her mistress claims she owes. He also knows from his father that such debts are often greatly exaggerated and meant to take a lifetime of forced labor to pay off.

She is shivering but not from cold and he senses her reluctance to go in. He tells her that he loves her but hears immediately how empty that sounds after her story.

She holds him and says she loves him too and says that today gives her hope.

They don’t kiss because it’s too soon to kiss.

She hurries across the street and inside the gate. When she opens the side door, there’s a yelp and the loud, quick notes of a saxophone and piano playing American jazz. The instant glare from inside highlights briefly the contours of the main wall. She looks smaller in that abrupt light and doesn’t linger but goes straight in without looking his way. After the door closes, he hears a burst of laughter followed by muffled conversations. He can’t make out any of it. Then there’s a squeal of delight followed by more laughter. A drum and trumpet join the saxophone and piano. They play slower and a woman sings so sweetly he recognizes the song even without making out any of the words. When the song finishes, there’s no applause only a jumble of more voices.

He turns toward home, and as he walks, he thinks about his father and can’t imagine lifting him into a wheelbarrow and pushing him to safety. His father would be light enough that Tuum could manage it, but his father would refuse to climb into the wheelbarrow and would insist that doing so would interfere with his karma.

Despite Roong’s slight stature she’d wheeled her father home and allowed him the dignity of dying in his own bed. She doesn’t yet see the goodness in that but he does and believes in time she will. There is a karmic completeness to it too that appeals to him and likely would to his father.

Thinking of his father triggers dangerous feelings. It is true that his father had been instrumental in helping him to walk again after the motorcycle accident, but without his mother to guide Tuum, he’s come to blame his father for the accident. It hasn’t helped that he has little memory of it and that his father has never discussed it with him.

He and his father haven’t exchanged even a single letter in the past three years.

The memories will return in time. His father had promised after the accident. That hasn’t happened and those words sting now.

Lately he’s come to accept that the rift between his father and him runs deeper than the accident and is likely attributed more to events in their past lives than this one.

He can’t remember the last time he’s touched his father in the past decade even during those final molten years that they shared the same house. They came and went most days without seeing each other.

When he first told his father that he wanted to teach mathematics in high school, his father had said he shouldn’t get too attached to numbers because what they count isn’t really there. But by then Tuum had already discovered numerical patterns in many places and he’d argued with this father that numbers replicate what Buddha teaches. Those patterns aren’t there by coincidence but are manifestations of what Buddha discovered buried within everything. Numbers are but one way to explain the core.

Thoughts of his father cause him to hunch forward as he walks and his footsteps sound noisy and aimless in the street even though he’s headed straight home. Near his apartment, his footsteps lighten because he remembers the thrill of hugging Roong and their declarations of love. She may have told him the saddest story he’s ever heard—a mournful story—but he doesn’t feel sad or mournful.

Three nights later, he dreams that Roong is running alongside his bicycle and the faster he pedals the faster she runs. He expects her to drop back but she keeps pace with him and eventually passes him and runs so far ahead that she stops in the distance and waits for him. He pedals faster and faster but never catches up to her. He gets winded and quits pedaling and his bicycle coasts to a stop. He plants his feet on either side of the bicycle and gasps for air. He gasps deeper and deeper until he’s suddenly awake and realizes that someone is knocking on the door of his apartment.

Roong is there when he opens it. He blinks twice and wonders if he’s yet woken from his dream but quickly realizes that it’s raining too heavily to be a dream and she’s dripping wet. He steps out of the way and she hurries inside.

“Let me get you a towel,” he says, and goes to his small bathroom and returns with a folded amber cotton towel. She takes the towel from him and sits at his dining table and dries her left arm and then her right and then slips off her sandals and dries her feet and ankles and any other exposed skin. She passes the towel to him and asks him to dry the back of her neck. She tilts her head forward and lifts her long, wet hair out of the way. He daubs the towel along the neckline of her top first and then lightly daubs up and down her exposed neck careful to dry everywhere. She keeps her head lowered and doesn’t move.

He hands her the towel back and she excuses herself and goes to the bathroom and returns a few minutes later with her hair wrapped in a green towel.

They sit across from each other at the table and don’t speak right away although he has so many questions beginning with how she has managed to be here at this late hour. Despite those urges he knows it’s best not to bombard her with questions so waits for her to tell him whatever she wishes to tell.

He hears the rain die down outside his open window and several loud voices carry up from the street. A man and woman are having a noisy argument that ends with the loud revs of a motorcycle and it then accelerates away. He gets up and closes the window and feels a rush of humidity as he shuts it. The floor around the window is damp but he leaves that to dry on its own and returns to the table. He’s giddy that she’s here but that’s tempered by his knowledge of all she’s risked. He realizes even more how brave she is.

“I shouldn’t have come?” she asks, perhaps having sensed something unintended in his expression.

He says that he is delighted she is here and asks her how she’s managed it, even though he’s promised himself he wouldn’t.

“I waited until everyone was asleep and slipped out my bedroom window. It’s on the ground floor so I could have done that months ago but I didn’t have anywhere to go to until now. When I got to the main gate, the guard was asleep. He woke as I passed but he simply nodded. Either he thought I was a guest leaving late or decided that he and I didn’t have any karma in common so wasn’t about to interfere and create one now. I know it’s foolish to come here but I’ve missed you so much and needed to see you tonight. I’ll have to be back before anyone wakes up and notices I’m gone.” She tightens the towel around her head and says that her long hair dries very slowly.

He likes the ease with which she adjusts the towel and that hastens thoughts that he must push aside because intimacy between them isn’t possible yet and her being here doesn’t change that. He shifts his gaze to his hands as he slides them along the surface of the table to distract himself.

She says the overhead bulb is rather bright so he turns on the bathroom light and leaves the door open and turns off the main light. The bathroom light spills across the table. The rest of the room is dark except where fresh moonlight illuminates a thin swath from the main window to the middle of the room.

This close, she smells of rain but also jasmine and roses. The faint hint of her breath across the table is a pleasant blend of honey and lavender.

He slides his hand and takes hers and squeezes it. She squeezes back. This connection pleases him but he draws his hand away so that all remains proper between them. At first, their conversation is halting with many awkward pauses. This is so different from the day at the lake and is due to the suddenness of her being here. In time, though, the words flow more easily between them.

They talk until the first rays of daylight enter the window.

He says he’ll give her a ride back on his bicycle. In the street, he collects it from the rack outside the main doors of his apartment building and mounts first and balances the bicycle with his left foot so that she can sit on the top bar in front of him. She lightly grips his left arm with both her hands to steady herself.

The streets are deserted except for two other men on bicycles that pass going the other way. Near her street, a motorcycle comes up quickly behind them and then speeds past and the woman passenger briefly looks back at them. This close to her mistress’s house the streets are wet and slippery from last night’s rain so he slows his pedaling and twice swerves to avoid large puddles.

He stops a block from her mistress’s house and leans his bicycle against an electric pole and walks with her the rest of the way.

Three houses before her mistress’s, they slip into the shadows to hold hands. They kiss once but very briefly. Her breath is warmer than he expects and when they move apart her eyes flicker as they catch stray streetlight.

Neither speaks. She takes his hand and draws him to her again and they kiss longer. A slight breeze blows the morning heat away from them and in that cooling moment, time slows and his aching abates. He senses the urgency of the hour and breaks from the kiss but holds her. She holds him too and the moment extends.

“I must go,” she says finally, and drops her arms. He does the same. She says that she will try to get away that night but can’t promise. “If I don’t make it don’t worry, I will return when I can.” She grips his hand and then slowly lets go of it and hurries in the direction of her mistress’s house. At the main gate she stops and opens it only wide enough to slip through. She hurries past the guard station and down the walkway.

The guard steps out from the shadows and stands there for a moment and then steps back again out of sight. By then she’s through the second gate and vanishes from view.

He leaves the door to his apartment unlocked that night and every night for the next week but she doesn’t return. The following Saturday, he wakes during the night and she is sitting on the edge of his bed.

“When did you get here?”

“About two hours ago. I let you sleep. You moaned once and turned from one side to the other as though having a bad dream. I’ve come for good.”

It takes a moment for that last part to sink in but when it does, he smiles and goes to her and holds her and feels his reckless heart race.

They sit together on the edge of the bed and she says she wishes to chant and he joins her.

Later they lie fully clothed on the bed. This is the first time they’ve lain together and this close she smells different: partly of lemongrass, and partly of lime and mango mixed with rain and damp towel for it has rained again tonight, and of basil and lavender too like before. The rain has washed off any smells of whisky, cigar smoke, teak, or bamboo.

They fall asleep in each other’s arms as an easterly breeze blows in through the open window and runs cool along his bare arms.

Later he wakes to sharp morning glare and Roong is still asleep beside him. Cheery birdsongs alternate with a branch rubbing against the now closed window. She must have gotten up at some point and closed it. He knows that a dark reckoning is brewing. From what he knows of her mistress and her husband they will insist the debt be paid and they will not stop until it is. They are rich and powerful enough they will act swift and mightily. But at this early hour his mind drifts from that peril to the pure joy of her being here with him. He foolishly wishes that a love as strong as he feels can defy everything, and even prosper—despite all threatening evil.

He inches up onto his elbows so as not to wake her and then eases into a lotus position and meditates deeply. He is soon gripped by strong sensations of foreboding but he lacks his father’s ability to focus and connect to the forces swirling around him. His father is able to experience the past and future as fluidly as most people experience the present.

When he comes out of his meditation, he knows that Roong’s being here is his mother’s doing and he thanks her. For weeks now, every time he’s chanted or meditated, he’s asked for her help.

He wakes an hour later from a dreamless sleep and the first thing he senses is Roong’s warmth beside him. She’s awake and kisses him as soon as he opens his eyes.

He tells her how he’s asked his mother for help and she says that she’s asked her father.

She kisses him again and when they break apart her eyes stay fixed on his. He recognizes doubt in them. But he sees gratitude too and love. She’s right to doubt him and worry about the precarious position they are in now.

She’s safe in his apartment for the moment, because her mistress won’t know yet where she’s gone. But she has spies everywhere and will soon find out.

“We should leave as soon as possible,” he says

“And go where?”

“South or north. You choose.”

“What about your job? Your students?”

“The school will find someone to fill in. They’ll make do.”

“What about references? How will find you find work elsewhere?”

She’s thought more carefully and thoroughly about their predicament than he has. He’s simply believed that their love will be enough to provide for them but realizes now what she already has, that it may not. There are significant practical hurdles to overcome.

It is the day to day details that matter, his father warned him before he left for university in Khon Kaen. Don’t get swept up by romantic feelings. The young have a tendency to do that. They think love conquers everything but it doesn’t. Love can be very dangerous and is often our undoing. Love might feel permanent but nothing is. Not even love. Nothing lasts. Love is an illusion.

He didn’t believe his father then nor does he now. His father has always lived as though love were very important to him.

“I’ll speak to my father,” he says, and saying that aloud commits him to seeking his estranged father’s help, something he’s promised himself he’d never do. That way is fraught with danger but it’s a knowable danger. He doesn’t tell her any of this.

They make love then for the first time and are awkward with each other and leave their clothes on until it is absolutely necessary and then remove them with haste and toss them off the bed with little care for where they land. When they make love a second time, they are slower and the feelings are more intense for him. At the moment he climaxes he experiences a magnetic pull from her eyes. She then shows him ways to please her too. Afterward they settle into each other’s arms and the day’s busyness is muted to street noises at the window.

They sleep again and he doesn’t wake until late into the day. She is already up and sitting at the table.

“I have chanted and it is clear that our best chance is to go east to Cambodia.”

This is a different plan and he considers Cambodia foreign, hostile and dangerous and is now regularly being bombed by America. Still if that is where she wishes to go, he will go there with her.

They decide to leave in the morning.

He wakes first and packs a leather duffle bag with the few items of clothing she brought with her in a paper bag. He then goes to his closet and picks the first items his eyes light on, feeling no particular attachment this morning to anything there. He then prepares a breakfast of boiled rice and chopped pork. The smell of boiling rice wakes her.

He remembers then a dream he had last night. In it he climbed a steep set of stairs. When he reached the top, there was another set of stairs and at the top of that another set of stairs, each set steeper than the one before. He’d felt so tired in the dream he just wanted the stairs to end. He didn’t care where they led. After the fourth set he woke and felt relief that it was only a dream and didn’t care that he never learned where they led.

They eat slowly and partway through eating she takes his hand and squeezes it.

She tells him that she is glad to be away from her mistress’s daily cruelty. “I didn’t know until I went to work for her that anyone could be so cruel. She seems kind and caring in public and when she visited my father but in private she is brutal and hits us often with a belt if we don’t work fast enough.”

She tells him of how the woman used her belt on someone different every day. She rotated her beatings and they seemed to fire her up and her eyes glowed pure evil. Sometimes she beat Roong for the smallest complaint. Each time she did so, she flashed a gleeful smile when she finished. Not a wince as one might expect of someone after inflicting pain on another, but a joyful smile so broad that it exposed a full set of straight, white teeth.

“She looks ugly when she smiles, her mouth too large—too stretched out, too exaggerated. She smiles past a smile so it becomes a grimace. I had to look away because the darkness of her soul surfaced then and was visible in the dark centers of her eyes.” She stops talking and collects her dishes and walks them to the sink.

He does the same and says he’ll clean up. When he’s finished he puts the dishes away uncertain if he will ever use them again. He’s paid the rent for two more months and hasn’t planned past that. Someone will likely claim whatever he leaves behind. So be it.

Later they sit at the table and she tells him that on the first day he saw her in the market, her mistress had sent her to find the best papaya. She had very important guests coming for dinner. The papaya Roong bought that day was the ripest she could find, and when she tasted it later at home, it had been superb. But after the guests left, her mistress yelled at her and said that the papaya was sour and hopeless and it had ruined the meal and caused her to lose face. She beat her with her belt until Roong’s arms and backside were bruised and bleeding.

Roong had to sleep on her stomach for a week afterward. She’d cried into her pillow the first night sleeping little because of the pain.

He reaches his hand across the table and takes her and feels it tremble. He squeezes lightly not wanting to hurt her. She squeezes back firmly and her trembling stops.

She tells him of a dream she had last night. In it they were on a bus going to Cambodia and in the dream she’d said to him, Look we’re wearing our silken finery. Later in the dream the bus arrived in Phnom Penh and they got off and hurried along a crowded chaotic street and it started to rain and they ducked into the nearest café. A woman greeted them at the door and said that today was an auspicious day although when Roong looked around the café, it was deserted. The woman said she was happy to see that they were wearing silk as that meant that they could come inside and sit at any table. After they’d sat down at a table near the back, she handed them each a menu and said, “You’ll be safe here.” That was when Roong woke.

“The dream means we must wear silk when we leave. That will bring us good luck and ensure our safety,” she says. “As poets have written. Lovers should wear silk whenever they travel.”

She tells him that when she woke from the dream she realized that today was the 14th day of the month, which is an auspicious date for traveling to a different country. She must go out and buy him a silk shirt and her a silk blouse. It is important that she buy them with her own money. She has managed to save a little and wishes to use that. To cross such a powerful dream would doom them.

He hears the decidedness in her voice and trusts her instincts. To resist karma is to seek peril. That warning from his father registers with him now.

He walks with her to the street and she says she won’t be long and hurries in the direction of the morning market. He watches her run in the quiet street. She goes a full block west before turning south. When she disappears from view, he returns upstairs and sweeps the floor and then checks through his closet again but hasn’t left behind anything he’ll miss. He hopes that she buys more clothing for herself. He knows that whatever she comes back with will be lovely.

She does not return in an hour. He waits. After two hours, he knows she isn’t coming back.

About the Author

Robert Hilles

Robert Hilles lives on Salt Spring Island and has won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for "Cantos From A Small Room" and his novel, Raising of Voices, won George Bugnet Award. His second novel, A Gradual Ruin, was published by Doubleday Canada and now is in paperback. His books have also been shortlisted for The Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Prize, The W.O. Mitchell/City of Calgary Prize, The Stephan Stephansson Award, and The Howard O’Hagan Award. He has published fifteen books of poetry, three works of fiction (including A Gradual Ruin) and two nonfiction books (Kissing the Smoke and Calling the Wild). He recently completed a short story collection called, Little Pink Houses. His latest poetry collection, Line, was published in the spring of 2018. He is currently working on a novel set in Thailand tentatively called, Don't Hang Your Soul On That.