He doesn’t notice the change in weather until dark clouds balloon overhead. It’s too late to take cover so he drops his scythe and arches his back to the warm downpour. When the rain shifts sideways, Ed straightens and widens his stance to keep from losing balance. His robe soaks through and droops heavily but the rain is a welcome reprieve from the steady throttle of afternoon heat.
The rain stops as abruptly as it starts, and beyond the rectangles of golden rice, he sees layers of green clear to the humps of mountains in the grey distance to the north. The lighter green of the bo trees (or sacred fig) gives way to the darker greens of the pradu, doc jan, yang na and coconut trees. The more distant tamarind and mango trees add an in-between, serious green similar to the firs and cedars he’s familiar with on the west coast of Canada.
Song works a short ways off from Ed and swings his scythe in steady, graceful arcs. Although he is over eighty, he works in his rice paddies every day. He is thin and sinewy and his arms and legs tightly muscular. There’s no visible fat on him, and he walks with more energy and determination than Ed, despite being forty years older.
Ed notices another man working farther north from them. This is the first day that anyone else has been helping, so likely Song and he have fallen more behind with the harvest than Ed has realized.
Ed goes back to work but within a half hour the heat presses in again, and he stops to catch his breath. He notices that a second man has joined the first. They aren’t working but face each other, and the second man is gesturing wildly with both hands.
Song drops his scythe and runs in their direction, and Ed does the same. He has worked alongside Song long enough to know if Song is running he should be too.
Before Ed gets very far, the second man raises an arm to shoulder height and points a pistol at the other man. Ed shouts, “No,” but his words don’t carry, so he shouts it louder. In that very instant the first man is thrust up and back and drops to the ground. The crack of the shot echoes in the mountains, and the shooter lowers his gun and turns and walks east.
Ed has never witnessed anything so terrifying and all he can think to do is keep running. He’s soon in the thick of waist high crop and this slows him as he pushes stalks out of his way. When he reaches Song’s trampled path, he takes that and runs faster.
A silver half-ton truck appears from behind a row of trees and stops for the shooter who immediately gets in and the truck speeds north, trailing a cloud of dust behind.
A second or so later, Ed reaches Song kneeling next to the fallen man. Song’s breathing is loud and wheezy, as he lowers his head to the man’s chest.
Ed crawls to the other side of the fallen man and pushes ripe plants out of the way so he can get closer. Stay calm, he reminds himself but feels a painful throb at each temple. He watches Song attend to him. Today now contains this.
Song lifts his head and looks briefly at Ed and then back to the man and rests a hand on his shoulder, and the man’s arm twitches and then goes slack.
The language barrier between Song and Ed means their work is their bond and that guides Ed now as he checks for a pulse without knowing that is what he is doing until he does it. The pulse is very faint.
The man’s eyes are closed, and his shirt has a small bloodstain at heart level. Ed lowers his head to the man’s chest and listens. He hears a single raspy intake of air followed by a long moan that fades to nothing. The significance of that doesn’t register at first and he waits for the next inhale, but there isn’t one.
The startle of that causes him to lift his head and take out his cell phone from the waterproof pouch dangling from his neck. He dials the emergency number and hands it to Song.
While Song talks on the phone, Ed pumps firmly on the victim’s chest several times, but when this doesn’t work, he nests his fingers together and pounds the chest twice and listens. Nothing. He tilts the man’s head back and forces apart his jaw and places his lips on the man’s and blows in forcefully and waits for the exhale and then blows in again. He does this fifteen times, but there’s still no heartbeat.
Song has finished speaking on the cell phone and hands it back to Ed and looks at the body on the ground and says, “Mai Dee Mai Dee,” This is bad.
He turns to Ed and fixes his gaze briefly on him and then glances away.
Ed is used to this limited eye contact between them. He’s isn’t certain what he should do next so lightly grips Song’s upper arm and then lets go. The older man nods but doesn’t come any closer. This is the first time he’s touched Song and this proximity feels awkward, so he steps back to a more comfortable distance between them.
A fly buzzes near his ear but he doesn’t shoo it away, as he once might have, but ignores it because any encounter, even a brief one like this, can have serious karmic consequences. The fly and he could have been enemies in a past life, or lovers or father and daughter.
The fly is soon gone and Ed senses dampness on his cheek and touches a finger there. When he draws it back, there’s blood, and he brushes the spot several times with the fingers of his left hand until his cheek feels dry. He then wipes off his fingers on flattened rice stalks.
Song watches him do this but doesn’t say anything.
Ed isn’t certain if this means it’s okay or if this too has karmic implications he’ll regret later.
He glances again at the man on the ground and except for the bloodstain on his shirt, he could be sleeping. Ed notices that the victim’s feet are bare, and he quickly locates the man’s sandals a metre or so away in the cleared part of the field. He retrieves them and puts them on the man’s feet.
He hears a siren but it’s another five minutes before the ambulance locates them. It stops near where the murderer got in the truck.
Song and Ed make room for the paramedics. They kneel next to the body and the woman paramedic places her stethoscope at heart level and listens while the male paramedic readies an oxygen mask. She shakes her head and her partner puts the mask back into the equipment bag beside him and the two of them return to the ambulance and carry back a metal stretcher and set it on the ground next to the body.
The male paramedic lifts the man’s head and shoulders and the woman his feet and they position him onto the stretcher and the woman covers him with a brown blanket. They carry the stretcher to the ambulance, which is a half-ton truck with a canopy over the back—a common form of ambulance. They load the stretcher inside and the woman closes the door.
A police officer arrives on a motorcycle, and after a brief exchange with the paramedics, he opens the back of the ambulance and climbs inside. He lifts aside the blanket and takes pictures with a cell phone and then lowers the blanket and comes outside. He talks to Song for a long time and writes frequently in a notepad he retrieves from a shirt pocket. When he finishes with Song, Ed asks if he needs his statement, and the officer says in English if that is necessary he can give it later at the police station in Chum Phae. There will be someone there to translate it into Thai.
After the ambulance and police leave, Song tells Ed that the dead man is his cousin’s youngest grandson, Sutum. “A good and kind man. Bright,” Song adds.
He stands for a while beside Ed and then chants aloud. Ed closes his eyes and listens but doesn’t know any of the Pali.
When Song finishes, he says pope gun my (see you later) and walks south toward the hut where Ed is staying. He stops at his motorbike, which is less than half way there, and gets on it and with a tap his sandaled heel releases the kickstand and then with his other foot kick-starts the bike. He rides very slowly to the highway and maintains that same speed after he turns onto it.
The rice paddy is eerily quiet now and Ed feels the skin on his bare arms prickle. He stands amongst untrampled rice and can’t take his eyes off where Sutum was only minutes ago. A larger area of rice has been trampled down there now. He has the urge to rip out those flatten stalks and toss them into a pile but instead walks back to his hut. It takes him longer than usual, and at the hut, he opens the door to let out caught heat but doesn’t go inside. Instead he sits on floor of the shaded porch.
He glances back the way he’s come, and his gaze falls immediately on the scene of the murder. From now on he’ll always know exactly where it happened.
Everyone involved today, including him and the paramedics and police officer, now have a karmic connection to Sutum and his killer. He takes in the significance of that but doesn’t yet fully understand the implications. For him, karma is still a vague notion, but for Song and Ed’s wife Nan, it has deep intricacies and each day contains a myriad of risky, karmic crisscrosses. There are no accidents, which means Sutum’s murder was always going to happen today and everyone in attendance, including him, are caught in that karmic chain of events. He knows that his life has changed because of this murder but doesn’t know yet how it’s changed.
Nan has told him that when someone dies their soul remains in close proximity to their body but when their body is taken away the soul may stay behind. Those nearby at the time of death risk being drawn into past and present karmic complications. He chants to inoculate himself against such consequences but knows it’s already too late to block them all.
A flock of chestnut-tailed starlings drops one by one onto the short grass in front of him. Once on the ground, they appear singular in their actions and peck individually in the grass as though no longer part of the flock. Hunger and other urges drive them, and he envies the clockwork of that and how they appear to live free of moral choices.
A starling breaks away from the others and stops on the patch of exposed earth next to the gravel driveway in front of him. It pecks at the ground several times and draws out a long worm and dangles it in equal halves from its beak and then tilts its head back and swallows the worm.
Birds have poor memories and live mostly in the present, guided by instinct more than thought, or so he’s believed until recently. He’s assumed that they don’t have the capacity for thought. But now he’s not so certain. He knows they have quick, active brains but he hasn’t a clue about the workings of those brains. Through his daily Buddhist practices, he’s come to accept that birds have souls like all other living creatures. He knows too that the fact he’s focused on these starlings right now could mean that he was a starling in a past life.
He should see a progression to here from all that’s happened today but sees only that a bird has killed a worm. Beyond that, he can’t make sense of the intersections.
Five more starlings join this one and peck the ground nearby. One of them draws out an even longer worm and bites it in half and lets each half fall to the ground. The starling then picks up one half of the worm and swallows it and then picks up the other half and swallows it.
Maybe the worm’s soul will be reborn as a starling or tiger or human.
He turns back to the rest of the flock, and they are busy pecking and for a few seconds their activities calm him, and he forgets that this too is a karmic drama playing out.
A fox charges from his right and the starlings instantly scatter into full flight. They converge and form a black flurry that expands and contracts as they fly east and then abruptly turn north and angle up and then down, and then go sideways again, and then up once more, moving always as a fluid, dark presence, that fluidly changes size and shape many times. Their threat avoidance mesmerizes him, but he recognizes fury in it too. Their high-pitched noises fade as the flock levels off and flies in an elongated column northward.
He returns his gaze to the ground in front of him and watches the fox press its snout down and shake its head from side to side. Feathers fly up and float on still air. The fox chomps and then lifts the dead bird in the grip of its jaws and hurries into the nearby trees.
Ed finds the flock again now already at the distant Tamarind trees in the north. He watches the dark shape break apart, as one after another, the starlings drop into the cover of uncut rice. Everything is still again except for the slight sway of the trees around him.
By killing the starling, the fox has freed its soul so it can jump into its next body as Sutum’s soul may have already.
He thinks about all that and how each day is like this and yet not like this. Run, the master monk that he’s met through Nan, has said: Being is a mirror and is not a mirror.
He gets up and goes inside. The hut has cooled enough that he shuts the door. He sits at the table and chants. His hands and legs shake, and when he closes his eyes and focuses on his chanting, he sees an image of Sutum lying on the ground. He opens his eyes and reaches for the small bell that Song gave him and that he keeps on the table. He rings it three times as Song has shown him and closes his eyes again and his arms and legs stop shaking.
He stays like that and soon his body calms. He waits. Nothing. The moment settles and then another. He presses his fingertips to the tabletop and says satu satu.
Ed has lived in Thailand for five years with his wife Nan, and for the past three weeks, he’s been staying alone in this bamboo hut eighty kilometers west of Khon Kaen. He’s here to work on his Buddhist practices and to help Nan’s great-uncle Song harvest his rice crop.
Nan has said that Ed and she were lovers in a past life, but it mustn’t have gone well because their souls have sought another chance. According to Run, Ed lived in Thailand two hundred years ago and again in the last century. In this life he was born in Victoria, Canada, grew up there, met and married his first wife Teresa there, and divorced her a decade ago.
He’s eager for glimpses of his past lives in Thailand but that requires a higher level of meditation than he’s mastered so far. That prospect hasn’t deterred him and every day he meditates hoping for a breakthrough.
It is soon dark, but he can’t stop thinking about Sutum’s murder. Those thoughts cause such restlessness in him that he goes outside and paces in the front yard and shouts profanities into the night. When he’s all shouted out, he sits in a wicker chair on the front porch. A full moon rises in a dark corner of the night sky and here and there, small puddles formed by today’s rain, reflect a shimmering, misshapen moon. Frog and cicadas sing so uniformly that it seems intentional.
He closes his eyes and chants but no matter how much he focuses he can’t block unwanted images. First there’s the close up of the blood on Sutum’s blue shirt. That image reappears no matter how many times he wills it away. Later he sees a detailed zoom of Sutum’s face—stopped by death. His face is boyish—a mere twenty-five. Other details come like a small round scar on Sutum’s right cheek and several days’ growth of whiskers, and above his upper lip a thin moustache. Were those actually there?
He opens his eyes to stop the images. The frogs and cicadas have gone silent and he stands and goes inside but leaves the door open.
He calls Nan to tell her about Sutum, and she is quiet at first and then tells him that she’s had a bad feeling all day. Twice she broke a glass at the kitchen sink in their apartment. She rarely breaks dishes.
He asks her why Buddha would allow people to kill each other and she says that Buddha doesn’t determine what people do. What exists in the world is what exists. His teachings point the way to enlightenment. It is up to each soul to reach it. Before hanging up she says that she’ll ride to Run’s later and pray for Sutum and says he must do the same.
He goes to the table and sits but doesn’t light a candle. When his eyes adjust, he can make out the vague shapes of the furnishings he knows acutely in daylight. He scans from left to right and stops first at the vague hump of the bamboo cot in front of him and to the right of that he can make out the top of the wooden chair he’s lined up with the door. He sits in that chair whenever it’s too hot at the table. The furnishings are scant, with only the most necessary items arranged for utility. This makes the hut feel more spacious than its four metres by five metres size. It was built more than eighty years ago to provide temporary lodging for couples who came from the deep south or far north to help with the harvests. It has withstood the years remarkably well despite minimal repairs.
He slides a hand along the rough wooden surface of the table. It’s more of a picnic table than a proper dining table but the wood’s roughness comforts him. All of this is temporary he reminds himself, especially his sitting here and yet here he is. He stops his hand before it snags a sliver and pushes his chair back and stands and goes to the door and shuts it and returns to his chair. He closes his eyes and chants Pra Nip Pa Knaw until his mind quiets and he enters a deep calm.
He wishes he could cross time like Run. When Run meditates, time buckles, bends, splinters so he sees many strands at once. Soul memory is how Ed thinks of it as Run is able to connect to the memories of past lives locked in souls, both those in bodies and those not in bodies, and by perusing those memories he can travel forward and backward in time. Nan has explained that those locked memories reveal the karmic timetable that regulates all that has occurred or will occur.
More random images of Sutum come to him. He slows his breathing until he is only taking a few breaths a minute. His thoughts slow then too and the images fade.
More than an hour later there’s a light knock on the door. By then, Ed has lit a candle and is at the table reading his daily teachings.
When he opens the door, Song nods, and Ed steps to the side so he can come in. At the table, he hands Ed three warm plastic bags. One is full of white rice fried with chopped onion and garlic and lime squeezed over it. Another contains chunks of chicken seasoned with coconut sauce. The third bag is full of balls of tofu fried with ginger and cilantro.
Ed gets two bowls from the cupboard above the sink and spoons out a larger portion for Song than himself and puts the leftovers in the small fridge.
Song eats his portion without saying anything. Ed is used to this preference for not talking while eating. Nan and he rarely speak during meals to avoid choking or other mishaps.
When Song finishes, he folds his hands and closes his eyes and Ed does the same. Song chants aloud and Ed repeats the Pali as best as he can, but Song chants faster than Nan does so several times Ed has to guess at the pronunciations. Song doesn’t correct him as Nan might. They end with Satu Satu and Song stays quiet for another half hour and doesn’t move in all that time.
Ed is unable to sit still for that long. Twice, he catches himself adjusting his robe and later he absentmindedly moves a foot up and down.
Eventually Song gets up from his chair and carries his and Ed’s dishes to the sink and picks up a drying cloth. Ed washes them and hands each to Song who dries them and then places them in the cupboard. He doesn’t have to ask Ed where any of them go.
Later at the door they stand side by side and Song says, “Chai,” (yes).
“Sutum?” Ed asks.
Song nods but doesn’t speak.
Then after a long pause he says, “He was a good boy, but foolish in love,” and then, “It’s okay.”
Ed is heartened by those last words and is thankful to Song for them but also senses that this is the most they’ll ever speak about what’s happened.
When they go outside, the moon is hidden behind the hut, and in the more limited light, Song’s face looks vague and timeless. He falters slightly on the first step and Ed reaches out a hand and catches his shoulder and steadies him and then lets go. Song grips the handrail and continues down and doesn’t look back.
Away from the hut he is half lit by the moon as he walks to his motorbike. He straddles it and kick starts it twice before the engine catches. He revs it for a few seconds and then lets it idle. He turns on the headlight, and the bulb is so dim Ed wonders how he can see his way.
Ed stays on the landing to take in the night sky overhead. Tonight there are fewer stars and those he sees are far apart, except directly overhead where they appear bunched together, even though they are millions of miles apart.
The total number of stars is so large they can’t be counted, only approximated. Normally that fact comforts him but tonight he longs for what is knowable and finite. He shifts his gaze to a section of the empty night sky and that dark makes the sky appear flat and two-dimensional.
He knows from his daily readings that the magnitude of stars isn’t what’s important and to look at the sky is to look inward. He stands for a while longer and considers how every star is moving away from him at an ever-increasing speed. But from here they appear stopped. Where exactly are they going? Physicists have proposed theories about that and those notions of the cosmos dwarf our daily lives. His practices are helping him to see that existing in the midst of all this movement means he’s travelling too. Tonight, though, the sight of the stars adds to all he doesn’t know and likely will never know.
Earlier, when he and Song were chanting for Sutum’s soul, he fully concentrated on his chanting even though he still doesn’t have proper sense of what the soul is, or its size, shape, or location.
Nan has said that the soul is elusive and that there isn’t any point locating it. “Just assume it’s there,” she’s said, and so he has accepted that his soul lurks somewhere inside him.
But seeing these stars, so nebulous and far away, he wishes he could feel around his body and locate his soul, and that it would always be in exactly the same place, like his heart is. Nan says the soul shifts locations and doesn’t take root and can’t be boxed in. It isn’t tangible like an organ or bone. At times it’s an energy source, and at other times it’s nearly dormant. The soul is ever accumulating like the night sky.
He returns inside the hut and blows out the candle and in the dark goes to the bamboo cot and sits on the edge of it and keeps his back straight. This is not an easy posture for him to maintain for long and it has taken him weeks of practice to do it as easily as he can tonight. He focuses on the bamboo cot and senses each layer of it from the floor to the criss-crossed bamboo strips and woven grass that forms the top layer he sits on now.
I shouldn’t be here. He thinks but then immediately counters that with, but I am here and can’t be anywhere but where I am right now.
He feels time pull him along and senses its pace hasten for the first time. Before tonight, time has been steady and insistent—an expanding bubble that absorbs everything it encounters. There is no existing outside of it. He used to think of time as a culprit and thief but tonight sees it as his travelling companion. It’s part residue and part vapour trail, a rolling forward. Its urgency may be vague but it’s still an urgency. He can’t yet imagine the complexities of Run’s time travel but accepts that it occurs.
We mostly stand still and time swirls, Run has said to him.
He hears now in his head what Nan said to him earlier this evening on the phone, Don’t look for reasons. Don’t search. Don’t seek. Be a chamber. By standing perfectly still you will sense the movement of all things. That movement is constant and is what holds you here. What happened today was always going to happen. You are merely one of the participants.
He lies down on the cot and sees today’s tragedy differently than he would have before he’d married Nan. The arc that includes a given event may span many lifetimes. What may seem mysterious or impulsive in this life may be the culmination of many misdeeds, betrayals, or wrongdoings in previous lives. Tragedies repeat because all involved are unaware of previous tragedies they participated in. It takes someone like Run to unravel all the interconnections, and even then, the way ahead is never certain.
Later a rat wakes him as it claws along the thatched roof. He stays on the cot and listens to its noisy progress and worries that it will find a way inside and climb down a wall. But he reminds himself that he’s here to let go of worries. According to Run, worry is an impediment to a clear mind.
Soon after, the wind picks up and shakes the roof and the rat works louder and moves quickly along the southern slope of the roof. Near the eaves, it makes a jubilant high-pitched chirp and goes quiet.
He considers getting out of bed and grabbing the straw broom to shoo it away if it’s come inside, but he stays where he is and repeats: Let go. Don’t listen. There’s no rat here just as earlier there was no wind. There is only this cot and my noisy heart.
The wind dies down again, and the rat noises return but it’s busier and noisier than before and moves quickly from the eaves back to the peak of the roof and then down the far side. This is proof that I exist and that I can’t escape myself.
The rat could be the reincarnated soul of a farmer who once lived in this hut. Lives shimmer and blend in ways he hasn’t known until now. Being anywhere is not a certainty. To master more filaments of his life, he must first accept that the divide between the living and dead is not absolute. What he sees isn’t all that there is. These ideas are new to him but enthralling and liberating.
He closes his eyes and slows his breathing until there is no rat.
Even later, he’s woken by a fork or spoon scraping across a plate. At first, he thinks the noises are lingering sensations from a dream, but as he listens, the noises don’t fade but move toward the fridge. He doesn’t lock the door at night, so anyone could have come in and gone to the fridge for something to eat. He sits up in bed for a better view but can’t see anything in the dark. The noises stop not long after he sits up. He gets out of the bed and goes to the table, but it’s exactly as he left it earlier. Nan has warned him that there could be unexpected disturbances during the night. She’d said if he hears anything out of ordinary or has the urge to burp or fart or his nose is runny he must chant Ben Tok Wan Anaja Anada to ward off any bad spirits. He returns to bed and closes his eyes and repeats that chant three times.
According to Nan, some souls don’t realize that their bodies have died. They continue with their daily routines thinking they are still alive until they discover that no one can see or hear them. Once they discover that, they flee to some place they had a connection to in their most recent life or a past one.
He returns to the cot but isn’t able to fall back to sleep and listens for any unusual sounds but there aren’t any nor are there the usual wind and animal noises. The night is so perfectly quiet that he shakes even though the hut is hot and muggy. The trembling doesn’t let up until it’s getting light and he finally falls back to sleep.
For the next week, no one comes to the rice paddies to harvest so Ed stays inside with door and window open to let in any available breeze. During the day he focuses on his Buddhist practices and each night his sleep is interrupted by ever-stranger disturbances. The second night loud noises at the table and sink wake him like the night before. The next night, his sneezing and burping wakes him. He sits up in bed and chants until they stop. The night after that, his violent coughing wakes him, and he has to get out of bed and puts his head between his legs to get the coughing to stop.
He’s so tired during the day that each afternoon he naps for several hours. When he wakes from these naps, he always calls Nan to report the latest disturbances. She urges him to chant often and stay dedicated to his practices and to be sati.
By the third day of this, she tells him that the disturbances mean he is making progress. He’s made a breakthrough. She doesn’t say that specifically, but he infers it and understands that a shift has occurred. She tells him that Run says that such activities mean he’s a conduit and that the spirit world is more exposed at the hut allowing for powerful connections.
She then tells him how her grandmother’s ghost rode the bus from Chum Phae to Khon Kaen every week for five years until Run helped her soul move on. Recently, Run woke in the morning to the distinct scent of cherry incense except none had been lit. That meant that another world was nearby and that someone there was burning cherry incense. Run lit cinnamon incense and chanted and meditated until he only smelled cinnamon. By that time, many images had come to him and much had been changed in this world and that one.
Ed asks Nan how long these disturbances will continue, and she says until they stop and then she adds that he can no more control them than he can move the moon a centimetre.
The next night, a very noisy rat wakes him so abruptly that his heart pounds loudly in his ears and he feels lightheaded and thinks he is still dreaming. In time, he’s fully awake but all the details of his dream have vanished except for the sensation of being locked in a small room. He can’t shake off that feeling and gets out of bed and goes to the window seeking the comfort of the view. The slight shimmer of morning light exposes details on the mountains to the north and he watches that fade as the sun gets higher and the mountains become a vague backdrop. When the last stages of morning end, he returns to bed and is soon asleep.
A week after the murder his loud burps wake him. He gets out of bed and paces until the burping stops. It is fully light by then, so he goes to the window and stays there for a half hour chanting with his eyes open. He ends with satu satu but doesn’t step away. He slides his fingers along the rough wooden surface of the windowsill to remind himself where he is.
He’s about to step away when a red Toyota half-ton appears from behind the hut and stops where the gravel ends. Three young men get out and walk below his window but don’t look in his direction. They disappear around the front of the hut and a few seconds later he hears a soft knock. He isn’t expecting anyone at this hour so doesn’t answer right away hoping they’ll leave.
There is a long pause and then two more knocks closer together but as light as the first. He says Pra Nip Pa Knaw three times and the opens the door. One of the three men stands there, the other two have stayed at the bottom of the steps. All three wai him.
“Come,” the man says, and then tells Ed in Thai that his name is Ta and that Song has sent him. His hair is cut close to his scalp but not as short as a monk’s.
Ed slips on his sandals and steps outside. Ta has joined the other two and turns first and leads the way to the truck. Ed follows Ta and the other two walk behind him. Ta points to the passenger side and Ed opens the door and gets in. The two men climb into the bed of the truck and Ta gets in the driver’s side.
At the four-lane highway Ta turns south and doesn’t speak as he drives but stares straight ahead and keeps both hands on the steering wheel. They come alongside a truck so overloaded with cabbages that it teeters dangerously into their lane, but Ta expertly speeds past it. After three more kilometers, he turns onto Song’s gravel road.
From there, Ed has a direct view of Song’s two-story cement and wood house. From this far back, it looks like a house in the country in Canada, but as they get closer there are large Thai symbols at the front peak of the house. When he came here three weeks earlier with Nan, she’d told him that it’s a Pali chant to ward off bad spirits. The first floor of the house is constructed of cement and four cement pillars support a large overhang to the right of the house under which a table and chairs have been arranged out of the sun and rain. The second story of the house has teak siding. Blue ceramic tiles cover the peaked roof.
In a fenced area to the west of the house, brown chickens run, hop, and flap their wings in a panic because of the noise of the truck. Ta backs up onto the grass next to the parking pad and Song’s new white Toyota Yaris. The chickens continue running about now wildly dodging each other.
When Ed came here before with Nan, Song and his wife Aom had prepared them a meal of Phad Nee and sticky rice and later Song showed them pictures of his two sons and one daughter and five grandchildren who all live in Khon Kaen. He also pointed to a picture on the wall of his sister, Nan’s grandmother, who had died a year after Nan and Ed were married.
Today other new white Hondas and Toyotas are parked on the other side of Song’s Yaris.
Ta steps out of the truck first and waits on his side until Ed gets out. The other two jump out of the truck bed and join Ta. The three of them go up the main steps ahead of Ed and remove their sandals at the front door and go barefoot inside without knocking. Ed does the same and then follows them.
The living room is empty and he listens for voices, but the house is quiet. They continue out the back door and a small crowd stands silently around a plain plywood coffin. Two sets of black handles have been screwed to each side of the coffin.
Everyone turns at the same time and wais the newcomers. They give Ed a slightly higher wai than the other three and he wais them back one at a time. Most of the mourners are close to Song’s age.
Song steps forward and nods to the four of them and says Kop Koon Krup.
Ed and the three men wai Song in unison and Ta says, “Mai Pen Rai,” – (no problem).
The crowd steps away from the coffin and Ta and the two men each take one of the handles leaving Ed the fourth one.
He grips his and they lift the coffin. It feels surprisingly light to Ed as though there’s no body inside. It occurs to him then that the others are lifting more than their share, needing him only to balance a corner.
He expects that they will carry the coffin back through the house, but they circle around the outside instead. They walk very slowly taking two steps and then stopping for a full minute before taking two more steps and stopping again. Song walks behind them and Aom behind him and then everyone else behind her. Some ring chimes while others hum or chant or moan. When they eventually reach the front of the house, a teenage boy runs ahead and lowers the tailgate of the truck.
Ta and the other man rest the front of the coffin on the tailgate and they come around back, and Song joins them and they slowly push the coffin forward until it bumps against the back of the cab. They then slide it out again so there’s a small gap. The coffin extends a foot out off the back of the truck, so the tailgate has to be left down.
The two men climb into the back of the truck and sit cross-legged on opposite sides of the coffin and far enough away that they’re not touching it.
Ed gets into the passenger side and Ta gets in his side and drives away from the house before all the other vehicles. Song and Aom follow next in their car. The rest of the cars and a few motorcycles fall in behind them. Ed watches the procession in the side mirror. Song stays so close behind that any sudden braking by Ta would send Song’s car smashing into the coffin. But Ta drives so slowly there’s little risk of that. It takes them more than twenty minutes to travel the two kilometers to the centre of the village.
Ta continues through the village and past two temples before turning south and stopping at an open field adjacent to the largest temple in the village. The size of the temple indicates its importance and Song’s status.
Ed has been to this temple once before with Song. He’d brought Ed here after his third day of harvesting. Song left an offering to help ensure a bumper crop and then they’d chanted in front of the main alter and its fifteen-foot, golden Buddha. There’s a Buddha bone in a glass container next to the Buddha. A video camera is focused on the Buddha bone and a magnified image is streamed to two flat screen TVs, one on each side of the alter.
Nan has explained that the Buddha bone intensifies the abbot’s powers so that he connects directly with the powers of the sun and moon. He uses the power of the moon when someone is too hot and the power of the sun when someone is too cold.
The abbot, who looks about Song’s age, is waiting out front of the temple when they arrive. His hands are folded at his waist. Ta stops just past the abbot and the others park behind him. Song gets out first and approaches the abbot. Everyone else stays in their vehicles. Ta turns off the engine and Ed cranks down his window to let in any breeze.
Song wais the abbot and they speak for more than ten minutes and then a dozen novice monks emerge from the temple and line up in three short rows behind the abbot. The novices wear white robes and their heads have recently been shaved. More villagers arrive, some walking and others in cars or on motorbikes. They form a large half circle behind the novices.
Song returns to his car and opens the passenger door for Aom. The two men in back of the truck hop down on opposite sides and stand where they land. Ta gets out next and then Ed, and when they reach the back of the truck they each grip a handle and slide the coffin out of the bed of the truck until the other end balances on the tailgate. The other two men each hold a front handle. Ta and Ed step back, and this time he feels his share of the weight. They turn in the direction of the temple and then stop. Song and Aom stand at the front of the coffin and are joined by a couple only a little older than Ed. These must be Sutum’s parents. The rest of the mourners line up behind them.
Sutum’s father sets a prayer wreath on top of the coffin and several mourners do the same. Song and Aom go to the abbot and Sutum’s parents join them and then they walk ahead of the coffin.
The novices and the rest of the mourners line up behind the coffin, and the procession advances alongside the temple. As they walk, they follow a similar halting rhythm to the one at the house.
When they pass the last temple building, a side door opens and loud Thai rock blasts out. This loud intrusion causes the procession to stop. He expects a novice hurry inside and turn off the music or at least close the door. Instead the music is allowed to continue. When the song ends, everyone walks until the next song plays and they stop again until that song ends and then they advance again but stop when the next song plays. This third song is louder than the other two and has a much faster tempo. Ed recognizes the distinct, hurried mor lam rhythm popular in Isaan and he’s heard often in the streets of Khon Kaen. No one sways or dances to the hypnotic rhythm. The tempo speeds up even faster and the procession starts up again but maintains a slow pace, despite the driving music.
When they reach the end of that building, they turn and cross the street to a large field. At the north end of it, a two-story pyre has been constructed from lumber and straw.
It takes them twenty minutes to reach the pyre. Up close it smells of coconut oil and gasoline. Ta raises his corner of the coffin and Ed does the same and so do the other two. Ed knows to keep the head and feet of the corpse at the same level as they lift the coffin to four novices waiting above in the pyre.
The novices grab the coffin and swing it around and set it into place. They then climb down, and other novices circle the pyre lighting incense sticks and candles.
The abbot stands in front and raises both arms. The distant music is finally turned off mid-song. Everyone forms a half circle facing the abbot, who chants Metta Knaw, (Kindness) and Pra Nip Pa Knaw, (Enlightenment) repeatedly. The crowd repeats each phrase in unison after the abbot. This lasts for nearly a half hour and then the abbot changes to a longer chant also in Pali. Again, the crowd repeats each line after him and the rise and fall of those voices sweep Ed along and he joins in too even though he has to guess at the pronunciation of most words.
The abbot stops chanting and he waits for the crowd to finish and then turns ninety degrees and walks slowly to the far side of the pyre, and as he walks, he keeps his hands folded in front of him.
A boy of about seven runs from the back of the crowd and when he reaches the front, a novice hands him a lighter. The boy walks it to the pyre and then flicks it twice before it lights. He cups his hand around the small flame and presses the lighter into the thick of the straw and holds it there until the straw catches fire.
The straw burns quickly and the flames rise to the layers of kindling and from there to the wooden frame. The abbot circles the pyre chanting, and everyone forms a paired line behind him starting with Ed and Ta and behind them the novice monks. No one repeats the abbot’s chant.
A man and woman stand in the back of a pickup nearby and the woman releases two birds from small bamboo cages and then the man releases four balloons from a large bundle he is holding. The man and woman then continue to alternate between releases. The birds scatter immediately to the cover of nearby trees. The balloons float straight up for a long time, and when they reach an upper current, it carries them quickly northward even as they continue to climb. Ed watches the first set of balloons until they disappear from view.
When he returns his gaze to the pyre, it’s fully engulfed and the flames have burned their way inside the coffin revealing the contents. The other mourners move forward for a better view of Sutum, but Ed stays back.
He’s never watched a pyre burn before and is surprised when Sutum’s corpse is exposed and his head rises as heat constricts muscles in his neck and shoulders. He continues to rise until he’s nearly sitting upright in the partially burned-away coffin.
Ed turns away then and hurries in the direction of the main temple.
Across the street, he stops and sits under a tall mango tree facing the pyre but he’s still too close and hears many pops and hisses. The smells of lavender and coconut oil have been replaced by the stench of burning flesh.
He stands and walks alongside the main wall of temple until he reaches a massive tamarind tree. The wind shifts and he’s far enough away that the smells and noises don’t reach him.
He sits facing the pyre and watches a thick cloud of black smoke stall over the fire. The cloud swells to three times its original size and then starts to slowly move eastward. The sounds of chanting occasionally reach him but fade in and out so often that he can’t make out any specific words. He drags his fingers along the dry grass and presses his back against the rough bark of the tree. Those tactile sensations keep him alert despite the afternoon heat.
He sits watching for another hour before any of the mourners begin to leave. They break away in small groups of three and four and most are talking and laughing as they pass him. Not a single person is crying. Earlier there had been times when the tone seemed sombre, but no one cried.
The abbot, Song, Aom, Ta, and Sutum’s parents stand so close to the pyre that they must feel the intense heat, but they don’t move away until the pyre is reduced to smoldering ashes.
Ta approaches Ed then and waves for him to follow. At the truck the same two men get in the back and he joins Ta in the cab. They don’t speak the entire trip back to the hut. Ta smells of smoke and coconut oil.
At the hut, Ta and the other two walk behind Ed to the front steps. He turns to face them and they wai him in unison, a higher wai than they gave him earlier, but not as high as they gave Song or the abbot. None of them says a word to him. Ta turns and walks back to the truck, the other two follow him.
He watches the two men get in the back again and Ta in the cab. Ta doesn’t start the engine right away and Ed realizes that he’s chanting. The two other men sit with their backs to the cab of the truck, but don’t appear to be chanting nor are they talking. They face Ed and from this far away he can’t tell if they are actually looking at him or at something in the distance.
He waits until Ta starts the engine before he turns and continues up the steps and into the hut. He goes immediately to the window and watches the truck disappear behind the hut.
He looks then across the empty rice field to where Sutum died. From the heated confines of the hut he could be looking at any field anywhere but he’s looking at a murder scene. He decides he’ll give it a wide berth from now on.
That evening he calls Nan and she tells him that Run has seen Sutum’s ghost in the cabin and Ed needs to chant very diligently so that Sutum doesn’t get trapped there.
For dinner he eats a palm size ball of rice and two pieces of tofu and has no appetite for anything more. When he finishes eating, he cleans up and returns to the table to read and practice.
Nan calls back and she is now at Run’s and they have been chanting for Sutum. Run says that there is much black magic at the hut that Ed is now caught up in it. She says there is much danger there but Run will keep him safe.
After a pause she continues, “We are always living the strands of our past lives too, in this one.” She explains how the actions, betrayals, loves, and accidents from past lives ripple into this one. Maybe the man who killed Sutum used to be his enemy in a past life or his father or aunt. Maybe he killed Sutum because in a past life Sutum killed him or betrayed him in some devastating way. Or maybe they were lovers and Sutum jilted him.
The compounding of these possibilities astounds Ed and he wonders if it is possible to get free of them or do those interferences simply accumulate? Do all the intersections between this life and earlier ones become so tightly wound that in time everyone is trapped?
He asks her about this.
She says he’s still thinking like a forang and adds, “Don’t hang your soul on that. Run will help sort all that needs to be sorted out. It’s what he does.”
She calls back a half hour later, and he puts the phone on speaker and listens as Run chants for him. In the slow rising and falling of the Pali, Ed gains a perch.
Sutum’s ghost wakes him again during night, and the hut is engulfed by the powerful competing scents of cinnamon and garlic, although he hasn’t cooked with either in several weeks. He hears no unusual noises nor does he burp or sneeze. He repeats, Pra Nip Pan Khaw to himself but the odors linger.
He continues to chant Pra Nip Pan Khaw, Pra Nip Pan Knaw until he falls asleep.
He wakes later than usual the next day. He’s ashamed to have slept in so late. When he opens the door, Song is not working in the field. Three more days pass before Song returns to work. That morning Ed sleeps in too and when he wakes and goes to the door, Song is working alone and has already cleared all the rice from around where Sutum was shot and has progressed a good distance beyond that.
Ed eats quickly and joins him.