Half of the house remained charred black, while the other half had finally been repaired, the tiling of its portion of the roof fully replaced and its shingles painted a fresh, pure white, so that the whole building looked like the victim of a skin transplant gone wrong.
“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” lamented my mother, lighting a cigarette as she eyed the blackened half of the house. “He would have had that fixed by now.”
“What’s shameful,” I said, “is that we’re late.” The service had already begun; I could hear the chanting from inside the car.
“Seventeen is too young to talk of shame.” Her voice clicked in that high and doting Thai reserved explicitly for mothers lighting cigarettes in parking lots.
“I’ll wait for you inside.” I got out of the car, taking with me the covered aluminum tray that had been burning a hole in my lap.
I entered through the screen door of the kitchen and set the tray on an unoccupied countertop, watching my step to avoid colliding with any of the half-dozen women scurrying about. You could tell what they were by the clothes they were wearing. Those in formal Western attire, like my mother and me, were Thai. Those in simple but beautiful sinh, Lao. You couldn’t tell by what they were saying, however; perhaps thankfully, the two languages were mutually intelligible enough to ask for help, but not enough to argue.
One of the Western-clothed women squeezed her way toward me past the others. I pressed my palms together in greeting.
She beamed. “My darling boy! What have you brought us today?” Her voice was sickly sweet.
“Hello, Auntie,” I replied. Then, presenting her the tray, “Som tam. We made it just this morning.”
“That’s wonderful.” She uncovered the tray and wafted toward her the vinegary aroma of the chopped papaya and tomato slices. “Really, you didn’t have to,” she cooed.
“Everyone should contribute,” I said lamely.
Auntie hesitated for a moment. Then, her eyebrows shot up, as if she had just remembered something important. She took the food off my hands and said, in a voice not unlike my mother’s, “You should get going. They’ve already begun.”
I found a place to kneel in the back of the main room. Used for any and all of the wat’s services, it was little more than a large rectangle with sprinklers on the ceiling and tapestries strewn across the walls. The sprinklers were newly installed. Sticks of incense burned in cups of uncooked rice in order to mask the stench of fresh plaster.
I bowed my head, as everyone else’s heads were bowed, to the three monks seated on the platform before the statue of the Buddha. They would recite in unison a verse or phrase of ancient Sanskrit, and each of the men, women, and children prostrate in the room would sing it back to them. I joined in, adding my own small voice to the large, somber chorus.
So calmed was I by the soothing, sobering tone of the recitations that I barely noticed when my mother took her place beside me some time later.
“Sorry it took me so long,” she whispered, her forehead kissing the carpet. “I was helping to wrap things up in the kitchen.”
“You smell like cigarettes,” I whispered back.
“Funny.” She smiled sadly. “They didn’t say anything about it in the kitchen.”
“I wonder why.”
As the service was coming to an end, the eldest of the monks stood and spoke while the other two prepared the brass bowl of holy water and the wooden brush.
“I am sorry that we have yet to replace the microphones,” he said in a humble but papal tone. “For now, those in the back, please just try very hard to hear. I promise we are saving up for them. As it turns out, being bald and wearing towels does not make for a very lucrative profession.”
The congregation laughed. The head monk’s age permitted him such privileges as making jokes, even in the darkest of contexts.
“On that note, and before we begin with the blessing,” he went on, “I would like to thank each of you for the continued generosity of your alms. Though there is much left to do even now, our progress has been miraculous, and it is by such good fortune that we have been able to reopen to you so soon.”
One of the younger monks stood with brush and bowl in hand. He dipped the former in the latter. I braced, not for the water, but for the words I knew were about to come. I noticed my mother bracing as well, in her own way, for impact—how she was steeling her gaze, even though the only thing she was looking at was the floor.
“But above all, we can never forget,” the elder decreed, his face darkening, one hand pressed against his bare, gray chest, “the losses we have incurred, and the sacrifices that certain souls have made for us all.”
I felt at once the unmistakable chill that comes with being watched, like a million needles were piercing my skin all at the same time. It was the consequence of having survived. I knew my mother was going through the same thing. I wanted to reach out for her—to cry out—but no words came. There was something cold and sharp in my throat. I stared straight ahead, pretending not to notice the eyes of the whole congregation upon us.
The old man went on for some time, speaking of loss and of its transience and ephemerality as if it were any consolation for what he had done by its mere mention. Next, the monk holding the bowl of water descended from the platform. He shook the brush above the heads of the waiting congregation as he passed by, allotting a few drops of water to the hair of each man, woman, and child. He chanted softly as he walked. My mother was trembling. I kept her in the corner of my vision, bating my breath, wishing I could hold her. But I did nothing.
I didn’t even notice when my turn came.
After the ritual was over, all the families presented their laundry baskets and hampers full of offerings to the monks—food, detergent, toilet paper, paper towels and the like—then retired to the barn used by the wat as a dining hall. Despite being newer than the farmhouse itself, having been built a decade before it was purchased to be converted into a wat, the barn appeared now to be the oldest structure on the grounds. I found comfort in its chipped paint and peeling walls, the last remaining vestiges of a better time.
The women of the congregation arranged the trays of food and unfolded the tables and chairs while the men smoked by the entrance and the children played outside in the field beside the grass parking lot. Though I was no longer a child, I didn’t smoke, so I was put to work inside, helping to place serving spoons and stir curries in large, steaming pots.
When we were finished, we called the men and children in to eat. Everyone lined up to serve themselves, paper plates in hand. I found my mother sitting by herself at the end of one of the tables and took a seat beside her. Neither of us ate much, and what we did eat, we ate in silence. No one came to sit with us—out of respect, of course, but it didn’t help. We exchanged knowing glances with each other, as if to say, Who knew kindness could be so cruel?
In line for dessert some time later, I noticed two women talking in hushed tones as they scooped ladlefuls of sweet, chilled thapthim krop into little bowls. One I recognized as Auntie; the other, I didn’t know.
“You know what all the husbands think,” said Auntie to her companion. “There’s no reason for it not to be true.”
“But there is. The fire department said it was an accident.”
“They told us that the fire department said it was an accident,” corrected Auntie. “They could be lying to us, to keep us from worrying.”
“You think they would really do that?”
“They did it before, you know. Not these ones, but the monks from the old wat. The one that burned down in the 60s.” Auntie looked around to make sure no one was listening. She did a poor job of it.
“They said it was an accident at first,” she continued. “But years later, the news came out that someone had done it on purpose. Someone went to the police and everything.”
“One of us?”
Auntie shook her head gravely. “No. A farang.”
“How terrible,” came the reply.
“They call it a-r-s-o-n,” said Auntie, using the English word, enunciating it so it sounded harsh and jeering in her voice. “What they did to the wat. There were two when I came here.” She sighed. “Now, there’s only half of one.”
I started to feel a little sick. My inability to stomach the gossip, it seemed, had influenced my ability to digest any more food. I got out of line and threw away my bowl. I decided I needed to get some air, so I made my way out of the barn. No one seemed to notice my departure.
Outside, the men and children who had finished their food were already resuming their previous activities. In the parking lot, my mother was interpreting between the head monk and a repairman who had arrived in a pickup truck sometime during the meal. She had a cigarette in one hand, unlit in deference to the old monastic, and was gesticulating wildly to get her point across. She seemed to have pulled herself together alright. Now it was my turn to do the same.
I walked out into the field and watched the children play for a while. The field, though well-groomed, was unfurnished. A fund we had been raising to purchase a playground set had been used instead for repairs. A cut of it had even gone to covering funerary expenses, even though we had insisted against it. The children didn’t seem to mind the lack of equipment, however, and were satisfied with the retinue of hula-hoops and ratty soccer balls garrisoned in the attic of the barn.
They were all amusing themselves, boys and girls so little they could barely walk and as grown as maybe 12 or 13. Grass stains defaced their shoes and knees, and their expensive clothes were dampened from rolling around in the tall grass. Their parents would admonish them later, but they were ignorant of this fate. They were each and every one of them engaging, in full force, with their own innocence. All of them, I noticed, but one.
Separated from the other children, sequestered under the shadow of an elm tree, knelt a Lao girl with a flower in her braids. She seemed to be hiding from the others. I decided to go and check on her, if only to get away from everyone else.
I called out as I approached, but she seemed not to notice. I asked her what she was doing, only to receive silence in return.
I tried again, this time in English. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I heard her say.
Coming up from behind, I could see that she was holding something.
“Why don’t you show me what you have there?”
After some hesitation, she obeyed, turning around to reveal rich crimson stains on the skirt and stomach of her sinh. She was cradling the corpse of a bird in her arms. A robin, from the look of it. It had a broken wing, the skin of it exposed where feathers should have been. Its neck was limp. Its beak was open wide. Blood trickled slowly from its two closed, peaceful eyes.
“What happened?” I asked.
“The boys,” came the reply. She kept her head down as she spoke. Her voice was haunting and small. “My brothers, they....”
“It was perched,” she went on, fighting back tears, “in the tree. They were throwing stones at it. For fun. I told them to stop, but they laughed at me. But, but it’s not their fault—”
She looked down at the bird, broken and dead.
“They didn’t think they would actually hit it.”
I thought about what to do for a while, then tugged off my tie and stuck it in a back pocket. I unbuttoned my shirt and wrapped it around the bird, taking it off of her and setting it on the ground beside the trunk of the elm. I wiped my hands on my t-shirt and surveyed the field. Children were still playing. Fathers were still smoking. Mothers were still inside. Clouds were gathering overhead. Suddenly, it felt cold.
“I’ll be right back.”
I went back to the barn and rummaged around in the attic until I found a shovel, then returned to the Lao girl and began digging a hole in the space between two great roots of the tree. She asked if she could help, but I said no, instead telling her to go inside and wash her hands.
She didn’t listen, but stood there and spectated instead.
After some time passed, she said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“What is it?”
“That shovel,” she began, carefully measuring her words. “Was it his?”
I pretended not to understand. “Was it whose?”
I worked on widening the hole, saying nothing.
“Um, your dad’s, is what I meant.”
“No,” I answered. “It belongs to the wat.”
“But he used it, didn’t he? I thought I saw him once—”
“Yeah. He was the groundskeeper.”
“What’s that mean?”
“He took care of things.”
“Is that why—”
“He was in the basement.”
I struck the ground hard with the shovel. Pieces of smashed earth soiled my pants and shoes. Her mouth was open like she was going to say something, but she didn’t. She didn’t utter a single word for the rest of the time it took to dig the hole.
“You think it's deep enough now?” I asked.
She picked up the bird and placed it in the hole. I filled it back up and flattened the dirt with the back of the shovel. When we were finished, we sat down under the tree. The creature lay put to rest in the space between the two of us, my shirt its burial shroud, the hole its shallow grave.
“Would you like to say some words?” I asked half-heartedly.
“Your hands are dirty,” she said.
She was right. They were caked in dirt.
“So are yours,” I said. She inspected her own, as if noticing for the first time the blood drying on them, her arms, and her sinh.
It began to rain. Softly at first, then harder, until the whole countryside was drowned in it.
The men and children went begrudgingly into the barn, leaving cigarette butts and soccer balls to soak in the mud. The monk and my mother retreated into the house. The repairman remained outside, undeterred from the work to be done. Neither I nor the girl stirred from our places. The branches of the elm tree sheltered us from the downpour. We sat in silence, listening to the rain, watching it fall.