On a filthy square of sidewalk outside Pizza Magic, a Frenchman with a feathery beard pulled a purple lotus from Abigail Glynn’s ear. Flowers were cheap. Pull twelve of them from the ears of twelve women and maybe one slept with you. He handed her the lotus; she handed him the picture of Kurt.
“Do you know this man? Have you seen him?”
Kurt was her brother; her half-brother. He had been gone a long time, captured by the East. All Abby really knew of him was the smoky aura of decadence he had trailed on a visit home years ago. Black felt slippers padding around their father’s Brooklyn apartment, green tea at midnight, a flashed stash of illegal goodies. A week ago Abby could not have imagined being here, in Phnom Penh in the rainy season, showing his picture to strangers.
Compulsively her undermind rehearsed what she would say to Kurt if she found him. Martin has cancer. It’s stage four. Please come home. Not that he would convince easily. Extrapolating from her own experience, she knew it was Martin Glynn’s flaws as a father that had driven his first born to the ends of the earth. Relentlessly focused on his own immense needs, Martin had either been absent from his daughter’s life or so in her face she couldn’t breathe.
“Come,” said the Frenchman, whom for no reason she thought of as Henri. “We will eat magic pizza.”
“What’s magic about it?”
“If I make this sign” – he tapped his left eyebrow with an index finger – “our pizza arrives with special spice.”
He smiled thin; his self-content had a callous side and turned her off. “With the resins activated, one’s enjoyment may be huge.”
Her hunch. She forced him to look again at the picture. “You know him.”
“What is that?”
“What the Cambodians call him. You must ask Madame Un.”
“Where is she?”
“Go down to the river, where the people dance.”
Henri’s directions were insects. They skittered, but Abby patiently trapped them with her hand. She tried to give him back the lotus but he had turned away and was already climbing the steps to Pizza Magic.
It was dark now, her second night in the city. As she walked, Phnom Penh wrapped wet arms around her. She sensed her way down crowded streets toward the river, clutching her pack in front like a baby. An endless stream of tuk tuk drivers hollered going past, offering her an open-air ride. How could she say where she wanted to go when she didn’t know where she was? Feeling alien and menaced she went past the gaudy chaos of the night market, blouses and flip flops, aluminum pots and plastic trucks spilling from the stalls into the walkways. Past piles of trash reeking of stale urine. Past any number of lounging men checking her out. There was no clear line dividing darkness from light.
Abby was not good at the big things, the important things. The combustible disaster of her relationship with Ron was on her, not him. Her mother was always wanting forgiveness for sticking with Martin, but Abby seldom had any to give. She didn’t have a career, she’d had a job, selling medical supplies to doctors. There was nothing in her life she couldn’t walk away from. This would be different. It had to be. She would find her brother and bring him home. Because.
She heard the Asian boombox beat before she saw them. Hundreds of Cambodians, mostly women, line-dancing at the river. The spectacle moved her. In an instant she discovered the vastness of the world, the million things she had never imagined revealing the equal vastness of her ignorance. Only willpower pulled her away.
Working her way through the crush on Sisowath Quay she almost missed the snake sign. Look for the coiled cobra, Henri had said. It hung on a pole jutting from a restaurant’s second story. As she turned up the numbered street a naked three-year-old girl tottered toward her, cupping her hands, making a sound that meant Ease my misery. Abby distractedly put a dollar in her hot wet hand, kept moving. Three blocks up, a high stucco wall was broken by a toothy gate that swung inward the moment she touched the buzzer, as though they were waiting for her.
“Madame Un,” she blurted to the boy who was raising praying hands to her, bowing slightly. Sompiah, they called it. To Abby it was more than a civil gesture, it was a clean way to welcome her. He wore gym shirts and a T-shirt and his smile seemed real.
“I am Po. All purpose nephew to Madame Un.”
“I need to see her.”
He shook his head. “Your request is not possible. Madame Un is blind today. Come tomorrow, she may have sight once again.”
Abby felt something shift inside. She adjusted, though she did not know to what. She understood she had to think differently. Make pivots; make them graceful. “I am sorry Madame Un is blind today.”
Po bowed his head, accepting the expression of sympathy on her behalf.
Simple truth. “I am tired, Po. Will you let me sit down next to her?”
The plants in the courtyard had keen leaves and outlandish blooms that looked unreal in the urban night. A dog with sharp ears slunk. It was a rooming house for transients, and Madame Un had put herself to bed in one of her own rooms.
In the subdued light of an overhead bulb she might be sixty, she might be seventy five. On her back under a pinkish coverlet, eyes closed, she was emaciated and self-contained. She had the thinnest lips Abby had ever seen. Po spoke to her in Khmer. No response. He spoke again. Her eyelids fluttered, she opened her eyes. Shut them again. It was obvious she saw nothing.
Abby sat in the bedside chair to which Po pointed. Sometimes you pivoted by not moving. Po sat on the floor with his back to the wall. They both watched a sleek cockroach climb onto a flip flop on the floor. Jet lag was doing a number on Abby. The city was a river. It ran through the queer cavern of her mind. Her shoulders ached, her throat was dry. She slept sitting up.
Nothing had changed when the scuttling of a dream lizard woke her an hour later. The light flickered on Po sitting in the same position in the same spot, hands in his lap like a practice Buddha. The coverlet lifted and fell just perceptibly with Madame Un’s breathing. How did the woman know Abby was there? How did Abby know she knew?
“I’m looking for Naga Barang.”
Po translated the old woman’s words, which blew out like soap bubbles.
“She wants to know why you look for this man.”
“He is my brother.” She thought about saying Martin and cancer but something stopped her.
Most of Madame Un’s response came out in Khmer, with glimmers of French that Abby struggled to capture. What she got out of Po’s translation had to do with a field of rice. With sleep and rest and a duty Madame Un must perform. Abby took it on faith that the answer had something to do with Kurt and went gratefully to bed in the room Po showed her.
In the morning she felt queasy but wrote it off to the time zone difference. She wandered out to the courtyard where Po was having a technical conversation with a tuk tuk driver. He pointed at the motorcycle’s back tire, which needed air. He pointed at the passenger carriage, which needed cleaning. He turned to Abby.
“Good news! Madame Un sees perfectly well this morning.”
“Does she go blind often?”
He frowned, at a loss to explain. “It’s the ghosts.”
He called in Khmer, and a girl came from the kitchen with tea and a baguette for Abby. She ate gratefully.
Po told her, “You go with Madame Un today.”
He wouldn’t say, or couldn’t. By the time the tuk tuk driver had cleaned his carriage and pumped up his tire and loaded a small suitcase, Abby knew she would go, and she would ask no more questions. The old woman shuffled out to the courtyard on Po’s arm and climbed into the forward-facing seat. Abby took the seat opposite, the suitcase and her pack on the carriage floor between them. She embarrassed herself with a moment of panic when she realized Po was not coming with them.
“How will I understand?”
He sompiahed with a special tenderness but said nothing, and the driver motored through the courtyard gate into the morning fray.
It took a long time to get out of the city. The traffic was intense, insane, unpredictable. Motos and tuk tuks and trucks came at them from every point of the metropolitan compass, time and again missing by a hair’s breadth. The middle child in a family of five on a Chinese motorcycle going past looked gravely at Abby as though her foreignness fell outside the bounds of the conceivable. A boy balancing racks of finger-length golden bananas on his bicycle laughed outright. A girl on a moto flipped her hair and checked her phone while maneuvering expertly around a hole in the road.
Abby wished she could tell Madame Un what she felt. This is all new to me, and it makes me happy in a new way. She tried an English sentence and got back incomprehension. Her French, rescued from college courses, was a joke. Madame Un consoled her for her failure to communicate, gently patting her hand.
When they finally left the city, the driver lurched left in the face of a blur of oncoming traffic, somehow winding up on a muddy graveled road where chickens gathered by a sack of spilled grain. It was starting to rain. The driver, who had a hollow chest and did not speak, stopped the tuk tuk, put on a plastic raincoat, and rolled down the canvas blinds of the carriage.
“Where are we going?” Abby said to neither of them. The chances of her screwing things up were high. Kurt could be in Laos by now, or Vietnam. He might be a cowboy in Argentina.
The rain came harder, the road degenerated, and the land on either side flooded with churning water the color of dirty milk. Abby thought about her father. Cancer had humanized Martin, though suffering did not convert him to a pleasant person. He had seemed to be listening to something outside himself, and hearing. He’s not evil, he had told Abby, talking about Kurt. It’s just, well. I was a handicap, wasn’t I?
The sky had cleared by the time they stopped alongside a field of rice so brilliantly green it made Abby ache with Garden-of-Eden longing. An earthen dike ran at a ninety-degree angle from the road. The driver set off walking along the dike carrying Madame Un’s suitcase. Abby helped the old woman out of the vehicle and they followed, sandaled feet squishing in the mud. With the sun out, the heat was intense, and by the time they covered the spot a half mile along where the driver left the suitcase, Abby’s shirt stuck to her back, her hair frizzed, her jeans were soggy.
Above a field of emerald rice sat a miniature pagoda on stilts protecting a small Buddha in the earth-touching position. The driver said something brief and respectful to Madame Un, then trudged back to his vehicle. The old woman gestured to the suitcase. Abby carried it to her, and Madame Un took out incense sticks, a bouquet of white lotus blossoms, a wrist band of red thread with yellow beads. She made her offering to the Buddha and sat on a more or less dry hump of ground.
Heat made the rice paddy steam, but the breeze was like good humor. For as far as Abby could see there was green, and water, and sky as luminously smooth as the inside of a seashell. She lit the incense sticks as Madame Un directed her to do, handing her a purple Bic. She wondered where in the world she might want to be and decided here. Here.
En, Yun, Vorleak, Tith. Kanika, Tikheayou, Mao.
They were names the old woman was chanting, tearless eyes closed in a trance of remembering. En, Yun, Vorleak, Tith. Kanika, Tikheayou, Mao. Over and over. Abby whispered them under her breath along with her. Names became syllables became sounds became not prayer but the impulse to prayer, before becoming names again.
Abby had lost track of the time when Madame Un suddenly stopped. She spoke to her in clear and simple French. “Ces noms, je dois les dire, c’est mon boulot.”
Saying the names? Was that enough? Abby nodded as if she understood. On one side of the dike a rice paddy ran to a distant treeline. On the other, tall grass and lotus pads defined a swampy lake, here and there a pink blossom rising out of the water. When Abby wandered in that direction Madame Un spoke sharply.
“Attention au crocodile.”
Beware of the crocodile? She became aware of a motorcycle making its way toward them, appearing out of woods on the horizon, the rider skillfully negotiating the dike. For a moment she thought it must be Kurt. But it was only a boy with brown bare feet and a cool, appraising expression indicating he would not be fooled. Madame Un made Abby understand she was to go with him.
Saying Kurt’s name was bad luck. She wouldn’t do it. But she could not resist asking, “Where? Please tell me where.”
“Not far,” the old woman reassured her in French.
Abby slung her pack over her shoulder and climbed onto the back of the bike. Behind her, Madame Un continued the vigil. En, Yun, Vorleak, Tith. Kanika, Tikheayou, Mao.
“It’s the names of the family she lost in the genocide. Madame Un grew up near here. Her father owned land. He drove an old Citroën. That was enough to doom them with the Khmer Rouge.”
“But she survived.”
Kurt shrugged. “A fluke. It’s something she has to live with.”
Abby’s half-brother did not seem surprised to see her. Maybe it was a Buddhist thing. He had the appearance of a grifter at rest, his good looks an asset to be deployed in the service of himself: shapely hands, a pouty mouth, buff forearms. At forty, his blond boy quality had gone sandy. But his tan pants were tropical cool, and the white shirt hung on him like he was doing it a favor. He sat crosslegged on a straw mat in his house on stilts. In one dark corner Meas Mey watched him intently. She was young and small, with dark skin and dazzling long dark hair. She seemed restless, and Abby imagined her elsewhere. At a mall, maybe, her quick brown hands, lacquered nails, going through a rack of expensive T-shirts. It was monstrous she should be with Kurt Glynn.
He rubbed two fingers together and Mey brought a tightly rolled cigarette which she lit in her own lips, then inserted between his.
When Kurt offered her the joint Abby shook her head. Mey trapped a cricket in her tiny hand. Somewhere in the village, a cock crowed in a scrawny voice.
Kurt said, “You don’t remember this, Abby, but for a while my mother thought Martin’s two families should co-exist. This was back when he had that big place in Queens. Sunday dinner and rapprochement. It worked. For a month.”
Mey was kneading the tension from the knot in the back of his neck. He closed his eyes. Opening them, he toked.
“Martin has cancer,” Abby said.
He looked at her and nodded, still not surprised. “I figured it had to be something like that.”
He spoke to Mey, telling her about his father. Mey made a sympathetic noise and kept kneading. A rising cost of living and official hostility had driven Kurt out of Thailand. Cambodia was cheap, chaotic, welcoming. Two years later he appeared to be fluent in Khmer.
He said to Abby, “You disapprove of the weed.”
She shook her head. “Why do they call you Naga Barang?”
He blew a neat jet of smoke sideways. “It’s an honorific.”
“Tell me what you’re doing here. Use words I can understand.”
“You assume it’s some sort of escapism, I’m running from a past full of Martin Glynn. Consider the alternative. Maybe it’s a quest for the good.”
She frowned. It showed the worst of her, and she felt vulnerable.
“Rest,” Kurt told her. “You’re wiped out. We’ll talk in the morning.”
In the back room of the house on stilts, in a rice village whose name she could not pronounce, Abby lay on a bamboo mat listening to crickets and frogs. In the front room the talk was soft. Not domestic but intimate. She felt the time difference acutely. Gathering itself, the evening wrung her like a rag.
They were watching the sun come up above the eastern treeline, sitting in the doorway to catch the trifling breeze. A barefoot man with skin of wrinkled leather came by with four eggs. He presented them to Kurt with appealing diffidence, and Abby watched him swell with pleasure at whatever it was Kurt told him. She had a suspicion.
“It’s tribute,” she said when the man moved on.
“I prefer to think of it as traditional hospitality.”
She asked him again why they called him Naga Barang.
He exhaled slowly, bestowing a blessing in the air he gave back to the atmosphere. “You’ve traveled a long way to get here, haven’t you? In Buddhist mythology, the Naga is a serpent. In Cambodia he has seven heads. There are lots of different stories about him.”
“So is it a good snake or a bad snake?”
“Such a Western question, sister of mine. It depends on the story, on the situation.”
“It means foreigner.”
“So you’re the foreign snake.”
He looked proud and furtive but would say no more. He called to Mey, who took the eggs to make breakfast.
Throughout the morning more gifts arrived. A potful of cooked rice, a catfish with a barbed mustache, three white lotus blossoms. The people who brought Kurt a present, Abby noticed, left believing they had gained in the transaction. She wished she understood what he was telling them. It inflated them, it made them glow.
The heat spiked. The air was wet. Bent over like an old woman, Mey swept the floor with a short-handled broom humming a melody of slippery notes.
“Take a walk with me,” Kurt said.
So Abby went with him as he made his rounds, stopping at his neighbors’ houses, and then out to the rice paddies. He sompiahed left and right, taking in the respect they showered on him not as his due but as a manifestation of his phenomenal sacred luck. As the sister of Naga Barang, Abby inhaled some sidestream respect.
“I go back to Madame Un’s when I need a change,” he told her. “But that’s happening less and less. What I need is here.”
They were standing alongside a paddy watching two girls in white blouses negotiate the mud on a moto. He pointed to the ground as if expecting a mystical lotus to rise there.
“What do you need, Kurt?”
“From the swamp of unpleasantness that is Kurt Glynn.”
She waited a minute before asking him, “Why do they love you? The people here.”
“It’s a long story.”
“Tell it to me.”
He shook his head. “Never mind. Let’s play a game. We’ll both of us do our best to come up with a positive memory of Martin. You go first.”
“Why won’t you talk about it?”
“Talk about talk – not always a good thing, is it?”
But that evening she saw. Began to see, anyway. They were strolling, going nowhere in no hurry. The sunset was lazy, the sky a soup of sloshing colors. The evening assumed for Abby a novel shape, a brother and sister who were comfortable with each other, taking a walk, when a young boy came loping up behind them. He sompiahed. When Kurt acknowledged him, a stream of frantic words escaped the boy. His eyes glistened, whether with tears or excitement Abby could not say.
“I need to go,” Kurt said. “Catch up to you later.”
“No.” Meaning she was going with him.
He shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
She followed him to a house on rickety stilts at the opposite end of the village. Below the house a loom was set up, out of the weather. Half a length of blue silk shot through with gold threads rested in the loom like an original idea occurring gradually to the weaver. Two slack-bellied black pigs rooted in a pile of swept trash. A small dog with a snapped off tail bared its teeth and growled at them.
It was the weaver, or the weaver’s mother. Sticks of bone, hard skin, a face sponged free of expression. Surrounded by her family and her neighbors, she lay writhing in a leather hammock. She dug her nails into the flesh of her bare brown arms. Her eyes refused to open as she moaned the same syllables over and over. Everyone was talking. Their distress moved Abby. Her helplessness felt like guilt. But when people noticed Kurt, they stopped talking. Crocodile, a man who might be the husband of the woman in the hammock said. He was bald, with long ears, and said a lot more, but the lone French word was all Abby understood.
Kurt nodded, a doctor confirming the hunch of his diagnosis. “Il a mille ans, il a une mémoire féroce.”
A thousand-year-old crocodile with a ferocious memory. Was it the same beast Madame Un had warned Abby away from?
She followed little of what her brother said. Most of it was in Khmer, and the random French phrases he stuck in when his vocabulary failed added up to nothing. But an image formed in her imagination. A crocodile, down under the earth, patiently eating everything it could force down its voracious maw.
He was telling them a story.
It went on for a long time. Kurt’s voice did not try to convince, or entertain them. It was factual and measured. But the facts themselves had a reassuring quality. People nodded quietly. The dog with the snapped tail quit growling and went to sleep. Eventually, hearing the facts delivered in the odd foreign voice, the still odder cadence of Naga Barang, the woman in the hammock stopped moaning. She sat up, listening as if to catch a sound that was going away.
When she began speaking, Kurt stopped. She spoke with conviction but not passionately. There was a rote quality to her delivery, as if she were reciting something from memory. But telling her story calmed her. When she was through, she lay her head down again, and her husband covered her with a sheet. A granddaughter rocked the hammock as the neighbors began drifting away. There was something in their faces, taking their leave of Kurt, for which Abby had no name. ‘Gratitude’ sounded cheesy. It was bigger than that, a kind of recognition of the power of Naga Barang. He was being acknowledged and knew it.
She did not ask him to explain, walking back to their house. But when Mey served him a plate of rice Abby said, “What about the crocodile?”
“It lives down below the mud. Way down.”
“It ate their stories. Tried to eat all their memories but only got so far.”
“You’re talking about the Khmer Rouge, aren’t you?”
He would not answer a direct question. She thought she remembered that he had always been that way. He said, “When people in this country start remembering what they’ve forgotten…”
“Like that woman.”
“Her name is Sovann. The K.R. – a kid, a boy of fifteen, they say – clubbed her husband to death. He was saving the one bullet he had in his gun. Sovann was there, she saw it happen. But she wasn’t talking about that, she was remembering one of the old stories. The crocodile gave it back. Heaved it up and she grabbed it. In her story, the Naga king’s daughter marries an ancient king. Their union produces Cambodia. She wants it to happen again.” He shrugged. “Maybe it will.”
He stopped. He picked up a book in French from a stack on the floor and thumbed through it, not seeing anything on the page.
“Here’s the truth, Abby. When they start remembering the old stories, it overwhelms me. Depresses me. Makes me realize I don’t know jack shit, never will. They give me more credit than I deserve.”
“They respect you.”
He would not be placated. “The fire in that woman’s memory, I’ll never touch anything that hot.”
She understood he would go no further. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
He looked at her as though she had posed a riddle. “I’m tired, Abby. I’m going to sleep.”
But he didn’t. He put down his book and picked up another. He tuned her out and read. In the morning, Sovann’s husband came by with a bottle of beer wrapped in burlap. Kurt told him a story which he seemed, upon hearing, to know pretty well.
Naga Barang had taken over the village. That was what Abby saw with increasing clarity, over the next few days. With the force of his personality he had made it the backdrop in the drama of his quest. Six months ago he had come out with Madame Un to pray at the pagoda. When she went back to the city he stayed, imagining a place of honor for himself in the village and then filling it. The source of his power was the stories. Naga Barang’s stories conferred fortune on the hearer. When people gathered, they wanted him around. At home, he read in French, digging down into the stories in his books, trying to shape them into something he could tell. Every once in a while, the crocodile vomited something up.
One evening he went to eat with one of the village families. While he was away, Abby learned that Meas Mey wanted to go to Phnom Penh. She was secretly studying. In a mix of bad French and worse English she laid out her plan. Go to Madame Un’s. Get a job. Get a scholarship. Live a different life, a not-this-village life.
“So do it,” said Abby.
She shook her head. “Peur.”
“You’re afraid of my brother?”
It took a while, but Mey finally made Abby understand that she dreaded not so much Kurt’s reaction as the reaction of her neighbors. It was an honor, being invited to share a house with Naga Barang, a man unlike anyone they had ever imagined. But the honor brought a burden of responsibility. The last thing they wanted was to rile the foreign serpent. His presence conferred advantage. If Mey walked out on him he would be angry, and their luck must turn bad.
“Go,” Abby urged her. “Go now, while I’m here.”
Mey giggled and put a hand over her mouth. In the orange light of a kerosene lantern she picked up the broom, looked at it as though wondering, could such a thing have a purpose? Then she threw it against the wall. Twenty minutes later she was gone.
Kurt came home grumpy. “Where’s Mey? I need a pipe.”
“Tell me about the stories.”
Taking him by surprise, the question disarmed him. “It’s the myths, Abby. The old stuff. A lot of the past went underground with the K.R. But it’s still there, down under the mud.”
“With the crocodile.”
“All my stories do is coax back some of what people lost. Don’t give me that look. It’s benign. You see what they give me. Food, flowers, a tiny bit of esteem. I know what you’re thinking.”
“There’s something corrosive about it. Living here, eating their rice, accepting their praise. All of that pumps up the ego I’ve been trying so hard to escape. Don’t you think I see that?”
She did not know how to have this kind of conversation. Her mind didn’t work that way. She told him, “I quit my job.”
“It was probably a job that needed quitting. ”
He sat on the mat. He kicked off his flip flops. “What happened the other night with Sovann? It’s not always that dramatic. But it is always intense. It wipes me out. It drags me down. I keep going deeper. I have no choice, right? That’s where the stories are, and without the stories I’m not Naga Barang, I’m only Kurt Glynn, the boy who never grew up. But being here is making me thick. I can feel it. I’m getting heavier by the day, when the whole idea of Cambodia was to defy gravity. Go up, get light. Drop the dross.”
“Meas Mey left.”
“What do you mean, she left?”
She explained Mey’s plan without mentioning Madame Un. He nodded. He kept nodding. When she finished he shivered once. The ghost squeezing his windpipe was internal. He told her with a simulacrum of composure, “I need comfort.”
He went down the ladder in a hurry. Thirty minutes later he was back with a new girl. The new girl’s name was Chantou. She was less restless than Mey but just as sexy, like a flower whose petals you wanted to eat. Her dark hair had a reddish cast that might be dye. She nodded to Abby and went about preparing a pipe for Kurt.
“Yes, Abby. I am about to smoke opium. I’ve had enough down today, I need some up.”
She was taken in, at first, by the steamy, seamy feel of the moment. Her snaky brother, passive on his mat in the expectation of pleasure. Chantou’s careful preparation of the pipe, its black bowl ugly as a toad at the end of a long shiny stem. The smoke awakened a disturbing hunger in Abby, like a memory that had been blanked out. Somewhere on a radio, flutes answered drums.
Kurt knew what was coming and surrendered himself to the pipe dream even before he blew the bowl. Abby sat with her back to the wall on a mat and watched him clench, relax, go away.
“Kurt?” she said when Chantou took the spent pipe from his limp hand.
No answer. The girl looked at Abby curiously. Did she think he would speak?
Three pipes later Kurt was sealed into a world Abby could not penetrate. Chantou came confidentially over. She had less French than Meas Mey, and no English. But somehow Abby understood her. In every age, in every situation, there appeared the Naga. Her grandfather told her what he remembered, what a hundred grandfathers before him knew. You appeased the Naga, you had to. All the more so when he was Naga Barang, an interloper and unpredictable. Mey was a friend of Chantou’s, but she had done a bad thing, running away. Abby did not have the right words to tell her how wrong she was. She should run. As fast as Meas Mey. Run.
Abby fell asleep making excuses for not stopping Kurt from going back to his drug. The excuses made her heart ache until they were swallowed by the crocodile.
In the morning Kurt lay inert on his mat, and Abby thought he might be paralyzed. He told her hoarsely, “The ass end of ecstasy. I didn’t want you to see it.”
He wanted another pipe to blow out the bad, but there was no opium to be had. Chantou’s hands signaled persuasive sympathy, trying to soothe him. It didn’t help. He went on a noisy tear, rummaging through the house, which was so spare it was bare, except for the books. There was nowhere to hide anything.
“I brought something back from Phnom Penh. For an emergency.”
Abby told him, “You smoked it last night.”
He turned on her. “Not that,” he said acidly. “I’m not talking about that shit.”
“What did you see when you were high?”
The question snapped his rave. It provoked a celestial smile. Both women were relieved.
“I saw the pseudo-Buddha, Sister, and a cunning bastard he is. Made me think I was up. I mean really there. The air was texture. The colors were revelation. I felt light, as in the opposite of heavy.” He shook his head. The sadness was real, and she had a sense he had earned it, in his headstrong, selfish, totally committed way. “Kurt Glynn’s ultimate illusion factory.”
After more rummaging he came up with enough weed to roll a spindly joint, which he smoked with greedy self-absorption. When it was gone he looked at Abby as though just now remembering she was there. He told her, “Maybe this is where I was meant to be.”
She did not understand him and told him she didn’t.
“Down on the ground, dragging around a tail. I don’t believe in reincarnation, Abby. I tried but I can’t. This is it, you get one shot. And it’s only the lucky few who soar. The climbers. The rest of us are destined to ride out our time without transcending a goddamn thing. Does that make sense, or does it sound too Christian?”
“There’s something I need to tell you.”
He shook his head. “I turn forty one this year. Gotta be a realist. I’m running out of time.”
Before Abby could think how to respond he was down the ladder and gone. Chantou didn’t need to be asked. She went with him.
It took five minutes alone for Abby to realize she should go home. Coming to Cambodia was a flawed idea to start with, and she had blundered through every step of the way. She had not been straight with her brother. She hadn’t known how to talk to him. Nor did she know what she wanted, or how to figure it out. If she went home now she might be able to get back the job she’d quit. That sounded horrible, but she needed a starting point. Again.
Throwing her clothes into the pack, she asked herself if she ought to say goodbye. No. She would only botch that, too. She would cry too much, or too little. She would say something stupid he would have to remember. The idea of disappearing appealed to her. Go; go fast. Cleaner that way. She would make her final pivot. A long walk out to the road was ahead of her, but she knew the way.
Climbing down the ladder, pack on her back, she heard a commotion. She heard panic in hollering human voices, and the bellowing of an animal. She went in the direction of the sound.
To a field. Green rice rose from the flat, stretching acres, but there was an unplanted patch of mud near the road. Somebody’s water buffalo had wandered into the mud, which turned out to be a sinkhole. The animal was mired up to its haunches. It was furious and frustrated, already exhausted from struggling. Abby watched it stretch its neck, lowing in misery. Ten distraught men stood on the edge of the mudhole in bare feet, talking excitedly, arguing about how to get it out. Kurt stood with them.
“This is a big deal,” he told Abby calmly when he saw her. “They have to get it out without breaking its legs. People around here can’t survive without the carabao. We’re talking about my friend Samnang’s livelihood.”
“You don’t have to say it. Martin is dead.”
“How did you know?”
“Your eyes. I’m grieving, I guess. In my way.”
He took her arm and she felt forgiven. Relief surged in her. Then Kurt turned away, speaking in Khmer. She couldn’t tell whether the idea to bring planks was his or somebody else’s. In any event three men jogged away and came back with two broad planks. They jammed them into the mud making a bridge for the carabao to climb out. Samnang, a lean man with iron arms, tried to coax it forward, clucking and singing and crying.
But the animal was seriously spooked. There was too much human noise in the air, and it felt the earth sucking its body down, swallowing it alive. In its carabao brain the sinkhole had no bottom, and the men were enemies. Its pathetic cries tore at Abby, bringing tears to her eyes. She understood that everything depended on their freeing the gigantic animal from the mud where it thrashed futilely, getting weaker.
Several of the men took turns trying to lasso the carabao. If they could get the rope around its neck they might be able to coax the beast just far enough forward that its foot touched a plank. It wanted purchase. One foot might make all the difference. After half a dozen tries, the rope finally caught. But instead of settling around the buffalo’s neck, it caught on a horn. Abby heard the disappointment in the men’s voices. They tried patiently to flick the rope upward, free of the horn, but it was securely snagged.
Something had to be done. Kurt was the one to do it. She watched her brother ease his way toward the animal, a foot on each plank. Suddenly she admired him. Not his courage, although he had some of that. There was something else about him she could not have guessed at. Steadiness. How could a son of Martin Glynn be so steady? The idea was to get close enough to lift the rope from the carabao’s horn and loop it around its neck.
She was so taken with her brother’s concentration that she missed the beast’s headswipe as he approached it on the planks. Despite its frenzy the movement was almost casual. As it twisted its head a horn caught Kurt in the chest. He was flicked off the planks like a fly. Before he landed on his back in the mud, blood was jetting from the hole the horn had made.
She screamed and went to him. She bent over him. He was conscious. She hated the serenity in his intelligent eyes.
“A piece of advice,” he told her.
She took off her T-shirt, made a bandage of it and pressed it to the wound. She had to stop the bleeding. He would be okay if the bleeding stopped. They could sew him up.
“Doctor,” she cried in French.
That was absurd. There were no doctors anywhere near a village like this. But maybe someone knew how to sew up a chest hole. Anguished men went running in three directions.
There was a lull. Kurt closed his eyes and she panicked, but after a moment he opened them again. There was still light there, and calm awareness.
“It will be okay,” she told him. “They’re bringing help.”
He blinked. She wished she didn’t see what she was seeing, her brother’s dark blood pooling in the mud around his body. She willed herself to obliterate it. No good. She would never stop seeing it.
He said something. His voice was dreamy, and she told him to shut up. Bending over him, pressing the folded T-shirt to his chest, she felt the mud soaking through the knees of her jeans.
“Forget about Martin,” he told her in that terrible dreamy voice. She tried so shush him but he went on talking. “Martin’s done all the damage he can do. You need to tell yourself a new story.”
He closed his eyes again but kept breathing. She experimented with different pressures on the wound. A woman had appeared on the edge of the sinkhole. A mother, she had to be someone’s mother. She held a needle in her hand. Behind her one of the men carried a magic black bag. Someone else had thought to bring a stretcher of bare poles and leather straps.
“Open your eyes, Kurt.”
He did. The atmosphere was strangely peaceful. Abby was aware of the morning sky draping a rose mantle of luxurious folds on the sleepy earth to the east. The carabao had gone still and silent, as if it were ready to cooperate now and be saved.
“About the story,” Kurt said. “You get it, right?”
She nodded. She got it. In a moment she would surrender her place to the mother with the needle and the magic bag. But she got it. Unable to bear her brother’s eyes, she looked around. With any luck, here in the mud there sparkled her story’s first word.
Mark Jacobs has published 97 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, the Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, and Southern Humanities Review. He has stories forthcoming in Playboy and several other magazines. He works for the State Department’s Office of Inspector General.