TOUCH THE DRAGON (EXCERPT)
I'VE HAD THE SAME DREAM for three nights now. It's a winter dream, beginning with a man walking down a road into the dark. I see him from a height, behind a window; I watch the snow blur cold and silver through the columned light of streetlamps, and the glass of my window is too cold to touch. Or maybe ifs too hot-in the dream I know that if I touch it, I'll burn myself. I only stand and watch the man walk away, and he will not turn around to look at me. The soft thud of his feet in the snow is the dream's only sound. It gets louder as the distance between us grows. Somehow I know that if I push on the window long and hard enough, it will part smoothly under my hands, melt, and I'll be able to get out. But I don't even touch it because of the heat (or coldness). If I pressed my lips to the window for just a moment, the man would come back, but out of fear I don't do it. Instead, I shout his name and wake up.
Even when I don't dream I wake at night to turn off the overhead fan. During the days it's sticky and hot; during the nights it's sticky and cool. The breeze from the fan gets under the sheet and shivers me awake. Outside, Denchai sleeps, though a dogfight in the field has torn away a corner of silence. The quiet returns, lies smooth beneath a whirr of insects and frogs. I want to stay awake for this wordlessness. If I cannot have English, let me have this instead. I can understand the silence of sleep, whole in itself, complete.
The days themselves are not whole. They are made of half-eaten words, words left behind, nibbled words too long and strange to get in my mouth or ears. Everything is the wrong size here. My bones are too big, my mind is too small. I never thought words could fail me, but here they're not even words. They're useless noises, wholly unreliable. Meh, Pee-Moi, Koon Yiy, the children all blink innocently at me, smile, shake their heads. It would not matter how very slowly I said, "Please leave me alone in my room for just five minutes." They would not understand. They've lived within fifteen feet of each other for most of their lives. They're afraid to leave me alone.
I write out of tiredness, loneliness, longing. The danger is not that I'll forget anything I left in Canada, but that I'll remember it too sharply. Loneliness is so ironic when I'm surrounded constantly with new people and their lives. The bicycle-rickshaw drivers are anxious to teach me Thai, the children in Nareerat lean over the green terraces and call my Thai names, Kanikaa, Ploy. They're still very shy but sometimes when I'm sitting in the little pavilion under the tamarind tree, they appear quietly, cautious as fawns. If I sing something for them, they will sing the morning assembly songs for me, which I want very much to learn.
It's a terrible thing: to stand in the midst of almost three thousand singing, praying people when you have nothing to sing or pray yourself. I sway in the waves of so much lucent music, but they wash around me instead of through me because I haven't the key, the language, to let them in. The children are teaching me, and they bring roses to the English room, paper bags of sugared fruit and sweet rice. They are very shy, with black-lashed eyes and a velvet cover over their bones. I'm a rare specimen here: the blonde hairs on my arms astound them because my eyebrows are so black. My long Caucasian nose is an absolute mystery. After touching my skin they touch their own, trying to name the differences between us. We understand each other primarily through laughter.
But laughter is too simple a language for me. If I am happy, I am also miserable, prone to emotion, impatience, self-pity. The place and pace of my life have changed so quickly; it's difficult to recognize all this newness as my ownlife. I've been made into something completely different in less than a month, just because of a long day and night in a plane. In the English room one of the children's storybooks has figures which unfold upwards when the book is opened. (The kids are fascinated by it-Ajahn Champa brought it from England.) I cannot get that image out of my mind, the flat book flipping open, its magical characters rising straight off the page, the scurry of Thai fingers wanting to touch. Thailand itself has opened like that for me, gone from picture books to tangible form, and I am still surprised. The only trick that isn't available is the one that would unfold Canada into three dimensions.
Sometimes I forget this was my choice; I wanted to come here despite what I would leave behind. Apparently (it's on file somewhere) I came here to live and learn in a new culture, to adapt myself to a country very distinct from my own. At the moment, this seems just short of impossible. Even things I know (sunlight on water, fog caught in trees, a long expanse of green) leave me breathless, as though I've never seen colour before. The stars and planets confuse me when I sneak out to the field at night. I turn around and around slowly, testing angles, trying to chalk together a constellation I can recognize. I want an old image. Instead, what I never expected is suddenly there; I see it or am seen by it, caught. Yesterday, I spotted a praying mantis clinging to one of the outer folds of my green curtain, gazing in my direction with the focussed concentration of a tiny silk-green cat.
At night, one sheet sleeps over me and mosquitoes light on my skin. Nothing else, no one, touches me here. After my
strange empty dream of snow and hot glass, I don't return easily to sleep. In a place where there is nothing for you, no prayers or songs or even stars, you turn blindly to your body, hug your shoulders in the dark and touch your own pale arms, amazed. This is how I know I'm alone. My own skin surprises me.
Excerpt from July 29
While looking out over the mountains, I notice children creeping up behind me. They come one by one until a group of eight or nine is scattered behind me, hiding behind trees, some with babies slung down their backs. When I call out to them, they edge farther away, skittish as rabbits. Their feet are shoeless and tarred with mud and twigs, but they laugh with each other, presumably at me, the falang standing out in the rain. Three or four of them have distended bellies, and their arms and legs are very thin.
Even when the rest have fled, one girl with light brown hair stays behind, crouching in a camouflage of dirty clothes and skin. I do not even realize she is there until I go deeper into the trees. She clutches two small stones and taps them together like the bronze-players of the hilltribe. When I smile at her, she smiles back with a crooked mouth, teeth already rotting in her jaw. I put a few coins into her hand and she bows her thanks to me. I speak to her in Thai but she doesn't understand. She is Chinese. She throws her stones away and scrambles off in the direction of her friends. Running through the trees, she stumbles and falls down with a thud and dry cough. Before I reach her, she has found the dropped coins, wiped her face on her arm and taken off again, faster than before. Her dirty feet wink back at me, then disappear.
WE ARE IEAVING. That is all we can do, because we don't belong here. I can hardly breathe, leaving these hills. I lean out the open window of the car and lose my eyes to the paths, to the ochre steps kicked in the hillsides. Every crevice in the green walls leads somewhere. Everything has a meaning, a name I don't know. The wrap of beads and the arch of the dancers' fingers explained things I couldn't understand. The harvest time for the meagre crops of these plunging fields is a secret. That such hard-boned mountains yield any nourishment at all seems miraculous. I would die in a week here, if lost; I would shrivel into a wrinkled skin and catch in thorns. Snakes would nest in my ribcage.
We slide down, Meh Dang and I, both of us quiet. Our heads are light with the mist, riddled with bamboo. We come away and meet the smoother earth, the .one we know. I breathe easier when we leave behind the thin mountain air. Meh Dang hums a song and relaxes on the flat roads. I enter Chiang Rai as though returning to a city I've loved forever. Children here have finished school for the day; they chequer the streets with familiar blue and white uniforms, they swing their book bags like my friends at Nareerat. Their white socks are clean despite the puddles in the street. Every clear face moves in a common language. The familiar scenes of the streets burst open and blow back to me: the entrance to the market is crowded with yellow and blue umbrellas, the shops glow with movement, kindled by the rich colours of cloth and fruit.
My life here has been so easy that the idea of living on Maysalong stuns me.
Thailand has whittled the world into a great sliver and lodged it beneath my skin. I do not think of one country; I think of them all with an unmanageable scope of vision. I'd like to believe--and I sometimes do--that every boundary between people can be crossed, that we are connected to each other by invisible bonds that override distance. My skin stretches over the earth. I think of atlases and remember history and the future in the same moment.
I will not forget the skeleton walking with a pony. I will not forget the beggars or the barefoot children, though I don't know exactly why remembering them matters. Why do I pay such attention to details I cannot alter? Why do I see these things so clearly? Am I here only to witness, amazed one breath and appalled the next?
BACK IN THE WOODEN HOUSE, I am still awake. Meh Dang is sound asleep on the other mattress. I write this in the second-hand light of the moon. Insomnia tonight. Even in the land of frog-song and whispering crickets, there isn't a sound gentle enough to lull me. I'm tired but persistent. Beneath the shadow of the mosquito net, I squint to see my words. It's not the desire to write that keeps me awake, it's my mind, the troops of green-skinned mountains marching behind my eyes, the faces of raw-boned men, hilltribe bronze, children beating stones together. Sleep is not folded between any of those images. I wonder what the children of Maysalong are dreaming right now.