The overhanging jungle ahead of Payut’s little boat parted, and he saw the Tao Phree River swallow the stream that bore him. His hands trembled on the paddle. Every element in his body cried out for him to turn upstream, away from the city. Even fighting the current would be better, easier.
But there was no-one else to do what needed doing.
His boat reached the river. He clenched his hands, raised the paddle, and swung the boat’s nose downstream.
The current swept him along, too fast, towards the golden spires of the Grand Temple that rose in the distance. A raft loomed up ahead, a whole family huddled on it – father, mother, children, two or three grandparents, several of them with poles out, pushing the whole rickety contraption against the river’s pull. Payut leaned hard on his paddle and barely missed them. He saw their faces, watching as he swept by.
“Not safe!” the father shouted.
Payut thought at first that he meant the near-miss, but then the other man waved, pointed, and Payut understood. The city.
He couldn’t explain that he knew. Couldn’t explain the mix of emotions and needs that roiled in him. So he only called “Thanks!” and turned away from the faces.
Ahead, the Grand Temple vanished again as the river curved. The dense green wall of the jungle was broken by a dead tree, then another and another. Payut’s boat slowed as the river grew sluggish and wide. The water felt too thick, resisting his paddle. On either side, the banks were full of massive dead trees, their branches stretching high, skeletal, above lower, denser vegetation whose leaves drooped, sickly green. It couldn’t have been like this before.
It hadn’t been like this before.
He felt in his mind, still waters covering depths he did not want to probe. For thirty years he had let them lie undisturbed, covered by a thin layer of calmness. But the abbot at the monastery had been right: that was not true enlightenment. And if he was going to the city – back to the city – he had to know what to expect.
He pushed mentally against the still waters. They resisted him. He pushed harder.
A flash of fire and darkness, chanting and pain.
He flinched away, pulling back, scrabbling desperately for the surface –
Payut blinked at the river, breathing hard, bizarrely comforted by the sight of the dead trees. “I can’t,” he said aloud.
His boat came around a curve and he saw the Grand Temple more clearly than before, its golden spires topping massive bell-shaped reliquaries painted gold, trimmed in blue and red. Opposite it sat the dark unpainted bulk of the Old Temple, a single round-topped stone tower surrounded by four smaller towers. Both temples were obscured by dark clouds. After a moment he realized what they were: birds, flying and circling in massive numbers. Storks.
He waited, breath held, for another terrifying flash of memory, but none came. Instead he thought of the girls he had given his last earth charm to, mere days ago, whose father had died after eating a stork, whose mother had suffered an imbalance of elements – an imbalance that he had seen more and more in recent weeks.
“It’s all related,” he murmured. “But how?”
The temples were farther away than they had seemed, for the river looped back and forth. This, too, he remembered, unwillingly – how he had paddled and paddled and thought he would never get free of the sight of those looming bell-domes. Now, instead of being too fast, the river took him too slowly, prolonging the moment he dreaded. Yet he only felt worse for the waiting.
Night came, the sun dropping behind the stark branches of the dead trees, only a few scattered lights visible from the city. Payut felt too uneasy to leave the boat and sleep on shore, so he found a rotten dock to tie up to, and ate a cold meal of rice paper dampened and wrapped around sprouts and bean curd. He had seen only a few boats and makeshift rafts coming upstream, unlike the steady flow from a few days earlier, and the people in them had been wide-eyed and blank-faced, unable to meet his gaze. Whatever was happening, it was getting worse.
Payut slept fitfully, and woke several times thrashing in terror from dreams whose images slipped away the moment he opened his eyes. With the last, he barely woke in time to keep the boat from tipping him and everything he owned, all his wares, into the river. His heart thudded with two kinds of fear. Darkness was giving way to the grey predawn. He got up, brewed himself a cup of green tea. Forced himself to sip it slowly as a monk had taught him once, tasting each bitter yet soothing drop on his tongue, until he felt still waters in his mind. Still he moved slowly, not hurrying as he finished the tea and washed the cup in the river and packed it away. Even so, he was on his way by the time the sun rose.
He was keeping close to the bank, comforted by the trees close by – even dead, they reminded him of the narrow backwater streams he had plied for thirty years – when he saw movement ahead. He hadn’t seen any people all day, nor animals…only storks. But this was no stork.
Payut turned the boat with a deft swoop of his paddle, arcing away from the bank for a better look.
It was a person, head bent under a conical straw hat, wading upstream.
Payut glanced at the temples ahead, then looked away. “Spirits be kind to you,” he said.
The hat tipped up. Under it was a very young woman, limbs thin as chopsticks under a loose tunic whose hem dragged heavy in the water as if pulling her back towards the city. She bore a lopsided bundle on her back.
Excess of wind, Payut thought.
“Older Brother,” she said, her voice no more than a whisper.
“Will you take tea with me?” said Payut, a plan beginning to form in his mind.
She closed her eyes for a moment and nodded wearily. “Where?”
The answer was a little tricky, but after casting about, Payut found a patch of bare ground behind a tree that had fallen, its trunk lying well out into the river. In the shelter of its roots he boiled water and made a spicy vegetable curry and rice, the first real meal he had eaten since the monastery. The hot spices went a long way towards restoring the balance of elements in him, and from the way the young woman’s shoulders slowly relaxed as she ate, she felt the same. She handled her chopsticks with small, deft movements, but he did not miss the speed with which she ate.
Payut waited until after the meal, when they were both drinking tea, to ask any questions. He’d been hoping she would tell him herself. Finally, accepting this as wrong thinking, he said, “Little Sister, what are you doing on the river without a boat?”
She closed both hands around her teacup and did not look at him. “There are no boats in the city anymore.”
“So you are wading. Is it that bad?”
She glanced up, meeting Payut’s gaze for a moment. “Yes.”
He winced. It was not polite to pry, but he had to know. “What is happening in the city?”
Her expression changed. “You are going there? Why?”
Because a monk told me to. Because I need to know what’s wrong. Because I’m terrified to even look at the Grand Temple. Because I want my still waters back. “I’m trying to help.”
“There is nothing you can do,” she said. “And nothing to tell.”
Her eyes said otherwise, though, in the way they looked past him and darted constantly.
“You have too much wind in you,” said Payut.
Her gaze focused on him, and she nodded. “I have not slept in days. How…how do you know?”
Payut hesitated. He had a few wind charms left, it was wrong to withhold them, but… “If I help you, will you tell me about the city?”
She flinched. “I told you, there is nothing to say.”
He recognized her pain, suddenly, as akin to the dark waters within his own mind. Forcing her would be like his own failed attempt to penetrate the waters. He would not wish that on anyone.
But helping one person at a time, giving out charms, would not fix the greater wrong he had been trying not to see.
He reached for his almost-empty bag of charms, pulled out a tiny charm carved in the shape of a cormorant bird, held it out for her to see. “I need to know.”
Her eyes went to the cormorant at once. She closed them, then began to speak, eyes still closed. “The city gates are guarded from the outside. They poke at you, make you prove you’re human before they’ll let you leave. You have to be quick. If they’re not satisfied, they throw you back inside. It is a city of creatures, not for people anymore. Nagas live in the canals, yakshas and hungry ghosts roam the streets. The storks are everywhere, watching.”
He had heard the stories, but he had never thought – or wished – to see such beings. “And the monks?” Payut whispered.
Her head jerked from side to side, more a struggle than a denial. “My little brother was a monk. I have not seen him since the last monsoon. He came to me one night crying, asking me to hide him. Others came after him, dragged him away in the rain. He was only a child, he was supposed to spend a year in the Grand Temple and come back. He never came back.”
Monks chanting, deep voices in a continuous drone that did not pause for breath. A mat in a dark corner. A boy crying. A grip on his arm, hard and painful, dragging him to an immense room where a towering golden statue gazed down on him with unseeing eyes that had no mercy for his homesick tears. The statue spoke.
Someone was screaming, he could not hear the statue’s words. River water running behind him, dry branches creaking, a voice saying quietly over and over, “Older Brother, Older Brother, Older Brother…”
Payut blinked up into a sky framed by dead branches. His throat hurt. The screaming had stopped. A face was bending over him, not touching. He remembered the young woman, the meal they had shared.
“I’m here,” he managed to croak.
“I think I should go,” she said softly.
He struggled to sit up, though his body ached as if all five elements in it were struggling for dominance. The cormorant charm was still in his hand. He held it out. “May you find balance,” he whispered.
She took it carefully and bowed from the waist, palms together. “And to you, Older Brother.”
Payut watched her step back into the river and continue upstream, one slow step after another. He felt like that, too, for all he had a boat. Wearily he packed away the dishes from the meal and pushed his boat back into the swirling current.
The river looped once, and again, and then the walls of the city rose directly ahead. He’d never seen them from the outside in daylight, but their height and bulk sent a ripple through the still waters in his mind, as if a huge fish had swum past just below the surface.
The water of the river ran up to the great city gates, where it flowed through the iron bars on its way to the sea. He remembered the gates as standing open, but now they were closed tight, soaring taller than a man’s height above the water’s surface. A few men and women in padded jackets and helmets stood on wooden platforms just outside the walls, holding long spears.
Payut dug deep with his paddle and coasted to a stop in an eddy near the bank. “Who are you?” he called.
A hard-faced woman called back, “The last of the city watch and the temple guard. What are you?”
“A man,” said Payut.
“What is your business?”
He swallowed. “To enter the city.”
The woman eyed the pedlar’s wares in his boat. “There is no trade here now, and none may enter. Go.”
His hands clenched on the paddle for a moment, eager to obey. He forced them to relax. “I must get inside. I have come a long way, because an abbot asked me to come.”
She laughed, a hard sound. “Only spirits live here now, and if I let you past, they will eat you. You must have heard.”
Payut closed his eyes. A golden statue rose behind his lids. He thought of the young woman’s brother, of his empty charms bag, of the abbot presiding over an empty monastery, of the mother he had saved with his last earth charm.
What had the statue said to him?
He grabbed the charms bag, stood up, balanced carefully in his boat, then leapt across to the platform. The woman made a grab for him but he dodged, jumped and grabbed the top of the gate. A moment of scrabbling, and he was over and dropping down inside.
He landed waist-deep in water. The guards stared down at him.
“Look after my boat until I come back,” said Payut, fighting a wild urge to laugh. “Please.”
The female guard raised her spear. “You must be a spirit. No man would want to get inside these gates. If you try to come out, I will kill you.”
Payut glanced through the bars at his boat, all his worldly goods except the empty charms bag in his hand. Home and freedom and the life he had made in his years away. The boat he had taken when he fled the city, terrified and vowing never to return.
He turned his back on the gates and started to wade. The river ahead was dark and murky as it flowed through the city. In his mind, still waters began to churn.