“The jig is up,” I said, “and I don’t know what they’d do if they found out a woman was pretending to be a monk, but I think it might involve a violation of the First Precept.”
“The one against unchastity?”
“Uh-uh,” I said. “The one against killing.”
We each had a cloth shoulder bag. They were both the same, and both matched our robes. Each contained a black lacquer begging bowl, a cup, and a razor. (I thought the razors would be of the old-fashioned cut-throat variety, but Ku Min had furnished a couple of disposable Gillettes. That was going to make shaving easier, but it substantially reduced the razor’s potential value as a defensive weapon. “Watch it, you son of a bitch, or I’ll slice you open with my plastic safety razor.” No, I don’t think so.)
We each had a small strainer of woven bamboo, for removing insects from our drinking water. That didn’t bear thinking about. A pair of wandering monks wouldn’t be buying bottled water, not that we’d be likely to find it on sale in the little village markets along the way. That meant we’d be drinking tap water or well water or ditch water, whatever the locals drank, without having built up the immunity that the locals had.
That being the case, I figured it would be a good sign to find insects swimming around in our drinking water – it meant the stuff would support life. And the insects, if we chewed them up and swallowed them, might be all the protein we got that day. Of course it would mean violating the precept against killing – and, depending on the time of day, the one against eating after twelve noon.
The few kyat we had left went in my bag, since I’d be more able to speak up safely if we needed to buy something. The three ivory carvings, wrapped up again in their bubble wrap and oilskin, went in Katya’s shoulder bag. I didn’t know how or to whom we could peddle them, but their value was high in proportion to their weight.
Besides, I wasn’t going to leave them behind. A man had died giving them to me (although he probably hadn’t planned on giving them to me any more than he’d planned on dying). I figured I ought to hang on to them. And, as Katya pointed out, Good Luck and Good Health and Long Life were much to be desired, and by no means to be taken for granted in the adventure we had in store for ourselves.
Katya’s eyes widened when I put the brick of heroin in my bag. Was it not dangerous to be carrying it? And would it not add unnecessary weight? And, at the risk of being picky, was it not somehow a violation of one of the precepts? Surely it was an intoxicating substance, was it not?
“We’re not going to ingest it,” I said. “As a matter of fact we’re not even going to take it with us. At daybreak Ku Min’s coming to take us to the boat.”
“That is very nice of him.”
“Well, he’s a nice fellow, and the two of us really hit it off.”
“And he bought these sets of robes, and the begging bowls, and the shoulder bags.”
“And the Gillette razors, too,” I said. “And in return we’re going to give him a kilo of heroin.”
“It is for him?”
“Why not? Have you got any use for it? Because I don’t.”
“I told him I wasn’t even certain what it was. I said it’s probably heroin, but it might be milk sugar and quinine, for all I knew. He seemed to think it was worth the gamble.”
“Evan, if it is heroin, how much is it worth?”
“You got me,” I said. “If the DEA seized it in a drug raid in Miami, the newspapers would tell you it had a street value of a quarter of a million dollars. But that would be what it would wind up retailing for after it had been stepped on three or four times and parceled out into twenty-dollar bags and sold to desperate junkies. That’s a lot different from what it’s worth to a wholesale buyer in the States, let alone to someone in Rangoon.”
“Even so,” I said, “it’s worth a lot more than a couple of red schmattes and a pair of black bowls. Is that what you were going to say?”
“I guess so. What is a schmatte?”
“A rag,” I said. “Or in the present instance a robe. If Ku Min finds a buyer for the stuff, I guess he’ll make out handsomely. But he’s making more of an investment than the robes and the rest of our gear. He got us the sandals, don’t forget.”
She picked up one and studied its bottom. “It doesn’t say Ferragamo,” she said. “In fact it was cut from an automobile tire.”
“That means it’ll probably outlast anything Ferragamo makes. He also set things up with the guys on the boat, and he’ll let people in Shan country know that we’re coming. Katya, I was planning on leaving the heroin behind and trying to think of a way to get rid of it that wouldn’t get it traced back to us. If you think I made a mistake-”
“I did not say that, Evan.”
“I’m not sure any of this is a good idea,” I said. “All we can do is roll the dice and take our best shot.”
“It would be safer for you to travel alone.”
“I’m not even sure of that. Maybe a monk knocking around on his own is cause for suspicion. Maybe they’re like nuns, always traveling in pairs.”
“But they do not travel with women, Evan.”
“Well, no,” I said. “They don’t.”
“I think I will go to sleep now,” she said after a moment. “We have only a few hours before daybreak. Will you come to sleep, Evan? It may be your last chance to sleep in a high bed.”
“I think I’ll sit up for a while,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m too tense to sleep.”
“There must be a way to get rid of tension.”
“I don’t think that would be a great idea, Katya.”
“I do not blame you,” she said. “Who could make love to someone who looks like this?”
“That’s not it.”
“It is,” she said, “but it is all right. I am too tired, and you’re right, it is not such a good idea. Good night, Evan.”
“Good night, Katya.”
She was silent for a while. Then she said, “Vanya, could you just lie with me and hold me for a little while? I will be strong once our journey begins, but right now I am frightened.”
I got in bed with her. She had shucked her outer robe and one of the others, leaving only the third, a sort of glorified loin cloth. She came into my arms and burrowed close, and her fear was a palpable thing. I could feel her trembling, and I held her gently but firmly in my arms until the trembling ceased.
She murmured something. I could tell it was in Russian, but it was too soft for me to make it out. I went on holding her and breathed in her scent, and even as her own breathing deepened with the onset of sleep, I felt myself stirring in response.
Easy enough to open my own robes, easy too to take the last bit of cloth from around her loins. Easy to part her thighs, easy to ease between them…
I don’t know what stopped me. Not fear of disapproval, God knows. If anything, she’d welcome it. But it just didn’t seem appropriate, not hours before our entry into monastic life. And it struck me as strategically unwise. The role we would be playing was a sexless one, and how sexless an energy would we project if we had just squeezed in a quickie?
My mind knew this, even if my body had a will of its own. I clenched my teeth and breathed deeply, and my resolve stiffened. It wasn’t the only thing that did, but it proved the stronger, and after a few minutes I got out of bed without disturbing Katya and sat cross-legged in a corner of the room, waiting for the dawn.
I felt, by turns, virtuous and stupid. And after a while I realized it was possible to feel both those things at once.
Sunrise and sunset are increasingly abrupt as you approach the Equator. It was still dark when Ku Min met us in front of the shuttered teahouse across from the Char Win. By the time we boarded the flat-bottomed boat that would take us upriver to Bagan, the sun had cleared the horizon and the sky was bright.
I moved to follow Katya on board, but Ku Min caught my arm. “Evan,” he said, “your companion is very quiet.”
“He doesn’t say much,” I agreed. “He only speaks one language.”
“Ah. And what is that?”
“And you speak Norwegian also?”
“But you are from America.”
“And your friend, he is from Norwegia?”
“Yes, Norway. He is from Norway?”
“It would probably be best,” he said, “if he does not speak at all.”
“That’s what I thought, Ku Min.”
“He is tall,” he said. “That is a point in his favor. But, Evan, my friend, if one looks closely-”
“I hope nobody looks too closely.”
“His hands are small, you know.”
“Well,” I said. The nails were clipped short, and there was no polish on them, but we hadn’t been able to do anything about the size of Katya’s hands.
“And his aura,” he said.
“Some people can see auras,” he said. “Especially monks trained in meditation. I cannot. But anyone can sense the energy of another human being, is it not so?”
“And your sense is…”
“That you and your male companion must be very careful, Evan. You should be all right on the boat. The captain is my friend, and the crew members know to take no interest in the passengers. Still, they could talk afterward, and word travels quickly.”
“I’ll try not to give them anything to talk about.”
“Yes. And when you leave the ship at Bagan-”
“We’ll be careful.”
“Yes. You will see other monks, Evan. There are monks everywhere. Be especially careful around them.”
“If I had known…”
“You’d have helped us just the same.”
“Yes,” he said. “But I would not have slept well. Good luck, my friend.”
I shook his hand, boarded the boat, and found the place in the hold where they’d made room for us. We’d be out of the crew’s way there, and out of sight of the people on the banks and the passing river traffic. I settled in next to Katya, my back braced against a burlap sack of rice. The boat started its engines, and I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling the rich smell of foodstuffs and other goods bound for Mandalay.
The cargo included a load of dried fish and a pile of hides, and their smells predominated, but there were other top notes to be detected, a whiff of this and a sniff of that. A hound dog would have had the time of his life.
We got underway. Katya was quiet for half an hour or so, and I thought she might be sleeping. Then her hand caught mine and she gave a squeeze.
“He knows,” she said. “Doesn’t he?”