I found a pair that might have been mine, and Katya took a pair that suited her, and off we went. And we took ten or a dozen steps and ran into the alpha monk.
He smiled – beamed might be a better word for it – and asked if he could have a word with me. “Bitte,” he said to Katya, still beaming, and held up a hand to indicate that she should stay where she was. He led me around the corner and stood with his hands clasped in front of his waist. It was easy, I realized, to pick him out in a crowd. He was somehow recognizable, although I would be hard put to say just how. I could say that he didn’t look Burmese, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I meant by that, or even if it was accurate. It struck me that he looked Tibetan, in that something about him put me in mind of photos I’d seen of the Dalai Lama. But I don’t know if I was responding to a genuine resemblance or something about his energy.
In German he said, “I see your friend is better.”
“The fever broke during the night?”
“My German is not so good,” he said, switching smoothly to English. “I express myself better in English. Will you be able to follow me?”
I nodded again.
“Good. I am glad your friend feels better. It seems to me that she looks better, too. Her color is healthier and her eyes are clearer.”
He’d used the pronoun three times. Just to make sure I wouldn’t miss it.
“I am ashamed,” I said.
“For deceiving you.”
“You did not deceive me.”
“When did you know?”
“The moment I touched her brow. Perhaps before then. Her energy is a woman’s energy.”
“But you allowed me to place your hand on her forehead.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “As soon as I saw the two of you I knew you were not monks.”
“How did you know?”
“One acquires certain strengths through years of meditation. You were dressed as monks, you behaved as monks, but you did not have the energy of monks. It is difficult to explain more precisely than that.”
“I think I understand.”
“And you are Western, and your companion is part Western. There are monks from the West who come here to study meditation. But they do not walk across the interior. They do not keep vows of silence.”
“But you did not expose us.”
“In fact, you helped us. Instead of punishing us for sacrilege-”
“But where is the sacrilege?” He smiled. “It is clear you did not come to mock us. And you have not broken my precepts, because you are not a monk and so are not bound by them. Surely you have reasons for posing as monks.”
“You are heading east? Deeper into Shan state?”
“So perhaps you are avoiding the eyes of the authorities, and for such a purpose your disguise is not a bad one. The authorities are not aware of such subtle matters as energy. When they see a red robe they assume a monk.”
“But you saw something else.”
“I saw a man and woman, and I saw that the woman was ill and in need of attention. And, yes, I touched her. That is a profanation, and I will have to go through a sanctification ritual, and that will be a nuisance, but that is all it will be. A nuisance and an inconvenience.”
“And the room where you stayed will be cleansed, and some herbs burned in it. Again, a small inconvenience.”
“Our little rules are important,” he said. “The major precepts and the minor ones as well. But they exist to guide our feet on the Buddha’s eightfold path, and the object of that path is right living.
“And your friend was ill and needed assistance.” He thought for a moment. “There is a story, a very old story. Perhaps it is a parable, perhaps it happened. Or both, eh?
“Once two monks were walking through a forest. And they came to a rushing stream where there stood a woman who was afraid to cross. She begged them for help. And one of the monks, true to his vows, shrank away from the woman and diverted his eyes from her. Deaf to her pleas, he waded across the stream and went on his way.
“His companion had taken the same vows. Nonetheless, without hesitation he picked the woman up in his arms, carried her across the stream, set her down on the opposite bank, and then hurried onward to rejoin his fellow monk.
“For several hours they continued onward in absolute silence. Finally the first monk could stand it no longer. He turned on his companion, seething. ‘How could you do such a thing?” he demanded. ‘You know we are not to look upon a woman, let alone touch her. Yet you actually picked her up in your arms and carried her across that stream!’
“The other monk shrugged. ‘I carried that woman for twenty paces,’ he said softly. ‘You have been carrying her for ten miles.’”
“That’s a great story,” I said.
“Well, it is just a story. Who knows if it ever happened?”
“I think it happens all the time.”
“I think so, too.” He touched my arm. “Good luck on your journey. You should get the nats to bless your venture. You know about our nats?”
“They’re animist spirits, aren’t they?”
“Yes. They are not a part of Buddhism at all, but many of our pagodas contain nat shrines as well. We have a saying in Burma: ‘Revere the Buddha but fear the nats.’”
“In America we say, ‘Trust God but keep your powder dry.’”
“Powder? Oh, gunpowder, of course. Yes, it is much the same, isn’t it? There is a pagoda you will pass, just on your right as you leave town. There are lions flanking the entrance. You will be able to recognize it. It contains a large nat shrine. There is one nat with a form similar to Ganesh. You know Ganesh?”
“From Hindu mythology? The elephant-headed god?”
“Yes. You will see his statue. Perhaps you will give him an offering.”
“What would I give him?”
“He is said to be very fond of liquor,” he said. “Perhaps you might sprinkle a few drops into his offering dish. If you have any left, that is.”
“He knows,” Katya said. “Doesn’t he?”
“How much does he know, Evan?”
“He knows everything.”
“It is my fault,” she said. “He heard me cry out when we were-”
“Profaning the sanctuary,” I finished for her. “But no, that’s not it, and nothing’s your fault. He knew all along. He knew before he even touched you.”
“And he touched me anyway? And took us into the monastery? I do not understand.”
“Well, maybe this will help,” I said. “It seems there were these two monks, and they were walking through this forest, and they came to a stream…”
We stopped at the pagoda on the edge of town, the one with the golden lions guarding its entrance. We let them guard our sandals while they were at it and found the nat shrine to the left of the central altar. One of the nat statues did have a distinctly elephantine countenance, and I uncapped our blue flask and poured him a couple drops of shwe le maw.
What could it hurt?
Four days after we poured out a libation at the feet of the elephant-headed nat, we walked into the city of Taunggyi. It took another hour to find the market stall of Sai Thein Lwin. I asked for him by name, and the young man who’d been portioning out rice into two-pound sacks nodded thoughtfully and went away, returning a few minutes later with an older man in tow.
“I am Thein Lwin,” he said. Sai, I knew, was an honorific, the Shan equivalent of the Burmese U.
“I am Evan Tanner,” I said. “Ku Min told me you could help me.”
“You know Ku Min?”
“And you are Evan Tanner?”
He looked searchingly at me. At length he said, “You are alive.”
“And this is-”
“Katya,” I said.
He repeated the name, not without difficulty. It was evidently not a name that flowed trippingly off a Shan tongue. Then he said my name again. “Ku Min sent word that you were coming,” he said. “And then I received word that you were dead.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not.”
“Never have been, actually. Not in this lifetime, anyway.”
“No,” he said, and thought about it, then exchanged some rapid-fire words with the youth. “This is my son,” he said to us. “You go with him. He has a car. He will drive you.”
“To where they were waiting for you,” he said. “Until they learned of your death.”
I don’t know what did it, the nat blessing or the herbal tea or the shwe le maw, but the stretch from the monastery to Taunggyi had been smooth sailing compared to what we’d been through earlier. Katya’s malaria had one more night to run, as she’d predicted, but the third night was relatively mild, as she’d also predicted, and we got through it with ease.
The days were cooler, too, as we moved into the Shan highlands. The nights were cooler as well, and we spent them outside. We’d have been cold if we hadn’t huddled together for warmth, but that did the trick, along with the shwe le maw, two bottles of which I managed to buy every afternoon along the way.
I knew what to ask for now, and became pretty good at spotting the market stalls that were likely to have it on hand. It continued to take people aback – a monk in his red robes was not expected to buy intoxicating spirits – but I decided I didn’t really give a damn if the locals regarded me as the Buddhist equivalent of a whiskey priest. The nights were chilly and my companion had a taste for the burnt-orange brandy and, truth to tell, so did I.
We had a taste for each other, too, which led to our huddling together for more than mere warmth. And, tossing the ten precepts to the four winds, we drank and screwed our way to Taunggyi.
I don’t know that my friend the alpha monk would have been proud of me. But I was having a good time.
Thein Lwin’s son drove us eastward in a Toyota Corolla that needed springs and shocks and, for all I know, a quadruple bypass. But it was amazing to me how much faster it was than walking. In twenty minutes it would cover as much ground as we could manage in the better part of a day. We’d been walking for so long that a walker’s pace had become our frame of reference.
The drive was pleasant, and the only time it got the least bit dicey was when we stopped for a roadblock manned by government troops. A snotty little functionary took a long hard look at our driver’s papers while troops kept automatic weapons trained on our car. The Corolla had been backfiring periodically the whole trip, and I had visions of it doing so now, and sounding like gunfire to the smooth-cheeked kids pointing guns at us. I could imagine how that scene would play out. We’d wind up looking like the last frame of Bonnie and Clyde. But the car maintained a respectful silence, and the self-important little shit who took such a keen interest in the driver’s papers didn’t spare more than a glance at the two monks dozing in the backseat. He stepped back and waved us through, and the next roadblock was manned by Shan insurgent forces who recognized the car, greeted the driver by name, and didn’t care who or what he had by way of cargo.
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