One was running a fruit stand. One was making marigold garlands on a plastic table outside a 7-Eleven. One was a waitress in the noodle restaurant where they stopped for lunch. Claude saw them on the sky train going to work in an office or somewhere it was important to wear a suit and heels. Did his mother even notice? He couldn’t tell. But if you looked at them closely, and Claude did—Claude could not keep his eyes off them—you could see that that swallowy bit of their throat was bigger than usual. You could see their hands and feet were bigger too. When they spoke to you, it was with lovely, husky voices, or they wore their makeup a little more thickly than the other women around them, or their eyebrows were more assertive, more certain, more there. They were beautiful, and they were everywhere, and everyone seemed to know their secret, and no one seemed to care, which, Claude guessed, meant it wasn’t really a secret at all.

But just as he was spying, improbably, kindred spirits halfway around the world, Ling announced, with a brave smile neither Claude nor his mother were buying, that it was time to drive the five hundred kilometers north to the clinic, a figure she may as well have expressed in quarks for as much as Claude knew how far five hundred kilometers was. What he did understand were quavering adult smiles: it was going to take all day, and it was going to be excruciating. Their new van had little pieces of paper-thin gold stuck all over the ceiling above the rearview mirror to show it had been blessed by a monk. Unfortunately, it had apparently not been blessed by a mechanic because whatever those springy things are that prevent you from bouncing all around and hitting your head on the ceiling and wanting to puke every time you went over a bump were missing.

“Shocks,” his mother said grimly the millionth time it happened.

“What about them?”

“We could use some.”

“I’m having lots,” said Claude.

His mother got up and moved to the row of seats behind him, lay down across it, and closed her eyes without another word. But tempting though his mother made it look and miserable as he felt, Claude could not sleep. There was too much to see. Outside of Bangkok, Thailand looked like something his father would make up. There was a hospital for elephants. There were hundreds of schoolchildren picking up brush in the trees to prevent forest fires. There were roadside stands selling giant, papery wasp nests to eat with sugar and chili. When they stopped at lights, old women covered head to toe with masks and hats and scarves in the hundred-degree heat would try to sell them sticky rice or salted banana chips. Even the familiar was unfamiliar. Even the things he seemed to know he could not name.

Along the road, he saw tiny miniature houses everywhere, sometimes on the ground, sometimes on posts like elaborate mailboxes. He’d seen them in Bangkok, outside his hotel and the market stalls and the 7-Elevens and the noodle shops. Now, on the road north, he saw them outside of every house, large or small, temple or shack, outside every run-down strip mall and gas station. He could see them in the jungle through the trees and on the tops of mountains. He could see them in the corners of the rice fields and the coconut plantations and where they were reforesting teak. Water buffalo and cows grazed around them under the banana trees. Dogs ignored them all over the country.

“What are those?” It was the first anyone had spoken for miles, and Ling seemed startled to hear from him.

“Spirit house. We put them outside our home and business place, temple, restaurant, everywhere. We have lot of spirits in Thailand. Spirits is mischievous. You know? Naughty. We want them not making trouble in our house or job, so we give them place to make funny business outside. Then we offer treat to keep them happy there. They get what they seek outside so they not come inside.”


“Offering: Flower. Fruit. Incense. Maybe beer. Maybe cigarette.” She shrugged. “Depend what they like.”

When the road started to climb in earnest, they left the houses, people and spirit, behind. It was a jungle. A real one. What was the difference between forest and jungle? Both had lots of trees. Both hid much you could (worrisomely) hear but not see. This one even had, to Claude’s surprise, long-needle pines, just like at home. But this was jungle for sure. For one thing, it was a million degrees and humider than an indoor pool. For another, there were vines like the trees were being eaten, and in between every two trees, a palm was pushing its way through at odd angles like it had meant to grow someplace else altogether and ended up here only by accident. The whole jungle was wall-to-wall-carpeted with moss and fern and leaf and yet more vine, and there was ceiling between the trees that was green and tangled and, alarmingly, moving as well. Instead of soft rain and low buzzing and birdsong like at home, here the insects and frogs and probably monkeys and possibly tigers screamed and shrieked and hollered, staking their claims for space between the palms, yodeling at the stars. But mostly the difference was this: fairy tales were set in forests, never jungles. The van slogged through enough miles of this wilderness for Claude’s brain to arrive at the reason why: it was because you could get lost in the forest and come out the other side. If you got lost in this jungle, you got lost forever.

Aid Ambiguous

They heard it before they saw it, their first impression of the clinic, as they biked in the next morning just after sunrise, no overnight cool for the dawn to burn away, the air sodden already. There was the sound of metal on metal, a whine like a train whistle, woesome thunks, and shouts Rosie could not identify as Thai or Burmese but knew for sure were curse words. She guessed someone yelling at cats in battle or maybe heat, though they’d seen only dogs and dogs and more dogs so far, and never in her life had she heard a dog make a sound like that, a high-pitched keening, more screech than scream. Some kind of insect maybe? It would have to be bigger than she was willing to think about so early in the morning. A monkey? An army of frogs? Animal attack? And indeed, when she and Claude arrived at the mouth of the chewed-up dirt drive leading into the clinic, they found soot-caked, mud-stained feet and scratched-up shins kicking desperately at the end of a body otherwise entirely consumed by a voracious, growling maw.