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Excerpt for The Money Tree by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



The Money Tree

By

Andrew J. West

Copyright by Andre J. West 2018

Published by TWB Press at Smashwords



All rights reserved. No part of this story (e-book) may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or book reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidences are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Edited by Terry Wright

Cover Art by award-winning Thai artist Vasan Sitthiket

ISBN: 978-1-944045-48-7

NOTE: At the end of the story, the reader will find a glossary containing many of the terms appearing in this work that may be unfamiliar to some Western readers. Although these terms should be understandable within their contexts, the glossary will provide more information for those who desire a deeper grasp of the Thai-related cultural content.


Chapter One

Bangkok Hilton

The captain of the guards beats me with a baton in my ankles and knees, where it hurts most and bruises least, steals my clothes and shoes, tosses some blue prison fatigues and flip-flops at me then throws me into an overcrowded cell that reeks so strongly of shit and piss I have to hold back a throat full of bile. The key turns locking the barred door behind me and I look around the cell of my home for the night at Bang Kwang Central Prison a.k.a. “Bangkok Hilton,” Thailand’s most notorious jail. It’s jammed full of prisoners managing somehow to sleep on mats packed into rows on the concrete floor, with an overflowing cesspit for a toilet in a corner.

There’s no room to sit in this shadowy place let alone lie down and I have no idea where to go. A prisoner sits up and waves some sort of stick at me, motioning for me to come over to him. Being my first night ever spent in jail, I’m extremely cautious in this nest of vipers and hope he’s just being friendly because I’m a foreigner or a “farang” as the Thais often call me. Feeling I’m about to crumple into a heap right where I’m standing, I don’t see how I have much choice but to pick my way through the bodies separating us until I arrive at his mat.

“Well-come Bang-kok Hil-ton,” he struggles to say in broken English and gestures for me to sit. He passes me the crutch, a solid-looking homemade walking stick improvised from a sturdy stalk of bamboo, which I use to help lower myself to the floor, grimacing from the pain in the joints where the captain had struck me. When seated, I pass the piece of bamboo back. He puts it across his lap and I realize it’s probably been fashioned right here in this very cell. I wonder with trepidation what else might have been handmade by these inmates, like shanks and knuckledusters.

I take a good look at my new host. His brown eyes glimmer in the half-light thrown by the florescent tube flickering dimly from the ceiling. It’s hard to tell his age in the gloom. Maybe he’s fifteen or twenty years older than me, that is to say he’s around fifty or maybe fifty-five years old. Besides the poor light, it’s hard to tell his age because like most poor Thais his skin is dark and deeply lined. His bare feet are as tough as leather, as are his hands, and he’s covered in tattoos. He’s had a hard life, much harder than mine. I’d say he’s from “upcountry” somewhere, what the Thais call the countryside.

“Name-you-you?” He points at my chest with a bent-out-of-shape finger, wrestling again with his limited English for my benefit.

I’m not about to tell him my real name. “Andee.” It’s the nickname I use in this country because “An” is the first syllable of my real name, and “dee” is the Thai word for “good.” Then I ask him in Thai, “Khun cheu a-rai?” What’s your name?

“Kob,” he replies, maybe surprised to hear a foreigner speak Thai.

Having lived in the country for several years and having studied the language, I’m able to converse almost like a local.

“Captain Veroca gave ya a hard time, eh, Andee?” he asks in Thai.

Chai.” Yeah. I untie my ponytail and quickly comb my hair with my fingers. It had gotten all mussed up when the captain assaulted me. Then I retie it.

“Veroca’s a real fuckin’ bastard.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” I answer in Thai, and we continue speaking in his native tongue.

“You’re unlucky. He’s only back on duty tonight. Haven’t seen him round here for the last three months. What ya in for anyways?” He speaks in “lo-so” Thai. Lo-so means “low society,” as opposed to “hi-so,” for “high society.” It makes him a little difficult to understand and I’m unused to speaking like it myself, as most of the Thais I know are at least middleclass, but I try my best.

I look around to make sure no one is listening to our conversation: everybody seems to be asleep and there’s a constant chorus of snorts and grunts as the other inmates are snoring all about us.

“A cop pulled up my taxi on the way home from a bar. Thinking I must be a rich farang, he pulled me outta the cab and planted some weed on me as he went through my pockets. Then he wanted a hundred thousand baht bribe to let me go. I wasn’t gonna pay three thousand Yankee dollars to that swine! That’s unbelievably expensive. I know a guy who got busted with some weed on him not long ago—not planted on him like was done to me—and the cop only wanted fifty thousand baht for everything to go away.”

“Yeah,” Kob mutters. “That’s the standard price for a foreigner busted with a little weed.”

“I told him to fuck off. The cop was so slimy I couldn’t trust if he was gonna let me go anyway, whether I gave him the bribe or not, and I wasn’t gonna kiss his ass. Now I’m stuck in here until morning.”

“But you shouldn’t even be in here, you should be in a remand prison. Foreigners call this place the Bangkok Hilton, but we Thais call it the ‘Big Tiger’ because it eats people alive. It’s Thailand’s toughest prison, only for convicted prisoners doin’ a twenty-five year stretch or more and those on death row. You ain’t even been before a judge yet.”

“Yeah, what can I tell ya?” I say in English, “T.I.T.: This Is Thailand.” He doesn’t understand, so I give him a Thai interpretation. He finds it amusing enough to try repeating the phrase in his bad English.

“The cop who pinched me didn’t like it when I wouldn’t cough up the cash and threw me in here ’cause it was the nearest place to lock me up. It’s only for one night. In the morning they’ll take me to a courthouse, I’ll go in front of a judge, and my wife will come make bail.” I immediately think I’ve made a mistake telling him I’m married and realize I should be more careful about what I reveal about myself, but I figure telling a little can’t hurt, as he seems harmless enough. “Harmless” is the wrong word: he seems calm, to have no aggression or anger in him at all, as one might expect from a prisoner being held in such a notorious penitentiary.

“You lucky guy, Andee. Ya wife’s Thai, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Beautiful?”

“Incredibly: and just as smart. She does some sort of legal work for a bank. I have no idea why she’s interested in me, a humble English teacher. Ya know, I ain’t even got a hundred thousand baht to buy my way outta trouble with the boys in brown, so she can’t be after my money.”

“You a teacher?”

I always tell Thais I’m a teacher as they have great respect for monks, parents, the elderly, and teachers, or ajarn in Thai. I’ve even been told they think it’s really bad for their karma to disrespect an ajarn. And the magic of my profession works a charm again, as Kob appears suitably impressed.

“Yeah, I’m a teacher, but maybe not for long after tonight.”

“Where ya from, Ajarn Andee?”

“Just call me Andee. I’m from America.”

He tries to speak in English again, saying, “You-you A-mel-ica? You-you Marl-boro Man.” He laughs. Thankfully he returns to speaking in Thai. “What about ya beautiful wife, where’s she from?”

“Bangkok, I think.”

“Ya think? You mean you don’t know where ya wife’s from?”

“Well, we kinda had a whirlwind romance. Actually, we just got married last month. We only met around three months ago. She told me she had a falling out with her family. They don’t talk to each other. They didn’t come to the wedding.” I really don’t want to say any more about myself, so change the subject and ask, “What about you?”

“Me? Nobody would ever marry me.”

“No, what are ya in for?”

“I’m in for life.”

“Life?” I’m terrified when I hear this. Have I made a serious mistake by sitting and chatting about myself with a possible murderer or worse?

He must be able to read my mind because he says, “Don’t worry, I didn’t kill nobody. Like you, I’m being held in here though I’ve committed no crime, only I’m not in here for one night, I’m stuck in here for life. I ain’t even been charged.”

“What did ya do then? You must have done something.”

“If ya wanna hear my story, I’ll tell ya, Andee.”

“Sure, Kob, why not?”

“It’s a long story.”

“That’s okay.”

“Might take all night. But you got all night, ain’t ya, Andee? And ya don’t wanna fall asleep in this place.”

“No, I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“I’ve been in here for five years and I ain’t had a wink yet. Well, anyway, I’ll tell ya me story of how I come to be in this hell hole.” He takes a breath and begins. “One night, I woke-up to find my room engulfed in fire. My first thought is the building’s burning down around me. But when I jump up in fright I realize I’m not lying in my bed, but lying on a fiery floor of red iron, and the blaze is not a burning building but an immense inferno.

“I’d not been sleeping, I realize with dread, I’d died and been reborn into the lowest of the eight levels of Hell. All around me are other suffering souls, naked hell beings tormented and tortured by fierce yama guardians—suffering ghosts whose job it is to punish those who’d accrued harmful karma in their past lives—wielding fiery weapons of every kind. I ponder what wicked deed I’d done to deserve reincarnation as a denizen of this evil pit. I know I’m guilty of committing adultery, using vulgar language, and drinking intoxicating beverages, but my thoughts are overtaken by panic as a grotesque guardian carrying a flaming spike approaches, grinning obscenely.

“I try to flee, but there’s nowhere to hide in this pandemonic place of loss and woe, and another cackling yama captures me from behind and thrusts a red-hot iron up my asshole. When the yama pulls it out, I discharge burning excrement and expire in excruciating pain, only to be immediately reborn and killed again by another sadistic yama who lassos me around the neck with a rope of molten iron and tightens the noose until my head pops off. And I’m reborn and killed again and again in an agonizing cycle of countless deaths and rebirths that seems to never, ever end.

“Upon waking, I can recall every painful detail of the frightful nightmare. It’s as though I had been to the Realm of Hell, not just dreamed it, and maybe I had. Maybe I’d served my period of punishment of however many hundred hell years and had been reborn back into this world fully formed. I don’t have time to think about it. I have to get out of bed and wake up Beer. Beer is from the same village as me, Ban Pha Lua, in Phrae Province, Northern Thailand, and we’ve worked together in Bangkok as garbage men since we left the place I guess about twenty years before.

“He’s snoring like a buffalo in the bunk across the room from me, and I have to slap him across the face to wake him up. We eventually get ourselves to the depot and climb on top of the green garbage truck just as Gun, our boss—a real jerk—is turning over the engine, joining the rest of our crew working for the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority.

“At that time, five years ago, was the great flood of 2011 and floodwater had been surging through parts of the city for months. But the water had at last begun to recede and we’re on our way to the refuse-filled streets where black water had until recently stood. Once through the traffic jam blocking the main road, the garbage truck maneuvers through some back streets and comes to a stop at the edge of the waterline.

“I pick up my shovel and sack and climb down off the truck onto the crap-encrusted road followed by Beer. After a couple of hours or so, most of our side of the street is clear of the larger wreckage, except for what looks like a rotting carpet piled up against a crumbling fence. When I pull at it, a stench wafts up from beneath I know only too well: the stench of death. I pull back further on the decaying fabric. It tears and falls apart as it’s handled, revealing beneath it a swollen cadaver lying on its side in the mud.

“Not being the first rotting corpse I’d ever seen, my only reaction is to pull away more material, uncovering more livid remains. The uppermost arm is missing with gnaw marks at the stump, probably torn off by one of the crocodiles that’d escaped one of the city’s many crocodile farms during the flood. Just the bloated remains of another casualty of the flood that had already claimed more than eight hundred lives. This one is probably a middle-aged man, with a disfigured face and hairless head.

“I’m about to call Beer over who is working not far away, when I notice something bright standing out against the dank bleakness; there’s a familiar oblong shape and red color—a hundred baht bill—sticking out from between the decomposing body and the remaining arm. I look around to make sure nobody’s watching, pick up a nearby piece of wood and push at the putrefying flesh. The wood sinks in until hitting bone and I shove until the cadaver is lying flat, uncovering not one but a number of bills of various denominations.

“There must be a few thousand baht worth of pristine notes, each one stuck between two thin strips of wood, a ton pha pa—a money tree—a ‘tree’ used for collecting money to donate to a temple. Unable to believe my luck, I pick it up by the ‘trunk’ and stash it in my sack before calling Beer over and getting Gun.

“As Gun gets on his phone to summon the police, the crew gathers around the corpse, until Gun orders us all back to work. The police take their time and arrive around midday, and we watch them from the top of the truck as we eat lunch. They don’t seem interested in the body, more inconvenienced by it. With no likelihood of any tea money in it for them, they just want to pack up the body and get back to the more profitable pursuit of policing the people.

“Anyhow, after the corpse is taken away and we’re back at the depot, I smuggle the sack with its precious cargo out of the building. Only once we’re behind the closed door of our room do I show it to Beer, taking the money tree out of the sack and placing it upright on the floor between our bunks as I tell him how I found it. He lets out a shriek of joy and I start counting the ‘leaves.’

“‘How much is it?! How much is it?!’ Beer demands to know.

“‘About five thousand baht.’

“He punches the air. ‘Wow, Kob! We gonna party tonight!’

“Beer grabs a note and is about to rip it off, but I stop him. ‘Beer, I’ve been thinking about it. This is a tree made from money donated by people for the benefit of a temple. So, maybe, we should give it to one?’

“‘What! Give our money to the monks? Are you crazy! The people who put the money on this tree only gave it to make merit for themselves! We found it—that’s our good karma—and I wanna spend me karma in this life: not wait for the next!’

“‘But maybe the dead guy I got it from was a monk. Spending the money could bring us bad karma and misfortune in this life.’

“‘He ain’t no monk! He weren’t wearin’ no monk’s yellow robes was he!’

“‘He weren’t wearin’ no clothes at all: the flood had stripped ’em off him.’

“‘How do ya know he’s a monk then?’

“‘He had no hair on his head like a monk.’

“‘His hair probably fell out in the flood. It looked like he’d been in the water for a week or two. Bits and pieces would have started falling off in that time, not just clothes.”

“What about his eyebrows? He didn’t have any eyebrows. Maybe he’d shaved them off like a monk does?’

“‘That’s just fuckin’ stupid, Kob. His face was nothin’ but pulp: ya couldn’t tell if he’d shaved his eyebrows.’

“‘Well then, what about the money? Can you explain that? I mean, look at it. It’s clean as a whistle, like it was just printed by the bank. And the branches are clean as a whistle too. How did they stay so clean in all the filth from the corpse and muck from the flood?’

“‘Ya got me there, but what’s it matter?’

“Beer points at the pile of books in the corner; books I’d found in the trash over the years and liked to read. Even though most aren’t what could be called literature and are about such things as astrological love signs, dream interpretation, trashy love stories and so on, they were still worth reading. One or two of them were even great novels that tried to tell more than a mere story and say something about the human condition.

“‘Ya think ya so smart Kob, don’t ya? Ya think ya smarter than me ’cause ya taught yaself how to read. Ya always readin’ those damn books ya found in the trash. But, if ya so damn smart, tell me why ya think those books were in the trash in the first place? They’re in the trash ’cause people throw ’em away is why, ’cause they’re fuckin’ worthless rubbish! Now let’s get the fuckin’ money, get fuckin’ drunk and get fuckin’ laid!’

“With that, Beer starts ripping the bills from the branches and I—giving up any final pretence of protest—join in, until the leaves of the tree are stripped clean and we rush out the door, splurging on booze in the pool hall next to our apartment block where we gamble on matches of Muay Thai—Thai kickboxing—on the TV, and play Pok Deng with the tuk-tuk drivers. After that we visit the whorehouse beside the canal at the end of our alley until we’ve spent every last baht.

Chapter Two

The Money Tree

I interrupt Kob at this point in his story. “So,” I say, “were you thrown in here for stealing money from a dead man or for taking cash from a money tree meant for a temple?”

“You’ll see soon enough, Andee,” he says. “We’re still only at the beginning of my story. Are you bored?”

“No, it’s anything but boring. Sorry I interrupted.”

“This is just the beginning. Soon the story starts to get interesting.”

And he continues.

“The next thing I know, I’m standing at the edge of the floodwater. The black surface is perfectly still, not a single ripple disturbs the sheen of the mirror-like sheet. I look down upon the great ocean that stretches off for infinity, expecting to see my image reflected upon the polished plane, but instead my gaze falls upon the blue-bodied, one-armed corpse that stares up at me with vile eyes from the watery grave.

“My immediate reaction is to step back, but before I can, without warning, the stump of the missing extremity points at me from the universal void, and out from what’s left of the mutilated limb leaps a giant serpent—a naga—breaking through the aquatic membrane separating the realm of the living from the realm of the dead. It locks its jaws onto the top of my head, coils around my torso and drags me back beneath the waves of the now tempestuous sea. I’m impotent against such a powerful primordial creature. It constricts itself inexorably ever tighter around me, forcing the air out of my lungs as we plunge to the depths where the naga splits its jaws apart and swallows me whole, head first.

“I awake from the nightmare with the worst hangover of my life. My head rings like a great gong struck so hard it’s cracked in two. My vision’s so blurred the ceiling of our small top floor apartment seems to be collapsing in upon me from above. At first, I’m not sure where I am, what day it is, or even who I am. I search for something recognizable and my eyes fall on Beer in the other bed. His twisted facial features bring back a rush of dislocated memories that careen through my vandalized mind—downing whiskeylosing at Pok Deng—stepping into the whorehousecackling facesdowning more and more and more whiskeythe blue body and the naga devouring me...

“Crushed, I try to sit up, find an elbow, and try to focus. Although blurred, I recognize something unbelievable sitting in the middle of the floor: the money tree has fresh bills hanging from every one of its branches. Am I still dreaming? I rub my eyes, shake my head and slap my face. It can’t be real. It’s a trick of the light. It’s an alcoholic mirage. I force myself off the bed and into the bathroom to empty my bladder and douse my head under the shower.

“Walking back into the room, I go to wake up Beer and trip over the money tree. Still unable to believe my eyes, I pick it up and run my fingers through the bills. It’s real all right. Perhaps, I guess, Beer or I had won at Pok Deng last night and out of guilt I’d put back the money we’d taken and in my drunkenness forgotten about it.

“I shake Beer. ‘Beer, wake up! We’re late! Eh, look at this!’

“Beer refuses to rise, but when I shake the money tree in his face, his nostrils flare as he smells the fresh bills and he instantly awakens. He grabs the tree and gawks at it, blinking in just as much disbelief as had I.

“‘Where did ya get all a’ this, Kob?’

“‘I dunno. Did ya win at Pok Deng?’

“‘Me, win? Naw.’ He sits up on the bunk.

“‘I don’t remember much. I thought we both lost at Pok Deng.’

“‘Yeah, we always lose.’

“‘Then where did this money come from? It don’t grow on trees, ya know,’ I joke, scratching my aching head.

“‘Who cares? It’s more good luck for us! Let’s just take it and get to work. It’ll all come back to us later.’

“We strip the money and discard the barren branches on the floor, as we’d done the night before, and leave straightaway. Gun is pissed at our lateness, but as we’re late most mornings—along with rest of the crew—he can only curse at us. Later in the day I ask Gun if they found out anything about the corpse, and he says he hasn’t heard any news.

“We scratch our heads trying to figure out where the extra cash on the money tree came from, but neither of us can explain it. The best scenario we can come up with is that I must have put it back, though neither of us can remember going home at all. But both of us are pretty damn sure we went home with no money left whatsoever, so can’t really see how even this can be a remote possibility.

“The day follows the usual routine and on the way home we pick up two bottles of Lao Khao rice wine intending to finish them at home before going to the whorehouse, but when we merrily barrel into our room we stop dead in our tracks. Our jaws drop. We find ourselves staring down at the most unbelievable thing we’ve seen in a long time. The money tree has new money on its branches. We sit on our beds in disbelief. We check our pockets: the money we’d taken in the morning is still there.

“‘Maybe some shithead’s playing a joke on us,’ I say, gobsmacked.

“‘Who’d play a fuckin’ joke like this? This ain’t no fuckin’ joke: this is fuckin’ magic. But how’s it work?’

“I reach down and peel away the only thousand baht note on the tree. I hold the bill up to the light bulb hanging from the ceiling and examine it. It looks genuine. I rub it between my fingers. It feels genuine. I pass it to Beer who does the same. When we look back at the tree, incredibly, attached to the same branch—where the thousand baht bill Beer now has in his hand had come from—is another thousand baht note.

“‘What the fuck is goin’ on, Kob?’

“I slowly reach out and pick what must be a new thousand baht bill. We stare at the now vacant branch left behind. Nothing happens. We stare, afraid to blink. After a minute, we glance up at each other just for a moment and when we look back another thousand baht note has appeared. We can’t believe our eyes. Now Beer picks another note and another and another and another; then I join him, until we’ve picked half of the tree. Then we stop and watch. After a few minutes new notes actually commence unfurling from between the ends of the bare branches.

“We both let out a shout of wild joy and start compulsively stripping the notes as fast as they physically appear, and the faster we strip the notes, the faster they seem to replace themselves. We laugh hysterically like madmen as we grab and grab at the tree almost blindly, grasping bills willy-nilly in a mad frenzy until we suddenly realize we’re squatting on a huge pile of cash. We fall back into the cushion of currency. We gawk at each other and cackle, picking up handfuls of notes and throwing them into the air as we howl. Then we plunge into and immerse ourselves in the flood of money and start throwing bills at each other in a play fight. We roll about in the heap until, exhausted from our riotous antics and from the release of such tremendous emotion, we collapse on the warm soft pile of cold hard cash, breathless, bathing in the bath of baht.

“‘Now let’s really party!’ cries Beer, jumping to his feet, gathering up as much money as he can in his arms and clasping it to his chest.

“‘Yeah, Beer, but we can’t let anyone know about this. This has gotta be our secret.’

“‘Sure, Kob. You always were the smart one.’

“‘We both gotta be smart about this, Beer. We gotta hide the money and hide the money tree before we do anything.’

“‘Sure, Kob. Whatever ya say.’

“Beer joins me in piling thick bundles of cash under the beds. Once all the money is either stacked under our beds or stuffed into our pockets, Beer asks me, ‘What do ya wanna do with the money tree?’

“I look around our miserable abode at our meager possessions. Other than the bunks where we crash there’s an old TV, a couple of half-broken half-repaired chairs, a battered cupboard for the little clothing we possess, the burlap sack I’d stolen from work and the pile of discarded books in the corner.

“‘Let’s just hide it under the bed.’

“I’m pulling it toward me when Beer suddenly reaches out and seizes it. ‘Okay, Kob,’ he says, ‘but let’s hide it under my bed.’

“With the money and money-maker stashed out of sight, we take turns showering and get dressed in our cleanest t-shirts, jeans and flip flops. Then we head out the door and start throwing money around right away. First, we big note ourselves at the pool hall next door. In the glow of our good fortune and drunkenness we buy expensive Singha beer and Johnnie Walker Red Label for all and sundry and lose large on Pok Deng. Then, at the whorehouse, we throw even more money around and quench our thirsty lusts, debauching ourselves in frenzied threesomes.

“Deciding we’re going to ditch work the next day and every other day for the rest of our lives, we catch a cab downtown with the hookers to the hi-so clubs, stopping out front of the flashiest. Normally, the bouncers would never let such lo-so riff-raff into their trendy establishment, but Beer hands them a roll of notes so large they can’t say no. Inside, we order six bottles of Moët—one for each of us—and pop the corks, sending them flying across the bar and spraying champagne. We drink the bubbling liquid straight from the bottles as we dance like drunken cowboys to the latest techno, thrashing apocalyptically with ever more arbitrary abandon as we spill more and ever more waves of Moët down our throats and down our fronts.

“It doesn’t take long for us to become more trouble than any amount of money is worth. The bouncers yank us off the dance floor and push us out the door. Undeterred and invulnerable, we stagger to the club next door and to the club after that and after that until the oblique night of feverish excess crosses the obscure boundary separating the transparent from the opaque and we’re lost on a whirling carousel of flying lions, floating chariots and oscillating elephants, vanishing without trace into the invisible dimension of dizzying echoes that rotates endlessly in the mythical realm beyond the boundary of conscious existence.”

Chapter Three

Sak Yant

Kob pauses in his story, exhaling. Perhaps he’s a little tired from telling his tale. I take the opportunity to ask a question. “Wow, that’s incredible. How did this magic tree work?”

“Hold ya horses, Andee. I ain’t up to that part yet,” he replies. “Ya do believe me, don’t ya?” he asks, maybe doubting anyone would believe his strange tale.

“Yeah, I believe ya,” I assure him.

Of course, no one could believe such a fabulous yarn, but I don’t want to tell him that. He seems convinced it’s real and I’m not about to argue with him about it. Besides, I want to hear the rest of the story. Real or not, it’s very entertaining. Also, I have to admit, apart from being a teacher I’m also a storyteller myself—with maybe ten short stories, a hundred newspaper and magazine articles, and even a not-so-successful novel to my credit—and I think maybe I can get some inspiration out of this otherwise shitfull situation I’m in. I mean, other than the firsthand experience of being locked up in the infamous Bangkok Hilton, which I’ll probably write about, his story could also be grist for my mill.

I might be a little jealous too. I mean, here’s this guy, a garbage collector from some shitty village up north nobody has ever heard of and he’s got this great, original story. And not only that, he tells it eloquently, in such a melodic, spellbinding voice. Maybe not like the epic poetry of Homer sung by an ancient rhapsodist in a Greek amphitheatre, and maybe not even like the epic poetry of Thailand, which has its own oral tradition of heroic tales told by local troubadours, but his narration has a rhythm to it, like good prose on paper. Hearing the story spoken recalls for me the oral origins of fiction. He’s like a Thai Jean Genet.

“It’s important ya know this is a true story,” he tells me with the most earnest look.

“Yeah,” I reassure him. “I know ya tellin’ the whole truth and nothin’ but the truth.”

“Okay, then, Andee, I’ll continue.”

Kob takes another deep breath, looks down at the splayed toes of his worn feet and begins once again to weave his elaborate tale. “Well, that night I must have died because I was reborn spontaneously and fully formed into waters so salubrious, it was like waking up back in my mother’s womb. I gaze in wonder at my serpentine incarnation—I’ve been reborn as a naga—astounded at the beauty of my iridescent scales, arranged in mandala patterns, shining and flashing like precious gems as I agilely undulate.

“I look around at the realm into which I’ve been reborn with my lidless eyes. I’m surrounded by sacred lotuses of every color, exuding the most fragrant perfume carried upon a cool heavenly breeze of contentment. I’m floating on the surface of a sparkling lake encircled by a verdant forest-covered mountain range of trees bedecked in red, orange and yellow blossoms. I’m enthralled by my reincarnation as a fair naga with my long, limbless body, and am delighted as I gracefully contract and gently thrust side to side to propel myself through the pure cosmic water of blooming lotuses.

“In this paradise, I feel everything is perfect and nothing can go wrong or anything can harm me. Then beneath the waves gently lapping against my scales, a movement and color catch the vertical irises of my crocodilian eyes, a fluttering orange. I dip my head under the surface—the armless corpse is floating beneath me—only now he’s wearing the saffron robes of a monk.

“I’m so distracted, I fail to notice the shadow cast by a giant eagle—a garuda: the eternal nemesis of the naga—circling above. I remain blissfully unaware as the bird of prey dives down and seizes me by the tail with its talons. The garuda sweeps me up into the bright blue sky far above the trees, borne by its broad wings upward upon rising currents of warm air toward the airy summit, soaring back to its nest atop a nearby peak. Upon landing, I coil and writhe to escape the talons, but the garuda pins me to a rock and strikes at my shining scales with its ferocious hooked beak, pecking me to pieces and feeding me alive to its ravenous fledglings.

“I wake up with a hangover of a magnitude that I’ve never experienced before. It’s like my head has been stood on by an elephant all night long, putting as much pressure as it could without actually exploding my skull beneath its enormous weight. As with the morning of the day before, at first, I have no idea where I am, and I’m startled to find myself lying on my own bed. I look to my left; there’s my depraved accomplice, Beer, lying crumpled on his bed as though sprawled on the road after being thrown from a car crash, a still life of imploding motion. There’s no one else. Obviously the hookers, who I’m sure had come back to the room with us last night, have left.

“I sit up on the bed, reach over and shake Beer awake. As always, he’s none too happy about being awoken, but he sits up, holding his head to stop his liquefied brains from spilling out his ears. Then he throws up into the spittoon he keeps next to his bunk for just such occasions.

“‘They stole the money,’ I state stoically.

“Beer is furious at the news, drops down to the floor and searches under his bed, then under mine. There’s nothing under either of them. ‘Shit! Shit!! Shit!!! We’re fucked now! Them bitches got the fuckin’ money and the fuckin’ money tree,’ he roars.

“I collapse back on the bed and roll up into a pathetic ball.

“‘This is your fuckin’ fault, Kob!’ he yells, standing over me with a maniacal look in his eyes. ‘It was your fuckin’ idea to hide it under the bed! Or maybe you’ve taken it and are just blaming it on the fuckin’ whores!’

“He lashes out, jumping on top of me, swinging punches down at my head with both fists. His first strike slams into an ear but after that I get my arms up over my head to absorb the blows. I buck with my body, swivel around to face him, lean forward and start serving him with alternating uppercuts and hooks. I land a good one on his chin, forcing him to get off me and back across the room, smarting.

“I get to my feet and sway back and forth with my arms up shouting, ‘Fuck off, Beer, you crazy bastard! I would never steal money from you! You’ve been my only friend for my entire life: it was you who taught me kickboxing as a kid.’

“‘Yes you would, you damn snake! I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you, motherfucker!’

“He launches himself straight at me with a flying knee strike, but I block it with my forearms, jump forward and try to make it as difficult as I can for him to deliver blows by holding him in a clinch. I get my forearms against his collarbone and hands around his head, but he doesn’t cool down and launches a series of savage upper cuts, smashing me in the face, and straight knee strikes, which I think are aimed at my abdomen, but the son-of-a-bitch hits me with a low blow, kneeing me in the balls, forcing me to let him go.

“Stinging with pain, I back off, doubled over with my knees together grabbing my groin, howling. I glance behind me, he’s grinning like an idiot at his handiwork. With his guard down, I’m able to plant my heel right where it hurts, kicking backward. He too doubles over and we both lumber around in circles, clutching ourselves. With eyes watering from the pain, Beer is half-blind and staggers across the room, falling backward upon the pile of books to break his fall, knocking them over and revealing the money tree hidden beneath. Beer, in agony, picks it up and glares at me accusingly.

“‘Oh, shit,’ I remark, still cupping my groin. ‘That’s right. Man, I’m so hung over, I forgot that when you were in the shower, I had the idea to move it to a safer place under the books. Lucky I did, eh?’

“With his breath back he splutters, ‘That’s bullshit, Kob! You were trying to hide it from me!’

“After a few minutes spent recovering from the pain and exhaustion of the sudden burst of activity, Beer clambers to his feet, stumbles to the end of his bed, and starts pulling notes off the money tree, notes that are soon replaced.

“‘What are ya doin’, Beer?’

“‘Gettin’ rich,’ he says absently, hardly having heard the question. ‘You keep away!’

“‘Beer’—no response—‘Beer!’—no response—‘Beer!!’—no response—‘BEER!!!’—Beer stops and looks at me as I sit on my bed across from him. ‘Last night was a close call. The whores coulda easily got the money tree off us. I swear I didn’t hide it from ya. Look, Beer, what we need is a plan or we are gonna lose it.’

“‘Okay, what?’

“‘We need protection.’

“‘Yeah, great plan! Let’s buy a gun! Then I can plug a hole in ya next time ya try to trick me outta the money tree!’

“‘No, we need spiritual protection from whatever spirit lives in that money tree or from whatever evil spirit it belongs to whose gonna come looking for it. We don’t know for sure, but it must be evil, and it killed the man who last had it. Maybe he drowned. But, maybe, he was killed by a crocodile.’

“‘Or maybe he was killed by something else, something worse! He must have become a spirit now too, a phi tai hong, the evil ghost of someone who died violently.’

“‘Maybe. So we’re gonna need a lot of magical protection—saksit power against evil spirits, against ghosts, against crocodiles, against yamas, nagas and against garudas. So we need to get sak yant’—sacred tattoos—‘and amulets. And since we don’t know what other ways the spirits might try to attack us, we’re gonna need all the tattoos and amulets we can get.’

“‘But we already got protection,’ says Beer. Both Beer and I have tattoos on our shoulders and backs as well as many amulets hanging from chains around our necks.

“‘We got our tattoos when we were drunk or in jail, so they don’t have anywhere near as much magical power as getting them done by a real monk at a temple or a real ajarn sak,’ a specialist in magical tattoos. ‘And these amulets are cheap: they don’t have real magical power. The ones with powerful magic are made either by a monk or by a mau wicha,’ an expert in the secret knowledge of making magical amulets. ‘Whichever one we buy them from, they’re gonna be real expensive.’

“‘Okay, so let’s spend up big on some new ones: we got the money now. Anyhow, what are ya talkin’ about, Kob? What do ya mean, we need protection against yamas, nagas and garudas? What for?’

“‘Well, I’ve had some damn strange dreams lately.’

“‘Like what?’

“‘Three nights ago, the night before I discovered the body, I dreamed I was reborn in hell and was killed again and again by yama guardians. The night after I discovered the body, I dreamed a naga sprung out of the stump of the severed arm of the corpse I found and devoured me. And last night I was reborn as a naga in paradise, only when I saw the one-armed corpse again floating beneath me a garuda swooped down, snatched me up and ate me. I’m not sure what’s goin’ on or what any of it means—’

“Beer interrupts as he has a go at interpreting the dreams: ‘Maybe the dead man was attacked by a naga, or maybe he was a naga that had transformed into a man and had been killed by a garuda.’

“‘I’m not so sure about that... I think these are more like omens, very potent ones. But the dream book I got doesn’t cover anything like this, so I don’t know what they might mean. But I do know one thing: this is powerful magic we’re playin’ with and we need all the protection we can get.’

“Beer ignores what I’d said and remains focused on his train of thought. ‘I think it was the dead man’s ghost in ya dreams.’

“‘I don’t think so, Beer. The dreams seemed real and although I was shit scared in them, it wasn’t like being attacked by a ghost. That woulda been worse. Like I said, I think they’re premonitions.’

“‘Or maybe it was his spirit, a phi tai hong, that came to you first in the form of a yama, then a naga and then a garuda!’

“‘I give up...’

“I pick up the money tree and have a good, close-up look at it for the first time. I mean I have a real close-up examination of the tree itself, not the money growing on it.

“‘What is it?’ asks Beer.

“‘Have ya noticed the sticks of the branches of this money tree aren’t made out of bamboo as money trees usually are. I mean every money tree I ever saw was made out of bamboo, which grows everywhere and is free.’

“‘Yeah,’ says Beer, looking closely. ‘The trunk is usually made from strips of bamboo bound together so notes can be stuck in them. I’ve seen lots of them with plastic straws covering the branches to add color too.’

“‘Yeah, but our money tree is made out of real expensive hardwood. Look at this…’ I point at the trunk. ‘Like you say, money trees are usually made out of bits of bamboo all tied together, right?’

“‘Right,’ agrees Beer.

“‘Well, this one’s carved out of a single piece of wood.’

“Beer has a close look at where the dark brown trunk and branches meet. ‘Yeah, so it is,’ he says.

“‘The whole thing—the trunk and the branches—are carved from a single piece of hardwood. And look at the branches, each has a slot cut down the middle of the top for the money to slide into, or unfurl out of.’

“Beer has a closer look and nods. ‘Yeah, so they do,’ he says.

“‘This is a real work of art.’

“‘A real work of the black arts, ya mean. It must be made from a sacred tree.’

“‘Could be.’

“‘Maybe a bodhi tree.’

“‘Not bodhi. That’s a sacred tree all right, the Buddha achieved enlightenment sitting under one, but it’s commonly found in Bangkok and all over the country. This is something very, very rare and very, very special.’

“‘Let’s figure it out later,’ says Beer. ‘We gotta go to a temple and get ourselves inked.’

“‘Not a temple. We need powerful tattoos for fighting—the monks won’t do those types of tattoos—but an ajarn sak will. Do you know where an ajarn sak lives around here?’

“‘I’ve heard there’s one near the temple on the other side of the canal. And in the evening there’s a amulet market outside the temple.’

“We pluck as much money as we can stuff into our pockets, hide the money tree back under the books and go to the temple, finding the house of the ajarn sak a few blocks over from it.

“We’re in luck as the ajarn sak is having a slow day and nobody else is there, but the ajarn sak tells us to come back next Tuesday. When we tell him we need multiple sak yant, the ajarn sak refuses. He tells us he only does one sak yant at a time, mostly because it’s so painful. We tell him we’re under attack from an evil spirit, but we don’t know what kind, and that’s why we need so many tattoos done right away. This fails to convince him. We tell him we want to suffer the pain as a trial of our resolve to resist the evil spirit. This too fails to convince him.

“Then Beer pulls out two big bundles of notes and the ajarn sak reconsiders, summoning his two apprentices and getting to work immediately. We lie down on mats facing the east and they start inking us right away. The pain is nearly unbearable but we need a smorgasbord of sak yant to ensure we get every kind of specific supernatural protection needed to meet the many potential metaphysical threats facing us. But no matter how great the agony, neither of us cry out, but stoically suffer the powerful thrusts of the sharp point deep into our flesh.

“As the ajarn sak and his apprentices repeat a sacralizing incantation, ‘Ehi ehi samma,’ which is Pali for ‘O come, come properly,’ they painfully puncture our skin with metal-tipped bamboo needles dipped in indelible blue-black ink made from magical ingredients. We suffer patiently to get a sak yant of a crocodile to protect us from attack by the predatory beast, a naga to give us superpowers, a garuda to prevent danger, a tiger to drive away evil spirits, a rhino to make us strong, a boar to make us fearless, and sacred Khmer yantra script to protect us from bullets.

“It’s night by the time we’re done and our welted and bleeding bodies are covered in gauze. We walk gingerly to the evening market, which is now set up outside the main gate of the temple, and find a row of makeshift stalls that mostly specialize in selling amulets. Despite the agony we’re in, we spend up big, buying a number of potent supernatural talismans from a real mau wicha.

“First we buy amulets to protect us from black magic and phi tai hong the mau wicha tells us are made from the corpse of a baby that’d been stolen from a charnel ground. Next, we purchase amulets to protect us from evil spirits the mau wicha tells us are made from the bone fragments of a dead monk’s skull. Then we buy amulets made from bullets fashioned into the shape of the Buddha to give us further protection from gunshots.

“We take the old amulets off and hang them from the branches of a bodhi tree growing in the temple compound, where it’s safe to dispose of them. Then we hang the new ones around our necks: so many we stoop a little under their weight.

“‘We’re gonna need more protection than tattoos and amulets,’ says Beer, pointing at a man selling an assortment of bladed weapons laid out on a blanket spread on the ground.

“We head over and Beer inspects the merchandise, delighted to see he’s not selling just any weapons—he’s selling hardware for Krabi krabong—an ancient martial art that uses traditional weapons. He’s got pairs of daab song murn double swords; krabi single-edged sabers; krabong staffs; lo shields, made from both buffalo hide and wood; ngao halberds; maisok san clubs, worn on the forearms; and phlong cudgels.

“Beer selects a pair of daab song murn double swords for himself and a krabi single-edged saber for me. We unsheathe them and are very pleased to see they’ve each been inscribed along the blade in yantra script. We run our fingers down the edges. They’re blunt, but the vendor says he’ll throw in a couple of whetstones and bottles of oil for sharpening if we buy them.

“‘Now hold on, Beer, we haven’t practiced Krabi krabong since before we were arrested in the village twenty years ago. These things are dangerous.’

“‘If the magical invincibility of the tattoos and amulets fails, then we’re gonna need ’em,’ he says with a broad grin that proudly displays his two gum lines of rotten teeth. He hands over the money asked by the vendor without haggling and starts waving his pair of swords in the air in front of him, as do I my saber. It’s been a long time since I’d handled one. I hadn’t touched a sword since we practiced together as kids in Ban Pha Lua, and having one in my hand again after such a long time brings back long-neglected memories and makes me feel like a kid again.

“Once home, we get to work sharpening our newly acquired weapons and practicing with them as we drink bottle after bottle after bottle of rice wine until our limbs multiply before our eyes. First we see double with an extra pair of arms like Shiva or Vishnu, multiplying further as we drink more and more until we have as many arms as Durga, the terrifying ten-armed goddess of victory over evil, and visualize an army of countless asuras assailing us from all directions, demonic creatures we systematically dismember.

“We dance wildly, severing limbs and decapitating heads with sweeping swings of our swords, constantly leaping into the air, spinning and somersaulting forward and backward and cart-wheeling with our many blades with rhythmic primal energy until we have felled the entire enemy army of demons with our sword-play and have not just visualized ourselves as gods, we have become gods. Having liberated ourselves from the bonds of the physical universe and awakened the divine forces within us, we become truth, and, with the revelation, vanish instantly into the limitless, universal void.”

Chapter Four

Ban Pha Lua

Kob falls silent, lost in introspection. His eyes dart to all points of the compass as he jumps from one of the thousand thoughts racing through his mind to the next, but now lost for the words to express such a fast flowing flood of feelings. I wait for him to settle down and his eyes gradually slow until he stares straight ahead at some distant vanishing point, his eyes opaque, as though meditating again, only now on the nothingness he’d found in the “universal void” of alcohol abuse.

“Kob.” He doesn’t seem to hear. “Kob.” I lean in closer.

“Eh?” He snaps out of the trance and glances at me with eyes once more illuminated.

“Kob, I have something to ask you.”

“Sure.” He affixes his stare on me. “What?”

“You’ve mentioned a couple of times about when you were growing up with Beer. You know, I think it would help me understand this story you’re telling a lot more if you’d say a bit about what happened when you were young.”

Kob nods distractedly. After a few moments he replies, “All right, Andee. Ya right. Ya really can’t understand me or Beer unless I tell ya about the old days in Ban Pha Lua. Have ya ever been to Ban Pha Lua?”

“No, sorry to say I haven’t even heard of it before.”

“I only ask ‘cause sometimes it gets a few tourists, who come to visit a waterfall a couple miles from the village. Never many though. Anyway, we haven’t been there since over thirty years ago now, when I was about twelve and Beer was about twenty-four.”

I’m shocked to hear his age. If what he’s telling me is true, then he’s only around forty-two years old. I thought he was anywhere upward of fifty-five years old. But it seems he’s only eight years older than I am.

“But I can’t start by telling ya about when I was a teenager or even a kid. If I’m gonna tell ya this story properly, I’m gonna have to tell ya right from the very beginning, right from the time I was born. I have to start even before that because if I don’t tell ya about my parents and what happened to them, ya can’t understand anything about me and Beer.”

He adjusts his sitting position, putting his weight on the walking stick before restarting the story. As he does so, I reflect on my newfound friend and how intrigued I feel that our paths have stumbled across each other. I’m heartened to hear that over the brief time we’ve been together in this dungeon his confidence in me has grown to such an extent he’s willing to share more about himself than perhaps he’d initially intended.

“Ban Pha Lua is a small village in the very far north of Thailand which, like I told ya before, is in Phrae Province. The people there are mostly simple rice farmers. My father was a rice farmer from a family with a small plot of land outside the village. My parents were young when they got married, both around seventeen years old. They say my mother was very beautiful, the most beautiful girl in the village; and they say my father was the most charming boy. They’d played together since they were young children, and everybody in the village expected them to marry one day, sooner rather than later. There were other suitors, even from rich families, but no proposal—no matter how large the bride price offered—was enough. And boys from families without money wore chains of amulets with the power to make women fall in love with them, but no magic—no matter how powerful—was enough either. My parents were destined to marry.

“Once married, they lived together in my father’s parents’ house, sharing it with all my uncles and aunts on that side of the family. Like most of the women in the village, my mother worked raising chickens and pigs under the house as well as making bamboo baskets and weaving cloth, while my father, like most of the men in the village, worked in the family’s paddies.

“I was to be their first child, the first of many children of a big and happy family... But things didn’t turn out that way. A couple of months before I was born, my father went up one of the mountains near the village to collect firewood. Phrae is a very mountainous province, very high up. Usually that’s a woman’s job, but with my mother heavily pregnant, my father had to do it. And while he was up on the mountain, he came across a place where there’d been a recent landslide.

“A landslide on its own is nothing special, nothing to go telling the rest of the village about. But this landslide was special because it had uncovered most of the trunk of a great tree that must have been buried for thousands of years. My father, when he stumbled upon it, was sure he’d made a great discovery. He thought it would bring much good luck and good fortune to the village, so he didn’t try and chop it up for firewood. Instead, he started clearing away the dirt that still covered some of the trunk.


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