‘We Are All Wasteland on the Inside’, Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Illustrations © 2016 Eric Asaris

 [ Makkalee, © 2016 Eric Asaris ] She is dying, the old spymaster, when I visit her house. Spread all over the room: lethargic on the bed, a hand (thick, callused) pinned to the ceiling, a leg (long, shapely) dangling from a bookshelf. The rate of her decay has been rapid, toxins mating and making nations in her body, fighting wars and creating cultures and making history that expresses in the bioluminescence blotting her skin. It looks editorial, opal tones and swallowed sea-storms, and would have made her the star of a body-mod exhibit. Jellyfish chic, arising salt-thick and hungry from the deep.

But still she breathes and when she sees me, she says, “Help yourself.”

The bar is fully stocked, red bottles and faceted cups. Clean stirrers, cleaner glassware. She has a housekeeper, some fresh-faced (as they eternally are) upsorn-sriha newly out of the forest: the sandals left at the door are telltale, delicate gold and shaped for hooves. For my drink I pick smoky wine and red petals that dissolve in the alcohol, giving up spice and salt and sour. I skip the coconut syrup that’s supposed to go with the cocktail. Sweet things are not my province.

I settle on a chaise lounge. It’s distracting, her collapse, the slow agony of a body pushing free of each other as though they are similarly polarized magnets. Phantom limbs have sprung from the sockets of her arm and leg. They curl about her, boneless, barely real in their pallor. Her torso is intact otherwise, the head still firmly joined to the rest. A pre-murder scene, avant-garde and carefully posed on sheets and headboard for maximum statement. She must be on anesthetics, medulla oblongata sloshing in drugs, but her eyes are steady, her voice smooth and uninterrupted by intoxication.

“I’m your assigned legal executor.” A sip: as hard-hitting as I expected. She has good taste and the means to satisfy it, though I can’t imagine she has enjoyed anything lately. “We’ll need your authorization to unseal your will, Khun Jutamat.”

Her mouth pinches. A smile aborted late-term. “I don’t have one.”

That’s news to me. I know she has close family and two ex-wives. “Your property will revert to the state.”

“I’ll be dead and money won’t matter to me. I didn’t ask for you specifically on account of your law degree. You worked with police.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I have worked in many things: theater, accounting, a stint in forensics and vice. Mine is a timeline in disarray, but so are most people’s. Much of life has become debris and dead skin after Himmapan, the convergence event.

Jutamat’s poltergeist arm stretches unsteadily, the movements more like limp rubber than bone and muscle. Undulating, repulsive. “It’s a good range of skills. Much more important than one’s bank balance or where that balance goes after one expires. You and I, we’ll solve my murder together before I go.”

In Jutamat’s garden there is a tree, old, its canopies dripping star-shaped leaves. Gold, green, tipped in stark white. It is heavy with a crop of makkalee fruits on the cusp of maturity and independence from the bough. I have never seen one of these trees; they don’t grow just anywhere and resist attempts at cultivation. Only at the liminal edges do they flourish, where Himmapan hovers and seeps into city, black loam making sludge of asphalt, green radiance splattering traffic signs and sidewalks. Where birds fly too close to that border they disappear, the dirt-crusted pigeons and smoke-stained crows.

Accordingly there are no birds here or butterflies, no ants or amphibians. All is clean. Not a blade of grass is too long; no weeds or infestation of fungi touch the earth, no mark of worm or insect hunger on petals. Frangipani, lotuses—either Jutamat favors those, or no other flower would grow. Symbols of passing on and peace, respectively. Appropriate perhaps.

Myth tells that makkalee fruits are alluring and sweetly scented. Reality is less glamorous. They smell faintly vegetal rather than like palm sugar, jasmines, or some heavenly blossom. On the ground one of them lies fallen and premature, ivory skin bruised from impact and seeping blue sap. I turn it in my palm, tracing the contours of full breasts and small waist, flared hips and thick thighs. The face is rough, a work in progress, but there is already a nose and mouth defined, eye sockets deepening. The ones on the bough are shaped similarly. All makkalee fruits from the same tree look alike, replicated over and over in some internal mold, the way dolls emerge from a factory.

“Have you ever met one of them full grown?”

I put the fruit down. Jutamat’s wheelchair labors, for all that her mass can’t weigh that much anymore. Shreds of her ghost leg get stuck in mechanism, between joints. “Can’t say I have, ma’am.”

“Poor conversationalists. They only think of the soil and the air, rain and sun. Not much else; I can’t imagine what hermits in legends see. But then, mythical hermits tend to be ugly and desperate.” She wheels forward. It continues to be a struggle, looking at her directly. The eye protests. Optic nerves flinch. The mind attempts to reconstitute what is there and fails. “Rumor has it that eating makkalee will cure any ill. Incorrect, of course. My housekeeper planted this, by the way, to keep her company—not many Himmapan natives live in the neighborhood. Would you like a bite? Think of it like molded chocolate or marzipan.”

“I will pass, thank you.” I don’t consider myself squeamish. But still they look humanlike and, given time to ripen, they will talk like humans too. Pastiche personhood. “I don’t think I am the person you want for this.” A simple arrangement of paperwork, what will go where, a list of beneficiaries and then a cut for the tax collectors. That is what it should have been.

“I’ll be the judge of that. You were police, more or less.”

“Less rather than more.” With effort I focus on the banal details: her thinning hair, the indented scar on her chin. “What makes you think there’s a crime to figure out, a perpetrator to bring to justice?”

“Justice has nothing to do with it, Khun Oraphin. I seek satisfaction and, from your records with forensics, you seem to have a nose for the strange. When you were very young, you were lost in Himmapan for a day, I understand.”

A day to my parents; a month to me. It wasn’t a bad month—Himmapan is kind to children, and I was twelve going on thirteen, sufficiently young and sufficiently pure—but I returned changed, one of the first to have made the crossing before true convergence. No one believed me, at first, until the parents of another child went on air. Talk shows, taken seriously by nobody, and then a handful of lost children grew to a dozen, a score. We became a generation. Himmapan, the domain of many things, but foremost among them the eagle and the serpent. When I open my hand I half-expect to be clutching a feather the color of clear night, the color of polished cobalt. This is a hallucination that’s seated itself deep inside me, parasitic, cancerous.

“I suppose I was, ma’am.” I never say anything else. Not the details. Not anything.

“Stop calling me that. You aren’t my servant.” Her flesh leg twitches; she is trying to cross it, but the other one is insubstantial and does not obey. I wonder if the amputated leg, alone in that room, flexes and pulls with effort. “I was one of the people poring over your case file, back then. It all looked like a threat to national security at the time.”

Sixteen years ago. “What’d you like me to do, Khun Jutamat?”

“Help me figure this out,” she says. “My fortune isn’t going anywhere. It’s not inconsiderable—you would know. It would serve a dead woman poorly, but you’re alive and prone to stay that way for decades yet. Sort this out and I’ll sign it all to you.”

Her assets are significant, no denying that. My thoughts dart—avarice is so magnetic—to the possibilities, the fantasies, the horizons out of reach. Money is not all, especially in the changed world, but it is still much. Humanity does not function without a currency. We’ve knotted ourselves too tight to go back to barter and an exchange of labor, to discard the coins and the notes and the checks. Even those of the forest are becoming like us in that way. “Your family isn’t going to be happy with me.”

She issues a low chuckle, a sound of paper rustling on wood. “What does it matter, whether they are happy? Come, I’m not dying any slower. The sooner we get started, the better.”

To trace any curse, the most obvious and essential first step is to examine the site of its effect, in this case Jutamat’s body parts. There will be a piece of buffalo hide, a fragment of tooth or finger-bone, as vector for malice. I imagine the housekeeper on her dainty deer hooves dusting the celadon and polishing the teak floor, precise steps as she cleans around these lost limbs. Not everyone can afford upsorn-sriha staff, hard workers as well as supreme ornaments. All the rage in any establishment of class and currency, any household of taste and opulence. For myself I can’t stand those quiet hooved girls, but I am no tastemaker.

With gloves on—best practice must be followed—I pull down the detached limbs. The hand is first and hardest, speared in place by a reptilian tongue of glistening iron. It bleeds when I bring it down, though Jutamat evinces no reaction save mild amusement. The leg—it is a whole leg, complete, from thigh to tiptoes. Fetching it is simple; handling it less so. The weight of the limb is hot and heavy, confrontational in its gross mortality, the bones and muscles and wrinkled skin at the knees. I seize it around the ankle at first, then reverse my grip when I realize that the position would put the thigh much too close to my face. Maneuvering it awkwardly to a sofa I put it down and try not to think on the intimacy of this. The detachment happened right at the point where it joined the groin, clean.

The leg smells faintly of shower cream, not the cheap type: this is essential oils, bergamot and frankincense, an underlying note of subtle fruits. The poison must have preserved the parts entirely, suspended them in the moment of amputation. “What were you doing when this happened?”

“I’d just come out of a bath. That was the first one.” Her voice falters, only just, then resumes smooth: lifetime-practiced control sanding off the edge of trauma. “How does it end?”

“Your head.” Not that I have seen it in action but there are reports and studies. Few ailments of supernatural sources have not been catalogued, compared, cross-referenced into mundanity. We forge the changed earth through empiricism and remorseless analysis. The poets and dreamers thought they would be ascendant, but after all it’s people like me and Jutamat who thrive. Pragmatists who know how to move through the world, and know how to move it in turn by levers and hand-wheels. “It’s mostly painless. As far as I know, ma’am.”

Jutamat makes a noise through her teeth, strained and thin and high: distilled panic. “Two to five months, though they say it escalates toward the final stage.”

“Do you have enemies?”

“In my profession, at my age, who does not? Unless one is devoted to nothing but pushing pens and shuffling papers. Any number of people, domestic and foreign, would want me gone.” She sips from a glass of anchan tea so cold it radiates, mentholated and lambent. “After sixty I’d have thought they would leave me alone to die naturally. I guess not. Should’ve smoked and drunk more.”

The past doesn’t relent and deeds like hers don’t fade, not that she needs reminding. When I open her detached hand it feels exhibitionist—perhaps voyeuristic?—to be caressing, touching, playing with an older stranger’s appendage. Her palm is empty: I’d expected a sliver, a thorn, the swell of a small tooth hiding under skin. The obvious carrier of a curse. If only, for once, existence would oblige by being simple. “Have you been having dreams?” Sleep paralysis, a ghostly face greenly lit. The paranormal is predictable in its symptoms, easier than viruses and cancer to diagnose, more straightforward by far than the caprices of human flesh.

“No dreams. No, that’s not quite true. One dream. A khrut. Young. Female. Four arms. She’s sitting on a chair. Blue like her feathers.” Her expression pinches: this is not a woman used to sharing her dreams. “She’s singing, I suppose, but there is no sound. Like you are receiving faulty signal, visual without auditory.”

I look at the leg, perfunctory, pushing at the skin and peering behind the knee. “I will need to consult.”

“Who, a shaman?”

“No.” The leg falls from my hand and rests, limp, on the table. It will leave smudges on the glass and the housekeeper will have to wipe that away. She will have to put the limbs somewhere, too, arrange them in neat order. Maybe a mannequin, custom-made to Jutamat’s build. “I will get back to you as soon as possible.”

Throughout all this, she has not asked how to stop the toxin of unmaking. Some curses are like the common flu. Others are cousin to genetic defects, unliftable, incurable. It sits there inside, cystic slag hardening to fossil, a seismic fault-line in the soul. The only answer is passage into the next life.

Reincarnation is the true panacea.

There’s nothing magical about Krungthep. The writers and artists were wrong, and what once resided within their fantasias and imagination are now everyday—everywhere. Metaphor and allegory no longer serve, having turned literal overnight. Even the statues and stencils in Suvarnaphum have come alive, adopted as vessels for the creatures they once depicted as fictional. What is the point of words on pages, or nielloware etchings or delicate carved ivory, when the genuine articles are full of voice and viscera?

It’s strange: others who have wandered into Himmapan as children, the ones I know, none of them turned to art when they grew up. Not painting or sculpting, not the piano or the jakhe, neither verse nor prose. Those from the forest make better images and music than we do in any case. Maybe we are meant for brute industry and surgical calculation while they are built for the rest, including philosophy.

Every time need summons me to Suvarnaphum, I bring vast quantities of food. They trend red, a menu selected for the carnivore’s palate. The giants can eat fruits and vegetables like anyone else, but they enjoy those no more than a child, and unlike a child they don’t need to worry about cavities, caloric intake, diabetic futures. Himmapan beings can eat as much as they like, gobbling up carcinogens and cholesterol with no cost or effect.

The giants make their home where first-class passengers used to check into Thai Airways, under a pavilion of banana leaves that never brown. Few travelers venture near for fear of the giants’ appetite, and not without reason. There have been disappearances, though never remains. There have been questions, though never investigations. I do know for a fact that the giants are tremendous eaters and that they leave no bones.

All three are home today, reclining on cushions made from hammered bronze and holding plates made from black nacre. Empty. Around them, the walls gleam with tableaus of holiness. Prince Siddhartha stepping on the lotuses of his birth; Prince Siddhartha forsaking his palace to seek the ascetic’s path; Prince Siddhartha triumphing over demonic temptation.

As one the giants look at me, or at least turn their attention. Each of them has four faces apiece with eyes to match, their gazes reading existence in compound. Their faces are theatrical masks, red and blue and green, bristling tusks like machetes. Wood and acrylic transmuted to sinew and iron. I’ve asked them why they don’t wear their own flesh and get answers in verse that leave me no more enlightened. They have an abiding love of Sanskrit, which I never bothered learning (does anyone, who was once spirited away?); that is the province of a government liaison (I avoid that entire division—too many fetishists).

“Child,” one of them says, “you did not come empty-handed; we can smell.”

This is a ritual—they don’t talk without a bribe. The styrofoam boxes I brought are damp with blood and grease: cartilage flavored hot and sour, dripping meat just barely rare, plastic jars of namprik and dry chili. Pork, beef, the animal is nearly moot. As long as it is flesh that once belonged to a walking creature, flesh that once housed cardiac muscles the size of a fist. I don’t think much of vegetarianism, but if anything could turn me herbivorous it would be them, not religion or even health problems.

Once they have filled their plates, the blue one says, “You look in want of a tale.”

The green one chuckles, a sound like a landslide about to begin. “We tell stories not to excite or intrigue, but to harden their truth.”

(Don’t you have names? I asked. The crunch of femur and the slide of tongue on new guts, they said. I didn’t ask again. You could call them Morrakot, Tuptim, and Pailin, but those are such soft names next to their predator might.)

“I don’t. I need to know—” My breath trembles, cuts short, a juddering knock against my teeth. “I need to know if Panthajinda is alive.”

They look at one another. Enough eyes to spare, still, to look at me too. “You left a wound in Himmapan, child.” This from the red one, though they all have the same voice, asphalt and seismic calculus. “It seeks to restore itself, in khrut-shape or not.”

I was a child, I could say; I did not know what I was doing. But the actual meat of it, the reality, is what it is and will not bend to my excuses. “Let me talk to her.” What remains of her.

The green giant opens their mouth, and keeps opening. Past the unhinging of jaw it opens, a gaping hole lined with bright tongues and red teeth. I have seen it before, and don’t look away, but it’s not a sight I wish on anyone. The tongues and teeth roar and blur into a vermillion haze. Himmapan colors bleed into that with difficulty. Sometimes I don’t think the giants are from the forest at all; it is a place of green and gold and opal radiance while the giants are red on red inside, a hungry insatiable mass.

The image stabilizes and there is Panthajinda, enthroned, eyes shut. When I left her and Himmapan, we were both children, but her echo—spirit remnant, dregs at cup’s end—has aged, tall and strong, her four arms immaculate. Two for the wings, two for human things. Droplets of water in her black-sun hair, on her gilded throat. She looks asleep; of course she looks asleep, a goddess at rest.

How do you begin to apologize, even if it wasn’t your fault. How do you start to grieve, when you are as good as the murderer. The giants don’t judge or condemn, but they don’t have to.

We don’t talk; what communication occurs is at a preverbal level, the sensation of elevating pulse and heart knotting into stone, the memory of dying. Wisdom passes from her to me in impressionistic blots, truths on mortality and samsara that turn like barbed wheels. The dead don’t have secrets to keep. They tell you everything, everything. All you need to do is ask, all you need to have is the stomach to bear.

I promised myself I wouldn’t cry; it leaves me small and brittle, robbed of dignity. I break this promise, every time.

On the train ride home I watch a girl, seventeen maybe, compulsively blotting her face. Sheet after sheet; she is too sweaty and the air conditioning too sluggish. At the far end of the carriage, two kinnaree murmur in quiet conversation, fair salaries and weather, the merits of birdseed and imported fruits. Their foreheads and noses produce no excess sebum. Their eyelashes are voluminous without the requirement of mascara, their lips pink without the assistance of lipstick, their skin lustrous and poreless without the help of foundation. Enough of them and the cosmetics industry will go extinct entirely. Himmapan women make farang supermodels look pickled and haggard, farang celebrities overpainted and swollen with botox.

Back at my apartment, I take out the lockbox that has accompanied me from move to move down the years, home to dormitory to apartment. It’s small and mundane, a dial lock to guard it and not much else. Few pieces of jewelry are attached to my name and all of them reside here, but the star is this: two bangles beaten thread-thin, clinched together by a star sapphire. The one gift from Panthajinda that she intended to be the first of many. Funny really; it was given to a child, but somehow it’s stretched as my wrist grew, the gold so soft and so warm. I rarely wear it. For two days I don’t leave my apartment, pulling blackout curtains over the windows, double-bolting my door, switching off my phone. An anechoic chamber, liberated from human interaction.

On the third day, I return to Khun Jutamat’s house, the bangles gleaming on my wrist. I’m dehydrated, famished, and my head is full of feathers.

She isn’t home, but one of her staff lets me in on her instruction. Wait in the garden, they say; she’ll be back shortly from the hospital. Perhaps some miracle cure has been found, last-minute. Most likely not.

Her garden overlooks the Chaopraya, which isn’t what it used to be, that mucky sewage-blighted self. After Himmapan and Krungthep collided the river has been running clear, its skin lacerated nacreous white, smelling of cleanness and paya-nak and—toward the sea—mermaids. To filth the waters is to court incredible misfortune, swifter and harsher than falling apart slowly. So much converges, so much moves inexorably. What Himmapan brought is not magic but consequence. What happens to us, inside, is a wasteland.

 [ Upsorn sriha, © 2016 Eric Asaris ] The upsorn-sriha housekeeper steps, dainty, onto the verandah. The tray she carries holds a perspiring glass. Her eyes are downcast, demure. You always forget the damage an upsorn-sriha can do, they all have this look of harmless grace, their delicate feet made for running. Away, you think, because of the folktales. Kinnaree, upsorn-sriha, makkalee fruits, all the girlish things of the forest who exist to be captured, painted, admired.

I take the glass, gazing into it, the milky tea. Its flat, bright orange, the same color a child might shade in a sun. I think of drinking it in one big gulp, emptying the glass just like that and grinding the ice to dust in my mouth. “Is this painful?”

“Pardon, ma’am?” Even her voice is ordinary. Her face too, plain and homely as though she’s been particularly cursed among a species made for breathtaking beauty.

“Whatever you added to the tea. Will it put me to sleep without pain, or do you mean for me to suffer like Khun Jutamat did? Or worse.”

Her gaze meets mine, direct, before fixing on the bangle. The star sapphire that is so like the color of Panthajinda’s wings. “She was meant to be a queen among khrut.”

“I remember you now.” A handmaiden, or childhood companion. Panthajinda didn’t give her much attention during the time I was in Himmapan; I was novel while the upsorn-sriha was not. She used to hover just out of sight, dutiful and a little sad, I thought. “You must’ve been there when she died.”

“She wouldn’t have been there near the river, had you not slipped. So close to the territory of her enemies. They were at war; still are.”

It’s not as though I need reminding. The war between nak and khrut, that forever enmity between those of the water and the sky. Serpent against eagle. As a child I didn’t understand it; as a child I thought only of Himmapan as a vast playground, freer than any Krungthep street. “I couldn’t have known.” That the nak would drag her in and drown her; that her wings—strong on land, impossibly mighty in flight—would be deadweight in water, no use at all. “She was a child.”

“She would have grown to rule and command. They destroyed her as they would any weapon. I will avenge her, but their logic wasn’t unsound.”

The nak spared me, once my purpose as bait was past. Because I was a human child, they said, and to take a mortal life was a sin. Not so with another of Himmapan kind. With others of the forest, any tactic was permissible, any death a justification unto itself. “Would this even bring her back?” Killing Jutamat, killing me.

She stares at me, unblinking. Do deer need to blink, I wonder. “It’s not the flesh—Khun Jutamat, like you, is mortal—but the essence, the karmic heft. Some are bound for better destinies than others. You should pay for what you did, but your place on the wheel is far beneath what I require. Khun Jutamat is gold. You are dross.”

How strange that the spymaster is, evidently, possessed of greater virtue than most. Than me, though that’s no surprise. “What is still there…” My breath comes out thin. “It’s not her anymore.”

The first hint of anger: “What do you know about my liege.”

Nothing, nothing at all. An image, a memory. The dead bears no resemblance, a distant cousin to their living selves. Less. “How many more do you need?” Counting cargo, reducing it to simple arithmetic.

“If I find a single shining soul, rich and pure, it will suffice to give her a new body. I will need nothing more.”

“Isn’t this prohibited for you.” Human lives: Jutamat’s and whoever else’s, before and after. How many in total, I could ask, balancing a checkbook. Murders against one resurrection, crimes against one act of reparation.

Her hands twitch; her shoulders coil, tense. “I may be exiled. But I will see her back.”

Isn’t that what love is like, after all. What I feel for—about—Panthajinda is tangled in an ideal. I slide the bangles off my wrist, hold them out to the upsorn-sriha whose name I have not asked (and would she tell me? No). “Take it. More yours than mine.”

She might move to slap it out of my hands, out of pride. Instead she takes those thin gold threads and puts them onto her wrist. Slimmer than mine, and already the bangles appear to fit as though they’d been made just for her. She doesn’t offer, But she would have wanted you to keep them. No quarter.

When she’s gone, I drink the tea. Not too sweet, not too much condensed milk. It’s just right and it’s just tea, unburdened by the acrimonious acid of poison or curse.

When she was still alive, I asked Panthajinda what Himmapan would have been like untouched by human imagination; how the wars would have played out, how each race would have evolved, deific and alien. Meeting you is the best thing that ever happened to me, Oraphin, she said. I can’t wait to see your Krungthep, all your skyscrapers, all your lights. We could go to school together. After she died, I asked her again, and it was then I learned that the dead do not use words, do not speak. Instead she showed me an image, a dark line stretching forever, drinking all light: an event horizon, full of ruin, the endpoint of Himmapan crossing over. There is no room for dreamers.

On the way out I take a final look at Jutamat’s lost, forlorn limbs, stacked together in the living room. Two legs, one arm. Soon she will be simply a human torso, and then not even that. Maybe that is the future. An epidemic of disassembly and all of us lying exposed, apart, awaiting the end.

I will be there too. By then Panthajinda will have come back, picking a path through the vision she foresaw. She will glide on her taloned feet, the upsorn-sriha at her side, and stop by my body. For one last time, I will see her again.

© 2016 Benjanun Sriduangkaew

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