Jan/Feb 2018  •   Fiction


by Robert Hilles

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel

Textile Photo Art by Jeffrey Trespel

There is a dead gecko by the front door of our house in Khon Kaen. When I encounter the body, it has already turned a dark brown, so I mistake it for a piece of dried tamarind. It even has a split down the side like the ones I have for breakfast each day. It isn't until I lean over for a better view when I see the tiny suction fingers and the unmistakable bump of a head.

I can't decide if the split down the side is a wound, or if it is just due to bloating caused by the heat. I step back and bump into my wife Win standing behind me. She tells me she saw the smaller of our two calico cats kill the gecko earlier this morning.

"I thought she would eat it, so I left her to it, but when I came back, she hadn't touched it," she says, and then chants, Ben Tuk Kung Anna Ja Anna Da. I chant with her. We repeat it three times to ward off evil spirits, then step back into the full sun.

The cat is nowhere to be seen and has likely escaped to a cool spot at the back of the house where she'll stay until evening. These are the routines of a Thai winter's day, which more resembles summer ones in Canada. But to Win this is still winter, each night cool enough to need blankets.

"The cat and gecko share a karmic past. They have likely killed each other before," Win says. I don't ask her how she knows this; I just accept she does, as I accept and share her belief each soul travels through a complex chain of lives on its way to enlightenment.

Coming from Canada, it's taken me three years to adapt to this way of thinking and incorporate my own understanding. When I'm feeling optimistic, I call the gap between each life a perimeter of light. When I'm feeling less so, I call it a perimeter of dark. I imagine the gap is amorphous and determined by what a soul thinks just before its body dies.

Win tells me the dead gecko reminds her of the story of an old monk who heard the voice of a mother squirrel calling out for help to save her babies from a vicious snake. The monk told the novice who pushed him in a wheel chair that the call for help came from behind the main temple. Once there, he asked the young monk to climb a papaya tree. When he reached near the top, the novice saw above him a meter-long green snake with two lumps in her belly.

"It is too late. The snake has already eaten them," the novice said when he climbed back down. The old monk said the mother squirrel and the snake had once been women in love with the same man. One woman had been pregnant, and this made the other woman so jealous, she sprinkled poison into her rival's Tom Ka. The poison wasn't strong enough to kill the mother, but it did kill her unborn child. Because of that, they had been battling each other for many lives as their souls jumped from body to body.

"We have to stop this karmic cycle," the old monk said.

"How do we do that?" asked the novice.

"We catch the green snake and drive it an hour away and set it free."

The young monk climbed the tree again, this time carrying a burlap sack. He caught the snake and put it in the sack. They drove an hour north of the temple and parked next to a ripe rice field. The novice retrieved the sack from the trunk and set it in the tall grass next to the field, opened the sack, and the snake hurried out. It stopped several meters away and looked back at them, not moving any further. Go. This is now finished, the old monk said, and then he and the novice chanted. When they finished chanting, the snake turned and hurried away.

"We must do the same with the dead gecko," Win says now.

"But it's already dead," I say.

"That doesn't matter. Its soul is still here. Often souls don't realize their body is dead for a long time. They think they're still alive and wonder why no one can see or hear them. I'll get something to carry it in," she says and hurries into the house, returning with an eight-inch-square cardboard box and a dustpan. I drop the gecko into the box, Win closes its flaps and carries it under her arm as we hurry to the street.

We don't have to wait long before an orange songtaew stops for us. We take it as far as the main market street. From there we catch a green songtaew to the high school Win graduated from two decades ago. When we disembark there, the day has cooled, dark clouds filling in overhead. It will rain soon. It rarely rains in winter, but it will today.

"Where are we going?" I ask.

"There." She points to bushes at the back of a narrow strip of brown vegetation, like August grass in Victoria, next to the main building of the school. The possibility of rain should make us hurry, but we don't. As we walk to where she pointed, I notice the windows of the school are higher than in Canada, I wonder if it's to combat the angles of the sun. I hear noises coming from open windows, indicating classes are still in session.

When we get to the bushes, we can see behind the school. There is a parking lot full of student motorcycles in neat columns of ten, among them a few bicycles, mostly the single gear type I used to ride as a kid.

Win kneels down next to the base of a yanang shrub like the ones in our yard. She sets the box on the grass next to the shrub but doesn't open it. Instead she sits in a lotus position and chants aloud. I know this chant, so I repeat after her each phrase in Pali. To any students who might see us, this will seem perfectly normal.

We chant for half an hour, and near the end I feel several drops of rain on my bare arms. This brings me back from wherever I've gone, but Win is still chanting quietly to herself, her lips moving but no sounds coming out.

Voices behind me announce school has ended for the day. Students walk by in groups, chatting and checking their smart phones. They disperse at the parking lot, often three or four at a time squeezing onto the same bike, most not wearing helmets.

All this activity ought to be noisy enough to break Win's concentration, but when I turn back to her, she's still chanting. The rain picks up, and I sense it's about to become a downpour. The precipitation here is usually warm, but it happens so abruptly, it's easy to get trapped out in the open. Still I wait for Win.

My clothes are slightly damp when she opens her eyes and smiles.

"Here," she says and hands me the box.

I haven't a clue what I'm supposed to do besides open it. When I do, putrid air rushes out but is quickly dissipated by the wind and rain.

"There," she says and points to the base of the yanang.

"Okay," I say.

I press down each of the four flaps of the box so there's no chance the dead gecko gets snagged on any of them. I lean forward so my head fits under the lowest branch of the shrub. It smells earthy and mouldy under here. I turn the box over quickly, and the dead gecko spills out onto moist soil.

"Feel better?" Win asks.

"Yes," I say, and it's true. I feel an inexplicable, sudden lightness of being I've never felt before. I don't feel like I'm in danger of floating away, but it's a definite lightness, so pleasant I don't want the feeling to stop. So there it is. We've done something good.

"We'd better go," she says. It's raining heavily now, so she stands and runs toward the street. I run behind her, holding the box over my head as a makeshift umbrella. We hurry across in time to catch a green songtaew going back the way we came. We scramble up into it and out of the rain, the box wet and partially collapsed. I set it between my feet on the floor of the songtaew and trap it there so it won't blow away.

At the market there's no orange songtaew, so we wait. It's stopped raining, and I walk the box to the nearest garbage can, which is so full I have to squash the box flat to fit it inside. When I return, Win is smiling. "Good job," she says. "You are Keng Maark," which means very skilled.

Soon an orange songtaew arrives, but after only one block, it stops in traffic for ten minutes. A father holding his five-year-old daughter's hand crosses the street three cars behind us. The father is a forang like me. They pass in front of a white Toyota Yaris, and its driver blares the horn, a rare occurrence in traffic here. The father and daughter flinch slightly but continue to the curb. Once there, the father stops and turns back to yell at the Yaris in Russian. The driver's door opens and another forang, taller than the father, steps out. He shouts back at the father, also in Russian.

The father points at his daughter and seems to be berating the driver for scaring her. The man from the car walks right up to them and takes a swing, but the father ducks in time and the punch misses. His daughter screams. The father pushes the other man away, but the driver swings again and this time connects with the father's jaw. The father drops to the sidewalk, the girl screaming loudly now. A crowd rushes from all directions, some surrounding the fallen man while others yell at the driver in Isaan and push him back toward his car. Several sit on the roof of his car so he can't drive away.

When the scuffle starts, Win and I stand immediately, as does everyone else on the songtaew. We hurry off, and Win goes ahead to join the crowd around the little girl. I go to the father, who is sitting up now with a Thai man's help. Two women are rubbing his back. The father's eyes are a bit wobbly and unfocused.

"Are you okay?" I ask.

He doesn't answer, and I realize he probably doesn't understand English.

I ask again, this time using my fingers to make the okay sign.

His eyes find mine, and now they have a hard focus. He nods and speaks in Russian—many words, none I recognize.

He glances around, then tilts his head from side to side, looking around me and through the crowd. I realize he's looking for his daughter. He spots her and tries to stand but teeters and falls backwards. The Thai man and I catch him. He smells of aftershave lotion, lavender soap, sweat, and muddy water. His flowered shirt is covered in grime, wet and soiled from the puddle.

I pull his arm over my shoulder, and he leans on me, taking slow steps in the direction of his daughter. Her eyes are red from crying, and Win has handed her the cloth she keeps in her jean pocket for emergencies. The girl runs to her father and hugs his waist, and he hugs her back but is so wobbly on his feet the Thai man and I have to brace him again. Two more men stand behind us at the ready in case he falls their way.

A police officer appears on a motorcycle, and the crowd disperses except for those helping the father and his daughter. The officer gets off his bike, takes out a notepad from under the seat, and speaks to the man in halting Russian.

The father seems steadier, so I let go and glance around for Win. Two more police officers arrive on another motorcycle and dismount next to the White Yaris. The people sitting on the hood of the man's car get off and walk in the direction of our songtaew, which still hasn't moved although all the traffic has now cleared.

One of the officers leans into the driver's window of the Yaris, then steps back. The driver steps out. The other officer on the bike holds a notepad and speaks English to the forang, and the forang answers in a heavily accented English.

"It's okay. We can go now," Win says and points in the direction of the songtaew. It is full but hasn't driven away yet, so Win and I scramble back on. "Karma," Win says to me when we are both seated in the songtaew.

It is dark by the time we get home, take a shower, and lay side by side on the bed. I think about the dead gecko and in particular how small it looked at the bottom of the empty cardboard box. I wonder if it's still where we left it beneath the yanang shrub, its body now soggy and bloated from the rain, or if some animal has dragged it off and consumed it. I hope we broke the karmic cycle between the cat and the gecko, although we'll never know for certain.

"Those men are like the cat and the gecko. They have been fighting each other for many lives. Their karma isn't finished yet." Win says.

"How do they keep finding each other?"

"The law of action," she says, as that explains all outcomes.

"Can't the cycle be broken like with the cat and the gecko or the snake and the squirrel?"

"No. Some karmic grievances must continue because the resolution isn't yet known. Separating them would do not good. They'll simply find each other again. That is how it has to be for now. It's a tumbling forward toward dark."

I know what she means by a tumbling forward toward dark, although she's never spoken of it this way before. After awhile, we slide apart, and I feel that lightness again. I am everywhere and paper thin, my being a series of webbed lines criss-crossed and meshed together. I feel myself dispersing... in a good way.

"Are you here?" Win asks, pulling me back.

"Yes," I say and reach out in the dark.

The noise of a motorcycle wakes me at 3:00 AM. I know without checking it'll be Win's cousin Da and her husband Kan needing to sleep in our guesthouse. They do that whenever they come to Khon Kaen between days of attending to their sugar cane fields near Chum Phae. They tend to drink too much beer and whiskey in the city and need a place to sleep it off before driving back home.

"I'll let them in," Win whispers. She slips out the front door, and I turn on a light and dress. I hear laughing and celebratory voices, and then the gate scrapes open. A motorbike powers into our yard, and the gate closes. There are more laughs and excited Isaan being spoken too fast for me to keep up. I part the curtains and watch Win open the guesthouse and the three of them go inside.

I fill a glass with water and check my email and wait for Win to come back. It's another hour before she does.

"Mai Dee (this is bad)," she says.

I ask her what she means, but she puts her finger to her lips. Whenever she does this, I know trouble is coming. We stand motionless side by side in the weak light of the single bulb I turned on earlier. Arguing voices are coming from the guesthouse, and after several long minutes, Da screams.

"Stay here," Win says and hurries outside.

Soon there is more yelling, most of it by Kan. But Win yells, too, louder and more forceful than I've ever heard her. I go to the front door, thinking she may need help. I can hear Da sobbing, and Kan's angry shouting makes me imagine him with a hand raised, but Win's voice cuts off his and everything goes quiet. A few minutes later, she says Kaw Toet (excuse me) so softly, it takes me a moment to figure out exactly what she's said. She backs out of the guesthouse holding a towel aloft in both hands. By the shape of the towel I assume it shrouds a whiskey bottle she's slipped away from them.

When she reaches me, she says, "Go inside," and points behind me. I back into the kitchen, and she comes in a few minutes later and closes the door.

"What was that?" I ask.

"A gun," she says.


"Kan's gun. I saw it lying on the chair and took it without him seeing."

"A gun?" I haven't seen one since I was a teenager in northern Ontario.

"It is okay. We have it now."

"Where is it?"

"I hid it outside. He won't find it. They're both asleep."

"What was all that about?"

"A misunderstanding."

I hold her. She is trembling, and so am I.

"We have to call the police about the gun. I can't have it here," I say.

"I know, but—"

I don't know what the but means except that Win is already thinking about the police coming here and what would happen to her cousin and Kan.

"We have to leave. Go now. Before—"

"I know," she says.

We chant Ben Tuk Kung Anna Da Anna Ja three times.

"We should hide the gun." I say.


"In the septic tank behind the house. He won't look for it there." That just comes to me: the memory of throwing full bottles of whiskey into the septic tank behind my parents' house when my father got dangerously drunk on one of his binges. By the time I left home, there must have been a dozen bottles at the bottom of that septic tank. They're likely still there even though my father has been dead for 20 years.

"Okay," she says.

We slip out, careful not to let the door make any noise. She goes to the blue zippered cupboard against the outside wall of the kitchen where we store canned goods and bags of rice. She feels around in it and retrieves the towel. The shape inside it is still amorphous, but now I can better imagine the dimensions and weight of what she's holding.

I stand guard at the corner of the house while she turns on her phone's flashlight and disappears behind back. When she slides open the heavy lid of the septic tank, the concrete against concrete is louder than I expect, but the guesthouse stays dark. Shortly afterwards, she is at my side and I feel her hand on my shoulder.

"We need to go before they wake up," I say.

"Good idea," she says.

We hastily pack a bag each and tiptoe past the guesthouse to the metal front gate. It also protests loud enough that they might hear. We hurry through, and a light goes on in the guesthouse when Win shuts the gate.

"Run!" Win says.

We speed side by side down our narrow lane to the main street. It is now 5:00 AM, and morning traffic has already started. We go as far as the temple, half a block to the east. When we get there, we lean against the outside wall and chant again, Ben Tuk Kung Anna Da Anna Ja.

When we finish, an orange songtaew appears, going in our direction. It honks one sharp honk, and we wave it down, taking it to the market, flying through the still light traffic. From the market we take a taxi to the same hotel we stayed at our first winter here before we rented the house where we live in now.

Once we check into the hotel, I feel my heart rate returning to normal. In our room, I thank Win for her quick thinking with the gun. I ask her if she's ever seen one before, and she says no.

She asks me if I have, and I tell her about the 30/30 rifle my father kept loaded under his bed in case a stray black bear came in our yard, which happened every summer. I tell her about the nights my father would get so scary drunk, when he fell asleep, I'd slip the rifle from under his bed, tiptoe it outside, and hide it beneath a pile of sawed spruce in the shed, just in case he got the urge to take it out and fiddle with it. Later when he sobered up and went to work, I'd put the gun back under the bed. If he ever noticed it was missing, he never said so.

"I'm glad you did that," Win says.

"Was I breaking a karmic cycle by doing that?"

"Yes," she says.

"What about tonight?"

"Yes, that, too. Kindness improves karma. Kan and Da used to be soldiers on opposites sides. They fought and killed each other many times."

"Now they are married?"

"Yes, that is how it works. The law of action determines that."

I'd grown up believing for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. But the law of action is more expansive and inclusive. Actions ripple beyond this life into the next and the one after that and so on. Each karmic intervention creates the need for more.

"It's okay. It's done for now," Win says. This is her way of saying good night. Tomorrow will bring tomorrow.

In the morning her cousin and her husband will be gone and will never ask us about the gun. In the afternoon we will get the septic tank drained and retrieve the gun and hand it over to Win's great uncle, who is a police officer. He'll accept it from her without asking questions.

As I lay on the hotel bed, I think about Win's bravery tonight. I listen to the whirl and click of the air conditioner, and I'm thankful we made it safely to the hotel. In the weeks ahead, I'll learn more from Win about the other karmic connections between Da and Kan.

I move my toes and realize how far away they feel, then realize I only extend as far as they are. I'm not sure why that matters, but it does. I think of Kan's gun settling to the bottom of our human muck; if we did nothing, it would stay there indefinitely like those whiskey bottles years ago. Each day is a confession to all that's come before.