Abyss & Apex : Second Quarter 2010

The Monks of Udom Xhai

by Lavie Tidhar

 

Sabaidee, sabaidee:
Hello, hello, hello:
Like lonely voices on home-constructed radio-sets
Calling out across Asia.
Dai bor! Dai bor! Is it all right?
The Dai has a rising tone, like mother when she’s angry.
Geng laai, the answer comes, the tone resigned.
The same, the same, the same.

 

#
One day a monk came to Udom Xhai. The monk wore robes the colour of the mountain coffee, robes the colour of no-colour, of the darkness that can only be found in the deepest mountain caves. His head was cowled, and his face could not be seen. The monk came from the road that leads into the valley through the high mountains, from the direction of distant Luang Prabang, that ancient and once-glorious capital of the Kingdom of Million Elephants, now reduced, like a mulberry scroll that had been set aflame.

He had not come by bus, nor was he borne aloft on a four-wheel drive. Nor did he arrive by plane, which landed three times a week at the small airport, if it hadn’t rained too hard. Nor was he accompanied.

Alone, then. Perhaps. And his mode of travel? It was conceivable that he walked. If so, his journey must have taken many days. Yet the monk carried no backpack, and his robes seemed to shimmer in the dawn light, and showed no sign of wear and tear.

He was not a Buddhist, for his robes were black, not saffron, and looked expensive besides. If one looked hard one could almost imagine there were shapes fleeting across the shimmering expanse of robe, images darting hither and yon upon the light-swallowing surface of the cloth. He could have been falang, it was agreed, and everyone knew the ways of the Europeans were strange – but none could tell for sure.

When he spoke to a Lao, the monk spoke fluent Lao. When he spoke to a Hmong or a Khmu, he spoke in their own languages perfectly. Yet he chose to seek shelter in a Chinese hotel, that first night, in a modest room overlooking the hills and the clouds that settle upon them like wraiths, when the sun is setting, and he paid with –

But that is something else again.

“A portent,” Mr. Ponglee, of the Road Works Department (and thus a large and not-unimportant man) said that first night to his friends, over a round of Beerlao. “Mark my words, where one dark butterfly falls, others are not far behind.”

“He paid in advance,” Mr. Yee, proprietor of the Heavenly Guesthouse (Full American Breakfast 25,000 Kip) said, as if that put an end to the matter.

Bars of electric light were lit above them, clouds of mosquitoes and night-crawlers adhering to the light. The night smelled of beer and cigarettes and earth after the rain. The roads were bad but getting better, everyone agreed. Mr. Ponglee signalled for another two bottles for the table. “What did he say?” he inquired in bored tones.

“Who?” Mr. Yee said.

Mr. Ponglee scowled, and Mr. Yee laughed. “Your dark butterfly?” he said.

“Did he have papers? You know all foreigners must be registered. Where was he from?”

Mr. Yee allowed, at long last, that the monk did, indeed, have papers. Though they were strange, he said.

“How so?” another Chinese, Mr. Sing from the casino (Shift Manager, Day), asked. “What country is he from?”

But Mr. Yee merely shrugged, and for a moment looked uncomfortable. “He is… He is Danish,” he said at last. “A man from Denmark, here on business of his church.” He looks aside. “Or is it Czech? Or Japanese?” All he could see is the cowl, faceless.

“A missionary? They are not allowed!” said Mr. Ponglee, almost bellowing with glee (he loved a good scandal).

“No, no,” Mr. Yee said. “At least, I do not think so.”

“What do you think?” demanded Mr. Sing.

But Mr. Yee did not reply, and soon after their party departed, each on his way, collectively restless, strangely unsatisfied.

 

#
That night, as the city slept, dark shapes appeared under the street lights. Monks they were, if robes denote a monk, black monks with faces cowled and hidden.

The fog lay on the mountains overhead. A smell of flowers came wafting down into the town. The monks appeared as if they’d stepped through darkness and were born to light. They formed a line – a procession. Though they never spoke, some sort of communication seemed to be happening.

(In fact, later satellite records show a high-density information burst along infra- and ultra-red frequencies at that exact moment. The exchange lasted only a few seconds. Cryptological analysis on captured data packets revealed only one plain text comprehensible linguistic construct: a single word. The word was God).

The monks moved in strange configurations. From two to four to eight, sixteen to thirty two. How many there were there, it is impossible to tell. From sixty-four to one two eight to two five six their numbers grew the black-clad figures walked, unhurried, through the town, weaving and merging like DNA strands, and disappeared into the mountains, high above.

 

#
“He’s gone,” Mr. Yee said to his wife that morning.

“Who is gone?” the wife, no morning lover, said.

“He didn’t have the breakfast…” he sat and stared into the air. A figure seemed to shimmer, there, just once, then it was gone. “What was his name? Where was he from? I have it written somewhere…”

But in the guest book, all the spaces remained blank.

 

#
In such a fashion began the period known, at least to the townsfolk of that remote valley of Udom Xhai, there on the ancient trail between Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha, as the Black Monks’ Ascendancy. It would last exactly sixty-four days, and leave behind it an incomprehensible structure two days’ walk from the town, a collective of strange dreams – some beautiful, some terrifying – a mountain of paperwork, a spate of artistic vandalism that seemed to have hit the entire youth population of Udom Xhai simultaneously – and finally, the black, vaguely-human statues that had appeared, up in the mountains, down in the town, and here and there along the road from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang, and whose number could never be determined, though it always seemed to work out in some form as a multiple of two.

But where, then, was the exact beginning? Where was the end? It is the middle that concerns us, in this far-fetched tale of monks and mountains and men, a quest for God, or something else – a spy-ring? Latent hippy colony? An artists’ commune, or a resistance movement’s base? It’s hard to tell, impossible to guess.

Begin, then, with the paperwork.

 

#
“Sir?”

Lieutenant Bounheng was young but ambitious. Therefore, rather than submit the report through the usual channels, he took the opportunity of approaching the General directly, the paper in his hand like a missive of change.

It was night. Above their heads the stars shone, small and cold and distant. Camp fires burned. The helicopter sat a way away, hidden in the trees.

“What is it, Bounheng?”

The General was old. His hardness was unbending, the with the power and stability of rock. He had known these mountains, had lived in their caves, had fought in their jungles. Now he commanded three jeeps, a helicopter, two trucks, and thirty-two soldiers who had never known real war.

“Sir,” Bounheng said, and faltered. “I have the report, Sir.”

“The report…” the General mused. “Typed? How many pages?”

“Seven, Sir.”

“Padded, then.”

The verdict came and went. The Lieutenant stayed, just. “Sir.”

“You are still here?”

“It concerns the foreigners in Udom Xhai.”

“They are all foreigners in Udom Xhai,” the General said. Half the city was Chinese: Chinese shops, a Chinese market, a multi-storey Chinese casino serving the Chinese tourists from Yunnan, crossing over the border in their flashy cars. The other half was Lao still. The hills were ringed with the villages of Hmong and Khmu. “Tell me, then,” the General said.

Lieutenant Bounheng cleared his throat. “There are reports –” he began. The General shifted. These days they had satellites, computers, night-sight goggles, smart bombs, machines that talked back at you and conducted battles on your behalf. Back in the day… back in the day there was only a man to lead the fight. There had been a revolution to be won… well, it was won. And what had changed?

“A gathering of foreigners, number unknown… purchased slash rented – details unclear – ancestral ground of Khmu…” the words came and went in the night like birds. The General’s knee was stiff. He longed for one last battle. He was merely a night watchman now, watching over a road that saw only VIP buses shuttling to and fro with their tired human cargo. “Appeared in Udom Xhai… report of strange manifestations… suspect black-market technology… possible counter-revolutionary activity… report of link with “church,” type unknown… satellite tracking faulty over area… structure…”

“What sort of structure?”

“It looks like…” Lieutenant Bounheng said, and then shrugged.

“You have nothing to say?” The General was suddenly amused. And interested, despite himself.

“Give me that,” he said, reaching out. Lieutenant Bounheng placed the report in the General”s hand. In the following days the paperwork multiplied. But there are things one does not consign to paper.

 

#
For the next sixty-three days, opening the radio brought forth a multitude of fantastical new channels. Early morning, one might be startled by the sound of Arctic bears, in deathly fight or perhaps frenzied lovemaking. The sounds of the distant Aurora Borealis could be discerned like flavours on the tip of one’s tongue. There was martial Martian music and marital big bands, like big bang explosions of alien sound. There were talk shows: in Javanese and Pashto, Solomon Pidgin and Inuit dialects, in English and French, Chinese and Lebanese Arabic. There were bands which broadcast nothing but numbers. In the Beerlao shop a favourite became the channel of primes, the soothing beat counting one, two, three, five, seven, eleven, thirteen, seventeen, nineteen, twenty three and onwards into the night.

At every moment one could turn on the radio and hear distant galaxies explode; hear the beat of butterfly wings in a thick tropical jungle; the sound of children playing, long ago; the talk and whisper of chitchat in the distant Belt as ships called across the empty night to each other. One could hear whalers play chess, and whales as they sang to each other across the ocean. The army was concerned. Where did the signals come from? They had not been approved for use by the central Politburo.

 

#
“They have papers,” Lieutenant Bounheng reported, reluctantly. The General turned, once. “I do not recall,” he said.

“Approved by the Chairman of the Central Committee,” Lieutenant Bounheng said.

The General raised his eyebrows, as if lifting a heavy strain. “Indeed?”

“Also lease of the land from Village 35,” Lieutenant Bounheng said. “All in order.”

“For what purpose, please?” the General said.

Lieutenant Bounheng swallowed. “Religio-scientific research,” he said.

Which was patent nonsense. The General made some calls.

And was rebuffed.

“The flow of foreign currency must be maintained,” one old comrade confided to him. “A vital injection into the local economy – maintain good relations with donor countries – international approval ratings – mid-millennium goals –” the sloganeering went on and on.

Someone, the General concluded, was paying good money, and doing so generously. He decided to visit the monks. Personally.

 

#
“The army is coming,” Mrs. Yee confided to Mrs. Sing. The two ladies were taking tea at the hotel’s garden. It was chilly. The radio was playing atmospheric sounds; or perhaps it was the music eels make in the depths. “I could see it in the pattern of the clouds.”

“There must be a separation,” Mrs. Sing said, “between business and state.” It was an old Chinese maxim. That, for whatever reason, Mrs. Sing had began to speak in an Ivory Coast dialect of French, both ladies abstained from mentioning. “Speaking of business –”

“It is good,” Mrs. Yee said, a little surprised. “Many…” she faltered, searching for the word.

“Pilgrims?” Mrs. Sing suggested.

“Yes…”

There had been a steady influx of foreigners into Udom Xhai that past month. Some were young, some old. Some were Lowlands Lao, some came from the north, from across the border in Yunnan. Some had come over the Mekong, from Thailand. A bus-full of young Europeans with long hair and torn jeans had arrived as if from nowhere. Mrs. Yee suspected some of them smoked marijuana, but refrained from saying so. Orders for the Full American Breakfast (only 25,000 Kip) were overwhelming. “How is the casino?”

“Not so good,” Mrs. Yee said. “Many visitors, but not much gambling.”

The visitors only stayed in Udom Xhai a night, perhaps two. Then they took to the hills. And now the army (so said Mrs. Yee, reader of clouds) was coming too.

“More tea?” said Mrs. Yee.

“Please,” said Mrs. Sing.

 

#
“What is your purpose here?” said the General.

The Monk looked back at him, face invisible under the black cowl. He could have been smiling. He could have been serene. He could even, for all the General knew, had been a woman.

“We seek merely peace,” the monk said, “and understanding.”

“Understanding of what?” the General said.

“Everything.”

The General decided to try a different tack. “What is this… this thing you are building?” he said, waving at the –

How do you describe it? To put words to it confused the tongue. To recollect it, one had to fasten to a single sliver of remembrance, to try and shape it before it dove below the sea of memory. It was –

A structure –

The shape of a human heart –

A human brain? It seemed to glisten. It seemed to shift. It had – pipes? Tubes? Parts that beat in tune to some unheard promise?

It seemed to change as you watched it. Was it a gate? A doorway? Was it a monument, to pasts or futures that had never been?

“A three-dimensional representational matrix of pre- and post-human evolutionary sub-consciousness,” the monk said pleasantly. The General knew bullshit when he saw it. “It’s in the paperwork,” the monk added, and the General knew he was beat.

 

#
And so the days passed, in the way of the human story since the beginning of – if not time, then the time of human life, at least. The army watched, the citizens of the town speculated, the villagers on the hill kept their own counsel. Time passed in factors of two.

A story, the General knew, must have both beginning and an end. His own story diverges at this point – coming into Udom Xhai he met, with one of those strange coincidences so beloved by the heavenly bodies, a star that had fallen, or so it seemed to him, from the very heavens: her name was Mrs. Yee. They danced to the strange sounds coming from the radio – danced, it seemed to the General, to the sound of the heavenly bodies themselves, to the song of stars and galaxies as they speed away and towards each other.

Subsequently, there was something of a scandal – but that is their story, again, and should be left to those who acted in it.

As for our own… the short history of the monks of Udom Xhai began with the arrival of the first monk on the Luang Prabang road and, sixty-four days later, it had – as abruptly as it began – ended. It happened like this:

 

#
Sixty-four days after the first monk arrived, the radio was silenced. Later satellite records show a high-density information burst along infra- and ultra-red frequencies at that exact moment. The exchange lasted only a few seconds. Cryptological analysis on captured data packets revealed only one plain text comprehensible linguistic construct: a single word. The word was God. In the hills above the town, the General sighed in his sleep, no longer alone in his bed. In the workers’ accommodation beside the casino, Mrs. Sing uttered a last word in that beautiful African dialect of French, and returned to mutter in her sleep in ordinary Chinese. In his bed, Mr. Ponglee of the Road Works department (and thus not an unimportant man) had a vaguely uneasy dream about the road from Luang Namtha, and strange and vaguely human-shaped black statues that materialised alongside it. Then he dreamed of butterflies, and a sleepy smile spread across his face. Above Udom Xhai, clouds slowly formed into shapes that may have been a postscript but could have been – had there been anyone alive who could decipher the writing – a prologue.

Two boys, awake too late at night, later swore they saw a single monk pass through the main street and disappear towards the Luang Prabang road, but that could have been just their imagination.

 

#

The sets grow quiet, chatter ceases, Asia folds into a restless sleep.
Bor pen nyang, someone says. It doesn’t matter.
The world turns and carries goats and watermelons with it.
Dai bor? Dai bor? Is it all right?
Geng laai, the answer comes, the tone resigned,
The voice of moon speaking in a moonless night:
The same, the same, the same,
However different.

__________

Lavie Tidhar is the author of linked-story collection HebrewPunk (2007), novellas An Occupation of Angels (2005), Cloud Permutations (2009) and Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God (2010) and, with Nir Yaniv, of The Tel Aviv Dossier (2009). His first novel, The Bookman, came out in the UK in January and will be published in the US in august – with second novel Camera Obscura following a few months later. Lavie also edited The Apex Book of World SF (2009) and maintains the World SF News Blog





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