Most of the time you have to sit out all night to see the hyenas. They come under flickering starlight and waning moon, always under the pretense of illusion. In the small hours of morning, everything that murmurs on the horizon seems to be illusion. I always have to rub a few blades of grass between my fingers to make sure I am not dreaming. Surely this insomnia is unhealthy, and hyenas cannot be good companions when one cannot sleep for nights unending. In the morning I walk to the heavy paw prints in the salted mud, just to convince myself it was all real. Here they are now, circling, their burning eyes and charred pelts reeking of hunger and shadows. One of these mornings…
It is always at some warehouse, the last building on the left, Gene thought to himself as he slowly turned the steering wheel of the minivan. The tires crackled and crunched over the asphalt covered in cracks, weeds, and pebbles. It looked like no one had been here in over a year, the warehouses needing a fresh coat of paint and the large cargo dock doors covered in rust and cobwebs. What made the scene a bit ominous, Gene thought to himself, was the evidence of removed security equipment. Brackets that used to hold cameras now hung empty at the corners of the buildings, faint traces of wire still evident. Card readers and electronic locks on doors were now replaced with sturdier industrial strength locks requiring a thick key. This place used to be watched, observed Gene, but now someone wants its history unwritten. The minivan continued rolling past the buildings, alternating between shadow and deep gold afternoon sunshine.
After the 11th scarred warehouse, Gene realized that the building he was seeking was a small garage at the back of the property, almost swallowed by weeds encroaching on the cracked asphalt. The fence back here was high, and he saw nothing but trees beyond. Hidden in an extra layer of the obscure, he thought. Gene chuckled silently as he directed the minivan to the front of the garage. The garage could have been a miniature copy of the mammoth warehouse buildings that led to it, same scarred cream-painted exterior, same tall white doors with faded marks at the top where there used to be numbered signs.
Gene stopped the van about 20 feet from the building, his foot on the brake. He scratched his beard absentmindedly and wondered what he was to do next. Councilman Warrick had not given much instruction other than the address and a warning to be a bit more discreet than usual about the delivery. Gene had taken his time preparing, getting the anonymous-looking van from Toby at Whittier Pizza, packing the cargo in the usual fish-smelling, dirty coolers that he always used. He did a brass-check on his pistol before putting it in a zippered clutch in the dash. Now he was wondering if he should have put it in the waistband of his jeans. Too late now, he knew that someone was watching him, and he didn’t want to raise any unnecessary alarm from the clients.
Gene slammed the column shifter into park, took his numbed foot off of the brake pedal. There was little to do but wait. This was not the first time Gene had to wait, but this time made him feel a bit uneasy. He rolled down the window a crack to listen to the ambient noise, see if he could pick anything out. All he heard was the buzzing cicadas and the distant roar of 494. He was confident something would happen, hopefully business as usual, but in the meanwhile he just needed to wait.
For the next 30 minutes, Gene inspected the sleeve tattoo on his left arm, contemplated planning a happy hour with friends from work, and pondered where to go furniture shopping with Jolene (her tastes ran a bit far into the realm of vintage, which limited choices). The summer had been rolling along quite rapidly; there was still quite a bit to do before the new house could be considered “settled”. Gene’s errands for the Councilman and his associates had increased as of late, he was seeing new people around the firm, receiving new instructions sending him farther into the bedroom communities, particularly into the humid basswood congregations of the southeast metro. This meant more driving time, less time to unpack boxes and go to the farmer’s market.
The sun slid further and further towards the horizon, and the grim exterior of the garage darkened with twilight shadow. Gene picked at his t-shirt collar, circled his finger around the Chevrolet logo in the center of the steering wheel, when suddenly he heard a mechanical noise that make him jerk his head up. One of the doors on the garage was opening with a dinosaur hum, slowly ascending. Two figures became visible as the door rose up and stopped. When Gene saw who they were, and what they were holding in their gloved hands, he felt profound regret for not coming better prepared.
Antonin Scalia died as he lived: raising a political shitstorm.
But let us imagine for a moment that he is still with us.
When the respected yet controversial jurist had his near-fatal heart attack in Marfa, the one thing that he could think of was Millie, kissing his cheek and telling him “You’ve got dandelion eyes, Nino”.
Millie was a hippie girl that Antonin Scalia courted many years ago in his youth. He almost found a conscience then, in a tent in the woods where they ensconced themselves night after night.
After the heart attack in Marfa, Antonin Scalia renounced his regressive ways, and disappeared to grow alfalfa and quinoa on a small farm in rural South Carolina. We are his neighbors and our children love to go to “Uncle Nino’s” for organic fruit roll-ups or fossilized shark’s teeth.
As the children play in the yard, we sit and sip on chicory tea on the porch, Antonin in his serape or in a beat-up Hawaiian shirt. He talks about the Constitution and how to stake tomato plants.
His property is only about a klick away from the beach, just down a path through the kudzu and bean plants; walking from the farmhouse to the ocean, you can listen as the sound of the cicadas give way to the roar of the waves.
Antonin has a Rhino side-by-side, all splattered and greasy-hot, that he uses to take us down to the seaside bar, where occasionally Bruce Springsteen shows up to sip beer. The bar has sweet potato fries and cold, cold Fat Tyre. Sometimes a Filipino guy from San Diego, named Raoul, shows up and plays gentle Hawaiian songs on his Fender Telecaster, and we get up to slow-dance at Antonin’s encouragement. Antonin smiles and gets a far-away look in his eye as I put an arm around your waist, breathe in your seafoam hair.
The high notes of the guitar twang in and out of the sound of the waves, punctuated by the sound of bottles being set down on the bar. Antonin tells a joke to Maria the bartender, she laughs like an elephant with a head cold.
I kiss your neck a little bit as Raoul croons, “kiss me each morning, for a million years…”
One night, when we come back to our farmhouse from the beach, we hear some strange music coming from next door. We sneak over to check up on Uncle Nino, and he is in the yard, the porchlight on, dancing a paso doble with a beautiful older woman in a sundress. It’s Millie, her once-golden hair streaked with gray. But, she still has those cornflower blue eyes and mischievous smile.
Antonin and Millie dance with their eyes closed; they don’t notice us watching them from underneath the pine tree.
“Nino,” she whispers into his old, withered ear, “You’ve still got dandelion eyes.”
Susan was a hippie, just on her way to Haight Ashbury in the last twilight moments in the early 80s when free love and peace were finally subsumed by the New America devoid of hope or revolution. At a truck stop somewhere in Nevada, she met the father of her first daughter, a shapeshifter.
They shared chili and crackers, then they shared a bed with squeaky springs in a roadside motel, in room 24.
After making love over and over again, he got up and stood by the window, staring at the highway and smoking Marlboros, his thumb stuck in the waistband of his Levi’s.
“I can be anyone you want,” he had whispered to her, the features of his face melting and reconfiguring into a dozen different desirable men.
When a grizzled biker gang kicked in the door the next day looking for him, he had already changed into a dove and floated out the bathroom window.
She never saw him again, but she didn’t stop when reaching San Francisco. Instead, Susan cut her long blond hair, got rid of her moccasins, and continued on across the Pacific Ocean. 9 months later in Japan she gave birth to a girl, and named her Amelia, after the waitress at the truck stop in Nevada.
Susan ended up marrying a tall, awkward expatriate professor, who added another girl to the family, but she never forgot the image of her one-night truck stop lover flying out the window as an ivory-colored dove.
On Saturday afternoons, in the tranquil parks of Tokyo, she would watch Amelia play and wonder if she would inherit the same abilities as her anonymous father. She didn’t realize that however precocious her daughter was, it would be many years before she discovered her shapeshifting potential.
Amelia grew up, she traveled the world, became an aid worker. She screamed, laughed, cried, blew snot out of her nose on several continents. She could fall in love 7 times in one week, drink a bottle of cheap whiskey in one night, and write a long, rambling letter to her mother in one hour.
Finally, one night, in a dark house somewhere on the outskirts of Bangui, she was wrestling off the clothes of a young man with dove-like eyes, her lover for the evening and possibly the next. She whispered in his ear: “I can be anyone you want,” as she unbuckled his belt and thrust her hands into his Levi’s.
That was the only thing she could recall from that night. When she awoke, she was laying in the wreckage of the house, the young man nowhere to be seen. Amelia blinked her eyes against the harsh tropical sunlight, and looked around her.
A crowd of people stood at a distance from the ruins of the house and stared at her, curious or perhaps frightened at what they saw in the remains of the house they heard being decimated in the night. Amelia lifted what she thought was her arm, opening her mouth to beseech them for help extricating herself from the wreckage, but what came out was not a voice she was familiar with.
The eyes of people watching her widened even further, and they shrank back with looks of terror, whispering one word over again.
“Kajavumbi,” they murmured.
Amelia looked down at her hand and realized it wasn’t a human hand anymore. There it was, something that resembled a cat’s paw, just much, much larger, with claws like scythes. Then she noticed the carcass next to her, the blood she could feel bubbling down her chin.
Moving through the silent streets of Girona at midnight, Lochlen heard few sounds besides his own footsteps. We remember, we will never forget, he thought to himself. He looked up to gaze at the ribbon of stars flowing between the tops of the tall buildings. The wind creaked against the wooden doors and shuttered windows, and Lochlen drew his cloak closer. He pulled the black woolen hood tighter over his head, whispering a prayer to ward away the chill.
He knew the inherent danger of bringing the emerald on this road, through this city, but it was the only way he could get to Rome; there was too much threat at sea from the Ancient Ones and the forces they controlled underneath the waves. He travelled by night, and scuttled through towns watched only by the moon. At times he worried when clouds passed over the moon. He knew the forces that sought him hid in shadows, and could approach in silence. Now he was worried; someone was supposed to meet him at the steps in front of the enormous church. He had looked up at the church, and silently communed with the gargoyles, high above him. Minutes passed like hours, the chill and the bats flying overhead reminding him that he was awake and not dreaming. Then, he had felt something nudge his consciousness, from below, from a deep gutter he spied in the recesses of a stairway he had not noticed before. The stairway led somewhere dark; he could see etchings in the worn stones at the top. He needed to find his way towards water, and he knew Girona had bridges over a river. Thus, he has slipped away, wary as ever of the shadows and tendrils of fear that crystalized in his mind. The intelligence he had received was that a cabal of nightwalkers dwelled here, but he was not sure that they would be concerned with the emerald he concealed.
Lochlen pushed forward cautiously down the winding staircases and through the streets, focusing his mind on the emerald nestled in his cloak. He could feel a twinge beginning in his legs, and knew that something was near. Finally, he came around a corner and could see a bridge ahead of him. At that moment, a wave of freezing fear washed over him, paralyzing him.
He looked behind him and glimpsed something enormous in the shadows. Lochlen looked to his belt for his dagger, and then felt inside his cloak for the lump inside the leather bag. When he looked back up, however, the enormous figure was gone from the shadows. It was standing over him now, with cobalt eyes and enormous fangs, inside an aura of despair-inducing silence. Lochlen felt a slight shiver go down his spine before his hand darted to the hilt of his dagger.
20 observations from Burma:
- I don’t think I was ever out of sight of a pagoda once we left Yangon. There is literally a pagoda every few feet, some tiny, some enormous. Some are next to rice paddies, some are on the tops of mountains.
- In Yangon, I began seeing people wearing t-shirts with swastikas on them, and I thought “oh, Indian symbol”. Then, I began seeing more and more people with t-shirts that just said NAZI on them. Hmmmm…
- Mawlamyaing used to have a big Anglo community, and it is clear from all the old churches and colonial-style buildings. Still, it feels like a city that is slowly disappearing back into the jungle. The sunset over the river was stunning.
- Myanmar smells like a mixture of incense, fried noodles, sewage, and sandalwood.
- Mawlamyaing is derived from the Mon words for “damaged eye”, because a king lost sight in his powerful eye many years ago. Rice demons, dragon pythons, and giant, rampaging tigers.
- There are 3 animals I see represented everywhere in Myanmar: the Chinde (mythical lion that guards pagodas), the Hamsa (mythical bird that is somewhere between a peacock and a chicken), and the Elephant (not mythical actually, just an animal that the emperor used to execute people by stomping).
- You will see (mostly) women walking around with what appears to be a golden paste smeared on their cheeks. This paste, called thanaka, is supposed to be cooling and rejuvenating on the skin, like sunscreen and clearasil all wrapped into one. You make thanaka by grinding a certain tree branch on a stone, mix with water, and apply the paste to the skin. I find it to be the most distinctive thing that I see everyday Burmese people doing, and I kind of want to try it myself.
- I find the best way to wear my longyi (the man-skirt) is to wear it with my gym shorts underneath; this way I still have some hidden pockets to keep my passport/wallet in.
- There is somebody frying something (rice, vegetables, noodles, etc) next to a bunch of tables/chairs about every 10 feet in Myanmar.
- The Burmese countryside from Yangon to Mawlamyaing is quite stunning, filled with jungles, towns, mountains, rubber plantations, and ricepaddies. Dr. Aye Aye (who used to work for IOM) told me about the migration cycles, where people from Mon and Taninthiaryi regions migrate to Thailand for work (where they can earn more), and people from the poorer, less agriculturally-rich regions of Burma migrate down to work in the rubber plantations and rice paddies. They come from areas where malaria is not endemic, and therefore they lack the knowledge to prevent malaria. Hence, our work in these regions with migrant workers.
- I went to the pagoda at the top of the hill for a short visit, and prayed in front of the Jade Buddha. Dr. Nant and Nang, however, after praying, got really excited about a animatronic singing, dancing kitten at a merchandise booth inside the pagoda. Very interesting.
- There seems to be a nice park/garden wherever I go in either Yangon or Mawlamyaing, and they are all filled with teenage couples sitting or walking together, sometimes under trees where they make out in a surprisingly chaste manner.
- Speaking of feeling randy, the ancient artwork that you see reproduced everywhere is very sensual, featuring dancing and courtship, usually involving curvaceous, scantily-clad figures. It seems like every range of emotion is captured in the frescoes, tapestries, and sculpture. This is a bit incongruous with every day Burmese life that I see; it seems that the culture has lost something along the way.
- Mawlamyaing sits at the mouth of the Thanlwin river, which starts somewhere in China. According to Kotou (the driver), I could take a boat here all the way into China.
- Apparently, the Karen have about 15 different sub-ethnic groups with 15 different languages, and none of them really sound alike.
- Before bed, I have been reading up on Burma’s martial history, which is quite extensive. The Kingdoms of Burma have been invaded or fought with the Mongols, the Chinese, Siam, and finally fell to the British in the 1800s. Apparently, the British are the ones who looted Shwedagon Pagoda upon picking apart the fading Konbaung Dynasty. Asshats.
- Tonight, I went on a walk along the river, managed to climb on a few boats and attempt to talk to the sailors. The boats are like something out of “Apocalypse Now”, and each one has a Buddha shrine in the pilot house. There were a few times I felt like they were going to stuff me in the hold and sell me somewhere up the river.
- I went to Hpa-an today to look over several properties that we may rent as offices. Hpa-an is the capital of Karen State, and the countryside is made of up rice paddies punctuated with sheer-sided mountains. Absolutely stunning. At one point I observed a rooster running across a dry paddy, and I thought to myself, heh, chicken and rice, delicious.
- I have kind of found my “place” for a quick dinner in Mawlamyaing, a little outdoor establishment run by an ethnic Chinese Muslim and a bunch of teenage boys as servers. They have yummy, spicy prawns for very cheap, and it is a pretty clean joint compared to some of the other places I’ve seen.
- I feel like I am rotting away from the inside, but that seems to be the condition of everything in this humid land.
I hope you are well. Outside on the balcony, I can see the pagoda on the mountain all lit up against the indigo sky.
I met two very different gentlemen tonight as I took a walk down by the river, and had interesting conversations with both of them. In Myanmar, often people will say “hello” and then ask “which country do you come from”? This is what happened when I met Mr. Kye Win, who told me he owned several shops in the marketplace. He spoke very good English, and was eager to share about Mawlamyaing and the area around it.
Mr. Kye Win kind of looked like an older schoolteacher, and he certainly had lots of stories to tell. He told me about a graveyard close toMawlamyaing where they buried the POWs that worked on the Japanese railway during World War II. During World War II, the Japanese tried building a railroad to connect Burma and Thailand, and thousands of POWs and conscripted locals died in the process, something like 80,000 people total. The Japanese wanted to connect Southeast Asia for their planned conquest of India. I have read up a bit on WWII in the Burma Theatre, and it is quite sad and interesting. The American military sent a commando force (known as Merrill’s Marauders) into Burma to disrupt the Japanese military, which is another interesting story.
Kye Win also told me more about the Thalwin river that flows past Mawlamyaing. It originates high up in the mountains of Tibet, passes through China, Thailand, and Myanmar before it reaches the ocean. It is a river of many names: Thanlwin in Burmese, San Lon in the Mon language, Nu Jiang in Chinese, Nam Kong in the Shan language, Salawin in Thai, and Gyalmo Ngulchu in Tibetan. In Mawlamyaing, it is only 30 km from the ocean, and thus it is broad and impassive as it flows past the city.
Kye Win recounted a story about the Siamese and Burmese empires, which at one point occupied opposite sides of the river at Mawlamyaing. They tried having a contest to see who could erect a tall pagoda faster. When the Burmese king saw that he would probably lose, he instructed his builders to build a fake temple out of scaffolding and white painted canvass, so it appeared a pagoda was built overnight. The Siamese, looking at the fake pagoda across the river, believed they had been beaten and thus retreated, giving over the territory to the Burmese. There was also a Mon king of Mawlamyaing who had a powerful third eye on the back of his head, so he was able to see any danger that approached from behind.
There is an island in the river called “Shampoo Island”. Kye Win told me that long ago, upon instructions from an oracle, a king fetched water from a spring on this island and washed his hair with it, and then defeated his enemies in battle. Since then, all the Mon Kings would wash their hair from this spring before going into battle. I wonder if the Mon Kings also used Aveda shampoo…
I really enjoyed talking to Mr. Kye Win, he had interesting stories and was very friendly. I bid him farewell; he said to come back tomorrow if I wanted to talk more, as he sat at that spot by the river each evening to take in the air.
As I walked back down the river, a man with long hair and wearing a dirty shirt and longyi said “hello” and asked me which country I was from. He was smoking a cheroot, and when he found out I was from the USA he proceeded to tell me about all the countries he had visited as a sailor, when he was a younger man. He told me his name was Mr. Lwin.
Mr. Lwin listed off the countries of the world he had been to: the USA, Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, India, South Africa, Morocco, Kuwait, Russia, and Germany. He said he left the life at sea because it was work 24 hours a day in rough weather at sea. The sea journeys to the US would take a month. He mentioned 4 places in the USA he had been to: Houston, Mobile, Chickasaw, and Albany. These are all cities/towns in Alabama on the Gulf of Mexico, and it is an interesting mental picture to imagine a Burmese sailor from Mawlamyaing being in this hot, humid port cities. For Mr. Lwin, his favorite country is the Philippines, because of the “muchas senoritas”, because the girls there will even do your laundry for you, “very cheap”. He did not like Russia because he got searched too many times, and Kuwait had bad weather, rough seas, and too many ships trying to get through a small place. He also did not like India and South Africa because of too many beggars, and he was once robbed in Morocco so he did not have a good impression of that place either. Mr. Lwin says that he left his life at sea to become an engineer, and hopefully that has agreed with him much more. I bid Mr. Lwin farewell and continued on to find my favorite noodle shop.
I wish I could find words to describe the sunset I saw over the river tonight. I will save that for another time. I am heading out to the bush tomorrow, and I don’t think I will have internet access until next Tuesday. There is so much more I could write about Mawlamyaing. I have visited Bagan, seen the desolate and mystical landscape of temples, yet this city is still my favorite spot, my Burmese lover, if you will. There is something rather intimate about it, it rains unpredictably, and the river is always there for a pleasant walk. The pagodas are ancient and beautiful, and it is not as busy as Yangon or touristy as Bagan.