The days pass like falling leaves. No clouds, no rain.
I stand on the bridge, looking down at where the water used to be, the riverbed now as dry as a sheet of rice paper left in the sun. In the corner of my eye, I see Por leading the water buffalo in from the fields. He has no planting or harvesting to do now the paddies have dried up, nothing to do but check on the livestock, try to keep them alive. Nothing you can do with deadstock, he says.
From a distance, his body looks so small—like an insect in an oven, just a dried-out shell. I miss the old Por, the Por who taught me how to milk the buffalo, who used to lift me up so I could pluck the mangos from the trees when I was a little girl. This new Por is gaunt and frightening. Yesterday I saw him crouched behind our house eating grass. He did it surreptitiously and fast—like a rabbit, trying to eat as much as it can before the snake comes.
I look back at the forlorn hump of the house against the dusty yellow landscape. Mae is leaning in the front doorway, smoking. Above her, wind chimes clink half-heartedly in the breeze. Old Tham-Boon down the road made them for us out of his rice whiskey bottles. A good luck charm, he called them. That was before the drought came and cursed this place.
And here comes the monk—the stoop-shouldered, bug-eyed monk, the one who can’t seem to leave us alone. He goes up to Mae, holding out his alms bowl, but she shakes her head. I can tell it hurts her to have no food for him. She’s a good Buddhist, like she raised me to be. At least, she tried.
The monk just keeps smiling, his head bobbing like fruit on a branch. His dust-red robes hang loose on his body now, showing the sharp edges of his shoulder blades, the points of his elbows. The other monks left weeks ago, because the villagers ran out of spare food to give them. But this one is still here, with his alms bowl and his milk-white cat curled in his other arm. He’s always smiling, always full of teeth—as if pretending nothing is wrong will make things right. I thought monks were supposed to be wise.
Rama will be wise, when he returns from the monastery.
While the monk talks to Mae, his cat licks at the rim of the bowl. I remember when they used her for the cat procession, when the farmers carried her through the streets in her bamboo basket and Por and Mae and I went out with our bowls of water to splash her. A crying cat brings a good harvest, they say.
I miss the days when I believed such things. I miss the wet air, the glimmer of moisture on our skin, the damp gleam of Rama’s eyelashes. We used to stand on the bridge holding hands, picking out shapes in the swirling water. I saw animals—snakes, elephants, buffalo. Rama always saw the Buddha at least once.
I close my eyes and imagine the river is still high and mighty, coursing beneath my feet, filling my ears with its murmur. I imagine the swarm of life beneath its dark surface, the fish and crabs and jungles of weeds—and the crocodiles floating above them, olive green streaks in the water, gatekeepers between two worlds.
“Kanokwan,” Por calls from the barn. His voice sounds strange—a little more alive than usual. I wander down the path, stirring up clouds of dust with each step, and through the open door.
“A calf,” he says.
I look down at the glistening shape as he towels it off. “It’s out of season.”
“I know. I couldn’t even tell she was pregnant.”
I glance at the mother. She’s thin, like all the buffalo, too thin to have been carrying a baby. And yet here it is, wriggling beneath Por’s towel.
Rama would call it a miracle. Rama would hastily begin meditating.
But I know something’s wrong when my father pulls the towel away. The calf has black pebbly skin, like a lizard cooked on a spit. Its legs are crooked, its feet misshapen. Its nose makes a strange gurgling sound, as if it’s trying to breathe under water.
“What’s wrong with it?” I ask.
Por scratches the dark stubble on his chin. “Maybe it’s the drought. Maybe his mother was too thirsty. Whatever it is, he won’t last long at this rate.”
He runs his fingers over the calf’s legs, probably thinking how much meat the calf will give us. To good Buddhists like my parents, it is all right to eat something that’s dead. Killing is the thing you can’t do.
We look up. It takes us a moment to recognize the sound.
“Rain!” Por shouts, and we run to the door of the barn.
Heavy drops drum on the road outside, sending up dust and a fresh smell. The smell of life. For a moment I close my eyes and breathe it in, my lungs swelling with hope, my hope edged with fear that this is just a hunger-induced hallucination.
But when I open my eyes, the sky is dark with clouds and the rain is still there, so heavy it falls in sheets, blurring the fields and huts beyond. It closes in front of me like a gray curtain—and when it opens again, the world will be new.
A shape skips toward us, daubs of white and black and red swirling together in the rain-smeared landscape. It’s the monk, with his cat tucked under one arm.
“Have you seen anything so beautiful?” He smiles that same irritating smile, and water runs down his cheeks. Then his eyes widen. He points to the buffalo calf. “What is this?”
“Just born,” says my father. “He’s sick, though.”
“No, no, no.” The monk comes into the barn, dripping water, and crouches beside the calf. He strokes its head gently, almost reverently. “He is a good luck charm.”
I stare into the monk’s water-darkened robes, imagining I can see Rama’s face in them, each fold of cloth a crease in his skin. He looks much older than when he left for the monastery. Why haven’t I gone after him yet, to the city, gotten a job there? Perhaps because he was supposed to stay for only a season—that’s what all the boys do, before they come home and get a job and a wife like their fathers. But for Rama, that stretched to six months, and then a year. I still have so much to learn, he told me in his last letter, with a long, wobbly exclamation point.
The next day, the villagers rejoice. There is laughter again in the air, a tinge of green in the fields. The monk names the buffalo Fohn Phaa, rain bringer.
My parents are too busy now tending the paddies and the other buffalo, so they charge me with the creature’s care. I spend an hour crouching in the barn, until my back is stiff and my knees are sore, trying to spoon-feed rice to him. He has an unsettling smell, earthy and damp—it’s what I imagine the river smells like, deep beneath the surface. And he will not eat for me. Finally I throw down the spoon and storm out of the barn.
Rama would tell me to have more compassion.
“I have compassion,” I mutter, though there is no one to hear me. It is compassion that pricks at my ribs, that pulls at my heart every time I look at the buffalo.
Though I had crumbling rice and slivers of dried chili for lunch, my stomach keeps growling. Rama is probably hungry too, since monks fast after noon. I don’t know why. I can’t imagine why anyone would feel this way on purpose.
I lean against the dying kaffir tree and take out a piece of paper, wrinkled all over from being folded and unfolded and read many times. Though the words aren’t legible anymore, I know them all by heart.
I used to imagine the day Rama would come home—his studies finished, more man than boy, “ripe,” as the old women say, for marriage. As if he was a green mango lingering on a branch. I think of mangos, and how they hang in clumps from the trees as they turn yellow and then red.
Now, I do not picture Rama coming home. I picture him in red and yellow monks’ robes.
When I look up at the clouds, I find turtles in them, snakes, crocodiles. No matter how hard I try, I cannot see the Buddha. Then again, how do I know one of the animals is not the Buddha reincarnated, returned to the world in a new shape?
The monk is back. I forgot—Por and Mae said he would come today to instruct me.
With a sigh I follow him into the barn, watch him crouch in the straw and cradle the buffalo in his arms. “Like this.” His voice is soft and wise. But his smile is so irritating.
He holds the buffalo out to me. Reluctantly I take it, holding my breath as if the very movement of my chest could crack the fragile creature.
The monk nods. “Hold him. He needs you.”
I frown down at the dark shape, then put it back into its bed of straw and wipe my hands on my sarong. “Maybe you should take care of him.” Monks are good at taking care of things. People, villages, cats.
The monk just keeps smiling, as if he didn’t hear me.
“What does he eat?” Calves usually drink their mother’s milk, but his mother has nothing to give him. She’s dried out, like the rest of us.
“See what he likes,” the monk says. Then he picks up his cat and leaves.
I stare after him. Is this some kind of punishment? Does he sense that I’ve never meditated in my life? Does he somehow know about that night under the kaffir tree, the way I let Rama touch me?
Monks are not supposed to touch women. But Rama wasn’t a monk yet, and I wasn’t really a woman either.
When he reaches the bridge, the monk turns and smiles at me again. His face is weathered with age, but his hair is still black as the river at night. “Tell him the story,” he calls.
But the monk is gone, vanished into the rain-streaked sky.
I turn back to the buffalo. “You want a story?”
His ears lift slightly at the sound of my voice.
“Fine. Everyone knows this one—we all hear it a hundred times from our teachers and our parents. But I like the way Rama told it best.
“The Buddha was born a prince, and he lived in a palace. Its walls shielded him from suffering—until one day he went to meet his subjects, and he saw poor men and hungry men and sick men. The Buddha wanted to end their suffering, so he decided to seek enlightenment. He left the palace and went to live on the streets, as a beggar. He went to the cave of a hermit, where he learned meditation. He fasted until he collapsed. But a girl saved him.”
I forget the rest. But the buffalo seems to like it, by the way he tilts his head and snuffles at my arm.
“I don’t know how suffering and meditating is enough to enlighten you,” I say. “Doesn’t make much sense. Thinking about something isn’t enough to make it happen.”
I pull out the letter again, turn it over in my hands, try to find shapes in the smudged ink. “I could ask Rama about it, I guess. Write to him. But he hasn’t written to me in a long time.”
The buffalo stretches its scaly neck, sniffs the paper. It watches as I slowly tear the letter with my fingernails. Bits of paper scatter in the straw like rice grains.
I imagine that, when a buffalo gets separated from its herd, it feels suddenly unmoored. That is how my heart feels in this moment. I feel it drifting in my chest like an animal trapped in the current, scrabbling for something to hold on to.
It reaches out to the buffalo.
I run my fingers over the creature’s head, down his neck, along his spine. “I will take care of you, Fohn Phaa.”
Fohn Phaa is livelier than he looks. Every morning when I creak open the barn door, he shambles up on his club-like hooves, his head bobbing with each step. I suppose he thinks of me as his family now, since his mother and herd abandoned him. But if he knows he was abandoned, he doesn’t show it. He is stubbornly cheerful, like the monk.
But he’s sickly. His teeth are few, and his appetite wanes by the day. Instead of growing he shrinks, curling into himself like a dry leaf in fire, slowly vanishing into his own hardened skin. As he does, the clouds swell and darken, as if the world has turned upside-down so that Fohn Phaa’s strength drains into the sky.
The villagers continue to celebrate. To them, Fohn Phaa’s illness means rain, life, hope. Am I the only one who doesn’t believe in good luck charms? I feel I’m missing something, like there’s a joke I don’t understand but everyone else is laughing. I see Fohn Phaa’s face, the sadness there, the weight of being born only to die. No chance to know your family. No time to lean on the kaffir tree, or to stand over the river and look for shapes.
I desperately cook new things: leaves, bamboo, even a dead mouse I found under the back stairs. Fohn Phaa nibbles on the mouse, so I go to the chicken farmer and get a dead bird. He eats that, too.
His legs grow shorter by the day. His feet sprout claws. His tail grows long and black.
I stroke Fohn Phaa’s rough hide, pat his sides which scrape me like the skin of a jackfruit. I sing him the lullabies Mae used to sing to me. I tell him more stories. I think he enjoys them—at least, he enjoys the sound of my voice. But maybe he understands a little. When I say Rama’s name, he gets a curious wrinkle in the skin between his eyes.
I tell him about our school trip to the Khmer ruins in Phimai, when we were children. Rama was fascinated with the temple and the naga bridge. Nagas were the guardians of heaven, he told me; they stood watch over the bridge between heaven and earth. Rama and I stared through one of the windows at the armless Buddha. Was it really the Buddha, I wondered? So much of him had crumbled. Are you still yourself when your body is gone?
I spend my days wandering the streets, asking about old traditional remedies. I’ve given the buffalo herbs, ointments, balms, even a lucky amulet Tham-Boon made for me out of bottle caps. Nothing helps, but I can’t give up. I’m the only one in the village who does not rejoice at Fohn Phaa’s suffering. I am all he has.
Mae makes dinner, and I take my bowl to the barn. While I eat milk and mashed boiled vegetables, Fohn Phaa has the last of the chicken. His face is longer now. He has more teeth, and they are sharper than before.
My father’s voice drifts over my shoulder. “You care for him well, Kanokwan.”
I hold a stick in one hand, scratching shapes in the dirt. “He’s sick. He needs care.”
“Strange sickness he has. A strange way to die.”
I scratch the outline of a crocodile. Perhaps he is dead already, I think. Perhaps this is what reincarnation looks like.
“It’s not fair,” I say. “He’s so young. He’s lived his whole life in this barn.”
“The village needs him. He brings the rain.”
“You really believe that?”
“I believe sacrifices are needed, sometimes. The Buddha sacrificed much.”
I snort. “You sound like Rama.”
“Rama was very wise, for his age.”
“Wise?” I snap the stick in half, toss it away. “Not wise enough to change anything. Not wise enough to keep Fohn Phaa from turning into a reptile.”
Por puts a hand on my shoulder. “Do you remember what happened when the Buddha meditated under the mucalinda tree?”
“Yes,” I lie.
“The sky darkened for seven days with rain. The King of Serpents came out in his cobra form, and wrapped himself around the Buddha to keep him warm, and sheltered him from the water with his hood.”
“What does that even mean?”
“The greatest creatures take more than one shape,” he says. “Perhaps Fohn Phaa is no mere buffalo.”
With another pat on my shoulder, he walks out of the barn. I turn back to Fohn Phaa. I want to see him smile, the way buffalo do, with his ears standing up and his tail swinging. But he is not a buffalo anymore. Rama has left me, hope has left me, and soon my buffalo will leave too.
I curl beside him, holding his long snout in my hands. “What can I do?” I whisper.
His eyes open, just a little. More slits than eyes—black slits in a murk of red-yellow.
I wrap my arms around Fohn Phaa and hug him to my chest, feeling the roughness of his hide, the weight of his thick tail. I hold him until the herd comes in, until the stars blink out from the folds of sky and the village is quiet. I breathe in his smell, the wet smell of life and hope; I remember the feeling that filled me the day he was born. My tears drop silently, helplessly, into the straw.
I remember what the monk said: He needs you. Like the monastery needs Rama, like the livestock need Mae and Por. It is nice, I realize, to be needed. I wish Fohn Phaa and I could stay like this. I wish I could be needed always.
I hold him tighter. I let my life-force sink into him, let my breath become his breath. When I lean my head down, our two heartbeats sound as one. Together we drift into darkness.
I’m awake. And something is different.
The first thing I see is his legs: smooth, wide hooves surrounded by tufts of feathery hair. I sit up on one elbow, and there’s a face there, smiling at me. Snub snout, glistening wet nose, clear eyes with long lashes. A buffalo face.
“Fohn Phaa! You’re better!”
But dark clouds pass over Fohn Phaa’s eyes. I look down. My fingertips are black, my toes hard and curled inward.
I open and shut my eyes, over and over, making sure I’m not dreaming. I smell the old smell of Fohn Phaa on me now. I feel my body stretching, changing, one scale at a time.
His curse, now mine.
Rain drums on the roof. I close my eyes and lie there, empty, drinking in the blackness. Is this what Rama does when he meditates? The monk walks across my mind’s eye, carrying his cat and his alms bowl. Monks take alms because of the Buddha, because that was how he lived after he left his palace. I wonder if the Buddha was still a prince, inside. When he lived on the streets and his body grew gaunt, who was he underneath the skin and bones? The prince or the Buddha? Or something else?
I open my eyes. Fohn Phaa is leaning over me, his eyes deep as galaxies, distant as the world beyond the naga bridge. In them, I see shapes. Teeth, claws, glittering scales.
I see my place. The place where I’m needed.
I touch my nose—my snout—to Fohn Phaa’s, feel the distance between us like liquid, our souls melding like raindrops in a puddle. Where do I end and Fohn Phaa begin? Where does the river become the ocean?
I want to tell Rama, tell him I am different too, that we are both changed and grown up and learning. I want him to know. But he will. These monks, they know all the secrets—that’s why they’re always smiling.
Fohn Phaa nuzzles against me, and it comforts me. My buffalo, my village. But I don’t want my parents seeing me like this. They won’t understand, not at first. They won’t let go of me.
So I leave the barn. As I look back, the silhouette of the house in the moonlight is the shape of my childhood. The shape of a green mango.
I go to the bridge, huddle in the shadows beneath it. Fohn Phaa follows me with a mournful bellow. The river is halfway full now, and together we look at our muddled reflections, looking for shapes. Everywhere, shapes.
There’s nothing but water now. Rain, river, rain. There is no one but Fohn Phaa. Together we watch the milk-pale moon shrink and grow and shrink again. I shrink, too. I shrink toward the beginning, the egg, my belly closer to the earth with each passing day. Fohn Phaa cleans me with his pink tongue and warms me with his fur. Family. Somehow my thoughts are reduced to single words. And colors.
Water. Blue, black.
The pebbly scales creep toward my wrists, my elbows, my shoulders. My hands are webbed. My ears withdraw. My face stretches, and my eyesight sharpens beneath the dark weight of night.
Moon. White, teeth.
Fohn Phaa brings me grass and thistle, but I hunger for something else. Something dense and hot.
I smell it in Fohn Phaa, but I resist. To me, buffalo are sacred. My blood, his blood.
I lay in the river as the rain falls and the water rises, my body vanishing inch by inch beneath the surface until I am nothing but eyes. Fohn Phaa watches me, unsure. I nudge him away from the bank, and he shuffles off—off to his herd, where he is needed.
I am alone now. With the fish and the crabs and the heartbeat of the river. I know I’m different, but I forget what came before. What was nose? What are fingers? I swim as easily as breathing, I flow as endlessly as the current.
Time, time. And the river—the river has always been mine.
Sometimes when I look at the moon, I see faces. What was his name? The boy in the red robe?
The villagers see me, a black streak against the rain-swollen river. Bigger and more cunning than the green crocodiles, the red-robed man says. There are more of him now, but I do not know their faces as I know his. He smiles at me. When a herd of buffalo crosses the river, I float beside them, keeping watch.