High up in the Lanna mountains, the cool air dances like a fairy through the emerald shadows. The trees sway silently and become enveloped in its spell. Animals, humans, plants, rocks-all the mountain creatures across the sloping golden valleys and green peaks alike are subjects in the dominion of air. Every feature of beauty if authored by its ghostly hand. In the wind, the local tribes say, lies the secret of how man came to exist.
Kamoon had no interest in such secrets, however. Riding astride the black dog through the dense jungle paths with Suk at his side, it was enough to wonder what they’d encounter around the next corner. Often the trio crossed paths with straw-capped men behind ox-carts, other times circumspect merchants who clutched their sacks tighter as they walked past. Drunken musicians with their long stringed instruments jaunted by, as did men and women who were practically naked and tattooed from head to toe. Village monks floated in clouds of orange above the ground, or at least it seemed that way to Kamoon.
Everyone they saw recoiled at the sight of the black dog. His sheer size overwhelmed the cart-paths and challenged the plodding oxen. Kamoon clutched the silver-bristled scruff of the animal’s neck with a peculiar mix of comfort and terror. He was a sensible boy of sound mind and strong values-things he couldn’t understand shook him to the very core. And as they moved deeper into the chambers of light and birdsong with Suk at their side, his shadowy steed treated Kamoon with a growing familiarity that went beyond the field of the boy’s comprehension. Suk was going on about legends of the brooks and woodlands but Kamoon listened absentmindedly, his knuckles brushing against the black dog’s rippling shoulder-blades.
“Do you know why these trees are lined with silk?” Suk indicated the thick base of an oak draped with strips of brocade.
Kamoon shrugged absently.
“They are the homes of Nang Ta-Khien, the spirit-lady of the ta-khien tree. She’s the most beautiful woman you could ever imagine. Nang Ta-Khien watches over the forest, and so the monks protect her trees and make sure they’re never cut down. Perhaps you will hear her cries tonight as we close our eyes and near the dream-world…”
“How could a lady living in a tree be beautiful? That sounds disgusting, P Suk. And smelly.”
“I wouldn’t say that.”
“Don’t tell me you saw her!”
“And if I did?”
Kamoon sighed. “I should’ve known…”
“I was outside Chiang Rai near Mae Chan,” Suk started with a drag on his pipe, “trekking through the deep forests in search of an herb said to cure liver problems. There was an evening I was particularly frustrated. Night fell and I’d found nothing. My stomach growled for something more than sticky rice and crickets-“
“Sticky rice and crickets? Is that what you medicine men eat? Talk about a secret recipe…”
“You can’t be picky when you’re on the road. With your appetite I doubt you would’ve turned it down.”
“Anyways, there I was in the fastness of the whispering forest, gathering stalks of bamboo to make a shanty to sleep in for the night. I was crouched down in a clearing when I realized there was something glowing behind me. I wheeled around and was immediately blinded by some kind of greenish light that seemed brighter than the sun. I staggered backward and my body suddenly felt very warm. When my eyes adjusted, I was even more astonished. I realized I was staring at a young woman whose beauty surpassed the spirit of any flower in creation. She was floating toward me from a big ta-khien tree. I knew it was Nang Ta-Khien, that she wished to possess me, but I couldn’t stop myself from going to her. My legs were not my own, her hand was reaching out to mine-“
“Now I know you’re crazy,” Kamoon muttered, throwing his arms around the black dog’s neck.
“What saved me,” Suk continued, “was the jade amulet I had from the abbot of Wat Phra Kaew…it counteracted her spell and she faded back into the tree until the clearing was dark again. If it weren’t for that, she would’ve claimed my soul and I would’ve been powerless to protect myself. That, my young friend, is the lethal beauty of enchantment, like the wings of a mantis.”
The two of them fell silent for a spell, both lost in their own thoughts. They were sauntering uphill alongside a stone-terraced waterfall of many tiers, the breeze of its cascade brushing purely against their faces. The sound of rushing water filled their ears.
“P Suk,” Kamoon spoke up finally, “will this amulet you gave me protect me from harm like yours protected you from Nang Khien?”
“Just try not to cut down too many trees,” Suk said with a chuckle. “As long as you’re after the stolen buddha, you shouldn’t have a reason to worry.”
“The stolen buddha?” a little female voice suddenly cried out to their left. “If you steal a stolen buddha you’re just the same as the person who stole it in the first place.”
The black dog had stopped dead in its tracks and was looking in the direction of the water, its hair on end. Kamoon and Suk couldn’t see anyone-it was almost as if the voice was not of the world. Kamoon thought of the medicine man’s misadventure and a shiver went down his spine.
“Who’s there?” Suk demanded.
“Who’s asking?” the voice replied. “Do common thieves deserve honest answers?”
“I am a traveling medicine man, and this is my apprentice. We are not common thieves, we are on a quest to restore a stolen buddha to its rightful temple. How can you ask for honesty when you don’t even show your face?”
After a pause an impish little girl dressed in soiled red silk tumbled out from behind a rock and, laughing, cartwheeled toward the travelers.
“Don’t be so serious, buffalo-men! Hey, what a cute dog!”
Before either of the shell-shocked heroes could respond, the little girl bounded over to the black dog and, taking his head in her little hands, started rubbing noses with him and cooing. The beast began to wag its tail in transparent excitement, something of a wild departure from his normally stony demeanor.
“Hey!” cried Kamoon irritably. “Who said you could touch my dog!?”
“He did, naturally,” she giggled, barely looking up the answer.
“Oh right,” Kamoon scoffed, “so you can talk with dogs, huh? What else did he tell you?”
The girl lost her smile and looked at him hesitantly.
“Well, he says he can feel the throbbing in your right foot sometimes, he knows you’re in pain. He wants you to know that letting energy flow through your heart will make it better.”
Kamoon’s eyes widened and a sound of disbelief escaped his throat.
He turned to Suk with an air of desperation. Suk was brushing a shroud of clouds from his face.
“Interesting, very interesting…what is your name, young one?”
“I am Lamai,” she said.
“Lamai,” Suk repeated thoughtfully. “So you can communicate with dogs, is that right?”
Lamai nodded while making a face at the odor of Suk’s tobacco.
“What else does he say, then?” Kamoon interjected.
“That you’re going to my village at Wat Amphawan,” Lamai replied, jumping back to her feet. “I’d say we’re happy to have you, but well, you see…our village was taken over by a bunch of thugs who traffic relics across the kingdom, and they’re holding the magistrate hostage in his home. That’s my father, by the way. So now I’m in hiding, what else can I do?”
Suk and Kamoon once again exchanged incredulous looks. The medicine man had suspected that the disappearance of this buddha was owing to some kind of criminal enterprise, but the coup Lamai was describing seemed unthinkable. Kamoon was more intrigued by the idea of simply talking to dogs. What was that full moon counsel of temple creatures gathering to say to him?
“This buddha that we’re after,” Suk said, dipping a finger into a cold eddy beyond the mud of the bank, “confers power to the person who owns it. These thugs you talk about have its magic at their fingertips-as long as they are in possession of it.”
Kamoon and Lamai looked at each other with uncertainty.
“There are dogs at Wat Amphawan, are there not?”
Lamai’s face lit up, and in a swift movement she leapt past Kamoon, corralled the trunk of a tree with a little arm and began spinning round and round.
“Why yes we do, buffalo-man! There are big white dogs with short hair and big noses, brown dogs with shaggy hair and shorter legs, tan dogs with long legs and big teeth-oh, and we have smaller black dogs like this guy too, they’re so fluffy and cute I could just-“
“Ok, we get it, Nong Lamai,” Kamoon groaned.
“And you can talk to all of them, correct?” asked Suk with a grin.
“Yes, I can talk to any dog in the kingdom! Of course I can talk with them,” said Lamai with a chortle, spreading her arms to the sky.
The black dog reared up on his hind-legs and thrust his paws high up on Lamai’s tree for a stretch, his tail wagging mischievously. He easily towered over the three humans.
“So you want to save your father,” Suk reasoned, “and we want to bring the thieves holding him captive to justice. It appears, Nong Lamai, that helping each other is mutually beneficial in this case.”
Lamai stared at Suk open-mouthed, then turned to Kamoon.
“Help us get the buddha, and we’ll help you save your father.”
“Oh,” Lamai laughed. “That will be easy! Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“I want to know what he’s thinking,” said Kamoon, pointing at the vertical shadow-mass of fur and muscle.
“He’s thinking, ‘when will that guy stop smoking that stinky stuff? We can barely breathe!’ “
Kamoon laughed for the first time in days. Suk rolled his eyes and blew a smoke ring over their heads. Soon the odd group was discussing their developing plan in detail, and the liberation of Wat Amphawan began to take form.