In the dead of night, a little girl sat cross-legged at the center of a circle of dogs. There wasn’t a noise or flash of movement that could break the spell of their attention. The monks at this temple had rarely ever seen the thirteen mutts congregated in such a way, besides when they all received rice and meat at the lonely hour of alms. The girl’s instructions were veiled in silence-the ragamuffin pups received them on a mysterious wavelength, sometimes wagging their tails or pawing their snouts in recognition. Little lamps of moonlight flickered in their eyes.
Suk watched the spectacle with fascination, sometimes chuckling to himself. Next to him stood an old monk with a lantern clutched in one hand and an owl perched on his opposite wrist. A folded scrap of vellium was clutched in its talons. The creature turned its head from one side to the other, spread its wings like a shawl and disappeared into the night’s void.
“And so it is as it must be,” the old monk said softly.
“Often times what must be is far stranger than people know,” replied the medicine man, glancing again at the dreamlike conference before them. He shook some clumps of tobacco into his pipe and lit a match.
“I should inform you that there is a tax for these services,” the monk remarked, looking askance at Suk.
“What would that be?”
“A taste of the earth’s fumes, and nothing more.”
Suk raised his eyebrows. “Is that practice not prohibited in your order?”
“An action is prohibited only to the degree that it interferes with a clear mind,” the monk replied.
Suk grinned and placed the pipe in the old monk’s hands.
Beneath his mostly neutral demeanor, the thrill of a temple conspiracy excited the medicine man. Several monks had just helped him remove the Wat Ampherwan buddha from its altar (after some impromptu chants) and bury it in an underground tunnel beneath the tall stone pagoda. Their lamps had cast long shadows on the age-old stone walls; the earthen dampness had sent shivers down Suk’s spine.
“We’re ready,” a little voice piped up suddenly.
Lamai was standing before Suk and the old monk, her doe-eyes so big that Suk fancied he could see the night’s glowing clouds reflected in them. He nodded. “They’ll sound the gong at daybreak. That will be our cue, young one.”
Suk peered over Lamai’s head at the pack of dogs, everyone of them sitting at attention. “Will they be ready?”
“Well, the brown guy with the short legs said he didn’t think it was the best plan, but then big white scruffy guy said-”
“The short answer, please.”
Lamai sighed. “Yes, P Suk, they’ll be ready.”
Lamai yawned and shook her head from side to side. “I need a nap!”
“You have about an hour,” Suk replied, his eyes just making out the shape of the surrounding mountains.
The little girl fell to the ground theatrically. One of the temple dogs whimpered in the background.
Kamoon’s eyes sleepily roved the foreign, thatched rooftops in the opening grayness of morning, his foot throbbing in pain. The pain seemed to him a loud voice that wouldn’t leave him alone until he acknowledged its complaint. The complaint, however, was no more articulate than the mysterious beast beside him, its chin resting on Kamoon’s knee. The boy shuddered and drew Suk’s patterned wool-hide closer around his shoulders. The mountain air was colder than he expected. A thick layer of fog hung like a veil, making only parts of the little hamlet visible.
Kamoon and the black dog were resting at the foot of a heavy oak on the fringes of the settlement. Suk had instructed him to wait there until he heard the distant howls of the dogs, at which time he’d know to perform his appointed task. The ghost of his father filled his bones. Kamoon assumed the guilt and shame for his father’s crime, persecuting himself in the public square of his waking thoughts. The two were now one and the same. How could he remotely hope for redemption? Kamoon’s foot screamed in rage like so many accusations, and it was as though the temple dogs in his village made a tight ring of judgment around his hut once more.
The deep sound of a gong pierced the thick fog, ringing over and over again insistently. The black dog raised his head, ears straight and erect. Kamoon’s beating heart tried to escape from his chest. The gong was now surrounded in the air by a frenzy of howls, barks and squeals like an army of hungry spirits descending on the temple. The sun was a quiet ball of orange rising between the mountain peaks, suffusing the fog with an electrical charge. The two travelers could sense the strange village stirring.
The time had come. With a deep groan, Kamoon pulled himself to his feet and climbed onto the black dog’s back, and now the pair set out for the center of town with unsteady but firm resolve. Already there could be seen lonesome figures shuffling through the sea of fog, pushing carts or headed to the fields with great baskets. The smell of spices tickled Kamoon’s nose. It occurred to him that they should appear more urgent in order to be convincing. He urged his steed into a slow gallop, and now the boy’s voice echoed between the huts.
“Quick! Our buddha has been stolen! Rise from your slumber, hurry! The dogs are already pursuing the thief, he’s getting away with our buddha!”
A low murmur began to circulate through the huts until the men launched themselves into the streets in a bewildered fashion, hens clucking at their feet. They started to move in the direction of the noise, staring at Kamoon and then one another in confusion.
“What are you waiting for, fools?” another voice suddenly cried. “Will you let the temple be robbed under your very noses? Move!”
A short, stout man with no hair and a long mustache appeared in an abject state of fury. Unlike the other villagers, he wore an oversized black tunic of silk, gold earrings, and a sparkling array of rings on either hand. The idea of a stolen buddha seemed especially troubling to him.
“Where are my sentries, damn it!” the tyrant of Ampherwan bellowed. “Is there no security in this Brahma-forsaken wasteland? Catch the thief and you will be rewarded handsomely. Run! Run! Death nips at your heels!”
The men straightened their backs, looked at one another once more, then took off in a sprint towards the wat, all the way on the other side of the hamlet. Kamoon coughed from the dust kicked up by their feet. He sensed it was a good time to make themselves scarce, but it was already too late.
“And who might you be, messenger-boy?” the tyrant sneered, eyeing the black dog with suspicion as he approached them.
“A traveling oracle, sir. I must be on my way now,” Kamoon added hurriedly. The beast began to bare its teeth and a low rumble sounded from his throat.
“Subdue that demon-creature,” the tyrant roared, “or I’ll sell his head for a premium to the merchants, along with your own!”
Kamoon could feel the gravity of the moment. The plan seemed to be running smoothly-perhaps it was an opportunity to buy them some time. “Forgive my companion, sir, we’ve only eaten briefly in our travels. We’ve come a long way to warn you of the great misfortune now befalling your village. Perhaps this knowledge can assist you in capturing the perpetrators.”
(Suk’s cryptic brand of speech had rubbed off on Kamoon during their journey.)
“Misfortune? Perpetrators?” the bald, bejewelled man was practically trembling. “I am Prem, the most powerful man from Doi Pui to Chiang Dao! See these rings? Each is a village I control! May the spirits help you in speaking truth, filthy boy!”
Kamoon counted nine rings on Prem’s hands. The barking of the dogs rang in his skull, and his hands tightened around the black dog’s tensed neck. Taking a deep breath, he began to weave the web of a grand story.
“I used to love coming here on Buddha days with my family,” Lamai muttered, crouched alongside Suk at the base of the pagoda. “Flowers were hung up everywhere, and the air smelled like a sweet lemony thing that went on forever. Now it’s all a mess!”
“Peace, child. We’re here to change that, remember?”
Lamai harumphed and folded her arms across her chest.
The sound of an approaching mob quieted Suk’s response. The men were running in the direction of the barking, right past the grand pagoda. They were no less uncertain of their pursuit than when they started (and no less unclothed).
“We have to move,” Suk said as the men streamed past, “there’s not but so much time.”
“Let’s go save my Dad!” the little girl cried. “My pups will keep those oafs busy for a good, long while.”
The two slunk around to the other side of the temple and peered around the corner. The fog was lifting into the morning rays to reveal a village in commotion. Everyone was spinning in a whirlwind of movement, beside the old women who stood outside their huts with arms akimbo.
“Here, wear this,” Suk said to his companion, pulling a small black cloak out of his satchel. “You don’t want anyone recognizing you too soon.”
Lamai put it on and laughed. “Is there anything you don’t have in that bag, buffalo-man?”
“Never mind,” Suk replied. “Are you sure your father’s people were notified?”
“Yes, yes! Why are you wizards such worriers? Look, you can already see the Chinese man over there…”
Suk grabbed Lamai by the hand and began racing through the river of villagers. As they came within earshot of the Chinese merchant they could hear his scripted words hanging in the air…
“For a limited time my friends! The original buddha of Wat Samoeng, finally unearthed from the caves of thieves! All the other Samoeng buddhas are fakes, judge for yourselves!”
Suk turned to Lamai and knelt down so he could look her in the eye. “You’re a brave and magical little girl. Go free your father! His reinforcements will be arriving any moment…”
Lamai threw her arms around Suk’s neck, then separated and dashed in the direction of the hut where the deposed magistrate was imprisoned. She stopped suddenly as if she’d forgotten something, and turning around she yelled back, “You should really learn to talk doggie, you know!”
Smiling, the medicine man shook his head and got the Chinese merchant’s attention. They exchanged a meaningful glance. A pouch of tobacco was placed in the merchant’s hand as the handles of the cart containing Kamoon’s buddha were presented to the medicine man.
“Silly fool,” people remarked as they went past, “he’s tricking you out of your money with that false buddha, everyone knows it!” Suk laughed inwardly to himself-why here he was, walking out of the village with the truly purloined buddha in plain sight! Now where were Kamoon and the black dog?
“You dirty,snake-tongued little ingrate!” The long-haired medicine man spun around, intuiting who it was receiving the compliment. “You want me to believe that an Arab genie released from a vial of ambergris in this village has corrupted my commanders and led to the theft of my buddha? Bah! Your story smells of ox dung, boy. You oracles are nothing but trained liars!”
“You are partly right in your estimation, sir,” Suk interjected, “ but it appears as though you’ve misinterpreted this wise boy’s riddle. You see, you are the genie corrupting the village, your mother the vial of ambergris you were burped out of, and none other than you who is the cause of this dirty little heist in the first place.”
Prem’s face reddened and his features became swollen in ugly rage. As if triggered, the black dog reared up on its hind legs so that Kamoon had to hold on for dear life. A fearful snarl parted the beast’s lips as he lunged at Prem, who had only just drawn a dagger. It was too late for the beast to check his assault, but before Prem could do the deed an arrow sang through his throat with a sickening sound and he fell to his knees, hands gripping the projectile uselessly.
In shock, Kamoon wheeled around. What he saw filled him with awe and disbelief. There was a gigantic elephant emerging from the forest on the margins of the village, followed by more elephants of equal size trudging out of the trees. Each one was adorned with colored tapestries of silk, atop which sat warriors armed with swords and swift bows, more powerful than gods.
“The armies of Phayao,” Suk cried, “without a moment to spare! Now we disappear and make our flight, young oracle! Hurry!”
The trio bolted west into the woods as the warrior elephants paraded in from the east, scattering Prem’s thugs this way and that. Kamoon, Suk and the black dog were surging past Wat Ampherwan and were just gaining the lip of the forest when they saw an orange figure hovering in the shade like a phantom.
Suk nodded at his monk friend, but it was Kamoon the monk’s gaze was fixed upon. “What must be,” he said with a smile, “is far stranger than people know.”
Kamoon wondered what he meant.