The twice-stolen buddha was protected meagerly by a tasseled muslin cloth as its cart loudly rattled across the dirt. Kamoon fancied that the forest itself was smirking at the peculiar scene–this vehicle of the Dharma seemed to have a faulty wheel. Kamoon slapped at a giant moth that brushed across his cheek.
“Are you sure this is a smart idea, just hauling it out in the open like a bundle of fish?”
Suk took a draw from pipe and let the smoke hover around his open mouth. He’d said little all morning. “Unless you have a better idea…”
Kamoon paused, trying to interpret the medicine man’s mood. “Do you think they’re after us, P Suk?”
A heavy branch fell with a thud somewhere in the brush, causing the boy to jump with fright. He clutched the amulet around his neck for the three-hundredth time that day. An ironic look stole across Suk’s face almost imperceptibly.
“Prem’s forces are in disarray. The head has been cut off the snake. Its body will lash out in a final dumb spasm before it at last goes motionless.”
Kamoon was silent for a while, considering the image of Suk’s metaphor uneasily. He couldn’t shake that expression of ugly shock contorting Prem’s face from his mind, how the vengeful arrow had found union in sinful flesh. Another searing bolt of pain shot up Kamoon’s leg and he yelled out in agony.
“P Suk! P Suk! What am I to think? We have recovered our buddha and liberated a village, and yet my suffering grows like an open wound. That’s not what you said would happen! How can you explain this?”
The medicine man gave him a sidelong glance, unable to conceal a flash of grim amusement. “You must show patience, Kamoon. The story is not finished, yet.”
“Story?! What story? You mean the one where you feed me all that junk about my father stealing our buddha? I’m really starting to wonder you about, P Suk. How do I know you aren’t a fake Shivago obsessed with old wives’ tales? You probably smoke all that tobacco just to look deep!”
A low, strange rumble began to roll from the black dog’s throat. The trio had rounded a bend in the jungle path, whose shadows were thousands of years old, and now stood in front of a circular clearing to their right. At the center of the clearing was an old spirit house heavy with charred incense sticks, at its base surrounded by a grove of bizarre blooms Kamoon had never seen before. Their green stalks were each crowned with a spectral red sphere of tendrils, bobbing lightly in the breeze. The little place had a suspiciously unearthly mood. Neither man, boy or dog said anything or moved a muscle for several seconds.
Finally, Suk turned to Kamoon. “So, you were saying?”
The black dog had started to tremble as if it were going to fall apart, and before Kamoon could answer, the beast leapt upward with such force that the boy fell on his behind. In astonishment, he watched as his dark-maned companion glided over the clearing before landing on the far side of the spirit-house. Different parts of its body had already begun to abandon reality. The uncertain form was now charging straight for Kamoon with the velocity of an attacking tiger, something he’d only heard about in stories. He awaited death with closed eyes…
But it never came–nothing did. When he opened his eyes he saw nothing but the bobbing red blooms, undisturbed. Kamoon whirled to his right–still nothing.
“Kamoon, over here.”
The boy froze. That voice was an impossibility, but he’d heard it clear as day. Slowly he rose to his feet, then turned around. Standing before the boy was a man of disturbing appearance, tufts of coarse hair clinging to parts of his limbs. Kamoon’s canine companion was nowhere to be seen.
“Yes Kamoon,” the wolf-man rasped, “it’s really me. I am here with you again!”
The poor boy felt struck with a hurricane of horror and dark humor, but remained rooted to the spot.
“I knew this would come as something of a shock to you–”
“You were just a dog!”
“Well, yes. But you lifted the curse, Kamoon, don’t you see? You’ve freed me from my sentence!”
“Wh-what sentence?! YOU WERE JUST A DOG!!”
Thanin paused for a moment.
“This guy Suk is right, Kamoon. I stole that buddha, and when I did, the temple ancestors punished me by putting me under a spell. I became a four-legged temple guardian.”
“A four legg–so you ARE a thief,” the boy groaned. “I should’ve let you stay a dog! Maybe it would’ve been better for everybody.”
Thanin cast his eyes downward. He was almost naked save for a loin-cloth that covered his privates.
“Your pain is gone, though, is it not?”
In disbelief, Kamoon realized that his hairy father had spoken truth. He gasped and thrust his right foot in the air in genuine amazement. It was the first time he could remember not feeling any pain at all. He started to run from one side of the clearing to the other, like a baby bird trying its wings for the first time. Suddenly, Kamoon stopped short and looked into his father’s face. His cheeks grew wet with tears.
“Why did you do it, father? You have to tell me. Why?”
The wolf-man walked over to the spirit-house and sighed deeply. Kamoon noticed that his father still moved with some uncertainty on his two feet.
“Oh, Kamoon! We were so desperate to give you a sister, your mother and I. I was an only child, you know. I remember how lonesome it felt to be like that. We tried and tried, but your mother couldn’t get pregnant again. The astrologers told us one thing, the herbalists another. It was so frustrating and strange, we couldn’t understand it. We were ready to try anything. Neither of us would allow ourselves to give up.
“I heard about an order of black monks not far from our village who used magic to help people get pregnant and–well, your mother and I argued about it for a long time. She couldn’t stand the idea of using dark magic to conceive. She was against it. But in the end I convinced her that –that it was the right thing to do. What other choice did we have?
“I visited the black monks’ encampment deep in the rustling woods on enight. I’d heard that when they died they became full-grown tigers, but I never saw any sign of it. I found them in a ring of light that looked like a slice of sunshine there in the trees, and they were all dressed in metallic robes. They told me that soon all of the villages would be controlled by their agents, and that theirs would be a Buddhist empire of falsification. False relics, false texts, false monks.
“All I had to do was butcher three calves and bury them on a full moon with a spell on my lips, then steal away with our temple buddha and take it to their agents in Wat Ampherwan. And then my wife–your mother–would have a newborn child. They said that the Buddha’s truth could only be found in its falsified mirror-opposite. I couldn’t understand any of it, but I didn’t question them. I–I stole our buddha and delivered it to Wat Ampherwan. I did it for us, Kamoon! For our family. That’s all I cared about. But it wasn’t to be…”
The two suddenly became aware of a rank shroud of tobacco around them.
“It’s often the unanticipated that is meant to be, P Thanin. Love for family turned you into a dog sleeping in the dirt. How could you have planned for such a thing? What shouldn’t go unnoticed by your son is the devotion that got you here.”
“Do you mean to say,” exclaimed Kamoon, “that you knew who this black dog was all along?”
“Of course I did,” replied Suk with a smile, “but it wouldn’t have been of any use to tell you, anyway. You may have thought it another of my wives’ tales, right?”
“Okay P Suk, okay! I guess you’re going to rub it in now. I can admit I was wrong if none of this is a dream. But how could you know?”
“It has always been the case,” Suk stated, “that our temples are watched over and protected by shapeshifters. In this reality, they take the form of dogs or, in more remote areas, dark panthers. But mostly the temple guardians we see take the form of dogs. Some of them have forgotten they are shapeshifters, while others are highly evolved personalities who have chosen a path of service. And still others, like your father, here, have been given this form as a punitive measure. Often, they will be given the form of a giant black dog.”
“When I heard about your plight and the dogs harassing you, I had my suspicions. Seeing your father in his four-legged form confirmed them. Believe it or not, there are many instances of this situation in the old texts, going back to Bodhidharma’s age. But none have been recorded for quite some time! In any case, I should admit that I wasn’t entirely sure about the situation until we met Nong Lamai. She asked if I knew who the dog was, and I simply said yes.”
Kamoon turned again to his reborn father, who was scratching his back with some annoyance.
“Are you coming home, then? Mother would be so happy to see you. We have to do something about all that hair, though…”
Thanin laughed and corralled his son’s neck in abrupt embrace. “Let’s bring the buddha back to Wat Someng together, young Kamoon. Suk, will you accompany us?”
“I’ll walk with you for a spell, but then I must be on my way.”
The others nodded.
“After all,” the medicine man added, “there may be other missing persons who have turned into animals, too!”
Kamoon and Thanin laughed at the strange remark in unison. The circumstances of their estrangement were already dispersing in the glow of their reunion. As the three departed from the spirit-house, Suk paused to turn around and steal a final glance. The crimson-tendriled blooms were as red as the jeweled bells of the Ampherwan stupa, just as it was said in all the legends. Suk wondered if he’d have the pleasure of seeing them again.
Kamoon and his father returned to their village as heroes, and their unlikely tale quickly spread throughout the Lanna kingdom along the crisscrossing trade routes and became common mythology. The dogs of every temple thereafter were never treated with greater reverence. Kamoon grew up to be town magistrate and came to be known as “the emancipator of Dharma” and “magnificent ruler of the guardians.” The dark sect of monks and their political allies were chased out of Chiang Mai, though where they wound up was never ascertained. Thanin reunited with his wife Pimchan and took up his old habits of fishing and hunting–it must be said, however, that his ways were a bit peculiar after he rejoined village life. On nights the moon shone full, a massive black creature was often see brooding on the banks of the running stream, and sometimes Thanin would go missing for days. One day Nong Lamai showed up with him, and soon Kamoon had his bride. They lived their lives justly and, with the influx of colonial loggers, saw many changes in the kingdom. It is said by many that Suk the medicine man is still roaming the mountains and valleys of the old Lanna provinces to this day, a cloud of tobacco announcing his arrival.
T H E O N E S C A L L E D T E M P L E G U A R D I A N S