“They often say our villages are intersections of the seen and the unseen, inhabited by men and spirits alike. Between these two worlds there are boundaries only a few can pass over freely, and so there are guardians who watch over them day and night. They exist in the world of the seen, but they are not of the race of man. Their eyes gleam like fireflies in the twilight. Their eyes reach beyond the forms of this world.”
Kamoon always knew when the moon was full without having to look up. The dogs from the local temple would gather around his hut and lift their howls to the sky, as if his mother had given them permission to do so. It was a ceremony no one understood or appreciated. What’s worse, Kamoon’s lame right foot would always begin to throb unbearably during these nights, to the point that he started to dread the upcoming full moon like a death sentence. The village noticed, too, because it was the only time the dogs would leave the temple unguarded. Their howls sounded like sirens through the night air, a blade of sound cutting through Kamoon’s foot. In that fog of agony, however, he sometimes managed to notice the big black dog standing apart from the others, cloaked in silence.
The young boy was living with his mother and grandmother in a provincial village outside of Changwat Chiang Mai, about a day-and-a-half’s walking distance from the town’s markets. It was a hopeful time in which the entire Lanna kingdom was waking up to itself once more, finally roused from the spell of Burmese occupation. Temples were refurbished and merchants from far-off principalities roamed the lush valleys and highlands with gold, spices, lacquer and long strips of silk. The teak-forests breathed their secrets across the villages and people saw they could dream again. Kamoon limped to a nearby river everyday to catch fish, which he was quite good at. His mother Pimchan was a locally renowned seamstress who some said was still waiting for Kamoon’s father to return.
The hellish din every full moon, however, was beginning to arouse some misgivings around the village, and in the rice fields and jungles alike the whisper went around of a bad omen. The rare lapse in the dogs’ sacred vigil seemed unexplainable, and the monks weren’t able to offer much in the way of guidance. Pimchan was starting to lose business and the family found themselves at their wit’s end. Yet, as often happens in times of material prosperity, the region was buzzing with strange and uncommon influences, and the life of the Lanna villages were peppered with the appearance of unfamiliar, fanciful persons. One of them was a strange young man with longish hair and tattoos named Suk, who had a knack for appearing from a cloud of tobacco smoke with medicine when people needed him most. He was attracted by the rumor of the lame-footed boy who pulled the temple dogs from their posts on full moons.
One day, Suk encountered Kamoon catching fish in the river. It was a rare spectacle. Standing on one leg perfectly balanced with his spear poised high in the air, Kamoon appeared as a statue in the murmuring current. And then, in a lethal flash of movement, the weapon was thrust downward in a perfect line, and upon lifting it back up the scaly prey was seen squirming on the blade. Suk watched this for awhile, then stepped forward onto the bank.
“Your skill is impressive, on one foot no less,” he commented through a curl of smoke.
“Eh? Who are you, sir? I haven’t seen you around here before!” Kamoon instinctively glanced at his basket of fish resting near the stranger’s foot.
“Easy there, I am a medicine man. I’m just passing through your village. Tell me, who taught you to catch fish like that?”
“My uncle,” Kamoon replied, still suspicious.
“Is your father not a fisherman himself?”
“I don’t have a father, sir. I had only my mother’s brother to teach me.”
Suk removed his sack and crouched against the trunk of a tree whose long boughs drooped over the water. The ghostly tendrils from his pipe met them in the air.
“Do your friends from the temple know that?”
“The ones who come to your hut at night and wake up half the village, who else?”
Kamoon plunged his spear into the water with a splash, but this time was unrewarded.
“Why do you care, anyway? Does it matter?”
Suk took a long draw from his pipe and watched the smoke drift over the murmuring brook before fading into the forest.
“It isn’t insignificant,” Suk said, “that the temple dogs have made a habit of harassing you so regularly. Nothing they do is random or meaningless. The most important part of a temple is the invisible part ,the gathering place of spirits and beings from other worlds. The dogs must watch over the boundaries, they are the temple guardians. So if they are leaving the temple grounds to bark and howl at your window, we can only conclude that you’ve caused a disturbance.”
Kamoon’s face turned pale and the spear drooped at his side.
“But…but I’m a good person! Why would they come after me? I haven’t done anything to the temple, and I always give thanks to the Buddha! They’ve made a mistake!”
Suk considered the boy’s earnest face for a moment and smiled.
“It’s nothing that can’t be remedied, but we’ll have to figure out what it is they want. Perhaps there is a problem only you can fix, something that must be amended…”
Trailing off, Suk was struck by an idea.
“Kamoon, how many fish have you caught today?”
“Eight fish,” the boy replied.
“Well,” said Suk, “that’s eight more than you would’ve caught if you couldn’t use either foot.”
Kamoon looked perplexed.
“I don’t think I understand.”
The medicine man stood up and, reaching into his sack, pulled out a wooden amulet attached to a string.
“Catch,” he said. Kamoon caught it with one hand, never losing his balance.
“Wear it, and don’t take it off. In a couple of days I will find you and tell you what we can do.”
And just like that, Suk was gone. Kamoon looked down at the amulet in his palm in wonderment. It was a meditating monk carved from teak-wood. He put it on and looked back at the empty river-bank. The currents of water murmured in his ear, and Kamoon lifted the spear high into the air once more.
The endless staircase is bathed in moonlight and flanked by glittering serpents, but hundreds of steps separate him from the black dog. All is quiet and unmoving, as if the silence of the moon was so heavy that it stifled the very pulse of the forest. The silence of the black dog, too, seems tyrannical, but his cold stare signals Kamoon that he is expecting him. The boy quickens his pace, angrily ignoring the pain in his foot. He starts to vault two steps at a time, but somehow the motionless black dog seems to get further away. Kamoon’s heart rages with urgency and terror. The banisters’ lacquered scales appear to expand and contract with breath. Has the black dog vanished into a trap-door of moonlight? Kamoon comes to a halt and leans on his left thigh, his lungs begging for air. Something cold and wet presses from behind into his calf muscle and the boy wheels around and loses his balance, falling hard against the stairs’ blunt edges. Lying on his back, he stares with disbelief into that very same dark and inscrutable face. A tangled mane frames the golden glow of two eyes, which speak things that Kamoon cannot quite understand. Its breath is hot on his face. The two are paralyzed in the spell of moonlight, and now a chorus of howls from unseen throats rise around them. Kamoon tries to leap up but finds he cannot, and the black dog draws its face nearer…
“Is your little monk still meditating undisturbed?”
Kamoon knew the voice without having to turn around.
“They say the heart is either the seat of fear or the seat of solace. Think of him as your guest, try not to upset him too much. A calm heart is like a quiet temple.”
Suk had found the boy seated on a gnarled log resting in the river, a perfect bridge between its banks. Kamoon snorted and skipped a pebble across the surface of the water.
“You know what you sound like? Like those traveling astrologers who don’t know what their next meal will be and hardly know what they’re saying!”
Chuckling to himself, the medicine man hopped on the log and strolled over to where the boy was sitting, taking a seat next to him. He placed the long pipe between his lips and began lighting a match. Kamoon shifted uneasily.
“You didn’t tell me the buddha was missing from your temple,” Suk remarked.
“Well,” replied Kamoon, “what’s the difference? The monks say that one day it will be returned.”
“And they’re right,” said Suk, a strange smile playing across his face. He began to take a sheaf of scrolls from his sack. The scrolls were of vellium and covered in characters as numerous, it seemed to Kamoon, as the stars in the sky.
“My texts tell me what happens when a buddha is taken from the temple, and I do believe it was stolen. When a man steals a buddha, there are many possibilities of what can happen. One of them is that the man’s son can suffer a bodily deformity, which will only grow worse as he gets older…”
“Hey, my father wasn’t a thief!” the boy retorted.
“That buddha,” Suk said calmly, “has been missing for nearly 15 years, which is the same amount of time since anyone saw your father alive, Kamoon. You never injured that foot, nor is there a history of foot problems in your family. The longer the temple remains stripped of its buddha, the worse the pain in your foot will become. The temple is an energetic fortress that is weakened when its cornerstone buddha is absent. The dogs wouldn’t be giving you such trouble otherwise.”
Kamoon rested his chin in his hand and stared deeply into the meandering currents beneath his feet. His nostrils burned with Suk’s tobacco.
“But what can we do, P Suk? I’m a fisherman, not a wizard. If my father did take the buddha, it’s not like I can go back into the past and change what he did! Am I to suffer for the sins of my father?”
“All you have to do,” Suk replied, “is restore the buddha to its rightful place. Then all will be resolved.”
Kamoon threw his hands in the air.
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“We have to figure out where he took it,” Suk said. He tapped his pipe against the log. “There has been a lot of poaching of sacred objects in the kingdom for some time now. A temple in Payao was entirely replicated elsewhere after the original was stripped down. It looks just like the first one and has all the same things. It’s funny, really.”
“A temple!” Kamoon exclaimed. “I think I might know where it is…”
“You do?” Now it was the medicine man’s turn to be taken off guard.
Kamoon told him about his dream. He had never been to Wat Amphawan, high up in the mountains as it was, but when Kamoon had awoken from the dream he found himself seized by a sort of automatic recognition that seemed to come from a place beyond the limits of his personal experience.
It was all Suk needed to hear.
“We must make arrangements to leave immediately,” he declared as he got to his feet. “I’ll talk to your mother today.”
“But…hey! Wat Amphawan will take several days to reach, I can’t walk all that way on this foot!”
Suk turned and smiled mysteriously, then pointed a long finger up the river. There in a shaded clearing towered a shadow-titan of fur and brawn; maybe he had dreamed of Kamoon, too.
“There’s your ride,” Suk deadpanned.
Kamoon gaped with an open mouth at the tall, motionless creature.
Gesturing him to follow, the medicine man jumped off the log and started walking to the village.