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Sinewy the both of them, the spectres stand firm against the sandstone pillars as rifles go limp and hammer from north and south. They remember the copper-red they hide behind when it was of an illustrious scarlet tone, the shadows they’d walk through with actual feet touching the ground, upon which they’d drop down to their knees in prayer, darkened heads lit from behind by light. Now all the walls were gone, leaving only space for bullets to fly through back and forth, back and forth, chipping splinters that rip strips of their hearts.
These spirits are the safest out of everyone here. Nevertheless, they both wait for the opportune moments when silence prevails to slink from one pillar to the next, scurrying half-bent should the bullets start up, as if they can be seen. With a hop they spin in the wind when bullets pass through them, landing on their fronts and crawling for safety, sensing one another from opposite sides. They continue like this ’til they reach the floor where they once prayed through lizard-like synchronized crawls, taking one another by the hand and embracing in the light that pours through them, both as bulbous as the wind.
Silence falls over the mountaintop again.
The ghosts converge. With only their minds for mouths, one thinks of a dream as the other enters to stand watch over their memory, both becoming thoughts with a force unnoticed, one more powerful than the shelling by the border.
A school roof goes caving in.
So young and wild and free
A bed they don’t own where they hold one another, don’t own one another. Kissing continues when they begin to grapple, turning the other over, but he always winds up on top, and no arguments.
I want nobody, nobody! Nobody nobody!
She’s playing to the crowd, with the whole bar singing the English chorus in English, and the Korean parts in Thai phonetics, spelled out on the large analogue TV to her side.
I want nobody nobody but you!
Jei smirks, watching as the girl’s sisterhood claps her on, shouting out the words while laughing, but not once does the girl lose her nerve, completely immersed in the song as if she really is a K-pop star, a Wondergirl in Khorat for one night only. Not once does she smile.
“This one’s taking it seriously,” Jei says to the army around him, eyes trying to meet hers.
“Fucking hate this song…”
“She’s stone sober…”
“Shame,” Jei smiles, scanning her small black frock under a denim jacket, rolled at the arms. Her eyes – simply lined in black, Korean style, stern and demure. The hair’s simple too, no colours, just short. He still hasn’t caught her eye.
“She looks rich. She don’t want no solja boy!” jokes Benk.
The gang laugh.
I want nobody nobody but YOU!
The whole bar goes rowdy for the climactic chord change in the song. Jei turns back round and mouths along to the show tune. How well was she gonna do the small rap part in its wake, the strangely subdued and uncertain note which the song ends on?
Back to the days when we were
So young and wild and free,
โมดึนเก นอมูนา กุมมัน กาทัดดอน คือแตโร โทรากาโก ชิพึนเด
เว ชากู นารึล มีรอแนรยอเฮ
Why do you push me away?
The answer was she did it well, gliding with ease from English to Korean pronunciation over the lonely, lost chords of an alien synth.
I don’t want nobody
And end. The blue chords patter out unresolved, and the girl stays in pose: head looking down at the floor, hand in a half-salute.
He’s never seen a girl rap in the flesh before. He has to have her.
Still, she doesn’t smile.
She doesn’t talk to Jei ’til he follows her out of the club.
“Hey, Wondergirl!” he calls out.
“Can I smoke in peace?” she eventually replies.
He watches her turn her back, with nothing in the air but her smoke and the bassy reverberations of the karaoke.
“What’s your name?”
And the girl stomps further through the court into the dark, where trees add to its denseness, keeping the bass and the howls of the bar from spreading further out.
“Where you going?…”
“Got a smoke?”
And a car guns down the still highway as the girl stomps out of the court, disappearing with a left turn. Jei lights up, takes it in, all to bide time before trudging in her tracks. Another few cars gun past.
He finds her flumped on the barriers of the highway, smoke exhaled over the valley it straddles. Of course, she doesn’t look his way as he comes closer, but nor does she change place.
“You need someone to hold your hand when you smoke?” she asks.
“Light it up, relax your lungs? I don’t.”
“I like to talk.”
“What’s your name?”
“You don’t like soldiers…”
“What do you do?”
“I don’t like waitresses, goodnight.”
And Jei turns on his heels.
“Goodbye,” she smirks, turning her attention back to the sky over the valley.
Jei has to keep going now his joke’s backfired.
The karaoke had finished, music now coming from an automated mix playing through the speakers. Jei watches the girl as the girl watches her huddle on the dance floor, cocktail in hand.
“Give it up Jei, she’s too young.”
“Fucking hate this song…” repeats My.
“She looks 20…” says Benk.
“And I’m 25!”
And the song changes to Super Junior, more K-pop.
It’s the juggernaut, Jei thinks. Men and women rush to the floor as gymnasium-crushing beats count in the intro, all ready to do the dance as synthesized seconds tick down to the chorus.
“Jei?” Benk calls out, watching him go.
Sorry sorry sorry sorry!
The girl looks to one side and sees the soldier on his own, marching her way before coming to a halt to stoop and rub his hands in time with everybody else.
Jei snaps back upright and swivels on his sneakers so they bend inwards heel-to-heel twice, snapping his fingers before raising one foot to smack it with the hand opposite, doing the same with the other – the crowning move.
What a clown, she thinks.
Shawty shawty shawty shawty!
He jiggles one foot mid-air and stoops down, this time rubbing his hands together in the direction of her knees.
He got it down pat…
And now Jei mimes to the verses, sliding closer, pointing at her and dusting off his hands, sliding closer. Her girlfriends applaud. How can she not join in?
“So what’s your name?”
And he smirks.
A bed they don’t own where they hold one another, don’t own one another. Kissing continues when they begin to grapple, turning the other over, but Jei always winds up on top, and no arguments.
In the dark he imagines her bedroom walls with a smiling collage of K-pop heartthrobs – the androgynous white-haired G-Dragon, ruby lipped, and the 13 headed monster of Super Junior, singers and pretty boys, but here he was with her, just a soldier, the reality of what she wants:
A real man.
Five days more before the village.
When the Monk was alive and his temple full of life, he dreamt of the day he found it waiting for him atop the mountain, with its libraries and wise men who’d helped reshape Shiva into Buddha for centuries before.
But in this still picture something different lay. As the Monk walked up the causeway, a smell of smoke lingered all around. Circling the grounds, he peered inside the temple’s halls and communal areas to see only droppings of fresh rice and ash, little mounds scattered across the floors with dust piles and the odd white feather. The whole of Sri Sikharesvara was empty as it would later become, for abandonment had somehow happened overnight.
The young man paced the grounds for hours, too respectful to wait inside when there was no one to actually invite him in. Any thought of heading back down from where he came was too terrible to contemplate, so he eventually took his place outside the kitchen, and wrapped himself in his old blanket of lamb wool to sleep under the sun, awaiting the return of the Sikharesvara wise men. The Monk’s legs made him pay for the long way he’d come, and this pile of resting bones was glad for the little peace he had, ’til the blanket began to burn, almost as if singed by the sun directly above. In its rays the Monk watched from high at his sleeping self, shouting out his name but only adding more wind to the flames. They eventually flickered away, leaving the Monk in a blanket of ashes clinging to his frame as he stirred. The weight pinned him down, but somehow he’d survived with all his skin and clothes intact.
Such a bizarre miracle lost splendour as he saw with a chill in his veins the whole sky turn a milky white, and he could understand only one thing –
Beware of the temple below.
I could be there
I catch glimpses of whatever dream or dreams I had, images fading in my head like how we fade in the REM of the night, searching it out for shapes and play-dead corpses with the light beams our guns project. We’re cradling sleeping giants, clutching them really, digging into our ribs. Some of us have sonar eyes, and I feel bad for those who don’t, but we’re all naked here, snatched from our nests in the village and dropped into the open. We’re the walking eggs, waiting to be cracked – ten down ten down, ten more, down, down. A gun’s as thin and black as a shadow, an eel in the dark as it shakes in some watching Cambo’s grip, wavery as our lights feeling out the dark, trails pulling us in at light speed, covering the ground we’ll tread and hopefully stay above.
I know I shouldn’t be here, it’s so clear cut a message in the images fading around it, fading into dark and the shape of Benk’s face. He’s peeping through the curtains, laughing I’m here, I’m here! I wanna draw him forth from the shadows, but no one can hear us.
This is the night everyone went missing; enemies and brothers, drawing us here in the mountains, now silent of shelling and rounds. Fragments near our feet grow in number as we tread closer to something unearthed – a mouth into the underground. Steps of an age long past await.
“A hideout?” murmurs a soldier by my shoulder. I look – pretty Poon, god. I hush him though my teeth, all grit and spit.
We head in and something nags in my head.
More dark, but no sight of Benk’s head slipping in between the shadows. All I see is the hulk of My in front, already defying orders having donned his mask in case of gas attack. No one’s gonna see anyway, the short captain’s way in front.
I keep my other hand close to the mask by my hip, staring ahead with my sonars. Poon’s right behind, and twenty others, and a hole, its light ever receding as the dark world takes us in, stealing away the greens of our clothes and tans of our skin, making us ashen in its swarm. Even the green in my eyes starts to play tricks as it gets warmer, so warm, oppressive, stifling. The cavern’s never-ending. We are alone in this universe.
We are alone in this universe, but there is gold. It glints to our sides, and casting our lights we find we’re shoving guns into faces of Buddhas and deities left standing on rocks, gold losing its lustre now naked in the light. They stand in holes dug into the walls, dugouts within the dugout. A memory nags, but I just can’t… latch onto it?
There’s no time to think when gasps start to trickle through the ranks – we were now in the round, a huge temple of rock and idols, only alive in our flash-beams. We cross them together to cover a chunk of our surroundings at a time, spotlights climbing up the walls to track the statues all above us, and the Buddha biography, etched into the walls with red, yellows and blues, now faded to show outlines of a skeleton man beneath a tree, a fat man on a leaf. The stories were true then – here was the secret temple of Sri Sikharesvara.
The temple below.
My insides are at war as we cover the hallowed life-story, looking for the shrine, for bigger Buddhas standing watch over us, perhaps our only hope unless we got out now.
No, this is a dead place. No Cambos here.
“We’re wasting time,” I mouth, Benk’s face absent from our searchlight.
“So the stories were true,” Poon mutters. I want him to shut up. My still has on his mask, but the captain’s too lost in wonder to notice, a step ahead of our pack. We’re thirty boys in awe.
And then we find the shrine.
This is what I see, lifting off my sonar eyes to look: There are six statues in a kind of shrine I’ve never seen before, composed of rock protruding from the far side opposite. Every grey statue’s in hooded robes of a Martian colour, each on its own perch of wood upon the knobbly granite. We swarm closer cos the captain’s seeing something off, and I see it too: these lotus bods have been wizened by the elements, the healthy glow of Buddha’s lustre and grandeur ground down by the centuries upon centuries. A few empty grooves amongst the row show how not all of them had made it through time. We come closer, curious how these cowed faces aren’t of the usual cartoon variety, perhaps testaments to Buddha’s starving stage. They each have human features, noses and round eyes. We look closer and see the cheekbones sharp beneath each eye, see that each eye and nostril’s been daubed in black, skin a lacquered brown. We see the bony knees sticking out from their robes, skin frittering away like dried up moth wings. We notice the harsh teeth that only the light starved could think were actually slowly opening and closing.
We hear an inhaling of breath.
Young Boom’s turned around, playing butter fingers with his gun, mouth open: two more statues stand a few paces behind us, but on their feet.
Beware of the temple below.
Their cowed heads painfully swivel up, hoods falling to show their blackened foreheads, empty eye sockets. Their teeth twitch for another draw in of breath, a sound as disgusting as their archaic ribs and tight paper skin, that moth wing fabric covering their bundles of bones for bodies.
So the stories were true: living mummies really were buried beneath Sri Sikharesvara. Young Boom fires already, before the captain’s finished barking. Each bullet disturbs the surface of one monk’s skin, an ochre spray of bits and vinegary acid dissolving in the air, blinding the boy and burning his skin. Now we step back, the captain at a loss, our guns silent giants, only giving light to these monstrosities. I turn back around and see how all the monks have now raised their faces, cocking their heads in curiosity at us guests. How slowly their bones move as they dangle those bony knees over the shrine, matter trickling down stone to sandwich us between their two brothers.
Stupid Poon charges forward with his gun as if this’ll scare them back, but one monk scratches an eyeball out of his socket before wrapping five spindly digits round his neck. My fires and we all disperse to our left or right, plunging the enemy back into darkness.
I’m back against a wall with My and three others. Poon cannot be heard, and no one can. I can’t see the captain, but surely it’s a case of us moving towards the mouth, back out of the cave? Who needs the order?
A wail, and me and the five others try to keep our lights in one beam as we scan the cave for its source. The captain’s crushed between the two standing monks, one with his ribcage still flapping wide open. A few troops rush up behind them and fire, but the bullets riddle through them straight into the captain’s back.
“Stupid fucks!” roars My beneath the mask. He tears it off and guns towards the temple entrance. My and the men with sonar lead the others, dotting the archway door with our beams.
Sonar blurs figures in shadows: we see them coming towards us from the other side of the arch, at the same speed as us, nine of them.
“My, keep back!”
But he can’t see them, running headlong.
Sonar blurs reflections too: My’s knocked back on his ass as a shower of glass implodes on impact, taking the figures with it. Us eight stop in our tracks. It was just one of many mirrors we now see to all our sides, spaced out by paintings. There are eight in all – no, seven, plus the real way out.
I’m trying not to cry as I and a brother help My up, his pug face seeping with blood. Wails are ringing from behind but I don’t have the heart to open my eyes and see the monks closing in on our ranks, the enemy our enemies and brothers were faced with, the true owners of this hell. Benk’s face will never show.
Beware of the temple below
There are bullets, followed by cries as lungs puff open and skin fizzles. My’s on all fours, crawling towards his gun.
“We… should. Go…” swallows my brother, on his knees facing the turmoil. I’m seeing his face which I just can’t recognise beneath his goggles. His gait, his voice – it’s all new to me in the panic.
“Move,” slurs My, and I understand his plan, his gun trained on whatever’s behind me. I can just see it – a wave of monks tearing through the last ranks, dumb Poon still crawling behind in their wake. I don’t want to see it.
“Move.” I’ve pushed my brother flat to the floor by my side as My sprays bullets in a wave. We grind our faces into the rock lest the age-old skin should rain down upon us.
The wave scatters for a good minute before My stops. I see his gun go limp by his side. I imagine the piles of bodies upon bodies, landfills of the young and ancient.
“God, My…” croaks my brother. I’m trying not to cry.
“Let’s hunt the way out.”
I stagger up on my feet.
“Take my sonars,” I offer. I’m hating how the brother keeps gawping at the carnage behind us. My swipes my goggles and gets his gun trained on the next door-slash-mirror. We keep ourselves behind him, Brother watching my back.
“God they’re all gone…” he murmurs.
And My stops in his tracks, getting his gun trained on a portal. I lower my head down, and sigh, waiting for the noise to play havoc with the funereal silence.
I’m still waiting.
“My?” asks Brother.
My’s taking a few steps back.
“No…” he whispers.
“No!” shouts Brother, ‘cos he’s seen what’s in the mirror too. I shut my eyes as My swerves round, imagining the monks back to their nasty crawl towards us, though blasted to bits and smithereens. These are men who can never die, hard as Earth, fed on a diet of bark and roots, all body fat eviscerated as the body became a breathing testament to man. So the stories were all true.
I feel for the flat of glass as My lights a flare to push the beasts back.
“Burn ‘em!” shouts Brother.
I can already see the burning monks undeterred, pulling my brethren closer into their enveloping flames. I can see my brothers punching holes in their chests as they struggle in the monks’ claws.
“Jei!” screams My.
I’m fine by the looking glass, head on head, dismayed. Silence falls. I place my wrist between my head and the glass, waiting for my time. I can see them treading closer, some on fire, some not, the eight who’d never die. What had we disturbed? The stories can’t be true. All men must die… I shut my eyes, head-butt my arm with soft touches. I keep myself calm, send my final words up above to the people I know. I whisper numbers, counting from zero, feeling them edging ever closer. I sing, and I don’t know why, but a song’s in my head.
Tell you I love you
Tell you I love you
Tell you I love you
N when you call
I could be there!
I could be there
again and again over a wavery synth, Leela spinning in my sights, her smirk, carrying. Sunlight in the room. An imagined scene. I don’t even know the girl.
My voice is a weak light in this crypt.