THE OPEN BOOK
The cottage Oliver has rented in Northern Thailand was once occupied, so they say, by Somerset Maugham. If the brochure is to be believed, Maugham wrote one of his novels here, although the absence of the book’s name in the promotional materials leads Oliver to doubt the truth of the claim. Still, it’s a fine selling point, a harmless exaggeration, and he’s happy with the detail for his own purposes, explaining to clients and friends in Singapore where it is he’s going for his getaway. Just a cottage in the jungle near Chiang Mai, he says. A cottage with a history.
He arrives on the connecting flight from Bangkok and settles in before dark, relishing the isolation: away from projects, away from deals, away from office intrigues. He might write something, take inspiration from Maugham. It’s an ambition he’s long harbored—more of a fantasy, really—but that’s not the objective this week. He’s here to relax, to read, to recharge.
Darkness falls quickly in the jungle, where it was none too bright to begin with. The daylight insect chirr is replaced with a more sinister din. Not just the incessant croaking of frogs, but shrieks in multiple octaves. Birds, maybe, at the high end, or monkeys. At the low, some species of jungle cat. Oliver checks the door, unlocks and locks it again, then pours Scotch from the bottle he picked up at Duty Free, reclines in a cracked leather chair that looks like Maugham himself might have favored it, and opens Of Human Bondage.
His sleep is deep, dreamless. In the morning, as the dim light returns, fresh pineapple and bananas await him on the verandah along with sweet tea. He listens to the jungle’s voice change again and then, as his ears adjust and the adjacent village comes to life, disappear altogether. Bells chime from a nearby temple, although Oliver realizes that “bell” and “chime” are both wrong. It’s more of a resonant gong that sounds and seems never to end, until eventually it, too, is no longer heard.
The temple is not hard to find as it is the center of village life and, besides, its golden roof towers above its neighbors. Oliver joins the throng on the grounds. He has not brought a camera, so feels no distractions. He will observe, memorize details, perhaps write about this temple, about a foreign visitor who, say, meets a monk. And as this thought occurs to him he catches sight of a young monk watching him. A novice, surely. He is so young, a teenager, with a close-cropped shadow of black hair that frames his handsome face, wide brown eyes that distinguish it.
As the monk approaches, Oliver sees that he is taller than the others. His one-shouldered robe reveals a solid build, suggesting a life more active than contemplative. The monk bows toward Oliver as he walks, his hands pressed together in greeting.
The monk’s crooked grin appears. Hello, he says. But it seems the limit of his English because he continues in Thai that Oliver does not understand. The monk points to himself and says Praja. Oliver says his own name and holds out a hand. Praja raises his and limply lets Oliver grasp it. Praja motions to a bench and they sit. But there is nothing they can say to each other, so there are smiles and gestures. Praja points to the temple and Oliver says it is very beautiful; Praja nods and responds and Oliver believes they are in agreement. The temple certainly is beautiful.
Praja is also beautiful, Oliver thinks. His chin is strong, with a trace of stubble. The ears are fine, the nose not as flat as some and when he notices this it occurs to him that perhaps Praja is not all Thai. There were American soldiers here, and where there are soldiers and prostitutes there are unwanted children of mixed race. Is that why he is here? Oliver wishes he could ask.
The gong sounds again and Praja rises. Oliver wants him to stay, even touches his arm, but Praja bows. Wait, Oliver says, and hands him a card from the cottage, the address in English and Thai.
In the late afternoon, Oliver is on the verandah of the cottage drinking a Singha beer and reading Maugham. He hears approaching footsteps and is mildly alarmed until he sees that it is Praja. The boy joins him on the porch and, to Oliver’s surprise, accepts a beer. And now Oliver is presented with a choice. He has been thinking all day about Praja, about the strong boy beneath the robes, about the remoteness of this place. Who would know if he befriended this youth, if they shared more than wordless smiles? He looks at Praja’s eyes, eyes Oliver believes are filled with longing. Why has he come here, if not for this?
Oliver stands. Praja stands. Oliver touches the monk’s bare shoulder, feels the warmth of him, guides him inside the cottage. In the yellow electric light, Praja’s skin glows. He stands before Oliver, waiting, and, when Oliver does not move, because Oliver is unable to move, Praja slips his robe over the other shoulder and pulls it to his waist. He is a beautiful man, hairless and lean and Oliver’s eyes overflow. He cannot swallow. He can barely breathe. With this one act his life will change. This monk is his salvation. If only Oliver could move.
Baht, Praja says.
Baht, he says again.
Oliver’s trance is broken. His breath comes. He steps back. The boy wants money, this is how he lives. And now Oliver’s choice is easy. He moves toward Praja and reaches for him.
He lifts the monk’s robe over his shoulder, covers the boy’s chest. He can’t give him money, but he wants to give him something. On the table, by the door, there is the open book. He closes it, presses it into Praja’s hands and lets his fingers taste the freedom they cannot know.
Click here for Clifford Garstang's bio