Luang Prabang, five in the morning. The gentle rubbing of the birds’ wings against the sides of the wicker cages. Life stirring but still lulled in the arms of the night. Tak Bat: the monks approach to collect alms – a line of orange, still embroidered on the edge of the darkness. Silence reigns, a rustling of robes, of wings, of prayers secretly whispered to the wind.
Nali places a handful of rice and a packet of coffee in the monk’s basket. Their eyes meet for a few short moments. She is breaking a rule without meaning to since you should never look a monk in the eye and she knows that well – a strange tremor runs through her body like an electric shock. The other monks continue moving forward to collect the gifts but she is suddenly turned to stone. So many years spent far away without taking part in the ceremony… But that morning, early, she had gone with a tourist who by chance was staying in her hotel – and you never knew what those idiotic tourists might do. It would be better to stay well away from traditions that are hundreds of years old so as not to corrupt or defile them. For seven hundred years, every day between five and six in the morning, the monks have walked through that part of the town to receive offerings from the people. This is how they have survived and been fed for more than seven centuries, although also sharing with the extremely poor who, truth be told, are the overwhelming majority. But lately people have been saying that the tourist idiots circle like a flock of ill-omened birds spreading bad luck and undoing blessings… What is more, several monks have fallen ill because of the poor quality of the food they gave them… And let’s not forget their addiction to taking photos and using the flash which shows a lack of respect for the ceremony.
Nali remains trapped for an eternal instant in that gaze. She imagines those eyes in another face, a younger face. She sees her old school in the south of Laos, in a tiny village lost in the mountains: Chrenat, a boy a little older than herself, writes her love letters… Short walks in the forest, his hands in hers, the smooth warm touch on her skin in that age of innocence when everything seems possible, when dreams have still not been eroded, have still not been devoured by the rust of reality, nor torn to shreds by the blade of misfortune. It was at that time the civil war broke out. Like a crocodile’s egg incubating for a long time, the beast broke out from its shell and gobbled up everything around it. The year was 1963. The Communist guerrillas of the Pathet Lao led by Prince Souphanouvang were fighting the Kingdom of Laos, a constitutional monarchy of which Souvanne Phouma was head… Nali’s family supported the government, Chrenat’s family was on the side of the rebels; inadvertently, life threw them onto opposite sides of the trench.
She and her parents left for France where there was the chance to study and have a promising future. At first sight Paris seemed like the fairytale she had long dreamed about: the Christmas illuminations spilling onto the streets a dazzling light such as she had never imagined. However, the dream quickly turned into a nightmare: problems finding a house, a job, the inevitable life in the bidonville, the hopes of early adolescence gnawed away by discrimination, by the otherness of that so different world. With her roots showing on the surface like the lotus blossom flower, she resisted, she adapted. The years raced past leaving their mark on her body and soul. Her parents died, she married a Thai man ten years older than her, a colleague at the bank where she had started working after completing her studies with distinction. It had not been a case of passion or even of love, simply the years were passing and her culture dictated that she had to marry someone. A mixture of chance, complicity and duty. Occasionally, Nali thought about Chrenat’s green eyes. His image was becoming blurred until all that remained were eyes in a face that already had no shape until it too faded away buried by the dust of time.
He stayed in Laos fighting for a new country, for a better future for everyone. They never contacted each other. How to understand life? How to understand the path that could lead a young Communist revolutionary to enter the temple as a monk? Thin, dry, wrinkled, he undulates like a flag in his orange robe. Which flag? Which nation? What does it say? What creed does it avow? Only the green eyes, so unusual in an Asian, remain: glowing headlights from the past reborn in a handful of rice and a packet of coffee.
Years and years went by and there she was, a refugee from the Parisian winter, in Laos, between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the capital, where she had a house. She divided the year into two parts, just like her own life.
The monks disappear with their full bowls in a grubby cloud of orange. Having given offerings for their souls, all that is now needed is to free the small birds the people have bought, imprisoned souls thirsting to fly. She undoes part of the wicker cage, opening an improvised door and they disappear, drinking their freedom in a ray of light. Such is life, but how to understand it? A useless effort! Each person has their own karma, their destiny, the birds destined for freedom, the revolutionary Chrenat confined within the walls of a temple having surrendered to the opium of the people after his Marxist struggle... And her? Two lives, two homes, two countries in two continents, health, her husband still living, grandchildren on the way… She slowly pours the holy water on the trunk of the nearest tree, not to ask for something as tradition demands but to say thank you for the gifts of the present – and to keep those green eyes definitively in the pocket of memory, a safe haven for the shipwrecked illusions of an old love.
Dora Nunes Gago – short story translated by Vanessa Boutefeu from the book Floriram por engano as rosas bravas, 2022.