My throat is killing me and I'm running a fever. There are no doctors in Ngapali, but I've decided to wait it out until things improve or get worse.
Late in the afternoon, having slept on and off all day, I pull on a pair of shorts and walk down to the water. The sun has already dropped behind a coil of blue-gray clouds and
The water is warm. It carves saucers under my feet. A boy of about twelve says hello, which in Burma can mean hello, or goodbye, or hey mister, or can I help you, or in this case, excuse me. He hands me a slip of paper--an advertisement for a restaurant.
"I'm sick," I tell him. "I don't want to eat anything."
He smiles without a shadow of comprehension and runs off down the beach.
There's nothing to read but a few shipwrecked German novels and an English translation of the Dammapada with black fungus growing on the pages. I'm stuck with Crime and Punishment, stolen from a guesthouse in Nyaungshwe, a book that I last read almost forty years ago on a rooftop in New York.
The room is small and dank. Hospital-green walls. A powerful smell of mold. There's no mosquito net, so in spite of this heat the door will have to stay closed. The sheets and window curtains are printed in cheerful tropical scenes--a palm tree, a sailboat, a yellow sun melting into a blue-green sea--and repeated between the frames of color, in a handwriting disturbingly like my own, the words "Life is a barren field frozen with snow."
Every so often the power goes off, and the little bedside fan along with it, but it comes back on in a few minutes, or an hour. Time doesn't really matter, or it matters too much, since there's such a terrible abundance of it.
Beside me on the bed is the Dostoyevsky, lying where it last fell from my hand. All of those people are still in there after an absence of forty years, living out their dark, claustrophobic drama as if for the first time.
In late morning, before the worst of the heat takes hold, I go to the front desk, where a crisply dressed woman of middle age is entering numbers in a ledger. She has thick eyeglasses and one crooked eye, which looks east, at the fish tank, while the other one looks at me.
"Yes?" she says.
"I'm in H-3."
"I know. You arrived Tuesday. Is everything all right?"
"Yes, thank you. I mean the room is okay, but I'm not feeling well. I thought I should tell someone."
"You are sick?"
"My throat hurts. I have a fever."
She reaches under the counter and gives me a handful of mango candies, individually wrapped. "These will make your throat feel better. Drink lots of Chinese tea. Are you hungry?"
"No, I don't think so. Well, maybe a little."
"Go back to bed. I will bring you something later."
I'm asleep when she knocks. A visitor. Who was it who said, "Fiction begins with a knock on the door"?
I rise naked from the bed and step into my longyi, gathering all that ridiculous surplus of cloth around my waist and holding it in place. She enters with a tray of food: dried and salted fish, curried beef, two oranges, and a pot of tea. As soon as she places it on the bed, I realize how terrifically hungry I've become.
"You will feel better tomorrow," she says. "Let me know if you want more tea."
At last I feel well enough to take a walk along the beach. The dogs go along, two duggy females and a brindled male who's gnawed himself to the quick. It's too hot for man or dog to be walking in the undiminished sunlight, but I can't stay in the room any longer.
This young couple, a Western man carrying a fishing spear and a Burmese woman wearing a moon of thanaka paste on either cheek, don't seem bothered by the heat. She's very pretty. I consider the possibility of looking at women aesthetically, without the distraction of desire--the way one looks at the sky, for example--and wonder whether or not that's something I need to accomplish in the future.
Children in uniform are on their way home from school. A white and black bird with an iridescent green head and a murderous beak, taller than any of them, stands and watches. Only his eyes move. The children scream and run away. They were hoping to be attacked. He stands motionless and watches as the wind stirs the small feathers of his crown.
On my next to last day at Ngapali, I make a point of waiting on the beach at sundown to see the Green Flash. Conditions have to be just right: an absolutely cloudless sunset, nothing between you and the horizon but water. It only lasts an instant, just as the last thread of sun disappears. If you're not paying close attention you'll miss it.
The dogs find me sitting in a hollow at the back of the beach. They know me now, since our walk. I want them to go away so I can dedicate myself to the sunset. They can tell that I don't want to touch them. If my parents were here, they would say, "God only knows what kind of diseases they're carrying."
The sand-colored female rakes her paw across my arm and holds it there. I shove her away and stand just when it happens: a silent green detonation on the far side of the world. She lets loose a long howl that could mean almost anything. Other people on the beach turn and look in our direction.
At checkout, the woman with the crooked eye takes my dollars and writes a number in her ledger.
"You're looking much better," she says.
"Yes. But I'm going to see a doctor when I get back to Thailand. I don't want to take chances with a fever."
"You are not wearing your longyi today," she says confidentially.
"No. Not in Burma. At least not in public."
"I'd be too embarrassed. I was told that if I wore a longyi, Burmese people would laugh at me."
"Yes, it's true," she says, laughing. "This is why you should wear it."
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Issue #34, September, 2003 :
Santa Fe Poetry Broadside.