About the Author
Since her initial short story sale in 1991, Marella Sands has published many other works of fiction and non-fiction. Her historical novels, Sky Knife and Serpent and Storm, were set in 5th century Central America. Sky Knife has also appeared in a German edition as Der Mayapriester. In addition, she co-wrote two King’s Quest novels with Mark Sumner under the name Kenyon Morr. She has had short stories in several anthologies. Her Ring of Fire novels, Perdition, Purgatory, and Perfection (coming in 2020) take place in an alternate modern United States, where the country broke into pieces after the Civil War. Her main female protagonist gets a trial by fire when she becomes an undercover agent inside the Confederacy. Marella’s story in this issue of Grantville Gazette is based on the Thai ghost story of Mae Nak.
Marella has finally gotten off her butt and started a YouTube channel. She would appreciate it greatly if more people would subscribe to the channel and like the videos. Videos include readings of her work (first chapters of her Ring of Fire novels coming soon); Marella and a pastor friend discussing the television show Lucifer; and various other informational videos featuring Marella, fans of horror movies, and other writers who enjoy sharing what they are passionate about in life. While you’re on the channel, leave some comments!
A love of science fiction and fantasy was perhaps inevitable, as Marella’s father was a lifelong reader of those genres. His favorite novel was A.E. Van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle and he regularly referenced Asimov’s Foundation books. In a household like that, what could Marella do but to grow up to read, and write, fantastical fiction? Marella is married, travels when she can, and has a household full of pets.
Originally Published in Grantville Gazette Volume 85, September 2019
The fortune teller smiled at Mak, his toothless betel-blackened gums barely visible in the pale light of dawn.
Mak said, “It is a beautiful morning to see the sunrise, my friend.”
The fortune teller shrugged. He was half-naked and dirty, and his leathery skin reminded Mak of a crocodile’s hide. Mak had no idea of the fortune teller’s age, but no one in the neighborhood remembered a time when he hadn’t been telling fortunes on this corner. In fact, talk to anyone in Bangkok Noi about Chongrak’s Corner, and they instantly knew both the place and the man.
”It is indeed a beautiful morning, Venerable Uncle. Allow me to ask the bodhisattvas for a fortune for you.”
Without even waiting for permission, the man began chanting in Pali, the language of many powerful chants, including the Jinapanjara, the most highly respected of all the chants Mak knew personally.
The chanting made Mak uneasy. His past had too much darkness in it, darkness that should not be disturbed. He did not want to know what the bodhisattvas had to say, even assuming Chongrak could truly communicate with them.
Before Mak could sidle away, Chongrak stopped chanting and opened his eyes. He nodded slightly and seemed somewhat puzzled.
“The bodhisattvas have something to say,” Chongrak said.
The man said, “The past never lets go.”
Mak was relieved. The message was simple and not dreadful, which, considering Mak’s past, it could easily have been. Mak’s past was safely dead and buried. Anything from his former life, from the time fifty years ago before he had become a monk, was contained in a shrine back at the wat. Whatever danger had once existed had gone.
A tendril of doubt slithered through his thoughts and refused to retreat.
Mak turned away from the fortune teller and continued walking through the neighborhood, hoping routine would help him find some harmony in his soul on this otherwise beautiful day.
Bangkok was a city of canals, but in this part of the city, Mak was able to walk on hard dirt paths. He collected alms from the local people until the midmorning sun began to beat down, and turned toward a canal to find transportation back to the wat. He knew he would not have to wait long. Most people were glad to take a monk on a short journey for the luck one might accrue by doing a good deed.
Sure enough, a man quickly poled his boat over to Mak. “Going to the wat, Venerable One?”
Mak nodded. “But you’re coming from that direction yourself. I can wait for someone who is going my way. You don’t need to make a return journey just for me.”
“It is my pleasure. Get in.”
Mak stepped into the boat. He thought he had seen this boatman before, but had never ridden with him.
Mak’s eyes were drawn toward the man’s feet, and he noticed the man was missing three toes on his left foot. And the hands holding the pole—were they not short two fingers each? A ragged scar stretched from behind the man’s right ear to his chin. Mak shuddered at the memories of his own injuries during his time in the army. Memories of the agonizing ripping of his flesh, the nightmarish journey to a doctor, the searing of his wounds before they could become infected, and the horrific fever that had nearly killed him, sometimes made him wake in a cold sweat to this day. No amount of meditation could rid of him of those memories.
“You, too, were in a war,” the man said when he realized where Mak’s gaze had lingered. “Those memories are the heaviest ones, aren’t they? They weigh down your shoulders worse than if you were carrying an elephant!”
Mak nodded and turned his attention to the canal’s dark waters.
“You are the monk known as Mak?” the man asked. When Mak acknowledged that he was, the man continued, “My grandfather fought in the same war you did, long before I was born. He didn’t come home.”
Mak bowed again. “I’m sorry.”
“Now my own son’s been conscripted,” said the man, as if he hadn’t heard Mak. His voice was bitter. “I’m grateful my wife didn’t live to see the day our son was taken from us.”
“Perhaps he’ll come home soon,” said Mak. “They say the war is over now.”
The man shrugged. “He will have seen and done things no man should have to. He’ll be a changed man.”
Fortunately for Mak, the temple came into view as the man maneuvered the boat around a bend in the canal. “I will pray for your son,” he said as the man poled the boat to a dock. “And for you. What is your name?”
The man hesitated, then said, “Kob Sook. I thank you for your prayers, Uncle. I do not pray myself anymore these days.”
The irony of the man’s name, which meant full of happiness, was not lost on Mak. Here was a man who had a family, but who had lost a grandfather in one war, had been crippled in another, and whose son faced a third. When would kings learn to put down weapons and find a better path, a more serene way to settle their differences and right the wrongs of the world?
Mak stepped off the boat and headed down the path to the wat. When he arrived, he stepped into the main courtyard and turned toward the kitchen where he could take the food he had collected, and nodded to Niran, one of the younger monks, who often tended the shrines after the first of the morning visitors had left. Behind Niran was the shrine where Mak’s past lay.
Mak expected no one to be here at this time of day, but to his surprise, he glimpsed a lithe female figure in green, hauntingly and disturbingly familiar, even after all this time. Mak’s heart leaped in alarm. He took a step toward her, but on the instant, she disappeared.
It couldn’t be her. Not really. That was impossible!
Dread filled Mak’s soul and he pushed past Niran. He ignored the dignity of his office and the swath of robes that caught around his ankles as he ran to the shrine. He rushed past the seated wooden figures by the door and didn’t stop until he had reached the altar at the far end of the open-air building. On the altar was a box, and in the box was a bone from the forehead of his long-dead wife. The bone contained the power of her vengeful spirit and kept the world safe from her. While Mae Nak was trapped in the bone, the world could move on in peace.
Breathless, Mak pushed the screen aside and opened the heavy lid of the intricately carved wooden box. The bone was gone.
He dropped to his knees, a soul-gutting cry wrenched from him by the sudden attack of shock and grief. The weight of his years crushed him to the floor like the elephant Kob Sook had spoken of, and his spirit writhed inside its prison of flesh as if seeking to flee this life for the next while his heart still beat. And Mak knew, more surely than he had ever known anything, that the bodhisattvas had been right. His past never had let him go.
The abbot sat, calmly dignified, wrapped in his yellow robes, while Mak struggled with his own composure. He paced in the small room that served as the temple’s library and fought to clear his scattered thoughts.
“You must find the bone and return it to the shrine,” said the abbot.
The thought of searching Bangkok for a small piece of bone overwhelmed Mak. He wished he could simply shake and scream and let someone else do what needed to be done.
Hadn’t he done enough?
“How?” asked Mak in despair. “One small piece of bone in all of Bangkok!”
“Perhaps there is a way,” started the abbot. He gestured for Mak to sit at his feet. Mak did so with a glimmer of hope that the abbot might know something useful. “I have heard tell that there is still one student of Somdet To remaining in the world. I’m not sure of his name, but he lives north of here. Seek him out.”
Mak was aghast. “You think I should wander around to find some place north of here, in order to locate a monk whose name you do not know, and then ask him to . . . to do what, exactly? Find the bone? Finally free my wife’s spirit? If Somdet To couldn’t do it, why should any of his students be able to?”
“I have no answers to your questions,” said the abbot. He rose gracefully; at fifty, he was twenty years younger than Mak and had been raised in a noble household. His manners were profound, his learning exquisite. He was the most widely-read and well-educated man Mak knew. But the abbot had only limited knowledge of traveling the wild roads of the north and of vengeful spirits like Mae Nak. Despair threatened to overwhelm Mak’s heart.
“Fast and pray and meditate,” said the abbot. His voice was unusually firm. The sort of tone he would take with novices, not monks with five decades of service.
Mak took a deep breath and wondered if he would ever lose this sense of hopelessness and loneliness, which he had thought he had banished forever after years of prayer and meditation. But, what else could he do? He would obey the abbot’s orders.
Then he would look for the ghost of his dead wife.
He remembered when he’d first seen her, the girl named Nak, but whom everyone called sprout as a joke because she had grown so quickly over a single rainy season. Mak hadn’t known her family well, and hadn’t seen her at all until that day in fields when he saw her walking with some friends. She had grown faster than they, and was taller. Her skirt had been the brilliant green of bamboo shoots. She had looked at him shyly through her long dark lashes, and his heart had been lost in a single moment.
Their families had agreed on their marriage. He was eighteen, she sixteen. He had spent a year building their house and saving some money and on the day of their marriage, he had brought her to their home, and they had begun their life together. They were overjoyed when she had conceived quickly, and they looked forward to having a house full of the laughter and energy of children.
But their happiness had been cut short by his conscription into the army. Then came his injury and the long, painful process of recovery. Finally, he had returned home, and everything had been just as he had dreamed. His wife, more beautiful than ever, had welcomed him home. His baby son cooed in his cradle. Life was perfect once more.
Except that, of course, it hadn’t been.
In the end, it took him two days to prepare for his journey. The abbot insisted on a succession of purification rituals and chanting of the Jinapanjara, the chant that Somdet To had used to trap Mae Nak’s spirit fifty years ago.
For hours, with only the most occasional of breaks, the monks chanted jayasanakata-buddha jetva maram savahanam-catusaccasabham rasam ye pivimsu narasabha . . . to the end of the text. Over and over. Mak had learned the chant by heart in his very first year at the temple: it had been a favorite of Somdet To’s, and so it had become a favorite with everyone who had come under his sphere of influence.
Finally, at dawn on the third day since the theft, the abbot signaled a halt. Exhausted novices collapsed where they sat, too young and untried to have conserved their strength through the lengthy hours of chanting and meditation.
The abbot stood and gestured for Mak to stand as well. Niran came to hand Mak a satchel of food, some amulets, and a document from the abbot describing Mak and his mission, in case he should need to show anyone why he was traveling in their district.
The abbot raised his hands in a blessing, but as he did so, Mak heard a hiss from above him. He spun around and looked for the source.
Overhead, standing on the ceiling as if it were a floor, was the spirit of his dead wife.
“Nak, no!” shouted Mak. “You have no business here!”
She writhed as if tormented by something Mak could not see. “Mak!” she called, as she had when she had been placed back into her grave.
Despite her torment, for one moment, she paused and stared straight at him. Mak was able to glimpse the beauty of Nak as she had been when they first met. “I am leaving here,” he said calmly, though it broke his heart to see her and speak with her again. “I am going north to find a monk who can . . . help you.” Perhaps it was not wise to admit he wanted to banish her again. “Now leave this place!”
The abbot, to his credit, raised his voice in the Jinapanjara, and immediately everyone else in the room joined in. Jayasanakata-buddha jetva maram . . .
Nak screamed and flew out the doorway into the gray predawn light.
Mak followed her without a backward glance. Whatever his future held, it was out in the world with the ghost of his wife, not here in the wat.
To try to tempt Nak to follow him, Mak started his journey by visiting the site of their old house. He had burned it after Somdet To had trapped his wife’s spirit, to make sure her spirit would have nowhere to stay should it escape. He had also hoped to dispel any bad luck the neighbors would attach to the land.
In that, he had been unsuccessful. Though the neighborhood of Phra Khanong had grown greatly in fifty years, the land where Mak had built the house remained vacant. No one would live there, knowing the house had been possessed by the most vengeful of spirits: that of a woman who had died giving birth, the dreaded phi tai tong glom.
Mak sat in the center of what had been his house and paused to meditate. He pulled out memories one by one, memories of this house and his wife. Perhaps she would sense them and return here. Then, at least, he would know where she was, and that his fellow monks and the other people in his neighborhood were safe.
The memory that bothered him most had taken place right here, in the house, just steps from the Phra Khanong canal. His friend Um had visited to tell him the truth: that his wife and child were dead, and that Mak was living in a dream world constructed by Mae Nak’s spirit.
He had not believed. That was one of the regrets that Mak knew he would carry with him forever, no matter how much he was able to detach himself from other desires and wants. The fact that his friend had come to him, told him the truth, and he had called Um a liar and a traitor, tormented him in the dark of the night.
That had been the last time he had seen his friend. Hours later, Um had been killed by Mae Nak. He had not been her first victim, nor would he be her last.
Mak stayed until morning, reasoning that he should truly start his journey at daybreak. If Mae Nak had not returned to the house by then, she wasn’t going to. When he opened his eyes, she was there.
At first, he thought he must be dreaming. He must have wanted to see her so badly, or he had feared seeing her so much, he had conjured an image out of longing or terror.
But despite the beauty in her face, something was amiss. Yes, her spirit displayed that lovely crazy way Nak’s short hair had lain on her head on the most humid of days, and the suppleness of her skin, and the gentle curve of her neck as it flowed into her shoulder. But her arms were a touch too long, her skin shone slightly as if waxed, and her eyes were dark pools as if they were windows onto the deepest abyss of hell.
Nak had never looked like this in life, not quite. Her spirit’s beauty was only partial, a glamour covering the vengeful ghost so many feared to this day—and rightly so.
She offered him wai but frowned when he did not return it. “Don’t you want to greet me, husband?” she asked. Her voice was hollow, but oh so close to the beloved voice that he had long forgotten, but which he now recalled with a sudden intensity. His heart clenched in his ribcage, and his stomach twisted into knots. This was almost Nak.
But it wasn’t her. The Nak he had married would never have hurt anyone; the one he had returned home to had killed with impunity. She had killed Um. She had killed the midwife who had been with her when she died. And others: the midwife’s son; several other villagers who had tried to tell Mak the truth; the first priest who had attempted to exorcise her. All had fallen before her vengeful spirit.
Only Somdet To had been able to quell the rage in her and return her to her proper place.
Mak knew he shouldn’t speak to her, but his heart ached so much, he couldn’t help himself. “Nak, why are you doing this? What’s over is long past. It’s time for you to move on and find peace.”
She blinked and dropped her gaze. “How have I angered you? First, you won’t greet me, and now you tell me to go away. Don’t you want to be happy?”
He wanted to shout, to scream, to rage against the universe—yes, of course, he wanted happiness and was still bitter it had not been his for longer. They had had three months together. That was all they were ever going to have, no matter how badly both of them wished otherwise.
“I was happy with you,” he said at last. “But that was long ago. I’m an old man now, in the twilight of my life.”
She laughed, that sweet, coy laugh that he had never been able to hear enough of. “Old?” she said. “You’re not old! Perhaps you worked too hard in the fields yesterday, but I’ll make you some food and sing to you, and you’ll see that all’s well.”
“Nak,” he pleaded, for she looked prepared to jump up and do as she said. But he knew she would only be pretending to cook. Nothing remained of their house but a few burned poles that had once supported the main frame of the building. No one came here. This was a haunted dark corner of the neighborhood where no one stopped, and where locals rushed by during the day, eyes averted, when they couldn’t avoid passing it. At night, no one came by. No one dared the chance the spirit might return.
How right they had been to do so.
“Nak, my wife,” he said, hoping to reach her. To make her see that time had passed and that what they had had together was gone beyond all possibility of recall.
She stopped the moment the word wife passed his lips. She was listening.
“I am traveling north,” he said. “On a journey. Perhaps a long one. I won’t be back here; not to the house, anyway, not for some time. So you can stay, but if you love me, you’ll come with me. The Venerable Father has sent me, so I have to go. But there’s no reason we have to part.”
As terrifying as it would be to travel with a spirit, it troubled Mak much more to think of walking away from here to leave Mae Nak free to commit any kind of vengeance she wished without anyone having even a chance to stop her. He could not leave the people of the neighborhood behind to become like Um.
No, Nak could not stay. He would have to do everything in his power to make her follow him on his quest for the last disciple of Somdet To.
“Leave our house,” she said after considering his words a few moments. “That’s crazy. Stay here. We have each other and our baby. What else do we need?”
The baby. The one who had died with her. When Mak had come home, she had showed him the baby, carried it everywhere, sang to it, made as big a fuss over it as any mother would do with her firstborn. But it had all been a lie. Somdet To had explained that the baby’s spirit had moved on quickly, so unused to this life that leaving it had been no difficulty. It was only his wife’s fierce longing for her child that had conjured up the illusion of a baby. She had tried so hard to recreate the life she loved so well and had been cheated of so mercilessly.
Perhaps it would be best to play along. After all, she was considering his words. He had to make sure she acquiesced. “Didn’t your cousin tell you she would love to have the baby for a while? Didn’t she say she wants to get pregnant, and she thought having a child around would help bring enough luck to their house for her to conceive? I was sure I heard her say that.”
Nak wavered, but after a moment, she jumped up and clapped her hands together. “Yes, we’ll go together. We’ll go right now!”
Mak grabbed his satchel, heavy of heart, but glad that he would keep the people of Phra Khanong and Bangkok safe from her.
“I need to get supplies,” she said brightly.
“No,” he said sadly. “No, you really don’t.”
Together, they set off down the road.
As much as Mak dreaded the thought of traveling with a spirit, the first day was not so bad. Mae Nak disappeared for hours at a time, only to show up on the bend of the road in front of him to laugh at him and tell him he was too slow. He would merely smile and say, “You’re right!” And that would make her laugh more.
He wondered now how he had ever lived so long without hearing that laugh. And once his task was done, and her soul at peace, how could he bear to continue living without it?
But that was thinking too far into the future. He had to find this disciple of Somdet To. After that? Time would tell.
The first night was hard. The ghost wanted to snuggle up to him. “You’re my husband and I haven’t seen you in so long! Why won’t you embrace me?” As much as she tried to seem real, though, her skin was cold and waxy, her eyes sunken, her lips ghastly and pale. When he had been bespelled by her, he had thought her beautiful, but that spell was long broken. She could not mimic life well enough to fool him again.
But he couldn’t make her angry. He couldn’t afford to have her leave and perhaps kill more innocents. He thought of a tale to tell her. “The Venerable Father said I shouldn’t lie with my wife until after this special task was finished. You can come, but we have to sleep apart. That will make the blessings we will get from this journey that much more bountiful.”
Mae Nak pouted, but the alacrity with which she acquiesced made him suspect she realized, in some corner of her tormented soul, that it was wrong. That she had no right to hold on to this world so strongly, no matter how much she wanted to.
Sleep would not come. At last, Mak rose, meditated, and began chanting. Moonlight tumbled down Nak’s lithe form as she watched him, but she did not interfere. After several hours, she lay down as if to sleep. Mak finished his chant and lay down as well.
The next thing he knew, the first hint of sunrise was tickling him through the shadows of the fig leaves above him. Mak rose groggily, used to little sleep and a hard bed, but unused to facing such measures while traveling in the open with a vengeful spirit.
Mae Nak watched him cautiously, as if afraid of what he might do. His heart went out to her; despite everything, despite her murderous ways, he knew she was at heart a good soul. Too much had been asked of her too young. To be an abandoned wife, growing a baby inside her without her husband nearby for strength and support. To be caught up by death in the midst of a terrible birth, and to feel her own baby’s spirit flit through her ghostly fingers like drops of mist. To know that, no matter what she did, the life she longed for could never be hers.
Mae Nak had never had the chance to learn to ride the tides of life as Mak had practiced in the wat. Now, decades later, he had learned to let go, but she still clung to everything she could.
Mak opened his satchel, unwrapped a ball of boiled rice, and ate it with economy. He hesitated, but finally offered his wife’s spirit a small dried fig. She had always loved them.
It was a calculated risk. Offering her something real might help bind her to this world, make her harder to banish. On the other hand, failing to offer her anything might offend her, and she might flee.
She did not take the fig, but she did come closer. “We should continue our journey,” she said at last.
Mak nodded. He replaced the fig in his satchel for later.
How much easier this would be if Somdet To were still alive! The old monk had been so steadfast, so resolute. Mak had known instantly the man could be trusted to take care of Mae Nak’s spirit and save the rest of the villagers. Mak could not ever be the great man’s equal; he was unworthy to even consider himself in the same thought.
He rose, slung his satchel over his shoulder, and began walking north. His wife’s spirit followed; at times he caught glimpses of her out of the corner of his eye, but she made no sound as she walked.
Toward midday, Mak came upon a field of banana plants. Half-seen shadows fluttered between the trees, the spirits of the plants enjoying the play of sunlight and air in their quiet grove. Mak stopped, unafraid, but unwilling to attract attention to himself. The banana tree spirits weren’t evil or dangerous, but they could bring bad luck if they were angered. They could withhold their fruit. Whoever had planted this grove was depending on the fruits to ripen in the proper season, but no matter what the farmer did, it was the spirits who would decide if their plants would be productive or not. Mak did not want to do something to bring distress to a man who was the kind of simple farmer Mak himself had been so long ago.
Suddenly, the tree spirits froze, and in a puff of wind, disappeared. Each had retreated to her own plant.
Mak turned around. Mae Nak was behind him, her smile guileless and charming. “Why are we stopping?” she asked.
“No reason,” he said. “We’ll keep going.”
But it only took a few minutes for their path to widen into a more proper road.
As the first house came into view, Mak contemplated how to avoid meeting anyone. In the middle of the day, that might not be so difficult: farmers should be out in the fields, their wives doing work in the village proper or at the market. A few people would be in their houses, but if he were careful and avoided any house that seemed to have the smoke from an active fire coming from it, perhaps he could avoid bringing disaster upon these people.
“I wonder who lives here,” said Mae Nak. “I think one of my aunts married a man from a village in this district. Wouldn’t it be grand to find a cousin here who might invite us in for a meal and a chance to rest?” She sounded wistful, as if she really thought they might discover such a thing here.
“The matter I am taking up for the Venerable Father is too pressing,” said Mak. “We can’t stay. We can’t even ask if this aunt of yours lives around here. Besides, I never heard you mention her before. Why the sudden desire to see her now?”
In a flash, she was walking beside him and gazing coquettishly at him through her long lashes. “I didn’t have a reason to mention her,” she said. “I never thought I’d be traveling this way, and after I had the baby, I knew I wouldn’t leave home. But now here’s our chance!”
“It won’t hurt to ask for directions,” he said. “All I know is that I’m to go north. That covers a lot of ground. The Venerable Father wasn’t more specific.”
That appeared to suit her. Mak strode through the village, grateful that the residents seemed to have business elsewhere. His luck ran out just as he thought they might get through the village without meeting anyone.
A wizened old woman sat on the steps to a house, gazing sightlessly into the distance, hands trembling from some palsy. No doubt she was unable to do much around the house anymore and therefore unable to go with the others to the market or the fields.
As he approached, she cocked her head. “Bua? Are you back already?”
Mak stopped. “I’m just a stranger passing through,” he said. “I don’t wish to disturb you.”
“Hmm,” said the old woman. “And who is that with you?”
Mak blinked in surprise. How could this woman sense his companion?
Mae Nak laughed. “Sawadee ka,” she said gaily while offering wai.
The old woman frowned and waved one of her palsied hands near her ears. “What was that? I thought there was someone with you, traveler, but all I hear is a strange moaning. Is there a storm coming?” The woman seemed anxious.
“No, no,” said Mak, his heart beating in fear. What did it mean when the woman knew Mae Nak was near, but couldn’t hear her voice as a voice?
“She’s rude,” said Mae Nak. “Why is she pretending not to hear me? She hears you just fine. I think I don’t like this village very much.”
“I have heard that sound before,” said the woman. “In my youth, near a graveyard where a woman lay buried. The moaning came every night until the proper spells were said and the monks chanted for her spirit’s peace. Then they stopped.”
Mak’s opened his mouth but no sound would come out. He had to get Nak away from this village as quickly as possible.
“What an awful story,” said Nak dismissively. “Hearing ghosts in graveyards. That’s the sort of tale people tell to children to scare them into obedience. Not something old women should say to strangers. She should know better.”
The old woman trembled. “That was the day I lost my sight. I saw the ghost, and she was as black and filthy as if she had pulled her rotten corpse out of the ground just that very minute! I screamed and ran, but she chased me down. I don’t remember anything after that, and then when I woke I couldn’t see anymore. I’ve lived here, alone and blind, ever since. No husband or children for me, and my last sight the rotten flesh of one who refused to move on from this world when it was her time.”
“I . . . I . . . I’m sorry to hear that,” Mak managed to mumble. “Please pardon me, I must be on my way now.”
“Very well,” said the old woman. “You’re like everyone else, even that man who said he knew about how to get rid of ghosts. No one stays to talk with me.”
“What?” asked Mak. “Someone who knows about ghosts and how to get rid of them?”
“Yes. Horrible man. What was his name? Amit? Uthat? Oh, I remember. Athit. He lived north of here, near Pho Thong, maybe. That area was always haunted, if you believe the stories, and he liked to say that he was putting the spirits in the entire district to rest, just like Somdet To before him. I think he bragged about his mighty powers to every village within five days’ walk.”
“I think I would like to speak with him, even so,” said Mak carefully. He didn’t want Mae Nak to suspect his true mission. She wanted to stay in this world, and he was bound to remove her from it at any cost. “Perhaps I will travel that way. How far away is Pho Thong?”
The woman shrugged. “A few days? I’ve never been there.”
“Very well. Thank you. I must be going now.”
The old woman waved him away. “Don’t come back here while you are traveling with the dead. We don’t need that kind of luck here.”
Mak shuddered, unnerved by the old woman’s ability to recognize his companion, even though she couldn’t see the ghost. He pushed that feeling of unease aside and opened the satchel. “No one needs bad luck. I’ll leave some good luck here with you, and hope that Buddha shines upon you.” He laid down three dates and a small amulet, an image of the Buddha carved into the hard flesh of the teak tree. The amulet was circular, about three inches across, and strung on a thin rope so it could dangle in the house or be worn around the neck. On the back was a spell asking for good luck for the owner.
Mak had never been good at making amulets, but several of the monks in the wat were quite skilled. This was Niran’s work; Mak was proud to find a home for something made with such skill and patience, and which he knew was impressed with the love and goodwill that Niran chanted and sang into his amulets as he worked on them.
The old woman simply sat on the steps, unspeaking. Mak left the amulet beside her and walked away from the village. He had no idea where Mae Nak was. She had disappeared.
By evening, she had returned, but she was angry, and Mak could not soothe her.
“That old woman was so rude to you! And then telling you that horrid story about how a ghost stole her sight. She was trying to make you sad. Who would want to see you sad?”
“It’s all right,” he said. They had stopped in a small grove in the forest that seemed as far from any human establishment as Mak could manage. After looking around for snakes, Mak sat on the damp ground and leaned against the bole of a huge bodhi tree, wishing he could see his way clear. Even if he could find this disciple of Somdet To, would the man really be able to help? If the old woman were right, this Athit liked to brag that he was good at banishing spirits, but perhaps he was all talk. And then what? Who would get rid of Mae Nak and keep the world safe from her?
“You should have told her husband what she said to you,” Nak said. In life, she would have paced back and forth when she was in a mood to rant, but in death, she stayed still. If nothing else, that alone made his heart ache for his real, living wife. Not this ghostly shell of a thing that was only superficially like her.
“She said she wasn’t married. Don’t even think about her. She isn’t important. Only my mission for the Venerable Father is important. And us. When we get back home to our baby, and we will try to start a new one.”
“Oh, yes,” she said, distracted at last. “I want so many children—a houseful!”
“A houseful is not a number,” said Mak, hoping further distraction would make her forget the old woman. “How many children should we have?”
“At least six,” she said promptly. “Maybe more. More boys than girls, though. You will teach the boys to farm, and I will teach the girls how to make joke in the mornings, and how to sing the snakes away, and keep a house safe from bad luck.”
Mak’s heart skipped a beat and he clenched his fists so that the ghost couldn’t see how her words affected him. It was all too easy to give in to her fantasies about their life together! A loving wife and many children to surround him and fill his days. A rich, full life that would culminate in them growing old together.
“We will raise them to honor the land and the Buddha and us,” he said. “And we will watch them grow up and have families of their own. And our hair will turn white and we will totter down the lane to the village market, but we will still have each other.”
Nak sighed. “That is what I want.”
Mak closed his mouth. He was already old; she could never be. It was pointless to extend this fantasy, except that it kept her here with him. And it was something he had wanted oh, so much, himself, for so long. He had buried that longing for decades, told himself he had banished it, overcome it, set it aside.
That did not mean it did not have the power to cozen the mind and make him dream of what could have been. How could fifty years of meditation and inner discipline be swept aside so easily?
Nak sidled up to him and laid her head on his shoulder. She reached an arm around him, and Mak suppressed a shudder.
“We should sleep,” Mak said, as he carefully removed her arm from around his waist, sick with the thought of his wife, or, something that had been his wife, here with him, loving him. A murderous ghost that he both feared and loved, and would until the day he died.
“Yes,” Nak said in a small voice. “We should. I will see you in the morning, husband.”
Mak woke with an ache in his hip, another in his shoulder, and a pain behind his eyes that made him feel light-headed. He ate more rice, and two dates, and hoped that some food would settle the pain in his head, if not his joints.
He didn’t bother to offer Nak any food this morning. The pretense that she was alive had worn thin, and he was in too much discomfort to continue playing that game.
She did not seem to expect it, in any case, and for that, he was grateful.
In fact, she seemed inordinately worried about him. As he limped onto the road, she rushed to hold his elbow and take some of his weight. He was surprised by how strong she seemed when she was nothing more than a ghost. Certainly, she had managed to seem solid briefly when she’d snuggled up to him that first night, but usually, she didn’t touch him or do anything to make him more aware of her spectral nature.
If it hadn’t been for the pain in his joints, he might almost have believed the previous fifty years had not happened. Almost.
At noon, Nak had had enough denials from him. She insisted, “You will sit down, and you will rest. I will have it no other way, husband!”
Mak was too exhausted to fight her on this any longer. He eased his aching bones onto the ground. Before he knew it, the sun was low in the sky and the birds were returning to their roosts from their day abroad gathering food.
He sat up quickly, feeling somewhat refreshed, but still rickety and aching. Days of continuous walking after days and nights filled with prayer and chanting had taken a toll. Nak might talk to him as if he were young, but he was not. This was an impossible task, and he would never be able to complete it.
To his surprise, Nak sat nearby, a small pile of food in front of her. Fresh fruit and nuts. “Here,” she said with a shy smile, “I searched the forest for something for you to eat. You have to regain your strength if we’re to get home and start on our second child!”
Normally, Mak did not eat after the sun had reached its zenith. Monks fasted from noon until the next morning. But Mak knew he didn’t have the strength to continue without breaking that rule. He would have to eat.
He only wondered if the food she had found was real. When he had been under her spell, she had fed him food that had looked fresh but which had either been rotten or not food at all.
He would just have to do his best to find out. “Thank you. You take good care of me,” he said, and she beamed. He took the food but his heart leapt as he realized she had not handed him the food directly, as she would have if she were truly his wife. She had put the food down and waited for him to pick it up, as a woman would do with a monk.
Somewhere, in her mind, she was beginning to see the truth. Perhaps, with a little more time, he could reach her, and make her see that it was time to move on and leave this world behind. For the first time in days, he felt a glimmer of hope.
He reached into his satchel and pulled out another amulet of teak made by Niran. This one showed a lotus blossom on one side, and carried a spell of protection on the back. Mak held it between his hands and chanted the Jinapanjara three times.
While he chanted, the world became still. The breeze died away, and the birds gave up their songs. Insects quieted, and not even a small creature rustled the undergrowth. Mak felt as if the whole world were holding its breath, waiting for him to finish.
When he was done, he opened his eyes. The food remained in front of him, though Nak was gone. Mak got another rice ball from his satchel, ate it, the food Nak had found, and one more of his dried dates. It was a larger meal than he was accustomed to eating, but by morning, he should have some renewed strength from it. He would be able to continue his journey.
A movement out of the corner of his eye attracted his attention. Something low, on the ground. Mak glanced over cautiously. It was a snake. In the fading sunlight, he had no idea what kind it was. He did not have the strength to chase it away or kill it; he could only hope it would leave him alone.
Suddenly, Nak appeared in the branches of the tree above the snake. She shrieked and leaped down upon the hapless creature, which had begun to slither off into the underbrush. But Nak grabbed it by the tail and slammed its head it into the bole of a nearby tree. She dropped the stunned animal, and pounced upon it, rending it to pieces with her long nails and teeth.
When it was shredded beyond recognition, her fury abated. She sat back and calmly wiped its blood from her face. “There,” she said triumphantly. “That snake won’t harm you now.”
“It wasn’t going to harm me,” Mak said softly. “It was already headed away from here.”
“It could have come back,” she argued reasonably. “But don’t worry; I’ll keep you safe.” She turned to him and gave him a bloody smile.
Mak tried, for a moment, to pretend to smile back, but he froze. Around Nak’s neck was an amulet. The one he had given the old woman.
There was only one way Nak could have gotten it. She must have gone back to the village last night, and killed the old woman. Feasting on blood was one way for a spirit to grow stronger. No wonder she had been able to support him on the road today, and find food, and rend a snake to pieces! She was stronger.
It had only taken another murder to make her so.
Mak turned away, sick at the thought of his wife’s spirit still being so dangerous. So focused on anger and vengeance. His heart raged against the unfairness of his appointed task: how could he, as old as he was, battle something like this? He was going to fail, and she would be free to kill as many people as she wanted for as long as she held this world dear.
“Why are you so sad?” she asked.
Mak stared at her for a few moments, but her face was stricken, her voice so sincere. It was as if she couldn’t fathom what she had done wrong.
“How did you get that amulet?” he asked.
Nak put her hands on the amulet and smiled slightly. “An old lady gave it to me.”
“The old woman you were so angry with yesterday?”
“No,” she said. “Or . . . perhaps . . . “ Her face twisted in confusion.
“You must realize that you need to stop hurting people,” he said gently. “It is wrong, Nak. You must never hurt anyone again.”
“I wouldn’t hurt anyone!” she insisted. Her voice was full of conviction, but her face was conflicted. Mak’s heart ached for her. He had no idea how difficult it was to be a spirit like her, to be full of murderous rage, and yet to be, in some measure, still human enough to know murdering people was wrong. A phi tai tong glom existed solely because of an anger so strong and so cruel it couldn’t find a way to let go of this world. Even death couldn’t force it to leave. And yet, it was also the shadow of a person who had once been happy, and loved, and loving.
Mak couldn’t keep the tears from coming, and Mae Nak, thankfully, did not ask him why he cried. Mak sobbed until sleep overtook him.
In the morning, Mak ate the last of his dried dates and contemplated his diminishing stores of boiled rice. He needed to find this village soon and see if they could tell him how to locate Athit, last disciple of Somdet To, and if the old lady had been correct in her assessment, a braggart and a liar.
His pains had abated somewhat, but he still limped. Today, he refused to lean on Nak, even though she repeatedly offered him her support.
“I will stand on my own,” he said every time she offered. He couldn’t abide the thought of touching her, knowing her solidity was due to her murderous ways.
They made slow but steady progress throughout the day. By the next morning, Mak had run out of food and knew he had to get to a village or give up. In his younger days, a few days without food wouldn’t have been such a burden, but at his age, he simply didn’t have the strength to endure such privation.
Today, Nak seemed especially solicitous. Perhaps because she hadn’t seen him eat. Or perhaps because he had barely spoken to her yesterday and had not let her help him.
“I’ll go on ahead and see if I can find this village,” she said.
“Stay with me,” he begged, fearing for the safety of anyone she might encounter, but she was already gone.
He had no choice but to continue. He put the lotus amulet around his neck, grasped it, said a silent prayer to the Buddha for strength, and walked down the road, still limping, and with heavy heart. The sky turned dark and heavy and an unseasonal rain began to fall. Mak trembled as the cold bathed his skin and soaked his robes, but he could not stop to rest. Without food, he had to find people and shelter, or he would die in the wilderness, his task undone.
By noon, he had walked through enough fields and spotted at least one tendril of smoke from a cookfire that he was sure he was near a village. If Nak stayed away long enough, perhaps he would be able to get directions from these people.
The moment he entered the village, the children swarmed around him, and the adults all offered him wai. One man, taller than the rest, stepped out of the crowd and, after offering wai, said “Come, Venerable Uncle, and let us give you something to eat.”
“Thank you,” he said. “That is most kind. But I can’t stay.” How could he explain he had a phi tai tong glom shadowing him? “I have . . . ghost troubles,” he said at last. “I don’t want to bring any spirits here that might harm you.”
The headman laughed. “We’ve seen our share of spirits here, Uncle. I’m sure it will be all right.”
Though he knew it was wrong, he was so weak and hungry that he could not resist the force of the villagers’ goodwill. Within moments, Mak had been ushered inside a large house and urged to sit by a fire. He was handed a bowl filled with rice covered in beans, peppers, and spices. The smell alone made him remember his childhood all over again. This was almost as his mother would have made it. Mak breathed deeply of the scent before eating the meal. It was hot and, oh, so good.
The headman came and sat by Mak. “We are pleased to see you, Venerable Uncle,” he said. “I assume you’re here to see Athit, the man who handled all the spirit troubles in our area. I wasn’t aware his fame went beyond our neighboring villages.”
“It does,” said Mak. “Even the abbot at my wat in Bangkok Noi had heard of him, though he didn’t know his name. I’m here to speak with him about the issue I referred to earlier.” Mak didn’t want to say too much, since he couldn’t know if Nak were in the area. “My abbot had heard the man was the last disciple of Somdet To.”
“Somdet To,” said the headman slowly. He rubbed his chin and nodded slowly. “He was a great man, and Athit nearly as great, at least in our estimation. But he died a few months ago, right after the monsoon season started.”
Mak’s heart sank. All this effort for nothing!
“No one is left, then,” he said. “No one who could know what Somdet To knew.”
The villagers looked at each other, a bit abashed. Mak sat up straighter. “What? Please tell me!”
The headman shrugged. “Athit had two students, but neither of them were very good. One left some time ago, conscripted into the war. I don’t know where he is, or if he lives. The other, Jaru, took vows as a monk, but dallied at learning, and never amounted to anything. Even Athit gave up on him eventually.”
“He lives in the forest,” said an elderly woman nearby. “He’s my grandson, and he’s never done a thing for me or this village. But if there’s even a small chance he could help you, Venerable Sir, then you should seek Jaru out. His shack isn’t that far away. You could be there in an hour.”
A low murmur ran through the crowd. People began backing away from the fire. The headman looked around. “What’s going on?”
Mae Nak approached slowly. Mak’s heart both lifted to see her again, and beat with fear at the thought of what she might do if someone angered her. He had no way to stop her without the help of this mysterious forest monk. Maybe not even then.
His dead wife walked right up to the headman, who glanced around as if aware something was amiss, but couldn’t see what it was. A phi tai tong glom stood right in front of him, and he could not see her. Everyone else glanced around anxiously, clearly feeling the danger, but not sure what it might be, exactly, or from which direction it might come.
Mak trembled. “Please, be careful,” he said. “There is a phi tai tong glom near you. Don’t anger her.”
“You are so rude!” Nak exclaimed to the headman. “You bring my husband in out of the rain, and feed him, and leave me outside.” Her fists trembled in rage and she licked her lips as if she could already taste the headman’s blood.
“Nak, no,” said Mak. “Calm down. Everything is all right.”
But she did not heed him. Only her desire to remain on this plane mattered to her. Nothing else.
Perhaps one thing.
Mak stood up and placed himself between Nak and the headman. “You will stop this right now,” he said sharply. “What would our baby think if I tell him, when he is grown, that his mother was so disrespectful to a village elder!”
Nak hissed and twisted like a snake. She was beyond reason, beyond speech. Mak gave up any pretense of reasoning with her and leaped for her slender figure.
She didn’t even try to avoid him. Perhaps she was too surprised at his sudden attack. Mak wrapped his arms around her cold torso and held on as best he could. Nak snapped her long teeth at him and screamed, writhed in his grasp as if she were a snake.
The villagers screamed and fled. Mak was barely aware of the noise of their exit; he tried only to hold onto the ghost and keep her from killing again.
Mak tried to chant the Jinapanjara. But he got out no more than the first few words, jayasanakata-buddha jetva maram savahanam-catusaccasabham rasam . . . when Nak doubled her efforts to escape. She could not bear to hear the chant that had once consigned her, unwilling, to her grave.
She knocked the breath out of him, and he let go. He fell to the floor, gasping, his joints screaming at him all over again. But over the pain, he was afraid. Afraid that he had lost his only chance to contain Nak, even for a moment.
“Begone, foul spirit!” shouted someone. A splash of water hit Nak full in the face, and her rage turned to terror. An earsplitting scream exploded from her throat, smoke arose from suddenly blackened skin. Mak reached out to her, but she was gone.
“You idiot!” said the new arrival. He was dirty and clad in an old orange monk’s robe that was more patches than anything else. A ragged beard trailed from the stranger’s chin, and his face was a rictus of anger. “You brought a dead woman here? A phi tai tong glom? What kind of nonsense is that? Are you mad? You should know better!”
“I didn’t have a choice,” said Mak. “Did you banish her? Is it over?”
“You really are an idiot,” snarled the man. “She’s only gone temporarily. It will take more than a few ounces of blessed water to get that back in its grave.”
Despite his fear, anger planted itself firmly in Mak’s heart. “That was my wife,” he said coldly. “Dead for fifty years and now recently released back into the world. It is my mission to banish her once more.”
The other man stared at him a few moments, then sighed. He scratched at his beard and glanced around at the frightened faces of the villagers who were now peeking at Mak through the open doorway. The anger drained from his face. “Not an easy mission,” he said. “Very well. Let’s go somewhere to talk and you tell me all about it.”
The stranger led Mak into the forest along a faint trail that looked as though it was not traveled often. Despite tree roots that made walking hazardous, the stranger moved swiftly and without watching his feet. Mak did his best to keep up with the younger, more sure-footed, man, but several times, his companion would become lost in the lush forest growth ahead. Mak merely did his best to plod on, wishing he had more strength for what lay ahead.
The rain continued to drench the area. Mak was once again soaked, even with the thick canopy of greenery above him. The path became more muddy and the tree roots slick. Mak had to slow down to be even more careful with his footing. The rain chilled him to the bone, but also to the core of his spirit. This was the hot, dry season. It should not be raining. Something was wrong—very wrong—with the world. Wrong in a way far deeper than the presence of one phi tai tong glom, no matter how angry she was.
Eventually, Mak stumbled into a tiny clearing that was just big enough for a rickety lean-to and a small hearth. The roof of the lean-to was so full of holes that it only served to abate the rain somewhat, not stop it. Inside the small bit of shelter, soaked by the rain, was a scrap of blanket, a comb that was missing some of its teeth, and a small wooden bowl that sported bits of dried food on the rim.
The stranger gestured for Mak to sit in the lean-to while he sat down in the mud outside. Mak sat down gratefully, so tired and cold, and wishing he could once again sit by the roaring fire and eat hot soup. But he shouldn’t be discourteous. His host had provided the best shelter available, and had nothing at all left for himself.
“Thank you for sharing your roof,” said Mak with genuine goodwill. “Are you Jaru? Your grandmother said you might be able to help.”
“With the phi tai tong glom? Unlikely.”
“But you studied with Athit, and he was a student of Somdet To,” said Mak with some desperation. “I’ve traveled for days to find such a man, to get help.”
“To get help banishing the ghost of your wife. I see that,” said Jaru. He did not seem to notice the water dripping from his forehead onto his face, or the runnels of rainwater sluicing down his neck and into his patched robes. In fact, he appeared to be as oblivious of his physical comfort as Mak had always striven to be, but had never achieved. Jaru’s grandmother might have thought her grandson had amounted to nothing, but he’d managed some things that Mak never had, even after fifty years of study.
“I have to do something,” said Mak, openly pleading. “And I need help. Now that she’s come to the village, she’ll hurt someone. She’ll kill them! She killed an old woman on our way here. Nothing can stop her.”
“You can rest easy on that score,” said Jaru. “She won’t harm anyone here.”
“She will,” insisted Mak. “I can’t even tell you the number of people she killed. Eight? Ten? It’s hard to say.”
Jaru laughed. Mak bit back his own anger. How could this man laugh in the face of so many deaths? How could he not take this seriously?
“What is wrong with you?” he demanded of the maniacally laughing man. “This is important! She’s dangerous!”
Jaru put his arms over his stomach and took a few deep breaths, struggling to stop the laughter. When he had himself under control, he nodded. “Of course she is. Phi tai tong glom always are. But she’s not the only ghost here, and not nearly the most deadly, either. You’ve come to a haunted place where you should never have come. If you’re wise, you’ll return to your wat and not look back.”
Mak’s mind was a swirl of confusion. How could this man refuse to help? He had seen Nak—he knew of the danger! But he shrugged it off.
“You . . . you have another ghost here?” he asked nervously. His spirit cowered in fear at the thought of a second ghost.
“Another ghost,” said Jaru flatly. “No, I’ve got a village of ghosts to deal with. Do you think you really received soup today from my dead grandmother? Do you wonder why the food you had only warmed you briefly and then vanished without providing you strength? No one in my village is alive. No one.”
Mak reeled in shock. He’d never heard of such a thing. An entire village of people who had refused to move on to the next world.
“But surely the monks at the wat . . . surely the ghosts want to move on . . .” Mak’s thoughts refused to be ordered. What was going on here?
“The wat is days from here,” said Jaru. “And these people aren’t here because they don’t want to leave. There’s another ghost, far more powerful, who is keeping them here. I’m not sure exactly what he wants, but if his actions are any way to judge, I’d say he’s trying to amass a kingdom of the dead in this world, one village at a time, and then he intends to rule over them. He wants to be a king—or a god of some kind. He won’t let any of them go.”
Mak’s spirit collapsed. How could he hope to do anything with Mae Nak when other, far more dangerous ghosts, were on the loose? He grasped the lotus amulet around his neck and said a prayer to Buddha for strength and guidance. But his soul reeled, with nowhere firm to plant itself. How could he count on anything now?
“You think this rain is natural?” Jaru continued. “It’s only raining on this village, and it never stops. Not since the ghost killed everyone and trapped them here. The entire world is turning upside down, and will continue to do so, as long as this ghost is here. Who knows what he’ll do next? Maybe he’ll catch and keep your wife, too.”
“How could this happen?” asked Mak, not really expecting an answer. This was too far outside the bounds of nature. It was simply impossible.
“I don’t how it started exactly, but one day, a young man showed up in our village. He was strong and hard-working, and wanted to study with Athit, but he’d been conscripted and couldn’t stay. He promised to return after his time in the army. And one day he did, looking just as he had when he left. He studied and learned a great deal. But the children wouldn’t get near him, and the elders mumbled every time he approached. Somehow, no one was quite comfortable around him. I was jealous, of course. I was supposed to be Athit’s pupil, as if a teacher were limited to only one.”
“Then he died and remained here?”
Jaru shot a withering gaze at Mak. “He was dead by the time he returned. That was why no one could quite get comfortable in his presence. But he refused to leave this world, because he wanted power, and he thought Athit could give him that. But then Athit died. That one death, at least, was not the fault of the ghost. Athit had poor eyesight and one day, when reaching for what he thought was firewood, he picked up a viper. It bit him. The ghost was furious. Without his teacher, he would never be able to achieve everything he wanted.”
Mak sat silently, digesting the story. Mae Nak was angry because she wanted what she had never had a chance to acquire in life. This other ghost was similar, but his desire wasn’t for home and family. He wanted power. He wanted control. Everything he should have learned to give up, to let go, as the Buddha would have.
“So now you’re working to banish him?” asked Mak.
“Yes. Those are my family, my friends. It pains me more than I can say to see them trapped this way, unable to move on, no matter how much they might want to.”
“If we can banish them, perhaps we can also banish Mae Nak. Perhaps we can put them all to rest,” said Mak slowly.
Mak took a deep breath and did his best to center his anguished spirit. “Yes. Helping others is the most important duty of a monk, no matter the cost. Even if the cost is my life.” He looked at Jaru. “I must assume you have made the same choice.”
Jaru laughed again, but this time the laughter was tinged with sorrow. “My friend, who do you think was the first person the ghost killed?”
It had taken him a few weeks to suspect Athit’s other student was a ghost, despite his training, Jaru said. He’d been living at his shack in the forest most of the time, anyway, and only seeing the other man on occasion. But once he suspected, he started coming to the village more often, to find evidence to support his fears. The stranger realized it and followed him home one day.
“I did not expect the ghost to show up at my fire,” he said. “He’d never left the village before to my knowledge. So I was unprepared when he rushed at me and ripped at me with his claws and teeth. I can remember the agony of the hot blood spurting from my body, and then came the cold.” The ghost spoke hollowly, as if his memories of his life had no effect on him, but Mak noticed a tightness around Jaru’s eyes, and that the ghost’s too-long fingers spasmed and then clenched into fists. He was not as unaffected as he wished to portray himself. Like Mae Nak, though, he seemed incapable of getting it quite right, as if mimicking life were so difficult, it could not be done perfectly or for a long time without making some mistakes.
“So you were the first he trapped here?” asked Mak. He was amazed he felt no fear of this ghost. Perhaps he had spent too much time around Nak to be afraid of someone who seemed so reasonable and sane, even in death.
Or perhaps he was simply too exhausted to care anymore.
“No. He didn’t want me here. I stayed because I was worried about my grandmother, my aunts, my cousins. It took some doing the first time, but I made my way to the village. Later, it got easier to move between the village and my home. Even so, I was helpless to affect the living, but he wasn’t. How he’s managed to make himself strong enough to be seen by anyone, only Buddha knows. Perhaps he feasted on the blood on dozens, or hundreds, of the living on the battlefield—who knows? I could only watch as the ghost lied to everyone, made them trust him, and then killed them. I’ve been searching for a way to stop him ever since. Once I’ve stopped him, then I’ll move on. I have no reason to want to stay here, especially when everyone I knew in life is dead.”
Mak was silent. He had often wondered how he would feel after he died; about whether or not he would be tempted to remain, or be blissfully glad to let this world slide away. That there might be another option—to be forced to stay in this world—was something he had never contemplated.
“Now that you’re here,” Jaru continued. “Perhaps we can do something. I’ve been searching for Athit’s chest of items he inherited from Somdet To. I think I know where he hid it. But it’s guarded and I can’t get to it. Nor do I have the power to carry heavy physical items. Now you’re here. Surely, that’s a sign from Somdet To, or even Buddha himself, that you were meant to help me.”
Mak nodded. “I want to help, but we should hurry. I’m old, and cold, and have had nothing to eat since yesterday. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be strong enough.”
Jaru nodded. “Let’s go.”
Mak rose stiffly and followed Jaru into the forest. His feet slid in the mud, and he bumped painfully into low-hanging branches and caught his feet on exposed roots.
Nak, appearing beside him, took his arm and helped him. Though he was revolted by the reason she had the strength to do so, he was grateful for the help. Perhaps the old woman’s life would not have been lost in vain if her energy could help him now.
Finally, Jaru stopped and pointed. Ahead was a large hopea tree. An old tattered yellow skirt had been wrapped round its massive bole. A tree spirit lived here. By the shape and size of the tree, a very old spirit.
This would be nothing like the flitting shadows of the banana plants. This spirit, the nang ta-khian, would be as ancient as her tree, and not necessarily well-disposed toward humans. She would have had enough time to have seen younger trees cut down for their wood. Enough of her children may have been sacrificed for housing or boat-building or firewood that this tree’s nang ta-khian might be quite angry indeed. On the other hand, a nang ta-khian was likely to be merely angry, not vengeful or deadly. She would not be dangerous like a phi graseu or phi tai tong glom.
Jaru merely stood back and gestured toward the tree. Mak nodded. He understood. He glanced around briefly; Nak had retreated behind the trunk of a young tree a few yards away.
Mak stepped up to the tree and bowed to the spirit, a lone man in a forest of spirits and ghosts. “Please, Lady of the Tree, if you are guarding belongings of the monk Somdet To, I have come to retrieve them.”
He waited briefly, then looked up. In front of him was a semi-transparent woman of indeterminate age and slightly greenish skin tone. She was draped in a long dark green wrap and her expression was one of contemplation rather than anger.
She did not speak, but a flick of her eyes toward the forest behind Mak communicated her meaning clearly enough. She didn’t like that he was traveling with ghosts.
“I understand,” he said. “But there is a ghost in the neighboring village who has killed dozens of people. These are the only companions I have to help me stop him. And Somdet To’s tools are the only hope I have to find a way to banish him from this world forever.”
The spirit hesitated.
“I am an old man,” said Mak simply. “I am not strong, and neither have I done as much good in the world as I could have. I’m neither wise nor learned. There is nothing special about me at all. But this may be one thing I can do that will help the world to become a slightly better place, if only in this one village. Please, let me try to achieve this one thing that may be left to me to do in whatever time and strength remain to me.”
The spirit’s face softened. She glanced toward her feet and disappeared. Mak’s spirit shivered in relief. She would let him approach her tree.
The huge roots jutting out from the base of the tree were slick and slimy with old leaves and moss. Mak struggled over them and discovered a hollow at the base of the tree. It was covered in leaves.
Disregarding the danger of snakes, Mak pulled the leaves aside and found a small plank of wood underneath. He pulled that up as well. Under the plank was a small wooden chest, dark with rain. With a cry of triumph, he grasped it and pulled it from its sanctuary between the tree roots.
The chest was heavy, but not so heavy he could not heft it and walk. Still, carrying the chest against his ribcage while stumbling through the mud was going to be tricky. Mak made his way back to his companions, shivering and fearful of dropping his treasure. Traveling would be quite slow if this was as quickly as he could walk from now on.
Once at the edge of the tree’s overhanging branches, Mak turned back and bowed. He was relieved that the spirit did not reappear, but it felt good to have offered her acknowledgement one more time.
Jaru reappeared at his side. “There’s no need to go back to my lean-to,” he said. “It won’t keep you safe from the rain, and a direct route to the village will be shorter. We should get there long before nightfall.”
“Very well,” said Mak, though his lungs burned with the effort of continued walking in this cold and wet weather, with little rest and no food. He was light-headed and chilled to the bone, and his knees and ankles trembled with exhaustion.
“We should help him carry that,” said Mae Nak, who now stood on his other side. “My husband is not well. He needs us.”
Jaru only glanced at her. “I can’t carry anything of Somdet To’s, I’m sure. Only a living person could touch his amulets.”
“Then we will help my husband in other ways,” said Mae Nak with clear conviction. Mak’s heart went out to her; here she was, trying to help, and he was planning to send her away again! The unfairness of it all was as bitter as bile in his throat.
The trunk was easy to open, and the wood was soft and nearly rotted through. Inside were several deteriorated pieces of scroll, now illegible and black with mildew, and a dozen amulets of terra cotta. One tiny amulet of jade sat in the very bottom of the chest. It depicted Buddha on one side, and had a glyph of enlightenment on the other.
All of the amulets had holes so they could be strung onto cords, but if they had ever been on cords before, those had long ago rotted away.
“Here,” said Mae Nak. She ripped a thin vine off a nearby tree. “You can string them on this and carry them around your neck. That will be easier than carrying the chest. It’s heavy with water and ready to fall apart, anyway.”
Mak took the vine from her and placed all the amulets on it. Once the vine was tied around his neck, he felt as though he could walk through the forest with at least some semblance of balance. He might slip in the mud but at least he could use branches and tree trunks to help steady himself as he passed.
Jaru nodded and led the way. Between a thoughtful guide and a solicitous wife, Mak made good time back to the village.
Jaru stopped them just short of the village proper. “I had hoped,” he said, “that when I had the amulets, I would be able to hang them in the trees around the village and tempt all the ghosts inside the ring. Somdet To used amulets to corral spirits into their graves before he chanted. I think, with the help of the Jinapanjara, we can dispel the spirits all if they are within the circle of his amulets.”
Mak nodded. “That makes sense.”
“If we can’t touch these amulets,” said Mae Nak, “then at least we can gather some vines for them to be strung on. One vine per amulet.”
Jaru shook his head. “I’m not even that strong.” He let it go unmentioned that the reason he didn’t have the strength was that he hadn’t killed anyone. “Carrying more than a couple ounces of water is beyond me.”
Nak merely shrugged. “I’ll get them, then. Mak will put them in the trees. What will you do?”
“I will get everyone inside the circle, “ said Jaru.
Suddenly, Jaru froze, his eyes fixed on the village. Mak looked through the underbrush carefully, instinct warning him to be careful, to remain unseen. He felt as he had the time he had encountered a cobra on a branch near his head when he was a small child. For the few seconds that the two had stared at each other, Mak had been intensely conscious that his life hung in the balance. That a life-ending threat was merely inches from his face. Would the snake flee or strike? Fortunately, the snake had fled, but the visceral terror that Mak had felt in those few moments sprang back in his spirit now. Danger was nearby. A terrible, extreme danger.
Mak watched the village silently. A young man strode into view. He was well-muscled and beautiful, with unlined skin and shoulder-length black hair. He was the epitome of physical perfection, as Mak as always hoped to be when he was young, except that this man’s arms and neck were slightly too long, his stride just a touch outside of normal. Like Jaru and Mae Nak, he was almost lifelike. He could pretend to be alive, just as they could, but he could not convince anyone prepared to see through the illusion.
The young man walked on, toward the far side of the village, but the sense of danger did not pass. Mak remained frozen; his companions likewise did not stir from their places.
Another man walked into view. This one was older, with a limp. The man looked familiar.
Mae Nak hissed. “Him!”
Mak frowned. “Do you know him? He looks familiar.”
“He was there when I came back,” she said, her voice tight with rage. “He brought me back to this world.”
Mak recognized the man at last. “Kob Sook. The man in the canal boat. He told me the story of his son who went off to war and never came home.”
“The ghost calls himself Phatson,” said Jaru. “I don’t know this Kob Sook.”
“But why did he want to free your spirit from where Somdet To had confined you?” asked Mak. “He must have already known his son was dead. So why cause even more misery by stealing the bone and destroying it?”
But Mae Nak was no longer beside him. In horror, Mak watched her fly across the open space toward Kob Sook. “You!” she screamed. “You did this to me! You sent me back to a life I could never have again. It was you!”
Kob Sook turned and smiled. He held up a hand and Nak stopped short. “I wanted you here for my son,” he said calmly. “A king needs a queen. Even in death. And you were the most powerful spirit I knew of. Once I realized my son hadn’t left this world, I freed you, because only a phi tai tong glom would be strong enough to get to my son and stand beside him. This is a better fate for you, anyway. You are too powerful to leave trapped in a bone in a temple, to be prayed to by whining women who want to get pregnant. You should be here, where you can reign in terror over the entire countryside. You can kill whom you like, forever, and be as strong as a thousand men, and have everything you could possibly desire.”
Mak reeled with the thought that he was in a haunted land where his only help was an impotent spirit who could not even carry an amulet. Opposing him were a fantastically strong dead man and his devoted father.
Mae Nak screamed again and launched herself at Kab Sook. Before she could touch him, the ghost of Phatson suddenly stood between them and Nak bounced off his muscled form. He calmly held out his hand to her courteously. “Nak, my fair one. You will be my consort, and we will reign over these weak souls and terrified villagers until the end of time itself.”
Nak hesitated and backed up. Her head swung from side to side. “No,” she said. “No. I have a husband.”
“He is very old,” said Kab Sook, “if he’s even still alive. I’m not surprised to see you here, but he would have struggled on such a long journey. Did he die along the way, or did you kill him?”
Nak’s face contorted in rage. “I would never harm my husband! What I desire is my home, and my husband, and my baby!”
“Quickly,” said Jaru while the spirits argued. “I may not be able to gather vines for you, but you can do that yourself. Tie the amulets up in the trees. Then we’ll chant and get rid of these unwholesome creatures.”
It was unclear if Jaru included Mae Nak in his category of unwholesome creatures. But it wasn’t important. All the ghosts needed to be banished, including Nak.
Even if she were helping him now. Even if she never killed anyone again. Even if it would break Mak’s heart beyond all possibility of healing to say goodbye to her a second time. She was dead and didn’t belong here.
He prayed desperately that every ghost could be drawn within the circle. And banished at once. Then he could put down his burdens. Then he could truly let go.
With fingers cramped from the cold, and arms weak from exhaustion, it was difficult for Mak to get enough vines to make cords for the amulets, but he managed it. All the while, he heard Jaru and Phatson arguing. He did not hear Nak. While the male ghosts argued, the villagers began to crowd around, as if sensing they could be freed, but not understanding how.
No one looked Mak’s way, and he kept to the forest as much as he could. As he strung each amulet in a tree, he said several verses of the Jinapanjara. He saved the jade amulet for last. He tied it securely to a branch, and finished the chant. At this point, there was little else he could do from outside the circle.
He stepped out of the forest and toward Jaru. He began the chant: jayasanakata-buddha jetva maram savahanam-catusaccasabham rasam ye pivimsu narasabha . . .
Jaru joined him. Kob Sook looked shocked to see Mak, but his son merely crossed his arms and rocked back on his heels a moment.
Sesasiti mahathera vijita jinasevaka etesiti mahathera . . .
Mak and Jaru continued their efforts. They finished the chant once. Twice. Around them, the atmosphere became thick. Black tendrils swirled around them, dancing through the raindrops. Small sparks like embers flashed randomly throughout the circle bound by the amulets.
Kob Sook retreated behind his son. “Chant all you want. My son’s going to be more than a king: he’ll be a god on earth, and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
The fear in this face belied his brave words.
Now that Kob Sook had moved aside, Mak caught sight of Nak at last. She lay on the ground at Phatson’s feet, skin black and smoking. His heart leaped in his chest and he took a step toward her.
Phatson laughed. “She’s strong, stronger than anything I’ve ever encountered. But she’ll come around eventually. Once you’re dead, little monk, she’ll have nothing left to tie her to this world except her rage. She will make a fine queen for me.”
Mak stopped, though every fiber of his being wanted to run to the prone form on the ground. But his duty was to the living, to this world. He had to banish all the spirits in this village, and Nak along with them.
Iccevam anto sugutto surakkho jinanubhavena . . .
Now the villagers began to cluster around. Some of them glanced at the amulet circle. The headman stepped forward and said loudly, “It is time to go, to leave this world.”
“You aren’t going anywhere,” said Kob Sook. “You’re my son’s first subjects.”
Mak kept chanting. He heard Jaru beside him. Between the two of them, they had gone through the Jinapanjara twice and were now starting it for the third time and, so far, it had seemed to have no effect.
Perhaps he had never been a very good monk at all. Just as he had failed at being a husband, father, and soldier, he had failed at everything else. Now he failed at this, too. Mak’s heart struggled with his grief at his own ineffectualness.
“We are not his subjects,” said the headman. He and the villagers had gathered around Kob Sook while Phatson prodded Nak’s immobile form with a foot.
The villagers were looking less lifelike with each passing moment. Their faces had become drawn-out and skeletal, their tongues stuck out, and their teeth had become fangs. Their eyes had sunken into their sockets. They were unable, or unwilling, to appear life-like anymore.
The headman’s face was dissolving into something more skeletal and monstrous. “Let us go,” he growled before his tongue protruded from his mouth and his jaw hung loosely, robbing him of speech. His eyes sunk back into his head, leaving black holes staring sightlessly at Kob Sook.
Kob Sook looked around the circle of dead villagers and backed toward his son. “Help me, Phatson,” he said.
Phatson shrugged. “It makes no difference to me what they do with you. In fact, dead you are likely to be much more useful to me.”
The other villagers leaped on Kob Sook and the black shadows in the rain twirled excitedly around the violence. Mak’s spirit quailed. The spirits of the villagers were changing, becoming different, something new. He had to see them move on to the other world before they became something so different, they forgot themselves entirely.
Mak grabbed the amulet he wore around his neck. At once, he heard the echoes of Niran’s voice singing to the wood while he carved it. He felt the love and compassion the other monk had placed into the object. He knew that, in some way, Niran was here with him, and the abbot, and all the monks he had served with in the wat over the decades. He was not alone.
The villagers stood aside and Mak saw the quivering form of Kob Sook on the ground. The man wasn’t quite dead. The villagers didn’t have it in them to kill. Not yet, anyway.
Behind Phatson, a dark figure stirred. Mae Nak. She crawled to Kob Sook and covered his bloody body with her own form. A horrific gurgling sound erupted from him and he went limp. Mae Nak pushed herself out of the mud and stood. Her bruised and beaten form shimmered and changed. By the time she stood as straight and tall as a sapling, just like the sprout her friends had teased her about, she appeared as young and radiant as she had the day Mak had first met her.
The memory was too painful. Mak blinked back tears and faltered. The spirit of Phatson laughed.
“You will not laugh at my husband,” said Mae Nak clearly. She stepped around Phatson and stood between him and Mak. She lifted the amulet from her neck, the one she had taken from the old woman in the previous village. She held it up in front of her and, to Mak’s surprise, began chanting the Jinapanjara.
The villagers and Jaru looked at her, shock on each one of their faces. Mak, too, had no idea what to think. His mind was blank. Mae Nak was a vengeful spirit who had been consigned to her grave by this very chant. How could she employ the exact weapon used against her in this fashion?
Phatson appeared unperturbed, but the rain came down more heavily, and the air once again filled with dark shadows. They flitted about Phatson and Mae Nak, making it difficult for Mak to focus on the spectral figures.
The day’s light, such as it was on this rain-filled, cursed day, began to fail. Night was falling. Mae Nak continued the chant, but Phatson stood immobile in front of her, seeming to be willing to wait her out.
“If you don’t want to rule with me,” he said at last, “I can find someone else. You’re strong, but there are other ghosts in the world.”
“You can’t have her,” said Mak. “She’s my wife. And she’s phi tai tong glom. You anger her at your peril, even if you’re already dead.”
Phatson merely smirked.
Mak knew he had to do something. The stalemate in front of him couldn’t last forever. Or perhaps it could: perhaps Mae Nak could stand here in the rain and chant until the end of time, and keep Phatson in front of her with the amulet she carried. But Mak doubted that. She was strong, but not that strong.
Forever, after all, was such a long time. Too long for his exhausted mind to grasp. Mak just wanted this to be over. He crawled through the mud until he reached his dead wife’s feet. He grasped her ankle. If she could use whatever remained of his strength, then he would give it to her, and gladly. She would not have to take it by force.
Mae Nak’s voice grew stronger, and Mak felt his spirit shriveling as Nak took whatever she needed from him. But there was one more thing he could do.
Mak lifted his voice beside hers. Ratanam purato asi dakkhine mettasuttakam . . . Around him, he heard Jaru raise his own voice again, and the villagers raised their hands in wai to both Jaru and Mak.
The shadows in the air faded and embers of blue and green and yellow flashed brightly around them. Mak looked up to see the rage on Phatson’s face turn to abject terror. That prompted Mak to double his efforts, as frail as they were. His heart fluttered, pleading for him to stop, to rest. But he could not. He pushed himself beyond the pain. If he succeeded at nothing else in this life, he would lend his strength to Mae Nak and help her banish this unholy spirit from the waking world.
Slowly, the other ghost began to fade. “No!” he screamed, but his voice sounded far away and weak. “This can’t be happening! Father! Help me!”
But Kob Sook was dead. His spirit stood to the side, nearly invisible in the rain, and glowered. He stepped forward but Jaru and the villagers moved to block him.
Phatson’s form pulled itself together briefly. “You will not defeat me,” he insisted.
Mak slipped off the amulet he wore and held it up to Nak. She grabbed it and held it toward Phatson. A bright light shone from it and enveloped the three of them. The light was full of love and laughter and all the bright springs and soft gentle nights that Nak and Mak had never had the chance to share. Years of time they should have had, and had been denied.
Mak wanted to lose himself in that light forever.
Phatson screamed “No!” and his spirit suddenly shattered as it had been made of glass. The splinters flung themselves outward toward the villagers and the protective circle. A violent wind rushed through the village and Mak saw Somdet To’s amulets glow brightly and then burst into pieces.
The sound of the shattered amulets boomed throughout the village as loudly as thunder. And, like thunder, the sound rolled away slowly.
For a moment, the villagers, Jaru, and Kob Sook stood in the center of the village looking nearly human once more. Then, as one, they shivered and faded from view.
They were gone.
At last, everything was quiet. Mak collapsed into the mud, unmindful of the way it oozed coldly around his tired limbs and down his neck and under his robes.
Someone took his cold hand in their warm one. Mak looked up into the beautiful face of his wife. She was beaming. “Look, Mak—the rain has stopped!”
And it had. Even the clouds scuttled away in moments, leaving a clear summer sky just now beginning to reveal the stars. Birds sang in the trees overhead. The natural order had returned.
He smiled at her and her returning smile was entirely for him. “You are so strong,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Nor I without you,” he said.
A niggling worry remained, though. His wife was still in this world, and sooner or later, someone would anger her. That was the nature of the phi tai tong glom. Mae Nak couldn’t help it. That was what she was. The villagers might be free, and Phatson defeated, and Kob Sook’s crazy plan to install his warrior son as some kind of ghost-god on earth nothing but faded desire, but a spirit of vengeance still walked the earth. Mak had failed in his most basic mission.
“No,” Nak said, as if she could read his thoughts now. “I only want to be with you. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. Only you.”
“That was all I ever wanted, too,” he said wearily. “That was why I could never leave the wat. Why I had to stay by your bone, the only piece of you to remain in this world. I had to be with you. I had to stay near your shrine, because it was yours. I had to be near you in any way I could, even if I couldn’t admit that to myself.”
“You put me back in my grave,” she said with a touch of asperity.
“I couldn’t let you continue to hurt others. I have grieved for you every day since. Watching Somdet To put you in your grave was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
She squeezed his hand. He marveled that she felt so warm, so alive. “You sweet fool,” she said. “It was never the chant, at least not when he said it. Only when it was you. It was watching you chant that broke my heart so much I was willing to let go.”
“That won’t happen this time,” he said. “I will never try to banish you again. Stay with me.”
She smiled and brought his hand to her breast. “Of course I will. And tonight, when the pain of this life is over, you’ll come with me. We’ll see what’s out there for us.”
He held her spectral hand in his old and frail one, and was content. “Yes,” he said. The past might never let go, but he could let go of it. Of everything except her. His wife, Mae Nak. “Whatever waits beyond this world, we’ll find it together.”
He closed his eyes and waited for the night.