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When she was a child they used to call it the Venice of the East, an emerald city quilted with canals and studded with temples. Stilted houses backed out over the city's waterways. Stoneware jars, tall as a twelve-year-old, captured the monsoon; the rains were pure and sweet to the taste. Her friends leaped naked from rickety wooden bridges into clear water that teemed with catfish and river shrimp as big as your fist.
At night, huddled under mosquito nets, you listened to the whispering of spirits. There were a thousand spirits with a thousand names, and all as familiar to her as the boy next door, who never spoke, and the ducks who scavenged under the house.
But now it was the eve of the millennium, and Linda Dusit's childhood home on the canal was part of a seven-story shopping mall. The banana and mango orchard was a parking structure, and the canal itself, the klong as they called it, was an on ramp. There weren't many klongs left. The few that remained were stagnant, piled high with garbage. Mosquito factories.
There were no stilted houses either. Condominiums and apartment complexes towered above a congested expressway. Without zoning, building styles clashed: here a slablike, primary-colored building like a monstrous Mondrian, there a Greek colonnade athwart a deco skyscraper; there again an untouched temple, its pointed eaves and pastel pagodas drowning in a sea of architectural discord; and everywhere neon. Neon that screamed out world-class name brands: Coke and Versace and Tag Heuer and Sony. Neon for massage parlors, transvestite clubs, live sex shows, gay bars, andfortunetellers. The concrete supports of an uncompleted Ltrain threading through the chaos, symbolizing both bureaucratic bungling and eternal optimism: all these things were Bangkok, a city both futuristic and feudalistic, a city where the first and the third worlds were in endless collision.
One thing, however, had not changed in fifty years. For all its multitudes, Bangkok still had more spirits than people. You didn't have to be a shaman to sense that.
Then again, Linda Dusit was, indeed, a shaman, on weekends at least. She tried not to let it show, but in a place like Bangkok, people just knew.
Like that morning. The morning it all began. The morning she was on her way to the airport to pick up her grandson, Stephen, who was flying in from Los Angeles, and she decided to make a brief detour pick out her coffin for the month.
She liked to buy a coffin the second week of every monthshe had a thing about allowing a week for her paycheck from the university to clearbut today was only the second of March. Linda was a creature of habit, and this disruption bothered her. She tried to tell herself that it was only because, with the traffic, this longer route to the airport had to pass the Alley of the Coffinmakers anyway, that this was saving her a half day in traffic next week, that she wanted to clear more time to spend with her grandson ... but she knew these were all rationalizations after the fact.
It wasn't logic that brought her there. it was one of those pesky spiritsprobably, Linda was thinking, the coffin's prospective occupant, impatiently awaiting the start of his journey toward his next life.
She told her chauffeur to let her off at the corner, and to bring the Mercedes around to the other end of the alley. It was early and many of the coffin shops were still shuttered. That annoyed her a little. She was a creature of habit. She couldn't go to her favorite coffin shop, the only one where they knew to bring her a cold can of Diet Pepsi, a rare commodity in the downscale side of town. Any coffin shop would have done perfectly well, of course. You didn't shop for them like you'd shop for a designer dress. It was different in America, where you could go to a showroom and pick out a pretty coffin for yourself, velvet-lined, perhaps, or engraved with a flowery gold monogram, and even get it on credit or layaway.
Like many well-to-do people in Thailand, Linda bought coffins not for herself, but for the poor. To provide a vessel for a pauper to travel toward his next incarnation is an act that greases the wheel of karma, and can ease your own suffering in a future life. If it is for a stranger, all the better, for then there is no emotional attachment to taint the act of charity with self-interest. Some of Linda's friends bought coffins once a year, getting a quantity discount, reasoning that one could purchase the same amount of karmic merit for less money; the karmic equivalent of buying stocks on margin, she supposed. But Linda always did it one at a time, and put as much thought into it as if she was paying for the funeral of someone she loved.
It was getting into the height of the dry-hot season, and even at this hour she was sweating. The coffins on display were simple things, with very little carving, made of cheap woods for the most part. Linda was becoming annoyed with herself for having given in to one of her hunches.
The white Mercedes waited at the other end of the alley. The motor was running. She was sure the air-conditioning would be crisp and chill. She started to flag the driver, but before she could do so, she was drawn to the window of the last coffin shop on her left. There was something in the window ... a coiling mist, a shimmering of the sunlight in the glass ... a cold, staring eye, some creature, perhaps a bird. The pit of her stomach was- knotting again. What do you want from me? she thought. Who are you? No answer, only a sound like the beating of great wings ... the churning of a dark wind. She had to fight it. Visions were annoying if you couldn't keep them under control. She opened her eyes. For a fraction of a second she had been away from her body. Warily, she looked around. Shamans are a dime a dozen in Bangkok, but Linda did not believe in advertising.