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Guesthouse Number One
Dr. Siri lay beneath the grimy mesh of the mosquito net, watching the lizard’s third attempt. Twice, the small gray creature had scurried up the wall and ventured out across the ceiling. On both occasions, the unthinkable had happened. The animal had lost its grip and come plummeting down with a splat onto the bare concrete of the guesthouse floor. For a house lizard this was the equivalent of a man coming unstuck from the ground and falling up with a crash onto the ceiling. Siri could see the stunned confusion on its little puckered face. It looked around to get its bearings, then headed once more for the wall.
For over a month, Dr. Siri Paiboun, the national coroner, had been wondering whether his new incarnation might be disruptive to the natural laws of animal behavior. The peculiarities could have started before, but it wasn’t until the mongrel from the ice works began to build a nest in his front yard that he took any notice. She somehow managed to drag old car seats and cement sacks through his front gate and mold them into a very uncomfortable-looking roost. And there she sat patiently, day after day, as if waiting for an unlikely egg. A week later, the paddy mice at the back of the compound formed what could only be described as a gang and started terrorizing his neighbor’s cat. This morning, as he was leaving his house in Vientiane for the trip up-country, he’d looked back to see a hen on his roof. As there was no sign of a ladder, he had to assume the thing had flown up there. And now the lizard. Even if these were all coincidences, it was still very odd. Ever since Siri had discovered his shaman ancestry, a lot of strange things had happened in his life.
He worked the nail of his pinky finger around the inside of his mouth, counting his teeth once again. It was a habit he’d fallen into a few months earlier when he’d found out he was different. All there – all thirty-three of them. The same number of teeth as old Prince Phetsarat, the magician; the same number as some of the most respected shamans in the region; the same number as the Lord Buddha himself. Siri was in hallowed company. But even though he had the right number of teeth, he hadn’t yet taken control of his abilities.
Only recently, Siri had learned that he hosted the spirit of an ancient Hmong shaman – Yeh Ming. Until then, he’d always thought the contact he’d had with departed souls in his dreams was some kind of mental illness. He hadn’t bothered to try to interpret their messages, hadn’t even realized that the spirits in his dreams were leaving clues to the causes of their deaths. All that had changed the previous year. Yeh Ming had become more active – woken up, you might say – and had drawn the attention of the malevolent spirits of the forest. These evil spirits, these Phibob, were gunning for Siri’s ancestor, and as Siri was his host, Siri was suddenly in the line of fire. Supernatural fireworks were spilling over into his life.
Very little could really shock the old surgeon anymore, but he never ceased to be amused by the mysterious events happening around him. His own life seemed to grow more fascinating every day. While others his age had begun to wind down like clocks as they tottered into a frail twilight, Siri had been reborn into a period in which fantasy and reality were interchangeable. Every day was a kick. He felt more alive than ever. If this were truly some kind of senile insanity, it was one he was secretly enjoying: one he was in no hurry to recover from.
That May, Siri had arrived at his seventy-third birthday, still as sturdy as a jungle boar. His lungs let him down from time to time but his muscles and his mind were as taut as they’d been in his thirties. His head boasted a shock of thick white hair and his likeable face with its haunting green eyes still drew flirtatious smiles from women half his age. None of his friends could imagine Dr. Siri Paiboun running out of steam for a long while yet.
The mosquito-net-covered bunk bed in which Siri lay watching the lizard, stood on the floor of Party Guesthouse Number One in the cool northeast of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos; the year was 1977. “Guesthouse” was hardly an appropriate name for the two-story building designed by Vietnamese rectangulists a few years earlier. It looked nothing like a house, and its inmates were certainly not guests. It was mostly inhabited by those who had sinned, ideologically, against Party dictates. Here, the village heads, government officials, and army officers of the old Royalist regime were lulled into believing they had been invited for a holiday in the mountains of Huaphan province, an educational visit to revolutionary headquarters.
Earlier that evening, Siri and Nurse Dtui had sat drinking coffee with a group of men from the south who once held senior ranks in the Royalist police force. They still assumed they were merely attending a seminar and would soon return to Vientiane with a new, enlightened understanding of the Marxist-Leninist system. The mood had been jolly as they sat on the ground-floor veranda on uncomfortable red vinyl chairs. The men had spent their first afternoon doing “getting to know you” activities and still wore their paper name tags stapled to the tops of their shirt pockets. Each man’s name was followed by the word “officer,” then a number. As if unwilling to break rank, they’d sat in numerical order around their small circle of chairs.
Siri had listened to them boast of their good fortune in seeing a part of the country that was as alien to these urbanites as any foreign land. They spoke of the locals as a tourist would of Africans or peculiar Europeans. Little did they know their brief excursion to the provinces would likely extend to months; in some cases, years. Little did they know they were to be trucked from the comparative luxury of the guesthouse to a site some eighty kilometers away near Sop Hao on the Vietnamese border.