Photo: Eric Stone
Photo: Eric Stone
Photo: Eric Stone
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Flight of the Hornbill
grave imports
living room of the dead
wrong side of the wall
short stories



Grave Imports I try to adjust my eyes, edging them slowly from dark form to dark form. They do, a little, but I still can't make out details.

A loud parade of worry is marching through my head. How do soldiers do it? The anticipation makes me sick to my stomach. Once the fighting starts you don't have time to think. Thinking's the real enemy, the one you can't protect yourself from. One of these days an inventor's going to come up with the thought-proof helmet and make himself a fortune. I'll be first in line to buy one.

My head's down, eyes unfocussed. Something whooshes past me, zooming left to right at tremendous speed. I bring my head up and try to follow it. I can't see anything. Then there's another from right to left. Then behind me, above me, more sounds circling. Before long I'm swathed in sibilant sound, sharp squeaks cutting through, allowing my ears to fix on something. But what? It's eerie, frightening. What the hell is it?

Ponleak taps me on the shoulder, leans into my ear. "Bats, they go home. Sun is coming."

I look up and the sky's a little gray, a faint yellow over the treeline to the east. The edges of the dark things around me are sharpening, faint features beginning to emerge.

A slow dim yellow beam lumbers through the trees, it's as if I can watch it moving toward us. I turn to follow it behind me and there's a face, big, three or four feet from chin to the top of the forehead, slit-eyed with a sardonic expression. I can't tell if it's a man or a woman. It's split into blocks, dark complexioned and mottled gray. It looks as if it's about to say something I don't want to hear.

I turn my head away but then someone turns up the lights, like slowly moving a dimmer switch. Another face appears, this one to my right and laughing. Laughing at me, I guess.

More light and more faces. This one looks like it's about to cry. There's a crazed one, its eyes bulging. There's a sad one, a smart one, an impatient one; a contented one. I'm surrounded by faces. They're all different and yet they all look the way I sometimes feel. The confused one, the worried one and the dumb one look the way I feel now.

That reminds me. I've got to pick up my heads from Tommy back in Hong Kong. If I ever get back to Hong Kong. That's how this all started. I don't think I'll ever look at my heads the same way again.

These heads are Buddha, but not quite. They're Lokesvara, the incarnation of Buddha before he achieved enlightenment. And they're modelled after Jayavarman the Seventh, the king who built the place. He's been here, in all his changing guises, for eight hundred years.

His faces were all carved the same, but weather and war and time has pushed and prodded and hacked them into their varied states. Like anybody, he wasn't born with all these moods, life made him that way.

If Lokesvara's moody like everyone else, like me, what makes him so special? Why's he worth worshipping, or emulating or being inspired by?

I'm not getting anywhere trying to figure it out when I hear a truck grind and squeal to a halt in front of the temple. I can see Ponleak now. He's got a finger to his lips, cautioning me to be quiet. It's not necessary.

He crooks the finger, telling me to follow him. I move slow, steadily, the AK-47 held tight to my side with the barrel down, my finger near the trigger. We creep around the side, up a couple of steps to a parapet. The faces watch our backs, more watch us approach. Each has a different expression, a new look, more than I've got myself.

Maybe that's it. Buddha or Lokesavara or the king who built the place isn't much different than me or anyone else, only more so. He's got more moods. He knows more. He's been around longer, so he's moodier. I always thought he was supposed to be ethereal, other-worldly, but I was wrong. He's earthier, more human than I'll ever be.

I ease my eyes over the stone wall and look at the road. This isn't the time for philosophy.

© Eric Stone