As he lay next to the body covered by the white shroud, listening to the monks' chants, Kamnoon felt his spirit escaping from his body. It travelled along the white sai sin thread attached to his wrist, heading to a mystical, unknown destination. He heard the whispers of his long-dead ancestors using the ancient Khmer words of his homeland... And as he waited to be born again, he reflected on what had led him to this lonely wat perched precariously on the mountainside of the Daengrek range...
Kamnoon Vanijaka's business had boomed for five consecutive years. He operated a successful car-hire firm on the corner of Thepparisit and Sukhumvit. Then, for no reason, his luck ran out. The money dried up. He consulted a gypsy fortune teller in a gloomy soi deep in the shadows of Naklua. Her wrinkled face contorted in horror as she beheld his palm. Her voice hissed through her bony gums as she relayed her view of his dire future business plans. She spat twice on the floor and once on her own hand to rinse away the aura of doom that surrounded him; trailing behind him like a mountain mist. She suggested he needed to hide from the evil spirits that were gathered about his head like a dark cloud of stinging insects.
That night the young girl's face appeared to him in a troubled dream. All about her bodiless corpse, hordes of tortured souls shrieked wordlessly for retribution; clamouring silently for vengeance. He awoke sweating and contorted by guilt. How many years had her face plagued him? How many more years would she continue to haunt his troubled sleep.
In despair he turned to his temple. The Abbott listened to his tale of woe and suggested he undertake the ceremony of re-birth which might avert the run of bad luck. He urged him to undertake the Pit Ti Sadok Kot ritual of luck enhancement. 'You must go to the temple of Wat Bpar Lei Lai in the mountains. I do not have the power to help. Only by re-birth will your luck change.'
Only on the border between Cambodia and Thailand was the ancient magic of re-birth still practiced. At first he was reluctant but, one morning, as he left for work, there was the desiccated corpse of a frog lying on his doorstep. It had not been there the night before. Kamnoon decided to take the plunge. He drove without hope from Pattaya, along Sukhumvit on the lonely seven hour journey towards the distant Daengrek Mountains. In the twilight during that lonely trip, he glanced fearfully in the driver's mirror almost sure he was not travelling alone; that there was an indistinct small figure on the back seat glimpsed only in the corner of his eye.
The new Abbott seemed as old as the mountains; he was a brittle skull on a gnarled stick. His blind eyes, white and staring, writhed as if in pain during Kamnoon's story and agreed that re-birth could be the way forward. In a curiously husky voice, he explained the thinking behind the ceremony. Sometimes a person has, unwittingly, committed an act which has offended the spirits. This person is cursed with bad luck until his death. By undertaking the ceremony, the spirits become convinced the unfortunate soul had died and thus the bad luck dies with him. A huge book of numbers was consulted to determine an auspicious day. The following Tuesday was agreed.
The Abbott's voice rang in his ears as Kamnoon sought sleep on the night before the ceremony. He recalled the act which had so offended the spirits and blighted his nights ever since. For nearly fifteen years he had denied his sin the light of day. Each time his memory or conscience strayed within recall, he twisted violently away like a fish from the net.
The girl had been four and he had been still drunk after an all night party. Returning on his motor bike, he sought only to scare her as she played in the roadside dust. Instead he caught her a glancing blow. She gave a mewling cry like a blind kitten and then was silent. Perhaps if he had rode on and not turned back, things would have been different. He U-turned however and raised her from the stained roadside. She still breathed in shallow gasps and her eyelids flickered like dying candles in a darkened room. He could smell the sour alcohol on his own breath and knew he dared not raise the alarm. Gently he laid her out of sight in a ditch. Perhaps she would recover; perhaps she would be found quickly. With a tortured gasp he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. She was found too late; she did not recover and he had murdered sleep.
Kamnoon had discussed the various choices outlined by the Abbott. The number of monks involved had to be an odd number between one and nine. They compromised on five. The biggest decision was over the use of either a real body, Kamnoon's, or a dummy. Kamnoon was hesitant about lying down under a white sheet whilst the monks chanted actual funeral prayers over his body. He felt uneasy about enacting his own funeral service. He elected to lie alongside the dummy body.
On Tuesday an ominous rumble of thunder greeted his arrival at the wat. Under the brooding clouds that wreathed the mountains, the Abbot's face flickered a ghastly white in the lightning that lit the sky. His gaunt face wore an expression of concern; he struggled and failed to keep the fear from his voice as it trembled in Kamnoon's ear. 'When the ritual is completed you must leave immediately. Do not linger to express your thanks lest the evil spirits find your body again.'
The ceremony began by preparing the consecrated water or Nam Mon. All the monks began chanting, 'Na Ma Pa Ta' over and over whilst the Abbott dripped wax from candles so it floated on the water. Next came the creation of the dummy Kamnoon. The Abbott cut a length of sugar cane exactly the same height as Kamnoon. A coconut was used to represent his head; bananas his hands and feet. Rice grains were sprinkled over the effigy to symbolize the flesh. Afterwards the dummy was to be floated away on a river to dispel the misfortunes destined to fall on Kamnoon.
When the dummy was complete Kamnoon lay down next to it. The Abbott tied a cotton thread to connect Kamnoon with his dummy and the white sheet was draped over the 'corpse'. Curiously Kamnoon experienced a pang of pity for the dummy and all the ill luck about to land on its slender shoulders. He glanced sideways at the outline of the body directly alongside him. He fancied he could detect movement under the white shroud: the rhythmic rise and fall of a chest breathing. Beneath the chanting of the monks, he thought he heard the body beside him murmuring indistinct sounds like a mewling kitten. His heart pounded in his chest in time to the monk's chorus.
Suddenly the rhythmic chanting crashed into silence. The Abbott's voice murmured in Kamnoon's ear, 'Go now.' There was a moment when his limbs refused to obey him, then he was scrambling to his feet and rushing towards the car. Heeding the Abbott's words, he did not look back but scrambled into the car and took off with a squealing of tyres and a pother of dust.
As the car turned out of the temple and on to the road, he examined his emotions. The guilt was still there; a heaviness in his heart he could not lighten. He re-lived the moments alongside the dummy corpse when he felt a connection. Had he felt the spirit leaving his body or flowing into it? A slithering sound made him glance in the mirror.
An ice cold fog filled the car; the chill turned his limbs numb. The girl sat behind him her bone bleached face filling his view. Slowly she turned her empty and lifeless eye sockets towards him. Her face was bloodless; gaunt cheekbones stretched the white skin taut across her face. When she spoke it was in the sibilant pitch of a four year old girl.
'You and I are one now. Your family is mine. We are bound together by the white sai sin thread.' A drool of spittle trickled from the corner of her mouth.
'My mother waits for me every day at the roadside. She calls my name, "Supalak, Supalak, come home to me." Now I can answer her; "I am coming soon, mother, coming soon." She smiled mirthlessly at him. 'You left me once; you can never leave me again: until we are both re-born on the other side. Very soon now, very soon.'
Kamnoon felt the car begin to accelerate under him.