Saturday, May 1, 2010
Night of the Raining Stars
Today in the village I hear discussion among teachers about a star that’s falling on Thailand tonight. I envision a giant meteor racing toward the earth, headed straight for--by coincidence--this tiny village. It can’t be true. No star is going to slam into Boonsong tonight. I’m sure I’ll still be here, trying to teach English, tomorrow.
“Oh, yes, it’s true!” Khruu Aria insists. “It’s coming tonight. Everyone is going to stay up and watch for it. It happened last year, too. We saw it with our own eyes.”
Wait a minute. You mean this meteor has crashed into Boonsong before?
“Yes,” Khruu Aria replies. “Stay up tonight and watch for it with the rest of us.”
It’s midnight, and I’m ready to rise and join the rest of the village. They have made a believer out of me once again. Ghosts, dragon fire, hurtling stars—the villagers are usually right about all of it. The problem almost always lies in my incomprehension. In this case, it’s my incomprehension of Thai grammar—in particular, the lack of plural nouns. Fon tok means rain. Daw means star. Khruu Aria wasn’t telling me about a single falling star. She was telling me about a night of raining stars. She meant the Leonid Meteor Showers. It really is Khyyn Fon Daw Tok, or the Night of the Raining Stars.
I shuffle across the wat grounds like a ghost. It’s completely dark and silent. The entire village is supposed to get up and watch this, but I don’t see signs of anybody else up but me. I step onto the dirt road, and a single dog in the nearest house barks. I walk past the next house, and that dog barks, too. Soon my steps are accompanied by a chorus of frenzied barks. I have awakened every single dog in the village, but where are all the people? I feel a strange tingle on the back of my neck. Why have all the people—though, oddly, not the dogs—disappeared? Or maybe I’ve disappeared and I don’t know it yet. Maybe the dogs are barking at me, and I can’t see a living soul, because I am now a ghost, ala The Sixth Sense. What a fate that would be, to join the throng of ghosts that haunts Thailand—underwear ghosts, banana tree ghosts, dead lovers, dead snakes--and hang around the village, in spirit, forever.
I arrive at my friend Yooping’s house and knock lightly on her door. She opens the door, carrying a flashlight. No one anywhere seems to be stirring for the impending firestorm. We climb down the ladder of her house together and walk to her sister’s house. I’m tiptoeing and trying to whisper, already feeling sheepish about having agitated the dogs, but Yooping begins to bellow: “We’re here to watch the raining stars!” She thunders repeatedly, at the top of her lungs, “We’ve come to watch the raining stars! We’re here! Come down! We’re here to see the stars fall!”
Gradually, lights flicker on and we hear voices. A small crowd filters down, armed with pillows and blankets. They turn on the outside fluorescent light and settle down beneath blankets to socialize. The glare from the fluorescent light makes it difficult to see any stars falling from the sky. I follow everyone else’s lead and kick off my shoes before stretching out with blankets on the raised wooden platform beneath the house. We wait patiently, chatting, but nobody sees a single falling star. All I can see is the humming fluorescent light. After two hours of this, I give up. My ears are tired of trying to track the conversation, and I’m cold. I reach under the platform for my shoes, but they’re not there.
“My shoes are gone,” I complain. This news leads to a flurry of exclamations and an excited search. Did my hosts move my disgusting sandals—which are rotting here at the end of the rainy season and which stink to high heaven--to a more suitable place for shoes? Maybe I still don’t understand everything about shoe protocol. But the other star-watchers search dutifully and discover their shoes are missing, too. We’re all confounded. Finally, one lone shoe—mine—is recovered, half-gnawed, from a dog’s mouth. While we gossiped and stargazed, industrious dogs carried away our shoes. Why they would do that, I have no idea. I stand to leave, too tired and cold to care. Strangely, in the distance, other dogs begin to howl. Everyone chuckles and says to me, “When the dogs howl, the ghosts come out.”
I limp home wearing only one shoe. I’m unafraid of ghosts, but glad to be living in a village that dispenses warnings about them. We will all live to see another day without being crushed by a meteor, and I’m glad about that, too. And at last, as I reach home, I see one bright shining star streak across the sky. Also posted on my blog Strange Islands