Can you smell the fire, from the opposite side of the river?
See the smoke? Mixing with the sun setting and the humidity in the hills? They are burning their gardens, done for the season, as the rain has stopped, the river slowly will fall away leaving first the rapids, then the sandbars then it will trickle down so low, we couldn’t have come this way.
You came down this river, fifty years ago. I am here now.
The sun sets over the mountains to the west as the fire burns, the sun will keep setting on this town over those hills as it has down for years, centuries, eons.
Have I told you there are bombs in the hills here?
From the war, our bombs, but that’s not the story for tonight.
Tonight the fire across the river is the story. It’s a fire whose smoke reaches my hut, reminds me tells me, that here are the ones who believe in the spirit of the hills, the ones who believe in animals and the power of sunrise and the mystery of a sunset, when you die among them, they bury you, whole, complete and deep in the ground.
The woman we met in the village, the chef whose floor we slept on, they will be buried, deep in the red clay ground, to decompose and become one with the hills they love, with the animals and the birds.
But you died among the Buddhists and that means that the heat and the flame consumed your body, they cremated the day you died, the fire flashing through the oven, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, burning bone to burning bone. Here on this night, here in my hut, that’s what fire means to me, you.
Is all fire the same heat?
I should know this from some long ago science class. I wonder as the sun continues to set, is the fire in a crematorium the same as the fire consuming the husks and the relics of this season’s garden across the river? Maybe it’s hotter? More contained? I don’t really know.
A single gun shot rings out from across the river, when my guide and friend Kai hears a gun shot, his face lights up and he says “oh lucky boy” because that shot means food, and meat for a family. It could just be a squirrel or a bird, but maybe it’s a wild boar, or cat, something larger, meatier, more.
The sun has almost set. You can see the fire flicker a bit better now, is someone guarding it? Watching it? Stirring it? Making sure it completes the sweep of the garden and then is out, gone, complete.
When you died, I didn’t think of the fire, the heat, the consumption of the body, the end of the road, the completion of the life, you are born, alive, wet, in blood and water and fluid, you die and leave in heat, and ashes, not a drop of water left.
But I do know, in fact now, here on this river, on this journey, the fire in the huts we stay, the fire in the gardens, the smoke from distant hills, it reminds me that they burned you.
If you had died here, among the Animists, they would have buried you, I could have dug you up like they do in Vietnam, cleaned the bones, re-buried you, but where you died, down river, they burn the bodies and leave you a small pile of ashes, no explanation, nothing said nothing gained. To the Buddhists, the body itself is useless, so they burn them, or leave them on hills to be picked clean by the animals.
Your body would have been for me, good for me to see. When you don’t see the body, there is part of the brain that says, “he’s not really gone” “he’s traveling” “he’s heading downriver” “don’t believe that they tell you, what they said on the phone, no, he’s not dead, no he’s not.” That’s the trick your brain plays on you when you don’t see the body.
It doesn’t mean to be cruel, I think, it means to give you more time to adjust, ease into the loss, two weeks now, it will be twenty-eight years.
The fire crackles. You don’t feel the fire I suppose, no, like when my mother, your wife, your love died, I held her and then when I knew somehow, that she had grown cold, I left her, never touched her again, had a nurse take off her rings, and cut a locket of hair.
Then they took her and cremated her, but I know she wouldn’t feel it, but still somehow, you don’t want to think too much, you don’t want to know.
I got your wedding ring back, did you know that? I got that and a box of ashes. That was it.
It’s dark now, the sun is gone, the fire burns across the river. It’s fading, embers, it will be out soon and the garden black and dead for the year. It’s black dark here at night, the stars are out, the moon is bright, on the river, it sparkles and dances. I listen to the trees and the birds. I close my eyes and smell the smoke.
Another shot rings out, in the quiet it echoes through the hills.