‘If I not live long, no problem,’ said Pou as he necked a shot of root wine from a bottle cap. We were sitting side by side on a path outside the home of the Karieng village leader. It was dusk and I was slapping imaginary mosquitoes from my legs. Kids were observing me from a distance.
Pou started to explain his theory of contentment by drawing the axis of a graph in the dust. He was using a twig. Turns out that Pou enjoyed his role as a guide for two reasons.
The x-axis represented number of friends, he explained. The y-axis was bottles of O’Thay – his name for the local brew. With the variables established Pou drew a diagonal line.
‘It starts here.’ Pou pointed the twig to the bottom left of the chart. ‘Zero friends. Zero bottles of O’Thay.’
Pou was one of those that liked to talk.
‘And it finishes here.’ His stick hovered over the top right hand corner, where maximum friends and maximum O’Thay was the graph’s desirable point. He marked out happiness with a large dot and grinned a toothy grin. When Pou smiled, his ears stuck out even further. He looked like a praised child. While Pou’s graph was not overcomplicated by mathematical anomalies or accidents of the universe, I decided to accept it.
We had another drink. To new friends.
I winced. But there had been an occasion earlier when I’d grateful for a swig of O’Thay.
Earlier, in the house of the Karieng leader, the clear liquor had been passed around in a chipped, stained mug, mouth to mouth. Every inhabitant of the small village was strewn across the linoleum-covered floor of its largest wooden hut. The drink was bashfully accepted by the Karieng people, bright with smiles and timid as boxed dolls, their tactless curiosity enough to unnerve even those without an iota of self-awareness, as eyes never averted from my direction.
The sudden arrival of a small dead bird on a bamboo skewer aroused everybody in the hut. Not least me. No larger than a sparrow, our village elder carried it to a makeshift but controlled fire in the corner. His benevolent gaze fell upon me. I knew that our eye contact was suggestive of the fate of both bird and I and I guzzled another O’Thay.
The creature was tossed onto the fire, fully feathered. It was sufficiently incinerated and then graciously shared out between the more senior Karieng members and I. I got the best bit: the head. It was passed to me on the wooden skewer.
So I did the decent thing. As I chewed, the brain popped and seeped slowly into my mouth. It was like getting to the end of a Locket. I pushed the puss around my mouth for a bit, until it rested on my tongue like a warm oyster. And I took a heavy gulp. And I knocked back the only pleasurable shot of the night. I followed it up with a puff on a homemade cigarette in a brutal conclusion to a gastronomic orgy of an evening.
Of course, Pou commentated on the whole episode, barely stopping for breath. ‘You like bird, eh,’ he enthused. I wasn’t sure if it was a question. His intonation was all up the spout: one because he was Thai, and two because he was drunk. He, we, had drunk the village out of O’Thay.
Earlier the floor had been a little hard underneath me. I had masked shuffles with enthusiastic gesticulations. But now I barely felt the discomfort. Good thing, because it was where I was to spend the night after Pou had finished philosophising in all his inebriated glory.
To ensure that Pou’s insatiability was satisfied, the village leader had me up before sunrise to sample the new batch. He’d been stirring a cauldron throughout the hours of darkness. It takes six hours to distill O’Thay alla Karieng.
But I was already awake when he woke me. The village leader had been smoking from a bamboo anti-aircraft gun through much of the night, two metres away from my sleeping place on the floor of the hut. Whenever I opened my eyes, I had seen him squatting on his feet through the haze, his knees up near his chin, Pou squatting beside him wrapped in a dirty woven blanket and thick with anticipation.
Now though, the village leader was smoking some kind of homemade beedie. Resting on his bottom lip it twitched with each affectionate grunt of pleasure. So as Pou’s response to his new batch was enthusiastic, the cigarette jumped up and down like the handle of the village well.
So, after a breakfast of O’Thay we said farewell to our host come alchemist. It was all cuddles and affection, the booze creating a bond like as if we had known each other for years. On our way out of the village, I was promised one last stop.
The Shaman lived on the path just above the village. This path that is the conduit from which evil enters and exits.
His hut was threadbare bar a bamboo dinner set, some shamanistic concoctions on a low, askew shelf and a wife with an unhealthy phlegm habit. We all sat cross-legged on the floor.
‘When the Shaman dies, the village people must move,’ Pou has explained. ‘Tradition.’
I suspected that the lease might be coming to an end soon for I figured that despite the fact that the Shaman was likely decades younger than his appearance made out, an intoxicated life was taken a toll. His cheeks seemed clamped together and you could see the primitive link between skull and face so rare in most other living beings. His eyes were set back and rarely moved in tandem.
Forever keen to translate, even when no words were being spoken, Pou began.
‘For tradition we drink O’Thay with Shaman for not to offend.’
The shaman nodded and grinned along with Pou’s words, oblivious to what was being said. Pou seemed delighted with himself. It was quarter past eight in the morning and he had already pulled out a full bottle of O’Thay from a worn hemp bag that hung by his side like a Sankara stone.
Fear of offending the Shaman accelerated Pou’s drinking. He downed around ten small capfuls of this freshly brewed O’Thay before passing it back to the Shaman, who matched Pou and I shot for shot. As a consequence, the Shaman’s eyes grew further apart. Pou’s eyes glassed over. My eyes, still coherent, were looking for an out.
Fortunately they were both too engrossed to notice that I was not actually filling the cap. I pulled faces each time and mocked a shiver. Then I would slam the cap on the floor, let out a slight ‘arrggh’ and hand the bottle and cap back to the Shaman. Who handed it to Pou. Who handed it back to the Shaman. And so on.
Minutes later, half way between sentences, Pou’s face began to spasm as if had just sucked snake venom out of a wound. The Shaman, a cure for everything of course, handed Pou some salt.
Pou looked at me, trying to join his eyes together and focus on my face. He was looking straight past me. Pou placed the salt in his mouth and it appeared to stabilise him for a brief moment. There was a pause. Then Pou passed off a grin.
‘To vomit inside Shaman house mean to sacrifice chicken. Then mean to drink more O’Thay,’ he explained. His face was white and transparent like a freshly caught squid.
I sympathised with Pou. Then I realised that there was no need – he had hit the desirable point on his graph again. Fortunately, on this occasion the chicken lived. It took us a while to get to our next camp, however.