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I first saw the house on a humid Saturday afternoon and even back then it promised to be a regular palace. I don’t recall thinking anything more than that, other than feeling sorry for the builders because it’d been the kind of day that leeches the energy from your very bones. I didn’t think anybody should work in that heat and I still don’t, but I suppose that’s easy enough to say when you’ve got a fat pension behind you.
The house was located just off a treacherous corner on the road that led right into the provincial capital. On my weekly supply runs I watched it grow from a skeletal frame to a corpulent monster. First came walls which were big and pink and twice the normal thickness, then it shed its bamboo scaffolding and ostentatious Greco-roman columns were added almost like an afterthought.
After that, production ground to a halt. At the time I guessed it was money issues and after I got to know Donny a little better I learnt I was right. The contractors had asked for an extra 200,000 baht, he’d told me over a cold beer. Tried their best to scare him. Even bought in a hot-shot, smooth-talking lawyer from Bangkok. Threatened to sue, deport, imprison; they really gave him the works, but Donny’s not the kind of man who’s easily threatened and the whole issue was settled in less than a month which is astonishingly quick by local standards.
I still don’t know how Donny did it and now, after all that’s happened, I’m not sure I want to.
Back then nobody had told me another foreigner lived in the house. I’d assumed it belonged to some bellicose Thai bureaucrat, fat from the cream of corruption and eager to make a grand statement to his new community. .
I learnt about Donny about three months after he’d moved in. It was the end of October; I remember it well because the weather was turning and we’d had five days of torrential storms which was usually the rainy season’s last onslaught against the onset of winter. I’d spent most of the morning keeping an eye on various leaks, changing buckets and calculating with an old felt tip pen when I would be able to afford to retile my roof when my maid Thoy and her sister Meow flew through the door in a whirlwind of rain and tears.
Thoys sister was taught with an unsettling, animal-like rage. She was wild-eyed and ranting in quick-fire Thai. I was more than a little frightened. People here are unsophisticated and the village is a hot bed of superstition. There had been several cases of ‘possession’ recently that had shattered some fragile psyches.
“Oh, Richard! You must help us! Meow’s been robbed.” Thoy stopped and tilted her head, just like she always did when she was about to drop a bomb. “By a foreigner!”
That was certainly unusual but I didn’t know why it had anything to do with me and I said as much.
“You are part of the village, Richard! You must help. It’s Thai culture. We help you, don’t we? I clean your sheets and wash your clothes and scrub your floors!” I wanted to point out that I paid for such services but I knew I’d lose the argument before it even began so I just nodded. Thoy pursed her lips which was a sure sign of an impending explosion. “She started to work for the old man who lives in the big house. Three, maybe four months ago she started.”
“Which big house?”
“On the hill.”
“A foreigner lives there?”
They both looked at me like I was some kind of simpleton.
“Why,” I said, “didn’t anyone tell me?”
“We thought you knew,” She said it without hesitation but something told me it was a lie. “My sister did a good job but today he didn’t pay her for the week and told her she couldn’t come back! She was very brave to go there, you know!”
“Oh, come on. Foreigners don’t bite.”
Thoy was unusually earnest. “No, Richard, I know foreigners don’t bite but this one did a very bad thing. He is very unlucky. He didn’t build a spirit house.”
Spirit houses are colourful little structures that dot the Thai landscape. Designed to contain both good and bad spirits, these shrines look like miniature temples and sit outside businesses, on the side of roads and at the corner of most properties. Even I had one. It was a heavy-looking, gaudy red and gold affair and I probably didn’t light incense to it or offer food as often as I should have but it was strangely comforting to look out the window and see a sharp glint of spirit gold in the sun.
The two women were looking at me expectantly so I sighed and put the lid back on my felt tip pen. “Fine. I’ll talk to him”.
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Donny’s place was down a long, winding driveway lined with leafy palms. They obscured the house right up to the very last bend when the pink behemoth seemed to leap out of the ground. There was no sign of life apart from a dusty black pick up which was meticulously parked at a perfect right angle to the porch.
I don’t know exactly who I’d been expecting to answer the door but it certainly wasn’t a tatty looking old man who eyed me with distrust. A nimbus of white hair covered the top of his remarkably narrow head. One of his legs was broken and it had been set in a chunky off-white cast which smelt faintly of embalming fluid. He leant heavily on a mean-looking whip-thin cane , the kind I could imagine laying into small animals or even children.
“What do you want?” The corner of his mouth curled up as he spoke and at the time, I thought he was being rude but later I realized it was a facial tic he probably didn’t even realize he had.
“My name’s Richard. I live in the village. I thought I’d come over an introduce myself.”
I followed him through the sparsely furnished house to a back patio which looked on to a garden of breathtaking beauty. Beyond a vast manicured lawn, pinks and yellows and tropical oranges bled together in a cacophony of colour. The trees were busy with birdsong and even the little tufts of weed which spotted fringes of the grass writhed and danced in the faint westerly as if they were alive with sheer joy. The whole place glistened and glowed as if it were trying to say that even the rain couldn’t dampen its splendor.
Donny bought out a couple of beers. We sat on deckchairs and shot the shit as if we’d known each other forever. I found myself telling Donny how I’d retreated to Thailand to lick my wounds after my wife died of a sudden aneurysm two weeks before we were set to retire. Donny told me wild stories of his years as a ‘fighting man’ and soon I was lost in an elaborate fantasy world of jungle training and moonlight recon and stolen helicopters. As he spoke, a fine sheen of sweat covered his face and when he wanted to emphasize a point he would passionately fling his arms in the air. I think more of his beer made it onto my shirt than into his mouth but it seemed unkind to stop him because he seemed like a man who hadn’t had a conversation for a long, long time.
The day wore thin as Donny’s stories grew taller so I decided to gently steer our rudderless conversation towards Thoy’s sister by asking if he had anyone to help out around the house. As soon as I mentioned the word ‘maid’, Donny’s entire body went rigid and his face closed over. He reached for his cane and for an awful moment I thought he was going to whack me over the legs, but instead he lifted it onto his lap and started rolling it between his thumb and forefinger as if it were an oversized cigar.
“That’s why you’re here, huh?”
“No. Well – yes. I guess so.” I was so surprised at how perceptive he was that the truth just flew out of me. Donny didn’t say anything but his hand tightened ominously around the cane. “I guess so, Donny. Your maid – or ex-maid, or whatever – is the sister of my maid. Actually, I didn’t even know another foreigner lived in this part of the world until this morning. All they said was that Meow hadn’t been paid what she was owed.”
Donny snorted. “She got her pay, all right. That girl helped herself to my wallet on more than one occasion but being the foolish old man I am, I thought it was my fault. Can you believe that? I thought I was losing my mind. I keep my wallet locked in a draw upstairs, you see. This morning I made sure I counted my money and then right before that girl left I counted it again. You fill in the blanks.”
“How much did she take?”
I whistled between my teeth. It was a lot of money. “And there’s no doubt about it?”
“None. She wailed and she screamed and she swore black and blue that it wasn’t her, but no one else had been in the house. I had to fire her.” Donny put his cane down and as he stared reflectively into his beer he seemed to shrink. “You wouldn’t have anyone you can recommend, would you?”
“No. Sorry, Donny.”
“God, why is it so hard to get help out here? You’d think they’d be tripping up over themselves for some extra money.”
So I explained how powerful superstition is in the Land of Smiles; I told him how Thai houses can’t face West and how it’s bad luck to get a hair cut on a Wednesday and how you should always beep when you see a spirit house on the side of the road to scare away bad luck and how every property – even his - needs one of these colorful little houses for protection.
He listened with a blank face and when I finished he just gave a shrug that could have meant a million different things. He offered me another beer but I thought the evening had turned sour for both of us so I made my excuses and headed home.
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Over the next few weeks I got into the habit of dropping by Donny’s. At the time I congratulated myself for my altruism but if I’m to be honest, I sat on that patio and listened to Donny’s twisted stories while I sunk beer after beer for my own sake as much as for his. There was something strangely relaxing about his presence and he was the only thing that had managed to draw me out of my self-imposed solitude in months.
My maid didn’t try to hold back her distaste at my blossoming friendship, even though I slipped her the money Donny owed her sister out of my own pocket. She would slam doors and hurrumph and throw her wild mane of black hair around if she knew I was going to see Donny, who she always referred to as ‘The Snake’ until one awful morning when came to her shift with a tear streaked face and shaking hands.
“Oh, Richard!” She wailed as she collapsed on my couch. “The spirit houses on the corner are gone! The ones near Donny’s house! They caught fire and now they’re all gone! Nothing but ashes, they’re all gone and the spirits will be full of murder!”
Spirit houses were built on the side of the road to house those unfortunate souls who had died in sudden accidents; such souls were often so surprised by their own violent death that they might not realize they had passed on or worse still, they’d haunt the stretch of road and lead innocent drivers to their death. No Thai would dare mess with such spirits on such a grand scale unless they were seriously unhinged. It didn’t even occur to me that Donny might had had something to do with it until much later than night when I received a frantic phone call
“Come quick,” was all he said before the dial tone hummed ominously in my ear.
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Donny’s house was a completely different place during the moon lit night . The small lights that lined the driveway blinked and flickered
and struggled to keep the shadows at bay. Even the towering palm trees swayed in a vaguely menacing way.
As soon as I pulled up, I saw he must be on the patio – I’d come to think of it as our patio – because long tendrils of illumination shimmied and danced playfully along one side of the house. I crept through the semi-darkness and found Donny standing in front of a huge bonfire.
Gnarled wood hung out of the flames at awkward angles and a carpet of orange and pink and yellow blossoms was scattered across the grass. It was as if a small localized hurricane had vandalized everything beautiful and I dreaded to see how the garden - my beautiful garden - looked in the light of day.
Donny was slumped over his cane like an exhausted, oversized marionette. At first I thought he was watching the flames but as I got closer I saw his eyes were darting wildly around the long shadows in the yard.
“Donny, mate,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“They’re here,” he said without turning to look at me. .
“What are here?”
“Those little houses, mate.”
He turned to me with a face that had aged since the day before. There were black hoods under his eyes and deep canyons at the corners of his mouth. On other people they’d be called smile lines but on Donny they were all grimace. “What do you mean, where? They’re right in front of you! Are you blind?”
There was nothing but the bonfire in the yard but I looked to hide my shock at the hysteria in my friends’ voice and the madness that lay just behind his eyes.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Donny ran his hands over his face like he was trying to massage some life back into it. “I don’t know what those assholes think they’re up to, putting this shit in my backyard like they’re making a point. Fine, point taken. POINT TAKEN!” His yell was hollow and raspy and quickly swallowed up by the night. “But why won’t they burn, Richard? The other ones burnt.”
“What other ones, Donny?” Even as I asked I knew the answer and my heart sunk right down into my shoes.
“On the road. You told me about them. You told me how people beep for them, those spirit houses. Well, shit! I’m an old man. I need my sleep. I don’t need to hear a horn every ten minutes. It’s too much! And did you know my money’s still going missing, even after I fired that little maid friend of yours? Shit keeps moving from where I left it too. Been happening ever since I moved into this damn house. Damn house even made me break my leg! It’s enough to drive a man mad!”
“The spirit houses on the corner? You burnt them?”
He nodded and sucked his lips right into his mouth so his head looked like a scowling bowling ball in the moon light. “Bit o’ gasoline and Bob’s your uncle, sonny Jim. No more beeping! Now some jokers pulling a fast one on me by putting this shit in my backyard. I tried to burn them but they’re not burning. Must have treated the wood. Very clever. Oh yes, very bloody clever. But not clever enough!”
He gestured towards the shovel that was leaning against one of the deckchairs but I couldn’t tear my eyes off the terrible old man. “You can help me, mate. I’m not strong enough. See, these spirit houses need to be buried if they can’t be burnt. Yep. I’m going to make these spirit houses their own personal burial mound, right in my backyard.”
It’s terrible to see someone’s sanity slipping away before your very eyes. All I could do was stand on that empty patio with my mouth opening and shutting like a big guppy. Maybe there was something I should have done differently. I don’t know. At the time I was so horrified by Donny’s lack of respect I didn’t want to help him. I guess that’s why I turned my back him and walked away from his empty nightmare.
“Richard? Richard, mate, where are you going? Help me!”
“No, Donny,” I said without looking back, “You dig your own grave.”
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After that night he dropped right off the grid. I probably should have checked on him but I was so disgusted by what he’d done I just couldn’t bring myself to. Eventually the house was sold and, after an extensive blessing ceremony and the erection of a spirit house, a new family moved in. I was invited to the blessing and I very nearly didn't go.
The house was just as I remembered although the garden had grown wild and disorderly and right in the middle of the lawn there was the faintest of protrusions.
I had a good look at that lump from almost every angle and I swear it was the exact shape of a man and a mean-looking whip-thin cane, the kind you could imagine laying into small animals or even children.