How do we free ourselves from the past? Can we do it through will, or do we need to be altered? Maybe it's both. Here's a new story.
We are out for the kill, but it is a different kind of kill. There will be no dignitary in the cross-hairs of my scope, no operative to immolate inside the volcanic heat of an exploding car. Tonight we are out to kill in quantity. Thousands, perhaps.
My host and caretaker for the last 60 days, Suwan, leads me into a field between a rice paddy and the jungle. Where we are, I still don't quite know. It is, I think, on the border between Thailand and Myanmar. Lots of pig smuggling in the area. The occasional ivory smuggling, too. I carry the car battery, and Suwan carries the lamp. His two sons carry four large panes of plexiglass.
“Watch for cobras,” says Suwan in rough English.
“Cobras?” I ask, my head on a swivel.
“They bite,” he says.
His sons laugh.
We place the lamp--a halogen light wired to an old broom set in a bucket of cement--in the shallow water, then go about surrounding it with saw horses we retrieve from beneath a rubber tree. The boys work the bottoms of the plexiglass panes into slots on the tops of the saw horses. Suwan takes some plastic sheets out of a beat up satchel and I help him arrange the sheets under each of the saw horses. I slosh back and admire our handiwork. The plexiglass panes glint with a ghostly glare. I can't escape the feeling that they are windows to a place that is peaceful and otherworldly.
A certain giddiness overcomes me. That is, perhaps, my first glimpse of what the Buddha has to offer even a sad case like me. I, of course, am an athiest, bred to kill for my country. But since convalescing in the jungle with Suwan, a former Buddhist monk, I’ve learned a thing or two about introspection. It takes me past the hollow musings of Aristotle and St. Aquinas to the possibilies of the now.
My handlers wouldn't like what I'm thinking. It occures to me that my karma is in ruins, and I don't have enough good deeds to balance out my bad deeds. Do I believe in reincarnation or ghosts like Suwan? No. But I realize that the gunshot wounds are the least of what I suffered in South Africa. I feel weighted down. My college professors once raved about Sarte. How did I go from Sarte to contract killing?
Suwan hooks up the battery and turns on the light, and we all back away from the frenzy. Insects hurl themselves at the light. It looks and sounds like popcorn popping as they hit the plexiglass and fall onto the sheets of plastic.
Watching the swarm, I feel lucid for the first time since my arrival. In that moment, the decision comes easy. I won't go back. I want to eat bugs and catch snakes and become such a completely different person that not even my mother will know me. I want to learn the 227 rules monks are supposed to abide by. This, of course, means that I have zero chance of seeing the next year alive. But I can't commit my soul to being stained anymore. I am done being the Shirpa who carries other's sins on my back.
In the morning, we will wake up before dawn and fry the ciccadas, grasshoppers, mosquitoes and other flying insects. We’ll take some to the temple as offerings to the monks, and the rest we will take down to the market to sell. This is about as far ahead as I want to look. Whatever will be will be. I'm becoming a good Thai.
I get a text on my satellite phone. "They're coming."
Suwan sees the look on my face, asks what's wrong. How can I explain what I've done? A couple of days ago I told my handlers that I hadn't quite healed yet. That is a lie. My leg is fine. They told me to move because the enemy is getting close. You see, there is a hefty price on my head. I eradicated a diamond magnate who has powerful friends. They are scouring the earth for me so that they can exact their pound of flesh. I ignored the warning. I refused to look that far ahead into the future.
What was I thinking? Suwan’s plot of land is no paradise. There is no hot water, and the toilet is a hole in the floor. The air constantly smells of burning trash, and I’ve developed a cough. But I feel serene. Serenity is nothing I have ever known, and I don't want to give it up. So what am I to do? I can't decide.
They come through the jungle. There are three of them. I can fight, because that is what I am trained to do, but Suwan and his family will be killed in the crossfire. I wait by the altar at the edge of the jungle. When they see me, I am sitting in the lotus position. “Hello, my brothers,” I say, happy.
They look at me like I'm mad. Perhaps I am. I've shaved my head and donned the saffron robes of a Buddhist monk. They raise their Kalishnakovs.
"As you must," I say.
I close my eyes.