The Emerald Buddha

– Kay Merkel Boruff

When a [man] is killed,
the cicadas go looking for their shells,
and put them on again and climb
back into the earth and the year
returns to February … .

A woman tries to remember
the name of her [husband]
but each letter is so heavy
that carrying a whole word
to the front of her [brain]
is hard.

              —Tim Seibles

“I swear, Merk, the American Embassy is run by
a bunch of goddamned ingrate maggots.”  I
folded tissue paper around the red silk kimono Merk bought me in Hong Kong.

“I
know.”  He listened to my tirade, nodding
in appropriate places.

“After
a hard day at school, I walked into the Embassy office at one o’clock and left
two hours later, when they completed the paper work for our exit visas. Of
course, we would have to live in a county that requires an exit visa.” I put
rings and bracelets in a silk travel case, medication in pill boxes. “I mean
entrance visas are hard enough to get. The woman tells me, ‘Remember, dear,’ as
though I were a child, ‘we’re
visitors in their country. We must
follow “their policies.”’ I felt like telling the bitch, ‘Remember, deary, this
we pays your salary, and we could be a bit more helpful.’”

“Rausch
and several guys got thrown in the clink in Singapore last month, for something
minor—disorderly conduct or something—and the American Embassy never lifted a
bloody finger. They finally ended up sending for someone from the British
Embassy who—with great expediency—got them out of jail. I guess the British
have been at international diplomacy longer than we have,” Merk said.

I
looked at my Day-Timer, studied the open armoire filled with rows of silk
dresses and pants, the bottom lined with a rainbow of leather sandals.

“I
love to go on STO, but it frazzles my nerves, never knowing if you’ll get leave
time, never knowing if we’ll get exit visas, never knowing if Air Nuoc Mam is
flying. I never believe we’re going until the plane is airborne. Actually, not
until we land.”

“Kay,
quit contemplating your navel and finish packing.”  He grinned. He found the word omphaloskepsis
in our unabridged dictionary one day, walked into the bathroom, announced to me
as I soaked in the tub, he’d found the key to my existence. He lorded his
psychology degree over me, that and his four years seniority. He knew me better
than I knew myself. “You still have a few things handing in the closet.” I
couldn’t bear to be uncomfortable. “The Princess and the Pea Syndrome” he
called it. And I insisted on being perfectly put together, in the 50s tradition
we were raised—the “revised” Christ Complex: be ye perfect.

The
phone rang. “Let Nhàn get it.” He looked out the window. “There’s the van. If
you need anything, Baby,” he reached under my short miniskirt and snapped my
lace pants, “we’ll buy it in Bangkok.

This
was a special STO. It was my birthday and our second anniversary. Last year we
went to Hong Kong in September. We loved the city, its night life. Then at
Christmas, we went to Singapore. That holiday was a dream sequence. At the
Raffles, we ran into Bridgett and Frank Ulrich, close Air America friends. We
had “slings” and my first chicken Kiev and baked Alaska. The shopping in Hong
Kong and Singapore was better than Bangkok, but the Thai city remained my
favorite, I had conquered it on my own.

The
ease of traveling today is never the same as it was with Merk. His Air America
ID whisk us through customs almost as fast as a diplomatic passport. After a
two-hour flight, Company transportation in Sai-Gon and Bangkok, we were at the
Siam International Hotel in three hours. At the Siam, the Thai clerks knew us,
gave us the best rooms, arranged three dozen tiny purple orchids for our
arrival, and decorated my chocolate birthday-anniversary cake with white
violets. I am amazed Merk and my marriage lasted two years. I would have run
home with each fight if I’d been in the states. I always retrieved an incident
I’d been harboring for months, hurl the incident at Merk, no matter who was at
fault, and finally lose face and apologize for being a twit. The last apology
was for getting pissed at Merk and leaving him at Raush’s party. I don’t
remember what I was pissed about. He had to scale the six-foot wall outside the
house, wake Nhàn at three in the morning, and sleep on the couch. Merk seemed
grateful that I loved him. At our wedding in Texas two years earlier, his
friends from Virginia told me he had never been happier.

Merk took pictures of everything. Had he not,
I would have few memories. I sometimes wonder if he was recording memories for
me to have later—when he was gone.

That
night in Bangkok, we had a romantic dinner, great sex. Pictures at dinner.
Pictures in my new peignoir. Pictures I was sure couldn’t be developed. The
next day we went sightseeing, early before the sun was too hot, early so we
could see everything. More pictures on the floating market tour. A lady and her
husband sat by us in the small narrow boat. I remember being shocked when she
told me she lived in South Korea. It was dangerous, wasn’t it? I asked her. She
gasped when I said I lived in Viêt-Nam. I explained Sai-Gon was perfectly safe.
Minor tear gas incidents, the occasional rocket, monks torching themselves. I
rarely noticed military fatigues and Mattel toy guns. More pictures of a
solitary monk and his oarsman in a boat beside us on the klong. Pictures of a man
brushing his teeth in the muddy water. Pictures of the King’s royal barge, the
Queen’s smaller one.

After
the floating market tour, we dashed to the Rama Hotel on Sukhumvit to see Thai
dancing. More pictures of the instruments, a glawng khaek, bongo drums, a pi
chaw, bag pipes, and chings, tea cup size cymbals, the songs now less
offensive, even melodious in their dissonant patterns, the 5/4 rhythm set by
the sitar and tiny finger cymbals less irregular. Pictures of the first dancers
in batik tops and sarongs, dancing slow, like Indian round dances I saw growing
up, simple turns, eight counts, then a skip. Pictures of six Elysian female
dancers performing classical Thai dancing, embellished faerie queens in a
Wagnerian opera—three in ballooned pantaloons to the knees, three in
sarongs—heavy costumes beaded and jeweled, gold and silver brocade, like
iridescent nacreous shields in the sun. All the diminutive dancers wore
spiraling crowns the shape of temple dome spires, haloes framing their faces of
flawless complexion, their dancer hands, smooth, willowing backward, each nail
covered with a jeweled guard. The women move in unison, one flowing river of
light gliding over a faille emerald sea. At the performance’s end, the dancer
closest to me meets my eyes. The girl, who looks my age, shyly smiles at me
before she bows her head, remaining in unison with the other five dancers. Merk
caught the smile. She raises her head. I return the smile.

Merk went out on the lawn after the dance was
over, the sun to his back, so the pictures would be more brilliant. The girls
frozen: arms jutting skyward, legs perpendicular to the ground, feet in awkward
angles to the sky, caught to place me in their world. My sixth-grade students
ask me what it was like, living there. Girls want to know things like that. I
lie, tell them it was wonderful. The pictures seem wonderful.

More
pictures at the King’s Summer Palace and a souvenir, a temple bell for our bo
tree in Sai-Gon, now hanging in my house by the front door. Merk and I enter
the gate of the ten-foot wall surrounding the grounds and leave the little boys
hawking souvenirs, the traffic and noise, the reality of time. I stumble into a
mirage painted by a Persian artist, a fantasy for kings and queens and other
ethereal characters. The temple walls, the courtyard walls, everything is
covered in gold. The reflection teases the bright sunlight. A photograph of a
two-story statue, my figure dwarfed by it. I beg to see the Summer Palace.
It’ll be cool, I say.

The
temperature inside is degrees cooler. Everything is spotless. Pictures of
murals, mythological beasts and fables, oversized carved teak furniture,
Chinese Buddhas, rigid arm positions, rounder faces, eyes more pronounced. Not
pictured are my mood swings. A tender bud, brittle and unresponsive in winter,
a butterfly, buom, tattered-winged
and disoriented, backwinded in a hole in summer.

I
drag Merk out of the palace. We brush against a scaffolding hanging eight feet
up from the walkway. A young Thai woman sits cross-legged, applying thin
squares of gold leaf. She turns to smile at us. Another picture. The swish of
Merk’s Nikon engages numbered images for the future. This
picture I remember, even though the slide’s been lost, probably some
careless student borrowed the slide to prepare a report, but I don’t need it
now. It’s real. Merk says in her lifetime, she will barely complete one wall,
square inch by square inch of gold leaf. The contentment of the young Thai’s
face is mine. Her perfect posture is mine; the straight spine, the green and
golden patterned cotton wrapped gently around her hips, mine; the white
polished cotton blouse, her hair in a chignon, shining iridescent in the sun,
mine:  a living lotus:  the sarong a lily pad, the blouse a glossy
lotus, petals opening, tan arms joined with reflecting gold, mine.

The
sun had risen higher and higher. The gold refracting from the buildings,
momentarily dazes me. I peer into the sun, now directly overhead, the red tile
roof piercing thirty feet into the clear sky looms above: the red shifts
upward. The roof repeats the Oriental pattern again and again in romantic
refrain, each lilting point swinging up, around, under, up, around, under,
shaped to ward off evil. No negative Karma must enter the temple: insouciance
preserved and repeated. I hear the bells and look up to see them swaying from
the tipped roof points. They create a lotus blossom. The faerie-like
tintinnabulation of the miniature dome-shaped bells harmonize with the gold
effulgence in the sunlight. Looking at the dome of the temple, staring into the
sun, I feel faint. Our excursions from one alien culture to another upset me
more than I allow Merk to know. Shocking infusion of Eastern mores into my
fragile psyche: alien feelings woven into the warp and woof of my life, all
absorbed into my schema. The dream continues, a schizophrenic disputation: Why
am I here? What is the purpose of my life? But I’m afraid to pause long enough
to find answers.

We
climb the thirty steps to the temple, then remove our shoes to cross the holy
ground. At the top, before entering the temple, I turn to look below, my eyes
gazing down the steps, steps worn smooth by disciples drawn to this holy place
for millennia. I can see myself in the courtyard at our casita in Taos, sitting
in a worn but comfortable can-back chair, a frayed straw hat down low, shading
my face; in my lap, palms raised upward, fingers suppliant. In the shadows, dew
hangs cloyingly on cornflowers heaped on the patio. A grey field mouse nibbles
on apples stacked by the wood pile. Tiring of the chore, it scampers to the
figure in the courtyard and sniffs, whiskers twitching at bare feet. I sit,
meditating on my writing, compelled to delve deeper into the past, to find
answers. A lone hawk silhouette in the noon sun. A fluorescent luna moth dances
from blue spruce to pine, aspen to cedar, mercurially through the paint brush
and dandelions and thistledown, to light on my left palm, the curling, twisting
tail caressing my encircled thumb and forefinger. I stroke the velvet chartreuse
wings, the Argusian eyes. The black and white etched wings kiss my fingertips.
Opening. Closing. Opening. Closing. Opening. Closing. I am a dry well filled.
Muscles loosen as pieces of a puzzle comfortably mesh. Behind me I feel a
shadow approach. Perspiration runs down my pale cheeks and drips onto my
sundress. The sparrows stop their chattering. The sky is cloudless with the
smell of bitter almonds. The image fades. I feel the thread from Merk tangle.

“Kay,
let’s go in. Are you okay?” One of his hands grips tight at my waist, the other
tight on my arm. His lips reassuringly brush my ear. I cannot allow him to see
behind my mask. I smile, obdurate, and enter the room through the center of the
three doors.

The
sunlight diminishes. I am with the dark again and out of the light and at
peace. The cool floor calms me. My feet feel fresh and clean, as though
removing my sandals and the dust on them had removed my questioning.

Inside
the temple, the sparsely furnished room has a feeling of asceticism. Remotely
placed at the other end, away from the three doors, the altar holds the small
Buddha. I anticipate a huge room-size god. This altar, however, possesses a
two-foot high, lotus seated, graven image. Carved from a single piece of
emerald jade, the statue is covered in a garment sewn from silk spun with gold.
The focal point forcing my attention, seducing my eyes as I approached from the
outside of the temple, is the small Buddha, beginning initially with the ascent
up the step—elicited to come up the path—educed to enter the temple
doors—magnetism compels me to cross the floor, to stand in front of the emerald
idol. I feel a oneness: a wholeness, a sanctifying fusion. The encounter is
unlike anything I have experienced in a Christian sanctuary. A suffusion with
Buddha Dahmna, the truth.

I
continue to stare into the statue’s eyes, into the emerald brilliance of opaque
darkness: into the gauche lightness of dark. I feel fear, sitting like a mother
brooding over her young, clawing, demonic, refusing to relinquish the
imprisoned offspring, damning me to an existence of pain, a symbiotic existence
without Merk.

My
shoulders shake.

“Kay,
what’s wrong? Are you alright? You look pale, baby.”

He allows me my silence.

“I
just get scared … far away from home … without Mother and Daddy …
sometimes … I feel small and alone … . “

“I’m
here.” He runs his fingers through my hair and pulls me toward him. “I’ll never
leave you.”

The
scent of bitter almonds draws me to the three doors. The flicker of a shadow
passes by the middle door and for a moment darkens the sun.


New York Times 18 Feb 1970

CIA Pilot Killed
First Casualty Plain of Jars

A U.S. helicopter pilot was killed by sniper fire while ferrying
supplies to beleaguered Laotian government forces on the Plain of Jars. The U.S.
Embassy  spokesman reported Sunday the pilot was identified as Jon Merkel of
Fort Worth, who was flying for Air America, a contract airlines to the Central
Intelligence Agency.  


Misprision

History is written as we speak, its borders are
mapped long before any of us open our mouths; and written history, which makes
the common knowledge out of which our newspapers report the events of the day,
creates its own refugees, displaced persons, men and women without a country,
the living dead: Are you still alive, really?

                 —Greil Marcus


Kay Merkel
Boruff
lived in Viet-Nam 68-70 & was married to an Air America pilot who
was killed flying in Laos 18 Feb 70. Her work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Vanity Fair, Texas
Short Stories 2, Taos Magazine, The Dallas Morning News, and the Wichita Falls Record News. In
addition, she has work in Suddenly,
Grasslands Review, Behind the Lines, Fifth Wednesday, Adanna, Stone Voices, and Paper Nautilus. Letters of her husband’s
and hers were included in Love and War,
250 Years of Wartime Love Letters. NPR interviewed Boruff regarding her
non-profit Merkel & Minor: Vets Helping Vets: A Class Act Production. She
attended Burning Man 2012 and then climbed Wayna Picchu in Peru on her 71st
birthday.

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