The next village turned out to be a scant half hour from our orchard, and if I’d known that I’d probably have chanced walking there while Katya was sleeping off a malaria attack. It would have been something to do, but I don’t know that it would have been worth the trip. It wasn’t much of a village, really, just the Burmese equivalent of a wide place in the road.
We managed to fill our begging bowls a few times, hit up the local teahouse for a couple of cups each, and snacked on cakes of sticky rice as we resumed our walk. I’d noticed over the past several days that we were doing more uphill than downhill walking, which suggested that we were gradually gaining altitude. This morning was the first time I actually felt the difference, in that I noticed the air was a little cooler and drier, and the vegetation less tropical. We were beginning to reach the hills.
I told Katya, and she was relieved to hear it. “I know it was harder for me to walk. We seemed to be walking uphill all the time.”
“Well, we are.”
“I was afraid it might be the malaria. It makes me weaker. I’m better now, Evan, but I am still not strong. I cannot go too fast.”
“We’ll take it easy,” I said, “and we’ll stop and rest more than usual.”
“I am slowing you down, Evan, I am sorry.”
“You’re not slowing me down.”
“But of course I am! You would not have to go so slow or rest so much. And you could walk at night.”
“I’d fall on my face. I wouldn’t be able to see where I was going.”
“You could walk longer and cover more miles each day. And you would not have to pretend you had taken a vow of silence, because you would not worry that a word from me would disclose that your companion was a woman. It is much more difficult for you to be with me, Evan, and more dangerous. I am sorry I made you take me with you.”
“You must be.”
“No,” I said. “Not at all. The dumb act I put on with other people isn’t just because I’ve got you with me. I’d probably do it anyway, to cover up the fact that I can’t speak the language and I don’t know a lot about being a monk. If I opened my mouth, I’d just put my foot in it.
“And I’d go nuts without you to talk to. We can’t talk when we’re around other people, and that’s one reason I’m always in a hurry to get away from the villages and get back on the road. It doesn’t matter whether we’re speaking Russian or English.”
“Because I am not so good in either one of them, Vanya.”
“You’re fine in both. I’m glad I have you with me. And I’m very happy you’re feeling better.”
“Yes, I feel much better. But it is not over, you know. The attack.”
“I was going to ask you about that.”
“The first night is over. And the third night is not so bad, and that is usually the end of it. After that there is some weakness and soreness, but the worst of it is over.”
“The third night’s not so bad,” I echoed. “Today’s the second day, isn’t it? What’s the second night like?”
“The second night is bad,” she said.
It hit her late in the afternoon. I had hoped we’d get to the next village before the fever caught up with her. It was the most substantial way station between Bagan and Taunggyi, and I thought I might be able to find aspirin there, and possibly quinine as well. Maybe I could get her indoors; failing that, I could at least scare up something a little better in the way of blankets than an old coat and a few towels.
“We can keep walking,” she insisted. “It’s not too bad yet, Evan.”
“Promise you’ll tell me when it is.”
“I won’t have to,” she said. “I’ll fall down.”
It was hard to know what pace to set. I wanted to walk faster, in order to beat the fever to our destination, but a faster pace meant a greater strain on Katya. She needed rest breaks, but they cost us precious time. I kept second-guessing myself until I just gave up trying to figure it out, and we found our own pace and just tried to keep moving.
The sun was lower and the air noticeably cooler when she stumbled, and I reached to steady her before she could fall. Her eyes were glassy, her cheeks bright with fever.
“We’ll stop here,” I said.
“No, Evan. I can go on.”
“It’s hopeless,” I said, but then I thought I saw something, and we walked another fifty yards and I could see smoke rising, drifting skyward from the cooking fires of the village that lay ahead of us.
The place was big enough to have outskirts, and I was tempted to stop at the first teahouse we saw. But if we stopped I wasn’t sure we could get started again. We kept going, aiming at the town center, and before we got there a couple of guys with shaved heads and red robes turned up to greet us with big smiles. The smiles faded to looks of concern when they got a look at Katya’s flushed cheeks and glazed stare.
One of them, the taller and older of the two – the alpha monk, I suppose – asked a question in Burmese. I caught a word or two and guessed that he was asking if my companion was all right, but I’d have figured that out even if he’d been speaking Martian. I did my little forefinger-to-the-lips routine, and I guess I wasn’t the only monk who’d sworn vows of silence, because he nodded as if this was quite normal. He nodded his head toward Katya, eyebrows raised, and for reply I took his hand and placed it on her forehead.
If I hadn’t recently touched her forehead myself, I’d have known her fever was high from the alarm that registered on his face. He looked at me and his eyes searched my face, registering my otherness.
He said, “European?”
That was close enough, and I nodded.
“Speak English? Français? Deutsch?”
Since German was his third choice, I nodded enthusiastically when he got to it. If rumors were going to drift back toward SLORC headquarters, let them be a couple of German monks. And let our communication take place in the tongue of which he was least confident.
“Come with us,” he said, in German that was a whole lot better than my Burmese. “We will help you.”
I put an arm around Katya’s waist. The other monk, the one who hadn’t said anything, took her shoulder bag, slung it over his own shoulder, and gripped her arm in his. And off we all walked, with the alpha monk leading the way.
I guess I didn’t want to think about how ill she was, or about our fate if the masquerade fell through. So all I could think about as we paraded through town was that she had just been touched by two men who’d have recoiled in horror if they’d known what she was.
How bad was it? I wondered. The contact was voluntary, at least in the case of the fellow who had taken hold of her arm. But it was done in ignorance.
Suppose a Catholic, in the days before Vatican II, ate meat on a Friday while thinking it was Thursday. Was it still a sin? Suppose he knew it was Friday but thought it was shad roe? Or suppose a Jew ate a ham sandwich under the impression that it was shad roe. Or suppose-
That was different, I decided. Eating meat on Friday was sinful, or used to be. Eating ham was unclean and a betrayal of one’s heritage. Touching a woman was something else, but I wasn’t sure what.
I was still pondering the point when we all kicked off our sandals and entered the monastery.
That’s what it was. It consisted of a walled compound of a couple of acres right smack in the middle of East Jesus, Burma, or whatever the hell they called the town. There were trees, including the sort under one of which Buddha was sitting when he attained enlightenment. (There’s something illuminating, evidently, about sitting under trees. A bodhi tree for Buddha, an apple tree for Sir Isaac Newton. The only thing I ever got sitting under a tree was shat on by starlings.)
There were three wooden buildings. We made our way past the largest one in the center to a smaller structure off to the right. We entered, climbed a flight of stairs, and walked along a floor of smooth polished planks. The room he led us to was small, unfurnished except for a narrow sleeping pallet on the floor.
“You will want to stay here with your friend,” the leader said. “Nicht wahr?”
I nodded, and he turned and said something to his friend, who went out and came back with a second pallet. He rolled it out on the floor next to the first. I eased Katya down on one of these and felt her forehead, and the alarm must have shown in my face.
He said, “It is malaria, ja?”
I opened my mouth, caught myself in time, and nodded.
“We have some medicine. And water. He should drink a good deal of water.”
And they brought medicine. I didn’t know what it was. There were tablets that were probably aspirin and capsules that might have been quinine, and there was a pot of herbal tea with a taste and bouquet that was new to me. I fed it all to Katya. She was in bad shape, shivering violently, heaving, her eyes rolling wildly in her head. I was afraid she might let out a stream of curses in high-pitched Russian. When the others left us at last, closing the door to our little room after them, I became less anxious that she would give the game away with a word.
I crouched beside her, put my lips to her ear. “Try to rest,” I urged her. “We’re alone now, but the walls are thin. You can whisper if you want.”
“Where are we, Vanya?”
“We have our own room,” I said. “In a sort of dormitory, from the looks of it.”
“Monks,” she said.
“All monks, Vanya?”
“I need something to drink.”
“More water? Or more of the herbal tea?”
“Is that what it was? It tasted like boiled grass.”
“You may have guessed the recipe. Which do you want?”
“I will take some water,” she said, “because it is good for me, but that is not what I want. Can you get me whiskey?”
“Jesus,” I said. “I don’t see how.”
“Something with alcohol. Ayet piu, they must have it for sale in this town.”
“Are you sure it’s a good idea, Katya?”
“It is the best idea there is,” she said. “I have had this many times, Evan. Nothing helps like alcohol. I don’t care what it says in the books. I know what my experience tells me, and… God, I’m burning up!”
She threw aside the blankets they’d given me to cover her with, then began trembling violently and reached again for the blankets.
“I swear it helps,” she said. “Please, Vanya? Can you get me some?”
The market was small – a couple dozen stalls, each taking up just a few square feet. I looked them over, and their proprietors looked me over, evidently surprised to see a monk shopping, and in the evening, too.
“Ayet piu,” I said to one of them, hoping I was pronouncing it correctly. He gaped at me, and it was hard to tell if he didn’t understand what I wanted or couldn’t believe a monk would want it.
“Ayet piu,” I said again, and mimed guzzling from a bottle, my head thrown back.