Allen Varney, Writer and Game Designer


Following the Elephant

by Allen Varney

When the rains came to Chieng Mai, the townspeople honored their new temple, Wat Puppharama, by casting the largest Retreat Candle any monk had ever seen. A pillar of yellow wax tall as the abbot and round as the abbot's deputy, it burned through the months of monsoon. It filled the wiharn with a delicate cinnamon scent and cast golden light on the Buddha idol, the puja bowls, and the offerings of lotus flowers, rice, and blankly staring pigs' heads.

At last the candle flame guttered. The initiates felt satisfied and relieved to complete the three months' service every young man owed the temple. For ninety sunless days they had chanted, begged food, meditated, and studied the Buddha's teachings, the Dhamma. Now they could grow their hair again, eat after noon, sleep on soft straw, and consort with women. None would stay to join the monastic order, the Sangha.

"A disappointment for our first year, but I expected nothing different," said Manich, the deputy, on the first clear morning in months. Standing on the wat's steps, the heavy old man looked with distant tolerance at the initiates across the compound. They still wore saffron robes, but they had omitted the morning chants. Now they roughhoused vigorously. "None of them have proved such a find as you, Brother Sapachai," he continued.

The spare, handsome young man at the foot of the steps bowed his shaved head. Sapachai had learned to take compliments gracefully, for in the last year he had received many. He kept scrubbing the pillar of the spirit house, a flower-draped white enclosure like a palatial birdhouse. The monks had built the spirit house before they began the temple. Of course they made the small house much nicer than the large one. Otherwise, mischievous spirits would move in with the monks.

"Your learning surpasses belief," Manich continued. "When you joined us as an initiate at the old wat during last year's Rains Retreat, could you read or write?"

"A bit of Thai, Brother."

"Only Thai. Yet you learned the sacred language of the Buddha in mere months. The brothers tell me you have already mastered many volumes of the Dhamma. Brother Damrong speaks highly of your recitation of the sixteen types of desire and the twenty-eight causes of injurious pride, and you learned all 227 rules of our code in one hearing."

Sapachai put down his scrub-pail and wiped his shaven scalp. "I enjoy the benefit of Brother Damrong's excellent teachings."

Manich snorted. "You alone perceive this excellence. Your respect speaks well. So does your adherence to the ceremonies. The abbot himself has said that in previous lives you must have earned much merit."

The heart in Sapachai's thin chest swelled with at least three kinds of injurious pride. But showing it would bring Manich's disdain. Politely disregarding the tribute, Sapachai asked, "Has the abbot decided how to relocate the second relic, brother?"

Manich smiled. "Yes, he has taken your suggestion about the elephant. Even now he informs many of the brothers over in the bot."

Sapachai's eyes widened. He bowed to Manich, absently placed his sponge in the deputy's hands, and walked with restrained eagerness to his cell. He reached across the hardwood slats of his bed to pick up his sculpture, walked to the front gate, turned past the high wall, casually adjusted his robe to cover his right shoulder, and, once out of sight, ran as if chased by tigers.

Chieng Mai's walls lay only twenty-five sen east. In the late morning sunshine Sapachai's bare feet kicked up sprays of brown mud. He passed three farmers bent beneath sheaves of rice threshings, then a pair of white oxen pulling a cart loaded with the season's first bananas. He ran better once he reached the white-pebbled stretch of road that the king had ordered built between the town's new Temple Gate and Wat Puppharama. Workmen stopped and leaned on their hoes as Sapachai approached, ready to donate forenoon alms. As he rushed by, they stared after him, then shrugged.

Sapachai ran because he loved his mother. In the fifteen months since he joined the order, the widow's pride in him had restored her youth. She herself could not join, of course, so her son's commitment gladdened her. Nothing else earned a woman so much merit; it immensely improved her prospects for rebirth as a man. She had few other chances for merit, there in that tiny village half a day's walk northwest toward Mae Rim.

With seventy-eight people in fourteen families in twelve wooden huts (with associated spirit houses); a well, a granary, and three outhouses; eight rice padis and two fields of beans, cassava, bananas, and rattan palms; eighteen oxen, forty-three longhair goats, ten score chickens, and far too many rats, cats, flies, and cobras, Sapachai's village fit snugly in a sentence. It had no name, let alone a temple. If the Sangha would build one nearby, his family would gain endless occasions for merit. He judged the solution straightforward: Entrust an elephant with the temple's location, then guide the elephant.

Sapachai crossed the Arrug canal bridge and stopped at the gate to catch his breath. A guard in belted yellow jacket and silk breeches bowed his head and his spear together, then resumed talking with a young farmwoman wearing a linen halter and a long skirt of red and yellow songkhet silk. Sapachai saw the woman when she saw him, and both quickly turned away. The young monk did not like Chieng Mai, for he found it hard to avoid women here.

Yet in another way he loved the town. Neat wooden buildings with shingle roofs and spirit houses stood among trimmed fig trees, banded light and dark in the sun. Shaded by wide rattan hats, workers loaded rice, silk, and fruit onto water taxis drifting gunwale-low along Chieng Mai's emerald canal. Two dozen stupas, massive domed shrines with tall spires, loomed over streets loud with merchants and carpenters and shopping women. Everywhere Sapachai saw temples, heard ringing bells from their courtyards, and smelled puja incense. He thought, His Majesty and the Sangha have made this place great through the word of the enlightened Buddha.

Now for the wizard.

Sapachai wandered a muddy street, nervous. He had made no appointment, did not know where to find the wizard, and had no idea where he lived, if he lived anywhere. To find anyone in this anthill would take --

"Ho, Sap! Over here."

Sapachai saw a fruitseller's stall with a few wooden stools. On one sat the forest wizard, Leki Sataralitsa. Sapachai could not mistake the wizard's pumpkin head, round Asian face, stubble of hair, and, sunk in the fleshy orbits of his eyes, black irises that practically glittered with feral cunning. He wore only a necklace of silver Akha pendants and a skirt of brown linen that creased oddly beneath his rotund belly. Tattoos of obscure symbols ornamented his upper arms.

Leki waved vaguely and swallowed a mouthful of durian, a spiky fruit as large as his head. Its piercing lamp-oil odor revolted Sapachai, as did Leki's messy enthusiasm in eating it, but he sat on the next stool. The old fruitseller smiled and put her hands together in a wai of respect. Sapachai murmured a blessing. He had forgotten his begging bowl, but she offered fruit anyway. He politely refused a slice of durian, but took a mangosteen.

"So, boy," said Leki, "you have an eager look. Do you come to buy what I have?" He grinned like a rhesus monkey. The wizard still had all his teeth, white and perfect. Sapachai thought they gave Leki a juvenile, predatory look. The young man unconsciously ran his tongue over his own three front teeth.

"The abbot has taken my suggestion. My plan will work, if you have the, the item."

"Indeed I do." Leki glanced at the old woman and said, "Leave." At once she scurried out of earshot. Leki reached into his sack, a bucket-sized pouch of lemur skin. "But first, I have some small things that might interest you. A love potion? A charm to gain wealth?"

Sapachai tried to decide if Leki's tattooed symbols had moved. "I have no need. A good monk does not seek selfish love or wealth."

"How about this, boy? A sharpened toe-bone from a wild pig. You plunge it into a side of meat, and within a day a real boar approaches your doorstep and falls dead."

The wizard's lack of respect for him, a monk, irritated Sapachai. "I would never use that. Monks, and all Buddhists, refrain from killing."

"Why do monks eat meat, then?"

"The Dhamma permits it, when someone else kills the animal."

Leki plucked an ant from Sapachai's fruit, then crushed it between his fingers. "Just serving the Sangha. Now here I have an item that clears mice from your home or temple." He reached elbow-deep into the sack, rummaged around, and brought out a fistful of woven brown grass.

"See this? A mouse nest. I raised a fine female mouse in this nest, fed her pure ox-milk and honeyed rice, and perfumed her fur. I tell you, I made her happy. Her nest took on that good essence. Put it on the ground and it draws mice."

"But what happened to the happy mouse?"

Leki shrugged. "To get her out of the nest I had to twist her head off."

Sapachai's impatience overcame politeness. "No, understand, I have little time. Can you just give me the elephant charm?"

Leki reached into his sack all the way up to his shoulder. Sapachai looked away and tried not to think about it. The wizard brought out a green glass vial plugged with wax. It measured no longer than his index finger. Leki handled it carefully.

"I must warn you about this powder, boy. Very powerful. You know what I mean by namman praj? You make it with blood drawn from the skull of a fresh corpse. The most powerful namman comes from a woman who died while pregnant or in childbirth. This comes from an elephant that died during birth, the actual mother of the sacred white elephant you'll use."

Sapachai blinked twice. "That sounds like it will work very well."

"Work well? You can make that elephant climb up its own trunk and get all sticky. Now, put the namman in this." In one stub-fingered hand Leki held out a sewn pouch of thick gray leather. "Elephant skin. Tie the pouch to this stick." From his sack he pulled a finger length of bamboo. "Point the stick, and the elephant walks in the direction you point. Point it down, and the elephant stops. Point it straight up, and the elephant can move where it likes. In that case the pouch shows the way to the elephant. Pay me."

Sapachai handed Leki the sculpture. To earn it he had spent endless evenings teaching the Dhamma to the artistic but slow-thinking brother Dhanit. Dhanit finished the statuette early in the Rains, but he needed the whole Retreat to memorize the Buddha's basic teachings. The Enlightened One's Four Noble Truths said those who would realize nibbana, freedom from suffering, must free themselves of selfish desire. Sapachai considered his own desire to strangle Dhanit completely unselfish, for the world could only benefit with one less dunce.

Leki caressed the statuette with lurid intensity. "The nagas, the seven-headed serpents, I love them. I love this one, with these detailed, close-laid scales, and the perfect fangs like a viper's, and the polished grain of, I'll guess, cypress wood?"

"You have a good eye. See how the artist has worked this knot in the wood beneath the belly to become a turtle, the symbol of longevity, sheltered by the naga's curling tail."

"Very nice." The wizard tucked the statue into his sack. "Far better than the usual amulets."

"At our temple the people buy all the amulets and talismans we can make."

"Do you still find the market strong for holy water? On my way into town I saw a monk in the jungle, burning candles in tubs of water. He seemed popular with the villagers."

Sapachai pursed his lips. "Aranyika, forest monks. They do not join the temples. They live out in the woods and evade temple discipline. Sometimes they claim magical powers. The Buddha expressly prohibited this."

"Monks can't dabble in magic, hmm?" Leki glanced down at the pouch of namman.

"Well, this -- I make no claim to anyone -- and, and I have a worthy goal that I need not apologize for!"

"Who could doubt this? Ah, I see your brothers have shown up."

Sapachai whipped around. The abbot, the deputy, the elders, and even some initiates had just crossed the bridge and passed through the gate, half a sen away. He leaped down behind Leki, out of sight.

"I take it they have come to town to receive their elephant," said Leki. "How good they did not see you pursuing your worthy goal. There, they've gone on."

Sapachai stood. He thought of many good reasons for his behavior, but only said coldly, "I have to go now."

"I'll see you again." Leki bit into another slice of durian.

Sapachai looked straight up to see the sun. He regretted not bringing his alms bowl. If he couldn't eat now, he would go hungry until the next sunrise. He begged a few pineapple slices and some roasted walnuts from merchants, then wolfed down the light meal as he ran after the monks.

They marched in twin lines, straight upright like the teeth of two saffron combs -- unused combs, for none of them had hair. Passing the small monument that marked where lightning had struck King Mengrai, the brothers turned north on Phra Pokklao and arrived at Wat Duang Di. Their passage drew a crowd. Workers and wives converged on the temple, sensing an occasion to make merit that would gain them higher station in their next life. As citizens took the opportunity to pray, smiling monks stood in the temple wiharn to approve all merit made.

Just at noon, the aged abbot stood on the shaded white steps of the temple. He had rich smooth skin and a long narrow face with sunken cheeks. Many years ago this monk, the famous Sumanathera, had travelled to the Mon country of Burma to receive ordination from the great sage Udambara, who had come from distant Sihala, Ceylon, to revive the neglected rites of Therevada Buddhism.

He spoke to a gallery of reverent faces, each framed by a conical rattan hat. "My sons and daughters, in the new Wat Puppharama we recently enshrined our relic of the Buddha. A god revealed the relic to me in a dream years ago. He bade me dig in the ruins of Pang Cha, where beneath an ancient stupa I found a brass urn. I found in it, nested one inside the other, a silver urn, a gold urn, and finally an urn of white coral. Inside the coral urn I found a brown clod the size of a pomegranate seed, with a crack around it. I opened the clod and found inside it a white particle, the relic of our venerated Buddha."

Smiles and nods from the townspeople. Some bowed their heads in prayer.

"His Glorious Majesty Keu Na generously built our new temple to enshrine the relic. The Sangha thanks its retainer, Muong Nan, for looking after the relic while we waited for our new home."

The smiles and nods now favored a lank farmer at the back of the crowd. A broad toothless grin split his face, and he nodded with frantic politeness. Sapachai recognized Muong, one of the lay people who managed the temple's financial dealings. Monks could not touch money.

"When we came to install the relic in its stupa," the abbot said, "Muong discovered a second miracle. Without itself shrinking in any way, the relic had calved a smaller duplicate."

People gasped, then in unison placed their hands together and made deep bows, the respectful wai. Some fingered brass Buddha pendants.

"We have a second relic, and so we will build a second temple for it. Where to build this temple? We have decided to seek guidance from the heavens, using the noblest of all animals, a sacred white elephant. We will place the relic in a small stupa on the back of the elephant, loose it outside the walls, and wherever it gives us a sign, we will build the temple there."

Amid the approving murmurs, Sapachai closed his eyes. Yes! he thought. It worked!

The abbot said, "Very soon we expect His Majesty to send an emissary with --"

"The king! The king!"

The townsman's call rang from the gate, and at once the abbot's audience vanished. Crowds rushed to flank the entrance. A minister in a braided yellow jacket and skirt walked through with long strides. He spotted the abbot, nodded, and returned to the street, where he blew a shrill call on a trumpet. Up the street, music began. Sapachai noticed the abbot's startled look.

In the temple compound no one breathed. The minister returned, leading a procession of palace women who spread lotus petals and swung censers. To a march by drums, xylophones, and gongs, a line of courtiers bearing nine-level parasols strutted through the temple gate. A huge gray bull elephant followed. Sapachai's heart raced at the sight of the beast. Gold spheres capped its curling tusks, and a yellow-clad mahout rode its neck. A howdah of teak and silver, held around the beast's midriff with straps of tasseled calfskin, carried an aged man, shaded by an awning of white silk woven with threads of gold.

Shouting and prodding its flank with a long golden goad, the mahout stopped the elephant. As it knelt, a huge bald man in servant dress, dwarfed by the carpet he carried, ran forward. As he unrolled the carpet, a bearer scurried up with the royal ladder and knelt as His Revered Majesty Keu Na deigned to descend.

Despite his sixty years, His Majesty climbed down with vigor. His lineage of seven centuries showed in his sculpted profile, broad chin, forthright stare, and pendulous earlobes. A full gray-black moustache adorned his lip, but no hair showed under his conical gold crown and skullcap.

As soon his bare feet touched carpet, he spread his arms, inhaled deeply, and said, "Well. People, His Majesty greets you with serene delight, for he brings wonderful news." In the hush he strode toward the monks. Two courtiers kept pace, each bearing a pole with the nine parasols that symbolized royalty.

Citizens fell face down as His Majesty passed. Sapachai started to fall himself, but Manich restrained him with a brusque shake of his head. Sapachai suddenly recalled with disquiet that monks did not bow to the king. In Ayutthaya and decadent Angkor, citizens venerated their monarchs as gods, but Lan Na still gave pride of place to the Sangha.

An awkward moment followed as His Majesty approached the abbot, then hesitated. Monks shifted from foot to foot, stared at their feet, or fidgeted while His Majesty stepped haltingly before Sumanathera and ever so slightly inclined his head. Only the abbot accepted the king's homage with composure.

"Well," said King Keu Na, turning to the crowd. "Reverend Father Sumanathera, His Majesty has received your request for the sacred white elephant, and His Majesty answers herewith. We provide not only the elephant, but more. We hereby volunteer to fund the entire cost of the new temple!"

Rapturous applause. Eyes wide, the abbot wavered as though fainting, and Manich rushed to support him.

His Majesty smiled, exposing twin rows of polished teakwood teeth. "Not only does this accumulate for His Majesty much merit, more than anything else --"

(Except becoming a monk, Sapachai thought primly.)

"-- But it also reaffirms His Majesty's indomitable sovereignty over the kingdom of Lan Na. Better than walls of rock, our temples stand as walls of belief against our enemies."

At that moment a bearer beside His Majesty slipped in his footing, causing a nine-level parasol to lean alarmingly. While the servant fought to right it, king and abbot shouted, with one voice, "Catch that!" Monks and courtiers rushed to obey, and they kept the parasol aloft.

When all stood as before, Sapachai wondered, if the abbot and His Majesty had given different orders, whose command would the people obey? How fortunate that they always agreed.

His Majesty said, "Bring forth the sacred white elephant!"

A snaking trunk, a cloud-white tusk striped with ruby red, a knurled brow cresting in a casque of velvet and gold, ringed with emeralds: Sapachai stared in wonder, thinking, Greater than monks, greater than kings. No finer creature breathes in this world. He thought to see serenity in its coral pink eyes. Ears that looked soft as swaddling quilts swayed gently as the small bull walked into the soundless courtyard. It placed its steps with stately deliberation and a kind of grace. Red polish adorned its nails. Its hide shone, not pearl white as he supposed, but a creamy tan like one part black tea to six parts milk. On its back, held at throat, girth, and tail by a gem-studded harness, a white stupa an arm-span high rested on a patterned silk blanket of red, white, and yellow. A mahout walked alongside, for no one could ride the sacred creature.

Greater than kings, than saints, an emissary from the heavens. Like the ache of first love Sapachai felt a sharp urge to walk in the mahout's place, to gain respect and merit by fellowship with the elephant, and even to own it. Searching the faces of his fellow monks and of the crowd, he saw the same yearning, powerful in its oddity. He had never thought about owning a white elephant, so the desire struck pure and uninhibited.

"Present the elephant!"

A minister read from a palm-leaf book. "We present His Esteemed Majesty's most prized elephant, known throughout the realm as Jewel of the Lotus, Most Sacred of Great and Perfect Elephants, Blessed by the Radiant Buddha and the Enlightened Gods of the Thirty-Two Heavens, Whose Hide Partakes of the Crystal Purity of the Upper Spheres of Shining Light, and Forever Guarantees by Its Sanctity the Prosperity of His Glorious Majesty Keu Na's Realm of Lan Na Thai, the Million Thai Ricefields."

King Keu Na looked askance. "For convenience we will call the elephant Jewel. Well. His Majesty now requests the monks to install the relic in the elephant's stupa, then all may accompany it to the north gate of the city. As the monks pursue His Majesty's sacred elephant, let the people of Chieng Mai know this happy news. His Majesty, himself, in his own person, travels with them, to witness the sign!"

A chorus of gasps from citizens and monks. Again the abbot looked ready to faint. By contrast, Sapachai fell because he reeled backward off the temple porch. While the other monks observed Muong deliver the relic to the abbot, and while they chanted blessings as the abbot placed it in the stupa, Sapachai stole unnoticed into the wiharn.

He prayed at his fastest speed to the wat's principal Buddha idol. It looked glorious, a shining robed figure sitting cross-legged with a serene smile, flaming hair, and hands poised in the gesture of abhaya-mudra, dispelling fear. The Buddha had made that gesture, fingers up and palm outward, to halt the attack of a rampaging white elephant. Sapachai wondered whether the bronze image concealed a secret. The Sangha told many tales of priceless golden Buddhas that monks had hidden beneath a layer of dull clay or bronze to fool invaders.

Clanging music from His Majesty's ensemble drifted in from the street. Alone in the wiharn, Sapachai fished from his robes the vial, hide pouch, and bamboo stick. Gouging out the vial's plug, he looked in and saw red-black powder. Slow swells rolled across the grainy surface of the namman praj, distinct from the vial's motion. It gave forth a dry, meaty scent. He held the vial well away and poured the namman into the open pouch. The last few particles crawled from the rim of their own accord and followed the others down.

The pouch had a leather drawstring that Sapachai drew tight and tied three times. As he tied the loose ends to the stick, the pouch started to wriggle like a fish under his palm. In a panic he dropped the stick.

Far up Phra Pokklao the music broke off and a shout arose from the crowd. Sapachai realized the stick had fallen wrong, diverting the elephant. He seized the stick and pointed it straight up.

At once the pouch floated up and stretched out to the north, toward the elephant. The distant shouts quieted.

"Point the stick up and the elephant goes where it wants." Sapachai recited Leki's instructions over and over. He found calm in the repetition, like meditation. With exquisite care he hid the stick in his robes, pointing it upward. The floating pouch bulged out, embarrassing him until he crossed his arms to hide it.

Outside, he raced with arms crossed up Phra Pokklao, but now he heard no music. At the high gate in the north wall, the Hua-viang gate, he saw Muong, caretaker of the relics. Muong's prominent jaw jutted under a nose that swept back and up to a receding forehead. As Sapachai ran up, Muong smiled at the sky. "Look at the falcon up there, reverend father. I love to think myself a bird, flying high across the land."

Sapachai thought to reprimand Muong, for rebirth as a bird implied a burden of kamma from this life's misdeeds. Given his sunburnt, tea-colored skin and rustic black farmer's pants, Muong's kamma evidently burdened him enough already. But after all, the Buddha had lived several of his last 550 lives as a bird, and one as a white elephant. "Where has the elephant gone, Muong?"

"Many sen west down the road. His Majesty and the abbot ride after on two other elephants. Everyone else goes too. I stayed because I have an errand. I enjoyed seeing them --"

He broke off, for Sapachai already ran west. Muong stared after him, blinked twice, then set off north. Soon he too began to run.

From that time people called the gate Chang Puak, White Elephant Gate.

For a time all went well. They proceeded along the Huay Kaeo trail northwest of the city. Jewel, bearing the small stupa, led a parade of two gray elephants bearing howdahs, a dozen monks marching in tight order, a babbling mob of two dozen ministers and courtiers, and a hundred straggling townspeople. Nine kinds of grass grew waist-high in this meadow, flat as a plank save for a few stands of bamboo. In the near distance ahead of them stood green foothills, with powder-blue mountains beyond.

With the sky clear for the first time in months, an almost dry path, and half a day of sunlight ahead, Sapachai felt more a king than Keu Na himself. He felt the valley his to take. Walking beside the abbot's elephant, just behind His Majesty's, he held his arm close to his side, subtly guiding the stick beneath his robes. A few trials convinced him that the white elephant did indeed move as the stick pointed. When King Keu Na briefly ordered his mount off to one side to inspect a passing farmer's oxcart, Sapachai discovered that the pouch did not control the gray elephants. He did not care.

He thought of drawing the white elephant to him. He might make it kneel before him, as a sign from the gods. He, Sapachai, could ride the sacred creature that not even His Majesty could ride. The thought thrilled him, for he had never ridden an elephant. In lofty majesty he would lead them to the temple site, and they would follow.

"Brother, would you care to ride?" the abbot asked him.

Flattered, Sapachai accepted. While the other monks looked on smiling, the mahout made the abbot's gray elephant kneel, then climbed down. Sapachai straddled the broad neck just ahead of the abbot's howdah. Bristles scratched his thighs and calves as the creature paced, left legs then right, rocking him like a boat in rapids. His position astride the neck also brought embarrassing discomfort, and he wondered how the mahouts stood it. As it walked, the elephant constantly snatched clumps of grass, and at these times its head angled so that Sapachai nearly pitched over. After a remarkably short time he had learned the entire breadth and depth of the elephant-riding experience, and he dismounted with relief. For some time he walked bowlegged. His dream of riding the white elephant never returned.

He listened as king and abbot conversed. His Majesty asked, "Reverend Father, what sign must the elephant give, that His Majesty may decree a temple site?"

"The Dhamma does not comment, Your Majesty. We will trust the elephant to offer a dramatic sign."

"Well. Let us also rely on His Majesty's ability to interpret signals. By such acute observation the illustrious King Mengrai founded Chieng Mai almost a century ago. He sought a place to build his new capital. When he saw a large mouse and four small mice run down a hole under a bo tree, he decreed this a favorable omen and built the city there. Here."

"Well done," said the abbot. Any omen involving the sacred bo tree brought the Sangha's blessing. "We place sublime confidence in Your Majesty's judgment of the sacred elephant's signs."

At that moment the white elephant emitted a fibrous green dropping. The abbot changed the subject. "Perhaps Your Majesty might advise us on appropriate imagery to ornament our new temple."

"Well. Something that inspires devotion to the Sangha and the state. And to the Buddha, of course. More than the usual statues, murals, stupas. Something noteworthy."

"Perhaps paintings of the Heavens, or the spirit world. Nagas or prets."


"The spirits of those who pursued desires excessively in life, condemned to desire in vain for millennia until their next reincarnation."

"Hmm," said His Majesty, contemplating the flat plain below. "You know, I think I will dig a canal here." He called to a minister and arranged the details.

Meanwhile, Sapachai debated where to put his temple. He recalled a likely clearing, within easy walk of his village, at the crest of the hill ahead. He guided Jewel to a wide rain gully leading up the hill.

The elephant clambered up the gully, uprooting weeds and bushes with its passage. Mahouts shouted and ran to confer with one another.

"What excites them so?" His Majesty asked.

The minister quizzed the drivers. "Your Majesty, they find the elephant's behavior most strange. They say elephants do not like to climb steep hills."

Sapachai winced at his mistake, but Keu Na smiled. "A propitious omen. The elephant intends remarkable things. Forward!"

The gray elephants, beyond Sapachai's control, showed no desire to pursue Jewel. Mahouts shouted and beat them with hooks. They responded with loud trumpets, the first sounds they had made all day. His Majesty stamped on the floor of his padded howdah, but even this could not persuade his elephant. Sapachai held Jewel in place while the persuasion continued. At last, slowly, the elephants followed.

In the shadowed forest the air clung like a spider's web. Humid, still, and smelling of earth, it played tricks with sound, muffling the footsteps of nearby followers but carrying distant crackling and calls with perfect clarity. Twenty steps up the hillside Sapachai felt a hundred days out of civilization. In a stretch of mud he saw, moments before passing feet obscured it, a single tiger track.

The bamboo, palms, and shadowing hardwoods reminded him of his youth, that time of turmoil before he joined the Sangha last year. His need to display his mind, to gain the admiration his gifts deserved, brought friction in his village as painful as these branches now scratching his arms. Dissatisfaction, which the Buddha had seen as the essential nature of existence, more than once drove Sapachai into the forest to nurse his sullen pride. Now the Sangha led him on the Buddha's Eightfold Path to eliminate suffering. By gaining merit through many lifetimes to come, he would grow wise and understand the futility of desire, the non-existence of self. Then he would become free from rebirth. His transformation made him proud.

Sapachai felt elated as he guided the white elephant upward. The others, too, showed joy even as they slipped and barked their shins on the muddy slope. All followed the white elephant's movements with fascination. When a log snapped under its foot, His Majesty's elephant crashed to its knees, setting His Majesty's conical crown askew and nearly casting His Majesty from the howdah. Yet he remained exuberant, though pale. "The elephant seeks the summit. A miracle of the Buddha!"

After a long, noisy struggle, Jewel attained the hilltop. Sapachai reached within his sweat-drenched robe and carefully pointed the stick down. The elephant halted. On the slope below, the dripping followers cried out in joy.

Atop the hill the sun shone warm on a green meadow of low grass, close-cropped by wild goats. Yellow butterflies flitted in pairs among the scarlet bells of rhododendrons. Emerging from the forest into a quickening breeze, His Majesty ordered his elephant to a halt and smiled.

"Well. Our goal at last." The burly carpetbearer ran from the forest. He might have emerged from the River Ping, he looked so wet. He unrolled the carpet on the moist ground, brushing away a cloud of beetles and a dust of spores. Descending, His Majesty glanced at the abbot, who nodded and smiled.

King Keu Na spread his arms wide. "Our sacred white elephant has chosen -- well! His Majesty christens this fair place Doi Chang Norn, the hill where the elephant stopped. We will build the temple here, wherever the elephant indicates."

Sapachai wished the elephant would do something His Majesty could construe as a dramatic sign. Trumpeting, perhaps. Or he might have the beast turn around a few times. Yes, that sounded well. He turned the stick end for end.

It twisted under his hand! Sapachai cried out as the stick jerked within his robes like a thrusting spear. The crowd's exclamation drowned his own, for once again the white elephant moved. It walked to the far edge of the clearing and into the trees. Mahouts ran to keep it in sight.

Sapachai stared, mouth open, the westering sun burning his eyes. The hidden stick pointed after the departing elephant, beyond his strength to move.

"Well," said His Majesty. He blinked twice. He sighed and climbed back to his howdah, and the abbot followed suit. As they pursued, the carpetbearer sighed and rolled up the muddied rug. The monks trailed after, their close order now ragged. Courtiers and servants followed with ill grace, but the townspeople, balancing curiosity against scratches and bites and hunger, found curiosity an overvalued luxury.

The abbot looked back to watch them go. "The simple people lack commitment. The elephant obviously seeks a better site. Remind me of that passage from the Dhamma, Brother Sapachai --"

But when he looked down, Sapachai had disappeared.

Running headlong downhill through the shaded forest, scaling boulders and leaping gullies, Sapachai soon passed Jewel. Where he had once longed to own the white elephant, now he wished above all to know what took it from him. In a nimbus of mosquitoes he floundered across a bushy saddle and up the next slope. Now both elephant and monk headed away from Sapachai's village. Both knew exactly where to go. The stick pointed the way.

At last he reached the next hilltop, many sen beyond his chosen temple site. The late afternoon sun cast orange light on a clearing more beautiful than the first. He saw a young sal tree, a thick brown-barked pillar with a tangle of leafy branches just above arm's reach. Beside it stood the farmer, Muong.

He held a bamboo pole as long as his forearm. Shocked and alarmed, Sapachai saw hanging from the pole an elephant-skin pouch twice as large as his own.

"Hello, Reverend Father," said Muong. He tried clumsily to hide the pole, then stood with a guilty grin.

"You? You have the namman praj?"

"From the worthy Leki Sataralitsa."

"What? How did you pay him?"

"I gave him a durian from my farm. It grew in a strange bulbous shape that resembles King Keu Na."

The wizard's duplicity infuriated Sapachai. Worse, this peasant had received a larger pouch than he had, and a longer length of bamboo. Sapachai heard the elephant and followers blundering up the hill toward them. He stretched out his hand. "Muong, I need your big pouch! I need your long stick! Please give them over."


"Think of me, a brother of -- a reverend father of the Sangha. You will earn much merit!"

"I will earn merit when His Majesty builds his temple near my village. I can pray there many times a day."

"Your selfish desire will bring the kamma of low rebirth. I must prevent this. Give!" Sapachai grabbed at the stick and kicked at Muong's shin. Muong yelled in panic and pulled free. He flailed at the monk's head, then ran, letting his bamboo pole point this way and that. While he pursued, Sapachai heard a distant clamor as the elephant turned, doubled back, and turned again, leading His Majesty and followers on a tortuous path.

Finally Sapachai treed Muong. The farmer scaled the sal tree, rousting tragopan pheasants, fruit bats, and a family of screeching langurs. Muong kicked down to discourage pursuit and intently pointed his stick. Sapachai circled the resinous tree trunk like a hound. The elephant would arrive soon.

"Muong. Think of the Buddha's displeasure at your callous, selfish relocation of his second relic. Far from earning merit, you will earn reproof in the deepest hell. For example, think of the passage in the Samyutta Nikaya, wherein --"

"That does not worry me. I made the relic myself."


"The second relic. I made it from a shaving of plaster, while I looked after the real relic. I wanted a temple near my village. You ruined everything with your stupid elephant idea, until the wizard told me of his magic blood."

"You lie disgracefully!"

"I speak truth."

"You cannot gain merit at a temple with a false relic!"

"Why not?"

Sapachai abandoned the argument in frustration. He had pursued a phantom. For him, if not for Muong, its disclosure ruined all purpose. A forged relic! If you could forge a relic of the Buddha, what could you not forge?

The reddened sun touched the western mountain crest. A hoarse wheezing rose behind Sapachai as Jewel staggered onto the hilltop. Its pale hide now scratched and dirtied, its stupa askew, the elephant stumbled once, then walked haltingly toward the tree. With a laugh Muong pointed his stick to the ground, and Jewel instantly lay down with a deep groan.

The stick now stretched down within Sapachai's reach. Reflexively he started to grab it, but then he could not think why. While he debated, King Keu Na's bull elephant reached the clearing and knelt without prompting. The abbot's elephant followed, then straggling courtiers, monks, and servants, all gasping.

His Majesty had to snap his fingers twice before his carpetbearer managed to unroll his dirty rug. His Majesty watched the white elephant warily, looking for signs of activity, then descended the waiting ladder. Bearer and courtiers appeared to welcome the chance to fall prone as His Majesty passed. Monks squatted with glazed looks.

Keu Na smiled. "Well. No wonder the elephant would not pause at the first hill! His Majesty must say, Jewel has led us to a far better site for the temple. Record in the histories that His Majesty pronounces this place Sanam Doi Ngam, the beautiful level hilltop." The abbot nodded approval, but no one budged to record the pronouncement.

Muong, hidden in branches, pounded the tree limb in his excitement. Sapachai, hiding behind the trunk without knowing why, felt forlorn. He had not so much lost hope as lost sight of what he'd hoped for. First he thought, At least my mother can pray here, closer to her home. With his next thought he wondered whether that would bring merit, and then whether "merit" held meaning at all.

At the thought, the short stick in Sapachai's robe twisted again, digging into his ribs. In the tree Muong's stick also jerked to point the same way, to the setting sun, and Muong gasped with fear.

Followers looked on in dreadful silence as Jewel struggled to its feet again. His Majesty and the abbot together said, "No." But the wheezing elephant trudged west. Ahead of it -- Sapachai groaned -- ahead lay the tallest, steepest, least elephant-ridden mountain around: Doi Suthep. Sapachai stared in confusion, Muong in despair as Jewel moved straight downhill toward Doi Suthep and vanished into the forest.

Six seconds passed. Then His Majesty said in a carrying voice, "Reverend Father, His Majesty observes grave flaws in this plan."

The abbot, too, appeared testy. "Perhaps the gods test our devotion, Your Majesty, but I cannot think the test proper for your esteemed self."

"His Majesty agrees. We might with unreproachable justice abandon the scheme right now."

The abbot sat in silence. Monks and ministers looked on with uncertain eyes. Sapachai could see their fatigue. Yet history and belief had taught persistence to the Thai. Their ancestors faced hardship during oppressive centuries in Yunnan, in wars against the Khmer and Pagan, and in endless skirmishes with hill tribes and with the Shan in Burma. Those ancestral spirits lingered in the land, sustaining their children's strength. A Khmer monarch, scornful of spirits, would sacrifice the elephant and level the hill to build his temple. China's Ming emperor would never have left his palace in the first place. Only the gods knew what a Vietnamese might do. But these Thai of Lan Na, people of fortitude and adhesive purpose, would follow a miracle until their feet fell off.

Keu Na climbed back to his howdah. He scowled at the beautiful level hilltop. "Sanam Doi Ngam," he said. "Well. His Majesty hopes he does not run out of names. Forward!" His elephant moved off, while the carpetbearer stared despairingly at his rug. As the formation entered the forest, His Majesty showed his close connection with his followers by voicing the thought uppermost in their minds: "Who had this idea in the first place?"

Sapachai did not hear. He ran headlong downhill through the shaded forest, leaping gullies and scaling boulders. He hardly glanced at Jewel as he passed, except to note its exhaustion. Sapachai had lost all desire for the fraudulent temple. He wanted to know who controlled the elephant now, and he felt increasing shame at his plan's results.

He reached a sloping ravine thick with bamboo, abuzz with beetles, and deeply shadowed. Silhouetted across the elephant's path stood Doi Suthep. Why --? What --? Gasping, Sapachai could not marshall his thoughts.

Seeing a flicker of light nearby, he flailed through the brush toward it, alarming scores of crickets. He stumbled into a clearing, and there, on a mossy stone by a blazing fire, sat Leki.

"Ho there, boy. Would you like a plantain?"

Sapachai stood panting.

"You have a questioning look. Let me speculate. You wish to know about the namman praj I sold to the villagers in Mae Sang, just beyond the mountain. A high demand for temples in these lands, I must say." With a stick he fished a roasted fruit from the fire.

Sapachai caught his breath. "How much namman do they have?"

"I don't know, a bushel? They needed two men to carry it."

The monk fell back one distraught step. In his exhaustion he could not keep anger from his voice. "Where did you find all this namman?"

"Well, boy, I have to tell you. A dead elephant certainly does contain a lot of blood."

"But how did they pay you?"

Leki's eyes closed. "Oh. Oh. You should see it. A fasting Buddha in bronze: the Buddha in his ascetic period before he found the Middle Path, when he starved himself with the sadhus in India. He looks like a skeleton. Every rib stands out like a washboard. You can feel holy fever coming off him in waves." Leki shivered with bliss.

"Why do you want a Buddha? You do not follow his ways!"

"A mad passion. Care for some water?"

Sapachai thought of an entire bushel of magical powder across the mountain in Mae Sang. Many people. Guards. He twisted like a vine in the wind, then went limp and sat beside Leki. He drained a wooden bowl in three gulps. While he stared into the fire, he heard distant elephants crashing through the brush. "Leki, I must stop this. Muong has set us all after a forged relic, a scrap of trash, and now my plan mocks the Buddha's teachings."

Leki snorted. "Then you'll make a good monk."

"What do you mean? The Sangha distorts the Buddha's meaning? Not so. Monks merely teach the simple people those parts of the Dhamma they can understand."


"Only the Sangha has remained true to the elders' teachings. In other kingdoms Buddhism follows absurd principles. In Wat Duang Di's library I read some manuscripts from the last Congress, in China. The Mahayana sects say no one should achieve nibbana alone until everyone does together. In the high mountains of Tibet the Eightfold Path has become silly esoteric mysticism, the licentious Tantra. And in the Ch'an school -- in Nihon they call it Zen -- they teach a lazy and obscure doctrine of enlightenment, not by work but almost by accident; not by removing the kamma of bad deeds accumulated over millions of lives, but simply by giving up wrong ideas. When you hear such inanities, how can you think ill of the Sangha?"

"I thank you for clarifying that. So if the abbot found out about this false relic, he would naturally give up the temple."

"Of course." Sapachai jumped up. "Of course. I must tell the abbot, and he will abandon this foolish plan. Then all your namman will mean nothing."

"That will make me look foolish indeed. Can I interest you in that boar lure, or the mouse nest? I recently acquired a wand that cures warts."

"No." Sapachai looked into the darkness. "But I could use some device that creates light."

Leki pulled a brand from the fire. "Free."

Sapachai could not run headlong uphill. He omitted leaping gullies and scaling boulders in favor of a weak thrashing through the undergrowth. At times he wondered why he had thought to locate a temple in the hills. Why those in his village and all the villages around did not move to the city. Why he owed his mother gratitude when, after all, she had borne him into a life the Buddha called dukkha, suffering.

In the fading dusk he reached the imperial campsite, a narrow clearing opened by a fallen teak. From the immense trunk King Keu Na directed efforts to chain the sacred white elephant for the night. The elephant still labored to climb the mountain, ignoring three mahouts and six guards who fought to rope it in. The men, clutching hemp lines, bounced off tree trunks like seedpods. "Exert your strength!" His Majesty said helpfully. "It cannot fight you forever." At the king's feet, the royal carpetbearer struggled to drag his carpet onto the trunk.

Sapachai discarded his torch at a campfire, then approached the abbot and made a wai. Sumanathera nodded slightly and said without preamble, "We discussed whether the gods had used the elephant to guide us to this spot, where our strength ran out. Unfortunately, this conclusion would not convince the simple people." The abbot watched as a dozen strong men finally tied the elephant with six ropes around four trees. Still Jewel strained to climb. "A frustrating miracle," the abbot said, sighing. "Tomorrow at dawn we loose the beast and continue climbing."

Sapachai tried to tell of the forged relic, but the abbot chose that moment to call evening chants. The monks gathered and echoed Sumanathera's droning recitation. He kept time by beating a stick on a rock. Sapachai knew the texts perfectly, and the chanting calmed him.

By the time they finished, night had fallen. No one had thought to bring a tent, but campfires dotted the clearing. In their light Sapachai saw how the elephant's legs shook with fatigue. It breathed raggedly. Mahouts had set out grass and fruit to calm it, but it ignored the food. Sapachai realized he had not seen the creature eat all day, whereas the grays ate incessantly. Such magic -- and his own desire had invoked it. Guilt dug at Sapachai like his bamboo stick.

Then he saw Muong. The farmer sat eating rice at a campfire, the stick and skin bag at his feet. "Muong," he said, "please join me in telling the abbot of your forgery."

Muong stared like a trapped rhesus. "Could we wait until the king chooses a temple site?"

"Waiting compounds your offense against the Third Precept, forbidding lies. Contemplation of your kamma already distresses me. Please come with me, and bring your stick." Walking off without looking back, he heard Muong rise and follow him.

Keu Na's campsite, pitched atop the gigantic teak, enjoyed a fine view. But having planned a short trip, His Majesty camped in little more luxury than his followers. Servants had brought only a silver teapot and the carpet, which now smelled as if forest beasts had marked it for territory. Guards nodded as Sapachai and Muong climbed onto the log. There His Majesty, using the pot lid as his dish, glumly ate an improvised meal of taro, lychees, and roasted cicadas. Sumanathera drank water.

His Majesty said, "Bells, certainly. His Majesty enjoys a temple's prayer bells as much as anyone. He only suggests the courtyard hold something of note, that speaks of the character of Lan Na and the Thai people. Something like -- yes?"

Sapachai found that his palm fit nicely in a hollow spot between Muong's shoulder blades. "Your, Your Majesty," said Muong, keeping his balance. "Reverend Father. I forged the second relic of the Buddha from a plaster shaving, so you would build a new temple near my village."

The abbot blinked twice. "Forged. The second relic."

His Majesty glowered. "Did you, then, devise this outrageous and asinine scheme with the elephant?"

Sapachai thought it prudent to break in. "Your Majesty, this farmer has used a cruel and powerful magical device to charm the elephant. See?" He pointed. All looked well at last. A demonstration of the namman prajwould convince His Majesty, and then he would call off the mission as a travesty of the Buddha's name.

Keu Na and the abbot stared at the elephant-skin bag. Then, as though making a silent compact, they looked away. "Well," said His Majesty. "This presents difficulties. The simple people have already shown their belief in the miracle." He looked on the clearing, where torchlit courtiers and monks gathered in wonder around the straining white elephant. "To dash their beliefs, merely to protect an animal, would, would --"

"-- Would undermine their faith," the abbot prompted. "A cruel and thoughtless act, bringing no merit."

"Indeed. As for the forgery, well --" He looked imploringly at the abbot.

"Perhaps the gods guided Muong in the creation of the relic," said the abbot. "Though not holy now, it will eventually become so as the people revere it."

His Majesty nodded vigorously. "Anyhow, the people should believe the temple enshrines a relic, so that it may better serve the community by inspiring them to moral ways."

"Your Majesty sees with accustomed clarity," said the abbot, although he frowned. "The people need, not so much a miraculous relic, but a belief in the miraculous."

"The Reverend Father shows wisdom." His Majesty, too, wore a fierce, angry expression. "Who can say but that this temple will attract the greatest spirits of Lan Na? They can guide the community, when a mere relic only sits there!"

The abbot, still scowling, responded in an angry tone, as though Keu Na had compromised his faith. "I agree wholeheartedly. The merits of a temple lie not in its trappings but in its people!"

Keu Na spoke angrily. "You speak the truth!"

"No one can doubt this!"

"The wise Reverend Father has proven the case! The mission continues. Tell no one what we said." His Majesty got up, leaped down from the log, and stalked off into the darkness. Breathing sharply and not looking at Sapachai, the abbot rose and descended on the other side. Sapachai stared after them. He suddenly recalled the abbot's discovery of the original relic, now enshrined at Wat Puppharama.

Muong grinned in triumph. "They know the true purpose of a temple. I will gain much merit. In the next life, who knows? I might attain to the Reverend Father's status."

Despondent, Sapachai left Muong and walked to the forest's edge. Insects, seeking food or mates, created a harmonic buzz in the blackness that rose and fell like breathing. Branches creaked across the clearing as the elephant strained at its bonds. People, dark shapes against the light, prowled between the fires on unknowable missions. The world's progress of darkness had overtaken Sapachai's relic, duped his abbot (or worse), made his king a demagogue, and poisoned his faith. Exhausted, he sat beneath a tree. As he watched Jewel, new guilt pierced him like a tusk.

The beautiful Dhammapada, the Way of Truth, devotes a chapter to the elephant, and Sapachai tried meditating on it. "Be not thoughtless, watch your thoughts! Draw yourself out of the evil way, like an elephant sunk in mud. . . . There is no companionship with a fool; let a man walk alone, let him commit no sin, having few wishes, like an elephant in the forest." But these texts constantly brought him back to the campsite, where the elephant's scrabbling feet dug trenches in the earth.

Instead Sapachai meditated on his favorite section of the Dhammapada: "The disciples of Gotama are always well awake, and their mind day and night always delights in compassion. The disciples of Gotama are always well awake, and their mind day and night always delights in meditation. . . ."

An attack of thunder startled him, and languid rain soaked the clearing. He got up and splashed through puddles toward the courtiers' tents. But now he stood by Jewel. A dull twang, another, a piercing snap and another; in a glare of lightning the broken ropes fell loose.

The elephant bolted uphill. He followed into dreadful obscurity. Branches slowed him, an infinity of branches and stifling fear, until he thought to find the elephant's path. There it stood, far uphill, white in the lightning dazzle, greater than saints, than kings. He chased it to the mountaintop, and they stood amid ruins beneath a thundrous sky. Alluring, propitious, Jewel offered every wish, if only he could master it. He rushed forward.

Jewel lifted its trunk above him. From the forest canopy rose seven weaving serpents, their crests tall and gilded like the prows of royal barges. They opened golden bearded jaws to show fangs and forked pink tongues. In silence the too-human black eyes regarded him from on high, their wise gazes transfixing him. Slicing the thick growth, the serpents glided forward.

A bulging, limbless belly splintered a line of trees and slithered onto the mountaintop. All seven heads grew on seven sinuous necks from that gold-scaled trunk. Gliding with a rustle of silk over upthrust grassy flagstones, down skewed staircases past cisterns grown with ficus, the naga reared tall as a temple. He fell back in fear. A length of tail coiled lazily around the elephant. Through that mound of loops he could no more reach Jewel than pull a turtle from its shell.

Fascinated by the coiling action, he missed the naga's attack. The heads struck a hand's breadth before him, shattering the pavement. Flying grit cut his cheeks. Turning, he fled down the far mountain edge.

The land curved down and tilted beneath his feet. He must have done something, moved somewhere, climbed a tree perhaps. Yes, he clung to the branches of the tallest tree around. At the tree's top he found truth.

He beheld the world, a turning wheel, wide as the sky, scarred with mountains and oceans, infested with life, and himself clutching like a flea to its lowering rim. A furnace wind brought vapors of ash, meat, and molten glass; the world blazed. In the void beneath, echoes loudened to a clamorous surf where the wheel dipped to a shimmering obsidian deep.

That boiling froth smothered every life, dissolving it to elemental dharmas. Squirming anguine principles, frenzied with kamma, whipped the waters to a riptide current. The unceasing wheel turned up, its continental rim cleansed to bare metal, lustrously dripping, barbed with a million twisting hooks. The wheel of law drove torrent-strong, while dharmas aching for rebirth impaled themselves by billions. Drawn stretched and quivering back into the steamy air, they flowed, coalesced like oil drops, and congealed: infants, animals, apple-green leaf buds. In one second they spread, foresting the rimscape, and in two they re-ignited. Flames of hazard, rot, age, pain, all the fevers of craving -- on that wheel of law nothing escaped.

Except -- his edgewise vantage showed a dust of light-motes drifting centerward. Each mote's dharmas, drained and flaccid, unwound in slow serenity. Resected, they vanished in a fading ember glow. Nibbana. Those few bright saints escaped.

Greater than saints, the white beast lumbered inward, and in tormenting desire for release he followed. Crater ridges passed behind as they crossed the wheel's edge and turned to walk the inner rim. In its barren, twilit land the elephant walked against the spin. His heart rose, for if he followed, he would stay above water. Fleeing the dissolution that waited in the surf below, he scrambled over a large pale rock that barred his path.

Strange rock. A soft texture. Cawing and shrieks below. He looked down and screamed.

An arthritic arm, marbled with fat, clamped on his ankle. As he fell, vultures and crows pecked at the pale arm. The pret screeched.

The pret's eyes, drawn to pleasures, bulged lidless and saucer-wide, bloodshot, rimed with salt of tears. Each spasm of the ghost's limbs sent tremors over the eyeballs. Yet it could not partake; it brought him struggling to its mouth, to devour or kiss or clean him, but the puckered pinhole would not open.

Crows tore again at the hairless body. New wounds bled beside ulcerated pits of old. The mad birds craved blood, but could not swallow. If he died here, would he join those birds?

Heart pounding, he struck at the pret. His fist vanished in doughy flesh. Kick, hit again! Arms and legs sank deeper. Mouthy folds of fat crawled up his waist. In abject terror he felt flesh ooze down his throat and under his eyelids. No, no!

The elephant, where had the elephant gone? He slipped his arm into the pret's, felt the ground with larded fingers, and yes! The stick and pouch would bring it near. How fortunate that the pret had a pouch of namman. As he pointed the stick and the pouch rose, a leaden fear enveloped him, growing as he felt the piercing beaks and tick-infested wounds. Looking down, he knew.

He had become the pret. He saw at his shapeless waist the shreds of saffron robes.

Shrieking, he limped away, every step an agony. The birds wheeled and followed. There, the elephant! But why the halting gait, the glazed eye?

Jewel fell, and the earth trembled. The elephant's skin flaked away like an old plaster idol. Beneath, a golden glare, a shining figure gesturing. He had to see. He squinted, blinked --

Dawn rays through the forest wakened Sapachai. Catching his breath, he ran unsure hands over his body and limbs. He saw Jewel still tied across the clearing. The elephant strained weakly, every breath rattling. Sick with remorse, Sapachai cast about for a solution. Keu Na would call off the mission at the right signal. A sign, a sign. In a moment he had it, and he set off running downhill.

He found Leki by the ashes of last night's campfire, snoring profoundly. Sapachai debated. He had nothing to barter, but he might steal what he needed. Theft belonged to the four parajika, the sins beyond redress; he would have to leave the Sangha. Yet so what? He had only to reach into the wizard's bag -- oh!

"Leki. Wake up!"

Leki snapped awake, eyes wide. "Znnh! Sapachai. Hnnh." He sagged back. "Wha'?"

"I must have your mouse nest, quickly."

"Everyone needs it all quickly. What did you bring me?"

"Can I trade you back the namman?"

"Mae Sang has discouraged further interest. Anything else?"

"Well -- my grandfather tells stories about his travels in the mountains. He got drafted to fight the Shan on the Ava frontier, but he deserted and made his way to Tibet. He spent years there. It takes him most of a day to tell about it."

"So? You want me to give you the nest, and then your grandfather will tell me the story?"

"Yes. He tells it well. Excitement, humor, exotic lands!"

"What an absurd idea." Leki stared at Sapachai. "Does his story have any women in it?"

"I assume so. He studied the Tantric rites. My mother would never let him talk about these. But he would for you."

Leki did not blink at all. In fact, his eyes bulged.

The nest, a fist-sized oval of dirty twigs and fibers, tingled in Sapachai's grip as he ran up Doi Suthep. While leaping boulders and scaling gullies, he pondered Leki's parting remark. "Stop your worry about temples. You can find as much use in a rock." He would ask Leki about it when he took the wizard to meet his grandfather.

Meanwhile the elephant had trundled up the mountain. Jewel stumbled frequently and lay panting, but now the convoy treated every pause with suspicion, waiting for it to resume. They had grown solemn with a patient and morbid fascination.

Sapachai found a pig trail and made quick progress uphill. A sen above the elephant he stopped in a small clearing beside a stand of bo trees. He placed the nest in a hollow beneath one creeper-choked trunk. With any luck His Majesty would see a mouse sheltering under the bo tree, just as old King Mengrai had seen the omen generations ago. With any luck he would stop this dreadful episode before Jewel died.

With any luck! As the white elephant lurched into the clearing, rain began, a loud rustle like the passage of nagas. Would the convoy keep to the trees? With His Majesty's elephant still well behind, Sapachai saw a brown field mouse, long and slim as his thumb.

The mouse, perching a rock a few steps away, sniffed the air, twitched, and ran toward the nest. Sapachai waved it back frantically, then tried to bar its way, and at last resorted to begging, but the mouse slipped by and disappeared into the hole. As Sapachai watched His Majesty's elephant and entourage enter the clearing a moment too late, despair shook him. His last plan, gone for nothing!

Then he saw another mouse, a plump gray, scurrying toward the nest. It still worked! "Your Majesty," he called to Keu Na. A third mouse, and a fourth; what luck! "Your --"

A dozen mice emerged from the forest nearby. Two dozen from the far trees. Then came three dozen more from both sides, in the time it took to turn his head. "Your Majesty," Sapachai repeated, numbly. His Majesty had already noticed the mice. By hundreds, and in another twenty seconds by thousands, mice and dormice, white-footed mice and pocket mice, black rats and naked mole rats flooded the clearing. Their pattering feet drowned out the rain, but not the cries of disconcerted courtiers. When shrill squeaks made him look up, and he saw overhead a blackening cloud of fruit bats, Sapachai thought clearly, I have made another mistake.

Faced with this living rodent carpet, the royal carpetbearer broke ranks first. Throwing aside his grimy carpet (and crushing three dozen mice), he shinnied up a palm tree, moments ahead of two ministers and Brother Manich. Perhaps they did not fear the mice so much as the novelty of the situation, but in short order others claimed and nimbly climbed.

Guards rushed to protect Keu Na. However, defense against a swarm of mice baffled them, not that the mice cared to attack His Majesty's elephant. Sumanathera also rode above the turmoil, but both king and abbot had to duck the bats. They remained calm, in contrast to their mounts. The grays looked skittish, and even Jewel, though stolidly marching uphill, stepped with unusual care among the streaming mice.

Watching from behind a growing pile of mice, Sapachai wondered if a monk might escape imprisonment and instead take exile. Perhaps he would go to Tibet. Suddenly the hidden stick turned once more against his skin, now pointing upward. The bag almost floated out of his robes. Upward? Why --?

He did not finish the thought. Jewel panicked.

It trumpeted, an ear-blasting blare, and seemed to run in place, lifting first the right front leg, then the left back, then the opposing pair in sequence. It stamped at the mice, it slapped the ground with its trunk, and at last it pulled back its ears and set off at a dead run. The elephant crossed the mousy clearing in five crushing strides, smashed a tree trunk, wheeled, and fled back. Red spots marked its footprints, and fearful white rimmed its eyes.

The guards held their ground until the grays bolted too. Jewel's fear infected both bulls, and when they turned about and trumpeted, the motion flung both king and abbot out of their seats. Gripping a wet harness with both hands, each dignitary dangled like a tassel. Now the guards recognized their limits and fled for shelter. When the elephants stampeded downslope, His Majesty and the Reverend Father turned loose at the clearing's edge. They fell into their followers' waiting arms, then watched the two grays crash through the trees and vanish in the forest.

Now hidden behind a writhing, twittering, waist-high mound of fur, Sapachai tried to recall Keu Na's preferred method of execution. Then Muong staggered out of the forest next to him, and Sapachai stared dumbly. The farmer carried his own namman stick and a much longer one, both upright like battle standards, with two free-floating skin pouches tied at their tops. One looked as big as a bushel basket.

Muong sounded weary but proud. "Only way to carry them, especially running. Those in Mae Sang did not like --" He stared as Jewel grabbed mice with its trunk and threw them left and right. "What has happened?"

A titanic sneeze echoed through the clearing, and a furry missile splattered brown and red on Muong's forehead. He stared at Sapachai with a dazed smile. It looked like someone had enlightened him with a mallet. Then he fell, dropping his sticks.

The white elephant twisted, reared, and almost flipped backward as the poles hit the ground. Borne on a tide of rodents, the sticks jostled back and forth, and Jewel responded. Again it trumpeted, and its anguish forced Sapachai to act. He scooped up both sticks and pointed them aloft. The elephant resumed its mad circling.

Horrified, Sapachai said, "Everything I try goes wrong." In the rain, amid the shouts and squeaking and trumpeting, no one heard. As thunder rolled across the clouds, Sapachai himself could not hear his next words. With a look of firm resolve he swung both bamboo sticks hard against the bo tree.

Thunder rolled again. A firework of blue, green, and red erupted under Sapachai's hands. He flew backward and landed in a bush. Thousands of mice stopped, twitched, and ran away in all directions.

The white elephant halted and turned to look directly at Sapachai. It blinked twice. Then, like a toppling teak, it fell over dead.

There followed a funereal silence.

At the edge of the clearing, His Majesty King Keu Na raised his head, looked around, and shouted:

"Here! Here, by the glory of the celestial Buddha, here I shall build my temple!"

After wandering the woods half the morning, Sapachai sat beneath a bo tree near a ricefield to meditate on his crime. Farmers saw him, and shortly before noon they stole up, bowing and smiling, to leave him an offering of rice, fruit, and tea. Sapachai meditated through the day and slept only fitfully that night. At dawn, after bowing to the six directions, the people brought him another meal. He realized he had joined the aranyika, the forest monks.

He sat through the warm day. His meditation, refuge from turmoil, he pursued with unremitting attention. With new understanding he sorted through remembered scriptures, testing them against his experience as the Buddha taught. At each rejection he felt new sureness and clarity of mind, making later assessments not easier but more certain. His path extended before him like a road under sunlight.

Into the evening Sapachai sat thinking, until it began to rain and a family invited him into their hut. He saw the farmers with new eyes, noting one man's aged eyes, another with wrenched and blemished fingers, and a haggard woman with an infant slung on her back, a toddler at her side, and swollen belly. Their pains hurt him as his own. After a night of dreamless sleep he ate again, then set off walking through the forest, recalling all the people he knew. Now he thought no ill of those he had once disliked, just as he would not hammer his own fingers.

Toward noon he reached his village, spots of shackwork around a stone well. He saw a new and alien beauty. His mother, in his eyes, displayed a congenial humanity few had noticed before. Small, hunched, withered, with jerky motions and a querulous voice, she saw him and said without greeting, "A wizard came here yesterday, he said he knew you, he stayed all day listening to your grandpa. Oh, how he laughed!"

He thought her eccentricity delightful. The tensions he had once felt -- the awareness of all her failings and tiny shames, and the awareness she knew all his -- had evaporated. "Good. He gave me --"

"And he paid us with this magic stone," she said. With pride she held out a small, ordinary-looking rock.

"What does it do?"

"When you chant to it, it bestows merit." She frowned. "Why do you laugh? Ffft, and you a monk, stop it! You have changed in that place. Where should we put the stone?"

Sapachai turned to leave. "Throw it down the well." His mother followed him out and rushed to the well, where she solemnly dropped in the stone and knelt.

On his way from the village, Sapachai saw two villagers working to pull a stubborn ox to the pen. He moved to help, but both men fell back with uneasy smiles. Seeing a monk working, even Sapachai, bewildered and alarmed them. He thought of wearing his old clothes. But courtesy called for an official resignation from the Sangha. Or he should let them dismiss him, for whatever difference that made. He kept his robes.

Walking again in the forest, he noticed that the insects buzzed more loudly, and the wind carried new scents. He observed not only the trees but the spaces between them, feathery volumes of interpenetrating air. Tree led imperceptibly to air, and he could not tell which seemed more real. He felt blood flowing and nerves tingling in his hand, each finger, each joint, and yet more finely. What, out of this spray of sensation, could he mark out as "his hand"?

In the clearing where Jewel had died, rays of dusk pierced a diaphanous edge of cloud and streamed visibly across the sky -- "rays of Buddha." Farmers and townspeople crowded around the elephant's carcass. Sapachai approached to confess his crime. But as he saw what excited the people, a tremor of distaste ruffled his calm.

They had skinned the elephant. A trio of smiling monks, unknown to Sapachai, gave out finger-length slivers of the hide for offerings of food, cloth, and coins. Even women wanted the relics. Each woman laid her offering on a groundcloth and picked up the hide while a monk held one end of the cloth, to create merit without contact.

Sapachai noted ants swarming over the bloody carcass. Could they grant him forgiveness? No more could the people. Knowledge carried its own absolution, yet guilt's passage inspired no feeling. Had he reached it? This peaceable painlessness, this flat calm that muted every ache, joy, boredom, triumph, vitality -- nibbana? The idea brought not regret but uncertainty.

People left the clearing by every path, taking away to every village their pieces of the hide and carcass. Sapachai meditated on this as he walked from the clearing, mindful of every movement and perception.

A townsman ran up. "Reverend Father," he asked, "do you know where to find the elephant?"

Sapachai started to point in one direction, then another, then another.

On realizing he did not know which direction to point, Sapachai realized enlightenment.

The people of Chieng Mai built a temple where the elephant died, high on the mountain. Keu Na died soon after. A century later Ayutthaya made Lan Na a client state, and both fell in their turn to Burma before resurging as Siam, now Thailand. During those five centuries devout Buddhists climbed the steep slopes to Wat Phra Tat Doi Suthep, hoping their strain earned much merit. In 1934 the abbot, Kruba Srivichai, decided to build a highway to the temple, and overnight thousands of volunteers arrived uncalled to help build the road. They came from Phitsanulok and Autaradit and all over the north, even from hill tribes. At first the abbot requested that each village contribute only fifteen meters of road. Later, overwhelmed by volunteers, he strictly limited merit-making to five meters per village. Using only hoes, the workers finished eleven kilometers of road in less than six months.

Today buses, trucks, and songtao share-taxis travel the road's hairpin bends. Tourists climb the steep Dragon Staircase to the temple, admire its shrines, buy amulets, ring the bronze bells in the courtyard, and enjoy the fine view of the valley below, where year by year Chieng Mai strangles in the garotte of tourism. Most temple inscriptions appear only in Thai, so foreign visitors to the tree-shadowed courtyard stare, mystified, at the plaster statue of the white elephant bearing a stupa on its back.

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Copyright (C) 1994 Allen Varney.