Written by Peng Ngin
Jessica rolled down the window of the taxi. The air felt like a summer night in Philadelphia where she is from: warm, languid, still. The difference on this quiet road outside a coastal town facing the South China Sea was the scent—of perfumed blossoms mixed with rotting organic matter. She tried to make out the shapes of the passing dark buildings and dark trees, partially lit by the headlights of their taxi. She turned to Jeremy who was looking at his phone. Can you see where we are? We are out of range, he said.
The couple were on their way to Alan’s house. Or they think that is his name. They met him three days ago when they got off the bus. Jeremy saw him first at the terminal with a few other men, all armed with brochures offering adventures to the alighting tourists: scuba diving, island hopping, massage. He was lean and of medium complexion—like the other men with him. He wore a white t-shirt that read The War on Drugs. Hey, Jess, you have a fellow groupie in these boondocks. No way, Jessica said, wiping her brow and shielding her eyes from the slanting afternoon glare. The man wearing the t-shirt of Jessica’s favorite band did not offer a brochure as they walked by but said in accented English: Interested in the best tour of your life? They ignored him and started looking for a taxi. As though reading their minds, the man yelled above the din of the barkers: No need to get a taxi. Your hotel is over there near the pier. He pointed to a cream color colonial building with white window shutters. If you need anything, ask the hotel to ring Alan. Jessica thought: here we are, another tourist trap.
Traveling to Southeast Asia was Jessica’s idea. Both of them had an opportunity for an extended vacation. Jessica managed to get a long leave from her non-profit housing development job and Jeremy was starting graduate school in a few months. He would have preferred to travel to Europe or a Central American country like Belize. That is too easy, was Jessica’s response. Let’s explore someplace further, like Southeast Asia. But when they settled on this region, it was not Bali or Bangkok or Hanoi they travelled to but obscure destinations. This is a chance of a lifetime, to really be off the beaten path, she urged Jeremy.
And they sped through these destinations. This is awesome, Jeremy yelled as they rowed an unsteady boat among the mangroves at one island. He wanted to linger longer than her at the temple built into the side of a limestone cliff. At the last destination before arriving at this town, they slogged in the drenching humidity to a waterfall filled lake, after which Jeremy, recovering in the hotel’s lounge, asked: Is this what you wanted? Roughing it in these mosquito infested places? Reclining with ice packs on her ankles, Jessica offered no answer as she struggled to find a photo to post on her social media pages. Let’s take the bus to this town, she said. I have been thinking of this place. And showed him a one-paragraph description in the guidebook. But there is nothing there, Jeremy said.
Indeed, there was very little to see or do in this seaside town. And it was small, so small that by noon the next day, they had run into the man they met the previous day twice—at the wet market and then at a café. He was with friends each time and waved without stopping. Jessica heard his friends laughing and calling him by a different name. Kilwan? Iwan? At the night market later when they were trying to decide on their dinner, they heard a voice behind them: It’s all safe to eat. What are you looking for? It was Alan. When Jessica and Jeremy looked at each other and shrugged, he said, come, I will take you. He led them to a table outside a restaurant. Sit, sit, he said. What beer would you like?
Over a few hours, Jessica and Jeremy sampled everything Alan suggested. Some of the delicacies looked strange, unappetizing. Alan ate with gusto, pointing at each dish with his chopsticks, explaining what it was. In the end the Americans relished the stewed intestines, pungent tofu, grilled frog legs —and were surprised by their newfound fearlessness.
We saw you yesterday with the white t-shirt. Where did you get it? Jessica asked. Oh, the no to drugs shirt? Ha! It’s funny. I like the shirt. As you know, this government can execute you for selling drugs. He made a noose-like gesture with his hands. So, I am telling the government—now he raised a fist—I support your campaign! And he laughed. Jessica was surprised by the tour guide’s wit, his attempt at humor. He continued: An English chap gave it to me. Is it a rock band? Jessica did not tell Alan that she had seen the band at least a dozen times. And she has never shared with Jeremy that at one early concert before they met, she danced and swung her elbows with a few guys around her—and kissed a couple of startled strangers. In later years, she liked recalling that evening when all these people caught her in the half dark as she flew around in the concert hall.
When it was time to pay, the tab was astoundingly low. Local prices, Alan beamed. We cannot thank you enough … that was incredible, Jessica said. And so, so interesting, thank you, she continued, clasping her hands. My pleasure, Alan smiled. What’s are you doing tomorrow? To which Jeremy said, we are not sure. Might relax by the pool. We Americans are not used to this heat. Alan waved his hand. No problem. Just ask your hotel clerk to call me if you want to take the boat to the islands. Or, there is a mansion you should visit. Just a short walk. I can take you. Not in the guidebooks. Or the internet.
They visited the mansion the next day. To reach it, they followed a faint footpath up the forested foothills, leaving the coast with its swaying coconut trees. What the hell, Jessica said, as they emerged out of the thick undergrowth to look up to a five-story mansion. The lower half of the building was covered with vines. Part of the roof had collapsed so that the top floor window shutters were silhouetted against the sky. It looked eerie and strangely beautiful, Jessica thought. They entered the wide entrance, its doors barely hanging on to the hinges, and immediately heard some stirring. Jeremy asked: is someone here? Come, Alan said and led them through a hallway littered with fallen plaster. As soon as he opened the door at the end of the hallway, the sound grew louder. Assured by how calm Alan was, they peered into the doorway. It revealed a blue tiled courtyard, baking under the midday sun. In the middle were eight, nine peacocks, with several displaying their feathers. Jessica and Jeremy uttered Oh simultaneously. How improbable, Jessica thought, a menagerie in the middle of the jungle. Take a look upstairs, Alan said, but be careful. I will wait here.
They climbed the stairs to the upper floors. Jessica thought about the lives of the family who used to occupy the mansion (a plantation owner with two sons whose feuding families resided in opposite wings, Alan had explained earlier. Sad ending: a business failure, an attempted arson, and a suicide by hanging). At the top floor she stopped to wipe the beading sweat on her arms and face. She looked down at the courtyard and saw the peacocks were now gathered near Alan. She thought he must be feeding them but it appeared he was talking to them. Suddenly, he pointed his right foot out and then proceeded to glide across the courtyard with his hands slightly raised. The peacocks moved out of his way as he breezed by and then immediately followed behind him before scattering. It looked like a dance choreographed for ten: one human and nine birds. She watched this spectacle for a while and wondered if Alan knew he was being observed. Look, Jessica said, when Jeremy came to the window. He raised his eyebrows. Baryshnikov, huh?
The sight of Alan moving around in the courtyard with the peacocks made Jessica catch her breath. For a moment, she had this image of her floating above the courtyard, above Alan, and above the birds. And the feeling of looking down at this Asian man surrounded by his avian corps de ballet. Jessica felt her body quiver, her face tingle.
We saw you earlier with the peacocks. Are you a dancer? Jessica asked as they made their way back to town. Alan left out a chuckle. No, I am not a real dancer. I was just thinking about how a prince would move when he comes back to reclaim his lost country. In the opera. If we still have an opera. What opera? Jessica quickly asked. Our opera that has not performed for five years. We still have the costumes, instruments. And sets, is that what you call them—sets? Maybe we will not perform again. Why not? Jessica asked. It’s very difficult, he sighed. Young people do not want to practice, want to look at their phones all day. And no money for performance. Many stories were written by people here a long time ago. Will be gone.
Jessica considered all this and thought, what a pity. She imagined a makeshift stage, constructed perhaps near the bus terminal, with flimsy chairs where toddlers sat on the laps of grandmothers—something that would bring excitement to the quiet town. You should come to see our costumes and sets, Alan interrupted her thoughts. Come to my house tomorrow night. After nine. Before Jeremy could reply, Jessica said, yes, we would love to come. She knew she had to see where he lived, what his real life was like—after a day working as a tour guide. But how can we pay you, Alan? You are spending all this time with us. He paused to consider her offer and said: After you see our sets and if you want to donate, that will be okay. Does not matter. Opera will likely not start again. Give what you can. But you have to come late. Not before nine.
They had been traveling in the taxi for a while; outside, the same dark shapes flew by. Looking behind, Jessica can barely make out the glow of the town lights. Sitting in the car in the dark in an unfamiliar place, Jessica wondered if they should be doing this. What if there is no one there? Suddenly a few lines from her favorite The War on Drugs song came to her: I’m moving through the dark … of a long black night … And I’m thinking of a place. The chorus lines of this song always transported her. Once, while she was listening to this track at work, her mind drifted with the dreamy lyrics, the quivering guitar chords, and when she came to, she found herself crying. Why the tears, she wondered? Was it the brief levitation of the music or is it because she found herself back in her dreary cramped office in downtown Philadelphia, back to the monotony of her unexciting job.
When are we going to get there? Jeremy asked, then yawned. She shrugged and wondered now: What does the inside of a local person’s house looked like. Who does he live with? She looked out and saw a few distant lights dancing in the dark as the taxi moved along. Dreamily, Jessica thought about one evening last summer when while sitting on a city park bench, she saw a swarm of fireflies around her. She had just left a cocktail party where barely anyone talked to her. But now, she was so enthralled that she laid on the grass to look up at the night sky through the swirl of insects, the constellation of tiny flashing lights. She could feel the wet turf on her back but she also felt afloat, being lifted upwards. She said to herself: This is beautiful … I am not drunk … I am not sad … this is beautiful.
The taxi left the paved road and slowed down as it rolled onto a gravel lane. Jessica could see a dimly lit building in the distance. Jeremy pressed her hand as if to say: let’s hope this is worth it.
The taxi left them in a pool of darkness. They walked past an open gate and towards the light from a cinderblock house with an attached warehouse. Outside the front door were scattered mismatched sandals, a few potted plants, and a motorcycle, missing the back wheel. They heard a dog bark in the distance. Then they heard a rustling and turned—to see a shirtless boy walk out of the darkness. He was about ten. What you want? He asked. Alan, we are looking for Alan, Jessica said. Ewan? You look for Ewan? He replied. Yes, yes, Ewan, said Jeremy. The boy knocked on the door and whispered to someone inside. OK, come, he said and led them around the house to a door into the warehouse.
When they entered the building the boy pointed to a few plastic chairs and Jessica and Jeremy sat down. The boy moved to the chair furthest from them and pulled his knees up to his chest, looking straight ahead, without an expression.
On one wall of the warehouse were a few tattered posters of opera performers. On another were several framed faded photographs of sullen looking men. In the far corner were musical instruments, silk screens, and stools all covered with a clear plastic wrap. Perhaps, that is the opera set, Jessica thought. Next to this pile was a red door that probably led to the living quarters.
Sound of cymbals and gongs suddenly filled the room. Then a female figure in a blue and white costume appeared out of the red door. She took small steps to the rhythm of clapping sticks, and sang in a high pitch voice. Jessica could feel the yearning of her words—foreign words—and an aching lonely timbre that suddenly enlivened the tired dullness of the room.
The figure waved her long sleeves that trailed on the floor when she put her hands down. Two curved feathered tails several feet long protruded from her jeweled hat. Jessica tried to find Alan’s face under the white rouge of this figure’s temple and nose ridge that contrasted sharply with her vermillion cheeks. Jessica reached for her phone and wondered if this was a good moment to take a shot.
But now the figure came closer. Jessica could see that the edges of the figure’s eyeliner curved up to make her eyes startlingly large and bird-like. Her thick eyebrows similarly curved upwards. Jessica looked at her eyes—Alan’s eyes—eyes that did not blinked, that looked back at the American tourist. Jessica turned to check on Jeremy, who had an incredulous expression; she wanted to say: Alan. He is performing for us. Just for us.
What dance was he performing? Jessica wondered. A maiden in Spring wandering in a garden? A woman longing for a faraway lover? And: Why such beauty? Why such beauty here in a godforsaken place? Who will tell the story about this solo opera performance in a place far from everywhere else? And how is it that she who grew up in a sleepy Philadelphia suburb is here watching this? She loosened her hair to cool herself as she thought of these questions.
The music abruptly stopped. Alan dropped his sleeved hands and turned towards the red door. A man rushed in with a young girl and started shouting at Alan. The man was short and had on a Hawaiian shirt. He looked older—is he Alan’s brother? What did Alan do wrong? Jessica thought. Now the man pointed at Jessica and Jeremy as if to say, who are these people? Alan said something back and they proceeded to argue, the man shouting over Alan. Jessica could barely look at Alan’s face, whose make up was now streaked with tears, red and black bleeding onto white. The shouting became louder, angrier. And Alan was now kneeling on the floor with his costume in disarray around him. Then the man approached Alan. Jessica thought he was going to hit Alan, who put his hand over his head. But the man just stood there, his body visibly tensed with rage. He then walked to the pile at the end of the room, tore the plastic off, and proceeded to throw the drums, screens to the middle of the room. Alan screamed—and started sobbing. Jessica held on to Jeremy. The girl and the boy covered their faces with their hands, the boy shaking. For a few moments, the man just stood there while Alan continued crying. Then in a soft voice Alan said something to the man and, looking at Jessica, said: I will call a taxi.
Jessica and Jeremy rushed out of the building. It was quiet out there as before. Jessica could feel her heart pounding. She folded her arms to brace herself—and then realized she was shivering. The terrible shouting started again, filling the enveloping countryside darkness.
Jessica turned to Jeremy, whose face said: What do we do now? Down the road, they could see some lights, the lights of a house that they did not notice earlier, and they started to make their way there.
About the author
Peng Ngin lives in the Richmond District in San Francisco. When the pandemic began, he started taking classes in CCSF — in horticulture, art history, and creative writing. He looks forward to taking more writing classes. Peng’s other interests include backpacking, attending indie music concerts, and volunteering at the San Francisco Botanical Garden. He works in finance.