The following is from Sharon Guskin’s debut novel, The Forgetting Time. Guskin has been a fellow at Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, and Ragdale, and has degrees from Yale University and the Columbia University School of the Arts.
Early morning, and the day already warm.
Anderson was eating breakfast with his old friend Angsley on the veranda of their hotel. Down the river, toward the city, buttery sunlight bounced off the Temple of the Dawn, scattering color into the air like a jeweled delusion. In front of them, a dog struggled to cross the river, its matted head a black skull thrusting above the waves.
Anderson was jet lagged and three days sober. His sunglasses gave everything a sickly yellow tint. He focused on his friend, who was flirting with the waitress as she arranged a saucer of clotted cream on the white muslin next to a plate of scones. Her face was perfectly symmetrical, like a face in a dream.
“Kap khun kap,” Angsley said, placing his hands together in a parody of a polite Thai, or perhaps he had become one, Anderson didn’t know. He’d seen him only twice since they’d graduated college ten years before, and each time had been a disappointment to both of them. They were on different paths: Anderson rising quickly within the academy, on route to be Chairman of the Psychiatric Department within a few years, and Angsley going in another direction, or rather (as far as Anderson could see) in no direction at all. Anderson had been surprised to find his friend settled anywhere; since college he had seemed perpetually on the move, briefly inhabiting the fine hotels and women of major cities from Nairobi to Istanbul, trying and failing to exhaust all that money born of generations of tobacco.
They watched the waitress go back through the open doors into the lobby bearing her silver tray. Nearby a string quartet was playing, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top.
“Look what I’ve brought.” Angsley wagged his ginger eyebrows, reached into a paper bag at his feet, and pulled something out with a flourish, plopping it on the table. The thing slumped against the silver teapot, its legs splayed across the white linen: bright red yarn hair, striped legs, red circles for cheeks.
“You bought me a Raggedy Ann doll?” Anderson stared at it dumbfounded; gradually, it dawned on him. “It’s for today. To give the girl.”
“I was hoping for some kind of porcelain number but this is what they had. The stores here…” he shook his head.
“Are you out of your mind? You can’t give a doll to the subject of an experiment.”(Was that what this was? An experiment?)
“For god’s sake man, loosen up. Have a scone.” Angsley took a bite out of a scone as large as a hand, sprinkling crumbs across the white cloth. His reddish hair was prematurely thinning across the expansive dome of his head, and his features had gone pink and blurry from too much sun and Thai whiskey, giving him a soft, pumpkinish look. Perhaps his brain had gone soft as well.
“It’s bribery.” Anderson tried to control his voice. “The girl will say whatever you want her to say.”
“Consider it a gesture of good faith. She’s not going to change her story for a Raggedy Ann doll, believe me. At least, I don’t think so.” Angsley peered at him. “You’re hating me under those shades, aren’t you?”
Anderson removed the sunglasses and blinked bare-eyed at his own faintly trembling white fingers. “It’s just that I thought you wanted a scientific appraisal. I thought that was the point of bringing me here?”
“Well, we’re kind of making it up as we go along, aren’t we?” Angsley smiled a broad, slightly manic, smile with his crooked teeth, as deranged in its way as that of the doll.
A mistake, Anderson thought. This was all a mistake. A few days before he had been in Connecticut, trudging through the snow to his lab. He’d been studying the long and short term effects of electrical traumatic stimulus on a rat’s central nervous system. He’d left the experiment at a crucial juncture.
“I thought this was a serious endeavor,” he said slowly. The note of complaint rang in the air like a child’s.
Angsley sounded hurt. “You didn’t put up much of a fight, if I remember correctly, when I asked you to come.”
Anderson looked away from him. The dog was still trying to cross the river. Would it make it to shore or drown? Two children exhorted it from the other bank, hopping in the mud. The rank river smell mingled in his nostrils with the floral scent of the tea.
What Angsley said was true. He had been eager to come. It had been a feeling, more than anything else, that had led him here, some flash of nostalgia that had overtaken him the moment he had heard his friend’s excited voice in the midst of those bleak, stumbling months after the baby had died and everything had fallen apart.
He and Sheila were in separate hells and hardly spoke to each other. He made it through his days, studied his rats, took down the data as he ought to, drank more than he ought to; yet felt much of himself, most days, to be no better than the vermin he studied. Actually, the rats had more spark.
Angsley’s boyish enthusiasm had traveled the long distance between them like a memory of the interest he had once had in life and might find again, if he took the chance; and in any case it would be an escape, a respite, the thing he was looking for every night at the bottom of the glass.
“I’ve heard about the most extraordinary thing. It’s Katsugoro all over again,” Angsley had said over the phone, and Anderson had laughed for the first time in months to hear the word. “I’ll pay your way, of course, in the interests of science.”
“Go,” Sheila had said. Her eyes were red-rimmed, accusing.
So he had taken it, this chance, this respite. He was taking it. He’d been relieved to leave Connecticut, with its oncoming Christmas and its angry, devastated wife. He had told Angsley nothing of his circumstances, preferring not to discuss it.
“Katsugoro,” Anderson said now, aloud. It was probably nothing, he knew that. Still, the name was a tonic on his tongue, bringing him back a decade, to the taste of beer and youth. In college they had spent many hours discussing the case of the Japanese boy who seemed to remember a previous life, debating whether it could possibly be true. “It’s pretty hard to believe.”
Angsley brightened. “That’s why we’re going. So you don’t have to.”
Anderson glanced away from his eager face.
The mangy dog had made it across; he was scrambling up the muddy banks of the other side. He shook his fur, and the children screamed and scattered, avoiding the droplets of foul water that spun and sparkled in the light.
“No dolls,” Anderson said.
Angsley patted Anderson on the hand. “Just meet the girl.”
The girl lived a few hours north of Bangkok in a village in Nonthaburi province. The boat sputtered through the slums on the outskirts of Bangkok, then moved past larger, more rural dwellings, wooden houses with piers at the end adorned with tiny wooden temples, spirit houses for the dead. The harvested rice fields were golden brown on either side of them, dotted here and there with an ambling water buffalo or a small shack. Anderson felt the images taking the place of thoughts in his mind, soothing him, until he was nothing but a white hand skimming the surface of the water. The jet lag was catching up to him at last and he dozed sitting up in the boat to the hoarse, steady roar of the motor.
When he awoke a few hours later the air had grown hot and thick in his lungs, and he was blanketed with sunlight. He realized he had dreamed of the baby. In the dream Owen was whole, a beautiful child with blue eyes like Sheila’s that regarded him pensively. The baby sat up and reached out to him like the boy he might have been.
The family lived in a simple wooden house on stilts surrounded by lush foliage. How Angsley identified this particular house from the identical ones that lined the road near the pier was a mystery that Anderson didn’t bother solving. An older woman swept in the shadows on the dirt floor underneath the house, chickens muttering around her ankles. Angsley wai’d to her, his head bowing over his hands, revealing the naked spot of pink scalp at the center of his skull. The two of them had a discussion.
“The father is working out in the fields,” Angsley said. “He won’t talk to us.”
“Your Thai is pretty good, right?” Anderson asked at last. It occurred to him they ought to have hired an interpreter.
“It’s good enough.” It would have to be.
They climbed the stairs. A simple room, well-swept, slatted wooden windows looking out onto cropped golden fields and blue sky. A woman was placing an array of food on a table in battered tin bowls. She was wearing the same kind of brightly patterned cloth the old lady wore below, knotted right above her breasts. She was lovely, Anderson thought, or had been, not so long before; anxiety seemed to have caught her beauty in its net. When she smiled at them, worried lines rippled from her dark eyes and her crimson lips parted to reveal bright red teeth.
“Betel nut,” Angsley murmured. “They chew it here. Some kind of stimulant. “He bowed his head respectfully, hands together: “Sowatdii-Kap.”
“Sowatdii.” Her eyes darted from one of them to the other.
Anderson glanced around for the child and discovered her crouched in the corner, watching the yellow lizards frisking in the ceiling dust. He was dismayed to see that she was wearing nothing, Her face and belly were painted with a white powder he surmised was used to keep away the heat: two round circles on her cheeks, a line down her nose.
The woman had laid out a villager’s feast for them: white rice and fish curry, though it was only ten in the morning, and tin cups of water that Anderson was sure, as he sipped, would make him ill. He couldn’t risk offending her, so he filled his roiling stomach, the taste of metal coating his mouth. Outside the window, a man shepherded a water buffalo across a field of golden stubble. The sun barreled through the slats in the windows.
Angsley walked over to the child. “Got something for you.” He pulled the doll from his bag and she took it soberly. She held it in her outstretched hands for a moment, then cradled it in her arms.
Angsley lifted his brows meaningfully to Anderson across the room as if to say, “See? She loves it.”
They set up at the wooden table, now cleared of breakfast. Two white men, a nervous woman, and a little naked girl who couldn’t have been more than three holding a grotesque red-haired rag doll. She sat quietly next to her mother. She had an uneven birthmark to the left of her navel, as if splashed with red wine. She clutched the doll tightly in her hands, watching her mother shave papaya into long, even strips with quick fingers.
They talked to the mother. Angsley spoke in Thai first, and then in English, for Anderson’s benefit.
“Tell us about Gai.”
She nodded. Her hands didn’t stop moving. The strips fell away from the papaya into a tin bowl. Every time a sliver dropped from the knife, the little girl shuddered.
The mother spoke in such a low voice that Anderson was amazed Angsley could even hear her to translate.
“She’s says Gai’s always been different,” he said. His voice, translating, was almost robotic. “She won’t eat rice. We try to make her, sometimes, but she cries and spits it out.” The mother made a face. “It’s a problem.” There was her tense, thin voice, and then Angsley’s low flat one. The emotion, then the meaning. “I’m afraid she’ll starve.” As if reminded of this, she picked up a piece of the papaya from the battered tin bowl and handed it to her daughter. The girl clutched the doll in her left hand and reached for it, gripping it as if with pincers; Anderson saw that three of her fingers on this hand were deformed. It was as if these fingers had been drawn sloppily, in a hurry, without the refinements of nails and knuckles. The girl caught him looking at her fingers and she curled them into a first. Anderson looked away, ashamed of himself for staring.
The mother stopped peeling papaya and let loose a stream of words. Angsley could barely keep up with her. “My daughter says that last time she lived in a bigger house in Mae Hong Son. The roof was made of metal. She says our house is no good. It’s too little. It’s true. We are poor.”
She grimaced, lifting a hand to indicate the wooden room. The girl stared at them, chewing papaya, and clutched the doll’s floppy body more tightly in her hands.
“Also, she cries all the time. She says she misses her baby.”
The girl was watching her mother talk. She was like a rabbit in a field, listening.
“Her little boy. She cries and cries. ‘I want my baby,’ she says.”
Anderson felt his heart begin to beat a little faster. His mind, though, remained apart. “How long has she been saying this?”
“One year, maybe. We tell her to forget about it. My husband says it’s bad luck to think of another life. But still, she talks.” She smiled sadly, put down the knife, and stood up as if wiping her hands of the matter.
The men stood, too, as if at attention.
“Just a few more questions –”
But she was shaking her head, still smiling, retreating towards a door in the rear of the room.
They watched her shadowy figure moving around a low stove.
The child sat at the table, stroking the doll’s absurd hair, humming tunelessly.
Anderson leaned across the table. “Gai. Your mother said you used to live in Mae Hong Son. Can you tell me about this?”
Angsley translated. Anderson held his breath. They waited. The girl ignored them, playing with her doll; its blank button eyes seemed to be mocking him.
Anderson walked over to Gai, squatting down next to her chair. She had her mother’s high cheekbones under the circles of white powder and her mother’s watchful eyes. He eased himself onto the floor and pulled his long legs into a cross-legged position. For a long time, fifteen minutes, he simply sat with her. Gai showed him the doll, and he smiled. They began to play silently. She fed the doll and gave it to him to feed.
“Nice baby,” he said after a while. She tweaked the doll’s painted nose affectionately.
“A really pretty baby,” Anderson’s voice was gentle, admiring. Anderson followed Angsley’s Thai tones floating up and down like paper airplanes borne haltingly up and then falling, missing their mark. Who knew if he was saying it correctly?
She giggled. “It’s a boy.”
“Does he have a name?”
“Nice name.” He paused. “What are you feeding him?”
“Doesn’t he like rice?”
She shook her head. She was only a few inches away from him. He could smell the papaya on her breath and a chalky smell, possibly from the face paint.
“Rice is bad.”
“It doesn’t taste good?”
“No, no, no, not good.”
He waited a moment.
“Did something happen while you were eating rice?”
“A bad thing happened.”
“Oh.” He was aware of all the sounds in the room: Angsley’s low voice, the scratching of the lizards as they raced madly across the ceiling, the quick clicks of his heartbeat. “What happened?”
“I see. It happened in another time.”
“When I was big.”
Anderson looked at the sun sliding through the slats onto the wooden floor, the white circles glowing on the child’s face.
“Oh. When you were big. Did you live in a different house?”
She nodded. “In Mae Hong Son.”
“I see.” He forced himself to breathe evenly. “What happened there?”
“A bad thing happened with the rice?”
She reached over the table to the papaya bowl, grabbed a piece of papaya and shoved it into her mouth.
“What happened, Gai?”
She smiled at them with the fruit covering her teeth, the broad orange smile of a clown. She shook her head.
They waited for a long time, but she said nothing else. Out the window, the water buffalo was no longer in sight; the sun set the golden fields on fire. Down below, the chickens chuckled at them.
“I guess that’s it, then,” Angsley said.
The girl was reaching again into the bowl of papaya and this time she took the paring knife her mother had left there. She picked it up with her imperfect hand. They were so rapt, these two grown men, watching her, they didn’t react at first – they didn’t take the knife away from the baby. They watched her pick up the doll, wrap its crude cloth fingers carefully around the knife, and with one fierce, focused movement turn the knife toward her body, stopping just before it entered her abdomen, its point grazing the wine-colored birthmark.
It was only then that Anderson reached over, prying the knife from her tiny malformed fingers. She let him take it.
She said something else. She was looking up at him, her face urgent beneath the white powder. A ghost child, thought Anderson. A dream. And then he thought: No, she’s real. This is reality.
There was a pause.
“Well? What is it? What did she say?”
Angsley frowned slightly. “I think she said, ‘The Postman.’”
Anderson and Angsley rode the boat back in silence. The hired truck that had taken them to and from Mae Hong Son had let them off at the riverbank and now they were heading back to Bangkok. Anderson stood in the front. Next to him Angsley sat and smoked.
The boat passed the same way it had come, past the shacks with piers running down to the water’s edge, little spirit houses perched on the end, miniature temples built for the shelter and appeasement of ghosts; past the women bathing, the children swimming in the muddy river water.
Anderson unbuttoned his shirt. He took off his shoes and socks. He needed to feel the water sloshing his toes, splashing his ankles, dampening the legs of his trousers. He stood on the boat, in his open shirt and t-shirt, the late-afternoon sun roaring on his head. Every hair on his body was standing on end.
He thought of Arjuna, begging the Hindu god Krishna to show him reality: “Reality, the fire of a thousand suns simultaneously blazing forth in the sky.” He thought of Heraclitus: a man cannot cross the same river twice, for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man. He thought of the police and coroner’s reports about the mailman from Mae Hong Son who had plunged a knife into the left side of his wife’s abdomen, killing her and cutting through three of the protecting fingers of her right hand, because she had burned the rice.
From THE FORGETTING TIME. Used with permission of Flatiron Books. Copyright © 2016 by Sharon Guskin.