By J Gavin Allan
Do you believe in love at first sight? Western culture has odd ideas toward love and marriage. They marry strangers not only to themselves, but even their families. The parents of the groom or bride are not asked for insight into the selection of a matrimonial partner.
However, though arranged marriages are the custom and admired by me, sometimes fate will lend a hand. I believe that love can blossom in an instant. I have proof. I was only eleven, but I have proof.
When I was a girl, an infection almost took my life. After two sunrises my fever did not lessen. My mother feared an increase, and worried about me ever seeing a third. My ravings concerning the happiness I felt at seeing my cousins from Laos sitting in our hut brought quick action from my parents. The Pathet Lao destroyed all my father’s family in reprisals. Including my cousins.
He picked up my emaciated body and ran with speed to the tent of the Warrior Monks from the West. A place, I feared. Hearing the crunch of my mother’s delicate feet in the undergrowth meant she would be by my side. The relief at the thought was temporary, as the elder monk bellowed for my father to hurry.
With great swiftness, my father entered the canvas temple where they performed magical miracles for our people. The elder, dark-skinned as the midnight sky possessed a voice that sounded like an elephant’s trumpet. He wore green clothes. Some of the monks wore shirts and pants that resembled the jungles of Quang Tri.
The elder was a big man, with arms that looked as big as a water buffalo’s head. His dark eyes seemed to be on fire, with red streaks surrounding the pupil. In my hut, I was delirious. Here, I was horrified.
My mother stripped the one-time white colored t-shirt, a gift to my father from a monk, leaving me naked on the cold table. I cried not from shame but from absolute fear. Was I being prepared for heaven? I knew that the Warrior Monks do not take Bru women. Many times after great magical deeds or heroic action against our enemies from the North and their brothers in the South, Bru girls were offered to the monks. Our elders explained their refusals as an adherence to a vow of chastity. A pure soul must be taken into battle. This remembrance did not quell my fear. Why was I lying here naked, if not to be presented as a future bride? The only other alternative brought trembling and convulsive movements. Was I going to heaven?
Then, everything became quiet. My wandering eyes that flooded their sorrow as the waterfall near the bend of the Xepon froze on the entering monk. He was younger than the others and though a different skin color, most have been the child of the dark-skinned elder. His attention to every word spoken by the large framed one could only be afforded a father.
Refusal to allow the glass, with the metal tip, into my mouth disappeared upon the white-skinned son’s touch. As the elder stroked my hair and whispered, or at least what he thought was a whisper, calming words to me in their language, the boy monk placed the glass in my mouth. Flat on the table my vision of him became clearer. Curly black hair touching small ears surrounded a pretty face. His eyes! By the gods…those eyes. They were blue. Blue as the Xepon in summer. The elder with massive hands scooped me up to turn my body. There I remained, on my stomach. My eyes found him as he moved around the table.
Then he touched me. My heart throbbed as the young monk wiped my bottom with a damp white patch. The needle inserted into my skin only mirrored the piercing of my young heart at the sight of him.
Over the coming weeks my expectations were clear. Father would smile as I explained to my mother my intention of becoming the wife of the young monk. She combed my hair and nodded as I expressed my desire for children with blue eyes.
I knew that my thoughts were not fantasy. When I would pass the tent where miracles would occur, I would hear the other monks tell of my approach. An older girl, who was schooled by the women who wear long robes and have a wooden cross hanging from their necks, told me they call me wife. They say, “hey Mike…your wife is here.” What a beautiful name, Mike.
I knew that he loved me when his father and him visited my hut. They pretended that it was to give me another needle in my arm. His father gave my mother a long green shirt. The ones the monks wear, when they are relaxing. It fit me like a dress. It was obvious to me; this was a gift to impress my father. Marriage would be soon I knew it now.
One time he showed his feelings for me, as only a future husband could.
The women and children were bathing at the shores of the Xepon. I, of course did not stay with thes small ones. I was almost married. I would be with the children when our babies needed to be washed, not before.
There was news that our men were approaching. The monks and some of the Bru ventured into Laos, to bring death to those that would hurt us. The returning party broached the small hill that blocked the view of the nude congregation in the clear waters. The elder monk signaled for the group to turn back to the camp. Michael, as his dark father would call him, was the first to turn. I knew it was because he did not see me. Rushing from the embankment, I flew up the hill, yelling to make sure he heard my love calls.
I wanted him to hear the new English words that his father taught me. “Michael, I love you. Michael, I love you.” His father was pleased as he practiced with me. My future father-in-law wanted my surprise to be stated perfectly and with no Bru accent.
My Michael was pleased. His fair face became red as the clay that is the river bottom of the Xepon. It must be a Western sign of love. The Bru men called to him. They told him of the arrival of his wife. Other monks, including my father-in-law, grabbed him and tried to push him to me. I began to tear. Our love was so great all could feel it.
My mother dragged me away, after wrapping herself in a cloth towel. She scolded me and told me to not leave the river unless at least half dressed. Her harsh words of dismay did not bother me. She was correct. In a short time I would belong to a Warrior Monk from the West.
Two weeks passed since my Michael left for another trip to Laos. My father told me that my future husband would be back in the afternoon. He was happy over the prospect of this marriage. He always laughed loudly, when he spoke of such things.
Two young women took me to the riverbank. It is Bru tradition that when your man comes home from the hunt, their women must be prepared for them. As we washed, my mother came to the shore with a bundle of clothes. The young brides laughed and pushed me to her. All three of them were laughing. I became hurt at their mocking. I would not leave the safety of the Xepon. The bundle was placed on the ground. My eyes widened.
Dressing with the newly married girls, my smile grew even larger. My mother helped with the sarong. My waist was too tiny for the cinched band, but one of the other young brides, as I considered my self one of them, used a pin the monks have used to fit it correctly. The talk from my mother that this was all a game did not bother me. One of the newly wedded girls laughed and said that it would be good practice, till a real husband comes along. I knew they were making fun of me. I was going to marry a Warrior Monk from the West. As soon as my Michael was done with the fighting, his vow of chastity would be fulfilled. Their jealousy was obvious. My mother probably acted that way, well…maybe she thought herself to young for grandchildren.
When we dressed, the three of us marched over the hill. As we stood on top, we could see the returning men. Walking down the slope, my anklets sang with the joy in my heart. Michael would see me for what I am. A woman, dressed in a purple sarong, above the skirt was my em. Though my flat chest did not fill it out, soon I would need the triangle shaped garment to secure my growing breasts. It matched the wrap around dress. I felt so grown, walking with the slit at my hips. One of the girls added color to my lips. Newly made earrings, brightly colored and dangling, replaced the childlike babyish ones that were worn when I was a child.
Weaved into a tight braid, my long black hair sat atop my head. My mother wove the cloth through it till the multi-colored strip kept my hair frozen in place.
My man had returned from battle. His wife, well future wife, was prepared.
As our men came into view, the elder monk rushed to the hill. He waved to those stumbling and limping on the trail. As was the usual response, not one moved a muscle.
Moving toward me, my future father-in-law looked at the red dirt that turned pink this time of year. Not until the monstrous body was in front of me did he lift his head. This man among men, this sacred leader of the mystical foreigners that have become a part of our village, this father to all, Bru and Monk stood before me. A lone tear rushed down the rounded cheek that resembled one of the many hills scattered near our village. His breathing was strange, as if being chased by a tiger. He spoke in English, a language I did not understand. The flavor of his words sat with a bitter taste in my mouth. I knew what he was telling me.
My future husband would not be coming home…ever.