Gods in the Air
By Maymay Liu
Under the floating dust motes and dim, orange lights, they were dancing. Two Thai men in t-shirts and bermuda shorts weaved and swayed in tandem. Their bare feet sent up synchronized sprays of sand. They had swords clenched between their teeth, tucked into the crooks of their elbows and knees, between their toes; twenty-four sword tips slicing the air into dynamic, geometric shapes.
The small, gaunt man who sold us our tickets had told us that the sword dance, or the Ram Dab, was traditionally performed before combat. “Originate from here, from Chiang Mai,” he added proudly. My father tried to ask him what he meant by ‘combat’ (a battle?) but he had already moved on to the next customers.
My parents and I, turning our noses up at the hotel’s recommended tourist trap, had wandered in to this nameless establishment in search of classical Thai dance. It was our third and final night in Chiang Mai, the city of flowers and the cultural capital of northern Thailand. Stuffed with kaeb moo (crispy, deep-fried pork rinds), mango sticky rice and light Thai beer, we had meandered through the night market earlier that evening, aware of the night growing deeper, but reluctant to leave the still-bustling streets. I remember letting my eyes glaze over after my fourth or fifth can of beer, not focusing on any one thing, so that it all became a blur of colors and smells and sounds; at one point, a cotton shirt for sale that was so soft I couldn’t stop rubbing it on my face; shadow puppets telling stories on a crumbling brick wall; laughter and snatches of foreign languages like errant zephyrs; a perch heavy with birds of paradise that turned out only to be lacquered hair pins; fresh mangosteen juice running down my chin. I could have floated through that market forever, secretly smiling at the way my parents held hands the whole time.
I still had a few mangosteens in my bag when we sat down to watch the dance performance. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a good idea to follow the shifty man into the basement - luckily, he was just leading us down to the stage, and it was already half-filled with other patrons. I noticed they were also mostly foreigners, but neglected to mention this to my father, who was so delighted and gushing enthusiastically about how great it was to find this “authentic” place. The most physically inflexible person I’ve ever met, he found it impossible to sit cross-legged like everybody else, and had to go find a chair. My mother merely clucked her tongue at the bare, wooden floor and spread out our map of the area to sit on. I sat on the floor, which, like the rest of the city, was immaculate.
I peeled my next mangosteen, arranging the thick, leathery skin on a corner of my mother’s map-seat. My father plucked my elbow for a segment of fruit. We were still savoring its unique blend of sweet and sour when the music started - fast-paced, rhythmic chiming that immediately reminded me of a smaller, less structured gamelan. Two performers stepped onto the stage, their arms laden with swords the length of their forearms. Carefully unsheathing their swords, they arranged the blades in a crisscrossed fashion on the sanded floor around them, gracefully twirling their wrists between movements.
I wondered what the dancers were imagining when they closed their eyes to do this. Were they praying? As the dancers began to unwind their bodies, my mind wandered back to our temple visits just earlier that day. I thought about those golden towers, the Wats, so dazzling my eyes hurt, with their orange-clad monks and packs of friendly temple dogs. Each wall had a photo of the Thai king; I remember being so moved by how tangibly the people loved their monarch. Then there was the majestic procession of tiny ceramic elephants - each one lovingly hand painted - I discovered in the shadow of a monolithic Buddha statue. An offering, someone told me. I thought about tourists walking around these places in cut-off shorts and crop tops, taking pictures of the architecture – my mother had shaken her head angrily at a pair of girls in miniskirts.
The chimes were speeding up now, the thudding of the dancers’ feet more frenetic. They slipped swords between their lips and there was scattered applause from the crowd. One dancer arched his arm just so and I was momentarily blinded by the light reflecting off his blade – then, an unbidden memory of my mother taking pictures of me in front of the remains of Wat Chedi Luang (a temple that had its spire toppled by an earthquake years ago). I turned out looking surly in most of them, but I was only upset because she was taking the photos on her iPad. My mother fussed about with the device, trying to frame my good side against the temple’s - I could see people glancing at her, and I was embarrassed by that, and not by the fact that I was casually posing next to a place that the gods had once called home.
A surge of apprehension turned the fruit sour in my mouth, and I swallowed hastily. I glanced around at the other tourists; I saw awe, apathy, admiration. I suddenly felt like the dancers were too exposed, too vulnerable – they curved and twisted their arms like elephant trunks and I thought of the ceramic elephants being crushed underfoot. The dancers had fully adorned themselves with swords, naked blades peeping from crooks of elbows, balanced on their shoulders, and were dueling with a pair of empty sheathes. My mind made some bizarre leap and all I could think about were the Buddhists trying to find a place to kneel between the tourists gawking at the beautiful statues. One of the dancers, defeated, laid down his swords and reached supplicant hands to the victor, offering himself. He lifted his eyes to the heavens, undulating his shoulders and I felt the waves on my own skin. Could his gods even hear his prayers anymore, with all these visitors whispering and pointing and staring? I saw the triumphant dancer’s swords, no longer rusty, but glittering and encrusted with gems, chop through the air, and I imagined the golden gods falling into the cuts. On stage, the defeated dancer leapt, and I felt he was leaping after them. Where are you going? I called out in my mind, Take me with you. And still they danced on. And we watched.
I reached out and grabbed my mother’s hand. She looked at me questioningly. I didn’t know what to say, but I wouldn’t let go of her until the dance ended and the lights came up. Even then, I remained still, urgently craning my neck to catch a glimpse of the dancers still onstage. I could already feel the guilt receding from my skin like a tide as the world re-settled into its old shape; the chain of associations that were so clear in my mind just moments before snapped and scattered liked a broken strand of pearls. The gilded swords reverted to the dull old blades that we saw at the beginning of the show; the dancers were dancers no longer - just two nondescript men. My mother nudged me impatiently with her knee, so I unknotted my limbs and stood up, not sure I was all there yet. Following my parents back up the stairs, I chanced another glance behind at the empty stage, and brought the last piece of mangosteen to my mouth – when the heavy sweetness burst on my tongue, for a fleeting moment, I once again saw in my mind’s eye the edge of the sword and the laughing gods as they slipped away to where twilight ends.