Thai Die

Thai Die Book CoverChapter One

It had been a very mild winter so far – it was barely February – which in Minnesota meant that anything heavier than an automobile was forbidden to drive on the lakes’ icy surfaces. Even snowmobiles had a distressing tendency to fall through on occasion. There hadn’t been much snow, either, so cross country skiing was curtailed. Gardeners worried that without deep snow cover, any severely cold weather might damage their spring bulbs. There wasn’t even the simple pleasure of looking out at the snow-covered beauty of a more typical winter.

That dreary Minnesota January was a big contrast with January in Bangkok, where Doris Valentine had spent the last four weeks. She had sent almost daily e-mails describing cloudless days of eighty and more degrees, sun-ripened pineapple for sale on every street corner, and live elephants with their hides painted in ornate patterns standing under banyan trees in the park.

“Here she comes!” called Bershada from near the front door of Crewel World. “She’s got a suitcase with her,” she added, hurrying back to her seat at the library table.

“Wonderful!” said Betsy, who owned the needlework shop. “I bet it’s just bulging with souvenirs!”

“Ah, a really big show and tell!” said Shelly.

The Han Phoenix

The Han Phoenix

“Souvenirs from Thailand,” sighed Alice, who had never been able to travel much. Her favorite song all her life had been “Faraway Places with Strange Sounding Names.” “Move over, I can’t see!” said Emily, leaning sideways to look around the photographer standing between her and the doorway. Emily was in her eighth month of pregnancy and tended to stay where she sat until she absolutely had to get up.

It was the first Wednesday in February, and the Monday Bunch was in special session, though not to stitch. Fellow member Doris was coming home, and they all wanted to hear about her fabulous trip.

“What a great tan she got!” said the photographer, a very young man from the Excelsior Times, the paper of record for a town so small that a citizen’s return from an exotic vacation was news. His camera flashed twice as Doris opened the door, and she drew back in surprise. But then she smiled and came in, big suitcase in one hand and a shopping bag in the other. It was marked Rainbow Foods, and probably held fresh milk and bread, necessary immediate purchases on arriving home from an extended trip.

There were six people waiting for her: The owner of the shop, Betsy; young pregnant Emily; schoolteacher Shelly; tall and elderly Alice; Bershada, a retired librarian; and the ambitious young man who was both photographer and reporter.

Phil Galvin wasn’t there. A retired railroad engineer and a member of the Monday Bunch, he thought no one knew he was also Doris’s boyfriend. But the gossip around the table before Doris arrived was about how he had met her at the airport yesterday afternoon and taken her out to dinner last night.

Doris, a medium-size woman of fifty-three, came in smiling. She indeed had a light tan and, instead of her usual complex blond wig and heavy makeup, wore her own hair cut stylishly short, permed into gentle curls, and dyed a cheerful carrot. She looked about twenty pounds slimmer than she did before her trip. Her face was almost naked, just touched up a little around the eyes, cheeks and lips. She looked wonderful and the compliments from the table were heartfelt, which brought her to another halt, blushing with pleasure. The photographer’s flash went off, startling her. Then she frowned – the photographer was not a member of the Bunch.

“It’s all right, Doris,” said Betsy. “Someone – ” She looked around the table, but nobody confessed or even looked guilty – “Someone told the Excelsior Times that you were coming home from a month in Thailand, and now it’s going to be in the paper. I really hope you don’t mind.”

“Well . . .” hedged Doris in her husky voice.

“You can object to it later,” said Bershada. “Girl, get your beautiful self on over here and open that suitcase! We’re dying to see what you brought home!”

Doris smiled and said, “Yes, of course,” and came to put the shopping bag on the floor and the suitcase on its side on the table in front of the one empty chair. She began to unzip it.

“First,” said the reporter, putting his camera down and pulling a notebook from his jeans pocket, “tell us what you liked the most.”

Confronted by a need to speak for the record, Doris hesitated, pulling zipper around the side of her black canvas suitcase, which still had the airline tag on its handle. “Oh, I guess I liked everything. The people are wonderful, they’re beautiful, and so friendly and helpful.” The Monday Bunch looked interested, and she continued in a more confident voice, “But they’re so thin and little, I felt like a giant. And I just couldn’t help loving Bangkok, it’s so – Oh, I can’t sum it up, it’s the most contradictory city! It’s huge, with really modern skyscrapers and a brand new subway system and excellent hospitals. But the air is polluted, and there are beggars on the street with diseases and disabilities we can fix here. It has dozens of Buddhist temples all covered with gold, and monks in saffron robes, just like in National Geographic.” Her mouth tweaked. “But I didn’t see a single Siamese cat.”

“No Siamese cats – ?” queried Emily, confused.

“Well, the country used to be named Siam – and that’s where the breed came from.” She sat down and finished unzipping the suitcase. “But what I fell most in love with was . . . silk.” And she opened the lid, causing gasps all around at the rich colors presented to their eyes.

Doris began by lifting out two lengths of silk. These were not the filmy kind, but substantial, opaque items, saturated with color: deep, dark blue and rich red with generous trimmings of bright gold. Geometrical patterns were woven into sections of the fabrics: a slab of unevenly spaced narrow vertical columns terminating in neat arrangements of diamonds and triangles; thin horizontal lines marked at small intervals with tiny alternating circles and squares; geometrical flowers surrounded by big diamonds filled with starlike shapes and surrounded by figures that could be caterpillars from Oz. The lines were done on the indigo in gold and red; and done on the red in gold and purple. The pieces were big, about six feet long and two feet wide, and not cut off a bolt but each complete in itself. The long ends were marked with thin fringe, braided on the indigo, tied into patterns on the red.

The notebook was put aside, the camera flashed again and again. Betsy waved impatiently at him.

“Hand woven,” said Doris proudly, “you can tell by the uneven edges where she turned the shuttle to go back.”

“She?” said Bershada.

“These are done by women – Thai girls used to announce they were ready to marry by weaving where men could see how skilled they were at it.”

The pieces were handed around to words of pleasure over the soft fabric and subtle textures of the patterns.

Then Doris brought out a much larger piece that was like a brocade. There was a lot of gold in its patterns that gleamed and shone under the shop’s ceiling lights. The camera flashed. The base color was again that deep indigo, and the patterns this time went diagonally, except for a broad row of highly stylized – “Chickens?” asked Alice with a laugh.

“Yes,” said Doris. “Well, I’m not sure they’re chickens. But they’re a symbol of . . . something, I can’t remember. But they’ve been doing it for a long time, centuries.”

The other patterns on the brocade were mostly diamonds, though one repeating row looked like the fingers of a closed hand, perhaps, and another like pictographs or hieroglyphics. The fabric was heavy, the designs definitely raised – and deliciously smooth under the women’s fingers. The photographer took a picture of Betsy running her fingers across it.

“What are you going to do with these?” the reporter asked Doris, notebook at the ready.

“I don’t know,” confessed Doris, embarrassed. “Over there they lay these cloths diagonally across their beds as decoration, but I’d just die if my cat Waldo sank his claws into this. I guess I’ll hang it on my living room wall and maybe use the others as table runners. I never thought about using them – I saw them and just couldn’t resist buying them, they are so gorgeous.”

“And inexpensive, too, I suppose,” said Emily.

“Well . . . not terribly cheap, not these hand woven pieces. Now, these were inexpensive.” Doris lifted two big rectangles of thin fabric, about forty by sixty inches. “These are saris, imported from India. I bought them on Coral Island off the town of Pattaya. Open-front stores, white sand, blue and green water . . .” She smiled, remembering. “Women were using these as swimsuit wraps. This little old man came down the beach with a huge armload of fabric — he even had a couple of shirts, but they weren’t my size. We were bargaining to set the price when this other man, much younger, who’d been by earlier, came storming back and threw his stuff down at my feet, and yelled, ‘I more handsome than him! Why you buy him, not me?’ He pretended he couldn’t understand why I wanted an imitation silk scarf but not a purse made out of fake manta ray hide. He was so indignant that I started to laugh, then he laughed, too, and gathered up his stuff and went on down the beach.”

Doris picked up one of the scarves. It was sea green, printed with soft white lines crossed into wavy diamond shapes and even softer red splotches. She lofted it to show its lightness, then started it around the table. “You have to bargain, I was actually scolded by our guide when I bought some nuts from a street vendor and paid the asking price. But I didn’t bargain very hard for these, they were so beautiful and the price was low. I think I paid about three dollars apiece.”

The other scarf had a broad border in marine blues. Its center was yellow and printed with soft black outlines of tropical fish colored in melted purples and blurred greens and tangerine.

The women held each up in its turn, admiring the patterns and colors. Betsy blew on the blue fabric draped across her hand, and it floated in gentle waves. All of a sudden she could imagine herself standing on white sand, looking out over the Bay of Siam, its water the colors of this scarf, while an onshore breeze toyed with the fabric around her legs and shoulders.

Then Doris brought out a small bronze statue of a man with four arms and an elephant head. The photographer came close, camera flashing and flashing. The Bunch turned their heads aside to avoid being dazzled.

The elephant-headed man had a fat belly and bare feet and a very amiable expression. He wore a skirt with a diamond pattern engraved on it, fastened with a big button. One of his tusks was broken off – but it was part of the design, not an accident, because he was holding the piece in one hand. “This is Ganesha, the god of beginnings,” Doris said. “Thailand is a Buddhist country, but the Buddha is not a god, so they can mix other religions in. And they do. I don’t know why I like Ganesha, I think it’s because he looks so friendly. People call on him to bless the building of a house or the start of a business. He’s also the god of writers – he broke off his tusk to use as a pen to write down a story he was hearing so he wouldn’t forget it.”

“Hey,” said the reporter, “I wish I had a statue of him myself!” He was scribbling as fast as his fingers could go. “How do you spell his name?”

Doris spelled it while Ganesha went around the table. “He’s heavy!” exclaimed Emily, nearly dropping him when Bershada handed him over. She turned him over to see if he was solid bronze. “What’s this inside him?” she asked.

“Concrete,” Doris replied. “They fill a lot of their brass and bronze pieces with concrete.” She smiled. “I think it’s so the post office makes extra money when they’re sent home. Or maybe it’s just to make them feel solid.”

She went into the suitcase again and came up with what looked like a folded fan bent into a gentle S shape. But when she unfolded it, it kept coming around until it made a circle and turned into a hat with a ruffled brim: a bright-red, bell-shaped sun hat patterned with golden elephants, held open with a dab of Velcro. “I bought this from a tiny old woman who came into a little restaurant with a bag of them in different colors. No English at all, she had to hold up fingers to tell me how many baht it cost. I liked that restaurant, the food was delicious – but it didn’t have a menu, you ate whatever the owner felt like cooking that day. It was right across the street from the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Oh, that temple! I never saw so much gold in my life!” And again the women sighed at the exotica of little old street vendors, menu-less restaurants and a golden temple housing a Buddha statue made of emerald.

“Is it made of one huge emerald, or lots of littler ones?” asked Alice.

“Neither. It’s called the Emerald Buddha because it’s a deep green color – but it’s made of jade. It’s little, only about eighteen inches tall, but it’s very old, and the holiest object in Thailand. Only the king can touch it, and he comes three times a year to change its robes. Right now it’s wearing cloth of gold decorated with emeralds and rubies and diamonds. There is a constant stream of people who offer it lotus buds and incense sticks. The temple is big, and it’s very tall. The Buddha sits way up high, on a golden throne. Outside, the eaves are lined with thousands of bells and wind chimes to scare away demons; and there are golden statues of odd-looking creatures everywhere to protect it. Women with legs like birds – their knees go the wrong way and they have claw feet – and huge, bug-eyed giants from China. Everything’s coated with gold, except what’s covered with tiny pieces of glass in all different colors, very strange, but beautiful. The temple is part of a big complex that also includes the old royal palace. In the palace you can see the boat-shaped throne on a set of pedestals. King Rama the Fifth sat on it to welcome European visitors. Remember ‘The King and I’? That king. They made it high because Europeans wouldn’t fall on their faces in his presence like the Thai had to do, and that way it seemed as if they did. The current king doesn’t live there anymore, but in a new palace.”

Alice had the hat in her hands during this. She surreptitiously held it to her nose, inhaling gently the remaining molecules of air brought home from a place so exotic as to have golden monsters guarding a little jade statue that only the king could dress.

The reporter asked, “Why did you go to Thailand?”

“Because I wanted some surgery my medical insurance wouldn’t cover, and it was cheaper to go to Thailand than to pay for it here, even including air fare. And their hospitals are the equal of any I’ve seen here.”

“How did you learn about going to Thailand for surgery?”

“A friend told me, and then I did some research on the Internet.”

He asked, “Did your friend go there for an operation, too?”

“No, she just went there on vacation with two other women. She loved it so much that she wanted to see it again.”

“That was Carmen, wasn’t it?” asked Shelly.

Doris nodded. “She was supposed to come with me, but her husband got an assignment in Santa Fe for six weeks starting a week before we were supposed to leave, and her son goes to college in Albuquerque, so she decided to go with him.”

Doris went back into the suitcase and brought out a white paper bag sealed shut with gold tape. She pulled the strips of tape away, opened the bag, and pulled out a big fistful of skeins of floss in shimmering gold. The skeins were about the size and shape of a skein of DMC cotton, but the single band around each was white paper with printing in an exotic, curvy alphabet on it, except for two words: Thai Silk. She tumbled them with shy carelessness onto the table. “These are for you. Each of you may have one.”

“Oh, they do needlework in Thailand, too!” exclaimed Emily, reaching for one. The photographer took her picture as she laid it across her palm and studied the writing on the band.

“Well, only sort of,” said Doris. “Over there it’s more of an occupation than a hobby. And these are . . . kind of special.”

“How so?” asked Betsy, running a finger along one end of the skein. It wasn’t smooth like the silk floss she sold, this had a faintly rough grain.

“Well, I got these from a silk factory just outside of Bangkok. It’s an interesting story. I wanted to see silk made, and I didn’t realize that most Thai silk comes from the north. I found out about this factory, but there wasn’t a tour, so I had to go there by myself.”

“Brave of you,” said Alice.

“Thank you, I thought so, too. Anyway, this factory was a small place, and it was kind of rickety, and noisy. And hot, the spinning and weaving machines put out heat and there’s no air conditioning. They make fabric to sell to tailors who can make a suit or a skirt or a shirt to your measure in five days.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of them!” said Betsy. “Did you get one?”

“Yes, I did, and it’s beautiful, but it’s a summer dress, so I can’t wear it for a few months. Anyway, a man there spoke enough English to translate for me. I talked with the man in charge of making solid-color fabrics, and he showed me the whole process, from spinning raw silk off the cocoons, to dying it, to weaving it. And when I asked for a sample of spun, dyed silk, I had to show him the piece of counted cross stitch I carry in my purse to explain what it was for. He told me I had to talk to his supervisor – who turned out to be an American! He came to Bangkok on leave from the Marine Corps back during the War in Vietnam and decided to live there after he got out. He looked like an ex-Marine, too, big and tough and kind of battered, but charming – you know?”

Betsy, who had spent a few years in the navy long ago, smiled and nodded. She knew.

“Do you remember his name?” asked the reporter, pen poised.

“Yes, David Corvis.”

“Can you spell that? Corvis, I mean. With a C or a K?”

Doris thought. “I can’t remember – I think I’ve got jet lag. I can find out, if you like. Anyway, he told me come back the next day, and when I did, he had these all made up for me. Isn’t that just the nicest thing? I cried, I literally broke down and cried, and told him I’d send him something from America, anything he wanted.”

“Oh, Doris!” exclaimed Betsy. “What if he said he wanted a car?”

“He couldn’t use an American car,” replied Doris, “because they drive English style, so our steering wheels are on the wrong side for them.”

“Well, what did he want?” asked Shelly.

“Would you believe, a Minnesota quarter!” said Doris, laughing. “He collects state quarters, and he has about thirty of them, but not a Minnesota one. I’m going to the bank tomorrow to get a nice new one for him.”

“How will you send it if you don’t know how to spell his name?” asked Emily.

“I’ve got it written down somewhere. But it wouldn’t matter, I’m sure he’s the only David at the factory, and I have its address.” She looked around the table. “But there’s more. I want you to let me know how good or bad Thai silk is for stitching. I haven’t tried it myself. They don’t make floss, so it may snag or pull apart or just not look as good. But if it is good, he will let me buy silk floss from him to sell over here.” She leaned back and began to smile. “I may go into the silk import business!” She raised both hands. “In a small way, of course. Kreinik has nothing to fear!”

The women laughed and each selected a skein. There were over a dozen skeins, and Doris said the rest should be saved for non-present members of the Bunch, and anyone Betsy chose to try the silk out.

“Thank you very much!” said Betsy. She picked up a second skein, saying, “I want Bitsy Busby to try this. If it doesn’t disintegrate under her lickety-split stitching, then we’ll know something good about it.”

The show was over. Doris began to fold up her silk pieces. Bershada, sitting on her left, said, “Wait, there’s something else.” She pointed to a cardboard box in a corner of the suitcase.

“Oh, that,” said Doris. “That isn’t mine.”

“Whose is it?” asked Betsy. “And what is it doing in your suitcase?”

“David asked me to bring it home to Minnesota and deliver it to an antique store, who will sell it to a customer already waiting for it. He has a little business on the side, exporting Thai art.”

“Hold on, Doris, isn’t that illegal?” asked Bershada. “Bringing something home for somebody else?”

“No, he didn’t sneak it into my luggage. And, I declared it. And he didn’t pay me to carry it.”

What is it?” asked Betsy, a shade impatiently.

“Yes, let us see!” said Alice.

The reporter, who had been about to put his camera into its bag, instead turned on the flash again.

Doris hesitated. “It’s a Buddha, and it’s stone, not bronze. I don’t know if I should open the box, and not just because it’s not mine. What would I do if one of you dropped it?”

“We’ll be careful!” promised Alice, and the others heartily agreed.

Doris picked up the box and picked away the strips of transparent tape holding it shut. “I think you’ll be surprised when you see it. It’s not really old, but carved in an ancient style.”

The object inside was wound into bubble wrap, and under that a length of grimy old cloth, a faded green printed with a complex pattern. Doris laid the statue on the table and carefully removed its wrapping. As she lifted the last fold of fabric away, the camera flashed from behind her left shoulder, apparently catching her in the corner of her eye. She blinked a few times to clear away the spots before she set it upright on its low pedestal, turning it to face the group. The camera flashed again.

“That’s a Buddha?” asked Emily. The statue, a pale-cream color, was of a slim man in a shin-length robe.

“I don’t know why he used this old thing,” Doris said, leaning sideways to drop the rag into the wastebasket under the table. “The bubble wrap was good enough.” She turned the Buddha around so it faced them, putting a steadying finger on its head. “So, what do you think?”

It was nothing like the jolly fat man sitting on a pillow that was the familiar depiction of the Buddha. He was a slender man with downcast eyes and just a hint of a smile. He wore his robes fastidiously arranged, covering just one shoulder, reaching halfway down his calves. Both hands were upraised with long, slender fingers. His left hand had the little finger and thumb touching, the right had his forefinger and thumb touching. His hair was done in tiny, tight curls, lifted slightly at the crown.

“Ooooh, he’s gorgeous!” said Emily, reaching for it – she was tired of being the last one handed something going around the table. “Wow, it’s heavy!”

“Oh, please be careful!” cried Doris, reaching to steady it. “Remember, it’s not mine! I don’t know what I’d do if one of those hands broke off!”

“Yes, of course, you’re right,” apologized Emily, holding it more carefully, using both hands. She put it down on the table and turned it around and around, her head tipped to one side.

“It looks dirty,” Bershada said, leaning sideways to peer at it through the magnifying glasses she wore well down her nose.

“I think that’s called ‘patina,'” said Betsy in a dry voice.

“Whatever. If it were mine, I’d give it a good scrubbing. I bet that stone is a nice color under the dirt – excuse me, patina.” She reached for it, hefted it – Doris could not quite suppress another gasp – then put it down and scooted it along the table.

Betsy tried lifting it with both hands. “It is pretty solid,” she said. The grubbiness, she noticed, was lighter on the high surfaces and darker inside the folds of the robe. Whoever carved this copy was careful to get the imitation patina right. She leaned it back to get a look at it and was struck by the expression on its face. “I like this,” she said. “He looks very serene.”

“Didn’t Buddha invent serenity?” asked Bershada.

The Buddha,” corrected Alice before Doris could. “He had some other name, Buddha is like a title. He was born in India five hundred years before Christ, and invented a religion that is all about rejecting concern over things of the world. ‘Wakeful serenity’ they call it.”

“How much is that little statue worth?” asked the reporter.

“About two hundred dollars if you buy it in Bangkok, because it’s hand carved. It would cost about eight hundred here, wholesale.”

“And whatever you can get at retail,” said Bershada.

“That doesn’t seem like very much,” mused Betsy. “I mean, it does, until you think of all the trouble he took to get it here.”

Doris shrugged. “It wasn’t that much trouble. Besides, he said it was for a repeat customer he wants to keep on the good side of.”

Betsy nodded, she understood the value of the repeat customer. Still, she had to ask, “Weren’t you just a little suspicious about this request? I mean, being handed something in a foreign country to bring to the United States?”

“Well, of course, at first!” said Doris, indignant at being thought a willing cat’s paw. “But I went to his office – his other office, where he has his export business. It’s on Silom Road – an important part of the city – though seems to be just one room, and half of it was taken up with boxes. He said it was to go to Fitzwilliam’s Antiques in St. Paul – which is an actual antique shop, I looked it up on the Internet. I’ve already talked to Mr. Fitzwilliam on the phone. He asked me to hold it until Friday – he doesn’t want someone else to see it and want it – but he sounded happy and said his customer would be very pleased to hear the piece is here. So see? Nothing secret about it.”

“And you didn’t get questioned about it at customs?” asked Alice.

Doris grinned. “Let me tell you about that,” she said. “I bought another hat besides that fan one. It’s the kind peasant farmers use in the fields. It’s beautiful, but it also looks like a lampshade.” She bent sideways to reach into the grocery bag, which didn’t hold milk and bread after all, but a big stiff hat made of blades of rattan. It had a flat top and sides that bent ever more sharply outward into a broad rim about eighteen inches across. She turned it over to show the inside. The rattan strips were supported on the inside with open work of much finer rattan, woven in clever small circles. But the interesting part was a beautiful cylinder about six inches across and six deep, woven of even finer rattan into open spirals. It was fastened to the crown of the hat with knots of thread and reached down almost level with the brim. “See,” said Doris, turning the hat over and putting it on, “this is the thing that touches your head, not the hat, so there’s always air moving over the top of your head. You get shade and a breeze at the same time.”

The women nodded smiling, and the smiles kept getting wider and wider until they turned to giggles.

“I know, I know,” said Doris with a sigh, taking the hat off. “It looks ridiculous on me. I saw these tiny Asian faces peering out from under these hats and thought they were adorable. So I bought one from a street vendor at a temple called Wat Pho. Our guide almost hurt himself trying not to laugh at me – and the sweet ladies behind the counter at my hotel didn’t even try.” She handed the hat to Emily. “Go ahead, you try it on.”

Emily looked at the design on the inside, then obeyed and they all laughed at her, too. And Alice, and Betsy. And even Bershada, who could wear just about any hat.

“See? It looks ridiculous on anyone but east Asians. Still, I liked it, so I brought it home. I had to carry it in my hand, it won’t fit in a suitcase. Then going through customs I wore it, since I had my hands full of luggage. The customs officer said, ‘What do you have to declare?’ I handed him my list in fear and trepidation – I was two hundred dollars over my limit and just knew I was going to spend the next hour opening suitcases and paying a lot of duty. But he looked at my jet-lagged face under that silly hat and said, ‘Go on through.’ So I don’t care if it looks ridiculous on me, it’s a wonderful hat, a lucky hat, and I say God bless it!”