Communism and the spirits…..

“A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism!” say Marx and Engels in the first words of The Communist Manifesto. They would have no idea that in a latter age and a different clime, the spectres could haunt Communism – or at least, its designated officials.

I have been intending to introduce Dr Siri Paiboun, the national coroner of Laos to you, but something or the other prevented me. But the above premise seems a good way to bring the Siri universe to you. This is from the second of the series – Thirty-Three Teeth…. Enjoy this piece of inspired writing for now….

~~ The compact Luang Prabang Town Hall was more romantically lit than usual. They’d brought in an extra supply of beeswax lamps as per instructions from the Department of Culture. They certainly weren’t to use electricity, as the manual said it disturbed the natural harmonics. The building was draped in white threads, and candles on small clay stands burned along the perimeter walls.

If there had been any tourists, this would certainly have been a highlight of the slide show back home. Except they wouldn’t have got in. Siri stood in the shadows opposite and watched a bizarre parade of witch doctors arriving, as if out of various dreams, to be frisked by two tough soldiers at the gate.

Those without spiritual connections were turned away and joined the large crowd of bemused locals gathered beyond the wall. They pointed to well-known but barely seen shamans like stars arriving at the Oscars.

One wizard-like man with thick white hair down to his naked knees drew ‘aah’s’ of admiration from the gathering. Two short round Hmong women like zeros came together with a sticklike man in red.

There were old ladies in white sheets wheeling barrows of artefacts, men in eyeless hoods guided by young children, animals in sacks squealing anticipation of a sacrifice, small troupes of cymbalists clattering around intoxicated mediums, and transvestites in make-up brighter than the lamps. The carnival of freaks was interspersed by wise folks who had found shamanism thrust upon them and had no desire to turn themselves into circus performers.

Siri attached himself to the tail of the parade and flashed his ID. Once inside he was overwhelmed by the scents of the assembled wizardry. Incense smoke of contradicting spells tangled like clothes in a washing machine. Odours of petrified piglets, and body sweat and cheap cigarettes all wafted through the room.

The authorities had laid out folding wooden chairs in neat rows as if this were a gathering of normal people attending a political seminar. On the raised platform stood a table with four seats and place name-cards. As yet the owners of the names had not taken their seats. They were waiting for the assembly to settle before making an entrance.

But this was an assembly of the unsettlleable. They sprawled and faced about and ambled around greeting old friends and arguing old scores. They turned their chairs into walking creatures that mingled with them. And soon the raised table was a forgotten focal point overlooking an unruly scrum. It was all most sociable but terribly unsocialist.

Siri was content to squat against the side wall and watch the show, but the white-haired man caught sight of him and walked unsteadily over. As he got closer, Siri could see there was little more to him than hair. He was a skeleton painted pale pink.

“Yeh Ming, Yeh Ming. How would you be?” the old man asked.

He seemed truly delighted to see Siri or whoever it was he saw. He held out a sprig of finger-bones that Siri shook carefully. The sound of the man coming down to sit beside him was like a wind charm being lowered to the ground. Siri was surprised that his hidden shaman was so obvious to this old man.

“You know Yeh Ming?”

“Certainly. Certainly. How could I not? You’re an ancestor to many of us.”

“You know? I haven’t actually met Yeh Ming myself. I found about him last year.”

“You could do worse, boy, much worse. You see that particularly obnoxious-looking woman there with the glued hair? She carries around the unsettled spirit of Sisadtee who died a horrible death. She spends all her time seeking revenge on all those who cut off her limbs.”

“Is there any chance that I could talk to you about Yeh Ming? There are a lot of things I need to learn.”

To be continued….


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