Three weeks after the disappearance of his steamer trunks somewhere between the Siamese port and Singapore, Phineas Stevens still held hope for their return. He dearly missed his medical books, drawing supplies and clothes. The Reverend had lent him two sets of shirts and trousers, and each day he washed one in a pan of boiled water and wore the other. It was necessary that this chore be performed daily; here in the Siamese capital, one could sweat oceans in an hour. The heat and the gelatinous air sent his thoughts to leisurely summer swims across Archer's Pond. How he longed for those New England waters — cold, clean, without crocodiles.
At the river port, the Dutch shipping company clerks shook their heads. They assured him that their most diligent men would continue to retrace ship manifests and turn over their warehouses. He suspected them of uproarious laughter as soon as he left.
Outside, he could see that Winston had had better luck at the customs house. At his feet lay a wooden case that looked to hold some mechanical part or another for the crumbling printer, and two small crates — likely pamphlets from the Society to stock their diminishing stacks, which the Reverend would claim as proof of interest from the Siamese, ignoring that most had no knowledge of English and that the cooks were using them as kindling.
Winston handed him a yellowed envelope, scalloped at a corner by rodent bites.
"For you, Dr. Stevens."
"I'm surprised it has journeyed this far," Phineas said before tucking the envelope into his satchel.
"From your love?"
With the Reverend, he spoke freely of his home life at Gransden Hill, but with Winston, who derived uninhibited amusement from the very thought of estate balls and carriage rides through the countryside, he barely mentioned it. Only this morning he’d said, as they set out, "Dr. Stevens, if a sojourn on foot isn't to your liking, you're welcome to ask the Reverend if he would hire us sedan chairs, preferably attended by nubiles tickling the air with fronds."
He didn't take Winston's jabbing to heart. Howbeit, he had no choice but to rely on Winston's familiarity with this alien city. The few Westerners he’d encountered were European: Portuguese, English, French and Dutch drawn to the country’s material riches. The Reverend counted no more than one hundred Americans in the capital. The number included some fellow missionaries at Reverend Jone’s Baptist mission in the Chinese section and at Dr. Bradley’s Congregational mission on the Thonburi side. Then there were the sailors, traders, saloonkeepers and various personages of uncertain character. None made a habit of attending the mission's services.
The sun began to set, the darkened streets readying for thieves. They followed the east bank of the Chao Praya back to the mission station. The sight of the gates always heartened Phineas. They entered to see again the main edifice, which had been constructed in an indeterminate European style but with much Siamese influence — a high triangular roof for venting heat, and stilts for weeks of flood. Worship took place in the first floor chapel, an assembly area furnished with rudimentary pews; most days, two of the other lay missionaries, Miss Crawford and Miss Lisle, used it as a classroom for native children. A large tile-roofed veranda that jutted from the room on the south side served as the mission-hospital and dispensary where Phineas worked. In addition to the main house, there was enough land for a small orchard of Asiatic fruits that the Reverend tended, and a smaller house for the Siamese cooks, who ignored requests for more Occidental meals with winsome smiles. Here good wheat competed in rarity with gold. They tasted bread only in their sleep.
"A fruitful venture, I hope," the Reverend said, locking the gate.
"It could have been better."
"In no time, you'll have adjusted your expectations."
It was the Reverend who had urged him to accompany Winston on trips outside the mission compound, to “understand the local superstitions for the benefit of our efforts.” He had observed how, most days, Phineas sat mute at supper, unable to muster much interest in the others’ banter. Miss Crawford and Miss Lisle echoed the Reverend’s concern, worrying that devotion to work had taken a toll on him. Miss Lisle made him promise that he would commit to some period of rest. He tried to evade her pleas, but she remained insistent. He acquiesced.
Aside from infrequent call to the homes of local merchants, Phineas had spent the greater part of the weeks since his arrival fulfilling his duties at the mission-hospital. He attended to the endless circulation of market peddlers, fishermen, opium addicts, whores and day laborers, and dispensed packets of quinine and acetanilides, purgative oils and remedies for digestive ailments, conditional on a translated Society pamphlet tied by string to each. There had been a few minor surgical procedures, most to deal with knife-inflicted wounds from skirmishes over wagers on caged cricket fights, and one to address an assault by a mongoose. He cleaved and mended as best he could, given septic conditions and few available instruments.
"We need more medical supplies," he'd said to the Reverend, worried about their stock.
"Feel free to send another letter, Dr. Stevens, if you believe yourself more persuasive than I."
The Society historically sent less than what was required. Funds tended to flow more easily to other stations, like the one in Guangzhou, where demonstrable advances of the faith had been made with the local population as well as in the study of regional diseases. Phineas recalled an exhibit at New Haven when he’d been doing his medical training there, of Dr. Parker’s studies of tumor pathologies in the Chinese population and the paintings of men and women with bulbous, flowering flesh. These had played no small part in motivating Phineas’s own travels to this far-off post.
"Why not? I am after all a white sorcerer of formidable power," he said to the Reverend. "Certainly, I can whisper a charm spell into my letter."
Once Phineas had arrived to the clinic to find, before his apothecary cabinet, a spread of square baskets woven from banana leaves. They were filled with offerings of rice, fresh flowers and sweets. Two clay figures — a man and a woman — had also been left to serve as ghost servants for a chest of enema tubes. It did not delight him that his patients held him in similar esteem as their witch doctors, men who entered into trances to speak the tongue of spirits or who claimed to be able to send ghostly imps to strangle adversaries.
The Reverend encouraged the misunderstanding. “A step to faith in the doctor is another to the doctor’s God,” he said.
Tonight, the Reverend tapped Phineas’s arm and informed him that tomorrow he'd be accompanying Winston on another outing beyond the compound.
"But what of the mission hospital? Who will tend to the infirm?"
"You'll be far more effective in your duties once you begin to know this country. We can trust Miss Lisle to handle most of the basic cases."
"And what of cases of greater severity?"
"We'll leave those to the witch doctors," the Reverend said with a grin, before bidding him good night and walking up to the second-floor sleeping quarters. The Reverend occupied the first room next to the stairs. Phineas’s was the narrow room between the women and Winston. It contained few furnishings beyond a rudimentary desk and a raised platform where he slept on bare wood and a burlap pillow stuffed with coconut husks.
What he loved most about the room were the parrots that gathered in the tree across from its windows. Sunlight poured through the leaves and lit up tiny gold and orange flowers along the branches, where the birds perched in pairs. They were colored green and blue, with a necklace of ruffled topaz spots. All day and night they chattered, as if gossiping, and quarreled and sang seemingly joyful songs. Strangely, their noises did not bother him but instead gave him comfort as he lay in his bed, far from the familiar sounds of the wide green valley back home.
Winston wanted nothing more than to shoot these birds — nowhere as meaty as the quail he talked of hunting back in the States, but eating was beside the point. Winston claimed to be able to aim his pistol across the width of a canal and pick off a dragonfly. The Reverend would not allow a demonstration of this skill for fear of offending the Siamese, who deplored such killings. They believed that Man was an animal and that, after death, a soul might re-enter the realm of the living in the body of a different beast. They would not want to see their fathers shot for some foreigner's pleasure. They will come for us with sticks and knives, the Reverend had warned.
Phineas woke to the sound of tapping outside. He stood up and stepped through the mosquito net to reach for a scalpel from his desk. A clang, followed by thuds. Someone was out there, he was certain. He unlatched the door and stepped out to the balcony, the scalpel tucked in his fist.
Winston dangled over the wall, having returned from some mysterious nocturnal errand. When he saw Phineas on the balcony, he lifted a lone finger to his lips and winked.
“He is not like us,” Miss Crawford had said, after disclosing that were Winston not the only skilled and willing printer available in the capital, he would have long ago lost his place in the house.
"Up late, Dr. Stevens? Too much excitement ticking in that head of yours?" Winston whispered.
"Excitement? For what?"
This much he'd learned in these few weeks: No occasion for raucous debauchery and superstition went unobserved in this heathen city. His alveoli had blackened from Chinese families burning money to dead relatives, his cochlear spirals had deformed from cannons fired at the Siamese forts to repel celestial leviathans swallowing the moon. The upcoming three-day ceremony, he’d heard, involved a monstrous swing.
In fact, he had seen the swing once, on his way to address a Dutch sea captain’s gangrenous arm. The Siamese had raised the red swing beside a busy thoroughfare east of the Palace, where it loomed over no fewer than three gambling houses, an outdoor Chinese opera theater, a Buddhist temple and a number of gold shops. With unbroken trunks of ancient mountain teak serving as its two main legs, it stood by Winston’s estimate as high as 15 men standing on one another’s shoulders.
“You’ll see, Doctor,” he said now. “I’ve never before witnessed such daring from mortal creatures, and I have gone eye-to-eye with Santa Ana’s army in Chapultepec.”
"I'm certain I won't be disappointed. Sleep well, Winston."
If calamity was to visit him, it would be from this man, Phineas thought. He stepped back into his quarters and latched his door, his heart still pounding. Unable to close his eyes, he lit a lamp at his desk and opened again the envelope from his brother. Inside was a sketch of Gransden Hill that Andrew had drawn for him. What graceful lines, presumably made with soft Borrowdale graphite. There was no thing here for him but crumbly shards of coal, should he wish to return the favor.
He hoped Andrew would soon receive the letter he had sent this afternoon, without the Reverend's knowledge, for it also contained a petition to the Society for his immediate transfer to Canton, Rangoon or wherever else his medical skills could be better applied, with adequate resources and due seriousness of endeavor.
In the same letter he also wrote of his recovery from a mild gastrointestinal illness, he believed from overripe mangoes devilishly selected by the cooks, and how Miss Lisle had taken charge of his care during that period, cleaning him, performing tasks that should only be asked of one’s hired aide or kin. She eliminated marauding mosquitoes from his room and read to him from the few English tracts available to them. Such magnanimity yields much its intention, he’d written, and noted how grateful he was to count himself among such kind souls in this alien territory.
The Siamese as a race thrive in the aquatic realm, he’d continued. They live as if they have been born sea nymphs that only recently joined the race of man. A traveler arriving at the mouth of the Chao Praya steams upriver along mangrove beaches until the muddiness yields to long patches of coconut groves, alongside of which one may observe fishing villages where frog-limbed men, with spear or woven trap in hand, serenely perch on poles protruding from the water. Farther on lie endless expanses of wetland grass until the land solidifies into forests of flowering trees, fragrant in the breeze, and banana plants of endless variety. The wilderness gives way to towns where women squat at the shore with their washing and canoes as numerous as autumnal waterfowl in the Hudson's marshes row out, each with its freight of cooped poultry or mounds of fruits ready for the floating markets. And an hour beyond, before one can be lulled to an afternoon slumber, lies the capital, its riverside lined with rickety stilt houses that look incapable of withstanding even the most delicate wake of a modern steamer yet somehow maintain a mysterious integrity. Their occupants drink, swim, wash away their filth and fill pots to make soupy meals of their catches, everyone joined in the same confluence of fluids.
It is my conjecture that the waterborne city inspirits our undoing. Its fluvial systems — the natural ones and also the mesh of canals throughout the capital — carry to us miasmata that weaken the body.
Daily, we face our catastrophes, if not by pestilent vapors, then devised by bureaucrats, birthed from faithlessness, self-incurred. I comprehend the Society’s preference for men and women of youth, as ample health and vitality are needed to withstand the corrosion of these climes.
I am less concerned for myself than I am for the mission. Since my arrival, attendance at service has not increased beyond the dozen or so minority Chinese families converted years prior. Piles of translated tracts and pamphlets lie untouched. Few Siamese pay us heed, unless they are seeking medicine or soliciting us to purchase their goods. The Reverend is rightfully proud of what he has managed to achieve at the station under the circumstances, but there are times when I believe him prouder of his bountiful rambutan trees. Miss Crawford and Miss Lisle hold fast to optimism, despite caring for children who prefer craft lessons to the learning of letters and maths. The man Winston, to no surprise, harbors no apparent worries.
Whatever blessings of civilization are accorded to the Siamese will, I fear, bear little fruit. They are a proud, even arrogant people, having yet to come under the domain of a more advanced nation. They seem to regard our own purpose as merely to serve and sustain them in their lifelong pursuit of frivolity. If you ask me, they are full of guile as well, having played off the ambitions of the French and the British, whose territories surround them, so as to profit from the impasse and continue to fly their elephant flag. Without significant headway into the interior of the country — there being no concession for missionary efforts similar to the Treaty of Nanking — I fear the reach of the Mission will remain severely limited. Despite the outward friendliness of the Siamese, especially when my medical capacities are needed, the opposition to our presence is profound. That the Reverend even managed to secure land for the Mission and to procure materials for its construction is a minor miracle.
Another hindrance lies in the people's devotion to demon worship. Few have either the capacity or the desire for literacy, and even the Tripitakas and other texts of their own faith are a mystery to the majority of the people. Seeking solace outside of the passivity encouraged by their religion, the Siamese have embraced the worship of charms and objects, whether a tree or a termite mound.
My dear Andrew, I hope that I have not encumbered you with my distant despair, a world apart from the comforts of our valley, and that instead my musings shall provide you with some thin trickle of amusement. I hereby include a promised watercolor of frolicking parrots to guarantee a lift in your mood. It's very rudimentary, I'm afraid, as I'm forced to get along with the means available. The green comes from soaked pandan leaves, the yellows from turmeric. May their pungent odors fade before your receipt of these words.
Did I tell you in my previous letter what became of the previous occupant of my room? A hooded cobra trespassed the mosquito screen one night, and when the man woke, the snake was roused as well. Not a waking hour passes in that room without my suspicious glance at crevices between the floorboards.
I hold little fear, however, as I consider these present circumstances trials meted by His hand. From my own treatment of patients, I've found that body and spirit are often restored by what most consider tribulation, be it piercing to let foul humors or the administration of black calomel to purge disease and restore balance to the constitution. To be touched by Grace, a soul must not fear enduring harm.
Yet, I must admit, the knowledge of your prayers does provide me with immeasurable comfort. Will you continue to pray for us here, as I pray for you all? Earthly survival, as transient as it will ultimately prove to be, presents a very desirable prospect. By His grace, may I hope to see to each morning light?
From BANGKOK WAKES TO RAIN by Pitchaya Sudbanthad. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Pitchaya Sudbanthad.