When the man climbed out of the ute I picked up my backpack, dusted off my shorts and walked over.
‘Meghan?’ His accent was Australian, his eyes green with flecks of yellow.
I stuck out my hand and we shook.
He took my backpack and hauled it into the back.
Town after dusty town whizzed by. In between were paddies of rice, plantations of cassava, fields of buffalo.
The Australian pulled the ute off the highway and it bumped down a dirt road. A large lake stretched out to the left. White birds pulled fish from the water. On the far bank was a peaked pile of rocks.
‘What were those stones?’
‘Oh, a grave.’ The Australian turned into a driveway and shut off the engine. ‘Guest house’s that way.’ He pointed to a wooden hut.
His wife took my bag from the truck and set off for the guest house.
It was one small room. Someone had placed a vase of dried flowers and some candles in a corner.
‘What are they for?’ I pointed at the candles.
‘Phi,’ Sawat said and paused. Then added, ‘Ghosts.’ She smiled and left.
Through the open window I watched the fierce sun sink down into the lake. Music started up. Drumming, a gong and a man wailing gently. When the mosquitoes started humming I pulled down the net and turned off the light.
Someone at the door. ‘Who’s there?’ I pulled the sheet up over my chest.
A face appeared lit by a candle. ‘Sorry, did I frighten you?’ The stranger pulled the door closed and ducked in under my mosquito net. ‘The mozzies are a killer,’ she said. She had long, blonde hair and green eyes that glowed. ‘I’m Anna.’
‘Meghan,’ I said, trying to remember if I’d booked a private room. As I reached for my singlet Anna pulled off her own T shirt and slithered out of her shorts.
‘Bloody hot, eh?’ She licked her fingers and pinched the candle wick. There was a hiss in the darkness. ‘You can come closer,’ she whispered. ‘I promise I won’t bite.’
I woke late and alone.
At the main house the Australian grinned around his cigarette.
Had he heard us? I blushed and asked, ‘Is it a nice walk to the lake?’
He nodded. ‘Yeah. But be back by dark. Sawat’s throwing a ghosting.’
‘She can see ghosts?
‘Don’t know. Find out tonight. Her mother can.’
‘Does Sawat want to?’
‘Bloody oath.’ He chuckled. ‘Shit load of status.’
An ancient woman dragged a bag of cassava into the kitchen, squatted and began peeling. On the wall above her was a framed photograph.
‘Hey, that’s Anna.’ I pointing to the photo.
The old woman flicked her face to me. She squinted and chatted at her daughter.
Sawat nodded, watching me.
Sawat smiled. ‘Mei,’ she said, pointing at the old woman. ‘Phi.’
‘Yeah, ’ I said. ‘Your mother sees ghosts.’
Sawat smiled but as I left I could feel Mei’s eyes on my back.
The road back from the lake was lined with street lights, each swarmed by insects. Heavy music wafted.
The courtyard was packed with people. Pots of incense and plates of tiny, green oranges were scattered about.
‘Here go.’ The Australian handed me a bottle of rice whiskey, his eyes glassy. He tipped an imaginary hat. ‘You know, you remind me a bit of my daughter.’
‘Really?’ The whiskey tasted like acetone. ‘Does she live here with you?’
‘She did. That’s her grave, over by the lake.’
‘I’m so sor—‘
‘No worries.’ He grinned. ‘This bloody rocket fuel gets me all sentimental.’ As the band picked up the tempo he moved off into the crowd.
I saw Anna sitting in a shadow. She waved me over.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘You got up early.’
Anna smiled and candles flashed yellow flecks across her eyes.
The music slowed again and Mei rose to dance, moving her hands like fans, repeating a mantra I couldn’t understand. Her voice was reedy and soft. She scanned every face. When she got to Anna and me she stopped.
‘Looks like we’re in trouble.’ I felt fogged from the whiskey.
Mei’s voice became louder, accusatory. Everyone turned to face us. Mei was yelling now, her finger pointed like a wand.
‘Hey, Meghan.’ The Australian called. ‘Head home, eh?’
‘We were just going.’ I turned but Anna had already left.
I picked my way to the rice barn. When I pushed the door open I heard a match strike. Under the mosquito net Anna touched the flame to the wick. ‘Get in,’ she said.
I woke alone again.
At the main house Mei smashed beetlenut with a pestle. When she spat it landed, red and shiny, on my foot.
Sawat and the Australian were in the kitchen.
‘I think I’ve upset Mei,’ I said as I sat.
The Australian put down his fork. ‘I’ll talk with her if you like.’
‘Nah. I might just head back to Ubon.’
‘No dramas,’ he said. ‘Shame, though. I liked having you round.’ He stood. ‘I’ll get the ute ready.’
‘Do you know where Anna is?’ I asked Sawat.
She looked confused.
‘Anna?’ I repeated.
‘Chai. Anna.’ She nodded now, pointing in the direction of the lake.
Waterlilies were still opening their pink petals. Men with shiny torsos swung nets out into the water and gently pulled them back in. I couldn’t see Anna.
I walked to the pile of stones. There was a tiny plaque set into one side. ‘Lucksow,’ I read.
A horn tooted. The Australian stuck his head out the ute window. ‘You ready?’
I jogged over. ‘I haven’t said goodbye,’ I said.
‘I guess not.’
We drove back along the bridge, the dirt road, then hit the highway.
‘I hadn’t noticed that plaque before.’ I kept my eyes on the road and could sense he did, too. ‘Was that your daughter’s name?’
‘Lucksow is Thai for daughter,’ he said. ‘Her name was Anna.’