by Jenny Meyer
All morning she had been talking about the temples. There was the one with a hundred stone faces carved in its walls, the tallest one, the most intricately decorated, and now the oldest one, which from the picture looked to him like a pile of stone blocks dumped in the jungle.
Jim passed the book back to his girlfriend and laid his head against the sofa. The heat made the air feel heavy and the light breeze from the ceiling fan was barely a whisper across his face. He closed his eyes. He was wearing only a pair of cotton shorts, but caught himself strategizing about how he could remove even those. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and he felt sleepy.
"Banteay Srei is faraway temple," he heard Sun Ha say through the haze in his head. "Not so many tourists there. Harder to find. Only local people know the way."
Jim opened one eye and saw his girlfriend nod her head at Sun Ha and then turn back to the pictures in her book.
"I offer you trip to Banteay Srei plus four other temple for $15 US," said Sun Ha.
Jim struggled to raise his eyelids. They had agreed that he would do all the bargaining. She wasn’t patient or ruthless enough; she usually gave in close to the original asking price because in the grand scheme of things, she had explained to him, it seemed so little to pay for what she wanted.
Jim opened his eyes halfway and offered $8.
"Oh no no, my friend," said Sun Ha, leaning forward in his chair. "I am not born yesterday you know."
They were all lounging around on the top floor of the guest house. There were no walls between the ceiling and the floor so an open-air band of sky wrapped the building like a ribbon. The noise of constant traffic drifted up from the only paved road in town. Jim looked at the girl, her tan skin shimmering at the crests of her shoulders. Her hair was bound up in a red-and-white checkered scarf like the ones the local women sold to tourists in the street.
The girl put down her book and hugged one knee to her chest. "Which is the temple with the tree?" she asked. "I want to see that one."
"Many are with trees," said Sun Ha. "This," he pointed outside, "this is jungle."
Jim ran his finger in a circle around his girlfriend’s ankle bone and said, "Does that mean you have monkeys?"
"Jim," his girlfriend said. She wasn’t laughing.
"Monkeys? Yes," said Sun Ha with a smile. "Funny, crazy, stupid monkeys."
"I’m talking about the temple with the tree growing right up through it," said the girl. "Where the roots bust right up through the bricks and push them all apart."
"Yes, of course," said Sun Ha. "That is Ta Prohm. It is part of tour for $15."
Jim felt the girl staring at him. She made her eyes very wide and dipped her chin at an angle. He pushed himself up straighter on the couch and tried to look sincere. "We’ll give you $10."
Sun Ha smiled and shook his head.
"Come," he said, motioning Jim over to the railing at the far end of the room. "Come here, I show you something."
Jim felt as if he had grown roots in the couch, long, succulent tendrils that he imagined snaking down through the cushions and the floor and the ceiling of the room below. They threatened to keep him there forever.
"Ji-im," said the girl under her breath.
At the railing, Sun Ha said something about a special garden, and when Jim looked down over the back side of the building, he saw 50 or 60 dark-bodied crocodiles prowling in the mud of a small, walled enclosure. There was a pond in one corner of the pen and the animals crowded onto each other’s backs to enter it. There were already four pairs of glistening nostrils protruding from the surface of the water. And there was no vegetation except for a single gangly stalk with leaves the size of hands that sprouted in the middle of the pen. A plank of weathered wood, not more than four inches wide, spanned the front and back walls so that it passed like a bridge near the plant.
Sun Ha leaned both his forearms on the railing and looked out across the land to where the soil turned red in the distance. He wore a short-sleeved polyester business shirt with a strip of embroidery down each side. Jim examined Sun Ha’s shiny black belt and thought he could probably encircle the man’s waist with his hands.
"Your wife want to see temples," Sun Ha said.
"She’s not my wife."
"Friend then. She seems very interested in temples."
"It’s why we came," Jim said. "Or why she dragged me here." He felt the weight of a question descending on him with the heat. What was he doing here? He’d left a decent job at his uncle’s hardware store, and a schedule that allowed him to hang out with friends and get drunk every night of the week if he felt like it. All for her, with her pages torn from National Geographic, her promises of spiritual awakening and hot sex in cheap hotel rooms.
"But you, not so much."
Jim watched one of the crocodiles launch itself into the pond. "I don’t know," he said. He examined the curves of his triceps as he leaned against the railing and thought he might be losing weight. He’d eaten a bad plate of mo-an mee three days ago. Long night in the bathroom after that one.
"Alright, be honest," he said to Sun Ha. "These ruins … I mean, what are we really talking about here?" He picked a fleck of paint off the railing and sent it twirling down into the crocodile pit.
"Some say the temples at Angkor are one of seven wonders," Sun Ha said. "The people begin building in ninth century, all from limestone, all by hand. They do this while European peoples still living in mud huts."
"Huh," said Jim.
He watched one crocodile plant its foot right between another’s eyes, but the victim of the stomping didn’t seem to mind. They took turns knocking against the thick stem of the plant. The leaves hanging off the stem looked like inverted crowns. "Is that what I think it is?" Jim asked Sun Ha.
"I think," said Sun Ha, whisking away a drop of sweat that was forming on his temple, "it is what you think it is."
Jim smiled and looked down at his triceps again. "How much?"
"Depends," said Sun Ha, "on the length of your harvest. How long you stay on board without falling."
Jim looked down at the crocodiles. They crawled slowly around and over each other as if they were being stirred. "And if I fall?"
"They are hungry. Not many guests this week which means not much money for food."
Jim thought for a second about the dangers of doing drugs in foreign countries and what the girl would say. "I’ll give you $15 for a walk on the plank and the temple tour."
"$25," said Sun Ha.
"Deal," said Jim.
They shook hands and made arrangements to meet at the pen early the next morning while the girl was still asleep.
"I think you will be surprised," Sun said, "how beautiful temples appear in the early morning."
Jim was still fixated on the plant.
"And how fresh it is off the stem," Sun Ha said.
They both looked out over the crumbling rooftops of the village. Then Jim went back over to the girl. She put a finger in her book and looked up at him. Jim saw a faint light ignite in her eyes when he gave her the good news.
About the author:
Jenny Meyer lives in Denver, Colorado and is contributing editor at Wandering Army. She has a story forthcoming in The Progenitor and enjoys eating dry cake mix.