Endo and I finished our meal of raw fish and rice wrapped in dried seaweed. It was late when his chauffeur returned us to Istana. As he walked down the steps to the beach he said, I would like to know more of Penang. Will you show me around?
Yes, I said, pleased that he had asked me.
That was how I became his guide, taking him around the island. He wanted to look at temples first, and I knew immediately which one to show him.
Endo-san was fascinated by the Temple of Azure Cloud, where hundreds of pit vipers took up residence, coiled around incense holders and the eaves and crossbeams of the roof, inhaling the smoke of incense lit by worshipers.
He bought a packet of joss sticks from a monk and placed them in the large bronze urn after whispering a prayer. Plates of eggs had been left on the tables as offerings for the snakes. I stood around, uncertain. Religion had never played a large part in my life. My mother had been a lapsed Buddhist, but I attended the weekly service at St. Georges Church with my family. This temple, with its intricate writings and large wooden plaquestheir lacquer chipped and fadedfelt strange to me. The various gods and goddesses housed in different altars stared at me from beneath half-closed eyes as I walked past.
A bell tolled, and through the smoke I heard the chanting of monks. A cobra uncurled itself from a pillar and slithered across the uneven tiles, swaying to the drone. Its tongue stabbed out to taste the air, its scales shining like a thousand trapped souls.
A passing monk picked it up and slung it over the back of a chair. He asked me to touch it. I stroked its dry, cool skin. Like the snakes, I felt myself being slowly drugged by the smoke and the chanting, which vibrated through my body to be absorbed by my blood and bones.
A fortune-teller, Endo-san said, pointing to a massive old woman cooling herself with a rattan fan. Let us see what she can tell us.
I sat before her as she examined my hand. Her skin had the same texture as the cobras. She studied my face and looked as though she were trying very hard to recall where she had seen me. You have been here before? she asked. I shook my head.
She stroked the writings on my palm and asked for my date and precise time of birth. She spoke in Hokkien: You were born with the gift of rain. Your life will be abundant with wealth and success. But life will test you greatly. Rememberthe rain also brings the flood.
Her vague pronouncements made me pull my hands away from her, but she was not offended. She looked at Endo-san and her eyes became dreamy, as though trying to remember a person she had once known. She returned her gaze to me, her eyes coming back into sharp focus, and said, You and your friend have a past together, in a different time. And you have a greater journey to make. After this life.
Puzzled, I translated her words for Endo-san, who could only speak a few phrases of the local dialect. He looked momentarily sad, and said softly, So the words never change, wherever I go. I waited for him to tell me what he meant, but he remained silent and thoughtful.
What does my friends palm show? I asked the fortune-teller. She crossed her arms over her chest and refused to touch Endo-san. Hes a Jipunakuia Japanese ghost. I do not read their futures. Beware of him.
I was embarrassed at the way she had dismissed Endo-san and wanted to soften her harsh words before I conveyed them to him. She isnt feeling well, she says cant do any more readings today, I said. But he saw the struggle in my expression and shook his head, touching me on the arm to let me know nothing had escaped him.
Excerpted from The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng. Copyright Tan Twan Eng 2007. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Weinstein Books. All Rights Reserved.
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