The next day I woke earlier than usual. The light filtering through the bedroom window was dim, the air heavy and damp. I gazed around with a vague, ominous feeling. After a moment I turned over and tried to go back to sleep, but thoughts of Harvey and jungle fever spun in my mind. Finally I gave up, rose and dressed, and headed down the stairs for breakfast.
The dining room was empty and dark. Kham Noi peeked his head around the corner when he heard me, and soon reappeared with breakfast. “Where’s the boy?” I asked as he set down the plates and began arranging the silverware. This was normally the job of cook’s boy.
“He will not be here today.” Kham Noi moved around me to place an empty cup on the table as he spoke.
His eyes flicked to the window. “Rain is coming,” he finally said, pouring coffee into the cup. He set the pot down on the table, avoiding my eyes.
“How can you tell that, Kham Noi?” I asked.
“The air, Mem --- I can feel it. The birds and animals know this as well.”
Suddenly I was aware of the strange silence around us. No sound came from the river road; no birds sang outside the window. “Well, it’s not here yet,” I shrugged, as I began to eat. We’d endured the rainy seasons before. “I really cannot understand why the boy has not come.”
Kham Noi was silent. When I looked around, he had gone.
Late in the morning, the wind began to blow. Barby Jeanne was moody, whining constantly. I hiked her onto my hip and stalked into the kitchen. “Where is Seewana?” I asked Kham Noi with annoyance.
He glanced at me but didn’t answer.
“Kham Noi.” My voice rose with irritation. “I asked if you know where Seewana is this morning. She’s never been this late.”
“She will not be here, Mem,” he said. He was preparing soup in an old iron pot as he spoke and didn’t look up.
“The storm again?” I struggled to keep the sarcastic edge from my voice.
My nerves were frayed. Anger erupted. “This is ridiculous! How is it that suddenly the weather is of such concern?”
Kham Noi stopped his work and looked at me. “The rain will be hard this time,” he answered in a low voice.
“Don’t tell me,” I said, with heavy sarcasm, “the spirits are angry.”
He said nothing. Just then a gust of wind blew through the trees outside and branches scraped the edge of the kitchen window. Kham Noi reached over the counter and closed and bolted the shutter. I watched in silence. Barby Jeanne began to cry, and I bounced her gently on my hip.
Kham Noi began moving from room to room, securing the shutters. I waited in the kitchen for a moment, then wandered into the parlor with Barby Jeanne. With the shutters closed, the room was dark and gloomy. I set her on a blanket on the floor with some toys and then lit the lamps to brighten things up. Taking a seat, I realized that Ai Mah would also be aware that a storm was coming. Harvey would be making his way back through the forest just now, back to Barby Jeanne and me.
Kham Noi came into the room and looked at us. His face was tense. “I will take you and Ot Dee to Missus Ruckel,” he said after a moment. “It will be better there.”
“No,” I said. “If a storm is coming, the Doctor will just make sure the village has food and medicine and come right back. He’ll be home soon. Barby Jeanne and I will wait here, but you can leave if you like.”
He hesitated. I hid my relief when he shook his head.
“He’ll be home any time now, and then we can decide what to do.”
Late in the afternoon the rain began. A soft, pleasant trickle soon turned into torrents that beat against the house. With the shutters closed and the heat thrown off by the kerosene lamps, the air inside was stale and fetid, even as the wind churned outside.
Kham Noi made a bed for himself in the dining room on the floor. I gave him a mat and a pillow. All through the night the rain came down in steady streams. Water overflowed the banks of the river, and we woke to see that puddles around the house had grown into small lakes. I knew that the river road must be a sea of mud, and every minute we became more isolated --- Barby Jeanne, Kham Noi, and I. The rooms were airless and dreary as the walls closed around us.
About midmorning I opened the front door a crack, peering through the rain to watch for Harvey. He had already been gone for three days. The deluge hid everything in shadows, and I strained to see, expecting him to emerge from the darkness. After a moment I drew back in disappointment and moved to close the door. It was then I happened to glance down. Puzzled, I froze and looked away as my mind rejected what my eyes had seen. I squeezed my lids shut and slowly opened them again. Beneath me, the entire veranda heaved like a living thing.
Steeling myself, I took a deep breath and stared, gripped with cold revulsion. The veranda undulated with heaps of thin, twisting white worms. I gazed at them with horror as a part of my mind observed that the slender, wriggling things seemed almost translucent. For a split second I couldn’t move. Then nausea rose to the back of my throat as I slammed the door shut, swallowed, and sank weak and breathless against it.
Hold steady! my inner voice commanded. Steady. Suddenly I shuddered. My throat convulsed and I began to sob. “Harvey!” I screamed, covering my face with my hands.
Kham Noi rushed into the hall but halted when he saw my tears. I gagged as pictures of the roiling worms on the other side of the door formed in my mind again. The room whirled, and I pushed off from the door, stumbling forward. Kham Noi caught me as I fell, then gently braced my arm and turned me to the parlor. He led me to a chair where I collapsed, still sobbing. I tried to speak, to explain the horror of the worms, but my throat was thick and tight. At last, when I was able to choke out the words, Kham Noi understood. To my surprise, he looked relieved.
“They come up from under the earth, from the rice fields, to seek shelter from the rising water, Mem. No poison,” he assured in a gentle tone. “They will not hurt you or Ot Dee.”
Ah, I thought with a shudder, wiping the tears from my cheeks, the Buddhist mentality --- every living thing must be respected. Nevertheless, I asked Kham Noi to stuff towels and, if necessary, clothes on the floor against the crack of the door.
He gave me a strange look. “We’re not sharing the inside of the house with them,” I said. When he had finished building the barricade, I found him in the kitchen. “Perhaps we should try to get to the Ruckels’ after all,” I said, keeping the tone of my voice casual. Harvey would know where to find us, I thought.
He looked grave and shook his head. “We cannot go now,” he replied. He pulled out a chair from under a small wooden table that was bolted to the floor and indicated that I should sit. I fell into it, stricken at the knowledge that we were prisoners of the rain.
For days relentless wind hammered rain into the wooden shell of our house, driving like nails until I thought that the walls would splinter and collapse around us. I wandered through the rooms, trying not to wonder why Harvey had not yet returned, trying not to think of the rising water, of the worms. With the shutters closed, days merged into nights until, finally, time seemed to stop and we were left with only the din of noise that prowled outside --- a steady, lonely howl.
Now Kham Noi grew morose and silent, as if the rampage of energy must be appeased. The baby was fretful, and I struggled to hide my fear. But as the water rose around us, it seemed to saturate the air. I found myself gasping for breath --- small, shallow gulps that caught in my chest.
Why hadn’t I listened to Kham Noi? I berated myself a thousand times. But finally I faced the truth. I knew. It had never occurred to me that Harvey would not come home when the storm began, that his concern for strangers and his sense of duty could ever outweigh his love for Barby Jeanne and me.
Perhaps he was hurt?
No, I told myself, he’s with Ai Mah and Mr. Smithers. Someone would have come for help if he were hurt.
Perspiration formed with the thought. We were stranded now, I knew. It was too late. I picked up Barby Jeanne, sank into Harvey’s chair, and doubled over her little form. She curled up against me and sucked her thumb. If Harvey were here, he would find a way to get us out, I knew, before... before the worms... and the snakes...
All at once a thought took root and my arms trembled, even as they cradled Barby Jeanne. Ma Ping’s words came back to me: Snakes are houseguests in North Siam. They live in the attic.
The trembling grew. Even in dry weather, snakes live in the attic, and with rain seeping through the roof and rising water... ? I tightened my arms, gripping Barby Jeanne, and she whimpered. Steady! raged my inner voice. Babies sense fear. You must be brave for Barby Jeanne. Think of something else! Sing.
I forced myself to be still. I took a long, slow breath and let the air fill my lungs before loosing my hold on Barby Jeanne. I leaned back, looking down at her, and tried a smile when she fixed her eyes on mine. But when I began to sing, my voice faltered and the sound came out a hum. Her mouth trembled. I stroked her arms and tried again. “By the light . . .” My breath caught. “By the light... of the silvery moon.” Barby Jeanne’s eyes watched mine while I sang and held her. Soon the simple melody and words carried me back to Philadelphia and our little house on Greene Street, freeing us for an instant from the storm. “Your silv’ry beams, will bring love’s dreams... we’ll be cuddling soon . . .” My voice was stronger now. She looked up at me and smiled. “. . . By the silvery moon.”
But still, at night I heard noises above while I lay in bed --- the sound of movement overhead, beneath the roof.
I drew into myself, curling into the smallest space imaginable as I strained to hear. In my mind’s eye I saw them uncoil and slither across the attic floor. Sleep became impossible. Where was Harvey? I wept night after night, pushing my face into the clammy pillow so that Barby Jeanne and Kham Noi couldn’t hear, until my eyes grew heavy and finally closed. But the wet, coiling images hung in my mind. Even when I slept, I dreamed of them.
One night, after more than a week of the wind and rain, silence woke me. I lay in bed, motionless, pondering what was different. It was a minute before I realized that the wind had died and the pounding rain had stopped.
A sense of relief surged through me. Bracing myself on one elbow, I twisted toward the table near the bed, slid the lantern close, and felt around in the darkness for a match to light the wick. When I found one, the air was damp and the flame flickered before it caught.
As the room slowly brightened from the lantern’s glow, I fell back onto the pillows and let my gaze wander, trying to enjoy the silence, struggling not to think of snakes in the attic or water or worms --- or of Harvey --- just yet. My eyes scanned the ceiling, the beams and cracks and the lantern hanging overhead, and then I inspected the angles where the wall and ceiling met. As my gaze traveled slowly down the wall across the room, I saw the shadow of the thing first, a phantasm at the edge of my vision, before its form and shape and substance emerged in my consciousness. And all at once I froze, staring at the tokey --- its wart-like skin and grotesque mask --- stretched across the top of a wooden picture frame and staring back at me.
The tokey’s eyes locked on mine and I couldn’t scream and could not look away. I held my breath as icy fear crawled through my arms and legs and chest and entered my bowels, and then I knew that he would jump. Seconds passed and the reptile was motionless in the silent room, feeding on my terror, fear creating an almost physical cord of tension that linked us. I watched, paralyzed, as it slowly lifted from the picture frame, hovering in space for one second... or for two... or ten... before gliding toward me as a lover through the damp and heavy air, floating, ballooning as it loomed, until at last it filled the room. My thoughts shattered into fragments and, eyes fixed on the tokey, I screamed and screamed and screamed. But still he watched, unblinking.
Excerpted from THE MOON IN THE MANGO TREE © Copyright 2011 by Pamela Binnings Ewen. Reprinted with permission by B&H Books. All rights reserved.