What's Written on the Body
He will not light long enough for the interpreter to gather the tatters of his speech. But the longer we listen the calmer he becomes. He shows me the place where his daughter has rubbed with a coin, violaceous streaks raising a skeletal pattern on his chest. He thinks he’s been hit by the wind. He’s worried it will become pneumonia. In Cambodia, he’d be given a special tea, a prescriptive sacrifice, the right chants to say. But I know nothing of Chi, of Karma, and ask him to lift the back of his shirt, so I may listen to his breathing. Holding the stethoscope’s bell I’m stunned by the whirl of icons and script tattooed across his back, their teal green color the outline of a map which looks like Cambodia, perhaps his village, a lake, then a scroll of letters in a watery signature. I ask the interpreter what it means. It’s a spell, asking his ancestors to protect him from evil spirits — she is tracing the lines with her fingers — and those who meet him for kindness. The old man waves his arms and a staccato of diphthongs and nasals fills the room. He believes these words will lead his spirit back to Cambodia after he dies. I see, I say, and rest my hand on his shoulder. He takes full deep breaths and I listen, touching down with the stethoscope from his back to his front. He watches me with anticipation — as if awaiting a verdict. His lungs are clear. You’ll be fine, I tell him. It’s not your time to die. His shoulders relax and he folds his hands above his head as if in blessing. Ahh khun, he says. All better now.
From What’s Written on the Body by Peter Pereira. Copyright © 2007 by Peter Pereira. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press.