“Excuse me, sir. Is this your shoe?”
The woman was dressed in a loose hibiscus-orange gown, sitting on a stone bench, beneath a matching orange umbrella. I hadn’t seen her at first when turning the corner in the path, but my mind had been elsewhere.
I saw that between us, off the path, was a man’s flip-flop. Black and brown and frayed. A line of ants wove across it. The jungle had grown quiet here — the drone of insects and birdsong so subdued you could distinctly hear the sea.
“No, I don’t believe so,” I said, smiling and displaying my Nikes. I never wore flip-flops or even shorts when I took these paths down to see the limestone karsts off the shore. I’d heard one too many horror stories about snakes or scorpions or spiders. Had my own little horror story the first night after I checked into my bungalow and discovered a cobra coiled up in the shower.
My smile faltered when I noticed that the woman had been crying, her face waxy with tears. I have trouble guessing the age of Thai women, and besides, at my age everyone seems young. Forty? Maybe thirty? In any case, she was beautiful, a pleasant mix of slender and soft.
“Are you okay, miss?”
“Fine. It’s nothing.” Her English was flawless, with just a hint of an accent, like the elusive scent of a flower. “Just that… I lost someone.”
I nodded in sympathy, but kept my own story to myself. My wife, Maggie, and I had come to Krabi twenty-five years ago on our honeymoon, and had every day swum the cyan waters, eaten Pad Thai and drunk Singhas, and exhausted our bodies in the humid bungalows at night. After her death last year, I returned, wanting to see the places we had visited together, wanting to capture those brief sparks of memory. And, aside from the occasional snake in the shower, I had. Tomorrow, I would head back to the states, back to the university, back to the empty house.
“Please, sir, will you sit with me until he returns?” The umbrella shook in her hand as she spoke, the bright fabric quivering.
I’d picked up smoking again over the last week, and this seemed as good a time as any to light up. I stepped off the path, past the flip-flop, and the woman smoothed the skirt of her gown as I sat beside her.
“I was headed down to see the limestone karsts at sunset,” I told her. Back in town it would still be light, but here in the jungle it had grown dark. Today was the first day without rain, and this late in the day, I wondered what the umbrella was for. I looked up, noticing for the first time that there was something odd about how she was angling it. Almost as if it were intended to shelter the person beside her — not herself.
“I know,” she said, her posture frozen, face directed towards the path. “Not many take this path, but I have heard the view is no less spectacular.”
“Have you never been to see the sunset here?”
She shook her head. Up close, her skin was unnaturally smooth. Maybe she was younger than I had thought. She was still crying, but when she spoke, her voice was calm and unaffected. It was a soothing, honeyed voice. “I have never seen it, but I have spoken to many who have, and I can assure you the view is no less spectacular.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that.” I exhaled my cigarette smoke, angling it away from her, but still noticed a kind of crumpling of her face. It was momentary but all encompassing, as if a wrinkle had passed over every cell of flesh.
“Wh-who exactly did you lose?” I asked. Not sure why I stuttered, but I had all of a sudden grown uncomfortable sitting on this bench with the stranger. Something was off about her, but I couldn’t immediately say what it was.
“I don’t know his name. I don’t learn their names, you see, but I do grieve them.”
“Will you hold my umbrella for a moment?”
“Umm, I … suppose.” I reached to take it from her hand — and recoiled at the texture of it. The metal bar had the waxy feel of a plant, and her hand was fused to it. I began to stand, placing a hand on the bench, meaning to push myself up and away, but I found that the bench too, even the hibiscus-orange skirt that my fingers had grazed, they all had this strange, undeniably leafy texture.
And when I tried to pull away from the umbrella and the bench, I found that the hair-like fibers had uncoiled from the metal and stone and woven around my fingertips. I looked up at the umbrella, and it flapped, the skin undulating, before it snapped shut.
“Excuse me, sir. Is this your shoe?”
The woman was dressed in a loose hibiscus-orange gown, sitting on a bench, beneath a matching orange umbrella. I had not seen her at first when turning the corner in the jungle path. Between us, off the path, was a man’s Nike.