Rainer cracked the eggs into a beat-up ceramic bowl, blue-flecked and chipped. His hands shook only a little this morning, and only a few drops of egg white landed on the knife-scarred wood of the counter. The ghost of a smile that crossed his face held no real humor, but he reckoned it was better than the usual paint shaker his breakfasts tended to be. The herbs the monks had given him seemed to be working. His nerves were calmer, and the vomiting had stopped hours ago. Almost.
Light the color of oyster shells seeped into the small cell, the eastern light of a Vietnamese dawn hitting the slopes of the Dãy Trường Sơn. Rainer stopped, eggshell in hand, watching the little window grow brighter. The hot plate at the end of the counter hissed softly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the pale blue gas ring capering like a small spirit under the battered aluminum tea kettle perched on the burner. Spirits. Ghosts. He struggled to recall what the natives called them. Ma? Bong ma? The words slipped away like fish in the river.
Rainer shook his head, cobwebs falling away and he struggled to keep his eyes open. The motions sent tremors through his hands, and the eggshell clutched in his right hand rattled against the bowl. In the close confines of the cell, it sounded to his addict's ears too much like the death rattle he could not shake loose from his mind. That dry, pebbly sound brought back the night in that Hue alley. Filth on the stones, a dark stain spreading slowly on the groin of Anna Marie's pants, and a death warrant of Burmese opium signing off on his brain. It was raining, he recalled, and as the heroin took over his own veins he remembered slumping against the wall and hoping she wouldn't drown. Then there were lights, and sirens. The world went black and he woke up in a crowded courtyard with the concerned face of a Buddhist novice peering at him. Anna, he noticed, was nowhere to be seen.
The monk held out a hefty bowl filled with a strong brown liquid that reeked of licorice and dirt. He said something in Vietnamese, something Rainer could not quite make out. The monk then pantomimed drinking from the bowl, and from the expression on his face Rainer had the feeling that refusal was not acceptable. He took the heavy clay bowl from the waiting hands. The odor arising from the bowl made him gag. Hot and bitter, it felt like thin mud coating his gullet. It hit his stomach like lead shot. The addict thought it was not going to stay down, and minutes later his prediction proved correct.
Rainer leaned forward and vomited like a cannon into the stone gutter in front of him. He coughed and sputtered, tears in his eyes. His body writhed like a worm on a hook as the spasms wracked him over and over. He lost count of how many times he spewed. Through the haze of pain and tears, he saw the monk sitting a short distance away, watching him in his sickness and not moving a muscle. Rainer finally sat back on his trembling haunches, reasonably certain he would not puke again, the monk came over with a bucket of cold water and a tattered rag which he held out before him. The addict took the rag, thinking he would dip it into the water and wipe his face. Before he could act, the monk swung the bucket back and dashed the freezing water hard into Rainer's face. The addict was stunned into immobility. When the shock wore off, Rainer gently dabbed at his face, wiping off dirt and spew. The monk stood, impassive. He gave Rainer time to clean his face, then motioned for the addict to follow him further into the compound.
Rainer sobbed briefly. Memories of that day made him shake. The eggshell shattered into chaff, small flakes sprinkling like snow onto the bare wood. The addict looked down at the counter. Two yolks lay in the bowl, gelatinous yellow suns staring back at him with neon intensity. He took a pair of dirty chopsticks from the rack above the basin that served as sink, and began to beat the eggs. A laugh, grating and sepulchral, burst from his cracked lips. Funny, he thought, don't need a mixer 'cause my hands shake so much.
The eggs he set aside. A small pan had been heating on the second burner of the hot plate. Rainer saw it was wispy with smoke. There was a square platter next to the plate, filled with day old rice. The addict scraped the rice into the pan, to sizzle in the thin layer of oil. Smoke stung his eyes, and the faint nutty aroma coming from the pan reminded him for some reason of his grandmother's kitchen. A trace of grin as he stirred the rice. The only seasoning he had was a small amount of dried chiles he kept in a tan stoneware jar next to the hot plate. He sprinkled a small pinch over the rice, the dark red flakes seeming like spots of blood against the dirty white of the rice. A wave of dizziness overtook him; his head he rested on the wall. Blood. That would be his penance, the dark communion he would receive to atone for his sins of abuse and gluttony.
The rice sizzled and hissed. After the dizziness passed, Rainer took the bowl of eggs and swirled them into the rice. He stirred quickly to break up the eggs into thin sheets and rags, stark against the pepper flakes. Leaving the mess to cook briefly, he swabbed out the bowl with a banana leaf and some water. The monks had given him one bowl, and he had not yet mastered it for his meals. He shook the contents of the pan into the bowl and turned off the burners. The tea kettle he emptied into a waiting mug. The small amount of tea leaves in the mug swirled around as if in a miniature storm. The aroma of jasmine and eggs filled the air, and Rainer found himself salivating in spite of the nausea he felt.
The addict sat down heavily on the pallet opposite the counter. The meager bedding he shoved into the corner, only a thin cushion under his bony backside for small comfort. He could reach across the intervening space for the tea, the counter serving as table. Rainer held the bowl of rice in his lap, between hands gone wiry from lack of food and abundance of the dark fruits of the Golden Triangle. He paused, inhaling the aroma. He sat still, eyes closed. He had lost his religion years ago, in pursuit of the dragon, but he tried a prayer all the same.
He opened his eyes. The square of light coming from the little window at the end of the cell had tracked up onto his feet. He was no longer shocked at how dirty they seemed, split skin and jagged nails. The paws of a rude beast, he thought. A beast fighting for survival, and nearly helpless. The warmth on his toes nearly made him cry. It was good, that warmth. Blessings from the sun in a strange land.
His stomach rumbled. To Rainer's delight, it was rumbling in anticipation of food, not from dread of sickness. Outside in the courtyard a rooster crowed loudly against the faint counterpoint of bells from further down the valley. Rainer sighed and brought the bowl to his lips, chopsticks poised to do his clumsy bidding. He began to eat. The sun tracked up his legs. His chewing sounded loud to his ears. On his fourth swallow with no sign it was coming back up, the addict felt the stirrings of hope. It came to him then, as clear as the cerulean sky he glimpsed, that he need no more than the bowl of rice in his hands. All he need do was eat. Rainer ate in silence, and the way opened up before him, clear and bright.