The disrespectful visitor is the inspiration for Josh Clayton’s short story “Play Stupid Games.” The tale is the opening story in the forthcoming dark fantasy anthology Whispers in the Mycelium.
Sothea pointed to the stone naga – the multi headed serpents that were common in the iconography of Cambodia – and began to explain. “When Vasuki, King of the Nagas was being used as a rope, Vishnu told the devas to hold the tail of the giant serpent, not the head, because-”
I turned away and snapped another picture of the gates of Angkor Thom, once one of the grandest cities of the ancient world. That’s what I’d been told at least. A row of stone figures flanked each side of the causeway, their arms wrapped around the body of the stone serpentine creatures whose forward end fanned into seven different snake heads. With the cheap camera phone I’d grabbed when we landed, I tried to fit the whole scene inside the field of view. Annoyingly, the picture was spoiled by all the tourists around.
Sothea continued explaining mythology to the rest of the group. She was a good enough guide, but I found it hard to think anyone could care about a story that involved giant snakes and an ocean made of milk, let alone carve the entire scene out of stone. I tuned her out and looked up at the giant naga carving. Seven heads fanned out, each one with an open jaw full of teeth. On the beast’s back was a diamond pattern, while on its front every line of its ventral scales had been carefully chiselled from the stone – it was beautiful, and also a little scary. At one point it might have been painted in bright gold, green and red, but now it sat, dull, weathered, and grey. Unnervingly, the empty eyes seemed to follow me as I moved from side-to-side.
I stepped closer and was about to touch it when Sothea shouted, “Don’t stand so close!” She came running over and pulled me around to the side. “The stonework on the nagas is very heavy, and the supports are damaged. Some of them have even cracked and fallen over recently.”
I put my hands up and moved to the side, peering closely at the stonework. Aside from a few small mushroom caps sticking out here and there it looked fairly sturdy. Still, while I would have chosen to be somewhere else in the world, I didn’t plan on getting killed on this stupid cultural trip.
“Where are the broken ones? Will we see them?” one of the other guys in our group asked.
“Right now they have only fallen in one temple, which is now closed because people have been hurt going there. But the local authority is concerned that the stonework is deteriorating on all of the nagas and they may close another temple soon. So, please stand back. And no, we will not be going there.”
I turned and was about to walk back towards the van when the phone buzzed with a picture message from Heidi – the main reason I had bought the crappy thing.
Hey Cody! How’s it going? You shoulda ditched the cultural crap and come down to Cabo with us. The others are sleeping now so I need some company. The picture was her and a few other guys and girls sipping cocktails by the pool.
I lingered for a second on her smooth, visible curves and sighed. I would have given anything to skip out on this trip and go down to beach with them, but it was paid for by the school travel assistance program. Not my choice, of course. My aunt had signed me up to the program, and apparently my financial situation was deemed a charity case now, so the school had picked me to come to Cambodia. Even if I had gotten out of the school program, I could concede that I was never going to have the money to go to Cabo.
I sent her the picture I had taken and added, glad you’re having fun. Snooze fest here, all mythology and stories.
She quickly replied, Sorry to hear that. Sounds boooring! Can I help at all?
I smiled. Just the fact that she was talking to me – me, the weird new-ish kid without the years of friendships everyone else had – was something.
My phone buzzed again. You’re a photographer, I’m sure you can do something! If you want we can make it a little competition! I smiled, photographer was not the right word but I wasn’t going to complain.
I’m not sure I’m good enough for a competition…I replied.
The phone buzzed again. It’s just for fun. We do mini competitions between us all the time. I’ll start. It came attached with a photo of her facing the waves as the sun hit her bare back. Her completely bare back. I quickly put the phone down, but thankfully no one was standing close.
Where did you take that? I asked, wondering where in Cabo she found a beach so empty.
About halfway across the beach. It was a fair trek but worth it. Your picture looked pretty cool if it wasn’t for all the tourists.
I looked around the area as yet another mini-van drove past and I shook my head. There was no way I was getting a picture without them. Not here anyway. But I wasn’t about to give up – I had Heidi talking to me, Heidi! Just being friends with her would change my life. I wouldn’t be the weird loner any more, I’d be one of Heidi’s friends. I smiled. Also, the competition might actually be something fun to do. And I did meet her in an after-school photography class, so…I texted back, Ok, photo competition it is. I’ll get a picture with no one else around.
She messaged back almost immediately – a simple smiley face.
The idea had seemed straightforward enough. We spent most of the day getting in and out of the van, alternating between the cool, dry, air-conditioned vehicle and the lush, humid, and sweaty jungle outside. At every turn there was another temple, intricately put together of red and grey stone and always adorned with a myriad of carvings. With so many temples on our route, I thought it would be pretty easy to find a good spot.
And yet there were always people. Always someone stepping into view just as my finger hit the button. Always someone ruining the moment with their selfie. Half of the day had gone and I was no closer to getting something for the ‘competition’. In frustration I turned to Sothea while we took a break in the shade near an ancient wall.
“Is there any temple that doesn’t have people wandering around?”
She thought for a second. “Not really. Only the one that is closed because of damage.”
“Can temples even be closed?” I snorted. “I thought the roads were all public.”
“Sure, the roads are. They have to be because people live in the villages near here. My brother-in-law lives on the other side of the park. But they can be closed. I mean, all of them are closed at night.”
“The guards have to sit there all night?”
She frowned. “No, they go home too. But you are not allowed in and no one goes in at night. It is dangerous. There are no lights, so you cannot see anything.”
“No one ever goes in to a temple at night?” I asked, incredulous.
She paused for thought. “Well, sometimes people do. But they get in a lot of trouble when they get caught. And like I said, it is dangerous. There are snakes, monkeys, spiders. You cannot see anything, so people can fall over easily on the rocks. And there are spirits.”
“Yes, bad spirits. A few weeks before, some of the authorities were doing restorations and they said they saw water spirits during the night. They left work very scared. I think some of them even quit. And some people who live there say that their dogs have been taken by the spirits at night.”
She led us along for a while, and I let her continue to tell me about the various spirits. I’d quickly noticed that the majority of Cambodians believed in all manner of supernatural entities.
“Why do you ask?” she eventually said, catching me off guard.
“Just curious.” I lied, while looking around on the map application of my phone to see where the closed off temple was. If there was anywhere that would be empty it would be that one. But it was hardly walking distance from where we were and the group would notice if I disappeared suddenly. Also it would be guarded, at least during the day.
I summarised the situation in a message to Heidi, along with the idea that had come to mind. I partially hoped she would tell me it was crazy and to think of something different, but there was no reply. I looked up the time in Mexico and put the phone away for a while.
Sothea led me back to the van, ready to return to the hotel. I wasn’t going to complain. By this point the meticulous stone carvings of Hindu or Buddhist iconography had blended into one messy religion in my head, and the red, intricate brickwork that was a staple of the earlier temples looked exactly the same as the large, uneven grey sandstone blocks that were used in later builds. Plus the heat was getting to me.
I sat back and considered an idea that had formed. What I had thought would be impossible seemed a lot simpler now. Sothea had said the guards went home at night, so all I needed to do was get there. That was easy enough – I could just call a moto-taxi and find somewhere to stop. It was a public road so I wouldn’t even be breaking any rules. At least, as far as the driver was concerned.
And judging by the temples so far, it was hardly like there were any barricades to the ancient ruins. I had imagined there would be turnstiles at the entrances, or even perhaps a scanner or booth, but the entrances to the temples just led straight off the main road. We quite literally pulled up, filed out of the cool van and walked into the ancient ruins. With the guards gone, I would be in and out without anyone knowing. I nodded to myself as we drove through the jungle trails – this could work. As for the talk of spirits – well, that was just local superstition…right?
Back at the hotel, everyone had some free time to go their own ways, with people splitting off to go out for drinks or to a restaurant. I showered and slipped out to grab a cheap tripod for my evening excursion, and turned down some invitations to go out by saying I would probably get an early night’s sleep. Then I sat by the pool to wait out the time.
My phone buzzed right on time and I looked down. That sounds easy! Easier than this picture was anyway. A few moments later it buzzed again, and I glanced around to make sure no one was looking before opening it. Heidi was again facing the sea but…No tan lines for me! Came the accompanying message. I gawked. Even for Heidi, and even on a secluded beach baring that much was brazen. When are you off to get your amazing picture? she added.
In some small part of my brain I couldn’t believe I was doing this. Photography was hardly a passion – I’d just needed to take some kind of after school class to stop my aunt signing me up for something. It had been chance that Heidi had been there.
If there was ever a moment to change my mind about what I was about to do, it was then. But I didn’t. I texted back, 8 PM.
She replied almost immediately. That is so badass! I would so join you if I was there! Just be careful of the police! That last picture got me in a lot of trouble, so make sure you’ve got some money handy to pay any fines.
I didn’t have the money, but I was never coming back to this country. And my reputation would be forever changed when the story got out.
Ignoring more invites to various bars or restaurants for the evening from people in the group, along with a few people asking if I was feeling okay, I snuck out and called a moto-taxi. Thankfully the moon was exceptionally bright, so I would be able to see something. After initially looking resistant, a hefty tip seemed to convince him and I jumped on the back of the bike to head off into the temples at night.
My heart was pounding, but I had him drop me near a small, roadside stand that in the day would sell fresh coconuts and iced coffee. It hadn’t been difficult to find the location of the closed temple, and I had chosen this location so it was just a short walk.
After appearing to debate leaving me or not, the driver turned and drove off, and when he was out of sight I quickly ducked away from the road and power-walked to the entrance. True to Sothea’s word, there was nothing except a flimsy police-style cordon warning people to stay away. I ducked under and started across the trail, the jungle dark and oppressive. Stopping at the stone causeway that led across the half-empty moat that surrounded the inner walls, I looked around.
I could see that the naga figures, which should have stood tall, now lay broken into multiple pieces on their sides. Nonetheless, under only the moonlight, the eyes seemed to bore into me, almost daring me to go ahead.
I looked down at the ground and shivered in the warm air. For a while I stood there, deliberating one last time. Think of Heidi, I told myself. Think of what this will do for you.
Focusing on the ground to avoid tripping on the rough stones, I stepped forward.
As I reached the other side of the causeway, the sound of splashing caught my attention and I ducked against the rock. The splashing continued, accompanied by a strange gagging noise. Children playing? Not at this time of night, surely? Perhaps someone was fishing in the moat? I peeked out, peering around. It was hard to tell, but for a second I thought I saw a V-shaped wake moving across the water, disappearing into a clump of lotus flowers. Another movement; this time just a monkey running away from the bank.
The sound of shouting drew my attention away. “Cody?” It was a woman’s voice. “Cody!?” it called again, closer this time.
I groaned as I realised exactly who it was: Sothea, our guide.
“What are you doing?” she cried, sharp, and angry, as I tried to back away into the inside of the temple. “Are you trying to get in trouble?” she demanded. I turned to run – perhaps I could pretend it hadn’t been me – but was blocked by rubble. The doorway to the inside of the temple had completely collapsed, and was now overgrown by mushroom caps. She quickly caught up.
“What, are you following me now?” I asked.
“No, some of the others in the group were worried about you. Then I was at my brother-in-law’s and he told me he just dropped some crazy tourist off in the middle of nowhere. What are you doing here? Did I not tell you how dangerous it is? Did I not tell you people have been hurt here?”
I looked down, running the explanation through my head and wondering how to explain. I need a photograph of an empty temple because the story will impress the cool people, and help me make friends. Somehow, I doubted that would be satisfactory, especially not in this country where trials were significantly more difficult. Instead I kept my mouth shut, staring at the ground.
“Come. Let’s go back before we both get in serious trouble.”
“One picture? Please? Just one?” I said.
Begrudgingly, she agreed, and headed towards the moat while I set up the tripod for a night picture. From the door frame, the shot would take in the causeway and moat, framed by the dark jungle beyond.
The shutter went off, and I barely glanced at it to make sure it was in focus and good enough, before hurrying to catch up with Sothea. No need to push my luck.
Suddenly she stopped and looked around, appearing very confused. “What happened to the nagas?” she asked.
I looked at the stone snakes that had been eyeing me when I got there. They were gone. The whole fan of seven snake heads that made up the intricate stonework was completely gone, along with the rest of the stone that made up the snake’s body. Sothea stepped past me and started walking across the empty causeway, looking at both sides.
The stone had disappeared from the edge of the gate to the end of the causeway. Not broken, just…gone. Gone with nothing but a few mushroom caps sprouting from the empty spaces.
Sothea kept walking, and eventually turned and looked at me, completely lost, apparently no longer concerned with my disrespectful behaviour. For a moment there was silence. I considered what to say, and was about to open my mouth when there was a disturbance in the moat, followed by the strange gagging sound again.
Out of curiosity I looked at the picture that was last taken, just to prove the naga carvings had been there a moment ago. They were not. But something else was. Something I had not seen in the scramble to get the picture. Something that only showed up in the extremely over-exposed photo. Something in the water.
Black, glistening beads sat atop seven distinct and separate heads that joined to a single, serpentine body. And it was looking directly at us.
I grabbed Sothea and pulled her away from the moat and we hid behind a rock. I shoved the picture in her face so she could see it too and her eyes went wide.
“Vasuki?” she mumbled, but before I could tell her to elaborate, a shrill, piercing noise echoed around us, quickly followed by the sickly gagging and several loud splashes. Peering around, I could have sworn I saw something rising out of the water. Long. Slender. And searching for something. Then just as quickly as it came, the noise stopped, and the water was still.
I shuddered and looked at the guide. She was shaking too, her eyes darting about at every little sound that came out of the jungle. “Sothea,” I whispered, “in the story about the giant snake-”
“Vasuki,” she interrupted.
“Right, Vasuki. Why was it important to hold the tail?”
She gulped, but eventually regained her composure. “Well, in some versions of the story Vasuki spits fire.”
“In other versions, he spits halahala, a poison that can destroy all of creation.”
“All of creation?” I repeated.
She nodded. “Maybe that is why the pets went missing?”
I shook my head and hugged myself in a futile gesture. She might be used to believing in spirits and the supernatural, but I certainly wasn’t, and giant snakes that spat world-destroying poison seemed to lock up my brain. Nonetheless I knew what missing meant. Missing. Missing in the jungle. Missing in a temple that was closed to the public. There weren’t many ways that could be misinterpreted.
The sudden crunching of stone drew both of our attentions to the side, and we jumped up, sprinting behind another piece of ruined stone as the sound returned – an indescribable, painful noise that forced my hands into my temples. Sothea kept silent, but I broke, whimpering through the assault on my ears. As the sharp noise stopped, I opened my eyes to see – where was Sothea?
I tried to duck around another piece of column, tripped and bit my tongue to avoid cursing, and looked out for her. The crunching noise drew closer, and my hairs stood on end as the sound of something sliding along the ground came back.
“Sothea?” I tried to whisper. I heard a noise – a frantically repeated phrase that I guessed was the Cambodian language – and I stumbled, tripped, fell, and clambered to the source.
A sudden whimper, and the gagging sound began again. When I got around the corner there was nothing but a pool of liquid on the floor. I gulped, cursing myself for everything. My stupidity, my idiotic decision to break all the rules, my disrespect of where I was. And now Sothea had paid for it.
I broke down, sobbing quietly to myself, but the sudden sound of movement brought my hand over my own mouth. I looked about – the moat was ahead of me – I could make a last ditch effort to get across and try to get back to town. Try to put everything behind me and never leave my home country again.
I sprinted, leaving behind the giant…thing…that had taken Sothea, and forced my legs to obey. I made it half way across the bridge when I heard something rise from the water next to me. I stopped and put my back to one of the stone figures, now with empty hands, and glanced back at the temple, where I could see the thing was moving around. A drop of liquid fell in front of me. And then another. And another. I turned, my eyes following enormous ventral scales upward until I was staring at the seven heads of another monstrous, serpentine naga in front of me.
Its mouths opened wide, and black liquid dripped from its seven jaws. Then the noise began again.