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Traveller’s Palm

You take off your new blancoed shoes at the temple door.
She wraps them in tissue paper,
Humming her favorite bar of Pomp and Circumstance.
Lightly your feet slip, feeling the cool marble floor.
“Stop showing off! Remember where you are!”
Flambeaux, tom-toms, flageolets, incense.
Devil-dancers,with a clash of cymbals, begin to dance.

Tall as bamboos, they sway above you, hobbling on stilts:
Crocodile, panther, jackal, monkey, toad:
Tongues hanging out, paddy-straw hair, boils and welts
On bums with tails, torsos gummy as rubber trees,
Jungle-fowl feathers glued on thighs.
Each bears the spots or sores of an incurable disease.
Copper bells clang on elbows, ankles and knees.

They block the corridor you’ve got to pass. Their sweat
Steams like monsoon rain on a path of dust.
Cocoanut cressets, carried by almost naked men,
Burn with a sickening fume.
“Nan, I’m thirsty. Can’t we go home?”
Your mouth is as dry as pith on a mango stone.
You turn and bury your head in her old green gown.

She smarms your hair, tightens the knot in your silk tie:
Takes you out on a high cool balcony
Freed from the ant-hill crowd.
Huge howdahed elephants lumber out of a wood,
Trapped under jeweled caparisons. Gongs and floodlight.
“When I grow up, will you let me marry you?”
“By the time you’re old enough, I’ll be buried in Timbuktu.”

A monk hangs a lei of temple flowers round your neck.
Tea-planters chatter and smoke.
“How did the Tooth fit in Buddha’s mouth?”
“It must be a tiger’s. Nobody knows the truth.”
Can’t you see which elephant carries the holy relic?
Pain jabs your heart. Poison! You almost cry.
Doesn’t she realize? Won’t she believe? You’re going to die.

A pigeon’s blood ruby sparkles in Lady Weerasirie’s nose.
Hum of malarial mosquitoes.
Worse and worse the pain. “Can we go home soon?”
At the temple door you put on your shoes.
A tonsured priest in a saffron robe is bowing. “Goodbye.”
Mind you don’t step on a scorpion.
Full moon, tree-frogs, fire-flies: a brutal jungle cry.

Your throat’s burning. Will there be time to reach home
And call Dr. Chisel? Look, here’s a traveller’s palm.
She shows you the place to sink
The point of the ivory pen-knife you won in a race:
A dark olive leaf-sheath curving out of a dry old stem.
If you die, can you be reborn? Try!
Even if the water of the tree is poison, drink!

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