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Palace of Precious Stones

Short story By: Steven Hunley

A GI hunts for rubies in Burma and finds love instead

Submitted:Nov 3, 2010    Reads: 68    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

Palace of Precious Stones
Steven Hunley
He was up to his knees when he spotted it, only the size of a pea. But it was red. Red. He couldn't believe his luck. Reaching down he fished it out and placed it in his mouth. Now he could go back and sun himself on a rock.
Withdrawing his feet from the stream he spread his toes wide and swished his feet back and forth forcing water between them to wash out the yellow mud. He sunk back on a rock to relax. His work for the day was done.
The rock felt smooth and warm on his back. He popped open his cowboy shirt to catch the last rays of afternoon sunlight slanting between the leaves of a giant fig tree whose trunk was as naked and pale as any woman's. He basked in the sunlight that escaped the grasp of her leaves with permission. Starry-bright reflections danced on the water as he watched a water strider thread its way between bubbles and eddies constantly changing their pathways. A kingfisher darted just over the surface then away like a shot.
He considered the thing in his mouth. He took it out and gave it a good look. It was red, not a hint of purple, that was good. It was irregular, less to cut, that was bad. The stone was big enough to pay for what he needed but not what he wanted.
"Damn, it's always this way with me. The rubies here are never big enough."
Michael was all about the money, or so he thought. If you asked him,
"Mike, what the hell is an American G.I. doing in the highlands of Burma looking for rubies?"
He'd simply say, "This is where the money ran out."
Complex men always come up with simple answers. It wasn't that Mike's answers were lies exactly, only that in his efforts to simplify them he'd stripped them naked of the truth.
He watched the sun dip lower until the hills took on a bluish cast, and the ones beyond a purple hue. White puffs of cumulus turned grey against the setting sun tinting their edges silver and when it dipped even lower, gold. Mountain shadows lengthened and in the distance he heard a peahen crying for her mate, insisting he return to their nest for the night. It was only too obvious she didn't like sleeping alone.
With darkness the forest grew quiet and the sounds of the day animals were replaced by the noises of crickets and creatures of the night. The gentle murmur of the river never stopped and would not vary its tune until the miracle of the monsoon came. All Burma lie hushed and waiting. Some things never change.
So Mike really wasn't there because that's where the money had run out. He was there because the mountain forest had seduced him like a lovely woman and now he'd fallen in love with her exotic beauty, her consistency, and the rhythms of her life.
If only he knew it.
The next morning he was sitting on a stump drinking coffee and spitting out the grounds that he hadn't quite strained out. Tired of trying to filter it with his teeth, he gave up, and poured the rest on a wandering stink beetle that didn't seem to mind.
"Insects are tough," he reasoned, "but then again so am I." Then he walked off to work down river.
He liked being his own boss and enjoyed working in the small streams that fed into the Mogok river in the Valley of the Rubies. The door to the Mogok had cracked open in nineteen sixty-six and he squeezed in smartly just under the radar. Now he had his own hut not far from a local tribe of Shans who'd been in the trade for years. They ignored him, all except for the children, thinking him eccentric as hell. He didn't mind and agreed he probably was. He was a loner by trade, a loser by profession, always hoping for a big strike... never getting it. That was his life.
He knew that just beyond the bend that Shan women were bathing and always, or nearly always, when he walked by on his way to find rubies, made it a point to stay on his side of the river. He knew enough to give temptation a wide birth and usually pretended to ignore them.
This time was different.
Sitting on a rock removed from the rest was a girl quite singular and alone. She glanced up at him with uncurious eyes.
"Mingalaba," he called out in Burmese.
"Krishnagopal kodoth," she answered in Shan. By the way she pronounced it, it sounded more like Bangkok Thai. The girl had been around.
She suddenly smiled and let herself into the water without a sound. Swimming away, her hair trailed behind her like thin curves of black coal. Their undulating design entranced him. She disappeared among the rocks like a shadow from a passing cloud leaving him wonder if he'd ever really seen her at all. It was like seeing a nymph or a creature of the forest that shouldn't be seen. He had a curious feeling he'd seen an apparition, and it left him unsettled the rest of the day.
When he took off his cowboy shirt with the snaps they pulled lose of the rotten shirt leaving holes.
"It's the climate," he reasoned, looking at his rotting tennies "It rots everything. It's time I went down river to see Nigel.
* * * *


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