“Shit, shit, shit,” Kyle swore as he ducked into the Big Bell Tower. He wasn’t sure how his brother, Riley, had found him hidden away in a monastery in Chiang Mai, but that was not important now. Now he had to focus on blending in. He faced the large bell and muttered, hoping to give the impression that he knew how to pray. Leaning against the cool white pillar, one of the many that lined the room, he bowed his head and feigned contemplation. The air was warm and humid, and he was starting to sweat under his t-shirt. His Canadian heritage refused to let him be comfortable in 30-degree-Celsius weather, especially in April. Someone else entered the bell tower and, by the heavy panting, he knew it was Riley. A group of monks, their saffron robes contrasting with the gold and green in the background, departed from the temple. He didn’t envy their walk down the Naga stairs, 309 steps to the city below.
“You didn’t think I’d be able to find you, did you? She still gets notifications when you use your credit card, you idiot. What are you doing in this temple?”
“It’s called Doi Suthep and I’m becoming a monk,” Kyle spat.
“You can’t do that.”
“You got her pregnant.”
Kyle closed his eyes. A tour group and their guide broke the silence as they walked around the square walls lining the temple. He pointed out the different features of the temple, but everyone was staring at the giant, golden stupa, smack in the middle. The top of the structure peeked over the walls, and the people looked ready to make a break for it, armed with cameras and selfie sticks. His brother whistled, looking around at the ancient and modern architecture. Maybe running away to Thailand was an extreme solution, but he knew he wasn’t ready to be a father, even if she wanted him to be involved after this. He rubbed his hands against his eyes.
“Do they even let Canadians become monks?” Riley asked as they looked at the bell.
“Don’t know… didn’t ask.”
His brother laughed. “Well, I’m staying at the Shangri-La. Mom says to bring you back. When you realize this is a terrible idea, come find me.”
His brother left the room. He decided to find whoever was in charge of accepting new monks. It was not difficult to find a monk. He just had to look for one that seemed old enough to be in charge of people. He approached someone who affected a wise air and confidently asked, “Do you speak English?”
The monk’s eyes slid over to him, and he responded with a drawn out, “Yes.”
“Oh, great! See, I’d like to apply to be a monk.”
“You realize that takes years.”
“It takes almost a year to become a novice, at least.”
Kyle leaned against the closest wall. This was the moment he had traveled all the way here for.
“Ok! Sign me up, make me a bona fide monk.”
“We don’t do that.”
“Come on! Listen, I’m going to be a father, and I can’t be that, so I need to be this.”
The monk’s brow furrowed, he concentrated, and then turned to him. “Fine. You can stay here for a week, and if you decide you truly want to devote your life to this, then you can learn.”
Not ideal, but he would work with what he got. “Great! So, where is my room?”
The next day, he found himself staring into a handheld mirror, his head now as bald as the day he was born. It hadn’t been hard to find a hairdresser; the real challenge had been trying to figure out the Thai word for bald. Kyle suspected the monks just wanted him to stay out of the way for the week, but he had different plans. If he showed them what a great monk he could be, they would get rid of this "wait a week" rule. There was one problem with his plan: he had no idea how one became a monk. Following them around should do the trick. He had learned that the monk’s name, the one who had helped him, was Akara. A few robes had been delivered overnight, and after Googling how to wear one, he was ready to leave. His room was small, and only had the essential furniture, so he left his bag on the bed and walked out into the hall.
The monks were gathered inside the central chamber of the temple, eating breakfast. He grabbed a bowl and served himself some dried fish and rice; he didn’t ask what kind. Since he was new, he had to eat with the other novices. They looked at him like he was an alien, which he technically was. He ate slowly under their scrutiny, at least until a piece of rice hit him between the eyes. His eyes darted up to the innocent faces of the eight other novices. “Sly bastards,” he muttered, gripping his rice bowl. He counted to three, and then launched his bowl into the gathered children, covering them with rice.
They burst into laughter, and Kyle ducked to avoid the glares of the older monks. A smiling Akara rounded them up and brushed the stray rice off the novices’ robes. A broom was thrust into his hand and the older monk led them out to the main square of the temple. “You show a disturbing lack of restraint. Perhaps some sweeping will teach you how to keep food in your bowl.”
Making a face, he started to sweep, before a flash interrupted him. Riley stood there, his camera still pointed up, a stupid grin plastered on his face. “Karen is going to be so surprised they actually got you to clean.”
Just hearing her name brought flashes of memory. The way the sun kissed her hair, brown curls that fell down her shoulders. The wind was warm, and they were sitting on the grass as she laughed at some dumb joke he had made. It was part of the reason why he loved her. He shook his head hard, and she disappeared.
“Shut up. Did you tell her I was here?” Kyle asked.
“Nah, I was going to let you explain where you ran off to while she had your child.”
“You have quite a following!”
Kyle looked behind himself to see the group of novices, all holding various cleaning supplies. They stared at him, as quiet as they were during breakfast.
“They think I’m going to shed my human skin anytime now.”
“Have they thrown you out yet? Are you ready to come home?” Riley said as he shifted on his feet.
“No. I can’t go back.”
Riley sighed. “Well, while I’m here I might as well see the sights. Oh, and they untied your robe while we were talking.”
Kyle turned to look, the movement causing the only thing protecting his decency to fall to the floor.
The next few days all passed the same way. He would wake up 4:00 a.m. with the rest of the novices and head to the city to collect offerings. He was becoming a bit of a celebrity around Chiang Mai, with people always waiting to see the strange man who looked different from all the other monks. Then they would do chores and meditation, with some classes spread in between. His Thai was actually getting passable, enough to realize that most of the other novices had been calling him "Big Child" since he had arrived. They had a habit of jumping on him when he wasn’t expecting it. The old monk that he had first talked to when he arrived, Akara, approached him and the other novices. He explained that their afternoon meditation would take place deeper in the temple. They walked down the mountain, but then stopped and entered a hidden temple in the jungle. Surrounded by trees and the calming rays of sunlight, Kyle actually felt calm. The temple looked like ruins, and the stone jutted out from the green hills. They walked further into the temple, arriving at an alcove built into one of the hills. Little statues of Buddha lined the walls, their watchful eyes giving off an aura of security. Akara approached him as the other novices spread out.
“Forty years as a monk in Chiang Mai and this is still my favourite spot to meditate.”
“You look great for your age.”
Akara chuckled. “We should consider a vow of silence as part of your training. The other monks would thank me for it.”
“That would make for a boring plot point, should my life ever be made into a movie.”
“With all the wisdom that I have gained in my life, I can say there is no chance of that happening.”
“You hurt me.”
Akara laughed this time, and it was as warm as Kyle expected. He felt the monk’s hand on his shoulder. “You should meditate here; think about your decisions. This place always surprises me with insight.”
He sat down with some of the other novices, when one of the children sat on his lap. In the quiet of the forest, he couldn’t stop the memories that had been hounding him since he had gotten there.
It had been a Tuesday, and Karen had come home earlier than usual. He remembered how she looked when she walked through the door. Her face was flushed, and she was practically shaking. He had thought she was sick. Out of all the details, he couldn’t get her eyes out of his head. They were a deep green, the colour of a pine tree standing tall against the snow. They had stared right into him, even as she delivered the three words that had changed his life.
“Kyle, I’m pregnant.”
He had felt his world crumbling inward. He wasn’t ready for a child; he considered having a pet too much responsibility. The thought of someone who would need him completely, that would look up to him, it had all been too much. He had made some excuse to leave, and then he had driven to the airport. At first, it had just been some fantasy, a way to escape, but then as he thought more and more about it, it became easier to just buy a ticket. It had been easy to rationalize it then. He had always been immature; the kid would be better with someone else to shape their future. Just remembering those words, her eyes, had been like opening a floodgate, and the rest just fell through. He remembered meeting her in a Denny’s, eating the greasiest food after a night out.
He remembered he had spilt a full pitcher of beer on himself on their first date, and it had been worth it to see her laugh.
He remembered her face, illuminated by fireworks.
He remembered being too sore to move after moving into their first apartment together.
He remembered the fights over money, his attitude, her parents, and he wanted it all back.
He realized, sitting there in the forest with the children, that he needed her, and if that meant being a father then he would have to learn as he went. He got up slowly, the small novice untroubled by the sudden change, and approached Akara. “I have to go back.”
All the man said was, “I thought you might.”
He met his brother later that evening, near the airport, with his luggage in hand. Riley approached him, and Kyle laughed a little to break the tension. After staring at him for a while, Riley set down his bag, and opened his mouth.
“Has anyone told you that you look like E.T with that haircut?”
After graduating from Carleton University with a B.A in Political Science, Ashton Heaps found himself without direction. With a passion for writing, the Professional Writing program has allowed him to explore the different careers that he could pursue. With an interest in fantasy fiction and communications, he is excited to hit the ground running and discover what he can do.