When I was nineteen I travelled across Thailand. Upriver from the tourist trap of Krabi I wound toward the steaming Khao Phanom. It was in this virgin rainforest I planned to acquaint myself with the objects of my future studies. I planned then to pursue ecology.
Dragonflies with leathery wings teemed in the atmosphere of the river surface. Amongst seaweed and flotsam were faded Coca-cola logos and used condoms, trickling in from the expanding settlements.
On the eighteenth day I was wandering a sand bank littered with swollen mangrove pods when I came across an American film crew. They were piling into an onshore hut with a domed roof unlike any of the others I'd seen. I approached the hut assuredly, merging with the crowd. A gleaming SUV, unlikely to belong to any among the native community, was parked outside. On its steel flanks it wore the logo: "In The Wake of the Unknown."
The hut seemed to serve as a medical tent of kinds. Inside the cameramen were pressed tight around a swelling throng of backs. Arching over the sweating white bodies were the microphone cranes, examining an unseen subject at centre.
I identified a sharp dressed woman at front as one of the show hosts. She kept making hushed remarks to the nearest lens. The male host, somewhere nearer the subject, kept repeating the words "He says the pain is getting worse, but all I can do is watch."
I pushed through at last. A primitive stalk table had been erected, and stretched over it was a undressed Thai man. He was retching, pulling his lips back and moaning, showing all signs of spasmodic agony. His wet chokes were steadily interpreted by a translator who fed them to a typist. A squatting man sporting binoculars on his tanned blonde-haired chest kept repeating, in different tones of voice, "The pain is only increasing for this poor man."
The Thai man looked in his fifties, though he wore his years worse than most. Every patch of skin on his bony frame seemed bound too tight and threatened to tear with his contortions.
The first host lifted a small hand for a moment's reprieve. She delicately lifted a lock of golden hair from her brow, tucking it behind one ear, before resuming commentary.
I noticed blood was oozing from the Thai man’s lips. He had scraped much of the gum away from his front teeth on the lower jaw. He continued to dig into the slippery wounds like an itch.
He began to make a high-pitched whining. At first it was like the noise of a crying dog or a kicked rabbit. But it rose and burst with each beat, causing the hosts to shut up and the cameramen to grip their instruments two-handed and drop their mugs. It rose to the sound of a siren screaming when his chest collapsed inward and the wound belched a column of rancid black smoke.
The few natives present screamed and peeled off at once, but the film crew, coughing in the smoke, remained in silence.
The old man too had ceased his shriek and now blubbered, perhaps choking on his own blood and scattered gum-flesh. In a flash billowing smoke-forms were blurrily illuminated by a trickling red light on the crushed chest. The weird angles of the inverted rib cage were cast in high definition in the light of a small fire couched in the man's still-bubbling lungs.
As though his blood were oil, the flames licked up and down his torso and started eating themselves and engorging rapidly. Spirals of fat orange flame teased the hanging mikes.
The man was shaking like an infant with its leg broken, weeping for his mother in a foreign tongue. The fire showed no interest in his pain and, following some unseen geometry, spread along his body like a sigil. Sizzling the skin off the flesh till globules spat on the floor in the insect-like death throes of melting plastic.
The throat's crown gave in and the flesh and tongue of the lower jaw bubbled over the edges of the table, allowing a clear passage into the man's face. With flames creeping under his skin and rising in fat ripe boils at the eyelids, the final expression this man's eyes gave were a childlike look of absolute fear. They grew for a moment, then burst and dribbled out the sockets like candle wax.
It was hard to tell if he was still alive. His movements had long since ceased. But with the destruction of the face the film crew began to talk excitedly amongst each other again, loud enough to be heard over the crackling fire. Eventually the smell became too much and we were calmly evacuated by the show hosts.
The entire hut was burned to the ground after a long hot day spent breaching the perfect blue sky with thick black clouds. I reclined on the sand grass and watched as the microphones were levered into the rising tendrils of smoke, capturing crisp audio of the embers burning out. The hosts appeared to be crying on camera. One of them pushed the other away and put a hand over the camera. They repeated this stylized action seven times, sometimes switching roles.
A native girl sat near me and eyed me at a distance. Her Betty Boop sweater, sleeves torn off ragged and neckline slashed deeply, happened to be the same faded pink of the iguana that shuffled between us towards the water.
"He killed a witch's daughter," she announced almost off-handedly as if the subject's smouldering remains were not just a few feet from us, "and in her fury she cast an old sort of curse on him, that he would die in this fashion."
"But he seemed to be an old man," I said, placing a hand to my brow to see her better, "he looked in no condition to harm a fly."
"This is a very old kind of spell. He was cursed thirty three years ago, and has lived those years knowing what would happen on this precise day. In these years he turned to God, prayed and prayed and gone mad from praying until he became the wretched thing you saw today."
I nodded slowly, examining the soft slope of her upper thigh, where it dipped into the sand. We moved closer and watched as the film crew dispersed and the embers cleared and dusk colours fell upon the unquiet canopy.