A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, by Jaed Coffin

jaed coffin book coverThis year four illustrious writers – Susan Faludi, Russ Rymer, Jaed Coffin, and Sarah Braunstein – have joined Professor of English Brock Clarke to teach courses in fiction and creative nonfiction at Bowdoin. Below is an excerpt from Coffin’s book A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants: A Memoir.

Sitting by the canal at night, I sometimes looked up the banks expecting to see a faint silhouette of my mother. I pictured her forty years younger, with her sarong hitched up to her knees and her arms thin and strong, washing the night’s dishes in a silver basin. I saw her hair hanging in a long braid past her waist, and, whenever she bent forward, the braid dipped into the current like the tip of a paintbrush. I began to think of the brown oily water of the canal as a kind of blood, and that each night I was bathing in the liquid of my ancestry. The canal made me yearn for a life that was more basic than my Amrican one, and it reminded me that existence didn’t have to be complicated or busy; you just had to give up a few things that probably weren’t that important anyway.

It must have been obvious that I’d been thinking so much, because one night a short monk with big lips and sloppy tattoos on his sloped shoulders came over to ask me if I was feeling all right. I’d seen the monk before. He was always hanging around the temple smoking cigarettes and flicking the ashes into the lotus ponds. “You seem quiet,” he said. The other monks were watching us as if they’d been placing bets.

“I am kon gnip,” I said. A quiet person.

The monk nodded. “You are lonely?”

I shook my head.

“You miss your mother?”

For a Thai man, missing your mother was a legitimate form of sadness. There were pop songs about it. That baffled me. “No,” I said.

The monk shrugged and turned to the other monks to tell them that I wasn’t lonely and that I didn’t miss my mother. The monks shook their heads. Bets were off.

The monk took out a pack of cigarettes from beneath his robe, stuck one on his lip, and offered one to me. I refused. He smoked in silence for a moment and then leaned in close. “I like America,” he said. He exhaled and nodded, like I ought to be impressed. He showed me the tattoo on his shoulder: a poorly drawn skull with two roses coming out of the eye sockets. Under the skull, two pistols were crossed over a banner that read GUNS AND ROSES.

“Nice tattoos,” I said.

The monk raised his brow and said, “I like guns and roses.” I asked him if he liked one song in particular. The monk squinted; there’d been some misunderstanding. “Guns and roses,” he said. He inhaled and spoke through the smoke. “I like guns, roses, and America.”

I sat in silence while he kept smoking and watched the blue light of the mosquito lamps hanging off the porches of the houses on the far bank. I tried again. “You like American music?”

The monk nodded slowly, like oh year I do. “Notolius Beek,” he said. It took me a moment to figure out what he was saying. I couldn’t understand how a monk in a remote village would ever hear about Notorious B.I.G. The monk suddenly became sincere. “Do you know him?” he said.

I knew this would be bad news. “No,” I said.

The monk sulked.

“But I have friends who live in New York City. They know him.”

The monk seemed more satisfied. “New York City,” he said, as if long ago they’d been lovers. He flicked his cigarette butt into the canal and then reached inside his robe. He held a circular tin that reminded me of a can of dip. Inside the tin there was a dry tan powder and a silver u-shaped tube. The monk packed the tube full of powder, held it at eye level, and then said, “watch.” He put one end of the tube into his mouth and the other end into one of his nostrils. He blew out his mouth and sniffed, hard. As he took the tube out of his nose, he leaned his head back and said, “unnhh.” He wiped his nostrils and offered me the tube. I shook my head no. The other monks were pointing at the monk and asking me if I thought he was crazy. The monk shrugged and smiled. “I like America,” he said.

From A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants: A Memoir by Jaed Coffin. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.

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