Lee awoke abruptly. Dreams, two terrible dreams. The first was a mystery, the second, frightening. He tried to focus his eyes on the moonbeams filtering through his split-bamboo hut. His nostrils flared at the smell of the fire smoldering in the middle of his uneven dirt floor. He tossed on his woven mat, trying to sleep. It was useless. Just thinking about his dreams made his heart pound loudly. What could they mean?
Lee pushed himself off his mat and instinctively brushed the dirt off his loose clothing. He wore black baggy pants and a brightly embroidered jacket, the traditional attire of Hmong hill tribes, who live near the Burmese border in northern Thailand. Around his neck hung a pure silver necklace, which all Hmong knew protected them from ghosts that might try to strangle them in their sleep.
He stared at the ghost house on the wall. The ghost house was not a house at all, but it was a place for a ghost to stay. It was constructed of paper with a corrugated fringe and had many diamond-shaped cutouts in the middle. A shelf jutted out below the paper. On the shelf rested bowls of food and water from which a ghost could dine. A stick of incense glowed, its sweet smell contrasting with the embers of the fire that heated the hut. “Don’t even touch the ghost house,” Lee’s mother used to warn, “or you’ll die!”
Have I offended the ghosts? Lee wondered. One could never be sure without first talking to the witch doctor. Only the witch doctor could interpret dreams correctly.
Stepping through the door, Lee ducked under the elephant-grass roof. He chased down his prized hen, snatched it by its legs, and started toward the witch doctor’s hut. The bird curled its head upright so as not to see the world upside down. It looked around casually, its body swinging gently with each new step of the worried Hmong.
“Prepare to die”
The witch doctor opened the door slowly to Lee’s timid knock. His tall bony body loomed larger than life. The purple daybreak reflected in his glossy eyes. His black hair hung in long strands down to his shoulders. He smiled a toothy grin at Lee. “Do you need my services?”
Lee hesitated. “l need you to talk to the ghost. I’m afraid. I’ve had two terrible dreams, and I must know their meanings!”
The witch doctor’s eyes passed from Lee to the dangling bird. “What’s that?” he asked knowingly. For a fleeting moment Lee was afraid his offering was too small. But he spoke confidently. “A gift for you.”
The old man took the offering and set it on the ground. The grateful fowl ran inside the hut. “What were the dreams?”
“In my first dream, my family and I hiked down the mountain to work in the fields. We arrived at the farm together, but when I looked around, my family was gone.
I looked everywhere, but I was alone! Then I awoke.” He wiped sweat off his brow.
“And the second?” the witch doctor prodded coldly.
“In my second dream, I was in a strange field near a village that I’ve never seen before. A stranger approached me and asked, ‘Do you need a house?’ Before I could answer ‘No,’ he declared, ‘I’ve got the perfect house for you! It’s very small. Just big enough for you to sleep in. And I have other homes for your family right next to yours.’” Lee felt faint. “Please ask the ghosts the interpretation.”
“I don’t have to ask. Many people share these dreams. The meaning is always the same.” The witch doctor lit his water pipe. Water inside the bamboo tube gurgled as he sucked on the mouthpiece.
“What do they mean?” Lee begged.
The old man blew a cloud of smoke, remaining silent.
“Tell me!” Lee demanded desperately.
“The meaning of the first dream is uncertain. When you arrive at the fields, you can’t find your family. You miss them. This has one of two meanings: either your family will die and you’ll miss them, or you’ll die and your family will miss you.
“But I know the meaning of the second dream. In that dream you’re asked if you want a house. But it’s only big enough for you to sleep in. That house is your tomb. This dream says you and your family will die.”
Lee’s throat went dry. “What do I do now?”
“I suggest you go home and prepare to die.” The witch doctor’s eyes glazed over. He had nothing more to say.
(Read the conclusion next week!)