Bodies were pressing in all around Saul as he walked. He let their current take him and he started to fall behind the monks. He watched them joke together as they walked, flashing their yellow teeth like monkeys. One of them pulled a small white box out of his bag. They all drew cigarettes from it and clumped together, lighting them off of a single lighter. It seemed silly to him to see the holy men smoking.
It was the beginning of his second week in the �Monk for a Month� program. There was only a thin bridge of sand connecting him to the belief in what Buddhist monks stood for, but he was anxious to strengthen the connection. He wanted to let the deep strong roots of faith wedge themselves into the soil of his heart.
He walked slowly and let the distance between him and the monks grow. The smell of drying fish pulsated through the humid row of shops. Hundreds of mangos and papayas were pyramided on bamboo tables next to him. There were so many vegetables lining the sidewalk that it was hard for Saul to walk without stepping on them. Knock-off Gucci and Levi stalls were squeezed into the cracks that weren�t already taken up by the farmers. A dull thud came from the butcher�s knife as he decapitated a duck.
Saul wandered down an alley, following after his feet. A thin stream of gray gutter water trickled around his toes. Plastic bags and dirty coffee cups were stuffed into the drainage ditches and wall cracks.
He looked up at the sky and saw the bright yellow sun shining through the flat tin roofs clustered together overhead. He ran a handful of bony fingers across his shaven head and rounded a bend.
The alley came to a dead end. There were people pressed into a doughnut shape in the corner. They were all shouting and pointing furiously. Saul wandered over to see what was happening. He was taller than everyone else so he lifted himself up on his toes and craned his neck over the squatting observers. There in the center of the circle were two black ovals. Saul squinted them into focus. They were rhinoceros beetles.
At first it seemed like the things were just standing, but after Saul watched for a minute, he realized that there was a rhythm of wings flapping and high-pitched hissing that the beetles were volleying back and forth at each other.
He looked around the crowd. People were waving money and slapping each other�s shoulders excitedly. The smell of sweat thickened the sense of the anxiety in the air.
He looked back at the little bugs. The one on the left was smaller, but it was more vibrant with its sputtering wings. It hissed a little louder. Without thinking much, Saul decided to root for it.
Then, as if reading Saul�s thoughts, a small man with a good-hearted demeanor tapped him on the shoulder. With waving hand gestures, lots of pointing and a sprinkle of broken English, he asked Saul if he�d like to place a bet on either of the beetles.
Saul knew it was wrong for monks to partake in such worldly things. He wondered if he was allowed to be there at all. He fingered the sweaty bill in his pocket thoughtfully, then frowned and waved his hand in declination. Still, he continued to watch. Watching couldn�t hurt.
Finally, brown fingers nudged the beetles forward. They approached each other and locked their long curved tusks. Wings flapped wildly and the people shouted all the more. It turned out Saul had been right, and after a tussle, the bigger beetle was on his back, spidering his legs in the air. The match was over. The people stood up and exchanged their money happily. Saul watched as two men tied thin white strings around the beetles and set them on their shoulders.
Saul came up to one of them, a wrinkled man with a mole on his chin, and asked how much a beetle like that costs. At first, the man didn�t understand, but with some help from the good-hearted bookie, he figured it out.
Saul walked back out into the sun with the little bug balanced on his shoulder. Every time he took a step, his companion�s jointed legs would jiggle a little bit and he would flap his wings and dip his tusk nervously. Saul tied the string around his pinky and pushed his way to the end of the street.
The monks were there, standing in a semi-circle around a man sitting in a three-wheeled motorcycle. His pruned skin wrinkled and shifted as he smiled his gums at them. He had no legs. The felled trunks of his hips hung off the edge of the motorcycle seat with knots from his pant legs tied at the ends.
Saul caught his breath. An image flashed in his head of the monks he�d seen on TV who would shake flowers by the stems over people�s heads and chant special blessings. He slithered his way through the dregs of the crowd and came up next to them.
The old man cradled a wooden board in his hands. There were small yellow papers with numbers and pink designs on them. They were pinned in neat little rows and columns. The monks laid a stack of money in front of the man who in turn gave them several pieces of paper. The monks weren�t blessing him at all. It turned out that they were buying lottery tickets.
Saul watched them pack the tickets away greedily into their bags. He felt the thin sandy layer of belief crumble in his chest. The monks turned and headed back to the temple. Saul silently watched them go. They waded through the market crowd like a train of floating flames. Then he turned and walked the other way, with his new friend jiggling and flapping on his shoulder.
BIO: Benjamin Winship graduated from Azusa Pacific University with a degree in English. His work has appeared in Underground Voices, The Absent Willow Review, Static Movement and is forthcoming in Vulgata and The Nautilus Engine. Benjamin currently lives in Thailand with his beautiful wife. They teach English. In his spare time you might catch him getting a foot massage or eating way too much Thai barbeque. You can reach Benjamin at benwe2002 (at) yahoo (dot) com.