He shook his head. “Shwe le maw,” he said.
What on earth did that mean? I said “Ayet piu” again, because I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Shwe le maw,” he said again, and reached into a crate and produced a pint bottle, the glass a cobalt blue. It didn’t have a label. “Shwe le maw,” he said, and brandished the bottle. I reached for the bottle, and he smiled, drew the cork, and poured an ounce or so into an earthenware teacup. They never give out samples at liquor stores in New York, so the gesture took me by surprise, but I accepted the cup and inhaled the smell of ripe oranges. I took a taste, then tossed off the drink. It had a full-bodied burnt orange taste, and a reasonable kick to it. It was neither as raw nor as potent as ayet piu, but there was definitely alcohol in it.
I asked the price – Beh laut the? – but couldn’t make out the response, so I took out my supply of kyat and let him help himself. He took twenty-five kyat and seemed happy, and I couldn’t believe this stuff was cheaper than beer.
Maybe it wasn’t much stronger than beer. Maybe she’d need a gallon of it to get any benefit from it.
Better safe than sorry, I thought. Especially at these prices.
And so when I shucked my shoes at the gateway to the monastery, I had three flasks of shwe le maw in my shoulder bag.
It was stronger than beer.
She was curled up in a ball when I got back, her hands clutching her shoulders, her knees drawn up to her chest. She was moaning and rocking, and at first she didn’t even know I was there. Then she opened her eyes and looked at me, and I got out a flask and poured her a cup of the stuff.
“I smell oranges,” she said. “Is it orange juice? No. I also smell alcohol.” She drank. “Oh, it is good,” she said. “Not as strong as ayet piu, but better tasting.”
She reached for the bottle. I held on to it for a moment, then let her have it. She tipped her head back and took a long swallow, then looked at me.
I don’t read minds, but just then her thoughts couldn’t have been more evident if they’d been written on her forehead. She knew she should offer me some, but then there would be less for her.
I didn’t wait to see how she’d resolve the dilemma. “There’s another bottle,” I told her, and saw her jaw go slack with relief. She gave me the bottle and I drank deeply and gave it back to her. I wasn’t running a fever myself, and the mosquito bites I’d sustained over the past week hadn’t done anything worse than itch, but you can’t be too careful, can you?
So she took a drink and I took a drink, and she took another and I took another, and lo and behold, the bottle was empty. I capped and traded it for one of the full ones in my shoulder bag, and uncapped that and took a sizable swig without thinking about it. And I passed the bottle to Katya and watched her tip it up and drink deep.
Her Adam’s apple didn’t go up and down when she swallowed, I noticed. That was because she didn’t have one, it not being part of the standard equipment for females. The presence of an Adam’s apple was one of the tip-offs to male-to-female transsexuals, although I’d read that some of them went so far as to have their Adam’s apples shaved surgically. That sounded a little extreme to me – I found it enough of a nuisance to have to shave the outside of my Adam’s apple – but it set me wondering. Had anybody thought about Adam’s-apple implants for female-to-male transsexuals? An interesting new frontier for Medicare, though the HMOs would never cover it.
An even better opportunity, it seemed to me, lay in importing shwe le maw into the States. In taste it ran somewhere between Grand Marnier and Curaçao, although it wouldn’t make the bottles of either turn pale and reach for the Valium. Still, at twenty-five kyat a pint, you were getting a lot of bang for the buck.
No question. It was stronger than beer.
And it was working. As we made our way through the second bottle, I could see that it was the best thing for malaria since bug spray. Katya had stopped shaking and her color was better. She was still running a considerable fever, but the wild stare was gone from her eyes and the desperate agitation had passed. She took a last long drink that left Bottle Number Two as empty as its predecessor, pulled all the blankets over her, buried her face in the crook of her arm, and left the land of the conscious for a better world by far.
I sat beside her, looking down at her. Her breathing, easier and less ragged now, was the only sound I could hear in all the monastery’s severe stillness.
I thought about where we were, and what we had done, and what the future might hold. And I did something that may seem questionable in retrospect, but which made perfect sense at the time. I opened the third bottle of shwe le maw.
I didn’t put that much of a dent in Bottle Number Three. I just nipped at it from time to time, and there was no more than a third of it gone when Katya stirred at my side. I capped the bottle and turned to her.
“I am better, Evan,” she whispered.
And indeed she was. The fever hadn’t merely broken. It had shattered into bits. The blankets were soaked, as were her red robes and the pallet she lay on. She cast the blankets aside and stood up, peeling off her wet red wrapping, and I turned the pallet over so she would have its dry side to lie on.
And she giggled and plopped herself down on it.
“Vanya,” she said. “My little Vanya. My Vanushka.”
And she giggled again.
Well, every medicine has a side effect. What lowers your blood pressure calcifies your liver, and what clears up your acne makes you break out in hives. Shwe le maw had knocked malaria down for the count, and now she wasn’t feverish or delirious or twisted in pain. She had slept and rested, and she felt much better.
But she was stoned out of her mind.
And, see, she wasn’t the only one. We were both of us pretty well oiled. If she’d had a little more than I – the lioness’s share, say – it had been offset by the fact that the booze she drank used up a good part of its fury on the malaria. The stuff I poured into me all went to the end of getting me drunk.
And drunk is what I was. Not falling-down drunk, because you can’t fall down if you haven’t stood up in the first place. Not roaring drunk, either, because a Buddhist monastery in Burma was no place for anything louder than a whisper.
What I was, all the same, was Very Fucking Drunk.
Which may explain what happened next.
“My God,” she said, wide-eyed in wonder. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” I said. “It was a malarial dream.”
“It was better than a dream. It was wonderful.”
“Well,” I said.
“I don’t know how you could bear to touch me,” she said. “I was sweating like a pig before. I must smell foul.”
“You probably do,” I said, “and so do I, in all likelihood. If we bathed in the Irriwaddy we’d leave a ring. But evidently not bathing knocks out the sense of smell, because I didn’t notice.”
“Neither did I.” She yawned, stretched. I reached out a hand and stroked her breast. She purred.
“I hope I didn’t make noise.”